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Immersion

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The huge, old farmhouse had some modern amenities, but air conditioning wasn’t one of them. All the windows were open and the ceiling fans whirred rhythmically. This cooled the house enough so that its occupants, an extended family gathered together to celebrate the nation’s 200th birthday, slept peacefully.

Until six figures in hooded black robes chopped the family’s peace into pieces.

~s&h~

“Ummmmmm, I could get used to this,” drawled the tall, well-built, blond man wearing nothing but a slender blonde woman.

The early morning lovemaking had been wonderfully passionate and heated, just like the day promised to be. She reclined on top of him, and began kissing his neck and sucking on his nipples again. She could feel him responding.

As he caressed her small, rounded buttocks, he returned her kisses. But he made the mistake of looking at the alarm clock on his nightstand. Oh damn! I’m going to be late for work! Why do I have…

The woman, having noticed her lover’s attention had strayed, nibbled playfully at his ear. “Oh no, you don’t! I’m not through with you yet,” she whispered seductively while her hands sought then found exactly what she wanted.

How I despise having to leave this - her, he thought as he clasped her upper arms gently and lifted her chest about an inch above his. “Abby” – wet kiss on her left cheek – “oh, Abby” – peck on her chin – “you know” – third kiss to her right cheek – “I have to report” – this time, a long, lingering one to her soft and inviting lips – “to work early today.” He had no trouble filling his sky-blue eyes with regret as he gazed into hers.

“Call in sick.” It was more of a demand than a request.

“Abby, I can’t. I don’t think there’s a cop in Bay City who’ll be working less than twelve hours today. It wouldn’t be right.”

She easily escaped his hold on her arms and rolled off him. She lay on her back, staring at the ceiling. As she pulled the sheet over her nakedness, she said with wounded disappointment, “Sometimes, Officer Ken Hutchinson, your sense of duty can be damned inconvenient.”

The blond man smiled affectionately at his lover. “You, Ms. Abigail Crabtree, can be very alluring.” He pushed the sheet down to her small waist before sucking on one of her nipples and fondling the other breast. “But not today.” He grinned mischievously as he rushed out of bed. The pillow hit him on the back of the head much harder than he thought possible. He stopped in his tracks, looked over his shoulder at the lovely but frowning vision in his bed, cocked an eyebrow, and asked conspiratorially, “Care to join me in a very cold shower?”

Her frown vanished in a waterfall of laughter. “Not today! I’ll fix you breakfast. The usual?”

“Yeah, but could you add a couple of strawberries?” She nodded. “Thanks, Abby.” Why the hell do I have to work on the Fourth of July? He trudged the rest of way to the bathroom.

He was definitely not in the mood to chase the bad guys around the city today.

~s&h~

For once, Detective David Starsky was awake and in the shower before his alarm clock went off. He was as excited as a kid with unlimited financial resources and appetite in a candy store. The Bicentennial Fourth of July had finally arrived, and he had great notions of celebrating it with abandon despite having to work.

Skin still damp from his warm shower, he rushed back into his bedroom to get dressed in his carefully chosen ensemble. First he slipped into his prized stars-and-stripes undershorts, exercising caution so the elastic waistband wouldn’t snap on his still-tender, two-month-old appendectomy scar. Even though he had worn the boxers once a week since he had purchased them from Huggy Bear, they still felt special. Next, he put on one red sock, one blue sock, a red baseball T-shirt with white sleeves, and dark, no-holes, no-rips blue jeans.

He padded to the kitchen in search of breakfast. The remnants of his pepperoni, green peppers, and extra cheese pizza – which was as close to a patriotic pie as he could get, there being no blue food available - beckoned him. He snatched up a pair of slices, folded them together like a sandwich, and grabbed a bottle of Coke. After slamming the refrigerator door shut with his blue-socked foot, he skated over to the small radio on the counter top and snapped it on.

“…new one from the Eagles, the title cut from ‘Hotel California,’ on its way to numero uno with a bullet!” opined the overly-perky disc jockey. “We’ve got lots more hits for you today, because we’re celebrating a birthday and do we have the presents! How about one now? Be the fourth caller at 555-5500 and you win a T-shirt with our call letters on the front and a big ol’ flag on the back!”

Starsky hurriedly put the Coke bottle on the counter. Pizza still in hand and mouth, he crunched the telephone receiver between his shoulder and head then dialed as fast as he could. Damn! Busy signal! Then he heard the DJ announce a winner halfway into his second dial. Awwww! Prob’ly last chance I have today to win anything. Dejected, he replaced the receiver. He polished off the slices and the soda before turning his attention back to the broadcast.

“All right, revelers! It’s gonna be a hotttttt one out there today. Highs close to 90, but with some breezes to cool ya dowwwwn.”

Starsky couldn’t take the energetic announcer any longer – Not this early in the mornin’; bad enough bein’ up at this ungodly hour – so he silenced him with another snap. He headed back to the bathroom to brush his teeth.

The dark-haired cop ran his hands through his drying curls. He looked solemnly at his image in the mirror. “Time for the finishing touches.” He raced out of the bathroom to his closet. There, on the floor, was a brand new pair of blue Adidas running shoes.

But this was no ordinary pair. The night before, Starsky had transformed the outer white stripes into brilliant cherry-red ones. He proudly slid his feet into the sneakers. He danced and dipped around in them for a few seconds before jogging to the hat rack where his holstered pistol hung. Once his shoulder holster was secured in place, he shrugged into a lightweight, waist-length off-white jacket with red and blue stripes on the ribbed cuffs and waistband.

The matador was ready to fight the bulls on this once-in-a-lifetime holiday.

~s&h~

Oh, Abby’s here, Starsky thought as he saw the woman’s Chevelle parked next to the thing Hutchinson called his car – a severely battered LTD that, Starsky was convinced, had been rejected by every junkyard in this and every surrounding county. Did she come or stay for breakfast?

He pulled the Torino in behind the LTD, and quickly jumped out. In a few steps, he was at Abby’s car. He felt the area of the hood over the engine. Stay. He smirked a you-lucky-dog before bouncing to the front door. He thought it best to knock rather than use the key.

“Come on in, Starsk! It’s open!” he heard his partner shout from within.

Starsky flung the door open with a dramatic flair, but maintained his grip on the handle. “How’d you know it was me? Coulda been anybody. Coulda been your paperboy comin’ to collect.”

Hutchinson stood a few feet from the door, having just recently left the bathroom. “At 6:30 in the morning? Besides, I don’t get the paper.”

“Didja ever consider a career as a nightclub psychic?” He released his hold on the doorknob and strutted to his partner’s side.

“Only when I get tired of my current job as a babysitter.”

Starsky used his eyes to call the blond man a smart-ass. He peered around the taller man to acknowledge the overnight “guest.” “Mornin’, Abby.” He waved shyly.

Abby, bundled in a thick, white terry cloth robe, gulped down the remainder of her blended breakfast. “Hi, Dave! Have you eaten yet? I’ll fix you something, if you like.”

Starsky paled briefly at the thought of drinking unpronounceable ingredients whipped into a shake with a resultant color not normally found in nature. Unconsciously, his hand hugged his stomach as if nauseated. “Uh, no, thanks, Abb. Already had breakfast.”

Hutch finally allowed himself the laugh he had been holding in, and Abby joined him.

“Wha’? What’s so funny?” Starsky demanded.

“Abby and I had a bet. I said you’d say you’d already eaten and she bet you’d say you weren’t hungry. I win! Thanks, Starsk.”

“So, what did you win – at my expense?”

“I’ll never tell.”

Starsky playfully backhanded his partner on the shoulder. “Come on, get dressed or we’ll be late for roll call.”

Hutch backed away a few paces and held his arms out to the sides. “You need to eat your carrots, buddy. What do you call this?”

The curly-haired detective shook his head at the royal blue T-shirt and beige chambray trousers his partner wore. One of Hutch’s atrocious secondhand bowling shirts rested on the back of the sofa. On top of that was a pair of white socks. “It’s the Fourth, Hutch. You can’t go wearin’ that kinda stuff today. Where’s your patriotism? You ought to be wearin’ red, white, and blue.”

“Starsky, I don’t let holidays dictate what I wear. And if you paid closer attention, detective, you’ll notice that I am wearing those colors today. Just more subtle and tasteful. Unlike yourself, flag boy.” Hutch sat down on the couch and began pulling his socks on.

“Okay, hot shot, where’s the red, hunh?”

A second later, Starsky caught the kelly green shirt Hutch threw at him before it could cover his curls. Over the left breast pocket was the name “Arnold,” embroidered in dark red. The dark-haired man shook his head in pity.

“Turn it around, Starsk. There’s more on the back.” Hutch stood and made for his gun and holster.

Starsky did as he was told. Out loud, he read, “’Morrie’s Kosher Deli and Lawn Chair Emporium’.” This time he shook his head in disgust. “No, Hutch. There is no way I’m gonna be seen with you on the street. And what the hell is a, uh” – he glanced at the crimson words again – “lawn chair emporium?”

Hutchinson strode almost angrily to stand in front of his partner. Lips tight and jaw set, he snatched his shirt back, then pretended to smooth invisible wrinkles from where Starsky had held it. With great care, he put the shirt on and deliberately took his time fastening the bottom three buttons. “At least I don’t look like I’m missing a pole.”

“What’s that supposed ta mean?” Starsky was beginning to get defensive.

“It means, partner, that your…fashion misstatement isn’t quite finished. And you the nerve to complain about my clothes?”

“But, Hutch, that’s pathetic – wearin’ a shirt with ‘Morrie’s Deli and whatever’! And why would you be ashamed to be seen with me, huh? At least I’m dressed for the occasion. And quite nicely, too.” Starsky elegantly adjusted the cuffs of his jacket.

A memory, unbidden and embarrassing, rushed into Hutch’s consciousness. Sitting in a hospital corridor, holding up a pair of… He coughed, hoping to expectorate that scene from his brain. No such luck. “Please, Starsky, tell me you’re not wearing them.” He furrowed his brow to accentuate his plea.

Starsky lost every ounce of defensiveness, trading it for a dose of elation. “Of course I’m wearing ‘them’! It’s Independence Day, dummy!” How dense can he be?

Hutch rolled his eyes and threw up his hands in a gesture of surrender.

Abby could hold her tongue and laughter no longer. Between chuckles, she asked, “What in heaven’s name are you two talking about?”

Starsky’s cobalt blue eyes brightened further and he bounced the few yards over to the dining table. “What, you mean Hutch’s never told you about my underwear?” Rapidly, he began unbuckling his belt. “I got these shorts that look like an American flag, bought ‘em from Huggy.” He unbuttoned his jeans.

Abby, eyes wide in both disbelief and anticipation, said nothing though she did lean back in her chair.

“Starsky,” Abby’s lover said in a low tone loaded with warning.

The target of the warning didn’t hear it. As he unzipped his jeans, he said, “They’re great! Even got Hutch a pair, but –“

“STARSKY!”

Irritated, with zipper only halfway down, the dark-haired man shouted, “What? Can’t you see I’m busy here?”

Hutch, leaning forward with his hands on his waist, spoke slowly and enunciated clearly, “Zip it, button it, buckle it, now.” It was an effort for him not to scream.

“Abby, you wanna see this, right?” Before she could answer, Starsky did it for her. “See, Hutch, she wants to see this great pair of underwear.” She didn’t contradict him.

“Your underwear, my girlfriend. No. End of story.” Hutch’s voice got tighter and quieter.

“Uh, Dave,” Abby said sweetly as she rested her hand on Starsky’s left forearm, “maybe I’ll look at them another time. When you’re not in them.”

Starsky, all eager innocence up to this point, interpreted Abby’s statement in a way she had not intended. He turned as fiery as his sneakers’ stripes and promptly zipped, buttoned, and buckled. “Oh, sure, sounds good, I mean, see ya later.” He bent over to kiss her head, but stopped before lips could meet hair. Standing upright quickly, he took her right hand in his and shook it formally. “See ya later,” he mumbled again. Using a walk reminiscent of Groucho Marx, he brushed past the slightly taller blond man. “See you in the car.” He issued a sigh of relief when he passed the threshold.

Hutch’s anger at his partner quickly faded. He grinned widely as he played back the scene at the kitchen table in his head. He was beginning to wonder why he had gotten angry with his partner at all when he felt two soft hands wrap around his right arm. I’m not angry with Starsk; I’m ticked at having to work today. His left hand touched Abby’s face tenderly. He smiled warmly and kissed her forehead. “Be here tonight when I get back?”

“If I get back from the fireworks display in Seal Park in time, but I’ll be here.” She returned his smile. “Hutch, you aren’t really mad at Dave, are you? It was all perfectly innocent.”

“No, I’m not really mad. I just can’t believe he was about to show you those ridiculous boxer shorts of his!”

“Never a dull moment with you two. Oh, and could you tell him I didn’t mean it, about seeing the shorts with him not in them, that way? I don’t want him to get the wrong idea.” Abby’s raised eyebrows expressed her worry.

Hutch’s laughter came with a hint of wickedness. “I’ll tell him, but he’s gotta sweat a little. He knows better than to strip in front of my lady.”

“Kenneth Hutchinson, you better tell him!”

“Promise.” Eventually. He smiled and gave her a peck on the cheek before he hooked a finger at the crossroads of her closed robe and pulled. Peering in, he smiled lasciviously and sighed. “Somehow, I think this is going to be a very long day.”

~s&h~

Starsky’s reddened complexion calmed down to its normal olive hue. Eyes closed as he listened to the heavy chatter on the police band, he resigned himself to two things: he would have to endure Hutch’s wrath and the police force would be busy today. Lost in his thoughts, he didn’t notice his partner’s arrival at the Torino until his three sharp raps on the hood. Starsky jumped and looked out to see Hutchinson’s fury assaulting him through the windshield.

“Starsky! What the hell is this?! What did you do?” Hutchinson, prepared to feign anger, didn’t have to. “I am not riding around the city in this…this…offensive, tacky carnival ride from the fifth ring of Hell!” He gawked at the patriotically festooned Torino. American flag stickers obliterated the front and rear bumpers. The antenna had a cheap, personal-size flag secured to it, along with red, white, and blue streamers. The white stripe on the Torino was cut in half by a two-inch navy line.

The dark-haired detective sprang from his vehicle. “Hey, what are you hittin’ my car for?”

“Better your car than you, right?” The blond head shook several times. “I am not riding in this car today.” He sounded positive, unequivocal, unswerving.

Starsky had seconds to convince Hutchinson otherwise. Taking a chance, he challenged, “Okay, partner, we’ll use your car today if it starts up on the first try.” He rested his bent arm on the top of the car door, propped his head in his hand, then crossed his right foot so it rested toe down.

Hutch sneered at his friend. “Fine. Better get ready to move it, Starsk.” He strolled confidently to the LTD, opened the driver-side door, and gave Starsky one last triumphant smirk. Once behind the steering wheel, he cleared his throat and gently inserted the key. He turned the ignition to the start position and…

Absolutely nothing.

He pumped the accelerator to within an inch of its pitiful life, cursed, and turned the ignition again.

There was something this time. Starsky’s roaring laughter. Quickly followed by the roar of the Torino engine. “Come on, Hutch, we’ll be late for work!” Hutch could hear the tease in his partner’s voice. He smacked the wheel of the dead car.

Seconds later, he stomped his way to the decorated Torino. Sulking, he slammed the door. Just as Starsky opened his mouth to rebuke his partner, Hutch’s lips disappeared and his index finger pointed at Starsky so sharply that it could have cut him.

Starsky stifled the reprimand. He backed the car out and began whistling Sousa’s The Stars and Stripes Forever with cheery enthusiasm. Hutch hung his head and tried to ignore the tri-colored stars dangling from the rearview mirror and the Statuette of Liberty with a bobbing head on the dashboard.

~s&h~

Avery Perkins, the day shift desk sergeant at Bay City’s Metropolitan Division, was the police department’s best man in that position. Now fifty, with thinning brown hair, compassionate and intelligent brown eyes, a trim build except for a thickening waist, he still had the stamina and energy of a man twenty years his junior. Almost a decade ago, a brazen rookie by the name of David Starsky had recognized this and promptly dubbed him “Perk.” This meaningful shortening of his name was so natural, made so much sense, that within a week, everyone was calling him that. As a rule, Perkins treated everyone equally and played no favorites, but David Starsky was the exception. Kenneth Hutchinson had become the only other exception when he had transferred into Metro to partner with Starsky.

Now, Perkins looked out over the crowded, noisy conference room at Metro. Along the shores of the sea of deep blue before him were the plainclothes detectives. Ordinarily, they did not take part in roll call at the start of each shift. But today they would. Today, they all had to work differently.

Perkins counted only five pairs of detectives. The missing pair was instantly obvious to him – Starsky and Hutchinson. He decided he couldn’t wait for them since it was already past 0700, so he began the briefing. “Okay, folks, let’s settle down.” The room drifted into silence in a few moments. “I have a couple of things for you before Cap’n Dobey…ah, Starsky, Hutchinson, how nice of you to join us.”

Starsky, first into the packed room, let the condescension in Perkins’ tone float right past him. “Mornin’, Perk. Good to be here. Right, Hutch?”

Hutchinson jabbed his ebullient partner in the side. Starsky winced and mouthed an “Ow!” but kept smiling. Hutch cleared his throat. “Sorry about being late, Sergeant. Please, continue.”

From somewhere in the middle of the police ocean, someone piped up, “Leave it to Starsky to dress for the occasion!” Jovial snickers bubbled from virtually every officer in the room.

“Fergie, that you?” Starsky said with mock contempt. “Yeah, go ahead, Ferguson. Make fun of me. You’ll never wear plainclothes. Ya just keep missin’ the first question about name on the detective’s exam.”

This brought down the house. Starsky and Ferguson had a long-standing, friendly game of one-up-man-ship going ever since Ferguson had lost a bowling tournament for the Metro team. Ferguson now belly-laughed with the rest of the cops. Determined to win this match, he shouted, “Hey, Perk, aren’t we supposed to be on the lookout for suspicious characters dressed like Starsky? You know, unhinged patriots?”

Just loud enough for Starsky to hear, Hutch muttered, “He’s got you pegged, Starsk.” The self-satisfied grin was classic Hutchinson.

The dark-haired detective flung a you’ll-get-yours look at his partner. As he readied to deliver his answer to Ferguson’s dig, Captain Harold Dobey barged into the conference room.

“What the blazes is going on in here?” the large black man with the voice to match barked. “This is roll call, officers, not a party! Sergeant Perkins?”

Starsky spoke before Perkins could open his mouth. “Cap’n, it’s my fault. Per- uh, Sergeant Perkins had nothin’ to do with this.”

Dobey glared at Starsky, then at Hutchinson who merely shrugged his shoulders and plastered an expression of long suffering on his face. “I should’ve known you’d be involved in this, Starsky.” Secretly, he had been pleased on hearing the laughter. The heat, the mandatory double shifts, and the anticipated high volume of incidents requiring police intervention would put a strain on the entire force, and hitting the streets in good spirits was essential. Secretly, he thanked Starsky for whatever he had said or done, and Hutchinson and Perkins for not stopping him. “You two, in my office, later,” he said as he wiggled a finger between his two best detectives. “Now, Sergeant Perkins, don’t you have some business to conduct?”

“Yes, sir. Okay, folks, as you know, Metro has been divided into six sectors according to activities scheduled for the occasion. Chronic trouble areas have also been factored in when we determined patrol teams and sectors. Each patrol team is assigned to one sector and one pair of detectives.” Perkins paused to scan the audience. No one appeared lost or clueless, so he continued. “You are strongly encouraged to write out citations rather than arrest, to work out conflicts on site. Only the really serious stuff requires arrests. Everybody with me so far?”

The nods were unanimous. There was some shifting and shuffling, so Perkins waited until the group settled down again.

“The zebra units will function as they normally do. And for today, our vice and robbery detectives will also function as zebra units. Now, uniforms, if you have a situation where an arrest is warranted, call your detectives. They’ll take it from there. We want you uniforms in your marked cars out on the street, very visible, as much as possible. Got it?” Perkins made the last two words sound more like a command than a question. He expected no one to respond any other way than the affirmative.

The inevitable grumping came, because the energy crisis had made use of air conditioning in the squad cars verboten and now the uniformed officers’ only chance for heat relief – the escort of arrestees to Division – had been pulled away from them. The collective mood took several steps backward.

“All right, settle down!” Perkins paused until the room was reasonably quiet again. “Listen up for your sector.” He read the names from a clipboarded yellow legal pad. “Got that? Good,” he said before anyone could answer. “Captain Dobey, the floor is yours.”

Dobey, whose portly body was clothed in a dark blue tropical-weight suit, cleared his throat with authority. “The detectives will not be working on any of their open cases today so they will be available. And cut the vice and robbery guys some slack. Being zebra units is different. Keep a high profile, and this ought to be a fairly uneventful holiday. Sergeant Perkins?”

“Thank you, Cap’n. And in case anyone’s wondering, our boys in IA will be here, doing intake duty.” The thought of Simonetti and Dryden processing all the arrested people brought gloating smiles to everyone’s faces. Perkins then instructed everyone to collect the maps of the newly sectored Division provided by R & I’s Officer Minnie Kaplan. “And one more thing, officers.” The room seemed to freeze in time as its inhabitants, a superstitious lot when it came to this, waited for Perkins’ signature send-off. “It’s gonna be a hot one out there today. Keep your cool, and see you back here later.”

~s&h~

After Starsky and Hutchinson spent a few minutes speaking with the uniforms that would be patrolling Sector Six along with them, they headed for Harold Dobey’s office. The empty detectives’ squad room was unnaturally quiet, almost funereal. Even the holiday decorations on Starsky’s desk failed to lighten the atmosphere. Both men shivered.

Suddenly and inexplicably embarrassed, Starsky said in a hushed voice, “Let’s get this over with.”

Hutch cocked an eyebrow upward and said, “I’m way ahead of you, buddy.” He rapped three times on the captain’s door and opened it without waiting for a summons. “Cap? Wanted to see us?”

Dobey was just hanging up the telephone when Hutch’s disembodied head thrust itself through the opening door. He waved them in, and Starsky closed the door behind them. Hutch remained standing. Starsky made a beeline for the chair closest to Dobey’s desk. Up went the feet to rest on the desktop.

Down came the feet as Dobey swept them off. Starsky frowned for a millisecond before sitting up and leaning forward in the chair. “What can we do for ya, Cap?”

“I know I said the detectives wouldn’t be working on open cases, but I’m feelin’ the heat from downtown about that tourist homicide so you have my permission to work that one today. But quietly. Don’t want the other detectives to get bent out of shape thinking you two are special.” He laughed sarcastically.

Starsky flopped back in the chair, frustrated at the reminder of how little progress they’d made in this extraordinarily tough case and pissed that Dobey’s superiors had the nerve to put pressure on him. Murder was murder, and it angered both detectives when downtown considered solving one person’s untimely demise a higher priority than another’s.

Hutch made a sweeping gesture as he said, “Captain, we’ve turned over every stone in this precinct and a lot of them in other precincts. Believe me, moss is not growing anywhere in this city. And between the two of us, we’ve asked the crime scene team at least four times to go over the evidence again. Hell, even we’ve gone over it twice.”

“Hey, I know you’ve been bustin’ a gut trying to solve this one. I just don’t want a day to go by without something being done on this case.” Dobey’s tone was the perfect blend of sympathy and pep talk.

“Okay, Cap, you got it,” Starsky replied softly. “Anything else?”

“Yeah, you two, there is. I don’t want you giving Simonetti and Dryden a hard time when you bring in your arrests today.”

“That should be interesting. Lucy and Ethel doing actual police work.”

“No, Hutch, they’re Laverne and Shirley now, remember?”

“They’re fellow officers, and as such, deserve your respect!” Dobey fumed in silence for a moment. “Their work in Internal Affairs is just as important as what you clowns do!”

“Cap’n, I don’t like bad cops any more than the next guy, but these two They’re headhunters, and think of their fellow cops as potential trophies.”

“Starsky, that’s enough! Now, treat them as you would any other intake officer, you hear me?” To emphasize his point, Dobey punched the air between him and Starsky with a tooth-marred pencil.

Hutchinson could see a heated argument about to form, so he grabbed his partner’s jacket sleeve and pulled him out of the chair. “He hears you, Captain. Anything else?”

Dobey cranked down his temper a notch or two at Hutch’s even tone. “No. Now, get outta here and on the streets.” He shook his large head several times before resting it on raised fingers. He waved twice to Starsky’s parting exclamation of “Happy Independence Day, Cap’n!”

~s&h~

“Starsky, will you please stop that whistling?” Hutchinson momentarily regretted his decision to stay partnered with a holiday addict. He was also regretting his decision to be a detective. Having to dress in layers to conceal his weapon in heat like this did not please the already perspiring blond from the upper Midwest.

The curly-haired man ceased whistling and sighed. “You got a problem with The Stars and Stripes Forever? Probably the greatest march ever written? Hutch, you promised me on that day I had the appendectomy that you wouldn’t bah and humbug the Fourth like you do Christmas.” Starsky let a tiny amount of peevishness color his words.

“Yeah, you’re right, I promised. But Starsk, do you have to whistle all the time? I can barely make out what’s coming in over the radio.”

“Okay, okay, I’ll hum. Hey, look in the glove compartment, wouldya?”

Hutchinson shot his partner a sideways glance as he cautiously opened the compartment. There, amongst the papers and extra magazines for Starsky’s handgun, was a little red gift box topped with a bright blue bow.

“Go ahead, open it. It’s for you.”

Hutch couldn’t imagine what the present could possibly be, or even what the occasion was. Feeling like a kid sneaking a peak at a Christmas gift, he lifted the top to see, resting on a bed of cotton, an enameled lapel pin shaped like a fluttering U.S. flag. One star glittered. He picked it up and was surprised by its unexpected heft.

“One of the stars there is a diamond chip.”

Hutch looked at his friend. The joy on the darker man’s face seemed to outshine the sun. “Starsk, I…”

“Look on the back,” he interrupted anxiously.

Gently turning the pin over, he strained to read the inscription. “Our friendship long nay, no it’s may, long may it wave, 7-4-1976.” This is corny as shit, thought Hutch, but I love it! “Starsky, I don’t know what to say. I mean, it’s great! Thanks,” he said as he pierced the crimson name on his shirt with the pin. “But what’s with a present? Who gives anybody a present on the Fourth of July?”

Starsky grinned broadly. “Hutch, when are you gonna realize this is a special Fourth? There’ll never be another Fourth like this again, ever. It’s one we’ll never forget.” He paused to allow that to sink into his partner’s Scroogish gray matter. “So, I dunno, getting you a gift just, well, felt right. Ya know?” He ventured a longer look at his partner since traffic in the area had thinned somewhat. “You really like it?”

“Yeah, Starsk, I do.” Hutch watched as Starsky’s grin grew even broader. Maybe it’s not so bad after all, partnering with a holiday fiend. And it is a Fourth we’ll never forget.

Neither detective knew then how right they were.

~s&h~

The first hour of patrolling turned out to be trouble-free, despite increasing traffic on the roads and bodies on the sidewalks. Both detectives knew this wouldn’t last once the alcohol began its alteration of people’s good sense.

Starsky had stopped the Torino at a crosswalk to let pedestrians by before he turned right. He was admiring the numerous, scantily clad women, many of whom had very long legs and blonde hair. He sighed deeply and smiled weakly. I gotta get me a girlfriend. He had just picked out one leggy beauty with dark red tresses for a hasty fantasy when a smack on his arm interrupted his licentious imagination. “What?” he asked a bit crankily, but continuing to look at the unofficial parade before him.

“It’s Huggy, down there, on the other side of the street. At least I think it’s Huggy.”

“Unh.” Starsky didn’t move his eyes from the women.

Hutchinson shoved his partner this time. “Starsk, we’re supposed to be watching out for trouble, not ogling the ladies.”

In a faraway voice, Starsky responded, “Well, what I’m thinkin’ about some of those ladies could get me in trouble…”

Hutch snickered quietly. He nudged Starsky’s arm and said, “Come on, let’s go see Hug. Go straight and circle around the block, okay?”

Reluctantly, Starsky said, “Yeah, okay. But you coulda let me daydream a little longer.” Again, he sighed and accelerated the powerful vehicle carefully across the street when traffic allowed.

A minute later, they were out of the car and approaching a tall, thin man wearing a red and white broad striped morning coat and matching bell-bottom pants. The top hat he wore matched the suit and was additionally adorned with a blue band studded with large white stars. On his feet were navy blue platform shoes with gold stars pasted on the chunky heels. As the detectives got closer, they finally confirmed Hutch’s suspicion that he had spotted their next-to-best friend, Huggy Bear.

The bar owner and entrepreneur was busily trying to convince a couple with a young child in a stroller to buy some Bicentennial memorabilia from him. “This is genu-wine polymerized materiel, will last until the Tricentennial, my friends. And the bottom is weighted with a real magnet. This authentic reproduction of that proud lady in New York Harbor would look perfect perched on your automobile’s dashboard.”

The partners grinned at each other as they watched the couple unhesitatingly shake their heads and Huggy reach for another item. “How about this exquisite necklace of red, white, and blue beads alternating with tiny flags? Or these salt and pepper shakers? Just the ticket for your holiday picnic!”

Again, the couple shook their heads and moved away from the stand, stroller squeaking and baby cooing. The baby reached out to the detectives as they passed each other.

“Starsk, one day that could be you pushing a stroller.”

God, I hope so. “What about you, pal? Don’t you ever feel paternal?”

Huggy Bear spoke before Hutch could answer. “Well, well, here’s the fuzz out to bust a small businessman who’s only tryin’ to do his part in shoring up a recessed economy.” Long, thin, graceful fingers stroked a phony ivory goatee.

“No, but we ought to arrest you for being a public eyesore. But then again, if I arrested you, I’d have to arrest flag boy here.”

“Hiya, Hug. Pay no attention to my holiday-hating partner here. He’s just jealous.” An expanse of dark mahogany skin showed above the deep V of the dark blue vest Huggy wore. “What happened, get up too late to finish dressin’ this morning?”

“I’ll have you know, my brother, that the fewer clothes one wears, the less time it takes to get undressed. You know what I mean?”

“Yeah, easier to strip when the armed forces recruiters come after you for impersonatin’ Uncle Sam.”

“Starsky, I’ll have you know that I am the black man’s answer to Uncle Sam. They call me Mister Sammy.”

Hutch, who had been examining Huggy’s wares while he listened to the interchange, chuckled and turned his azure eyes to meet the black man’s almond ones. “Anything at all on that tourist murder, Hug?”

Huggy took a deep breath and hooked his thumbs in the pockets of his vest. “Nothin’ since the last time you asked less than twenty-four hours ago. Nada. Zip. Man, it’s spooky. Like whoever did this is a ghost. Nobody seems to know nothin’. I hear anything, even just a peep, I’ll dial so fast that Ma Bell’ll call the fire department ‘cuz she’ll think the circuits are on fire.”

“Thanks, Huggy. Talk to you later.”

“Whoa there, my blond brother. You can’t leave without buyin’ somethin’.”

“That’s okay, Hug,” Starsky said before Hutch could launch into a tirade about sacrilege and crass commercialism. “Hey, you been holdin’ out on me. This noisemaker is great!” He twirled it several times, delighting in the loud, metallic, ratchety sound it made. “How much?”

Hutch snatched the instrument of aural torture out of his partner’s hand. With self-righteous pomp, he dropped it back into Huggy’s suitcase. He glared at the offended, open-mouthed detective while he asked, “Huggy, how much for you not to sell this overgrown adolescent any more of this…stuff?”

Starsky found his voice. “Hutch, don’t you… Huggy, don’t accept anything he offers!” He pleaded like a junkie being threatened with losing his only connection.

Huggy cocked an eyebrow. “That depends, my man. You know, the man here with the funny last name is my best customer.”

Hutch whipped out his wallet and found a twenty-dollar bill. “This should take care of it.” He held it out to the black man.

“Hutch! Huggy!” The desperation in Starsky’s voice fell on indifferent ears.

Huggy grinned and silently accepted the bill. Starsky’s disappointment showed on his face and in his posture. Huggy played with the greenback and shrugged. “Hard to deny our seventh president a new home.”

“Come on, Starsk, we have work to do.” Hutch did little to mask his smugness as he headed for the Torino. “See you later, Huggy.”

Starsky walked slowly backwards, hurt violet-blue eyes still on the black man. Huggy shrugged again, admitting he couldn’t fight the irresistible force known as Starsky, before reaching into his suitcase. He underhand-tossed the detective the same noisemaker he had just been playing with. Huggy put a finger to his lips.

Starsky, eyes a brighter blue now, nodded in acknowledgement and shoved the toy into a jacket pocket. He ran the rest of the short distance to the car, arriving before his partner. “Come on, slowpoke. We got peace to keep.”

~s&h~

After pulling into the ever-growing traffic, Starsky started humming the Sousa march once more. Hutch admitted to himself that it was more enjoyable than listening to countless verses of Jingle Bells, with official and Starsky-written lyrics, and that he was beginning to enjoy the holiday.

“Oh man, this heat is really somethin’ today,” Starsky observed after several uninterrupted minutes of humming. “Does this new apartment you’re lookin’ at have air conditioning?”

The mention of the apartment in a building with the name of “Venice Place” brought new life into the blond man. “Don’t know, Starsk. But you should see this place.” As he began describing the apartment, he became increasingly animated. “There’s a partially enclosed deck off the kitchen, and the landlord is actually considering letting me turn it into a greenhouse. And the doors are just magnificent.”

“Wait a minute here. You want this apartment because-a the doors? That’s nutty, buddy!”

“That's me, the ice cream treat all the ladies crave! " The curly-haired detective groaned and rolled his eyes. “Seriously, Starsk, that’s only one nice thing about this place. It’s in a great little neighborhood, with an organic foods co-op only a couple of blocks away. The beach is –“

The radio interrupted the conversation. “Sector Six. Man climbing Tucker Building, corner of Williston and Market.”

The partners looked at each other knowingly and shouted together, “Percy!” Hutchinson yanked the microphone from its holder and said, “This is Zebra 3, we are responding,” while Starsky spun the steering wheel to cut down a litter-strewn alley to shorten the four-block trip to the building.

The Tucker Building, an unimpressive ten-story structure housing mostly accountants’ and insurance agents’ offices, was completely surrounded by gawking onlookers when the Torino arrived at the scene less than a minute after the call. No one gave the detectives a second glance as they continually excused themselves and shouldered their ways closer to the façade.

Percy Dowling was at the fifth floor and climbing when Hutch called out, “Um, Percy, what do you think you’re doing?”

The small man in a dark blue bodysuit with thin red stripes and white fingerless gloves cautiously looked down. “Hi there, Hutch! Is Starsky … oh, there you are!” One of his bare feet slipped from its tenuous hold and the bystanders collectively inhaled noisily with fear. When his toe regained its purchase, sounds of relief rippled through the crowd. “You two know it’s not nice to distract Captain America!” Percy shouted.

Starsky and Hutch looked at each other and shrugged. Neither had any idea what to do next. Percy restarted his climb to the top.

Finally, Starsky called out, “Percy, I thought you were Spiderman. I mean, you been Spiderman ever since we met. Now you’re Captain America? Why don’t you come down so we can talk about this, hunh?”

“I’m working, Starsky!”

“Well, yeah …” Starsky paused and frantically gestured for Hutch’s help.

“Uh, Percy, even superheroes get holidays off.”

Starsky whispered, “How’s that supposed ta get him down?”

“Well, then, you come up with something better,” Hutch replied sternly. Starsky scrunched up one side of his face and signaled for his partner to continue. Raising his voice again, Hutch said, “Percy, if you don’t come down, I’m gonna have to send up the real Captain America.”

“Oh yeah?” They could hear the worry in the small man’s tone. “Well, I don’t see him nowheres, and besides, I’m Captain America today.” He pulled himself higher by one more brick.

“Sorry, Percy, you’re Spiderman. Starsky here is really Captain America. In fact, several people have recognized him already.” Hutch mouthed to his ticked-off partner to play along.

Starsky wiped some sweat from his forehead and gave Hutch a nasty look before shouting up to Percy, “You better listen to what Bucky here’s sayin’, Spidey. You know how I don’t like anybody impersonatin’ me. Now, get down here. And use the fire escape like you usually do, wouldja?”

“Wh-wh-wh-where is it?” came the tremulous reply. “I forgot!”

Oh shit! He’s losin’ it! No time to call the fire department, thought Starsky as he took the three steps necessary to get to the escape ladder. The crowd sensed it, too; all talking and a lot of breathing halted. The bottom rung was a good ten feet off the ground, and he cursed when he couldn’t jump the distance. He could hear Hutch’s voice getting closer by the second as he continued to talk with Percy.

“It’s okay, Percy. Stars – Captain America is comin’ to help you.” Hutch was now beside his partner. He squatted slightly and made a cradle with his strong hands. Starsky put his left foot in the cradle and Hutch lifted him up. Starsky grabbed the rung with both hands and began pulling himself up. Hutch took a couple of deep breaths. “Take it easy, Percy. Remember that you’re really Spiderman, and Spidey doesn’t fall. He doesn’t panic. He’s very brave. That’s you, Percy, I mean, Spiderman. You’re going to be just fine.”

Starsky clambered up the clanging metal stairs with breakneck speed. He dared not waste his breath on words until he arrived at the landing nearest Percy. Sucking air hard, hands on knees, he sputtered, “I’m here … Spidey … jus’ come ta … me now.” Percy was only a few feet away, but it seemed like miles.

“Nnnnnno, you’re Starsky,” Percy whimpered.

Perceiving Percy’s hesitation and doubt, Hutch urged, “Go on, Spidey, go to Captain America.”

“Bucky? Is that you? Then he must be Captain – “

“Yeah, tha’s me,” interrupted Starsky. He put his trust-me face on. Back against the building, he swung his left leg over the handrail so he could straddle it. He wrapped the other leg around a skinny vertical bar. He reached out for Percy, whose closest hand was still six inches to the left and at least that much more above. “Come on, Spiderman, you can do it.”

Percy gulped. Then his sight fell upon Starsky’s altered Adidas sneakers. “You truly are an Avenger!” he said so quietly that even Starsky couldn’t hear him. But the detective could see the confidence build in the small man’s eyes. Hurriedly, he wiped his wet palm on his jeans, then he leaned further to the left. Their hands were one inch closer.

On the ground, Hutch kept uttering, “Come on, come on,” like a yoga mantra. He ignored the heavy beads of briny perspiration that tickled his face and neck as he watched Percy slowly creep toward his partner, who, in Hutch’s opinion, was leaning over far too much.

The Spiderman wannabe slipped twice on his way to Starsky and the security of the fire escape. Then, their fingertips touched. Soon, fingers met palms. Starsky could feel the slickness of the man’s hand and knew he had to grab Percy around the wrist. “C’mon, just a little farther,” he entreated Percy as he stretched even more and gripped the rail tightly with his right hand.

Hutch cringed when he saw Starsky shift more of his weight off the safety of the rail. The mantra took on a feverish aspect.

Starsky, now blinking furiously to clear his vision blurred by sweat, attained a flimsy hold on Percy’s slender wrist. Immediately, Percy cried out in fearful relief and let his hold on the building go.

The sudden increase in weight, complicated by its movement, threatened to pull the dark-haired detective off his perch. “Damn!” Starsky yelled. Bending over from the force of the falling Percy, he somehow managed to use the momentum to swing him further to the right. Starsky released his hold just before Percy hit the handrail of the landing below Starsky’s. Once again, momentum worked in Percy’s favor as it sent the top half of his body over the rail. He still had the wherewithal to grasp the vertical bars and heave the rest of his short body over the rail. In the meantime, Starsky had righted himself and fell onto the landing in an exhausted, damp heap.

The crowd, which had grown considerably larger since the detectives had arrived on site, let out riotous, boisterous cheers and applause. Hutch, nearly deafened by the roar, became weak-kneed with relief. Within seconds, he felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned to find Burke and Miller, two uniforms working Sector Six.

Burke, the senior partner with close to twenty years on the force, spoke closely to Hutch’s ear. “We were cruising by when we saw this mob. Knew this had to do with that call you took. We’ll disperse ‘em while you check on the climber and Starsky, okay?”

Hutchinson gave the older man the okay sign. Miller began moving the crowd along while Burke helped Hutch onto the fire escape. Taking the steps two at a time, Hutch found himself kneeling by the trembling Percy in seconds. “You okay, Spidey?”

Embarrassed, Percy avoided eye contact. “Naw, I’m really Percy. And you’re not really Bucky. I just forgot, I guess. Sorry, Hutch.”

“You stopped taking your medication, didn’t you, Percy?” Hutch asked with nonjudgmental concern.

Percy nodded his guilt. “The medicine makes me feel bad.”

“I know, Percy. Now, you stay here. I’m going to check on Starsky.” He patted the slumped shoulder several times before rising to climb another flight of stairs.

The blond detective arrived on the next landing just in time to see his partner struggling to stand. He began worrying when he saw Starsky grimacing and favoring his left arm. He gripped the darker man’s upper arm to help him in those last few inches to the upright position. “Starsk, it’s your shoulder again, isn’t it?”

Screw that stupid, trigger-happy punk Joey! And Linda Mascelli didn’t help things none when she flung me across her apartment… “Yeah, it’ll be okay in a minute. How’s Spidey?” Several of the stretched and overtaxed muscles contracted without warning, causing him to inhale sharply. Under the flush of activity, he turned pale.

“Percy’s okay, Starsk. You need to get that arm checked out. We gotta take him to the hospital anyway.”

Starsky thought about protesting, but the continuing spasms conspired with his partner. “Guess it’s a good thing Percy used ta be a jockey, you know, before he went crazy,” he said to divert his partner’s attention away from his unsteady descent down the escape.

The diversion didn’t work on Hutchinson, but he respected Starsky’s wish to downplay his injury and discomfort. “Yeah. If he were much bigger, he’d be riding Man o’ War right about now.”

Once on the landing with Percy, Starsky said with sweet concern, “Percy, are you tryin’ to give Hutch an’ me heart attacks? Ya know your elevator don’t go all the way to the top.”

Percy huffed and replied condescendingly, “Of course I know that, Starsky. Why do you think I climb?”

Hutch’s chest jerked with silent laughter as he helped Percy stand. “He’s got a point, Starsk.”

Starsky’s lips withdrew into a frown. “Let’s get down from here, okay? Makin’ me nervous.”

~s&h~

Since Starsky’s left arm was more or less nonfunctional, Hutch had insisted on driving the Torino to County General Hospital. Starsky, already sullen from the injury, had become more so when he had relinquished the keys. The heat, nearing oppressive levels, and his thirst had compounded his misery.

Once Percy had been handed off to several mental health specialists, Hutch had cornered an emergency room resident he knew from Vinnie’s Gym to take a look at his partner’s shoulder. The young physician diagnosed muscle strain after a quick but thorough history and examination and Starsky had left the ER with an ice pack strapped to his shoulder and a small complimentary bottle of aspirin after a long draft at the water fountain.

Now, as the detectives stood in the shade of the ER entrance’s overhang, Starsky said, “Hey, I’m still thirsty. Whaddya say we play a game for who buys the drinks?”

The blond man immediately became suspicious. “Okay, Starsk, I’ll bite. What kind of game are you talking?”

Here’s where all that readin’ pays off. “How ‘bout an Independence Day game of horse. Like in the basketball game, ‘cept we ask each other questions about the Revolution.” Cautiously, he rotated his strained shoulder and noted the pain had lessened significantly. “Instead-a ‘horse,’ we could call it ‘fourth’!”

“You mean, we play like it’s horse, but we ask questions instead.”

Starsky smiled wickedly to himself. “Yeah, that’s it. And for each question you get wrong, you get a letter and you buy the drinks.”

Why do I get the feeling I’m about to be had? Hesitantly, Hutch replied, “All right, let’s play. I’ll go first.”

“Wait a minute, partner. Let’s make this more interesting. How about whoever gets to ‘fourth’ first springs for all the beer at Huggy’s next time?”

“Okay, Starsk, you’re on,” Hutch said with a cockiness he didn’t feel. This has got to be a set-up, and I’m walking right into it. “But don’t go crying in the beer you’ll be buying us when I beat the sneakers off you.” He cleared his throat. “Here goes, first question. How many people signed the Declaration of Independence?”

Without missing a beat, Starsky replied, “Fifty-six.” He grinned triumphantly. “You got an ‘f,’ buddy boy, and you owe me a drink.” Starsky paused a few moments to decide what he wanted; Hutch, open-mouthed and stunned, stared at this partner. “I want a tall, cold lemonade.”

Annoyed, the blond man shook his head. “Let’s go, Eye-gor, and find you a lemonade stand.” He slipped on his amber-lensed glasses and stepped out into the bright sunlight.

“’Hump? What hump?’” Starsky chuckled. “Hey, you can’t call me that!” he called out to Hutch’s back. “His hump kept switchin’ sides! Mine’s melting!” He had to sprint to catch up with his partner, who was sliding behind the Torino’s steering wheel.

~s&h~

By the time Hutchinson had found and paid for two lemonades, the Fourth of July parade was well underway. Starsky, never one to miss such a spectacle, had radioed in to Metro that they would be on foot patrol for a while. The ice in his pack had completely melted, the condensation having made a good deal of his jacket and T-shirt wet. He was just finishing removing the elastic bandage that had held the bag in place when Hutch returned to the car.

With eager sheepishness, Starsky informed his partner about the call to Metro. He waited for several seconds before Hutch replied, “Good idea, Starsk. It’s about time we watched a parade, rather than be one like we have all morning.”

“Are you tryin’ to tell me somethin’ about my car?”

“Yeah, partner, I guess I am. It’s a mobile spectacle, Starsk, and, I mean this sincerely, it looks like a parade float from Mars!”

“You really think it looks like a float?” Starsky slurped a large gulp of the sugary-tart beverage.

Hutch sighed and rolled his eyes. “Yes, I do.”

“Terrific! That’s what I was shootin’ for!” He skipped forward a few steps. “C’mon, Hutch, we’re gonna miss the parade!”

The detectives chose to walk against the procession of participants and floats. Hutch concentrated on studying the throngs of sweaty, celebrating spectators, while Starsky paid more attention to the goings-on in the street.

About ten minutes into their foot patrol, Hutchinson felt a change in his friend’s disposition. He focussed his attention on Starsky. The bounce had left the darker man’s gait, and he was staring at something. Slowly, he stopped walking. Hutch stopped as well and shifted his gaze from Starsky to what he was watching.

Passing the detectives was the veterans’ group of marchers. One man walked in front, carrying a large American flag. Behind him in rows of military precision were vets of all ages. A few were in wheelchairs. Some wore their dress uniforms, others wore civilian clothes, yet others wore combinations. As they passed by silently, making no sound but the clomping of their boots and shoes as they hit the pavement in unison, Hutchinson felt the urge to salute them, and didn’t fight it. Out of the corner of his eye, he observed that Starsky’s right hand now covered his heart.

“How many Fourths did you have overseas, Starsk?” asked Hutchinson quietly and respectfully as the veterans moved farther away.

Starsky answered his partner by lifting two fingers off his chest. Inwardly, he grinned his appreciation of Hutch’s sensitivity. Only Hutch would say “overseas” and not Vietnam. “I’ve had enough of parades for one day. Let’s go back to the car. I’m drivin’.” Starsky squinted as his gaze passed briefly over Hutch’s face.

Hutch easily recognized that Starsky had become subdued and introspective. One of these days, he’ll talk about his tour. If not to me, then someone else. “Sounds like a plan. You sure your shoulder is up to it?”

“Yeah, it’s okay now. Aspirin’s had a chance to kick in.”

“Hey, did I see Marcellus Cobb? I thought he had moved back to Chicago to be with family. You know, to get clean.” Hutch shuddered, feeling empathetic for what Lt. Slate’s snitch must have gone through.

“That’s what Dan said a coupla months ago. Looks like Marcellus prefers the warmer climate and gentle ocean breezes and easier access to Mexican brown."

Hutchinson nodded grimly, sadly agreeing with the implication that Cobb most likely had not been successfully rehabilitated.

They about-faced to head back to the Torino. As they strode briskly through the many revelers, Hutchinson marveled at the strength of his friend, grateful that he had come out of Vietnam so unlike Cobb.

~s&h~

Minutes after returning to the car and resuming their regular patrol, a still restrained Starsky spotted a small gathering of people huddled around something or someone several blocks off the parade route. “Hey, Hutch,” he said in the tone that always made his partner prepare for action.

Hutch, who had been scanning the opposite side of the street, first glanced at Starsky, then followed his line of sight. “Let’s see if we can get invited to the party.”

Starsky nodded and double-parked the car, leaving only one lane for traffic open in that direction. Horns started to blast angrily and impatiently, so Hutch slapped the mars light on the roof and initiated the flashing. He caught up with Starsky in the middle of the street, where he held his badge up in a futile attempt to get oncoming vehicles to stop.

“You’re a native New Yorker, Starsk. Why don’t you cross the street like one?” teased the native Minnesotan.

“’Cuz the people here don’t know how to drive like New Yorkers.” Starsky inspired deeply and snorted. “Aw, hell, here goes nothin’!” This time, he held up an empty hand and stepped beyond the road’s dividing line, Hutch a half-pace behind him.

Tires and brakes squealed, followed closely by belligerent honking, flipped birds, and colorful epithets. Starsky responded to the unexpected behaviors from normally laid-back Californians with some hood smacking and some hand gestures of his own; for a moment, he felt like he was back in the Big Apple. Hutch laughed to himself as he envisioned what things would be like walking the mean streets of New York City with his assertive partner.

Starsky had his shield out once more in his right hand. With his left, he moved people aside as he said amiably yet forcefully, “Po-lice, let us through here. Come on, break it up now.” Hutchinson remained at his heels.

A path to the focal point of the small assemblage readily formed. Starsky grinned when he recognized who the center of attention was. “Hiya, Fingers. Long time no see, schweetheart. Good to see ya.”

Hutch elbowed his way to stand beside Starsky. “Mandy! When did you get out?”

“A coupla weeks ago,” the young white woman with mousy brown hair and light brown eyes replied. Mandy Hill, who had been dubbed “Fingers” by Starsky on their first encounter, stood behind a TV tray covered with playing cards. Even though she was just over five feet tall and tipped the scales at 90 pounds, her extroverted personality made her seem much larger. “Lookin’ good, DM, lookin’ real good.”

“Yeah, I bet even Hutch would look good after six months.” Starsky ambled over to stand close to the petite woman.

“Even though the two of you busted me, put me in stir, don’t hold that against ya. You were just doin’ your job, hey, Hutch?”

“Mandy, you didn’t have to go to jail. Starsky and I did warn you about pickpocketing. And what are you doing here? Not games of chance with a little wagering, I hope.”

Fingers audibly inhaled and screwed her face up. “Do you honestly think I’d do something illegal?” she asked with righteous indignation. “Hey now, learned my lesson. Don’t have to roust me twice!”

“Then what are you doin’, Fingers?”

“You see, DM, I learned a few tricks in stir.” Starsky and Hutch exchanged uh-oh glances. Mandy stomped her feet to draw their attention back to her. “Hey now, I learned card tricks. Simple, fascinating, blow-your-mind card tricks. Nobody wagers anything. If they like, they give me gift. Monetary gift. Legal tender acquired legally, and tax-free.” She smiled ingenuously.

Starsky’s hands found their way to his hips and he bent down to come face-to-face with the girl. “I hate to tell you this, Fingers, but this looks awfully suspicious. We could probably make a case against ya, but me and Hutch, well, we’re warnin’ you again. How’s about packin’ up your cards and your table, and go enjoy the parade, okay?”

Mandy stared into the sapphire eyes for a few seconds. “Okay, DM, but only for you.” She winked seductively at the darker man and comically at the other. Hutch smiled sweetly and headed for the curb. She began the process of folding up her business.

“That’s a good girl.” He playfully patted her cheek. “Keep your nose clean, all right? You’re too cute to be locked up.” He had only walked a few steps away from her to join his partner when she said matter-of-factly, “Hey now, DM, forgot your toy.”

He looked back at her while he thrust his hands into his jacket pockets – empty except for his hands. “Fingers,” he growled and scowled. Taking one long stride back – close enough to retrieve his noisemaker but far enough to make picking his pockets much harder – he grabbed his toy and quickly returned it to its proper hiding place. “Learned your lesson?” he scolded.

The girl bowed her head and raised her eyes to the officer. “Yep, sure did. Returned it, didn’t I? Hey now, just a pick for old time’s sake.” She smiled innocently. “Oh, almost forgot your badge.”

Starsky snatched the sweat-stained leather case from her open hand and grumbled something to himself. She giggled and blew him a kiss before going back to packing her belongings.

Seconds later, Starsky stood by Hutch at the curb. “I oughta run her in for that, Hutch. Did you see what she did?”

“What I saw was that stupid noisemaker. How did you get it? Huggy caved, didn’t he?” Hutch’s ire rose a few notches.

“But, Hutch, it can’t be the Fourth without a little noise.”

The blond man sighed sharply and audibly. He rolled his head and put his left hand on his hip and his right index finger in Starsky’s face. “So help me, Starsk, if you start cranking that … thing, so help me, I’ll –“

“Okay, okay, you don’t hafta paint me a picture. Hey, who’s that hangin’ out near my car?” Starsky started across the busy boulevard, again playing the part of an aggressive pedestrian.

Hutchinson instantly recognized the shabby figure pacing along the street between the Torino and the car it blocked in. Wailin’ Willie! Wonder what he’s got for us. He was on Starsky’s heels once more as the latter stopped traffic with a New York flair.

“Hutch!” the old, gray man called out as the detective joined him on the passenger side of the Torino. Starsky held back a few paces in deference to the sometimes informant who preferred to interact with Hutch.

Hutchinson smiled warmly at the elderly man with gray, straggly hair, wearing a colorless, threadbare suit jacket several sizes too large. “Hi, Willie. What’re you doing this far from your stomping grounds?”

“Had to find ya, Hutch. I saw sumpin’ that you might wanna know. You know that old storefront on Kensington near the packagin’ plant?”

“The one that used to be a, uh,” he said, snapping his fingers in hopes of jarring his memory.

“Massage parlor,” interjected Starsky.

“Yeah. So what about this old parlor, Willie?”

“’Bout a week or so ago, I decided to sleep in the alley next to it and I seen this man with no hair anywheres on him, come outta the side door of that place.”

“How do you know he didn’t have any hair?”

“’Cuz he was buck nekkid, I tell ya, Hutch. And he was carryin’ a dirty meat cleaver, swingin’ it around and growlin’ like some kinda aminal. I ain’t sleepin’ there again.”

Hutchinson could feel the snitch recoil from the recollection of what was surely a frightening sight. “Anything else that you can remember seeing, hearing?”

Willie paused a moment while he searched his muscatel-muddled memory. “I’m not sure, Hutch, but I think he had some kinda mark on his chest. Cain’t say for sure.” He hung his head, ashamed and disappointed that he couldn’t be of more help to the only cops that treated him with respect.

“That’s okay, Willie. If you remember, you know how to find me and Starsky. By the way, Willie, you working today?”

“Yeah. Gotta sing for my supper.”

Behind his back, Hutch signaled for his partner to come up with some money. Starsky had already pulled a ten-dollar bill from his money clip and stuffed it in Hutch’s hand. “Well, Starsk and I want you to take the rest of the day off, okay?” Hutch fished a ten out of his wallet and gave both bills to Willie.

The old man’s drab, rheumy eyes brightened at the gift. “Thanks, Hutch, Starkey. It’ll be nice, givin’ the voice box a rest.”

Starsky began to correct Willie, but halted, knowing it was useless. Must be Eddie Hoyle’s cousin, he thought. “Thanks for the information, Willie. And Happy Independence Day,” he said over Hutch’s shoulder. Hutch lightly squeezed Willie’s scrawny shoulder as his good-bye.

“You, too, Starkey. Your car sure is dressed for the occasion. Looks nice.” Willie paused again, until he found the word he wanted. “Festive.”

The dark-haired man grinned broadly while he jabbed the taller blond in front of him in the back. “Ah, a man with taste. Thanks, Willie.” Starsky virtually pranced to the driver’s door.

Hutch gave a mock grimace of pain followed by an equally mocking look of disgust as he climbed into the car. As Starsky started and revved the engine a couple of times, Hutch said, “You do realize that Willie lost his job in advertising because he had poor taste.”

“Give it up, Hutch. In your heart, you know this car looks great today.”

Hutch unbuttoned his bowling shirt and flapped it several times in an ineffectual attempt to cool off. “Well, I do believe Willie when he says he saw a naked guy with a meat cleaver,” he declared as he pulled the mac light back into the car. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

“Yeah. The coroner said the wounds on that dead tourist were probably made by a cleaver, and I don’t think he meant Wally or the Beav.”

“And the crime team couldn’t find any hairs or fibers that didn’t seem to belong.”

Starsky slowly began accelerating the car. “I think it might be time to quietly check out that abandoned building, make sure there aren’t squatters there. You know, for the public’s safety.” Hope this is the break we’ve been lookin’ for.

“Starsky, in this car, we can’t do anything quietly.” In response, Starsky started whistling The Stars and Stripes Forever again. Hutch glared at him and said impatiently, “So, what do you suggest we tell dispatch? I think that building is in Sector Five. We’re supposed to be keeping any investigating today quiet.”

“Why don’t ya have ‘em patch you through to Dobey? Let him figure it out. Besides, we got time; it’ll take us forever to get there in this traffic. A snail with notarized papers stating it unfit for escargot is moving faster than us.”

“Good idea, partner.” Hutchinson removed the microphone from its holder to begin the process of deviating from the official orders of the day.

As they waited for Dobey to respond, something not quite right in a small, nearby corner park drew Hutch’s focus. “Starsk, 2 o’clock, old lady getting mugged!”

The dark blue eyes shifted to the direction indicated just in time to see a young white male lance the elderly woman’s arm with some sort of knife. The detectives simultaneously realized that they could get to her and her assailant faster on foot. Hutch was out of the car before Starsky could bring it to a complete stop.

His long legs swiftly eating up the yards, the big blond arrived just in time to catch the aged woman before her head could make contact with the ground. He had a damp yellowed-white handkerchief out of his back pocket and on the woman’s bleeding arm before Starsky could catch up. Hutch then lunged after the mugger, who had made the mistake of not taking off as soon as he had pushed his prey down. He brought the boy down, both of them grunting in unison. “Police!” breathed a slightly winded Hutch. The perpetrator was able to free a leg and gifted the officer with a glancing blow to the head as he shouted, “Pig!”

Hutchinson, stunned, involuntarily loosened his hold on the mugger’s other leg. The latter easily pulled free and scrambled on all fours in an effort to put some distance between him and the scene of his crime.

Starsky, believing that his partner had everything under control with the mugger, had stopped to aid the woman. “You’re gonna be okay, ma’am,” he reassured the silently hysterical victim as he patted her thin, bony hand. Just as he reached to apply pressure to her wound, he saw that the thief was free and quickly snaking away from his dazed partner. He stood to pursue but was held back by the unexpectedly strong grip of the victim. “Lady, let go, wouldja?!” he insisted as he jerked his arm away.

By this time, the mugger had regained his footing and dashed away from the three people on the grass, leaving his plunder behind. Before giving chase, Starsky allowed himself a quick glance at his partner. Hutch was on his side, slowly rocking back and forth, but with eyes open. Relieved that he seemed okay, the dark-haired detective hurdled over Hutch and with arms churning like a windmill in high winds, bolted after the perp.

The mugger had a decent head start on Starsky but the crowds prevented him from increasing that lead. He slowed and began wielding the knife to convince the people to let him through. The already noisy celebrants increased the volume with high-pitched shrieks.

Starsky, now fairly drenched in sweat, rapidly closed in on the mugger. He unzipped his jacket to partially free the Smith & Wesson from its holster. Staying several arm lengths behind the now-jogging perp, Starsky shouted over the screams, “Stop! Police!”

The mugger ended his flight abruptly and whirled to face his pursuer, and for the first time, the curly-haired detective got a good look at him. Damn! Can’t be more’n 15, 16. A dingy T-shirt that had been white at one time and faded blue jeans with multiple tears and holes hung on his gaunt body. The brown hair was filthy and matted. His boots were well-worn camouflage Army surplus. But the stormy, hopeless eyes told Starsky the most important piece of information. Christ – he’s a hype.

Starsky kept his distance, acknowledging that it was the better part of common sense not to charge a heroin addict in need and who had already shown that he wasn’t afraid to use the chef’s knife he held in his right hand. Since everyone in the vicinity also had exercised good sense, the mugger had no one close enough to snatch for a hostage. The detective took one cautious baby step forward. He slowly raised his own right hand, palm up. “I’m not gonna hurt you. I’m a cop, I’m here to help you.” He tried to sound soothing and reassuring, even though he felt anger for what the perp had done to Hutch. He chanced another baby step forward.

The mugger’s stare widened, but he didn’t back away. What had been minor tremors that had not been noticeable before now became glaringly obvious. The only part not shaky was the hand with the weapon.

Another tiny step closer. For an instant, Starsky felt like he was a tot just learning to walk. A sudden stab of the knife in his direction jerked the detective back to reality. “Okay, okay. I’m not comin’ any nearer. But I can still help you. All you gotta do is put the knife down and I can help you.”

Starsky could see the thug trying to think, trying to decide. Then those agitated eyes telegraphed that he had made up his mind. Starsky held his breath and waited for the mugger to make his move.

And that move was straight at Starsky, with the knife leading the way. Starsky had plenty of time to side-step to his left. The knife passed harmlessly through the underside of his right jacket sleeve. In almost the same instant, he lifted his right knee. It connected with the attacker’s lower abdomen. Starsky controlled the boy’s descent to the hot concrete.

Efficiently grabbing and tossing the knife just out of reach of its owner, Starsky’s nostrils flared at the stench. The young hype reeked of stale urine and sweat, staler cigarettes, week-old vomit, and desperation. The officer’s curly head and infamous iron stomach swirled for a brief moment. As he snapped the handcuffs on the perp’s trembling wrists, he spoke out, “All over here, folks. Go on back to enjoying yourselves.” Picking the knife up with his left hand, he stood. With his right, he took the upper arm of the boy and helped him to his feet. “Come on, let’s go inspect the damage you just did, huh?” The mugger stumbled and swayed, requiring Starsky to help him return to the scene.

By the time the pair retraced their steps, Hutchinson had recovered from the blow to his head. He had the victim reclining on the grass, her head propped on her massive, rescued purse. He was kneeling beside her, speaking calmly and applying pressure to her laceration, all the time wondering how she could carry a bag big enough for a double kitchen sink.

Starsky, his head telling him that Hutch was all right, his heart telling him not to believe his head until he himself had checked out Hutch, picked up the pace. The junkie-assailant stumbled but managed not to fall. Once they were a few feet from his partner and the old woman, Starsky growled impatiently, “Park it!”

The junkie looked around for something to sit on, but didn’t see anything nearby. “On what?” he said with hostile contempt.

Starsky roughly pulled, then pushed the thief to the ground. “On your keister, whaddya think? Gotta have a head to sit on that.”

“Police brutality!” yelled the hype. When no one paid him any attention, he rocked himself and cursed the shaking that signaled the onset of the earliest stage of withdrawal.

Starsky wiped the heavy perspiration from his forehead before squatting next to his partner. He held a closed fist in front of his face. “Hey, Hutch, how many fingers I got up?”

Hutch stared at the fist in his face, then glared at Starsky. “What is this? Some kind of trick question?”

“Just answer me, huh? How many fingers?” he repeated as if he were talking to a first-grader.

Frustrated with his needlessly concerned partner, Hutch responded testily, “Starsk, I’m fine. Didn’t even lose consciousness.”

“How many?”

Hutch rolled his eyes and wondered if his friend had actually arranged to get more than his share of stubbornness when it was passed out. “Okay. None. You happy now?”

“Good! Now, that didn’t hurt a bit, did it?”

A tanned, heavily muscled young man wearing a sleeveless T-shirt and Hawaiian print baggies interrupted any further conversation. “Sir, an ambulance is on the way.”

Fifteen minutes later, Mrs. Hilda Benford was on her way to County General for treatment of the cut on her arm. Now feeling safe, she began animatedly relating her tale of terror and of salvation to the ambulance personnel and to the few people determined to see the incident’s conclusion.

As the detectives reached for their prisoner, he vomited what seemed to be a gallon of extraordinarily foul lumpy liquid. Somehow, none splattered on them but that didn’t stop the expression of their disgust.

“Well, Starsk, at least it, whatever it is, is out of his system,” Hutch said once he had controlled his urge to imitate the prisoner. He could tell that Starsky was still having some trouble.

They heaved him up and practically carried him to the Torino between them. Hutch opened the passenger door and folded the back of the seat forward. “Hey, kid, what’s your name?” Starsky released his hold and headed for the other side.

“Bbbbbarry.”

“Well, okay, Barry. Get in. We’re taking you to Metro Division to book you on – “

“NO! You can’t do that! I’m hurtin’, man, I need some help, you know what I mean?” Barry’s voice shook with panic.

Hutch canted his head and said conversationally, “What makes you think I know what you mean?”

Starsky, watching the two over the roof of the car, instantly recognized that Hutch’s body language didn’t match his tone. He primed himself to move quickly.

Barry slipped into addict-manipulative mode. “I, I, I don’t know, man. I guess you seem like the understandin’ type, ya know?”

In an instant, Hutchinson was on Barry, smashing the boy’s back against the Torino and crushing his chest with an arm. Starsky raced over the hood and danced around the open door to grasp Hutch’s shoulders from behind.

“No, I don’t understand. Why would you be a junkie, a hype, hunh?” Hutch’s tone was menacing and angry. “Did somebody kidnap you, tie you up six different ways -“

Starsky tugged gently at the tense and quaking shoulders and whispered, “Hutch?”

Hutch twisted to remove his friend’s hands. “And keep you in the dark, and you find yourself wishing you couldn’t hear either, and they beat you till you were senseless and half-dead – “

“Hutch?” This time, Starsky was more urgent and less gentle.

“Dammit, Starsky, leave me alone! Can’t you see we’re having a conversation here?” he raged softly. He turned back to their prisoner and spat out, “Did anybody force that needle in your arm? Against your will? Hunh? ANSWER ME, DAMMIT!”

Barry was petrified and totally incapable of responding. His eyes began to resemble those of an animal with its leg caught in a trap of spikes. He tried to shrink away, but he had nowhere to go.

Starsky was frantic with worry. He had seen Hutch deal with heroin addicts a number of times since his own ordeal less than a year ago, and he had been the picture of sympathy, if not empathy. Now, Starsky had no clue as to why his best friend had exploded like this. But before he could help Hutch, he had to save Barry from Hutch. Putting his entire body into it, the darker cop uttered an “Aaaaaarrrggggghhhhhh!” and wrenched Hutchinson away with enough force for him to twirl around several times. Panting heavily from both the exertion and his fear for Hutch’s sanity, he helped Barry into the Torino’s back seat. Barry promptly laid down and sobbed.

Hutchinson was walking in tight circles in some invisible cage, eyes hooded. Fuck you, Forrest! thought Starsky with more vehemence than he expected. Finally, Starsky approached him. Don’t crowd him, he advised himself. “Hey, babe, you okay? That was some act there. I think you may have cured him.” He gave the quaking, enflamed man a lopsided grin. “Maybe you oughta be bad cop from now on, huh?”

The long legs ceased their circling. Sky-blue eyes looked upwards for a few moments before settling on sapphire blue ones. Hutchinson ran a hand through his damp hair and grinned with both shame and gratitude. Starsk, how do you always know what to say? “Yeah, I’m okay. But this bad cop thing. Doesn’t feel natural for me. You can keep that job, okay, buddy?”

Starsky accepted the implied apology and the return of Hutch’s usual demeanor. Maybe this blow-up was what he needed. He put his arm around the blond’s shoulders and led him back to the car. Starsky didn’t bother to say anything to the large group of bystanders that had congregated. Hell, it’s a holiday. Let ‘em stare and stay here all day if they wanna.

Hutch’s grin became much more shame than gratitude when he saw the whimpering, quivering junkie in the back seat. He decided not to say anything, lest he send the boy back into heavy sobs. As Starsky closed him in, the radio squawked their call sign. “This is Zebra 3, go ahead.”

“Zebra 3, switch to Tac 2 for Captain Dobey.” Hutchinson made the necessary adjustment while Starsky settled himself in the driver’s seat.

“Where the hell have you two been?!” roared Dobey. It was so loud that both detectives reached for the volume control together, conking heads lightly. “Dispatch has been trying to raise you for the last 20 minutes!”

“Well, Captain, Starsky and I witnessed an assault in progress, and the victim was hurt, Starsky had to direct traffic –“

“I don’t want to hear it!” Dobey wanted to be furious with them for making him wait, but he knew they had done the right thing. “Is it too much to hope for that you actually caught the assailant?”

“We were just on our way in with him, Captain.”

“Good. As soon as you drop off your collar, report to my office. I’ll tell dispatch you’re on your way in.”

“10-4.” Hutch replaced the microphone. “Starsk, can you spare a couple of those aspirins?”

~s&h~

Even with the mac light flashing, the journey to Metro Division was slow going. To pass the time and take their minds off the junkie – who had fallen into a restless sleep – they continued to play “Fourth.” Starsky was pulling into an open spot on the street at Metro’s main door when he crowed, “That’s an f-o-u-r for you, and nothin’ for me! By my calculations, you owe me three drinks.”

“Just hold your horses, pal of mine. How can I be sure about what you say the answers are? What you’ve asked is so, so obscure!”

“What, you sayin’ I’d cheat you, my best friend in the whole world? I’m hurt, Hutch, really.” Starsky pretended to be deeply offended.

Hutch backed off from being so harsh, but continued his objection. “Starsky, I’m not saying that. What I’m saying, I guess, is that maybe there ought to be some verification.”

“Fine with me, but you’re just gonna put off the inevitable.”

“Anyway, Starsky,” said Hutch, waving a hand about to emphasize his point, “who knows how many signers of the Declaration owned slaves? Or which two presidents died on July fourth? Who cares? Hell, when I was in school, I learned practical things, like reading, writing, and arithmetic.”

“Didn’t you take civics?”

“Yes, I took civics, but I don’t remember all that useless information.” The blond’s complexion reddened with the peevishness he was experiencing.

Starsky’s mouth turned up slightly at each end. “It dudn’t seem so useless to me – you’re the one losin' this little game. I’ll take a Coke.” He was out of the car before Hutchinson’s wrath could descend on him. He peeked back into the car and shouted to their human bundle in the back, “Hey, Sleeping Beauty! Wake up before you swallow the apple.”

It was overwhelmingly obvious that Barry was in need of a fix, and soon. The partners hustled the young addict up the stairs and to intake after notifying Sergeant Perkins of their arrival.

Simonetti was involved with one suspect brought in by Babcock and Simmons, the zebra unit detectives assigned to Sector Three. It was easy to deduce the Internal Affairs officer’s frazzled state of being. Even in the air conditioning, his high brow glistened with perspiration and his eyes and lips looked pinched, as if lemon juice had been squirted in them. His sport coat was off as well – something no one in the division had ever seen while he was on duty.

Starsky and Hutchinson exchanged sly smirks as they and their suspect approached Simonetti. Before either detective could speak, Simonetti snapped, “That one’s Dryden’s.”

Hutch said amiably, “That’s all well and good, Simonetti, but you seem to have misplaced him. Are you sure you haven’t processed him?” Starsky suppressed a snicker with difficulty.

“You’re too funny, Hutchinson.” Simonetti’s tone was as dry as Death Valley. “Maybe you ought to have your own TV show.”

“Who, Starsky and Hutchinson?” This comment came from behind them. Still clinging to the mugger, the two detectives swiveled their heads to see Dryden a few feet behind them. He sniffed several times and adopted a look of profound disgust. “P-yew, Starsky, don’t you ever wash?”

“That’s not me, Dryden. It’s your upper lip. And Simonetti here. You figure it out.”

Hutchinson laughed quietly at the absurd but humorous implication of his partner’s words. “Got a live one for you, Dryden.” They turned toward the desk where Dryden had already sat his long frame. “Oh, sorry, is it Laverne or Shirley? I forget.”

Dryden cast a quick scornful glance at the blond man, but treated Starsky to a long one of utter loathing. “One of these days, Starsky, you’ll get yours. And I’ll be there to celebrate.”

“Terrific. Then you bring the hats,” Starsky rejoined. He glared into the almost black eyes of the junior IA officer. “Now, here, process him, so Hutch and I can get back to doing real police work.”

The black man started to rise from his chair but stopped halfway when Simonetti said in an even tone, “Dryden, we have a few more arrests coming in. Better get a move on.” Dryden slowly lowered himself into the chair, without once breaking eye contact with his curly-haired adversary.

~s&h~

Starsky had no trouble convincing his partner to head for the cafeteria after they were through in intake. Both were hungry, and were not sure when they’d be able to eat once Dobey was through with them. “Besides,” Starsky had said when trying to persuade Hutch, “you owe me a Coke, and I want it now.”

The cafeteria was deserted. Guess this is as good a time as any to ask what happened, thought Starsky as he pulled the knob for a Snickers bar. He peeled down the wrapper to bare half the candy bar, then took a big bite.

Hutch, 16-ounce bottle of Coca-Cola in one hand and an orange juice half that size in the other, joined Starsky. “Here,” he said as he presented the Coke to his partner. Then he grasped the hand holding one of his favorite confections and bit off the rest of the exposed bar. “You know, buddy, that one of these days, Dryden’s gonna come after you with both barrels if you don’t stop provoking him like that.”

“Aw, screw Dryden. He’s too scared to do anything that might jeopardize his precious career. If you can call IA a career.” He took a long sip of the ice-cold soda and enjoyed the distinctive fizz that the chocolate and cola made in his mouth. As he finished unwrapping the candy, he said calmly, “Now do you want to tell me what happened with that hype?” He offered Hutch the next bite.

The sky-blue eyes narrowed slightly as they studied every contour of the Snickers. The white teeth cut into the multi-textured food and then chewed it for a few moments, taste buds relishing the wondrous blend of flavors. The remaining piece left his field of vision. Then he heard Starsky’s chewing and felt his infinite, stubborn patience that so few people even knew existed. You’re not going to let this one pass, are you, Starsky? “I think it was his age, Starsky, that got to me. The fact that he made such a horrible choice so early in life.” He snorted in frustration and rolled his head in a circle. “Oh, hell, I’m not sure that’s it. Maybe…” The blond man paused and began to tremble.

Starsky let a few heartbeats go by. “Maybe what?”

In a tiny, weak whisper, Hutchinson continued. “Maybe I saw in him what I could have become without –“

“No way, Hutch. You didn’t want that shit, never did, never will. You got clean because you wanted to, more’n anything else in the world. Me and Huggy just helped.” Starsky grinned broadly, the pride he had in his partner manifesting itself.

“Starsky?” The voice was stronger, more confident.

“Yeah?”

“Maybe chocolate, peanuts, and caramel are brain food.” Hutchinson’s free hand cupped the nape of his friend’s neck for a few seconds as he smiled in return.

~s&h~

The detectives took their time getting to Captain Dobey’s office. They had agreed not to enter through the squad room, but to go straight in using the hallway door. Starsky had a grip on the doorknob when they heard Minnie Kaplan call out to them.

“Where have you guys been?” Minnie asked with rapidfire speech. “I been looking all over for you. Cap got a call to go out to a homicide and now he wants you to join him.” She shook her head in mock wonderment. “Why he would want you two to investigate anything escapes me.” She gave them directions to a farmhouse on the edge of their jurisdiction and suggested they hurry. “Oh-captain-our-captain made this sound real urgent. Never heard him sound like that. Well, better get back to dispatch. Things are really heating up in this town.”

“Thanks, Minnie,” said Hutch as he and Starsky trotted for the stairs.

She pushed her glasses, a perfect copy of the specs worn by her musical hero Buddy Holly, up the bridge of her nose. “Hey, Starsky!” He stopped at the head of the stairs and looked back at her. “You can investigate me any time, honey.”

~s&h~

Even with lights and sirens, a trip that would ordinarily take 20 minutes in those circumstances took close to thirty. This, plus the blinding heat and the knowledge of yet another homicide they had to solve, had shortened Hutchinson and Starsky’s tempers considerably. They didn’t speak for the entire drive there.

Starsky turned in at the mailbox at the foot of the farmhouse’s long and winding gravel driveway. The rear end of the Torino fishtailed but this fact didn’t slow him down.

Hutchinson broke the silence. “The mailbox read, ‘Jeff and Linda Fox.’ Think it could be –“

“The tight end for the BC Buccaneers? Prob’ly.” Starsky prayed he was wrong. He and Jeff Fox had gone to high school together, when Starsky, as a senior on the varsity football team, had some limited association with the promising freshman player. After a spectacular college career, Fox pursued one in professional football and had three impressive seasons with the Buccaneers. Starsky had followed that career closely, even during his stint in the army. His brow furrowed as he tried to remember a write-up about Jeff and his family some months ago.

Hutchinson had met Fox several times around town at bars catering to country-western music lovers. Fox had stopped frequenting the bars once he married Linda; Hutch hadn’t run into him for over a year. The cop had found the athlete to be down-to-earth and unassuming. He prayed, too, that this crime did not involve an acquaintance. Working a homicide was taxing enough as it was without making it more personal.

A cloud of light gray dust enveloped the Torino as it skidded to a stop near the only patrol car present. The coroner’s wagon was there, as was the crime team van, those two vehicles being closest to the old farmhouse. Dobey’s car was on the lawn. Everyone who was supposed to be at the scene of a homicide was there, but no one seemed to be working. Both uniforms were in the back seat of their vehicle, with someone sitting between them. Everyone else but Dobey was outside, doing nothing but standing around and looking lost and dazed.

The detectives exchanged concerned, puzzled glances over the car’s roof. Starsky jerked his head toward the house and took off for it, not stopping to talk with anyone. Hutchinson made for Dobey’s car, hoping to find him and get some sort of explanation for what was, or wasn’t, going on.

He found the large man sitting on the front passenger seat, wing-tipped feet on the pale green grass. The captain had buried his face in his thick hands. Hutchinson noticed that his commanding officer was shaking. Never having seen Dobey do this except in the throes of anger at him and his partner, the crease in Hutch’s forehead deepened. “Cap? You want to tell me what this is all about?”

With uncharacteristic slowness, Dobey raised his head to Hutch’s question. The latter gasped when he saw the blatant and total sad helplessness on the pudgy face. He knew something was horribly wrong.

“Hutch,” the captain began in a hushed tone so as to betray no emotion, “I don’t know what to do.”

“What do you mean?” Hutch could feel his color start to drain.

“You’ve seen the pictures of the Tate-LaBianca murders.”

“Yeah. So?”

Dobey sighed heavily. He rubbed the top of his coarse-haired head several times. “That doesn’t even come close to this.”

Hutch’s mouth dropped open as his brain tried to imagine what the scene inside the old structure could possibly look like. He found himself speechless.

“I can’t decide whether to have more than one team work on this, or just one. How do I decide who to send into that, that …” Dobey stopped, unable to find anything in his vocabulary to describe the carnage. “All I know for sure is that no one is to go in there alone.” He paused and looked around. “Where’s Starsky?”

Hutchinson found his voice. “He went to check out the scene. Alone.” He didn’t wait see Dobey’s shocked and distressed expression; he sprinted at top speed straight toward the house,

Chapter Text

Starsky trotted to the steps leading up to the farmhouse’s wraparound porch. He paused to look one more time at the crime team members milling about. Still baffled by their behavior, he gazed skyward to catch one last glimpse of a blue sky nearly bleached white by the relentless midday sun before he climbed into the shade provided by the ecru canvas awning. His sunglasses found their way into a jacket pocket.

The light, humid, unsatisfying breeze changed direction just as Starsky topped the stairs. Its currents carried a fetid, sickly sweet, heavy, fearful, bitter odor that hammered mercilessly at his olfactory nerves. It stole his breath away and triggered the return of unsolicited memories. Damn! Didn’t think anything could smell worse than ‘Nam. A glance over his shoulder showed that Hutch had just reached Dobey’s car. He shrugged, opened the torn screen door, and plunged into a blood-red atrocity.

The dwelling seemed to rob the dark-haired detective of his free will, of his natural inclination to flee, and sucked him in to behold the horrors it now housed. Not hearing the rhythmic lull of the ceiling fans and the chorus of buzzing insects, he shuffled through the living room, stirring up the congealed coppery-red life that hadn’t seeped into the oak floor. Out of his memory flashed the Vietnamese people and fellow GIs he had seen mangled by napalm, white phosphorus, shrapnel, bullets. Two different peoples that burned the same, bled the same, died the same. He wished these people here and now at his feet had been so lucky. But he knew they hadn’t been.

He passed hacked torsos and pieces of limbs, once wholly human but now bug food. Along the way he noted the addition of far too much red in patterns that at first glance appeared abstract but began to coalesce into facial images on the walls of each room. He unconsciously drank it all in, absorbing every detail. As the images violated his cerebral cortex and drilled a path to the more primitive parts of his brain, the malodor intensified.

The house, as irresistible as a Siren, beckoned him in further, guiding him upstairs. He put his left hand on the banister, but withdrew it when he realized he had covered someone’s face. He peered closely at the place he had touched, hoping to identify the face somehow, or at least determine its gender, and to apologize.

But the face had vanished. He began to worry about where the face had gone, that he had smashed the life out of it. One part of his brain told him he was being foolish and just imagining it, but another part told him it was real. He didn’t know which part of his brain to believe. He turned his hand over to examine the palm. Expecting to see the face there, he gasped when he saw only irregular streaks of dark blood. He dared not rub them off.

Once upstairs, Starsky stood in the hallway, red-orange shag carpet squishy beneath his sneakers. All too easily, he observed that the bedrooms yielded the same grotesque sights he had endured downstairs. But one bedroom summoned him in for a closer look.

It was the nursery. There were two cribs against the wall to the right, head to head. He directed his gaze down to see seven skulls, missing their eyes, noses, lips, and hair. Five of them were arranged in one line, each faceless one facing the same way. The other two heads were on either side of the second of the five. Starsky stared, unbelieving and perplexed about the meaning of the arrangement.

His conscious mind woke up fully, breaking the spell of the hellhouse he had just walked through. The meaning of all he had just seen dawned on him. The unspeakable, unthinkable terror of hideously tortured and presumably random deaths. Then he remembered something other than the faces of people dead for a decade and dead for a day. He pushed those faces to the periphery of his vision so his recall would be clearer.

He knew a moment later what he had to do first.

~s&h~

The malicious odor emanating from the farmhouse caused Hutchinson to stagger back down the front porch steps he had taken two at a time. He stumbled, twisted his back, and narrowly avoided falling. He failed to notice the sharp discomfort, intent instead on getting to his partner.

Dobey arrived to help him in his struggle to maintain his footing. Hutchinson took a ragged, calming breath, recoiling only minimally at the stink that had followed him down the stairs. He tried to charge up the steps again, but Dobey’s determined hold on his upper arm prevented it.

“Wait just a damn minute!” the captain demanded. “You got to know what you’re headin’ into, Hutchinson.” He grabbed a few deep breaths. He felt the blond detective’s arm relax in his grip. “It’s a bloodbath in there. Bodies hacked up, mutilated” – he choked – “dismembered, even decapitated! Dammit!” He choked again. He had to clear his throat before continuing. “Nothing seems to be untouched by blood or vomit or, or…” He paused, not knowing what to say next, not even wanting to speak any more of this. But he pushed on. “Hutch, no one’s gotten past the first room, it’s that bad. Nobody but Starsky’s stayed longer than a few seconds. Hell, we have to go in, but I don’t know how to prepare people for this.”

Hutchinson shuddered at the despondency in his superior’s voice and bearing. If Dobey is floored by all this… He didn’t permit himself to finish the thought. But Dobey was right; they had to go in, sooner or later. He chose sooner. “I think I got the picture, Captain. I’m going in, and I won’t be alone – Starsky’s in there.”

Dobey released his detective’s arm and nodded his approval. “Get in there, Hutchinson. Do what you gotta do, grab Starsky, and get the hell outta there. That’s an order.”

Hutchinson smiled grimly. The concern on his captain’s face was supportive, giving him strength and confidence. Because of Dobey’s insistence on being prepared and his own troubled reaction, Hutch took a few moments to steel himself, to objectify the anticipated scene, for some small measure of protection. “Starsky’s waiting.” Within seconds he was back up the stairs and diving into hell’s temporary residence.

It took less than a heartbeat for Hutchinson to know that nothing could sufficiently prepare a human being for this situation. Dobey’s labeling the scene a “bloodbath” was a pathetic understatement. At the least, it was a sea of blood. Hutchinson equated it with a chop shop, but filled with stolen lives instead of stolen cars. He found himself unable to adequately depersonalize the sights around him. Before he knew it, he was hearing voices in the blood.

Not just voices, but screams. The endless, tormented, begging, pierce-to-the-marrow shrieks. The occasional softer pleas. The deeper tones of the men. The breathless tones of the women. The betrayal in the children’s voices when their family did not answer their cries for help. The death rattles, cut short by blades drawn deeply across throats.

Hutchinson clamped his hands over his ears. The screams did not lessen. He forced himself into a light meditative state to find what he needed to shield himself. In a few seconds, the cries weren’t quite as loud.

He all but raced through the rooms on the first floor, following the same route that Starsky had taken. He stopped at the foot of the stairs and yelled as loud as he could, “STARSKY!” He found himself hoping it was loud enough for his partner to hear over the screams until his intellect kicked in to tell him that only he could hear them. Fuck, do I need to get out of here!

Startled by finally hearing something in this tomb, silent due to his own construction, Starsky turned and walked into the hallway. “Up here,” he shouted.

Hutchinson breathed a sigh of relief when he heard Starsky’s answer above the clamor inside his head. He climbed the stairs to join his partner. “You okay, Starsk?” he asked when he saw the fiercely haunted but resolute expression on the face he knew better than his own.

“Look in there,” he commanded, pointing to the nursery, “then let’s get the hell outta here. We got work to do.”

The blond man did as he was told. The featureless heads mocked him, and the babies wailed with fear. He began to gag, a thick acid taste filling his mouth.

Instantly, Starsky was pulling him out of the room. He shook Hutch so hard that his head bobbed. “Don’t you fuckin’ dare contaminate the scene!” Starsky screamed with a venom usually reserved for the most contemptible criminals. “And show some goddamned respect, wouldja?”

“Stop it, stop it!” Hutch whimpered when Starsky let go of him. “Okay, let’s go.” Hutch, in a rush to escape the cries and to find somewhere else to throw up, pushed past the smaller man. He was halfway down the staircase before Starsky could pull himself away and follow. As he descended, he took great care not to touch the banister.

Hutch burst through the screen door, coughing and sputtering like a drowning man just rescued from a watery grave. He felt the sour burn rise from his stomach. He made it to the porch railing just in time. The voices became harder to hear over the retching.

Starsky exited the farmhouse with a different sort of urgency. “Cap!” he called out as he jogged to Hutch’s side so he could rub his back. “We gotta find ‘em! We need an APB, now!”

He doesn’t look upset or bothered at all! Is he human? wondered Dobey as he watched the dark-haired detective assist his partner. “Of course we gotta find them, Starsky! But we don’t know who killed these people. Or am I missing something? Have you solved the crime already?”

Seeing that Hutch was over the worst, Starsky patted him on the back a couple of times before skipping down the steps to face Dobey. “No, Cap, not the murders. See, I remembered what I’ve been tryin’ to remember since we first got here. Something I read in the paper a few months back. Jeff and Linda Fox had twins, a boy and a girl. They aren’t here, and we got to find him before…” He let the thought dangle in the tense air between them, not wanting to put it in words, figuring that somehow it would jinx finding them in time.

By this time, Hutchinson had joined them. Dobey took in the greenish, haggard, moist face, the limp clothes and shoulders, the distant eyes. By comparison, Starsky was animated, eager, charged up. But Dobey couldn’t read his face or his eyes. He was hiding in some way. His eyes, a darker blue than usual, seemed to be buried beneath layers of … something he couldn’t discern. Hutch was reacting normally, if there could be a normal way to react to the scene in the house. But Starsky’s reaction was very worrisome. Dobey’s sense of impending doom strengthened.

“Starsky, we don’t even know how many people are in there! And if there were babies, they could be anywhere! It could be days before we know how many are dead! Longer before we ID ‘em!”

“Seven,” Starsky declared with certainty.

“What?! How the hell did you come to that number? There must be body parts all over that house!”

“In the bedroom, I mean the nursery, Cap. There were only seven heads. None of ‘em small enough to be a baby. There were two cribs.”

“Starsky’s right, Cap,” Hutch said with a raspy voice. “It’s fair to assume that the babies are … have been kidnapped.”

“But we don’t know if this is the Jeff and Linda Fox you think it is. In this city of more than five million people, don’t you think there may be more than one couple with the same names?”

“Let’s say it’s not them. But will you admit the probability that there are two babies missing?”

“Yeah, okay, Starsky.”

Starsky ignored the hesitancy in Dobey’s response. “I’ll betcha that when all the pieces in there are counted, you’ll have seven bodies. To go with the heads. The heads are arranged” – Dobey’s own head began to spin counterclockwise as Starsky continued his clinical description – “in a straight line, all lookin’ in the same direction, except two of the heads were to each side, kinda like … wings.”

“No, more like a cross piece,” interrupted Hutch.

“Yeah, could be. Anyway, I can’t see these sick-os not using every head of every person they killed for their sick-o design. They gotta have the babies. We gotta make findin’ them our first priority.”

“We find the babies, Captain, we find the killers.” Hutch cocked an eyebrow and leaned into Dobey. “At least we know we’re looking for a boy and a girl the same age – about how old, Starsk?”

“Uh … six to seven months?”

“Okay, six to seven months. There can’t be that many twins of different sexes that age in the city.”

Dobey withdrew his immense white handkerchief and wiped his face, gummy with sweat and helplessness, buying himself some time to think. “Okay, you got it. I’ll issue the APB. And keep specifics off the radio. Now you get out there and find those babies! And those goddamned twisted sons of bitches before they kill again!”

“Cap’n, make sure they get plenty of pho–“

“Get the hell outta here, Hutchinson! These people know how to do their job!”

Hutchinson smiled weakly and strode after Starsky who was almost at the Torino.

Dobey watched the two men as they got in the garishly decorated car. He had made the decision on how to work the site – one team per room. Now to call everyone in. Then he’d see to the young girl who had discovered the bodies. She had been essentially catatonic earlier but now perhaps she had recovered enough to talk with him or the officers sitting with her. Happy fuckin’ Fourth of July.

Neither detective would have thought it possible that they would welcome the disgusting odor in the back seat that Barry had left behind. It was enough to temper the stench of the crime scene that clung to them like flies to cobwebs. Starsky cranked the engine, revving it a few times. Hutch, though still shaken by his time at the scene and plagued by murmuring incorporeal voices, was no less observant. He noticed that Starsky only touched the steering wheel with a few of his left fingers. “Hey, buddy, something wrong with your hand?”

“Huh? Nothin’, it’s fine.” He tried to smile.

“Then hold the wheel like you normally do.”

Starsky glanced sideways at his friend, wanting to avoid direct eye contact. “I can’t,” he whispered, voice quaking.

“Why can’t you?”

He didn’t answer. Hutch was unable to tell whether it was because he wouldn’t or couldn’t. He reached over to gently take his friend’s left hand in his right. He met no resistance. Turning it palm up, he saw streaks of blood, now dried, but filling the crevices and creases. “Starsk, you must’ve cut yourself. Stop at that gas station on the main road so we can get it cleaned up and bandaged.”

“I’m not hurt. And I can’t wash it. I won’t.” Starsky slowly pulled his hand from Hutch’s grasp, then balled it, almost tenderly, into a loose fist. If I wash it, another person’ll be lost. “No more, Hutch, I can’t let there be any more people without faces.”

Hutch stared wide-eyed at the darker man. He couldn’t see the connection his superstitious partner seemed to have made between the blood on his hand and the skulls of the victims. He wondered if his friend, his brother for all intents and purposes, who had survived what was surely a horrific year and a half in Southeast Asia, had come undone because of this multiple murder. But now, when his partner needed him, words would not come. The best he could do was an offer of silent sympathy.

The comforting, reassuring countenance of his best friend faded as the faces intruded into Starsky’s central vision. He blinked forcefully several times. They moved back to the periphery. Now he could see Hutch better; he could see that Hutch doubted his sanity. “I’m not goin’ crazy.” Am I? He tilted his head slightly and knitted his bushy eyebrows.

Hutch shook his head. He’s just rattled. Who wouldn’t be? I’m hearing voices, and I knew what to expect. Can’t imagine what this has done to Starsky. “No, you’re not,” he said, voice cracking. “Now, let’s go find Jeff and Linda’s babies, okay?”

As Starsky turned the car around to head back down the driveway, Hutch felt a pang of jealousy that Starsky could have the courage to admit something so bizarre. That Starsky could trust him so completely. I trust him, too. I just don’t trust myself, just can’t let my guard down. Not about this. He gazed blindly out the open car window, not seeing the trees, the faded green grass, the rolling hills, the neat cookie-cutter homes of nearby subdivisions.

At the foot of the drive, Starsky stopped the big car. He carefully retrieved his sunglasses and put them back on. Checking his left palm rapidly, he saw that none of the blood had been disturbed. He sighed, and no longer felt like celebrating the Bicentennial. From his other jacket pocket he pulled out the noisemaker. Somehow he knew Hutch needed it, for a reason its maker couldn’t have intended or imagined. When he tapped his partner on the arm with it, the toy emitted a short screech.

Hutch jerked his attention back into the car, ready to lambaste his partner for adding to the noise already ping-ponging in his ears. Once he saw the set of his jaw, the angle of his head, the set of his mouth, the darkness of his eyes behind the charcoal lenses, he held back his remark and the tears his friend’s expression generated.

When he spoke, Starsky’s voice was still a whisper: “Here, I don’t want this any more.” You need this more than I do. “You can have it.”

The blond man smiled widely with lips locked. “Thanks, buddy.” He laughed gently as he inspected the patriotically painted noisemaker. He twirled it once, waited a few moments, then twirled again. And again, and again. With each cranky squawk, the voices shrank a little more. He settled back into the seat for the ride around the area.

Starsky smiled to himself. He patted Hutch on the chest a few times, feeling the hardness of the flag pin under his fingers. He steered the car to the entrance of the closest subdivision.

The high volume of radio calls that poured out from dispatch told the detectives that they would most likely be the only ones able to actively search for the children. What little hope they had for finding them alive diminished to near-extinction. With every minute that passed, they knew it became increasingly likely that the kids were closer to death – if they weren’t dead already.

But the passage of time was not without its benefits, however insignificant to the infants’ lives. Starsky’s visions and Hutch’s voices evaporated to some extent, enough for them to effectively develop a strategy for finding the twins and their captors. They decided to cruise each community to look for anything out of the ordinary, only stopping to ask everyone they saw if they had seen or heard anything unusual.

~s&h~

Abruptly, Starsky slammed on the brakes of the Torino as he shouted, “Dammit! What a fuckin’ waste of an hour and half!” A moment later, Starsky punched the steering wheel, grunted, then pounded the interior roof several times with his right fist. He gripped the steering wheel tighter and tighter until his hand was completely white.

Hutchinson, having narrowly avoided contact with the dashboard, regained his composure and focussed on his partner. He stared at the chalky hand and heard the first rapid breaths of hyperventilation. He reached for Starsky’s forearm. Through the damp jacket and T-shirt he felt muscles as taut as a rubber band stretched to its limit. He tugged on the arm to try to break its hold on the wheel. “Come on, Starsk, let go now, okay?” He glimpsed at Starsky’s left hand; he still held it in a loose fist.

The darker man inhaled with a start and locked his eyes shut. That wasn’t enough to block the flashbacks that hadn’t visited him in years. I can’t kill … shit! I can’t believe this is happening again!

Hutchinson knew there was something more behind this display of anger and frustration than the murders and kidnappings, something that had amplified the horror they had left in the farmhouse. “Oh God, Starsk, what is it?” he managed to squeeze out.

“Those babies. I can’t let those babies die, Hutch.” For a reason only he understood, Starsky felt responsible for the Fox twins.

“So let’s find ‘em, buddy,” Hutch said evenly. He tugged a bit harder on Starsky’s arm. The hand slowly lost its grip on the wheel. Oh shit, is he wound tight, thought Hutch. He sensed his own energy move from coping with the sorrow and devastation in his soul to the acquired instinct he carried to protect his partner. He waited for Starsky to make the next move.

Starsky struggled to control his breathing. His Adam’s apple bobbed furiously as he fought the urge to cry. A minute later he was successful. He reined his memories back in, but not before recalling what his platoon sergeant in the army had taught him about focus when lives hung in the balance. He had to maintain. He had to win. Winning – finding the children alive and bringing the deranged sons of bitches to justice – would heal him and all the others affected by this heinous crime. So he hoped.

Hutchinson watched with a kind of voyeuristic fascination the variety of expressions that played across his partner’s profile. When Starsky turned to speak to him, Hutch identified brutal resolve in his sweaty features. Maybe he’s not the one needing protection.

“Hutch, we’re gonna find those babies, right?” The last word was coated with confidence, doubt, bravado, terror.

Hutch grimaced inwardly. He could tell Starsky was miserably confused, hurting, and scared. “We sure are, buddy.” He gave Starsky’s incredibly tense thigh muscle a reassuring squeeze. “Don’t know about you, but I could drink a gallon of water. Why don’t we head back to Metro, get something to drink, and see what Minnie can find for us?”

“Okay, call us in. Then put the light up and turn on the siren, or it’ll be next week before we get back.”

Hutchinson hesitated. Running with lights and siren in this type situation was definitely against regulations.

“Do it,” Starsky demanded quietly, with just a hint of menace.

Hutchinson smiled in agreement. Screw regulations. Since when did regs mean anything to us anyway? He slapped the red light on the roof as Starsky floored the accelerator. The tangy-sweet smell of burning rubber stung their nostrils. “Dispatch, this is Zebra 3. All quiet in adjacent areas. We are returning to Metro. Please have Officer Kaplan standing by. ETA is –“ he looked to Starsky to get an estimate.

“Fifteen.” Quiet. Determined. Certain.

“Fifteen minutes. Zebra 3 over and out.” Hutchinson toggled the switch for the siren and braced himself for what was sure to be a wild ride to Metro Division.

~s&h~

Traffic was worse than any workday. There was something scheduled all throughout the day and evening to appeal to everyone, and everyone was taking advantage of it, even with temperatures reaching 100 degrees in many areas. Almost every street could apply for parking lot status. The sidewalks were wall-to-wall people.

This did not prevent Starsky from careening into the garage at Metro seventeen minutes after his partner called in. Hutchinson, still queasy from the “experience” at the farmhouse and mild dehydration, was even more so due to the crazy and risky driving Starsky had done. The sudden stop bounced Hutch around in his seat. “Starsky, you ever want to leave police work,” he began, but the curly-haired man was already out of the Torino. Hutch swore under his breath before getting out himself. “You can always get a job as a stunt driver!” he shouted over the top of the car before slamming his door.

Starsky blew by Harriet Robbins, a veteran dispatcher who was almost as wide as she was tall. She was waiting for the detectives, as Captain Dobey had instructed, just inside the rear entrance. She knew something very big and extraordinarily tragic had happened from her earlier conversation with Dobey when he had her use the telephone to call in every crime scene team and coroner’s wagon in Bay City. She waited patiently for Hutchinson to enter the station. So as not to miss him, she blocked the doorway.

Hutchinson almost knocked the dispatcher to the floor. “Harriet! Sorry, didn’t see you,” he said as he caught her from falling. “Just trying to keep up with that partner of mine. You okay?”

“I’m fine, Hutch. What’s with Starsky? He was just a blur coming in here. What’s going on? Is he alright?” She was taken aback by the bleak expression on the pale face, and his troubled eyes.

Hutchinson beamed her an apology on his partner’s behalf. “He’s fine.” I think. “We’ve got a big case we’re working on, and you know how, uh, single-minded Starsky can get.” More like obsessed.

Harriet, who had never confided in anyone the crush she had on this big, blond Viking, found herself wishing for more big cases like this. “Yeah, we all know how he can get.”

“Which way did he go?”

“Oh, I don’t have the slightest idea. But Dobey wants the two of you in his office yesterday. He didn’t want me to broadcast that or a bunch of other stuff over the radio earlier. Hey, is this something that could cause, well, panic in the streets?”

Good. Dobey’s trying to keep the press out of this for a while. “I’ll tell you when I got time, okay, Harriet?” Hutch squeezed her ample arm, smiled once more, and went in search of Starsky.

Hutchinson found him in the first place he thought to look: at the shift sergeant’s desk, grilling Perkins and the regular afternoon desk sergeant, Alan Spitz, about everything that had come in related to the APB on the twins.

“Whaddya mean, there’re no good leads?! Gimme every damn report, I don’t care what you think about ‘em. You might have missed somethin’. Did that ever occur to you?” he yelled belligerently and sarcastically.

Perkins sighed quietly and counted to three. “Listen, Starsky, everybody’s looking for these babies, but this is a big city and an unbelievably busy day. It’s only been a few hours. And Al -”

The dark-haired detective ignored Perkins’ conciliatory tone. In a low and ominous voice, Starsky interrupted, “They don’t have a few hours, Perk. Now give me the goddamned reports.” He held out his right hand.

Perkins was noticeably relieved to see Hutchinson approach and stand by Starsky. But the relief was momentary. While Starsky was intense, intimidating, demanding, and even hyperactive, Hutchinson looked completely wiped out, with a sadness in his eyes that bothered Perkins. Dobey had told him a little about the scene at the farmhouse. On dealing with these two now, Perkins realized that the captain had downplayed it greatly. “Al has all the reports, but he has to make copies first, Starsky, you know that. Al, I’ll hold down the fort here.” The three men watched Spitz leave for the Xerox machine hidden in a closet two offices away.

“Come on, Starsky, Dobey’s waiting for us in his office.” Once again, Hutchinson found himself pulling on his friend’s arm.

Reluctantly, Starsky lowered his arm and turned to face his partner. Hutch gasped when he saw the grievous disquiet in Starsky’s dark blue eyes. But all Starsky could see was two babies and a toddler he knew all too well ten years ago. Hutch put a hand on Starsky’s shoulder and guided him toward the stairs.

The detectives stopped a few feet short of the staircase when they saw Barry, obviously hurting even more than when he was brought in, being escorted out of the building by the two vice cops.

Hutchinson felt his anger flare. “Hey! Wait a minute!” He let go of Starsky and headed for the trio. In a few long strides, he was in Beauchamps’ face. “You better not be letting this junkie go, Beau.”

Guy Beauchamps smiled, exposing teeth yellowed by the Turkish cigarettes he chain-smoked, and said in his Cajun patois, “Awwww, is Hutchie upset with Beau? Back off, Hutchie. He bought his freedom with some good information.”

Hutchinson didn’t back away. Instead, he grabbed Beauchamps’ silk jacket and moved in closer. “This boy cut an old lady, hit me, resisted arrest, and came close to knifing Starsky, too.”

“Hey, man,” Pirelli, a short but heavily muscled man of Sicilian ancestry, said, “this kid had some righteous information on a new pimp who likes to beat up on the whores in his stable. You know they won’t talk. Now, we can help ‘em out.”

“Look at him!” shouted Hutch. “Don’t you think he needs help?”

“Hutch.”

On hearing Starsky say his name with such calming force, Hutchinson released Beauchamps’ jacket and smoothed it out. He smiled with some degree of embarrassment and sheepishly whispered a “Sorry” before returning to his partner’s side.

Pirelli and Beauchamps looked at each other over Barry’s nasty head and shrugged their shoulders. Pirelli glanced at Starsky as they walked toward the door. He shuddered when he saw the frightening expression on his face. He picked up the pace to put more distance between them and Starsky and Hutchinson as quickly as possible.

~s&h~

The detectives entered their superior’s office without knocking to find him on the telephone. Though his office was air-conditioned, Dobey’s white shirt had impressive sweat stains under the arms and on the back. Hutchinson headed straight for a chair. Once seated in it, he eased his butt forward and laid his head on the chair’s back. Starsky remained standing and paced.

“Okay, Miller, call me as soon as she says anything, you understand? I don’t care if she recites the menu from her favorite coffee shop, I want you to call me.” Dobey slammed the receiver down. He stood and came around to the front of his desk. “That was Jimmy Miller. He’s at the hospital with this young girl. He and his partner were the first ones on scene. A farmer passing by saw this girl, about fourteen or fifteen, sitting in the middle of the road, just staring, not sayin’ a word. He called it in on his CB radio. Miller and Sanders got there and found the scene by backtracking the girl’s footprints. She hasn’t said a damn thing, or even done anything for that matter, since the farmer found her.” He shook his head before sitting on the desk’s edge.

“Anybody question the farmer yet?” Starsky asked.

“Not really. Sanders has him in Interrogation 2. He’s asked the man some basic questions, but I want you two to take a crack at him. I have a hunch he’s not involved, though.”

“Cap, you question him. Hutch and I have more important things to do.”

Dobey breathed noisily through his nose before responding. “Starsky, I know you want to find those babies more than anything, we all do, but you and Hutchinson have an investigation to run. This farmer could have seen something, heard something. You know these types - up before dawn.” He stopped himself from adding his opinion that the infants were in all likelihood dead.

Starsky knew what Dobey had left unspoken. He interrupted his pacing to stare his disagreement. Dobey opened his mouth to remind his detective of his duties but the ringing telephone cut him off.

“What?!” Dobey barked impatiently. “You’ve got preliminaries already? Okay, Doctor Contreras, the detectives heading this investigation are here. I’m puttin’ you on speaker.” He punched a couple of buttons and returned the receiver to its cradle. “Go ahead.”

“To whom am I speaking, Captain Dobey?” The clipped, slightly accented speech of the Oxford-educated Spaniard who served as Bay City chief medical examiner already had a ring of fatigue to it.

“Myself and Detective Sergeants Starsky and Hutchinson, so you can speak freely, Doctor.”

“Oh, my friends Starsky and Hutch. Good. I know you two will not rest until the perpetrators of this barbarity are arrested and brought to the justice they so richly deserve.”

Starsky huffed with impatience. “Whatcha got, Doc?”

Starsky’s attitude didn’t faze the pathologist. “Please remember that the findings are very early. May I assume that the two of you viewed the crime scene?”

Hutch quit inspecting the ceiling and looked at his partner for the first time since they had entered Dobey’s office. He didn’t think it possible, but Starsky’s muscles, especially the ones in his jaw, tightened further. For him, the question brought the voices back. “Yes,” he answered tiredly.

“Our photographer took many pictures. Right now, the film is undergoing processing. The teams worked fast – out of many necessities, you understand – to clear the scene. I have examined in a cursory fashion the … oh, a number of the pieces of remains.” The quivering in his voice while he spoke this last phrase came through loud and clear. Dobey shot Starsky a warning-you-better-be-patient look. There was a long pause before Contreras resumed.

“First, I am operating on the presumption that there are seven victims, because we have recovered that number of heads. I am estimating time of death between one and four this morning. Actually, it is more of a guess than an estimate. It appears that some of the wounds, of which there are many, on all the victims are nearly identical. It was through these particular wounds that the victims’ hearts were … removed. That leads me to speculate that they are ritualistic in nature.”

He paused again. “It is certain that each victim was sexually assaulted. Male genitalia and female breasts have been excised. Everyone has been brutally raped, but the extent is undetermined as of yet.” The CME cleared his throat. “Ah, however, the sexual molestation is … ah, quite evident and extensive on the two smallest bodies.” There was no observable change in Dobey and Hutch at hearing this, but Starsky’s eyes darkened further and his teeth clinched harder. “By their size and development, those bodies appear to … to be young girls. Most likely pre-pubescent, between the ages of seven and ten years.”

Dobey instantly thought of his beautiful little girl and couldn’t stop himself from imagining Rosie as one of the victims. He felt something intangible slip from his heart’s grasp.

A soft “Dammit to hell!” escaped from Hutch’s lips. He tasted bile once more. Several tears rolled from the corners of his eyes into his salt-encrusted hair.

With a tremendous effort, Starsky contained the rage that exploded within. He felt the heat of that emotion rise rapidly up his neck to the top of his head. He focussed on the good news not uttered. “Any infant bodies found?” he asked matter-of-factly for confirmation.

That was enough for Dobey to look up from studying his trousers’ weave pattern and for Hutchinson to bolt straight up in the chair. Both at them glared at the man who seemed to be heartless and cold, untouched and undisturbed by hearing about the vilest thing that could happen to children. Until they saw his scarlet-tinted face.

“Ah, I cannot be absolutely positive, Starsky, you understand, but no one has recovered anything that remotely appears to be an infant or” – Contreras choked - “or a part of an infant yet.”

“Good. What else you got, Doc?”

They heard the physician cough lightly. “Ah, the only weapons most likely used were knives and a variety of other sharp implements. No obvious bullet wounds. But it is quite difficult to be sure at this early stage, you understand, because of the condition of the bodies.”

None of the three men in Dobey’s office dared to ask the next obvious question. They didn’t want to hear the answer. But Contreras seemed to read only part of their thoughts and continued. “I may never be able to rule on cause of death. I can only pray that they were decapitated first, that they had no awareness of all that happened to them.”

The faces Starsky saw showed him they knew. The voices Hutchinson heard told him they knew.

“We have found a large number of prints, plus a piece of wood that may have broken off the handle of a knife. At least, that is what it appears to be. Captain Dobey, I know you want to keep this quiet for as long as possible, but we could use some assistance. May I have your permission to call in forensic specialists from other jurisdictions?”

Dobey tapped his knee three times while he considered this request. As much as he wanted to keep this entire investigation in-house, he knew the amount of evidence to sift through was overwhelming and much too important to risk any foul-ups. And time was not on their side. “Okay, make a list and get it to me, then start calling. I’ll smooth things over with their departments. Is there anything else, Raul?”

“No, I do not believe so, Harold. I will call when I have more.” The Spaniard sounded dismal. He cut the connection.

The three police officers - barely breathing, hardly moving - listened to the dial tone for several seconds. Starsky was the first to shake himself loose from its hypnotic monotone. “We’re wastin’ time here, Hutch. Come on.” He headed for the detectives’ squad room.

Hutchinson toiled to stand. Every move required intense effort. For a brief moment, he hated Starsky for his energy and drive. This has got him all fired up, and me? Damn, I’m acting like an old man. He followed his partner. He heard Dobey say, almost as an afterthought, “Keep me posted,” as he closed the door behind him.

Dobey didn’t budge from his seat on the desk. He thought about what Raul Contreras said about praying. He tried, but prayer just wouldn’t come.

~s&h~

Sidney Lassiter had finagled “conscientious objector” status for himself to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War. Being a cop now, less than ten years after winning his case, didn’t seem incongruent to him at all. Neither did the fact that he was engaged in a war of sorts. A private war that was soon to be very public. A few months ago, he had hooked up with a group of like-minded people, who grooved out on really kinky sex and plotted to literally suck the life out of the chosen. He didn’t know the criteria it took to become the chosen; only Simón Marcus knew that. He didn’t know the criteria for being one of the six in the ritual at the farmhouse that morning, just that he wasn’t one of them. He would wait his turn. Simón had dreamed his turn would come soon.

Now he would serve Simón by finding out everything he could about the lead detectives on the supposed crime at the farmhouse. Their sacrifice was necessary for our strength, especially for Simón’s strength. That is no crime. So here he was at Metro, determined to find out who the lead detectives were and “borrow” their personnel files. His partner, a mousy man named Carroll Lund, was petrified of him, making it easy to convince him to stay in the patrol car. Today would be a perfect day to get what Simón wanted.

Neither desk sergeant questioned his being there, even though he worked out of the 7th precinct. He hoped they wouldn’t become suspicious of the questions he asked.

Sergeant Perkins was in the midst of an animated telephone call. Sergeant Spitz was frantically writing in the logbook. Perfect opportunity. “Hey there, Al, word has it that something big’s gone down for Dobey to have pulled Starsky and Hutchinson off patrol. They the ones involved with that APB on those baby twins?”

Spitz didn’t look up. “Hunh? Oh, yeah, they’re the ones. You got anything?”

“No, but I sure will let ‘em know if I do.” Dammit! Why does it have to be those two? Simón, he knew, would not be pleased when he learned that these detectives would not give up, ever.

Lassiter slipped unnoticed into the basement room containing the personnel records. Picking the lock on the filing cabinet was easy, and the copier seemed to invite unauthorized use. He paused for a moment when he heard Minnie Kaplan’s unique voice and speech pattern float by the office window. He only caught a few words, but it was undoubtedly Minnie. Several moments later, he heard a door down the hallway slam shut. She was too far away to hear the copier. He was safe to continue.

Five minutes after Minnie slammed the door, Sidney Lassiter left Metro Division with a handful of papers, drawing no one’s attention.

~s&h~

The detective sat at his desk in the deserted squad room, dark head bent over copies of reports on the APB. He had read them once already. The only thing that had jumped out was the fact that an enormous number of babies had been born in the Bay City area four to ten months ago. Now he was reading each one again, this time more carefully, paying attention to nuances in wording, locations, names of reporting cops, times, everything.

He paused to take a long swallow from the coffee mug filled with cool water. The headache he had finally acknowledged having was receding. While he absent-mindedly massaged his left shoulder, it dawned on him that he had found a strange and unexpected comfort in reviewing the reports. Reading them was helping to keep the faces at bay.

He also found the stillness of the room that earlier in the day had been bothersome was now soothing. It reminded him of the mausoleum where his father’s coffin rested. Away from the noise of his Brooklyn neighborhood. Where he had imagined he could hear his father’s bass voice wrap around him.

He shivered free of the memories and thought of his partner. Hutch had been too eager to take on the questioning of the farmer. He figured it had something to do with the quiet here. Even as they put the parameters together for Minnie to use in her research, Hutch had twirled the noisemaker constantly. So he had volunteered to stay in the squad room to read the reports.

He gazed for a few moments at his police-pig bank, which wore a small US flag like a cape, before returning his attention to the topmost report on the stack. His concentration was so intense that he didn’t hear the creak of the swinging door as it opened.

The blond man stayed in the threshold, refusing to enter the room’s hush. He held the door open with his hand on the perpetually smudged glass, and studied his partner. He could see that Starsky was still coiled tightly and lost in the details of his reading material. He knew his friend had built up an untold amount of anger and other feelings and worried about what it was doing to him. He was worried, too, about what would happen when he loosened the stranglehold he had on himself. He licked his dry lips with a drier tongue and said, “Starsky?”

Like a cat, Starsky sprang from his chair, which went flying into the cabinets behind it. His left hand pulled his Smith & Wesson pistol and aimed it at the source of his name, crouching to make a smaller target.

Hutchinson’s eyes widened in alarm. He backed into the corridor then dropped to the floor. The door swung back, stopping when it hit his legs. “Starsk! It’s me, dammit! Put the gun down!” He groaned from the rise of pain in his back and from the pain of seeing the deadly rage in his friend’s gaze that had focussed on him.

Dobey burst through his door, his right hand holding his service revolver. Starsky swung his aim to his captain’s chest. “Sergeant Starsky! Put your weapon down, now. That’s an order!”

Starsky breathed heavily and rapidly through flaring nostrils as he kept his gun trained on Dobey. The rich brown eyes of the captain continued to talk to him, to reassure him that their owner was not the enemy. Slowly, he eased his finger off the trigger and stood upright. Soon, the gun dangled loosely at his side. He swayed, just now becoming aware of what he had come so close to doing. He leaned against his desk for support. His head fell backwards.

Dobey strode over to his detective. He took the gun from Starsky’s hand and placing it on the desktop, said, “Hutchinson, come in here and look after your partner.” He began to contemplate taking the two off the case.

Hutchinson exercised care in standing so as not to exacerbate his lower backache. He rubbed the complaining muscles for several seconds. He pushed open the doors and marched to his partner and Dobey.

Starsky brought his head forward and opened his eyes when he felt Hutchinson’s familiar hand on his left shoulder. His forehead crinkled as he mouthed, “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean …”

“Hutchinson, Starsky, take five, then my office.” Dobey looked at them sternly.

Starsky read the verdict in Dobey’s words and body. Instantly, he went from remorseful to outraged. “NO! You can’t take us off this case!”

How the hell did he figure that out? “Look at what this is doing to you, Starsky! Hell, you almost blew away your best friend and me with him! And you, Hutchinson. You look like every move might be your last!”

“Cap, you can’t do this!” pleaded Starsky.

“The hell I can’t!” Dobey bellowed back.

For one second, Hutch felt warm relief that they wouldn’t be working this investigation. But in the next second, the relief turned cold when he realized they had to finish what they started. “Captain, do you really think taking us off the case will make things better for us?”

“No,” the huge man replied hesitantly, “I guess not. Okay, you two stay on it.” He waved his permission as well. “But get a handle on yourselves. There cannot be even one mistake, directly or indirectly related to the case. You understand what I’m saying?”

The partners nodded in unison. Dobey shoved his revolver back into its holster at his waist before re-entering his office.

Hutchinson righted the chair, carefully re-draping Starsky’s jacket over its back. “Come on, buddy. Let’s hit the bathroom. Wash up some.” Hutch picked up the handgun and returned it to Starsky’s shoulder holster. His heart jumped into his throat when he saw Starsky staring at his open left hand once more. Some of the blood had flaked off.

“I can’t.” Starsky’s voice sounded so small.

Hutchinson sighed and felt salty tears gather in his eyes. “It’s okay, I’ll wash it for you.”

“No.” Still small, but sure.

“Nothing bad will happen, I promise. Trust me. Okay?”

There was an extended pause while Starsky fought with this irrational thought that persisted. His belief and trust in his partner won out. “Okay.”

Once in the men’s room, Hutch turned on the faucet and gestured for Starsky to join him at the sink. He gently grasped then pulled Starsky’s hand under the stream of tepid water. Surprisingly, Starsky beat him to the soap. “I, uh, it’s okay now. I can do it.”

Hutchinson stepped back to watch Starsky wash his hands. He knew how tough it was for him to overcome his highly superstitious nature. Fortunately, he always seemed to deal with it. Smiling, he turned on the cold water in the adjacent sink and doused his head and face repeatedly. Soon, Starsky was doing the same.

~s&h~

Lassiter spotted his contact standing at the entrance to the Shady Grove neighborhood in the 7th precinct. He parked the cruiser a generous distance from the tall, painfully thin man so Lund wouldn’t hear anything. “Be right back, Carroll,” he said as he reached for the papers stowed under his seat. He jogged the twenty yards to this “apostle” of Simón. He thrust the stack at the man. “Here you go, Luke.”

The tall man scratched his patchy beard while he scanned the top page. “Simón dreamed you would be successful. Our turn to partake of the ritual will come soon.” He grinned in eager anticipation. Life was good and destined to get better as the Keeper of the Flame.

~s&h~

On the way to the basement to check on Minnie’s progress, Hutchinson relayed his opinion that the farmer, Jack Dietz, was just a Good Samaritan and not involved in the butchery at the Fox house. Starsky begrudgingly admitted that Perk and Al were correct in their evaluation of the APB reports.

Hutchinson had his hand on the doorknob but Starsky stopped him with his own hand. His left one, Hutch noted with satisfaction.

“Uh, Hutch, just wanted to say I’m sorry again about drawing on you.”

“That’s okay, buddy, just as long as you don’t make it a habit. Besides, you didn’t fire.” Hutch clapped him several times on his shoulder before Starsky drew his hand away. Hutch opened the door and called out, “Hey, Minnie! It’s your two favorite detectives!”

When she didn’t answer, both men’s tempers blazed. Starsky had stressed that they were under the gun, and now she was nowhere to be found.

“When I find her, Hutch, I swear I’ll kill her!” Starsky two-stepped in place for a few seconds before he rushed out of R & I. “Minnie! Where the hell are you?!”

“I’m indisposed, Starsky!” came the muffled reply. Starsky immediately pinpointed the ladies’ room as the source. Because his only goal in life at the present was finding the twins, he thought nothing about barging into the bathroom. He found Minnie wiping the lenses of her glasses with the hem of her uniform skirt.

“Okay, lover boy, I know you worship me, but you gotta give me some breathin’ room,” teased Minnie. She rolled her eyes when Hutch joined them. “You know, I am allowed to use the bathroom while on duty. Sometimes Mother Nature won’t wait for nothin’. And by the way, I don’t see any urinals in here. Do you?”

Starsky was losing his patience. “Just tell us what the hell you’ve found!”

Minnie reared her head back a few inches and arched her eyebrows – she had never seen him like this. “All right, don’t get your shorts in a bunch, Starsky! Okay, I checked on mass murders with the M.O. you gave me. Also looked for just kidnappings of twins and triplets, and for ritual-type murders of single victims. Did the cross-referencing bit, all that other jazz. I came up with nothing in this vicinity. Closest in M.O. in this state was the Manson party of ghouls in L.A. back in ’69.

“So, I decided to check a few of our neighboring states. Seems that up in Oregon about four months ago, a family of five out in the middle of nowhere were pretty badly hacked to death, but no details, unfortunately, for me to say the M.O. is a close match. The coroner up there did think it was ritualistic in nature. Actually, only four bodies were found. The fifth, a baby about eight months old, came up missin’. Never found. The case is still open. I’m not sure if they have any suspects. The particulars are on my desk.” She crossed her arms over her chest, grinned slyly, and waited.

Minnie didn’t have to wait long. As the implications of what she said sank in, she watched the detectives’ faces fill with hope and Starsky’s arms flail. He grabbed her, pulled her little body to his, and kissed her lips hard. “Minnie, sweetheart, I’d marry ya if I didn’t love you so much!” He kissed her again, this time uttering an enthusiastic “Mmmm-wahhh!” Sometime during this display, she heard Hutch thank her. The two fled the bathroom.

“So, Starsky, love me less, why don’t you?” she called after them.

After a few gestures that soundlessly communicated what to do next, Starsky vaulted up the stairs to tell Dobey about the similar case in Oregon. Hutch headed back to R & I to get the information Minnie had. His head spun when he bent over to pick up the labeled folder. He stood there, eyes closed, waiting for the sensation to cease. Once it did, he turned to leave, only to find Minnie glaring at him.

“What’s wrong, Hutch?”

“Uh, just a little tired, I guess. Long day.” He smiled self-consciously. “Great work, Minnie. This could be a major lead for us.”

“That’s all fine and dandy, but it won’t help any if you can’t follow up on it ‘cause you’re in the hospital.”

“I’m fine, really. Gotta go.” The big blond gracefully escaped the room and Minnie’s scrutiny. He stood in front of the closed door and wondered if he even had the strength to walk three feet. In his thirsty exhaustion, the voices came back. He removed the noisemaker and twirled it as he trudged to the elevator.

~s&h~

Starsky bounded into Dobey’s office once again without knocking. His heart stopped when he saw the captain hunched over his desk, head in hands. He sensed the tension and defeat that covered him. “Don’t say …” Starsky gulped and waited for the inevitable news he feared.

Dobey looked up at his sergeant and perceived an undertone of agony to his zealous countenance. Why the hell isn’t the commissioner here to tell Starsky and Hutchinson this? Why me? “Son, I just got off the phone with Commissioner Hayes. He says he wants every cop not needed to maintain each precinct house out in the street tonight, no exceptions.” Starsky almost cheered that the news was not about the Fox children, but he was turning rabidly mad. “There’s just too much going on. Even he’s taking a patrol.”

“I don’t believe this! Didn’t you explain about the babies, Cap? And that there was a multiple homicide less that 24 hours ago?”

“Of course he knows about the homicides and the babies, Starsky. It’s –“

“Dammit, you didn’t explain it good enough!” Starsky interrupted, gesticulating vigorously to emphasize his point. Nervously, he ran a hand through his dark, wet hair.

“Listen, the commissioner knows everything we know. I talked with him till I was red in the face, but he thinks –“

Starsky leaned forward, placing his hands on his hips. “Thinks?!” he interrupted again. “THINKS?! Hell, Cap, he’s not a cop any more, he’s a, a, fuckin’ politician!” His voice crackled when he asked, “How the hell can he turn his back on those two babies? They’re just babies, for God’s sake! How can he –“

“I don’t like this any more than you do, Starsky, but he gave me a direct order. His priority is to keep order tonight.” Dobey kept to himself Hayes’s statement that those seven people were already dead, and probably the infants as well, and that the living needed to be protected and served. “Now, that doesn’t mean I agree with him. Just remember, neither one of us’ll be in that jalopy of yours.”

The hint that the detectives could presumably disobey orders did little to pacify Starsky. He snorted and left, slamming the door so hard that the water cooler in Dobey’s office wobbled in its stand. Dobey knew exactly how Starsky felt. He chose to kick his rolling chair.

Starsky stood behind his chair, his hands gripping its back through his white jacket. He scooted it along the floor a little, then more and more until he was crashing it into his desk again and again. He hadn’t noticed Hutchinson stagger into the squad room to stand behind his own desk.

“I hope that’s making you feel better, partner.”

Starsky jerked his head in alarm to the sound of Hutch’s sickly voice. His heart clogged his throat when he saw that Hutch was whiter than his jacket. Hutch’s stance faltered. Starsky scrambled over their desks, sending papers flying and toppling his pig bank and mug, to get to Hutch before he collapsed. “Oh God, Hutch, what is it? What’s wrong?”

“Head, stomach,” he grated out.

Starsky hated himself for missing his friend’s bone-dry lips. “Dammit, Hutch, when was the last time you had anything to drink, huh?” He grabbed his mug and ran for the water fountain. By the time he got back, Hutch was resting his head on his desk. “Here, drink this.” He hauled him upright as tenderly as he could. He lifted the mug to his lips and poured carefully.

Hutchinson became greedy once he felt the water roll off his lips. He decided not to let the knots in his stomach stop him as they had since this afternoon.

“Easy, easy, ‘kay? Not too fast.”

The few drops that sneaked into his mouth seemed to revive the blond detective. He took the mug with one hand and gently pushed Starsky away with the other. “I can manage now. More?”

Starsky nodded his head eagerly. He sprung away in search of more mugs. He found two reasonably clean ones, filled them with water, and set them in front of his partner. Noting that Hutch was sipping, he thought it was safe to leave and get him some orange juice. “Be right back. Don’t go nowhere, you hear?”

Four minutes later, Starsky was back. “Last one in the machine, buddy.” He wiper-bladed the fresh sweat from his forehead. “Guess I oughta join you.”

For the next twenty minutes, Starsky forgot about the twins, forgot about the mutilated bodies, and forgot about all the faces. All Hutchinson heard was his partner’s voice alternately encouraging him to drink up and chastising him for not drinking sooner.

~s&h~

The detectives placed a hurried, clandestine call to Huggy Bear before they left the station. They gave him just enough information about the murders and kidnapping to know what to listen for. The bar owner promised to do his best, because “Nobody should be takin’ babies from their mamas, ever, you dig?”

“We better hit the streets or go job-huntin’ tomorra.” Starsky reached for his jacket.

“Yeah. We’ll call that sheriff in Oregon first thing in the morning.”

“Damn!”

“What?”

“That hype musta cut my brand new jacket!” Starsky groused as his fingers stuck out the wrong hole.

“He did you a favor, Starsk.” Hutch hid his smirk.

Starsky cocked his head and wrinkled his forehead. “Oh yeah? How’s that?”

“You only had a couple of more months to wear it,” Hutch continued. “Don’t you know you shouldn’t wear white after Labor Day?”

Starsky rolled his eyes and shouldered his partner toward the door. For a little while, they had felt normal.

The sunset was providing a sensational holiday display of vibrant peach, lavender, and blue streaks when the detectives returned to the Torino. The decorations Starsky had been thrilled about now seemed so totally inappropriate. He hustled to clear the bumpers of the flag stickers. Then he ripped the streamers and broke off the flag attached to the car’s antenna. Lastly, he yanked away the swath of navy crepe paper that halved the white stripe. He breathed heavily while he paced aimlessly, hands raised to shoulder height when not on his hips.

Hutch let the dark-haired man fume for a minute. “Thank heaven I no longer have to ride around in Uncle Sam’s pimpmobile,” he blurted out in relief. As soon as he said that, he regretted it. He knew this wasn’t the time or place to kid his partner.

Starsky stopped his pacing and slowed his breathing. Expression unreadable, he stared at the blond man.

Hutchinson gulped. “Uh, by the way, how’s the shoulder?” he asked with a forgive-me look.

The dark-haired detective drew a long breath in through his nose. “How’s the head?”

They simply looked at each other for a few seconds until Starsky tittered like a schoolboy who had just played a practical joke on the class bully. “Aspirin’s still in the car,” Starsky said amiably.

“Save a couple for me.” Hutch, grateful that his goof had actually gotten his partner to laugh, gathered up the violently discarded decorations littering the pavement around the car while Starsky searched the front seat for the bottle of painkillers.

~s&h~

Temperatures were still hovering in the low 90s. Light breezes continued, and the humidity cooperated by staying at comfortable levels. The city’s residents were out in force. Fortunately for the police, most moving traffic had halted as revelers found seats anywhere they could to view the eagerly awaited fireworks.

On hearing the commissioner was cruising Sector Six, the detectives had decided to play it safe for the time being, so they were patrolling one of Bay City’s largest parks. Just as the Torino turned a corner, its headlights illuminated several very pale bodies and one light brown one running toward them. All four of them held their arms above their heads, each carrying something that undulated behind them. All four teenagers wore absolutely nothing but sandals.

Starsky applied the brakes. He turned to Hutch and asked, “Well, do we spoil their fun?”

The blond man was about to say “No” when he heard to his right a young child ask, “Mommy, what’s all that hanging off those people?” Right after that, they both heard a shriek.

Reluctantly, they exited the car, though Starsky left the headlights on. By this time, the streakers were only a few yards ahead of the Torino. One of them, the lone white male, called out ebulliently, “Happy Fourth, man! Wanna join us freedom flyers?”

Hutchinson showed the group his badge and smiled mirthlessly, “No, thanks. Police.”

The crowds on both sides of the lane had been vocal, but now quieted down. No one wanted to miss a word.

“Oh, bummer, man! It’s the fuzz!” The band of streakers stopped just feet from the detectives before turning to run back in the direction from which they had come, trailing bedspread-size American flags behind them.

Starsky looked at Hutch, who could tell his partner’s heart wasn’t in a chase and arrest of the “suspects.” Hutch shrugged and used his eyes to remind Starsky they weren’t alone. They gave pursuit.

They caught up with the four as the pyrotechnics commenced. Shouting to be heard over the noise of the booms, a mortified Starsky snapped, “Hey, cover up, wouldja? I’m seein’ more of you than your mother ever saw.”

The black male spoke up. “Just another example of ‘the man’ comin’ down on freedom-lovin’ people!” Defiantly, he stuck his chin up in the air.

“Hey, Jesse Owens, I’m just asking you to put somethin’ over yourself.”

The two girls, both Caucasian, had already wrapped themselves in their flags. “You can’t bust us. We’re just celebrating freedom,” piped up the girl with the dark brown hair.

The white boy spoke again. “That’s right! We’re just celebrating the Fourth of July, the day our country declared its independence and got born! What could be better than wearing our birthday suits?”

A starburst of white and burgundy twinkles exploded in the nearby sky, lighting up the two males who were staunchly refusing to obey the officers. Seeing their mostly hair-free young bodies in the shimmering lights reminded Hutchinson of the tip from his snitch this afternoon. “Starsky, remember our conversation today with Willie?”

“Yeah, about that naked guy with the … OOOHHH!” Hutch could almost hear the tumblers fall into place in Starsky’s head. The latter frenetically open-handed Hutch on his chest several times before racing at top speed back to the car.

“Ummm, just watch out for the sparklers and the Roman candles, okay?” By then, Starsky was pulling the car up to the group, waving for Hutch to get in. They ignored the complaints and jeers from the crowd, which increased when Hutch mounted the mars light on the roof and hit the siren.

The streakers parted to let the Torino through. “Hey, man, those pigs are all right,” the black teen said with relief and appreciation.

~s&h~

The sign above the old storefront’s door still bore the words Myrtle’s Massage & Tattoo in elegant but incongruous Gothic lettering. The dirty, grease-streaked windows barely reflected the multitude of lights that came from a fireworks display in Sector Five and from atop the candy apple red and white car, half of which was on the sidewalk.

The Torino was still rocking from its abrupt stop when Starsky and Hutchinson stalked into the former massage parlor. The reception area was empty of everything but a dusty, waist-high counter and a single broken ladder-back chair. Off to the left was the entry to the back of the erstwhile business. Hutchinson led the way, with Starsky so close behind that he kept stepping on the taller man’s heels.

They turned the corner to find several naked light bulbs hanging low from cords casting a stark whiteness on an unkempt room. Crates and boxes lined three walls. Grimy mattresses reeking of illicit, mechanical sex covered most of the floor. At the far end of the room, panels of various colors covered the wall. Wood pallets two high were stacked in front of it. On the pallets sat, like a throne, a seedy vinyl recliner chair. The room was deathly calm.

The partners wound their way cautiously through the mattresses to come to stand in front of the pallets. After a few moments, Starsky stepped up to the chair and kicked it lightly. He jumped when he heard Hutch call out, “Hey! Anybody home?”

They sensed movement and sound to the right of the back wall. They watched wordlessly as a tall figure emerged slowly from the shadows. The figure was clothed in a voluminous black robe accented with a blood-red upside-down cross over each breast, head bowed deeply under the hood pulled over it. As it neared the chair and Starsky, the head raised. Hands with well-manicured nails on supple fingers lifted the hood back to reveal a man with long, stringy, dark brown hair, moustache, and beard.

Inwardly, Starsky cowered at the dark coldness surrounding the man and the sneer on the upper lip that the moustache didn’t quite hide. But it was the crazed glint in the dark brown eyes (Starsky immediately thought of them as “shit-brown”) that seemed to penetrate to his core that disturbed the detective most. He felt exposed, stripped bare, vulnerable. He battled the intrusion with glares of his own. Soon, he saw the cold-blooded killer in that sanctimonious face. It piqued even greater fury and loathing.

Hutchinson flinched at the connection that appeared to have formed between the two. He felt the urge to scream, too, just as the voices were doing inside his head. The voices had been largely quiet until the robed man showed himself. Now they lamented with incredible agony and fear. Oh shit! He’s the one! He shook from the revelation. Steadying himself, trying to hide this flash of intuition, the fair-haired man stepped onto the makeshift platform and inserted himself between the silent man and Starsky. “I’m, uh, Detective Hutchinson and this” - with a flick of his head backwards – “is my partner, Detective Starsky. We’d like to ask you a few questions.”

The bearded man stared through Hutchinson for several heartbeats but failed to maintain the connection that Starsky had already begun to sever. He focussed his dark eyes on the light ones of the man between him and his game. “Yes? Please ask.”

The voice was unexpectedly soft, gracious, even musical. Unnerved, Hutchinson cleared his throat and shifted his weight several times, right hand instinctively finding its way inside his bowling shirt so his fingers could touch the grip of his Colt. By this time, Starsky was at his side, chest brushing against his partner’s left arm and head turned enough to observe the dark man out of the corners of his eyes. “Uh, Mister …?” Hutchinson asked, extending his head toward the robed man.

“At birth I was given the name Marcus Simons. Since my ‘endlightenment,’ I am now Simón Marcus.”

“Well, Mr. Marcus, we received a report that a hairless, naked man came out of this building not too long along, swinging a big knife, perhaps a meat cleaver. Do you know anything about that?”

The sneer twisted into an unctuous smile. “No.”

Rapidly stepping in front of Hutch, Starsky turned to face Simon directly. “Where are the babies, Marcus?” he asked, clearly enunciating and coloring each word with hot threat. “I know you took ‘em. Just like I know you raped and killed all those people this morning.”

“I have never taken anything that did not belong to me.”

Starsky tensed, ready to pounce, but Hutch’s hand on his shoulder mitigated his impatience. “That’s bullshit!” he bellowed in anger, punctuating each syllable with a thrust of his right index finger.

“I have never taken anything that did not belong to me,” Marcus confidently repeated, smiling all the while.

Starsky ground his teeth and rocked on his toes before speaking again. “I know you murdered and molested those people, Marcus. I can smell it all over you and your … bargain-basement dress. I’m gonna prove it, and I’ll be back here to arrest your sorry –“

“Please excuse my hasty partner, Mr. Marcus,” Hutchinson interrupted. He tried to steer his agitated friend off the platform and toward the door but Starsky resisted. “We’ve been trying to find two babies, a boy and a girl, who’ve been kidnapped. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that, would you?” he inquired with exaggerated politeness.

“My dreaming is my knowing, Detective,” replied Marcus in his lilting voice. “I dream of dawn and dusk, that seek out yesterday’s trash, that is doubly dirty. I dream of white and dark, light and black. Do they complement, or cancel?”

“What the hell –“ Starsky began.

“You will notify the police department if you learn of anything, won’t you?” Hutch propelled his partner toward the door. “Enjoy the rest of the holiday.” They rounded the corner to the reception area, with Starsky wrestling half-heartedly with Hutchinson all the way.

The tall, wiry man named Luke joined his beloved leader on his altar. “So, that was Starsky and Hutchinson.”

“Yes, Keeper. I see that there is much darkness in the one called Starsky. I dream the blackness in him will give me strength. I dream he belongs to me, and I will have him any way I can.”

“What about his partner?”

“I dream his death if he comes between me and what is mine.”

~s&h~

Hutchinson performed several standing pushups off the roof rim of the Torino before he pushed off to watch his partner furiously pacing in front of the former massage parlor. “Just what the hell did you think you were going to accomplish, acting like that, saying that stuff, huh, buddy? You’re a cop, and your mouth is gonna sink this case and you if you’re not careful! Starsky, this is too important! You know that!”

The final barrage of fireworks began, lighting up the sky to near daytime brightness. Breathlessly, Starsky cursed, “Fuck it, I hate the Fourth of July!” He looked back at Hutch. “He took those babies and those lives, Hutch. I know it, and you know it.” His entire being quaked with rage.

Hutch sighed and pawed the sidewalk with his shoe. “Yes, I do, Starsk, but we’re a far way from proving it yet.”

“Why did he have to take the Fourth from me, huh? Hasn’t he taken enough from me already? What more does he want from me?”

Hutchinson felt a darkness start to wrap around his heart when he heard Starsky’s last question. Certainly his partner had internalized and personalized this case more than he, but that question went far beyond. “Wuh-what do you mmmean, Starsk?” he stuttered.

Dammit, now I’ve freaked out Hutch! “I don’t know. It was a stupid thing to say.” But where did that come from? A chill ran down his spine. “What would that hairball flake want with me, anyway?” He tried to be flippant, but Hutch read the underlying fear like a large-print book. “He doesn’t even know me. Right?”

The uneasiness Hutch felt only got thicker. “Right, Starsk.” For what seemed like the umpteenth time that day, Hutch dealt out false reassurance once more. But it had kept both of them going. “We have to build a solid case against this lunatic, no mistakes. Not one.”

“Okay. Where do you wanna start?”

Hutchinson gazed at the last of the fireworks while he mulled over the possibilities. In the distance, he could hear the cheers and applause. “Well, first, let’s get the hell out of here.”

“Huggy’s?”

Hutch nodded. “Hey, you remember that song about smiling faces telling lies?”

“Yeah. Except that smiling mug shows every bit of the evil lurking in him.”

In seconds, they were speeding toward Huggy Bear’s establishment.

~s&h~

Huggy Bear was patiently listening to his waitresses bellyache about how slow business was at The Pits when the two detectives walked in. The lanky black man, still garbed in his Mr. Sammy suit, acknowledged them with a nod as he said, “Now, ladies, I can guarantee you great tips tonight, as soon as the fireworks are over. Just be patient, my lovelies. But the two customers who just sashayed in are mine.”

“Aw, Huggy!” whined Marilyn, a buxom platinum blonde who bore a remarkable resemblance to the movie star of the same name.

Starsky and Hutchinson had slid into a booth near the back of The Pits. Huggy sauntered over, ready to chat but stopped when he saw their hard and pinched features and their wilted hair and clothes. “Whoa, my white brothers, you look like something the cat drug out.” He took the few remaining steps to stand at the table. “What can I get you two?”

“A pitcher of lemonade, please, Hug.”

“You got it, Starsky. And for Bowling for Dollars Blondie?”

“Make mine a pitcher of iced tea.”

“Comin’ up.”

The pair watched Huggy return to the bar. Then Starsky ruffled his curls several times. “I think we need to keep searching for those babies, Hutch.”

“Where do we look, Starsk? We don’t have enough to get a warrant to search that pigpen Marcus calls home.” Hutchinson rubbed his forehead with his fingers. “You know, I can’t help but think he was trying to tell us something with that dream shit.”

“Yeah, but it dudn’t make any sense. ‘Dreaming is knowing’ and ‘yesterday’s trash.’ It’s just ridiculous, like those damn riddles Ma used to throw at me.” Starsky snorted his frustration.

Hutch shifted around on his bench excitedly. “Starsk, that’s it. A riddle. I think he knows we know, and he’s trying to tell us something in riddles.”

“But why would he try to help us catch him? Don’t make sense. That kick in the head musta knocked somethin’ loose.”

Undaunted by Starsky’s lack of enthusiasm, Hutch continued. “Who knows the motivation behind anything a maniac says or does? Who cares? If he’s willing to give us clues, who are we to throw them away?”

Starsky could sense Hutch’s confidence in his reasoning. He decided it wouldn’t hurt to figure out what Marcus was really saying. “Okay, you got me. So, what does this ‘dreaming is knowing’ crap mean?”

“Oh, well, maybe he means that instead of knowing something, he says he’s dreaming it.”

“Fair enough.” Huggy was back, carrying a tray laden with the beverages, pitchers, glasses, and a basket of pretzels and beer nuts. Starsky waited until the bar owner had placed the tray’s contents in front of them. “Join us, Huggy?”

“Thought you’d never ask.” Huggy pulled a beer in a long neck bottle from his pants pocket and pushed Starsky over with his hip. “Now, where were we?”

Hutchinson quickly brought him up to speed while he poured his first glass of tea, and dived into the next piece of the riddle. “’Dawn and dusk.’ What could he mean by that?”

The curly-haired man began filling his glass with lemonade, but stopped when it was about three-quarters full. “Well, maybe he means us, Hutch, ‘specially when ‘dawn and dusk’ are seeking something.” He topped off his lemonade with some of Hutch’s iced tea and stirred the concoction with a finger.

“Yeah, Starsk, you’re ‘dusk’ and the tow-headed dude across from us is ‘dawn,’ and you are lookin’ for those kiddies.”

Curious, Hutch grabbed Starsky’s glass and took a swig from it. He made a face indicating he thought the mix was surprisingly palatable. “So does that mean he’s calling the twins ‘yesterday’s trash’?”

Starsky blanched and thought his stomach was manufacturing toxic acids. “Oh shit.”

Huggy placed a hand on Starsky’s shoulder and rocked him a few times. “Man, I hope you’re wrong, Hutch.”

“Maybe I am, Huggy. Those kids probably weren’t nabbed until this morning. So why ‘yesterday’?”

“Hell, I don’t know. You’re the superdetective. You and Curly Top here.”

“Okay, let’s look at ‘doubly dirty.’ Any ideas?”

“How about a double feature at the local triple-x cinema?”

“Huggy!” the partners exclaimed in unison.

“Just tryin’ to help.”

“Sure, Hug. So, more doubles. Double-barrel shotgun,” said Starsky, legs bouncing a thousand times a minute.

“Double, double, toil and trouble.”

Starsky and Huggy exchanged fleeting who-is-this-guy looks.

Hutchinson rolled his eyes and muttered with fake derision, “Plebians.” In normal voice, he continued. “Double take, double entendre, uh …”

“Doubles tennis?” suggested Starsky. He ventured a swallow of his icy mixture.

“Duplex.” Huggy shrugged at the questioning looks.

Starsky cleared his throat. “Uh, how about Doublemint gum.”

Hutchinson said, “Twins,” overlapping Starsky’s “gum.” “I think he does mean the Fox twins, Starsk,” he said gently.

“No, you’re wrong.” His Adam’s apple bobbed, faster and faster.

“I could be, but I don’t think so.”

Starsky stared into space for a few heartbeats before he buried his face in his hands and bowed his head. Hutch and Huggy averted their eyes in an attempt to afford Starsky some privacy when they saw his shoulders heave rhythmically. It was so hard for both of them to see their friend, who absolutely adored children, who in so many ways remained a child himself, in tears like this.

Huggy took a long pull from the bottle of beer. “Gentlemen, I take my leave. Gotta take care of business. I’ll call if I hear anything at all. And I’ll ask around about that Marcus freak.”

“Yeah, thanks, Hug.” Hutch poured some lemonade into his glass. He rotated the glass and stared into the eddying liquid, waiting for Starsky to settle down, not wanting to interrupt his first ordinary reaction to the mass murder and kidnapping. Hutch had figured all along that the twins were dead, or would be if they ever found them. He also knew that Starsky had clung to the pretty unreasonable hope that they were alive, but that was his way - optimistic and stubbornly refusing to let hope go. Now, Marcus had shot that hope right in the heart.

Less than two minutes passed before Starsky rubbed his eyes with his fists. He sniffed back, hard, before making eye contact with Hutchinson.

His friend’s red-rimmed cobalt eyes, glistening brightly even in the bar’s dim lighting because of the tears that had never left them, startled Hutchinson with the depth of their misery. “Starsk, I …” He let it drop, not knowing what to say.

In a tight and husky voice, Starsky said, “I know they’re dead, Hutch. But we still gotta find ‘em. We can’t leave ‘em out there all alone. They deserve better.” He laid his hands palm down on the table. Hutch’s hands quickly covered them. Starsky sniffed again. “That sonuvabitch will pay.”

The virulence in that statement warned Hutchinson that his partner would bear close watching. He grimaced when he remembered how right he was earlier in the day when he thought he’d have to protect someone from Starsky.

As Huggy Bear had promised his waitresses, the bar was filling quickly with people not yet ready to give up celebrating. The detectives decided to hit the streets again, to look in every corner, starting with the shabby neighborhood around Marcus’s haunt. Starsky dropped a ten on the table.

They stopped at the bar to say goodbye to Huggy. He handed over a huge thermos and a stack of plastic cups. “A little something to keep you goin’ in this heat. I call it a ‘Virgin Starsky,’ after its inventor. Lemonade and iced tea blended together for that refreshing caffeine and sugar buzz. Thanks, man, good idea.”

“And what do you put in the non-virgin version?” asked Hutchinson.

“Oh, I’ll add a little splash of Stoli, or maybe some Beefeater. Only the best spirits.” He smiled. “I know you two will be out all night, even though today is almost yesterday. Just come by when you need a refill – I’ll be open for you.”

“Thanks, Huggy, you’re beautiful,” said Starsky.

“I know, but it would be more meaningful comin’ from an equally beautiful brown goddess. Well, gotta run. Trash to empty.”

Hutchinson grasped Huggy’s thin arm before he could walk away. “Trash, right? You have to empty the trash?”

“Yeah, so what’s the big deal? Is that against the law or sumpin’?”

An excited Hutch turned to Starsky. “I’ll bet he’s thrown them into a dumpster.”

Wild-eyed, Starsky shook his head in disagreement. “No, I don’t think he’s done it. Today isn’t yesterday yet.”

Hutchinson ran interference through the packed bar. Starsky made it to the Torino first and was pulling out, which forced Hutch to dive headfirst into the passenger seat.

~s&h~

The streets were horrendously congested, making it an impossibility to reach Marcus’s place before midnight. The detectives knew they couldn’t call in to ask for a closer unit to head for the storefront, nor could they ask anyone privately to risk their careers by defying orders from the commissioner. And they knew intuitively that such action would not change the outcome for the Fox twins. The best they could hope for was to catch Marcus or one of his accomplices in the act of disposing of the bodies.

It was well after midnight before Starsky could get them to the storefront on Kensington. He parked the car so his door, when it opened, was mere inches from the entryway. He was out and storming in before Hutch could get out. The latter hotfooted it over the hood, determined to catch up to his partner before he could do anything rash.

Starsky, prepared to throttle Marcus until he gave up the location of the twins, halted dead in his tracks upon entering the back room. It was now crammed with people wearing black robes with hoods concealing their heads and much of their faces. They knelt on the putrid mattresses. Their chanting throbbed in his chest, making it hurt to breathe. He strained to hear what they droned. Then his eyes attended to the six figures on the platform. He identified Marcus readily. Next to Marcus was a potbelly barbecue grill with countless thin rods sticking out of it. Starsky imagined he could feel its heat.

Hutchinson skidded to a stop, but not before he brushed against Starsky’s left side. His ears at once identified a mantra-type chant; it was “Simón,” over and over, flat and mesmerizing and emotionless. And bone-numbing cold.

Starsky reckoned the quickest way to get to Marcus was to take the narrow path along the left wall. He pushed his big blond partner away, oblivious to the fact that he had just about floored him. This jolted Hutch out of his stupefaction at the sights and sounds before him. Even so, he was still several paces behind his bullheaded friend.

The dark-haired detective gracefully jumped onto the platform. None of the six challenged him physically or verbally, and the kneeling people kept on chanting, not missing a beat. He had Marcus by his robe and out of the decrepit chair before Hutch could join them on the platform. “Where are they, you perverted, sick sonuvabitch! Damn you! Where are those babies?! Tell me, or so help me God, I’ll …” He stopped when he saw triumph and rapacious ownership – of them? of me? - in Simon’s unblinking brown eyes. Momentarily more frightened than angry, he released the hold his left hand had on the robe. He deliberately folded his hand into a tight fist as he countered Simon’s gaze with one of his own, brimming over with abhorrence and defiance.

Both of Hutch’s hands clamped over the fist. “No, Starsk, don’t do this,” he whispered fervently in his ear.

For a split second, Starsky reconsidered. But he thought again of the helpless infants, the omnipresent conceit in Marcus, the faces of the dead. He escaped Hutch’s grasp and firmly connected his fist to Simon’s right jaw.

Simon’s head snapped to his left and he fell back into the chair. His robe opened wide because of Starsky’s continued hold on the garment. On his bare chest in the center of the breastbone was a large keloid scar in the shape of an upside-down cross. Starsky and Hutchinson stared at it for a moment, then at Marcus’s profile.

The blow Simon took caused his disciples to increase the volume and tempo of their chanting. The other five robed figures on the dais advanced on Starsky. Hutchinson drew his Python and commanded them to freeze. They paid no attention, only stopping when Marcus raised his hand. Starsky let go of the robe and took a step back, still seething.

With irritating slowness, Marcus turned his head back to the right and up to look at Starsky. His face all but gleamed with dark self-satisfaction. “Nobody is allowed to strike Simón, Detective Starsky. Nobody.” Somehow, he made his melodious voice sound evil and threatening.

Neither Starsky nor Hutchinson backed down. The former took a half-step closer to the maniac. “Just tell me where those babies are,” he commanded in his own menacing way.

Marcus closed the robe over his chest. “Simón tires of this game.” He reached for one of the sticks in the grill. The rod was metal and glowed with a red-and-white heat on its pointed end. When Marcus brought it uncomfortably close to his partner’s chest, Hutchinson trained his weapon on the madman.

Starsky didn’t flinch when the poker came so near he could feel its hotness through his red-and-white shirt. He watched dispassionately as Marcus, unwavering and not breaking eye contact with the detective, etched a cross in his forehead to match the one on his chest. Hutchinson, appalled at Simon’s self-mutilation, choked and gagged at the stench of the singed flesh.

Simon whispered to the detective standing so close to him, “You are mine. Join me.”

“Fuck no, you slimy piece of shit,” Starsky responded with exceptional contempt.

Despite the ever-louder mantra of “Simón” and the quietness of this exchange, Hutchinson heard it, loosing the rage he had kept under heavy control. His eyes transformed into blue lasers. Stepping around his unyielding partner, he bent over Marcus and shoved the barrel of his gun into his ribs. “Why don’t you slither back into that hellhole you came out of, Simon?” he asked in perfect imitation of Marcus’s intonation.

Giving no indication he had heard the blond detective, Simon kept his eyes locked on Starsky’s, playing a kind of visual game of “chicken.” Starsky refused to break away. Hutchinson stood and turned into his partner. His left hand seized Starsky’s left arm. “Marcus, do you want to press charges against my partner?” he asked evenly without his glare leaving Starsky’s face.

The answer came in the form of more burning flesh.

“I’ll take that as a ‘no.’ Let’s go, partner. We’re not going to get anything else from him tonight.”

Reluctantly, Starsky moved his gaze from Marcus to the blond man touching him so protectively. A tiny nod signaled his agreement. His body language claimed his victory as he turned his back on the madman and walked side by side with his partner to the exit. Unnoticed, they passed by Simon’s followers who were now lined up for the opportunity to carve their loyalty to their guru into their foreheads.

Once they reached the reception room, Starsky sprinted for the door ahead of Hutchinson. He vomited what little was in his stomach into the gutter behind the Torino. He kept vomiting until he was sure his stomach was going to come bursting out of his mouth with the next heave. But it felt cleansing, as if he were ridding his system of that maniacal puke Marcus.

Meanwhile, Hutchinson re-holstered his gun. He was exhausted. He slowly made his way to his partner. He put a hand on Starsky’s back, now drenched in sweat, as his friend retched repeatedly.

Finally, Starsky was through. Drained, he reached out for his car. Hutch had to help him. They sat on the trunk together, Hutch needing to hold Starsky upright. Both men breathed with great effort, hearing nothing but their inhalations and expirations, the Simón mantra now hushed by walls and windows.

After a few minutes, Hutchinson asked, “What was that all about?”

“Hell if I know.”

“Well, what was with that staring contest you and Marcus got into? And that crap about you being his?”

“Hell if I know.” Starsky sighed and rested his head on Hutch’s shoulder. He knew. He knew that somehow, Marcus had found that lump of charcoal in his heart, that specter in his soul. . .


He was in-country, to that night almost ten years ago. Out of the bush for a while. Standing guard duty. Focussing on the perimeter and beyond but seeing a spark flare up in his peripheral vision. Recognizing the hootch maid and her baby boy, a few months shy of his second birthday. Laughing to himself as he thought of the simple games they played together whenever he was back in camp. Squinting to better make out what the maid was doing with the match. Lighting a fuse – connected to tubes, explosives of some type, strapped to the boy. Pushing her son toward a building full of fatigued soldiers and running away. Hearing his own voice shout “NOOOOO!” as he raised his M-16 to his shoulder. Waiting. Pulling the trigger as the boy, wanting to please his mother, climbed the first step. Watching the boy fly from the bullet’s – his bullet’s - impact. Watching the explosion. Paralyzing the mother/VC terrorist with a bullet to the back. Shunning the thanks of the sixteen men whose lives he had saved. Drowning, over his head, in a sea of alcohol. Almost believing what his first sergeant said: the kid was already dead; sixteen alive because of you, of what you did.


Hutchinson felt Starsky shiver hard, despite ambient temperatures in the high 70s. “What’s the matter, Starsk? You got a chill? Coming down from the adrenaline?”

I can’t tell him what I did. What would he think of me? I could lose his friendship. Would he understand it was war, that I had to kill a baby because of a war? I killed a baby. I had no choice. Maybe.

When there was no answer after several moments, Hutch jerked his shoulder up to get Starsky to lift his head. He turned to face him. The profound sadness engraved on the darker man’s face, surrounded by limp, sweat-wet curls, caused Hutch’s heart to skip. “Tell me, Starsk, what is it?”

The worry and caring in Hutch’s voice melted his resolve to keep this secret. “I … I killed a kid, Hutch.” Plain and simple.

Dammit, I thought he was over that! “Starsky, buddy, Lonnie Craig was about to kill you or some innocent bystanders or both. You had no choice.” Maybe you never get over killing a kid.

Thinking of Lonnie now, Starsky’s resolve returned. He swore never to tell Hutch about the hootch maid’s baby or anything else about Vietnam. It was bad enough he had to live with it; he couldn’t let Hutch share it. He’ll take it all on himself, blame himself somehow, then get depressed. “Yeah, you’re right. I wanna go somewhere, anywhere, as long as it’s away from here.”

“You got it.”

“You mind drivin’?”

Hutch smiled and accepted the proffered keys.

~s&h~

Cindy, the night dispatcher, delivered a message that Dobey wanted to speak to them. She patched them through to his phone. He proceeded to ream them out for not logging off when their double shift was supposed to be over, then for continuing to work without reporting to him on their activities. Hutchinson, between the captain’s outbursts, did the necessary updating.

“What’s your ‘20 now?”

“We’re about a mile up the street from the storefront in question. Captain, we could use all the help we can get on this. Any way you could see your way to asking for volunteers to look for the babies tonight?”

“Listen, Hutchinson, everybody’s beat, but I’ll check.”

“Have ‘em get in touch with us, so we can assign areas for searching. And one more thing. Have dispatch tell those officers still on duty to concentrate on checking piles of trash and dumpsters whenever they can, would you?”

Dobey harrumphed. “Just who is supposed to be giving orders around here? Okay, okay. I’ll even check the trash on my route home.”

“Thanks, Cap.”

~s&h~

Shortly after the conversation with Dobey, Hutchinson and Starsky got their second wind. They began checking dumpsters, even plunging into them when warranted, in their immediate vicinity, then worked their way closer to Marcus’s lair.

Pirelli and Beauchamps volunteered to search on their own time, as did Grafton and Franconi, a zebra unit from the 12th precinct. It helped that the four had today, Monday the 5th, off. They were able to last until sunrise, when exhaustion finally defeated them.

At sunrise, Starsky and Hutchinson found themselves in Seal Park. They took a short break to finish the second thermos of iced tea and lemonade and to watch the sun turn the dark sky into a palette of brilliant fuchsia, raspberry, and coral colors.

Starsky swallowed the last of the sugary blend. Without taking his eyes from the magnificence ahead and above, he wiped his lips on his jacket’s filthy sleeve and asked, “What’s that saying about red skies and sailors?”

The bigger man smoothed his stiff, blond locks as he probed his memory. “I think it’s something like, ‘red sky at night, sailor’s delight and red sky at morning, sailor’s … warning’?”

“Yeah, that’s it. Think it applies to us landlubbers?”

“It probably does today.” Hutch took the thermos from Starsky and shook it. “Let’s go by Huggy’s and have him fill it with coffee this go-round.”

“What about your place? It’s closer.”

“All right. Oh crap! I never called Abby to let her know I wouldn’t be coming home.” Hutch recalled their lovemaking of less than a day ago. That sweet passion now seemed weeks past. She understood about his being a cop, but worried that her understanding had its limits.

“There’s a phone near the pavilion. Call her. I’ll vouch for you. And ask her to make a pot or two of strong java, huh? I need help gettin’ my third, or is it fourth, wind.”

~s&h~

Armand Hickman resented covering the graveyard shift for his employer, KBCC-TV and Radio. He knew he was good enough to cover the prime police beat that included courthouse coverage. After listening to the police band all night, he knew something was up with kidnapping and dumpsters, and suspected the two were connected. Now, if he could just be there … The only way to ensure that was to make sure he drove, rather than that constantly lethargic cameraman Danny Joel.

Hickman checked his fashionably longish brown hair in the mini-bus’s mirror. Yes, there was enough Dippity-Do in his hair to maintain its position over his top-bald head in hurricane-force winds. He brushed the medium blue polyester suit, straightened the wide navy blue tie, and adjusted the collar of his white shirt. Now to convince Danny to work some overtime until this dumpster stuff comes to a head.

~s&h~

Abigail Crabtree had been very upset at first, especially since she had the day off like most people, but that didn’t last long. However, once her boyfriend and his partner tried to come into the little house, she had threatened them within an inch of their lives. “Did Dobey have you guys patrolling the sewers?” she had exclaimed as she held her nose.

Abby’s coffee - “strong enough to climb the Empire State Building and beat King Kong at his own game,” as Starsky had described it – revived them. Their blood now half caffeine, they attacked more of the city’s waste containers with renewed enthusiasm.

It was almost nine o’clock when the call came in. Starsky had just parked himself behind the wheel while Hutch tried futilely to wipe some unidentifiable substance from his trousers.

“Zebra 3, Zebra 3, come in.”

Starsky sighed and lifted the mike from its holder. “This is Zebra 3. Go ahead.”

“Zebra 3, uh, items found in dumpsters behind apartments at 2110 Ridgeway…”

Starsky threw the mike down, cranked the engine, and screamed, “Huuuutch!”

“…’cers Ferguson and Aguilar on scene. Captain Dobey will meet you there.”

Starsky had the Torino in motion before Hutchinson could shut the door and settle in. His hands chased the bouncing microphone. He pulled his right foot in just in time to prevent the car door from closing on it.

“Zebra 3, do you copy?” Mildred asked when the reply didn’t come.

Starsky took a right turn on two wheels, throwing Hutch into him and trapping the mike between them. Then Hutch snared the mike’s cord. The car went back to four-wheel drive and Hutch was nearly sitting. His hands fumbled up the cord. “Starsky, slow the fuck down!”

Now that he was on a straightaway, Starsky stood on the accelerator.

Hutchinson gulped in an effort to return his stomach to its proper position. He keyed the mike just as Mildred began repeating her question. “Yes, dispatch, we copy. Enroute to location, uh, back of” – Hutch gritted his teeth as Starsky maneuvered around an accident involving a cab and a Pontiac Bonneville – “apartments at 2-1-1-0 Ridgeway. No one to disturb the scene. Zebra 3 out.” He slapped the mac light on the roof and hit the siren, then hung on for dear life. He chose not to speak, not wanting to distract his partner from his driving.

Starsky drove like a bat out of hell. He had several close calls with pedestrians in crosswalks, but avoided incident by breaking and fishtailing or steering onto the sidewalk. Hutch thanked the gods that vehicular and foot traffic were exceptionally light today.

During another straightaway, Starsky said in a pinched voice, “Those apartments are only two or three blocks from my place. You don’t think it’s a coincidence, do you?”

“No, I don’t.”

“Neither do I.”

~s&h~

“You sure you got plenty of tape?” Hickman shouted at Danny, who appeared to be asleep despite the weaving mini-bus. Then he thought he heard a siren in the distance. He put the pedal to the metal.

~s&h~

Starsky applied the brakes at just the right moment to execute a 90-degree turn with little steering. The Torino came to a body-rattling stop, ready to travel the alley between several of the four-story buildings of the large apartment complex. Starsky accelerated the vehicle again, the guttural purr of the precisely tuned engine reverberating off the close walls. In his rearview mirror, he caught sight of a KBCC mini-bus. “Shit! A TV crew!”

Hutch twisted around to look out the rear window. “How the hell did they find out about this?!” he yelled. “I’ll have Fergie take care of it.”

Starsky’s face and mood turned as dark as his hair. He pulled into the big parking lot, stopping within a few yards of two dumpsters. The siren ceased automatically, though its urgency still echoed through the area for several seconds.

Hutchinson wasted no time in jumping out and running toward the approaching TV mini-bus. He signaled with both arms for the ‘bus to back up. At the same time he directed Ferguson to barricade the area as best he could.

The mini-bus stopped to avoid hitting Hutchinson. Hickman stuck his head out of the window and shouted, “You can’t stop us, we’re the press! The people have a right to know!”

Hutchinson spanked the nose of the ‘bus. “Not this, not today. Now, back the fuck up, or I’ll arrest you for … for … bad hair!”

Hickman punched the vehicle into reverse and shook a closed fist at the filthy blond man. When the squad car forced him to move further back, he regretted not flipping the man off. But he had an idea that might work. Danny should be able to get some good footage from a second-floor apartment. Let’s see who wants to earn a quick 50 bucks.

Meanwhile, Starsky sat in the Torino, hands open and resting on his lap. He found he couldn’t move. Fuck! “Doubly dirty”! That psycho sonuvabitch! he thought as he stared at the huge metal containers. A darkness he hadn’t felt in a decade visited him once more.

Hutchinson didn’t have the energy to fight with the neighborhood people drawn to the parking lot by the siren’s pied-piper influence. He yelled to Ferguson to call for back up and a coroner’s wagon before racing back to the Torino. Dear God, I can’t do this! How can Starsky possibly do it? Help me, us, please! He took two breaths before bending over to peer through the driver’s side window.

Starsky appeared to be lifeless. Hutch had to squint to see his chest move. Starsk, I don’t think I can do this without you, but I don’t think you can do it at all. Hutch made his decision.

“I’ll go. Aguilar can help.”

“No. We go together. We’re partners.” I can do this, I can do this. Hutch and me have to do this together. We can do this. He looked up and gave Hutch a weak, one-sided smile.

Hutch returned the smile and opened the door. They walked the few yards with their gun hands touching.

Aguilar, a ruggedly handsome Chicano with six years on the force, guarded the dumpsters. He moved nervously in a small figure-8 pattern and gnawed on his fingernails. Both detectives observed that several fingers were bleeding. In rapid-fire accented English, he said, “Holy shit, guys! Those babies Perk told us to look for are in there! And another body’s in the other one! Holy cow! I saw ‘em, those babies! Never seen anything like this.” The detectives’ odor from sweat and garbage was enough to tip him over the edge. He ran around the far side of the dumpsters and decorated the asphalt with his stomach contents.

Starsky wasn’t sure he could bare it if the twins were missing their faces. “Hutch?”

He knew what his partner wanted – no, needed. Without responding, he climbed onto the part of the dumpster for the truck forks. Though there were shadows, he easily spotted the two tiny bodies about two feet down. He could see the malicious maiming that had been inflicted upon them. The voices came roaring back, absolute terror in the howls. He would have to endure them this time, since using the noisemaker was not an option. Suddenly he was lightheaded and would have fallen if it hadn’t been for his partner’s steadying hands.

“Hutch?”

Again, the way Starsky said his name told him everything. “They’re not like their family, buddy.” Finally, Hutch saw some relief flit across his friend’s otherwise morose face. “Get your jacket ready.” His head, arms, and part of his upper body plunged into the dumpster.

Starsky tried to suppress the hyperventilation he could sense developing. He was out of his jacket in seconds and ready to accept whatever Hutch gave him. Jacket now draped over his hands, he raised them towards his partner. Soon, he felt a small weight, hardly noticeable. He lowered his arms and looked at his burden.

It was a little baby girl – most likely. But her head was still there, as were her eyes, nose, and lips. Tenderly, as if she were made of the most delicate, rare Dresden porcelain china, he folded his jacket around her, silently apologizing for its poor condition. He cradled the covered infant in his arms and hummed a lullaby.

Captain Dobey had arrived in time to see Hutchinson place something in Starsky’s hands. He jogged the rest of the way to the dumpsters in time to watch Hutch rip off his bowling shirt, not bothering to unbutton it, and bend over into the dumpster.

Hutch could barely see through the tears that flowed freely from his blue eyes. He tucked his shirt around the cold, little body and picked it up. He couldn’t be positive, but he thought it was a boy. He stood and finished covering the baby. He saw Dobey reaching for his bundle. He reluctantly gave it up. For a few moments, he grasped the edge of the dumpster and squeezed his eyes tightly, trying to clear his vision.

Dobey peeked under the green shirt and was horrified at the sight. His head spun erratically. He was startled when he heard Starsky say in a low, dangerous voice, “Don’t you dare drop him.”

Hutch jumped down. “Cap. Coroner’s wagon here yet?”

Dobey observed the streaks the tears had left behind on Hutchinson’s dirty face. “Here in a few minutes. Then they can –“

“No. Hutch and me, we’ll take ‘em to the morgue. Together. Need to be, should be together. Dobey, give him to me.” Starsky – his face streak-free, Dobey noted - shifted his bundle to accept the sibling. He didn’t complain about the edge of the flag pin stabbing his hand, nor did he try to make adjustments. Hutch firmly nodded his agreement.

Dobey, astounded, looked from one to the other detective. Hutch’s morning blue and Starsky’s midnight blue irises sat in bloodshot sclera. From them, the captain read their determination, sorrow, rage, and grief. It was not procedure, but he didn’t have the heart to split the four up. Swallowing his own tears, Dobey said, “Okay, you take them. I’ll … dammit, I’ll cover for you.”

“Come on, Starsk, let’s get them back to their family.” Newborn tears started streaming down Hutch’s face.

The darker detective’s Adam’s apple bobbed wildly. “We’re their family now, too, Hutch.” Starsky could hold the tears back no longer. They coursed thickly down his face and rounded his chin before falling off to stain the red of his shirt.

Hutchinson locked Starsky and the children in a sheltering embrace for a few moments before leading them to the Torino. He fingered away the bulk of the tears from his eyes before taking his position behind the wheel. Mars light still flashing, he drove past the subdued onlookers pushed aside by Ferguson and two other uniformed officers. He steered with his left hand; the other hand rested partly on Starsky’s arm and partly on the baby resting there.

Dobey watched the Torino leave the parking lot. It was then that he realized there was no God.

Chapter Text

On the ride to the Bay City morgue, Starsky held the two babies tightly against his chest, as if the heavy beating of his heart could, would, resuscitate them. He buried his head between theirs and rocked and hummed, trying desperately to comfort and console that which was no longer able to be comforted or consoled. It was so cold and dark there. Only the warmth from his partner’s hand and the stab of the flag pin reminded him that he had not joined the twins.

Hutchinson was loath to break contact with Starsky and the baby, with life and death, when he pulled into a parking space reserved for police department vehicles near the morgue’s entrance. To not touch them, he feared, would cause him to tumble into the turquoise abyss that his utter sadness had conjured, and that now seemed to surround him like a castle’s moat. So, he kept the Torino in gear and his foot on the brake pedal and watched his partner clutch the swaddled babies to his chest.

A full two minutes passed before Starsky raised his head and spoke. “Guess we better take them in now, huh?” He tried to be strong for the babies and for Hutch, but his trembling voice betrayed his absolute sorrow and regret. He turned his head to look at his partner.

Hutchinson snapped his eyes shut a millisecond after Starsky’s met his. The pain, the pleading for explanations, the guilt in them readily overwhelmed him. He teetered at the abyss’s edge.

The darker detective admonished himself when he realized how selfish he was to even think about asking Hutch for answers and absolution. He searched for the strength and found it in his immutable need to obtain justice for the desecrated family. “Come on, buddy, let’s go. We’ve got to get goin’.” His voice was firm and soothing.

Eyes still clenched tight, Hutch nodded twice and withdrew his hand from Starsky’s arm and the baby wrapped in white. Gratefully surprised when he didn’t plunge into the void, he opened the car door and slid out. A second later, he was blinded by lights so strong and hot that they overcame the sun. He sheltered his eyes with an arm and squinted. I don’t fucking believe this! he thought in a peak of anger. Not caring what anyone else might think, he bowed his head slightly, put both arms out in front of him, and charged the TV cameras. “Get the hell out of here! Now, Goddammit, NOW!” he ranted as his hand found a lens to cover.

“The public has a right –“

Hutchinson instantly recognized the voice of that greasy reporter he had banished from the scene behind the apartment complex. “Fuck the public’s right, Hickman! What about the victims’ right not to be trotted out for the sick curiosity of the public? What if the vics were your family, huh?”

That was enough for Hickman and his counterpart from KZAM to halt the filming. Hutchinson took advantage of what he knew would be a short lull. In seconds, he had Starsky and the twins out of the Torino and headed for the morgue. Starsky kept repeating in a strained voice, “’S okay, ’s okay.” When Hutchinson heard the cameras start up, he lagged behind Starsky to block the view the best he could and without hesitation, extended the middle finger of his right hand. Try to show this on TV, you vultures!

The automatic doors at the morgue’s entrance swished open. Starsky, still muttering, headed straight for the receptionist’s desk. “Lila, where to?”

The white pre-med student’s heart sank when she saw the despondent, dark blue eyes rimmed in red and the face that was stripped like a zebra. “Doc Raul’s waiting for you in One,” she forced out of her constricted throat.

The dark curls nodded once and headed for the autopsy room indicated.

Meanwhile, Hutchinson barked for the security officer. He was pleased to see Kingman Washington sprint toward him. King, as everyone called him, was an imposing six-foot-five-inch tower of lean, hard muscles under dark brown skin. “Sorry I wasn’t here sooner, Hutchinson. Had to secure the entrance to the hospital. Already talked to Cap’n Dobey,” he said in an accent that told of his south Chicago roots. “Don’t worry. I’ll keep the press out, and any and all other unauthorized persons.”

“Good man. Call me if you need me.” Hutch clapped Washington on his arm several times before jogging off after Starsky. He caught up with his partner at the door to Autopsy One. Hutch held one of the swinging doors open, allowing Starsky to push the other one open with his hip. They stepped into the frigid room together.

The activity in Autopsy Room One rivaled that of a pressure cooker nearing blowout. Two of the four tables were empty, but four men in scrub suits were hosing them down and setting up for the new arrivals. Around the other tables were more people garbed in heavy cloth gowns, performing the postmortem examinations. At the ready were forensic photographers and other technicians.

Raul Contreras, who was standing at the back counter writing notes in the personal log that he would use in court, turned to face the doors when he felt the change in air pressure. “Ah! Detectives! So you bring us the little ones.” His dark brown eyes showed somber fatigue. “Please. These two tables. Place them here once Freddie has finished drying them off.” He returned to his task.

Hutchinson guided a hesitant Starsky to the closest table. He felt his partner shudder at seeing the sterile and gleaming stainless steel surface and tighten his hold on the infants. Damn. Probably will have to pry them out of Starsk’s arms, Hutch thought.

Freddie, having just finished, faced the detectives. His eyes were sunken and blank, his complexion ashen. “Man, this job really sucks,” he stated in a tone free of affect. He sighed before shuffling away.

As if on cue, the room dropped into an uneasy stillness as virtually everyone centered attention on Starsky and Hutchinson.

Hutch was uncomfortably aware of the eyes on them, but Starsky only felt the cold stiffness in his arms. I failed you. I’m so sorry.

Contreras walked over to stand by the partners. He clicked his tongue before breaking the silence. “Detective Starsky?” When there was no response, he asked again, this time more forcefully.

Hutchinson cleared his throat. He gave the chief medical examiner an I’ll-try look. So quietly that even Contreras couldn’t hear, he said as he tugged gently but firmly on the baby in his bowling shirt, “Hey, partner, I’ll take care of this one now. You take care of the other one. Okay?”

Without acknowledging Hutch in any way, the darker man pressed his lips lightly against the head covered by the slick green fabric. He opened the arm slowly, allowing Hutch to take the baby from him.

Holding the baby once again, the blond man’s face turned almost as light as his hair. He could hear the infant shrieking in his head. The others joined in. Hutch faltered to the autopsy table.

“It’s okay, Hutch.” The voice was strong, despite its coarseness.

On hearing Starsky’s calming reassurance, Hutch was able to exercise some control over the voices from the blood. He steadied himself, took the last two steps to the table, and laid the swaddled baby on the hard, unforgiving surface. Not yet ready to back away, he kept a hand on the small body.

Starsky sighed shakily. He gave the child wrapped in his jacket a light kiss as well before placing her on the table. Now his arms felt desolate. That desolation expanded, and a pit of blue-blackness, an extension of the darkness revisiting him, colder than empty space, yawned open within. It was so familiar, but he drew no comfort from that fact. So many faces faded in and out within its confines. So many dead faces. He longed for a bottle of tequila, or scotch, or rum, big enough for him to crawl into and remain forever.

Contreras started to put a hand on Starsky’s arm, but thought better of it. “Detective, why don’t you and your partner go with Dr. Etzioni, all right? She will fill you in on what we have accomplished so far. She has much to show you. All right?”

Wordlessly, Starsky nodded and took the few steps to stand by his partner. As he began to wrap his right arm around Hutch’s back at the waist, his fingers jammed into the Colt’s holster and brought to full awareness the damage the flag pin had inflicted on his hand. Wincing, his hand found its way to Hutch’s right side. He pulled Hutch away from the table. “Time to go, buddy. We can’t catch the bad guys in here.” Holding onto Hutch, some of the emptiness in Starsky shrunk.

Hutchinson laughed faintly through his nose. He smiled his appreciation as he stroked his friend’s curly hair several times. Once they headed for the doors, Starsky with his arm still firmly at Hutch’s waist, Hutch’s arm draped over Starsky’s shoulders, the morgue personnel got back to doing their part in catching the perpetrators. One of them, a tall woman with brown hair in a thick bun, followed them.

~s&h~

Once in Autopsy Two, Dr. Elizabeth Etzioni threw aside the dingy white sheets covering the bodies laid out on the four tables. Without preamble, she started, “With the help of a forensics guy specializing in this sort of thing out of San Diego, we feel pretty confident that we have … uh, re-assembled each person correctly.”

Starsky and Hutchinson, who had been lingering at the doors, walked deeper into the steel room to get a closer look at the bodies. Pieces not quite connecting but nevertheless bringing to mind that Dem Bones ditty, they looked like deconstructed marionettes awaiting burial in the puppet cemetery.

But they weren’t puppets. Seeing the body parts put together to make something closer to whole human beings amplified the brutal reality of their horrid deaths for the detectives. Starsky flashed back to a Viet Cong village his squad had to check out after it had been shredded to pieces by American bombs. He began to breathe faster to compensate for the vise tightening around his chest. He broke out in a clammy sweat despite the chill of the room.

Hutchinson stopped breathing all together. For two minutes, he watched the room’s edges turn darker while its center spun like a warped top, until his brain forced him to inhale deeply the cool, chemical-and-doom-scented air. He coughed and sputtered. His dizziness quickly resolved. Then he was aware of Starsky’s rapid breathing. He grabbed his partner’s right hand and squeezed. “C’mon, Starsk, buddy, slow it down. Take it easy.”

The squeeze elicited a short stab of pain, but, along with Hutch’s encouragement, worked to bring him back. The dark-haired man consciously slowed his breathing, and the vise seemed to loosen somewhat. A very minute part of him had hoped this was all a terrible nightmare, but this sight forced him to acknowledge completely the reality of the last twenty-odd hours. But in obliterating this hope, the assembled bodies pumped up his determination to make the perpetrators answer for their crimes. “Those mutherfuckers are gonna pay,” he rasped out to no one in particular.

Etzioni, who had been watching the detectives’ reactions closely, nodded in agreement and with enthusiasm. “I do know how you feel. The door to one of the stalls in the women’s room is no longer attached.” Her thin laugh was tinged with pain and sorrow. “Amazing what powers adrenalin can bestow on one, hunh?” One side of her mouth curved up. “Come on, I got lots more to show you.” She waved them over to her. In a moment, Starsky was next to her and Hutch was on the opposite side of the table.

The assistant medical examiner coughed and began. “This one is Jeffrey Matthew Fox, of the Bay City Buccaneers football team. ID’d by dental records about four hours ago. That was one pissed-off dentist, too. Spoiled his holiday.” Under her breath, she muttered, “Damn prick.”

“Whadja say?” asked Starsky.

Etzioni blushed. “Oh, nothing relevant to the case.” She smiled her apology. “I’ll talk you through his wounds.” She began at with the decapitated, nearly skinned head and worked her way down each hacked and chopped limb. She returned to the trunk, rolling it onto its side first to show those injuries on the back. “Now, for the really interesting part,” she stated with excitement as she gently returned the torso to the supine position.

The ME pointed to mid-chest region. “Look at this one, guys.” Ignoring the numerous other injuries, she traced one wound’s outline in the air above it. “We’ve ascertained this is a very deliberate, careful cut consisting of two parts. Looks like a small ‘t’ or a cross, depending on your point of view, with the cross bar almost exactly in the same line as the nipples – if he still had nipples.” She paused to gauge the reactions of the detectives. Seeing nothing change, she went on. “The females, by the way, had their breasts amputated, and we haven’t found them.”

On hearing this, both men blanched and traded glances without moving their heads. Hutchinson cleared his throat. “Go on,” he said blandly.

“This was most likely done with an ordinary carving knife. And near-perfect copies of this wound appear in the same place, same shape – at least as best as we can tell so far – on the other four I’ll show you. We were working on that same confirmation on the two next door when you guys came in.” She sighed. “It was through this ‘incision’ that the heart was removed. Whoever did this has had lots of practice. The cuts are remarkably alike. You know, I don’t even want to think about how this could be.” Her whole body twitched in a hard shudder.

“You okay, Liz?”

Etzioni grinned at Starsky’s use of her nickname. Neither he nor Hutchinson had ever called her by that in the three years she had been at BC’s morgue. They’d always addressed her as “Lady Doc” or something to that effect. On occasion, Starsky would use her last name, pronouncing it exactly like a wop Brooklynite would. Finally, she knew she had been accepted into the boys’ club of law enforcement. At least as far as Starsky was concerned. “As okay as can be expected, Starsky. You know, my mama never told me there’d be days like this.”

The three spent the next half-hour going over the findings of the postmortems. Liz told them of object rape. Of penile rape of vaginas, rectums, mouths. Of decapitation by saw or by machete or by sword. Of missing great toes and genitals. Of Linda Anne Singer Fox, and their ten-year-old foster child. Of another young girl, about eight years old, as yet unidentified, and both girls – their autopsies still in progress - receiving the lion’s share of the sexual assault. Of another adult female and male and an older adult male. Of sick, perverted, ritualistic slaughter of seven – no, now nine, she corrected herself - innocents.

They were leaving Autopsy Four after viewing the older male’s body when Liz shrugged and rubbed her hands together. “That’s it, for now. We’ll call when the final four posts are complete. Your captain, I understand, is trying to track down family.” She blinked her eyes a number of times to clear the tears that seemed to show up regularly and without warning. Now that she could see the officers better, she was taken aback by their undue pallor, strikingly similar to the bodies they had just seen, and the gray-blue that painted their edges. What disturbed her, though, were their eyes; normally two different shades of the same color, they were now the same shade of brooding, vengeful blue.

“Hey, you two, you’re not used to how cold we keep this place. Come on, let’s get you out of here and warmed up before frostbite sets in,” she said with a lightness she didn’t feel. “I’ll ask Lila to get you some hot coffee and a couple of scrub jackets.”

“No, that’s okay, Liz,” said Hutch quietly. “Starsky and I have work to do. Thanks.” He gave her a weak but genuine smile.

“Don’t screw anything up, Liz,” Starsky commanded.

Etzioni let the tone and the implication slide right off. “Don’t worry, Starsky. I want these bastards, too. We all do.”

Starsky stared at the female medical examiner. After a few seconds, he turned and began the walk down the long hallway to the morgue’s main doors, with Hutchinson beside him. He stopped at Autopsy One. “I feel like I’m desertin’ ‘em, Hutch.” His voice betrayed his guilt as well.

“No, you’re not. Neither am I. Now, let’s go. This place is driving me nuts.” Should I tell him how pissed I am at him that he talked to the doc that way? Ummm … later. Hutch jerked his head toward the exit.

They hadn’t gone three feet when the police commissioner stormed in. “Goddammit! Where the hell is –“ Cecil Hayes, who could pass for Buster Keaton’s fat brother, stopped his screaming when he spied who he was searching for. “So, this is where you two hotdoggers are hiding out! Why the hell aren’t you on the streets, looking for those lunatics who killed these people? And just how hard is it to keep the damned cameras away from crime scenes? You two and those babies are all over the television, and now the city is in a panic! What the hell is wrong with you two?” Two blood vessels in his neck bulged and throbbed.

Starsky, now with blue flame for eyes, strode toward the commissioner, leaving Hutch to paw the suddenly empty space beside him. “Lookit, Hayes, we –“

“Who do you think you’re talking to, De-tec-tive? One of your street snitches? You are dangerously close to an insubordination charge!” Hayes had advanced to meet Starsky’s challenge, and now they stood within millimeters of each other.

Hutchinson tried to pull Starsky away but the darker man wasn’t budging. So, I guess I try a little diplomacy. “Uh, Commissioner Hayes, sir, my partner Sergeant Starsky and I are doing the best we can under the circumstances. Sorry about the press. We thought we had that handled.” He hoped the tone of jovial contriteness he had adopted would help smooth things over.

Hayes swiveled his head to address Hutch. “Well, you didn’t, Hutchinson, and now we’ve got millions of hysterical citizens on our hands! The only thing that’ll save your rank and your hotheaded partner’s job is the arrest and conviction of the perps! And very soon! Is that clear?” The last three words were spoken with threatening deliberateness.

“Yes, sir, perfectly clear. Sergeant Starsky and I were just headed back to the station, sir.”

The commissioner made a show of sniffing the air and snarled. “I suggest you make it a priority to shower, detectives. I have never smelled anything so utterly disgusting. What have you been doing?”

It wasn’t difficult for Hutch to figure out that Starsky was on the verge of telling the commissioner that the source of the pungent aroma was his own upper lip. Again, he stepped in to protect his partner’s career. “Searching everywhere for the missing infants, sir. We’ll clean up as soon as we hit the station.”

“And where are your jackets? Those weapons are supposed to be concealed.”

I don’t believe this dickhead! Bent outta shape because of that stupid rule?! “We used ‘em to cover the babies, sir,” came Starsky’s angry, snappish reply. “Or would you have preferred we left them exposed, sir?”

At first, Hutchinson had been tempted to try to get Starsky to shut up, or at least lighten up. But he felt the same way, that this time that regulation had to be broken. Now he adopted a defiant attitude as well. They waited for an answer.

Damned cowboys, thought Hayes as he regarded the two men before him. He lived by the rulebook; such a stance had won him the top-cop job in Bay City. He hated it when someone bent or broke the rules, because that led to anarchy. But he was also a politician. He couldn’t ignore the small audience that had gathered to observe this exchange. He squared his shoulders and clasped his hands behind his back. “Considering the circumstances, detectives, I am willing to overlook this infraction. But know that I expect you to follow the department’s policies and procedures. Those exist for a reason, you know.”

“Yes, sir, they do exist for a reason. But when you’re out on the streets, sometimes that reason doesn’t make a helluva lot of sense. Sometimes, you have to do what’s decent and caring and human, even if it means breaking the rules.” Hutchinson paused before ending his confidently delivered fact of life with a vaguely sarcastic “Sir.” He turned his back to Hayes and said to Starsky, “Let’s check on Dr. Contreras’s progress, then head for the precinct.”

If he hadn’t been so pissed at Hayes for jumping on their backs for no good reason, Starsky would have been grinning ear to ear. Instead, he raised his eyebrows and thought, Couldn’a said it better myself, buddy. Without speaking to the commissioner again, Starsky followed the blond man into Autopsy One, but not before he saw their superior officer chew his lower lip vigorously and turn a hot crimson.

“Hutchinson, Starsky, I trust Dr. Etzioni showed you what we have. Now, we must keep your, um, jacket and shirt to check for evidence. But I have a question. Can either one of you explain the fresh blood on the green shirt and on this pin fashioned like a flag?”

Hutchinson whipped his head around to shoot a questioning glare at his partner.

Starsky paid no attention to the look. Once he stood next to Hutch, he said, “It’s my blood. Guess the pin stuck me.”

Contreras cut off Hutchinson before he could speak. “Please, Starsky, we need a sample of your blood for verification. You understand?”

“Sure, Doc, whatever you need.” Starsky could feel his friend’s eyes boring into him. Don’t know how I’m gonna explain this one. Not sure I understand it myself. He resisted the pull Hutch had on him.

“Dr. Etzioni will draw the sample.” Contreras nodded his head in the direction of the woman who had come in unnoticed by the detectives. “Yes, Doctor?” he asked when he saw the look on her face. Starsky and Hutchinson shifted their gazes to her.

“Excuse the interruption, Doctor. Sorry, detectives, but I neglected to show you this earlier.” Liz held up a clear evidence bag. Inside was a small piece of highly discolored wood. One end was jagged, except for a small area in the center that appeared to be rounded. The other end was smoothly flat with each side rounded. One side was flat and noticeably cleaner and less worn than all the other surfaces. “Found this little piece of evidence in Linda’s vagina. It most likely comes from the butt of a knife handle. The style of handle indicates that the knife steel extends the entire length, and the handle is actually in two parts, each part bolted or fastened in some way to the non-business end.” Her intelligent eyes told them what didn’t need to be said: find the knife this piece belongs to, and you’ve hit the jackpot.

“And one more thing, gentlemen. We have tentatively placed time of death of the babies between ten last night and two this morning.”

The implication of Contreras’s statement took several seconds to sink in. Starsky grabbed his partner’s forearm and squeezed hard enough to make Hutch moan. The darker man’s heart and vocal cords turned to stones of ice.

Finally, Hutchinson asked in a croaky whisper, “Are you absolutely sure? Is there any way you could be wrong?”

“Yes, there is always a chance we are incorrect. But it is unlikely. We say ‘tentative’ because we want to take in as many factors …” Contreras continued, but Hutchinson heard nothing more. Starsky’s lock on his arm tightened further until Hutch whistled in pain.

Unaware of what he had been doing to his partner, Starsky started at the sound and released Hutch’s arm. Guilt-ridden, he watched Hutch massage the limb. “Meet you in the hall, partner,” he said quietly. His eyes conveyed his apology.

Hutch gave a short nod then watched Starsky and Etzioni leave Autopsy One together. He turned back to Contreras. “I don’t think you need the pin as evidence. I’d like to take it with me. And anything in the jacket pockets, too.”

Contreras mulled over the request for a moment. “I think I can get by with taking a sample of blood from the pin. Miles, get the necessary equipment, please.”

Hutchinson tilted his head in thanks while he watched the four teams go about the business of examination and evidence collection. From the jacket pockets, he removed Starsky’s badge case and sunglasses. Soon, the bedlam of noise in the room was overridden by the bloody voices that crescendoed once more in the detective’s head.

~s&h~

Liz Etzioni expertly drew enough blood from a vein in the crook of Starsky’s elbow to fill two glass tubes. Neither had spoken since leaving the autopsy room, but the quiet was comfortable, almost companionable. As she applied a length of paper tape over the folded gauze Starsky had been holding in place, she broke the silence. “Let me have a look at your hand.”

Starsky graced her with an are-you-nuts? stare. He stood to leave.

“Hey, I am a physician, you know. I can treat you. Come on, let me see.” She placed a hand on his.

With superstitious reluctance, he flipped his right hand over to expose the palm. “See, it’s nothin’.”

Liz saw a puncture wound, not very deep, but obviously dirty under the dried blood. “Go wash your hands really well, and come back here. I’ll put something on it and dress it. And you’re going to need some antibiotics to prevent infection. Definitely don’t want one of those in your hand. When was your last tetanus shot?”

“Last time I got shot. About six months ago.” Inwardly he winced at the memory. Though his left shoulder had hurt miserably, it was nothing compared to the agony the tetanus shot put him through. He licked his lips and gulped. Trembling, he asked, “You’re not gonna use embalming fluid or somethin’ like that on me, are you?”

Etzioni laughed, emitting a warm sound suggestive of alto wind chimes. When she saw the hurt expression on the man’s face, she bubbled, “Oh, Starsky, I’m not laughing at you! It’s just, well, the misconception people have of medical examiners!” She laughed some more, then shooed him out to wash his hands. She gathered some supplies from the well-stocked first aid kit the morgue kept, then called the hospital pharmacy to arrange for some oral antibiotics for the detective.

~s&h~

Hutchinson was sitting at a spare desk in the tiny reception cubicle, talking on the telephone with Captain Dobey and filling him in on the postmortem results, when the coroner’s wagon backed up to the morgue’s doors.

“That would be the body they found in the other dumpster, Hutch,” said Lila flatly. After today, I think I’m going into psychiatry. Or research. In a lab.

“Gotta go, Cap.” Hutchinson slammed the receiver down before he could hear Dobey’s reply. He double-timed it to the hall. Through the windows in the morgue’s entry doors, he watched the police commissioner and King Washington work to keep the cameras and reporters as far away as possible. A minute later, two attendants rolled in the bagged body.

Hutchinson showed them his shield as he said, “Hold it.” They stopped as ordered. Hutch tented the black plastic and slowly unzipped it completely. He was not surprised to see a nude white male who had no hair anywhere, except for eyelashes, on his body. Nor was he surprised to see a tattoo of an inverted cross on the dead chest or the slit throat. He halted his perusal when he heard Starsky say on approach, “The second dumpster?”

“Yeah, and this tattoo links him to Marcus and to the Fox murders.”

Starsky stood opposite Hutch. “Shit. Body as bald as a cue ball. This has gotta be the guy Willie told us about.”

Etzioni, now standing at the head, cleared her throat to draw the detectives’ attention. “Hate to burst your balloon, fellas, but the wounds on the victims are upright crosses or ts.”

Starsky and Hutchinson exchanged worried glances. They saw doubt about Marcus as perpetrator creep into the other’s expression.

“Yeah, well, doesn’t mean they aren’t connected,” Starsky blustered with little conviction.

“It is still early in the investigation. We’ll make the connection.” And if we don’t? If we’re wrong about that band of lunatics? It’s some other psychos? How are we ever going to find them?

“Damn right we will.” Starsky’s determination quashed the doubt they shared. If it isn’t Marcus’s cult, it’s some another group, and we will find ‘em. I promise.

Hutchinson nodded curtly in agreement. He handed Starsky the items he had retrieved from the confiscated jacket. “Promise.”

While Starsky zipped up the bag, Hutchinson asked the assistant medical examiner to check the hairless man’s prints against those found at the farmhouse and to compare his neck wound with all those of the family’s. She promised to do that and more.

~s&h~

The sun was nearing its zenith in the hazy, pale blue sky when the partners left the morgue, passing Commissioner Hayes as he re-entered the facility. The camera lights pointed in their direction augmented the ample heat already generated by the star. Instantly, sweat beads popped out all over their bodies and microphones popped into their faces.

With his bandaged hand, Starsky shoved the reporters, whose ranks had now swollen to five, away while his other hand went for the sunglasses he had hooked on the collar of his baseball jersey. He slid the shades on. “No comment,” he replied evenly to the tangle of questions that bombarded them.

Hutchinson strode to the Torino, watching his feet take each step, saying nothing, batting away hands that grabbed at him and mikes that seemed to obstruct his ability to see and breathe. He claimed his customary position in the car, slammed the door, retracted the light, and rolled up the window against the persistent newsmongers. He turned so his back was against the door. Then it occurred to him that he still had the car keys. In a few seconds, the Torino’s loud engine drowned out the reporters.

Starsky was almost at the driver’s door when he felt a pull on his weapon. On pure cop instinct, the dark-haired detective whirled to his right, toward the tug, elbow contacting something hard that expelled a “Wompf!” and left hand almost clearing the gun of its holster.

Megan Churchill, a reporter as aggressive as she was petite, found herself on her butt next to the red-and-white car. She dabbed at the blood that was streaming from her upper lip. Before she knew it, the cameras were trained on her. Dammit! It’s not supposed to happen like this! Then a curly head blocked the lights. She felt a strong hand encircle her left arm. She knew exactly who it was, though his face was mostly within shadows.

“Don’t you know better than to touch a cop’s gun?” Starsky growled through gritted teeth. “Don’t you ever do that again.” With ease, he had the small woman back on her feet. “I’ll walk you to the emergency room. And I’m sor –“

“No, no,” Megan interrupted. “I’z my faul’, entire’y. An’ my cam’raman’r he’p ‘e.” She jumped when a handkerchief dangled in front of her face. She grabbed it and pressed it firmly to her lip.

Starsky asked, “You sure?” To answer, she waved him off.

The incident happened so fast that Hutchinson had been unable to do anything except open the door for his partner. “Well, that’s gonna look real good.”

Starsky let his head fall back after he rolled up his window. “All I knew was that somebody went for my gun, Hutch. What was I supposed to do? How was I supposed to react? Huh?” He closed his eyes to hide his humiliation at what he had done – and almost done – to that reporter.

The blond man rubbed the thighs of his filthy beige trousers. “Oh hell, Starsky, I would’ve done the same thing. And it would’ve been the right thing to do.” He sighed before continuing in a softer, less strident tone. “But the cameras didn’t catch her touching your weapon. From their point of view, it does look like an unprovoked attack.”

Starsky hissed in a breath before issuing a heartfelt “Fuck!” He jerked the transmission into reverse and honked the horn several times before backing out of the parking space. The TV crews were slow to move, and continued filming as the striped car left the lot.

~s&h~

Neither detective was in the mood to talk. Both were drowning in the blood and horror and misery and missed opportunity of the last twenty or so hours. They were dirty, thirsty, and fresh out of ideas. And fresh out of hope.

In the silence of the car, the voices intruded once more, and Hutchinson thought he might play a song in his head instead of using the noisemaker. But when he tried to choose a song, his mind went blank. No melody, no lyrics, to any song. Not even those he had written himself surfaced. His sense of loss grew. An essential piece of who he was had dissolved. The music in his being had been replaced by the agonized howls of the dead. The abyss, like quicksand, sucked him in.

Automatically, Starsky was scanning the area when he saw a young man arguing with a middle-aged woman, and then pushed her to the cement sidewalk. He inhaled deeply and shouted, voice quivering with adrenaline, “Call it in!” The man then climbed into a running car and took off. Starsky hit the siren and floored the accelerator.

The blond detective absorbed the details instantly. “Dispatch, this is Zebra 3. We are in pursuit of a stolen white Buick Skylark …” He paused as Starsky slowed the Torino and heard the woman call out, “I’m okay! He’s got my baby! My baby’s in that car!” before she started sobbing. Starsky turned a chalky white and floored the pedal again, throwing Hutch back into the seat. “… California plates Xray Yellow Alpha 556. Request black-and-white for victim at Ralph’s Market on Camden. Out.” Several seconds later, the mac light was on the roof.

The thief, pushing the stolen Skylark as fast as it would go, started cursing when he saw how rapidly the Torino was closing in on him. Finally it dawned on him that there was no way his car could outrun such a monster on the straight-of-way. Without slowing, he cut the wheel sharply to the left to head west just before passing through an intersection. To keep from rolling over, he pumped the brakes and turned to the right. But it didn’t work and he wound up doing a 270-degree turn.

Starsky had anticipated the turn and had slowed somewhat. To his dismay, he spotted to his left a Ford Edsel in mint condition pulling out of the corner parking lot, intent on making a left turn. Hutchinson needlessly pointed to it, and braced for a sudden stop. Starsky double-footed the brakes and cut sharply to the right. The driver-side rear end of the Torino whammed the front bumper of the Edsel’s passenger side. The Edsel’s bumper became the proud owner of a new dent. The Torino suffered a scratch.

Hutchinson peered out the rear window at the Edsel’s driver. He could barely see the balding head above the steering wheel. He wondered if the person could possibly be sitting up high enough to see to drive. “Go!” he shouted to his partner.

That one word told Starsky, who had been watching the Skylark, that the Edsel’s driver was okay and that he could continue pursuit. He accelerated a bit more slowly, not wanting to fishtail and cause more damage to either vehicle. He drove toward the stolen vehicle, intending to block its front end.

The robber had other ideas. He rammed the gearshift into reverse and stomped on the gas. He thought he heard a yelp from the back seat, but he didn’t have the time to investigate it. He drove backwards for about half a block, until he saw the alley. Shifting into drive, he piloted the Skylark into the narrow, trash-filled back street.

Again anticipating this action, Starsky stayed with the Skylark. The alley was a particularly tight fit for the Torino. He had to concentrate to keep the car from scraping the sides of buildings, fences, and trash receptacles, while dodging the garbage the Skylark was stirring up. The two vehicles continued this way through several blocks of alleys, the Torino having fallen behind slightly, each barely avoiding collisions with other cars when they bounced across the main streets.

The young thief in the Buick cursed again. Nothing was shaking the cops off his tail. I ain’t goin’ to jail! he vowed to himself as he twirled the wheel to the right when he got to the next cross street. Before he could react, he rear-ended a parked VW Bug, which in turn rear-ended a Mercedes.

Both detectives heard the crunch and groan of twisting metal over the blare of the siren. Hutchinson braced himself once more. Starsky applied the brakes, maintaining near-perfect control over the Torino. The car came to a rocking stop perpendicular and behind the Skylark.

Starsky was out in a flash and almost floated over the hood. Hutchinson had trouble squeezing out because Starsky had parked so close to the Buick. Silently he prayed that his hotheaded partner wouldn’t pull the driver out and beat the crap out of him.

The dark-haired detective couldn’t if he tried. The door was jammed shut, and the driver was obviously unconscious and bloody from his head meeting the windshield. Starsky checked out the back seat, but saw nothing but a brown blanket, a chewed-up spongy ball, and an equally tattered Raggedy Andy doll. Where the hell is the kid? he thought, feeling his heart threaten to burst from his chest. He started to run back to his car for a crowbar when he heard a sound. A sound he didn’t expect.

Hutchinson was now on the other side of the car. He first made sure the robber was breathing, then he, too, began the visual search for the baby. He heard the sound as well. He strained to find the source.

A second later, a small furry head poked out from under the front passenger seat. Big brown eyes quickly found Hutch’s blue ones. Another second, the furry creature was at the window that separated it and the blond man. It barked joyously while it danced and jumped on its short hind legs.

“It’s a dog … a goddamn dog, Starsk,” Hutchinson said in a tone that started with incredulity but ended in anger.

What?!” Starsky asked with challenging fury. “Her baby is a, a … dog?”

Hutchinson stood to look at Starsky over the Skylark’s roof. He nodded his head in amazement. “Not just any dog. A Corgi.”

Starsky threw his hands up in a gesture of disgust and felt his adrenaline level plummet. Wobbling, he made it to the Torino to sit on its blisteringly hot hood in time to avoid collapsing on the street.

The bigger man balleted over the bumpers of the Skylark and Torino to stand by his friend. He gave the darker man’s drenched shoulder a quick squeeze as he said, “I’ll call for an ambulance and the fire department.”

Starsky frowned and nodded. After the danger they had put themselves and others in for a dog, he welcomed the images of real, human babies that came to him – even though those images were of babies that no longer breathed. Sometimes, I really hate this job.

~s&h~

Cooper and Milton relieved the detectives so they could continue onto Metro where their presence was in high demand. Knowing what the detectives were working on and from reading the exhaustion and frustration on their faces, the uniformed officers thought it the better part of discretion not to mention their extraordinarily disheveled and stench-laden condition. Cooper, the senior partner, recognized that both detectives were still wearing the clothes they had on at roll call the previous morning. Can’t pay me enough to be a detective, he thought as he directed the traffic that inevitably slowed to slug speed when fire trucks, cop cars, and ambulances were in the neighborhood.

The rest of the journey to the station passed in bitter quiet, neither willing to talk about how the autopsy findings had cast doubt – albeit small, but doubt nonetheless - on their assumptions about Marcus and his crew. Without consulting or informing his partner, Starsky made one unscheduled stop at the convenience store three blocks from Metro. They each purchased several large bottles of Gatorade. Each polished off a bottle even before returning to the car.

Starsky parked the Torino in the garage behind the stationhouse. Still several yards from the back entrance, he stopped and put a cold bottle of the pale green liquid against Hutch’s chest to halt him. Refusing to turn toward him and make eye contact, Starsky said in a hushed voice, “I blew it, Hutch. Those babies died ‘cuz-a me. My fault. They were alive when we first went to Marcus. If I had just searched …” He choked on a sob.

Hutchinson knew this was coming, ever since Contreras told them time of death. He was too ashamed to bring it up. Too ashamed that he hadn’t followed his gut instinct. Too ashamed of his complicity in the deaths of the Fox twins. Too ashamed that he had chosen that moment to follow the letter of the law. Now he would use the law to rationalize away his culpability. “We didn’t have probable cause, Starsky. We can’t conduct searches based on our intuition.” He waited for some reaction from his partner. All he got was a body yielding to harsher tearless sobs. “Besides, there is some question now. About Marcus’s guilt.”

Starsky felt himself slip into the pit and scud down its scummy walls. The lump of charcoal in his heart grew to boulder size, and hastened his descent. “I didn’t even ask to take a look around,” he murmured, tone radiating misery and self-condemnation. He returned his arm to his side; it had gotten far too heavy to hold up. He had no clue as to what kept him standing at all.

There he goes, shouldering all the blame. Hutchinson kicked around a few pebbles while he gathered his thoughts and his courage. He stepped around to face Starsky. “Look at me.”

Starsky kept his head and eyes cast downwards. All he could muster was a weak shake of his curly head.

“Dammit, Starsk!” Hutch exclaimed through clenched teeth.

Slowly, the dark head raised until Hutch could see the blue lagoons that were Starsky’s eyes. Hutch averted his gaze briefly, unable to bear witnessing the unimaginably huge volume of agony and guilt. “Oh, bbbuddy,” he stuttered, “I-I-I didn’t ask, either.” He swallowed audibly. “If anything, I’m the one to blame. I was in too much of a hurry to get you out of there before you –“

There he goes, twisting things so I can feel better. “Aw, Hutch,” Starsky interrupted, “don’t do this.” He tried to see through the blond’s hooded eyes. “Don’t take this on –“ He stopped when he caught the sly look that appeared around those azure eyes he knew so well. “What?”

“Can we agree to place the blame where it really belongs – on the killers?”

“Deal.” A wave of stifling nausea rose from deep within. But Starsky was willing to pay that price for lying to his best friend.

Hutchinson nodded, playing along with the lie. He knew Starsky would always consider himself at fault for the Fox twins’ deaths and would adamantly contest any hint of blame for him.

Starsky ran an arm across his moist eyes in an effort to clear them. “We better get up to Dobey’s office before he busts like Krakatootie.”

The big blond couldn’t resist letting go a soft chuckle. “Krakatoa.”

“What?”

“It’s Krakatoa.”

“Krakatootie, toa, you get the picture.” Getting his partner to laugh helped Starsky slow his slide into the blue blackness.

~s&h~

Harold Dobey stared out the window in his office, his bulk warmed to the point of heavy perspiration. He felt so empty, deceived, suckered. He had believed for most of his life that there was a God, and a benevolent one at that. And now to finally realize he had been wrong all those years left him as dead inside as the Fox family. How could something so manifestly evil been allowed to even exist, much less operate, anywhere in creation? he questioned. He didn’t expect an answer.

He shuddered, realizing for the first time in his conscious mind, that he was truly alone. That what he had esteemed as truth for decades was really a gullible man’s pathetic attempt not to be lonely.

How am I gonna tell Edith? Hell, what am I gonna tell her?

He smelled them before he heard them knock on the hall door to his office. “Come in, you two.”

The door swung open slowly. Both detectives stood in the doorway, each waiting for the other to enter first.

Dobey inspected his men: hair matted and rigid, faces with light and dark streaks of brown-gray, T-shirts (with the exception of the oddly mostly clean white sleeves of Starsky’s baseball shirt) and pants grimy beyond description. Their stench was outrageously abominable, being a combination of sweat, anger, decay, death, and dejection. Dobey, unsuccessful at hiding his gagging, had to breathe short and shallow through his mouth. “Hit the showers so you won’t be mistaken for street bums or get arrested for violating pollution laws. Then back here without any stops along the way.”

They nodded in unison before heading for the locker rooms. Though their awful odor had permeated the entire building by this time, there were no complaints or smart remarks once their fellow officers knew the source was Starsky and Hutchinson.

~s&h~

Hutchinson emptied his pockets and placed the items – wallet, shield case, noisemaker, flag pin, some coins, small notepad, keys – on the top shelf of his locker that also contained a full set of clean, old clothes, kept for just such occasions. Listlessly, he hung his holstered Colt on one hook and his handcuffs on another. He stripped, letting his sweat-starched and filth-encrusted clothes fall to an angular heap on his brown shoes. With shampoo and soap in hand, he closed the gray metal door. His eyes found Starsky.

The smaller man, dressed only in his holiday boxers, sat on the bench and studied the open locker in front of him. “This is - was my favorite pair of shorts, Hutch. I don’t think I can ever wear ‘em again.” He plucked at the waistband several times.

“Well, buddy, look at it this way. As you’ve pointed out, the Bicentennial Fourth is a one-time event. Maybe that means you shouldn’t wear ‘em any more.”

“Like maybe these murders are a one-time-only crime.” He paused before looking up at his partner. “Shit, Hutch, wudn’t it enough to maim and kill ‘em? Did they have to molest those kids, too?”

Hutch shrugged his drooping shoulders. “I’m asking myself the same questions, Starsk. I don’t understand this at all. And I hope to God I never do.”

A shadowy-blue chill ran down Starsky’s spine when it occurred to him that he did have a kind of comprehension of this unbelievable carnage. That understanding of evil, he speculated, started with his father’s death. “Yeah, I hope so, too,” he responded as he removed the bandage from his right hand.

“Come on, Starsk, let’s hit the showers. You’re rather ripe and it’s offending my sensitive nose,” Hutch joked feebly.

“And you ain’t ready for pickin’?” retorted Starsky. The shorts quickly topped the pile of his heavily soiled clothes. Armed with his own soap and shampoo, he entered the shower room only a few paces behind his partner. Uncharacteristically, he chose a nozzle several removed from the one Hutch had just started up. He figured he just needed a little space for what he was about to do. He turned the water on full blast, with a heat that came close to scalding. But it still didn’t rid him of the frigid darkness that befogged his soul.

~s&h~

Simon Marcus sat in his vinyl chair on the makeshift altar. The epitome of serenity, his long-fingered hands rested lightly on his thighs, the corners of his lips barely curled upwards, and his brown eyes crossed slightly. He was dreaming, and he dreamed his best with his acolytes kneeling and chanting before him, as about twenty of them were doing now. For a few seconds, he focussed his eyes on the threesome copulating just a few feet away. His lips moved into a closed-mouth smile as he pondered which of the two men and one woman he would favor with his sexual largesse. He quickly made his decision.

Before he joined them, he recalled the footage of the two detectives he had seen on television. The light one, Hutchinson, lifting the infants out of the dumpster, giving one to the dark one and one to the black man. How, like a sheepdog, he herded them to the car and later into the morgue. The dark one hitting the female reporter in the mouth, though, thrilled him beyond expression. The dark one would be his, one way or another. His smile opened, exposing lime-colored teeth.

Luke came around the back panels and headed directly for his leader. “He is here, Simón.”

The cult leader nodded once, but didn’t move until one of the men climaxed. He stood and led Luke to his private room.

Waiting for him was Sidney Lassiter. He was still attired in his BCPD uniform. “Simón, I came as soon as I could. Luke tells me you have a few questions?”

“Yes, I do. These two detectives. Starsky and Hutchinson. What are they like?”

Lassiter cast his eyes downward. “From what I know of them, and heard about them, they are notorious for their pushiness, but Starsky a bit more so than Hutchinson. It’s pretty much a given that Starsky would’ve been thrown off the force years ago if it wasn’t for Hutchinson. But nobody would’ve been able to work with Hutchinson if Starsky hadn’t gotten him to open up and get off his high horse.” Lassiter paused to watch his master’s expression take on a sinister edge. “They take any murder as a personal affront; they do not see the path to power and greatness that it is.” He cleared his throat. “And they are relentless in solving crimes,” he warned.

“Is there any way Detective Starsky could be convinced to join us?”

“Both Detective Starsky and his partner are strictly straight cops. They’ve been tempted with money, expensive gifts, narcotics, women, but they resist. So, my answer to your question is ‘no.’” The cop started to sweat, because nobody wanted or liked to say “no” to their idol.

Marcus was silent for several moments as he planned. “I dream of one bier surrounded by dry seas of blue and brass. I dream of a second one if there is defiance or resistance. Sidney, you have brought me much valuable information. I dream you will join us in our next ceremony. But I dream of a reward now. Kneel.” He smiled smugly in anticipation.

Both Luke and Lassiter knew what that meant. The two men began chanting, “Simón, Simón.” Quivering with excitement, Lassiter knelt before Marcus and opened his mouth to receive his prize.

~s&h~

Already dressed and with weapon in place, Starsky downed the last of his Gatorade. He stared at his rank holiday clothes, recalling the excitement he had felt when he had put them on the previous morning. Now, he could hardly stand to acknowledge they were his. “Hutch, let’s put this crap in the trunk, okay?”

The blond man, whose fair skin was now a beet red from the intense scrubbing he had given it, wiggled into a pale blue T-shirt. “Yeah, guess we shouldn’t leave all this here. We’d get kicked off the force.”

Right now, that doesn’t sound like a bad idea, Starsky thought as he picked up his clothing. Careful not to hold the items close, he climbed the stairs that led directly to the garage. He pressed the crashbar with his foot and entered the concrete heat. He heard the whoosh of the station’s incinerator off to his right. Without conscious awareness, he headed for the huge furnace. The closer he got to it, the more it reminded him of the boiling air of Southeast Asia. Funny how I can go for months without thinkin’ about that time and place, then it’s all I seem to think about. He disregarded the warning that cautioned against opening the door to the incinerator when it was active and reached for the handle.

Hutchinson, still without gun and jacket, came out of the building and beelined for the Torino. But some movement in his outer vision caught his attention. He watched, in terror and disbelief, his partner open the door to the operating incinerator. “STARSKY!” he cried out in high panic. He dropped his bundle of dirty clothes and broke into a sprint, hoping he could get there in time to douse the flames he was certain would engulf his friend.

Starsky stumbled backwards forcefully when the heat surged out. The flames reached for him, like an abusive mother for her victim-child, but stopped inches short of their goal. The dark-haired man was disappointed that even this fire couldn’t burn off the cold fog that clung around and in him. Next thing he knew, he was being jerked away. He snapped his head around to see a frenzied Hutch as the owner of the hands on his arm.

Breathless from running and fear, Hutch slurped in several rapid breaths. “Are you crazy? What the fuck do you think you’re doin’?” he asked, concerned anger painting his words.

Starsky had to think a moment before he could answer. “I, uh, thought it’d be better if I burned this stuff.” He paused. “It’ll never get clean enough, and I don’t …” He let the sentence fall away.

For several heartbeats, Hutch peered into the dark blue eyes that held his. Then he understood completely. “I’ll be right back.”

A few minutes later, the fire raged larger as it devoured its new fuel. It took both detectives to shut the door on the voracious, burning beast.

~s&h~

Dobey paced in his office, growing angrier with each passing minute. There was no way a shower should have taken thirty minutes, and now he had something new but not unexpected to deal with. His stomach frothed with acid. He considered taking yet another dose of Mylanta.

The hall door to his office swung in, narrowly missing slamming him broadside. “Were you two raised in a barn?” he barked at Starsky and Hutchinson. “And where the hell have you been? I said to shower, not to lounge around in a damn bubble bath!”

“Sorry, Cap,” apologized Starsky dully.

A closer look at his best team of detectives brought Dobey’s self-pity to a screeching halt. The emotional and physical exhaustion was stamped all over them, as was their torment and anguish. Dammit, I could lose them, too, over this case, he realized. He couldn’t afford to let that happen. “Yeah, well,” he began, this time in a gentler tone, “guess I’m just a bit on edge. Just got handed these.” He thrust the papers he carried into Hutch’s chest. Once the blond man gained control over them, Dobey released his hold and returned to his chair. Following his lead, Starsky headed for the farther chair so Hutch could have the one closest to the door. Dobey exhaled heavily through his nose and said, “Sanders and Miller’s resignations.”

Starsky bowed his head and ran both hands through his damp hair while he crossed his knees. Damn – he’s murdered nine people, and now he’s killing cops’ careers, he thought bitterly.

Hutchinson tripped as he looked from Dobey to the papers and back to Dobey. He fell into the chair, aggravating his twisted back some. “I don’t believe this. Sanders was scheduled to take the next detective’s exam.”

“I know, and that’s why I told ‘em to take a few days’ leave, to think about it.” Dobey pointed to the papers that Hutch was placing on his desk. “I told ‘em I’d hold off processing their request until next Monday.” He cleared his throat to signal a change in subject. “You two have enough to keep you busy, so I assigned O’Bannion and Hillerman to investigate the body in the other dumpster, along with a meat cleaver found under him. They’re to report to you. I’ve got two teams checking out past murders and major assaults with knives and those of a ritualistic nature. With the evidence processed so far, how’s this Marcus turkey figuring in? He still a suspect?”

The partners cast sidelong glances at each other. With his eyes, Starsky asked Hutch to field this question.

“Yes, he is. He’s the best we’ve got. Hell, he’s all we got.”

“Frankly, Hutchinson, I’m surprised you’ve got anything at all at this stage.”

Starsky shifted to lean forward. “We got enough for a warrant, Cap.” Hutch tried to mask his astonishment at the statement.

Dobey’s eyebrows headed north. “What? You know somethin’ I don’t know?”

“Cap’n, it’s all circumstantial, but it’s enough for a warrant.”

“Okay, Starsky, you’ll get your chance to plead your case to the prosecutor. Jonathon Moore’s been assigned the case, and I’m expecting him here soon. You convince us, he’ll take it to a judge.”

Hutchinson was delighted with that news; Moore was a particularly effective prosecutor when it came to big cases like this one. “Shouldn’t be hard finding a sympathetic judge for this one.”

“Wrong, Hutchinson,” Dobey snarled. “This has got to go by the numbers, no room for doubt or mistakes. We can’t afford to have any warrant contested and overturned on this one.” He patted the stack of two bulging buff-colored manila envelopes, on top of which was a small white bag. “All this was just messengered over from the morgue and the crime scene unit. Photographs, some other stuff. And something for you, Starsky,” Dobey said, pointing to the bag with a chubby finger. “That lady coroner called and asked me to make sure you take your medicine. All of it.”

Hutchinson glared at his partner, who looked slightly embarrassed, then at his right hand. “What medicine, partner? You never told me anything about any medicine.”

“Gosh, Hutch, I didn’t think it was important. It’s not infected, and doesn’t really even hurt. She wants me to take antibiotics to prevent infection. No big deal.” His tone reflected his non-concern about the matter.

The big blond stood carefully. He grabbed the bag and tossed it over his shoulder to its proper owner. Starsky, not expecting such a move, grimaced when the bag beaned him before falling to the floor. Hutch grinned a little wickedly. Picking up the two large envelopes, Hutchinson said, “Come on, Starsky. And let’s hope you can catch the bad guys better than you can catch a little bottle of pills.”

Starsky stood and began following his partner to the squad room until Dobey said, “Hold on. There’s one more thing.”

They turned and looked at him expectantly.

“You realize, Starsky, that both the commissioner and Chief Ryan want your badge after that thing with the reporter. But they’re going to go along with whatever IA says. Go see Fargo now. Alone.”

The curly-haired detective placed his hands on his hips and exhaled through his mouth, lips fluttering audibly. His eyes found the all-too-familiar ceiling. Time for my weekly check-in with my IA parole officers, he thought with dreary resignation. He shot the captain a quick thank-you look, knowing that Dobey was responsible for him still having his shield.

Meanwhile, Hutchinson’s complexion went from pink to crimson in two seconds. “That stinks, Cap, and you know it!” he said emphatically. “Starsky did what any cop would have, hell, should have done in those same circumstances. And now, in the middle of a major –“

“Hutch,” Starsky said conversationally.

“Shut up, Starsky, I’m talking. Now, Cap’n, as I was saying, we’re in the middle of a mass murder –“

“Hutch!” Starsky repeated, but louder and with some amusement at being treated like a third-grader and at Hutch’s choice of this as a battle to wage.

Hutchinson rolled his eyes, perturbed at another interruption. “What is it?”

The smaller man half-smiled at his well-meaning and outraged partner. “Hey, I really appreciate you standin’ up for me, ya know,” he said earnestly, tapping Hutch’s chest with the flats of his left fingers in rhythm with his words. “But I want to get this over with. Okay?”

Hutchinson visibly calmed and his coloring began the trip back to normal. “Okay. But if Fargo gives you any sh–“

“He won’t,” Starsky interrupted again. “The lieutenant is all right.” He turned his head to look at Dobey, who was hiding a tiny smile behind his thick hands. “Hey, Cap, where’s Simonetti and Dryden?”

Dobey ahemed. “They’ve got the day off.”

Starsky turned back to look at Hutch. “See, Hutch? It’ll be fine. No Laverne and Shirley.”

“Lucy and Ethel.”

“Tweedledee and Tweedledum.”

“Mutt and Jeff.”

“Fric and Frac.”

“Tom and Jerry.”

“Enough!” yipped Dobey. “Get outta here, and I don’t wanna see or hear either one of you until Moore gets here!”

“Yes, sir!” they answered simultaneously. Starsky, using his torso, pushed Hutch to the door. “Ralph and Norton,” he continued in a stage whisper.

The pouches nearly escaped Hutchinson’s grasp when he opened the door into Starsky. “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.”

Starsky pushed against the door and stepped behind Hutch, where he supposed it would be safer. “Who?

“Hamlet’s buddies from college, dummy.” Hutch performed a partial deep knee bend to catch the once-more wayward envelopes.

This time, Starsky pushed his partner into the squad room. “’Out, out, damned spot,’” he declared dramatically.

Dobey leaned back in his chair and studied the closed door. He thought of that brief “game” they had just played, and marveled at their ability to keep their heads above the proverbial waters when things were tough. He began to think there was a chance he wouldn’t lose them because of this case. Wonder who else might quit because of this? He scratched his head with the eraser end of a new pencil. Suddenly, in his mind’s eye, he could see himself handing Chief Ryan a single sheet of paper along with his badge and weapon. A moment later, the eye closed, and the scene blinked away. Even so, the captain of detectives became increasingly uneasy.

~s&h~

Starsky had taken off for the IA office as soon as they had entered the squad room, leaving Hutchinson alone to cope with the quiet, somber atmosphere that filled the room. He had no idea who or where the assisting four detectives were. But he had to have some sort of sound other than the shrieking voices jamming in his ears. Referring back to the file Minnie Kaplan had assembled the previous day, he decided to call the sheriff of Lexington County in Oregon. Talking to him would help drown out the voices and keep his mind off what was happening to his partner. He phoned dispatch and asked for the telephone number.

Three minutes later, the blond detective was speaking with Sheriff Howell. Hutchinson consciously had to concentrate on what the man was telling him about the family of four that had been hacked to death and the missing-but-presumed-dead infant in his jurisdiction just a little over three months ago. He jotted down the details in his personal shorthand. He rarely had to stop the sheriff, who was proving to be very thorough and professional. One part of his mind began analyzing the information; he could already see some impressive similarities with the Fox case. He also realized that other details decreased the probability they were looking for the same perpetrators.

“Is there a reason you didn’t call in the FBI or your state bureau for assistance?” Hutchinson asked. Just then, Starsky, face and body unreadable, entered the squad room. Hutch waved him over.

“I did call the state, since like I said, Lex County’s current coroner isn’t a real doc. They couldn’t spare one of their medical examiners for about three days, and the bodies were already pretty decomposed by the time we found ‘em.” Hutchinson heard a sigh of regret from the sheriff just before Starsky’s phone rang. “I’m afraid that delay in discovering the scene ruined our chances for decent forensics. But I’m not lettin’ it drop. No, sirree.”

The darker detective let the phone ring twice before answering, “Detective Starsky.” He listened and became increasingly spirited as the one-sided conversation continued. Unable to find a blank sheet of paper and a pencil on his desk that was still junked from yesterday’s trashing, he filched the pencil from Hutch’s hand and wrote some notes in the margins of a stained Pedro’s Take-Away Mexican Heaven menu.

Hutchinson finished up with Howell after the sheriff promised to send copies of the crime scene and postmortem photos and reports. He leaned back in his chair to enjoy watching Starsky hunch the phone to his left ear and write with his left hand while he stood and twitched his butt in a fair imitation of an aroused bobtailed dog. Hutch found himself getting caught up in the excitement his partner was broadcasting.

“Okay, got it. Thanks, Lieutenant. Tell ‘em we’ll contact ‘em later tonight.” As he returned the receiver to its resting place, Starsky grinned at Hutch. “That was Jaffe at CHP. Seems that a couple of his officers rousted Marcus and his band of merry mentals from some ranch a couple of months back. They were slaughtering his cows. Anyways, these two officers are working second shift today. Thought we’d meet ‘em somewhere for a bite to eat.” Starsky felt some hope for justice breeze into his heart, but it didn’t blow away the darkness that had a tight hold on him.

“That’s great! Now, maybe we can make a stronger case for that warrant with just this information.”

Starsky began pacing, now that he had his fourth or fifth wind. “We’re getting closer, Hutch. I can feel it.”

Hutchinson showed his caution with a quick rise and fall of his eyebrows and puckered lips. “Maybe, buddy, just maybe. We still have to talk to them.”

“Anybody ever tell you you’re a regular shaft of sunlight?”

Hutch smiled sadly at the memory that question brought back. And the stress and worry. “Yeah, I seem to recall someone telling me that. Now, slow down and tell me what happened with Fargo.”

“Oh, that.” Starsky poofed out a breath and gave a dismissive wave. “He’d already talked with that reporter. She told him what she’d done. He said she insisted it was all her fault. Only thing he told me was not to hit so hard the next time. And to wear a jacket.” He cocked his head to one side and smiled crookedly.

Hutchinson shook his head in stupefaction. “Better be glad Fargo caught your case. If it had been Dryden or Simonetti …” He knew he didn’t have to say more.

“Don’t remind me. Hey, who were you talking to?” Starsky stopped pacing, but drummed the pencil on the desk.

“The sheriff in Oregon.” Starsky oh’ed his mouth. “Seems that the four victims were cut up into pieces, like our vics, including decapitation and scalping. Their eyes and all their toes went missing. They can’t say for sure there were any wounds that could pass for crosses, either right side up or down. Plus, they had a couple of problems. One is that the bodies were pretty badly decomposed when they were found.” He paused, and turned his head to one side, almost positive that he was hearing new voices in his head.

Starsky grew impatient rapidly. “And number two?” he finally asked to break the silence, hoping his irritation didn’t show. The drumming sped up.

“Hunh?” Hutch turned back to look at his partner. His face seemed to hold nothing but confusion.

Damn, Hutch is skippin’ a groove. Nah. Maybe he’s making a connection, analyzing a clue, just thinking. “The other problem, buddy. You said the Oregon case had a coupla problems.”

“Oh, right.” He shifted in his chair to give himself time to regroup. “Yeah, the other problem was that the coroner wasn’t a physician but a guy who has a Ph.D. in anatomy and physiology.”

Before Starsky could reply, Adriana, one of the high school students who volunteered in the department during the summers, strolled into the squad room. She headed straight for Hutchinson. Blatantly flirting with the blond detective – twirling her long, straight, light brown hair around one finger, batting her eyelashes, tilting her head, and smacking her gum – she handed him a piece of white paper. “A message came in for you while you were on the phones.” Her outrageous attempt at making her voice seductively husky evoked a titter from Starsky.

Hutchinson blushed. When he took the note, his fingers accidentally touched hers. Adriana cooed and moved closer to the uncomfortable detective.

He leaned away from her, intent on maintaining the proper distance from this modern-day Lolita. “Uh, thanks. For the note.” He cleared his throat and gestured for her to leave. “You can go now.”

Adriana popped her gum several times. “Okay. But call me if you need anything, okay?”

“Sure will.” Hutch gave her a broad, uncomfortable smile. “Well, my partner and I have work to do.”

The teenager finally took the hint. She almost pulled off the runway-model walk.

Hutchinson stared after her, appreciative of that he couldn’t touch. He faced Starsky when he heard his name.

Starsky held the telephone out to Hutch. “It’s for you. Adriana’s mother. She says Adriana can’t come out to play until she grows up in four or five years.” The pencil sharpener hurled at him missed by inches.

The two teams Dobey had working on records review – Simmons and Babcock, and Pirelli and Beauchamps – returned to the squad room, arms filled with folders. Minnie Kaplan and Charlie Collins were with them, and each of them pushed a cart brimming with more records.

“Hey, what’s goin’ on here? Did a computer search turn up alla these?” Starsky felt his newly refreshed hope turn sour and doubt about Marcus’s guilt climb a rung. Shit! There can’t be this many possibles!

“Starsky, Hutch,” Collins said in greeting. “That damned computer broke down in the middle of this, so it’s back to the old-fashioned way.”

“Well, fix the fuckin’ thing!” Starsky yelled in mounting anger as he brandished the telephone like a potential weapon.

Hutch stood, leaned across their desks, and found the arm with the phone. He pushed downwards gently. Starsky didn’t seem to notice but didn’t resist.

“Look, Starsky, I’m doing the best I can! We all are!” Collins reddened with his own anger and frustration.

Starsky backed down. “You’re right. We’re all doin’ the best we can.” Contrite and subdued, he returned the telephone to his desktop. “Let’s just hope it’s good enough,” he murmured loud enough for only Hutchinson to hear.

The door to Dobey’s office swung open and the captain stepped partially through. The tension in the room was thick enough to smother him. He glared at everyone, stopping with Starsky and Hutchinson. “My office, now.”

Hutchinson shot Starsky a look that ordered him to stay cool. He rounded the desk and took his partner by the elbow. A quick squeeze of reassurance, and Hutch piloted him into Dobey’s office.

Jonathon Moore was waiting patiently for them. Though he was a rather stocky five-and-a-half-foot-tall white man with thick, wavy, dishwater brown hair and a pock-marked face, he projected such a self-assured presence that it left no question about his abilities. He rose from his leaning position at the front of Dobey’s desk and extended his hand enthusiastically to the detectives.

Hutchinson shook the district attorney’s hand first. He appreciated the respect Moore consistently showed the police, partially evidenced by this action of handshaking. Moore was the only district attorney or assistant DA who did this.

As Starsky pressed the man’s flesh, he thought gleefully, Terrific! No plea bargain or insanity defense for this case.

“Sergeants, good to see you again,” Moore said, his pleasure showing in his tone. “Am I glad you two are spearheading this investigation. I know you’ll make my job much easier. Now, what can I do to return the favor?” Moore was careful not to show his apprehension at the fatigued and haggard appearances of the detectives.

The four men remained standing. Hutchinson and Starsky exchanged quick glances to confirm they were on the same page. They were. They slid into their tag-team style of presenting the data in a rapid-fire, convincing delivery, one picking up from the other when it seemed that he was running out of gas. It was a variation on an interrogation technique they used at times that kept the suspect just off-kilter and unable to think before responding. Between the two of them, they told Moore of the tip from Wailin’ Willie and their decision to check out the storefront in question. They told him of the meetings with Marcus and the cult, of Marcus’s “dreams” and how their interpretation of the dreams led them to search for the missing twins in dumpsters and piles of trash. They told him of the cross scar on Marcus’s chest, of what they had witnessed of the cross-cutting and burning ceremony, and of the wounds shaped like crosses in the victims. Hutchinson had the last word, and underscored his certainty with closing the physical distance between him and Moore and maintaining eye contact.

Moore held Hutch’s eyes for a few moments before looking into Starsky’s equally earnest ones. Damn! Hope neither one of these men ever sits at the other table in a courtroom. I hate to lose. He bowed his head and rubbed the left side of his face – a nervous habit that helped him think. About ten seconds later, his head popped up. The three police officers unconsciously held their breath as they waited for the decision they knew he had made.

“I hate to tell you this, but I don’t think we have enough to take to a judge. For a case like this one, what you have is pretty thin at this juncture. I’m sure Captain Dobey has told you we need to be perfect with this. Now, I appreciate your hunches, which have an excellent track record. But I can’t take the chance of having one piece of evidence excluded because of a premature search warrant.” He paused as he watched the detectives’ hope take a pounding on the rocks of the Constitution. “Get me a little more, and I can make it happen.”

“Don’t worry, Moore, we’ll get whatever it takes.”

Moore flinched inwardly at the furious, dark resolve in Starsky’s tone. “Call me when you do, Starsky. But don’t bend the rules too far. Got it?” He got a nod from the curly head, then looked to the blond one, where a nod was forthcoming as well. He shook hands once more with the detectives before he took Dobey’s hand. “Captain, we still on for lunch Wednesday?”

“So far.”

“Good. I’ll call you that morning before I head into court. We’ll set up a restaurant then.”

Dobey, who had been standing in front of the hall door, stepped aside so the attorney could leave. The three were silent for several moments after the door had closed behind him.

The captain harrumphed. “Don’t you have work to do?”

Disappointment and frustration weighed their bodies down, so it took longer than usual to leave the office. Starsky opened the door and stood against it to let Hutch pass through first. Before Hutch could cross the threshold, he stopped when Dobey said, “Hey.”

The captain shivered when he read the dejection in their faces. “When was the last time you two had any sleep or anything to eat or drink?” He got two indifferent shrugs for an answer. “Get something to eat then go home and get some sleep. That’s an order.”

“We aren’t hungry, Cap.”

Make yourself, Hutchinson. I can’t afford to have you two passing out or getting sick. The twins have been found. You can take a few hours off now.”

“Yeah, the twins have been found,” Starsky piped up. “But we don’t know if there are any more victims. Or how long before they hit a second family. You know in your gut they won’t stop.”

Dobey read between the lines. “Hell, Starsky, I can’t have everybody workin’ this case.”

“Why not.” The statement dared and accused.

Hutchinson arched his eyebrows in agreement before returning to the squad room. Starsky gently closed the door.

The huge man stomped to his chair and forcefully sat, the chair quaking beneath the weight. With his elbows on the desk, he brought his head down so he could run his fingers through his nappy hair. His first thought was for a prayer, but a second thought quickly followed – there was no one or no thing to pray to.

The ringing of the telephone rescued him from further thoughts. “What, Charisse?” he answered calmly.

“Captain, we’ve located Jeffrey Fox’s brother Thomas. He’s on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.”

He sighed. “Get me the number of the nearest Coast Guard station, please. And see if there’s any way I can talk to Fox before he leaves that platform.” The only thing good he could imagine coming out of that conversation would be the confirmation or discovery of the identities of the other victims. He hung up and rested his head in his hands.

~s&h~

On their return, the detectives noted that Minnie had left but the other five had stayed and were pouring over records. Watching Pirelli leaf through a particularly thick file jogged Starsky’s memory. “Hey, Pirelli, I thought you and Beau had the day off.”

Without looking up from his reading material, Pirelli said, “Yeah, but neither of us could sleep much. So we called Dobey and he put us to work.”

“Thanks, Pirelli. We owe you guys one.”

“Forget it, Starsky.” This was from Beauchamps. “You and Hutchie don’t owe us nothin’. We do this for ourselves and them. Just get the bastards. Soon, or you be answerin’ to my 300-pound mama.”

Starsky snorted a little laugh. He turned to Hutch, who had just hung up the telephone. “What’s up?”

“Minnie’s gonna find what she can on Marcus Simons and his current alias. And this note from Adriana?” He held it up between two fingers. “Message from Huggy. He wants to meet at the Grand Palace Movie House at 4:30.”

“Since when does Huggy want to meet in a theater that doesn’t show X-rated movies?”

“Beats me, partner. But I suggest we leave now, or we may miss the feature presentation.”

~s&h~

The partners stopped at the concession stand for large lemonades. Even though the smell of freshly popped popcorn was tantalizing, it failed to stimulate their appetites. In fact, they only drank because not doing so was not an option if they wanted to continue investigating the Fox murders.

They had no trouble spotting the familiar snap-brim hat atop the more familiar head in the sparsely populated theater. Hutchinson beat Starsky to the aisle seat closest to Huggy Bear, forcing Starsky to slide into the row behind them and hop over the back of the chair on the other side of the black man. He bounced in his seat several times before asking, “Change of pace for ya, ain’t it, Huggy?”

“Just expanding my horizons, my bro. Besides, I wouldn’t miss a flick with so many black brothers in it. Richard Pryor and Ivan Dixon, for starters.”

“Ivan Dixon. Wudn’t he in Hogan’s Heroes?”

“Give the white man a cigar.” Huggy took a bite out of his Paul Bunyan-sized Nestlé Crunch bar.

“Hey, there’s Professor Irwin Corey!” Hutch whispered excitedly.

“Who’s this Professor Irvin Corey?” Starsky asked as he leaned forward across Huggy, who promptly rolled his eyes.

“It’s Irwin and he’s the world’s foremost authority.”

“On what?”

“That’s it.”

“How can that be it? You hafta be an authority on somethin’ if you’re gonna be foremost about it.”

Annoyed and angry shushes came from several quadrants of the theater, including the two seats beside him. “Well?” the dark-haired detective asked, this time in a softer whisper.

Hutch groped for the words that would shut his insistent partner up. “He’s the authority on the obvious.”

“Well, that’s stupid.” He took a deep breath as a prelude to continued conversation in this area. Huggy stopped him with a stern “Shuddup, Starsky.”

The curly-haired detective sat back in his seat, but not before tossing his two companions a what’s-your-problem? look.

“What ya got, Huggy?” questioned Hutchinson.

“Well, it seems that this Marcus dude and his creepy groupies moved into Myrtle’s old place about seven weeks ago. They pretty much keep to themselves, but some of their closer neighbors have heard some weird sounds driftin’ out.”

“Weird sounds?”

“Yeah, like in the throes of sadomasochistic passion.” Huggy shuddered at the thought. “Plus, it seems that lately the Chinese restaurants in the neighborhood have had to get their meat through legitimate channels and the dogcatcher ain’t needed no mo’.”

Starsky’s stomach somersaulted at what Huggy was suggesting. “You don’t mean …”

“God’s creatures of the feline and canine persuasions have gotten mighty scarce in the ‘hood since Marcus’s invasion.”

Hutchinson massaged his forehead with his fingertips. “Cattle to cats to kids,” he muttered. A bit louder, he asked, “Anything else?”

Nada. Hell, you wouldn’t believe what it took to get this. Everybody’s really petrified of that bizarre-o dude and his entourage. They’re certainly too scared to go to the fuzz. Nobody wants to get on the worse side of these devil dudes. They only got two sides – bad and worse. Ain’t no good side to ‘em, ya dig?”

“Yeah, we dig. All too well. Thanks, Hug.”

“Hey, you two slept any in the past day or so? Y’all look like shit.”

“Sleep is highly overrated, Hug,” opined Starsky. “Besides, it’s in to look like shit. Just take a gander at the professor up there.”

The trio watched the movie in silence for several minutes. Hutchinson stared at the flickering screen, unseeing, but attuned to the dialogue. Starsky, on the other hand, found it to be an agreeable and unexpected respite from the kaleidoscope of dead faces that now constantly seemed to be in the background of his entire visual field.

Starsky slurped up the last of his lemonade and belched. “So, does all the action take place in this car wash?”

“Pretty much. Third time I seen this fine flick.”

“Good music.”

Hutchinson turned a sickly white at Starsky’s comment. He realized then that none of the soundtrack had registered in his ears. His tired eyes moistened. “Let’s go, Starsk,” he whispered hoarsely. He bolted up the aisle, not waiting for his partner, frantic to get out of the theater.

Starsky gave Huggy a questioning look, to which the black man merely shrugged. “Later, Hug,” Starsky said as he lumbered over his companion’s long legs and chased after his partner.

Starsky found Hutch a few feet from the Torino. The blond man had his hands clamped over his ears, pacing, dripping sweat and unintelligible whispers.

The darker detective’s heart and stomach traveled in tandem to his throat. Hutch’s odd behavior was disturbing and unsettling. Starsky had no clue as to what had spurred this reaction, and felt impotent and helpless. He couldn’t let this go on, so he did the first thing that came into his head. He jogged the few steps to his partner, grabbed Hutch’s wrists, and pulled. “What is it, Hutch? Tell me what it is, and maybe I can do somethin’, okay?”

Hutchinson wrested himself from Starsky’s firm grip. “Just … just leave me the hell alone, would you? Nothing’s wrong, okay? It’s nothing.”

Starsky watched, spellbound, as a stark hollowness began to consume those warm, compassionate, intelligent sky-blue eyes he loved. Even without touching him, Starsky could feel Hutch’s muscles go slack. “Oh God, Hutch, please tell me what’s goin’ on,” Starsky pleaded, voice crackling with fear and terrified worry. He chanced a touch.

Hutchinson stared blankly at the hand resting lightly on his forearm. The touch was comforting, though tentative. But it wasn’t restorative. No, he decided, this won’t bring the music –me - back. Before he could pull away, he was rushed by pain so intense that he had to fight to remain upright.

Starsky was on the verge of tears as he watched his partner turn a light blue-gray and teeter toward the car. Unhesitatingly grasping Hutchinson under both wet armpits, Starsky hauled him the rest of the short distance to the car. He used it to shore his partner up while he opened the passenger door. He eased the ragdoll-limp bigger man onto the seat, but not before butting their heads together.

This gave Hutchinson a focus for the global, very real pain of loss he was experiencing. It jarred him back to the external, and put the skids on the plunge into the deeper part of his abyss. With tremendous effort, he swung his own legs into the car and kept his upper body from completely toppling over onto the seat.

Starsky carefully closed the door, rubbed his head, and sprinted to the driver’s side. Once inside, he sat facing his partner. With his left hand, he turned Hutch’s head to face him. “What is it, Hutch? You dehydrated again? You havin’ a heart attack? Talk to me, buddy.” Seeing the growing desert in those pale blue eyes, Starsky couldn’t prevent a tiny sob from escaping his throat.

Hutchinson read the trust, affection, and concern displayed all over his friend’s countenance. But he couldn’t trust himself to tell Starsky what was happening, because that would make it real, would confirm he was crazy. It would acknowledge the demise of a major component of his being at the hands of the mass murderers, though his body might take years to catch up.

The silence from his partner both irked and worried Starsky. He made a decision that he hoped would stimulate Hutch to spill his guts. “Okay then, I’m takin’ you to the hospital. I think you’re havin’ a heart attack.” Before he could turn the ignition key, Hutch’s hand was on his arm.

“No, Starsk, I’m not having a heart attack.” Hutch gave his partner a lame smile. Got to have a heart to have an attack. “It just got kinda close in the theater. And, ummm, just didn’t seem right to be watching a comedy right now, you know?” I’m falling for this bullshit. Question is, will he?

Starsky studied Hutch closely. This is a big load-a crap. He better have a good reason for not bein’ straight with me, for not trusting me. “Terrific. Howz about we head back to the office, since it’s too early for those highway patrol cops to have dinner.”

Hutchinson gave a reluctant nod and settled back to watch but not see the life beyond his window.

~s&h~

When the detectives returned to the squad room, they were pleased to see their associates on this case still hard at work reviewing files. There was one small pile, only about three inches deep, that sat apart from the others. They correctly assumed that it was the strongest probables.

After exchanging guttural acknowledgements, Hutchinson and Starsky began the gruesome task of analyzing the crime scene, autopsy photographs, and physical evidence. Starsky beat Hutch to the envelope labeled “Autopsy.” The blond, concerned that his partner might not be ready to view the shots of the twins, had wanted that group of photos first. He scolded himself for not being faster.

Methodically, they studied the photographs. Only with the most intense concentration and the steady drumming of an eraser head on his desk could Starsky see beyond the ghostly faces in his mind. He set off to one side a picture of each victim’s torso that showed just enough of the detached head for orientation purposes. When he got to the twins’ images, his hand tremored noticeably and his vision tunneled in on them. The many faces became one. What’s his name? Tran? Yeah, that’s it. How could I possibly forget the name of the baby I killed. The fog inside got thicker and darker.

Hutchinson poured over the crime scene pictures. With each successive shot he examined, the voices got louder. They got louder still when he used the magnifying glass. He thought his eardrums would rupture if the screams grew any more intense. About halfway through the stack, he had to stop. Panting quietly to cope with the pain the massacre had inflicted on him, he looked up at his partner across from him.

The dark-haired detective had laid out the photos of the nine victims in three rows of three, with the tail end of the torsos pointing toward him. Now he stood at the desk and played with his lips, pinching and releasing them erratically. When he realized he was still too close to see all the pictures clearly, he stood on his chair.

“Starsk, what are you doing?” Hutch asked tiredly.

“Unh?” A distant grunt.

“Starsky, why are you standing on your chair?”

“Unh? Oh, I dunno. Just got a feelin’ th’answer’s right there, but we just can’t see it.”

Hutchinson crossed his forearms on the desk and leaned up and over them to get a better look at the photos. “And you think your point of view from up there will help you see it? Starsky, you –“ A spark of realization lit up Hutch’s eyes. “THAT’S IT!” he shouted.

Six pairs of eyes darted to the blond. Startled, Starsky half-fell off the chair. “Okay, Hutch, don’t keep me waitin’,” he said with cautious excitement. One by one, their colleagues came to surround them.

Hutchinson stood to get a better view. “You said it, Starsky.” Hutch grinned when he saw the question in his partner’s eyes. “It’s in the point of view. Suppose, just suppose, the cutter was at the vic’s –“

“Head,” Starsky completed. As Hutchinson’s hypothesis traveled through his cerebral cortex, he felt his own grin appear. “Upside-down crosses, Hutch,” he whispered, hope brimming in the words.

Captain Dobey had entered the squad room silently soon after hearing Hutchinson’s exclamation. Now he approached the smaller detective’s desk so he, too, could view the pictures.

“Now, the cutter would most likely make the cut by pulling the knife toward himself,” Hutch said. He got unanimous nods from seven heads.

“And where a knife first breaks the skin is usually the shallowest part, right?” Starsky asked, carrying on Hutch’s train of thought. Seven more nods.

“Well,” growled Dobey, “what are you waiting for?” He patted the detective on his back.

Starsky grinned broadly before picking up the telephone receiver while the captain and the other detectives meandered back to their work. He began dialing, but Hutch reached over to finger down the cradle switch. Starsky glared at him for the interruption.

“Don’t you think it would be a good idea to apologize to Dr. Etzioni for how you talked to her this morning?”

“What?” Starsky asked with genuine puzzlement. Then he remembered. “Oh, yeah, sure,” embarrassment evident in his tone. He began dialing again as soon as Hutch released the button.

Hutchinson went back to examining and marking up the nine photographs but listened to Starsky’s side of the conversation. “Robbie? Detective Starsky. Lemme speak to Contreras” – Hutchinson raised his eyes from the pictures to shame his partner, who shifted guiltily in his chair – “no, better make that Etzioni, okay?” Hutch returned his eyes to his work. After a brief wait, Starsky began speaking again. “Hey, Liz, it’s Starsky. Hutch and me just had a brainstorm. Did you measure the depth of the cross wounds at all four ends? . . . How long will it take? . . . Call as soon as you got ‘em, okay? . . . Oh, you got that meat cleaver that’s part of the hairless guy case? . . . How about doin’ me a favor and see if it matches up with the wounds on that tourist, uhhh, Pierce Hamilton.” This time, Hutch raised his entire head and smiled his agreement. Starsky smiled in return, then cast a wary glance at his partner as he turned away from him and lowered his voice.

Shut out from the remainder of the conversation, even though he knew the gist of what Starsky would be saying, Hutch shook his head and began scribbling notes on their most recent train of thought. A minute later, Starsky broke his concentration when he clumsily replaced the receiver. “Does she forgive you, Starsk?”

“Yeah. Said I didn’t really need to apologize, either. She’s all right, even if she’s a doc to the dead.” For a few moments, he slowly drummed his fingers on the phone and stared pensively at his shabby Adidas running shoes. “Think it’s time to meet with the highway patrol cops. They oughta be hungry and ready for a break by now.”

Five minutes later, they were headed for Alex’s Burgerville Drive-in for the meet with the two CHP officers.

~s&h~

The California Highway Patrol officers, Torricelli and Byers, pulled into Alex’s right behind the Torino they knew to be Detective Starsky’s. They followed the big red and white car to the furthermost parking slots. They watched as both men exited the car simultaneously. The CHP officers parked their motorcycles in the space to the left of the Torino and dismounted. Torricelli removed his helmet and gloves and left both on the seat, while Byers stowed his items under his left arm.

The darker of the two detectives was the first to extend his hand in greeting. “Hi, I’m Dave Starsky, and this” – he indicated with a jerk of his head the somewhat taller blond man who was nearing them – “is my partner, Ken Hutchinson. Thanks for meeting us, guys.”

Torricelli shook the offered hand while he instantly sized up the two detectives from BC. Their reputations had preceded them, and he, like anyone else, had a preconceived notion of what they would look like. He had figured they would dress down, but this was way beyond casual. Their clothes – oddly enough, all in varying shades of blue - matched their owners: worn and frayed at the edges, both having seen much better days. The one called Starsky had an impressive beard stubble that gave his entire face a bluish shadow. His partner probably hadn’t shaved for a while either, but it was harder to detect. Jesus Christ, these boys have been through the wringer. That crime scene must’ve been worse than what rumor has it. “Any time. Hope we can be of some help. By the way, I’m Mike Torricelli.”

“And I’m Hank Byers,” said the younger officer. He shook Hutch’s hand.

“Hope you don’t mind if we get right down to business, gents,” said the swarthy Torricelli. “Highway traffic is already bad and will get worse as the evening wears on, and we have to get back out there.”

“No problem,” said Hutchinson. Just then, they were interrupted by a tired, testy, female voice coming over one of the nearby squawk boxes.

“You cops gonna order anything, or just chew your cud and take up space?”

All four men laughed. Hutchinson asked, “Got time to eat a little something? Our treat.”

“Since you put it that way, Hutchinson.” Louder, Byers continued. “Two dogs, mustard, onion, and relish, and an iced tea.”

“Make mine two dogs, mustard only, and iced tea,” added Torricelli. “No relish for me,” he said impishly to the detectives as he patted his slight paunch. “Watchin’ my girlish figure.”

Without consulting Hutch, Starsky ordered two lemonades and two iced teas for them.

“You want anything to go with those drinks?”

“Yeah, a couple of empty cups, if it’s no trouble.”

They heard the impatient sigh loud and clear. “I mean, you want somethin’ to eat.”

“No, thanks, just the drinks, ma’am.”

“Okay, big spender. But don’t come crawlin’ back here in an hour complainin’ about your empty stomach. I warned you.”

It was a number of seconds before they stopped laughing enough to talk. Torricelli, who was the senior of the two patrolmen, jumped right into their encounter with Simon Marcus and his recruits. “About two months ago, we get a call from this rancher not far from here. One R. J. Crowe. Owns and runs the Pinyon Pine Ranch.”

“Any idea why he didn’t call the sheriff?” asked Hutchinson.

“He said we were closer, and he didn’t want to wait until somebody from the sheriff’s department got there. Things were slow for us, so we had no problem taking the call. When Hank and I got there, Crowe had a rifle in his arms. It pointed down, but I could tell he was ready to use it, and fast. There were thirty-one people, some dressed in black robes, others in ordinary clothes, just wandering about, except for four men.” Torricelli stopped when their waitress, a mousy young woman with brilliant white teeth she showed when she recognized the uniformed officers. Hutchinson gave her a ten-dollar bill and told her to keep the change, to which she said, “Hey, almost a three-buck tip! You’re okay, blondie.”

Torricelli wolfed down his first hot dog while he observed Starsky carefully mixing half of one lemonade with half of one iced tea in the extra cups. “Where was I? Oh, right, the four men. These guys, one of who we found out to be this Marcus character, were certainly doing their best to physically intimidate Crowe. But he’s a tough old bird – no pun intended. Anyway, once we got up to the little group, they backed off some and Crowe started telling us about how they paid him back for letting them stay on his property by slaughtering his livestock. Well, he couldn’t prove they had actually done it. Hadn’t seen ‘em. The only thing we could do was cite ‘em for trespassing and escort ‘em off the property.” He took a long gulp of his iced tea.

Byers, who had finished both of his franks, picked up where his partner left off. “We went back to talk with Crowe. He showed us the photographs he had taken of his cattle and a couple of horses. Pretty gruesome stuff. Made me want to puke.”

Starsky, excited to hear there were photographs, spewed a partial mouthful of his beverage mix, some of it sprinkling the CHP officers’ pants and boots. They took the light shower in stride, since the darker detective was giving them a great show with his animated gesturing. “What did it look like? You know where the pictures are? Where’s this ranch? Do you know if he’s home?” The questions tumbled so fast out of his mouth that they didn’t have a chance to reply until Hutchinson’s hand on his arm shut him up.

Torricelli described the slaughter, calling it ritualistic in nature. Each animal had had its throat cut and upper chest opened with a two-part wound that looked like a t. They had had their rear hooves amputated. “There were a couple of other things, but something Crowe said really stuck with me.” He hesitated, face darkening as he recalled the words and pictures.

“Yeah?” prompted Starsky.

“Well,” he said, finding it necessary to clear his throat before going on, “he said he thought some of the guys might’ve had sex with his animals.” Torricelli whispered the last few words with a disgusted, incredulous tone. Byers had stepped away a few paces and now looked like he was going to lose his supper.

Both detectives turned green. Hutchinson found and picked up a small stone, and, wishing all the while he could wrap his knowledge about Marcus and his cult around it, threw it as hard as he could. Starsky uttered several curses and swallowed back the bile that rose to his throat. “Anything else you think we oughta know about these perverts now?” he asked quietly.

“Naw, but if we think of something, we’ll call you. We’ll send you a copy of our notes and reports as soon as we can.”

“Thanks, Mike,” Hutchinson said. He handed one of his cards to the CHP officer. “So, how do we get to this Pinyon Pine Ranch from here?”

Byers, self-consciously running his fingers along the top of his crewcut, rejoined the other three officers. He gave detailed directions and wished them luck with the ill-tempered rancher. “And thanks for dinner. Maybe next time we’re in your neck of the woods, we’ll look you up and you can take us somewhere decent.”

“Look forward to it. Well, we gotta go.” Starsky hurriedly bade them good-bye and set his almost empty drink cups on the ground. He had the Torino started and in gear before Torricelli and Byers could affix their helmets’ chin straps. “Come on, Hutch. I want to get there before dark. Don’t want him thinkin’ we’re revenuers.” Or worse - like Marcus comin’ back.

Hutchinson dashed off one last smile and thanks before running to the passenger side. Before he could close the heavy door, Starsky backed out of the parking space and headed for the exit.

Their doubt about Simon Marcus’s guilt had shriveled to the size of an atom.

~s&h~

En route to Pinyon Pine Ranch, Hutchinson radioed in to inform Captain Dobey of their destination. Dobey had information for them as well. He had spoken to Tom Fox, Jeff’s younger brother. Tom had told the captain who was supposed to have been at the farmhouse.

As Dobey recited the names, Starsky had to pull off to the shoulder of the county road. To hide his trembling hands, he sat on them. He noticed but said nothing when Hutch maximized the radio’s volume. Staring blankly straight ahead, the faces now dominating his vision – they had names. Soon, he couldn’t hear Dobey or Hutch, as he scooted further down into his pit.

After he ten-foured, Hutchinson was able to assign which voices, which cries, belonged to which name. The voices became more distinct and separate, and a few seemed to try speaking to him. Stop it! Just stop it! he hollered silently at them. I didn’t kill you! To his surprise, the voices quieted down. He took advantage of the relative peace to meditate for a few minutes.

Once out of the respite, Hutchinson called his partner by name several times, each time louder than the previous because of no response. Finally, he had to shake the darker man vigorously several times to rouse him from his stupor.

Slowly, Starsky turned his head to the right. He knew he was looking at Hutch, but his face was a blob of fair hair and skin with two pinpoints of blue. “What?” he asked with near-lifelessness.

Hutch felt the knot that had replaced his heart tighten. He could see he was losing his friend, and he’d be damned if let Marcus kill his eleventh victim. He choked back his fear and summoned that small part of himself that Marcus hadn’t managed to slaughter. “Starsky, they’re not your family. And you’re a cop. Sworn to bring justice to those you cannot save or protect. Time to do your job.”

In the blink of an eye, Hutch’s face sharpened to normal and the immense rage Starsky had been holding in check broke the surface of his pit. His fist struck the seat between them with his fist. “Damn you, Hutch! They are my family! And now I know their names. And I … I fucked up!”

“Well, if you did, then so did I! Let it go, dammit!” Hutch rocked back and forth for a few seconds to dissipate some of the anger he felt at his partner. “I knew you’d still be blaming yourself. You are the most obstinate creature on God’s green earth, do you know that?” He huffed heavily. “Okay, okay,” he said resignedly, “so you see them as your family. Fine. Don’t let it get in the way of your job, buddy.”

“I suggest you take your own damn advice.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Hutch tried to sound pissed, but knew his tone rang of defensiveness instead.

“That crap at the movie theater. I didn’t fall for your excuses, pal.” Starsky cleared his throat. “You may not see ‘em as family, but there is something there, Hutch, something really different about them for you, too. Different than any other homicide we’ve dealt with. I ain’t deaf, dumb, and blind.”

Several heartbeats passed before Hutch broke the uneasy silence. “It’s almost sunset.”

“Yeah.” Starsky eased the car back onto the road. “I think we’re just about a mile from the ranch.”

~s&h~

  1. J. Crowe saw and heard the Torino coming up the sun-baked road to the ranchhouse, giving him plenty of time to arm himself with a double-barreled shotgun. He raised the bottom sash of the front window just enough for the shotgun to pass through, and lowered the top sash so he could see and talk unhindered. For the last two months, he assumed every visitor was one of Marcus’s crowd, and he wasn’t about to stop now, just because the flashy car was not typical of that wild bunch.

The lanky, graying-at-the-temples rancher watched from the shadows of his home as the big car stopped in the center of the rough quadrangle the house, barn, corrals and fencing, and stable made. A tall blond man stepped out first, followed by the dark-haired driver. Both took their time looking around without moving far from the Ford.

Crowe grew impatient and pulled the hammers of both barrels back, knowing his mute visitors would hear it. They stopped dead in their tracks, both sets of eyes centering on the source of potential harm. The dark one reached inside his worn denim jacket with his left hand and left it there. The fair one put his hands up in a friendly, I-surrender gesture.

“Mr. Crowe,” the blond man said in a loud, amiable voice, “we’re from the Bay City Police, and we’d like to talk with you about Simon Marcus.”

“I wanna see your ID. And you with the crazy hair. I wanna see both hands.” Crowe could see the latter arch one eyebrow and twist his lips, but he did bring both hands into view. The other slowly reached into his left back pocket. A second later, Crowe saw the picture and the shield.

“Mr. Crowe, I’m Detective Sergeant Ken Hutchinson and this is my partner, Detective Sergeant Dave Starsky. I know it’s late, but could we speak with you for a few minutes? It’s very important, sir.”

Crowe treated them to a full minute of silence as he contemplated the request. “It’s about those murders at the farmhouse, ain’t it? You’re not here about my livestock.”

The astonishment on their faces was genuine. “Huh, how did you know about that, sir?”

“Local news had it on at six o’clock. Even had some pictures. It’s a crying shame. Wondered how long it’d be before somebody showed some interest in my problem.” He returned the hammers to the non-lethal position and pulled the shotgun in. He propped the weapon against the wall before going outside to see the two looking at each other. It seemed to him that they were talking without saying anything. “You cops can’t keep shit like that quiet forever.”

Starsky, arms crossed over his chest, leaned against the car. Hutchinson took several steps toward Crowe, his badge wallet still in his hand. “Well, we have reason to believe that Simon Marcus and his followers may be involved in those murders. There are … similarities between what happened to those people and your livestock.”

“You don’t say,” Crowe snapped sarcastically. “Look, you don’t know those hoods. Keep me out of it.”

Hutchinson decided to try another line of questioning. “Why did you let them stay on your property?”

Crowe eyed him suspiciously. “They came through here, asked if they could camp out near the creek. Some of the girls were real lookers, even if they seemed, well, crazy. Figured I could get some ‘free love.’ Shit, love ain’t free any more. It just about cost me my ranch. And those girls – well, too damn kinky for me.”

“Is there anything else about Marcus or any of his people you can tell us?”

“Everything I had to say I said to those highway patrolmen. I got nothin’ more.”

Hutchinson was alarmed by the undertone of bitterness in Crowe’s voice. “But, sir –“

“Don’t ‘but sir’ me, Detective. I don’t have proof those lunatics butchered my herd, so I can’t take ‘em to court. And what I’ll get from the insurance company will barely replace half my losses. I can’t afford for those snakes to come back here, looking for my head because I talked to the cops.” By the time he was finished, Crowe was flushed with anger.

Hutchinson allowed his frustration to show. “Does this mean –“

“It means, Detective,” the equally frustrated man interrupted, “that I will not answer any more questions or testify in court. No way, no how. I’d rather go to jail. End of story.”

Starsky prevented Hutchinson from continued pleading with the recalcitrant rancher when he noisily cleared his throat. Right off, he began speaking with mesmerizing intensity. “Mr. Crowe. I can sympathize with your financial hardships. And your … concerns about this freak coming back at you. But can you live with the possibility that without your help, we may not be able to put away the murderers of Jeff and Linda Fox? They just had twins a few months back. Denis and Darla. And they had a ten-year-old foster daughter named Nahani. And Alicia and Marcia, Linda’s sister and niece. Jeff’s dad, Jeff Senior, was there, too. So was Jeff’s college roommate, name of Clark. What happened to your cows is nothin’ compared to what happened to these nine people. And it wasn’t just getting slashed and stabbed, Mr. Crowe. All of ‘em were molested.” He paused so he could hold his raging pain in check. “Nahani and Marcia got the worst of that. They were just little girls. And the babies.” His voice cracked in a thousand pieces on the last word.

Crowe breathed in deeply through his nose and studied the warped flooring of the porch while he weighed all the factors. It took him less than a minute. “You said it yourself, Detective. Yes, I can ‘live with the possibility.’ Now, that’s all she wrote.” He turned on his heel and banged the front door shut.

In the swiftly gathering dusk, the rancher watched the blond one slowly walk over to the dark one, who still leaned against the gaudy car. Once the blond was next to his partner and facing in the opposite direction, he saw a hand appear on the dark man’s shoulder for a few seconds. The fair one resumed walking around the car’s rear end and eventually got in.

But the dark one had started staring at him standing at the front window of his unlit house. He stared until day was night. With all due deliberateness, he straightened, got into his car, and drove the two of them away.

Rancher Crowe slept poorly that night.

~s&h~

Hutchinson had called in a quick report and a request for a stakeout on the cult’s storefront. Dobey hadn’t been thrilled with either the news or the request, but had agreed to start the surveillance without any grousing. This had struck Hutchinson as curious, since the captain had always made it a point to enumerate how much such observation cost the department in man-hours, cops off their normal beats, and more. He had found himself wondering about his superior officer’s state of mind but stopped the analysis when Starsky had finally resumed his position behind the wheel.

The drive back to Metro obeying the speed limit took forty-five minutes, during which the detectives didn’t speak. They were running on empty, and not speaking, or even thinking, served to conserve what little energy they had left. Since Starsky had to stop to gas up the Torino, it was almost 11 p.m. before he parked in the busy, change-of-shift police garage.

Before they could leave the car’s immediate vicinity, Captain Dobey barreled through the door. The huge man spotted them instantly. “Starsky! Hutchinson!” he yelled above the noise. He began picking his way through the uniformed officers arriving for roll call and those returning to base.

Starsky sighed when he observed the captain’s blustery approach. “What bee’s in his bonnet?” he mumbled to his partner.

“That’s more of a fedora he’s wearing, so technically you should be asking, ‘what fly’s in his fedora’.” Hutch sniggered at his minor-league joke. Starsky simply rolled his eyes. “Come on.”

Seconds later, Dobey was in their faces. “Listen, you two. I wasn’t kidding when I told you to go home and get some sleep. You do it now, and I don’t want to see or hear you until 9 tomorrow morning. That is an order, and I expect you to carry this one out. And Starsky, don’t forget to shave.”

They could tell Dobey meant business. But neither wanted to go to sleep. They knew what waited for them if they did.

“Okay, Cap, okay,” said Starsky in the best placating manner he could deliver under the circumstances.

“Okay then. I’ll talk with Moore in the morning, to see what options we might have in dealing with that rancher. And I have surveillance on that dump Marcus and his gang call home. Everything else can wait until tomorrow.”

“Great, Cap’n. Starsky and I’ll just go in to log out.” The detectives tried to side-run him, but the much bigger man, who knew them better than he let on, expertly blocked both.

“Offensive lineman at Grambling.” Dobey smirked, not hiding his satisfaction with the moment. “Log out from the car radio. Now.” First grabbing Starsky’s arm, then Hutchinson’s, the captain herded them to the Torino. He stayed with them until Hutch had called in and the car left the lot. As he watched the taillights dissolve in the distance, he knew it was unlikely they would actually get any sleep. Then he headed home for his second consecutive night of insomnia.

~s&h~

“Well, your place or mine? Or should we head for Huggy’s?” asked Starsky after a few minutes of driving the streets of their division aimlessly.

“Starsk, could you drop me off at Abby’s?” The question was tentative, as if Hutch were afraid of offending or hurting his friend.

“Sure.” Inwardly, Starsky trembled at the idea that he would be separated from his partner. They hadn’t been apart for more than fifteen minutes at a time since the previous morning, and he wasn’t sure he could handle hours without him. But obviously, Abby had what Hutch needed right now, whatever that was. Starsky was not about to deny Hutch anything, even if it meant the pit might swallow him whole with the blond man not there as a life buoy.

A few minutes of silence followed before Hutch spoke again. “You okay with this, buddy?”

“Absolutely, Hutch. Even you must be sick of my sparkling personality and astounding wit by now. Lord knows I’m sick-a your ugly mug.”

Hutch chuckled quietly at his partner’s feeble but genuine reassurance. He pushed away the worry about Starsky being alone for eight or so hours. He’s a big boy. Strong. He can take care of himself. But he couldn’t deny the unexpected premonition, almost an instinct, that popped into his brain and swirled around like sharp blackness, that maybe Starsky would need him before morning.

Before Hutch could voice his concern, the Torino was stopped in the parking lot of Abby’s apartment complex. “Here ya go, buddy. Give my love to Abb, okay? Pick you up here about 8:30?”

Hutchinson regarded the darker man, face eerily illuminated by the dashboard lights, beside him. There was an abiding, cavernous sadness around and in that face, which Hutch couldn’t explain or account for. Impulsively, his left hand covered Starsky’s right one that rested on his thigh and tightened his hold. “Why don’t we go to my place?”

Starsky’s mouth curled up slightly at the edges. “I’ve made plans for the rest of the night, pal, and they don’t include you. Get your caboose in there before Abby comes out and kicks mine.”

You are so full of crap, Starsk! “Oh yeah? What are these plans of yours? Didn’t have any a few minutes ago.”

“Somethin’ just came to me. If it works out, I’ll tell you all about it tomorra.” Starsky grinned enough to show some tooth enamel. “Take it easy. See ya in the mornin’.” Casually, he slipped his hand away from Hutch’s grasp. “Go on before I get caveman on you.”

Hutchinson smiled his gratitude. “Tuesdays Abby has to be at work at 7. I’ll have her drop me off at my place, so pick me up there.” He exited the car, but leaned back in through the open window. “I’m only a phone call away, buddy.”

Starsky almost gasped when he saw Hutch’s face in the low light of the street lamps. It was as though he needed this lighting to see the new flatness, the one-dimensionality, which was now his partner. He blinked several times, but the image didn’t change. He attributed Hutch’s appearance to distortion by the constant backdrop of the faces from the blood. “I know. Later.” He watched until Hutch was safely within Abby’s building before he headed for the morgue.

~s&h~

The smallish man with dark blond hair parted in the middle knocked on the door to his leader’s inner sanctum. He had to wait a few moments before he heard Simón say, “Enter.”

He opened the door and allowed his gaze first to fall upon the attractive, strawberry-blond, young woman sitting on the floor at Simón’s bare feet. She had been with them for several months now, and was one of those chosen to work and live among the non-believers. The cult members had to eat, and this girl had a good job in the fairly new field of computers. Then he met the charismatic eyes of Simón. “The police are still watching us. Should I have Peter take care of the light detective’s car? I am sure I’d be followed.”

The guru removed his hands from the tangles of the woman’s hair. He leaned back in his chair and laced his elegant fingers together. “Yes, call Peter. Did William get safely away?”

“Yes, Simón. He reported in ten minutes ago. No sign of the dark one at his apartment yet. But he’ll be ready for him whenever he shows up.”

“I dream we will be one stronger tomorrow.” He smiled with deep and cunning satisfaction. “Matthew, I regret you will be unable to be the one to bring about the light one’s death as originally dreamed. After you call Peter, return. I’ll be through with her by then, and you may have her.”

Matthew’s spirits brightened considerably at the honor his leader had just given him. She was one of Simón’s special women. No one could touch her without his permission. He smiled his understanding, and heard Simón say as he closed the door, “Now, Gail, resume. Bring my dream to completion.”

~s&h~

Not wanting to wake Abby, Hutchinson used the key she had given him soon after they had become lovers. The perfume of fresh-cut flowers tickled his nose and evoked a smile. Swiftly, he stripped down to his boxers. He tiptoed to the closed bedroom door. With deliberate slowness, he opened it without a sound.

The nightlight was strong enough for him to see that Abby was wearing very sheer beige baby-doll pajamas. He unconsciously held his breath until he was sure her chest moved rhythmically in sleep. It was a necessary joy to see a live woman all in one piece. He watched her for five minutes or so before he joined her in bed.

She roused slightly when she felt his weight and heat. She recognized his scent beneath the sweat of the day. “Hutch.”

He heard the drowsy but happy smile in his name. He kissed her earlobe lightly and she turned on her side, away from him. He spooned into her body, draping an arm over her and thrilling at the touch of warm female flesh. He listened to her breathing and to the tiny rustle of her thick yellow hair on the pillow, amazed and thankful the voices would let him. When he tried to hear the music within, it was crypt-quiet. In the music’s place was now the pain that had appeared earlier in the day. It mocked him as settled in for the duration. He sank further into the abyss, though he couldn’t sink into slumber.

~s&h~

Jeremy Lawhead, a graduate student in medieval history who moonlighted as a security guard two nights a week, had been warned that reporters and any number of other people might try to gain admittance since the full story had leaked to the press. Lawhead had been threatened with the loss of his job if there were any slip-ups, and he needed this job. He didn’t know the dark, rumpled, cheerless man at the morgue’s main entrance. Through the locked doors, he yelled, “I need to see some ID, mister, and state your business.”

Starsky wearily hauled out the shield case and flashed his badge. “I’m Detective Starsky. I need to check on a couple-a things now.”

Lawhead compared the photo face with the real thing several times before he keyed open the doors. He introduced himself to the detective. “Sorry I didn’t recognize you, sir. You don’t look much like you did on the TV news earlier today.”

“Tha’s okay, Jeremy. Better to be safe than sorry. You know what vault room the Fox family is in?”

“They’re in Two. But it’s locked. I’ll have to let you in.” The guard secured the front doors and led the detective to the room in question.

The coolness of the morgue had a mild resuscitative effect on the detective. His gait was less plodding, and his posture straightened. As soon as Jeremy opened Vault Two’s double doors, Starsky felt an unexpected and disconcerting sense of being home. He shivered, but not from the cold.

Lawhead scratched his kinky dark red hair. “You going to be here long?” he asked, uneasy suspicion coating his words.

Starsky gave the guard a wry smile. “Only till about six or seven. I won’t be in your way, will I?”

The guard blushed at the tease. “No. Guess it’ll be okay.” As he left, Jeremy cast a sidelong glance at the detective, hoping he could detect some sort of clue as to why the cop would do such a thing. But there had been no change in the officer’s expression. He promised himself he’d peek in on this room more often during his rounds tonight.

Starsky found a chair tucked away in one of the corners. He straddled it backwards, then placed his forearms across the chair’s back. “Don’t care what my partner says, I’m your family. At least for now,” he said, without realizing he had spoken out loud. His chin soon rested on his hands.

~s&h~

Peter was positive he had gone unnoticed in the quiet, early-to-bed neighborhood where the fair-haired detective resided. Now that his work was done here, the cultist brushed away his footprints as he backed out of the pig’s driveway. On the street, he removed the latex gloves, the hairnet, and the full-length yellow rainslicker. Once these items were bundled up and stuffed under an arm, he walked the three blocks to his parked car, not seeing or hearing any human. He tossed his bundle into the back seat, ran his hands through his damp, wavy brown hair, and tried to figure out if there was some safe way he could watch the blond pig suffer.

~s&h~

Liz Etzioni checked her watch. She couldn’t believe it was already after midnight. She was more tired now, after 36 hours awake, than she had ever been in her entire life. And that included the horrendous 48-hour shift she had to pull during her residency that had her responding to six cardiac arrests, admitting fourteen patients – all with complex problems and histories – and presenting a patient in the weekly Mortality & Morbidity conference.

Now, this horrible and appalling stretch was done. Freshly showered and dressed in her street clothes, she left the locker room to head for home. As she passed Vault Two, something out of place in her peripheral vision caused her to stop. She peered into the room through the windows and was surprised to see a live human being in there. Cautiously she pushed open one of the doors. “Can I hel…” She stopped short when she saw the alarm and protective fury in the man’s eyes and the left hand hidden inside the jacket. Her throat clenched when she realized how close she was to getting shot. Recovering quickly, she said amiably, “Oh, Detective Starsky. I wasn’t expecting to see you in here. Or anyone else, for that matter.”

Starsky, having never seen Etzioni in anything but scrubs, required a few moments to identify her. He had no idea the six-foot-tall-in-bare-feet lady medical examiner had an hourglass figure, waist-length brown hair with red highlights, and cat-green eyes. She wore a halter-top dress – the halter was blue with white stars and the knee-length skirt was red and white stripes – and white platform sandals. He mumbled, “Sorry, Liz, I didn’t recognize you with clothes on,” as he stood to face her. Then he colored crimson from his embarrassment. “Oh, I mean,” he said, gesturing wildly with both hands, “uh, you look different in clothes. Real clothes.” Enjoying his self-inflicted and entirely unnecessary discomfort, she hid her amusement. “Uh, ha ha ha.” He grinned with the same ingratiating air as his half-hearted laugh. “Anywayso, I couldn’t sleep, so I thought … I thought I’d come here. You know, make sure they … everything’s okay.”

“Well, everything’s okay for now. Raul sent us all home about an hour ago. We were starting to get very, um, inefficient.”

“Why’re you still here?”

Etzioni smiled gently. “Because of you, Starsky.” The knitted eyebrows above the dark blue eyes silently asked her what she meant. “I was doing the finishing touches on the meat cleaver and the tourist.” She shushed him when he perked up. “It can wait until the morning.”

He grinned sheepishly in understanding. “Oh. Well, sorry to keep you here so long, Liz. Can I, uh, give you a lift home or somethin’?” he asked in hopes of repaying her in some small way.

“You can walk me home. I just live about three blocks away.”

Two minutes later, Starsky and Etzioni hit the still, warm night. Neither broke the easy silence between them until the second block.

“Starsky,” Liz began, “did you know the Fox family? Were you close to them?”

“Not really. Jeff and me, we went to the same high school. I was a couple of years ahead of him.”

“Then why – no, never mind. None of my business.” Though it’s not hard to figure out why you were in the vault with them. She inhaled deeply. “The smog must be down. I can almost smell the ocean.”

A few quiet minutes later, they stood in the sheltered doorway of her row house. “Thanks, Starsky.”

The detective smiled faintly and said, “’S okay. Any time.” My God, she’s a beautiful woman. How come I never noticed it before? “See you in the morning?”

“Just a minute, mister. How’s that hand of yours? Let me see. Don’t think I didn’t notice the lack of a bandage.”

Smiling at her memory and her concern, he yielded his right hand for inspection. “It’s okay. I’m okay.” The first two words were filled with confidence; the second two quaked with uncertainty.

Liz feigned examining the wound while she really studied Starsky’s eyes. Blue as midnight, they proclaimed bottomless sorrow and grief, angry powerlessness and failure, naked fear and pain. She could tell he was awake and upright only by sheer force of will and dread of sleep and the dreams that would inevitably come with it. Impulsively, she kissed the palm of his hand near the puncture site, then held it to her cheek. She let her guard down – something she rarely did outside her circle of close friends – so he could understand he was not alone.

Starsky unknowingly held his breath when he saw Liz’s own agony and wretchedness and exhaustion play across her face. Finally exhaling thickly, he stroked her cheek with his thumb. “It’s gonna be okay,” he said in a ragged whisper. Without thinking, he pulled her toward him. Since she had a good three inches on him, he had to tiptoe to softly kiss her lips.

With his words and kiss, he had captured her emotional center. Liz shuddered with the kiss and the almost hidden but seemingly unflagging optimism of the man before her. She returned his kiss, with needy yet giving desire.

Less than a heartbeat later, they found themselves involved in increasingly heavier kissing and petting. Liz felt the raw and primal need for life and its affirmation in him, though he exhibited nothing but eager gentleness. He, in turn, felt the uninhibited passion for warm intimacy she craved. Neither was concerned that they still stood outside her front door.

Fearless, Liz fumbled with his belt for a moment until she had it unbuckled. A second later she had his jeans unbuttoned and unzipped. Her hand instantly found the flap of his boxer shorts and she liberated and stroked his engorged penis.

Starsky’s eyebrows shot to the sky. Between heated pants, he asked, “Are … you … sure?”

“Never more so.” She moaned erotically in his ear when he ran his hands up her skirt to her panties. When he began to slide them off, she stopped him just long enough to say, “Tear ‘em off, Starsky!”

The curly-haired man grinned through a neck kiss as he followed her command. The delicate underwear ripped easily. He moved her so her back was completely supported by the door. His hand caressed her between her legs until she was ready to cry out with pleasure. Reading her response to his touch perfectly, he stopped abruptly, causing her to whine as she unwillingly backed away from impending rapture.

To her delight, he entered her tenderly, almost shyly. But her extra height hampered their complete indulgence. While matching each of his thrusts, she managed to slip the straps of her sandals down her heels by using the door behind her. She flipped off one sandal, then the other. Her height shrank three inches, allowing him to fully plunge into her physical center. The deep penetration sent her gushing over the top in an electrifying climax.

He shook from head to toe, her release, her “little death,” signaling to him in its own way that life went on. Several more grinding thrusts, and he came in effervescent waves, wordlessly telling her he agreed.

For several moments, they listened to the living in their calming sighs while they clung to each other, he still hard within her. Finally, Liz ventured one word: “Stay?”

Starsky grinned widely and kissed first her left eyelid, then her right. “Absolutely.”

~s&h~

Harold Dobey managed three hours of uninterrupted sleep before he bolted upright in bed, wide awake. He was chilled far beyond what he should have been in his air-conditioned home. Then he acknowledged the memory that had awakened him.

A twenty-year-old boy in Truman’s newly integrated armed forces. A member of the 1st Marine Division on the frozen Chosin Reservoir in Korea. Days of vicious fighting in a hell of subzero temperatures. Hell is cold, not hot.

His wife stirred, but rapidly settled back into sleep. He eased out of bed and headed for his study. He decided to read to fill in the time before the rest of his family awakened. He purposely skipped the family Bible and chose a Raymond Chandler novel.

~s&h~

It had taken a few hours, but the couple had finally reached the bedroom. Now, Starsky was in the bathroom “taking care of business” as he called it, and Etzioni lounged, naked, on the lavender sheets. She thought about the salty sweetness she tasted on his skin – and everything else she had touched and heard and smelled and saw – and willed those sensations to live forever in her memory. She grinned with delight when he strolled, utterly comfortable with his nudity in front of her, back into the bedroom. “My turn,” she said, springing out of bed before he could jump back in.

Starsky swatted her derriere with playful affection before he hit the sheets. His head found a pillow, and before he could stop them, his eyes closed and he was asleep. Almost immediately, he fell into a dream.

He could see Tran had two squirming bundles strapped to his chest and back. His mother, whose hands looked like – no, were his own – slashed one, then the other, then pushed her son toward the farmhouse. His vision telescoping, he clearly made out Darla and Denis, bleeding profusely from crosses just incised in their tiny bodies. Shifting his sight just a hair, he saw the hootch maid bare her betel nut-stained teeth at him before she transformed into Simon Marcus. He guffawed maniacally, between resonating taunts of “Too late, pig!” and “You are mine!” He raised his weapon and fired on the demented cult leader. Marcus didn’t seem surprised at all as he bowed his head to examine the wounds. He watched in horror as the stringy brown hair morphed into soft blond. The head came up, this time with Hutch’s shocked face. He cried out, “HHHUUUUUUUTTTCCCCCHHHHH!” but there was no reply. He jumped off the watchtower to get to his friend. His heart was in his throat when he realized he was in free-fall. Just before hitting the ground, someone caught him. He faced his savior – Simon Marcus. He strangled on bile and the hands that tightened around his neck. “You are mine,” the cultist kept repeating. “NNNNNNOOOOOOOO!” he heard himself wheeze through his collapsing airway.

Then he was awake, soaked in sweat, grunting for air, sitting up in an unfamiliar bed. Momentarily disoriented, he buzzed through his teeth while he searched frantically for that demonic guru. All he found was a beautiful woman with vivid green eyes petting his cheek and whispering, “It’s only a dream, Starsky, it’s okay.” He relaxed and fell back onto the bed.

Liz crawled back in and nestled her head on his shoulder. It took several minutes before his breathing returned to normal. Once he hugged her closely, she figured he was ready to talk. “You okay now, Starsky?”

“Yeah,” he said, chagrined. “Hey, hope I didn’t scare you. Hadn’t had a dream like that in years.” Then he thought she might get the wrong idea, that she was the cause, so he sputtered out quickly, “I mean, it’s not because I’m here with you. I mean, it’s not your fau–“

She laughed to interrupt him. “I know that, Starsky. What we’ve been through – especially you and Hutchinson - this last day or so is bound to cause major nightmares.” She moved so she could lean on her elbow to better view Starsky’s face. So good to see that terror gone, and the sparkle back. With her free hand, she lightly massaged his muscular, hairy chest. “Thanks for keeping mine on hold. And for not giving me whisker burn.”

He smiled to his eyes and chuckled. His hand found its way deep into the tangles of her hair and he pulled her back to him. He kissed her deeply, his tongue inviting her to frolic yet again.

Liz teasingly broke the kiss and slid her lips and tongue slowly down his chest and belly and further. In seconds, her mouth had him fully aroused once more.

~s&h~

Harold didn’t hear his wife enter the study. From her position just beyond the reach of the table lamp’s light, she scrutinized every square inch of that handsome visage she adored. To her, his face was an open book, and she was worried at what she was reading.

“Harold,” she said quietly as she moved to him, “why are you up?”

Startled, Dobey slammed the book shut. “Edith! I didn’t mean to wake you.”

You didn’t. Your absence in our bed did. And you haven’t answered my question.”

“Couldn’t sleep, that’s all,” he grumbled, avoiding eye contact. He knew that if he did, he’d spill everything. He also knew he’d hurt this woman deeply, whose unshakable faith had helped her to endure her fiancé’s service during war and her husband’s tenure as a police officer, if he told her he had lost his.

Without another word, Edith took the novel from her spouse’s hand and placed it on the table. Next, she situated herself on his lap, wrapped her arms around his stumpy neck, and rested her head on his. Soon, his arms encircled her waist and he rocked them both gently.

~s&h~

Hutchinson had left Abby’s bed after only an hour. He had sat on the stool to her vanity and watched her breathe for most of the night. Now he watched her in the first rays of dawn. She looked so innocent in sleep, and so free.

He forced himself away from his vigil and into the kitchen. Her alarm would be going off soon, and he wanted to serve her breakfast in bed. Fifteen minutes later, he carried a bed tray loaded with coffee, orange juice, blueberry pancakes, and real maple syrup into her bedroom.

Abby was still sleeping. Hutch placed the tray safely on the floor and proceeded to nuzzle her neck and nibble on an earlobe. She giggled awake, pleased that the first thing she saw was her lover. She kissed him and wished him a good morning.

“And a good morning to you, Ms. Crabtree. May I serve the lady a wonderful repast to start her busy day?”

“Yes, you may, sir.”

Hutch fed them both and kept up a constant patter of superficial, silly conversation. He wiped her mouth clean after the last of the pancakes. She couldn’t help but notice he had only three or four bites along with coffee and juice.

“Hutch,” Abby began warily, “what’s going on? You seem, I don’t know, kind of not yourself.”

The blond man began stacking the empty plates, cups, and glasses. Neither missed the fact that his hands betrayed a fine tremor. “I don’t know what you mean, Abby. I’m the same old Hutch,” he said, trying to sound light and carefree.

“Oh, sure, Hutch. Hey” – she placed a hand on one of his arms to stop his fumbling with the dishes – “I saw the news last night. I know a little bit what you and Starsky have been doing.”

“No, you don’t,” he snapped angrily. “You don’t know anything, Abby.” The dishes rattled as he jerked the tray away and returned it to the floor. He huffed, paced, and drummed his fingers on his forehead. “And it’s best if you keep it that way, okay?”

“But –“

“I don’t want to talk about it!” He rolled his head in a big circle to help him calm down. “Abby, I’m sorry. I haven’t slept much, and the heat is getting to me, and this case is … I’m empty, I mean, I’m running on empty, and …” He stopped suddenly, not wanting to burden her with his “problem.” He sighed and ran his fingers through his dirty hair. “I, uh, did some laundry,” he said, pointing out the towel wrapped around his waist. “And your plants are already watered for the day.” He hurried out of the bedroom before she could speak again.

Abigail climbed out of bed and slowly disrobed. I know this case must be really scary, honey, she thought, but it’s even scarier to see what it’s doing to you. She carried the tray to the kitchen. She heard the shower in use. Remembering his invitation from a couple of days ago, she decided she’d take him up on it.

He was in the midst of shampooing his hair when she joined him. “Hey, got some for me, handsome?” she asked with a mixture of coyness and ingenuousness.

Hutch’s brilliant smile served as his gracious welcome. He rinsed his hair, and they traded places under the nozzle. He began lathering up her blonde locks. “Hutch, you’d tell me if something was wrong, wouldn’t you?”

He paused, ever so briefly in his ministrations, but not so briefly that Abby didn’t notice. “Of course I would, sweetheart.” Well, I’m one fine human being, he thought sarcastically. First, I lie to my best friend, and now I’m lying to my girlfriend. “It’s just that this is a particularly tough case. Starsky and I seem to get one step ahead, but then we get pushed back two steps. It’s … just out of reach.”

Abby was quiet as she rinsed her hair. She reached for the soap, then for Hutch. As she scrubbed his smooth, lightly muscled chest, she said, “I’m not out of reach right now, and neither are you.” Her frothy hands moved to his buttocks. She pulled him close and began kissing his chest. Her breathing pattern indicated an intensifying level of sexual excitement.

Hutch’s own breathing became faster and deeper. He held her face between his artist’s hands. “Oh God, Abby, you’re so …” He wanted to say “alive,” but thought she might not understand. Instead, he kissed her with such an elegant touch that she tingled from her hairline to her toes. Though his caresses for the next few minutes barely made contact with her skin, they had the same effect as his kisses.

“Hutch, don’t stop whatever you’re doing!” she said huskily. She felt him harden against her leg. She was ready for him, but detected hesitation on his part. “Hutch, please! I’m not a china doll – I won’t break!”

He hid his face in her wet hair for a few moments. He finally admitted to himself that she was right; he was afraid he’d hurt her with even the gentlest touch, and he couldn’t stand the thought. He wanted his lovemaking to be as far away from the harsh agony of sexual assault that the nine victims had suffered. He let the running water wash away the few tears he shed before he gathered up the courage to answer Abby’s plea. Very slowly, he penetrated her. They hummed in unison. More moments passed as they moved together, languidly at first. He caressed her waist, hips, and buttocks; she massaged his back. Then she picked up the speed, he matching her pace, but then he taking control and twisting just a bit with each successively faster thrust. When her breathing and the flick of her head told him she was close, he leaned his torso back just enough so the cooling water could run unimpeded over her mound.

That was enough to send her over the edge into a roller-coaster orgasm. Seconds later, he experienced his own teeth-chattering satisfaction, made all the better when he realized Abby didn’t break.

They continued to hold each other in the now-cold water until Abby reminded him that she had to get to work.

~s&h~

After guzzling a quart of orange juice, Starsky took a shower. On his return to the bedroom, he found Etzioni fast asleep and knew it was time to take his leave. He kissed her hair lightly, found pen and paper, and scribbled a note that read simply, “l’chaim.”

A few minutes later, he was back at the morgue entrance. He contemplated going back to Vault Two, but decided against it. He wanted to – had to - keep his tenuous and greedy hold on life for a while longer. Guilt washed over him, threatening to tear him loose. But he wouldn’t let it win. His time with Liz had rejuvenated him, renewed his hunger for justice for the Fox family. He let guilt come along for the ride.

The detective arrived at his apartment building just as the sun began its daily climb into the sky. Once more, the sunrise was several shades of pink and red. “Just my luck,” he muttered aloud as he started up the stairs.

It wasn’t until he opened the door and focussed on the etc. plaque that he realized how tired he was. Being home, he felt the tenseness in his muscles and his heart melt away.

But something wasn’t right. He could hear something coming from the kitchenette. Straining, he finally identified the sound source as his radio. Hell, I know I haven’t been here for almost two whole days, but I could swear I turned that damn thing off. Then, slowly, it dawned on him that his blinking stoplight wasn’t. He trudged over to stand in front of it. Crap! This contraption better not be broke. He grasped the novelty item with his left hand and shook it. Until he sensed a gray presence behind him.

He wheeled about, his hand taking far too much time in pulling out the Smith & Wesson. His attempt at drawing his pistol stopped when he saw the dull shine from a Ka-Bar knife a mere three inches from his chest. Then he attended to the all-too-familiar blackness wielding the blade. It was a hooded blackness, with two inverted red crosses on it for a dash of ominous color.

Starsky’s fear pinballed heavily in his skull, chest, and abdomen. His mouth suddenly seemed like the dust bowl of the American Midwest during the thirties. He did manage to rasp out with some contempt, “Marcus?”

“No.” The syllable rang hollowly in the apartment. “I know you are his. You will be my gift to him. For Simón gives us much but asks for nothing in return.” The hooded head jerked to indicate the front door. “Come with me.”

Starsky swallowed nonexistent saliva. There ain’t no way in hell I’m goin’ anywheres near Marcus, not without Hutch! “If that sonuvabitch wants me, he can come and get me.” Defiance in his tone masked the panic that was mounting in him. “You any good with that thing, buddy boy?”

“Disobey me, and you will find out.”

Disobey you?” the detective asked, ridicule in his voice. “Naw, fuck you,” he spat. “You’re too damn dumb, you sissy! You come here in a dress, for chrissakes, and you bring a knife to a gunfight?” The face was too well concealed under the hood to give him a clue as to whether the harangue tactic was working. It was time to find out. As fast as he could, he had his pistol out.

But his exhausted state slowed Starsky down enough that he couldn’t flick the safety off before the trespasser’s blade sliced into the underside of his forearm. He loosed a small, wounded cry, and his gun fell to the floor. He bent over, fighting the natural urge to clutch his bleeding but numb arm. Instead, he balled his right hand into a fist and swung backhanded at the intruder’s head as he stood upright again. Caught off-guard and on the side of his cranium, the cultist spun to his left, but managed not to fall.

Starsky dove for his gun. He cursed himself for wasting valuable time by trying to pick it up with his poorly functioning left hand. Just as his right hand folded around the grip, he suffered a blow to his right ribcage. He woofed out painfully and found himself on his back, sans gun, close to blacking out for a moment. He had no time to roll away from the hooded man, who pounced on him, knife poised to sink into his throat. The stainless steel moved in.

Starsky couldn’t contain the terrified squawk that had risen from his belly. He grabbed the intruder’s wrist with both of his hands. Gritting his teeth, he pushed with all his might, but the forty-eight hours without rest or sufficient food and with heavy emotional and physical activity had robbed him of his full strength. The blade came closer.

The cult member poured all his weight onto his arm. His bloodhungry eyes, now visible beneath the hood, widened with perverted joy as the tip of the knife pierced the denim jacket of his victim, and very soon, traveled deeper.

The detective felt the knife’s pressure in his upper right shoulder. In an unconscious effort to muster what little leverage he had left, he screamed, “AAAAAUUUUURRRR!” as he twisted his body to one side. A nanosecond later, he viciously kneed his assailant in a kidney.

The attacker groaned in surprised pain, and fell away from Starsky. The latter, puffing rapidly and trembling from exhaustion and adrenaline, rolled in the opposite direction. He crawled over to his pistol and grasped the butt as if the fate of civilization depended on it. Standing took him a few moments. As he turned to level the gun at the trespasser, he slipped on a puddle of his own blood.

On his way back to the floor, the edge of the divider between the kitchen and living room jabbed him sharply near his seven-month-old, left shoulder gunshot wound. He grimaced and fizzed through his teeth for several moments. Tears of agony clouded his vision. He was on the verge of passing out again until he felt the bite of the cultist’s blade along the outside of his left lower leg. Sucking in a breath and his lips, Starsky immediately lashed out with his right foot toward what he hoped would be intruder-occupied space.

He had guessed accurately. He panted a “Gotcha!” when his foot connected with something soft and his ears were treated to a grunt and a thud. He blinked numerous times to clear his sight, but to no avail. Frustrated, he rubbed his eyes vigorously with his hand and his vision opened marginally.

He took quick stock of his physical predicament. Both his arm and his left shoulder throbbed like an abscessed tooth. His right chest only hurt when he inhaled. He had no pain at all from the right shoulder or left leg, but that didn’t stop him from worrying about unknown damage. Short of killing his attacker, he knew he wasn’t in any shape to control him, much less actually take him into custody. He reckoned that his only chance for survival was to get out of his apartment as fast as possible and call for assistance from the Torino’s police radio.

To buy himself more time, Starsky kicked at what appeared to be the robed man’s head. He was rewarded with a full cry of pain from his attacker. Starsky permitted himself a swift grin of incomplete triumph as he shoved the 59 in his waistband. He hands-and-knees’d it to the door.

What should have been accomplished in ten seconds took the dark-haired detective nearly two minutes. He pulled himself laboriously to a left-listing standing position. He opened the door and stumbled out onto the landing. Before he could take his first step down, he spied a rapidly approaching blackness to his right.

Reflexively, forgetting his mission, Starsky turned to confront the threat head-on. He backed into the railing. He had less than a second to respond to the Ka-Bar aimed at his abdomen. Having no time to pull out his gun, he chose once more to try controlling the knife as best he could. He leaned forward, crouched, sucked his gut back to his spine, and grabbed the attacker’s wrist. He shoved downwards, and the knife tip slit his T-shirt, belt, and jeans before it sank into his right upper thigh.

Starsky screamed more with anger than with pain. The wound and the force of his own shove smashed him to his knees. Better’n gettin’ gut-stuck, he reasoned in a perverse attempt to find something redeeming about this situation.

For some reason, the assailant had released his grip on the weapon. He stared for a heartbeat at the dark brown head beneath him. He so wanted to please Simón by bringing this pig to him alive, but he was resisting more than they had anticipated. Simón would have to be happy with his death. He inhaled deeply and snatched a handful of curly hair in his hand and wrenched the cop’s head back. “You will be his in death, pig,” he seethed. His other hand closed around Starsky’s neck, thumb crushing the detective’s larynx.

Starsky gagged. He thought he saw death, and it looked like Marcus. The image spurred him into action. He pulled the Ka-Bar from his thigh, shifted his grip on it, and stabbed the cultist in mid-chest, burying the knife to the hilt.

The attacker’s face expressed shock, pain, and failure. His hand left Starsky’s neck. Starsky gasped in huge drafts of air. The attacker moved his other hand from the dark curls to the handle of the knife. Starsky collapsed to his right in total exhaustion. The assailant pulled the knife out, sending blood pumping out to stain both Starsky and the landing. The fingers that moments ago were squeezing the life out of the detective found a new home around his left wrist. The vise-like grip and the pinching of his own watchband elicited a deep cry from the detective. “You are his, dark one. You are Simón’s,” the cultist wheezed before toppling off the landing and down the stairs, dragging Starsky with him.

The pair tumbled to the street. Though the cultist was dead before they reached bottom, he had not broken his hold on the detective’s arm. Starsky landed on top of him. He hurriedly scrambled off the dead man and hyperventilated while he blindly worked to free himself. He had to break the deceased’s fingers, and cringed at the snapping, grating sounds that made.

His chest heaving and his left arm and right leg bleeding liberally, Starsky had no option but to lay there next to Simón’s enforcer for a couple of minutes while he recovered enough to move again. He swiped his right arm across his eyes to clear them of the assailant’s blood. He thought about calling out for help, but it wasn’t even six o’clock yet, and his neighbors wouldn’t be up. Maybe the paperboy’s runnin’ late today. He snickered, knowing that seeing all this would send the ten-year-old Marty bicycling as far away and as fast as he could.

Then it struck him. HUTCH! If they came after me, they’ll go after him, too. Gotta warn him, see if he’s okay. His thinking too muddled to remember the nearest tool for communication – his car’s radio – he crawled up the stairs to his apartment. He yelped through clenched teeth as he hoisted himself up with just his right hand and arm on the kitchen counter. He unhooked the receiver and let it fall to the countertop. Painstakingly he dialed his partner’s number, all the while cursing the slow awkwardness of his right hand and his blood-smeared sight, though in actuality it only added a second to dialing time. He picked up the receiver and counted the rings. Ten … twenty … thirty. “Come on, Hutch, answer!” he bellowed hoarsely through swollen and painful vocal cords.

He imagined the worst: his best friend, dead on the floor, alone, his chest filleted open in a cross, heart gone. “Oh God, no!” Invisible hands in the pit yanked him deeper into its recesses. He whimpered and bit his lower lip almost to the point of bleeding. Then the image retreated as quickly as it had emerged.

Weak and shaky, he hung up. He leaned harder into the counter and cabinet, trying to figure out what to do next. It didn’t occur to him that his friend might still be at Abby’s, or that he could call Metro from here. All he could think about in this fuzzy, single-minded state was getting to Hutch.

A song on the radio stole into his foggy brain.

Ooh dream weaver

I believe we can reach the morning light

Fly me high through the starry skies

Maybe to an astral plane

In a fit of anger, he growled and swept the radio to the floor, silencing it. A few minutes later, he was moving down the steps on his buttocks, since he was too unsteady to do it in a more conventional way. He was about three-quarters of the way down when he simply ran out of steam, finally succumbing to unconsciousness’ pull.

~s&h~

The first thing Hutchinson did once Abby dropped him off at his little cottage at about 6:30 was draw his weapon before opening the front door. He did a careful and thorough search of his abode. Finally, he was satisfied there was nothing amiss. He holstered the Colt and strode to the refrigerator in search of fruit juice.

He had just placed his hand on the appliance’s handle when he stopped. He scowled as he asked out loud, “Why the hell did I just do all that?” But no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t shake the unusually hardy sense of paranoia that had invaded his sensibility.

Hutchinson chose the white grape juice. As he sipped from the glass bottle, he scanned his home one more time. His eyes stopped when they came to his guitar.

In the past, virtually every time he had looked at his guitar, a song played in his head. And usually, he felt driven to play it. But now, there was no song – no melody, no lyric. No urge to strum and pick. He couldn’t stand to look at the instrument any longer, so he retrieved its case from under his bed. He roughly packed the guitar away and kicked the case back to its resting place. “Damn you!” he shouted.

He had lost his desire for drink, so he returned the leftover juice to the fridge. He checked his wall clock – almost two hours to waste before Starsky would pick him up. He considered calling his partner and even picked up the phone, but at the last moment decided against it, just in case Starsky had actually gone to sleep.

Well, I’ve got some time to kill, he thought. And speaking of killing, I better water my plants before they die. Lovingly, he watered and chatted with each one, almost excited that in a month or two, he’d have his dream greenhouse.

That activity had only eaten a half-hour. He cast about for something to do. It eventually occurred to him that he could try to start his car. That ought to take some time. In moments, his precious flag pin lay in his jewelry box, and he had shed his shabby teal-blue shirt, gun, and holster, and acquired an ancient terry cloth towel.

The hood to his LTD wasn’t quite closed. Funny, I don’t remember checking under here … He flipped the latch open and raised the hood. Nothing overt was wrong, but he tightened connections, inspected the hoses, and checked the battery. Leaving the hood up, he headed for the car’s cabin.

He was about to sit when he noticed the driver’s seat looked different - bumpy. He twisted around until he hovered over the seat. Slowly and cautiously, he squatted until his curious but wary blue eyes were close enough to examine the irregularities.

Hutch counted eight small protrusions. He didn’t spot a pattern in their arrangement. Each bump looked sharp rather than rounded, leading him to assume that the seat’s springs were not the culprit. He tentatively reached out to one of the spiky bulges. His long, supple fingers lightly palpated the surrounding area. Satisfied there was nothing hiding close by, he touched the covered tip.

Damn, that’s really sharp, he exclaimed to himself. Beads of perspiration rapidly coated his lined forehead. Using only a few pounds of pressure, he pressed the seat’s fabric down around the object. The faux leather split easily to reveal the familiar shaft of a letter opener. Its tip had been whittled to an even finer point.

Hutch swallowed hard. He instantly realized that this particular “bump” would have pierced his genitals had he sat down. His testicles raced northward, and his anal sphincter clamped down tightly. His sweat glands shifted into overdrive. He stood, too fast and too straight. He hit his head on the edge of the LTD’s roof. It dazed him enough that he flashed blue-black for a millisecond and fell to the right, his arm contacting the seat back.

Full conscious awareness zoomed back when he felt three distinct punctures along his right arm. The surprise kept his fear at bay for the moment. He held his breath, and with deliberate speed, pulled his arm straight out to the left in hopes of minimizing damage. The warm stickiness that streamed down his arm and dripped off his fingers onto the seat’s upholstery seemed not to be a part of him until he started breathing again.

A second later found him sitting on the dirt-and-gravel driveway next to his rigged car. He inspected his arm. There were two wounds to the upper part, one to the forearm. The entire arm seemed frozen internally compared to the surface heat he perceived. It lay across his lap, not obeying his verbal and nonverbal commands to move.

The blond man sat there for a minute longer while he pondered a course of action. Radioing for help was out of the question – he was not about to go back into his car, even from the other side. Yodeling was a possibility, since it was about seven o’clock and his neighbors would be up and preparing for the day ahead. But he was a little too isolated to be heard from behind closed windows and churning air conditioners. He had no choice but to use the phone in his bungalow.

Clasping his injured arm to his chest with his left hand, the detective twisted and turned until he had his legs beneath him. He rocked to his knees, then pushed against the heavy door to get to his feet. He staggered back to the cottage and collapsed in the chair at his desk. Head spinning from the rap it took and breathing hard from the exertion, he sat there until something approaching functionality returned. His right arm flopped onto his leg when he reached for the phone. His fingers had just curled around it when it rang. Jerking it to his ear before the first ring finished, he said weakly, “Tttalk.”

“Hutchinson? That you?” half-barked, half-pleaded Captain Dobey.

The blond detective perked up when he heard the tone in his superior’s voice. Something’s wrong with Starsky! He felt the not-so-subtle beginnings of a roaring headache and consuming nausea. “Is he okay?” he forced out of his dry mouth and soul, dreading the answer but having to know it.

Dobey rolled his eyes in astonishment. Either I need to work on my poker voice, or these two are twins separated at birth. “Your partner’s okay. Best as we can tell, he was attacked at his place about an hour ago. It’s nothin’ a few stitches won’t take care of. I’m heading for County General now.”

Hutchinson let the tears roll down his face. This wouldn’t have happened, buddy, if we’d stayed together. I should’ve been there for you. You asked me, but I went to Abby for my own selfish needs.

“Hutchinson, you still there?” Dobey asked tentatively.

“Yeah, Cap.” Dobey had to strain to hear Hutch speak. “I’ll take a cab – car’s spiked with letter openers. Payback … bank robber … stabbed.”

What?! What do you mean, letter openers, payback? Ken, are you all right?”

“No.” The receiver slipped from Hutch’s hand. He rested his head on the desk and tried to rid himself of the vision of his partner spouting blood like a fountain. He could see Starsky’s mouth moving, but heard nothing.

An eon later, he felt the vibrations of two sets of sirens rapidly bearing down on him.

~s&h~

The next hour was a polluted haze for Hutchinson. He remembered officers Bertram Jones and Ernesto Diaz storming into his house. Then a blood pressure cuff. Lots of white. Tsunami-strength nausea. “…breathing funny…” Stinking plastic over his nose and mouth. Vibrations from the sirens even stronger, rattling his teeth. Vinegary smell of hospital disinfectant. Retching grape juice that now tasted second-hand. The seven dwarfs mining in his head. Cold running up his left arm and into his heart. Breaths coming in fits, timed to hard-hearted spasms in his legs and arms. More white, with mouths that moved but made no sound. Excruciating pain in his right arm. But no more Starsky.

He wondered why the pain in his arm and soul had begun to fade. First, he tasted the answer, then felt the morphine – different, yet the same as heroin – charmingly snake its way to every nook and cranny of his being. He welcomed the insensibility that closed in around him like a kind-hearted death. The drug even seduced him into welcoming a reprieve from his worry about his best friend.

~s&h~

His hearing was the first sense to return. It was a male voice, yelling angrily. Something about a cat who could scan, or something that could scan for cats, being down. Maybe alla this’s a bad dream. Then the pain – frank, throbbing, evil – delivered the message loud and clear that this was real. He grimaced and crooned his agony.

“Ray! We may not need that scan. He’s coming around.” A no-nonsense female voice this time. He felt two smooth fingers work their way inside his loose fist. Not Hutch, he whined to himself. “Officer Starsky” – this time the female voice was soothing, cajoling – “come on now and wake up. You’re in County General ER. I’m Gwen, your nurse. Open your eyes and squeeze my fingers, okay?”

I can’t be in a fuckin’ hospital! I gotta tell Hutch to be careful … gotta get that freakin’ sonuvabitch Marcus!

“Come on, I know you can do it,” the nurse voice encouraged.

Now he was aware of something plastic that cradled his chin and sprayed cool mist into his nose and mouth and of something cold on the front of his neck. He opened his sticky eyes and squeezed her fingers. The voice was a middle-aged woman with brick-red hair and a prominent nose and concerned hazel eyes. He allowed himself to relax a little.

“Tell me where it hurts, Officer Starsky.”

He rolled his eyes and wondered why she couldn’t see for herself. “Iz Dave,” he forced through his larynx and teeth. “Everywhere.”

Gwen, who had seen the beginnings of bruises over much of his entire body when they had cut him out of his sweaty and blood-soaked clothes, knew that was the truth. “You got that right, suge. Guess I should’ve asked where you hurt worst.”

Starsky felt the lure of oblivion again, but bucked its incursion. Gotta get word to Hutch. He inhaled and exhaled deeply, provoking an extraordinarily painful cough through his raw throat. It was several long moments before he could rasp, “Throa’. Lef’ shoulder, arm. Righ’ leg. Worse.”

“Good, that’s what we were hoping, Dave. We need to check out a few things first, but I think it’s safe to say you’re talking too good to have a fractured voice box. And you’ll get something for pain real soon, I promise.”

“No!” he said in a pathetic imitation of a shout. “My par’ner. In danger. Gotta tell him.”

Gwen’s eyes left her agitated patient to look for the attending physician. “Hey, Ray, better do that left upper extremity exam quick. Got a feeling we may need to sedate him, too.”

“No, please,” Starsky pleaded. “Other cops here now?”

Gwen caught his implied meaning. “Yeah. Two detectives want to talk with you about what happened. I’ll get them now.” She gave his hand a light, reassuring pat before she left his side.

“Officer Starsky, I’m Doctor Spivak. I’m going to check out how good your left hand is functioning. By the way, your nurse gave some cortisone through your IV that should help with the swelling in your throat.” Starsky endured the pricking of his skin, the deep prodding of the doctor’s fingers, all the different things he had to make his hand do. Anything to get word to Hutch.

The two detectives assigned to investigate the assault on Starsky appeared gurney-side. “Hey, Starsky. Dobey put us on your case. Can you answer a couple of questions now?” asked Stuart Caldwell, a cop showing his advancing age in his hair and eyes, even his sport coat. His partner, Clive Bennett, a tall, trim man dressed in an outrageous Hawaiian shirt and ivory pants, stood behind and to the right of Caldwell.

“Warn Hutch!” Starsky swallowed cotton, but kept on. “He’s in danger!”

“Hey, who’s in charge right now? Bennett and I have our work to do first. Now, what happened?”

Dammit! Okay, I’ll answer your stupid questions. “Simon Marcus. Rather, his goon. Tried to kidnap me.” He coughed, and was thrilled it didn’t hurt his throat as much, though now he was more aware of the ache in his right ribcage. “I wouldn’t go, so we fought.” He paused as he replayed the struggle – and the interminable wait for anyone, no one, to pick up Hutch’s ringing telephone. “Can arrest Marcus now.”

Caldwell shifted his stance uncomfortably. “What did he say, exactly, Starsky.”

The curly-haired detective closed his eyes and tried to recall the exact words. “Said I was Marcus’s. A gift. Take me to him.”

“Did he actually say that Marcus had sent him?” Caldwell gently prodded.

Starsky’s insides froze – he knew the implied meaning behind the question. He hesitated, considering whether to lie outright or just color the truth.

Bennett cleared his throat to indicate his readiness to join in the questioning. “While you try to remember what the perpetrator truly said, Sergeant Starsky,” he began in his proper British accent, “I thought you would like to know that my partner and I spoke with Captain Dobey in some detail before coming here. He mentioned something about, uh, how should I put it, not even bending the rules?” He smiled. “As if we needed such a directive. Wouldn’t you agree?”

Starsky felt the flush of shame paint his face. He didn’t know Bennett, who had been in the States only a few months, very well yet, but appreciated his two-pronged stealth attack. Calling him by his rank in a non-threatening, even tone was inspired. And that remark about bending the rules served well to remind him that for once, adherence to procedure had to be flawless, unquestionable. Maybe this guy oughta be IA. He looked Caldwell straight in the eyes. “Naw, he didn’t.” Spivak’s unannounced tug on his shoulder sent Starsky’s brain into a spin.

Caldwell blanched at the injured man’s obvious pain. “I guess that’s all we need for now. Sorry, but we don’t have enough for an arrest warrant. But we are gonna question this Marcus turkey now.”

Spivak’s continued examination of his shoulder brought tears to Starsky’s eyes. “Hutch. After him, too. Get him in protec’ custody.” Sorry, buddy, but that’s best, since I’m not there to watch your back. He squeaked in pain again and snapped his eyes shut as Spivak performed a particularly tortuous maneuver on his shoulder. He missed both the quick, guilt-ridden look between Bennett and Caldwell and Gwen injecting something into his IV.

Caldwell fought to keep his last three meals down. “That’s enough for now, Starsky. Dobey’ll take care of the Hutchinson … thing. Back atcha later.” He couldn’t leave the treatment room fast enough. Bennett nodded a goodbye and strolled leisurely to the door.

Starsky now hovered in the gray zone between wakefulness and unconsciousness, the clanging pain and worry and powerful need to bring Marcus down pulling him one way, the exhaustion and blood loss and guilt pushing him the other. He heard Spivak say, “Gwen, give him some more morphine, oh, five milligrams, and some diazepam. Start with two.”

“Time iz it?” he asked, tongue suddenly too limp and thick to work properly.

“About 7:30, Dave. Now, relax. We’re going to sew you up. Please try to be still.”

“Hutch, Gwen, howz Hutch?” He stayed in the gray zone, continually trying to get up to look for Hutch, or call him. After a half-hour of trying to keep him still, even Gwen was losing her patience. And I thought only kids were perpetual motion machines, she chuckled wryly to herself.

~s&h~

By nine a.m., Captain Dobey had reports on both of his officers. Hutchinson had suffered three knife wounds for a total of eleven stitches, but fortunately they didn’t involve bone, major nerves or arteries, or tendons. Nevertheless, he had significant unexplained muscle spasms in his extremities, chills, sweats, headache, and nausea. Starsky had sustained a left forearm laceration needing fourteen stitches and a deep right thigh stab wound – miraculously involving only flesh - necessitating layered closure. Though his left shoulder hadn’t been dislocated, the ligaments and tendons exhibited a fair amount of strain. The cut on his left leg was minor and would be healed in a few days. Neither required blood transfusions, but would have to take iron tablets for a couple of weeks. When Gwen had handed Dobey Starsky’s belongings, she purposely did not have the gun and holster in a bag. She had had a twinkle in her eye when she held the holster in front of his face and stuck a finger through a new slit in the leather. “He doesn’t even have a nick where this thing was, but I’m afraid helping it is beyond our expertise.” Dobey had laughed through his nose, appreciative of the injection of humor.

Now, the captain paced in the quiet corridor, even though it didn’t help with him coming to terms with what he had to do. Their injuries weren’t very severe, though Hutchinson’s mysterious symptoms were certainly worrisome and he would probably have to be admitted. Starsky was likely to be discharged in a few hours at most. However, probably neither would be cleared for duty for about a week. He knew he should reassign the Fox case to another team, but he knew that doing so would cause the case to falter and provoke both detectives into tendering their resignations. He also knew his job, if not his career, was on the line, again, when he made the decision to keep them on it.

Instead of going to see Starsky or Hutchinson, Dobey headed to the cafeteria for coffee and a quick breakfast. On the way, he passed the chapel. For the first time ever, he did not go in, as was his habit when any of the officers under his command was hospitalized. He felt cold again and shivered.

~s&h~

An hour later found Dobey in Starsky’s room. Gwen and Allison, a candy striper, had cleaned all the blood off the detective, including shampooing it out of his crusted hair, before dressing him in ceil-blue scrubs and thin foam slippers. He was sitting on the side of the stretcher getting fitted with a sling when Dobey entered.

Before his superior could speak, Starsky could tell something wasn’t right. He blurted out, “Where’s Hutch? He okay? In custody?” He knew what the answer was going to be.

“Hutchinson’s here, a couple of doors down.” Dobey watched his words banish what little hope Starsky had in his eyes. He pressed on, filling in the detective on his partner’s status. The information did nothing to alleviate his worry. “His car’s been towed to the crime lab, and they’re going over it now.”

“I gotta see him. Now, Cap.”

“Seems to me that’s up to your nurse, Starsky.”

Gwen cocked an eyebrow at her patient. “You can go on one condition. No, better make that two.”

Starsky was already working his way off the gurney. “He’s my partner. Somebody just tried to kill him. I don’t need your damn permission!”

“Starsky!” bellowed Dobey angrily.

“As if nobody just tried to kill you? Allison, help me with him.” Gwen and the volunteer easily stopped the near-debilitated detective. “Your captain understands I’m the boss here. You don’t go nowhere until I say you go somewhere.”

Why is everybody puttin’ up so many obstacles between me an’ Hutch? Maybe he’s worse than they’re tellin’ me! “Okay, let’s get on with it.”

Four minutes later, after meeting the condition of taking two pain pills and a muscle relaxant, Starsky was on his way by Dobey-operated wheelchair to Hutch’s room, even though he never met the second condition of a shave.

~s&h~

Caldwell and Bennett stood outside the rundown storefront where Simon Marcus held court, saying nothing to the other as they both tried to rid themselves of the discomfiting feelings being in there gave them. Bennett was grateful for the dry sunshine after the humid darkness of the hovel. Caldwell, on the other hand, was grateful that Starsky and Hutchinson had the Fox investigation, not he and Bennett.

“That Marcus character really has a way about him, don’t he?” said Caldwell.

“Yes, I would agree. It’s as if he can see into, or directly through, a person. And that he knows something no one else does. Secrets, if you will.” Bennett guessed that his partner did not envy the primary detectives on the mass murder case. He, though, thought it would be fascinating to try to outsmart the man. “Of course he would deny instructing anyone to kidnap Detective Starsky. What do you propose we do next?”

Caldwell gave his partner a sidelong glance. “Get the hell away from here,” he said, speaking slowly and enunciating each word clearly.

~s&h~

Once Starsky was through the door to Hutch’s ER room, he waved for Dobey to go faster. The captain situated the wheelchair’s right to the left of Hutch’s gurney. Locking the wheels, he grumbled in Starsky’s ear, “You try to move this yourself, or get out of it, I’m gonna tell your nurse.” He looked for an acknowledgement, but found none. Starsky’s eyes were glued to his friend. Dobey moved as far away as he could in an effort to give them some privacy.

The head of Hutchinson’s gurney was elevated about thirty degrees. He had an oxygen mask on, but it couldn’t hide his pale complexion and the dark smudges under his eyes. Hutch’s eyes were closed, but it wasn’t apparent whether he was sleeping or not.

It was the constant tremors from the chills and the muscle spasms that got Starsky’s sore Adam’s apple bobbing. He could imagine how miserable this was for Hutch. He touched Hutch’s left hand gingerly and said softly, “I’m here, buddy. Everything’s gonna be okay. Just take it easy. Try doin’ some of that meditation stuff you do. I got your back now.” He began counting each breath Hutch took, and the time between each one. He wanted change places with him. He sniffed back tears of futility that cropped up uninvited. The pit drug him in deeper.

Without warning, an idea, a possible explanation, born out of his own experience, zipped to the front of his consciousness. He gestured for Dobey to join them. “Hutch’s been poisoned, Cap. There was something on those knives, I’m tellin’ ya!”

“You’re a cop, Starsky. What makes you think you know more about this medical stuff than doctors do?”

“’Cuz it’s happened ta me, too. He’s just been poisoned with somethin’ else.”

“Starsky, that’s nuts! Anything could be causing this!”

“Yeah, you’re right, Cap’n. But I gotta hunch. Please, just humor me and call the crime team and ask ‘em to check it out – in a hurry.”

Dammit, Starsky, you’re always so sure of yourself. Hutch, too. “Okay, but don’t expect any miracle answers.”

Starsky smiled his thanks. “Thanks, Cap. I owe you one.”

“Detective Starsky,” Dobey said with authority as he headed for the nurses’ station, “if I kept track of all the ones you owed me, it would take you to the next century to pay me back.” Though Dobey didn’t see the look of respectful affection the curly-haired man tossed at his back, he did feel it.

“Pay back what?”

Starsky snapped his head back to the sound of his partner’s muffled voice. “Hutch,” he said with relieved wonder in his hoarse voice, “you can talk! You’re awake! You okay?” Starsky squirmed and leaned forward in his chair.

Hutch’s lips tilted up at the corners. “Been better. You look terrible.” His respiratory rate picked up after just speaking those few words.

Starsky noticed the change. “Don’t talk any more. Just take it easy, ‘kay?” Hutch nodded once. “Anyway, you look in the mirror lately? So one-uh Marcus’s wiseguys came after me. Wanted to take me to him. I didn’t want to go, so now he’s dead. Got a coupla cuts.” Hutch’s azure eyes expressed his alarm. “They aren’t bad, Hutch. ‘Cept one of ‘em came awful close to the family jewels. Thought I might have to go shoppin’ for a pair of really big rhinestones.” He wiggled his eyebrows. The distress in his friend’s eyes eased with a small laugh.

“Ssssling?” the pained blond stuttered through a particularly hard chill.

“Oh, this ol’ thing?” Starsky said flippantly. “That turkey tried to do Percy one better. Strained, or sprained, or stained, sumpin’ like that. No big deal.”

He rolled his head slowly from side to side. You prattle on like that, Starsk, don’t really tell anything, I know it’s worse. Hear your voice, see bruise on your throat. His mind was smoggy from fatigue, headache, nausea, and the drug he received to treat it. The morphine, which they gave him in small, frequent doses, was wearing off and his appetite for it grew again. Reality backed off so wondrously with the narcotic. Even his guilt for not being there for his partner and for suspending his worry about him drifted away. Then he despised himself, and his nausea swelled. He turned toward Starsky and began puking the nothing he had in his stomach and most of his being.

Starsky cried out for a nurse and stood, stepping over the foot rests of his wheelchair. “Easy, okay? Easy,” he whispered, slight vibration to his voice, as he stroked the blond waves of his friend’s hair. “Help’s comin’, I promise.” When the heaving continued unabated, Starsky screamed even louder for help.

Hutch’s nurse Belle and an orderly stampeded into the treatment room. Belle, a petite woman with black skin, a broad nose, and confident hands, assessed the situation immediately and sent the orderly for some towels. She walked briskly to the right of Hutchinson and helped him stay on his side. “You must be Detective Starsky,” she said to the frightened, violet eyes of the darker man. “We’ve given him something for the nausea and vomiting already, and it’s too soon to give him more. But I’ve got other things I can try that should help.”

“Hurry, please,” Starsky croaked painfully. He wanted to hold Hutch’s back, but his left shoulder wouldn’t let him. “Easy, easy.” Damn, Hutch, is this how you felt – hopeless, helpless - when I just kept barfin’ after I got poisoned? His hand slid effortlessly along the perspiration-saturated, blond hair.

It took several minutes for Hutchinson’s dry heaves to recede, assisted by cool, damp washcloths to his forehead and the back of his neck and the removal of some of his top covers. He quieted down further with the injection of morphine. Not enough, not enough … guess it’ll have to do, he thought as reality dissolved but didn’t completely disappear into the background.

Reluctantly but out of necessity, Starsky flopped down in the wheelchair. He couldn’t remember ever being this tired or worried. He held onto Hutch’s left shoulder. He rested his head on his arm so he could watch his best friend’s chest rise and fall. And waited for a miracle answer from Dobey and the crime lab team.

~s&h~

Twenty-five minutes later, Liz Etzioni entered Hutchinson’s treatment room. Immediately, the blond man’s appearance hit a chord in her memory that she couldn’t quite hear. Then there was Starsky – oblivious to everything but his partner. She smiled through her envy of them and sadness at her lack of such closeness with another human being. A few steps later, she stood opposite the sitting Starsky.

“Hey, Starsky,” she whispered. “Heard you two were here when I called the station. Can we talk?” She flicked her head toward the door to indicate they should do this in the hallway.

He allowed his eyes to leave Hutch for a moment as he looked up at the assistant medical examiner. The dark head signaled No.

Etzioni identified an opioid glaze to Starsky’s turbulent cobalt eyes, but he still seemed with it. She let her eyes tell him how glad she was to see him and that he was okay. “I’ve got some news, but I don’t want to wake Hutchinson.”

“Go on,” came a mumble from the oxygen mask.

Starsky sat up at this. “Hutch? You sure?”

“Yeah. What you got, Lizzzz?” Hutchinson kept his eyes closed.

“A couple of things. First, the results of measuring the cross cuts. It was only definitive in three, because of other slashes. But in those three, the bottom of the vertical cut was definitely not as deep as the top. Second, when we were doing those measurements, I found something we had missed before. Two fibers in the upper chest of Jeff Fox. They’ve got ‘em at the crime lab now. And they’re comparing them to the robe of that John Doe who came after you, Starsky.”

Hutch’s mask moved with his mostly hidden smile. He smiled wider when he felt Starsky squeeze his shoulder tighter.

“Thanks, Liz.”

Something in the way Starsky said those two words caused Hutch to pop open his eyes. Too tired to move his head, his eyes went to him first, then her.

“You’re welcome, Starsky. You know, I almost didn’t recognize you with your clothes on.” At the expression on her face and at her words, Hutch’s eyebrows arched. “I mean, I didn’t recognize you in those scrubs,” she said with a bold mix of guilelessness and … familiarity, Hutch decided.

Hutch’s eyes shot back to Starsky to await his reply. He saw something akin to enchantment on that blue-bearded face, and felt a swell of energy through the hand that still touched him. “Well, these aren’t my real clothes,” he heard Starsky say with a whiff of intimacy.

Hey, what’s going on here?! Hutch thought. Then it occurred to him that she and he had probably been together … He grinned to himself. Don’t have to be a detective to figure this one out.

“Before I forget … Hutchinson, do you have any other symptoms besides what’s in your chart?”

“Don’ know. Bad headache?”

“Mind if I take a look at your wounds?” To answer, he shook his head. With a penlight she extracted from her lab coat pocket in one hand, she carefully lifted the middle dressing on his arm with the other. She peered underneath it while shining the light on the sutured wound. It looked more edematous than it should have been. “I got an idea. I’ll check it out with the crime lab boys. Oh, and I don’t want to see either one of you come across my table” – Starsky tossed her a hurt look that she answered with a wink – “in the morgue, ever.” She patted Hutch’s clammy hand and blew Starsky a kiss before she left.

Hutch cleared his throat and took several deep breaths. “Is there something you want to tell me about, partner?” he asked teasingly before lethargy forced him to silence.

Starsky, staring after the vanished medical examiner, wore a Cheshire cat grin. It was still present when he looked back at his friend. “Someday, when you’re old and gray – naw, when you’re old and bald, maybe I’ll tell ya a story. If there’s a story to tell.”

“Starsky …” Hutch warned in a low voice.

“Shuddup and breathe, partner.”

Hutchinson enthusiastically crawled back into the light narcotic daze.

~s&h~

Over the next hour, Hutchinson had several more bouts of unproductive retching, keeping his partner busy refreshing the washcloths that helped take the edge off the nausea. The sweats and the chills continued to plague him as well. Belle hid her worry each time she checked on him, which was every fifteen minutes. She knew he couldn’t take much more of this before he just gave out, unless something drastic happened. She was just finishing taking his vital signs when his doctor, Don Meyer, barged into the room.

“Officer Hutchinson, we have an answer, and a treatment! Just got off the phone with Dr. Etzioni. She followed a hunch, and had the crime people check the knives that got you for spider venom. And they did find venom from the black widow spider! Are you allergic to horses?”

“Don’ thin’ so,” he said feebly. Starsky squeezed his shoulder so hard that he winced.

“Well, I’m not taking any chances. I’m going to test you for horse allergy. If it’s negative, you’ll get an antihistamine, just to be on the safe side, and then the antivenin. A steroid if you need it. Belle, let’s move it!”

Starsky removed his hand from Hutch’s shoulder and replaced it with his bowed head. “See, I told ya it’d be okay.” Starsky choked back the chunk of relief that surfaced in his throat. He sighed when he felt Hutch’s cheek come to rest on his head.

~s&h~

The next three hours proved to be busy. Hutchinson received the antivenin and Belle continued to closely monitor his vital signs and symptoms and administer small doses of morphine. Gwen, who had checked on Starsky hourly since leaving his treatment room, injected him with gamma globulin because of his exposure to John Doe’s blood. Hutch was feeling good enough to tease his partner while he got the shot in a butt check. Then she officially discharged him with all the appropriate instructions. During that time, the detectives had no contact with any other police officers, including Captain Dobey.

Hutchinson’s symptoms were just beginning to subside when Officer Minnie Kaplan sauntered into the room. Neither man noticed her. Starsky was busy wiping the perspiration once again from his partner’s face, arms, and legs. Hutchinson, eyes closed, lounged in his narcotic limbo.

“Well, well, well,” Minnie said, causing them both to jump a little, “if it ain’t the two cops who moonlight as pin cushions.” She crossed her arms over her chest and tsk-tsked them.

“Damn, Minnie, you scared me half to death! Hey, what are you doin’ here? Dobey catches you out of the precinct house while on duty, he’ll have your badge,” Starsky warned the small woman.

“Hey, why should you guys be the only ones to walk on the wild side? Besides, I just dropped off somethin’ at the crime lab that’s very important to your investigation. Since I was in the neighborhood, I thought I’d see how you were.” Pointedly turning to the man in bed, she asked solicitously, “So, how ya doin’, honey?”

“Better, thanks, Minnie,” Hutchinson slurred.

“What ya got, Minnie?”

Minnie rolled her eyes at Starsky’s impatience. “Starsky, baby, life ain’t all business, you know.” He favored her with a glare. “Okay, okay, business it is,” she said, peeved but raising her hands in surrender. “This Simon Marcus cat used to be at Cabrillo State before he changed his name. I was just there to pick up a copy of his fingerprints, to kinda speed things along. And they had a photo to go along with the prints.”

“I knew that flake was certifiable,” said Starsky. “Minnie, I owe you a big dinner at the diner of your choice.”

“But since when did they fingerprint patients at Cabrillo?” asked Hutchinson.

Minnie snorted. “I never said he was a patient there, now did I? Get this - Marcus Simons, AKA Simon Marcus, was employed there, as an orderly, right after he graduated from high school.” She grinned at their flabbergasted expressions.

“I’ll be damned,” Starsky finally responded. “If that ain’t the pot callin’ the kettle black.”

Hutchinson snorted a tiny laugh. “More like the inmates guarding the prison, or the blind leading the blind. So, the crime lab’s working on matching his prints now.”

“Yeah, honey, but it’ll take a while. There’s a lot to go through. You know the perps weren’t exactly careful.” The policewoman sighed. “Well, guess I better get back to the stationhouse. Charlie can cover for me for just so long. He can’t lie as good as you two.” Minnie winked at both of them. “Take it easy, fellas,” she said as she sashayed out of the treatment room.

“I can see the noose tightenin’ around that turkey’s neck, Hutch,” Starsky said as he applied freshened washcloths to his friend’s forehead and neck.

“Yeah, Starsk, so can I, buddy.” Hutchinson relaxed into his partner’s ministrations and into what was left of the opiate high.

~s&h~

Captain Dobey finally made his appearance a half-hour after Minnie had departed. For the first few minutes, the partners filled him in on their conditions, and Dobey fussed about the media’s “unholy obsession” with the massacre, the lack of enough good evidence to go after Marcus, and the pressure Ryan and Hayes were putting on him to make an arrest. He conveniently forgot to mention that they wanted Starsky and Hutchinson off the case since they were injured.

“Now, this order is straight from the top,” Dobey continued. “You two are not to make any comments to the press if they get to you. Don’t even say, ‘No comment’.”

“Sure, Cap. No problem. Hutch and me know how to handle the press.” Starsky smiled a little wickedly. “Anything on the hit on Hutch?”

“Yeah. The instruments used were a combination of letter openers and paring knives. Brands you can find just about anywhere. None of them were really long enough to pierce anything vital, but they still would’ve killed you, Hutchinson. The knives in the seat back had spider venom, and those in the seat had rattlesnake venom. If you had sat down, enough of that poison would’ve found its way into your bloodstream to eventually take you out - permanently.” Dobey watched both men turn as white as the sheets Hutchinson lay on. “So, you wanna tell me what you meant by ‘payback’?”

The blond man gulped saliva-turned-sand. “The letter openers, Cap. Remember how I disabled the lead robber of the Payday Gang?” Unconsciously, both Starsky and Dobey cupped their respective genitals protectively and scowled. “I thought – think – this is some sort of revenge. One of those letter openers was aimed right where I stuck him.”

“Damn, Hutch, why didn’t you tell me this earlier?” scolded Starsky.

“Sorry, partner, but it just didn’t seem important at the time.”

“Well, it doesn’t change my mind. Cap’n, I don’t think this was revenge. Since the first I heard about it, I thought Marcus had somethin’ to do with it.”

Dobey harrumphed. “And you arrived at that conclusion how?”

“Too much of a coincidence, Cap. Look at the timin’. And I don’t think anybody related to that thief would go to the trouble of poisonin’ Hutch. Nah, somethin’ this sick and depraved could only have come out of Marcus.”

“Well, Starsk, my gut feeling says it’s payback for what I did.”

“But it’s not up to either of you to solve this one. Baker and Carew are on it. They’ll be here to take your statement, Hutchinson, as soon as they finish up with a 2-11 they responded to.” Dobey pawed at his graying sideburns. “Listen up, you two. I’m keeping you on this case against department policy. But I need to know if you can handle it.” He watched the partners study each other. “Well?”

Hutchinson gestured for Starsky to speak for them. “Cap, we can do it.” Even if it means we gotta crawl.

Dobey grinned to himself – he had known what the answer would be before he had even asked the question. “All right. I’ve got your weapons at the station. And stay at a hotel tonight. Get yourself some toiletries. Don't forget the receipts - the department will pay for all of it. Call me, any time, when you’ve got something.”

The detectives nodded solemnly. “Day or night, Captain,” Hutchinson said.

~s&h~

It was just after 5 p.m. when Jonathon Moore received a phone call from Harold Dobey. “Tell me some good news, Harold. Starsky and Hutchinson are okay?”

“They’re fine, and should be back on the investigation in a couple of hours. Just talked with the fibers specialist in the crime lab.” The large black man smiled smugly while he paused for effect. “The fibers found in Jeff Fox’s body and the robe of Starsky’s attacker are virtually identical. That gives us enough for at least a search warrant, Jonathon.”

Moore, now wearing his first real smile in 48 hours, leaned back in his chair. “I’ll be damned if their hunches didn’t pay off in doubles. I’ll get Faye to type up both a search warrant and an arrest warrant for Marcus. Let’s see … it’s after quitting time, so that means it’s Judge James Binder for warrants.”

Dobey ran a hand over his face. “Is he the only one?”

“’Fraid so. What with this being a holiday week, only a few on-going cases are in court, and most of the judges are on vacation.”

The police captain sighed. “Just wish we had a victims’ judge.”

Moore closed his eyes and nodded in agreement. “I know, but what we’ve got now is strong enough that even he will sign.” He laughed weakly. “And if he doesn’t, will you come see me in jail when he cites me for contempt of court?”

Dobey enjoyed a chuckle. “I’ll even bring you cigarettes.” He considered suggesting that if Binder wouldn’t sign, that he break protocol and get another judge. But doing so would be close to career hara-kiri for Moore. And he was too good to lose.

“Once I get it signed, I’ll call you to find out where Starsky and Hutchinson are. I’ll deliver it to them myself. Hell, I’ll even go along with ‘em when they serve it.” Moore hung up and immediately hit the intercom button.

“Yes, Mr. Moore?” came the familiar Irish brogue.

“Faye, don’t go anywhere. We got work to do. And it’s got to be perfect.”

~s&h~

“What do you mean by interrupting my dinner, Mr. Moore?” growled Judge Binder.

Moore looked up at the white-haired, jowly, gap-toothed judge that had twelve inches on him. “Your honor, if this matter wasn’t of the utmost importance, I would not be here. I have two warrants needing your signature, sir.”

“Oh?” the judge said in his most intimidating tone.

The district attorney was not one to be scared off. “Both warrants relate to the Fox massacre, sir. One is a search warrant, and the other is for the arrest of Simon Marcus, AKA Marcus Simons.” He proceeded to quickly outline the evidence.

Binder paused momentarily before he said, “No.”

“But, your honor –“

“You have my answer. The only really decent evidence you have is the fibers. But we know nothing about how common the fabric is. Assure me that it’s not from black material found in every sewing store in the county, and I’ll sign.” He peered down haughtily at Moore.

“But with the assault on Detective Starsky and everything else –“

“Tut-tut, Mr. Moore. I don’t want to be the one responsible for the alleged perpetrator walking on a technicality.”

The DA knew it was politically prudent to accept the judge’s decision. It would serve no one if Binder, a particularly powerful figure on the bench, developed a dislike for Moore or anyone else in the DA’s office. “Yes, sir, I understand. Sorry to have bothered you and your family at dinner.” He decided he’d go lick his wounds, face Dobey’s justifiably angry disbelief, and be glad he hadn’t told the lead detectives about seeking warrants. He knew there would have been fireworks from those two to rival those displayed all over the city just two days ago. He also knew that Judge Yager, who took over for warrants at seven the next morning, would sign both in a heartbeat.

Inside the large, spacious, Spanish-style home, James Binder returned to his place at the table. “Lynn, right after dinner, I’m calling Simón. Those fibers have pretty much sealed his fate. You stay here, and I’ll go use the phone at the convenience store.”

“Well, dear,” the stick-thin, blue-haired woman said, “you did warn Simón not to go after those detectives, that something would go wrong. Now, they’re not dead and the attempt is leading right to the ritual. Oh, my. But at least you bought Simón some time, dear.” She smiled lovingly at her husband, hiding her despondency that her guru/lover would not be summoning her for a long time.

~s&h~

Doctor Meyer had wanted to admit Hutchinson overnight for observation, but the detective had adamantly refused. He was feeling functional, and there were more important things to do. Meyer had caved when his patient began demanding to sign out against medical advice. Belle had commandeered a set of scrubs and slippers for him, since his clothes were evidence and already at the crime lab.

It was an hour before sunset when the partners, well hydrated and pain-controlled and somewhat rested after catnapping, stood at the entrance to the emergency room. They were pleasantly astonished that the media was nowhere to be seen or heard.

“So, Starsky, how do you propose we get home?”

“You shoulda asked Baker and Carew to stick around to give us a lift.”

“Why didn’t you ask ‘em?”

“I wasn’t there, remember? They came while I was on the phone with Adamo. He and the rest of the guys in the crime lab are goin’ blind lookin’ at all those prints.” Starsky shook his head in frustration. “Shit, Hutch, that morphine’s got you addled.”

As soon as Starsky said the word “morphine,” Hutchinson was reminded of its soothing effect. Now he was back in reality, with only Tylenol for the physical pain, and nothing for all the other pains. Nothing, he thought, acknowledging the irony. That pretty much sums up my life. He sighed away the thought. “Starsky, it’s been awhile since I had any of that. I just forgot, okay? You got any money?”

“Naw. My stuff’s at the crime lab. Adamo said I could come get everything whenever I want. Hey, why don’t we walk over there? We can verify that picture is the same Marcus. Maybe you can get your stuff back, too.”

“Good idea, partner. Anything to get us out of these scrubs. We look like rejected extras from some hospital soap opera.”

“Speak for yourself, buddy. I think I make a pretty good looking doctor.”

“Yeah. You inspire a lot of confidence with your arm in a sling.” Hutch snickered. “I’ll call Abby and see if she can pick us up. I’m not really up to taking a cab or a bus.”

Starsky assessed his partner. To him, it was blatantly obvious that Hutch still had an achy head and a queasy stomach. Starsky wanted nothing more than to put him to bed for a day. But he knew Hutch would have none of that. “Hey, why don’t you call Abby from the nurses’ station, and I’ll sign our stuff out of the crime lab? You wait for me here.”

Hutchinson bobbed his blond head up and down briefly, grateful he didn’t have to take the long walk to the lab. He watched Starsky limp away, the sight provoking a surge of guilt. The voices, which had maintained a distant hum in his ears, swelled to upbraid him, as if they sensed his need to punish himself for his failure to safeguard his partner. He didn’t try to silence them.

A few minutes later, Starsky had passed from Hutch’s vision. The big blond man, feeling small, re-entered the emergency room to find a telephone.

~s&h~

Yellow police tape stopped the partners several feet away from the base of the stairs leading up to Starsky’s apartment. Starsky shuddered as he recalled the ordeal with Marcus’s no-name minion. The memory seemed to make his sore and bruised muscles ache even more. He also recalled the fear he felt: the fear that he might die alone, without the chance to tell Hutch goodbye and that he loved him; the fear that Hutch would die if he couldn’t get word to him; the fear that there was something so vile, so malignant in him that a beast like Simon Marcus wanted to own him; the fear that ultimately saved his life. Leaving his memory, he turned to discover Hutch staring, open-mouthed, at the stairs.

There’s so much blood here, Hutchinson thought. It disgusted him that Starsky’s blood was mixed with that of the assailant, that the two men were blood brothers of a sort. It reminded him yet again that this didn’t have to happen – if he had stayed with Starsky. He thought he heard the abyss sniggle as he sank deeper into it.

Starsky nudged his partner, who slowly broke his gaze from the stairs. “Hey, you okay, buddy?” Starsky asked quietly.

“Oh, yeah. You know, Starsk, it didn’t – it shouldn’t have gone down like this. I should’ve been –“

“Hutch,” the darker detective interrupted, “this wasn’t your fault. We ain’t Siamese twins, you know. And how were we supposed to know that Marcus would be so stupid to come after us, huh?”

“Hell, he’s crazy, but he only came after you, Starsky. At the least I should’ve known that creep would come after you, what with all that crap about you belonging to him.” Pained guilt turned his eyes to blue ice.

“Lookit, Hutch, I don’t blame you for what happened here. It was Marcus and his goon. I’m okay, and he’s not.” He tucked his chin down and looked up at Hutch. Let it go, buddy, he thought. “Now, I’m goin’ up the back way and put on some real clothes. Why don’t you wait for me in the car?”

Hutchinson smiled and plodded to the Torino. When he realized that the windows were down and the car was unlocked, his paranoid voice told him to check for bombs, knives, anything that could harm them. He had just finished a thorough inspection by the time Starsky, dressed in a sky-blue buttoned shirt, a safari jacket, sling, torn blue jeans, and boots, rejoined him.

The smaller man handed him the keys and said, “Okay, Dr. Kildare. Your place.”

~s&h~

Hutchinson had chosen to wear a white T-shirt, a medium blue long-sleeve shirt to cover his dressings, light brown jeans, and boots. After putting on his holster, he had made sure he could comfortably and quickly draw the Colt. He had found his belt holster for Starsky to use. Fortunately, his southpaw partner was almost as effective using his right hand. The ride to the stationhouse had passed in silence.

Hutchinson pulled the Torino into an empty space in front of Metro. When he reached out to help Starsky climb the stairs, the weary, dark blue eyes flared at him. “Okay, okay,” he mumbled. Then he found he could take the stairs no faster than Starsky.

Minutes later, they were at Dobey’s office. Hutchinson knocked, using his right hand, and instantly regretted it. Time for more Tylenol, he thought. He could tell Starsky needed some as well. A grouchy “Come in!” caused Hutch to open the door with his left hand.

The dark brown eyes, glittering with exasperation and frustration and peeking out from above the chubby cheeks of the police captain, drew their attention immediately. Instinctively, they prepared themselves for what they knew would be bad news.

Hutchinson trudged to the farther chair so Starsky wouldn’t have to walk so far, and sat down heavily. However, the latter chose to stand, not willing to bear the increased pain he knew would come from his leg wound and butt.

“Out with it, Captain,” Hutch said tiredly.

Dobey cleared his throat and leaned forward, placing his elbows on his desk. Looking at them – wounded in more ways than one, with sunken eyes and fatigue in every muscle and joint – he began to doubt his decision to keep them on the case. “The fibers were a match, so Moore took two warrants for signing. Binder refused –“

Refused?” exploded Starsky vehemently, interrupting his superior and taking a step closer to him. “How could that shithead who calls himself a judge refuse?!” Hutchinson merely lowered his head to rest on his fingertips, unbelieving that this had happened.

“How the hell am I supposed to know that, Starsky?” Dobey snapped back. “I can’t read the man’s mind, but you know he has a rep as a defendant’s judge.”

“Well, what about another judge?” Starsky demanded.

As Dobey explained the situation to them, Starsky’s fury and Hutch’s cynicism escalated. When the captain finished, his office was as silent as a tomb for several long moments.

“Fuck the Bicentennial,” muttered Starsky through gritted teeth. “Hell, just fuck all holidays,” he said as he waved his right arm in a flourish. “And fuck that asshole ju-”

“That’s enough, Detective.”

“I agree with Starsky, Captain. Justice can’t take a back seat because it’s some stupid holiday, or because of politics. Now, just suppose someone else, some other family, gets whacked tonight because Marcus is not in custody, huh?”

“That’s not going to happen, Hutchinson. Marcus and his cult have been under tight surveillance for over 24 hours.”

“Oh, yeah? One of ‘em got to my partner less than 24 hours ago,” Hutch said matter-of-factly.

Dobey scratched his head and looked away from the blond’s intense, penetrating, azure gaze. “Look, I have no doubt Yager will sign both warrants first thing in the morning. I told Moore you’d meet him at his office at 7 so the three of you can go together to the judge’s chambers. Now, go home and get some sleep.”

“We’ll be there,” promised Starsky with angry certainty. He turned and began limping toward the corridor door.

Hutchinson hauled himself out of the chair. He placed his hand lightly on his partner’s back, to shepherd and reassure him. Under his hand he felt cramped muscles flinch at the touch. He let his hand drop to his side.

“Oh, Starsky, here’s your gun. I had Spitz clean and oil it for you.” As if this will make up for what happened to him today, or for the asinine system we have to work with sometimes. If there was a God, Marcus would be behind bars right now. Dobey held out the S & W in its harness.

Starsky didn’t turn or even stop. Hutchinson took the proffered weapon and followed his partner.

Hutch found him at the stairs, leaning against the banister. He pulled the 59 from its home and noticed for the first time the breach in the leather. He blanched for a moment when he realized that the strap had saved Starsky from further injury. I wonder how much more you’re not telling me, buddy. He walked around him and stopped when he faced the dark curls on the bowed head. Without a word, he slid the handgun into the holster at Starsky’s left hip. He worked the belt around to the right a few inches so the gun butt would be easier for Starsky to reach. “Okay, cop, you’re ready for the streets,” he said as brightly and charmingly as he could.

Starsky finally looked up and met his eyes. They glistened with unshed tears of bitter disappointment, of miserable failure. “Hutch …” he said with a throaty quiver.

The blond detective sighed. “I know, Gordo, I know. Come on, let’s raid the machines in the cafeteria. I believe I still owe you a drink or two from our game of ‘fourth,’ and I don’t think I can swallow these pain pills dry.”

Starsky nodded once and ran his hand over his exhausted eyes. A few minutes later, he had finished a pint of apple juice, taken three Tylenol, and sizzed his pain through bared, gritted teeth as his friend worked out the knots in his back.

~s&h~

“I really don’t think this is a good idea, Starsky,” Hutchinson warned in his most sympathetic voice.

“You don’t want to come in, then you just stay in the car.” Starsky’s rage bubbled just beneath the surface of the glassy evenness of his tone.

“But –“

“Look, Hutch, I can’t sleep knowin’ that scraggly freak-murderer-rapist-child molester is free. I’m thinkin’ maybe I can get him talkin’ and maybe he’ll slip up.” Starsky pulled in behind a familiar Chevy Impala. “Wonder how Lewis and Horton are liking this stakeout. It still must be 90 degrees.” He shut the engine off and swiveled in his seat to face his partner. “So, you comin’ with me or not?” Oh God, Hutch, please come with me.

Hutchinson rubbed his face several times. There is no way I’d let you be alone with Marcus. “All right, I’ll go with you. How can I let my partner go into that den of predators by himself when he can’t even open the car door on his own?” He sighed when he saw Starsky’s white teeth. “Partner, you better be careful in there. Watch your mouth. And your temper.”

“What temper?” he asked innocently and sweetly.

Hutchinson rolled his eyes before firing his partner a perturbed warning glance. Slowly, he extricated himself from the Torino. He walked between it and the Chevy, bending over slightly to wave to their fellow zebra detectives. Then he had the driver’s door open. Watching Starsky struggle to get out churned up his still-queasy stomach. He was almost overjoyed when Starsky finally stopped and looked up to him, his pathetic and ashamed face asking for assistance. Carefully, Hutch helped the smaller detective swing his legs around until they were out of the car. Next, his left hand gripped Starsky’s right upper arm. A second later, Starsky was out of the car.

“Thanks, buddy,” Starsky panted quietly and painfully. He was regretting in part his decision to drive. His right leg wound throbbed heavily despite the analgesic he had taken. But if he hadn’t driven, they wouldn’t be in front of Marcus’s lair now. He wiped his forehead free of the sweat beads of exertion and anticipatory fear that had popped up. “Help me outta this sling, wouldja? Can’t have that spitball see me like this.”

Patiently, Hutchinson did as he was asked. “This goes right back on after our little chat with Simon.”

Starsky nodded through a grimace. He gingerly put his left hand in his jacket pocket as a needed substitute. Movement and sound to one side caught their attention. The stakeout detectives were leaving their car.

“Lewis, Horton,” Hutchinson said as they approached. “Anything happening over there?”

Ben Lewis and Madeleine Horton were the first “mixed” zebra detective team in the BCPD. Together for three years, they had quickly perfected their frequent undercover identities as a colorless husband and wife that everyone – including their fellow officers – thought they really were a married couple. But Ben was a devoted husband to another woman and father of four, and Mad was a staunch bachelorette. “Pretty quiet, Hutchinson,” said Ben. “Wheeler and Staats have the alley. Quiet there, too.” Ben joined his partner in scrutinizing the lead team on the case. “Here to put the screws to the bastard?”

Hutchinson frowned at Lewis. “Not exactly. We’ve just got some more questions for him.”

“That’s cool. Mad ‘n’ I’ll be right here if you need us.”

Hutchinson and Starsky both nodded their thanks. Lewis and Horton watched them as they crossed the street, noting the blond’s tired gait and the brunet’s marked limp.

“Jesus Christ, Mad, I can’t believe Dobey’s letting ‘em stay on this case. They look like they’re ready for the grave.”

Horton arched her eyebrows. “Do you really think Dobey taking them off the case would stop ‘em? This way, Cap has some sort of control over 'em. Let’s stay out of the car until they come out. Now, finish telling me about Roy’s reaction to the tooth fairy.”

~s&h~

Starsky and Hutchinson stopped in front of the shabby storefront. Both partook in deep, energizing, steadying breaths, marshalling their reserves for what they knew would be a battle of wits with Simon Marcus.

Hutch saw Lewis and Horton watching them as they leaned against the blue Impala. “Hey, Starsk, you ever think about working with a female partner?”

“Hunh?” Puzzled at that question, considering what they were preparing themselves for, Starsky had to follow Hutch’s gaze. “Oh. Why, you thinkin’ about a sex change operation?”

“Hmmm. Not a bad idea. I already have the legs for it.”

“Yeah, I seen your legs, and you better hope those midi-dresses come back in style. So you’d be willin’ to give up Moe, Curly, and Hairy?”

“What?” Then Hutch remembered when Starsky had first called “the package” by those names. He had been high on narcotic painkillers while he was recovering from his appendectomy when Hutch told him about how he had disabled the Payday Gang leader. They had argued for hours about whether Curly was the left or the right one. “No, I guess not.” He grinned. “Guess I better not go out shopping for a new wardrobe. But it wouldn’t hurt you –“

“There you go, harpin’ on my clothes again. They’re not crummy; they’re just … broken in good.”

“Sure. Then explain why whenever we go by a soup kitchen, you get invited in.”

“My sparkling dinner conversation, of course.”

“Starsk, the only thing sparkling about you is your teeth. But speaking of conversation, you ready?”

Starsky took one final deep breath before answering, “Let’s do it.”

Hutchinson entered the storefront’s foyer just ahead of his partner. He could hear the soul-deadened chants of “Simón, Simón.” He silently begged the voices to return, but they stayed in the background, whimpering in terror.

Crossing the threshold into the foyer, Starsky experienced an incredible rush of adrenaline. He sensed the same thing occurring in his partner. The chanting momentarily unnerved him, but he was determined not to allow it to suffocate him as it had previously. With maximum effort, he brought himself back to a relatively even keel.

Hutchinson walked into the main room. His stomach roiled at the sight of at least forty robed and kneeling bodies packed like sardines. He felt Starsky move to his side. On the platform, he saw Simon Marcus alone, sitting on his fractured recliner, holding a red delicious apple in one hand and …

Goddammit! He’s got a fuckin’ knife! the dark detective swore to himself. His heart cartwheeled and his lungs throttled frantically. Seeing Marcus with the inverted-cross wound etched in his forehead and in that robe stimulated him to anger and murderous fear.

Hutchinson detected his friend’s more rapid breathing, as well as tenser muscles that indicated his readiness to fight. I better watch him real close, he thought as he sneaked a quick calming squeeze to Starsky’s hand. His eyes stayed on Marcus.

“Ah, Detectives Starsky and Hutchinson,” said Marcus in his self-complacent, hypnotic voice. “I dreamed you would visit me tonight.” He waved them forward with the knife.

The detectives intentionally waited through several rounds of chants before they slowly made their way along the narrow path that seemed to magically open for them through the center of the acolytes. They stopped at the platform. It put them eye-to-eye with the cult leader, but that wasn’t acceptable. They had to have the advantage of dominant position. Hutchinson stepped onto the stacked pallets first. Starsky, clumsily and painfully, followed suit.

Marcus gave them a close-mouthed smile. He began to methodically peel the apple with the knife – a carving knife, Hutch noted – he held, never taking his narrowed eyes from Starsky’s midnight blue ones. The more white flesh of the fruit that was exposed, the more Simon’s mouth opened. “What lies beneath the skin can be … unexpected. Wouldn’t you agree, Starsky?”

Hutchinson spoke before Starsky could answer. “My partner Detective Starsky and I are not here to discuss fruit. We’re here to find out what you know about the attack on him. Among other things.”

“Ah, Detective Hutchinson. On the surface you appear to be cynical, tough, even distant. But I peel the thin skin” – Marcus wielded the knife in the air in an elaborate, stylized choreography – “to reveal whiteness, like this apple. You are the White Knight – gentle, giving, idealistic, sympathetic, protective.”

Hutchinson trembled, trying to hide his consternation and amazement at Simon’s remarkably astute “analysis” of him. He forced himself to breathe evenly, and squared his shoulders. In one portion of his brain, he began his own chant, for the first time consciously realizing that he did this automatically to help him control himself and the situation and … protect my partner.

Starsky, too, was astonished at Marcus’s perceptive observation of his partner. Yeah, Hutch is kinda like a white knight. His snitches, Kiko … me. His “good” cop – make the scaredest vic feel safe and the toughest perp trust him to protect him from … me. How does Marcus know…

Marcus smirked. “I can tell this makes you … uncomfortable. But you know what I say is true. I know it is because I dreamed it.” He paused, dropped his bearded chin to his chest, and looked up at Hutch. “Tell me, do you feel the sting of your partner’s wounds that he received because you preferred to wallow carnally rather than protect him? This was not the first time, and I dream it will not be the last.”

“Why, you son of a bitch,” the blond detective said in an impassioned but controlled whisper. He clenched his fists at his side until they were white.

“Don’t let the bastard get to you, buddy,” Starsky muttered through his teeth. “I’d’ve been dead a long time ago without you.”

To Hutchinson, Starsky’s actual words were unintelligible but the meaning came through in the inflection. He let the calm take over. The normal color returned to his hands.

Marcus pressed on. “Your skin, your armor, Starsky, is humor, idiocy, childlike and childish behaviors. I release you from your shell” – the one-piece coil of apple peel dropped to the floor – “to find the Dark Warrior, the first to jump into danger, to answer a threat with violence, to make justice happen, to make leaps in logic. And your memory cuts you deeply because you defend others at a high cost to yourself. Or do you really defend others? Aren’t you really a policeman because the darkness governs you?” He shot the now ashen, smaller detective an arrogant smile. “Your core is like that of a pomegranate’s center. That is why you are mine. I dreamed it, and everything I dream is true.”

Marcus’s dissection of Starsky troubled Hutchinson. How could he possibly know that Starsk is usually the first to break cover and charge into the middle of a firefight, and can scare the hell and a confession out of the most close-mouthed suspect? And the way he thinks, even

There was complete silence in the room. Moments later, Starsky advanced on Marcus and the chanting resumed simultaneously. Hutch’s hand shot out to stop him from getting too close to the cult leader.

“You don’t know me or Hutchinson, you psycho,” Starsky began, speaking rapidly and self-assuredly. “You’re just tryin’ to mind-fuck us, but it won’t work. But we know who you are, Simon. You’re just some ignorant, impotent, sadistic loser who can only get his jollies by torturin’ people and molesting kids. And you still need help with that, so you … exploit lost souls like these … creatures who’ve forgotten how to think for themselves, or believe in themselves.” He stopped, spent, out of breath, shaking with defiance.

Marcus pointedly stared for a few moments at the hand that still held Starsky back before fixing his placid, possessive gaze on the dark-haired police officer again. “You have just proved me correct.”

Self-consciously, Hutchinson let go of Starsky’s arm. Surprisingly, the latter stayed put. “Enough of this bullshit, Simon. Tell me what you know about the attack on my partner.” He tried to sound reasonable, even respectful. The effort made him much more nauseous.

“I wasn’t there. I know nothing. Simón never lies.”

With a tired, impatient sigh, Hutchinson alternately rubbed and squeezed his forehead with his thumb and index finger. “Simon, we’re not stupid. We know he was your man. He was wearing one of your goddamned silly robes. He even used your name.”

“Contrary to what you may think or believe, my people do function independently.”

“That doesn’t answer my question.”

Simon smiled and took a bite of the apple. He chewed lazily and deliberately while he studied the detectives as they waited patiently for the next move in this game. He swallowed. “Bible scholars agree that Eve did not specifically give Adam an apple. Did you know that, detectives?”

“What, we gonna talk about little known facts of the Bible?” snipped Starsky. He swiftly circled his face with his hand once. “Okay, how about another question. Why’d you maim and murder those nine innocent people in the farmhouse in the early morning hours of Sunday, July fourth?”

Shit, Starsk, nobody can ever accuse you of beating around the bush or giving up, thought Hutch.

“Aren’t you forgetting about the sexual assaults? Why didn’t you ask me that again, too, Detective Starsky?”

“Maybe I consider rape a type of murder, Simon.”

Marcus contemplated this for a moment. “Do you agree with your partner, Hutchinson?” he asked without leaving Starsky’s frosty, contemptuous glare.

“Rape kills the spirit, but I guess you wouldn’t know about spirit.” Inwardly, Hutchinson screamed as he realized that he had been raped figuratively as Marcus’s tenth victim. Outwardly, nothing changed in his tough, unruffled demeanor.

Except to Starsky. He sensed a profound pain that he hadn’t noticed before that troubled him greatly. He felt compelled to veer away from this topic to ease his partner’s suffering. Tremendous rage toward the painmaker spiked in him, and it rampaged across his face before settling in his muscles and throat. “Okay, Marcus, here’s how it’s gonna work. Admit you killed those people, you can have me.”

Hutchinson, who had been observing the suspect, opened his eyes widely in alarm and terrified surprise. He stared at his friend. A tight, tiny whine squeaked through his vocal cords. Starsk, have you gone mad? Why’d you say such an idiotic thing?

Feigning unawareness of Hutch’s reaction, Starsky continued. “It’s easy. You want me, you confess, tell the whole truth. But you won’t do it, because you’re a chickenshit, a coward. So I’ll never be yours.”

The expression on Marcus’s face told both detectives that he was seriously considering Starsky’s proposal. They also watched, awe-struck, the evolution from ownership to obsession in the gaze directed at the darker detective.

The fear that sharpened his reflexes, heightened his senses, and powered his mind and will propelled Starsky forward. His body, a bit more compact than Marcus’s, seemed to expand. He hovered over the grisly, dirty man with the oddly well-manicured fingernails. Hutchinson, tense with worry, internally cursed his risk-taking partner and readied himself should Marcus pick up the gauntlet.

The silence among the three was much louder than the relentless litany of the two-syllable mantra. It stretched to several minutes when, for a brief second, Marcus opened his mouth. Hutchinson was positive his brain would shut down, paralyzing him. Starsky felt as if he were falling, with the cultist at the bottom to catch him. But when nothing issued from Simon’s mouth, Hutch purposely took a step to his right to make sure he could move. Starsky landed on a symbolic ledge far above the guru.

After another minute passed, Starsky proclaimed, “Time’s up, turkey. Offer’s withdrawn. Now you’re mine. How do you like them apples, huh?” Hutchinson permitted relief to tame his worry.

Marcus toed the apple skin with the tip of his Earth sandal. “I don’t have to give up anything to have you, Starsky.” He began twirling the carving knife like a cheerleader’s baton. Hutchinson spied the wooden handle, noting that a small chunk of it was missing.

“Fuck off, you freak!” the curly-haired man exploded. His heart castanetted in his chest, certain and ashamed that everyone within a three-mile radius could hear the clatter.

“The babies, Starsky. The children.” The five words from Simon’s mouth swam in malevolent accusation.

Hutchinson saw it coming, but he couldn’t move fast enough to prevent his friend from slapping Marcus’s face. “Starsky!” he said with an edge of command to it.

Starsky did an about-face, flushed in anger at himself for losing control and at Marcus on general principles, and hung his head. I can’t believe I hit him again! God, Starsky, you are a major putz.

Hutchinson had to give Marcus credit for knowing exactly which buttons of Starsky’s to push. He wedged himself between the two. “Funny,” he said conversationally, “I thought I heard something, but I didn’t see a thing. Did you, Simon?”

Marcus, maintaining his composure, said softly, “Earlier today I dreamed of screams, spasms, spilled blood, and sickness. What did you dream, Hutchinson?”

The tall blond staggered back a few millimeters in shock when he understood what Simon was really saying and when he read the envy in the brown eyes. It wasn’t payback after all

Starsky interpreted it the same way. He one-eightied again, avoiding bumping into Hutch, and unholstered his pistol with his right hand. He rammed the barrel into Marcus’s crotch, unexpectedly hitting something hard. He wanted to puke but suppressed the urge. With fervent menace, he said, “You come after my partner again, I’ll make sure your piss has ta drain in a bag the rest of your worthless life, motherfucker. Oh, yeah, you won’t be able to that again, either.”

Simon showed no reaction. But he found himself craving the darkness in the man, like an addict craves his chosen substance of use, misuse, and abuse.

Starsky eased the gun away from Marcus at Hutch’s stabilizing touch on his lower back and re-holstered the S & W without breaking his glacial stare. He finally turned away and walked to the edge of the platform. He looked out over the motionless sea of white faces under black hoods, and was again confronted with the urge to retch. This whole thing – just like déjà vu all over again.

Meanwhile, Hutchinson raised his index finger and tightened his lips in that cautionary, intimidating way he had. In that gesture were the unspoken words: Don’t mess with my partner, or else...

“Would you care to stay for a late supper, detectives?

Hutchinson couldn’t believe his ears. Simon Marcus could have passed as a maitre d’ at an exclusive French restaurant. “You better enjoy it, Simon, because it’ll be your last supper as a free man.”

Two strides later, Hutchinson stood beside his partner. “Time to make like a rug and beat it, Starsk.”

“I can’t get down off-a this thing, Hutch,” he said in a quiet panic.

The blond stole a swift glance at the terminally smug guru. He knew it was important, if not vital, for his partner to show no hint of weakness. In part, it was because of the game; it was also because of his pride. He had to come up with a solution, and fast. “Jump?”

The bushy-haired man raised his eyebrows and shrugged his shoulders. “Better’n standin’ here, I guess.”

“Yeah. If you stay much longer, you’ll have to file a change-of-address,” Hutch teased.

Starsky half-frowned at him. He jumped, in tandem with Hutch, and managed not to falter. He concealed his limp for most of the seemingly endless walk to the real world outside the filthy, gamy hovel.

~s&h~

Horton had her back to the storefront while she poured herself another cup of strong coffee from a thermos. When she heard Lewis mutter, “Damn!” she turned to see Hutchinson firmly supporting his partner with an arm around his waist. Starsky was hopping on one leg and his face was screwed up in pain. She cleared her throat commandingly as Lewis started to cross Kensington. “Leave ‘em be, Ben. Remember who they are.”

Lewis stopped in mid-stride. Yeah, Hutch’ll shoot me the evil eye, and Starsky’ll just shoot me. He took the one and a half steps back to the Chevy. “Do you mind if we give ‘em a couple of our sodas, Mad?”

“Good idea, Ben.”

Lewis flipped the front seat forward. He rummaged around in the cooler in the back seat until he had one of Horton’s Dr. Peppers and one of his RCs. By the time he was out of the car, Hutchinson and Starsky were a few steps away from the Torino. He watched silently as the blond man labored to get Starsky seated on the hood.

Horton strolled over to them, Lewis a step behind her. “Lewis thought you two might like something to drink.” At that, he handed his fellow detectives – breathless, perspiring, scowling, introspective – the two cans. Hutchinson nodded his thanks and promptly rolled the RC along his forehead and neck. Starsky grunted and immediately applied the can to his right upper thigh.

“Get anywhere with him, guys?” asked Lewis after a minute of silence.

“’Fraid not, Ben,” replied Hutchinson. “Hey, thanks for the drinks. Well, we have to be going. Early morning, you know.” He popped the top off his soda, and drank the contents in two long gulps. “Come on, Starsk.”

The dark-haired detective pouted. He didn’t want to move yet; the cold from the can had finally reached the stab wound. Reluctantly, he slid cautiously to the road, placing all his weight on his left leg. He hopped toward the driver’s door.

“I’m driving,” stated Hutchinson as he held a hand out for the keys.

Starsky glared at the hand, then at Hutch’s determined face. “No.” Unequivocal. Definite.

The larger man threw his hands up. “Fine. I’m too tired to argue with you. And I don’t want to hear you gripe about the pain, okay?”

“’Kay.” Without assistance, Starsky managed with great difficulty to get in and situate himself behind the wheel. He needed and took several deep breaths before he stuck his head out the window to address Lewis and Horton. “Call in if there’s even a twitch out of ‘em. Oh yeah, and thanks for the ice pack.”

Horton studied the blue-stubbled face. “Why didn’t they give you a cane or crutches to use?”

“They did.” Starsky kept his dark blue eyes on her while Hutchinson slammed the passenger door. He turned the key and the big engine caught instantly. “See ya,” he said over the roar. Horton and Lewis returned to stand beside the Chevy and watched as the Torino pulled away in subtle fits and jerks.

“Something happened in there, Mad. Something … weird. I’d love to read the report on this one.”

“You got that right, partner.”

~s&h~

“Why are we sitting in your car in Seal Park, Starsky? Aren’t we supposed to spending the night in some motel?”

Starsky sighed heavily, closed his eyes, and leaned his head back on the seat. “I thought it might be a better idea if you screamed at me here. Or tell me I better turn in my badge first thing in the mornin’. God knows, Hutch, I don’t deserve to carry one. Not after beltin’ Marcus once, much less twice.” I certainly don’t deserve to be a cop after lettin’ those babies die.

Hutchinson rubbed his face vigorously several times, his palms scratched by his beard bristles. “Look, Gordo, I’m not excusing what you did. It was wrong. Went way beyond roughing him up. But it’s understandable. And you’re human. He doesn’t want to press charges, and I can live with that.” He paused, not anxious to tell his friend what needed to be said next. “But you ever slug a non-resisting suspect like that again, I swear, Starsk, I will take you down myself.”

Even though Starsky didn’t have, or deserve, Hutchinson’s forgiveness, he did have his support and understanding. Starsky pushed the idea of resignation to the back burner but kept low heat under it. He smiled lopsidedly. “Wouldn’t want it any other way, partner.” He opened his eyes and turned his head toward Hutch. “I got somethin’ I got to do. Where do you want me to drop you?”

“Starsky, you need sleep. So do I. It’s been almost three days since –“

“We slept a little in the ER,” interrupted the darker man.

“Yeah, well, that doesn’t count.”

Starsky sighed once more. “I’m not sleepy.” I can’t sleep. Old nightmares, and some new ones prob’ly. I won’t sleep.

Hutch knew why. Nightmares. I don’t want to sleep either. Total, absolute silence. Might wake up and it’d be permanent – not just the music gone forever. Hell, I’m turning superstitious, too. “What do you have to do?”

“I … I just wanna check on a few … things. By myself.”

Hutchinson considered this for a moment. Then something occurred to him – something he had to do, too. If that scum knows me so well, then he knows about everyone I care about. “To borrow a phrase from Huggy, I can dig it. Take me home, buddy, and don’t spare the horsepower.”

~s&h~

It was after midnight. Hutchinson watched the taillights of the Torino disappear down the street. He shoved his left hand into his pants pocket and tucked his right one near the butt of the Python. A little precautionary paranoia never hurt anyone, he thought. A few minutes later he had walked the five blocks to the Ramos home. He was relieved to see the light on in the living room. Quietly he rapped on the door and called out softly, “Mrs. Ramos, it’s Ken Hutchinson. May I come in?”

The short, roundish woman checked the peephole in the door. She gasped in surprise, but unhooked the chain and opened the door to let the tall blond man in. “What are you doing here at this hour, Hutch? Kiko’s asleep, and so will I be as soon as I finish Senora Ludlow’s dress,” she whispered animatedly, her Mexican accent more obvious than usual.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Ramos,” said Hutchinson bashfully, “but I just wanted to make sure you and Kiko were all right.”

Mrs. Ramos scrutinized the man before her. His eyes, so blue, exhausted, fearful, and sad, told her everything she needed to know. “Sit down. I fix you something for your upset stomach. You have upset stomach, Hutch, don’tchu?”

Hutchinson smiled appreciatively. “Just a little. Thanks, Mrs. Ramos. Kiko is lucky to have such a perceptive mother.”

“You sit down, and I be right back. You stay here tonight,” she said as half-statement, half-question.

“I was hoping you’d say that. I’ll just stay here, if you don’t mind,” the lean blond said as he patted the sofa back. “May I use the phone?”

Mrs. Ramos had to admit to herself she was glad her son’s “big brother” had shown up. She was terrified about being attacked and killed by the same people who murdered the family on Independence Day. Now she felt a measure of security. “Sure. Sit. I make your stomach feel better.” After carefully draping the dress over the back of her chair, she hurried into the kitchen.

Hutch dialed. Four rings, and Abby picked up. “Hello,” she said in a sleep-gruff voice.

Unconsciously, Hutchinson breathed a sigh of relief. “Abby, do as I say, and I’ll explain later. Sleep over at Lois’s tonight.”

“But, Hutch, I don’t think she’s home. I think she’s on an overnighter to Mexi–“

“You have her key,” he interrupted. “Use it. She won’t mind. Abby, just do this.”

The fine hairs on the back of her neck prickled at the urgency in her lover’s tone. “Okay, on my way.”

“Love you, Abby.” He thumbed down the button to break the connection. A breath later, he dialed a second number, determined not to let Marcus take anything or anyone else from him.

“The Pits. And I ain’t talkin’ about the food or drink.”

“Huggy, Hutch. I’ll explain later, but don’t go home tonight. Sleep somewhere else, okay?”

The thin man winced at Hutchinson’s insistence. “You got it, my man. Was thinkin’ that Carlotta would jump for joy if I showed up on her doorstep.”

“Later, Hug.”

Then there was dial tone before Huggy Bear could speak again. That’s weird, he thought. First Starsky, and now Hutch. Well, they don’t have to tell this man three times. He checked his little black book for the lovely and insatiable Carlotta’s phone number.

~s&h~

Unable to sleep primarily because of the impending arrest of the suspect in the Fox family massacre, Harold Dobey was sitting in his favorite chair in his study when he heard the well-known growl of a particular car’s engine. What the hell are they doin’, coming here this time of night? He headed for the front door, hoping to get there before the doorbell could chime and wake the whole family.

The large man opened the door in time to see Starsky toiling to get out the passenger side of the Torino. He took off running to help his injured detective. “What is this, Starsky? Where is Hutch? Why aren’t you in a motel? Do you think I give orders just to hear myself talk?” he grumbled as he assisted the smaller man to a standing position.

Starsky needed several breaths before he could answer. “It seemed … silly, Cap. ‘Sides, I hadn’t seen Rosie and Cal and Edith in a long time.” He winced when his shoulder muscles spasmed.

In the darkness, Dobey searched Starsky’s face for the truth. He didn’t see as much as feel his deep-seated need to be with them right now. Mentally, Dobey shook his head and speculated if it were possible that David Starsky knew he had been a serious contender for the role of Rosie’s godfather. Some day, he’d tell him. Just like he’d tell Hutchinson he would’ve been considered for the same “job” with Cal. “Come on in, Starsky. You can bunk here tonight. On one condition.”

“What’s that, Cap?”

“You shave in the morning.”

“But Cap, I’ve got such a good start on a beard.”

“Beards are against regs for undercover detectives, Sergeant.”

“Moustaches aren’t.”

“Clean-shaven, Starsky. That’s final.” He half-carried his limping detective to the house and to the open arms of Edith, who stood waiting for them in the doorway.

Five minutes later, after exchanging pleasantries with Edith and accepting juice and Tylenol and convincing Dobey to let him keep his gun, Starsky hobbled to Cal’s room. The young teenager was sound asleep. Starsky adjusted the bed covers unnecessarily before he left the room.

Then he entered Rosie’s room. The little girl, wearing pink ballerina pajamas, was sprawled out in her bed of white sheets. Starsky put the leg that stuck out over the side back onto the mattress. He covered her and petted her hair lightly. He backed away, but discovered he couldn’t bear to leave the room. He just knew if he did, something horrible – something Marcus – would happen to her. He trudged over to the huge rocking chair and eased himself down into it without crashing too hard. Moments later, he was in a light doze.

About an hour later, Rosie woke up. At first she was scared, but she soon recognized her Uncle Starsky underneath the whiskers and in the glow of her nightlight. Forcefully she pushed her bed linen off her and padded over to him. “Uncle Starsky?” She tugged on his left jacket sleeve.

He awoke with a start, left hand automatically moving to reach for the weapon that wasn’t in its customary place. The pain in his left shoulder and Rosie’s harmless and curious countenance stopped him from further searching for a gun. “Oh sweetheart, did I wake you? I’m sorry.”

“No, you didn’t. Why are you here? Where’s Uncle Hutch?”

“He’s at his house. I missed you, so I came to visit. But I didn’t want to wake you up, so I sat down ‘cuz your reading chair is so comfortable.”

“You look funny, Uncle Starsky.”

“How do you mean, sweetie?”

She crinkled her face. “Like you’re really sad and worried and scared.”

Instantly, Starsky’s eyes filled with tears. He didn’t know what to say to this amazing little girl. He prayed Marcus or his fools would never find out about her, because he was certain they’d come after her, and Cal and Edith, too.

“I’ll make you feel better.” Rosie clambered onto Starsky’s lap, completely unaware of the pain she inadvertently inflicted on his right leg wound. He endured it for the hug she gave him around his neck. “You’re scratchy,” she said sourly in his ear.

He laughed from deep within where his sense of innocence was buried under the morass of the last few days. “You are your father’s daughter, Rosie Dobey. I’ll take care of it in the morning.”

She settled in on his lap and laid her head against his right chest. He rocked them until they were asleep seconds later.

Edith and Harold had been observing from the dark of the hall. She gestured for him to follow her into their bedroom. In that privacy, she finally spoke, gently and nonjudgmental. “How can you deny the existence of God after that? After seeing Him in your daughter’s actions? After seeing Him in David tonight?”

“How did you know?”

“Harold dear, you once wrote to me that there were no atheists in foxholes. But when you were recovering from your battle wounds in the VA hospital, I knew you had doubts then. And I sensed it again just a couple of days ago. The presence of evil doesn’t negate the presence of good. They co-exist, and we have to choose which one we want to live in and to fight for. You made your choice when you became a policeman. And I am so proud of you, Harold.”

The captain of detectives wrapped his wife in his meaty, grateful arms.

~s&h~

The morning of July 7th dawned to soupy, humid air, a flurry of activity in the Ramos and Dobey households, and two detectives who had made it through their night terrors without disrupting anyone. Cal and Rosie crowded into the bathroom to watch their mother scrape away Starsky’s substantial three-day beard and moustache. The kids teased Starsky mercilessly about his inability to do this simple task himself. Hutchinson shaved himself, with minimal pain to his wounded right arm, and gave Kiko his first instruction in this manly art. Both men sponged-bathed, and were treated to breakfasts of eggs, toast, bacon, and gallons of hot, strong coffee. Both forced down their first solid food in days. Both felt the butterflies of the impending arrest of Simon Marcus. Cal helped Starsky into his sling, and Rosie and Edith kissed him goodbye. Kiko initiated an uncharacteristic long hug with his “big brother,” who promised to take him to see the new Tatum O’Neal baseball movie on his next weekend off as he closed the front door.

They felt almost human. And ready for anything Simon Marcus and his stooges could throw at them.

~s&h~

Faye Riley was relieved when the two detectives and her boss finally left the office. Quickly she dialed a telephone number she had memorized. “Armand? They’re on their way to Yager’s office. He’s sure to sign the warrants.”

“Great, Faye! What’s the address on Kensington?”

She gave him the number. “When will I get my money?”

“I’ll have it delivered to the usual place.”

“Remember, Armand, ‘tis a grand this time.”

You get what you pay for, Hickman, he gloated to himself. And this could mean a local Emmy. Great return on my investment. “I remember.”

~s&h~

Judge Arlen Yager was a thin, balding, elderly dynamo who scoffed at criticisms that he ignored the Constitution when it came to the rights of the accused. He was satisfied with the fact that every warrant he had ever signed, as well as every courtroom decision he had rendered, had successfully held up on appeal. He also had no patience for politics.

“Jonathon,” Yager began after reading the warrants for the arrest of Simon Marcus and for the search of the storefront, “I know you and these detectives could have come to a judge long before this, and ordinarily I would be censuring you for waiting so long. That’s a madman out there. However, I do appreciate the need to make sure neither warrant could be overturned.” He signed and dated both enthusiastically. “Excellent work, detectives. My compliments to the medical examiners and the forensics people. I wish I could be with you three when you arrest him.”

Bailiff supervisor Archie Carter, who had been standing outside the judge’s chambers during the entire meeting, murmured an expletive. He slipped away before the three visitors could leave. He went to the bailiffs’ lounge to wait. He paced for a few minutes in the empty room until he figured the three had left the building. Then he headed for the pay phone in the lobby.

~s&h~

While Starsky, Hutchinson, and Moore were dealing with Yager, Captain Dobey was coordinating the arrest and search teams. Starsky and Hutchinson would be in charge of the arrest, assisted by uniformed officers Burke, Miller, Ferguson, and Aguilar. Babcock and Simmons would work with the crime lab on the search. He dictated that all officers and crime lab people would go in wearing bulletproof vests. He denied Officer Minnie Kaplan’s request to come along, but he promised that she could book him.

They were ready when Hutchinson called in. Dobey, accompanied in his car by Chief Ryan, led the way to the Kensington address on the warrants. The caravan of unmarked and black-and-white police cars and two crime lab vans traveled with lights only.

~s&h~

Hutchinson was helping his partner with his vest when he saw the KBCC van equipped for live broadcast pull up at the edge of the sea of vehicles. “Dammit! How did they find out about this?”

Starsky turned and swore. “It shouldn’t be hard to find the leak, and when I do, I’ll plug it – permanently.” He grimaced briefly when Hutch let the full weight of the vest fall on his shoulders. “Damn. Didn’t realize these things were this heavy.”

Hutchinson grinned at the sight of Dobey reading Armand Hickman and his cameraman the riot act. It was soon apparent, however, that they would be permitted to film from a distance. “Well, Starsk, remember to smile. We’re gonna be on TV.”

“That’s just bee-yoo-tee-ful. And me without makeup, too,” he said sarcastically.

“You know, every time I see Hickman, I wish a gale force wind would come along and screw up that laughable hair of his.”

“I wanna see if those leisure suits he wears burn quick or slow.” Starsky adjusted the vest to his satisfaction. “Okay, partner, how do you want to play this?” He leaned against his car to give his leg some relief.

Hutch waved over the two sets of uniformed partners who would back them up in serving the warrants. The six gathered in a rough circle on the street side of the parked Torino. Moore, Dobey, and Ryan joined them, but stayed on the perimeter of the makeshift huddle. Dobey was pleased to see the detectives revved up with blue fire for eyes. He knew this would make for few mistakes when it came down to business. Ryan was struck with their intensity and resolve. He could feel the adrenalin in all six officers, and he even pumped some of his own. Moore watched and listened, fascinated with this aspect of law enforcement that he rarely got to experience.

The tall blond detective cleared his throat. “Okay, here’s how it will go down. Starsky and I will go in first, then Fergie and Aguilar, then Burke and Miller. Weapons drawn, but on safety.” He proceeded to describe the layout of the hovel, warning them specifically of the danger of tripping on the mattresses. “Starsky will take the left wall along all those crates and boxes. I’ll go a sharp right along the back wall. Aguilar, you follow Starsky, but stay to his right, and Fergie, you follow me but hang to my left. Burke, Miller, uh, you pretty much go up the center. Starsk, you wanna add anything?”

“Simon Marcus is one sick perp, and I don’t think he’d have any problems in killing us or having some of his airheads do it. And they like to use knives. Don’t get too close to any one of ‘em until you’re sure they’re disarmed. You cannot be alert enough in this situation.”

“Any questions?” Four heads indicated the negative. “Good. Starsky will serve the warrants. When we leave with Marcus and anyone who happens to obstruct us, the crime lab team comes in. Marcus will ride to Metro in a black-and-white. It’s a bit more secure than the Torino. Any volunteers?” Ferguson and Aguilar, who had had their fill of Marcus’s murderous ways when they discovered the bodies in the dumpsters, declined immediately. “Guess that leaves Burke and Miller. Starsk and I will be the lead car, and Fergie will bring up the rear.” He paused for several heartbeats. “Everybody ready?” Four heads indicated the affirmative.

“Okay, let’s get this scum off the streets,” Starsky said with icy-hot conviction.

A minute later, the six officers marched into the storefront. All had their handguns drawn, but Hutchinson and Starsky had flicked their safeties off.

As soon as they crossed the threshold, the detectives felt a different atmosphere to the lair. It had a stygian taste and was even more stifling, arctic, depraved, and hopelessly corrupt than before. Starsky felt the walls close in on him, and he began to hyperventilate. Hutchinson found himself holding his breath, afraid of inhaling the almost palpable evil. They snatched quick looks at each other, and that was enough to return them to a more stable level of functioning.

Starsky rounded the corner into the main room just ahead of his partner. Instantly, he had the lay of the land – there were three hooded and robed figures swaying and standing in no particular pattern on the mattresses, facing them and not the platform, and chanting “Simón” just above perception. Marcus sat on his tattered “throne,” alone on the altar.

Just as Hutchinson came around the corner, Starsky sensed unexpected movement at the back wall. He turned his head and brought his weapon along with it. There was a black-robed figure with an ax poised overhead. The ax was descending, perfectly timed to cleave Hutchinson’s head in half. Starsky shouted, “Hutch!” in a way that told his partner to stop, and squeezed off two shots in rapid succession. The robed body flew backward, but the ax continued on its course. The blade skidded down the front of Hutch’s vest before embedding itself in the floor between his feet and cutting off the tip of one of his boots.

Starsky’s eyes lingered on his partner for a millisecond. Surprised to see Hutch raise his weapon and the Colt buck and smoke, he was even more surprised to feel a hefty thud to his right chest. His eyes widened, and he grunted and went down. He hit his head hard enough to see stars.

Hutchinson watched helplessly as his partner fell. Dammit! Too late! he cried to himself. Just as he bent over to make sure he was clear of the ax, he heard a cry of pain coming from Starsky’s direction. Before he could move again, his ears roared from a gun being fired over his head. Now deafened, he didn’t hear the mattress-softened thump or Burke’s shout of “Freeze! Police!” He felt Burke breeze past him.

Still bent at nearly a 90-degree angle, Hutch stumbled the few feet to Starsky. His stomach knotted in twelve different ways when he saw the hatchet sticking in Starsky’s chest. He tried to position himself between his partner and further threats. He looked into the dazed, dark blue eyes that cleared a few blinks later. They told him their owner was all right. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Aguilar on his knees, clutching his right arm around the buried shaft of a throwing knife with a magnificently ornate handle. Then he observed Starsky’s mouth open and felt a sharp jab in his side that pitched him aside.

Starsky had been able to see the last robed figure before Marcus drive a chef’s knife into the top of Burke’s left shoulder near his neck despite Hutch’s hovering. He yelled a brusque “NO!” Now that his knee had punched Hutch away, he aimed the gun still in his right hand at the hand that had withdrawn the blade. In horror, he watched the assailant readying to plunge it again into the sagging but not-yet-fallen officer. As he pulled the trigger, he prayed his aim would be true.

It was. Burke’s attacker issued a bloodcurdling shriek as the bullet ripped through his wrist and the knife tumbled away, now harmless. Burke finally dropped to his knees and Miller fired his gun, drowning out the cult member’s scream. The cultist crashed to the floor, life seeping out of his chest. Miller, shaking hard, stumbled forward to his partner.

Dobey, Ryan, Simmons, and Babcock ran for the storefront entrance immediately upon hearing the first two shots. By the time Dobey – his heart clogging his throat more and more as he heard one shot after another - arrived mere seconds later, he took in an incredible sight. With raised gun, Ferguson was cautiously approaching a man whom Dobey assumed was Simon Marcus. Aguilar was sitting near Starsky’s head, cursing fluently in Spanish, and holding his arm. Miller was frantically applying pressure to a heavily bleeding wound at Burke’s neck and telling him to hang on. There were four motionless bodies in black. But most incredible of all, Hutchinson was laughing with a hint of hysteria and seesawing something that looked like a tomahawk out of Starsky’s chest. And Starsky’s legs were a flail of frenzied movement as he pleaded, “Hutch, get it outta me – now, Hutch, now!”

Dobey turned to Babcock and ordered him to call in several ambulances, two coroner’s wagons, and several more units. When he turned back, Starsky and Hutchinson were on their feet. Ryan had come around the big captain in time to hear Hutchinson giggle loudly, “We have a warrant to serve, partner.”

“Whattsa matter wit’ you, Hutch? You’re talkin’ too loud. Oh shit my ribs hurt! Am I bleedin’? Oh hell, let’s go put that dim bulb with a loose screw under arrest, huh?”

Hutchinson grinned when he realized he could hear Starsky, although he sounded far away and under water. “What are we waitin’ for, partner?”

The detectives weaved their way through the black and red nightmare at their feet toward a statue-like Marcus. They paused once they reached Miller and Burke. Hutchinson gave Miller a quick pat of reassurance while Starsky offered some encouraging words.

Ferguson had stopped about a foot back from the edge of the platform and had his pistol trained on Marcus’s chest. He trembled slightly, now that he was face to face with the man at the root of so much suffering and agony and death. He desperately wanted to take him out, and save the taxpayers a lot of money and the remaining Fox family more misery. Then he felt one calm, conquering presence behind him. Starsky-and-Hutch, he thought, and his desire for quick vengeance melted away. He felt the single and singular presence move to his right.

Starsky stared cobalt daggers at the cult leader, who had done nothing but breathe since the officers had entered his “church.” “Simon Marcus, also known as Marcus Simons,” the dark-haired detective began, “you are under arrest for the murders of …” He paused, voice faltering. With not a little effort, he managed to keep his gun aimed at Marcus. Then he continued, resolute and strong, reciting the victims’ full names by memory. Next, he detailed Marcus’s rights as a suspect. When he asked the guru if he understood his rights, the latter, with a feral twist to his lips, simply gazed tranquilly and obsessively at the dark warrior before him.

Hutchinson, finding energy he didn’t know he had, sprang onto the platform but kept a safe distance from the cult leader. “Stand up,” he said quietly.

The dark, arrogant eyes shifted to Hutchinson. “As you wish.”

Hutchinson’s headache grew logarithmically when he perceived the antipathy and jealousy directed at him. “Off with the robe, Simon, and take it slow. No sudden moves.”

Marcus bowed his head and looked at Hutchinson from hooded eyes. “I get the feeling you don’t trust me. That’s not like the White Knight at all. Very well.” His quiet, singsong inflection, haughty tone, and referral to Hutch by that “title” sparked an angry shiver in Starsky. Hutchinson’s ringing ears saved him from hearing most of what Marcus had said.

With theatrical aplomb, Simon Marcus loosened the belt that held his dark robe closed, eased the garment off his shoulders, and let it drop around his ankles. He was stark naked. The low ambient light seemed to dance along the inverted cross-scar on his chest. Slowly, he lifted his arms up until they were parallel to the floor. The message was not lost on anyone who was watching.

Starsky took a surreptitious deep breath to calm his incensed nerves. “Fergie, get that dress and check it real good for anything that could be used as a weapon, okay? I’ll keep him covered.”

Once Ferguson had possession of the robe, Hutchinson ordered Marcus to turn around. He didn’t see anything at all attached to the suspect. “Fergie, done with that thing yet?” he asked, never taking his eyes off the man.

“Almost, Hutchinson.” A few seconds passed before Ferguson pushed the robe back to Marcus.

“Pick it up and put it on, Simon.”

Marcus managed a smile that was simultaneously wicked and angelic. In seconds he was clothed again. Hutchinson signaled for Starsky to join them on the dais.

Starsky half-turned his head to the back. “Hey, Cap! You still coverin’ Simon here?”

“Yeah, Starsky.”

“Okay then.” He re-holstered his S & W with some trouble since he had to fight the lower edge of the vest. “Fergie, help me out, wouldja?” The uniformed cop helped Starsky to the stage.

Several limping steps brought Starsky head-to-head with Simon Marcus. The detective removed the warrants from his hip pocket and smashed the documents into Marcus’s chest. “Read ‘em and weep, you worthless fucker. You’re mine now.” Plain and simple. He let go, and the papers fluttered to the boards.

Hutchinson snorted. He grabbed Marcus by one wrist and snapped on one cuff. He twirled the cultist around until he had the other wrist, and finished the job. Marcus was now sandwiched between the detectives. Hutchinson leaned into Simon’s ear and pronounced, “What my partner said? Goes double for me. This is one time I wish the state still had the death penalty.” He looked at Starsky, whose face was a smorgasbord of emotions. “We did our job, partner. It’s over, all downhill from here.”

“Yeah.” Hutchinson’s impaired hearing didn’t permit him to hear the nuance of doubt in the word.

Out of the blue, Simon Marcus spoke. “I dream white and dark face that which is dreaded and welcomed at the same time. I dream the dusk walks with it at his side and inside. I dream the dawn rides to keep it at bay. I dream it will win.”

Starsky rolled his eyes. “Shuddup, Simon.”

“I suggest you exercise your constitutional right to remain silent, Simon.”

Dobey had worked his way to the front of the room and was ready to receive Simon Marcus with Ferguson’s help when the detectives pushed him off the stage. Starsky and Hutchinson noticed for the first time the large crimson upended cross on the back of the robe. For a brief moment, they paused before stepping down themselves. “What do you suppose he means by that riddle, Starsk?”

The darker detective shrugged his right shoulder. “I don’t have a clue. And I don’t care.”

Hutchinson’s translation of the subtleties of his friend’s body language provoked a thick shudder in him. He jumped down and provided the support Starsky needed to do the same. Dobey and Ferguson yielded their hold on the mass murderer to the arresting detectives, who then escorted their charge out of a little piece of hell on earth.

~s&h~

The detectives and their prisoner walked into a three-ring circus. Several print journalists and two other broadcast reporters and their attendant camera people had joined Hickman. All the excitement had drawn a considerable crowd of onlookers as well. Dobey and Ryan jogged ahead of the trio to keep the path to the Torino open.

Hutchinson thrust Marcus into the back seat, not caring that the man bumped his head and tripped on his robe and wound up reclining on his side. Hutch turned to Starsky and held out his hand, palm up.

Without argument, the dark-haired detective relinquished the car keys. Everything hurt, but his right leg and chest, left shoulder, and head were agony incarnate. He fell into the passenger seat.

Hutchinson helped him get situated more appropriately, though actual comfort was an impossibility. He nodded at his captain and Ryan before he jogged around to the driver’s side. As he cranked the robust engine, he thought, For the first time, it’s not loud and obnoxious. He saw Starsky rotate just enough to look at Marcus. He couldn’t hear the threat.

“I hear just one word, Simon, even a peep, I swear I’ll blow your head off right here and now,” he fervently promised in a taut whisper. “Naw, that’s wrong. First I’ll blow your balls away, and then your head, after you’ve suffered a while.” He wanted to vomit when he saw what appeared to be adoration in Marcus’s shit-brown eyes. He eased himself back to facing forward.

It took several minutes for the road to clear of vehicles and people. Hutchinson pulled in behind Wheeler and Staats, the uniformed officers who had been on surveillance last night but had been instructed to stay until after the arrest. He studied the throng of people, looking for threats as they drove away. Starsky was content to watch the red, white, and blue stars that hung from the rearview mirror dance to the Torino’s rhythm.

~s&h~

The media were waiting for them at Metro. Hutchinson cursed. “Which way do you want to go in, Starsk?”

He stared straight ahead. Clearing his throat, he finally responded, “The front?”

Hutch was about to agree, but he thought of the steps they – Starsky – would have to climb. “The back I think, buddy, might be better this time.”

“’Kay, then. The back it is.” I just wanna get this skanky psycho-monster outta my car.

Hutchinson gestured to Staats to head for the rear of the building. The crush of reporters slowed them down enough that it took nearly three minutes to travel the short distance to the parking garage. Hutch was able to park a few feet from the door. Getting Starsky out of the Torino proved to be difficult; near collapse, he wasn’t much help at all. It took both Wheeler and Staats to get him to the locker room.

The big blond showed no tenderness when he wrestled Simon Marcus out of the car and into the station. He dragged the cult leader to intake and booking. Minnie Kaplan, dwarfed by the two men, had a cat-eating-canary grin plastered all over her face. Hutch aggressively jerked Marcus’s hands toward him to unlock the manacles. “He’s all yours, Minnie. You know the charges. All the others we’ll add later.” Ignoring the hunched, compliant perpetrator, he nodded to the three male officers who were with Minnie and headed for the shift sergeant’s desk to report in and to get a few Tylenol for him and his partner.

~s&h~

After a quick stop in the cafeteria to snag a bottle of Coke, Hutchinson was in the locker room. The uniforms had Starsky laid out on one of the benches. The brunet detective was restless and breathed erratically. Hutchinson recognized the signs of pain in his partner. He thanked the two men and told them to go home. Then he turned his attention to Starsky.

Too exhausted and in too much pain to cooperate, Starsky presented a challenge. But Hutch’s persistence paid off, and he got him to take three Tylenol and about half of the soda. He took the remaining two tablets and finished the Coke in two lengthy swallows. He sat on the floor between a row of lockers and the bench. Propping his torso against the lockers nearest Starsky’s head, Hutch stretched his long legs out.

He began to process all that had happened in the past couple of hours. Taking Marcus into custody hadn’t given him the expected sense of closure or satisfaction. His psychic pain and loss hadn’t retreated one iota. He was just as empty – dead – as he had been for days. No change at all. He didn’t even mind the seriously diminished hearing, and hoped that it would be permanent. At least then he would have a legitimate reason for not hearing the external music. Maybe this’ll make it easier to handle missing the internal music. But he knew he was deluding himself.

And something was gnawing relentlessly at his best friend. Starsky could be downright mute, and Hutch feared this was one of those times. Starsky had shut him out early on. He intuited that he still felt guilty about the twins’ death, and that Marcus’s obsession with him had unhinged him to the point of … He dared not finish the thought. He prayed that his dearest friend would find the strength he needed to resolve whatever it was, especially since he knew he was worthless to help him now.

He noted that the voices in the blood had left completely now. Their constant soul-battering shriek-and-hum was gone. He was sequestered now, in his own desert world of virtual deafness. He was thinking of Beethoven when he drifted off to sleep.

~s&h~

A speck of light ahead of him moving randomly. Dooch’s labored breathing seeping into the walls of the inky, dusty tunnel. Artillery above ground unloading unwarranted rounds too near them. Damn fool cherry LT! Roof becoming floor, interring Dooch. Only his motionless legs showing. Himself buried from mid-chest down. Whole world now just a very small, smoky room. Can’t breathecan’t breathe

He woke abruptly to find himself clawing at his chest while he tried to suck air past the suffocation girdling him. A scant second later, he was out of the Viet Cong tunnel and back in the stationhouse’s locker room. The cave-in was his bulletproof vest. He was relieved to see that Hutch was there, and not Tony Balducci’s legs. Through his rapid breathing and thick panic, the dark-haired detective called out at the top of his lungs, “Hutch, help me! Wake up! HURRY UP, dammit!”

The sky-blue eyes opened before he turned his head to the distant sound of his name. He saw Starsky struggling to sit up, hyperventilating, wild-eyed, and pulling at his vest. “What?!” he asked as he moved to unhook the vest’s Velcro tabs.

“Get this thing offa me! It’s smotherin’ me to death!”

Because of Starsky’s frenetic activity, it took more than a minute to get the vest off. Starsky swung his legs off the bench and sat upright. Unconsciously, he slowed his respirations to synch with the small circles Hutchinson rubbed on his back. He bent forward until his head was inches from his knees and laced fingers. Christ, Dooch, it’s been years since I dreamed about that, he thought. Don’t mean nothin’, right, buddy? He sat up when he heard Dobey’s stomp nearing the locker room door. He noticed that Hutch hadn’t budged from his position of sitting in the opposite direction, head bowed, hands on legs. “Hutch?” he whispered very softly. The hairs on his arms stood up when he realized his friend either didn’t or couldn’t hear him. Before he could pursue this, Dobey stood at the end of the bench. Starsky watched Hutch as the latter turned his head to look at their superior officer. Hmmm, took you too much time to know he was here.

“Starsky, Hutchinson, I came down here to get you for the statement Chief Ryan is about to make. Just got word, by the way, that Marcus’s prints were found at the scene. Anyway, seein’ as you two look like survivors of that plane crash with the Uruguay rugby team, I’ll send your regrets. Edith saw to it that your apartments were cleaned up, so go home. No, on second thought, I’ll have someone drive you. And Ryan has taken you off the roster until Monday. You’ve already worked well past forty this week.”

“Cap, how’s Aguilar and Burke?” asked Starsky.

Dobey snorted like a bull ready to charge the red cape. “Aguilar will be fine, if he doesn’t develop a bone infection. Burke … well, it’s pretty touch and go. He’s still in surgery. I’ve got his squad sergeant at the hospital. Ferguson filled me in on what happened in there. Said they were fast with those, uh, instruments. They were waitin’ for you. It could’ve been much worse for our side in there.”

“He knew we’d be coming for him today, Captain,” explained Hutchinson. “But there was no way he could’ve known exactly when. Either they had a lookout, or …“ Hutch shrugged instead of finishing the sentence.

“We’ve got one of those freaks undercover. Someone in the department. Or the courthouse,” Dobey completed. “I hope to heaven and hell it was a lookout.”

Very quietly, just loud enough for the words to reach Dobey’s ears, Starsky said, “I let him know we were on the way.” He ignored Dobey’s reaction of a screamed “What?!” so he could concentrate on Hutch’s reaction – or lack of reaction until Dobey’s yell. “Hutch, you can’t hear, can you?” he asked bluntly. Dobey’s eyes stretched to their maximum opening.

Busted. Well, I knew I couldn’t keep it a secret for long. “I can hear, some.” He bowed his head again, intent on studying the toeless boot he now had.

“Dammit! To the hospital, both of you! Now! That’s an order. I want you checked from head to toe, do you understand me?” Dobey ran a hand over his hair once before poking a finger at his two detectives. “No excuses! Hutch, get out of that damn vest. And Starsky, are you hiding anything from me? Like an injury from that, that, tomahawk?” He picked up the smaller detective’s vest from the floor and put his finger through the rent left by the expertly and hard thrown weapon.

“Uh, no, Cap, I don’t think so,” he replied even as he felt the newest bruise pound him cruelly.

“Pirelli and Beauchamps are finishing up with an arrest. They’ll take you, and if you give them any guff, they have my permission to subdue you any way they can! Do I make myself clear?”

“As a bell, Cap,” said Hutch, again thankful the volume was turned down for him.

~s&h~

While they had been dozing in the locker room, a cloud burst had brought with it cleaner, cooler, less humid air. Neither had seemed to notice or to care, despite Beauchamps’ raving about how beautiful the day was.

Starsky had reluctantly entrusted his prize possession to Pirelli for driving, all the while trying to convince himself it would probably be okay since an Italian with that name probably knew how to drive such a special automobile. But he couldn’t bare riding to County General with him - he could scarcely tolerate it when Hutch drove his baby.

Starsky and Hutchinson ended up being treated by the same doctors and nurses they had the day before. Although the x-ray showed a minor crack in the rib where the hatchet struck his vest, the skin and the shirt were still intact. His jacket wasn’t so lucky. The bruise from that injury had flowed into the one he had received from the kidnapper’s kick. For his trouble, the rib was taped –“No, please, don’t put that stuff over my hair, okay?” - and he got fresh dressings on his arm and leg wounds, a new sling, and a prescription for codeine.

Hutchinson’s physician had called in a hearing specialist. After examining him and thoroughly testing his hearing, Dr. Needham, a sepia-toned man with a jovial glint in his eyes, reassured the detective that the sound of the weapon firing so close to his ears had not ruptured his eardrums. “But, I cannot say with certitude how much of your hearing will come back, if at all. How you hear now may be it.” Needham wasn’t sure what to think when the handsome young man shook his hand and thanked him almost … gleefully.

Pirelli brought good news as the four prepared to leave the ER. “Burke’s outta surgery, and it looks like he’ll make it.” He didn’t tell them that the veteran officer might lose the use of and feeling in his left arm.

~s&h~

It was almost 4 p.m. by the time Beau dropped Hutchinson off at his cottage. Hutch said nothing, not even to Starsky who had ridden the entire way with his head on Hutch’s shoulder. When he got out of the white Buick Electra, he did help Starsky scoot to the far passenger seat, pat his leg lightly, and watch the bushy head of near-black hair clunk against the window glass after he closed the door.

Hutch scuffled his way into the cottage. It was immaculate and smelled faintly of bleach. He found a note taped to his telephone, informing him of fresh chicken salad, a variety of juices, and goat’s milk in the refrigerator. Edith. If you weren’t already married, beautiful lady … The knowledge that her fabulous salad was in the fridge gave him an appetite. He stumbled to his kitchen, found a fork, opened the door of the old appliance, and shoveled in several mouthfuls of the luscious food. He washed it down with a generous swallow of milk.

On his way back to the living room, he shed his shirt, boots, jeans, and socks. Hesitating, but finally taking off his shoulder holster, he sat on the couch. He took the Python from its leather home and stared at it, knowing he should clean it since he had fired it. But he yielded to Hypnos and was asleep before he could lie down. The heavy gun wound up on his lap, his hand still curled tightly around the worn grip.

~s&h~

Starsky knew he needed help to get out of the Electra, but that didn’t keep him from hating it. That was all he would accept from Pirelli. He took the stairs to his apartment one by one, pulling on the handrail to assist with the interminable climb. When he reached the top, he heard the Buick’s massive engine accelerate away.

The apartment was in perfect condition, though there was an unusual odor of bleach and yeast. Even the blinking lights were working correctly again. He found a note on the countertop informing him of a homemade ground beef, sausage, and extra cheese pizza and a six-pack of root beer in the refrigerator. Edith, you’re the best.

He dragged his leg behind him to the fridge. He devoured two slices of the pre-cut pie and took a root beer in one swallow. Then he set about cleaning and oiling his Smith & Wesson. No matter how tired he was, he couldn’t rest until he had performed this vital task. Memories of a cop father, boot camp and advanced infantry training indoctrination, and eighteen months of survival in the jungles of Southeast Asia schemed to keep him awake until he was through.

Once the gun was clean, he hobbled slowly to his bed and fell face down on it. The holster at his waist proved a minor inconvenience, as did his left arm that stayed tucked under his torso. He kept the gun in hand, as he did when his squad was out overnight. God, am I paranoid or what. Marcus is locked up and his henchmen wouldn’t think about comin’ after me and Hutch. Wouldn’t dare.

Somehow, he couldn’t quite convince himself of that. He thought about Simon’s last words. He knew what the monster meant – death. Beside him: he had seen so many people die, their faces and smells telling him they were frightened more than they ever had been before, though they gladly received the relief from inconceivably harsh suffering. Inside him: he had killed so many people in his adult life, as a soldier and a cop, but it was something he had to do, to protect and serve, his duty.

Keeping death at bay: Hutch. Saving him countless times - from getting injured, from not letting him die from bullets or poisons, from himself and his rocket-ship temper and hotrod mouth. Hutch. His savior, not Marcus as he had nightmared earlier. Yeah, we’ll die some day, Marcus, but not at your hands, he vowed.

He didn’t have the will to fight sleep any longer, even though he knew the terrors would come. He prayed to the god of dreams to leave him barren for a few hours. As he closed his dark eyes, he now saw only three faces. He screamed into his pillow until Tran, Darla, and Denis had scurried into that burnt charcoal gloom in his heart.

~s&h~

Thursday and Friday proved to be very busy and fruitful days, with Harold Dobey orchestrating the entire business. Jonathon Moore and he thought it best that the trial get put on the fast track, so now everyone who had been working on the investigation, with the exception of Starsky and Hutchinson, was tending to the details.

The first thing Dobey did was to issue a department-wide memo promising termination and prosecution if anyone leaked even the tiniest piece of data to the press. Change of venue for the trial would not be a possibility if he could help it. Commissioner Hayes would be the only official contact with the media.

The second thing the captain did was to decide to put some things found during the search of the storefront in a separate, though well-labeled, evidence box. Babcock and Simmons had found black-and-white file photos of the lead detectives in what they presumed was Marcus’s private office. The image of Starsky had been tacked to a wall. Beneath it, on a little table, was a shrine of black votive candles and an incense burner. The photo of Hutchinson had been trimmed down to follow the outline of his head. It was inside an open miniature coffin on the same table. Into the evidence box would eventually go the photos of the tableau. Dobey issued orders that this box would not be signed out to anyone unless the requestors had his written permission.

The third thing he did was to put Babcock and Simmons on tracking down whoever copied those file pictures of his detectives.

Other peripheral cases were closed. The bald-bodied man found in the dumpster next to the one where the twins were discovered turned out to be the tourist’s killer. The cleaver fit the wound in the tourist, as Starsky and Hutchinson suspected it would, and the dead perp’s prints were all over the weapon. By Friday afternoon, it was confirmed that the bald man was killed with a sword found at the storefront. The sword had the prints of the man who had thrown the knife at Aguilar on it.

Also by that time, fingerprint analysis had determined that the four dead at the storefront – three men and one woman – and Starsky’s attacker were involved in the mass murder. The fifty-one followers on the premises during the arrest and search who had been detained were released; there was now nothing to hold them on. It appeared that Marcus would likely stand trial alone. With Marcus still elusive about his involvement in the attempted kidnapping and attempted murder of Detective Starsky, that case was closed. The investigation into the attempt on Detective Hutchinson’s life would remain open, though everyone knew it would never be solved.

After interviewing Ferguson, Aguilar, and Miller, Lieutenant Fargo found the shooting deaths of the four cultists in the storefront to be justified. Seeing Hutchinson’s vest with its partially sheared off silk cover and hearing about the amputation of his boot tip cleared Starsky. Likewise, Starsky’s vest cleared Hutchinson. His partner’s wounding provided justification for Ferguson’s action. Burke had made a near-fatal error by getting too close to the man who stabbed him. Though that assailant had been effectively rendered harmless by Starsky’s bullet, Miller’s delayed shot was not considered too late, especially since Ferguson maintained that neither he nor Miller had a clean shot until Burke fell. He also admitted that neither could match Starsky’s marksmanship so they weren’t about to try anything beyond their capabilities and be responsible for further harm to Burke.

~s&h~

Dobey was preparing to go home early Friday evening when he called Hutchinson’s place, then Starsky’s. Either they weren’t home, or they weren’t picking up. He decided he would drop by for a visit.

The captain knew Hutchinson’s beat-up LTD wouldn’t be in the driveway by the cottage, but he half-expected the Torino to be there. He began to get an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach when he saw the flashy car wasn’t there. He strode to the front door and knocked hard three times. He heard something glassy break. He waited for several very long moments before he called out loudly, “Hutch! This is Dobey. I know you’re in there. Open up.” He held his breath while he waited for a response.

It came a minute later. “Cap, I have off ‘til Monday.”

Dobey could tell Hutchinson was just on the other side of the door. He could even hear the slur and melancholic flatness in his speech. He inhaled deeply through his nose and was startled and saddened at the beer odor saturating the air. He wondered why he hadn’t noticed it before. Damn. Should’ve seen this comin’. “Hutchinson, let me in.”

“No. Uh, sir. I’m … off. See you Monday.”

The captain heard a faint shuffle start at the door and move away slowly. I can’t make him let me in. I don’t blame him for tying one on. But this doesn’t mean I won’t keep trying. “Okay, Hutch. You wanna go to services with me and the family on Sunday?” He wanted a few minutes before he gave up and left for Starsky’s apartment.

~s&h~

It wasn’t much different there. Dobey found Starsky’s car with the right front wheel on the sidewalk and a ticket on the windshield. When Starsky finally replied to the knocking and the shouting, he said almost the exact same words Hutchinson had used. Though his speech was slurred, too, it had an angry, self-pitying surliness to it. Dobey could hear Beethoven’s Fifth coming from the apartment. There was a faint odor of alcohol of some sort. When Dobey asked the detective if he wished to join them at church, Starsky said bitingly, “Jews don’t go to church.” Dobey shook his head at that remark. This from the man who tries to tour all the Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches at Easter and Christmas and even attends midnight mass. Guess I get to bug you all weekend, too.

~s&h~

Huggy Bear had tried to contact his cop friends off and on all Friday evening and late into the night. After the Saturday lunch rush at The Pits, several more tries proved unsuccessful. He had his cook make and pack his friends’ favorite sandwiches while he made two thermoses of Virgin Starskys.

It was mid-afternoon when Huggy pulled into Hutch’s driveway just in time to see the big blond man carrying a large paper bag of groceries and trudging toward the front door. “Hey, Hutch, my man! I brought you a little somethin’ since you haven’t met your minimum weekly requirement of Huggy Bear brand vitamin food,” the black man said as he caught up to him. As he got closer, his nose revolted at the beery, dirty, subtly sweet stench that emanated from this usually hygienic man. He peeked into the bag – four six-packs of cheap beer, and in cans at that.

Then he looked at Hutch more closely: blond hair plastered to his head and darker blond from dirt; bloodshot, masked eyes; several days’ length stubble; unnatural pallor; filthy, stained clothes that looked like they had been slept in for weeks. Shit, the man looks almost as bad as he did when Forrest got through with him. “Come on, my man. Brought you a turkey and Swiss on whole-wheat toast with all the trimmin’s. And I’ll help you get cleaned up. You must still be pretty tired from all that action earlier this week.”

Hutchinson didn’t want Huggy or anyone else with him. But he was too tired to argue or protest. And the sandwich did sound tempting. He unlocked and pushed open the door, and let the restaurateur in.

Huggy walked into a house littered with innumerable beer bottles and cans. “House Beautiful this ain’t.” Disgusted and concerned, he waded through the refuse and made a space on the coffee table for the thermos. He shoved the bagged sandwich and banana chips into Hutch’s right hand and relieved him of the beer. “Look, I know even Vikings like yourself get tired and need to get blasted, but you’ve taken this a bit too far. Eat, my fair-haired prince of police. Then shower. A looooong one, you get my drift?”

“Then you’ll leave.” It was an order.

Huggy Bear sighed. “Yeah. I’ll leave. But I’ll be back on the morrow.”

Hutch nodded curtly and ate half of the sandwich. When he reached for the bag Huggy still held, the thin man pulled it away and pointed to the thermos. Hutch flashed his friend an ugly look. He quickly ate the second half. He took a long gulp of the iced tea/lemonade mix. “Happy now?”

“Halfway there, my bro. Now, the shower?”

Hutchinson presented Huggy with a dour glance this time. He started undressing as he made his way to the bathroom. Now bare to the waist except for drooping bandages on his right arm, he stopped at the threshold. He turned his head to look back at the almond eyes following him. “Simon called me the ‘White Knight’,” he said softly, but Huggy was able to hear the quiver in his voice.

“Aw, man, screw that dude. Why you listenin’ to anything he says? He’s crazier than a hermit who runs personal ads for companionship. Why, the freak’s a cinch to win the Charlie Manson Impersonator of the Year Award. His tree’s missin’ a few dozen apples, you understand what I’m sayin’?” Huggy gestured for Hutch to continue on. “If you don’t clean up soon, I’ll hose you down myself.”

Hutch realized that he had heard Huggy fairly clearly despite the distance between them. A breath, full of disappointment, caught in his throat. I just can’t take this. I just can’t. He shaved, only nicking himself in a few places. As he showered, he thought how worthless being drunk was; it wasn’t doing the job he needed it to do. He pondered possibilities in the hopes of finding something that could do the job to ease the agony of his unfinished death.

Hutch left the bathroom, wearing only a white towel around his waist. Immediately he noticed that Huggy had trashed almost every bottle and can.

When the black man saw Hutch staring at him, he said guiltily, “You was runnin’ out of room to th’ow stuff.”

“Yeah. Okay, I’ve eaten and showered. Leave.”

“There you go again, Hutch, being inhospitable. Not a way to treat your amigo, now is it?” He cleared his throat, unsure of what sort of reaction his next words would bring. “Is that why Starsky ain’t here?”

The mask didn’t change. “You talk to him?”

“No. He won’t answer his phone either. Like you. You talk to or seen him?” He walked over to stand in front of Hutch.

“No.”

Huggy waited for more, but nothing more was forthcoming. “You know those wounds are infected? Look pretty nasty to me. Should’ve put you on antibiotics. Let me take you to the ER.”

Hutch pushed Huggy aside and practically sprinted for the kitchen. He retrieved a bottle from one of the cabinets, shook out a small handful of capsules, and chased them down his gullet with a gulp of water. “There. I took some antibiotic. Leave, Huggy.”

“Let me bandage you up, okay? Then I’ll leave, I promise.” When Hutch’s expression didn’t change, Huggy took it as consent. Moments later, he was smearing antibiotic ointment on the three wounds and wrapping them in fresh gauze. As he dressed the last one, he asked tentatively, “Shouldn’t your partner be doin’ this for you?”

“Yeah, well.” He’s wrung out, exhausted. How can I ask him, or expect him, to take care of me? And I’m just too tired to call him to even talk. “He’s gone through quite a bit, and needs … time.”

“I’m goin’ over to see him. If he’s home, you got a message? Maybe come wit’ me?”

He thought for a while before he answered, “No, I guess not.”

Huggy left Hutch standing in the kitchen. The bar owner was now genuinely frightened, and he didn’t know what to do. He had never seen such pain in Hutch as when he spoke those last four words.

~s&h~

Huggy could hear the final bars of Stevie Wonder’s Living for the City from Starsky’s stereo. He knocked in the pause between cuts, but was dismayed that the same song started over from the beginning. Oh man, Starsky’s in his rewind mode. Wonder how many times in a row he’s played this one. When there was no response to his knock, he yelled, “Hey, Starsky, it’s the Bear. Let me in. Got a cold burger and a hot lemonade with your nombre on it.”

“Go ‘way. Ain’t hungry and sure not thirsty.”

“Okay, so you don’t want any of my cuisine or libations. How about one of the last bags of the M&Ms on the planet that have the red ones? From my private, personal stash. I know those’re your favorites.”

A breath of a pause. “Go away.”

“So, I guess I can’t bribe you with endangered candy. Care to partake of news of your partner?”

A few seconds later, Starsky opened the door, gun drawn and at his side. He looked and smelled no better than his blond half. Except he wore his emotions on his sleeve and his preferred path to getting totally blitzed was distilled spirits. Huggy saw too many empty tequila and scotch bottles on the kitchen counter. Ain’t this a pisser. Haven’t seen him hit this crap this hard for … for ten years? “Hey, Starsk, what’s with the pistola? I’m friend, not foe.”

“Unh? Oh, sorry, Hug.” He waved his long-time friend in with the gun before he slid it back into its holster at his waist. “Tell me about Hutch.”

“I ain’t sayin’ nothin’ until you clean up.” Huggy shivered when he saw the tortured guilt and remorse, torment and lethargy in every pore.

The dark-haired detective shrugged and began to undress. “Talk, Hug.”

“Jesus Christ, Starsky, you ain’t gonna get naked in front of me, are you? You know I hate that.”

One side of his mouth went up minutely. “Just down to my shorts, okay? How’s Hutch?” He continued to take off the clothes he’d had on since Tuesday evening.

“Man, I ain’t ever seen Blondie like this. He’s just kinda … blank, but I could tell he’s in a world of hurt, you know, like you said they said in the ‘Nam.” And so are you, my friend. He bowed and shook his head. “He hardly said more than three words, his place was carpeted with beer bottles, and those stab wounds were infected.”

The song on the record player ended, and Huggy’s longer legs and sober status easily allowed him to beat Starsky to the turntable. He took the tone arm off the album and placed it on its holder. “You know how Hutch can be, with the blues and all, but this goes way beyond that.” Starsky was down to shorts, socks, some tape, and two ratty bandages and had his hands on his hips. “You hear what I’m sayin’?” Huggy couldn’t believe the extent of bruising on his friend’s body. He had only read the newspaper account of the incident, and knew there had been a fight and a tumble down the stairs. But to see this … no wonder Hutch didn’t want to bother Starsky. “Why don’t you hit the shower, my man. I’ll heat up the food and cool down the beverage.”

“Take this tape off? My shoulder won’t quite let me yet.”

“After the shower. It’ll loosen it up and I’ll be able to tolerate gettin’ that close to you.” Huggy noted that Starsky didn’t respond to his affectionate jibe.

Starsky whimpered in pain as he shaved. Why can’t I do this right-handed? He thanked the stars that he had a shower stall and not a tub edge to climb over. Limiting his activities to bending his elbow in order to get good and stewed when he wasn’t driving to the nearest liquor store had made him stiff.

While Starsky was cleaning up, Huggy disassembled the burger. The patty and the fries went on the same baking sheet and into the oven. He recalled that day almost ten years ago he got a phone call from Starsky. The boy was in Okinawa, on the next to the last leg back home from a lifetime in the ‘Nam. He called to ask Huggy to pick him up at the air force base airport near Bay City. He sounded so happy and excited. Huggy laughed so hard when he saw this crazy-wild white boy with a chest full of ribbons and staff sergeant stripes on his sleeves bounce down the stairs from the plane. But on his jaunty walk from the plane to where Huggy waited for him, Starsky was assaulted by protestors who had stormed the barriers and proceeded to spit on him and the other returning GIs and to scream “Baby killer!” at them repeatedly. By the time Starsky made it to Huggy, he looked as if he had been through a rainstorm. His eyes then looked like they did now. He had gone on a weeklong bender, drinking gallons of tequila and scotch. It looked like he was repeating that. Something specific had brought him down, something that elicited in him the same reaction as he had to the protestors. He had been silent then, and Huggy knew he’d be silent now.

Hearing the bathroom door open roused Huggy from his musing. “Almost ready. But don’t come in here without some clothes on.” He was pleased to note Starsky wore a fresh pair of pink boxers. “Let me guess. You washed your red shirts with your underwear.” He made for the tape on his friend’s right chest.

“Just this one pair.” He winced as the tape and more than few hairs came off. “Only one I could find quick enough so I wouldn’t shock you, ya prude.”

“You heathen. Now, sit. I’ll have your meal right to you.”

Before long, the detective had eaten part of the burger and all of the fries while sipping on a Virgin Starsky he had defiled with tequila. He thanked Huggy and asked him to leave because he wanted to sleep.

Reluctantly, Huggy Bear left as requested, but not before he identified another cut on the album. As he placed the needle in the proper place on the vinyl, he said, “Listen to this one a few hundred times, okay?” He sauntered out of the apartment while Higher Ground played.

Starsky wanted to call Hutch, but just didn’t have the energy. If he did call, he was afraid he’d be a drain on his partner who could ill afford that. If he did call, then he couldn’t drink, or drive to get more to drink. And a deep drunk was all that allowed him to exist and to sleep a couple of hours at a time before the nightmares came. He knocked back a fair amount of tequila quickly. He let the record play to the end, and he headed for the bed again. He sat on the edge. Sighing, he opened his nightstand drawer and took out his father’s service revolver for the umpteenth time that day. He lightly caressed the cold, blue steel until he passed out.

~s&h~

Saturday slithered into Sunday when Hutchinson, now at his most sober in days but still ass-kicking drunk, finally knew what he needed. Wanted.

It’s taken me long enough to figure this out. Befuddled from the booze and the song-forsaken soul. Where, and how much?

Pacing, brain synapses firing unpredictably. Minutes passed before … Mickey? Pipeline to Starsk. Can’t risk it.

A piece of the shroud, lifting even more minutes later … Slate. Tell him I’m working a case. He’ll gimme Cobb.

Checking the police department directory, print blurring into single blob. Finally, the name he needed coming into focus. Repeating the phone number ten, eleven times until committed to memory. Another name, opposite page, toward the bottom, clear, distinct, Starsky. Biting lower lip so he could dial.

Slate reaming him a new one for waking him up. Giving Cobb’s address. “You owe me one, Hutchinson!” Yeah, yeah, just try to collect … damn, have I decided?

Panicking when he can’t find his car. Eventually remembering what happened to it. Returning to phone, calling a cab company. Chugging a beer while he waited, thinking it will give him strength he needs.

The quicksand in his abyss had sucked him to the bottom.

~s&h~

Marcellus Cobb entered the lobby of the mangy Carolinas Hotel for Men just shy of 3 a.m. He was tired from a long day of washing dishes for a few days of Chinese food and a bit of cash to feed his habit. Now that he’d finally made a connection, he would call Cheryl and they’d get high together and fuck until one or the other nodded off. Life is good when it’s simple, the lean, handsome black man with a neatly trimmed short ‘fro thought as he climbed the stairs to his third-floor flat.

“What the -“ he said when he saw someone with yellow-gold hair sitting on the floor with long legs splayed out in front of him, right next to the door of his apartment. The head slowly rose until desperate, tornadic blue eyes met his. He had seen that look before, in rehabbed junkies who ached for the sweet euphoria. “Shit, man, I know you. You’re a cop, right?”

The blond cop, pale and smudged around the edges, tried to but couldn’t open his mouth. He shook with not-completely-formed sobs.

“Hey, man, spill it. I haven’t got all night. I can’t speak for you, but I have plans.” Marcellus watched as the cop tried to speak again, this time aided by pathetic, mime-ish gestures.

When Marcellus raised his shoulders as a physical question mark, the cop drew his lanky legs to his chest and trembled. Then he hugged his legs closer to his chest and rested his head on his knees.

The light bulb in Cobb’s head finally lit up. “You’re … Hutcheson, no, Hutchinson, right? You hang some with Huggy Bear, right? You partner with –“

“Starsky,” Hutchinson finished for him. Even though muffled, Cobb could hear that it was more of a plaintive call for the man than a mere statement.

Ain’t no way this cop’s a hype. Cobb’s hand scrambled around in the pocket of his olive drab army jacket until he nabbed a few coins. “Okay, cop, I can’t figure out what you want. I’ll call Huggy and maybe he’ll know, or least help me out. Stay there.” He headed straight for the pay phone at the other end of the hall. He knew Huggy’s number by heart, since on occasion he’d work an hour or two for the brother whenever he had a taste for one of those sumptuous burgers.

~s&h~

Huggy Bear rolled his eyes when the ringing started. “Carlotta, please, I gotta get the phone. It could be important.”

“Are you saying finishing what you started isn’t important?”

“Sweet, hungry Carlotta baby, we’re already in Round Three. Don’t be greedy.”

The reddish-skinned woman sighed her disappointment. “Okay. Answer the damn thing.”

Huggy smiled and answered the phone without breaking contact with her. “This better be good.” For the next few moments, he just listened to what Cobb had to say. “Thanks for callin’, brother. Don’t let him outta your sight, ya dig? And whatever you do, don’t give him anything but a glass of water, no matter what he says or does. I’ll be there – where?” Cobb told him. “There as soon as I can. I owe you. We’ll talk payment later. And thanks again.” He hung up the phone.

“You better not be leaving me to go to another woman, Huggy. I’ll send a war party after you.”

He laughed through his nose. “Not to worry, my personal Pocahontas. One of my paleface friends is in heap big trouble. Huggy Bear to the rescue.” Regretfully, he withdrew from her and sat on the side of the bed.

She sat up behind him and rubbed his back with her generous breasts as he dialed the phone. She giggled at the hesitant tremor in his hand. “If you were an Indian, your name would be Huggy Big Bear,” she cooed.

“Oh, Blondie, I wish you knew the sacrifice I’m makin’ here … Come on, Starsky, pick up.” When the detective didn’t after fifteen rings, Huggy broke the connection. In seconds he was dressed in bright red bikini briefs, a heavily studded denim jumpsuit, and his everyday platform shoes. “Gotta run.” He kissed his lover’s full lips and was gone.

~s&h~

Huggy banged on Starsky’s front door four times. “Hey, Starsk, I’m back like a bad nickel. Open up.” Nothing, even after waiting for several heartbeats. “Okay, I’m usin’ my key. Better cover up you and your lady. You know how I feel about seeing naked white folks up close and personal.” He let himself in, silently thanking Starsky for forgetting to use the door chain.

Starsky was silhouetted in the soft light coming from the lamp on the sofa table. He gave no indication that he was aware of Huggy’s presence. He just stood there, hands on hips, wearing only his pink boxers, and staring at the revolver lying on the table. His foot scraped the barbed floor of his pit.

Huggy felt his heart leave for Africa the hard way – through the center of the earth. With trepidation and caution, he slowly walked to his friend. “Starsky,” he whispered when he was within a few inches of the shorter man. He touched his shoulder. “What’s goin’ on?”

“Just thinkin’.”

Huggy thought he sounded normal enough. “’Bout what.”

“’Bout everything. My father. How much I miss him. All my buddies who died ‘cause of the war.” He paused. “Other things.”

Huggy had a hard time moving air past the huge boulder in his throat. “What other things?” Huggy felt the shoulder under his thin fingers shudder.

“Like, the glass is half-empty. Like, it wasn’t his fault – it was his mama’s, wudn’t it?”

“Starsk, I’m not followin’ here. Who? Whose mama?”

The detective sucked back to clear his suddenly full nose. “And it’s Marcus’s fault, right, that Darla and Denis died, and not mine, right?”

Huggy had only a clue as to what Starsky was talking about. But he had to come up with something to snap his friend out of this. “Hey, bro, you’re one of the good guys, remember? The only thing that’s your fault is your poor taste in threads. Now, get dressed. Hutch needs you, like now, and time’s a-wastin’.”

This caught his full attention. “Hutch?”

“Yeah. Got a call from Marcellus Cobb. Hutch is at his place, but hasn’t said a thing. I can think of only one reason why he’s there.”

“Gimme one minute.” Starsky was in blue jeans in seconds, but had to have Huggy’s help to get his left arm in a white-and-red stripped jersey. He slid his bare feet into an abused pair of Adidas running shoes. He was buckling on the waist holster on the way to the door.

“Don’t you need a jacket?” Huggy asked.

“Screw the jacket.”

“Okay, but you do know the Fourth of July was a week ago.”

“Screw you, Huggy,” he said half-angrily, half-playfully. He charged down the stairs and began the long crawl out of the pit.

~s&h~

The night clerk at the Carolinas grumbled and opened one red-veined brown eye to catch a glimpse at who had interrupted his sleep. A damn nee-gra pimp on his night off, and a gimpy guinea with a gun – must be his muscle. He settled back into his snooze and laughed at the New York accent that complained about the busted elevator.

Huggy kept pace with the slower Starsky as they took the stairs. He thought that maybe he should get there first and scope out things, but knew Starsky would not have that.

The darker detective’s knees, rubbery from the climb, the alcohol, the lack of decent food and rest, verged on collapse when he saw his best friend huddled in a tight, sitting fetal position in a squalid hallway lit with only a 40-watt bare bulb. Even over his own panting, he could hear the tenor whine from behind Hutch’s knees. “Aw, Hutch,” Starsky cracked out. In a flicker of time, he was on the floor next to him. “Whaddya doin’ here, huh? Couldn’t ya sleep, buddy?” He tried to make his words sound funny and teasing. He petted his partner’s corn silk hair a few times.

Hutchinson finally looked up but was too ashamed to look his friend straight in the eye. Through more stillborn sobs, he hiccuped out, “Didn’t know wwwhat else … to do… tenth v-v-vic … MMMarcus stole … killed me, ttttoo, you know? Hurts, SSSSStars … too quiet now … thought I-I-I could … ease pu-pu-pain … maybe … fu-fu-finish … what he st-st-st-started … pu-lay hhhhorse.”

At once everything Hutchinson was trying to tell him clicked in Starsky’s brain. He embraced his partner. He whispered, hoping Hutch could hear him, “I can hear it in your voice, and see it in your eyes. It’s not gone; it’s just hidin’ out.”

Hutch shook violently now. Starsky held on tighter and rocked him harder than he shook. You can hear good again! “It’s easy to die, babe,” he uttered through tight vocal cords. It seemed as if his own woundedness acted as a source of strength to help both him and Hutch. “And neither one of us has ever done anything easy, have we.” I can’t believe I thought about it for even a second.

Hutchinson’s shaking began to subside. He sniffed back and swallowed a number of times. Starsky quit rocking them and slowly loosened his hold. “No, we haven’t, partner,” said Hutch with a small degree of confidence. He chanced eye contact with Starsky. In those indigo eyes, he saw understanding, acceptance, unconditional love. He couldn’t find one speck of pity, or disgust, or contempt. His desert abyss did have an oasis. He unfolded himself and enveloped his partner.

“It’s a-live!” Starsky intoned, sounding exactly like the mad doctor Frankenstein. That made Hutch feel the first stirrings of laughter deep within. “C’mon, ya big galoot, you’re smotherin’ me,” Starsky complained. “Huggy, help me, wouldja?”

Huggy, who had cornered Cobb on his arrival and ushered him a few yards down the hall, came to Starsky’s aid. “Come on, you White Warrior. You’re crushing Starsky.”

Hutchinson let the alcohol take control and tittered. “You got it wrong, Huggy. I’m the White Knight. Starsk is the Dark Warrior.”

“Jesus H Christ. From morose to merry in minutes. You two wear me out,” Huggy groused as he pulled the blond one up. “No wonder El Capitan has a terminal case of the grumps. You still highly inebriated, ain’t you, Blondie.” Huggy had one arm around the larger man’s waist and fanned the air between their faces with the other.

Starsky struggled to his feet, dizzy from alcohol-induced dehydration and from alcohol, relatively mild spasms of pain in his leg and shoulder, freedom from most worry about his friend. He limped the yards to face Marcellus. “You never saw him, or me, or Huggy tonight. None of us were ever here. This never happened, none of it. Right?” He stuck out his right fist, thumb up, at waist-height.

Marcellus laughed casually and knocked the top of Starsky’s fist with the bottom of his as he said, “You got it.”

Starsky smiled his gratitude as he returned the fist knock. He knew they understood each other on more than one level. He turned his head back to see Hutch trying to kiss Huggy and Huggy batting him away. “Hey, Huggy, if you can break away from your lovebird, I need to borrow some money.” He indicated for Cobb to follow him back to the pair. “Got a c-note?”

“Does a dog have fleas? Right hip pocket. And no funny stuff. Aw, come on, Hutch, quit slobberin’ all over me. I think I like you better as a surly drunk.”

Starsky found the wallet and extracted a 100-dollar bill. “Thanks, man.”

Cobb folded the bill several times and stowed it in an inside pocket. “You know where you can find me if you ever want anyone to have memory problems.” He watched the three men descend the stairs, Huggy steadying the blond visitor and Starsky depending on the rickety rail for assistance.

By the time the friends hit the lobby, Hutch was singing at the top of his voice, “Oh, you got to have hearrrrrrrt!”

~s&h~

It was minutes before dawn when the trio piled into Huggy's Cadillac. Once in the back seat with Starsky, Hutchinson turned gloomy and melancholic. He clasped his arms around his partner’s neck and said repeatedly, “I’m sorry, buddy, I’m sorry.”

It didn’t take much to figure out what he was sorry about. Starsky let Hutch carry on for a couple of minutes before he spoke, thinking it might serve as a kind of meditation thing for his friend. “It’s okay, Hutch. You thought it would help, but deep down you knew it wouldn’t. That’s why you never asked Cobb for that shit. You really didn’t want it. You never did. Ever.” At that moment, Starsky flashed more loathing for Forrest than he had for Marcus. Forrest had made it personal for Starsky in a way Marcus hadn’t.

Starsky’s words rang true in Hutch’s ears. He dropped his front arm down his friend’s chest to his lap, and his head followed it but stopped at his chest. He scrunched his face into a knot and finally cried – for the Foxes, his partner’s thousand miseries, for his own joy at having the music back, for the end of Simon Marcus’s dreams.

“Starsky, may I suggest you two bunk at my place? I can keep a better eye on you there.”

The curly-haired man laughed gently. “Yeah, good idea. Thanks, Hug.” He settled his chin on the top of his partner’s head and an arm on his back for the rest of the drive back to Huggy’s crib. He kept a tight rein on the alcohol still cruising his body. One labile sponge was enough.

~s&h~

Huggy quickly covered Carlotta’s naked body as he woke her. “Sorry, baby, but my paleface amigos need to stay here. Get dressed and I’ll take you home.”

She snorted her displeasure at having her sleep interrupted and having to leave without finishing Round Three. She watched with great curiosity as two white guys with their arms around each other’s waist stumbled into Huggy’s apartment. The golden one was singing that stupid song about bottles of beer on the wall. She gathered the silk sheets closer to her chin and asked Huggy furtively, “Are they like, you know, queer?”

Huggy chuckled. “Odd, maybe, but definitely not queer.”

She looked at the white guys again. They looked cute, even if they reeked of firewater and seemed a little rough around the edges. “Think they’d be interested in a foursome?”

Huggy’s eyebrows took off for the moon. “I am assuming you ain’t askin’ about their availability for golf or bridge. Get dressed, baby, and I promise you and me’ll get together real soon. You know I love me a woman with a big appetite.” He grinned lasciviously.

Carlotta gave the palefaces a coquettish look and trotted off to the bathroom to dress, making sure the sheet didn’t block their view of her bare backside.

~s&h~

They quickly fell into a pattern. That first day, Sunday, Starsky would wake about every two hours, sweating from a nightmare. He would thrash so vigorously that he’d fall off the sofa. After the second time that happened, Huggy ordered him to take the bed. Hutch used an old recliner he dragged out of a storage closet. It was never far from wherever Starsky slept. He would dream crazy, disjointed dreams, but never quite terrors. After a few cycles, Hutch had timed his internal clock to wake him up just before Starsky was expected to screech awake. He would be ready with a freshly dampened washcloth, a few soothing words, and an empty bucket within arm’s reach. Huggy would force fluids and food on them whenever they were awake. They would talk while they ate and drank. Easy, light conversation. Sports, women, politics, Minnesota versus New York winters, books, movies. Studious avoidance of the mass murder, Marcus, the incident at the Carolinas. They would stretch, and Starsky would lift the few weights Huggy had while Hutch meditated and yoga’d. They detoxed fairly rapidly, and Starsky’s nightmares showed up at longer and longer intervals. By Tuesday night, he was confident he could get a solid eight hours in - alone.

Late Sunday afternoon, Huggy’s phone rang. Hutch answered it.

“Who is this?” asked the suspicious, well-known voice at the other end. “Is this Hutchinson?”

“Well, hi there. It is.” He covered the mouthpiece and mouthed to Starsky who it was. The darker detective promptly hid his face in his hands.

Dobey began his rapid-fire scolding. “Have you been there the entire weekend? Is that why you haven’t answered your phone for almost two days? Is Starsky there?”

Huggy walked into the room with a tray of soups, bread, butter, tomato juice, and the next doses of their antibiotics. Hutch thrust the receiver in his direction. “It’s for you.” After Huggy finally calmed down the captain of detectives and hung up, he promised the two guffawing men they would pay, and pay dearly.

When Dobey came by that evening, he walked into Huggy’s flat to find them sitting on the couch. Hutch was on the left with his ears covered, Huggy Bear in the middle with hands over his eyes, and Starsky on the right with his hands over his mouth. Dobey gave them two more days off.

~s&h~

After he had dropped off the detectives at their respective apartments Tuesday afternoon, Huggy still wasn’t entirely happy with their “recovery.” He knew it was safe for them to be alone now, but they were too – quiet.

When he got back to The Pits, he checked the calendar to see who was waitressing that night. The next day’s date – the fourteenth - ignited an idea. He called Edith Dobey first, then Abigail Crabtree.

~s&h~

Starsky had no trouble finding a parking spot for the Torino at The Pits. Usually by six every evening, the parking lot and the street would be jammed with cars. Now it was almost seven, and unnaturally deserted. “Hey, Hutch, did Hug say anything more about this when he called?” he asked before they got out.

Hutchinson opened the door. “No, he just said to come over about seven. That was it. Hey, there’s Abby’s car. He didn’t say anything about her being here. Something’s up.”

“You never cease to amaze me with your skills as a detective, Holmes,” teased Starsky. “Well, we know it’s not your birthday, or mine, or his. Abby’s?”

“If it is, I’m in big trouble.”

“Don’t worry. If she skedaddles, I got some girlie magazines you can borrow if you want.”

Hutch backhanded Starsky’s chest. They both started laughing as they exited the car. Just before they headed down the steps to the bar and grille, they heard heavy breathing behind them. One left hand and one right hand slid under jackets to touch gun butts. They turned their heads simultaneously to look behind them.

Hutchinson was the first to recover. “Captain!” he exclaimed with genuine surprise.

“Who did you think it was, Hutchinson? Tinkerbelle?”

“Uh, no, Cap. Just didn’t expect to see you here.”

“Well, it’s not by choice, Hutchinson. Got a call from Edith, and she said I should meet her and the kids here at seven. Should’ve known you two would be in on this conspiracy to keep me out the comfort of my own home.”

“Cap, me and Hutch are just as much out in the cold as you are.”

“We’re not gonna get to the bottom of this mystery until we get in, so go on,” Dobey said gruffly.

On the front door of the restaurant was a sign with fancy script that read: Bastille Day – Closed for Private Party. The three police officers shared puzzled looks. Starsky tried the door. “Locked.” He huffed impatiently and hammered on the door. “Hey, Huggy, open up! It’s us! We’re hungry!”

A few seconds later, Huggy responded from the behind the closed door. “This is a private par-tay. What’s the secret password?”

Dobey ran a frustrated hand over his face while Starsky and Hutchinson shared a chuckle. This was Huggy’s way of paying them back. “Password? We don’t need no stinkin’ password,” Starsky said in a fair imitation of a bandito. “If you don’t let us in, we’ll bust our way in.”

There was a click and the door opened. “Threats of destruction of property work just as good as passwords on most days, my fine friends. Welcome to 1789 France, or at least the best I could do on short notice.” It was dark in the foyer, but not dark enough that they couldn’t see Huggy Bear decked out in a white powdered wig, a thigh-length gold brocade coat with ruffles peeking out of each sleeve, matching knickers, white stockings, and black platform shoes.

Before the three dumbstruck men knew what was happening, Huggy had herded them through red, white, and blue crepe paper streamers that hung from the archway into the bar area. They inhaled deeply of the heavenly mix aromas wafting from the kitchen. They could hear Van Morrison’s Blue Money coming from the jukebox.

Most of the tables and chairs had been moved into one corner, leaving a large open space in the center of the eating area. More crepe paper was strung all around, and there were two French flags, one at each end of the bar. In the middle of the open area stood Edith Dobey and her two children and Abby. Seconds later, they joined the new arrivals near the bar for hugs and kisses and handshakes.

“Hey, what’s that you’re wearin’?” asked Starsky of Edith as he kissed her on the cheek. “Hey, you all got one.”

“Oh that?” The attractive black woman fingered a cloisonné pin of three - one red, one white, and one blue - leaves bound together near the base that she wore on her dress collar. “That’s a fleur-de-lis. Huggy tells me it used to go on the armor of the former royal family of France. Very nice, isn’t it?”

Huggy gave each of the police officers their own pins. “If you wanna stay at this party, you gotta wear the pin. Or get dressed up like me. I have some stunning costumes in the back.” The men hurriedly fastened the pins to their shirts. “Okay then. Gendarmes, welcome to The Pits’ first celebration of Bastille Day, the French Independence holiday.” Huggy bowed deeply at the waist. “Since the three of you had to work on the Fourth, I thought that this would be an acceptable substitute. After all, the French did help us gain our independence.” He clasped his hands behind his back. “So?”

“Who are you dressed up as?” barked Dobey.

“The King of France, Louie the Sixteenth. Have to be true to the royal blood I am sure must run in my roots.” The thin black man stretched his neck, looked down his nose, and grasped his coat’s lapels in both hands.

“You do know he was beheaded, don’t you?” retorted Dobey.

The neck shrunk. “You don’t have to be a party pooper, Captain,” Huggy sniffed.

“Hate to break up your repartee, but this is a party and I’m hungry!” shouted Starsky. Starsky rubbed his hands together. “Well, what’s for dinner? French fries? French toast?”

Hutch, who had just put Rosie down after she leapt into his arms, picked up without losing a beat. “French dressing? French bread?” He reached for Abby. “French lady?” He grinned at her.

“No!” shouted Rosie with a girlish giggle. “Pot roast and poo-na casserole!”

“Rosie dear, it’s tuna casserole,” gently corrected her mother.

“Oh, yeah, that’s right. Miss C’abtree says she got it from people who don’t hurt Flipper when they fish. She says it’s your favorist thing to eat, Uncle Hutch. Neat-o, huh?” Now in her father’s arms, she squealed with delight. “Daddy, lemme go to Uncle Starsky now, okay?”

“Hey, Huggy,” asked Hutch, “why didn’t you tell me this was a costume party? You told Starsky, I see. He came as a peasant. Right, Starsk?” His eyes gleamed wickedly.

Starsky threw him a you-better-watch-out glare while he settled Rosie in on his right hip. “Well, pot roast is my favorite. Let’s dig in.”

Inez, a skinny, white college student who was one of Huggy’s best waitresses, served the rowdy party, and joined them on their insistence - “in the spirit of Bastille Day,” said Hutch, as he gave empty plates to King Huggy to take back to the kitchen.

After dessert of crepes Suzette, Huggy called the party to attention. “A brief history lesson, if you please, before some announcements.” He cleared his throat melodramatically. “On July 14th, angry citizens stormed the fortress prison known as the Bastille. This prison was a symbol of the French aristocracy’s oppression of the people of Paris. Freeing the prisoners within that stronghold signaled the end of Louie’s reign as King. A toast!” Huggy held up his flute of sparkling apple juice. “May we all be free of our prisons.” He sneaked a peak at Starsky and Hutch. He saw shadows flit across their eyes, but they joined in the “Here, here!”

“Now, for the announcements,” continued the bar owner. “When I opened this bar and grille a few months ago, I thought this place might have potential for something more. Tonight, I ask your kind assistance to see if the floor is satisfactory for trippin’ the light fantastic. I want to know if The Pits can be more than just the culinary Mecca of Bay City.” With a flourish of his hand, he said with regal snobbishness, “Inez! Time to boogie!”

Inez hurriedly set up the portable record player on the bar. “Sorry, folks, can’t take requests! I only have a few 45s here.” She cranked the volume up and dropped the first record. “Okay, here goes nothin’!”

From the tinny speakers came Play that Funky Music. The beat even had Dobey tapping his toes. Cal, knowing Hutch didn’t really like dancing, asked Abby to dance. Huggy offered his arm to Edith, who accepted. Rosie tugged on Starsky’s hand, but he wouldn’t budge. Halfway through the record, Dobey lightly punched the dark-haired detective’s arm. “My daughter wants to dance.” There was a vague threat behind the words.

With reluctance he hoped Rosie couldn’t perceive, Starsky moved to the dance floor. At first, he was stiff – “like a white boy,” Huggy teased – and unable to find the heart of the music. He felt that dancing, one of his most favorite activities, was somehow inappropriate, a slap in the face of those so recently and horribly murdered. He closed his eyes and shuffled his feet around. Then something made him open one eye, and he looked directly into Hutch’s incandescent blue eyes. They told him it was okay to dance, that not to dance would be an insult to the life within and without.

By the time Inez started You Should be Dancing, Starsky was ready. He cut loose and didn’t stop except to take his jacket and shoulder harness with gun off and give them to Dobey to hold. Rosie wore out after the third record – Kung Fu Fighting – so Starsky danced with and around the other two couples for Lady Marmalade.

Huggy halted things for a few minutes to let everyone catch their breath, though Starsky continued to bounce around, ready for more action. “I think we have time for one more. This is a contest. The winner gets a poster. Okay, Inez, you know which one.”

The waitress smiled, showing her crooked teeth. “This is one of my favorite dance tunes. Starsky, would you like a partner?”

“Terrific! Come on, Inez, see if you can keep up with me.”

She joined him before the first bar of Get Down Tonight sounded. All three couples threw their hearts into it, and Inez did keep up with the detective. When the record ended, Huggy asked Rosie to be the judge. She couldn’t pick one, so she chose “Uncle Starsky and Miss Inez!”

Huggy Bear unrolled a poster depicting Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty out on a dance floor, shaking their respective groove thangs, over the caption, “I WANT YOU … to get down, get down, get down, get down tonight.” Starsky asked if Inez could keep it for them. She agreed, glad to have something to brighten up her shabby basement apartment.

The bar owner then announced the second possibility for his place. “To help determine if The Pits has the acoustics adequate for live music, I humbly beseech Kenneth Hutchinson, the detective minstrel, to sing us a few melodious tunes.” Everyone, except Rosie who was sound asleep in her father’s lap, clapped enthusiastically, but Hutch blushed and began to beg off.

Until he caught Starsky’s eyes. They were shiny cobalt now, and told him it was time to let the music come out of hiding, that it was safe now, that he was safe now.

Hutch wasn’t convinced the music was back, much less strong enough to share. An emptiness still lingered, though it was small and lurked around his perimeter. As Abby brought him his guitar from behind the bar where she had hidden it, he remembered what Starsky had said a few days back. That he could hear it. And Starsky would never lie to him about something that important.

Bashfully, he took his instrument from his lover’s hands and situated it on his legs. “Well, what do you want to hear?” he asked, voice cracking with stage fright.

“Anything you want, buddy. Whatever it is, I know it’ll be good,” said Starsky.

Seeing Hutch reach for his pick reminded Huggy of something. “Hey, hold up, Blondie. Got you a little something for the American holiday. Hadn’t had chance to give it to you until now.” From the depths of his coat pocket, the lean black man dug out two pearlized picks. One was flag blue with tiny white stars and the other was red on one side, white on the other.

“Thanks, Huggy. They’re great.”

“Now, use ‘em, or I’m gonna be an Indian giver. Oh, nobody tell Carlotta that, okay?”

Hutchinson grinned and searched his repertoire for just the right song. Suddenly, he had it. Shaky at first, but with increasing self-confidence, his crystal tenor rendered a heartfelt Fire and Rain. The applause was as deafening as that small group could produce. Starsky called for more.

Hutch treated the tiny audience to Teach Your Children and You’ve Got a Friend. They couldn’t seem to clap enough for him. When he tried to put up the guitar after the third song, Starsky asked for one more. Hutch knew exactly how to end this impromptu concert.

When the blond singer struck the first chord, Starsky knew the song. He knew some of it was for Abby, but he knew the chorus was for him.

I get a peaceful easy feelin’
And I know you won't let me down
Cause I'm already standin’
On the ground

Hutch had the three women near tears by the end. They clapped heartily, but self-consciously avoided direct eye contact. When he looked at Starsky, he could see that those baby blues glistened.

Edith brushed her eyes with the back of her hand quickly. “I hate to break up this wonderful party, but we must leaving, Huggy Bear. The children’s bedtime is almost upon them.” While she, Cal, and Abby helped Huggy and Inez clean up, Dobey studied his detectives.

“Hey, Starsk, hand me that half-empty glass, would ya?”

“Hutch, it’s half-full.

“Half-empty.”

“Half-full.”

Hutch grinned mischievously. “Yeah, I know.”

In the privacy of his full heart, Harold Dobey prayed his thanks that his boys were fine.

The End