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Birds of a Feather - Prey Together

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BIRDS OF A FEATHER -

PREY TOGETHER

Elizabeth Lowry

 

The old church building had been uncomfortably hot, what was it? Only this morning? It wasn't overly warm for the time of year, but the chapel had been built with no windows and no air conditioning, and thus no air circulation. Add to that the dark business suits they'd been wearing and the unpleasantness of the situation, and it was no wonder he had sweated through the ordeal. The whole ordeal.

Not that he'd been the only one perspiring. Glancing over at Hutch about midway through the rites, he'd noticed tiny tendrils of hair plastering themselves to that bronzed face. He'd watched as Hutch had run a finger under his eyes to erase the moisture accumulating there, the only sign Hutch was at all uncomfortable. After a few seconds of watching his partner, he'd shifted his attention to the man who sat between them. The older man hadn't been sweating at all. Rather, his skin was gray and papery, and his eyes hadn't focused on anything. Those were more the signs of shock than of grief. But this particular grief had come as a shock. A severe shock. To all of them.

Hutch's eyes, on the other hand, never once left the coffin resting in front of the altar. A few, rather spiritless bouquets placed haphazardly around the bier, told a tale of a lonely and solitary life. The coffin remained closed, due to the physical damage the body had sustained at the time of death. Not even a master mortician could have repaired a face half blasted away by a shotgun. Three, maybe four small knots of people occupied the pews behind them, another silent testimony to the desolate life of the deceased. It was a poor turnout, he'd mused at the time. Or rather, a small turnout. No living being deserved to be thought of as poor in the quality of friendships they forged. Especially not this lady.

He'd tried breathing deeply to counter the oppressive heat, but the air had simply been too stale to fill his lungs. Instead, he'd blown out the air in his lungs and run a finger under his collar. Hutch, he glimpsed, had shifted wearily on the other side of their charge. It was only then that he'd taken the time to look down at the hands of the man who sat between them.

Hands folded limply in the lap, hands holding on to each other in a universal sign of desperation, hands restrained by steel handcuffs.

He'd shut his eyes at the sight, fighting back the ache that had then begun to play behind his eyes. That was when the urgent need to be done with the whole thing had started. If he'd known then just how long the whole thing would actually end up taking...

The preacher had droned on, dull and monotonous and tripping over the unfamiliar details of the life he was eulogizing. Lord, the thought had skittered across his mind, at least put someone who knows me up in front of everybody who comes to my funeral. Again, the image that had confronted him at that moment confronted him in his present circumstance: a golden-haired man standing before a flag-draped coffin, before a room filled with officers in blue. He squelched the thought as quickly now as he had this morning.

He returned to the replaying of the details of the morning; there was nothing else to do at the moment.

Once the sad ceremony had ended, he'd looked over at their charge, who sat unmoving. Catching Hutch's eye, Hutch had answered him with a shake of his head. So they had remained seated, waiting for the man sandwiched between them to acknowledge the end of his public mourning.

The preacher had come down to their pew, as well as several other people. Words of comfort, condolence, and confusion had surrounded them, but received no response from the grieving man. Eventually the uncomfortableness of the situation had driven everyone away. That had left Hutch, their prisoner, and him sitting silently.

It had been Hutch who had finally broken the silence and proposed they begin the next leg of their journey. Just as it had been Hutch who had volunteered them to escort this prisoner to his wife's funeral. Just as it had been Hutch who had broken the news of the woman's death to this prisoner. Just as it had been Hutch who had seen this prisoner through his pre-trial hearing.

Just as it had been Hutch who continued to feel responsible for everything that befell this man.

Tired of sitting for so long, he'd stood to relieve heat-cramped muscles. Hutch had followed, but the man had remained still as stone. Hutch, reaching down, grasped an upper arm firmly and pulled. He had done likewise, and together they'd helped their captive to his feet. Only then had the man awakened to his surroundings.

He'd shrugged out of their grasps defiantly, somewhat startling them both. Blinking, the man had looked around the church thoughtfully, then drawn himself up as though he'd found an untapped source of strength. His back had straightened. He'd pulled his shoulders back. And it seemed a little tinge of pink came into his face. Wiping his nose with his cuffed hands, he'd taken a deep breath, and faced Hutch.

When he spoke, he spoke quietly, in the same soft voice he'd retreated to after his arrest. He'd obviously been straining for some kind of dignity at that moment, but whether it was due to his "humble" request or his soon-to-be-implemented plan, Starsky still couldn't decide. But his request had been simple enough: the use of the john.

Hutch had glanced over at Starsky for approval. He'd shrugged, then nodded. When you gotta go...and their prisoner was cuffed.

Start counting now: first mistake.

Hutch had taken the man's arm, and together they'd walked over to the Reverend. The Reverend had then gestured them out toward the foyer, and Hutch had led his charge to the bathroom. He'd watched them leave the chapel, the young man and the old man, the officer and the prisoner, the tutor and the student. He'd even toyed with the notion of following them, but dismissed his fears and instead eased back down on the pew. What could happen in a church bathroom?

What indeed.

Bored and hot, he'd picked up a hymnal lying next to him on the pew and leafed through it. "Battle Hymn of the Republic." Coming across that song had made him smile in recognition. Funny, he hadn't realized it was a hymn. He'd always thought it was just another patriotic song with unfathomable lyrics, like "My Country 'Tis of Thee" or "The Star-Spangled Banner." Amazing what one can learn under odd circumstances.

But he'd been suddenly jolted from his musical musings. The wrong voice had come up from behind him, sending a rush of adrenalin through his system. Starting to turn, he'd been stopped by the punch of cold metal in his neck. He'd frozen immediately, careful not to make any quick moves as roles had obviously been reversed. A quick check had told him the church had apparently emptied. The formerly oppressive heat had transformed itself into a chill.

The wrong voice told him to stand. He had obeyed. The voice's body had then carefully walked around the edge of the pew, the metal still stuck against his neck. A hand had come down over his shoulder, slipped under his jacket, and extracted his weapon. Finally, the uncuffed prisoner had presented himself to Starsky's view. The gun was pulled back from his skin and into his line of sight.

Hutch's Magnum.

His first concern, as always, had been Hutch.

A short, angry inquiry had only given him an enigmatic response: he shouldn't worry about Hutch; Hutch would be around when he was needed. The prisoner had then reached over and shoved him forward. It was an indication that he should start walking. He had resisted.

Second mistake.

In retrospect, resistance had been the wrong choice to make in every instance. At first, it had been met with only a threat. A prophetic threat, it suddenly occurred to him. The threat of Hutch finding his partner's brains splattered over the altar, just as the captive-turned-captor's wife's brains had been splattered over their marriage bed. To make the point more clear, the gun had been pushed back into his neck, along with a verbal coda. The coda being a reminder that no matter what Hutch chose to do upon finding his partner blown to bits, said partner would still be blown to bits. And Hutch would have to live with that.

Considering his earlier imaginings, it was threat enough to make him think. He'd swallowed thickly as he'd sorted through his options. Their prisoner was a good shot, he knew that from experience, and obviously meant what he'd said. But Hutch was probably back in the bathroom, and he'd had no idea what shape Hutch was in. He hadn't heard a shot, but...

And that's when he'd learned what hesitation and resistance would get him. The butt of the gun had been brought down on his shoulder, causing him to fall forward in pain. An accurate kick in the kidneys had then left him face down on the floor. He could still call up the taste of the dirty carpet in his mouth. Roughly, he'd been pulled to his feet, though barely able to stand and gasping for breath. Again the muzzle of the gun slid behind his ear. Move or be moved, and not pleasantly. So he'd moved.

Together, the two men had then left the chapel by a side door, and he'd been hustled to Hutch's car.

He'd been installed in the driver's seat, still wincing from the "persuasion" the man had used on him. The prisoner had slid in next to him, gun pointed at his ribs.

The man had positioned himself sideways in the seat. He'd reached down and turned off the radio, then opened the glove compartment and removed the box of bullets Hutch kept there, all without taking his eyes off his prisoner. The gunman had then pulled Hutch's keys from his pocket and offered them to Starsky. A dismaying sign; he'd wondered what else of Hutch's the man had.

Besides his gun, his keys and his partner, that is.

The rules were then laid down: He was to drive where he was told. He was to avoid any attempts at causing an accident. He was to avoid any attention-getting behavior. And if he didn't, he would be killed. His brains would be splattered over Hutch's upholstery, where Hutch would eventually find him. And whatever Hutch did in the aftermath, he would still be dead, etc., etc.

He'd run his hands along the steering wheel, trying to calm his nerves, looking for time to buy. But that led to another wrong decision made; he'd attempted to reason with the freed prisoner.

Third mistake.

The gun butt had been bounced off his skull.

And very expertly, too, he now appraised. A glancing blow, more off his ear than his head. And not hard enough to kill or concuss, just hard enough to bring the conversation to an end.

All of which served to leave him with little choice. He'd taken the keys and started the car. 

* * * * *

And now here he was. The southeast side of downtown, down where all the old warehouses and factories crumbled into concrete quicksand. Down in some sub-basement of some old building that couldn't have passed code if one of the Rockefellers had been doing the bribing. If his captor hadn't brought Hutch's flashlight from the car, it would have been pitch black in the claustrophobic room. A small set of concrete steps were the only entrance. No windows and no other door; if help were to come, it would have to come down those steps.

And help would come. By now he had been missed, and someone had to have found Hutch. It would be a simple matter to track down Hutch's four-wheel crate, especially as it was parked illegally outside. Which, Starsky mused again, would easily give away their position. And what was it the man had said about Hutch being around when he was needed? It was a set-up, a trap; it had to be. He was not the target, but the bait.

Starsky tried to find a more comfortable position. He was standing against a metal support pipe off to the side of the south wall, his hands cuffed behind him and around the pipe. His captor had used Starsky's cuffs, which meant he'd probably used Hutch's cuffs on Hutch. And as long as he was keeping count, it was useful to remember he also had Starsky's gun.

After securing Starsky to the pipe, the older man had spent a few minutes foraging through the dark room. The questing flashlight had revealed a room filled with crates and boxes, trash and garbage, odors and stinks; the remnants of the transients and addicts who used the place for whatever they needed at the moment. The gunman had ultimately gathered together a few discarded crates and pulled them into a corner, where he'd fashioned himself a seat.

This was where he was now, sitting in the corner. As Starsky's eyes had become adjusted to the dark, he could pick out the occasional large form, such as a box, the stairs, or the man. They'd been in the darkness for, Starsky guessed, the better part of an hour. Both had remained silent, Starsky having been ordered to keep his mouth shut, the boredom broken only by the sporadic flashing of the light into Starsky's eyes. The light didn't hurt his eyes, instead, it gave him a chance to pick out more of his surroundings and get a better feel of the lay of the land. What hurt was the small of his back (he couldn't wait to see the bruise from that kick), his head, his upper arms, and especially his neck. Why hadn't he thought to loosen his necktie at some point during the kidnapping? Damn stupid time to be wearing a suit.

His neck ached, which made his throat tickle, which made him cough. It must have been the opening his captor was waiting for. He spoke:

"This building housed a small garment factory back in the 60's." A bleak voice echoed in the musty blackness. "Every once in a while we'd raid it, round up the wetbacks, deport 'em, and take home a few dresses to the wives." 

Starsky gave an experimental tug on the cuffs. They hadn't given on any past tries, but one never knows... The cuffs scraped against the pipe, rigid as ever.

"Yeah, those were the days," the man continued gloomily, unconcerned by the sound of Starsky's cuff-testing. "Back when you could get away with a little something extra for your time and trouble. Back when you could show a punk just who was in charge without anyone screaming about violating someone's rights. Back when a man could trust his partner."

Starsky heard him shift his position, the box creaking under the new distribution of weight.

"You trust your partner?" The man didn't wait for a reply. "I did. I trusted my partner." He laughed, an anemic sound, but full of sarcasm. And pain. "Trust is a funny thing. You want to believe in it. You let it build up and build up. And just when you think you've found someone you can confide in and believe in and rely on, that person screws you up your ass and throws everything you gave that person back in your face. Everything you shared with them is forgotten. Everything you told them is betrayed. They take you down and grind you into the dirt, until there's nothing left of you."

The man was silent for a time. Starsky cleared his throat. Damn the torpedoes, it was time to try reason again. "What are you up to?" He tried to find the least painful position for his arms and wrists, opting to ignore the irritation of the noose around his neck. "Are we waiting for Hutch?"

A tapping sound answered him from the corner of the room. The heel of a shoe was keeping time to some unheard rhythm. But at least the man hadn't responded with a belt to his middle or a bullet in his brain.

"He's responsible." The words were terse and venomous.

Starsky took a deep breath. The muscles in his abdomen seized up painfully. "What are you going to do?" He paused. He didn't want to ask the next question, but he had to. "Kill him?"

The blackness was suddenly filled with an hysterical giggling. Starsky felt as though he had been punched in the gut. He shut his eyes until the giggling transformed itself into a hoarse cough.

"My wife--" the words were cut off, strangled. "My wife--" he began again, "--killed herself. He's responsible."

Starsky wet his lips. "It was nobody's fault--"

"It was his fault!" the man screamed. 

Starsky straightened involuntarily at the ferocity of the words. He inadvertently wrenched his wrists in the process, and bit his lip to keep from exclaiming in pain.

The box creaked again, and Starsky felt the man come toward him. He circled Starsky, close but not close enough to kick at. Starsky couldn't make out his features, but the form that circled him moved with a dangerous stealth.

"It was his fault," the man repeated, as though by saying it often enough it would prove the truth of the statement. He stopped, a little off to the left of Starsky. "He made it happen. You know it, I know it, and most importantly, he knows it." He flashed the light in Starsky's eyes, causing Starsky to turn his head aside. He began pacing in front of Starsky, still out of reach. "She wouldn't have thought of that shotgun if I'd been there." He seemed to be lecturing Starsky. "If I'd been there, if I'd been there when she needed me, she wouldn't have hurt herself." He stopped for a moment. Starsky thought he was staring off toward the basement door. The man resumed his step.

"She was in pain, she needed help, and I wasn't there to take care of her." He stopped again, and seemed to point at Starsky with the Magnum. "And that's his fault. He put me in that jail, he took me away from her, and he is going to have to bear the consequences."

Starsky took another deep breath, careful to breath slowly so as not to pull too many aching muscles. He should have seen this coming. For weeks he'd watched as Hutch had shouldered the blame for the destruction of the lives of the man and his wife. Why hadn't it occurred to him that the man was also just as likely to blame Hutch?

The man backed away and sat down on his crate. He spoke quietly this time. "That's what I was talking about, the trust. I trusted him to help me. I believed he'd do what he said he would. But he lied to me." The heel began rapping on the floor again. "You know how he lied? I'll tell you. That day he destroyed us, the day he set everything in motion, I wasn't going to tell him where I was. Even though he knew what I was going to do, I wasn't going to tell him where I was. But he said he'd come by himself. He promised he'd come alone. To help me pick up the pieces and clean up the mess." A bitter laugh escaped from the man. "So I trusted him, and told him where I was." He paused; his voice was losing volume. "But he brought you with him. And he brought everyone else. So I ended up being the fall guy. I ended up looking the fool." Another pause, his voice softer yet. "I'd still have my badge if it weren't for him." Starsky barely heard his last sentence: "I'd still have my wife."

Starsky knew better than to argue with the man. He was convinced of Hutch's culpability, and there was nothing he could say that would persuade the man otherwise. He'd been constructing Hutch's blame for far too long, and it hadn't helped that every time Hutch had spoken with the man he'd apologized for anything and everything. Any help he gave to Hutch (assuming Hutch showed up--and he would unless he were dead), would have to come in a different form.

The sound of metal against metal clicked into his brain. Starsky's captor was doing something to one of the guns. Starsky tried to identify the action. Something clinked on the floor. Inserting ammo? No, both guns were fully loaded when they'd been in the church, and as far as he knew no shots had been fired from either weapon. Removing bullets? Was that the sound of bullets dropping on the floor? What was going on in this man's mind?

The flashlight came on, illuminating the man's face, creating weird shadows around his features. Starsky made a quick study of the eyes. Resolute. Intent. Frighteningly calm. He had to keep this man away from Hutch.

"I'm ready." He lifted Hutch's Magnum into the light. "Anytime." He flicked the light off. His voice was raspy, but composed. "I'm asking you again: Do you trust your partner? I'm not sure you can."

Starsky wondered what the question meant. The implication was Hutch would not come through for Starsky. But Hutch had always come through for him. What did his captor have in mind?

They waited in the darkness.

Both men heard the sound at the same time. Footsteps above them. Someone was entering the building.

"Keep your mouth shut or you'll be hanging there dead. He'll find you here dead, and whatever he does to me, you'll still be dead."

The same threat, as effective as before.

The man moved behind and to the right of Starsky. He grabbed Starsky's upper arm and pulled him back, forcing Starsky to shuffle around until he was facing the stairs. The man stood behind him, protected from any fire by Starsky's body. The muzzle of the gun resumed its place behind Starsky's throbbing ear. If Starsky were to kick, he'd have to kick backward, and he wasn't sure he'd even hit his target before he lost his balance. He was stuck.

More footsteps in the building. Muffled, stealthy, but people were in the building above them, searching. And someone was getting ready to search the basement.

Starsky steeled himself, and felt the man behind him do likewise. The gun against his head never wavered, but the second gun came up level with his shoulder. It was pointed toward the stairway entrance. And it, too, was out of Starsky's reach; there was no movement he could make that would knock it aside.

The door to the stairwell opened. Starsky jumped as his Baretta went off, the flash aimed toward the stairs. An obscenity pierced the darkness. Overhead, loud footsteps began converging on their position.

"Stay back!" the man ordered, both guns still aimed at their respective targets. "Do you hear? Stay back or you've got a dead cop down here!"

A jumble of voices filtered down from the hallway that led to the stairs. The sounds were unmistakable: positions were being shifted, arsenals were being readied. Lights suddenly filled the area outside the door. The cavalry was here.

"Luke!"

One voice broke through the others, took the lead, demanded a response.

Hutch.

A mixture of relief and fear flooded Starsky. The Baretta at his side lowered. The gun behind his ear didn't move.

"Hutch!" Luke responded.

Starsky kept silent.

"Get those lights off!"

The lights remained on. "Damn it, Luke, what's going on?" Hutch demanded again. "Starsky! You there?"

"Answer him," Luke whispered.

Starsky swallowed, searching for his voice. "Down here," he managed. And rather steadily, he thought.

"You okay?" came the disembodied question.

Starsky thought a moment. "Somebody could get me an aspirin." A weak joke, but telling. Hutch would understand the implications.

"Come up and get it yourself," Hutch answered.

"Bring it down to him," Luke interrupted the conversation. "And get those lights off. You want him, Hutch, you come down here and get him. Alone."

Starsky said it without thinking. "Don't!"

Yet another mistake. A second blow to his kidneys. Starsky gasped aloud, his knees buckling, doubling over as far as the cuffs would allow. A hand grabbed his hair and forced him back to an upright position, the gun once again against his temple.

"Now, Hutch. Down here. Alone. Or your partner's dead. And take care of those goddamn lights!"

Starsky held his tongue, although the pain at least deserved some audible recognition. But nothing he said now would keep Hutch from entering the basement. So he might as well avoid the physical rebukes, and start looking for other avenues of escape.

He went back over Luke's and his previous conversation. What was it Starsky was going to have to trust Hutch to do, and the maniac thought Hutch wouldn't?

More voices from outside. More shuffling. Alternatives were being discussed, decisions were being made. Starsky knew what the decision would be, and who would make it.

The lights went off. Someone was just outside the door. A grey-black bulk edged onto the stair landing.

"Step inside and close the door," Luke ordered.

"And what do I get in return?" Hutch asked.

"Five more minutes in the life of your partner," came the response.

No one moved. Slowly, Hutch stepped fully inside and shut the door behind him. He didn't close it all the way, but Luke didn't seem concerned by that. Luke fumbled at his belt. Starsky glanced over, and thought he saw Luke exchange the Baretta for the flashlight.

Luke switched on the flashlight, aiming it at Hutch. Hutch blinked as the light caught his eyes, bringing his hand up protectively. The light swooped down and caught the gun in his hand.

"Get rid of it." Luke spotlighted the Smith & Wesson. "Put the safety on, and toss it by my feet. No funny stuff."

Hutch brought his hand down from his face. He was obviously weighing his options. Luke helped him by bringing the light over to Starsky's face, highlighting the gun against his head. "One bullet in the brain. Vegetable at best, dead at worst. Throw down the gun."

Hutch clicked on the safety in the dark. An object came flying forward, landing just in front of them and skidding to a stop beside Luke's foot.

Luke swung the light back on Hutch, who hadn't moved from his position on the top step. Luke shifted his weight and shoved the gun back toward the wall with his foot. Starsky tried to track it by sound, but it could have ended up anywhere behind them. That left Luke with one Baretta in his belt, and one Magnum in Starsky's ear. And whatever else Hutch might have. Tough odds.

It was beginning to look like Luke was preparing to make Hutch a deal. Starsky's life for Hutch's. Was that what Starsky was supposed to trust, that Hutch would give up his life for his partner's?

"Move down to the bottom of the stairs," Luke directed. He kept the yellow circle of light on Hutch's face as Hutch stepped slowly down to the floor.

"What's going on here, Luke?" Hutch kept his voice level and steady. He held out his hands, more of an indication of his lack of weapons than a gesture of supplication. "Let's talk about this. Let's talk about what you're doing." Hutch was still dressed in his navy suit, his tie long abandoned, his shirt half out of his pants. Starsky could see no marks of violence, but the light was dim. Somehow Luke had kept Hutch in that bathroom. Probably the same way he'd disabled Starsky. A hard punch here, a swift kick there, a threatening weapon, and one set of handcuffs.

"Nothing to talk about, kid." Luke suddenly tossed the flashlight at Hutch. Hutch barely caught it, fumbling the metal tube before he got a good hold on it. "That's yours. You're going to need it."

Hutch directed the light on the two men in front of him. Starsky stayed still and tried to connect with Hutch's eyes, aiming for a "don't worry about me" expression. Hutch studied Starsky's face, was apparently satisfied with what he found, then moved the full circle of light to Luke.

"Starsky here's already heard this, but it's your turn now." Luke kept the gun flush against Starsky's skin. "You killed Doris."

Hutch kept the light steady. "Luke, what Doris did, she did on her own. I'm sorry, and I wish I could have done something to help her. But it's no one's fault. No one's to blame."

Luke sighed. "No. You're wrong. I could've saved her. But because of you, I wasn't there." The gun against Starsky's head pulled away a fraction of an inch. "Now you have to finish everything you set in motion."

Without warning, Luke grabbed the Baretta from his belt. The guns suddenly switched hands, and the Baretta was against Starsky's skull while the Magnum was aimed at Hutch. Hutch had time only to take a step forward before the Magnum stopped him.

  "So this is the deal, Hutch." Luke hefted the Magnum in his hand, clicked on the safety, then let the muzzle drop toward the floor. "This is yours." He pitched the Magnum at Hutch.

Hutch caught the Magnum against his chest, and the light from the torch went swinging toward the ceiling. Starsky stared at Hutch with amazement, as Hutch steadied the light and brought the gun into position, safety off.

"Before you make a move," Luke sounded incredibly cool and calm, "I'd better tell you what that's for." Still the Baretta punched into Starsky's temple.

Hutch took a step forward. "Enough, Luke." Even in the dim light, Starsky could see Hutch's eyes turn to steel. "It's over. Move away from Starsky."

The same insane giggle erupted from Luke. "Better check your chamber, kid. You've got only one round in there."

Hutch's eyes narrowed. He pointed the light at his gun, examined it, then brought it resolutely back up to Luke's face. "One's all I need."

The giggling died away. "I know, kid. That's why I only gave you one." Luke shuffled sideways until he was at arm's length from Starsky, the end of his left arm still holding the gun point blank at Starsky's head. Luke held out his right arm on the other side, his empty hand palm upward. Sort of a crucifixion posture. But definitely out of Starsky's kicking reach now.

"One shot, kid." Luke nodded his head. "One shot for me."

Hutch's eyes went wide and the Magnum dipped ever so slightly. Starsky's thoughts finally coalesced, and he understood where the whole thing was headed. Every ache and pain in his body was blotted out by the nausea in his stomach. It wasn't to be Hutch's life for Starsky's. That had never been Luke's intent.

"One shot for me, from your gun--" Luke continued, "--or multiple shots for him from his gun. It's that simple."

Hutch took another step forward. "Luke--"

"Ah, ah, ah," Luke brought his free hand forward and waggled his index finger at Hutch. "I told you, you're responsible for this, and you have to finish it. Now: You have ten seconds, when I begin counting, to use your marksmanship and put that bullet where I told you. If you don't, then I'm going to put whatever's left in this baby here in my hand in your partner's head." Luke paused. "And then you can know what if feels like to lose your best friend."

Again, Hutch tried to speak. "Luke--"

The finger turned into a fist, and Luke shook it at Hutch. "That's the deal, Hutch. You're going to have to take me out to keep me from wasting your partner. And just let me remind you, in case it's slipped your mind, you'd better shoot to kill and not wound or I'm liable to take Starsky out even with a bullet in my body."

Starsky's heart thudded in his chest. "Hutch--"

"Ten." Luke began the countdown.

Hutch stepped forward hesitantly.

"Nine." Luke pushed the gun a little harder into Starsky's flesh. "Take another step and I'll blow him away anyway."

Hutch brought the gun up in direct line with Luke's head. Even with one hand, Starsky knew Hutch could put the shot exactly where he wanted. But he also knew Hutch didn't want to. That conflict might...could...

And that was the trust Luke had taunted him with. Would Hutch pull the trigger in time to save Starsky, or would he wait just a fraction of a second too long in an attempt to save both of them?

"Luke, don't do this." An edge of desperation had crept into Hutch's voice.

Starsky felt the sweat trail into his collar, his own desperation and fear threatening to overwhelm him. The real stalemate wasn't between Hutch and Huntley. It was between Hutch's need to keep his partner alive and Hutch's desire to also keep Luke alive.

And, God help him, Starsky wasn't sure Hutch could make the choice in time.

"Eight." Luke continued the countdown. "Seven. Six. Five."

"No," Hutch breathed. "This is not the answer. Let me help you, Luke. Talk to me. We can work this out."

"Four." Luke spoke to Starsky without taking his eyes from Hutch. "What do you think, partner? Can we trust Hutch?"

Starsky could no longer swallow against the pressure of his necktie. He could barely think past the pounding in his head and chest. But he knew this much: There was no way on earth he would let Luke force Hutch into spending eternity holding himself responsible for Starsky's death. And dammit, he was afraid for his life, too! Someone had to do something.

The decision had to be made, and kept.

Now.

"Three. Two." Luke was incredibly, remarkably, insanely calm.

Starsky saw Hutch brace himself, and Starsky did likewise. He shut his eyes. Hutch would never forgive himself this if Starsky didn't act. He acted.

Starsky said it before Luke got out the last syllable.

There was no time for a last syllable from Luke, because Hutch reacted just as Starsky knew he would. One blast echoed in the sub-basement, one body went flying backward into the dark, and one gun dropped from Starsky's head and bounced onto the concrete floor. The Magnum fell from Hutch's hand.

"Hutchinson!" Someone from outside called for some kind of confirmation.

It was Starsky who answered. "It's all over." He wasn't sure how far his voice had carried. It sounded very weak to his own ears. "Someone better get down her and clean up the mess." And then he was suddenly filled with self-loathing and revulsion. It turned his stomach.

He'd saved his own life, unable to trust in Hutch.

Hutch moved at the sound of Starsky's voice. The flashlight captured Starsky, then moved down to Luke. Hutch approached Luke carefully. He ran the light along the length of the body, kicking a leg for a reaction, making a quick search for any other weapons. 

"Key."

The word made no sound. Starsky swallowed, and cleared his throat. "Key," he managed to voice.

Hutch rose, moved silently to Starsky, dipped into Starsky's pocket for the key, and freed him. Starsky fell gratefully into Hutch's arms as the amassed police forces filled the small room. He let Hutch hold him up and steady him as he ripped the necktie from his collar and flung it to the floor.

* * * * *

God, how Starsky hated these evenings. The evenings (or mornings or afternoons) after, when strength was gone and emotions ran rampant and words were meaningless bromides. Hot showers never washed away enough of the blood. Strong drinks never dulled enough of the pain. Drugged sleeps never killed enough of the memories. And here they were, facing another one, another evening of recriminations and apologies.

Starsky sat on Hutch's sofa, wrapped in a bathrobe that had long since become his, picking at the bandage around his left wrist. It had been a good half-hour after his release before he'd realized how badly he'd cut into his wrist with the cuffs. But it had been a good excuse to pull Hutch from the controlled chaos of the ensuing investigation and get away from the crowded surroundings. And had given him a pain other than his self-doubt to concentrate on.

Trips to Emergency weren't good for much, but they did remove you from the immediate scene of the crime. And the damage? One bruised kidney (watch it), one lacerated wrist (keep it clean), and a few miscellaneous contusions (stop touching them). For Hutch, a cut on his scalp (no stitches), and bruised wrists (Hutch never touched his bruises). And then it had been down to Headquarters for the inevitable questionings, reports, and interviews.

Hutch hadn't spoken since they'd left Metro. Brooding, grieving, stewing, lamenting; Starsky hadn't felt up to piercing Hutch's self-made armor and figuring out which emotional quicksand Hutch had chosen to wallow in. And he really didn't want Hutch asking him for any explanations in return. So they'd fallen into a familiar routine: One showered while the other raided the kitchen, the second showered while the first collected the laundry; both ate or drank whatever they had the stomach for. But the routine was no longer a comfort to Starsky. It hadn't been for a while now, and especially not tonight. He wanted to shout and run away from any possible accusations. To find a batting cage and unwrap a few fast-pitch balls. To find a high school track and run himself into the ground. To hurl Hutch against a wall and knock the melancholy out of him. Instead, he sat silently, and picked at the gauze wrapping wound 'round his wrist.

"What am I thinking?"

Starsky looked up, startled, taken aback at the strange question. Hutch sat on the piano bench across from him, shoulders drooping, hands limp between his legs, eyes fixed resolutely on him.

"What am I thinking?" Hutch asked again.

Starsky let go of his bandaged wrist. He shrugged, frowned, then shook his head. "I give up. What?"

"No." Hutch shook his head. The response wasn't what Hutch wanted. "You must have some idea. What am I thinking right now?"

Starsky blinked in confusion. This was definitely not part of their after-crisis routine. "Huntley?" he guessed.

"Wrong. Guess again." Hutch sat up straighter.

Starsky puzzled over Hutch's unusual behavior. This was just plain weird. "Doris?"

Hutch folded his arms across his chest. "Wrong again. One more try."

Starsky started to speak, stopped, knitted his brows and stared at Hutch. "Why're we playin' `20 Questions'?"

Hutch remained steadfast. "You've got one more guess. What am I thinking ?"

Starsky shook his head and laughed halfheartedly. "I ain't playin'." This game was becoming a little scary.

Hutch rose and walked over to the table. He stopped, leaned against the edge, and folded his arms again across his chest. "I'll tell you what I'm thinking." Hutch paused for effect. "I'm thinking of you."

Starsky shifted slightly to face Hutch. "Okay." Something more seemed to be required from him. "Uh, how come?"

"Why'd you do it?" Hutch looked like a wax statue. Satin skin and shining hair. Perfectly set muscles. Eyes that never blinked. A chill wrapped around his body to keep him from melting.

Starsky recognized the pose. He was being interrogated. "Why'd I do what?" he asked warily.

Hutch's eyes bored into him. "Why'd you make me do it?"

Starsky shifted uncomfortably. This was precisely the topic Starsky had wanted to avoid. "You would have done it anyway."

"How do you know?" The eyes narrowed, the lips disappeared under the moustache. Hutch's knuckles were turning white where he gripped his arms.

"You had no choice." Starsky stood, deciding to meet force with force. If he took the offensive, he could keep Hutch from digging down too far. Down where Starsky didn't want him. Down into strata that were better left unexplored.

Starsky tightened the belt of his robe. "Huntley had you in a no-win situation. If you hadn't shot him, he would have shot me."

Hutch wasn't listening to Starsky's explanation. Starsky knew he didn't want to. Hutch dropped his arms and pushed the sleeves of his sweatshirt up to his elbows. "I could've--

"No, you couldn't have." Starsky planted his feet firmly and stood his ground, a battle stance if need be.

"You don't know--

"I know exactly." Starsky took the upper hand. He was never quite sure if Hutch wanted to be led to the correct conclusions, or if Hutch truly needed help to get there. Maybe a little of both.

"I know exactly what was going through your mind. `How can I disarm Luke without endangering Starsky?' `How can I get them both out of here alive?' `How can I--'"

"Stop." Hutch shoved himself away from the table and stumbled over to the wooden post. He shut his eyes, grabbed the column, and pressed his forehead against it.

Starsky stayed where he was, merely turning to remain facing Hutch. "Luke wanted to die. And he wanted to hurt you. He arranged everything so he could accomplish both at once." Starsky shoved his hands into the robe's pockets. He relaxed his stance. "He gave you no choice, Hutch. He forced your hand. He put you in a position where you'd have to kill him to keep him from killing me."

Hutch held onto the post, his forehead pushed into the wood, his eyes squeezed tightly shut. Starsky walked up behind him, but didn't touch him.

"I did it to help you." Starsky spoke softly, almost a whisper. "I gave you the excuse you needed to do what you had to do."

Hutch rolled around until he faced Starsky, his head leaning back against the post. He stared at the ceiling.

Starsky closed the minimal distance between them. He grasped Hutch's arms. "I tried to share the decision with you. I made you do what was necessary." Starsky bent his head until it rested on Hutch's chest. "I made you shoot, because I knew if I called out for you to save me you would."

Hutch brought one hand up to Starsky's neck and massaged the tight muscles. "You weren't sure I'd save you?" The words came out slowly, painfully.

Starsky thought before he spoke. He adjusted his head to lay more comfortably on Hutch's shoulder. Hutch continued the massage, bringing both hands up to knead the sore muscles. "Luke meant what he said when he said he'd kill me. I knew you wouldn't let me die, but--" Starsky chose the next words carefully, "--I didn't want you to do it alone."

That was the truth, but not the complete truth. The complete truth encompassed something he didn't even want to think about, much less share with anyone. The complete truth was, he'd been afraid Hutch would take a split-second too long to make the fatal decision. The complete, uncomfortable, horrible truth was Starsky had been afraid Hutch wouldn't shoot Huntley in time. Starsky had been afraid. Starsky had lost his trust. Huntley had accomplished everything he'd set out to do.

He let loose of Hutch's arms and drew his own in, allowing Hutch to cradle him, hiding his shame in Hutch's embrace. Hutch rested his cheek on Starsky's head. "I uncuffed him so he could piss."

Starsky didn't need to hear Hutch's confession, but he accepted it anyway. "You were trying to be kind to a man who had lost everything." Could he ever make his confession to Hutch?

Hutch rubbed Starsky's back gently, evenly, soothingly. Starsky gave in to the relief the strokes brought, knowing they were only temporarily assuaging the distress.

He sighed, still troubled. Another evening of shared comforting almost at an end. Another easing of a partner's pain. 

Another funeral to attend in a couple of days. He'd dress differently for this one.