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Vendetta's Remains

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September 1976 (the present)

“Wanna get a burger?”

Hutch smiled and reached for his jacket. After eight hours on the streets and two more going over paperwork, his partner still wasn’t ready to run away from him screaming. After they'd tracked down and questioned three reluctant witnesses to a convenience store shooting, reviewed the grizzly photos of a hooker's bruises that were colorful enough to give the NBC peacock a run for its money, and waded through the tongue-twisting jargon of an autopsy report, his partner still wanted to hang out. Go figure. But the feeling was mutual.

After all these years, Hutch had found that the best cure for a stressful day was listening to one of Starsky’s tall tales, watching him enjoy a juicy burger, beating him at a game of cards. There was only one thing he might trade it all for, but he’d set that craving aside long ago. And now there was Abbie -- sweet, innocent Abigail Crabtree who looked at him as if he could do no wrong.

They walked down two flights of stairs arguing about where to go eat. A spirited give and take. “Fat Freddy’s got closed down last week for health violations” “Captain Clancy’s has a new waitress that Huggy swears is a former porn stahr.”

“Let’s try that new place that just opened up on Third,” Hutch suggested. “Abbie wouldn't like it if she found I was getting served by a porn star.”

Starsky laughed. “Abbie's a nice girl, Hutch. Maybe a little too nice to be hanging around a couple of clowns like us.”

“Now you're sounding like Captain Dobey,” Hutch retorted, his comment coming off too defensive for his own comfort.

“Perish the thought,” Starsky shot back, nonplussed.

They made their way through the main lobby filled with uniforms dutifully escorting sour-faced detainees, civilians filling out forms, and clerks secluded behind glass-windowed partitions. The faces all blended together, as if Hutch flipped an internal switch that automatically caused his usually sharp powers of observation to shut down the minute he clocked out. Self-preservation, he supposed.

But he wasn't blind. For some reason, he found himself being drawn to a man getting up from one of the booking desks. Somewhere in his fifties, time and grooming habits hadn't been kind to him. His black hair was thinning and arranged in a greasy comb-over. The rumpled, over-sized uniform-style jacket he wore made him look like a bellhop at the Bates Motel. And his eyes - his eyes were as small and dark as a gargoyle’s.

Hutch stopped suddenly and felt a cold chill go down his spine. He watched the man head toward the main door, his lazy gate practically a stroll. Starsky bumped into Hutch’s shoulder but before he could say anything, Hutch turned and made beeline to the booking desk.

“Hey, Frank,” Hutch addressed the officer.

“Hi ya, Hutch,” the officer responded. He put down the report he'd just signed off on. “The full moon sure brings out all the strange ones.”

“Sure does,” Hutch echoed, commiserating as one colleague to another, hoping he didn't sound as shaken as he felt. “Who was that, by the way?” He nodded to the door that was just closing behind the greasy bellhop.

“Arthur Solkin,” said Frank, briefly consulting the file in front of him. “Got pulled in for petty theft and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.” He gave a little shiver. “A real creep. Gave the Hotel Bremen as his permanent address. As I recall, that place isn’t fit for rats. Why? Have you run into him before?”

Hutch turned the name - Arthur Solkin, Artie - over in his mind. The memories it churned up were as dark as the sediment at the bottom of a murky pond. “N. . . no,” he fumbled.

“Hey, Hutch,” Starsky had come up to stand behind him, inadvertently forming both a physical and psychic wall. Hutch felt his partner’s hand on his shoulder, his eyes obviously following Hutch’s own line of vision. “What's up with that greaseball?”

“Nothing,” Hutch shook his shoulder slightly, dislodged the hand. “Nothing. Just thought I'd seen him somewhere before.”

Starsky waited a beat, then started toward the door. “Come on, let's go get something to eat. I'm starved.”

Hutch, meanwhile, had lost his appetite.

November 1964

Ken Hutchinson's stomach grumbled, twisting itself into a painful knot. He hadn’t eaten since lunch the previous day and it was now early evening. The thought of Jenny, the Hutchinson family housekeeper, and her homemade potato soup - thick and warm and topped with a sprinkling of green onion - practically made him salivate. He should have planned this better. He hadn’t realized there was such a distance between towns. He had underestimated how far he’d be walking and how cold the wind could feel. He’d stuffed sixty dollars and some odd change in the pocket of his jeans. Even though there were thousands more in a bank account his name, he couldn’t get to any of it. He was underage and besides, it had been set aside for his college fund. Not that he ever intended on going to college. That was his parents’ plan for his life, not his.

The knot in Ken’s stomach twisted a little tighter with each buffet of the raw November wind that gusted across the highway. The lanky blond teen drew further into himself, stuffing his hands down deeper in his pockets. A car whooshed past him, swerving slightly. Up ahead he saw the lights of a small building, possibly a gas station or diner. He thought eagerly of filling his stomach, of finding a place to warm up and possibly even get a few hours of sleep. The motel in the last town didn’t give rooms to minors. The self-important manager had made that clear and Ken hadn’t wanted to argue. He didn’t want to chance him calling the police and reporting a transient teen.

He couldn’t go back home. He couldn’t look his parents with all their high hopes in the eyes, or listen to the minister with his vivid depictions of heaven and hell. He didn’t relish running into Matt Linden, the team’s best first baseman, again either. But most of all, he couldn't face himself. He dreaded seeing the golden blond hair and sky-blue eyes reflecting back in his mirror. His soft, appealing features did him no favors, especially when paired with his over-eager hormonal drive and natural curiosity. Not after what had happened a few days earlier.

Matt Linden was a well-built young man with head of rich, dark hair and a charismatic smile. Ken had enjoyed watching him in practice - maybe a little too much. The graceful way he moved, how he could pluck a ball out of the air seemed almost like magic trick. After practice a few days ago Ken and Matt had hung back in locker room talking. The coach had done the unusual by calling Matt out - saying his head wasn't in the game. Ken had felt something might be bothering Matt and just wanted to let him know he was available to listen.

Matt had proceeded to share with Ken that his parents were getting a divorce. He’d been pretty broken up about it. Although Ken felt terrible about Matt’s family situation, he’d also felt a deep satisfaction that Matt had trusted him enough to open up. To share something personal rather than just the typical teenage jibes. Ken had felt a powerful connection to his attractive teammate that caused a warmth to grow in the pit of his stomach as they sat side by side on the bench. Ken’s hand had strayed to Matt’s thigh. At the touch, blood had rushed uncontrolled to his groin, Too late he realized he’d made a horrifying mistake.

“What the fuck, Hutchinson?” Matt saw the stiff bulge in Ken’s uniform pants and had jumped up as if he’d been bitten by a snake.

Ken’s face had reddened. “I . . . I’m sorry,” He’d stammered. “I didn’t mean anything . . .”

“Keep away from me, you fag,” Matt had shouted as he pushed past him out of the room.

So much for personal connections. Ken could have just brushed it off as an awkward teenage moment. It might even have worked if he handled it right. His friends were always joking about how they got hard-ons if so much as a breeze blew. They boasted about their size and the speed with which they could jack off. They bragged about all the girls they were feeling up and even fucking - in the back seat of their parents’ cars or at the secluded spot in Carlyle Woods. Even an empty storeroom or underneath the bleachers would do. Sometimes it seemed like sex was all they thought about and everyone was doing it.

Ken's good looks drew more than his share of female interest. But Ken was different. He thought maybe he was sick, even. As much as he’d tried to go along with his buddies, somehow muscular legs and firm abs excited him even more than mini skirts and tight sweaters. But it was something he dared not talk about. Not to his friends and certainly not to his stern, straight-laced father.

But ‘unnatural’ feelings continued to plague him. When Ken had confided in his youth pastor about his confusion, his doubt, the man’s face had blanched. ‘Homosexuality is a sin,’ he’d announced awkwardly. He’d given him some scripture references and offered to pray for him. Nothing worked. The event with Matt was the last straw. Ken had to leave and find some way to fix himself.

Finally, a rusty, orange-red Chevy sedan pulled up on the road alongside him and it’s driver - a man who appeared to be in his mid-thirties, with thin dark hair and small eyes - rolled down the car window and leaned out. “You need a ride?” He asked.

Ken looked him over and considered his offer. It would be dark soon. Better to hitch a ride with a stranger than be stopped by a policeman with questions about why he was walking along a highway all alone. “If you could just drop me off at the nearest restaurant, I'd appreciate it,” said Ken.

“You bet. I'm getting a little hungry, myself.” The man pushed open the passenger side door. The Chevy's interior smelled foul, like a gym locker at the end of the year. The front seat was full of food wrappers and other assorted trash. Ken almost reconsidered, then brushed the refuse aside and he got in.

“My name’s Artie. What's yours?”

“Ken.”

“Where’re ya headed?” Artie’s asked.

“South,” Ken said simply. The question was innocuous enough and he didn't mean to be purposefully vague, but at the moment it was all he knew.

Artie didn't seem to mind Ken’s vagueness or take any offense that Ken wasn't a big talker. He seemed happy to talk enough for the both of them. “I'm just traveling through, myself,” Artie said. “Came up from Indiana, but - man - this place is too cold for me.” He demonstrated with a little shiver. “Are you hungry? I sure am. Been on the road for hours.”

“I could eat,” Ken agreed.

A few miles up the road Artie pulled into the parking lot of a family-style diner. Inside, color prints depicting Minnesota lake country decorated the walls and a chalkboard advertised the specials of the day - homemade meatloaf and lemon meringue pie. Since it was well past the dinner hour, they had the place practically to themselves. Artie ordered a meatloaf special from the tired but friendly waitress who pulled an order pad from her ketchup-stained apron, and Ken settled on a turkey sandwich. As hungry as he was, nothing on the laminated menu looked particularly appealing. Maybe the pain in his gut wasn't just from hunger.

Artie continued to chat amiably as he ate, smiling as if he hadn’t a care in the world. He said he’d come up to visit a friend but was now on his way to Minneapolis, and from there - who knew? Somewhere warmer, for sure. Somewhere with opportunity.

Ken didn’t find Artie a particularly appealing character, but he’d never met anyone as free-wheeling as he seemed to be. Maybe the rumpled clothes and bad haircut were just part of the price one paid for freedom, he mused. It must be nice not having to live up to anyone else’s expectations. No pressures. No one to disappoint. Ken had no desire to own a big, fancy house, wear a suit and tie or be cooped up in an office all day like his father. But he was young, he’d been reminded time and again. Everyone seemed so sure he’d change his mind somewhere down the line.

“What about you, Ken? You on your way to visit someone?” Artie wiped his mouth inelegantly with a small, paper napkin.

Ken shook his head and swallowed down a bite of his sandwich - bland turkey on dry white bread, slathered with mayonnaise then topped with a tomato that hadn’t seen a garden in weeks. “I’m going down to Iowa.”

He’d been thinking through a plan for the last few hours as Artie had chattered away and his declaration now made it official. He’d head to the heart of farm country where it should be easy to find work despite his age. Housing, too. He wasn’t afraid of hard work. Thanks to time spent with his grandfather before the family farm was sold, he knew his way around a tractor. In fact, he loved working outdoors. The heady smell of manure, the richness of dirt on his hands satisfied rather than repelled him. Being around plants and animals gave him a sense of peace and fulfillment. He loved nurturing living things, seeing them grow as a result of his care. And a cow or corn stalk never questioned his grades or his plans for the future - never mind his sexuality. They never made him feel less than he was. They just were. So why couldn’t he be who and what he was?

“Iowa, aye?” Artie eyed him up and for the first time the man’s easy perusal made Ken uneasy. But he didn’t seem like much of a threat and, besides, Ken knew he could handle himself. If there was one thing that about himself in which he was confident, it was his strength and athletic ability. His cherubic good looks, on the other hand, had always been a double-edged sword.

“Do you know anyone in Iowa?” Artie questions turned more pressing, even as he carefully kept the conversation light.

Ken didn’t know how much personal information he should give this stranger. He didn’t think it wise for Artie to know exactly how alone he was. That he was miles from home and no one - not even his parents - knew where he was. “My cousin,” he said awkwardly. He’d always been a bad liar.

The waitress came back around and asked if either of them wanted dessert. Ken shook his head but Artie ordered two pieces of chocolate cake. “My treat,” he added, smiling broadly. When the waitress came around again and tore the check from her paper pad, Ken paid her from the money in his pocket. He included a generous tip even though he had no idea how long his money would need to last.

Artie tossed a few coins on the table. “Look kid. I was planning on getting a room around here for tonight and I wouldn’t mind sharing. We could split the cost if you’re running low.”

Artie made it sound like he was doing Ken a favor, but Ken didn’t miss the fact that the favor was going both ways. He thought about turning him down, but the shed he’d stayed in the night before had been so cold he’d gotten little sleep. It was only for one night. What could it hurt? In the morning they’d go their separate ways and Ken would never have to see Artie Solkin again.

Chapter Text

October 1976

Hutch waited outside the Courtroom B, feeling as though dozens of tiny, winged creatures were waging a battle in his gut. His palms were sweaty. He’d changed his mind a dozen times about coming. He tried to tell himself that what had happened between Duluth and Des Moines no longer mattered. But the painful memories had come back to haunt him, invading his dreams and stealing his sleep. Even Starsky had commented that he’d looked paler than usual, urging him to switch from bean sprouts to beef. But what Hutch needed was to convince himself that the past truly was the past.

Hutch had looked up Arthur Solkin’s record without Starsky’s knowledge. That in itself left him feeling sullied. Hutch had never felt the need to go around his partner before. Solkin had been brought in for petty theft and contributing to the delinquency of a minor - a charge that made Hutch’s blood run cold. His pre-trial had been set for that afternoon. Hutch told Starsky he had a dentist appointment, making sure to say it was for a routine cleaning and not a root canal or some other procedure Starsky would most likely ask about later in an offhand way as if he wasn’t all that concerned. But the mere asking about such things made Hutch know that he really was. In so many little ways they’d each become their partner’s keeper.

Forty-five minutes later the courtroom doors swung open and there he was. Artie Solkin - older of course, but also greasier and even more rumpled than he'd been twelve years ago. He sported a jacket straight from Goodwill and godawful two-toned shoes. His eyes showed even more malevolence, if possible. Small and dark and burning with a dozen sleazy schemes.

Artie stopped short when he saw Hutch and squinted at him as if trying to remember if he knew him from somewhere.

He doesn’t, Hutch thought to himself fiercely. In fact, he never did.

“Do we know each other?” Artie finally asked.

Hutch stood immobile, lips tight, saying nothing.

“Do you have some business with my client?” a middle-aged man who had followed Artie out of the courtroom, stepped in. Solkin’s attorney, no doubt. The cheap suit and bad haircut said he was the kind of lawyer whose bread-and-butter came from smoothing over DUIs and drug raps, with a few questionable personal injury cases thrown in for good measure.

“I just came to find out what kind of deal this slime ball got,” Hutch stated finally.

“There’s no call for addressing Mr. Solkin in that manner,” the attorney said loftily, but his eyes darted around the hallway, most likely looking for security officers among the people milling about, revealing to Hutch that he wasn't nearly as self-assured as he tried to appear.

“I didn’t do anything. I just tried to return an old lady’s purse after some punk grabbed it.” Artie said, his eyes hard and glittering like marbles. “That’s all.”

“What you mean is, you talked some juvenile delinquent into stealing for you and ended up getting caught. Then you tried to make yourself out as a Good Samaritan while some poor kid took the fall,” Hutch said, interpreting the police report. “I know exactly how you operate.”

“What a minute . . . ” Artie said, brushing off his lawyer who was gesturing for him to walk away. “I do know you. Ken . . . something. Yeah, it’s hard to forget a face like yours. You hitched a ride with me in Minnesota about ten or so years ago. Maybe longer.” A cold smile spread across Artie’s face.

Ken felt as if he’d been hit by an ocean wave, surprising him with its intensity and making him fight for balance. He didn’t confirm or deny Artie’s statement. “Like I said, I know how you operate so I suggest you keep your nose clean if you plan on sticking around here.”

“Now Kenny boy, what do you have against old Artie? I thought we were friends.”

Hutch didn’t know which he clenched tighter - his jaws and his fists. “We were never friends. I doubt you know the meaning of the word. And I meant what I said. I just so happen to be a detective in this town.”

Artie’s eyes widened slightly. “A detective?” he crooned with sarcasm and Hutch was mortified to feel his face redden. “That’s quite a move up in the world from the last time I saw you. A snot-nosed punk who thought he was too big for his britches. It’s all coming back to me now.” Artie looked him up and down, then motioned for his lawyer to go on without him. “You know, you’re just as pretty as you were back then. No - back then you were soft. Now you have a hard edge. Tell me, what kind of background check do you need for a job like yours? What would your cop friends think if . . . ”

“Don’t think you can threaten me,” Hutch spat out.

“Tell you what, Detective, I’ll stay on my side of town and you stay on yours, and we’ll both get along just fine.” Artie pasted on a self-satisfied smile thinking he’d gotten the upper hand, then turned and walked away. Hutch’s stomach roiled thinking that maybe Artie was right - at least for the time being.

November 1964

“You talking about Iowa made me remember. I have an aunt in Des Moines I promised I’d look in on the next time I was in the area,” Artie said the following morning as he sipped the bitter coffee he’d gotten from the motel office. “I could head that way and drop you off wherever you want.”

Artie’s proposition should have pleased Ken. He’d wanted nothing more than to get away from the oddball that morning, but to turn down the ride seemed foolish. At the moment, a lift in Artie’s junky Chevy was the quickest and easiest way out of Minnesota and away from the things he was so desperate to escape. The man gave Ken the creeps in a way he couldn’t quite put a finger on. They’d shared a room in a low-budget motel off of Route 35. Ken was happy for the warm shower and mattress, but hearing Artie’s snore less than four feet away left him as sleepless as had the cold, abandoned shed.

Ken had given Artie twenty dollars for his share of the room. Another twenty for gas would surely be enough to get him near Des Moines, leaving him with a ten spot. From there, all he’d have to do, hopefully, was approach a few farms to ask for work and board. He wouldn’t even mind a place in a barn, warmed by the comforting presence of animals. Beyond that, he didn’t want to think.

After a breakfast -- orange juice and toast for Ken, watery scrambled eggs and greasy bacon Artie swallowed with gusto -- they headed south again. Artie kept up an friendly running conversation as the miles flew by, while Ken contributed just enough to be polite. But the man seemed to know exactly the right things to say to get inside Ken’s head, to play on his sensibilities. He talked about losing his mom when he was young, then traveling from place to place with his dad, never really feeling that he belonged. “We make our own families, Kenny boy. We outcasts need to stick together, look out for each other. The big-wigs don’t care anything about people like us.”

Ken had to admit, Artie made some sense. Ken didn’t fit in. But that didn’t mean he deserved to be brushed aside. Maybe he wasn’t running away from something as much as he was looking to find something. Somewhere he could be himself; people who would accept him as he was. Ken felt himself beginning to relax in the front seat of the Chevy despite himself. Artie seemed to understand him in an offbeat kind of way.

Outside of Clear Fork, Iowa, Artie pulled into a Shell station. He handed a faded credit card to the overall-clad attendant and told him to ‘fill it up,' only to have the attendant return to their car a few minutes later.

“I’m sorry sir, this card was declined.”

“I was afraid of that,” Artie said, not missing a beat. “I’m sure it’s just a mix up with my payment. It probably crossed in the mail. I’ve been on the road for the past few weeks. What about you, kid?” Artie turned to Ken.

Ken searched his jeans pocket and pulled out a couple of bills - the last of his money. Artie took it from him without hesitation and passed it through the car’s window. “Put in as much as this will get.”

The attendant counted the bills in his grease-stained fingers, pocketed it, then turned his attention to the pump.

“What are we going to do now?” Ken asked, feeling a little flustered. The gas paid for with the last of Ken’s money wouldn’t get them far.

“This is a bit of a problem,” Artie sighed. He thrummed his short, stubby fingers on the worn grip of the steering wheel. “But if we put our heads together, I’m sure we’ll think of something.”

When the attendant had finished pumping their gas and waved them an ‘all clear,’ Artie pulled into the lot of a donut shop across the street. “I think better on a full stomach,” he explained. They went in and took seats at the counter. The waitress was chattering on the phone in the back and the display of donuts behind it was half empty, but Artie didn’t seem all that interested in donuts anyway. Neither was Ken. Artie flicked his gaze around the store while Ken fought with his misgivings. He even thought about calling his folks but quickly brushed off the idea. He’d gotten himself into this, it was up to him to get himself out. He’d call them when he knew what he was doing, he told himself, if only just to let them know he was okay.

“Listen, kid. This isn’t as hopeless as it looks.” Artie jutted his chin to indicate the cash register. All I have to do is distract the waitress while you get some cash from the drawer. Just a twenty or something.” Ken imagined that his expression reflected his shock so Artie added, “Just enough for another tank of gas. When I get to Des Moines I’ll get a hold of my bank and we’ll straighten this all out.”

“You mean, r . . . rob them?”

“They won’t miss it,” Artie cajoled. “And right now we need it more than they do. I’ll pay it back next time I pass through. I promise.” Artie gave him a friendly nudge with his shoulder. “I would do it, but it’ll be better if you do. You won’t get in any trouble even if you’re caught. You’re a juvie. They’ll let you go with a lecture. Are you in?”

Ken couldn’t go back to Duluth, not now. “Yeah,” he cleared his throat. “Yeah, sh . . sure.”

“Good,” Artie patted his arm and smiled. “Don’t worry about it. It will be easy.”

Artie was right. It was easy. Artie looked out for the waitress, who was still on the phone and sounding like she was arguing with a husband or boyfriend, while Ken studied the cash register. It was old and opened easily. There wasn’t much in it, but Ken slipped out a twenty dollar bill and shoved it in his pocket.

“Don’t ask me to do that again,” Ken nearly shouted at Artie when they got back in the car. The bill seemed to burn his skin through the fabric of his jeans.

“Sure, sure, kid. I get it,” Artie said with an edge of bitterness Ken hadn’t heard from him before. “You’re one of those kids who’s never been hungry. Never gone without. What would you know about it?”

Ken felt chastised, but it wasn’t for the crime he’d just committed. It was because Artie spoke the truth. He had never been hungry or gone without. The closest he’d come to deprivation was when he worked at his church’s charity drive, organizing winter coats and care packages destined for who knew where. The work made him think about the people who would be the recipients of his largess. Single moms and men trying to make it on disability pay. Children who had no control over their own lives. Who was he to judge? And he had the strangest feeling that he didn’t want to disappoint his new friend. His overactive need for acceptance was another one of his flaws. “I’m sorry,” he found himself mumbling. Everything felt upside down. Wrong was right and right was wrong. He felt so confused.

“That’s okay, Ken. We’re still friends, right?” Ken nodded. They drove for miles through the heart of farm country - vast stretches of open land dotted by white clapboard houses, red barns with Mail Pouch Tobacco in big white lettering and sturdy silos thrusting into the sky. Fields that had been golden with corn and wheat a weeks before now lay barren and brown.

“Tell me where you want dropped off,” Artie announced after a while.

Ken didn’t know what to say. He’d been desperate to get out on his own, to make a new life, but imagining himself alone in the middle of nowhere, where the landscape threatened to swallow him, was suddenly more daunting than he cared to admit. Seeing the fallow fields of fall made him realize work may be harder to come by than he’d Imagined. Riding in Artie’s warm car - messy as it was - and listening to his sympathetic chatter had become almost comforting.

Ken could feel the man’s eyes on him, peeling him layer by layer as they switched between himself and the road. “You don’t have a cousin in Iowa, do you?”

Artie took a hand off the steering wheel and reached over to pat Ken’s thigh. “That’s no problem. I get it. No one understands you at home.” Hot tears sprung to Ken’s eyes and he wiped them away angrily. He’d always been too sensitive by half. “Old Artie understands. We’re two of a kind, Kenny boy. Tell ya what. I’ll take you as far as Des Moines. You can decide what to do from there.”

Ken just nodded. Nothing was going the way he had expected. But he told himself he would work things out. Despite what anyone thought, he wasn’t weak. He wouldn’t give up.

Chapter Text

November 1976 (present)

There’d been three deaths in the past thirty days, all the result of blood-thirsty bludgeoning by a blunt instrument. While the M.O. was similar, any possible motive had yet to be determined. Whether the attacks were to settle debts unpaid or crimes of passion was anyone’s guess. That was for Starsky and Hutch to find out. The latest victim laid out at the coroner’s office was Jimmy Shannon, a young male resident of the Hotel Bremen.

Which led to Artie Solkin. Somehow he was involved; Hutch could feel it.

Ever since Artie had taken up residence at the hotel, it had become a gathering place for wayward boys on an ever downhill spiral. Jimmy Shannon had been one of them. He may have been a drop out, a juvenile delinquent or worse, but he hadn’t deserved to be beaten to death.

They questioned Artie about Jimmy Shannon, and he played his part well. He was full nervous indignation, but said nothing about Jimmy or his and Hutch’s mutual history, no doubt thinking Hutch would rough him up but then let him go. He’d be immune from further investigation if he kept Detective Hutchinson’s secret.

“Okay, we’ll play it your way for now. Go ahead and show off for your partner,” his eyes seemed to say. “Just remember that neither of us is innocent.”

But Hutch kept pushing, wondering when - and how - Artie would push back. And just what he, himself, would do about it.

A few nights later, Hutch got his answer when he reached into his frig and found a dead rat where a cold beer should have been. He recognized the message right away - back off Artie and his gang. His first thought was to call Starsky, even though he had no idea what he would tell him. Still, Starsky was, well, Starsky. Half-way through dialing the phone, a brick smashed through his window. Hutch instantly dove for cover, then ran down the stairs chasing after the sound of squealing tires. But the darkness made it impossible for him to get so much as a make or model of the vandal's car.

Starsky arrived within minutes. “Nice neighborhood” Starsky deadpanned as he oppoturned the brick over in his hands. “Leave a note?”

Hutch had the distinct impression Starsky would just as soon heave it at whomever had threatened him than dust it for prints. The knowledge was gratifying. “You're a scream,” He replied. “Why don't you get yourself something to eat. There's some great goodies in the ice box.”

“Good idea.” Starsky headed for the refrigerator, as familiar with Hutch’s kitchen as his own. “So what did he look like? Tall short fat skinny?”

“I didn't get that close.”

“Well maybe next time.” Starsky said, but then slammed the door at the sight of curled up rat. “Either your eating habits have changed drastically or you have some very sick people mad at you.”

“You know what bothers me?” Hutch asked, the tiny crack in his voice letting his unease show through.

“You're out of ketchup,” Starsky quipped.

Hutch couldn't help but smile as he recognized his friend’s way of diffusing the tension. He shook his head. “Whoever put that rat in that icebox has a way through my front door.”

“Any ideas?” asked Starsky, leaving 'when we get this sonofabitch he’ll have me to answer to' unspoken.

How could Hutch explain his suspicions to his partner without having to going into the whole sordid story? He just wasn’t ready for that.

“Not a clue,” he lied.

ooOOoo

A few days later they caught a break in the investigation into the beating deaths. The likely killer had struck again but this time had left his victim - Lloyd Herman Eckworth, a former big leaguer turned semi successful businessman - clinging to life. Hutch and Starsky went to the hospital to question Eckworth, but came away with little information, other than the fact that he'd been set up by a bum he'd handed a dollar and then was beaten within an inch of his life by a young Mickey Mantle wielding a ball bat. Yet Eckworth claimed he hadn't an enemy in the world. As well as confirmed of Starsky’s miraculous memory for batting averages. Eckworth’s had been 247.

Outside the hospital, Hutch approached his car in the parking lot and groaned. The right rear tire had gone flat. Damn if it had been a brand new recap, too. Hutch went to open the trunk to get the spare as Starsky ribbed him good naturedly about his choice of cars. When Hutch inserted the key in the lock, it set off a powerful explosion. They were both stunned for a minute, until Hutch felt a burning agony shoot up his arm and he fell to the ground with a groan.

Starsky was instantly at his side. He pulled him up and tried to get to the bloody mess of a hand Hutch was cradling. “Shhhh, Hutch. It’s gonna be okay. Come on, I’ll get ya to the emergency room.”

Starsky hoisted him up, keeping a tight grip around his waist. Hutch fought the tears that stung his eyes and bit back groans that built up from somewhere deep inside, as people began to gather at the scene. “We need a doctor here!” Starsky shouted. He brushed the bystanders aside and guided Hutch back to the hospital building. Finally, a woman wearing medical scrubs run up and escorted them directly to the Emergency Room entrance.

If anything, the pain in Hutch’s hand intensified rather than lessened as they waited in triage. Starsky refused to leave him even when Hutch was called into an examination room, shrugging away the nurse that came to assist.

“He’s my pahrtner, ma’am. I got this,” Hutch heard him explain, somewhere beyond the swirling pain. “Just lead the way.”

“Someone’s got it out for you, Hutch. We need to tell Captain Dobey about this,” Starsky insisted as the ER doctor bandaged Hutch’s burnt fingers. Only his pinkey had been remained unscathed.

“Keep this wrapped for twenty-four hours. Then the wrapping will need to be changed. If you keep the injury clean and free of infection, you should regain full of your hand but it'll take awhile.”

Hutch bit his lip. He couldn't decide which was more painful - his burned flesh or his memories.

“There's nothing to tell. Not yet, anyway.”

“Sure, doc. Thanks a lot,” Starsky answered for him.

Starsky helped Hutch with his jacket and opened the door of the examination room for Hutch to walk out. “It's not like you can hide a hand that looks like it came out of mummy movie,” Starsky noted following close behind.

A physical attack on Hutch crossed the line as far as Starsky was concerned. And Hutch had to admit his partner had a point. Up until now he could count on Starsky to look out for him, the way he looked out for Starsky. They were as connected as two sides of a coin. But Captain Dobey had warned them more than once about what he referred to as their “private parties.” One look at his hand and he’d demand know everything that had happened.

But what could Hutch say? Would Starsky feel the same way about him - even want to remain his partner - if he knew the truth? That his tall, athletic partner questioned his own sexuality, once had a thing for men. Maybe even still did. That would be a great topic of conversation at the annual policemen’s picnic. And that’s only where the secrets began.

There was Abbie to consider, his first real girlfriend in a long time. Abbie was wholesome and pure, without a history or strings attached like the other women he’d gotten involved with. The kind you could bring home to mother - even his. Atonement for his disastrous, short-lived marriage. He couldn’t risk having his past destroy his relationship with Abbie. He’d worked too long for it. Tried so hard to be like every other normal, red-blooded male.

The car bomb was a clear display of Artie's vendetta against Hutch. A reminder of the power the rumpled, twisted man had over him. And - damn him - maybe he was right. Hutch shook his head, as if trying to loosen the hold Artie had on him. But he couldn’t.

He couldn’t bear to have Starsky’s and Abbie’s affection turn to disgust. He’d risk anything rather than lose that.

November 1964

Ken and Artie hadn’t eaten in two days and had spent the previous past night sleeping in the Chevy. Ken had curled his lanky form awkwardly around the steering wheel, while Artie stretched out in the back. They most likely would do it again tonight. They’d made it to Des Moines but Artie’s bank wouldn’t give him access to his account - he’d mysteriously lost his driver’s license somewhere along the road. He’d lost his aunt’s address and phone number, as well. They’d filled up the car once more, this time pulling away while the attendant’s back was turned, tires squealing and loose gravel kicking up.

Ken had knocked on a couple doors looking for work but had come up empty. “It’s always toughest on people like us,” Artie had said as they’d sat in the airport terminal - a place, Artie had explained, where loiterers typically weren’t questioned. “We ain’t got no guardian angels sitting on our shoulders. Heck, most people would cross the street from us as soon as look as in the eye. But at least we have each other. Remember that, kid.”

Ken wished he could be as pragmatic. He’d always wanted to help make the world a ‘better place’ if he ever got the opportunity. He’d been so naive. Now he just wanted to survive. Artie had made him realize that he needed to toughen up if he was ever going to get anywhere on his own.

Artie suddenly leaned over and picked up a coin from the floor. “Hey look. A JFK half dollar. 1964. That’s our year, Kenny.” Artie turned it over in his fingers and stuffed it in his pocket. His mood brightened. He pointed to the name “Los Angeles” blinking on the electronic arrival and departure board. “California, Kenny. That’s where I’m goin,” Artie announced. “Sunshine and summer year-round. The land of opportunity. Wouldn’t ya like to go there?”

California. The word magically weaved itself through Ken’s head. It spoke of blue skies and golden beaches. A world away from the north woods of Minnesota. He nodded involuntarily.

They continued to sit and people watch as Ken’s stomach growled. Then Artie’s eyes latched onto a man in his fifties who had just stepped off a plane from Chicago. His dark hair was smoothed back showing touches of grey at the temples and his features were finely sculpted. He was carrying a briefcase and his expensive looking slacks and wool jacket seemed a bit too elegant for Des Moines. It wasn’t difficult for Ken to guess he was traveling on business.

As the new arrival sensed he was being watched, he glanced over at them. His gaze lingered on Ken before he turned down to look at the ticket in his hand, then turned his wrist as if checking his watch.

“We’re both in a bit of a jam here, kid, but I think I know a way we can help each other out,” Artie said as he continued to study the businessman who had stopped a few feet away from them.

“How’s that?” Ken asked only half listening. Even the stale bars in the candy machines were starting to look good to him. He wondered what Jenny had made for dinner that night. He wondered if his team had won the game against Fairfield and what stories Matt had been telling about him. Were they all enjoying a good laugh at his expense? Was anyone wondering where he was?

Artie turned back to Ken and gave him that same uncomfortable perusal he had when they’d first met. Had it only been a few days ago? “I’ll bet you can get away with almost anything you want with that angel face of yours,” Artie said as he gave him a strange little smile.

‘That angel face.’ Artie may have meant it as a compliment, but Ken felt himself burn.

Artie didn’t notice. “Just listen to Old Artie. Go along with me and it’ll be fine. You know I got your best interests at heart, kid. It’s just that sometimes you gotta get your hands a little dirty. Besides, you might find something you like.” He gave him a little wink.

Ken had no idea what Artie was talking about. He watched Artie stand and approach the businessman in the wool coat. As Artie and the man talked, their eyes flicked to Ken every now and then. After a few minutes, they came over to him. “Ken, this is Jeff. He has a few hours to kill before his connection to Chicago,” Artie said. “I thought we might all go for a friendly cup of coffee.”

Ken shrugged. “Sure, why not.” He stuck his hand out reflexively in greeting. “Ken Hutchinson,” he said. Jeff smiled as he took Ken’s offered hand, his fingers wrapping around Ken’s almost like a caress. Ken pulled his hand back quickly.

Artie led the way to their car and they all got in, Jeff taking the passenger seat and Ken in the back. But instead of going to a coffee shop, Artie drove to a seedy looking hotel around the corner from the airport. “What are we doing here?” Ken asked.

“It’ll be a little more comfortable than a coffee shop for a few hours, don’t you think?” said Artie. “I’ll just drop you two off here and bring us all back something to eat.”

The change in plans - if that’s what it was - hadn’t seemed to confuse Jeff at all. He just got out of the car and went into the motel office. “What’s going on?” Ken asked Artie once Jeff had left.

“Don’t worry, kid. Jeff’s gonna give us a little money to get us back on the road. All you have to do is be nice to him for an hour or so,” Artie turned to him from behind the wheel. “You know how to be nice, don’t you?”

Ken went cold all over. What had he gotten himself into? “What m . . . makes you think I’m going to do anything with this guy?”

“Because you’re in a tough spot, pretty boy. You’re on your own a long way from home and don’t have a dime.” This time Artie’s cajoling smile had a hard edge. “I said I’d help you but right now we need some quick cash and this is the easiest way to get it.”

Ken reached for the door handle but Artie put a quick hand over the lock. “You said you weren’t gonna steal again. So . . . this ain’t stealing. It’s giving somebody something they want. What’s the harm in it? Besides, don’t tell me this is something you haven’t done before.”

Ken said nothing, just stared at the key ring dangling from the ignition and for an instant he thought of dragging the sharp edged metal across his face, marking his outward appearance to match his inner turmoil. A dozen voices clammored in his brain, his father’s, his youth pastor’s, his friends. Then above them all, Matt Linden’s. ‘Keep away from me, you fag!’ Was he so easy to read?

As if satisfied by Ken’s silence that he’d struck a nerve, Artie’s voice turned sickly patronizing. “Let Artie give ya a little advice. You can’t run from you who are. Just gotta find out how to make it work for you.”

Ken didn’t look at him. But when Jeff came back to the car, Artie slowly removed his hand from the lock. “I’ll be back in an hour. After that we’ll get back on the road and head south.”

ooOOoo

Ken followed Jeff into the motel room the man had obviously paid for, fighting to keep the contents of his stomach, as little as it was, from emptying out onto the well worn carpet. Jeff tossed his coat on the chair then sat on the bed facing him.

“You’re beautiful, you know that?” Jeff said smoothly. “You don’t see a face like that too often. Plus, I’m partial to blonds. They tend to look so pure and innocent.”

Ken stood just inside the door, frozen in place.

“I hear you’re headed to California, “Jeff continued, loosening his belt. “I can understand why. California’s a much better place for someone like you.”

“You don’t know anything about me,” Ken said fiercely.

Jeff gave him a sharp look, annoyed that his friendly overtures weren’t being reciprocated. “I know all I need to know. That bum you’re with said you’d blow me for fifty bucks. Normally, I wouldn’t have anything to do with a creep like him. But you . . . well,” Jeff looked Ken up and down appreciatively. “I wasn’t expecting to find a fine young thing like you in a dump like this.”

Ken glared back at him, his hands tightening into fists in his pockets.

Jeff sighed. “Come on, kid. Let’s just get this over with. I still have a plane to catch.”

The situation was surreal. Here he was, golden boy Ken Hutchinson - straight A student - star athlete - tenor in the church choir, even - in a shabby motel room hundreds of miles from home with a strange man about to pay him for sex. He should turn and run but instead he stood rooted in place. What was wrong with him?

But Ken didn’t run. It suddenly occurred to him that he was finally with someone who wanted him to do what Ken had been driven mad thinking about. For a few minutes he forgot about Artie, about Duluth, and gave into his thoughts of touching another man. His curiosity raged at him like a wild beast trapped in a cage. He took a step forward, overcome by the simultaneous sensations of loathing and exhilaration.

This man was a stranger. Someone whom he’d never see again. No one would ever know what was about to happen.

Jeff smiled lasciviously. “I may be old but I’m not so repulsive, am I?” He gave a mirthless laugh. “At least my wife doesn’t think so. Or maybe its my bank account that gets her off. Christ knows I have my own kinks.”

He unzipped his pants and pulled out his member, firm and substantial. “What’d I tell you? Just come over here.”

Ken took a few more steps and then found himself kneeling in front of Jeff’s crotch, his eyes focused on the erect cock.

“Go ahead, kid. You know what to do. Suck on it. It’s not going to bite you.”

It was too late to get out of the situation. Damn if he was going to cry and back out now. Ken was made of sterner stuff. Or maybe he’d just lost his mind. He touched the hard piece of flesh - so tantalizing similar to his own - with trembling hands, then took it in his mouth, not waiting for further direction. He smelled a hint of soap or cologne on Jeff’s balls that wasn’t unpleasant. He felt rough public hair brush his chin. Ken determined to take some amount of control from there on, to set the pace, to have what was happening be his choice as far as possible.

After a few minutes Jeff began to shudder and moan, and his heavy thighs trembled. Ken felt a heady surge of power; the awakening of a secret knowledge that he could bring pleasure to someone else in his own way. He almost grew hard, himself, at the realization. As Jeff fell back on the bed long minutes later, his fingers still wrapped in Ken’s hair, Artie’s words came back to haunt him. You can’t run from you who are. Just gotta find out how to make it work for you. Strange that Artie would actually give advice that Ken could put to use.

No, no more running from who I am.

“Damn kid,” Jeff stood up and wiped off his stomach and thighs, then pulled on his pants and tucked in his shirt. “And here I was thinking I’d made a mistake. You have a million dollar mouth.” He reached for a pack of cigarettes in his coat, tapped one out and put it in his mouth. “Your hands aren’t bad either,” he mumbled as the cigarette bounced between his lips.

Ken went to the sink and turned on the spigot. He let lukewarm water pour through his long fingers that could wrap a bat so easily. The Great American Pastime now had a whole new meaning. Then he glanced up at his reflection in the mirror and splashed water on his face. He hadn’t sprouted two heads, he was neither angel nor demon. He was just a teen with a life yet to grow into. This may be part of me, but it’s not all of me, Ken thought as he dried off with a thin, motel towel.

Jeff took a few puffs from his cigarette then offered one to Ken as he came away from the sink, but Ken shook his head. It wasn’t that he hadn’t sneaked a smoke before. He’d just broken enough taboos for one day. Jeff reached into his coat again, this time taking his wallet from an inside pocket. He flipped it open, counted through the bills, then handed Ken five twenties. “This should last you a couple of days,” he said. “Now get out the hell out of here before your lowlife buddy comes back.”

Ken accepted the money without saying thanks. What does one say in this situation? “What about Artie?”

“Don’t worry about him. He’s nothing but trouble. I can spot Artie’s type from a mile away.” At that, Jeff’s lips lifted upward. “Maybe because he’s a lot like me. A user. Preying on people he sees as needy. Making them believe he’s got something they can’t do without. Getting a cheap thrill out of manipulating them. Pulling their strings to make them dance. I do that, too, only in my position it’s considered being a success.” Jeff closed his wallet and put it back in his coat.

Ken stuck the bills in his pocket and walked out. In the parking lot he took in a deep, cleansing breath to empty his lungs of the foul stench of the motel room. He’d go back to Duluth. Start over again. But this time it would be on his terms. No one was going to tell him how to live his life. And when he was ready - not before - he’d leave.

Chapter Text

December 1976 (present)

After weeks of diligence, the pieces fell into place. It's what made their jobs - their lives - worthwhile. Eckworth remembered the two-tone shoes of the beggar who’d set him up for a beating. Billy Ryan, one of Artie’s former boy-toys, told Starsky and Hutch about Tommy Marlow, a newcomer at the Hotel Bremen who had bragged about killing his whole family in back Indiana. Billy had left the hotel the very next day. Finally, there was the 1964 JFK half dollar, a small but not insignificant detail. Abbie had ripped it from the pocket of her attacker at Hutch’s apartment, another of Artie's messages to Hutch. Starsky had seen a jar of similar coins in Artie’s room at the Hotel Bremen.

The coin brought into sharp focus that day at the Des Moines airport and Hutch sickened as his worst fears were confirmed. This time a truly disturbed person had fallen into Artie Solkin’s hands, easy prey to his ability to turn wounded, desperate kids into his own personal puppets. For grabbing loose hanging wallets and purses, stealing from unguarded cash drawers, pushing weed and turning tricks. Now Artie was using a cold-blooded murderer. He'd even attack Abbie because of him . . .

Hutch stormed up the stairs and kicked in the door to Artie’s room. He grabbed Artie’s grimey shirt with his good hand and pinned him to the wall with the other. He held nothing back, allowing his full fury to be revealed, shared history be damned. The once lanky, confused kid had become a powerful man, confident in his mission. “I'm going to go upstairs now and give your boyfriend a shock treatment. Then I'm coming down and talk to you. So put some coffee on and pour yourself a drink.” Artie merely shrank away.

Next, he headed up to Tommy’s, again kicking in the door to his dimly lit room. Tommy wilted from Hutch’s wrath. “What are you mad about?” he whined. “I didn't kill her. I swear to god I didn't kill her. I did exactly like you said. I didn't touch her, Artie, honest. Don't be mad at me.”

His words stopped Hutch in his tracks. This kid thinks I'm Artie. Christ.

“Don't be mad at me,” Tommy begged. “You're all I got. Let me show you something.” He scrambled over the bed and took a frame from the dresser. It held a picture of Hutch and Abbie, both golden and smiling. “Look I brought the picture back for you. Look. I brought it for you. I thought you'd like it.”

You’re all I got. The words struck him with an almost physical force and suddenly Hutch was seventeen again - unsure of who he was, afraid of what he’d become - walking alone in the cold, Minnesota landscape. Finally picked up by someone who called himself a friend. We ain’t got no guardian angels sitting on our shoulders. Heck, most people would cross the street from us as soon as look us in the eye. But at least we have each other.

“I could take it back, Artie. Don't go away. Don't go away . . . ” Tommy’s cries were mewling, pitiful. He curled into himself on the mildewed mattress, a protective, fetal position.

Hutch fell back in a chair against the wall. “I'm here. I'm not going anywhere,” he heard himself say softly.

No one knew better than Hutch did how confusion and fear can mess with your head when you don’t fit in. How monsters can turn into saviors when you’re all alone. It didn’t excuse what Tommy had done, but Hutch couldn't help but wonder what tricks had been played on his broken mind along with way. Maybe if someone had recognized what was broken inside of him and not turned away. If Tommy had received the right kind of treatment, he might not have turned into a monster himself.

“I didn't mean to make you mad. I could bring the picture back somehow,” Tommy said in a childish voice.

“You can keep it. It's alright.”

Hutch was shaken by how closely he identified with the sick, messed up kid on the mattress. There was a time he thought he, himself, was sick. If he had stayed with Artie was that pitiful, broken form what he would have become?

Thank god he was stronger than that. Wasn't he?

Hutch slumped in the chair, a flickering light bulb casting uneasy shadows on the walls. Just inside the doorway, Starsky came to a halt. His gaze went to the figure on the bed and then to his partner. It was hard to believe the pathetic, disoriented youth was a cold-blooded killer. Hutch gave a small nod to the question in his eyes. Hutch’s anger and need for vengeance had vanished, replaced now by anguish.

“What’s going on here?” Starsky asked, baffled.

“I just - we just - need a minute,” said Hutch.

He needed to collect his thoughts. This had all gone on too long. You can’t run from who you are, Artie had told him. It had been the one thing he’d been right about. Hutch hated the idea that he might have prevented the attack on Abbie, if he had told what he’d known about Artie from the beginning. All the time he and Abbie had been together he’d thought to protect her - from his painful past, from his less than pristine present - by offering her just one part of himself. Although Hutch had thought he’d made peace with all that he was years ago, his past had followed him like a shadow, waiting for the right moment to reveal itself. Abbie had been caught in the middle without even knowing. It hadn’t been fair to her.

And what about Starsky? He should know the truth, too, so that he wouldn’t be taken by surprise one day. Hutch would just have to take a chance on whether Starsky would still want to be his partner. Or his friend.

Keeping an eye on Tommy Marlow, Starsky squatted down next to his partner. Tommy remained as docile as a lamb, waiting to be told what to do next.

“There’s something I need to tell you . . . something I should have told you,” Hutch said.

Starsky put a hand on Hutch’s knee. “It’s okay. You don’t have to. As long as we got the right person and he can’t hurt anyone ever again.”

Hutch felt the warmth of Starsky’s hand through the fabric. It radiated support, caring. All the things he’d come to rely on. He hoped he was still deserving of it.

“You wanted to know why Artie Solkin singled me out for his attacks. Why the sight of him made my skin crawl . . .”

“He’s a creep who manipulates kids who are lost. Messes them up even more than they already are.” Starsky said. “I get that.”

“Artie?” Tommy’s voice rose again plaintively.

“I was almost one of them,” Hutch said quietly. “I ran into Solkin about twelve years ago on a highway outside of Duluth.”

Starsky’s position next to Hutch didn’t change, not even fractionally. If there was one thing Hutch knew about Starsky, it was that he didn’t cut and run when things got messy. If only for that quality alone, Hutch would be eternally grateful.

“Something happened between me and a boy on my ball team in high school that made me want to leave town. But I was young and dumb. I was desperate to leave but I didn’t have a plan, I had nowhere to go.” Hutch tried to keep the story simple but years of unresolved pain still managed to leach through his voice. He felt Starsky’s grip on his knee tighten.

“Anyway, Artie came along and offered to give me a ride. But he did more than that. He made me believe that he was a friend when I needed one most. That he had my best interests at heart and that I could trust him.” Hutch flicked a gaze to Tommy then looked back to Starsky. His eyes were a stormy blue in the dim light. “Anyway, we ran out of money real quick. I hadn’t brought much to begin with and Artie kept making up stories about how he was going to get some. He talked me into taking money from a cash drawer at a donut shop, driving away from a gas station without paying. But I wasn’t ready to go home.”

“You were barely a kid, Hutch. Kids do a lot of dumb things. I should know.”

“There’s more.” Hutch felt tears building and the sting of shame, but Starsky didn’t move away. “By that time, I couldn’t see any way out. And then there was Artie, setting me up, egging me on . . .”

“You don’t have to say anything else, Hutch.” Starsky’s voice was as comforting as a worn afghan. Hutch wanted to fall into it, have it cover him so he could hide from the world. But then Tommy Marlow drew his attention as he tossed on the mattress, still blinded by the flickering light. He thought of the lives Tommy had destroyed. But it was Artie who had used his torment for his own twisted purposes. How many Tommys had Artie used over the years?

“There was a man we met Des Moines,” Hutch continued. “Artie had worked out some deal with him that I didn’t know until later. We all drove to a hotel, then Artie left me there with him. He . . . he had promised money for sex.”

“Jesus,” Starsky stiffened, and his fingers dug into Hutch’s leg almost painfully. An impulse for retribution, Hutch knew. But Hutch wasn’t so innocent. Starsky needed to know that.

“See, Starsk - that’s why I was running in the first place. I’d been having these feelings -- about men -- that I didn’t understand. The incident with a teammate . . . Artie must have sensed that I was different. He must have recognized that I had a weakness he could exploit. He didn’t want to help me - he wanted to use me.”

“No, Hutch. You’re not weak. You got it wrong, babe. I don’t care what happened back then,” Starsky insisted fiercely. “You’re not like Tommy. You’re strong.”

Hutch relished the discomfort of the biting fingers. It made his next question easier. “I may have been wrong to hold back the truth about my history with Artie.”

“What good would it have done? It wouldn’t have led us here any sooner.”

“But what about Abbie? Would it have spared her - knowing the truth about me?”

Starsky stayed silent for a moment, but then said with brutal honesty, “I don’t know. But you can’t blame yourself. None of us are fortune tellers. Besides, you’re forgetting who the real villains are here. The truth is that you’re a good man. Maybe not perfect, but you’re smart and caring . . .you’re my best friend.”

A pleasurable emotion washed over Hutch like cleansing water. Was that all it took to be saved from a lifetime of despair? To share your pain with someone else who saw your flaws and loved you anyway?

Suddenly, Artie Soltin, who had once seemed to have had all the answers, was now dust in the wind.

“You’re not bothered that I had sex with a man? That I might have enjoyed it?” Hutch asked tentatively.

“Only if it bothers you that I’m a better dancer than you.”

Hutch smiled for the first time in days. If he’d been worried his revelation would cause Starsky to withdraw from him, to think twice before initiating any further physical connection between them that up until then had been as natural as breathing, he needn’t have. Starsky moved next to Hutch and slung his arm over his shoulder. And they watched over Tommy Marlow until sirens from the street below announced that backup had arrived.

EPILOGUE

“It’s not that she doesn’t love you,” Starsky said as Hutch watched Abbie walk out of his life and into her brother’s VW. They’d both recuperated enough from their recent injuries to enjoy a quiet afternoon in the park, but Abbie had other plans. She’d only come to say goodbye. Starsky had known it all along. He’d come prepared to provide distraction with a basket of food and a handful of baseball cards, along with his odd mastery of trivia. And later, he’d lend a shoulder to lean on.

Hutch felt a deep ache, but he couldn’t blame her. It was clear that dating him had been nothing like the sweet, perky blonde had expected. She had looked forward to cozy dinners at home; sharing a bottle of wine in the park on Saturday afternoons. But life with Hutch had been no picnic. Far from it. What she’d gotten was late nights spent sitting by the phone waiting for Hutch to call, a quick lunch at a greasy diner, more often than not having to share their time together with his partner. Hutch was always a bit off balance without him.

But most of all, she hadn’t expected to be beaten and nearly raped by one of Artie Solkin’s wind- up soldiers - to get Hutch where it hurt. A reminder that the tall, good-looking cop had once been just another of Artie’s boy toys.

And so she ended it.

Funny how Artie had gone after Abbie instead of Starsky, Hutch mused as Starsky waved the pack of trading cards in front of him, his grin infectious. He heard the car door close. Yeah, he’d get over Abbie. She may have loved him but it was Starsky who had stayed. Artie’d been so sure of his ability to read him, but if he’d really wanted to make Hutch bleed he had completely missed the mark.

 

FIN