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The Streets of Bay City

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The shiny red Mustang Shelby GT500 looked out of place on the dingy streets that graced this particular section of Bay City. Run down hotels, triple X-rated movie houses, and seedy bars vied for space alongside Vinny's Shoe Emporium and Big Jim's Discount Clothing & Liquor Market. There were no fancy Whole Foods stores or mega Wal-Marts in this part of town. People got their vegetables from Morty's and meat from Beef Bonanza. Bread came daily, fresh and smelling like heaven, from Mama's Bakery.

Starsky drove cautiously around a pile of broken bricks that somebody had thoughtfully left in the street. Once he was sure he had cleared the debris, he licked his lips and his mouth watered. The smell of freshly made chocolate glazed donuts filled the Mustang's interior. A hand-pressed coffee sent Costa Rican fragrance into the air, and Starsky had to wipe his lips before he drooled down his own shirt. Mama's Bakery was heaven on earth. He glanced down several times to be sure that the to go mug hadn't dripped on his pristine leather-covered console. He'd been nuts to pay extra for this gorgeous black interior but what the heck, he figured. You only live once.

And in his line of work, who knows? He could be dead before the next payment. That made him guffaw.

He drove over three blocks and the neighborhood changed. It was now up-scale in that yuppie sort of way. Starsky ignored the brightly painted shops with windows full of things he didn't want or need as he maneuvered the Mustang into the parking lot of a fancy-schmancy building. The sign in the front announced what the inside held: Bay City Fitness Centre.

"Morons," he muttered. "Can't even spell center. Fitness, my ass. Give me an old fashioned gym any day, with sweaty guys scratching their balls. Not this hoity-toity crap." With a disgusted sigh, he climbed from the car, taking the coffee cup and bag of donuts with him. He also grabbed the second bakery bag, lighter than his own. He bumped the door closed with his butt and hit the remote locking system once. A second tap set the alarm, which was verified by a double chirp of the horn. "You stay right here, baby. I'll get Hutch and we'll be on our way." Starsky gave the Mustang a final glance and trotted to the front doors of the fitness center.

The automatic doors slid open and he bustled through. The coolness gave him a shiver. The place had the a/c cranked. He paused, glancing around. About a dozen people worked out on various exercise apparatuses. He was particularly taken with a dark haired gal in her early twenties wearing a pair of tight black exercise shorts and a neon yellow crop-top jogging on a treadmill. He watched her for a moment, admiring the tautness of her ass and the controlled bounce of her boobs. She was especially nice and he liked especially nice.

"Starsky!"

Jolted out of his perusal of the woman, Starsky jerked. Some of the coffee sloshed out of the small hole on the top of the covered cup and dripped onto the floor.

"Geez, Starsky. Haven't I told you a dozen times not to bring food into the gym!" A tall, thin man stood before Starsky, his hands on his hips. He had on a tight t-shirt, bright green, with white lettering: Bay City Fitness Centre.

Starsky wanted to make a magic marker and fix the misspelled centre. "Hey, Miles," Starsky said, giving Miles a huge grin. "Sorry. I'm looking for Hutch. We gotta head out before Dobey reams us a new one."

"He's in the shower. Get out of here. I'll clean up your mess." Miles gave Starsky a smile, and it wasn't a regular "glad to help" smile. It was a "let's go to your place and screw" type smile.

Starsky nodded his thanks, ignored the come on and headed towards the showers, sipping his coffee.

Hutch was in the shower area, a large space with sixteen stalls separated by half-walls. There were a few private showers for the guys who were shy but most men didn't pay attention to each other in a shower. Not unless they were looking to hook up. There was one other guy on the far side of the room busy washing up. He didn't glance over when Starsky entered, fully clothed.

Shampooing his hair, Hutch had his eyes closed. Starsky watched, coffee cup held out ready to sip, with the two bags gripped in his fist. He thought about the powdered donut he had in his bag. Hutch reminded him of a freshly made donut, with creamy skin and a dusting of powdered-sugar hair on his body. Starsky would have given up anything he owned (including his new car) to chew on that flesh. To lick it. To suck it. To taste...

A splash of hot coffee hit his foot, yanking him out of his daydream. Just in time.

"Beautiful," he said softly. He bit down on his own tongue to stop any more words from escaping. Before Hutch heard. Hutch would rip him a new one for staring, let alone drooling over him. Hutch was all man, as in straight. Starsky knew that and yet he still wished.

"You're late."

"Huh?" Starsky blinked, righting his inner self with a firm grip. "You know coming down here to watch you shower- sweat is not the high point of my day." He casually leaned on the wall outside the shower area. "I got some freshly brewed java and look, only for you, a whole wheat bagel. Wanna share?" Starsky held out the smaller bag to Hutch.

Hutch took the bag and opened it. He stuck his nose into it and sniffed loudly. "Looks like a donut to me. Besides have I ever shared with you? And you keep forgetting."

"Huh?" Starsky repeated. He would have sworn Hutch was ready to tear into the bagel. He looked famished.

"No gluten, remember?" Hutch said firmly.

"I keep forgetting about your weird habits and I never forget that you don't share with me." Starsky swallowed, wishing Hutch did want to share. Lots of things, including his fine butt. He kept his eyes on Hutch's face, resisting the desire to watch him dry off his long, lean, gorgeous body. "But I keep hoping. Besides, a touch of sweetness is good for you. Mama don't put that crappy corn syrup in her baking. Only pure Hawaiian."

"I'll pass."

Hutch took a final swipe at his genitals with the end of the towel. The way he turned made Starsky sure that he was putting himself on display for a brief moment before he wrapped the towel around his waist. The exhibition was over in seconds but he'd enjoyed it while it lasted.

Leaning against a bank of lockers. Starsky sipped his coffee and ate his breakfast while Hutch dressed in tan khakis and a yellow t shirt. He settled his shoulder holster across his back. With nothing else to do, Starsky watched Hutch. He admired the pull and push of his chest and arm muscles as he tethered the holster to his belt and seated his Smith and Wesson into its home. All those hours at the gym- fitness centre were paying off. A light tan jacket went over the holster, and Starsky's viewing pleasure ended.

While Hutch finished brushing his hair and stowing his toiletries, Starsky made sure to dispose of his trash in the appropriate recycle bins. Once Hutch had hung his towel on a hook inside of his locker to dry, closed and locked the door, he turned to Starsky.

"Let's do it, partner."

Starsky grinned, wondering if Hutch had used the double entendre on purpose. "Yeah, let's do it."

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

Starsky stood beside Hutch in the parking lot of the fitness center.

"Whose car today?" Starsky asked, looking across the lot from his beautiful piece of motoring art to Hutch's sad excuse for a car.

"Mine." Hutch pulled keys from his pocket and started across the lot in that long-legged lope that made Starsky have to trot to keep up.

"Why yours?" Starsky demanded.

Hutch stopped beside a cream colored Chevy Volt. "The suspension in yours makes it as smooth as a couple of rocks in a washer on spin. I have a sensitive back." He hit the remote key and the door locks popped up. "Besides, my sweet Clarice is less trouble than that trick pony of yours, and it uses a hell of a lot less fuel." Hutch got in behind the wheel and turned on the ignition. "Have you seen the price of gas this week? It's nearly five bucks a gallon! I can plug in if we need to." Hutch leaned down, staring out the passenger's window at Starsky. He hit the electric button and lowered the window. "Get in, Starsk. We're late."

Starsky sighed and opened the door. "The a/c in this car, if you can call it a car, sucks."

"Stuff it and let's do a check." Hutch held up a hand, ticking off each thing on a finger. "Shells."

"Shells." Opening the center console, Starsky pulled out two boxes of shells.

"Your Beretta?"

"My Ber- Wait a second. It's a Colt. Are your eyes wacky or what?"

"Oops." Hutch gave him an embarrassed grin. "Your Colt."

"Yours?" Hutch patted under his under arm.

"Got it." Starsky mirrored Hutch's movement.

"Flares?"

"Six flares."

"Pepper spray?"

"One, two, three," Starsky counted each white and red can, "four. Check."

"Shotgun?"

"One shotgun. In the trunk, I suppose. Lotta good that'll do us if we need it," Starsky groused.

"I can hit the automatic trunk release from right here and you can run to grab it," Hutch said philosophically. "If we're under that much fire, a short range shotgun isn't going to help. Besides, that shotgun isn't department issue."

"Bite me," Starsky muttered. "And screw the regs."

"We do it all the time. No sense changing now."

"Right," Starsky agreed.

"Two cell phones."

Starsky handed one of the department issued phones to Hutch. He opened his. "Check. Fully charged."

Hutch likewise looked at the screen on his. "Ditto. Flashlight?"

"One old fashioned flashlight with new batteries." Starsky held up a silver and red cylinder. He pushed the toggle. "Check. I got an app on my phone that works like a flash light."

Hutch rolled his eyes. "Fantastic. As long as the phone has power."

"As long as the batteries have power," Starsky said, shaking the regular flashlight in front of Hutch's eyes.

Giving Starsky an exasperated look, Hutch said, "Last but not least, the book."

"Did you upload it to this heap a' junk?" Starsky asked.

Hutch grinned devilishly. He tapped the touch screen on the dash and it lit up instantly. He swiped his finger, tapped a folder and "the book" opened.

"The book," Hutch said triumphantly, waving a hand towards the dashboard.

"Groovy. You got it all uploaded nice and pretty." Starsky swiped the screen, looking at the files and photographs. He and Hutch kept meticulous records of snitches, warrants, cons on parole, cons still inside and their possible release dates, and finally all the busts they'd made in the past three years, with photos of the perps. They had witness pics filed by crime and date. In their line of work, instant information meant the difference between life and death.

"Nobody says 'groovy' any more," Hutch said with a chuckle. "Come on, partner. Let's get out of here."

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

From under the dashboard, Starsky pulled a discreet microphone from its holder. "Zebra Three to Dispatch."

In clear digital sound, a voice came back at him: "Go ahead, Zebra three."

"Nice," Starsky mouthed to Hutch. The newly installed two way system was state of the art, and the sound quality was worth the cash the department had to fork over for it. "Show us out and about at 0900 hours."

"Ten-four, Zebra Three," the dispatcher responded.

Starsky stowed the microphone.

Hutch drove down their regular beat, past familiar stores and used car lots. People hurried about, doing their daily chores. Both men were quiet for a few minutes before Hutch asked, "How'd it go with Cindy last night?"

Starsky kept constantly searching, studying the people who populated the sidewalks and glancing down the side alleys as they passed. He was alert for any trouble that might be brewing. He heard the bored tone in his partner's words and he felt Hutch's eyes on him. Almost as if Hutch felt he had to ask because that's what guys did: they bragged about their conquests in the bedroom. Starsky knew how to play the game. He put on an incredibly pleased face. "Acceptable, acceptable. What about you? You still seeing what's her name?"

Hutch chuckled dryly. "Still seeing what's her name. Took her to the whatchamecallit. Gave her my thingamajig." He grinned widely, raising his eyebrows up and down in a silly manner.

Starsky laughed along. There was his proof. Hutch was shagging Amber, or Ashley, or Amanda, whatever. "I didn't know it was that serious."

Hutch shrugged. "It's not." He stopped speaking abruptly, making Starsky look over at him, then to whatever had caught Hutch's attention on the sidewalk.

"What's up?"

There were a dozen people clustered on the corner waiting for the pedestrian signal to tell them it was safe to cross the busy intersection. He scanned the crowd.

"What's up?" Starsky asked again.

"I thought I saw- Wait. There, in the brown hat," Hutch pointed, "behind the guy in the Lakers' jacket."

"Well, that's a familiar face. Coley."

"I thought he was a guest of our fair city, doing one to five," Hutch mused aloud.

Starsky tapped the display screen quickly to rouse it and swiped his finger. "Coley, Coley, Coley. "Was" is the word of the day. He was paroled two months ago."

Hutch drove past the small crowd and pulled to the curb. Starsky watched Coley look around nonchalantly before he passed his hand across the backs of several male pedestrians.

Starsky hopped from the car and casually strolled towards Coley, his hands in his pockets. Coley was a smarmy man, in his forties, nondescript with his brown hat and brown suit, a slight man who slunk around like the weasel he was. Starsky had to give the guy credit; he knew how to blend in with the other people in this part of the city, taking care that his marks never noticed him. Starsky got behind Coley while Hutch skirted the crowd so that he walked directly up to their quarry. He stood there for a few seconds before Coley noticed him. Starsky chuckled silently as Coley's head bobbed up and down as he looked at Hutch. He could imagine Coley's eyes widening and his expression of surprise. Hutch took a step forward and Coley took three steps back -- right into Starsky's waiting arms.

"Put that scanner in your pocket and you'll pull out a stump," Starsky growled softly. He dragged Coley smoothly away from the curb, down the block a few feet to Hutch's car, all without the other pedestrians noticing a thing.

Coley's eyes were as wide and surprised as Starsky had imagined. The man was a bundle of nerves; he fidgeted as if he was going to wet his pants. He had to clear his throat twice before he blurted out, "What are you two guys doing here?"

Softly, but with an underlying menace, that gave Starsky goose bumps on his arms, Hutch said, "We work here, Coley, only our work here is legal. Now why don't you give me that scanning device."

"Yeah. Sure," Coley sputtered, dropping the small black item about the size of a cell phone into Starsky's outstretched hand.

Hutch grabbed Coley's elbow and directed him towards his car. "I thought we had an understanding, Coley. You've disappointed me."

Starsky took Coley's other elbow. "You promised us you'd never work in our district while we were here. Remember?"

Hutch pushed Coley against the side of the Volt. "Now why did you go back on your word? It's not nice to go back on your word, Coley." He spun Coley around and kicked the inside of his foot. "All right, spread them out. You know how to do this." He sighed dramatically as he patted Coley down. "Looks like we'll have to close the door on our relationship. I'm going to hate that."

"Yeah, because sometimes you had good intel, Coley," Starsky said. "Too bad."

Coley cranked his neck sideways to look at Hutch and then Starsky. "Come on, fellas! Let me go, huh? This once. I promise! I swear I won't work in your district at all. Think about this!" he cried when Hutch pulled his handcuffs from his jacket. He started to plead. "It'll take you a whole day to book me!"

"Not with the new system." Starsky grinned, leaning on Hutch's car.

Coley's eyes filled with tears. Starsky had to give the guy credit: he was a master at looking pitiful. "Why do you want to waste your time, even an hour or two, to book a two-bit hustler like me? You don't wanna do that, do you?" A tear slipped down his face and his lower lip quivered.

Starsky was equally awed and disgusted. Coley was a piece of work. He looked over at Hutch, who shrugged and shook his head. He was letting Starsky call this one. Starsky latched onto Cowley's coat collar. "Coley, the next time you walk by anybody and try to scan their credit card numbers or their debit card numbers or their dog license number, you two better be BFFs."

As Hutch pocketed his cuffs, Coley's entire demeanor changed. He brightened instantly and didn't wait a moment before walking away from the Volt. He stood in the center of the sidewalk looking from Hutch to Starsky and back again. "Ain't today the 17th?"

"All day. Why?" Starsky asked. "You gotta hot date? Your mama's birthday?"

"Nah. Nothing." Coley gave them one last puzzled look, turned and took off at a run.

Starsky stared at Coley's retreating back. He glanced at Hutch who was watching the retreating slime ball with narrowed his eyes. "Coley must be taking hormone shots. Rattled his brain, what he's got of one. He'd never have crossed us like that a year ago."

Hutch fished his car keys from his pocket and bounced them from one hand to the other. "And what was with the date thing? Since when did it make a difference to Coley what day he stole somebody's identity?"

Starsky scratched his head. Coley was now out of sight. "Not a clue." He opened the passenger door, still trying to figure out the strangeness, the significance, of the encounter with Coley.

Hutch got in behind the wheel and started the car. Starsky was disgusted when he lovingly caressed the Volt's steering wheel (environmentally manufactured from non-toxic plastic, Hutch had droned on when he'd first gotten the piece of junk) and glanced into the rear view mirror, the side mirror, and over his shoulder. He ignored Starsky's overly dramatic sigh. "It pays to be a safe driver." He pulled out onto the road. "Weird."

"Huh?"

"Coley. How he was acting. How in hell did Coley find the balls to flaunt his actions in our faces? Coley is a mouse, a wuss. He's a follower, not a leader. Something's up, partner."

"Yeah," Starsky agreed. "Weird for sure."

Hutch fell silent and Starsky used the time to consider Coley. He fervently hoped it wasn't the first in a long line of bad signs. Yet he couldn't shake off the odd tingle he had down the back of his neck.

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

Two hours later Hutch was driving a second round of their beat. Things were pretty quiet today, which was fine with Starsky. They'd broken up a fight between two gang bangers on Third, and rousted one of their snitches for intel on an older robbery case that wasn't going anywhere. Maybe they could call in on a lunch break. He was getting hungry. Starsky slumped against the car door. He crossed his arms, staring out the window. They passed by one of the many taco trucks that populated the city but he didn't bother asking Hutch to stop. Hutch considered the mobile food trucks a ptomaine waiting to happen. Just the other day he'd yelled at Starsky for eating cold soup out of a can. Hutch could be a pain in the butt sometimes. He sighed loudly.

Starsky felt Hutch's scrutiny several times before he finally asked, "All right. What's bugging you? It's lunch time and you haven't asked to stop at the last two taco trucks or at Frank's for a chili dog. Come on. Spill it."

Starsky sighed again and rubbed his empty belly. "I'm starting to feel like salt in the sugar bowl. Like I got toilet paper hanging out of the waistband of my jeans." He rubbed his fingers across his forehead. "I still can't get over Coley. I know you saw it. How surprised he was to see us." Starsky turned on the seat to face Hutch. With each word he felt more annoyed. "He ain't the only one! That hooker on Third. And what about Creepy Charlie and his buddy, Marko?"

"Maxie."

"Right, Maxie. When we questioned Creepy Charlie and Maxie behind the Circle K," Starsky waved a hand, "they all acted like we were from another planet or we had two heads or something."

"Maybe somebody put out the word that we got transferred," Hutch speculated.

"Nah. Not all of these people can think we were transferred."

Hutch leaned forward suddenly and pointed out the windshield, "Maybe not all the people; check 2 o'clock. Fat Rolly thinks we've been transferred. Look at him."

Starsky caught the sight of the back of Fat Rolly who was hurrying down the block. Rolly stopped, looked over his shoulder like he'd just seen a ghost - make that two ghosts - then slipped into a seedy bar. It was the same place they visited occasionally for information when Sammy the Snout called needing cash. "Spotted us and took right off. Hey," he said, "you think we forgot to use deodorant? Maybe that's what sending everybody scurrying away from us." Starsky sniffed his own armpit. "Nah. Seems okay to me."

Hutch laughed. "Might be the same thing that's got everybody else so uptight has Fat Rolly running scared." He pulled into an empty parking slot and stopped. "Whatever it is, it's apparently contagious."

"No shit. And I got a sneaking suspicion that it's something to do with you and me, buddy." As Starsky opened the door, the radio crackled to life.

"Zebra Three, come in please. Zebra Three, come in."

Starsky rolled his eyes, annoyed at the interruption. As if dispatch had the right to bug them when they were busy. "What do they want?"

Hutch reached for the mic. "Zebra Three here. What is it?"

"Zebra Three, the following message is from Captain Dobey. He wants you back in here, urgent and immediate."

Starsky grabbed the mic from Hutch's fingers. "Dispatch, you'd better say that again. Our radio's been acting up." He banged it on the dash.

"Hey! Watch out. Don't hurt Clarice!"

"Can it, lover boy," Starsky said to Hutch before he spoke into the mic again. "Say again, Dispatch. We're in a dead zone. Damned thing."

The dispatcher said, "Roger, Zebra Three.

"Roger?" Hutch mouthed. "Who's he?"

Starsky smacked Hutch's arm. "Dispat--, some---we can --ardly make --- a thing." He grinned at Hutch, pleased with his acting ability.

"Zebra Three, I repeat-"

Starsky tossed the mic onto the floor and got out of the Volt. As he and Hutch walked away, he could still hear the dispatcher trying to raise them.

"Not nice, Starsk."

"Who said I was nice?" Starsky grinned.

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

The bar was a sleazy one. Dingy and dank. Most places in Bay City didn't smell like mold because of the dry air. The Beer Joint was the exception. Hutch stood next to Starsky near the door. Shoulder to shoulder. He liked that about their partnership. They belonged together. It took a few moments for Starsky's eyes to adjust to the dim room. There was a faint odor of marijuana but that was normal these days. As long as nobody was lighting up inside the bar, he didn't have a beef with the occasional toker.

Looking around, he saw their quarry in the back as far from the door as he could get. He bumped his shoulder against Hutch's and nodded in Rolly's direction. Starsky headed towards Rolly. Hutch followed. Starsky put an extra swagger in his step, giving Hutch a great view of his ass. It never hurt to show off. If Hutch even noticed.

Rolly's back was to Starsky; he couldn't see what the man was doing. Hutch reached around Rolly quickly and triumphantly held up the cell phone. Rolly had been so busy fumbling with it he hadn't seen them approach.

"Hey!" Rolly protested but his mouth froze, gaping open when he saw Hutch standing on one side of him and Starsky on the other. His head swiveled back and forth like a bobble head doll. In the dim light Starsky knew Rolly was paler than usual, his eyes wide revealing his astonishment.

"Close your mouth, Rolly. You're catchin' flies," Starsky said.

Hutch read the text message aloud. "Get outta- What's that mean, Rolly? Who are you texting?"

"Nobody!" Rolly took a step back. Sweat beaded on his fat face and the stale odor of perspiration and other unpleasant smells he didn't want to know about made Starsky sneeze.

Starsky turned on his heels and inspected the faces of the dozen or so patrons who sat at the bar or at small tables lining the walls. "Dig that," he said to Hutch, pointing at the nearest man. "I can take looks like this from one or two people, but this is getting outta hand."

All the patrons had the same surprised look on their faces. Starsky was pissed. This had to end, and now was as good a time as any. As a server tried to sidle past him, Starsky took the metal tray from her hands and banged it down on the bar. Rolly took that moment to try and make his escape but Hutch latched onto the back of his shirt, keeping a firm hold.

"All right, folks!" Starsky called out. "All right." He banged the tray again.

Sullen eyes watched Starsky as he walked down the front of the bar, meeting each person's glare. Most looked away or ignored the hard look he tossed them. Hutch pushed Rolly into a chair and towered over him. He didn't say anything to Rolly but Rolly apparently got the message: he stayed put. Hutch sauntered across the floor and behind the bar. He and Starsky exchanged glances. There was something else in the eyes glaring at them other than annoyance and/or dislike of cops; something was in the air. Starsky shivered. It felt as if the cold hand of something creepy clutched at his throat.

Starsky stood near the door with his back to the door. He called out loudly, "Time we set up some new lines of communication here. Now you all know me and Hutch. That's Hutch over there with Fat Rolly." He waved a hand at Hutch, who waved back. "No texting!" he snarled, snatching a cell phone from a man's hand. He tossed the phone onto the bar. "Listen up! Nobody in here calls, texts, or emails anybody until Hutch and me speak to you. Got it?" At the mutters and curses, Starsky smiled. He made sure it was big and nasty. "Great! Where was I? Right! Hutch and me. You all know we're cops, and we know you know. It ain't a big secret. And we also know you don't like us." Starsky walked through the crowd, meeting the eyes of anybody who dared to meet his. At least he had their attention and that's what he wanted. "But gang, that's the way it is. We don't care because, well, we don't care. Right, Hutch?"

"Right." Hutch grabbed a woman's hand. "No calls. No pictures." She called Hutch a dirty name and pocketed her phone. "Thank you," he said politely.

"Fuck you," she said politely in return.

"No, thanks," Hutch said. "I haven't had all of my shots."

The woman gave him a nasty look, which made Hutch smirk and walk away shaking his head.

"Listen up." Starsky looked around the room. "We don't want to see anything about this chat on Twitter or Facebook or tattooed on your best friend's butt. Capiche?" He walked down the line of patrons again, giving each one the glare he'd perfected from hours as a rookie staring into his own mirror. "Because if you piss us off, we got the PD’s entire IT department behind us, and I heard they ain't got nothin' to do this week. You will find yourselves with plenty to do after they get through with you."

Hutch smacked one of the men on the head. "Wake up. Come on, wake up."

The man muttered darkly under his breath and rubbed his eyes.

"Hutch, get some pencils from behind the bar, would ya?" Starsky called over. Hutch complied while Starsky look an order pad from the server's pocket. He started to rip off pages and he handed each of the people in the bar their own slip. Hutch followed behind passing out pencils.

"So," Starsky continued, "we wanna find out some stuff. If each one of you would be good enough to write down what you might think the answer to the question is, we'd be really, really grateful. No names are necessary." Starsky paused when Hutch got to Fat Rolly. Hutch gave him a piece of paper and his own pen. Hutch was one smart cookie, Starsky realized with pride. "Twenty five words or less will do. I know a bunch of ya are shocked at having to actually write somethin' down rather than text it but hey, Hutch and me are old fashioned kind of guys." Starsky handed the final patron a slip of paper. "Neatness and originality will be taken into consideration."

One of the women spoke up. "What's first prize?"

Starsky laughed, looking at the woman. "All the vaccinations you want from the free clinic on Fourth." She gave him a cold stare. He shrugged and waved a paper in the air. Slowly, one by one the people started to write.

Hutch walked through the bar once more. "You know, Starsk, we might have to close this place down if we don't get what we're looking for." He stared directly at Fat Rolly. The man looked quickly away.

"Close it down on what grounds?" the bartender whined.

Hutch coughed. "Public safety code 2377 says an open sewer has to have a manhole cover. All right, folks. Time's up."

Starsky wandered through the crowd gathering up papers. He knew Hutch would watch his back. When he got to Fat Rolly, the man looked like he was going to barf.

 

"Thank you, Blondie," Starsky said to one of the women who handed over her paper. He glanced at each one as he put it onto the pile. "Very good. Does your mummy know you use language like this? Thanks for the pencil, Charlie. Thank you. Thank you. Oh, you are all being so nice!" he crooned.

Once he had collected a note from each person, Hutch joined him and together they read each one. "Well," Starsky said, "let's see what we got here. French. We got an educated crowd. That's good. Hutch, translate this."

Hutch laughed. "It says go to hell."

"At least it didn't say fuck off!" Starsky chortled, keeping an eye on the crowd. One man kept glancing over his shoulder, looking at the door. He nodded minutely to his partner.

Hutch reached over and poked the man. "What is this, a bus stop? You waiting for the next one?" The man shook his head vehemently and went back to his beer.

"Here it is," Starsky crowed, triumphantly waving a paper. His belly lurched at what he read. True or false? "Pay dirt. Says I was supposed to have been wasted last night." Not a nice thing to have read about one's self.

"Yeah?" Hutch asked. Starsky saw the concern in his partner's eyes. "Interesting. Also interesting is that it's written in ink." He turned to face Fat Rolly. "Just like the pen I loaned Fat Rolly, which by coincidence happened to be the only pen used in this game of show and tell."

"Really," Starsky said, staring at Rolly. He moved close to Rolly's left side and Hutch took his right.

Rolly tried to skitter away. Hutch's hold on his arm kept him in place. Rolly cried, "Hey, come on! Come on! What are you guys pulling? You said no names!"

Hutch shrugged. "I didn't say that; he did." He pointed at Starsky.

Starsky grabbed Rolly's other arm. "You win first prize, Dumbo. Come on."

Between them, the partners dragged Rolly over to the pool table away from the crowd.

"Okay, Rolly, who was supposed to kill me?" Starsky asked. He rolled the cue ball across the table where it bounced off the edge.

Rolly shook his head. "I don't know, Starsky. On my mother's life, I don't know!"

Starsky put his face close to Rolly's, breathing through his mouth to help minimize the unpleasant smell. "You don't have a mother. You were found in a garbage can behind Weight Watchers. Again, who?"

"I don't know, really," Rolly whined. "Just that word is that there was a contract out on you. That it was supposed to be last night. I don't know who or when or where. I don't have those kinda connections!" He looked from Starsky to Hutch. "It was just, you know, a rumor."

Starsky met Hutch's eyes. Hutch gave a slight nod. He walked over to the bar, returning in a minute with a metal tray that held four glasses of whiskey.

"Why don't you have a drink, Rolly? It will settle your nerves. Go on." Hutch put one of the shot glasses in front of Rolly.

"Thanks, Hutch." He tossed back the booze.

"You know, Starsky," Hutch said, "I don't think that Rolly here is being completely honest with us."

"No? Really?" Starsky sat down on a bar stool that was nearby. He propped his feet on the lowest rung. "I can't imagine Rolly not being one hundred percent above board." He feigned shock. "It's a shame we can't trust nobody. Ain't it, Hutch?"

"Yeah. Makes me sorry to be alive."

Starsky had to stifle a guffaw at the fake look of devastation Hutch had plastered on his face. It took a lot of willpower not to lose it when Hutch gave Starsky his best woebegone look, complete with lower pouting lip. He took a moment to get himself under control while Hutch passed Rolly another shot glass.

Rolly drank the whiskey without blinking an eye. "Oh, come on! Would I lie to you guys?"

Hutch sighed dramatically, shaking his head and looking like he'd lost his puppy. "You know, I don't know 'cause when you saw us, you headed straight for your cell phone. And I sure as hell would like to know who you planned on texting."

Rolly looked from Hutch to Starsky and back. "My bookie. I was calling my bookie."

"Have another drink," Hutch said, passing the third glass to Rolly. He drank it down.

Starsky crossed his arms. "No kidding. What were you betting on?"

Rolly paused for only a moment before he blurted out. "Ahhh... Basketball game. Lakers and Warriors."

"What spread did your bookie give you?" Starsky asked quickly.

Rolly was in the groove now. "Lakers plus four," he said quickly.

"Not bad odds," Starsky said approvingly, not believing a word Rolly had said.

Hutch put a hand on Rolly's shoulder. "My partner might think those aren't bad odds. Rolly, you must be psychic." Rolly looked at his feet. "You know why? Because if you already knew those odds, and you hadn't sent that text yet to your bookie so he could give you those same odds, then you must be psychic.”

"No. I, ah, talked to him earlier! I was texting the amount. Yeah," Rolly said, nodding his head as if to convince himself.

Hutch's face went from questioning to annoyed in a flash. "You know, there's something you ought to know about Starsky and me. We're not like most partners." Rolly must have sensed the change in Hutch. He radiated menace now, and Starsky stayed quiet and enjoyed the show. Hutch's fingers wrapped around the material of Rolly's jacket. "You know usually there's one guy that's kind of folksy, kind of wants the best for one and all. You know Father Patrick over at the Salvation Army shelter on First?" Rolly nodded. Hutch grinned, making his teeth show. It wasn't a nice grin. "Father Patrick is one of those guys who believes in the best in people. Then…" He looked over at Starsky and winked. Starsky grinned in return before he glared at Rolly. Let the fat man wonder what they were planning. Make him sweat.

Hutch picked a piece of lint from Rolly's jacket. Where was I?" Oh, right. Then there's the other guy in the duo. A rough 'em up, hard nosed kind of guy. Jean Claude or Rambo type. Would rather shoot you than look at you. You know the type?" Hutch paused. Starsky loved how Hutch knew how to build up tension. Rolly swallowed so loudly that Starsky could hear him. He stifled a grin and watched the show as Hutch continued. "Well, that good cop-bad cop routine does not work for Starsky and me. See, we're both hard nosed, and we don't like it when people don't give us," Hutch moved closer, poking his finger into Rolly's shoulder, "everything we want.

Rolly looked like he was going to either faint or piss his pants. Starsky was sure he'd fold but instead somewhere in the depths of his fat guts, he must have found an ounce of courage. "I've told you all I'm going to tell you." He gave both cops a defiant glance before he drank the last glass of whiskey.

Hutch shrugged. "Okay, Rolly. I'm afraid we're going to have to put you under arrest."

"Under arrest? For what?" Rolly protested loudly.

"Public drunkenness. You've had four doubles in five minutes." Hutch pushed Rolly into Starsky's waiting hands.

Starsky snapped the cuffs on him in a flash.

"Come on!" Rolly protested. "This ain't right!"

Starsky ignored his whining and pushed Rolly forward. Hutch led the way out of the grungy bar. Starsky took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. It felt good to breathe the dubious cleaner air of the city streets.

"After we book this piece of crap," Starsky snapped, "I'm signing off for dinner. I"m tired and I'm hungry."

Hutch snickered. "You've been a model of patience today, Starsk. Dinner it is."

 

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

Successfully booking Fat Rolly, Starsky waited in the parking garage for Hutch. He leaned against the back fender of his Mustang, careful not to scratch the paint with the rivets on his jeans. He watched Hutch maneuver his Volt carefully in the police parking garage. He slid between a fairly new Ford Focus and a Lexus. Hutch had been whining about the street officers who weren't careful about opening their patrol car doors and banging neighboring vehicles. Sending up a silent prayer, he hoped that Hutch's precious baby would be safe between two private vehicles. God knows he didn't want to listen to more whining about his precious Clarissa. Or Clarabelle. Whatever he was calling that bland piece of trash. He was getting tired of listening to Hutch explain how he wanted his little treasure as unmarked as possible. So far, in the nine months he'd had Cora he'd kept her pristine.

Starsky trotted across the parking garage toward Hutch. He wasn't surprised to see Hutch pat the little car as if it were a puppy.

"Hey," Hutch said. "That didn't take long."

Starsky smiled. "Nah. Automated booking is quick. He cried like a baby. You'd think it was Rolly's first time. Did you get food?"

"Yup. Burgers and fries. We'll head over to my pal- What the hell?"

"What?" The shock on Hutch's face made Starsky spin on his heels. He stared at the big flat bed tow truck that drove past. On the truck's platform was a Mustang. A red mustang with a custom ordered paint job. A red Mustang that was identical to his. He was frozen in place for a few moments before he blurted out, "Hey! That's like my car!" Starsky took off after the truck. It was hard believing what he was seeing. He paused when the tow truck stopped behind a long row of concrete barriers marked "Evidence Area. No Admittance". Starsky ignored the sign and stared at the car that was being lowered from the truck's holding platform.

"No wonder they were surprised to see you," Hutch said. Starsky glanced over at his partner. Hutch looked as astonished as Starsky felt.

"Wow," Starsky exclaimed.

"Yeah, wow."

"Holy shit." Careful not to touch the surface of the vehicle, Starsky leaned over the driver's side of the Mustang's hood. Hutch did the same on the passenger's side. He stared at the large holes blasted in the windshield. "Holy shit," he repeated. The unmistakable scent of blood assailed Starsky's nose. It was splattered across the expensive leather seats, on the headliner, and on the dash and windshield. "Shotguns. Nothing else would blow a hole like that. What a mess. Looks like they got it at point blank range. Sure didn't take any chances on missing. That's a stinking crime."

"Trying to kill you, you mean?" Hutch said, shaking his head. "Two victims from the blood spatter patterns. Messy and efficient." He stood up, breathing out noisily. "I never get used to this."

"We ain't supposed to get used to this." Starsky looked over at Hutch. "Two victims?"

"I'd say so. Two killers too."

Hutch's brow furrowed. "Why two killers?"

"Just a hunch. One guy could've shot quickly, bam bam." Starsky mimicked holding a shotgun, shooting rapidly first on the passenger's side and then the driver's side. "Or two killers, shooting together. Partners."

"We'll ask the lab boys. Footprints at the scene will answer that question." Hutch's eyes never strayed from the demolished car. "Changes the game, then."

"Why's that?"

"I don't think they were trying to kill only you, Starsk. I think they were trying to kill us"> You might have been the first one targeted. Mine comes later," Hutch said.

Starsky's stomach churned. You'd think he'd be used to being somebody's idea of target practice by now but it never failed to made him queasy. Not that he'd let Hutch know. After all, Hutch needed him strong to watch his back. So in typical fashion, he made it a joke. "But they probably didn't think we were up on that lookout, necking."

"Call it another hunch, this time mine. I think these guys want both of us."

"Okay, partner." Starsky trusted Hutch's hunches the same way Hutch trusted his. His gaze held Hutch's. "Share 'n share alike, huh?"

Hutch gave him a firm nod. "Wonderful. And so..."

"So..." Starsky picked up the conversation without missing a beat, "we gotta get these guys because they sure screwed up a great car." After giving Hutch one quick glance, he walked away from the Mustang and didn't look back.

Starsky felt Hutch's eyes on him. He knew his comment had been irreverent, unconscionable. And he knew Hutch understood. He was good at hiding his complete and utter horror at the idea that two innocent people were murdered because the killer or killers thought he had been in that car. He was alive and so was Hutch. It was his job to keep Hutch alive and get these killers off his streets.

Starsky was good at his job.

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

Starsky sprawled on Hutch's sofa, in Hutch's cottage, watching Hutch cook. It was better than anything on the television. Hutch moved gracefully in spite of his lanky figure. He prepared the burgers (all natural corn fed beef) and fries (organic potatoes of course). Starsky didn't mind that he was fixing a ride of steamed broccoli and cauliflower (also organic), because everything smelled wonderful. Watching Hutch cook was even more wonderful.

Taking a swig of his microbrew, he savored the bite of hops and wheat and the slight tang of lemon. Who'd guess he'd like this yuppie beer but it was flavorful and satisfying.

Just like watching Hutch. Satisfying. Starsky was sure Hutch would be flavorful. Not that he'd ever find out. Finishing his beer, he'd barely set down the bottle before Hutch pulled a fresh one from the fridge and set it beside his plate.

"Come and get it," Hutch called over, giving Starsky such a warm smile that Starsky felt himself flush with warmth.

"Smells super." Starsky pulled his tired body from the sofa and sat at the table beside Hutch. "Thanks."

"Dig in." Hutch gave him a sweet smile.

In spite of the healthy beef and whole wheat roll and organic this and that, the meal was delicious. Even the all natural ketchup tasted wonderful after a long day where all he'd had to eat was two candy bars and a Coke from the gas station when he'd fueled the car. Hutch hadn't had anything since he refused to eat from convenience stores.

Now, sitting here with Hutch, eating and talking and drinking beer, his world was perfect. In no time his plate was clean. He helped Hutch wash up the dishes and then they wandered to the sofa. It was nice sitting side by side, television tuned to some late night program that neither of them was watching. It wasn't long before Starsky drifted off to sleep.

It felt like only minutes when his cell phone rang. It vibrated annoyingly in his trouser pocket. He startled awake. Hutch's phone was on the coffee table, mirroring his own with its ringtone. He looked into Hutch's tired eyes and groaned. "Now what?"

Hutch picked up his phone and answered, "Yeah?" He paused. Starsky leaned closer and he could hear the gravely voice of his boss.

"You and Starsky. My office. Now."

With a sigh, Hutch said, "Twenty minutes."

"Make it ten.

Hutch disconnected. "We have been summoned."

Starsky grimaced. "And we obey."

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

Dobey's office was way too stuffy with this many people in it. Starsky wished he could go and get a cup of stale bullpen coffee and leave the tap dancing to the higher ups. He yawned into his hand. Since Dobey would ream him a new one if he so much as moved a muscle, he perched on the arm of Hutch's chair. He liked how Hutch let his shoulder press against the warmth of his thigh.

Starsky studied the other occupants in the room. Dobey was behind his desk looking like he'd eaten too many jalapeño burritos for lunch. His face was tight with pain and sweat beaded on his husky face. District Attorney Mark Henderson was pacing the floor behind him, a sheaf of papers in his hand. The man irritated Starsky to no end. Starsky felt the guy wasn't qualified for the job. Hell, Starsky felt the guy was so unqualified that he was pretty damned worthless. IA's contribution to the crowded room was Lieutenant Horatio Steele. Starsky liked Steele and so far, he hadn't had a problem with the lieutenant.

Henderson stopped beside Dobey's desk. He pushed his thick black glasses up on his nose and waved the papers in the air towards Starsky and Hutch. "We have reason to believe that somebody tried to kill Detective Starsky last night. According to Internal Affairs, the Mustang was stolen in the Ottawa Hills section of town and then driven-"

"Obviously," Starsky muttered. "It didn't fly up onto that overlook."

Henderson gave him an annoyed glare and continued as if Starsky hadn't spoken. "Then driven out into the crime scene where the murders occurred."

Steele said, "It's IA's contention that the suspects spotted the Mustang and thought Starsky was there with a date. He has that reputation as we all know."

Starsky wanted to ask what his reputation or lack thereof had to do with the case but he kept quiet, for now.

"They followed the Mustang-"

"Obviously," Hutch said, taking his turn to bug Steele.

Steele kept going, "-and killed the two young people thinking they were getting Starsky."

"Hey, wait a minute," Hutch said. "Who is "they"?"

Henderson looked pleased that he had information that nobody else had. He walked behind the chair where Starsky sat. "Someone hired by Frank Tallman to stop you and Starsky from testifying against him at the trial on Wednesday morning." He turned to Dobey. "I know it sounds like a long shot, Captain, but the car involved was the exact duplicate of what Starsky here drives." He tapped Hutch on the shoulder with the file.

Hutch looked up over his shoulder. "I'm Hutch. He's Starsky."

"Well, anyway," Dobey said, "What Henderson is trying to point out is that Starsky drives a car that is easily recognizable and easy to follow."

"He's not the only one to drive that kind of car," Hutch said.

"No," Starsky said, "I'm not, but it's not exactly a Kia either. Not with that custom paint job and the custom shocks that set the tail end up more than most." Dobey glared at Starsky as he started off on a tangent about the special aspects of his prized possession. "I'd be willing to buy a case of mistaken identity but it wouldn't be Tallman. He's too smart for that."

Henderson rubbed his eyes, his exasperation showing. "In case you've forgotten," he said to Starsky, his tone implying the detective was a three-year old unable to understand simple concepts, "your testimony, along with Officer Hutchinson's, can convict him of eight counts of bribery. He will spend the rest of his life in jail. Don't you think that's sufficient motive for a hit?"

"Yeah, yeah," Hutch said. "I think that's sufficient motive. I also think Tallman's sufficiently bright not to try to get at us that way."

"Then who else?" Henderson asked.

Hutch chewed on his lower lip. "Who else."

"Who else," Starsky echoed.

"The Coleman gang," Hutch said, snapping his fingers as if he'd remembered something important. "They'd mulch us if they get the chance."

Starsky stood up, acting as if he'd also remembered an interesting concept. "Hey, what about that guy with the bad breath? You know, with the gimpy leg."

Hutch nodded vigorously. "Yeah! Pucker."

"Pucker," Starsky agreed.

"Pucker. He'd take a shot," Hutch said, getting to his feet. "He's a mother-pucker."

Starsky somehow managed to keep a straight face. "What about the Clancy twins? They might take a crack at splashing us again. No, wait. They're in the hospital getting themselves un-conjoined."

"Maybe Poindexter," Hutch said. "He's-"

Dobey pounded on the desk. "All right, fellas. Knock it off."

Henderson paced a few steps, his face red with anger. "Look. One thing is definite. I want you two men off the streets until after Tallman's trial. For your own good," Henderson said seriously, looking at each occupant of the room in turn.

Dobey bristled and he stood up, using every inch of his position as captain of the squad. "Look, Counselor. Our department has a schedule to meet too. Maybe you don't know that. There are a lot of places these guys got to be. For openers, we have a very important narco stakeout to run and it's taken six months to set up. And besides all that, I tell my men in this department," Dobey's voice rose, "where to go and I tell them when!"

"Now look, Captain," Henderson protested.

The phone interrupted Henderson's comment.

Dobey grabbed the receiver. Starsky hid a smile because he knew Dobey was grateful for the distraction. Dobey didn't like playing games with the DA or IA any more than any of the other cops did. "Yeah?"

Starsky leaned down to Hutch and said loudly enough for Henderson to hear, "And you said Dobey was just another pretty face."

Dobey listened for a few moments before he spoke to the caller. "I'll tell them." He hung up and looked at his men. "The drunk you busted? Well, the bondsman is processing him out right now. Mike said you wanted to know about it."

Hutch was on his feet instantly, along with Starsky. "I'll cover him," Hutch said, poking a finger into Starsky's shoulder. "Let's take your car."

Starsky gave Hutch a knowing look. "Gotcha."

Hutch turned to the attorney. "Nice to have met you, Mr. Henderson." He looked over at the other man. "And Lieutenant Steele, always a laugh talking to you." He gave Steele an exaggerated wink and left the room.

Starsky looked at Dobey. "Will that be all?"

"Yeah," Dobey said, waving Starsky away.

Henderson stepped in front of Starsky as he approached the open door. "May I ask why you're insistent on using your car when there are possible killers hunting you? I'd think that would be an extremely dangerous and even stupid thing to do. Why wave that flag in the face of these alleged hit men?"

Starsky studied Henderson's face. He looked soft, his life one of ease. He talked like a slick lawyer. The man hadn't a clue of what it was like to be a cop; to have a partner; to work the streets of Bay City's not so desirable neighborhoods. "Sure you can ask. It's to let whoever it is hunting us know that it didn't work. You see, what you guys don't realize is that Hutch and me are willing to get burned out in the street but it would hurt like hell if we lost the game sitting on our asses." He tapped his forehead in a mock salute and left the room. Starsky didn't have to turn around to know that Henderson had a shocked look on his face. Henderson didn't know about sacrifice but he and Hutch did.

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

Starsky was tired. It'd been a long day and now it was an even longer night. The food he'd eaten gave him strength and it wouldn't be the first time he and Hutch had pulled a 24-hour shift with little sleep. He drove across the tarmac towards his partner's Volt. Hutch reclined against the door. That alone told Starsky that something wasn't right. Hutch wouldn't risk scratching Claudia unless he was thinking hard and not paying attention. When Starsky pulled up next to Hutch he knew he was right. Hutch was mulling over something so deeply that his forehead had furrows deep enough to plant corn in.

"What's wrong? What happened with Fat Rolly?" Starsky demanded.

Hutch got into the passenger seat and leaned back. He was quiet as he rubbed his finger across his upper lip. "I don't know," he said slowly. "It's like when I was married. Nancy and I would go out and we'd leave the house only to have her go running back. She was sure she'd left the water running or something."

"I thought your wife's name was Vanessa? How many exes do you have?"

"Moron. Nancy was the name she used when we lived in the mid-west. Vanessa was her modeling name. I hate it."

"Okay. Anyway..." Starsky let his voice trail off, hoping Hutch would remember where he'd left off because he sure didn't. His brain had better get into gear or there'd be trouble for both of them.

Hutch didn't miss a beat. "I get that feeling about Fat Rolly. When he got released, I watched him. He did something, said something that wasn't right, and I'll be damned if I know what it is." He pulled at his own hair. "But I saw it! I was there and I saw it."

Starsky knew that when Hutch was in one of these moods, he was smart to give him space. Hutch would work out what was bothering him in his own time. But right now he was bugging Starsky by fiddling with the seat adjuster. It whirred as Hutch made the seat move this way and that. "Will you stop that!"

"What?" Hutch said absentmindedly.

"Nothing." Starsky decided to give Hutch what he needed. Hutch was his best friend, his partner and if he needed time to think, then it was Starsky's job to give it to him. There was something Rolly had done or said that was not sitting right. Starsky did what he did well: he was Hutch's backup and he let Hutch mull over what was bothering him.

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

Starsky sometimes wondered why he did this job. Day in and day out, he cruised the same streets of the same neighborhoods in the same city. With the same partner. The partner part was the only thing that kept him sane. Still, he wasn't in a great mood. "It's a toilet bowl. That's what it is," he grumbled, looking out the side window. Trash had blown against the curb and across the sidewalk. Didn't anybody ever clean the streets any more?

Hutch turned in his seat so he could look directly at Starsky. "You're frowning. Those lines are going to stick on your forehead." When Starsky scowled, he asked, "What are you talking about?"

"This," Starsky said, waving a hand to encompass the entire world. "What we do, where we go, where we do it." He glanced over at Hutch. "You and me are like little bugs waiting to crawl out and when we try, someone flushes. It's a toilet bowl and we're caught in it."

"You're in a strangely philosophical mood, partner. But you and me can be thankful for one thing."

"What's that?"

Hutch tossed Starsky a mischievous grin. "That we can swim."

Starsky chuckled. "Great." He looked out the rear view mirror. Behind him, along the curb, he saw a burnt out SUV sitting up on blocks. Traffic flowed along, and nothing seemed out of place. So far. After another couple of blocks, he looked again, adjusting the mirror. He made a left turn, then a right. On the next straight section, he looked back yet again. "Good thing, though, especially since we have a shark on our tail."

Hutch leaned forward to peer into the side view mirror. "Black Escalade, half a block back. You think he's following us?"

"Let's find out." Starsky grinned and down shifted, pressing the gas pedal. The engine roared; the Mustang lurched forward, tires chirping on the asphalt.

"How about that alley?" Hutch pointed to the left.

In his best Laurel voice, he said, "That's a fine idea, Ollie." Starsky expertly turned the wheel and the car shot between two buildings.

Hutch threw his arm over the seat and looked behind them. "He's still with us. He must like the color of our ride."

Starsky patted the dashboard. "He probably wants to make friends."

"And here I didn't bring any lube," Hutch said, his tone sarcastic.

Starsky groaned at the bad joke. Although he had to admit that Hutch and lube in the same sentence was pretty darned interesting. When they reached the end of the alley, he forgot about Hutch and lube, and said a quick prayer that the street was clear as he shot out onto it. A quick look at the traffic to be sure the way was free and Starsky took off at high speed. The Escalade stuck with him in spite of the size of the SUV.

"He sure wants a date badly," Starsky said, heading into an intersection. He didn't cross it but cut a u-turn, coming up behind the black SUV.

The SUV’s driver was fast. He made a quick u-turn as well and the Mustang and Escalade spun around and around the intersection nose to tail three times before Starsky was done dancing. He jammed on the gas, down shifted and roared down the road.

"There!" Hutch said, pointing to a vacant lot half a block ahead.

Starsky led the Escalade into the parking lot. He stomped on the brakes, sliding sideways a few feet before the car rocked to a standstill. Adrenaline coursing through his veins, Starsky threw open his door. The smell of burning rubber assailed his nose. "The driver, Hutch. The driver!" he shouted, running full tilt back to the perusing vehicle that had screamed into the lot and came to a stop three feet from the Mustang. Their pursuers leapt from their own vehicle.

Hutch charged forward. Starsky did the same. He latched onto the passenger and threw him to the ground. With a chortle, he sat on the man's back. With his guy under control, he watched Hutch pull his man's arm behind his back and forced it upward. He had a look of satisfaction on his face when the man grunted in pain. Pushing his captive forward, he rounded the front of the car and grinned at Starsky.

"I got one and you got one," Hutch said cheerfully. "That seems fair."

Starsky smacked his man across the back of his head, more to annoy than hurt. "It's great sharing with ya, Blintz."

Hutch pushed on his man's arm until he let out another grunt. "Who are you?"

"Take it easy!" he cried. "I got a message for you!"

Starsky pulled his man to his feet. "You got a message too?"

The second man nodded. "Yeah."

"So what is it?" Starsky demanded.

"Mr. Tallman. He wants to meet with you guys," the first man said.

Hutch wrenched on his arm again. "Why? He could have called. He could have sent flowers."

Starsky shook his man. "Why not text us a message? It's more efficient and convenient." When his captive looked dumbfounded, he sighed. The hired help these days wasn't too bright. "When?"

"I don't know why!" Hutch's man cried. "Let me go!" Hutch shoved the man away, slamming him into the front of the SUV. Starsky did the same, shoving his man against the side of the Escalade.

The goon Starsky had been manhandling turned and rubbed his chest. "Mr. Tallman don't tell us why but the when is now."

Hutch and Starsky exchanged glances. Hutch nodded slightly. Starsky returned the nod with one of his own and said, "Let's not keep Mr. Tallman waiting then."

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

Starsky gave a low whistle when he turned into the gated driveway leading up to Tallman's house. Tucked away in an exclusive Shirley Hills neighborhood, the house was a three story 1930s design. It was large and imposing, with columns and manicured gardens surrounding it. Even the pavement was dirt free.

"Probably belonged to some big movie star back in the silent film era," Hutch said, staring at the house as they approached. "Reminds me of that house in Gone With the Wind."

Starsky stopped on the circular driveway behind the black Escalade and turned off the ignition. "Jimmy Stewart maybe?" The driver of the SUV waved a hand out the window before he drove off. "Guess we lost our escort."

"Could be." Hutch studied the house for another moment. "Hard to say without a map of the stars' homes."

"We could take the tour one day."

"I'll get you a ticket for your birthday."

Starsky snorted with amusement. "I'm not going if you're not going!"

"Spoil sport."

Starsky elbowed Hutch. "Come on. We'll take a tour right now." He climbed from the driver's seat and pocketed his keys.

"Wonderful," Hutch muttered, following Starsky. He pressed the bell.

From inside, Starsky could hear the echo of the doorbell. The door swung open and a man stared at them with unfriendly eyes. "Is this the Tallman residence?" The man didn't answer but he did move aside. "We're Starsky and Hutch. We have an appointment with Mr. Tallman." Starsky stepped through the doorway into a huge foyer. The black and white marble tiles covering the floor made his eyes go wonky for a second. He blinked at the doorman (butler maybe?). "He's Hutch," he said, hiking a thumb at his partner. "I'm Starsky."

Movement from the top of the stairs caught Starsky's attention. He kept a close eye on the well-dressed young woman in a navy blue dress who came down the large curved stairway. There was no way he was letting anybody start any sort of funny business, be it man or woman. The woman didn't make any untoward moves and she wasn't carrying that he could see. She gracefully walked up to them and smiled.

"Hello," Hutch said to the newcomer. "I'm Mr. Hutchinson. This is Mr. Starsky. We're expected."

Starsky stifled a laugh. Hutch could be so uppity when he wanted to be. That Minnesota upbringing, apparently.

The attractive blond woman inclined her head. "This way, please." She led the way up the stairway.

About halfway up, Starsky paused when a man came out of a doorway and started toward them. He looked like a man ready to cause trouble. He wore a cheap brown suit and striped tie, and he moved like he expected people to be intimidated by his presence. Starsky could see the bulge of a gun under his jacket. Hutch stood next to him, giving him enough space to pull his gun if he needed to.

The new man didn't try to be friendly when he held out a hand, and Starsky knew he didn't want to shake and be friends. "All right," he said ungraciously. "That's far enough."

Another man with the same demeanor appeared, hovering at the top of the stairs. He had his hand under his suit jacket, likely fingering his weapon.

The blonde woman walked back down a few steps and looked over her shoulder at the first goon. "Joseph, this is Mr. Hutchinson," she indicated Starsky, "and Mr. Starsky." She nodded at Hutch. "Won't you please take off your clothes?" she said conversationally as if she'd asked the visitors if they wanted a cup of coffee. Without waiting for a response, the woman continued down the stairs.

Hutch glanced quickly at Starsky, surprise in his eyes, before he asked, "Why do we have to take off our clothes?"

The woman paused at the bottom on the stairs, turned and said, "Because Mr. Tallman is in the steam bath and he expects you both to join him there." She turned, dismissing the four men without another glance and disappeared through a door at the far end of the grand foyer.

Joseph smirked at both cops. "See, if you got no clothes on, Mr. Tallman knows you're not wired for sound." He snickered loudly. "Mr. Tallman doesn't like people wired for sound. And if I have to, I'll check your mouths and your asses for hidden bugs." He cracked his knuckles, grinning as if the idea of strip searching two police offers was his kind of entertainment.

Hutch shoved his hands into his pockets. He gave the appearance of nonchalance but Starsky knew he was as ready to leap into action as he was. "Well, there goes his political career."

"Why's that?" Starsky asked, feigning interest.

Hutch shrugged. "Politicians take bugging each other as a sign of brotherly love."

"Oh!" Starsky said. "See? I learn something new every day, partner."

Joseph took a menacing step towards Starsky, apparently tired of the byplay between the visitors. "If you don't mind, we'll take your hardware."

Joseph's mistake was trying to grab Starsky's weapon without being invited. Starsky took the assault on his personal space seriously. In one smooth move, he grabbed Joseph's arm and spun him towards the wall. He slammed him against the unforgiving surface, his arm wrenched high on his back. Starsky leaned against him, a feeling of satisfaction coursing through him as Joseph grunted with pain. Just for fun, he shoved Joseph's arm higher and put more weight behind his move.

Once Starsky had Joseph where he wanted him, he saw that Hutch had his man as well. He looked over in time to see Hutch shove his goon down the marble staircase. The man landed at the bottom in a sprawl. Hutch turned away, his attacker already forgotten. He rubbed his knuckles where he'd apparently hit the man.

Starsky put his face close to Joseph's ear. "Not nice, Joseph. Not nice at all. Now tell me, where is the steam room?" He twisted his captive's arm.

Joseph gasped. "Door three!"

"Left or right?" Hutch asked.

"Left!"

"Thank you, Joseph," Starsky said formally. He smacked the back of Joseph's head with an open palm before he shoved him aside with a kick to his butt.

"After you," Starsky said, with a wave of his hand.

Hutch gave him a snarky grin and headed up the stairs. They entered the third door on the left. It was a large room lavishly decorated with too much white for Starsky's taste. A bench holding a large pile of white towels sat about ten feet away.

Hutch picked up a towel. "You know, my mother used to tell me to wear clean underwear in case I was ever in an accident so I wouldn't shock the nurses. As I recall, this particular situation didn't enter into that conversation." Hutch started to strip.

Starsky took off his jacket and shoulder holster. "Your mom wasn't very thorough then. Mine told me to go commando. Problem solved." He pulled his t-shirt over his head. Starsky wasn't the least bit happy going into Mr. Tallman's steam room. It sure as hell wasn't on the top of his list of fun things to do in a mobster's mansion. From the look on Hutch's face, it wasn't on his list either. He was so engrossed in being annoyed that he never heard anybody enter the room until a deep female voice said, "Would either of you like something to drink?"

Jerking in surprise, Starsky looked over his shoulder. He knew his mouth was hanging open.

Hutch recovered first. "Ah, no thank you. We're on duty." He quickly wrapped his own towel around himself.

Starsky took the towel she offered him, covering up. He wondered why being naked in front of this woman made him blush.

The woman must have seen his embarrassment because she laughed, a deep and throaty sound. Starsky thought she sounded a lot like Mae West when she said, "Couldn't tell, honey. You ain't wearing a badge."

From her tone Starsky knew she'd seen every inch of him, and she sounded like she enjoyed the show. He somehow managed not to blush again.

The woman left by the hallway door. Starsky shook his head with amusement. "Nobody would ever believe the kind of day we're having."

"What? Being naked, meeting sassy women, and then hanging out in a steam room with a mobster? Why whatever do you mean?"

Chuckling at each other, they put on their shoulder holsters over bare skin.

"Let's do this," Hutch said. He opened the steam room door.

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

Hutch paused inside the steam room, waiting for Starsky to close the door. Starsky looked past Hutch and from what he could tell, white marble covered the surfaces. Steam billowed through the entire space, making it hard to see clearly.

From the mist, a man spoke out. "Nice, huh? You see. Crime does pay."

Hutch waved his hand to clear away some of the fog. "Mr. Tallman?"

"Yeah," Tallman said.

"Does it pay enough to make you want to kill us?" Hutch asked.

Starsky followed Hutch towards the back of the room. It was hot and sweat was already running down his shoulders and back. He blinked to clear his vision. Tallman sat on a riser, a towel around his waist and a huge cigar in his hand. His gray hair was plastered to his head and his flabby belly hung over the towel.

"No," Tallman said, "but crime creates wealth and wealth begets envy and someone who envies me is attempting to frame me with your murder."

Starsky wiped water droplets from his forehead with the back of his hand. "Well, we haven't been murdered yet." He sat down on the tiled step next to Tallman. The marble was warm under his backside. He had the crazy thought that if he had sat on the marble without a towel covering his butt, his ass might very well melt onto the smooth surface. "So, you're in the clear."

Tallman took a puff of his cigar. "I know, but they'll try again. Cigar?" He held out the stogie.

"No, thanks," Starsky said. The heat and the smell of the cigar didn't do great things to his stomach.

Hutch put his hand over his mouth to stifle a cough. "No. Thank you very much." He joined Starsky and Tallman on the risers.

"Havana," Tallman said as if it would have made a difference.

"No," Starsky said. He was not impressed by expensive cigars or expensive men like Tallman.

Tallman shrugged and picked up the conversation where it had trailed off. "Yes, they will try again. Sometime today, tonight. Because if they kill you after the trial, I don't have a motive and they can't frame me. And that is what this is really all about."

Hutch chewed on his lower lip. "In other words, we'll be dead and you'll be the injured party."

Tallman grinned. "Exactly!"

Hutch shook his head, his disbelief clear. "But Mr. Tallman, you know damn well that if we testify against you in court tomorrow, you'd be in for a massive fall. Besides, our statements have been already recorded. We're on digital giving our side. Sure, the judge might kick that out but more and more often these days, judges prefer videoed depositions than words on the page. The judge and the jury like looking into the eyes of the witnesses rather than reading statements into the record. It helps judge a person's veracity if you can watch them."

Starsky nodded, sharing Hutch's confusion about Tallman's acceptance of his fate. "Yeah, we're both on the record already. Even if you bump us off, your ass is still fried."

"Pleasant, Detective Starsky, a quite pleasant idea." Tallman took a long draw of his cigar. "What you say is true about the digital evidence, but hear me out. If you testify in person or if your depositions are submitted into evidence, I will be found guilty, because, as we all know, I am guilty." He took another puff. "But then my lawyers will ask the judge to fix bail, which will be an outrageous sum. But not so outrageous that I cannot pay it. So I will be home in time for cocktails." Tallman waved his cigar. This time it was Starsky who coughed. "Then my lawyers, my expensive lawyers who like their huge payments, will appeal. That appeal will be denied. Then they will appeal to the higher court and that appeal will be denied-"

"Tallman," Hutch growled impatiently, "where is this going? It's almost time for cocktails now."

Tallman laughed, a deep throaty smoke-filled sound. "Ah, yes, the young. No patience. No time for a good story. Will you let me continue?"

"Yeah, we will," Starsky said. Tallman had something up his sleeve and he needed to hear what that was. "Go ahead."

After another huge draw on his cigar and after Tallman took a long moment to blow out the smoke into rings, he continued. "The case will be dragged through the courts for five or six years. That won't mean much to you younger fellows but to me it is all important. My father died of a stroke at 58. My mother died of a heart attack at 61. I am already 62. I have high blood pressure and," he coughed theatrically, "a somewhat unhappy diagnosis from my physician." Tallman crushed out the cigar butt in a crystal ashtray resting beside his thigh. He fished out a fresh cigar from a gold case sitting next to it and took his time snipping the end with a matching cutter.

Starsky heard Hutch's deep sigh. He understood. He wanted out of here as well, back to doing what he and Hutch did best: work the streets.

But impatience was making Starsky antsy. He rolled his eyes. Tallman was getting too much enjoyment from being the center of attention and that also added to Starsky's unease. The grin Tallman gave him as he lit the cigar with a gold lighter, matching of course, verified Starsky's first impressions. Tallman was a schmuck. He thought because he had a solid gold lighter with his initials engraved on its shiny surface that it made him important. Tallman was the kind of man who liked engraving his initials on his possession, be they inanimate or alive. Tallman leaned back and seemed to be enjoying his new cheroot.

A merry tune broke the silence. Starsky unhooked the cell phone clipped to his shoulder holster and hit the button, ending the theme music from Doctor Who. "Yeah?" He listened for a few moments then disconnected. He wouldn't say anything about who had called until he and Hutch were alone. "We got places to be," Starsky said quietly, squeezing Hutch's shoulder as a signal that they had to get moving.

Tallman must have sensed that it was time to cut to the chase. He waved his cigar. "I'll make this quick. I have inoperable brain cancer and a one year cloud over my head. I will be found guilty two years or more after I'm dead. Of course, no one will bother spending the money on those appeals when I'm in the ground."

Starsky stared at Tallman. The man seemed to be taking his pronouncement calmly. Maybe he was lying. But a good look into Tallman's eyes told him that the mobster was telling the truth. "So if you got nothing to lose but your good name, why don't you help us keep you from gettin' framed?" Tallman stared at Starsky for a second. Starsky knew he was contemplating, maybe even tallying up his good deeds before he met his maker. Seeing a crack of weakness, Starsky said, "Tell me, you know of a team of two hit men, guys who work together at close range?" He glanced at Hutch, passing the ball to him. Hutch understood. Tallman was afraid of dying in spite of his bravado front.

Hutch sat up straighter. "We'd really appreciate the favor of their names."

Tallman slowly nodded. "Yes, I do know of them."

Starsky huffed out the breath he'd been holding. Bingo! "Then what are their names?"

Tallman shook his head. "I see no reason to give them to you, because if they had this contract, you would both be dead. They do not miss."

Starsky stood up, his elation quickly deflating. "Are you that sure?"

"That sure and more," Tallman said. "So why don't you both spend the night here? In the morning, we'll have a big breakfast and go to the trial together. There is no way they could blame me for your murders when I deliver you safe and sound to the courthouse." He looked like a man who'd come up with the perfect plan.

"Thank you very much, Mr. Tallman, but we have other appointments," Hutch said. He stood up and climbed down the risers. Starsky joined him and they walked towards the door shoulder to shoulder.

Tallman called out, "Gentlemen, are these appointments worth dying for?"

Hutch opened the door and walked out of the steam room.

Starsky turned to Tallman. "Even dying's a livin'." He shut the door behind him.

"Even dying is a living," Hutch said with a snicker as he dressed quickly. Starsky grinned, hurrying into his clothes. "Where in the blazes do you come up with that shit sometimes."

Starsky snagged his jacket and headed towards the door. "Clean living?"

"Yeah, right. With what you eat. Was that Dobey?" Hutch pulled on his jacket.

"Yeah. Let's get to the car and I'll fill you in." Starsky glanced around uneasily. "These walls might have ears."

Starsky trotted down the stairs and out the front door without any interference. Tallman's people must have been told to stand down. Good thing, because Starsky was in no mood to be civil right now. He was hungry and that made a testy Starsky. Once in the car, he turned to Hutch. "It's tonight. Forest Green Apartments over on La Brea. Midnight."

"It's a solid lead?" Hutch put on his seat belt.

"Huggy says it's 100 percent."

"If Huggy says it's a go, then it's a go."

"How much time do we have?"

"We gotta have our backsides in the bushes outside the building by no later than 10 pm, I'd say," Hutch said.

Starsky smiled exuberantly. "Groovy! We got five hours to ourselves."

"We could do some more investigating to try and catch our killers," Hutch offered.

"Right now, all I want is a three inch thick roast beef and Swiss sandwich and a couple of hours of shut eye. I'm gonna fall over if I don't catch a few z's."

"You want to eat?" Hutch asked, looking pained. He rubbed at his belly like it hurt.

"You can sleep while I drive through. You need something to eat. I'll get you a salad. The stakeout is closer to my place so we'll go there. My bed is calling my name about now." To prove his point, he yawned, his jaw cracking.

Hutch put a hand on his shoulder. "Drive on, partner." With that, he leaned against the door and closed his eyes.

Starsky started the engine. As he drove towards one of his favorite places for a good sandwich, he kept an eye on his partner. Hutch had dropped off to sleep instantly. He looked like an angel with his fair skin and fine blond hair. He also looked exhausted; Starsky was glad he was getting some much needed sleep. The only thing better than watching Hutch sleep would be to watch Hutch sleep next to him in his bed instead of in the front seat of his Mustang.

If wishes were horses, Starsky thought with a smile.

If only.

The sandwich hit the spot, as did the root beer. Hutch picked at his salad, finally giving up. He stretched out on Starsky's sofa and closed his eyes. Starsky stood beside the couch for a full five minutes, watching Hutch sleep. He'd do anything to protect this man. With a final parting look at his sleeping friend, Starsky laid down on the bed fully clothed. He'd have to change soon before these jeans stuck to his body. Snickering to himself, he punched the pillow into a comfortable lump and quickly fell asleep.

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

Starsky hunkered down in the bushes surrounding the apartment building's swimming pool. Rain poured onto him. Any more and he'd have to consider building an ark. From about ten feet away, in another thick set of bushes, Hutch sneezed. Full of sympathy and drenched to his skivvies, Starsky hit the on button on his two way.

"Gesundheit," he said.

Hutch's voice sounded tinny over the cheap equipment. It was so wet that they'd both had to give up using the walkie talker app on their cell phones and had turned to the old fashioned two way radios the department still issued street cops. Much more rain and they'd be relegated to hand signals. "Thanks."

Starsky craned his head to look at the window on the second floor. Apartment 206 was where they'd been told that the drug deal they'd been waiting for would be going down.

"What do you see, Starsk?"

A silhouette stayed in place behind the drawn curtains. "Looks like he's waiting for somebody."

"Well, so are we," Hutch said. "Hey, remind me to thank Dobey for keeping us on the streets."

Starsky recognized the sarcasm in Hutch's tone. "He didn't say anything about monsoons, that fink."

"Fink?" Hutch said, a laugh in his voice. "What is this, the 70s? Hey, how about that IA creep, Steele? I'll bet he's smart enough to stay out of the rain."

Starsky knew Hutch didn't think Steele could fight his way out of a wet paper bag in a rain storm. God, but he loved being here with Hutch, rain and wet shorts and all. This is where he belonged: anywhere Hutch was.

"Ten will get you twenty that he's in some chick's house, warm and snug like our friend up there on the second floor," Starsky said.

"You think he's got the goods up there?" Hutch asked.

Starsky shrugged, then remembered Hutch couldn't see him. "If he does, we can't prove it. We ain't even got probable cause to get a warrant. We have got to nail him with the goods."

"Well, I hope it's a tight bust, buddy, because I think I'm shrinking."

Starsky laughed at the right moment, because Hutch would expect it. The thought of warming Hutch up made Starsky flush. He had to stop thinking about Hutch like that! He should, but he wouldn't. Not as long as he loved Hutch as much as he did. Starsky didn't expect that would ever change so he resigned himself to having what that story he'd read on line last week called “Unrequited Love.” What was it? Oh, right, that reboot of Hawaii Five-0. He'd been trawling the net and one thing led to another. He'd ended up reading this story about Danny wanting to get into Steve's shorts and how Steve didn't seem to want the same thing. Was that what he was experiencing? Was he destined to have his love unrequited?

Thankfully, a woman came into his field of vision, distracting him from his musings. He stared out through the sheets of rain as the woman, wrapped in a trench coat and wearing high heels instead of sensible rain boots, walked directly towards him. He held his breath as the extremely large dog she dragged behind her, also wearing a doggy-designer raincoat, seemed uninterested in performing a call of nature.

As they approached, Starsky couldn't help whispering into the two way, "Hey, look at those legs!" He would never admit to Hutch he was talking about the dog, not the woman. Not even under extreme torture.

"Where?" Hutch said. "Oh, yeah."

The rain pelted down as the woman urged her canine companion, "Come on! I'm taking you to your favorite tree!"

"The ugly one is yours," Starsky said into the two way.

"Naturally."

For a moment, Starsky wondered if the dog would alert the woman to the hidden cops but as the woman directed the dog towards Hutch's bush, she seemed oblivious to his partner's location.

"Oh, rats! It's pouring! Come on. Come on, Tiger! This is your favorite tree. Now hurry up!" She huddled in her raincoat, looking as miserable as Starsky felt.

The dog ignored Hutch and his favorite tree. Starsky figured the dog was as wet and miserable as he was.

The pounding of the rain against the leaves masked Hutch's voice. "Starsk, you're not going to believe it, but they found their favorite tree. And it's me!"

Starsky could hear the indignation in Hutch's frantic whisper. He couldn't help laughing aloud when Hutch left the two way open and he could hear him say, "Go on, Tiger. Get out of here."

"I'm not looking so hurry up," the woman said, unhappiness coloring her words.

It took all of Starsky's resolve not to fall over in a fit of laugher. Hutch sounded so pitiful and the woman telling her pooch she wouldn't watch him taking a whiz was hilarious. As if the dog cared!

"Go get 'em, Tiger," Starsky muttered into his two way, barely able to breathe through his laughter.

The dog lady raised her voice. "You just want to be naughty!"

Starsky heard Hutch try to urge the dog away. "Go on!" Starsky didn't have the heart to tell Hutch that 'go away' might work better. It was all too entertaining to not enjoy totally.

Finally, the woman pulled on the dog's lead. "Okay. Come on, but you'd better not wake me up later!"

Starsky waited until the woman disappeared behind the fence surrounding the swimming pool. "Aren't you glad she sold her pony? I saw a porno film once with this Shetland-"

"Ha ha," Hutch snapped. "You'll pay for that later- Starsky! Check your left. We got company."

A shadowy figure in what looked to be a dark trench coat and a hat pulled low over his face skirted the bushes that lined the swimming pool's outside perimeter. He paused several times, looking around. The elevator was located in a hallway between two apartments. The figure made his way to the elevator and pushed one of the floor buttons. The doors opened and he got on.

"You make him?" Hutch asked.

"I got a look at his face in the hallway light. Know the files on our tablet from front to back, every face, and he ain't in it." Through the clear glass panels that covered the end of the second floor corridor, Starsky watched the stranger emerge and knock on the apartment directly across the hallway. Apartment 206, the one they were watching. "Bingo!"

"Is he carrying anything?"

"No," Starsky said, squinting through the rain. Why in hell hadn't he brought binoculars? You'd think he was a damned rookie. "No, not that I can see. And whoever he talked to didn't come out. Opened the door a slit. It was so quick that I can't imagine they had time to do much business. Still, he might have passed off something small or maybe gotten instructions."

"Then how are they getting the junk out?" Hutch mused aloud.

"Carrier pigeon?" When Hutch guffawed, it made Starsky smile. "Patience. Patience, partner. I don't know but let's give it a few more minutes."

The visitor descended on the elevator and walked out of sight towards the parking lot. Starsky kept a close watch on the second story apartment. He briefly considered asking Hutch to follow the first man. Before he could ask Hutch what he thought about that idea, someone from the second floor apartment came out into the corridor. Starsky watched intently.

"Here comes Santa Claus," Starsky said into his radio, "and I think he's carrying our present."

It was a man and he walked over to the railing. He looked around before tossing a shoe-box sized package into the pool. It hit the water and floated.

"What do you think?" Starsky asked.

"Beats the hell out of me. The second floor guy doesn't have the goods in his possession so we got nothing. I guess we wait and see if somebody goes fishing."

Something moving caught Starsky's attention. It was on the third floor. In the dark, it took a few seconds for his eyes to pick out a figure that moved along one of the apartment balconies. "Not for very long," he told Hutch. "Check the third floor balcony, on the right." The figure moved stealthily. The person was too far for Starsky to tell if it was a man or a woman. The newcomer was swift and sure as he made his way to the ground floor without ropes or ladders, using the railings and brickwork as hand and foot holds. Once on the pavement surrounding the pool, the slim figure looked around before he picked up a pool cleaning net. Hurrying to the edge of the pool, he began to fish out the package. From his shape, Starsky surmised it was a guy, dressed in form fitting black clothing that covered him head to toe.

"Cute," Starsky hissed. "Real cute!" He pocketed the radio and pulled his weapon before he emerged from his hiding place. "Police! Freeze!"

Starsky raced towards the new arrival. The man threw the net at him. He turned to run but Starsky took two long strides, tackling him. They both tumbled into the deep end of the pool. Starsky lost his grip on his captive. Water flooded his mouth. In the dark he had a few moments when he couldn't tell which was up. Forcing himself to relax, he blinked and was able to see the wavering shadow cast by one of the overhead lights that circled the pool. He broke the surface and looked around. The suspect was swimming to the shallow end where Hutch stood on the pool's steps, his gun out. He waved it at the man.

"Hold it! Come out of there!" Hutch shouted.

The man made it to the shallow end. He stood up and held out his hands. Starsky caught up with him as he began to climb out of the pool. Hutch grabbed one of his arms and Starsky grabbed the other. Together they climbed the last two steps.

It was the unmistakable sound of a shotgun being cocked that brought Starsky to instant alertness. That cha-chink made his blood freeze in his veins. Starsky didn't have time to be shocked or surprised to see two men standing in front of them, about ten feet away. The shotguns aimed at Starsky looked huge. He reacted on instinct, shouting, "Mayday!"

Starsky prayed that Hutch had heard his cry of alarm. He dove back into the pool and let himself sink to the bottom. In the gloomy water he saw a dark shape beside him, blond hair floating around his head. Hutch! From under the water, Starsky heard the muffled reports of the shotguns and another dark shape sank in front of him. Starsky held his breath, his hand reaching for Hutch. Their hands locked for a moment before the need for air forced them to surface. Cautiously Starsky swiped the water from his eyes and looked around.

The hit men were gone.

The suspect was floating in front of him, face down. He was dead. Blood colored the water, seeping from the body in black streams. Starsky knew he looked shocked when he and Hutch exchanged glances.

"What the hell?" Starsky blurted. Together, they dragged the body to the side of the pool and climbed up the steps.

Tenants of the apartment complex began to flood out of the building. They stood in small groups staring at the two wet police officers and the body. Their chattering annoyed Starsky. He hated lookie-loos. He didn't think it was fun or cool or interesting to see a dead body.

"One of you call the police!" Hutch shouted. "And no pictures! I see a single picture of any of this on Twitter or Facebook, and you'll be up on charges for obstruction!" He looked down at the body. "Wonder who he is? Was."

"Not a clue but we'd better get the drugs out of the water before one of these kind onlookers gets sticky fingers." Starsky eyed the observers warily. After what had happened, he wasn't in the mood to trust anybody. It would be easy for another hit man to try again to take out him or Hutch or both of them, using the crowd for cover.

"Good thinking, partner. Oh, and my next cell phone will definitely be water proof."

Starsky couldn't help but grin. The adrenaline of living through another close call made the blood sing in his veins. He was alert and alive and so was Hutch. They had a stash of drugs off the street and they survived yet another hit. Starsky was happy. Sometimes you had to enjoy the little things.

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

Hutch stripped off his wet clothing and stuffed them into the clothes dryer. The apartment manager hovered in the laundry room, arms crossed over a pot belly and with a scowl on his reddish face. His bushy eyebrows met in the center and his disapproval radiated from him.

Starsky added his soaked duds to the pile and shut the door. He pressed the start button but nothing happened.

"You need a buck and a half," the manager snapped. "In quarters only."

"Gee, thanks," Starsky snapped back. Hutch pushed the required coins into the slot and closed it. The dryer started its thud-thud-thud as their clothes tumbled around. "It'll be an hour before we can get dressed."

"How much longer are you guys gonna be?" the manager asked, clearly aggrieved. "I already gave you pool towels that are for residents only."

"You're a prince among men," Hutch said dryly, taking a dry towel from the pile. He ran it over his hair and used another to wipe down his gun and holster.

Starsky picked up one of the dry towels. They were thin and cheap. "Why are you so anxious for us to get out of here?" he asked, purposefully narrowing his eyes. Let the guy think he suspected him of something. He made a big show of picking up his gun and lovingly wiping it dry.

Trying for bravado, the manager lifted his chin and looked down his nose at Starsky. "You aren't the only ones with a job, ya know. Like what should I do about the swimming pool? You think the filter will handle it all?"

"Handle all what?" Starsky asked, confused.

"Blood," the man said. "All that blood's liable to throw the chemical balance off something fierce."

Starsky had to stifle his urge to punch the man's red face. A guy was dead and he was worried about the pool? With feigned patience, Starsky muttered, "I don't know nothing about swimming pools." He wanted to add, You're a stupid asshole.. He didn't.

The manager looked stunned. "You're a cop, ain't ya? I figured you'd know all about blood."

"We're not in Forensics. You'll have to ask them about the blood." Hutch looked like he would have enjoyed putting a fist in the manager's face as well. After glaring at the man as if he was a moron, he asked, "You have a cell I can borrow? Ours aren't working."

"No, but you have my permission to use the tenants' only phone over there on the wall." He hiked a thumb over his shoulder. "I'm letting you use it because I figure you want to call into your headquarters. No personal calls."

"Thanks," muttered Starsky. "Nice of you."

"I'm a model citizen." The man started to leave. "Oh, and it's an old system. The owners haven't updated it since the sixties. You gotta dial eight for an outside line. If you'll excuse me," he said sarcastically, "since you woke me up in the middle of the night by dropping a dead body into my pool, I have shit to do now." He turned, dismissing the cops without another word and left the laundry area.

"Nice guy."

Starsky nodded. "A model citizen. We'd be the first ones he'd call if somebody was breaking into his fine establishment. Did you want to me call Dobey or will you?"

"I'll do it." Hutch went over to the wall phone and picked up the receiver. He stood there staring at the old-fashioned push button dial. "Damn. Damn, damn, damn!"

"What?" Starsky asked. "You okay?" Hutch looked like he had a bad taste in his mouth. Either that or gas.

"That's it!" Hutch said triumphantly, waving the receiver in the air. "That's what Fat Rolly didn't do. He didn't dial for an outside line!"

"What are you talking about?" Starsky went over to Hutch and looked at the phone as if it would give him an explanation to whatever Hutch was talking about.

Hutch tapped Starsky's shoulder with the receiver. "When Fat Rolly was released, he made a phone call but he didn't dial for an outside line. He punched in four numbers. Now don't you see?" Starsky shook his head. "The system in HQ is older like this one. Four numbers! That means he dialed an extension inside the building?"

Starsky wasn't quite sure where this was going. "Maybe he made a mistake." He kept his eyes on his gun, wiping it carefully until it was dry.

Hutch shook his head vehemently. "No. No way. Rolly's been in that slammer more times than he can remember. He knows what he's got to do to get an outside line."

"Well... he could have forgotten, you know. He was under a lot of pressure." Still unable to process the idea, Starsky held up his gun and tested the trigger. He liked the reassuring sound as the mechanism worked flawlessly.

"Sure, he was under a lot of pressure. That's because he knows who the trigger men are, and he knows there's somebody in the department setting us up."

Starsky's stomach flipped. He didn't want this to be true. He didn't want somebody they knew, another cop maybe, to be out for them. He knew Hutch was onto something but he couldn't admit it yet. "What are you thinking?" he said roughly. "Nobody in the department is setting anything up."

Hutch's face radiated understanding. They both had a tough time thinking badly about other cops. Heck, Starsky hated thinking badly about the janitors and the receptionists and the cafeteria workers. He put a hand on Starsky's forearm and explained patiently, "Then how did they know we had taken over this stakeout; that Dobey gave us this bust. We called it into headquarters ten minutes before we got here. We didn't call anybody else. Nobody else knew but HQ."

Starsky let out a sigh of annoyance as the last of the doubt disappeared. To say that neither man was happy was an understatement.

"Only they knew. And somebody's feeding them our whereabouts whenever we call in."

Starsky stared at Hutch for a long moment. "Wait a second." He gave Hutch his full attention, putting a hand on Hutch's shoulder. He needed that touch, to ground himself for what he was about to say. Even worse, what he was about to admit. "What you're saying is that Captain Dobey or Henderson, or Dobey and Henderson, or Dobey or Steele, or Steele and Henderson, or any one of another nine million other guys or gals who might be trying to kill us has a direct pipeline to the department?" He said it in the form of a question yet he knew in his gut that Hutch was onto something. It made Starsky want to barf.

"That's what I'm saying. As horrible as it is, I believe it," Hutch said sincerely.

Starsky's belly lurched; the bile rose in his throat and he took in a shaky breath. Breathing out noisily, he asked, "Who are we supposed to report this to? I mean, who in the hell are we supposed to trust?"

Hutch put a hand on Starsky's naked shoulder. He squeezed that warm skin firmly, conveying solidarity with his partner. "The same people we always trust." Hutch looked directly into Starsky's eyes. "Us."

Starsky slowly nodded. "Us. The way it is and the way it will be."

Leaning against one of the washers, Starsky was quiet. Hutch sat on a bench in front of him, head bent. Starsky longed to touch his hair, to reassure somehow. It was a shock to realize that people you trusted, people you should be able to trust were killers. His head ached and his belly roiled.

"Hey," Starsky said softly. Hutch raised his head and their eyes met. "I was thinkin'. I like that it's you 'n me. I know this is gonna sound hokey but..." He shuffled one bare foot against the broken tile near his toes and gave Hutch a silly grin, "me and thee. is fine with me."

Hutch was silent as he studied Starsky's face for a long moment. For a second, Starsky thought Hutch was going to tell him he was a moron. After a few more seconds, Hutch's face broke out into a heart melting warm smile. He stood up and put both hands on Starsky's naked shoulders. "It's fine with me too, Starsk. More than fine; it's-" Hutch shrugged, looking shy. "It's how it should be. I like the sound of it."

Warmth suffused Starsky. As long as he and Hutch were together, somehow, some way they'd live through anything. The dryer beeped, interrupting the moment. Hutch gave Starsky a quick grin and turned to pull their clothes from the dryer. Clothes divided, the partners dressed.

Putting on his sweater, Starsky paused. "Hey, this poor thing is finally giving up the ghost."

"Did it shrink?" Hutch asked, fastening his holster to his belt.

"Nah, just the opposite. It's kind'a loose and threads are hanging off." He shook his shoulders and arms. "Doesn’t matter. I’ll wear it anyway, until it falls apart."

Hutch smiled. "Why's that?"

"'Cause you gave it to me, dumbo. Did you forget?" Starsky patted his own arm, caressing the sweater sleeve.

"I didn't forget but it wasn't a big deal."

"It was to me."

"My jacket's just fine," Hutch said with satisfaction.

"I'm glad for you," Starsky said, meaning it. Hutch loved that fake baseball jacket.

"We're being really sappy right now. Guess having killers hunting you does that to a guy," Hutch said seriously.

Starsky would have liked to say that he wanted to be more than sappy with Hutch but now wasn't the time. They had to have their heads in the game. He did the usual guy thing that guys were supposed to do: he punched Hutch's arm. "We're best pals."

Hutch gave him another warm smile. For a second Starsky thought he saw something more in that smile but it was gone so quickly he told himself he was mistaken.

"Yeah, we are." Hutch stood up and put on his jacket. "Let's do this, partner."

Starsky resigned himself to getting drenched again but when they walked out of The Diplomat apartment building, the sky was clear.

"No rain," Hutch said.

"You are a smart man," Starsky said with a snicker.

"You are a smart ass," Hutch said sarcastically. "I hope nobody's trying to tell us something."

"The only somebody we'd better hear from to tell us something is Huggy Bear, and soon or we'll be in a lot of trouble."

When they climbed in the Mustang, the two way radio light was on solid red. While Starsky started the car, Hutch called into HQ.

"Zebra Three reporting in. Do you have a message for us?"

Roger, Zebra Three. See the man. 514 Main Street.

"Roger, Dispatch. Out.

"Huggy Bear," Starsky said.

"Huggy Bear," Hutch confirmed. "Maybe it won't rain on us so hard after all."

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

It was 3 a.m. when Starsky found himself, along with his partner, in a seedy porn theater on Blossom Boulevard. But he was relatively dry, although he could kill for a cuppa joe and a burrito. Still, he had high hopes that Huggy Bear had the goods for them. Time was running out and he didn't like the idea at all.

As he and Hutch cleared the curtain that separated the lobby from the theater proper, he wasn't surprised to see a variety of patrons populating the dive in the wee hours of the morning. Carrying a a greasy container of popcorn that didn't smell too fresh, he took a good look at everybody he could see in the available light. No one seemed interested in the new arrivals and he relaxed fractionally.

The grunts and groans coming from the speakers made Starsky stop in his tracks. He watched the actors on the screen writhing and wrestling on a large, round bed. The scene was decorated in blacks and reds. It was probably supposed to be sexy. He wasn't impressed. The woman turned her face to the camera. Starsky stared at her for a moment. "Hey!" He pointed at the screen. "Isn't that the gal we busted last week?"

Hutch squinted. "Hard to tell through that makeup but... Yeah. She did say something about being a movie star."

Starsky gave a snort of amusement. "Hey," he repeated, "I know that guy too! You gotta love Hollywood, huh?"

A bald-headed man sitting on an aisle seat two rows in front of the detectives turned. "Shhhh," he said.

"Sorry," Starsky stage-whispered. They walked down the main aisle; Starsky leaned over to Hutch. "What does he think this is, an art museum?"

Hutch chuckled. He picked an aisle and slipped in. "Excuse me," he said to a woman as he crossed in front of her.

He sat down, and after watching the film for a few moments, he leaned over. "Starsky? She looked better dressed."

Starsky smirked, then checked out their surroundings. It paid to be careful these days. Behind them sat a woman in her mid-thirties, pouring coffee from a Thermos. She must be here for the duration, he thought. She removed a tomato from her bag, sprinkled salt on it and began to eat. Over her shoulder, Starsky saw the curtain dividing the seating area from the lobby twitch to the side and an extremely thin, brightly dressed black man sauntered down the aisle. In the dimness, Starsky recognized their pal and snitch extraordinaire. "Here comes Huggy."

Huggy Bear maneuvered his long, lean body down the aisle in front of Starsky. He propped his feet up on the back of the seat in front of him and leaned his head back. "What it is? What's happenin'?" he drawled.

Hutch leaned forward. "Huggy, we thought maybe you could tell us?" Starsky leaned on Huggy's other side. Huggy dipped his slender fingers into Starsky's popcorn to grab a handful and munched.

"About what?"

Hutch said quietly, "Well, let's start at the top. Do you know two hit men, probably imported recently, who tried to burn us?"

Starsky added, "And anything else you might happen to know about Dobey or Henderson or Steele or any other brother cops who might be moonlighting as bad guys?"

Huggy's hand froze on the way to his mouth. He licked his lips. "I don't like to talk to cops about cops. I have long term plans and talking about your fellow brothers in blue could put holes in this fine piece of machinery." He waved a hand down his own torso.

"Huggy," Starsky said softly, "they tried to kill us. Us! They tried to put holes in our bodies where our bodies were not intended to have holes. That's not very nice and we know you don't want that for us. So will you talk to us now?"

Huggy chewed a couple more kernels of popcorn. "Dobey's a pretty good cop but word is he likes the ponies. But he ain't on the take. And besides, he won't be into some jive like that. Killin' ain't his thang."

"Dobey likes a small bet but he knows his limits," Starsky said firmly. He wouldn't hear anything bad about Dobey because he couldn't believe Dobey would ever endanger any of his men. He was too good a cop for that; too good a man.

"What about Henderson?" Hutch asked.

"Henderson? Oh, yeah, DA Henderson. He's got too much family- Hang on a sec." Huggy pulled a black iPhone from his jacket. He looked at the screen, tapped it several times, carefully keeping it out of eyesight of the cops. Starsky understood that even though Huggy was their friend, even he had his secrets that Starsky would rather not know. After a minute or two, he slipped the phone into his pocket and picked the conversation back up.

"Back with you. Business. It never stops, 24/7. A man's gotta make a livin'. Anyway, Henderson's got a huge load of family cash, too much to be on the take. Besides, he's engaged to some high class money. Big uptown gal with a daddy who showers her in diamonds. The DA thing he does is like slumming as far as he's concerned. He's got his eyes set on higher office. Politics." He spat out the word. "Hey!" he glanced at the big screen. "Did you dig that? How did they do that?"

The way he said the word "politics" let Starsky know that Huggy had no love for politicians. Huggy was the kind of guy who prided himself on being independent, in his politics and in his view of life. Live and let live, unless they fuck you over. Then all bets were off. Huggy was a man of the world.

Huggy looked over one shoulder then the other. Action on the screen caught his eye and he had to watch. "How did they do that?" he asked, "Man, talk about limber! And two gals with one guy. He's got his work cut out for him."

Starsky touched Huggy's shoulder. "Huggy, what about Steele?"

Huggy watched the screen for another moment. He looked over his shoulder. "Steele, pretty bad bro if you ask me." Huggy changed accent into a bad rendition of an upper class Bostonian. "Fancies himself a ladies' man."

Starsky laughed as did Hutch. Huggy could do a hundred voices. "Stop, Hug. I'll have to take a pee if you keep that up," Starsky grumbled, amused.

Huggy grinned. "Word from the ladies is that Steele has a couple he particularly likes, and from what I've heard, he's got a big mouth during sex. Lorraine said that during one extra fine BJ he never shut up once."

"Anything we should know?" Hutch asked.

Huggy nodded. "Let me tell you, from what she said, he don't care for you two fine officers at all."

"Yeah, well, he hasn't kept that a secret," Starsky said.

"What about the hit men?" Hutch handed Huggy his popcorn.

Huggy was quiet for a moment. "The only two new guys I've heard about were Zane and Cannell. But if they were after you, they'd have got you. They don't miss."

Starsky looked at Hutch. They held a wordless conversation that let Starsky know that he and Hutch were on the same wavelength and had the same thought about the duplicate Mustang. Zane and Cannell don't miss; didn't miss. All right then. This intel was important. As soon as they were alone, they'd get to the bottom of these thoughts. The sooner the better as far as Starsky was concerned.

"Huggy, we owe you," Starsky said sincerely.

Huggy took the popcorn Starsky offered. "Play it cool, dudes."

"Will do, Hug," Starsky said. Hutch elbowed him. "What? I know you hate text talk but Google it if you can't keep up." He waited a few minutes before he got to his feet and headed out of the theater. "I think I knew that last guy too. The one with the tattoo on his ass."

Hutch rolled his eyes. "I refuse to ask how."

Starsky laughed.

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

Outside the theater, the air was cool and clean after the night's drenching rain.

"I need food and coffee." Starsky rubbed his belly. "Now or I won't be responsible for my actions." Starsky led the way across the parking lot. He rehashed what Huggy had said. Like a puzzle, some of the pieces fit and some of them didn't - yet. His brain whirred madly as another piece clinked into place. He stopped beside the Mustang, keys in hand. He jangled the ring then began to spin it on one finger.

"Starsk. Starsky!"

"What?" Starsky glared at Hutch across the roof of the car.

"'What' back to you. What's up? You said you were starving and then you space out. Earth to Starsky. Speak to me."

Starsky hit the remote and unlocked the doors. He climbed in. Hutch joined him but Starsky didn't put the key in the ignition. He sat there, staring out the window, letting the pieces that didn't fit yet move this way and that.

"I can hear the cogs moving from here."

"Ha. ha." Starsky turned in his seat. "You know, Tallman said the same thing about those hit men."

"That if Zane and Cannell had that contract, we'd be dead."

"Yeah."

"So?"

Starsky chewed on his thumb nail for a second. "I’ll tell you something, Hutch. When I was in high school, I played defensive back for the football team. My senior year, by the end of the season we were unbeaten and the last game of that season we were playing another team that was unbeaten." He pulled out his new waterproof cell phone. They'd stopped earlier in the day at Verizon and each had coughed up personal coin for commando phones guaranteed to survive a nuclear holocaust, or a dunk in the pool, whichever happened first.

"Yeah. Why are you telling me this?"

"Just listen, will you? They had this black kid playing for them. Warren was his name. He ran the 100 in 9.9. Olympic record time. I couldn't have kept up with him if I was riding on a cannonball. So the thing was I couldn't afford to let this guy sucker me in, okay? Of course they kept sending the kid out into my area." Starsky looked down at his cell. He hit a button to access his recent contacts. Thank God that dude at Verizon transferred all his info to the new mobile. "And every time, he'd flash by me and I'd go running after him. But then, I started to listen, because there's a certain sound the crowd makes when the ball is in the air." Starsky dialed a number. "It's kind of like 10,000 people getting hit in the gut at the same time." He held up a hand. "Hello. Mr. Tallman, please. It's Detective Starsky and it's urgent." Starsky paused. "Wake him up. I'll wait. Thanks."

Starsky resumed his conversation with Hutch. "I could tell by that sound that the ball was in the air,
that that I'd been suckered again even though I told myself not to fall for it." He held up a finger. "Mr. Tallman? Detective Starsky here. One quick question. These two guys you said couldn't miss us, their names, are they Zane and Cannell?" Starsky's other hand clenched the steering wheel clenched. "Thank you." He disconnected. "I just heard that sound, Hutch. We've been suckered."

"What do you mean? Explain it to me in small words so that I understand."

"Hutch, one thing you aren't is a dummy. Think about it. Everybody says those two guys couldn't miss. Okay, I say they don't miss unless they're supposed to."

A slow realization crept across Hutch's face. Starsky nodded his agreement when he saw the proverbial cartoon light bulb come on over Hutch's head. Then Hutch looked like he might upchuck that greasy popcorn on Starsky's pristine interior. He took a deep breath and slowly exhaled. "Why were they supposed to miss?"

Starsky understood it was a rhetorical question, and he was excited now that the puzzle pieces had clicked into their proper places. "Because," he said with certainty, "whoever it was wanted to kill not you and me but one or both of those kids who did get splashed. Nobody's investigating those two murders because they got all of us believing it was a case of mistaken identity." He paused to take in a deep breath before he exhales. "There are two dead bodies down there at the coroner's cooler that nobody gives a damn about."

"So they were never after you or me." Hutch said it as a statement, not as a question. That's when Starsky knew they'd figured it out and were on the same page. "It was never us."

"Exactly!" Starsky said, his enthusiasm contagious. He started the car.

"So, did you win?" Hutch asked.

"Huh?"

"Warren. Ball in the air. Crowd."

Starsky laughed from his belly. "Damn straight, we did."

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

Starsky never liked coming to the coroner's office in spite of the fact that it was often part of his job. It was cold and it smelled funny. He followed the coroner – Seymour, his name tag said -- trying not to think about what they were going to do. Hutch was cool and calm. Bastard. Starsky rubbed his hands together and steeled himself. As they walked along the wall that held the stainless steel rectangular doors of the refrigerated body storage section, Starsky noticed a small group of three people on the far side of the room. A man in a white lab coat blocked his view of the upper part of the body but he could clearly see the toe tag. A man dressed in black, a priest or minister because of his white clerical collar, had his hand on the shoulder of the third person, an older woman dressed in black. She was sobbing into a handkerchief. Starsky grimaced. It was rough having to ID a body.

Starsky turned back to the task at hand. Hutch and Seymour had paused in front of one of the stainless steel doors that held corpses. He opened the door marked 16. With his free hand, he drew out the platform. It slid noiselessly, revealing a body covered with a white sheet. Seymour uncovered the face and stood back so the detectives could do their exam. "Neat little figure she had."

Hutch threw the older man a disgusted look.

The coroner shrugged, clearly not a PC kind of guy. "I wonder what her face looked like. I tell you, these young people today are really something."

Starsky glared at Seymour. He had no intention of asking the man what "really something" this poor victim had been. This guy was a jerk. "How was identification made?"

"Fingerprints," said Seymour, suddenly becoming professional. He must have picked up on Starsky's distaste. Either that or Hutch's look of pure disgust. "She was in the system because she'd been in foster care for six years after her parents' deaths in an auto accident."

"Then you know what she looked like," Hutch muttered.

Starsky gave Hutch a quick glance. Hutch hated when people were cruel and this guy was a first class moron. "What are her vitals?"

The coroner turned and picked up a nearby tablet. He tapped the screen a few times before he read, "Patricia Talbot, age nineteen. Female, Caucasian." Hutch gently covered Patricia's head.

"Did the autopsy turn up anything?"

The other man shrugged. "Well, only that she was killed with a weapon at close range. We retrieved shotgun pellets. Marijuana in her system. No other drugs or alcohol." He slid his finger across the screen and pinched two fingers together, apparently to enlarge the text. "She was two months pregnant. Unmarried, according to her records. Not much past that."

"What about next of kin?"

"None. That's why she was in foster care. No family. Her college records list relatives as "none". She'll have a county funeral once the body's released for burial. You fellas seen enough?"

"Yeah," Hutch nodded. "How about the boy?"

The coroner fiddled with the tablet. "He's in twenty-two." He pushed Patricia's tray back into the refrigerator unit and closed the door. "Here." He walked a few steps and opened the appropriate door. After he'd pulled out the platform, he stepped back and recited the facts. Hutch appreciated that he didn't make any smart remarks about the boy's physique. "Scott Smith, age 20. Male. Caucasian. Same cause of death as the girl, except for being pregnant."

 

"Parents?" Hutch asked, looking down at the mangled head of Scott Smith. The shotgun blast had caught him full in the face. Even his own mother wouldn't recognize him.

"Yes. Nobody of note-"

"Everybody's somebody," Starsky growled. He was in the mood to put his fist into somebody's face and this guy was close and annoying.

"Sorry," the man said quickly. "After twenty years and thousands of bodies, it's hard to remember they were once alive. Sorry."

"Let's hurry this up," Hutch said. "We got work to do."

"Parents are Georgia and Raymond Smith, Ventura. The body will be released as soon as your department okays it."

"Fine," Starsky said sharply. "Can we see their personal effects?"

"His are still here but hers are gone."

"Gone?" Hutch said, alarmed. "Gone where? Who released them?"

"Ahhh... Henderson. From the DA's office. I got a call that her roommate from college could have her things since there wasn't anything in them relating to the murder."

"That's not procedure and you know it!" Hutch said, grabbing Seymour's lab coat with both hands.

"Then take it up with Henderson!"

Starsky put a hand on Hutch's arm. Hutch pushed the man away as he released him.

The coroner straightened his lab coat. "If you hadn't wasted time pushing me around, you might have caught the girl in the lobby," he said with a sniff of disgust.

"Who? The roommate?"

"Yes. She was here right before you."

The detectives didn't wait for anything else the man had to say. In unison, they raced out of the room and down the corridor. Hutch hit the elevator button. Thankfully, the doors opened immediately and they made it to the lobby in seconds.

"There!" Starsky said, pointing at the back of a young woman in jeans and a jacket bearing the gold and black logo of Cal State BC. She was carrying a bright blue plastic bag.

"Miss!" Hutch ran, his long legs eating up the distance between him and the woman in seconds. "Wait a minute, please!"

Starsky caught up with the pair as the woman turned and stopped. "Are you Patricia Talbot's roommate?"

The young woman looked wary when she nodded. "Yeah."

Hutch pointed to the bag she was carrying. "Are those her personal effects?"

Suspicion colored her face. She pulled the bag up to her chest and put a protective arm around it. "Why?"

"Police officers, ma'am," Starsky said respectfully. He showed her his badge. "We'd like to take a look at them, please."

She looked from Starsky to Hutch and back. "I don't know..." She hesitated. "I mean, I was asked by the DA's office to pick them up. I signed a receipt for them back there."

Impatiently, Hutch said, "Let me explain something-"

Starsky put a hand in the center of his back briefly. Hutch paused. Starsky said, "Miss, what's your name?"

"Knebel, Gretchen Knebel."

"Well, Miss Knebel, we never knew Patricia," he said sympathetically, "but she was murdered. And we'd like to find out who did it."

Gretchen didn't look convinced. "A lot of cops say things like that."

"We know it's hard sometimes. With all the stuff you see in the news about police brutality and corruption in the high ranks, Hutch and me understand why you'd be careful about what some stranger might say in the corridor of the coroner’s office." Starsky gave her a smile that he hoped would put her at ease. "We're here for Patricia. We want to bring her killer to justice."

"That's our job," Hutch said, "and we take it seriously."

Gretchen studied Starsky then Hutch. Starsky held her gaze with what he hoped was an understanding look. He must have been successful because after a long minute she held out the bag. Hutch took it with a smile.

"Thank you." Hutch emptied the bag on a nearby bench and began to sort through the contents.

Looking over Starsky's shoulder, Gretchen asked, "Hey. How come the police didn't hang onto Patty's stuff. On CSI they keep the victim's things for court and stuff."

"That's a good question," Hutch said. "Why didn't the police hang onto Patty's stuff?" He exchanged glances with Starsky, conveying his own curiosity about this lack of protocol and procedure. "Hey, Starsk, I got a notion."

"Tell me."

Hutch pulled Starsky aside until they were able to speak privately. "Seymour didn't say anything about either victim having a record. Maybe we should check deeper on the kids' criminal backgrounds. Maybe there's something that will link them up to somebody in the department. "

"What are you thinking?" Starsky asked.

"If the victims were really supposed to be the ones hit, and not you like we’re supposed to believe, then there has got to be something to connect one of those kids to whoever's pulling all these strings."

"Geez, Hutch, this is gettin' very, very messy." Starsky ran a hand through his hair. "So we need to check out the victims' backgrounds. I'll call it in." Since Gretchen was still standing by the door looking at them, Starsky walked away a few feet and pulled his cell phone.

Hutch followed him. He leaned in close. "Check on Zane and Cannell too while you're running the kids. We haven't run them through the database to see if there are any flags about their whereabouts. Maybe we're not doing such a great job either."

"We only figured this out, Hutch. Give yourself a break." At Hutch's grateful smile, he smiled back. "Let's get to it," Starsky said, punching buttons.

"You don't need to dial eight to get an outside line, huh?" Hutch elbowed Starsky in the shoulder.

Starsky sniggered before he put his ear to his phone.

Hutch stepped back to Gretchen and while Starsky asked for full makes on Scott Smith, Patricia Talbot, Jedediah Zane and Michael Cannell, Hutch kept her company to be sure she didn't leave until they'd asked all of their questions.

Starsky rejoined Hutch and Gretchen after he'd completed his call.

"Were you close personal friends with Miss Talbot?" Hutch asked, looking through her wallet. Driver's license. Three credit cards: Mastercard, Visa, and American Express. Two store cards: Journey's and American Eagle. Two hundred dollars in various bills.

"No. They assigned us rooms since we didn't have a preference." She shrugged. "We didn't take the same courses or anything. I'm taking Phys-Ed and Patricia was taking Pre-Law."

"Pre-law?" Hutch echoed, retrieving her iPad and turning it on. He searched through the file and app icons.

"Yeah. Not because she was big into books and that stuff but because lawyers are rich. She said she wanted a rich husband."

"She said that in today's day and age?" Hutch mused aloud. He tapped the icon that opened Patricia's class schedule. "Not a very big feminist, was she?"

Gretchen giggled. "Now, me. I prefer a guy who's physically fit. If you know what I mean." She gave Hutch a dazzling smile.

Before Hutch could respond to Gretchen's obvious come on, Starsky tugged on his jacket sleeve. His cell phone was vibrating and he was sure it was the intel they needed. Besides, Hutch didn't need to make any plans with Phys-Ed Gretchen. He pulled his phone and opened the attachment that had been sent to his inbox.

"Zane and Cannell's files are big enough to stretch from here to Venice," Starsky said, scrolling through the data. "But get this, parts are sealed. We need a court order to get into them."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah."

Hutch split his attention between Starsky and the iPad he still held. "Anything on the kids?"

"Patricia didn't have any family, as we knew. No record, not even juvie busts."

Hutch looked up from his scanning. "Gretchen?" he called over to her. "Do you have any guest instructors at the university?"

Gretchen shook her head. "Hardly ever in Phys-Ed."

"How about in Pre-Law?"

Gretchen gave him an exasperated look. "I don't know," she said slowly, as if Hutch was as dumb as a box of rocks, "I take Phys-Ed."

Hutch smiled. "Right." To Starsky, he pointed at the tablet. "This is her class schedule and look at this name."

Starsky leaned closer. "Henderson, Mark. But listen to this-"

"Ring any bells?"

"Yeah, of course. That asshole, Henderson. So maybe he knew the girl. But listen-"

"Thanks, Gretchen." He waved to her. She beamed back at him. "We'll give you a call when we're finished with Patty's things. Okay?"

"Sure," Gretchen said happily.

Starsky figured she'd love getting a call from Hutch. He chimed in, "We appreciate your help. Thanks."

Gretchen left, reluctantly, Starsky noticed. Hutch pushed the iPad in front of Starsky's face. "Starsk, he instructed a class that she took twice a week for eight weeks."

Starsky looked at the schedule, his attention now fully on the information. "Okay. Now we've got that link we need! Love happens. She blooms, so to speak, and once that happens, she won't go away. She refuses an abortion. It's true love for her. But he's got that big, high profile marriage coming up. He's got big money to marry and he's got his eyes on high office. He's got to get rid of the girl pronto."

"How does he get Zane and Cannell? What did you find out?"

"Listen to this," Starsky said, enlarging the screen on his phone. "Henderson had Zane and Cannell up on a murder two charge. It's a good bust; the evidence pans out. Suddenly, charges were dropped on the recommendation of who?" He grinned, teeth and all.

Hutch snorted with annoyance. "District Attorney Henderson." Starsky nodded vigorously. "I love it when a plan comes together. What about the kid who stole the Mustang? Scott Smith? What about him?"

"He had one bust six months ago. Pleaded out to a lesser charge and got probation at the request of-" Starsky paused, threw out his hands for the full effect and let Hutch fill in the blank.

"Henderson. So he gets the kid to steal the Mustang?"

"Hard to say. The VIN number matched a car that should have been on the back lot of Galpin Ford over on Roscoe Boulevard. They have such a huge inventory that they didn't even realize it was missing until they were notified by the auto theft division. I can't see Henderson stealing the car and I don't know if Scott Smith was smart enough to steal it from a lot with security." Starsky shrugged his shoulders.

"I could see Henderson paying somebody to get the car for him, maybe somebody who works for Galpin Ford who's trying to keep their job after lying on their job app about a past bust." Hutch chewed on his lower lip.

Starsky bounced on his toes, excited now that things were falling into place. "That works. This unsub arranges for Scott to take out Patricia. Gives him some cash for a fabulous night out. New car. Grass. A full evening of fun and frolic. In the end, the important part is to connect Henderson with these killings, and with our buddies, Zane and Cannell. Finding the unsub at the car dealership will help tie all these loose ends up, especially if Henderson was dumb enough to make the arrangements himself."

"It all works," Hutch said with conviction. "Henderson arranges for Zane and Cannell to be waiting for those kids. Double shotguns through the wind shield. Problem solved for DA Henderson. The man who hopes to be mayor in a few years."

Starsky added to the story, "And Henderson gets the entire department thinking that me and you were the intended victims."

"Or just you, out and about with a woman at the most popular making out place in the city."

"Hey! Why just me? We're in this together, ya know."

Hutch chuckled. "Let's face it, Starsk. If they had wasted you that night, I'd have been blown away the next to seal the deal." He paused. "So Tallman's trial has nothing to do with it. Henderson uses it because the timing fits right in."

"That's right. The whole thing falls into place like solving a puzzle. All the corroborating evidence we've got is hogwash. It was all a front to get rid of the girl."

"It fits," Hutch whispered. "It fits. It fits."

Starsky saw the excitement in Hutch's eyes. He felt that same excitement course through him. "I heard that sound, Hutch. The ball is in the air."

"So let's play the game."

"I have my uniform all cleaned and pressed."

"And you look damned good in it. I especially like the shoulder pads."

With a laugh, Starsky took the opportunity to pat Hutch's posterior. "And I'm partial to the butt pads."

Together, triumphant now that the puzzle pieces were falling into place, the detectives hurried out of the coroner's office.

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

"It's 5 a.m.," Starsky whined, "and I'm tired and hungry."

"And you smell rather fragrant," Hutch added, sniffing loudly.

Starsky cast him a disgusted glance. "You smell like old swimming pool water and formaldehyde so don't be getting smart with me."

With a laugh Hutch said, "Drop me off at home and I'll grab a shower, some food and pick you up at 8. Henderson will hit his office before court."

Starsky stopped for a red light. "I take it we're going to send our favorite lawyer some sort of message that will make him show his stripes?"

"Seems like a good plan to me. Any ideas?"

After thinking for a moment, Starsky nodded. The light turned green and he continued on. "Yeah, as a matter of fact. How about a love note from his friend, Mr. Zane Cannell."

Hutch laughed out loud. "Good one, Starsk." He put a hand on Starsky's shoulder and in a sing-song voice said, "Come to our hotel room, Mark dearest. We want to have a three way with you!"

Starsky turned down the street leading to Hutch's canal bungalow. The sun was coming up and the sky was hazy with early morning smog. By 11 a.m or so the smog would have lifted and it would be another sunny California day. Starsky was content in spite of the circumstances of the past few days. "Kisses and love?" he asked, continuing their conversation about the note.

"Of course."

Pulling up in front of the cottage, Starsky turned off the engine. "You are evil. I like that about you."

Hutch climbed from the car and circled the front. He leaned in Starsky's open window. "Thank you. You're a good influence."

Starsky snorted. "I doubt that."

Hutch clasped Starsky's arm that rested along the window ledge. "Never doubt it, buddy. Will you make the call to Henderson's office? I have a quick errand to do before I pick you up."

"Sure. Be happy to."

"Now get moving. See you in a few hours."

"Yeah. See ya." When Hutch stepped back, Starsky waved. He started the engine and took off, leaving a cloud of dust behind him.

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

Sitting in Hutch's Volt wasn't Starsky's idea of a fun time. He wiggled to find a comfortable spot. "Man, this tub ain't comfy." Across the street, City Hall South stood four stories tall. A certain district attorney had his office in City Hall South and Starsky kept a close eye out for their boy.

"This vehicle is a top of the line piece of machinery," Hutch said, obviously affronted at having his ride once again demeaned. He was also staring out the window so Starsky had a view of the back of his head. "Instead of whining about Constance, open the bag behind your seat."

Starsky reached behind him and pulled the bag into his lap. It was one of those reusable ones that Hutch took to the grocery store.

"What is it?" he asked.

"Look inside, Starsk. That's usually how one tells what's inside a present."

Starsky sat up straight. "A present? For me? Why? It's not my birthday."

Hutch kept watch,speaking over his shoulder. Starsky quickly peered out the back side window at City Hall but so far, Henderson was a no show.

Reaching inside the bag, Starsky pulled out an exact duplicate of his beloved sweater. This one was clean and bright, brand new. "Hutch." His throat tightened. "How?"

"I have a friend who runs a stall on Olvera Street. He sells those and I ran over this morning first thing."

Starsky cleared his throat. Hutch loved him. Hutch might never be his lover but he had no doubts that Hutch did love him. He brought the sweater to his face and breathed in the smell of new yarn and fresh dye. "Thank you," he said softly, praying that he didn't cry. Hutch would think he was a wuss.

Hutch took a moment to turn to look at Starsky. "Me and thee, partner."

Starsky nodded. Before he could say more, he caught sight of a Mercedes that pulled up in front of City Hall and parked on the yellow lines.

"There's our boy," Starsky said, relieved at the interruption. He might have said too much so getting back to work was what he needed to get his emotions under control.

"That's a lotta car for a DA," Starsky muttered.

"Maybe he's a big saver," Hutch offered.

"Maybe."

Henderson exited his car, hefted his briefcase and stroked the fine leather.

"He's a leather man," Starsky observed.

Hutch guffawed. "Many people are."

"Are you?"

"Hey, he's on the move," Hutch said, effectively evading the question.

"Cool. Ten bucks says he's out inside of five minutes."

Starsky took out his wallet and upped the ante. "Twenty says he's out in four minutes and thirty seconds."

Hutch followed suit, resting his bill on top of Starsky's. He kept his fingers on the money. "Has to be under, not over."

"Deal."

Hutch moved his hand. "Three minutes, twelve seconds."

Starsky hit the stopwatch function on his phone the moment Henderson went through the double doors into his building. Hutch split his attention between the numbers as they counted up and the main entrance. At three minutes, forty-eight seconds, Henderson rushed out of the building.

Starsky chortled with delight and snagged the two bills from the dash. "Thanks, Blondie."

"Beer at Huggy's is on you." Hutch let out a disgusted sniff.

"One round only."

"He's not happy," Starsky said as Henderson tossed his recently caressed briefcase into his car without a second thought. That love affair didn't last long. When Henderson drove away, Hutch waited until two or three cars passed before he pulled out, made a u turn, and tailed Henderson's Mercedes. Starsky kept rocking forward as if it would make Hutch's car move faster. "We should'a stuck with my car," he said in a huff. "If he starts to take off, we'll never stick with him in this piece of-"

"Don't talk about Corinne that way!" Hutch said firmly. He patted the dashboard. "Don't you listen to him," he said softly, stroking the plastic. "You're a good little girl."

Starsky threw Hutch a disgusted glance. "I thought it was Clarice! Whatever! You do know what happens to us if this doesn't work?"

"It'll work. Trust me, it'll work."

At the next traffic signal, they caught a red. Good citizen that he was, Hutch stopped. Starsky peered down the block at the tail lights of Henderson's car. They got smaller and smaller with each passing second. "Come on. Come on. He's getting too far ahead. We've got to move it! Bust the light!"

"Then we'll move it," Hutch snapped. "You're making me crazy, Starsk. Relax." Hutch looked both ways before he hit the accelerator. The small car lurched forward, gathered speed, and then as it cleared the intersection, the engine sputtered. "No! No, no." Hutch hit the steering wheel with the heel of his hand.

"What's wrong? Get moving!" Starsky shouted before he looked at the engine gauges. "No power? What the hell do you mean no power?" He stared ahead, squinting. The tail lights of Henderson's fancy Mercedes were almost out of sight. Soon they'd lose him for good. "We don't have time to plug this moving clock radio in!"

"No problem," Hutch said with confidence. "The on board generator will kick in and I have a full tank of gas."

"Forget the lesson, Professor Detroit, and get this bucket of volts moving!"

"One of these days you'll learn to appreciate Catherine."

"Not likely," Starsky muttered. "Especially since you can't remember her name."

Hutch's car finally began to move and then gathered speed. Soon they were twenty above the speed limit.

"We're never gonna catch up to him now. We lost him." Starsky sighed with annoyance and crossed his arms over his chest.

"It's all right. I got him. Two blocks up on the left. The California Hotel."

Starsky couldn't keep the surprise from his voice. "You have fantastic eyesight to see that far!"

Hutch smirked. "Clean living, plenty of veggies, and no junk food."

"I'll stick with lots of junk food and failing eyeballs," Starsky said, patting his flat belly. Nobody was taking away his chili dogs or bean burritos.

When Hutch pulled up a few spaces away from Henderson's Mercedes, Henderson had already disappeared.

"He's inside." Hutch waved his cell phone. "I'll take the back. Stay in touch."

Starsky put two fingers to his forehead and gave Hutch a jaunty salute. After gracing Starsky with a grin, Hutch raced down the side alley while Starsky went through the front door. The lobby wasn't horrible but it wasn't anything up scale either. The sort of place two hit men would crash. He glanced around and saw Henderson step into the elevator, with his back to Starsky.

"Ready at the back," Hutch said.

"He's on the elevator." Starsky moved behind a pillar in case Henderson turned around as most people do when they get on an elevator. "I'm taking the stairs."

When Starsky heard the doors ping shut, he raced across the lobby to the stairs and taking them two at a time, he ran all out. He got to the second floor before the elevator but it passed by.

"I've got the fire escape. No way anybody gets out."

Starsky envisioned Hutch's long legs eating up the metal stairs. He threw open the fire door and raced up to the second floor. Peeking out into the hallway, he could see the floor indicator as it approached the floor. The car didn't stop.

"He's on his way to three," Starsky told his partner.

"He's yours on four. I'll go to five."

"Good thinking." Starsky raced to four, knowing Hutch could see the elevator on three and would alert him if Henderson disembarked. He started to feel the effects of his climb now. His thigh muscles ached and he was breathing roughly. He stuck his head out into the corridor, catching his breath as he watched the floor numbers light up. The elevator bypassed the fourth floor. "He's going to five."

Hutch was breathing rough over the phone. "Good thing... there are only eight floors!"

"My luck he's on eight!" Starsky gasped into the phone as he ran up the next flight of steps.

"I'll get six... You take seven."

"Got'cha. Seven... Seven...," Starsky huffed out. He took off, forcing himself to move. His leg muscles screamed in protest as he ran up the steps. "Lucky seven." Panting, Starsky leaned against the wall, watching the number on the lighted floor indicator pass by six. He took in a deep breath, breathed out. Took in another, exhaled slowly. His heart was pounding so hard that the blood rushing through his body muffled his hearing. He hoped Hutch was doing all right. Hutch jogged regularly but climbing seven flights of stairs in a few minutes was hard even on a guy in good shape.

"Thank God," he croaked into his cell phone. "Seven it is." He kept out of sight while Henderson stepped from the elevator and walked to a room door. He knocked. A voice called out loud enough for Starsky to hear. "Who is it?"

Henderson said his name. The door opened. Starsky didn't have a clear line of vision to see who let Henderson in. He hurried over silently, his sneakers quiet on the threadbare carpeting. He pressed an ear to the door and listened.

Henderson said, "Making me come here was stupid! You two are dumb."

Bingo. Zane and Cannell were inside!

"Look, Mr. GQ," a man answered, his tone annoyed, "you told us to contact you through Fat Rolly and that's what we did!"

"Then who sent me the note?" Henderson's tone expressed surprise.

"What note?" said a second male voice. There was a brief pause. "You numbskull! You call us stupid? You fell for one of the oldest tricks in the book!"

Starsky knew the time had come. "He's inside with them. Where are you?"

"In position," Hutch responded instantly.

Starsky pocketed his phone and stood to the side of the door. No sense taking a shotgun blast, full of lead and splinters, to the body. Not a fun thought. He pounded on the door with his fist. "Police! Open up!"

"Lawyers are worthless sons-a-bitches!" the first man cried out.

Starsky heard footsteps and then Hutch's voice from the fire escape. "Police! Stop!"

"We can use him as a block," the first man called out.

There was a huge bang and the door exploded outwardly. Bits of wood flew through the air. Starsky's heart pounded. He was thankful that he'd flattened himself against the wall beside the door on the side closest to the stairway. He skittered down the hallway and around the corner so that the wall protected him. In the stairwell, he crouched and looked around the corner. From the photographs, he recognized Cannell. The hit man had Henderson in front of him as a shield. Zane was close behind, using Cannell and Henderson for cover. Starsky swore under his breath. He didn't like Henderson but he was sure blowing a hole in him to get to Cannell would not make his captain happy.

Starsky slipped out from behind the protective wall and took a stance, gun aimed directly at Henderson. "If I shoot, the bullet will go through both of ya." He grinned, big and toothy, hoping he looked like a crazy man ready to blow somebody away.

Henderson waved his arms. His face was white and tears streaked down his cheeks. "Wait!" he cried. "Don't fire." Wet stains raced down his legs.

Starsky almost felt sorry for the guy.

Cannell propelled Henderson along. Starsky backed up. Before Starsky could do anything, Cannell shoved Henderson hard. The man stumbled forward. Zane fired, hitting Henderson in the back, his momentum sent him crashing into Starsky. Together, they tumbled down the stairs. Starsky's gun went flying and he heard it clatter down the steps with them. They hit the bottom in a heap. Starsky groaned with pain. His back hurt and his right elbow had taken a hard hit. He didn't have time to worry over his aches and pains yet; he shoved Henderson off him and scrambled to his feet. Now his left shoulder ached from where he'd bashed it but he ignored the pain.

Starsky gritted his teeth. He spied his weapon in the corner and dove for it while he simultaneously dug into his pocket for his cell. "They shot Henderson and are in the elevator! Down, Hutch! Down!"

In a reverse of what he'd done minutes earlier, Starsky raced down each flight, eying the indicator on each floor. "Five, Hutch!" Then, "Three!" Finally, when Starsky reached the lobby he discovered that the elevator kept descending.

"Hutch!" Starsky swallowed hard, his breathing ragged. "Hutch! Parking garage! Basement level." Starsky took off, pelting down the final flight of stairs. He stopped at the bottom, came through the fire door slowly, gun drawn and ready to fire.

The cream colored Volt slid down the final ramp and skittered to a halt sideways. Hutch jumped out, his weapon at the ready. The doors slid open. Zane and Cannell burst through, shotguns aimed. Both men began to fire at Hutch as he ran to crouch behind a bigger car.

Starsky fired as he ran across the garage floor. He slid baseball style behind a parked car and immediately bounced up, shooting over the hood. One of the hit men shot out the windows of the Volt. Starsky was grateful that Hutch hadn't paused to use the limited size of the little car for cover. Besides, Starsky knew as he fired again and again, Hutch was going to be pissed when he saw the holes in his beloved Marianne.

Cannell ran across the floor, shooting wildly. Zane climbed onto the roof of the Volt, and his shots were poorly aimed. The hit men weren't nearly as effective in a one on one shootout as they were in a sneak attack. Taking a second to line up his shot, Starsky fired. He hit Cannell.

The man grunted and fell to the ground. Zane made the mistake of looking at Cannell for a split second and Starsky knew it was all his partner would need. Hutch took the shot. Zane tumbled from the roof of the Volt and disappeared behind it.

Cannell was still alive when Starsky reached him. He had a hole in his shoulder but he'd survive. Starsky turned him to his stomach roughly. Cannell cried out in pain when Starsky snapped the cuffs on him. He felt a stab of satisfaction that Cannell was hurting. He heard Hutch's cuffs click from a few feet away and he knew that Hutch had his man also, alive and subdued.

"Shut up," Starsky growled when Cannell started to beg for help. He dragged Cannell to his feet and shoved him against the car, letting him use it for support. "You'll live. Unfortunately."

Hutch propelled Zane in front of him and he gave him a push until he was beside Cannell.

Starsky holstered his weapon, grinning at Hutch. His partner looked extremely pleased with himself. No wonder. Starsky felt fabulous. He couldn't stop smiling as he fetched his phone and called for backup and medical assistance.

Today had been a good day, Starsky mused. They'd arrested the bad guys. They were both still alive. And Hutch was beside him, looking like a blond avenging angel with his hair in disarray, and with his face alight with triumph. God but he loved Hutch. He understood that it was in a "more than friends" sort of way, and in today's world, having a male lover wasn't a big deal. But he needed Hutch for his partner, and even if Hutch felt the same way (what a dream!), if they were together in their private lives, they couldn't be partners on the street. And Starsky needed Hutch on the street. He needed Hutch's smarts and company and gun to back him up. But one of these days, he'd take the leap and find out what Hutch thought about Starsky deep down inside. Someday, but not today.

 

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

Starsky walked into The Bay City Fitness Centre. He smiled at the young woman manning the check-in desk and sauntered past. Miles was cleaning a treadmill. He grinned over at Starsky. Today Miles had on little red jogging shorts that showed off his tight buns and a cropped white t-shirt that showed off his washboard abs. Nice, but not for him. Starsky would have walked past but Miles wasn't used to being ignored.

"Hey, Dave," he said, his voice full of (the usual) invitation.

"Hey, Miles," he said with a smile. "I'm looking for-"

"Hutch, of course." Miles looked sad. "You're always looking for Hutch."

Starsky shrugged, clearly letting Miles know that he'd always be looking for Hutch, as his partner walked down the space between two rows of treadmills. He was dressed and showered, his hair still damp.

"Hey, buddy," Starsky said.

"Starsk." Hutch grinned, clearly happy to see his partner.

Together the men walked towards the main entrance. The woman manning the desk called out, "Mr. Hutchinson, you promised."

"Oh, right!" Hutch gave her a beguiling grin, one that made Starsky's heart race. He wished Hutch would turn that charm on him but then, he'd reveal his interest inside of two seconds. "Starsk, give Britny a hundred bucks, will you?"

"A hundred bucks!" Starsky echoed. He could practically feel his wallet cringing in his pocket. "Again?"

Hutch did what Starsky had been dreading: he turned, looked deep into Starsky's eyes and said in a voice that promised favors that no man could resist: "I owe you."

Starsky was lost. His breath caught, his mouth went dry, his heart kicked into overdrive. He was on autopilot when he pulled out his wallet and dug into the side for his emergency C note. He passed it over to Britny (no 'e' according to her name tag) and she handed him a receipt he barely acknowledged. Still on a cloud, he followed Hutch out into the bright Bay City sunshine.

Blinking, Starsky regained his equilibrium. "I don't even belong to this gym."

Hutch put a hand on Starsky's shoulder. "I'll make it up to you, Starsk. I'll buy you lunch."

"I can't afford it when you buy me lunch," Starsky muttered, covering his back pocket with his hand. It was thinner than it had been two minutes earlier. "Besides, I can't stomach steamed edamame and black bean burgers." He shivered dramatically.

"Then you pick," Hutch said magnanimously.

"Really?" Starsky studied Hutch's face. He had a sparkle in his eyes but that could be from feeling good. Maybe. "Okay. I know this great place that I've been dying to try. The Addiction Bistro. They have world class chili. Every week they have new kinds! I've heard that they have a chili that so hot your ears will smoke! Isn't that fantastic?"

"So you feel it going in and coming out?" Hutch asked, grimacing.

"Yeah, great, huh?"

"Addiction Bistro. Sounds... wonderful. I'll meet you there."

"Nah, we can take my car."

"I have errands to run after lunch. I'll meet you. Where is it?"

"La Cienega. Follow me!"

"Great!" Hutch got into his slightly bent Volt.

Starsky threw Hutch a bright grin and raced for the Mustang. He pulled out and started down the street. Starsky watched Hutch's ugly Volt fall in behind him and he smiled. Finally Starsky relaxed. He went through an intersection, making sure the light was green so he didn't lose Hutch. He looked into the rear view mirror and Hutch was gone.

"Dirty, rotten double crosser!" Starsky said to the empty seat beside him. His cell phone rang. He answered. "Hutch, where are you?"

"I thought you said we were going to Cafe Gratitude. Sorry, Starsk. Next time, okay?" Hutch laughed, then disconnected.

Starsky stared at his phone. "Huutttchhhh!" He might love the guy but he was not eating all natural beet juice pancakes and sun dried tomato meatless cruelty free bacon! Chili to die for, here I come.

Starsky did, however, stop at Walgreen’s first for a super large bottle of antacids. Just in case.

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