Molly Ramos burst through the underbrush, ran to the drop off at the edge of the spacious ledge, and stopped abruptly. Her brother, Kiko, was right behind her.
“Molly Edwards-Ramos!” their teacher, Mrs. Marshall, called loudly, amid the thrashing and raucous shouts coming from the trees. “I swear you get more obstreperous every day! It’s only Monday, and you’re trying to get Kiko into trouble again this week.”
“Staid old cow,” Molly muttered. “It’s a wonder she allowed herself to be talked into guiding this nature walk. What does she know about plants and trees, anyway?”
“They’re green?” Kiko offered.
Molly chuckled while the rest of the combined classes and staid ol’ Mrs. Marshall joined them.
“Come back from there, Molly!” Mrs. Marshall yelled. “It’s probably a long way down!”
“It is,” Molly agreed. “But what a view! You can see all the way across the city from here. And look at those mansions way over there.” She pointed to some spectacular homes in the distance, all with swimming pools, some with tennis courts and what were either servant’s quarters or guest houses behind. From this height they were a splendid display. “That’s where the rich folks live, huh?”
Mrs. Marshall joined them, albeit somewhat trepidatiously. “I think that’s Hillside Estates.”
“What a stupid name.” Kiko’s voice held a lot of derision for a kid his age. “Because of course it’s a hillside and those are obviously estates.”
“Now, Kiko, don’t be critical of other people’s word ch --” Mrs. Marshall’s gentle reprimand was interrupted by a shrill scream.
Molly, Kiko, and their teacher spun around and ran to a girl Molly’s age - red-haired, freckle-faced and chubby - who was backing away from a dense section of brush. Her piercing shrieks were enough to make Molly want to give the silly goose a good swift kick.
“Now, Rita…” Mrs. Marshall took the redhead’s hands and held them. “Calm down. It can’t possibly be all that bad. What did you see?”
The girl stretched a trembling index finger toward a man’s boot protruding from the leaf litter. Between sobs, she managed, “Something stinks!”
Molly and Kiko darted forward, stopping before they reached the foot. Kiko carefully pulled branches back and revealed a body that had been crammed under low-hanging foliage and covered with debris.
Kiko picked up a stick and moved some of the detritus away. A cloud of insects exploded into the air and more students began making inarticulate noises, flailing their arms and scattering. “Been dead awhile.” Kiko’s calm observation drew a nod from Molly.
When the swarm had dissipated, a second boot - scuffed and worn - faded blue jeans, and a sheepskin jacket led all eyes to a head the wildlife had evidently been snacking on. Black hair and a long sideburn were visible on the left side but much of the face was missing.
Rita shrieked again and Mrs. Marshall turned her away, gesturing to several of the girls. “Susan, you and the others take Rita back to the bus, please.”
A few of the more adventurous boys were approaching Molly, Kiko, and the corpse. Kiko put his arms out. “Stay back! Don’t anybody come any closer.”
“I’ll go and call the police.” Mrs. Marshall began herding the two classes together. “They’ll take care of everything.”
Molly and Kiko remained where they were.
“My Big Brother,” Kiko stated, “is Detective Ken Hutchinson. He and his partner, Dave Starsky, are the best cops in this city. They’re with Metro Division’s Robbery-Homicide. Call them.”
“Now, Kiko,” Mrs. Marshall said, her tone patronizing, “I’m sure your Big Brother has other things --”
“They’re the best, Mrs. Marshall,” Kiko interrupted. “And since that guy…” he glanced toward the prone figure, “didn’t just die, or commit suicide, then cover himself up like that, this is a murder scene.”
“Kiko’s right, Mrs. Marshall,” Molly added. “Dave and Ken know this kinda shit inside out.”
“Miss Ramos!” The teacher put on her best ‘I am offended’ face. “I’ll thank you to watch your language!”
Molly hunched her shoulders but couldn’t work up much repentance. “Sorry, ma’am.”
“I should think you would be.” Mrs. Marshall chivvied the students into a manageable group. “I can’t leave you two here, though, what would Mr. Cavendish say?”
“Somebody has to protect the scene, Mrs. Marshall.” Molly used her best, most persuasive tone of voice. “Kiko and I found the guy… well, after Rita pointed to him, of course… so we should be the ones to stay.”
“Mr. Cavendish will understand, after you explain,” Kiko said. “He’s not the kind of principal who punishes people when they don’t deserve it.”
“You’re right, Kiko, he isn’t.” The teacher had her charges in hand, now. “What were those two names again? I’ll see if I can contact them.”
Molly squatted down a few feet from the body while Kiko repeated Starsky’s and Hutch’s full names and gave her a phone number.
“Will you both be all right?” Mrs. Marshall seemed very reluctant to leave them. “I must get these children onto the bus and then find a telephone.” As the kids filed past her, she had another thought. “Shall I ask the driver to stay with you?”
Kiko shook his head. “We’ll be fine, Mrs. Marshall. That’s a big bus and it’s probably not easy to drive. Hutch and Starsky’ll bring us back to the school. Just hurry, okay?” After she and all the others were gone, he knelt beside Molly. “Think I was right? It’s a murder?”
“‘Course it is, dummy. And from this angle…” Molly gestured, “you can see the bullet hole in the middle of his forehead.”
Kiko glanced around. “Too bad everybody trampled all over the place. Ken and Dave’ll have a heck of a time finding evidence now.”
Starsky pushed through the already-bent branches of the underbrush, Hutch on his heels. Molly and Kiko were sitting on the ground a few yards from an obviously dead man. Two uniformed officers came out of the trees behind them.
Hutch hurried to Molly and Kiko while Starsky, after getting reassuring nods from both teenagers, approached the remains.
“You guys okay?” Hutch asked, squatting beside them.
“We’re fine, Uncle Ken,” Molly assured him.
“Found some work for you, though.” Kiko sounded as if he was trying to pretend he was on just another educational jaunt. “Wouldn’t want you and Uncle Dave to sit around twiddling your thumbs all day.”
Hutch laughed. “Like you are, you mean?”
Kiko blushed. “We did the hard part, keeping two classes of a Nature Trail Hike away from the crime scene.” He grimaced. “As much as possible.”
Starsky pushed more brush away from the victim and knelt. “They’re right, Hutch, definitely not a death from natural causes.”
Hutch joined him, then gestured to the uniforms. “Call the crime lab, keep any lookie-lous away, and secure the parking lot, please. When the techs get here, one of you escort them down, okay?”
“You got it, Hutch,” the older of the officers said before he hurried after his partner.
Molly and Kiko came over. “One shot to the forehead,” Kiko noted.
“Execution style,” was Molly’s contribution.
Kiko shook his head. “I don’t think so, Molly.” He looked at Hutch. “Right, Ken? If it was an execution, he’d have got it in the back of the head. This way…” he stared at the body, “he was facing the killer.”
Starsky laid his arm across Hutch’s shoulders. “Think we’re a bad influence on these impressionable young people, Hutch? They can diagnose a murder scene without any help from us.”
Hutch sent proud approval toward his Little Brother and the young woman Kiko’s mother had adopted. “I think they’re both intelligent and quick-witted, with a whole lot of self-control in a nasty situation. I also think they’re growing up entirely too fast.”
Molly and Kiko laughed, but it sounded strained.
Starsky got up and walked to the edge of the terrace they were on, studying the ground as he went. “Thirty students and their teacher sure have messed up the area. I doubt there’s anything left for the crime lab to find.”
Hutch and the others followed him. “Not their fault, Starsk,” Hutch said. “They didn’t know.”
Starsky grabbed Molly and Kiko in a three-way hug, ruffling their hair. “I know that. I was just sayin’.” He let them go and the four of them stood near the edge.
“Some view, huh, guys?” Molly asked.
“Sure is,” Hutch agreed. “Air quality’s good. You can see all the way to the coast today.”
Starsky scanned the city and the hillside mansions visible a long way away. One particular house caught his attention and he took a half-step forward.
Hutch apparently noticed Starsky’s sudden intensity because he turned to Molly and Kiko. “I’d appreciate it if you two went up to the parking lot and waited with the officers. You can help guide the techs down when they get here.”
Molly pouted. “But… Kiko and I found him!”
“Yes, you did, and Starsky and I are grateful that you convinced Mrs. Marshall to call us. We need to take it from here, though.” Hutch gestured toward the trees. “Git!”
“Bummer.” Molly wasn’t happy but she took Kiko’s hand when he extended it and walked up the hill with him.
Hutch moved up next to Starsky. “What is it, Starsk?”
Starsky knew his gaze would show Hutch where he was looking. “See that ranch-style place over there? Long, low, red tile roof, white stucco with dark brown trim, what looks like an Olympic-size swimming pool in the back?”
“I’ve seen it somewhere, fairly recently, but I can’t put my finger on it.”
It didn’t take long for Hutch to come up with the answer. “That’s because we didn’t see it from this angle, or from this distance. It’s the house where Marcus Dennison was killed last week, isn’t it?”
“You’re right. Not our case, so all we saw were the pictures in the paper.”
“The swimming pool and patio area look the same.”
“The tennis courts.”
“And that two-story guest house in the back,” Hutch added.
“Marcus Dennison,” Starsky mused. “Wasn’t he some kind of mucky muck back east?”
Hutch nodded. “The papers said he was the aide-de-camp of Senate Majority Leader Theodore Berkley. He was the senator’s right hand man during his entire lengthy career, until Berkley retired last year under a cloud of speculative scandal. Dennison moved to Bay City about six months ago, according to the article I read, to get away from the, quote, stress of politics, close quote.”
“Yeah, right!” Starsky didn’t make any attempt to hide the disgust in his voice. “Socking away enough moola to buy that place - couldn’t have been cheap - during all the stress of dealing with corrupt politicians day in, day out.”
“Now, Starsk,” Hutch chided, “you don’t know for sure that Berkley was corrupt. He hasn’t been indicted for anything yet.”
Starsky laughed out loud. “He was a politician, wasn’t he?”
“Good point.” Hutch stared across at the Dennison property. “That’d be a hellava shot. How far do you figure it is? A mile?”
Starsky clamped down on the suddenly-sick feeling in his stomach. He didn’t want to say the next words but knew he had to. “I could have made it.”
Hutch drew in a breath and let it out slowly. “You were that good?”
Starsky took a deep breath of his own. “Yeah. With the right weapon. And perfect conditions.”
Hutch glanced over his shoulder. “What about Mr. Dead Guy over there? Who do you figure he was?”
Starsky didn’t take his eyes off the far property. “Probably the lookout.”
“Starsky, nobody could come through that brush without making a racket. The killer would have heard anybody trying to sneak up on him.”
“Believe me, Hutch, when you’re focused on your target, almost anything could be going on around you and you wouldn’t hear it.” Starsky did turn and look at the body this time. “I’d guess our stiff was responsible for securing the perimeter and, when the shooter didn’t need him any more, he took care of the loose end.”
Hutch stiffened. “That’s cold.”
Starsky looked away. “It’s business.”
Hutch must have realized that Starsky had taken his observation personally because he put a hand on his arm. “Hey… I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything by --”
Starsky patted the hand and turned back to the view. “It was part of my job, Hutch. And I was very good at my job.” He swallowed a sudden constriction in his throat. “My lookouts always came back to base with me, though.”
Hutch leaned a reassuring shoulder against him for few seconds. “I wouldn’t have believed you if you’d said otherwise.”
Starsky nodded his appreciation while his mind, of its own accord, dropped into long-buried memories.
“How many others could make that shot, you think?” Hutch asked. “Not many, right?”
Starsky dragged his thoughts out of the past and considered the question. “Three. Maybe four. I’ll have to think about it.” He spun away from the edge and drew Hutch with him. “As soon as we turn this place over to the crime lab, we need to get back. I’ll start Minnie on a search for the names I remember, before we talk to Dobey. As far as I’ve heard, on the Metro grapevine, the detectives who caught the Dennison case haven’t come up with anything yet.”
“We’ll get the uniforms to take Kiko and Molly back to school.”
Starsky nodded. “Yeah, they don’t need to be any more involved in this than they already are.”
Harold Dobey sat behind his folder-strewn desk. “You think a sniper was on that ledge and took Dennison out?”
Starsky drew a cup of water from the cooler and crossed to Hutch’s chair. Hutch drank half the contents and handed the cup back as Starsky sat on the arm. “When the techs got there, I had Lacy do the calculations. The distance was close to two thousand yards. Little over a mile.”
Some of the color drained from Dobey’s face. “And you could have made the shot?”
Starsky kept his expression bland. “As I told Hutch at the scene, under the right circumstances, and with the right equipment… yeah.”
Dobey leaned back in his chair. “You’ve got Minnie searching for the others you think might be capable?”
“I came up with three names on the way back.” Starsky finished the water, got up and drew another cup before he sat down in the second guest chair. “One was over there when I was, one before, and one after. Marksmen who could reliably hit a target at that range were rare.”
“I don’t imagine there’s much call for the skill during peace time.” Dobey shuffled folders before he caught Starsky’s eye. “Is there?”
Starsky drank some water. “You wouldn’t think so but…”
Their captain’s shoulders slumped. “Yeah, but.”
A knock sounded on the hallway door and Minnie Kaplan stuck her head in. “Is this a good time, Captain?”
Dobey motioned her inside. Starsky jumped up and perched on the arm of Hutch’s chair again so that she could sit in his vacated one.
“What did you find, Minnie?” Dobey asked.
“Of the names you gave me, Starsky,” she glanced down at her notes on the pad of paper in her hand. “Steven Clark is dead, killed in a one-car accident near his home in Montgomery, Alabama, six years ago.”
Dobey sat forward. “What about the others?”
“Wilson George is in a sanitarium in Syracuse, New York.” Minnie checked her information again. “He came home from the war all messed up, mentally as well as physically, but his family has money so he’s being taken care of. Never leaves the facility for any reason.”
“And the last name?” Starsky knew this was going to be the important one.
“Thomas Taylor Armstrong has dropped out of sight, Starsky,” Minnie said. “He’s completely off the grid. His honorable discharge from the army’s on record but nothing after that.” She slipped a copy of a military ID photo out from under her list of names and notes. “This is the most recent picture of him I could find. Description’s on the back.” She handed it to Dobey.
Dobey studied both sides. “Doesn’t look anything like a killer.” He passed the page to Starsky.
“That’s the whole point, Cap’n.” Starsky looked at the unremarkable face and read the data before he gave the sheet to Hutch.
“Probably in the intelligence field,” Hutch said, undoubtedly committing the photo and information to his eidetic memory.
“Yep,” Starsky agreed. “I’ve heard tales of T.T.’s ability with a rifle. His talent would be highly prized by any number of black-ops agencies.”
“Domestic and foreign,” Hutch added.
Dobey drilled Starsky with A Look. “Was he as good as you?”
“I never served with him,” Starsky replied, “so I don’t know. He arrived in-country after I got evac’ed out. I can only repeat what guys told me during my year in rehab. Armstrong could put a hole in the center of a quarter from over two thousand yards.”
“That sounds about right.” Hutch handed the paper back to Dobey, took the cup of water from Starsky and drained it.
Dobey held his hand out to Minnie and she gave him the pad of paper. He scanned the names and information before sliding the picture of Armstrong under the top sheet and handing the whole thing to Starsky. “Get this over to Saunders and Dietrich.”
Starsky nodded. “Right away, Capt’n. I haven’t heard that they’ve dug up any other leads and maybe this’ll help.”
“Good work, you guys!” Dobey dismissed them with a wave of his hand. “Let me know what happens.”
Tossing the empty cup in the wastebasket, Hutch opened the squad room door for Minnie and Starsky.
That night, Starsky was washing his few dishes when the phone on the wall rang. Drying his hands, he answered, “Yeah!”
“Is this Dave Starsky?” The voice on the other end of the line was deep.
Starsky was instantly wary. “Who’s this?”
“I hear you’re looking for me.”
“Armstrong?” Starsky pulled a drawer open, set a tape recorder on the counter, hoping the batteries were good, and attached the ear plug to the phone’s mouthpiece. “How’d you get this number? It’s unlisted.”
“In my line of work, phone numbers are easy. I’m a little surprised that you know who I am, though. Your resources must be almost as good as mine.” The tone was thick with sarcasm. “The question is, what do you plan to do with it?”
“Find you. Stop you.”
There was a moment of silence and Starsky was afraid the guy had hung up before the next, softer but harsher words: “You don’t want to go any farther with the investigation, Detective. Marcus Dennison was scum. You have no idea what he was into, the people he was in bed with. The world’s better off without him.”
“That’s not for you to say.”
“Let it go, old man. I don’t want to have to take you out.”
“Threats don’t impress me, Armstrong, never have. But keep talking, I’m always willing to listen to a crackpot.”
“Taping this? It won’t do you any good, you’ll never find me.”
“Just calling to taunt, is that it?”
“Probably.” For the first time, there was uncertainty in the voice. “I’m not really sure. You were a legend when I got to ‘Nam. With my competitive nature, I just had to try and out-perform you. And I did! More kills, and at greater range.”
“Congratulations!” Starsky added his own sarcasm to the interplay. “That’s an honor I’m more than happy to give up. But let me ask you something. Why are you still hanging around? I’d have thought you’d have been long gone, living it up somewhere on your ill-gotten gains.”
“Oh, not ill-gotten, by any means. I work for my money, Starsky. I spent weeks setting up that hit. And it was perfect. The detectives who caught the case - what are their names? Saunders and Dietrich? They didn’t have a clue. How’d you find out?”
“Your dead accomplice was discovered and, as soon as I realized the site overlooked the Dennison estate, a little research was all that was needed. Other than me, you’re the only one left in circulation. And my question still stands, why aren’t you gone?”
“I knew you were in Bay City, Starsky. It’s one of the reasons why I took the assignment. Wondered if you’d somehow be involved in the case. I suppose I wanted to pit myself against you. Take out the target first and then, if it became necessary, take you out, too.”
“Think you could?”
“I know I could.”
Starsky waited a beat, deliberately baiting Armstrong with his silence before filling the void with calm words. “Okay. Let’s do it.”
“Oh, we will. But it’ll have to be you and me, no outside interference. I’ve got eyes on you, and I’ll know if you try to bring someone else in.”
“Why would I? You’ve got my own competitive juices flowing now.”
“I almost believe you, but your partner’s like your other hand - you never do anything without him. Remember this, though, he has family in Duluth. You have a mother and brother in New York. Your captain has a wife and two children. Think about all of them, Starsky, before you tell anybody anything, other than the fact that I called. I have no problem with that, I’m invisible.”
“Sound awfully sure of yourself, Armstrong.”
“That’s because I’m the best! But…” Armstrong paused, and Starsky allowed the silence to reign until his antagonist finally continued. “If the unthinkable should happen, and you somehow get the better of me, you and everyone you care about could become targets. I have friends who are almost as deadly as I am.”
“I’m surprised you can get anybody to work with you,” Starsky shot back, “considering the way you treated your back-up.”
“Lower echelon creeps are easy to come by. There are always guys in my line of work who are looking for a job.”
“I’m sure there are.” Starsky waited a few beats, wanting to build as much tension on Armstrong’s part as possible. “You’ve made your point. Just you and me.”
“Good. I needed you to understand how serious I am.”
“The threats to my family, my partner, my captain and their families, make it pretty clear. But I’ve got a condition of my own.”
“And that would be?”
“We don’t do it in town. I won’t be responsible for collateral damage. No innocent bystanders to get in the way of a stray shot.”
Armstrong snorted. “I don’t make stray shots.”
“Well… not very often.” Armstrong’s voice took on wariness. “What do you have in mind?
Adrenaline was beginning to pulse in Starsky’s veins. “A competition.”
“Hmmmmmm. What sort of competition? You talking about stalking each other?”
“I guess.” Starsky nodded to himself. Yeah! He realized that was exactly what he had in mind. “Somewhere out of the city, though.”
“Damn!” Armstrong’s tone was snide now. “I rather enjoy it when innocent people get hurt.”
“That’s another way we differ, Armstrong, but I’m not surprised.”
“You interest me, Starsky,” Armstrong admitted. “And the idea of a Most Dangerous Game scenario does appeal to me.”
“Name the place.”
“I’m not from around here,” Armstrong countered. “Give me a suggestion.”
“Lemme think.” Starsky pulled an atlas out of the bookcase and turned to the Southern California pages. “I’m looking at a map. What about Anza Borego State Park? I’ve never been there but I hear it has miles and miles of uninhabited, seldom-visited country. We should be able to try and kill each other without involving anyone else.”
“I’ll have to think about it and let you know.”
“Be advised, Armstrong, I am going to tell my captain that you called. The detectives assigned to the Dennison case will know who you are, and they aren’t going to stop looking for you just because of your threats.”
“Didn’t think they would.” There was an audible click and the line went dead.
Starsky pulled the earplug off the phone and hung it up. Rewinding the tape, he listened to it several times. It was going to be hard to keep Hutch out of it but he knew he’d have to try. He dug around in the closet until he found a second recorder and sets of fresh batteries. Using both machines, he did a little editing.
The next morning, as Hutch settled into the passenger’s seat of the Torino, he motioned to the recorder on the dash. “What’s this?”
Starsky pulled into traffic. “Armstrong called last night. I got most of it on tape.”
“How the hell did he get your number?”
Starsky shrugged. “He said it wasn’t difficult.”
Hutch set the machine on the seat between them, hit Play, and they listened. After Armstrong said, ‘I know I could,’ the recording ended with a click.
“He hung up,” Starsky explained. “We’ve got to tell Saunders and Dietrich so they know who they’re looking for, but we don’t need to do anything else ourselves. They can handle it.”
“Dobey should hear this.”
Hutch stared at him. “Promise me you won’t go off half-cocked on this thing, Starsky. Try to take Armstrong on by yourself.”
Starsky couldn’t make that promise because he knew he’d have to break it. “Don’t worry. I’m always careful, remember?” He patted his partner’s arm and tried his patented lop-sided smile but wasn’t sure Hutch bought it.
Hutch kept an eagle eye on his partner during the tape-playing session in Dobey’s office. He felt Starsky was holding something back and could tell their captain wasn’t very happy, either.
“That’s it, Starsky?” Dobey demanded, when the disconnect sounded on the tape and Starsky shut off the machine.
“That’s it, Cap. I figure he basically called to brag.” Starsky left the tape player on the desk and sat down in his chair, propping his right ankle on his left knee.
“Sounded to me like he’s set his sights on you now,” Dobey growled.
Starsky waved a hand. “Naw, he’s a professional, so killing me wouldn’t bring him a dime. Plus, it might piss his employer off. Whoever that is. Most people who hire an assassin don’t like it when they freelance.” He lowered the foot to the floor and slumped further down in the chair. “I think he was only taking credit with me for the hit because I know how difficult the shot was.”
Hutch had seen his partner pretend nonchalance before but never to quite this extent. “Something you not telling us, Starsk?”
The dark blue eyes widened in pure innocence. “Like what, Hutch? You heard the tape.”
Dobey ejected the cassette and tossed it to Starsky. “Get this over to Saunders and Dietrich. At least they’ll know the prime suspect’s name.”
Starsky jumped up and bolted for the hallway door. “You got it, Cap!”
Hutch caught Dobey’s unsettled gaze but had to shrug, due to his lack of any more knowledge, before following Starsky out the door.
Late that night, Starsky dressed in dark clothes and put a few additional necessaries in a bag before he drove to the precinct. There, he left the Torino, checked a plain-wrap out of the motor pool, and sped to Anza Borego. He was lucky he didn’t get stopped by a zealous Highway Patrol officer.
He parked the unmarked beside the empty ranger station shack and popped the trunk. From his bag of supplies, he pulled out and donned a black knit watch cap. Then he covered his face and hands with camouflage grease. After he closed the lid and pocketed the keys, he ducked under the railroad-crossing-style gate, walked through the deserted parking lot, and found a trailhead.
A last-quarter moon and a sky full of stars gave sufficient illumination. After a few miles of around and around, up and down, scrambling and sliding, he found the perfect site: a collection of standing and leaning rocks at the foot of a cliff that gave a three hundred degree field of view. Best of all, there was no way for someone to come at the position from behind. It was a place where a man could lie prone, in deep shadow, and pick off anyone moving on the barren, almost desolate landscape.
He was sure Armstrong would do his own reconnaissance and find the same place, so Starsky decided to get here before whatever time Armstrong agreed to meet. That way, Armstrong would be forced to find a spot, within sight of this one, to take his shot. At least, that was what Starsky would try to make happen.
In the light of a myriad of stars, Starsky scanned the ground around his chosen site. Across the valley, about a mile away, was what appeared to be a perfect location to set up and watch in this direction. He headed that way.
During the walk, he started a mental list of what he’d need, in order to get out of the coming confrontation alive.
For the next two days, Starsky and Hutch worked their usual case load. Starsky felt his partner’s eyes studying him constantly and did his best to disguise his pre-occupation with Armstrong.
On their way to Hutch’s apartment Wednesday evening, Hutch broached the subject that hadn’t been mentioned all day. “Dobey has Minnie working with Saunders and Dietrich, right? Trying to find Armstrong?”
Starsky lifted his right hand off the wheel in what he hoped looked like frustration. “Not much she can do. Computers can only find information if that information’s been entered in some database.”
“And she told us Armstrong’s completely off the grid.”
Hutch smothered whatever else he wanted to say until Starsky pulled to the curb in front of Venice Place. “Want to come up? We could order a pizza.”
Starsky shook his head. “Not tonight. But thanks.”
The following evening, as they climbed in the Torino after shift, Hutch suggested, “Want to grab a burger and a game of pool at Huggy’s?”
“I’m beat, Hutch. Just want to go home.” Starsky knew his partner didn’t buy it but at least he didn’t keep prodding. The rest of the drive was silent.
“What about tomorrow night?” Hutch asked, when they arrived in front of his apartment building. “We’ve got the weekend off, for a change, why don’t we start it early? Head up to L.A. We could catch a game. Pretty sure the Dodgers are in town.”
“I’m not in the mood for baseball, Hutch. Sorry.”
Hutch’s disappointment was almost palpable. “Rain check?”
Hutch reached for the door handle but stopped. His voice was soft, almost pleading. “What’s wrong, Starsk? Talk to me.”
Starsky knew if he met Hutch’s gaze, he’d be sunk, so he didn’t. He hated lying but he needed to keep his partner uninvolved. If he had to worry about Hutch getting hurt, things could turn ugly in a hurry. If Armstrong managed to kill Starsky, at least it would be only him. And his partner would never rest until Armstrong was in a cage. “It’s nothin’, Hutch. I just haven’t been sleeping very well, that’s all. I need to use the weekend to do laundry, clean the apartment, and get lots of shuteye!”
“You’re sure? We don’t have to go up to L.A. We could go to the beach. Sit, walk… talk.”
Starsky risked a quick glance as he put a hand on Hutch’s arm. “I’m trying to work through some stuff, partner. Give me a little time, okay?”
Hutch nodded and covered the hand with his own. “All the time you need, buddy. You know I’m here, when you’re ready to tell me.”
Starsky nodded and took his hand back. “I know. Thanks.”
Hutch must have realized he’d pushed as far as he could because he got out and shut the door. Starsky noticed that his partner stood and watched as he drove away. He hated himself but hoped that, someday, Hutch would forgive him.
When he got home, the phone was ringing inside. He didn’t bother hurrying, just picked up the receiver when he got to it. “What?”
“I accept,” Armstrong said, without preamble. “When?”
“I’ll bet you scouted the park.”
“Like I’m sure you did.” Armstrong’s tone was smug. “Too bad we didn’t run into each other. We could have settled it all right then.”
“Yeah, too bad.” Starsky shook himself, mentally. “So, let’s give ourselves enough time to make it interesting. How about Monday morning, six a.m., to Wednesday night, midnight? Over sixty hours should be enough, don’t you think?”
“Oh, more than enough. You’ll be dead by noon on Monday.”
“Counting chickens before they hatch, Armstrong?”
“Nope. Just making a sure-thing bet with myself.”
“We’ll see. The research I’ve done on the park tells me people visit mostly from Friday through Sunday. We should have the area to ourselves.”
“Don’t know why anyone would ever go there. Kinda ugly, don’t you think?”
“Depends on what you’re looking for.”
“I suppose,” Armstrong said. “And, since I was looking for a dead place, I liked it. So it’s a deal.” He paused before continuing. “What are you going to tell your partner, and your captain? Don’t even think about bringing Hutchinson, or anybody else! If I see another soul, I’ll kill them first, then hunt you down.”
“This’ll be you and me, Armstrong. Just like you want it. One on one, and we’ll see who’s better.”
Starsky hung up before Armstrong could reply. He had a lot to do this weekend and knew that laundry and cleaning wouldn’t be on the agenda. Probably not a whole lot of sleep, either.
Hutch was really on edge. He was positive Starsky was keeping something from him and that T.T. Armstrong was involved. After a restless night, he called his partner early. “Listen Starsk, I’ve got a couple of stops to make this morning so why don’t I get myself to work today?”
“Uh, okay.” Starsky sounded like he was still asleep. “Whatever you say.”
“Great, I’ll see you there.” Before Starsky could respond, he disconnected and placed another call. “Captain? It’s Hutch. Can you come to the station as soon as possible? I need to talk to you.”
“Something we can’t discuss on the phone, Hutchinson?” Dobey sounded grouchy - probably wasn’t fully awake yet.
“Not really, sir.”
A huge sigh resonated through the line. “I guess I can be there in an hour.”
Hutch showered and dressed, hoping he and Dobey would arrive before Starsky. Parking in the slot next to where the Torino would soon sit, he went straight up to Dobey’s office, knocked on the hallway door, and waited.
“Come in!” was bellowed from inside and Hutch pushed the door open.
Dobey, in the process of hanging his jacket on the coat tree, spun around. “Where’s your partner?” He went behind his desk and sat down.
Hutch crossed to his accustomed chair and sat. “That’s what I need to talk with you about, Captain.” When Dobey didn’t say anything, Hutch dove in. “I think Armstrong’s been in touch with Starsky since that first call.”
“Why would you think that?”
“Starsky’s almost never secretive but, these last couple of days, he’s been different. I can’t help but feel he’s keeping something from me.”
“Like what?” Dobey didn’t bother to hide his concern.
“I almost think they’ve set up a meet somewhere.”
Dobey scowled. “What do you mean, ‘a meet’?”
Hutch lifted a shoulder. “That’s just it, Cap, I don’t know. But I know my partner and he’s not one to turn his back on something like the Dennison murder. He’d want to be part of taking Armstrong down.”
“I agree. But you haven’t explained what you mean. You think Starsky’s going to participate in a… What? A showdown or something?”
“It sounds awfully dramatic, when you put it that way,” Hutch admitted.
Dobey’s scowl deepened. “Still… we both know your partner would be the last one to say no to a little drama.”
Hutch slumped. “Drama’s one thing, Captain, what I’m seeing in my head is something else.”
“Like what?” Dobey repeated.
“I wish I knew!” Hutch forced himself to calm down. “Starsky never talks about his experiences in Vietnam and I get the feeling that Armstrong’s stirred up emotions and memories my partner wishes had stayed buried.”
“You knew he was a sniper, right?”
“Sharpshooter was the term he used,” Hutch corrected.
Dobey sat back. “What did he tell you?”
“Nothing really. He’s only been willing to talk about it once. He just said the army had discovered he had a natural ability - he could put a bullet exactly where the army wanted.” Hutch forced his face into an approximation of Starsky’s lop-sided grin. “Who’d have thought a Jewish kid from Brooklyn had those skills, huh?”
Dobey laced his fingers across his paunch. “So, what do you want to do? You think confronting him with your suspicions would work?”
Hutch considered the idea. “Probably not. Starsky has a pretty quick temper sometimes and, if he thinks either one of us doubts what he told us the other morning, who knows what might happen?”
“Hell, Captain, I just don’t --”
At that moment, a knock sounded on the hallway door. Hutch bolted to his feet and backed toward the squad room as Dobey hollered, “Come in.”
Starsky slipped through the door, closing it behind him, his expression unreadable. “Ah, great, glad you’re here, Hutch.”
Dobey leaned his elbows on the desk. “What’s on your mind, Starsky?”
Starsky walked stiffly to his usual guest chair and sat down. “I need to ask for a couple of days off, Cap.” He didn’t look anywhere in the room, he studied his knees. “As Hutch may already have told you, I haven’t been sleeping very well, since we found out Armstrong’s exercising the skills he learned in the army.” He raised his head and met Dobey’s intense gaze. “It’s brought back some bad memories of ‘Nam and I don’t want to take the chance that I’d be distracted when Hutch and I are on the street. He could get killed, Captain, and I won’t let that happen.”
Hutch stepped forward, “Listen, Starsk --”
Starsky jumped up and turned, a hand out warding Hutch off. “I know what you’re going to say, Hutch, but let me finish, okay?” He swung his attention back to Dobey. “I have to get my head straight. By myself. A couple of days, that’s all I’m asking.”
Hutch could tell Dobey wanted his input but resisted the urge to look at him - he nodded instead. “Whatever, Starsky. You’ve got a slew of vacation days piled up, take a few. Hell! Take all next week.”
“Thanks, Cap!” Starsky backed toward the door, looking relieved but Hutch caught the underlying tension. “See ya, partner!” Starsky threw him a quick salute and was gone.
“What just happened?” Dobey asked.
Hutch stopped in front of the desk. “There was more to that tape the other night than Starsky let us hear. I know it!”
“You really think they’ve arranged a confrontation?”
“Armstrong said he was competitive,” Hutch pointed out.
“Like Gunsmoke? Face each other on Main Street? Have a shootout?”
“Not Main Street, Cap’n. Starsky would never put bystanders in jeopardy. He’s got someplace else in mind.” A thought came to him and he headed for the door. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
Hutch raced down the stairs to the garage and grabbed the sergeant in charge of the motor pool. “Did Starsky check out a plain wrap recently?”
“Yeah, Hutch, he took one of the Crown Vics the other night.”
Hutch led the way to a wall of clipboards. “How much mileage did he put on it?”
“Let me check.” One of the boards was lifted down and studied. “Looks like three hundred and twelve.”
“Thanks!” Hutch hurried back to up Dobey’s office, got permission to enter and shut the door behind him. “Starsky took an unmarked at eight o’clock Tuesday night, brought it back just before work the next morning.”
Dobey didn’t need to have anything else explained. “How many miles?”
“Three hundred and twelve.”
Dobey got up and pulled a map out of his bookcase. When he opened it on top of his desk, Hutch approached. “A hundred fifty-six, one way.” After a few moments of study, Hutch put his finger on Anza Borego State Park.
At home, Starsky accumulated everything he already owned that he thought he might need. He loaded it all in a large duffle bag and set it under the window overlooking the alley. Then he sat down and made a list of those items he’d have to buy. After dark, he added timers to a couple of lamps, climbed out the back window and dropped softly to the ground. He wouldn’t put it past Hutch to have staked out his place, to try and find out what he was up to. Armstrong was a given, of course; he was pretty sure the assassin was watching him. All he could do was keep his fingers crossed that neither of them was covering the rear of the complex.
Starsky walked a couple of blocks to a bus stop, hopped the next one that came along and got off a few miles from his place. He’d checked the Yellow Pages and found out where the nearest car rental agency was located. Hailing a cab, he went there. A black Mustang was available and, satisfied, he accepted it.
Parking close to the wall behind his apartment, Starsky climbed on the roof of the car and leaped for the windowsill. He quickly hauled himself inside and began lowering his supplies. He didn’t like leaving the window unlocked but trusted that no one would notice it and take advantage before he got back.
In the little town of Julian, west of Anza Borego, he checked into the Motel 6 and, to his immense surprise, slept for nearly eight hours!
Saturday was spent canvassing all the army surplus stores between the park and San Diego, filling his list of requirements.
Hutch couldn’t help himself, he drove by Starsky’s place a dozen times on Saturday. The Torino was in its usual parking slot and he resisted the awful temptation to knock on the door. If Starsky was there, cleaning or doing laundry, he’d be pissed. If he wasn’t, Hutch would be even more worried.
When he went home he was unable to concentrate on any of the chores he knew he should be tackling. The phone rang at a little before ten p.m. and, relieved, he expected the voice on the other end to be Starsky’s. It wasn’t.
“Yeah.” Dobey sounded unsure of himself. “I don’t honestly know why I’m calling, I just haven’t been able to get Starsky out of my mind.”
Hutch swallowed hard. “I know what you mean.”
“Have you been by his place?”
Hutch tried to hide his embarrassment. “Yes, sir, I drove past there a bunch of times today.”
“Not that I could see. I didn’t spot anyone who fit the description we have of Armstrong but I imagine he’d be invisible if he wanted to be. The Torino was there. I didn’t knock on the door.”
“So, what do we do?” Dobey was audibly perplexed. “Wait?”
“I don’t know what else we can do, Captain. I’m positive Starsky wouldn’t put innocent people in jeopardy so I’m sure he hasn’t agreed to a meet with Armstrong while there are visitors in the park. What I’ve learned is that the place is basically deserted during the week, from Sunday night through Friday afternoon. I’m betting that whatever the two of them have set up will be for Monday.”
“I know the sheriff out there in Imperial County. I’m going to call him first thing tomorrow morning.”
“On a Sunday? What could he do?”
“I have no idea, Hutchinson, but maybe he and I can think of something.”
“Let me know, okay? Please?”
On Sunday, Starsky scouted Anza Borego again, meeting, talking with, and hiking among a few visitors. Everyone seemed friendly. Starsky sincerely hoped all the sear-country nature lovers would be gone by dark.
After the sliver-moon had set, Starsky left the Mustang next to the closed guard shack again and, carrying a large duffle, made his way to the spot he’d chosen. There, he placed a mannequin dressed in his clothes, wearing a dark, curly-haired wig, into the shadowed recess under the standing and leaning stones. A no-firing-pin rifle, fitted with a scope, was placed in the prone dummy’s hands. Even if Armstrong watched for hours, he’d know that a sniper had to be able to remain motionless for long periods of time. Starsky wasn’t too worried about his ‘double’ not moving.
Now, all he had to do was get to his own place of concealment without Armstrong spotting him. He moved carefully, cautiously, but as rapidly as possible and was in position by midnight. The moonless, smog-free, light-pollution-free sky blazed with billions of stars, enough to cast diffuse shadows. If he didn’t die tomorrow, he’d remember to tell Hutch about this gorgeous night.
His vantage point was above a wildlife trail that wound its way through a dry creek bed. It was directly across the valley from the rocks where he’d placed the be-wigged dummy.
Starsky waited and watched. It was tedious in the extreme but he was grateful that he’d learned this kind of patience in ‘Nam. At one point, he thought he could see someone moving at a snail’s pace toward where the imitation of him was concealed. He stared through his binoculars but the person was so cautious, he lost him in the shadows of the rocks and cliff.
Starsky’s instincts told him Armstrong hadn’t gotten close enough to determine that the occupant of the hiding place wasn’t alive, just that someone, presumably Starsky, had beaten him to the prime location. Now Armstrong was most likely moving across the intervening mile to the second site Starsky hoped his opponent had found. He realized he was wagering an awful lot on his own assumptions but he had no choice.
As the eastern sky began to lighten a little, a figure Starsky recognized as Armstrong crept along the path below him, his attention focused on the leaning- and standing-rock formation a mile away. Dressed in desert-colored jacket and pants, he carried a duffle bag and moved like smoke.
Starsky checked his watch. It was almost a full hour before the agreed-upon six a.m. but he wasn’t surprised that Armstrong was early. He, himself, had been even earlier. Starsky almost smiled. Until his sixth sense caused the hair on the back of his neck to bristle. Slowly, he turned only his head.
Swallowing embarrassment, irritation, and more than a little awe, he nodded at Hutch who had crawled to within a few feet of his right shoulder.
“I almost made it.” Hutch’s words were nearly inaudible.
Starsky let out the breath he’d unconsciously sucked in. “I wasn’t totally focused yet. Can’t say I heard you, though, because you didn’t make a sound. I think I felt your presence.”
“Is that a good thing?”
“A very good thing.” Starsky gave his partner a crooked grin. “How’d you know?”
“I could try being coy or cute but the fact is I asked Jimmy, in the motor pool, and he told me how far you’d driven.”
“Ah. Damn, Hutchinson, you’ll make a terrific detective one of these days.” Starsky looked down the hill, making sure Armstrong wasn’t aware of them as Hutch elbowed next to him. “Still, how’d you find me out here?” he whispered. “Pretty sure I didn’t leave any tracks.”
“Dobey called the Imperial County Sheriff’s Department. They set me up with a helicopter.”
Starsky raised an eyebrow. “I didn’t hear a chopper.”
“It’s one of the new ones with stealth-mode capability. Plus, I had a really good pair of binoculars, and the reflective stripes on your sneakers were glowing. Starlight, I guess.”
“Huh.” Starsky cast a glance over his shoulder at the Adidas that had given him away. “Where’d he set the thing down?”
Hutch cocked his head over his shoulder. “Behind that rise. It’s a little two-seater and couldn’t take all of us. The pilot said he’d wait in the parking lot. A few deputies are on their way.”
Starsky had to accept the fact that he hadn’t been able to keep Hutch out of things after all. And, deep inside, he was really glad.
“Armstrong here yet?” Hutch asked.
Starsky nodded down-slope and Hutch inched forward. Together, they watched Armstrong take up a position directly opposite the rocky shelter where Starsky had hidden his Doppelganger - the place Starsky had been certain he’d choose. As the assassin began unpacking his already-scoped rifle and bi-pod, Starsky caught Hutch’s eye.
“After you,” Hutch silently mouthed.
Without needing verbal communication with his partner, Starsky made his way, soundlessly, down and around to Armstrong’s left. He knew Hutch was doing the same on the right.
Starsky was pretty sure Armstrong was so focused he couldn’t have heard him but he waited until the assassin took a deep breath, steadied himself, and fired. Even without binoculars, Starsky saw the head of the figure in the far-off rocks blow apart.
Armstrong raised up on his elbows and opened his mouth, possibly in preparation for a victory yell.
Starsky lurched forward and pressed the muzzle of his Beretta to the killer’s temple. “Good shot.”
Armstrong flung himself to the side and onto his back. That was as far as he got, though, because Hutch was standing over him, his Python pointing between Armstrong’s eyes.
“Yup, you sure do need a lookout, all right,” Hutch drawled.
Armstrong glared at Starsky. “You cheat! We agreed on six o’clock.”
Starsky laughed out loud. “Just because I cheated a little better than you did, you’re pissed? Tough shit!” He stood up, holstered his weapon, and flipped Armstrong onto his belly. Hutch handed him a set of cuffs and Starsky fastened them on. “Thomas Taylor Armstrong, you’re under arrest. Charges will be specified and rights will be read before we ask you a single question.”
After Hutch had holstered his gun, they hauled Armstrong to his feet. While his partner kept a tight hold, Starsky packed up the weapon and bi-pod. Hoisting the case to his shoulder, he took Armstrong’s other arm and they began the long walk to the parking lot.
“You gotta let me go, Starsky.” Armstrong’s voice was controlled but strained. “Either that or snuff me right now. I’ll never live to stand trial. I know too much. About too many people.”
Starsky was unmoved. “Should have thought about that before you started selling your talents.”
“You do the same thing,” Armstrong accused. “You get paid for the people you kill! I’ve read your files. Once a shooter, Starsky, always a shooter!”
“Bad guys, Armstrong,” Hutch said. “Only bad guys. People like you.”
“What a crock o’ shit!” Armstrong stared at Hutch, then Starsky. “You both take lives when you have to. You’re the same as me.”
Starsky caught Hutch’s eye and shared understanding. “Think what you want, T.T. I prefer my job, and my partner, over anything you’ve got.”
“Always figured you were soft, Starsky.” Armstrong’s tone was a blatant put-down. “You’d never make it in my line of work.”
“Thankfully.” Hutch’s word was spoken so quietly, Starsky didn’t know if Armstrong had heard. More importantly, he didn’t care - he knew Hutch had forgiven him.
In the parking lot, two sheriff’s department cars were waiting next to a small helicopter. The Mustang was still beside the now-occupied entrance shack.
“Where’s your vehicle, Armstrong?” Hutch asked.
“That’s for me to know and you to find out, Hutchinson,” Armstrong snarled.
“He probably came in from one of the other entrances, Hutch,” Starsky said. “The Sheriff’s Department can look for it.”
As Starsky and Hutch, with Armstrong between them, approached, four deputies got out of the two cars. “I see you got him, Detective,” one of the officers said to Hutch.
“Yes indeed.” Hutch cocked his head at Starsky. “This is my partner, Detective Starsky.”
“And the one in the middle is the suspect you were after?” another deputy asked.
Starsky looked straight into Armstrong’s angry eyes. “Sure is.” He handed the rifle case to the uniform. “This man just shot the head off a mannequin out in the rocks. I doubt that there’s much left of the slug but I think your lab will be able to match the weapon, and the extra ammunition, with the bullet that killed Marcus Dennison. Our D.A. can take it from there.”
The officers locked Armstrong in the back seat of the nearest patrol car.
“Should we send a team out to look for the bullet he just fired?” the older of the four - J. Tilden, according to his nametag - inquired, formally.
Starsky checked wordlessly with Hutch before he shook his head. “Probably not worth the time and effort.”
“It’s against the law to fire a weapon in a state park, you know,” Tilden stated.
Starsky offered a small smile. “If you think it’s worth pursuing, Deputy Tilden, go for it. But if there’s any justice left in the world, T.T. Armstrong, there, is going away for a very long time for the assassination of Senator Berkley’s right hand man.”
Tilden folded his tent with good grace. “I see your point, Detective.” He turned toward his car, stopped and looked back. “You’ll both come in and give us your statements, right?”
“You bet,” Starsky assured him.
“Great!” Tilden got behind the wheel. “We’ll follow you to Bay City, afterward, and turn him over to you there.”
“Give me a minute to thank the pilot, Starsk.” Hutch hurried to the chopper and spoke to the man leaning against the aircraft. The guy nodded, climbed inside, flipped a few switches, and the blades began to turn. Hutch ducked under them and hurried back to Starsky.
After the dust from the departing helicopter had settled, Starsky nudged his partner. “You go on with the deputies, Hutch. I have to clean up the mess Armstrong made of my bait.”
Hutch pulled his pocket watch out and opened the cover. “How long?”
Starsky checked his own watch. “An hour? Hour and a half?”
Hutch looked at Tilden. “Can you guys wait for us?”
“Hey! What about me?” Armstrong hollered from the back seat. “It’s gonna get hot out here!” He was ignored.
Tilden shrugged. “We’ve got plenty of water and candy bars. Take your time.”
As they walked out of the parking lot, Starsky put his arm around Hutch’s shoulders. “Thanks, partner.”
“Starsky, don’t ever do something like this to me again.”
Starsky tightened his grip. “Never.”
Two weeks later, Starsky and Hutch picked Molly and Kiko up from their house and took them to the nearest Baskin/Robbins.
Both kids opted for ‘everything’ Sundaes, while Starsky settled for a double chocolate and Hutch chose a single scoop of vanilla.
Molly and Kiko tried not to gobble but failed miserably. Finally coming up for air, Molly wiped her mouth with a napkin. “So, you think we helped solve the case?”
Hutch nearly choked on his mouthful of creamy goodness. “Helped? You broke it!”
“Yep,” Starsky agreed. “If you hadn’t insisted that Mrs. Marshall call us, we’d never have gone to that ledge, and Saunders and Dietrich might never have figured out who shot Marcus Dennison.”
“Well, then…” Molly began, tentatively, “could you, maybe, help us?”
Starsky was instantly wary. “Help you with what?”
When neither youngster replied, Hutch asked, “What have you two done now?”
Molly’s face flushed beet red. “Well… I sorta talked Kiko into ditching classes on Friday and the excuse notes I forged didn’t pass scrutiny.”
Kiko put his spoon down. “We got caught.”
“We’re in detention for the rest of the month!” Molly’s voice had drifted into a whine.
Starsky glanced at Hutch. “He’s your Little Brother, partner. I got no say in this.”
Hutch gazed solemnly at each teenager. “What was so important you played hooky from school?”
“Armstrong’s preliminary hearing,” Kiko answered.
“We wanted to make sure he’s actually going to stand trial, not get shunted off into some secret agency where he’d only keep doing what he’s been doing,” Molly added, vehemently. “And we didn’t want to have to read about it in the papers!”
Starsky tried to hide a smile. “Well… I guess…”
“We’ll talk to your principal,” Hutch finished. “Since you broke the case for us, maybe he’ll understand why you wanted to be at the courthouse in person.”
“We’re not saying that we can get you off completely,” Starsky continued, “but we’ll do our best.”
“That’s great!” Molly punched Kiko’s arm. “I told you they’d come through, didn’t I?” Triumphant, she turned back to Starsky and Hutch. “And, maybe you could talk to our mom, too? She grounded us.”
Hutch was visibly confused. “How did you get permission to come with us today if you’re grounded?”
Kiko must have figured the question was a no-brainer. “It’s you, isn’t it?” he huffed. “No way she’d keep us from going anywhere with you guys.”
Starsky suddenly felt like he was out of his element. “Okay. That makes sense, but… uh… well… it’s your mother and…”
Hutch shook his head. “I think what Starsky’s trying to say is, he and I feel it’s okay to attempt an intervention at school, but…”
“With your mom,” Starsky completed the thought, “you’re on your own.”
“Awwwwwwwwwwwww” Kiko and Molly moaned.