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Disclaimer: This story was written for entertainment purposes only.  No profit is being made from it.  No infringement on anyone's copyright is intended.    As always, we thank our editor, Donna E.  You're way too good to us!

 

Warning:  This is a dark story with themes that some may find upsetting.

 

Kidnapping Ring

by Sue David and Valerie Wells

9/2003

 

When Stephanie woke up, she hurt all over and it was dark and cold. She didn't remember, at first, what had happened or how she'd gotten here. Or where "here" was.

 

Then it all came rushing back.

 

Two hours earlier:

 

She was running late and didn't have time for breakfast. Her mother called after her, as she gathered up her books and a jacket on the way out the door, "You have to eat something."

 

"I'll grab a doughnut on the way!" Stephanie called back. There was a coffee shop near the bus stop. Her mother grumbled something good-naturedly about "teenagers" and Stephanie ran. She made it to the bus stop with a few minutes to spare, and she did glance toward the coffee shop, but she was afraid that if she went in to get a doughnut, she'd miss the bus. It was due any minute.

 

A girl a little older than she walked up, wearing too much makeup and a too-short skirt. Not the kind of girl Stephanie would make friends with, but she smiled and said "good morning" anyway. She thought she knew most of the kids who rode this bus, but maybe this girl was new.

 

"I'm Stephanie," she offered when the girl didn't return her greeting. "Do you go to Hillcrest?"

 

The girl shook her head. She was nervous, even trembling. She kept glancing to her left and, curious, Stephanie glanced that way, too. There was the usual morning bustle on the corner today, people rushing to work, buying newspapers, gathering to catch the bus. Stephanie smiled at a couple of fellow students she saw most mornings, and one of them asked how she'd done on the biology test the day before.

 

"Foul," she said with a laugh. "All those vocab terms. I didn't remember half of them."

 

The bus pulled up and people started trying to crush on. Stephanie was jostled by the crowd, and, suddenly, a man had hold of her arm and hissed at her, "Scream and I'll stick this knife in ya. Just come quiet, got it?"

 

Stephanie's heart almost stopped, and she glanced up into the face of a man about her father's age, but without his kind eyes. This man's eyes were hard and cold. The girl was on her other side.

 

"It'll be easier if you do what he says," the girl whispered. "I know."

 

Stephanie's knees were weak and she was terrified, but before she knew it, the man and the girl had her walking away from the bus, around the corner, and they shoved her into a dark-colored van parked at the curb. The man produced a dirty handkerchief and put it over her face, and everything went dark.

 

She lay in this dark cold place now, remembering, and prayed.

 

~*~*~*~

 

"What the hell is THAT?" Starsky demanded when Hutch got in the car clutching something that looked like a turnover, but was oozing cheese.

 

"A pasty," Hutch said. "Want a bite?"

 

Starsky eyed it suspiciously. "What's in it?"

 

"Cheese and broccoli and chicken," Hutch said.

 

"Did you make it?"

 

Hutch shook his head and took a bite himself. "Bought 'em. New shop on my block, sells this stuff. It's good, Starsk, take a bite. Kind of a British dish, I guess."

 

Starsky took a cautious nibble and was agreeably surprised. It was good. "You sick?"

 

Hutch chuckled. "No. The counter girl's a fox, though. And you admitted you liked the pasty."

 

Starsky nodded and chuckled in his turn. "Counter girl's cute, is she? I thought it was strange, you eatin' real food."

 

"Aw, stuff it," Hutch said good-naturedly. "Drive. Maybe if you behave today, I'll bring you one tomorrow."

 

Their good moods evaporated when they arrived in the squad room, however, and found chaos.

 

"Kidnapping," Dobey said shortly. "Meeting. Now."

 

Normally, it took at least 24 hours for the police to be able to move on a kidnapping -- there were a lot of runaways in southern California, and no one was ever sure a "kidnapping" wasn't simply a kid who got tired of curfews -- but this time there had been witnesses who had seen the girl snatched from the bus stop.

 

"Pretty brazen of them," Hutch remarked, sitting down at the conference table.

 

"That's what scares us," said Captain Dunegan, the day watch commander for the uniforms at Metro. "Because they snatched the girl right in front of witnesses like that, we're afraid we don't have much time on this one. Here's her picture." He put a photo on the wall in the front of the room, a school photo blown up large. "Her name is Stephanie Harris, and she's 16, a junior at Hillcrest High School. We don't have much on the suspects. The kid's classmate who reported it only got a glimpse of a man and the back of another girl. All he could tell us was the girl had on a short skirt and the man needed a shave. Nobody saw the vehicle they must've taken her away in. The kid's in Interview Two waiting for somebody to come take his statement -- "

 

"Starsky, Hutch, get moving," Dobey ordered.

 

The two men nodded and hurried to the interrogation room, where a black teenager trying hard not to cry was waiting for them.

 

Starsky introduced them and sat down next to the kid. "What's your name, son?"

 

"Lamont Carson," the kid said, pulling himself together. "I'm in a couple of Steph's classes and we ride the same bus in the morning."

 

"Tell us what you saw, no matter how trivial it seems," Hutch said, sitting down across from the kid.

 

Lamont nodded. "We were all waiting for the bus and Steph and I were talking about a test we had yesterday when the bus pulled up. There's always a crowd for that bus, and I lost her in the crowd, but when I got in my seat, I saw a man and a girl leading her away and around the corner."

 

"What makes you so sure she wasn't leaving with them willingly?" Hutch asked.

 

"The man had a knife," Lamont said with a little shudder. "Steph kind of pulled away from him as they were walking, and I saw the knife. He was holding it against her ribs and she looked scared to death." He looked appealingly at Starsky. "It was a big knife, Officer."

 

Starsky patted his arm. "Okay. What'd the guy look like? Anything at all that you can remember."

 

Lamont considered for a moment before answering. "He had dark hair," he said finally. "I just caught a glimpse of his face and he hadn't shaved for a couple of days. He was wearing a jeans jacket. The girl had on a red mini skirt and a jeans jacket, too. I think her hair was red but I wasn't really lookin' at her so I'm not sure. That's all I saw. I'm sorry." He blinked rapidly. "Please find her," he said, his voice shaking a little. "Please."

 

"We will, buddy, we will," Starsky said. "You did the right thing calling us right away."

 

"I was afraid nobody'd listen to me," Lamont said. "Thanks for taking me seriously."

 

After taking Lamont's phone number, they sent him back to school with a uniformed officer and went back to the conference room, where several other officers were taking copies of Stephanie's photo and description out on patrol with them.

 

"Have the parents been notified?" Hutch asked.

 

Dobey nodded soberly. "Here's the address. The father had already left for work, but he's on his way home. He should be there by the time you get there. The other witness who saw the snatch is a news vendor half a block down from the bus stop. He might've seen more than the kid did."

 

Hutch took the information and slipped it into his jacket pocket as he and Starsky headed for the door.

 

~*~*~*~

 

The girl Stephanie had seen at the bus stop came in and turned on a light. Now Stephanie could see she was in a damp basement room with a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling. The girl was carrying some clothes and she handed them to Stephanie. "Come with me," she said, and Stephanie was too afraid not to obey.

 

Upstairs, the house was dark except for a couple lamps. The blinds were tightly drawn. An older woman, about the man's age, was waiting. She took Stephanie into a bathroom and ordered her to strip. "We're going to dye your hair," she said.

 

"No!" Stephanie cried, startled into speech. "What do you want with me?"

 

"Do as I say!" the woman barked, slapping her hard.

 

Stephanie obeyed, trembling. The woman dyed her blonde hair a dark brown and then cut it short. She told Stephanie to dress in the clothes the other girl had given her.

 

By now, Stephanie was so terrified she was moving purely on instinct. When she emerged from the bathroom, the woman examined her and nodded. "That'll do. No one will recognize you now."

 

~*~*~*~

 

Starsky and Hutch made their first stop the newsvendor. He couldn't tell them much more than Lamont had.

 

"I see that girl every day," he said. "But I was busy this morning and wasn't really watching the bus stop. First I knew, that kid was scrambling off the bus and yelling 'Somebody took Stephanie!' and then he went running into that drugstore to use the phone to call you guys. When the cops showed up, they took him to the school to make sure she hadn't gone to school, and then they come back here and asked me what I'd seen. Guess they asked everybody up and down here and nobody saw a thing."

 

"Did you get a look at the man or the girl who took her?" Starsky asked hopefully.

 

But the vendor shook his head. "Not really. There's always a lot of people hanging out there for that bus. I did see the girl talking to another girl before the crowd got very big. She had red hair and a red skirt. Looked kinda trashy for a high school kid. But that's all I noticed. I was busy," he said again, sounding regretful. "Wish I could tell you more."

 

"So do we," Hutch said. He handed the man a card. "If you remember anything else, no matter how silly it seems, call us."

 

"Okay."

 

"If we showed you a photo of the girl you saw talking to Stephanie, would you recognize her?"

 

"I'd be willing to try, Officer. Good luck."

 

"We're gonna need more than luck," Starsky said grimly as they went back to the car.

 

~*~*~*~

 

Stephanie was led into a room with three or four other girls about her age and a little younger. All of them had haunted, terrified faces. The man followed her in and gave her a hard shove, so she lost her balance and fell.

 

"This is Crystal," he said to the others. "Tell her what she needs to know."

 

Stephanie opened her mouth to correct him, but he glared at her.

 

"Your name is Crystal," he said. "Don't make me beat it into ya."

 

She nodded and got up off the floor, helped by one of the other girls. The man left, slamming the door.

 

"I'm Suzanne," the girl who had helped her up said, making room for her on the ragged sofa. "Did you just get here?"

 

"Pretty much," Stephanie said. "They grabbed me from the bus stop this morning. I don't even know what time it is."

 

"It doesn't matter," Suzanne said. "There's off time and work time and that's all that really matters."

 

"My name's Buffy," another girl said, rolling her eyes. "It's not really Buffy, but that's what he decided I should be called. My name's really -- "

 

Suzanne hissed, "Sssh!" To Stephanie, she said, "If we told you our real names, you might forget and use them and he'd beat the hell out of you, and us for telling you. Just accept whatever name he gives you."

 

Stephanie's eyes welled up and Suzanne put her arm around her.

 

"It's not so bad when we're not working," she said quietly.

 

"What kind of work?" Stephanie asked, trembling.

 

The other girls exchanged glances for a moment, and finally Buffy said, "You don't know?"

 

Stephanie shook her head.

 

Suzanne tightened her arm. "Prostitution."

 

"Oh, my God," Stephanie said, losing her composure entirely and breaking down. "My God. I'm a virgin!"

 

"You won't be after tonight," said another girl across the room with a smirk.

 

~*~*~*~

 

Starsky and Hutch pulled into the driveway of the Harrises' apartment building and got out. Hutch squinted at the building and pointed. "That way."

 

A man with blond hair as light as Hutch's answered their knock.  Traces of the strain he was under were obvious on his face. Hutch identified himself and Starsky and the man stepped back. "I'm Donald," he said softly. "My wife, Candace."

 

The men nodded at the woman curled into a ball on the sofa. "We're going to have to ask you some hard questions," Starsky said to her. "I'm sorry, but we have to, to have any chance of finding your daughter."

 

She nodded, a tear sliding down her cheek.

 

Donald waved them to seats and sat beside his wife, taking her hand.

 

"Can you think of anyone who would take Stephanie to get to you for some reason?" Hutch asked. "Any custody issues or anything like that?"

 

Mrs. Harris bent her head and Mr. Harris said, "No. Good God. We've got good relationships with both sets of grandparents."

 

Hutch nodded. "I'm sorry, I had to ask. Any enemies? Old lovers, anything like that?"

 

Mrs. Harris was sobbing now, and Mr. Harris' jaw tightened. "I told you. No."

 

"Does she have a boyfriend?" Starsky asked.

 

Mr. Harris shook his head. "She's only been on one or two dates. Prom last year. Um, homecoming. A couple of football games with a group. Nothing serious."

 

"Do you know the boys she's been out with?"

 

"I do," Mrs. Harris said, raising her head. "One's a neighbor boy she used to play with when they were children. The other one's the son of friends of ours. They're both good boys."

 

"We'll need their names and addresses," Starsky said.

 

She nodded and got off the sofa. "I'll get them for you." She went into the other room and Mr. Harris looked nervously from one to the other.

 

"What are the chances of finding her?" he said quietly. "Really?"

 

Starsky and Hutch glanced at each other and finally Hutch said, "We got a fast start, sir. We're optimistic."

 

He dropped his head and stared at his folded hands for a moment. But when his wife came back into the room, he pulled himself together. She gave Starsky a slip of paper and he thanked her.

 

"Does Stephanie have a friend with long red hair?" Hutch asked.

 

The parents glanced at each other and Mrs. Harris said, "No. Why?"

 

"Lamont Carson, the classmate who saw ... um, the crime ... said there was a girl with long red hair with her," Starsky said.

 

"I don't know any girls like that," Mrs. Harris said. "But Stephanie's got a lot of friends at school that she only sees at school. Maybe it's someone there."

 

"We'll try that," Hutch said, rising and nudging Starsky. "We'll be in touch. If you get any strange  phone calls or mail, or see anyone hanging around, or, well, demands for ransom," he paused as Mrs. Harris gasped and then went on more gently, "let us know immediately. Any time of the day or night. Here's our number." He handed Mr. Harris his card.

 

~*~*~*~

 

"The best thing to do," Buffy said to Stephanie, who was all cried out by now, "is to go along with whatever the john wants you to do. Don't fight him. It helps to close your eyes and think about something else. You have a boyfriend?"

 

Stephanie shook her head.

 

"Do you like any rock stars? TV stars?"

 

Stephanie was puzzled but she shrugged. "Andy Gibb's pretty cute."

 

"Think about him," Buffy said. "When the john's doing you, think of Andy. Pretend it's him. It helps. It really does."

 

Stephanie shuddered. "I don't think it will."

 

~*~*~*~

 

Starsky and Hutch found the first boy at school, in P.E. class. The news was all over the high school by the time they'd arrived, and the teacher called the kid over as soon as the detectives identified themselves.

 

Rick Hudson was a tall boy with longish dark hair. He was breathless from playing basketball but sober when he realized who the men were.

 

"Let's go over here and sit down," Starsky said, leading the way to the bleachers. "How long since you saw Stephanie?"

 

"She was at school yesterday," Rick said. "I saw her in the hall and said 'hi' but we didn't really talk."

 

"Have you dated her?"

 

"Sort of. We went to homecoming together," he said. "Nothing serious. We're really just friends. I've known her since we were little kids." He shook his head. "I'm scared, though. You think she's okay?"

 

"We don't know," Starsky said. "We hope so."

 

"Me, too," Rick said.

 

The second boy went to a different school, but when Starsky explained their errand to the principal, he found the boy and let them talk to him. This was the son of the Harrises' friends, and he hadn't seen Stephanie since the last time the two families had gotten together for a cookout, two months before.

 

"I don't know anything about her other friends," he said regretfully to the detectives. "She'd talk about this one and that one and stuff that happened at school, but I didn't know who she was talking about, really."

 

~*~*~*~

 

The door opened and the man stuck his head in. "Buffy. Customer."

 

Buffy rose and walked out without a backward glance and the man glared at Stephanie. "You. Come with me."

 

Suzanne squeezed her hand and gave her a little push. "Remember what we told you," she said.

 

Stephanie went with the man, who grabbed her arm roughly. "Did they tell you what happens to girls who don't do what they're told?" he hissed at her.

 

Stephanie nodded, trying not to cry.

 

"Then come on. And you better remember."

 

She was shoved into the van and driven to a corner in a part of town she didn't recognize with several other girls. The man -- Suzanne had told her they all called him Buck and knew nothing else about him -- parked the van where he could watch the girls. They stood on the corner and when cars pulled up, one after the other got into the cars and went away with the men driving them. No one chose Stephanie at first. She hung back, afraid, while other girls flirted and approached cars.

 

Finally, one man called out to her. "What's your name, sweetheart?"

 

"Ste -- um, Crystal," Stephanie said.

 

"Come here. Let me see you."

 

She walked closer to the car. He was much older than she, close to 40, but he had a kind smile.  She smiled, a little tentatively, knowing that Buck was watching.

 

"Get in, honey. How much?"

 

"Twenty."

 

"I'm sure you're worth every penny," he said. "Come on."

 

She got in the car, every nerve jumping in terror. She knew what was going to happen, in a clinical way, but she'd never even made out with a boy beyond some very chaste kissing with Rick after homecoming. The man drove to a motel a few blocks away and led her to a room he'd obviously already reserved. He didn't go to the reception desk first. Once they were inside, he asked her to sit on the bed and he offered her a drink.

 

"I ... I'm underage," she stammered.

 

He smiled. "I won't tell." He poured her a glass of beer and handed it to her and she took a little sip, grimacing at the bitter taste. He laughed. "Not to your taste? Maybe you'd rather have a Coke?"

 

"I'm fine," she said. "Really. Um ... what do you want me to do?"

 

"Take off your clothes." He settled into a chair with his own beer and watched as she undressed, trembling. "You're beautiful," he breathed, his face flushing.

 

She forced another smile. "Thank you."

 

"Come here."

 

She went over to him and he put the beer aside and motioned for her to sit on his lap. He touched her with cold hands in places she didn't want to be touched, and kissed her, tasting of beer. His breathing became faster and finally he said, "Undress me now."

 

She obeyed, and he helped her when he realized she was having trouble with some things, then he took her to the bed and when he entered her, she gasped at the pain. He froze. "Are you a virgin?" he whispered into her ear.

 

Unable to speak, she simply nodded, and he lifted his body up and looked down at her. "I didn't know." He backed away and this time went more gently and Stephanie closed her eyes, trying to concentrate on thinking of Andy Gibb, but it did no good. The man was breathing and moaning and kissing her and she couldn't pretend it wasn't happening. A tear escaped from the corner of one eye and trickled down her temple, but the man didn't appear to notice.

 

"Talk to me, baby," he gasped. "Tell me how it feels."

 

It felt awful and degrading and it hurt, but she knew he didn't want to hear that, so she said, "It's my first time. I don't know, um, I didn't know what it would be like until now."

 

"Do you like it, baby? Do you like having me inside you?"

 

Suddenly, it occurred to Stephanie that this man could be a spy for Buck -- Buffy had said sometimes he checked up on their "performances" and beat them up if they didn't measure up -- so she bit her lip and forced herself to say, "Yeah. It's so much better than I imagined."

 

"I'm glad I was your first," he said right before he stiffened and let out a groan and Stephanie could feel something hot and wet and sticky trickling between her legs. She closed her eyes again and let the tears come.

 

~*~*~*~

 

It was well into the third day since Stephanie Harris had disappeared, and with all the other crime on the streets of Bay City, finding her had receded in its immediate importance.

 

Except to Starsky and Hutch. They knew the odds of finding her alive and unharmed had shrunk drastically with every hour that passed, but they weren't going to give up.

 

But they had no leads.

 

Hutch, in his nondescript car, had been watching the bus stop the last two mornings, hoping to spot someone who looked like their suspects. He'd even taken Lamont with him and driven the kid to school afterwards, hoping the boy would see someone and recognize them. They'd had no luck, and it had upset Lamont so much that Hutch felt bad about it, but not bad enough to let the kid off the hook. He was their best witness.

 

While Hutch was doing that, Starsky was haunting the halls of the school looking for a girl with long red hair. There were several, but none of them seemed to know Stephanie Harris. It was a big school, too big for all the students to know each other even by sight, so he'd run checks on all of them and so far, the girls checked out okay.

 

All the rest of the time, they were prowling the streets, looking for girls who looked like the photo the Harrises had given them. Teenage girls with long blonde hair were a dime a dozen in the city, but none of them were the right girl. They'd shaken the trees and questioned every pimp, hooker, and street hood they could find and none of them had seen the girl.

 

"At least we don't have a body," Starsky said to Hutch as they logged out that third day.

 

"Yet," Hutch said grimly.

 

Starsky sighed. "I know, but I'm trying to keep some hope alive, buddy. Can't you help me here?"

 

Hutch sighed, too, and rubbed his eyes. "It gets harder every day, Starsk. You know the odds. Trail's already cold."

 

"We've bucked worse odds than these," Starsky pointed out.

 

"For each other. Not for a poor kid that got snatched from her bus stop."

 

"We'll find her," Starsky said. "We got to."

 

~*~*~*~

 

Stephanie stared, bleary-eyed, into the mirror in the room she shared with three other girls. She still didn't know where she was. Buck, or the woman they called Maggie, always took them out in darkness, and it was a neighborhood she didn't know. She wasn't allowed to go outside alone or in the daylight, and she hadn't been anywhere other than to the corner they worked or motels with men since they'd kidnapped her. And there was always the constant threat of a beating -- or worse -- if one of the girls balked at doing what she was told. Already Stephanie had seen a couple of girls hurt badly for minor infractions. She shuddered at the thought of what Buck and Maggie would do to a runaway.

 

Most of the girls, she'd discovered, were already runaways when they'd been found by the couple. Several had been making money by selling themselves on their own and had believed having a "protector" would make their lives easier.

 

Stephanie's eyes were dark-rimmed with weariness and her hair was unrecognizable. She'd never worn it short in her whole life and it changed her whole face, and the color, so much darker than her own, didn't go with her green eyes and light eyebrows.

 

And the things she'd done over the last several days -- she didn't know how many days -- had given her nightmares.

 

The first man, who'd said his name was Steve, had been kind. He'd given her an extra ten dollars and kissed her when he dropped her off. He'd been back once and had been kind then, too. She liked him, even if she didn't like having sex with him. He kept asking her to say she liked it, though. He wanted her to "talk dirty" to him and she felt silly, but it kept her mind busy thinking of things to say, and that made it a little less awful. And he never hurt her.

 

But there had been other men. She'd lost count. One had slapped her and called her a whore and made her take his ... put her mouth ... she couldn't even think of it. It made her want to throw up. Another had made her call him "Daddy" and use a little-girl voice as he thumped against her. One man just watched her take her clothes off and masturbated.

 

She was sore and tired and felt as if she were coming down with something, and it had occurred to her when she woke up this morning that she could get pregnant. What would she do then?

 

A tear trickled down her cheek half-heartedly. She couldn't even really cry about it anymore. She'd sobbed the first two nights when she came back from "work." Now she just went to bed and slept as much as she could between nightmares. And she didn't recognize her own reflection anymore.

 

Suzanne woke up and stretched and saw her staring in the mirror. They'd become friends in the last several days, and Suzanne was all that was keeping her sane now. She'd soothed her tears and comforted her when she woke up from nightmares and told her how to keep from gagging when men wanted her to use her mouth.

 

"Does it ever become fun?" Stephanie asked her without turning around.

 

"Work?" Suzanne laughed shortly, sounding much older than her years. "You gotta be kiddin' me."

 

"No. Sex. I thought it was supposed to be fun. In books and movies ... " Her voice trailed away and stopped.

 

"Aw, honey," Suzanne said, getting off the bed and coming over to her. She put her arms around Stephanie and gave her a hug. "Yeah. I promise. When you love a guy and he loves you back, it'll be different."

 

Stephanie gave a little shudder. "I can't imagine doing this unless somebody made me."

 

"Sure, you can, Chris," Suzanne said. She didn't know Stephanie's real name and Stephanie had learned to answer to Crystal or Chris over the days she'd been here. "You'll want to and it'll be wonderful, when it's a guy you love. It really will."

 

"What if I get pregnant?" Stephanie asked, voicing the fear she'd been fighting back all morning. "What'll happen to me?"

 

"Buck hasn't taken you to the doc yet?" Suzanne shook her head. "Musta slipped his mind. I'll remind him. He'll get that taken care of. You won't get pregnant, and if you do, he'll take care of that, too."

 

"How?" Stephanie turned around and faced the other girl.

 

"He'll get you an abortion," Suzanne said. "It's no big deal, really. I had one a while back. Forgot to take my pills a couple of days. Man, was Buck pissed. Beat the livin' fuck outta me for that. But he paid for the abortion and it wasn't that bad."

 

"I just want to go home," Stephanie said with a sob. "I miss my mom and dad."

 

~*~*~*~

 

"Holy shit, look at you," Starsky said admiringly as Tina Campbell, one of the female officers, arrived for work near the end of the day. She was dressed to the nines, her hair piled on top of her head in a curly cascade, and wearing far more makeup and jewelry than normal.

 

She stuck her tongue out at him. "I'm doing a vice sting tonight, creep. No cracks."

 

He grinned. "Let me guess. You're a drug dealer."

 

"Very funny." She poured herself a cup of coffee and stirred sugar and cream into it. "Not that kind of vice."

 

"Gambling?"

 

She laughed. "Strike two."

 

"I thought they decided planted hookers weren't working anymore," Starsky said.

 

"They did. I'm backup. The guys'll be doing the john routine and getting the real action."

 

"I'd better not get any action or my wife'll kill me," said Roger Randall, coming into the squad room in time to hear her last remark. He grinned at Tina. "You're lookin' damn sharp, Officer."

 

"Oh, kiss off," she said with a grin and sauntered away, shaking her rear end more than necessary.

 

~*~*~*~

 

"Crystal," Buck said, grabbing her arm roughly, "got a special request for you. Special customer. You do what he says and you do it well or I'll kick your goddamned ass, understand?"

 

Stephanie nodded numbly, terrified at the implications. Her fears were soon realized. Buck took her to a rundown hotel and up to a room on the sixth floor. At the door to one of the rooms, he knocked, then opened it and shoved her forward.

 

"His name's Doc," he hissed into her ear. "I'll be back to get you in two hours."

 

Stephanie went into the darkened room, lit only by a candle on the dresser. A man was in the bed, smoking a cigarette. She stopped uncertainly inside the door.

 

"Hi, baby," he said in a low voice. "What's your name?"

 

"Crystal," Stephanie said, her voice shaking.

 

"No need to be scared, baby. I won't hurt you," he said. "Lemme see your tits."

 

Stephanie removed her shirt. She wasn't wearing a bra; Buck didn't allow that when they were working.

 

"Nice," Doc said. "Rub 'em, baby, tell me how it feels."

 

Stephanie obeyed, feeling stupid, but this was better than the man who had wanted her to call him "Daddy."

 

"Take off the rest of your clothes and come 'ere," Doc ordered.

 

Stephanie did, sitting on the edge of the bed and waiting to be told what to do. Doc stubbed out his cigarette and grabbed her roughly, throwing her sideways and climbing on top of her.

 

"Scream, you little slut. I wanna hear ya scream!"

 

Two hours later, she was waiting outside the door, bruised and crying, her mouth bleeding, barely able to stand upright from the pain, when Buck returned. He poked his head inside the door. "What'd ya think, Doc?"

 

"Aw, she was okay," the voice answered. "But I like Buffy better."

 

"She do what ya told her?"

 

"Yeah."

 

Buck shut the door and grabbed her arm. "Come on."

 

~*~*~*~

 

Hutch held his badge out for the student aid at the desk.  "Detectives Hutchinson and Starsky.  We're here to see Principal Rodham."

 

The teenager gazed at Hutch without speaking.  Her mouth dropped open a little, revealing a full set of braces, which she immediately covered with her hand as she turned a bright pink.  Looking flustered, she stuttered out, "Sh-sh-shure."  She turned away from them and went and knocked nervously on a frosted glass door marked "Principal." 

 

"Nice technique," Starsky teased.

 

"What did I do?" Hutch asked.  "I'd hate to see her reaction if I did more than introduce us."

 

"Must be that Nordic charm."

 

"Aw, stuff it."

 

They stopped their banter when they saw Jane Rodham approaching, with the young lady shyly in step behind her.  The girl kept peeking around the principal to glance at Hutch.  Mrs. Rodham looked glad to see them. 

 

"Thank you for coming," she said as she approached them.  After shaking each of their hands, she dismissed the student and invited the two officers into a small conference room.  Hutch seemed relieved to be out of the staring zone.  Starsky barely concealed his amusement at his partner's distress. 

 

"We understand you have a missing student," Starsky said.  "Though my partner and I don't often handle this type of thing, we're here to determine if her disappearance is related to an ongoing investigation."

 

"Oh, dear," the principal clucked.  "I want to help."  She had a folder in her hand, which she passed to the two detectives. 

 

"Her name is Leslie Elliot.  She's a senior.  Pardon me, but I was expecting someone from Child Welfare, or perhaps Juvenile.  What's going on here?  How did you find out about this?"

 

Starsky and Hutch looked at each other.  Gently, they both silently agreed.  Hutch nodded and said, "We have a friend at Child Protective Services.  She knows we've been investigating the disappearance of another girl.  When she took this report, she just had a feeling about it and asked if we might want to come over here to take your statement. What can you tell us about Miss Elliot?"  They had run into Pam Clifton at Huggy's right after they took Stephanie's case.  She told Starsky when she called him that she had no reason to suspect it was anything, but she wanted them to look into Leslie Elliot's disappearance.  If they thought Leslie was simply a runaway, she would take over from them.

 

"She's a nice kid.  Seventeen.  No parents.  She's been living in foster care.  When she failed to show up for class this morning, we called the foster home."  She handed a copy of Leslie's senior picture to Hutch.  She was an attractive girl, with a sad face, too wise for her years.  She had long, auburn hair and blue eyes.

 

Starsky looked up from the file he'd been reading.  "Ellen and Jason Dudley?"

 

"That's right.  Mrs. Dudley said she hasn't seen her since Friday when she left for school."

 

"But, today is Tuesday," Hutch said, incredulous. "Why didn't they call it in before now?"

 

"Mrs. Dudley said she figured Leslie was spending the weekend with a friend at first. Then, maybe that she'd run away."

 

The two men looked at each other again, both knowing where their next stop would be.  "Ma'am," Starsky said, "why didn't you report this yesterday?"

 

"The school was closed yesterday for a teacher in-service day.  I'm sorry.  Leslie was in all of her classes on Friday.  Homeroom this morning was the first we realized she was missing."

 

"Do you know this girl?  Do you think she ran away?" Hutch asked.

 

"Doubtful.  I do know Leslie.  She's a great kid.  Lost her parents in a car accident a few years ago and she has no relatives.  I know the Dudleys haven't been an ideal situation for her, but they were a big improvement over her previous foster homes.  Last year, we had her pulled out of a situation where she was being... abused."  Mrs. Rodham paused and looked at the two officers to be sure they understood her meaning, then she continued. "They worked hard to place Leslie in another home within our boundaries.  Everyone agreed she needed the continuity of staying in the same school for her senior year if at all possible.  The Dudleys were an approved home and they were willing to take her.  All Leslie wanted to do was graduate and go to college.  She's earned a full scholarship to Stanford for the fall.  In my opinion, Leslie wouldn't drop out and disappear just a few months short of her goal. This is a strong kid who's beaten the odds so far."

 

"Thanks," Starsky said, handing the principal a card.  "Please call us if you hear anything or think of anything we should know.  Could you provide us with a list of Leslie's teachers and any close friends you may remember?"

 

"Certainly.  Poor Leslie. Please find her."

 

"We'll do everything we can, ma'am."

 

The school contacts were no more helpful than the witnesses and contacts the detectives interviewed following Stephanie's disappearance.  Leslie was reported to be an excellent student, quiet and too shy to have many friends.  All of her teachers reported that she seemed in good spirits the previous Friday, giving no sign that she was going to run away from her foster home.  Her closest friend, Cindy, said Leslie had planned to spend the weekend with her, but Cindy was sick on Friday and she didn't come to school. 

 

"This is bad, Starsk," Hutch said as they pulled away from the school and headed toward the Dudleys' address to interview Leslie's foster parents.  "Looks like that gut feeling Pam had was on target."

 

"Yeah.  How's that for a big what if?  What if we hadn't told Pam about Stephanie, huh?"

 

"Really.  This poor kid's been gone for maybe five days."

 

The foster home was only a couple of miles from the high school, but it might as well have been on another planet.  The school was on a boundary between a lower economic status neighborhood and a middle class neighborhood.  Starsky chuckled mirthlessly at the irony as they sat waiting for a freight train to pass.  His sideways glance at Hutch brought a similar, almost soundless laugh from the passenger seat.  The imagery wasn't lost on either of them as the guard arms lifted and they crossed the tracks into a series of streets lined with houses that looked more in need of demolition than repair.  The strongest looking part of the structures was the wrought ironwork over all the windows.

 

"That's it," Hutch said, pointing to a particularly ramshackle house.  Several years past the need for a coat of paint, the crumbling bungalow looked like a stiff breeze could push it into a pile of rubble.   The front yard was covered with gray gravel, complete with a black plastic liner that showed through the rock.  The roof was missing so many shingles, they were certain it must leak.

 

"Lucky thing we don't get much rain," Starsky remarked.

 

They walked up the front steps, grateful to find they were made of concrete, unlike the wooden front porch.  Standing on either side of a sizable hole, they knocked on the iron and screen door.

 

The door opened to reveal a small woman with a baby on her hip. "You selling something?" she asked.

 

"No, ma'am," Hutch replied, holding his badge higher so she would look at it.  "I'm Detective Hutchinson, and this my partner, Detective Starsky.  We're here to talk to you about Leslie Elliot.  Are you Mrs. Dudley?"

 

She squinted at the badge and nodded.  "Yeah, that's me.  Come on in."

 

The detectives glanced around the room, taking in the state of the home.  The front room was cluttered with toys, but not unclean.  They could see the tidy kitchen from where they stood.

 

Seeing that they were taking in their surroundings, Ellen Dudley said, "Sorry about the mess.  Jay-Jay here is just fourteen months old and he just has to have every toy in the place out all the time."  She laughed. 

 

Well, you seem all broken up about Leslie being gone, Hutch thought.  "Yes, ma'am." 

 

The toddler looked up at Hutch and smiled.  He reached toward Hutch's hair, just before sneezing what Starsky hoped was the remains of an Oreo cookie all over his partner. 

 

"Oh, geez, I'm sorry.  Jay-Jay!" 

 

Ellen put the child down in a playpen and rushed into the kitchen to get Hutch a wet paper towel. 

 

Starsky was doing his best not to laugh.  After he got a look at Hutch's expression, he immediately squelched the urge. 

 

"Thank you," Hutch said quietly as he used the proffered towel to clean his face and handed it back to her.

 

"He's had a cold all week.  Sure hope you don't get it."

 

"Yeah.  What can you tell us about Leslie's disappearance?" Hutch asked, desperate to change the subject.

 

Ellen motioned them to seats on the sofa. "Not much to tell, I'm afraid.  She told me she was going to spend the weekend with her friend, Cindy.  Something about working on a science project.  I didn't expect to see her."

 

"What about when she didn't come home on Sunday night or Monday?"

 

The woman shrugged.  "Dunno, I guess I just got busy.  Jay-Jay really has been sick and I just figured she was staying away till he was over it."

 

"You didn't call Cindy's house to check?"

 

"Nah, Leslie's almost eighteen.  She doesn't like me messing in her life too much.  Her birthday's in a coupla months."

 

Starsky asked, "What about your husband?"

 

Mrs. Dudley made a face and rolled her eyes.  "Jason?  He hasn't shown his face around here in three months. He moved out to Vegas.  Thought he was gonna be a big time blackjack dealer or something.  Last time we talked, he said he was going to school to learn to fix slot machines."

 

"Leslie's school principal, Mrs. Rodham, said you thought maybe she'd run away?"

 

"Aw, I didn't mean that.  I had to tell her something.  I figured that'd be the end of it."

 

Starsky looked at her in disbelief.  "You didn't think it was part of your duty as her foster mother to keep track of her?"

 

That made her angry. "Look, Detective," she said with as much disdain as she could put into the title, "I've had four fosters in the past ten years.  I've taken good care of all of 'em.   See, I couldn't have my own for a long time, but now that I have Jay-Jay, that's all over.  I've been a good foster mom, but I'm done with that, understand?  Leslie would tell you.  I've been good to her.  She's practically grown, for God's sake!"

 

"But, she's NOT grown, Mrs. Dudley," Hutch said before Starsky could. 

 

"I think that's enough.  I hope you find her, but that's all I have to say.  Good day, Officers."  Ellen Dudley was done with them, too.  

 

Seeing they were being dismissed, and knowing they wouldn't get anything helpful from her, they stood to leave.   Starsky gave her one of his cards and told her to call if she heard anything.

 

As they were walking down the steps, Ellen called to them through the screen door.  "I hope you find her.  I don't want you to think I don't care.  I do care, it's just... well, Leslie is grown, that's all."

 

The two detectives turned and walked away from her without additional comment. 

 

Back in the car, Starsky fumed and Hutch sat sullenly looking out the windshield as they drove back toward Metro.  He could feel his partner's anger washing over him from the driver's seat throughout the silent trip.  Starsky pulled the Torino into the parking lot and stopped.  After a few seconds, he said, "What the HELL is the matter with that woman?"

 

"I know," Hutch said.

 

Starsky got out of the car and walked toward the back.  He paced back and forth behind it, shaking his head slightly and looking like he had so much to say, but he couldn't choke out a word.  Hutch got out and stood next to the right rear fender and waited.

 

Finally, Starsky said, "We need to talk to Pam."

 

"I agree, but you need to ratchet it back a few notches before we walk over there."

 

Starsky's mouth dropped open and his eyes flashed.  "Ratchet it BACK?"

 

"I know you're mad, buddy, and you have every right to be.  I'm mad, too.  There's no sense going over there and yelling at Pam.  We've been this route before, but Pam's a friend.  'Kay?"

 

"Even more reason for her to explain how the hell a kid gets stuck in a place like that.  I thought those people had home visits and had to keep their act together."

 

Hutch nodded.  "They're supposed to.  Let's just go tell her what we know."

 

Starsky sighed.  "Yeah."

 

When Hutch had finished telling the story -- he insisted it be him and not Starsky -- Pam shook her head.

 

"Let me pull the file and find out who the caseworker is for the Dudleys."

 

"Caseworker?" Starsky, who had not sat down though Pam had waved him to a chair and Hutch had given him The Look, started to pace. "More like case loafer! If they've been out to that house for a home visit and left those people in charge of foster kids, they ain't doin' their fucking job!"

 

"Starsky -- "

 

"The place is a goddamned dump and I wouldn't give that woman a dead hamster to look after, never mind a poor kid with no folks! She doesn't give a shit about Leslie or anybody else but her own kid, and I'm not sure I'd leave him with her. She's didn't even notice the girl was missing! And if she had, she wouldn't have given a flying fuck!"

 

"Starsky!" Hutch half-rose from his seat.

 

"You saw it, too!" Starsky slammed his fist into the wall. "What the hell are you people doing around here?"

 

"The very best we can," Pam said quietly. "We have too many cases and not enough personnel, as you know, David, and we don't and we can't keep up."

 

"That sucks!"

 

"Yes, it does."

 

Starsky finally threw himself into a chair and slammed his fist into the arm. Hutch glanced at him and could see he was near tears and holding it back.

 

Pam calmly went to the filing cabinet and poked through it for a few minutes, finally coming up with a file. "The Dudleys haven't had a home visit for almost a year," she said, and now she sounded angry, too. "The last visit was at a different address. I'll go out there myself today, and if it's as you say -- " She held up a hand as Starsky started to sputter, "I believe you, David, but I have to be able to say I saw it myself -- their foster care license will be suspended pending an investigation and pulled by the end of the month. You have my word."

 

"What about that kid? Her kid?"

 

"I'll put the fear of God into her," Pam said, "but I can't take her child without just cause, you know that."

 

~*~*~*~

 

When Leslie found herself in a strange, horrible place, she was frightened.  Unlike Stephanie, she was all too familiar with bad situations.  Following her parents' deaths, she had drifted in and out of a series of foster homes.  Some of them were good, but some of them were not.  She was smart enough to keep her mouth shut and play along when she needed to, but she was also determined not to be forced into prostitution.  All the work and emotional pain she'd gone through in the past steeled her resolve. She wasn't taken out the first two nights.  What she heard on that second night made her sure that she would have to escape, no matter what. 

 

"I'm sorry," a girl named Veronica pleaded in a room down the hall.  "I didn't mean to, please don't hit me again!"

 

Leslie had spoken with Veronica the previous day.  She was a runaway from Reno.  The yelling revealed that Veronica had refused to allow two men to take her at once and Buck was furious.  She heard Buck yelling at the girl and slapping her around the room.  The beating went on for what seemed like hours, though Leslie realized it couldn't have.  At one point, she heard a terrible thud, followed by silence.  All of the other girls were crying and praying that Buck didn't come after them next.  Leslie lay in the dark, afraid to move for a long time after that.  Eventually, she heard heavy footsteps going down the back stairs.  What she saw when she peeked out the window to the street below made her blood run cold -- Buck throwing a blanket wrapped bundle into the back of the black van.  Leslie prayed for Veronica, and for the strength to escape. Several days later, she got her chance.

 

Buck typically brought the girls to the same area.  He pulled the van around the corner and watched from there.  Out of fear and necessity, Leslie had done what she was ordered to do the first few nights after she was taken down there. She was waiting for a chance to be taken far enough away from Buck to make a run for it.

 

A man pulled up to the curb next to her in a dark Cadillac.  The electric window motor hummed as it lowered the glass.  She couldn't quite see him, but she heard him ask, "How much, baby?"

 

"Depends on what you want and where you're willing to take me to get it," she teased.

 

Marijuana smoke wafted through the open window toward her.  She leaned on the door, far enough over to reveal her cleavage.  The man laughed.  "What do you have in mind?"

 

Leslie glanced at the dark van, almost out of sight.  She was scared, but she continued.  "I'm supposed to charge ya $40," she lied, "but I'll give you a deal.  You take me over to The Palm, and I'll do ya for $20."

 

"The Palm, huh?" he replied.  "Why way over there?"

 

"I know a guy over there that can hook us up with some righteous weed.  Works in the back.  You on?"

 

He thought for a moment, then said, "Sure, baby, get in.  That's a deal. What're you gonna tell your boss?"

 

"Fuck him," she said with a snort.  "I'll get some grass for him, too.  He won't care."

 

She climbed in and he pulled away into traffic, heading down the street toward The Palm Hotel.  This hotel was just as sleazy as the rest.  They rented rooms by the half hour.  However, an all night grocery store was located next door.  The rest of Leslie's plan was simple.  She went in with her trick, then told him she would meet him in the room after she bought the marijuana.  Instead, she quietly slipped out the back, and around to the grocery store. 

 

"Please help me," she pleaded with the woman behind the counter, who looked none too pleased to have an obvious prostitute in her store. 

 

"Get out of here, " she growled.

 

"No, please, you don't understand.  My name is Leslie Elliot.  I was kidnapped last Friday and they're making me do this.  Please, God, you have to help me.  Call the cops.  Please!"

 

The woman saw something in Leslie's eyes that made her relent.  She called the police for her and allowed Leslie to wait in her office, so no one would see her.  Three hours later, she was sitting with Pam Clifton in an interrogation room at the Metro police station, waiting for Starsky and Hutch to get there to speak with her.

 

Both were a little worse for wear when they arrived. It was long past midnight and Hutch had had a date and Starsky had been asleep in front of an old movie on TV. But out of habit and necessity, both could be alert very quickly and had wasted no time in getting down to the station once they got the call.

 

"I'm Hutch," Hutch said to Leslie, sitting down next to her. "We've been looking for you. Are you all right?"

 

"Yeah, I think so," Leslie said. "Nobody beat me up or anything, but ... " She stopped and her eyes filled with tears. "I -- I had to -- he made me ... "

 

"We know," Hutch said gently, taking her hand. "Pam already told us. You don't have to talk about that part right now." He glanced at Pam. "Can we get her a doctor to check her out?"

 

Pam nodded. "I already made the call. First thing in the morning, and I'll drive her there myself. Then we have a new foster home to place her in, one I've checked out personally," she glanced at Starsky as she said this and he had the grace to blush, "with an older couple whose kids are grown. They're very nice," she said to Leslie. "I think you'll like them. They've had ten foster kids and adopted four of them, and all of them still visit and write regularly."

 

Leslie tried to smile. "Thanks."

 

"What can you tell us about this place?" Starsky asked. "What happened?"

 

Leslie took a deep breath and Hutch squeezed her hand. "I was supposed to spend the weekend with a friend," she said, "but she wasn't at school on Friday and when I called her, I found out she was sick, so we had to call it off. I ride the city bus to school, and while I was waiting for it, a girl came up and asked me for a light. I gave her my lighter -- "

 

"Aren't you a little young to smoke?"

 

Leslie flushed.

 

"Shut up, Hutch," Starsky said. "Let her finish."

 

Leslie gave him a timid smile. "And then this man came up and stuck a knife against my side and told me to come with them and not to scream. So I did. I tried to signal another student who was waiting for the same bus, but she didn't see me or she didn't understand what I was trying to tell her. They put me in this van and put a handkerchief over my face and it made me pass out and next thing I knew, I was in this house, with all these other girls."

 

Starsky and Hutch exchanged a sudden glance and Starsky reached into his pocket. "Was this one of the girls?" He handed her Stephanie's photo.

 

Leslie accepted it and studied it for several minutes, frowning. "I was only there a couple of days. This girl looks kind of familiar, but I don't think she was one of them. I'm not sure, though."

 

"Her name is Stephanie," Starsky said.

 

Leslie shook her head. "Buck -- that's the man's name, or what he told us to call him, anyway -- he gives all the girls a new name when they arrive. Nobody's allowed to use their own name or tell anyone what their real name is. My new name was Jackie."

 

"Where is this house?" Starsky asked, pen poised above his notepad.

 

"I don't know, I'm sorry." Leslie's eyes welled up. "They took me in when I was passed out -- I think it was chloroform or something on a handkerchief. And when we went out to work, they piled us all in the back of a panel truck and I couldn't see out. I don't think it was a nice neighborhood. But I don't know where it is."

 

"How about where you worked? Did you recognize that street?"

 

Leslie wiped away a tear that had fallen and said, "The first night it was Sixth and Wagner, you know the drugstore there?" After both men nodded, she went on, "And it was usually the same neighborhood, but not always the same corner. We were trying to stay," she gave a bitter laugh, "one step ahead of the cops."

 

Starsky and Hutch exchanged a glance. Leslie was far older than her years in some ways, and it saddened both of them. "Okay," Starsky said after a moment, "give us a description of this guy Buck, as detailed as you possibly can, and after the doc's checked you out tomorrow, we'll want you to look at some mug books to see if you can spot him. Can you do that?"

 

Leslie nodded. "Sure can. I hope I can help you find him. My guess is some of the girls never slept with a man before Buck got hold of them, and can you imagine going through life, or even just your wedding night, knowing your first lover was a greasy john?"

 

Starsky had to drop his eyes to hide the effect her words had on him, and Hutch reached out to take her hand and give it a squeeze. "You're a brave girl, sweetheart. Maybe someday when you're out of school, you ought to come back and see us. We could use somebody with your nerve on the streets."

 

Leslie smiled, a genuine smile this time. "Thanks, Hutch. But I'm going into social services, child welfare. I know what it's like and I want to help kids like me."

 

Starsky, who had recovered his composure by now, returned her smile. "You'll be terrific at it, too."

 

~*~*~*~

 

Stephanie dressed for her "shift," as the girls referred to it, and painted her eyes to hide the dark circles. What would her mom and dad say if they could see her now? They wouldn't even know their little girl. Would they even take her back, provided she ever got out of here, knowing what she'd done?

 

Buck had brought her a package of birth control pills and Suzanne had coached her in how to take them. She swallowed one now, remembering from her sex ed class at school that they didn't take effect until you'd been taking them a while, and still worrying that she could get pregnant. She didn't want to think about that, but it kept nagging at her. She wouldn't even know who the father was.

 

She hadn't been at the corner long when Steve pulled up and called out to her. Gratefully, she hurried to his car. With Steve, she knew she wouldn't be called names or hurt, and he always slipped her a little extra money, which she had been hiding from Buck.

 

"You look tired, Chrissie," Steve said as they pulled away from the curb. "Not sleeping well?"

 

She shook her head.

 

He reached over and touched her cheek gently. "You're not in this business because you want to be, are you?"

 

She shook her head again, still afraid to tell him the truth. He was kind, and she knew he was fond of her, but she wasn't sure if he knew Buck or might be a spy. Steve remained silent the rest of the way, and this time he pulled into the parking lot of an apartment complex instead of taking her to a motel.

 

"This is where I live, baby," he said, smiling. "I don't bring girls here until I think I can trust them."

 

She was a little frightened at the sudden change of plans, but he opened the door of an apartment and took her inside, and it looked like anyone else's home. There were photos on the wall of Steve and an older couple and a young woman that must have been his family, and a Persian cat on the sofa who yawned and stretched and then jumped down to rub against Stephanie's legs.

 

"That's Priscilla," Steve said, bending to stroke the cat. "She likes you."

 

"She's very pretty," Stephanie said. Surely a man who had a cat was safe enough.

 

Steve tossed his jacket and keys on a chair and moved toward the kitchen. "Want a Coke, sweetheart?" He hadn't offered her beer since the first night.

 

"Yes, thank you," Stephanie said, sitting down on the couch. When he came back and handed her the Coke, he sat down next to her and opened his can of beer.

 

"Don't be afraid," he said, putting his hand gently under her chin and kissing her. "I didn't bring you here to hurt you or anything. I thought maybe you'd be less worried about somebody watching us. You are afraid, aren't you?"

 

Stephanie tried to look away, but Steve's hand kept her from turning her head. "A little," she finally admitted.

 

He let go and took her hand instead. "Honey, I like you. A lot. I know you're thinking something must be a little wrong with a guy who goes to a corner and pays for sex, but it's really just that I've been divorced and it hurt so much I'm not ready for a commitment again. Honestly."

 

She looked at him again.

 

He put the beer on the table and stroked the cat, who had climbed into his lap and was purring loudly. "If somebody's threatening you, I'd like to help. You're a sweet girl and you don't belong in this life. Can't you tell me what's going on?"

 

She shook her head. "He'd kill me," was all she could say.

 

Steve nodded. "I thought you were afraid of somebody. The pimp?"

 

Stephanie wet her lips and stalled by taking a drink from her Coke.

 

Steve sighed and reached for his beer again. "I don't blame you for not trusting me," he said. "But if you change your mind, I'm going to give you my phone number and I want you to call me if you need a friend, okay? Will you promise me that much?"

 

"Okay," she said softly.

 

This time, when he took her to bed, he was tender, almost loving, and he used a condom. And when it was over, he held her for a long time, stroking her hair and occasionally kissing her, and for the first time, she realized sex could be nice, if you were with someone who cared about you.

 

He gave her an extra twenty afterward and he told her to hide it. "My number's written on a piece of paper the money's wrapped around," he said when he dropped her off. "Memorize it, baby, and if you ever need me, call me. Promise me."

 

"I promise," she said.

 

"Good. I'll see you soon." He kissed her cheek and she got out of the car. As he drove away, one of the other girls grabbed her arm.

 

"Buck's about ready to shit," the girl hissed at her. "Where were you so long?"

 

"Working," Stephanie said, yanking her arm away. "Isn't that what he wants us to do?"

 

"But you were gone an awful long time."

 

"The guy wanted his money's worth," Stephanie said with a shrug. "So what?"

 

"So what," the girl said, still hissing, "is that if you take half the night with one customer, you aren't bringing in as much money. Buck has hurt girls for a lot less than that."

 

"The guy was a regular," Stephanie said, not noticing that Buck had walked up and could hear her, "and we're supposed to keep the customers happy, aren't we?"

 

"Unless it costs me money," Buck said, grabbing a handful of her hair and yanking her head back so hard it brought tears of pain to her eyes. "Who was this happy customer, anyway?"

 

"His says his name's Steve," Stephanie said, blinking the tears away.

 

"Dark blue Galaxie?"

 

"Yeah."

 

Buck let go of her hair. "He is pretty regular. But next time," and he pulled her right arm up behind her painfully, "you tell him you only got half an hour, got that?"

 

She nodded, and he let her go.

 

~*~*~*~

 

The doctor had given Leslie a clean bill of health but had cautioned Pam to bring her back if any symptoms appeared. He was looking for genital sores or trouble urinating or changes in her menstrual cycle.

 

"Anything at all, even an upset stomach," he'd told Leslie, "and you call Pam and tell her to bring you back, okay?"

 

Leslie had promised. And now she was seated in the squad room, going through the mug books, while Starsky kept her company and Hutch went downstairs to get them all some lunch.

 

Starsky was reading the day's hot sheet and going through last night's reports.

 

"I don't see anybody that looks familiar," Leslie said with a sigh, closing the third book and pushing it away.

 

"Don't give up, sweetheart," Starsky said without looking up. "We got more books."

 

Leslie glanced at the stack of mug books still waiting for her. "My eyes are tired. Can I take a short break?"

 

"Sure. Hutch'll be back in a minute with food." Starsky started to push the reports away and suddenly snatched one back and stared at it.

 

"Something wrong?" When he didn't answer, Leslie reached out and gently poked him in the arm. "Starsky?"

 

He looked up. "Teenage girl found beat the hell out of. She's in the hospital."

 

Leslie waited, puzzled.

 

"Didn't you say Buck beat up the girls who didn't do what he wanted?"

 

"Yeah," Leslie answered, starting to see his point.

 

"What d'ya say we visit this girl in the hospital and you see if you recognize her?"

 

Leslie bit her lip, but nodded. "Okay."

 

"I'll tell Pam what's going on." Starsky picked up the phone as Hutch came through the doors and set their food down on the table. "Tell him," he said to Leslie.

 

She explained while Starsky made his phone call. Hutch gave a whistle. "Might not be related, but it might, too," he said, handing her a sandwich and a Coke. "Worth checking out, anyway."

 

Starsky hung up. "Pam says we're in charge of the kid for today," he said with a grin, reaching for his sandwich. "We're supposed to give her a call when we're through and she can take Leslie to her new home."

 

Leslie gave an almost-imperceptible shudder and Hutch patted her shoulder. "Pam said they were nice, and all their foster kids still visit."

 

"My caseworker said Mrs. Dudley was nice, too," Leslie said bleakly. "I wish I were eighteen."

 

"If I ever get my hands on that caseworker," Starsky muttered angrily.

 

"Starsk," Hutch said. To Leslie, he said, "We'll take you instead of Pam. If you feel funny about them, tell us, and we'll tell Pam to keep looking."

 

Leslie smiled. "You guys are pretty cool."

 

"I am, anyway," Starsky said with a grin.

 

When they finished eating, they went to the hospital. Showing his badge, Hutch explained their errand to the supervising nurse in ICU.

 

"She's unconscious," the nurse said as she led the way to the girl's room, "and we don't have a name for her."

 

"Is she going to die?" Leslie asked, horrified.

 

The nurse shook her head. "I don't know, honey. She's in bad shape." She stopped outside the room. Through the glass wall, they could see the girl in the bed, half-hidden under tubes and equipment. Starsky gave Leslie a slight nudge, and the three of them went inside.

 

Leslie stood next to the bed and gazed down at the girl. She'd been beaten very badly indeed, and her face was bruised and swollen. One arm was in a cast and the nurse had whispered to Hutch that there was internal damage, too. After several minutes, Leslie turned to Starsky, beside her. "I think I do know her. We called her Veronica but, like I told you, none of us used our real names."

 

"We'll get a missing persons search going," Hutch said. "You tell us what she looked like before the beating, okay?"

 

Leslie nodded and before they left, she touched Veronica's hand. "Hang on, Ronnie," she whispered. "Starsky and Hutch will find your folks soon. You gotta be here to see them when they do."

 

When they were out in the hall, Leslie turned pale and grabbed for Starsky's arm.  He put his arm around her waist and said, "Hey, what's this?  You okay?"

 

Tears started to run down her face, and Leslie said, "I thought he killed her."

 

"What?" Hutch asked.

 

"I heard him throwing her around and... I saw him throwing what looked a body in a blanket into that black van he drives."

 

"Any chance you know the license plate, or can you tell us the make and model?"

 

She wiped her eyes and said, "No.  I'm not too good with cars and I never saw the plate.  It was big and old."

 

Starsky asked, "Did he have trouble getting it started?"

 

"Sometimes, why?"  She was looking a little better.

 

Hutch knew where he was going.  "Because it could be a Dodge.  They're kind of cold starting."

 

"Very good, Blondie," Starsky praised.

 

"Hey," Hutch teased as they started walking again, "I'm more than just a pretty face."

 

Leslie laughed, which was exactly what they were both hoping would happen.  "Oh, that was bad."

 

"He specializes in bad jokes, sweetheart," Starsky replied, just before his partner smacked him on the back of the head.

 

After the hospital visit, Starsky drove to the address of Leslie's new foster family. It was a two-story house in an older residential neighborhood, and the front yard was strewn with children's toys. Two small children were playing with a Hula hoop in the driveway, but they stopped and moved out of the way as the Torino pulled in.

 

"Mama!" yelled the little girl, "Leslie's here!"

 

A woman in her early 50s came out of the front door. She was wearing faded jeans and a Snoopy sweatshirt with the sleeves pushed up, and she gave a big smile as Starsky, Hutch, and Leslie got out of the car. Hutch went around to the trunk to get Leslie's bag -- Pam had taken her shopping since her old clothes were badly in need of replacement -- as Starsky escorted Leslie toward the woman.

 

"I'm Kate," the woman said, holding out her hand to Leslie. "My husband is at work, but he'll be home for dinner. We're so glad to have you, honey. Kids, come here and meet Leslie."

 

The children bounded over and stood on either side of Kate.

 

"This is Sandy," Kate said, laying her hand on the girl's hair, "and this is Stanley, but he prefers to be called Chip. Kids, this is Leslie."

 

Both children grinned at Leslie, and Sandy said, "You'll have to share my room tonight, Leslie, because Mama hasn't finished making your bedspread yet. I hope you like Trixie Belden books."

 

Leslie returned the child's grin. "I love Trixie Belden books," she said. "Which one are you on?"

 

"The Black Jacket Mystery," Sandy said, delighted.

 

"That one's my favorite," Leslie said. To Kate, she said, "You're making me a bedspread?"

 

Kate smiled tenderly. "I am. I didn't know what you might like, so I made what I hope is an intelligent guess. Lavender flowers on a white background. The curtains match."

 

"Oh, that sounds pretty," Leslie said.

 

"You're the oldest now," Sandy broke in, "Tina's next, and then Mike and then me and Chip. That means you get the bathroom first in the morning."

 

Leslie glanced at Starsky. "I'll be okay," she said, the signal they'd agreed on if she felt comfortable with the new family.

 

He nodded and patted her shoulder. "We'll come back for you tomorrow so you can finish going through the mugs."

 

~*~*~*~

 

Stephanie had a few days off because her period had come and Buck's only sign of human compassion was that he let the girls lay off work when they had their periods. Stephanie was so thankful she wasn't pregnant that she wanted to cry. But that evening, when the other girls went to work and the house was quiet except for Maggie, who was on guard duty, Stephanie decided it was time to call Steve.

 

Maggie was watching television and Stephanie sneaked toward the kitchen as quietly as she could. They weren't allowed to eat except at regular meals, but if she got caught, Stephanie would say she was only getting a glass of water. She lifted the phone off the hook and punched in the number she had memorized.

 

When Steve answered, she said, "It's Crystal. Did you mean it when you said you'd help me?"

 

"Yes, I did," he said. "Where are you?"

 

"I don't know," she answered. "But I'll be at my regular place on Saturday. Come and get me. Please."

 

Suddenly, there was a sharp pain in her head and everything went black.

 

~*~*~*~

 

"Lou and Sylvia Moran?" Starsky confirmed as he scribbled the information  "Thanks."

 

Starsky looked up at his partner.  "They have an ID on 'Veronica.'  Her real name is Linda James, age fifteen.  Ran away from Reno a few months ago.  She has an aunt and uncle on the way here."

 

"No parents?"

 

"Dad's in prison doing twenty-five to life.  Mom died six months ago.  Suicide."

 

Hutch shook his head.  "Poor kid.  When will they be here?"

 

"They'll be at the hospital in an hour."

 

When the Morans arrived at the hospital, they were both ecstatic to find their niece alive and devastated to learn how badly she was injured.  Linda was still comatose and the doctor explained to them that the longer she remained unconscious, the worse her chances were.  Linda's doctor arranged a quiet meeting place for the couple to give Starsky and Hutch some background information.  Although Mrs. Moran seemed willing to cooperate, Mr. Moran's tone and body language were transmitting a different message.

 

Starsky asked, "Would you please tell us what you know about Linda's disappearance?"

 

"She ran away from our home not long after her my sister died," Sylvia began. 

 

"Do you know why?"

 

Lou Moran bristled. "I really don't see why that's any of your business."

 

"We believe Linda may know something that would help us on one of our cases," Hutch responded.  

 

"I thought you said you were homicide detectives," the man persisted. 

 

"We are, but we also cover other cases.  My partner and I believe your niece very nearly was a homicide victim.  We'd like to prevent any other girls from being hurt."

 

Moran's face was still closed and hard.   "Nothing was going on, if that's what you're trying to find out."

 

"Lou," Sylvia said, putting a hand on his arm.  He turned to face his wife.

 

"They're just going to ask the same nosy questions the Reno cops asked!"

 

Hutch softened his voice, knowing what types of questions the couple had probably been asked.  "Please, we're not looking to place blame on anyone.  We just want to understand where your niece came from and how she wound up here, beaten nearly to death."

 

Moran glared at Hutch for a moment, then looked over at Starsky. He couldn't see anything but sincerity on their faces.  With a sigh, he apologized.  "I'm sorry.  It's just that we've been trying to find her for months.  The Reno police seemed to think we'd mistreated her or something, or maybe that she'd run away with a boyfriend.  They wouldn't even talk to us at first.  We wasted a lot of time when they could have been looking for her.  My wife and I are just ready for this to be over and we're worried about Linda."

 

"We understand.  Does she know anyone here?  Someone she might have run to?"

 

"No.  We had no idea where to look for her.  When my sister died...." Sylvia Moran stopped and wiped her eyes.

 

Hutch leaned toward her a little and gently asked, "Is that why she ran?"

 

Sylvia shrugged and blew her nose on the handkerchief Starsky handed her.  "We'd have to ask her, but I think so."  She gulped a sob and looked to her husband to continue.

 

"Honey, do you want to hear this?  I'm sure the detectives wouldn't mind if you go sit with Linda while we talk."  He looked up for confirmation and received a reassuring nod from both Starsky and Hutch.  Mrs. Moran stood up, her eyes filled with gratitude.  Her husband waited until she disappeared down the hall before he continued.

 

"Linda didn't run away with a boyfriend.  She just ran and it's kind of complicated.  Her dad's never been there.  Locked away for murder during an armed robbery when she was a baby.  He blamed Debbie, Linda's mom, for him going to prison.  She refused to say he was with her because the lying scumbag wasn't.  He beat her up to convince her to lie and she wouldn't.  Debbie never got over it.  She was constantly depressed, struggling to make a living and take care of Linda.  Finally, she just couldn't take it anymore, poor girl.  She crawled into a bottle with a handful of Quaaludes."

 

Starsky said, "We're sorry for your loss.  Linda didn't leave a note or make any indication she was leaving?"

 

"No.  Personally, I think she blames herself.  We took her in when Debbie died.   I know she always felt like she ruined her parents' lives just by being born, the poor kid.  When her mom killed herself, she sort of fell apart.  She started skipping school, her grades went in the toilet, then she just split."

 

Starsky looked at Hutch, knowing they were both thinking the same thing.  A kid that age should be worried about getting her parents to let her pierce her ears, not thinking she's a burden to them.  They would never get used to things like that.

 

"She never made any contact after she left?"

 

"No.  I've answered your questions, now I have one.  They told me she was beaten and found on the street.  They didn't give us any other information.  Is there something else?"

 

Starsky took this one.  "Yes.  I'm sorry, but we suspect she was working as a prostitute.  Another girl identified her as being one of a group of girls who are being forced to work the streets.  That's why we are so anxious to get her statement or any information we can about where she has been. I wish I could tell you more, but we don't have much." 

 

As they walked out through the hospital's main entrance, Hutch stopped and took a deep breath, tipping his face up to soak in the sun for a moment.  Starsky stopped and waited for him.  Finally, Hutch shivered a little and looked at him.

 

"Man, I hate that place."

 

"I know, buddy.  Isn't it nice to be walking out the front door, though?"  He knew how much his partner hated hospitals. 

 

"Yeah. That poor kid.  I'll never get used to all the ways people find to hurt each other, and themselves."

 

"Really.  I think it might be time for us to go on a stakeout with Vice, what do you think?"

 

"I was thinking the same thing.  Maybe we could get a few cars working down near where Linda was found."

 

"Next stop, Vice,"  Starsky said. 

 

~*~*~*~

 

At the station, they ran into Roger Randall from Vice near the front desk and started a discussion about a possible stakeout.

 

"We've been combing that area since she was found.  Nothing.  You know as well as I do she was probably dumped from somewhere else."

 

"What about those corners Leslie gave us?"

 

"No dice.  It's tough to catch the pimps.  The guy you're looking for must know we're onto him.  He just keeps moving around every night.  We've been looking for an older, black Dodge van, too.  Nothing." 

 

The front desk officer motioned Hutch over and handed him a telephone message slip. 

 

"McCord in Missing Persons left you this guy's number.  He said you asked to be notified if anyone called in female missing persons under 25."

 

"Thanks," Hutch said.  He and Starsky went up to the squad room and called the number on the slip. 

 

"Hello," a man's voice said after a few rings.

 

"Is this Steve?" Starsky asked.  Both he and Hutch were listening on the line.

 

"Yes, who is this?"  He sounded nervous.

 

"Detective Starsky, Metro division.  You called in a missing persons report?" 

 

"I did.  Um, I'd really rather not talk on the phone.  This is kind of... complicated.  Could I meet you somewhere?"

 

The two detectives looked at each other with raised eyebrows.  "Okay. Where?"

 

"You know Tiny's?"

 

"On Wilbur?"

 

"That's the place.  I can be there in half an hour.  I'll be in the back booth." 

 

"We'll be there."  Starsky hung up the phone and said, "A man of mystery, huh?"

 

"Think we should bring backup?" Hutch asked.

 

"Nah," Starsky replied.  "We haven't pissed anybody off that bad this week.  Besides, Tiny won't put up with any trouble in his place.  He's got a pump action shotgun under the bar."

 

Despite the bright sunlight outside, Tiny's was dark and gloomy. The window shades probably hadn't been raised in the place for more than a decade.   The inside was full of dark tables and chairs with red seats.  A dim light under the bar was the only white light in the place.  The rest of the lights had red bulbs in them.   Starsky and Hutch let their eyes adjust and looked around at the middle-of-the-day regulars, a couple of men who looked like hardened alcoholics and a prostitute whose better days were probably during the Kennedy administration.

 

Hutch touched Starsky on the stomach and pointed to the back, where they could see a man sitting alone in a booth.  They gave Tiny a nod when they saw him looking at them from behind the bar and then headed for their meeting. 

 

"What this place lacks in ambiance it sure makes up for in clientele," Hutch quipped.

 

Starsky snickered at that.  "Really.  Fish or hunt?" 

 

"Fish," Hutch answered, just loudly enough for Starsky to hear.  When they reached the booth, he asked, "Steve?"  The man nodded.  Hutch slid into the booth on the opposite side, but Starsky stayed on his feet.  Instead of sitting, he leaned up against the wall, putting one foot on it behind him. 

 

"What's with him?" Steve asked Hutch nervously.

 

"He's got a thing about sitting with his back to the door," Hutch calmly answered.  Starsky would keep watch, his eyes moving from the door to their informant, to his partner.  "Why the cloak and dagger routine?"

 

Steve took a steadying drink from the beer sitting in front of him and lit up a cigarette before he answered.  "This is kind of... embarrassing."

 

Starsky stared at him harder, but said nothing.  Steve was squirming slightly, feeling like Starsky's eyes were drilling holes in the back of his head.  "An embarrassing missing person's report?"

 

"In this, case, yes.  If I were to report something to you that also sort of... implicated me in something, would I get in trouble?"

 

"Guess that'd depend on what we're talking about," Hutch said.  "Whatever it is, coming clean with it is the best thing."

 

Steve balked and looked around at Starsky again.  The front door opened.  Starsky looked up and watched with concealed amusement as a small time numbers runner they knew walked in, caught sight of him in the light cast by the open door and backed out in a hurry.  He returned his eyes to the back of Steve's head.

 

Shifting uneasily in his seat, Steve said, "I don't even know for sure if this girl really IS missing, but--"

 

Hutch was ready to get to the reason they were there.  "Steve, if you know something about a missing girl, you'd better tell us now."

 

From behind him, Starsky added, "I know how much you'd hate to be an accessory to whatever has happened to this girl, if she's a crime victim."

 

After he jumped at Starsky's voice, Steve nodded.  He finished his beer with shaking hands and started.  "I don't know that much about this girl.  She's a prostitute, but she doesn't want to be."

 

"So what makes her missing?" Hutch asked when Steve stopped a little too long.

 

"I... know this one," Steve answered.  He looked nervously over his shoulder at Starsky.

 

"You're a customer?" Hutch asked.  Steve nodded.  "What's her name?"

 

"I don't know her real name.  She calls herself Crystal.  She's a nice kid."

 

"Kid?" Hutch asked.  "How old is this 'nice kid,' do you suppose?"

 

"She didn't tell me, but I think she's not even eighteen."

 

Starsky tensed and stood up straighter, but kept his mouth shut.

 

"I'm afraid something awful has happened to her."

 

"Something more awful than being forced into selling her body on the street, you mean?" Starsky asked, his voice tight.

 

That was enough for Steve. "I'm outta here," he said and he attempted to exit the booth.  As soon as he started moving, Starsky stepped into his way and leaned down onto the table with one hand, putting the other on the back of the booth as an effective blockade.  Steve wasn't about to try to fight with the obviously angry detective. 

 

Starsky lowered his voice and stared directly into Steve's eyes.  Even in the dim lighting, the flash of anger on his face was unmistakable.  "Suppose you keep your ass right where it is and tell us everything you know."

 

Hutch took advantage of the opportunity and added,  "I recommend now, Steve.  Detective Starsky is nearing the end of his patience."

 

"All right, all right," Steve stammered.  "I've picked her up a few times.  She's really a nice kid.  Doesn't belong on the streets.  Finally, I asked her if she was afraid and she would only admit that she was scared of her pimp.  I don't know his name or where he takes her after I drop her off."

 

"Where's that?" Hutch asked

 

"Different places all in the same area.  I could write down the streets for you.  She seemed so scared and so young, I just felt terrible.  I didn't mean to hurt anyone.  I'm just lonely, you know?  A man has needs."

 

Starsky leaned in closer and snarled at him.  "In our book, a man doesn't take advantage of a scared teenager who should be babysitting at night instead of standing on a street corner."

 

Steve started to cry.  Not only was he seriously afraid of Starsky -- who was angry enough to be as intimidating as he could without his gun in his hand -- Steve felt awful about what he'd been doing.  "I know that.  I'm so sorry.  Please try to understand.  I know it's wrong and I just want to make it right."

 

Hutch reached over and tapped Starsky on the back of the hand gently.  Though he never took his eyes off of Steve's face, he did stand up straight and back off, but not much.  Hutch said, "We can see that.  You did the right thing, now tell us what you think has happened."

 

Steve blurted out the rest of the story in a rush, barely taking time to breathe.  He was afraid he'd lose his resolve if he didn't.  "I gave her my home number.  Told her to call me if she ever needed me to help her.  I wanted to get her out of there.  Well, she called me last night.  She said she needed me to come get her at her regular area on Saturday night and then, I heard what sounded like a small yelp and a thud.  I thought she'd dropped the phone, but I was afraid to say anything, in case her pimp was listening.  I was afraid he might hurt her.  A woman's voice came on the line asking who it was.  When I didn't answer, she just hung up on me.  Today's only Friday.  I was afraid to wait another day.  That's why I called.  Please, can you help?"

 

Starsky reached around to a table beside him and grabbed a chair, turning it around with the back blocking Steve's exit again and straddling it to sit.  "You don't know anything else about the pimp?"

 

"No."

 

"What about a car that might follow you when you pick up Crystal?"

 

Steve shook his head.  "I don't know."  He thought for a second and said, "Wait... there's usually a black van nearby.  I've seen it two or three times when I've taken her back."  He noticed the look the two policemen exchanged.

 

"Make and model?" Starsky asked.

 

"I'm not sure.  I never really thought about it till now.  An old panel type.  Maybe a Dodge, but maybe not."

 

"What about the driver?  Can you describe him?"

 

Again, Steve shook his head.  "No, the thing has really dark windows.  You can't see in at all."

 

They had brought pictures of Linda, Leslie, and Stephanie with them, just in case the tip turned into something.  Of course, they knew it wasn't either Linda or Leslie, but Hutch started with their pictures. 

 

"Recognize either of these girls?"

 

Steve looked carefully.  The lighting was bad, but he recognized Linda. "I don't know this one," he said as he handed Leslie's picture back to Hutch, "but I think they call this one Veronica.  I haven't seen her for a little while."

 

"You ever pick her up?" Starsky asked.

 

"Once.  Crystal was only the second one I ever picked up.  God, forgive me!"

 

He seemed sincere, but Hutch wasn't about to let up on the interrogation and Starsky was in no mood to give him any sign of compassion.  A quick glance at his partner's face left Hutch imagining little tendrils of steam coming out of his ears.

 

"Describe Crystal," Starsky said.

 

"She's about five three, short brown hair, green eyes.  I think they dyed her hair, though.  Her eyebrows are as light as yours," he said looking at Hutch.

 

Hutch reached into his pocket and pulled out the last picture.  He placed it on the table and used his finger to push it across to Steve. He knew Starsky was also holding his breath, not wanting to jinx it, but hoping they finally had a good lead. "I know this girl looks different, but any chance it could be her?"

 

Steve let out a choked sob.  "Yes, that's her.  That's Crystal."

 

~*~*~*~

 

Starsky went to Leslie's new foster home to pick her up for another go at the mug books while Hutch worked the neighborhood where Steve had met Stephanie to see if anyone could ID the black van. When Starsky pulled up outside the house, he saw Leslie playing jump rope with Sandy and another girl a few years older. He grinned and waved.

 

"Hi, Starsky!" Leslie waved back with a bright smile and came to meet him as he walked into the yard. "You remember Sandy, don't you? And this is Tina."

 

"Hiya, kids," Starsky said. It had only been a day, and Leslie looked immeasurably better. She was wearing some of the new clothes Pam had bought for her and her hair had been expertly French-braided. The frightened look was gone, too. "Whaddya think?" he asked, nodding his head toward the house.

 

Leslie gave a happy sigh. "I love them already," she said, putting her arm around Sandy's shoulders. "They're trying  so hard to make me feel at home, and I get to keep going to the same school -- though I've got some catching up to do after being ... " she paused and glanced down at Sandy, " ... um, away."

 

"Were you sick?" Sandy asked.

 

Leslie exchanged a glance with Tina, who seemed to know the truth from her expression, and finally said, "No, honey, but I missed some school."

 

"Mama's really good at helping with homework," Sandy said.

 

"I'll ask her to help me," Leslie told her with a smile. "Could you run in and tell Kate ... um, Mom, that Detective Starsky's here? I have to run an errand with him for a little while."

 

Sandy nodded and trotted away. In a few minutes, Kate appeared at the door, carrying a sweater. She came down the steps and smiled at Starsky.

 

"Nice to see you again," she said. "I hope you have some news."

 

"Maybe," he said carefully. "I can't really go into detail, but I think we're getting closer."

 

She pursed her lips. "I understand." She handed the sweater to Leslie. "Just in case," she said with a grin.

 

Leslie accepted it and draped it over her arm. She turned to go with Starsky, but impulsively turned back and kissed Kate on the cheek. "I'll be back in time to help with supper," she said.

 

"Okay, baby," Kate answered, waving as they got in the car and drove away.

 

"So what do you really think?" Starsky asked her.

 

"I really think it's going to be okay," she said with a reassuring smile. "Do you know not one of those kids is biologically theirs, but all of them call them Mom and Dad and they really try to be Mom and Dad for the time the kids are there. They said I didn't have to call them Mom and Dad unless I wanted to, but I do want to. Do you think my own mom and dad would be hurt if I did?"

 

Starsky was startled by the sudden question, but he patted her hand. "I don't think so, sweetheart. They'd want you to be happy."

 

She was silent for a few minutes, but then she hit him with another question. "What will I do if I start dating a nice boy and he finds out I was a ... a ... "

 

Starsky was even more startled this time, but he remembered Hutch's love for Gillian, so he said, "Honey, it wasn't your own choice. He'll understand that, if he's worth your time."

 

She bit her lip and looked out the window. "I hope so."

 

"Ask Hutch, when he gets back to the station. He'll tell you."

 

She turned back to him. "Hutch will? What does he know about it?"

 

He's gonna kill me. "Just ask him, okay?"

 

She nodded. "Okay."

 

~*~*~*~

 

Hutch felt as if he'd been into every sleazy bar and pawnshop in Bay City by the time he finished his canvass of the neighborhood, but he'd finally hit pay dirt. Smokin' Joe, who ran a convenience store and news stand at one of the corners in question, remembered seeing a black Dodge panel truck in the neighborhood.

 

"The windows are all tinted," he told Hutch. "I never get a glimpse of the driver. But he parks in the alleys or on the side streets where the young prostitutes hang out. I figured he was their pimp. I saw a guy talking to some of them last weekend and he didn't look happy."

 

Hutch had the photos with him and he handed them over. "Any of these girls look familiar?"

 

Joe took the photos and peered at them. "No, man, sorry. This girl here, now, I used to see her," he was pointing at Veronica's picture, "but I haven't seen her for a while. Don't know the other two."

 

"How about if this girl had short, dark hair?" Hutch asked, pushing Stephanie's photo toward him. "We think her hair's been dyed."

 

Joe peered at that one a little more closely. "Maybe," he said uncertainly. "I never get a real close look at their faces. And they're always painted up like floozies. It's possible, but, man, I don't want to say unless I'm sure."

 

Hutch sighed and put the photos back in his shirt pocket. "Okay, okay. Listen, will you keep an eye out for this van? And give us a call if you see it around?"

 

Joe looked nervous. "I don't want to get nobody after me, man."

 

"Nobody has to know you're the one who tipped us off," Hutch reassured him. "We'll be the bad guys. They're just kids, Joe. He's forcing them to do this. What if one of 'em was your daughter?"

 

Joe nodded. "Yeah, okay. I'll give you a call if I see him."

 

"Thanks, Joe. And Joe?" Hutch had turned to go, but he turned back at the door. "If you help us with this, we'll pretend we don't know about the paraphernalia under the counter. For a while." He chuckled at the consternation on Joe's face. He'd suspected Joe was selling a few bongs and marijuana pipes to select customers and now he knew it. He went on through the door.

 

When he got back to the station, Leslie had already gone through one mug book and was halfway through the second. He sat down to go through his notes while Starsky went to the soda machine to get her a drink. Leslie's attention seemed to be on the mug books, but once Starsky had gone and all the other officers in the room were busy with other things, she leaned a little toward him.

 

"Hutch? Can I ask you something?"

 

"Sure," he said, looking up.

 

"I asked Starsky, but he said I should ask you," she said, clearly uncomfortable. "It's not the kind of thing I can ask my foster mom."

 

"All right. What is it?" He gentled his tone at the look of distress on her face.

 

"I'm ... I'm worried about something. Damn, it's hard to say this with you staring at me with those vivid eyes." She gave an embarrassed laugh.

 

"Can't help my eyes," he said cheerfully, trying to put her at ease. "Want me to put on my sunglasses?"

 

She shook her head, took a deep breath, and plunged into it. "I'm worried about what to tell boys if I have a date," she said in a very low voice. "What will they think if they find out I ... that I ... what I did?"

 

Hutch gave a soundless whistle. "Oh." He considered, then reached across the desk and patted her hand. "Listen, sweetheart, the casual dates don't have to know. It's behind you now. If you fall in love with a boy, and if he loves you back, he won't care, if you tell him the truth at the right time and if he knows you're not doing it anymore. You were made to do it, Leslie. It wasn't your fault. He'll understand that, if he's the right kind of boy."

 

"Are you sure?"

 

He nodded. "I'm sure. Trust me. I know."

 

She gazed at him for several seconds, almost as if she could read his mind, and then she smiled. "I think you do. Thanks, Hutch."

 

"You're welcome, sweetheart."

 

Leslie went back to the mug book and about halfway through the Coke Starsky brought her, she let out a gasp. "It's him! Look, right here! This is him!"

 

Starsky leaned closer to look. "You're sure?"

 

She nodded vigorously. "Yes. He's a lot younger in this picture, but it's him. I'm positive."

 

"Bart Richards," Starsky read. "No known aliases. Petty shit, looks like. Theft, vandalism and such." He looked up at Hutch. "Kind of a stretch to go from stuff like that to kidnapping and pimping, isn't it?"

 

Hutch took the book and looked at it. "Yeah, but this was almost 10 years ago. Maybe he just got good at not getting caught."

 

"Or he took his show on the road for a while. Maybe he was working elsewhere in between."

 

Leslie looked from one to the other. "Now what do I do?"

 

"Now you go home and help your foster mom fix supper and you go back to school and live your life," Hutch said with a smile. "We might need to call you to ID the guy when we catch him, but meanwhile, you're all done."

 

Leslie let out a breath that sounded as if she'd been holding it for days. "Thank God."

 

Starsky got her sweater and they started out to take her home when Hamilton called out from the squad room, "Hey, you two! Phone!"

 

Hutch went to the nearest phone and picked it up. "Hutchinson." He listened, and Starsky and Leslie could both see by the expression on his face that the news wasn't good. He finally sighed and said, "Thanks." He hung up and turned toward them. But before he spoke, he came close enough to put his arm around Leslie's shoulders. Tears were already standing in her eyes when he said, "I'm sorry, sweetheart. Linda -- Veronica -- died."

 

"Oh, God," Leslie said in a choked voice. "He killed her! That son of a bitch killed her."

 

Hutch held her closer and let her cry for a few minutes, exchanging a look with Starsky over the top of her head. "Now it's a murder case, partner."

 

~*~*~*~

 

Hutch took Leslie home while Starsky went looking for the file on Bart Richards. When Hutch pulled up outside the house, he saw Kate come to the door to meet them. She took one look at Leslie's red eyes and opened her arms. Leslie ran to her and threw her arms around her. Kate gave Hutch a questioning look.

 

"The girl in the hospital died," he said quietly.

 

Kate bit her lip. "I'm so sorry to hear that." She stroked Leslie's back and kissed the top of her head.

 

"But Leslie found the guy in our mug books," Hutch said. "She's been a big help."

 

"It's just awful children should have to experience such things," Kate said, continuing to stroke Leslie's back. "Will she have to testify?"

 

Hutch hesitated. "I'm afraid that's a real possibility."

 

Kate nodded. "She'll be able to do it, won't you, baby? She's strong. She's a good girl."

 

Leslie straightened and wiped her eyes. She glanced at Hutch. "You call me if you need me," she said, her voice trembling. "I'll do whatever I have to do."

 

"Thanks, honey. I know you will." Hutch gave a wave and went back to the car.

 

~*~*~*~

 

Stephanie was trembling and crying when the other girls came back from "work," and when Suzanne came into their shared room and got a look at her, she dropped her bag and hurried to her side.

 

"What happened?" she asked in a whisper. "Holy shit, Crystal, you look awful!"

 

Stephanie tried to answer, but her mouth was swollen and hurt so much she couldn't do more than whisper, "Maggie."

 

"Jesus," Suzanne said, stunned. "What brought this on?"

 

"Called somebody," Stephanie said. "On the phone."

 

Suzanne shook her head. "Oh, honey, that wasn't smart at all. I don't blame you, but, jeez, you must hurt something awful."

 

Stephanie nodded, but that hurt, too, and more tears leaked from her eyes and ran down her swollen face.

 

"Let me see if they'll give me some ice for you," Suzanne said, rising.

 

"No, don't leave me!" Stephanie cried, and then cringed at the pain.

 

"Baby, you gotta have something for that," Suzanne said. "I'll be right back. I promise." She returned in a few minutes with an ice bag. "Here, put this on your mouth. It'll help. They won't let me have any aspirin. Jesus," she said again, examining Stephanie. "You won't be working for a while. Buck likes the girls to look their best."

 

"At least there's a bright side," Stephanie said bitterly.

 

Suzanne sighed and put her arm around Stephanie. "Yeah."

 

~*~*~*~

 

"We gotta figure a way to get those girls away from the asshole and track him down," Starsky said, tapping a pencil on the desk so hard it finally broke.

 

"I know that," Hutch snapped, then sighed an apology. "Shit. But if they don't know where the damned place is, even getting one or two of the girls away won't help."

 

"What's our probable cause for busting him in his van?"

 

"We don't have one," Hutch said. "Not unless we can prove we suspected he was pimping the girls from it. No law against parking your van on the street and sitting in it."

 

"And even if we get him, we don't have all the girls unless we get his house," Starsky said. "He could have left instructions for this Maggie bitch to vacate if he gets popped."

 

"Exactly."

 

"All we can do is try," Starsky said. "I think we're gonna have to take Leslie with us to point out the girls she recognizes and then get one of 'em in the car and hope for the best."

 

"How the hell do we do that without risking her safety? Besides, the girls won't get in the car if we're both in there and Leslie, too."

 

"Transmitter," Starsky said. "One of us picks up the girl based on what Leslie tells us through the transmitter from another car."

 

Hutch nodded with a slight grin. "I knew I kept you around for some reason. Once in a while, you have a good idea."

 

Starsky made a face at him as Hutch picked up the phone to call Leslie.

 

On Saturday night, Starsky and Leslie cruised in one undercover car -- in spite of Starsky's protests, Hutch had finally convinced him to check out something nondescript from the motor pool instead of using the Tomato -- while Hutch, disguised with tinted glasses and a cap pulled low over his blond hair, cruised the prostitutes in the district.

 

There sure are a lot of them, he thought, a little sadly, as he passed row after row of girls of varying ages strolling the street and eyeing cars.

 

Leslie was also disguised, sitting in the passenger seat beside Starsky, for fear that someone would recognize her and tip off Buck or the other girls. She tried not to be obvious about scanning the faces of girls they passed, and she was actually quite good at it, Starsky thought.

 

"We really appreciate this," he said to her. "I know it must be tough for you."

 

"I want to help," Leslie said without looking at him. "I want you to catch Buck and I want you to put him in jail for the rest of his miserable existence. If I can do anything to speed that up, I will."

 

Starsky understood the trembling vehemence of her tone, but it bothered him more than he wanted to admit that a girl whose biggest worry should have been passing algebra was involved in undercover work. He'd insisted she wear a vest under her clothes for this outing, and he'd told her over and over that if anything at all untoward happened, she was to hit the floor and stay there. "I know," he said quietly. "Just keep looking, sweetheart."

 

It was at least an hour before Leslie gave a little gasp. "Over there," she said. "In front of the pawnshop. The girl with the red hair. That's Suzanne. Her hair was blond last time I saw her, but that's her, I'm sure."

 

"Let's get a bit closer to be positive," Starsky said, turning a corner and pulling into a parking lot to turn around so he could drive past with Leslie on the same side of the street as the girl. "Scoot over and pretend we're on a date," he said as he waited to turn back into traffic. "Don't let her get a look at you."

 

Leslie scooted over and Starsky put his arm around her shoulders. He drove by slowly, but not too slowly, and Leslie put her head down on his shoulder so she could look toward the girl discreetly. After they'd gone past, she said, "I'm sure. It's Suzanne."

 

"Okay." Starsky keyed the mike on the transmitter. They'd removed Hutch's police radio out of his car temporarily so none of the girls would see it and get spooked. "Hutch, redhead, black top, red skirt, in front of Downtown Pawn."

 

"Gotcha," Hutch's voice came back. He was two cars behind them and pulled up at the curb near the girl. He'd left the transmitter on so Starsky and Leslie could hear what went on. "Hey, baby," he said to the girl. "Need a ride?"

 

Leslie gave a startled snort of laughter. "Is that his line?" she whispered to Starsky, who grinned in response.

 

"He's not that kind of boy," Starsky said. "He's doin' the best he can."

 

They could hear the murmur of the girl's voice, but she wasn't close enough to the mike for them to understand her words. Hutch's voice again: "You're a pretty girl. I'd like to spend a little time with you."

 

Leslie rolled her eyes.

 

This time, the girl's words were distinguishable. "What are you into, darlin'?"

 

"Whatever you are," he said. "How much, baby?"

 

"Twenty," she said.

 

"Bet you're worth a lot more than that," Hutch said. "Get in."

 

They heard the sound of Hutch's car door opening and closing and Starsky peered into the rearview mirror. "Okay," he said to Leslie. "She's in. He's going to meet us at Holly Hill Motel a few blocks away."

 

"I'm familiar with it," Leslie said, a little bitterly.

 

Starsky gave her shoulders a little squeeze and turned toward the motel.

 

"You don't look like the kind of guy we usually see down here," Suzanne said to Hutch as they drove.

 

He gave an embarrassed laugh. "Actually, baby, it's my first time doing this."

 

"Really?" She let her hand trail down his arm. "I'll try to make it good for you. What's your name?"

 

"Ken."

 

"I'm Suzanne." She snuggled against him and he fought the urge to cringe away. Knowing she was probably underage was making it difficult for him to play his part convincingly.

 

He pulled into the motel parking lot and pulled a key out of his pocket. "Do you see Room 15?"

 

"That's around back," she said without moving her head. "Lower level."

 

"Sounds like you've been here before."

 

"I have."

 

Hutch wet his lips nervously and drove around the back. Sure enough, there was Room 15. He saw Starsky's undercover car parked several spaces away and knew he and Leslie were already in the room. He parked his car, got out to open the door for Suzanne, who looked surprised at his action, and put his hand on her back to steer her to the room. When he opened the door, there was no sign of Starsky or Leslie. They had to be hiding until he got Suzanne all the way in. As soon as he shut the door, she turned to him and wrapped her arms around his neck, kissing him before he could pull away.

 

"Uh, whoa, sweetheart, let me get us a drink first," he said, gently disentangling her arms and backing away.

 

"Okay," she said nonchalantly, sitting down on the bed.

 

Hutch rattled the ice cubes as loudly as he dared, putting them in glasses and wondering where the hell Starsky was. Then he heard the bathroom door open and Leslie appeared, with Starsky behind her.

 

"Jackie!" Suzanne said, stunned. "What are you doing here?" She glanced at Hutch apprehensively.

 

"My name is Leslie," Leslie told her, sitting down beside her. "These men are detectives. We're going to get you away from Buck."

 

Suzanne went so white so suddenly that they were all afraid she'd faint. Leslie put her arm around her protectively, but Suzanne burst into tears. Leslie pulled her closer and stroked her hair, looking up at Starsky for help.

 

"Sssh, it's okay," Leslie said. "You're safe now. You're not in trouble."

 

Suzanne looked back at Hutch again and he reassured her, "You're not under arrest. You're not going to be charged. We only want Buck. What's your real name, honey?"

 

"Diana," she said after several moments. "Diana Jacobs."

 

"Were you kidnapped, Diana?"

 

She nodded. "Buck grabbed me months ago from my school in San Diego. I ... I haven't seen my mom and dad since ... " She sobbed and turned her head into Leslie's shoulder.

 

Starsky looked at Hutch, who picked up the phone and called headquarters. "This is Hutchinson. We've found a missing girl from San Diego," he said into it. "Notify the SDPD that Diana Jacobs is safe and sound and get them to contact her parents. Thanks, Marsha." He hung up. "Can you tell us where Buck's house is?"

 

Diana drew a deep breath and forced herself to stop crying. "Sort of. I don't know the address, but I think I can give you directions from where you picked me up."

 

"How long do you have before he gets suspicious?" Starsky asked.

 

"Half an hour or so," she told him.

 

Hutch picked up the phone again and called Dobey. "We need to move fast," he said to the captain. "We don't have much time." He listened for a few moments. "Okay. We're moving." He hung up and turned to the girls. "Units are stationed all over downtown right now. We're going to take Starsky's car because it has the radio, and you girls are going to ride in the back. If anything happens -- anything -- you get down and you stay down, okay?"

 

The girls nodded.

 

Hutch turned to Starsky. "You drive and I'll handle the radio."

 

"As per usual," Starsky said with a grin.

 

"But we have to hang back because we've got the girls," Hutch cautioned. "No cowboy up crap."

 

"No cowboy up," Starsky said agreeably.

 

"However," and Hutch's eyes took on a wicked gleam, "we get to make the actual arrest."

 

"Of course," Starsky said, pulling his gun and checking his ammo. "I'm going to enjoy reading this asshole his fuckin' rights." Then he flushed and glanced at the girls. "Sorry about the language."

 

In spite of the tears in both their eyes, the girls laughed and Leslie said, "Come on, Starsky. We've been turning tricks. You think we haven't heard a few cuss words along the way?"

 

"I s'pose you have," he said, replacing the gun, "but I don't think you oughta have to hear any more, 'specially from us knights in shining armor." He gave his most wicked grin and offered his arm to Leslie, who was nearest. "Shall we, ladies?"

 

Hutch gallantly offered his to Diana and they left the room.

 

Starsky drove toward the pawnshop and tried to spot the black van. He didn't see it until Diana told him to turn a corner and look into an alley behind the shop. Because the girls were in the back seat, they were less visible, and Diana spotted it. "He's back there," she said.

 

"Okay," Starsky said. "Now where's that house?"

 

It took several minutes and a few wrong turns, but finally Diana said, "There. In the middle of the block. Isn't it, Jack... um, Leslie?"

 

Leslie looked up at it. "Yeah. That's the one."

 

Hutch got on the radio and called in a couple of units to secure the house while he and Starsky and the girls waited for Buck to come back.

 

"He will come back here?" Hutch said to Diana.

 

"Yeah," she said. "When J ... when Leslie took off, he called it an early night  and took everybody home and man, was he ever pissed." She gave a faint, bitter smile. "Took it out on all of us, too."

 

"Oh, hell," Leslie said, stricken. "I'm so sorry. What did he do to you?"

 

Diana bit her lip and hesitated. Finally, she said, "First, he beat the hell out of all of us and then he ... he ... "

 

"He what?" Leslie turned toward her.

 

"He didn't let us eat for two days," Diana finished, a tear falling onto her cheek.

 

"That son of a bitch!" Leslie said with such vehemence that Hutch turned in his seat.

 

"Easy, honey. We're gonna get him, don't worry."

 

She nodded and tried to calm herself. "I want to testify," she said grimly. "Please let me testify against that bastard. I want to see his face when I tell the judge what that motherfucker did."

 

"She does know some cuss words," Starsky remarked to Hutch, hoping to surprise a laugh out of Leslie. It worked.

 

The other units raided the house and found three of the girls and Maggie there. Maggie was put in cuffs and transferred to a paddy wagon, while the girls had a reunion with Leslie and Diana.

 

One of the girls was Stephanie and she cried so hard at the thought that she was really safe and it was really over that it took all of the other girls to calm her down. Both Starsky and Hutch were livid at her condition, but they tried to hide how livid they were from the girls. The kids were upset enough. Leslie wrapped her arms around Stephanie and just held her for several minutes until she could pull herself together.

 

"It's okay now," Leslie kept saying. "It's over, it's okay. You'll sleep in your own bed tonight."

 

"What'll my mom and dad think of me?" Stephanie sobbed.

 

"They'll be so glad you're safe," Leslie said. "That's all. They won't be angry at you. It wasn't your fault." She glanced at Hutch.

 

"She's right," Hutch agreed. "They've been frantic. All they care about is that you're okay."

 

Hutch took down their real names and hometowns and got on the radio to notify Central to call their parents. Then he called for Pam to come and collect all the girls to take them back to the station.

 

"I want to see you arrest Buck," Leslie protested.

 

"No, sweetheart," Hutch said. "I understand, but no. He might have a gun and it might get ugly and we don't want to risk it. You've been terrific, but no."

 

Leslie appealed to Starsky with her eyes.

 

"You know, Hutch, they could stay back till the shouting's over," he said in response to that look. "Pam could take 'em to a coffee shop or something and bring 'em back to, um, ID him." He grinned.

 

Hutch sighed heavily and rolled his eyes. "We can do the ID at headquarters."

 

"It'd be more fun to do it here," Leslie said shortly.

 

"I wish I could arrest him myself," Diana growled.

 

"Maybe we ought to do some recruiting while we're here," Starsky said to Hutch, who laughed.

 

"Maybe we should. All right, I'll have Pam bring you back here to ID the asshole, but only if you don't argue about going with her until it's over."

 

Leslie solemnly put her hand over her heart.

 

Hutch sighed. "You can't hang around with my partner any more," he told her with mock sternness. "He's a bad influence."

 

"I am not," Starsky protested.

 

It was only a few minutes until Pam arrived -- she, too, had been on alert and waiting close by just in case -- and she gathered all five girls into her car and left with them. The officers all moved out of sight and waited for Buck to come back.

 

It was a long wait. Starsky speculated that he'd had to hold off coming back until all the girls returned from whatever "gigs" they had after he realized Suzanne wasn't coming back at all.

 

"That might take a while," Hutch pointed out. "You know the girls don't always come back right on schedule. Some guys take a little longer."

 

"How would you know?" Starsky said teasingly, ducking the punch Hutch pretended to aim at him.

 

"We're not all Minute Men," Hutch said loftily.

 

Starsky snorted with laughter, but choked it off suddenly. "Hey, that's him."

 

Sure enough, a black Dodge panel truck had just rounded the corner and both men ducked down out of sight. The lights swept over the front seat as Buck passed them and they gave it a few heartbeats to allow him to get to the house and pull into the drive. Hutch quietly alerted the other units over the radio.

 

They could hear a man's angry voice but not understand his words until it suddenly rose. "You fuckin' bitches! The next one of ya that bolts, I'm huntin' ya down and I ain't just gonna whup your ass, I'm gonna KILL ya!" That was followed by a girl's cry of pain. Without a word, Starsky and Hutch tumbled out of the car and ran. The other officers were right on their heels and, in moments, it was over. Buck was sprawled on the ground with Hutch's foot on the back of his neck and Hutch's gun pointed at his head while Starsky put the cuffs on and didn't try to be gentle about it, either.

 

The girls -- six of them -- were huddled together in a clump by the front porch, eyes wide and terrified. Several were crying.

 

"It's okay, hush, it's okay," Sean Cavanaugh told them, though his gun, too, was pointed at Buck unwaveringly. "You're okay now and you're all going home."

 

The girl Buck had hit was holding a Kleenex against her bleeding mouth and she suddenly ran forward and kicked Buck with all her might, right in the ribs. He grunted in pain and curled up, but Sean kicked his feet back.

 

"Don't you move, you son of a bitch," Sean snarled at him.

 

"She kicked me! I want to press charges!" Buck howled.

 

"I didn't see a goddamn thing, did you, Starsk?"

 

"Nope," Starsky said. "And unless you want us to give the whole damn bunch of 'em a few minutes alone with you, asshole, you'll shut your fuckin' mouth." He called over to Hamilton, "Call Pam, will ya? Leslie wants to ID the bastard."

 

Hamilton raised a hand in acknowledgement and went to his car.

 

Ten minutes later, Pam pulled up and Leslie was out of the car and standing next to them. She glared down at Buck with smoldering hatred in her eyes while Hutch shone a flashlight on his face. Buck blinked in the brightness, all his bravado gone.

 

"That's him," she said and spat on him. This time, he didn't dare complain.

 

"That's all we need, gentlemen," Hutch announced. "Take him away."

 

~*~*~*~

 

Two weeks later, all the girls had been returned to their homes -- a couple of them had had to go to foster homes, as Leslie had, either because their parents were dead or in prison or because Pam had discovered they were runaways and launched an investigation into their home lives to be sure they would be safe going home. Buffy -- whose real name was Millicent -- was one of those, and Pam had put her in the same foster home with Leslie for the time being. She told Starsky that Leslie had asked her to, and since the foster parents were willing, she had done it in the hope that the girls could comfort and help each other.

 

Bart Richards, alias "Buck," was cooling his heels in county. Bail had been denied and he was facing a whole smorgasbord of charges, ranging from kidnapping to pimping to sexual exploitation of a minor and murder. He wasn't going anywhere soon, Starsky gleefully informed Leslie on the phone after he saw the sheet on Richards. Maggie -- who turned out to be his live-in girlfriend -- was facing all the same charges, in spite of her pleas to turn state's evidence in return for leniency. There were enough furious teenage girls to testify against both of them that they weren't going to need her evidence for a conviction, the D.A. had said. Some of the girls had just wanted to go home and put it all behind them, but Leslie, Stephanie, and Diana were all prepared to testify and had already given depositions.

 

Steve exchanged his testimony for leniency and had been charged with soliciting a prostitute, a misdemeanor for which he received six months' light probation. He was content with that, and asked Starsky and Hutch to tell Stephanie he was sorry for any distress he'd caused her and he wished her the best of luck, but he didn't want to contact her himself so that she could forget him and go on with her life. Hutch made a special trip to Stephanie's home to do that and she smiled sweetly at Steve's name.

 

"Tell him," she said to Hutch, "that I don't blame him for anything and he was the only one I wasn't afraid of. It's okay. I'm going to be fine."

 

Hutch promised, and passed the message on to Steve, who sighed with relief at hearing it.

 

"I really was afraid she'd hate me forever," he told Hutch.

 

"She doesn't," Hutch said. "She said she even kind of thought of you as her friend, in a way."

 

"I'm glad," Steve said. "And, before you say it, Sergeant, don't worry. I won't ever go to a prostitute again. Ever."

 

~*~*~*~

 

"You did good work on this one," Dobey said gruffly, pausing beside their desk the morning after Richards' indictment.

 

"Thanks, Cap," Starsky said.

 

"I hear one of the girls kissed you, Hutch," Dobey said and because Starsky happened to be looking at him, he saw the gleam of mischief in his eye before Dobey wiped it away as Hutch looked up.

 

"She thought I was a john, Captain," Hutch protested. "That's as far as it went. You know that. It's in the report."

 

"I know," Dobey said, drawing his eyebrows down and giving Hutch his most stern look. "But you're an officer of the law, Hutchinson. How old did you think she was?"

 

Hutch glanced at Starsky, who shrugged and tried to keep his own eyes from giving him away. "Sixteen or seventeen, I guess," he said.

 

Dobey shook his head. "Try again."

 

"Fifteen?"

 

Dobey shook his head again. "She's twelve."

 

Hutch went pale and his mouth worked, but no sound came out.

 

"Twelve?" Starsky exclaimed. "Are you kiddin' us, Cap? She can't be twelve! Look at her!"

 

"She's mature for her age," Dobey said. "Pam just told me her real age. She's going to be in counseling for a while to help her get over this. If she was a year younger, we probably couldn't even have her testify."

 

Hutch was still staring at the captain. "My God," he said, his voice shaking. "She sure didn't kiss like she was twelve."

 

Dobey turned to go and as soon as he was sure Hutch wasn't looking at him, he winked at Starsky and mouthed the word "Sixteen."

 

The End

 

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