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In League with Angels

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The cacophony that was the Metro squadroom intruded like jagged spikes in the back of Hutch's skull. Too many noises overlapping, piling on the pain: typewriters clacking, phones ringing, loud voices, a strident prostitute arguing her arrest outside in the hall—

A child crying, the smell of salt air and fear—

Hutch jerked up so fast that he wrenched his neck sharply, his pencil dropping from lax fingers.

Where in the hell had that come from?

In response to the jarring move, his head pounded even worse than earlier. Damn, this headache just wouldn't go away. He rubbed his temples with the heels of his palms, inhaling slowly. Mentally filtering out all sound helped a little, but today the technique didn't work.

"Head bad again?" Starsky asked, pitched low and gentle to avoid exacerbating the pain.

Starsky understood. He thrust two aspirin under Hutch's nose and a paper cup of water.

Hutch didn't tell him about the two aspirin he'd downed less than thirty minutes ago. He simply accepted the analgesics and swallowed them fast with the water to chase the bitterness away. "Yeah, it's a bitch."

"Well, you know what they say?"

Starsky sounded cheerful, but when Hutch opened one eye, he could plainly read the concern Starsky was hiding behind their usual banter. "And what's that?" Hutch responded dutifully.

"Life's a bitch and then you die." Starsky shoved a pile of file folders over to Hutch's side of their shared desk. "And here's everything Records had on Capricorn Realty."

"Life's what happens while you are busy making other plans," Hutch countered, pleased that he had enough brain cells to do so. "John Lennon."

"Imagine…" Starsky yodeled the songwriter's iconic song.

"Shuddup, Starsky!" Mikes Collins yelled from across the room and tossed a wadded up interdepartmental memo at him.

Ducking, Starsky laughed. "Missed me, Collins. And you call yourself the best pitcher on the force."

Hutch grinned, opening the top file. Starsky wanted to pitch for the Metro baseball team, but Collins had been on the mound for two years now and wasn't willing to step down.

Carefully massaging the back of his head, Hutch perused the stats on Capricorn. The office manager had been murdered the day before, and the account books proved he'd been embezzling from the company for years. Just who murdered him was still unknown.

"Wait'll practice begins come spring, Starsky." Collins slid the carriage of his typewriter over with a loud b-r-r-r-a-c-c-c-k that reverberated around Hutch's head like a billiard ball hitting all four sides of the table. "Got a new fast ball that'll break the sound barrier."

"Bring it on, Collins." Starsky waggled his fingers in challenge.

"Think you need a day at the batting cage?" Hutch asked under his breath as Starsky sat down.

"I can take him." Starsky snorted, canting his head to examine Hutch critically. "You look like crap. I tol' you being unconscious means you got a concussion."

"I was not unconscious," Hutch said huffily, flipping a page in the report.

"Really? You gonna tell me you were just lying in that parking lot Sunday—after our ol'buddy Colby-the-snake clocked you on the noggin—for the hell of it?" Starsky curled his lip as he spoke Colby's name. "Can't believe how he played us for chumps. Made us believe his sob story and then… Wait'll his trial; I'd better get a chance to testify against him." Starsky shook himself out of the rant and leveled a finger at Hutch, tapping his forehead once. "I saw you. I had to help you stand up, and just because you got the overworked ER doc to sign you off without an x-ray six hours later…"

"X-rays don't show concussions, and you know it, Dr. Kildare," Hutch said, willing the four aspirins to at least dull the pain a fraction until the end of shift. Every time he turned his head, something inside his skull throbbed violently. "It's been two days, I'm upright, I know my own name, the president, and that Christmas is at the end of the month. I haven't died in my sleep and I'm eating my greens, Mom."

"I'll be watching, buster," Starsky gave him a fond, if exasperated look, and grabbed the second file on the stack. "What do you want for dinner tonight?"

"Starsk--" Hutch hesitated, the words on the page in front of him blurred for a moment, running together as if he'd dropped water onto the ink. "I've got—" Didn't he have something that night? For the life of him, he couldn't recall what. And trying to remember made his head ache abominably.

"You taking that Abby out?" Starsky suggested a shade too casually as if he knew Hutch was having difficulty.

Of course he knew. Starsky could read him like an open book, which was why Hutch hated hiding how badly his head hurt.

"Abby!" Hutch started to nod and thought better of it. Pretty, blond, he'd met her Monday night after a little bait and switch with Starsky. He and Abby had hit it off over drinks. She was a secretary in a law firm and was really enthusiastic about healthy eating, the environment, and camping. Exactly the same things he liked. They were made for each other. "We're going to that new place on La Brea."

"Hutch, even I wouldn't eat at a restaurant called the Tar Pit." Starsky burst out laughing.

"It got four stars from the BC Chronicle," Hutch said, blinking. The bank report on Capricorn's financial status was completely legible once again. "The steak tartar is supposed to be exceptional."

"Ick." Starsky stuck out his tongue. "Raw meat ain't my thing."

"It's gourmet," Hutch said loftily.

"Hutchinson, Starsky!" Dobey strode in through the main doors of the squadroom. "In my office, pronto."

"Learning Italian in your spare time, Captain?" Starsky asked pleasantly.

"Didn't know you knew any Italian." Hutch stood very slowly to let his head acclimate to the height change.

"Remember I told you my grandmother lived over an Italian restaurant?" Starsky threw over his shoulder. "The owner, Mrs. Ghilardi, was Grandma Chava's best friend." He pursed his fingertips together and kissed the tips. "Posso mangiare pasta."

Hutch dredged up his high school sophomore Italian. "I eat pasta?" He rolled his eyes, which weirdly hurt. "Impressive, Starsk. At least you won't starve." He followed his partner into Dobey's office.

"If I could have your undivided attention?" Dobey grumped, thumping his desk. "We have a delicate situation, and I want you two on it immediately."

Starsky sobered. "What's going down?" He let Hutch take the single chair and leaned against the wall, crossing his arms.

"Chief Ryan's granddaughter, Grace, didn't make it to school this morning," Dobey said with a grimace.

"Damn," Hutch muttered softly. "It's not eleven o'clock yet. Did school start at eight?"

"Eight-thirty," Dobey answered. "The teacher was out, and the substitute took roll call, but didn't inform the school office until after nine that Grace was absent. When the principal's secretary called Ryan's daughter, she was understandably alarmed and contacted her father and the police."

Abruptly, Hutch recalled the child's cry of terror he'd heard earlier, and a chill went up his spine.

"Did anyone at the school see anything?" Starsky asked, no longer leaning against the wall.

"I wasn't there!" Dobey said a little too sharply, obviously identifying with the family of the missing girl. His daughter, Rosie, had just turned six. "Get out to the family first and then the school. Find out what you can!"

"Right on it, Captain." Hutch stood quickly and the room swayed momentarily. He didn't move until the floor had stopped, hoping Starsky missed his dizzy spell.

Luckily for him, Starsky was leaning over Dobey's desk to get the Donovan family address. Hutch breathed out slowly and girded himself for what would be a difficult day under any circumstances. With a jackhammer rearranging the inside of his skull, it was going to be awful.

"What about the Capricorn case?" Starsky asked.

"Collins will take it. Chief Ryan is already at his daughter's house—" Dobey hesitated, rubbing his lips. "Step carefully around him. He's both your boss and a grieving family member."

************************

Starsky drove because just thinking about focusing on the road in bright sunlight made Hutch’s brain ache. He had donned sunglasses before they even left the building and slouched in the passenger seat with his eyes half closed against the mid-winter glare. Rain was in the forecast for later in the day. Clouds gathered in ominous looking clumps, but the sun broke through here and there with beams of intense brilliance. Hutch's mother used to call the almost perfect pillars of white sunlight shining between cloudbanks, "God looking down."

If so, maybe God was watching out for Grace Donovan. Hutch hoped so. He rarely prayed any more. Not since he'd given up the idea of the scholarly, contemplative life of a minister, but he wished he still felt that calm, centering devotion. He'd gone into Duluth University with lofty ambitions, to study theology and religion, maybe go into the Peace Corps or some other ministering type of work.

Where had that Ken Hutchinson gone? What had happened to him? Early college courses in music, sociology, and psychology—all intended to further his studies of humanity and guide him toward understanding people—had instead splintered his goals. He'd lost his focus when Nancy Vanessa Baldwin came along and enticed him into that ill-fated marriage. They'd moved to the west coast and Hutch had found a passion in criminology; the pursuit of justice, he found, was similar to being a minister. Both were devoted to promoting good and truth in the world.

So here he was, on his way to badger some poor, frightened parents into telling him what they didn't know about a missing child. She could be simply skipping school; unusual in a grade schooler, but still possible. Or she could be enduring grievous tortures at the hands of some maniac.

Damn, my head hurts.

Hutch gripped his thighs, and heard the terrified wail of a small girl. A strong odor of rotting seaweed filled his nose. She gulped, panting, seagulls shrieking behind her as she began crying again.

"Where is she…?" Hutch jerked up, pain radiating from the top of his skull to the base of his spine. For a moment, his back and neck spasmed and he wasn't sure he'd be able to breathe, let alone move.

"What's the matter with you?" Starsky asked irritably, glancing his way with both hands on the steering wheel. "Are you all right? You're all twisted."

Hutch breathed in and out twice and the cramping eased almost completely. His head still throbbed, but so much less that he didn't care. "Didn't you hear that girl?" Hutch turned around, scanning the roadway.

They'd traveled to a small residential neighborhood. Oak Heights, he recognized belatedly. He didn't see a single small child on the streets, because, of course, most would still be in school. And this far inland, there were no seagulls. Those voracious rats of the sky tended to stay about a mile from the coastline, not much more.

"I heard a little girl crying," he insisted, knowing it sounded crazy.

"You were dreaming," Starsky said indulgently. "You were practically snoring with your chin pressed down against your chest. No wonder your neck hurts."

Aware that he was kneading the back of his neck, Hutch dropped his hand to his lap, feeling oddly guilty. Why did he keep hearing these cries?

"I wasn't asleep," he muttered as Starsky pulled up beside a patrol car parked in front of a nice tract house painted gray with a black front door and matching shutters. Red, blue, and green holiday lights trimmed the edge of the roof, and a reindeer with a bright red nose stood on the winter green lawn.

The uniformed cop standing by his car sketched a wave at them.

"This be the place," Starsky said, turning off the engine. He didn't barrel out of the Torino as he normally might.

Kidnapping was their least favorite type of case. The whole situation hurt, on both sides. Parents feared the worst and clung to hope. Police, on the other hand, knew that the worst could be far more awful than what the parents could even imagine. Walking the tightrope between supporting optimism and preparing the families for what might be a gruesome discovery took nerves of steel.

Hutch didn't feel up to the challenge with his skull threatening to split in two. "You be good cop today."

If Starsky was surprised by the reversal of their usual roles when dealing with parents, he didn't say anything, only raised his eyebrows above the rims of his shades. "Dazzle 'em with my good looks and charm," he said lightly, but the brush of his fingers across Hutch's forearm conveyed his silent, "You going to be all right?"

"I have to be, for Grace," Hutch said out loud. He climbed from the car and waited until Starsky came around to walk at his shoulder up to the front door.

"They're waiting for you inside," the uniformed cop said. "My partner's over at the school."

"Thanks, Bryant," Starsky called.

Chief Cletus Ryan opened the door before Starsky and Hutch had gained the front step. He was a squat, bulldog of a man with a perpetual scowl on his face when at the station. At his daughter's house, with his tie loosened as if he'd needed to pull the knot away from his neck to breathe, he looked like any other frightened grandfather. "Starsky, Hutchinson," Ryan said grimly, ushering them in. "It's been three hours and no one has seen Grace in that time."

"How far is it to the school from here?" Starsky asked with a curt nod at the police chief.

"Not quite two blocks," a female voice said.

A very slender, sweet-faced woman with soft brown eyes and hair so short that Hutch wondered if she'd been sick recently stood in the archway to the living room. Her eyes were red-rimmed, but there was a fierce determination in her gaze. She must resemble her mother, but had her father's strength of character.

"My daughter, Aura," Ryan introduced brusquely. "Ken Hutchinson and Dave Starsky, both competent detectives on the squad."

Aura inclined her head, looking straight at Hutch, then Starsky. "Gracie usually walks with Sadie Bergstrom from next door…" For a moment she choked, but squared her shoulders and continued. "But Sadie has the flu, so…"

"Grace walked alone," Hutch finished her sentence. "Does she have any fears about walking by herself? Ever say anything about a—stranger talking to her?"

Aura flushed, with anger or resentment Hutch couldn't quite tell.

"She's used to walking to school," Ryan put in, glaring at Hutch.

"Let's go sit in here," Starsky said quickly, "and get the preliminaries out of the way."

"I made tea," Aura offered.

A teapot painted with red and pink roses and a tray with pretty cups sat on the low table between a blue floral couch and matching arm chair. An antique rocking chair was pushed back toward the bay window that gave a sweeping view of a nice backyard with a large green lawn, several towering pines and a red, white, and blue swing set. The wind pushed against one of the swings, giving the appearance that some ghost child was playing there since Grace was gone.

The rocking chair had been moved to make room for a large spruce tree set up in one corner of the pretty room. There were no ornaments on the tree, but boxes of colorful balls, strings of Christmas lights, and a box of tinsel were stacked at the base waiting to be used.

"I could make coffee," Aura added, sitting down. She grabbed a cup as if she had to have something in her hands.

"I don't need anything." Starsky sat in the armchair.

Ryan hovered over his daughter until she patted the cushion next to her, leaving the rocking chair for Hutch.

"You live here with…?" Starsky began, flipping open a pocket-sized notebook.

"Just Grace and I," Aura said, placing the cup on the table again. "My husband and I are getting a divorce."

"Do you have any reason to believe he could have taken her?" Hutch asked, trying to keep the rocking chair still because even the slightest movement worsened his headache.

"Ben is—" Ryan said gruffly.

"Dad," Aura admonished. "Ben and I have our problems, but he adores Grace." She glanced at the phone with obvious yearning. "I called him, but couldn't get through—the operator said maybe in an hour or so. He lives in Beirut."

"In Beirut?" Starsky repeated.

"Is he Saudi Arabian?" Hutch glanced at Starsky, clearly reading his 'Dad's fault' theory being shot down.

"No, he works for a company called Bechtel—they build pipelines all over the world." Aura's face crumpled briefly before she composed herself again. "It was too hard. He'd be away for months and I was here…alone with Gracie…and now…" The pent up tears spilled forth. "What if…?"

Ryan pulled his daughter into his arms, patting her short hair. "We'll find her."

"So Grace left at what time?" Starsky asked after giving her a moment to cry.

"Eight-fifteen." Aura wiped the tears with the ball of her thumb. "She had toast, juice, and an apple for breakfast." She scooped a small photo out of her cardigan pocket. "This is the most recent—her school picture."

Hutch leaned forward to see, the pounding in his head going into overdrive. Pitching right out of the chair or puking onto the coffee table were both viable options for a second. He swallowed bile and closed his eyes, but could see the image of the stunningly pretty child imprinted on his retina. She had curly reddish brown hair, bright blue eyes, a pointed chin, and a lively smile.

Starsky caught Hutch's eye with a spark of I can handle this and accepted the photo. "She's gorgeous. Takes after her mom, huh? Don't see a bit of Chief Ryan."

Ryan harrumphed, but didn't take the bait. He rubbed his daughter's shoulder.

"Grace will be seven on Christmas," Aura said very quietly. "She loved having—" She stared at the naked tree, blinking the tears away.

"What was she wearing this morning, Mrs. Donovan?" Hutch asked carefully before she lost it again.

Aura clasped and unclasped her hands, resting them on her green plaid skirt. "One of her favorite outfits. White top with roses on it, pink slacks, and pink tennis shoes. Oh, and a blue ski jacket with a hood."

"Sounds like she's warm." Starsky smiled at her, reaching over to put a reassuring hand on her arm. "What about school? Her teacher's name? I heard there was a substitute?"

"Um—her teacher is Laura Ashford." Aura nodded as if bolstering her own inner reserve. "I think she has the flu, like Sadie and about half the school. I don't know the sub."

"How long has Miss Ashford been out?" Starsky asked, jotting down the information.

Hutch was impressed at Starsky's restraint; he didn't leak a bit of suspicion into his question. If the dad was out as a suspect, the fact that Grace's teacher was missing on the same day as Grace was a concern.

"Yesterday and today," Aura answered, raising the cup to her lips but not drinking. She stared at the Christmas tree and sniffed.

He had to contribute something or wind up looking like Starsky's dumber partner. "Chief, could some past case be coming back to bite you?" Hutch asked boldly.

Ryan glowered, swinging around so quickly Hutch expected the man to launch off the sofa at him. "That's not the kind of supposition I expected from the likes of you, Hutchinson," he growled, shaking his head. "I haven't dealt with—" He broke off quickly, obviously not about to say child predator or abuser in front of Aura. "Been a while since I worked directly with investigations. I can't think of a reason."

"Then we have to go with stranger abduction," Hutch continued. "A man lurking and watching for the right child to come along. Since Grace regularly walks the same route, he could have prepared for this—"

The wail of terror resounded in his skull.

Hutch tried to ignore the eerie sound that the others plainly did not hear. "And was waiting for her. Since Sadie wasn't with Grace, it was probably easier than he'd planned."

"Oh, Lord." Aura hitched a breath, stuffing a fist into her mouth.

"That's enough." Ryan pointed a meaty forefinger at Hutch, although he didn’t discount the hypothesis. He stood abruptly and stabbed his thumb at the kitchen door, walking through without looking back, obviously expecting Starsky and Hutch to follow.

Aura's fingers wrapped around the bone china were as white as the porcelain. Hutch rose, reluctant but obedient to the commands of his superior and went into the kitchen, pretending his vision hadn't gone unfocused just at the wrong moment. There appeared to be two archways into the next room, but he kept one hand on the wall and made it through.

"Listen, Chief!" Starsky started, bringing up the rear. "We gotta—"

Feet braced and shoulders hunched like a prizefighter about to take on an opponent in the bright yellow kitchen, Ryan raised a hand to halt any protests.

Hutch didn't want a fight, not here, not now. Abruptly, his vision cleared. "You know that's consistent with…"

"My daughter is very fragile right now," Ryan interrupted fast and hard. "She's been ill. Cancer."

That shut up both Starsky and Hutch. "I wondered," Hutch said quietly. "Is she in remission?"

"Breast cancer, but her doctors are very optimistic." Ryan looked around the kitchen, located a can of instant coffee and spooned some into three cups. He tapped the teakettle on the stove, apparently decided it was hot enough and poured steaming water into the cups. "Even if this is stranger abduction…" He pushed two of the cups in Starsky and Hutch's directions and stirred his with a spoon. "Even if—we go in with our eyes wide open, looking for all possibilities."

"She left at eight-fifteen, takes what—less than ten minutes to walk to school, and nothing?" Starsky mused. "This is Chaucer Street. What are the cross streets?"

"Shakespeare and Moliere," Ryan said, quirking one eyebrow in recognition of the ostentatious street names. "Oak Heights Elementary is on the corner of Chaucer and Moliere. We can't just round up any kids who were walking that way without their parents' permission to question them, but—"

Hutch massaged the back of his aching head, and took a drink of the Folgers. That first gulp of strong coffee did a lot to burn away some of the cobwebs. He remembered. Not the cry of a small girl alone and cold, but a small girl, dead and pale, her hair tangled in sand and glittery with sand. "Sarah Fitzgerald."

"Good God," Ryan blurted out, his mouth thinning to a grim line. He swallowed a mouthful of coffee.

"Sarah?" Starsky locked eyes with Hutch, the whites showing all the way around his irises when he inhaled. "Last year, same week, same—"

"No, this is not a serial…mur—case," Ryan growled.

"Chief, there are so many similarities." Hutch had always prided himself in remembering the most obscure details in cases. Starsky was good at the minutiae when investigating at the scene, but Hutch's memory rarely failed him—and had provided important clues on many of their investigations. "Same month, quite possibly the same day, on her way to school. Sarah was—"

"Seven," Ryan said without inflection, sweat breaking out on his forehead. "Found on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, a few days later."

He didn't add that she'd been raped and mutilated. None of them could.

"We should—" Starsky began and guilt spread across his face when he looked past Hutch to the door connecting the kitchen and living room.

"Find her," Aura said firmly, not a trace of tears in her voice. "Find my baby today before her father calls back from Beirut. So I don't have to tell him."

"We will," Hutch vowed. How could I lie to her like that?

*************************

After they piled into the Torino, Starsky drove Grace's route very slowly, past houses decorated for the coming holiday. Five houses between each cross street. The Donovans' was directly in the center of their block, girded by Milton Street on the far side and Shakespeare on the other. The Bergstrom house next door was one of the few without Christmassy cheer or lights. Hutch assumed they could be Jewish.

The block between Shakespeare and Moliere Streets was virtually the same as the preceding one. No signs of obvious struggle where a child might have fought her attacker. Since she apparently had not been seen at the school—which took up all of the block between Moliere and Cervantes—she must have been grabbed between Shakespeare and Moliere.

"Let me out," Hutch said, unlatching the car door. "I'll walk this part of the sidewalk and meet you at the school."

"Hutch." Starsky blew out an explosive breath, sitting with his foot on the brake. "Don't push yourself. If we—"

"We're going to find Grace." Hutch clutched the frame of the car, using his headache as a motivator. When they got Grace back to her mother, he could lie down and wait for death. Not until then. Life's a bitch and then you die. "Nothing else matters, Starsk."

"I hear you." Starsky raised one shoulder as if wanting to ask a question but not willing to incur Hutch's wrath. "Watch…your feet."

Hutch stepped back to let the car door swing shut and nearly tripped over the curb up to the sidewalk. The green verge of grass between the curb and the pavement grayed out like quicksand sucking his feet down into the bowels of the earth. Hutch froze, bitterness surging up his gorge. He squeezed his eyes shut, smelling the exhaust as Starsky drove past, panting to keep the two sips of coffee he'd drunk in his belly.

"I want my mommy!" a child wailed.

Hutch now knew that it was Grace. Why, he was unable to say.

He couldn't see anything, only hear her sobs and smell the wet, salty air. He was cold, so very cold, and his head throbbed anew. When he put his fingers to his hairline, he could feel blood.

Brightness impinged on his eyelids, flooding his body with warmth. Hutch gasped, looking straight up into the sun. Perfect white-gold columns of sunlight streamed down from heaven directly to where he stood. Flashes of purple and green wavered in front of his eyes and he blinked, coming back to himself.

After a second to reorient, Hutch looked down past Moliere. The candy-apple red Torino was parked at Oak Heights Elementary, solid and real. There were no children wailing in the vicinity. He was somehow, improbably, hearing Grace.

And had been since before I knew who she was.

What the hell?

Against all logical sense, Hutch wanted it to be the truth, to be real. Maybe this could help them find the child. He catalogued what he knew from his…what did he call them? Visions? He couldn't see anything.

Premonitions?

That was hardly correct either since he hadn't sensed anything before she had actually disappeared, which must have been at about eight-twenty-five a.m.

And every time he did hear her, his head threatened to split open. Was there a connection? Hutch's head had been hurting since Sunday afternoon, after the encounter with Colby and the fight on the sand, but he hadn't heard the child's cries until approximately ten-twenty this morning—Tuesday. About an hour ago.

Which meant?

He didn't know. How was he hearing Grace? He hadn't a clue, but he was sure that these cries were Grace's. She'd been left—no, imprisoned alone—somewhere remote. Near the beach with seaweed and gulls.

His heart pumping with excitement, Hutch nearly dashed down to the school to tell Starsky. But what could he tell him?

That he was going stark raving mad? Because that was what Starsky would say.

Starsky had a very open mind, and believed in some pretty bizarre theories, the Abominable Snowman and Bigfoot notwithstanding, but how could he believe Hutch was suddenly telepathic?

That was the word. Hutch grit his teeth against the renewed pain in his cerebellum. Grace was sending him telepathic messages, transmitting to whoever could save her, and somehow he was on her exact wavelength.

Pressing both hands against his skull, Hutch waited a moment on the sidewalk, letting the cold wind ruffle his hair and tear at his leather jacket. She had to have been grabbed right here. If he could hear her, why couldn't he feel anything? Sense her presence here?

He snorted in derision. He was as loony as Starsky, believing in...

Something pink was caught under the edge of a car wheel parked by the curb in front of number 93 Chaucer Street. Hutch went to his knees slowly to avoid lowering his head and having the blood rush madly to his aching skull. Even still, it felt like something vital was tearing lose in the back of his brain. His wits and commonsense, no doubt.

A shoe. Small and pink, with white laces. A miniature Ked's, exactly what Grace had been wearing.

Tears pricking his eyes, Hutch cradled the shoe in one hand. "Grace, we will find you—I promise."

He heard her gasp.

"Who are you?" Grace called fearfully.

Stunned, Hutch didn't even notice he was standing. His head hurt so badly he wanted to throw up, but he concentrated on getting past the pain.

She could hear him? He hadn't even assumed there could be two-way communication. "Grace? Your mom sent me to find you." He felt stupid talking out loud on a quiet, suburban street. What if someone saw him?

"Are you an angel?" Grace asked with more strength in her voice. "Mommy said angels would protect me…"

Rubbing the back of his head, Hutch glanced over to see Starsky waving at him from beside the Torino. A uniformed cop—undoubtedly Bryant's partner—was writing something on a form. A formidable-looking black woman wearing a blue turtleneck and gray skirt came out of the school building to talk to Starsky.

Hutch raised one hand to acknowledge his partner and took one last look around the edge of the Toyota where he'd found the shoe. Nothing else in the vicinity looked like it could be Grace's.

"Grace, I want to get you back to your mom. Do you know where you are?" Hutch asked, closing his eyes against the glare of the sun off the gathering clouds. His sunglasses were doing crap to shield his eyes.

"On the beach," she replied promptly. "My head really hurts bad. It's bleeding, I think."

Damn, she was hurt. Hutch took a deep breath, trying to work how he was going to do this. Could he seriously get Grace to give him a location?

He was totally insane. That's what it was. He'd gone around the bend and was listening to the voices in his head. Wasn't that the description of schizophrenia?

"Angel?" Grace whimpered in his ear.

Anvils pressed down on his skull and Hutch was vaguely aware that he was trembling. Weakness pervaded his whole body. He almost dropped the shoe and had to will his fingers to close tightly around the pink canvas.

"Grace, what can you see from where you are?" he forced out.

"It's dark in here," she whispered. "And cold."

That wasn't going to get him anywhere.

And he could feel how damp and foggy it was there. There was a low, mournful foghorn from his…or was it her right?

"Hutch!" Starsky shouted from the school parking lot. "What's going on?"

"I found her shoe!" Hutch yelled. "Be there in a minute!"

He didn't have much time. How could he get anything useful out of Grace? And could he believe her? Or was this some bizarre hallucination brought on by a bump on the head two days earlier?

Wind dipped under his jacket collar and a single drop of rain hit his nose. Inspiration hit at exactly the same time. On his drive into Metro, the radio weather lady on KBCR, all news and weather in the morning, had said the rain was coming from the north. San Francisco had rain and was sending it down the state to them.

"Grace?" Hutch asked. "Is it raining there?"

"I can't see out," she whispered in a wavering voice. "Th'rain was coming down on me when we got out of the car. I tried to get away! Tell mommy I tried! But I fell and hit my head, and it hurts so bad!"

His did, too, but that didn't matter at all. He broke into a jog to get to Starsky.

"Did you see the car?" Hutch asked with more hope, tucking the shoe in his jacket pocket. She was wet and there was fog at that beach. Had to be north of where they were now if she'd gotten wet before she was hidden away.

"It was brown," Grace supplied immediately. "I hate that man."

"Brown car," Hutch repeated. "On the beach with seagulls and foghorns, and it's cold. What else can you tell me?"

"My head hurts!"

"I know. I'm so sorry," Hutch said, pausing for a second at the curb before dashing across to Oak Heights Elementary. His vision was wonky—the whole world grayed out again, buildings going distorted and sharp like a monochromatic Picasso painting. "Your mom sends a kiss to you, sweetie. But we have to find you. I need directions."

"Can't you fly? Angels have wings." Grace said pragmatically.

"I have a Torino," Hutch said sotto voce now that he was near other people. How could he find her?

"What's a Torino?"

"A car. I'll be driving. Did you see a road sign? A green sign with…"

"You mean like to Malibu? We passed that."

Starsky walked up, wiping the drizzly rain out of his eyes. "Who are you talking to?"

"I found her shoe over by that Toyota," Hutch ignored Starsky's question. "I think she was grabbed there and driven quickly out of town. Maybe north. There's an on-ramp for the 405 only a couple blocks away."

Starsky regarded Hutch silently for a beat. "You getting divine intervention, babe? That's pretty specific clues from a single shoe that can't talk."

Pulling the sneaker out of his pocket, Hutch plopped it onto Starsky's hand. "You want to delay saving this child, Starsk?" he asked sharply, agony stabbing his head from the back right through his eyeballs. He wasn't going to survive finding Grace at this rate.

"Hey!" Starsky stroked the tiny shoe with his thumb. "I never said…you're going wacko on me, pal. And you look like death warmed over. What gives?"

"My head hurts," Hutch said quickly. Time was of the essence, but if they could get more evidence from witnesses at the school, he'd wait a few minutes. He could almost sense Grace putting her small fingers into the palm of his hand and holding on tight. "What'd the principal say? Did any of the other kids see anything?"

"Mrs. O'Sullivan," Starsky waved the pink Ked’s at the black woman talking to the uniformed cop, "said that she quietly talked to some of Grace's friends in the classroom. Nearly half the class has the flu, but two kids—" He pulled out his notebook to consult his scrawled handwriting. "Jin Fong and Raynebeau Pevensie, you know like the family in the Narnia books? Both saw a brown car drive off, and Grace waving at them. Neither thought much about it," he sighed, looking down at Grace's shoe, "until she wasn't in class, and then they told the sub after attendance was called. That's why she contacted the principal."

"A brown car," Hutch repeated, his heart speeding up. Direct confirmation that his telepathic messages weren't just figments of a fractured brain.

"Apparently Fong is a car enthusiast because he told Mrs. O'Sullivan that it was a 1973 Buick Gran Sport, a two door with a triangular window on the sides." Starsky gave a brief, satisfied grin. "And partial plates of 435—"

"Send it to DMV, see if we can get a name!" Hutch said, excitement alleviating some of his dizziness. "Come on, Starsk!" He yanked open the door of the Torino, anxious to be driving up Pacific Coast Highway, past Malibu. But to where?

"Already did, babe. Dispatch will call me back when they get something." Starsky held up a hand like an umpire stopping the game, and spoke very precisely. "Where are we going, Hutch?"

"Angel?" Grace called in his head. Her voice was wavery and full of sadness.

Hutch was glad he was sitting in the car already because his head was so heavy that he couldn't lift it, and his legs were like jelly. "We're coming, Grace," he whispered. "Can you give me anything else?"

"I threw up," Grace sobbed.

He feared that she had a concussion—just like he did. And both of them were getting worse. The symptoms of a head injury came back to him from some long-ago police first aid course: headache, dizziness, double vision, light sensitivity, nausea, vomiting, lack of motor coordination. He had all of them. Apparently, so did Grace.

"Hutch?" Starsky slid into the car, sounding wary. "You're weird, you know that?"

"Starsk." Hutch closed his eyes. With the rain increasing, the shafts of sunlight had disappeared, but he could barely tolerate the light even with his sunglasses on. "I feel this…connection to Grace. I cannot explain why." He lifted one hand indecisively. "Maybe you were right about divine intervention." Hutch felt Starsky place the pink shoe in his palm. He held it close, wanting to sense the child in the canvas and the rubber of the sole. She wasn't there—not the way he could feel her in his throbbing, miswired brain. "I don't know why, but I really, really need you to trust me on this one." He slitted one eye open to look at his partner. "Go north on Pacific Coast Highway."

Starsky chewed on his bottom lip, obviously worried. "I—" He sketched a hand through the air, reaching out to brush back a lock of Hutch's wet hair. "You need a doctor, Hutch."

"I know." He didn't nod; he'd learned not to. He just waited.

"You know I trust you." Starsky let out an explosive exhale. "And, as General Robert E. Lee musta said, north is a big place. Where exactly?"

Grateful, Hutch squeezed Starsky's hand. "Past Malibu, up to where there's a beach with a fog horn…"

"Not really very specific. Literally dozens of places like that."

He leveled a finger at his partner. "I know it sounds insane, but—she'll guide us."

Reaching for the police radio mike, Starsky rolled his shoulders as if his leather jacket didn't sit right. Or maybe his shoulder holster was too tight. "Dispatch," he said, glancing at Hutch with an I'll try anything determination. "We're leaving Oak Heights School to check out a lead up PCH."

"Okay, Zebra three. What's your final destination?" Kevin, the morning dispatch operator, intoned.

"Santa Monica National Recreational Area," Hutch said out loud, with no idea why. Sure it was past Malibu, and would be foggy, cold and rainy on a day like this. But how did he know?

"Zuma Beach?" Starsky suggested, his eyebrows climbing his forehead. "Maybe Magu?"

"Magu?" Hutch echoed, hoping his link to Grace was still open, even when he was talking to Starsky. Steel bands wrapped around his skull, clamping down on the bone to the point of cracking--

Instantly, he felt dampness on his skin, rain dripping through the gaps in the rotting wooden walls and icy tendrils of fog slithering under the collar his silky nylon ski jacket…

Hutch gasped, panting. Not his ski jacket, Grace's. He looked down at his brown cords, red and yellow plaid shirt, and brown leather jacket, fingering the smooth calfskin. He could sense the rumble of the car engine, the Torino bumping over the driveway onto Chaucer, and realized he'd lost a few minutes.

"You back?" Starsky asked very quietly.

Hutch could barely hear Starsky's voice over the drone of the car. "Yeah, I think so." He braced his elbow on the car door and leaned his head into his hand. Speaking was increasingly difficult.

"I'm gonna put in my two cents and then shut up about this." Starsky turned to skewer Hutch with his eyes when he stopped at a red light. "If you damage that…exasperating, overly-analytical, critical head of yours, I'm gonna kill you."

"Love you, too, Starsk." Hutch tried to smile but just turning up the corners of his mouth hurt. His right hand trembled in his lap and he covered it with his left. Starsky had probably seen it, anyway. "Grace is in a shack on a beach, I think."

"Exactly where I'd like to be," Starsky grumbled. "On a shack in Hawaii, sippin' Mai Tais, a long-legged blond stretched out beside me."

"Oh, damn—Abby." Hutch knew there was no way he'd make his date with her tonight.

"I'll remind you to call her later," Starsky said, accelerating onto the ramp to the 405. "Get some z's for a while."

Hutch leaned back, willing himself to relax. The drive was twenty-five miles or so—at least thirty minutes before they were close to Grace. He closed his eyes, trying to get past the twisted, pulsating intensity that was the agony in his head. His belly roiled with every lane change Starsky made. "Grace?" Hutch whispered. "We're coming. Talk to me." It scared him that she'd been so quiet for so long.

"Angel?" Grace said after too many minutes. She sounded sleepy. "I'm tired. I want my mommy."

"Don't go to sleep. Talk to me. Where's the man, sweetie? Do you know his name?" Hutch wasn't even sure if he was speaking out loud anymore. Their voices boomed in his head. He stretched out, the wet boards of the shack rough under his fingers.

"He talked to me las' week on my way to school with Sadie. She din' like him," Grace slurred her words. "Tol' me he lost his kitten. But I didn't see a kit…t'day, he said he knew my daddy…"

He/she hitched a sob. Hadn't seen daddy in so long…

"Daddy wanted me to come. But Liam lied!" she wailed.

"Liam!" Hutch said abruptly, ramming into the car door as Starsky navigated a tight turn.

"Zebra three," Kevin from dispatch hailed them, static causing his voice to die away and then come back overly loudly.

Hutch snatched up the mike, thumbing the talk button. His eyesight was hazy, but that could be from the lashing rain and zero visibility fog bank they were driving through. He still could operate a police radio. "Zebra three here. What have you got?"

"Two things. According to DMV, a Liam Berkley owns a brown Buick Gran Sport, license 435 LLK, lives on 101 Chaucer—"

"Just past the school," Starsky commented with a sneer. He hunched over the steering wheel as if putting his face closer to the windshield would help him see past the high beams and through the dense fog.

"And Chief Ryan wonders—" Kevin made an odd little sound, halfway between a laugh and a grunt, "quoting him now, 'where the hell are Hutchinson and Starsky?'"

"We're on PCH," Hutch supplied. Even with the impenetrable mist, he recognized the coastal freeway. He must have dropped out for nearly half an hour, as they'd driven up the 405 over to the 10 and connected to Highway One. "Checking out a lead we got at the school." That was close to the truth.

He closed his eyes again, hearing Starsky tell Kevin their approximate location and asking for some assistance from the Ventura county police.

"Angel!" Grace shrieked, terror coloring every syllable. "He's coming—"

She crouched down as small as possible, ducking under an overturned canoe in the back of the shack. The splintered boards of the floor ripped the lacy sock on her right foot. Grace covered her face with her hands when the door banged open…

Hutch opened his eyes to see a indistinct sign up ahead. Not the green of a highway mileage sign or even a blue one directing them to gas and lodging. This was weathered wood with red paint. "Private road, no admittance. Trespassers will be prosecuted." Two posts bracketed the dirt road but the rusty chain that had once stretched from one post to the other lay on the muddy ground.

"There." Hutch pointed, barely trusting his own voice, feeling Grace wrap her thin arms around his soul. They both shook. How he had seen the small sign was beyond him. The world had faded to milky grays and blacks, and it wasn't simply because of the pouring rain. Starsky looked like a shadowy cut-out at the wheel of the car.

Starsky didn't say a thing. He swung the steering wheel, the tires sliding on the slick earth and water spraying up against the side windows of the car as the Torino sluiced onto the private road. They crested a rise and started downward toward the sea swathed in thick gray mist. Overhead, gulls wheeled and brayed loudly.

"We're coming, Grace," Hutch whispered, but her fear invaded him, paralyzed him. The heavy tread of Liam's boots made the rough cut floorboards creak.

Please God, watch over her.

Starsky hit the brake hard, going right into a wide place directly above the sodden beach, pulling in next to a brown Buick Gran Sport.

Barely waiting for the Torino's forward momentum to cease, Hutch shoved open the car door and barreled down the slope to the sand. He could hear Starsky hailing dispatch, demanding back-up and emergency vehicles now.

The rain was letting up, but the ground was drenched, small rivulets of water digging furrows in the sand, water running back to Mother Sea.

Hutch ran, adrenaline replacing the strength that had left him, giving him wings. He pounding across the sand, unable to see anything because of the thick fog hunched over the beach. Where was she? Where was the shack?

He could feel the splinters digging into his fingers, and panted with fear that Liam would grab him and…

There! A gust of wind swept fog out past the breaking waves and Hutch saw the battered wooden building. It was small, set back against a curve of rock and brush, almost hidden by a Cyprus tree, bent and misshapen by wind and weather.

The door stood open. Hutch charged the man standing just inside, tackled him as if he was playing no-holds-barred football, and took him down to the floor, slamming his head against the boards. "Grace!" he yelled, not even looking at the man squirming under his hold—not consciously aware that he had his hands around the man's neck, choking the life out of him.

"Angel?" Grace whispered.

Hutch froze, amazed to hear her voice for real and not just as a plaintive sound in his head. Was she real? He wasn't even sure anymore. He looked down. The man—an ordinary looking guy with fine brown hair, wet from the rain, and a narrow, weasely face—was turning blue, his brown eyes bugging from the sockets as he gasped for breath.

Hutch flexed his fingers, releasing his hold on Liam and scrambled for the smooth rounded spine of the overturned canoe, reaching underneath. "Grace? Can you come out?"

She pushed up the edge of the boat, peering fearfully past him at the door of the shack. That was when Hutch realized Liam was gone. The man must have bolted when Hutch had turned away. Didn't matter, didn't matter—all that mattered was saving Grace.

"Angel?" she asked quietly, staring up at him. "You came. I prayed, and you came!" Tears made clean streaks in her dirty face. Grace was wet, with a gory slime of blood down the left side of her face, her curls tangled and glittering with sand.

"You're safe," Hutch chanted. "Grace, you're safe." Her thin arms went around his neck and he lifted her up, holding her close, smelling the salty, damp air. Seagulls cried shrilly from above.

His legs were so weak. He took a step, cymbals crashing in his head, raucous pain that fractured his psyche. Not so far now. Get her back to Starsky and then he could let go.

Life's a bitch and then you die…

"Thank you, Angel," Grace whispered against his neck.

"I've got you," Hutch murmured, curling his body around hers. He felt something give way inside his head and stepped out into a radiance of pure white light. The heavens opened a window in the clouds for God to look upon his people.

Hutch set Grace down.

His brain imploded.

*************************************

White, indistinct, and unfocused. Hutch breathed in and breathed out. Being.

He wasn't sure what he was—or when. Another breath and he was aware of sound around him. Voices in the mist, steps and movement.

Something poked against his mouth. Hutch pursed his lips, amazed that air was moving in and out of his lungs, and felt a straw slide in. He sucked greedily.

Cool water. Heaven on earth.

"Hey?" Starsky asked softly. "I can see you drinking; you must be awake."

"Alive?" Hutch asked around the straw. A rhetorical question, to be sure. He was aware of his heart beating and his lungs expanding with each breath, but—that seemed astonishing.

What happened to and then you die?

Life was a pretty big miracle.

"Grace?" Hutch asked when Starsky took away the straw.

"With her mom and Chief Ryan." He sounded both happy and worried, which was no small feat.

Hutch slitted his eyes open to see Starsky hovering just inches away, his dark blue eyes wide with concern. "You saved her?"

"You saved her," Starsky corrected.

"L-liam?" That slime could not have gotten away to prey on another small girl.

"Ran right into a pair of handcuffs," Starsky said nastily. "Claimed you tried to strangle him. I said good. He's in the slammer. Turns out he's got repeated offenses, and I just bet we can pin Sarah Fitzgerald on him, too.

"Thank God."

"I'm still not sure how you knew where Grace was."

"My head?" Hutch asked, skirting the question. He reached up gingerly to touch his forehead, aware of an IV in the back of his hand. There was a large gauze bandage wrapped around his head and the back of his skull ached with a dull pulse. It was nothing like the pain he'd had driving in the car up to the beach, and for that he was truly grateful. He sent a silent prayer to the man upstairs, resolving to do so more often.

Starsky sat back with a thump. "You just about died," he whispered, his face bleak. "I thought you had at first, but Grace told me you would be okay. Even though she was bleeding from her head and looked pretty bad, too." He hitched an uneven breath.

Hutch felt the hitch in his own breathing and reached out at exactly the same moment as Starsky did so. Their hands connected and clasped. Real, true connection.

From the moment he'd awakened, there had been only one person inside his head, himself. The strange link to Grace was gone as if it had never been. He didn't feel lonely, however, because he had Starsky with him always. That was fundamental.

"I couldn’t even figure out how t'help you, you know?" Starsky said forlornly.

Hutch was surprised to see tears in his tough partner's eyes. "Starsk…"

"You fuck." The words ripped out of Starsky's soul. "Doctor said you had a bleeding sub …dural hema—whatever you call it. It was bleeding into your brain ever since Colby took you out on Sunday!"

So that was the reason.

"I wondered." Hutch moved his head very carefully against the pillow. Nothing rattled inside.

"You wondered? You knew?" Starsky spat, eyes blazing.

"I didn't know anything, Starsk," Hutch said more sharply than he should have. Pain blazed like a brilliant star behind his retinas but diminished almost immediately. There were probably very good drugs to help with the pain, but Hutch wasn't about to request them right now. He wanted to understand, wanted Starsky to understand. "I could…this sounds completely out there, but I could sense Grace, hear her—I think because she hit her head, too. When Liam pulled her out of the car at the beach."

"You're weird," Starsky admonished in a soft, fond voice, all anger gone.

"I think you are too, but who am I to judge?" Hutch felt the corners of his mouth curl up, happiness finding footing.

"Under other circumstances, I'd take umbrage at that," Starsky said with a crooked grin. "But I'll let it slide 'cause you just had brain surgery."

"Did Grace need surgery, too?" Hutch asked, remembering the slide of blood down her temple. He couldn't bear it if she had brain damage because of him.

"Nah—Doc in ER said she had a plain ol' concussion. A couple days of rest and relaxation and she'd be fine," Starsky reported. "You could hear her? In your head?" He tapped Hutch between the eyes very, very gently.

Had that link with Grace been a construct of leaking blood and broken nerve fibers, or had it been real? Could the surgeons have plucked it out with their surgical instruments the way he could remove a diseased leaf from one of his plants? Or had something else caused that brief, remarkable connection? Had his plea been heard?

"Do you ever pray?" Hutch asked, going for what he hoped was casual. Starsky wouldn't be fooled, because how often did they discuss religion?

As expected, Starsky went from goofy to serious in a single heartbeat. He brushed his hand over Hutch's wrinkled bed linen where his IV'd hand lay, their fingers almost touching. "I did today. On that beach, waiting for the ambulance to come."

"I did, too," Hutch said softly. "I can't quite—reconcile that I experienced something so profoundly out of the realm of normal. How this happened. Was it spiritual or—?"

"You found Grace," Starsky said simply, cutting through all the rhetoric.

"In the wilderness—" Hutch finished the quote, the memorized Bible lesson popping back into his head without effort. When Starsky looked at him with question marks in his eyes, Hutch explained, "Book of Jeremiah in the Bible."

"Haven't read it, but I did see that movie with Charlton Heston." Starsky winked.

"Starsky, I've always strived for reality based, logical explanations…and this wasn't." He felt inadequate, unable to explain and yet supremely transformed at the same time.

"In the end, Aura doesn't care about anything except her little girl is back." Starsky got up to prowl the room as if the whole subject made him restless. He peered at the clear IV solutions hanging from a pole and gave Hutch an enigmatic smile. "Against all odds, you found her. Does it have to be logical?"

"You mean the old chestnut, 'God works in mysterious ways'?" Hutch frowned, thinking back to those early days when the ministry had called him. Back then, he'd found the ritual and daily devotions satisfying and peaceful—blithely ignoring anything that smacked of inexplicable, miraculous or divine. How blind he'd been to the truth. How different from the life he led now.

What happened with Grace was so far beyond his understanding that he couldn't bend his brain around it. And hadn't that been the reason all along? His brain had been bent, scrambled, and bruised, yet had exceeded all possible expectations to find one lost child. Who knew how these things happened? The whole conundrum made his head ache even more than it already did. He needed to simply accept, to take the tools he'd been given and use them.

A more apt aphorism came from one of the few narcotics anonymous meetings he'd attended in the last couple of months after the heroin withdrawals: grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.

"You got to be her angel, Hutch," Starsky said. "Ain't that enough?"

Stunned, Hutch stared at his partner. How had Starsky known? He'd never mentioned what Grace called him. "Did she…?"

Starsky grinned and tapped his own forehead, warbling, "If you could read my mind, love, what a tale my thoughts could tell…"

Hutch laughed, the search for the logical shelved as a nurse walked in to take his vital signs. He'd never been good at simply letting go.

Life could be a bitch, but he'd survived, and with Starsky by his side, he would for a long, long time.

 

"When you reach the part where the heartaches come
The hero would be me…"
If you Could Read my Mind by Gordon Lightfoot