For Disclaimers, see Part One. Comments can be sent to: email@example.com
Temple of the Sinai
Brother Isaiah, as Hutch soon learned his driver was called, was not much of a talker. The detective made a few efforts to stir up some conversation in hopes of finding out more about life on the ranch, but Brother Isaiah answered in monosyllabic grunts and kept his eyes fixed on the road. Hutch finally gave up, somewhat relieved, and settled back to enjoy the scenery. He glimpsed bright blue lizards, skinny raucous birds, and the occasional shiny snake, as well as a variety of vegetation. Aware of the punishing rays from the sun, now directly overhead, he opened up his bag and pulled out his tube of suntan lotion. Surreptitiously he managed to spread some of the white lotion on his arms and face. He felt a little foolish doing so, but realized that if he was supposed to have newly moved from the Midwest he would be even less accustomed to the desert sunlight than he actually was.
From the front seat of the Jeep, he could see that the terrain was becoming rougher, more hilly. Brother Isaiah turned the vehicle off of the main paved road onto a tiny scarred dirt road, and their pace slowed abruptly. The track wound up through the hills until Hutch had entirely lost his sense of direction. Several times, they had to stop because of rocks and boulders in the way. Each time, Hutch hopped out to move them, eager to ingratiate himself to Brother Isaiah. The last rock was the heaviest, and Hutch strained mightily, feeling as if his eyeballs were popping out, before he was able to move it.
Soon after that, the Jeep crested the hill and began to descend. Directly in front of them, below a stretch of amazingly steep dirt road, Hutch could see a tidy cluster of buildings and rail fences. As they jounced down the hill, the cluster resolved into a large, red-painted barn and several long, low white buildings. There also appeared to be several corrals as well as miscellaneous bits of farm equipment. Not exactly where you'd expect to find a den of killers, thought Hutch.
"Is this the place, Brother Isaiah?" Hutch asked politely.
"Yup," came the answer.
About twenty minutes later, Hutch was seated at a plain trestle table with a cup of surprisingly good coffee in front of him. Also seated at the table were three older men in work clothes, listening quietly to his "story."
"After the divorce, well, I needed a change of pace. I've got an old friend living in Independence, so I mainly came out to visit him. When I called him, he mentioned that your group was up here, and it rung a bell with me.
"My sister Elizabeth was a member of the Montana branch of the Temple. I didn't see her much after she and her family joined, but she always seemed content. She's gone now, passed away three years ago trying to have a baby."
There was a low murmur of sympathy around the table. After a brief pause, one of the men, whom Hutch had been introduced to as Brother Benjamin, spoke up. "Do you have any skills that will be of use to us here on the ranch? We're a hard-working community." With that question, Hutch felt the mood of the group shift imperceptibly, and he was certain he'd been accepted.
"I grew up in farming country, but it's been years since I've done anything practical along those lines." Better to be a fast learner, Hutch had decided, than to pretend to knowledge he didn't have. "I'm a very hard worker, though."
The three men rose as a unit. "Please," said Brother Benjamin, "wait here a moment. We must go apart and pray, and therefore come to a decision." They filed out, leaving Hutch alone with his thoughts in the half-dark room. Trying to appear the very picture of calm anticipation on the outside, he fretted and jittered internally until they returned.
They remained standing, so Hutch stood as well. Brother Benjamin gave a brief nod. "Welcome to the Temple of the Sinai. You will dwell amongst us and share our burdens. If at the end of a month you are still inclined to join us, you will then take vows and be given a new name. Until then, you are expected to live in obedience to all of the adults of the community. One of the younger brethren will show you to where you will sleep, and will take you around the rest of the ranch if you like. Tomorrow, we will decide what labor you are fit for." The nod again, this time clearly a dismissal. Hutch nodded in return and left the building.
As he stepped, blinking, into the bright sunlight, a smiling ruddy-faced man approached Hutch. "I'm Brother Jacob. I'm to show you around, and tell you some of our customs." He pointed at Hutch's battered duffel bag. "Is that all you've got?"
Hutch nodded. Slipping the bag over his shoulder, he stuck out his hand. "The name's Ken. At least, it is for another month."
Brother Jacob shook the extended hand, then motioned for Hutch to follow him as they walked across the central compound. "You'll stay in bachelor hall, across the way. We may as well get you settled, then I'll show you around."
Starsky checked his watch. 4:50 p.m. He sauntered along the sidewalk to the county building, stopping to filch a pink rose from the bush standing by the main entrance. "Middle of the blinkin' desert," he grumbled to himself, "and they've got roses growing." He scanned the black building directory as he walked in, noting that Kathy's CPS office was on the second floor. As he emerged from the elevator, a sheriff's deputy got on. Starsky automatically tucked the stolen rose under his arm, mostly succeeding in hiding it.
Kathy's door was open. Starsky stuck the rose in his teeth and leaned around the doorway, wiggling his eyebrows Groucho Marx-style. The object of his affections was on the phone, arguing with someone in a heated voice. She nearly choked when she saw Starsky and his rose.
"Look, Harold, just get it done, okay? I'll talk to you later." She hung up the phone as Starsky swung himself up on one corner of the desk, removing the rose from his mouth and handing it to her with a flourish and his best smile.
"A desert flower for the original desert flower."
Kathy took the thorny offering gingerly. "This looks awfully familiar, Detective. If I didn't know better, I'd swear it was county property."
Starsky smiled even more broadly. "Is it my fault this town doesn't have a florist shop that I could find? A man does his best."
Kathy giggled at him, her eyes on his mouth.
"Whassamatter, I got food in my teeth or something?" asked Starsky in a slightly wounded voice.
"No.... Aphids," chortled Kathy, as Starsky headed quickly for the men's room. She bent over the back of her chair, laughing, as strangled spitting sounds came from down the hall.
He returned a few minutes later, and Kathy was properly contrite. "I'm sorry, Sergeant Starsky. I shouldn't have made fun of you like that. It was sweet of you to bring me the flower."
Starsky grinned, good humor restored. "You can make it up to me by calling me David, and letting me take you out to dinner."
"I'd love that. Where?"
"You tell me. The selection seems a little limited out here."
She chewed her lip thoughtfully. Starsky noticed that she wore no makeup. "Well, there's a little Mexican place. It's only a few blocks from here. Great chile rellenos."
Starsky offered his arm. "Lead on."