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Starsky's Magical Mystery Tour

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"Cover me with kisses, baby; cover me with love; roll me in designer sheets, I'll never get enough--"

Starsky sang along with the radio, tapping the steering wheel while he waited for the red light to change. He cast a quick glance over at his partner, who sat grinning like a loon.

"What?" Starsky asked, pausing in his rendition of the current top hit.

"Just enjoying your happiness," Hutch said. "And your horrible voice."

"Hey!" Starsky smacked Hutch's arm with a fist.

"Ouch!" Hutch said loudly. He rubbed at his arm. "Jerk." There was no animosity in his tone.

"Takes one to know one," Starsky quipped. The light turned green and Starsky stepped on the gas. He picked up on the tune without missing a beat. "Call me, call me for a ride, call me, call me for some overtime. Hey, how about lunch?"

"How in the hell can you switch from warbling like some injured seal to wanting food that quickly?" Hutch asked, his eyebrow raised.

Starsky gave Hutch a toothy grin. "Superior intellect."

Hutch laughed deeply. "Of course. How silly of me to question the inner workings of the Starsky brain."

"We're close to Mannie's. Let's grab a hoagie." Starsky smacked his lips together loudly.

"What about the Pits? Huggy's got that a special tofu burger--"

"No way! Come on, Hutch. Mannie has that brown crap you call bread. You can have a tofu hoagie. I want a Philly cheese steak."

"Think of your arteries."

Starsky looked at Hutch intently for a split second. "Rather think of yours."

Hutch waved a finger in Starsky's face. "Don't you start something while we're on the clock. You know the rules."

"Yeah," Starsky agreed, "I know the rules. I can't help it if you make me feel wicked."

Hutch put a comforting hand on Starsky's shoulder. "No rest for the wicked."

Starsky flashed Hutch a grin. "And we were certainly darned wicked last night."

Hutch's hand squeezed Starsky. "We were. Quite well, I might add."

He nonchalantly scratched at his crotch. "Still, you can't stop me from thinking about your--arteries." He sniggered. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched gleefully when Hutch shifted uncomfortably, tugging on the inner seam of his cords near his groin. Starsky gave himself a silent high five. It wasn't nice, teasing Hutch, turning him on when they couldn't do anything about it for another seven hours.

But it was fun.

"All right!" Hutch growled. "Mannie's then."

Starsky rubbed his hands gleefully.

"Keep your hands on the wheel!"

The radio crackled to life. Starsky groaned as Hutch retrieved the hand device.

"Zebra Three, Zebra Three. We have a 415 with possible 207 reported at 11272 Santa Monica, Nuart Theater. Patrol cars on the scene."

Starsky shot a concerned look at Hutch as his partner reached for the mike. "10-4, Rosa. Zebra Three responding. Hutchinson, out." Hutch frowned. "What could be causing a disturbance at," he glanced at his watch, "what would have to be a kid's matinée. With a possible kidnapping? Step on it." He put the Mars light on the roof.

"There goes lunch," Starsky groused, hitting the siren.

As Starsky drove down the block towards the theater, his mouth fell open. People were running away from the theater in panic or milling on the street. It was chaos. Patrol cars were pulling up and uniformed officers were trying to contain the scene.

"What the heck?" Starsky slowed the Torino. "This is more than a disturbance and a missing kid. Something else is going on."

Several dozen men and women were surging across the street and down the side walk, carrying at least one child in their arms, sometimes two. Other adults were clutching children by the hand, dragging them away from whatever danger lurked behind them. The theater was clearly at the heart of the problem.

One squad car was parked across two lanes of traffic, lights flashing. Two uniformed officers were trying to keep the crowd on the sidewalk, but were ignored as panicked people ran past them.

Starsky slammed on the brakes when a young boy darted out in front of him. His tires squealed as he came to a lurching stop, the Torino rocking back and forth. The child ran across the road and disappeared down an alley.

"Close, partner." Hutch patted Starsky's shoulder. "What in blazes is going on?" A crying woman carrying a toddler ran past. "Let's see if we can help calm down this--whatever it is."

Starsky killed the engine, leaving the Torino parked in the middle of the street with the Mars light flashing. A uniformed officer waved at them as they spilled from the car, badges drawn, and ran towards the theater.

More people raced passed them. Starsky saw adults as well as children looking scared. Several were crying, their faces contorted with fear. An unattended child slammed into Hutch, tears streaking the boy's face.

"Slow down," Hutch said, his hands resting on the boy's shoulders. "Where's your mom?"

The boy looked about six. "I wanna go home!" he shrieked. "I'm scared!" He tried to wrench himself from Hutch's grasp.

"Officer Ryan!" Hutch shouted at the closest patrolman. "Can you take this boy? Make sure he doesn't run into the street! And try to get a statement from him if you can." Hutch pushed the child into the man's arms, not waiting for his acquiescence. He glanced over at Starsky. "Did you see his face? That kid was terrified. We need to find out what's making these people so frightened."

"Something's really wrong here." Starsky broke into a trot and headed to the main entrance. As he did, a young woman burst out of the doors, almost bowling Starsky over.

"Hey!" he cried out.

She was wearing an usher's uniform with the theater's name embroidered on the right side of her blouse. A name tag clipped on the left read "Celeste". "Run!" she cried over her shoulder, dodging Starsky's grip and hurrying down the street without looking back again.

Starsky shook his head. As he looked back at Hutch, he noticed a movie poster behind a glass panel that read, The Last Flight of Noah's Ark. The picture mesmerized him. The longer he stared, the more unsettled he became. A shiver ran down the back of his neck and he gave an involuntary shudder, but he couldn't tear his eyes away. The water surrounding the ark in the poster seemed to undulate. He could hear the cry of sea gulls and smell the salt of the ocean. He was even more shocked when he heard a shout from a woman who appeared in the poster and an answering call from a man near her. Even when Hutch touched his arm, he couldn't look away.

Hutch shook his arm. "Starsky!"

"Huh?" He pulled his gaze away reluctantly. "Did you see that?"

"What?"

Starsky looked at the poster again. It was just a picture on paper, nothing more. "I-- Never mind. Let's get moving."

"You the detectives Metro sent?" a police officer near them asked loud enough to finally catch Starsky's attention.

Starsky blinked, shook his head. Shivered again. Weird. He didn't like the feeling he was getting as he faced entering the theater. He wondered if some of the people who panicked were feeling a similar or worse surge of dread.

"This way," the uniformed officer said, holding open the door.

Hutch brushed past Starsky, running his hand across Starsky's shoulder. He looked concerned as he stared at Starsky. "You okay?"

"Yeah. Go ahead." Starsky couldn't meet Hutch's eyes. He felt disoriented, strange, but how could he explain that to Hutch? Was he hallucinating?

Hutch nodded to the officer. "Hey, Albright, good to see you. What's going on here?"

Starsky couldn't fight the urge to look behind him, to make sure nothing creepy was following him. He didn't see anything so he made himself trail after Hutch as his partner talked to the uniform. Inside, on a back wall was another poster, a duplicate of the one that had caught his eye only moments earlier. The churning seas battering some sort of vessel. It wasn't a regular ship; it looked like it had been built from the bow of an airplane. Starsky briefly wondered if Noah had had a plane when he'd build his ark. He frowned, trying to remember the Bible story.

"Starsk."

"Huh?" Starsky jerked. Hutch's eyebrow rose. Starsky grinned sheepishly. "Sorry."

"You can daydream later. Officer Albright says apparently in the panic a kid went missing. Witnesses report that he didn't follow the panicking mob, but went towards the stage," Hutch said in a low voice. "Witnesses told him--insisted actually--that panic erupted when animals from the movie actually ran out of the screen and charged into the theater, leaping on adults and kids as if the creatures were terrified by their strange surroundings. It freaked out everyone in the theater, and then, apparently, all hell broke loose."

Starsky stared at Hutch for a moment before he gave a curt nod. "Let's get to the bottom of this."

They wove their way through the dwindling crowd of women and children being questioned by other officers. Only a handful of people remained. Most of them still seemed frightened as they watched the uniformed officer and the two detectives make their way to the front of the theater.

Starsky took in the tableau as he approached. Another officer was taking notes as he talked to two kids sitting on the stage in front of the movie screen. They were both dressed casually in t-shirts and jeans. A girl and a boy, young teenagers. The boy looked annoyed and the girl was crying. The boy scowled at the girl several times as Starsky observed their interactions with the officer.

Officer Albright introduced the detectives to Officer Rodriguez, the cop questioning the kids.

"This is Melanie Short," Rodriguez told them, "and Ricky Martinez. They've agreed to help us since their friend," he looked at his notebook, "Alex Lawson is missing."

Hutch jotted down the information. "Thanks, Rodriguez. We'll look for your report at the station. We'll take it from here." Both uniforms turned to leave. "Oh, and don't let anybody else down here, all right? Please find out when forensics will be here. Thanks."

Ricky crossed his arms, his manner belligerent. "This is all a big joke. Alex isn't missing; he's a dork. He's playing a prank, the asshole."

"Ricky!" Melanie cried. "Alex likes to play tricks, but this isn't one!" Her voice rose, tears once again leaking from her eyes. She wiped them with the back of her hand.

Starsky glanced at his partner, cocking his head at the kids. He gave Hutch first choice.

"Ricky, can I talk to you privately for a few minutes?" Hutch asked.

Ricky shrugged.

"Why don't we sit down over there and you tell me what happened."

Ricky reluctantly followed Hutch. They sat down and Starsky could hear the earnest tone in Hutch's voice. If anybody could get info out of a recalcitrant teenager it was Hutch.

Starsky gave Melanie a warm smile. She was a cute girl, with long brown hair that curled on the ends and brown eyes. "Let's sit down." He took out a handkerchief and passed it to her. She gave him a grateful smile and wiped her eyes.

With a small notebook and a pencil in hand, Starsky asked, "Let's begin with your name, address, and phone number."

"Melanie Short, 3021 Hillview Drive. My phone number is 213-440-5435."

"Thanks. Now why don't you tell me what happened? Start from the beginning, when you got to the theater."

"Okay. If it will help Alex," Melanie said softly.

"It will."

"We met Alex out front. He wasn't happy that Ricky came along, but then he said it was okay. I like Alex a lot but sometimes he's so intense! I brought Ricky so we could have fun, not be all brooding."

"Brooding ain't much fun to be around, is it?"

"No. Alex is really smart. He's made his own movies. He's got this great camera that he got for Christmas last year."

"Nice. Alex was angry when he saw Ricky?" Starsky prompted.

"Alex was Alex. He said it was cool, but I could tell he was disappointed more than angry. He likes me and I like him." Melanie sighed. "It's complicated."

Starsk would ask more about Melanie's relationship with Alex once he had her story about today's occurrence. Since she seemed distracted, Starsky changed tactics. "Who paid for the tickets?"

"We all paid for our own. Snacks, too. That way it was just hanging out. I think Alex would have paid if I had come alone. Then it would have been a date."

"Where were you sitting?"

"In the front row. I like to sit in the middle but Alex insisted. I didn't want to make a scene so I said it was okay with me."

"Then what happened?"

"We were sitting, watching the movie. I was eating Twizzlers. Alex and I shared his Milk Duds. Alex reached over for a Twizzler and his hand brushed mine. I know it was stupid, but I jerked away from him. I like Alex a lot, but I didn't want Ricky to see us holding hands. He'd blab it all over the school. Anyway, that made him annoyed at me. He crossed his arms and moved as far from me as he could." Melanie twirled a strand of her hair. "I tried to talk to him, but somebody behind us told me to be quiet."

Starsky nodded sympathetically. "When did the ruckus start?"

"Right about then, after I made Alex mad. One second he was sitting, staring up into the movie. I looked at him and I could see he was angry. The next second he was up on his feet, waving his arms, shouting crazy things."

"Such as?"

"I can't remember exactly."

"That's okay. Just tell me what you remember."

Melanie wrinkled her nose. "At first I thought he was being a jerk. He yelled something like, 'Feel that salt water. It's refreshing.' And," she paused, "'I got hit with a fish!'" She smiled, looking embarrassed. "He said, "'Made it, Ma. Top of the world.' That's from his favorite movie. But that's crazy." Then she glanced at Starsky sideways. "Isn't it? It's crazy talk, right? I've seen that movie a couple of times. The guy who says it dies, but Alex always says he wants to go out in a blaze of glory." Melanie shook her head. "Alex was just playing a joke. He has to be. He wouldn't hurt anybody!"

"I don't know, Melanie. That's why we're here, to find out what's going on." Starsky looked at her seriously. "Why did the people panic, Melanie? It had'ta be more than Alex yelling." When she seemed reluctant to talk, Starsky said, "Alex has to be somewhere. We want to find him and figure out what happened. What else can you think of that would help us find him? I imagine his folks will be frantic if he doesn't come home tonight."

Melanie looked away. Starsky saw something in her eyes that was making her unhappy.

"Is it his folks? Has he said anything to you about them?" Starsky knew that even a fourteen-year-old could be mistreated. Not all abused youngsters were small like Guy Mayer.

"Ah, he hasn't got real parents. They're dead. He's in a foster home. It's no big secret that he was in the same foster home for a long time until a little ways back. That's when he got moved."

Starsky made a mental note. Why would a long-time foster home situation change? It could be any number of things from the foster parents moving out of state, to aging and not able to care for a rambunctious teenager, or worse, illness or death. "Has he been upset about the move?"

"Not so much that he's said. I mean, he kind of liked the other people, but he did say that he likes having his own room in this new place. I've met them and they're nice. They don't let the little kids touch his stuff."

Important when you're fourteen, Starsky knew, remembering Nicky getting into his things when he lived at home.

Melanie leaned forward, wrapping her arms around her chest. "Do you think he's hurt? Maybe it's not a prank. I mean, could somebody have, you know, taken him?"

"That's why me and my partner are here. That's what we do. We investigate. But to do that, we need all the information we can get. I don't care how wild and crazy it sounds, I want you to tell me everything. Okay?"

Melanie studied Starsky's face for a long moment. "Yes. Yes, I want to help Alex. I like him and I want to help." She took in a shaky breath before she exhaled. "Some of the animals came out of the movie and jumped on people. A sheep, a dog, a squirrel. That's all that I saw."

"Did you actually touch any of them?"

"The dog," she whispered. "It seemed friendly. Its fur was wet; it licked my hand." As she spoke, Melanie blushed. "That's crazy, though, because animals can't come out of the movie!" Her voice rose with each word. She seemed embarrassed telling him what she experienced and believing it herself.

"Hey, it's okay. It's not crazy. If you say it happened, then I believe you. It's gotta feel strange when the lights come back on. Things always look better in the light."

Melanie turned large hazel tear-filled eyes towards him. "Yes. That's it. Thank you. I want to help. Alex is a good friend. He's helped me with my math. He's really smart. He understands about footage and run time. He uses a really cool movie camera and he knows about the type of film to use and lenses and all of that. He's really smart and he's promised to teach me. He says it's not hard once you understand the math."

"But..." Starsky sensed something else behind Melanie's vehement defense of her friend.

"This is a secret, okay? I'm telling you, only you, so you can help Alex. Promise?"

"I might have to tell my partner, but he's really good at keeping secrets. He'd never tell unless he had to save a life. Same with me."

Melanie studied him. He must have passed inspection because she held out her hand with her little finger extended. "Pinky swear?"

Starsky looked at her seriously and nodded. He liked this girl. She was smart also, although she might feel that way. Not yet. This Alex seemed to think she was smart as well. She was loyal and a good friend. "I swear." He took her finger with his and they shook.

"He's got what he calls his special powers. He can do things," Melanie said in a low voice.

"What sorts of things?" Starsky wondered if Alex could do "things" like make animals from a movie come to life. Nah, that was nutso thinking. It had to be a slight-of-hand thing.

"Magic. Alex can do magic."

"Magic like a magician on television with a rabbit in a hat or sawing a women in half? Or with a magic wand, abracadabra?" He waved his hand through the air.

"Not magic tricks, like card tricks. I saw some guy on TV doing magic, pulling flowers out of his pocket. Not like that." Melanie shook her head. "Alex really likes that animated film that came out a few years ago, The Hobbit. He's got the story LP, you know, the record with the soundtrack from the movie. One of his favorite characters was Gandalf and he listens to it over and over." She looked down at her hands before glancing at Starsky. "He says he's like Gandalf. John Huston did the voice for Gandalf and Alex says if a famous director can be a wizard then so can he. I didn't know wizards were real until I met Alex. I thought it was only in books and movies. Do you think wizards are real?"

"I haven't met one myself, but I'm keeping an open mind." Starsky paused. Talking about magic seemed odd, yet he didn't find the concept off-putting. In fact, thinking about magic seemed somehow normal. Strange. "Have you seen him do magic?"

Melanie sighed. "No, not really. Well, except for tonight. I think he did it. Made the animals come alive and splashed the water over the floor."

Starsky started to protest. He looked down at his shoes and realized that the floor was covered in a light sheen of what looked like water. It was drying quickly. He made a mental note to have the lab boys check for salt water.

"Did you see him bring anything with him? A container with water or a can of soda?"

"No, nothing. We got candy at the snack bar; none of us had soda or water."

"Melanie, do you think he started a commotion and when people started panicking, he snuck out the fire exit?"

"Maybe... No, I didn't see him do that. I saw him go on stage and disappear. He got sucked into the movie. Right there," Melanie said quietly, pointing to the screen. "Don't tell anybody, please."

"I promise you I won't say anything except to my partner. We have to figure out what happened, and we have to talk to Alex. Make sure he's okay."

"All right."

Starsky saw Hutch stand up. He came over with Ricky trailing behind. "Finished?"

"Yes. Melanie was a big help." He looked down at her, smiling. "Thank you."

She gave him a wan smile.

"Let's get to the lobby. We'll call your folks to come and get you," Hutch said.

"Wait a sec, Hutch." Hutch paused, with Ricky and Melanie standing a few feet away. Starsky climbed onto the small stage and went up to the screen. With a flat hand, he skimmed the material.

An electrical charge zapped him. He leapt back, shouting, "Ouch! Damn!" He rubbed his hand down his pant leg.

Hutch stared over at him. "Starsky?"

"Nothing. Static electricity." As he walked towards Hutch, he kicked something with his shoe. It skittered into the shadows. He followed, picking up the object. "Hutch!" He held up a fish. It was wet and cold, and felt as if it had been alive until recently.

"What is that?"

"It's a fish."

"I can see that, but where did you find it?"

"On the floor. Right here." He set the fish back down. Forensics would need to photograph it and then test it. Besides, touching it made him shudder. Funny, because he liked fishing. But right now the fish reminded him of the ocean. That made him remember the movie poster of The Last Flight of Noah's Ark. His dislike of it came roaring back, with its menacing ocean waves and salty spray. Starsky had to suppress a shiver that threatened to race down his spine. He took a second to gather himself together before he rejoined Hutch. He knew Hutch's laser eyes would be asking him without words what was bugging him. Here and now, he had no idea how to explain the weird vibes he was getting from being in the movie theater. He managed to get a grip by the time he rejoined his partner.

"Was it real?" Hutch asked.

"As real as you and me." Starsky glanced over at the teenagers. Ricky was ready to bolt and Melanie looked as if she would start crying again. "Let's get outta here. Call these kids' parents."

Hutch nodded. He waved for the kids to walk ahead of them. Starsky fell into step beside Hutch. The tingle of electrical power was still present, making the hair on his body stand up. "It's gonna storm, Hutch. Can you feel the air? Charged with electricity."

Hutch gave him a questioning look. "Starsk, it never storms in Bay City. Rain, yeah, but lightning? Not often."

Starsky shrugged. "I feel it coming." He lowered his voice for Hutch's ears alone. "And I don't like it one bit."

When Hutch looked at him questioningly, Starsky shook his head. Later. Hutch nodded, and led the group out of the main house into the lobby.

"Martinez, would you stay with Ricky and Melanie while we call their parents?" Hutch asked one of the uniformed officers handling the scene.

"Sure thing." He waved for the teenagers to sit on one of the benches lining the walls.

"There's usually a house phone behind the snack bar," Starsky said. "Pay phone's over there."

"I'll take the pay phone."

"Good, because I don't have a dime on me."

Hutch rolled his eyes. Before they parted, Hutch said, "Ricky was not much help. He's mostly attitude, but I don't think he knows what happened. He does think Melanie likes Alex more than him. There's some rivalry there." Hutch paused when they reached the snack bar. "We'll go over this after we get the kids taken care of."

"Right."

His partner gave him a patented Hutch smile that made Starsky warm inside. He and Hutch worked together like peanut butter and jelly. Made for each other.

Hutch headed towards a pay phone while Starsky stopped one of the patrol officers who was walking by. He asked the officer to be sure they did a thorough search of the entire building. Starsky rattled off Alex's description from what Melanie had told him.

"Alex Lawson, 5'4", thin, red hair, freckles, and blue eyes. He's wearing a tie-dyed red t-shirt and blue jeans. Check the basement for any store rooms. Projection room, bathrooms, offices, every nook and cranny. We need to find this kid." Albright started to walk away. "Oh, Albright." The man turned back. "The alley. Has anybody checked it?"

"I don't know for sure, so I'll personally check it out and send a report over to the captain," Albright said.

"Thanks."

"No problem." He gave Starsky a nod and called to another officer. "Doyle, let's do a thorough search." The two men hurried off.

Starsky found the house phone on a shelf under the snack bar. He dialed Melanie's parents from the number in his notebook. Call completed, Starsky hung up the phone and glanced at Hutch. His hair fell over his forehead as he spoke into the receiver. He rested one hip against the wall and crossed his legs, leaning back. He was beautiful, as perfect as was possible for a man to be. Peanut butter and jelly. Yeah, that was them.

Starsky loved peanut butter and jelly. And he loved Hutch. He let himself have a final perusal of Hutch's long legs. Having Hutch beside him gave him the will, the ability, and the courage to keep at this job instead of giving in to the feeling that he'd had enough. Hutch centered him, and gave him the strength to do to his job each day.

When he completed his call, Hutch hung up and walked over to Starsky.

"Martinez will stay with the kids until their folks come," Starsky told him. "Albright and Doyle are doing a room by room search, including the alley."

"Good job, partner." Hutch smiled and touched his arm lightly.

Starsky shrugged, pleased with the praise.

"So we have the lab boys on their way. The patrol officers are checking the entire building, inside and out. We'll get background checks on all three kids." Hutch wrote in his notebook while he spoke.

Starsky had to smile. Hutch was making a mental list, getting the investigation in order. Hutch was a great detective. "Right, we have a missing kid-- I'm assuming he wasn't at home when you talked to his folks." Hutch shook his head. "Alex is MIA. He's either a runaway or this is an abduction. Plus we got the panic in the theater, with the reports of the animals coming out of the screen." Starsky ran a hand through his hair. "We definitely need a clearer picture of who this Alex kid is."

"Sounds good, partner." Hutch waited a moment. "Is there something else?"

"This place. It gives me the creeps." Starsky gave the lobby a furtive glance. He didn't want to attract any more attention than he already had. He no sooner had the thought when he dismissed it as ridiculous.

"You love going to the movies. Why does this place bother you?"

"I don't know. It just does." Starsky shrugged, shivered.

"It really does bother you."

"I'm okay. Hey, do you think we could look at that movie screen again? I had some really creepy vibes earlier."

"Sure. You have a hunch or something?"

"It's an 'or something' right now."

As they walked back down the aisle, Starsky asked, "Do you think this Alex is faking this for attention? Ricky and Melanie could be in on it."

Hutch wrinkled his forehead. "Hard to say-- But what about the panic, the hysterical reports of loose animals... I don't know what's going on."

"Me neither. I don't like it."

They reached the front of the theater. Starsky looked around. It all seemed too normal. A movie theater, nothing more. He climbed the small stage to peer behind the movie screen. When he touched the material, he got a strong electric shock, much worse than the first one he's experienced. He let out a yelp and jumped.

"What?" Hutch asked.

Starsky rubbed his hand. "I got shocked. Damn, that hurts!"

Hutch raised an eyebrow. "Bad wiring?"

"I don't know if a movie screen has wiring." Starsky peered behind the screen without touching the material again. His arm pulsed uncomfortably. "Is there a light switch?" he asked, not willing to feel around and zap himself again.

"Here, let me look." Hutch tugged on Starsky's arm until he moved aside. He slid between the wall and screen, touching the edge. "I don't feel anything." He disappeared for a second before he was able to turn a light on. "Nothing but speakers. No kid hiding." Hutch turned off the light and reappeared.

Starsky crossed his arms. "That's done. Can we get outta here? This place gives me the creeps."

"Can you explain what the creeps are? It bothers me that you're bothered."

"I can't explain it at all. It's like something's watching and waiting to pounce."

"Starsk, I don't know what to say." Hutch put a hand on his shoulder. "But if this place bugs you, then let's get out. We'll talk in car or at HQ. No sense in you being uncomfortable."

For a second, Starsky thought he'd tear up. The weird feelings were knocking him off his game, and he didn't like it at all. "Thanks, Hutch."

Starsky was relieved to hop from the stage and follow Hutch into the lobby. With the front doors in sight, he hastened his steps. From the corner of his eye, something moved. His brain screamed 'danger'. Starsky jerked to a stop, peering into the shadows. A movie poster graced the wall across from him. It was partially hidden, so he stepped to the left to get a clearer view. A large reptile stared at him from under a stone bridge. Emblazoned across the poster was the word, Alligator! He looked into the creatures eyes. The alligator blinked.

Starsky let out a cry, jerking backwards.

"Starsk." Hutch yanked on Starsky's sleeve. "You okay? What's wrong?"

Starsky pointed at the poster. "Did you...? I thought I saw it move."

Hutch walked over to the poster. When he reached out to touch it, Starsky fought the urge to yell "No!" at him. Hutch touched it with the tip of one finger then ran his hand over it. "It's solid. Nothing behind it but wall. It could have been a trick of the light."

"Yeah, probably." It took all of Starsky's willpower to pull his gaze away from the ugly reptile. A trick of the light or maybe it was alive... Nah, Starsky thought, dismissing the unsettled feeling that raised goosebumps down his limbs. He shivered and stepped away. As he walked into the sunshine, Starsky had no doubt that until they figured out what had happened to Alex and the other patrons in the theater today, that feeling was going to be part of him.

Great.

------------------------------

Thanks to the new computer system installed in the precinct last month, it took a mere sixty minutes for the electronic device to spit out information about Alexander Bernard Lawson, age 14 years, three days.

Starsky thanked Gail when she handed him the sheaf of papers regarding the boy. There was nothing in the computer about Ricky or Melanie. Alex, however, had seven pages. Walking back to the squad room, Starsky flipped through them, skimming the info.

"Damn. The kid's me," Starsky muttered. "The me before I was lucky enough to move to Bay City." He read until he got to the candy machine in the hallway. Stopping, he dropped in change and pressed the button. Mercifully, the MARS bar dropped into the chute without hanging up. He didn't have to beat the stupid machine into submission. Small favors were sometimes the best.

Rolling the print-out and tucking them under his arm, Starsky peeled the wrapper on the candy, staring at it. Suddenly, the chocolate seemed unappetizing. Funny, usually about this time he'd be starving. What was wrong with him? Was he coming down with something? With an annoyed sigh, he pulled the paper back over the chocolate and stowed the candy in his pocket for later.

At the squad room doors, he pushed one of them open with his backside as he continued to read about Alex's sad childhood. Parents dead; removed from a long-time foster home six months ago; reports that he'd changed suddenly from a sweet boy into a scary teenager. Fights with other kids; shoplifting; refusing to obey; foul-mouthed; curfew violations. The list was long considering up until half a year ago Alex didn't appear to have caused any trouble. Strange. What had changed? He was a boy. Puberty? Could be.

Walking towards their shared desk, Hutch had his head bent over another pile of papers. He looked up when Starsky sat down on the opposite side of their table.

"You all right?" Hutch studied Starsky intently.

"Why?"

"I can tell when something's bugging you."

"I'm not hungry."

Hutch raised an eyebrow. "Ah. Okay. Are you sick?"

"Nah. I feel okay, but when I bought a chocolate bar, I couldn't eat it." Starsky passed the MARS bar over to Hutch.

"Everybody goes off their feed once in a while," Hutch said philosophically. "Maybe it's all the crap you eat. Your body's protesting. How about an apple?" He opened a desk drawer and held out a green globe.

"Apples are red," Starsky complained, shaking his head. "I'll have some coffee."

Hutch shrugged, put the apple away. "Did you get the run down on the kids?"

"Ricky and Melanie didn't have anything in the system but Alex did." Starsky passed the papers over to Hutch. While Hutch glanced through them, Starsky got up and fixed a cup of coffee. "You want one?" When he looked back, his partner was eating the MARS bar. "Guess not," he said under his breath.

When Starsky got back to the desk, Hutch had finished a run through of the print-outs. "The usual stuff for a kid in trouble except, from what I can see, he wasn't a troublemaker until recently."

"Makes you wonder what happened," Starsky said, sipping his coffee. It tasted burnt but he ignored the bitterness.

"He looks like a decent kid."

"How can you tell from a picture?" Starsky peered at the upside down Alex.

"Just a hunch. What do you think's going on? A runaway or a kidnapping?"

Starsky chewed his lower lip. "Neither? What did the lab boys say?"

Pulling a form from the pile, Hutch read, "Preliminary report shows the fish was a salt water species. They found salt water residue on the floor. They also found feathers in one of the aisles from a sea gull, specifically the California gull, Larus californicus--which is unusual in that the species isn't normally found on this coast at this time of year. However, there was no other forensic evidence to suggest any other animals were present in the theater."

"So Alex tossed the water and the fish and was able to cause mass hysteria? Nah. I don't think so." Starsky held Hutch's gaze. For his part, Hutch remained silent, giving Starsky the go-ahead to speak. "There were sea gull feathers. Hard evidence. Melanie said she patted a dog. I believe her." He rushed on before he thought about what he was saying, "He reminds me of me."

"What?"

"I, ah, had trouble back in Brooklyn. When I was about the same age."

"I know your mom sent you west so your uncle could set you straight after your dad died, but it's not unusual for a kid who's lost his dad to become rebellious."

"But it's more than that, Hutch." Starsky rubbed his forehead. "Something else was going on. Something weird."

"Define weird."

"I'm not sure I can. The memories are fuzzy, almost as if... Nah, that's extra weird." Starsky pulled his gaze away from Hutch's. He felt awkward meeting his partner's concerned eyes, as if he were keeping secrets he wasn't sure about, and that he didn't know he was keeping.

"Starsk, you know you can tell me."

"It's not you, Hutch," Starsky whispered hotly. "It's me. I can't remember what I need to remember. It's as if something's blocking a part of my brain. I know it's there, but I can't see inside. Does that make sense?" He prayed Hutch understood something he himself didn't understand.

"Why now? What does this kid have to do with you?" Hutch asked, his voice equally as quiet.

"I get this feeling... He's like me. I don't know why. Maybe if we go to where he lives?" Starsky huffed out an annoyed breath. "I swear, the second I understand, I'll tell you. Jeez, Hutch, I feel like such a dork."

"Nah, partner," Hutch said warmly. "Hunches are a cop's bread and butter. You got feelings or hunches or--" he waved a hand through the air, "whatever, we'll figure it out."

Warmth suffused Starsky from head to toe. What had he done to deserve such a great guy as Hutch for his second half? "Thanks."

"So off to--" Hutch looked at the paper in his right hand, "Baxter Avenue?"

"I'm driving."

Hutch rolled his eyes. "I'd never have guessed."

-----------------------------------------

After talking with Alex's foster parents, Mary and Joe O'Malley, for two minutes, Starsky knew they had no clues as to what was going on with their new case. The O'Malleys were absolutely normal, bordering on boring. Normal people with a normal house and a normal car (a Ford station wagon) in the driveway. The grass needed cutting and the side walk wasn't swept. Normal. The house was normal, with dishes on the table from lunch and two toddlers, twins no less, to be cared for. Both people were concerned about Alex, wanted him returned safe and sound. Mrs. O'Malley said the twins kept asking about him. Apparently the little ones liked Alex.

When he didn't get any bad vibes from the foster parents, Starsky asked if he could check out the kid's room alone. Permission granted, Starsky wandered down the hallway to the second door on the right while Hutch continued to talk with the parents.

Standing in the center of the small bedroom, Starsky gave it the once over. The room was average. Single bed with a blue coverlet and a blue-and-white checked pillow, with matching blue curtains at the single window. Book shelves with The Hardy Boys and a pile of comics. Starsky could see Superman on the top of the stack. Some sports pennants on the walls, Bay City and New York. Creepy. His two cities on display. Some clothing tossed here and there; a pair of worn sneakers (familiar...); a record player and a pile of 45s.

He'd expected something. What that was, he hadn't a clue. Annoyed with himself for not being able to put a finger on what he hoped for or imagined, he wandered around. He ran a finger down an algebra book resting on the small desk. (Good at math, Melanie had said.) He picked up a trophy (Winner! Spelling Bee!), moved on to touch a Walkman. Nothing.

What was he thinking? Starsky let out a soft snort. As if he knew. He hated feeling so damned out of sorts. The creepy/weird/unusual awareness burrowed into his body between his shoulder blades. He lifted his shoulders up and down several times as if it were a live thing he could shake off. It remained where it had taken up residence. Turning around several times, Starsky saw nothing out of the ordinary. What the hell was going on?

Finally, losing patience with himself and with a boy he'd never met, Starsky closed his eyes. He let his mind wander.

The first image he recalled was himself as a boy of twelve. He was at his father's funeral, and Joe Durniak was standing next to his mother. Too close to his ma, as far as he was concerned, with his pop barely cold. He hated the man, wished pain and suffering on him. Not death, that was the easy way out. He saw himself focus on Durniak, saw the man stumble back, clutch his arm, fall to the floor. In the chaos of Durniak's collapse, little Davey Starsky ran from the funeral home and took refuge in one of the abandoned buildings scattered around his neighborhood. Hunkered down, he was shocked at what he'd done. His younger self sobbed...

"Hey!"

Starsky was brought out of his reverie with a start. "Gah," he blurted out, jumping a foot.

Hutch stood in front of him, his eyes full of concern. "You okay?"

Starsky nodded, his throat tight. "I don't know."

Hutch relaxed, apparently pleased with the honesty of Starsky's response. He must have been expecting obfuscation. Starsky inwardly winced at the idea that Hutch might have thought he'd lie. "Anything here?"

"I'm not sure. It's..." Starsky glanced around again.

"Creepy," Hutch supplied.

"The word of the day, huh?" Starsky rolled his eyes. "Sorry about that."

"You can't help it if that's what you're feeling. We'll figure it out. Ready to go?"

"Yeah." When Hutch left the room, Starsky started to follow. Something on the desk caught his eye. "I'll catch up to you in a sec," he said. Hutch nodded and left. He went over the desk. A small wooden box rested there. On it was painted, 'private.' Starsky opened it without hesitation. He lifted out a bundle of postcards. The front of the cards were from places Starsky could only dream of visiting: Istanbul, Egypt, Paris, London. There were a dozen or so. He turned over the London postcard. It wasn't stamped or postmarked but it had been written on. Starsky read the cramped writing. After a few sentences he realized it was Alex who had written the greetings. He flipped through them, scanning the area where Alex had written the recipients' names, no addresses, he noted: "Mom and Dad" and "Tony and Sally".

As he read, Starsky realized that Alex must be writing to his mythical or dream family. He wrote of his exploits in this city or country as if he'd visited it. The kid made it sound so real! Starsky held the postcards in his hand. Alex longed for what he'd written about. He wanted--needed a family of his own. Poor kid. Everybody needs people to love them, and to love in return. Gently, Starsky returned the postcards. He was beginning to understand Alex the more they investigated. He was a kid adrift in the world. He felt as if nobody cared. Even though Starsky had a family, growing up in California, Starsky remembered that feeling. He and Alex were far too much alike.

On impulse, he opened a small cabinet next to the bed. It held camera equipment. A nice quality 8mm movie camera, a Polaroid camera, and an older 35mm Nikon. There was a bag with film to the cameras and small round metal tins. He picked the one marked, 'trial run', and opened it. A spool of film rested inside, coiled like a snake. When he touched the end of the film to look at the frames, the corner bit into his finger. Blood welled up immediately. Starsky dropped the canister, sucking on his finger. The film spilled out of its holder and began to slither across the floor. The end coated in his blood moved up the toe of his sneaker and started to slide under the hem of his jeans.

Starsky let out a cry, kicked at the film canister with his other foot. It flew across the room to land with a thud against the baseboard. Starsky blinked before he stared at the menacing object. The film was merely film, coiled on the floor. He walked over, poked it with his toe. It lay in a messy celluloid heap.

Terrified to touch the thing again, Starsky dropped a t-shirt on top of it and hightailed it out of Alex's bedroom. He went into the living room where the O'Malleys were playing with the twins. Crayons and coloring books were strewn across the floor. The twins were busily coloring under the watchful eyes of their foster parents.

"Thanks, Mr. and Mrs. O'Malley," Starsky said.

"You're welcome, Detective," Mr. O'Malley said, taking his wife's hand. "Please be sure to let us know the second you find Alex. The house seems empty without him."

"Has he ever talked about his parents?"

"Not often," Mrs. O'Malley said. "But he misses them terribly. I can tell. He once made an off-handed remark to me about how he'd never leave his own children, all ten of them!"

"Ten?" Starsky echoed.

"Yes. I get the feeling he imagines if he has a lot of children, he'll never be lonely. Poor thing," she said sympathetically. "Alex is a good boy. He just needs some guidance."

"He's lucky to have you. I'll see myself out."

"Goodbye, Detective," the couple said in unison. The children waved. Starsky waved back and hurried out to the Torino.

Hutch sat in the passenger's seat, making notes.

Starsky yanked open the door and climbed in. He sat still, taking in a deep breath and slowly exhaling.

"What happened?" Hutch demanded.

"What would you say," Starsky looked at his partner, "if I told you I was attacked by a roll of film." He held out his hand where a bright drop of blood danced on the end of his finger.

Hutch's eyes were wide when he said, "I'd say, that's really--"

"Creepy," they said simultaneously.

Neither of them laughed.

"I found a bunch of postcards in Alex's room. He writes them to his mom and dad, and to two kids named Tony and Sally. I think they're his make-believe family. He's really lonely, Hutch."

"The O'Malleys seem nice."

"Yeah, they do. It's rough when you're alone, in somebody else's house."

"You understand him."

Starsky gave Hutch a quick glance. "I do. I think I got a handle on him. He's doing this because he thinks he can make a family."

"Make a family?"

"Yes, with kids like himself. Kids with special gifts."

"Wow, Starsk. That makes perfect sense."

Starsky smiled, turning the ignition. "Now all we gotta do is find this kid and help him. Let him know he's not alone."

"I hope he'll listen." Hutch pocketed his small notebook and pencil.

"So do I, partner. So do I."

---------------------------

It was past nine when Starsky drove towards Venice Place. He was exhausted and from the lines around Hutch's eyes and mouth, he was tired also. Eighteen hour days were for young men. Starsky hated to admit that neither of them was "young" any longer.

Over thirty, and it's all downhill from here.

The hours spent combing through Alex's files, making phone calls to anybody mentioned in them, as well as re-interviewing both Ricky and Melanie at their homes, had eaten up daylight well into night time. Waiting for lab reports on the food and drink and the water fountain at the theater was tedious. After bugging the lab people, they were finally given a preliminary report that showed no toxins or hallucinogenic drugs in anything. Full reports would take a few more days, but Starsky knew that there would be nothing in them.

There had been no results from the APB on Alex Lawson. There wasn't much to be done tonight.

Hutch was talking to him; Starsky had to make himself listen. "Mannie's? It's still open. A nice steak sand--"

"No." Starsky cut off Hutch's suggestion. "Not hungry."

"In 'n Out?" Hutch asked.

"No. And don't ask again. I ain't in the mood."

"Great," Hutch muttered. "I have to starve because you 'ain't in the mood.'"

Starsky glanced over at his partner. "Don't you have some tofu surprise or broccoli cake in your fridge? I thought your type was always prepared for the apocalypse or some such thing."

"Starsky, you're being a smart ass." Hutch stretched out on the seat. "I'm hungry and tired, and so are you."

Starsky shrugged. "You should'a ate that green thing you called an apple when you had the chance."

"You're scaring me."

"Why's that?" Starsky pulled to the curb in front of Hutch's place. He turned off the engine and sat back, fingering the keys.

"I've never known you to go all day without eating. I know this case is bugging the crap out of you. I'd help if you tell me what you're feeling." Hutch turned in his seat, putting his left leg on the seat and leaning back on the door. "So spill it."

Starsky looked into his partner's eyes. Hutch was offering his support. Starsky wasn't a dunce; he took it. "I don't think Alex was abducted."

"Okay. What do you think happened?"

"I think he somehow set this up. That sounds lame, huh?" Starsky rubbed both of his hands down his face. "He did this somehow, but it wasn't sleight-of-hand. Made everyone see those animals...then disappeared in front of them."

"Why do you think that? Are you saying it's not any sort of mass hysteria?" When Starsky glared at Hutch, Hutch held up a hand. "I'm just asking. Don't go crazy on me for asking."

"I'm not going crazy, but you gotta believe me. You were there, and you saw what I saw. The evidence is in the lab. There’s a fish and sea water and what about the sea gull feathers they found in the aisles?"

"Alex brought them with him. He tosses them out. Screams that animals are coming out of the screen. Throws the fish on a young kid, scaring her. Gets the audience hysterical. Panic ensues." Hutch crossed his arms. "You have to keep that in the back of your mind, just in case. It's possible it went down like that."

"Looks like you've got it all solved!"

"I'm not saying I got it solved. I'm just going over all the options."

Starsky examined Hutch closely. Hutch was being honest, discussing the case without making any judgments. He was asking questions, getting Starsky to think. "Okay. Okay, I get it. Let's pull it apart so we can put it back together. "

"That's all I'm asking." Hutch slid his hand along the back of the seat to touch Starsky. "Big question. Where's the kid?"

"I don't know where Alex is, but he could be in any of a hundred places. Hiding out, runaway, at a friend's... But I don't think so. I think-- Don't laugh, okay?"

"I'm not going to laugh."

"I think he's between worlds or something..."

"What?" Hutch looked surprised. "You mean parallel dimensions or some such thing?"

"Yeah."

"That's fantasy, Starsk. Why would you think that?" Hutch moved closer, took Starsky's hand. "Tell me so I can understand. Because right now, I'm confused as hell about what you're thinking."

Starsky steeled himself before asking, "Do you believe people can have powers?"

Hutch didn't respond immediately. He was quiet for at least a minute. Starsky kept his gaze on his partner, begging with his posture for Hutch to understand, to believe.

Finally, Hutch asked, "Are you asking me if I think there are people with magical powers in the world? That somebody can wave a wand and do things?"

"Yeah. But not like in Las Vegas. Not illusions or magicians. I mean real magic."

"Define real magic."

Starsky sighed. "I'm not sure; like making other people do things. Manipulate them."

"Hypnotism?"

"Nah. Worse. More... invasive. Mind control. Somebody can enter your mind and, say, make you give them a hundred bucks."

"Or worse."

"Or worse."

"That's crazy, Starsk."

"You said you'd listen," Starsky said testily.

"I'm sorry. It's hard to understand why we're having this discussion, and what you're trying to tell me. I admit I'm tired and hungry. Maybe we can start over in the morning." Hutch squeezed Starsky's hand. "Then you can let me know exactly why you have this theory for Alex's disappearance and what happened at the theater. We can't do much tonight; not with both of us ready to fall over."

"Sure. I got it. It's been a rotten day." Starsky started to pull away from Hutch.

Hutch must have seen the disappointment on his face because he latched onto Starsky's elbow. "Later, okay? We'll talk this through. I'm not dismissing your concerns." Hutch paused. "Got that, partner? Me and thee. We'll figure this out."

Starsky felt a lump in his throat. Hutch understood, or was willing to try and understand. He couldn't ask for more. Not in this crazy situation. "Okay. Later. And Hutch?" When Hutch met his eyes, Starsky nodded. "Thanks."

"Mushbrain." Hutch brushed his knuckles across Starsky's chin. "You need a shave."

Starsky smiled.

-------------------------------------------

Starsky showered first, leaving Hutch to heat up a can of tomato soup. He came out of the bathroom dressed in Hutch's robe. The smell of soup permeated the kitchen. It made his belly roil. "How old is that soup?"

"It's a new can," Hutch said, dipping a cracker into the red liquid.

Starsky gagged. The soup looked like blood as it dripped from the cracker. "Smells nasty."

"Starsk, you haven't eaten all day. Cracker?" Hutch held out a Saltine.

Starsky took the cracker and ate it. It was dry and salty. In the fridge, he found a can of root beer. He opened it and took it over to the sofa while Hutch finished his meager supper.

Hutch dumped the bowl in the sink before he came over to the sofa. Sitting down, he slipped his arm around Starsky and leaned close, his lips brushing Starsky's ear. "You feeling better?"

"Yeah. The shower helped." He took a sip; made a yuck face.

"My turn." Hutch took the can from Starsky's hand, setting it down on the coffee table. He pushed Starsky onto his back and draped himself over his partner.

Starsky rested his hands on Hutch's corduroy-covered bottom. "Thought you were going to shower."

Hutch nibbled Starsky's lower lip. "I said it was my turn. I didn't say it was for the shower."

"Oh."

Hutch kissed Starsky, tasting of tomato soup and crackers. When he pulled back and rested on his elbows, he looked down at Starsky and smiled. "You want me to keep going, or are you ready to hit the sack?"

"You got my dick interested, so you'd better keep going."

"That wasn't an enthusiastic invitation."

Starsky ran his fingers through Hutch's hair. "I want you to keep going. I want to feel you touching me." He hoped Hutch would hear the need in his voice; how much he wanted to be distracted so he didn't think about the case or Alex or creepy feelings any more. Not tonight.

Hutch studied him intently. No doubt he could see what was running through Starsky's head. He knew Starsky that well. After a few moments, he smiled. "I'm here for you, sweetheart." Then he covered Starsky's mouth with his and made Starsky forget.

On the narrow sofa, Hutch used his mouth and fingers and cock to bring Starsky off. Starsky gave himself over to Hutch, and shouted through his orgasm. Sated and drowsy, Starsky brought Hutch to orgasm with a hand job, using his fingers the way Hutch liked. He hated that he let Hutch pleasure him without much reciprocation, but Hutch seemed more than happy when he cried out and came on Starsky's belly.

After the lovemaking, there was a quick trip to the bathroom for clean up and both men stumbled to Hutch's big bed. Starsky crawled under the covers. Hutch curled up behind him, his arm across Starsky's belly. Starsky dropped off to sleep instantly.

The dream he had was in full Technicolor. He watched it unfold, helpless as he was sucked into it. He and Hutch were going to the movies. Innocent enough. Strangely, they were walking hand in hand down the aisle. They sat towards the side in the least populated area. Hutch leaned over and kissed his cheek. Starsky was startled but pleased. They never displayed their affection in public beyond their usual touching, which had been going on for years. For most of the squad, it was old hat and they were ignored.

Starsky was distracted by Hutch's hand as it traveled up his leg, squeezing as it went. His breathing accelerated when Hutch brushed his knuckles on his cock. Blinking slowly, Starsky realized that the movie had started. The credits rolled and the title of the movie appeared in huge letters: Alligator. Starsky quickly forgot about Hutch when a huge reptile emerged from the movie's black water. The thing was ugly, terrifying. It blinked, focused, stared... Holy shit. Was it looking at him? It was!

A trickle of sweat slipped down the back of Starsky's neck. The hideous creature lurked under an arched stone bridge. Its mouth opened; its sharp teeth gleamed with menace. Its eyes were mesmerizing. As Starsky stared, the alligator blinked, slowly closed its jaws and then opened them. Its message was clear: You're my next meal.

Movement from above the alligator drew Starsky's attention. A person was hiding in the shadows. The figure moved closer until Starsky could see him clearly. He was shocked to see that it was a face he recognized. It was Alex Lawson.

Alex glared at Starsky, his gaze furious. The teenager didn't speak. His mouth didn't move, yet words bombarded Starsky. Each one was like a needle pricking his skin.

"Leave me alone! If you try to stop me, you'll be sorry."

Starsky held up his hands.

Alex's eyes blazed with hate. The alligator roared, as if responding to the boy's fury.

"Why are you doing this?" Starsky heard a voice call out. It was his own. "I haven't done anything to you! I can help you!"

Derisive laughter spilled over Starsky. Alex stared. The words echoed in Starsky's head although Alex didn't speak aloud. "I am the great and powerful Alex! You are nothing. You gave up your power long ago. I'm making mine stronger."

Alex drifted over the stone wall of the bridge and floated down to stand on the alligator's back. He showed his teeth, as did the alligator. The duo moved towards Starsky; Alex's laughter filled the air.

Starsky let out a scream. He tried to move back, but something held him in place. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw Hutch behind him.

Hutch's grin was wide and malicious, full of reptile-like teeth. "What? Scared of that tiny lizard?" Hutch said derisively, chuckling coldly.

"Hutch!" Starsky cried. "Let me go! It's going to eat me."

"Only if you interfere. Don't do that and you'll be safe. Forget about Alex. Leave him alone."

Starsky didn't know what terrified him more--that Alex was threatening to have him eaten or that Hutch was on Alex's side in this awful dream.

"Hutch, please," Starsky begged.

A foul stench reached his nose. He jerked back towards the alligator. It was halfway out of the movie screen. The distance between its jaws and Starsky rapidly diminished until he could smell the swamp water and feel its hot breath.

"Noo!" Starsky screamed, thrashing wildly.

Hutch's grasp tightened. He was behind Starsky now, both of his hands on Starsky's shoulders. He held Starsky in place, pushed him forward. "It's hungry, partner. We can't let it go hungry."

"Noooooooooo!"

The alligator got closer and closer. It opened its jaws, clamped down on Starsky's head. It dragged him from his seat and shook him violently. He couldn't even scream--

"Starsky, what the hell? Starsky!"

Starsky woke with a jerk. His eyes flew open; his heart pounding triple time.

Hutch was kneeling over him, both of his hands on Starsky's shoulders, shaking him. "Starsky?"

With his breath coming in raspy gulps, Starsky nodded. He swiped his hands down his face. "I'm okay. Bad dream."

Hutch brushed his knuckles down Starsky's cheek. "What about?"

Starsky felt himself blush. "Some stupid alligator chasing me," he muttered.

"Was it the poster?"

"What?"

"At the theater, there was a poster for a movie. Alligator. Creative title, huh?" Hutch lay down beside Starsky. "I know you saw it. You walked over to it and touched it."

"I did?"

"Yeah. You don't remember?"

Starsky shook his head.

"Come here," Hutch said softly, opening his arms.

Starsky went willingly. Hutch wrapped his arms around Starsky when Starsky laid his head on Hutch's shoulder. "Sorry to wake you." He felt Hutch shrug under his head.

"Not a big deal," Hutch said.

"Thanks."

"For what?"

"For not making fun of me." Starsky sniffed.

"I've had my share of bad dreams. I wouldn't make fun of you. Much."

Starsky smiled wryly and snuggled closer. "Mmmm."

"Going to be able to sleep?"

"Yeah. As long as you hold me."

Hutch laughed softly. "My pleasure."

Starsky was content in Hutch's arms. In minutes, he drifted back to sleep.

-------------------------------

It was early when they made their way to HQ. It didn't take long for their shared desk in the squad room to be covered in files. Starsky closed yet another of the manila folders and leaned back in his chair. He sipped his coffee. Blah. Cold.

"Anything?" Hutch walked over to the coffee pot. He poured himself a cup and refreshed Starsky's, carrying them over to their desk. He had to push aside several files to find a spot to set down both cups.

Starsky automatically picked up the coffee and sipped. "Yuck. No sugar."

"You want sugar?" Hutch asked solicitously.

"Yes, please," Starsky answered distractedly. He began to flip through the files again.

Hutch reached over and dipped his finger into Starsky's cup. "There you go."

"What?"

"I'm a sweet guy."

Starsky rolled his eyes. "Right." He picked up the cup and drank. "There's no sugar in this."

"Starsky!" Hutch said loudly.

"What?" Starsky snapped his head up. "What's wrong? Oh. Thanks for the refill." He smiled, wondering why Hutch was looking exasperated.

"Have you found anything useful in the witness reports?" Hutch asked, enunciating each word, making it clear that he thought Starsky was in another world today.

"Nothing. Everybody has the same basic story with variations of what animal they encountered. Usually witnesses' statements are all over the place, but this group all report that there was a commotion, somebody yelling, and then the animals came out of the movie screen." Starsky took another drink of hot coffee. "Hey, there's no sugar in this."

"You don't say," Hutch muttered. "Since I've already read them, I could have told you that."

"With this case, I gotta read them through myself. Something may jump out at me." Starsky blanched and them burped.

"Stomach still acting up?"

"Yeah." Starsky put yet another file on the ever growing pile.

"Say, Starsk, do you think there's any chance that those kids ate too much of that fake butter. All those chemicals will rot your brains."

"Now you sound like one of those hippies giving a speech for Green Peace."

"I'm just thinking out loud. There have been studies--"

"Hutch." Starsky put the right amount of warning into his tone so that Hutch grinned and bent his head to his work. "Explain this then, Detective Hutchinson. How is it that although the witness statements were similar that each person claims to have seen a different animal? One person saw llamas. Another saw seagulls. Another saw sheep. The most interesting part of many witness statements were that they observed a young man disappear into the movie screen. Where is Alex?"

Hutch shrugged, not looking up. "I was just testing your resolve, Starsk. If we're going on the assumption that Alex disappeared into a movie after creating mayhem in the theater, I want to be sure you're adamant about it."

"I'm as adamant about it as I am about you," Starsky said in a low voice.

Hutch gave one nod and together, they reread the witness statements. Starsky made a few more notes in his book before he threw his pencil on the desk. He leaned back and stretched. "Man, it's 11:25. The morning is shot already and we're no closer to solving it."

"We need to hit the streets. See what chatter we can hear."

"Sounds good to me."

"Starsk, I'm sorry. I know you were hoping that Alex would have turned up by now so we could get to the bottom of this but so far, there hasn't been a peep about him. We'd have been notified if anybody had heard from him. Patrol would have let us know, and so would his foster parents. I think Melanie would as well."

"Yeah, I know." Starsky flexed his arms. "I get that. The alert is out at the bus stations and the airport too, although that would mean the kid has enough cash to buy a plane ticket."

"It doesn't take that much to fly to San Francisco or Las Vegas."

"True."

"Hiya, boys," a friendly female voice said, interrupting them.

Starsky turned to see Minnie crossing the squad room towards their desk. "Oh, hey, Minnie. I didn't see ya come in."

Minnie snapped her gum. "The story of my life."

"What can we help you with?" Hutch asked.

"I was filing this morning's crime reports and came across this. I know that you fine officers of the law are looking for anything relating to movie theaters. This one is hot off the presses. Just called in twenty minutes ago."

Starsky took the paper Minnie held out. He passed it to Hutch. "You're a doll!"

"Yeah, yeah. I've heard that one before. So when are you going to take this doll out on the town?" Minnie asked, batting her eyelashes at Starsky. "I'm sure your big blond partner won't mind if I have you to myself for one night." She cast Hutch a knowing grin.

Hutch cheeks colored.

Starsky thought he looked cute when he blushed, but he'd be shot in the head if he said that out loud so he grinned at Hutch, waggling an eyebrow. "As soon as this big lug gives me a night free, Minnie," Starsky said, "me and you will paint this town together."

Minnie laughed, waving a hand. "Pull the other one, Dave. I gotta run." She cocked her head at the squadroom doors.

Dobey entered and stalked over to his detectives. "Hutchinson. Starsky. My office." He disappeared into his office, closing the door.

Starsky rose and gave Minnie a pat on the arm. "Thanks, Minnie."

Minnie smiled at both men. "You're welcome. Later, boys."

Starsky skimmed the report, reading over Hutch's shoulder. "It's happened again. Over at the Wilshire on Wilshire Boulevard. It's playin' The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie."

Hutch read aloud from the reporting officer's entry, "'...The victim insisted that the snake came out of the screen and wound itself around his neck. Victim showed signs of injury, but paramedics who examined the victim at the scene couldn't say what specifically made the red marks. Victim smelled of marijuana.' Drugs could complicate things or it could be just a coincidence, but we need to check it out."

"What if the snake did come alive and grab him? That scares me, Hutch," Starsky said, dropping his voice. "I don't like it."

Hutch looked up. "I know. I don't either but we'll--"

Dobey's door flew open. "Did you two not understand what I meant when I said, my office?"

Starsky moved quickly. He slipped by Dobey and all but ran into his captain's office.

Hutch tried to look as if Dobey's glare meant nothing. He sauntered in and slumped into a chair beside Starsky.

Dobey stalked in, slamming the door. The cheaply made frame rattled and the water cooler shook.

"Give me a run down on the kidnapping you investigated yesterday," Dobey ordered, sitting behind his desk.

Starsky exchanged a questioning glance with Hutch. The captain kept apprised of their cases, sure, but he sounded angry about something.

"Of course, Captain," Hutch said, keeping his tone even. Starsky figured he was going for calm. Good luck with the mood Dobey seemed to be in. "We took the call to the Nuart on Santa Monica. When we got there, there was already mass panic. Parents and children were running from the place, screaming, scared enough to dart into traffic. There were unattended children crying and racing around.

"A boy, a teenager by the name of Alex Lawson, was reported missing. His two friends, both about the same age, a boy and a girl, claim he started the ruckus, saying that water from the movie was getting him wet, among other things."

Dobey's eyebrows rose. "What? From the movie?"

"Yes. The preliminary reports," Starsky said, "show that there was salt water on the floor, along with a dead fish, and feathers the lab boys have identified from a sea gull."

"What?" Dobey repeated. "Was the kid actually taken or was he pulling some sort of prank?"

"We don't know yet, Captain," Hutch said. "We can't find the kid. There's been no report on the APB, and we've talked to his foster parents. We've already reinterviewed Alex's friends."

"Ricky and Melanie, those are the kids who were with Alex, say that Alex disappeared into the movie screen," Starsky explained. "Several witnesses corroborate their story."

Hutch cast him a glance that said, maybe we should keep that quiet until we figure out what happened.

"Excuse me?" Dobey asked. "Wait." He held up a hand. "I don't know quite how to put this," he mopped his sweating face with a handkerchief, "but I've just had a call from the chief of police. It seems that his grandkids were just attacked at a theater. One boy was injured and taken to the ER."

"Is he badly hurt?" Hutch asked.

"He said the boy is suffering from cuts and bruises. He's been released and is at home with his parents."

"Thank God it wasn't worse," Hutch said, glancing at Starsky. "We've got the Nuart theater case. We have the report Minnie brought us from the Wilshire. Now we have a third one? This is getting worse with each passing hour." Hutch leaned forward in his chair. "Was this the same theater, Captain?"

Dobey opened the file. "No. This one is over on West Sixth at the Grand. Three cases with the same MO?"

"Sees like it," Starsky said.

Dobey shook his head. "At first, this complaint involving the chief's grandkids sounded ridiculous, but after what you just told me about these other two incidents, I need you both on this immediately."

"Captain, you haven't told us the details yet. We need everything we can get," Hutch said.

Dobey looked at his file. "Twelve-year-old Billy Johnson, the chief of police's grandson, claims that a creature from the movie came out of the screen and tried to abduct him. The younger boy, Arty, wasn't injured."

"I can't believe it's happened again," Starsky said. "I was hoping we'd have a handle on this sooner rather than later."

"Later is now, Starsk. This--whatever this is--has gone from making a scene to apparent kidnapping. We've got work to do, partner."

Dobey stared from Starsky to Hutch. "Let me get this straight before you leave. We have three separate incidents of creatures coming out of a movie screen and harassing patrons. Do I have that right?"

"Yes, Captain," Hutch said. "That's what we have, hard as it is to believe."

Dobey shook his head, his finger punching the air between them. "I want you two to get to the bottom of this. Find out who's doing what to these kids, and get them off the streets. We're talking about missing kids and kids attacked." Dobey pushed the file towards the detectives, tapping the cover. "These kids were at The Great Muppet Caper. I look Rosie and Cal to that movie last week. Get to the bottom of this, today. This is my city and I don't want little kids scared or hurt or worse."

"Okay, Cap," Starsky said, taking the file.

"We're on it," Hutch added.

Starsky held the door for Hutch. "Let's go talk to the chief's grandkids." He opened the file. "Chief Johnson's grandkids, Billy and Arty Johnson. Family lives over on Mansfield."

"Let's hit it. We need to drive through on the way. I need a decent cup of coffee. Yesterday is catching up with me, and you kept me up far too late last night."

"Me? I do think you were part of that duo, buddy-boy." Starsky punched Hutch's arm.

Hutch stopped, gave Starsky an apologetic look. "Sorry."

"Don't need to apologize to me, blondie. We got a lot of ground to cover."

"So, coffee, Johnson kids, then the Grand Theater. Sound good?"

"I'm driving." Starsky grinned. He liked Hutch's feigned surprise and how he smirked at the obvious statement.

Hutch rolled his eyes. "Gee, big surprise."

"Hey, Hutch?"

"Yeah?"

"That Alligator movie isn't from Disney. Neither is Bugs Bunny, if I remember correctly."

Hutch paused. "What?"

"The Great Muppet Caper is Disney, and so is that Noah's ark movie. But Alligator and Bugs Bunny aren't Disney. Just dismissing the Disney connection. Movies, yes. Disney, no."

"Good work, partner."

Starsky zipped up his jacket and held the door for Hutch, waving him through. Together, they set out to discover who (or what) was behind this entire mess.

---------------------------------

The drive-through McDonald's coffee didn't settle properly in Starsky's stomach. He didn't know why his belly was acting up. Then with a derisive snigger at himself, he figured it was the unusual circumstances. The cases from the past days were hitting him hard. He knew he had something in common with Alex, but he hadn't quite figured it out yet. He wasn't an orphan, but he had been a wild kid in the two years after his dad was killed and before his mother sent him to California to get straightened out.

Yet the horrible nightmare with Alex was etched in Starsky's brain. Unlike most dreams that were difficult to recall after even a few minutes had past, this one was as clear as if it had been filmed and that film was being shown directly into Starsky's brain. Alex had warned Starsky away, ordered him to leave him alone. It was scary that Alex used Hutch to help him. He wouldn't tolerate that. The kid had also said he was nurturing his powers, whereas Starsky had abandoned his.

Starsky had abandoned his powers. That was the clue. That was part of the reason his ma had hustled him out of New York. He had to abandon his powers and walk and the straight and narrow. Or trouble would be his constant companion. Or worse.

"Straight and narrow," Starsky muttered.

"What?" Hutch asked from the passenger seat.

"What?" Starsky glanced over at Hutch before he looked back at the road.

"You said, straight and narrow."

"Oh, yeah. Right." Starsky hadn't been aware he'd spoken aloud. He wondered if he was losing it. "I was thinking," he admitted. "Ma sent me to California to get straightened out."

"You've told me that before."

"But that's not right, Hutch. It wasn't that. Not really."

"What was it then?" Hutch turned to look at Starsky.

"It was more like... for my protection. Jeez, that sounds ridiculous!" Starsky turned down Mansfield and parked. "I was in trouble. I was causing trouble. If she hadn't sent me to Bay City, I'd be dead by now."

"That's quite the admission, Starsk. What sort of trouble?"

The front door of the house opened. "Somebody's home. Maybe Mrs. Johnson?" Hutch leaned past Starsky to look. Starsky waved and she waved back before closing the door. Dobey more than likely had called to let her know he was sending two detectives over to speak to her. Knowing Dobey, he warned her about the bright red Torino so she wouldn't be alarmed when they arrived. "We'll get this interview over and then try to figure this out. It's got something to do with me, Hutch, and I don't like it one bit."

Hutch gave Starsky a sympathetic look. "I agree. Something's going on with you, but we'll deal with it. We need to have some time to talk where we won't get constantly interrupted." He paused. "Like last night."

"We have to sleep sometimes. Eat, pee. Make love. I got priorities."

"You haven't been doing much of the eat-and-sleep priorities. However, the making love part is important."

"I know. Keeps me sort'a sane. Guess we won't get much of the sleep part until these cases are wrapped up." Starsky rubbed at his forehead. "The whole thing gives me a headache."

"Then let's get it figured out so you don't have a headache anymore."

With a professional eye, Starsky took in the Johnsons' house. It was modest, in a typical California style, with pale yellow stucco walls and a red-tiled roof. A wrought iron fence surrounded the front yard. Jade, hibiscus, and gardenia bushes added splashes of greenery, with color supplied by white, yellow, and pink flowers. The house was neat and tidy, and the grass had been recently mowed.

Hutch opened his door.

Starsky climbed out and followed Hutch up the side walk. While Hutch knocked, Starsky glanced around. "Nice neighborhood." He saw a couple of children riding bikes, a man washing his car in his driveway, and the mail carrier was walking from house to house, putting the post into its designated place.

"Don't let the peaceful surroundings fool you," Hutch said. "Plenty of bad people live in nice houses."

"Geez, Hutch, that's harsh."

"Maybe you've forgotten about Guy Mayer."

Starsky gave Hutch a look that he hoped conveyed his displeasure. "I haven't forgotten a thing."

Hutch rubbed at his own forehead. "Sorry, buddy. I think I've caught your headache."

With a half-hearted smile, Starsky nodded. "We're both outta sorts, it seems." He knocked on the door.

"Good morning. Mrs. Johnson?" Starsky asked when the door was answered by the young woman who had waved at him before.

"Yes, I'm Mrs. Johnson."

She was about his own age. She had short brown hair and a pleasant face. Attired in red Capri pants and a white blouse, she looked like the most normal mother and housewife in the world. Starsky knew not to be deceived by somebody's looks, but for the life of him, he couldn't imagine this woman smacking her own children around or hitting the bottle. He pulled his ID wallet. "Detective Sergeant David Starsky, Mrs. Johnson. This is my partner, Detective Sergeant Ken Hutchinson." Hutch showed his badge. "Captain Dobey said he'd call to give you a head's up that we were coming. We'd like to speak with you about what happened yesterday at the Grand Theater."

"Come in, please." Mrs. Johnson opened the screen door. "To the left is the living room."

"Thank you." Starsky gave her one of his best smiles. Instincts kicked in. He liked the woman immediately. Hutch followed Starsky into the pleasant looking living room. Starsky sat on the brocade sofa after Mrs. Johnson waved a hand in invitation. Hutch sat beside him.

"What are your sons' names and ages?" Starsky spoke to Mrs. Johnson while Hutch took notes.

"We have two sons. William. He's twelve, almost thirteen. He's the one who was hurt," Mrs. Johnson said, wringing her hands. "Arty is nine. Arthur. Thank God it wasn't worse. I was beside myself when the police came to the house. They told me Billy had been hurt at the theater, and they escorted me to the hospital," she said tightly.

"Sure. Any mother would be anxious. What movie did the kids see?" Starsky asked.

"The Great Muppet Caper."

"Do you know where they were sitting?" Hutch asked.

"I didn't ask, but I know my boys. They were in the front row."

"That's exactly where I liked to sit when I was their age," Starsky said. "Right down front, so you had'ta look up to see everything. It almost made your eyeballs ache being so close." Starsky smiled at Mrs. Johnson and hoped she saw his desire to help reflected in his face.

Mrs. Johnson seemed to relax and returned Starsky's smile with one of her own. "Boys will be boys."

"Yeah. Listen. We've read the statement from the theater manager, but we'd really like to speak to the boys, if that's okay with you," Starsky said sincerely. "We don't want this to happen again, or ta anybody else's kids."

"This isn't the first time something like this has happened?" Mrs. Johnson asked.

Starsky paused. Hutch shook his head. "My partner and I want to get to the bottom of what happened as quickly as possible."

"Can you tell me," Mrs. Johnson asked, "if my boys were drugged? Did somebody tamper with the popcorn or the Pepsi?"

Hutch answered. "Not that we're aware of, but we're still looking into all possibilities. If we learn there's anything to be concerned about, we'll be sure to contact you about it."

"Thank you!" Relief was evident on her face. "At first, I thought my children were having hallucinations or something. I was so terrified that they'd been drugged somehow!" She wiped her wet eyes.

"Of course," Starsky said reassuringly.

"I'll get the boys." Mrs. Johnson left the room.

"We don't know anything for sure about drugs, pro or con. The prelims were from a different theater," Hutch said, speaking quietly.

"I still think Alex is at the bottom of this. He isn't drugging kids."

Hutch looked down at his hands for a moment before he raised his head. "Okay, Starsk. I'm going with you on this one."

"Thanks, Hutch."

Hutch gave Starsky a quick smile. In spite of the crap that was happening, being on the same page, working with Hutch as one, made Starsky feel better.

Mrs. Johnson returned a few minutes later, leading two boys.

"This is Billy," she said, indicating the older child.

Starsky smiled. The boy was slim and brown-haired with hazel eyes. He looked like any other normal kid, and so did the younger boy. Both children were dressed in striped t-shirts. Billy had on jean cut-offs and his brother had on red shorts.

"This is Arty. Say hello to the policeman, boys," Mrs. Johnson coaxed.

"Hello," Billy said. Arty hid his face in his mother's skirt.

"Let's sit down." Mrs. Johnson led the boys into the room and sat on the sofa. Her sons sat on either side of her. Arty kept his face pressed into his mother's side.

"Billy," Starsky said, "you've got some nasty looking marks on your arm." He studied the scratches that ran down Billy's skin from below his elbow to his wrist. They weren't deep enough to have broken the skin, but they were definitely welts. Whatever-- Whoever, Starsky corrected himself, had made the marks had used enough force to abrade the skin.

Billy nodded. "On my legs, too." He showed them bruises on his calves. Starsky thought the marks looked like large fingerprints. The thought made him hide a shiver of disgust. What had made those marks?

"Can you tell us what happened, Billy? What did you see?" Hutch prompted gently.

"It was Animal," Billy answered.

"Animal? What kind of animal?" Starsky asked.

"No, silly," Arty piped up. "Not an animal like a cow. Animal! He does this!" He shook his head wildly, making his silky brown hair fly. His eyes lit up and he clamped his teeth together in a grimace, showing two front missing ones.

Starsky stared at the child, feeling like he was missing something important.

Mrs. Johnson spoke up. "The movie had characters from the Muppets. Animal is one of the characters. Here," she said, picking up a magazine from the coffee table. She flipped to a page and passed it to Starsky. "That's Animal."

Starsky studied the shaggy looking puppet. He had wild reddish orange hair, huge golf-ball-sized eyes and a wide mouth full of white chompers. He looked friendly enough. Hutch leaned closer to look at the picture.

"He made the marks on your arms, Billy?" Starsky asked.

Billy nodded. "Yes, but he didn't mean to."

"Why not?" Hutch looked down at the photograph and then at Billy.

"'Cause if I would have gone with him, he wouldn't have grabbed me so hard," Billy explained. "But he didn't want Arty, and I promised Mom I'd stay with him, even when he went to the bathroom."

Arty apparently agreed with his brother's assessment because he nodded vehemently. "I didn't go to the bathroom."

"That's okay, Arty," Mrs. Johnson said.

Starsky studied the boys and how they interacted with their mother. He sensed love and affection, nothing sinister. Sure, now you're a mind reader. Pushing aside his own self derision, he asked, "Why do you think this Animal wanted you to go with him?"

Billy shrugged in a typical child's response.

"Can you think of anything else?" Hutch asked Billy.

Starsky stared at the boy. For some odd reason, he felt drawn to the kid, as if he wanted, needed to protect him beyond his typical desire, as a police officer, to keep people safe. He clenched his hands together to keep from touching the child. That would be out of line, but Starsky felt a powerful urge to protect this boy and avenge his attack. Maybe Billy would manifest special powers when he went through puberty. Maybe...

Oh God. Billy was like him and Alex! He wasn't old enough yet to have come into his powers, but Alex could have known or felt or seen something in Billy. Maybe he wanted Billy for his potential. Maybe he wanted Billy to be a part of his family.

"Starsk." Hutch touched his arm.

"Sorry. Thinking about all of this," Starsky said.

"Billy says he heard something."

"Oh." Starsky smiled at the boy. Why did the kids he'd met for the past few days remind him of himself? Billy didn't seem like a troublemaker, but he did give out some sort of-- What? Vibe? For God's sake, Dave, that's crazy talk. "What did you hear?"

"I heard some guy yelling at Animal to get me into..." Billy dug the toe of his sneaker into the carpeting, "...into the movie. That's not right. People can't get into movies unless they're on the movie set. I've been to a movie set with my Grandpa so I know how they make 'em." He nodded knowingly.

"You're right," Starsky agreed. "You can't get into a movie through the screen in the theater. Maybe somebody else was talking? Somebody in the audience?"

Billy shrugged yet again. "Maybe."

"I heard it, too," Arty piped in. "Animal yelled at him to come on!'

Starsky exchanged a glance with Hutch. Hutch asked, "Thanks for your help, boys."

"Thank you for listening to my sons. They're good boys. They tell fibs like all children do sometimes, but neither tends to lie about important things," Mrs. Johnson explained. "And Billy was really scared when I went to the emergency room."

"I was scared too," Arty added, swiping a hand across his nose.

Hutch rose. "You were both very brave."

The boys grinned, apparently pleased with the praise.

"Go on, go and play in your room." Mrs. Johnson shooed the children out of the living room.

"Mrs. Johnson, Billy seems to be a smart boy. Would you mind telling me what his favorite thing to do is? What's the thing that he's really good at?"

Mrs. Johnson smiled. "He's an excellent piano player. His teacher says he could play with a symphony when he's older if he keeps up his studies."

"That's really impressive. Thank you for telling me." Starsky stood up. "We might need to speak with you or the boys again. We'll call if that happens."

"All right. And I'd really appreciate knowing the outcome of your investigation."

"We'll be in touch," Hutch said.

"Thanks, Mrs. Johnson." Starsky started for the door. He opened it, bid Mrs. Johnson goodbye, and waited for Hutch.

Hutch pocketed his pad and pencil. "Nice kids."

Mrs. Johnson smiled. "Thank you. I like them."

Starsky smiled. "I think it's in the mother's contract." Mrs. Johnson smiled in return.

She closed the door and the men walked down the side walk towards the street.

"What do you think?" Starsky asked his partner.

Hutch shook his head. "After the other cases and what you've said, I'm going with whatever you think. If you say this Alex kid has some way to manipulate people and things, I'm ready to believe you."

"You don't sound convinced." Starsky opened the driver's door, paused to look over the roof at Hutch.

"I don't have any other explanations right now. We need to find Alex, and see if he's really got some special powers or if he's a master manipulator."

"I suppose Billy could'a gotten into a fight with another kid at the theater. That would explain the bruises. Arty could be covering for him. Nicky and I used to cover for each other all the time."

"Do you really believe that?" Hutch raised an eyebrow.

Starsky closed his eyes for a second before he opened them. He kept his gaze latched onto Hutch's. "Billy is like Alex," and me, he added silently. "Or he will be in a year or two. That's why Alex wanted him."

Hutch's eyes widened. "Jesus, Starsk. That's why you asked about his special talents? He wants kids like him who have gifts for some sort of... what?"

"Family, Hutch. What else? Alex wants a family."

"Everybody wants a family, especially a kid who has lost his."

"You're starting to understand Alex. I am, too."

"Great minds," Hutch said.

Starsky finished the quote his own way. "...think like Starsky."

Hutch snorted in amusement. Both men got into the car. Starsky turned the key. "The Grand?"

"Sooner rather than later," Hutch said.

Starsky stepped on the accelerator. "Sooner it is."

-----------------------------------

The Grand Theater on West Sixth was officially known as the Warner Grand. It was a large sandy colored block building with a towering marquee. It stood along a normal-looking city block. A dry cleaners, a bakery, and a shoe store were on one side of it. The other side held a diner, a Sears, and an Italian market complete with an array of fresh fruits and vegetables outside on a sidewalk stand.

Starsky parked the Torino a few doors down from the theater. Hutch gave him an amused glance.

"What?" Starsky asked.

"You just happened to park in front of the bakery," Hutch pointed out.

Starsky glanced over. The display window was adorned with a large white wedding cake. He liked cake well enough and for a moment, he wondered what it would look like with him and Hutch on top, dressed in tuxes, looking formal as they held hands. If only...

He looked away. The idea of eating a huge piece of cake covered in frosting made his belly lurch. He covered his mouth to burp.

"Stomach still acting up?"

"Yeah. Got any Tums?" Hutch fished a bottle out of the glove box. He shook our four and passed them over. Starsky took them and chewed, hating the chalky flavor. "Thanks."

Hutch gave him a compassionate once over. Starsky shrugged and got out of the car. Hutch got out as well. He waited for Starsky on the side walk, and they walked together towards the theater. Hutch tried the door. It was locked. No one was in the cubicle where an employee usually sat taking money in exchange for tickets. The hole in the window was blocked off.

While Hutch knocked on the glass, Starsky examined the poster for The Great Muppet Caper. A lady pig rode a motorcycle along with other characters: a green frog dressed like a gumshoe and a bear waving madly. No red fuzzy Animal creature was on the poster.

"We're not open," a man's voice called out from behind the closed theater doors.

Starsky turned, joining Hutch.

"We're here about the assault complaint on a child," Hutch explained, holding up his ID wallet.

Starsky pulled his ID as well, showing his gold star. The man peered out, nodded, and opened the door so they could enter. He locked it behind the detectives.

"We can talk in my office," he said. He led the way, turning his head. "I'm Winston Garfield. I manage this theater."

Hutch made a note of the man's name while he walked.

Starsky took a good look around. The theater was the same as many others he'd been in. Brightly colored carpet in a paisley pattern, a snack bar with dozens of sweet treats behind glass, a soda machine, and a huge popcorn machine. The air smelled of stale popcorn made with too much butter and salt. He gagged.

A thick red velvet rope connected to shiny chrome stands divided the aisle between the snack bar and the path to the restrooms. It was an ordinary theater but for some odd reason, Starsky felt uncomfortable in it. Funny. He liked going to the movies, but he didn't like this theater. It had a sour smell and the air was thick and close, like somebody hadn't opened a window in months. He stifled a snicker. There weren't any windows to open. He was being overly dramatic so he pushed away the awkward feeling, but not before Hutch touched his arm.

"Are you all right?" Hutch asked.

Starsky nodded, unable to admit that he felt off. "So-so."

Hutch looked at him with questioning eyes, but by that time they'd reached a door marked 'private'. Garfield opened it and they followed him inside.

"Were you here during the incident?" Hutch asked the manager.

Garfield sat behind his desk. "No. My assistant was on duty. It was the 10 am showing. There are too many children at that showing for my taste. I prefer manning the theater during the evening when most of the audience is adults. Have a seat, please."

"Thank you," Hutch said, sitting in one of the chairs. Starsky perched on another.

"What did you hear about what happened?" Starsky asked.

"The uniformed officer took my statement earlier," Garfield said.

"Yeah, but we like to hear it for ourselves. Please," Starsky said.

Nodding, Garfield explained, "I got a call about 10:40 am from one of my counter girls. Susie London. She was crying, said something about kids screaming, running out of the theater. One of the ushers had called the police. She said somebody--or something attacked some of the children." He paused; Hutch made a note then raised his head. Garfield cleared his throat. "I came right over--I live about three miles away--and by then the police had arrived, along with an ambulance."

"Did any of the ushers see what happened?" Hutch asked.

"No, neither of them were in the house when it happened. You're free to speak with them. I have two teenage boys who worked this morning: Skip Walker and Rufus Tate. They're both good boys, high school students. I'll give you their contact information."

"Thanks," Starsky said. "How many people were here? All kids? Any adults in the audience?"

"The ticket sales show twenty-eight children, no adults. This time on a Saturday morning most parents just drop off the kids and do their chores." Garfield's face reddened and his voice rose. "We've always been a safe place for their kids! I can't think of the last time there was any trouble here."

Starsky leaned forward, putting an elbow on the desk. He held Garfield's gaze. "We didn't accuse you of anything. I know you're upset. We're only asking you what you think happened."

Garfield looked at Starsky, then Hutch. "I know what the children said, what the boy who was taken to the hospital claims. Detectives, it is impossible that any of the puppets from the movie came alive, climbed down into the audience, and tried to kidnap a child!" His voice cracked. Starsky didn't think the man was faking; he was genuinely upset. "I'd be more inclined to believe that somebody sneaked in off the street and was up to no good before I'd believe that a creature from a movie came alive."

Hutch stopped writing, his pencil poised. "How about the alley fire exits? Are they locked?"

At Hutch's terse words, Garfield bristled. "They have to be unlocked because of fire laws, Detective. It's not safe to lock them in case of an emergency."

Starsky had been watching Garfield intently, studying his expressions, his posture, his eyes. He was a good judge of character and he got the distinct impression that Garfield was telling the truth. They'd run a background check on him, of course, along with the other employees. But Starsky didn't think they'd find anything. He did feel more of those strange vibes.

"I'll take those ushers' names now," Hutch said, pencil at the ready.

While he jotted down the information, Starsky mulled over feeling what he could only describe as damned freaky. The theater's air was charged with electricity. There was a smell he couldn't identify. Like decay or distress. Could somebody smell distress? He was losing it. Get a grip, Starsky, he ordered himself. Cabrillo ain't that far away from here.

Animals coming out of movie screens. Kids being scared. Adults in a panic. The creepy feelings he'd had in both of the theaters where strange occurrences took place. It was one huge mess. And yet... Something niggled at the back of his mind. He felt he was right about the cases. Alex Lawson had special powers, much like he'd had as a child and had repressed somehow..

"Starsk."

Snapped out of his reverie, Starsky jerked. Hutch stood beside him, his hand on Starsky's shoulder. Garfield was also standing, staring at him. He felt a blush creep up his cheeks. He'd gone deep that time, far off in his own musings. Hutch's gaze bore into him, enough concern radiating from him that Starsky could feel it tangibly. It only added to the overall ghastliness of it all. Stop it! He gave an involuntary shiver before he leapt to his feet.

"Done?" Starsky asked. He shook his head minutely, telling Hutch wordlessly that he'd explain once they were alone.

"Yes," Hutch answered, apparently heeding Starsky's plea by turning to thank Garfield for his help. He passed over a card. "Call this number if you remember anything else or have any more information."

"Certainly." Garfield took the card and placed it near the telephone on his desk.

"We'll see ourselves out," Hutch said, leading the way.

Starsky followed until Hutch had reached the door leading to the street. Something caught his eye; his steps slowed until he stopped. Fear fizzled down his spine. Sweat beads dappled his forehead. Something... He looked over his shoulder. The darkened lobby seemed endless. The thin ribbon of light sneaking out from under Garfield's office door was a mile away.

On the wall beside him, a movie poster advertising The Great Muppet Caper seemed innocent enough. Starsky examined the puppets for a moment before he turned away, looking at Hutch. Hutch had pushed open the main door. Starsky saw his partner backlit by the sunlight from the outside. The brightness of the day outlined Hutch's form. Hutch's features were dark, his face obscured. Starsky blinked and suddenly, Hutch was gone.

Instead, a large form loomed in the doorway. It was tall enough that its head was higher than the door frame. Starsky gaped. Whatever was standing there, the individual features were indiscernible. The shoulders were broad, twice the span of Hutch's. Thick legs with enormous feet. A wild mop of what looked like hair topped the monster. Starsky didn't have to see the color to know it was red. Bright red. Blood red.

Eyes bigger than footballs gleamed at him, yellow with red irises. A mouth full of discolored teeth clicked together several times. The mouth opened and it spoke. The tone was deep and gravelly as if the teeth were too large for its mouth. "Do not interfere or you are dead. The other one is dead. This is the only warning you will receive!"

Each word stabbed into Starsky's head. He let out a squeak, stepping backwards when the shadow moved forward. His mouth fell open. The creature took another step closer, a large hand reaching out toward him. No, not a hand, a claw. The claw extended farther and farther.

"No," Starsky cried. He backed up, his retreat forestalled when he hit the edge of the snack counter that pressed into his lower spine. His heart thudded wildly; his pulse ratcheted up. His throat tightened. "Stop," he whispered roughly. "Please." Cold fear froze his feet in place.

The claw was within striking distance now. He scrunched down, hunkered onto the floor with his arms wrapped around his head, fingers laced across the back of his neck. He waited, waited for the claw to rake across his back. He saw it happen in his mind. The denim of his coat and the cotton of his t-shirt shredding like wet paper under the talons of the black creature. Starsky's skin split; blood poured from the marks, red and bright. Pain seared through him. Starsky found his voice and screamed wildly in terror.

Strong hands clutched at his wrists, prying away his fingers. Those hands would kill him.

"Ahhhhhh," Starsky screamed. He arched back, slamming his skull. Pain zipped through his already aching head. He saw stars. His stomach clenched.

"Starsky!"

Hutch's familiar voice registered through the pain. The familiar hands that held him were warm and loving as they cradled him closely. Bile rose in Starsky's throat. He wrenched away from Hutch, crawling on his hands and knees. Bending his head, he vomited. His stomach was empty so bile burned the back of his throat. Panting harshly, Starsky heard Hutch's tense voice from above him.

"Officer down. I need an ambulance--"

"No. No ambulance," Starsky gasped, his throat burning. The taste of it made him gag once more. "Hutch, no, please." Summoning a reserve of strength, he climbed to his feet. He swayed for a second then righted himself, holding onto the edge of the snack bar. "Not now, Hutch. No ambulance. 'M not sick."

Hutch stood behind the snack bar, telephone receiver in hand. He eyed him suspiciously. "Not sick? Then what do you call throwing up your stomach lining?" Hutch's face was white with fear.

Starsky leaned forward, pleading, "Not now. I'm not sick. Alex attacked me."

Slowly Hutch brought the receiver to his mouth. "Cancel the ambulance. Hutchinson out." He hung up the phone. "Starsk--"

"Can I get a drink a' water, please? My mouth tastes like crap." Starsky swiped the back of his hand across his lips. "Yuck." He glanced over at the mess he'd made. Should he attempt to clean it up?

Starsky heard the gurgle of a faucet. Hutch passed over a paper soda cup full of water. Starsky nodded his thanks before he drank the entire thing.

"Better?" Hutch asked.

"Fabulous," Starsky said smartly.

"You are such a liar." Hutch came around the counter and put a hand under Starsky's elbow. He guided Starsky out towards the front door.

"I feel like crap," Starsky whispered. "I'm scared." All thoughts of clean up were forgotten. He wanted out of this place and he wanted it now.

"I'm here," Hutch said softly. He pulled the door open.

Starsky walked out into the sunshine. He took in a deep breath, expelled it, and did it again and again until the pounding in his head calmed down and he could walk without falling over.

Starsky heard the door being locked behind him. He turned to see Garfield taping a sign to the window. Plumbing problems. Closed today. Garfield more than likely had had enough excitement for today. Starsky didn't blame him. It had been a hell of a day. And it wasn't over yet.

---------------------------------

"I'll drive," Hutch said, putting out his hand.

Starsky stopped beside the Torino. He was ready to argue, but Hutch looked like he was ready to bawl. Ashamed that he was causing Hutch so much consternation, he handed over the keys with a word of thanks. Climbing into the passenger seat of the Torino felt weird. Starsky rarely rode unless Hutch drove his own car. Hutch preferred whatever his current pile of junk was to Starsky's muscle machine. At least Hutch didn't complain about the waste of gas so much these days. He'd finally given up and had moved onto other things, like how they should get a place together so they didn't have to play apartment tag. Or how the ozone layer was going to get them all fried.

"Huh?" Starsky said when Hutch swatted his shoulder. They were parked in front of Metro. Starsky didn't remember the fifteen minute ride from the theater.

"Are you okay? I'm worried about you," Hutch said roughly.

Starsky heard the concern in his partner's words. He gave a curt nod. "Sorry. I don't know what is happening to me. I'm seeing things and smelling things and hearing things." He pulled on a loose string along the seam of his jeans. "I'm scared, Hutch. I don't know what to do."

"Hey. Hey," Hutch squeezed Starsky's shoulder. "We'll figure this out. You know we will. We always do."

"This is different. This is something that's in me, Hutch." Starsky tapped his chest. He didn't bother trying to keep the anguish from his tone. "It's my fault that this is happening."

"No, it's not. It's Alex's fault. You might be connected somehow--" At the look Starsky gave him, Hutch changed his words. "You are connected to this, but we'll find the connection and do what we have to to fix this. We'll get Alex the help he needs."

"He needs a family, somebody to protect him, and teach him, and take care of him." Starsky's voice broke. "I'm a mess."

"But you're my mess."

"You know I love you."

"Yeah, I know. It's your lot in life."

"You're a jerk, ya know."

Hutch smiled. He handed Starsky his keys. "You need something to eat."

Starsky nodded. "Nothing slimy or anything. Maybe a bag of chips."

"The food of champions," Hutch said, shaking his head. He pointed a finger. "One bag."

"Yes, Ma."

-------------------------------

At their desk, Starsky downed two aspirin with a hot cup of coffee and nibbled a bag of potato chips. He didn't want to admit to Hutch that he had trouble finishing that small bag. If he did, Hutch would take him to the hospital for a thorough examination and have him hooked up to an IV for nourishment. The idea made Starsky shudder with distaste.

Hutch closed the file he'd been perusing. "The lab reports are final. Nothing in the water or any food at any of the theaters."

"Can we take a break? I need some place to think and talk to you." Starsky sighed. "Some place quiet and away from the world."

Hutch closed the file and gave Starsky a compassionate smile. "I know just the place."

---------------------------------

Starsky loved the beach. He parked his car on a side street. The beach was one block over and together, they headed south, walking slowly, not speaking. Not yet anyway. He hadn't realized how long they'd walked until he saw the sun start to dip down into the ocean.

Starsky looked over at Hutch. His blond hair ruffled in the breeze, dancing around his head. His face was lined with concern, but it was such a handsome face. He had his hands in his jacket pockets and he seemed content to walk beside Starsky, giving Starsky the space he needed until he was ready to talk.

Starsky loved Hutch more that second that he thought possible. Hutch was his other half. They fought sometimes, sure, but Starsky was with the person he loved most in the universe.

Starsky looked around. They'd walked far enough that the houses and cottages were tiny pinpoints of light to the north. This section of coastline was rough and rocky. They began to skirt around large boulders strewn in their way until Starsky saw an alcove ahead. He stopped when the rock wall behind him stretched up about twelve feet. It was private, with the sound of the waves slapping the sand. Even the sea gulls seemed to be in bed. It was so quiet that he could hear his own heart beating.

Starsky toed off his sneakers; Hutch pulled off his loafers. With one hand on Hutch's shoulder, he yanked off his socks. With a smile, he held Hutch's hand while Hutch did the same. Next came his jacket. He and Hutch had safely stored their holsters and guns in the trunk of the Torino before they'd headed out. Next came his t-shirt and undershirt. Hutch undressed to his trousers as well, making a pile close to Starsky's. In a rush of romanticism, Starsky admired how nice it looked to have their clothes sitting side by side. God, he was a dork sometimes!

Walking to the water's edge, Starsky let the small waves lap at his feet. A bigger wave came in and splashed the legs of his jeans but he didn't care. He dug his toes into the cool sand. He closed his eyes and breathed in deeply. Salt and water and emptiness filled his lungs. He exhaled loudly, stretching his arms heavenward. Dropping them heavily, he hung his head and let his mind wander freely.

While he wasn't big into meditation, Hutch had shown him the basics. He walked back to where Hutch stood watching the waves and sank to the ground, cross legged. Hutch sat beside him. They watched the water for a long while before Starsky closed his eyes.

After what seemed like hours, Starsky spoke. "Thanks for not saying I need to have my own private room at Cabrillo."

Hutch didn't say anything; he touched Starsky's hand, rubbed the space between his thumb and forefinger.

Starsky shivered. "I know I've been acting strange since this Alex thing started. Okay. Here's goes. I'm remembering more and more every minute." Starsky shook his head. "I didn't even know what I'd forgotten or repressed, more than likely, until I started remembering. Now it's like watching a movie." He shuddered. "Skip that part. Movies ain't on my list of top ten things to do right now.

"When I was young, I thought my ma was the most beautiful woman in the world. She was--is small and petite. She had this black raven hair, although now it's streaked with grey. She's still beautiful and tough as nails. I know you've heard some of this before, but I gotta do the whole thing so I can keep it straight in my head." At Hutch's nod, Starsky continued. "My pops was gunned down in our driveway by wiseguys. To this day, I don't really know what he was into, but that doesn't matter. I want to tell you about me.

"After my father was killed, I think I went crazy. I hated everybody and everything. I began to run the streets, picking fights. I got good with a knife, and I was barely thirteen. I cut a ten-year-old for his lunch money. No, I didn't get caught. None of the kids would ever rat on Mr. Starsky."

Starsky gave a derisive chuckle. "Yeah, I made them call me Mr. Starsky. Can you imagine? Nine-year-olds looking at me with fear on their faces and stuttering out, 'Here, Mr. Starsky, my ma gave me fifteen cents for lunch. You take it.' Or>, '' I was better 'n all of them. Or so I thought." He looked straight out onto the ocean, afraid to look at Hutch. One thing he couldn't live with would be any disapproval or hatred from Hutch. He'd eat a bullet first.

"Anyway, I don't even really remember how it started. I needed cash. I wanted clothes and shoes like the wiseguys. Cars this long." He held out his hands as far as they could go. "Caddies and Lincolns. No crappy Fords or Chevys back then. I wanted to be rich and powerful. At first, I got a job at Bernie's delivering pizzas, but two or three bucks a week wasn't gonna cut it.

"I started running numbers for Sal Durniak, Joe's brother. At first, I made ten bucks a run. Still wasn't enough. So I started picking numbers. The numbers won again and again, but not even the bookies would take a bet from a thirteen-year-old. The first guy I influenced to play my numbers was Al Morelli. I pushed him to bet my numbers. I'd go into his butcher shop and talk to him, then I'd do this little--push. Right into his brain." Starsky shrugged. "Don't ask me how I did it. At first I thought it was dumb luck. I'd talk to Al, give him a ten spot or a Jackson and tell him it was from some other customer so he wouldn't think I'd stolen it. He'd call and put down my numbers: ponies or football or baseball. I'd go back after the game or race and get the cash. I'd always give him a dollar tip. Real magnanimous, wasn't I? After a while, it wasn't enough, so I got three other guys in the neighborhood in my little group: Fuzzy Gibbs, Mort Salinsky, and Gus Baxter.

"Anyway, I did this for about six or seven months. Got myself almost eight grand. Don't look so shocked. I knew what eight grand was. This was when you could get a new Caddy for about six thousand. Too bad I couldn't drive, huh?" Starsky smiled wryly.

Hutch took his hand and entwined their fingers.

Starsky stared down at their hands laced together. Emotion swamped him and he had to blink quickly to keep from bawling. "What did I ever do to deserve you?" After a moment, he went on. "I did give Ma cash. I told her about the pizza job, and made sure not to give her more than twenty a week. She never said much--we needed the money because Pops' pension sucked--but she always looked at me with sad eyes." Starsky swiped at his own eyes remembering the unhappiness in his mother's. "I bought Nick this and that. He worshiped me. I was a shitty role model. Look how he turned out."

"Starsk."

Starsky held up a hand and Hutch clamped his lips into a tight line. "Joe Durniak came over one night. I was a week past my fourteenth birthday. I hated the guy, but Ma really liked him. I kept quiet because of Joe's brother and my job with him. I'd stayed out late, and crept in real quiet at 2 am. Joe was sitting at the dining room table, along with my ma. Nicky was asleep. I had on this great leather jacket and new shoes. Ma looked at me and started crying. When she caught sight of the look on Joe's face when he saw me, she cried harder. Joe told me to sit down. That's when I knew I was in trouble. Not just from being out too late, but big trouble. The kind that gets you killed.

"He didn't ask me any questions. He got straight to it, said that a couple of the guys I was using started having bad dreams about me. They went to Sal and said something strange was going on; that I was somehow cheating him out of big money. I couldn't explain all the money I was spending. I don't know how any of them remembered anything because I thought I'd made sure they were oblivious to it all, but I didn't know what I was doing, not really. I probably screwed up and hurt these guys; must'a put some holes in their minds somewhere, somehow. That didn't bother me as much as getting caught, though. If Sal thought I was cheating him, he would waste me, no question." Starsky sighed.

"It didn't matter how old I was. I cheated him, and he had a rep to uphold. I was scared shitless. I had no defense. I couldn't say I was influencing these men's minds to bet the numbers for me--these were superstitious mobsters, and they might believe that, which would be bad enough, but I'd shysted Sal out of eight grand. That was unforgivable.

"Joe said I had less than twelve hours before Sal sent someone after me. Ma had already talked to Uncle Al and Aunt Rosie out here. Joe had a plane ticket to Bay City all ready and he'd take me straight to the airport first thing in the morning. Ma was crying and then Nicky woke up and started crying. Joe gave me ten minutes to pack a bag. He followed me to my room and stood there, watching me until I was finished. I kissed Ma and Nicky goodbye. By now I was bawling, and it wasn't because I was leaving my family. I was such a worthless piece of shit that I was crying over the money I couldn't get to and had to leave behind. It was buried in an old lunch box under the floorboards of an abandoned building a couple'a blocks over. With Joe on my ass, I couldn't do a thing.

"As the sun rose, he drove me to the airport and walked me to the gate, waited until my plane was called and made sure I got on it." Starsky paused, finally looking at Hutch. "That's why I ended up in Bay City. And Alex is just like me. Alex is me. He may not be stealing money like I did, but he's got the same sort of gift or whatever I did, and just like me, he's using it badly. I don't know how it works. Maybe some kids get through this, like I think Billy Johnson will. It's just a feeling. I don't think he'll hurt anybody. I'm starting to believe that some kids channel it into being the best at basketball or playing the piano.

"But some of us use it the wrong way. Like Alex is using it the wrong way." He turned to Hutch, desperation in his voice. "I know I can help him, but I gotta get him to listen to me, to agree to behave. I don't know how to do that!"

"Can that be done?" Hutch looked at him worriedly.

"I don't know. I hope so." Starsky shook his head. "I have to try. I have to try and save that kid!"

"We have to find him first." Hutch's face was unreadable.

Starsky's heart hurt. He wouldn't blame Hutch one bit for getting up and walking away. Starsky deserved all the unkind things Hutch could say to him, and more. He wasn't nice or a good person. As hard as he'd tried to be these past twenty years, he could never make up for the hurt he'd caused his family and people who'd trusted him. It didn't matter if some of those people were crooked; he'd gravitated to them back then. Was he any better now?

With a heavy heart, Starsky said, "Coming to Bay City was the best thing that happened to me, because, against the odds, I became a cop. Even more amazing is that I met you and that you love me." He looked at the sand at his feet.

Without raising his head, he whispered, "You used to love me. After telling you this, I understand if you... you know, want to leave." Saying that last word was gut wrenching. He couldn't make Hutch love him, not after his confession.

Starsky's vision wavered as his eyes filled. Horrified that he was going to cry, he bit his lower lip hard.

"Starsky, look at me." Hutch's voice was low, gravelly.

Starsky couldn't tell if Hutch was angry or disappointed or disgusted from his tone. He took in a deep breath, then slowly released it. Mustering up his courage, he cast a sideways glance at Hutch.

Hutch didn't smile, but he did squeeze Starsky's hand tightly. "I will always love you. You were not a nice kid after your dad died. You overcame that, and now you're a great guy who's dedicated his life to helping other people. You've saved my life so many times I can't count. I will always, always love you."

Starsky let out a straggled cry. He went into Hutch's arms and clutched him. Hutch held him close, his arms tight. He kissed Starsky's ear. Starsky pushed his face into Hutch's shoulder. Hutch's hand carded his hair. It felt so good, being in Hutch's arms. He felt loved and protected.

Starsky felt forgiven. It was the best thing he'd ever experienced.

"Shhh. It'll be okay," Hutch crooned.

Starsky pulled back, blinked quickly. "I love you, too."

Hutch smiled, cupped Starsky's chin and leaned forward. Starsky met Hutch's advance and they kissed softly. Hutch let out a small gasp of pleasure that made Starsky's heart race. Their kisses deepened, grew harder and more frantic. Starsky needed to touch Hutch, run his hands over his lover's body, taste him all over.

Breaking off the kiss, Starsky rose to his knees. He looked up and down the beach. It was deserted. They were alone in their own world. He put his hands on Hutch's shoulders and smiled down at him. Hutch looked up, his eyes bright, dark jewels in the moonlight. Unable to wait any longer, Starsky leaned down, covered Hutch's mouth with his. Hutch moaned when Starsky pressed his tongue into Hutch's mouth, tasting his partner with delight. Hutch was warm and sweet.

Starsky pulled away, cupping Hutch's chin. "You taste like honey and sunshine." Hutch smiled up at him, his expression hungry.

Starsky pushed against Hutch's torso until Hutch lay back in the sand. Starsky crawled up Hutch's body until he got to his chest. He began to kiss and lick his way to Hutch's neck. When Starsky gently nipped Hutch's ear, Hutch shivered under him, moaning softly. Starsky moved back, unbuckled Hutch's belt and tugged down his pants and briefs. Hutch lifted his hips to give Starsky easy maneuverability. Starsky laid the clothing aside, rose and stripped out of his own pants and underwear. He stared down at Hutch, drinking in the sight of the slim body.

Hutch was beautiful. His chest was hairless, unlike Starsky's. His arms and legs were covered in fine blond hair, barely discernible in the moonlight. Hutch's cock... Oh my God, Starsky thought. It was a thing of beauty. Full and firm, bobbing with each breath Hutch took, nestled in a thatch of blond hair. Starsky felt his mouth drool at the sight. He wanted to eat Hutch up from the soles of his feet to the top of his tousled hair. Unable to wait any longer, Starsky dropped to his knees and wrapped a hand around Hutch's cock.

Hutch let out a soft cry. He lifted his hips, bucking into the tunnel of Starsky's hand. After his wild partner did that for a few seconds, Starsky released the thick member. Hutch moaned with frustration, reached for himself. Starsky batted away his hands.

"Mine." Starsky smiled when Hutch let his arms flop to the sand. Starsky cupped Hutch's balls in his hand, enjoying the weight and warmth. Hutch shuddered, put a hand across his mouth and spread his legs. Starsky chuckled, playing with the warm sac for a good while. His free hand walked up Hutch's chest and gently pinched a nipple. He was not really in the mood for playful sex. He liked hearing Hutch scream but here, in the moonlight, on what was a public beach, they had to be careful.

"Put this in your mouth." Starsky handed Hutch his own undershorts.

Hutch raised his head, his eyes full of questions. He didn't ask those questions. He put the material between his teeth.

"Don't want the neighbors coming to investigate, do we?" Starsky pinched Hutch's nipple. It hardened instantly. Hutch shook his head and bit down. Starsky smiled. He didn't think it was a warm smile.

Whatever Hutch saw made him moan softly. Starsky figured he saw desire and hunger and need because Hutch's entire body went limp, except for his cock, which seemed to swell even more. Acquiescence. Do what you like, was the message Hutch's body conveyed.

Starsky did. He worried Hutch's left nipple with his teeth, rolled his balls with his right hand and stroked his cock with his left.

Three points of contact might have been too much at once. Hutch bucked his hips, his thick cock growing under Starsky's touch. Hutch was close, too close. Starsky wasn't done with him yet. He pinched Hutch's cock head between his thumb and forefinger while he squeezed Hutch's balls firmly enough to make him gasp before he cover his cloth-filled mouth with his hand. He thrashed wildly under Starsky; he made rumbling sounds with his throat. Hutch's hips lifted and fell several times. Starsky rode the movement, not letting go until Hutch collapsed once again into a limp sprawl. Only then did Starsky release his balls and cock.

Starsky's own cock was ready to burst. He savagely gripped it until the pain made his eyes water. When it subsided to semi-rigidness, he let go and returned to the task at hand.

Hutch looked like he needed something. His eyes were closed, his head moved from side to side. He moaned constantly. Tiny shudders racked his body. His hips jerked occasionally, and his cockhead was red and leaking onto his belly.

Crooning softly, Starsky moved beside Hutch, kneeling in the sand. He leaned down and freed Hutch's mouth so he could have access. He kissed Hutch, tongue fucking him roughly while he pinched first his left and then his right nipple. When Starsky moved back, Hutch's eyes opened. He looked at Starsky with so much love and desire that Starsky's throat tightened.

"Love you, blintz." Starsky stroked Hutch's cheek.

Hutch nodded in return, telling Starsky with his body how much he loved him in return.

One thing Starsky knew and that was Hutch. From the way he lay, from the tears that leaked from his eyes, and from the rapid beating of his heart under Starsky's splayed hand, Starsky knew he would explode at any moment. He put the undershorts back into Hutch's mouth and kissed his forehead.

Not wanting Hutch to go beyond pleasure into pain with not being allowed to come, Starsky straddled Hutch, letting his own cock dangle over Hutch's face. He faced Hutch's cock, took it in hand, and after a single lick, he sucked the head into his mouth. Even with the light gag, from behind Hutch's hand, Starsky heard his cries of pleasure. Starsky jabbed his tongue again and again into the slit, jacking Hutch off with one hand.

Hutch stiffened, his hips jerked in a wild sexual dance. He came in Starsky's mouth. Starsky drank and sucked and stroked until Hutch's cock was as limp as it could be. Only then did he reach back and take the cloth from Hutch's mouth.

Hutch's arms circled Starsky's hips. Looking back, Starsky aimed and lowered himself into Hutch's waiting mouth. Hutch raised his head, pulling Starsky in as deeply as he could. Starsky gasped, shivered. Hutch bit Starsky with the right amount of pressure to make Starsky shudder. He used his teeth to nibble Starsky's cockhead, driving him wild. Hutch held Starsky captive in his strong arms while he bit and sucked and tongued Starsky. That familiar feeling raced through Starsky's body. His skin tingled as Hutch hauled him to the edge of orgasm. When Hutch moved one hand to Starsky's ass and fingered his hole, Starsky cried out, shooting come into Hutch's eager mouth.

With his eyes closed, Starsky rode the orgasm, embraced it, enjoying it immensely. Against the blackness of his closed eyes, a form, a shape flitted across his vision. Starsky watched the image sharpen. It was...

Holy crap!

A huge set of golden gates appeared with an angel standing to one side. The angel was clothed in sparkling white garments. The outline of the angel showed it was a man. He had gossamer wings, things of beauty that floated out from his back. Starsky moaned, from pleasure and from the sheer elegance of the vision.

Starsky released another pulse of semen into Hutch's mouth. Hutch's finger dipped into Starsky's hole, sending sensations zinging through him straight to his cock. The image came closer, bathed in a hot white light. Starsky was amazed. Closer he floated as Starsky spilled yet more come in an endless wave of bliss. Closer and closer until Starsky saw his face. Hutch's teeth scraped his cock right under the head. He screamed. The angel smiled and held out his hand.

The angel was his partner and lover, Hutch. The man who was always at his side, watching his back. His angel. Starsky's vision blurred then went black. He fell limply onto Hutch.

Starsky was finally drained in what had to be the most amazing orgasm of his life. He blinked slowly. Starsky was sure he'd been taken to heaven and back. Cognizant of Hutch under him, he carefully moved off his lover to flop beside him on the still warm sand.

"Heathen." Starsky grinned, looking over at his wanton partner.

Hutch looked supremely satisfied with what he'd done to Starsky. Hutch opened his eyes and met Starsky's. "Brazen."

Starsky was sure he looked as fulfilled as Hutch did. He'd reduced Hutch to a shivering, mewling mass of desire. He was pleased with himself as well. "As if you minded."

"Not at all." Hutch grinned. "Come and kiss me."

Starsky didn't hesitate. He kissed Hutch again and again until they both began to laugh.

"We'd better get moving if we have a chance in hell of finding this kid before anybody else is hurt," Hutch said, bringing Starsky crashing back to reality.

"Couldn't you let me float for a few minutes?" Starsky complained. "Besides, I'd rather go back to your place and have you fuck me senseless."

Hutch chuckled, shaking his head. He pushed himself to a sitting position. "Jesus, Starsk, you sucked all the vitality out of my body!"

Starsky grinned. "Just doing my job as your partner. But you're right. We need to finish this Alex thing sooner rather than later."

Gathering his clothes and getting to his feet, Hutch put out a hand. He pulled Starsky up. "I love you."

Starsky touched Hutch's arm lightly. "I love you, too."

They both dressed and, once presentable, they walked back towards the lights north of their secluded beach. Hand in hand, until they got close enough to the first beach house to be seen, they leaned on each other, kissing and laughing quietly. After Hutch dropped Starsky's hand, Starsky vowed that one day he and Hutch would be able to show their love for each other in public like any other couple.

But today they had work to do. Hutch and him. Together, cops, friends, lovers.

--------------------------------------------

Once in the Torino, Starsky paused before putting the key in the ignition. "I had a vision when I came. It was of you."

"Oh?" Hutch turned towards Starsky. "Was I sucking you off?"

"No." Starsky smiled, tapping Hutch's leg. "You were some guardian angel or something, standing before the Pearly Gates."

"Wow. Imagine that. I'm impressed at the high pedestal you've put me on. Not that it's undeserved."

"Hey!" Starsky cried, smacking Hutch's arm.

Hutch rubbed at the spot. "That didn't last long. One second I'm an angel and now you're smacking me around like I'm your personal slave."

"I like the sound of that." Starsky started the car. "Never had a personal slave before." He checked his side and rear view mirror before pulling out of the parking lot.

"You still don't." Hutch smiled. "Unless you want to play master and slave."

"I don't think it was that sort'a vision."

"What was it?"

"Not a clue. But it's gotta have something to do with this case."

"Okay. But what--?"

Starsky slammed on the brakes and slid the car to a stop.

"Hey!" Hutch yelled in surprise.

"Got a dime?"

"What are you doing? I almost bashed my head on the windshield!"

"Wear your seat belt then."

"The bloom fell off that rose quickly," Hutch muttered, raising his eyes heavenward. "One second I'm an angel, and now he's trying to kill me."

"Stop praying and give me a dime." Starsky held out his hand, shaking it, urging Hutch to hurry.

"Geez, Starsk. Give me a sec." Hutch lifted his butt off the seat and slid his hand into his pants. He pulled out several coins and dropped them into Starsky's fidgeting hand. "What are you doing? There's no pay phone here."

"Not a phone. A newspaper box."

"What?"

But Starsky was already out of the car and hopping the curb. He dropped the dime into the box and opened the front. Newspaper in hand, he trotted back to the Torino and opened the door, leaving it ajar so he could read by the overhead light. He turned the top of the pages until he got to the one he wanted. Folding the paper on its crease, he then folded the sheaf in half. "Look." Starsky shoved the paper at Hutch.

Hutch took it and glanced at the place Starsky was showing him. "The... Oh, the Alex Theater. It's playing Herbie Goes Bananas." He raised his face and studied Starsky. "And?"

"Alex. Alex Lawson. Alex Theater. Kids' movie. Jesus, Hutch, pay attention." Starsky lightly smacked the back of Hutch's head. "The gate!" He bounced in his seat. "The gate in my vision. There's gonna be a gate at the Alex Theater into another dimension. That's what my vision had to mean."

Hutch slowly lowered the paper, confusion on his face. "Okay. There's going to be an inter-dimensional gate at the Alex Theater. But what about Alex Lawson?"

"He'll be there, Hutch. I know it. Alex Lawson. Alex Theater. He's gonna come through the screen through the gate he's able to make and go back and forth between the movie and the theater."

"All right. Say you're right. He's going to be at this movie. Why?" Hutch's forehead wrinkled. "You think he wants a family, right?"

"Right. I think he wants to belong somewhere with someone. Think about this. He invited Melanie, the girl he had a crush on, to the movies. But Melanie wouldn't go into the movie with him. She was afraid." Starsky tapped the newspaper. "But tonight, at a 10 pm showing, maybe Ricky won't be there. It's late for kids to be out. But Alex," Starsky's voice rose the more excited he got, "he's not following any rules. Maybe he's back in our world, and can convince Melanie to go out with him. Get her to sneak out of her house."

Hutch nodded. "Yeah, I can buy that. Even if Melanie isn't allowed out this late, she could sneak out to meet him."

"You and me, Hutch. We're working off one brain." Starsky beamed at his partner.

Hutch looked horrified. "God help me, Starsky. I do not want to live in that brain of yours!"

Starsky started the Torino. "Hutch, sometimes you're a dork. You know that?" He pulled out onto the street. Casting Hutch a quick glance, he grinned. "But you're my dork."

"Ain't love grand?" Hutch quipped.

--------------------------------------

The Alex Theater on a clear summer evening was a busy place. The movie seemed to draw as many adults as kids. When Starsky drove down the block past the theater, he saw a small line of people buying tickets and going inside. He wasn't surprised to see adults, as well as teenagers, going in. Everybody wanted to laugh and forget their day-to-day grind. There was nothing better than a silly movie with a wild car and crazy bad guys. Starsky had seen the movie twice already, and he'd laughed his backside off. Except when they tossed little Herbie into the drink. He was p.o'd about that. Poor thing.

Coming back to the present, Starsky realized that he was having a recurrence of the strange sensations he'd experienced at the other movie theaters. Even though he was driving past and not inside, the hair on his body was standing straight up. His palms were sweating and his legs were shaking. He didn't like being here at all.

"Starsk?" Hutch squeezed his bicep. "Weird vibes?"

"Yeah," he admitted. "'M okay. It's damned creepy; he's here. I know he's here." Starsky scanned the people strolling down the side walk. He spied a kid wearing a green hooded sweatshirt, jeans and... blue Adidas sneakers. Exactly like his. Alex? Maybe that was a good sign. If Alex liked blue Adidas sneakers, maybe they could find a common ground. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

"There he is," Starsky whispered, as if Alex could hear him. Who knew? Maybe he could.

"And Melanie's with him," Hutch said. They'd already checked at her house, and her mother was more than a little upset to find she wasn't in her room.

Starsky watched as Alex pushed money into the ticket booth, picked up his tickets, and led Melanie by the hand into the theater. He didn't seem to notice Starsky's bright red Torino cruising by.

"Let me out," Hutch said.

Starsky slowed to a stop. Hutch hopped out. Starsky hurried down the block into the first lot he saw. He double parked the Torino, jogging back to the theater.

Hutch was nowhere to be seen. Starsky went to the door, bypassing the ticket booth. Inside, he unobtrusively showed the young lady tearing tickets in half his badge. "Detective Starsky. Official business."

The girl, "Angela" her name badge read, nodded. "The other cop already went in."

Starsky gave her a smile. "Thanks." He walked over to the curtain separating the lobby from the theater's interior. Pushing it aside, he slipped in, giving his eyes a few moments to adjust.

While the coming attractions were played, he studied the heads of the crowd. Towards the front, on the right side, three rows from the front, he spied Hutch. There was an empty seat to Hutch's left. Starsky walked down the aisle, scanning the crowd at the front of the theater. If he were Alex and wanted to have easy access to the movie, he'd be in the front row. As he slipped into the empty seat next to Hutch, he had a line of sight to see that Alex and Melanie were sitting in the center of the first row.

Hutch leaned his head towards Starsky. Starsky met him halfway. "I see them."

The movie started. The credits rolled and Herbie made his first appearance. Starsky fidgeted in his seat, watching Alex intently.

"What's he waiting for?" Hutch asked.

"The right moment. When the gate opens or rather, when he opens it."

"You think he's able to do that? Make a hole in the screen?"

"Not a hole, exactly, but somehow he can get into the movie."

"Shhh," somebody behind them hissed.

Not wanting to attract Alex's attention, Starsky leaned away from Hutch and kept his eyes glued on the back of Alex's head. The movie started.

Bad move. Alex shifted in his seat, and Starsky saw him turn and inspect the crowd.

"Damn," Starsky muttered, tearing his eyes away from the boy. He looked up at the movie, praying that Alex wouldn't recognize him. Alex had, after all, invaded his dreams and told him to back off or else. Would Alex be able to identify Starsky from those encounters? Or did Starsky give off some strange "look at me, I used ta have magic" vibe.

"He's moving," Hutch whispered.

Alex stood up, pulled Melanie to her feet, and led her to the stage in front of the screen. He vaulted onto the stage in one move, then turned to help Melanie climb up. She seemed to be going of her own free will. If she'd been protesting, it would have been better, Starsky thought. They might have been able to grab Alex in the confusion that her screams would have caused. No such luck. She was walking with him towards the screen.

"Alex!" Starsky shouted.

Other patrons were now standing, yelling at Alex and Melanie to sit down and for Starsky to shut up. Starsky took off, covering the distance in long strides, with Hutch right behind him. As he leapt up to the stage, Melanie turned and saw them.

"No!" Starsky shouted at her. "Don't do it!"

Melanie hesitated.

Alex dragged her by the arm closer to the screen. He glanced back at the two cops once, gave a jaunty salute, and disappeared into the movie.

Starsky shouted again, "Melanie!" and raced to grab her hand. He almost made it. He was less than a foot from her when Alex latched onto her right hand and pulled. Melanie was forcefully jerked into the screen, disappearing like Alex had seconds before. Starsky slid to a stop. The material of the screen wavered as if someone had tossed a stone into a still pond. The ripples washed over Starsky, sending an uncomfortable electrical current through his body. He cried out, jumping back. He slammed into Hutch.

"Are you okay?" Hutch asked. He steadied Starsky.

"I think so. Man, that was weird. This current went right through me." Starsky shuddered. "It was not pleasant."

"Can he hurt you?"

Starsky paused. "I don't know. Hutch, it doesn't matter. I gotta try."

"Is this the gate?" Hutch asked, nodding to the picture screen where the movie still played on.

Starsky reached out and with the tip of one finger touched the material. "Argh." He wrenched his hand away, shaking it. "That stung!"

"I have an idea. I'm going with you."

Starsky cupped his tingling hand with his other, rubbing it. Hutch with him, that was what he needed. When Hutch was beside him, he had the strength to do what he needed to do. He wasn't a dummy. He jumped at the idea. "I'm game. We'd better hurry. We're gathering a crowd." He jerked his chin up. Half the theater was on their feet yelling at them to sit back down. Some people seemed more aware that the kids had gone through the screen, and were acting panicked.

"You sure you want to do this? I have no idea what's on the inside of a movie. It could be dangerous."

"Dangerous? Is that something new?" Hutch said with a grin, raising his eyebrow. "You're not going in alone without backup."

"Then it's me and you, together like always." Starsky held out his hand. Hutch took it instantly. "Angel," Starsky said, smiling. "Ready?"

"As I'll ever be."

When Hutch nodded to go ahead, Starsky didn't hesitate. He turned, laced his fingers tightly into Hutch's, and rushed forward before he could change his mind.

-------------------------------------------

Starsky's entire body lit up. He felt the tingling stabs of a thousand tiny shocks. With a cry, he tumbled through the screen, pulling Hutch with him, not letting go. He was running on instinct when he decided that if he wasn't holding onto Hutch, Hutch wouldn't be able to cross through the gate. That little voice inside his head told him it was true. From now on, he planned on paying attention to it whenever it spoke up.

Hutch landed on top of Starsky, squashing his partner to the ground.

"Hutch, you okay?" Starsky asked, running his hands over Hutch's back.

"Think so." Hutch's breath was hot on Starsky's neck.

"Can you get up? I can't breathe."

After letting out another heavy breath, Hutch levered himself off Starsky. He looked around. "What in holy hell is this?"

Starsky sat up. He was still tingling all over but whatever electrical charge had run through him had begun to dissipate.

He was fully through the screen and into the movie!

"Oh my God," Starsky whispered as he took in the scene before him. Slowly he got to his knees and then his feet as he tried to make sense of what he was seeing.

It was the strangest thing he'd ever encountered. The entire vista was flat as if it had been crushed by a steamroller. The air felt thick, dusty, and the flavor of it stuck to the back of his throat. It made him gag, but at least there was air. He could breathe even though the air was not pleasant.

With one hand on his stomach and the other over his mouth, Starsky turned in a full circle. The area under his blue Adidas sneakers was papery but solid. He stepped forward, careful to make sure the ground would hold him. When it proved firm, he started walking, looking from left to right to get a lay of the land.

Hutch stood still as Starsky looked left and right over and over. "Starsky? Are we... in the movie?"

Starsky had trouble answering. He was in shock. How could this happen? It wasn't possible yet here he was, inside a movie! His throat was dry and his heart was racing. It took all of his courage to not run screaming wildly, shouting that he must be insane. Yet how could he be when Hutch was beside him, seeing what he was seeing?

What he was seeing was a race track. He saw stands and people and cars. The sky was blue; the center of the track was green grass. The sun was shining. It was so normal looking except for the fact that everything was as two-dimensional and flat as a sheet of paper. Weirder and weirder, he thought.

Looking down at his own hand, he saw that he wasn't flat. His hand, his shoes, looked normal. Starsky touched his hair. It felt like it always did. That made the entire thing even worse. He was himself but this world wasn't. Hutch looked as bewildered as he must look.

"Wow," Hutch whispered.

"You can say that again."

"Wow."

"Smart ass," Starsky said in a low voice. For some odd reason, he didn't want to make much noise. Why, he had no clue. Maybe he didn't want to wake up any big nasty alligators.

Starsky turned around until he was facing the spot where he and Hutch had entered this world. He saw nothing that would show him the doorway home. Sweat beaded on Starsky's forehead. Were they trapped here? That thought scared him more than the alligator. He stifled a shiver and made himself breathe in deeply and release it slowly.

"So how do we find Alex and Melanie? And what do we do when and if we find them?" Hutch wondered.

"Talk sense into the kid?" Starsky asked.

"It's a start." Hutch's gaze swept the area again. "I don't hear anything."

"Oh. I hadn't noticed but you're right. It's so quiet!"

"Maybe because of the sound track? It was playing when we came here. Maybe it's turned off now."

"As good an explanation as any. This could be what happens when the movie is stopped." Starsky threw out his hands, turning in a full circle. "Hutch, this is all new to me. All I did as a kid was use my magic to push people into making bets for me. I never tried moving or manipulating objects. Never crossed my mind."

"Let's look around," Hutch suggested.

Starsky nodded. "Stay close."

"Definitely." Hutch slid two fingers into Starsky's belt loop. When Starsky gave him a questioning look, he lifted one shoulder. "You're my way out of here. I'm keeping you nice and close."

Starsky had to smile. "Thanks for the vote of confidence."

"I have all the confidence in the world in you, partner. Lead on."

Starsky huffed out a shaky breath. He scanned the scene once more, letting his mind open. Maybe that old magic could help him decide which way to go. The left seemed more tangible than the right so he started walking that way. Nothing changed. The vista was flat as they walked. Starsky had no idea how they could even move in this environment. It was downright creepy.

After five minutes, Starsky saw movement from the corner of his eye. He jumped sideways, startled. Hutch lost his hold on Starsky's belt.

"What?" Hutch was beside Starsky in a flash, their shoulders pressed together.

Starsky cocked his head. "Thought I saw something move. Over there." He listened intently. Nothing. He stared until his eyes watered.

When a noise clattered behind him, Starsky almost peed his shorts. He jumped three inches into the air, lurching forward before he twirled on his heels like some ungainly ballerina. He slammed into Hutch and they both had to scramble to keep their footing.

"Look!" Starsky pointed. In the background of the race track montage, something was definitely moving. As it grew closer, it didn't make any noise but became bigger and bigger until a perfectly flat Herbie raced straight at him and Hutch.

It bore down on them at full speed. He shoved Hutch to one side while he lurched to the other side to avoid being mowed down by a paper-thin Volkswagen. As he crashed to the ground, he saw Hutch flailing to keep his balance. Hutch plopped on his bottom and sat stunned for a moment.

Starsky blinked slowly, climbing to his feet, rubbing his back where he'd landed hard. He peered at the two dimensional Herbie balanced on its edge. He could see 53 painted on the flat door of the vehicle. How in the hell had that car moved? What kept it from falling over? And more importantly, who had moved it?

Before he could begin to process the questions, the door of the VW opened. First a leg emerged, then a torso, then the rest of a person. Starsky's mouth was hanging open. He was too shocked to close it while he stared. A teenager with shocking red hair, wearing blue Adidas sneakers, cut-off jean shorts, and a baseball jersey with the number 13 on it emerged.

"Alex?" Starsky blurted out.

The boy looked at Starsky and glowered. "I told you to stay away! This is my world, not yours!"

"You sent that gator after me."

"Apparently, you didn't get the message." The boy crossed his arms. He was not happy. "You're gonna be sorry. So is he." Alex jerked his head towards Hutch.

Starsky spared a quick glance at Hutch. He was standing on the other side of the VW. His face showed his shock and confusion. But Hutch recovered quickly. He caught Starsky's gaze, nodded and straightened his shoulders. I'm here with you, partner, was Hutch's clear message.

Starsky gave a small nod in return. Thanks, partner. Need you too. "Stay close. I don't like this place."

Alex lounged against the VW, but his casual stance didn't hide the menace behind his eyes.

"Listen, kid, I'm here to help. You have to stop this now. You can't go around using your powers to hurt people. Bad things will happen to you if you do." Starsky took a step closer to Alex, his hand opened wide to show that he didn't have any weapons. "I'm here to see what you want so we can come to some sort of deal."

Alex narrowed his eyes. "Now, why would I want to do that? There's nothing you have that I need."

"How about not ending up in jail or worse? I was like you once, using magic to get what I wanted. I ended up with a price on my head. It was a miracle I survived."

"I'm smarter than you. I won't get caught. I can do what I like when I like." Alex stuck out his lower lip. He reminded Starsky of a recalcitrant two-year-old.

"Let's talk about this like adults," Starsky pleaded. "I want to help you."

Alex laughed coldly. "What can you do for me?"

"You tell me."

"Okay. Bring my parents back from the dead, and I'll promise to be a good little boy," Alex said sarcastically.

"I can't do that. I can promise you that I'll do whatever I can to help." Starsky put out a hand. "If you need somebody to talk to, I'm here."

"Starsky, look."

Starsky hated taking his eyes off Alex but Hutch sounded unhappy. "What?"

"In the car. The girl is in the car," Hutch said. He tried to open the door, but the flat surface had no purchase.

"Melanie?" Starsky walked around the back of the flat VW, his eyes never leaving Alex.

On the passenger's side, behind the closed window, Melanie was banging on the glass with the palms of her hands. Her mouth was open and Starsky could see her saying, "Help me!" But he couldn't hear her voice or the pounding of her hands against the glass.

"Let her go!" Starsky demanded. "Now!"

"No! She said she liked me, and then she started hanging out with Ricky! I thought he was my friend! I thought she and I were going out together. But no. She had to bring Ricky along. Now she's staying with me!" Alex stood with his hands balled into fists, his eyes flashing with anger. "I'm in charge here!"

"She'll die in here, Alex."

"You don't know that! I'm fine. I'm breathing and so are you!"

Starsky stared intently over the VW. "What about food? Clothes? You can't live in a movie!"

"I can do what I want!"

As Alex's fury rose, the movie scene undulated. When the ground under their feet started to split, Hutch cried out, "Starsky, watch out!"

Starsky saw a crack appear between his shoes. It began to widen. He had to jump aside to keep from falling into the enlarging chasm. He caught himself on one hand and stood up. Hutch was on the ground several feet away. "Hutch!"

"I'm okay. What can I do?" He scrambled to his feet.

"Get Melanie outta that car!"

"Starsky, you have to help me do that."

"Like how?"

"Use your power. There has to be something left in you to help her. Try, Starsky." Hutch reached out his hand.

Starsky looked at Hutch's fingers for a moment before he took them. "Something. What?" he said aloud.

Melanie was frantically pounding the glass. He saw tears streaking her face and her nose was running. He tried to find a door handle. There was nothing under his fingers but smooth paper. He used his free hand to press against the papery glass. "Think," he told himself. He closed his eyes. "Maybe..."

Starsky had no idea if he could still do this but he had to try. Alex was growing more agitated. The movie scene began to crumble into dust around them. Before the number 53 bug dissolved, perhaps taking Melanie with it, Starsky had to try.

Firmly holding onto Hutch's hand for an anchor, he closed his eyes. He concentrated, wondering if his push would work. He hadn't done it in a long time. He had to push somebody who could "see" the car door handle and open the door so Melanie could escape. He held Hutch's gaze with his, gripped his hand tightly, and closed his eyes. He pushed into Hutch's mind. Warmth filled him. It was inviting and loving. He pushed again. After a few seconds, he mentally felt something give way. He pushed harder, gave a gentle shove, and Hutch's mind opened to his.

Open the door handle. It's there. Trust me. Put your hand down and open the door.

Hutch did. He opened the door and Melanie spilled out. Starsky let go. Hutch caught the girl in his arms. Her sobs filled the air.

"I got you," Hutch crooned, stroking her hair. He looked up at Starsky, his eyes bright and full of wonder. "It worked."

Starsky brushed his fingers across Hutch's cheek. "You did great."

"Talk to him, Starsky. Convince him to surrender before it's too late."

"I want you out of the line of fire but... I think you need to stay with me; stay close. I have no clue if you and the girl can get out through the gate if things go bad with me and Alex." Starsky looked over at the teenager. He was still in the same spot. "If things go downhill, try and get out."

"If I can."

"If you can." Starsky put out his hand.

Hutch helped Melanie to her feet. He took Starsky's hand and nodded. "Melanie, are you okay?" Hutch asked.

"Yeah, I think so." While she still had tear tracks on her cheeks, she squared her shoulders. Looking at Starsky, she said, "Can you get us out of here?" She glanced over at Alex. "Will he hurt us?"

"I don't know," Starsky admitted. "But I'm gonna try and talk to him. Hutch and I will protect you."

"Thanks," Melanie said. "Now what?"

"I'll talk to Alex. You and Hutch are my backup."

Melanie smiled. "Cool."

"Hutch?" Starsky needed Hutch's strength and his presence. He was, after all, Starsky's guardian angel.

"Ready, buddy."

"Then let's do this."

--------------------------------

"Alex!" Starsky shouted. He led Hutch and Melanie around the flattened VW.

Alex was furious. Starsky could see that his face was flushed, his body was tense, and his fists were clenched. "You'll be sorry."

The odd thing was that Alex hadn't tried to stop Starsky. He hadn't moved from where he'd been earlier when he'd climbed out of Herbie. Did he not have the power to stop Starsky from taking Melanie out of the movie? Maybe his powers weren't strong enough in spite of his boasting. Maybe he was scared of Starsky. He did have the ability to manipulate the movie, and he did have the ability to warn off Starsky in his dreams. He could get into the movie and he could release things from it into the real world. That could be the extent of his powers. Not that they were harmless, but he didn't seem able to simply wish Starsky dead or throw a bolt of lightning through him.

Maybe Alex could be saved. He had to try. He released Hutch's hand. "I need you close," Starsky said quietly, glancing over his shoulder at Hutch.

"I'm here." Hutch stood behind Starsky, with Melanie next to him. He put his hand on Starsky's shoulder.

Starsky patted his fingers. It was reassuring to have a physical link with Hutch. He felt somehow stronger with Hutch at his back, both physically and philosophically. He squared his shoulders and looked directly into Alex's eyes.

"I was like you once, Alex. I still had a mother but my father was gunned down in our own driveway by mobsters. Your folks are dead. I know about the car accident. They were taken from you like my pops was from me. I had--have the same magic you do." Hutch's fingers tightened on Starsky's shoulder. That touch made him warm inside. Alex stared at Starsky, shook his head. "Yeah, I do. That's why you felt me. You came into my dreams and tried to scare me off." Starsky chuckled dryly. "I gotta say, that 'gator scared the crap outta me."

That made Alex give a small smile. He looked pleased with himself.

"Good job. But you're a smart kid. You know you can't force a girl to like you any more than she can force you to like her. True?"

Alex shrugged. At least he was listening.

"I went over to your foster parents' home. They're really worried about you and they want you to come home."

"They don't want me," Alex snarled. "They got two others kids now. I'm not what they want."

"Alex, I spoke to them myself. Your mom-- Mrs. O'Malley is worried, and Mr. O'Malley says he wants you to come home. Yeah, they got the twins to take care of now, but they want you and need you, too. Why would they lie when they could'a said if we found you to take you back to the group home? Huh? Were they puttin' on a front? Were they mean to you? Talk to me, please."

Alex shuffled his feet. "They were okay," he mumbled. "Chrissy likes me, always wants to follow me around. Bobby calls me Bubba. He's trying to say Big Brother." He shrugged. "It's okay, I guess."

"It's like a family, huh?" Starsky asked. "You have to do chores and maybe sometimes watch the other kids. That's a pain, I know. I have a younger brother and he used'ta get into my army men all the time. Really bugged the heck out of me."

Alex shrugged again. "They're okay," he finally admitted. "Little kids don't know any better."

"Can we make a deal?" Starsky asked. He took a second to glance over his shoulder at Hutch. Seeing his partner standing there, tall and strong, made Starsky thank everything he believed in for letting Hutch be his other half.

Hutch met his gaze. "We're okay. Both of us."

Melanie nodded also. "I'm good." She looked past Starsky over at Alex with such fury in her eyes that Starsky could feel her anger. He wouldn't want to be on the receiving end of Melanie's displeasure.

After giving Hutch a grateful smile, he turned back to Alex. "So, can we do this?"

Alex huffed out a breath. Starsky couldn't tell if it was annoyance or resignation. "What deal?"

"You stop using whatever powers you have to hurt or harm anybody, including yourself." Starsky waited.

"If I do?"

Starsky felt a small ripple of triumph. Alex was listening to him in spite of the belligerent demeanor. "You and me and Hutch, will figure it out together. I was in your room, and I saw you liked making movies. You have a really great camera. We know a few people in the movie business." Starsky touched Hutch's fingers.

"We were both in a movie once," Hutch told Alex "Maybe we could find out if your real talent lies in working with a camera rather than causing all this commotion and scaring children. One of those little kids got injured. He never did anything to you and now he's hurt and scared," he said unhappily. "Starsky and I don't like it when anybody is harmed."

Starsky watched Alex intently, waiting to see what his reaction would be.

Alex blanched. "I didn't mean-- I wasn't trying to hurt anybody."

"This ain't the best way to get attention." Starsky waved a hand back towards Melanie. "It sure isn't the best way to get a pretty girl to like you."

Melanie jutted out her chin. "I'm really upset with you, Alex. You aren't being nice to me at all and you hurt a kid! That is not cool." Her eyes flashed in anger. "I thought you were a great guy, but now... You're a major ass." She looked up at Hutch. "Sorry about the bad word."

Hutch 's hand gripped Starsky's shoulder. Starsky got the message. Alex was looking unhappy and embarrassed at Melanie's dressing-down. Hutch leaned forward to whisper in Starsky's ear, "Go, Melanie!."

Alex stared at Melanie, his face pale. Maybe he could feel her anger after all.

"Alex," Starsky said firmly, "look at me." He waited until he had Alex's attention. "Wouldn't it be better to do something great like make a movie that thousands of people want to see?"

As if picking up on his partner's thoughts, Hutch said, "Can you imagine how amazing it would be to get an Oscar for cinematography?"

Starsky nodded. "I can't promise you that, but I can promise to help you figure it all out." Starsky paused. "And we can both help you learn how to treat a lady."

Melanie glared at Alex. "He needs lessons for sure."

Starsky hid his smile. He liked Melanie more and more with each passing minute. She was feisty.

Alex scuffed his toe against the papery ground. "Guess I've been an ass. Melanie's right. I haven't been nice to anybody."

"Not even yourself," Starsky said.

Alex shrugged.

"Wanna change? Not be so miserable? It's up to you." Starsky waited.

Melanie said, "I'd jump at it if I were you, Alex. You won't get another chance from what I can see."

Starsky smiled. "Listen to the lady." He held out his hand.

Alex eyed Starsky's hand warily. "How do I know you'll keep the deal?"

"How do I know you will?" Starsky kept his hand out. "Man to man, we'll shake on it."

Alex glowered at Starsky for a full minute. He spat on his own hand and held it out. "Okay. Deal."

Starsky did the same. They shook. Electrical energy raced through Starsky.

Alex's eyes widened. "Wow. What was that?"

"That was magical power, kid. Yours and mine. Keep it locked down, will ya?" Starsky smiled.

"You, too." After he let go, Alex rubbed his hand as if it still tingled.

"Hutch?" Starsky said.

"Yeah, partner?"

"You ready to get out of here?"

"The sooner the better."

Starsky turned and took Hutch's hand. "Me and thee," he said for Hutch's ears only.

Hutch gave Starsky a warm smile. "Wouldn't have it any other way. Lead the way."

Starsky held out his other hand to Melanie. "I'll get you through the gate and Alex here will make sure it's gone for good. Right?"

"Yeah, yeah." Alex waved a hand. "I said I would and I will. I'm gonna miss being in the movies though."

"Your movie hopping days are over, kid." Starsky said. "You're gonna have to look at them through a lens from now on."

"I can live with that," Alex said.

"You'd better," Melanie said. "I can forgive you this time. But if you try to do this again, I'll never speak to you ever again. And I mean never."

"I believe her. Hutch, you believe her?"

"I sure do. If Alex is a smart, he'll believe her too."

Starsky chuckled dryly. "I wouldn't want to be on her bad side. I'd rather be on her good one," Starsky said, looking at Alex in particular before he looked approvingly at Melanie, and hoped her threat might help Alex remember his promise.

Hutch thumped Starsky on the shoulder. "Get us out of here, Starsk. I'm tired and hungry. It's been a long day."

With a smile and a jaunty step, Starsky led the way home.

-----------------------------------------

Starsky walked through the gateway out onto the stage of the Alex Theater. There was a group of about fifteen people gathered in the space between the front row and the stage. The police had been called and half a dozen cops were also gathered speaking with the crowd.

"Hey!" somebody shouted. "Look!"

Starsky stood looking around for a moment before he let go of Hutch and casually walked across the stage. Hutch kept hold of Melanie's hand, walking behind Starsky. Alex brought up the rear. Starsky heard Alex mutter something. Starsky knew the second he'd closed the gateway as promised. The electrical charge he'd felt in the air since he'd entered the theater disappeared. Everything was back to normal. He sighed with relief. Back to normal, and nobody had died or were trapped in a two-dimensional world.

"Thank God," he heard Hutch whisper behind him.

"What?" Starsky asked over his shoulder.

"Nobody died or were left behind."

"Ain't that grand?"

Hutch put a hand on Starsky's shoulder and his mouth close to his partner's ear. "We got some 'splaining to do."

"Tap dancing you mean."

"Good thing we're partners. We can tango through anything."

Starsky chuckled softly. By the time the group reached the end of the stage, the officers on duty were moving to get close to them. He recognized several of them from the first incident at the Nuart.

"What happened?" Officer Martinez asked.

Officer Albright looked at them like they were crazy. He looked at the screen and back to Starsky, Hutch, and the kids. "Where were you?"

"What's going on?" Officer Doyle asked. "People here were insisting you both actually entered the movie. Were you--?" He pointed at the screen.

Starsky looked at each man in turn. "We had a couple of kids who needed our help. Thanks for taking care of the crowd. Hutch and me will take it from here."

Starsky pulled his badge and held it up to the small crowd. He turned to Alex and took his elbow as Hutch did the same with Melanie. "Police business." He didn't pause. He climbed off the stage with Alex beside him, with Hutch and Melanie close behind. "Step aside! Thank you."

The group walked out of the theater without looking back. Thankfully, nobody had called the newspapers yet, and there were no flash bulbs going off in their faces either inside the theater or outside.

Starsky looked at his watch. Holy hell. He and Hutch had been gone for less than ten minutes. It had felt like hours to him when they were inside the movie.

"We'll call the O'Malleys and Melanie's folks from the station," Starsky called over his shoulder.

"Good idea. The last thing we need is reporters."

Starsky smiled. Hutch and he were always thinking along the same lines. That's what made them such good partners. Such good friends and lovers. On the way to HQ, Starsky's stomach let out a huge rumble.

Hutch looked over at him, a smile on his face. "Hungry?"

"All right!" Starsky laughed. "I am back to normal! Man, I could eat a horse!"

Hutch smirked.

"What?"

"Nothing."

"That innocent look ain't cuttin' it, blintz."

"Glad you're back to what you consider normal."

With a laugh, Starsky said, "Me, too."

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Starsky lay in Hutch's big bed, listening to the sounds of the shower. Hutch was singing "You Made Me Love You." Starsky grinned. Today had been a good day.

Dobey had listened to Starsky and Hutch's story about Alex being a runaway. The kid admitted to causing trouble at the theaters and swore he would change. Dobey questioned the kid intensely before releasing him in his foster parent's recognizance.

Privately, Alex swore to Starsky that he'd be on his best behavior, and Starsky and Hutch made arrangements to discuss his future with his foster parents, his school's guidance counselor, and a therapist. A victim of an overworked juvenile social system, Alex had never had any grief counseling when his parents were killed.

It had been a hell of a good day. Alex would be a challenge, but Starsky liked a challenge.

As he listened to Hutch singing in the bathroom and thought about Hutch naked and wet, with hot water and soap running over his lean body, Starsky reached down to touch himself.

"Stop that," Hutch said, catching him as he emerged from the bathroom.

Starsky ignored his partner. He licked his lips loudly, stroking his cock. "I'm thinking of this guy. Tall, muscular. Blond. Makes me hard and horny." He caressed himself, sighing as he did so. It felt so damned good. He looked at Hutch from the corner of his eye.

Hutch stood, naked and beautiful, a few feet away. His breathing was quickly rising and his eyes were a dark shade of blue. Hutch's eyes got dark when he was turned on. Those sexy eyes narrowed.

Hutch licked his own lips. "Hands off. That's mine tonight. Every delicious inch."

"Your wish is my command," Starsky said softly, not stopping his stroking. He lifted his hips, jacking himself off.

Hutch let out a growl. In a moment, he was on Starsky, covering him with his body. "In case you didn't hear me, this," he reached between their bodies and grasped Starsky firmly, "is mine."

"Hutch!" Starsky gasped. He nuzzled Hutch's neck. He smelled of DIAL soap and clean Hutch-ness. "You smell good enough to eat."

Hutch pulled away to look down into Starsky's eyes. He raised an eyebrow. "Starsk, have you noticed how often you compare me to food?"

Starsky laughed, cupping Hutch's bottom with his hands. "I like food. I like you. Got a problem with that?"

Hutch laughed with him, kissing the side of Starsky's face. "Nope." He paused. "It went well today. Are you happy being Alex's Big Brother? It's a lot of work."

"Yeah. It'll be great. You 'n me and Kiko, we'll keep him on the straight and narrow."

"We will at that," Hutch said, kissing down Starsky's face and neck. "Do you wish you still had, you know, magical powers? I mean, real ones with oomph behind them."

"I had real ones. I'll bet I could still have real ones if I worked at it, but it's not for me. I'd rather have normal. With you." Starsky pulled Hutch's face closer and nibbled at the end of his nose. "Besides, I got enough to take care of with you for a partner. Somebody's gotta keep your butt out of trouble. I sure don't need any more than that." Starsky kissed Hutch's upper lip, nipping at the soft skin. "You and me together are all the magic I need." He snaked a hand down between their hip bones and tweaked Hutch's hard cock.

Hutch gasped and laughed at the same time. He rolled along side Starsky and played with one of his nipples. It hardened instantly, making Starsky squirm. "Oh, baby, you are really asking for it."

"At least we agree on one thing." Starsky sprang up, flipped over, got on his knees, and wrapped his hands around the bars on the headboard. He glanced down at Hutch with his best 'fuck me senseless' look.

The look that Hutch gave him in return, hungry and wild, made Starsky harder than he already was. Hutch gave a small growl and, to Starsky's complete satisfaction, he played Starsky like a maestro plays an orchestra.

Starsky came twice. In one night. He thought he heard angels singing, but it was 'only' Hutch, humming happily while he pounded into Starsky's ass, played with his cock, pulled on his balls, and nipped his shoulder.

Actually, Hutch was an angel, his angel. And his singing made Starsky feel loved and horny and fulfilled and... and...

Starsky howled. Holy crap, he came a third time.

Hallelujah.

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