Chapter 1: The Road to Recovery
Hutch added his signature to the bottom of the form and pushed it aside. Since returning to work three days earlier, his time had been consumed by a litany of red tape. Although the process was cumbersome, Hutch understood its necessity. Profoundly angered by Hutch's recent abduction and mistreatment at the hands of Diana Harmon, Captain Dobey had initiated an investigation that would keep the authorities in Sacramento occupied for years.
The surgeon allowed Hutch to return to work four weeks into an uncomplicated recovery - light duty only. There were activity limitations to respect, but he could handle those. Although Hutch was confined to his desk for two more weeks, he was grateful to be back on the job. Routine interaction with the people who knew him best was more valuable to Hutch's recovery than anyone around him suspected.
"Hutchinson," Dobey said, poking his head out of his office. "May I see you a moment?"
"Sure, Cap'," Hutch answered, standing carefully.
Hutch popped the remainder of a brownie into his mouth before wiping his fingers and heading to Dobey's office.
"Last one?" Dobey asked, smiling as Hutch entered the room.
Hutch found himself blushing as he took a seat near Dobey's desk. The container of fresh, homemade goodies sitting on his desk was courtesy of Edith Dobey.
"Yep, the last one," Hutch affirmed. "Please thank Edit for me. The brownies were wonderful."
Dobey nodded as if he understood.
"That's why I look like this," Dobey said, patting his stomach. "No sense telling her not to send them. She insists."
"I wouldn't dream of telling her no," Hutch answered quickly. "And neither would Starsky."
"That's sensible," Dobey answered, his eyebrows lifting in unison. "I'm afraid she's decided it's become necessary to keep a motherly eye on both of you."
Dobey was somber again as he opened the file on his desk and handed the top page to Hutch.
"This is an initial summary by the task force in Sacramento. While it answers a few questions, I'm afraid it raises a few more."
Hutch quietly read the conclusion of the first phase of the investigation surrounding the release of Diana Harmon from institutionalized care. Several problems were clearly identified that led to her premature discharge. The report ended by declaring a loss of licensure was likely for the facility as well as the administrative officials directly involved in Harmon's case. Captain Dobey would be kept informed of any additional modifications as the investigation progressed.
Hutch looked up when he finished reading, his eyes reflective of questions that could never truly be answered. Diana was dead, as was her primary physician - the only expert who had treated her for any length of time since her complete mental breakdown a little more than two years earlier. Changes had been made in Sacramento, all designed to prevent a similar incident from occurring again. If effective safeguards for others were the trade-off for a grueling personal experience, Hutch felt he could live with the consequences.
"Your thoughts?" Dobey asked.
"Well, it certainly sounds like a big shakeup is going on," Hutch replied, returning the paper to Dobey. "Mistakes were made and they're fixing them. I'm not sure what else I could ask of the officials."
Dobey was nodding as Hutch talked. While he agreed with Hutch's general assessment, he wanted the detective's personal input before commenting further.
"I received a call at home from the governor last evening," Dobey commented. "The man is furious about what happened to you."
Hutch looked surprised by Dobey's revelation.
"The governor?" Hutch asked, shifting uncomfortably in his seat.
"Yes, the governor," Dobey repeated. "He didn't take kindly to the danger this type of oversight placed on you or the general public."
Hutch was a little stunned by the impact of his experience on so many other people.
"Hutchinson, stop selling yourself short," Dobey ordered, interpreting the expression on Hutch's face. "It's past time you understand how important you are to this whole department as well as the people who work here."
Hutch snapped to attention internally at the change in tone in Dobey's voice.
"Besides, my coronary arteries can't withstand another four-day run of you missing in action. Dealing with Starsky alone was a full-time job. And then I had to go home and face Edith."
Hutch listened patiently to his boss as the man released a mountain of pent-up frustration. Living with an out-of-control Starsky was a situation Hutch could certainly appreciate.
A sharp knock on the door preceded Detective Starsky as he entered the room. Noting the expression on Hutch's face, Starsky peered at Dobey expectantly.
"Riding him a little hard aren't you, Captain?" Starsky asked, intentionally drawing the other man's ire. "At least give him a chance to get his running legs back."
Dobey glared at Starsky, knowing full well what the other man was trying to do.
"Sit down, Starsky. We have some things to share with you."
Hutch smiled at his partner as the other man settled on the adjoining chair, an unspoken message passing between them.
Thanks, Starsk, but I'm ok here, Hutch thought.
Captain Dobey handed Starsky the same report he had presented to Hutch minutes earlier. When Starsky was through reading, Dobey wondered if he was comfortable with the content.
"What is it?" Dobey asked. "Do you think they're missing something?"
"No," Starsky began, glancing at Hutch. "It sounds like they're doing what needs to be done. I guess it feels a little anti-climatic knowing what Hutch went through before any real changes were made."
Hutch smiled appreciatively, shrugging his shoulders before replying.
"Oh, I think Diana paid the ultimate price, Starsk. Which reminds me... Were the attorneys able to locate any of her relatives?"
"No, not a one. Some distant relative died a few months previously and left her a large inheritance. Whoever that person was, they seem to have been the last of the lot."
"Why, Hutch?" Starsky wanted to know, his suspicion surfacing. "Surely you aren't interested in getting to know them."
Hutch took a deep breath and considered how much personal information it would be wise to share.
Since a few days after his surgery, Hutch had been meeting with the department's psychiatrist for a couple of one-hour sessions each week. The process was routine for any officer who had survived a traumatic job-related experience. While Starsky and Dobey both knew about the psychiatric appointments, the content was always kept private. As a seasoned homicide detective, Hutch thought he wouldn't necessarily benefit a great deal from that type of therapy. As he wasn't opposed to the idea either, Hutch had agreed to see the psychiatrist as part of his routine post-operative care. He just hadn't expected to need it.
"No," Hutch said, remembering Starsky's question. "No, that wouldn't interest me, Starsk," he added hastily.
Having noticed the subtle change in his partner's demeanor, Starsky was now studying Hutch more closely. Hutch kept his eyes on the floor, fearful that Starsky would see too much if he gave the other man half a chance. Feeling cornered, Hutch hoped that Dobey would let them go soon. Since shortly after leaving the hospital, Hutch had found it increasingly difficult to stay in any small room too long. It made him nervous - like he needed to find a second way out in case something unforeseen blocked the door.
Damn, Hutch thought, feeling worse. Dr. Henderson is right after all.
The recent kidnapping experience had been far more disruptive for Hutch than anyone else had realized. Although his body had continued to heal since his rescue, his emotions were at times an entangled mess. Hutch wasn't sure how much longer he would be able to conceal his predicament from anyone.
Chapter 2: A Matter of Insight
Hutch decides to explain to Starsky what he is thinking about doing.
Starsky wasn't in the mood for cooking or take-out. He wanted to go to The Pits for dinner, an option Hutch always enjoyed.
"Are you up to a game of pool?" Starsky asked, waggling his eyebrows suggestively. "Huggy wants to see you again anyway. He doesn't get the chance to pamper you as much as the rest of us."
"Dinner is fine, but I'm not sure about the pool," Hutch sighed. " I guess if bending and stretching over the table starts to hurt too much I can just stop."
The arrangement was agreeable to Starsky.
Arriving at The Pits shortly before rush hour, Starsky and Hutch said hello to Huggy on their way to their favorite booth. Declining a menu, they both ordered coffee along with the daily special. Hutch was still using an occasional pain pill at bedtime, which meant he was supposed to avoid alcohol altogether. That being the case, Starsky wasn't about to drink in front of him.
After the waitress had taken their order and walked away, Starsky seized the opportunity for a discussion.
"Ok, spill it," Starsky said bluntly, peering at Hutch over the rim of his coffee cup.
Hutch looked up in surprise, startled by the unexpected statement. He'd been so lost in thought that Starsky's comment had taken him off guard. Hutch considered feigning ignorance - pretending he didn't know what Starsky meant. Accepting the inevitable, Hutch squared his shoulders and looked directly at Starsky instead.
"Alright," Hutch sighed. "Give me a minute, please?"
Starsky nodded, sensing a shift in Hutch's mood.
"I can't make you talk to me, Hutch. But if you don't, I can promise you I'll be here waiting every time you look up. Besides, I have the keys, and you aren't supposed to drive yet."
Hutch stared into his own cup of coffee as he tried to formulate exactly what to say. It wasn't that he didn't trust Starsky. It was more like he had less confidence in his own coping skills in lieu of his discussions with Dr. Henderson.
"This whole thing with Diana really threw me for a loop," Hutch began, deciding the bare truth was the best place to start. "I thought I was over it, ya know? I mean - the woman is dead, right?"
Starsky could see the retreat of confidence on Hutch's face at the mere mention of Diana's name.
"After talking to Henderson a few times, I've realized there are plenty of things that I'm still upset as hell about."
Starsky waited for Hutch to expand on his statement. When nothing more was forthcoming, he opted for a modicum of prying instead.
"So it sounds like your chats with the doctor are helpful then?"
"Yeah, I can admit they have been," Hutch replied, glancing up.
Hutch paused again before saying more, as if suddenly fearful of the depth of his own insight.
"Until I started talking to someone else, I didn't realize how much of me still needs to be fixed, Starsk."
Huggy was fast approaching their table, a tray loaded with food balanced skillfully in his hands.
"Here we are," Huggy announced, setting a plate in front of each man. "Dinner as desired for my two favorite cops."
Hutch stared at the grilled chicken salad and side of homemade vegetable soup that Huggy had placed in front of him.
"This is the house special?" Hutch asked, surprised.
"It is for you. For Starsky, it's spaghetti and garlic bread. If he wants to share, that's up to him."
"No, Hug. This is great! I just didn't expect all of the vegetables is all."
Huggy could see that Hutch was extremely happy with his meal.
"I aim to please," Huggy replied. "When you've both had your fill of the main course, we can talk about dessert. Now scoot over."
Hutch made room for Huggy to sit next to him in the vinyl-covered booth. As they began to eat, Starsky tore a large piece of garlic bread in half and handed it to Hutch.
"So how does it feel to be back at work, Hutch?" Huggy wanted to know. "I mean - how's it really goin'?"
Hutch was amazed at the candor emanating from both of his friends tonight. If he'd planned to keep his problems confidential, Hutch could see that wouldn't have worked either.
Hutch glanced at Starsky and then Huggy before returning his attention to the soup.
"That obvious, huh?" Hutch asked softly, his cheeks flushing slightly.
"It is to me and Starsky," Huggy said bluntly. "You may have the rest of the world fooled, but Starsky and I are worried about you."
Digging into the soup first, Hutch finished it quickly and pushed the empty cup away. Only then did he realize he was as good as trapped between the two other men. Under normal circumstances, Hutch could power his way out of most situations. All three of them knew he wouldn't be doing that tonight.
Well played, fellas, Hutch thought, glancing between his friends.
"He's working on it," Starsky offered, allowing Huggy a chance to know that he and Hutch had been having a productive discussion.
Huggy looked pleased to hear that.
"Well, I'm glad. "If there's anything I can do - and I do mean anything, Hutch - please let me know."
"How about more soup?" Hutch asked, doing his best to look needy.
Starsky laughed as Huggy handed the empty cup to a passing waitress.
"Alice, bring my fair-haired friend here a refill, please. And some more garlic bread, too."
Hutch appreciated the company at The Pits as much as his meal. Despite the obvious orchestration, Hutch was touched to learn that his friends were truly concerned about him. If that was the case, it underscored what Dr. Henderson had said to him only a couple of days ago. Hutch still had a lot of emotional healing to do.
Hutch reflected on the most recent conversation he'd had with the kindly psychiatrist. The doctor did not seem surprised that Hutch was experiencing the feelings he'd been willing to share. It was all new territory for Hutch. He was not used to feeling so vulnerable.
Although Starsky had noticed a few subtle changes in Hutch's behavior, he was unaware of the true extent of his newfound anxiety issues. It wasn't as though Hutch seemed afraid exactly. It was more like he was uncertain - uncertain of his personal judgment skills as well as his ability to protect himself and his partner.
Although Hutch's involvement with Diana had been brief, Hutch could acknowledge that he'd moved much too quickly simply because a woman he barely knew had been willing to accept his advances. Allowing someone so unbalanced such intimate access to his life had been a lapse in judgment on a colossal scale - a mistake that had almost gotten him killed. Worse yet, the same set of circumstances had followed him into the future, as evidenced by his recent kidnapping - the ultimate reminder of his personal failings. How could Starsky be expected to trust him again?
The dishes had been cleared and Huggy had gone back to work. Starsky and Hutch were enjoying a coffee refill when the waitress brought two pieces of fresh, blueberry pie to the table.
"It's on the house. Enjoy, fellas," she added before walking away.
"Oh my God," Hutch exclaimed, eyeing the dessert. "I'm not sure I have room."
"You have room," Starsky commented, accepting one of the plates. "You don't want to hurt Huggy's feelings, do ya?"
No, Hutch didn't want to be responsible for hurting Huggy's feelings.
"Do you mind if I pass on the pool? I'm feeling a little lazy tonight."
"No, I don't mind," Starsky assured Hutch, chuckling at the idea that the man was ever lazy. "Another time then. Besides, we have two pieces of blueberry pie to eat."
They attacked their dessert in comfortable silence, enjoying each bite of the homemade pastry. When there was nothing left to eat, Hutch pushed away from the table and slouched against the back of the booth.
"Oh man," Hutch said, feeling overly full. "I don't know if I can move for a while."
That was the idea, Starsky thought, eyeing Hutch carefully.
"Fine by me," Starsky said out loud instead. "I have some questions."
Hutch smiled as he stared at the empty dishes in front of him. Not only had he been well-handled by those who knew him best, but he had been easily manipulated into a sense of safety that would allow him to relax as much as possible. Growing drowsy, Hutch rubbed his eyes and leaned forward to rest his hands on top of the table.
"Ok, Starsk. I'll try and explain a few things to you. I'm just not sure I'll be able to do a good job."
"Just try, please," Starsky offered, hoping that Hutch would share whatever he was feeling. Starsky knew his friend was troubled. He just didn't understand why.
"The sessions with the doctor have clarified a few things while confusing me about a few others - things I didn't think I'd ever need to worry about."
Starsky listened intently but remained quiet.
"I'm not sure you can understand," Hutch admitted, meeting Starsky's gaze. "It's like my self-confidence has changed - like my entire ability to understand anything doesn't feel right to me anymore."
Starsky continued to listen, worried yet fascinated by the depth of Hutch's apparent internal struggle. Hutch was one of the strongest individuals Starsky had ever known - strong as defined by physicality, intellect, and morality. It was difficult for him to hear that Hutch had somehow thought less of himself. He knew Hutch was embarrassed by his fling with Diana. That much Starsky understood. The remainder of Hutch's tangled emotions sounded much more complex than a mere case of chagrin.
"Hutch, I get why the whole situation with Diana embarrasses you. Every man on the planet, me included, can understand what led you to get involved."
There it was again - that faint, rosy tinge at the edge of Hutch's cheeks that always gave away his unease. Starsky pressed onward anyway.
"Is it because she's dead that it bothers you so much?"
Starsky resisted the urge to add that he was the one who had shot her.
"Yeah, there's probably some guilt associated with that," Hutch admitted. "Although I hope none of the other women in any of my previous short-term relationships wound up dead because of me."
"Diana's death was secondary to her own decisions, not yours. I know you're plenty smart enough to understand that, Hutch."
"Yeah, I get all of that," Hutch said, releasing a sigh.
After a short silence, Starsky persevered.
"So what does the doctor suggest?"
This was the part that Hutch was the most unsure of - the part he thought Starsky was not going to like.
"He's explained that my reactions are entirely normal."
Starsky was nodding as Hutch talked, agreeing with the gist of what he was hearing.
"Dr. Henderson thinks I need a desensitizing experience before I can find any real sense of closure."
Hutch looked expectantly at Starsky to see if the other man understood. When Starsky did not appear to react, Hutch knew he had to explain further.
"A desensitizing experience?"
"Yeah. The doctor thinks I need to revisit the site of the original trauma so I can produce a different outcome. In other words, he thinks I need to go back, Starsky - back to the scene of the damage. And he thinks it's important that I take you with me."
Starsky was sitting with his elbow on the table, chin in hand, captivated by Hutch's explanation. Nothing Hutch had said thus far surprised him - nothing, at least until the last sentence.
"He said what?" Starsky asked, wondering if he had heard right. "He wants us to go back?"
Hutch was nodding almost timidly as he watched his partner absorb the last bit of information.
"Back to Harmon's property in San Bernadino?"
"That's what he said," Hutch answered softly. "I knew you wouldn't be thrilled."
Chapter 3: The Return
Starsky and Hutch head back to San Bernadino County together.
Three weeks later the Torino was packed to the gills and freeway bound for San Bernadino County. It was a Wednesday, eight weeks to the day since Hutch had gone missing late one summer afternoon. It was now mid-October, that time of the year when the air began to chill and the leaves of deciduous trees morphed into brilliant colors. By the time they reached the county line, the majority of heavy traffic and smog was behind them in the rearview mirror.
"Thanks for doing this, Starsky," Hutch said, watching the scenery fly past his window. "I know you could have said no."
"Oh, this isn't all that noble of me, Hutch. Not really."
Hutch looked at him skeptically from the other side of the Torino.
"Sure, I could have stayed home, but you'd have gone ahead without me. And what good would that do? I'd worry about you the whole time you were gone, and you wouldn't be able to follow your doctor's advice properly. Henderson did say I should go with you."
"Well, I appreciate it anyway," Hutch added. "Not everyone would have done it."
Starsky accepted Hutch's compliment and moved on.
"It was good of Dobey to give us the time off. I suppose he didn't have to do that either."
"I suppose," Hutch replied, looking thoughtful. "But it's not all that surprising either. He cares about everyone in the department, and he understands why I wanted to go."
"Besides, I'm thinking of it as a four-day weekend. Four nights under the stars - a little hiking, a little fishing"...
"A little mental health therapy," Hutch added with a scowl.
Starsky chuckled at Hutch's attempt to be introspective.
"Ah, nothing about what we're doing will be obvious to anyone else, Hutch. When did you say Collins and Benson are getting there?"
"Friday some time. Collins and I looked at the map together, and he knows the area fairly well. We're shooting for the same coordinates. It shouldn't be too hard to rendezvous with them."
Starsky followed the highway to the turnoff to the Harmon property - the precise spot where he and Dobey had met Sheriff Jacobs and his men two months earlier. Dobey had informed Jacobs that his detectives would be in the area through the weekend. They had permission to park the Torino in a wide pullout on the county road from Wednesday afternoon through Sunday morning.
Hutch looked surprised as they left the freeway and followed the junction to a two-lane county road. After traveling a little more than a mile, Starsky pulled over and cut the engine.
"This is it?" Hutch asked, looking around.
"This is where we left the cars before we stormed the property," Starsky clarified. "The house is about a quarter of a mile down the road and maybe about the same distance north. It's not far."
When Starsky realized that Hutch hadn't made a move to get out of the car, he looked at him more intently.
"What's wrong?" Starsky asked, unsure what Hutch was thinking.
"Oh, I just didn't realize I was this close to a road when I was on the run."
"Well, how could you? Weren't you unconscious when they brought you here?"
"Yeah, I guess so," Hutch admitted. "I sure don't remember this area."
"Let's step out and have a look around," Starsky suggested. "Then you'll know something about this part of the journey. This was the starting point for the search team, Hutch - the spot we first met Ames, Simpon, and the dogs. We all traveled on foot from here to the house."
They had consolidated their gear into two large backpacks, both kept as light as possible for a four-day trip. For Hutch's safety, Starsky was packing the small tent they would be using along with most of the extra ammunition. Although Hutch was doing well from the standpoint of his recent surgery, he'd been instructed not to lift anything heavier than fifty pounds for at least another month.
They were hoping to catch enough fish to supply them with at least a couple of meals. Starsky also had some food for that night, an assortment of protein bars, and some dehydrated food in his pack. Worst-case scenario, he figured they'd be on light rations for a day or two.
"Ready?" Starsky asked, picking up his backpack.
"As ready as I'll ever be."
It was roughly the same time of day when Starsky had last traveled the same road, their group numbering more than a dozen back then. Today it was just him and Hutch. As Starsky walked, he found the absence of street noise pleasantly invigorating - the usual cacophony of honking cars, screeching tires, and squealing brakes replaced by the sound of almost nothing.
A frightened quail flushed from its hiding place and raced in front of them for several yards before disappearing altogether in the roadside brush. A pair of squirrels were squabbling over acorns in the trees overhead. The clamor of the city was far away at the moment, replaced by an undertone of tranquility instead.
Hutch was busy looking around as they walked, keeping pace with Starsky, but allowing himself to see the area for the first time. The approach to the house was entirely new to him. Despite the time he spent there as a hostage, he could remember little about it until shortly before his escape.
"Does anything look familiar yet?"
"No, not a thing," Hutch admitted.
Starsky noticed the end of the driveway was becoming visible in the distance.
"See where that pavement T-bones into the road? That's the driveway to the property. Once we turn the corner, you'll be able to see the house."
Stepping off the county road, Hutch saw what Starsky meant. A large, log home was clearly visible at the end of an unusually long driveway. Hutch paused, absorbing the view.
"So that's it, huh?" Hutch asked, squinting at the oversized structure.
Hutch thought there should at least be background music to underscore the moment.
"Yep, that's it," Starsky confirmed.
Sensing a small opportunity, Starsky offered a suggestion.
"How about we just stand here a moment. Let's try and see the place for what it is, Hutch. No matter what went down in there, it's only a building."
Hutch stood looking at the house from the safety of distance for several minutes - alert for any hint of movement or a sign of occupancy. There was nothing. Hutch noted the front entrance with its wide, expansive porch and thought it should at least look familiar. In truth, it didn't - at least not from this angle. The realization was a little disappointing.
Starsky stood by waiting for Hutch. When Hutch next looked in his direction, Starsky could tell by the expression on his face that he was ready to move on.
"It's all so surreal. I've been told what happened, but I don't remember most of it."
"Well, you can't be responsible for remembering things you weren't awake to see. We can't interrogate Diana, but there are others who were in the house when you were brought here, and they're caving one at a time. One of them is gonna be the breakthrough we need in the interest of saving their own ass."
"I thought you said a couple of the suspects got away."
"That's right, they did. Whoever they were, we'll find them. It's only been a couple of months, Hutch."
As the men traveled the long driveway together, a pair of eyes followed them from a close, but secluded location. The blonde was recognizable; the other was a stranger. A moment of quiet revelation was followed by an edge of barely contained excitement.
"Sweetheart," a soft, feminine voice whispered in astonishment. "I'm so glad you've come back. I've been waiting for you."
Chapter 4: The Fine Details
Starsky and Hutch leave the lonely cabin behind them and move deeper into the woods.
Hutch was standing in the middle of the porch inspecting what was left of the house's badly mangled front door. A criss-cross of bright yellow caution tape barred entry to the public and marked the site as an official crime scene. The red and white sign to the right of the door emphasized Do Not Enter to any potential trespassers.
Hutch followed a trail of metal fragments and splintered wood to the broken hinges hanging loosely on the left side of the entryway.
"Is this your handiwork?" Hutch asked, his lips curving into a smile.
Starsky glanced between Hutch and the door before answering.
"What? The broken part? It might be. How did you know about that?"
"Relax, Starsk. Dobey told me. And he was proud of you for doing it, too."
Hutch turned to gaze at the expansive front porch, an area he did recognize now that he was standing on it.
"I do remember this spot though."
"So do I. The dogs tracked you from here to the bedroom upstairs, then back down and outside toward the treeline. That's how we knew you had taken to the woods."
Hutch nodded as he listened to Starsky, well-able to remember what he'd been doing once he'd made it past the front door.
"Wanna go inside?" Starsky asked suddenly.
Hutch looked uncertain for the first time since they'd arrived on the property. He hadn't thought about actually entering the house again. Now that Starsky had broached the subject, he wasn't sure if it was a good idea.
"Come on," Starsky said before Hutch had a chance to think too much. "Follow me. I'll find us a way in."
Starsky headed for the side of the house, cutting left and following the exterior wall until he came to a first-floor window. Realizing that Hutch was lagging behind by a few steps, Starsky reduced his speed and reminded himself to take things at Hutch's pace. It wouldn't do his partner any good to push too hard. Typically, Hutch was not someone who could be pushed into anything, although he could be persuaded if one knew how to go about it.
Starsky leaned against the window and peered through the dirty glass. On the other side, he saw a large room full of furniture that was mostly in disarray. Hutch joined him at the window, likewise pushing his face against the glass and staring into the room.
"Nothing looks familiar. I'm beginning to wonder if the first half of this whole experience even happened."
"Oh, it happened alright, Hutch. Trust me. It was a nightmare for the rest of us."
Hutch was considering prying open one of the windows when Starsky tried the back door instead. It opened easily.
"I guess the crime scene was limited to the front of the building. Well, that's our invitation, Hutch. We don't even have to break in."
"Interesting," Hutch said, remembering the empty cabin. "I guess people don't worry about locking doors around here."
Starsky and Hutch entered Diana's old house together through the unsecured back door. After locating a light switch, the room was illuminated in soft yellow light.
"Let's drop our packs by the door. We won't be long," Starsky suggested.
Starsky allowed Hutch to lead the way through the house, staying close behind him, but not interfering. He wasn't at all sure what Hutch might be looking for.
They passed a large table in the dining room still set with an elaborate arrangement of black and red candles. Dry rose petals littered the polished tabletop. Hutch raised an eyebrow at Starsky as they passed the odd display. Although neither of them knew what it represented, Hutch was struck by the idea that it was somehow ceremonial.
Passing through the dining room, Hutch found himself once again in the foyer at the bottom of the staircase. A sense of deja vu washed over him as he stared at the interior of the disfigured front door. Looking away, his eyes followed the winding staircase to the uppermost level.
"Want me to go first?" Starsky asked, watching Hutch intently. "I know exactly where you were."
Hutch didn't answer immediately. He grabbed Starsky's shirtsleeve and pulled him closer instead.
"Just walk with me. You don't need to go first. I'm not afraid - just suspicious I guess."
Starsky nodded, allowing Hutch to make the first move. When Hutch put his foot on the staircase, Starsky joined him one step at a time.
As they climbed the stairs in tandem, Hutch noticed a number of things he had not seen before. The wall that lined the staircase was decorated with a series of abstract paintings, most of which were composed of dark colors - black, shades of brown, deep red, and purple. Reaching the top stair, Hutch paused to examine the last painting more closely. It was the image of a star encircled by a wreath of dry flowers.
"Looks like someone was into Wicca," Starsky commented, lifting one eyebrow. "Well, that kinda fits, doesn't it?"
Hutch realized he was clutching the front of his T-shirt, fiddling absent-mindedly with the half-moon and star chain he was wearing beneath his shirt.
"Come on," Starsky said, taking Hutch by the arm and pulling him forward. "You've seen enough of that piece of art."
Proceeding down the hallway, Starsky was able to pick out the room where Hutch had been held during his captivity. He waited to see if Hutch could recognize it also. A few steps later, Hutch veered toward the correct door - the room where he'd been unconscious for most of a day and a half. Starsky noticed a slight degree of hesitation on Hutch's part - a long-ingrained habit born not out of fear, but more of determination instead. Starsky had seen Hutch do the same thing in countless other situations. He would identify a problem and brace for the fight before confronting the enemy head-on. Squaring his shoulders, Hutch entered the bedroom to face his memories directly.
Hutch's eyes wandered first to the rumpled bed, the spot where so much that was painful and disorienting had taken place. Waking up groggy and confused, Hutch had lain there, fighting the effects of more than one mind-altering substance. There were other memories, too - a faint recollection of someone holding him down while others man-handled his body. Too weak to resist at the time, Hutch was forced to yield to a series of unwanted and repetitive touches.
Two months previously in the same room...
"Oh, he's lovely," the woman whispered. "Absolutely lovely. Pictures alone cannot do him justice, Diana."
Diana smiled, pleased not only with herself but with how well her plan was progressing. Hutch was destined to be hers again.
"I told you he was beautiful," Diana replied. "So beautiful," she repeated, running a finger across Hutch's lower lip as he slept. Quickly, now - let's hurry. The faster we work, the sooner he'll be under my spell."
Unbuttoning Hutch's shirt, Diana shoved the fabric aside to fully expose his chest and upper body. Working quickly, she applied a splattering of warm, aromatic oil to his chest in small, well-spaced droplets. As another woman lit a black candle and waited nearby, Diana worked the oil into Hutch's skin one small area at a time. Once she finished, Diana's companion began to chant softly in the background.
As the chanting continued, Diana bent to tie a special amulet around Hutch's neck - an ancient symbol of love and fertility that she secured in place with thin, leather straps. Pleased with the effect, Diana placed a kiss on Hutch's lips before stepping back to admire her handiwork.
"There, my love. No one can take you away from me now - not even Starsky."
"Hutch," Starsky said, a little louder this time.
Startled, Hutch turned to look at Starsky.
"It's ok if you want to see this place again, Hutch. But you don't have to be here anymore. Don't volunteer to give away any more than those jerks already stole from you, ok?" And remember, you're not alone this time. I'm here."
The bedroom door slammed shut at that moment, causing both men to jump. Starsky was reaching for his gun before he remembered it wasn't there.
"Relax, Starsk. It was only a draft," Hutch said, stepping between his partner and the door. "Let's get out of here anyway. I'm done."
Reaching for the door, Hutch felt resistance in his arm as he pulled on the door. Scowling, he tugged harder until the door abruptly released itself.
"It was stuck for a minute."
"Let's go," Starsky ordered, grabbing Hutch by the arm and pulling him into the hallway.
Hutch didn't need additional encouragement. Descending the stairs, they quickly retraced their steps through the house, retrieved their backpacks, and left by way of the back door. As they exited the yard, Hutch cast a final look toward the house before turning his back and walking away.
"Hey!" Starsky shouted after him. "Wait for me, Blondie."
As the two men entered the woods and disappeared into the trees, a slender, feminine hand reached for the door and locked it securely behind them.
"Sleep well, my sweet darling," the woman muttered softly. "I'll see you in your dreams."
Chapter 5: The Bright Light of Day
Things often look better in the full light of day.
They had been hiking for most of an hour when Starsky asked for a breather.
"Hey!" Starsky shouted, mildly out of breath. "I know you're well on your way to your previously fine physical form, but my pack is heavier than yours. Wait up, will ya?"
Hutch paused at the head of the trail to gaze back at Starsky.
"I'm sorry, Starsk," Hutch acknowledged, a little embarrassed. "I guess I got ahead of myself."
"It's ok," Starsky answered, sliding out of his shoulder straps. "I don't care about the pack. I just need some water and a few minutes to catch my breath. After that, I say we press on - just not quite so fast."
Watching Starsky, Hutch realized the other man was right. Once again he had allowed his emotions to govern something he should have done differently. The simple insight was frustrating.
"You don't need to run, Hutch," Starsky reminded him, unsure if that was what Hutch needed to hear. "Things are different this time. As I've said before - I'm here, and no one is chasing us."
Starsky sat down next to his backpack and retrieved the canteen. Pulling a map from his shirt pocket, Hutch wandered over to sit down beside him. The map told Hutch they were approximately four miles from the meadow where he had first stumbled upon the empty cabin. With plenty of daylight left to hike, setting up a campsite before dark should not be difficult.
"So how does this whole area look to you now?" Starsky asked, waving a hand at their surroundings.
"A lot friendlier with a map and a compass, not to mention I have company this time."
Smiling at Starsky, Hutch allowed himself to truly relax for the first time all afternoon. The unsettling images from Diana's house were readily replaced by the peacefulness of the deep woods.
"How did you know where you were going out here?"
"I didn't," Hutch admitted. "I headed for the woods so I could hide. Beyond that, I just needed to put some distance between myself and Diana's goons.
Starsky nodded, accepting the simple explanation.
"Nevertheless, it took guts to do what you did, Hutch. I'm willing to bet those creeps were overly smug - probably assumed you couldn't get away. You certainly showed them."
"I had to do something. I was running out of time."
It was Starsky's turn to shudder.
"Ya know, the one thing that keeps me up at night is knowing that Diana could have found you before we did. After all, she did show up at the cabin."
Starsky watched Hutch's reaction closely.
"Yeah, I've thought about that also," Hutch admitted. "I've no idea how she got out there much less how she knew where to look. And she looked so wild - like she was possessed or something."
Both men were momentarily quiet, each lost in their individual thoughts of that dreadful morning two months previously. Although they had talked about the shooting several times, there would always be unanswered questions.
"I don't regret killing her, Hutch," Starsky added suddenly. "I don't," he repeated.
Hutch waited, wondering if Starsky wanted to say more.
"I understand. As I said before - it's a harsh thing, but I do understand. I'm damn lucky you were there."
Two hours later they had located the now-familiar meadow - the area that had been the evacuation zone from where they had both been airlifted to safety. The small, lonely cabin stood empty on the edge of the grasslands - still open, available, and vaguely mysterious. Standing on the front porch, Hutch was able to see the area in full daylight for the first time. Viewing things from this particular angle, Hutch could understand why someone had built a cabin in this location. It really was beautiful.
Hutch noted the number of broken, wooden planks still littering the front porch - a stark reminder of the bear that had complicated the entire rescue effort. Hutch learned through Collins that Fish and Game had relocated the aggressive bear to a remote area three hundred miles to the north. The bruin had been tagged and collared for tracking purposes before its release. Hopefully, the large, male bear had learned how to avoid encounters with people.
"Does it look any different?" Starsky asked again, appearing beside Hutch.
Hutch took a moment to consider how best to answer. The reality was that it did look different - so much so that Hutch was not sure how to properly define what he was feeling.
"It's the same landscape, but there's quite a contrast in a lot of ways. I'm not afraid today, and I can think more clearly. The first time I saw this place it was dark, I was exhausted, and scarcely on my feet. I also knew the bear was out there somewhere. I wasn't at all sure that I was going to make it across the meadow."
Starsky could hear the emotion in Hutch's voice.
"And then we made you run it a second time. God, I'm so sorry, Hutch."
"That was different, Starsk. It really was," Hutch added quickly. "Sure it was hard, and I was worn out by then, but I knew you and the others were with me. It made an indescribable difference."
That much Starsky could at least understand.
Hutch cast a look in the direction Diana had been standing when she was shot. He was confident that if he and Starsky walked over there, they would be able to locate the exact spot. Hutch didn't feel that was necessary.
"Wanna go inside?" Starsky asked, nodding toward the cabin.
"Nah, but just for fun"...
Hutch turned and opened the cabin door, took a quick look around, and closed it again.
"Looks the same," Hutch said. "I'd rather leave now."
"Me, too. Which direction does that map of yours say we need to go?"
"South. It'll be new territory for both of us from here on."
"I'll follow you."
Hutch walked to the end of the porch and hopped off, quickly turning in a southern direction. Glancing at the area where the medevac helicopter had landed weeks earlier, Hutch could more closely estimate where Diana had been standing when Starsky had shot her.
The grass was tall in that area and looked relatively undisturbed. Hutch thought it was best to leave it that way. Walking backward a few steps, Hutch kept the location in view a little longer. While the grass did a lot to hide what had happened there, the heavy bloodstains had faded after a series of autumn rainstorms. There was nothing left to indicate that anyone had died there - nothing anyway but the memories.
Hutch turned his back and walked away with Starsky following closely behind him. Little did they realize their departure was witnessed.
"You're so brave, sweetheart," the woman whispered, watching the two men depart. "So lovely, alluring, and pure of heart. Sleep well, my love. You'll be mine again soon."
Chapter 6: Base Camp
Starsky and Hutch find that ideal camping spot that Hutch had so longed to find.
Finding the ideal spot to set up camp had not been difficult. By following the coordinates he and Collins had established, Hutch found an area lush with grass and facing the creek - the same creek where Collins was dying to try out his new fly reel.
After the tent had been pitched and the sleeping bags unrolled, enough firewood had been gathered to last through the night. Unless one of them felt like exploring, the only thing left to do was relax and enjoy a meal. When Hutch opted for relaxation, Starsky was admittedly grateful.
"How are you feeling?" Starsky asked, lowering himself next to the fire. "I thought you pushed yourself a little hard today."
Hutch was busy thinking of a response as he searched through his pack for their sandwiches.
"Oh, I'm alright," Hutch replied knowing he had hesitated just a moment too long. Starsky would suspect he was stretching the truth.
Locating the small tin that held the sandwiches, he tossed it to Starsky and began looking for the Oreos.
"I brought my pills just in case," Hutch added, knowing that Starsky would ask. "Just as soon as I eat something, I think I'll take one."
The raw admission told Starsky everything he wanted to know.
"Hutch, for hell's sake, give me that," Starsky said, leaping up and taking the pack away from him. "Go sit down and start eating. I'll do the rest."
Hutch wasn't in the mood to argue.
Starsky glared at Hutch as he moved away - a vantage point that allowed him to notice the catch in his breath as Hutch lowered himself to the ground. Despite his best effort, it was impossible to stay mad at Hutch. Realizing that Hutch was in some degree of pain, Starsky began rumbling through the pack in search of the prescription.
"Are the pills in here?"
"No, they're in my pocket. Calm down, Starsk. I've got them."
Starsky dropped the pack and marched toward Hutch. He was about to ask which pocket when he spotted the outline of the pill bottle in Hutch's jeans.
"Let me get it, ok? If you'll get me some water, I'll take one."
As Starsky retrieved the canteen, Hutch singled out a tablet and popped it into his mouth. Starsky knew that Hutch was fairly uncomfortable if he was willing to medicate so early in the evening.
Ok," Starsky began as he sat down next to Hutch. "What we want to do here is make things better for you. We won't accomplish that by reinjuring you. Please be more careful from here on out, alright, Hutch?"
Hutch was nodding as Starsky talked, willing to accept a certain amount of loving criticism from his partner. He had known that Starsky would be overly sensitive to anything he perceived as risky. In this instance, Hutch knew his body was feeling the effect of a long hike on the parts of him that were still healing. The doctor had warned him it could happen.
"Just be aware that your body will be sensitive, and don't lift anything that you shouldn't," the surgeon had warned. "Take a pain pill if you need one and you'll be fine. I'll see you when you get back."
Hutch looked at Starsky and smiled calmly.
"I think I'm done for the day, Mom. All I want to do now is kick back and enjoy the company, the snacks, and the view."
Starsky added wood to the fire, watching intently as the dead branches caught fire and began to blaze. The extra warmth felt good against the chill of the October evening. The darkness that surrounded their campsite shortly after sunset was virtually impenetrable to the human eye - a reality that always made Starsky uncomfortable.
Starsky glanced toward the tent where Hutch was already asleep. Predictably, there was little about sleeping in the great outdoors that ever bothered Hutchinson. Starsky was far less comfortable under a wide-open sky than his partner. Although he had learned a lot from Hutch about basic camping, he would never be as relaxed as Hutch was any time they were out in the woods. It always amazed Starsky that Hutch had adapted to life in the city with the same sort of ease that he demonstrated everywhere else. Starsky just wasn't as flexible when it came to a complete change in his surroundings.
The distinct sound of a branch snapping in half from somewhere beyond the firelight caught Starsky's attention. Reaching for his Beretta, he turned his eyes in the direction of the noise and waited. A flurry of activity seemed to follow the initial ruckus before moving away in the opposite direction.
Probably just a deer," Starsky told himself, relaxing his grip on his weapon.
The last thing Starsky wanted was an unplanned scuffle with anything out here in the middle of the woods. Glancing again at Hutch, Starsky could see he was still passed out on his stomach, his face turned toward the firelight. Hutch hadn't so much as twitched at the unexpected noise.
Ah, Hutch. How do you do it? Starsky wondered. Maybe I'm the one who needs therapy.
Knowing Hutch would argue that concept, Starsky quickly dismissed the idea. He scrutinized the area around him instead, thick with evergreen trees and undergrowth as far as he could see. Hutch had noticed a patch of wild blueberries growing near the creek shortly after they arrived. If they were lucky, they could add berries and fresh trout to the menu tomorrow.
Starsky stretched his legs out in front of him, finding relief for his own sore muscles. He wasn't worried about the aches and pains knowing the general stiffness would resolve overnight. Any time he went hiking over natural terrain instead of flat city sidewalks, his body was forced to operate a bit differently. Concern flared anew for Hutch knowing that he had not only made the same trek, but he had done so while weakened from surgery. No wonder Hutch had gone to sleep so easily. He had to be exhausted.
The wind picked up suddenly, sending a flurry of dry leaves and other pieces of small debris flying through the air. Starsky shielded his eyes against the unexpected gust, but not before some of the grit landed between his teeth.
"Keep telling yourself you love it out here," Starsky muttered, spitting the dirt out of his mouth.
Admittedly, Hutch was doing a lot better than Starsky at the moment. Protected from the wind by the tent, Hutch was warm, content, and still asleep regardless of whatever was happening fireside.
"Ok, that's it," Starsky thought, scrambling to get his legs underneath him.
Starsky grabbed a couple of the smaller logs and tossed them on the fire before heading to the tent. Crawling inside, he attempted to be quiet as he twisted in a tight circle to zip the flap closed behind him.
He next removed his shoes, kicking them into the corner as he struggled to unzip and remove his jacket. Adding the jacket to the shoes, Starsky shed his belt, jeans, and outer shirt before tucking himself inside the sleeping bag. Stretching his legs to his full height, Starsky relaxed and sighed with deep relief.
"Are you about done?" Hutch asked softly.
Surprised, Starsky turned his head to look at Hutch.
"I thought you were asleep."
"I was until a few moments ago."
Hutch opened his eyes slowly, focussing on Starsky only a few inches away.
"What have you been doing out there anyway? It's late."
"Communing with nature," Starsky answered, unsure what else to say. "I think we had a visitor, too. Apparently, they decided not to hang around."
"Hum, weird. Maybe it was that Beretta in your hand that changed their mind."
"Yeah, maybe," Starsky answered, chuckling. "That does have a way of influencing conversations."
Hutch's smile was relaxed as he gazed at Starsky.
"How are you feeling?" Starsky asked, his facial expression becoming serious.
"I'm good. Those pills make me sleepy, but I'm not in pain anymore."
"That is good news, but take it easy tomorrow, ok? Maybe then you won't have to deal with any of the pain coming back. Remember - you're still healing."
"Uh-huh," Hutch replied, yawning as his eyelids began to droop. "All I want to do tomorrow is fish a little bit, and maybe do a little hiking close to camp. I won't be wearing a pack either."
"No, you won't," Starsky emphasized, feeling paternal. "It feels like I have to remind you of things like that or you'll be climbing a tree or something."
Hutch giggled softly as his eyes finished closing. There it was - that predictable, amusing response that always accompanied Hutch's use of prescription-strength pain relievers.
"Thanks for the idea," Hutch whispered. "I'll try to remember that for tomorrow."
"You're welcome - I think," Starsky said, his own eyes closing against the fatigue.
The full, October moon had risen above the tree line creating a mosaic of shadow and darkness that made the surrounding woods nearly impassable at night. A gust of wind jostled the tent but left the men inside undisturbed. The remaining flames were still ablaze against the backdrop of darkness when a different type of shadow materialized near the fire. If either man had opened his eyes, a distinctly feminine shape would have been visible against the firelight that penetrated the canvas tent wall. As neither did, the intruder went unnoticed as she studied the layout of the camp and lastly, the tent itself. The visitor was both curious and greatly annoyed. Hutch was supposed to be alone.
Diana had warned her about the depth of Starsky's influence. She could see now that her friend had been correct. The other man's presence complicated a lot of things about her plans to reunite with Hutch. Starsky was not only well-armed, he was actually sleeping between Hutch and the tent door.
"I wasn't expecting any true competition," the woman mused, frowning as she considered the complication. "Not after Diana died anyway, but no matter. I still have the strongest medicine."
Turning toward the fire, the woman opened a small, leather pouch she wore secured to her waist and emptied its contents into the flames. A thick, red smoke arose instantly, spreading through the air and encircling the tent. The woman clasped a small amulet hanging around her neck and began to chant silently. As she finished, she added the contents of a different pouch to the first before tossing the whole thing into the flames.
"You need to go away, Mr. Starsky. I beg you. Don't make this more difficult for either of us than it has to be."
Chapter 7: Suspicions
Starsky and Hutch have begun to suspect that they're not alone in the woods.
When Starsky next opened his eyes it was daylight. Stretching his arms high over his head, he took a deep breath and looked to his right. It didn't surprise him to find Hutch's sleeping bag empty. Rubbing his eyes, Starsky forced himself to sit up and peek through the tent flaps. Sure enough, there was Hutch sitting by the fire holding a cup of hot coffee.
"Good morning," Hutch said, noticing that Starsky was awake. "Coffee awaits," he added, holding the cup in the air.
Thank God for coffee, Starsky thought, thrashing his way out of his sleeping bag.
Pulling on his jeans, he crawled out of the tent to join Hutch by the fire. Hutch handed him the coffee after he sat down.
"Thank you. Have I ever told you how amazing coffee is?"
"Many times," Hutch replied.
"Oh well, never mind then. What time is it anyway?"
"A little after seven."
"Wow. That's as good as sleepin' in on a weekday. How long have you been up?"
"About an hour. I was waiting for you to wake up before I went fishing."
"You didn't have to," Starsky said, knowing how much Hutch liked to get up early.
"I thought it was important. Did I hear you say something about a visitor last night?"
Starsky took several sips of his coffee as he tried to remember their discussion from the previous evening.
"Yeah, I think so. I heard something just before I turned in. I didn't see anything though. Why?"
"Someone was here," Hutch said calmly. "I found footprints this morning."
"What? Footprints? You're kidding!"
Hutch stood and walked to the opposite side of the campfire where several sets of footprints were clearly visible in the loose dirt. Starsky followed, equally astonished by what he saw. They both knew the prints had not been there the night before. Someone had obviously walked right into camp while both of them were sleeping. It wasn't a good feeling.
"Well, I don't think the intruder was a man," Starsky observed. "The prints are too small. But what would a woman be doing out here in the middle of nowhere after dark?"
Hutch shrugged his shoulders in frustration.
"Yeah, I noticed that, too. I dunno, Starsk, but as you can see, someone was definitely here."
Hutch sent the fishing line flying across the top of the creek, watching as the brightly colored lure bounced twice. As it sank beneath the water, Hutch curbed the feed on the reel and gently pulled back on the line.
Starsky was content to watch from a short distance away. He liked to fish almost as much as Hutch did, but Starsky wanted to give Hutch first crack at this particular spot. Even he had to admit the weather conditions were just about perfect. It might be a long time before either of them got close to a fishing hole again. If a morning like this could help Hutch put a few bad memories to rest, Starsky was certainly all for it.
"Hey!" Hutch yelled. "Here comes the first one!"
Working efficiently, Hutch rewound the line and tugged gently on the rod until a fine rainbow trout emerged from the creek. Hutch hurried to pull the fish ashore.
"Nice one! Catch a couple more of those and we'll be eating trout for days."
In a secluded location on the opposite side of the creek, a young woman watched the two men in hostile silence. From where she was sitting, Hutch looked healthy and happy - neither of which aligned with her plans for this morning. The spell she had so carefully cast the previous evening was one of her strongest - an intense, blended potion designed to inflict severe disharmony and disruption on established relationships. Obviously, it had failed badly. It would need to be replaced and repeated with something stronger.
"Lila, you are such a fool," the woman chastised herself. "You should have known that Diana would never entrust you with the key to this man's heart. He was too important to her."
From her hidden post, Lila was free to study Hutch from the security of distance, watching in fascination as he stood casting the fishing line between the shore and the creek. Barefoot and wearing rolled-up jeans, Hutch balanced himself at the edge of the water as he worked the reel with practiced hands. The morning sun reflected off his blonde hair making him look more like an earth-bound angel than an ordinary man. A thin, cotton T-shirt hugged his shoulders and upper arms in a way that allowed his muscles to move freely.
Lila sat watching Hutch as he fished, newly enraptured by the allure of his handsome physique. This was the first time she had been able to observe him in full daylight. The only time she had seen Hutch in person before yesterday was in the bedroom at Diana's house where he had lain for several hours - unconscious, helpless, and unable to resist the incantations that Diana had performed. Lila had not only cooperated with Hutch's abduction, but she had also participated in Diana's fantasies. Unfortunately, she had not foreseen that Diana would die, never mind that she herself would fall in love with Hutch.
After Diana's unexpected death, Lila was determined that Hutch could be hers instead. The idea was at once captivating and impossible to forget. While Lila had never dreamed she would see Hutch again so soon, the opportunity had presented itself when she spotted him walking up the driveway of Diana's house. As she saw it, Hutch had been returned to her by the power of the love potions she and Diana had inflicted on him. The sooner Starsky was out of the way, the sooner Hutch would be more vulnerable to Lila's bewitchment. If last evening's spell had not been strong enough, she would simply have to work harder.
Lila watched in fascination as Starsky steadied the fish while Hutch disentangled the hook from its mouth. Working together, the two men made quick, efficient work of the entire process. The simple display of teamwork served to irritate Lila even more. She didn't appreciate the fact that Hutch was so closely attuned to anyone else.
An hour later Hutch had caught several good-sized trout which satisfied his immediate enthusiasm for fishing. Returning to camp, Starsky was busy prepping the fish while Hutch sat down to watch him.
"Are you sure you don't want me to do that?" Hutch asked.
"Nah. You caught 'em, so I can clean 'em. It's only fair."
Twenty minutes later Starsky was almost through beheading and cleaning the fish. Glancing at Hutch, he was starting to fillet the last one when the razor-sharp blade moved too easily through the fish and impaled itself in the palm of Starsky's right hand.
"Oh damn!" Starsky exclaimed, dropping the knife.
Blood immediately coated Starsky's wrist, pooling into rivulets, and trickling down his forearm.
"Starsky!" Hutch gasped. "What on earth happened?"
Leaping up, Hutch grabbed a discarded shirt and wrapped it tightly around Starsky's hand.
"I dunno," Starsky said, surprised and embarrassed. "I've never done anything like that before."
Hutch knew that was true. After several minutes of holding direct pressure, Hutch gently unwrapped the shirt to examine the damage. The wound was still oozing, but a majority of the bleeding had slowed down substantially.
"Well, I'm not going to pry it open to see how deep it is. If we were in town, I'd send you to the doctor 'cause it probably needs a stitch or two. By the time we got back to town from here, I'm afraid they wouldn't stitch it. I think we should just clean it up and keep it wrapped for protection. What do you think?"
Starsky was nodding before Hutch had stopped talking.
"I'm not packing up and heading home over nothing more than a good cut on my hand," Starsky replied. "I'll be fine."
"Collins and Benson will be here tomorrow," Hutch added. "I'm sure they'll have basic medical supplies with them. Real paramedics can have a look at you then. Other than keeping it clean and controlling the bleeding, I'm not sure what else to do."
"I agree with all of that," Starsky said, wincing as Hutch resumed holding pressure on his injured palm. "Damn," Starsky repeated. "I still don't know how that happened."
"At least it's not your dominant hand."
"Yeah, that's probably worth mentioning. So see - it could be worse."
"I have a basic first aid kit with me," Hutch said. "There's some gauze and tape in it I can use to wrap it up."
Hutch tried to gauge how much Starsky's wound was actually hurting.
I'll bet that smarts like a son-of-a-gun."
"It does," Starsky admitted, sighing. "But at least the fish are done - or mostly done," he added. "You may have to finish the last one."
"I can do that. In the meantime, do me a favor and just sit here, ok? Don't go anywhere until I get back. I don't want you moving around until the bleeding settles down."
Hutch patted Starsky on the thigh and went to find the first aid kit.
Starsky stared at his newly injured hand and frowned. He had worked with knives and all kinds of other sharp instruments since he was twelve years old. In all that time, he had never done anything remotely similar. Something about the incident didn't feel right. How had he completely lost control of the knife? Starsky didn't think that he had.
Hutch was back soon with the kit.
"Let me see your hand," Hutch ordered, sitting down in front of Starsky.
Starsky extended his arm.
"Lay it here - palm up on my leg," Hutch instructed, patting the top of his own thigh.
Starsky balanced his hand on the top of Hutch's leg, grimacing as they both examined the damage. Hutch resisted the urge to tease the other man further.
"I'm afraid this is gonna sting," Hutch warned, grabbing a pre-moistened packet. "I'm sorry."
Starsky watched as Hutch tore open a foil-lined pouch holding a 4x4 piece of gauze that was pre-soaked in hydrogen peroxide. Pressing the wet dressing to Starsky's hand, Hutch held the gauze firmly in place as the disinfectant began to work.
"Yep, you're right!" Starsky exclaimed. "Shit! That does hurt!"
Starsky gritted his teeth as Hutch finished cleaning the open wound. When the majority of fizzing and bubbling had stopped, Hutch dabbed antibiotic ointment on the cut before covering it carefully with a dry 4x4. He finished by securing the dressing in place with gauze.
"Maybe it's a good thing for both of us that paramedics are already on the way," Hutch said, chuckling despite himself. "Let's both try and hold ourselves together 'til they get here, huh?"
Starsky had to smile at the obvious truth in Hutch's statement. While everyone knew that cops had a dangerous job, the two of them weren't exactly working right now - not officially anyway.
"Ok," Hutch said, satisfied with the dressing. "That should do it. I'll finish up and we'll have something to eat."
An hour later the fish had been grilled and consumed for a late breakfast. With a helping of fresh, wild blueberries on the side, it had been a most satisfying meal.
"Wow, that was great, Hutch," Starsky said, patting his stomach. "I can easily survive on either of those things for days."
"Yeah, it was good. Sometimes it's best to get back to the basics of life. Like walking - do you feel like going for a walk?"
"Sure, just as soon as I'm through digesting a little more, I think that would be fun."
"How does your hand feel now?" Hutch asked more seriously.
"Aches a little, but not too bad. You took care of it so fast I doubt there's a chance of infection."
Preparing to go hiking, Starsky stood and brushed the dirt from his backside. As he bent to retrieve his used dishes, he thought he noticed movement on the far edge of his peripheral vision. Turning quickly, Starsky stared in that direction, alert for any sign of a disturbance. His senses piqued, Starsky waited and watched carefully.
"What?" Hutch asked, noticing Starsky's behavior.
"I'm not sure. I thought I saw something move."
Hutch peered over Starsky's shoulder in the same direction. It wasn't that he doubted his partner. It was possible a lot of things could be moving around out here in the woods.
Starsky was not unaccustomed to all types of unfriendly interactions. A bad guy with a gun didn't scare him too much. It was more of a challenge than anything else. Out here in this type of environment, Starsky had much less experience to fall back on. Although he didn't see anything overtly wrong, he could feel it in his gut. Something was out there - something potentially dangerous and lurking just out of sight.
A little angry now, Starsky stood his ground, openly confronting what was little more than the edge of a clearing. More concerned about Hutch than himself, Starsky wandered through a few of the possibilities in his mind as he scanned the tree line. Still uneasy, he remembered the footprints from the night before.
Whoever you are - mess with Hutch and I can promise you'll regret it, Starsky thought, issuing the woods a silent challenge.
Starsky preferred not to say anything more to Hutch until he could be more specific. Unless he had a tangible threat to fight with, it was impossible to know exactly what to do. Containing his frustration, Starsky turned his back on his suspicion and walked away.
Chapter 8: The Last Line of Defense
Starsky grows more concerned that something is not right in their neck of the woods.
"Let me guess. We have trout for dinner, right?"
Hutch laughed at Starsky's unnecessary question.
"Yep, we do - unless, of course, you'd prefer something else. I think there's a peanut butter sandwich left. You're welcome to that if you're tired of fish."
"Nonsense. Maybe I'll just have both."
Starsky sat down next to the fire circle, content to be off his feet after a couple of hours of exploring the surrounding area with Hutch. It was true that Hutch often noticed things that Starsky did not when it came to the great outdoors - the precise reason Starsky usually learned something whenever he went hiking with Hutch. Put Starsky in a jungle on the other side of the globe and he knew what to look for. Out here in one of the great North American mountain ranges, he was less at ease. Starsky supposed it was a well-established balance that wasn't likely to change, and that was ok. He was never going back to the jungle. He had Hutch for the other situations.
"How's your hand feeling now?" Hutch asked.
"Not so bad - doesn't hurt.
Hutch was in the process of making more coffee when he happened to glance in Starsky's direction. What he saw caused him to forget about the coffee altogether. The largest brown spider Hutch had ever seen was slowly crawling up Starsky's pant leg.
"Don't move," Hutch ordered.
Recognizing the tone in Hutch's voice, Starsky froze. Moving only his eyes, he watched as Hutch leaped to his feet and began running toward him. Seconds later, Hutch knocked the spider off Starsky's leg with an empty coffee cup, sending it flying. The air-borne arachnid landed a few feet away where Hutch was able to chase it down and step on it. When Hutch next turned around, Starsky was staring at him with wide, fearful eyes.
"And just what the hell was that?" Starsky asked.
"A brown recluse - I think."
Hutch kicked a few more layers of dirt over the dead spider and stepped on it a second time for good measure.
"A what? A brown recluse?"
"Yes," Hutch answered. "I'm not going to dig it up and look again, but I'm sure that's what it was. Trust me, it's not the kind of spider bite you'd want to have."
"Hutch, I do trust you, but I don't want to get bitten by anything out here!"
Starsky walked to stand next to Hutch, both of them staring at the spot where the spider had met its demise.
"It probably hitched a ride on your clothes when we were out hiking," Hutch explained. "Just to be sure, we should both give our clothing a good shake out."
After a thorough inspection of their clothes, fresh coffee helped take the sting out of their encounter with the spider. No more spiders had been found leading Hutch to conclude it was at most a singular event.
"Hutch," Starsky began, cradling the coffee cup in his hands like a newfound friend. "So how do you think this is going so far? Would Dr. Henderson describe our experience as desensitizing?"
A smile slowly spread across Hutch's face as he considered Starsky's question. In truth, he wasn't sure. So many memories were still too difficult to confront directly.
"Well, maybe you can tell me," Hutch answered, looking mildly uneasy. "How does it feel to be saddled with a partner who needs any sort of therapy, hum?"
Starsky could think of more than one sarcastic response. He wisely chose empathy instead.
"Ya know, I think at least part of what's got you so bugged is that Diana got past a majority of your defenses," Starsky said bluntly. "Hutch - we've both admitted that she didn't seem dangerous in the beginning. I even told you that, remember? It wasn't just you that she fooled."
Hutch listened knowing that Starsky was offering fair advice. The struggle for Hutch was getting caught in the memories.
"Hey," Starsky added softly.
Hutch looked up to meet Starsky's eyes.
"If by therapy you mean someone who gives a damn about most of the world and everyone in it, including those who don't deserve it, then yeah, I'm good. You're the only partner that I need."
Lila was seated at the small table in the abandoned cabin - the same cabin where Hutch had found shelter weeks ago. A variety of black candles were laid out strategically in front of her. It was of utmost importance to select the right one before she continued with her spell.
Lila had gathered fresh herbs from the meadow that morning and ground them into the perfect blend of bitter root and hot pepper. The pepper was the spiciest variety she could find - necessary if she really wanted to send Starsky away. Looking over her selection of candles, Lila picked the largest among them to anchor the spell. The candlestick was eighteen inches tall with a three-inch diameter from top to bottom.
Tearing a small piece of paper in half, Lila picked up a lead pencil that was filed to a sharp point on one end. The opposite end was missing its eraser - an important detail in the world of witchcraft if one was serious about casting a proper spell. The symbolism was that once the curse had been put on paper, it could not be erased or reversed.
Lila carefully wrote three words across the top of the page - Detective David Starsky. Scowling, she wished she could include his date of birth with the curse as doing so would add potency to the spell. As Lila didn't have that information, she wrote Starsky's name nine times from left to right down the length of the paper instead. Rotating the piece of scrap paper ninety degrees, she paused to consider the next step. The core of the spell, and ultimately the extent of its power, would be defined by whatever Lila wrote next. Did she really want Detective Starsky to die? Lila wasn't sure. She just wanted him to go away.
"Go away, Starsky! Hutch is mine!" Lila printed boldly on the paper.
Lila repeated the curse in written form successively nine more times until she reached the bottom of the paper. Starsky's name was all but illegible beneath the additional written words.
Setting the paper in the center of a copper saucer, Lila placed the large, black candle on top and arranged the other ingredients within easy reach. Composing herself, she folded her hands in her lap, closed her eyes, and envisioned what she hoped to achieve. Imagining her intended goal was not difficult. Hutch was easy to visualize.
Releasing a deep breath, Lila opened her eyes and reached for the jar of cayenne pepper. Sprinkling it generously over the candle, she set it aside and picked up the blend of bitter root and pepper she had compounded earlier that morning. Repeating the same gesture, Lila added a little extra around the edge of the saucer before setting it aside. Satisfied with her creation, Lila pulled a match from her pocket and lit the wick, watching in fascination as the candle caught fire and began to glow. The strength of the flame alone was indicative that the spell had been well-cast. It would burn for hours - plenty of time to ensure that Starsky would no longer pose a threat.
Feeling partly vindicated, Lila's frustration was soothed by the burning flame. She had waited patiently in the background when Diana was alive - watching with jealousy and infatuation as the woman repeatedly assaulted Hutch's body when he was helpless to resist, and toyed with his emotions when he was awake. Diana was gone now, and things were in her hands. Hutch would not get away from her twice.
"You were foolish, Diana," Lila thought, admiring the pungent sizzle of the herbs as the candle burned. "You forgot to eliminate your competition before you counted your success."
"Hutch, what is this?" Starsky asked, handing him a blackened piece of metal.
Hutch took the object from Starsky and rolled it around in his hand. It looked like a tarnished piece of silver.
"I don't know. Where did you find it?"
"In the ashes. It couldn't have been there yesterday or we'd have seen it."
Hutch rubbed the trinket between his thumb and forefinger until an image emerged from beneath the blackened ash. Rubbing harder, Hutch soon realized he was looking at an engravement of a five-pointed star. Startled, he dropped the piece of metal and took a quick step backward. The engraving was an exact replica of the painting he had seen in Diana's house the day before.
"What?" Starsky asked, alarmed when he saw the confusion on Hutch's face.
Starsky picked up the object and examined it more closely.
"Well, we already knew we had a visitor last night. It looks like she may have left more than footprints behind."
"Starsky - we both know Diana is dead. What the hell?"
Hutch's voice trailed away as he struggled to offer something sensible.
"Right now I don't know," Starsky answered, wanting more than anything else to soothe Hutch's jangled nerves. "But there is an explanation somewhere, Hutch. You know that as well as I do."
Starsky shoved the piece of metal deep into the front pocket of his jeans. While he was tempted to throw it as far as he could into the woods, the analytical side of his brain knew he should keep it for future reference. Still - Hutch didn't need to see it anymore.
Noticing that Hutch looked upset by the discovery, Starsky wrapped an arm around his shoulders for a quick and reassuring hug.
"She's gone, Hutch. Maybe we don't understand a few things yet, but I can assure you that Diana wasn't here. Again, please remember that I am."
Starsky glanced at the sky and the gathering cloud cover, a change they had been monitoring all afternoon. As evening approached, it was obvious a storm was on the horizon. As their backpacks were water-resistant, what little gear they had with them would stay dry if it rained. All clothing had been pulled to safety inside the tent. If they were forced to take shelter in the tent, it would be crowded, but functional. Until they were pushed into a literal retreat, Hutch preferred to spend as much time as possible enjoying the great outdoors.
Minutes later, the two of them had resettled next to the fire.
"Here ya go," Starsky said, handing Hutch a warm and messy s'more. "I suggest you enjoy it before all hell breaks loose overhead."
"Thanks!" Hutch answered, accepting the treat. "You do make a mighty fine s'more, Starsk."
"That's me alright - a man of many talents," Starsky proclaimed, licking the chocolate off his fingers. "I offer Thee a s'more in deference to whatever might happen next. Do you think Henderson would say we're successfully desensitizing yet?"
Hutch laughed as he tried to decide where to attack the gooey, drippy treat first.
"I don't know about Henderson, but this works for me," Hutch replied, careful to keep the melted marshmallow off his clothing.
Hutch looked up as the sky grew suddenly dark. The storm clouds that had been lingering in the distance all day had definitely moved much closer.
"Well, looks like we have time for a few more bites and we might need to take cover," Starsky said. "At least the fire held out long enough to melt the chocolate."
Just as Starsky finished talking, an explosion of thunder erupted directly overhead causing both men to jump. A bolt of lightning followed, sending currents of electricity flying through the air. Dropping their snacks and leaping to their feet, both men ran for the tent, Starsky holding the flap open as Hutch dove inside. Scrambling in behind him, they watched as the sky opened up and the rain began to fall in heavy sheets.
Lying side by side on their stomachs inside the tent, they watched a column of black smoke funneled skyward on the opposite side of the creek - the result of a tall, dead tree having been blown to pieces by a direct lightning strike.
As if too weary to cope, Hutch lowered his forehead to his arms and closed his eyes.
"Are you alright?" Starsky asked, suddenly worried.
"Yeah, I'm ok. The swan dive hurt a little when I landed, but it's passing."
Starsky grimaced as he thought about how quickly Hutch had been moving when he hit the tent. They had both acted on instinct and none too soon from the looks of things. Looking at the remains of the splintered tree made Starsky uncomfortable to realize how close the lightning bolt had come to both of them.
Something's just not right, Starsky thought, his eyes scanning the semi-darkness. What in the hell is going on out there?
His intuition reignited, Starsky peered toward the creek, watching for anything else remotely out of place. Starsky glanced again at Hutch, noting the other man's face was still buried in his arms. Wrapping his fingers around the back of Hutch's neck, Starsky searched for the tension he suspected was there.
It isn't fair, Starsky thought, finding the deeply knotted muscles with his fingertips. Hutch may have made a mistake with Diana, but he doesn't deserve to be tortured for it.
Protected from the harsh weather by the tent, the two of them settled in and waited out the downpour - Starsky with one hand on his partner, the other within easy reach of his Beretta.
Chapter 9: Confessions
Starsky gains a better understanding of Hutch's anxiety issues since his kidnapping experience.
The worst of the rainfall lasted less than a half-hour, the sudden and violent storm turning into a drizzle followed by a mostly overcast sky. The harvest moon waned in and out of visibility overhead, looking bright and unobstructed at times before disappearing altogether moments later.
When Starsky left the tent to rebuild the fire, he ordered Hutch to stay put. Worried that Hutch might have hurt himself running away from the lightning, Starsky didn't want him moving around more than necessary. As Starsky was adding the last log, the faint sound of a harmonica drifted his direction from inside the tent. Starsky smiled as he recognized the melody of Red River Valley.
Maybe you were born in the wrong era, Hutch, Starsky mused, pausing to listen to the tune.
Once he was satisfied with the fire, Starsky returned to the tent to find Hutch sprawled on his back and looking content, harmonica in hand.
"How are you feeling?" Starsky asked, stifling a laugh as he looked at Hutch's face.
The slightly lopsided smile told Starsky a lot about how Hutch was feeling. Clearly, the extra pain pill was working.
"I'm good," Hutch answered, looking surprised that Starsky was back so soon. "That didn't take you long."
Starsky was relieved to know that Hutch had been able to relax after their close encounter with the lightning strike. Knowing such was the case also told Starsky a lot of amusing conversation was most likely just around the corner.
"There wasn't that much to do."
"Starsk, why do you suppose they named it the Red River?"
Here we go, Starsky thought, taking a deep breath.
"Well," Starsky said out loud instead. "I dunno... Because the water looked red when they named it?"
"Probably," Hutch agreed, dismissing the whole topic as quickly as he'd thought of it.
"Starsk," Hutch began again.
"Yes," Starsky answered, steeling himself for whatever might be next.
Starsky was busy trying to rearrange his sleeping bag into something that looked useable. Crawling over it multiple times while getting in and out of the tent had left it looking more like an abandoned pile of laundry than anything a man could sleep in.
"What happens if I can't ever get well again?"
Unsure if he had heard Hutch correctly, Starsky stopped fussing with the sleeping bag and looked directly at him.
Hutch's eyes were wide and full of sincerity as he waited for Starsky to respond.
"What if I can't find the resolution that Henderson is suggesting? What if I'm stuck somewhere in between forever?"
Starsky forgot about the state of his sleeping bag. Locking eyes with Hutch, he could see the uncertainty that was simmering there.
"I won't allow that to happen," Starsky answered firmly.
Hutch started to protest, but Starsky cut him off.
"No!" Starsky added. "That's what I'm here for, Hutch. I don't have issues with you needing help with anything, but I won't allow you to get stuck in that kind of stuff."
Starsky stretched out on top of his sleeping bag as Hutch rolled over to face him.
"I wish you'd told me sooner how much this was dragging you down. I think I understand why you didn't, but that doesn't mean I have to like it."
Hutch could see the honesty in Starsky's eyes - a virtue he knew was always there. He also understood how much Starsky loathed Diana. While Starsky was not a man who was governed by hate, he had no tolerance for a woman like Diana Harmon. Trying not just once but twice to harm Hutch made it easier for Starsky to pull the trigger when he had to.
"Whether you think you're doing better or not, I think you are. And don't tell me I don't know what I'm talking about. I know you."
Hutch closed his eyes as if searching for the proper words.
"I know on some level that you're right, Starsky. I mean - I do feel better. I just don't feel like I did before Diana showed up again, that's all."
"You haven't had time," Starsky said defensively. "You were kidnapped, drugged out of your mind, run half to death, and then you needed surgery. Don't be so damn hard on yourself, Hutch."
When Hutch was feeling good, he could hold his own in an argument with Starsky about anything. However, this wasn't a topic on which Starsky would take advice, particularly from him.
Hutch could still remember the evil in Diana's voice when he'd last heard her speak - recall the hatred on her face when she had reappeared in the meadow just before Starsky shot her. It had all been a living hell for Hutch.
Starsky watched Hutch's facial expression carefully, intent on understanding which direction his partner's strength was leaning. If Hutch was able to hear him properly, he would understand that Starsky was being truthful. If he allowed himself to lose ground and slide backward, Starsky would have to grab him by the collar and pull him forward. What Starsky saw instead was that Hutch was too sleepy to continue the conversation.
"Close your eyes for a while. You're getting well," Starsky said, rubbing Hutch's shoulder as he talked. "We'll talk about it when you're more awake, ok?"
Hutch allowed his eyelids to close, submitting to the drowsiness he could no longer avoid.
The rain subsided as the earth slid deeper into nighttime. As always, a blanket of heavy shadow settled over the camp once the daylight was gone. The blazing fire had been reduced to little more than a pile of hot coals by midnight. Warm and comfortable inside the tent, Starsky decided to let the fire burn out until morning.
Nighttime in the deep woods was always a study in contrast for Starsky. Things you didn't know were there could materialize right out of the shadows while others seemed to disappear altogether. To be truthful, Starsky had always thought it was a bit creepy. Starsky had stayed awake reading a paperback by flashlight long after Hutch had gone back to sleep.
I could actually get used to this, Starsky thought, glancing sideways at Hutch. He's quiet, I know where he is, and I can concentrate for a change.
As if on cue, Hutch rolled over suddenly in his sleep. Facing Starsky, he tried to curl himself into a ball by drawing his knees to his chest. Unsatisfied, Hutch returned to his back, squirming until he looked somewhat more comfortable. Moments later, he flipped onto his stomach and tucked his hands underneath him. The position lasted almost a full minute before Hutch rolled over on his left side.
Starsky didn't pay a lot of attention to Hutch's initial restlessness. When the fidgeting became more disruptive, he was forced to lay down his book.
What is he doing? Starsky wondered, attempting to analyze Hutch's body language.
It looked like Hutch was fighting with someone - someone only he could see. With his fists clenched tightly together, his muscles contorted in an effort to defend himself, Hutch looked like a man who was not only cornered but running out of hope. When Starsky could read the fear on Hutch's face, he knew it was time to wake him.
"Hutch," Starsky began, reaching out to shake him by the shoulder. "Hey"...
Hutch did not awaken. Starsky's touch seemed to inflame the fight within him causing Hutch to strike out instead. If not for Starsky's own quick responses, Hutch's fist would have landed squarely on his jaw.
"Hey!" Starsky yelled, catching Hutch's wrist in mid-air. "Hutch!" Starsky yelled again. "Stop it! Listen to me!"
Crawling over Hutch, Starsky straddled his hips to hold him down before pinning his wrists above his head. Hutch was still fighting when he opened his eyes, pulling back only when he seemed to recognize Starsky. Starsky stayed put as Hutch blinked up at him from flat on his back - sitting on him and maintaining eye contact, ensuring that Hutch could see him clearly.
The only light in the tent was the forgotten flashlight that had been tossed aside when Hutch began to get physical.
"Hutch! It's me!" Starsky persisted. "Are you with me?"
Starsky could feel the moment Hutch gave up the fight, his muscles yielding to Starsky's weight instead of pushing back. As confusion replaced the fear on Hutch's face, Starsky loosened his grip and allowed Hutch to move.
Swallowing hard, Hutch's eyebrows crinkled together as he attempted to understand.
"I - I think I was dreaming," Hutch whispered. "I'm sorry," he added quickly. "Wh - what happened?"
Starsky slowly relaxed his grip on Hutch's wrists before letting go altogether.
"I don't know exactly, Hutch," Starsky answered, calmer now himself. "As you said - it looked to me like you were dreaming."
Starsky shifted his weight off Hutch. Hutch draped one arm over his eyes as if chasing the end of a bad dream in his mind.
"What can you remember?" Starsky asked.
The truth was that Hutch could not remember a lot. What he could recall, he preferred to forget altogether.
"Just bits and pieces mostly."
Hutch considered keeping the more sordid details private. Remembering his sessions with Henderson, he opted to share the memories with Starsky instead.
"I can remember being kept in that room - held down while other people talked over me. And I was way too warm - like something liquid and hot had been poured all over me," Hutch began. "Whatever it was, it hurt. It burned my skin."
Starsky began to frown as he listened. He didn't like the anguish he sensed in Hutch's voice.
"Just now when I was dreaming?" Hutch continued, wanting Starsky to understand. "I think I was dreaming about some of the time I spent in Diana's house. I wasn't awake much, but I floated in and out of consciousness a few times. If I woke up enough to fight back, they forced me to inhale something that put me out again."
The image Starsky formulated in his mind to match Hutch's description was difficult for him to tolerate. As his background and training kicked in, Starsky realized he was listening to someone who had been victimized. Regret quickly followed the insight. Starsky could now guess what Hutch was trying to say.
"Yeah," Hutch said, pausing as he nervously met Starsky's eyes. "We could add sexual assault to Diana's rap sheet if she was still alive. It's probably just as well that I don't remember most of it."
Despite his fledgling suspicion, Starsky was disappointed to hear the confession out loud.
"Shit!" Starsky whispered, closing his eyes against the reality of Hutch's disclosure.
Hutch knew Starsky would be furious. Pulling himself to a sitting position, he waited as Starsky wrestled with a tidal wave of his own emotions.
"I'm sorry, but damn it! Why didn't I even consider that until now? I should have."
"Because you were too close to the situation?" Hutch asked gently, knowing he was correct. "It's what both of us were taught years ago, isn't it? Those closest to the victim are victims themselves whenever a loved one is injured by a perpetrator. So it turns out we're no different than anyone else, Starsk - no different at all."
Chapter 10: The Circle Tightens
Starsky and Hutch successfully meet up with the medics just in time.
The autumn rainstorm passed through the valley leaving the creek swollen to the top of its banks. As the wind died down and the hours passed, the woodlands returned to a gradual state of calm. Inside the two-person tent, the men who slept there were protected from the remnants of the sudden storm.
As the nighttime entered the witching hour - that magical slice of time between 3:00 and 4:00 AM - Lila stepped out of the shadows and rapidly approached the campsite. If anyone had seen her, they would have noticed her anger as well as her determination in every step. Starsky had done the unforgivable by preventing Hutch from leaving the safety of the tent under the influence of Lila's spell. Everything was falling into place until Starsky interfered. Obviously, Lila had badly underestimated the strength of Starsky's influence on Hutch.
Lila opened a small flask and dumped the contents over the burning coals. The thick, dark liquid landed in a pool, popping, and sizzling as it blended with what was left of the fire. An acrid odor arose from the mixture, filling the air around her as Lila followed the concoction with a handful of specially mixed herbs.
Lila smiled as she studied the interaction between blood, heat, and the potent essence of dried blossoms and spices. The unusual mixture represented a summons of the deepest sense - a call to the spirit world for help in eliminating an enemy. Lila had surmised that Hutch could not be hers as long as Starsky was in the way. Once the moon was full on the following night, Lila expected to be rid of the interloper for good.
"I don't like it," Starsky said, catching up with Hutch. "That's two nights in a row we've had someone in camp in the middle of the night."
Starsky was following Hutch as they traced a new set of footprints to the edge of the clearing - the same type of petite-looking prints they had found scattered around camp the morning before. Once again someone had come and gone while the two of them were sleeping. If the individual had intended any harm, they'd certainly had ample opportunity.
"Who is she and what does she want?"
"I don't know, Starsk," Hutch replied, feeling a little exasperated. He'd asked himself the same questions repetitively.
Hutch was able to follow the tracks until they disappeared in the leaves and pine needles that commonly covered the ground this time of year.
"Where do you suppose she goes when she's not here? There's nothing friendly about these woods at night. She must have somewhere to go when she leaves here," Starsky said.
Hutch considered what he knew about the area since his first visit a few weeks earlier. The only buildings for miles in either direction were the abandoned hunting cabin and the house where he'd been held captive.
"I guess it's possible she has a campsite somewhere," Hutch added as an afterthought. "Although why a woman would be out here alone is hard to comprehend."
"Suppose she's not alone?"
Hutch shrugged his shoulders in response. Yet again, he couldn't say.
"We can agree it seems like an odd thing for a woman to do. As to why - well, nothing about it makes much sense. I don't know why she'd be interested in us."
"It's possible we're a little jumpy, too, Hutch. Maybe she was looking for something to steal and didn't find anything she wanted."
Hutch smiled knowing the idea was as plausible as anything else they had thought of.
"True. We don't have a lot with us. Unless you feel like setting up a stakeout, we may never know for sure."
"I believe we should think about it - a stakeout, that is. We could take turns sleeping."
"Collins and Benson will be here by tonight. That may just solve the problem. The more people that are around, the higher the chance of getting caught."
"Yeah, you're right. Losing sleep over it may not be necessary. I guess we'll just see what happens. I mean - theoretically, the four of us can take her, right?"
"Maybe. I'm more like the walking wounded, and your hand is injured. We might add up to one person between us."
"Ahoy, Matey!" a voice sounded from the opposite side of the clearing. "Permission to come aboard, Captain?"
Starsky and Hutch turned in unison to see two other men carrying backpacks emerge from the tree line. It was the paramedics who had taken care of Hutch when both of them had been evacuated from the meadow a few weeks earlier.
"Permission granted!" Hutch yelled in return.
Hutch was glad to see that his coordination with Collins had at least been accurate. The four of them were reunited by choice this time in a pre-selected location.
"Hutch!" Collins said, accepting his extended hand. "Looks like your time here has been good to you so far?"
Starsky and Hutch laughed out loud together.
"Well, it's been interesting," Hutch admitted. "But it's also been good. Come on and get settled and I'll explain later."
The men continued to talk and laugh as Collins and Benson pitched their tent a few feet away from Starsky and Hutch. It was obvious the medics had done a lot of camping by how quickly they moved through their setup.
"So Hutch, Starsky tells me you've caught a lot of fish already?"
"That I did and the first time out, too. As soon as you're ready, I'll show you where."
An hour later, rod in hand, Collins was following Hutch to the area where he had caught so many trout the day before.
"Here ya go," Hutch said, pointing to the creek bank. "This is the spot. You and Starsky can compete with each other for your limit today."
"Excellent," Collins replied, walking closer. "And yeah - I think I can see why this spot was so golden for you. It's perfect."
Starsky caught up with Collins, spacing himself a few yards downstream before casting his own line into the water. Hutch had insisted that Starsky do the fishing for both of them today, an assignment Starsky was looking forward to. Benson followed Starsky a little farther downstream.
From a private, discreet location on the opposite bank, Lila watched as the men began tossing their fishing lines into the water. Starsky had wandered off while Hutch was talking to another dark-haired man. Lila wasn't sure who the newcomers were other than they weren't welcome in her eyes. She was having enough trouble getting rid of Starsky before they showed up.
Lila noticed that Starsky was wearing a dressing on his right hand although he didn't seem too bothered by it. Other than the minor injury, Starsky was looking well - something that not only surprised but further angered her. Enough spiritual influence had been tossed in his direction that something should have happened to him before now.
"The day is young," Lila cautioned herself. "Be patient a while longer."
Lila continued to watch as Starsky wandered downstream, stepping carefully off the bank and eventually wading into knee-deep water. The current flowed swiftly around his legs, churning into small peaks of white water as it rushed past him. Searching for better footing, Starsky raised his arm to cast the line, his eyes focussing on the sparkling metal lure that bobbed on the surface of the water. Sensing an immediate tug on the end of the reel, Starsky paused and pulled back on the line. Taking another step forward, his left foot slipped out from under him causing Starsky to lose his balance. Falling hard into the icy water, he hit his head on the creek bottom and was quickly dragged underwater. Helpless to resist, the current began to pull Starsky downstream.
"Help!" Benson yelled, throwing down his pole and running after Starsky.
A few yards upstream Collins and Hutch heard Benson's cry for help.
"Oh my God!" Hutch gasped, his eyes landing Starsky beneath the surface of the water.
Hutch burst out running with Collins right behind him. Benson had already jumped into the water around the bend in the creek, positioning himself to grab ahold of Starsky. Hutch jumped into the creek next to Benson, reinforcing the blockade as Starsky rolled closer. As Starsky moved within reach, Hutch grabbed him by one arm and shoulder and pulled him above the water. Starsky surfaced, coughing hard and fighting for air. As Hutch held Starsky's head above water, Benson threw both arms around his waist just as Collins arrived to help. Together, the three men tugged, lifted, and carried Starsky to the safety of the creek bank.
Once out of the water, Collins positioned Starsky on his left side and delivered several hard blows to the middle of his back, encouraging him to cough.
"As long as he's able to cough, it's a good sign," Collins instructed, sensing Hutch's worry. "It means he's getting air. We just need to keep helping him."
"I'll get the kit," Benson said, jumping up and running toward their tent.
Collins nodded, understanding his partner's intent.
"Help him stay on one side for a minute. His color is good - he's gonna be ok, Hutch. We got to him in time."
Collins could sense the deep sense of relief washing over Hutch. While he knew that Starsky still needed attention, Collins was confident the man was out of immediate danger. As if to confirm Collins' thinking, Starsky began to grimace and squirm as he became more alert.
"Do you hurt anywhere?" Collins asked.
Nodding, Starsky succumbed to another fit of coughing. Once his lungs had cleared better, he was able to talk again.
"My head," Starsky answered softly. "And my elbow."
Collins began to comb through Starsky's hair with his fingers looking for damage. Not finding any blood, he carefully walked his fingertips across the top of Starsky's scalp until he located a good-sized bump.
"You've got quite a goose egg alright," Collins said, helping Starsky roll over onto his back. "I'll take a better look in a moment. Which elbow?"
Starsky pointed to his right arm just as Hutch noticed the blood on his shirt sleeve. Reaching for Starsky's arm, Hutch unbuttoned the shirt cuff and pushed the fabric out of the way. What he saw looked like a large and ugly abrasion.
"Ouch!" Starsky complained as Collins manipulated Starsky's arm and elbow.
"Sorry. I think the bones are ok," Collins said, glancing at Hutch. "Getting dragged along the creek bottom tore up his skin. Painful for sure, but not too serious."
Benson returned with an emergency kit. Noting that Starsky was breathing well on his own, he opened the kit with less urgency. Pulling out a stethoscope, he quickly began assessing Starsky's upper airways.
"Ok, let's help him sit up," Collins determined, sliding a hand under Starsky's shoulder.
As Benson continued to listen to his lungs, Starsky locked eyes with Hutch. A little stunned by the bump on the head and the sudden submersion in ice-cold water, Starsky wasn't sure what to say. The look in Hutch's eyes told him that circumstances were under control whatever might have happened.
Benson removed the stethoscope and looked at Collins.
"His lungs are a little wet, but they're clearing," Benson said.
"Good," Collins replied. "We can help him with that. Starsky, do you think you can walk?" Collins asked.
"And you," Collins warned, turning his attention briefly to Hutch. "I know what just happened was an emergency, but don't do anything like that again, ok? You could have hurt yourself."
Hutch nodded but said nothing more. As Collins and Hutch helped Starsky to his feet, Hutch slipped an arm around Starsky's waist.
"Lean on me, Starsk. Let's get you back to camp so these guys can get you all fixed up."
They started off slowly, Starsky balancing himself between Hutch and Collins. By the time they got near the fire, Starsky was shivering uncontrollably in his wet clothing.
"Strip off his clothes and wrap him in a sleeping bag," Collins instructed. "He'll warm up by the fire soon enough."
From her hidden position across the clearing, Lila watched as the men worked together taking care of Starsky. Although Starsky was obviously injured, the damage was apparently not serious. Starsky was talking and following directions as he was divested of his clothing, wrapped in a sleeping bag, and guided to a seat near the fire. Nowhere in Lila's plan had there been room for Starsky to be rescued. Instead of pulling Starsky away from Hutch, the spell seemed to have produced precisely the opposite effect.
Lila was rapidly becoming more desperate.
Chapter 11: A Gathering of Strength
The deep woods turns is not the safest place for Bay City's detectives.
"Collins," Hutch said. "Pass me another one of those, please."
Collins smiled as he handed the entire bag of chocolate chip cookies to Hutch.
"Help yourself, Hutch. I'll tell my mom how much you liked them."
"Like them? I'll buy them from her," Hutch added. "I haven't tasted anything that good since - well, since Edith started baking for me, and that was recent."
"I'll admit your mom's cookies are good, Collins," Starsky said, "but I still love my Oreos."
Starsky pulled the top off another Oreo and proceeded to lick out the center. Hutch smiled and shook his head as he watched Starsky disassemble another cookie. Despite his unquestionable ability to face anything out on the streets head-on, Hutch was familiar with that slice of Starsky's personality that remained forever child-like. The combination was a neverending dichotomy in Hutch's view.
As things turned out, Starsky had a good bump on his head and a large abrasion on his right elbow. Although his lungs were an initial concern, the medics determined that Starsky had not been seriously hurt by his rumble in the icy creek water. There was no need to take him back to the city immediately for further medical treatment. Collins took care of the injury to Starsky's elbow along with the knife wound in the palm of his hand. And just in case, he started Starsky on an antibiotic that he always carried in his emergency kit. If a doctor thought he should stay on the drug once they were back in town - well, that was between Starsky and the doctor. They were only planning to be out here two more nights.
"You mentioned that you've had some kind of a nighttime visitor in camp?" Collins asked.
"Yeah, it would seem that we have," Hutch answered, glancing at Starsky. "Just some footprints around the campfire two mornings in a row is all. We haven't noticed much else."
"It would be unusual for someone to be wandering around these woods at night, wouldn't it?"
"That's what we thought. Hutch probably told you that we also think the individual is female - no idea where she comes from, what she wants, or what she does when she's here. It's not much to go on."
Collins and Benson listened intently as Starsky described a few of the oddities he'd noticed since their first night in the woods.
"Hutch was asleep when I first heard something. But nothing really happened after that - just some footprints that we found in the morning."
Collins and Benson exchanged a look of amusement.
"Excitement does seem to follow the two of you around," Benson said. "I know I'll never forget the first time I met you."
"Yeah, none of us will forget that day," Starsky agreed, smiling slightly. "Hutch might not remember as much as the rest of us, but maybe that's just as well."
"I remember enough - enough to know I wouldn't have made it without the rest of you," Hutch added.
Back in dry clothes, Starsky had recovered from his incident with the creek. As the sun climbed higher in the sky, the afternoon turned noticeably warm and comfortable. The four men passed the time swapping stories about past adventures and got to know one another better. Hutch and Collins went looking for small pieces of hardwood after Collins mentioned how much he enjoyed woodcarving as a hobby.
"What kind of things do you make?" Hutch asked Collins.
"Oh, a little of everything - key chains, small toys - things like that. I'm working on a chess set right now that I hope to finish by Christmas."
Impressed, Hutch helped him find a few pieces of wood that Collins deemed suitable for carving.
"I brought a couple of my knives and chisels with me. I like to carve whenever I have a little downtime."
"Well, I'd love to see what you do. All I brought with me this trip was a little fishing gear and my harmonica."
While Collins and Hutch were off looking for wood, Starsky spent some time exploring a broader area around camp. It still bothered him to know that anyone had been wandering through their campsite any time of the day much less in the middle of the night.
Remembering the trinket he'd found in the ashes, Starsky dug it out of his pocket for a better look. He'd been careful to rescue it from his wet clothes before Hutch had noticed him doing so. Having seen almost everything during his years on the force, Starsky had recognized the emblem as Wiccan when he first saw it. Finding Wiccan symbolism in the artwork at Diana's house was one thing. Discovering it in their campsite was not only mystifying but more concerning. Starsky knew Hutch had to be thinking the same thing.
Starsky looked again at the small piece of metal in search of anything he might have missed previously. His gut told him this tarnished piece of jewelry had something to do with Hutch.
Diana's dead, Starsky reminded himself. The woman can't hurt him anymore.
Frustrated, he shoved the object back into his pocket, frowning as he walked along the narrow trail. Certain that Hutch would not have forgotten about it either, Starsky considered having another discussion with him about its significance. Hutch was likely still thinking about it - possibly brooding over it as well. Since they were out here to deal with Hutch's battered emotions, Starsky decided he would revisit the topic again soon.
I need to find the right time, Starsky cautioned himself. Once I start the discussion, I'll know soon enough if it's something that is bothering him.
Momentarily satisfied with his decision, Starsky began to work his way back toward camp. While all of this back-to-nature stuff was nice, Starsky would much rather take Hutch to The Pits and buy him a beer than thrash things out in the middle of the woods. Regardless of how Starsky felt, he knew this weekend wasn't about him. Their time in the woods was about Hutch and how to tackle the abuses he had apparently been subjected to. Now that Starsky had a better understanding of the nature of that damage and how extensive it had been, he was determined to help Hutch find the tools to repair it.
Collins finished rounding off the edge of a piece of wood before handing it to Hutch.
"There. One more down, about six hundred to go."
"Wow!" Hutch exclaimed as he examined the newly carved piece of wood. "That's beautiful! I'm really impressed, Collins."
"If you'd like to try making one sometime, I'll show you how to get started. I don't think we should let Starsky handle any sharp objects though."
"Yeah, good idea," Hutch agreed, handing the piece back to Collins. "I'm glad you guys are here 'cause my medical training is about maxed."
Benson snickered from the opposite side of the campfire.
"Sorry, Starsky," Benson added quickly. "Truth is often painful."
Starsky was quiet as he continued to sip his coffee. He probably should be insulted, yet he wasn't. Collins and Benson both had justifiable reasons to feel the way they did. And as for Hutch - well, Hutch knew the truth better than anyone.
Tossing what was left of the coffee into the fire, Starsky froze as a distinct and lonely sound grew more audible in the distance. Locking eyes with Hutch, the two of them listened as the howling crescendoed to a fevered pitch before fading away altogether.
"What the hell was that?" Starsky asked.
"Wolves?" Hutch said, frowning at Collins. "There have never been any wolves in these mountains."
"No," Collins agreed, looking surprised. "No wolves around here that I know of."
As if to directly contradict Collins' statement, the howling in the distance was promptly repeated.
"Are you kidding me?" Hutch shouted, leaping to his feet. With his eyes trained on the mountain peaks, Hutch listened to the eery echo of the howling in the distance. The other men gathered behind him, concentrating on the sound that was joined by the cry of at least two more.
"Damn. They don't sound that close, but they're definitely out there," Hutch said.
"And they can travel fast," Collins added, looking at Hutch.
Hutch turned to look at Starsky, wondering how his partner was reacting. Starsky looked calm but as perplexed as Hutch felt. It seemed that each day brought something entirely new for the two of them to unravel.
"Ok," Collins began, looking mildly anxious. "I think we should assume they're coming this way and get prepared. Benson and I both carry weapons when we're camping, and I know you guys do."
"Yeah, we're both armed and have plenty of ammo," Hutch confirmed. "But I think you're right. We need to build a tall stack of firewood and have everything else ready to use just in case they come calling. The situation could easily develop into a stand-off."
Lila was back at her table as darkness approached gathering incense and the assorted tools she would need for the final step of her curse. She knew this was a critical phase - there would be no room for half measures. If she wanted to wrap her arms around Hutch and claim him as her own, she would need the help of the strongest and most revered of Wiccan spirits. The results would be irreversible.
Lila began to hum as she selected the most appropriate candle for her spell. Setting it aside, she picked up a piece of dark purple paper and wrote Starsky and Hutch's names side by side several times across the page. When the page had been filled, she used a brand new pair of sharp scissors to separate the names before sorting the paper scraps into stoneware bowls. Once detached, she struck a match and lit the candle before using the flame to set the contents of each bowl on fire. As Lila worked, she drank from a special cup that contained a swirling mixture of violet liqueur, violet syrup, vermouth, and lemon juice, with a touch of edible gold dust sprinkled on top.
When the ashes had cooled enough to be handled, Lila transferred the remains of Hutch's paper ashes onto a piece of red cloth, stealing a pinch from the top and adding it to her drink. Picking up the bowl that contained Starsky's ashes, she immediately walked outside and tossed the remains high into the air. Lila watched in satisfaction as the bits of burned paper were scattered by the wind in multiple directions.
Walking back inside, Lila added a small amount of graveyard dirt to Hutch's ashes that she had confiscated from Diana's supplies. Selecting a sharp needle, she next pricked the end of her finger and added a drop of blood to the combination of ashes and dirt. Pausing to consider the next step, Lila topped off the mixture with her own spit before gathering the edges of the cloth in a bundle and securing them with a piece of red string. Lila sipped at her drink, savoring the thick, sweet taste as she tucked the red cloth and its contents into a different pouch that was suspended around her neck.
"Stop fighting me so hard, my darling. Just as soon as your partner is out of the way, you'll be mine once again."
Chapter 12: The Onslaught
A nightmare comes true for Starsky.
Hutch eyed the size of the woodpile they had accumulated and breathed a sigh of relief. Although it was outwardly impressive, Hutch would have preferred none of it was necessary. The sounds of a wolf pack calling to each other across the valley had been erupting every few minutes while they worked. If Hutch had to guess, it sounded like a hunting pack in the throes of a pursuit.
Hunting what exactly? Hutch wondered.
No one knew for sure.
"What are you thinking?" Starsky asked, watching Hutch pace back and forth.
"Oh," Hutch sighed, turning to look at Starsky. "I guess I'm thinking this shouldn't be happening."
"Relax, Hutch. We're gonna be ok. Firepower is a great equalizer in these circumstances. You've told me that yourself.
"Yeah, I know. I wouldn't be so surprised if we were back in Minnesota, but this is southern California, Starsk."
"Hutch is right," Collins chimed in. "I grew up in this area and wolves just don't live in these mountains anymore. There haven't been any wolf sightings around here for decades."
"Well, it sounds like we just might be the first people to see one in a while."
The men were momentarily quiet as the sound of wild howling resumed in the distance.
"They're closer," Hutch said, looking at Starsky.
Starsky had noticed the same thing. Hopefully, the wolves would stay in the higher elevations and get lucky with a deer kill. If the hunting was scarce, it would drive any predator into the lower elevations. Whichever way the situation was going, it would be dark in less than an hour.
"Damn it," Hutch muttered.
Starsky was the only one who heard him.
"Hey, come sit down," Starsky said, moving closer to Hutch. "We've done everything we can for now. You need to take it easy for a while."
Hutch opted not to argue.
"Here," Collins offered, tossing Starsky a bag of jerky. "I have plenty of that. Eat all you want."
"Thanks. This will hit the spot for sure right now. Come on, Hutch. You need to eat something, too."
Starsky sat down with Hutch near the fire and opened the bag of jerky. After doling out a handful to Hutch, Starsky found himself appreciating the significance of the flames. According to Hutch, a steady blaze could easily keep a single wolf at bay although what they were hearing tonight sounded more like a pack, an entirely different issue should push come to shove.
"Hutch, wolves don't actually hunt people, right?" Starsky asked.
"No, not really," Hutch said, chewing on the jerky. "We have food around camp and possibly a few other things that might tempt them to get closer simply because they're curious. They don't usually have any interest in people, but they can be dangerous if they sense an opportunity. The tents do help. They add an extra layer of protection once we're inside."
"They wouldn't chew through a tent?" Starsky asked, looking skeptical.
"They could if they wanted to. But we'd have the drop on them before they did."
"Have you ever had to actually fight off a wolf?"
"Oh, I've had a standoff with one or two, but no actual fisticuffs," Hutch quickly added. "That was years ago and certainly not around here - just keeping them out of hunting camp after a fresh kill is all."
"Then why are you so nervous?"
Hutch paused as if to clarify his own thoughts.
"I guess because this feels so different. We're not hunting for one thing. We don't have anything here they should care about."
"Is it possible they'll just go around us?"
"Yeah, it's possible, and I hope they do. But if they don't, we have to be prepared to back them off."
As the evening wore on, the sound of howling continued intermittently in the distance. At times the wolves sounded closer, and at others, farther away. Collins was whittling a piece of driftwood while Benson relaxed in front of the fire. As busy paramedics, their lives were typically action-packed with not a lot of time for relaxation. As current circumstances were relatively calm, Benson took advantage of the quiet time whenever he could find it.
Hutch was reclining against a fallen log they had managed to roll into camp. Although the wood was predominantly dead and dry, it provided a surface that was sturdy enough to lean on. Hutch kept his magnum within easy reach. Starsky was sitting on the other side of Hutch, his hands folded neatly in his lap.
"Well, so far, so good," Starsky commented, glancing sideways at Hutch.
"Yeah, so far," Hutch acknowledged. "Only nine or ten more hours 'til dawn."
Starsky chuckled despite himself.
"Oh now - don't be so negative, Blintz. If we survive the night, we can sell our story as a script and retire early. There's always an upside."
Collins and Benson both laughed, amused by Starsky's way of thinking. Hutch had interlaced his fingers behind his neck and was arching his back to stretch his tired muscles.
"I hope you're right, pal. But no offense if I don't think you are."
Hutch noticed a drop of rain hitting him on top of the head as he finished talking. Looking up, he saw a few dark clouds passing overhead.
"Looks like we might be in for some more rain. If that's the case, we can keep an eye on the fire from inside the tent."
"Works for me. I've been about as wet for one day as I care to be."
Hutch added more wood to the fire and moved toward the tent just as the rain began to fall in earnest. Collins and Benson retreated to their own tent as well.
"I've gotta admit, Hutch, this tent makes all the difference out here," Starsky said, scooting inside and closing the flaps behind them.
Hutch smiled knowingly at Starsky's observation.
"Yep. It's not large, but it sure does the trick when the weather turns. Without it, we'd be looking for a cave or something."
"I laid awake quite a while listening to the rain last night," Starsky admitted.
"Yeah. I love the sound it makes when it hits the tent."
"I'll make a real camper out of you yet," Hutch teased, grinning as he stretched out on top of his sleeping bag. "Listen up 'cause it's raining again."
The rainfall was light but steady over the next hour, necessitating only a gentle stirring of the campfire coals before adding more wood. Starsky had slipped out of the tent exactly twice to do so without Hutch realizing he was gone. Although he had intended to stay awake, Hutch had fallen asleep despite his best-laid plans. Equally determined to let him sleep, Starsky and Collins had each kept an eye on the fire as the evening rolled into nighttime.
Standing and stretching by the fire, Starsky was turning toward the tent when movement on the periphery caught his attention. Whirling in place, Starsky was stunned to see a pair of large, yellow eyes staring at him from just beyond the edge of the firelight.
Automatically, Starsky reached for the weapon that was still in the tent. As he locked eyes with the intruder, neither Starsky nor the animal stalking him moved for several seconds. A low, deep growl grew more audible just as he took a slow step backward. Realizing he was out of time, Starsky yelled as he grabbed for the end of a burning log, trying to keep it between himself and the wolf.
"Hutch!" Starsky screamed.
Just as Starsky cried out, all hell broke loose in camp. The wolf launched itself at Starsky, hitting him squarely in the chest and knocking him to the ground despite the piece of burning wood. Landing on top of him, the wolf began to viciously bite and claw at Starsky's upper body. Pinned to the ground by the animal's weight, Starsky clung to the flaming wood, trying to wedge it between himself and the wolf's jaws.
Hearing Starsky's cry for help, Hutch grabbed his gun and threw himself out of the tent. To his horror, he was met by the sight of Starsky flat on his back on the ground with an enormous black wolf sitting on top of him. Unable to risk a shot from afar as the two of them fought, Hutch dove on top of the wolf and shoved the gun barrel flush against the animal's skull. With a handful of fur in one hand, and his weapon in the other, Hutch sent a bullet straight through the animal's brain, killing it instantly.
"Starsky!" Hutch yelled, frantically trying to pull the wolf off his partner. He was almost successful when he heard Collins' warning cry instead.
"Hutch! Look out! There are more of them!"
Rolling to his feet, Hutch focussed on a second wolf now rounding the corner of the other tent. He and Collins unloaded on the animal together, riddling it with several shots and dropping the wolf in its tracks.
Gun in hand, Hutch ran to the edge of the circle, straining his eyes to see the outline of three or four other wolves running away in the distance. He chased their flanks with several rounds of ammunition, pleased to hear a sharp yelp as at least one of the bullets rang true.
Turning back to Starsky, Hutch saw that Benson was already kneeling over him, desperately trying to shove the dead wolf away with one hand while grabbing for Starsky with the other. Hutch dropped to his knees next to Benson, cursing the amount of blood he saw oozing through Starsky's jacket. Starsky looked wide-eyed and panicked, still fighting his way out from under the dead wolf.
Grabbing the carcass by one leg, Hutch dragged the dead animal to the edge of the fire circle before running back to Starsky.
"Starsk! Listen to me! They're gone!" Hutch shouted.
Hutch's voice seemed to penetrate Starsky's senses as Benson worked quickly to assess the damage. Settling at Starsky's head, Hutch pulled him into his lap just as Collins joined them. Together, the medics carefully lifted Startsky's clothing one piece at a time - separating the layers for a better look at his chest and torso.
"I think he has a few bite wounds on his arm," Benson said. "That's where most of the blood is coming from. The jacket helped protect him."
"Starsky," Hutch tried again. "The wolves are gone! They're gone, ok? Can you hear me?"
Starsky began to calm down the longer Hutch was with him. Collins and Benson persevered, working swiftly and efficiently to sort out his injuries.
"Starsky, look at me," Collins ordered sternly.
Starsky looked directly at Collins.
"I understand what just happened scared the hell out of you, but you're gonna be alright. Hutch got to you so fast the wolf didn't do as much damage as we feared."
Close to hyperventilating moments earlier, Starsky was at last able to find his voice.
"Hutch, it was a wolf!" Starsky sputtered as if he needed to explain. "I couldn't get away!"
"Starsk, I know!" Hutch interrupted, still working to calm the other man down. "I know, buddy!"
"I have some whiskey in the tent. Benson will get it and I'd like you to drink some. Ok, Starsky?" Collins said.
"He'll drink it," Hutch added, patting Starsky on the shoulder. "I'll make sure of it."
"Ok, Starsky, let's get you sitting up. I need to have a better look at that arm."
Benson returned with a flask and handed it to Hutch. Hutch held the flask steady as Starsky took a sip of the golden liquid, coating his throat and causing him to cough.
"There ya go," Hutch said, patting Starsky on the back.
After stripping Starsky out of his jacket, Benson held Starsky's arm while Collins examined it. Hutch became worried when he thought Collins looked hesitant.
"Wh - what is it?" Hutch asked.
Collins inspected Starsky's arm for several more moments before answering.
"Well, I guess I'm amazed it's not worse. I mean - he has two good puncture wounds on his forearm, but that's about all. I think you killed the wolf before the worst could happen."
"The worst?" Hutch asked.
"Yeah, I mean - Hutch, he's been bitten, but it's not as bad as I feared. I've seen dog bites that were a hundred times worse. I think you saved him by acting so quickly."
"Hutch?" Starsky was asking. "More whiskey?"
"Yeah, sure," Hutch replied, helping Starsky with the flask.
This time Starsky was steadier, and this time he didn't flinch after he swallowed. His courage bolstered, he leaned against Hutch and looked at Collins, waiting patiently as the medic finished treating his arm.
"Do you think they'll be back tonight?" Benson asked nervously.
"I doubt it," Hutch answered, glancing toward the wolf he had pulled off Starsky. "We're gonna do things as if they were, but I don't believe they will. There's death here and they can smell it. My guess is they'll keep going."
"I think he's right," Collins added, wrapping another gauze around Starsky's arm. "There's a weird kind of vibe in the air tonight, but I don't think the wolves will be back."
Benson walked to the woodpile and retrieved an armful to replenish the fire. After adding several branches to the existing blaze, he straightened and set his gaze on the surrounding woods.
"I don't know about you guys, but I don't feel like goin' back to bed right away. I'm having a drink or two from that flask myself. Y'all are welcome to join me if you'd like."
Chapter 13: Of Love and Retribution
When Starsky and Hutch think the worst is over, it isn't.
Starsky awoke with a start, his eyes traveling frantically around the inside of the tent as he struggled to remember where he was. Raw images came rushing back with a jolt, bringing him fully awake as he remembered bits and pieces of the wolf attack the night before.
Looking toward Hutch's sleeping bag, he found it empty. Rolling over, Starsky grabbed the tent flap and peeked outside to see Hutch and Collins were sitting next to the fire. Feeling relieved, Starsky rolled onto his back and paused to gather his wits. He was thankful for the daylight - a definite virtue in this land of seemingly unending surprises.
The ache in his right arm reminded him of the grisly encounter with the wolf. Lifting it for a closer inspection, he saw the clean, white gauze that Collins had wrapped neatly around his latest wound.
Holy shit, Starsky thought. I guess it really did happen.
With a mighty effort, Starsky pulled himself to his feet and crawled out of the tent.
"Hey," Hutch said, looking up as Starsky approached. "I was just about to check on you. How are you feeling this morning?"
"I feel..." Starsk hesitated as if searching for the right word. "Like I've been in a fight," Starsky finished, wincing as he approached. "And maybe I lost the last round."
Hutch watched with concern as Starsky moved around carefully, accepting a cup of coffee from Collins before sitting down. He could see that Starsky was working through a lot of stiffness and assumedly, some pain as well. Between the fall into the creek yesterday morning and the wolf attack that evening, the man had to be feeling both calamities.
Starsky glanced around for the remains of the wolves.
"Collins and I dragged them upstream a hundred yards or so," Hutch said, assuming what Starsky was looking for. "There's no need to look at them any longer than necessary."
"I'll talk to a friend of mine at Fish & Game when we get home," Collins said. "It'll be necessary to report a wolf sighting not to mention having killed two of them. The department might want to pick up the carcasses. If so, they'll need me to show them where they are."
"I might like to have a look at them in the daylight myself," Starsky admitted. "But you're right," he added quickly. "No use keeping them in camp with us."
"I'll walk over there with you if you want to see them," Hutch offered.
"Yeah, I think I would. Maybe after I get enough coffee on board."
"I want another look at your arm first," Collins said. "I think the antibiotics you're on will help a lot. I just want to make sure the bite still looks ok."
Starsky nodded, accepting Collins' instructions.
"Where's Benson?" Starsky asked suddenly.
"Fishing," Hutch answered. "He left not too long ago. According to Collins, it won't take him long to catch what he wants."
"Don't worry, he's armed," Collins explained, sensing Starsky's concern. "Benson knows how to use a gun. He'll be fine."
With the third cup of coffee cradled in his hands, Starsky walked with Hutch in the direction of the dead wolves. The entire, wicked incident felt surreal - from the wolves' initial appearance to the moment Hutch pulled the trigger. When and how had everything spun so far out of control that he was seemingly more at risk than Hutch? Starsky was suspicious of the circumstances, yet he couldn't sort out why.
"Right here," Hutch said, leading Starsky to an area just off the beaten game trail. "No doubt, the carcasses might draw a few other predators, but hopefully not until after we've gone."
Starsky stared at the two dead wolves at his feet, the black one that had attacked him was by far the largest of the two. It was interesting how the animal did not look quite so deadly in the full light of day. The fangs were exposed in its skull - frozen in a kind of macabre and permanent snarl. The eyes were hollow and lifeless after one well-placed and fatal shot from Hutch's gun.
Starsky looked at Hutch, a litany of unanswerable questions lingering in his eyes. Hutch shoved both hands into the front pockets of his jeans and waited. It was the first time he had seen the wolves in full daylight himself. If Starsky hadn't wanted a second look, Hutch would have preferred not to see them again either. Since they were both here, Hutch steeled himself against the circumstances so Starsky could gain a better handle on what had happened.
"I don't even know what to think, Hutch," Starsky said, glancing again at the wolves. "What the hell is going on lately?"
"Damned if I know," Hutch answered, his own voice tapering to a near whisper. "I didn't see any of this coming. I'm sorry."
"Don't you dare go apologizing for anything! Without you, I would have been a goner for sure."
"I never dreamed something like this could happen out here, much less to you," Hutch added, his shoulders slumping slightly. "It may have been a bad idea for me to bring you back out here."
"Rubbish," Starsky argued, looking earnestly at Hutch. "Some unexpected stuff may have happened, but you've proven yourself more than capable of dealing with it. That's at least part of the reason we're both here. I'm not sorry I came, so don't you be either."
From a secluded, discrete distance away, Lila watched as all four men moved around camp. Obviously, Starsky was functioning just fine. The realization caused Lila's anger to spark and her heart to pound with abandon.
"How can that be?" Lila asked out loud. "How could the spirits have abandoned me so completely?"
As she watched Starsky and Hutch walk together to inspect the dead wolves, Lila tried unsuccessfully to contain her emotions. She had seen Hutch and Collins drag their bodies away earlier that morning. How the tables of fate could have turned on her so completely, Lila could not understand. She had been so confident in the power of her own potion - a tactic she had used many times before with excellent results. Yet Hutch had remained beyond her grasp, and Starsky's presence would ensure that he stayed there.
Retrieving a set of binoculars, Lila used them for a closer look at Hutch. Locating him through the lens, she sharpened the focus to enable her to see his face more clearly. Despite the limitations of the scope, Lila thought Hutch looked more handsome than ever. When he smiled and wrapped an arm around Starsky's shoulders, a new wave of anger exploded inside of her.
"Alright then," Lila thought, watching as the men returned to camp. "Since we're running out of time, it looks like I'll have to take care of things myself."
"Hey, give that back," Hutch said, holding out a hand.
"No," Collins replied, snatching away the card. "You gave it up. It's too late to change your mind, pardner."
Starsky snickered from across the makeshift table. While the cards in his hand looked promising, it was almost unfair of him to join a poker game that involved Hutch. Starsky could read the man too easily. The slight furrow between Hutch's eyebrows told him that Hutch was not happy with his cards. The almost plaintive glance Hutch threw in his direction indicated that he was calculating some sort of odds.
"I'm afraid things are too rich for me, gentlemen. I have to fold," Benson said, laying down his cards.
Starsky looked expectantly at Collins.
"Wanna put that new card to use and show us what you've got?"
"Alright then," Collins replied, displaying a perfect flush of diamonds.
"Not bad, not bad," Starsky commented, looking next at Hutch. "And you, Detective Hutchinson? What's ya got?"
Hutch looked annoyed as he laid down a five-card straight composed of mixed suits.
"Not bad either," Starsky commented, smiling at Hutch over the cards.
"Ok, Starsky, let's see your hand then," Collins insisted.
Without additional comment, Starsky fanned out a flush of hearts for everyone to see.
"Sorry, folks, but when you've got it, you've got it," Starsky said, gathering the small pile of chips in his direction.
"Ok, that's it for me," Hutch said. "I'm all pokered out for the evening."
"Me, too," Collins added, pushing away from the flimsy, makeshift table.
"I'd like all of you to know that I'm willing to extend credit. Except for you, Hutch. Dinner will work in lieu of cash."
Hutch rolled his eyes at Starsky's proposition.
"Hey, you're not a bad cook, and I get to have something other than takeout once in a while," Starsky explained. "I see it as a win/win situation all the way around."
"My partner can't cook," Collins said almost wistfully. "So I totally get it, Starsky. And after what I saw last night, you might think seriously about making him dinner instead."
Starsky looked at Hutch knowing the other man would not be entirely comfortable with the compliment. While Starsky was empathetic to Hutch's humility, he was happy to hear someone other than himself give Hutch the kind of honest praise he so rightly deserved.
"What you saw last night is the level of integrity that Hutch brings to everything he does. He'll never admit to that, but I don't mind doing it for him."
"Well, I'm happy you guys are wearing badges. If you weren't on my side of the law, the deck would definitely be stacked."
After gathering so much wood the day before, there was no need to worry about finding more before nightfall. The afternoon had been spent playing cards, telling stories, and exploring some of the surrounding areas they had not seen the day before. Hutch was thrilled to discover a small waterfall at the far end of the creek downstream. Although the water was too cold for swimming this time of year, Hutch thought the depth at the base of the falls was probably ideal for taking a dip during the warmer months. Best of all, there was no further sign of wolves anywhere around.
"So tonight's our last night with Mother Nature," Starsky said, following Hutch up a trail. 'It feels like we ought to celebrate or something."
"Why's that, Starsk? Are you happy to finally be getting out of here?" Hutch asked, glancing over his shoulder.
"Maybe a little," Starsky admitted, working to keep up with Hutch.
The pace they were going had left him a little short of breath after trying to work through a few sore spots from his recent injuries. Hutch noticed the effort on Starsky's face and stopped to allow him to catch up.
"I'm more concerned about your mood though," Starsky said. "If you're asking me, and I know you haven't, but I think you're more like the partner I had before Diana-from-Hell showed up again. I recognize you again, Hutch, and I'm proud of you for that. Whatever part of your mind still needs to heal, I say you're going to make it."
Hutch listened intently as Starsky talked while he tried to properly absorb the content of what he was saying. Dr. Henderson had encouraged him to pay attention to Starsky's point of view. As the person who knew Hutch best, Starsky had a unique and genuine perspective to offer.
No one else in the world would be out here with me, Hutch thought fondly. Not even my family.
Although the awareness in itself was nothing new, Hutch's understanding had been deepened by the realization. He had been so worried about getting well that he had overlooked some of his closest support in the process. Starsky and Huggy had made that crystal clear back in town. Much of what Hutch really needed was standing right in front of him, particularly now that he had shared with Starsky the extent of what he'd endured at the hand of Diana and her accomplices.
"Come one, let's finish this hike and spend the evening relaxing around the fire. I refuse to believe there are any more wolves hanging around."
"I've gotta admit I don't want any more visitors," Starsky replied. "But hey, you said the moon is supposed to be full tonight. That always means something could happen, right?"
"Ummm... Depends on who you ask, I guess. Most Indian legends I've ever heard would indicate yes. A lot of unusual things happen when a full moon is in the sky, never mind a harvest moon which is exactly what we'll have tonight."
"Oh man, that was a good meal. We certainly haven't gone hungry this trip."
"Yeah, I've gotta agree, Hutch," Collins chimed in. "I could live on fresh-caught trout."
"I guess I'd get by," Starsky chimed in, a slight smile forming on his lips. "I've liked everything we've had out here, but as soon as we get home I'm getting a cheeseburger at Huggy's."
"You need to take me to Huggy's," Collins said.
"I can do that - no worries," Starsky confirmed, winking at Hutch. "He'll be wanting to see us anyway after our little camping adventure."
Starsky kicked back, leaning against a log and stretching his arms high above his head.
"Sleeping on the ground is all well and good, but I miss my own bed," Starsky added. "But that doesn't matter - we're heading home tomorrow."
"If there's anything else you want to do before dark, I'd do it now," Collins suggested. "I want to grab a little more of that hardwood Hutch and I found."
"Would you like some help?" Hutch asked.
"That's ok. I'll make Benson come with me this time. He wanted to see where we found it anyway. The two of you can take it easy, and we'll be back shortly."
"Works for me. And hey, don't worry about firewood while you're out there," Hutch teased. "We have plenty for once."
Collins grinned and began to gather his used dishes with the intent of going to the creek to wash them out.
"Oh, don't worry about those," Starsky said. "I'll take care of them in a minute when I do mine. Go ahead and find what you want before it gets much later."
"Thanks, Starsky," Collins replied, turning to Benson and punching him in the arm. "Let's go then."
Starsky watched as the two medics gathered their backpacks and soon disappeared into the woods.
"Those two are good people. I'm glad we got to meet them."
"Me, too," Hutched agreed. "Actually, I'd say we're both lucky to have made their acquaintance."
Starsky couldn't argue that point.
Realizing it was a good time for a private discussion, Starsky dug into the front pocket of his jeans and pulled out the piece of metal he'd recovered from the ashes.
"Have you had any more thoughts about this?" Starsky asked, allowing Hutch to see what he was holding.
"Yeah, a few," Hutch admitted.
Starsky waited, not wanting to push too hard or lead with an additional question.
"I remembered where I've seen that emblem before," Hutch confessed. "Diana was wearing a charm bracelet the night I took her to dinner. I'm sure one of the charms looked exactly like that thing in your hand."
Starsky raised an eyebrow as he listened. They both knew the symbol was connected to Diana in some way. It was the fact that it had shown up out here in the woods that was making them both uneasy.
"Well then, I guess we both noticed the symbology was something that she liked. Do you have any idea if she was practicing Wicca?"
Hutch looked uncomfortable when he tried to answer.
"No, not that I know of. But obviously, I didn't know her as well as I should have, did I? It's entirely possible she could have been up to a lot of things without my knowledge."
Starsky suspected that Hutch was on the verge of saying something additionally derogatory about himself.
"Na ah," Starsky interceded. "Don't you dare go down that road of regret, Hutchinson. Diana was a woman who had everyone fooled for a while - you, me, and even the hospital she worked for. You were actually the first to recognize that something was seriously wrong."
Starsky knew that Hutch had heard him.
"How do you think that kind of symbol got into our camp?" Hutch asked instead. "Do you think it's related to Diana, or is it just the wildest coincidence you've ever heard of?"
"I wish I knew for sure. Yes, I think it's related to Diana in some way. No, I don't believe that Diana is the one who left it here. What do you think?"
"Yeah, much the same. There's a missing link somewhere. I just can't figure out where."
A heavy shadow passed overhead starling them both. They looked up in time to see a great horned owl settle nearby on a low-hanging branch.
"Wow," Starsky gasped. "That might be the biggest frickin' owl I've ever seen."
"Agreed. That thing is huge."
The owl stared back at them through enormous yellow eyes from the safety of the tree.
"There ya go," Hutch teased, poking Starsky in the ribs. "That's some of the stuff we came out here to see."
"Yeah, it sure is. And hey, look up. Just like you said, the moon is gonna be full tonight."
Starsky sat up suddenly and began gathering the used dishes. "I need to get these rinsed before it's too dark to see what I'm doing."
"Want any help?" Hutch asked.
"Nah, stay put. I'll be right back."
Starsky headed for the creek with an armload of dishes while Hutch ducked into the tent to grab his harmonica. Starsky had reached the creek bank and was looking for the best spot to rinse off the dishes when the sound of a stranger's voice caught his attention instead.
"Hello, Mr. Starsky," the voice said.
Startled, Starsky looked up to see a petite, dark-haired stranger facing him on the opposite side of the creek. Equally surprising was the pair of large, gray wolves, one on each side, that accompanied her.
"Your loyalty to Hutch is admirable, Starsky, but I'm afraid you're in my way," the woman explained calmly. "You need to go."
Without breaking her gaze, the woman slowly drew a gun from behind her skirt and leveled it at Starsky.
Back in camp, Hutch had just emerged from the tent when he looked up to see Starsky confronting a woman at creekside. His heart leaped in his chest when he noticed the weapon in her hand.
"Starsky! Get down!" Hutch yelled, diving for his magnum.
Dropping the dishes, Starsky fell to the ground and rolled toward the nearest thicket of brush. The sound of gunfire blasting past his shoulder left a burning trail where a bullet grazed his arm.
Hutch yanked his gun from its holster and took aim at the stranger on the opposite side of the creek. He didn't waste time wondering who she was. It didn't matter. She was a deadly threat who had fired a weapon at Starsky.
The bullet exploded from Hutch's magnum, finding its target, and spinning Lila around a hundred and eighty degrees. Despite the impact knocking her backward, she managed to stay on her feet. Bent in half from the waist, the gun nearly slipping from her hand, Lila gathered her strength and struggled to turn around.
One of the wolves launched itself into the creek just before Hutch pulled the trigger. Running toward Starsky, Hutch watched as the animal thrashed its way through the water. Reaching the other side, the enraged wolf was climbing onto the grass when Hutch skidded to a stop, took aim, and shot it in the chest. The animal collapsed instead - half in, half out of the water, a few feet in front of Hutch. The remaining wolf had disappeared altogether.
Searching frantically for Starsky, Hutch spotted him just as Lila managed to straighten and turn around. The woman's eyes had grown dark and accusatory as she stared at Hutch.
"Why, Hutch?" she screamed. "Why couldn't you just cooperate and love me instead?"
Hutch stared back at a woman he didn't recognize, horrified, and confused by the scenario unfolding in front of him. Startled that she had called him by name, her long, black skirt swirling around her ankles, he hesitated for just an instant. It was then that the woman's eyes shifted from anguish to rage, and she leveled her gun in his direction. Indecision yielded to reflex when Hutch reacted by firing first. The mysterious woman fell to the ground and was instantly still.
Hutch turned, searching frantically for Starsky before spotting a patch of his blue shirt through a break in the brush.
"Starsky!" Hutch yelled, rushing toward him.
"I'm ok! I'm ok!" Starsky shouted, rolling over. "I think I got dinged, but I'm ok."
With Starsky flat on his back, Hutch was able to see him more easily. There was a large, bloody rip in his shirt near one shoulder where a bullet had obviously grazed him. Beyond that, Starsky did not appear to be seriously harmed.
His heart thumping wildly in his chest, Hutch dropped the handgun and fell to his knees, reaching for Starsky to steady himself as much as anything else. Had she been real? Or had she been nothing more than an elaborate apparition from the depths of his own mind? Hutch wasn't sure, and he was trembling too hard to care.
"I'm ok! Starsky repeated, newly alarmed by the detached and heartbroken look in Hutch's eyes.
When he didn't respond, Starsky sat up and pulled Hutch into his arms.
"Stay with me! Stay with me, Hutch," Starsky soothed. "Whoever she was, she's gone!"
Hutch collapsed in relief against Starsky, his eyes tightly shut against the sudden onslaught of repressed memories that had taunted him for weeks. As the dam of emotions finally broke, remembrances of his time in captivity floated to the forefront of his mind - hours spent at the mercy of unkind strangers wearing layers of black clothing and strands of silver jewelry, all hovering, chanting, touching, and coercing his body with their unwanted madness.
In a final, cleansing effort, Hutch conquered the remainder of his fear and crumpled in his partner's arms. Sobbing with relief, he allowed the security that only Starsky could provide to surround, enfold, and protect him. Like a rock in a storm, Starsky waited - holding him until Hutch had the strength to pull away. When he did, Starsky recognized the man he had always known, peering back at him through troubled eyes.
"It's over," Starsky whispered, cradling Hutch's face with his hand. "Whatever the hell just happened, we made it, partner."
Chapter 14: Home Sweet Home
There's just no place like home. Hutch makes a full recovery thanks to the love and support of his friends.
Once the aggressive stranger forced Hutch into a deadly confrontation, the situation spiraled toward an irreversible climax. Hutch's brief interaction with the woman was confusing at best, although her death did not carry the same sort of personal burden that Diana's demise had wrought.
The details of the relationship between Diana and the mysterious woman were destined to remain murky. She was eventually identified as Lila Cortez - a previous employee of the hospital where Diana was housed before her release. Lila had quit her job the same week Diana was released from inpatient care. A newly expanded investigation was underway to uncover the relationship between the two women, a task made all the more difficult by the fact that both of them were now deceased.
Forty-eight hours after Lila's death, Starsky and Hutch were back in Bay City, recovering from their four-night excursion in the woods. Although Hutch's mood seemed a little somber, Starsky understood why. Shooting and killing a woman was never a comfortable decision, not even in self-defense. Lila's unexpected appearance, in conjunction with a crisis-filled weekend, had taken a complicated situation and made it temporarily worse for both of them.
Although Hutch was at last at peace with the bulk of the circumstances, the additional aspects of an established investigation would be a long time reaching an official conclusion. As a formality, Hutch had surrendered his weapon until the department could finalize its own investigation of the shooting. Although Starsky had been present, Hutch was the only actual eyewitness to Lila Cruz's death. It was anticipated the department's internal review would be completed in just a few days.
Judging by the manner in which Hutch was able to concentrate on the endless paperwork to the way he sat comfortably in an uncomfortable chair, Starsky could tell that Hutch was doing fine. A whole pot of emotions had been stirred to the boiling point during their long weekend in the woods. Now that a lot of the fallout had been exposed and left behind, Starsky was no longer as worried about Hutch.
"Are you about done?" Starsky asked. "I'm hungry."
Hutch looked at Starsky in a way that cautioned him to be patient.
"Almost," Hutch answered, pulling his attention back to the form he was reading. Quickly, he signed and dated the last paper before adding it to the stack between them.
"I'm done now," Hutch said, glancing at the clock on the wall. "It's time for us to meet the medics for dinner anyway."
"Now that's what I want to hear," Starsky replied, standing and reaching for his jacket.
Sliding into the Torino a few minutes later, Starsky put the key in the ignition and started the engine. It always did him good to hear his car come to life.
The drive to The Pits was short despite a predictable amount of commuter traffic. Hutch was actually thankful for the reprieve as he'd been sitting down most of the day. For the first time in weeks, he felt up to a game of pool. Perhaps Collins or Benson would be interested in joining him.
The parking lot was only about half full as Starsky found a spot and pulled over.
"Huggy was excited to hear we were dropping by tonight."
Hutch smiled almost bashfully, nodding at Starsky as they entered The Pits. A full-blown shout of happiness soon greeted him once Hutch entered the bar.
"Hutch, my man!" Huggy exclaimed, meeting him halfway across the room. "You made it!" he added, gathering Hutch in a tight hug.
"Huggy, good to see you," Hutch exclaimed, returning the embrace.
"And Starsky," Huggy added next. "I'm impressed to see that you made it back as well, my friend."
"Don't hug him!" Hutch blurted out suddenly, his eyes wide with apprehension.
Surprised, both Starsky and Huggy looked intently at Hutch.
"I mean, he has a few war wounds underneath his clothes," Hutch tried to explain. "He can tell you all about it if you want to know."
"Yeah, that's right," Starsky confirmed. "Just lead me to a booth before I hurt myself out here, Hug. The paramedics have already been called."
Approximately twenty minutes later, Collins and Benson had found their way to The Pits and joined them in the back of the bar. Each man appeared to be happy with the tall glass of beer in front of them.
"So Huggy," Collins was asking. "How long have you known these two guys?"
"A long time," Huggy replied without hesitation. "Starsky since we were both kids really. Hutch since he hooked up with Starsky roughly seven or eight years ago?"
"Something like that," Hutch agreed. "It doesn't seem like it, but it has been a few years now."
"So what happened to you out there in the woods, Starsky?" Huggy asked. "Meaning - whatever Hutch was referring to," Huggy clarified.
"Oh," Starsky began, looking unexcited. "You know - a small knife wound, a near-drowning, and of course, a wolf attack. The usual stuff. And lastly, I got shot for good measure. The slug only grazed me though."
"A wolf attack!" Huggy blurted out, nearly spitting out his beer.
Huggy looked at Hutch to help him decide if the other man was kidding. Hutch was nodding in support of Starsky's story.
"Yeah, it was a bit unbelievable. Even for us."
Starsky rolled up his shirt sleeve so Huggy could have a look at his forearm.
"I'm tellin' ya, if you go camping someday, take these guys with ya, Hug," Starsky said, indicating Collins and Benson. "They'll make sure you live through it."
"Umm, umm, umm," Huggy said. "No offense, Starsky, but I ain't never leavin' the city with you."
The other men at the table laughed openly.
"Oh, you can go, Hug," Hutch said. "The key to survival is that you have to take your weaponry with you."
"Since when are there wolves anywhere around here?" Huggy asked.
"Since Hutch and I went camping last weekend. Yeah, I know what you're sayin'. No one was more surprised than we were - no one outside of the other two guys who were out there with us."
"We don't really have a good answer," Collins said. "Hutch shot two of them, not including the one he and I gunned down together. The rest disappeared, including one of the two that was with the woman who tried to shoot Starsky."
Huggy shook his head in disbelief.
"Did you talk to Fish and Game?" Hutch asked.
"Yep. I'm going back out there tomorrow. Everyone in that department is extremely interested in having a look at those wolves."
"No offense if I stay here?" Starsky asked.
"None at all, Starsky," Collins replied. "In fact, from what I've seen, you're safer with Hutch anyway."
"Well then," Huggy said next, lifting his glass. "In that case, here's to Hutch and all the rest of you who brought him safely back home. I thank you!"
September 27, 2021