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Dark Night of the Soul

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DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL

by Elizabeth Lowry

PROLOGUE

 

The weight against his body was warm and comforting. A head tucked safely under his chin. A small fist half clutching his shirt. Chubby legs curled in his lap. Hutch felt very powerful with the small boy asleep in his arms, very protective—and very masculine. The rapidity with which the child had come to depend on him had been startling. At first reticent to come near him, the boy had gradually circled closer and closer, attracted by the father-like behavior he obviously missed. And Hutch had, surprisingly, encouraged him, using ball-tossing games and tickling sessions to establish an intimacy that was oddly satisfying. “Odd,” because Hutch had never thought of himself as particularly fatherly toward children.

Brotherly, yes. Fatherly, no.

“Fatherly” feelings were saved for Starsky. Starsky’s most recent chance at life rested directly on Hutch, on his ability to nurse and nurture and renew. The true tasks of any parent.

Of course, Starsky’s chance at death had also rested totally on his negligence and inattention. So it was only right that Hutch parent Starsky’s recovery.

So why did he now welcome the attentions of this boy? A thrill went through him every time the child ran to his arriving car and flung himself toward Hutch for a massive bear hug. He relished the feel of the boy's hand tugging on his fingers to come see some wondrous discovery. At first the boy's need for him had been scary, and he'd been hesitant to give in, but he'd found it was less overwhelming than the need another “child” had lately demanded of him.

And perhaps that was why. This child was easier to manage.

Hutch hugged the child closer, stroking the coal-black hair, caressing the smooth flesh of the boy's bare arm. To be able to sleep anywhere, he thought. What I wouldn't give for just one night to sleep the sleep of a child. No worries, no cares, no suffocating pressures. Just pure, simple sleep.

“You're beautiful, you know that?” Elisa stole back into the room and slipped down beside Hutch. “Both of you.” She stroked her son's cheek. “Time for bed, I think.”

“Both of us?” Hutch looked at her, feeling all innocence and youth.

She rose, smoothing her skirt without looking at Hutch. Black tendrils of hair curled about her face and fell down her back. Skin that was more cocoa than olive betrayed her mixed heritage, as well as her jade green eyes. She was slender but full-figured, and just tall enough to lay her head comfortably on Hutch's shoulder and fit perfectly into his arms. She was exotic and erotic and seemingly unaware of her gifts, which only made her more alluring. And she was mother to the boy. Elisa brushed a curl back from her face. “Will you bring him?”

“Sure,” Hutch smiled. “C'mon, Mateo.” He slipped an arm underneath the boy's bottom and lifted him up against his shoulder. The boy shifted, murmured something, but didn't waken. Hutch stood, rocked the child a bit, then followed Elisa to the bedroom.

Together they removed the ketchup-stained T-shirt and grass-stained jeans and maneuvered Mateo into his pajamas. Elisa tucked a fuzzy gray rabbit under his arm, and Hutch tucked both of them under the bed sheet. He glanced at Elisa, then gave the boy a gentle kiss on his forehead. Elisa kissed her son goodnight, and the two left him to his dreams.

Hutch slipped an arm around Elisa's waist and walked her out into the hall. They took only a few steps before he stopped and pulled her to him. She didn't resist, but brought her hands up to his chest. She kept her face down.

His free hand traced a dark curl in her hair. “You're beautiful,” he murmured. His hand stroked her cheek. “I can't tell you how full I feel inside, how much you and Mateo mean to me.” He lifted her chin, brought their lips together.

She moaned, broke the kiss, and buried her face in his chest. He was afraid she was going to cry. Not now, he thought. Please don't cry now and spoil this.

“It’s all right,” he said softly, stroking her hair, staving off her—continual—concern. “I understand.”

“You don't,” she shook her head. “But if you'll just keep trying—” She looked up at him, eyes pleading and distressed.

He clasped his hands against the small of her back, felt his instincts awaken as he held her within the circle of his arms, felt his irritation lessen. “What's important to you is important to me.” He smiled down at her, sure he'd chosen the right words. She opened her mouth as if to speak, but he stopped her. “Elisa,” he said more firmly. “If I weren't happy here, I wouldn't keep coming back. I'm just not that masochistic.” He waited, searching her eyes, and was relieved to see them slide from disbelief to resignation. He smiled again, outwardly for her and inwardly for himself, and tried to coax them into full belief. He was rewarded with a kiss at the base of his throat.

“You are, truly, the most amazing man.” She pushed out of his arms, a smile finally gracing her lips. He grabbed for her, but she twirled away. “Are you coming over Sunday?” She danced back toward the front door, just out of reach. Hutch followed, enjoying the game, finally cornering her in the small foyer.

“Sunday,” he kissed her nose. “Dinner,” he kissed her lips. “Wouldn't miss it.” He kissed her again. Soft lips. Warm lips. Rust-colored heaven. Believe, believe, believe. . .

“And how…about Mass…before dinner?” she managed between languid kisses.

Hutch shook his head. Damn! She always had to spoil the mood! “Elisa—” he admonished, backing off from her. He knew when to retreat. Hutch turned to fumble with the double bolt.

“Okay,” she sighed resignedly—too easily, he wondered? She ducked under his arm and opened the door herself. “Klutz.”

“Not at everything,” he grinned, hinting, and found her for one last kiss.

She pushed him out the door. “Sunday,” she waved.

Hutch took a couple of backward steps, stumbled, and barely caught himself before he found the lawn with his ass. He grinned sheepishly, waggled his fingers, and walked carefully out to his car.

Once inside, he waited until Elisa had shut the front door, disappeared from the side window, and turned out the porch light. Then he gripped the steering wheel with both hands, took a deep breath, and held it. He held it until his eyes began to water and his heart beat hard in his ears. He held it until he thought he could no longer hold it, then held it one second longer. It was so easy for her to dismiss him! So easy for her to obstruct him! Didn't she realize what she was pushing him toward?

Abandonment, that’s what she was pushing him towards! He could only take so much rejection before he’d abandon her! Had any of his other lovers kept him waiting this long? Not counting Vanessa, of course; marriage had ruined that relationship.

But Cindy? Nope, hopped into bed on the first date. Marcia? First date. Jeannie? First date. Abby? First date. But she’d lasted a little while beyond that. They’d had a few things in common, such as keeping their bodies healthy together. And she’d had a little education, which kept their brains healthy together. Maybe he should have taken better care of her, better protected her. He had definitely loved her, even though it was a different kind of love than he’d felt for Vanessa—sweeter, not as frantic and desperate.

But he hadn’t bothered—hadn’t even realized he needed—to set up barriers to keep others from harming her. And she’d been harmed, so she had left him.

But then he wouldn’t have met Gillian. Funny, she hadn’t hopped into bed with him on the first date. Nor the second. But that third date…fireworks and explosions and everything else that was supposed to go along with it. And while she hadn’t been educated, she’d been very smart, and very well-read, and conversation was sometimes as satisfying as the sex. It’s what he should have had with Vanessa, what might have been possible with Abby. The physical, the emotional, the intellectual. He’d felt love for her, too. It was similar to what he felt for Abby, only richer, deeper, even more complete.

But he hadn’t protected Gillian, had he? Been blind to what was going on, blinded by the excitement of a new and effortless relationship. Didn’t see the danger, both to her and himself. And she died because of it.

So back to back to the sexual, and drop the relationship crap. Annette. First-dater. Diana—should have stopped the first-date sex there, but didn’t. C.D.? Get-there-before-Starsky-sex. Didn’t count. All wonderful orgasm-producers but not one worth thinking of outside of the bedroom.

Judith? Now there was another possibility lost. No sex, although he’d been startled and slightly appalled to discover he could feel lust for a woman even as his guts were threatening to flee his body by any means necessary. But she was so smart, and that made her sexy. And she was so committed to her work, and that made her sexy. What a team they could have been! An intelligent, sexual, vibrant couple. He could actually see having children with her. He could imagine them raising a family, continuing their work for the public, growing old together. Even in old age he could see them together, maybe not as sexually active, but still enjoying each other’s company and companionship. He could have loved her, if she’d stuck around.

But she had a career, and no place for him—unless he followed her. Which might explain Anna. She had her work, he had his. Careers were of no importance, since they both knew they’d only be together a short while. Two ships that met in the night and then sailed back to their ports.Any storm in a port for a while, then. A series of women whose names might have been Lisa and Amy and Angela and Laureen. Or not. Nothing wrong with any of them, but nothing exceptionally right. Just a blast for his balls.

So why, if that kind of woman wasn’t doing it for him anymore, didn’t he take the opportunities offered by the reappearances of Laura and Kate in his life? He’d known both of them a long time; Laura since his days in the Academy and Kate since his pre-L.A. days. Both women were attractive, both smart; both were his friends as well as his lovers. Either one might have, could have, offered a life of love and commitment and companionship. He’d felt at ease with both women, comfortable and able to be himself. He could tell them secrets, he could not tell them secrets, and neither would push. There was no reason to be anxious around them at all. And yet he’d let both fade back to their memory status. It was just like that saying, he loved both of them but he was no longer in love with either of them. He cared what happened to them, but not enough to work at it. There was too much else to care about, too much else to worry about. Too many cases, not enough personal time.

And then—Marianne. Honest to God, he’d liked her. Maybe even loved her. He’d never meant to use the sex to bind her to him, it had just felt right at the time and he wanted her to understand what he felt about her. That she was a person, a good person, and worth being loved. Really, there were no games in the relationship, if that’s what it had been. Someone on the outside might have called them games, but their actions were merely reflections of their circumstances. He could, she couldn’t; he couldn’t, she could. For musicians, their rhythm had been lousy. He truly wanted to know how it would have felt to be relaxed around her, instead of constantly on edge. In another life, they could have been another kind of couple he fantasized about. No children, but creative, artistic, passionate about their work; flawed but accepting of each other. Loving and loved, with all its speed bumps and detours.

It still might have worked, if he’d been more aware, more conscientious, not so pressured by outside forces that he’d cut off his nose to spite his face and ignored their warnings to the detriment of Marianne. His fault, again; she was now a protected witness out there somewhere, and he was here.

Sitting here, in his car, tired of the whole female thing. It wasn’t worth the effort anymore. If women came easy, he grew too lax. If women came hard, he grew too careless. And what had any of it gotten him? A lot of sex, a little comfort, and none of it enough to blot out the crises that just kept coming and coming….

Elisa. Worth the effort? They’d been dating for maybe six months. The drive out to her place gave him the illusion of distance from Starsky, or at least it put some miles between them. It seemed his thoughts on those drives, however, always focused on Starsky: what he looked like that day, what he looked like compared to yesterday, had he taken his pills, had he eaten his meals, how much time would it take with his siren blaring and his lights flashing and his accelerator floored to get back to Starsky if something should happen while he was away….

Elisa. Worth the effort? Elisa wasn’t coming across with any reward for his exertions toward her. At least Starsky had rewarded him by coming back from the dead. Elisa just gave him meals and time with her boy.

Were any of them worth the effort? A couple of them, maybe? A couple of them gave him contentment as well as pleasure. That was a long time ago, though. Did he want to go back to being that contented person? The person who felt safe and carefree in his love? The person who’d let that joy lull him into a false sense of security, and ultimately, horrible loss?

And what was the cost to be that person again? Was Elisa worth paying the price for? The price of carelessness and laxity and loss?

She certainly wasn’t tonight.

Hutch started the engine and drove off.


DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL

PART ONE: CHAPTER ONE

 

Starsky was a model of professional detachment.

Hutch watched him: Casually, carefully, secretly he measured Starsky's every move. Of late Hutch had become expert at this game, spying under half-closed lids, watching from behind dark glasses, listening when he couldn't look. He'd become a master of detection, the Sherlock Holmes of the LAPD. And all his efforts were devoted toward one man. One man who needed all his skills. One man who needed all his attentions. One man who constantly needed him….

It had begun simply enough, a vigilance born of necessity. Watch for signs of fatigue, the doctors had warned him. Watch for signs of body stress. Watch for signs of internal bleeding. Watch for signs of muscle atrophy. Watch for signs of impaired mental capacity. Watch for signs of any number of physical calamities that could occur after such a death-defying trauma. Watch for it all. And then his vigil had grown to encompass the psychological aspects of Starsky's recovery. Watch for signs of depression. Watch for signs of anxiety. Watch for signs of changes in personality. In effect, watch for signs of God-knows-what kind of warp that could worm its way into Starsky's psyche and destroy the recovery Hutch had invoked. It was a taxing duty. One from which Hutch could never rest. And it had become that much more difficult of late, now that Starsky had demanded he stop his vigil. But Hutch was an expert at stealth, and Starsky would not catch him at his task again. If Starsky was chafing against this duty, then Starsky would never again discern this duty.

This morning, Hutch observed, Starsky was dressed in khaki slacks, a slate gray shirt with dolman sleeves and large pockets, a loosely knotted light gray tie, and a waist-high jacket that coordinated with the shirt and slacks. A new look for Starsky. Not exactly fashionable, but neither totally ignorant of fashion. It made Starsky look more—mature. Not less youthful, but less—immature. Starsky, of course, was oblivious to Hutch's scrutiny. He had not noticed the attentiveness to his every move, nor Hutch's inspection of his dress. Not at all.

Starsky was leaning over the dead body “positioned” on the bed. It hadn't been hard to deduce the body had been purposefully arranged; most people didn't die flat on their backs, hands folded across their chests, hair carefully combed, and their bodies scrubbed to a state of absolute cleanliness. Not to mention this was the sixth body that had been found this way. These bodies seemed to pique Starsky's curiosity, presenting a new challenge to an eager, under-used mind. They only made Hutch uncomfortable.

Hutch leaned against the door frame of the tasteless motel room and tried to catch what breeze he could without actually leaving the room. His navy suit coat lay folded over one arm, having been early on abandoned in the morning heat. He pinched at the white-on-white shirt that stuck to his chest, trying to pull some air over his skin. Sweating was the body's cooling mechanism, but the sensation this morning was decidedly more uncomfortable than cooling. There was a time when he reveled in his body's sweat, when it signified his physical prowess on the field, on the job, in bed. Anymore, he brooded, “outperform” meant “overexert.” Today it just meant hot. Hutch took a deep breath of muck and held it, fingering the silk tie that lay plastered to his shirt. With his jacket off, his sleeves rolled up, his tie loosened, and the top two shirt buttons freed, there was nothing more he could do and still maintain the decorum his status called for. He exhaled resignedly.

“Did you get shots of these marks on the neck, wrists, and ankles?” Starsky pointed at the appropriate body parts.

“You bet,” Garcia answered from behind him. “Lots of nifty close-ups.” He opened his camera, removed the exposed roll, and replaced it with a fresh one.

“Terrific,” Starsky turned to him. “Thanks.”

Garcia grinned. “You bet!” He tossed the exposed roll into the air, whirled, and caught it behind his back.

Starsky, smiling, shook his head at the photographer's antics. He stepped past him to speak with Lieutenant Harry Grimes, who stood next to an old, battered dresser.

Hutch followed Starsky with his eyes.

“Anything?” Starsky asked. He glanced over at Hutch. Hutch deftly averted his gaze.

“Clean as a whistle,” Grimes shoved a small notebook into his suit jacket pocket. About four inches shorter than Starsky, Grimes was about 40 pounds heavier, and it was all in his belly. Gray hair bristled from his head, emphasizing his 52 years, but the tidy beard and moustache remained jet black. Pale blue eyes peered out from under heavy eyelids and black brows. A dark blue suit hung haphazardly from his frame. Grimes was a career cop—no wife, no family, no outside entanglements. And no wonder, thought Hutch. What woman would want to be trapped under that basketball of a belly two-point-five times a week?

“Bathroom, dresser, table, doors—everything's spotless.” Grimes was cataloguing the room. “Looks like the maid was through here after the guy died. I'm sure the lab will find the usual traces of commercial cleaners and cleansers all over everything.”

Hutch finally found some energy to move and pushed away from his sentry position by the door. He joined Grimes and Starsky.

“I hope you've got something—” Starsky greeted him, as though he hadn't known Hutch was leaning all that time by the door, “—because we've got nothing.”

“I heard,” Hutch glanced at Starsky to see if he'd caught his admission of eavesdropping, and getting no reaction, turned his attention to the body. “Sorry, but I can't add much. Our Mr. Morris checked in as ‘J. Richards’ around 11:00pm, and the desk clerk didn't see anybody with him. The drunk in the room next door thinks he heard music all night.” Hutch's voice took on a mocking tone. “He's not sure, but he thinks it was The Doors. No one else heard anything or saw anyone. The maid who came up here to clean this morning said the door was unlocked, and when she wheeled in her cart she found the victim like this. The guy's car is outside, and doesn't look as if it's been touched.” He addressed himself to Grimes. “Robbery ruled out?”

“Yes,” Grimes replied. “Wallet, cash, plastic, jewelry; everything seems to be right here. Looks to me like murder, pure and simple.” He shook his head.

“What's so pure and simple?” A woman joined their group. In heels she was as tall as Grimes, and while nowhere near as heavy, her figure had “matured.” Hutch knew her to be about 45 years old. Short, short red hair that was beginning to mutate into a muddy brown framed a ruddy, freckled complexion. An ill-fitting, burnt-orange suit gave the impression she was not particularly concerned with appearances, as well as her disregard of any makeup. Her reputation as an LAPD detective, however, was impeccable. She had been one of the first “policewomen” to join the force. Hutch found her to be a more-than-capable task force leader, as well as pleasing to be around, which was in part, he decided, explained by her appearance. She could put all her energy into her work and personality, and not her looks, because she didn't have any looks. Which also went a long way in explaining why she, too, was unmarried: Who'd want to be on top of that face and body two-point-five times a week?

“Unfortunately, nothing's really pure and simple anymore, Ruthie,” Grimes smiled wistfully at her. “Did you get anything, hon?”

Ruth Boggs smiled back. “No witnesses, no answers; nobody knows anything.” She reached out and patted Grimes' cheek. “And I'm not your ‘hon,’ dear.”

Starsky grinned and looked over at Hutch. Hutch returned the smile. After spending the last several weeks working closely with Boggs and Grimes, Hutch had begun to understand why so many in the past had taken such an interest in watching Starsky and him. The show was free, and always entertaining. They should have been more careful about that over the years, he and Starsk.

“Sorry, baby,” Grimes returned the pat, adding a pinch to her cheek. Ruth grimaced good-naturedly. “Did anyone get the race results?”

Ruth flipped through her notebook. “Sure, sweetie pie. Let's see. Eleven got here first, followed by five, four, and then nine.”

“Damn,” Starsky muttered. “I had Channel 4 to win.”

Hutch clicked his tongue and arched an eyebrow. “Starsky, you've got to stop making bets based on the looks of the 11 o'clock newswomen.”

Ruth laughed. “Surely you've got better taste than Channel 4, Dave. I figured you for a Channel 7 man.” She reached over and flicked one of his curls mischievously.

“Next time I've got 4 to win, place, and show.” Starsky rummaged through his pockets, pulled out two crumpled ones, and offered them to Ruth.

Ruth plucked them from his fingers, made a note in her book, and tucked the bills away. “Let's hope there is no next time, eh, boys?”

The group nodded in agreement. Grimes buttoned his collar and adjusted his tie. “Ready for duty, sweets?”

Ruth brushed his hands away and fixed the tie herself. Ruth and Grimes were like that, Hutch noted. Partners. No boundaries between their personal space. He and Starsky had been like that, almost from the day they’d met. He hadn’t even noticed it, until others around them started making constant remarks and cracks. Starsky could get as close as a condom, and he’d never felt awkward, self-conscious, discomfited, or insecure. It wasn’t even the kind of lack of boundaries brothers shared—it was more like the unbounded borders of twins. No touch too personal. My body was his. His body was mine. We could even sleep together and not feel peculiar or worry about the social implications. In fact, it had been comforting to know there was always a hand or an arm or a shoulder to lean on, feel the warmth of, when needed. So different from the way he’d grown up, with no touching or embracing. Starsky’s touch had made him feel—worthy.

Boggs and Grimes seemed to be like that. The thought of Boggs and Grimes in bed together flickered across his consciousness. Grimes' belly cushioned between Ruth's aging breasts and hips…no, it couldn’t be the same as what he and Starsky had had. Besides being a much more attractive couple, he and Starsky had shared more emotionally than those two ever could have. And it was that body-entwined-in-body duality that had kept them emotionally constant. Hutch holding Starsky safe from the savagery of villains and desperados, arms protectively around his torso, head cradled securely against his shoulder. Starsky holding Hutch safe from the ravages of illness and assault, caressing away the fever in his brow, stroking away the pain in his chest. Seductive shelter. Would Starsky ever trust his shelter again? After what Hutch had let happen to him? There was only one answer. Better not to even offer it than face the inevitable rejection. There were now other ways to protect Starsky.

Ruth smoothed Grimes’ collar tabs. “I'm always ready to face the media, sugar pie,” She patted his collar. “But you—try not to sweat so much this time, Harry. You look like Nixon when he debated Kennedy. And this suit! Can’t you dress more like our two young detectives here?”

“What can I say?” Grimes pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and mopped his face. “The camera loves me no matter what.” His grin disappeared. He looked around the room. “I don't have to remind everybody we're not attributing this to our serial murderer until the lab results come back, do I?”

Everyone shook their heads.

“And you two—” Ruth ran two fingers through her bangs, then circled them back to point at Starsky and Hutch, “—low profiles—still. No comments, no interviews, don't even get close to those cameras. With me on this?” Starsky shrugged. Hutch nodded. “Well, then, are we ready to go?”

“Ready,” Grimes offered his arm to his partner. “Shall we, then?”

“Love to,” Ruth took his arm. “We'll give you boys a ring later this afternoon,” she said over her shoulder as the couple exited the room.

“Quite a pair, huh?” Hutch watched them go.

Starsky moved up beside him. “Yeah. I'm glad they're heading up this task force. We could have done a lot worse.” He looked around the room. “Did Rodriguez ever show up?”

“Eventually,” Hutch used his shirt sleeve to blot the sweat from his upper lip. Emanuel Rodriguez had not been a deputy they'd been pleased to see when they'd joined Boggs' and Grimes' task force. More than once they'd had to coordinate efforts with him on past cases, and Hutch had found his conduct to be less than professional. He was lax, inexact, and seemed to have it in for them. And ugly. He was a thin, brown scarecrow with a shock of black hair that seemed too small for his head. Hutch knew he had a wife, but he imagined she must look something like Rodriguez herself to want to spend any time around him. Hutch attributed most of Rodriguez's snottiness to insecurity over his scrawny looks. Starsky had pegged him as jealous of their reputations. Hutch finally just pegged him as stupid. Rodriguez had seemed just as irritated to see them brought in as senior officers in the investigation. And why shouldn't Rodriguez? He and Starsky were not only miles ahead of him in ability, but also infinitely better looking. And so Rodriguez never missed an opportunity to offer them a smart remark. “He and his partner, Andy Gibbons, drove up right after all the camera crews arrived. I'm beginning to wonder just how committed the Sheriff's Department actually is to this investigation.” Hutch blotted again. “Let's get out of this sweatbox.”

Starsky took a final look around the room. “Okay,” he agreed. They moved out onto the small, second story balcony sidewalk overlooking a filth-encrusted pool. “You know—” Starsky proposed, apparently doing some scrutinizing of his own, “—you wouldn't sweat so much if you didn't dress like a partner in one of those Century City law firms.”

Hutch coldly eyed Starsky's choice of apparel. Why should Starsky have any interest in Hutch's clothes? It was none of his business. Especially the way Starsky was dressing lately. “At least I don't look like I just walked out of one of those Melrose Avenue trend-o-mats wearing this week's fashion fad.” He pinched the material of Starsky's jacket. “How much flattery did the salesgirl use to get you to buy that outfit?”

Starsky frowned at the remark. Hutch was immediately sorry he'd let his comments become cruel. He shouldn't have let his irritation surface like that. Beside, there was really nothing wrong with Starsky's clothes. It was just that he simply hadn't wanted Starsky's opinion of his own attire.

Or was he really just uncomfortable with the implication that Starsky had been studying him? Hutch shook off the thought. No reason anybody would want to study him. No reason anybody would need to study him.

“You want the old jeans back?” Starsky finally retorted.

Hutch raised an eyebrow to announce the subject was closed.

Starsky accepted quietly—as he should—and turned his attention to the knot of camera crews and reporters that surrounded Boggs and Grimes. “I'm just as glad we don't have to handle that,” he tilted his head toward the group.

Hutch slipped a pair of sunglasses on. “I think they really enjoy it.”

Starsky shrugged. “You're just used to holding back your identity, laying low, not letting too many people get a fix on you. They're not.”

Hutch froze. Starsky had exactly hit on what he'd been thinking. Hutch had never liked it when people understood what was going on inside his head, or why he was doing what he was doing; and he was not happy that Starsky had identified a portion of his secretiveness. It was nobody's business why he did what he did, and certainly not up to them to judge him on it. But even more important, why had Starsky picked up on this? Could Starsky really be studying him? He'd have to be a little more alert to not only Starsky's personal behavior, but his behavior toward Hutch.

Hutch turned and jogged down the stairs to the parking lot, suddenly eager to move away from Starsky's scrutiny. Starsky followed behind. Hutch listened to the rhythm in Starsky's gait, noting the steadiness in his step as well as the energy. Leg strength. Muscle tone.

False hopes.

“That's the one thing I always hated about tying up a case and testifying,” Starsky went on as they reached the blacktop. He wasn't giving up this line of thought. “People find out who you are. Sometimes I think being undercover is safer than being out. Then no one can get to know you.”

Hutch lost a step at Starsky's admission. Starsky seemed to mark it as just another example of his clumsiness. But it was obvious the statement had been directed at Hutch. Of late Starsky had been very free with such off-hand remarks. Remarks that sounded very matter-of-fact and innocent, but held deep truths that Hutch was uncomfortable with, for more often than not they were made for Hutch's benefit. He took it to be a manifestation of Starsky's involvement in psychotherapy. He hoped the phase would end soon.

They wound their way between two mobile units to their car. Starsky leaned against the hood and looked back up at the motel room. Hutch opened his door to let the interior cool off.

“This is exactly like Browning,” Starsky folded his arms across his chest.

“And March, and Vasquez and Jun,” Hutch added from the other side of the car.

Starsky counted on his fingers. “And Lopez and Fields. This one makes seven in—” he counted on his fingers again, “—sixteen weeks.”

Hutch rubbed a thumb on a spot on the car top, then slid in and reached across to unlock Starsky's door. Starsky folded into the car, Hutch started the engine, and a warning buzzer sounded. Hutch pulled his seat belt around, buckled it, then waited for Starsky to do the same. Starsky appeared pre-occupied with something outside his window.

“I'm not moving—”

“All right!” Starsky grabbed at the metal clasp and jerked it around, shoving it into the catch. “I'm gonna have that buzzer disconnected one of these days,” he fumed.

“Fine.” Hutch shifted into gear and pulled out of the lot, knowing his acquiescence would be ignored. “Whatever.”

Starsky glared at his partner, then sighed. Hutch smiled inwardly at his handling of Starsky's discontent, although he wasn't happy that Starsky fought the belt every single time he rode in the car. It had practically become a routine. “Where to?” Starsky settled into the seat, leaving the seat belt issue behind.

“Where do you want to go?” Hutch replied. Immediately he regretted the question; he should have kept his mouth shut. Starsky would pick anywhere but the office, which was where they needed to stay.

Starsky gave it some thought. “Hell if I know. Might as well start with the guy's family and business associates.”

Hutch kept his eyes on the traffic flow and his composure calm. “I'd just as soon head back to the office and get started on the paperwork. We've got those uniforms they temporarily upgraded to take care of the legwork.” There. That wouldn't sound too emphatic.

Starsky sniffed. “I never met a uniform who could give me enough information so that I felt like I didn't have to go look things over myself. Besides, we've been assigned to this task force for six weeks now, and I'm tired of the desks and paper.”

“Grimes and Ruth said they'd call later.” Hutch continued to keep his eyes on the road and his voice expressionless. He didn't need to look at Starsky to know what was in his face. This was well trod-upon ground. Ever since Hutch had agreed to take this case, Starsky had constantly pushed to get back on the streets. It was as though Hutch's agreement to even take on this case carried with it a clause that allowed them to also return to their pre-shooting methods of detective work. It didn't. And it wasn't as if they hadn't discussed what accepting the case would mean. Hutch had been very explicit. They would use this assignment to become reacclimated to each other and to the department, and to ease into more supervisory roles. He knew Starsky understood it did not include days spent chasing after witnesses and suspects, and nights spent staking out possible trouble spots. He knew Starsky understood it to mean office hours and desk work. He knew it.

Starsky shifted within his belt to stare at Hutch. “They'll either route the call to us or take a message,” he dared.

A challenge. Hutch kept silent. A shiver exploded through his body; needles and pins flashed down his arms and out his fingertips. The adrenaline rush took him by surprise, and he glanced sideways to see if Starsky had noticed anything.

He hadn't.

“If Dobey were in command of this he’d have us all over the streets.” Starsky muttered.

Hutch pretended he hadn’t heard.

“We’d be rousting lowlifes, playing our snitches, climbing through the city’s dumps.” Starsky’s voice grew clearer and louder.

Pure fantasy, thought Hutch.

“Dobey’d let us run this on our own.”

 Hutch slowly, dramatically, turned his head to stare at Starsky. “We are not under Dobey’s command.” Precise enunciation. “We are not working alone. We are part of a task force and as such are subsumed by the greater good of the team.” There. Big words ought to intimidate.

“Okay.” Starsky folded his arms tightly. “How's this: We'll head back to the office. You can get going on the paperwork. I'll pick up my car from there and drive out to Morris's place to talk with his wife.” He waited for a reaction.

Hutch set his mouth in a grim line. Starsky had checked him! His choices were now to either agree with Starsky's idea and let him go off alone, or admit defeat and give in to Starsky's earlier game plan. It was the first direct assault Starsky had made on him since they'd begun the case. Starsky wasn't giving in to Hutch's itinerary, he was offering alternatives. Well, thought Hutch, lose the battle but win the war.

“No. Forget the paperwork. It'll be easier if we go to Morris's house first, then swing back by his office before we hit Metro.” At least he could control Starsky's activities.

Hutch stole a glance at him. Starsky smiled and settled back into the seat, apparently thinking he'd won something. Starsky was testing him, marking his limits, discovering his boundaries. Fine, he determined. Starsky could damn well find those limits, and learn to live inside them. It would be better for all concerned once that was taken care of.

 

 

Hutch found himself once again playing the role of silent partner, studying Starsky as he probed and prodded the victim's widow. It was a masterful performance, perfected over years of sad practice. Starsky comforted in the face of tears, flattered to elicit bits of information, and promised to solve when he had no right to promise. He played a role they both knew well, one that could be satisfying when successfully performed for the guilty, but faintly disturbing when used on the innocent. But at least they knew both sides of that coin.

“That must have taken a lot of dedication.” Starsky was “admiring” a wall of diplomas and certificates. “And your supporting him through business school, then helping him get his MBA, well, that's really quite impressive.”

Mrs. Morris stood transfixed in front of the wall. In her late twenties, she was delicate and pretty. A bit underdeveloped, though, Hutch thought. Almost skinny. The kind whose pelvic bones tended to poke you at the most inopportune moments.

She didn't appear to really comprehend what Starsky was saying to her. “He was so ambitious,” she said softly. “So successful. He was moving up even more quickly than we'd planned.” She reached out to touch the glass of one of the diplomas. “I just can't think of what he was doing at a motel in the middle of the night. He told me he had a late business dinner to attend.” Tears filled her eyes.

Starsky took one of her hands between his. “Mrs. Morris, if you think of anything, or come across anything you think might help us find who murdered your husband, please call us.” He drew a card from his pocket and placed it in the woman's hand. “Thank you for all your help. We'll be in touch.” He gave her hand a final pat. “There will be other officers here today and maybe tomorrow, and the coroner's office will be contacting you. And I think you ought to be prepared for the reporters that will probably come. You might want to have a family member or friend come over and stay with you.”

“You're leaving?” She stared off past Starsky's shoulder. “I was going to fix some coffee. Or tea?”

“That's all right,” he smiled. “We have to be going.”

“Oh. Well.” She shook her head, and her eyes finally managed to focus on Starsky. Starsky tried another smile, but it was not returned.

Hutch rose, and the three of them walked silently to the door. Mrs. Morris waved after them as they left. “Thank you,” she called feebly, then disappeared into the house.

“’Thank you’,” Starsky sighed. “We come to her for information regarding her husband's murder, and she thanks us.” He paused when they reached the car. “Was I too—phony?”

Hutch looked back at the house. “She was in shock, Starsk. She probably doesn't remember one word you said. You did what you had to do.” It wasn't really an answer to Starsky's question, but Starsky seemed content with the response. Probably because it spoke to his interrogative abilities. When they had considered the offer to join the task force, Starsky had confessed he was afraid his skills would be too rusty to serve them well. Another of his casual confessions, confessions probably encouraged by his doctor. Perhaps, mused Hutch, that is what had convinced him to agree to take the assignment. His desire to show Starsky that he hadn't lost those talents in the face of some of the other things Starsky had lost.

 And Starsky had lost quite a bit. A year of his life. The mobility in his right arm. The strength in his body.

His body.

Hutch glanced at Starsky, waiting next to the car. Hutch had watched the man go from being a robust, healthy young male to a frail, weakened old man. Forget the medical explanations for what had ensued after the shooting, the physical transformation alone had been enough to sicken Hutch. Weight loss and muscle atrophy had left Hutch a rag doll in place of a partner. The tanned skin lost all its color. The turquoise eyes lost their radiance. The muscular chest lost its definition. Hutch had been afraid to even touch Starsky after a time for fear of crushing his fragile body; every touch seemed to leave behind a bruise.

Now, though, it was as if superficially nothing had ever happened. Of course, there were the scars, but physically—the musculature was back in spades. A free-weight regimen designed to increase Starsky's mobility range had firmed and toned beyond where he'd been before the accident. A swimming regimen had brought back his stamina and strength. Starsky's back fairly rippled under his shirt. His abdomen was flat and hard. His ass was firm and tight.

Hutch reached down and unlocked the car. He paused, staring down the street without really seeing any of the street activity.

 Just as his body had been. Starsky and Hutch. Two youthful, vital, healthy males in their prime. Paragons of the male form, each in their own way. Strong. Powerful. A cut above the rest. The perfect partnership. Brain and brawn. Princes of the city. Taken down by a vengeful Captain of Industry and relegated to the land of the weak and impotent.

 It took Starsky asking if they were going anywhere for Hutch to re-focus his attention. He shook himself mentally and brought his thoughts back to the case at hand. Responsibility replaced reverie.

Hutch entered the car, and opened Starsky's door. The engine turned over and the alarm sounded as Starsky dropped inside. Hutch belted himself. Starsky clenched his fists, then followed suit. Hutch smiled inwardly.

“So what do you think?” Starsky picked up the conversation as Hutch pulled away from the curb.

Hutch pursed his lips. “Unless she's up for this year's Oscar, I don't think she had anything to do with it.”

“Me either,” Starsky concurred. “If I'm any judge of character, and I ought to be by now, I'd say she's a devoted wife who's never going to understand what happened to her husband, or why.”

“Yeah,” Hutch turned down Wilshire. “Seven men,” he began to tally. “Seven different motels scattered over the area. All exhibiting signs of recent sexual activity, all strangled.”

“Tut, tut,” Starsky admonished. “We can't say number seven was officially strangled until the autopsy.”

“Screw the autopsy, we both saw the marks, he was strangled.” Hutch returned to his litany. “All the bodies were laid out for—viewing or something. All the bodies were washed. All the rooms were spotless—”

“Okay, okay,” Starsky interrupted. He rubbed his temples. “I'm getting a headache.” He rolled the window down further to increase the breeze. “You think poppers will show up in the autopsy?”

Hutch looked over at his partner. Real headache, or just a figure of speech? “Bet on it. These are kinky crimes, make no mistake about that. Someone or ones are getting their rocks off in a very sick way.”

“Disgruntled prostitute?” Starsky mused. “That's Ruth's theory. She thinks the killer is out for some kind of pay-back.”

“Could be,” Hutch said. “I'm wondering if all these murders aren't somehow business related. Morris' wife mentioned her husband was a fast mover.”

Starsky pulled out his notebook and flipped through it. “College in three and a half years, MBA in 12 months; moved from sales assistant to senior account executive in just under four years. He was either a junior Rockefeller or bedding the boss' wife.”

“Or the boss,” Hutch added.

Starsky cast a jaundiced eye on him.

Hutch continued his litany. “All our victims were white collar, successful businessmen. All were—”

“Hutch! Give me a break, will you? I'm tired of your countdown. It's all in the computer, anyway.” Starsky pointed ahead of them. “There's the address.”

They pulled up in front of an office building on Wilshire. Starsky hopped out, and Hutch drove around the corner to find parking. That done, Hutch walked back and met Starsky in the lobby.

“Fifth floor,” Starsky greeted him. They rode the elevator up and found themselves entering a spacious reception area. Starsky walked up to the receptionist while Hutch peeked down the various hallways branching out from the lobby. He studied the area before returning to Starsky's side.

Starsky took his wallet from his pocket and showed the receptionist his badge. “Police. We'd like to speak to a Mr. Gilliam.”

The receptionist barely glanced at Starsky's identification, instead buzzed down the corridor. There was no answer.

“I'm afraid Mr. Gilliam's out,” she said. She had laid down her paperback in order to use the intercom. That done, she picked it back up.

“Out where?” Starsky asked.

“Out to lunch,” she replied. The book must have been good; it was definitely more interesting than Starsky. And Starsky was normally very interesting to the opposite sex. The cover certainly indicated the book was full of heat and passion. It probably offered more excitement than she would ever see in real life, Hutch thought. Her face was so heavily made up anyone kissing it would only end up with a mouthful of cosmetic goo.

“When will he be back?” Hutch returned to the desk.

She shrugged. “I don't know. He's at lunch. When he's done, he'll come back.” She turned a page.

Starsky flashed Hutch a “she's brilliant” look. Hutch shrugged.

“We'll wait.” Starsky sat down on the couch next to her desk.

Hutch mentally shook his head at Starsky. It was time for action, not dormancy. Starsky had called the situation wrong. Hutch placed both hands on the desk and leaned toward the woman. He used his index finger to push the book toward the desk. That should get her attention. “Is anyone else here?”

“I don't know,” she huffed. She pulled the book from under Hutch's finger, dog-eared the page, and picked up the phone. “Let me buzz around.”

Hutch gently took her hand and pushed the phone back into its cradle. She flinched under his touch. She'd probably never been touched by anyone of his class; certainly not anyone of his looks. “That's all right. I'll tell you what: Why don't you just tell us where Walter Morris's office is so we can take a look at it?”

“He's not here,” the woman answered. She ran a thumb over the cover of the paperback, tracing the illustration of the dashing cavalry officer on the front.

“I know,” Hutch smiled solicitously. “Where's his office?”

“Oh!” The receptionist finally looked up from her tome. “Well, it's the third on the right. No, the fourth. No—third.” She pointed down a corridor.

“We'll find it.” Hutch straightened and headed down the hall, Starsky on his heels, both glad to be away from the girl. Morris' office turned out to be the fifth cubicle down, identified by a name plate outside the door.

Three steps each and the two men had covered the entire space. “Cozy,” Starsky commented. “Watcha got?”

Hutch was thumbing through the papers on the desk. “Let's see. Rate cards, confirmations, orders, contracts.”

“Huh?”

Hutch squatted to look through a stack of newspapers on the floor. “Yesterday's Times, Herald, and Daily News, last week's L.A. Weekly and The Reader, and several other local alternative papers.”

“Reads a lot,” Starsky noted.

“Yeah,” Hutch rose. “Let's see if we can't get Billings down here to catalog this stuff before someone cleans it out. She's been good at correlating all the victims' personal data.”

“She's after a permanent promotion.” Starsky's eyes swept the office. Satisfied, he turned and left.

Hutch strode up beside him, miffed that he'd been left behind. “She deserves one. She's a good cop.”

“She's after your ass,” Starsky smiled and waved at the receptionist as they crossed to the elevator. She, of course, was too wrapped up in her fantasy to notice.

A hint of a smile glittered in Hutch's eyes. Leslie Billings was an ash blonde who wasn't afraid to let her hair grow long and silky in defiance of current shorter trends and department policy. She'd let it down once, in front of him. He'd estimated it would just reach the top of her shapely ass, and he'd been right. “She'd have more luck if she'd go after something in the front instead of the rear,” he said, surprised he'd voiced the thought. The elevator doors slid open.

Starsky slapped Hutch on the rear and pushed him into the car. “Oh, I don't know. Somebody might find something useful back there.”

The doors closed. Hutch glanced at Starsky, then focused on the numbers describing their descent.

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

“You're worried,” she smiled at him.

He blinked. “How can you tell?”

“This little line here—” she reached up and ran a finger down the furrow between his eyes, “—gets very, very deep.”

Hutch tried to smooth out his features. “Yeah?”

“Yeah,” she laughed. She ran her finger down to the tip of his nose. His skin tingled. “What are you worried about?”

Hutch captured her hand and brought the finger to his lips. “Nothing.” He kissed the tip of one finger, then kissed the tips of the others. “I have no worries when I'm with you.” It was a good phrase, if not exactly correct. At first, Elisa had offered a refuge from the concerns and stresses of the past year. Starsky had had to have Hutch's strength to climb out of his hell-hole; Elisa had merely wanted it. The strongest memory he still had of Elisa was the night he'd shown up on her doorstep to inform her that her husband, an officer with whom he'd been working a case, had been killed in the line of duty. She hadn't gone into shock, she hadn't gone into hysterics, she hadn't been calm in the face of crushing grief. She had slowly, quietly, gracefully leaned into his arms and melted into his body, seeking his comfort and protection as she trembled and cried. His response had been immediate and intense. He would never let her go. She accepted his comfort and protection. And gradually, he'd coaxed her into not wanting him to let go. He just hadn't planned on having to coax her into so many other things.

Elisa laughed, breaking his reverie. She cupped his face in her hands, her green eyes shining. “I know you've been trying not to bring your work over here with you. But sometimes I know you can't help it. Don't forget I lived with a cop before.” A glimpse of loss flickered across her face, then disappeared. She kissed the tip of Hutch's nose, then his lips. When he opened his eyes, her smile was gone and her eyes were serious. “So if you're going to brood, at least let me know what you're brooding about so I can compensate accordingly.” Her thumbs caressed his cheeks, and then she stood. “More coffee?”

“No.” He looked up at her, confused. “Compensate?”

She shrugged. “I just need to know if it's me or your work.” She picked up their coffee cups and fled the room.

Now what? Hutch followed her into the kitchen. He leaned against the door frame as she washed the cups. “Elisa?”

“Yes?” she said, without looking up. The two cups were taking an unusually long time to wash clean.

“It's not you.” He actually believed that. It wasn't her rejection and refusal dampening his mood. After all, what was there about him to reject or refuse? Hutch came up behind her, slipped his arms around her waist, and nuzzled her neck. “How could it be you?” he murmured. Cool, black curls caressed his face.

Elisa's hands stilled in the dishwater. “It's just, you were so quiet all night,” she said softly. “I thought maybe you were thinking about something you wanted to tell me . . . or . . . didn't want to tell me.”

Hutch held her tighter, his cheek against her hair. “Truth?” he spoke into her ear. She nodded. “It's work.” Yes. Work was pulling him down.

Her head lifted a little. “Yes?”

“Yes.” He began to rock her gently. “But it's nothing you need to worry about. Sometimes I just can't stop thinking about the case, or what I should be doing on the case. But it's not you, 'Lisa.”

She dried her hands and slid around in his grasp. “I guess this is something I have to get used to. Again.” She sighed, a sound that raked through Hutch's heart. But Elisa clasped her hands around his neck, and the ache turned into longing.

Hutch looked at her troubled face, then brought her head to rest against his chest. “I'm sorry, sweetheart. I just—I can't always—” he stroked her hair and continued to rock, pressing into her. Her crotch, warm and inviting, hit him just at groin level. Her breasts pushed into his chest. Hutch squeezed her tighter, his rocking becoming more rhythmic. The friction between their bodies felt good. Elisa felt good.

She suddenly pushed away from him. “Don't.” Elisa took two steps back. “Don't try and turn the subject from work to sex.” She swallowed and turned her face from Hutch. “I know what you are, you know what I am, why does it always have to turn into a nightly struggle?” She fled again.

“Elisa,” Hutch called, exasperated and confounded. The loss of heat and pressure frustrated him. He followed her back into the living room, and found her hugging herself on the couch. Dinner suddenly didn't seem to be sitting too well.

He stood in the middle of the room. “Elisa—” he gestured helplessly, “—what's wrong? What did I do?” Actually, the better question was what wouldn't she do? But he knew better than to ask that.

“Don't play games with me, all right?” Her words were sharp, and she refused to look at him. “I wanted to talk about how you and I could better handle your work, then you try and avoid the subject by coming on to me when I've asked you not to do that! If you don't want to talk about something, then just say so! I can handle that!”

Hutch sat down next to her, brought his hand up to her shoulder. “Elisa—”

Elisa rose and walked away from him. “I said don't,” she said icily.

Hutch stood up. “I don't understand,” he pleaded, stumbling onward, unable to admit his guilt. “What's wrong? What did I do?” He took a step toward her. “Let's talk—”

“Go.” She backed away from him. “Just go. Please.” Her eyes filled with tears and her chin trembled.

“Go?” Hutch reached out for her, then stopped himself. What did he want with her anyway? He was nothing if not tired of trying to maneuver between the obstacles she constantly set up. And she certainly wasn't giving easily to this relationship. His queasiness suddenly left him. “Is that your answer to everything lately? Go?” He whisked up his jacket and headed for the door.

“Ken!” Elisa still stood in the middle of the room, trembling, looking after him with tear-filled eyes. “Wait! We can talk—”

He stopped and turned as he opened the door. Well. Something had finally gotten through to her. She didn't like it when he was the one doing the rejecting. “Talk?” He took a step back toward her. “You don't want to talk. You just want to torment me.” Anger burned white behind his eyes. It was extremely satisfying. “I didn't say anything or do anything tonight! You're just so intent on finding sex in everything I do or say that we can't even share an evening together anymore without you crying `rape' every five minutes!” Hutch shoved the door into the wall and backed out. “Well, I've had enough,” he spat. “Don't call me, I'll call you,” he mocked, and left.

Hutch was in his car before he realized that he, too, was trembling, and his eyes stung. He rubbed them, taking a shaky breath. He wasn't sure what had happened back there, only that it had happened frighteningly quick. Everyone was coming down on him, and he hadn't done anything to deserve all the crap they were shoveling. Hutch's chest felt tight as the faces of all his tormentors flashed through his mind. Exhaustion bore down on his limbs. He'd better get home and get to bed and get out from under the load they were trying to hand him. Hutch started the car and drove off.

 

 

“I swear, I'm going to start carrying tranquilizers so I can hand them out to people whenever necessary.” Hutch rubbed his forehead painfully. A headache was threatening his morning. And he couldn't shake the nausea he'd awakened with. This was not the right morning to have to deal with Starsky and another DB.

“Hey! Lieutenant! Can you do something about that?” Starsky gestured toward a young girl sobbing loudly in the corner of the room.

Grimes took the child by the shoulders and began guiding her toward the door. “Let's get some air,” he said quietly to the girl. They stepped outside to the parking lot.

“Why do you think people scream when they see dead bodies?” Starsky made notes on a small pad as he thought out loud. Hutch glanced over at him, but he couldn't keep his eyes focused. Even looking at Starsky this morning was more than he could handle. He just didn't want to have to deal with the responsibility.

“Instinct,” Hutch crouched by the bed, examining the frayed ends of the bedspread, purposely brushing off his partner. “Warning. Survival.” He rose and walked around to the other side of the bed without elaborating. Why did Starsky always have to assume he knew the answer to everything? Everyone always expected him to know what was going on. Everyone always expected him to be in charge. Everyone always turned to him for details and information. And then when things didn't turn out precisely as he'd explained, everyone always faulted him as well.

Starsky now stood across from him. Back to business. Keep your attention on business.

“Same marks,” Hutch pointed at the body lying on the bed. “Neck, wrists, ankles. He struggled, too. The bruises are larger and the cuts deeper. And did you catch the marks around his nipples? But still clean as a whistle.” Hutch looked around the room, managing to avoid eye contact with everybody. “Bed, bathroom, dresser, everything clean as a whistle.” Something nagged at him. “How do you have sex and keep everything so clean?”

“Damned if I know.” Starsky finished his observations and slipped the notebook back into his pocket. He didn't seem to be aware Hutch was ignoring him. Hutch chanced another glance his way. “I'm tired.” Starsky yawned, then purposely looked at Hutch. Hutch recognized the dark tint in the eyes instantly. Guilt. “I wish someone would discover these bodies at more convenient times.”

Hutch looked at his watch to try and distance himself from Starsky, but his attention was dragged back. They'd both barely managed to put on more than clean shirts and slacks and throw jackets on after receiving their phone calls this morning. Dark circles rimmed Starsky's eyes, and his skin seemed a little pasty. And Hutch was sucked in again. There was no way out; Starsky was his charge, his duty, his burden. His sacrifice.

He'd see to it Starsky took it easy for the rest of the day.

Hutch nodded in understanding at the hint of shame he caught in Starsky's admission. “Yeah. Me, too,” he agreed quietly. And my shame is that I tried to ignore your distress.

A slight smile graced Starsky's lips, his eyes suddenly lighting up in pleasure. The blue irises were like a searchlight on Hutch, trying to scan him and ferret out something inside him. A wave of dizziness nearly made Hutch reach out for the wall. He looked away, escaping Starsky's gaze, finding refuge in noting the details of the room. But from the corner of his eye he could see Starsky continue to stare at him, opening his mouth to speak. More soul-baring admissions, Hutch quickly surmised. And he'd had enough of them. It was just too much.

Hutch would have fled the room if Ruth hadn't entered and planted herself next to Starsky. Providence with carmine hair.

Ruth paid no attention to the two detectives. She merely stared down at the body before them. “Did you catch the mouth?” She leaned forward and used a fingernail to sweep the lips. “See? The corner's got a cut.”

Hutch risked looking at Starsky. Regret had replaced the anticipation in Starsky's eyes. Hutch breathed a silent sigh of relief as Starsky finally shifted his attention from his partner to the corpse. Starsky reluctantly bent around Ruth and looked closely. “Gag? That's funny. The lab reports on the others indicated tape residue around the mouth.” He turned to Hutch. Hutch shrugged, quickly averting his eyes. He wouldn't risk being sucked into Starsky's gaze again.

“Maybe she ran out of tape,” Ruth suggested.

“’She’,” Starsky raised an eyebrow. “You don't really think a woman could do this to a full grown man, do you?”

“Hmmm,” Ruth appeared to be deep in thought. She glanced at Hutch—almost as though seeking permission—then turned to face Starsky. “A woman can make a man do a lot of things.” She ran her fingers up and down the light material of Starsky's jacket lapels. Starsky looked down at her warily. “Especially if he's inclined that way in the first place.” Her hands moved up to caress Starsky's neck, stroking upwards to trace the curve of his ear on one side, the line of his jaw on the other. Starsky shifted uncomfortably, his eyes locked to hers. “You know there are hookers who specialize in the kinkier trade,” she continued her ministrations, running her fingers through his hair, then down to caress his neck. “Once the trick has submitted, she's got him under her thumb, so to speak.” Her hands suddenly encircled Starsky's throat, thumbs punching up into his flesh. His head jerked back and his hands caught her forearms. “Bingo.” Ruth just as suddenly released him and stepped out of his grasp. “He's hers.”

Hutch turned sideways, suppressing a wry smile. Some people gave up control so easily. Starsky had always been one of those people. Just another reason to constantly watch out for him.

Starsky ran a finger under his shirt collar and cleared his throat. “I suppose.” He looked away from both of them, and took a deep breath. “What else have you got?” Ruth's display had obviously unnerved him.

Ruth walked over to the door and looked out. “I've been pulling files for weeks now. I've got officers canvassing the streets. I'm up to my ying-yang in male prosties who are sure their last trick was trying to kill them, and just as many johns who are convinced their last date is the killer.” She looked back at Starsky and Hutch. “In other words, we've got nothing.”

“I hate that kind of attitude,” Grimes came up behind her. “Even if it is the truth.” He stepped past her into the room. “Do you think there could be some link between the victims' actual physical appearances?”

Ruth turned to scan the body stretched out on the bed. “Not unless the link is any length, any time. I think the victims are choosing themselves. The only link is the killer.”

Hutch studied the body yet again. Face: handsome. Chest: hairy. Arms: muscular. Legs: muscular. Cock: thin. “Anything from the girl?” Hutch asked.

“I think she's an illegal,” Grimes answered. “Barely knows English. Won't say much more than she found the body. I expect she'll disappear by tonight.”

That meant Rodriquez was outside interviewing la niña in deference to his native-speaking ability, as opposed to Hutch’s tutored ability. Didn’t want to get into that argument again with Rodriquez, even if Hutch had been nannied by a Guatemalan and spent many a college summer in Mexico City. Starsky had been right in the middle of that one, right where he shouldn’t have been, but right where he’d shown Hutch the necessity of allowing Rodriquez to have his area of expertise. If Hutch had won the position of interviewing all the Mexican speakers, he would have ended up with less time available for Starsky. And sacrificing for Starsky was all that mattered.

“Same procedure?” Hutch stepped up to the door and squinted at the morning sun.

“Same procedure,” Grimes nodded. “You know what to do, we know what to do, everybody knows what to do.” He sighed.

“We'll be in touch, then.” Starsky stepped out past the group and into the early morning sun. He slipped on his sunglasses, took a deep breath, and headed for the car. Hutch followed. All he wanted to do was get out of there.

Starsky didn't get into the car. Instead, he balanced against the hood. Uh-oh, Hutch thought. He wants to talk.

“What do you think about this physical link?”

“Similar physical characteristics?” Hutch thought a moment. At least Starsky hadn't asked a stupid question. He scanned the list of DB's catalogued in his head. All were extremely attractive men, well able to attract interest from either sex. “Well, two were Black, three Caucasian, two Hispanic, one Oriental. Two were over 6 feet, six were under. Four were mustachioed—”

Physical characteristics,” Starsky interrupted.

Hutch looked over at him, lifting an eyebrow. If people were going to insist he be a walking computer…. “Oh. Well. Five were of average len—”

“Shit. Don't tell me you've got those statistics up in your head, too.” Starsky turned around and planted his palms on the hood. “We need a break. A witness, a tip, a lead. Something to give us an idea of who we're dealing with.” He wiped his hands and smiled. “You really got their vital statistics in your head?”

Hutch chuckled and said nothing. Yes, really, he had their vital statistics up in his head. Of course, he and Starsky had nothing to worry about compared to these guys. They were both much better endowed than the victims.

“Hi, guys,” Ruth walked over to them. “Come here often?”

“I'm not that kind of guy,” Starsky stuck his nose in the air.

“These guys were,” Ruth tossed her head back at the motel room.

“They were, weren't they?” Hutch's brow creased in concentration. “Yet there's been no real evidence any of these men frequented prostitutes or led secret lives.” He smiled inwardly. Data Man strikes again. “According to family and friends, there's no evidence—”

“He's driving me crazy,” Starsky broke in, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “Want to trade?”

Ruth appraised Hutch carefully, who pointedly ignored her scrutiny. “No,” she decided, “I think I'll keep mine. It'd be too much trouble to have to learn how to pull another partner's strings, even if yours is a better dresser.” She kissed her fingertips and pressed them against Hutch's cheek. “No offense, beautiful,” she smiled.

“None taken,” Hutch forced a smile in return. Beautiful…

Ruth kissed her fingertips again, pressing them against Starsky's lips. She seemed to like to touch Starsky. And what was not to like? When healthy, his skin was always warm, his muscles always firm. “Do try and make the meeting on Thursday. The chief likes to see some return on the money he's put into this little task force.” She wriggled her hips and swayed back to the motel room.

“Hold it!” Starsky suddenly called after her. Ruth stopped and turned. “Did I win?”

Ruth shook her head. “Only Channels 7 and 13 have shown up so far,” she held up seven fingers, then one and three. “I'll let you know if you Show.” She waggled all ten fingers, then disappeared into the room.

Starsky and Hutch watched her go, then got into the car.

“How do you suppose Grimes manages her?” Starsky asked. “Wait,” he suddenly reached out and grabbed Hutch's hand before he could fit the key in the ignition. Starsky quickly drew his belt around him and buckled it. “I hate that buzzer,” he grumbled.

Hutch smiled sardonically and buckled his own belt. He started the car and pulled away from the motel.

“I feel like I'm into bondage.” Starsky wriggled within the confines of the belt. “What do you say we go check out this guy's co-workers?”

“What do you say we let Harper and Regal do that?” Hutch replied without turning his head. He was suddenly very weary of this little struggle. Why wouldn't Starsky learn?

“They did it last time.” Starsky tried to turn his body toward his partner. “Frankly, I'm getting tired of letting them do all our work.”

Hutch allowed himself a second to hide his exasperation. “They're not doing ‘our’ work. They're doing ‘their’ work.” Give it up, Starsk! “This is a special case, buddy. We've been assigned to a special task force, and we're working with over twenty other officers.” He continued to watch the road instead of his partner. “This is not a case we can handle by ourselves. There's just no way.” He needed an antacid.

Starsky suddenly slammed a fist into the dashboard. Hutch snapped his head around in surprise. “You know what I mean,” Starsky grumbled, drawing his fist into his chest and massaging it. “It's just that, we've been spending all our time on paper trails while everyone else is out on the streets.” He was once again animated. “We are not that swamped that we can't afford to get out and do a little of our own hunting. We could at least hit some of our old snitches!”

Hutch recognized the plea inherent in the statement. Starsky had spent the last 14 months of his life learning to live in the world again, and he wanted things returned to the way they were before. But they couldn't, and they never would, and Hutch was beginning to see he was going to have to force Starsky to face this if he wouldn't accept it on his own. But for right now, it would simply be enough to quash this whole conversation. Besides, Hutch needed to get back to Metro and his locker full of stomach remedies.

He maneuvered them onto the freeway. “‘Everyone else’ is not out on the streets. ‘Everyone else’ is doing whatever job they were assigned.” He pointed a finger at Starsky, angry and fed-up, but determined not to show it. “We can get just as much done searching through files and using the telephone as we can scouring the streets.” He paused. “If you tried it sometime you might see that.”

“Part of our new nine-to-five image?” Starsky snapped. Hutch didn't reply.

“It is, isn't it?” Starsky continued to probe. “Regular hours, less time on the street, more time behind the desk?”

That was the agreement! Hutch ground his teeth together. “We're on a very specific case right now, Starsk,” Hutch replied evenly. “We're part of a task force, not out on our own—”

“You arranged that real good,” Starsky murmured.

“—and as such, we are responsible not only to Lieutenants Boggs and Grimes, but also to every other member of that task force,” Hutch finished. “You want out?” He ended his lecture, but something nagged at him. What did Starsky mean, arranged?

Starsky looked sidelong at him. “What if I did?” he posed.

“Fine,” Hutch turned his attentions back to the road. “We resign from this case, we're back on burglary detail.”

“What ‘we’?” Starsky suddenly challenged. “You obviously seem very happy with this set-up.” He stared at Hutch, still and expectant.

Hutch's chest heaved, his face flamed, but he refused to look at Starsky. “I told you, if you're not happy, resign from the case. Get out.” There. Fire with fire. Starsky wouldn't resign from the case; he coveted the assignment too much. And there was no way he could survive this assignment without Hutch; he knew that as well. It came down to this, and it had always been understood between them; where Hutch went, Starsky followed.

Because he needs me more than I need him.

And suddenly:

Oh yeah?

The universe blinked.

Hutch pretended it hadn’t.

Hutch glanced quickly at Starsky without turning his head. Starsky had slunk down in his seat and was staring morosely out the window. Probably contemplating a return to that grubby little desk and that grubby little chair and that grubby little assignment in that windowless room on the twelfth floor of Parker Center, Hutch thought. If Starsky wanted to be out and about at all, he'd have to put up with Hutch's rules, because he could no longer make his own. As a matter of fact, Elisa was trying to come up with some pretty ridiculous rules of her own, too, which needed to be overridden.

Damn it, why won't anybody learn the rules?

 

 

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

Starsky sat down roughly in his chair. Hutch pointedly ignored him. It had been hours since they'd returned to Division, and Starsky had immediately abandoned Hutch to his computer files. Hutch hadn't minded. It gave him a chance to collate some data without constant and unnecessary interruptions.

It was late enough now a cleaning man emptied wastebaskets in the corner.

“Well?” Starsky finally said. “Do you want to hear or not?”

Hutch sat back in his chair, a smug look on his face. Whatever Starsky had researched would be nothing to what he had come up with. He waited for Starsky to speak.

“Fellows was an ‘ass-kisser’ a ‘dirty tricks man, a ‘ladies' man, or a ‘hard working team player,’ depending upon who you talk to.” Starsky picked up a pencil and began tapping it absently. “Half his office hated him, half loved him. I got no more and no less with Morris and Lopez.”

“What?” Hutch looked at him, confused. Where had Starsky come up with that information? Hutch had all the transcribed interviews signed out, and there was certainly no paper on Fellows as yet.

“What do you mean, ‘what’?” Starsky dropped his pencil, obviously exasperated. “I've been talking to Fellow's friends and business contacts. I've got a list of people that wouldn't have been sorry to see him go, but no reason why they'd also want to get rid of any of the others.” Starsky's tone lightened to reveal his pleasure with himself. “There's absolutely no connection between them except they've been murdered by the same person, unless they belong to some super-secret sex club and this is pledge month.”

Hutch shifted in his chair. His eyes narrowed. He couldn't have heard what he just heard. “You've been out interviewing people?”

Starsky stared at him. “No. I've got a crystal ball and saw all this from afar,” Starsky sniffed. “Of course I've been out interviewing people.”

Hutch's back stiffened. “I thought we agreed we weren't going to conduct anymore interviews,” he said darkly. Going behind his back was a new mode of behavior for Starsky. Hutch didn't like it. It signaled danger.

Starsky looked away. He picked up the pencil and began tapping it again.

Hutch glared at Starsky. “Is that where you went this afternoon? Out to interview Fellows' neighbors and acquaintances? I thought you were going to the doctor’s.” Hutch waited for Starsky to answer. The only noise in the room was the janitor emptying wastebaskets.

Starsky stopped his tapping. “I'm not your child.” He looked up at Hutch, daring him to respond. “I'm not your possession, or your responsibility.” The words were bait in a trap, confirmed by the expectancy in Starsky's eyes.

Hutch held his breath. He glanced down at the papers in front of him, then grabbed for the Styrofoam cup off to the side. The last few drops of cold coffee hit his throat. He crumpled the cup and pitched it into the janitor's trash cart. Starsky was testing him. No, Starsky was defying him. Starsky was the child and he was the parent and Starsky was bound and determined to do something he'd been told not to. But couldn't the child see that the parent was only forbidding the action out of protection and love? Couldn't the child recognize that the parent was older and wiser and knew what was better for him? Hutch's thoughts tumbled by furiously. If he exploded now, it might send Starsky into more acts of rebellion. And if things were to run smoothly from now on in their partnership, the acts of rebellion would have to be quashed.

Hutch chose his course of action. Diversion. “I could've used some help with all this stuff this afternoon,” Hutch subtly shifted the area of conversation.

“All that stuff.” Starsky huffed. “Why don't you let Billings do all that? That's her job, you know!” Starsky let the pencil roll from his fingers. He appeared to be struggling for some sort of composure. And he must have found it, for Starsky suddenly settled quietly back in his chair. “Or is that where you spent your afternoon?” he smirked, opting for a verbal form of retaliation. “In Billings' office?”

Hutch set his jaw. “I've been working on a bottled water connection,” he explained, his voice tight. I'll show you just how smart I am. Not only do I know better how to run this case, but I can prove it.

“Bottled water?” Starsky snorted. “You're telling me there's a mad water bottler out on the streets strangling ambitious businessmen after sending them to the moon on poppers?”

“Yes,” Hutch's voice remained controlled. He'd show Starsky what could be done with some good, solid research. “All our victims worked at firms or owned business that received their bottled water from the same company.” He let a satisfied smile play on his lips. Brains over brawn, hadn't that always been their old skirmish? Well, brains were going to triumph. Especially since brawn was permanently disabled, weight training or no.

“Oh yeah?” Starsky's eyes widened in mock amazement. “How about messengers? Or mailmen? Or Federal Express? Or the muffin lady?”

“Or the cleaning firm,” the janitor said. Both Starsky and Hutch glared at him. The janitor made a hasty retreat.

“It's the only connection so far,” Hutch insisted, his voice hinting at the tiniest loss of control. Starsky hadn't even gone through the reports yet! How did he know what was or wasn't right?

“Okay,” Starsky played along, his manner testy yet teasing. “What's the motive?”

Hutch ground his teeth together. If Starsky wanted to play with the big boys, he's better be prepared to play fast and hard. Hutch leaned forward, a glint in his eye. “Envy,” he answered, pleased with his interpretation of the case. “The killer's blue collar, and he feels cheated because he's not white. Or maybe he's just a sex psycho and latches onto the victims when he spots them in the office. Either way, the connection's being made in the victim's place of business.”

“How does he get them to the motel rooms without arousing suspicion?” Starsky prodded.

“They go willingly.”

Starsky looked bored. “Everybody's into this bondage thing.”

“Starsky!” Hutch was clearly at his wit's end. He was tired of Starsky's obstinacy on this one point, and was ready to backhand it into Starsky's face. “Why do you keep fighting this point? All the evidence indicated that most of these men struggled very little, if at all. They wanted to be tied up! They enjoyed it! It aroused them!”

“It hurts to be tied up!” Starsky suddenly hissed. “It's scary!”

“Yes!” Hutch planted two fists on the table, wrists touching. “It is when the bad guys are after you, trying to take you down or do whatever it is their sick little minds want to do to you!” He pulled his fists back. Hutch was suddenly very aware of where Starsky was coming from. It was another confession, an admission of old fears and unpleasant memories. Being tied up did hurt. It was scary.

And it also got the old adrenaline pumping.

Hutch met Starsky's eyes in a moment of shared understanding. “This is different,” Hutch continued, a new gentleness apparent in his manner. The parent must teach the child. “These men wanted to be tied up. And you've got to accept that. However the contact was made, the killer and the victim arranged to meet for the express purpose of engaging in sexual bondage.”

Starsky seemed disgusted at the change in tone from Hutch. “I'm not stupid,” he said. “I know what goes on in the world.” Starsky was silent a moment. Hutch held his breath. There was something else bothering him, and Hutch wasn't really up for any more confessions. “It's just that, well, doesn't this case kind of get to you?”

“What do you mean, get to me?” Hutch raked a hand through his hair. He focused his gaze on his reports rather than Starsky. I'm not your shrink, Starsk! And I'm not going to be your patient!

“I mean,” began Starsky quietly, ignoring Hutch's lack of attention, “doesn't it—don’t you—I mean it's been over a year for me, and when I see all this stuff, I don't know whether I want to throw up or—or come,” he finished sheepishly.

Hutch's eyes locked on to Starsky at this revelation. The need in Starsky's face was overwhelming. Of course. That was the cause of Starsky's recent antagonism. The constant tension, the constant tease, the constant frustration. It's over a year, Hutch thought. Starsky hadn't been with anyone since the attempt on their lives. He only assumed Hutch hadn't lost that part of his life.

“This is just a case, Starsk.” Hutch wanted to alleviate some of Starsky's distress, but he really didn't want to go any further. The details of his sex life were just not important here, and Starsky had no details of his own. So if Starsky wanted to talk about this with someone, he could talk about it with his shrink. “So it involves a little bondage. We've seen that before.”

Starsky leaned forward. “Hutch?” His voice was soft and low. Another question. Another query. Another attempt to pierce Hutch's psyche. “You ever had those impulses?” There was an honest curiosity in the question.

Hutch's lids lowered. He licked his lips, then sat back in his chair, relaxed and casual. Very shortly after he'd been issued his first pair of handcuffs, he'd done a little experimenting. That one redhead had certainly shown him a number of ways to immobilize a person. “What if I have?” The question just slipped out. Hutch didn't really want to talk about his past experiences. But Starsky had never pursued this subject before, so he probably wouldn't do it now.

Starsky eyed his partner carefully. But instead of dropping the subject, he relaxed also, draping an arm across the back of his chair. “Have you ever—acted—on any of those impulses?”

Damn the man! He was going to have to play this all the way. Well, Hutch could sustain a pose better than anybody. He'd tiptoe around the subject, avoiding it completely. Hutch smiled, feigning interest in a cuticle. “Maybe.” The tease was obvious, although Hutch hadn't meant it that way. Not really.

Starsky looked away, then shifted position. “You're reaching with the bottled water thing,” he returned to their former conversation.

Hutch sighed inwardly, thankful Starsky had finally dropped the subject. He reached back, clasping his hands behind his head. “You think your sex club idea is any better?” Game won. Starsky had backed off.

Starsky picked up the pencil and twirled it between his fingers. “No,” he admitted. “But your theory just doesn't hold water.” He smiled. Hutch ignored the pun. “It just seems a little complicated and far-fetched.” Starsky paused, then smiled again as he realized he'd made a second joke. “Frankly, I'd rather put my money on Ruth and her prostitute-revenger or Gordie and his avenging street preacher.”

“I repeat. Do you have a better idea?”

Starsky slammed the pencil down on the desk. Hutch jerked upright. “Damn it all, Hutch! What is it with you? You won't hit the streets with me, you won't talk to me, and you're doing everything you can to make me feel like I'm going about this whole investigation the wrong way! It's like a damned contest! Which one of us can find the killer first—you and your printouts or me and my car!”

Hutch lowered his arms. Nausea was becoming his best friend. He sat forward. Starsky was on to him, although he'd misinterpreted Hutch's vigilance as competition. “No,” he said seriously. “This isn't a contest. It's not you against me. It's not even us against them.”

Starsky's eyes widened. Hutch backpedaled quickly, suddenly aware of how Starsky had taken that last statement. It was true, it wasn't them against the world anymore. But now wasn't the time to discuss it. “Look. We all have to work together on this one. We're part of a team now. And our part of this investigation requires us to try and piece together the evidence that is gathered for us.”

Starsky didn't look convinced. In fact, he looked downright hurt. “I swear, Hutch. I'm in no mood for stupid games.” Fire and ice warred in his eyes. “If you're acting like a jerk just so I'll get mad and call off our involvement in this investigation—”

Hutch slammed his hand down on the desk. “I told you, this is not a contest!” His hand stung from slapping the blond wood. He shouldn't have shown his anger like that.

Starsky shook his head, staring, his brow knitted in confusion. “Then if this isn't a contest, what the hell is going on here?”

“Good police work, I hope,” Ruth suddenly appeared at the head of the table. “Working late, boys?”

Starsky and Hutch shifted in their seats, dropping their battle stances. Starsky was obviously upset at the interruption.

Hutch wasn't. He smiled up at his superior warmly. “You're out late tonight.”

“Mmm,” Ruth stepped around the table and walked up to Hutch. “I'm glad I caught you here tonight. I was going to have you come in tomorrow morning.”

Starsky looked up at her expectantly, a trace of anger still evident in his eyes. “You found something?”

“Well,” Ruth placed her hand on the back of Hutch's chair. “That isn't why I was going to call you in. I have to discuss a procedural matter with you.”

Starsky and Hutch exchanged questioning glances. “Sure,” Hutch shrugged. “Shoot.”

Ruth cast her eyes on Starsky. “It seems that some of the other task force officers haven't been getting to their respective case interviews first. It seems you've been out interviewing family and business associates.”

Hutch remained silent. Starsky could field this one by himself. It might teach him a thing or two.

Starsky crossed his arms and looked across at Hutch. Hutch looked at the far wall. “Well—” he began, “—interviewing people who might have knowledge that—”

“Please,” Ruth held up her hand. “Don't quote procedure at me. I'm considering this snafu my fault for not being as explicit in my initial instructions to you as I should have been.”

“‘Snafu’?” Starsky echoed. Hutch moved his gaze to the ceiling.

Ruth walked around to the other side of Hutch's chair. Starsky followed her with wary eyes. “Look. Harry and I were very selective about who we wanted on this task force, once we had determined that a very—specific—serial killer was on the loose. We chose officers with good undercover arrest records. Officers who show a flair for investigation. Officers who know the basics of dogged detective work.”

He's in it up to his ears. Serves him right.

Starsky smiled, affecting a modest pose. “Well—”

“Well nothing,” Ruth stopped him with a withering stare. Starsky immediately sobered. “You were brought in as senior officers, assigned to coordinate and co-direct this investigation. I thought we were clear on that, but since we obviously weren't, I'm making it clear now. You will not conduct any personal interviews unless authorized by Grimes or me. The only time I want to see you out on the field is at a crime scene. Got that?”

Hutch scratched his jaw. Luck! Now Starsky would have to do things his way. “We've got it. It won't happen again,” he answered laconically.

“Why?” Starsky pressed. Hutch glowered at him. Just swallow it! Admit you were wrong and I was right!

“Are you questioning a senior officer's orders?” Ruth shot back.

Starsky shook his head. “No ma'am. But if we're so all-fired wonderful, why aren't we being allowed to do what we do best?”

No, Starsky wasn't questioning Ruth's orders. He was disputing them. Handle him, sweetheart! Hutch urged silently.

“Sergeant,” Ruth took a few steps toward the door. “In my opinion, you are being allowed to do what you do best. If you have a problem with that, then I suggest you need to re-think your place in this investigation. If you decide you aren't satisfied or happy with your contribution, then I would be happy to consider removing you from this case. Have I made myself clear?”

Starsky didn't blink. “Yes ma'am.”

Hutch cheered silently.

“Good.” Ruth reached the door and pushed it open. “I'll still expect the two of you in my office in the morning. We got a bit of a break this evening. March's wife found a veritable treasure trove of dirty magazines while cleaning out the trunk of her husband's car. Gordie's going through them now, but I want you two to give them a thorough going over.” She looked at Starsky. “I'll set you up in a conference room and you can put your investigative expertise to use. All right?”

Starsky opened his mouth to speak but Hutch jumped in. Enough was enough, and yet again Starsky couldn't see when to quit. “We'll be there,” he acknowledged. “Good night.”

“Good night,” Ruth said simply, and left.

“Shit.” Starsky stood up. “I'm friggin' tired of all these friggin' games. What are we doing on this investigation? What does she want us for, our bodies?”

Hutch pondered the question.

“And where does she get off treating us like puppets?” Starsky didn't wait for an answer. His anger had transferred from Hutch to Ruth, thank goodness. “I don't like being treated like we're rookie cops and we don't know our noses from our asses and—”

Hutch shut his eyes. “Starsky—”

“And I'm tired of being treated like a goddamned baby by you!” Apparently not all his anger had transferred. Hutch remained silent.

“I'm going,” Starsky grabbed for his jacket. “Are you coming or what?”

Hutch shrugged. He just wanted to put an end to the day. “Yeah.” He stood up. “I'm coming.”

“Want to come to the gym with me?” Starsky opened the door and waited for Hutch to step through.

Hutch looked at Starsky in surprise. He thought Starsky had learned long ago not to invite him to the gym. Why this invitation, and why now? “And have to listen to you groan and complain all evening?” Hutch walked through the door and strode down the hall. Starsky caught up to him. “No, thanks. I'm going over to Elisa's.” Shit. Hutch kicked himself mentally. He hadn't meant to mention her.

“Is this the same Elisa I haven't been introduced to yet, or is this a new Elisa in a string of Elisas you don't keep around long enough for me to meet?” Starsky asked sarcastically.

Hutch whirled and put out his hand to stop Starsky. He felt a little lightheaded, as though someone had filled his brain with helium. And the gas was crushing all his thoughts up against his skull as it expanded, threatening to rupture his whole head. Little pieces of Starsky and Elisa and Ruth and work and doctors and home and whatever else was in his brain were about to be splattered all over the ceiling and walls. God, why did he have to have so much to deal with right now? “Look. Why don't we just stop here, go home, and get a fresh start in the morning? I am really not in the mood to thrash things out now.” Hutch glared at him, hoping Starsky would feel sufficiently spurned to just go home and leave him alone!

Starsky removed the offending hand from his chest. He loosened his grip as if to drop it, then grasped Hutch's hand tightly. Hutch flinched at the contact. Starsky looked down at the floor, but if he'd caught Hutch's tremor he didn't react to it. “I'm hungry, I'm tired—and I'm sorry.” He gave the hand a gentle squeeze. “Fresh start tomorrow?” he offered, finally looking up at Hutch.

Liquid blue, pulling him in, sucking him down, enveloping him, suffocating him—

Hutch tried to match the sincerity in Starsky's eyes, knew he wasn't even coming close, but managed at least a smile. “Tomorrow.” Starsky's eyes were still pulling him down, offering him a haven of sorts, a sanctuary; relief from his concerns and burdens. But Starsky was one of the burdens. Hutch tore himself away from Starsky's offer and walked off.

“Hutch?”

Hutch hesitated, then stopped and turned. Starsky seemed to be in shadow, except for his eyes which burned like a beacon, accentuating the confusion and pain in his voice. Hutch bowed his head and rubbed the bridge of his nose. Too much!

“Don't go.” It was a plea.

Hutch was unable to look up at Starsky. Starsky's need was a tangible thing, pulling him back, draining his will, drawing him down. Hutch shook his head and shrugged, a gesture that suddenly exhausted him. It was as if his muscles had suddenly atrophied and could no longer support him. He was spent, drained, exhausted, worn down; he had to get away. Now.

It was only through extreme conscious effort Hutch was able to make his body turn and move down the hall. He felt tranquilized and detached. He felt hollow and vacant.

And he could feel Starsky's eyes on him long after he'd left the hallway.

 

 

 

CHAPTER FOUR

 

Starsky shoved his clothes into the lopsided locker and slammed the door shut. Things were simply becoming too unwieldy lately. Things were becoming too confusing, as well as unmanageable. “Things,” meaning Hutch. And this evening had certainly been a prime example of that.

Starsky walked automatically to the shower area and splashed briefly under the warm spray. After the shooting, once he'd been able clear the drugs and pain out of his system and could think clearly again, he'd finally noticed the new man who'd been attending him throughout his convalescence.

Starsky padded out to the pool and chose a middle lane. He dove in awkwardly and began his laps with a steady crawl. Even as he'd struggled with his own feelings and confusion and tried to put some semblance of normalcy back into his life, he'd also had to deal with Hutch's adjustment to what had happened.

He thought he'd known what to expect from Hutch, and had counted heavily on Hutch's consistency in his reactions to Starsky's hospitalizations. Surprises were not what he'd needed.

But surprises were what he got. At first Hutch had done all the usual things, hovered over him protectively, smothered him with attention, bothered him with “doctor's orders,” and taken over the daily details of everyday life so Starsky would have no worries. It had been a comforting cocoon to convalesce in.

But after several months the officiousness had become tyrannical. Hutch became regimented and regimental. Schedules had to be adhered to. Appointments could not be missed. Timetables had to be set. And it all had to be done Hutch's way, or not at all. Hutch knew best, Hutch was always right; Hutch would take care of everything and everyone. Hutch would do it all.

At first Starsky had teased Hutch, calling him the “Great Blond Dictator,” but Hutch had met each affectionate jibe with perplexity or anger. It was increasingly clear that Hutch had no sense that he'd turned onto a road of confinement and imprisonment; he seemed to think he was acting in the only way possible. Hutch simply expected everyone to do things his way, because his way was right.

Starsky's therapist explained it all very simply: Hutch was attempting to control his environment, as well as Starsky's, because he'd been unable to control Gunther.

And as long as they were discussing Hutch, the therapist thought it also sounded as though he might be depressed, anxious, and in need of evaluation. Did Starsky think Hutch would accept some counseling also?

No. Starsky didn't think so.

Starsky switched to a labored sidestroke. Therapy had ultimately been his lifeline. He'd been able to start facing his fears; accepting some and changing others. He'd discovered strengths he never knew he had. He'd found possibilities he'd never considered and possibilities that, finally considered, filled him with fear and hope . Eventually, he'd found himself.

And he'd lost Hutch.

The man who had come out of their ordeal with him was not the same man Starsky had known before. The shell was there, but the insides had been removed and revamped. Sort of like a pod person. All the equipment was there, but somewhere a key component had been replaced. It was not only frustrating, but downright scary sometimes. Starsky wanted back the Old Hutch.

The Old Hutch. Starsky explored the image. Not just the Old Hutch that was lean of form, physically graceful and beautiful to look at. But the Old Hutch that wasn't afraid to be near him and touch him. The Old Hutch that trusted his choices and enjoyed his presence. The Old Hutch that took pleasure in their being together. As Starsky had healed, he'd come to miss that comforting presence.

What's more, he'd come to crave that comforting presence.

That had been a shock. Not only was there something missing in his life, but now he wanted something that had never been there to begin with. It was as though the bullets had broken through to places inside him he'd never known were there. Huge, empty caverns had been opened up to exploration, and he'd discovered their secret was in being filled, not plastered up. And they demanded to be filled with Hutch.

How many months before he'd admitted the need inside himself? And how many more before he'd come to accept that need? And then the inevitable question: What are you going to do about it?

Eventually he'd decided: It was worth the risk of seeking out Hutch. It had come down to this, simple and stupid but nonetheless true: their time together could too easily be ended, and Starsky wasn't going to go through the rest of his life regretting he'd never at least told Hutch how he felt. But he wanted to tell the Old Hutch. He wanted to tell the Hutch he loved.

It was only recently that Starsky had felt strong enough to start searching for the Old Hutch, the familiar Hutch, the gentle and loving Hutch. To start pushing here, and prodding there; challenging the new rules and structure. He'd wanted desperately to confront Hutch since they'd started the case, but until he could count on his own strength to shore himself up, he knew he couldn't hold Hutch up. And he had no idea how Hutch would react when Starsky made his confession.

Not to mention he'd have to be there for Hutch anyway, because this new, regimented Hutch was destined to take a fall regardless. Hutch simply couldn't keep up his incredible facade of control forever. So Starsky would have to be there, just as Hutch had been there for him. But how complicated the whole thing was. And how tiring.

Starsky had lost count of his laps. He did a few more sidestrokes for good measure, finished with an awkward backstroke, and called it a day.

 

 

Elisa was crying. Again. The same tears over the same subject. The same scene constantly repeated. It only made Hutch's fatigue that much more oppressive. And after the earlier incident with Starsky, he didn't need any more trying moments. With great effort, Hutch walked back to the couch.

“Look,” he began, trying not to sound too exasperated. “Why do we always have to end up at the same point? Why can't we just talk about this without getting so upset all the time?” Hutch placed a hand on his stomach, his earlier nausea reasserting itself.

Elisa jerked her head up. “What do you mean, talk about this? We never talk about this, all we do is fight about this,” she sobbed. “All the time, over and over, every time we see each other.” She gestured helplessly. “If you really want to talk about this, then we'll talk about it now. Otherwise, this is not going to change, because I'm not going to change.”

“Why not?” Hutch exploded, the nausea subsiding a bit. Action, rather than inaction, seemed to be soothing to his nerves. Elisa reacted by falling into the pillows on the couch, muffling her sobs. Hutch flung himself into a nearby chair. What is all the fuss about? Hutch's thoughts whirled. This isn't high school where the guy dumps the girl as soon as he gets what he wants.

“Elisa,” he leaned toward her, trying to bring some control to the proceedings. His nausea reasserted itself. “I love you. I love Mateo. I'm going to stick around. What more do you want?” Good, dependable words. They always worked with women. Let them work their magic now.

Elisa moaned. She sat up, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. “I want you to understand—”

“I do understand,” Hutch insisted. He understood precisely what she was thinking. She was afraid if she slept with him, he'd no longer have any reason to stay around. She didn't trust him. And that infuriated him.

“You don't understand!” she fought back. “If you did, you wouldn't keep pressuring me to go against my beliefs and do something I don't want to do!” Elisa's face was flushed, shiny with tears and perspiration.

Hutch's eyes narrowed as a thought worked through the nausea and entered his mind. Maybe it wasn't that she was afraid. Maybe she was holding back in order to get something from him. A test? Bribery? Damn her mistrust! “Oh, you want to do it,” he mocked, suddenly sure she really did.

Elisa stared at him, stunned. Her face lost all color. “Get out,” she hissed.

Hutch shut his eyes and lowered his head. Pain split his head, a steel band wrapping itself around his skull to contain the fracture in his brain. He needed to back out of this one as quickly as possible. Confronting her with the truth had been a mistake. “I'm sorry.” He shook his head, which only made him dizzy. “I didn't mean that.” Elisa needed to be seduced, not forced. He'd have to make a strategic retreat.

“Get out.” Elisa stood up, her arms crossed resolutely across her chest. She was no longer crying.

“Please, 'Lisa.” Hutch held out his hands to her. Soft and gentle was what was needed now. And something to get rid of the pounding behind his eyes.

Elisa suddenly grabbed his arms and hauled him upward. Hutch fell forward a few steps, unprepared for her angry strength.

“Get out!” she shoved him toward the door. “Go away! I don't want you here!” And then her head suddenly snapped around. Hutch had heard it, too.

Mateo was calling for his mamá.

Elisa burst into tears again, renewing her assault on Hutch. Hutch looked at the near-hysterical woman pushing at him, uncertain of what to do now. He backed away from her flailing arms, fleeing in the face of her fury. The front door slammed behind him, the lights in the house went out, and he found himself facing a darkened dwelling.

It was a shaken and shaking Hutch that finally stumbled out to the car. First Starsky, then Ruth, and now Elisa. His stomach and head battled for attention. Hutch headed as quickly as possible for home.

    After his workout, Starsky headed for The Funky Eggroll, the latest incarnation of Huggy’s and The Pits. A slightly better location, a definitely better kitchen, and the (astonishing) addition of a partner had turned Huggy into more than just the owner of his own business. He’d become an entrepreneur. Starsky pushed open the door to the establishment and made a right toward the bar. Instead of a stool at the bar, he spotted a small table at the back and established property rights to it. It wasn’t long before Huggy made his appearance.

“Beer or Near?” Huggy asked, referring to Starsky’s disgusting substitution of near beer for the real stuff throughout his recuperation and rehabilitation.

“Water,” Starsky said. “It’s late and I’m dehydrated.”

Huggy made a quick trip behind the bar and returned with water for both Starsky and himself.

“Cheers,” Huggy clinked drinking glasses with Starsky.

“Same for you?” Starsky asked.

Huggy nodded. “I learned a long time ago not to take advantage of the so-called ‘free’ liquor behind the bar. Makes you stupid before your time.” Huggy took a long, satisfying drink.

Starsky drained half his glass. “Where’s Cho?”

“Taking the night off. He’s got a test tomorrow and a paper due the end of the week.” Huggy smiled. “Damned determined to get that MBA even though we’re doing fine with this place without it.”

Cho. Huggy’s partner. Helped his parents run their grocery in Koreatown down on Figueroa until a wanna-be gangster gunned down the parents over a Twinkie. Hutch had handled that case by himself, as Starsky was—inconvenienced—at the time. Not much of a case, actually. The eyewitness—Cho—had described the perp as an 18-year old gang banger, and the kid had turned out to be a very physically mature 13-year old stuck on the left side of the mental bell curve with his cousin’s gun and an automatic ticket to juvie instead of prison. Case closed, store closed, enter Huggy, who for all his street smarts couldn’t resist a hard-luck case.

 

Don’t do it, said Hutch. Just because he worked at his parents’ grocery and inherited some money doesn’t mean the kid knows what he’s doing.

He’s not a kid, Huggy had answered. He’s a 24-year old man with a college degree in business getting his MBA. And his ideas for turning this “pit” into a money-making establishment are good.

I’m telling you, man, Hutch warned. He’s taking advantage of you, and if you sign any contracts with him you’ll be back on the street on your ass. These people only take care of themselves.

 

Huggy had told Starsky it was the first time he’d ever heard Hutch even come close to making a racist remark. Starsky had allowed as how it had been the first time he’d ever heard Hutch come close to making a racist remark toward a non-perp. But they had both been troubled by Hutch’s comment. Huggy had taken it especially hard, especially personally, especially after he’d spent months acting as page to Hutch’s knight errant. Not that Starsky had asked, but he knew neither Huggy nor Hutch had had any contact after that. Starsky had tried to explain it away as an aberration brought on by the stress of the shooting. But Huggy hadn’t wanted any excuses, and he certainly hadn’t wanted any apologies from anyone but Hutch.

Hutch hadn’t told Starsky anything about the incident, except what a fool and an idiot Huggy was for listening to that kid. And then Hutch had stopped talking about it at all when that kid’s business plan turned out to be a success. Starsky had a feeling part of the anger was due to Hutch having introduced that kid to Huggy in the first place.

Huggy had a feeling of his own. One that came out the afternoon Starsky stopped by the place after one of his therapy sessions. The place hadn’t opened yet, and Starsky had walked into the kitchen to find Huggy and Cho in a luxuriant embrace. Flustered, Starsky had high-tailed it to the bar, followed by an amused Huggy.

 

You turned prude on me? Huggy said.

I’m sorry, man, I didn’t mean to, uh, I just came by for, uh….

Laughter. It ain’t like it’s some big secret I play both sides of the street!

Starsky had continued to stare at the bar counter, certain even the darkened room couldn’t disguise the blush on his face.

I didn’t think you had a problem with that. Huggy sat down next to Starsky.

Starsky had remained still.

Do you have a problem with that? Huggy slued his body to face Starsky.

Starsky shook his head, shrugged his shoulders. No.

Why don’t you have a problem with that?

Starsky shook and shrugged again.

If it bothers you then don’t think about it, Huggy had offered.

It doesn’t bother me! Starsky had shouted.

Okay! Huggy had jumped back at the volume booming through the room. It doesn’t bother you.

Okay, Starsky agreed.

It bothers your partner, though Huggy said. He knows why me and Cho clicked. That’s part of his problem.

And it was all Starsky could do not to burst into tears like a little boy.

You okay, man?

Starsky nodded, trying to convince at least himself.

How come it bothers you more that it bothers your partner than it bothers you? He said something to you?

Nods and shakes were Starsky’s means of communications. This time a shake of his head.

You gonna tell me what’s bothering you?

No movement.

Want me to tell you what’s bothering you?

Starsky had finally looked over at Huggy.

What’s bothering you is that it not only does not bother you about me and Cho, but it draws you. And it bothers you that your partner and other half has pulled away from you just when you figured out how much you need him. Am I right?

Starsky’s eyes had gotten a little bigger.

I ain’t seen him with you in ages. Not that I’ve seen him at all, actually,, but you’ve certainly been singular every time I see you around.

I can’t say I miss him, but I know you got to be missing him.

Starsky managed to clear his throat. He’s just…he’s having a hard time getting used to…he feels a little….

And what do you feel? Huggy had interrupted.

Starsky had involuntarily looked back at the kitchen, caught himself, and looked back at Huggy.

You want to talk about it?

God, he’d just finished talking about it with his shrink! What could Huggy possibly do for him that a professional couldn’t?

As it happened, Huggy had done a lot for him that a professional couldn’t. Such as sympathize and empathize and theorize over the many ways in which he and Hutch had been sublimating their feelings for one another over the years. Experienced dude, Huggy. Unfortunately, his experience didn’t include telling one partner that the other partner had maybe sort of most likely probably kind of become a hitter for the other team—and wanted to hit on him.

Except come right out and tell him.

Which was not something Starsky wanted to tell to this New Hutch.

 

“I’d ask where your partner was, except you two being apart is now the rule, not the exception.” Huggy lifted his glass and made a sign to a passing bus boy, who returned with a pitcher of ice water for the table.

Starsky didn’t look at Huggy, but focused on the neon behind the bar. Huggy refilled Starsky’s glass.

“But hey, it’s none of my business!” Huggy slashed a hand backwards through the air. “You two can’t kiss and make up, it’s not my problem.”

“Cut it out, Hug.” Starsky’s demeanor stiffened and he took another drink of water. “It’s not that easy.”

“Well it ain’t if you only ever talk about it to me! Huggy leaned back in his chair. “And you only talk about it to me! And Golden Boy is either thicker than I thought or playing so hard to get he can’t even get himself. In fact, that may be half his problem—he ain’t getting any even from himself.”

Starsky shot Huggy a withering glance.

Huggy ignored him.

“I don’t know why a couple of bullets can separate you two when nothing else has ever been able to,” Huggy continued. “I’d take words over bullets anytime.”

Starsky ran his fingers up and down the cold drinking glass. “Leave it be,” warned Starsky. “It’ll happen when it happens.”

“Call me next century,” Huggy jeered.

Starsky flushed and shifted uncomfortably. His grip on his glass whitened his knuckles.

“Yeah, okay, whatever.” Huggy backed off. “What’s up?”

Starsky ground his teeth. “What do you know about the murders that have been going on lately?” He still couldn’t look at Huggy.

Huggy shrugged. “I’ve been wondering when you were going to ask me about that. Didn’t even know you were assigned to it.”

“No one’s supposed to know we’re attached. It’s all top secret.” Starsky took another sip from his tightly-held glass.

“Okay, here’s what I know: only what I read in the papers and see on TV. People talking about it are joking about being more careful in their extracurricular activities, that’s all. No one on my side of the street knows anything about it.”

Starsky relaxed his grip on the glass—with effort. “Damn,” he finally said. “We need a break on this one.”

“You know I’d tell you if I knew anything.”

Starsky finally looked at Huggy. “I know,” he answered softly. “I’m sorry.”

“For what?” Huggy asked. “The only person you need to say you’re sorry to is yourself.”

Starsky leaned forward and bowed his head, his forehead resting on his fists. “Stop it,” Starsky said.

“Hey, I’m just playing my part, helping you in your suffering, enlarging your misery until you do what you should have done months ago.” Huggy paused. “Which is to tell him. Isn’t that what you come in here for?”

Starsky shot up and glared at Huggy. “That’s enough. I’m outta here.” Starsky clipped a hip in his hurry to escape.

Huggy lifted his water glass in a toast. “See you for our next session.”

 

 

CHAPTER FIVE

 

“Are you going to turn the page?”

Both Starsky and Hutch sat in their shirt-sleeves, a blazer and a jacket thrown together over a chair in the corner. The small conference table was littered with sheets of legal pad paper, Styrofoam coffee cups, two empty soda cans, a crumpled brown paper bag, an opened container of cream cheese, and almost 100 assorted pornographic magazines.

“Huh?” Starsky looked up, puzzled.

“I said—” Hutch pinched the bridge of his nose, “—is there something interesting on that page? You've been staring at it for almost five minutes.” Even when he didn't want to, he found himself noting Starsky's movements and habits.

Starsky looked down at the magazine opened in front of him. “Oh. No.” Grainy color photos of a woman being held down on a kitchen table by three men, while a fourth touched a lit cigar to various parts of her body, confronted him. He closed the book and leaned back in his chair. “That coffee and bagel I had earlier aren’t sitting too well. I don't know how you managed to get through all those bagels and sodas,” he placed a hand on his stomach.

Hutch ignored Starsky. “It's almost two,” Hutch glanced at his watch. A little courtesy right now wouldn't hurt, especially after that incident yesterday. “I guess you don't want to break for lunch?”

Starsky frowned at him. “You don't really feel like eating after all this, do you?”

Hutch looked down at the magazine in front of him. Two men were sucking on the nipples of a hooded third man, while the fourth was piercing the hooded man's penis. Well, maybe he wasn't so hungry after all. “No.” Hutch pushed the magazine away. “Not really.” He'd only offered lunch as an appeasement for last night anyway.

“Besides, I have to get to my appointment by three.” Starsky looked at the table in dismay. “I don't believe all this. I mean, I believe it—” he gestured at the various and sundry periodicals, “—but I don't believe it, you know?”

Hutch pulled a legal pad over in front of him. “Takes all kinds, Starsk,” he scratched absently on the pad. “Takes all kinds.”

“I understand gettin' off on a picture of a beautiful woman—” Starsky continued, fishing a Playboy out from under a pile of magazines, “—but this other stuff is just sick. It's not even about sex. It's about hurtin' other people.”

Hutch drew geometric figures in the border of his pad. “’Erotica is about sex,’” he quoted, “’while pornography is about power’.”

“Where'd you get that?” Starsky flipped through the Playboy, comparing it to the Screw at his side.

“Dunno. Some training seminar or something.”

Starsky studied the man across from him. “You all right?”

Hutch drew dark, steady lines on the paper. Not again. “I'm okay.” Drop it, Starsky!

Starsky put down the magazine. “Are you sure? Did something happen between you and Elisa?” He hesitated. “I know you haven't told me much about her, but we could take a breather and talk about it.”

Hutch dropped the pencil in exasperation. “Nothing happened between Elisa and me, okay? Nothing.” He refused to look at Starsky. He wondered if Starsky told his doctor about this girlfriend his partner wouldn't discuss.

“Okay.” Starsky crossed his arms huffily. “So. What do you want to do now?”

Hutch leaned back in his chair and shut his eyes. Someone rapped on the door. “Why don't you answer the door?” he responded to the welcome interruption.

Starsky didn't need to. Ruth entered, holding a sheaf of papers.

“Afternoon, fellow voyeurs. Are you going to take a break soon, or did I throw you an assignment that's got your blood racing?”

Hutch peered at her through slitted eyes.

“Get 'em while they're hot, boys.” Ruth sat down at the end of the table and pushed several stapled pages toward the men, which they both retrieved.

“Gordie's got every magazine listed in order of publication date,” Ruth tapped the top sheet of the set. “March apparently started collecting only about six months ago. You can see he went from Playboy and Penthouse to the harder stuff in a relatively short period of time.” She flipped to the second page. The men did likewise. “By the last month of his life he was buying the hard-core S&M, bondage, and gay rags exclusively. Some foreign, some domestic.”

“A real connoisseur,” Hutch murmured.

“The rest of these pages contain the publishers' and distributors' addresses,” Ruth thumbed through the rest of the sheets. “I've got a couple of officers running all this down. See if they can pin down where March was getting all these filthy periodicals, how he was plugging into all this.”

Starsky studied the sheets. “Did March's wife find anything else?” He looked over at Ruth.

Ruth shook her head. “She says not. And frankly, if she was willing to let us see this stuff, I don't see why she'd hide anything else from us.” Ruth reached over and pulled a Blueboy out of the pack. “Cute ass,” she looked at the cover, then tossed it back on the pile. “Harry's pushing the other victims' family and friends to see if we can come up with some similar stashes. I don't suppose you've come up with anything besides sore eyes?”

Hutch exchanged his sheaf for the legal pad. “We didn't come across any circled ads, any handwritten notes, or any extraneous paper tucked inside any of the magazines.” He looked over at Starsky, who shook his head in accord. “The relationship between all the books is obvious—they're hard and graphic.”

“The hoods,” Starsky prompted.

“Umm,” Hutch nodded. “We did discover that someone—March, presumably—went through and inked hoods over the heads of many of the male, uh, male . . .” he gestured, searching for the word.

“Submissives?” Starsky offered. Hutch nodded agreement wearily.

“I get the picture,” Ruth answered. “Sounds like a pretty good indication that he identified with those particular participants.”

Starsky found an altered photo. “In every picture we came across the hood was drawn on a man who was being restrained in some way.” The photo was of a man draped over a carpeted sawhorse, arms and legs bound to the wooden struts. A black hood had been inked over the face. Starsky hesitated, then shoved it over to Ruth. “They're all pretty much like this.”

“Lovely,” Ruth picked up the book, gave it a cursory glance, then let it drop to the table. “So we know March was kinky. We knew that before. What we need to know now is who he kinked with.”

Starsky and Hutch remained silent.

“I'd appreciate you finishing this up today,” Ruth stood up. “I know it's a bit tedious and repetitious, but the sooner you get it done—”

“No problem,” Hutch pulled another magazine from the remaining unviewed stack. “We'll have a written report on your desk by close of business today.”

It was Starsky's turn to glare at Hutch.

“First thing tomorrow morning is fine, but why don't you stop in my office before you leave tonight with an update,” Ruth replied. “By the way, nice shirt, Dave.” She waved wearily at them, and left the room.

Hutch shifted uncomfortably. What was wrong with his shirt?

“Here,” Starsky fished for a book. “What's this?” He held it up for Hutch to see the cover.

“What's what?” Hutch squinted at a photo collage of naked men and women pasted one on top of the other.

“What's it say?” Starsky said, exasperated.

“How should I know?” Hutch protested. “It looks like it's in Dutch or something.” He shook his head and went back to his magazine. “I don't know everything, you know,” he muttered under his breath. My brain's not a fucking library you can peruse at your leisure.

Starsky shrugged. “Oh. Okay.” He sighed, fingered the cover, then dropped it on the table. “I might as well leave for my appointment.” Starsky rose from his chair. “Want to come and take a break before we finish?”

Hutch shook his head. “No. Thanks anyway.” He picked up another magazine and thumbed through it. “I want to get through this stuff as quickly as possible.” He glanced up at Starsky. By “appointment,” Starsky meant his weekly psychotherapy session. At first encouraged by the doctors as part of his rehabilitation, Hutch was fairly certain Starsky now continued the therapy simply because he liked it. At least Starsky claimed to enjoy certain benefits. Hutch hadn't seen much use for the continued sessions after the first couple of months. He agreed they were helpful for getting over the immediate effects of a trauma, but after that he saw them as only a way for expensive shrinks to live in the style to which they had become accustomed.

Still, he couldn't totally deny they were having an effect on Starsky. There were times when Starsky left his therapy sessions in tears, others when he left full of talk, and still others when he came out silent and thoughtful. At least those were the reactions Hutch had seen while he'd still been accompanying Starsky to the doctor's office. Hutch hadn't driven him there since Christmas. So by the time Starsky returned from his appointment, he had pretty well contained his post-session emotions. Except for the occasional, inconvenient mood that refused to wait until they were away from work and prying eyes. He wondered that Starsky would take a chance at seeing his therapist when they'd have to see Ruth again later this afternoon. If he came out in one of his crying moods, it could be embarrassing. Not that Starsky ever seemed to realize just how foolish he looked with teary eyes, runny nose, and Kleenex falling out of his pockets. No, it was always Hutch who had to take him off to the side and help him sober up.

Starsky stood silently, scrutinizing Hutch. Hutch tried to look busy and put upon, as though it were the work refusing the invitation, not him.

“Okay,” Starsky gave in. “Want me to bring you back anything while I'm out?”

Hutch pretended to think a moment. “No. Thanks anyway.”

“Okay,” Starsky replied unenthusiastically. “See you later.” He left without looking back.

Hutch continued to thumb through his pile for a good five more minutes. He had been restive all morning, eager to do more than just wade through dirty magazines, but he hadn't wanted Starsky to take advantage of his cabin fever. Hutch had been devising a little detective footwork of his own. After all, Ruth may have been right about his organizational skills, but that was only part of his talents. And no one was going to tell him which of his talents to use and which to ignore.

Hutch scanned the room. Almost identical to the one they’d shared under Captain Dobey’s command. Tables substituted for desks and shared between shift officers. Straight-backed chairs instead of office rollers. Electric typewriters finally edging out the manual variety. Yet even though this new office was the same as their old office, Starsky wanted to go back to the old.

Feelings floated at the frayed edges of Hutch’s psyche. That office had been a safe haven. A sanctuary. A place to let the adrenaline build or the adrenaline ebb, all under the protection of his partner. He’d felt strong there. Physically invincible. Mentally unconquerable. Able to leap tall criminals in a single bound.

So? He could still do that in this office. It was just a new time and a different day. One that required a little more introspection and a little less impulsiveness. In fact, it begged credulity to think they’d managed to survive all those creeps and sickos and warpos and whatever else Starsky called them considering how rash and impetuous they’d been before. Did he want to go back to that? To a time when he’d been lax and careless and had allowed Starsky to weaken his defenses? Wasn’t it better to be shielded and guarded and immune from Starsky’s seductive needfulness?

Hutch remembered the first time he’d been really sucked in by Starsky. That was after Helen had been murdered. Not that Starsky and Helen had been a couple when she was killed, but they might as well have been for the way Starsky took her death. It had taken Hutch by surprise. When Helen had broken off with Starsky—right before she took that undercover assignment, it had turned out—Hutch had taken the usual male-bonding support approach: Lots of beer, lots of bowling, lots of “you’ll find someone else’s.” And Starsky had seemed to bounce back. But when Helen had been discovered dead, Hutch had been confronted with an agony that went deeper than Starsky had let on. Starsky stopped bowling, Starsky stopped drinking, Starsky stopped talking. Hutch was confronted with a choice: Let Starsky muddle through it on his own, or take shovel in hand and dig in deep. Starsky’s grief filled Hutch with despair; he hurt for that man, more than he’d hurt for himself when he’d lost Vanessa.

So Hutch had dug to China.

Helen hadn’t been a crush for Starsky, nor a fling, nor an affair. She’d been wife material, mother-of-his-children material. The kind of woman all men were supposed to cleave to for life. And she’d been the first of this kind of woman for Starsky. Hutch had mostly listened, occasionally offering deeply felt assessments of Starsky’s qualities that would insure there would be another Helen. Starsky was kind, he was generous; Starsky was joyful, he was caring; Starsky was committed, he was sensual. These were qualities which made Hutch happy, made Hutch content, made Hutch feel cared for. Attractive qualities which, as Hutch listed them, made him feel even more attracted to the man as his partner and best friend.

So attracted that he’d pandered to Starsky, letting him hold sway over their activities to make sure every moment Starsky had was filled with enjoyment instead of grief. And what had that led to? A late-night meal at an Italian restaurant, which wouldn’t have been so bad, except Hutch had been so focused on Starsky he’d missed the danger around them and allowed Starsky to get shot.

See what happens when Hutch becomes careless? Starsky gets hurt. Every time. How many more times must there be?

Hutch mentally flipped those frayed edges from his consciousness. Back to important things.

Starsky's brief absence was just the opportunity he'd been waiting for. Neither Starsky nor Ruth would find out about this. Once Starsky had mentioned his appointment, Hutch had known he'd be able to implement his plan. Five minutes would give Starsky plenty of time to get out of the building and out of the lot. And if anyone wondered where he was, they'd just assume he was with Starsky. He checked his watch, then stood and grabbed his coat. He left the conference room.

Ten minutes later he drove up to small bar on Vermont. Neon lit the entrance even in full daylight, although once inside he would have been hard-pressed to say what time of day it was. Hutch paused in the doorway, allowing his eyes to adjust to the darkness, then moved over to a booth near the back. A woman carrying a corked tray followed him.

“Lord,” she sucked in her breath as she stopped in front of him. “I didn't even recognize you. What have you done to yourself?”

Hutch smiled. “Like the changes?” He fingered his moustache self-consciously, then ran a hand threw his shortened hair.

The woman smiled back at him. “I sure do. Not that you weren't the handsomest thing on the streets back then, but this sure does set you up with a new image.” She fingered the lapel of his sport coat, then ran a finger around to trace the hair line in the back. It sent a shiver up his spine.

“Sit down, Sweet Alice,” Hutch motioned toward the other side of the table.

Alice glanced around the empty bar. “Might as well,” she decided. “Beats watchin' the soaps in the back.”

Hutch watched as she slid in across from him, setting her tray off to the side. He wondered who cut her hair. The style never changed. The color did, though. This time it looked to be an experiment in red. It made the lines in her face more obvious. Or maybe it was only the dim light filtering in from the smoky window glass that emphasized the creases. Still, while the individual features indicated she was growing older, on the whole there was something about her that continued to speak to a man's desires. Her breasts were still smooth and full, and her body called out for a man to touch it and feel its warm, soft curves.

“I don't suppose this is a social call?” She fingered the bodice of her cocktail uniform.

Hutch looked away guiltily. “No,” he replied.

“Business, then,” she established. “That's why you're all dressed up in your Sunday finest.” Her fingers still traced the neckline of her outfit.

Hutch nodded. “I need some—information, Sweet Alice.” He paused in his request.

“Just like always,” she sighed. She clasped her hands on the table in front of her and straightened her shoulders. “Yeah, sugar?” She waited for Hutch to speak. “You gonna tell me what you want to know, or am I supposed to read your mind?”

Hutch looked off to the side at the bar. In the dim light it looked like a massive piece of sloppily molded mud.

“Hutch?” Alice leaned forward. “If I didn't know better, I'd say you were blushin'.”

Hutch drug his attention back to Alice. “I have to ask you some questions.” He refused to meet her eyes. “Uh, hard questions.”

Alice thought a moment. “Hard as in math—” she asked, “—or hard as in personal?”

“Hard as in personal,” Hutch answered softly.

Alice unfolded her hands and offered them to Hutch. “Same old same old,” she smiled. “Shoot.”

Hutch sat back in the booth, ignoring her outstretched hands. “I'm working on the ‘Gay Sex Slayings’,” he used the name the papers had given the murders. Some of the members of the task force had started referring to it as the “Homo Homicides.” Sweet Alice's eyes widened in response.

“Hutch, I don't know nothin’ ’bout that.” She withdrew her hands.

“I know,” Hutch reassured her. “What I wanted to ask you about was, well,” he glanced back at the bar, then down at the table. “I, uh, we think the victims are walking into this on their own.” He paused. “Do you understand?”

Alice's brow knitted. “You want to know if I know anybody who likes that kind of stuff?” she tried. She thought a moment. “Well, you know there's this place down at the Marina, this club—”

Hutch shut his eyes and shook his head. “No.” With great effort he finally raised his face to hers. “I want to know—I need to know why they like it,” he said. “What they get out of it.”

Alice still looked confused. “I don't think I'm the one you oughtta be askin',” she answered. “Shouldn't you be talkin' to experts or somethin'?”

Hutch looked thoughtful. “No,” he mused. “Well, yes, but not for what I want to know.”

“I guess I don't understand,” Alice settled back into the leatherette cushion.

Hutch rubbed his face. Dim lighting or not, he knew she knew he was blushing. “I guess I want to know what it feels like to them,” he tried to explain. “Why someone would want it, seek it out, give in to it. Does that make any sense?”

Alice tried to conceal a smile. “I still don't think I'm the one you should be talkin' to.” Her eyes glittered in the dusky light of the bar. “Are you askin' me 'cause you think I've done some of this stuff?”

Hutch felt the flush grow in his cheeks. “I'm asking because I thought you might be able to help me figure some of this out.” He sought refuge in simple answers.

Alice nodded. “Well,” she appeared lost in thought, “I did once have this—steady date—who enjoyed that sort of thing. Didn't do much for me, but I wasn't real particular long as it was his date.” She looked at Hutch to see if he understood. He did.

“This—friend, he was real into the lace and leather thing, as opposed to the rubber thing.” Her tone became almost clinical. “He liked for me to dress up in silk. You know, crotchless panties, garter belts and silk stocking, those little bras with the holes cut out where your tits are?”

Hutch remained silent and still. Blue panties and white stockings filled his mind.

Alice went on. “Anyway, I'd get all dressed up in those things, then I'd put on regular clothes over them. He'd meet me in front of, umm, his place, and walk up to me like we'd never met and whisper something in my ear like `I have to see you now, you have to come with me, you have no choice.' And then we'd go up to his room.”

“And then?” Hutch kept his tone steady and professional. It was insanely easy to picture the scenario.

“Then once we'd get up to his room, he'd start to go on about how he had no right to demand anythin' from me, and how bad he was for comin' up to me on the street and makin' me come up to his room and all that.” Alice paused. “Is this helpin' at all, sugar?”

Hutch shifted slightly. “Go on.”

Alice licked her lips. Hutch was sure she was enjoying this. “So I'd make him strip in front of me, then he had this briefcase that he kept all these leather straps and stuff in and I'd tie him to the bed. Like a big X, you know?”

Hutch nodded.

“Then, I'd do a real slow strip tease in front of him while he was all trussed up like that, down to all those silk underthings. After that, I just sort of rubbed all over him until he came, tellin' him how bad he was, but I was never supposed to let him come inside of me, anywhere, if you get my drift.”

Hutch bit his lip. He got her drift. “He told you to do all that, like a script?”

“Oh yeah,” Alice added brightly. “I could make some of it up, but there were some things I was never supposed to do. Most of my dates who liked that sort of thing were like that. But I never went in for the hurtin' kind of stuff, you understand.”

“Yeah.” Hutch chewed on his lip some more.

“That's not what you were lookin' for, is it?” Alice looked disappointed, but whether it was in the content she'd detailed for him, or the actual description itself, Hutch couldn't tell.

“I don't really know what I'm looking for,” Hutch admitted. “I've got psychiatric and psychological reports coming out my ears. None of it's helping me get any further into this case.” His eyes bore into Sweet Alice. “I suppose I thought if I could really understand what someone could be looking for in this type of sexual behavior, I'd be able to find this guy and stop him.”

Alice lowered her face, then looked back up at Hutch. “I could show you,” she proposed. Her eyes held an offer of diverse pleasures.

Hutch held them, then quickly averted his gaze. “No, Alice,” he stammered. He needed to leave, now.

“You could find out for yourself,” she prodded. “Isn't that the way you always liked to do things?”

Hutch cleared his throat. He slid to the end of the bench. “Thanks.” He stood and offered her his hand. “But no thanks.” Alice hesitated, then took the hand and let Hutch help her from the booth.

“Hutch,” she gripped his hand before he could release hers. Her face begged him to give her second thought. Hope seemed to erase all the lines in her face and add a bronze halo to her hair.

“I have to go,” he tried to pull away.

Alice held on for a moment longer, then reluctantly released him. He smiled gently, and brushed back a strand of hair from her cheek. “It's always good to see you, Sweet Alice.”

She smiled. “You too, Handsome Hutch.”

Hutch nodded. He turned from her and headed toward the exit.

“Hutch!”

Hutch turned back as he reached the door.

“Here,” Alice held out a matchbook. He took it, noting a phone number scribbled on the inside. Puzzled, he looked at Alice.

“You can get Mistress Anne at that number,” Alice explained. “Well, her real name is Heather. She sort of—specializes,” she elaborated. “If you know what I mean.”

Hutch's brow smoothed. “I know what you mean.”

She smiled halfheartedly. “Maybe she can help you find out what you want to know.”

“Thanks.” Hutch slipped the matchbook into his pocket, and came out with a twenty dollar bill. He handed it to Alice. “For the beer I would have ordered if I could have stayed.”

Alice folded the bill and tucked it inside her blouse. She glanced up at Hutch briefly, then turned and walked to the back room. It was always with that same look, he realized, that she left him. A mixture of sadness and disappointment, of frustration and regret, of things left incomplete. A look that always made him feel that he hadn't done enough, or done the right thing, or done what he had somehow implied he would do. It left him feeling faintly—soiled. It took him a moment to shake off the feeling. Hutch watched her disappear, then left the bar. He made it back to the office just before Starsky returned.