For Disclaimers, see Part One. Comments can be sent to: email@example.com
Temple of the Sinai
Hutch stared moodily into his coffee mug, swirling the dregs around. He was acutely conscious of the empty place next to him at the long trestle table, and it took no special acting effort on his part to appear worried and concerned. This was the third morning that he'd eaten breakfast alone, while Starsky snored obliviously back at the bunkhouse; Hutch could not help but notice the sidelong glances he was getting from the other men.
They'd had a long discussion that night, trying to figure out how best to get Starsky into trouble with the cult elders. Drunk and disorderly would have been a great start, but there was no alcohol on the ranch other that a little homemade wine used for ceremonial purposes. Seducing one of the single girls would certainly had worked, but both men objected to this for both practical reasons (most of the unmarried girls were minors) and personal distaste toward using an innocent person in that way. Starsky suggested that he swipe one of the jeeps and go joyriding in the desert, until Hutch reminded him that the jeeps were property of the cult. They needed to accomplish their objective without committing any blatantly illegal acts.
In the end, they were forced to resort to simply letting Starsky be an exaggerated version of his real self. He would stay out late ("Doing what?" Starsky had complained rhetorically), sleep late, show up at the "motor pool" for work only when he felt like it, and in general manage to break all of the community's little everyday rules that the two detectives could think of. While Hutch knew that his partner really wasn't lazy, slovenly or disrespectful, he knew that in real life Starsky enjoyed playing the rebel a little bit...especially when it came to teasing authority figures until they went over the edge. The cult elders were not the same breed as the blustering Captain Dobey, however; Hutch had the feeling that when the reaction came it would be quiet, cold, and deadly.
Having finished his meager breakfast, Hutch left the building and began to head for the dairy. A hand on his arm stopped him. He looked up into the sober face of Brother Benjamin.
"Your friend, David...he is not feeling well again?" asked the elder solicitously.
Hutch cleared his throat. "I'm not sure, Brother. I...just couldn't get him to get up. He muttered something at me, told me to leave him alone."
The cult elder nodded, his gaze impenetrable. "Perhaps he is not ill, then, merely homesick for his old life."
"Perhaps." Hutch swallowed. Uh-oh, he thought, they're just going to kick him out, and we'll never know....
"I myself will call on him this morning and see what may be done to correct this situation."
"Yes, Brother," answered Hutch meekly. "Should I be there as well?"
"I think not. Go on about your work. Sister Hannah will be expecting you."
Hutch nodded. He knew that his own standing in the community was still too tenuous for him to get away with any significant back-talk. Starsk, he said to himself, I hope you know what the hell you're doing.
Never had the morning's routine chores in the dairy seemed to take so long. Hutch knew that he was having a difficult time hiding his distraction, and he was uncharacteristically clumsy. Milk was knocked over, salt was mis-measured...finally, Hannah spoke in her soft voice.
"Ken, whatever is the matter? You're a million miles away this morning."
Thinking rapidly, Hutch decided that his best refuge lay in honesty. "It's my friend, David. He's not really fitting in around here. Maybe you were right...maybe I should have left him where he was, in his old life."
"He's not happy here? No one will make him stay, if he doesn't want to."
Hutch thought he detected a hint of bitterness in her voice. "I'm not sure. Actually, he seems to be enjoying himself, but his attitudes...I'm afraid he's going to get into trouble." Greatly daring, he decided to press her on her comment. "Hannah? What if someone like you, who's been here for years...what if you wanted to leave? How hard would it be, to get permission?"
She turned away, and Hutch could barely hear her answer. "It's just not done. It seems that no one has ever wanted to leave." This time, the bitterness was unmistakable.
Before Hutch could come up with a coherent answer to Hannah's revelation, he was distracted by the sounds of shouting. Even from a distance, he could pick out Starsky's voice, rising with belligerence and anger. With Hannah at his heels, he dashed outside to the center of the compound. Here we go, he thought.
With a burly cult member hanging onto either arm, Starsky was struggling to break free, and swearing at the top of his lungs. "Let me go, you sons-of-bitches! We're going to settle this like men!"
Brother Benjamin stood, unmoving, in front of Starsky. "Calm yourself, Brother. There are women and children here. You are only making things worse for yourself."
With enormous effort, Starsky actually managed to get one arm free momentarily. For a split second, Hutch thought his partner was actually going to take a swing at Brother Benjamin...but then he had to choke back a completely incongruous laugh as Starsky instead made a very obscene gesture before his arms were pinned once again. With relief, Hutch noted that neither his partner nor the cult members displayed any obvious bruises or other physical evidence of the altercation, other than Starsky's mussed hair and wild-eyed appearance.
Starsky finally ran out of invective, pausing to breathe heavily. Brother Benjamin cleared his throat. "David, you have disturbed the peace of our community, and displayed a rebellious spirit." Hutch repressed a shudder at the memory of the boy Daniel using those very words to describe his brother Aaron, before his death or disappearance. "It is fitting that you be punished for this. You will be confined by yourself while we discuss your punishment." He motioned to the two men restraining Starsky. "Take him away, but do not hurt him, or allow him to injure you." Throughout the entire episode, Brother Benjamin continued to speak in the same quiet, reasonable tone.
Hutch turned to Hannah, standing half-forgotten at his side, as Starsky was dragged away. "That's it? Doesn't he get a chance to say anything, to defend himself?"
Hannah shook her head, obviously confused and distressed. "What is there to say? You saw it, Ken. He treated the elders with disrespect; that's enough." She laid a trembling hand on Hutch's arm; this time it was his turn to jump at the slight contact. "Ken...I hope your friend is strong. I've...seen this happen before." She took a deep breath. "They will whip him, to drive out the rebellious spirit."
That afternoon, events unfolded with surprising swiftness. Seated again at one of the long tables in the communal dining area, Hutch listened dully as Brother Benjamin read the pronouncement during lunch. "To our great distress, our newest seeker has shown himself to be in need of correction. This correction will be carried out today at one o'clock. All members are requested to be present to observe and pray for the soul of David, our seeker."
Correction, Hutch thought to himself. What a lovely euphemism to use for the act of beating the crap out of someone. He'd tried to get permission to see Starsky, of course; he knew that simple concern wouldn't blow his cover...but Brother Benjamin had refused to allow him to visit his friend. He toyed with the tasteless food in front of him, suddenly thinking of one of his partner's beloved chili dogs. He realized that he was completely, thoroughly, sick of this place. Sick of the food, the routine, the mind-numbing dullness of the work. Sick of everything and everyone...except Hannah, he reminded himself. Hutch was more certain now that Hannah knew enough to make a valuable witness to illegal practices within the cult; and their last, abortive conversation renewed his hope that she might be willing to flee the ranch and testify. He knew that time was running out...that he needed to confront her, find out how much she actually knew. He wondered if he was simply getting too soft for this kind of undercover work...too weak to use Hannah's trust and friendship against her, too weak to use his partner to bait a trap.
Hutch knew he would have to be there, watching, while the cult members whipped his friend. Not only would his absence get him into trouble with the elders and jeopardize his cover, but he needed to be there for his partner's safety. He would carry his gun and badge, well hidden. If he thought for one moment that Starsky was in danger of more than pain and humiliation, he'd call a halt to the whole thing, and the hell with the investigation.
At the appointed time, the entire community gathered in the central compound. Hutch was horrified to see that the cult members' children were present as well as the adults. He watched, feeling eerily spaced-out and disembodied, as a shirtless Starsky was led to a sturdy pole and his arms secured around it. Brother Benjamin, his face expressionless, supervised the preparations. When all was ready, he motioned one of the other cult members to come forward. No words were spoken as the other man, whom Hutch vaguely recognized, picked up a long leather bullwhip and approached Starsky.
Starsky turned his head, and for a moment his eyes met Hutch's. Staring back at his partner, Hutch saw resignation, determination and a little honest fear. Then Starsky turned away, the man with the whip raised his arm, and Hutch closed his eyes in silent, nauseated sympathy as he heard the lash hit his friend's unprotected back. Twenty lashes had been ordered, and the count was slow. Hutch forced himself to open his eyes after the first ten.
From this distance, he could see that Starsky's color was good, his body still holding itself upright of his own accord. His back, though...his back displayed angry red weals, with bright red blood beginning to ooze. The second ten strokes proceeded with agonizing slowness, but Starsky made no sound, standing resolute and immobile.
As soon as he was certain that his partner was alive and conscious, Hutch stumbled away and lost what little bit of lunch he had been able to eat.