For Disclaimers, see Part One. Comments can be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Temple of the Sinai
Starsky reached out and smacked the side of the tiny television with his fist, attempting to improve the picture. When he really thought about it, he knew that hitting it wasn't going to help, but some primitive part of his brain felt better when he took out his frustrations on the inanimate object. Giving up, he leaned back on the lumpy couch and replaced his feet on the coffee table. Glancing up at the wall clock, he swore under his breath when he realized it was already noon.
"Dammit, Hutch, what's taken you so long?" he muttered aloud. "You shoulda been here by now. What, are you travelin' by mule this time?" He resisted the urge to peek out the curtains again; he had already done so many times that morning and had begun to realize that it must look suspicious from the street. He sighed, and popped open the can of soda that he held in his lap, lifting it to his mouth for a refreshing swig. Might as well enjoy the comforts of civilization while he could.... Edgy as he was, he nearly choked on the cola when he heard the key turn in the lock. He reached for his weapon, lying on the couch beside him, just in case it wasn't Hutch. To his immense relief the door opened and Starsky was treated to the familiar sight of his partner, grinning widely.
Starsky slammed the soda back down on the coffee table, where it teetered precariously for a moment, and leapt to his feet. Annoyance forgotten for the moment, he greeted his friend with an exuberant hug. "Hutch! My God, am I glad to see you!"
Hutch stepped back, laughing. "So. Looks like you missed me after all."
"You better believe it," said Starsky fervently, running one hand through his hair. "I've been goin' nuts here. What took you so long?"
His partner perched on the arm of the couch. "We ran over a yucca plant, gave the Jeep a flat. Took a while to get it changed. Are you ready to go?"
"Hutch, I've been ready for hours." Starsky picked up a knapsack and swung it over his shoulder. He reached into a dresser drawer and handed Hutch the gun he'd left behind two weeks ago. "You want this back now?"
"Just bury both of 'em in your bag. They never even looked at my stuff, and I'll just be sure not to let anyone carry it but me or you." Hutch noticed the half-finished soda on the table. "Hey, you gonna finish that?"
Starsky snatched the can up. "That's mine, buddy. You get your own."
Hutch eyed the empties scattered around the room. "All right...but I should warn you: Brother Isaiah doesn't like to make pit stops, AND he hits all the potholes." He laughed as his partner abruptly put down the knapsack and headed for the bathroom.
On the way down the stairs, Starsky stopped and turned to his partner. "Hey, Hutch, instead of riding out with you and your new friend, why don't I just drive that beast that you made us bring? That way, we'd have our own transportation out there if things go sour on us."
Hutch shook his head. "No can do, buddy. I asked the elders that yesterday. They told me they don't allow any vehicles on the property that don't belong to the Temple. I don't think Dobey would be too happy if we signed over the title on the Land Rover to the cult."
In many respects, Hutch thought that his second ride out to the ranch was more difficult than the first, despite having Starsky's company. The first time, he had been concentrating on maintaining his cover at first but had been eventually able to enjoy himself. This time...he was thoroughly sick of the bouncy ride of the Jeep and of the arid landscape, as well of being conscious of playing a role a far as his relationship with Starsky was concerned. For his part, Starsky did a splendid job of being the skeptical friend; he grumbled good-naturedly about Hutch's interest in the cult and bemoaned this use of his "vacation" time. Hutch had to be conscious every moment of talking and acting like a Temple member: serious-minded and quiet. It was frustrating to have his partner with him again but to not be able speak freely or engage in their usual banter. Brother Isaiah, after the initial introductions, didn't say more than two words the entire trip, and for the most part ignored his two passengers.
When they arrived at the ranch, Hutch was careful to make sure that he picked up Starsky's knapsack with the incriminating firearms inside. He directed his friend to the room where he had been interviewed on his first day, and they sat to await the elders.
Starsky's interview went a little differently than Hutch's. Since they were trying to establish Starsky's persona as that of the skeptical and concerned friend, Starsky didn't pretend to be actually all that interested in joining the cult. On the other hand, if he came across as openly hostile, both men knew that the cult members would be suspicious of Starsky and their chances of learning any more useful information would be greatly diminished. It was a delicate balance they were trying to walk.
At first, the elders were more inclined to give Starsky "guest" status: to let him observe without participating or doing any work. Hutch managed to smoothly interject something about the inner peace he had found from the simple manual labor and how he was sure it would help his friend find direction in his life. Starsky shot him a dirty look that Hutch was sure was only partially feigned.
In the end, they assigned Starsky to help look after the cult's four battered Jeeps and assorted tractors, since he appeared to have no other skills particularly useful to an agricultural community. They reminded both men that they were to live by the rules of the Temple, and dismissed them so that Hutch could show his friend around.
As they left the building, Starsky began to grumble under his breath. "Hutch, I'm sick of workin' on cars."
Hutch chuckled. "If you want, I'll go back in there and tell them you're an expert ditch digger, and you can help dig the new latrine."
Starsky stared at him. "You're kiddin', right?"
"Welcome to paradise." Hutch clapped his partner on the shoulder and led him to the bunkhouse.
"Hutch, this is a waste of our time, here. We got nothin' concrete to work with. We need to stir things up somehow, make 'em show themselves. These people are on their best behavior for us."
It was early evening on the ranch, three days after Starsky's arrival. Supper had just finished, and the cult members were each slipping off for what they referred to as "meditation time." Hutch had begun to suspect that the men mostly got together and talked, while their wives used the peace and quiet to get in a last hour or two of work. At any rate, it was the one time of day that he and Starsky could wander away and talk together privately. Since Hutch was supposed to be "converting" his reluctant friend, no one had bothered to interfere with their quiet, earnest conversations.
On the whole, the cult members had gone out of their way to be welcoming to Starsky. The curly-haired detective could exude a great deal of charm when he chose, and the inhabitants of the ranch had proved to be just as susceptible as anyone else. The older women tried to mother him; the younger ones giggled when he was near and even flirted shyly, as long as a proper chaperone was present. The other single men in the bunkhouse were quick to be kind and hospitable. But despite the careful friendliness, despite the many conversations that Starsky endured on the subject of his religious beliefs, the two men had yet to make any further headway on their investigation.
Even Hannah seemed to be guarding her tongue more carefully. She had been visibly relieved to see Hutch return from his trip into town, which gave Hutch hope that the dairymaid was starting to see her assistant as a friend and ally. But she made no more revealing statements, no more mysterious hints, and she seemed to watch Hutch more warily. Hutch wondered if she regretted having revealed as much as she had.
"Earth to Hutch. You spacin' out on me?"
Hutch shook his head. "Sorry. Just thinking about Hannah. Starsk, maybe we should just snatch her and go. I know she's not happy here."
"Hutch, you said yourself you're not even sure how much she knows. She might agree to go with you--I think she would, from what you say--but what if she doesn't have any first-hand knowledge? And if she does, what if she won't testify? We need more than that," stated Starsky emphatically. "If we blow it, scram out of here too soon without enough for a tight case, no one'll get another chance. They'll be too suspicious out here."
Hutch sighed. "Yeah...you're right." He glanced at his partner. "You got any ideas?"
"We need to set a trap, somehow. Force them to show their true colors."
"And how do you propose to do this?" asked Hutch, with a feeling that he wasn't going to like the answer.
"We use me as bait." Starsky held up one hand as his partner tried to interrupt. "Wait, let me finish, Hutch. I know you're not gonna like this...but it makes sense. They're into obedience, right? And Daniel thinks that his brother was offed because he was rebellious? All I have to do is mouth off a little, break some rules. You know that's gonna be more believable comin' from me than you, golden boy. They're ready to nominate you for sainthood."
"Very funny." Hutch ran his hand through his hair. "Starsk, it's dangerous. I don't like it. We don't know what these people are capable of." He looked thoughtfully at his partner. "Are you sure you want to try this?"
"Hutch, if we don't do something, I'm gonna go nuts. I think I'm more in danger from boredom than from a beating." Starsky's face held a pleading expression.
Hutch nodded. "All right. But we're going to be careful about it." He smiled. "So, what exactly do you have in mind for your fall from grace? Nothing illegal, though."
"I'll work out the sordid details and get back to you, buddy."