Sergeant Joe Getraer looked up at the wall clock in his office and sighed happily, looking forward to the prospects of his day off tomorrow. The watch had just officially ended a little while ago. . .
. . .and the Disaster Fairy didn't wave her magic wand all day! Getraer leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes, savoring that thought for a moment.
Poncherello didn't pull any idiotic stunts today -- nothing that I've had to hear about, anyway. Bonnie's in a good mood, and Grossman's in Sacramento for the next three days. . .which might explain why Bonnie's in such a good mood, now that I stop to think about it. Harlan hasn't stormed into my office because someone put a dent in one of "his" vehicles, and speaking of that, Baricza didn't wreck another car. Life doesn't get any better than this!
And as a lagniappe to an already glorious day, Getraer knew that a pot roast was simmering to perfection in the slow cooker at home. With any kind of luck, he'd be able to finish his paperwork and get home in time to enjoy his favorite meal with his wife and family. That thought was enough to make him sigh again, and he looked up from his pleasant reveries. . .
. . .only to find himself staring into two pairs of questioning eyes. Bonnie Clark and Jon Baker now stood in front of his desk, and judging from their expressions, Getraer was willing to bet that his perfect day was about to come to a screeching halt.
Like getting to the very top of a roller coaster ride. . . and then finding out that someone's stolen about fifteen feet of track! the sergeant shook his head, and he knew that any hopes of getting home on time for dinner were probably fading away rapidly.
"Uh, Sarge, we're sorry to bother you. . ." Baker began hesitantly, his eyes full of concern.
"You're not bothering me -- you should both know that by now," Getraer smiled reassuringly at his officers. "What's going on?"
Baker looked at Bonnie, then took a deep breath. "Sarge, it's about Baricza. He's just not acting like himself lately, and we're all worried about him. We were hoping that maybe he'd talked to you about whatever's going on."
Baker thumbed over his shoulder in the general direction of the Men's Locker Room, where Baricza was changing into his street clothes at the moment. Getraer shook his head and shrugged questioningly at the other officers.
"This is the first time that I've heard anything about it, Jon," he said. "But when you say that Barry isn't behaving the way that he usually does, what exactly do you mean by that? Does he seem to be depressed about something, or is he acting more aggressive than usual?"
"It's hard to describe, Sarge," Baker shrugged. "Like yesterday afternoon. Bear's got this new tarp cover for the back of his truck, and Harlan was kidding him about it. He told Bear that he probably got the cover so he could go into business as a smuggler. Harlan acted like he was going to pull back one corner of the tarp and look in the bed of Baricza's truck. Bear got really upset and told Harlan to leave things alone that didn't concern him. Then he put the cover back down and took off without saying another word to any of us."
"All right, so Barry is acting more secretive than he usually does," Getraer conceded the point. "What else is he doing that's out of character?"
Now it was Bonnie's turn to step forward. "Bear never wants to go anywhere or do anything anymore. . .he always says he's busy. But when you ask him what he's doing, he won't give you a straight answer, and he's been like that for over a month now."
"Maybe he just needs a little space right now," Getraer offered mildly. "His dad's health isn't the greatest, and he's been trying to help his parents out as much as he can, lately. He's done this before -- you both know that. Maybe he just needs some time for himself to be alone and decompress."
"It's different this time, Sarge. It's like he's on edge and always looking over his shoulder," Jon shook his head. "Just like a few minutes ago, when Ponch asked him if he wanted to get a bite to eat and then go bowling with the rest of us tonight. He said that he had something else to do, but when Ponch asked him what he had planned, Bear got mad and told him that people were always sticking their noses in his business and would we all just please leave him alone."
"But there's even more," Bonnie added. "Bear and I are the best of friends, you know that. Usually he doesn't keep secrets from me, but he's hiding something now, I'd bet on it. He never calls me just to talk, the way that he used to, and the last time that I went over to his apartment to drop off some cookies that I'd made for him, he wouldn't let me in the door. He said that the place was a mess and that he was embarrassed for me to see it that way. Something's going on with Bear -- and whatever it is, it's got me scared half to death."
Jon Baker nodded in agreement. "Sarge, we've all known Bear for a lot of years. He's a private person, but he's not the kind of guy who turns his back on his friends. And yet that's exactly what he's been doing lately. I think Bonnie hit the nail right on the head. Something's wrong with Bear, and he's trying to hide it from the rest of us."
Getraer frowned a little as he stared thoughtfully for a moment at a paperweight on his desk. Even though the sergeant had known Barry for years, there were still times when the privacy-loving officer seemed like a stranger to Getraer.
Still, Baricza was one of the best cops that Getraer had ever known: 'level-headed,' 'disciplined,' and 'professional' were words that frequently appeared in any performance evaluation that had Barry's name on it. And as a result, Getraer wouldn't have been particularly concerned if the only reports of Baricza's "strange" behavior had come from Harlan or Poncherello.
Let's face it -- sometimes those two are enough to make a plaster statue of a saint take up cussing as a hobby! he thought with a wry grin.
But that amusement faded away quickly when he thought about what Jon and Bonnie had just told him. Their assessment of Barry's mood swings and behavioral changes were completely accurate, no doubt. . .and that made Getraer uneasier about the situation than he cared to admit.
"Ordinarily, I wouldn't be too worried about Baricza. But when someone exhibits changes in behavior like the ones you're talking about, it could indicate that he's undergoing some kind of serious mental or emotional stress," Getraer nodded as he stood up. "I think I'll go talk to him right now. Tomorrow is his day off, too, and if I don't catch him before he leaves the station, it'll be Thursday before I get another chance."
Getraer paused by the door and looked back at the other officers, as they followed him out of the office. "Listen to me, both of you. No matter what's going on with Barry right now, we'll help him get through it. He's got good friends who care about him and who will stick with him through the tough times. . .and that makes him a lot luckier than most people."
"Amen to that, Sarge," Jon Baker nodded fervently. "Amen to that!"
The Men's Locker Room was nearly deserted when Getraer walked in, but he could smell the distinct, spicy fragrance of Baricza's favorite men's cologne. There was something else in the air, too -- something that only a person with Getraer's notorious allergies would have detected.
"Ahh. . .AHH. . .AHHCHOO!" the sergeant's sneeze echoed off the walls and tile floors.
"Bless you, Sarge," a voice said quietly, and Baricza emerged from behind the freestanding bank of lockers, his duffel bag slung over his shoulder.
"Thanks, Barry," Getraer nodded as he pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and blew his nose. "Have you got a minute?"
The sergeant managed what he hoped was a friendly expression as he gestured at the low wooden benches near the door. Baricza's smile faded away abruptly, however, and he nodded reluctantly at his superior officer. He sat down on one of the benches, and the tall, dark-haired officer dropped his head a little, as if unwilling or unable to meet Getraer's worried gaze.
And it appeared that the sergeant's concern was more than justified, too. Ordinarily, Baricza's skin was tanned from years in the California sun, but now his face seemed to have lost much of its healthy glow, making his dark brown eyes seem even larger than usual. There were dark circles under Bear's eyes, too, as if he hadn't gotten enough sleep lately, and he covered his mouth with one hand, trying to conceal his yawn.
But what disturbed Getraer even more was the way that Baricza's shirt seemed to hang like a sack from his shoulders. The 6'4" officer had always been slender, but unless Getraer very much missed his guess, Baricza had lost at least twenty pounds in a matter of only a few weeks.
"What's the matter, Sarge?" Bear asked as he stared down at the floor, and he was obviously uncomfortable under Getraer's careful scrutiny. "Did I do something wrong?"
"No. . .not at all, Barry," Getraer shook his head, trying hard to muffle another of those thunderous sneezes. "I just wanted to touch base with you and see how you've been doing, that's all. You know how it is. . .sometimes I get so caught up in dealing with other people's problems that I don't pay enough attention to the officers who never make waves or cause headaches for me."
Getraer's words were clearly an invitation, but there was no response from Baricza. Bear's smile seemed cheerful enough, but now he shifted restlessly on the bench and then glanced at the door.
"Thanks for asking, but things are going fine -- just fine," Bear nodded, then looked down meaningfully at his wristwatch. "Uh, I really need to get going now, if that's OK with you, Sarge. I've got a bunch of stuff to do tonight."
"Are you sure everything is OK, Barry?" Getraer asked quietly, as he tried to conceal both his uneasiness and another sneeze at the same time. "You just seem a little edgy lately, that's a. . .ahh. . .AHHCHOO!"
"And bless you again," he nodded seriously. Seeing his chance, he stood up while Getraer blew his nose again, then took a few steps closer to the door. "Sounds like you need to make an appointment for another allergy shot, Sarge."
"I don't understand this," Getraer shook his head -- knowing that he'd just blown both his nose and his one chance to talk to Baricza. "I know what I'm allergic to, and there shouldn't be anything of the sort in this station. No ragweed pollen, no mildew, no dog dander -- wait just a minute! That's got to be it. . .so help me, if Harlan has smuggled that dog of his in here again, I'm going to drown him and that mangy mutt in a vat of antihistamines!"
"Uh, right, Sarge. . .good idea," Baricza said. He gave Getraer another one of those nervous little grins, then surreptitiously opened the Locker Room door a few inches. "I've really got to go now. Hope you feel better soon, and I'll see you on Thursday. Bye!"
Bear's last few sentences were all said on one breath, and he disappeared through the door with the speed and dexterity of a professional magician performing a vanishing act. Getraer stood up and started to follow Baricza out into the corridor, but his plans were interrupted by another gigantic sneeze -- one that made his sinuses feel as if they had just exploded.
"But I. . .ah.. .AHHCHOOO!!" the sergeant's protest ended in a sound that any erupting volcano would have been proud to claim.
And by the time that Getraer managed to stagger out of the Locker Room, Baricza was already at the far end of the corridor. Before the sergeant could order him to wait, Bear had disappeared through the door and out into the parking lot towards his waiting truck.
That does it, Barry! Getraer mentally snapped at the Baricza-shaped hole in the air left by the officer's rapid departure.
I hadn't planned on playing private detective on my day off tomorrow, but something's going on that you're not telling me about, and you can bet that I'm going to find out what it is. . .one way or the other!
Getraer sipped half-heartedly at his coffee as he stared through the steamy plate glass window out at the street. It was the fifth or sixth mug that he'd drunk in the last hour or so, and the enjoyment had long since worn off -- especially at five o'clock in the morning.
Think of it as paying rent on this booth, Getraer. . .it'd be hard to find a better place for surveillance, he shrugged to himself, and he tried hard not to grimace as the smiling waitress poured a fresh cup of coffee for him.
The little all-night restaurant was strategically located across from Baricza's quiet apartment complex, and Getraer had a clear view of Bear's truck in its usual parking space. But unless Baricza was specifically looking for someone when he left the building, he probably wouldn't have noticed anyone just sitting quietly in the restaurant across the street.
Especially not someone in street clothes instead of the usual CHP uniform. . .and Getraer was counting on that very thing. There hadn't been any sign of Baricza himself, yet -- not that the sergeant would have particularly expected him to be up so early on his day off.
I guess getting up at some ridiculous hour to drink too much coffee and watch an empty parking lot is just for television detectives. . .and us crazy sergeants! he shook his head ruefully as he stared down into his cup.
Getraer yawned and stretched once more, trying to shake the cobwebs from his mind. He hadn't gotten much sleep before the alarm went off at the unholy hour of 3:30 a.m. -- he'd spent most of the night mentally replaying his conversation with Baricza. Even now, he could still hear the nervous edge in Bear's voice and see his uncomfortable expression as he looked for any chance to avoid talking to his sergeant.
Barry, what in the world have you gotten yourself into? Getraer winced at the thought. Something that you can't even talk about with your best friends. . .but what could be so terrible that you feel as if you have no choice except to shut us out?
He sadly shook his head, as he glanced over at the restaurant entrance. Someone had just walked in, and although the hood of her jacket partially concealed her face, the woman's identity was still unmistakable.
"Hi, Bonnie," he waved at the policewoman. "I see you had the same idea as I did."
"It sure looks that way, doesn't it?" Bonnie smiled as she sat down. "And apparently we weren't the only ones with that same idea, either. . .look who else just walked in."
Getraer turned in the direction that Bonnie was pointing, just as a sheepish Jon Baker walked toward his friends. The blond motor officer slid into the booth beside Bonnie: like the other two, he was wearing a heavy leather gear belt, complete with handcuffs, his off duty gun, and a canister of Mace -- all partially concealed by his jacket.
It wasn't normal for any of the officers to wear that much equipment on their day off, especially when they weren't really expecting any trouble. But somehow, it seemed as if they had all come to some unspoken agreement about what they were doing here this morning. . .even if none of them could have precisely said what that was at the moment. Now Baker nodded in the direction of Baricza's apartment building, and he managed a small smile for the other two officers' benefit.
"And here I thought I was the only one with the bright idea of using this place for surveillance," he shrugged. "Guess this just goes to prove that old saying about great minds working in parallel lines."
But then he dropped his head a little, staring down at a discarded napkin beside Getraer's coffee cup for a moment. It was obvious that he was uncomfortable. . .and not only Baker, but the other two officers now, as well.
And when Baker spoke again, he merely voiced what his fellow officers were already thinking. "I really hate the idea of invading Bear's privacy -- you know, spying on him like this. I just wish he would open up to us, let us know what's going on."
"I know how you feel, Jon," Getraer sighed regretfully. "As a matter of fact, I think we all ought to forget this whole crazy idea of keeping an eye on Barry today. Why don't the two of you go on back home now and just let the whole thing drop? I'll wait here until a little more reasonable hour and then go over to his apartment and try to talk to him again. . ."
The other two officers nodded and started to stand up, but at that moment, Jon whistled softly under his breath. "And then again, we might want to rethink that, Sarge," he gestured towards the apartment building across the street. "Take a look at who just walked out. . . "
Getraer looked over at the parking lot across the street, just as Bear emerged from the apartment building's main entrance. The first gray light of morning had barely begun to chase away the shadows of night, and it was still difficult to see more than shapes and outlines.
But even so, the furtive way that Baricza looked around the parking lot was unmistakable -- as if he was checking to see that no one was spying on him. And judging from the way that Baricza's arm was curled tightly across his chest, it appeared that he was carrying something concealed inside his jacket. He carefully inspected the parking lot once more, and when he seemed convinced that he wasn't being observed, he stealthily made his way over to his truck.
He quickly unlocked the passenger side door and placed the concealed object on the front seat. Then Baricza turned and trotted back to the apartment building -- only to emerge a few minutes later and repeat the earlier sequence of events.
There was something uncomfortably familiar about Baricza's wary surveillance of his surroundings. . .and Getraer knew exactly what such behavior reminded him of. He'd seen the same furtiveness in the face and gestures of drug dealers before they approached someone new to them -- someone who could easily be an undercover cop posing as a potential customer.
"Still think we ought to just let it go, Sarge?" Bonnie asked quietly, but she had already gotten to her feet and was headed towards the door long before she received an answer.
It was obvious that Bonnie had come to the same conclusions and had the same misgivings that Getraer did. And judging from the worried frown on Baker's face, he, too, was disturbed by what he had just seen. . .for precisely the same reasons as the others had been. It was unthinkable that Baricza could be involved in anything unlawful: Getraer refused to even consider that possibility. But something was wrong -- very wrong -- about the entire scenario, and the sergeant intended to find out exactly what was going on.
"Standard surveillance tactics," Getraer ordered firmly as he tossed down a bill on the table to pay for the coffee. "I borrowed a car from a friend of mine so Bear wouldn't recognize my station wagon, and I'll take the lead. Bonnie, you and Jon follow me in your vehicles. We'll do the usual wolf pack switch-off with the lead car every ten blocks or so. So keep an eye out for possible turn-off points, and we'll just have to hope that everything goes down by the numbers. We won't be able to use any kind of radio communications, unfortunately -- just in case Barry has his scanner turned on."
The three officers waited until Baricza had pulled out of the parking lot, then made a dash for their waiting vehicles. The sergeant's expression was intense as he slid into the front seat of the white Crown Victoria, and he would have almost willing to bet that he had an unseen "passenger" with him in the car.
Good bye to a nice, calm, peaceful day off, he sighed sharply as he pulled out of the parking space.
. . .and hello, Disaster Fairy!
Following a vehicle without being detected was difficult enough under normal circumstances -- all those familiar television and movie chase scenes not without standing. But in the light traffic of early morning, tracking someone without being spotted became nearly impossible.
Especially when that person was as good a cop as Barry Baricza. Bear's natural wariness had been honed by years of police work, and now it took every ounce of Getraer's own extraordinary concentration to follow the big silver Dodge pickup without being seen.
So far, it seemed to be working, though: nothing in Baricza's movements suggested that he was aware that he was being followed. By using side streets and switching lead cars at with Jon and Bonnie at intervals, Getraer was confident that they'd be able to follow Bear to his destination. And he was obviously headed to a specific location -- not merely out for an early morning drive with no particular destination in mind.
It was difficult to observe Baricza's movements and keep an eye on traffic at the same time. . .not to mention being forced to stay at least a block behind the target vehicle. Without warning, Baricza signaled a right hand turn, then pulled into the parking lot of a small convenience store. Praying that Baker and Clark were alert to his movements, Getraer made a left-hand turn onto a side street, then pulled into a bank parking lot and circled around so that he could watch the convenience store's entrance.
To Getraer's relief, Baker drove into the bank parking lot in another moment or two, and Bonnie followed him only a few seconds later. The two officers stopped on either side of the Crown Victoria, and Bonnie rolled down her window -- then gestured over at the mini-mart across the street.
"A quick stop-off for coffee and doughnuts, maybe?" she shrugged at Getraer.
"I don't think so, Bonnie. Not unless Barry's planning on buying enough doughnuts to feed an army. That, or else he's inviting Artie Grossman over for brunch, " the sergeant shook his head. "Take a look."
It hadn't taken Baricza long to find the item that he wanted, and now he stepped out of the convenience store, carrying a large brown paper sack. Once again, he looked warily around at his surroundings, and for a nerve wracking second or two, Getraer was afraid that Bear had somehow figured out that he was being followed.
But then Baricza cautiously unfastened the tarp and slipped the paper bag into the back of the truck. He quickly closed the cover and then climbed into the truck, pausing only long to look down at the object on the seat beside him. As if he was once more reassured that his cargo was safe, Baricza started the truck and backed out of the parking space.
"Same drill as before. But this time, you take the lead, Jon," Getraer nodded towards the main thoroughfare. "I don't want Barry to get suspicious when he looks in his rear view mirror and sees the thirty seventh white Crown Victoria behind him in the last twenty blocks."
"Will do, Sarge," Baker smiled a little at Getraer's humor, despite the seriousness of the situation.
Baker pulled into the street and then signaled a left hand turn, while Bonnie and Getraer set off down the side streets, setting up the perfect intercept course with Baricza's truck. There was a little more traffic now, and it took all their concentration to maintain a visual on their target and still keep track of the other two drivers' movements.
Up ahead, Baker saw Getraer's car stopped at a traffic signal, and he made a right hand turn, allowing the sergeant to pick up the chase. At least these streets were familiar ones to the three officers. . .that allowed them to focus on not being seen by their quarry, instead of having to think about what side street and intersections to take.
But that's about all that's making this job any easier, Getraer thought as he smoothly slipped into the traffic. Barry, just where on earth do you think you're going this morning?
Nothing about this chase was making a great deal of sense to the sergeant at the moment. If Baricza maintained his present course, he'd be headed towards the freeway soon. . .but most of that particular stretch of road was heavily clogged with construction. There were half a dozen easier ways to get to any place that he might have logically wanted to go in that area -- the kind of back streets and short cuts that only a cop usually knew about.
Nevertheless, it seemed that Bear's destination was indeed the freeway, and Getraer groaned to himself at the thought. With early rush hour about to begin, the task of following Baricza would be even harder than it already was, and Getraer braced himself for the inevitable difficulties.
But to Getraer's surprise, Baricza turned onto a small side street and stopped in front of a shabby-looking little store -- the kind that usually sold cheap imitations of designer clothing and perfume. It was still much too early in the day for such a place to be open, which made Baricza's move seem even stranger than it already was.
Caught off guard, the sergeant frantically looked for somewhere, anywhere to duck out of sight before Baricza could see him. There. . .there was one parking space in front of a Laundromat, less than half a block down the street from "La Boutique." Getraer quickly pulled into the spot, hoping that Bear hadn't seen him: hastily, the sergeant picked up a newspaper that he'd brought along for just such an emergency as this.
Now he held the paper up in front of his face, as if he was reading it while waiting for someone to come out of the Laundromat. After a few seconds, the sergeant cautiously peered around the newspaper, and he watched as Baricza honked the horn once and looked over at the storefront.
Bear climbed out of the truck, once again concealing something underneath his jacket as he walked towards the shop. And in a moment, a young man wearing faded blue jeans and a cheap windbreaker staggered out of the store, his gait as uneven as any wino's after a week long binge. Getraer watched over the top of his newspaper as Baricza and the man briefly exchanged a few words with each other.
However, words weren't the only things that were being traded between the two men. At the moment, Bear's back was towards Getraer, so the sergeant couldn't see what the dark haired officer took out from under his jacket.
But Getraer definitely had a clear view of what the other man now quickly handed to Baricza. . .money. Admittedly, it didn't appear to be a great deal of cash, but money had definitely changed hands. Baricza nodded and tucked the small roll of bills in his jacket pocket. He walked back to his truck and waved casually at the man, then climbed into the vehicle and started the engine once more.
The other man stumbled away again towards the storefront, and now it was his turn to conceal something under his windbreaker. Getraer couldn't see the object clearly enough to even determine the object's size. But judging from the way that the man peered cautiously through the door before he entered the store again, it was obvious that he didn't want anyone to know what he was carrying.
Getraer had been watching the entire transaction so intently that he failed to see a small blonde figure trot up beside his car. Bonnie Clark quickly ducked inside the vehicle, and the hood of her jacket was pulled down to shadow her features. And when she looked at Getraer, her expression was as dismayed as his was.
"We saw Bear turn down this street, so Jon pulled over in an alley a few streets back, and I circled around on the side streets until I found you. I stood in the doorway of that arcade back there. I had a good view of everything that was going on until Bear got back in his truck just a minute ago," Bonnie tried to speak calmly, but there was a shakiness in her voice that she couldn't conceal. "Explain what we both just saw, Sarge. I know what it looked like from where I was standing --but it couldn't have been."
"Calm down, Bonnie, and let's not jump to conclusions," Getraer said, even though something like a wave of nausea now passed through him. "I know what you're thinking, but there are a lot of possible explanations for what we just saw."
"Oh, like what, Sarge?" Bonnie shook her head, and for a second or two, it appeared as if the tough little police woman was on the verge of tears. "Bear's delivering Meals on Wheels to the neighborhood drug pushers and winos these days?"
"Bonnie, try to calm down," Getraer repeated, more forcefully this time. "We don't have time to talk about this right now. Bear's getting ready to take off again, and we need to know where's he's going. I'll follow him, and you head on back to your own car and catch up to us. All right?"
Clark nodded unwillingly, just as Baricza pulled out of his parking space and back into traffic. Bonnie waited until Bear drove away, then quickly got out of Getraer's car and ran back to her own waiting vehicle.
I hope Jon's already spotted Barry's truck, the sergeant thought as he checked his side mirror, then eased his car back into the traffic.
When Getraer reached the stop sign at the end of the street, there was no sign of Baricza's vehicle, but when he looked in the rear view mirror, he saw Bonnie's gold Camaro directly behind him. Getraer thumbed back at Bonnie, then pointed to the left, and she nodded knowingly.
Getraer circled the block, but there was no sign of Baricza anywhere. And complicating matters at the moment was the cold sensation running along the sergeant's back at the thought of what he had just seen a few moments ago. . .it was a scenario he'd seen played out far too many times during his tenure as a cop.
Come on, get your head together, Getraer, he admonished himself. I know things didn't look very good back there a few minutes ago, but like you told Bonnie, there are a lot of explanations for what you think you just saw.
At least I hope there are, anyway.
Getraer reached the end of the block just as the traffic light turned red, and to his relief, he saw Jon Baker drive through the intersection. And as Baker drove past, he pointed at the road ahead and gestured for the sergeant to follow him as soon as the light changed.
Good. . .that must mean that Jon's got a fix on Barry's truck again, Getraer breathed a sigh of relief, then made a right hand turn. I don't know where Baricza thinks he's headed, but you can bet that he's going to be answering a lot of his sergeant's questions once he does get there!
At the moment, Baricza was once again traveling in the general direction of the freeway, with Jon lagging almost a full block behind him. Now there were fewer stores and less traffic as Bear headed towards his mysterious destination, and Getraer could only hope that Baker was alert to Baricza's every move,
Careful, Jon, Getraer breathed silently as Baker closed the gap a little more closely than the sergeant might have preferred. We don't want to spook him this late in the game!
The game of cat and mouse continued for several more miles, and at each turn in the road, Getraer grew more and more baffled. There was nothing out in this area of any interest -- at least nothing that the sergeant was aware of, anyway. They were running roughly parallel to the freeway now on an access road, and at the moment, the "scenery" consisted mainly of trees, the occasional gas station or mini-mart, and a few other cars.
And instead of heading towards the highway ramp, Baricza once more put on his turn signals at an intersection. He paused to check for oncoming cars, then continued down the road for a few hundred yards and pulled off onto the shoulder of the road beside a heavily wooded parcel of land. Frantically, Getraer gestured at Jon, hoping that the other officer was watching his rear view mirror, and to the sergeant's relief, Baker quickly turned in the opposite direction.
Getraer followed Baker, and when he looked in his own rear view mirror, he saw that Bonnie, too, had spotted Baricza's truck and turned in the opposite direction. Baker thumbed towards a gas station near the intersection, down the road from the spot where Baricza had pulled over. From that vantage point, they would still be able to watch what Baricza was doing, and Getraer quickly nodded his assent.
The three officers pulled into the gas station, and Baker was the first one out of his vehicle. He trotted towards Bonnie and Getraer, and the three officers watched for a moment while Baricza got out of his truck.
"OK, I give up," Baker shrugged in confusion. "What's Bear doing now?"
"It looks like he's got something hidden under his jacket again," Bonnie shook her head in disbelief. "And the way he's scoping things out around him, you'd think half the law enforcement personnel in the entire state was after him!"
Getraer winced a little. . .unfortunately, what Bonnie had just said was absolutely true. Even at a distance, the three officers could see the way that Bear looked anxiously all around him before he walked towards the back of his truck. Using only one hand, Baricza awkwardly unfastened the cover's snaps: he managed to retrieve the brown paper bag and then sat it down at his feet.
With one arm still supporting the object that he concealed under his jacket, Baricza secured the tarp with his free hand, then bent down and picked up the sack from the ground. Still watching his surroundings intently, Baricza set off towards the wooded lot.
"Now what?" Bonnie asked. "Do we go after him, or wait until he gets back and confront him right there?"
"Jon and I will go after him on foot, and I want you to wait down by Barry's truck. If we confront him and he gets mad enough to take off, he'd probably head right back to his truck," Getraer said. "And if anybody could calm Barry down and talk some sense into him, I'd put my money on you."
Bonnie smiled, but the expression might just as easily have been a wince of pain. "You two go on ahead, and I'll follow you down there," she nodded quietly.
"Come on, Sarge," Baker gestured at his truck, and Getraer climbed into the passenger seat. "I'll drive this time."
Baker quickly retraced the short distance down the access road, and by the time that they reached their destination, Baricza had already vanished into the small wooded area. The parcel of land was probably much less than a block in width and scarcely more than that in length. The far side of the lot ran along the highway, separated from it by a tall mesh fence, and even now, the two officers could hear the distant sound of traffic.
Baker was familiar with this particular parcel of land. . . he'd driven by it any number of times while on routine patrols. There was nothing to do and nowhere to go in the secluded little spot -- at least nothing that was immediately obvious to Baker and Getraer, anyway. The local teens sometimes used the wooded area for their parties, both officers knew. And once, the CHP had been called in to investigate a citizen's report of someone growing marijuana in the secluded spot. But other than that, there wasn't anything interesting about the. . .
Baker and Getraer stopped almost at the same instant, just as they reached the edge of the wooded area. It was obvious that the same idea had just occurred to both of them, and now Getraer wore a look of disbelief mixed with embarrassment and guilt over the thought that had just crossed his mind.
"I know what you're thinking, Sarge, and Bear would never do something like that," Baker said, and his voice was fierce with loyalty. "I mean, the whole idea is just plain crazy. Baricza's a cop. . .one of the best cops I've ever known. He wouldn't turn dirty -- not for any amount of money."
Getraer swallowed hard. "You're right, Jon. Let's not make a bunch of crazy assumptions," he said, but his voice was so quiet that Baker could barely hear him. "We'll go find Barry and get this whole thing straightened out, once and for all."
The two men set off down a small path, but Getraer's unspoken thoughts seemed to hang in the air like the haze of smoke after a fire. Now Baker could "hear" the sergeant's words as clearly as if Getraer had shouted them: "But even good cops can go bad."
And when Baker looked over at Getraer, the sergeant's grim expression said more than a thousand words ever could have. It was cool here in the shade of the trees, that was true enough. . . but when Baker felt a little cold shiver go down his back, he knew that the sensation had nothing to do with the air temperature.
Getraer suddenly stopped, then put his index finger against his lips in the universal signal for silence. The trail now began to slope upward a little, and from his new perspective, Getraer caught a glimpse of something that didn't exactly blend in with the rest of the surrounding vegetation.
Noiselessly, the sergeant stepped off the path and took a few more steps into the brush, then paused and looked down at something that Baker couldn't see. Getraer somberly gestured at Baker to join him, and with a heavy heart, the blond officer complied. Even before he reached the spot where Getraer now stood, Baker knew what he would see when he got there.
There were several dozen marijuana plants growing in a small, carefully tended patch under one tree. . .more than enough to supply a number of people with a regular supply of pot. From the looks of the leaves, the plants were nearly ready to be harvested, and Getraer stared at them for another moment or two in disbelief. Then, without warning, he slammed his fist into a tree trunk, and his face was twisted with a pain that had nothing to do with his bleeding knuckles.
"I don't believe it!" he shook his head bitterly. "How could Baricza walk right by this and not see it?"
Baker stepped forward, intending to restrain Getraer if necessary, before he could react out of anger and frustration again. But before Jon's hand closed around the sleeve of the sergeant's jacket, a sharp sigh of disgust made the two officers turn around quickly to face the intruder.
"That's what I thought. . .someone has been following me all morning!" a familiar voice snapped. "Will one of you mind telling me just what in the heck is going on around here?"
"Funny thing, Barry," Getraer said quietly as he took a single step forward. "We were just going to ask you that same question."
"Me?" Baricza's voice was sharp with indignation, but Getraer thought that he could hear sadness behind Bear's angry words. "I'm not the guy who's out spying on one of his friends."
"Bear, we've been worried about you, that's all," Baker said with the same tone of voice that he would have used to calm a restive horse or a frightened puppy. "You won't talk to us any more -- not even Bonnie. And she's scared that something is really wrong with you."
"Oh, then I guess she's in on this little James Bond bit, too, huh?" Baricza snorted bitterly as he stepped back from the other two men. "Tell her I said thanks a lot. . .it's really nice to know how much you all trust me."
This time, there was no way to misread the underlying current of sorrow beneath Baricza's words, and he turned away slightly, as if reluctant to let them see the pain in his eyes. He still carried the shopping bag in one hand and supported something under his jacket with the other arm, but it was obvious that physical and mental stress were both starting to take their toll on his reserves of strength.
Getraer could see that Baricza's arms were shaking a little, and like Baker, the sergeant's voice was now intended to be calm and soothing. "It's not like that at all, Barry. We were just worried about a friend who might be in trouble and who's too scared or embarrassed to talk to one of us about it, that's all."
"I'm fine. Why won't anybody believe me when I tell them that nothing's wrong?" he glared at his fellow officers. "If you were really trying to help me, you would have given me some space when I asked you to. . .not pushed me even harder to do something that I didn't want to!"
"Bear, we didn't mean to hurt your feelings or shove you into doing something you didn't want to do. We've just missed having you around, that's all," Baker smiled, then added almost as an afterthought, "Hey, how about letting me carry something for you, buddy? You look like you could use a hand there."
Still speaking in an almost hypnotic tone, he took another step toward his friend and reached out, as if to take the shopping bag. But Bear jumped back warily, and his new vantage point was slightly higher on the sloping path than that of his fellow officers. Now Baricza could now see the entire area behind them -- including the patch of marijuana.
"Oh, I get it now. You guys think I'm doing a little moonlighting as the neighborhood drug dealer," his voice was ragged with a pain that he couldn't conceal. "I don't believe you three! You've known me all these years, and this is what you think of me?"
He flinched and turned his head away sharply, as if he was unwilling to let his fellow officers see the misery in his face and eyes. But he made no move to run, and now Getraer could see that there were no signs of guilt or defiance in Baricza's expression. . .only confusion mixed with sadness at his friends' apparent lack of trust in him. And when Baricza looked at the patch of marijuana again, his face filled with anger at even the idea of someone invading "his" space -- especially for the purposes of doing something unlawful.
That reaction alone was more than enough to tell Getraer what he wanted to know. No matter what Bear was doing out here this morning, it had nothing to do with what they had just found. . .Getraer would have put money on that.
"Barry, we never believed that you were involved in something. . ." the sergeant started to say.
But before he could finish his sentence, an enormous "AHH. . .AHHCHOO!" suddenly erupted from his suddenly clogged nasal passages. The noise was impressive enough by itself, but the chain reaction of events that it set off was nothing short of spectacular.
Startled by the sudden blast of sound, Baricza flinched again, and even that small movement was enough to disturb his shaky grasp on the heavy paper bag. It fell out of his hands and landed at his feet, spilling its entire contents in a shower of small brown pellets.
As if that was its cue for action, the object in Bear's other hand began to twist and turn frantically under the jacket. Those movements were soon accompanied by an ear-piercing sound, like a tiny buzz saw set at full throttle, and now Baricza struggled to maintain his grip on whatever it was that he was trying to restrain.
"Samantha, you little piglet, you! You come back here. . .it's too chilly this morning for you to be outside by yourself!" Baricza yelped, but it was obvious that he had completely lost control of the situation. "Besides which, I just fed you less than an hour ago, and that food is supposed to be for your mom!"
None of his reproaches seemed to be having any effect on the black and tan blur that wriggled out of his grasp and darted towards the pile of dog food, however. Getraer and Baker watched as the puppy attacked the mountain of food, scattering the pellets everywhere.
The little animal's tail wagged playfully as it ate, but it continued to look adoringly up at Baricza, its gaze never leaving his face for even a moment. And for his part, Bear gave Getraer and Baker the same embarrassed smile that he had worn when the sergeant had confronted him in the locker room.
"That is what you've been hiding from us?" Getraer shook his head in disbelief. "A German Shepherd puppy?"
Baricza lunged for the puppy and managed to pick it up once more. "Not 'a' German Shepherd puppy, Sarge," he groaned, as Samantha happily chewed on his chin and nipped at his nose. "Eight German Shepherd puppies is more like it."
He freed himself from his tiny tormentor for a moment, then added, "Their mother is living out here in this wooded area. I spotted her running along the fence line one day when I was out on patrol. I've been bringing dog food out here for the last six weeks, trying to coax her into coming to me, but so far, she won't get anywhere near me. But she did bring all eight of her puppies and left them near the place that I usually put down the food -- like she trusted me to take care of them for her."
He smiled briefly at the thought, and now Getraer and Baker both concealed smiles of their own. . .Bear's tender-hearted concern for the weak and helpless of any species was the stuff of legend among his friends and fellow officers. But Baricza's grin quickly became a grimace, as Samantha attempted to escape once more for another assault on the pile of food.
"And do you have any idea of how hard it is to keep eight hungry puppies fed?" he asked with a sigh. He ruffled Samantha's floppy ears in an attempt to distract her from any further thoughts of escape, then added, "It's like trying to taking care of eight babies at once -- complete with having to get up at two in the morning! I bet I haven't gotten a good night's sleep in the last four or five weeks. At least they're eating solid food now, but I'm really getting desperate for help when it comes to teaching them some manners. . .the kind of help that only a mother can give."
Baker grinned and gestured at Samantha, who now nestled contentedly in the crook of Baricza's arm. "So you thought if you brought one of her puppies out here this morning as bait, Mama Dog might come close enough for you to put a leash on her and take her home, too?"
"That was the original idea. . .but you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and Bears," Baricza shrugged. "Actually, I had two of the puppies with me this morning, but I gave one of them to a friend of mine. He wanted to surprise his daughter with a puppy for her birthday, and he doesn't have a lot of money to spend on a dog. He just started a new business, and to top it all off, he's still trying to pay off a bunch of hospital bills after he hurt his back in a bad car accident six months ago. Steve's a really nice guy -- he even insisted on giving me some money to help with the cost of the vet bills and dog food."
All the pieces of the puzzle were starting to fit together now. Getraer's allergic reaction every time he got near Baricza, Bear's unusual behavior over the past few weeks, and the morning's "strange" events. . .everything was beginning to make a little more sense to the other two men.
Only you, Barry. . .only you, Getraer shook his head with a wry smile.
And in light of their earlier fears and conjectures, Getraer and Baker were almost ashamed to face Baricza now. Bear saw the embarrassed looks that they exchanged, and any residual anger in his face and voice melted away completely. Getraer started to make an apology for himself and the other two officers, but Baricza shook his head and held up a restraining hand.
"It's OK, Sarge. I understand now," he nodded quietly. "I guess I have been acting kind of strange lately, and I'm glad that you all care about me enough to find out what was going on. I've been really groggy from not getting enough sleep and trying to ride herd on the puppy stampede to keep them from making a lot of noise."
No wonder Barry's lost weight! Getraer could only shake his head a little at the thought of Baricza's dedication. Keeping eight puppies quiet must be like trying to build a fence around a tornado!
"And I guess I must have been pretty edgy lately, too. See, I'm worried about getting thrown out of my apartment for violating the 'No Pets' clause in my lease," Bear continued. "You know how nosey my landlord can be. . .he manages to show up whenever I've got friends visiting, and he's always got some lame excuse about wanting to check on the wiring or the plumbing or something. More like making sure that I'm not throwing a wild party -- me, of all people! And can you just imagine his reaction if he found out that I've got a bunch of German Shepherd puppies in my apartment now? I've even had to store their dog food in the back of my truck, just so he won't see me carrying in a big bag of Puppy Chow."
"Barry, you could have taken the puppies to the Animal Shelter," Getraer said mildly, even though he knew what Baricza's response would be.
"Sarge, how could you even think something like that?" Baricza protested indignantly. "After that poor dog trusted me with her puppies, I couldn't just dump the little guys out at the Animal Shelter."
Getraer and Baker both muffled little smiles at his incensed expression. If push came to shove, Getraer suspected that Baricza would have been willing to pitch a tent in his parents' back yard and live in it, rather than surrender the puppies to total strangers.
"I understand," Getraer nodded somberly, but Baker could see the amusement dancing in his eyes. "As it just so happens, I think I may have a solution to your 'no pets' problem, Barry. I'll tell you about it over a nice big breakfast -- my treat. But first, let's get back to the parking lot and let Bonnie know what's going on."
"That's probably a really good idea, Sarge," Baker chuckled. "I figure Bonnie's ready to chew nickels and spit back tacks right about now."
Baricza and Getraer laughed at Baker's wry humor for a moment. But the three men quickly grew sober again when the sergeant gestured over his shoulder at the patch of marijuana plants.
"And after we explain everything to Bonnie, I'm going to call the station and report that little unauthorized agricultural experiment over there," Getraer nodded coolly. "That's one crop of grass that won't be hitting the streets any time soon, if I have anything to say about it. . ."
He turned, then started to walk down the path towards the waiting vehicles. But before he had taken more than half a dozen steps, a sudden chill went down his back -- the kind of feeling that he knew better than to ignore after all his years as a cop.
Getraer started to turn around and say something to Baker and Baricza, who still lagged several feet behind him. And at that instant, he heard a sharp crack, as if a tree limb had snapped in two. . .but this wasn't a natural phenomenon, by any means. Something peeled away a long strip of bark from a tree trunk less than two feet from where he now stood, and Getraer ducked even before he consciously realized what he had just done.
"Take cover, men!" Getraer yelped. "Somebody's opened fire on us!"
What kind of an idiot would open fire on not one, but three CHP officers? Getraer still had time for that thought, even as he automatically ducked behind the shelter of the tree trunk and crouched low to the ground.
Belatedly it occurred to him that since it was their day off, neither he nor the other two men were in uniform. He looked over at Baker and Baricza, who had taken cover behind the tree line on the opposite side of the path.
The trees were small and scrubby at best, providing only a minimum amount of shelter. Another crack of gunfire echoed through the woods, and this time, the shooter's aim was far better than the first round had been. The bullet plowed into the ground only a few inches from Baricza's left leg as he tried to conceal himself behind the thin, twisted trunk of a small pine tree.
Of all the lousy luck! Getraer snapped to himself, even as he reached inside his jacket and took out his off-duty gun from its concealed holster. Whoever's firing on us doesn't realize that we're cops. He was probably out here all along, intending to harvest his crop, and he hid when he heard us coming. He must think that we're trying to muscle in on his little pot growing business. Now he's trying to scare us off by taking a few potshots at us. . .so to speak.
The gun had made a noise not unlike the popping of a small firecracker, which meant that the pistol was probably no larger than a .22 -- nothing that would be apt to do major damage. But even so, Getraer didn't relish the thought of having a bullet dug out of himself or one of his officers: that last shot had landed entirely too close to Baricza's leg, as far as the sergeant was concerned.
Based on the random pattern of shots, Getraer was also willing to bet that the shooter was constantly moving to avoid being targeted. And apparently Baker and Baricza had just come to the same conclusion. Baker gestured towards the left with a questioning expression, while Baricza nodded towards the right, and it was clear that the two men were silently asking Getraer's permission to circle around and attempt to sneak up on their attacker.
But the sergeant shook his head and mouthed the word "Not yet!" at them. Until they had a better fix on the shooter's position, he wasn't willing to let either officer take that kind of risk -- especially if it wasn't necessary.
There was always a good chance that Bonnie had heard the sound of gunfire and called for help -- at least Getraer hoped that she'd heard the noise and radioed in, anyway. Ordinarily, Bonnie wouldn't have even considered the idea of walking into a potential ambush. . .but there was always the chance that she might let her concern over-ride her common sense, especially when it came to Baker, Getraer, and Baricza.
Getraer waited for almost two full minutes before he made another move If their assailant's intent was merely to scare them away, then perhaps he was satisfied and had already left the scene. We can hope, anyway, Getraer shrugged to himself, as he cautiously peered around the tree trunk in the direction of the gunfire.
But as if that was the shooter's cue, another bullet splattered against a tree branch, this one directly over Getraer's head. The shot was much too close for comfort this time, too, and the sergeant's mind was a frantic scramble of thoughts as he hastily reviewed possible strategies.
Obviously, something had to be done. . .and soon. Even if Bonnie had heard the gunshots and radioed in for help, it would still take time for back-up to arrive, and unless Getraer missed his guess, waiting simply wasn't an option. Reluctantly, he looked across the path at Baker and Baricza, then gestured silently for the two men to split up and try to circle around behind their attacker.
Baker nodded, but the blond officer didn't move from his position right away, and Getraer frowned, trying to see what had caused the delay. The answer was immediately obvious: Baker was waiting for Baricza, who had just taken a choke collar and leash out of his pocket. Bear bent down and slipped the loop over Samantha's neck, then tied the wriggling, protesting puppy to the low branch of a near-by bush.
Finally, Baricza was satisfied that the puppy was securely tied down, and he nodded over at Baker. It was difficult for someone as tall as Bear to crouch low enough to avoid being a perfect target, especially when the available tree cover was so thin and sparse. Getraer watched with a sinking heart as Baricza and Baker set off, lunging from one small tree trunk to the next, and his worst fears were confirmed when he heard the pop of gunfire once again.
Persistent little turkey, aren't you? Getraer snarled at the invisible shooter. Most people would have fired a warning round or two and then taken off before the cops showed up and they ended up getting busted. So what's with you? Are you stupid, crazy, high on your own weed, or all of the above?
The sergeant slipped silently out from behind the tree where he'd taken cover, then dashed frantically to the dubious safety of another small tree, several yards away. There was no point in firing blindly at their assailant under these circumstances: such a move would have been futile -- not to mention dangerous.
Instead, Getraer hoped to get close enough to the shooter to surprise him while he reloaded and take advantage of the lull in firing to overpower him. With Baker and Baricza's help, the sergeant was confident that his plan would succeed, barring any unforeseen circumstances. . .
. . .like the one that was producing that strange growling noise up ahead, off to one side of the path. Before Getraer could think of what could possible produce such a sound, the growling stopped momentarily. It was instantly replaced by the sound of screaming, and even at a distance, Getraer could hear the panic and terror in the person's voice.
The gunfire had also stopped, and now Getraer ran through the trees, half afraid of what he might see when he arrived at the source of the hideous shrieking and snarling. A dozen possibilities ran through his mind as he threaded his way through the thin tree cover. . .he could already picture Baker or Baricza shot or somehow at the mercy of an assailant who was high on drugs.
But as he reached the spot where the screeching and cursing was coming from, he stopped momentarily. . .and he could hardly believe what he was seeing. Far from being injured or incapacitated, Baker and Baricza stood side by side in a small clearing, and now both officers wore identical expressions of disbelief as they stared at something on the ground.
Whatever it was, it was definitely the source of the banshee noises that assaulted the three CHP officers' ears. At first, the object appeared to be a bundle of rags partially covered with some kind of an old fur coat -- no matter how improbable that might have seemed in this setting.
But as Getraer neared the clearing, he stopped again, and like his fellow officers, he could only stand and stare at what was taking place in front of him. The "bundle of rags" continued to scream hysterically as the black and tan "fur coat" stood with its front feet on his chest, snarling menacingly down at the bearded young man.
And if the patchwork of bites on the man's arms and his shredded shirt sleeves were any indication, the German Shepherd's attack had been completely unexpected. . .and devastatingly effective. The dog was thin to the point of emaciation, but there was still power and strength in every line of her body, and it was obvious that she had been well trained in protection work by her former handlers. The man's gun had landed almost six feet away, but when he glanced at the weapon, even that small movement was enough to make the dog snarl menacingly under her breath.
And judging from the man's incoherent babbling and the glazed look in his eyes, it appeared that Getraer's earlier assumptions about the man's mental condition had been right on target. The sergeant had seen too many habitual drug users not to recognize the symptoms: from the looks of it, their attacker was no doubt one of his own best 'customers.'
"Somebody, do something!" the man screeched piteously at the three officers, but he made no further attempts to move. "You gotta get this wolf off me!"
"Wolf?" Baricza snorted in derision, then dropped down onto one knee. His voice was gentle and soothing as he held out one hand towards the dog. "Hey, girl. . .you did a good job just now. Bleib! Ja, sehr gut!"
At the sound of Baricza's words, the dog's ears went up, and she turned her head to one side, as if puzzled by what she had just heard. But she made no move to escape, even when Bear took a step towards her, then another and another.
When he was within three feet of the dog and its 'prisoner,' he pointed down at his left side. The dog shivered and dropped its head, as if preparing to run away again, but he shook his head.
"Nein!" he said firmly, then added in a softer voice, "Komm!"
The Shepherd whimpered a little under its breath, but she slowly took a step on shaky legs towards Baricza. She paused and looked up at him for a moment: then, with a moan that was almost human, she flung herself at his feet, rolling over on her back in a sign of submission. Cautiously, Baricza reached down and scratched behind the dog's ears, and with that, the Shepherd sat up again, her tail thumping wildly against the ground.
"Good girl!" he grinned triumphantly, as Baker and Getraer hauled the dog's erstwhile captive to his feet. "Bleib sitzen. . .sehr gut schaeferhund!"
Getraer remembered enough of his high school German to recognize the words for "sit" and "stay." And judging from the way that the dog licked Baricza's hand, it was obvious that she appreciated being told that she was a very good Shepherd dog, too.
"That's what I thought!" Baricza said quietly to Getraer and Baker. "The reason that she hasn't come to me when I've called her before now is because she was taught to obey only German commands. From what I've read in the dog book that I bought the other night, that's pretty common with Shepherds that have been trained for protection work. Keeps the wrong people from being able to turn your dog against you. . .if you know what I mean."
Baricza nodded meaningfully at their prisoner. The man continued to mumble under his breath as Baker finished handcuffing him, and just as the blond cop was about to lead him away, the bearded man stopped suddenly. He looked over at Baricza and his watchful canine companion, then shook his head in bleary-eyed disgust.
"Just my lousy luck -- ten thousand places I could've planted me a little smoke, and I had to pick the one place in Los Angeles with a real live wolf running around loose," he mumbled to himself, only moderately more coherent than he had been a moment or two before. "So where the heck is Goldilocks when you need her, anyway? Or was that little Red Riding Hood?"
"Right here. . .but believe me, I'm the last person you want to see right now," Bonnie snapped as she trotted down the path towards her friends, followed by three uniformed CHP officers. "I heard the gun shots and called it in, Sarge, but instead of charging into the middle of everything, I decided to hang tight and wait for back-up. I figured you three didn't need me messing up your game plan. . .uh, make that the four of you. So, who's your furry friend there, Bear?"
"It's a long story, Bonnie," Bear smiled as one of the uniformed officers took custody of the dazed and shivering prisoner. "I'll fill you in on all the details over breakfast. But if it's all the same to you, Sarge, how about if we order some carry-out from the restaurant across the street from my apartment building and eat breakfast at my place? I think I'd better go see what kind of trouble my 'kids' have managed to get into since I left home this morning. Linda, my next door neighbor, is in on my little secret, too. She usually works at night, and she's been keeping an eye on the whole crew during the day while I'm gone. But she had an emergency at work, and she couldn't watch them for me this morning. So I don't know what kind of a mess I'll be walking into when I get home."
An imperious bark from somewhere in the distance made the big Shepherd's ears perk up, and Baricza grinned once more. "And I have an idea that little Mama here would like to see the rest of her brood. . .so, how do you feel about being named "Gretchen," eh, girl? Come on, Gretchen, let's go rescue a certain young lady before she has a conniption fit. Heel -- oops, make that 'Fuss!' "
Bonnie wore a bewildered expression as Baricza retraced his steps down the path with the big Shepherd heeling perfectly at his left side. Her look of confusion only deepened as she watched Bear untie a small replica of the larger dog, and she turned to Baker and Getraer with a frown.
"Since when does Bear own a dog. . .and what's this about having kids at his apartment?" she demanded suspiciously. "And for that matter, since when did he learn to speak German? And who was that guy that was shooting at you, and what was he doing out here? And what did Bear mean by someone else being in on his little secret? Will somebody please explain what's going on?"
"Believe me, Bonnie, if I could, I'd tell you. . .and then we'd all know," Getraer shook his head. "I think Barry is probably the only one who can answer your questions -- me, I'm still trying to put all the pieces together. But for the moment, let's say that it just goes to prove one of my grandmother's favorite sayings."
"What's that, Sarge?" Baker asked with a twinkle in his eyes.
"Grandmother Getraer always used to say that when you assume something about someone, all you're doing is making an 'ass' out of 'u' and 'me,' " he said with an ironic little smile. Getraer winked at Baricza, then added, "And believe me, Bonnie, that's exactly what we've all done here this morning."
The walk back to the waiting vehicles was remarkable for the depth and quality of its icy silence. And if looks could have killed, CHP Central would have definitely been in need of a new sergeant.
". . .so the only secret you were keeping from us was a batch of puppies?" Bonnie groaned an hour and a half later, as she and the others sat in the living room of Baricza's apartment. "I still can't believe you walked right past a patch of marijuana and didn't spot it. And not only once, but who knows how many times while you were out there chasing after a stray dog!"
"You know me and my one track mind, Bonnie. Once I get focused on something, it practically takes an explosion to distract me. . .that, or some people's sneezing," he grinned wickedly at Getraer. "I was concentrating so hard on trying to get the dog to come to me that I never paid any attention to anything else.
Bonnie chuckled as she walked past him and affectionately rumpled his hair. "And here we thought you were in some kind of trouble. . .big time!"
"Well, what do you call all this?" Bear laughed from his vantage point on the floor.
He gestured at the pile of puppies who now surrounded him like a furry hurricane -- chewing on his shoe laces, nipping at his ears, or trying to lick the last molecules of breakfast from his face. The puppies' mother sat at Bear's side, watching all the puppy pandemonium with a proud expression in her alert brown eyes. Occasionally, she leaned forward and growled a little when she thought that one of the puppies was playing a little too rough with her pet human.
But Bear's smile quickly faded as he gestured at a piece of paper laying on his coffee table, and he shook his head. "Besides, isn't getting evicted for violating the 'No Pets' clause in my lease enough trouble as is?"
The notice had been taped on the front door when Baricza and the others had first walked in. . .even in the parking lot, they had all been able to hear the yips, yaps, barks, and whimpers that had tipped the landlord off. Now the dark-haired officer wore a worried frown as Gretchen laid down beside him. The Shepherd put her head on his leg, then looked up at him with trust showing in every line of her face and body.
"It was hard enough to find a decent apartment at a price I can afford," Bear ruffled Gretchen's ears, and the big dog sighed happily. "But just try finding a nice place that will allow you to have dogs at all. . .let alone a couple of big dogs. I'm going to find homes for the rest of the puppies, but I really wanted to keep Gretchen and Samantha."
Getraer chuckled at Baricza's worried expression. "Barry, I told you that I may have a solution to your problem, and I meant it. You know that my wife and I have bought some investment property over the last couple of years, right? And you also know that Timmy would love to have a dog of his own, but we haven't been able to get him one because of my allergies."
He paused, waiting until the light dawned in Bear's eyes. "That's right," the sergeant said. "We have a nice two bedroom house for rent at a reasonable price to the right person. It's in a good neighborhood. . .less than two blocks from my place, as a matter of fact. It has a big fenced-in back yard -- just perfect to let two or three dogs to run loose. If you'll let Timmy have one of the puppies and then keep it at your place, I think we can work out a deal. That way, he can have a dog to play with, and I won't sneeze myself to death in the process."
Baker laughed at Baricza's noisy sigh of relief, then said. "Bear, the people who own the stables where I board my horse are wanting to get a puppy, one of the larger breeds that will grow up to be a good watchdog. Mind if I tell them about your crew, here? I have an idea that they're going to want one of the puppies, especially after I tell them about the way that Gretchen protected us this morning."
"There are no restrictions on pets at my duplex. . .I'd love to take this little guy, if you'd let me have him," Bonnie picked up a roly-poly sable puppy and snuggled it. "And we all know that Harlan is going to take one look at this bunch and fall in love with them. I bet he'll want one, too."
"My folks said that they'll take one of the puppies, too. And Linda's oldest daughter Cherie has two sons. Cherie wants one of the pups for her boys, so everything ought to work out just fine!" Baricza said, but his expression quickly sobered. "This whole thing is kind of ironic, though."
"What do you mean, Bear?" Bonnie asked, seeing Baricza's sudden frown.
"Instead of being the neighborhood drug dealer, now I'm the neighborhood puppy pusher," Baricza snorted ruefully, then gestured at Bonnie with a furtive expression. "Psst, lady! Wanna score some puppy? Guaranteed one hundred percent pure. Pure trouble, that is!"
"On that note, I'm out of here," Getraer snorted as he stood up and stretched. "It is my day off, you know, and I think this old man has had about all the excitement he can handle for one morning."
"Yeah, Sarge. . .it'll be nice to go back to work tomorrow, won't it? No getting out of bed at three thirty in the morning to do surveillance work, no car chases, and no drug dealers shooting at us," Baker chuckled. "Nothing but nice, quiet, peaceful traffic jams, a few irate motorists, and all the smog you can eat."
Baricza stood up as Getraer walked towards the front door. "Uh, Sarge. . ." Bear began hesitantly, and Getraer paused, then turned towards him again. "I just wanted to say thanks. . .thanks for everything. It means a lot to me to know that I've got such good friends. And if I ever run onto problems like this again, I won't try to tough it out on my own. You have my word on that."
"I'm glad to hear you say that, Barry. . .and you're welcome," Getraer smiled. "I'll see you bright and early tomorrow morning, then. Actually, the hour will be early, and I expect you three to be bright!"
Getraer grinned at the chorus of groans that greeted his announcement, and he took advantage of the other officers' mock dismay to slip out of the apartment. He started to walk down the flight of steps towards the ground floor, but he paused for a moment on the middle step.
Baker is absolutely right, Getraer nodded to himself. If this is what a nice, relaxing day off is supposed to be like. . .
. . .I'll take work any time!
Author's Note: This story is dedicated with best wishes to fellow dog lover Brodie Greer. His rescue of a Norwegian Elkhound in1990 was the inspiration for the "lost dog" portion of the plot.