Actions

Work Header

Dark Night of the Soul

Chapter Text

 

 

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

 

The briefing room cleared of the officers assigned to tonight’s assignment. Hutch had left before Starsky, at the request of Lt. Boggs. Starsky wondered if Boggs and Grimes had caught Hutch’s hangover behavior. Starsky certainly had. Of course he had, he’d seen too many of Hutch’s hangovers to miss one. There wasn’t enough soap to wash away the liquor sweat or enough mouthwash to cover up the liquor stink, and Starsky had caught both when he’d hopped into Hutch’s car on their way to Parker Center. He’s also noticed the scrapped knuckles, but couldn’t decide if Hutch had battled a someone or a something. And he didn’t really want to know. All he wanted to know right now was that Hutch was sober enough—and sane enough—to back him up tonight.

What he desperately wanted—what he desperately needed—was Old Hutch.

But he couldn’t simply ask for Old Hutch to appear. So all he’d done was ask Hutch if Hutch were all right. And Hutch had said yes. And Starsky had watched a Sober Hutch sit through the briefing. So Starsky believed Hutch was all right. Because he wanted to. Because he needed to.

Because he had to.

Ruth sat down next to Starsky. She raised her hand and stroked his face, letting her thumb caress his cheek.

Starsky blushed. Motherly touches always embarrassed him—even as he relished them.

“David,” she began quietly.

Starsky lifted his hand and placed it on top of hers. “You’re worried. It’s gonna be okay.” Intense, extreme, ludicrous, weird—but ultimately okay. He had Hutch.

Ruth smiled back at him, but there was pain in her eyes. “David,” she said again. “You need to know this before you go in tonight.” Her eyes never left his. “Rodriguez shot himself this afternoon.”

Starsky’s eyes narrowed. “Rodriguez was shot?” he asked, confused. Rodriguez…all he could remember of Rodriquez was the last time he’d seen him…handing a folder to Grimes…looking skeletal, looking burdened…unable to look anyone in the eye. Not at all the hotheaded, brazen detective he’d known before.

Ruth took Starsky’s hand in hers and brought it down to the table. “He shot himself. He committed suicide,” she explained patiently.

“What?” Starsky asked, bewildered. He couldn’t wrap his mind around the concept.

Ruth squeezed his hand. “I think he couldn’t handle what happened to him,” she said. “And I wanted you to know before you went in tonight. I want to make sure you know exactly what you’re getting into, and what the consequences could be.”

Starsky shook his head, dumbfounded. “I can’t believe Rodriguez would do that.”

“I know,” Ruth soothed. “But everyone reacts differently to different situations. He’d suffered a very personal attack. His partner wasn’t there. And we just didn’t see this coming—“ she broke off.

Starsky was suddenly afraid Ruth was about to call off the meet. And he had to go through with this. It was not only his chance to prove to Hutch—and to himself—that he was capable of doing this job, but it was his chance to reconnect with Hutch. “It’s not the same,” he countered, defiance flooding his voice. “He went in alone. I have backup.” Starsky made two mental columns, one labeled rodriguez and one labeled starsky. A list of everything that separated him from Rodriguez. “We have background on the marks. He had no idea who he was dealing with. I’ve been briefed. He wasn’t. I have backup. He didn’t.” He was persuading himself as much as Ruth.

And I have Hutch, Starsky thought. Rodriguez didn’t.

Actually, Starsky was no longer sure if that was an advantage or not. And that terrified him. He’d always been able to count on Hutch, know exactly what he was thinking, exactly what he was doing, exactly where Hutch would be when he needed him.

Or at least those had been the qualities of Old Hutch.

But Starsky couldn’t tell what Hutch was doing now—except keeping him at arm’s distance. Hutch had a girlfriend he didn’t know, was seeing a hooker, pretending to be a gay bondage freak, and had bloody knuckles. And this was the man Starsky needed to be certain would keep him from a fate worse than death, as well as death.

Then again, there was something to be said for having a crazed Hutch at your back. Nothing stopped a crazed Hutch. Nothing prevented a crazed Hutch from his objective. So since protecting Starsky was Hutch’s objective tonight….

Starsky could believe in Hutch for tonight.

 

·                     Grimes moved up to Hutch, who was currently doing his part for the assignment by holding up the hallway wall. Or maybe it was the other way around. He was sober by only about 4 hours. He vaguely remembered getting home, or at least he remembered trying to unlock his apartment door. He could only assume he’d driven there after having a very strange conversation with Sugar about Oscar Wilde or something. And why he’d gone to The Queen Mary to see Sugar was baffling; he must have thought she knew something about the investigation.

·                     What he did remember clearly was going to Huggy’s. He knew why he’d gone there; it was safe haven away from his home, his job, and his partner. And he’d needed safe haven because of an all-too-clear memory of attacking Martin. He beat up a bad guy because he was mad at himself. Then he beat up a good guy because he was—mad at himself. Admitting it was an ice pick-sharp pain in his heart, but he’d been infuriated when confronted with Huggy and Cho’s relationship. It reminded him of what he and Starsky had had. Or almost had.

·                     Or should have.

·                     He squelched the thought. It was wrong. It would lead to more pain. All Starsky needed was his protection. And it was all Hutch deserved to give.

“You cool?” Grimes asked Hutch.

“Piece of cake,” Hutch replied. His eyes were slits, focused on the wall across from him. The damn hallway light was just too bright.

“You sober?”

Hutch grimaced. He decided discretion was the better part of valor. “Yes.”

Grimes nodded. “Your partner clear we’re not looking for heroics?”

Hutch’s jaw clenched. “He’s fine.”

Grimes studied him. “You taking up boxing?”

Hutch’s entire body clenched, especially his right hand. “No,” he said slowly. “Why?”

Grimes shrugged. “Just noticed your knuckles there in the meeting.”

Hutch shoved his hands into his jacket pockets. “I’m fine,” he urged.

Grimes nodded a final time. “Good. Make sure you stay fine. We need fine officers on this task force, not cowboys, and not drunks. Both cause problems. And problem causers end up on suspension.”

Hutch didn’t reply.

“Cowboys and drunks can also get their partners killed. Had you thought about that?” Grimes folded his arms across his chest.

Hutch’s heart skipped a beat.

“Ruth’s in there right now telling Starsky that Emmanuel Rodriguez shot himself this afternoon. He committed suicide.”

Hutch’s eyes widened. The pain of the hallway light was nothing compared to the pain of this knowledge. “What?” he managed.

Grimes took a step toward him, grabbed Hutch’s upper arm. “This is not a game. This is not an exercise in macho behavior. You have to be there for your partner, and you partner has to be there for you. Both of your lives depend upon it, as well as your sanity. Do you understand me?”

Grimes eyes bored into Hutch. Hutch nodded, trying to stop them from going deeper.

Grimes studied him for a moment, then released his arm. He nodded, probably more to himself than to Hutch, and walked back into the briefing room.

Oh God, Hutch thought. I’m protecting Starsky, not putting him at risk! Aren’t I? Hasn’t that been the whole point of this mess? To protect Starsky? To keep him safe? Make sure no one else hurts him?

Hutch ran a shaky thumb over his damp brow. He almost died from my lack of protection last time! That’s why I had to change, to learn to block out distractions and concentrate on keeping danger away! You are not telling me that what I am now is just as dangerous! I have to be this way to keep him safe! Starsky must be safe!

But is he? another other voice asked.

Hutch stumbled to the water fountain and took a long drink, soothing his raw throat, taking a handful to cool his face. He stood up.

If Starsky isn’t any safer now than he was before, than what am I doing to him? To myself? To both of us? Are we any better off?

Hutch turned and looked down the hall into the briefing room. Starsky was sitting with Ruth. Gordie had already taken the van out. Rudd and Hughes had also already taken off.

I want Starsky to be safe, Hutch thought. I want him to be alive. I want him to be alive and happy.

and?

And…I want him next to me.

and?

And…I want me to be next to him.

and are you accomplishing any of that?

“No,” Hutch whispered to the empty hallway.

well?

I can keep Starsky safe for tonight. That’s all I have to do right now, just keep him safe for tonight. I’ll worry about tomorrow—tomorrow.

Hutch took a deep, cleansing breath. He’d worry about tomorrow, tomorrow.

 

Starsky moved tentatively into the small motel room. The motel Eric had chosen was old, rundown; stuck on the eastern end of Ventura Boulevard, where Studio City is about to hit Universal City. He and Hutch were familiar with it; it wasn’t so much of a drug hangout as a hangout for prostitutes and winos.

Unfortunately, the choice made surveillance difficult. Eric had only called with the location around 5:30pm, and they were meeting at seven. That meant no time for fancy set-ups. They had the van, which could monitor the beeper Starsky wore. The van could be parked in the lot across the street, or down the street near the Mexican restaurant; it could be close enough to pick up the signal but not look out of place in the area. Hughes and Rudd would also have a radio in their car, as, of course, would Hutch.

And that was the only transmission signal they’d have. Eric had told Starsky the front desk would have the room key ready for him when he arrived, which meant the task force had no idea which room Starsky would be in, which meant they couldn't set up any listening devices in that room or the room next door.

Grimes, and Boggs in particular, had not been happy with these conditions. Ruth wanted to have an officer check in to the room next door after they knew where Starsky was. Starsky hadn’t been sure what good that would do; the officer could do no more than listen through the wall, and having too many people ask for too many specific rooms might tip off the manager that something was up. And when Starsky gave the word he needed help, the officer probably couldn’t get there any faster than Hutch could.

Which actually made Starsky feel good, knowing all he had to do was say the code word, and Hutch would be right there. It was the only certain thing about this whole set-up.

So here he was, in a room at the end of this one-story, horseshoe-shaped complex, with only a radio transmitter disguised as a beeper between him and disaster.

The light switch just inside the door turned on a weak yellow lamp next to the bed. The room was the same as any hundred of cheap motel rooms, the same as any of the rooms previously rented by each of the deceased victims. The only difference was, Eric had rented this room for Starsky. Which made it Eric’s territory, possibly the killer’s territory. That made Starsky feel vulnerable.

The room was boringly rectangular: the bed perpendicular to the east wall, a dresser against the west wall, the door and a blind-covered window opened from the north wall, and the bathroom was just off the south wall. Starsky stepped fully inside and shut the door behind him.

"Looks just like every other motel room this department has ever had me in," he said out loud. He was speaking for the benefit of his backup outside, who were listening by means of the innocent-looking beeper attached to his belt. "We've got a nice, lumpy double bed, a splintering chest of drawers topped by a tarnished mirror, and no phone. There's a small card table and one Holiday Inn-style caneback chair toward the front of the room, and—" he moved back toward the bathroom, "—a shower and toilet that are in sore need of my mother's scrub brush. No back window through the bathroom." He turned and studied the room before him, hands planted on his hips. "The only entrance is through the door and front window, so I hope you guys brought your fire axes." He shivered and rubbed his arms. "This is pretty much just what we expected. Just exactly what we expected," he murmured to himself. His brain did a quick review of all the murder scenes and victims: if he was to survive with his—dignity—intact, he had to know what to expect and when to make a move. Room size and layout only mattered as far as knowing where the escape routes were. Lamp, chair, and card table could all be used as weapons. The bathroom could be used as a possible safe room, although there’d been no lock on the door. But if he were mobile, he’d only have to defend himself a few seconds before help would arrive.

More troubling was the bondage aspect. It was clear all the previous victims had been tied down before they’d been killed. And while Starsky knew what they didn’t, that the whole scene was about death, not sex, he was still going to have to allow himself to be bound. And once bound, he was helpless.

 

Hutch shifted in the driver’s seat until his back felt properly supported but the pressure on his injuries was slight. He had parked in the lot directly across from the motel, which was dark because the tenants of the tiny strip mall had all closed shop and gone home. Others might park here because, as always, street parking was hell and no one had enough parking around their own establishment in this city. But that didn’t bother Hutch; as long as no fool tried to block him in, which was damn near impossible since he was positioned on the far right side of the lot entrance with his front bumper not quite in the street and his motor running ready to make the dash across the street to his partner, he was happy.

Hutch picked up his radio mike. “Red Fox ready. Over” Ruth had picked the code names; he didn’t care. “Grey Wolf in position. Over,” answered Rudd. He and Hughes were parked down the street near the Mexican restaurant. “White Eagle we read you both and copy. Over and out.” That was Ruth, she and Grimes were in the van parked just around the corner, monitoring and recording this impossible mess.

Hutch’s eyes were fixed on the motel room where Starsky waited. He felt as if he were in a vacuum tube, unable to breathe, unable to move, dependent upon someone to smash the glass and free him for action. Because if he were to smash the glass himself, he’d end up dragging Starsky out of the room, ruining the whole set-up, and making an even bigger asshole of himself than he’d managed lately.

He’d listened to Starsky’s description of the room, laying it out mentally so he’d know exactly how to get to Starsky if he had to. Starsky’s beeper cum transmitter wasn’t bad; he could definitely hear and understand what Starsky was saying, even if it was a little fuzzy.

Hutch kept his foot hovering over the accelerator, the rest of his body tense. He was angry at Grimes for making him as a street thug, he was mad at Starsky for agreeing to this, he was mad at himself for letting Starsky agree to this. The anger was fire inside him. And just as Robert Frost had said, warring with the fire was ice. The ice of dread, of apprehension, of fear. He alternately shivered and sweated, afraid one or the other would take over and he’d lose his precarious balance. If either paralyzed him, Starsky could be lost. Again. Because of him. Hutch’s heart skipped a beat.

Every heartbeat was agony; it represented another second Starsky was in danger. His whole being was attuned to just one word, the one word from Starsky that would send him running to the rescue.

 

Starsky removed his jacket, tossed it on the chair, and sat down. He patted the beeper hanging on his belt. So much rode on that one little device. Starsky was used to having no beeper, but having his gun, his own wits and strength, and his partner as his defense. Here he was with no gun, wits and strength which would be of no use once he was tied up, and a piece of metal recording whatever happened. But he did still have his partner. And he was convinced, at least for this moment, Hutch would be there.

He bounced experimentally a few times. “Bouncing on the bed,” he explained for the benefit of his audience. He lifted the edge of the gray-green bedspread to peek underneath. “Crappola bed linen.” The mattress and box springs rested on a metal frame bolted to the floor. Starsky looked to the head of the bed. A single piece of finished wood served as the headboard. Eric would have to fasten his wrists and ankles to the bed frame, which would give him no leverage at all. “Bed’s bolted to the floor. No way to hide under it, either.” Bad joke. If Hutch and the others took too long once he gave the signal, he'd make tomorrow's news as the latest victim in this bizarre crime spree. Starsky shivered again.

The lines for this scene had been drawn by Ruth, negotiated by Starsky, and agreed to by Hutch. Ruth said no intercourse, Starsky said intercourse with Janet if necessary. After all, sleeping with someone while pursuing a case was not unknown to either him or Hutch. Hutch agreed.

Ruth said no anal. Starsky said only if absolutely necessary and Janet isn’t being forced. Hutch agreed.

Ruth said no oral. Starsky said oral with Janet, if necessary, meaning she could either blow him or he’d eat her no offense Ruth. Hutch had asked what if Eric…? and Starsky said he’d call in backup if that became an issue. Hutch agreed.

In fact, it had been agreed that should Eric what-if anything, Starsky would call for backup.

And under no circumstance was Starsky to allow himself to be gagged. Bound was one thing, gagged was another. If it came up, Starsky would refuse. If the refusal ended the encounter, the Lawsons would leave and be picked up later for questioning. If a gag was forced, Starsky would call for backup if able, or 60 seconds of silence would be considered a call in and of itself.

So. Starsky had as long as it took to get what he needed and prove he was the detective and hero he used to be. But he had to remember to keep talking or the cops would come busting in and the killer would be tipped off and he’d be a laughingstock. And somewhere in the middle of all that was maybe some sex, with a whole bunch of people listening.

And don’t forget the partnership hanging in the balance.

 

Hutch straightened as he saw the white Mercury pull into the motel lot. Two occupants in the car. It parked down at the end, down at Starsky’s end. Hutch held his breath. His right hand gripped the radio mike. A man and a woman, both wearing coats, got out of the car. Both short. Both blonde. Each carrying a bag. Hutch recognized them. “Red Wolf to pack, our team is here. Over.” Ruth and Rudd copied. Hutch honked his horn twice, then ran his hands over the steering wheel. He wanted desperately to floor the gas and run right straight over the two suspects. Instead, he watched the man and women walk to the door of Starsky’s room.

 

A car honked twice from across the road. It was a pre-arranged signal, meaning Lawson had been spotted and was presumably on his way up to the room. Starsky took a deep breath and steeled himself.

“Got it. I’m ready.” Starsky answered the honks. He made a final survey of the room. When the hell had this kind of gig ever been more fun than frightening? Starsky shook his head. When he and Hutch had first joined the department elite known as undercover cops, they had been elated! It was a game, first to put one over on the city’s evildoers, second to show up the rest of their peers, and finally to pit themselves against one another in a sort of “brains & brawn” contest. No bad guy had been too scary, no undercover gig had seemed to foul, no plan had seemed to risky. There was no such thing as too little sleep, too much peril, or too little backup. They had been a couple of overconfident, arrogant, bastards.

Overconfident, arrogant, lucky bastards.

Gunther had changed that. Even before the hit on Starsky, Gunther had been responsible for too many people’s deaths. Deaths they’d been unable to prevent with their brains and brawn and expertise. They hadn’t even prevented Starsky’s “death;” he was just a medical miracle. The only upside to that case was Hutch had gotten to Gunther before Gunther had gotten to Hutch.

Which was just another example of their luck, since Starsky had certainly been in no position to protect Hutch from Gunther.

Which was why there were in the position they were in now, because Hutch had been unable to protect Starsky from Gunther.

Couldn’t he see it was all just luck, it was all out of their control?

Starsky buried his face in his hands.

A few moments later there was a easy rap on the door. Starsky rose and moved to the window, peeking through the slats. Eric caught him looking, acknowledged Starsky, and jerked his head toward the door. Starsky reached over and opened it.

“Hi Eric. Hi Janet.”

Eric entered the room quickly, followed by his sister. Janet shut, locked, and chained the door behind them. Starsky would have to see if he could maneuver around and undo that chain—he was beginning to realize just how precious a few seconds could be between life and death. The brother and sister moved to the center of the room and deposited two athletic bags on the bed. Both were wearing full-length trench coats and leather gloves. Trés chic, Starsky thought to himself. He actually hoped Janet was wearing something underneath that would stir him up, because if he had to have sex with her he was going to have to have something to stimulate his arousal. Right now he wasn’t sure he could take a piss for the pressure of performing, the peril of the situation, a listening audience, and his concern for Hutch.

“What’s in the bags?” asked Starsky. “You’ve got two, I see.” Cleaning supplies, maybe?

Eric unzipped one of the bags and removed a small radio/tape player and three tapes. He set it on the dresser. "I brought along some of my favorite cassettes." Eric inserted a tape and hit the PLAY button. The Doors wafted through the room. Eric turned and spread his arms wide. "Atmosphere," he announced.

"I'm not much for music," Starsky said. "But we could keep it on low." That way there’d be less room noise for the radio, and less distraction for him. The Doors. That’s what a witness had said was playing in one of the victim’s motel rooms. Starsky unobtrusively tapped three times on his beeper. Another pre-arranged signal. Starsky was becoming less and less confident in the fancy technology his safety depended upon. Cops got killed when technology failed, regardless of who their partners were.

The signal needed a response; he had tapped to see if Hutch could still hear him with the background noise of the tape player. The response was forthcoming, another quick honk of the car horn. They could still hear him. And neither Eric nor Janet seemed to notice the car horn. Starsky was relieved.

Janet turned down the volume of the tape.

 

A boulder rolled through Hutch’s head. The Doors. One of the ear witnesses had said he heard The Doors through the wall. He had just allowed two Doors fans to sequester themselves in a room with his partner. Two possible killers. At least the killers weren’t such fans that they wouldn’t allow Starsky to turn down the music and keep his transmissions clear. Hutch leaned his head against the wheel. Just don’t let anything go wrong!

 

“Can I take your coat, Janet?” Starsky reached out for the garment.

Janet smiled at Starsky, then untied her belt and let her coat drop to the floor. Starsky did the play-by-play. “Nothing sexier than a garter belt.” He managed a smile. “Silk stockings. Matching bra and panties. The white lace choker is a nice touch.” Janet smiled at him.

“Gloves?” Starsky was surprised, but shouldn’t have been. The white lace gloves were thick enough, Starsky noted, to keep her from leaving any fingerprints. Janet fussed with her appearance in the mirror, then turned and offered herself up to Starsky's inspection. Well, he could probably get stimulated over that outfit if he tried. Starsky looked over at Eric.

"What do you think?" Eric moved behind his sister and put his hands on her waist. "Beautiful, no?" He kissed her shoulder. Janet stretched her neck in pleasure, then twisted around to meet her brother's lips with her own. Starsky watched in increasing shock as Eric and Janet explored each other's mouths. Unexpected was not the word for what Starsky was witnessing. Unthought-of of was a better term. It suddenly occurred to Starsky that he might not need to summon an erection for Janet at all. That she was there for someone else’s erection!

Stay focused, Starsky instructed himself. Not being ready for anything was what got Rodriguez in trouble.

Eric finally released his sister and stepped away from her. He began removing his own coat. Starsky stayed where he was, mesmerized by the scene unfolding in front of him.

Too fascinated. He had to keep talking. The scene might be repugnant, it might be ridiculous, but he had to keep talking. If he stopped for too long, the back-up team would be on top of them. And Starsky hadn’t even begun to gather any evidence, much less a confession. He had to start talking. Talking would keep him focused. Talking would help him handle the unexpected. Talking would keep him connected to Hutch. Talk to Hutch.

“Beautiful, yes.” Describe, detail…. “Very sexy. Lots of lace and, uh, stuff. Nice.”

 

The fire in Hutch’s gut was melting the ice in his veins, leaving a sickening sludge to slog through his body. Keep your mind on the details, just go over the details…there’s a scantily clad woman and her brother in that room, they brought two bags with them, and Starsky is still alive and well. Untouched, unharmed. All he has to do is get them to talk, gather some evidence, give us enough to pick them up. Don’t let them open the bags, Starsk! Don’t let them touch you! I know what we talked about, but just get them to talk!

Not seeing, only listening, was going to be bad. Hutch had already dressed the woman in the garments Starsky described. He could see the two of them in the motel room, standing across from Starsky, ogling him, eyeing him. Hutch knew better than to let his mind add detail to what little Starsky was telling him, but it was impossible to stop. He needed to see the room Starsky was in, needed to see Starsky in the room, needed to know exactly what was going on. Starsky’s life depended upon it.

Hutch took a deep breath but was unable to hold it. Lose control, lose Starsky. The muck of despair hovered around the fire and ice.

 

Eric shouldered out of his coat, picked up his sister's coat as well as Starsky's jacket, and hung them on spindly wire hangers dangling from the thin rod posing as a closet.

“I could have hung up the coats,” Starsky narrated. Brilliant commentary.

Eric was in full regalia also, sporting black leather bondage pants and a black g-string, his chest crisscrossed by a studded leather harness. He kept his gloves on, thwarting fingerprint identification.

“Well, now, there’s an outfit,” Starsky continued. “What is that, real leather for that harness? I like the pants. Black’s a good color for you. Goes well with blond hair.” Now where had that thought come from? “Like the gloves, too. Are they kid?”

Eric stepped back beside his sister. They both grinned at Starsky. Eric burst out laughing. "Nervous?"

Starsky shifted and tried to center himself. "Yeah," he grinned back, trying to use his nerves as part of the play, rather than allowing them to use him. "This is all just so—different. I’ve never done anything like it before. I’m not sure what to expect or what to do." That was certainly true.

 

Hutch didn’t know exactly how to dress Eric in his mind, only that it had to be in leather. Probably similar to what he’d brought to the studio. A lingerie lass and a leather stud, targeting his Starsky. The thought of either one of them actually touching his partner, much less engaging in even more personal contact, nauseated him. No one has a right to touch my partner! No one! Only I have that right!

The world swum around Hutch, then steadied.

Have that right, or want that right?

Confusion joined the anger, fear and despair wallowing in his gut.

 

Janet sidled up to Starsky and hung onto his shoulder, letting her right hand roam freely around his chest. She began unbuttoning his shirt. Keep talking, he reminded himself. "I hope you’ve got something for me to wear, ‘cause all I brought was myself. I didn’t know we were supposed to come in costume. Not that I really have anything at home in my closet, but I could have found something. Not that this stuff is like a Halloween costume or anything, I mean, it’s not silly like a Halloween costume. It’s just, uh, specialized."

Eric pulled some paraphernalia from the first bag. Starsky was now sure the second bag contained all their cleaning supplies. Okay, there’s some evidence. “What’s in the second bag?”

"That’s for later.” Eric lifted the bag from the bed and pushed it over against the wall, under their coats. Then he pulled some straps from the first bag. “For you." Eric handed over a set of leather restraints, each one smooth except for a large metal D-ring attached opposite the buckle. A similar set of ankle straps were passed over. The only other piece of costuming Eric handed Starsky was a matching belt.

”This isn’t much to cover myself with.” Starsky hefted the items. “Let’s see here: Four straps, two each for wrists and ankles, I’m guessing.” He looked at Eric, who winked back. “And, um, waist belt?” They felt strong and sturdy. “How come the wrist and ankle straps have D-rings and the belt only has a buckle? Is that regulation or something?” Only some of the bodies found in their investigation had appeared to have been strapped, others showed evidence of rope or tape burn. Killer’s choice, Starsky supposed.

 

The picture was now complete in Hutch’s mind: Lingerie lass, leather stud, and Starsky wearing straps around his ankles, wrists and waist. Nude, naked, in his birthday suit, whatever you wanted to call it: open and available to whatever these little perverts had on their perverted little minds. And he had a good idea of their perversions based on what they’d found the last time: Lots of tying up, penis traps and ball bondage, a dildo up the ass, a rope around the throat.

Hutch’s heart was racing; bile burned his throat. He was furious with himself, furious with Starsky for putting him in this position! Why had he let Starsky do this? It was clearly crazy! It was making him crazy! Was putting Starsky in danger worth getting some psycho warped killer off the streets?

Hutch knew the answer, tried to bring down the pace of his heart. Someone had to do it, just why did it have to be them? Hutch swiped a thumb over his damp brow. All right, okay, I can handle this, I can do it. But I don’t have to wait until Starsky gives the word. I can use my own judgment. I know this man. I know when enough is too much for him. He is my partner!

 

Janet took the accoutrements from Starsky and laid them on the card table. “You are so cute!” She giggled. Janet finished unbuttoning his shirt and pulled it from his shoulders. “Let me help you get undressed.”

“I think that’s a good place to start.” Starsky said with false bravado. He allowed her to remove the shirt, shouldering out of it easily. “Then maybe I can do the same for you.” Janet dropped the shirt on the floor, returning her attentions to his chest. She brushed her lips against his skin, her hands caressing his sides and back. “Yeah, that’s nice, keep kissing right there.” Starsky actually found it hard to ignore the sensations she was promulgating. He tried focusing his attention on Eric. "What else have you got in those bags? More costumes? Straps? Toys?"

Eric took a few more items from the bag, then tossed that bag over toward the door. “What are those, toys?” Without thinking, Starsky had placed his hands on Janet’s head, stroking her hair as she kissed his chest. “I can’t say I’ve had much experience with toys, either. Although I’ve seen a lot of them. You know, my clients bring them sometimes when they pose. Like you did, But I try to keep business and personal separate, so I never really played with them or anything.”

“My games require toys,” Eric grinned at Starsky. He placed the items on the dresser top.

“Who’s the cock ring for?” Starsky asked.

“Whoever,” Eric answered. “Got a butt plug and some nipple clamps, too. You like those?”

Starsky shivered. No. “Sure, whatever.”

“And look at this baby.” Eric held out a very large dildo.

“Oh. A dildo.” Starsky didn’t want to know who that was for. But all were items that had been found at previous murder scenes. Now to be used for the entertainment and enjoyment of one Detective Sergeant David Michael Starsky and Friends.

 

Okay. Here we go. A bagful of the same toys found at the last murder site. We’re getting somewhere. Now we just need some talk. Goddamn, Starsky, get them to talk!

The radio crackled. “You okay?” a woman’s voice asked.

Hutch swallowed, then picked up the mike. “Red Wolf to White Eagle, I copy you. Over.” Get back to procedure, I don’t need your concern! Over!

“Hang loose, son. Stay ready. We’ll be right behind you. Over.”

“Copy that. Over and out.” Hutch dropped the mike next to him on the seat. Ruth’s query had brought him back to a slightly less frenzied state. He sat up straight, stretching his back, flexing his ankle. Nothing had happened as yet. Nothing might happen at all. Starsky could get them to confess. Then they’d all go home happy.

Please just let this night be over!

 

“Hey, why’d you stop?” Starsky felt Janet move away from him. Janet picked up the wrist bands. “Ah, I see, time to put on the straps.” Starsky’s heartbeat sped up. Time to alert the troops. Time to offer myself up as sacrifice. Time to run screaming from the room.

Starsky held up his hands. Janet fastened the leather snugly around Starsky's wrists. “Yeah, nice and tight around my wrists,” Starsky commented. “Yeah, that feels nice.”

Eric, meanwhile, busied himself stripping the bed of all its linen. A stained mattress was revealed for Eric’s trouble.

"Isn’t that, uh, going to be a little rough on the body? No sheets on the bed, I mean."

Eric laughed. “Do you know how many people have probably used these sheets for exactly this purpose? And do you really think this establishment cares how clean they can wash these sheets? I don’t take any chances!” Eric pulled out a plain, white sheet from the toy bag and spread it over the crummy mattress. “There! At least we’ll be somewhat protected.” Eric looked at Starsky. “Well, you know!”

Starsky knew. Protected from germs, but not from whatever Eric had in mind once he was tied up and helpless. “That’s a good idea,” he commented. “Then you can just take it with you and wash it later.” Leaving behind no evidence. “I’ll have to remember that.”

"Shh," Janet put a finger to his lips. She expertly unbuckled his belt, then unzipped his jeans and pulled them down to his ankles. But Starsky couldn't “shh,” and he knew it.

“I love it when a woman undresses me,” he said. He hoped it sounded more sexy than he felt. “It’s very sensual, you know? Makes me feel relaxed and kind of pampered. Like I’m getting lots of attention.”

 

Hutch almost laughed. It would have been funny, what he was listening to, if it weren’t so dangerous. Starsky, playing footsie with a hot mama, having to describe it blow by blow for the sake of the listening audience. What wasn’t so funny was the idea of someone undressing his partner. If Hutch had been a little more introspective, he might have recognized the feeling as jealousy. But there was just no room for introspection in his body. It was barely containing the emotions already there.

 

Gently, Janet pushed Starsky back toward the bed. Starsky sat down on the edge, his attention focused on his feet. He reached for his jeans, which had wrapped around the beeper. Janet also reached, and found it first.

“What’s this?” She held it up.

“Beeper.” Starsky reached for it and Janet easily gave it to him. He snatched it quickly enough that no one could see his hand tremble.

 “What’s that for?” Eric watched as Starsky brushed off the device. He desperately wanted to tap it to make sure it was still transmitting, but he feared with Janet and Eric now scrutinizing the beeper, they would catch the answering horn honk.

“Business.” Starsky wondered if Hutch were poised to come riding in with his posse. “Everybody’s getting one these days. You can stay in touch when you’re not around a phone. See, it comes with a phone number, and when someone wants you, they call up the phone number and then the beeper beeps and tells you who called.” The truth is always the best lie.

Eric laughed. “What, you expecting some emergency photo shoot?”

Starsky laughed as well. He reached over and set it on the card table, transmitter side facing the action. “It’s in case my partner needs to get a hold of me.” If he was casual about it, no one would suspect its real purpose.

Janet returned to undressing Starsky. One disaster averted.

“You know, that thing would be good to have when I get my personal fitness business started,” Eric mused.

“Great idea,” Starsky replied. “Your clients could beep you when they wanted to make an appointment.” Janet untied each of his tennis shoes, then eased each one off. Next, she slipped his socks off. “That way, you don’t have to have an office, you could just return their messages and pretty much use your car to get around without having to have a secretary or anything.”

“Yeah,” Eric agreed. “You know, getting to know you has really been interesting. I get a lot of good ideas when I’m around you.” He leered at Starsky.

“Yeah, well, thanks.” Starsky looked down at Janet. “Well, looks like my clothes are off. Who’s next?”

 

Hutch was sure his heart had stopped beating when Janet had found the beeper. Even now it just barely kept a rhythm. He had his foot on the accelerator, his hands on the steering wheel, ready to peel out. Who knows how they might have reacted if they’d made the beeper? Lashed out at Starsky fatally? I swear, this is the last time we do this. Whatever it takes, I will keep you happy without having to indulge your love of undercover scenes.

Hutch rolled down his window and gulped cool air.

 

Janet giggled, and again placed her finger against Starsky's lips. She knelt at his feet, and strapped the ankle bands on.

“Nice fit,” Starsky pointed out. “I guess one size fits all when it comes to restraints and stuff, huh? You can really get those straps tight around a person’s and ankles. Although I guess if you were too fat….” He looked up at Eric. “Where’d you get them?”

“I got a catalogue. I’ll loan it to you if you want.”

Yeah, loan it to me if either of us is walking around after this, Starsky thought.

Janet, still kneeling, reached up and drew the belt around his waist, securely buckling it.

“Ah, I’m ticklish there on my tummy.” Starsky felt along the belt’s edge, felt how tightly it wrapped around his abdomen. “What’s the belt for? Anything special? I don’t seen any hooks or anything on it. Can’t go too much tighter unless you put in more holes for the buckle. Just for looks, huh? Or maybe a good handhold?” He pushed his fingers in between the leather and his skin.

Janet giggled again. “David, do you ever shut up?”

Starsky flushed. “I’m, uh, I guess I’m just nervous.”

Janet stood up, offered Starsky her hands, and pulled him to a standing position. “You know, if you like dirty talk, I can do that.”

In one fluid motion she grabbed the waistband of his briefs and skimmed them off.

Starsky stood in front of her, naked except for the five slashes of black against his pale skin. “Looks like I’m naked and ready,” Starsky looked down at his own body. Naked and unprotected is more like it. “How about everyone else getting naked now?” He rubbed his hands together. Or more naked. Or at least with their parts hanging out just as his were.

 

Naked and unprotected, Hutch thought. His hands continued to caress the steering wheel, his foot to tap the gas pedal. The image of a naked Starsky plastered itself in his mind. No wrist restraints or ankle straps, just a wonderful, beautiful, unclothed body. A body that impressed him. A body that surprised him.

A body that aroused him.

Hutch shuddered. There was too much sex on this case. He was either horny or repulsed all the time. Even thoughts of his partner’s body could set him off. He did not need to be aroused right now. He did not want to think about why he was aroused right now. He was angry, he was afraid; that was enough.

 

Janet lowered herself to her knees and blew on his cock, causing it to stir even under the pressure of the situation. Starsky bit his lip as the voltage hit his brain.

"God, David." Eric stood on the far side of the bed. "You look magnificent. All my weight training was worth every drop of sweat." Starsky turned his head to see Eric leering at him. Undeniable sexual lust. Starsky shuddered. An image of Eric, kneeling before him, sucking his cock, presented itself. It wasn’t what he wanted his mind to focus on, but it was better than the other image trying to intrude, the one of Eric fucking his ass while he could do nothing but scream.

“You aren’t so bad yourself.” Flattery will get you everywhere. Even into a killer’s bed. Just remember, you’re trying to get into a killer’s mind. “Did you wear that just for me, or is that your standard outfit? I mean, I guess, do you do this often?” He laughed, trying to make the question a joke. “You know it’s a first for me.”

Eric shook his head, grinning. “So you keep saying. Just be cool, and you’ll be fine.”

Janet stood and placed her lips around his left nipple. White teeth gently nipped at him, then moved over to scrape at his right nipple. Starsky grabbed her shoulders to steady himself. His cock rode higher. He hadn't expected to be so aroused under the threat that confronted him. “Yeah, that’s it….” How did they do it in the porn films they’d seen? “Yeah, suck my nipple…that’s it…that’s right baby….” He looked down at the blonde head working on his chest. Not the blond head he craved, the blond head he wanted worshipping his body, making it vibrate with sexual electricity. Maybe if he pretended this blonde was his blond…. “That’s good, that is so good, feels wonderful, just keep sucking….”

Starsky’s reliance on his body's quick response in times of emergency was suddenly in serious doubt. At this point there was only one thing he was certain of being able to do quickly.

Janet dropped lower, her lips and tongue moving over his belly button, his lower abdomen. Starsky let his vision blur, one shade of blonde slipping into another, Hutch’s mouth on his body…. “Nice…so nice…soft lips….” Janet’s hands moved around to clutch his buttocks, kneading the firm flesh. Janet’s hands were tiny…Hutch’s would be bigger…his mouth larger…. Starsky closed his eyes at the sudden sting of tears filling them. Could this be as close as he ever got to Hutch? A surrogate sucking him off while he did the play-by-play of what he wanted his partner to do, for the benefit of his partner?

 

Hutch rested his head on the hands, which still gripped the wheel. All he could see was a woman moving down Starsky’s body, giving him pleasure, making him hard. He could no longer ignore his own half-erection, thinking of Starsky’s body in full arousal. It was all he could do to ignore the thoughts circling in his brain—thoughts which had been hiding behind other thoughts. The thought of wanting Starsky hiding behind the thought of wanting to protect Starsky. The thought of loving Starsky hiding behind the thought of wanting to keep Starsky safe.

The thought of loving Starsky scaring him so much he tried to kill it by using others and hurting himself.

Hutch groaned.

He’d been trying to protect Starsky from his own lapses in vigilance. And that required removing all feeling from their partnership, any feeling that interfered with his pledge to be constantly on guard. He’d been trying to keep Starsky safe by being super-vigilant, keeping him off the streets, keeping him away from the bad guys.

But all he’d managed to do was force Starsky into proving he was still a good cover cop by placing himself right in the arms of danger.

And what was needed to take Starsky out of danger was exactly what Hutch had been denying—his feelings for Starsky.

God, was he screwed up or what?

 

Eric moved around the bed and gently disengaged Janet. "Now, now," he admonished, propelling her off to the side. “Save some for me.” He took Janet's place, running his hands up and down Starsky's arms. The hairs on Starsky's arms stood on end. Eric leaned forward, licking the hollow at the base of his throat. Starsky found himself repulsed by the explorer, but aroused by the exploration.

“David, you are one damn beautiful man.” Eric used the forefinger of his right hand to trace the musculature of Starsky’s body. “Look at this jaw line,” Eric’s finger outlined the jaw. “And this shoulder.” The finger slid down Starsky’s neck, running over the top of his shoulder. “Bicep, tricep.” The finger drew slow circles over his upper arm. It ran down to his elbow, then back up to travel over to his chest. “Strong chest.” Eric let all five fingers move over Starsky’s chest, entwining themselves in his chest hair, pulling gently. “I have been wanting you since the day you walked in that gym.” Eric leaned forward and blew on Starsky’s right nipple. Sparks shot from Starsky’s nipple to his cock. “So goddamned beautiful.”

Starsky felt dizzy. He needed to grab something for balance, but the only thing to grab was Eric, and Eric was not the man he wanted to grab right now. But he also needed to stay upright, concentrate. He grabbed Eric’s upper arm for support. Eric looked pleased.

A bit of stability gave Starsky focus. “C’mon, Eric, I’m not all that good looking. I bet you’ve had a lot better before I came along.”

Eric grinned. “I thought I had, till you came along. And if you’re as good in action as you look just standing there, I’ll have to put you at the top of my list.” He leaned in and fastened his mouth around Starsky’s pulsating nipple.

Starsky took an involuntary step backward, his other hand grabbing Eric’s head. A male blond head attached to his body…. “Tell me about some of the others,” he rasped. Talk and keep your mouth off me!

Eric released the tender nub. “Nothing to tell now that you’ve come along. They were all pantywaists, really, not much interested in what I’m interested in.” He turned to look at Janet, who was sitting in the one chair, watching the two men. “Interested in what we are.”

Starsky took a deep breath, grateful to be momentarily left alone. “And what are you interested in?” Another breath, his head beginning to clear. “This bondage gig? Or something more?” Push a little…push a little…and see what you get.

"You’ll see.” Eric put his hands on Starsky’s chest and pushed him backward. “On the bed, please."

 

Hutch’s face was a mask. He did not want that man’s hands on Starsky. He did not want Starsky on that bed. But he would respect Starsky enough to let him carry on his work. He knew every nuance of Starsky’s language, every inflection of Starsky’s speech, even over a scratchy transmitter. He would know when it was time to stop this scene.

And then he would beat the crap out of any person in that room who had touched his partner.

 

Starsky—reluctantly—sat down on the bed.

“Time for a little tying up?” Starsky attempted a smile, desperate not to appear desperate. “Me first, huh?”

“What?” Eric suddenly planted his hands on hips. “Don’t you like this? I thought you liked this?”

“No! I mean, yes!” His voice sounded strained to him, better get back to the nervous cover. “I just, I really don’t know what to do here, or what you want me to do, or what Janet wants,” he gestured toward the buxom blonde in the chair.

“Okay.” Eric’s posture relaxed. “You’re sure?”

“I’m sure,” Starsky decided. I’m committed. Or I probably will be after this. “If this is how you want it, then I want it, too.”

“Good,” Eric smiled. “’Cause Janet doesn’t like to be tied up, and I’m not much into it, either, although I can if you really need it to get off. But that’s not how the best part happens!” His smile widened, and he looked back at Janet.

“Sure, okay.” Starsky tensed his body, then relaxed. “I can go with it.” Gotta push. “I guess if others have done it, so can I.”

Eric moved toward the bed. “Stretch out.” Janet walked up behind him, her hand caressing his arm.

“Like this?” Starsky stretched out on his back, his hands behind his head, his ankles crossed. Janet moved to the end of the bed, openly admiring his body. She licked her lips as she smiled down at him. Without the physical sensations to distract him, Starsky found it easier to concentrate on the gravity of the situation. His arousal diminished under the naked, distasteful hunger both Janet and Eric exhibited. “Is this how the others did it?” Walked into their own deaths, you mean. Starsky surveyed the room, surveyed the suspects, surveyed his own body. I am supposed to be a willing participant, eager and willing to comply. I am supposed to be a cop, gathering evidence to convict a killer. If Eric doesn’t think I’m into this, he’ll leave and we’ll have nothing, not even probable cause. If Eric does think I’m into this, he’ll have probable cause to screw me.

Eric pulled thin leather straps from somewhere. Starsky’s gorge rose. “What are those for?” he asked. Eric handed two to Janet, then he moved to the head of the bed. Starsky rose on his elbows. “So that’s how you do it.” He watched Janet work on his ankles. “You thread the strap through the D-ring, Then what do you do with the strap?” Janet pulled Starsky’s left ankle to the left corner of the mattress. She bent down. “Oh, I see. You tie the strap to the metal frame.” Starsky wiggled his foot experimentally. It moved very little; if no other limbs were tied down he could slide his foot toward the floor, but that was all. "You seem pretty expert at that," he observed, remembering to keep talking. "That knot looks pretty secure. You’ve done this before, Janet. Very nice. Very secure. I won’t be able to move that ankle.”

Janet rolled her eyes and giggled. “You are a motor mouth!” She moved to the other corner of the bed.

“Yeah, I see.” Starsky just kept talking. “Thread the strap through the D-ring, then knot it off around the frame. What kind of knot do you use?”

Janet just giggled at him as she completed her task.

Starsky continued to rest on his elbows and gaze down at his feet. With both legs secured, he could barely wiggle either foot, and he could not move his legs at all. ”You’ve got my ankles tied down, nice and secure. What’s next?” His erection, he noted, had all but subsided.

Eric put his hand on Starsky’s shoulder and pushed him back onto the bed. He gripped Starsky’s left wrist.

Something niggled at Starsky, beyond the dread and the apprehension….something he was supposed to do….

“Wait a second.” Starsky stiffened his arm and kept Eric from raising it to the head of the bed. “What about a safe word?” Goddamn, how could he have forgotten that? Jasper, Ruth, Hutch—everyone had reminded him about that!

 

Jesus Christ, you’re just now thinking about that? I told you and I told you and I told you how to play the game! And goddammit, why are you this far into the game anyway? Can’t you just make them talk?

Hutch wouldn’t let go of the steering wheel long enough to wipe away the sweat dripping down the side of his face. If the previous images had been bad, this one was worse: Starsky spread-eagled and helpless, given over to the sick whims of perverted whackos.

Clutching the steering wheel also kept Hutch from leaving the car and running over to the motel room, gun blazing. Fire was definitely winning over ice, anger over fear. Hutch wanted to kill.

 

Eric stopped. “Oh yeah, you into safe words and all that? Okay. That’s probably a good idea. “How about ‘red’? ‘Red’ means ‘stop,’ how does that work for you?”

The word echoed in Starsky’s brain. “Red” was the code word he and Hutch had come up with should things start to go wrong. Could Eric know this was a set-up. Was Eric taunting him? Surely not! Surely it was just a coincidence…”Oh, yeah, ‘red’ is fine.” Starsky didn’t hear anyone running to his rescue, so he assumed those listening were following the conversation.

“Okay, then, no one uses the word ‘red’ from now on, unless you want to stop.”

Eric tugged on Starsky’s wrist, and Starsky allowed it to be drawn to the left corner of the bed. “So it’s going to be spread-eagle, huh?” He tried to get comfortable as his wrist was being bound. He tugged on the strap Eric had just attached to the bed. “Nice and tight, just like Janet. I couldn’t move my left arm or my legs if I wanted to.”

“That’s the idea!” Eric walked around the bed to the right side. He lifted Starsky’s right wrist and pulled it back. “Wouldn’t want you getting up and leaving during the best parts! A couple of others did just that, and what a fucking downer that was. That’s when we got into the whole bondage thing. And I’ve got to say, it really opened up a whole new scene for us!” He finished tying off Starsky’s wrist.

Eric stood back and grinned broadly at Starsky. Although constrained by the leather pouch, it was obvious he was aroused.

“A whole new scene,” Starsky echoed. He pulled at each strap. None of them gave. “Yep, this is a tight scene. A real tight scene. I can’t move an inch. There is no way I can get up from this bed.” Lay out the scene for Hutch. Let Hutch know exactly where you are, so when he comes through that door….

Eric rubbed his hands together triumphantly. “Okay, Janet, you first.”

Janet stepped up on the bed and knelt between Starsky's spread legs.

“What now?” Starsky asked. He lifted his head as far as he was able, looking down his body to see Janet bending almost protectively over his groin. “Blow job from Janet?” Better than from Eric. “I can go for that.” No I can’t, but I don’t have much choice. “What are you going to do, Eric?” Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.

“Admire you,” Eric answered. “You have no idea how good you look all stretched out on that bed. There is such definition to your muscles. You got a guy all stretched out, and it is just beautiful. The limbs become so taut, you figure you could just touch a muscle and he’ll explode!”

Janet remained curled around Starsky’s groin, her mouth at his cock. Again, Starsky found himself unable to resist her touch. She started with feathery kisses against his thighs that stirred his cock, then set her lips and tongue along the length of his ever-increasing erection. Starsky shut his eyes and caught his breath, wondering which of his teen-age erection-diminishing remedies he should try. Sports, algebra, prayers...

"God, what are you doing?" Starsky wrenched himself back to his play-by-play, embarrassing though it was. "Janet, your mouth on my cock is incredible." He hoped Hutch was taking this with a modicum of decorum. He hoped Hutch was taking notes….

"Isn't it?" Eric walked to the foot of the bed, behind Janet. His hands had moved down to her hips. "I love watching her," he breathed heavily.

Starsky forced himself to concentrate on Eric, where he was in the room, what his hands were doing, what he was saying. If he gave in to the temptation to focus on Janet, on her blond head moving up and down on his cock, the consequences could be disastrous.

“That’s my girl,” Eric urged. “Nice and slow. Make him grow slowly…slowly…make it really hard and long…that’s right, do it right….”

Starsky was relieved Eric was doing the talking. His heart was beating faster, and his mouth was dry. Janet was expert, licking, sucking, stroking, caressing, teasing, tantalizing…and wisps of blonde hair were tickling his skin, begging him to give into another fantasy….

“Oh, damn!” Starsky finally breathed. If he came too soon, the scene could be over. But if he didn’t come, Eric might become suspicious again. There was still a job to be done, still a killer to be drawn out, still a reputation to be salvaged…still a partner to be seduced…. “What a blow job!”

“Don’t leave teeth marks,” Eric instructed. Starsky managed to note his hands were squeezing Janet’s hips. “Leave him nice and unmarked….nice and unmarked…is he getting big?…is he getting hard?…move your head, let me see….yeah, that’s good…make him wet…make him slick…”

The words were hypnotizing Starsky. He had to stay focused! He shifted his gaze from Janet to Eric, his eyes on Eric’s hands. Slowly, Eric slid Janet's panties down her legs. Starsky's eyes narrowed and he began to drag his concentration away from the shivers shooting up from his groin. Janet continued to lick his cock, but it was now Eric he was transfixed by.

 

Starsky was getting a blow job. Starsky was all right, but Starsky was getting a blow job. And Starsky couldn’t do one fucking thing about it. And neither could Hutch. And what was Eric up to? Who knows? Starsky was just barely audible in his report on his own cock. But not panicked—not yet. Hutch heard the stress in Starsky’s voice, and the unwelcome arousal—but he did not hear the need for help. And if Starsky could wait, so could Hutch.

 

“So,” Starsky blinked hard. “How many times have you done this? I know I’m not the first.”

“No, not the first.” Eric kneaded Janet's bare ass, running his thumbs up into her crack, then back down. “Not the last, but maybe one of the best.” He leaned over and kissed each ass cheek. Janet responded with low moans, timed to Eric's ministrations and not her rhythm with Starsky. Starsky clenched his jaw as Eric took his hands from Janet long enough to remove his g-sting and reveal an angry erection. He slipped his palm down and caressed himself.

“What do you think of this?” he lifted it toward Starsky.

It was bigger than Starsky remembered from the photo shoot. Bigger, stiffer, more dangerous… “Huge,” Starsky managed, his voice hoarse. “Too bad I don’t have my camera now.” This scene must be what really arouses Eric, he wasn’t anywhere near that excited in the studio. “That’s a cock that needs documenting.”

Eric rubbed his thumb over his erection. “Maybe pictures. Maybe sometime. Not this time.” His thumb rubbed some pre-cum, and he reached over to rub in on Janet’s ass. “Not too much, my little girl. Not so far he can’t come back. Gotta save it for later.” He stepped closer to the end of the bed, closer to Janet, his cock rubbing up against her.

As if Janet could see what Eric was doing, she lifted her ass and scooted her knees forward, still sliding her tongue around Starsky's cock. Starsky watched. “What…what are you doing, Eric? What are you doing to Janet?” Focus! “I want her…to keep sucking…me.” He had a feeling he knew what was coming, and he didn’t want to know.

Eric spread her cheeks and shoved his middle finger into her vagina, wiggling it around several times before removing it to lubricate himself with her juices. He carefully prepared his cock, then knelt with one knee on the bed and pushed himself into his sister.

Starsky gritted his teeth and momentarily lost all sensation, his eyes wide. Eric moved smoothly in and out of Janet; Janet meeting his every stroke as she moaned around Starsky's cock. Eric and Janet. Fucking.

“Eric, man,” Starsky tried to focus. “You’re fucking your sister!”

Starsky could feel his erection subside but Janet took no notice, merely holding him in her mouth as Eric moved inside her. The whole spectacle was nauseating and left Starsky numb. Eric wanted to fuck his sister, not him. Fuck his sister!

 

Hutch was—stunned. If he was hearing things right, brother and sister were fucking. Each other. Not Starsky, but each other.

He had to bite his lip to bring himself back to some semblance of reality. He needed to listen for Starsky, not the sounds of siblings screwing. He had to block out all images of screwing and concentrate on Starsky.

A kind of calm settled over Hutch. It was all so simple. Just concentrate on Starsky, and everything would be all right. Concentrate on Starsky. Listen for Starsky.

Listen to himself.

 

Say something! Keep talking!

“You’re fucking your sister.” It was all Starsky’s brain could grasp.

“Oooh, yeah,” Janet finally said something. “More, baby.”

“I’ll give you more, sweetheart.” Eric picked up his rhythm, pounding harder into Janet. “I’ll give you everything. Everything you want. Everything you deserve. What do you say, David, shouldn’t she get everything she deserves?”

“Sure,” Starsky managed. This scene was not in anybody’s predictions! Brother and sister, Team Fuck. Team Killers. “Yeah, sure, do whatever you want,” he mumbled. Victim gets tied up, brother and sister have sex, victim gets killed, brother and sister clean up.

“Yesss, yesss,” Eric moaned, stringing out his s’s. “Good girl. Good fucking girl.”

ShitShit! Starsky was barely aware Janet was still working on his cock. If this is how they get their rocks off, then I’m next on the list! They’ll try to get rid of me! Starsky’s mind was running rapidly. End it now. Say the code word. No confession, but maybe evidence in the bag. Unless it doesn’t have cleaning supplies. Then there’s not even enough for a search warrant. Only questioning. They’ll get a lawyer. We’ll have nothing.

“Sweet thing,” Eric murmured. “C’mon, take it all, take it where you want it. Don’t let me go.”

If I wait, and they put their hands on me, attempted murder. Of a cop. Probable cause for a search warrant. Their homes probably contain evidence. We can take these weirdos off the street. I’m a hero. This will all be over. There will only be Hutch left to deal with.

“God, god…that’s it…take it, baby…just a little more.”

Janet came first, gasping shallowly as she let Starsky fall from her mouth and rested her head on his thigh. Eric continued to pump a few moments longer, finally freezing in mid-stroke, then pulling out of Janet and stumbling back into the dresser. He leaned against the dresser, catching his breath, his cock still dripping. Janet pulled herself up Starsky's body and laid on top of him, her head against his chest, her thighs gripping his leg as her muscles continued to spasm.

Starsky just stared, disbelieving, at the ceiling. “You fucked your sister.” There was not a drop of sexual arousal left in his body, only disgust. This wasn’t so much sex for the victim as an audience for the killers. He tensed his muscles, testing them. He hadn’t been tied down long, but his body wanted to move, change positions. So did his mind. "You fucked your sister," Starsky said a final time.

There was silence for several seconds. Again, Starsky knew he had better say something or Hutch would be inside before he'd accomplished his task. And so far, all he really had was a case of incest. Could he get more before the scene was over? Before they came after him?

Janet tittered at his side. Eric wiped the sweat from his face. "What did you think?" He reached down and wiped his cock with his hand, rubbing the come into his belly. "Weren’t we good? Wasn’t that fantastic? Didn’t I tell you this would be amazing?”

Starsky stared at him. "I’m kind of cramping. How about letting me up?” Maybe they could talk in the “afterglow,” admit something. Recognizing his stiffening limbs was making him claustrophobic on top of his continuing helplessness.

 

Aw, shit! Starsky was cramping up! Hutch had warned him. Hutch had told him his body wasn’t the same as before. And now here it was, happening just like he’d said! If they didn’t release Starsky soon, he’d go into spasm! Hell, I ought to go in there and release him!

But it wasn’t time, not yet, he owed Starsky that much.

Hutch hunkered over the steering wheel.

 

Janet rose lazily and brushed the hair from her face. "You taste good," she cooed, then leaned down to kiss Starsky on the nose. Starsky couldn't help but turn his face away. Janet didn't seem to notice his rejection.

Eric reached out and Janet got up and walked over to him, cuddling against him. Eric wrapped an arm around her protectively, stroking her hair with his free hand.

"We let you watch." Eric said it as though he'd just granted Starsky a great privilege. "I thought you'd like that."

Starsky felt his muscles tightening against his bonds. He'd better relax or he'd cramp up. Just as Hutch had warned. If Hutch had any idea his prediction had come true, he’d never let Starsky away from his desk again. “I thought—" he tried to get a hold of his thoughts. "I thought this evening was going to be us trying something new, something—." Something what? Was he telling Eric the evening wasn’t done until Starsky had…partaken? That wasn’t what he wanted! Better get back on track, figure out how to come away from this whole mess with something other than intense embarrassment!

His left shoulder was beginning that old, familiar, dull ache. Starsky purposely tensed his body, then consciously began relaxing his muscles, trying to arrest any spasms. “I don’t know what I thought. Maybe we can talk about it.”

Eric shook his head. "You said you wanted to try some bondage with me." He continued to stroke Janet's hair. "There's your bondage," he gestured down at Starsky.

Starsky reviewed his options. Consciously trying to relax his muscles was going nowhere. His whole body was beginning to ache. "Let me up." He knew that wouldn't yet bring Hutch, but it might get Eric or Janet to release him.

Eric stopped his attentions toward Janet and stared at Starsky. He laughed. "No."

Fear detonated in his belly. An overwhelming sense of defenselessness was threatening to suffocate him. Starsky clenched his fists. He tried to look as serious as possible as he could in his vulnerable position. "Why not?" In another few seconds he would use the code word, mission accomplished or not.

“Why not?” Eric laughed again. “Because you obviously don’t want me to let you up.” Eric released Janet and walked over to the discarded athletic bag. "Because we're not done yet."

"I am done." Starsky glanced over at his transmitter. One word from him and he'd have Hutch in this room. They'd untie him. Yet, if he could just get a hold of his anxiety, maybe he could still drag something out of Eric….God, was he playing his life against his profession just to impress his partner?

"No, you’re not." Eric took out a roll of gray duct tape from the bag, winking at Starsky. "See," he stepped over the bag and sat down on the edge of the bed. "It's like this. This whole scene was for me, not you. I made it sound like it was for you, but I needed you so I had to make it sound like that. See?"

Starsky eyed the tape. Things were beginning to become clear. "You needed me to get your rocks off," he guessed. "You have to do this in front of a captive audience or you can't do it." His heart rate was beyond accelerated; he could hear the blood pounding through his brain, threatening to block out all other sound.

Eric looked over at Janet. She was removing her stockings. He looked down, then back at Starsky, a flush to his cheeks. Was he aroused—or embarrassed?

"Untie me." Starsky continued to watch the tape in Eric's hands. He was no longer an undercover officer, he was a worried cop. “What’s the tape for? Why is Janet taking off her stockings?” Had there been evidence of stockings used in the other murders? There’d been evidence of tape. Evidence of manual strangulation. Evidence of stocking strangulation? He might have something if he timed this down to the second…if Hutch was listening carefully…if he could stay in control….

"Now—" Eric smiled, "—it’s your turn." Janet walked over and sat down on Starsky's other side. She handed her stockings to Eric, who laid them across Starsky's chest. He ran the roll of tape between his fingers.

Starsky felt the sweat break out on his upper lip. "I know you've done this before," he prodded. If this didn't get him a confession, he was screaming for help, regardless of the evidence they had.

Eric glanced back at Starsky's cock. "You didn't come." He looked over at Janet, who shook her head in confirmation. "I'm sorry about that. I do want you to get some pleasure out of this."

"You killed the others who watched," Starsky tried desperately, pulling on the leather straps. "And now you're going to kill me.”

 “What?” Eric laughed, his expression puzzled. “Who said anything about killing? You’ve been reading too many newspapers! Just relax and enjoy." Eric patted the edge of the mattress. “Janet, try again."

Janet whispered a soft "okay," and crawled once again between Starsky's legs. Her mouth swallowed Starsky's cock. "Stop it," Starsky ordered. “Stop sucking my cock!” He squirmed under her ministrations.

Eric rummaged through the bag again. He came out with a small vial that Starsky could immediately identify. Poppers. Eric ripped off a length of tape. “’Red’?” he asked, holding the tape between his hands.

Starsky stared up at him. Ohgodohgodohgod….it was too much. “Red.”

 

Red.

·                     But Hutch had shifted and slammed his foot on the accelerator before he even heard the word, acting only on what he heard in Starsky’s voice. He pulled the car into the oncoming traffic, barely avoiding a collision as he drove straight across the pavement and into the motel’s parking lot. Hutch smashed the brake pedal, pulled the steering wheel hard to the left, and slid sideways, stopping horizontal to the motel room door. He managed to jerk the car into park before forcing his car door open. Hutch hurled himself toward Room 120.

 

Eric frowned, shrugged, then smiled down at Starsky. Starsky tried to turn away, but Eric pressed the tape over his mouth. “Oh, don’t be such a baby,” Eric soothed as he smoothed the tape over Starsky’s mouth. “This is going to blow your mind. And don’t worry about the ‘red’ shit Everything’s going to be just fine.”

What the fuck? Starsky reflexively balled his fists. Every muscle in Starsky's body rebelled. He tried to twist away, but there was nowhere to twist. He was tied firmly to the bed. Eric grabbed a handful of his hair and held him steady, then brought the tiny bottle to Starsky's nostrils. It was impossible to not breathe in the vapors with the gag over his mouth. Dizziness overwhelmed him and his head fell back on the mattress.

If this was death approaching, it wasn’t like the death he’d experienced before. He was scared shitless, yelling from behind the tape gag, fighting to get away from this bed and this room and these sickos. He had no idea if he’d said “red” loud enough for the transmitter to pick up, and that meant he needed one terrible horrible excruciating minute to pass before Hutch showed up. Hutch. Hutch would catch on to his muffled yells. Hutch would save him.

Hutch would die if he didn’t save him.

Panic on top of panic. It wasn’t just his own life he had to save, he also had to save Hutch’s.

He had to stay alive long enough for Hutch to get there. Long enough for Hutch to be absolved of any complicity in this attack upon his body.

Long enough to see Hutch again, whether it be as a partner or as an asshole. It didn’t matter, as long as Hutch was with him.

Eric picked up the stockings and wrapped them around Starsky's neck. Starsky listened in vain for rescuing footsteps as the room began to spin. He desperately wanted to hang on to consciousness, to see Hutch in front of him, to have Hutch beside him, to have Hutch make it all go away.

There was no air to be gasped, and as the stockings around his neck began to pull tighter, a unique sensation filled Starsky’s head. It was like being light-headed and bone-tired at the same time. The ache in his muscles dulled. His throat tightened. Janet sucked on his cock, licked it, squeezed it, sending electricity up his spine, igniting his brain. Blue sparkles flickered behind his eyelids and a burning sensation filled his aching lungs. Gut-wrenching spasms overtook his body. Then everything exploded in a burst of white, white light.

·                      

·                     Hutch slammed his body against the door, grabbing for the knob and twisting violently. He was vaguely aware no one was behind him, really only conscious of a consuming fear that Starsky was lost and so was he.

·                     The door gave a quarter of an inch, but didn’t allow entry.

·                     “Starsky!” Adrenaline-fueled panic. All Hutch could think was that Starsky was helpless and the jackals were upon him.

·                     Hutch took one step back and slammed a booted foot against the lock. Splinters flew. Hutch kicked again. And again. And then both metal and wood gave way.

·                     “Starsky!” Hutch yelled again. He tripped over a gym bag right inside the doorway, falling forward, landing on his hands and knees. He used the floor to push off and up, sending himself flying across the bed, taking two startled bodies off the mattress with him.

·                     Shrieking filled the room. Hutch yanked at the tangle of arms and legs flailing between the bed and the wall, scrambling for purchase, trying to get up and get to Starsky.

·                     Someone grabbed his arm and he struck in that direction. His hand connected with flesh, and he sent another blow to that same area.

·                     The shrieking stopped.

·                     Someone grabbed him around the waist. Hutch sent his body backward, landing his weight on the offender. He pulled the arms from around his waist, found his knees and twisted his torso, reaching out for the arms now clutching at him. He grabbed a wrist, held it tight, and pulled back with his free hand to land a blow.

·                     Someone grabbed his arm, pulled hard, and drug him out of the melee. Hutch was vaguely aware that someone was calling his name.

·                     Hutch was pulled to his feet. Another detective pushed past him and grabbed one of the squirming bodies. Hutch’s attention fell on the bed. He jerked free of the restraining grip and stumbled to the calm side of the mattress.

·                     “Starsky. Starsky,” Hutch whispered warily. He balanced his rear on the edge of the mattress and placed a hand on Starsky’s face.

·                     Warm.

·                     He put his hand on Starsky’s chest.

·                     Moving.

·                     “Stay with me. Stay with me,” Hutch murmured. He hand trembled as it lay on Starsky’s chest. He was terrified of what he’d find: a still body, a blood-soaked mattress, a grinning maniac and his sister….

·                     Hutch slipped the stockings from around Starsky’s neck, whipping them off to the side. He picked at the tape over Starsky’s mouth and pulled it away quickly.

·                     Over to the side the struggle of bodies continued. Someone was screaming again.

·                     Hutch placed his palm along Starsky’s cheek, his thumb stroking Starsky’s chin. “Breathe, babe.” Breathe! I will not make it if you leave me again! Just breathe and I will listen to whatever you have to say, talk about whatever you want, do whatever you want me to do!

·                     Starsky snorted but didn’t waken.

·                     Hutch made a quick visual inspection of Starsky’s body. No blood, nothing—unnatural—sticking out of a place it shouldn’t be. Hutch stood and fished his knife from his pocket. He reached up and sawed at the rope holding Starsky’s right hand. It took only seconds to free, and he leaned across Starsky to cut the left wrist free.

·                     Guilt flooded his mind. He remembered Starsky talking to him, telling him that it hurt to be tied up, it was scary. And here he’d let Starsky walk right into it that fear. What’s worse, he’d walked into it himself, and alone, all in the name of self-loathing and some sick need to purge his soul.

·                     Starsky coughed and choked. Hutch stretched down to the edge of the bed and cut the ropes to Starsky’s ankles, first left, then right. He closed the knife and slipped it back into his pocket. Then he took both hands and rolled Starsky to his side, Starsky’s abdomen pressed against his hip. With one hand he supported Starsky’s back, and with the other and began massaging Starsky’s left shoulder.

·                     Too familiar. Hutch’s stomach did a backflip. But as long as the outcome—staying alive—was always the same, what did it matter? Wasn’t being alive, and together, all that mattered?

·                     “Wake up, Starsk,” Hutch urged. “C’mon, babe. Wake up.” Please! I need you!

·                     “Get them out of here,” a gruff voice instructed. It was Grimes. Hutch glanced behind him to see Hughes and Rudd walking sheet-covered arrestees toward the damaged door. “Make sure all the evidence is bagged.”

·                     Ruth was suddenly by Hutch’s side. “I know we’re supposed to wait for trained medical help,” Ruth held a white ampoule in her hand, “but let’s try this. I got it from the first aid kit in my car.”

·                     Hutch ran a hand through Starsky’s sweat-drenched curls and nodded. The world was starting to right itself. He was no longer angry, or even terrified, just exhausted and extremely grateful this night was over and Starsky was alive.

·                     Ruth snapped open the ammonia and held it under Starsky’s nose.

·                      

Starsky opened his eyes to a fuzzy image of someone leaning over him. The mouth moved, but all he could hear was the wind. Or maybe the ocean. Or maybe God.

And then his throat tickled and a fit of coughing overwhelmed him. He gasped and gagged until he threw up, convulsions the only thing controlling his body, burning acid the only thing he could taste.

Then his body began to calm down. Someone rolled him back onto his side from where he’d been hanging over the edge of the bed. His limbs tingled unmercifully, and his throat ached, but he was warm. Starsky gradually realized someone had covered him, and from the smell he thought it must be the old gray-green bedspread. And then someone was washing his face with a wet cloth, and the air was cool and he could breathe. It was painful, but he could breathe.

He opened his eyes again. Hutch was sitting against him, gently cleansing his face, brushing damp curls from his forehead. A calming, comforting, familiar feeling. The same touch Old Hutch had always given him. It was heaven! Starsky started to roll on his back, but Hutch kept him on his side.

"Hi," Hutch said grimly. Starsky could see fire in those eyes, but Hutch's face was a white marble mask. "Why'd you wait so long to call for backup?"

A sledgehammer was beginning to pound just behind his eyes. Again, Starsky tried to roll over. A hand on his shoulder, from behind, forced Starsky to remain on his side. It squeezed gently.

"Just lie still, Dave." A woman's voice. Ruth. "We've got paramedics on the way. I want you down at Emergency and checked over before you start worrying about anything else." She stroked his cheek, that motherly touch again. Starsky closed his eyes. "We'll worry about reports and debriefings later." She brushed his ear, and he felt her weight lift from the bed. His body felt like a solid block of granite, and Starsky wanted to let it fall back and sink into what little comfort the bed had to offer. But Hutch was keeping him firmly on his side, and instead Starsky let his weight roll against Hutch's leg. With great effort he pulled his left arm from under the bedspread and draped it around Hutch's knee, clinging tightly. Hutch massaged his throbbing shoulder in response.

Starsky opened his eyes. The headache was blurring his sight, the sepia light in the room too painfully bright to allow for clear vision. Starsky shifted his weight again, using Hutch's leg to pull himself to a more comfortable position. And then he noticed his hand on Hutch's knee. The damn leather strap was still fastened around his wrist. All the restraints were still binding him. He could feel them.

Starsky remembered that’s how they’d found Rodriguez—wearing nothing but restraints. Starsky did not want to be like Rodriquez. He wasn’t Rodriguez. He had to get the restraints off. Now. Starsky pushed himself away from Hutch, finally managing to lay on his back, scrabbling at the strip of leather around his left wrist. But his hands were tangled in the bedclothes, and he couldn't scratch it off.

"Whoa! Easy." Hutch reached for his shoulders, as if to pull Starsky back to his side.

"Medics," Starsky rasped, still pulling at his bonds. "Don't want .…"

Hutch reached under the bedcover and took hold of Starsky's wrists. Silently, he unbuckled the wrist restraints and dropped them on the floor. His hands skimmed their way down to Starsky's belly under the privacy of the bedspread and removed the leather belt. As unobtrusively as possible Hutch moved down to the end of the bed and stripped the bonds from Starsky's ankles. Hutch returned to the middle of the bed and sat back down next to Starsky.

To show his thankfulness, Starsky voluntarily rolled back onto his side. He could see the pile of leather straps by looking just over the edge of the bed. Starsky shut his eyes and shut out the sight. Hutch remained protectively over him, holding him on his side with a firm hand on the back of his neck. It felt good, Hutch’s touch. Tender and gentle and caring, not at all like what he’d experienced before he’d lost consciousness. This was what he wanted, what he’d always wanted—Hutch’s loving touch. His stomach churned when he remembered the way Eric had looked at him. There was good lust, and there was bad lust. And then there was just plain disgusting lust. Starsky reached out for Hutch’s leg again.

“I don’t know,” Starsky heard a low, male voice. Grimes. “The woman is too hysterical to get anything out of right now. The man just keeps insisting it was a game. ‘Breath control’ or something like that.”

“Dammit!” Starsky heard Hutch curse. “They tried to kill him! Book them on attempted murder! This case is closed!”

“Calm down, Hutch.” Ruth’s voice. Calm, soothing. Footsteps toward the bed. “We’ll take care of them. You take care of David.” Starsky opened his eyes to see Ruth looking at him. She winced, turned away, walked back to the door.

Starsky squeezed Hutch’s thigh. “What?” he rasped. “That bad?”

Hutch ran a hand through Starsky’s hair. Soothing touch. The first honest pleasure Starsky had felt that night. “Nothing, buddy,” he shushed. “You’re a little bruised, is all. Your eyes are a little bloodshot.”

“Great,” Starsky mumbled. He’d seen bloodshot eyes from strangulation before. That meant blood-filled. Shit! he breathed. If only he could give in to the weight of exhaustion and sleep. But why bother? The next few hours were only going to be filled with paramedics and interns and typewriters, and interrupted sleep was not better than no sleep at all. At least, not like this.

 

Actually, interrupted sleep would have been better than the aching fatigue Starsky felt now.

Grimes and Boggs had sent Hutch and him to Emergency, then home. Starsky had overheard a brief—discussion—between Ruth and Hutch as to who would be interrogating the suspects, but now they were both here, at the entrance to Starsky’s apartment, Hutch fumbling for keys while Starsky tried to stay upright.

A few muttered profanities later and Hutch had them both inside, nearly falling on top of Starsky as Hutch tried to hold him erect while Starsky was adamant about letting gravity pull him to the couch.

Hutch finally released Starsky, who thudded onto the couch. He struggled to twist himself onto his back, barely able to lift his forearm and rest it on his pounding head. The pressure from Starsky’s arm seemed to dull the headache, although the percussion solo from the pounding made it hard for him to hear Hutch.

“What?” Starsky grunted.

“Do you want some water?” Hutch repeated.

Starsky shook his head, threatening to dislodge his eyeballs, which seemed unusually loose. He lowered his arm to cover his eyes.

Starsky felt Hutch shove an arm under his back and attempt to lift him. “No,” Starsky replied, as gravity helped make his dead weight even deader. “I’m fine here,” he mumbled.

He heard Hutch offer some dissension, then the offending arm was withdrawn. Shoes were tugged off Starsky’s feet, and a blanket tucked around his throbbing body.

Which would have been very comforting if Starsky’s stomach hadn’t suddenly spasmed and sent him rolling off the couch in a spray of vomit.

 

Starsky awoke in his bed, not surprised to find that Hutch had finally won the “where to sleep” argument. He could feel each individual muscle in his body berating him for improper use, and he appeased them by simply not moving. He was naked under the sheet but felt clean and cool, and actually rested.

Gradually he became aware it was dark in his room, and he managed to lift his head enough to see a digital, red 8:05 on his clock. The am or pm part was up for grabs.

Starsky ran a hand over his body, starting at his chest and running it down to his cock. All parts present and accounted for, he thought. Rodriguez had actually lived through his ordeal with all his parts as well, but obviously that had not been enough. Starsky was schooled in the macho creed of the Latinos he worked with, but he didn’t think any ordeal he came out of alive would be so terrible he wouldn’t want to stay alive.

And Rodriguez hadn’t had quite the partner Starsky had—loyal, caring, protective, domineering, manipulative—

Starsky closed his eyes wearily. It was time. His restoration was over. Hutch’s would begin.

But just for fun….

“Hutch!” Starsky yelled through a painfully ragged throat. Penitence.

He heard a series of stumblings and bumblings from the living room. There was a thud against his bedroom door, then the door flew open, the light flew on, and Hutch fell into the room.

“What? What’s wrong?” Hutch asked breathlessly. “Are you all right? What do you need?” He collapsed next to Starsky’s bed. Starsky could barely hide his smile at the reappearance of Old Hutch. He knew it wouldn’t last, but if he could bring out the Old Hutch for longer and longer periods of time, Old Hutch might stick around.

“Just wanted to know what time it is,” Starsky answered. “Kinda hungry, too.”

“It’s about 8pm,” Hutch responded. He laid a hand on Starsky’s forehead. If Starsky had slept for the past seventeen hours, it was clear Hutch hadn’t. “Think you can keep something down?”

“Yeah.” Starsky groaned and lifted himself up on his elbows. “Any word?”

Hutch shook his head. “They asked for lawyers. We got search warrants. We got ‘em, Starsk.”

Starsky struggled into a sitting position. “Damn well better have,” he muttered.

“You okay?” Hutch sat facing him on the edge of the bed.

Starsky shrugged. “Yeah. I guess. A little sore.” He held up his wrists and examined them. Reddish-blue bruises circled them.

“Why did you wait so long to call for back up?” Hutch finally asked. “Were you trying to impress me or something? You didn’t need to, you know.”

Another accusation from Hutch? Or the beginnings of an apology? “I was trying to get them to confess to something,” he replied evenly, not taking the bait. “They didn’t, you know,” he looked at Hutch. “Confess. Unless I missed something after I spiraled out.”

Hutch looked at the wall. “We’ve got search warrants,” he reiterated.

Starsky’s eyes narrowed. “Why’d you wait so long to come get me?”

Hutch kept his face turned from Starsky. “You were doing your job, trying to get information, playing your part—I came as soon as I knew you were in trouble.”

Starsky realized he’d been handed an acknowledgment from Hutch that Starsky was quite capable of running an operation, and Hutch was quite capable of letting him. As if they were partners. As if they always had been partners. As if they were still going to be partners. Starsky was flooded with delight!

The doorbell rang.

Hutch started, shaking the bed. He jumped up and strode out to the front door, shutting the bedroom door behind him.

Starsky eased out of the bed, forced complaining muscles to carry him into the bathroom, peed, and wrapped his robe around him. He glanced in the mirror long enough to verify his eyes were completely bloodshot and would scare everyone he came into contact with, then shuffled off to the living room.

Hutch had allowed in Lieutenants Grimes and Boggs. Grimes was still in the suit he’d been wearing yesterday; Ruth had also not had time to change.

“Oh, Dave.” Ruth came up to Starsky and clasped his face between her hands, still distressed over his appearance.

Starsky smiled warmly. “Doesn’t hurt,” he shrugged off her concern. “And nothin’ is colored red or anything when I look at it.”

Ruth clucked her tongue and helped Starsky to the couch. She sat down next to him. Hutch took the fanback chair, and Grimes remained standing.

“Why the home visit?” Starsky asked. He looked over at Hutch, who was glaring at the far wall.

“Harry and I thought we’d update you on our way home.” Ruth’s face was deeply creased, the exhaustion of the past 36 hours all over her face.

“Hutch said you got warrants?” Starsky began.

“Home and business,” Grimes said. “First pass turned up nothing except a considerable collection of dirty photos and magazines, some eight millimeter films, and an assortment of sex toys.” Grimes looked hard at Starsky. “The lawyer’s fighting any blood tests. And they’ve offered alibis for the times of some of the murders.”

“They won’t hold up,” Hutch said.

Grimes turned toward Hutch. “We’ll see.”

“It’s just that, well, they didn’t have any cleaning supplies with them,” Ruth continued. “We found the tape player and the cassettes and some toys in the room, and the second bag held their street clothes. There were no cleaning supplies at all. Not even in their car. And we found a blood donor card on Lawson and his blood type doesn’t match the evidence type.”

Hutch snorted. “No big deal. We know there was more than one person involved with these murders. It could be her blood type.”

Ruth nodded. “They’re insisting it was just a game, just consensual sex.”

“He ignored the safe word,” Hutch snapped.

“He says it was just a game, he wasn’t going to hurt David, it was part of the scene. All they were doing was trying to give David here an, uh, orgasm.” Ruth patted Starsky’s arm again, but wouldn’t quite look at him.

“They had poppers!” Hutch shouted. “And that is the only clue we did not give to the media!”

Grimes remained silent. Starsky spoke for everyone in the room.

“You think maybe we got the wrong people.”

“We’re still investigating,” Grimes said. “But until we have solid evidence that the Lawsons are our perps, this investigation is still underway and you are still undercover.”

“You understand,” Ruth patted Starsky’s hand, but she was directing her comment to Hutch.

“We have another complication,” Grimes informed.

Starsky blinked his eyes. What else could complicate this case?

“Martin Rice turned up at County yesterday.”

Starsky’s eyes widened in surprise. Hutch remained silent.

“Took a bad beating,” Grimes continued. “A fine beating. Doesn’t appear to be sexual in nature. Just a good, old-fashioned thrashing. Isn’t talking, either.”

“He says he was jumped,” Ruth added. “And that he didn’t see his assailant.”

“Does it have something to do with our case?” Starsky asked.

“Good question,” Grimes answered. He looked pointedly at Hutch. “What do you think, Hutch?”

Hutch remained impassive. “Could have picked up a violent john.”

“Maybe,” Grimes agreed. “Maybe not.”

“Could have been dumped by one of his party partners,” Hutch persisted.

“We’re still investigating,” Ruth said. “Always investigating,” she sighed softly.

“We’ll see you in the office tomorrow,” Grimes ended the briefing.

Ruth gave Starsky’s hand a final squeeze and stood up. “I’m hoping we have more information by then,” she said.

Starsky started to stand, but Ruth put her hand on his shoulder and kept him down. “We can see ourselves out,” she said. “Bye, Hutch.” She walked to the front door, where Grimes stood aside and allowed Ruth to leave first.

Hutch rose abruptly and headed for the kitchen. “Soup okay?” he called.

Starsky stood and followed him into the kitchen. “Whatever you find,” he replied. He watched as Hutch found a small pan, disinterred a can of soup from the cupboard, and located the can opener in the drawer.

Starsky was especially fascinated by those swollen and bruised knuckles on Hutch’s right hand. He watched Hutch twist the opener as it bit through the tin, watched as Hutch caught a fingernail under the top and lifted it free, watched as Hutch upended the can and shook it until the gelatinous mass slid out.

Starsky suddenly reached out and grabbed Hutch’s wrist. The can fell into the soup pan.

“I need to know,” Starsky said quietly but determinedly.

“It wasn’t me,” Hutch answered between gritted teeth.

And New Hutch was back. A man quite capable of lying to Starsky to achieve his ends. A man Starsky despised.

Starsky squeezed Hutch’s wrist. “Look at me and tell me that.”

Hutch stared at the pan. Starsky felt a shiver run through Hutch’s body.

Hutch looked up at Starsky. “It wasn’t me,” he repeated.

Starsky held Hutch’s gaze. Dark, chaotic eyes met his. Unfathomable eyes, with too much churning behind them. Lie? Truth? Starsky couldn’t tell, and that scared him.

“You’re sure it had nothing to do with us?”

Hutch looked down at the soup pan.

“Please, Hutch,” Starsky begged. “Talk to me.”

Amazingly, Hutch didn’t pull away. “About what?” His eyes narrowed.

Starsky suddenly realized he didn’t want Hutch to talk to him, he wanted to talk to Hutch. But if he couldn’t tell lie from truth…. “Us?” It was definitely a question, one that Starsky wanted answered.

Hutch’s eyes closed slowly and he sighed deeply. Starsky felt the muscles in Hutch’s arm tense. “I’m sorry—“ Hutch began.

Starsky released Hutch’s wrist with a jerk, turned, and walked back into the living room. “No, don’t talk. Don’t talk.” He flopped down on the couch and covered his face with his hands. “I can’t take those same words over and over and over.”

Starsky heard the soup pan clatter into the sink. He heard Hutch come up behind him.

“What do you want me to say?” Hutch whispered hoarsely.

Starsky’s arms folded across his stomach and he leaned over protectively. Say you love me, hot words scorched through his brain. Say you need me. Say you’ll do anything to stay with me.

“I just want to know—“ Starsky began. “I just want—I just—“ He leaned forward until his forehead touched his knees.

A trembling hand placed itself on the back of his neck.

“Starsk? Are you all right? Are you sick? Do you need a doctor?”

Always the medical, Starsky laughed humorlessly to himself. He sat up, then reached up and once again grabbed Hutch’s wrist, pulling it down over his shoulder and holding it against his chest.

“Don’t leave me, okay?” he pleaded. “No matter what I do, or what I say, just don’t leave me.” He gripped Hutch’s hand tightly.

“I’m right here,” Hutch whispered.

No,” Starsky squeezed Hutch’s hand. “Don’t leave me.”

·                     Starsky felt Hutch’s hand ball into a fist. He clasped it tighter to his chest.

·                     “I know you want to protect me. I know you believe you’re responsible for what happened to me. But the closer you stay to me to try to shield me the farther away you get from me. I don’t want you to leave me!”

·                     Hutch’s fist relaxed, and his palm flattened against Starsky’s chest.

·                     “God, please don’t say you’re sorry,” Starsky breathed. “Just say you won’t leave me.”

·                     “I won’t,” Hutch whispered.

·                     “It’s okay if you don’t want to be partners anymore, it’s okay if you don’t want to be a cop anymore, it’s okay if you don’t want to stay here anymore.” Starsky stroked his thumb over Hutch’s wrist. “Just don’t leave me.”

·                     He heard Hutch sigh behind him. Starsky held Hutch’s hand tighter. “If you promise not to leave me, I promise not to leave you.”

·                     Hutch slid his hand from Starsky’s, slid it up to cup Starsky’s face.

·                     “I promise.”

·                     A thumb stroked Starsky’s cheek, then Hutch’s hand lifted. Starsky heard Hutch walk back to the kitchen and retrieve the soup pan. It was enough for now. They hadn’t talked, but they hadn’t argued, and goddamn if Hutch had quit saying he was sorry.

·                     It would do for a start.

·                      

 

 

 

·                      

 

CHAPTER NINETEEN

 

·                     Starsky had allowed Hutch into his developing room.

·                     It was two days after “it,” also referred to as “that,” “what happened,” “the other night,” and “the scene.” Yesterday had been spent writing reports, filling out reports, and typing reports. Ruth had put Hutch and him in a small, private room, kept everyone away, and even brought them lunch.

·                     Not much had been said between them, and Starsky had actually enjoyed the quiet. It was a comfortable silence, although more likely it was the eye of the storm. He had yet to broach the subject of Heather. And nothing had been said about “it,” other than to go over a few facts and spellings. And of course, all talk of the state of their partnership was restricted.

·                     But it felt like their old silences, when they didn’t need to talk, only to be with each other. Hutch had been up and down, in and out of the room, checking on the latest with the Incestuous Lawsons. Starsky had let him pace and stalk, because he paced and stalked right back to Starsky. And for now, that was enough.

·                     Today they were back at the studio. There was no latest on the Lawsons; the Lawsons had a lawyer, they had alibis, and they had nothing which tied them to any of the murders. But Hutch still had Crane, and the other task force members still had their leads, and so the investigation struggled on.

·                     So Starsky was in the studio, back in the dark room, developing those lovely photos he’d taken of Hutch less than a week ago. And Hutch was with him, because Grimes had told Starsky to keep Hutch with him, because Grimes had told both Starsky and Hutch that he was going to talk to Martin Rice this morning and see if he could get to the bottom of his beating.

·                     Hutch had kept silent when Grimes had told them. Hadn’t said a word. Hadn’t manifested a drop of sweat. Simply walked out of Grimes’s office. At that moment Starsky had known Hutch was responsible for the beating. Or rather, he could no longer pretend he didn’t know.

·                     In the old days, it wouldn’t have mattered so much. They had a few “off the record” tussles in their past—okay, several—but Dobey had allowed them to do their business as they saw fit, and no one had been really hurt, and most could be justified anyway.

·                     But Grimes wasn’t Dobey, and Hutch wasn’t himself. And if Grimes got a statement from Rice, it could mean Hutch’s career. Ruth, Starsky was certain, was on Hutch’s side, and would turn a blind eye if it were up to her. But Grimes was more by-the-book. And Starsky had a sneaking suspicion Grimes was sweating Hutch as a lesson to his most volatile task force member.

·                     So Hutch was standing just behind Starsky, watching him run paper through developer and finisher as photos of Hutch’s naked body dried on the line.

·                     There wasn’t much to see, really. A couple of them were good, snapped when Hutch had relaxed a little, but most were stiff, and uninteresting, and even off-putting. Not much to show Crane, who had demanded “exceptional” quality. Starsky didn’t like the idea of having to ask Hutch to pose again. The whole idea seemed rather—distasteful—after “the scene” the other night. Nothing struck him as particularly erotic or arousing lately, not even the thought of Hutch posing. It was the aftereffect of “what happened,” a lowering of libido brought on by the use of sex as anything but a loving expression of a loving relationship.

·                     The good news was Starsky’s stomach was back up and in operation after the poppers, strangling, and overall stress of “that,” proven by the unremarkable digestion of the steak and eggs, hash browns, oatmeal, toast, pancakes and chocolate meringue pie he’d had for breakfast. The blood was also clearing from his eyes.

·                     Starsky yanked the light on in the darkroom, signaling the end of the process. Hutch didn’t say anything, but opened the door and walked out. Starsky gave the photos a last look, then followed Hutch into the storage room. Hutch had a cup of water, and Starsky got one for himself.

·                     “I don’t think they’re going to do,” Starsky said. “It wasn’t a great shoot.” He sipped his water.

·                     Hutch finished his water, crumpled the cup, and tossed it in the trash can. “We’ll think of something else.” He didn’t look at Starsky. “Maybe we can get something to add to Crane’s collection, something he doesn’t have, that will lure him out.”

·                     The buzzer to the studio sounded, and both Starsky and Hutch turned toward the front of the office. They looked at each other, then walked up front.

·                     Grimes stood in the front room. Hutch stopped about five feet from Grimes, Starsky moved up closer.

·                     “Thought you boys would like to know what I came up with this morning.”

·                     Starsky looked back at Hutch, who remained stoic, then at Grimes. “Sure. What did Rice have to say? Anything?”

·                     Grimes was looking at Hutch. “Rice left the hospital late last night. He mentioned to a nurse something about a one-way ticket to Martinique, or Morocco, or some place that begins with an ‘M,’ she couldn’t remember.”

·                     Hutch couldn’t hold Grimes stare and looked past Grimes, through the window, out onto Sunset. Starsky watched him carefully.

·                     “With no statement from Rice, we really can’t pursue his case.” Grimes addressed himself to Starsky. “Although I’d like to know who paid for that ticket, and why he chose right now to leave the country.”

·                     Starsky adjusted his stance. Grimes had gone as far as he could go with this, Hutch was safe, and Starsky was relieved. “We’re still pursuing Crane, maybe we can find something out from him.”

·                     “And how’s that going?” Grimes asked.

·                     Hutch was still studying the traffic on Sunset.

·                     “We’ll need to call him, set up another meet, I think. At least see if we can pursue the idea of taking more pictures for him and maybe his friends.” Starsky crossed his arms across his chest. “That’s our only line of inquiry right now.”

·                     A beeper went off. Grimes pulled one from his suit coat pocket, looked at it, and walked over to the phone. As Grimes walked over to the desk, Hutch moved over to stand in front of the couch. Hutch was still keeping his distance from Grimes, Starsky noted.

·                     “What?” Grimes was nothing if not to the point. “Where? When?” He stuffed the beeper back in his pocket. “No, we’ll be there. We’re on our way.” He replaced the handset on the phone. “Let’s go, boys. We’ve got another one.”

·                      

·                     “Another one” was another body, this one identified as Dr. Richerd Reid of Encino, California. Or his residential address was in Encino; his business address was in Beverly Hills, and his body was in Reseda, in a little motel off Saticoy.

·                     No one was saying anything more than was absolutely necessary to accomplish the task at hand. Photos were taken, evidence was bagged, the coroner was called. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind this was the work of their serial killer: body scrubbed clean, room scrubbed clean, no witnesses and no clues. It was just as certain that when they began their investigation, no one in Reid’s family or circle of friends would have any idea he was interested or engaged in this kind of sexual activity.

·                     Ruth corralled Starsky and Hutch over to one side of the motel, out of the way of the circling television vans. “I’m sorry.” This she said to Hutch, a hand on his arm. “The coroner is giving us a time of death between 1 and 5am, and we know where the Lawsons were. We’ve had them under surveillance.”

·                     Starsky looked up at the sun, protected by his dark glasses, then back toward the activity around the motel room. That meant what he’d done the other night was pretty much worthless. A hollow formed in his stomach. Useless, worthless, all in vain; a total waste of time. He’d put his life—and his sex—on the line for nothing more than what the Lawsons claimed: some fun.

·                     It made him sick to think of what he’d gone through in the name of justice, and for a moment he thought his breakfast might not stay down. Being ogled, being touched, being touched intimately, and not by anyone he wanted that behavior from made him nauseated.

·                     Then Starsky looked at Hutch. Hutch, who was probably now eating himself up with guilt over letting Starsky go undercover and into danger for nothing. Starsky sighed. At least he could try and lessen Hutch’s guilt by pointing out that Hutch hadn’t let anything happen to him, and that knowing who wasn’t a killer was sometimes as important as knowing who was.

·                     Starsky’s nausea eased. He felt good just standing next to Hutch. Hutch had protected him, and he felt protected. Hutch had let him hold his hand, and Hutch had even touched his face, and that had felt good. Starsky could focus on the good things, and handle the bad. Now if he could just get Hutch to do the same….

·                     “I am so sick of this case,” Ruth sighed. “I just want to take whoever’s doing all this and strangle them myself.” Ruth seemed to have no qualms about sharing her feelings about this investigation. She looked at Starsky. “I’m sorry, David. You and Hutch will have to keep working. Why don’t you meet us back downtown this afternoon, when we’ve got this pulled together a little better.” Ruth smiled sadly, then walked away.

·                     Starsky moved over to stand next to Hutch. “You okay?”

·                     “Yes.” Hutch removed his sun glasses, cleaned them, and put them back on. “You?”

·                     Starsky stuck his hands in his jacket pockets. “Yeah. Disappointed, I guess. Frustrated. Kinda mad.”

·                     Hutch nodded. “I’m not sure any of us are headed in the right direction on this one.”

·                     Starsky glanced at Hutch. Discussion about the case! Progress! “There are too many whackos out there,” Starsky concurred. “And not enough of us to go after them all. This case all hinges on luck. One of us being lucky enough to run into one of them. And we could spend years just trying to get lucky.”

·                     Hutch rubbed his eyes under his glasses. Starsky took the initiative. “Let’s get some lunch and take it back to the studio. Maybe we can figure some things out and take them to Ruth and Grimes this afternoon.”

·                     Hutch didn’t answer, but walked toward their car. Starsky followed.

·                      

·                     Only Starsky could talk the manager of the Swedish restaurant up the street to give them take-out when the place didn’t do take-out. The manager being female helped, of course. Hutch and Starsky made their way back to the studio with an armful of Swedish meatballs, salmon lasagna, gravlax and beets.

·                     The two men deposited their foil-wrapped bounty on the small coffee table in the front room. Hutch arranged the dishes, while Starsky scrounged in the back for some soda he’s stashed in their dorm-sized refrigerator. He returned with three cans of some store-brand cola, and the two sat down to eat.

·                     And eat was all they did for a time, Starsky managing to get some of each dish mixed in with every other dish, Hutch being a little more circumspect.

·                     Hutch was glad for the silence. He didn’t want to hear any words of comfort from Starsky about the folly of the other night. It made him sick every time he thought of someone—dirty—touching Starsky, hurting him in the name of sexual pleasure. For the past two days he’d had an urge to follow Starsky into the bathroom and scrub him clean himself. But that only led to thoughts of touching Starsky, and the ensuing feelings of arousal from those thoughts were more than he could handle, so he ignored them. Squelched them. Squashed them. Denied them. And most of all, refused to figure out why he was having them.

·                     He also didn’t want to consider why Martin had taken off or who had paid for his trip. He wasn’t sure how far Grimes would have gone trying to find out who put him in the hospital, but he was relieved the jerk had kept his mouth shut and left for parts unknown. Hutch didn’t exactly regret what he’d done to Martin, but he felt a twinge of guilt because the beating had been more to release Hutch’s demons than to punish the fuck-off for his sneaking around.

·                     That was another notion Hutch didn’t want to address, why Martin had been following him. He wanted to believe it was out of jealousy, that Martin considered him a threat to his position in the Bridge Club and was merely looking for ways to have Hutch banished. Martin had said so. Crane had implied so. Why not believe it?

·                     Martin could only have been following him for two weeks at the most, but he’d been to Parker Center several times during those weeks, and if Martin had seen him go in…or if Martin had found someone who could identify him as a cop…but he had been careful—pretty careful—once they’d gone undercover, and Hutch didn’t feel that they’d been tailed. At least while Starsky was with him—Starsky would have noticed. It was just in those private moments when he’d gone off by himself that Martin had known about. So he and Starsky were probably safe.

·                     What Hutch was really afraid of was confronting any of the issues swarming around him. He was afraid that if he professed his frustrations with this investigation, his anger would spill over and he’d say—or do—something that would get him kicked off the task force, and maybe worse. Grimes would probably see to that. Grimes was all over his ass about Rice. What if Hutch had taken it out on one of the other detectives? Hutch didn’t want to do that to Starsky, to make Starsky ashamed of him.

·                     He wasn’t thrilled with the people he was working with. Hutch didn’t hate them, but he was aggravated they couldn’t come up with better leads and more solid evidence, which meant they ended up in situations like the other night. The only good thing about the other night had been his ability to get to Starsky on time. As afraid as he had been about Starsky’s safety, the conviction he could protect Starsky had been renewed.

·                     Hutch did hate the people they were having to mingle with; they used sex as a tool, as a weapon, as a means of control. He knew now he wanted nothing to do with those aspects of sex. But he didn’t want to talk about how he’d discovered that, either. He wanted to forget Heather, and Leslie, and even Elisa. They’d been objects to him, things he’d used to try and forget whatever was bothering him at the moment. And none of them had made him feel better.

·                     Starsky made him feel better. Starsky’s passion for his work made Hutch feel that it wasn’t a totally worthless pursuit.

·                     Starsky made him—feel.

·                     The front door opened, the buzzer sounded, and it was all Hutch could do not to choke on the meatball in his mouth.

·                     Evan Crane walked in.

·                     “Ah, lunch from Scandia. I recognize the aroma.”

·                     Hutch grabbed for a soda to wash down the meatball, wiped his hands on a napkin, and stood up. Starsky stood right beside him. This was not someone Hutch wanted to deal with just now. Or maybe ever. If their investigation weren’t still wide open….

·                     “I hope you don’t mind, I dropped in to see if you had the photos I’d requested.” Evan was dressed, as usual, in a business suit. “It has been a while, I really thought you’d have contacted me before now. Good heavens, what happened to your eyes?” He was peering at Starsky.

·                     Starsky looked at Hutch. Hutch stood straighter, more protectively. He met Starsky’s eyes, and told him to go ahead. It felt good to know that they were silently communicating again, even if it was a bit of a shock to realize how long it had been since they had.

·                     “Little accident. Nothing permanent.” Starsky looked back at Crane. “It hasn’t even been a week since the shoot,” he said, “but I, uh, I have the shots in the back if you’ll wait a minute.”

·                     “Good, fine then.” Crane leaned back a little after the examination of Starsky’s eyes.

·                     Hutch nodded to Starsky, and Starsky headed for the dark room.

·                     Evan looked around the front room, then fixed on Hutch. “Have you thought about my offer?”

·                     Hutch cleared his throat. “Not really. Maybe a little. Some.” He wasn’t quite certain what he needed to say to keep Crane happy. And he needed to keep Crane happy, because Crane was his and Starsky’s only suspect at the moment. Should he mention Martin’s recent disappearance? But how would Hutch know to ask about that? Better to play it very simple.

·                     “I see.” Crane stood straight and still. “Not interested, or just undecided?”

·                     Hutch shifted his weight. “Undecided.” That should keep him on the hook.

·                     “Well, perhaps I can help you decide, then.” Crane turned a little as Starsky came back with the photos. Starsky offered them and Crane took them, shuffling them front to back with very little attention paid to any.

·                     Starsky and Hutch stood silently as Crane scanned them.

·                     “I’m underwhelmed.” He handed them back to Starsky.

·                     Starsky evened them up in his hands. “They’re not my best work. But sometimes it takes time to—“

·                     Crane held up his hand. “Excuses are not what I’m interested in. Results are what I want. I’m disappointed, but I still see potential.”

·                     Starsky looked at Hutch. Hutch could see—and he was pleased with himself that he could see—Starsky was worried they were about to lose their suspect. Their communication was subtle, nothing Crane would pick up on, but it was there. Hutch stepped in.

·                     “It’s probably my fault. I wasn’t really in the mood to have my picture taken that day.” Hutch forced a laugh. “I’m not really much of a model.”

·                     “Perhaps.” Crane kept his hands at his side, his body still. “What if I gave you one more chance to prove your value?” He spoke to Starsky. “You come out to my place and shoot two models of my choice, and if I like what you do, there’ll be more work for you.”

·                     Starsky’s brow furrowed. “I don’t really do home shoots.”

·                     Crane seemed surprised. “But I thought you did private shoots?”

·                     Starsky glanced at Hutch. “Oh, I do, but I really prefer less—personal—surroundings and more anonymous settings. Like hotel rooms, motel rooms, places like that.”

·                     Crane nodded. “I have a house I just bought in the canyon. Almost entirely unfurnished. Very tucked away. Very private. Would that be suitable?”

·                     Hutch watched Crane carefully. Crane was totally focused on Starsky, clearly ignoring Hutch. Starsky glanced at Hutch again, and Crane caught it, following the gaze to Hutch. It made Hutch uncomfortable to have Crane’s attention, but it was better than Starsky having it.

·                     “Is there a problem, Richard?” Crane asked disingenuously.

·                     “No,” Hutch responded, trying to sound cooperative. “One anonymous site is as good as another.”

·                     “If the session were satisfactory enough, the house might even be useful to you as a studio. It’s certainly bigger than this place, and my acquaintances would be much more amenable to traveling to a private location, rather than this public one. And I do have many acquaintances who have interests similar to mine.” He nodded at Hutch. “Members of my bridge club, say. Has Richard told you of my bridge club?”

·                     Starsky shrugged. “A little.”

·                     “Well. Richard’s prerogative to tell or not, isn’t it?” Crane clasped his hands together. “Shall we say tomorrow afternoon?” He took a business card from his inside pocket, picked up a pen from the desk, and wrote on the back. “This is the address of the house. You’ll bring whatever equipment you need, of course. I’ll bring the rest. 2pm would be best for me.”

·                     He handed the card to Starsky. Starsky noted the address, then passed it to Hutch. “2pm,” Starsky confirmed.

·                     “Good day, gentlemen.” Crane left the office.

·                     Starsky sat down on the desk top. “Is it just me, or are things happening way too fast lately?” He set the photos down next to him.

·                     Hutch looked at the card, then out the window in the direction Crane had taken. “Another meet,” he said.

·                     “We got through one, we can get through another.” He smiled a little at Hutch.

·                     Hutch wanted to hang onto the smile, but he couldn’t. It made him want to walk over to Starsky, to touch Starsky, and he was afraid that once he started he couldn’t stop. He pocketed the business card and bent down to clean up their lunch. “Guess we’d better take this to Grimes and Ruth.

·                     Starsky hopped off the desk and gave Hutch a hand. “Yeah, we’d better.”

·                      

·                     Everyone had a headache.

·                     “I can’t be two places at once,” said Gordie. “Which is probably moot anyway; I’ll case the house but I’m betting there’s no way we can get a signal to go more than 25 yards in the canyon.”

·                     “You’ll just have to reschedule,” Ruth said to Hutch.

·                     Hutch looked at the floor. “I don’t think we can. I haven’t been invited back to the Bridge Club, and my sense is that Crane is ready to drop me if I don’t keep his interest up.” Hutch wasn’t sure if this were an admission or a confession; whatever, it galled him to admit failure.

·                     “Reschedule and relocate,” said Gordie. “I’ll visit the address, but I’m betting you there will be no place to hide the van that’s close enough to pick up a radio signal. It’s either wide open no-place-to-hide acres or signal-stopping woods out there, and neither are going to make it easy for us to transmit.”

·                     “How ‘not interested’ is Crane?” Grimes asked.

·                     “I’d say very,” answered Starsky. “He didn’t like my photos, and he wants better or he’s going elsewhere. The bait for us being our business could pick up measurably if he likes what I do this time, since it will mean he’ll introduce us to his friends.” Starsky looked over at Hutch. Starsky’s photos were crap, Hutch couldn’t hold Crane’s interest; they were both failing here. And Hutch didn’t like failing.

·                     Ruth was pacing. “I don’t like this. We’ve got a meet with Carter and Montoya going down Friday afternoon, and this is a solid lead. They met a woman who’s ex-boyfriend is into the whole bondage scene and wants to produce a snuff film. This guy has an incredible hard-core porn collection, fits our profile, and knows almost as much about the recent killings as we do. Carter says he reads every newspaper and watches every news report about the murders.”

·                     “We’ll lose Crane if we don’t go,” said Hutch. He addressed himself to Grimes.

·                     “You can get friendly with the others in his Bridge Club,” jumped in Ruth. “Open up new leads.”

·                     “I thought Miles and Montoya were on that.” Hutch continued to speak to Grimes.”

·                     “They are,” said Grimes. “And coming up with nothing. Your decision, gentlemen.”

·                     Ruth sighed—loudly—and sat down.

·                     Hutch looked at Starsky. Their eyes met and exchanged agreement. Agreement that they would stay with the investigation. Agreement that they would walk into another dangerous situation. Agreement that they would walk in together.

·                     “It’s a photo shoot, not a sexual encounter,” said Starsky. “Me and Hutch, Crane, and two models.”

·                     “You don’t know who those two models will be,” said Ruth. “Or what toys they’ll bring with them.”

·                     “We’ll be in control of the situation.” Hutch spoke now to Ruth. “They’ll be naked and exposed, not us. Plus, we’ll have our weapons.”

·                     “Where?” asked Ruth. “You can’t wear them.”

·                     “If we use leg holsters we can,” answered Starsky. He squared his shoulders. “Or we can hide them in my cases. No one messes with my equipment except me and Hutch.” Hutch winced at the pronouncement. Starsky hadn’t seemed to have caught the double-entendre, and Hutch was uncomfortable he had.

·                     “No wire and no mike,” said Gordie. “No backup.”

·                     “We won’t need one. We can rig a recorder in one of Starsky’s cases to record the meet, but there’s no reason to think we’d need rescuing from this kind of set-up.” Hutch was beginning to feel more comfortable with the parameters of their photo shoot. “Two goons pose, we shoot them, Crane watches. Polite chit-chat, subtle interrogation. Crane gets his jollies, and we get an introduction to a whole new side of society.” Hutch couldn't stop himself. “Or we can wait and see who turns up dead next.”

·                     Ruth buried her face in her hands.

·                     Grimes patted Ruth’s shoulder. “You check in before you go, you check in immediately after you leave, and we move in if you’re not back in a certain amount of time.”

·                     “Works for me,” Starsky smiled. He sat down next to Ruth, who looked at him. “We’ll be careful. After the other night, we know exactly what we’re getting into and how to handle it. This is a lot less risky than that. Honest.”

·                     Ruth finally returned Starsky’s smile, patting his hand. “You boys be careful.”

·                     Extra, Hutch thought to himself.

·                      

·                      

 

CHAPTER TWENTY

“I don’t carry an umbrella, it never rains in California,” Starsky said, irritated. He peered at the massive raindrops that splattered paw prints onto his windshield.

“We can wait it out,” Hutch looked up at the sky through the passenger window. They were parked in the dirt circle drive of a mansion tucked up in Topanga Canyon. Unfortunately, the newly-built mansion didn’t have a covered walkway to the front door.

“Oh, yeah,” Starsky also evaluated the sky. Dark gray clouds hung low overhead, not a break in sight. “This is going to end real soon.”

“Then we make a run for it,” Hutch shrugged.

“And get my equipment wet?” Starsky spluttered. “I don’t think so. You didn’t save up for months for those lenses.”

“Most of it’s department provided,” Hutch muttered.

Starsky shot him an annoyed look.

·                     Twenty-four hours had passed since they’d decided to hold a private photo shoot for Evan Crane. Not much time to do anything more than pack up all Starsky’s light stands and cameras, rig two tape recorders in two of the cases, stick a couple of Smith & Wessons inside the foam padding protecting the lights, and strap something a little smaller to their calves. Good thing jeans come in different styles, Hutch thought.

·                     Gordie’s recorders could tape up to an hour each, and Starsky had assured everyone there was no need to for their shoot to last more than two hours. Hutch had assured everyone two hours was enough time to regain Crane’s interest and open up their leads.

·                     Gordie, Grimes, Starsky and he had taken a drive into the canyon last night. Gordie had been right: the address was off the highway, off the paved road, and tucked away in a nice little ravine surrounded by very high hills. The house was actually in a clearing of land scraped clean for the building of the house…and the tennis court, and the swimming pool. They couldn’t have parked the van close enough to pick up a signal from inside without being extremely obvious. Even their police radio was of no use until they got a few miles up and over from the home. And forget television reception in this area; but then that wasn’t Crane’s form of entertainment.

·                     No, this afternoon was more Crane’s form of entertainment: having people perform in front of him. Well, you get two hours out of us, and that’s that Hutch thought. If we don’t check in by 4:15, you will be dead meat, my elegant friend.

·                     The rain continued to pelt down on them. There were no other cars in the drive, but cars could have been hidden behind the house or elsewhere. They had no way of knowing; they might have seen tracks in the mud if the grounds weren’t full of old tracks from trucks and other vehicles used in the construction of the fancy manse.

Hutch clicked open his door handle, barely opening his door. “Let’s get his over with,” he said behind clenched teeth. “We’ll make a run for it and there’s probably an umbrella in the house we can borrow to get your precious equipment safely inside.”

Hutch suddenly dove from the car and dashed for the front door. Starsky hustled after him, nearly slamming into Hutch as he barreled blindly through the rain. Even a 15-yard dash had left them both soaked and nicely muddied.

“Fucking rich and he can’t build a covered walk to get his guests into his house,” Starsky grumbled.

“But it never rains in California, Starsk,” Hutch responded. “You just said so yourself.” Hutch ran a hand through his wet hair to lift it off his forehead and rang the doorbell.

Crane himself opened the door. He was dressed in a maroon turtleneck, camel sports coat and slacks. “Good afternoon, gentlemen. Right on time, I see.” He stepped back from the entrance and allowed the two men to enter.

 “Dear me, you two are sopping. And wherever is your equipment?” Crane stood back from them, as if afraid their mess would ooze over to him.

Starsky blotted his face with his sleeve. “In the car. We were hoping you had an umbrella we could borrow so we could bring in the gear. I’ve got a couple of cases of lights and cameras.”

“Oh, later, later,” Crane brushed off the request. “Let’s get you two some dry clothes and chat awhile.” Crane flashed Starsky a appealing smile.

Starsky looked at Hutch. “Are the models here yet? We didn’t see their car.”

“As a matter of fact, they are.” Crane continued to smile broadly. “So why don’t we get you two dried off, and we can relax a bit before we get to work.”

Starsky turned back toward the door. “Well, my stuff is still in the car and I’d like to bring it in—“

“I’m sure it will be quite safe out there; we are really quite isolated.” Crane backed toward the staircase, as if by backing away he could persuade the two men to move forward. “It might even stop raining as hard and we can rescue your equipment with less risk.”

“I’d feel better if—“

“Nonsense.” Crane lost his smile, and apparently his patience with Starsky. “We will worry about it later. Right now we shall dry off and have a drink.”

Hutch pushed back wet hair from his forehead. He glanced at Starsky. They weren’t weaponless, but their recording equipment was out in the car. Still, they had time to bring it in before they began asking pertinent questions that might require validation. Hutch gave Starsky a quick shrug, who returned the gesture with a nod of his head.

 “Please, follow me.” Crane led the two men upstairs to a back bedroom. “You’ll find an assortment of clothing in the armoire and dresser. I like to keep a good selection handy for guests who may not have come prepared. And there are towels in the bathroom. Let me get you some.” Crane walked across the room and into the bathroom, returning with two large, thick towels.

Starsky glanced at Hutch. It was quite clear that Crane expected them to change clothes. While he watched. And as muddy as their shoes and pants legs were, they weren’t going to get away with just putting on dry shirts. Which brought two thoughts to Hutch’s mind: what were they going to do about their concealed weapons, and was Crane actually checking to see if they were wired?

“Please,” Crane urged, offering them the towels, standing in the doorway.

Starsky gave the tiniest hint of a shrug and took one. Hutch took the other. They were coming to the same conclusion. In order to stay, they would have to strip. And while they could manage to get their holsters undone in the clumsiness of removing jeans and socks and shoes and keep the guns hidden in the wad of clothing, they weren’t going to be able to put them back on.

More disconcerting was the notion that Crane was actually looking to see if they were carrying, or wired, or both. But that would mean Crane suspected they were cops, and he’d have no reason to assume that. At best, even with Martin telling him what he had on Hutch, Crane could only suspect Hutch of not being truthful about his sexual proclivities.

But then, Crane had never questioned his sexual history, or his non-Bridge Club wanderings. So what if “Richard” had girlfriends? That didn’t negate his interest in any of Crane’s sexual offerings. More likely, Crane was worried about what the entire city was worried about: hooking up with the psycho sexual killer. Crane was probably checking to make sure he and Starsky didn’t have anything dangerous with which to harm him!

Hutch relaxed a bit. If Crane were afraid of them, then they were in control. Starsky and he could change clothes, make polite conversation, then bring in the equipment and get their business done. And they had weapons in the cases, so they were covered. Hutch wiped his face with the towel. This didn’t have to be anything like the other night. They might as well be back in the studio. Piece of cake.

Starsky finally made the decision for them, but Hutch hadn’t given him any sign not to. In fact, Starsky had probably come up with the same answer he had: Crane is checking to make sure we’re not the killers.

Starsky extricated himself from his wet jacket and shirt. He sat down on the edge of the bed, and very carefully, pushed down his jeans until they were around his legs, then began to struggle with wet denim, wet socks, and muddy shoes.

Hutch followed suit, managing to make a nice wad of the material covering his lower half. Fortunately, Crane seemed satisfied after the removal of their shirts and the pushing down of their pants, and was now more interested in the clothing he had in the armoire.

Crane rummaged through some sweaters, then moved to the closet and peered inside.

Starsky finished making a concealing pile of his clothes, and pushed it off against the wall. Hutch made a similar pile, and walked his over to set it next to Starsky’s.

“You’re not going to put dry clothes on over wet underwear, are you?” Crane was holding two pairs of pants.

Starsky arched an eyebrow, then shrugged and skimmed off his briefs. Hutch did likewise. He felt more than naked, he felt as if he were under inspection. Well, let Crane get his rocks off. Inspect away. Compare us to those two models you want “exceptional” pictures from. You’ll be sorry you and your Bridge Club didn’t want me around! Hutch found strength in such bravado, and straightened his posture.

 “Underwear and socks are in the dresser, but why don’t we skip those?” Crane suggested. Or perhaps ordered.

Starsky stood still a moment, then reached for the pants Crane was holding. Crane handed over a pair of very pressed blue jeans. “I believe these will fit.”

“And for you.” Crane offered Hutch a similar pair of pants. He and Starsky stepped into them quickly.

Crane was back at the armoire. He chose a deep blue, light v-neck sweater. He tossed it to Starsky. For Hutch he chose a similar sweater, but in cream.

“Where are the other two, uh, gentlemen?” Starsky asked, shouldering into his sweater.

Crane stood in the middle of the room, watching them both. “Don’t worry, they’re here,” he replied. Crane’s eyes sparkled as he smiled at Starsky.

Hutch’s jeans felt stiff, but the sweater had to be a silk blend, it was so light and cool. He was glad to be dry, but still felt naked. Not just naked without his gun, but naked from the way Crane was eyeing him. Hutch wouldn’t be surprised if Crane asked him to pose at some point during the shoot. After all, Crane had wanted shots of him in the first place. Maybe the whole point of this exercise had just been to get Hutch alone and naked.

Hutch shivered. Now he knew how Starsky must have felt when he was in the room with Lawson. But the point of his exercise was not to catch someone in the act, but to extract more information, more leads. Much safer.

“We should use a room with light,” Starsky began planning his shoot. “Something big and bright, if you’ve got it.”

 “Let me show you the dining hall,” Crane gestured toward the bedroom door. “I think it will suffice.”

Starsky walked past Crane and Hutch and out into the hall. Hutch hesitated as Crane didn’t move, then finally followed Starsky, with Crane behind.

“Down the stairs and to your right,” Crane directed. The three men walked down the curving staircase and into a massive room.

The room held no furniture save a small, 16th century couch in the center. Very ornate, very delicate, very expensive. A chandelier hung from a twenty-foot ceiling, clearly made of hand-crafted crystal. Floor-to-ceiling windows lined the north side of the room, sending shafts of light onto the polished hardwood floor.

“I was worried when the sun disappeared,” Crane walked to the center of the room, “but the rain is lessening, and these windows allow in so much light anyway I thought perhaps we would be able to proceed.”

Starsky turned slowly in a circle, nodding, admiring the room. “Beautiful diffused light,” he said softly. He suddenly became animated. “We can stand a light there, throw up a cyc, maybe play with some color….” Starsky paced the room.

Crane walked up to Hutch. “Enthusiastic young man,” he murmured into Hutch’s ear. “Impressive portfolio. I can see why you would be attracted to him.”

Hutch looked at Crane from the corner of his eye, but said nothing. He bristled at the implication that Hutch was attracted to Starsky—or rather, that Crane would assume Hutch was attracted to Starsky. Not that Starsky wasn’t an attractive man, but how dare Crane notice?

Yet wasn’t that the point of the undercover investigation? To attract a certain kind of person, a certain kind of man, who is interested in attractive men? Still, it made Hutch uncomfortable for Crane’s attention to be on Starsky as anything more than the photographer. Starsky had had enough attention from the Lawsons. It was Hutch’s turn to be the bait.

Hutch scanned the room. Large double room doors between them and the foyer and the front door. Guns were at present upstairs and outside. A door down at one end of the room, presumably leading to the kitchen. Two escape routes, should they be needed. Just in case.

Crane walked behind him, then whispered into his other ear. “Is he a partner in your games?”

Partner? He knows? He couldn’t know. He means business partner. Hutch moved forward without looking at Crane. “Nice house,” he said through gritted teeth. Hutch had already examined the possibilities; even if Martin had told Crane about his extracurricular activities, Martin couldn’t have fingered them as cops. They were safe. Surely they were safe.

“One of many,” Crane once again stood immediately behind Hutch. “Rather plain, actually. Currently, the only furnished room is the bedroom upstairs. The rest of the house has a pool and court, sauna, kitchen, guest rooms—but no game room. If you catch my meaning.”

Hutch’s back stiffened. Steady…Crane is just trying to get under your skin with the sexual innuendo. No one’s playing sex games here today except maybe the two models. Easy to control the situation. Even without guns, Starsky and he could easily overpower Crane.

Starsky finished his tour of the hall. “Mr. Crane, if you’ve got that umbrella, I’d like to bring my equipment in.”

Crane walked past Hutch and over to Starsky.

“Oh come, David, we were going to get to know one another before we began our session.” Crane put his arm around Starsky’s shoulder and guided him over to the sofa. Starsky sat down. Reluctantly, Hutch noted. It was clear Starsky was as anxious to get to the cases—and the recorders and their guns—as Hutch was.

“Why don’t I get us some refreshments while we chat?” Crane smiled over at Hutch, then left them alone in the salon.

Starsky stood up and walked over to Hutch. “What do you think’s going on?” he said quietly.

Hutch blinked and crossed his arms. “More game playing,” Hutch determined. “Crane is a very theatrical man. He enjoys drawing out the drama in situations.”

Starsky lifted his eyebrows. “No shit. Just listening in on his little ‘bridge parties’ turned my stomach.” Starsky surveyed the room. “I’d feel better if we had those cases in here and not out in the car. In fact, maybe we should just go get them anyway. Crane’s got so many clothes upstairs we could get wet a dozen time. What do you think? How do you feel about this?”

How do I feel? Hutch turned away from Starsky, unwilling to go any deeper into their current exploration than what the very moment required. I feel—nervous. I feel nervous around Crane. He gives me the willies. And I feel nervous around you. I don’t know what to do or say or how to act around anyone, especially you. I feel too much when I’m around you, and I don’t want to! It’s too dangerous because it keeps me from paying attention to the dangers around you! Hutch shut his eyes and squeezed the bridge of his nose. I’m tired of analyzing this situation. I’m tired of analyzing this case. I don’t want to analyze Crane, and I don’t want to analyze you, he thought. I just want to get out of here.

Hutch suddenly turned to Starsky. “I don’t like this. Let’s get out of here.”

Starsky looked surprised. “Why?” he glanced around the room. “You think something is up?”

“I don’t know,” Hutch lied. “We’ll go upstairs and get our guns and go.” He couldn’t let go of the thought that if Martin knew he was a cop, if Martin had said anything to Crane, they were in deep shit. And he was the one who shat that shit. “I just don’t want to be here.” He shut his eyes tighter.

“Neither do I,” Starsky said sympathetically. “But we’ve got a job to do. Might as well get it done and over with. We haven’t even seen the models yet.” Starsky paused. “Wonder if they’ve got a bag full of props like Eric,” he muttered. “Actually, I wonder where those models are. Maybe we should go upstairs and grab our guns….”

“Gentlemen!” Crane announced his return. He carried a silver tray under a decanter of caramel colored liquid and three glasses.

Hutch heard Starsky suck in his breath, felt his partner stiffen beside him. He opened his eyes to see Crane setting the tray and its contents on the floor. Behind Crane stood a bruised but standing Martin.

Leveling a semi-automatic rifle at Starsky and him.

“You remember Martin,” Crane took a few steps toward Hutch. “And while your partner has never met him, I feel sure he knows who Martin is.”

Starsky and Hutch stood shoulder to shoulder. Hutch could feel the fear in his partner; could feel the fear and rage rising in his own gut. Goddamnfuckingasshole, Hutchinson, you knew there were bad elements to this and you ignored them! You shithole lousy fuck-up of a partner, you put Starsky in the crosshairs again! When are you going to learn? When!

Hutch took a protective step forward. “What’s going on?”

Crane’s smile widened. “Helping you find your place, dear boy! Forcing you to confront your deepest desires!” He spread his arms in a gesture of magnanimity.

“What the hell is this?” Hutch repeated. Pin prickles of adrenaline stung his flesh. He no longer cared what or how much Crane knew about them, he just wanted to walk away from this whole debacle. Just get Starsky and himself out of there safely. To hell with the investigation or anything else, he was getting them out of there, if he had to go through Martin to do it.

Starsky moved forward, even again with Hutch. “We don’t want any trouble,” he lifted his hands, palms forward and facing the weapon. “If we’ve got a problem here, let’s just call the whole thing off, and we’ll leave.”

“But there is no problem, David.” Crane circled the two until he was behind them. “And there’ll be no problems as long as you and your partner follow instructions.”

Martin stood silently, but raised the barrel of the gun slightly to indicate threat.

“Filthy fucking bastard,” Hutch rasped, looking directly at Martin. “I should have killed you.”

Starsky looked at Hutch sharply.

“Now, now,” Crane came up behind them, placing a hand on each of their shoulders. “Martin only does what I tell him to. And there’s no reason for anyone besides us to know what happened between you two.” He released his grip and walked back beside Martin.

Hutch clenched his jaw as Crane moved away. Should have elbowed the bastard and thrown him into the line of fire! Shit!

“Richard,” Crane began. “Or should I call you Detective Hutchinson? Doesn’t matter,” Crane shook his head, answering his own question. “You’re here because I want you here. I could have had Martin name you as his transgressor and brought down all sorts of trouble from your administration, but instead I had him play dumb.” Crane smiled at Martin, who ignored him.

“I could have revealed you to my associates, but what would be the point?” Crane gestured at Hutch. “No, I’m much more interested in helping you free your spirit and come to know yourself as you have never known yourself before!” Crane smiled gleefully.

Starsky lowered his hands. “Crane, if you know we’re cops, then you also know there’s a whole lot more out there backing us up.”

Crane laughed. “Where? I don’t see anyone else outside. You aren’t wired, we all know that. And you couldn’t possibly transmit any kind of signal from here without much more powerful equipment. No, I don’t think you have backup outside.”

“But they know where we are,” Starsky persisted. “And if we don’t check in, they’ll come after us. Not to mention the fall you’ll take if anything happens to us.”

“And nothing will!” Crane exclaimed. “As long as you do as I direct!”

“Listen,” Starsky’s voice remained amazingly calm. Hutch knew he’d settled into a zen-like state of composure that allowed him to assess, analyze and act in their best interest. “I’m telling you, if we don’t do a check-in in five minutes, this place is going to be crawling with police.”

“Let’s find out, shall we?” Crane said gleefully.

“There are other people here, the models….” Starsky was looking for any out.

“Please,” Crane gave an exaggerated sigh. “Who do you think the two ‘models’ actually are? Or must I spell it out for you?” He pointed two fingers at Starsky and Hutch.

Hutch felt Starsky stiffen next to him. He clenched his fists at his side. “What do you want?” he demanded. Hutch wanted to reach the same zen as Starsky, but his rage at Crane as well as his fury at himself were making it nearly impossible for him to think clearly. Mix in the details of Crane’s sexual games and their lovely consequences, and it was a wonder he could manage any rational thought at all.

Crane rubbed his hands together. “Here are the rules: Do as I say, and you walk out of here, free to do whatever you think should be done following our little affair. Refuse, and Martin is allowed to take his revenge upon you by using his little toy on your partner.”

“They’ll come after you,” Starsky reiterated. “It’s not worth it.”

“But it is!” Crane bubbled. “And please don’t worry about me. I’m quite protected and safeguarded. After all—you haven’t found so much as a smudge on my record yet, have you?”

Starsky and Hutch looked at each other. Starsky’s eyes were clear, focused; offering the kind of support only one police partner could offer another. I’ll follow your lead, they said, or be the leader for you to follow. Doesn’t matter which, all that matters is getting us out alive.

Hutch looked back at Crane. He knew he was trembling, knew showing it was a mistake, but couldn’t stop it. This was worse than the other night; the other night he had been free and able to ride to Starsky’s rescue. Now he was just as captive as Starsky.

Let Martin waver once, just once, and Hutch would push Starsky out of the way and be on top of him like a hungry lion on a zebra. Didn’t matter the consequences to himself; all that mattered was Starsky.

“What. Do. You Want.” Hutch spat out each word.

“I want to give you what you want.” Crane momentarily left the room, then came back in carrying a straight back chair of the same style and period as the couch. He positioned the chair carefully, near to Martin but not next to him, about ten feet from the couch. “I want you to have your partner.”

Hutch frowned. He could sense Starsky was just as confused. Hutch shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts, quiet his body.

“We’re leaving,” he declared, taking a step forward.

Martin aimed at Starsky.

Hutch stopped.

Crane smoothed his pants crease. “Not until you’ve done as I instruct. It’s very simple, dear ‘Richard.’ Do as I say, and you both walk out alive. Defy me, and you both die right here.” Crane folded his hands in his lap. “Now which part of that don’t you understand?”

Hutch held his breath, his heart beating hard in his chest. I understand I will protect Starsky!

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Starsky responded. “What makes you think we won’t walk out of here, then come back and arrest you?”

Crane roared with laughter. “Maybe you will!” he cried. “But I rather think you won’t.” His laughter died. “Now. Richard—I can’t seem to call you anything else! Richard, I want you to remove David’s sweater.”

Hutch didn’t move.

“Richard,” Crane warned. “I’m not joking.” A single finger shifted position, and Martin let fly a round over Starsky’s head. Both Starsky and Hutch flinched.

“S’okay,” Starsky said under his breath. “Go ahead.”

Hutch looked hard at Starsky. He thinks this is going to be like those parties. Pain inflicted for pleasure. ”No!” Hutch growled.

“Yes,” Crane countered. “Or he dies. First, of course. You’ll go after him.”

“Hutch!” Starsky hissed.

“You see?” Crane asked, “Even your partner knows which choice to make. Now walk behind dear David and remove his sweater.” Crane’s voice turned hard.

Hutch walked automatically behind Starsky. He grabbed the hem of Starsky’s sweater and stopped, frozen. What am I doing?

Measuring the situation. Watching for opportunities.

Protecting Starsky.

“S’okay,” Starsky reiterated under his breath. “Play along.”

The words were soft, cool; they floated into Hutch’s brain and soothed the chaos. The bespoke of past emergencies and calamities, of times when functioning as a single unit was their salvation. Be it close call or near miss, their luck had always depended upon acting as one.

Hutch fingered the hem of the sweater, then yanked it up over Starsky’s torso, off over his head.

“Put your arms around his waist,” Crane ordered.

Acting as one…being as close as one…. Hutch couldn’t move. Being forced to be as one…forced to put his arms around Starsky, hold his body, feel his body….Hutch shuddered. Wasn’t that what he’d seen in his fantasies of late? Every woman had eventually repulsed him, to be replaced by an image of Starsky? Wasn’t this what he wanted but couldn’t admit to, wouldn’t even consider?

Starsky reached back and took Hutch’s hands, bringing them around to his front. He held them there, steadying them both.

Now a flush of embarrassment surged through Hutch. Starsky was handling this coolly, calmly, just as they both should. Whatever it took to get through this, that’s what Starsky was willing to give. Could Hutch handle it any less well?

Could he, and not be overcome by those boarded up, bricked up, locked away desires?

“What do you feel, Richard?” Crane crossed his legs. “A hard abdomen? Furry stomach? Place your nose in his hair and tell me what you smell.”

Starsky squeezed Hutch’s hands. Hutch leaned slightly forward and pushed his nose into Starsky’s curls. Damp smell of rain, musky smell of sweat, rancid smell of fear. He instinctively held Starsky tighter.

“What do you feel, Richard. Tell me,” Crane repeated.

A metallic click echoed from Martin’s weapon.

“Skin.” The word came out as a whisper. Hutch cleared his throat. “Warm skin,” he said, barely audible. Warm skin…the skin of my partner…the skin of the man I’d do anything for… to protect him.

“Run a hand over his chest.”

Hutch was unable to move. That was exactly what he’d wanted to do, felt compelled to do, the minute he’d touched Starsky’s body. It felt natural. More natural than any touch he’d given in quite a while. But this wasn’t natural, not this place, not this moment. What if they played along and ended up—what if—what if they ended up alienated and estranged because it meant more than just playing along? What if it meant hurting Starsky?

Starsky shifted a hand from under one of Hutch’s and patted it.

S’okay, s’alright, the hand was saying. We’ll watch and wait for our chance, just as we always have. Long as we’re together, we’ll be fine.

So much in a single hand pat. But did Starsky know what he was saying? What he was offering? What the consequences were?

Hutch shuddered again, Starsky’s body jolted along with his. Starsky had trusted him the other night, and they had come out of it alive. Starsky was offering his trust again. Protecting Starsky would mean accepting it.

Hutch slowly disengaged his right hand and ran it up Starsky’s chest.

“Over the nipple, please.”

Hutch slid over to the left nipple, centering his palm over the springy nub. It burned where it poked into his palm. Starsky just barely shifted under his hand, sending the burn up into Hutch’s hand and down his arm. This wasn’t a fantasy he could stop, as he had at Heather’s. This was real feeling—and it felt good.

Terrifyingly good.

“Very nice,” Crane appraised.

Hutch was acutely aware of the distinct boundaries between his body and Starsky’s. The skin of his palm pressing against the skin of Starsky’s breast, separate yet glued flat against each other. Starsky’s back against his own chest, Hutch’s heart hammering against both his own chest wall and Starsky’s back. Starsky’s ass firm against his own groin, pressing against his cock, almost compressing it. The strength of the pressure’s pleasure surprised Hutch, another terrifyingly good sensation.

“Let me see you toy with it,” Crane instructed.

Hutch slid his hand until the nipple emerged between two of his fingers. He scissored his fingers, squeezing the pliant nub of flesh.

The nipple hardened. Starsky stiffened against him. Hutch froze. Starsky’s body’s reaction aroused him as nothing had so far. If Starsky aroused him, and he aroused Starsky…would it be so terrible to at least admit that not only did he love Starsky, but he was in love with him? And wanted to physically experience it?

“Continue,” Crane ordered.

Hutch was unable to move.

“Is that your choice?” Crane asked. “Should I allow Martin his freedom?”

Starsky reached up and placed his hand on top of Hutch’s. He began moving it around his chest, a circular rubbing whose rhythm was calming.

Hutch slowly began to take over the motion, finding himself better able to respond to Crane’s commands when he ignored Crane’s presence and concentrated on his own movements on a moment by moment basis.

Hutch still held Starsky by the waist with one hand. Protectively, his fingers slipped in between Starsky’s, pressing against Starsky’s belly. His other hand, intrigued by the feel of Starsky’s soft chest hair swirling under his palm, continued to rub. It made the center of his palm tingle, and he moved it back to cover Starsky’s nipple.

The nipple was stiff and hard, poking into that sensitive place on his palm. He moved his hand ever so slightly, making the nipple bend back and forth. Again Hutch slipped the nipple between his fingers, scissoring and tugging on it, before taking it between his thumb and forefinger to gently twist and pull. His own nipples ached to be touched and rubbed as well.

Starsky’s response was to allow a little more of his weight to fall back against Hutch’s supporting body, against Hutch’s sensitive nipples.

Hutch’s response was to suddenly disengage himself from Starsky. It was too much, his body’s arousal matched against what appeared to be Starsky’s arousal as well. It was too much, too quickly, and too publicly. And too scary. What if Starsky were really disgusted and repulsed, or couldn’t forgive Hutch for getting him into this mess?

What if Starsky couldn’t forgive him for loving and wanting him? Starsky had begged Hutch to stay with him; that’s all he’d asked for. Now Hutch was handing him reason to push Hutch away, to destroy Starsky’s heart.

“Now Richard,” Crane chided. “We aren’t nearly where we want to be, unless where you want to be is dead.”

Starsky took a deep, shaky breath. Hutch folded his arms against his own chest, trying to still his trembling body. Part arousal, part fear, part anger—Hutch couldn’t separate the three, couldn’t decide which one to appease, couldn’t decide which one would lead to less catastrophe.

“Take off your own sweater,” Crane dictated. “Oh, and David, please watch Richard do that.”

Starsky looked off to the side, seemed to make a decision, then turned to look at Hutch.

Hutch was sure he could see the trail of his hand’s movement in the whorls of Starsky’s chest hair.

Starsky gave a nearly imperceptible nod, and Hutch grabbed the back neck of his sweater and jerked it up and off before he had time to think.

Crane stood up and began a surreptitious circling of the two men. He stopped when he came behind Hutch.

“Goodness!” Crane exclaimed, peering at Hutch’s back. “You aren’t as virginal in this arena as I had thought!”

Hutch felt the flame of embarrassment flush his skin, probably highlighting the fading scars on his back. It reignited his anger, and he instinctively took a step back as if to move against Crane.

Martin was obviously not hampered by any lingering medication in his system, as he triggered another round off to Starsky’s right.

Starsky started.

Hutch stopped where he was.

Crane finished his circle and returned to his seat.

“Remove David’s pants, Richard.” Crane arranged himself comfortably on the chair.

Again, Starsky’s eyes met Hutch’s. Bright with a heightened sense of stimulation Hutch had seen in every threatening situation they’d ever faced, they told him what they had always told him: We’ll get through this. Hutch was momentarily stunned by their openness, their lack of blame or reproach, everything Hutch felt he deserved from his partner.

A sudden surge of despair overtook Hutch, completely disorienting him. It should have been anger he’d been flooded with. But instead he was filled with an exhaustion, a fatigue that threatened to send him to the floor in a limp heap.

Starsky stepped up to him and rubbed his upper arms, as if he knew exactly what Hutch was feeling.

“Richard,” Crane rebuked.

Without looking at Starsky, Hutch reached down, unbuttoned and unzipped Starsky’s fly, then stooped and pulled the pants down to Starsky’s ankles in an if-I-stop-now-I’ll-never-be-able-to-start-again movement.

Without being told, Starsky stepped out of the pants and kicked them off to the side.

“Let me see,” Crane said.

Starsky sighed, and turned to face Crane.

“Well!” exclaimed Crane, assessing the man before him. “Not particularly long, but thick. Very nice.”

Starsky shifted his weight and looked away.

 “And not totally flaccid,” Crane added.

Adrenaline? Or had Hutch provoked another sexual response?

“Please, David, sit over on the divan.”

Starsky squared his shoulders and walked back to the antique couch. He plopped down in the center, spread his legs, and lifted his arms to rest on the back. Clearly a position of defiance. Hutch relaxed by a few atoms, buoyed by Starsky’s boldness. Their eyes met. They offered voluntary trust to Hutch, even as Starsky was being forced to offer his body. Starsky’s trust filled Hutch with warmth, and he vowed to be worthy of that conviction.

Crane clapped his hands delightedly. “Perfect! Richard, suck him off!”

Hutch blanked out for a moment. Another persuading round from Martin brought him back to awareness.

Starsky. Toned body and limbs openly positioned before him. Sheen of sweat highlighting scarred skin. Eyes offering—absolution?

Hutch stumbled forward, landing on his knees between Starsky’s legs. And he remembered:

 “You need me.” Crane had said. “You can’t bring yourself to admit what it is you really want, so you need me to force you toward it. You can’t bring yourself to take responsibility for your own desires, so you need me to make you do it. What is it you desire? Tell me and I’ll impel you to accept it. I'll drive you to your knees in its service.”

Concentrate on the moment, Hutch intoned. Focus on the here and now. Don’t think about your desires!

Protect Starsky!

There it was, the conviction he could live with.

Hutch reached out and placed a tentative finger on Starsky’s cock. He felt a tiny surge, and ran two fingers down its length. He looked up at Starsky.

Starsky’s eyes were shining, even under such terrible stress. They not only held trust, but love—love for Hutch, no matter the circumstance, no matter the situation. Unconditional and unchanging.

Hutch accepted it, knowing he would not get through this without it.

Hutch ran two fingers over Starsky again. He heard the man catch his breath as two fingers became four, stroking the firm flesh, watching it rise ever so slightly with each stroke.

“More,” Crane urged.

Hutch took the organ in his hand, wrapping his palm and fingers around it. Its heat touched the sensitive center of Hutch’s palm, and Hutch found himself squeezing the hardening cock to fill his entire hand with the heat and flesh.

Starsky groaned.

A shiver caught Hutch. He hadn’t expected Starsky to react to the pleasure, but merely sit back and accept it as part of the scene. Starsky was actually feeling pleasure from what Hutch was doing to him!

Hutch had never even considered that what he wanted from Starsky would please Starsky as well.

With each pump of Hutch’s hand Starsky’s cock became harder, longer and more alive. Hutch became aware that each movement of his hand elicited a different reaction from Starsky. Hard squeeze: groan. Long, light stroke: shiver. Thumb rub: pre-come. Hutch was amazed that he could elicit such a response from his partner—that Starsky would allow him to arouse him so.

“Suck him,” ordered Crane, from far away.

Hutch felt Starsky tense, his thigh muscles tightening and trembling. Protect Starsky, Hutch began the chant in his head. He looked up. Starsky was looking down at him, his mouth a grim line, but his eyes still bestowing trust. Starsky barely nodded his head.

Hutch nodded back just as indiscernibly, hoping his eyes showed as much trust in Starsky as Starsky showed in his.

Protect Starsky.

Hutch lowered his head, his mouth just brushing the tumescent organ. Heat infused Hutch’s lips. He lifted his lips, then placed them once more on Starsky’s cock. Hot vibrations seared them. His tongue flicked between his lips, tasting the salty, musky sweat of his partner.

Hutch blocked everything from his mind except his mantra. He took the flat of his tongue and licked up Starsky’s cock, setting it quivering. His hand grasped the base of Starsky’s cock and steadied it as he allowed just the tip into his mouth, then in another now-or-never movement pushed it as far into his mouth as he could.

Starsky made a sound Hutch had never heard before, and his cock seemed to grow even larger, filling Hutch’s mouth with pliant, salty flesh. Hutch’s tongue barely stirred against the organ when hot fluid spurted into his throat and he gagged, ejecting the cock and sending him into a coughing fit on the floor.

Hutch rolled to a sitting position as the gagging and coughing ended, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. A chill took hold of his body; he shivered in response. From out of the corner of his eye he caught a crystal tumbler sliding across the floor. It stopped just to the side of him. Hutch reached out and grabbed the glass, tossing the amber contents into his mouth and searing his already burning throat.

“Not bad,” Crane reviewed. “But we’ll have to work on your technique, Richard.”

Hutch turned his head slightly toward Starsky. His peripheral vision could just make out his partner, leaning forward, his arms clutching his belly.

Hutch took another gulp of the alcohol. He wanted to get up and go to Starsky, to hold him, to make sure he hadn’t hurt him. To apologize for letting Crane force them into this. To tell him how proud he was that Starsky trusted him.

To admit to his desires and ask for more.

“How do you feel, Richard?” Crane walked up behind Hutch. “Was it what you imagined?”

Hutch shut his eyes. He’d barely let himself imagine something like this, barely allowed Starsky to enter his fantasies, barely allowed him to substitute for the various women he conjured. Hutch wouldn’t have been able to stand it if Martin or Crane had touched Starsky, could barely stand it that he himself had. It was too much and too little, a fantasy fulfilled and a fantasy denied. Hutch wanted it never to have happened, but would never forget that it had. He was furious at Crane for forcing it, and angry with himself that he hadn’t had enough courage to do it on his own.

Crane tapped his toe on the polished floor. “Probably not,” he answered himself. “The circumstances are less than—favorable. But we make do, don’t we, Richard?”

“Go fuck yourself,” Hutch spat.

“Impossible,” Crane said evenly. “Besides, I’d much rather see you fuck your partner.”

Hutch stopped breathing. He heard Starsky suck in his breath.

“Not interested?” Crane said. “Perhaps Martin would be. I’m not unfamiliar with firearms, and could hold his weapon while he engages your partner.”

Hutch looked up at Crane, eyes blazing.

“Of course, the ultimate outcome is death to both you and your partner, but I do think Martin deserves a little something for all he’s put up with from you. And I’m sure David would be amazed by what Martin has to offer.”

Hutch remembered Martin’s “offering” to Lawrence. Martin had virtually split Lawrence in two, and Lawrence had clearly been used to such abuse. It would be a horrible emotional and physical attack on Starsky.

It would not happen.

Crane dropped something next to Hutch. It was a tube of K-Y jelly. It was reality.

Crane walked back to his chair. “We have all day. Take as long as you need to prepare yourself.”

Hutch’s insides turned to stone as he stared at the lubricant.

Suddenly, Starsky was squatting next to him.

Hutch looked into Starsky’s eyes. Unable—unwilling—to interpret what he saw, he focused simply on their color, their blueness, their aliveness.

Protect Starsky!

Starsky grasped Hutch’s upper arms and rose, pulling Hutch to his feet. With barely an inch of space between then, Starsky leaned in and rested his cheek against Hutch’s cheek. Starsky’s thumbs rubbed hard circles on Hutch’s biceps. “S’okay, babe,” he whispered. “We’ll get through it.”

Starsky pulled Hutch into him, wrapping his arms around him, enfolding him. Hutch remained limp in the embrace.

There were a few seconds of nothing, then Hutch became aware Starsky was not only caressing his back, but gently grinding his pelvis against him. “Don’t think,” Starsky whispered. “Just feel.

Used to be they told you to think of baseball, multiplication tables, cold showers. Now here was Starsky telling him to concentrate on his dick.

Protect Starsky!

Hutch took a deep, shaky breath and flushed his mind of everything but feeling. The warmth of Starsky’s body next to his. The smell of Starsky’s body next to his. The feel of Starsky’s body next to his.

That old, familiar tingling started in Hutch’s belly, and wriggled down to his cock. Not just stimulation, but exhilaration. He lifted his hands and placed them lightly on Starsky’s waist.

Starsky slid his hands down to Hutch’s waist and quickly undid Hutch’s fly. He gave them a push over Hutch’s hips, then shoved them down to Hutch’s ankles. Just as quickly, he was back standing and erect and pressing against Hutch.

Hutch was vaguely aware that he was no longer protecting Starsky, Starsky was now protecting him. Allowing him to do Crane’s bidding and save them both.

The stropping of Starsky’s cock against Hutch’s cock engorged them both. Hutch flattened everything but that stroking sensation against the walls of his brain, filling the emptiness with ache and throb and pulse and quiver and Starsky.

Hutch’s breathing grew shallower and quicker. His cock rose, the shaft moving up and under Starsky’s cock, brushing his balls. In an instant Starsky had turned and pushed his ass back into Hutch’s groin.

Hutch took a step forward to press harder against Starsky, tangled in the jeans around his ankles, and instead fell forward, sending both of them to their knees, Starsky landing against the couch. Starsky quickly adjusted his position to rest his elbows on the couch, lifting his ass up into Hutch’s cupping groin. It felt warm, firm, exciting against his cock.

To save Starsky, he would have to give in to his desire for Starsky.

And make sure he pleased Crane at the same time. Hutch had enough sense left to recognize that Crane was still in control, and had to be satisfied or their lives were forfeit.

Hutch draped himself over Starsky’s back, his brain almost totally disconnected from his body, his pelvis thrusting against Starsky’s buttocks. The rhythm felt good, felt natural; his cock rubbing against Starsky’s ass, his chest pressing against Starsky’s back. He moved slowly against Starsky, easily and leisurely, enjoying the tension in his cock.

Starsky, too, was enjoying the stroking. His head was resting on the couch, his hands balled into fists, his body giving in to Hutch’s easy thrusts and then pushing back. Tiny grunts and groans erupted from his throat.

The tease was becoming untenable, and Hutch began rubbing harder, pressing harder. He placed his hands around Starsky’s waist and lifted his torso up, giving him more freedom to move and press. Hutch was stroking between Starsky’s buttocks, trying to find space between them, desirous to feel them compress his cock until it imploded.

Starsky was breathing heavily, rocking back into Hutch, obviously not just accepting what was happening, but participating in it.

Hutch let his hands move down Starsky’s waist and around his back until they grasped Starsky’s fleshy cheeks. Hutch’s fingers kneaded them, eliciting throaty moans from his partner. His thumbs stroked their firmness, then moved to separate them.

“Lube,” Starsky groaned.

Hutch took a deep breath, trying to calm his body before he reached for the tube. He found it over to his side, but his body still betrayed him as he picked it up with a shaky hand, unable to let go of Starsky with his other. Hutch needed the constant contact; he was afraid the spell would be broken and he would be unable to complete his task, and the wrath of Crane would fall upon them.

Hutch kept his groin plastered to Starsky’s buttocks as he squeezed out the clear gel. Unsure of what he would do to Starsky, uncertain of what Starsky could take, unwilling to hurt Starsky more than was necessary, Hutch covered his fingers with jelly. He slipped them between Starsky’s buttocks, spreading jelly liberally over the hot flesh. Every place he touched Starsky Hutch wanted to be touched as well. His fingers dipped down and under, coating Starsky’s balls, slipping over Starsky’s cock.

Starsky moaned, his hips shifting as Hutch slid slippery fingers over the semi-erect flesh. Hutch continued to stroke, slightly surprised Starsky could manage another arousal so quickly.

Hutch’s own arousal was insistent, and his hands moved back to separate Starsky’s buttocks and allow his cock to slip between them. The pressure and heat were wonderful, amplifying the throbbing of Hutch’s cock and increasing the speed of the blood rushing through his veins. He finally moaned, seeking further pressure and greater heat, letting himself thrust against his partner to appease his own desire.

Starsky met each thrust, resisting them, adding to Hutch’s pleasure. Hutch’s hand slipped between Starsky’s ass cheeks, seeking the further entry. His fingers found the small entrance, circled it, spread gel around it to cool and relax it.

Hutch could feel Starsky breathing hard and arhythmically under him. He tried to slow down his own heartbeat, but was unable to grab it and hold it. Hutch slid a finger into Starsky, slowly, gently, shakily; Starsky tensed underneath him although the finger slipped in fairly easily. Hutch eased it back out, then slipped it in again, circling it smoothly inside Starsky.

Starsky gasped, and Hutch’s chest tightened. Sometimes you hurt the ones you love, a voice mocked. And sometimes you love the ones you have to hurt.

Hutch’s erection was insistent, persistent; it moved against Starsky and demanded more from both of them. Hutch slipped his finger out, then pressed two fingers together and tested the tightness of Starsky’s opening. The tips of his two fingers slid in, but going further was going to require a small amount of force.

“S’okay.” Starsky’s muffled voice came to Hutch from far away.

Hutch pushed his fingers further into Starsky.

It was hot and tight and slippery. Blood was pounding in Hutch’s ears, and his cock carried the same beat. It was almost unbearable, the throbbing and tension and need for release.

Hutch pulled out his fingers and found his aching cock, trying to guide it between Starsky’s slippery cheeks and into the coated orifice. Starsky grunted but remained still as Hutch pushed against him, tried to push into him, thrust against him in an excited rhythm.

One stroke allowed Hutch to slip just a little further between Starsky’s feverish cheeks, and suddenly Hutch was emptied, hard spasms wracking both his body and his partner’s.

Hutch slipped down to the floor; Starsky slipped down beside him. Both rested their heads against the edge of the couch. Hutch’s heart was pounding and he could barely find air. Something inside whispered that he hadn’t completed his task, hadn’t done what was ordered, and Crane would show his displeasure by splattering their brains on the undecorated wall. He hadn’t protected Starsky at all, but had merely satisfied himself, carried out his own desires, and wrecked what was left of their partnership.

Maybe death was better than looking Starsky in the eye, seeing if the trust had turned to loathing and reprimand.

One moment of fire-bright passion and a lifetime of cold-ash regret.Gradually Hutch became aware Starsky had slipped an arm around his back and was cradling him. He felt fragile, crystalline; an errant sound would shatter him.

“I guess we did what he wanted,” Starsky said, barely audible. “They’re gone.”

Hutch didn’t move or speak. Starsky ran his hand up and down his arm. Hutch felt pressure, nothing more.

“Let’s just sit here awhile,” Starsky continued to speak softly. “You think they’ve filled the pool? I’ll bet it’s not filled. Or if it is filled, it isn’t heated.”

“Probably no changing rooms. Or wet bar, either. Or horses. No horse stable, even though we’re in the canyons.” The monologue continued.

“I’ll bet there’s a big room you can put a cool TV here somewhere, though. Big screen. Big room so you can move the couch back to the exact best viewing spot in the room. Huge couch. A comfy couch. Soft pillows, on the arms, so you can lay your head on them and fall asleep.”

Hutch heard Starsky’s voice coming to him from very far away, and the sensation along his arm grew lighter and lighter.

And then Starsky was forcing hard glass between his teeth and pouring warm liquid into his mouth. He sputtered as the alcohol choked down his throat.

“Easy, easy,” Starsky still spoke quietly. “You’re all right. You’re gonna be all right.” He was holding Hutch’s head and upper body now, gently rocking him.

The world settled into reality around Hutch. His vision and hearing cleared, and a big, empty, silent room surrounded them. The afternoon light was dimming, graying the room. He shivered.

“Think you can sit up?” Starsky asked, lifting Hutch’s upper body a bit to help him.

Hutch grabbed Starsky’s upper arm, and with Starsky’s help, sat up.

Starsky rubbed Hutch’s back, smooth strokes that ran gently over the fading wounds.

“Getting kind of cold in here. Think you can make it up the stairs to the bedroom, or shall I run up and get our clothes? I don’t really want to put what they gave us back on.”

Hutch’s response was to squeeze Starsky’s tricep and not let go.

“Okay.” Starsky got his feet under him, rose, and lifted Hutch to his feet. Starsky slid his arm around Hutch’s back, supporting a good portion of Hutch’s weight, and propelled him forward.

The stairs weren’t so bad; Starsky kept the two of them in a steady climbing rhythm, and all Hutch had to do was concentrate on the cadence. The bathroom wasn’t so bad, either; Starsky picked up one of the discarded towels and cleaned them both off.

The bedroom was bad. Starsky walked Hutch back into the bedroom and sat him on the edge of the bed. Starsky shouldered into his own shirt and pulled up his jeans. Then he grabbed Hutch’s pants and began slipping them on. Hutch was barely able to stand long enough for Starsky to get them up over his ass. Hutch started to shiver again.

Starsky sat down next to him, pulled Hutch into an awkward embrace, rested his chin on Hutch’s head. He caressed Hutch’s back and arms. Hutch was beginning to feel warm again, less separated from reality.

Or maybe just glad to have Starsky as his reality.

Starsky’s touch felt good; clean and comforting.

“It’s never enough just to say it,” Starsky’s voice was low, tranquil, “but what you did saved my life.” He squeezed Hutch tighter. “Thank you.”

The sense of the words confused Hutch. “What?” he rasped.

Starsky continued to hold him, now rocking Hutch. “You didn’t have any choice, but the choice you made was for me.” He spoke softly into Hutch’s ear.

Hutch disengaged himself. He looked into Starsky’s face. Starsky looked back, open, unafraid.

“Starsk—“ Hutch tried to find his voice.

“For a while there I thought we were in for one of your ‘bridge parties,’” Starsky admitted, still very matter-of-fact. “But I guess Crane just wanted to embarrass us. It was a little embarrassing, but no more than that accident I had when I first came home from the hospital and you had to clean it up.” Starsky lifted his eyebrows, a very slight smile on his lips. “That was messy, too. This wasn’t as nearly as messy as that.”

Hutch shut his eyes. Starsky’s reaction was all wrong. Starsky should be angry, humiliated, distant, enraged. This was all Hutch’s fault. Starsky should be blaming him for his failure to properly assess the danger and keep him safe from it.

Hutch reached blindly for Starsky, pulling him into his arms. “I’m sorry.” Hutch’s voice caught. Guilt ballooned in his gut.

Hutch felt Starsky shrug within his arms. “Keepin’ me alive is nothing to be sorry for,” Starsky replied. “That’s your job as my partner.” Starsky returned the hug.

Hutch couldn’t believe Starsky’s composure. “Are you all right?” Hutch separated them and moved a hand over Starsky’s shoulder and arm. “Did I hurt you?”

“Not a scratch,” Starsky replied. He smiled at Hutch. “You didn’t hurt me. Not at all.”

“I’m so sorry,” Hutch choked.

“No one’s fault,” Starsky soothed. “Who knew it would turn into this kind of scene?”

“I should have known,” Hutch insisted. “I’ve been to his parties. I know how sick he is. I never should have let us come up here without backup.” I knew Martin had made me!

Starsky stood up. “Let’s get out of here.” He reached for his jacket and patted the pocket, then fished out his keys.

Hutch blinked at him stupidly.

Starsky gripped Hutch’s upper arm and pulled him upright. “Grab your jacket and let’s go.” Starsky reached over and grabbed their holsters and guns. “They never even touched these. They were right where we left them.”

Hutch looked around, spotted his jacket, and picked it up. Starsky still had his arm. Gently he was led out of the room, down the impressive staircase, and out the front door. Starsky slid him into the car, shut his door, then scooted around the front of the car and was quickly seated next to him.

Hutch leaned back, closing his eyes and letting his head fall against the headrest. The motor hummed and the car vibrated, cocooning him and cushioning him from anything that was tangible and true. It wasn’t until Starsky was again tugging on his arm that he was forced back into the now of real sensation and sense.

He allowed himself to be guided up into an apartment, only vaguely conscious it was Starsky’s, and not his. He was led into the bathroom, where he stood hunched and limp, staring at the bathmat on the floor.

Gentle hands undressed him, but Hutch couldn’t look up, his head felt so heavy. The shower hissed, and he was pushed under its hot pulse. He lifted his arms to brace himself against the shower wall, head still hanging, but shoulders massaged by the stinging water fingers.

A dull thud sounded behind him, and strong hands began rubbing his back.

Hutch shoved backwards and whirled defensively.

Starsky sagged against the far wall.

“Okay,” he groaned, his hands up in front of him. “I’ll wait.”

Hutch watched him stagger out of the shower. He stayed frozen under the hot spray, its sting the only sensation he allowed himself to feel until the heat turned chill and he was forced out of the stall.

Dumbly he grabbed at the bathrobe hanging on the door and fumbled into it, still wet, hair dripping into his eyes. If he didn’t think, he could do things…Hutch opened the door without thinking and stepped out.

“About time,” Starsky walked in from the living room and stepped past Hutch into the bathroom. “I’ll bet you used up all the hot water.” He closed the bathroom door, leaving Hutch to drip outside it.

Not thinking let Hutch shuffle into the living room and drop to the couch. Habit made him push sopping hair out of his eyes. Exhaustion pushed him back into the soft cushions and down to oblivion.

 

Hutch would have been on his feet if he could have found them. Adrenalin had jolted his entire system and brought him from nothingness to somethingness in a split second.

“You okay?” Starsky spoke from behind him.

“What?” Hutch’s mouth was dry.

“How do you feel?”

Hutch ran a hand through his hair. He looked down at the floor. The floor looked familiar. That was a good start. But how did he feel?

Hutch felt clean and dry, but also dirty and soiled. He knew Starsky had forgiven him, had thanked him, but he still felt guilty for ignoring warning signs and putting ego above safety.

And he was embarrassed and self-conscious and felt humiliated at what Crane and put him through but especially what Crane had put Starsky through and he had no idea what to do or what to say or even if he could ever look Starsky in the eyes again.

“How long?” he finally asked. Hutch heard Starsky push back his chair and walk toward him.

“You weren’t even out for an hour.” Starsky walked around in front of him. Hutch lifted his eyes high enough to see a bowl in one of Starsky’s hands and a spoon in the other.

“Want some cereal?”

Hutch shook his head.

“I don’t have any milk,” Starsky continued. “Orange juice works pretty good instead.”

Hutch shut his eyes.

“You gonna live through this?”

Hutch leaned over, his elbows on his knees, his forehead resting on his fists.

“I reported us in,” Starsky said around a mouthful of cereal. “I told them we never got around to the photo shoot; Crane had made us as cops, and Rice was with him. I said they chatted us up before they fingered us, and we got nothing out of them. Then they left the house and left us there.” Hutch heard the clink of a spoon against Starsky’s teeth. “Ruth and Grimes are going to maintain surveillance.” Starsky paused. “I figure, we can deal with whatever they say happened this afternoon when it comes up. If it ever does.”

Hutch didn’t move.

Starsky scraped his spoon along the bowl’s bottom.

“Like I said, you gonna live through this?” Hutch sensed a panic sneaking up on him. Cold, suffocating; the Panic wanted his brain and lungs as shelter.

“Look at me, Hutch.”

Hutch tensed. The Panic was sliding up his back toward his neck.

Don’t think!

Hutch looked up at Starsky.

Starsky nodded his head once, assertively, defiantly. “Now I know you’re gonna be okay.”

Hutch stared at Starsky. Worn-out bathrobe clinging to a remodeled body. Hair obviously finger-combed. Cornflower blue eyes. Tanned skin. Strong limbs. Five o’clock shadow. Orange drips slipping off the spoon he held above his bowl.

Starsky.

The Panic slid away.

“How can you eat that slop?” Hutch sat up a little.

Starsky looked down at his bowl, frowning. “Because it tastes like crap dry.”

Hutch took a deep breath.

Starsky sat down next to him.

“I dunno.” Starsky played with the soggy slop in his bowl. “They say if you talk about stuff like this it helps.”

“Who’s ‘they’?” Hutch picked at a pill on the robe. “Your shrink?”

Starsky shrugged. “Yeah, my shrink.”

Hutch feigned fascination in the tiny ball. “What did he say about me?”

Starsky shifted his weight. “Nothing I hadn’t figured out. You’re angry about the shooting. Depressed. Trying to control the world so it doesn’t happen again.”

Hutch winced at the accuracy of the description. It was one thing to have stuff hidden inside you. It was another thing entirely to know it wasn’t all that hidden.

“I’m not mad, Hutch.” Starsky placed his spoon in the bowl, then placed the bowl on the arm of the couch. “I don’t hate you. I’m not afraid of you, I’m not worried about you being able to cover my back, and I’m not afraid to have you touch me.”

Hutch winced again. The sensation of touching Starsky, having his arms wrapped around Starsky, having his mouth on Starsky was lurking in the periphery of his consciousness, somewhere along with the Panic. Passion and Panic. Two feelings that could overwhelm him if Hutch let them.

Hutch knew Starsky was looking at him. He tried to keep the feelings at bay. “I hate feeling so helpless.” He continued picking at the robe. “I never want to hurt you” He paused. “Or be responsible for you hurting.”

“Same here,” Starsky agreed. “That’s why you’ve been trying to control every little thing in my life for the past few months. And why you’ve tried to control every aspect of this investigation. But I know if you’d had any idea we would end up in that kind of situation, you wouldn’t have let us go in.”

Hutch glanced over at Starsky. He couldn’t face him. “Starsky, I—“

“You couldn’t have known he’d be there. We thought he’d taken off for parts unknown.”

“He knew,” Hutch whispered raggedly. “I should have—I never should have—“

“You did beat the shit out of him,” Starsky stated.

Hutch shut his eyes tight. “I caught him following me. He’d followed me to Elisa’s. He could have known about us.” His words were barely audible. “I’m so sorry. I thought Lawson was the danger. I never thought Crane was—“ Confession emptied Hutch, but left nothing to replace the emptiness. At least if he’d let the Panic or the Passion in, he’d have something, even if Starsky abandoned him in their wake. I’m thinking too much!

Starsky sighed. “This whole case has been fucked up from the start. You. Me. We aren’t connecting.” He paused. “We haven’t connected for a long time.”

“I’m so sorry,” Hutch repeated.

“For what? For being over-protective? For being not protective enough? For not controlling the universe?” Starsky cleared his throat. “For locking me out of your life, maybe? That’s the only one I want an apology for.”

They sat together for a moment.

“I miss the Old Hutch,” Starsky finally said.

Hutch looked up, frowning. Panic threatened to send him running from Starsky. Passion threatened to send him running to Starsky. If he didn’t move, maybe neither would threaten him at all.

Hutch watched Starsky take a very deep, very shaky breath.

“Things changed after I got shot. You changed. The closer you stood next to me to keep me safe from things, the further away you got from me inside.” Starsky bit his lip and looked away.

Hutch looked back down at the floor. It was easier to be objective at arms’ length. It was easier to see things coming. “I know,” he murmured. Don’t. Move. Don’t. Think.

“And the further away you got from me inside, the scareder I got—I was afraid I’d wake up one day and you’d be gone.”

Hutch studied his feet. “I wasn’t going to leave you, you know.” It was probably the first honest thing he’d said in months. It seemed to lessen the pressure from the Panic and the Passion.

Starsky turned toward Hutch. “No, I didn’t know. Every time I turned around you were threatening to take this away from me or take that away from me if I didn’t do what you wanted, with the ultimate threat being you’d take you away from me!”

Hutch was so empty, so exhausted, so drained—so mystified at his and Starsky’s behavior. This should be a knock-down, drag-out, to-the-death struggle. There should be accusations, recriminations, allegations, and counter-claims. He should be apologizing to the extreme! Starsky should be berating him in the fullest! They’d been working toward this for months! Instead, it was quiet, passive; more like a capitulation on both their parts.

But being honest had helped. And putting Starsky first this afternoon had helped. So….

Protect Starsky.

Don’t think.

Release the past, step into the present, ignore the future.

Think Starsky.

Hutch straightened his posture. “My mother used to watch soap operas when I was little. She called them her ‘stories,’ and threatened to take away my phone privileges if I ever told anyone she watched them. Sometimes I’d watch them for a few minutes with her. And all I could ever think about them was, why don’t all these people just tell each other the truth? They’d save themselves a lot of time and trouble if they just admitted what was going on and got it over with.” He paused. “Then I grew up and understood why people didn’t talk about every thing they did.”

“Too hard,” Starsky said. “Too risky.”

Hutch nodded again. “Or too oblivious. Sometimes you’re hiding from the pain, but sometimes you don’t even know you’re hiding.”

Starsky put his hand over Hutch’s. Hutch didn’t move, but he didn’t flinch, either. Starsky’s touch felt…okay. It aroused neither the Panic nor the Passion. It felt…like old times.

“I cannot go through almost losing you again,” Hutch whispered. “I can’t.”

Starsky squeezed his hand. “It’s not like I want to go through that again, either. Or lose you.”

Hutch looked directly at Starsky. “I don’t know how to keep that from happening. Look what happened this afternoon.”

A corner of Starsky’s mouth lifted. “Bomb shelter?” He lifted an eyebrow.

Hutch didn’t play to the joke. He was thinking again. ”First I have to let you back on the streets. Then I have to let you go undercover. Then I have to let you walk into a sex trap, Then I have to watch you—raped—under threat of death.” Hutch’s voice was flat, tightly controlled. His jaw clenched and unclenched. “Then I have to rape you.” It took him a moment before he could continue. “And all I can think is, it’s my fault. If I had kept us off this case, none of it would have happened. If I had handled this case better, you wouldn’t be hurting. I wouldn’t have hurt you.”

It was impossible for Hutch to keep the afternoon’s events from replaying in his head. Crane had taunted him, told him he would find Hutch’s deepest desire and force him under its domination. And Crane had done just that, discovered his desire for Starsky, and made it reality. Hutch’s desire turned into torment for Starsky. Hutch forced to harm Starsky. Hutch’s very presence cause for Starsky’s suffering, when his presence had been meant only to protect.

And for all the terribleness of being forced to arouse Starsky, forced to give in to his own arousal—he had taken pleasure in the acts.

And Starsky did not hate him for it.

Starsky closed his eyes and took another deep breath. He opened his eyes, and took Hutch’s hand between both of his.

“I love you.”

Hutch shut his eyes at the words. “I love you, too. But it’s not enough.”

“Enough for what?” Starsky asked.

“Enough to keep you safe,” Hutch answered.

“But it would be enough to keep me happy,” Starsky said. “Why can’t we trade safe for happy?”

This time Hutch did allow a faint smile. “God, Starsky. Why is your world so simple and my world so complicated?” Maybe Starsky knew how to Not Think...

Starsky let go of Hutch’s hand. “Mine’s not so simple,” he murmured. “I can sympathize with those soap opera people.”

Hutch was surprised. “What’s not so simple?”

Starsky held Hutch’s eyes. “You promised not to leave me.”

Starsky suddenly seemed so desperate, his eyes graying at the mention of Hutch’s promise. Hutch suddenly needed to reassure him. “You made the same promise,” Hutch said, remembering. “Even though we seem to be making each other miserable by staying together.” He thought a moment. Stop it! “Are we about to make each other more miserable?” He desperately hoped not. He was so tired of making Starsky miserable…of making himself miserable.

“I made a list a month or so ago,” Starsky said. “I wrote down everything I thought we needed to talk about. On one side I put down everything I wanted to say, and on the other side I put down everything you wanted to say.”

“Thanks,” Hutch muttered.

“I guess I should probably add these last couple of incidents.”

Hutch rolled his eyes. “My side or yours?”

Starsky’s voice grew soft. “You’re not still seeing Elisa?”

Hutch’s brow furrowed. He was too—barren—to dredge up the energy needed for a deep discussion of his love life. He was just barely holding on to this calm that had settled on him when the Panic had retreated in the face of Starsky. Best to keep his answers short. “No.”

“Do you want to?”

Hutch answered without thinking. “No.”

“Officer Billings?”

Hutch looked surprised.

“Geez, Hutch, it’s all over the department. She couldn’t keep her mouth shut.”

Hutch leaned back into the sofa, his back stinging with memory. “God, no.”

“Madam Mistress?”

“I have no desire to discuss her tonight.” He suddenly sat forward. “What, were you following me, too? Is that how you found her?”

Starsky remained calm. “Sweet Alice.”

Hutch swallowed his next words and dropped back into the cushions. “Oh. Yeah.” He shut his eyes, resting his head back on the cushions. This calm capitulation was actually very soothing. The Panic was almost gone, and the Passion was safely tucked away.

“Hutch?”

Hutch lifted a hand and waved it as a sign of response.

And then he was covered, enfolded; a body moving on top of his and lips pressed against his and hands griping his arms tightly.

Then just as quickly he was freed.

Starsky was sitting next to him, exactly where Hutch had last seen him.

What—Was that real?

He looked at Starsky. Except for a flush to his face, he was the same Starsky as a moment ago.

“Not simple,” Starsky managed to choke out.

Hutch eyed the room without moving his head. I dreamed that, he thought. I fell asleep for a second, and I dreamed that. I wanted it so much I dreamed I!.

“You won’t leave me now, will you?”

The words brought Hutch’s eyes back to Starsky.

Oh God! It wasn’t a dream! He really did that! Hutch took inventory of his body. His arms burned where Starsky had held them. His lips tingled where Starsky had kissed them. His chest ached where Starsky had lain against him.

And Starsky was searching for an answer in his eyes.

Was that why everything had been kept so calm?

Don’t think!

no! do think!

think about the past six months. the past 12 months. the past 12 years! what held value and what held worth? what gave him contentment, and pleasure, and joy, and love?

then separate the moments of artificial ecstasy, borne by quick fixes of emotion and shallow sex, from the easy quietude of certain love.

remember the moments where your spirit soared, because you felt happy, or fulfilled, or important, or needed—or impassioned or loved.

who was there?

My grandfather. My mother. My first police partner.

Starsky.

and what were you like with those people? with him?

I was—fragile.

you were at ease.

I was vulnerable. Ready to be hurt.

you were happy. you were at peace.

I lost them all! I scorched my soul for nothing! I wasn’t there when they needed me, and they lost all they had!

because you are a poor, pathetic, pitiful excuse for a human. because you really deserved their contempt, not their love. because you are worthless excuse for a man. because your presence means death.

  Yes. Oh yes.

and anyone who would seek to be with you, who couldn’t be deterred by your failings, who would ask you to be with him, must be defective himself.

Yes. No. That’s not Starsky. Starsky is good.

not if he wants you. if he can’t see your flaws, then he must be very flawed himself. a horrible, terrible, dismal—

Starsky is good! He’s not perfect, but he is good!  I’m just bad for him.

yes. so bad he’s stayed with you for all these years. so bad he’s ignored every opportunity to leave you. so bad he even wants you to promise not to leave him.

I will destroy him! My passion for him will annihilate us both!

he doesn’t seem to care. he seems to crave it.

I have to save him from himself.

then he is defective.

He is human!

so are you! either starsky is as horrible as you are, because he has chosen you, or you are wrong about yourself!

I’m not worth—

being loved? loving back? he believes in you. he trusted his life with you.

Which wouldn’t have been in danger if—

maybe. maybe not. think! you have just gone through the worst year you could possibly imagine! if he ever had an excuse to abandon you, he would have abandoned you in the past year! and he didn’t!

No. He did stay. He didn’t leave.

he sees value and worth.

But the cost! The pain! The anguish!

it’s not better to have loved and lost. you mustn’t take what you want, even if you can pay for it.

Hutch wanted to sleep, wanted to pass out, wanted to do whatever would leave him the least amount of consciousness. He was so empty, so afraid, so miserable.

What had he accomplished in even the past few months? He couldn't protect his partner. He couldn't find love or contentment or happiness with a woman. He couldn’t solve a case. All he had were a string of rejections, from Elisa to Crane—but not from Starsky.

Starsky hung onto him. Starsky followed him. Starsky kept coming back no matter how many times Hutch pushed him away—or almost got him killed.

So Starsky was either stupid or—or loyal.

And loving.

There were few moments of contentment and pleasure and joy and worth in the past year—all involved Starsky.

The liberation from death Starsky’s rebirth had given him. The shared impetus of returning to work and solving a case.

Admiring a newly-toned physique on Starsky. Discovering the contentment of accepting his love.

Uncovering the delight of unexpected desire.

What had Starsky said? Isn’t it enough just to love and be happy? And wasn’t what he had really been saying was: Isn’t it enough for us just to love and be happy together?

And if Starsky loved the Old Hutch, could he have really been so hazardous? Starsky didn’t take chances with anyone’s life, and he never took chances with his own—unless he knew Hutch was there to rescue him.

Starsky was taking a chance on him.

Could Hutch do any less than take a chance on himself as well?

Hutch reached out to Starsky.

Starsky was immediately in his embrace, shivering against him.

“I thought you’d walk out the door,” Starsky breathed against his chest.

Hutch shook his head, oblivious to the fact Starsky couldn’t see his response. He couldn’t quite focus on any one idea in his head.

Now—don’t think!

Feel!

One arm snaked around Starsky’s back; a hand lay easily on Starsky’s neck. Hutch felt a little nauseated, a little light-headed, a little ashamed. A huge pressure was being held back just below his neck, like a hose full of water without the spout turned on. Open it up, and it would overwhelm his being. Choke it back, and it would leave him a hollowed-out statue. Funnel it to the right place, though…

…and it would engorge his cock.

And Elisa and Leslie and Heather and Martin and Crane and everyone who had touched him in the last few weeks were washed away from his consciousness and he held Starsky tighter to him.

Starsky settled within his embrace, then suddenly jumped out of it. He stared at Hutch’s lap.

“I didn’t—I don’t—I never thought—“

Hutch pulled Starsky back against him.

“Don’t think,” he breathed.

The center of the palm of Hutch’s hand suddenly burned, and he felt along Starsky’s chest until the burning center found Starsky’s supple nipple. He barely moved his hand, gently bending the nub, feeling it swell under his palm.

Starsky looked up at him, surprise and delight brightening the blue in his eyes.

And then Starsky jumped again.

It must have been a Pavlovian response that caused Starsky to shoot up and answer the phone. Hutch himself couldn’t move. The ringing just caused a painful echo in his ears and shot his heart rate up another 60 beats per second. It was minutes before the world steadied around him and he could see and hear and breathe again.

Starsky hung the handset back in the cradle and rested his forehead against the wall.

“They need us,” he managed to say. “Sheriffs found a fresh DB on the southern edge of Topanga Canyon. It’s been tentatively identified as Martin Rice. Ruth and Grimes are already on their way out.”

Hutch closed his eyes. Maybe if he kept them closed his brain would also close, and the day would just cease to exist. But then the last few minutes would never have happened…if they did happen….

“Better get dressed,” Starsky mumbled. “You can borrow something of mine. Probably yours anyway.” Hutch heard his voice move into the bedroom.

Maybe I can get dressed with my eyes closed, Hutch thought. Maybe I can just keep my eyes closed for the rest of day. Then I won’t have to look at anybody, and nobody can see me. I can be invisible. I can disappear.

Hutch peeked at his body through slitted eyelids. Still visible. It was going to take more than magical thinking to get him through the next few hours.

 

Neither of the two men had even looked at each other, much less spoken to one another, since the incident. Or incidents, Hutch thought. How many humiliating, embarrassing, discomforting moments could you pack into one day?

How many would you like? a little voice answered him. And what kind would you like? The kind you have no control over, or the kind you bring upon yourself?

The rain had stopped, leaving puddles and slick spots. Hutch concentrated on the road passing under the them. Two lanes, hairpin turns, blind turnouts, watch for horseback riders. Except it was dusk, and only a fool would be riding a horse at this time of day so close to the highway.

You could have spared yourself some pain with Elisa, you know. You knew from the beginning you weren’t in it for the long haul, and the only way you were going to get something was to persuade her to discard everything she believed about her world and herself. Or was that the whole point—to make someone do something you wanted them to—give up something they believed in just for you.

Beautiful sunset, when you could see it through the trees and hills. It was the only positive point about smog. Brilliant mauves, spectacular roses, magnificent sapphires. A great chemical prism through which to filter the sun.

Or maybe the point was to punish yourself. To make yourself so ugly and so hateful that no one could stand to be around you. Elisa certainly couldn’t. But then again, Leslie seemed to enjoy that in you. The brutality and the viciousness. The physical pain.

Hutch calculated their travel time. There should be a farm up here on the right, then just after that a fruit and vegetable stand, and down the hill from that would be the body.

But then again, there was all that psychological shit with Heather. Talk about debasement and humiliation. And you kept coming back! Weren’t you getting enough from your girlfriend? Or did you require both physical and psychological torment in one?

The car slowed as they neared a cadre of sheriffs’ cars, unmarked LAPD vehicles, and other emergency transport.

How low can you go? sang the voice in his head. How low can you go, how ugly can you act, how vile can you be before he realizes this is your true self and he does what he should have done a very long time ago and abandons you?

He?

Hutch started. The car jerked to a stop. Starsky exited the car and joined the group gathered around the coroner’s wagon. Hutch managed to follow.

Ruth, clad in jeans and shirt and jacket, met them just outside the circle.

“You want to tell me what really happened this afternoon?”

Starsky glanced down the canyon where a team was hauling the body up the hill.

“Witness across the road at the vegetable stand said a van pulled up on the shoulder, paused, then sped off. When he came over to see what they’d dumped, he found the body.

“He called it in, sheriff came, same old same old. Except they found this on the body.”

Ruth held up an evidence bag. Starsky took it, straining to see what was written on the paper inside. He shut his eyes and his lips became a thin line. He handed it to Hutch.

Hutch scrutinized the block printing:

if found, please return to detective kenneth hutchinson, lapd.

“The body’s fresh,” Ruth continued. “Hasn’t been dead more than a few hours, according to the ME. One .38 through the heart, one through the head. Now. Will you tell me what happened this afternoon?”

Starsky looked at Hutch. Hutch fingered the evidence bag.

“It was like I said,” Starsky opened. “We went to Crane’s home. Rice was there. There was no photo shoot; we just talked. The talk was about the kind of work we were doing, how long we’d been doing it…and then they asked us if we were cops and working on the serial killer case. They smirked and taunted us a little, then left us in an empty house. Then Hutch and I took off. I told you that.”

Ruth nodded. “That’s it? That’s all? No indication of any violence? No threats? No idea this would be next?”

Starsky shook his head. “This was the last thing I would have expected,” he mumbled, looking back at the corpse, focusing his attention on the shrouded body.

“Hutch?” Ruth turned her attentions to him.

Hutch shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said. He passed the bag back to Ruth. “I mean, what Starsky said. They made us. But why take Rice out? I don’t know why this happened.” He avoided looking at Starsky, choosing also to look at the body being hauled up the canyon.

“We issued arrest warrants for everyone in your little club.”

“License on the van?” Starsky asked.

“Nope,” Ruth answered. “Any clues as to where we might find Crane? Or the others?”

Starsky shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine. Home. Office. Barbados.”

“Barbados?” Ruth frowned. “Why Barbados?”

Starsky stuck his hands in his pockets. “Any non-U.S. port.”

Ruth walked around to Hutch’s side. “You okay, Hutch? You look whipped. Anything wrong?”

Hutch straightened his posture. “No. Nothing.” He avoided looking at Ruth. Hutch suddenly felt as if everyone could see the wounds on his back, knew the truth behind his naked upper lip, could feel the heat from the seared center of his palm.

Ruth put the back of her hand up to his cheek. “You’re hot. Are you sure you’re okay?”

Hutch backed away from her touch. “I’m fine,” he murmured. Heat slithered along his body, under his clothes. His neck, his underarms, the back of his thighs were damp. He used his bottom lip to wipe the beads of sweat from his upper lip.

Ruth pushed the heels of her palms against her eyes. “Shit.” She rubbed hard. “Okay. Starsky, take your partner home. Be in the office first thing in the morning. Maybe we’ll have something by then, picked someone up—I don’t know.” She sighed deeply. “I think I hate this case.”

Hutch caught himself swaying.

“Yeah. Okay.” Starsky answered for both of them.

Ruth nodded, then walked away.

Starsky kicked at a rock, rolled his shoulders within his jacket. “Yeah. Okay,” he repeated. “Guess we should go.”

Hutch shivered. Now he was cold.

“Okay?” Starsky finally looked at him.

Hutch nodded slowly. He found some balance, turned, and carefully walked back to the car.

Starsky followed.

“You look sick again,” Starsky said, once they were both ensconced in the car. He started the engine, but didn’t shift gears.

“I don’t know.” Hutch let his head fall back against the seat.

Starsky didn’t reply. He backed the car up, then swung it around and headed away from the site. “Your place is closer this time,” he stated. “We’ll be home soon.”

Another blast of heat swept Hutch’s body.

 

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

 

Hutch woke.

Or tried to wake.

The world was fuzzy and foggy and a deep lethargy urged him to come back to sleep but his bladder was bleating for relief and his colon wasn’t opposed to that idea, either.

Without really seeing Hutch stumbled to the bathroom and attended to a few basic needs. Piss, shit, shower, shave, spit the toothpaste from his mouth just keep moving. He didn’t want to know what time it was but he forced himself to look at the clock and it was nearly noon and his partner was nowhere near and he felt anxious and nervous and nauseated.

And the note was on top of the table under the salt shaker and it said

went in

let you know

later

Ohgodohgodohgod.

What have I done? Hutch thought. What did I do what am I doing what am I going to do?

And then he threw up but that didn’t help so he went out to the greenhouse and lay down on the chaise and waited to throw up again.

 

Starsky just kept staring at his feet.

He hadn’t really slept well last night. Hutch had crashed on his bed as soon as they’d gotten to his apartment. Literally crashed; hadn’t even taken off his jacket but just walked back to the bed and fallen over and hadn’t moved the rest of the night.

Starsky had pretty much done the opposite. Tried some TV, tried some reading, even watered some plants. He had an urge to sit down at the piano and bang on the keys as loudly as he used to when Mrs. LaZebnik invited him into her apartment to have at her upright. But that might have (might have, he truly wasn’t sure) awakened Hutch. So instead he’d prowled, looking for signs of Hutch’s recent transformations (Old Hutch, New Hutch, Strange Hutch, Brute Hutch), but found nothing more than a broken-backed copy of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police guide to calisthenics.

Pacing the apartment invariably led him back to Hutch, lying immobile on top of the bedspread. Every time Starsky wandered back to the bedroom he’d had to resist the urge to undress the man and then sneak in next to him. Hutch seemed to understand that what had happened yesterday had not hurt Starsky, had not pushed him away or made him resentful. But Hutch had also been pretty shaky, and his personality gymnastics left Starsky unable to gauge what Hutch’s reaction would be today.

Starsky himself had been left shaky by yesterday’s events, but for another reason: Starsky’s fantasies of showing Hutch his love had been made flesh. Granted, not in the most romantic or sensual or conducive of ways, but it had happened nonetheless. And it had been most exciting, probably made more so by the adrenaline rush from the accompanying threat.

Which was kind of sick, but Starsky had learned long ago that his sexual response could sometime rear its head in the most unlikely of situations. Narco bust, gun battle, hospital stay—he just never knew what might rev him up.

“None of this makes sense anymore,” Ruth sighed. She pushed her chair back from her desk. “People having weird sex, people risking everything for strange pleasures, people getting killed for no reason.”

Starsky shifted in his chair. Yep, that pretty well summed up the past two months: senseless.

The phone rang. Ruth picked it up. She affirmed and confirmed and reaffirmed and hung up.

“I told them to call me when they have something, and now they call me every time they almost have something and even when they have nothing.” She sighed again.

“Do we have anything?” Starsky asked. In other words, I have a schizo partner and huge boner for him. What do you have?

Ruth chuckled humorlessly. “Yeah. We’ve got a dead body. We’ve got lots of dead bodies. We’ve got a pair of twisted twins and all we can pin on them is consensual incest. We’ve got a bridge club on the lam and not a player in sight. We’ve got a folder full of expense reports including an outrageous bill for purchase of porno magazines and stag films.” Ruth paused. “We’ve got a dead officer. And I’m not so sure about the health of one of the others.”

Starsky looked up at Ruth. “He’s okay,” he defended.

“You’d say that if he were lying in the gutter with a bottle of AppleJack in one hand, drool running down his chin, and a bloody knife in his other hand.”

One corner of Starsky’s mouth lifted.

Ruth pulled herself back up to the desk. “We’re disbanding the task force,” she said.

Starsky nodded. He might have been surprised if he wasn’t so tired. So much time and money had been poured into the investigation. Not to mention sanity.

“I think you and your partner should take some time off.”

Starsky nodded again. Oh yeah. Me and Hutch will go off to some Caribbean isle and lay in the sun and make dazzling love by starlight.

Ruth laughed. “Well that was easy! I expected you to put up a fight and demand double-overtime!”

Starsky didn’t respond. It was just too much effort to try and think up an appropriate and professional response. Of course, that would be a much easier effort than to try and think up what he’d say to Hutch when he got back to Venice Place. Hi. Which part of the past 48 hours do you want to pretend never happened?

“David. Please. I’m worried about you both. If you’d just tell me what’s wrong, maybe I could help.”

Starsky smiled sadly. “You mean besides Hutch being an asshole over my shooting and interfering in every way he can with this case and beating up on suspects?”

Ruth smiled back at him. “I think we can keep that out of the report, but it could make him a suspect in Rice’s death.”

“He was with me the entire day,” Starsky shielded.

“It’s alright, Dave.”

They sat in silence for a minute.

“What about you, Dave?” Ruth asked.

Starsky shook his head. He suddenly felt as if Ruth knew everything about him. And he felt safe. “I don’t know. I’m not sure,” he murmured.

“You know you can tell me about it. Friend to friend. No business involved.” She paused. “There’s nothing you could tell me that would change the way I feel about you. Or Hutch.”

Starsky felt himself blush at her candor and understanding. “We’re working on it,” he whispered hoarsely. “It’s just—hard.”

“I know,” Ruth said. “Learning to live with love and death can seem impossible. Too much pain to bear. But the alternative is worse. You can end up being alone. And on a purely personal note I would find this life a little less easy to bear if I thought relationships like yours and Hutch’s could be dissolved at all. It makes me happy to know somebody can find a partner in this world, and stay with him, even if it’s not me.”

“Yeah,” Starsky answered weakly.

“I’d tell you to go home but there’s still work to be finished and if you finish it now then you really can go home.” Ruth stood up. “And not have to come back.”

Starsky also stood. “Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it,” Ruth waved him away. “I won’t.”

 

Primal instincts are good. Cop instincts are better. Hutch went from deep sleep to wide awake in an instant, jerking his body up from the chaise as adrenalin flooded his body.

“Please.” The man standing in the greenhouse offered his hand. “I didn’t come here to hurt you. As for this,” the man gestured with the other hand, which was holding a gun, “it’s merely to make sure you don’t do anything stupid.”

“Get out,” Hutch hissed.

“I don’t think so,” Crane replied. “Not until I’m satisfied that the work I’ve started has been completed.”

The plants Hutch had backed up against quivered with his anger.

Crane took a seat on the bench, and gestured for Hutch to do so. Hutch remained standing.

“So. Did you and your partner come to an understanding after our little—playdate?”

Hutch’s hand balled into fists, but he didn’t answer. It infuriated him that Crane had so easily disinterred his deepest desires.

Especially the one he’d so carefully buried even from himself.

“I really thought it would be the catalyst needed to help you overcome your fear,” Crane continued. “Many times, what a person really wants is to be forced into action, so he can avoid responsibility for that action. This was your situation. You desired, you couldn’t admit to that desire, you needed to be forced.”

An unbidden image of Starsky, naked and open, sitting on Crane’s couch, materialized in Hutch’s mind. “What the hell gives you the right to meddle in other peoples’ lives?” Hutch spat. It hurt to remember that his negligence had put Starsky on that couch.

It hurt to think of the desire the image aroused.

And it hurt to think that maybe the kiss later was just an imagined part of that desire.

Crane laughed. “My superiority, of course! I’m smarter than you! I’m more intelligent! Better educated! More worldly! I can read people. I can see what they want and what they deny and it gives me great pleasure to show them their true selves. I enjoy forcing them to admit their weaknesses and frailties. I like to see their secrets made public. I want them to admit their failings.”

Hutch’s muscles began to ache from the tension. “You murdered Martin.”

“Prove it,” Crane challenged. “Not that I’m not happy to see him out of the way. He served his purpose, but he was no longer useful.” Crane looked around the greenhouse. “I don’t suppose you have any wine in this apartment?”

Hutch glared at Crane.

“Yes. Well,” Crane sighed. “I don’t suppose you’d offer me any even if you did.” His eyes suddenly lit up. “Wait until you search Martin’s abode! You’ll find everything you need to establish him as your deviant sexual serial murderer!”

“Thanks to you, no doubt.” Hutch shifted as unobtrusively as possible.

“Oh no. Martin is the actual perpetrator. I may have smoothed his way—as I did for you—but it was his bloodlust that caused the demise of all those men. Not that they aren’t just as responsible for their own deaths,” Crane mused. “After all, they did willingly walk into Martin’s hands. That was his desire—and their fragilities.”

“As for Lawrence, and Gray, and the others—there are many others, you know, over all the years and all the miles I’ve traveled—they were just players on my little stage. Some are simply given bigger roles than others.”

Hutch took a shaky step forward. He’d stayed away from Crane yesterday because he’d had to protect Starsky. But Starsky wasn’t here.

“No no.” Crane rose, gun pointed at Hutch. “No need to show me out. I can find the way.” He began to back out of the greenhouse, attention focused on Hutch.

“Filthy stinking bastard,” Hutch breathed.

“Which reminds me,” Crane continued backing toward the front door. “Just to make sure you understand your true feelings, I’ve arranged for your cherished partner to meet with a small, shall we say, ordeal. I have often found that the pain experienced by one person will arouse the sentiments of another.”

Crane whirled and quickly left the apartment.

Hutch doubled over as if he’d been hit in the gut. No more! his brain screamed. He struggled to stand, looking helplessly around the apartment.

Starsky! I have to get to Starsky!

Hutch ran into the bedroom and grabbed for whatever apparel was handy.

Have to get to Starsky!

He pulled on pants and a shirt, fumbled for shoes, stumbled for his weapon.

Starsky!

He lurched into the living room, looking around frantically. Keys..keys…I need keys…

No—wait. Call the station. See if Starsky’s there.

Hutch panicked, couldn’t remember where the phone was.

Car, then. Get to the car. Get to the radio. Get to Starsky.

Hutch spun and nearly lost his balance. He tripped toward the door and finally did lose his balance as the door opened into him and sent him sprawling to the floor.

“Hey, babe, you okay?” Starsky shoved keys in his pocket, then leaned down to grasp Hutch’s arms.

“God. Starsky. Starsky.” Hutch’s voice was barely audible. He let Starsky pull him upright, then threw his arms around Starsky and pulled him into a constricting embrace.

Starsky fell against him, his arms pinned to his sides, his face smooshed against Hutch’s shoulder. “What’s wrong?” Starsky mumbled into Hutch’s clavicle.

Hutch answered by squeezing him tighter. Then hands frantically explored Starsky’s back and sides, searching for injury.

Starsky, arms now freed, made a grab for Hutch’s probing hands.

“Hold it! Easy. Tell me what’s wrong.” He held Hutch’s arms out and apart, quieting them.

Hutch looked at Starsky. Questioning, frightened eyes looked into his. And his own eyes answered by filling with stinging tears.

“Babe,” Starsky breathed.

And Hutch fell limply against his partner.

Starsky supported his weight, one arm around his back, a hand cradling his neck.

“S’okay,” Starsky soothed. “Take it easy. It’s gonna be okay.”

The words vibrated against Hutch’s cheek even as hot tears stained his face.

Slowly, Starsky eased them both over to the couch. They sat as one, Hutch still protectively held, Starsky still whispering words of comfort.

“What happened?” Starsky finally lifted Hutch’s face up, a thumb erasing some of the wetness.

“Crane was here,” Hutch rasped. “He said he hurt you.”

Starsky stiffened. “Crane was here? We need to report—“

Hutch shook his head, dislodging a few more tears. “Long gone.” He swallowed hard. “He said he hurt you again.”

“Babe,” Starsky calmed. “I’m okay.” He wiped away more wetness. “He’s mind-fucking you.”

Hutch slowly nodded at the realization. Mind fuck! He looked Starsky over carefully. It’s all one big mind fuck!

Starsky smiled at him. “Okay?”

Hutch took a deep breath. He reached out and allowed two fingers to trace Starsky’s smile.

Starsky’s smile grew bigger.

“Ruth says it’s over. There are a couple of reports you need to sign and there’ll probably be some loose ends to tie up and we’re to—“

Hutch leaned in and kissed the lips under his fingers.

Starsky didn’t move, but his lips softened.

Hutch lifted off the warm lips, but only backed away an inch.

“Hutch?”

No. Starsky.

Warm breath, warm body.

Right here, right now.

Not refusing, not rejecting; not ordering, not humiliating; not damaging, not injuring.

Hutch leaned in again.

This time Starsky’s lips met his with equal pressure, simply pressing. Hutch held the kiss, then backed off again.

Starsky immediately closed the distance, soft, quick kisses peppering Hutch’s upper and lower lips.

Then longer, stronger pressure. Starsky sucked on Hutch’s lower lip, and Hutch’s stomach dropped.

He did kiss me yesterday! He was showing me the truth!

Hutch dropped his head to the left, and Starsky’s mouth opened to his.

Their tongues poked and prodded, explored the soft, hot, wet interiors of their mouths. Hutch sucked on the firm, pliant tongue Starsky offered him, and when Starsky sucked on his, Hutch lost his equilibrium completely.

The center of Hutch’s hand began to burn, and he fumbled inside Starsky’s shirt even as their mouths continued to tug and pull.

Crane made me touch you there, but this time I want to!

And I want you to accept it because you want to, not because you have to!

Hutch’s palm skimmed over Starsky’s chest until it found the wonderful nub. Hutch centered it in his palm, then began slow circles that moved the nipple around and around until it hardened under his touch. Starsky’s baritone groans vibrated in his mouth.

Hutch suddenly needed that supple appendage in his mouth. He pushed Starsky down to the sofa, his own body following, keeping their lips together. Balanced precariously on the edge of he cushions, Hutch disengaged his mouth from Starsky’s and targeted the nipple. His mouth formed a circle around the nipple; his tongue flicked it back and forth and then licked it slowly.

Starsky arched into his mouth, a sucking, hissing sound issuing from between Starsky’s clenched teeth. Then he lay back against the arm of the couch, and Hutch followed.

Hutch’s hands began pushing aside the fabric of Starsky’s jacket and shirt even as his mouth continued to minister to Starsky’s nipple. Starsky must have helped, as they both were suddenly whisked away, baring his entire chest to Hutch. Hutch changed to tiny kisses as he made his way to Starsky’s other nipple.

Starsky responded by taking Hutch’s head in his hands, his fingers twining through Hutch’s hair, thumbs stroking his temples.

Hutch scooted farther down the sofa, holding Starsky’s waist in his hands as he laved both Starsky’s nipples, feeling them lengthen and harden under his tongue and between his lips. Hutch teased and tested, sometimes holding them between his lips and tugging on them, sometimes bending them back and forth with his tongue.

I can’t believe you’re not shoving me away, screaming at me…rejecting me!

Starsky’s hands moved down to his back, stroking, then tugging on Hutch’s shirt. Hutch reluctantly released Starsky’s waist long enough to let Starsky pull the shirt off up over his head.

Warm, firm hands stroked up and down his back, ignoring the fading wounds and tracing their own route over his skin. Light touches alternated with harder kneading of his back and shoulder muscles. Hutch rolled his shoulders in pleasure.

Starsky’s fingers dug into Hutch’s back when Hutch took a nipple between his teeth and pulled. A groan emanated from deep in Starsky’s throat.

I can make it even better…I can make the hurt go away, instead of lead it to you!

Hutch’s fingers moved from Starsky’s waist to his belt. He slid the leather through the buckle with uncharacteristic smoothness, pushed the ends aside, and just as easily opened Starsky’s fly.

“Hutch?” Starsky whispered hoarsely.

Hutch’s answer was to tug Starsky’s jeans down his hips.

Starsky’s reply was to lift his ass in assistance.

Hutch pulled both jeans and briefs down Starsky’s legs to his ankles. Starsky struggled to kick off both shoes and free himself.

Hutch moved back up to Starsky’s groin.

“Hutch,” Starsky whispered again, this time more urgently.

Hutch looked up into deeply concerned blue eyes. But there weren’t scared, and they weren’t mocking, and they most certainly were not filled with hate.

“We can’t go back,” Starsky said.

And Hutch finally knew he didn’t want to go back. He didn’t want to lose what they had shared before Starsky’s shooting; he hated what they had gone through after the shooting; but he finally accepted what they were proclaiming now.

Hutch wanted more.

And the only way to have more was to take more and not look back.

Hutch turned his attention’s to Starsky’s tumescent cock. He ran a finger over it, watching it react to his touch, wondering that he could conjure such a reaction.

“I know,” Hutch said softly. “I tried to go back. It doesn’t work.” He leaned over and kissed Starsky’s cock. It was hot and pulsating and alive under his lips.

Starsky.

“But I think I’m ready to go forward. If you’ll go with me.”

Starsky took Hutch’s head in his hands, urging him upward. Their lips once again met. “God, I’m scared,” Starsky breathed into his mouth.

Hutch nodded as they continued to kiss. Scared? You don’t know from scared, he thought.

Protect Starsky.

Starsky’s hands were all over his back, his neck, his face as they kissed.

The world will reject us…fear us…hate us…we’ll lose everything.

Starsky’s mouth moved to Hutch’s chin, then his neck, sucking on the soft flesh as the base of his throat. Hutch shivered.

Do you care? a voice suddenly asked. Do you really care about protecting Starsky, or do you just care about protecting yourself?

Starsky’s thumbs traced esses over Hutch’s smooth chest, Starsky’s mouth leaving a wet trail down his sternum.

I care…about Starsky.

Starsky kissed his way back to Hutch’s mouth. His left hand slid down to Hutch’s waistband, unsnapped his jeans, and burrowed into Hutch’s groin.

I want…Starsky.

Starsky’s hand wrapped around Hutch’s cock, squeezing it, a thumb stroking along its length.

I want…Starsky…to stay with me.

Hot lips sucked and pressed against Hutch’s mouth. A tongue probed his palate. A hand pumped and gripped, fingers stroked and rubbed.

Starsky!

Hutch slid over a 90-degree drop, his body losing all consistency, his brain encased in white mesh. And then a time-stopping, breath-taking flash of infinity: Release!

Starsky planted easy kisses over his face. Hutch began to breathe again.

Hutch put his hand on Starsky’s chest and pushed back into the cushions. He looked carefully at Starsky. Glittering, delighted eyes met his. A flush suffused Starsky’s chest and cheeks.

And wonder of wonders, Starsky didn’t move! He didn’t leave, he didn’t cry, he didn’t laugh derisively, he didn’t throw up, and he most certainly didn’t die!

He was smiling! At him! Starsky!

Goddammit, he likes me!

“I can’t believe it,” Hutch breathed.

“I know!” Starsky grinned.

“What have we done?” Hutch asked.

“Doesn’t matter,” Starsky answered. “I love you. That’s all that matters.”

Goddammit, he loves me!

 “You really mean it.” Hutch was in awe.

“Huh?” Starsky sat up.

“You want me to stay with you.”

“Of course I do,” Starsky grabbed Hutch’s upper arms and pulled him into an embrace. He let his lips linger on Hutch’s shoulder. “Did you think I was kidding about that? I was scared shitless you were going to leave me.” He nibbled on Hutch’s neck, then up to Hutch’s ear “That is the only thing you could have done to hurt me—leave me,” he whispered.

Hutch nodded, finally understanding what it really meant to protect Starsky. It didn’t involve guns, it didn’t involve seat belts, it didn’t involve punishing himself, and it didn’t involve control.

It didn’t even involve safety.

All it involved was letting Starsky be happy, by letting Starsky love him, and loving him back.

Starsky shifted to sit upright, his back against the sofa back. He guided Hutch to kneel between his legs. Starsky sat, bold, confident, his legs spread wide, his hands on Hutch’s face.

Hutch looked up into passionate eyes, then bowed his head and touched his swollen lips to Starsky’s swollen member. Hutch leaned over and kissed Starsky’s cock. It stirred and moved against his cheek. Hutch rubbed his cheek against it, and Starsky moaned.

Hutch took the base in his fist and let his thumb rub the underside. It lengthened, hardened; pre-cum glistened on the tip. He squeezed the base gently, and let his lips glide over the head. Each pump of Hutch’s hand, each kiss of Hutch’s lips, each stroke of Hutch’s thumb evoked another guttural reverberation from Starsky’s throat. Hutch recognized the sounds from their forced love-making; now he knew Starsky had not been putting on an act for Crane, but reacting to Hutch’s touch. Hutch was overjoyed.

Hutch planted soft, warm kisses along its length, feeling it quiver with every contact. Then Hutch began to rub his lips up and down its length, occasionally injecting his tongue to moisten the shaft.

Starsky shifted slightly as Hutch lifted Starsky’s cock and used strong fingers to probe, and then fondle, his balls. Starsky’s ass fairly lifted off the couch as Hutch squeezed the tender sacs, then moved his hand to encase Starsky’s cock and slide it up and down the firm flesh. It was natural, almost innate, to hold Starsky inside his fist and ride it up and down, gently tugging it to its full length.

Hutch bent over once more and used his mouth to lick and kiss, suck and wet Starsky’s cock. His right hand held Starsky’s balls, kneading them, his left guiding the penis into his mouth. Starsky groaned, loud and long, when Hutch took the sensitive head into his mouth and used his tongue to circle it. Hutch released it for another round of gentle mouthing of the entire length, then once again focused his attention on the head. He sucked more firmly, tonguing the heated head, a hand encircling the base of Starsky’s penis, pulling the skin taut.

Starsky jerked quietly, his entire body stiffening then seeming to explode in a burst of heat. Hutch held Starsky in his mouth easily, tenderly, holding it firmly but not sucking. Liquid spurted into his mouth and throat, but instead of choking this time, it flowed naturally down his throat as he swallowed, and then he let the spasming cock slip out of his mouth.

Hutch released Starsky’s balls as well, and rested his cheek on Starsky’s trembling thigh. Loving hands stroked Hutch’s hair, and a most satisfied sigh escaped from Starsky’s chest.

And once again, Starsky didn’t move, didn’t leave, didn’t die.

Starsky reached down and pulled Hutch up onto his chest. Hutch felt Starsky giggle, then explode in a war whoop. Hutch wrapped his arms around Starsky and held him tightly. He pressed his cheek against Starsky’s chest, felt his own cock stir again as it pressed against Starsky’s leg.

Starsky released Hutch and pushed out from under him. Hutch slipped back to the floor, his head resting on the edge of the sofa cushions, as Starsky walked into the bathroom. When Starsky came back, he stood behind Hutch and pulled him to a standing position, Starsky’s groin pressed hard into Hutch’s ass.

Starsky’s thumbs hooked into Hutch’s waistband and skimmed off his jeans. Hutch stepped out and started to turn around, but Starsky kept them front to back. Starsky’s arms encircled him, his right hand rubbing over his chest, his left stroking down to his cock. Cool, slippery fingers ran over his cock and Hutch nearly lost his balance, his knees slightly buckling as Starsky held him upright with one arm and lubricated him with the other.

“S’alright babe,” Starsky breathed.

Hutch felt himself hardening under Starsky’s ministrations. He held onto the arm supporting him and let his weight fall back against his partner.

Starsky’s hand slipped over his penis, then down to coat his balls, and Hutch shivered.

“Gotta move a little now.” Hutch could hear the grin in Starsky’s voice.

Starsky kept Hutch still, then slipped around in front of him, so now Starsky’s ass was cupped in Hutch’s groin. Hutch wrapped his arms around Starsky, for support as well as reassurance, holding him as tightly as possible against his heated body. Hutch’s hands moved over Starsky’s chest, feeling the chest hair swirl under his palms, seeking out the sensitive nipples that responded to his touch.

This time Starsky knees buckled, and his weight pushed back on Hutch as he clung to Hutch for support. His head fell back on Hutch’s shoulder, and Hutch fixed his mouth on Starsky’s neck, sucking at the flesh as he pinched Starsky’s nipples.

Starsky groaned, and as one they fell to the couch. Starsky quickly adjusted his position to rest his elbows on the couch, lifting his ass up into Hutch’s cupping groin.

Hutch ran a hand over his own swelling cock, then slipped it between Starsky’s ass cheeks and rubbed it between them, lubricating the outer anal area. The pressure was warm, wonderful. Hutch tentatively brought the tip of his penis to Starsky’s anus.

“S’okay,” Starsky purred.

Hutch pushed forward, entering gently, slowly, until Starsky moaned. Hutch didn’t force his entry, but maintained constant and gentle pressure against the tight internal muscle. Starsky grabbed the edge of the cushions and lifted up slightly, pushing back against Hutch, almost urging him to hasten his entry.

But Hutch concentrated on the sensations of the moment, the heat that encased him and held him tight; the electric shocks that flashed through his body with each soft thrust. Gradually, Starsky relaxed, and Hutch slid in until there was no space between their bodies.

They both groaned. “God, Hutch,” Starsky rasped. “I never imagined—“

Hutch held Starsky tightly, then began moving gently in and out, never quite slipping all the way from Starsky. Starsky moved with him, also seeming to need to keep them locked together. Hutch had one arm thrown around Starsky’s chest, the other braced against the couch. Starsky had both arms braced against the couch, his head thrown back as Hutch burrowed his face into Starsky’s neck.

Hutch began moving more swiftly, less gently, the heat and friction against his penis making him want even more friction, more heat. His strokes became quicker, shorter; his grip on Starsky inflexible and unyielding. And his blood roared in his ears and he cried out against Starsky’s throat and he felt himself emptied yet not empty but full, filled with his own life and Starsky’s.

And Hutch finally slipped out of Starsky and fell to the side, and Starsky fell against him and they lay against the couch.

“Thank you,” Hutch finally found his breath, found his voice. He was wrapped around Starsky, not protecting him, but loving him.

“That was nothing,” Starsky panted. “Wait’ll you see me when I’ve had some time to plan.”

“No.” Hutch shook his head against Starsky’s shoulder. “Thank you for saving my life.”

Starsky chuckled within Hutch’s embrace. “That’s our job, us partners. We save each other’s lives.”

Hutch held him more firmly and marveled at how easy it was to have everything once you gave up trying to keep it.

So easy. So wonderful.

So long to get here.

Hutch sighed contentedly.

 

 

 

EPILOGUE

 

Starsky was a model of professional detachment.

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

·                     It hadn’t been a simple beginning. Vigilance, over-protectiveness, and suffocating watchfulness had nearly destroyed him. Particularly since it had been spent on the wrong person. He should have been watching himself. Should have been monitoring his own psyche, his own recovery. But Hutch was an expert at stealth, and he could hide even from himself.

·                     Fortunately, he couldn’t hide from the observation of others. And they’d forced him to examine himself.

This morning, Hutch observed, he was dressed in Oxford shirt, pressed khakis, and light tan jacket. They were Starsky’s; he’d forgotten they were due at the precinct this morning for an official “mustering out.” The pants were a little short, but his boots hid that fact, and he rolled back the sleeves of the jacket and shirt to cover their lack of arm length. Not a new look for Hutch; he and Starsky had swapped clothes on a regular basis since they’d become friends. It was just now those swapped clothes felt—different. Better. More protective.

·                     Starsky had on his favorite jeans, favorite plaid shirt, and favorite leather jacket. That is, Hutch’s favorites. Starsky had been raiding his closet as well.

·                     “So officially, you’re signed off and out.” Grimes concluded his speech.

·                     “Doesn’t feel finished,” Starsky said.

·                     “Well,” Ruth pushed her bangs off her forehead, then pushed her chair back from her desk, “we’ve got Rice as our serial killer. His apartment had enough evidence to implicate him in every case on our list, as well as a couple more. We’ve got Lawrence as his accomplice, and he’s awaiting extradition in New Mexico. Our two gym teachers are just a couple of perverted weirdos who got caught in our operation. We’re probably never going to figure out exactly who offed Rice; there’s plenty of motive from a couple of different people but no evidence to point to anybody specific. And even though my money’s on Crane, we can’t prove it. What more do you want, Dave?”

·                     Hutch watched Starsky take a deep breath and let it out slowly. His partner looked over at him, holding his eyes.

·                     “I want Crane.”

·                     Hutch nodded in understanding.

·                     “We find him, we question him,” Grimes said.

·                     “He’s a sociopath,” Hutch stated. “He manipulated Rice, he manipulated Lawrence, he manipulated the hunters as well as the hunted.”

·                     “Including us?” mused Ruth.

·                     “Especially us,” murmured Hutch.

·                     “Okay, you’re debriefed.” Grimes stood and walked to the office door. “If we need you we’ll call you. I don’t want this all showing up in the L.A. Times or on 60 Minutes, understand?”

·                     “Harry, you’re the media whore,” Ruth opined. “If there’s a book in this it’ll come from your typewriter.”

·                     Grimes harrumphed and left the office.

·                     Ruth laughed.

·                     “Alright, boys, any last questions or words of wisdom before I release you?”

·                     Hutch looked at Starsky, who looked back at him. “I don’t think so,” Hutch answered.

·                     “Can’t say I’m sorry to be going,” Starsky said. He was still looking at Hutch.

·                     “Yes, just too weird,” Ruth added. “I hope I never see another one like this again. Gave me the creepy-crawlies.”

·                     “Gave me the willies,” Starsky smiled at Ruth.

·                     Gave me you, Hutch thought.

·                     “Gave me too much paperwork,” Ruth shuffled a pile of papers on her desk. “Which I will never get done if I keep shooting the shit with you two. Out.”

·                     Hutch and Starsky rose.

·                     “By the way,” Ruth appeared engrossed in a report on the top of the pile. “Love your outfits.”

·                     Hutch blushed and looked at Starsky. Starsky cleared his throat and adjusted his jacket. They smiled at each other, and left the room.

·