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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. 

 

This story is a prequel to the episode Bloodbath and is the first of a two part series.

 

Prelude to a Dream

by Sue David and Valerie Wells

April 2003

 

Blindfolded, hands and feet tied, Gail waited alone in the silence, her heart hammering against her rib cage. She had been in this room alone for hours. No one had come near, no one had spoken to her, told her why they'd brought her here, given her any food or drink.

 

She'd wet herself a while ago, unable to call out that she needed to use the bathroom due to the gag -- a wadded-up rag in her mouth and another tied around her face. Her mouth was dry, her lips painfully cracked because she couldn't wet them. Her hands had ached and burned and tingled for a while and now, mercifully, were numb.

 

She'd never been so terrified.

 

She had no idea who these people were, why they had snatched her from her usual daily jog in the park near her apartment. No one had said a word to her. Two men, with unkempt hair and unwashed clothes, had emerged from the brush at the edge of the running path and had grabbed her. One had held a cloth over her face and she had lost consciousness. The next thing she remembered was waking up here, alone, bound. She'd never even gotten a clear look at their faces.

 

At some point, she fell asleep. She woke up when hands were pulling at her, taking off her clothes, untying the ropes. They left the blindfold on.

 

"What are you doing? Who are you?" she cried out, her voice raspy and hoarse.

 

There was no answer. The hands -- she guessed at least two or three people from the number of hands -- pulled her to her feet. Her legs gave way and someone jerked her back to her feet, supporting her, but with no gentleness. Then she was lifted and lowered into water, cold water, so cold it froze her blood. The hands bathed her, washed her hair, touching her all over, intimately, as if they were washing their own bodies. She was lifted out again, set on her feet, while they dried her. The hands led her, pushed her if she hesitated. She could feel rough boards under her bare feet and hear the sounds of their feet on the same boards. Eventually, she was lowered to a mattress, stuffy and smelly and old enough that springs were poking through the cover under her shoulder.

 

Then, softly at first, gradually increasing in volume, she heard chanting and the sounds of clothing swishing as the people moved around her in a circle.

 

"See-moan...See-moan...See-moan..."

 

"Who ARE you?" Gail cried out again.

 

There was no reply. The chanting went on, escalating, the emotion in the single repeated word becoming more and more hysterical until some of the chanters were all but screaming the word with trembling voices.

 

"SEE-MOAN! SEE-MOAN! SEE-MOAN!"

 

Suddenly, the chanting stopped. Dead. Utter silence. The people stopped moving.

 

Gail, lying on the mattress with her wet hair falling around her bare shoulders, shivered. With her eyes covered, her ears were working overtime, and she heard the sound of footsteps approaching. The people around her fell back -- she felt the difference in the air -- making an opening. Then she heard another voice, quiet and soft, but with an underlying quality to it that made goose bumps rise.

 

"She has been purified?"

 

"Yes, See-moan," said a female voice at Gail's head.

 

"Good." The mattress gave and the voice came closer. "You have been chosen," the voice said, inches from her face, as a cool hand stroked her hair. "It is a great honor, to be chosen to follow See-moan."

 

Gail was shaking with terror and cold, but she had to know. "Who is See-moan?"

 

"I am," he said, his mouth next to her ear. "I am." He ran his hands over her body, slowly. She cringed away, but he pinned her hands to the mattress above her head. "Mustn't resist See-moan," he whispered. "I dreamed that you would obey. See-moan's dreams always come true. Always true."

 

Little by little, the voices began the chant again. "See-moan. See-moan. See-moan." Over and over until Gail wanted to scream.

 

And then he raped her. He was gentle; he did not hurt her. But it was rape, just the same, because she did not want it. She was a virgin. She was saving herself for her husband someday. Though it was unusual and even odd these days, she wanted to give herself to her husband pure and untouched.

 

Now she would never be able to do that.

 

When he finished, he kissed her forehead and lips, very gently. "Now you are one of us," he whispered, almost lovingly. To the others, a bit louder, he said, "Make your sister welcome."

 

He moved away, and other hands, dozens of them, touched her all over, caressed her skin. Lips  kissed her everywhere -- men's, women's -- as the hands stroked her. Other men besides the first, and women, too, had sex with her, whispered words of love and passion in her ears, until she lost count of the different voices and bodies.

 

The tears ran down her face until she had none left and still it went on. Finally, the first man returned, helped her to her feet, and steered her away from the hands and tongues and voices.

 

"You must remain here, alone, to dream, until we return for you," he said softly, easing her back until she was reclining on a bed or a cot. He tied her hands and feet again and left her. She heard a door close.

 

The incident was repeated some time later -- she didn't know how long. She had drifted in and out of consciousness. Her hands and feet were swollen and ached with sharp, stabbing pains from their unaccustomed position. She had been bleeding between her legs from the rough handling earlier -- while the leader had been gentle, the others had not.

 

This time, the leader was the only one who actually had sex with her. The others held her down -- she was weak from lack of food and thirst and fear, but she fought this time.

 

"Must not resist," he whispered. "You must learn to obey."

 

"No!" she screamed, trying to pull away from the hands holding her down. "Who are you? Why are you doing this?"

 

Someone would report her missing. The people at work. Her brother who lived in San Diego. He called every Sunday at the same time. He'd know something was wrong if she wasn't there. It was all she had to cling to.

 

It went on for several days. They'd leave her alone in the room lying on the cot for hours, then someone would come and get her and either the leader alone, or several of them in turn would have sex with her. They chanted and touched her all over. Occasionally, after the first day, someone would give her a drink of water. They didn't give her any food for a very long time. She only managed to sleep in fits and starts and what little sleep she got was troubled by strange, disturbing dreams. They never left her alone long enough for a decent rest. She lost all track of time and never knew if it was day or night. They kept the blindfold on and only untied her hands and feet when they used her body. They also kept her naked and didn't even give her a blanket, so she was cold all the time.

 

She was so sore and so cold and so hungry...

 

And no one ever spoke except to chant. The only one who spoke to her at all was the leader, whose name, she finally found out, was Simon. They only pronounced it "see-moan." She didn't know why. After a time, she ceased to care.

 

The door opened. Someone approached and Gail could smell food. Her stomach lurched painfully. It had been so long since she'd eaten.

 

Her hands were untied and then someone helped her sit up. The blindfold was untied and her eyes stung and burned from the light in the room -- very little light, only a couple of candles, but so bright after so long in darkness.

 

The person who had come in was a man, perhaps in his mid-30s, with shoulder-length hair and a beard, both unkempt. His eyes glittered in the candlelight. "Eat," he said, offering the bowl of soup in his hands.

 

Gail's hands were too swollen and trembled too much to hold the bowl and spoon, so he fed her, very gently. She couldn't eat much of it. Her stomach must have shrunk from the long period with no food.

 

"What is your name?" he asked, and she recognized the leader's voice.

 

"Gail," she said, hardly knowing her own voice, it was so hoarse.

 

"I am Simon," he said. He reached out and gently stroked her hair. "You are one of us," he said. "We love you. You're our child, our sister, our lover. Do you understand?"

 

"No," she whispered, mesmerized by his eyes. "I want to go home."

 

"But you are at home. This is your home. We are your family."

 

"No...."

 

"I dreamed it," he said softly, leaning forward and running his hands through her tangled hair, then letting them drift downward to caress her bare breasts. "I dreamed that you would love me, Gail. Simon's dreams always come true. Always true."

 

Eventually, the lack of sleep and lack of food and constant cold and abuse broke her. She didn't know when it happened, but one day when they took her out of the room with the cot and laid her on the old mattress for Simon, she welcomed it. She opened her arms to him. She cried, but this time it was tears of joy, because when Simon touched her, she trembled. She came.

 

And somehow, she found her own voice joining with the others. "Simon. Simon. Simon."

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

"We may have a serious situation here," Dobey said, laying a handful of files on the desk.

 

Hutch picked one up and glanced at it. "Missing persons?" he asked with raised eyebrows. "Since when does homicide deal with missing persons?"

 

"When six college students go missing within a couple of weeks of each other and one of them turns up dead, homicide deals with missing persons," Dobey said. "Who's running this department, you or me?"

 

Hutch and Starsky exchanged a look. "Six, you say?" Starsky said, reaching for a file. "In two weeks?"

 

"Here's the dead girl," Dobey said, handing him another file. "It's not pretty."

 

Starsky opened it and glanced at the crime scene photo on top and immediately closed the file. "No, it ain't."

 

Hutch took it away from him so he could see it, too. He winced. "Holy shit." The girl had been found in a remote area, hanging nude from a limb by her bound hands, with her throat cut. He closed the file, looking a little green. No matter how many dead bodies he'd seen, it always bothered him, especially the violent ones.

 

"What kind of monster have we got this time?" Starsky asked.

 

"Whatever kind he is, we need to find him and fast," Dobey said. "This is top priority, you two, and I want results."

 

The two men took the files out to their shared desk to go through them. The six kids who were missing were all similar. Young, from affluent backgrounds, with distant or dead close relatives, so that they wouldn't immediately be missed.

 

"That sounds like somebody did their homework," Starsky said, frowning, with his head propped on one fist.

 

"It sure does," Hutch agreed. "And that sounds like whoever it is has somebody on the inside, who knew these kids. We just have to find out who it was."

 

They began with the dead girl's roommates. The girl had lived in an off-campus apartment in a building owned by the university, with two other students. Their schedules, between work and school, were so varied that neither of the other girls could be certain when she had disappeared. They often went several days without seeing each other.

 

"Dani was taking a pottery class downtown twice a week," said one of the girls, Cathy. "She had a full load of classes and she was working in the campus library, too. We hardly ever saw her."

 

"When did you realize she was missing?" Hutch asked.

 

Cathy glanced at the other girl, Suzanne. "Her mom called," Suzanne said. "Dani's folks are stationed in Alaska. Her dad's in the Air Force. And her mom left a message for her. I put it on the bulletin board," she gestured toward it, hung on the wall by the telephone. "About two or three days after that, I realized it was still there."

 

Starsky and Hutch glanced at each other and both were thinking the same thing: How could you share an apartment with someone, even if you had a busy schedule, and not notice they were missing for several days?

 

Suzanne seemed to read their thoughts. "I know it sounds crazy," she said, her voice shaking from emotion. "But it's not that we didn't care about Danielle. It's just that none of us are ever home. We barely even sleep here. That's why we have the bulletin board, so we could leave messages for each other."

 

"What did you do when you realized she hadn't been home for several days?" Hutch asked, keeping his voice matter-of-fact.

 

"We called the library to leave a message for her there," Cathy said, taking over. "She only worked there two days a week, and she hadn't missed any work yet when we started to worry. Her boss called us back on Tuesday, when Dani didn't show up for work."

 

"And then we called the campus police," Suzanne added.

 

Starsky looked down at the file. The campus police had checked with Danielle's instructors. The university was large, and so were the classes, and most professors didn't take attendance, but one of them had had an appointment with her to discuss a class project and she hadn't shown up.

 

"I just thought she'd forgotten," the professor had told the campus officer.

 

That appointment had been several days earlier.

 

"So it looks like she could have been missing as long as a week," Starsky said disgustedly to Hutch as they were driving away from the college. "And nobody noticed."

 

Hutch shook his head and rubbed his eyes. "You'd think somebody could have cared enough about the poor kid to check in on her occasionally."

 

"I wonder if we'll find the same situation with the others," Starsky said.

 

After three days of phone calls and interviews, they realized that was exactly the situation with the others. Two of the boys shared an apartment and both had apparently been missing for over a week, too. No one had noticed, because they attended the same university, with the same large classes where no one took attendance. Neither had a job; Phillip Anderson came from a wealthy East Coast lawyer's family while Stephen Bass was on a full athletic scholarship that included a monthly stipend. Stephen played basketball and it was the off-season, so he hadn't had any practices to miss and there had been no alarm raised from that quarter.

 

Another boy was known to be a "party animal," as one of his friends had told Starsky on the telephone, and habitually disappeared for days at a time when he went on a "bender."

 

"He's always running off gettin' high with somebody," the kid said. "He sometimes runs around with some pretty rough characters and then he'll come back eventually, lookin' like the dogs've had him under the house, and sleep for three days. The only reason we got worried this time is Mark went by his place to get some money Rob owed him and when he went in -- "

 

"He went in?" Starsky interrupted.

 

"Rob keeps a key under a rock outside his apartment door," the kid said. "I told ya, it's a party pad, man. We all knew about the key."

 

"Okay, okay. Go on."

 

"Well, Mark went in and Rob's wallet was layin' on the coffee table. He couldn't've gone off partyin' without his bread, man. So he called me and I called the campus pigs -- I mean, cops -- and they called you guys."

 

Rob apparently didn't worry much about classes or homework and none of his professors had noted his absence as unusual. He also came from a wealthy family -- his father was a Texas oil company executive -- and though Rob was 21, he was still a sophomore with no declared major and no end to his college career in sight.

 

"Starsky," Hutch said when he heard this information, "remind me, if I ever have kids, not to send them away to school. I'm going to make them live at home and attend junior college so I can keep an eye on them. I might even hang a bell around their necks."

 

Starsky grinned, though this situation wasn't really funny. "I know what you mean, buddy. Remind me of the same thing."

 

They had just started looking into the background of another girl when her body, too, turned up.

 

"Some wino smelled something funny," Officer Chad Baker told them when they arrived at the abandoned storefront where the body had been found. "He was between bottles or he'd never have noticed. So he went in there," Baker showed them the back door, with the lock broken long ago by street people who used the building as a place to sleep, "and found her. Freaked him out, too."

 

The girl was nude and bound hand and foot, blindfolded, lying on an old mattress with her throat cut.

 

"M.O.'s a lot like the last one," Hutch said, ignoring the roiling of his stomach as he knelt to look more closely at the body. She was very young, maybe 18 at most, with long blonde hair and a freckled nose. "Poor kid."

 

Starsky had the list of missing kids in his jacket pocket and he was looking it over to see if this girl was who they thought she was. "She's gotta be Sara," he said to Hutch. "Danielle had dark hair."

 

"Unless this is one nobody has reported yet," Hutch said angrily. "How many kids are missing that no one knows about yet? Partner, we've got a serial killer on our hands here."

 

"Sure looks that way," Starsky agreed.

 

~*~*~*~

 

Gail had been given a white dress, though the others wore black robes.

 

"You are young in our family," Simon told her, caressing her body as he dressed her. "For now, you must wear white, my daughter."

 

"Yes, Simon," she said, shivering a little from his touch. She wanted him to take her again, and swayed a little toward him, but he shook his head.

 

"Not now," he said, holding her eyes with his piercing look. "Later. We have a new member of the family to purify. You must purify her before the ceremony. She is frightened. She does not understand."

 

"Yes, Simon."

 

"Peter will help you," Simon said. "When she is ready, bring her to the altar."

 

"Yes, Simon."

 

He showed her to the same room where she had stayed at first. Now she had a room with the other girls and a mat on the floor like theirs. A girl with long, dark hair lay on the cot, tied, blindfolded, and wearing blue jeans and a Rolling Stones T-shirt. She'd been crying, but now she was simply lying there. Gail approached, with Peter following behind her. She knew what to do. She untied the girl's hands and took away the gag while Peter untied her feet. They undressed her, ignoring her angry, frightened demands for them to tell her who they were and what they intended to do with her. Simon had dreamed the right way to introduce a new believer to the fold, and until the new believer "crossed the desert," as he called it, no one but Simon was allowed to speak to the person.

 

She and Peter helped the girl up and took her to the purifying bath, which must be very cold, because Simon had dreamed that. The girl struggled and fought -- she was very strong -- but Peter was stronger, and he lifted her into the water. She screamed, and Gail didn't know if it was from the cold water or fear, but it did not matter. She must be purified for Simon.

 

When they finished, Matthew came to help them take her to the altar. They laid her on the mattress and began the ritual.

 

~*~*~*~

 

Troy Madison’s palms were sweating as he waited for the sound of the wood panel sliding aside.  Perhaps that small sound could lead him out of the wilderness in which he’d found himself.  Somehow, over the past six months, he’d become indoctrinated into a new life.  A life that seemed to promise joy, spiritual fulfillment, and the ultimate understanding that could only be provided by one touched by God.  For the first time in his twenty-six years, he felt like he belonged to something. To someone.  Simon.

 

During the past two weeks, he had helped his newfound brethren to bring young people into the fold.  His job as a campus cop at one of the local universities put him in a unique position to find the kids his master wanted.  He’d just learned that two of the young girls he had led to the light had been brutally murdered... and he was terrified. His thoughts were interrupted by the sound he longed to hear.

 

As soon as the sound was finished and he could see the shadowy form on the other side of the concealing screen, Troy crossed himself and said, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.  It has been... a very long time since my last confession.”  He paused, breathing in nervous pants.

 

A kind, calming voice answered, “Welcome, son.  How have you sinned?”

 

“Father, I....” Troy’s voice broke before he got out a word.  “Please help me, Father.”  He didn’t know what to say.

 

Often, a parish priest hears false sins.  The kinds of confessions people make when they can’t think of what to say, but they know they should come for the sacrament.  Almost more wearying than the real ones, he must listen, and offer absolution through penance as if they were the true sins.  The ones not spoken by many hearts.  Father Duncan knew at once that this was not going to be one of those times.  He knew, somehow, that those three Latin words, rarely spoken aloud anymore, but always in his heart, “Ego te absolve” -- “I absolve thee” -- were going to be difficult. 

 

Twenty minutes later, when Troy fled the church, pale and shaking, he had no idea he was being watched.  He just wanted to get home... to a quiet place where he could think and say his prayers. 

 

~*~*~*~

 

“Hold onto that for a sec,” Starsky said as he released his hold on the broken artist’s easel he and Hutch were repairing.  Stretching a little farther than he should, he winced and sat back on his heels, flexing his left hand and rolling his shoulder.

 

“You okay?” Hutch asked, watching him closely.

 

“Yeah.  Just stretched too far.” 

 

Starsky got up, and moved closer to the clamp he’d been reaching for when his shoulder protested -- an annoying remnant of the scariest night of their lives.  The night Hutch thought he was going to lose his best friend to two gun toting mob hit men in a small Italian restaurant.  Hutch closed his eyes for a moment, releasing the anger that stirred whenever he was reminded of that night.

 

“There,” Starsky said with satisfaction as he and Hutch both let go.  His smile freed the remains of Hutch’s tension.

 

“Buddy, your heart was in the right place, but I think this is a lost cause,” Hutch said.

 

Starsky had spotted the broken easel sitting next to the dumpster at his apartment complex that morning.  Hutch needed a new one, but didn’t want to spend the money for it.  Starsky proudly presented it to him when he picked him up for work that day.  If they could fix it, his problem would be solved.

 

“You’ll see. That wood glue will fix it right up.  Just leave it like this till tomorrow.”

 

The fading Sunday afternoon light marked the end of the only time off they were likely to have for a long time to come.  They had worked a few hours that morning, getting nowhere on the case.  Around noon, they decided to give it a rest, get some lunch, and do something to take their minds off of the missing and murdered college students.  When Hutch’s phone rang, somehow they both knew it would be work.

 

“Hutchinson.”

 

“It’s Dobey.  We just got a missing person report on a girl who may be a new one for your case.  Her brother drove up from San Diego to check on her.  He’s waiting for you at her apartment.”

 

Hutch flipped over an envelope sitting next to phone and scribbled the name and address.  “We’re on it, Cap.”

 

On the way out, he explained to Starsky.  They were at Gail’s apartment in twenty minutes.

 

The man who answered the door looked frantic.  He appeared to be about the same age as the two men on the doorstep.  Starsky held out his badge.  “Mr. McBride?” The man nodded. “We’re Detectives Starsky and Hutchinson, Metro Division.  You reported a missing person?”

 

“Please come in, gentlemen,” he said, stepping back and motioning them into the studio apartment.  “Yes, I called about my sister, Gail.”

 

“This is Gail’s place?” Hutch asked. 

 

“Yes. She moved up here in October.  We’re from San Diego.”

 

Starsky asked, “Mind if I have a look around?”

 

“No, please.  I’ve looked a little.  Didn’t find anything unusual.”

 

While Hutch questioned him, Starsky glanced around the apartment for any clues it might yield.

 

Hutch continued, “When was the last time you heard from her?”

 

“Last Sunday morning.  I call her every week, Sundays at 9:00 in the morning.  We talk awhile and then she goes to mass.  Every week, the same routine.”

 

The detectives shared a frustrated glance.  Another one gone maybe a week.

 

Starsky looked into the refrigerator and found a carton of skim milk with an expiration date from the previous Tuesday.  He smiled at himself thinking that he probably had a carton of milk in his own fridge dated sometime before Thanksgiving, but he was a bachelor.  Women were usually more careful about such things.  He and Hutch never drank or ate anything with a date on it from each other’s refrigerators without checking first.  Chances were, she disappeared sometime between Sunday morning after her call with her brother and Tuesday evening. 

 

Hutch got information from McBride on his sister’s employer.  He noted that she was not the same as the other kids.  Gail wasn’t a college student, and they were not a wealthy family.  She’d moved to Bay City in the hope of attending the university, but she was too late to get in on the current school year.  She would start in the summer session, but she had taken a job in one of the campus cafeterias until then. 

 

“Didn’t they miss her at the cafeteria?” Hutch asked.

 

“No.  She was off for two weeks.  They had a fire in the kitchen and all the workers were given two weeks off while they made the repairs.” 

 

Another case of dumb luck.  Bad dumb luck. The detectives were beginning to wonder if somehow, the person or persons behind everything knew that the kids chosen would not be missed.  Starsky looked over at Hutch, thinking, I’ve got a bad feeling about this.

 

“Me, too,” Hutch answered aloud.

 

“Me, too, what?” the confused brother asked.

 

Hutch blushed.  “Oh, nothing, sorry. Just thinking out loud.”

 

When they’d gotten all of the information they needed, including contact numbers in San Diego, they both thanked Jeff McBride and they turned to leave.

 

“Please,” McBride pleaded, “she’s my baby sister.  I’m fourteen years older than she is and I’ve always looked out for her, especially since our folks died.  She was only six at the time. I raised her.”

 

Without thinking, Hutch handed him one of his cards and told him to call if he thought of anything else that would be helpful, or if he just wanted information.  Jeff took the card and glanced at it casually. His face went a ghastly white when full recognition of what he was seeing hit him.

 

“Oh, my God,” he said, both his voice and his body shaking.  “You’re not from Missing Persons.  You’re homicide detectives. You don’t think....”

 

As McBride’s voice trailed off, Starsky was afraid he was going to faint. He put an arm around him and helped him into a chair. “No, we don’t think that,” he assured him.  Hutch helped him put his head down between his knees and both cops stood beside him, waiting for his breathing to calm down again.  When he looked up at them, his face was haunted. 

 

“Please... tell me the truth.  Gail is more like a daughter than my sister.  She can’t be dead.  Please, God, not dead... murdered.”

 

Hutch squatted so he wasn’t towering over the distraught man.  He put a hand on McBride’s arm and said, as gently as if he were talking to a hurt child, “We’re investigating a series of disappearances.  Two of the kids in question have been found murdered and we don’t have much to go on, yet.  Your sister doesn’t exactly fit the profile, but she nearly does.  Most of the missing kids are just that.  Missing.”  McBride nodded and a little color returned to his face. 

 

“Mr. McBride,” Starsky said, just as gently, “all we can promise you is that we’re doing everything we can to find these kids and to put whoever is responsible behind bars.”

 

“Thank you.  Please call me right away if you hear anything at all.  Gail wouldn’t just take off.  No way.” He shook his head, clearly suffering from some form of guilt.  “When she moved up here, she said I hovered too much.  She promised to be here every Sunday so I wouldn’t worry and asked me not to call her too often.  I was trying to let her have her freedom.”

 

Back in the car, Starsky said, “Poor guy.  I hope we find her alive.”

 

“Me, too,” Hutch replied.  “I know how I’d feel and I didn’t raise my baby sister.”

 

“Strange this girl doesn’t exactly match the others.  Someone at the university probably knew these kids.”

 

Hutch nodded.  “Yeah, and we’d better find out who that is.”

 

~*~*~*~

 

“He’s in the barn, Simon,” Peter said with a deferential tuck of his head.

 

Simon was seated, cross-legged on the floor with closed eyes.  He was meditating and dreaming.  Simon dreamed wide-awake. He said that was one of his gifts.

 

“You dreamed he would betray us, Simon.  Please... tell me the rest of your dream.”

 

Simon took a deep breath, opened his eyes, and stood to face one of his most loyal disciples.  “Well done, Brother Peter.  Where once in faith and now in shame, our brother, Troy, will pay for his sins.”

 

“What punishment do you decree?”  Peter asked with eyes alight with fanatical devotion.

 

“I dreamed of the animal of the first kingdom.  Propitiation will only come through strength and blood. As our trust was torn, so shall the flesh be rendered.  He will fight, but I dreamed his death.”

 

Peter knew exactly what Simon wanted.  He backed away from him, a wry smile on his face and returned to the barn where some of the other followers were waiting.  The abandoned structure was far from anything else on the ranch.  No one would hear the sound of righteous atonement.

 

Troy Madison lay bound and blindfolded in the dirt in the middle of the barn, surrounded by chanting brethren.  They walked about him in a circle -- feet bare, in long black robes, nearly shouting their mantra, “See-moan, See-moan, See-moan.”

 

“Brothers...” Troy said nervously.  “Sisters, please.  What have I done?  Tell me how I can find your forgiveness?”

 

The circle parted to allow Peter into the middle.  At his nod, the faithful filed out of the barn.  He pulled Troy up to sit and cut the ropes at his wrists, but left the blindfold in place.  Then, he calmly walked toward another door.  Troy sat, panting in the dirt.  Too afraid to move.  Too afraid to remove the blindfold.  He heard another sound of wood sliding against wood.  Not the comforting sound of the doorway to absolution, but the sound of a heavy beam being moved.  If he’d had any spit left, he would have swallowed the lump in his throat.  He heard a bell ring and a door close. 

 

Terrified, he called, “Peter? Luke?  Please--” That’s when he heard the roar.  He pulled the blindfold down with trembling hands and sat, staring in disbelief at a huge black bear. His entire body began to shake and he didn’t notice when he lost control of his bladder from the fear as the bear roared again and again. 

 

He stood and ran from the bear, hoping he could make it up the rickety wooden ladder to the hayloft.  He didn’t.  Down the hill in the canyon, RJ Crow thought he heard a faint sound of screaming, but within a few moments, he decided he was mistaken.

 

~*~*~*~

 

Monday morning, Starsky and Hutch were not thrilled to have their day start off the way it had.  Dobey called them as they were leaving Hutch’s gym, telling them to meet him at Corpus Christi Catholic Church.

 

Hutch thumbed the mike and said, “I’m guessing it isn’t that you’re planning to convert and you need some witnesses.”

 

“No such luck. We have another 187.”

 

“Same M.O.?”

 

“I’ll explain when you get here.  What’s your ETA?”

 

If Dobey was asking that question, the matter must be urgent.  Starsky reached over and pulled Hutch’s hand close enough to speak into the mike.  “Fifteen, Cap.  Five, Code Three.”

 

“Code Three,” the tight voice replied.

 

“10-4,” Hutch said.  He slapped the Mars light on the roof and hit the wailer as Starsky pulled out into early morning traffic. 

 

“Holy shit,” Starsky said, then he chuckled at the unintended pun.

 

When they arrived at the church, the nearest one to the university, the place was swarming with official vehicles.  A small group of reporters and TV broadcasters had been herded off to the side, under the watchful eyes of a group of uniformed officers.  The barricades were up already. 

 

As the men stepped into the church, the sights that greeted them stunned them.  Blood was dripped and smeared all along the floor, culminating at the altar.  Flashbulbs fired and the sound of quiet voices drifted toward them.

 

The two men walked toward their captain, who waved them up to the front.  He was talking to a lab team member and pointing at a simple wooden cross, placed upside down on the three steps leading up to the chancel.  When they were close enough, the sight before them caused both of them to feel the sudden need for air.  A body was placed on the marble altar.  Its arm hung down from the side and had a word clearly carved in it.  “Penance.”

 

Undesired closer examination revealed a horribly mutilated male corpse.  Much of the torso skin was peeled back, exposing bone and muscle.  The head, neck, and shoulders seemed to be where the worst damage began.  What looked like claw and tooth marks were in evidence along the upper portions of the body.  

 

Starsky and Hutch were both shaken by the dead man’s condition.  They followed Dobey and the M.E. to a quiet area off to the side. 

 

Dobey started speaking.  “The victim is Troy Madison, 26.  He was a police officer at the university.  Father Duncan discovered the body when he opened the church this morning at around six.  He found Madison’s ID and badge on the floor just inside the front doors.  The lock was jimmied.”

 

Hutch turned to the M.E.  The coroner, knowing this case was out of his league, had called for him to come down and view the body before they took it to the morgue.  “Was all of that damage done by a person?”

 

The M.E. shook his head.  “No.  I find this hard to believe myself, but I think the PM will prove it.  That man was killed by a bear.”

 

Although both men looked shocked by the revelation, Starsky’s face paled noticeably. “A bear?” he asked quietly.

 

The M.E. nodded.  “Yes.  I’ll know more after we get him down to the morgue, but that’s my opinion.”

 

“A bear?” Starsky repeated.  “In Bay City?”

 

“I know it sounds incredible.  He wasn’t killed here, of course.  There would be a lot more blood and the body was obviously staged.”

 

“How soon can you have some answers?” Hutch asked.

 

“Give me five or six hours.  I’ll know more then.”

 

Dobey thanked him and told him he could have the body as soon as the photographers and fingerprint specialists were done, even though they all knew they wouldn’t find any prints. 

 

When the M.E. returned to the body, Dobey said, “Father Duncan is waiting in his office. I told him you’d be in to talk to him.”

 

Father Duncan was pale and upset when the two detectives got to his office. He was holding a rosary in shaking hands and mumbling under his breath. Both men stopped in respectful silence in the doorway until the priest looked up.

 

"Come in," he said, sweat standing on his forehead, though the room wasn't warm. "Please, sit down."

 

There were two chairs in front of the desk and each took one. Starsky glanced at Hutch in an unspoken signal for him to begin.

 

"Father," Hutch said gently, "we know this is horrifying. But the sooner we get started, the better chance we have of catching whoever did this."

 

"I understand," Duncan said. "I want to do whatever I can to help."

 

"Did you know the victim?"

 

Duncan nodded and a tear welled up in one eye. He didn't bother to brush it away. "Not well, I'm afraid," he said quietly. "He came to confession yesterday."

 

Starsky's eyebrows went up. "What did he say?"

 

"Starsk," Hutch remonstrated. "He can't tell us that."

 

"It might give us a clue," Starsky argued.

 

Duncan said, "He's right. I can't tell you what he said. I can only tell you his manner, how he acted."

 

"Then tell us whatever you can, sir," Hutch said.

 

Duncan sighed. "We're not supposed to know who's in the other side of the booth," he said to Starsky, guessing from his suggestion that he reveal what was said in the confessional that Starsky wouldn't know this, but Hutch would. "We pretend we don't. But unless it's someone I've never met, I usually recognize their voices. I happened to see him come into the church and since there weren't many confessions yesterday and I knew everyone else quite well, I knew it had to be him."

 

Starsky nodded encouragingly.

 

Duncan shook his head and his eyes moved to rest on a reproduction of the Pieta on his bookcase. Still looking at it, he said, "It was ... quite disturbing. Disjointed. He was very upset, consumed with guilt, but couldn't tell me why, poor boy. He couldn't make himself say the words."

 

"Do you ever get that?" Hutch asked.

 

Duncan nodded. "Oh, yes. Quite often. Sometimes it's because the person has committed sins of lust and they're afraid they'll shock the poor priest." He smiled faintly. "I am not as innocent of knowledge of the sins of the flesh as they might think. One hears some amazing things in confession. And I was not born into the priesthood.

 

"Other times, the person doesn't really feel sorry for what they've done, but they know they ought to, so they make a confession and feel that they've been absolved anyway." Duncan shook his head. "The Lord will not be mocked."

 

"So what was different about Troy?" Hutch asked.

 

"He was quite honestly horrified at his sin," Duncan said. "He truly wanted to confess and be absolved and," he paused and glanced at the Pieta again, "such sincere repentance will not be ignored by our Lord, I am certain, even if the boy couldn't tell me exactly what he'd done. The Lord knows." Duncan closed his eyes and held the rosary up to his forehead for a moment. "I tried to draw him out, I assured him of our Lord's boundless love and forgiveness for even His most lost lambs. I even reminded him of the Lord's words concerning the very men who nailed Him to the cross."

 

Starsky glanced at Hutch.

 

"'Father, forgive them, they know not what they do,'" Hutch supplied.

 

Duncan nodded. "I told him if Jesus could forgive that, he could forgive anything at all. Finally, he fled the confessional and as he ran down the church aisle, I heard him say 'Seamoan lied. He lied.'"

 

"Seamoan?" Hutch raised his eyebrows. "I wonder who that is."

 

Duncan shook his head. "I'm sorry, I've never heard the name. I thought perhaps it was one of those street-corner preachers, Jesus-freaks, I've heard them called. Many young people are drawn to that sort of charisma. But maybe not."

 

"We'll certainly look into that angle," Hutch said. "Thanks, Father."

 

Duncan smiled faintly again. "If you need anything else, please, don't hesitate."

 

"What do you think?" Starsky asked as they were heading back to campus to question the people who'd known Troy.

 

"I think maybe this kid got himself mixed up in something he didn't understand until it was too late," Hutch said. "A cult, maybe? Lord knows," he paused and laughed at his choice of words, "there's plenty to go around in southern Cal."

 

"That ain't no shit," Starsky said sourly. "I hope you're wrong. Because if you're right, they're killin' their own converts."

 

"Not necessarily," Hutch said. "They're killing the ones who won't buy the whole bag, maybe. Or they're killing them as part of some ritual."

 

"That's sick, buddy."

 

"That's my point."

 

They began with Troy's roommate, Wayne, a guy he'd known since high school. First, they had to break it to him that Troy was dead and they tried not to provide much detail as to the state of the body.

 

Even so, Wayne swayed and almost fell, but Starsky caught him by the shoulders and steered him to the couch and sat him down. Hutch got a glass of water for him from the kitchen and the two men waited until a little color came back into his face.

 

"I-I'm sorry," Wayne said, trying vainly to keep his composure. "Troy was my best friend. I can't imagine -- " His eyes filled and he rubbed them on his sleeve and took a deep breath. "I'm sorry."

 

"Don't be," Hutch said gently. "We understand. We're sorry we had to tell you this."

 

Wayne nodded, and after a moment, he said, "You have some questions for me?"

 

"We just came from talking to Father Duncan," Starsky said, but when Wayne's expression didn't show any recognition of the name, he added, "the priest at the church over on Conners."

 

"Troy went to confession yesterday," Hutch said.

 

Wayne stared at him. "Troy never went to church."

 

"He did yesterday," Hutch said. "And Father Duncan can't tell us anything he said, but he did say Troy was really upset about something he'd done. Do you have any idea what it's about?"

 

Wayne frowned and thought, and finally said, "He came home pretty drunk last night. I mean, he was wasted. I've never seen him like that. Usually five or six beers, he gets a good buzz, and he stops before he gets so he can't navigate. But last night...." Wayne shook his head. "He could barely make sense."

 

"What do you mean?" Starsky leaned forward.

 

"He kept babbling about those two murdered girls that've been all over the news," Wayne said. "And he said something about Gail. Wait a minute." Wayne frowned again and shut his eyes. "I think it was, 'If something happens to Gail, it's all my fault.'" He shrugged. "I don't know what he was talking about. I tried to get him to calm down and tell me -- he was half outta his head -- but he finally just ran out the door and I haven't -- " He stopped. "I haven't seen him since," he finished in a low voice.

 

"Who's Gail?" Hutch asked when he didn't go on.

 

"A girl he's been out with a couple of times. Nothing serious. At least, I don't think so. She works in the cafeteria, but they've been shut down 'cause of a fire for a week or so. I think Troy'd had his eye on her for a while before he got enough courage to ask her out. But I know he hasn't been dating her very long."

 

"You don't have a picture of Gail, do you?" Starsky asked hopefully.

 

Wayne shook his head. "No. It really hadn't gone that far, y'know? I don't even know her last name."

 

"A minute ago, you said Troy never went to church. Did he used to go?" Starsky asked.

 

Wayne nodded, a slight frown on his forehead. "When we were kids, he was an altar boy and he even sang in the choir. He sort of quit when we came to college." The frown deepened. "He'd been talking about some guy he met a while back. A few months ago. Maybe a little longer. I got the impression he was a preacher of some kind. Troy was really fascinated with him and went to some kind of meetings for a while. Then Troy quit talking about him and I figured he lost interest."

 

"Did Troy change? Act differently? After he met this guy?"

 

Wayne nodded again. "Yeah, now that you mention it. Nothing radical. But he talked kind of weird there for a while. I thought -- " He gave a short laugh. "Well, it doesn't sound very nice for me to say this, but have you ever known anybody who 'got saved'? They give up drinking and smoking and rock and roll and get real holy? He kind of did that for a while but then it seemed to wear off. He did talk about having 'found the light' but he never talked about Jesus, and other people I've known who got real religious read their Bible a lot and quoted from it and he didn't do any of that. I don't think he even has -- had -- a Bible."

 

"Did he ever mention this guy's name?" Hutch asked.

 

Wayne shook his head. "No. It's funny, but even though I've known Troy for years, we never really talked about personal stuff. We'd rehash football games and joke around and stuff, but we didn't really talk. I don't know why." He looked a little sad at the thought.

 

"Troy's Gail and our Gail are the same person," Starsky said to Hutch when they'd left Wayne.

 

"Most likely," Hutch agreed. "It's not an uncommon name, but what are the chances there are two of them working at the same cafeteria?"

 

"The question is how could Gail's disappearance be Troy's fault?"

 

Hutch gazed out the window in silence for a moment. "Maybe Troy introduced her to the cult."

 

"If he was in a cult," Starsky said. "We don't know that for sure."

 

"No, but that stuff about meetings and such sounds like it."

 

"We need to locate this guy," Starsky said.

 

They spent several days asking around the university about a religious group, but none of the students seemed to know what they were talking about. The only religious groups anyone seemed to know of were legitimate groups -- Campus Crusade for Christ, a Catholic ministry that helped run a soup kitchen, a Pentecostal Bible study group, Jews for Jesus, and a small Buddhist group who met once a month for study. All well-known by university officials and hardly the radical cult they knew they must be looking for.

 

"They're underground," Hutch said at the end of a week, weariness evident in his voice. "They wouldn't be hanging out in the quad for anyone to find if they're killing people."

 

"But how do they get new recruits if no one even knows about them?" Starsky demanded.

 

Hutch shook his head and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "I don't know, unless -- " He stopped and raised his eyes to look at Starsky. "Wait a minute. Remember what Troy's roommate said? Troy told him if something happened to Gail, it would be his fault."

 

Starsky nodded.

 

"Maybe Troy was recruiting for them?"

 

"We already talked about that --"

 

"No," Hutch said impatiently, "I don't mean he took Gail to a meeting or she got interested because she was dating him. I mean he was actively recruiting. Picking out likely kids, kids who didn't have family nearby, kids who wouldn't immediately be missed. On purpose. Stalking them," he added with emphasis.

 

"He'd be in a position to do that, wouldn't he?" Starsky said thoughtfully. "Young enough to be friendly with the students, interested in a lot of the same things."

 

Hutch nodded. "And what if he got cold feet when he found out about the murdered girls?"

 

"And this Seamoan character the priest heard him talking about decided Troy had become a liability?" Starsky suggested.

 

"Yeah."

 

“Let’s go over to the cafeteria.  We’re a little early, but they’re supposed to be setting up to re-open, so they’re probably there.”

 

The food services manager, Ellen Presley, was working hard with a small crew of students to restock the cafeteria in time to open on Monday.  She stood up from loading a box on a shelf and saw the detectives being pointed toward her through the open doorway.  Ellen ran the back of her hand across her sweaty forehead, tucked some loose hair behind her ear and wiped her hands on her apron in an attempt to look more presentable.  She was in her early fifties and two of her own children attended the university.

 

After the introductions, she said, “Sorry I’m such a mess, officers.  I must have lost track of the time.”  She looked at her watch, seeing that it was only three o’clock, and she wasn’t expecting the policemen for another half hour.

 

“No, ma’am,” Hutch reassured.  “We’re a little early.  Thanks for seeing us when you’re so busy.”

 

Ellen showed them into the dining room where they could talk more comfortably.  She insisted on testing out the new soda fountain by giving them each something to drink before she’d answer their questions. 

 

“We’re investigating the disappearance of one of your workers, Gail McBride,” Starsky informed her.

 

“Disappearance?  You mean Gail is missing?” 

 

“I’m afraid so.  Her brother tells us she hasn’t missed any work because of the fire.  Can you tell us about that?”

 

“Not much to tell.  A typical grease fire that got a little out of control.  No one hurt.  Gail wasn’t due back at work until Monday.  Is there anything I can do to help?”

 

“We were hoping you could give us the names of some of her friends.  Her brother doesn’t seem to know any and we have very little to go on.”

 

Ellen Presley was as much like an extra mother to the kids who worked for her as she was their boss.  She had a warm smile and a sympathetic shoulder.  The thought that one of her young people was missing made her heart ache.  She was happy to provide the detectives with the name of the one friend she knew Gail spent time with when she wasn’t at work. Since the young woman also worked at the cafeteria, a quick search in her Rolodex revealed Tricia Coleman’s telephone number. Hutch went to call her while Starsky finished the interview with Ellen.

 

“One last thing.  Do you know if Gail was dating anyone?”

 

By this time, the identity of the man found dead in the church had been made public.  Ellen paled and turned anxious eyes on Starsky.  “Oh, God,” she said as she reached out and put a hand on his arm. “She was dating that young man who was found dead at the church.  I hope she’s all right.”

 

“So do we, Mrs. Presley.  Thanks for your help.  We’ll be in touch.”

 

That was the remaining piece to the puzzle.  Gail and Troy were connected.  Starsky wasn’t looking forward to telling his partner.  He caught up with Hutch, who had left a message with Tricia’s roommate to call them. 

 

Hutch didn’t have to ask what Starsky’s eyes told him.  “So, they were dating,” he stated simply.

 

“Yep.”

 

The two men stood looking at each other for a few minutes, trying to find out what might come next.  With a snap of his fingers, Starsky said, “I’ve got an idea, come on!”

 

~*~*~*~

 

“I dreamed you would have some information for me, Luke,” Simon said to the young man kneeling before him. 

 

“Yes, Simone,” Luke replied.  “The police are still looking into the defiler’s death.”

 

“Of course,” Simon replied patiently.  “I dreamed you had something else to share.  Something about our postulants.”

 

“Your dreams are always true, Simone.  They are looking for Gail.”  Luke produced a Polaroid picture he’d taken of Starsky and Hutch when they were on campus.

 

Simon Marcus took the picture in his hand and stared at the two men.  He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, releasing it slowly.  “They are centurions of the infidels.  The White Knight and his Dark companion.”

 

“The infidels are named Starsky and Hutchinson,” Luke supplied helpfully.  “What is your dream, Simone?”

 

Marcus smiled softly, pleased with Luke’s devotion.  “They won’t find her.  They won’t find anything.  We will lead them down the wrong path.  I see them running away from the land and toward the edge of our world.  Tell Peter and Job to come to me.”

 

“Yes, Simone,” Luke said as he bowed reverently and stood.  A pounding on the bunkhouse door interrupted his exit.

 

“Marcus, we need to talk!” came the angry shout.

 

Simon nodded and Luke opened the door to reveal a red faced RJ Crow.  Luke put a hand on the older man’s chest and said, “Do not dare to reveal your anger to Simone.  No one reveals his anger to Simone.”

 

Crow pushed past Luke and stood before Marcus.  “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

 

Marcus looked up at him.  He was seated cross-legged in a meditation posture and the room was filled with marijuana smoke, causing the older man to cough and add a disapproving face to his anger.  “Abaddon needed sustenance, and we needed blood for our ceremony.”  Simon knew what the problem was.  His followers had sacrificed a cow and fed the meat to the bear as a reward for his cooperation in killing Troy Madison.  The blood sacrifice blessed the event and marked a milestone in the cult’s history. 

 

“I won’t put up with that,” Crow exclaimed.  “You let your freaks kill one more of my herd and I’ll put the law on you!”

 

Simon smiled at him.  His face conveyed such evil, the enraged rancher was chilled to the bone.  Suddenly, he felt vulnerable.  “I dreamed you’d be angry.  I also dreamed you would understand.  Esther and Miriam will help you to see the true way.”

 

With a snap of his fingers, two of the girls resting on the pallets behind Simon rose and approached Crow.  At first, he was going to shout his refusal to be bought any longer by sexual favors, but he knew Esther and Miriam.  His fear of Simon was assisted by his lust for the two insatiable young women.  They had been trained well by Marcus and their favors would fetch a high price on the street if they were so inclined. 

 

“Well,” he said as he tried to maintain his composure while the one of the girls knelt on the floor in front of him, looking up at him with eyes that told what she would do for him in return for his continuing to look the other way.  The other young woman slowly unbuttoned her shirt, revealing bare breasts that removed the rest of his resolve. 

 

Marcus nodded in satisfaction as the girls both walked out of the bunkhouse, each leading Crow by a hand.  “I dreamed he’d give in for carnal pleasures,” he said to Luke.  “Crow lives as long as he continues to be so easily bought.”

 

~*~*~*~

 

“I think you’ve got something here,” Hutch said.  He was standing on the sidewalk looking at a storefront sign that read “Unwind.”

 

“Part of the partner’s manual,” Starsky replied with a smirk.  “Occasional flashes of brilliance in between protecting your partner from bad guys.”

 

Hutch laughed and held the door open for him.  “Don’t let it go to your head, hot shot.”

 

Unwind’s lobby was plainly furnished.  A soothing gray paint covered the walls and the pale blue carpet had seen better days.  The echo from the door’s opening bell was still ringing when a thin man walked through the inner office door.  He was short and pale, dressed casually in a polo shirt, shorts, and sandals.  His dark hair was pulled back into a ponytail, but none of this drew the detectives’ attention as quickly as the burn scar on his forehead, in the shape of an X. 

 

“I’m Bob, how can I help you?” he said with a friendly smile.

 

“Detectives Starsky and Hutchinson,” Starsky said, showing his badge.  “Metro Division.  We were hoping you might give us some insight.”

 

Motioning them to sit on the generic, vinyl couches in the lobby, their host sat down and asked a pointed question, “So, you know what we do here?”

 

“Yes,” Hutch replied.  “You specialize in deprogramming cult members, don’t you?”

 

Bob smiled at them.  “You could say that.  I prefer to look at it more like exit assistance, but you are essentially correct.”  Knowing that both men had seen his scar, he said, “I’m sure you realize that I was once Family.  I know a little bit about cults.”

 

That was enough said on that subject.  They all knew the score.  Starsky wanted to reassure the man about their intentions. “We aren’t here about your activities so much as we are hoping you may have some information on cults operating in Bay City.  We’re investigating some homicides and the disappearance of a few college students that we think may be cult related.”

 

Bob nodded.  “If I can help, I’d be happy to.  Please, step into my office.”

 

In his office, Bob led them to a map with multi-colored pins in it.  The larger map of the Bay City area had more pins than they would have liked to see, if each one represented a cult.  Seeing the silent communication between the two policemen, Bob confirmed their suspicions.  “Your suspicion is correct.  Each one of these pins represents a cult.  The ones that are the same color represent different local cells of the same cult.”  He faced the map and pointed to a color-coded list on the side.  “The cult names are there.  College campuses are a prime spot for recruiting.  Can you describe what you’re seeking, or do you really know?”

 

Hutch sighed.  “I’m afraid we really aren’t all that sure.  We have a possible name.  Simone.”

 

Bob turned back to face them, a knowing look crossing his face.  “I have just the person for you to talk to.  Please, wait here.”

 

“We didn’t just get this lucky, did we?” Hutch said.

 

“I hope we did.  This guy’s got a pretty long reach and a serious reputation.  Maybe.”

 

A few minutes later, the door opened again and Bob returned with a young man walking shyly behind him.  Not much more than a boy, he looked like he hadn’t eaten in weeks and was as scared as a rabbit in a cat’s crosshairs. 

 

“Gentlemen, this is Patrick.  He came to us about a month ago and he may have the information you need.”

 

“If I tell you anything, you can’t let Simone know it was me.  Hell, he’s probably dreamed it already.”

 

Bob interjected, “No, Patrick.  Remember, his dreams are just a ploy to make you think he has special powers.  Simone is not mysterious.  He’s just a man.”

 

“I remember,” Patrick replied sincerely.

 

Over coffee, the young man described his indoctrination into a quasi-religious group in the area.  Their leader was a man they all called Simone.  Patrick didn’t know his last name.  No one used it and he was only with them for a few weeks.  He described the groups’ tactics, which differed slightly between male and female candidates, and between those who came to Simone freely and those who were grabbed and brought into the fold.  Patrick didn’t know why Simone did the things he did, other than to say he was both crazy and evil. 

 

“He rapes the girls.  Over and over,” Patrick said with a shudder.  “He convinces you that he’s the true God.  Eventually, your resistance wears away.”

 

“Did you join, or were you taken?” Hutch asked.

 

“I joined.  I... a friend of mine got me into it.  He said Simone was like a drug.  Better.  And the sex was, um, phenomenal.  A free-for-all, you know?”

 

Starsky asked, “Why’d you leave, and how did you?”

 

“I didn’t know about the rapes at first.  When I found out about that, I just couldn’t stand it.  I went home to my parents and they brought me here.  Bob is helping me to see the truth.”

 

“I don’t just replace one fanatical devotion with another,” Bob explained.  “Here, we try to help former cult members see the truth of what has been done to them.  The brainwashing, the removal of their free will, talking the faithful into giving up their material goods and money for the group.   That’s all we hope to do.  If we can set them back on the path to a free life, we’re happy.”

 

Patrick was unable to tell them where Simone and his followers had their main residence.  He wasn’t in the group long enough to be trusted with that knowledge.  He was able to direct them to the abandoned warehouse he stayed at during his time with the cult. Patrick also warned them that Simone and his followers were into weapons.  Not just guns, which they had in great numbers, but they were especially fond of cutting implements.  With both their thanks and a promise to keep his name out of things, Starsky and Hutch checked in with headquarters before heading toward the docks to investigate.  

 

The sun was down by the time they reached the docks.  Starsky nodded at Hutch as he slowed the Torino to a near crawl.  Hutch climbed out and walked along just inside the open door, scanning both sides of the alley between warehouses.  Patrick said the group could be anywhere in the area, though their primary hangout was on the corner, one row back from the edge of the dock. 

 

They didn’t have a warrant or probable cause to search, so they were engaged in a simple reconnoiter.  Of course, if they caught anyone in the act of doing something illegal, they could drag them into the station, so they were ready for anything. 

 

Just as they neared the end of the row, they saw a black van pulling away from them.  Starsky stopped the car, got out, and approached the building with Hutch.  They heard a car door shut from the other side of the building and a car start.  Voices echoed off the mostly vacant buildings loud enough for them to hear. 

 

“Job and I will be back late tonight,” a male voice announced.  “We have to move the boat.”

 

As they rounded the corner, they could see two men climbing down a ladder toward a boat and another getting ready to leave in a loaded down station wagon.

 

“Excuse me,” Hutch said pulling out his badge. “We’d like to ask--”

 

He never got the last words out because the three men all started moving in different directions.  The two at the dock jumped down to what they couldn’t quite see, but knew was a floating boat dock and they could hear footsteps.  The man in the station wagon gunned it and whipped past Hutch so fast, he had to jump back and lost his footing. 

 

Knowing it was too dark to get a read on the plate, he got to his feet and set off after his partner. Starsky had a good lead and Hutch was afraid he wasn’t going to stop at the dock.  When he reached it, he did exactly what Hutch feared. 

 

“Starsky!” Hutch shouted, but it was too late.  His partner leaped off the upper dock, flew over the floating dock below, and landed with an audible thud on the deck of the departing boat. 

 

Hutch realized within two heartbeats that there wasn’t enough time for him to make the same jump and he stood in disbelief, watching the small boat pull away from him.  “Shit!  Shit!”  He wasn’t sure if he should run and call for some backup, or stay where he was.  He started looking to see how far out he could run down the dock.  Maybe he could find a boat with someone on it who could help him chase the other boat.

 

The darkness made it impossible to see what was happening.  He thought he saw two people struggling on the deck, and within a few moments, he saw the flash of gunfire, followed by the report.

 

“Starsky!” he shouted again.  Dammitdammitdammit!  His heart nearly stopped at the next thing he saw -- the dark shape of someone going over the side, followed by a splash and the sound of the boat’s engine gunning away into the distance.

 

He knew he had no time to waste wondering if that was Starsky and what he should do.  A quick look around revealed he was completely alone.  The cult members were all gone.  Hutch kicked off his shoes and quickly stripped out of his jacket, leaving his gun and holster wrapped in it, and tossed the bundle into the darkness among some crates.  After a look below to see what was there, Hutch dove past the small dock into the cold, inky harbor water and headed in the direction he’d last seen his partner. 

 

The combination of lifeguard experience, police training, and being terrified that his partner had been shot or was drowning or both, propelled him through the water in long strokes.  Now that he was in the water, he could make out the shape of a person’s head in the distance and he made rapid progress toward it.

 

For the last twenty-five feet, he tucked his head down and made even better speed.  With his head in the water, he couldn’t see that his target had already gone down twice.  By the time he reached the spot, the swimmer was gone.  Praying he hadn’t misjudged, he called Starsky’s name and dove under the water looking for him.  Fortunately, he found him on the third try, weakly trying to climb back to the surface.  Hutch yanked him up into the air, relieved when he took a gasping breath. 

 

Hutch was treading water, trying to get a good look at his partner, who was spluttering and threatening to sink again.  “Starsk, are you all right?” Hutch asked anxiously, and he only got a head nod for an answer.

 

Starsky was weighed down with his shoes, a leather jacket, his holster, and gun.  Even without all of that, he had blood streaming down the side of his face from a scalp wound and was having trouble lifting his right arm to help him swim.  Hutch was about to say something else to him when he went limp in his arms. 

 

“Dammit, Starsky!” Hutch shouted at him as he turned him onto his back and started to swim toward the dock. 

 

Hutch was too busy to do much more than try to swim them out of danger. Getting them both to safety and making sure his partner was still breathing required his entire concentration.  Starsky rallied and moaned a little just as they neared the floating part of the dock.  Hutch turned him and put his arms up on the deck, ordering him to stay put long enough for him to get out and help.  He pulled himself up onto the deck and turned to help Starsky.

 

“Come on, buddy, I’ve got ya,” he said encouragingly as he reached down and grabbed Starsky under the arm and by the belt.  As soon as he was out of the water, Hutch pulled him farther from the edge and said, “Sit tight, I’m going to call an ambulance.”

 

Starsky reached up and grabbed his arm.  “No,” he wheezed.  “Just... gimme... a sec.”

 

Hutch sat down with a thud and pulled Starsky’s head into his lap, angling himself so he could see his partner’s face in the dim streetlight from the dock.  He helped Starsky out of his soggy jacket, using that as an excuse to examine him more closely for injuries.

 

“Were you shot?  You passed out on me out there for a while,” he said, looking as closely as he could at the bleeding wound under Starsky’s curls near his temple. 

 

Starsky nodded. “My head feels like it did the last time you let me talk you out of scrambled eggs at your place.”

 

That got Hutch’s attention.  “Look, if you won’t let me call an ambulance, you’re gonna have to help me out here and get to your feet. Can you stand?  We’re gonna go have you looked at.”

 

Starsky said, “Help me up, I’m fine, you’ll see.”

 

Hutch did just that.  He stood up and helped Starsky to his feet.  He was impressed with his partner’s attempt to make it look like the world wasn’t spinning.  “Since you’re too heavy soaking wet for me to haul up those steps, I’m gonna let you get away with this for a little bit.  Then, we’re going where it’s light enough for me to get a look at you.”

 

“Okay, okay,” Starsky said impatiently.  He made his way up the steps on shaking legs, sitting at the top for a moment while he waited for Hutch to finish coming up behind him.  Hutch rushed over to the crates and collected his things. 

 

Reaching for Starsky, he got an arm under his left side and pulled him to his feet.  “I see that your arm is hurt, too.  Don’t try and hide it.  What the hell were you thinking?”

 

“I wasn’t, I just didn’t want them to get away like that.  I don’t know... I guess it was a reaction.”

 

The sound of water squishing out of his shoes struck him funny and Starsky started to chuckle.  At first, Hutch was annoyed, then he started to laugh, too.  “Laugh it up, dirt ball,” he said.  “We’re even, by the way.  We’ve both jumped into the drink after each other.”

 

Starsky winced at the pain in the side of his head and drew a soft breath through his teeth.  Letting it out again, he said, “We’re only even if you get pneumonia from this.”

 

“You didn’t have pneumonia, it was only bronchitis.”

 

The banter continued until they reached the Torino and Hutch was ready to put his partner in the passenger seat.  “Get the blanket outta the trunk, will ya?” Starsky said, resisting his efforts to let him down inside the car.

 

“Why?”

 

“I don’t want dirty salt water all over my seats, what’re’ya, crazy?”

 

That was a good sign.  If Starsky was more worried about his upholstery than he was being wet and cold, he was probably all right.  Hutch obliged him by getting the blanket, but he wrapped his partner in it instead when he saw him shivering.

 

“There, it’ll do the same thing and keep you warm.”

 

“Thanks, Blintz.”

 

“You’re welcome.”  Before he could reach the driver’s side, Hutch had to stop and let out a teeth-rattling sneeze.

 

“God bless you,” Starsky said from inside the car, immediately followed by laughter.

 

"Okay, we're going to the ER," Hutch said, getting in and giving Starsky a look.

 

"No, we're not. I'm fine, for cryin' out loud. Quit treatin' me like a baby."

 

Hutch peered at him again in the slightly better light afforded by the car's dome light. Starsky looked fretful and annoyed, but otherwise not permanently damaged. Starsky met the look sternly and finally Hutch gave a shrug. "All right. Shit, what an idiot. You've at least got to let me clean up that mess on your head."

 

"Fine. You clean it up. No sawbones."

 

Hutch shook his head and started the car. He kept glancing at Starsky as he drove and other than the occasional shiver, Starsky seemed fine. "What the hell am I gonna do with you?" he said.

 

Starsky grinned brightly enough for Hutch to see it even in the dimness of the dark car. "Hey, somebody's gotta keep ya entertained."

 

Hutch snorted and kept driving.

 

"The way I see it," Starsky said, wincing a little as Hutch performed first aid on him later, "is we gotta send somebody in undercover. It's the only way we're gonna get close to the main guy."

 

Hutch stopped what he was doing and stared. "Neither one of us can pass for a college kid, moron."

 

Starsky rolled his eyes. "I didn't think it ought to be us," he said very patiently. "But we got a new class of rookies just joined the department. Some of them are young enough to pass."

 

Hutch considered that as he went back to work. "Okay," he said after a moment. "That could work. But are you nuts? Send a raw recruit in undercover?"

 

"You got a better idea?" Starsky demanded. "They're recruiting kids for the cult, right? They aren't going to approach us. We can't find out where they're hanging out 'cause they keep moving. To get the real dirt on the guy, we gotta have somebody on the inside."

 

Hutch sighed and put a bandage on the scrape on Starsky's head. "All right. Dobey's going to shit, but all right. I don't see any other way, either."

 

Dobey, as Hutch had predicted, roared for a good fifteen minutes.

 

"This bunch of crazies is obviously nuts!" he yelled, pounding a fist on the desk. "They've already killed three girls! What makes you think they won't kill the poor sap we send in there? Have you lost your minds?"

 

"We didn't figure on sending one of the girls -- women," Starsky hastily amended when Hutch gave him a dirty look. "We figured to send one of the men."

 

"Safer," Hutch put in. "They're recruiting guys, too, and maybe the guys do the dirty work. If our man gets in really good with them, he'd be able to pass information to us about what's going on."

 

"And risk his neck doing it!" Dobey bellowed. "You think this cult leader is going to let him waltz off to a pay phone and tell you all their secrets? What the hell are you thinking?"

 

It took a while, but they finally talked Dobey into seeing it their way. As usual.

 

After talking to a couple of Academy instructors and looking over the new guys themselves, they finally settled on Officer Kyle Landry. He was 25, but looked about 19, and had had an exemplary career in the Academy. In his six months with a training officer, he'd been responsible for several significant busts.

 

He was outwardly calm when they asked him to meet with them. He sat down in the interrogation room they'd chosen for the meeting, coolly crossed his legs, and waited.

 

"We need a young officer for an undercover assignment," Starsky said, leaning a little forward. "It's dangerous. We won't lie to you. You'll be risking your life. And if you say no, nobody'll think any less of you."

 

Landry nodded. "What's the assignment?"

 

Hutch took over, explaining about the dead girls and their suspicion that the cult was behind it. "We don't know anything about them, other than the leader's name. Simone. They're recruiting kids off the campus and that's why we need somebody who looks young. No offense, Kyle, but you look like a kid."

 

Landry grinned, which only made him look younger. "Yes, sir. I get carded every time I try to buy beer."

 

"It's not going to be easy," Hutch warned him. "They're experts at figuring out when somebody isn't buying the whole bag. At least, we assume that's why they killed those girls."

 

"Or killing them was some kind of ritual," Starsky said.

 

Hutch nodded. "Either way, they don't have a problem with killing. And the deaths are ugly. What do you think? Can you act?"

 

Landry considered. "I'm supposed to pretend I'm ripe for this kind of thing and fall for the whole hook, line, and sinker, right?"

 

"Yeah," Starsky said. "But don't really fall for it."

 

Landry grinned again. "Don't worry about that. I'm a good Baptist boy and I won't fall for any mumbo-jumbo."

 

"Can you do it?" Starsky asked. "And will you? Remember, you don't have to. We don't have the authority to order you to, and we wouldn't if we did."

 

"Sarge," Landry said, "I wanted to be a cop to stop guys like this. If you need my help, I'm in. You just tell me what you want me to do."

 

Hutch took care of filling Landry in while Starsky went to fill out the paperwork for Homicide to borrow Landry's services for an undetermined period of time. They had no way of knowing how long it would take for Landry to make some contact. Dobey had already arranged for Landry to be signed up as a "student" at the university and had found him a room in a dorm on campus.

 

They were still working out the details when a call came from the sheriff. Some hikers had stumbled across a shallow grave in the woods.

 

"Three bodies," Dobey said to Starsky when he found him. "Three. And all three young women with their throats cut. One of them has been dead for some time, the other two more recently killed."

 

Starsky closed his eyes. "Oh, God."

 

"We're pretty sure one of the girls is on our 'missing' list," Dobey went on. "I'd guess the other two will turn out to be missing girls, too."

 

"All we can do," Starsky said slowly, "is hope to God that Kyle can pull this off."

 

Kyle moved into his dorm room over the weekend and began attending classes on Monday. He sent regular updates through another officer, this one a detective who was posing as a cook in the dining hall where most of the dorm dwellers ate their meals. Kyle was taking general education courses and if anyone asked, he had been in Vietnam for a hitch and was just now getting his college requirements out of the way and thinking about what he wanted to major in. Starsky had told him a few war stories to give him authenticity, since Kyle had not actually even served in the Army. And Kyle was also close-mouthed about family, pretending they didn't get along and that his folks lived somewhere far away. He had even sewed a flag patch upside down on the seat of an old pair of jeans -- though he admitted to Starsky and Hutch that this galled him -- in order to appear to be a disillusioned young vet open to "a better way."

 

The first few days, nothing at all happened. Kyle's updates consisted of good-natured griping about the cafeteria food, the noise in the dorm at night, and how boring classes were. Then he thought he'd made a contact when a young girl had approached him in the library where he was studying, talking about revolution and peace, and Starsky and Hutch had a bad couple of days of it when Kyle seemed to disappear. The other undercover officer -- Dan Reynolds -- couldn't find Kyle and didn't dare look too hard for fear of blowing Kyle's cover.

 

But it turned out all right. The girl had only been a harmless hippie and a big John Lennon fan who had fastened onto Kyle, and Kyle had been unable to shake her for those two days. He didn't dare report in with her following him everywhere.

 

"He said he almost went to bed with her," Reynolds told Starsky, grinning, "until he discovered she's only 17. It seems she skipped a grade in high school and started college early."

 

"Oh, for cryin' out loud," Starsky said, sighing. "I guess we didn't think about the temptations of hot young coeds and a good-looking single cop, did we?"

 

"Don't worry," Reynolds said hastily. "He was only kidding about sleeping with her. He's taking this very seriously."

 

"Tell him," Hutch said from his chair on the other side of the desk, "that if he has to do something like that to fit in or allay suspicion, to go ahead. We don't want him getting a reputation for being a prude or something. The Bay City PD has a rep to protect, you know."

 

Starsky snorted and Hutch grinned.

 

"I'll tell him," Reynolds said with a laugh.

 

After a couple of weeks, Kyle had made a few friends -- besides the hippie girl -- and had gotten close enough to them to mention casually his unhappiness with his life and that he felt rootless and lost without an Army sergeant telling him what to do. He did this over a few too many beers at an off-campus bar.

 

"I thought you hated the Army," one of the other boys said.

 

"I did," Kyle said. "Not the Army life, but the war. We had no business going over there killing innocent people in villages. That's what I hated. Damned government."

 

Then someone else approached Kyle.

 

"This could be it," Reynolds told Starsky and Hutch. "This girl came up to him after a campus rally in support of the ERA and asked him if he was interested in finding 'the one way'."

 

"That sounds promising," Hutch said. "Religious language."

 

Reynolds nodded. "So he asked her what she was talking about and she said she could introduce him to someone who could give him 'everlasting peace'."

 

A few days later, Kyle reported that the girl had taken him to a religious meeting. The group had sung and prayed and talked about "the way," but no one had mentioned "Simone" and when the meeting was over, no one had tried to indoctrinate him in any way other than to ask him if he felt more peaceful after hearing the message.

 

"The message," Reynolds told Hutch, "was generic 'love your neighbor' stuff, and Landry said it sounded like any other sermon he's ever heard. He's afraid this was just a regular religious group and not the crazies."

 

"Tell him to hang in there for a couple of other meetings," Hutch said. "They wouldn't show their hand immediately."

 

There was another long period of silence from Landry and Starsky and Hutch began to worry about him again. Finally, Reynolds called Starsky at home late one Saturday night.

 

"This is it," Reynolds said excitedly. "They took him to a 'retreat' and they swore him to silence about the location."

 

"Shit."

 

"Oh, don't worry," Reynolds said. "He told me where it is, as near as he could figure. A ranch about an hour from town. He told one of the girls that he used to live out that way and wanted to know if they were going to be near anybody he knew, so she told him about where it was."

 

"That's not an exact location," Starsky pointed out.

 

"No, but I've got a pretty good idea where he is," Reynolds said. "He's supposed to be back in time for classes Monday."

 

There was nothing else to do but wait and finally, late Monday night, Reynolds called again. "He's back and he's safe," he said to Hutch, who answered this time. "He looks like hell, said they didn't let him sleep, didn't eat, and only drank well water, which gave him," Reynolds chuckled, "what he called 'the back-door trots.' But he's not hurt. Just worn out. He didn't make it to classes today, but he's all right."

 

"Did he find out anything?" Hutch asked.

 

"A little," Reynolds said. "Apparently, this Simone character wasn't actually there, at least, he didn't see the guy. But there were a lot of young people there, from around 17 or 18 up to about 30 in some cases. It was basically a gang bang, Landry said. There were two or three girls that he said everybody, guys and girls alike, took turns having sex with. The girls," Reynolds paused, so long that Hutch finally had to prompt him to continue, before adding, "weren't there of their own free will."

 

"Jesus."

 

"He's not part of this religion," Reynolds said disgustedly. "This is it, Hutch, Landry's sure of it and so am I after hearing his story. They chant Simone's name constantly. They take cold baths, never showers. They dress in black robes. And as near as Landry could figure, this sex thing is the way they indoctrinate the new ones. They keep 'em tied down to cots and blindfolded and naked and never feed them, and three or four times a day, they haul 'em into a common room and everybody has sex with them."

 

"Did Landry participate?" Hutch asked fearfully. It would be difficult to exonerate him if he had, even if he'd had to risk blowing his cover by refusing. A gang rape was still illegal.

 

"No," Reynolds said, and Hutch drew a sigh of relief. "He pretended he couldn't get it up, acted real embarrassed, and the rest were apparently too busy to care."

 

"How is he? Mentally, I mean."

 

"He's all right," Reynolds said. "He wants to talk to you two himself. He thinks he can sneak out tomorrow night after dark without anybody seeing him and get over to your place. Can you meet him?"

 

"Yeah. We'll be here."

 

Landry showed up around 10 p.m. and he was so pale that both Starsky and Hutch were alarmed. Reynolds stayed away so there would be no chance of someone connecting them.

 

"Sit down, Kyle, before you fall down," Starsky said, gently guiding the young officer to the couch. Kyle sank down and closed his eyes briefly before pulling himself together.

 

"Tell us," Hutch said.

 

Kyle shook his head. "Man, this bunch is out there, Sarge. I mean, nuts. I went to a couple of meetings and they were weird, but not that far out. A lot of chanting and talk about 'the one way,' and stuff like that. About what I expected. Then they asked me to go on this retreat. We went outside of town to this ranch -- "

 

"Could you find it again?" Starsky interrupted.

 

Kyle nodded. "I think so. I heard 'em call the guy who owns it 'Crow,' and I think that's really his name. A lot of them aren't using their real names," he added to Hutch, who had taken out his notebook and was scribbling notes.

 

Hutch looked up. "They don't?"

 

Kyle shook his head. "No. They already told me I'm going to need a Biblical name. Kyle's apparently too twentieth century." He flashed a wan grin. "I chose 'Hezekiah.' Had a great-uncle named Hezekiah. They liked that."

 

"So if you already have a Biblical name, do you get to keep it?"

 

Kyle frowned and shook his head. "I don't think so. I think that's part of the induction process. You have to give up your name, your identity, your clothes, your whole life."

 

"Shit," Starsky said and shuddered.

 

"It's out there," Kyle said. “Funny thing, they don’t make the women change their names for a long time.  I can’t figure that part out.  Maybe they want to keep them on edge longer.  Who knows? ”  He ran a hand through his hair. "I hate to be rude, but you don't have anything to eat, do you? They starved me all weekend and I've been feeling kind of -- "

 

"I'll make him a sandwich," Starsky said, rising and heading for the kitchen.

 

"Go on," Hutch said to Kyle.

 

"We got out there and they took my clothes -- the others changed into these black hooded robes and they gave me a white one," Kyle said. "They told me new converts had to wear white. Then we all had to take a cold bath, and I mean cold, man. Then they brought these girls out, and the poor girls -- " He stopped and shook his head. "They were scared to death. They put them on this dirty mattress on the floor and started walking around them chanting 'Simone' over and over. The girls were blindfolded and I found out later they keep 'em tied to cots in between sessions, so their hands and feet were numb and swollen and they couldn't have fought if they wanted to. They don't feed them for several days during the induction process, so they're weak and sick, too."

 

Hutch raised his eyes to Starsky's as Starsky came back with the sandwich and handed it to Kyle. The two men exchanged a significant look as Starsky resumed his seat.

 

"Then all the guys and girls took turns on the girls," Kyle said, looking a little sick, though he went ahead and ate the sandwich while he talked. "There were about twenty of them, I'd guess, and nobody noticed I didn't join in. I kind of milled around with them and chanted 'Simone' and tried to lose myself in the crowd, and when one of the guys -- Peter, they call him -- said he hadn't seen me 'welcoming' the girl on the end, I told him I couldn't get it up." Kyle flushed a little pink at that and gave another wan grin. "He didn't seem to care. He was too into what was going on and none of them seem to be quite with it, anyway."

 

"I can imagine," Starsky said. "They don't do something similar to the boys they 'welcome'?"

 

Kyle shook his head. "No. The guys are given 'tasks' to do. I really think the welcoming thing is just an excuse for the leader to get to screw the girls. There are a lot more girls than guys."

 

"Did you see Simone?" Hutch asked.

 

"Not yet," Kyle said. "The girls get to meet him right away. He welcomes them personally. But guys have to prove themselves worthy. I haven't proven myself yet."

 

"You doin' okay?" Starsky asked. "Is it too much for you?"

 

"I'm fine," Kyle said. "It's freaky, but I can handle it. Honest," he added when Starsky didn't look convinced. He finished his sandwich and went on, "We didn't eat at all from Friday night when we started down there to Monday afternoon when we got back. We drank some well water -- we even had to dip it with a bucket -- and that's all. Just chant and screw and chant and screw. And I think they gave me some kinda drug," he said, flushing again. "Saturday night they built a fire outside and we did this whole ritual around the fire, and ... " He paused and shook his head. "I think I was hallucinating. I've never done drugs, but things were distorted, sounds and sights, and I woke up with one hell of a headache on Sunday."

 

"Maybe we'd better have you checked out by a doctor before you go back," Hutch said worriedly, leaning a little closer to peer into Kyle's eyes. "We have a friend. The department doc wouldn't have to be involved."

 

"I'm all right," Kyle insisted. "I'd tell you if I weren't."

 

Hutch wasn't happy, but he didn't have the influence over Kyle to insist, so he let it go. "What else happened?"

 

"We came back and we left those two girls there," Kyle said. "That's what makes me think the leader's still there, and some of the others, too. I think they're using that ranch for their headquarters right now, but I don't know how long that'll last. I heard Peter asking another one of the guys if he'd arranged for the 'new site' yet."

 

"Would you recognize a picture of the girls if you saw one?" Starsky asked. He got up and found the files with the descriptions of the missing students and handed it to Kyle. Kyle studied them for several minutes and finally chose one.

 

"I'm pretty sure this is one of them," he said. "But I never saw her without the blindfold."

 

It was Danielle.

 

“None of the others look familiar?” Hutch asked.

 

“No, I’m sorry.”  Kyle looked exhausted.  He closed his eyes and sighed heavily. 

 

Hutch jerked his chin in Kyle’s direction as he and Starsky held a silent conversation. Should we pull him? 

 

Starsky raised an eyebrow.  Maybe.  What then? 

 

Hutch shrugged.  Don’t know.  I’m working on it.

 

Neither of them realized that Kyle had opened his eyes and was watching them.  “Hey,” he said with a smirk, “if you’re going to talk about me, at least do it out loud, huh?”

 

“Sorry,” Hutch said.  “We think maybe it’s time you pulled out.”

 

“No way! Don’t you think I can handle it?”

 

Starsky leaned close, looking the angry younger man in the eyes as he said, “Of course, we do.  That’s not it.  We just don’t want to add you to the list of this wacko’s victims.”

 

Kyle stood up and paced.  “But, I’m getting so close.  Don’t pull the plug.  I want this guy.”

 

“So do we, but Starsky’s right.  This is getting too dangerous.  You’ve already probably been drugged and you’ve been put into a compromising position.”

 

“I’m being careful.  Listen, I think I’m getting close.  Just a few more days and I may know where this Simone is.”  Kyle looked so earnest. “Please, I’ve gotta see this through.  I need to find out where those girls are being held, too.”

 

The older detectives looked at each other and finished their silent conversation with a nod apiece.  “All right,” Starsky said. “For now.”

 

Hutch continued, “But if we feel like you’re in too deep, or your cover may be blown, that’s it.”

 

“Fair enough,” Kyle said. “Thanks.”

 

They sat and discussed what was next.  Kyle thought he should return to campus and go to his classes.  When he saw anyone from the group, he’d hint around that he wanted to meet Simone and he would do whatever was necessary.  Kyle left after promising to be careful and to check in regularly. 

 

After closing the door behind the young officer, Hutch leaned up against it, deep in thought.  “I don’t like it.”

 

“I know, but he’s right.  We have to let him keep at it a little longer.  While he tries to get more information, we can start looking for that ranch.  Kyle seemed to think the girls weren’t out there, but you never know.”

 

~*~*~*~

 

Kyle was right about two things.  He wasn’t able to find out where the young, female postulants were being held, and his chance to meet Simon came a few days later.  While some of the men held a ceremony, the girls who were full members moved to a group of old cabins deep in the middle of Crow’s property.  Simon’s personal favorites, Esther and Miriam, remained with Crow... keeping him both company and quiet.  Some of the other cult members had taken the girls Kyle saw to the new location earlier that week.  All that remained when Kyle returned were Peter, two young men named Jonah and Luke, and two potential members, including the undercover policeman.  The other man had been renamed Ezekiel.  Kyle knew they were both to be given tasks to prove themselves worthy of confirmation. Peter had revealed that much as he drove them into the mountains in a black van that morning. 

 

Denied food, Kyle and Ezekiel were given more well water to drink and then compelled to stand naked where they were told Simone could more clearly dream their tasks of devotion.  They stood for hours behind the weathered barn, without rest, chanting, “Simone, Simone.”  Finally, sunburned, nearly mesmerized by the chanting, and sick from the heat, they were given more well water to drink, and then bathed in icy water.  While Peter went into the barn to consult his master, Jonah and Luke dressed the shivering men in the white robes of converts.  Peter appeared at the door to the barn, beckoning them all inside.  Kyle and Ezekiel were both hallucinating by the time they were led into the dark barn.

 

A calm, quiet voice called down from an unseen source in the loft above them.  “Welcome, pilgrims.  The faithful are here to submit to Simone.”

 

Officer Landry blinked heavily, trying to fight the effects of the drug he realized must have been slipped into the drinking water.  He stared up into the darkness, shaking his head, trying to clear the muzziness he felt.  Ezekiel stood beside him, swaying gently and muttering the chant, “Simone, Simone, Simone.”

 

Peter’s voice sliced through Kyle’s confusion.  “What task have you dreamed for our brothers?”

 

Kyle heard a scraping sound, followed by the soft hoof falls of a large animal.  He tried to turn his head to see what was coming, but that made him so dizzy, he nearly fell.  Strong hands braced him, and he felt the man behind him reach around to tip his head up toward the voice.

 

“Look only at Simone,” the voice said.  “Simone is all there is.  Nothing else, but Simone.”

 

“Nothing else but Simone,” Ezekiel repeated.

 

Kyle struggled to think clearly.  “Simone,” he said, hoping his voice didn’t sound as shaky as he feared it did, “let us see you.”

 

“The truly faithful believe without seeing,” the disembodied voice replied. 

 

Luke walked in front of the white robed men, leading a cow to stand before them.  Peter approached a dark cloth and pulled it down, to reveal candles surrounding an altar with an upside down cross behind it.  A wooden structure with a ramp leading up to it stood before the altar.  To Kyle’s distorted vision, the scene looked like it was bowing and flexing toward and away from him.  Even in his foggy state, he knew he was in trouble. 

 

“I dreamed you would sacrifice the cow to Simone,” the voice decreed, “and then you would partake of her blood.”

 

Before he could stop himself, Kyle said, “No,” softly.  The other candidate kept up with his chanting, opening his eyes to look at the hapless animal.

 

The voice continued, “The blood will make you strong.”

 

Luke pulled a large, sharp-looking knife out of his robe.

 

“I will fulfill Simone’s dream,” Ezekiel said.  He took a wavering step toward Luke, reaching for the knife. 

 

Luke said, “Simone dreamed you would be strong.”  He handed the knife to Ezekiel, and then led the cow toward the altar, and into the frame meant to hold her still.  Jonah held onto Kyle, while Peter and Luke rigged everything and showed Ezekiel what to do.  By this time, the cow was mooing with fright.  Jonah forced Kyle onto his knees and he watched, horrified, as Ezekiel sliced the cow’s throat open, and the other two men collected her blood.  All of them drank some of it from a cup.

 

“Hezekiah, you must partake of her blood to cleanse yourself of your old life.”

 

Kyle struggled against Jonah.  “No!” he shouted, knowing he couldn’t do such a barbaric thing.  The hallucinogen was coursing through his veins and he felt sick.  Peter approached him with a cup, filled with blood.

 

“You have proven yourself worthy,” Simone said, pleased with Ezekiel’s devotion. 

 

“Drink!” Peter ordered.

 

Panting and near panic, Kyle shook his head. “Can’t!”

 

“You must,” Peter replied.  “Obey Simone.  You must drink to be his.  Simone is the True Way.”

 

Kyle shook his head, but felt his hair yanked and his head tipped back as the other men forced him to take some of the cooling blood into his mouth.

 

The last thing he heard before he passed out was, “Simone makes the rules.  All the rules.”

 

“I dreamed he would not join us,” Simon told the others. 

 

“Yes, Simone,” Peter said with a bow to the darkness above him.  He didn’t have to ask what else Simone had dreamed.

 

~*~*~*~

 

After Sunday came and went with no word from Kyle Landry, the other officers were all worried.  He’d last been seen on Thursday, when he passed a map to Dan Reynolds for Starsky and Hutch to find the ranch he’d been to the previous weekend.  When they followed the detailed map and were unable to find the ranch, Starsky and Hutch came to the concerned conclusion that Kyle had been drugged beyond what he realized.  The map bore no resemblance to reality.

 

“You’re sure this isn’t just another situation where Landry couldn’t make contact without blowing his cover?” Dobey asked Dan Reynolds.

 

“I’m sure.  When he saw me Thursday night, he told me they were planning to have him back on campus by Sunday afternoon.  He told them he had a test Monday morning and had to be back in time to study.”

 

Dobey sighed.  “Any idea where to look?”

 

Hutch said, “We talked about it this morning, Cap. Dan’s going to start combing the campus, I’m taking the local coffee shops and hangout spots.”

 

“And while Hutch looks in town, I’m going to every one of these ranches.” Starsky leaned forward and dropped a computer printout on Dobey’s desk.  “All of them are owned by corporations, companies, or trusts.  No one named ‘Crow’ is a ranch property owner in any county in the surrounding area.”

 

“That’s just great,” Dobey said.  “We have a young officer missing and the senior officers involved have almost nothing to go on.”

 

“I’m sorry, Cap,” Dan said.  “We stuck to him as closely as we dared.  Starsky and Hutch wanted to pull him, but he refused. I feel --”

 

Before he could finish his statement, Starsky interrupted.  “Wait a minute, Dan, you’re the one who tried to get him wired, but it wasn’t possible.  He told us they took his clothes from him, Cap.  Even if they didn’t find the wire, he wouldn’t be wearing it when anything went down.”

 

Dobey put his hands up and said, “All right, all right.  Bottom line, we’re not finding Landry sitting here.  Get on out there and find him.”

 

Starsky drove Hutch to his apartment to pick up his car.  Before he got out, Hutch turned to him and said, “If you find this ‘Crow’ and his ranch, call me on the radio if it looks dicey.  I don’t want you out there without me, and far from any other backup.”

 

“Aye, aye, Cap’n,” Starsky said with a grin and a mini-salute. 

 

“Don’t blow me off, partner.  These people are dangerous.”

 

Sobering his face, Starsky nodded and said, “I know, Blintz.  Don’t worry.”

 

~*~*~*~

 

“Thanks for the coffee, Hug,” Hutch said, sliding off his barstool.  Though he hoped Huggy might have heard something, he knew it was probably too much to ask.  Hutch had stopped by his place for a few words and to let him know about Kyle.  After three hours of searching, he’d found nothing that would lead them to the young officer.  A check with Dan just before he went to Huggy’s confirmed that he was striking out, too.  Hutch hoped Starsky was doing better with his search for the ranch.

 

“I’ve got my ear to the ground,” Huggy answered. 

 

Hutch waved at him as he walked out the back door of The Pits.  The radio in the LTD was squawking when he approached.  Hutch grabbed the mike through the open window.

 

“Zebra 3, go ahead.”

 

“Hutch,” the dispatcher said, “I have a patch through from a Marie Rousseau.  She says it’s an emergency.”

 

Marie Rousseau owned Chez Helene’s, the restaurant in Hutch’s apartment building. “Put her through,” he responded.

 

After a brief pause, an accented female voice said, “Hutch?”

 

“Yes, Marie.  Is something wrong?”

 

“You need to come home,” she answered cryptically.  “Someone is here to see you.”

 

Hutch sighed.  He didn’t have time for whatever this was.  Marie had never called him before, so he was intrigued, but whoever it was would have to wait.  “I’m sorry, Marie, but I’m in the middle of something critical. Did you get a name?”

 

“Yes. He says his name is Hezekiah.  He’s hurt.”

 

“I’ll be right there.  Thanks.”

 

Hutch broke contact and rushed to his apartment.  He picked up the mike to call Dobey, but reconsidered.  If Kyle had given that name to Marie, something was wrong.  Something he didn’t want anyone else to know.  He decided he should find out what that was before he called the captain. 

 

Marie was watching for him from the restaurant’s front window.  The mid-afternoon timing meant Chez Helene’s was between seatings, so there were no customers.  She stepped out the front door and waved Hutch toward her when she saw him get out of the LTD.

 

“He’s in my office,” she said, leading the way. 

 

“Where did you find him?”

 

“He was in the alley next to your back stairs.”

 

Hutch took a step into the office, drawing in a gasp as soon as he saw the young man.  He was curled up on the leather sofa, his arms clutched tightly to his abdomen, his eyes closed.  Kyle was wearing what was once a white robe, similar to those worn by choir members.  Now, the robe was stained with dirt and blood on the chest and arms.  Hutch could see rope burns on Kyle’s wrists and bruises everywhere there was skin showing.  He was barefoot.

 

Crossing the room to sit in the chair beside him, Hutch reached out a hand to touch the pale, sweaty face.  He was relieved to find no fever.  “Kyle?” he called tentatively. “It’s Hutch, open your eyes for me.”

 

The young man opened his eyes and looked up at him, trying hard to focus.  “Hutch?”

 

Marie handed Hutch a bowl of water and a cloth she’d been using to clean up Kyle’s face.  “Yeah.  I need you to tell me what’s hurt.”

 

Marie quietly said, “He wouldn’t let me call an ambulance.  I tried.  He said only you or your partner.”

 

Kyle wasn’t answering him, just staring.  Hutch nodded.  “We may still need that ambulance.”

 

“No!” The man was obviously frightened.  “No doctors.”

 

Realizing he needed to get Kyle out of the restaurant, Hutch didn’t want to take him through the front.  Even if there were no customers, anyone could walk in at any time.  “Marie, I need to get him upstairs.  I’ll take him out the back if you’ll please go up and open my door.  The key’s on the ledge above the door.”

 

Marie chuckled at that.  She liked to say she was five feet tall, but that was an exaggeration... by a solid two inches.  “Hutch, I can’t reach up there,” she said with a grin. 

 

Hutch looked confused for a moment, then he realized the futility of the suggestion.  He smiled at the tiny woman.  “I’m sorry,” he said with a flush in his cheeks.  “Will you stay with him for a little longer?  I’ll run up there and come down the back way to help him.”

 

“Of course.  Go.”

 

“I’ll be right back, Kyle.”  Hutch patted him gently on the shoulder.  Before he bolted for the front door, he turned back to Marie, asking her to call Metro to get word to Dan Reynolds to meet him at his place.

 

~*~*~*~

 

Starsky was beginning to think he’d never find the ranch.  He’d been driving for hours, stopping to talk to ranch and farm owners along the way.  None of them had even heard of someone named Crow.  About three in the afternoon, he caught a break.  A pit stop at a small feed store and gas station garnered the information he needed.

 

“Sure, I know RJ,” the man answered cheerily. 

 

“RJ Crow?” Starsky asked, just to be sure.

 

“Yeah, sure.  RJ’s a good guy.  He in some kind of trouble?”

 

“No, nothing like that.  I just need to ask him a few questions.  Can you tell me where his place is?”

 

“Yeah.  Piñon Pine Ranch,” the old man said. “Turn left back onto the county road.  Go about 2 miles and you’ll come to a big bunch of mailboxes and newspaper boxes.  Turn right up the dirt road.  Piñon Pine is a couple of miles up that road on your right.  It’s the only ranch up there, so you can’t miss it.  He’s got a black gate with a wrought iron sign with the name on it across the top.”

 

Starsky thanked him, paid for his gas, and ran back out to the car.  He would keep his promise to call Hutch if anything looked suspicious, but he wanted to get up there first to see for himself.

 

When he reached the stop sign, he had to wait while four highway patrol cruisers and two vans blew past him on the paved part of the county road.  The cruisers turned at the mailboxes, and Starsky got a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.  Something must be wrong up there. He decided to hold off on calling Hutch, since the cavalry was riding to the ranch in front of him.

 

The Torino followed the last cruiser through the gates.  As they all pulled into the yard in front of the house, one of the officers approached him, before he could get out of the car.

 

“You have some business here?” he asked.

 

“I’m a detective with the BCPD,” Starsky answered.  “I’m working a case and this is my next stop.”

 

The trooper didn’t relax.  He stepped back, his hand resting on his sidearm, and peered at Starsky anonymously through mirrored sunglasses.  “Please step out of the car,” he commanded.

 

Starsky obeyed, saying,  “Sergeant David Starsky. I’m armed, and I’m just reaching for my ID.”  He cautiously reached into his back pocket and pulled out his badge, intently watching the officer who was warily watching his every move.

 

After inspecting the badge, the other man said, “Sorry, Detective.  We’ve had some reports of violence up here and you can’t be too careful.”

 

“No, you can’t.  What’s going on?” Starsky asked.

 

“The ranch owner called to complain about a group of young people living up here.  They’ve been slaughtering his cattle and the local sheriff’s department asked us to come up and haul them all in for questioning for him.  He’s a pretty small operation, just the sheriff and one deputy, and he’s tied up down at the jail.”

 

RJ Crow was an angry man.  Starsky and the highway patrol officer walked up in time to hear him yelling and see him pointing at the barn in the distance.  “It’s in there.  I swear to God, if you don’t get them out of here, I’ll run ‘em off with buck shot.”

 

“Calm down, Mr. Crow.  Tell us what happened,” the officer in charge asked.

 

“They killed another one of my animals, that’s what.  Pregnant, too.”

 

While Crow talked about the cult members and what had been happening on his ranch, Starsky glanced around the area.  He saw a group of people sitting up on the split rail fence next to the barn, watching them.  A glance over Crow’s shoulder revealed two young women looking at the scene out front through the screen door.  They were not too far away for Starsky to hear their giggles.

 

“And those two,” Crow finished with a jerk of his thumb back toward the house, “they need to go, too.  I’m sure they’re rippin’ me off.”

 

Several of the officers found the slaughtered cow in the barn.  Starsky watched as the troopers took the group of ragged looking young people into custody.  He turned to the red-faced ranch owner.

 

“Mr. Crow,” he said.  “I’m Detective David Starsky, Bay City Police.  I’m looking for some information on missing kids and someone named Simone.”  He heard the gasp from the two girls inside the house.  Apparently, they hadn’t expected to hear their leader’s name. 

 

“Don’t know about any missing kids, but I know Simone.” He made a mirthless sound, similar to a laugh.  “See-moan.  What a load of crap.  It’s Simon.  Just plain Simon.  Marcus.  Ask them,” he pointed back at the two women, who now stood with their arms crossed and their jaws set so hard Starsky could tell through the dingy screen they wouldn’t give him anything.

 

“You say they’ve been stealing from you?” Starsky asked.

 

“Yeah.  My wife died a few years back.  Her jewelry’s all gone, for one thing.”

 

“If you’ll come down and make a statement, we’ll take them.”

 

“Yeah, whatever it takes. Just get them the hell off my ranch.”

 

Starsky entered the home and ordered the two young women up against the wall.  He cuffed them and read them their rights, arresting them on suspicion of grand theft.  After some of the highway patrolmen helped him get the women into the back of the Torino, he followed them to the sheriff’s station to deal with the arrest and jurisdiction issues.

 

“Simone will make you pay for touching us,” Miriam said from the back seat with a sneer.

 

“Oh, yeah?  This I’d like to see,” Starsky replied.

 

After he dealt with logistical matters at the sheriff’s station, Starsky made some calls and found his partner at home.  Hutch told him Kyle was safe and to meet him at Venice Place as soon as he could get away. 

 

Starsky disposed of the cult members with the sheriff, who promised to call Dobey and fill him in, and hurried back to Venice. He was stunned when he walked in and saw the condition Kyle was in. "Holy shit, kid, what happened to you?"

 

Kyle had curled up on Hutch's sofa and was holding a cold cup of coffee in both hands. It hadn't been cold when Hutch made it for him, but he had yet to take a single sip.

 

"They put him through a ritual where he had to drink blood," Hutch said, keeping his voice matter-of-fact. Kyle was upset enough and he needed his senior officers to be calm. "Apparently, he was drugged and he woke up out in the sticks somewhere, tied up. I think maybe the drug was supposed to kill him because they left him for dead.  It’s a miracle they didn’t slit his throat."

 

"I'm too tough for that," Kyle said, trying for a light touch, but the trembling of his voice gave the lie to his words.

 

"How'd you get loose?" Starsky asked, taking in the rope burns on Kyle's wrists and ankles.

 

"Crummy knots," Kyle said. "Worked on 'em awhile and they came undone."

 

Starsky sat down on the arm of the couch and looked at Hutch. "Then what?"

 

"Hitched back here," Kyle said. "Trucker took pity on me and brought me right to the restaurant downstairs."

 

"So they think you're dead?"

 

Kyle shrugged and looked down at his coffee. "I guess."

 

Starsky and Hutch exchanged another glance. This was not the confident young cop they'd sent into this case. Kyle was barely functional and wouldn't meet their eyes.

 

That's it. We're pulling him.

 

No shit.

 

Kyle missed this because he wasn't looking at them, but Hutch sat on the couch next to him. "You're off the case, Kyle," he said gently. "They made you. You'd only be making it worse to stay in now."

 

Kyle nodded slowly and finally looked up. "I know. I appreciate the chance you gave me."

 

"Hey," Starsky said, "you helped, man. We wouldn't be this close without you, and we'll make sure your commander knows it, too."

 

"Thanks." Kyle took a deep breath. "I think I may be able to help just a little more. I overheard some conversation today. They probably didn't know I could hear them. Peter and one of the girls were talking about 'the babies.' The girl -- they call her Sarah -- said one of the babies was sick and told Peter to tell Simone. I think they were talking about real babies, Starsky."

 

"Makes sense," Starsky said after a moment's consideration. "If everybody's screwing everybody, somebody's bound to get knocked up eventually."

 

"Classy way of putting it," Hutch said with a grin.

 

Starsky rolled his eyes. "So now we gotta try and figure out where they've got the babies stashed, too."

 

"I think they're at the ranch," Kyle said. "Sarah said she was going 'upstairs' to check on the sick baby and to send Simone as soon as possible."

 

"Did you find the ranch?" Hutch asked, realizing he and Starsky hadn't yet debriefed.

 

"Sure did," Starsky said. "Rounded myself up a few freaks while I was at it, too. Mr. Crow is not happy about their presence there." He grinned.

 

"Good. I'll call Dobey to get a warrant and we'll go out there and look for these babies," Hutch said. "But first, we're taking you home, Kyle. I'd rather take you to the hospital."

 

Kyle shook his head. "No. No hospital. I'm fine, Hutch, really. Just a little ... freaked."

 

"More than a little, I think, kid," Hutch said. "But I won't make an issue of it. For now."

 

It took until the next day to get the warrant, and first thing in the morning Starsky and Hutch, accompanied by several other officers and some social workers from Child Protective Services, drove out to Crow's ranch to look for "the babies."

 

"I done threw 'em all out of the joint last night," Crow said when presented with the warrant. "Ever' damn one of 'em."

 

"Are you sure?" Starsky asked. "Could be they're hiding out somewhere you don't know about."

 

"It's my goddamn ranch!" Crow flared, but then shook his head. "No, you're right. I gave 'em free run of the place. I know there ain't any left in the house or in the bunkhouse but there are a couple of broken-down tenant houses at the far end of the property. I haven't been out there yet. Them places ain't fit to keep pigs in, but -- " He shrugged.

 

"Tell us how to find these tenant houses," Hutch said.

 

As they approached the shacks -- there was no other word for them -- Starsky said to Hutch, "He wasn't kiddin' about these things. They're barely standing." But he broke off at the sound of a fretful wail.

 

"Somebody's in there," Hutch said, nodding to the other officers and drawing his weapon.

 

"Hutch," Starsky hissed, "no guns. There's babies in there."

 

"There are also adults, I'm sure," Hutch hissed back. He relented enough to put the safety on. "Just for show, partner, okay?"

 

Starsky gave in, and they approached slowly and carefully. The door to the nearest one, where they'd heard the baby crying, was standing open.

 

"Police!" Hutch bellowed. "We have a warrant!" Without waiting for a reply, he led the way in, followed closely by Starsky and the other officers. The front room was bare and empty, but in the next room, what must have been a bedroom at one time, two playpens held several babies of varying ages, from just old enough to sit up to a three-year-old with a runny nose and a filthy t-shirt.

 

Other officers went up the stairs to the two bedrooms above and found five more babies and two very frightened women who were taking care of them. None of the babies seemed to have been abused, except for their squalid surroundings, and one was sick.

 

"Just a bad cold, Hutch," Officer Hank Britton said after picking the child up and looking her over. "Got three of my own." He gently chucked her under her chin and was rewarded by a giggle and a sneeze.

 

Two of the other officers were taking the women into custody and the social workers had come in by this time and were gathering up the babies themselves. One of the women refused to speak or answer any questions, but the second told the social workers the babies' names.

 

"Where are their parents?" Starsky asked her.

 

She blinked at him, her eyes puzzled. "We are all their parents," she said, as if it should be obvious. "We are all part of the family. The children belong to us all -- and to Simone."

 

"Simone's their father?" Hutch put in.

 

She turned her eyes to him. "Yes. And their mother. As are we all."

 

"Oh, brother," Starsky muttered.

 

"That's going to make the question of custody a little sticky," Hutch said. "Glad I don't have to try to figure that out."

 

The oldest child was the three-year-old, and he screamed and threw such a fit when the social workers tried to pick him up that they both got bruised shins.

 

"Hey," Starsky said, kneeling in front of the boy. "It's okay, little buddy. They won't hurt you, I promise. They're going to take you to a nice place that's clean and give you ice cream. Won't you?" he added to the nearest social worker.

 

"Sure," she said quickly. "What flavor do you like?"

 

The boy gave her the same bland, puzzled look the woman had given Starsky. "Ice cream?"

 

"Haven't you ever had ice cream?" Starsky asked, appalled.

 

The kid shook his head. "What is it?"

 

"It's terrific," Starsky said, recovering as best he could. "You won't believe how good it is. Get chocolate, that's the best flavor."

 

The boy finally let them take him away, and the cops stayed behind to collect evidence.

 

"Can you believe the poor kid never had ice cream?" Starsky demanded. "Holy shit."

 

"Look around you," Hutch said. "I'm surprised they ever got fed at all. This place is awful."

 

~*~*~*~

 

"Simone?" Sarah hesitated in the doorway, afraid to enter without permission. Simone was sitting cross-legged on a cushion, staring at a candle's flickering flame. That's what he did when he was dreaming, and all the followers knew better than to disturb him then, but this was an emergency.

 

"You have interrupted Simone," he said without taking his eyes off the flame.

 

"Yes, Simone," Sarah said, her voice shaking, "but it's very important."

 

He drew a deep breath and finally turned her way. "What is it?"

 

Sarah's heart was thundering in her chest but he had to be told. "The police have come and taken the babies away."

 

Simone shot to his feet, his face flushed with rage. "They have done WHAT?"

 

Sarah retreated several steps, terrified. "They took the babies away."

 

"How did they find the babies?" Simone demanded.

 

She shook her head helplessly. "I don't know, Simone. Yesterday a policeman arrested several sisters who were at the ranch and today he brought more with him and they found the babies and took them away, and their nurses, too."

 

"Even Jeremiah?"

 

She nodded. "Even Jeremiah."

 

"Do you know who these officers are? Who is the one who was at the ranch yesterday?"

 

Sarah was glad she knew the answer to that. She had seen the copy of the police report when she and Peter had bailed out the sisters who had been arrested the day before. "David Starsky."

 

~*~*~*~

 

"Zebra Three, report of a 187 on Third and Stevenson. Looks like your case."

 

"Roger, control," Hutch said, glancing at Starsky. "We are responding."

 

"Not another one," Starsky groaned. "That guy's gonna run out of freaks if he keeps this up."

 

A marked unit was already on the scene and the coroner's wagon had just pulled up when Starsky and Hutch arrived. Hutch went to look at the body while Starsky questioned the sanitation worker who had found it.

 

"Starsk," Hutch called when he had pulled the sheet back. Starsky turned and saw by the expression on Hutch's face that he should brace himself. He excused himself and went to Hutch.

 

"Oh, shit, man," he said when he got a look at the body. It was Miriam, but that wasn't what turned his stomach. Her tongue had been cut out and was lying on the sidewalk next to her head. By the amount of blood, she had still been alive when it was done.

 

"My guess," Hutch said, keeping his voice even with an effort, "is that they think she told about the babies."

 

Starsky nodded. "My guess is you're right. Sheriff told me some freaks showed up to bail her out yesterday morning while we were at the ranch."

 

"Starsk, we gotta get this son of a bitch."

 

"We will, partner."

 

~*~*~*~

 

It had been a very long week and they'd made no progress after pulling Kyle. They had to testify at a temporary custody hearing on the babies on Friday morning, and after that, Dobey told them, they could take the weekend off.

 

The hearing was depressing. A doctor who had examined all nine children testified that all were undernourished, though none showed signs of abuse. They varied in age from 3-year-old Jeremiah to a newborn girl, but Jeremiah was the only one old enough to answer questions, and all he had been able to tell the child welfare workers was his name and age. He referred to the other children as his "brothers and sisters" and the two women as "Mother Mary" and "Mother Salome."

 

"When we find all the rest of the freaks," Starsky whispered to Hutch, "I'll bet we find one who recently gave birth."

 

Hutch nodded and made a "shh" sound as the judge made his ruling.

 

"Until further notice, I place these children into the custody of the state of California," he said. "If their biological parents can be located, we will reconvene. Otherwise, we will consider them wards of the state and orphans."

 

"What do you want to do tonight?" Starsky asked on the way back to Hutch's after the hearing.

 

"Sleep," Hutch answered, punctuating it with a yawn, though it was only 11 a.m. "I'm beat. Aren't you?"

 

"Some," Starsky admitted. "But you can take a nap and then let's go out and see if we can find some feminine company."

 

Hutch rolled his eyes. "Not tonight, darling. I have a headache. You go ahead without me."

 

"Aw, Hutch, come on -- "

 

But Hutch shook his head. "I really am beat, buddy. Maybe tomorrow night." He grinned. "What's wrong, Romeo? Afraid you can't score without my blinding good looks to attract the ladies' attention?"

 

"Very funny," Starsky said. "I just wanted your company to ease my boredom while I wait for the right lady to show up. I can score without your help, thank you very much."

 

"Okay." Hutch got out of the car and shut the door, leaning back into the open window to add, "If you strike out, I'll come along tomorrow night and lend a hand."

 

Starsky didn't reply other than to flip him off good-naturedly as he drove away. He did take a nap, grabbed a quick burger for his supper, and started his evening off at one of the new discos downtown. But most of the ladies there seemed to be paired up already, so after a couple of drinks, he moved on to his usual haunts, finally ending up at Huggy's around ten.

 

Huggy's was hopping, and as soon as Starsky found a seat at the bar, he noticed a couple of pretty young things a few seats away.

 

"Where's your Viking?" Huggy inquired, setting a beer in front of him.

 

"Too pooped to party," Starsky said. "You know those two girls over there?" He gestured with his head.

 

Huggy glanced that way. "Nope. First time they've been in here. But I already checked and they're both over 21," he added with a wicked grin. "So feel free to lay your charms upon them."

 

"I will," Starsky said, grinning back. He picked up his beer and made his way over to them. "Hi," he said. "I'm Dave."

 

"I'm Sarah," the dark-haired one said. "This is my sister, Eve."

 

"Pretty names," Starsky said. "Mind if I sit?"

 

"Please do," Sarah said.

 

"You don't look much alike," Starsky said, comparing the brunette Sarah to her blonde sister.

 

"We're adopted," Eve said. "Not blood sisters."

 

"That explains it," Starsky said. "For a minute, I was afraid maybe you were nuns."

 

Sarah giggled. "No. Definitely, no."

 

The Bee Gees came on the jukebox and Eve tapped her toe in time. "Want to dance?" she asked Starsky. He agreed, and the two of them squeezed their way onto Huggy's miniscule dance floor.

 

Starsky never saw Sarah pour the contents of a little vial into his beer. When he came back to the table, hot and sweaty from dancing in the too-close quarters, he drained the beer and ordered another. "Can I buy you girls a drink?" he asked.

 

"Sure," Eve said with a saucy smile, slipping her arm around his waist. "Beer for me."

 

"Screwdriver," Sarah said, somehow managing to make the name of the drink sound like a proposition.

 

Starsky signaled Diane, since Huggy was busy across the room, and ordered drinks for all of them.

 

A while later, he began to realize he was far more drunk than he should have been on three or four beers. If I'm going to make a move, I'd better do it, or I won't be able to, he thought with a rueful inward grin. "Kinda hot in here, don't you think?" he said to Sarah, who was nearest. Eve had struck up a conversation with another girl at the next table.

 

"It's been hot ever since you came in," she said, snuggling a bit closer.

 

Starsky grinned. "Whattya say we get out of here?"

 

"Eve and I are together," she said. "I can't abandon her."

 

"No," he said agreeably. "Can we drop her at home?"

 

"How about taking her with us?" Sarah said, drawing her hand along his thigh and stopping just short of his crotch.

 

"Are you suggesting what I think you're suggesting?" Starsky didn't know whether to be turned on or disgusted. They were sisters, after all.

 

Adopted, a voice in his head whispered.

 

"What do you think I'm suggesting?" Sarah asked with a smile.

 

"One of me and two of you," Starsky said, realizing that even as enlightened and sexually experimental as he liked to believe he was, this one was a bit out of his depth.

 

"Not at the same time, if you're not into that," she said. "Not at all, if you're not into it. Just an idea. Eve'll be cool with it, either way."

 

Hutch is never gonna believe this.

 

"Sure," Starsky said, ignoring the way his heart speeded up and the other voice in his head that was screaming "Have you lost your MIND?" "I'm cool with it, too. Either way."

 

Sarah kissed his cheek and gave his arm a little squeeze. "I'll tell Eve we're leaving."

 

While he waited for the girls, he realized his head was getting fuzzier and fuzzier, until the room was swimming. He tried to force himself to come out of it, but it wasn't working. I hope I don't embarrass myself. If I do, Hutch won't hear this story.

 

He knew he shouldn't try to drive in his condition, but he did his best to shake it off and hoped for the best. Sarah directed him to drive several blocks away, to an old storefront. "We have an apartment upstairs," she told him, when he betrayed by his reaction that it was a pretty sleazy neighborhood. It was at the edge of his and Hutch's beat, and a very bad part of town. "We just moved here and we had to have somewhere to stay while we were looking for a better place."

 

"Hey, I remember doing that when I first got here, too," Starsky said cheerfully. "You shoulda seen the dump I lived in while I was going to the ... community college," he finished, barely stopping himself from saying "academy." Now was no time to admit he was a cop. "Lotsa nice places around. Won't be long before you snag one."

 

"That's what we thought," said Eve, who was in the back. "You can park in the street. Nobody'll bother it."

 

Like hell, Starsky thought. He knew exactly what kind of people lived and "worked" in this block, but he didn't see any other option, so he pulled up to the curb and shut off the engine. As he got out of the car, he had a dizzy spell and had to grab the edge of the door to steady himself.

 

"You okay?" Sarah asked.

 

"Sure," he lied, "just fine." He pulled back the front seat to let Eve out and went around to open Sarah's door. Offering an arm to each girl, he let them lead him to the street door.

 

Behind the door was a set of steps leading upward and Sarah preceded Starsky, using a very old key to unlock the door at the top. Inside, the apartment was worse than he'd imagined. A very old carpet, with a mattress on the floor whose better days had been years before, a few candles, a beanbag chair, and little else.

 

"Sit down," Sarah said. "I'll get us some drinks." She disappeared into the darkness beyond the front room and Eve sat down on the mattress and patted it invitingly. Starsky sat gingerly, and Eve immediately put her arm through his and snuggled up. In spite of his misgivings, he began to get interested in what was going to happen.

 

Sarah returned with three cans of beer, handing him and Eve each one, and sat down on his other side.

 

"How long have you lived here?" Starsky asked.

 

"A couple of weeks," Sarah answered. "No point in doing much to it since we aren't staying long."

 

"Guess not," he said, thinking that at least they could have cleaned it up a little. It smelled of mildew and mice and someone had evidently kept an incontinent dog in it at some point, too.

 

Somehow the beer became two and then three and Starsky found himself lying down, with both girls taking off his clothes and doing wonderful things to his body. He closed his eyes, to keep the room from spinning, wondering how he'd gotten so drunk without realizing it, and when he opened them, he thought there were four or five girls and -- and some guys. He tried to protest, tried to clear his vision, tried to sit up and couldn't do any of it. He was helpless, watching through a fog as the people moved around him, on him, and he thought he heard a whispered chanting of "Seamoan, Seamon" over and over again. Eventually, he heard nothing at all.

 

~*~*~*~

 

The bright sun woke him and he started to roll over and pull the blanket over his head to keep the light out when he banged his elbow against the steering wheel. He opened his eyes.

 

What the hell ... ?

 

He was in the front seat of his car. He sat up too quickly and a wave of nausea washed over him, immediately followed by a blinding headache. Wincing, he closed his eyes again and waited for it to pass, this time opening them far more gently and carefully. He was in the car, parked in the street outside his apartment. And he had no memory of getting there.

 

The last thing he remembered ... what was the last thing he remembered? The girls. Sarah and Eve. Gently pushing him back on the mattress and beginning to take his clothes off and --

 

"Aw, shit." He didn't remember details, but he remembered enough to wish he couldn't remember anything. Another wave of nausea followed the first as he recalled how many people had been in that room, how many of them had ... had ....

 

He barely got the door open in time. And afterward, he realized he couldn't have been that severely affected by plain old beer. He'd been drugged. Hutch was going to shit.

 

~*~*~*~

 

"What the fuck did you think you were doing?" Hutch demanded, even as he brought another cold compress to put on Starsky's aching forehead.

 

"Getting laid," Starsky said mildly, "just like I said I was going to."

 

"God only knows what they gave you." Hutch knelt and felt Starsky's pulse and peered into his eyes. "You got hauled into a goddamned orgy."

 

"I know that. But -- " he frowned, trying to remember something that was hovering at the edge of his mind. He knew it was important, but he didn't know why.

 

"What?" Hutch sat back on his heels and waited.

 

Suddenly, Starsky sat up straight. "It was those freaks!" he said excitedly, ignoring the pain in his head. "They were chanting 'Simone' as they were, well, you know."

 

"Are you sure?" Hutch asked skeptically.

 

"Yes, I'm sure!" Starsky scrambled to his feet. "Come on. I remember where the apartment was. Maybe there's some of them still there."

 

Starsky dropped the car keys he’d grabbed as he stood in favor of putting a hand over his eyes as he realized what a bad idea the quick change in position was.  Hutch scooped them up with one hand while he steadied his partner on his feet with the other. 

 

“If you think you’re driving again, you’re out of your mind.”  Hutch deposited the keys in his pocket, letting go of Starsky when he was sure he was going to stay upright.

 

“I’m fine,” Starsky grumbled. 

 

“Like you were last night when you drove home?” Hutch asked, his voice infused with sarcasm he made no attempt to conceal.  Starsky opened his mouth and closed it a couple of times.  He couldn’t argue with that.  He did feel terrible and he knew Hutch was right, but he couldn’t resist a wisecrack. 

 

“Would it make you feel better if I told you I had no memory of driving?  For all I know, the freaks drove me home.”

 

Hutch’s glare answered that question.  “We’ll take my car,” he said decisively.  Starsky nodded and followed him. 

 

On the way to the apartment, Starsky called in for backup.  Fortunately, the outstanding warrants they still held meant they didn’t need to explain too much.  Hutch’s suggestion that they should take Starsky in for some tests to determine what he’d been drugged with was unappreciated. 

 

“No way.  No fucking way.  No fucking way in Hell.”

 

“Starsk, it might come to that.”

 

“No, it won’t.  Let it lie.”

 

Hutch hoped he was right.  Following Starsky’s directions to a sleazy neighborhood on the edge of their beat, Hutch pulled the LTD to the curb around the corner from the address Starsky was certain he’d been at the previous evening.  They waited a few minutes for their backup to arrive, and then went down the street to the apartment. 

 

“Wait,” Starsky said, putting a hand on Hutch’s arm.  “The apartment’s up above that storefront.”  He closed his eyes tightly and, after a few seconds added, “Before they let me leave, they took me downstairs through a door into that store.” 

 

"I thought you didn't remember anything."

 

"Stuff's coming back in bits and pieces," Starsky said. "Just flashes. Nothing very substantial."

 

“Okay, then, what was in there?” Hutch asked.

 

Starsky paled a shade or two as the memory rushed back to him.  “They said I should see where Simone dreamed my....”  He couldn’t finish.

 

“Your what?” Hutch asked.  “Starsk?”

 

“My death, Hutch.  They said he’d dreamed my death.  That’s when I split.”

 

Hutch didn’t like the sound of that.  He nodded at his partner and his look clearly conveyed, “Over my dead body.” 

 

“They laughed.  I remember hearing them laugh as I ran.  Be careful.”

 

Deciding to tackle the storefront while the uniforms went up the stairs to the apartment, Starsky and Hutch entered through the blacked out glass door in the front and followed the quiet sound of chanting into the darkened room in the back of the space.  Tucked behind shelves and boxes, several black-robed people knelt on the floor saying their mantra, “Simone, Simone, Simone.”  At the end of the room, in front of a multi-colored glass wall, a man sat cross-legged before them on a slightly raised dais.  Long, dark hair and an almost equally long scraggly beard gave him the look of a crazed prophet.  Even in the spare lighting, his eyes glowed almost preternaturally.  The detectives had no doubt as to his identity. 

 

They pulled their badges and Starsky took a step back to keep an eye on the room while Hutch advanced to the front.

 

“Simon Marcus?” Hutch asked. 

 

The man looked up at him and said, “You won’t need your gun, Detective.  I dreamed you would come.”  His followers kept chanting. 

 

“We have a warrant for your arrest,” Hutch continued.  He couldn’t believe they’d simply walked in and arrested the man who had evaded them for so long.  He couldn’t help feeling it was anticlimactic.  

 

Starsky shouted for some uniformed officers to join them, assisting in the arrest of the still chanting cult members.  The entire time Hutch spent describing the charges named in the warrant and reading Simon Marcus his rights, the man stared right through him.  Through him, and directly at Starsky. 

 

“Do you understand your rights as I’ve read them to you?” Hutch asked.

 

When Marcus gave his answer as a slight smile, still staring at Starsky, Hutch lost his patience.  He hauled the cult leader to his feet, spun him around and leaned him up against some crates while he cuffed him. Hutch hissed in his ear, “I’ll take that for a yes.”

 

~*~*~*~

 

December 1, 1976

 

After months of investigation, fact gathering, and hard work from teams of analysts, police officers, and attorneys, Simon Marcus was about to receive a verdict on charges of nine counts of first-degree murder.  The grueling trial was finally over and the law enforcement officers involved in the case were all on the edge of their seats.   The second day of jury deliberation found Starsky and Hutch eating an early dinner at The Pits while they awaited word. 

 

Huggy asked, “What’s it mean them taking so long?”

 

“Could mean anything,” Hutch answered.

 

“Better not mean they’re gonna acquit that bastard,” Starsky growled. 

 

“Amen,” Huggy said solemnly. 

 

The case was hard on everyone who worked it.  The community was edgy, the media was all over it like no story in recent memory, and the arresting officers were thrumming with anticipation. Kyle Landry had been transferred to another city because of a series of death threats and attempts on his life.  He recovered from what had happened to him, and he testified against Marcus before he left town.  Prior to the Marcus case, he had wanted to work Homicide.  Afterward, he decided Narcotics would be a better choice for a few years.  Dobey told him he’d be happy to look at his application for transfer if he was ever ready for the change, and if they thought it was safe for him to return to Bay City.

 

They all looked up at the bar when they heard the phone ring.  Diane answered it and waved at them when she heard Minnie Kaplan’s voice say that the jury had returned. 

 

The courthouse steps were covered with Simon’s followers, all droning their master’s name.  Starsky and Hutch ignored them as they climbed the steps and entered the building.  A police line kept the followers and the media from following.  Less than ten minutes later, a young man burst through the glass doors and shouted, “Guilty!  Guilty on all counts.”

 

Inside the court, Simon Marcus stood.  He’d listened to the verdict unflinchingly and he appeared to be completely detached from the proceedings.  The only thing that seemed to hold any interest for him was the two detectives seated in the gallery behind the prosecutors.  While the attorneys on both sides postured for the judge, Marcus turned slightly and looked at Hutch.  The look on his face brought goose bumps to Hutch’s skin.  His steely gaze reflected pure hatred; an evil that couldn’t help but chill his blood.  For reasons Hutch couldn’t guess, he knew all of that hatred wasn’t directed at him. 

 

The spectators were on their feet the instant the judge banged his gavel and dismissed the court.  Starsky had seen the look Marcus was giving his partner and he moved between them to break the gaze. 

 

“You okay?” Starsky asked.

 

Hutch shook his head.  Idiot.  Superstitious bullshit.  “Yeah.”

 

“What was that all about?” 

 

Hutch knew what he meant, but he evaded.  “Guess Marcus wanted to be sure I knew he’s still powerful, even if he is going away for nine lifetimes.”  The prosecution had been pushed into a trial much sooner than they would have liked.  Marcus’ attorneys had accused them of stalling in the hopes that their client would be eligible for the soon-to-be-reinstated death penalty. 

 

Starsky turned to face Marcus, who put a hand up to ask to be allowed to have a word with the detective.  The expression on his face compelled Starsky to listen as the man focused on him.  “I dreamed your death, Starsky.”

 

“Marcus!” Hutch shouted.

 

Hutch pushed up against Starsky, who effectively blocked him from getting any closer to the newly convicted man.

 

Marcus looked at Hutch and said, “It’s already done.  Even the White Knight can’t save him.”

 

Hutch made a move toward Marcus again, but the prisoner was already being ushered out of the courtroom.  Starsky turned around and put his hands on Hutch’s chest.  “Let it go, partner.  He’s wacko.  Don’t mean anything.”

 

“If looks could kill, Starsky--”

 

“Well, they can’t.  Damn good thing, too, because he’d be dead and you’d be under arrest.”  Starsky quirked a smile and waited a few beats until Hutch breathed out half of the tension he was feeling.  “That’s better.  Relax.  You heard Judge Yager.  Just a few weeks till the sentencing and that creep’s going away forever.”

 

Hutch nodded.  “You’re right.  It’ll all be over in a few weeks.  He’s gonna take a heavy fall.”

 

“Count on it,” Starsky said, patting Hutch on the shoulder.  He checked his watch. “Come on, we’ll log out and I’ll buy you a beer at Huggy’s.”

 

“You’re on.”

 

The two men walked out of the courtroom sure they would soon see the last of Simon Marcus and his followers.  They ignored the cult members gathered at the bottom of the courthouse steps.  The group never took its collective eyes off of Starsky as he and Hutch drove away in the Torino.

 

The End

 

Take me to Part II:  Epilogue to a Nightmare

 

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