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When the rent on a storage unit in South Bay City was sixty days overdue, Morgan Tippet, the U-Store lot’s owner, had his maintenance man, Ron, cut off the padlock, slide the door up, and flip the overhead light on.

Ron’s mouth dropped open. “What the hell is that?”

Tippet walked into the space, empty except for what appeared to be a black and white police car.

“One-Adam-Twelve!” Ron exclaimed. “What’s it doin’ here?”

Morgan said nothing as he walked to the right side of the vehicle and approached the open passenger door. He’d spotted something he couldn’t quite believe. There was what appeared to be dried blood - a lot of it - all over the seat, and on the concrete floor under the car. That’s when he noticed what could only be bullet holes. There were six of them in the door panel.

He turned to his employee. “Remember, a little over two months ago, when everybody was looking for a fake patrol car?”

“Yeah. It was supposedly involved in that shooting at the Ninth Precinct.”

“I think we just found it.” Tippet headed for his office. “Don’t let anybody in here! Roll the door down and wait for me outside!”

*******

Captain Harold Dobey stood, with Tippet and his maintenance man, out of the way. Dobey stared at the car. Nothing had been moved, the door was still open, and his crime scene team was all over the place. The vehicle had been dusted for prints but every surface had been wiped. The job must have been done in a hurry, however, because numerous partials had been recovered. Samples of the dried material had been taken and, if a suspect was found, the blood and partial prints would prove he was part of the attempted assassination of Detective David Starsky.

Unfortunately, with the amount of blood that had soaked into the upholstery and splattered the door panel, plus what had solidified in a pool under the car, it was possible the shooter hadn’t lived very long after his escape from the police garage.

A BCPD tow truck backed up to the entrance and the driver hopped out. “Okay to take it to the station, now, Captain?”

Dobey caught the lead tech’s attention. “Have you got everything you need, Dan?”

The tech nodded. “Yes, sir, for now. We’ll take it down to the frame once we get it to the garage. I can almost guarantee that whatever slugs Hutchinson put into this car - the ones the suspect didn’t carry away with him - are here somewhere. Well find ‘em, sir! An’ they’ll be nails in these guys’ coffins, when you bring ‘em in.”

Dobey gestured for things to proceed. “I’ll be at Hutch’s place.” He turned to the lot’s owner and offered his hand. “We really appreciate your calling us, Mr. Tippet. Dan will let you know when he’s finished, so you can rent the unit again.”

Tippet shook the hand, appearing shaken himself. “All these years Gunther’s been renting this space. Like everybody else, I’ve been following the story on the news so, when I saw the name on the rental agreement, I knew you guy’s’d be interested.”

Dobey nodded. “We were, indeed.” He headed for his Crown Vic. “Thanks, again.” As he pulled out of the yard, he drew in a deep breath. Finally! he thought. A break in the shooting! He couldn’t wait to tell his two best detectives. Maybe, just maybe, now, they’d find the men who had tried to carry out James Marshall Gunther’s orders.

As he drove to Venice Place, he considered the last update he’d had from the D.A., regarding the status of the man awaiting trial. Bail had been denied and all Gunther’s assets had been frozen.

The chief had agreed to give Hutchinson partial leave, with his time divided, as needed, between working with the prosecutor to put an air-tight case together, and taking care of Starsky. That, of course, required a great deal of Hutch’s attention. First, it was hospital time because Hutch had refused to leave Starsky’s side until it was accepted, by all parties, that his partner was, at last, off the might-not-make-it list, had endured a near-fatal infection, and then - finally - gained ready-for-release status.

Starsky had been discharged the week before and had taken up residence at Hutch’s apartment. Dobey’s wife, Edith, plus Huggy Bear and his waitresses, along with every member of the Ninth’s squad of detectives who wasn’t on an active case, were taking care of the myriad of details involved in helping Starsky recuperate.

It was a miracle that he was alive at all, much less on the road to recovery. Dobey sent silent gratitude to the Big Guy. Again. Thank you. I don’t know if this information will help Starsky or not, but it sure makes my day!

Having knocked on the door at Hutch’s apartment, and only slightly out of breath from the climb, Dobey waited patiently. After a few minutes, when he didn’t hear anything from inside, he knocked again. He knew the key that formerly resided on the lintel had been removed and a peep hole installed. Activities that were too long in coming, in his opinion.

“Sorry, Capt’n,” Hutch was muttering when he opened the door. “I didn’t hear you knock.”

Dobey entered as Hutch locked the door behind them. “No problem. It gave me a chance to catch my breath.” He looked toward the other half of his best pair of detectives, who was exiting the bathroom, barefooted, wearing sweat pants, a green robe, and towel-drying his hair. “Look at you, Starsky! On your feet and moving like you were never shot!”

“Not quite, Cap, but I am gettin’ better. Hutch only has to spot me in the bathroom these days - make sure I don’t fall when I’m takin’ a shower or a leak.” He walked to the couch and sat down, carefully. “Did we know you were comin’, and I forgot? Or is this not a social call?”

“I suppose it’s not a social call.” Dobey sat in the chair opposite the couch.

“Want some coffee, Captain?” Hutch headed toward the kitchen. “I made a fresh pot.”

“Not right now.” Dobey waited while Hutch joined his partner on the couch. “Possibly, after I tell you what we just found.”

Starsky perked up like a hound on the scent. “Okay, you got our attention. Give!”

Dobey smiled inside. He hadn’t been sure he’d ever see Starsky exhibit this much excitement again. Thank you, Lord. He sat back. “We got a call this morning, from a self-storage facility owned by a man named, Morgan Tippet. He said he had a unit with rent that was sixty days overdue. The rental was in the name of Gunther Enterprises.”

Starsky and Hutch were more patient than Dobey expected. Still, the tension was palpable.

“So, as is Tippet’s policy,” Dobey continued, “he had the padlock cut off and the unit opened.” He knew he was dragging things out, but he couldn’t resist. The previous two months had seen a scarcity of upbeat situations and he was enjoying the anticipation pulsing off the two men opposite him.

“And…?” Starsky prodded.

Dobey allowed his inner smile to show on his face. “A phony squad car with six bullet holes in it.”

“I did hit it!” Hutch’s satisfaction was evident.

“You sure did,” Dobey agreed. “All the bullets went through the right front door and at least one hit the passenger. Possibly more than one, from the amount of blood he left behind.”

“The shooter.” Starsky nudged his partner. “You did good!”

“Any indication about where the two guys went, after they ditched the car?” Hutch was practically vibrating.

“The blood trail ended just outside the unit’s rollup door,” Dobey told them. “They must have had someone waiting for them.”

Starsky leaned back. “So we’re no closer than we were.”

“Not true, Starsky,” Dobey responded, firmly. “We have a specific place to start now, and we’ll question everyone in the vicinity of that storage yard. It was broad daylight! Someone probably saw the car go into the lot, and might have seen which direction the exiting vehicle took.” He tried to appear hopeful. “It’s more than we had.”

Hutch put his arm around his partner’s shoulders. “He’s right, Starsk. It’s definitely more than we had.”

Starsky nodded. “So what now?”

“We start asking questions and keep our ears to the ground.” Dobey got to his feet. “I’ll make sure you guys know anything I hear as soon as I hear it.” He considered for a moment, wondering if it would be wise to ask for Huggy Bear’s help. Dobey and Huggy got along well, considering the Bear’s, at times, dubious shenanigans, but he was Starsky’s oldest friend and had, on numerous occasions, contributed to solving cases. He deserved to be included and might just be able to help, his contacts and sources of reliable information being legendary. Dobey sat back down. “What about Huggy?”

“Yes, sir. That’s a good idea!” Starsky tried to get to his feet, grimacing with the effort.

Hutch put a hand on his shoulder and held him down. “Relax, partner. We’ll call Huggy in a minute.” He nodded at Dobey. “If anybody can find out where those guys went, it’ll be Huggy.”

“Good. I’ll leave that part to you, then.” He got up again and headed for the door.

Hutch rose and followed him. “What about that coffee, Captain?”

“You two drink it,” he answered. “Maybe throw a drop of whiskey in it…” He glanced at Starsky. “If that’s allowed. And make it a celebration.”

Hutch opened the door for him. “We might just do that. Thanks for coming, sir. And for the information.”

*******

Two days later, Hutch opened the door to Dobey and Huggy Bear. With what appeared to be satisfied expressions, they took chairs opposite the coffee table.

Starsky walked out of the greenhouse and lowered himself to the couch. He was dressed in his usual jeans and t-shirt, with a flannel shirt on top, but everything hung on him. It would take time before he regained the lost weight. Still, Hutch was proud of his partner’s progress. He was alive!

“Whatcha got?” Starsky asked.

Hutch sat next to him and put on his expectant face because that’s what he was. He knew the captain and Huggy wouldn’t be there if they didn’t have information.

Huggy scooted forward and perched on the front edge of his chair. “A cousin of mine in Mexico heard about two men who made it over the border a week after the shooting.” He cocked an eyebrow. “One was wounded pretty bad in the right leg.”

“Where are they now?” Hutch asked.

Huggy shrugged. “Not a clue. My cousin only heard about it, he never saw the dudes.”

Hutch didn’t try to hide his anticipation. “Where was this?”

“Mexicali, east of Tijuana,” Huggy answered.

Hutch lurched to his feet. “I need to go down there!”

Starsky reached up and grabbed Hutch’s arm. “Wait for me, Hutch! Give me a month or so, and we’ll go together.”

“The trail’s already cold, Starsk. If we wait, we may never pick it up. I have to go now!”

“Hold it a minute, Hutchinson.” Dobey was suddenly their captain again, in tone of voice and demeanor. “Let’s think about it. My first thought - other than the fact that it’s been a long time, and I can’t send anyone with you - is what happens to Starsky?”

Starsky pulled Hutch back down to the couch. “Much as I’d like to think I can take care of myself, partner, I know that’s not true.”

Dobey’s expression brightened. He caught Starsky’s attention. “Come to our house. Cal’s doubling up and taking the summer session at college, so you can have his first floor room. Edith and Rosey will love having you to dote on!”

Huggy grinned. “I’ll volunteer Anita, Diane and myself. We’ll be happy to chauffeur to P.T., doctors’ and shrinks’ appointments, depositions, whatever you need, Starsky.”

Dobey nodded, plainly in sync with the evolving plan. “I’m sure, if we all pitch in, we can take care of plant watering, keeping Hutch’s car’s battery charged, and apartment cleaning. Mail collection, bill paying, and the like.”

“But Hutch,” Starsky added, fear in his voice. “You can’t go alone!

“He won’t,” Huggy piped up. “I’ll go with him.”

That idea lessened the tension in the room and Hutch was encouraged by the lightening of his spirit. Starsky was obviously not thrilled, but even he finally nodded. Hutch got up to get beers for everyone.

When he came back, Dobey accepted his and took a swallow. “I can’t officially sanction anything, but I’ll tell you this, Hutch, the department will do whatever it can to help.”

*******

Hutch packed his undercover clothes, plus two changes of his regular shirts and cords, in a soft-sided suitcase, after Huggy had taken him shopping at the best thrift store he knew. A cover story of two gay guys on a tourist junket seemed to be far out but, at the same time, sort of believable. At least everyone hoped so.

Starsky tagged along to the shop, refusing to be left behind. As Hutch held each piece of polyester up in front of himself - each more flamboyant than the one before - Starsky became more and more enthusiastic. “Damn, Hutch, you make those tight pants and form-fittin’ sleazy shirts look good!

Huggy always had outrageous ensembles available, so his wardrobe didn’t need any additions.

The Caddy was loaded with not only Hutch and Huggy’s gear, but also what Starsky figured he’d need while at the Dobey’s. The drive was made in silence, though, as no one had anything to say. And too much.

Hutch took Starsky’s arm for support going up the front steps, while Huggy brought the duffle bag. Before Hutch could knock, Edith pulled the door open.

“Welcome, Dave.” She almost dragged him inside the foyer and hugged him. “I’m so glad you thought Harold’s idea was a good one. Rosie and I are going to take the best possible care of you.” She flushed a little. “Unless your mother was here, of course. I’m sure she’d think of things we won’t.”

Starsky kissed her cheek. “I could never ask for better nurses, Mrs. Dobey.”

Her flush became a blush. “None of that, now, Dave. We’ve all known each other too long for formalities. I’m Edith, from now on. Even after Hutch and Huggy get back, I expect all of you to call me Edith.” She attempted to look stern. “Is that clear?”

Starsky flashed her one of his patented full smiles. “Yes, ma’am!”

She led them to Cal’s room. “Please make yourself comfortable. Rosie will be home from school by four.”

What little needed to be done, in order to get Starsky settled, was accomplished in short order and Hutch knew it was time to leave. “Gotta go, partner.” He put a hand on Starsky’s arm. “With any luck at all, we’ll be back before you know it.” He started toward the front door and everyone followed.

Edith opened it but didn’t go out. Instead, she looked at Hutch, then Huggy, with hope, anxiety and encouragement all mingled in her expression. “Have a safe, and successful trip.” Before anyone could respond, she turned away and walked down the hall toward the kitchen. “Coffee and bagels, Dave, when you’re ready,” wafted back over her shoulder.

Hutch put his arms around Starsky and hugged for a moment. He didn’t want to leave but knew this was the only chance they’d ever have to bring the two fake cops to justice. With a final squeeze, he stepped back. “Pay strict attention to your nurses, now, Detective Starsky. I’ll be keeping tabs.”

“Oh, yeah?” Starsky’s attempt at levity was almost believable. “Just how do you expect to do that from down in the wilds of Mexico? Hombre?

Huggy chuffed. “Now, don’t you go bad mouthin’ my connections, Starsky. If Hutch says he’ll be keepin’ tabs, you better believe I’ll be helpin’ him do just that! So mind your P’s and Q’s ‘til we get back!”

Starsky tried to look chagrinned. “Yes, sir, Mr. Bear.” Then, he put a hand to the side of Hutch’s face and looked straight into his eyes without concealing any of the vulnerability he was obviously feeling. “Don’t let anything happen to you down there. I’ve put too many years into this partner-training thing to start over.”

Ignoring the fact that Huggy was witnessing their almost-intimate exchange, Hutch covered Starsky’s hand with his own and returned the soul-deep stare. “I promise I’ll be as safe as it’s possible to be. Try not to worry. Okay?”

“Yeah. Sure. You bet.” Suddenly, Starsky cracked a demented grin. “What? Me worry?”

With the deeply personal moment broken, they all laughed. Hutch and Huggy walked down the steps, Huggy got in the driver’s side and Hutch walked around to the passenger’s. Just before he got in the car, he exchanged one more long look with his partner. More than they’d ever silently said to each other was in that gaze. I’ll be back, Hutch told his best friend.

You better be! resounded in Hutch’s head.

*******

Hutch and Huggy crossed the border in Huggy’s Cadillac convertible and found the cousin in Mexicali, at his produce stand. The veggies and fruit looked fresh and delicious and, not knowing what food might be available in the future, Hutch decided they should stock up with non-perishables before they left.

Huggy performed introductions. “Detective Ken Hutchinson, I’d like you to meet Willie Albertolez.”

Hutch held his hand out. “Glad to meet you.”

Willie took it and shook. “Right back atcha. Huggy tells me you want to find the two dudes I heard about a coupla months ago.”

“That’s right,” Huggy said. “Want to, as in highest priority. What can you tell us?”

“Well, first, I gotta ask…” Willie scanned Hutch and Huggy’s clothes. “What kinda undercover shit you wearin’?”

Hutch glanced down at his colorfully patterned polyester shirt, snug flared slacks, and numerous gold chains. “You don’t like my threads?”

Huggy cuffed the back of Willie’s head. “Now don’t go makin’ Hutch all paranoid. I swore we’d look like perfectly normal homosexuals.”

Willie snorted. “‘Perfectly normal,’ and ‘homosexual’ don’t exactly sound right in the same sentence t’ me, but I’ll let it pass. You probably won’t get hassled here as much as you might in Bay City.”

Huggy nodded. “That’s what we’re thinkin’.”

“Okay. So, let’s get to my pad and I’ll tell you everything I’ve been able to learn since you let me know you were on your way.” He indicated that his assistant should take over the stand before he got in the back seat of the Caddy.

Hutch and Huggy got in the front and Huggy started driving. “Where to?”

Willie pointed over Huggy’s shoulder. “Straight ahead.”

*******

Hutch didn’t bother unpacking his bag and neither did Huggy. They’d only be in this second-rate hotel overnight, after all. “Willie wasn’t much help, but it did give us a direction to follow.”

“Yeah,” Huggy grumbled. “South.”

Hutch headed for the tiny bathroom. “At least we got to talk to Starsky!”

“Worst static I ever heard outta Ma Bell,” Huggy muttered.

“Better than nothing.” Hutch turned the water on in the tiny shower stall. "Not much."

Hutch didn’t sleep very well that night. His bed was lumpy and Huggy, in his, snored. He tried to content himself with the fact that they were here, on the trail of the men who had tried to kill his partner. He fell asleep with the vision of deep blue eyes peering into his from Dobey’s front door, and silently wishing him all the luck in the world.

*******

In the first village south of Mexicali, they found a friend of Willie’s who, seemingly reluctantly, answered their questions. “Yeah. I think two guys came through here. Maybe they found a doctor who’d treat a bullet wound without reporting it. Maybe the man lived. Maybe he died. Either way, they’re long gone. I don’t know nothin’ else.”

Hutch and Huggy left the informant, feeling they hadn’t learned a thing. At the hotel, Hutch was told all the phones in town were out of order. Had been for a couple of months - ever since a particularly heavy Spring rain - but the manager was hopeful service would be restored soon. Possibly by winter?

Hutch and Huggy went to their room and traded unhappy thoughts. “I can’t believe the pitiful telephone service down here, Huggy!”

“I know. And I understand your frustration. It’s tough not being able to talk to Starsky with decent reception.”

“I couldn’t make out half of what he said last time!”

“Maybe it’ll be better in the next village.”

From your mouth to God’s ear, Hutch thought. He stretched out on the sagging bed and tried to go to sleep.

*******

In the slightly larger village they stopped in the following day - with a two-star inn - they found not only better phone service, but another friend of Willie’s who was more helpful.

That night, in their room, Hutch had to shout but at least Starsky could hear him. “Listen to this, Starsk. In addition to a room with a working phone, we learned that the guys came through here three weeks after the shooting.”

“One was hurt, right?” Starsky asked.

“Yes,” Hutch replied. “The local sawbones treated him. He scooped out a lot of infection and put some sort of sulfa compound on the wound.”

“That’s great!” Starsky yelled. “So you know they were both still alive.”

Hutch could tell his partner was doing his best to sound positive. He ached, though, because where he really longed to be was back in Bay City. Back where he could help with whatever Starsky needed. Whenever he needed it. Not here, in Mexico, following out-of-date leads to Gunther’s goons.

Static on the line caused Hutch to miss the next words. “What was that, Starsk? I couldn’t hear you.”

“Nothin’ really, Hutch.” Starsky had lowered his voice, as if discouraged, and Hutch had to struggle to make out his partner’s next words. “Just said I hope you can track ‘em down soon, ‘cause I miss you. Guess we’re losin’ the connection. Better hang up. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that the next time you call, we’ll be able to hear each other.”

Hutch was disappointed but realized it was a good thought. “Yeah, me too. Sleep well.”

Whatever Starsky might have replied was lost. Hutch hung up, more determined than ever to finish this search as soon as possible, so he could get back to his partner.

Huggy was out rounding up something to eat and, on a sudden thought, Hutch dug paper and a pen out of his luggage and sat down at the desk.

Dear Starsk,
Let me tell you a few of the things Huggy and I have encountered, so far. We haven‘t been hassled very much, surprisingly. The people we’ve met seem more amused than anything else. Maybe being gay in rural Mexico isn’t as precarious as it would be in Bay City.
As you know, though, phone service down here is a mess, when it’s available at all. I sure miss being able to talk to you, bounce ideas off your hard head, imagine a gleam in your eye when you think of something.
If I ever have a chance to mail this, with any hope you’ll receive it, you can laugh at some of our antics.

He wrote until Huggy came back. Then he folded the pages and stuck them in his bag. He had no idea where he’d find a post office. Or even if postal service would be reliable. Still, he felt better for having connected, on some level, with his best friend.

Huggy doled out their dinner while Hutch told him about his phone call and the letter he’d started. “It was good just to… talk to him.”

Huggy sent him an appraising look. “Are you uncomfortable with the roles we’re playin’, Hutch? We could ditch these slinky duds and just be tourists, ya know.”

“No,” Hutch replied, immediately. “Starsky and I have skirted the territory with our Mr. Marlene and Mr. Tyrone personas, after all.”

“It’s not the same thing, and you know it.”

“No, it’s not. But I’m okay.”

*******

Rosie Dobey was in heaven! She had her Uncle Dave to care for whenever she wasn’t at school, doing homework, or chores. She read to him, and they went for short walks together - a little longer each time. She even coaxed him into the backyard once in a while to shoot hoops.

Starsky knew he was getting better and stronger every day. But, God! He missed Hutch! His partner always knew when he was hurting and was usually able to massage the worst of the pain away, without Starsky having to depend on medication all the time. Not willing to become addicted, he did without as often as possible.

One afternoon, after they’d come in from a walk, he confided in his ‘nurse.’ “I miss him, Rosie.”

She jumped up and ran to the desk. “Write to him!” Bringing back a pad of paper and pen, she handed them to him.

“I don’t know where he is. Wouldn’t know how to get a letter to him.”

“That doesn’t matter. Write anyway! Even if you can’t mail them, you’ll have them all for him to read when he gets back.” She leaned forward. “I did that with my best friend when I was ten. She moved away and couldn’t tell me where. I wrote to her anyway. Never had the chance to mail them but it made me feel better.”

With Rosie staring at him, Starsky thought about it. Maybe it wasn’t a bad idea - he could tell Hutch anything! Get things off his chest, confess to the pain he felt after exhausting PT sessions.

She stood up, apparently satisfied that her suggestion had taken root. “I’ll call you when dinner’s ready.”

Starsky sat at the desk, and tried to get his thoughts in order.

H

Rosie has great hands. Almost as good as yours. Yesterday I was in a lot of pain after PT and she was able to rub the worst of the knots out of my back. Did you realize she’s as tall as the Captain? I hadn’t. And she’s going to be a power forward on her basketball team, or I miss my guess.

Jigsaw puzzles! I haven’t worked one of those since I was a kid! We’ve got a thousand-piecer going at the moment.

Dobey says he’s doing his best with the Federales but he’s getting nowhere. They either don’t have any information on the two guys you’re looking for, or they’re just not cooperating. He says he won’t give up, though, and, knowing how dug in he can get about some things, I’d bet he’ll find somebody down there to help.

In the meantime, I just want to let you know that I miss you. Hurry home, okay?

S

P.S. Edith is an even better cook than I remembered. I’m going to be fat by the time you get back if you’re gone too long.

*******

In the cantina of yet another village, Hutch thought they might have run across some good luck for a change. A heavy-set, Pancho-Villa-mustached man mumbled a few words in Spanish. Without waiting for a response, he headed for the back door.

Hutch nudged Huggy. “Says he has information for us.” He threw some pesos on the bar and they followed the man into the alley.

Unfortunately, there were two more men waiting for them and all three had their menacing faces firmly in place and their fists clenched.

"No nos gustan los homosexuales en nuestra ciudad". (“We don’t like queers in our town.”) This came, with a snarl, from the Villa character.

“Had to happen sooner or later, I guess.” Hutch didn’t have to raise his voice above a whisper because Huggy was pressed against his shoulder.

“How do you want to play it?” Huggy muttered.

“By ear, I think.” Hutch took one step forward and spread his hands in the universal gesture of ‘no problem.’ "Estamos planeando irnos por la mañana, muchachos". ("We're planning to leave in the morning, fellas.")

Mustache shook his head. "¡No lo suficientemente pronto!" ("Not soon enough!") He lunged.

Hutch side-stepped and stuck out his arm, clothes-lining the next thug that was rushing toward him. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Huggy kick the third man in the shins, before stomping on his foot.

While all three were gathering themselves for further assault, Hutch tried again. "Miren, chicos, no queremos ninguno -" ("Look, guys, we don't want any --")

Villa was surprisingly quick, and caught Hutch on the side of the face with a left. Hutch felt the skin over his cheekbone split and winced. Shit! That stings! He caught the next thrown fist in his large right hand and squeezed, hard. The unexpected pain that must have lanced up Villa’s arm sent the guy to his knees.

One of the thugs ran toward Hutch and, while holding Villa on the ground, Hutch kicked the charging man in the crotch.

With a piercing wail, that man grabbed his groin and collapsed.

Huggy was just in the process of delivering a blow to the instep-crunched man’s kidneys with a two-by-four, apparently snatched up from a weathered pile at the side of the building. The piece of wood broke but not before some pain had been dealt out.

With all three attackers on the ground, Hutch kept his hold on Villa’s fist and added pressure. When the trio’s leader looked up and whined, Hutch stared him down. "La próxima vez que juzgues un libro por su portada, amigo, quizás quieras pensarlo dos veces antes de empezar algo que no puedas terminar". (“The next time you judge a book by it’s cover, amigo, you might want to think twice before starting something you can’t finish.”)

Clearly defeated, the man nodded.

Hutch let go and, while the three men helped each other to their feet, he squared his shoulders and dropped the limp-wristed posture he’d been cultivating since crossing the border. With his fists on his hips, he glared at the three. "¿Significa esto que nunca tuviste información para nosotros?" ("Does this mean you never had information for us?")

Villa now looked even more sullen. "No, señor. Sin información." ("No, sir, no information.")

Hutch allowed venom into his tone and didn’t bother with Spanish. “Get out of here!”

They might not have understood the words, but they scurried away.

Hutch turned to Huggy and studied the slightly bruised, happy face. “You okay?”

Huggy’s grin made his split lower lip bleed more heavily. He was clearly pleased with himself, though. “Fine as frog’s hair, m’ man.”

Chuckling, Hutch put his arm around the skinny shoulders and turned them both toward the mouth of the alley. “What does that mean, anyway?”

Huggy shrugged. “Damned if I know.”

Huggy got the first aid kit out of the trunk of his car and they made their way up to their room. The contents of the red and white box were sufficient to treat their minor injuries. Huggy didn’t think his bruised ribs needed taping, and his lip would heal by itself.

While Huggy was applying a butterfly bandage to the cut on Hutch’s cheek, Hutch allowed the depression the attack had caused to creep into his voice. “I guess I spoke too soon when I told Starsky we hadn’t been hassled.”

Huggy packed up the unused items, in case they needed them in the future. “You haven’t mailed the letter, yet. Don’t tell him.”

“Oh, he’ll know. Even if this cut’s healed and the bruises have disappeared by then, he’ll know.”

Huggy looked him in the eye. “You two are that tight, huh?”

Hutch didn’t look away. “Tighter.”

“Thought so. You gonna do somethin’ about it when you get back?”

“I don’t know, Hug. I honestly don’t know. I’m so scared I’ll lose him.”

“Not if he feels the same way.”

“You think that’s possible?”

“He’s been my best friend for more than twenty years, Hutch, and, to my knowledge, he’s never swung that way. But, I’ll tell ya this, since you brought him back from the dead, he’s changed.”

“I didn’t --”

“Don’t give me that, Blondie. He’s alive today only because you wouldn’t let him go.”

“I’d have died, Hug. If he hadn’t come back, after that code.”

“I know it. And I’m pretty sure he does, too. Which is what I meant by what I said. He’s changed, and you guys need to talk about it.”

“Guess we’ll have to. At some point.”

“Don’t put it off, my friend. ‘Cause like you both know, and we just found out, again, anything can happen.”

*******

H

Rosie and I walked to the library today and I found a few old Raymond Chandlers. I started reading one to her. The writing’s a little dated, I guess, but she’s enjoying it. I am too! A hardboiled gumshoe - she didn’t know that word - doing his thing!

We finished the puzzle we’d been working on and Rosie spread Elmer’s Glue all over it. She says, when it dries, the glue will be clear, and I can frame it! I like the picture, so maybe I will. Cool, huh?

The walk kind of tired me out so I guess I’ll quit for tonight. Hope you two are taking care of each other and find those guys soon!

S

*******

Hutch and Huggy decided to give up their disguises and just be what they were - two Americans asking questions about two other Americans. Hutch gave his gay wardrobe to a bunch of guys who appeared to need the clothes, no matter what kind they were. He figured he could make the changes of normal clothes he’d brought with him last until they got home.

The trail they were doggedly following petered out in the mountains of central Mexico and they thought they were at a dead end. However, one evening, when they were nearly ready to give up, and returned to their one-star accommodation after questioning everyone in the village, Hutch was shocked to see a familiar person waiting in the so-called lobby.

Rosey Malone stood up and held out her hand. “Hello, Ken.”

Hutch approached, somewhat warily - he and Rosey had never been particularly friendly, and he had hated her for the callous way she’d deserted Starsky. He took the hand. “Hello, Rosey.” He let go and looked around. “It can’t be a coincidence, finding you here.”

She had the grace to blush. “It’s not.” She looked around, too. “Can we go somewhere and talk? I may be able to help.”

Hutch pulled Huggy up beside him. “Do you remember Huggy Bear?”

Huggy stuck his hand out and appropriated hers. “Wonderful to see you, Rosey Malone. I believe there’s a joint around the corner where we can get a non-poisonous cup of coffee.” He put his arm through her elbow and headed for the door. “How might you be of assistance?”

Hutch followed, more than willing to let Huggy take the lead. They walked to the cantina Huggy had mentioned and sat around a table outside. A waiter scurried over and took their order for coffees.

No one said anything until after they all had cups in front of them. Then Hutch broke the silence. “We’re listening.”

She sipped and managed not to grimace. Putting the cup down, she looked him in the eye. “My father’s organization has tentacles everywhere, and we heard about a gay American couple - the description of one sounded an awful lot like you, Hutch. Anyway, the two gay Americans were asking questions, as discreetly as possible, about a pair of Gringos who came to Mexico a couple of months ago - one injured.”

Hutch took a swallow of the muddy liquid and decided it was no worse than cop coffee. “So you heard about us, and the two we’re looking for. Go on.”

“I also heard rumors, at the time,” she continued, “about what the two Norteamericanos were running from.”

“And?” Huggy asked.

“Yesterday, my father gave me permission to use his connections to locate the two men.”

Hutch was skeptical. “And why would he, or you, for that matter, want to do that, Rosey?”

“My father doesn’t like the idea of two rogue assassins running around loose in his territory. As for me, I feel like I have an obligation to Dave. If I help you find these men, perhaps I won’t hate myself as much for the way I ran out on him.” She drank a little more coffee. “I wasn’t ready to commit to anyone, and I truly believed my father needed me more then Dave did.”

Hutch decided her offer was worth a shot. “Okay. What do you propose?”

She opened her purse and handed him a piece of paper. “Before I came here, my father made some inquiries. It turns out that the man in charge of one of his… offices farther south, knows of the men you’re looking for.”

Hutch read the note. “El Palmito?”

“It’s a village in the mountains,” she said. “The men are, apparently, holed up there.”

Huggy reached for the page and read it. Afterward, he folded it and slipped it in his pocket. “How up to date is this information?”

“Yesterday afternoon,” she replied.

Hutch got to his feet, throwing money on the table. “Come on, Hug!”

Rosey caught his arm. “Not tonight, Ken. The roads between here and there are bad, and I doubt that Mr. Bear’s Cadillac would make it.”

Huggy’s expression was a combination of offense and appreciation. “Thank you for your concern regarding my wheels, dear lady. And, if we are to be traveling companions, please call me Huggy.”

Hutch sat back down. “What do you suggest?”

“My father’s office here in town has reliable phone service. I’ll call him and ask for a vehicle capable of making the trip. If I know him, and I do, it’ll be here by morning.” She looked at Huggy. “Your car will be safe in the garage behind the office. I guarantee no one will touch it until we return.”

She drank the rest of her coffee before turning back to Hutch. “In the meantime, you can use the phone to call Dave and let him know that the trail has heated up. I’m sure he’ll be happy to hear that.”

Their destination wasn’t far and they walked. Inside, a conversation took place in Spanish between Rosey and the ‘manager.’ Hutch’s fluency in the language was good enough to know she only asked for the use of his office and the phone. She gave him no other information. The man ushered them into a small room and left.

Rosey picked up the receiver and held it out to Hutch. “You’ll need to put the call through with the operator but there shouldn’t be any problem. Dial zero.”

Hutch walked behind the desk and did as indicated. “Hello. Yes, I’d like to call Bay City, California, please.” He gave her the number at the Dobey’s house. It took a few minutes but, eventually, the phone on the other end rang.

“Hello?” It’s was Edith’s voice.

“Hello, Mrs. Dobey, it’s Ken Hutchinson.”

“Oh, hello, dear! We have a good connection this time. Hold on, Dave is right here.”

After only a moment, Starsky’s voice shouted. “Hey, partner, that you?”

Hutch had to smile. “Pipe down, Starsk. No need to shout. I can hear you just fine. Can you hear me?”

Starsky lowered his voice . “You bet! Great connection!” He sounded relieved and happy. “Where are you?”

Hutch tried to remember but the name of the town escaped him. “To tell you the truth, I don’t know. That’s not why I’m calling, though.” He motioned for Rosey to come closer. “We’ve found help. And here she is.”

He handed the receiver to Rosey.

She took it and walked behind the desk to sit down. “Hello, Dave.”

Hutch could tell there was silence on the line, while Starsky processed the sound of the voice. She put the call on speaker and everyone heard the distant question, “Rosey?”

“Yes, Dave, it’s me. I’d heard that Ken and a friend were down here looking for two men. I’ve offered to help.”

“Uh… that’s great.” The voice didn’t sound all that confident. “But, how?”

She chuckled. “My father’s connections extend everywhere and it didn’t take long, once we knew what information was needed, to find out where the two men are hiding. It’s a little place in the mountains and, with an appropriate vehicle - provided by my father - we’ll be headed up there tomorrow morning.”

“Really?” Starsky sounded more positive now. “That’s terrific!”

“I hoped you’d think so.” She smiled at Hutch and nodded.

“Hutch and I’ll definitely owe you one, Rosey.” Starsky’s tone was almost chipper, now.

“No, Dave, that’s not why I’m doing this,” she went on. “I’ve wanted to apologize, ever since I left, about the way I handled things between us. This will be my way of saying ‘I’m sorry,’ I guess.”

Starsky audibly swallowed hard. “No apology necessary. It just wasn’t going to work out.”

“That’s kind of you, Dave. Thank you.” Starsky’s response appeared to have relieved some of her tension. “Now, I know Ken is anxious to talk to you again but, before I give the phone back to him, I wanted to tell you I’m very glad you didn’t die, and I wish you the speediest recovery possible.”

“Thanks, Rosey.”

“Maybe, after you’re well again,” she continued, more softly, “you can come down here for a while. Recuperate fully.”

“Maybe.”

“Okay. Here’s Hutch.” She got up and Hutch sat down in her place. He took the call off speaker, and put the receiver to his ear. “You still there, Starsk?”

Out of the corner or his eye, Hutch saw Huggy and Rosey leave the room. She motioned for the manager and asked, in Spanish, for another phone.

Starsky’s voice over the line was the clearest it had been, since coming to Mexico. “Right here.”

“So, what do you think? Hopefully, when we get to El Palmito, we’ll find the guys we’re looking for and be headed home right away.”

“Sounds good. I’m glad Rosey’s able to help.”

“Me, too, because we were out of choices until she showed up.”

“Find ‘em, Hutch, so you can come home.”

“I’m trying, Starsk. Believe me, I’m trying!”

******

That night, Starsky added to the current letter.

It sure was good to talk to you today. And without having to shout, too!

So, wow, Rosey Malone fell into your laps and is going to lead you to the men you’re looking for, huh? Who’d a thunk? Right? I say, again, wow!

Rosie Dobey’s going to be a power forward! Did I tell you that already? Sorry if I’m repeating myself.

You should see the new puzzle we’re working on. It’s a doozy! A picture of a hillside somewhere - maybe Italy? - with houses piled on top of each other in lots and lots of bright colors.

But, listen, Hutch, I’ve been thinking and, if it turns out that the guys aren’t in this place you’re going to, give it up, okay? This is taking too long. I’ve figured out I don’t care if they get away! I let Callendar go, remember? These two are nothin’!

He wasn’t real happy with what he’d written but, since he figured Hutch would never read it anyway, he kept it in the drawer with all the other pages.

*******

El Palmito was reached toward evening of the following day, thanks to the rugged Jeep Rosey’s father had provided. The roads had, indeed, been bad.

Rosey inquired at her father’s ‘office,’ and got directions to a dilapidated shack at the edge of town.

The man sitting outside the door rose slowly to his feet as the Jeep approached. He drew his weapon from a hip holster but, after only a moment, put it back and sat down. Hutch thought the guy looked like he’d known this confrontation was coming and was almost glad it was finally happening.

Huggy jumped out of the back seat and handed Rosey out of the front. Hutch got out and walked around to stand, with the others, facing half the pair of hitmen Gunther had sent after him and his partner.

Hutch took out his shield folder. “Detective Hutchinson. Bay City P.D.”

The guy nodded. “I recognize you.”

Hutch put his folder away. “Where’s your buddy?”

A thumb was jerked over a shoulder, toward the inside of the structure. “The local sawbones is with him but the guy’s worthless. If you can do something for my pal, we’d both appreciate it. He’s in bad shape.”

Hutch stepped forward, took the weapon out of the guy’s holster, and stuck it in the back of his waistband. “For the record, what’s your name?”

The response was sullen but resigned. “Gus Taylor.”

“And your friend in there?” Hutch knew Huggy was writing the information down.

“Bert Clemmons.”

Hutch gestured toward the door. “Lead the way.”

Hutch, Rosey and Huggy followed Taylor inside.

Clemmons was lying on a pallet on the dirt floor. His skin was pale and the smell coming from the bandaged right thigh wasn’t pleasant. Hutch figured gangrene had taken hold. A man who must have been the local doctor was packing items into his scuffed satchel.

Rosey spoke to him in Spanish and Hutch understood almost every word. The doctor believed Clemmons’ leg had to come off. The sooner the better. She thanked him for his trouble, handed his some paper money and, when she dismissed him, he left.

Hutch approached Bert Clemmons. “My name’s Hutchinson. It was my partner you shot. We’re here to take you and your friend back to Bay City. Back where you’ll get competent medical help.”

The guy probably had a raging fever but he knew what was happening. “What? And be put on death row for killing a cop?”

“He’s not dead,” Hutch said.

“Bullshit! I hit him…” He had to stop and take a breath. “I hit him at least three times. I know I did.”

“Yeah,” Hutch agreed. “But he’s not dead.”

“Listen to him, Bert,” Taylor urged. “It’s the only chance you’ve got. You’re my best friend and I don’t want to lose you.”

Hearing that, Hutch was moved, in spite of himself.

It took another hour of persuading but, ultimately, Clemmons agreed to be taken back to the U.S.. Especially after being told that Gunther was in prison, awaiting trial, and would have no control over what happened to Taylor and Clemmons. Possibly, they could even manage to receive lesser sentences if they had information about JMG’s organization.

Rosey drove the Jeep to her father’s office in El Palmito and arranged for a heavy duty van to be brought up. It would be needed in order to transport the two additional men.

By the time both vehicles made it down to Durango it was the middle of the night and Clemmons had fallen unconscious. Taylor sat by his side, urging him to hold on. The driver was as careful on the terrible road as possible but every jolt caused the wounded man to groan, and Taylor to grimace.

Hutch, sitting at the rear door, hoped they’d be in time to save Clemmons’ leg. He had shot the man, but he didn’t want a death from that injury on his conscience.

The Federales substation in Durango was lightly manned when they arrived. However, the officer in charge agreed to keep the prisoners in their lockup until Rosey and her companions could pick them up later that day.

The officer also brought in their local physician who removed the dressing on Clemmons’ leg, treated the wound, and re-bandaged it. It was the best he could do.

At her father’s office, they put through another call to the Dobey’s house. It was early and everyone was ready to head off in different directions, but they all gathered around the phone.

“You mean it, Hutch?” Starsky sounded cheerful and Hutch could hear clapping and yelling in the background, after he’d explained where they were and that both men they’d been after were in custody.

Dobey got on the phone. “I’ll meet you at the border, Hutch. Give me their names and I’ll have arrest warrants. When do you think you’ll be there?”

Hutch provided the information before checking with Rosey and relaying what she said. “Day after tomorrow, Captain. We’ll all get a few hours’ sleep before leaving here. We need to get home as soon as possible, if we’re going to have any chance of saving Clemmons’ leg.”

“I’ll bring an ambulance with me,” Dobey told him. "And a CHP escort, if I can wrangle one."

Apparently Dobey had given the phone back to Starsky because his voice was the next to come over the line. “Can I talk to Rosey? Is she there?”

“Right here, Starsk.” Hutch held the phone out to her.

Rosey took the receiver and smiled into it. “We did it, Dave! The men who shot you will be coming back to face the music.”

“Thanks, Rosey.” Starsky’s voice was soft with appreciation. “I’ll bet Hutch and Huggy couldn’t have done it without you.”

She didn’t pretend otherwise. “I’m just happy to have been able to help. And, Dave, Hutch has my contact information so you’ll know how to get in touch with me, now. Come down, if you want.”

“Thanks, Rosey. I’ll think abou it.”

She handed the phone back to Hutch and he heard her speaking Spanish to the office manager, giving instructions about how everyone would be taken, in a few hours, back to the town where Huggy’s Cadillac was waiting. The manager recommended a not-too-terrible hotel in the meantime, for however much sleep they could get.

“We’re on our way home, Starsk,” Hutch told his partner.

“That’s the best news I’ve heard in months, buddy.” Starsky’s tone was positively exuberant. “Tell Huggy for me, you both did great!”

Hutch smiled. “I’ll relay that message. See you soon.”

*******

During the drive to the border, Clemmons revived enough to be talkative. “Gus and I know Gunter’s operation inside out, Hutchinson. If you need any extra nails for his coffin, we’ll be happy to provide them.”

“Yeah,” Taylor added. “Maybe it’ll work in our favor with the D.A.”

Hutch was skeptical but didn’t want to rain on their parade. “You never know.”

*******

Dobey was as good as his word, meeting them at the crossing with warrants, a waiting ambulance, and a Highway Patrol car. Thanks to his efforts with the Federales, they got through without delay. Clemmons and Taylor were transferred to the EMT’s vehicle, accompanied by two uniformed officers Dobey had brought with him.

The convoy of the patrol car, the emergency vehicle, Dobey’s Crown Vic, and Huggy’s Caddy made it’s siren-clearing way quickly up the I-5. The CHP unit peeled off at the first Bay City exit as the others left the freeway.

*******

Hutch was proud of his partner as Starsky thanked Edith and Rosie Dobey numerous times for all their efforts on his behalf. A cousin of Huggy’s had helped him fill the house with flowers. Both women were thrilled and Dobey seemed pleased.

Hutch almost expected Starsky to say he didn’t need help any longer and could go back to his own apartment. Hutch was pretty sure that wasn’t true, and was pleased when his partner made no mention of the possibility. So, since he’d taken very little with him, it wasn’t difficult moving Starsky back to Venice Place. The glued jigsaw puzzle went with them.

That night, after the dinner dishes had been washed and left to dry on the rack, Hutch opened two bottles of beer and joined Starsky on the couch. Giving one of the bottles to Starsky, he clinked them together and they sat in companionable silence. However, when the brews were consumed, and the elephant in the room hadn’t been addressed, Hutch broached the subject. “Are you going down to see Rosey?”

Starsky shrugged. “You think I should?”

Hutch hid his multi-leveled concern. “It’s your decision, Starsk.”

“When she left me, it hurt. You know that ‘cause you’re the one that had to put me back together. I’m really glad she, and her father’s connections, were able to help you find those guys, but I don’t want to put myself in a situation where it could happen again. I loved her, but it was a long time ago.”

“Just asking.”

“While you were gone, I think I fell in love with another Rosie. She sure was good to me, Hutch.”

“I know. She’s going to be as great a lady as her mother.”

“Already is.”

Hutch put his arm around his partner’s shoulders, content to share the silent satisfaction of a job well done.

They had heard from the hospital that, barring complications Clemmons’ leg would be saved, so that was a large weight off Hutch’s shoulders. The D.A. had told them that, with their testimony against Gunther, when the case came to trial, Clemmons and Taylor might be able to get reduced sentences. That was okay with him, and Starsky, too. The attempt had been made but Starsky had survived. Whatever the judge and jury decided the two men deserved would be fine with Hutch.

“I really missed you, Hutch,” Starsky muttered, sounding half asleep.

Hutch ruffled the curly hair. “I missed you, too, buddy.”

“Don’t go away again any time soon. Okay?”

“Not if I can help it.”

“Oh…” Starsky perked up. “I wrote you some letters!”

Hutch couldn’t hide his surprise. “You did?”

Starsky levered himself to his feet and went to the duffle bag he’d dropped inside the front door. Unzipping it, he pulled out some pages and came back to the couch. As soon as he sat down, though, he seemed to be embarrassed. “Do you think I was silly?”

“No, Starsk.” He got to his feet himself and walked to the piece of luggage that had made the trip to Mexico. Retrieving his own missives, he rejoined Starsky, holding them out. “In fact, I wrote to you, too.”

The childlike quality Hutch had always loved in Starsky shown through as he grinned. “Ain’t we a pair?”

“Bookends.”

“Great album! We have it, don’t we?”

Hutch knew his partner wasn’t really in the mood to listen to Simon and Garfunkel tonight but he put it on his ‘to do’ list. Maybe while they talked. Whenever that happened.

Exchanging the pages, Hutch put his arm back around Starsky’s shoulders, and began to read. Pretty soon, the curly head slumped onto his chest and Hutch knew Starsky was done for the night. That was okay, too. He’d just sit for a while, smiling at the happiness, pain, and sheer persistence his best friend had written about. And jigsaw puzzles! He silently vowed, the next time he was out, to find a thousand-piece one they could work.

Knowing they’d both pay, in the morning, for having fallen asleep on the couch, he put his head back and drifted off. He had Starsky, safe and almost-sound, back at his place. They’d face whatever came at them in the future together. As always. Together. Maybe even more together than they’d ever been.

 

END