Chapter One: Locked Up
"This never woulda happened in Bay City." The dark haired guy ran a hand through his curls, pacing the cell. "Ain't that right, Hutch?" He turned to look at the tall, lanky blond perched on the bunk.
Nick leaned back against the wall on his own side of the cell, nudging Cody gently in the ribs and rolling his eyes when his partner shot him a glance.
Cody grinned and settled more comfortably on the bunk. "Look," he said, holding up a hand towards the two strangers, "Quinlan's an ass, okay? He's always locking me and Nick up for penny-ante shit. What'd he get you for?"
The dark guy swung around, his hand lingering on the blond's shoulder. "We ain't crooks. We're cops - ow - " he shot a dirty look at his partner " - well, ex-cops, but we're still detectives and we're down here following up a lead, an' now we've been pulled in on some piss-ass trespassing rap. It stinks, an' as soon as I - ow!" This time, he broke off, spinning around to face the tall blond who'd been silent up til now.
Now, he stood up and Cody realized he was even taller than he'd originally thought. Likely even taller than him. "Starsk, siddown, willya?" he said lazily, but his eyes were crinkled with amusement. "We've made our call, and y'know Dobey said he'd help us out."
"Yeah, when he stopped laughing," the guy he'd called Starsk griped, but he did sit down, and Cody noticed he seemed short of breath. The blond leaned down to him, saying something beneath the edge of hearing, and Cody and Nick exchanged a glance.
"Anyhow, my name's Ken Hutchinson." The blond straightened, turning a pleasant grin on Nick and Cody. "So you get locked up all the time, huh? I used to know some guys like that." The glance he sent their way was measuring and Cody shifted fast against Nick's shoulder as he felt his partner bristle.
"I'm Cody Allen. And like I said, Quinlan's an ass," Cody said, his own grin turning wide and people-pleasing. He hadn't meant these strangers to think he and Nick were bums. "I mean today, he pulled us in for - "
"Assault with a deadly weapon," Quinlan said grimly, appearing at the cell door holding the volleyball Nick had accidentally bounced off the Lieutenant's head. "Trust me, detectives, these two skunk-hunters aren't the kind of guys you wanna be talking to. I talked to your captain and your story checks out, but in future, I'd appreciate a call from Bay City PD when you're on my turf."
He swung the door wide, stepping back, and only Nick and Cody heard the guy called Starsk whisper as he stood up. "Dobey told him we're still in the force!"
Hutchinson grinned and turned to Quinlan. "I knew Captain Dobey would vouch for us," he said, and laid a hand on his partner's arm. "C'mon, Starsk. Let's go finish up what we came for."
Chapter Two: Partnered Up
Being private dicks wasn't as easy as it sounded. Starsky leaned on the doorjam, trying to pretend nonchalance as Hutch unlocked the motel room door. Trying to pretend his chest wasn't burning like he'd ate fire, his legs shaking so bad he knew he was one step away from falling on his ass.
"Come on, tough guy." Hutch stuck the key on its heavy plastic tag in his pants pocket and put his arm around his partner. Took his weight.
Starsky resisted for an instant, then gave in, letting Hutch support him through the door. "'M fine," he muttered.
"Sure you are." Hutch half carried him to the bed and helped him lie down. "And after you take a nap, I'll think about believing you, partner. Go on. Sleep."
"We gotta check out that--"
"Correction, pal. I gotta check out those papers. You gotta check out dreamland. Come on." Hutch ran a hand through Starsky's hair, and Starsky's eyes closed despite himself.
"That's it." Hutch's voice slowed. softened, like he was soothing a child, and the rest of Starsky's half-formed arguments dissolved into nothingness. The last thing he knew as sleep claimed him was the gentle hand, stroking his hair.
The loss of stamina was what still hit Starsky the worst. He could work with the shortness of breath, the intermittent cramps. Even the realization he'd never be fit enough to get back on the force. But the way his strength left him when he needed it, that socked him where it hurt.
He still felt wrung out, even though he'd slept all afternoon while Hutch sorted the paperwork they'd obtained by means the Bay City PD woulda frowned at. They had the deeds and the copies of the will they'd been sent to find, but from what Hutch said, their client wasn't gonna be happy with the results. Starsky couldn't find the strength to care.
"I haven't been a lot of use," he muttered, as Hutch helped him out of the car. "Sorry, Blondie."
"Yeah you have," Hutch contradicted him, holding him closer than he needed to, his arm lingering around Starsky's shoulders. "Your snoring was the perfect musical accompaniment to that paperwork."
"Shut up, Blintz. Y'know I don't snore." Starsky ducked his head against his partner's shoulder, lingering in Hutch's warmth.
"Oh, you do." Hutch's smile was serene, and he steered his partner toward the restaurant. "Come on, pal. I dunno about you, but I'm starving."
"Snoring's hungry work," Starsky said wryly.
Straightaway's was half full. Nick and Cody had been there an hour, nursing their beers over hamburgers and fries. They neither of them liked crowds much, and each new face that came in was that much closer to time to leave.
Cody was still pissed at Quinlan, at the assault-with-a-deadly-volleyball charge he'd tried to pin on them earlier that day, and he was even more pissed at owing Mama Jo a day's work painting the Contessa's hull for bailing them out. Nick was listening to him gripe with half an ear, most of his attention on his cooling fries. Cody wasn't really upset, just bellyaching - Nick had his leg pressed against his partner under the table, and he'd know in an instant if Cody's gripes turned serious.
"Come on, man," Nick said, looking up from his plate. "There's worse things than working on the Contessa. Mama Jo's been interviewing for her all-girl crew, and some of the scenery... let's just say, I'd take a picture postcard, you know?"
Cody stared at Nick with his mouth open, then his face gradually relaxed into a reluctant smile. "You got a point, there, buddy," he admitted, leaning back. "Maybe you wanna take volleyball practice a bit more seriously."
"Ain't nothing wrong with my aim." Nick grinned, leaning back too, shoving his leg more firmly against Cody's. "'Specially where Quinlan's concerned."
"Speaking of Quinlan..." Cody tensed, coming to attention like a pointer, and Nick followed his gaze. But instead of the lieutenant, he saw their cell-mates from the morning coming in the door.
The dark guy, the one called Starsk, was leaning against his partner, hip and shoulder. Nick traded a glance with Cody, and Cody moved his head in agreement. The guy was hurt or sick, and Nick moved closer to Cody instinctively.
The tall blond helped Starsk to a booth towards the back, and as the two men slid in close together, Nick wondered for a moment if they were vets too. They had the look of guys who had each others' backs.
"Cops," Cody disagreed quietly, and Nick glanced at him with a rueful grin. His partner had been reading his mind for years.
"Why d'you say that?"
"What they said this morning. And check out how they're scanning the bar."
"We scan the bar," Nick pointed out.
"We were cops too." That was unanswerable and Cody knew it, and Nick chuckled at his partner's self-satisfied expression.
"We sure were, big guy," he agreed, and finished his beer. "You done here?"
"There's those two bums we were locked up with this morning." Starsky gulped his beer, watching the two men thread their way through the crowd. The blond was leading the way, pausing every three or four steps as though to make sure his partner was behind him, and every time he did, the dark guy's hand touched his hip, light and sure. It sent a chill up Starsky's spine and he looked away, moving closer to his own partner.
"Vets," Hutch said, too quietly.
Starsky nodded without looking back. He didn't need to hear the word to know. "Wait a minute," he said as his brain caught up. "How did you know?"
"I checked 'em out this afternoon while you were catching up on your beauty sleep." Hutch rolled his shoulders and shrugged. "Well, I checked out Cody Allen, and judging by his army record, that guy behind him's Nick Ryder, his partner." Starsky cocked an eyebrow and Hutch continued. "Vietnam, military police, then they dropped out of sight for a while. Turned up a year ago in King Harbor, livin' on an old boat and makin' a living pissing off that loo who locked us up this morning."
Starsky nodded, looking back just in time to see the door close on the two vets. "Didn't look to me like that'd be a hard thing to do." He gave a passing waitress his best smile, reveling in both the dirty look his partner gave him and the flip of the girl's hair. "What made you check 'em out?"
Hutch picked up his own beer, leaning back in the booth and surveying his partner. "Instinct," he said finally.
"So now what?" Starsky leaned forward, staring into Hutch's serious blue eyes. "They're vets and we're private dicks with a wrapped-up case. I don't see - "
"Ryder's a pilot." Hutch slid a hand across the table and rested it against Starsky's, fingers lightly touching the back of his partner's hand. "Dobey's interested. I told him we'd stick around a day or two and just... watch."
Starsky sighed, leaning back in his seat again. "Invalided out of the force and I'm still Dobey's bitch," he complained comfortably. He scanned the crowd again, hoping for another glimpse of the pretty waitress. If Hutch wanted to play detective, Starsky could think of worse places than King Harbor to spend a couple of days. Especially if Dobey was picking up the tab. There was more to the detective game than he'd figured.
"It's pink." Starsky eyed the hulk of rusty metal with disfavor. "You're not telling me that thing can get off the ground?"
"Dobey told me Ryder had an ex-Army Sikorsky S58-T." Hutch followed his partner's gaze. "He didn't have any information about the shape it was in."
Starsky snorted derisively. "Well, I got some information for him right here. It's a heap of junk."
"According to records, Ryder's a pretty good mechanic."
"That needs more than a mechanic, Hutch. That needs a fairy godmother and a couple of pumpkins for good measure."
Hutch grinned wryly. "There's nothing in the records about fairies. Or pumpkins."
"Ha ha." Starsky leaned back in his seat, wriggling. A month out of hospital, he'd given in to Hutch's bitching and sold the Torino in favor of the nondescript Chevy pickup they were in now. It had hurt--he'd never pretend it hadn't--and if he could've seen a way out of it, he'd have taken it. But the bending and twisting to get into the low-slung car did a number on his shot-up guts every time, and that was one thing the doc told him wasn't gonna change.
Besides, he had a fair idea that even the sight of the old Tomato turned Hutch's stomach, and in the end, that's what had really decided him.
The Chevy was okay--easy to get into, seemed to ride all right, and Hutch had stopped cringing every time they left the house--and its khaki paintjob blended in a lot easier than red and white stripes. But the seats weren't as comfortable and the smell was wrong.
"There!" Hutch pointed, and Starsky saw a bright red Corvette wheeling into the dusty airfield. He cocked an eyebrow.
"Ryder's car," Hutch explained. "NICSVET, see?"
"Oh yeah." Starsky sat up straighter. "Damn thing has flames down the side. He a guy with something to prove?"
"Not judging by the paintjob on the helicopter," Hutch said mildly, and Starsky gave a crack of laughter.
The Corvette stopped beside the big pink hulk, and after a tussle of wills, Starsky followed Hutch out of the car. He was well past the wait-in-the-vehicle stage, even if Hutch still wanted to treat him like an invalid. "What are we looking for anyhow?" he asked in a penetrating whisper.
Hutch waited for him to catch up. "These guys are decorated vets with a rep for crazy stunts. Crazy stunts in choppers. And they've popped up all of a sudden, nice and close to the border. Dobey's interested, that's all."
Starsky frowned. He had a feeling his partner was holding out on him. "Decorated vets. Where I come from, that usually means patriots, Hutch."
"Don't, Starsk," Hutch said, pausing.
"Don't what? Don't point out these boys risked their lives to serve the good old USA, and their thanks is a couple of washed-up d's eyein' up their private lives? Come on, Hutch. We're not even cops any more. Don't put us in the middle of this."
Hutch looked at Starsky, a measuring look in his blue eyes. Starsky sighed and thinned his lips. Grabbing his partner's shoulder, he dragged them both behind a big barn-like hangar. "Tell me what this is about."
"Nothing." Hutch looked past him. "Listen, you're right, it's a bad idea. Let's go back to the motel and--"
"And nothing." Starsky slid to the ground and crossed his legs underneath him, resting his hands on his knees. "Hutch, I ain't going one step either way until you tell me exactly what's going on here. We don't hold out on each other."
Hutch dropped down beside him, a pained look in his eyes. "Aw, Starsk--I'm not holding out on you, buddy."
"Yes you are, an' you damn well know it."
"Not holding out. It just didn't seem important--"
"I'm here to tell you it's important, blintz. Talk."
"It's just something Dobey said..." Hutch hesitated, and Starsky gave him an encouraging nod. With a shrug, Hutch went on. "There's been a whole bunch of forged twenties turn up. Good jobs, you wouldn't pick 'em to look at them, but they're off-weight at the banks. Well, when I was talking to Dobey yesterday, he said they'd heard a whisper the funny-money's coming up from Mexico. No-one knows where or how. And these two guys have a chopper, and a rep, and a loo who thinks they're crooks--"
"And a whole bunch of bullion says they're anything but," Starsky finished for him, eyeing his partner. He knew full well why Hutch hadn't told him before: he'd known what Starsky's reaction would be. "You been watching too many movies again, blondie. Sure, some vets go rogue. So do cops, bankers, attorneys. Hell, even hookers sometimes rebel and get themselves a shiny white picket fence and a garden full of petunias."
Hutch gave him a look. "No-one says these guys are dirty. It's just an opportunity to take a look, all right? Will you calm down?"
Starsky rolled his eyes. "I'm calm. Never been calmer, in fact. Now let's go take a look like you want, and then I can get on with getting real excited." He got up, took a quick look around and started in the direction of the ancient chopper.
"You're not getting me up in that thing, Nick."
"C'mon, Cody. You helped me with the work yourself. You know she's airworthy, and--"
"Nick!" Cody walked up to his partner and laid both hands on his shoulders. "I don't know anything of the kind. There's rust in all those struts, and you said yourself the exhaust system's jerry-rigged."
"But functional," Nick said, his shoulders slumping. "Cody--"
"No. Anyhow, we're not here to fly the damn thing. Last I heard, we were here to clean and replace the plugs, am I right?"
"Sure, Cody." Nick rubbed the back of his neck, looking down. The look on his face was reminiscent of a chastised small boy, and Cody wished he'd been a little less harsh. But then, he couldn't let Nick fly the old Sikorsky til it was safe.
Cody squeezed Nick's shoulders. "C'mon, big guy. Let's get this done, and then I'll buy you dinner, okay?"
Nick brightened, heading for the chopper's front panel section. "You come into money?"
"Monday's charter tipped well."
"Wait a minute." Nick turned a fulminating stare on his partner. "Monday's charter? Half that tip's mine, man."
They argued back and forth over the routine job, working together with the ease of long practice. The day was hot, and before they were done they'd both discarded the tops of their overalls, tying the sleeves around their waists and working barechested.
"Look." Cody raised his hand and wiped his brow, leaving a streak of grease across his forehead. "There's that chopper you were looking at the other day."
Nick followed Cody's line of sight and frowned, watching the black dot coming in. "How the hell do you know? That could be any chopper."
"Uh--" Cody glanced at Nick and shrugged. "I dunno." He reached for a screwdriver, busying himself with their task.
Nick kept watching the approaching bird, frowning more deeply as it came closer and closer, finally losing altitude and setting down neatly at the other end of the airfield. It was a Bell Textron 206L-1--Nick had spent a half hour looking at the machine a week ago, and he'd have stayed another hour if Cody hadn't physically bundled him into the car and driven off with him.
It was damn near brand new, and every time Nick looked at it, his mouth watered.
But what really surprised him was that Cody was right. And there was no way Cody could've identified the machine at that distance.
Nick went to Cody's shoulder and took both screwdriver and plug out of his hands. Without comment, he leaned in and fitted the part. Then he straightened up. "How'd you know?"
Cody looked at him a minute, then shrugged. "The sound. Knew it was one of those fancy new Bells, anyhow. Don't know if I could tell one from another, yet."
Cody flushed and looked at the ground.
Suddenly Nick understood and dropped a hand lightly on Cody's shoulder. "You telling me you can tell Hueys apart like that?"
"And Chinooks." Cody's voice was muffled.
Nick looked up at the big pink machine looming above him and swallowed hard. He'd spent most of their tour piloting Hueys, but from time to time he'd done medevac or supply runs in the great, lumbering Chinooks.
"Well," he said, and there was a good deal of tenderness in his voice, "you're gonna have to learn what an S-58T sounds like, you know?"
"No hurry." Cody raised his head. His eyes gleamed and Nick squeezed his shoulder.
"Told you it'd be a washout," Starsky said, a note of triumph in his voice.
Allen and Ryder had done what looked like routine maintenance, and hadn't talked about anything out of the way. Starsky and Hutch had just crawled out of the belly of the pink monster, with nothing except grease and metal dust for their pains. If there'd ever been any counterfeit money in the helicopter, it wasn't there now, and there was nothing to show it had ever existed.
Hutch looked chagrined, and Starksy wasn't above teasing him. "I'm sorry they didn't leave ya signed confessions, blondie," he said, grinning. "Now come on, let's eat. I'm starved."
"Good," Hutch said with a grin, immediately looking more cheerful. Starsky sighed and rested a hand lightly on his partner's back. There'd been a time when Hutch had teased him constantly about what he ate, but Gunther had put an end to all that. These days, anytime he ate anything at all, Hutch looked on like a proud mama.
They came around the side of the pink chopper and froze as one. In their haste to get a look at the inside, neither of them had seen the red Corvette stop at the airfield office. Instead of being safely on the road back to the coast, Cody Allen and Nick Ryder were walking out of the clapboard shack that served as an office.
Cody was leading the way, but he was looking back over his shoulder, laughing at something Nick was saying, and Nick was half turned away, looking at Cody.
As one, Starsky and Hutch crept quietly backwards until the nose of the metal hulk hid them from possible discovery. Peering out, they watched as the two men got into the Corvette and it peeled out.
It gathered speed, heading for the dusty gateway onto the highway when suddenly there was a sharp bang. The car gave a drunken lurch and spun to the left, finally bumping to a stop a few yards away from the helicopter that had come in while Starsky and Hutch watched.
"Blowout," Hutch said thoughtfully.
"Think we oughtta be neighborly?"
"One, you're in no shape to be neighborly. Two, how we gonna explain being out here?"
"Looking for a sight-seeing helicopter tour." Starsky grinned. "C'mon, Hutch, use your imagination."
"I'd rather use my ears, I think." Hutch wasn't looking at Starsky, he was still staring at the stationary Corvette. "That doesn't look too friendly to my way of thinking."
Starsky looked. Two guys had jumped out of the red chopper as the car stopped and both of them were gesticulating angrily. Allen was out of the car, arguing back, but Ryder was still trying to get his door open. He looked dazed, and Starsky figured maybe he'd hit his head on the steering wheel.
The shouting was reaching a crescendo and a worried-looking girl emerged from the office, staring in the direction of the car and chopper. Starsky eyed her, then tugged Hutch's arm. "C'mon. Time to practice your good manners." He didn't wait for his partner's response, setting off at his fastest jog for the altercation. He had it timed at forty seconds to ugly, and he'd never been off yet. Ambushes not included.
Hutch ran past him with a muttered "Starsk, willya wait in the car, please," but Starsky wasn't having any of it. He wasn't a lot of use in a fist fight any more, but one punch might be all it took to save Hutch. Or one bullet, and whatever else was wrong with Starsky, he could still shoot.
Nick came round slowly. His head ached, his throat tasted of cordite, and the heat was so fierce he figured he was maybe a minute from spontaneous combustion. Opening his eyes resulted in a stabbing glare so he promptly shut them again. He groaned.
"Ryder!" The sharp, anxious voice was only barely familiar, and it brought Nick's eyes open in an instant. He made it up on one elbow, clawing at the hot air, struggling to breathe.
"Cody. Where's Cody?"
"Easy, feller. Easy." Someone held a paper cup to his lips and Nick gulped water, trying to force his eyes to focus. Finally the shimmer died down into a heathaze, and Nick realized he was lying on gold-dry grass, the Vette parked a few feet in front of him.
He sucked in air. There'd been a fight. "Cody," he said again.
"You with me, Ryder? How many fingers am I holding up?"
Nick blinked again. The guy in front of him was the one he and Cody had been in jail with. The dark-haired one. He struggled to see past him. "Where's Cody?"
"Listen to me. How many fingers?" The guy sounded patient but there was an edge of raw anxiety in his voice that got Nick's attention. He blinked, then looked at the man full in the face.
The hand waved in front of Nick's eyes, and Nick blinked again. "Two. Stop waving it around." He grabbed for the moving hand, pushing it down to the ground. "Makin' me sick."
"That ain't a good sign but you're right on the number of fingers."
"Good." Nick made it to his knees before he puked, then raised his hands to his head.
His companion said nothing, and Nick made it to his feet, swaying a little. The guy stood too and took his arm. "Don't lean on me too hard," he advised, "or I'll fall down too. Now tell me, that there helicopter of yours, can it fly?"
Nick snorted. "Course it can. Now are you gonna tell me what's wrong, or are you gonna make me play twenty questions to find out? And where the hell is Cody?"
"You remember what happened? Those guys in that chopper slugged you?"
"Uh--yeah." They were making their way unsteadily across the airfield toward the old pink chopper. Nick glanced behind him and saw bare ground where the red Bell had stood. "Hey, they've gone."
"Yeah. They've gone, and they've taken your partner and mine with 'em."
"They've what?" Nick stopped in his tracks. "What the hell do you mean?"
"Just that. Kidnapping, abduction, it's got a host of names and none of 'em are pretty."
"Okay. We're going after them, right?" Nick started walking again.
"Yeah. Only thing is, I don't know where they're going." The dark-haired guy suddenly looked drawn and frightened. "Any ideas?"
"How long was I out? What kind of a lead do they have?"
"Ten minutes, no more."
"It's enough." Nick looked grim. "I think we better stop by the office."
Twenty minutes later, Nick had what he needed. His companion, pacing like a caged tiger, looked like he might explode any minute, but Nick knew there was no point flying blind. Even though he was just as anxious, or more so, to get to Cody as Starsky obviously was to get to his own partner.
"Logged hours and fueling records," Ryder said as he strapped himself in in the old Sikorsky's cockpit. "He can lie about flying hours, but not about fuel. And he came in from the southeast. I think we gotta figure he's headed for the border, and judging by these--" Ryder waved the sheaf of papers in his hand "--he makes a run over there three times a week."
Starsky strapped himself into the co-pilot's seat, hands shaking with a mixture of fear for Hutch and exhaustion. He didn't bounce back from a blow to the head the way he used to, and running about the airfield had used up most of his remaining strength. But at least Ryder seemed to know what he was doing, even if he'd taken, in Starsky's opinion, far too long to get the information out of the admittedly pretty secretary. Starsky conveniently ignored the number of times his own partner had bitched him out for using the exact same tactics.
Ryder slapped the overhead switches and did something on the dash. Starsky wondered if he could close his eyes. Ryder reached up again, muttering under his breath, and suddenly there was a roar from the huge machine. A shudder went through its frame, and Starsky turned frightened eyes to the man beside him. "Hey. You've flown this helicopter before, right?"
There was a dangerous glint in Ryder's bright blue eyes. "Nope," he said, and the chopper started to vibrate. "Bless this aircraft and all who fly in her. Deliver our enemies to us and protect those we love."
Starsky gulped. "Amen." He'd heard pilot's prayers just like it 'Nam, but he'd never seen a pilot's eyes alight with quite such a devil-may-care light as he was looking at right now.
Ryder grinned at him. "Amen."
With a burst of white smoke and a shudder that Starksy thought rocked the very earth itself, the ancient chopper clawed its way skywards, juddering and banging as though it was about to fall apart.
"Come on, baby!" Ryder cried, eyes blazing. "Let's do it!"
Starsky closed his eyes.
When he opened them again, they'd gained far more altitude than he was comfortable with, but at least the wracking shudders that threatened to tear the helicopter apart had eased. The huge machine was skimming across the hills at a fair clip, black shadow billowing out below her across the dry grass.
There wasn't a cloud in the sky, and Starsky had the sensation of being submerged in the blue. He reached down, surreptitiously holding on to his seat.
"Take it easy," Ryder said, sounding amused. "I'm not gonna let you fall overboard."
"Ha ha," Starsky replied, but he let go of the seat.
"So, you wanna tell me what this is about?" The amusement disappeared from Ryder's voice. "Who snatched Cody, why, what the hell you and your partner are really up to, and what it's got to do with us?"
Starsky sighed. He supposed it was a fair question. It was just a goddamn shame he didn't have any of the answers. "Ryder, I got no idea."
The pilot frowned. "You don't know what you and your partner are really up to?"
"Oh." Starsky sighed. "That. Well, we're cops--used to be cops--up in Bay City, and we're down here unofficially, on a private mission. Our captain got some gen about funny money being flown in from Mexico so we were just taking the opportunity for a look around."
"Okay. So that's why your partner's been snatched? And Cody too? Who were those assholes, anyhow?"
"Ryder, I'm sorry, I got nothin' else. We'd just figured that whole little airfield was a wash when all of a sudden it turned into the OK Corral."
"There was shooting?" The chopper lurched in the air as Ryder clutched violently at the stick.
"No. Sorry." Starsky glanced apologetically at the pilot. "Just a figure of speech."
Ryder shrugged a shoulder in a manner that was supposed to be nonchalant, but to Starsky was anything but. Hell, he knew how the guy felt. He was half out of his mind with worry about Hutch himself.
They flew a few more miles in silence, then Ryder's voice came through the headphones one more time. "I just noticed something. You and me ain't been introduced, but you seem to know my name all right." Ryder sounded grim.
"My partner looked you up," Starsky said honestly. "He's careful that way."
Ryder shot him a look, but didn't speak.
Starsky shrugged and continued. "As for me, my name's Dave Starsky. But pretty much everyone calls me Starsky."
Ryder nodded. "Nick Ryder. Nick." He sighed. "I'm kinda pissed about a lot of this, Dave Starsky, but right now, all I'm really interested in is getting Cody outta trouble. And your partner, whatshisname--Hutchinson, right?"
"Hutch," Starsky said in a whisper.
"Hutch," Nick repeated. "So here's how I see it. You an' me are gonna work together, and do whatever it takes to get Cody and Hutch out of there and get away ourselves. And once we're back in King Harbor, you an' me are gonna go as many rounds as it takes to get you and Hutch off our backs. That work for you?"
"Listen up, Ryder. Nick." Starsky swung in his seat, looking the pilot full in the face. "I ain't on your back. But if I was, I'll tell you this for nothing: you help me pull Hutch outta this mess, I'm gonna forget I ever even knew your name, if that's what you want."
Chapter Four: Aces Up
Cody woke to being roughly manhandled through a small hatch--the doorway of a chopper, he realized, willing himself to remain limp as he was pulled out then carried into the dimness of a hangar. He grunted as he was dropped to a dirt floor, unable to put his hands out to save himself if he'd wanted to: his legs and arms were tied. He watched through narrowed eyes as his assailant departed.
The open end of the hangar was a half-round of light in the dimness, and through it Cody could see the red Bell chopper. He had no idea where he was, but it wasn't Quartz Hill Airfield anymore: the single big hangar there was pitch-roofed and concrete-floored.
A groan from nearby told him he wasn't alone. Cody rolled a little and saw another bound figure. Nick! His heart leaped, and then the other man moved.
It wasn't Nick. Cody realized it in the same heartstopping instant as terror for Nick overwhelmed him. Frantically he fought his bonds, trying to look in every direction at once.
He couldn't get loose, and Nick was nowhere in sight. He realized it in minutes, but he kept fighting until he could feel his strength ebbing, refusing to own it. Eventually he lay still.
"Allen." The nearby voice was unfamiliar.
Cody scrabbled around to face his fellow captive. "Who's there?"
"Hutch. Ken Hutchinson. Remember?"
"Hutch?" Cody blinked. This was all getting surreal. Even Quinlan wouldn't tie them up and throw them in an old hangar. Then he realized that was his exhaustion talking: it was very clear the` present predicament owed nothing to Quinlan. "Hutch, you got any idea where we are?"
"Some," Hutch said grimly. In a few short sentences, he told Cody about the suspected conterfeiters and the Mexican base. "I think we've stumbled on their operation. And I think you and I are... insurance."
"Insurance?" Cody gulped. "So what about Nick and--and Starsk? Your partner?"
"Starsky. He--he took what looked like a pretty hard knock. And your Nick was looking pretty dazed, and then one of the thugs knocked him out for the count. I'm afraid that's all I saw."
"They snatched you and I and left Nick and Starsky?" Suddenly the reason occurred to Cody. "Their chopper wouldn't take more than four," he said slowly. Cody refused to consider the possibility that Starsky and Nick had been disposed of more permanently.
He saw the relief light Hutch's eyes. "You're right!"
"Yeah," Cody said grimly. "Now what we gotta do is get loose, and get ready for their next move."
Cody was prepared to chew through the ropes if necessary, but Hutch's pocketknife proved a lot simpler--even if Cody did manage to give himself a long cut up one wrist before they were both free. But at last the ropes were gone and the men crept quietly toward the entrance to the hangar, keeping among the parts and tools stacked along the edge.
Outside, the red Bell stood on parched grass, glinting in the sun. It was less an airfield than a pasture, Cody realized, seeing a flock of dirty-looking sheep and goats wandering along a fenceline forty yards distant. The only building in site was the hangar. Ten yards past the chopper was a wooden gate leading to a dirt road, and in the gateway stood a panel van.
Hutch and Cody exchanged a glance. The two men they'd seen back at Quartz Hill stood beside it, along with a Mexican Cody had never seen before.
Hutch nudged him. "That guy. His name's Fernando Arquez. I memorized his face ten years ago."
"Good friend of yours?" Cody said wryly.
"Not much Fernando's not into. Prostitution, gambling, you name it."
"And counterfeiting. Quite a guy." Cody glanced at the chopper. "Don't suppose you're a pilot?"
"Nope." Hutch grimaced. "That van over there might be our best chance."
"Wait." Cody held a hand up. "Listen."
They stood in silence for a minute, then Hutch shrugged. "I can't hear what they're saying--"
"Not them. There's another chopper coming." Cody stood uneasily for a moment, then grabbed Hutch's arm. "C'mon." He pulled him out of the hangar and ducked around the side. Halfway down, a small grove of shade trees grew close to the building, and Cody pointed.
Hutch nodded and they ran together, hunkering down in the cover of the trees. "You're sure about that chopper?" Hutch asked in a low voice.
Cody nodded. Better than anything, he knew the difference between the desperate pounding of his heart and the low, distant thunder that meant a helicopter. Rescue. Nick.
"Okay, I hear it too," Hutch whispered. Cody only nodded.
There was shouting from the front of the hangar, but the other chopper did not come into view, continuing on a steady southerly heading. Cody stared at the sky, frustrated. It was impossible to believe it was Nick, but he couldn't help but hope.
With a scream of tires, the van tore away down the dusty road, sending a cloud of dust over Hutch and Cody's hiding place. As the van burst from behind the hangar, both men threw themselves face down in the grass. They heard its motor shrieking as it disappeared.
"So much for that escape plan," Hutch muttered.
Cody looked up. The beat of rotors was louder again. It was the same chopper, he thought, coming back. Beckoning, he crept to the edge of the trees, and a slow grin spread over his face. "Well, I'll be damned."
"That goddamn tin can flies." Cody pointed. The Sikorsky's shape and bulk was unmistakable, and as it dropped a little lower, the pink color showed clearly against the sky.
"Your chopper," Hutch said. "Your partner?"
"I damn well hope so. Yours too, with any luck." Cody couldn't stop grinning. He slapped Hutch's shoulder. "Now all we gotta do is let them know we're down here."
"Mine too?" Hutch's eyes widened and he stared up at the great pink bird. "Dear God, I hope not. It'll kill him."
"Don't sweat it, pal." Cody squeezed Hutch's shoulder this time. "Nick'll take good care of him."
"There it is!" Starsky leaned forward in his seat. "Look!" Just below them gleamed a long metal building, now blocking their quarry's chopper from view. "Turn around!"
"I saw it," Nick said grimly, easing the stick back. "Trouble is, it's gonna be hard to get close without advertising we're coming. This bird ain't so good at LLNACP."
Starsky only nodded, and Nick stored the information for the future. The guy had experience of army aircraft in a combat zone. The other thing he had was no head for heights, judging by the way he was panting. His eyes were bright, almost feverishly so, and he'd gone back to hanging on to his seat.
Nick swung the chopper around with a light touch. The first few miles, the big bird had felt heavy and cumbersome, but he'd got on-side with her now. She was eating out of his hand, light and graceful for such a big girl, and the engine they'd put so much time and money into was purring like a playful kitten.
If Nick hadn't been so worried about Cody, he'd've been having the time of his life.
He lifted the chopper slightly, then swore. On the ground, two figures ran for the red Bell, and Nick heard the cough of its engines even above the Sikorsky's full-throated voice. He banked left as the Bell took off and started going higher--then swore loudly and creatively as a burst of machine gun fire rat-tatted over the grumble of the machines.
"Amen, brother." Starsky gave him a look.
"We already said the pilot's prayer." Nick sent the pink chopper skywards. Not all helicopter pilots were comfortable at altitude, but he was, and he'd used the fact many times to evade pursuit. Even if he was more used to flying under heavy yellow-gray cloud, above blue-black sweltering swamp.
As soon as the Bell took off, Cody and Hutch ran for the hangar. Cody sprinted for the workbench on the far side, but Hutch stopped just inside the door, dropping on his knees next to a long black briefcase. "Got 'em!" he shouted jubilantly.
Cody jogged back to his side, peering. In the briefcase reposed a set of plates depicting President Jackson and the White House. Underneath the case was full of twenties. "Good job," Cody agreed. "Now all we got to do is get out of here."
Hutch closed the briefcase, and the two men ran back outside. Cody indicated the far side of the pasture and they sprinted side by side, scattering sheep and goats as they ran. Cody ducked down behind a thorny bush, pulling Hutch with him.
"Is this cover enough?" Hutch asked doubtfully.
"They don't know we've escaped," Cody pointed out, panting. "And if I know Nick, he'll keep 'em busy watching the sky rather than looking down below. We've gotta be somewhere we can signal when Nick comes over, so he knows to pick us up."
"You have a point." Hutch gave a reluctant grin, glancing again at the wide, empty sky. "How do we signal? Run around and hope they see us?"
Cody smirked and held up a cylinder. "No, buddy, we let off a flare."
Hutch eyed him with respect. "For a civilian, you're not bad. You ever think of joining the force?"
Cody gave a bark of laughter, then raised a hand. "Here they come. Listen!"
The beat of a chopper came steadily out of the west, louder and closer. Hutch made a grab for the flare.
"No!" Cody snatched it away. "It's the bad guys! Get down!"
"How the hell do you--?" Hutch's last word died in a splutter as Cody forced him to the ground.
"I just do," Cody hissed, holding Hutch down with a hand between his shoulder blades. "Stay down!"
The chopper circled once, dropping altitude, then suddenly skimmed the air again, turning north and disappearing with all speed. Cody watched it, frowning, then heard the heavy thud of rotors driven by a powerful engine approaching.
"Okay," he said, lifting his hand off Hutch's back. "This time it's the cavalry."
The huge pink chopper hadn't touched the earth when Cody, Hutch's wrist caught in his strong grip, started running toward it. Hutch had the sense to duck, and then Cody was boosting him in through the cavernous cargo door. He landed, breathless, and dropped the briefcase to rub his wrist, then suddenly Cody was beside him, shouting something, banging on the chopper's skin.
With a roar, the machine took air. Hutch turned green and scrambled back from the door, and with a sympathetic grin, Cody knelt, leaned out over empty space and dragged the big door closed.
"Nick! Hey, Nick!" Cody jumped to his feet, thrusting his head up toward the cockpit, grinning like a fool.
Nick reached one hand down to him and gripped Cody's hand, brief and strong. "How many times I gotta tell you not to get in helicopters with strangers, man?"
Cody laughed, then looked at the passenger in the co-pilot's seat. "Hi, Starsky. How're you enjoying today's scenic helicopter tour?"
Starsky chuckled. "It's giving me the screaming mimis, thank you very much," he said. "Is Hutch okay?"
"Hutch is fine," said Hutch, who'd made it to his feet but was unashamedly leaning on Cody. Helicopter holds were officially on his list of least favorite places after today. "But how are you, partner? That's what I wanna know."
"Never been better. Thinkin' of taking flying lessons, in fact," Starsky said, and this time they could all hear his breath rasping in his throat.
Nick and Cody exchanged a look.
"Uh, Starsky, you want to come down here with Hutch?" Cody asked. "I mean, I guess you want to catch up about the case and stuff."
"Yeah," Hutch agreed. "We got a lot of catching up to do."
"How do I get down there?" Starsky said, sounding almost querulous.
Cody didn't wait for more. Ignoring the snarl of pain in his wrist, he reached up, helped Starsky undo his harness then lifted the seat and half-carried him down into the hold. He left Starsky leaning on his partner while he scrambled into the tail and hauled out the old mattress stashed there. It took only a moment to unfasten the cords, and he shoved it back against the wall.
Hutch helped Starsky to it straight away, pushing him to lie down. "He got shot up," he said to Cody, leaning over Starsky and smoothing his dark hair back. "Starsk, get some rest, okay?"
Starsky muttered something unintelligible, his eyes already closing.
Hutch looked up at Cody again. "The altitude's gotta be tough on him, but he wont quit." Cody saw tears gleam in the corners of Hutch's eyes. "Dammit, I told him to stay in the car."
Cody laid a hand on Hutch's shoulder, squeezing. Hutch nodded, eyes locked on Cody's, then Cody went forward and clambered up into the cockpit.
"He okay?" Nick turned concerned eyes on Cody as he took his seat and pulled the headset on.
"I think so. I got 'em the mattress. Starsky looks like he's asleep already."
"He was having trouble breathing the last few miles." Nick looked troubled. "I hope he's all right."
"Hutch said he got shot up." Cody smiled grimly. "Said he told him to wait in the car."
Nick nodded. "Figures. That guy'd never leave his partner in the lurch."
Epilogue: Higher Up
One week later
Nick stepped back from the chopper's nose, surveying his handiwork with a smile. "Whaddaya think, big guy?"
"Looks a little like a Colgate ad." Cody put his head on one side. "You gonna call her the Tooth Fairy?"
Nick snorted and picked up the pot of red paint. "I am not," he said, mounting the rungs to the cockpit.
Cody raised an eyebrow and watched as Nick slowly drew the letters just below the cockpit window. As the name took shape, he started to chuckle.
"Appropriate," he said, "even if I still think Tooth Fairy'd suit her."
"Right after we rename the Riptide Tinkerbell," Nick said reflectively, climbing down. "That was some ride, though, huh?"
"Sure was." Cody grinned. "Even better that those guys cut us in on the reward."
"Least they could do after I saved their asses."
"After we saved their asses, buddy. Come on, if I hadn't gotten on that chopper--"
"You were kidnapped, Cody. You didn't get on any chopper."
"Either way, it got us to their base. We'd never have found them otherwise."
Nick sighed in exasperation. "That was pure dumb luck, Cody. I--"
"It was not--ow!" Cody clutched his bandaged wrist against his chest, and Nick, forgetting their argument, put his paint pot down and hurried to his side. Cody had six stitches in the cut he'd sustained the day of their adventure, and Nick looked over the bandaged wound carefully before he was satisfied his partner hadn't started it bleeding again.
He led Cody to the cargo door and sat him down, then went back to put away the paint. Returning, he was pleased to see Cody sitting obediently where he'd left him, wrist nursed in his other hand, staring pensively out across the airfield.
Nick grabbed two beers from the trunk of the Vette and sat down beside Cody. "Penny for 'em, big guy," he said, popping the cap and slinging an arm around his partner.
Cody took the bottle in his sound hand and waited while Nick popped the second top. He clinked his beer softly against Nick's and leaned into Nick's shoulder. "Same shit, different day," he said in a low voice.
Nick squeezed Cody's shoulders, holding him tight. Safe. "No, Cody. It was different shit, man. Trust me on that."
"It was?" Cody hazarded a grin, tilting his head so he was looking at Nick from under his bangs.
Nick grinned back. "You know it was, baby. The chopper's a Sikorsky, not a Huey. And--" he paused for effect "--she's pink."
"She sure is." Cody chuckled and swigged his beer. "And no self respecting GI would be caught dead in her."
"Don't you offend Mimi now, Cody. She's got feelings, you know. She's got--"
"A name," Cody cut in, effectively silencing Nick. He raised his beer. "The Screaming Mimi."
"The Screaming Mimi."
They both drank deep, and around them, the old pink ship settled with a creak of struts.
"I was thinking... you mind if we spend the night out here, man?"
Cody didn't answer, but when the beer was gone he got up and unrolled the mattress.
"I was fine!"
"You weren't fine. You nearly passed out."
"You were kidnapped."
"Don't change the subject."
"Boys! Boys!" Captain Dobey held up his hands in mock horror. "You're both here in one piece, and that's the main thing. I asked you to come in today for a special reason--if you can stop squabbling long enough to listen, that is."
"We're done." Hutch glared at Starsky, who made a 'who, me?' gesture.
"I doubt that." Dobey chuckled. "Now listen. Starsky, I can't have you back, son. You know that, right?"
Starsky nodded, feeling uneasy all of a sudden. Was Dobey going to ask Hutch to go back to the force? Starsky's damaged gut clenched. Would Hutch go?
"You don't get me without him," Hutch said evenly from beside him, and Starsky let go the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. He glanced at Hutch, then back at Dobey.
"Don't you think I know that by now?" Dobey looked amused rather than perturbed. "No, my proposal is more--unofficial--than that. From time to time, there are people we want to know more about. You know that after all the years you've spent on the street! Fernando Arquez was one of them."
Starsky felt Hutch's nod.
"Well, that's my proposal." Dobey looked from one to the other of them. "When there's someone Bay City PD needs some background on--someone out of town, I mean--you two go and have a look around. Bring me some background or if you prefer, cut to the chase like you did this time and bring me the goods."
"Will we be paid?" Starsky asked. He wasn't mercenary exactly, but although he'd joked about being Dobey's bitch, he had no interest in trying the role out for real.
"As undercover operatives. How about it?"
"How about it? We're in," Starsky said enthusiastically. "When do we start?"
"Now wait just a minute, Starsk. You're not in. You're--"
Starsky put a hand over his partner's mouth and grinned at Dobey. "Don't mind blondie. Just mail us the contracts."
Dobey laughed all afternoon, which was nearly as long as it took Starsky to cajole Hutch back to good humor. He had to submit to a tofu burger and a side of bean salad before the frosty look left Hutch's blue eyes and he consented to laugh at one of Starsky's jokes.
It was late and Starsky was nearly asleep when Hutch suddenly spoke out of the dark. "It's just that I couldn't lose you, Starsk. I nearly did, you know, and it nearly killed me."
Starsky lay in silence, heart hammering in his repaired chest. "I know, my friend," he said at last. "Hutch, I'm not gonna quit on you. I promise."
Hutch's fingers found Starsky's in the dark, and meshed. "You better not," he whispered.
Starsky smiled and tightened his grip on Hutch's hand. Without speaking, he slowly raised it to his chest, and laid it over his heart. "Me and thee, buddy. For always."
"Me and thee."