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A Brother Apart

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A black elegant sedan pulled in front of Nick Starsky as soon as he stepped outside the airport terminal. The door opened and a broad-shouldered thick-faced man in a tight suit stepped out. Nicky sauntered over and handed off his bag. He slid inside and when the car was moving, he looked over to the older man.

The middle-aged man adjusted his tie and ran his hand over his slick backed hair. “You did good, Nick. Better than expected.”

Nick proudly smiled and leaned back. “Piece of cake, Tony. Stryker did everything you said he would.”

“The bastard drew so much damn attention we had to get him out of the way,” Tony Marcano scowled. “Killing those Feds didn’t help any.”

“His time was coming,” Nick explained. “Even if I had stayed home, I don’t think he would’ve lasted much longer.”

“Still, we couldn’t afford his carelessness.”

“He might make a deal with the Feds, Tony,” Nick offered. “It could come back on you.”

A confident smile spread across Tony Marcano’s face. He pulled out a thin cigar and lit it. “Stryker is being dealt with. He won’t live long enough to consider any deal from the Feds.” Tony puffed on the cigar. “You’ve done well, Nick. I think it’s time we talk about your future over dinner at my home.”

Nick grinned happily. His work had finally paid off and he was more than willing to do even more. He took the cigar Tony offered and leaned in towards the lighter.

~*~

ONE YEAR LATER

Starsky held up the beer towards his partner in toast. “Here’s to the best partner a man could ask for.”

The crowd saluted Hutch with their glasses. Hutch shyly held his up as well before taking a drink. He wasn’t drunk. In fact, he was far from it. The warmth of the alcohol gave him a slight buzz, but the feel-good atmosphere played a much larger part. With his best friend and good friends surrounding him, Hutch couldn’t ask for more. Everything he ever wanted in life was right now.

Starsky sat down in the chair next to him and leaned in close. “I gotta say, Hutch. You really know how to make a guy feel damn good.”

“Hey, I got my partner back.” Hutch was grinning so much, his cheeks hurt. He knew he must’ve had an insane smirk on his face the way Starsky was looking at him. He didn’t care. “In two days, it’s you and me, buddy.”

“Couldn’t have done it without you,” Starsky agreed. He played lazily with his glass then leaned forward. “I still think you must’ve bribed the board to get me back out on the street.”

“It was tempting, let me tell you.” He put his arm around Starsky and pulled him close. “Give yourself some credit, Starsk. You worked your ass off to make it back.”

“And I still got some left, too,” Starsky added with a playful wink.

The slow growing warmth began to spread through Hutch and he affectionately squeezed Starsky’s shoulder. His final surprise awaited his partner later in the evening. Little else was on Hutch’s mind and he looked forward to Starsky’s reaction. He had no doubts about his course of action.

A pair of hands covered Starsky’s eyes and Hutch stilled when he saw who they belonged to.

“Uh, let me see,” Starsky guessed. “It sure ain’t the nurse from ICU. Her hands were like ice.” He heard laughter and Starsky jumped up. “Nicky!” He turned and pulled his brother into his arms. “Goddamn! I don’t believe it!”

Hutch got to his feet and forced a smile to his lips. “Yeah, it’s a surprise.”

Starsky’s eyes danced with excitement. “Hutch, did you know about this?”

“Nope,” Nick answered for him. “I wanted this to be my own surprise. Hutch called Ma and when she told me, I decided this celebration was one I couldn’t miss.”

Starsky hugged Nick a second time. “I couldn’t have asked for a better surprise.”

Realizing he still held his beer, Hutch took a quick drink and set the glass on the table. He watched the two brothers as they sat down together and excitedly exchanged news. He hid his disappointment and remained silent. Feeling ever the outsider, Hutch took his cue to leave. He leaned forward and gave Starsky a light touch on the arm. “I’m shoving off, Starsk. I’ll see you in the morning.”

“What?” Starsky rose and moved to block Hutch’s way. “Hutch, you should stay.”

“Starsky, you haven’t seen your brother in a year. You need to spend some time with him before he heads back.”

“I don’t see why you have to leave.”

Hutch gently took Starsky’s elbow and gave it a soft squeeze. “You’ve complained about not spending enough time with him. This is your chance to remedy that.”

Starsky glanced back at Nicky who was eyeing a girl across the bar. “I suppose.” His eyes moved back to Hutch. “What if…?”

“Call me tomorrow,” Hutch firmly answered. “We’ll get together then.”

“Alright,” Starsky acquiesced. “Tomorrow.”

A final touch to Starsky’s arm, then Hutch moved away. Starsky watched him say his goodbyes to Huggy. He almost bolted out of the bar to follow his partner, but remained in place. Starsky wanted Hutch near constantly. He figured he owed it to the big lug to give him a break. He’d grown used to the nearness and Starsky didn’t want to be so needy.

He finally made it back to the table and sat down. “Hutch thought he’d give us some time together.”

Nick took the beer the waitress offered. “It’s been a while, bro. I wasn’t going to wait around for you to bite the bullet before I got around this way.”

Starsky raised his head and saw Hutch saying his goodbyes to Huggy then out the door he went. “I wish Hutch would’ve stayed around a little while.”

“He’s probably got some lady waiting.” Nick leaned forward and took Starsky’s arm. Grinning, he said, “You look great, Davy. Lookin’ at you, I would never have thought you almost got put six feet under.”

With a waning smile, Starsky shrugged his shoulders. “It was too damn close. If it wasn’t for Hutch…”

“Never underestimate Starsky genes.” Nick hoped he wouldn’t have to spend the entire evening listening to his brother brag about his partner. He’d had enough in the short conversation already. “You’ve always had a knack for survival, big brother.”

Starsky forced a laugh. He was still thinking about Hutch’s abrupt departure and his brother brushing off his partner didn’t set too well with him. “How’s that job working out?”

“It didn’t.” Nick sipped his beer.

“Nicky,” Starsky chided. “Uncle Al had to pull some strings to get you that clerking job.” The uncaring shrug of Nick’s shoulders sent warning signals.

“I got an assistant manager position at a restaurant. I like it a hell of a lot better and the boss thinks I’m damn good.”

“That’s great!” Starsky exclaimed with relief. “I wish you’d stuck it out with the job Uncle Al got you. It was a good opportunity for moving up.”

“I hated that job, Davy.” Nick leaned back and shook his head. “It was going nowhere.”

“Still.”

“Besides, I’ve done pretty good for myself. Even Ma said so.” A sly grin lit up Nick’s face and he picked up his beer. “I’ve done so good that your little brother is moving up in the world.”

“Yeah?”

“You’re looking at the manager of Rico’s Italian Restaurant.”

The proud look on Nick’s face was in contrast to Starsky’s stunned one. It took a moment for the news to sink in and when he finally found his voice, he said, “Jesus, Nicky! That’s unbelievable!”

“Unbelievable, hell. I can run a restaurant with the best of ‘em,” Nick boasted. “Your celebration isn’t the only reason I’m here.”

“I don’t understand.”

Nick leaned forward and looked into Starsky’s eyes. “Rico’s got a place here in the city and he gave me the keys.”

After taking a large gulp of beer, Starsky cleared his throat. “You’re moving here?”

“You’ve been after me to do something more with my life. It’ll be better than old times, Davy.”

A slew of descriptions ran through Starsky’s mind. Stunned, shock, disbelief were just a few. His little brother had managed to turn everything around once again.

“Davy, you look like I just hit you on the side of the head.”

“Yeah, I guess you did.” Starsky laughed uncertainly then shook his head. The more he thought about it, the more appeal it had. Having Nick close by would be better. He craved to be closer to his brother. He stood up and pulled Nick into a tight hug. “This is the best news, Nicky.” Starsky looked to the crowd. “Hey, everybody! My kid brother is moving to California! Next round is on me!”

The crowd shouted in celebration and the drinks flowed.

~*~

The only lighting in Hutch’s dark apartment was the small lamp in the living room. With a beer in hand, he slowly made his way to the room and slumped onto the couch. Hutch took a long drink from the beer and his attention settled on the small velvet case sitting on the coffee table.

He leaned forward and picked it up. After setting the bottle aside, Hutch opened the box. Sitting on the midnight blue velvet was a gold ring held by an equally golden chain.

Hutch had tried rehearsing speeches for the private party he planned for his partner. With everything they had been through over the last year, Hutch had realized the true depth his feelings. The realization of it threw him and for a few months, Hutch had struggled to come to terms. The business of taking care of Starsky came first. His feelings were secondary.

As Hutch began to accept, he basked in Starsky’s presence. He loved the Starsky idiosyncrasies and wanted more. Every contact his partner gave him was one of a thousand small gifts. He relished the looks and touches which were for no one but him.

Hutch didn’t want to burden Starsky with a new vision of their relationship during his recovery. Waiting seemed the only prudent thing to do. He wanted his partner free to offer his love and Hutch had no doubts Starsky would. He knew he would be best and first. Even if Starsky wasn’t aware of it, Hutch was confident that his partner would come around.

Still holding onto the case, he wandered to the greenhouse. Being among the lush greenery always seemed to rejuvenate Hutch. The many nights he and Starsky spent here together gave them what they needed when the job weighed down like a heavy anchor. Life was almost new after a relaxing evening playing chess, reading the paper or even just casual conversation.

He spotted a dead leaf on one of the plants and as Hutch removed it, he thought how appropriate it would be to give the necklace to Starsky here. He envisioned a quiet meal among the foliage. With Starsky sitting across from him, candles lit between them and soft music playing in the back ground, Hutch could see the twinkle in his eyes. He smiled at how much more romantic it would be with lights strung up around the greenhouse.

As much as Starsky proclaimed his dislike of soapy scenes, he would love the attention paid to him. Hutch grinned at the idea of sweeping his partner off his feet. After Nicky’s gone I’ll do just that, Hutch silently promised. He snapped the case shut and headed for bed.

~*~

Easing the door to Hutch’s apartment open, Starsky poked his head inside. He saw his partner busying himself in the kitchen with his back to him. With a mischievous grin, he began creeping into the apartment. Starsky was almost to Hutch when he heard, “You make enough noise to wake the dead, Starsk.”

“Damn!” Starsky moved around and leaned against the counter. “You can’t say I didn’t at least give it a good try.”

Hutch chuckled and grabbed a cup then filled it with coffee. “How’s the hangover?”

Starsky took the hot cup from him and shrugged his shoulders. “Not too bad. We didn’t stay out past one and even made it to bed before three.”

“Considering it’s only ten, you should be pleased.”

With a slight grin, Starsky sipped his coffee. “I’ve got a hell of a lot more to be pleased about.”

“Oh?” Hutch quickly cleaned off the counter and moved to sit at the table.

Starsky followed. “Seems that my little brother got a job promotion.”

“He’s not a clerk anymore?”

“Old news, buddy. He was given a manager’s position with a new place. Rico’s Italian.”

Hutch held up his hand. “Whoa. Back up, Starsk. How did he get a job like that?”

“He worked as an assistant in New York.”

“You should be proud.” Hutch raised his cup and smiled.

“What’s even better is that it’s here.”

“Here?”

“Yeah, Nicky’ll be living and working here, Hutch.”

The look of brotherly pride on Starsky’s face dimmed whatever hope Hutch had in furthering their relationship. He knew how important Nick was to his partner and Hutch wondered if his hopes would impede it.

Hutch still couldn’t see Nick as a manager of anything and questions were starting to form in his mind. “I hope he does well.”

“Hutch.” Uncertain blue eyes met his and Starsky considered reaching over but remained still. “The reason you left last night.”

“What about it?”

“I had a feeling there was more to it.”

Downing the remainder of the coffee, Hutch rose and set the cup in the sink. “You’ve worried over Nicky for the last year, Starsk. I wanted to give the two of you some space.”

“Next escape attempt, I get to cuff you.”

Hutch chuckled in relief. He knew Starsky wouldn’t allow Nicky’s presence to interfere in their relationship. “Deal, buddy.”

~*~

It was later in the afternoon when they arrived at Starsky’s after a picnic comprised of officers and their families. Starsky and Hutch were unloading the trunk of the car. The loud growl of a sports car was fast approaching and neither man was distracted from their task until it pulled to the curb.

Nicky jumped from the car with a boastful grin on his face. He held his hand out over the metallic blue convertible. “Isn’t she a beauty?”

With his mouth open from shock, Starsky’s eyes went to the car, then to Hutch, then back to the automobile. He looked at Nick. “Where’d you get this? It must’ve cost a fortune.”

“A job perk,” Nicky gladly answered. “The bossman himself wanted to make sure I had the wheels to match.”

Starsky approached the car uncertain of what Nick was proclaiming. “To match what?”

“Being the manager of the classiest joint this town has ever seen, of course.”

With a quick glance back at a silent Hutch, Starsky faintly smiled. “Yeah, that makes perfect sense.”

“I wanted to invite you to the place for a meal on the house, Davy. You’ve never had good Italian until you’ve had Rico’s.” With an afterthought, Nick glimpsed at Hutch. “You too, Hutch.”

“Hutch and I made plans,” Starsky weakly replied. He gazed at the car still unable to believe it.

“Why not show up early?” Nick offered. “Any dames the two of you have got stashed away can wait.”

Shifting back and forth, Starsky hedged. He was glad Hutch didn’t say anything about Nick’s reference to women. While his brother showed little use for the opposite sex unless it was for his own needs, Hutch on the other hand took women more seriously. “It’s not that…”

“It’s a great idea, Starsk,” Hutch finally said. “Our plans can wait another night.” What’s one more? Hutch thought morosely.

“You sure?”

“Yeah.” Hutch pasted on his best smile and moved forward. “We should check it out. Besides, who knows when we’ll get another free meal?”

“First class all the way,” Nicky proudly interjected.

With a time agreed on, Nick sped away in the convertible and when it was out of sight, Starsky turned back towards Hutch. “You sure about this? I was under the impression you had other ideas for tonight.”

Hutch resisted the urge to change Starsky’s mind and instead reached inside the trunk for the small ice cooler. “I think you’ll feel better once you get a firsthand look at what your brother’s doing.”

“Yeah, you’re right.” Starsky shrugged off his worries over Nick’s latest surprise.

~*~

Soft Italian music in the background, dark linen on the tables, well dressed patrons at the table gave the expensively furnished restaurant an intimate appeal. Hutch warily scanned the surroundings and wondered if he had been too judgmental. He looked to Starsky and watched the pride slowly grow across his features.

“Nice place,” Hutch murmured.

“Yeah, much better than I expected,” Starsky agreed.

Nick strolled over with his hands in his pockets. Both men noted the silk shirt and expensive dinner jacket. “I’ve got the perfect table for you guys.”

They followed Nick to a table near the fountain. Hutch watched Nick pull out a chair for Starsky and took a final glance around the place before sitting. His eyes darted about and settled on the fireplace in the corner across the room.

Nick motioned at one of the waitresses and when the attractive redhead approached, he put his arm on her shoulder. “Jeanette, this is my big brother, Dave and his partner, Hutch. Anything they want is on the house and if you take special care of them, you’ll have a little extra on your paycheck.”

Jeanette pleasantly smiled. “Yes, Mr. Starsky.” She looked to Starsky and Hutch. “Can I get you something to drink, gentlemen?”

“You have to check the house wine,” Nick boasted. “It’s a great red that’ll knock your socks off.”

“Only as long as we get the lovely waitress to bring it,” Starsky flirted.

“Knock it off,” Nick joked. “Let her give you a little dose of Rico style. I expect you to bring in some business.”

Hutch pulled the napkin from the wine glass and laid it across his lap. “Dobey would love for you to kiss up to him, Nick. He’s missed it, I’m sure.”

Nick’s good-natured laugh was forced and his attention was diverted by the man near the bar motioning for him. “If you two will excuse me, I do have other customers to see to.”

When Nick and the waitress were out of earshot, Starsky leaned forward. “You know, I was starting to have some doubts about what Nicky’s doing here.”

“You too?”

Adjusting the silverware, Starsky looked to the bar where Nick was. “Showing up in that car sure did get the warning bells ringing.”

“What about now?”

“What about it?”

“I want to be supportive, Starsk, but you have to admit that Nicky running a place like this doesn’t exactly fit his resume.”

“Where’s this coming from?”

“It was a place almost like this that got him in trouble last time.”

“Oh, come on, Hutch. Nicky bit off more than he could chew and wound up over his head. That was different.”

“For your sake, I hope so.” Hutch looked up just as Jeanette came over with a bottle of wine. After the wine was poured and she was gone, he leaned forward. “Your brother’s ambition is bigger than his capabilities.”

“Nicky’s smart, Hutch. Much smarter than I am. People don’t hand over a job like this to just anybody. Give him the benefit of the doubt. He deserves a second chance and I’m more than happy to give it to him.”

“Yeah, he does,” Hutch conceded. Even with the doubts raging in his head, Hutch wasn’t about to step in between Starsky and Nick.

~*~

The door was held open and Nick’s self-importance increased. He was getting drunk from the power handed to him so easily. Spending the last year proving to Tony and others he was more than capable of having his own organization, making them money insured Nick’s future.

He sat down behind the ornately carved desk and leaned back. Standing in front of him was a man close to his own age. Maybe a year or two younger, Nick speculated. The short cropped blond hair was in sharp contrast to Nick’s thicker, lusher soft curls. The well-worn faded jean jacket hung loosely on the lean form and almost matched the strategically ripped jeans he was wearing. The bright white t-shirt under the jacket set him apart from the expensively clad men who worked for Nick.

“Luke Turner.”

Nick absently nodded as he pulled a thin cigar from his pocket. He lit it and blew the smoke out of the corner of his mouth. “Tony says I should give you room to operate.”

“For good reason.” Luke folded his arms. “No connection is to be made between you and our preparations. I specialize in keeping the dots unconnected.”

Nick blew a smoke ring and watched the lazy roll of it. “That’s all well and good.” He glanced at Luke out of the corner of his eye. “My problem is you.”

“Tony trusts me. He’ll tell you my rep is good.”

“He already told me that.” Nick leaned forward and rolled the cigar between his fingers. “My brother’s a cop and the last thing I need or want is your work pointing him in my direction. You could be a liability.”

Luke gave a chilling laugh and eased his hands into his pockets. “Why do you think Tony specifically asked for me, Nick? You’ll have room to operate without your brother’s interference and I’ll make sure everything goes off without a hitch. You’ll be no more than a businessman trying to make a living.”

With a tilt of his head and an appraising look, Nick took a drag from the cigar. “Keep a low profile, do your job and we’ll both be making large bonuses.”

When Luke outstretched his hand, Nick hesitated. He couldn’t afford to make an issue out of someone he’d never laid eyes on before. Tony depended on him and he wasn’t about to let him down. Nick stood and shook the hand offered.

They sat down and spent almost half an hour going over the finer details and when Luke was gone, Nick headed out to the dining room. He spotted Starsky and Hutch finishing up their meal. He made his way over and pulled a chair to the table. “So how’s the eats?”

Starsky wiped his mouth as he swallowed the food in his mouth. “Best Italian I’ve had in years. You really outdid yourself here, little brother.”

“Only the best,” Nick beamed. “Why don’t the three of us take a night out on the town? I sure would like check out that club you took me to last time.”

With a glance at Hutch, Starsky answers, “I don’t know, Nick. Me and Hutch have to work in the morning.”

Nick’s resentment of Hutch’s presence grew and he forced a smile. “Oh, come on, Davy. We could tear the hell out of the dance floor.”

In Starsky’s eyes was the wanting to go and Hutch set his glass on the table. “Sounds like fun, Starsk. We can make it an early night.”

“We keep putting off our plans.”

“It’ll keep.”

At Starsky’s nod, Nick’s grin grew larger. “If you clowns are done, let’s head upstairs so I can get out of these rags.”

“What you’re wearing is nice enough,” Starsky told him.

“For an on-the-job schmo, yeah. I plan on not being alone by the end of the evening.”

Nick stood and Hutch watched him saunter across the room. He couldn’t stand Nick’s cockiness and he was even more reluctant for a night out. Hutch trailed behind Starsky through the restaurant and up the stairs in the back. Upon walking inside, he was taken aback by the expensive furnishings. He glanced at Starsky who was admiring the high-priced stereo in the corner.

“Nick told me that this place was decked out.”

Hutch kept his silence and noted the fact there were no pictures of Starsky or their mother. He chastised himself for the thought and tried to play it up to the fact that Nick hadn’t quite settled in. He couldn’t believe his own arguments.

When Nick made his appearance, neither man was surprised at the costly garb he sported. They arrived an hour later at the dance club and while Hutch sipped on his drink, Nick and Starsky were already making their way out to the dance floor. He did eventually make his way out to the dance floor a few times, but mostly kept to the bar while his partner and Nick had a good time.

Watching Starsky wild and loose on the dance floor did bring Hutch secret pleasure. Every dance partner had his complete and undivided attention. Hutch always considered himself to be above jealousy. He believed it to be an emotion for the insecure, but watching his confident other half, Hutch couldn’t help but be a little envious of Starsky’s dance partner.

It was close to midnight when Hutch decided to depart for the evening. Starsky and Nick showed no signs of slowing down. Even with Starsky’s protests, Hutch pleaded a headache and managed to extricate himself from the uncomfortable situation. On his way home, an idea occurred to him and he detoured to Huggy’s.

He found his friend at the pinball machine and they moved to the table. “Where’s the other half, Hutch?”

“He’s out with Nicky.”

Huggy got out a long cigarette and lit it. “So how goes life with Curly’s little brother?”

After a noncommittal nod, Hutch took the beer from the waitress. He didn’t miss the suspicious look in Huggy’s eye. “You heard about this job of Nicky’s?”

“Starsky couldn’t help but brag about his brother moving up in the world.”

“More like a fast track to the good life,” Hutch muttered.

“I thought the younger Starsky learned his lesson.”

“It’d take a little more than a firm scolding to get Nicky to change his spots.”

Flicking the cigarette in the ashtray, Huggy leaned back. “What makes you think his latest entrepreneurial endeavor isn’t on the legit side, Hutch?”

“Brand new car, trendy job and a matching apartment over the restaurant.” Hutch played with his glass. “Pretty good for a guy that never got past year one of community college.”

“To hear Starsky tell it, Nicky’s always got a game plan. He may have gotten it through legit means.”

Hutch shook his head. “I don’t buy it, Hug. This just seems to have come to him a little too easy.”

“You’ve never completely trusted Nicky,” Huggy observed. He took a long drag from the cigarette.

“Starsky was under IA’s gun after Nicky’s last visit not to mention how hurt he was by his brother’s activities. I won’t let it happen again.”

“Hutch,” Huggy said as he squashed the butt in the ashtray. “I know what you’re asking and I’ll do it, and if there is something, there’ll be little you can do about it.”

“I can make damn sure whatever he’s up to doesn’t cost Starsky anymore than it did last time.”

“Don’t you think it will if his kid brother’s working on the wrong side of the street? One time a guy could forgive and forget…a second time?”

The hanging implication left Hutch with few alternatives and if Nick was up to no good, he doubted there was little he could do. “No news is good news, right Hug?”

“Yeah,” Huggy grimly agreed. He closely studied his friend with the inner knowledge there was much more to Hutch’s request than what was said. Huggy had always known the two men were more than friends even if they denied it. Knowing the blond half as he did, he suspected the change from friendship to something more was in the works when Hutch first approached him about the party for Starsky. Everything had been sidelined with Nick Starsky’s sudden appearance. Hutch had every right to be suspicious.

~*~

With a small click, the lamp illuminated the sleeping figure among the silk sheets. Three bodies stood over the bed and with a nudge, the middle-aged man slowly came awake. His eyes blinked open and before a hand could reach the phone a solid punch to the face stopped him. He cradled his face and kept his eyes closed.

“Hey Carlos,” a voice said.

“Wh-who are you?” Carlos stuttered.

The blond motioned to the other men who roughly pulled Carlos from the bed. Luke whistled at the silk pajamas. “Seems a shame to spend all that dough and not have anyone to share it with.”

“Please don’t hurt me!” Carlos begged.

With a roll his eyes, Luke led the way out of the bedroom while the men dragged Carlos along. “I’m not interested in hurting you, Carlos,” Luke’s tone was casual as he headed down the hallway and opened an office door. “I’m only interested in getting some information out of your slimy carcass.”

Carlos was pulled into the room and dropped to the floor. Luke knelt down and his icy blue eyes bored into the man on his knees. “No help is coming, Carlos. We’ve taken care of your guards, so it’s just you, me and my friends.” Luke stood and went to the desk. He pulled out a few drawers and rummaged through the various papers. “I know you like to put on a good show of being legit, but you and I both know who and what you are.”

Fearful eyes followed the precise movements as drawers continued to be searched. Carlos wiped the sweat from his brow and nervously looked up at the men standing over him.

“Come on, Carlos, you know what I want. Just make it easy on yourself and tell me. I’m too goddamn tired to squeeze it out of you.”

“I-I don’t know what you want!” Carlos exclaimed.

With a tired sigh, Luke sat down in the leather chair. “Rocky.”

The large bulky man known as Rocky reached inside his jacket and pulled out a large knife. They forced Carlos to lay face first on the floor and with a hard knee to the man’s back the knife began cutting away the fine silk. “Please, oh God, please!” Carlos cried into the plush carpet.

“My man Rocky here can peel off skin causing the most amount of pain with the least amount of mess,” Luke explained. “Isn’t that right, Rock?”

“Like a grape,” the bulky man laughed. He placed the edge of the knife along Carlos’s naked backside for emphasis.

Luke leaned forward and rested his elbows on the desk. “I want your contacts and all upcoming deals, Carlos. Fork it over or I leave you to Rocky’s expertise.”

“Jesus!” Carlos’ body shook as the knife played along his bare skin. “It’s in the safe!”

Rocky and his helper pulled Carlos to his feet. The shaking man moved to the bar and removed the front cover exposing the safe. With trembling hands he opened it. Rocky reached inside and pulled out a small black book. He tossed it to Luke who started flipping through the pages.

“They’ll kill me once it gets out!” Carlos pleaded.

Without looking up from the pages, Luke asked, “How much is your nest egg?”

“Five mil.” Diamond blue eyes glittered coldly and Carlos answered. “Twenty.”

“If you’re not on a plane out of the country first thing in the morning my friend will pay you a visit. If we have to come back, Carlos, you know what will happen to you and whoever happens to be around.”

Satisfied with his accomplishment, Luke stood and left the room with the men trailing behind him. Once they were safely in the car, he looked across at Rocky and swung. His hard fist connected with the man’s nose and the loud thump of his head hitting the car window got everyone’s attention.

“You son of a bitch!” Rocky bellowed while holding his bleeding nose.

Luke pulled out his gun and aimed it directly at Rocky. “You ever off anyone again without my say-so, I will blow your fucking head off! I’ll plant your body so goddamn deep they’ll have to dig from China before anyone finds it!” He nudged Rocky’s cheek with the barrel. “You dig, Rocky?”

“Yeah,” came the muffled reply.

“That’s two bodies the cops will be looking at, dumbass! Fortunate for you, Carlos will take care of them for us.” Luke holstered his weapon and started the car.

~*~

The bright Torino pulled into the alley the following day and parked next to a Cadillac. Starsky and Hutch stepped out and headed to Huggy who was casually leaning against his car. “This new?” Starsky asked.

“Merle’s own work.” Huggy’s sly grin brought chuckles from both men. “She’s been completely remodeled.”

Hutch eyed Starsky inspecting the Caddy before turning his attention to Huggy. “What was so important that we couldn’t meet at your place?”

“Carlos Montoya blew town this morning. Word’s got him heading south to a quiet beach in the Cayman’s.”

Starsky walked around the car to Huggy and Hutch. “Serious? Whatever for?”

After a small shrug of the shoulders Huggy leaned over and wiped a piece of dirt off the hood of the car. “Got me. He took his retirement early for some reason.”

“Doesn’t make sense,” Hutch stated. “Montoya’s never shown an interest in leaving his operation no matter how much pressure we put on him.”

“Who’s taking over?” Starsky asked.

“That’s what’s weird. Nobody.”

Hutch scratched his jaw. “Someone squeezing him out?”

With a tilt of his head, Starsky leaned against the car next to Huggy. “Maybe since profits are down, someone made an offer he couldn’t refuse.”

“What kind of impact on the street are we looking at, Hug?” Hutch asked.

“Not much of one. You know how it works for those in need.”

“You’re not giving us much to work with,” Starsky told Huggy. “Now if someone pushed him out for whatever reason, we’d know which direction to go and with no body stepping up to take over, we’ve got nothing.”

“Hey, you’re know-how cops,” Huggy pointed out.

Starsky headed to the Torino and got inside. Hutch moved in close to Huggy. “Anything?”

Huggy shook his head. “Nada. So far he’s coming up clean with no questionable associates.”

“Guess it’s time for me to drop my cynical nature.”

“It’s still early, Hutch.”

After a doubtful nod, Hutch opened the door and slid into the seat. He looked over at Starsky. “Huggy said he’d try to dig up more for us.”

Starsky started the car and sped away.

~*~

The thick envelope landed on the desk with a thwack and Luke picked it up. He opened it and fingered the large sum of cash inside.

“That’s for a job well done,” Nick told him. “Tony said to make sure you got a little extra for every one you shut down.”

Luke slipped the envelope inside of his jacket then sat down. “I just started. Don’t expect it to always be this easy.”

“Hitting Rocky was way out of line, Luke.” Nick checked for hidden dirt in his fingernails then looked at Luke out of the corner of his eye. “He’s not a man to push.”

“Then make sure he follows orders,” Luke asserted. “Dead bodies mean cops which equals attention. We’ve got our hands full as it is.”

Nick dropped his hand down and turned in his chair. “With what?”

“Someone’s nosing around and it’ll take some bread to keep him out of the loop. A guy by the name of Huggy Bear.” Nick running his hand through his hair indicated to Luke that the man didn’t care to hear the name. “Your name came up and so far he’s got nothing.”

“Damn,” Nick muttered. “It has to stay that way.”

“His contacts don’t have enough in New York to link you with Tony, but if he puts his nose to the grindstone, it won’t take long.”

“You’re the specialist,” Nick bit out. “Take care of it.”

“Taking him out of the equation is out of the question, Nick. He’s a friend of your brother’s. Right now money talks and that’s what’ll keep him from getting information from the street.”

With a heavy sigh, Nick opened up the desk and tossed out two thick pads of bills. “He comes up with anything, Huggy is expendable.”

Luke stood and picked up the cash.

~*~

The activity in the squad room was subdued with cops shuffling paperwork. Hutch was no different as he moved through the files. The last two eventless days were dragging and he looked forward to anything to break the monotony. His mind went to the velvet box as he watched Starsky studying a file. Tonight? Hutch silently questioned.

The thought was interrupted by Dobey’s bellowing voice. Hutch set the file down and stood. He walked through the door his partner opened for him. “Yeah, Cap’n.”

“Harry Montgomery’s house was burned down last night,” Dobey matter-of-factly stated.

“Arson?” Starsky asked.

“I just got the call from the investigator. Gasoline was the incinerator and since he’s been under investigation by this department in the past, it’s now in our yard.”

“Did he survive?”

“Not by much,” Dobey answered. “He’s unconscious at Memorial and his men have flown the coop.”

Hutch eased into the chair and looked at Starsky then settled on Dobey. “We got a tip that Carlos Montoya skipped town without naming a replacement.”

“If this continues we’ll have a drug war on our hands,” Dobey told the men.

“Getting rid of the competition guarantees whoever is responsible a bigger piece of the pie,” Starsky offered. “We’ll get names together and see who is getting greedier these days.”

“The dealers might know what’s blowing in the wind,” Hutch added. “We’ll see what falls out of the cages we rattle.”

“The commissioner wants this one settled quickly,” Dobey explained. “This case now takes priority. Give your others to Simmons and Babcock.”

Starsky went to the door. “You got it, Cap’n.”

When Hutch got to his desk, he picked up the phone and called Huggy. “It’s Hutch…yeah, we just heard. I’ll see you at lunch.” Hutch looked at Starsky who was talking to Minnie. “Starsky’ll be here pulling a list together…see you later.”

Slumping in his chair, Starsky rolled a pencil back and forth across his desk. “Looks like I’ve got paperwork detail.”

“Soon as I get a lead on where the dealers are scoring, I’ll call you.” Hutch grinned at Starsky’s depression over being stuck behind a desk. He went to his partner and squeezed his shoulder reassuringly. “We’ll go pay a visit to one of the bad guys and once you play bad cop, you’ll feel much better.”

Starsky looked up at Hutch with grateful eyes. “Thanks, Hutch. My day’s never complete unless I get to scare the hell out of a few nasty drug suppliers.”

~*~

Luke sat at the end of the bar quietly nursing his beer. He kept to himself and continued to eye Huggy making time with an attractive woman. The fire was too much, Luke thought. He rebuked himself for the display, but Harry didn’t want to budge and didn’t seem to believe Luke would follow through with any threats he made. It was a risky but calculated move. Now he could see where the grapevine begins and ends.

He straightened when he saw the tall blond entering the bar. Luke didn’t have to be told who it was. He carefully watched him and Huggy move to a corner of the bar. Their heads close together spoke volumes. The game was now entering a new phase and the stakes had been raised considerably. He fished a bill from his pocket and made his way out of the bar with few people paying attention.

“Someone has to know something, Huggy,” Hutch asserted. “It’s damn convenient that both Montoya and Montgomery are now suddenly out of the picture.”

“Hey, there’s been nothing about any players making a move and no new ones are coming into town. I’m telling you, man. If anyone knows anything, they ain’t talking.”

“What about the muscle?”

Huggy shook his head. “Just a number of four who have managed to instill some fear. I can tell you that there’s got to be a heavy hitter who don’t mind spreading the cash to keep the local populace quiet.” He saw the frustration in his friend’s face. “The all-quiet won’t keep, Hutch. That I can promise you.”

~*~

Making his way through the empty restaurant, Luke went straight to Nick’s office and walked in. He folded his arms and challenged Nick with his eyes. “If you’ve got a plan, now’s the time to use it.”

“What happened?”

“Your brother and his partner are on the case now. I just spotted Hutchinson in talks with Huggy Bear.”

Nick rose and with an accusing glare, he said with a raised voice, “You’re supposed to keep me from being found out!”

“You want me to use the same tactics on your brother?” Luke dared.

“No.” Nick slowly sat down and took a moment to think. “I’ll make a call. I’ve got an idea that’ll get Davy out of both of our hairs.”

“Just remember he’s still a cop. Any moves against him…”

“Hey!” Nick shot up out of his chair. “For one thing, he’s my brother! I’d never do anything to him! For another, it’s none of your goddamn business and I call the shots around here!”

Luke hated the tantrum on Nick. He yielded to the younger Starsky and left. Something told him this thing was going to get worse before it got better.

~*~

Hutch pushed open the door leading into the squad room and grinned at the sight of his partner up to his elbows in records. He slipped off his jacket and set it on the back of his chair. “Toss a stack my way, buddy. Looks like you could use the help.”

“Gladly.” Starsky shoved the largest of the stacks in Hutch’s direction.

“Thanks,” Hutch snidely replied. He lifted a file as he sat.

“Anything from our friend?”

“Nope. He knows even less than we do.”

Starsky looked up from his work. “That’s strange.”

“I know. He said as soon as he got something he’d let us know.”

“I’m not getting anything here,” Starsky grumbled. “The list just keeps growing.”

“Starsk, after work why not come on over and I’ll cook you dinner?” Starsky stilled and gave Hutch a suspicious look. “Nothing unrecognizable. I promise.”

“No tofu pizza?”

“An innocent steak is sitting in my fridge waiting for the right consumer. I’ll toss in a few veggies just for show.”

“You’re not going to force feed me anything healthy, are you?”

Hutch smiled with pleasure. “Only the unhealthiest for my best friend.”

“Yeah, sounds good.” Starsky’s smile matched Hutch’s. “I’ll bring the wine.”

With a satisfied sigh, Hutch got back to work on the task at hand. The phone rang and he looked up to see Starsky answering it.

“Starsky.” He smiled. “Hey, Nicky…shoot…no can do, kid…I made plans…yeah, with Hutch.” Starsky glanced up at Hutch answering his own phone. He listened to Nick over the phone as he watched Hutch scribbling on a piece of paper. “Just a sec, Nicky.” Starsky covered the receiver with his hand. “You got something?”

Hutch hung up the phone. “Huggy found a dealer who’s willing to talk. He wants to meet tonight.”

“Listen Nicky, something came up on a case we’re working on…”

“Starsky,” Hutch interrupted. “Go see your brother. I’ll take care of it.”

“You sure?” At Hutch’s nod, Starsky turned his attention back to Nick. “What time do you want me there?”

Hutch kept his disappointment to himself. He thought he found the prime opportunity and now with work, Starsky’s brother, another hope was temporarily dashed. He returned to the task at hand and decided when the case was over time would be set aside for that talk. Hutch was having a hard enough time keeping his feelings to himself as it was.

~*~

The dingy bar was on the seedier side of town and before walking in Hutch was having second thoughts about meeting in such a place. Waving away the thick smoke stinging his eyes had little effect. Sitting in the far corner was the very recognizable Marty Huggy had told him about.

Hutch knew for a fact Marty was almost ten years his junior, but the years of hard living was obvious on his leathery face. After a check, he found several charges of distribution. In addition was contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Marty was a user and Hutch knew he had to tread carefully. This was someone who wouldn’t give up something for nothing.

He wound his way through the thick crowd and sat down. An overweight waitress approached him and Hutch waved her away. “I’m here.”

Marty toyed with the unfiltered cigarette between his yellow-stained fingers. “What do I get out of this?”

“Depends on what you give me,” Hutch replied keeping his face neutral.

“I’ve got a pending charge of distribution. Make it go away.”

He leaned forward and spoke in a low voice. “Anything you give me won’t be admissible in a court of law, Marty. The best you’ll get is my not arresting you on the spot.”

The bitter laugh from Marty was dirty and he tossed the cigarette on the floor. “Fuck off.”

He started to rise and Hutch grabbed him by his jacket and roughly pulled him back to his seat. “You want a deal? Here it is. You give me what you know and the next bust, I’ll step in as long as no one’s dead and you weren’t dealing to a minor. Otherwise, you take your chances with whatever cop I send in your direction.”

Marty’s hesitation gave Hutch satisfaction. He straightened his jacket and motioned for a drink from the waitress. “I got a new supply from Montgomery. He’s always gave me a decent cut of the action and I was leaving the night his place got torched.”

“What’d you see?”

“Four guys. Three could be linebackers for the Rams. I didn’t get a good look.”

“What about the fourth?”

Marty’s nervous eyes darted around the crowded bar and he leaned forward. “Lean guy. A blond. He’s not dressed like the others. Wore old jeans and he was calling the shots it looked like to me.”

“You heard them?”

“Montgomery was arguin’ and the guy told him he wants it all.” Marty pulled out a wrinkled pack of smokes and lit one. “He’s a cold-blooded bastard, man. Told the old man if he didn’t go a long, he’d waste his entire family including the grandkids. The old man still wasn’t sure and when I smelled smoke, I got the hell out of there.”

“Where were you when this went down?”

After an uneasy chuckle, Marty took a long drag. “In the next room. I was in the process of swiping a bottle of fine bourbon. The old man knows I got a taste for the stuff.”

Hutch leaned back in his chair away from the acrid cigarette smoke. “When you run out, who’s your next score?”

“Right.”

Marty’s cold laugh pissed Hutch off. He reached forward and yanked him close. “We’ve got a new player in town, Marty.” Hutch’s soft voice was laced with venom. “It behooves you to let me know who it is before there’s an all out war. If not, it’ll be dirtbags like you who’ll get caught in the middle.”

The alarm in Marty’s eyes told Hutch he got his message across. He released the grimy dealer and stood. Once outside, he leaned against the car thankful to finally breathe fresh air.

~*~

Nick carried the wine glasses to the living room and handed one to his brother before sitting on the couch across from him. “Even if I can’t cook, Sal has the makings to be a great chef. I hope I can keep hold of him.”

Taking a sip of the wine, Starsky nodded. “It was a hell of a meal, Nicky. Your inability to cook notwithstanding, I’m glad we did this.”

“I thought it was about time we get some of that quality time everyone’s always talking about on TV these days.”

“Sorry about earlier,” Starsky said.

“What’s to be sorry about, Davy?”

Starsky looked down at his wine glass. “I should’ve realized you wanted some time for just the two of us.”

“I gotta admit to being a little selfish,” Nick admitted.

“Hutch and me’ve been trying to get an evening together and it’s been next to impossible lately. I think he’s got something to tell me.”

“He’ll get around to it.” Nick wanted to get off the subject of Hutch as quickly as possible. “You sure did recover well after that shooting.”

“It was tough going. I got pretty torn up.” Starsky reflected on the horrific incident and shook his head. “I wasn’t supposed to make it, let alone be able to stay on the force.”

“Ma said it was bad. When she got back she said that you had lost so much weight.”

“Being on a liquid diet will do that to you,” Starsky quipped. He grew more serious and looked at his brother. “I’m just glad Hutch was there. If it wasn’t for him, I don’t think I would’ve made it.”

A hard knot of jealousy tied up Nick’s gut and he gripped his glass. “Why’d you stay a cop, Davy? After all the shit, I expected you to throw in the towel.”

“Part of it was because I wanted to have a choice. I didn’t want the review board or anyone else to tell me that I can or can’t be a cop. When they cleared me, Hutch and I decided the good outweighed the bad side of it.”

“You stayed because of him.”

Starsky caught the resentment in Nick’s voice and reached out. He gently squeezed his arm. “He was part of it, but Hutch and me are partners. If he wanted out, I would’ve gone with him, Nicky. We’re best friends.”

“It’s not that,” Nick lied. “Davy, you died and me and Ma came too damn close to losing you. Maybe you should think about quitting.”

“Ma accepted the dangers of the job, Nicky. She knows it’s what I want.”

“She doesn’t want you to know how much it scares her.” Nick finished his wine and set the empty glass on the coffee table. “Losing Pop was bad enough. I don’t know how she would take it if something happened to you.”

“I’m a cop, Nicky. I can’t change what I am.”

“I’m not asking you to do that, Davy,” Nick pressed. “You’ll always be who you are, but maybe doing something else isn’t such a bad idea.”

“I don’t know,” Starsky hedged. “Hutch and I made a deal when I got out of the hospital.”

“You’re saying he wouldn’t support you if you quit?”

“No, I’m not saying that at all. We decided the job wasn’t going to rule us or our lives the way it did before.”

“He wouldn’t stop you if you decided to quit.”

“If he knew that’s what I really wanted, but Nicky…”

Nicky held his hand up. “Hear me out, big brother.” He scooted closer to Starsky and leveled his gaze. “I talked to the boss today and he tells me that he wants to buy a restaurant in Monterrey. I told him about you and he’ll give you the job.”

“A restaurant?” Starsky set his glass down and rose from the couch. He moved to the fireplace and leaned against the mantel. He shook his head to keep from laughing.

Nick rose. “Just think about it, Davy. You’ll have the same set-up I have here. New car, nice place except this one looks out over the ocean. Monterrey is a great town from what I’ve heard.”

“I can’t see me running a place like this, Nicky.”

“Sure, you can,” Nick encouraged. “The Starsky charm can fill stadiums of people and Rico says that if you’re anything like me, he has no doubt you’ll keep the customers happy and comin’ back.”

“I don’t know.” Starsky’s voice sounded as uncertain as he felt. The very idea was foreign to him.

“Davy, you’ve been a cop for a hell of a long time and you came close to buying it more times than I even want to know about. You can’t keep this up forever.”

“I know,” he admitted. “I thought if I ever did quit, Hutch and me would decide together.”

Nick managed to get a grip on his raging emotions and wondered how his big brother got through the day without asking Hutch for permission to take a piss. “If you want, we can take a drive up the coast and tour the place. It’s supposed to be beautiful up there.”

“It is.”

Worried he had pushed too hard, Nick approached his brother. “Listen, just think about it for a while. This isn’t a decision to make on the spur of the moment.”

“I will,” Starsky promised. It seemed to gratify Nicky who went after the wine for refills. Keeping the offer from Hutch seemed to be a wise choice. He knew how little his partner trusted Nicky and Starsky didn’t want his judgment clouded by Hutch’s suspicions.

~*~

The next morning during the drive to Metro, Hutch rolled down his window. “I don’t trust Marty as far as I can throw him, but I think we can consider his vague description reliable.”

“It does fit half the population of California including you, Blondie.”

Hutch shrugged his shoulders. “We’ll float it to Huggy and see if he can add to it.” He looked over when Starsky gave him a grunt of approval. He had been quiet so far and Hutch grew concerned. “How was dinner with Nicky?”

“It was good. Caught up on some old neighborhood tales and the soap opera called ‘The Starsky family’.”

“Yeah?”

Turning the wheel, Starsky quickly glanced at Hutch. “Yeah.”

So ended the conversation and Hutch curiously looked at his partner. Usually Starsky was full of stories about the antics of his brother and various other family members. As the day wore on, Hutch suspected there was more to the dinner than just family gossip and brotherly bonding.

~*~

Later that morning, Luke walked down the hospital corridor and paused when he spotted Harry Montgomery’s door. Across the hall was the nurses’ station and a uniformed cop leaned over the counter flirting with a blushing nurse. Luke restrained his grin and slipped into the hospital room.

He eased the door closed and approached the bed. The older man’s eyes shifted to his and Luke pulled the button away which would have alerted the nurses and the flirtatious cop out in the hallway. “I’ve got a few names for you, Harry.”

“Get the hell out of here!” Harry spat.

“Rebecca Holston of Detroit, Michigan.” When he stilled, Luke sat on the edge of the bed. “Her husband’s a factory foreman and even as much as she despises you for what you do for a living, she doesn’t have the heart to keep Mary, Todd or Nathaniel from their grandfather.”

“How…?” Harry gasped.

“I’m a man with connections, Harry. I even know which private school in Sweden your youngest son, Zach, is at.”

“You got what you wanted.” Harry began coughing uncontrollably and when he managed to get a handle on it, he reached for the water. Luke casually lifted the cup and handed it over. After a sip, Harry said, “Leave them alone!”

“I doubt your sincerity, Harry. You can rest assured I will personally keep an eye on them as long as you keep your mouth shut and retire.”

“There will be questions by the people I answer to.”

“And I’ve no doubt that you will tell them it’s time for you to move on.” Luke moved to a standing position and leaned over him. “It’s in your best interest and your family’s to hold off on announcing a replacement, Harry.”

Content with Harry’s shaky nod, Luke left and managed to slip from the room unnoticed. He caught the elevator downstairs and once in the lobby he started towards the doors and halted at the sight of Starsky and Hutch. Luke’ eyes moved to a long corridor to his right and he hurried in that direction.

Hutch grabbed Starsky’s arm. “Wait.” His eyes went to the jean clad figure hurrying away. “Think that’s our blond?”

“Hutch…”

“Let’s not take any chances.” Hutch pulled Starsky along and they both caught the body darting down another hallway.

The detectives followed and lost him among the hospital staff filling the corridor. “Damn!” Hutch muttered. “That was him. I’m sure of it.”

“Let’s get upstairs. Hopefully, Harry’s in one piece and still able to talk.”

As Starsky was leaving, Hutch took another final look then shook his head. He knew he was close. He could almost taste it.

Luke pushed open the storeroom door just a crack. He spotted Hutch following his partner in the opposite direction of him. Breathing a sigh of relief, Luke stepped out as soon as they were out of sight. He left the hospital by way of the service exit and counted his lucky stars.

~*~

Starsky went into the hospital room while Hutch sternly lectured the police officer about leaving his post. Harry was sitting up and wiping the perspiration from his forehead. He almost smiled and at the sound of the door, he turned to see Hutch coming in. “Hey, Hutch. Get a load of Harry.”

Seeing the pallor on his face, Hutch grinned. “Harry, you look pale. Almost like you might have seen a ghost. Wouldn’t you agree, Starsk?”

“I already told the cops what I know,” Harry bit out.

“Which is conveniently nothing,” Starsky added.

“Strange that you were found in the very room the fire started in.” Hutch stroked his chin.

“The house was broken into,” Harry blustered. “I surprised them.”

“There was more than one?” Starsky asked in mock innocence.

“Maybe…I don’t know,” Harry stammered.

“He came to see you,” Hutch said. “Blond in jeans. We almost caught up to him.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Harry, Hutch and I know someone’s trying to muscle in by putting the suppliers out of business. You’ve operated this long because we never got the goods on you and since it looks like we never will we want to stop whoever got their hands on your goods.”

“Give us something to go on,” Hutch requested. “You’ve got our word no one will know it came from you.”

With a snort of cynicism, Harry shook his head. “You both are barking up the wrong tree. They’d find out. I promise you that.”

“What makes you so sure about that? Hutch and I always keep our word, Harry. Even if you hate our guts, you’ve got to admit that much.”

Harry took the water and drank down several large gulps to ease the pain in his throat. “Did you or the feds ever find my kids?” The two cops exchanged looks and kept their faces neutral. “Don’t bullshit me!”

“No,” Hutch confessed. “We were never able to track them down and neither were the feds.”

“I hid them good. Call me whatever the hell you want, but I take care of my family.”

“Someone did find them,” Starsky guessed.

“I’d give my life for them and they know it.”

Leaving empty-handed, Starsky and Hutch got to the car and sat. “How in the hell could anyone get to Harry’s kids when no one else could?” Starsky asked.

Hutch rubbed his hurting eyes and sighed. “Someone with better connections than us or the feds.”

Starsky had nothing to say to that and he started the car. “I think better with a full stomach.”

~*~

Watching the French fry being pushed slowly through the ketchup, it was obvious Starsky had a lot on his mind. Hutch set his fork down and rested an elbow on the table. “Want to talk about it?”

“Hmm?” Starsky looked up. “Oh, that obvious?”

“Very.”

“I wasn’t going to say anything, but I don’t think I can keep it in any longer.”

“Starsk, if I’ve…”

“It’s not you, Hutch,” Starsky interrupted. “It’s me…I mean it’s something I’ve been thinking about.”

After taking a drink from his soda, Hutch said, “I’m all ears.”

Starsky popped another French fry in his mouth and took a deep breath for courage. “Last night when Nicky and I were having dinner, he asked that I think about a job.”

“Working for him at Rico’s Italian?” Hutch asked with disbelief.

“It’s not like that, Hutch.” Starsky pushed the plate aside and settled his arms on the table. “There’s another restaurant in Monterrey like the one Nicky’s running and he said he could get me the manager’s job there.”

Hutch moistened his lips and gave himself a moment to adjust to the words coming from Starsky. “You’re thinking about this.”

“Yeah,” Starsky admitted. “When I got shot, it scared the hell out of Ma and Nicky.”

“Starsky, they know the kind of risks we take. Your mother was very supportive of you staying with the force.”

Swirling the straw around the glass, Starsky sighed. “Maybe she’s just telling me what I want to hear.”

“Why the sudden change of heart?”

“We can’t keep doing this forever, Hutch.”

Hutch was confused. They had covered this when Starsky was discharged from the hospital. “I didn’t say we should, but we both knew the time was close approaching when we’d have to consider getting off the street. If that’s what it is, Starsk, we can go to Dobey and tell him to stick us behind a desk until we figure out what we want to do.”

“Nicky suggested we go to Monterrey and check the place out.”

“Tell me you haven’t already made up your mind.”

“I haven’t,” Starsky denied immediately.

“It’s starting to sound like it.”

“Hutch, I have to seriously think about this. It’s a good job and Monterrey is a nice place to live.”

“Why did you even bother telling me, Starsky? You’re going to make up your mind no matter what I think.”

“What you think is important, Hutch. You know that.”

Hutch leaned forward. “If you think I’m going to tell you to take that job and pat you on the back for your good luck, you’ve got another thing coming, buddy.” Hutch rose and pulled a couple of bills out of his pocket. He flipped them onto the table. “I’m also not going to beg you to stay to hold onto a partnership you can’t decide whether you want to be a part of or not. You’re on your own on this one, Starsky.”

His heart sinking, Starsky watched Hutch leave. He paid the bill and rebuked himself for even bringing the subject up. When he walked out to the car, Hutch was already inside. He got in and looked at his partner. “Hutch…”

“Let’s just get going,” Hutch replied shortly. “We’ve got a lot of ground to cover.”

Starsky snapped his mouth shut and immediately started the car.

With a clear and warm Friday night, the restaurant was full of clientele. Standing outside, were three young women waiting for their cab to take them to a dance club. Nick glanced over and commented on the attractive redhead. Rocky and his cohorts were already flipping coins at whoever was going to approach the three women. Luke stood off to the side barely noticing the small crowd and their laughter.

The last few days had been productive ones. From all appearances, it seemed the tactics were working. Two more major suppliers had given in, but something nagged on him. Luke couldn’t put his finger on it.

He barely noticed the slow moving sedan at first, but as it approached, Luke saw a window sliding downwards. The dim glint of a barrel caught his eye and his instincts kicked in. “Gun!” Luke grabbed Nick and pulled him down behind a car just as automatic gunfire erupted all around them.

He pushed Nick closer to the automobile and pulled his automatic. Luke jumped up and fired off several shots at the departing car. He ran along the sidewalk never letting up and stood over the cowering girls whose screams echoed with the loud blasts of gunshots all around them.

When the sedan sped away, Luke looked around to survey the damage. One of the men he had worked with lay dead on the sidewalk. A pool of blood was spreading beneath him. He turned his head at the girls. “You okay?” Shaky nods from the girls holding on to each other assured him they were uninjured.

He went to Nick who was being helped to his feet by Rocky. “Nick, you hit?”

Nick shook his head. He ran a trembling hand through his hair. “Jesus Christ! That was too fucking close!” Nick brushed the dirt from his suit before looking at Luke. “Who in the hell was it?”

“I don’t know.” Luke holstered his weapon. “Don’t be too surprised someone would try to take us out.”

“Goddamn it!” Nick yelled. “Someone connected you to me! You know what this means!”

“I’ll do my job!” Luke fired back. “I’ll find out who is responsible for this and shut them down!”

Nick looked down the street towards the wailing sirens headed in their direction. “We don’t have a hell of a lot of time. Just take care of it.”

Luke motioned for Nick’s men and stormed away. He headed to the back alley just as the first of the cop cars pulled up.

~*~

Nick’s frustration grew when he saw the Torino parking behind a black and white. He adjusted his jacket as his brother approached and didn’t even notice Hutch heading in a different direction. “I’m fine,” Nick immediately assured his brother.

Starsky did a quick visual inspection and when he was satisfied, he pulled Nick close. “I got here as soon as I could. What happened?”

“We were standing outside. There were some girls and before we could ask them for a night out, this car drives by with some asshole hanging out the window with a semi-automatic.”

“Who would do this and why, Nick?”

“Hell if I know, Davy.” Nick wiped the perspiration off his forehead and leaned against a police car. “They killed Buddy. He’s been showing me the ropes since I got here.”

Starsky gave Nick a comforting hug. “We’ll find out who did this.”

A few minutes later, Hutch approached and pulled Starsky aside. “No one has much on the car. Dark-colored nondescript sedan with an unclear description of the shooter. Starsk, a blond wearing faded blue jeans shot at the perps.”

“Competitors getting squeezed out tracked him down and tried to take him out,” Starsky speculated.

“Maybe.”

“You don’t buy it?”

“Starsk, he was seen talking with Nick prior to the shooting and afterwards before disappearing.”

Starsky glanced at Nick who was still leaning against the car then turned back to Hutch. “This is a restaurant, Hutch. The guy could’ve been a customer.”

“Could be more, too. We have to check it out.”

“Fine, just let me do the talking.”

Hutch conceded with a wave of his hand. He followed Starsky to Nick and folded his arms.

“Nick, there was a blond wearing blue jeans and jacket here before the shooting.”

Nick shook his head as if trying to remember. “Maybe…I’m not sure.”

“You were seen talking to him.”

“I talk to a lot of people and it’s not like I’m completely unknown since the restaurant is doing so well.”

Hutch stepped forward. “The girls who witnessed the shooting said that afterwards, you both exchanged words. He even called you by name.”

Getting in a defensive posture, Nick blurted out, “A lot of people know me by name. I can’t be expected to remember every one of them.”

Starsky set a hand on Nick’s shoulder. “Easy, Nick.”

“Davy, it all happened so damn fast. All I remember is seeing those damn bullets and someone shoving me down behind a car.”

“Yeah, the blond,” Hutch commented.

“I don’t know who it was.” After a hard look at Hutch, Nick continued. “All I know is my place was shot up and I was damn near killed. This guy you’re looking for was probably who they were after. Instead I’m the one that gets treated like the criminal.”

“We’re just trying to get some answers, Nick,” Starsky calmly told him. “We have to cover every angle.”

Nick straightened his jacket. “If you two are finished with me, I have to go talk to Buddy’s family.”

Watching him leave, Starsky sighed heavily. He looked at Hutch. “I thought I was going to do the talking.”

“Holding his hand wasn’t getting us anywhere.”

Hutch started towards the car and Starsky stopped him with a hand to his arm. “He was almost killed tonight, Hutch.”

“Starsky, did it ever occur to you that your brother might be lying?”

“Lying about what?”

“It wouldn’t be the first time.”

“What happened before is in the past. I thought we agreed to give him the benefit of the doubt.”

Hutch pointed a finger at his partner. “That’s what you agreed to. Nicky knows the person we’re looking for and he knew you would believe anything he said.”

“The best we’ve got is a coincidence,” Starsky argued.

“Look at this place, Starsky!” Hutch said raising his voice. “When people come to dine at Rico’s they wear their finest threads and this blond dines wearing old blue jeans!”

“There’s any number of reasons why the guy was here and it doesn’t mean he’s in cahoots with my brother!”

“Okay,” Hutch agreed. “You may be right. Let’s interview some witnesses, get a list of tonight’s clientele and see whose theory holds up.”

Starsky folded his arms and accepted Hutch’s challenge. “And when you’re wrong, you owe Nicky an apology.”

When hell freezes over. Hutch nodded and both men went back to the crime scene.

~*~

Bright and early Monday morning, Starsky and Hutch sat in Captain Dobey’s office to update him on their progress. While Hutch sat and Starsky leaned against the wall near the water cooler, Dobey skimmed their reports. “The two bodies found over the weekend confirmed what you suspected?”

“Yeah,” Hutch agreed. “They were hired muscle for Montoya. They’ve been dead as long as Carlos has been out of town.”

“The only thing you have is a blue-jean-wearing blond making brief appearances,” Dobey stated.

“Hutch and I think he’s the specialist for whoever’s trying to force their way in,” Starsky added. “Getting a line on him is like taking a picture of the invisible man.”

“Huggy’s not your only snitch,” Dobey told them. “Someone has to know something somewhere.”

“There’s Marty,” Hutch offered. “He witnessed the guy putting the screws to Montgomery. I think he’ll tell us where he’ll get his new supply when he runs low.”

“Marty’d sell his own kid,” Starsky muttered.

“He’s been reliable so far and right now he’s our best bet.”

Starsky moved forward and sat down. “Why do you think Huggy hasn’t been able to get anything? Usually he can find out whatever he wants to know.”

“Money or fear…maybe both. Given the right incentive, people will keep their mouth’s shut.” Hutch fingered his mustache thoughtfully. “This guy has managed to keep us guessing every step of the way.”

“That’s the idea, isn’t it?” Starsky asked. “By the time these new players make their move, they’ll be dug in so deep it’ll make it next to impossible to push them out.”

Hutch pushed up from the chair and moved to the window. He had to make this next suggestion and he knew his partner’s feelings on the subject. Taking a steadying breath, Hutch turned around. “We have to stake out the restaurant.”

Starsky was immediately to his feet. “There’s nothing to say that Nicky had anything to do with that shootout, Hutch. You know that.”

“We don’t know that he didn’t, either.” Hutch turned to Dobey. “Huggy says Dearborn might have made the hit on the restaurant. When we went to question him, his housekeeper said that a family emergency called him out of town indefinitely.”

“Does he have an alibi for the shootout?”

Starsky shook his head. “He got on a plane Saturday morning.”

“What have the two of you found out the witnesses and customers at the restaurant?” Dobey questioned.

“Everyone’s coming back clean so far,” Starsky reluctantly admitted. “But there’s nothing to connect Nicky with any of this.”

“Except for the blond,” Hutch reiterated.

Leaning over the desk, Starsky looked into Dobey’s eyes. “Cap’n, Nicky didn’t know a thing. The guy just happened to be there.”

Keeping neutral, Dobey asked, “What about the dead body?”

“He was helping Nicky out,” Starsky said. “He’s got a wife and mother he was taking care of.”

Dobey closed the file and leaned back in his chair. “The staff?”

“We haven’t checked them out,” Hutch answered.

“Why the hell not?” Dobey barked. “It’s SOP. You two know that!” Seeing both men close their mouths, Dobey shook his head. “Run the checks and if anyone of them so much as come up with an unpaid parking ticket, we’ll start staking the place out.”

“Cap’n,” Starsky began.

“Starsky, I know he’s your brother, but we have to treat this investigation no different than any other. The commissioner wants this solved before more suppliers take matters into their own hands.” Seeing his resentful nod, Dobey leaned forward. “Anything else?”

After a brief glance in Hutch’s direction, Starsky looked at Dobey. “Cap’n, I’d like to take Wednesday off.”

“For what?”

Starsky kept his eyes away from Hutch and focused on his captain. “Nicky and I want to take a trip to Monterrey. He’s pretty shaken up over the shootout and that day’s the slowest at the restaurant.”

“Hutchinson?”

Hutch noticeably stiffened. “I can handle things until Starsky’s back.”

Dobey looked to Starsky. “Have the request on my desk today and I’ll sign it.”

“Thanks.”

Hutch strode from the office not waiting for his partner who was slow to follow him.

~*~

In the late evening, Luke escorted Marty through the kitchen of the restaurant to Nick’s office. He sat him down in the chair and stood close by. Nick rocked in his chair and toyed with a cigar. “You’ve got a line on every one of your former supplier’s dealers, don’t you, Marty?”

Marty wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and nodded. “I handled a lot of distribution for Harry.”

Looking out of the corner of his eye, Nick slyly grinned. “How’d you like to do the same for me?”

“Well, I don’t know, Mr. Starsky. Harry always gave me a nice cut.”

“It insures a certain amount of loyalty,” Nick answered. He turned in his chair to face Marty. “I pay very well for loyalty, but I’m a bastard when it comes to being screwed, Marty.”

“If Harry was still around, you could ask him how reliable I am.”

Nick chuckled and finally lit the cigar. “As long as you keep quiet about our little conversation and work hard for me, you’ll be rewarded for it.”

“Sure.” Marty looked up at looming figure next to him, then turned his attention to Nick. “It’s just that since the squeezing of the players started, we’re feeling it on the street.”

“Offer me something, Marty, and you’ll be the first to reap the rewards.”

Marty nervously licked his dry lips and took a deep breath. “There’s a cop.”

Nick’s eyes immediately lifted to Luke then back to Marty. He fished a thick wad of cash out of his jacket and tossed it on the desk.

“He came to see me about who is pushing out the suppliers.”

“Why would he come to you?” Luke asked in a level voice.

Looking up at Luke, Marty began to sweat. “I was there when you torched Harry’s house. Saw you putting the pressure on him.”

After blowing smoke out of his mouth, Nick asked, “Who’s the cop, Marty?”

Marty eyed the wad of bills on the desk. “Blond cop. Goes by the name of Hutchinson.”

“Shit,” Nick muttered.

Luke grabbed Marty by the back of the neck and applied agonizing pressure. “Seems to be goddamn convenient,” Luke bit out. “Hutchinson tracking you down for no reason. How’d he find you?”

“Aagh!” Marty grimaced in pain and couldn’t get away from the bruising grip. “I wanted to get out of a pending charge! I just told him about a blond…I swear!”

“You fucking weasel!” Luke squeezed harder before releasing him. After Marty emitted another squeal of pain he shoved away in disgust and looked at Nick.

Showing no emotion, Nick motioned for Marty to take the cash. The dealer rose and picked it up. “You ever talk to another cop again they’ll be fishing you out of a gutter.”

After Marty had hurried out of the office, Nick slammed his hand on the desk. “Goddamn him!”

“We need to lose Marty,” Luke told him with a steady voice. “He’s too unreliable.”

“Keep the piss ant happy. We need his line to the other dealers.” Nick’s mouth tightened in anger. “It’s that damn Hutchinson. We have to take care of him.”

“Nick, offing a cop is not an option. You know that,” Luke strongly advised.

“No, we won’t kill him. My brother still thinks the bastard is the best thing since sliced bread.” Nick leaned back thoughtfully, then looked up at Luke. “We need to distract him.” After a thought, Nick got to his feet. “No, discredit him.”

An uneasy feeling grew in the bottom of Luke’ gut. “What have you got in mind?”

“Go get Rocky. He spent some time in the pen. I think this will be right up his alley. Whatever we do, it’ll happen when I take my older and stupider brother to Monterrey.”

Luke left the room not liking the gleam in Nick’s eyes. As smart as the man was at times, his overconfidence was bound to work against him eventually. Luke had to find a way to stay on top of it before everything blew up in his face.

~*~

On a chilly and overcast Wednesday morning, Luke, Rocky along with two men sat in an older dark blue car just down the street from Venice Place. Luke kept his focus on the apartment and watched as Hutch returned from his run.

“Let’s take him now,” Rocky suggested.

“You’re such a schmuck, Rocky.” Luke shook his head. “Too much risk of leaving evidence behind. Besides, this place is practically grand central.”

Hearing Rocky’s frustrated sigh, Luke nearly rolled his eyes. The man was entirely too eager for Luke’ tastes. An hour later, Hutch reappeared and headed to his car. They spent the better part of the day discreetly tailing him and Luke was thankful they hadn’t been spotted.

Luke parked the car near the entrance to an alley. Hutch’s car was just within sight and the men observed him talking to a dealer.

“This is as good as place as any,” Rocky commented.

Luke silently agreed and watched the men step out of the car. He took a nervous breath as they approached Hutch. The scuffle was brief and when Luke saw the cop go down, he quickly turned the car into the alley. He stopped just short of Hutch’s car and stepped out. His eyes went over Hutch’s face and took note of the slight red mark near his eye. “You better hope that mark doesn’t stay. This doesn’t work if it looks like he was forced.”

“It won’t,” Rocky confidently replied.

One of the men pulled keys from Hutch’s pocket and headed for the car. Luke finally moved and opened up the rear door while they pulled Hutch over. Once inside, he slammed the door shut and looked at Rocky. “Wipe the car down when we get there.”

“I’m not stupid,” Rocky bit out.

Luke went to the driver’s side and opened the door. While Rocky and one man got in the backseat with Hutch, he watched the third get into Hutch’s car and started it. With the plan already in motion, Luke grudgingly got behind the wheel and followed the vehicle in front of him.

Thirty minutes later, Hutch was dropped onto a dirty bed in a dingy out-of-the-way hotel. After a brief struggle in the car, Rocky had given Hutch a hard hit on the back of the head. Luke saw Rocky near the small desk making the preparations. He strode over and moved him out of the way. “Hey!”

“You’re too goddamn eager,” Luke said keeping his voice even. “Too much could kill him. Get him ready.”

Luke kept his back to the men and methodically prepared the solution. Taking slow and steady breaths, he lit the candle and lifted the spoon over it. While it cooked, he turned his head.

The small shoulder scar was scrutinized. Luke turned his attention back to the task at hand. He slipped the saline from his front pocket and injected a small amount into the poison. He quickly jammed it back and grabbed the syringe. Luke set the needle in the liquid and pulled back on the plunger.

When all the contents filled the hypodermic, he turned. Hutch was almost completely undressed and starting to come around. Rocky grabbed a tourniquet and tightened it around Hutch’s arm. The cop’s lethargic fight was no match for the hands holding him down.

Luke moved to the bed and kneeled next to it. He flicked at the vein and was morbidly fascinated at its rise on his command. He gritted his teeth in determination as he forced the needle through the skin. Pulling back on the plunger ever so slightly, the hypodermic filled with blood, then Luke pushed it and the watered down narcotic into the unwilling body.

The reaction was almost instantaneous. A small groan of pleasure escaped and the body went completely lax. The four men stood over as the heroin had the desired effect.

Luke angrily threw the syringe across the room.

Rocky snickered. “What the hell’s wrong with you?”

“He saw your face. You better hope he doesn’t remember anything.”

“So what if he does?” Rocky shrugged. “Far as any cop is concerned, he’s a junkie. They won’t listen to him once they find him like this.” Rocky retrieved the syringe and set it among the other paraphernalia near Hutch’s holster which held the large weapon. “Cops hate junkies and bein’ one is damn near a fate worse than death.”

“How’d you know, Rocky?” One of the guys asked.

“There was a rumor when I was in the joint.” Rocky dropped another bag of heroin on the desk and turned around. “All we gotta do is make sure this cop’s found and he’ll have a hell of a time trying to explain it all.”

“Just as long as it gives us the time we need,” Luke murmured still looking at Hutch. “I’ll go make the call.”

The four men left the room and while Luke made his phone call, the other three waited in the car for him. When he finished, Luke grimly reminded himself that Nick would be returning with his brother before long.

~*~

How much time had passed, Hutch didn’t know. All he could feel were the slight muscle contractions running through his sluggish body. When he opened his eyes, his blurred vision couldn’t focus. He managed to roll to his side and push up to a sitting position. His head swam with dizziness and his stomach rolled. Hutch swallowed down the burning acid in this throat and clenched his abdomen.

Blinking several times, his vision cleared and Hutch found himself in an unrecognizable room. Dingy yellowed walls, stained carpet and the ragged smell of mold told him little. He got to his feet and staggered to the wall for support. Hutch froze upon seeing the tiny bag of dope sitting next to a used needle with a burned spoon nearby. His gun and holster neatly sat close to the offensive material.

His heart pounded frantically and he suddenly realized he wore no shirt. Hutch left hand went to his arm and his worst fears were realized when he saw the lone needle mark. “Oh, God,” he whispered in dread.

Panicking eyes darted around the room looking for a phone. When none was found, Hutch started for the door. He adjusted his pants before leaving the room. Spotting the pay phone on the wall, Hutch shoved his hand in his pocket and fumbled for a coin. He put the dime in and dialed the only person he could.

~*~

Yawning, Starsky pulled his jacket off. The long day with Nick was trying and getting a shower was his first priority. Hutch was never far from his thoughts and Starsky planned on calling his partner as soon as he cleaned up and had a cold beer. He was almost to the bathroom when the phone rang.

Starsky went to it and picked up the receiver. “Yeah.”

“Starsk.”

“Hutch? You sound weird? Are you sick?”

“Jesus, you…oh, God, Starsk.”

The decrepit voice barely resembled his partner, but Starsky knew it was him. “I’m on my way! Stay put!”

“Not at home,” came the whispered plea.

“Where are you?” Starsky firmly asked.

“I-I don’t know….can’t think clearly.”

“Listen to me, buddy. Look around…what do you see?”

Hutch’s eyes roamed the hallway. “Room 224.”

“You’re in a hotel?”

“I think so.”

“Hutch, you have to tell me the name of it. Can you find out?”

“I d-don’t w-want to leave the phone,” Hutch begged.

Starsky closed his eyes upon hearing the pain in his voice. “Please, Hutch. You have to find out so I can come after you. I’m not going anywhere. I’ll be here till you come back.”

“’K,” came the resigned voice.

It seemed an eternity had passed and Starsky tightly clenched the phone. He breathed a sigh of relief when he heard the fumbling on the other end. “It’s the Fairmont.”

“Fairmont?” How in the hell did Hutch wind up way out there? “You get in that room and stay put, Hutch. I’m coming, buddy.”

“Please hurry, Starsky.”

“Just hold tight.” Starsky hung up the phone and grabbed his jacket as he ran from his apartment.

~*~

Sagging against the wall, Hutch hung up the phone. He closed his eyes and breathed a heavy sigh of relief. Starsky’s coming. Everything will be fine now. He pushed away from the wall and managed to get into the room. He picked up his shirt and started to slip it on.

The heroin from the desk screamed at him and Hutch moved back until his back was to the wall. Loud thundering footsteps above startled him and he slid down the wall at the muffled yelling. Cops! Hutch closed his eyes and covered his ears. God, Starsky has to find me! Not them!

~*~

When Starsky laid eyes on the Fairmont, he was surprised the place could even stay open. The decrepit hotel was four stories tall and as he walked through the lobby he ignored the worn-out hookers and desolate looking drunks. He took the stairs two at a time and soon found the room Hutch was in.

He hesitated briefly wondering what shape Hutch was in and how he came to be here. Starsky knocked. “Hutch, it’s me!” When no answer came, Starsky forced the door open with his shoulder.

He stopped dead in his tracks at the sight of Hutch on the floor. The shirt halfway covered him and seeing the glassy red eyes was a kick to Starsky’s gut. The frightened look in Hutch’s eyes tore at his heart.

“I’m sorry,” Hutch raggedly cried. “I’m sorry.”

The heart wrenching plea in Hutch’s voice prompted Starsky to move and he immediately went to him. He gently pulled him close. “It’s okay, babe. I got ya’.”

Hutch latched onto Starsky and buried his face into the soft leather jacket. “I don’t know what happened…I’m just so sorry.”

Starsky pulled back and looked at Hutch. “We’ll figure it out later, Hutch. Let’s get you home.”

After an uncertain nod, Starsky glanced around the room and his eyes went to the desk. He stood up and slowly walked over. All the evidence was there, but it made little sense. Starsky swore to get to the bottom of it as he grabbed Hutch’s gun. He went back to his partner and helped him to his feet. “Come on, buddy. Time to go home.”

When they got to the car, Hutch gratefully leaned against it. “Your home, Starsky. I want to go there.”

“Anything you want.” Starsky opened the car door and assisted Hutch inside. He hurried to the other side and in less than a minute, he was speeding down the highway.

~*~

Starsky guided Hutch through the door of his apartment and after closing it, Hutch mumbled. Catching his meaning and seeing the pale face, Starsky quickly led him to the bathroom. Hutch dropped to his knees and vomited into the toilet. Listening to his agonizing partner, Starsky grabbed a washcloth and wet it with cool water.

When Hutch finished, Starsky wiped his face and mouth. “Can you make it to the bed?”

“Guess I’ll have to,” Hutch hoarsely answered. He pushed to his feet with Starsky’s help and made it to the bedroom.

Starsky sat him down and helped remove his clothes. He laid Hutch down on the bed and covered his shaking body. “I’ll get you some coffee.”

Hutch grabbed onto Starsky’s arm. “I don’t need it. Just stay close by.”

With a faint smile, Starsky took Hutch’s hand. “I’m not going anywhere, partner.” He straightened and after removing his holster, Starsky pulled his shirt off. He kicked his shoes off and crawled into the bed next to Hutch. He pulled him close and rubbed his hands over Hutch’s trembling form. “How’s that?”

“Better.” Hutch closed his eyes and relished the safety of Starsky’s arms. “Warmer.”

“Close your eyes and sleep, Hutch.”

“Can’t,” he whispered. “Still feeling it. Not as bad as last time.”

“What do you mean?”

“When I first woke up, I was a little high…not that much. I started shaking not long after and I’ve only had a few cramps.”

“Doesn’t sound like you got hit with a whole lot.”

Hutch grasped Starsky’s hand and held it tightly. “Scared the hell out of me when I woke up and spotted the heroin.”

“Do you remember anything?”

“No.” Hutch closed his eyes but the faces were blurry. “Last thing I remember is talking to one of the dealers near Huggy’s. I was heading there next.”

A cramp convulsed through Hutch and Starsky held him closer. “Easy…I got you, babe.”

When it passed, Hutch let the wind out of his lungs. “Doesn’t even come close.”

Starsky ran his hand up Hutch’s arm to his shoulder. He leaned in and Hutch flinched when his head touched the back of his partner’s. “Sorry.” Looking closer at the back of Hutch’s head, Starsky lightly touched it and found a distinct bump. Hutch flinched a second time. “Do you remember how you got that?”

“Must’ve fallen.”

“Jumped more than likely,” Starsky softly replied.

“Tell me about today?”

Starsky almost grinned. “Why?”

“I need something else to think about.”

“After we got out of the city, I took the coastal route. I always loved that drive. It’s even better in a convertible, Hutch.”

“You talked about trading the Torino off for a convertible but never had it in you.”

“Maybe it’ll do for a second car.” Starsky smiled at Hutch’s soft chuckle. “It’s a nice restaurant. Not as nice as the one Nicky manages, but the view is worth it. It’s got a perfect view of the ocean and the rocks with it. It’s majestic. I could spend hours just looking at it.”

“And the job?”

Starsky rested his chin on Hutch’s shoulder. “Thought about it all the way home. I’m not taking it, Hutch.”

“Take it because you want it, Starsky,” Hutch shakily encouraged. “Don’t hold back because of me.”

“To be honest, I haven’t quite figured out if I want to stay a cop, but moving away isn’t it. My home’s here, Hutch, and I don’t want to leave it or you.”

The words brought a lump to Hutch’s tight throat. He blinked back the tears and pulled Starsky’s arm tighter around him. “I’m glad.”

“Think you can sleep now?” After a childlike nod, Starsky brushed the strands of hair from Hutch’s face. “Good.”

Still holding to Hutch, Starsky allowed his eyes to close. He suddenly remembered he never got his shower or beer, but didn’t care. This was all that counted.

~*~

The next morning, Hutch showed no outward signs of his ordeal. Much to Starsky’s chagrin and relief, his partner was as close to normal as anyone could get. While Hutch was in the shower, Starsky picked up the phone and dialed.

“Hello.”

“Nicky, it’s me.”

“Davy! I was planning on coming to see you today.”

“Today’s no good.”

“Why’s that?”

“Oh, work stuff.” Starsky glanced at the bathroom door. “I called to tell you that I’m not taking that job, Nicky.”

“Davy, it’s a damn good job and not one that comes around very often. You need to think about it some more.”

Starsky hated the disappointment in his voice and slumped onto the couch. “I have. I don’t think I’m cut out for a job like that and besides, I don’t want to move.”

“If this is about Hutch…”

“It’s not just Hutch, Nick. This is my home. If it’s any consolation, I am thinking about quitting. The job isn’t what it used to be and maybe after this case we’re working on is wrapped up, I’ll have a better idea.”

“I really thought you’d take it after going up there.”

“I did, too.” Starsky played with the phone cord. “Don’t be mad, huh?”

“I’m not. Disappointed, yes. Maybe a little Jewish guilt is in order. Want to meet for lunch today?”

“Can’t. Me and Hutch have to make some serious headway on this case or Dobey’ll have us scrubbing out the backs of patrol cars.”

“Sure, Davy. I’ll see you later.”

Hearing the regret in Nick’s voice almost changed Starsky’s mind. “Yeah, bye.”

Starsky set the phone aside and looked up as the bathroom door opened. Hutch stepped out wearing Starsky’s robe with a towel around his shoulders. “Who were you talking to?”

“Nicky. He wasn’t too pleased about me turning down that job.”

Hutch shrugged his shoulders. “He’ll get over it.” Seeing the pensive look on Starsky’s face, Hutch moved to the far end of the couch. “What’s wrong?”

“Nicky sounded down. Maybe I should meet him at lunch today.”

“If we don’t turn up something soon on this case, Dobey will filet our hides.”

Starsky patted the seat next to him. “Have a seat, Hutch. Since you’ve got it together now, we can figure out what the hell happened yesterday.”

Hutch obeyed. “I don’t remember anything. Just meeting a snitch about possible new suppliers.”

“Can we be getting that close?”

“Maybe. When I was waiting for you, I heard cops upstairs. Directly over the room I was in.”

“We’re damn lucky they didn’t find you.”

“Yeah,” Hutch said unconvinced. “If they had found me, it would’ve cost us this case and possibly my career.”

“They got the wrong room number, then. It was a set-up from the word go but we’re no closer to finding out who.”

“As far as we know,” Hutch pointedly replied. “It could be right under our noses.”

“The only one that’s given us anything is Marty. Let’s track him down and scare the shit out of him.” Starsky squeezed Hutch’s leg and stood. “You ready, partner?”

Seeing Starsky’s confidence boosted Hutch’s morale considerably. Having all those familiar and overwhelming torrent wild highs crashing against the withdrawal had taken Hutch back to a place he thought was long dead.

As he dressed, memories of being jumped in the house by the canal wouldn’t relinquish their place in his mind. Hutch was putting his holster on as he recalled that horrible night. He felt like he was moving in slow motion as another unfamiliar scene played out in his head. A face jumped out at Hutch and he almost dropped his gun.

He looked over at Starsky who was immersed in the morning paper. Hutch grasped his gun and secured it in place. The face was now etched permanently in his mind, then it dawned on him where he had seen it before. “Starsk.”

“Yeah.”

“I have to run an errand this morning. I nearly forgot about it till just now.”

“Want me to take you?”

Hutch clipped the strap to his belt. “Just drop me off at my car and I’ll meet you at Huggy’s for lunch.”

Starsky stood and went to Hutch. “It’s at the Fairmont.”

“I know.” Hutch reassured Starsky by a gentle touch on his arm. “It’ll be okay. I promise.”

With those two words, Starsky’s implicit trust returned. He nodded and both men headed out the door.

~*~

Nick rubbed his eyes and moved to the bar in his apartment. As he made himself a drink, he glanced at Luke. “Quit your bellyaching. He doesn’t know a thing and even if he did, he can’t very well tell anyone. He’d have to admit he was stoned out of his gourd.”

“He doesn’t have to tell anyone, Nick.” Luke went to the bar. “It gives him a lead which is all he needs.”

After taking a large drink, Nick set the glass down. “And when the lawyer asks him how he came into this information, he’ll have to admit it was due to a drug-induced high. Relax, Luke. You worry more than my mother.”

“All this has done is antagonize an already touchy situation, Nick. One more stunt…”

“Don’t threaten me,” Nick lethally warned. “You answer to me and I answer to Tony. Don’t forget who is in charge around here!”

Before Luke could say a word, the phone rang. Nick picked it up. “Yeah…He is?...send him up.” He hung up. “Hutch is on his way up. Get in the bedroom and I’ll get rid of him.

Luke did as he was told all the while giving Nick a hard look. He closed the door, but kept it cracked open so he could listen.

Nick downed the remnants of his drink and went to the door. He opened it and held it open for Hutch. “Come on in, Hutch.”

Hutch’s eyes wandered around the room as he moved inside. He turned to face Nick. “You surprised to see me, Nick?”

“Since my brother’s not with you, I am.” Nick folded his arms. “What’s this about?”

“No bullshitting for old time’s sake?”

Nick sarcastically chuckled and shook his head. “Like my brother, I don’t beat around the bush.”

“Let’s start with your sudden relocation.” Hutch went to the couch and sat down. “It wasn’t long after you started your high-end job that drug suppliers started dropping out of the city like flies. One of them got pissed at your tactics and trying to squeeze them out that they came after you.”

Busting out laughing, Nick leaned against the mantel. “Jesus, Hutch! Why not just accuse me the second gunman on the grassy knoll while you’re at it.”

“It makes perfect sense, Nick. You’ve got the history and the ambition.” Hutch pushed from the couch and moved in front of Nick. “You’ve also got pals like Tony Marcano with enough cash and muscle that can set you up with your own piece of the pie.”

Nick folded his arms and stared defiantly in Hutch’s eyes. “If that’s so, how come I’m not spread-eagled against the wall?”

“It’s only a matter of time,” Hutch softly swore.

Casually moving away from Hutch, Nick headed to the bar. As he made another drink, he said, “Tell me, Hutch. Does my brother know you’re here?” When Hutch said nothing, Nick continued on with a smirk. “That’s because he won’t buy into your bullshit story anymore than anyone else will. You may think you’ve got him wrapped around your finger, but Davy knows how important family is. He’d never make a move against me even if it is one of your fantasies.”

“If you know anything about how we work, you know that I operate on an entirely different level than Starsky does. He’s completely by the book, but I like to stretch and bend the rules, Nick. Getting the bad guys off the street doesn’t always work by his black and white view of the world. That’s why he steps aside for me.”

The last words were not lost on Nick and he approached Hutch with a different tactic. “You sure as hell wouldn’t do the same for him.”

Hutch started for Nick, then stopped. Hearing the snide laughter from the so-called innocent little brother made his blood boil.

“He’s the one that got chewed up by those bullets.” Nick carried his drink towards Hutch and stopped a few feet away. “I know what he told me and Ma. In my book, you failed him and it damn near cost him his life. We not only wanted him to take that job just to get him off the street, I wanted him to take it to get away from you!”

“You’ll have to do better than a job he never wanted in the first place,” Hutch coldly replied.

“You’re no good for him, Hutchinson!” Nick loudly proclaimed. “I’ll prove it to him!”

“How? By setting up a scene that couldn’t even pass for a high school production?” Hutch shook his head and the smile he wore didn’t show in his angrily glittering eyes. “You already tried that. Next time get the room number right, but I doubt it’d work even then.” Hutch headed for the door and opened it. He turned his head. “I can promise you this, Nick. You’re going down and the stretch you’ll be doing will be a cakewalk compared to what your brother will do once he sees you for what you really are.”

The door slammed shut with Nick still standing in the middle of the room. He tightly gripped the half-empty glass and violently hurled it against the wall with an angry yell. When he turned, Luke was coming out of the bedroom. “Kill the son of a bitch!” Nick bit out between gritted teeth.

“No!” Luke blurted out. “We kill him and we might as well kiss the whole operation goodbye!”

“I don’t give a goddamn!” Nick stopped and took an even breath. “If he’s out of the way, my brother will be, too. He’ll be so fucking upset I’ll step in to comfort him.”

“Nick,” Luke said more calmly. “Think about this. Killing a cop brings the kind of attention Tony doesn’t like. You know that.”

Nick rounded on Luke. “If you won’t do it, I know a few people who will. Rocky’s looking to make a name for himself.”

“Fine!” Luke replied a little more strongly than he intended. “I’ll do it. God knows Rocky will fuck it up.”

“You’re damn good, Luke, and I’ve got faith in you. Once it’s done, there’ll be an extra bonus in it for you.”

Luke solemnly nodded and as he drove out of the parking lot, he tightly gripped the steering wheel. Time was running out and so were his options.

~*~

The remainder of the day was spent with Starsky trying to run down Marty and Hutch working through the makes on the staff working at the restaurant. His discussion with Nick weighed heavily in his mind, but Hutch needed more before he could put his suspicions before Starsky.

He finally caught a break when Minnie handed him a record. Hutch opened it up and the face glaring back at him was the same man who had jumped him, who he remembered at the restaurant on his first visit and the same man who had served time in the state penitentiary. It was the link he needed and while Hutch was relieved, the tension in his neck went up a notch at the idea of confronting Starsky with this new information.

Starsky called in with little success and Hutch asked that they hook up for dinner. With an offer of pizza at his place, Hutch agreed. He hid the file at the bottom of the stack with the intention of handing it over to Dobey first thing in the morning.

During the drive to Starsky’s, Hutch mentally rehearsed a new speech. Rather than open up about his feelings, he had to tell Starsky about Nick. He would have preferred to face a firing squad, but his partner had to prepare himself for the backlash. Once Nick was in jail, Starsky would be faced with the unenviable task of telling his mother, dealing with IA, not to mention the press with such a headline glaring as ‘Detective Busts Own Brother’. His partner would need him more than ever now.

Even knowing what was to come, Hutch managed to somewhat enjoy himself with Starsky. The lighthearted banter was reminiscent of their old days and they argued over the ending of a movie they had watched together.

The pizza box lay empty on the coffee table and both men relaxed on the couch with beers in their hand. Hutch knew the time was now and there was no getting around it. “How you doing?” he asked.

“I should be asking you,” Starsky reminded him. “You recover okay?”

“Yeah,” Hutch gently replied. “A tremor now and then. I’m fine.”

“Good.” Starsky smiled. “Don’t let me get too close to the asshole that’s responsible.”

That asshole is your brother, was on the tip of Hutch’s tongue. He leaned forward and set the beer down. “I remembered a face.”

“You did? That’s great! Tomorrow we’ll hit the mug books…”

“His name is Rocky Moreno.” Hutch rubbed his eyes. “He served time at the state pen for assaulting a cop. He got out three years ago.”

“He knew Forest?”

“I don’t know. If he didn’t, he might have heard about it. Forest was always a braggart.”

“Did Dobey put an APB out on him?”

Hutch shook his head. “I haven’t told him yet.”

“Hutch, I know he’ll be pissed we didn’t tell him about this in the first place…”

“That’s not the reason, Starsk.” Hutch’s rigid statement stopped Starsky from saying another word. “When the makes on the restaurant staff were done, his was one of them.”

Starsky slowly stood and went to the window. “You’re saying he works for Nicky.”

“Yeah,” Hutch solemnly answered. “I spotted him at the restaurant the night we ate there and when I remembered, I wanted to check it out before saying anything.”

“Nicky probably doesn’t know,” Starsky softly guessed.

Planting his hands on his knees, Hutch pushed up from the couch. “Nick probably knows more than what he’s willing to admit.”

Turning, Starsky incredulously looked at Hutch. “Nicky would never have anything to do with what happened to you, Hutch. He’s not like that.”

“Starsky, it’s all starting to add up. The shootout, the blond at the restaurant and now this. You’ve got to admit that…”

“I don’t have to admit nothing!” Starsky declared. “It’s not even circumstantial!”

“I know this isn’t what you wanted to hear.”

“Its bullshit is what it is! Nicky’s done some stupid shit, but kidnapping you and pumping you full of stuff ain’t it!”

Hutch walked over to his partner and looked into his eyes. “He’s got a history, Starsk.”

“One you won’t let go of!” Starsky marched to the fridge and pulled out a beer. “Nicky screwed up, Hutch. He knew it and he was damn lucky to even be able to go back home after it was over. He wouldn’t risk his life being this stupid.”

After a steadying breath, Hutch moved to stand in front of Starsky. “Maybe he shouldn’t have been able to go back home. You took the heat for him and got him off the hook. By all rights he should’ve at least served a year.”

“This doesn’t have anything to do with the matter at hand.”

“It’s got everything to do with it! He knew you’d pull his ass out of the fire and he knows that you’d never believe he’d be responsible for any of this.”

“Jesus Christ, Hutch! Nicky’s not some goddamn drug lord!”

“He’s well on his way,” Hutch shot back.

“You’re out of line!”

“It didn’t stop you from telling me my dead girlfriend was a hooker with her body lying less than a foot away.”

Starsky raised his hand in warning. “This is not the same and you know it.”

“All I know is that everything we’ve dug up is pointing to Nick, your brother, to being the new supplier who’s on the verge of starting a drug war.”

Turning away from Hutch, Starsky set the bottle on the counter. “Go home, Hutch.”

“Starsk..”

“I mean it. Go home and let me think.”

The unmovable stance of Starsky told Hutch now was the time to back off. He knew pushing him harder would only serve to get him knocked on his ass. Hutch silently left the apartment.

~*~

With a tired sigh, Hutch unlocked the door and stepped inside. He flipped the light on and as soon as he saw the figure sitting in a chair next to the couch, he pulled his gun and aimed it directly at the man.

With hands up, the man said, “Hey, I give up already. Don’t shoot.”

Hutch heard the mock laughter in his voice and his eyes widened at the sight of the blond wearing faded ripped jeans with a matching jacket. “Up,” he ordered.

Keeping his hands raised, Luke slowly rose. “Trust me. I’m not the bad guy here.”

“Go to the back of the couch.” When he didn’t move, Hutch raised his magnum higher. “Now!”

Shaking his head, Luke did as Hutch directed and planted his hands on the back of the couch. He heard Hutch’s approach behind him and remained still. His legs were kicked farther apart and Luke bit his tongue as he was quickly frisked. His gun was pulled from the holster and set aside. Before he could say another word, a cuff snapped onto one wrist. “Wait a sec!” With both hands cuffed behind his back, Luke was led to the chair and seated. His eyes widened when Hutch headed to the phone. “You don’t want to do that!”

“Didn’t anyone tell you that cops are supposed to arrest criminals?” Hutch picked up the receiver.

“I’m not a criminal, Hutchinson.”

“I guess I shouldn’t be surprised you know my name.”

“I’m telling you the truth,” Luke told him. “I even brought my ID.”

“ID?”

“I’m DEA.”

Hutch kept hold of the receiver and derisively chuckled. “DEA, huh? If you’re DEA, then I’m CIA.”

Luke got to his feet even though Hutch raised his gun. “Right back pocket.”

With nothing to lose at this point, Hutch walked over and removed the small wallet. He opened it up and sure enough identification confirmed Luke’ claims. “Luke Braddock.”

“Currently it’s Turner.”

“This could be a fake.”

Luke sat down and looked up. “Inside the inner pocket is a card. Bob Franklin is my supervisor. He’ll confirm it, but if you do it could blow my cover. He’s not expecting my call for another week at least.”

Hutch pulled out the card and shoved it back inside after reading it. He tossed the wallet onto the coffee table next to a bottle of scotch he hadn’t seen before. Hutch picked it up and inspected the bottle. “Are you trying to offer a truce?”

“Let’s just say I was hoping to explain everything over a drink.”

After setting the bottle back down, Hutch sat on the couch and made no move to remove the cuffs. “I can’t wait to hear your story.”

“A little over a year ago…”

“That long?” Hutch asked cynically.

“Do you mind letting me finish before offering your commentary?” After a raise of the hand, Luke continued. “I was asked to be a part of a two-prong operation. I worked the Miami end while a friend of mine was in New York. With the heavy traffic coming out of Miami we figured we could kill two birds with one stone. He had a solid cover inside of Marcano’s organization.”

“Tony Marcano?”

“Yep, the same. Apparently Marcano wasn’t too happy with the goings on in your fair city and sent in someone to deal with Stryker.”

“Nicky,” Hutch muttered. “It doesn’t make sense. He practically fell face-first into the Stryker affair by accident.”

“Stryker was getting too greedy and was working to expand without family approval. While he got most of money from his current operations at the time, the bulk of his support came out of New York. Tony found out the feds were all over Stryker which means unwanted attention. He sent Nick in to fuck it all up like a regular Gomer Pyle.”

Hutch ran his hand through his hair. “That’s exactly what happened including the deaths of two agents.”

“It was non-sanctioned by the families. They look down on anybody that’s willing to risk so much over something that could’ve been handled with good lawyers and a few comfortable years behind bars.”

“Stryker was killed in a knife fight before he even made it to his arraignment.”

“You shouldn’t have been surprised.”

“We weren’t actually.” Hutch rubbed his tired eyes. “We just hoped he’d be willing to make a deal. How did Marcano find out about the feds?”

Luke’ expression turned grim. “An inside job. It’s how my buddy’s cover was blown. He was killed.” When Hutch kept his silence, Luke went on. “That’s when I volunteered. The plan was to bury my file in the JD record banks and give me a new identity. I became Luke Turner: freelance security.”

“Something that gives you plenty of room to work with few rules to follow.”

“That’s how I’ve gotten this far. I can push it to the limit and as long as I stay in the background, I can move about freely with few people to answer to.”

“So how’d you wind up out here working for Nicky?”

Luke leaned forward. “Do you mind? These damn things are killing me.”

Having second thoughts, Hutch almost said no. He stood and removed the cuffs. He watched the young agent rub his aching wrists and stretch his arms. “Answer the question.”

“After Stryker’s organization was leveled, Tony decided to take advantage. When some time had passed and people had moved on with their lives, Tony sent in Nick to run the operation.”

“Nick’s never been smart enough to pull something like this off,” Hutch argued.

“Nick Starsky’s got more brains than any of us give him credit for. Plus the fact, Tony sees him as the little brother he never had. While I was busy earning my stripes with Tony, Nicky was learning the tools of the trade. I got here not long after Nick and started to work.”

“What exactly are Tony and Nick doing?”

“Exactly what you think they’re doing. I’m laying the groundwork so they’ll have free reign to sell as much cocaine as they can and maybe some heroin to boot. The plan is to be settled in deep enough that no matter what, they’ll continue to do business. I still don’t know the entire layout. Nick’s had some meetings I haven’t been a part of. When the footwork is finished, Tony will bring a major shipment of coke in, congratulate Nick for a job well done, and bless him with a nice corner of the drug market.”

“And that’s when you make your move.” At Luke’ nod Hutch stood and went to the window. “So nice of you and your agency to run an operation this big without letting the locals in on it.”

Luke leaned back. “Too risky. We’re ready to move on Marcano in New York, but if we do, everything here will collapse. With what I’ve gotten already, by the time Marcano makes delivery we’ll have made a major impact on the drug trade.”

“And such nice publicity the DEA will get out of such an operation.” Hutch shook his head and kept staring out at the darkened street. “You can’t do this alone.”

“I’ll give you that, but letting anyone else in on it other than you is out of the question.”

“Why’s that?” Hutch tiredly asked.

“You already know the answer.”

Hutch sharply turned. “There’s no way I’ll keep Starsky in the dark.”

Luke stood and squared off with Hutch. “You don’t like it and neither do I, but we both know he’s a liability when it comes to his brother.”

“Bullshit! Starsky will do his job!”

“Will he? He let Nick off the hook quick enough the last time.”

“You know about that?”

“I sure as hell made sure I knew everything before I took this assignment.” The tension left Luke’ shoulders and he dropped his arms. “Listen, the stakes in this thing are getting higher everyday. All I need is enough leeway to let this shipment happen. Once we have Tony making a deal with the drugs in his possession, we’ll be free to move in.”

“You’re taking a hell of a risk by coming here. Why?”

“I’m running out of options. Nick’s too damn close to blowing the whole thing. He’s the wildcard and as long as I let him think he’s calling the shots, he’s manageable.” Luke glanced nervously at Hutch and eased his hands in his pockets. “I need your help, Hutch.”

“With what?”

“Before we go any further, I have to tell you something.” Luke considered moving to the other side of the room but remained in place. “What happened to you yesterday…it was me.”

Their eyes met and when the realization hit Hutch he reared his fist back and it landed directly on Luke’ jaw. Luke landed flat on his back a few feet away. He rolled to his side and got to his feet keeping hold of his aching jaw. “Yeah,” Luke breathed. “I deserved that.”

“And more!” Hutch venomously stated. “I don’t give a damn who you work for, what you did was assault an officer not to mention it’s the lowest thing a human can do to another!”

Luke leaned against the couch trying to get his bearings. “I won’t argue with that, but if there’d been any way out of it, I sure as hell would have taken it.” He went to the coffee table and picked up the bottle of scotch. While Luke opened it, Hutch headed to the kitchen. He returned with two glasses. Luke poured the liquor as he talked. “Rocky was the brains behind that one and Nick practically got a hard on just thinking about it.”

“I can imagine,” Hutch dryly responded. He took a small drink and watched Luke taking a large one. “Why’d he do it?”

Not looking up from his glass, Luke said, “Marty rolled over on you for just a few bucks. The idea was to discredit you and give you something to keep you off our backs.”

“It wasn’t a wrong room number, was it? It was you.”

“I had two choices. Blow my cover or ruin your career. Both left a bad taste in my mouth and I hoped I could buy enough time to get everything in place.” Luke downed the scotch and took a deep breath. “Rocky would’ve given you enough to keep you flying for at least half a day. I diluted it in hopes you wouldn’t get a hankering for more and gave the cops the wrong room number.”

“I don’t know whether to thank you or kick your ass some more.”

Luke straightened and grabbed the liquor bottle. “Kicking my ass might make me feel better.”

“So get around to the real reason you’re here.”

After pouring more of the liquid, Luke grabbed his glass. “I was in the bedroom today when you paid Nick a visit. I’ve got to say, Hutch, you’ve been on his shit list since I’ve been here.”

“Probably longer,” Hutch added. “As far as Nick is concerned, I’m in the way of him having a closer relationship with Starsky.”

“In more ways than you know.” Nick took a drink. “Not only did you put most of it together, you also are the one standing in Nick’s way to getting his brother back but also so he can be a major player.”

“You don’t think he’d…”

“Yeah,” Luke gravely confirmed. “I tried to talk him out of it. He said if I didn’t do it, he’d get Rocky to do the job.”

“Jesus,” Hutch said in a low voice. He rubbed his temple. “Stupid Nicky.”

“It’d be a hell of a lot easier if he was,” Luke muttered. Standing up, he shoved his hands in his jeans. He moved to the middle of the room. “With you out of the way, he’ll feel confident enough to operate.”

“Surely he knows what Starsky would do if I’m dead. He wouldn’t stop until he nailed the people responsible for my untimely demise.”

“With as little evidence you two had in the first place, it’d be long enough for the shipment to come in. Nick knows there would be nothing to connect him to your death. He’s under the impression that it would also work to his advantage in getting closer to his brother.”

Hutch morosely shook his head. “Offer a comforting shoulder for Starsky to cry on.”

“That’s the plan.” Luke watched the tense muscles working back and forth in the detective’s jaw. He realized he was holding his breath and slowly let it out.

“Starsky’s not going to take this new bit of information well.”

“You can’t tell him.”

A bark of laughter escaped Hutch and he moved to his feet. “You don’t get it, Braddock. I tell my partner everything.”

“Placating Nick and his stupid whims is the only thing that’s kept this thing going up to this point. If he even suspects your partner is being anything other than what he expects him to be, we’ll lose a year’s work.”

“Starsky’s a damn good cover cop.”

“I don’t doubt that, but this is his brother we’re dealing with and he’s got some brains in that head of his. I won’t risk it.”

“What’s the point of this visit anyways?” Hutch asked raising his voice. “You said you needed my help and it won’t happen without my partner!”

“It can. I need you dead, Hutch.”

The simple statement silenced Hutch. He picked up the bottle and poured more scotch. Taking the glass, he carried it into the greenhouse. He sipped the harsh liquid and heard the soft footsteps of the DEA agent behind him. “You think faking my death is the only course of action at this point.”

“Just keeping Nick from going off half-cocked is a fulltime job. If he thinks you’re out of the way, he’ll feel confident enough to call Tony and set up the shipment. When it’s done, he and Tony are behind bars, you can come back to life and everyone’s happy.”

“Everyone except for Starsky. You’re talking about me lying to him plus the fact his brother giving him a snow-job for the record books.” Hutch shook his head and turned. Luke held the scotch and his glass. “Forget it.”

“If Nick sees him being anything but a partner in mourning, he’ll shut down and play the part of innocent restaurant manager. We’ll have egg all over our face and we lose our shot for who knows how long. With the kind of time Nick will be looking at, he’ll roll on Tony to shorten his prison stay. We need him no matter how much we hate the little cocksucker.”

It all made perfect sense, but what Luke was proposing was crazy. Faking his death would get this case moving along and if everything the DEA agent was saying was true, it would be closed in just a matter of days. Could he put Starsky through that? “No,” Hutch whispered.

“Hutch,” Luke began.

“Do you have any idea what you’re asking me to do?” Hutch roughly asked.

“Lie to your partner and put him through about a week of hell,” Luke softly answered. “I’m out of choices and if you don’t go through with this, Nick keeps on operating and we lose our shot.”

Hutch moved to a chair and sat. “I’ve already gone to Starsky with my suspicions. He’ll want to confront Nick with what I’ve found so far.”

Luke crossed over and sat down across from him. He filled his and Hutch’s glass before setting the bottle down. “What’d you find out?”

“Rocky Moreno’s got a record and I recognized him from the restaurant and as one of the men that jumped me in the alley.”

“Damn,” Luke muttered. “With that and my hazy description Marty gave you it’s enough to investigate Nick.”

“I can’t see not telling Starsky about any of this.”

Torn loyalties were all over Hutch’s face and Luke now realized how much damage this case was costing. “Nick’s dangerous, Hutch. He has no qualms in doing whatever it takes to succeed. I think he’d go after his own brother if he thought he stood in the way.”

With a bitter laugh, Hutch took a large drink. “You sure as hell present a convincing argument.” He set the glass down. “I’m actually going to agree to this asinine scheme.”

“We need to move quickly.”

“How soon?”

“Tomorrow. I want to put on a show for Nick. He’s got to see it happen in order for him to relax and stick to the plan.” After downing the remainder of the liquor, Luke tightly held the glass. “I’ve got a room at a motel not far from the airport and you’ll stay there until this thing is wrapped up. Pack as little as possible. It can’t look like you went on vacation.”

“I’m not a goddamn rookie,” Hutch bit out.

Luke set the glass down and moved to his feet. “I’ll be by early in the morning to go over the details with you.”

Hutch continued to sit in the darkness after Luke had left. It was an entirely new ballgame and Hutch didn’t see the good guys coming out ahead in this one. The costs were going to be far more than what anyone was prepared for. Trying to imagine Starsky dealing with his death rationally was impossible. The more he thought about it, the more he realized that Starsky would go after whoever was responsible for his supposed death like a wild man.

With determination Hutch hurried to his feet and went to the phone. He picked up the receiver, then changed his mind. No, there’s another way, he realized. He wasn’t about to let his partner languish for a week.

~*~

True to his word, Luke returned just before dawn. With the little sleep Hutch had gotten during the night, he was surprised at his own alertness. As he listened to the young agent, he couldn’t help but imagine the devastation on Starsky’s face. His gut was ripping in two. Going along with the plan went against Hutch’s instincts and he shoved his misgivings aside in hopes that in the long run it was worth it.

After Luke was gone, Hutch carefully dressed. He picked his most comfortable brown cords and while searching for a shirt, he came across the light blue one with the embroidered guitar on the back. Starsky always liked the shirt and he grinned while slipping it on. He sighed when it became apparent it was too tight around the chest. After hanging it up, Hutch settled on a dark blue one. He finished dressing and checked his appearance in the mirror before leaving.

When Hutch arrived at the station, he caught a glimpse of the fiery Torino in the parking lot. He parked in the far corner and hurried inside. Hutch walked through the squad room door and smiled at seeing his other half hunched over a report. “Starsk.” When his partner looked up, Hutch said, “Can I talk to you for a minute?”

Without saying a word, Starsky rose and followed Hutch out to the hallway. They moved to the end of the corridor and Hutch leaned in. “About last night…”

“Not another word, Hutch,” Starsky said in a low voice. “You came to me with something and I didn’t want to hear it. I still think you’re wrong, but I shouldn’t have come down on you for being honest with me.”

The pressure of the guilt was immediate and Hutch felt his shoulders lower. “I came on like gangbusters and I’m sorry, buddy.”

Starsky softly grinned and lightly touched Hutch’s arm. “Enough apologies already.”

Hutch wished he could feel better about what was ahead, but he couldn’t. The urge to cup Starsky’s cheek and kiss away any future pain was strong. Instead, he nodded.

“Look at you,” Starsky tenderly exclaimed with a smile. “Who dressed you this morning?” He reached over and gently pulled the collar of Hutch’s shirt under the tight grasp of the delicate gold chain with the star and moon.

The tantalizing touch of Starsky’s fingers along his skin sent warm shivers of delight. Hutch wished it would last longer and he hoped he wasn’t blushing at the careful attention Starsky was paying to him. “If you’re finished dressing me, maybe we should get to work.”

The cheeky grin brought a flush of tenderness to Hutch’s heart and he pulled Starsky down the hallway.

“I was thinking that we should talk to Nicky about this Rocky Moreno. We’ve got to see what he’s has to say about it,” Starsky told him.

“I think so, too. I didn’t want to push it.”

“We’ve got a job to do, Hutch. That’s gotta come first.” Starsky pushed the squadroom door open with his shoulder and held it while his partner walked through.

“We can go after lunch.”

Starsky reached his desk and grabbed the leather jacket. “Let’s get it done now. I won’t think about anything else until after we talk to him.”

It was on the tip of his tongue to fight it. Hutch lamely nodded and followed Starsky out to the car. “Let’s take mine today.” Starsky rolled his eyes and Hutch swore his partner’s shoulders dropped another foot. “Don’t be that way. She just got a tune-up.”

“That means it got cleaned this time.” Starsky went to the passenger side and leaned over. He cupped his hands around his eyes and peered through the window. “Well, some.”

Hutch opened the driver’s side door. “Quit your bitching. You nag worse than anybody I know.”

Starsky clamped his mouth shut and got in the car. He looked at Hutch behind the wheel. “When are you going to get around to telling me what’s been going on in that blond head of yours?”

With a nervous light chuckle, Hutch lightly touched his necklace. “You think there’s something going on?”

“You might as well wear a sign when you’re wrestling with a problem.”

“I didn’t realize I was that transparent.”

Starsky propped his arm on the back of the seat and confidently smiled. “Only to me, baby blue.”

Hutch’s stomach flip-flopped upon hearing the endearment. He loved it. “Can you be patient with me a little while longer?”

“Is it worth waiting for?”

It took everything Hutch had to resist the tempting comeback on his mind. “I can promise you this much, my prince. You’ll never forget it.”

The curiosity in Starsky’s eyes grew to excitement and Hutch vowed to make the moment as special as his partner was. As he drove, visions of a romantic dinner by candlelight among the foliage in his greenhouse brought warmth to his heart. He would make the wait well worth it after his partner had kicked his ass for faking his death.

~*~

Hutch pulled the car into a space shaded by a tree on the far side of the parking lot. His eyes darted around the area and briefly acknowledged Starsky’s grumblings about parking such a distance away from the restaurant. As they walked inside, Hutch slid his jacket off and spotted Nicky near the bar going over some receipts. Nicky stood and smiled. Their eyes met for a split second met.

“Hey, guys. What brings you hear this time of day?”

Starsky eased onto the barstool next to him and interlocked his fingers. “We came up with something, Nicky.”

“Shoot.”

“Just tell us the truth is all we want.”

Nicky’s look softened and he patted his brother’s arm. “You know I will, Davy.”

Hutch shifted his feet and laid his jacket across the bar. He kept his silence and studied Nicky’s face.

“You’ve got a guy working for you by the name of Rocky Moreno.”

“Yeah, I do. Funny you should mention him.”

“Why’s that?” Starsky asked.

“He hasn’t shown up for work since yesterday. I was thinking of calling him to see if everything’s okay.”

“He’s an ex-con, Nick.”

Nick’s face turned from serious to surprise. “I didn’t know. What was he in for?”

“Assaulting a cop.”

“You think he’s connected to the place getting shot up?”

Damn, he’s good, Hutch thought. No wonder we underestimated him.

“It’s looking like it. We need to track him down,” Starsky explained.

“I’ll help in any way I can,” Nick offered. “He might even know that guy you both are looking for.”

Hutch cleared his throat. “I’ll put an APB out on him.” Seeing the knowing smirk in Nick’s eyes, he shoved his fists in his pockets and walked away.

“Nick, Hutch and I will need to look over your books, too.”

Nick got slid off the barstool. “Davy, you know I’ll do anything to help, but my books?”

“We’ve got to make sure this place isn’t being used as a front. There could be more going on you may not be aware of.”

With a heavy sigh, Nick shook his head. “If there’s anything illegal going on, you know I won’t be a part of it. The last time I got in over my head was a wakeup call.” With a light chuckle, he smiled. “You’re the home team, remember?””

Starsky grinned and nodded after a firm touch on Nick’s arm.

A loud blast rattled the windows and the glasses on the bar shook from the concussion. Starsky jumped from the barstool, sprinted across the restaurant and flung the door open. When he got outside, he stopped dead in his tracks at the sight of Hutch’s car embroiled in a fireball of flames. He couldn’t feel the arms gripping him. All he knew was that Hutch was last headed to his car and now it was being consumed by the raging fire. His throat burned and no matter how hard he tried, Starsky couldn’t reach what was left of the vehicle.

~*~

From a distance, Luke watched the scene play out through binoculars. The sight of Starsky trying to fight from Nick’s hold was a gut wrenching experience. He lowered the binoculars and turned when the van door opened up. Hutch crawled inside. The glasses were taken and he watched the cop aim them directly at the violent sight.

“Don’t do this to yourself, man,” Luke said.

“I have to see him.” Even from the distance, Hutch could see the torment on Stasky’s face. He gripped the binoculars tightly as Nick held onto him. He wanted nothing more than to break out of the van and run back to the scene. Pulling Starsky close to let him know he was alive was foremost in his mind. With a heavy sigh, Hutch tore his eyes away and looked at Luke. “Let’s get the hell out of here. I need to make a call.”

“Who?”

“My parents,” Hutch bit out. “I have to talk to my father before Dobey does. He’ll go along.”

Luke got behind the wheel and looked out the window. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea. Your partner will surely be calling them.”

“Listen!” Hutch jerked on Luke’s jacket to get his full attention. “I may have to sit on my ass while Starsky goes through hell, but I’m not adding my parents to the mix! They’ve got nothing to do with any of this and if you stop me from talking to them, all bets are off!”

“Fine,” Luke resentfully stated. “Have it your way, but you better come up with something convincing them to stay put and it sure as hell better past muster with Starsky.”

Watching Luke angrily start the van and drive, it was obvious the entire situation was wearing on him as well.

~*~

It took a nudge for Starsky to see the coffee being held in front of him. He glanced at his brother who was sitting next to him on his couch. Starsky took the offering. “Thanks,” he said in a low voice.

Dobey stood not far from him on the phone and Starsky could hear Huggy’s movements in the kitchen. He sipped the coffee as the horrible scene replayed over and over in his mind. In the few hours since the explosion, Starsky remembered little of the questions being asked of him, the fire department quenching the fire or even the trip home.

He set the cup aside when Dobey hung up the phone.

“Dave.” Dobey sat in the chair near the couch. “The bomb was wired to the car radio. As soon as he used it, there was no going back.”

Starsky rubbed his hurting eyes and leaned back. “The radio didn’t go off during the drive over. I never thought anything of it.”

“The prelim from the bomb squad says it was a fairly advanced device. It has all the makings of a professional.” Doby put a comforting hand on Starsky’s knee.

The morning conversation with Hutch replayed like a movie in Starsky’s head. Seeing Hutch’s loving smile brought intense heartache and he rubbed his chest in a feeble attempt to soothe it. “He had something important to tell me,” Starsky painfully whispered. “Told me it’d be worth the wait.”

“I’ll call Hutch’s family as soon as I get back to the office,” Dobey offered. When no response came from Starsky, he leaned forward. “Unless you want to talk to them.”

“I can’t, Cap’n.” Starsky wiped his eyes with the balls of his hands. His chin quivered and he was surprised at the desperation tearing into him. “I don’t think I’d make it through the call.”

“Easy, Davy,” Nick soothed. “You don’t have to talk to them now.”

“Your brother’s right,” Dobey said. “Call them when you’re up to it.”

Starsky shakily nodded. “I’ll talk to them later.”

Nick looked at Huggy who had appeared in the living room then swung his eyes back to Dobey. “He needs to get some rest. Davy’ll have his hands full the next few days as it is.”

Pushing up from the chair, a ragged breath escaped from Dobey. “Yeah, you’re right.” Dobey grabbed the fedora and stood next to Huggy. “Edith’ll be by later with some food. I’ll call as soon as I have more information.”

“Thanks, Cap’n,” Starsky said.

Starsky never heard the door closing behind his captain and Huggy. He felt Nick’s presence next to him and numbly allowed himself to be guided into the bedroom. He slumped down on the bed. “M’ okay, Nick.”

“Davy.”

“Just let me be alone for a little while.”

Nick stood near the bed unsure of what to do. His brother was taking Hutch’s death much harder than he had thought. He never imagined seeing so much grief on Starsky. While it hurt seeing the pain wrapped around him, Nick believed in the long run his brother would be much better off. He slowly backed out of the room and closed the door.

Starsky grabbed the pillow next to him and tightly pulled it close. It was the same one Hutch had laid his on only a few short days ago. He buried his face in it and silently cried at missing Hutch’s familiar comforting scent.

~*~

In the next room, Nick paced back and forth behind the couch carrying the phone with him. “Just handle it until I can get back to the restaurant…as long as Rocky and Luke remain out of sight we should be home free…I’ll call Tony and square it with him…I took care of it yesterday.” Nick rolled his eyes and leaned against the couch. “He’s sopping his guts out in the bedroom right now…don’t worry, I’ll handle it.”

Nick finished the call and hung up the phone. He moved into the kitchen and grabbed a beer from the fridge. As he drank the cooling liquid, he wished this part would hurry up and get over with. He hated it and he couldn’t wait until after the funeral when this ugly mess would be behind them.

~*~

Hutch managed to calmly explain the situation to his father and was reassured they would go along. He hated the deception, but listening to his father’s calming voice eased the culpability he was feeling. During the conversation, Luke’s back remained towards him and his stiff movements were a strong indicator of how tightly everyone was wound up.

“Miami’s where you live?”

“Yeah.” Luke continued to busy himself. “It’s where I grew up and since there’s such a high rate of trafficking, it made sense to stay.” Rather than go on about his private life, Luke headed to the small fridge and grabbed a beer. “Nick’s expecting to meet with me tonight as soon as he can get away. You’ll have to find a way to keep yourself preoccupied while I’m gone.”

“I’m sure I can manage,” Hutch dryly responded. “How soon will you have a date and time?”

“Hopefully by tomorrow.” He tipped the can up and took several large swallows. “It’ll depend if Nick’s confident enough to make the call to Tony.”

“Considering how much Tony dislikes cops being killed or attention, this won’t go over well with him.”

He had a point. “Nick will talk a good line after Tony chews his ass.”

“Nick’s got one for every day of the week it seems like.”

A week was a hell of a long time to play dead and in the eyes of someone like Hutch it might as well have been a year. “This’ll be over soon. I’ll try to get the shipment date moved up, but it’ll be tough. Nick will want to wait until the heat dies down.”

“Whether you like it or not, I’ll be there when this deal goes down,” Hutch promised him.

“I figured as much,” Luke muttered. He turned away and absently grabbed a shirt from the open suitcase. “I’ll see if I can get an idea how your partner’s holding up when I see Nick.”

Hutch kept his mouth closed as Luke headed for the shower. Little did the younger man know, he had already made his own plans.

~*~

Ducking into the dark alley, Luke scanned the area making sure he wasn’t followed. As close as it was getting, he couldn’t risk anything jeopardizing the operation. He knew it would go down to the wire. Hutch had said little the entire time and Luke swore if he didn’t know better, the cop was planning something.

He didn’t think much further on it when the glow of a cigar got his attention. Luke jogged down the alley keeping close to the wall. He stepped into the dark shadow and stood near Nick.

“Couldn’t have gone off better if I had planned it myself,” Nick complimented.

“Where’s your brother?”

Luke couldn’t ignore the dirty scowl on Nick’s face. “Pouring his guts out with the Dobey’s and Huggy at his place.”

“As long as he’s preoccupied with mourning, we can move ahead.”

Nick flicked the cigar and shook his head. “It’s still too hot right now. Dobey’s got his boys fishing through my books. Rocky and you are laying low and I’ve got to play it cool for a couple of days.”

“At least call Tony, Nick. He’s got to at least have time to prepare and we can get a date.”

“What’s your hurry?” Nick exclaimed.

Shoving his hands in his pockets, Nick’s eyes gleamed dangerously. “We just killed a cop! I want this thing done!”

“Relax,” Nick coldly chuckled. “They’ll be too goddamn busy to notice what we’re doing. Besides, my mourning brother needs me right now.”

Luke’s eyes darted around the ominous alley before settling on Nick. “How’s he doing?”

“What do you care?”

“It won’t be long before he’ll decide to go after his partner’s killers. I want to be ready for it.”

Nick took a long drag from the cigar then dropped it down to the cement. Using his foot, he ground the butt into the dirt. “Barely functioning at this point. As much as I like being there for Davy, I can’t fucking stand him sobbing over a loser like Hutchinson.”

The few times Luke had observed Starsky, he couldn’t imagine the tough cop reacting as Nick described. “You really hated the guy.”

“The son of a bitch thought he was better than me,” Nick bit out in a low voice. “He was going to turn Davy against me and take everything away!” He swore, then darkly laughed. “Showed him, huh? God, I wish he’d known he’d never be near my brother again.”

The venom in Nick’s voice unsettled Luke. It was enough to cut the conversation short and to leave.

~*~

Hutch peered around the corner of Venice Place then headed to the back when it was clear. Once inside his apartment, he headed for the bedroom and searched the closet. He grabbed a small bag from the top and quickly filled it with small bottles and other needed items. After zipping it up, Hutch turned towards the dresser. He carefully removed his gold chain and set it down. His eyes immediately went to the photo of him and Starsky together. “Soon,” he promised.

Setting it down, Hutch turned back to the bed and grabbed the small satchel. He hurried from the apartment and caught a nearby cab. He was dropped off at the motel and once inside, he hid the bag under the bed. By the time he removed his shoes, flipped on the TV and was stretched out on the bed, Luke walked through the door. Hutch studied him as he removed his holster and set it aside.

“Nick?”

“There’s a hell of a lot more going on with him than just good old fashioned hatred for you.” Nick grabbed a cold beer and leaned against the dresser. “What is it that makes him despise you so damn much?”

Hutch sat up and dropped his legs over the edge of the bed. “Toss me one of those.”

Luke did as he was asked. He watched Hutch pop the top open and take a long drink.

“It’s complicated.”

Amazed at Hutch’s simple statement, Luke straightened. “Is that all?”

“You work alone?”

“Yeah, it’s safer that way.”

“Is it really?” Hutch shifted around to get a better look at Luke. “No matter how bad it gets out there, no matter how hard I’m swimming upstream, I’ve got my partner…beside me.”

“Having someone to cover your back is important.”

“It’s much more than that.” Hutch stood and crossed the room to Luke. “Even when Starsky and I are at our worst, working against each other, we know that no matter what, even if the rest of the world is against us, we’ve always got each other. After he was shot, we decided the job wouldn’t get above that.”

“Seems to me the costs could get too high for everyone else around you.”

“We agreed when it got to that point, we’d quit.”

“Is that why he considered taking that job Nick offered?”

“Partly, I think. Sometimes doing his job has cost more than what he expected to pay. Even if he does quit, he knows I’m not going anywhere and that I might quit right along with him. Nick will never understand what his brother and I have.”

It was then Luke knew the extent of Starsky and Hutch’s relationship. To have that kind of unconditional support was almost beyond his understanding. There was something else…something he couldn’t put his finger on.

~*~

Starsky could never figure out how he managed to get Dobey and Huggy to finally leave him alone. He lay on the couch still wearing the same clothes as the day before. He could almost hear Hutch’s voice urging him on during his recovery. “Get up off your ass, Starsk.” He wiped a stray tear from his cheek. “Keep lying there and it’ll get harder to get up later on.”

“Yeah, Hutch,” he answered in a whisper.

He moved to a sitting position and buried his head into his hands. The raging inferno of Hutch’s car appeared before him. Starsky tightly rubbed his eyes until the tormenting vision disappeared. He stood and headed into the kitchen with only one objective in mind. After searching the cabinets, he found a half empty bottle of bourbon. He yanked the glass down and started to pour the liquor, then stopped.

It suddenly hit him that this is not what Hutch would want. When he lay dying in the hospital his partner didn’t sit around waiting. He got the people responsible for the attempts on their lives. If he had died, Starsky couldn’t imagine Hutch numbing his sorrows with alcohol. He’d live which is what Starsky should be doing.

After setting the bottle aside, Starsky marched to the bathroom and turned on the shower. As he undressed, he knew exactly what he was going to do.

~*~

Seeing the very spot where Hutch’s car had exploded wasn’t something Starsky was prepared for. He pulled Torino as far from it as strategically possible and hurried past an old bum straggling towards the back, then headed inside. Starsky was directed towards the kitchen and found his brother.

Nick stopped what he was doing and met Starsky halfway. “Davy? Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. You have to tell me where I can find Rocky Moreno, Nick.”

“I already told the cops. They can’t find him.” Nick stepped closer. “What are you doing?”

“I gotta find out who killed Hutch,” Starsky answered almost desperate for anything to hold onto. “Rocky Moreno and this blond guy had something to do with it.”

“Davy, you’re not thinking clearly. You’ve got to give yourself some time.”

Starsky adamantly shook his head. “I can’t think about that now. I have to do this, Nicky.”

Nick moistened his lips. “Yeah, but if what happened to Hutch happens to you…”

Resting both his hands on Nick’s shoulders, Starsky said, “It won’t. If there’s anything, Nicky, you’ve got to tell me.”

“I swear if I knew anything, I’d tell you, Davy.”

Starsky intently studied Nick’s eyes in search of possible deceit. After not seeing anything, he slowly nodded.

“Davy, why not take some time and go to Ma’s?"

“Not until this is finished.”

Nick watched Starsky’s resolute walk through the kitchen and when he was out of sight, he motioned towards one of his men. They went to the doorway leading out to the alley. “Benny, where’s Luke?”

“Last time he checked in he was making sure Marty was lining up the dealers.”

“That crazy brother of mine thinks he’s some kind of fucking lone ranger,” Nick angrily bit out.

“What do you want to do about him?”

“I’m not the one that’s supposed to do a damn thing. That’s Luke’s job. If that punk doesn’t check in soon, there’ll be hell to pay. I’m getting sick of his attitude.”

“Tony’s the one that sent him out here, Nick,” Benny explained.

“And Tony will listen to me. As soon as the deal is done, he’ll get Luke out of my hair.” Nick’s eyes scanned the alley. “Hit the street and find him. I want to see him before my brother gets his hands on Rocky.”

“You got it.”

When Benny was gone, Nick looked back up and down the alley once again. With a frustrated sigh, he went inside and slammed the door shut. Behind the large garbage bin, a box was kicked out of the way as the old bum slowly tottered towards the street.

~*~

“Starsky?” Huggy asked with wide eyes when he saw Starsky walking through his bar. He pushed through the crowd and took the detective to a corner table. “What in the hell are you doing here?”

“You’ve got to be straight with me, Hug.”

“You got it, my man.”

“I need to know if Hutch had you doing any private work for him. Something I didn’t know about.”

“Starsky, Dobey called here lookin’ for you. He wants you to call Hutch’s folks. He didn’t like the conversation with them.”

“Why?”

“He says that they can’t fly out for a couple of days. Seems that Hutch’s mother took it pretty hard and the doctor won’t let her travel. He thought you talking to her might help.”

Starsky numbly shook his head. “I can’t, Hug. Later, when I’ve made some headway on getting the people responsible. I want to have something to tell them.”

With a deep sigh, Huggy couldn’t argue. It was how Starsky operated. “He did, Starsky, but you won’t like it none. He was having me check into your brother.”

“Hutch never got over what Nick was involved with last time he was here.”

“If you ask me, he had every right to be suspicious. Your brother was mixed up with some heavy dudes. I was going to ask him if he wanted me to see what I could pull out of New York.”

He didn’t quite know what to say to that. Many of Hutch’s arguments had made sense, but accepting any of those would mean that Nick was in it much deeper than either of them could possibly imagine. Starsky didn't want to believe it. “Anything else?”

“Marty’s gone under. He’s been planted so damn deep, I doubt I could get a line on him for you.”

“He needs his cash and he’s got customers to feed.”

“He got a huge take from Montgomery and spread it around to a few close associates. It’ll keep his customers flyin’ for a little while longer.”

“Associates?”

“Yeah, he was Montgomery’s main distributor.”

“And he’s set to become someone else’s when the time comes.”

“More than likely,” Huggy agreed. “The muscle came out of New York. I don’t have any names for you, but one was brought in due to his specialty in putting on a major squeeze with the least amount of fuss. Word has it he came out of Miami.”

“The blond.”

“Looks that way.”

Starsky nodded. “Find Marty, Huggy. He’s the key to this whole thing. He probably knows who all the players are.”

“You got it. Where will you be if Dobey calls?”

“Tell him I’ll be there in a couple of hours. I’ve got one other place to go.”

Before Huggy could ask where, Starsky was already headed out the door.

~*~

After pulling up to the curb in front of Venice Place, Starsky took a deep breath. He had to do this. Finding out exactly what Hutch was doing would help lead him to the truth. No matter what it was, Starsky would receive it even if it meant Nick was somehow involved. He got out of the car and went up the steps as he normally would on any other day.

Upon reaching the door, Starsky pushed the key into the lock. He turned it and after hearing the click, he took a steadying breath, before pushing the door open. Starsky wasn’t sure what he expected. But he didn’t expect the apartment to look as normal as it did.

As he walked in, he expected Hutch to pop out of the bathroom telling him to make some coffee. He would’ve grumbled about it, but not minded. Starsky took tentative steps further in and went to the living room. Nothing appeared out of place and he started for the bedroom, but instead went to the greenhouse.

The scotch bottle was nearly two-thirds full and two glasses sat near it. It could only be from the night before Hutch was killed Starsky surmised. He never said a word that he had a visitor at work. Could be that it slipped Hutch’s mind. His partner hadn’t mentioned a lady friend in quite some time. Maybe it was someone who had a connection with the case?

Starsky rifled through the closet and after not finding anything, he turned to the dresser. During the hurried search, he found a dark velvet case sitting under several t-shirts.

His heart pounded frantically and with nervous fingers, Starsky picked it up. He sat on the bed and stared at it. He didn’t know why he was reacting so powerfully to the case. There was no rationale to it. He couldn’t explain why it seemed so important. Starsky was almost afraid to open it, but open it he did.

His mouth hung open in awe at the beautiful gold chain and the simple ring it held. His eyes watered as he reached for it. Starsky gently pulled the chain out of the case and held it up to the light. The brightly shining gold shimmered beautifully and Starsky was in awe. He carefully fingered the chain working his way to the ring. Upon closer admiration, an inscription caught his eye. He leaned in and tilted the ring to get a better read. ‘Forever, Love H’.

“Hutch,” Starsky lovingly whispered. He clasped it tightly to his chest and rocked back and forth. “Oh, God, Hutch!” I made you wait, oh why did I make you wait? The agonizing guilt tore through him like a hard rain. It was all so clear now and now there was no going back. No going back to tell Hutch that he was right. Starsky could scarcely believe his own blindness. He had wasted so much time and now Hutch was gone.

Wiping the hot tears away from his cheek, Starsky took another look at the necklace. He didn’t deserve to wear it. He was unworthy of Hutch’s love because Starsky didn’t make the time for him. Hutch had given so much of himself and Starsky paid so little attention. He set the necklace back in its case and put it exactly where he found it.

He stood up and was about to leave, when a small glimmer of light caught his attention. Starsky moved back to the dresser and picked up the small delicate chain holding the moon and star. It was that quickly, the memories of adjusting Hutch’s collar came back to him. Starsky laughed and cried.

The relief was so sudden he collapsed on the bed with a tight hold on the necklace. The mingled tears and laughter was as cool as a refreshing breeze coming off the ocean. The urge to yell the great news was as strong as anything he’d ever felt. As soon as I find him, I’m kicking his ass.

~*~

As soon as Luke walked through the office door, Nick was on his feet. “Benny said you wanted to talk to me.”

“Are the dealers ready to go?”

“Yeah, Marty’s made sure they’re able to take care of their customers. He’s holed up waiting for us. All we need is to set up Tony’s shipment.”

Nick nodded and walked around his desk. He folded his arms and leaned back. “Kill him.”

“What?” Luke was flabbergasted at the order. “I wanted to lose the guy, but after getting a line on his connections, we need him, Nick. He’ll do a lot of work for us.”

“For me,” Nick reminded him. “I’ll arrange for someone else to take over Marty’s connections.”

“I don’t understand, Nick.”

“My brother is trying to find Rocky and I bet Hutch told him about Marty. I know how tenacious he can be and I need to throw him off. Rather than deliver him a weasel like Marty, I’d prefer a corpse. It talks less.”

“That won’t keep your brother from trying to find out who murdered his partner.”

"It’ll throw him off long enough.”

Luke changed his stance to a more firm one. “We toss another dead body out we might as well put it in the papers. It’s too risky. I won’t do it.”

Nick straightened. The open-handed slap came from nowhere. Luke’s cheek burned red from the impact. The tension in the room jumped to a lethal dose.

“I run the show,” Nick warningly pointed out. “Take Marty out or take a walk.”

He had two choices and neither was very appetizing. Luke didn’t think he could make Marty play dead long enough to wrap up the operation. The second option was out of the question. “I’ll tail your brother. If he gets a step closer, I’ll give him Marty in pieces. That’s the best you’ll get out of me.”

The standoff remained for another tense moment before Nick gave him a short nod. As soon as Luke left the room, he turned to Benny who had witnessed the entire scene. “After this thing’s done, he’s finished.”

~*~

At Metro, Starsky was pulled aside by one of the men from the bomb squad. He spent almost ten minutes talking with the man then headed for the squad room. The condolences were heartwarming and it took everything Starsky had to keep his mouth shut. Hutch had good reason for playing dead and like any good partner, Starsky was going to help him.

He spent another half an hour searching through Hutch’s desk, compiling reports and making calls. As soon as Dobey walked in, Starsky jumped from his seat.

“Come in my office, Dave.”

Keeping his face solemn, Starsky followed him. As soon as the door closed, he jumped into Dobey’s arms and kissed him on the cheek.

“Starsky, what the hell is wrong with you?” Dobey loudly blustered.

He happily grinned and proclaimed, “Hutch is alive!”

“Son, I know how much he meant to you…”

“Cap’n, when I say Hutch is alive, I mean he’s walkin’, breathin, and probably shoveling healthy crap into his body as we speak.”

Dobey raised his hand and walked around his desk. “I’ll give you once chance to explain yourself before I have you checked out by the department shrink.”

Starsky waited till Dobey was comfortable behind his desk before beginning. “I went to Hutch’s place to see if there was anything that would tell me if he knew something I didn’t. I found his necklace.”

“His necklace,” Dobey cynically repeated.

“Yeah, he was wearing it that day, Cap’n. That’s when it hit me that he faked his death and he had to have good reason. Also, I ran into Gibson from the bomb squad. He told me that the bomb was a high tech piece of work.”

“So?”

“I just checked Rocky Moreno’s jacket and Marty’s…the drug dealer Hutch talked to. Neither of them have the know-how to put something like that together. Gibson hadn’t seen anything like that bomb since his Vietnam days. He ran special ops and he said only counter-intelligent agents did work like that.”

“Starsky, so far you’re not telling me anything.”

“Remember telling me the bomb was wired into the car radio?” Dobey nodded. “It was a decoy. The bomb was blown by remote detonator. Probably from only a few blocks away.” Starsky leaned on his desk. “Cap’n, if someone wanted to kill Hutch, they wouldn’t have set it up the way they did. Someone’s helping Hutch play dead and the only way he could let me know is by leaving his necklace so I’ll find it.”

A small smile appeared on Dobey’s face. He cleared his throat and wiped at his eye. “Damn dust,” the large man grumbled. “Why would Hutchinson fake his death?”

Starsky straightened and sat down in the chair. “I don’t know. If he got too close and someone wanted him out of the way without killing a cop, but I don’t see Hutch willingly going along.”

“Not without good reason.”

“It’s whoever helped him pull this off. Maybe he was trying to protect me.”

“He would’ve come to you with it, Starsky, no matter how dangerous it was getting. You know that.”

Thinking hard, Starsky went to the water cooler and filled the small paper cup. He drank it down then wadded it up. “What if someone’s already inside?”

“Undercover?”

“It would explain a hell of a lot, Cap’n. Hutch finds out and the only way to keep it from getting out is for him to play dead.”

“Willingly?”

“Not unless he thought it was the only way to find out who the new supplier is and get evidence to convict on.”

“Starsky,” Dobey said growing more serious. “This puts us right back at Rocky Moreno.”

“Yeah.” He swallowed the hard lump in his throat. “Cap’n, Hutch came to me two nights ago with something and I blew him off. I’m starting to think Nicky’s somehow involved.”

Starsky wasn’t saying what it was and Dobey knew better than to push on an issue so sensitive. “Time to go back to your brother.”

With a nod, Starsky headed to the door. “Can’t do that, Cap’n. I’ll have to stake out the restaurant.”

~*~

While Merle threw a tantrum worthy of the greatest of poets, Starsky waited patiently for him to find the keys to the dark brown Oldsmobile sitting in the lot. The Torino would be too easily spotted and the only way to Hutch was by waiting for either Rocky Moreno or the mysterious blond to make an appearance.

Starsky took the keys from Merle and pulled out of the lot, narrowly missing a cab in the process. He found a discreet parking spot near the restaurant, hunched down in his seat and waited. After half an hour, he spotted Nick walking towards his convertible. Starsky’s hand went to the ignition and his gut screamed to wait. He listened by lowering his hand. Another hour passed and Starsky was close to falling asleep. A small blue sedan sped into the parking lot and he straightened at the site of the blue jean wearing blond stepping out of the car.

Half an hour later, the blond emerged and Starsky was alert and ready to follow. For half an hour he trailed the blue sedan from a discreet distance. He wasn’t sure where he was going, the farther they went. The vehicle finally turned into the parking lot of an average looking motel.

~*~

Luke hurried up to the room and unlocked the door. He stepped inside and halted at not seeing Hutch. He closed the door and went to the bathroom. “Hutch.” At not finding him, Luke’s eyes went to the door. “Damn,” he muttered.

The sudden knock at the door startled him and he reached for his gun as he approached. Luke started to look through the peephole when it was suddenly kicked open. He stumbled back from the impact, the weapon dropping from his grasp and before he could get his footing, a hard punch to the face sent him sprawling to the floor.

Starsky grabbed the young blond and threw him towards the bed. With him half-laying off the bed, Starsky wrenched his arm back until he loudly grimaced, then put the barrel of gun to the underside of his chin. “I want to know where my partner is and you’ve got five seconds!”

“Five.”

Luke would swear his shoulder was being ripped apart the way the pain tore from it down through his arm and back. It was so agonizing he could barely catch his breath.

“Four.”

“D...don’t…” The arm was forced up even higher and Luke loudly gasped.

“Three.”

“Starsky.”

Starsky’s vision swung to the door where an old dirty bum stood.

“It’s me.” Hutch pulled the beard off and then tore part of the mask from his face.

He slowly rose to his feet as the sight of Hutch became clear. “Hutch,” Starsky said barely above a whisper. Almost unable to believe his own eyes, he took a hesitant step, then another.

When Starsky flew into his arms, Hutch’s immediately went around him. He closed his eyes as he held onto the shaking body. Continually rubbing his hands over Starsky’s arms and back, Hutch wanted him to know he was alive and well. “It’s okay, buddy. I’m here.”

“You smell bad,” was the muffled reply.

An emotional chuckle bubbled out from Hutch and he gave his partner a firm squeeze, then stepped back. “You look damn good for someone that’s been in mourning.”

“Aw, Hutch,” Starsky said with a soft smile. “Soon as this is over, I’m gonna kick your ass all over the place.”

Watching them, Luke felt more invisible than anything. He rubbed his aching shoulder and got to his feet. “Do you think we can avoid letting any more people know you’re alive by closing the door?”

Hutch saw a flash of anger in Starsky’s eyes and gave him a warning look. Now wasn’t the time for him to fly off the handle. He closed the door and guided Starsky to the bed. After sitting him down, Hutch said, “I guess you’re expecting an explanation.”

“You bet I am.”

With a heavy sigh, Hutch pulled a chair over and slowly began at the beginning. Starsky asked few questions and as more of the story was told, he grew even quieter. Luke remained wordless as he watched the man take in the disturbing information. When it was finished, Hutch and Luke watched the tense muscles working angrily back and forth in his jaw.

His chest tight, his gut churning, Starsky slowly rose to his feet. He moved to the center of the room and planted his hands on his hips. He couldn’t assimilate any of it, but couldn’t ignore the facts either. He swung around and gave Luke an even gaze.

Starsky’s unrelenting look rattled Luke and he clenched his fists to remain where he was.

“Everything Hutch said.” Starsky said in a low voice. “Is it true?”

“Yes,” Luke warily responded in a low voice.

Taking a step towards Luke, Starsky fists tightened. “And what happened to Hutch. You set him up?”

“Yes,” he repeated.

“Even pumped the stuff into him, didn’t you?” When the agent nodded, Starsky never heard Hutch call his name when he swung his fist. Brief satisfaction came when it connected and Luke fell to the floor.

He grabbed his aching jaw and got up on one knee. “I might have deserved that,” Luke groaned.

“Damn it, Starsk.” Hutch walked over and assisted Luke to his feet, then turned to Starsky. “I thought I explained what happened.”

“You did.” Starsky moved his fingers back and forth. “Doesn’t mean I have to like it.” He looked to Luke who was still holding his jaw.

With a quick glance to Hutch, Luke sat down on the chair. “Your timing couldn’t have been better.”

“I knew Starsky would figure out I wasn’t dead.”

Shaking his head, Luke said, “You let him know.”

“Not in so many words,” Starsky answered.

“I tailed him starting right after you left,” Hutch explained to Luke. “If he hadn’t figured out I was alive, I knew damn well he’d either get his hands on Rocky or Marty.”

“Marty’s on ice for the duration,” Luke told them. “As long as Starsky doesn’t get any closer, this thing is still doable.”

“Why?” Hutch asked.

With a quick glimpse to Starsky, Luke’s eyes darted to Hutch. “Nick wants him dead if your partner gets too close. It’d be enough to give us a little breathing room.”

Starsky stepped closer to Luke and folded his arms. “You’re supposed to be tailing me?”

“Yeah.” Luke still remembered the stinging slap Nick gave him.

After a look at Hutch, Starsky took a deep breath. “I guess we better not disappoint him.”

“No.”

Both detectives’ eyes went to Luke. “What?” Hutch asked. “I thought you said…”

“I know what I said,” Luke firmly interrupted. “I can’t do my job if I’m tailing you.”

“He’s probably right,” Hutch told Starsky. “While I was following you, I stayed around long enough to get an earful from Nick.”

“What’d he say?” Luke warily asked.

Hutch raised his eyebrow and said, “He plans on having a talk with Tony about you.”

“Well, it’s no surprise. We’ve been butting heads.”

“You told me the other night that Nick’s the wildcard, Braddock,” Hutch said. “There’s more than just professional disagreement going on.”

“He’s on a power trip. Nick’s so goddamn wound up right now it wouldn’t take much for him to snap. I just happen to be around when he gets pissed.”

Starsky rubbed his eyes then dropped his hand. “Then make nice with him,” he ordered. “If he’s not above ordering a hit on Hutch, he won’t hesitate to do the same for you.”

Luke’s eyes lowered. He knew Starsky was right, but it didn’t make it easy to hear when talking about his own brother. “Maybe you should go on vacation or something.”

“Nick did mention taking a trip to New York,” Starsky told them.

Hutch shook his head. “You’d never give up that easy, Starsk.”

Luke stood and went to the small fridge. “Sending you on a wild goose chase is the only option.” After getting a beer, he turned to face Starsky and Hutch.

“What’ll you tell him?” Starsky asked.

He shrugged his shoulders. “I’ll think of something.”

“Since that’s settled.” Hutch stood and removed the grimy coat. “I’m getting out of this get up and taking a shower.”

Neither man spoke as Hutch went to the bathroom and closed the door. Starsky watched Luke pull his weapon out and start the preparations to clean it. “You’ve been at this a year?”

“Yeah.” Luke didn’t look up from his task. “Seems longer sometimes.”

“I guess a long vacation would be in order.”

“A two week nap is more like it,” Luke wryly responded. He chuckled as he ran the soft wire brush in the barrel of the gun. “I wouldn’t know what it’s like to not think about this case.”

“What about not being Luke Turner?”

Pausing, Luke turned his gaze on Starsky. “Yeah, that too,” he softly agreed. Silence reigned briefly as he concentrated on his weapon. “Starsky, let me ask you something.”

“Sure.”

“How can you be a cop and yet Nick’s…” The words wouldn’t come and Luke couldn’t find the courage to look at him.

Starsky looked down at his hands and too an uneasy breath. “It’s not hard when you look deeper than our backgrounds. I’m not trying to excuse the things he’s done. With Pop gone, Ma worked so hard at the bakery to put food on the table. I was giving her enough problems and she was scared that I’d hook up with the same type of men that Nick did later on. I got the guidance a wild young man needed,” Starsky said with a half grin. His eyes grew more serious. “Nick didn’t and he thinks he’s somebody by what he can take rather than what he earns.”

“Two different coasts, two different lifestyles,” Luke whispered. “You’re still his brother and yet…” Luke turned away and quickly put his gun back together.

Starsky watched the young man quickly rise and holster his weapon. “What?”

“Nothing.” Luke crossed the room and grabbed his jacket. “I’ll go see Nick. See if I can push for a time and place.”

After Luke was out the door, Starsky sat. What was Luke going to say? He looked up to see Hutch emerging from the bathroom wearing sweatpants. “Really good to see you now.”

Hutch nodded and dropped the towel in the corner. He picked up his satchel and pulled out a comb. “Thanks.” Hutch turned to the mirror and combed his hair into place. He dropped it on the dresser. “Well?”

“Well what?”

“When do I get the riot act read to me?”

“You’re expecting it?”

“Don’t you think I deserve it?”

Starsky tilted his head and almost smiled. “I haven’t decided whether I should hug the shit out of you again or kick your ass.”

“Starsk, I’m sorry.”

“You wouldn't have done it for kicks, Hutch.”

Hutch pulled the last two beers from the small fridge and tossed one to Starsky. He sat across from him and took a drink after opening it. “I couldn’t let you suffer until this shipment comes in since we had no idea when it was.”

“As bad off as I was, I’m glad someone didn’t get it in their head to put me out of my misery.”

“Starsky…”

Getting to his feet, Starsky went to the middle of the room keeping his back to Hutch. “I know, Hutch. You both had to be sure I put on a real good face for my brother.”

“If there were any other way…” Hutch began.

Starsky whirled around. “I’m pissed as hell you didn’t come to me, but I understand. Hell, I might’ve done the same thing in your place.”

Hutch looked down at the beer in his hands. “I wished I had come to you. I hated doing it.”

Seeing the regret in Hutch’s eyes, Starsky knelt down in front of him. "I know, Hutch."

“Starsk…”

He put his hand on Hutch’s cheek. “When this is over, babe, we’re gonna have that talk and nothing will get in the way.”

~*~

Nick looked up from his paperwork as Luke strode into the office. He stole a glance at Benny who stood in the corner nursing a drink. “It’s about time you made an appearance.”

Sitting down in a chair, Luke said, “I got your brother chasing down some phantom dealer. We’ve got a day or so until he figures out he was had.”

Pleased, Nick nodded. “Good idea, Luke.”

“Let’s just get this shipment scheduled.”

Nick pushed aside his paperwork and leaned back. “It’s done. Tony will be here on Thursday with the first shipment.” Seeing the surprise on Luke’s face, he looked slyly at him. “There’s an old office supply store on Wilmington. The deal is at 10am sharp.”

“You knew all this time,” Luke evenly responded.

Nick raised his hands and grinned. “An operation this tricky needs to keep its secrets. You understand, don’t ya’, Luke?”

Their eyes met. A mixture of mistrust and a gleam of pleasure mixed were in Nick’s eyes and an uneasy roll knotted Luke’s gut. “Sure, Nick.”

Reaching inside his jacket, Nick pulled out a thick wad of cash. He tossed it on the desk. “Go have some fun. See a stripper or something. You deserve it.”

Luke pushed from the chair and with reservations, took the money. He shoved it in his pocket and left the room.

“You lied to him.”

Nick chuckled and shook his head. “He’s not going to know a damn thing until I want him to. I don’t trust the guy, Benny, and I won’t until I hear from Tony’s source.”

~*~

When Luke arrived at the motel room, Starsky and Hutch were watching TV. He took off his jacket and tossed in on the bed. He went to the fridge and after not seeing any beer, he slammed it shut.

“Starsky and I finished it off. Hope you don’t mind.”

Luke slumped into a chair and looked at them. “Old supply store on Wilmington. Thursday at ten.”

“You should be thrilled,” Starsky said.

“It was already a done deal,” Luke bit out. “I felt like fucking idiot sitting there while he knew more than I did.” He rubbed his jaw. “He doesn’t trust me.”

Hutch walked over and shut off the TV. “Nicky doesn’t trust anyone. You should’ve known that already.”

“He’s keeping me out of the loop…intentionally.” Luke turned his attention to Starsky who sat on the edge of the bed. “You’re currently hunting down a make-believe dealer so put on a good show of it.”

With a side look at Hutch, Starsky said, “He’d get too nervous if it was Marty.”

“Where’s Rocky in all this?” Hutch asked.

“Nick’s got him under wraps. He won’t let him loose until after this deal’s done.”

“Make sure you have your people in place.” Hutch folded his arms while he stood near the TV. “I’ll go see Dobey and we’ll have a team on standby just in case.”

“Now wait a sec.” Luke got to his feet and looked at both men. “If they smell one thing out of place…”

“They won’t,” Starsky asserted. “It’s my brother that’ll be busted and no matter what you or anybody says, we’ll be there.”

Luke gave him a steady look without moving before speaking. “Nick will be expecting to see you at least once before then. He’ll want to have an idea of your movements. Better play the convincing brother still mourning his partner.”

Starsky’s gaze never wavered. “I will.”

“Even knowing that he’s looking at ten or twenty years in the pen,” Luke challenged.

Hutch stepped in front of Luke blocking his view. “You’re out of line, Braddock.”

“Am I? Nick’s getting more cautious and he’ll be looking for any sign of deceit. I’ve been up to my neck in this for over a year and if he even suspects I’m anything less than I appear to be, you can be damn sure he’ll be twice as suspicious of your partner just because of the badge he carries.”

Starsky stood and moved next to Hutch. “We know what’s at stake here. I hate what Nicky’s doing and when it comes time, I’ll do my job.”

“Yeah, brothers and all,” Luke muttered.

When he got up, Hutch stepped in and kept him from walking away. “What’s eating you?”

“Just a long day.” Luke started to reach for his jacket and Hutch stopped him.

“One question.”

“What’s that?”

“You said the DEA is ready to move in on Marcano’s organization in New York.” Luke nodded. “If that’s the case, why didn’t you stay there to see it happen?”

“He’s coming here and I want it see it to the end,” Luke simply replied.

“It would’ve been in New York.”

“Tony sent me to…”

Hutch shook his head. “I don’t buy it.”

“What’s not to buy?”

“You’ve been at this for over a year, living undercover, and all you had to do was sit back and wait. The DEA could’ve sent anyone to do what you did here,” Hutch pressed.

“I was already under.” Luke shifted his eyes to Starsky’s then back to Hutch.

“You can’t stand there and tell me the DEA doesn’t have other people already under who could’ve finished here.” Hutch stepped in closer. “Why did you really come here, Braddock?”

Luke’s mouth tightly compressed together with his eyes locked to Hutch’s. It was as if the man was looking straight to his soul. He grabbed his jacket and walked out the door.

“Hutch.” Starsky turned him around. “Maybe he’s telling the truth.”

“Do you believe it?”

“I don’t know,” Starsky sighed. “Hard to believe anything these days.”

Hutch gave Starsky an apologetic squeeze of his hand. “Ever since I found him sitting in my apartment, there was something. I don’t know what it is and I’ll find out before this thing ends.”

~*~

Early evening the following day, Starsky busied himself in the kitchen and at the sound of the knock he took his time answering it. Nick stood holding out a bottle of wine.

“Best vino my place has got,” Nick bragged.

Starsky forced a smile and took it. “This will go great with dinner.” He stepped back to allow his brother inside. Starsky set the bottle on the cabinet and searched for the corkscrew while his brother checked the meal.

“Smell great!” Nick hovered near the stove. “If I didn’t know better, you fixed my favorite.”

Finally finding the item, Starsky looked over his shoulder. “I thought some home cooking was in order. Even if Rico’s does serve some good stuff, I thought you’d appreciate Ma’s lasagna.”

Smiling broadly, Nick opened the stove and looked inside. He took a hefty sniff. “Nothing like it in the world.” Closing the oven, Nick leaned back against the counter. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were kissing up to me, bro.”

When the cork was removed, Starsky poured two glasses. “Nope. I got you over here to talk to you.”

“I’m intrigued.” Nick took the offered wine and sipped it.

Starsky grabbed the oven mitt and slipped it on. “Food first. Talk later.” He took the hot dish out and set in the middle of the table. The brothers sat and as they ate reminisced about their childhoods. It was almost too surreal for Starsky to take. Here was his brother, a man he’d give his own life for, going on as if he didn’t have a care in the world.

Nick pushed his plate away and leaned back. “Damn, that was good. You really outdid yourself on this one, Davy.” He raised his glass in salute. “To brothers.”

He tapped his glass to Nick’s and drank it silently.

“So what did you want to talk to me about?”

Starsky straightened his napkin and set it aside. “I got put on a wild goose chase, Nick. I thought I found a link to whoever is responsible for Hutch’s death, and it went nowhere.”

“Shit,” Nick said in a low voice. “What are you going to do now?”

He shrugged. “I have to get on with my life. I haven’t given up in finding them, but I need to help take care of Hutch’s affairs.”

“Isn’t Hutch’s family responsible for that kind of thing?”

“In the line of work we’re in, we gave each other power of attorney in case anything happens. Ma and his folks live on the other side of the country and there may be times when decisions have to be made immediately. It seemed the prudent thing to do.”

Nick tightly gripped his napkin and nodded. “Yeah, makes sense.”

“They’re going to be here Thursday and I’d like to take them to a nice place for dinner. Think you could fix something up at the restaurant?”

Giving Starsky’s arm a firm squeeze, Nick said, “Anything, Davy. They’ll have the best of everything.”

“Thanks, Nicky. I think they’d enjoy a nice quiet dinner at a good place. You’ll really like them. They’re good people.”

Nick remained silent as Starsky continued talking.

“They were great when they came out to see me after I got shot. Hutch’s dad even helped make sure I had the best physical therapist in the state.”

Nick worked to keep the appreciative smile on his face. Hearing his brother rave about Hutch’s parents brought a lump of anger to his throat. “I didn’t realize they came out.”

“They couldn’t stay long, but it was nice they did.” Starsky took another sip of his wine. “It’ll be rough at the funeral.”

“It’s not in Minnesota?”

“No. This was Hutch’s home and it only seemed right to bury him here and I like the idea of being able to see him when I feel like.” Starsky closely studied his brother’s reaction. He almost brought the point home by mentioning the possibility of buying a plot next to Hutch’s supposed one.

Great. Nick almost rolled his eyes. He’ll be a fuckin’ ghost now. “Maybe when it’s over, you can think about that job in Monterrey.”

“I doubt I’ll have time for a little while to think about anything else.”

“Why do you say that?”

Starsky picked up the wine and poured more into Nick’s then his. “I have to go through Hutch’s things with his folks. They’ll spend an extra few days here to get what they want. Hutch’s dad told me to take care of it all for them. I told them I would. Dobey’s giving me a week off and more if I want it.”

“Jesus, Davy.” Nick looked down at his glass. “How much time?”

“I may take off for a couple of weeks before going back to work.”

“You’re actually going to stay a cop?”

“If I’m not a cop, I won’t be able to search for Hutch’s killer or killers, Nicky.”

Nick stood pushing the chair back and went to the living room. When he turned, Starsky was standing near the couch holding his wine. “They could come after you like they did him. Did you ever think of that, Davy?”

Would you kill me, Nicky? “Yeah, I thought about it, but I’m not going to let them get away with it. If it was me, Hutch wouldn’t rest either.”

“I just wish you’d quit and let the cops do it,” Nicky said in a low voice.

“Can’t.” Starsky set the glass aside and moved closer to Nick. “Hutch was my best friend in the world and I owe it to him.”

“Yeah, well you owe me, too!” Nick resentfully shot back.

“Nicky…” Starsky began.

“Davy.” Nick lowered his eyes. “I just thought that maybe…I’m sorry Hutch is dead, but…”

“Tell me, Nicky,” Starsky gently prodded.

“I can be a good friend, Davy,” Nick pleaded. “I know I’m not Hutch, but I can be the best friend in the world.”

Seeing his brother in a new light with desperation in his eyes, Starsky settled his hands on Nick’s shoulders. “I know that. Hutch will always be a part of my life, Nicky. Alive or dead that will never change.”

Moving away from Starsky’s reach, Nick turned towards the door. “Yeah, I know. I’d better go.”

When Nick headed for the door, Starsky caught up to him before he could leave. “You can stay, Nicky.”

Averting his eyes, Nick shook his head. “I have to check in at the restaurant. I’ll call you tomorrow.”

Before Starsky could say another word, Nick was gone. He moved to the window and watched his brother speed away. “Nicky,” Starsky brokenly whispered. His heart hurt from the pain of it all. Nick wasn’t even aware of his slow demise and there was little Starsky could do to help.

He went to the phone and called Huggy. Starsky briefly explained where to meet him and when his friend balked, he promised to enlighten him as soon as he arrived. He quickly put the food away and afterwards, grabbed his jacket and headed around to the back alley. When Huggy pulled up, Starsky hopped in the car.

~*~

The urgent knock on the door, brought Hutch’s head up and when he opened it, Starsky threw himself in his arms. He quickly shut it and tightly held his partner. “Starsk, what’s wrong?”

“God, Hutch,” came the ragged muffled cry. “I lost him.”

Starsky’s shoulders shook and Hutch pulled him even closer, if that was possible. “I’m so sorry, buddy.”

Hutch stepped back and removed Starsky’s jacket. After taking the holster off, he guided him to the bed. Hutch knelt and removed Starsky’s shoes.

Starsky wiped his eyes. “What are you doing?”

“You’re exhausted. I bet you haven’t had a decent night’s sleep in days.” Starsky’s silence was his answer. Hutch laid him down and moved in behind him.

“Hutch.”

“Don’t worry. Your virtue is safe with me.”

Starsky almost smiled and when Hutch’s arms encircled him, he snuggled closer. “I didn’t know where else to go.”

“I was hoping I was the first one you’d come to.”

“You always are,” Starsky confirmed. “He’s so jealous, Hutch. Even thinking you’re dead he’ll always see you as coming between me and him.”

“Starsk, Nick’s inability to take responsibility is what keeps him and you from getting closer. He blames the rest of the world for his shortcomings and it’ll take more than just some quality time for him change.”

“I should’ve done more,” Starsky castigated out loud. “If I’d…”

“Don’t do this to yourself.”

“You said so yourself, Hutch. I took the heat for him…”

“Nicky’s problems go farther back than a year. If you wanted to pinpoint it, you could find any number of reasons back to his childhood, when you were a child yourself.”

Starsky sighed and the fulfillment in Hutch’s arms was unlike anything he had ever experienced. “When you put it like that…”

Hutch chuckled. “I’m right.”

“Where’s Luke?”

“He spends most nights at the restaurant.”

“He’d get an eyeful if he were to walk in right now,” Starsky mused.

“Only if I were having my way with you,” Hutch joked.

Starsky closed his eyes. “Just be here for me, Hutch. That’s all I need right now.”

“I’m not going anywhere, partner.” The urge to kiss Starsky was strong and Hutch didn’t want to ruin the closeness. As much pleasure as he wanted to give his partner, this wasn’t the time for it.

~*~

The following morning, Luke was sent to a small outlying airport where Tony Marcano was to arrive. It was almost 9:30 by the time the plane landed and fifteen minutes later, he was sitting in the back of the long sedan with Tony. He stole a glimpse at Benny who was driving.

“Luke, you’re to be congratulated,” Tony said. “Nick tells me you went above and beyond.”

“Thanks, Tony.”

“I’ll admit that killing a cop didn’t set well with me and I still have my concerns, but it appears you will never be tied to it.”

“He put it together a little too fast for comfort.” Luke’s eyes went to the street and his heartbeat picked up when Benny turned a corner. “We’re supposed to go to Wilmington.”

“Change of plans, Luke.” Tony pulled out a thin cigar then lit it. “Nick thought it best we do this elsewhere.”

Inwardly, Luke was panicking. “It probably is.”

~*~

In hidden locations around the abandoned office supply store, police officers and agents waited. Starsky and Hutch were crouched behind an overflowing garbage bin surrounded by several trash bags and boxes.

Hutch attempted to wave away the offensive odor. “What time is it?”

“We’ve still got ten minutes.”

Looking at the old building, an uneasy feeling was slowly growing. Hutch spoke into the radio. “Team two. Anything?”

“Nothing,” the radio responded.

Starsky watched the frustration on Hutch’s face. “We’ve still got a few minutes, Hutch.”

“Something’s not right, Starsk. We set this up hours ago thinking someone would at least come by to make sure the place was clean.”

“Maybe no one’s had time.”

“On the day of a first major shipment of coke? Today’s a big deal, Starsk. It signals Nick’s promotion as a major player.”

Starsky stared at the old store. “You think this was a decoy.”

“He has been holding back from Luke.” Hutch moved closer to Starsky. “Luke said Nick’s been having meetings without him. He could’ve lied about this location.”

“If not here, then where.”

“Nick thinks he got away with everything,” Hutch thoughtfully said.

“The restaurant?” Starsky shook his head. “No, he wouldn’t do it there.”

“It hasn’t opened yet and it is Nick’s feel good place.” Hutch picked up the radio. “Captain Dobey, do you read?”

“Go ahead, Hutchinson.”

~*~

It was the oddest sensation of helplessness Luke had ever recalled having since his beginnings as an agent. His eyes roamed the empty restaurant knowing that no one would be coming in to make the busts. He glanced over at Tony and Nick who were getting reacquainted.

“This place looks fantastic, Nick.” Tony wandered around the dining area with pride on his face.

“I figured I’d do better if this place was as legit as it appeared.”

With an affectionate pat on the arm, Tony chuckled. “You certainly did that and more.”

“Thanks for clueing me in to your sources, Tony.” Nick slipped his hands in his pockets. “I couldn’t have gotten as far as I have.”

“I have no doubt you’ll go even farther.”

The smug grin on Nick’s face was enough to raise the warning hairs on the back of Luke’s neck. He heard Tony call his name and moved closer. Nick stood not far with Benny and Rocky. One of Tony’s men held the oversized briefcase and the other leaned against the bar.

“We need to discuss how the other shipments will be handled,” Tony began.

“Not just yet,” Nick said. He strolled to Luke until he was within a few feet. “We’ve got other business first.”

The blow to Luke’s lower back came from nowhere and he fell to his knees in agonizing pain. Tears sprung to his eyes and he could barely breathe and his hands on the floor kept him from falling completely over. He never knew that Rocky had moved in behind him.

“What the hell, Nick!” Tony yelled.

Looking down at Luke, Nick said, “Your sources are damn good, Tony. Much better than you realize.”

“He’s a cop? That should’ve never got buy me!”

“No, he’s not.” Nick curiously watched Luke still trying to get his bearings. “You always do a standard check on any new guy, but I got suspicious of Luke. I had your inside man with the feds do a more thorough one. Our Luke is DEA.”

“Goddamn!” Tony bit out.

Before Tony could pull out his gun, Nick stopped him. “I’m not through with him yet.”

A vicious kick by Rocky to Luke’s ribs sent him to the floor.

~*~

The convergence on the restaurant was slow and quiet. Once Starsky saw the three cars parked near the back, he knew. His brother was inside working a drug deal and knowing that, gave him a strange sensation of being in a dreamlike state. He and Hutch in addition to two other agents moved to the back of the restaurant.

Hutch checked the door and nodded at Starsky. He pulled out his radio. “Anything?”

“SWAT spotted people moving about inside,” Dobey told him. “Can’t pinpoint who is who.”

“We’re going in through the back,” Hutch explained. “We should be able to get as far as the kitchen without being seen.”

“My men are getting in place. Two clicks will be the signal.”

“Got it, Cap’n.” Hutch shoved the radio in his pocket and looked at Starsky.

After a brief nod, both men began to stealthily ease into the restaurant.

~*~

“Pick him up,” Nick ordered.

Luke gasped when he was yanked to his feet. Through the agonizing haze, he watched Nick’s confident face.

“You think you covered your tracks so well.” Nick shook his head. “But once your file was yanked, it was so easy to put the rest together.”

“It’s over, Nick,” Luke ground out. Given how hard it was to breath, he speculated that at least a couple of ribs had to be busted. “Everyone knows, including your brother.”

“Once we get rid of you, this place will be clean. By the time anyone even thinks to look here, all they’ll find is happy customers.” Nick motioned for Rocky.

Twisted pleasure was all over Rocky’s face as he stepped in front of Luke. “I owe you for this one, you son of a bitch!”

Luke’s head snapped back from the violent punch. He could taste blood in his mouth and briefly wondered if his nose was broken.

Nick stepped around Rocky and folded his arms. “It’s almost ironic as hell you and I would be here like this, Luke. If you weren't DEA and really with us, it’d be a fucking riot. I would've offer you a huge cut. I gotta admit you did a hell of a job.”

Blood steadily poured from Luke’s nose and he resisted the urge to wipe it away. He watched Nick casually pace in front of him.

“Hutch isn’t dead, is he?” Nick shook his head when no word came from Luke. “It seemed so strange that you’d off the son of a bitch but not a lowlife punk like Marty. That’s when I got suspicious.” He stopped and moved in closer. “Look at us. You and me. If you weren’t DEA, it’d be them on one side and you and me on the other. The quirk of fate would’ve been one for the record books.”

It dawned on Luke what Nick was saying to him. He shook his head in denial and opened his mouth to speak.

“Yeah, I know the truth. Your job was to keep the dots unconnected and I wound up connecting yours."

“Nick…”

Ignoring him, Nick reached inside Luke’s jacket and pulled out his gun. He closely inspected it and ran his fingers across the barrel. “I always wondered what it would be like to kill someone. Seems a shame though.”

~*~

Starsky and Hutch stood on each side of the door with their guns ready. They could hear the voices coming from the other side and knowing that Luke’s cover had been blown, they waited anxiously for the signal.

~*~

Caressing the weapon, Nick didn’t even look at Luke. “The real reason you came here is just so damn clear now.” He turned and slanted his head.

When the weapon was aimed directly at him, Luke’s eyes widened with untold fear. The door to the kitchen flew open. “Police! Freeze!”

Seeing everyone’s head turn towards the loud order, Luke got free of his hold and lunged at Nick. He was barely aware of the loud racket as he wrestled with Nick for the gun. A knee to his aching stomach forced Luke backwards and he fell to the floor.

“Hold it,” Hutch yelled with his magnum aimed on Tony. He fired two bullets before the man could level his weapon at Hutch. He glanced at Starsky who was wrestling with Benny on the floor.

A gunshot exploded in the room and as soon as Starsky raised his head, he saw Nick grabbing the briefcase and heading to the back.

Hutch assisted with putting the cuffs on a struggling Rocky then moved to Luke who lay gasping holding his side. When he moved the agent’s hands, blood seeped from the gunshot wound.

“Shit,” Luke moaned. “I’ve never been shot before.”

Quickly yanking a towel down, Hutch put pressure on the wound trying to staunch the blood blow. “Easy.” He kept his concerns silent and looked at the officer hovering. “Get an ambulance.”

~*~

Nick rushed through the back door leading to the alley and started towards the end. He skidded to a halt at the police cars blocking the end. He whirled and saw Starsky following him. Nick held tightly to the briefcase as his brother started towards him.

“It’s over, Nick,” Starsky said.

“Let me go, Davy.”

“You know I can’t do that.”

Nick’s nervous eyes shot to the far side of the alley which was clear of black and whites. “All you gotta do is look the other way. Just tell them you lost me and you’ll never see me again.”

Starsky took another two steps. “Nick, you have to face what you’ve done here. You know that.”

As if suddenly realizing he was holding a gun, Nick raised it and leveled it on his brother. “I won’t go, Davy.”

He stopped. “You’d shoot me.”

Perspiration beaded on Nick’s forehead and he was breathing heavily. His eyes were starting to fill with tears. “Don’t make me do it, Davy!”

“What about Ma, Nicky? You shoot me, she loses both of us. You’d go to jail and I’ll be dead.” Starsky took more steps towards him. “Do you think she could take it?”

“Please!” Nick begged.

“Don’t do this to her…to our family.” He kept moving until the barrel touched his chest. “It’s time to end it, Nicky.”

When the tears overwhelmed him, Starsky gently took the gun out of Nicky’s grasp and moved him to the wall. The briefcase dropped from his brother’s hands and Starsky numbly put the handcuffs on his brother. “You’re got the right to remain silent…” He suddenly realized what he was doing and stepped back. The nausea was thick in his stomach and he took a deep breath to hold it in. Starsky pushed Nicky towards the waiting officer. “Read him his rights.”

Starsky put his back against the brick wall and closed his eyes. It was finally over, but his chest remained heavy and tight. His brother was going to prison and the weight of such responsibility threatened to suffocate him. The thought of telling their mother was almost more than he could bear.

His eyes opened at the gentle touch on his hand. Hutch stood with sympathetic eyes and Starsky leaned against him. “It’s over, Hutch.”

“You okay?”

“I will be.”

“Braddock was shot.”

Starsky put his arm around Hutch’s waist. “Is he okay?”

“He’s on his way to the hospital. He lost a hell of a lot of blood.”

“I’m heading to the station.”

“Want me to go with you?”

Starsky shook his head. “I’ll meet you at the hospital when I’m done. I need to make some calls.”

Hutch wished he could find a way to take Starsky’s pain away, but there was no getting around it. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah, I need to call Ma and make sure Nicky gets a lawyer.” Starsky weakly smiled. “I’m not going to try and get him out of it, Hutch. He’ll have to do that himself.”

“If you need anything…”

“I will,” Starsky promised. “I should only be a couple of hours.”

Hutch nodded and watched his partner heading towards the group of parked cars. His partner never looked so alone and Hutch was willing to follow his wishes at this point.

~*~

Starsky closely observed the process of his brother being processed and carefully monitored all the paperwork. He wanted it done by the book and made sure everything followed the letter of the law. When Nick was taken to a holding cell, Starsky spent another few minutes going over the details then left to find Captain Dobey. After they talked and some phone calls, he asked for his brother be put in an interrogation room.

He paused at the door being guarded before walking inside. Nick sat calmly with his hands together. Starsky pulled out the chair and sat across from him. “I hired you a lawyer. He’ll be here in half an hour.”

Nick’s eyes remained on his hands and no sign came from him that he would speak.

“The DA’s going to push for no bail, Nicky. He considers you a flight risk after reading the reports and the judge will probably agree with him.”

“You’re not going to help me, are you?”

“I’ll only do so much,” Starsky answered in a low voice. “You’ll get a fair trial if you want to push it that far, but you and I both know you’re going to prison for a long time.”

“For the rest of my life,” Nick mumbled.

Their eyes still hadn’t met and Starsky wondered if his brother would ever look at him again. “It depends on you. The DEA and the Feds have a lot of questions and if you cooperate, the DA’s willing to plea bargain. There’s a chance you could be out in ten or fifteen years.” At Nick’s uneasy sigh, Starsky leaned forward. “If you go along, you’ll be taken to New York to testify before a grand jury. You have a lot of information, Nick, and your best chance is to tell everything you know.”

Nick turned his head and wiped at the corner of his eye. “Does Ma know?”

“I talked to her a few minutes ago,” Starsky answered with an aching voice. “Alice and Mel are with her.”

“Jesus, Davy!” Nick’s head lowered and the crying sigh almost escaped him. “What am I gonna do?”

“You’ll face up to what you’ve done, Nicky. It’s the best thing for you.”

After rubbing his eyes, Nick’s eyes raised to meet Starsky’s. “We were never that much alike, were we, Davy?”

“Not where it counted,” Starsky answered sorrowfully. “You shot a DEA agent and put a hit out on Hutch, Nick.”

“Not even in the ballpark,” Nick bitterly chuckled. “You want to know the worst part about it all?” Seeing the sadness in Starsky’s eyes, Nick didn’t even attempt to reach out to him. “I’m not sorry for any of it.”

Nick’s last words were like the final kick to an already down man which was how Starsky felt. He slowly rose and went to the door. He turned and gave his brother a final look before leaving.

~*~

Hutch looked up from his seat to see Starsky taking slow steps into the waiting room. Neither spoke as his partner eased into the seat next to him. He watched Starsky lean his head into his hand.

Starsky looked up at Hutch when he felt the warm comforting hand on his thigh. He saw the band aid in the crook of Hutch’s arm. “What’s that for?”

“Oh.” Hutch ran his finger over it. “I gave blood. They said they’re running low on AB negative and since Braddock has the same type as me, I gave some.” Seeing Starsky’s sullen face, he leaned in. “How’s Nicky?”

“He’s Nicky.” A burdened sigh escaped and Starsky struggled not to cry. “He’s not sorry, Hutch. God, he doesn’t regret a damn thing.”

Putting his arm around Starsky, Hutch pulled him close. “Give it some time, buddy. He’ll have a lot of time to think about it. I don’t think it’s fully sunk in at what he’s facing and why.”

Even though Starsky wasn’t as confident as Hutch, he nodded. Hearing footsteps both looked up to see the doctor in scrubs approaching. They stood and met him halfway.

“Are you here for Luke Braddock?”

“Yes,” Hutch answered. “How is he?”

“He’ll be fine. We removed the bullet and no vital organs were injured. He does have three broken ribs and there was some blood loss. We’ll keep him for a couple days to make sure infection doesn’t set in.”

“Can we see him?” Starsky asked.

“He just went into recovery. I’ll have the nurse inform you when he’s settled in a room.”

“Thank you, Doctor,” Hutch said. He glanced at Starsky. “I need to get going.”

“Where are you going?”

“I need to get to work on my end, partner.” Hutch slipped the garment on. “If Dobey doesn’t see one of us, we’ll both wind up directing traffic at Lincoln Elementary.”

“I’ll see Luke when he gets to his room.” Hutch started for the door, and Starsky called his name. “Hutch, maybe tonight…”

“We’re both exhausted, partner. One more day wouldn’t hurt, would it?”

Starsky nodded at the calming smile of his partner and after Hutch was gone, he turned to find some coffee. It was close to three hours later when the nurse led Starsky to Luke’s room. He poked his head inside and saw the young man lying comfortably in the bed. A lone IV pole stood close by.

He stole quietly in the room being careful not to wake the sleeping agent. Starsky sat down in the chair and curiously looked at him while he slept. It was only a few minutes when a moan from the bed brought him to his feet.

Luke’s eyes flickered open and he struggled to focus. “Wh-where am I?”

“The hospital,” Starsky quietly stated. “Do you remember what happened?”

Moistening his dry lips, Luke slowly answered. “The shipment…I remember…” He turned his head. “Shit, my cover was blown.”

“Yeah. Tony’s dead.”

“Nick?” Luke asked.

Starsky solemnly looked at him. “In jail. He won’t be getting out anytime soon.”

“I’m sorry, Starsky. I know he’s your brother…”

Lightly touching him on the shoulder, Starsky firmly nodded. “It’s okay. We did what we had to. You did a good job.” He wasn’t sure if that eased the agent’s mind or not. “Is there anyone you want us to call?”

Luke shook his head. “No.”

“You get some rest. Hutch and I will be back later to check on you.”

He headed to the door and turned to say something, but Luke’s eyes were already closed. Starsky quietly left heading back to Metro. By the time he arrived, Hutch was almost finished with his paperwork. The two detectives enjoyed a relaxing meal at Huggy’s then Starsky took Hutch home.

Hutch saw his partner’s yawn and patted him on the knee. “Come on. You’re bushed.”

“I’ll make it home.”

“You want me to carry you upstairs?”

Turning his head, he saw the rise of Hutch’s eyebrow. “I honestly can’t tell if you’d really do that or not.” Rather than chance it, Starsky stepped out of the car and followed Hutch up the stairs.

Once inside, he headed for the couch and slumped down. “How can I be so damn tired,” Starsky asked as he rubbed his eyes.

“The strain of the last few weeks is catching up to the both of us.” Hutch grabbed the spare pillow from the bed and brought it to the couch. “It’ll take more than one good night’s sleep.”

Starsky toed his shoes off. “Just as well. You don’t have a ride to work tomorrow.” He pulled the t-shirt over his head and handed it to Hutch. “Your luck with cars is lousy, Hutchinson. You know that?”

“I volunteered the old girl.” Hutch went into the bedroom after a spare blanket. When he returned, Starsky was already stretched out on the couch. “I can always get another.”

“The LTD was blown up, Belle got sidelined by a fender bender and you sacrificed your latest crate.”

Hutch smiled as he covered his partner. “Are you trying to make a point?”

“Yep.” Starsky snuggled under the blanket. “Somebody’s tryin’ to tell you something.”

“And what would that be?”

“You’re destined to spend your days in a candy apple red Torino with a white stripe.”

He watched Starsky burrow deeper under the blanket. “I guess so,” Hutch softly agreed.

~*~

When Starsky and Hutch stepped into Luke’s room later that afternoon, he was sitting up and pushing the bland food around on his plate. “Only a few more days of glorious hospital food,” Starsky declared with a smile.

Luke smiled wanly and pushed the tray away. “The food will kill me by then.”

Hutch moved to the side of the bed. “How are you feeling?”

“Sore as hell,” Luke scowled. “They never tell you that getting shot hurts so damn bad.”

Starsky plopped into a chair and crossed his legs. “The doc said it looked worse than it really was. He said your busted ribs saved your life.”

Luke nodded. “They deflected the bullet from hitting any internal organs.”

“Captain Dobey said your supervisor and a few other agents came by already this morning,” Hutch said.

“Yeah, they got my statement.” He glanced at Starsky. “I told them everything.”

“Don’t sweat it,” Starsky told him. “Nicky’s owning up to everything and he’s willing to testify.”

“Is he taking the deal from the DA?”

“Yeah,” Hutch answered.

“Thank God,” Luke told them. “I didn’t relish the idea of testifying against him.”

“You’ll probably be up for a commendation or two,” Starsky offered.

Luke chuckled. “That and a reprimand for burning down Montgomery’s house. Bob was not too pleased about my improvisation.” He grew serious and looked at Hutch. “I had to tell them what I did to you.”

“I know. Dobey knows, too. It won’t impact my career or this case at all. It’s thanks to you, Luke.”

“I don’t deserve it, but thanks anyways.”

Starsky stood and walked to Hutch. “We better get out of here.”

“Yeah, we’ve got a ton of paperwork waiting on us at work and dinner plans tonight,” Hutch stated. He was more than ready for their night. The constant putting off was getting old and Hutch hoped to surprise his partner.

Once outside the hospital room, Hutch was called over by a nurse. “Excuse me, Officer Hutchinson. Do you have a moment?”

“I’ll see you at work, Starsky.” After his partner left, Hutch turned to the nurse. “What can I do for you?”

“I was handed this message for Mr. Braddock’s room, but it had your name on it. I’m assuming it’s meant for you.”

‘Mr. Hutchinson’ was written on the outside of the message and when he opened it, Hutch felt his heart skip a beat. He licked his dry lips. “I’ll take care of it. Thank you.”

Hutch went back to the room and moved inside. He purposefully kept his eyes off of Luke and went to the window. “I want to know why you didn’t tell me.”

Luke knew exactly what Hutch was talking about. “Telling you didn’t seem to be an ideal time after asking you to play dead.”

The sarcastic answer drew a hard stare from Hutch. “What about afterwards. Seems to me there were plenty of opportunities for you to come clean.”

“That’s rich,” Luke bit out. “You act like I’m the bad guy. What would you have said? You’re the smart one here, so you tell me. Would you have believed me?” When Hutch turned his attention out the window, Luke said, “That’s what I thought.”

Luke got to his feet and with his hand on his side he moved to stand behind Hutch. “Look at you. You can’t even stand to look at me.” Shaking his head, Luke said, “Just go ahead and ignore me. It’s a hell of a lot easier than dealing with the truth.”

“The truth!” Hutch angrily replied in a low voice. “By virtue of omission the truth was the last thing on your mind.”

“If I had my way about it, no one would have known! As soon as I get the go ahead, I’m on the first plane home and you’ll never see me again.”

When Hutch turned his head, Luke was headed to the bathroom. As soon as the door closed, he left.

~*~

Starsky never had a chance to start on any of the paperwork when he got to his desk. Dobey was already there. “Braddock’s going to be checking out of the hospital pretty soon, Cap’n.”

“Good. Your brother’s asking for you, Starsky.”

Maybe it was to beg for help, Starsky thought. “How soon will the feds be moving him?”

“Late tomorrow. This will be your last chance to see him for some time.”

Starsky nodded and made his way downstairs. He was directed to Nick’s cell and when he got there, his gut was tied into knots at the sight of his brother. Gone were the expensive jewelry and clothes. In their place was the cheap denim of a prisoner.

“I didn’t know if you’d come.” Nick was nervous and it grew when his brother remained silent. “They’re shipping me out of here. Guess I’ll be serving most of my time in New York.”

“It’s the deal that got worked.”

“Davy, I’m scared, you know. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me?”

Starsky swallowed the hard lump in his throat. This was the little brother he knew so well. This was the one who looked to him for protection and now he couldn’t help him. “You’ll be fine. They’ll make sure of it.”

“I just can’t stand thinkin’ it’s over with us, Davy.”

“It’s not, Nicky. We’re brothers and nothing in the world will ever change that.”

The relief was in Nick’s eyes. His brother still needed him.

“You know, Davy, it wasn’t that hard, you know. Everything I did.” Nick rubbed his eyes. “Every step I took made sense to me. Each one was a little worse than the ones before, but it all got so out of control.”

“I know, Nicky.” It was the way with criminals. Starsky heard their rationalizations a million times over the years. His brother was no different.

“I was going to kill Luke. Even after I found everything out about him, I didn’t care...maybe I wanted him dead because of Hutch.”

“Nicky, what are you talking about?”

Nick went to the bars and rested his hands on them. “You don’t know?” He almost laughed at the blank look on Starsky’s face. “Goddamn, Davy. I love you, bro, but you’re so fucking clueless sometimes.” He motioned for Starsky to come closer. “They’re brothers, Davy. Luke and Hutch.”

“What?”

“Luke didn’t come here to nail Marcano or anything else. There is only one reason why he’s hear, brother, and I had nothing to do with it.”

“I’ll be back tomorrow to see you off, Nicky,” Starsky told him.

Starsky was still reeling from the news and he headed to Hutch’s place. His partner’s well-being was foremost in his mind and when Starsky got there, Hutch was watering his plants.

“How did it go?” Hutch asked.

“Okay, I think.” Starsky picked a dead leaf from the plant. “He’s leaving tomorrow for New York. The Feds made a solid deal in return for his testimony.”

“How is he holding up?”

“As well as can be expected, I guess.” Starsky smiled a little. “He was almost like the kid brother I remember who used to follow me around all the time.” Starsky observed the cleanliness of the place. “You’ve been busy.” Hutch started to move away and Starsky’s hand stopped him. “Hutch, what’s wrong?”

What’s not wrong?“Everything made so much sense only a few days ago, Starsk. How can it be so different so quickly?”

“Maybe because what we thought was real, wasn’t.”

“Are you going to be pissed for me not telling you everything, Starsky?”

“Usually, you have good reason.”

“How about there was no reason to tell you.”

“Why not start at the beginning?”

Hutch set the watering can down and went to the chair. He sat, took a deep breath and began. “Remember a few years ago when Dad got sick?”

“Yeah, I do.”

“While I was home, I went through his desk and found a letter. It was from a secretary Dad had when I was a kid. It was written eight years before. She was telling him that she was happily married and anything Dad offered wouldn’t be accepted. I asked Mom about it and that was when I found out about his affair. I was a kid at the time.”

“What else, Hutch?”

Hutch rubbed his eyes and leaned forward. “She found out she was pregnant and left town. Mom said she had gotten married and they were raising the baby together. No one was willing to step in the middle of that.” He raised his head and looked at Starsky. “I didn’t tell you because there was no reason to.”

“And you’re telling me now?”

“At the hospital, Dad tried to call him. I guess he somehow found out Luke was hurt.” Hutch looked for a reaction, but saw none. “You’re not surprised?”

“Nicky told me a little while ago. I guess Marcano’s inside man got the info for him during the case.”

“Well,” Hutch said with a sigh. “It’s over now. Nick leaves tomorrow and so will Braddock once he gets clearance.”

“You’re not going to do anything?”

“What is there to do, Starsky?” Hutch got up and went to the kitchen. He took a beer from the fridge and turned around. “Everyone made their choices.”

Starsky followed him. “You’re ignoring one very important one.”

“What’s that?”

“Luke Braddock didn’t come here for the reasons he said. He risked his life not just to take down a drug ring, but also to see you, Hutch.” Starsky moved in close and smiled a little. “Anybody that’s willing to do what he did in order to see his brother gets a very high ranking in my book. I’d say at the top.”

Starsky was so close to him, that Hutch almost forgot what they were talking about. The emotional yearning ran so deep that he wished he could just pour his mind, body and soul inside Starsky.

“Hutch,” Starsky whispered. He saw the growing intensity in his partner’s eyes. “Listen to me, babe. I know what you want.”

“I need you, Starsk. God, I fucking need you.”

“I want it, too, but it can’t be like this. Not for you and me.”

“Starsk...”

“Hutch, remember a few days ago after I had that dinner with Nicky? I was so far down and I needed you, but you knew it would have been a mistake for us. Remember?”

“Yeah,” Hutch answered in a low voice. Starsky was right.

~*~

The following day was spent tying up loose ends related to the case. Hutch kept eyeing the clock and every time he thought he was going to get away, there was always one more thing that he had to deal with in order to finalize their investigation.

It was late afternoon when Starsky was called away to see Nicky off. That was the opportunity Hutch took to head to the hospital. When he got there, he spoke with the doctor and then went to see Luke.

Hutch thought he looked good. Luke was now wearing a sling to minimize movements and dressed in new jeans and a t-shirt. “I heard they’re letting you out early.”

Luke nodded. “Yeah, the doc said I’m well enough to travel. What are you doing here?”

“We need to talk.”

“Listen, my flight leaves out in a few hours and I’ve got a cab coming.”

“I’ll take you,” Hutch offered.

“What?”

“We can talk on the way.”

“Okay.”

Hutch helped Luke check out of the hospital and on the way to the airport, he glanced at Luke. “I’m sorry, you know.”

“For what? None of this was your fault.”

“I should have insisted on finding out more about you...seeing you, but I was told...”

“Do you think rehashing stuff from our childhoods we had no control over is a good idea?”

“Maybe we should just start off by exchanging phone numbers.”

“Yeah,” Luke said. “I’d like that.”

After exchanging numbers and addresses at the gate, Hutch turned to Luke. “Next time call.”

Luke laughed a little. He felt awkward and wasn’t quite sure what to do.

Hutch pulled Luke into a hug. “Take care of yourself...little brother.”

When they separated, Luke eyes were red from the emotion of the moment. He gave Hutch a wave and headed to the gate. Hutch returned it and when Luke was gone, he headed back to the car.

~*~

Driving home, Hutch smiled. He had a brother. The twist and turns of the last few weeks were draining. He was satisfied as he could be with the outcome. Nick would serve hard time for his crimes and Hutch hated it because of the impact on his partner, but everything else had ended as they could have...well, except for one thing. Hutch frowned.

He pulled the car to Venice Place and got out. Hutch noted Starsky’s car and hurried inside. Once in his apartment, he slipped off his jacket and removed the holster. “Starsky.”

No answer. Hutch moved toward the kitchen and something in the greenhouse caught his eye. He turned and moved closer. When he saw the twinkling white lights decorating the greenhouse, he almost laughed.

“Hey.”

Hutch turned and saw Starsky coming toward him. Around his neck was the gold chain and ring. “You found it.”

“When I thought you were dead.” Starsky stopped just shy a few inches. He took off the gold chain and removed the ring. “This belongs here.”

When Starsky slid the ring on his index finger, Hutch smiled in amazement. Starsky was giving him his dream. He raised his hand and touched Starsky’s cheek. “I love you, Starsk.”

Starsky replied by giving Hutch a kiss.

END