Mr. Doyle was right; the rules of riding came back to Hutch the moment the horse trotted out of the gate and into open pastures. The estate was vast, spreading out in a blanket of green with patches of tall dry grass and rolling hills that dotted the horizon. The sun was shining down on him and his black mare, Darla, who twitched her tail impatiently as they walked along the trodden path.
"Steady, girl. You wanna run, don't ya?" he asked her, and Darla grunted.
Hutch waited until he was out of sight of the ranch house and clicked his tongue twice.
"Let's go," he said as he tapped her with the heels of his boots.
The horse let out a short whinny and picked up speed, and the sound of hooves galloped in time with Hutch's heart.
He spotted two small herds on either side of the path. Mrs. Doyle told him that they would pay him no mind, that they were too busy grazing. As soon as he passed them, however, the sound of hooves grew louder and he looked back to see the herds were running after them.
He panicked but didn't stop; he let Darla run and soon the horses caught up to them. They spread out in a V-formation as they galloped close, and Hutch looked at the painted horses around him, into the spirits of their faces, and he smiled at the foals that ran beside their mothers.
The thundering of hooves was near deafening, but it filled Hutch with overwhelming joy and he couldn't contain himself. He laughed, he hollered, and he even let out a shrill "Yee-haw!" that veered him back to when he was a boy riding his grandfather's white horse, to the days he would pretend that he was The Lone Ranger riding the plains to stop bandits from robbing a stage coach. He gripped the reins with one hand and held his hat with the other, his boots pushing into the stirrups as Darla tried to keep up with the herd.
The horses moved further away and Darla slowed to a trot again. Hutch lightly pulled the reins. "Good girl. Feel better? I sure do!" he said with mile-long smile. Darla shook her mane and he laughed as his heart raced.
A soft whinny came up behind them and he turned to see a brown foal tottering next to him.
"Hey, little fella. You get lost?"
The foal flicked his tail at him and ran after the herd. Hutch followed him at a leisurely pace.
Hutch scratched his horse's neck. "Come on, girl. Let's get this baby to his mama."
"Was that Uncle Ken?" asked Lola. Her horse, Patches, was being led by his trainer in a walk. She was a girl with long, blonde hair that was pulled back into a low ponytail, and she wore dark denim Wrangler jeans with a red flannel shirt.
Starsky laughed. "I knew he wouldn't be able to resist a few 'yee-haws' once he was out there."
"Can we make the horses run?" asked Layla. Her horse's name was Pongo and she had braided some of his mane before she climbed into the saddle.
Her trainer was a brunette in a Dodgers ball cap wearing cut-off shorts with a Huggy's Place t-shirt. Her new red boots were getting dustier as she led Pongo around the fence.
"We'll work up to a light gallop," she said. "You gotta get used to the saddle first."
"What do you mean?" asked Starsky.
She covered her mouth as she giggled. "I tried to gallop the first time I rode and I couldn't sit down for hours."
"Blistered backside," her friend added.
The twins looked at each other and Lola said, "Okay. We can wait on that."
Starsky laughed and took a few more pictures of the kids on their horses until he heard a car pull up to the house. He went to meet the black Cadillac as Huggy got out, donning a light brown leather jacket with long fringe on the sleeves. His denim jeans were tucked into white cowboy boots and he wore a shiny silver belt buckle with a horse's head on it.
Starsky immediately aimed his camera at him, but Huggy stopped him.
"Wait for the finishing touch, my man," he said as he opened the backseat door. He pulled out a large, white cowboy hat complete with a leather cord that hung loose under his chin.
"Jeez, Hug. You're dressed for the rodeo."
"It's Huggy the Kid today, Starsky," he exclaimed as a woman got out of his car and opened the trunk. "And I'm here to fill your bellies with some brisket, ribs, beans and rice, cornbread, and lots and lots of my homemade sweet and spicy barbecue sauce."
Starsky grimaced. "How spicy?"
"Don't worry. No one'll be burning their tongues to a crisp today. I toned down the recipe a bit, for the kids' sake. But the real recipe will soon be in every barbecue joint and every grocery store."
"Your grandma okay with you selling her sauce?"
"She's passed away ten years ago. You tell me."
He posed for Starsky who took his photo before helping him unload the car with all the food.
"Where's Hutch?" he asked.
"Way out in the wild, blue yonder."
Hutch caught up with the herd that was now grazing on a new patch of grass. The foal whinnied and his call was answered by a brown mare that trotted up to him. He smiled as she nuzzled her baby which immediately began to suckle. Hutch found a tree and guided Darla to it where he slid off the saddle and tied the reins to a branch.
"How 'bout a snack?"
He dug into the saddle bag and pulled out a couple of carrots and fed one to Darla. After she chomped it back, Hutch glanced around him and saw it was just the horses watching, so he put one end of the other carrot in his mouth and offered it to Darla. His grandpa used to feed his own horse in this way so he was grateful when Darla accepted the snack.
"Good girl," he said as he scratched her nose.
He went back to the saddle bag and pulled out a shiny red apple for himself and leaned against the tree, but Darla tried to swipe it from him.
"Oh no," he laughed. "You can't have this, you sneak."
The foal they had followed trotted up to him, keeping some distance between them as they looked at each other.
"You can't have my apple either."
The foal jumped and kicked his legs, shaking his head back and forth as he whinnied. Hutch laughed again as the foal continued frolicking around the tree before returning to his mother.
He looked out over the herd of horses that was now spread out in front of him and a sudden breeze blew over them, flattening the grass and rustling the tree's leaves above him. The wind was so strong that his hat nearly flew off his head and Hutch held it down as he walked out of the shade and into the sun.
The cool wind gave him an odd feeling. He had just experienced a burst of pure joy on the way out to the middle of the pasture, and even though it was all picturesque and perfect, Hutch suddenly felt a twinge of unease.
He sighed, thinking of what his husband would say to a feeling like that.
"You're too cynical, sometimes, babe. Why you always gotta think on the negative?"
Hutch couldn't shake the feeling that something was off, that something was going to happen, and it didn't sit right with him.
Maybe he was just worried about the girls riding horses for the first time, but they were well supervised with the trainers and Starsky had stayed behind to watch them. Hutch had wished that Starsky was out in the pasture with him so he could share this quiet moment. They rarely had moments like that except when they were in bed. The rest of their time was spent in all of the noise and mess of the city, of car tires peeling out, police radios blaring, telephones ringing. It was why Hutch wanted a place on the beach where none of that noise could get to them.
On the other hand, he knew why Starsky didn't want to ride with him, why he was excited to get Hutch on a horse. Apart from knowing that it was a cherished childhood memory, he was sure that Starsky did it because of how stressed he had been lately, even before the girls booked their tickets to California. He wanted Hutch to have a moment to himself, something that was all his to keep or to share as he pleased. The thought of this made him grin and think of how lucky he had become.
Darla grunted and beat the ground with her hoof. Hutch went back to her and gave her his half-eaten apple.
"Okay, you win," he told her, patting her neck.
He untied her reins as she ate and they were soon trotting along the path again away from the herd.
Hutch looked behind him to see that the foal had followed him a few yards before his mother called him back.
Lewis leaned against the car as Fealy ordered their lunch at the burger stand. He wasn't that hungry, but his partner insisted that he eat like normal before they carried out the job since they would be staked out late at night. They would park across the beach house and Fealy was grateful that there weren't any streetlights dotting the road; only the occasional porch light.
"Folks move out to the beach to be under the stars," he had said. "No doubt these homos are like that." He noticed the look Lewis had given him and he laughed. "You got a soft spot for the faggots, kid?"
"My sister is gay, man," was the only reply he gave him, but it made his partner laugh even more.
"Well...I'll try not to offend your sensitivities."
He took one more drag off his cigarette as Fealy approached the car with their food. They got in and Lewis slowly unwrapped his hot dog as Fealy took a big bite out of a burger.
"Got you a Coke, kid," he said, his mouth full of meat and raw onion.
Lewis took big gulps and finally bit into his hot dog.
"You're welcome," said Fealy.
He cut him a glare. "No relish?"
Fealy took another bite of his burger. "Didn't know you wanted it."
"You still got that funny feeling?" Fealy asked him.
He shrugged. "I don't know, man. Long as the girl doesn't get hurt, is all. The boss ain't gonna really kill her, is he?"
"If Hutchinson cooperates, the kid will go free. Can't say the same for him, though."
The image of Huxley's cigarillo burning the cop's picture flashed in Lewis's mind, but he pushed it back so he could eat his lunch.
"Why does he want him dead?"
Fealy finally stopped wolfing down his burger and took a long drink of his soda. After a wet burp, he wiped his hands and mouth with a napkin.
"Remember when you so cordially told the boss 'eye for an eye?'"
Lewis grinned. He did remember and felt a bit proud for having made Huxley laugh with it.
"Yeah. What, did Hutchinson take out his eye or somethin'?"
"In a way. It was in a shootout. The cop's bullet ricocheted off a wall and piece of brick went right into his eye. The surgeons couldn't get it out so he lost it."
"Why was there a shootout?"
"They booked Mr. Huxley's godson, Joey. He was a good kid."
Lewis put down his soda and stared at him. "Was?"
Fealy smirked. "Poor guy was booked on drug charges. Heroin possession. Mr. Huxley was gonna pay his bond, get him a good lawyer, but before bond was ever set, Joey was shanked by a junkie who was being held with him." He sighed and took another sip of his soda. "Not surprised, really. He used to wear a lot of gold rings, so..."
"That's what Mr. Huxley meant, then...a life for a life."
Fealy nodded. "Hutchinson was the one who picked him up. Joey had shot at his partner and he didn't take that well. When he heard Joey was killed, Mr. Huxley blamed it on him. Now, don't you dare say a damn word of this to him, but I think he should'a just let it go. It's been three years now. But who am I to tell a man who pays my rent what kind of grudges he can have? Not my place, certainly not my business. You'll do well to remember that yourself, kid. Capisce?"
Lewis agreed, but it didn't reassure him. He had heard about how crazy those two cops could get if either one of them was hurt. If they ended up killing Hutchinson, then no doubt Starsky would be out for blood.
Then again, if it were his own spouse, Lewis would do the same.
"Howdy, pardner!" shouted Mrs. Doyle as she waved her hat at Hutch as he came through the gate. "Everyone here thought you were just gonna keep on ridin'!"
Hutch laughed as he guided Darla to the barn. "Heck of a temptation, if I'm being honest."
She laughed. "Ain't that the truth! Well, you just hand over Darla to one of the gals and wash up. It's just about chow time."
He met the trainer in the Dodgers ball cap inside the barn and she took the reins as he slid out of the saddle. He took a moment to stroke the mare's mane and scratch her nose.
"Thanks for the run, old girl."
As he washed his hands in the basin outside of the barn, he heard two pairs of sneakers rushing toward him and smiled.
"Howdy, Uncle Ken!" they replied.
"Have a good ride?"
Lola bounced as she hugged his waist. "It was so much fun! Better than the plane ride!"
"Well, the plane was pretty fun, too," said Layla.
"Yeah, okay, but the horses are the best thing so far!"
Hutch heard the familiar click of Starsky's camera and turned his smile toward him.
"There's my Roy Rogers," he said, quickly stroking his hand.
Hutch giggled. "I can't compete with him, hon."
"You're a singing cowboy, ain't ya?"
"Hardly a cowboy."
Starsky gave the girls a wink. "Oh, yeah? Then what was all that hootin' and hollerin' we heard out there?"
Hutch's eyes grew wide. "Um...you heard that, huh?"
"Everybody did," said Lola and her sister giggled as she hid her face with her hands.
Starsky took Hutch's hat and put it on. "Were you rustlin' up some bandits?"
Hutch cleared his throat. "Lunch ready? I'm starved."
"Uncle Ken!" said Layla. "Can I get on your back?"
"Sure, hop on!"
He knelt down and Layla put her arms around his neck as he held her legs. When he continued walking, she shrieked, "Yee-haw!!"
Hutch immediately stopped and knelt down again. "Okay, ride's over."
Layla giggled again and whispered, "Uncle Davey told me to do that."
He looked at Starsky who was kneeling behind Lola to "hide" as she laughed. Hutch pointed at him. "I'll get you later for that."
Starsky stood and Lola took his hand. "I look forward to it. Come on, Lay-Lo. Let's see how many ribs we can eat. Bet I can eat more!"
"Nuh uh!" said Lola, letting go of his hand and running toward the back yard. Layla followed her, leaving them on their own.
When they were out of sight, Hutch gave Starsky a solid slap on his ass. Starsky returned the favor and Hutch winced.
"Oh, come on," he said. "Wasn't that hard."
"Not that. Saddle sore. Think I got a blister."
"Aw, poor baby." Starsky gave him a quick peck on the cheek. "Don't you worry; I'll take care of your ass later."
The black car drove slowly past the beach house as two cops and two little girls got out of the Torino. Hutchinson was carrying one sleeping twin as Starsky held the hand of the one rubbing her eyes and leaning into him.
Fealy looked at his watch and saw that it was just after 7:00pm, and it looked like the girls would be going to bed early. But they couldn't do anything now. It was still light out.
The car reached the cul-de-sac and turned around, and Lewis noticed that a light had turned on upstairs. Master bedroom, it looked like. Maybe everyone was turning in early.
“Midnight,” said Fealy. “Everyone should be fast asleep by then.”
Lewis nodded and left the quiet neighborhood on the beach. He had to admit it was a nice area and wouldn’t mind having a place of his own here. Lots of privacy, too. He could see why these certain cops lived out here.
He gripped the steering wheel as they headed back to town, trying not to think how it would all go down in just a few hours.
“How you doin’ over there, Hopalong?”
Hutch grimaced as he shifted on the sofa, moving his legs out in front of him as he sat on a pillow. When he got comfortable, Starsky began rubbing one of his feet.
“Ugh, that’s so good, baby…” he moaned as he lent back his head.
Starsky smiled. “You got blisters on your feet, too.”
“They looked good on you. Very sexy.”
Hutch huffed. “I don’t feel very sexy. I’ve got sore feet and cream on my ass. Why did you put so much?”
“Got carried away.” He got the tube of cream from the coffee table and put dabs of it on Hutch’s blisters before continuing to rub his feet. “Worth it, though, huh?”
Hutch gave him a big smile. “Oh my God, Starsky. It was so amazing. The ride, the open land…who knew Heaven was just an hour from home? And me and Darla…it’s like we connected. Don’t laugh! That kinda stuff happens. It was like that with my grandpa. He had a way with animals, especially horses.”
“Maybe you got it from him,” said Starsky.
“I wish you could’ve been out there with me, hon. It was…just…incredible!”
Starsky laughed, his heart full as Hutch recounted his experience for the third time, though he would gladly listen to it all night if it meant he could see how happy his husband was.
Hutch leaned back and grinned. “Thank you.”
“My pleasure. I like rubbing your feet.”
“Starsk, you know what I mean. You put a lot of thought into this surprise, for the girls, for me. I can’t begin to tell you how much—”
“It was nothin’, honey. You deserved it. It’s your vacation, too.”
“And yours. You deserved to ride, too.”
Starsky shrugged. “Well, I wanted to do something special for you guys.” He paused as he thought of something. “You know, I didn’t think the twins would take to me much.”
"The girls adore you.”
“I know, I know, but I was still nervous when we went to Duluth three years ago. I mean, I’m usually good with kids but…they’re your sister’s kids. I wanted to make a good impression.”
"Looked like you did, especially when I walked in on your tea party. The tiara was a bit much.”
Starsky lightly gasped. “Excuse you, I was the princess, and it was a royal occasion.” They giggled until he accidently touched a blister.
“Ooh! Careful, babe.”
Starsky winced. “Sorry. Anyway…when we got home, and I never told you this…but when we got home and went to bed that night…I felt like my family got bigger, ya know?”
“Well, it did get bigger.”
“Yeah, but…it suddenly hit me that night that, wow…they’re my nieces, too. And out of the blue, I started tearing up.”
“Yeah, I was a big baby, but it was a happy thought for me. I, uh...I had a family again.”
Hutch sighed as he moved off his pillow and closer to him. Even though Starsky was close to his mother and his aunt and uncle, Hutch remembered him admitting that he felt distant, that after his father died his family split up. He moved to the West Coast and Nicky became a wanderer, and they both left their mother back in Brooklyn.
He kissed him, gently holding his chin. When he pulled away, he looked into his blue eyes and smiled.
“I love you,” he whispered.
Starsky smiled back. “Love you too, baby.”
They kissed again, and then kissed deeper, more heated.
Hutch sighed against his cheek. “It’s late.”
Starsky ran his fingers through his hair. “I know.”
“Let’s go to bed. I still think you deserve a ride.”
“Only if I can wear your hat.”
It was just after midnight when Layla got out of bed. She rubbed her eyes as she pushed open the bedroom door and went to the bathroom across the hall. She got a drink of water from the tap using a pink plastic cup and went back into the hallway when she heard a thud.
"Uncle Ken?" she whispered. Layla noticed that her uncles' bedroom door was closed and their light was off. It couldn't be either of them because they were asleep. Maybe Lola got up, too.
She crept from the bathroom and peered around their door frame to see a man dressed in all black with a flat cap that covered his eyes. He was pressing something to Lola's mouth as her legs kicked.
Layla let out a loud gasp, alerting the man, and he pulled a gun out of his coat and aimed it at her. She trembled and wanted to scream for her uncles, but all she could focus on was the end of the gun.
Lola stopped kicking her legs and went limp. The man put the cloth that he had pressed to her face into his pocket and stepped closer to Layla. She squeaked as he knelt in front of her and he covered her mouth with his gloved hand, ripped leather that creaked and smelled dirty.
He pressed the gun to her cheek and Layla closed her eyes as she wet herself, leaving a dark stain on her green pajama bottoms.
"Hey!" a voice hissed from the window.
Layla realized there was another man, but she could see this one better. He had bright, blue eyes and dark hair that was slicked back.
"Leave her alone, man," he whispered. "We got the kid, so let's go!"
The man in black put his gun into his coat as he squeezed her face. "Can you count to a hundred, little girl?"
Layla let out a shaky breath as she nodded.
"Good. Get in the closet and start counting. If you stop, then we'll kill your sister. Understand?"
She started to cry as the man pushed her into the closet and shut the door. She wiped her face and looked through the crack in the double doors and saw the man gently pick Lola up and hand her to the man in the window. The man in black looked toward the closet and Layla started counting as she sat in her wet pajamas and cried.
Lewis held the limp child to his chest as Fealy climbed down the ladder and approached him.
"The ladder, man!"
"Doesn't matter what kinda evidence we leave, kid," Fealy said. "They're gonna know soon enough what just happened."
They got to their car that was parked at the end of the driveway and Lewis laid the girl in the backseat.
"Not there. Trunk."
Lewis frowned. "What?"
"In case she wakes up, dumbass! She can't see where we're going in there. Now, hurry up!"
He picked her up again and set her down in the trunk. He looked at the state of her and worried for a minute that Fealy gave her too much chloroform.
"Hey! Come on!"
Lewis drove at a slow speed until he left the street, then he sped up and made his way back to the city.
His funny feeling was turning into a reality. They had just stolen a kid. A cop's niece, at that. He can only imagine the kind of desperation Starsky and Hutch were going to have once they received that phone call, and that made Lewis's throat dry.
Starsky woke up to the sound of little hands pounding on their door, and he rolled out of bed, slipping on his pajama bottoms.
Layla ran into the room and wailed. "Uncle Davey! It was a man! A man in black! He came through the window!"
Hutch awoke and bolted out of bed, putting on his robe. He rushed to her and knelt down.
"Honey, what's the matter?"
"A man! He had a gun! He went through the window!"
Hutch noticed her soiled pants and sighed. "Baby, did you have a bad dream?"
Layla stomped her feet and shrieked, "Noo! He took her! The man in the window took her! She's gone!!"
"They took her!"
Starsky ran to the girls' bedroom to find the bed empty. He looked in the closet and under the bed, then went into the bathroom to look behind the shower curtain. When he went back to the girls' room, he finally noticed that the window was wide open and his heart thumped in his chest when he saw the ladder.
He went back to the master bedroom where Hutch was holding Layla as she sobbed.
"Lola's gone," he said.
Hutch's eyes went wide. "What?"
"The window, Hutch..."
Layla's voice was muffled against her uncle's shoulder. "They came through the window..."
He kissed her cheek and rose from the floor, looking into Starsky's anxious eyes as he passed him.
"Lola?" He went into the bedroom and saw the open window and the ladder. He ran to it and stuck his head out to look around, but he could only see darkness.
"Lola!!" The only reply was the sound of the waves from the beach and the rustling of grass in the dunes.
He bolted down the stairs before Starsky could stop him. When he got outside, he ran around the house, calling her name, getting more panicked when he didn't get an answer. Hutch went back inside and rushed up the stairs. Starsky was helping Layla clean up in the master bathroom and setting out a clean pair of pants. Layla sat in the bathtub with her knees to her chest, and Hutch knelt at the edge and lifted her chin.
"Layla, what happened? What did you see?"
She hiccupped, her hazel eyes red from crying and her nose puffy. Her breath hitched as she told him, "I got up and...went to the bathroom. I heard something...like someone knocking into something. There was a man...in black and...a hat...he was..." She paused and wiped her eyes. "He was doing something to her."
Starsky clutched a folded towel as he listened to her, and Hutch gripped the edge of the tub.
Layla sniffed. "She was still asleep and then he saw me...he had a gun...and pointed it at me..." She sobbed again and Starsky joined Hutch's side.
"Come on, honey," he said. "What else?"
"He...he grabbed my face and told me not to scream. He said...count to a hundred...or he'll kill her. And I did. I counted. And he took her!"
Hutch stroked her hair to calm her. "You said there was a man in the window, too? Yeah?"
"Yeah. The man...in black gave Lola to him."
"What did he look like?"
"I don't know! His hair was all shiny and dark. Like how Daddy's looks when he combs his hair for work."
Starsky took a breath. "Did they say anything else?"
Layla cried and thought for a moment. "Um...the man on the ladder said...to leave me alone...because they...um...he said they 'got the kid.'"
Hutch slid to the floor, dumbfounded. "Who...who the hell would..." He put his hand to his mouth as he eyes filled with tears.
Layla looked up at Starsky and mumbled, "I'm sorry I had an accident."
He smirked. "Don't worry about that, sweetie. Come on, I got you some clean clothes."
Hutch didn't move as Starsky helped her out of the tub. He stared straight ahead of him, his thoughts reeling, wondering yet knowing that this was not a random kidnapping.
"Got the kid..." That's what Layla heard. But who did it? Who would do this?
He came to his senses and got off the floor, running down the stairs again and going into the living room to call the station.
When he reached the phone at the end of the sofa, it rang before he could pick up the receiver. He stared at it, the shrill ringing vibrating in his head. He picked up the receiver and slowly put it to his ear.
"Detective Hutchinson," came a gravelly voice on the other end. "I believe we have something of yours."