Terry Roberts stood in the center of the playground and slowly turned in a circle, scanning everything and everyone in view. She knew she and the school could be in big trouble. Three of her students were missing and, if they weren’t found and gotten back onto school property as quickly as possible, the consequences could be devastating.
The Marshall Center for Exceptional Children had been in its present location only a month, and the children were still getting used to the new surroundings. They’d been forced to leave their previous location due to rising property values and the school’s inability to meet the resulting higher insurance rates and taxes.
This site wasn’t in the best part of the city but it was all the founders and supporters could afford. Up until today, things had been going fine. The kids seemed happy and were adjusting well.
When Sandy had fallen off the swings a few minutes earlier, though, and had started shrieking - more frightened than hurt - it had set off screams and chaotic behavior among the kids, and confusion within the staff. Vulnerable at the best of times, Terry didn’t want to think about what could be happening to Sally, Amy and Margie.
She thought she knew why the girls were gone, but it didn’t ease her worry. They were each other’s best friends. If Sally, or one of the others, had taken it in her head to go for help - since no one had arrived from outside the grounds to calm things down - the others would certainly have gone with her.
Ten minutes had already passed and Terry didn’t wait any longer. “Annie! Get everyone inside and make sure it’s only the three girls that are gone. I’m calling the police!”
Terry ran to her office and dialed the number for the local precinct, which was printed on a card taped to the phone.
“Ninth Precinct. How can I help you?” a voice answered.
“This is Terry Roberts, at the Marshall Center for Exceptional Children, on Campbell. Three of my girls are missing and I need help to search for them.”
“We’ll notify the closest units, Miss Roberts. Please have names and full descriptions available for the officers when they arrive.”
“I will.” She hung up the phone and hunted up Annie. “Any others not accounted for?”
Annie shook her head. “Only Sally, Amy, and Margaret.”
“Okay. Keep everyone inside. They’re sending help.” She headed for the door but stopped and turned back. “Oh. Make up a big batch of punch, please. And round up all the cookies we have. The children are going to need a little diversion after this.” She smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes. “Not to mention the rest of us.”
Outside, she’d barely made it to the gate in the fence before a bright red car - siren wailing and red light pulsing on the roof - pulled to the curb with a screech of brakes. The siren was silenced and the light taken off the roof by the passenger as the driver hopped out and hurried around the front of the car toward her.
Such an unusual police car, Terry thought. Then she looked more closely at the driver, plus the passenger, who had joined his partner in front of her. Both were dressed in casual clothes, instead of uniforms. So this is the new breed of cop, huh? Interesting.
The driver flipped his badge wallet open. “Are you Miss Roberts?”
“Yes, I am.”
“I’m Detective Starsky. This is my partner, Detective Hutchinson. Children are missing?”
“I’m afraid so. We had a bit of an upset about half an hour ago - one of the girls fell off the swing but wasn’t hurt badly. In the resulting confusion,
Sally, Amy and Margie must have gone for help.”
“How long ago?” Hutchinson asked.
“About fifteen minutes.” She headed out the gate. “Since this is the only access to the grounds on this side of the school, I believe they went out this way.”
Both detectives followed her.
“Sally’s left-handed, so I’m going to assume she’d have turned left.” She hurried ahead.
The dark-haired officer, Starsky, she remembered, caught up to her on the right. “They can’t have gone far, Miss Roberts --”
“Terry, please.” She didn’t slow down.
He caught her eye, smiled at her, and darned if her heart didn’t skip a beat or two and her stomach flutter. In the middle of a potentially dire situation, that lop-sided-grin, with deep blue eyes above, struck a chord in her. It had been a long time since any man had affected her in such a manner.
She shrugged off her momentary attraction and addressed the situation. “Their names are Sally Wallace, Amy Stoddard, and Margaret Adams. They’re nine, ten, and twelve years old. We don’t have uniforms so they’re wearing regular, casual clothes. Bright colors, as I remember.”
“Are they all in the exceptional category?” Hutchinson asked, from beside her on the left.
“Yes, they are.”
Starsky put his hand on her arm and slowed her down. “Listen, Miss… Terry. If you want to go back and make sure the rest of the students are okay, Hutch and I’ll find the girls. As I said, they can’t have gone very far.”
“I need to go with you! They’ll be scared of two strange men.” She began to walk again and they stayed with her.
Starsky glanced at his partner. “We’re not all that strange. Are we, Hutch?”
Hutchinson reached around her and lightly cuffed the back of Starsky’s head. “I think that depends on one’s definition, Starsk.”
Under the possibly fraught circumstances, their bantering attitudes might have offended Terry but, somehow, she knew these officers were as concerned as she was. Their ease with each other actually soothed a bit of her distress.
Terry had always considered herself observant but the detectives spotted the girls before she did.
“There they are!” Starsky sprinted forward.
They children were sitting on the curb, between parked cars, half a block ahead.
“Oh, good,” Terry breathed, catching up with him. “They remembered what we’ve told them so often. If any of them ever found herself somewhere she didn’t recognize, she should sit down and wait for help to come. Continuing into an unknown situation is never a good idea.”
Starsky angled toward two young men who were approaching the children from the side street. “Back off, fellas!” Starsky hollered.
The tallest one stopped, donning a belligerent attitude. “Hey, man, back off yourself! We know these ladies.”
Terry stepped forward. “It’s Martin Samuels, isn’t it?”
The boy snagged the baseball cap off his head. “Yes, ma’am.”
The girls had gotten to their feet, smiles on their faces. Everyone gathered on the sidewalk.
Terry turned to Starsky, “Martin’s sister, Marlene, is one of my students.”
While Terry and Hutchinson bracketed the chattering children, Terry noticed Starsky move aside with Martin and his friend.
“So, what’re you guys doin’ outta school, anyway?” Starsky asked.
“Teacher’s conference today. No school,” Martin answered.
“I remember those.” Starsky seemed to be trying to smooth over the antagonistic impression he’d made. “You know these girls, right?”
“Yes, sir. My sister goes to Miss Robert’s school. Marlene’s…. special. And, since this ain’t the best part of town, my buddy and I kinda keep an eye on the area, when we aren’t in class.”
“Good to know.” Starsky gestured toward Hutchinson. “This is my partner, and we’ll be helping you do just that.”
“Good to know,” Martin parroted, his grin a little cocky.
Having her charges in hand, now, Terry turned to the two boys. “Will you and your friend come back to the school with us, Martin? We’ll be having punch and cookies. You’re welcome to join us.”
“No, ma’am. But thanks for the invitation. Bobby and I have more of the neighborhood to patrol. We gotta keep the profile pretty high, you know? Otherwise, you could find a gang movin’ in, and that wouldn’t be good for any of us!”
“Don’t take any chances yourselves.” Starsky stuck out his hand. “My name’s Dave Starsky. My partner’s Ken Hutchinson. You call us at the precinct, if you spot anything we should know about.”
“You got it, man.” Martin and his friend walked away.
Starsky approached Sally, and bowed. “Hi. My name’s Dave. What’s yours?”
Sally looked to Terry for permission to speak to this stranger, and Terry nodded. Sally held out her hand. “Sally.”
Starsky took the hand and held it. “Glad to meet you, Sally. Is it okay if my partner and I escort you and your friends back to the school?” He tucked her hand in the crook of his elbow and began walking back the way they’d come.
Terry took Amy’s hand while Hutchinson took Margie’s and they all began to retrace the steps they’d taken so recently.
When they reached the gate and turned in, Starsky kissed Sally’s hand. “You’ll be okay now, sweetheart.”
Hutchinson bowed Margaret through the gate, as well, and she and Sally ran off, laughing.
“Can you come inside for a few minutes?” Terry asked, leading Amy by the hand. “Please? There will be plenty of punch and cookies to go around.
I’m sure the staff has the rest of the students calmed down by now. And it’s policy to reward everyone, after anything… unusual has happened.”
“Are the rest of your kids… ‘special’?” Hutchinson asked.
“Yes, they are. And it would be wonderful if they could all meet you. See for themselves that what we’ve always told them is true - that they can trust the police.”
Starsky exchanged a look with his partner. “I gotta call in, let ‘em know the girls are okay.” He headed toward his car, smiling at her over his shoulder. “After that, we can hang around for a while.”
Terry and Amy ushered Hutchinson to the cafeteria where refreshments had been laid out, the children already helping themselves. Starsky joined them a few minutes later.
“Everyone?” Terry led Starsky and his partner to the front of the room. The babble of voices quickly fell silent. “I’d like you all to meet these two police officers.” She introduced them by first name only, knowing last names and ranks would be confusing. “They answered our call for help and brought our three ladies back to us, safe and sound.”
Cheering and clapping ensued while Starsky and Hutchinson were mobbed, receiving hand shakes and back slaps.
“Now,” Terry continued, “in a more orderly fashion, one at a time, tell the officers your names. That way, when they come back for any reason, they’ll know each of you.”
The kids did as instructed and Terry was thrilled to watch the interaction. None appeared to have let the morning’s activities affect them adversely. Starsky and Hutchinson focused on each child, in turn, for as long as his or her attention span lasted. They seemed to know, instinctively, how to talk with the children, on their level, never treating them as inferiors.
Annie sidled up next to Terry and whispered, “They’re something.”
“Aren’t they just?” Terry agreed.
“Think they’ll come back?” Annie sounded almost wistful.
“I hope so.” Terry went to the kitchen for more ginger ale to add to the punch. When she came out, Starsky joined her at the refreshment table.
“These kids sure are special,” he said.
She met his gaze. “Yes, they are.” There was more in the depths of those indigo eyes than she’d ever seen in a man. Her stomach flutters had turned to definite attraction. “They’ve never reacted to strangers the way they have to you and Detective Hutchinson.”
His grin was spontaneous. “See? Told you we weren’t all that strange.”
She couldn’t help returning the happy smile.
Once they’d left, Terry closed herself in her office and sat, thinking about the man she’d just met, and the feelings he’d aroused. She knew his name and which precinct he worked out of but she was afraid that was all she’d find out. She had her life, and her work, and wasn’t looking for an outside interest, at this time. Maybe in the future.
Unless Starsky came back. Then, perhaps she’d rethink her position.
The next day, at the same time they’d showed up to answer the call for help, they arrived. No siren or pulsing red light this time. Just the snazzy red car.
Terry left the basketball game and met them at the gate.
Hutchinson headed straight for the players while Starsky stayed with her. “Thought we’d stop by,” he said. “Make sure the girls are okay, after their little… adventure yesterday.”
“They’re fine.” She turned to him, surprising herself at her boldness. “I’m glad you came back.”
“Me, too.” He looked around. “Want to take a walk? You can show me the neighborhood. It’s part of our beat but Hutch and I’ve never had a call that’s close to here.”
“That’s a good thing, right?” They moved through the gate and onto the sidewalk. By silent, mutual agreement, they turned left.
“Sally, Amy and Margie fell in love with you guys yesterday, and that was a surprise. Most of these kids have never had a stable home life and the adult men they’ve known haven’t been especially caring. Could you possibly come back again sometime?”
“As often as we can!”
“Good. I know the children will be pleased.” She wasn’t sure she wanted him to know, just yet, how pleased she would be.
Starsky studied the slightly shabby surroundings. “Sure isn’t Boardwalk or Park Place.”
She laughed. “Margin Gardens?”
He stopped in his tracks and turned to her. “You play Monopoly?”
“It’s my favorite.”
Walking again, he appeared to contemplate. “Which piece is yours?”
“The iron.” She blushed. “Don’t know why, because I’m not very domestic.”
“Hutch takes the top hat.”
That made sense to her, Hutchinson was certainly elegant enough to look good in one. “Let me guess which one you choose. The car.”
He grinned. “You already know me too well.”
She looked directly into his eyes and he didn’t look away. “Is there really any such thing?”
He considered, before shaking his head with a smile. “My partner would say there isn’t, and he’s usually right.”
“I like your partner already.”
“Not better than me, I hope!” He was very nearly pouting.
Her stomach fluttered more seriously, this time, and she felt herself falling in love. “No. Not better.”
“Good, ‘cause I’m gonna ask you out for dinner tonight.”
She kept walking but nodded, having decided she did want him to know how attracted she was. “I accept.”
Starsky took a skipping step. “That’s terrific!”
He took her hand and her heart melted. “The school closes at five and all the students have been picked up by quarter past. I’m usually pretty hungry by that time.”
“Five fifteen it is, then! Know any good restaurants?”
“No. But there’s a burger place over on Tenth I like very much.”
“Burgers? Really? Where have you been all my life, Terry Roberts?”
A little shyly, she squeezed his hand. “Waiting for you, I think.”