The first light of morning touched a small lake, turning its glassy surface into liquid gold. A heron swooped noiselessly above the lake, its wings barely ruffling the water as it searched for its breakfast, and a pair of squirrels chittered as they chased each other around the trunk of an old pine tree.
Two small blue tents had been pitched near the water's edge, and now a tall, dark-haired man sat on a log beside a small fire, carefully tending breakfast. A blue graniteware coffee pot burbled cheerfully on a grate above the fire, while a cast iron skillet full of bacon added its fragrance to the cool morning air.
Overhead, the clouds were like streamers of pink and pearl against the soft blue backdrop of sky. Those clouds might be very well be harbingers of the thunderstorms that had been predicted for later in the day. . .but at the moment, Barry "Bear" Baricza was too happy to care.
He took a deep breath of the cool air and sighed contentedly as he looked up at the opalescent sky. Mornings like these were rare in the life of a California Highway Patrol officer -- much too rare.
Man, three days of vacation with my buddies. . .no smog, no accidents, no traffic jams or ticked-off motorists, he thought as he stretched out his long legs and let them warm in the sun. Life doesn't get better than this!
The bacon was done, and Bear set the pan to one side of the grate. He reached into a neatly packed cooler, then took out a dozen eggs and cracked them into a second skillet. He scrambled them with a few expert flicks of his wrist, and as the eggs set into perfect golden puffs, he glanced over at the tents.
Time to wake up the troops for breakfast if we're going to get any serious fishing done this morning, Baricza grinned. And I think I'll be a lot nicer about it than my dad would have been to me!
"Oh, what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day. . ." Bear's rich, warm baritone floated across the lake and echoed softly against the rocks. "I've got a beautiful feeling, everything's going. . .mmmpphh!"
He spat out a mouthful of gray sweat socks. . .well-used gray sweat socks, at that. He looked in the direction that the missile had come from, just as Frank Poncherello emerged from one of the tents. With his disheveled hair, surly frown, and a full day's growth of beard, Ponch now bore an uncanny resemblance to a grizzly bear that had been unwillingly awakened from hibernation.
"What did I do to deserve that, Ponch?" Baricza asked plaintively.
"'What did I do to deserve that, Ponch?'" Frank mimicked in a high pitched voice as he staggered over to the campfire. "Who died and left you Little Miss Mary Sunshine's job this morning, anyway?"
With no great show of good grace, he took the tin mug of coffee that Baricza offered him, then collapsed heavily onto a small metal footlocker. Ignoring the storage chest's ominous creaks and groans, Ponch blearily took a sip of the coffee, then spat it out.
"Didn't you think to bring any cream or sugar?" he demanded.
"It's in the supply locker. The one you're sitting on, as a matter of fact," Baricza managed to keep his voice level. . .but only with considerable effort.
Ponch stood up and opened the small metal box, then rummaged through its carefully packed contents until he located two neatly labeled plastic containers. Oblivious to Bear's wince, Ponch added sugar and powdered creamer to his coffee until the dark, fragrant brew was the color of twenty year old beige carpet.
Ponch shoved the supplies back into the box, then slammed its lid shut. He sat down on it again -- heedless of the cracking and crunching sounds beneath him.
"You'll have to forgive him, Bear," Jon Baker grinned as he climbed out of the second tent. "He's not as used to the great outdoors as you and I are."
"I don't see what's so great about it," Ponch grumbled. "Cold ground; lumpy sleeping bags; mosquitoes the size of Shetland ponies; and a room mate who takes an hour and a half to make up his cot before he goes to sleep!"
"I had to make sure that the blankets were tucked in the right way so that I wouldn't catch cold last night," Artie Grossman emerged from the first tent and lumbered toward the waiting breakfast.
This morning, Grossman had selected an elaborate fishing outfit from the contents of several large duffle bags that he had brought with him. That costume included everything from rubber waders that he wasn't really going to need, to a khaki vest bristling with expensive (and equally unnecessary) lures. There was something familiar about the way that Grossman looked in the vest and the matching hat with its canvas band full of hooks. . .
. . .and suddenly, the image of a well-fed porcupine wearing a hat and hip waders came to mind. Baricza was forced to turn away in an elaborate fit of stage coughing for a moment until he could control the urge to laugh hysterically.
Artie sat down heavily on the other storage locker, then smiled slyly at Ponch, "And like Grandfather Grossman always used to say, there's nothing worse than a sloppy bivouac. . .unless it's someone who talks and yells in his sleep all night long. I wish you could have seen your expression when that owl hooted outside the tent last night, Ponch. Your eyes were the size of silver dollars!"
Seeing that all-out war was imminent, Baricza hastily dished up portions of the bacon and eggs to his fellow campers. "I thought we might try fishing off the dock for awhile this morning, and if they're not hitting there, we could. . ." he began as he handed a plate to a grinning Grossman.
"I don't know," Grossman interrupted and then winked at Baker. "The dock is awfully close to that haunted house you told us about last night, Bear. Ponch may not want to get that close to 'the Cabin of Death.'"
"Aww, what's the matter. . .did that big mean Bear's ghost stories scare poor widdle Ponch?" Baker grinned, ignoring Baricza's pleading expression.
"All right, knock it off, you guys!" Ponch spluttered through a mouthful of eggs. "Everyone knows there are no such things as ghosts. Those were just campfire stories. Uh, right, Bear?"
Baricza grimaced as he sipped his coffee, and his sigh was almost enough to rattle the pine boughs overhead. While everyone was enjoying the campfire last night, he'd given them a brief history of the area in response to all their questions. At the time, he'd been almost certain that he was going to regret sharing those particular stories. . .and now he was sure of it.
"Ponch, a man really was murdered in that cabin about thirty years ago. And yes, my folks and I have seen some strange things out in these woods when we've camped out here," he said calmly, but his smile was suddenly strained.
"Oh, and I suppose there really is a buried treasure out here, guarded by a headless ghost," Grossman scoffed, then frowned at his second helping of scrambled eggs. "Got any ketchup?"
"Grossie, all I know is that my dad bought this land from the son of a man who was murdered out here," Baricza shrugged as he reached into the Styrofoam cooler and produced a bottle of ketchup.
He handed it to Grossman. . .then muffled yet another sigh as the perfectly prepared eggs disappeared under an ocean of red goo. But he managed to keep his voice and his temper under control as he continued with his story.
"Andy McCraven told Dad that in 1865, an old miner buried a big pot of gold nuggets somewhere out here, right before he went into town," he said. "The miner was shot in a barroom brawl, but he lived long enough to draw a map of the spot where he buried his gold. He gave that map to McCraven's great-grandfather, who took care of the old man until he died. Jonas McCraven bought this land, but he was afraid that someone might have put two and two together and realized that the miner had hidden his gold out here. So he waited to go hunting for it until some of the interest died down and he wasn't afraid of being bushwhacked, anymore. Then he came out here to look for the treasure."
"But by that time the land had changed, and the map wasn't accurate," Grossman snorted in derision. "And so McCraven's great-grandfather spent the rest of his life looking for the treasure, and his son after him. Oh come on, Bear, that's the oldest one in the book!"
"Someone wanted something that Paul McCraven had, and they wanted it badly enough to murder him for it," Bear gestured in the direction of the little cabin. "There were no leads in the case, and finally, the local police gave up. After that, Andy McCraven spent all his money on private detectives, but they never came up with anything, either. Somebody told my dad that Andy finally had a nervous breakdown years ago."
Baricza paused for a moment, then reluctantly added, "After his dad was killed out here, McCraven lost all interest in this property, and that's why he sold it to my folks for a good price, five years later. And like I said before, I've seen some strange things when I've camped out here before."
"Ooooo," Grossman wailed in an eerie voice as he waggled his fingers in Ponch's direction. "Just think, Ponch. You could be laying there in your sleeping bag tonight, and just when you're about to fall asleep, you'll look up and see the ghost of. . ."
"Just knock it off, will you, Grossie!" Baricza snapped, and his eyes were full of anger.
He dropped his head and stared at the ground in embarrassment for a few seconds, while his fellow officers looked at him in concern. In all the years that they had known him, they had only seen him lose his temper on a handful of occasions. And by the time that Bear had been provoked that badly, anyone else would have already been a candidate for a straitjacket and sedation.
"Hey, man, I'm sorry," Grossman apologized, but Baricza held up a hand.
"I'm the one who needs to apologize, Artie -- not you," he shook his head. "I didn't mean to bite your head off a minute ago. It's just that. . ."
"What is it, Bear?" Baker asked quietly, seeing the reluctance in Baricza's face.
"Nothing. Never mind," Bear shrugged and tried to smile cheerfully at his friends, but there was a tense edge in his voice that they had never heard there before. "Hey, we're wasting the best fishing time of the day! You guys go ahead and get started while I clean up the breakfast dishes. Try the dock first, and if they're not hitting there, then try over by that rock formation I showed you yesterday on the north side of the lake."
With that, he stood up and collected the empty tin plates from the others, then put them in an enamel dishpan and filled it full of water from a large plastic container. He added soap and some hot water from a tea kettle until the dishpan was full of foam.
Baricza whistled tonelessly to himself as he scrubbed the dishes. . .and his expression clearly said that any further discussion was at an end. Baker shrugged almost imperceptibly at Ponch and Grossman, then nodded towards his truck.
"Hey, you heard the man," Ponch tried to grin as he stood up, but like Baker and Grossman, he was suddenly uneasy. "Come on, guys -- let's go show those fish who's the boss around here!"
"Sure thing, partner. You and Grossie go on ahead, and I'll catch up with you after I help with the dishes," Baker winked at Baricza and the others. "With any luck, maybe we'll need that frying pan again this evening -- right, Bear?"
Bear nodded and tried to smile as Ponch and Grossman grabbed fishing rods and a bucket of bait from the back of Baker's truck. They headed down the path toward the lake, but Jon and Baricza could still hear Grossman's teasing and Ponch's indignant retorts long after they were both out of sight.
Baker waited until the sound of their voices had died away, then turned back to Baricza. Bear looked up and saw Jon's concerned expression, but he said nothing. He quickly bent over the skillet that he had been scrubbing out with corn meal, but Jon was shocked to see that his ordinarily tanned face had now taken on an unearthly pallor.
"Bear, what's going on?" Jon asked. He casually picked up a plate and began to dry it, then added, "If this place is starting to get to you, we can always pick up and move camp somewhere else."
"Jon, if I told you something, would you promise not to tell Ponch and Grossie?" Bear's face was suddenly full of desperation. "You know how they both love to give me grief. They still tease me about the elephant sitting on my cruiser that time."
"Whatever you tell me will stay right here. You know that," Jon nodded somberly -- even as he concealed a grin at the thought of a certain 'routine' traffic stop that had ended up being anything but.
"Thanks," Bear managed a small but genuine smile. "I wasn't kidding about seeing strange stuff when my folks and I used to camp out here. I know you guys probably think I'm crazy for wanting to pitch a tent and sleep outside when we've got a perfectly good cabin less than five hundred yards from here. But there's something wrong with that place. . .I mean, really wrong with it. And I'm not talking about the plumbing, either!"
"When I was growing up in Wyoming, I spent a lot of time by myself, out riding the fence line or rounding up strays. I saw some pretty strange things, too -- stuff that I've never told anybody else about. I figured nobody was going to believe me, anyway," Baker shook his head as he stacked the last of the dishes on top the storage locker. "But you said that something's wrong with that cabin. What do you mean?"
"You know, if anybody else heard two big, tough CHP officers sitting here talking about stuff like this, they'd think we were both nuts," Baricza sighed ruefully. "But as far as this property is concerned, it's a nice little cabin. Nice, that is, if you don't mind the blood stains on the floor and the pencil marks on the walls where the police circled the bullets. And before you even ask, my mom and dad spent hours scrubbing the floorboards and repairing the walls. But the blood stains and the pencil marks wouldn't budge, and the wood putty would never stay in the bullet holes long enough to even dry."
The sun disappeared behind a cloud, and a sudden cold gust of wind made Baker shiver. He surreptitiously edged closer to the fire before he gestured at Baricza to continue, "OK, I've got to admit, that does seem a little strange. But maybe the floor boards and wall were treated with some kind of chemical that makes them resistant to cleansers. So, what else has happened out here?"
Baricza saw the way that Baker now huddled down deeper into his windbreaker. Without saying a word, Bear retrieved one of the coffee mugs from the stack on top the storage locker. He filled it with steaming coffee and handed the cup to Baker with a quiet smile. Jon nodded his thanks and took a few appreciative sips, then curved his hands around the graniteware mug's warmth.
Bear waited until he saw that Jon had stopped shivering, then continued, "I guess you're right, and there's probably a logical explanation for everything else that's happened over the years, too. Just knowing that someone was murdered out here would be enough to spook you into feeling like you're always being watched. And being nervous would probably explain all the times that we'd set something down in plain sight and then not be able to find it again. Whatever we lost would eventually turn up again in some other part of the cabin, so maybe we were just confused about where we put the screwdriver or the spool of thread down in the first place."
"Sure, that could explain it, Bear," Jon nodded reassuringly. . .but he was suddenly grateful for the weight of his off-duty gun in its ankle holster. "It's normal to get spooked, especially when you know that someone has died violently in an out of the way place like this."
"You're right, Jon," Bear nodded with a weary smile. "Those flickering lights out in the woods at night could have just been reflections from car headlights out on the highway, I guess. And that funny coppery smell we used to notice every once in awhile was probably from some mineral deposit in the soil under the cabin."
The nearest highway was almost two miles from the cabin, and Baker seriously doubted that there was a surface deposit of copper ore anywhere in the area. But those explanations were as good as anything else that he could think of right now, and he quickly nodded in agreement. However, it was Baricza's next statement that left Baker feeling as if someone had dropped a snowball down the collar of his shirt. . .and for no apparent reason, at that.
"And I guess being nervous would explain all the weird dreams that I used to have when I was a kid, too," Bear added in a matter-of-fact voice. "Still do, for that matter."
Baricza's expression was calm as he neatly hung the dish cloth over the storage locker to dry, but Baker frowned when he saw the way that his fellow CHP officer's hands were shaking slightly. For an instant, Bear seemed to be reliving some distant memory. . .and not a particularly pleasant one, either, if the look in his eyes was any indication.
It took all of Baker's legendary self-control to keep the uneasiness out of his voice as he nonchalantly asked, "What kind of dreams, Bear?"
"Just bad dreams. Well. . .screaming nightmares, if you want the real truth," Baricza reluctantly confessed, and he dropped his head for a few seconds before he could go on. "Don't get me wrong. I really love this place, and I've got a lot of good memories of all the times that my folks and I spent out here when I was growing up. It's just that. . ."
"Take it easy, Bear," Baker tried to keep his voice calm and level -- especially when he saw that all the color had drained from Baricza's face again. "Tell me about the nightmares. What did you dream about?"
"That's just the problem, Jon. I never remember any details from the dreams themselves," he said with a bewildered shrug. "All I remember is waking up and looking down at my hands. . .and wondering why they aren't still covered in blood. That's why I haven't been out here in over a year. Because when I do, that's when the dreams start up again."
He stared out at the lake for a moment, listening to the peaceful lapping of the waves against the shore. And when he spoke again, it was in a matter-of-fact voice that made Baker's skin crawl.
"Ever since I was little, I've always dreamed that I'm going to die out here," Baricza said quietly.
He shook his head as if trying to wake himself up from one of those dreams. He gestured at the coffee pot, then gave Baker one of those calm smiles that were a Baricza trademark.
"There's plenty of coffee left if you want some more, Jon, but I think I'm going to go for a walk now," he said. "There are some blackberry bushes out behind the cabin, and the berries ought to just about be ripe. Just wait until you taste the cobbler that I make. . .it was my grandma's favorite recipe, and it'll make a great dessert after a big fish dinner. Assuming that Ponch and Grossman can stop arguing long enough to catch anything, that is!"
He picked up a blue plastic pail and then walked away, whistling as cheerfully as if nothing had ever been said. Baker waited until Baricza disappeared behind the cabin and started to reach for the coffee pot. But then the blond officer sighed sharply and dumped out the rest of the coffee that was already in his cup.
It was going to take a lot more than a camp fire and hot coffee to get rid of the cold sensation that gnawed at him. . . Jon was sure of that now.
An hour and a half later, the sun was warm across Baker's shoulders as he stood on the shore and cast his line out over the water. Across the lake, he could hear the sounds of Ponch and Grossman's voices echoing against the rocks, although he couldn't quite make out what they were saying.
However, he would have been almost willing to bet that they were still arguing over whose turn it was to fish off the side of the dock where the fish were hitting the hardest. That same disagreement was the reason that Baker had finally abandoned the pier in favor of the rock formation that Bear had pointed out earlier, and now a creel of fat bluegills and perch bobbed gently in the water near his feet.
Jon smiled in anticipation of the evening meal -- he could almost smell the freshly cleaned fish sizzling in a pan full of hot butter and taste the hushpuppies that were one of Baricza's specialties. But when he thought about what Bear had told him earlier, his eagerness quickly faded away.
The entire conversation still troubled him, especially the unemotional tone that Baricza had used to describe his "death." If anyone else had made such an assertion, Baker would have been inclined to pass it off as sheer nerves. . . but coming from the quiet, imperturbable Barry, it was particularly disturbing.
But there wasn't much that Baker could do right now, and he knew it. Like the fish that had just nibbled at the bait on Jon's line and then skittered away, Baricza wasn't going to be easy to land. Especially when it came to getting him to talk about the things that were bothering him.
A whisper of cool wind ruffled the surface of the lake and made the tree branches creak above Baker's head as he reeled in his line. He looked up at the sky with the practiced eye of someone who had spent many hours outdoors, then shook his head at what he now saw there.
A dark line of clouds was quickly building up over in the west, and unless he missed his guess, they were due to get some heavy thunderstorms a lot sooner than the weatherman had predicted. And as crazy as it might have sound to anyone else, Baker wasn't looking forward to spending even a few hours in that "haunted" cabin while the line of storms went through.
Especially not with Ponch and Artie, Jon sighed to himself as he reached down for the bucket of bait.
Officer Bonnie Clark had once described Ponch and Grossman as the "Larry and Curly of CHP Central," and that comment seemed especially apropos right about now. From the sounds of it, they had moved their argument off the dock and were headed toward Jon's fishing spot, still squabbling at the top of their lungs.
But maybe he still could land the bluegill that had taken his bait a few minutes ago, preferably before Ponch and Artie arrived and ended up scaring off everything in the vicinity. Baker picked up a fat night crawler from the damp soil in the bucket and started to bait the hook again. . .
. . .then spun around as he caught a flash of something white out of the corner of his eye. Years of police work had honed his reflexes, and now his senses were on full alert as he carefully inspected the wooded area behind him.
Trees, path, landmarks -- nothing looked any different than it had a few minutes ago. He shook his head ruefully and then tried to smile at his own edginess, even though his heart was still pounding.
Man, Baker, you're turning into a real head case! Jon thought with a wry shrug. A bird or squirrel -- that's all it was. Or maybe it was just a tree branch moving in the wind.
Yeah, that's it. . . it was probably that tree limb over there, swaying in the breeze.
Baker turned back toward the lake, but he was unable to shake the eerie feeling that an unseen pair of eyes were watching every move that he made. Now Baricza's words came back to him, and once again, he felt that icy sensation along the back of his neck.
And that feeling was reinforced when his peripheral vision picked up another tiny movement -- this one on the opposite side from the first. He laid the fishing rod down at his feet, but the gesture was only a cover for his real intentions. Surreptitiously, he removed his concealed off-duty gun from the ankle holster, then slowly stood upright again.
"Who's out there?" he called out, even as he automatically looked for a place to take cover.
For a second or two, nothing happened, but then Baker saw a blur of movement behind a small clump of pine trees, over by the spot where the path curved around the lake. From his vantage point, he couldn't see anything except a flutter of white, like a bird taking flight or a white-tailed deer running away from him.
But before he took more than a few steps toward the source of the movement, he stopped and sighed heavily to himself. There was an art to moving silently through underbrush. . .and it was one that Ponch and Artie had clearly never mastered. Loud cracking and crunching sounds now came from the opposite direction as the flash of white.
Those two sound like a herd of elephants holding a ballet recital, Jon shrugged. So much for the element of surprise!
In another minute or two, Ponch flew down the path toward Jon, spraying pebbles and pinecones in all directions as he ran. Grossman was only a few steps behind him, and both men skidded to a stop a few feet away from Baker.
On the pretext of picking up his fishing rod, Jon quickly bent down and returned the gun to its holster before they could see that he had drawn it. He couldn't explain the reason for his secrecy -- any more than he could explain why he had felt threatened in the first place. Now he straightened up and smiled calmly at his fellow officers as if nothing had ever happened.
"What's the matter, you two?" Baker gestured toward the other side of the lake. "Did the Loch Ness Monster's cousin steal your bait? Or did Bigfoot smell the blackberry cobbler that Bear was making and show up for dessert?"
"That's not funny, Jon!" Ponch snapped, and there was real fear in his partner's eyes. "Tell him, Grossie!"
"Me? Why do I have to tell him?" Grossman grumbled as he tried to hide his hand behind his back.
"Because you're the one who was dumb enough to scratch his head in the first place!" Ponch rolled his eyes in disgust.
It took Baker a moment to realize what his partner's apparent non sequitur was really referring to, but when he did, he shook his head in mild disbelief. Now he could see a lumpy, makeshift bandage that was wrapped around Grossman's right hand. And at the same time that he spotted the handkerchief "field dressing," he noticed the absence of something else: specifically, the khaki hat covered in fishing lures that Artie had been wearing earlier that morning.
"OK, so you scratched your head and hooked yourself with your own hat," Baker tried to keep the laughter out of his voice, but the effort was almost more than he could manage. "There are bound to be some wire cutters and a First Aid kit in the back of Baricza's truck. You know how Bear is -- he always comes prepared for anything from a scraped knee to an attack by Martians. So what's the problem?"
"That's just it, Jon," Ponch spoke up so quickly that Grossman didn't have a chance to say anything else. "We figured that the gear box in the back of Baricza's truck was probably locked, so we'd have to get the key from him. We saw him head around the back of the cabin earlier, so we went looking for him. . ."
"I went looking for him, you mean," Grossman interrupted smugly. "You stayed around front because you were. . ."
". . .sure that Bear was going to come around the other side any minute, and I didn't want to miss him," Ponch neatly cut off the rest of Grossman's self-satisfied commentary. "But then I heard Grossie yell, and I ran around behind the cabin to. . ."
". . .you didn't run around the side of the cabin!" Artie snorted in derision. "To quote Grandmother Grossman, you 'oozed around like molasses in January!''"
Bonnie, you always did have a real genius for understatement! Baker groaned as he tried to follow Ponch and Grossman's verbal equivalent of the old "pie in the face" routine.
Aloud, he asked, "Will somebody please just tell me what you both found when you got back there? Is something wrong with Bear. . .is he hurt?"
"That's just it, Jon. We didn't find anything except the blue plastic pail that was sitting out with the rest of the stuff this morning," Ponch shook his head, and this time, he didn't try to hide the fear in his voice. "It was laying on the ground beside the cabin, right underneath this stain on the wall. A great big red stain. . .that looks just like blood!"
Baker was the first to arrive back at the camp a few minutes later. Ponch reluctantly trailed along almost twenty-five feet behind him, while a panting Grossman came in a distant third. Jon wasn't really looking forward to what they might find behind the cabin any more than the other two officers were, but common sense told him that if Baricza was in trouble, each wasted moment could be critical.
He trotted around the corner of the cabin, but he suddenly stopped short, and he was appalled by what he saw there. The cabin was made of rough-sawn cedar boards that had weathered to a beautiful silvery-gray -- except for one spot near the south end of the building. Now Jon shuddered when he saw the area that Ponch and Grossman had described: a dark red stain that was at least a foot and a half wide.
The splatter of red droplets continued all the way down the side of the building until they disappeared behind the tall grass and weeds growing along the foundation. Baker recoiled unthinkingly at the sight -- during his years with the CHP, he'd seen that same sight more times than he wanted to think about. . .and not under pleasant circumstances, either.
"See, it's like we told you, Jon," Grossman said as he joined them. "It looks just like someone got shot at close range with a high-powered rifle."
Jon and Ponch turned at almost the same instant, and they both gave him a cool stare. He had only voiced what they were all thinking, that was true enough. But even so, some things could have remained unsaid -- especially when it came to a friend and fellow officer.
"Did you guys try calling for Bear?" Jon asked, knowing that the easily-distracted Ponch might not have thought of the obvious. "Maybe he just went for a hike instead of picking berries. And did either one of you think to check the cabin? He could have gone in there for something and decided to take a nap. He might not have heard you."
"We tried calling for him before we came and got you, Jon, but he didn't answer us," Ponch nodded. "Grossie checked the cabin door, but it's locked. All the windows are closed and locked, too."
"OK, here's what we're going to do," Jon gestured over his shoulder in the direction of the tents and the officers' waiting vehicles. "Bear gave me a spare set of keys to his truck and to the cabin yesterday, just in case we needed something and he wasn't around. Ponch, why don't you go get the wire cutters and the First Aid kit out of the gear box? While you're gone, Grossie and I will look for Baricza. When Ponch gets back, we'll get the hook out of your hand, Grossie. And if Bear hasn't shown up by the time that we're through with that, then the three of us will go out looking for him."
"And if we can't find Bear, then what?" Grossman shrugged, always eager to find the flaws in an apparently fool-proof plan.
"If we can't find him before the thunderstorms set in, we'll use the radio in my truck and call in our buddies," Baker looked at Grossman in mild annoyance. "How does that sound to you guys?"
"Sounds like a plan, Jon," Ponch nodded somberly.
With that, he disappeared around the edge of the "haunted" cabin so quickly that he seemed to be part of a magician's trick. Grossman and Baker exchanged knowing grins, but that amusement quickly faded when they once more looked at the dark stain on the wall. The blue plastic pail lay on the grass below the splatter -- mute testimony to whatever had caused Baricza to abandon it so suddenly.
For the next few minutes, the two officers carefully searched the overgrown area behind the cabin, but the only reply to their shouts was silence. From time to time, they found themselves glancing back at the cabin and the ugly red mark, but neither man was eager to inspect the boards any sooner than he absolutely had to.
But just as Baker was about to steel himself to take a closer look at the red droplets, Ponch ran toward him. . .and this time, there was no hesitation in his expression. His face was full of fury as he gestured in the direction of camp and their vehicles.
"Ponch, what's wrong?" Baker frowned. "Did you find Baricza?"
"No, I didn't," Ponch snapped in English, followed by a few fragrantly-couched phrases in Spanish. "Bear's still not back at camp. But wait until you see what I did find!"
Baker raised an eyebrow and shrugged mildly at Grossman -- a look that clearly said, "Humor him."
Ponch set off again at a run, and now, even Jon was hard-pressed to keep up with his partner. This time, Grossman matched his fellow officers stride for stride, but all three men stopped suddenly when they reached the edge of the campsite. They stood there for a moment -- too sickened by what they were seeing to even move.
The two storage lockers and the Styrofoam cooler had been overturned, and their contents were now thrown haphazardly all over the campsite. Smashed eggs and tomatoes were spattered everywhere, and the rest of the supplies had been deliberately ground into the dirt and ashes to make them unusable.
All that remained of the two tents were ribbons of blue cloth fluttering from metal frames, while even the sleeping bags and extra blankets had been slashed into shreds. Clothing and personal possessions lay scattered in all directions, as if a large animal had leisurely pawed through the contents of the backpacks and discarded what it didn't want.
But the worst was still to come. As Baker slowly made his way through the wreckage, he glanced over at the vehicles parked nearby. . .and it took all of the self-control that he possessed to keep from slamming his fist into the nearest tree trunk.
Baricza's big silver Dodge pick-up and his own smaller red Chevy truck now sat closer to the ground than they should have --much closer. All eight tires had been repeatedly slashed, and even without checking, Baker was willing to bet that both sets of spares had suffered the same fate.
The driver's side door on Jon's truck had been forced open, and he could see a small metal box laying in a tangle of torn wiring on the ground underneath it. The shattered box and crumpled antenna were all that remained of Baker's police band radio -- the same radio that he had been counting on to get in touch with the outside world, if necessary.
The radio equipment in Baricza's truck had come to an equally violent end. Someone had thrown the multi-band transceiver against a nearby tree trunk with such force that the electronic gear was now little more than a crumpled metal box and a few shards of broken glass laying among the roots.
Baker retrieved the wire cutters from the dented gear box in the back of Bear's truck, and for a moment, he said nothing as he worked on Grossman's hand. He snipped off the barbed end of the lure, then pushed the rest of the hook through the skin. Ignoring Artie's yelps, Jon dabbed some antiseptic on the wound and then put a Band-Aid over it -- all without saying a word.
Only someone who knew Baker as well as Ponch did would have seen the simmering fury in his eyes as he looked at the ruined campsite. Chances to relax and unwind were rare in the life of a cop, and they were treasured all the more for that rarity. And for someone to deliberately destroy that opportunity was more than Baker could understand.
"Hey, partner, I know what you're thinking," Ponch gestured at the destruction all around them. "You're trying to figure out who would want to do something like this. But maybe the real question is, what would want to?"
"Maybe it was a bear or raccoons," Grossman offered, and Baker mentally applauded the way that Artie managed to ignore Ponch's eerie implications. "They can do this kind of damage."
"If it was just the food and the camping gear, I might agree with you, Grossie," Baker walked over to the two trucks and inspected them for a moment, then bent down and retrieved something from one of the tires.
He stood up slowly and then added, "But wild animals don't go around slashing car tires with a butcher knife -- much less ripping transceivers out of the dashboard and ignoring everything else in the cab."
He held out the object that he had removed from the left rear tire of Baricza's truck for their inspection. All three men recognized the carving knife with its distinctive bone-handled grip -- it was the same one that Bear had used to cut up the beef for last night's pot of stew.
"And besides, animals make a lot of noise when they do this much damage," Jon shook his head. "Whoever did this was fast and quiet. They must have trashed the campsite while the three of us were out behind the cabin a few minutes ago."
"OK, so someone's out to get us," Ponch warily glanced around the small clearing. "Maybe Baricza arrested somebody awhile ago, and that person just now got out of jail. He could have followed us out here, looking for a chance to even the score with Bear."
"Or maybe it was one of those environmentalist nuts," Grossman shrugged. "You know -- the kind that thinks all hunters and fishermen are out to destroy the whole planet. Camping gear and radio equipment are expensive, so maybe they figured if they hit us hard in the wallet, we wouldn't come back."
"Maybe so, Grossie," Baker had serious doubts about Ponch and Grossman's lines of reasoning, but he wisely kept his thoughts to himself. "But no matter who did this, we've still got to find Baricza before that storm line. . ."
But before he could even finish his sentence, a growl of thunder shook the air, and a few rain drops spattered against the ground. Baker groaned quietly to himself -- if anything else could possibly go wrong this morning, he really didn't want to know about it.
As the storm clouds rolled in, the sky turned an ominous shade of greenish-gray until it seemed that evening had settled in over the area. A cold rain began to fall, and Poncherello gestured at the ruins of their camp site.
"Now what, Jon?" he asked. "You want me to see if some of the tarps or our rain gear is still any good? That way, we can keep on looking for Bear, even if it is pouring."
"No way, Ponch," Baker shook his head. "We can't stay out here in the middle of a thunderstorm."
"But what about Bear?" Grossman protested. "We can't just leave him out there."
"Grossie, we're surrounded by trees," Jon gestured at the dense circle of pines. "If we get hit by lightening or have a tree branch come down on top of us, we won't be able to help Bear, will we?"
At that instant, Baker felt the hair stand up at the back of his neck and along his arms. Experience had taught him what was about to happen next, and he didn't take the time to shout a warning to the other two. Instead, he lunged forward and tackled them, sending all three of them sprawling face down in the mud.
An infuriated Ponch tried to splutter something through a mouthful of wet dirt, but the air suddenly grew heavy with the smell of ozone. A gigantic roar split the silence like a thousand pounds of dynamite going off all at once, and a second or two later, something crashed to the ground with the shriek of splintering wood.
Cautiously, Baker raised his head and looked up again. . .as he suspected, the lightening-shattered branch had fallen less than a hundred yards away. That tree limb was nearly as thick as a man's thigh, and Jon shuddered a little as he mentally pictured the damage that it could have done to a human skull -- assuming that the person hadn't already been fried like bacon, that is.
"Come on, you two," he scrambled to his feet and then gestured toward the cabin. "We're going to have to make a run for the cabin and then wait out the storm before we can do anything to find Bear!"
As if to emphasize Baker's words, a second bolt of lightening struck a small pine tree on the opposite side of the lake, near the shoreline. Bluish sparks danced along the surface of the water, and the tree collapsed on top of the rock formation where Baker had been fishing earlier in the day.
This time, all reluctance was momentarily forgotten in the mad dash for the safety of the cabin -- and unless Jon missed his guess, the three of them had probably just set some kind of new record for the five hundred yard sprint. He fumbled in his pocket for the ring of keys that Baricza had given him, and in a few seconds, the cabin door smoothly swung open on well-oiled hinges.
Already drenched from the heavy downpour, the three men tumbled inside the building, then tried to make sense of their surroundings. Heavy curtains hung at the windows to block the view of a would-be thief or vandal, and the small amount of light that did filter through the gaps between the panels was almost negligible at the moment because of the storm. For a moment, Baker and the others could do nothing except stand inside the doorway and wait for their eyes to adjust.
Then a flash of lightening briefly illuminated the living room -- just long enough for Jon to spot what he knew he would find somewhere in the cabin. Baricza had mentioned earlier that the building wasn't wired for electricity, and now Jon saw a kerosene lamp sitting on a small bookcase over by the wall.
He took a waterproof match safe from the lanyard around his neck, and for a second or two, his face was eerily illuminated by a tiny flash of light when he struck a match. In another moment, the lamp gave out its soft golden glow, and he carefully trimmed the wick to the right height to prevent it from smoking.
"Come on in, you guys," he smiled as he carried the lamp over to the coffee table and carefully sat it down. "This is home, sweet home for awhile. At least until the thunderstorm is over."
"This place doesn't look so bad," Grossman shrugged. "From the way Bear was talking about this place last night, I thought it was going to be like the Black Hole of Calcutta or something."
Baker nodded in agreement as he glanced around the living room with its large brick fireplace and neatly stacked wood box. A nice fire would take the chill off the air and get rid of the musty odors -- not to mention eliminating a faint metallic smell that he couldn't quite place.
And as he walked toward the fireplace, he carefully inspected the cabin and its furnishings. The overstuffed sofa and armchairs were old-fashioned but still perfect for relaxing after a hard day's hunting or fishing. Ten year old copies of "National Geographic" and "Reader's Digest" were scattered across the end tables, and in one corner of the room, knitting needles and bright skeins of yarn spilled out of Vera Baricza's wicker sewing basket.
A few rag rugs covered the rough wooden floors, and the walls were decorated with an assortment of lithographs -- the kind that featured cute little deer frolicking in the moonlight or fictitious Indians gazing pensively at distant mountains. All in all, the cabin was comfortable in a home-y sort of way, and Jon could certainly think of worse places to wait out a thunderstorm.
The only thing that seemed out of place was a picture hanging at an odd angle on the wall beside the fireplace. He started to return the frame to its correct position, then paused for a few seconds when he saw what was underneath it. Quickly, he tilted the frame to the correct angle, hoping that Ponch and Grossman hadn't seen his startled expression. But at the moment, his luck seemed to have deserted him.
"What is it, Jon?" Ponch frowned as he walked toward the fireplace. "Did you find something?"
"Just what Baricza was telling us about last night," he reluctantly admitted. "Take a look for yourself."
He tilted the frame to one side, and even in the dim light of the kerosene lamp, both officers could see the spot on the wall where the cedar boards had been repeatedly patched with wood putty and repainted. But all that effort had been wasted. . .if anything, the three deep gouges and the pencil marks stood out even more vividly against the wood.
Baker heard his partner's sharp intake of breath as he inspected the evidence of a thirty year old tragedy. But before Ponch could say anything, a loud screech made them both turn around at the same instant, as if they were practicing precision maneuvers on their motors.
But when they saw the reason for Grossman's startled yelp, they grinned and ducked their heads, trying to keep him from seeing their laughter. Behind them, Artie was sprawled out across the middle of the living room floor, and now the rag rug's upturned border wordlessly told the whole story.
In the lamp's faint glow, he'd tripped over the rug's thick edge and fallen heavily to the ground. He hastily scrambled to his feet, then pointed to something that had been concealed by the braided cloth.
"It's wet!" Grossman groaned as Jon and Ponch grabbed his arms and helped him over to the sofa. He collapsed on the soft cushions, but he continued to stare at the rug. "After all this time, it's still wet!"
"Of course it's still wet, Grossie -- what did you expect?" Jon shrugged questioningly when he heard the note of panic in Artie's voice. "You got soaked by the storm, and the water from your clothes dripped all over the floor, that's all."
"No, I don't mean wet like rainwater!" he shook his head emphatically. "I'm talking about the red stain under the rug where Paul McCraven's body must have fallen. It's there, all right, just like Bear told us last night. . .and it's still wet! See for yourselves."
He held out a shaking hand toward them, and now they could see exactly what he meant. A bright crimson smear covered his fingertips -- a stain that was the same vivid color as the one splattered across the back of the cabin.
"It's probably just resin from the floorboards," Jon said. "This is rough-sawn lumber, and it probably didn't season long enough before they built this place. Boards can ooze sap for years after they've been cut."
"I don't know, Jon. Maybe this cabin really is haunted," Ponch's voice was shaky as he sat down on one of the chairs. "You talked to Baricza this morning after we left, didn't you? Did he say anything else about this place -- something that Grossie and I ought to know about, maybe?"
Baker felt the color drain from his face as he fumbled for something -- anything -- to say. Ponch and Grossman might have been police officers, but even a cop's nerves could be stretched to the breaking point. Both men were already badly shaken by the morning's strange happenings, and Jon didn't want to run the risk of spooking them even more than they already were.
I can't tell Ponch and Artie about the stuff that Bear and I talked about this morning, he thought to himself with a muffled sigh. Especially not the part about Baricza's dreams . . .if these guys hear about that, they're going to lose their cool for sure!
But the ability to make good, quick decisions had always been a Jon Baker talent -- one that had frequently made the difference between life and death when he was out on patrol. Now he shook his head and gave Ponch a calm smile before he turned around and walked back to the fireplace.
"Let me get a fire going, and then I'll tell you what Bear and I talked about," he said as he mentally scrabbled for something to tell them that wouldn't upset them more than they already were. "It's chilly in here, and we could all use a little heat to dry us out."
On his way past the spot where Artie had tripped, he casually flipped down the edge of the rug with the toe of his boot so that the stain was hidden once more. He picked up an armload of firewood, and for a moment, he busied himself with arranging the logs and kindling. When the fire was blazing cheerfully and sending out its warmth into the room, he turned back to his friends and gave them a calm smile.
"Bear told me some stuff about this place -- how you can see the lights from the highway at night; the way that you can sometimes find mineral deposits near the ground surface," he said nonchalantly. . .then tried not to flinch when a roar of thunder interrupted him like a censuring voice.
He paused until the last rumble of thunder died away, then added, "Just stuff like that. He said that he's got a lot of good memories from all the time that he and his folks have spent out here. In fact, he said that he's dreamed about this place ever since he was a kid."
Strictly speaking, it wasn't the 'whole truth and nothing but the truth.' However, at this point, Baker wasn't willing to set off the human equivalent of a cattle stampede, and if the nervous looks that Ponch and Grossie now exchanged were any indication, that was a definite possibility.
"But he didn't say anything else about, uh. . .that?" Artie pointed at the rug and what it concealed. "Or what had him so bent out of shape this morning that he almost took my head off? Or. . .?"
But before Grossman could continue with his interminable round of questions, all three officers suddenly jumped to their feet. They listened closely for a moment, trying to make sense out of the cabin's various creaks and groans. There it was again --and this time, it was loud enough to be heard even above the noise of the thunder.
The noise had an eerie, hollow quality about it, like a sob or a moan coming from a long distance away. Jon had heard that same sound too many times in Vietnam and then again on the streets of Los Angeles. . .it was the sound that a man made in those last unbearable moments before the morphine IV finally kicked in.
Almost without realizing what he was doing, he reached down and took his back-up weapon from its holster. And when he straightened up again, he wasn't particularly surprised to see that Ponch and Grossman had done the same thing.
Ten seconds went by, then twenty and thirty seconds, and finally, a full minute ticked past. But the room remained silent except for the thud of rain against the roof or the occasional rumble of thunder, and now the three CHP officers gave each other sheepish smiles as they started to put away their guns.
"It's probably just the wind coming through a crack or a knothole in one of the walls," Jon said. "When the wind is from the right direction, that can happen in these old places, sometimes. Like blowing across the neck of a soda bottle. . ."
And at that instant, the moaning sound filled the room once more. As if to belie Jon's logical explanation, the noise was considerably louder, and it seemed closer this time, too -- as if it was coming from directly underneath their feet.
But whatever the sound was or wherever it was coming from, one thing was certain. . .it was much too close for comfort.
"Do you hear that?" Grossman's eyes were wide as he clutched his off-duty gun. "It's right here in this room with us!"
"Take it easy, Grossie," Jon said quietly. "There are plenty of things that could be causing it. You and Ponch go check out the back rooms. I'll take the kitchen and the storm cellar."
"Huh-uh, no way!" Ponch protested strenuously, and Grossman nodded in agreement. "I'm not going back there. Whatever's back there can stay there -- I'm not bringing it room service. Especially when I could be the main course!"
"Hey, you two. . .we're cops, remember?" Baker shook his head in annoyance. "House searches are a routine part of our job, remember?"
"There's nothing routine about this house, much less searching it!" Grossman snapped, just as the sound reached a crescendo.
The noise abruptly stopped, as if someone had removed the batteries from a tape recorder. The three men waited for a minute, but the only sounds that they heard were those of the thunderstorm -- a storm that was showing no signs of abating.
"See. . .it's over now," Ponch said with a nervous grin. " No need for us cops to go looking for anything."
"Aren't you two forgetting something?" Baker raised an eyebrow at his friends.
"Uh, no, Jon -- can't think of a thing," Grossman gave Baker a smile that tried hard to be nonchalant. . .and didn't quite succeed.
"How about Baricza?" Jon's voice was mildly sarcastic. "We've been so busy taking care of ourselves that we haven't thought to check out the rest of this place. Bear might be too hurt or too sick to even let us know that he's here somewhere in the cabin."
Ponch and Grossman exchanged embarrassed looks, and then Ponch nodded reluctantly. He picked up the kerosene lamp and started to walk toward the bedrooms with it. But when Jon cleared his throat and gave his partner a pointed stare, Ponch unwillingly handed him the lamp.
"Here, Jon -- since you have to go downstairs where it's really dark and creepy, you can have the light, " Ponch announced grandly, as if the plan had been his idea in the first place.
"Thanks a lot, partner," Baker muttered as he took the lamp. "You're all heart."
Still balancing the heavy glass lamp in one hand and his gun in the other, Baker walked into the kitchen, then quickly assessed the area. Propane stove; breakfast nook; peeling green linoleum floor; gingham curtains; cleaning supplies on the shelves beside the sink. . .as far as he could tell, everything seemed to be in perfect order.
The door to the storm cellar was firmly shut, and Baker hesitated for a few seconds as he tried to summon up the nerve to go downstairs and inspect the little underground room. Despite his earlier bravado, he wasn't really looking forward to this part of the search at all.
Now he tried to give himself the kind of pep talk that always sounded so calm and logical when he was handing it to someone else. Like Poncherello and Grossman, for example.
Oh come on, Baker! he chided himself. You're starting to sound as bad as Ponch and Grossie. There's no such thing as ghosts!
Gripping his gun a little more tightly, he took a few steps toward the cellar door, but as he reached the middle of the room, he caught a little flicker of movement from the corner of his eye. It came from the direction of the kitchen sink, and Baker smoothly pivoted to face this potential new threat. . .
. . .only to feel his heart lurch so painfully that he almost dropped the lamp. Like a pale balloon hovering just out the window, someone -- or something --now peered at him through a crack in the curtains. A flash of lightening briefly illuminated its features, and Jon recoiled at the sight of enormous black eyes staring at him from that ashen caricature of a face.
Whatever it was, it stared at Jon with insane ferocity for another fraction of a second. . .then simply seemed to melt away into the storm as if it had never existed at all. Baker yelped in shock, then quickly recovered his equilibrium and sat the lamp down on the counter by the stove. He could hear Ponch and Grossman's footsteps as they ran toward the kitchen, but right now, he was too angry with himself to think clearly.
He'd allowed his fear to master him, if only for a few seconds. . .and that was simply unacceptable to Jon Baker. Without waiting for his fellow officers to join him, he sprinted to the back door and unlocked it. He cleared the back steps without touching a single tread on the way down, and his eyes were full of fury as he ran toward the side of the cabin.
Rain once again drenched him, and spiky weeds tried to wrap themselves around his legs, but Baker paid no attention to any of that. He rounded the corner of the cabin, then slid to a stop in the mud and looked all round him in bewilderment. The grass and weeds on this side of the building were just as tall as those in back. . .and for a moment, he could only stand and stare at the impossibility that lay in front of him.
His own trail was easy enough to follow. A swath of beaten down grass and broken weed stems now marked his passage as clearly as a splotch of bright orange spray paint would have. But there was no similar path left to show that someone else had just fought his way through the thick underbrush -- not even as much as a broken stem or a fallen leaf.
I didn't imagine seeing that face at the window! he snapped to himself in frustration. It wasn't my imagination, and I really did see it!
But if his protests sounded hollow even to himself, he could almost imagine how Ponch and Grossman were going to react. Baricza's earlier words came back to Baker now, and he sighed, thinking about the ribbing that he was going to take when they heard about his "ghostly" visitor. And speaking of his fellow officers. . .
He listened for a few seconds to the sounds of snapping twigs and muttered curses behind the cabin. Ponch and Grossman floundered through the heavy weeds, tripping and snarling under their breaths. Finally, they staggered toward him, and he muffled a grin when he first saw them.
At the moment, Ponch was a twin for the mud puddle that he was standing in, and his hair resembled a soggy bird nest that had been carelessly tossed on top his head. Grossman hadn't fared any better. . .his expensive khaki trousers now sported several large rips in places that might have gotten him arrested for indecent exposure if he'd been standing on a Los Angeles street.
"We heard you yell a minute ago," Ponch thumbed toward the kitchen window. "What happened?"
"I. . ." Baker stammered as he frantically tried to come up with a reasonable explanation for what he had seen.
Preferably one that wouldn't get him teased to the point of foaming at the mouth. But no matter how hard he concentrated, his mind remained as blank as the smooth expanse of vegetation around him. He looked at Ponch and Grossman's questioning expressions, trying to steel himself for the inevitable razzing.
But then his head went up, and he gestured at the other two to remain silent as he listened closely to something that they couldn't hear. Years of working outdoors had left Baker with an extraordinary talent for recognizing even the smallest sounds around him -- particularly those that were out of place with the rest of their surroundings.
Now he could hear a faint whispering sound coming toward the cabin from the direction of their old campsite. He immediately identified the sound: it was the unmistakable crinkling and crackling that a plastic rain slicker made when its wearer was trying to move quietly.
The cabin sat at the back of a man-made clearing, but the builder had deliberately left dense clusters of pine trees on either side of the structure as a natural windbreak. It was entirely possibly to walk past someone standing on the side of the house without ever seeing him. . .and Jon was counting on that very thing.
He motioned at the other two to crouch down and use the dense underbrush to conceal themselves. His hand signals were unmistakable, and they reluctantly flattened themselves against the ground. Given that they were both currently covered in mud, it was a perfectly logical choice of camouflage, and besides, Baker was well-acquainted with Ponch and Grossman's talents for moving stealthily. Or, more accurately, the lack thereof.
When Ponch and Grossman were settled into position, Baker took a few cautious steps forward, then paused and listened to everything going on around him. He heard only one set of footsteps crunching softly on the wet gravel in front of the cabin, and he motioned for Ponch and Grossman to remain where they were. He waited until the intruder went past him, then smiled coolly at his fellow officers.
"This one's all mine," he mouthed softly at them as he re-holstered his gun. . .but there was nothing soft about the anger that once again flared in his heart.
As silently as a whisper of wind rippling across the tall grass, he crept toward the front of the building, his mind perfectly focused on what he was about to do next. When he reached the corner of the cabin, he hesitated for only a fraction of a second. . .
. . .then lunged around the side of the building with a yell that would have frozen the average person's blood into sherbet. He smoothly tackled the person who now peered into the cabin's living room window, sending him sprawling face-down in the mud. And for the next few seconds, Baker's visual field consisted entirely of mud, rocks, and a bright yellow blur of plastic as he struggled with the prowler.
But even with the skills that he had acquired during his tenure as a cop, Jon was finding it difficult to subdue his opponent. The dark-haired man was wiry and surprisingly strong for his size -- a fact that Baker quickly discovered as he tried to pin him against the ground.
The other man's elbow caught Jon in the temple, and for a few seconds, his head seemed to be full of Roman candles and pinwheels. Despite the dizziness that he felt, Baker continued to grapple with his foe, straining every muscle to the limit.
Without warning, the man managed to twist aside slightly, and the maneuver gained him just enough extra leverage to roll over onto his back. He shook Baker aside with surprising ease, then staggered to his feet and crouched down like a professional boxer. But Baker's attack had left him slightly disoriented, and now he wavered slightly, too dazed to throw the first punch.
Seeing his advantage, Jon jumped to his feet and returned to the fight with renewed determination. In a move that was almost too swift to see, he landed an upper cut against the man's jaw that all but tore his head from his shoulders. Baker's opponent staggered back and collapsed in a large, cold puddle of rainwater.
And at that same instant, Jon noticed several things that he had overlooked in the heat of the fight. There was something familiar about the newcomer's yellow rain gear -- specifically, the dark patch on one side of the chest. The patch was the same size as a police shield. . .and with a sinking feeling, Baker realized that was exactly what it was intended to represent.
Once that particular detail was fixed in his mind, the rest of the revelation was not long in coming to him. It was a moot point as to which one's groan was the loudest -- Baker's moan when he realized the real identity of his opponent . .or Sergeant Joe Getraer's grunt of pain as he stumbled up from the mud.
"Sarge!" Baker steadied the wobbly sergeant for a moment, and he charitably ignored the glare that Getraer aimed in his direction. "What are you doing here? Shouldn't you be at work, instead of out here playing hooky?"
"I am out here on police business. Or I was, anyway. . .at least until I got tackled by the Caped Crusader!" Getraer snapped as he rubbed his jaw, and his expression would have instantly frozen boiling tar. "Do you mind telling me what that was all about? I would have expected an ambush like that from Poncherello or Grossman, but not from you, Jon. And speaking of those two -- where are they, and what in the world happened to your campsite back there? Knowing Barry, he's going to have someone's hide for that!"
A diversion was clearly in order, and with his best ingratiating smile, Baker gestured at the cabin. "Uh, it's a long story, Sarge, and I'm really glad you're here to help us figure it out! Hey, Ponch, Grossie, it's OK. You can come on out now."
A few seconds later, Ponch emerged from the side of the house with Grossman trailing along behind him. And if the two men had resembled mud pies with legs a little while earlier, now they looked as if they had just barely survived an attack by a pack of Rottweilers. Rabid Rottweilers, at that.
"Sarge! Man, am I glad to see you!" Ponch heaved a huge sigh of relief. "First Grossie's hat bit him on the hand, and then the Loch Ness Monster's cousin trashed our tents. And now Baricza's been kidnapped by a ghost, and the cabin started screaming at us when we saw the blood on the floor."
"You know, Poncherello. . .just about the time I think that you can't possibly come up with anything that's more off the wall, somebody comes along with a bulldozer and moves the wall!" Getraer shook his head, just as a flash of lightening lit up the sky for several seconds. "I want the three of you to explain what's going on around here, but let's do it inside, all right? I don't want to end up fried like a hamburger."
He waited until Jon started to turn around -- then smiled and added in a voice that was entirely too pleasant, "Oh, and by the way, Baker. . .don't think you're off the hook with your sergeant just yet, OK?"
Jon gulped and nodded as he followed Getraer and the others back to the cabin. In a few more minutes, he had the fire built up again, while out in the kitchen, the tea kettle whistled cheerfully on the stove. With his unerring instincts for locating anything edible, Grossman managed to unearth a jar of instant coffee whose expiration date was sometime within the past decade.
A little more searching uncovered a dusty box of dehydrated chicken noodle soup, as well. Now as the four officers sipped the hot coffee and drank their soup, they were grateful for even that small extra measure of warmth. While they ate, Baker filled Getraer in on the morning's events.
Leaving out just a few minor details like disembodied heads and ghosts in the woods! Jon shrugged wryly to himself.
". . .so that's what's been going on out here, Sarge," Baker smoothly finished his explanation. "After Bear disappeared and someone put our vehicles out of commission, we decided to ride out the storm inside here. Then we were going to hike back to the highway and hitch a ride to the nearest telephone so we could call for help."
"It's a good thing that this cabin was here," Getraer shook his head. "I was listening to the weather report on my way out here this morning. Not only did this line of storms come in a lot faster than the meteorologists predicted, but now it's stalled out over this end of the state. The weather forecasters are saying that we could get thunderstorms for the next two days."
"And speaking of coming here, you haven't told us why you drove all the way out here, Sarge," Ponch shrugged. "I mean, it's not like this place is right on the way to work or anything."
"I came out here this morning because I got a call from Pete Baricza," Getraer's expression was suddenly unreadable, and that was never a good sign -- as his officers knew from experience. "He'd just gotten a phone call from an old friend of his. It seems that the man who used to own this property has spent the last twelve years in a mental institution. Apparently he had a nervous break down after his father was murdered out here, if I understood Pete correctly."
Baker and the others exchanged anxious glances as they waited to hear what Getraer had to say next. The sergeant took another sip of his coffee, then went on, "Anyway, this Andrew McCraven has a history of violence against the doctors and staff of the mental institution. Anyone in authority seems to be a particular target of his. Somehow, he managed to escape from the grounds of the facility earlier this week. Pete's friend just got word about it last night and told him that McCraven might be headed back here. And if that was the case, you guys needed to be notified."
"No question about that, Sarge," Baker nodded as he pictured their vandalized campground.
"McCraven is considered extremely dangerous, and since there's no other way to contact you, I told Pete that I'd drive out here this morning and let you know what's going on, myself," Getraer finished. "Since it was going to rain, I borrowed Lieutenant Bates' station wagon and came out here to fill you in on all the details. There's an APB out on McCraven, but so far, he seems to have vanished into thin air."
"Just like Baricza," Grossman said, then frowned indignantly when the others aimed cold stares in his direction. "What? What did I say?"
"That's just great, Sarge," Baker shook his head. "An escaped mental patient with a history of violence against authority figures may be running loose in these woods. Bear is missing, the thunderstorms have us pinned down in here, and all our supplies are either destroyed or floating in three inches of water. How much worse can it get?"
"At least we've still got Sarge's car and his ra. . ." Ponch began cheerfully, but his voice faded away as something occurred to him.
And apparently the other three officers had come to the same conclusion at exactly the same moment. Getraer jumped to his feet, and his heavy crockery soup mug hit the coffee table's glass top with enough force to send several "Reader's Digests" flying over the side.
"The Lieutenant's car!" Getraer yelped. "Baker, you move faster than the rest of us. Here are my keys. . .bring the car up here and park it out front so that we can keep an eye on it. Take my rain slicker, and be careful -- we don't know where McCraven is or what he's capable of."
As he sprinted out of the cabin, Baker grabbed for the rain gear hanging on a peg by the front door. As he ran past the window, the others saw him slip into the yellow poncho without even breaking stride. The sound of his footsteps faded away after a few seconds, but as they continued to listen, they didn't hear the comforting sound of the station wagon's engine in the distance, either.
In another minute or two, Baker trudged back into the cabin, still clutching the ring of keys in one hand. Wordlessly, he took off the rain coat and tossed it back on the peg, as Getraer and the others watched anxiously. Jon sighed and then sank back down on the sofa -- still without saying anything to the others.
"Well, where's Lieutenant Bates' car?" Ponch demanded. "And did you put out a call for help over the radio?"
"Ponch, the Lieutenant's station wagon is at the bottom of the lake," Baker shook his head. "Somebody must have put it in neutral and then gave it a good shove down the boat ramp. The only thing you can see is about six inches of the whip antenna sticking up out of the water."
He held out his coffee mug, and Grossman refilled it from a battered thermal carafe. Baker nodded his thanks, then sat back for a moment and stared at the fire for a moment.
"Hey, cheer up, partner -- things could be worse," Ponch shrugged philosophically. "When Sarge doesn't report in, someone's bound to come looking for him, right? Like you said, we just have to ride things out until then. Well, am I right or what?"
"Probably 'or what,'" Jon sighed. "You know, awhile back, someone else told me to cheer up. . .things could be worse. And you know what? They were absolutely right. I cheered up, and sure enough, things got worse. Just like today -- all we need now is a couple of escaped convicts and an earthquake, and I think we'd pretty well have all the bases covered."
"Don't even kid about an earthquake, Jon!" Getraer protested. "The way your luck is running, I wouldn't be surprised if. . ."
Before he could finish his sentence, he saw a small movement on the top of the coffee table, and he glanced down at it. As he watched, a "National Geographic" and two more "Reader's Digests" slid over the edge of the coffee table and landed on the rag rug with a soft thud.
Coffee slopped over the edge of the officers' cups, while the picture beside the fireplace bounced several times against the wall. It swayed on its nail for another second or two, then hit the floor in a shower of splintering glass. The coffee table slid toward the wall, taking the large rug with it. . .and now the four men could clearly see the wide red mark as the stained floorboards shuddered and swayed.
"'Quake!" Getraer yelped. " Hang on, everybody -- we're in for a rough ride!"
Even though they knew that such a move was apt to be futile, Getraer and the others grabbed for the arms of their chairs or a nearby piece of furniture. . .anything to keep from hitting the ground. Violent vibrations made the ceiling beams shiver and lurch in a kind of demented dance, while the walls and floorboards shrieked and groaned under the onslaught.
The sofa and chairs slid back and forth, but the four officers managed to stay on them, feeling as if they were on the back of a bucking bronco. But as they held on desperately, they heard Grossman shout something above the din of splintering wood and smashing glass. Under the circumstances, yelling wasn't exactly an unexpected reaction. . .but when he was brave enough to take one hand off the arm of the sofa and point toward the kitchen, the others were startled enough to look in that direction, too.
"The kitchen door!" he yelped as they finally understood what he had been trying to tell them. "Look at the wind chimes hanging in the doorway!"
The storm had momentarily let up, and now a sullen green-gray light filtered through the kitchen windows. The officers could see a small set of copper wind chimes hanging from the top of the door frame. But the slender metal cylinders weren't clanking and clashing together from the violence of the earthquake. . .in fact, they weren't moving at all.
Jon managed to stagger to his feet, but as he crossed the few feet of lurching floor, he felt as if he was on the deck of a ship in stormy weather. He grabbed the door frame to steady himself, then cautiously peered inside the kitchen.
The kerosene lamp that he had left on the counter top was still lit, and he expected to see it crash to the floor at any second, with predictably dangerous results. Instead, the light remained where it was and continued to burn steadily without even as much as a flicker. The propane stove didn't "walk" across the linoleum, either, and even the cans of cleanser and bottles of dish detergent remained exactly where they were on the shelves.
"Nothing's happening in the kitchen!" Baker called back over his shoulder as he stumbled into the kitchen. "It's like the 'earthquake' is right underneath the living room!"
"What kind of crazy earthquake only hits one room?" Ponch groaned as the vibrations grew more violent and threatened to topple him from his perch on the sofa. . .
. . .and with that, the tremors stopped as quickly as if someone had flipped a switch. For a few minutes, the four officers tensed themselves for the inevitable aftershocks, but nothing happened. Except for the broken crockery and the misplaced furniture, there was no indication that anything out of the ordinary had ever taken place at all.
"I don't believe this," Getraer cautiously stood up, then walked over to the kitchen door and looked inside, just as Baker had done. "We get nailed in one room by a full blown earthquake. . .but the room next to it isn't touched. Nothing -- not even a broken plate or a crack in the plaster."
"Maybe it wasn't a real earthquake," Grossman pontificated as he and Ponch joined the other two men in the kitchen. "It could have been just a localized subsidence -- an underground mine shaft or a subterranean spring. You know how unstable the ground is in this area. Even a minor ground shift could produce the kind of tremors that we just experienced."
"Or maybe it was some spook trying to tell us to get out of his house and leave him alone," Ponch muttered under his breath.
"Poncherello, you've been watching too many horror movies when you should have been doing your paperwork," Getraer rolled his eyes. "There's no such thing as. . ."
Before he could finish his sentence, the air was filled with another of those low, bloodcurdling moans that Baker and his fellow officers had heard earlier. And this time, there could be no mistake: the sound was definitely coming from the storm cellar below them.
"What in the world is that?" Getraer involuntarily shivered, just as the other three men had done when they had first heard the noise. "It sounds like someone's being butchered down there!"
"Nice image. Thanks a lot, Sarge," Baker snorted as he picked up the kerosene lamp. "That's the sound we were telling you about, earlier. I was just about to go downstairs and check it out when I thought I saw someone standing out behind the cabin."
"Well, there's safety in numbers," Getraer gave Ponch and Grossman a pointed stare. "Jon, you've got the light, so you go first. I'll be right behind you. . .and Ponch and Grossman will be right behind me. Whatever's down there is going to have to contend with four cops."
"Don't you mean, four cops are going to have to contend with it?" Ponch mumbled ungraciously.
Baker ignored his partner's grumbling and cautiously eased the cellar door open. The golden glow from the lamp barely penetrated the blackness as Jon tried to see what lay below -- but without success. With a resigned shrug, he carefully made his way down the stairs, followed by Getraer and the others.
They stopped at the bottom of the steps and stood together in a tight cluster as they once more waited for their eyes to adjust to the lower level of light. When they could see well enough to make sense of their surroundings, they looked at each other and shrugged. . .as far as anyone could tell, there was nothing unusual about the basement room. Like most cellars, it appeared to be little more than a repository for all those boxes of plastic margarine tubs and broken lawn chairs that every household seemed to accumulate over the years.
Jon shrugged at Getraer, and the sergeant nodded his assent to his officer's wordless "question." Baker handed the lamp to Getraer, then took several cautious steps toward the center of the room. A few cardboard boxes were piled up along one wall: as Baker carefully made his way toward them, he tried not to fall over the old fishing poles and stacks of musty-smelling books that were piled everywhere.
Getraer stood on the bottom step and held the lamp up as high as possible to give Jon a little extra light. But when Ponch and Grossman made no move to follow Baker, the sergeant aimed a cool stare at them -- the kind of look that pulp fiction writers always described as "meaningful."
With no good grace, Ponch set off toward the stack of cardboard cartons, followed by an equally reluctant Grossman. But Getraer had failed to factor one small detail into the current plan of action: specifically, Artie's notorious ability to trip over his own shoelaces -- even if he was wearing loafers.
Within a matter of seconds, a wicker basket wrapped itself around Artie's left foot, while an equally vicious Styrofoam cooler attacked his right ankle. As he felt himself starting to fall forward, Grossman yelped and then aimed himself for the nearest soft object. . .
. . .in this case, his two fellow officers. Like a stack of human dominoes, Ponch and Jon hurtled into the pile of boxes, sending them flying in all directions. For a few seconds, they laid there on the ground in a tangled heap of arms and legs, too stunned to move.
Baker tried to gasp in a few precious gulps of air to replace the oxygen that had been driven out of his lungs by a large object using his spinal column for a landing zone. But as he sprawled out on the dirt floor, his hand brushed against something lying near the wall. . .something warm and soft, like a heap of old clothing.
And with that, the "pile of clothing" moaned softly again. Baker jumped to his feet, nearly knocking Ponch backward into Artie again, but his reaction had nothing to do with fear. He began to paw frantically at the overturned cartons, trying to pull them away from the wall.
"Ponch, Grossie -- help me move these boxes!" Baker gestured at the stack.
"What have you got, Baker?" Getraer set the lamp down on a step, then made his way over to the others.
"It's Baricza!" Jon's voice was tense as he struggled to move a particularly heavy box. "There was a little space between the wall and these boxes. . .somehow he ended up back there behind them. Help me move this carton so we can get to him!"
Ponch added his strength to Baker's, and in another second or two, the box teetered and fell. Baricza lay face down in the dirt with one arm outstretched over his head. Baker and Getraer knelt beside him, and the sergeant nodded at his officers with a calmness that he didn't genuinely feel at present.
"Jon, you hold his head and neck in the right position," he said, then grasped Bear's shoulder and belt firmly. "Poncherello, you and Grossman help me turn him over on the count of three. One. . .two. . .three!"
The three officers turned Baricza over onto his back while Baker stabilized his neck. As they carefully eased Bear into place, the arm that had been above his head now fell back limply to one side. He cried out in pain, and Baker could see why: his wrist was twisted at an impossible angle -- which could only mean that one or more of the bones were shattered.
"Easy, Barry," Getraer spoke calmly to the barely conscious officer. "We'll take care of that arm. . ."
But then the sergeant's voice died away in shock when he glanced down at Baricza's chest. The front of Bear's yellow knit shirt was covered in bright red splotches, as if he had been shot at close range or repeatedly stabbed.
Baker knew that particular color only too well. . .it was the same vivid shade of red as the stain on the cabin wall. Quickly, he removed his knife from its sheath on his belt, then started to cut away Bear's shirt while Getraer gave orders to the other two officers.
"It's a miracle that he's even still alive!" Getraer shook his head. "Baker, you're an EMT -- you know the pressure points to stop the bleeding. If you need help, you can show me what to do. Poncherello, get one of those bamboo fishing poles, and use your knife to cut a couple of foot long sections from them. Grossman, go upstairs and see if you can find some dishtowels or an old sheet that we can use. We'll use them and the bamboo to make a splint for his wrist. "
Grossman ran up the steps, and in a few seconds, Getraer heard the boards squeak above his head as Artie rummaged through the cabin for the supplies. But there were more pressing things to occupy Joe's attention, and he watched as Baker cut away Baricza's shirt. Baker frowned in concentration as he carefully inspected Bear's chest for the injury that could have caused such massive bleeding. But the skin appeared to be unbroken. . .and besides, something didn't seem quite right about the bright red color of that stain.
Particularly the areas that had already coagulated, Jon thought with a puzzled frown. He ran the tips of his fingers through a small section of the red liquid that hadn't completely dried yet and then sniffed the substance. With that, he shook his head and grinned at his thoroughly bewildered sergeant.
"Uh. . .Joe?" he chuckled. "We can definitely use the stuff for making splints. Bear's got a broken wrist, all right. And from the looks of that lump on his forehead, he's probably got a concussion, too. But I wouldn't worry too much about the pressure points, if I were you."
"Baker, have you lost your mind?" Getraer snapped. "Barry's obviously lost a lot of. . ."
". . .blackberry juice," Baker interrupted with another smile, then held up his own stained fingers. "There's no sign of a gunshot wound or any other injury to the chest anywhere. But here. . .take a whiff of the 'blood' for yourself. See what I mean?"
Getraer leaned over and sniffed the dark red substance on Baker's fingertips. Instead of the coppery odor of blood, he smelled only the sweet, unmistakable scent of crushed blackberries, and now he met Jon's amused gaze with a smile of his own.
In a few minutes, Grossman reappeared, carrying the supplies that Getraer had requested. Ponch handed Jon the two short sections of bamboo fishing rod, then stood back and watched as his partner improvised a set of splints.
Baker stabilized Baricza's broken wrist, then gestured at the steep, narrow flight of steps. "Sarge, let's get him upstairs and put him down on the sofa. It's a miracle that he hasn't already gone into shock, and I don't want to push our luck much further. How about if you carry the lamp so that we can see where we're going. Ponch, you and Grossie will have to carry Bear up the steps while I hold his head and neck. I don't really see anything wrong, but there's no need to take chances while we transport, either."
"You! Why do you get to stabilize his neck?" Ponch asked indignantly. "I took the same EMT courses that you did. How come I have to carry him?"
"One of the perks of maintaining your certification, Poncherello," Getraer smiled coolly. "Those who keep up with their studies get to do the technical stuff. Those who don't keep up their certification get the grunt work. Jon, you just let Ponch and Grossman know when you're ready for them to move Barry for you, OK? "
"But I. . ." Grossman started to protest as Getraer walked over to the steps and retrieved the lamp.
"What I said about people who don't study also goes double for those officers who don't try to make the Highway Patrol and their sergeant proud of them by improving their professional skills!" Getraer chuckled grimly, then held up the lamp for them. "Any time you're ready, Jon."
With a little effort and a considerable amount of grunting and groaning, Poncherello and Grossman managed to carry Baricza up the steps and through the kitchen. They carefully put him down on the living room sofa, then pushed it a little closer to the warmth of the fire. Grossman disappeared into one of the cabin's bedrooms, and when he re-emerged a moment later, his arms were full of blankets.
Getraer and Grossman tucked the blankets around the shivering Bear, while Jon stirred up the fire and added two small logs. And it appeared that Baker's earlier fears about shock were well-founded: Baricza's lips and fingernails were blue-tinged, and his skin was clammy as he faded in and out of consciousness.
Baker glanced down at Bear, and he was disturbed by all those small details that he hadn't noticed in the cellar's darkness -- things that just weren't consistent with the rest of Baricza's physical condition. The room was dark and cool: even so, his pupils were still much too large, as if they had just been dilated for an eye exam. And even though he shivered and tried to burrow deeper under the blankets, beads of sweat stood out on his forehead as if he had a high fever.
As if to disprove Getraer's earlier comments, Ponch quickly spotted the signs of possible shock, then busied himself by checking Baricza's pulse and respiration. Baker was forced to turn away in order to hide his smile -- especially when he heard his partner's next words.
"Easy, Bear," Ponch's voice was full of immense dignity. "Your old EMT buddy Ponch is on the case now. You're going to be just fine. . .and you can take that to the bank!"
"What I'd love to know is what he was doing in that cellar in the first place," Getraer shrugged. "Not to mention how he broke his wrist and ended up with that goose egg on his forehead."
"Maybe he was fixing the blackberry cobbler and accidentally spilled it on himself, somehow," Grossman offered. "He could have gone down to the cellar to get some cleaning rags, then tripped and fell down the stairs. He probably broke his wrist when he landed at the bottom of the steps."
"But, Grossie, why would he crawl clear over to the wall and hide behind a stack of boxes?" Baker spread his hands questioningly. "That wrist is obviously hurting him pretty badly. Why wouldn't he try to get back upstairs where one of us could have taken care of him?"
"Good question, Jon," Getraer sighed. "He might have been so disoriented from the concussion and the pain of the broken bones that he just. . ."
But before the sergeant could say anything else, Baricza moaned softly, and his eyes slowly fluttered open again. He looked up blankly at the other officers as if he wasn't really seeing them at all, and the pallor of his face made his dark eyes seem twice as large as usual.
For a few seconds, he stared at his surroundings in bewildered terror, and he mumbled something to himself that the others couldn't understand. Then, without warning, he began to thrash wildly in a desperate attempt to escape. His good hand was clenched into a fist, and he lashed out blindly at Baker as though he didn't recognize him at all.
"No more," he groaned, and the others could only recognize a few broken words and phrases. "Make it stop. Don't want to. . .not like this. No!"
"Poncherello, Grossman, give us a hand here!" Getraer called out to the other two officers as he and Baker fought to keep Baricza down.
But even with Ponch and Grossie's help, Baker and Getraer were barely able to restrain Bear. Finally, he abandoned the attempt and collapsed limply, making little sobbing noises deep in his throat. He gritted his teeth in anger or pain, and his expression was as wary as that of a trapped animal.
"Easy, Bear, it's just us," Baker said soothingly, seeing the fear and desperation in Baricza's eyes. "We're not going to let anything else happen to you. That's it, buddy. . .just take it easy. Can you tell us how you ended up down in the cellar?"
But Baricza seemed oblivious to everything around him as he continued to rock back and forth, whimpering softly to himself. His uninjured hand was still tightly clenched into a fist, but he occasionally batted at a spot on the side of his neck as if that particular area itched or was sore.
"Barry, do you know who I am, or where you are?" Getraer tried again. "Can you tell us what happened to you?"
"Leave me alone!" Baricza shouted. "Just go away, and leave me alone!"
At first, Getraer thought that Bear's angry command was aimed at him, but when he took a closer look, he saw that Baricza was actually staring at something in the middle of the room. Getraer started to say something to Baker and the others, but at that moment, Bear's rage suddenly vanished as quickly as it had arrived.
Baricza's expression crumpled, and for an instant, Getraer could have almost sworn that he was looking down at a terrified young boy. Even a professional actor would have been hard-pressed to imitate the innocence in Bear's eyes or the way that his face now seemed to be rounded in the soft lines of childhood.
"Please make him go away," Baricza pleaded tearfully. "He won't leave me alone."
"Who, Barry?" Getraer asked quietly. "Who's bothering you?"
"Him," Bear's voice was scarcely above a whisper. "That man over there. Make him get out of my daddy's house -- please?"
Getraer could account for the whereabouts of the other three people in the room, and the logical part of his mind knew that there wasn't anything standing behind him. But something about the intensity of Bear's expression made him decide to humor the injured man. Feeling a little foolish, Getraer turned around and looked at the spot where Baricza's gaze now rested.
Outside the window, the storm was once more growing in intensity: now, even the small amount of ambient light vanished, leaving the room full of strange, flickering shadows. And perhaps that was the reason that Getraer thought he saw something like a shadow or a pool of black ink appear in the middle of the floor where the rug had once been.
But then a log shifted in the fire place grate, and in the room's changing light, the dark spot instantly vanished. Feeling foolish, the sergeant turned back to Baricza -- just as Bear cringed away from something that only he could see.
"I told you, I don't have it. Why won't you leave me alone?" Baricza pleaded piteously with his unseen tormentor. "Oh God, please make it stop hurting. I don't want to die like this. . .never get to see my family again. . .no!"
Baker and the others had encountered this kind of disorientation before, but only in psychiatric patients and drug addicts -- never in one of their own. Seeing that same look of insanity in Baricza's eyes was almost more than they could stand, and when Ponch spoke, his voice was tight with anger.
"Jon, what's wrong with him?" he demanded with a worried frown. "It's like he's on a bad trip or something. . ."
"He is on a bad trip -- but not on acid," a voice said from somewhere just inside the kitchen doorway. "The drug I gave him is perfectly legal. In fact, I took it from the hospital med cart just last week, when the nurses weren't looking. But it can have almost the same effect as LSD. . .particularly if it's administered in a large enough dose and without the other person's consent. And believe me, I know all about psychiatric medications. From personal experience, you might say."
Before Getraer or the others could reach for their weapons, a small, balding man stepped out of the kitchen and took a step toward them. The man could have been no more than fifty, but the heavy lines that furrowed his face made him look much older than he really was. He was dressed in a stained blue shirt and mended denim slacks -- the same kind of cheap, nondescript clothing worn by prisoners or the inmates of a psychiatric hospital.
His skin was the bland, pasty color of someone who spent too much time indoors, and with a start, Baker recognized his face as the one that he had seen peering in the kitchen window earlier. Those colorless features were unmistakable, especially his enormous black eyes.
With their fixed stare and edge of madness, those eyes seemed to be looking into a reality that lay just beyond the one most people shared. He stood in front of the officers for a second or two, clutching something behind his back. He swayed unsteadily as he stared at them, and Getraer gestured for his officers to remain where they were for the time being.
"Mr. McCraven?" the sergeant asked calmly, as he started to walk toward the man. . .
. . .then jumped back as McCraven suddenly brought his hand around from behind his back. Something glittered in a bright arc as he swiped viciously at Getraer, and now the officers could see what McCraven had been hiding -- a black-handled hunting knife that he had stolen from the camping supplies.
Like all the other hunting and fishing gear that Bear owned, this particular knife had been kept at the peak of its usefulness, its heavy blade expertly honed to a lethal sharpness. In the hands of someone who lacked normal mental and emotional restraints, such a knife could be as deadly as a gun -- a fact that the officers knew and respected.
"Stay back. . .I'm warning you!" McCraven snarled, and Getraer held up a placating hand.
"All right. . .all right," Joe said in a voice that was almost subliminal in its calmness. "Let's not do anything that could get somebody hurt."
His words were aimed at his officers as much as they were meant for McCraven, and they understood Getraer's reluctance to attempt to physically overpower the knife-wielding madman -- at least not right now. Getraer knew that his officers were carrying off-duty weapons in various concealed holsters, but it would be almost impossible to draw those weapons without attracting McCraven's attention.
Even a delay of a second or two could prove deadly, especially in a cramped area like this living room. Getraer certainly didn't relish the thought of his fighting space being hampered by heavy furniture that could block a potential escape route or by slippery rugs that would make the footing treacherous.
Under those circumstances, even the simplest take-down could have potentially dangerous consequences -- especially with all vehicles out of commission. With a two mile hike between himself and the nearest emergency assistance, time and patience were the two best cards in Getraer's hand. . .and he intended to play them well.
Now the sergeant made sure that there was no hint of condescension in his voice that might provoke McCraven. "You never did answer Jon's question, Mr. McCraven. What can we do for you, sir?"
"Do?" Andy McCraven jeered, then gestured with the knife blade at the stripes on Getraer's sleeves. "Why, the same thing that you've always done. Nothing. . .absolutely nothing. I saw your squad car a few minutes ago, and I know who you represent, Sergeant. And nothing's changed about you and your kind since I've been away. You people are still as useless and incompetent as you ever were!"
Getraer looked over at Jon with a small nod, as if giving him tacit permission to do whatever was necessary. Baker understood Getraer's meaning as clearly as if the sergeant had shouted it, and he nodded in agreement.
Jon's training as an Emergency Medical Technician had included classes in dealing with individuals who were disoriented and potentially dangerous. Now he concentrated on saying and doing the things that would prevent McCraven from going over the edge altogether until he could be subdued.
He cautiously took a single step forward and smiled reassuringly at McCraven. And like Getraer had done, Baker made sure that his voice was calm and deliberately calculated to soothe someone who was overwrought.
"I don't think we're following you, Mr. McCraven," he said with a respectful nod. "How about if we all sit down, have a cup of coffee, and you can fill us in on the details. . ."
"Shut your mouth, you murderer!" he once more lunged forward with the knife pointed straight at the blond officer's chest. "I saw you with the rest of those thieving cutthroats this morning!
Jon leaped back out of the way, and McCraven muttered to himself with obvious satisfaction. He flicked the gleaming silver blade toward the shield pinned on Getraer's uniform, then shook his head in disgust.
"You know, I don't understand you police officers at all, Sergeant," he rolled his eyes. "After all the years and the money that were spent on this case, you finally manage to blunder onto the very ones who are responsible for what's happened to my father. You have them right here in this room, and still you refuse to do anything about the situation. I even disabled their ringleader for you so that he won't cause any more problems, but do you appreciate my efforts on your behalf? No, of course not."
McCraven gave Getraer a sour smile. "And let me tell you, Sergeant, it was no easy task to drag that overgrown Jack the Ripper downstairs after I sneaked up behind him and hit him in the neck with the hypodermic. I used his key to open the door and then locked it after us, so that the rest of his gang wouldn't be suspicious. . .oh, I know their kind, all right!"
For a few seconds, McCraven muttered incoherently to himself, staring at a point just beyond Getraer. His rambling words weren't addressed to the officers: instead, they seemed to be a diatribe aimed at a legion of old enemies. But then he shook his head and picked up the threads of his narrative as if it had never been interrupted at all.
"Despite all that medication, I finally ended up having to throw him down the steps. . .he was still struggling just that much," Rockwell rolled his eyes as if Baricza's attempt to escape had been some kind of personal affront. "And even as stunned as he was, he still managed to drag himself over to those boxes along the wall, trying to get away from me. Can you believe it? I really don't see how he crawled that far with a broken wrist, but he did. Then again, I suppose these criminal types usually do have more brawn than brains."
McCraven shook his head again in annoyance, then added, "And after all that, not only haven't you made a move to arrest him and his associates, Sergeant. . .but you've actually gone out of your way to help him! I have to wonder if he didn't promise you a cut when they find what they're looking for here on my property."
It took a second or two for Baker and the others to realize that McCraven's words weren't just the raving of a madman. . .in fact they were a detailed explanation of what had happened to Bear that morning. But when they finally did understand that he was telling the truth, their responses were completely predictable.
Baker's narrowed eyes and tightly compressed lips would have been the equivalent of a violent outburst in someone with less self-control, and even Getraer permitted himself a few pungent German oaths in the privacy of his own mind. The sergeant could hear Grossman muttering angrily under his breath at the thought of someone deliberately injuring a friend and fellow officer -- particularly someone as well-liked and respected as Baricza.
And when it came to that same scenario, Ponch's small supply of patience and self-control had a way of evaporating like a pocketful of twenties after payday. Now he clenched his fists angrily at his sides and glared at McCraven.
"You deliberately hurt Bear like that just because you thought he was going to steal your gold? But this isn't even your land, anymore!" Frank snapped. "It belongs to Bear's dad, Pete Baricza. You remember him -- you sold this place to him after your dad. . ."
"Poncherello!" Getraer hissed a warning, but it was too late.
"Sell my land to some stranger?" Andy's pale face grew red with rage as he paced back and forth for a moment. "Sell the legacy that my father left to me, God rest his poor soul? Just as his father left the land to his only son, and his father before him. Not only are you a murderer and a thief, but you're a lunatic, as well! I would never sell my land to anyone!"
He stopped his restless movements long enough to look down at Baricza, and he frowned to himself, as if trying to force a piece of a jigsaw puzzle into a space that was almost -- but not quite -- right. And for reasons that Getraer and the others didn't quite understand, McCraven shook his head. . .then stumbled back a step or two with his eyes still fixed on Baricza's face.
"I. . .don't understand," McCraven mumbled to himself in bewilderment. "You murdered my father for the gold. Of course you did! Why else would you come out here after all these years? You thought that it was safe to start searching again, that's why you came here. I knew I'd find you when I got here -- that's why I had to get away from that awful place. I knew you'd be out here, just. . .waiting. You always waited for me, you remember that, don't you? All those afternoons after school. . ."
Getraer and Baker exchanged puzzled glances. It was obvious from McCraven's words that he had mistaken Baricza and his fellow campers for the persons who had killed his father so many years ago. . .and given Andy's current mental condition, it was hardly surprising.
Getraer had seen similar coping mechanisms in other mental patients -- that curious way of blurring the past and the present together to form a scenario that they could understand and control. But there was something particularly chilling about McCraven's last few sentences. . .something that seemed to hint at more than one layer of meaning.
What is going on here? the sergeant tried not to let his confusion telegraph itself to his face and eyes. It almost sounds like McCraven is confusing his own father with Baricza!
McCraven's head went up suddenly like a wary animal as Baricza stirred restlessly on the sofa. Getraer glanced back at the dark-haired officer for a fraction of a second, then immediately focused his entire attention on McCraven again. But as far as Joe could tell from such a brief glimpse, Bear appeared more alert, as if the drugs were finally starting to wear off.
More importantly, Joe was almost certain that he had seen a spark of understanding in Barry's eyes as he looked at the ranting Andy McCraven. Years of police work had given Getraer an almost uncanny ability to predict what someone would do next, and now he could only hold his breath, hoping that Baricza wouldn't react out of some well-meaning, but misguided attempt to help his fellow officers.
Those same years of police work had also left the sergeant with an almost complete inability to be surprised at anything that happened around him. He'd once toyed with the idea of designing a personal crest for himself with the German motto: Wenn es vielleicht falsch gehen kann, wird es.
But even with the concept of "If it can possibly go wrong, it will," firmly fixed in his mind, nothing in Getraer's experience could have prepared him for what happened next. Behind him, he heard the sounds of a brief scuffle as if someone was trying to break free of restraints, and that noise was quickly followed by a yelp of pain or dismay.
Without taking his eyes off McCraven, Getraer tried to make sense of what was taking place over by the sofa. . .he could have almost sworn that it was Poncherello or Grossman doing the yelling, not Barry. His suspicions were confirmed a few seconds later when he heard Artie hiss under his breath, "Bear, no! Stay down!"
But as Getraer and the others watched in amazement, Baricza slowly stood up. . .and despite the drugs that should have still clouded his reason, his expression was as alert and intense as they had ever seen it. However, his entire focus seemed to be on Andy McCraven at the moment, and if he was aware of anyone else in the room, there was no indication of it.
Baricza's height was already impressive enough by anyone's standards, but now it was emphasized by the almost military straightness of his back and the proud lift of his head as he walked toward McCraven. And with his dark hair, deep eyes, and bare chest, he seemed to have fallen into this world from some other time and place -- like a mythological warrior that had suddenly been brought to life by some great magic.
His slow, graceful movements had a hypnotic, otherworldly quality about them, but even that phenomenon paled in comparison to the one that Getraer and Baker now noticed as he approached them. Even though he still didn't seem to be aware of their presence, he stopped beside his fellow officers, then turned his head slightly.
Perhaps it was only the angle at which he was standing in relation to the fireplace, but when Baricza gave McCraven another intense look, his eyes suddenly seemed to catch the light and reflect it back in tiny sparks at the startled Andy. That odd shimmer reminded Getraer of a cat's eyes at night. . .and if the sight was uncanny enough to send chills down his own back, he could well imagine the effect that it was having on the susceptible McCraven.
And when the sergeant looked at McCraven again, he saw that his hunch was apparently correct. Now it was Andy's turn to stagger back a step, and when he spoke, his usual arrogant confidence seemed to have deserted him.
"Who. . .who are you?" he stammered as he clutched the handle of the knife even more tightly. "What are you?"
Baricza said nothing as he continued to stare at Andy, and after a few seconds, McCraven shifted restlessly under that dispassionate gaze. As if to regain the ground that he had just lost, he swaggered forward and tried to meet Bear's glittering eyes, just one wolf might try to outstare another for a place of dominance in the pack.
Getraer and Baker automatically tensed, prepared to intervene if the confrontation between Baricza and McCraven turned violent -- as indeed, it might. But for all the effect that his glare was having on Barry, the little man might as well have tried to outstare a statue, and he finally gave up the attempt.
With a muffled curse, he dropped his head, and his glance came to rest on a spot at his feet. There hadn't been time for anyone to move the rug back after the earthquake, and the rusty red stain in the middle of the living room was still clearly visible.
It took a second or two for McCraven to realize what he was seeing, but when he did, his expression crumpled entirely. Unthinkingly, he reached out and touched the spot with a trembling hand, then shrieked in terror as he looked down at the red liquid that now covered the tips of his fingers.
"No. . .oh, no," he moaned under his breath, then sank to his knees and began to rock back and forth. "No. . .not my father. He shouldn't have had to die like that. Oh God, make it stop hurting. Please just make it go away. Daddy!"
The last word was a scream, and now the knife clattered harmlessly to the floor, landing directly on the stained boards in front of McCraven. But he paid no attention to the loss of the weapon, and for a moment, he seemed to be drowning under the weight of the madness that now came crashing down on top of him.
Getraer was wrenched with pity for the rocking, sobbing creature in front of him, but his duty to protect Baricza and the others still came first. He lunged for the knife and snatched it away before McCraven could react, even as Jon Baker and the other officers moved in to subdue their opponent.
But before they could touch McCraven, Baricza made a sharp movement with his good hand. . .and for reasons that they didn't quite understand themselves, Getraer and the others instantly stopped where they were. Mutely, the tall officer took a single step toward his erstwhile tormentor, then dropped down onto one knee beside the cringing McCraven.
Bear's fingers were still clenched in a tight fist, just as they had been ever since Baker had first found him down in the cellar. Now, as Getraer and his officers watched, Baricza smiled quietly at McCraven and reached out toward him.
His strong, thin fingers slowly unfolded like the petals of a flower. . .and like a flower, there was a glint of gold at the center. McCraven stared at the shimmering nugget in Baricza's hand, unable to tear his eyes away from the impossible sight.
"Sarge, that looks just like. . ." Ponch was the first to break the silence, but his awed tones were barely above a whisper.
"Quiet, Poncherello!" Getraer gestured sharply for silence -- feeling not a little unlike a participant in some glorious legend of brave knights and buried treasure.
But far from being shattered by speech, the sensation of witnessing some great magical rite was merely reinforced when Baricza finally broke his self-imposed silence. His voice was as deep and rich as that of a priest giving absolution, and his eyes were full of mercy as he looked down at McCraven. The sobbing man had been huddled in a fetal position beside the stained floorboards, but now he looked up at Baricza and made a small questioning noise deep in his throat.
"It's all right," Bear said softly. "Your dad wants you to have this. I saw him when I was down in the cellar. I was scared and hurting pretty bad, just like you are right now, and he stayed with me until Jon found me. He's a good man. . if I'd only known what he wanted all these years, I wouldn't have been so afraid of him. He was just trying to tell someone about what happened to him, but I was too young and too scared to know that. And those drugs you gave me had my mind so messed up a little while ago that I couldn't think straight then, either. But now I do understand."
Getraer looked at Baker with a questioning shrug. In the light of their earlier conversation, Baricza's words made a chilling -- if impossible -- kind of sense to Jon. The rational part of Baker's mind understood the psychological reasons for Bear's hallucinations, but there seemed to be another level of meaning to his words, too. . .one that transcended such mundane explanations as coping mechanisms and drug-induced delusions.
In any event, there would be time enough to try to explain the inexplicable later on: at the moment, the events unfolding in front of them were too compelling to miss. As if he could somehow hear Baker's thoughts, Baricza turned slightly and gave him a reassuring smile before he went on.
"Your dad was with me down in the cellar this morning," Bear said as calmly as if he had been discussing a visit by a friend instead of the apparition of a long-dead man. "There was some kind of earth tremor, and when it was over, he bent down and picked this up from the ground. He said that even if we never do find the rest of the treasure, he still wants you to remember that you'll always have something that's more important than gold. The real treasure is what you've buried all these years, Andy. . .and that's the memory of how much he loved you. If you can find that, you can find something else that's been hidden for a long time -- the person you were meant to be."
Tears streamed down McCraven's pale face as Baricza dropped the gold nugget into his hand. Baker and Getraer gave each other awed smiles, and even Poncherello and Grossman swallowed hard as they watched some of the pain and madness start to leave McCraven's eyes.
As if it was a rope that could bind him to sanity, he clutched the bright bit of gold tightly for a moment, then looked deeply into Baricza's tranquil eyes. Bear and his fellow officers heard McCraven whisper a simple, "Thank you. . .thank you for everything."
Then his overstressed mind finally gave itself permission to let go, like a rubber band that had been stretched to its limits and abruptly released. As silently as snow drifting to the ground, McCraven slumped to one side and then slipped away for a few peaceful hours of oblivion, still holding his precious gold nugget.
"Barry, that was incredible! You were. . ." Getraer turned to Baricza, then made a desperate lunge for the officer before his long legs buckled under him completely. "Jon, quick! Give me a hand here!"
Like a magic spell that had served its purpose, Bear's temporary burst of energy seemed to vanish along with the necessity that had generated it. With help from Baker, Getraer managed to get Baricza back onto the sofa, then stood back and watched anxiously as Jon checked vital signs. But even while Baker was still taking his pulse, Bear yawned and gave his friends a sleepy smile.
"I'm OK, Jon," he murmured quietly. "My wrist still hurts a little, but not like it did. I'm just tired, that's all."
Before Baker could reply, Bear's eyes drifted shut, and his breathing became deep and regular. Getraer looked questioningly at Jon, but the blond officer merely smiled and shrugged.
"I don't know for sure, Sarge, but I'd guess that the drug that McCraven gave him is finally wearing off, and he's just exhausted," Baker nodded. "I have an idea that sleep is probably the best medicine for both of them, right about now."
"I'm glad to hear that, Jon. Maybe that means something is finally starting to go right around here," Getraer said, then gestured toward the window. "And speaking of that, it looks like we may be getting a break in the thunderstorms for a little while. Poncherello, I want you and Grossman to hike out of here and head over to the main highway. Flag someone down, and if that doesn't work, keep walking until you find a telephone. Call in, and have them send us an ambulance and a couple of squad cars. Oh, and don't forget to tell them to have Harlan come out with the tow truck for the station wagon. I'm not sure who's going to be 'happier' to hear that particular piece of news -- Harlan or Harold Bates."
"Sarge, it's almost two miles back to the highway," Ponch protested as he aimed a pointed look at Grossman's prominent midsection. "You said it yourself -- Jon moves faster than we do. Especially some of us. Why not send him, instead?"
"Poncherello, I really wanted Jon to stay here to keep an eye on Barry and Andy," Getraer winked at Jon, then heaved a theatrical sigh. "But if you don't think that you're in good enough shape to keep up with Grossman, then maybe I'd better send Jon after all."
"That's OK, Sarge. I'd be happy to go with Grossie and get us some help," Ponch glared at Grossman. . .then groaned to himself when he realized the trap that his outraged ego had just led him into.
"You two really need to head on out now before the next line of storms moves in," Getraer smiled 'sweetly' at the two officers. "I'd hate to think about all the paperwork I'd have to fill out if the two of you were to end up as CHP shish kabobs."
Seeing that any further protest was useless, Ponch and Grossman headed toward the door, but long after they were out of sight, the sounds of their bickering still floated back to Getraer and Baker. Getraer shrugged at Baker, who grinned wryly at his superior officer.
"Jon, why don't you go make us some more coffee while I see about making a pallet for McCraven out of those extra blankets?" Getraer gestured toward the kitchen. "Right about now, he needs the rest, and we need the caffeine."
"I'm on it, Joe," Jon smiled as he picked up the thermal carafe.
Ten minutes later, Getraer sighed in contentment as he collapsed onto one of the overstuffed chairs and then looked around the room. McCraven now rested comfortably on a pile of blankets in front of the fire, while Baricza continued to sleep peacefully on the sofa. The displaced tables and chairs had been restored to their proper positions around the room, and Getraer had even found time to straighten the pictures and pick up the fallen magazines.
"Here you go, Sarge," Baker walked out of the kitchen and nodded approvingly at Getraer's housecleaning efforts. He handed the sergeant a mug of coffee, then sat down on the other chair. "Man, if this is what a relaxing vacation is supposed to be like, I think I could learn to love the freeway."
"You know, Jon, you may have spent the weekend in the great outdoors, but I'm the one who's going to be the happy little camper when an ambulance and a couple of black and whites pull up in front of this place in a little while," Getraer shook his head ruefully. "But at least the second half of your 'prediction' didn't come true. . .we've had the earthquake, but so far, we've managed to steer clear of the escaped convicts. Want to bet whether or not our luck holds out until Poncherello and Grossman get back with the reinforcements?"
Riding with Poncherello had taught Baker that there were certain questions a wise man simply didn't ask. . .and Jon was uncommonly wise for a man of his few years. Ponch was an acknowledged master of the rhetorical question -- the kind that instantly blew up in the face of the person who had just asked it.
And what was even worse in Jon's opinion was the fact that innocent bystanders were frequently included in the fall-out whenever someone tempted fate in that particular fashion. Now Baker tried to calculate the amount of time that he had left to get away from ground zero before detonation.
That answer was not long in arriving.
"See, Stanley. . .didn't I tell you that we'd find McCraven here?" a voice chortled from the darkened hallway that led back to the bedrooms. "I told you that all we had to do was follow that crazy old goat, and he'd lead us right to the gold. You didn't believe me, but I was right. I was right all along!"
This time, there wasn't the slightest hesitation in Getraer and Baker's movements as they leaped up from their chairs. Almost before they were on their feet, they had drawn their weapons, and now they turned smoothly to face this latest threat.
"Police!" Getraer snapped, trying to get a better glimpse of the two shadowy figures standing in the darkened hallway. "Get your hands up, and come out here where we can see you. . ."
There was a second or two of silence, and then the air was filled with a bright flash of light and a roar like thunder. . .but there was nothing natural about this phenomenon. Instantly, the kerosene lamp on the coffee table exploded in a glittering rain of glass shards. Baker and Getraer hit the ground, just as a second blast of rifle fire shattered a vase sitting on one of the end tables, spewing fragments of porcelain and bits of dried flower arrangement across the sofa where Baricza had been sleeping.
"Had been" were the two operative words in that particular equation. Even with the drugs that still clouded his mind and the pain of his broken wrist, Baricza was instantly alert after the first round of gunfire. He rolled off the edge of the sofa and flattened himself against the ground as much as possible -- long before the second round of gunfire could shatter the vase.
He unthinkingly reached for his off-duty weapon, then shook his head in annoyance when his fingers touched nothing but his own bare chest. In the mists of sleep, he'd completely forgotten that Baker had removed the gun and holster at the same time that Jon had cut his shirt away from his "chest wound."
But even with no weapon and a broken wrist, Bear was apt to be a formidable opponent -- a fact that Getraer and Baker gratefully acknowledged. Unfortunately, McCraven was another story altogether.
Still half asleep, he blundered up from the pallet where he had been resting, then peered anxiously toward the hallway. Apparently the man's voice had registered in his sleep-fogged mind. . .even if the meaning of those two enormous blasts of sound hadn't.
"George, is that you?" his voice quavered. "And is Stanley with you?"
"Yeah. . .it's us, Andy," the same voice said. "Tell your cop friends to put away their guns."
"It's quite all right, I assure you, gentlemen," McCraven nodded at Getraer and the others. "These men worked for my father. Why, I haven't seen them in over twenty years -- what a wonderful surprise this is!"
"Wonderful" wasn't exactly the word for it. . .Getraer knew that without even giving the matter a second thought. But with McCraven's unstable mental condition, anything could happen, and the sergeant wasn't about to risk his own life and the lives of three other people in some kind of Mexican stand-off.
"We'll hold our fire for the time being, but I want you both to throw your weapons out here -- now!" Getraer ordered calmly, even as he mentally steeled himself to open fire if his instructions weren't instantly obeyed. "Kick them out to us, and then come out slowly with your hands up."
"Sergeant, didn't you hear what I just said?" McCraven frowned in annoyance, and it was obvious to Getraer and the others that he was becoming unstable again, despite a thin veneer of rationality. "I told you, these men are old friends of mine. That's so like the authorities -- you never seem to know when there's a real threat and when there isn't. Just like those so-called intelligent doctors I've had to deal with all these years. . ."
But Getraer ignored McCraven's ramblings, and in a few seconds, a rusty old rifle and an equally battered shotgun came flying across the floor. Baker and Baricza scrambled to their feet and retrieved the ancient weapons, then tossed them aside, well out of reach. The three officers tensed as two figures stepped out of the shadows and shuffled into the living room, where the light was better.
"Oh, give me a break," Baricza rolled his eyes as he caught his first glimpse of their erstwhile assailants. "It's a wonder that the recoil from the shotgun didn't knock that pair ankles over earlobes and break every brittle old bone in their bodies!"
"You got it, Bear," Baker grinned. "Ten thousand criminals in southern California. . .and we end up with a geriatric Jesse James gang!"
But Getraer didn't share his officers' amusement. By his estimation, the two men who stood in front of them were probably in their mid to late sixties. . .but there was absolutely nothing meek or fragile about either one of them. And for that matter, there hadn't been anything particularly sweet and grandfatherly about those two rounds of gunfire, either, Getraer thought to himself as he inspected the pair.
The one that McCraven had called George was a shambling old grizzly bear of a man, whose face looked as if it had been carved out of a log of wood with a hatchet. He was dressed in Army surplus camouflage, and whenever he moved, a variety of compasses, knives, and survival gear all clanked together on the wide canvas utility belt that he wore.
On the other hand, his partner -- the skeptical Stanley -- looked more like an elderly ferret in a zoot suit. His narrow little face was heavily lined, and something about his hard blue eyes made Getraer think of two push-pins stuck in a contour map of Colorado. Now he blinked at Getraer and then gave him a thin-lipped little smile.
"I'm sorry for the little, uh, misunderstanding there a few minutes ago," Stanley spoke so rapidly that he barely had time to take a breath between sentences. "But you know how it is, Officer -- a senior citizen just can't afford to be too careful, what with all the thieves and murderers out there these days. Oh, but please, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Stanley Rockwell, and this is my, uh, associate, George Giancomo. And as Andrew pointed out to you, we're old friends of his dear, dear father's -- God rest Paul's poor, tragic soul."
Now Getraer knew exactly what Rockwell reminded him of -- the director of a cut-rate funeral parlor.
"I don't suppose you two gentlemen would like to tell us why you were trespassing on private property in the first place?" the sergeant's voice dripped sarcasm.
"That's none of your business, cop," George frowned sullenly at Getraer.
"Gentlemen, please forgive my friend, here," Stanley rolled his eyes skyward, as if beseeching Heaven for just a drop, a smidgen, an iota of patience more than he already possessed. He leaned forward and tapped the side of his head, then whispered confidentially, "A number of years ago, he was hit in the back of the head by a rather large blunt object -- a hammer, in point of fact -- and I'm afraid he's just never quite been the same since. But one does what one must when it comes to caring for the brother of one's own dear, departed wife."
Definitely the Earl Scheib of morticians! Getraer groaned to himself.
"Which brings me by degrees to the answer to your question, Captain," Rockwell gave Getraer an unctuous smile. . .even as he studiously avoided looking at the sergeant's stripes on his shirt sleeves. "I think it's rather obvious from George's attire that my brother-in-law fancies himself quite the outdoorsman. A regular Grizzly Adams, in fact. Why, when this property was owned by Andrew's dear father, we had simply delightful times here -- camping and fishing and enjoying the glories of Mother Nature. Alas, even though the property has changed hands, it's simply no good trying to explain to George that we are indeed committing trespass by re-visiting the site of those many happy hours of yore."
Rockwell shrugged his shoulders helplessly, then added, "George insisted that we come here, despite my strenuous protests to the contrary. But rather than allow him to blunder into a potentially hazardous situation by himself, I accompanied him. And judging from the violence of the current meteorological conditions, it was clearly a wise decision on my part, wouldn't you say? I do so apologize for entering this cabin unlawfully, but someone vandalized our campsite earlier this morning and damaged our only mode of transportation. And that, Captain, is why we were desperate enough to, uh, jimmy the lock on one of the bedroom windows -- like yourselves, we merely sought to escape the storm. But we were afraid when we heard you, and so we hid until we could take your measure, as it were."
"Stanley, you know that you're always welcome here," McCraven stepped forward, and his words made it clear that he was once again sliding into a world of delusion. "Father certainly doesn't begrudge his employees the use of this property whenever they want it. In fact, if you'd called him before you came out here, I'm sure he would have invited to join us this weekend. You know how he loves to spend every spare minute out here. . ."
"Yeah, looking for the. . ." George started to say, but before he could finish his sentence, Stanley smiled sweetly. . .and aimed a surreptitious kick at his ankle.
"Will you just be quiet, you moron?" he hissed through clenched teeth.
However, the kick did far more damage to the purveyor than the recipient thereof, and Stanley staggered back slightly, sucking air through his false teeth as he hopped on one foot. George took advantage of the garrulous Rockwell's momentary silence to gesture at Getraer and the others with a beefy hand.
"Hey, knock it off, Stan!" Giancomo grumbled. "And why don't you knock off all the lip gas, too, while you're at it? What're we waiting for, anyway -- Christmas or something? That one cop isn't packing a piece, and besides that, he's got a busted wing. I can knock them other two cops' heads together like smacking rats with a rock. I say we get the loony tune there to show us where the loot is, and then we get out of here and head for the Bahamas. Just like we talked about the first time we was out here."
"The first time?" Baricza suddenly spoke up, but something about his voice sent a chill throughout Baker and Getraer. "You mean, when you and your partner came out here thirty years ago. . .and murdered Paul McCraven?"
"I assure you, Officer, I haven't the faintest idea of what you're talking about," Rockwell shook his head -- but like Getraer and Baker, he pulled back slightly from the intense look in Bear's eyes.
"You know exactly what I mean," Baricza said in those strange, hollow tones. "You two followed Paul McCraven out here one weekend. You'd both worked for him for almost ten years, so he trusted you. All that time, you'd listened to him talk about the gold that was buried out here. Then one day, he told you that he'd finally had a break-through in the search. He said that he'd found a second map of the area that helped him make sense out of the first one and that it wouldn't be long until he found the buried gold."
"I think perhaps your young friend should lie down and rest, Captain," Rockwell pointed at the lump on Baricza's forehead, and his smile tried to be solicitous. . .but didn't quite succeed. "I think his head injuries have affected his reasoning."
But Baricza continued as if he had never been interrupted at all. "What you didn't know is that the second map never existed at all -- except in Paul McCraven's mind. He'd spent so many years looking for the gold that he finally had a complete nervous breakdown. He could act sane and normal for short periods of time, especially around other people, but he was really headed for a mental institution. Or at least he would have been, if you hadn't gunned him down when he refused to give you the second map. He couldn't give you what he didn't have, but you two didn't know that."
Sweat now streamed down Rockwell's face, despite the chill in the air. He tugged at his collar, then put on his best look of wounded indignation for Getraer's benefit.
"Unseasonably warm in here, don't you think?" he shrugged nonchalantly. "Now, really, Officer, how much more of this farce are we expected to listen to? Why, I could sue you and your department for allowing one of your men to make this kind of false allegations against my associate and myself! Two respected. . ."
"Con artists, petty thieves, numbers runners, money launderers -- shall I go on with the rest of your 'community service' activities?" Bear continued relentlessly, but somehow, the words didn't seem quite seem like his. "After you killed Paul McCraven, you ransacked the cabin, but you couldn't find the second map. You went back to your jobs at the company, and since you were such 'loyal' employees, the police only put you through a little routine questioning. You figured that Paul must have given the map to his son, so you let enough time go by that people wouldn't tie you to the murder. And then you decided to go after Andy."
Now Baricza's face was flushed again, as if he had a high fever, and Getraer stepped forward, intending to put a stop to the entire proceedings. But at that moment, Bear turned toward his superior officer. . .and for one insane instant, the sergeant could have sworn that what was looking out at him through those eyes wasn't Barry Baricza at all.
Whatever Getraer had been about to say now emerged from his dry lips as an unintelligible gurgle, and Baricza gave him another of those intense stares before he picked up the thread of his story. And this time, Stanley Rockwell made no attempt to interrupt Bear's eerie narrative.
"But by that time, it was too late," he shook his head. "Andy had already gone over the edge and was in an institution. There wasn't anything you could do after that, except wait. Years went by, and you kept tabs on him. When you heard that he'd escaped from the hospital earlier this week, you figured that he'd head straight out here. . .and you were right. The only problem is that there were already four CHP officers out here. You didn't know who we were -- much less if we knew anything about the gold, but you weren't willing to take any chances. You destroyed our camp and disabled our vehicles, thinking that we'd be more vulnerable and you could pick us off one by one if you had to."
Now it was Baker's turn to give Getraer a puzzled frown. The vandalism of their camp and trucks could have only taken place after McCraven's attack on Bear, and he was almost certain that no one had mentioned those incidents in Baricza's hearing since then. Getraer merely shrugged in reply, then turned back just as Barry finished speaking.
"It was a nice try, and it almost worked," Baricza's dark eyes were full of anger. "But innocent blood cried out from the ground for vengeance when you murdered Paul McCraven all those years ago, and it's still calling out right now. Listen. . ."
The wind suddenly picked up again outside the cabin, and a shrill sound like the shriek of a banshee abruptly filled the room. The logical part of Jon Baker's mind told him the noise was nothing more than air being forced through a crack in the one of the cedar walls -- the one with the bullet holes and pencil marks, from the sounds of it.
But no matter what was causing that uncanny wailing, it certainly had a drastic effect on Rockwell and McCraven. Andy took a step forward toward the two men, and like an avenging spirit, he silently pointed at the bright red stain on the floor.
The wind died down, but the sound showed no signs of abating. It filled the room like a flood, hammering relentlessly at their ears until it seemed that their sanity was about to give way under the onslaught. Rockwell staggered back, then fell to his knees in front of McCraven, just as the noise reached a crescendo.
"Make it stop!" Stanley begged, his hands over his ears. "Please. . .if I tell you the truth, will you just make it stop?"
The sound stopped instantly, and Rockwell gave Baricza a stunned look. He stood up and shook his head as if trying to rearrange his disordered thoughts. . . then saw Bear's calm eyes as he waited for him to confess. Even thought he was still shaking from what had just taken place, Stanley desperately decided to try one last bluff.
"The truth is. . .the truth is that I don't have any intention of telling you a thing!" he said in a shaking voice. "That's all fascinating speculation, Officer, but you haven't a shred of proof for your claims, I'm afraid. The courts will simply call it the ravings of a disordered mind. . ."
"Aww, give it a rest, Stanley," George shook his massive gray head, but there was a new look of respect in his eyes when he looked at Baricza. "He's a smart kid -- I mean, he sure got us pegged, fair and square. That's a real shame. I'm gonna hate to have to kill him along with the rest of his buddies."
"Aren't you forgetting something, Mr. Giancomo?" Getraer held up his gun with a cool smile. "I'd say we have the advantage here, so why don't you just. . .?"
Unfortunately, Getraer was about to once again fall victim to his own personal "motto." It had taken a few seconds for Baricza's words to penetrate Andy McCraven's delusion-fogged mind, but finally, the meaning became clear to him. With a scream of rage, he unexpectedly lunged toward Stanley Rockwell, his hands outstretched like claws as he grabbed the elderly man by the throat.
'"You murderer!" McCraven sobbed as he continued to throttle the gasping Rockwell. "I'll kill you for what you did to my father!"
McCraven hadn't counted on the intervention of Giancomo, however. George easily batted Andy aside with one massive paw, and the younger man landed heavily against the ground, too stunned to move out of harm's way. Baker and Getraer instinctively realized what was about to happen, and they ran forward to intervene. . .but too late.
Before they could interpose themselves between Rockwell and McCraven, Stanley snatched a heavy bowie knife from its sheath on George's belt, then dragged Andy to his feet with a strength that hardly seemed possible in a man of his age. Rockwell spun McCraven around like a human shield, then held the knife to the dazed and muttering man's throat.
"And it seems that you've underestimated me, cop," Rockwell sneered triumphantly at Getraer. "Take one more step, and I'll cut his throat just like you'd butcher a hog. Still think you've got the advantage? No? Somehow, I didn't think so."
"Let him go," Getraer said as he took a step forward. "There's no need for anyone to get hurt."
But Rockwell's only response was to press the blade even more tightly against McCraven's throat. Under normal circumstances, it would have been easy for the younger, stronger McCraven to overpower his foe, but right now, he was too lost in his own sobbing, rocking madness to understand the danger that he was in.
"I'm warning you -- stay back!" Stanley snapped. "I have absolutely nothing to lose by killing this man. I have no idea how our tall friend there managed to find out what happened out here all those years ago, but I certainly don't intend to go to prison for a thirty year old murder. Now, back away from me slowly, and dear Mr. McCraven will have a few more minutes to live. Then I want you two to drop your guns and kick them over to George."
"You know we can't do that, Mr. Rockwell," Baker said quietly, even as he watched for a window of opportunity. "And if you do anything to hurt your hostage, we won't guarantee your safety afterwards."
It was a polite way of saying that Rockwell would be dead before he hit the ground, and now the older man's lined face was pale enough to be a map of the moon. Even so, he showed no signs of giving in to the CHP officers, and Getraer groaned to himself. . .of all the ways that this day could have ended, a hostage situation was the last thing that he would have wanted on the agenda.
Especially when he glanced briefly at Baricza and saw the look that was in his eyes again -- that powerful expression that sent a shiver along the sergeant's neck. Bear's physical strength seemed to be ebbing, and he trembled slightly where he stood, like a tall, slender tree swaying in the wind.
But Getraer could have almost sworn that the loss of corporeal energy was somehow matched by a corresponding gain of mental and emotional power. . .a theory that was proven only a second or two later. When Bear spoke, it was once again in the voice that sounded like an ancient magician reciting the words of some powerful incantation: now, even the air itself seemed to tremble under the weight of his words.
"You've been a fool, Stanley Rockwell," Baricza said in those powerful tones -- the ones that didn't seem to be his own, somehow. "What you have sought all these years has been under your feet. But before you seek for treasure, be sure that the one you will gain is of more value than the one you will lose."
"Huh?" George shook his head and shrugged at his partner in confusion. "What's he talking about, Stanley?"
"I have no idea, as usual. . .wait just a minute!" Rockwell started to say, then paused as understanding flooded his eyes. "I get it! You know where the gold is, don't you, my lofty young friend?"
"I know where the treasure is, and I also know where the gold is buried," Baricza said in that calm voice. "Choose what you will have. . .you cannot have both."
"The devil we can't!" Rockwell snarled, then turned to Giancomo. "Did you hear that, George? Not only does this stupid kid know where the gold is, but there's another treasure out here somewhere, too!"
Rockwell turned to Baricza and then pressed the knife against McCraven's throat so tightly that a thin red line opened up under the razor-sharp blade. "And just what precisely do you mean that we can't have both, young man? Inasmuch as I seem to be holding all the aces in this game, I suggest you fold right now. Before I cut your losses, as it were."
"Baricza. . ." Getraer muttered a warning, but he might as well have been talking to a rock.
"You can try to take the gold from this place," Baricza's words were so soft that even Baker and Getraer had to strain to hear them. "But when you do, the treasure will be lost forever."
"Stanley, that kid's trolley ain't on its track," Giancomo grumbled uneasily. "This whole place is creeping me out. Let's just get out of here and forget the whole thing, huh?"
"And just turn our backs on the chance to finally find McCraven's gold? I think not!" Stanley snarled. "I've spent thirty long, miserable years as a nothing, a nobody. I'm tired of being someone else's errand boy, a mere flea on the backside of some rich young puppy. I've been forced into the most vile servitude over these years, performing the kind of petty crimes that Al Capone and Buggsy Malone could have committed whilst in their cradles."
He paused indignantly, then glared at George, "All the while, I've had to baby sit for some moronic Neanderthal. . .and why? Just because he happens to be the baby brother of the old battle ax that I was foolish enough to marry because I thought she had money, that's why! Thirty years I've spent -- watching and waiting and hoping for a moment just like this. Well, all that is over now. Either you show me where that gold is buried, or I swear, I'm going to slit this man's throat. You were right when you said I have nothing to lose, Sergeant."
"Bear, don't do anything right now," Baker stepped as close to Baricza as possible, then spoke in an almost inaudible voice. "Help is on its way. We just have to hang in there until it gets here, that's all."
"Let Andrew McCraven go," Baricza ordered as if he hadn't heard Baker's pleading. "I'll take his place. No police officer would risk the life of a fellow officer under these circumstances. Don't let go of McCraven until we reach the cellar, and then you can release him once you've reached the doorway."
Barry, when this is over, I'll have your hide for that -- assuming you live that long! Getraer snapped, furious that Baricza had just given Rockwell all the information he needed to block any rescue attempts.
"All right, have it your way, then," Stanley gestured at Baricza to walk into the kitchen
He waited until Baricza was at the cellar door, then gestured for George to follow him. Only when the two men were in place did he begin to back toward the doorway, still using McCraven as a shield.
As he reached the cellar, he paused long enough to add, "And just remember, Sergeant, if you do anything foolish, I won't hesitate to kill that fine young officer of yours."
"Don't worry, Mr. Rockwell, we intend to play this exactly the way that Officer Baricza just said that we would," Getraer calmly reassured him, even though he was feeling anything but unruffled at the moment.
Rockwell thrust the shivering McCraven toward Getraer and Baker, then disappeared down the cellar steps. A second or two later, the officers heard the click as the door was shut. Behind him, Getraer heard Jon groan quietly to himself -- a sentiment that the sergeant heartily endorsed.
There were no windows in the cellar and no way to get off a shot at Rockwell. And even if they could have gotten a sniper into position, the room's ceiling was shored up by heavy wooden beams that would provide perfect cover for Rockwell and Giancomo until they could make good on their threat to kill. . .
. . .but best not to think about that, Getraer sighed sharply as he remembered the way that Baricza had been shaking from injury and exhaustion. If Barry was in good shape, he could take those two down by himself without half-trying. But he's hurt, and his system is still full of drugs -- heaven help him.
He walked over to the spot where Jon Baker anxiously stood by the cellar door, trying to make sense of what he was hearing down below. And right now, that wasn't very much.
Barry, I certainly hope you know what you're doing down there, the sergeant shook his head grimly. Because if you don't, there's not a thing we can do to help you now. . .
. . .except pray.
With Baricza between them, Rockwell and Giancomo made their way down the cellar steps, and this time, there was no need to wait for their eyes adjust to the darkness. George took a heavy flashlight from the loop on his utility belt, and instantly, the area was brightly illuminated. Bear gestured toward the wall where the pile of boxes had been stacked, then sat down on a step.
"You'll need to move those boxes and then start digging in that area," he said. "There should be a shovel over there in that corner."
"Huh-uh, cop, you're not sitting down on the job," Rockwell snapped, brandishing the knife in Bear's face. "You know where the gold is buried, so go get the shovel and start digging."
But if Baricza was afraid, there was no hint of it in his face or voice. He made no move to rise, and he met Rockwell's indignant gaze with a look of cool indifference.
"I have a broken wrist. . .how much digging do you think I could really do?" he said calmly. "And you're going to need all the speed you can get -- especially since my friends will be coming back any time now with more officers."
"Well, you certainly have a point there," Rockwell muttered, then gestured with the knife blade toward the shovel. "George, give me that flash light, and then go get the shovel. I'll hold the light for you and keep an eye on our young CHP friend here while you dig."
"Me?" Giancomo protested indignantly. "How come I always gotta do the digging and all the hard stuff?"
"How many times must I explain to you that the herniated disk in my sacroiliac simply does not permit me to do heavy manual labor?" Rockwell rolled his eyes, then gave his partner a wounded look that would have been beneath the dignity of a fourth-rate Shakespearean tragedian. "However, if you wish to see me suffering in the throes of excruciating pain while you sit here and take your ease, then I suppose I am left with no alternative than to make the attempt. . ."
"That's OK, Stanley," Giancomo shook his head. "I'll do it -- just don't mess up your back or nothing. The last time you did, I just about wore my legs down to stumps, running and getting you stuff. 'George, I need a glass of water,' and 'George, could you get me the heating pad,' and 'George, I want a. . .'"
"All right, all right!" Stanley snapped. "I'm quite sure that we get the idea. Now go get that shovel and start digging!"
As George lumbered toward the corner that Baricza had indicated, his wide shoulders sent an assortment of ill-stacked boxes and baskets tumbling to the ground. But after a moment or two of pawing through the wreckage, he finally located the shovel and then set off for the other wall.
It took several moments for him to finish moving the boxes that hadn't been set aside when Baker and the others had found Baricza. Now it was possible to see the outline in the dirt where he had fallen, and Bear gestured toward the spot where his broken arm had rested.
"Dig there," he said with a distant expression in his eyes. "That's where he picked up the gold nugget. . .the one that he wanted his son to have."
"And who might this 'he' be, if I may ask?" Rockwell sneered. "Some figment of your drugged imagination, perhaps?"
"No, Stanley. . .it was no hallucination," Bear replied in a voice so soft that Rockwell could barely hear him. "Paul even gave me a message to give to you and 'Boom-Boom,' over there. He said, 'Tell Rocky to stop by and talk to Miss Eileen before he and George leave today.'"
The rain of dirt thrown up by George's frantic digging suddenly stopped, and when the big man stared at Baricza, his eyes were as round and bulging as a fantail goldfish's. He grasped the shovel handle so tightly that his knuckles turned white, and when he spoke, there was a shrill edge of panic in his voice.
"How'd he know that, Stanley?" he demanded. "I mean, the nicknames that old man McCraven gave us when we worked for him and how you'd get your pink slip from Eileen Moore at the end of the day if you got canned from the job. How did he know all that stuff?"
"Who knows, and who cares?" Rockwell snarled, then put the point of the knife against Baricza's throat. "Maybe Crazy Andy was babbling on about the good old days, and Junior, here, picked up on it. That doesn't matter. . .all that matters is the gold. Now get back to work!"
Giancomo hastily crossed himself, then returned to the digging, still muttering prayers and curses under his breath in Italian. Rockwell turned back to Baricza and flicked the knife so that it opened up a red spot on Bear's throat.
"One more word out of you, and I'll cut your throat," Stanley snarled in a low voice. "I don't know what kind of games you think you're playing, but I won't hesitate to kill you. I killed Paul McCraven, and they can only execute me once, no matter how many murders I commit."
Baricza said nothing. . .and in its own way, that silence was even more frightening than his apparent talent for seeing into the past. With a muttered oath, Rockwell turned away from Bear's peaceful gaze and watched as George continued to tunnel into the ground. A large mound of dirt was now piled at the base of one of the ceiling support beams, and in another moment, Rockwell and Baricza heard a soft chink like the sound of metal against pottery.
"What do you have?" Rockwell demanded as Giancomo dropped to one knee and began to paw frantically at the earth. "Well, you moron, what is it?"
"I found something, Stanley. . .it's part of a pot or a bowl or something," George triumphantly held up a bit of painted pottery.
"That could be part of the jar that the gold was buried in. Perhaps that earth tremor we felt this morning brought it closer to the surface," Rockwell took a deep breath, then gestured wildly at the pile of dirt. "Well, don't slow down now, you imbecile! Keep digging. . .faster, now!"
Dirt spewed out in all directions until even the base of the support beam could be seen in the glow of the flash light. Then Giancomo once more fell to his knees and began to dig wildly with his hands at the base of the thick wood pillar.
"I got it, Stanley!" he cried triumphantly, holding up the battered pottery container. "It's here, just like the kid said it would be! A whole great big bowl full of bright yellow rocks!"
"Come with me," Rockwell eagerly demanded as he flashed the knife point at Baricza again. He licked his lips and grinned thinly, "Since you're the reason that such a long, insufferable wait has finally come to an end, I think we can let you see what all your excellent assistance has uncovered. It's the least that I can do for you. . .before I have to kill you."
For a man who had just received his own death warrant, Baricza seemed curiously untroubled. Still without speaking, he stood up and started to follow Rockwell over to the wall, where George was now doing a kind of demented victory dance. But they had covered less than half the distance when Bear suddenly stopped -- seemingly oblivious to the knife point that Rockwell now flicked against his bare ribs.
"No tricks out of you, now!" Stanley roared. "Go ahead. . .get over there!"
But Baricza turned slowly, then faced the snarling Rockwell. . .and now that unearthly glitter was back in his eyes as he stood there for a moment. Perhaps it was only some trick of the disturbed dust motes that danced in the flash light beam, but for a second or two, he appeared to be standing in the center of a faint blue haze.
"This is the last time you will be given the chance to choose," his voice was deep and full of power, like the crack of thunder. "The gold. . .or the treasure."
And to the overwrought Rockwell, that blue mist seemed to pulse and flicker like a living thing as it swirled around Baricza's lean form. But as soon as it had come, it was gone again -- along with the tiny points of light in Barry's eyes.
"You're as insane as your friend Andy McCraven," Rockwell taunted, then glanced down at Baricza's splinted wrist. "But it's obvious that I'm not going to be able to enjoy my moment of triumph without fear of interference from you. I'm just going to have to make sure that you're otherwise occupied for the next few minutes, I suppose. I can't very well kill you just yet, since you're going to be my ticket out of here. But I can certainly make sure that you're in no condition to cause me any trouble."
Rockwell tossed aside the knife, and in a movement that was as fast as a rattlesnake's strike, he lunged for Baricza's broken wrist. With a cold smile, he grabbed Bear's hand and wrenched it violently to one side.
As Baricza dropped to the ground with a scream of agony, Rockwell threw his head back in laughter. He watched in obvious enjoyment for a few seconds as Bear rocked back and forth on his knees, too nauseated by the pain to stand up.
"There -- that should hold you for a few minutes," Rockwell chortled in approval, then turned around and walked over to George, who triumphantly held up the bowl of nuggets. "Here, you overgrown imbecile, give me that before you spill it everywhere!"
"Hey, I was the one who found it," George glared at his partner. "I ought to be the one who gets to take it out of here."
"I said, give me that!" Rockwell repeated his orders. "After
all this time, I have no intention of losing even a particle of my gold because
you tripped over those clodhoppers of yours and spilled it everywhere."
"Your gold?" Giancomo glared at him. "So what happened to all that 'our' gold business?"
"Of course that's what I meant," Stanley rolled his eyes in annoyance. "It's our gold, even if I was the one who masterminded this entire operation. With absolutely no help from you, I might add."
"I done all the hard work all these years," George muttered angrily. "I dug enough holes to get clean to China, then filled 'em all in again like you said to, so's nobody'd get suspicious. I lugged all the gear around, and I even done all the cooking and cleaning and stuff when we was out here, too. So I ought to get to hold the gold for a little while, at least."
"Cooking? Can you really stand there and call canned pork and beans or burnt frankfurters cooking?" Rockwell huffed. "And for that matter, you ought to be thankful that I permitted you to join me in this quest at all! Some people would have simply placed you in a Home for the Terminally Moronic and left it at that. But at least I allowed you to come with me and help me look for the gold. Now let me have it!"
"Oh, I'm gonna let you have it, all right, your Highness!" George snapped, but he made no move to hand the pot over. "I'm just about thirty years sick an' tired of you ordering me around like I'm your slave or something, Stanley. And I'm tired of you calling me a moron and an imbecile and all them other names, too. Here -- you want me to give it to you? Fine. . .take this!"
He held out the jar, but as Rockwell made a grab for it, Giancomo drew back a fist that was only slightly smaller than the average pot roast and punched him in the stomach. With an "Ooomph!" of air being driven out of his lungs, Stanley staggered backward, still clutching his mid-section.
He was already off-balance and unsteady on his feet as he stumbled over the Styrofoam cooler that had been the cause of Artie Grossman's earlier fall. Desperate to remain standing, Rockwell made a frantic grab for the nearest solid object -- in this case, the heavy wooden support beam.
The post hadn't been set into cement when it was first put into place: instead, the builders had relied on the mound of dirt around it to hold it upright. Without that support, it was already unsteady enough -- and to make matters worse, the base had started to rot after years of being surrounded by damp earth.
Now the added weight of a human body was almost more than it could withstand. Even so, the column might have remained where it was. . .
. . .at least until the earth began to heave and sway again, just as it had done earlier. But instead of the entire room, now only that small section of the cellar seemed to be affected. The unstable beam quivered and groaned like a creature in mortal agony, while the ground around it rippled in great waves. And as Rockwell and Giancomo watched in paralyzed terror, the pillar tottered for a few seconds. . .then collapsed with a shriek that sounded all but human, as nails were torn out of the splintering wood.
As the beam fell, it took with it the section of ceiling that it had been supporting -- as well as everything that had been sitting on the floor above it. A thick, choking cloud of dust filled the air, and the sounds of shattering furniture and breaking wood were all but deafening.
Then the last bits of splintered wood and torn mattresses settled into place on the dirt floor. The flashlight lay shattered on the ground, several feet away from a large section of the ceiling. . .and the outstretched hand that had once held it. But as Stanley Rockwell's eyes closed for the last time, he managed to lift his head a little -- then whimpered at what he saw in front of him.
The room was dark now, but he could still clearly see each detail of the person's face who now peered down at him. The man could have been no more than fifty, but the heavy lines that furrowed his face made him look much older than he really was. His skin was the bland, pasty color of someone who had spent too much time shut away from the light, and Rockwell recognized those pallid features only too well.
Especially the man's enormous black eyes. With their fixed stare and edge of madness, those eyes seemed to be looking into a reality that lay just beyond the one most people shared. . .
. . .the one that Stanley Rockwell was about to join for all eternity.
Baker and Getraer had been hovering anxiously by the cellar door for almost a half an hour, trying to make sense of the silence beneath them. Baker shook his head, and like his sergeant, he wore a frustrated expression.
"I just don't get it, Joe," Baker shrugged. "If Bear had rolled out a red carpet and given those two the keys to the city, he couldn't have done any more for them. He practically handed them a laundry list of everything that we could have done to help him."
"I know, Jon," Getraer leaned closer to the door, desperately wishing that he knew what was going on below them. "I thought the same thing, myself, when I heard what he was saying to them. This is one of those times when I just had to go with my instincts. . .and my gut reaction said to let Barry run with the ball."
"That's great, but right about now, Bear is down a couple of linebackers and a throwing arm," Jon shook his head bitterly. "I just wish we knew what he was up to, that's all."
"So do I, but right now, there's not much we can. . . " Getraer started to say.
. . .just as a guttural scream tore through the silence beneath their feet. It was the cry of a man in more pain than he could endure, and now Baker gave Getraer a stricken look.
"That was Bear," Baker's voice was tightly controlled, but the sergeant could see the fury in his eyes. "Still think he can handle everything on his own, Sarge?"
"Open that door," Getraer said. "We're not waiting any longer!"
Baker ran to the door and almost tore it off its hinges in his haste to open it. He started to leap down the stairs -- only to stop abruptly, choking and gasping on the enormous cloud of dust that rolled up toward him.
For an instant, the entire cabin seemed to lurch drunkenly on its foundations, and they could hear the sound of shattering wood as large objects crashed down into the basement from one of the bedrooms. Getraer saw the thick haze of dust billowing up the staircase and the way that Jon made a frantic grab for the rail, trying to keep from being thrown down a full flight of steps.
The sergeant made a grab for Baker's arm and pulled him back, then tried to shout loud enough to be heard above the din, "What's happening down there? Did you see Baricza?"
Baker staggered back into the kitchen and nodded his head. A few seconds later, a tall, dark-haired figure emerged from the chaos in the cellar, spluttering through a mouthful of dust. Baricza's face and chest were streaked with dirt, and he cradled his injured arm with his good hand, but other than a few scratches and a bruise or two, he appeared to be in remarkably good condition.
"Barry, what happened down there?" Getraer demanded as he helped the shaking man over to the breakfast nook.
Bear collapsed onto the bench seat with a quiet groan of relief, and the sergeant once more gestured at the cellar. "Where are Rockwell and Giancomo? What went on down there? It sounded like some kind of an explosion!"
Bear shook his head, still too choked by the dust to respond. Seeing that Baricza was unable to answer their questions, Baker disappeared down the open cellar door for a moment. He peered down into the basement from the relative safety of the stairway, then walked back up the steps. And when he turned toward his fellow officers, his face was as pale as Getraer had ever seen it.
"Part of the ceiling collapsed," Jon shuddered at the thought of what he had just seen. "Most of one bedroom is down there now. . .and from the looks of things, it all landed right on top of those two. You can't see much of either one of them at this point -- but what you can see isn't very pretty."
Getraer shivered, not wanting to think about what Baker's laconic description might actually entail. But at that moment, Baricza shook his head and glanced around the kitchen, frowning to himself in confusion. When he finally seemed to recognize where he was, he looked at the other two officers and smiled cheerfully at them.
"Hi, Jon. . .hi, Sarge! Glad you could join us, Joe -- sorry you missed dinner, but you're just in time for blackberry cobbler," he said, then looked down at his bare chest. "Hey, what's going on around here? What happened to my shirt, and what's wrong with my. . .oww!!!"
He clutched his wrist and looked down at the makeshift splint as if he had never seen it there before. He shook his head at his friends. . .then suddenly blacked out and pitched forward onto the table top.
"Help me get him back to the living room!" Getraer tersely ordered as Baricza started to slide off the bench.
He made a grab for Baricza's shoulders just in time to keep him from falling off the bench and hitting the ground, while Baker managed to get a firm grasp on Bear's good arm. Between the two of the them, they half-carried, half-dragged their inert burden into the living room and stretched him out on the sofa again.
During the events of the last half hour, Getraer and Baker had both forgotten completely about Andy McCraven, but when they walked into the living room, they saw that any worries they might have had were unfounded. He had taken refuge on the pallet front of the fireplace, and amazingly, he had somehow managed to sleep through all the noise and confusion.
The next few hours passed in a blur of activity. Emergency personnel from every law enforcement agency and fire department for miles around now poured into the area, while work crews worked desperately to shore up the cellar ceiling and remove the victims.
Incredibly enough, Giancomo had managed to survive several hours of entombment under the rubble, and it took three sweating and grunting ambulance teams to drag him up the creaking stairs. As they rolled him past Getraer and the others, the CHP officers could hear him muttering in a stupor, "Boom. . .and it all fell down. Right on top of me and Stanley. Boom. . ."
But then another team of paramedics rolled out a second gurney with something shrouded in a gray blanket. A cracked pottery jar full of yellow nuggets rested at the foot of the blanket, and one of the men pushing the gurney stopped long enough to hand the jar to Getraer. But as the sergeant took possession of the evidence, he sighed sharply. . .at the moment, he didn't want to think about how flat that blanket had really been.
Baricza had long since been transported to a nearby hospital, as had Andy McCraven. So when the last emergency service vehicle pulled away just after midnight, the only ones who remained standing outside the cabin were Getraer, Baker, Poncherello, Grossman, and Harlan Arliss. The station mechanic had already towed the dripping station wagon back to the station, and now he waited in his own van to drive the officers back into town.
"You know, if I hadn't seen this with my own eyes, I would never have believed it," Harlan shook his head with a sigh. "But of all the crazy stuff that you guys told me about, you know the one thing that really puzzles me?"
"Just one thing?" Getraer smiled sardonically as he and the others wearily climbed into Harlan's waiting van. "And which one would that be, Harlan?"
"The rescue crews found the pot of gold nuggets when they were digging around for Rockwell and his partner, but they didn't find anything else," Harlan said. "You've got to admit, Baricza was right about everything else, so I wonder what he was talking about when he said that there was another treasure?"
In the backseat, Jon Baker's eyes were about to drift shut, but he opened them again just long enough to smile knowingly at Arliss. He yawned, then gestured over his shoulder in the direction of the cabin.
"That's an easy one, Harlan," he said quietly. "'Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.'"
"And I guess it proves something else in that Book, too, Jon," Getraer nodded as he leaned back on his seat and closed his eyes. "'For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world. . .and forfeits his life thereby?'"
The last light of day had long since faded, and now a group of people sat around a campfire, enjoying a dinner of fried fish and hushpuppies. In the darkness, they could no longer see the shadowy lake that had provided their main course, but they could hear small waves lapping against the shore and smell the cool breeze that blew across the water.
Now the fragrance of the wood smoke blended with the aroma of the food to form a perfume that no manufacturer could duplicate. From time to time, one of the group would take a deep breath of that rich air, then smile contentedly at the others. Chances to unwind like this were altogether too rare in the life of a police officer, and the men and women of CHP Central intended to savor every moment of this night.
When dinner was over and the fire began to burn down, several people stood up and headed toward a small, cabin, bent on some mysterious errand. But a tall blond man was one of those who stayed behind, and after the others were gone, he walked over to a stack of wood and picked up an armful of small logs.
As Jon Baker dumped the wood into the fire pit, sparks flew up and disappeared into the night sky like a cloud of tiny fireflies, and what had been a quiet glow instantly became a roaring bonfire again. Bonnie Clark shrieked with dismay at the sight, then jumped up from the log that she had been sitting on and pulled a stick out of the flames.
But the marshmallow that she'd been toasting to a perfect golden-brown had already turned into a miniature tiki torch, and now she rolled her eyes at Baker in exasperation. She sat back down and turned toward Baricza with a rueful shrug, then offered him something that looked like a lump of charcoal glued to the end of a twig.
"Sorry, Bear," she sighed. "One perfect toasted marshmallow, right down the tubes. . .and it's all thanks to Jon Baker, our friendly neighborhood pyromaniac!"
"It's OK, Bonnie," Baricza smiled as he held up his arm and displayed his almost-healed wrist. "You guys really don't have to baby me like this, anyway. The doctor said that the cast can come off at the end of the week."
"Hey, Bear, enjoy it while you can," Jed Turner grinned at him from the other side of the fire. "Once that cast comes off, it's the end of light duty for you, my friend. You're going to have to give up that nice, cushy inside job and hit the bricks again with the rest of us field grunts."
"You know, Turner, I never thought I'd say this, but after six weeks of station duty, I'm actually looking forward to getting back to the smog and the traffic jams!" Bear smiled, then nodded toward the cabin. "And speaking of things to look forward to, here comes Mom with dessert. Just wait until you guys taste her blackberry cobbler with Dad's homemade vanilla ice cream! Like I said before, it's the perfect way to end a big fish dinner."
Vera Baricza walked toward the group gathered around the campfire, and she smiled at them as she held up a big pan of cobbler for their inspection. Pete Baricza and Artie Grossman followed her, balancing a large tub of home made ice cream between them, while Joe Getraer and Frank Poncherello brought up the rear, carrying a stack of bowls and silverware.
"Who wants dessert?" Vera winked at her son and his fellow CHP officers. "It's not quite as good as it would have been with fresh blackberries, but the season's been over for a couple of weeks now. Not to mention some son of mine who goes around throwing perfectly good food against the wall!"
"Oh, I think we'll be able to choke that cobbler down somehow, Mom -- frozen berries or no," Baricza gently teased her. "And this time, I'll try to eat more than I wear. Otherwise, Ponch may try to do open heart surgery now that he's working so hard on his re-certification."
"Hey, Bear, don't forget that you have to watch out for Grossie now, too," Baker grinned. "With all those EMT courses he's signed up for, he's going to need someone to practice on. He may decide that you still look like a giant blackberry. . .and try to perform a cobbler-ectomy!"
While the others roared with laughter at their discomfiture, Ponch and Grossman groaned and rolled their eyes at being the target of so much teasing. Baker winked at Bear and gave him the thumbs-up sign -- for once, the razz-ers had just become the razz-ees.
"Oh, by the way, you guys, I got a call from my friend Steve this afternoon," Pete said as he scooped up generous portions of the ice cream and dropped them into the bowls. "He's kept in touch with Andy McCraven's doctors over the past few weeks. Steve thought you guys might want to know that for the first time in years, Andy is making real progress with his therapy. If things keep on going this well, the doctors think that they might be able to transfer him to a transitional living facility within a year. The hospital staff is calling it a miracle."
"And speaking of cobblers and miracles and such," Getraer sat down on the log beside Baricza. "I don't suppose you've been able to remember anything that went on that afternoon, have you, Barry? I know the doctors said that the drug McCraven gave you could cause temporary amnesia, but I was wondering if anything has started to come back to you, yet."
"Sorry, Sarge," Bear shook his head as he took the bowl of dessert that his mother handed to him. "All I remember is walking toward the cabin with the pail of blackberries and feeling something hit the side of my neck. I thought maybe I'd gotten stung by a bee or a wasp, but about that time, McCraven came around from behind me, ranting about 'his' gold and how we were all responsible for his father's death. I can remember feeling dizzy and staggering forward, and I know I hit the cabin wall at the same time as the bucket of blackberries. But after that, everything is a blank until I woke up in front of the kitchen table that afternoon."
"Sometimes, I wish the rest of us could say the same thing, Bear," Getraer said. "That was one quiet weekend get-away that didn't quite turn out to be one for the scrapbook."
His own memories of that occasion were still altogether too vivid. There were dozens of things that he wanted to asked Baricza about what he had seen and experienced -- everything from the esoteric to the purely mundane.
But at least he'd been able to talk things over with Baker, and that had done a great deal to restore his equilibrium. Jon had carefully analyzed each uncanny event under the magnifying glass of logic and reason. And when he was finished with his explanation, there hadn't been a single "supernatural" event that couldn't be accounted for in the simplest of psychological, geological, or chemical terms.
Well. . .almost, anyway. Getraer still wasn't entirely convinced about that strange glitter in Baricza's eyes that had so unnerved McCraven. Human eyes simply lacked the necessary components that made a dog or a wolf's eyes gleam like that at night, and somehow, the sergeant just couldn't buy Baker's "trick of the fire light" explanation.
And the less said about the way that Baricza knew all the details of Paul McCraven's death, the better! Getraer shivered a little, but that chill may or may not have had anything to do with the wind. Jon thinks that it was just a case of Barry's subconscious mind doing some great detective work. . .but somehow, I've got my doubts.
"Hey, Sarge, all's well that ends well," Ponch saw Getraer's thoughtful expression and spoke up through a mouthful of cobbler and ice cream. "Bear's OK now, McCraven's doing better, and a thirty year old murder case has finally been solved. Not to mention the fact that Pete and Vera ended up with a nice nest egg out of the whole deal -- even after they fixed up the cabin and put aside half of the rest of the money for Andy when he gets out of the hospital. I mean, how much more can you ask for?"
"And speaking of the money from the gold find, Captain McCormick asked me to thank you again the next time that I saw you and Vera," Getraer smiled at Pete. "That was a very generous contribution you two made to the Benevolent Fund, and I know I'm speaking on behalf of the entire CHP when I tell you how much we appreciate your thoughtfulness."
"The heck you say, Joe!" Pete grinned, then winked at Barry. "After all the trouble that kid of mine has gotten himself into over the years, that wasn't thoughtfulness. That was an investment!"
The CHP officers roared with laughter for a moment, and when the amusement subsided, Bonnie shook her head. She gestured toward the cabin and shivered a little, but her reaction had nothing to do with the cool night air.
"You know, it still amazes me how that whole situation happened in the first place," she shrugged. "I mean, come on -- what are the odds of all the factors coming together like that? The four of you guys being there when McCraven escapes from the hospital; the earthquake coming at just the right time for Barry to find the gold; and all the rest of the stuff that you guys told us about. The whole thing is just too spooky, if you ask me -- like something out of one of those old 1950's horror movies."
Grossman had been silent for several minutes. . .not exactly surprising, in view of the fact that he was already on his third bowl of cobbler while the others were just now getting ready for seconds. But now he looked up at his fellow officers, and they silently groaned when they saw his expression. They braced themselves for the usual onslaught of questions, and as always, Artie didn't disappoint them.
"You know, Jon, you said something about the floor in the cabin -- that bit about how boards can still ooze resin years after they were cut," Grossman frowned like a detective hounding a suspect for information. "Somehow I just don't buy that. Why weren't some of the other boards still full of resin? And why was that one spot the only place on the entire floor that was stained? I mean, I can buy the idea that it was wet from the rainwater dripping from our clothes and shoes. But doesn't it seem odd that the only resinous boards were the ones that Paul McCraven's body landed on?"
"Artie, what in the world are you talking about?" Vera frowned a little as she refilled his bowl. "What stain?"
"The floor in the living room," Grossman nodded toward the cabin. "You know, the one where. . ."
His voice trailed away when he saw the looks that Pete and Vera now gave each other. Baricza saw his parents' confused expressions and asked, "Mom, Dad. . .what's wrong? I mean, it's not like there's some big secret about what happened out here any more."
"Son, don't you remember what I told you last year, after your Uncle Don and Aunt Cathy spent the Memorial Day weekend out here with us?" Pete asked quietly. "I know you haven't been back here since then, but I did tell you about it."
"Dad, there are days when I can hardly remember what someone told me ten minutes ago -- let alone last year," Bear shook his head, then turned to the others. "You guys remember my Uncle Don, don't you? He's the contractor who did all that work on Mom and Dad's house. You met him at the barbeque and pool party that they threw to celebrate finishing up the remodeling."
Pete met Vera's gaze, and he spread his hands questioningly at her. The CHP officers traded puzzled stares among themselves for moment, and even Baricza was hard-pressed to understand his parents' reluctance to discuss the subject. He started to say something to them, but Vera shook her head before he could speak.
"You tell them, dear," she nudged her husband, and there was something strange about her smile. "I've listened to Joe and Jon talk all weekend. . .and I just don't have the heart."
They may not have known it, but the Bariczas had just completely captured Joe Getraer's attention. He watched impatiently as Pete poked at the fire with a stick, and from the sergeant's perspective, the senior Baricza seemed to be taking an inordinate amount of time just to rearrange a few logs. When the campfire was burning exactly the way that Pete wanted, he sat back down beside his wife and then shrugged at his son and the other CHP officers.
"Don said that nobody should have to live with bullet holes in the walls and bloodstains on the floor," Pete nodded at last. "He said the reason we couldn't get rid of the stains or patch the holes was because the wood had been given a special chemical treatment to preserve it, back when this place was first built."
He saw the knowing look that Baker gave Grossman, and now Pete's expression suggested that he was completely surrounded by lunatics. But Getraer gestured at him and said, "Pay no attention to them, Pete. You were saying something about replacing the original building materials?"
"That's right, Joe," Pete continued. "Don and I came out here the following weekend with a load of cedar boards. He and I spent that entire weekend ripping out the living room floor and walls and then replacing them with all new material. By the time we got done, the place looked like nothing had ever happened to it. . .and this time, by golly, it stayed that way! If you don't believe me, just go on up there and see for yourselves. There's not a blood stain, bullet hole, or pencil mark anywhere."
Bonnie and Jed exchanged bewildered shrugs when they saw the way that Getraer and the others suddenly grew very quiet. The sergeant glanced at the wood pile and then gave Baker the kind of look that pulp fiction writers always described as "meaningful."
"Jon, throw a few more logs on the fire, will you?" Joe murmured as he stared thoughtfully at the cabin. "I think I just felt a chill in the air."