House of Mirrors
by Hutchrules3

SHSVS, Episode 609, Part 3

Back to Part 2

"If we think the park is the key," Starsky said thoughtfully, as the two detectives pulled into the hospital parking lot, "then do we really need to interview Polly?"

"For shame, Starsk," Hutch chided, shifting the rental car into park and switching off the engine. "Just because Brady's boys get away with sloppy work doesn't mean we can."

"Yeah, I know, but..."

Hutch laid a hand on his partner's arm. "I know," he said gently. "We'll keep it short."

At the nurses' station in the tiny hospital, they were informed that Polly's doctor was with her, and they would have to wait before they could see her. Directed to a nearby waiting room, they were pleasantly surprised to find a bright, sparkling clean nook painted in cheerful colors and furnished in chairs that actually looked tolerable. There was even a small kitchenette, and an automatic coffee maker filling the room with a fragrance that perked up both men.

Hutch poured them each a mug of the fresh brew, and took a grateful sip as he sank down beside Starsky. "Sure beats the hell out of the hospitals back home," he observed. "Even real cups."

Starsky sampled his coffee and nodded in agreement.

They sat in silence for a long moment. Hutch gazed around the hospital, thinking little had changed since the family had come here when he was a kid. Occasionally, they had met Richard here for dinner when he was working late, which was nearly always. Other times, Miranda had brought the kids in for treatment-- Hutch for a broken arm, Cathy for a bee sting they discovered she was allergic to. The nurses at the counter had greeted him with fond and familiar smiles; Hutch remembered days when he'd spent more time with them than with his father.

"Hey, Hutch."

"Hmm?"

"Since we got a minute, would you mind tellin' me something?"

Hutch shifted in his chair, but refused to let apprehension spoil his cozy mood. "Depends on what it is, I guess."

"Cathy said something about a speeding ticket that...that sort of 'defined' you and your dad."

Hutch half-smiled ruefully. "Yeah, well," he said contemplatively, as his eyebrows lifted then lowered. "She's right about that; that was definitely a classic confrontation."

"So," Starsky urged. "C'mon, we're stuck here with nothin' to do. Spill it."

Hutch set down the cup with a sigh. "Okay, okay," he relented, folding his hands over his belt and stretching long legs in front of him. "I was, oh, I don't know, maybe six months past sixteen. Just got my license, had driven the family car maybe a dozen times. So, one night I'm driving home from a date, and I'm already late. She lived way out in the country, so I figured I could open up the car on the back roads."

And then there was the red light in the rearview mirror and the unmistakable wail of a siren slicing through the music on the radio. Ken felt his heart drop with the speedometer needle, as he slowed the car and pulled over to the side of the road. Working his wallet from his pocket, he withdrew the new license and waited for the sheriff to approach his open window.

"Well, if it isn't Ken Hutchinson." The amused voice preceded Jason Brady's appearance at the side of the car. "Where you goin', kid? Afraid the library'll close before you get back to town?"

"No, sir," Ken said politely. He had been taught by his father to treat all authority figures with respect. "I'm running a little late, and I...guess I didn't realize how fast I was going."

"That much was obvious," Brady concurred. "Fifty in a thirty-five, Ken. That's not the smartest move on these country roads. Tractor comes out, or a deer, and you're pretty much out of control."

"I understand," Ken said, wishing the man would just give him the ticket and skip the speech. He was quite sure he'd get an extended lecture when he arrived back home.

"Well, I'd cut you a break, but your old man would never sit still for it," Brady said, and slapped the open window sill. "So just sit tight, and I'll be back in a minute with the bad news."

Bad news it was, and worse news when Ken arrived home, seriously late and bearing an expensive souvenir of the evening's events. He'd entered the dark house with optimistic stealth, hoping his father would be asleep, or still at the hospital. But then he saw the light in the den and knew he was busted.

"Ken?" his father's voice called. "Running a bit past curfew, aren't you?"

"Sorry, Dad, I lost track of time," Ken called back, thinking he might be able to get away with ducking past and hurrying upstairs.

But these hopes, too, were dashed, as his father appeared at the den door, book in hand. "Lost track of time? You're over an hour late. That's a lot of time to lose track of." Scanning his son, he spotted the damning white leaflet in the teenager's hand. "What's that?"

Crap.

Sighing, resigning himself to the inevitable, Ken handed over the ticket. Richard read it carefully, twice, then raised his eyes to his son, who by this time was a shifting, blushing figure with hands tucked in his jacket pockets.

"Speeding?" he said sternly. "May I assume you were driving your mother's car?"

"Yes," Ken admitted.

"And doesn't Lori live on Route Ten, out by the county line?"

"Y-yes." Ken felt his voice jump like a needle on a scratched record and jammed his hands farther into his pockets.

"There's a lot of blind turns onto that road," Richard went on. "And I believe there've been at least a dozen deer killed there in the last two years, am I right?"

"Yes, but...Dad, let me...if I can just, just..."

"Well, then, tell me, Ken. What were you planning to do if you happened to come across a deer, or some other animal, or a farmer's truck while you were speeding down this road? Did you even consider the consequences of wrecking your mother's car, not to mention the damage to yourself?"

"I-I--" Ken stammered. "Of course I did. I just, I just...it was late and, and I didn't think--"

"That's exactly right," his father agreed harshly. "You didn't think." He examined the ticket a final time, then handed it back to his son. When the boy took it, the thin paper stuck to the sweat coating his palms. "Well," Richard went on. "Needless to say you'll be paying for this on your own. I suspect that will come from your spring vacation fund."

"What?" Ken said, blinking. He was going to Minneapolis to tour the university, eagerly anticipating an entire weekend away from his father's expectant eyes. "But...I've been planning that t-trip for months! If, if I have to pay for the t-ticket, I won't have enough...I can't get to the city, and, can't you--?"

"No, I won't," Richard pronounced. "You should've thought of that before you stepped on the accelerator."

"Dad!" Ken blurted. "Come on, this was a mistake! Can't you...? Can't I...? Just once, why not give me a break?"

"This wasn't a mistake, Ken," Richard corrected. "A mistake is something that happens even though you've done your best to avoid it. You made a conscious choice to exceed the speed limit tonight, and you've got to accept the consequences. That ticket is your responsibility, and until you've paid it, you may consider your mother's car off-limits. Is that clear?"

"B-but--"

"Is that clear?" Richard repeated, and his voice warned.

Ken swallowed, crumpled the ticket in his damp hand, and nodded, throat tight. "Yes," he whispered. "It's clear."

"Good." Richard turned back to the den, opening his book as he went. "Now, get to bed. I want you to come with me to the hospital tomorrow, to help in the office for a bit."

"But...I already..."

Richard turned back and fixed his son with an authoritative stare. "I'd say you're hardly in a position to negotiate," he said quietly. "Now, I suggest you do as I say and go to bed."

The ticket grew ever smaller in Ken's hand, his fingers beginning to cramp from the pressure. Without a word, he spun and started toward the stairs, but his father's voice stopped him once more.

"Ken, when I make a statement, I expect it to be acknowledged."

The boy paused, one foot on the bottom step, and considered just how much trouble he wanted to get himself into.

"Ken?"

He'd lived with his father too long; obedience won out. His shoulders slumped, and he turned back toward the den. "Yes, sir," he said softly. "I understand."

"Good," Richard said approvingly. "Now...good night."

"Good night."

"For cryin' out loud," Starsky swore mildly. "It was just a speeding ticket. What'd he get so bent out of shape about? I must've had a dozen of 'em when I was a kid."

Hutch half-snorted, half-laughed deep in his throat. "That," he said, "I can believe." Then his face sobered as he went on, "That's just my dad, Starsk. He always used to say, no second chances."

"Nuts," Starsky muttered, shaking his head. "No wonder you're so uptight."

Their mood was broken when the door to Polly's room opened, and a stocky redheaded woman in a somewhat rumpled white coat stepped out. She made some notes on a card in her hand as she started down the hall, and glanced up as Hutch approached.

"Ken," she greeted him with real pleasure. "Haven't seen you in a while. How're things in California?"

"Oh, you know, the usual, Ellen," Hutch replied. "We're moving all the criminals to the coast, so there'll be a clean sweep when it falls into the ocean." They exchanged brief grins, then sobered as Hutch turned to Starsky. "Starsk, this is Dr. Ellen Bell. She worked with my dad a while ago, then decided she liked it here--though she had the good sense not to go into Psychiatry. Ellen, my partner, Dave Starsky."

"Pleased to meet you," Ellen said cordially, gripping Starsky's hand. "Are you here to see Polly?"

"Yeah," Starsky replied.

"Business or social?"

"Little bit of both," Hutch said. "How is she?"

"Well, she's still in quite a bit of pain. Whoever did this to her was very nasty and very thorough," Ellen said, with an edge to her voice. "We're keeping her on pain medication, and she's still pretty fuzzy. And she needs rest, so try to keep it short, all right?"

"You got it," Starsky promised, and the two detectives started for the door.

"Oh, Ken, your father's in with her, but I don't think he'll mind if you go on in. In fact, it might be a good idea for him to stick around while you talk to her."

Hutch hesitated, but the move was so subtle, and corrected so quickly, he thought only Starsky noticed it. He covered with a polite, "Thanks, Ellen," and led Starsky into the room.

They paused just inside the door. The room was dim, the blinds drawn to encourage Polly to rest, and neither Polly nor Richard noticed their silent entrance. Reluctant to interrupt, Hutch closed the door softly, then he and Starsky remained in the shadows. Richard was seated in a visitor's chair beside the bed, one hand resting on the girl's shoulder as she spoke.

The expression on his face struck Starsky so strongly that for a moment, he couldn't move.

The blue eyes, which he had only ever seen as cold or aloof, were full of compassion; the pale brows were drawn together in a look of listening that Starsky had seen hundreds of times. The hand on the shoulder, the soft soothing voice, the careful attention to Polly's words... They were the same tone, look, and almost physical wave of caring that Hutch gave to everybody who stirred his heart. To see these things in this man, whom he had come to genuinely dislike for Hutch's sake, gave him a surreal feeling, as if he had entered an alternate universe where Richard Hutchinson was a man of kindness rather than condemnation.

I've seen him a few times with his patients. And he is...he's great with them; he really is--very caring and incredibly accepting, he remembered Cathy saying. But it's like...the rules are different at home.

A wave of feelings welled up in him. Confusion about who and what this man really was, mixed with gratitude that Richard's "bedside manner" was providing just the gentleness Polly needed. Following that, however, was a rush of sorrow that Richard had apparently never given Hutch this same gift he extended so freely to other people.

Maybe he did get something from his dad, Starsky thought. But it must be genetic, because Hutch damned sure never learned it by example.

He reached mental feelers to Hutch, wondering if his partner had noticed the same discrepancy he had, but Hutch was merely waiting patiently for his father and Polly to finish talking. And in some ways, that saddened Starsky even more. Clearly, Hutch was so accustomed to this dichotomous treatment that it failed even to make an impression upon him.

Just you wait 'til we get back home, babe, Starsky promised fiercely. Gonna spend a lifetime giving you everything that bastard never did.

"I guess you had to cancel the dinner dance, Dr. H.," Polly was saying brokenly. "I'm really sorry."

"Don't trouble yourself about that," Richard reassured her. "I should thank you, in fact. You saved me a fortune in caterers' bills."

She started to laugh, but the effort was too great, and she winced as the sound turned to a groan. "How...how's Cathy? Will she be able to come out pretty soon?"

"She's been hounding the nurses to let her come," Richard told her. "They wanted to give you a chance to recharge your batteries a little, but I know she's planning a surprise. And Miranda sent word for you not to worry. You can stay with us as long as you want, until you feel up to going home."

From where he stood, Starsky saw Polly's eyes fill with tears. "Thanks, Dr. H.," she whispered. "You've all been so kind. I'm so sorry to have been so much trouble."

"Shhh," Richard said gently, and Starsky shook himself; the sound was so like Hutch it was eerie. "First of all, it's no trouble, and second, there's no need to apologize. This wasn't your fault, understand? It's very important for you to remember that."

"If I hadn't been running there...you tried to tell me," she began, but he interrupted again.

"That doesn't give anyone permission to do what they did to you," Richard said firmly. "You did nothing wrong; the people who did this are completely responsible."

"The police--" Polly hesitated, and Starsky knew she was thinking about the investigation and dreading all it would entail.

"Don't you worry about them, either," Richard said. "Ken and Dave are working with them on this, and you know they're good at what they do. I'm sure they'll find these people and do everything they can to protect you in the process."

Beside Starsky, Hutch blinked. It was somewhat matter-of-fact, it wasn't directly delivered, but his father had actually said something complimentary about Hutch and his work. For perhaps the first time since he had left home, Hutch felt his father might understand--at least a little--about why he did what he did. It didn't make up for years of criticism, but it could be a start. He felt Starsky shiver for a moment and wondered what was wrong, then his partner let loose with an enormous sneeze. Richard turned from the bed, startled, as Starsky apologized.

"Ken, David," the older man said as he rose to his feet, and his voice had returned to the cool, distant place from which he typically addressed his son. "It would have been more appropriate for you to let me know you were here."

609-6.jpgHutch felt the warmth for his father disappear, like a tiny candle flame snuffed by a gust of cold wind. "We didn't want to disturb you," he explained, trying not to curse himself for thinking his father could change. "We thought--"

"No, I suspect, as usual, that you did not," Richard interrupted. "But that's a topic for another time." He smiled down at Polly again and pressed her shoulder gently. "I'll get going so they can talk with you, Polly," he told her. "But if you need anything, or if you begin experiencing any post-trauma symptoms--nightmares, insomnia, that sort of thing--I want you to let either myself or Dr. Bell know immediately, all right? As Cathy's father, I can't treat you, but I can recommend a number of excellent colleagues."

"Thanks, Dr. H.," Polly said gratefully. "Tell Cathy I'll see her tonight."

Richard patted her shoulder one last time, then turned from the bed to approach the two detectives. "Do you plan to be out long this afternoon, Ken?" he inquired of his son. "Since you seem to have trouble keeping track of the time, perhaps I could see that your mother receives adequate notice this time."

"No, sir," came automatically from Hutch's lips. "As far as I know, we'll be back for dinner."

"Thank you," Richard said formally. "I know your mother will appreciate that." He moved past them to pull open the door, then paused, his eyes going from the two men to Polly, and back again. "Don't tire her out," he instructed. "It's been difficult enough."

"We won't," Hutch assured him. Part of him begged to be allowed to speak, to remind his father that this was far from his first rape case, or his first interview at a hospital bed. But he knew that would only upset Polly, antagonize his father, and make this day even longer than it already was.

"Good. We'll see you at six-thirty, then."

He exited and Hutch expelled a breath. He felt Starsky's hand close around his biceps, and almost withdrew, then stopped himself. Richard was gone, Polly's eyes were closed, and dammit, he needed the contact. He let himself reach over and squeeze the hand back, then moved to take Richard's chair beside the bed. Starsky followed.

"Hey," Hutch said softly, and Polly's eyes flickered open.

"Ken," she murmured. "Boy, I'm quite the popular one today."

"That's a surprise?" Hutch teased gently. "Well, we're here partially on business, Polly. We need to see what you remember about the attack."

"Cathy..." she began weakly, then stopped, licked her lips, and spoke again, more strongly this time. "Cathy said you didn't think you could help. What changed your mind?"

"Dirty Harry," Hutch said, the left side of his mouth turning up wryly.

Her eyes registered confusion.

"'A man's got to know his limitations'," Hutch quoted.

She grinned, and Hutch felt tremendous relief at the normalcy of that expression. She's still got her sense of humor, he thought. That's a good sign.

As the girl's eyes fluttered closed again for a moment, he felt Starsky's hand squeeze his shoulder, then drop as his partner spoke above him. "Polly, can you take it from the top?" Starsky requested. "I know you're still pretty wiped out, so take all the time you need."

"Yeah, right," she scoffed, with a tired chuckle. "I heard Dr. H. If you guys are late for dinner, he's gonna ground you both for sure."

Hutch took her hand. "You let us worry about that," he instructed her, his tone even despite the prickle of irritation at his father's behavior. "Did you...did you see anyone at all before they attacked you?"

She shook her head. "Nothing," she said apologetically. "I didn't even hear them coming, and there seemed to be two or three of them, so you'd think I would have. But I sort of get into this zone when I run, so I was probably a pretty easy target."

"Hey," Starsky said, kneeling beside the bed and brushing a strand of hair from her forehead. "Don't do that to yourself. Dr. Hutchinson was right about it not being your fault--last I heard it was supposed to be safe to jog in a public park."

"I know, but still..." Her eyes went from Starsky to Hutch, and she half-smiled. "Okay, okay," she conceded. "But I don't know how much help I can be, if I didn't see anybody."

"Do you remember how many voices you heard, or anything they said that might mean something?" Hutch asked.

"Definitely at least two voices," she said slowly. "And it was weird--it was almost like some twisted version of the two of you. One guy sounded pretty intellectual, kind of like you, Ken; and the other one was tougher, more 'street.' It was creepy...that first guy...it was like what they were doing was some sort of, I don't know, experiment or something."

"So you did hear them speak," Hutch noted. "What did they say?"

"The usual, macho kind of stuff," she replied, her voice beginning to quiver. "You know, 'hold her down,' 'cover her mouth,' that kind of thing. But wait--there is one thing. Right before I blacked out, the one guy said, 'Praise the Lord'."

Starsky and Hutch exchanged puzzled glances. "Come again?" Hutch said.

"Oh, I don't think he meant it," Polly said hastily. "He sounded kind of...sarcastic, or something. I don't know." She sighed, and a tear slipped from one eye to roll to the pillow below. "I wish I could be more help, you guys. But they just...they got to me so fast, I could barely think straight. And to be honest," she added, her voice now trembling hard, "I'm just as glad I passed out when I did."

Hutch felt his insides twist in a sympathetic wrench. He remembered thinking that himself once upon a time, only to find his unconscious mind had retained more about a certain kidnapping than he had ever thought possible. To this day, he awoke to the occasional nightmare of a needle entering his arm, dreams so vivid he could still feel the pain, the initial mind-swallowing rush, and the torpor and lassitude that followed. Starsky's hand found his shoulder again, and he imagined his partner was having memories of his own.

"Speaking of that," Hutch said, shaking the disturbing thoughts from his head and rising to his feet, "we're going so you can get some more rest." He leaned down to kiss her cheek; Starsky followed suit. "Cathy'll be by tonight."

"Can't wait to see her," Polly said drowsily, beginning to drift back to sleep. "What's this surprise she's got cooking?"

"'Cooking' is the operative word," Starsky chuckled, squeezing her hand gently. "She figured you must be sick of the lousy hospital food."

"It's not s'bad," she murmured. "Tell her not to...worry about it."

609-7.jpgShe sighed and her eyes closed. Starsky brushed her hair back one last time, then they tiptoed out, closing the door quietly behind them.

Several feet down the hallway, though, Hutch stopped and looked at his partner with a frown. "'Praise the Lord'?" he said. "What kind of sicko brings that into a rape?"

"Makes some sense when you think about it," Starsky said, in a tone that revealed he had been doing just that. "Lotta God-fearing folks don't care much for the 'alternative lifestyle'."

Hutch nodded. "Good point," he agreed. "Wonder if there's something there. Do you remember a church near the park?"

"No, but I wasn't payin' real close attention," Starsky admitted.

"Well, it looks like our next stop is the neighborhood on that side of the lake," Hutch concluded. He glanced at his watch. "It's only a little after three. We can get a few in before we have to be back at my folks'."

"Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine..." Wade hummed as the church regulars helped him stack dishes and sort flatware into silverware trays. He felt so buoyant today, he almost wanted to laugh out loud. Everything looked so beautiful, and so clear--the dozen young men and women who were gathered in the sheltering arms of his church, the spotlessly clean room that filled with more amenities every month, and the golden sun outside that the Lord had made. He knew the time was drawing near--the time when an unprecedented number of people would hear his message at last. Everything up to now had been a prelude to this, he realized, and the wondrous working of God nearly took his breath away.

He moved forward to close the front drapes, as was the custom at dinnertime. His hand halted on the threadbare cloth, and this time he did catch his breath.

"Thank you, sweet, sweet Jesus," he murmured, then turned to beckon. "Bobby, David, come here."

Exchanging their usual pained glances, the two boys nonetheless joined Wade at the window. "Do you see?" he breathed, gesturing to the two figures who were crossing the street. "This is another sign from the Lord. Not only has he brought Ken Hutchinson to our town, but now to our home."

"You call that a sign?" Dave sputtered, taking a stumbling step back from the window. "There's only one reason why they could be here, Wade, and that's because they think we're somehow involved in those attacks."

"Rein it in, will you, Dave?" Bobby requested with an exasperated sigh. "I've been watching them for the last hour, and it looks like they're just doing a routine check around the park. They've been to three other stores down the street."

"Besides," Wade said, "we have nothing to fear. We know the Lord will blind their eyes to our mission until the time is right. We are safe, my boys, and Jake, too. Let's just go about our business and see what transpires. Perhaps their questioning will help us set the date for Ken's...enlightenment."

"Sure, Wade," Bobby said agreeably, beckoning Jake from across the room. "Here, Jake. Take Dave, go to the back room, and find something to do until he calms down."

"Can't we just stay back there until they're gone?" Dave squeaked, as Jake draped an amiable arm across his shoulders.

"Man, it's a good thing you're not in charge," Jake said patiently. "It'd look kind of funny if we didn't 'cooperate' with the nice police officers now, wouldn't it?"

Jake steered the protesting boy out of the main room, Bobby settled himself at one of the tables, and Wade strode across the room to throw open the front door. "Welcome!" he greeted the two detectives cheerfully. "Welcome to the Lost Lamb Church and Youth Refuge. My name is Wade Graham, and I am the shepherd of this marvelous flock."

"Dave Starsky," Starsky said, extending a hand.

"Ken Hutchinson."

Wade took both detectives' hands at once and gripped them firmly. "Well, you boys are a little older than my usual visitors, so I assume you've not come for food or guidance."

"That's right, Mr. Graham," Starsky agreed. "We're working with the local sheriff on the attacks in the park. You've heard about those?"

"Indeed, I have," Wade said, with genuine sorrow. "So sad, those poor lost souls." He shook his head, thinking how wonderful the world would be when his mission was no longer necessary. "I pray daily for them to find the light."

He wasn't deliberately oblique, but he did find it fortunate when the two detectives misunderstood his reference. They exchanged a glance, then Hutch cleared his throat and said, "Yes, well, we'd like to bring these...lost souls...to justice, if we can."

"Anything I can do to help," Wade said.

"The four assaults took place on these dates," Starsky said, showing a list to the pastor. "I know it's been a while, but do you remember seeing or hearing anything unusual on those days?"

Wade lowered glasses from the top of his head and peered at the list, feeling his heart lift with joy. The date of every lesson was there; the police had discerned the pattern! "I'm afraid I don't," he said regretfully, handing the paper back to Starsky. "As you can see, we close the curtains around dinnertime, and we're preoccupied with worship after the meal."

"One of the attacks took place in the afternoon," Hutch said. "Nothing at all struck you as odd or out of place?"

"I'm afraid not," Wade said apologetically. "But you're welcome to talk to the young people, if you'd like. They come and go more frequently than I do, and they might have seen or heard something."

"Thank you," Starsky said politely. He figured it would be a waste of time, since there was a limit to how far they could question minors without parental consent, but they were desperate enough to grasp at straws. He glanced at Hutch, saw from his expression that his partner was of the same mind, and turned back to Wade. "We'll do that," he said. "We'll try not to interrupt your dinner, and we'll be sure to leave before your service starts."

"You're welcome to stay, if you like," Wade invited, his eyes glowing softly. "The presence of new worshippers often inspires us to wonderful new revelations."

"Uh, no," Hutch said swiftly, before Starsky could speak. "Believe it or not, I promised my mother we'd be home for dinner."

Starsky saw Wade's expression change as he examined Hutch more closely, then his face lit with recognition.

"Mother--? I thought that was you!" he said, with even greater warmth than before. "I guess you don't remember me, though, Ken. We went to high school together."

Hutch returned the man's scrutiny for a few moments, then shook his head. "I'm sorry, Mr. Graham," he apologized. "I'm afraid I don't remember."

"Well, that's really no surprise." Wade chuckled amiably. "As I recall, you were always very busy and surrounded by friends. I'm afraid I was a bit of a wallflower, blending into the background."

Hutch smiled perfunctorily.

"I decided to return here after completing my Divinity degree out of state," Wade went on, apparently missing Hutch's discomfort. "I so wanted to work with young people, and you know what they say about starting at home." He swept a hand around the room. "We're small, as you can see, but these young folks are very dedicated, and our mission is growing every day."

"What is your mission?" Starsky couldn't resist asking. The storefront church looked nondescript to him, with the usual pictures and books, and a small stage area at one end of the room with a pulpit and a modest wooden cross.

"Just to bring the truth of the Lord's word to the community," Wade said reverently. "And to bring all lost souls back to His flock."

Starsky glanced over at Hutch, whose expression telegraphed HELP in capital letters. "Well, Mr. Graham, we appreciate your cooperation," he said smoothly, with his most pleasant smile. "We'd better get started, so we can finish before your service."

"I won't keep you from your work any longer, then," Wade said graciously. "And bless you both, for being soldiers of justice and law."

He gripped both their hands again, then drifted away to one of the tables, pausing to speak to the teenagers who sat there. They appeared to genuinely like him, Starsky observed; the kids' faces were welcoming, and the conversation quickly became animated.

"What a weird bird," he said under his breath to Hutch, as they moved in the opposite direction to start with the table farthest from the door. "How could you forget someone like that?"

"I dunno, Starsk," Hutch replied, watching Wade with a pensive frown. "Like he said, he must've just faded into the background."

Their questioning moved quickly, as Starsky had suspected it would. Few of the kids had seen anything before the attacks, though they remembered the police cars and ambulances after the fact. Some knew the victims had been gay, and made it clear how wrong this activity was, "according to the faith." But there was nothing malicious or even unusual about any of them, though Starsky did make note of a pair who entered the dining room late in the process. One was a skinny, dark-haired kid whose jacket seemed to weigh more than he did, the other a large, muscular youth dressed incongruously in jeans, a flowing shirt, and two strings of beads. They joined the last table, just as the detectives were interviewing a blond, leanly athletic boy who could've been Hutch's progeny.

"For Christ's sake, Hutch," Starsky hissed as they wrapped up their questioning, thanked Wade, and headed for the door. "Is there some kind of Nordic god plant up here where they grow people like you and that kid?"

Hutch snickered, glad for the respite in the grim afternoon. But then he stopped, frowning as something whisked through his head, and turned back to glance around the room.

"What is it?" Starsky asked from the doorway.

Hutch's frown deepened as he tried to capture the will-o-the-wisp thought, but it eluded him. He shook his head. "Nothing," he said. "It'll come to me. Come on, let's get going. It's after six."

They stepped out into the early evening and had started down the block toward their car, when Starsky stopped, with a frown that mirrored Hutch's. "Hold on a sec," he said. His eyes narrowed, and Hutch knew he was clicking images through his mental slide projector. "Be right back."

He strode quickly back up to the church, as Hutch leaned against a parking meter and took a deep breath of the fragrant air. He'd spent his teenage years waiting to escape this place, but every time he returned, he found something to appreciate and miss in it. The sky was bright blue in the day, and showed stars at night that he could only imagine back in Bay City, and there was something sweet and old-fashioned about the light of the dusk--almost as if, for a moment, the town was transported and suspended in a younger, more innocent time.

Starsky returned and, without pausing, led his partner toward the car.

"What is it?" it was Hutch's turn to ask, as Starsky unlocked Hutch's door, then circled the car to open his own.

"One of those kids didn't fit," Starsky said, as they both slammed doors shut and he turned the key in the ignition. "Most of 'em looked a little poor, clothes run down, kind of shabby, you know?"

"And?"

"Remember the blond kid, the unacknowledged fruit of your loins, hangin' out with earth boy and the biker kid?"

Hutch snorted, but let the jab pass. "Yeah, so?"

"Couple of things." Starsky pulled the car away from the curb, swung it into a turn, and headed back toward the Hutchinson home. "First of all, he was the only one who didn't seem all revved up about this 'mission' Wade's got goin' on."

"And second?"

"He looked a little too uptown compared to the other kids in the place. Tennis shorts, sneakers, pricey watch...and you know what cashmere sweaters do to your pocket book."

"Not my pocket book," Hutch corrected him. "Starsky, that's a stretch, and a thin one at that."

"Maybe," Starsky said. "But I got a feeling, Hutch. There's somethin' about that kid that just doesn't fit."

Hutch had learned long ago to listen when Starsky's "feelings" spoke. He sighed. "Do you remember his name?"

"Yep," Starsky said smugly.

"Let's run him when we get back to my folks--him and the other two who were with him," Hutch decided. "In fact, let's just run by Brady's and take care of it--"

"How about Plan B?" Starsky suggested, laying a hand on his partner's arm. "Let's go home, get some grub, and make your dad happy for once. Then we can swing back into town and visit the rich folks, get permission to question Ken, Jr. further."

"Why not right now?"

"Hutch," Starsky said gently, as he turned the car down the lakeside road. "I know your dad's attitude is as natural as breathing to you, but I'd kind of like to skip the scene this time."

"Oh." Feeling sixteen for the dozenth time this trip, Hutch pretended interest in his interview notes, hiding his flushed cheeks from his partner. "Right."

A hand curled around his knee as they pulled into the driveway, squeezed briefly, and then was gone.

As soon as Starsky made his second exit, Dave turned to Bobby with a look of panic. "He's got something," he said anxiously. "Did you see the way he looked at us when he came back in?"

"No." Bobby's tone was nonchalant as he tipped back his chair, hands tucked casually into his pockets. "They're only fishing; they don't have a clue."

"How can you be so sure?" Dave demanded. "Man, I know your dad thinks you walk on water, but if I get busted mine'll have my hide on the garage wall. I think we should tell Wade to call the whole thing off...leave this Hutchinson guy alone."

"You and I both know that won't do any good," Bobby pointed out. "We'd never talk Wade out of it. He's convinced that 'teaching' that cop is the key to getting his word out."

"Jake?" Dave turned pleading eyes to his other companion.

"He's got a point, Bobby," Jake admitted. "I'm up for an athletic scholarship at State, and I don't want to blow my chance to get out of this burg."

Bobby snorted and brought the chair legs down with a thump. "Boy, you two are a couple of real pussies," he hissed savagely. "Remember the picture we took of those two? Kissing each other like a man and a woman? Nobody can go in that park anymore because of people like them!" His lip curled in disgust. "If you want to let them get away with it, you must be just as queer as they are."

He glared at Dave, then Jake, with eyes that were cold and dangerous.

They stared at him, flabbergasted, for a long moment. Then he flashed them a brilliant white smile and leaned back in his chair once more.

"Besides, nobody's going to get caught," he said confidently. "We caught them all off-guard. Not a one has been able to describe us, or even say how many of us there were."

"Yeah, but we knocked 'em all out and left 'em there," David said. "Wade wants us to bring that cop back here so he can talk to him."

"So much the better," Bobby said. "We blindfold him, then make our exit after we've done our part. If Wade wants to expose himself after, then that's his funeral."

"Don't you think he'll tell the cops about us?" Jake asked worriedly.

"Not in a million years," Bobby assured him. "He'd never let them harm a member of his flock, not if he could help it."

Dave and Jake looked at each other. Dave made a What now? gesture, and Jake shrugged his massive shoulders.

"Okay, Bobby, you're the boss," Jake said, and Dave hesitated then nodded. "But no matter what happens, this is it for me. After this, I'm out."

"Me, too," Dave added immediately.

"No problem, boys," Bobby said, dimples deepening. "I've got a hunch the park'll be safe for normal people again when this job is done. After we get done with that cop, none of those queer folk'll go anywhere near Lakeside Park."

Sometime after 9:00 that evening, Starsky steered the rental car toward the address Brady had given them for Bobby Caldwell. Beside him, Hutch was silent, and Starsky knew he was recuperating from the uncomfortable meal with his father. Cathy and Miranda had carried most of the conversation, with Richard contributing an occasional comment or pronouncement, while Starsky watched Hutch push food around on his plate. For the dozenth time that day, he wished this case would crack so they could go home, back to some sense of normalcy.

"That's the street." Hutch pointed. "Turn left here."

Starsky complied. Slowing the car so they could scan the house numbers, he whistled in disbelief. "Holy shit, Hutch," he said. "I thought your folks' place was somethin', but this--"

"Yeah," Hutch agreed. "Cathy and I call this neighborhood 'Conspicuous Consumption.'"

Starsky chuckled then braked the car. "Seventy-nine, right?"

"Yep."

"That's it." He turned the car into the long driveway, growing more amazed as the Caldwell house rose into view. Huge and imposing, the dwelling was twice as big as the Hutchinsons', with an expansive lawn rolling as far as Starsky could see. Through the few windows that were lit, he glimpsed enormous rooms with tall ceilings and light fixtures that were impressive, even from this distance.

He parked the car in front of the house and followed Hutch up the front steps to the massive double doors.

The man who answered the bell was about Hutch's height, with thick gray hair that was clearly carefully maintained. Even at this hour of the evening, he wore crisply pressed slacks, a white dress shirt, and an expensive silk tie. Holding his place in a leather-bound book with one finger, the man peered at the two detectives over half-glasses. "Yes?" he queried in a resonant, cultured voice.

"Mr. Alan Caldwell?" Hutch said.

"I'm Dr. Caldwell, yes," the man corrected him. "How can I help you?"

Hutch withdrew his badge and showed it to the physician. "I'm Detective Hutchinson, and this is Detective Starsky. We're investigating some assaults that took place in Lakeside Park, and we were wondering if we could talk to your son."

"Bobby? Why on earth would you want to speak with him?"

"We understand he spends a lot of time at the church by the park," Starsky said. "We spoke to him earlier today, but we'd like to ask him some more questions."

"Well--" The man hesitated, then seemed to remember his manners. "Forgive my rudeness, gentlemen, but you've caught me by surprise. Why don't you step inside, so we can discuss this?"

He led them into an impeccably furnished living room, where he offered the two detectives a drink. Both shook their heads, then Hutch said, "We know it's late, and we don't want to keep you, Dr. Caldwell, so if we could just see Bobby--"

"Detective Hutchinson--" Caldwell's eyes narrowed slightly as he examined Hutch more closely. "Hutchinson," he repeated thoughtfully. "You wouldn't happen to be Richard's son, would you? From California?"

"As a matter of fact, I am," Hutch replied, trying to curb his impatience. "But that's not really relevant to why we're here--"

"I was at your father's this past weekend," Caldwell said, apparently undeterred by Hutch's brisk tone. He shook his head. "Terrible thing about your sister's friend. How is she?"

"She's recovering," Hutch said tightly. "But, sir--"

"Your father and I have been colleagues for years, Detective," Caldwell interrupted yet again. "You can't seriously believe that my son would be involved in any type of crime."

Temper rising at the familiarly superior tone, Hutch tightened his fingers around his pen and focused his attention on keeping his voice calm and civil. "With all due respect, Dr. Caldwell, your relationship with my father doesn't change why we're here. We don't have any evidence that Bobby's involved; we just want your permission to speak with him further."

Beside him, Starsky chimed in. "We're hoping maybe he saw or heard something someone else might not've."

Caldwell frowned. "But why Bobby?" he asked again. "He's not one to run wild on the streets. When he's not here, he's usually playing tennis at the club, or volunteering at the church."

Hutch opened his mouth, but Starsky smoothly interrupted. "We're aware of that, sir. But we also understand Bobby's very popular with the other kids. So it's possible one of them told him something that might help us."

Caldwell still looked dubious, but relented. "Well, I guess it'll be all right. Wait here. I'll get him from his room."

Hutch glanced at his partner with a raised eyebrow, impressed as always by Starsky's ability to manufacture the perfect mixture of lie and truth to fit the situation.

Behind Caldwell's back, Starsky responded with a sly, triumphant wink.

Moments later, the physician and his son led the way to a large den, which was furnished in heavy masculine colors and a massive fireplace. The heads of several hapless deer, glassy eyes fixed in lifeless stares, adorned the dark paneled walls. Hutch saw Starsky's eyes flick over the décor, close briefly, then return to neutrality once more.

"Please, sit." Caldwell waved one hand toward a rust-colored couch, as Bobby draped himself over a dark brown leather chair. "Are you sure you wouldn't like something to drink?"

"No, thank you," Hutch declined politely, as he and Starsky sank down onto the sofa. "We'll just get this finished so we can get out of your way."

"Should I stay?"

"It's up to you," Hutch told him, and after a moment's hesitation, Caldwell settled himself into a chair identical to Bobby's. Promptly forgetting about him, Hutch turned his attention to the lounging teenager. "You remember us from this afternoon, right, Bobby?"

"Yes, sir," Bobby replied respectfully.

"The other two kids who were with you," Starsky took over, flipping through the pages in his notebook. "Jake and...Dave?"

"Right," Bobby said. Hutch glanced over at Caldwell, but the man had apparently decided they were harmless and was absorbed again in his book.

"You guys hang out a lot?" Starsky asked.

"I guess that depends on what you mean by a lot."

"Okay, let me rephrase the question. How much time would you say you spend with them?"

Bobby shrugged. "I usually see them at the church, so pretty much every day."

"Are there other friends you hang out with?"

"Some," Bobby admitted. "Couple guys I play tennis with, down at the club."

"They ever talk about the assaults?"

"Nah," Bobby replied. "Nobody really paid any attention to that, except for people down by the park. Nobody else cares, I guess, since it's not in their neighborhood."

"So you only heard about it at the church?" Bobby nodded. "What kind of stuff do you do there?"

"Whatever Wade needs us to do," Bobby answered. "Help with meals, set up for the service, you know." He paused, then added. "Sometimes we help him clean up around the place."

As they frequently did, Hutch had left the questioning to Starsky while he watched Bobby closely for the nonverbal cues that often told them more than a subject's words. In the pause, he noted a slight twitch at the corner of Bobby's mouth, and a subtle but definite shift in the boy's posture and tone told Hutch he was beginning to play a game with them.

"What kind of cleaning up?" he asked. Starsky flicked a glance at him, and Hutch met it. Starsky nodded slightly, and Hutch knew his partner understood. They could dance the nonverbal waltz, too, and Hutch would bet his badge that the two of them could beat this kid any day of the week.

"Oh, you know," Bobby said dismissively. "Wash dishes, mop the floors." He paused, and Hutch again detected that shift in his voice. "Dump the trash. Clean up the garbage outside."

"You go to Wade's every day?" Starsky asked, taking the interrogatory ball back again.

"Yes," Bobby replied, and Hutch caught the omitted sir.

"Why?"

The kid looked startled, and Hutch swallowed a chuckle.

"Well--I--he came to the school once and wanted some people to help him with a project," Bobby said rapidly. "Jake and Dave and I stopped by there one weekend, just to see what it was like and decided to stick around."

"What kind of project?" Starsky asked.

"You know, the usual preacher stuff," Bobby said, his voice becoming defensive. "Reaching out to lost souls and that kind of stuff."

"Do you buy into his--project, Bobby?"

"Now, hold on just a minute." The senior Caldwell had apparently detected a change in the discussion's tone and had laid down his book. "Just where are you going with this line of questioning?"

"Just curious, Dr. Caldwell," Starsky said off-handedly. "Bobby sort of--stands out, compared to the other kids down at Lost Souls. Doesn't really seem to be his kind of gig."

"For your information," Caldwell said indignantly, rising from the chair and drawing himself to his full height. "Bobby has been volunteering with various charity organizations since he was ten."

"Really," Starsky said, unblinking eyes never leaving the teenager. "Rackin' up points for college, Bob?"

"That's enough," Caldwell declared. "I don't like your line of questioning, and I don't like your tone. Bobby has never given us a moment's trouble, and I sincerely doubt he's heard from anyone who knows about those attacks. Now, if you don't mind, I think it's time you--"

"Just a minute, Dr. Caldwell," Hutch requested, raising a hand to preempt the order to leave. "I'm curious about something, too," he said to Bobby, who had leaned back in his chair, arms folded defiantly across his chest.

"Yeah, what?" the teenager said sullenly.

"Jake and Dave," Hutch said. "Doesn't seem like you guys would have much in common. How'd you hook up?"

"School, I told you," Bobby said heatedly.

"School, huh?" Hutch pressed. "You don't look like the kind of kid who goes to woodshop or hangs out with the football team." He shook his head. "Nope, sorry, kid. Just can't quite figure it."

"Well, that's your problem," Bobby fired at him.

"That's enough!" Caldwell thundered. "Bobby, you're dismissed. Go upstairs and get ready for bed."

As the teenager pushed himself up from the chair, the older man turned to Starsky and Hutch, and his face was not pleasant. "I believe that's the end of your 'questioning,' gentlemen," he said icily. "I don't know if harassing children is normal procedure where you come from, but we don't allow it here. Now, if you don't mind, I'd prefer you leave my house."

Hutch exchanged glances with his partner again and knew they were thinking the same thing: Yeah, me, too.

A few moments later, they were pulling out of the Caldwell driveway.

Starsky glanced into the rearview mirror at the reflection of the palatial home. "That plant must be defective," he said thoughtfully.

Hutch threw him a startled look. "What the heck are you talking about?" he inquired.

"The Nordic god plant," Starsky explained. In the dark, his hand slid across the seat to rest on Hutch's thigh. "'Cause when they took that kid off the line, they'd left out all the good stuff that went into you."

Speechless, stunned by the incredible force of emotion that rushed through him, Hutch could only blink as Starsky's words soothed the raw wounds his father had been inflicting on him all weekend. This, he thought gratefully, laying a hand over the one on his thigh, is why I love this man.

"Ken, what in the world are you and David doing?"

Startled, Hutch looked up from the sunroom table, which he and Starsky had commandeered to spread out notes and files about the attacks. His father stood in the doorway, arms across his chest, lips drawn into a thin, disapproving line. He felt rather than saw Starsky draw back from the table and understood his partner's desire to put as much space as possible between himself and the angry man at the door.

"I don't know what you're talking about, Dad," he said, as courteously as he could manage. "We've spent pretty much every minute working on this investigation."

"Does that include insulting the father of a young man who should be above suspicion?"

Oh, of course. Starsky's eyes met his across the table.

"No, not really, sir." Hutch set his jaw as the term of address again slipped reflexively from his lips. "If we thought Bobby Caldwell was above suspicion, we wouldn't have talked to him."

"Ken, I have known the Caldwells since that boy was born," his father said loudly, clearly annoyed. "Alan Caldwell is a surgeon at the hospital, for heaven's sake! Robert's a model student, a leader in his school. I assure you, you're headed in the wrong direction."

"That may be," Hutch replied tightly, laying mental hands on his slipping patience. "But sometimes things look different in a different...context."

"Such as?" Richard demanded, taking a step toward the table. "What information do you have on him that warrants upsetting his family this way?"

Hutch sighed and dropped the file he'd been studying. "There's nothing I can tell you right now, Dad," he said steadily. "It's against procedure to share facts about a case with civilians who aren't directly involved."

Richard blinked at him. "I am your father, and I insist you tell me what you know."

"I'm a cop," Hutch returned. "Right now, that means I answer to a higher authority than you. Now, will you please leave us alone so we can try to figure this thing out?"

For once, Richard was at a loss for words. He opened his mouth, closed it, then with an irritated hmph, turned and left the room.

Hutch turned back to the puddle of paperwork on the table to find Starsky staring at him. "What?"

"Procedure?" Starsky queried. "Haven't heard you invoke 'procedure' since you came to Metro and finally puked up that manual you'd swallowed."

"Yeah, well," Hutch said, his eyes drifting up to where his father had stood. "If it works as well as it did this time, I may have to slug it down again."

On to Part 4