Author's note: This story does deal with some religious issues, so a special disclaimer is in order. The group known as Temple of the Sinai is purely fictional and is not intended to resemble any existing religious organization that I am aware of. The rubella outbreak that is mentioned as part of the story line actually occurred, but it involved a group in Oregon,(I think in the early 80's) and the outcome was vastly different than that portrayed in the story. I apologize if this story offends anyone's religious beliefs; that is certainly not my intention.
Legal stuff: I don't own S&H (darn it!), didn't create them, am not making any money from this, or receiving other compensation - - other than YOUR FEEDBACK. Such feedback, be it good, bad or ugly, is always welcome; send all comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Guest characters are mine, don't you mess with 'em without permission.
Chronological note: This story occurs after the conclusion of the TV series. It occurs a few weeks after "Over the Edge" and prior to "The Saint" -- stories also on this Archive.
Temple of the Sinai
"So, what time are we leaving on Friday?" Starsky stuffed another handful of chips in his mouth, heedless of the greasy crumbs falling onto the map that lay spread in front of him. He was sprawled on his belly in the exact center of his living room floor, elbows on the map and his chin resting in his hands. "Think anyone would notice if we snuck away early?"
Hutch looked up from the table, where he was seated with some scratch paper and a travel guide. He had been comparing hotel rates and calculating mileage. Neither of the two had a lot of spare cash, and what they did have at their disposal would be best spent on food and entertainment on this trip. "Starsk, we have an entire week. Settle down. The earlier we leave, the sooner we run out of money and have to come home. Besides, if we time it wrong, we'll just get caught in rush-hour traffic heading east."
Starsky grinned mischievously. "'Course, we could just run the siren all the way to Vegas. Wouldn't hafta worry much about traffic then." He ducked, neatly dodging a pillow that Hutch plucked off the nearby couch and sent sailing in his direction. He caught it and tossed it back on his couch. "Hey, careful with that. You coulda messed up my hair."
"Who'd notice?" quipped Hutch. "Now be quiet for a minute. I need to find a hotel we can afford that's still close to the action." He returned to his perusal of the guidebook, although his thoughts remained slightly distracted. The trip to Las Vegas had been more or less a mutual decision, although Hutch would really have preferred something less urban. They didn't usually go on vacation together, but they had made this time-off request weeks ago...and then Starsky had undergone his traumatic breakup with Allison. Hutch was reasonably certain that his partner had been planning to take Allison somewhere for a romantic getaway. Rather than let Starsky stay home by himself and brood, he had scrapped his own camping plans and suggested a road trip.
"Hey, Hutch, how about that circus place? Can we stay there?" Starsky rolled onto his back, doing further damage to the map. "You know, that new one with the trapeze acts 'n everything?"
Hutch opened his mouth to answer, but was interrupted by the telephone. Reluctantly, Starsky climbed to his feet and grabbed the offending device. "Hello?" A pause. "Hi, Cap'n. What's up?" Another pause, a longer one. "Sure. He's here, I'll tell him. Nine o'clock? See ya, Cap."
Starsky set the phone down. "That was Dobey."
"So I gathered."
"Wants us in his office in the morning, at nine. We're supposed to meet with some social worker from Child Protective Services. Not from L.A., though; he says she's from the Inyo County branch. Some town called Independence." Starsky returned to his map, searching it. "Here it is. Geez, she works out in the middle of nowhere. That's halfway to Death Valley."
Hutch left the table to kneel on the floor behind his partner, peering over his shoulder at the map. "More than halfway. Independence is the county seat, but Inyo County covers a hell of a lot of territory. It's almost all desert, though." Something nagged at Hutch. "Hey, isn't that where the Manson Family hid out, somewhere in there?"
"Yeah, I think you're right," agreed Starsky. "But they're mostly all still in jail. And Dobey definitely said this lady was from the state CPS. Why would she want to talk to us, anyway?"
Hutch snickered. "She's discovered that you're mentally only twelve years old, and she wants to arrest Dobey for violation of the child labor laws."
The meeting took place in Dobey's office as planned. As they knocked (for once) on Dobey's door and stepped inside, Hutch saw an unfamiliar dark-haired, suit-clad woman sitting in the "guest" chair in front of Dobey's desk. She rose as they entered and offered her hand to each of the detectives in turn.
"Kathy Fallinger. I'm with the state Child Protective Services office in Inyo County." She grinned broadly as she sat back down, an expression that livened her otherwise rather plain face. "Of course, you could say I AM the CPS office there, all by myself. Usually, I don't have much to do; it's mostly rancher families out there, and they treat their kids like gold. I get invited to all of the social activities, and I never have to wear this suit except to come to the city for seminars."
Starsky grinned back at her, obviously responding to a kindred spirit. "Must be kinda nice. So what forced you out of the desert and into the suit?"
Dobey cleared his throat, and the two detectives hastily sat down. "Ms. Fallinger was referred here by the California Highway Patrol to request our help with an investigation." He motioned politely to the social worker. "Please, tell us the whole story."
She sighed. "It's a long one, I'm afraid. Especially since it starts in Montana, about twenty years ago."
Starsky raised his eyebrows. "Montana?"
"In 1960, a religious group -- I guess you could call them a cult, since they're pretty far out of the mainstream--was formed in eastern Montana that called itself the Temple of the Sinai. In 1972, the group was getting pretty big, so about half of them split off and came south. They eventually ended up in Inyo County, purchasing a run-down old ranch. It's primitive: no electricity except a generator, not much plumbing, but it's at least got a good well. They took it over, and they've been very industrious. They've added several good-sized buildings and a beautiful barn. They're raising some livestock--sheep and goats at least--and trying to irrigate and grow a few crops, heat-tolerant things."
"Doesn't sound like a second Manson Family, anyway," injected Starsky.
Kathy grimaced. "Yes, that is what we're famous for, isn't it? But no...these people seem to be a very different breed. They're strictly monogamous, and very authoritarian. No drugs, no alcohol. The women don't seem to be allowed off the ranch. According to what we've heard, they believe that God will come to them only in the desert, in the wilderness, and they choose to live there to be reminded of the Holy Land. The adult converts change their names to Old Testament names. They make almost everything by hand. They don't appear to own any weapons. They don't believe in doctors, or in hospitals; instead they rely on faith healing."
"Well, it's not a lifestyle I would choose," responded Hutch thoughtfully, "but overall, they sound like better citizens than most of the people we deal with on a daily basis. So, what's the catch?"
"The children." Kathy took a deep breath. "We were concerned about them from the very beginning, as some strange things can happen to kids in very authoritarian societies such as this one. There are about 15 to 20 children less than sixteen years old on the ranch. The Temple laws consider sixteen-year-olds to be adults, capable of carrying out adult responsibilities. The kids are getting schooling, from approved correspondence materials, plus some of the adult members have apparently had teaching experience. So we haven't been too worried about their education. To tell the truth, we haven't much of a public school system out there anyway, except in town."
"So what's going on, then?" Starsky interrupted. "Are they abusing them, physically?"
She shook her head. "No direct evidence of that, either. But about two years ago, they had a problem. Once a week, always on Mondays, an adult male member comes to town for supplies. One week, he took back a case of rubella as well." Seeing Starsky's blank look, she explained further. "Also known as German measles. We immunize for it now, but these people have refused on religious grounds, so they were pretty much all susceptible when it hit. It's not actually much of an illness: a rash, some fever and body aches. Some of them probably didn't even notice that they were sick.
"There was a bit of a panic when we heard about the outbreak. You see, we wouldn't have even known about it at all, but we'd finally gotten permission from the ranch's elders to send a nurse out to the ranch to do some nutrition classes and well-baby exams and a little prenatal care. She couldn't give immunizations, but she could at least see how the kids were doing. And to be honest, to all appearances the children were healthy and happy. But she was out there the day the first few people got sick, and recognized the disease as rubella.
"And we were stuck. If they had panicked and run into town, we could have got help from the Health Department and the CDC to enforce a quarantine...but they very cooperatively quarantined themselves on the ranch and refused any outside intervention. In about a month, everyone on the ranch had caught it and was well again. Everything would have been fine, except for one thing: at least eight women, possibly more, were pregnant when the virus hit. Andrea, the nurse, had a special pregnancy nutrition class for them, so she had a rough 'head count'. Rubella can cause terrible birth defects, such as deafness, blindness, or heart defects, if a woman catches it during pregnancy."
Hutch whistled. "So what happened?" he asked, intrigued in spite of a growing suspicion that the answer was going to have a profound effect on their vacation plans.
Kathy's face grew more serious. "We really don't know. We told them about the risks, and asked them to contact us when the children were born, since there was a good chance they would need special services. Then they sort of slipped through the cracks. Andrea went out there on one more visit a few months ago, but she saw no evidence of babies the right age to have been the rubella-exposed fetuses. The ranch has its own lay midwife, trained by their own people. They don't believe in Social Security numbers or even birth certificates; we can't prove those babies were even born or that those women were even pregnant. The cult members have become increasingly hostile and evasive. We were stymied...until Daniel came to us."
"Daniel?" inquired Starsky. "Who's that?"
"Daniel is a sixteen-year-old boy. His family joined the cult when he was twelve. He has a brother, named Aaron, who is about a year older. Daniel ran away from the ranch one night and was found in the desert the next day by some young people from town, out playing around in dune buggies. They brought him to the police and then to me. He tells me that his brother, who wasn't exactly conforming to the community standards for behavior, is supposed to have 'disappeared' out in the desert. But Daniel believes that Aaron was killed, for breaking the rules and disrespect to the elders. He left because he was afraid he'd somehow be next. The boy hints at others 'disappearing' just like his brother, but he doesn't know much, doesn't have any tangible proof. But it's enough to warrant further investigation.
"Our sheriff contacted the California Highway Patrol, since he felt that this was going to be a little too big for us to handle without support. They were helpful, but they suggested that they would prefer to contract with LAPD to handle the undercover support." She took a deep breath. "That's where you two gentlemen come in. We need someone to go out there, 'join' the cult, and get to the bottom of what happened...to those poor defective babies, and to Daniel's brother."
Dobey, who had listened in silence, now joined in. "This is voluntary, you two. I know you had vacation coming up... but I've told Ms. Fallinger that you're the team I would recommend for the job. But it's not on our turf. If you don't want to do it, I'll tell the boys in Sacramento to find someone else to do their dirty work. If you want it, I'll make that week of vacation into two weeks as soon as the assignment is done."
Hutch cleared his throat. "Captain, CHiPs aren't exactly known for their undercover finesse." He turned to his partner. "What do you say, Starsk? Can Vegas wait?"
"It's waited this long for us," snorted Starsky. "Aw, Cap'n...you know I can't risk a sob story that's got kids in it somewhere. That's fightin' dirty."
"I take that as a 'yes'. All right. You can speak with this boy Daniel for some background; they've got him staying with his aunt in Pasadena. Ms. Fallinger can get you in contact with him. And, you're going to have to decide who goes in first to the ranch. Two single men showing up asking to join the club is too conspicuous."
Hutch laughed. "Guess I'll have to wrestle him for it, then."
"Whatever. Run your cover stories by me before you leave. Make sure you have good desert gear. If possible, I'd like you out in Independence by Saturday. Since someone from the ranch comes to town every Monday, that's your only chance for contact for the week."
"Lessee...five days..." estimated Starsky. "We oughta be able to manage that, Cap'n."
Kathy rose from her chair. "I'll see you two there, then. The ranch's supply runner doesn't usually get there until early afternoon, so I'll have time to show you around a little." She handed Starsky a business card. "The name and address of Daniel's aunt is on the back. Call me if there's anything more I can help with."
Starsky watched her walk out. "Hey, Hutch," he commented after the door was closed, studying the card in his hand. "What do you think she wears when she's not in the city for seminars? Seems like a blue-jeans girl to me."
Hutch sighed. "Starsk, you're incurable."
"C'mon, Hutch...if you're not gonna take me to Vegas, I gotta have SOME fun."