3

Just one more night

And I'm comin' off this long and winding road.

I'm on my way...

Home sweet home...

The first psycho of the day was a grocery clerk named Clark Hodgeston, an habitual offender who had served time in juvenile hall for robbing and cutting an elderly woman, and then in prison for aggravated assault on his girlfriend with a kitchen knife. The tall young man with greasy brown hair and a furtive expression had an alibi for both murders--he was working, bagging groceries at the front of the store, and at least two check-outs were able to verify his whereabouts on the night of Sandra's murder. The same night, there had been a shoplifting incident at the store near the same time, and Clark along with two of his co-workers chased the man, apprehended him and called the police. They made a note to verify the police report later. Nedloe and Elliot had never questioned him personally, so at least they weren't replicating efforts. The results, however, were not stellar.

The second man on their list had been a vagrant prior to his arrest, and was now listed as living in a rundown tennement in the inner city. He was a portly man in his mid-fifties who had served twenty years in prison for killing his wife, claiming he needed her blood. He was indeed in his apartment, attired in a dirty plaid robe and at least a week's beard growth. The stench of cheap liquor and cigars permeated the air of the stuffy little apartment, and neither detective had any strong desire to linger there. George Miller could neither remember nor account for where he was the nights of the killings, but claimed he had been cured during his prison psychotherapy. In the next sentence, he bragged of learning to overcome his need for human blood and to subsist on the blood of rats and other small animals when necessary. Given his labored breathing and devotion to his booze bottle, neither considered him a likely option as the killer. He also claimed not to own a car, which would have made a trip to the other side of town very difficult for someone in his obviously inferior health. He was a possible, of course, but not a likely. Sandra would have never let him in the house.

Duane Lasher was a tall, attractive man with striking dark hair and dark eyes. He had gotten a little rough with a woman he met at a party a few years back, and had threatened her with a knife, claiming he had cut other women before who said "no'' to him. There was never any proof to back up those statements, so he had served time for that assault and nothing more. He was currently employed as a financial consultant, and found the visit from the police to his office very uncomfortable. He provided easily verifiable information from his day planner for the detectives to check regarding his whereabouts the nights of the murders. Defeated and frustrated, Starsky and Hutch left the attractively appointed office suite and returned to the car.

"Dobey's not gonna let us work on this case.'' Hutch sounded defeated. "Even if we bust our humps and get all this information together, he's still going to say we're emotionally involved and leave it to Nedloe and Elliot.''

"They haven't come up with anything so far.''

"I'm telling you--he won't let us have it.'' Hutch shook his head and stared out the open widow of the Torino.

"Hey, don't get so down yet. First of all, we aren't done investigatin' on our own, and second, since when have we let a little thing like departmental procedure slow us down, huh?''

"Can't argue with that logic,'' Hutch replied, snickering a little.

The Pits was doing its usual lively lunch business when the two detectives arrived. Huggy was mingling as he usually did, and wended his way over to join his friends.

"Is this official business?'' Huggy quipped. "I've seen happier faces in front of a firing squad.'' Huggy pulled up a chair.

"We're doing some off-the-record investigating into Sandra's death, Hug,'' Starsky explained.

"There's another young woman who was killed the same way a month earlier.'' Hutch let the implication of a serial killer dangle.

"Any hot leads?''

"Well, we were kinda hopin' you might do a little poking around for us, Hug,'' Starsky replied. "We're looking for a nut who likes to cut ladies.''

"I'll see what I can find out. But that ain't exactly the kind of thing folks are real up front about, you know.''

"Anything'll help at this point.'' Starsky slumped back in the seat. "Hutch is right about one thing--we won't get assigned to this case officially, because we'd be considered 'emotionally involved'. So whatever you can come up with before we go back to work would be great.''

"Consider it done. You keep the faith, Hutch, my man. We'll find this creep one way or another.'' Huggy rose from his chair and headed back for the bar.

Starsky drained his Coke and motioned to the waitress to bring another.

"Wonder how long before Dobey figures out what we're doing.'' Hutch pushed his salad around on the plate.

"Will you stop moving that and eat something? I know you're probably not hungry, but you haven't been eating hardly anything since...since Sandra.'' Starsky had been unnerved by Hutch's appearance since Sandra's death. He was pale and definitely showing a significant weight loss now. He ate, but only small amounts, and often sent most of the food back on his plate. The trip to the cabin had revived him somewhat, and he was investigating the case and moving on, but it was obvious his grief process was far from finished having its way with him.

"I don't want it.'' He pushed the plate forward and leaned back in the booth. "It's just this...''

"Pain somewhere between your chest and your stomach that never goes away?'' Starsky smiled knowingly as he finished the sentence. "And it moves up into your throat when you pick up the fork.''

"Yeah. Exactly.''

"I know, buddy. But you're losin' weight, and you shouldn't lose more. The last thing Sandra would want is to see you make yourself sick.''

"You're right. But I still don't want it.'' Hutch rubbed the length of his face with one smooth gesture of his right hand. Somehow, he looked more haggard when he'd finished. "Don't start mothering me, Starsk. I'm not in the mood for it, okay?'' His tone was friendlier than his words, and Starsky didn't take exception to the admonition.

"Okay, I won't mother you. But you can't make me not care. I'm cooking tonight--something really hard to prepare. That way, if you don't eat it, you'll be hurting my feelings.''

"What is it?''

"Haven't decided yet, but it'll be complicated.'' Starsky smiled at the waitress as she delivered his drink and took their plates. "Hey, Anita, bring us a hot fudge cake with lots of ice cream and two spoons, okay?''

"Starsky, damn it--''

"Ah-ah!'' Starsky cut off the angry protest. "I'm not motherin' you now. You either shut up and eat your half of that dessert or I'll shove your face in it and hold it there until you have vanilla ice cream up both nostrils.''

"Don't make me use my piece on you, partner.'' Hutch's voice was falsely threatening. "Ice cream up the nose, huh?'' He contemplated the mental picture, and the mustache dinstinctly twitched in a prelude to a smile. "How d'you suppose the coroner would list that cause of death?''

"He'd come up with some term like 'nasal frigidity','' Starsky observed, laughing.

"I don't think I want to know what that comment means,'' Anita stated as she placed a monstrosity of chocolate cake, vanilla ice cream, hot fudge and whipped cream between the two men. To Starsky's surprise, Hutch held his own pretty well in digging through the concoction. They had managed to get off on a tangent of pure silliness for awhile, with Hutch's biggest concern being the gluey hot fudge that seemed perpetually attracted to his mustache.

As they pulled into traffic, Hutch mumbled something under his breath.

"What?'' Starsky asked, keeping his eyes on the road.

"I told Sandra's mother I'd stop by. She has a couple of things of Sandra's she thinks I should have.''

"We could swing by there now. We were going to talk to that one caterer--remember, the one Sandra and Madeleine both talked to? It's not too far from the Jerome place.''

"Okay. I guess there's no time like the present.''

"You don't sound too thrilled to go there.'' Starsky stole a glance at Hutch, then returned his attention to the mid-day traffic.

"I guess...seeing them...it's just still kind of, I don't know, loaded, I guess. She looked so much like her mother, and...I don't know. But I still said I'd go, so...''

"So I guess we should go, huh?''

"Yeah. Guess so,'' Hutch responded, lacklustre.

The Jerome house was a sprawling one-floor contemporary structure in an area of similar posh homes. Having made his living as an architect, Stephen Jerome's house was as spectacular as expected. Dramatic intermingling of stone, wood and glass distinguished the home from its attractive, but more conventional, neighbors. The Torino rumbled to a stop near the front entrance on the circular drive. They approached the door, and soon after the bell was rung, Angela Jerome answered it.

"Ken! Oh, hello, David. This a surprise. Come in, both of you.'' She stepped aside as they entered. She was petite like Sandra, with a few streaks of white blending with the blonde hair that was carefully styled in neat curls. Starsky hadn't been in the house before, and he indulged in gawking at the beamed ceilings, dramatic full length windows which opened onto the wooded lot, and the huge fieldstone fireplace in the living room. He was still trying to determine if his presence was a good surprise or a point of irritation for Angela, but he chose the former interpretation and put on his best guest's smile.

"This is a beautiful house,'' he finally said, as she led them to have seats on the couch near the fireplace. She occupied an overstuffed chair nearby.

"Thank you. Stephen designed it all himself. Ken, I've been going through her things, from the apartment, and I have a few things set aside I thought you might like.''

"That was very thoughtful of you, Angela.'' Hutch eyed the small carton with the flaps not taped down, that was neatly marked "Ken''.

"I finally got up the courage to really look through them all...most of them weren't items that would have interested you--they were old yearbooks, her clothes... Anyway, I put these things aside.'' She seemed at a loss for what to say next. "Ken, has anything happened with the case? I speak with Mrs. Nolan on the phone all the time, and I know how very frustrated they are...it's been a long time since Madeleine's death...and now, time is passing after Sandra, and before this lunatic kills again--''

"We're doing everything we can,'' Starsky spoke up. "This isn't really our case, officially. We're working it with Detectives Nedloe and Elliot--you've probably talked to them already.''

"They came by, asked a whole list of standard questions...'' Angela sighed. "It all seems so hopeless.''

"I know. Most investigations do at the outset,'' Hutch responded, not telling her he felt just as hopeless and blue about it as she did.

"Did Sandra have any enemies--angry old boyfriends, anything at all?'' Starsky asked. He felt Hutch's icy glare. Turning to meet his partner's eyes, he hastened to explain, "I just thought there might have been someone that she didn't think it was important to mention--something that was over and done with in the past. Is there anything you didn't happen to tell Nedloe and Elliot?'' Starsky hoped maybe Sandra's fiancé and his partner might have better luck uncovering any personal information that could generate a lead.

"Not that I know of. Sandra had a few other boyfriends, but she was a nice girl. She didn't run around a lot, and we knew all the young men she was dating.''

"Did she ever mention anyone harassing her? Someone she didn't like or wasn't comfortable with who kept calling or trying to keep in touch?'' Starsky persisted.

"Nothing like that.''

"We'll be in touch.'' Hutch stood up, unable to listen to the familiar inflections in Angela's voice, to analyze that he was seeing what Sandra would have looked like if they'd been allowed to begin growing older together. "We're going to follow up a few more leads, and if anything develops at all, I promise we'll be in touch. Thanks again for getting this stuff together.'' He picked up the small carton and walked toward the door, with Starsky and Angela close behind him.

"How are you doing, dear? You look...tired.''

"It's not easy. Sandra was...I loved her more than I...more than I thought I could. And losing Elizabeth...'' As Hutch was shaking his head slowly, he noted her blank expression. "The baby,'' he clarified. He hated how everyone called her "the baby'', and had been lulled into the immense respect for her memory his partner always showed in discussing her by what would have been her given name instead.

"It meant the world to me that she would be named after my mother.''

"Of course, if it was a boy, she was going to let me choose. David Michael--after this guy over here.'' Hutch smiled genuinely for the first time during their visit, and Starsky felt himself blushing a little at the attention.

"Sandra said you two were more like brothers than partners,'' she said with a slight smile, though Starsky could imagine she thought "Stephen'' would have been a more appropriate choice for their grandson.

"We better get going. How are you two holding up?'' Hutch asked as they were moving toward the front door.

"We have our good days and our bad days. Knowing you two are going to follow this up personally helps.'' She paused, and shook her head slowly. "Good heavens, this is a nightmare.''

"I wish it were. That would mean we could wake up.'' Hutch didn't seem able to say more as he moved quickly through the door and headed for the car.

"I didn't mean to upset him--''

"It's okay, Mrs. Jerome. He just really loved your daughter and granddaughter a lot. We'll be in touch.'' Starsky took his leave and went to join his partner in the Torino. Hutch was looking out the passenger window, keeping his face decidedly out of Starsky's view. "Hey, babe, it's okay.'' He rested his hand on Hutch's shoulder. "Talking about her has to be painful--''

"I don't want...to talk about it right now, Starsk.'' There was a shaky intake of breath. "The baby. Goddammit, she had a name! My daughter--their granddaughter.''

"Hutch, I'm sure she feels bad about--''

"Don't try to make me feel better, okay? Just drop it.''

"Okay.'' Starsky was quiet a minute. "Wanna go level with Dobey? Maybe we can get officially assigned with Nedloe and Elliot.'' He left his hand on Hutch's shoulder, despite his warning not to attempt any kind of comfort.

"I want that son of a bitch, whoever or whatever the hell he is. I want to kill him.'' The voice was low and controlled, but slightly shaky.

"I know, buddy. We'll get him. But we'll hand him over to the courts--''

"So they can put him in a funny farm and then turn him loose again.''

"Hutch, we can't just--''

"I wouldn't think I'd have to tell you, of all people, about psychos getting out of looney bins.''

"No, you don't,'' Starsky replied quietly, removing his hand from Hutch's shoulder.''

"I was so damned worried you were going to shoot Prudholm that day at the old zoo...but you didn't. You did what was right and look where it got you...where it got Terry.'' Hutch was still fuming, letting the statement hang in the air like a vapor. Starsky was silent. He started the car and pulled out of the driveway onto the road without a word. As his anger cooled, Hutch realized what he had said, and how it had sounded. "Dear God, Starsk, I didn't mean--''

"Don't. Just let it lie.'' Starsky's voice was low and even.

"I didn't mean that--''

"Damn it!'' Starsky pulled over to the curb sharply and slammed on the brakes. "I said drop it, Hutchinson, and that's what I meant. I don't want to bring Terry and Prudholm into this. I...can't.'' He got out of the car and stalked off down the sidewalk.

"Starsky!'' Hutch took the keys out of the ignition and followed his partner, catching up to him relatively easily in a couple of long-legged trots. "Come on, buddy, you know I didn't mean you did anything wrong. You tried to do what was right and-''

"It got Terry killed. I heard you the first time.''

"Starsky, please, I--''

"Look, I have to live in that private hell every day of my life.'' He stopped dead in his tracks and faced Hutch. "You aren't tellin' me anything that isn't part of every night I go to bed and every morning I get up. Terry's death is firmly on my conscience, and it ain't never gonna leave it. If I had shot that bastard when I had the chance, she'd be alive. Hell, we'd probably be married with kids by now.''

"Not if you were doing time for shooting an unarmed man.''

"Oh, right. You're going to stand there and tell me you'd have testified against me to get me sent up.'' He watched Hutch, who lowered his eyes and shook his head slowly.

"No. I know I couldn't have done that.'' Hutch looked up. "Your role in Terry's death was an innocent one, babe. If you had shot Prudholm in cold blood that day, there wouldn't've been a damned thing innocent about it. It would have been murder.''

He watched for a long tense moment while Starsky searched his eyes in that penetrating manner he had, as if he were determining whether or not he should trust what he was being told. Hutch filled in the silent void. "I just meant that you did everything right, and put your faith in the system, and the system let you and Terry...and even Prudholm...down. He was a lunatic, needed psychiatric treatment, wasn't rational--and they let him out to do more damage. That wasn't fair to anyone. It was a damned stinking tragedy.'' Hutch looked away and started strolling forward himself, and Starsky fell into step next to him. "I don't know if I can do what's right here. I don't know if I can get past this without...ripping him apart.''

"You arrested Gunther and brought him in without a mark on him. You told me you never wanted to kill anyone more in your life. I know this is different, and Sandra meant more to you, but--''

"Hold it. Meant more to me than what?'' Hutch stopped now, and Starsky looked at him, slightly puzzled. Starsky hadn't made the statement hastily or angrily. His tone had been calm and matter-of-fact.

"She was gonna be your wife, have your kid. It makes sense that it would mean more to you if someone killed her than if someone killed me.''

"You listen to me.'' Hutch grabbed him by the shoulders. "Nobody means more to me than you do. You got that?'' It was a draw who looked more surprised at Hutch's outburst. "I just mean that...well, you're right. If I could bring that son of a bitch in and not slit his fucking throat with one of his fancy letter openers, I can handle this one too.'' Hutch smiled a little uneasily and let go of Starsky.

"That's the spirit,'' Starsky responded, smiling back at his partner.

"I'm sorry. I'm acting like an ass.''

"Yeah, but that's okay. I'm used to it.'' Starsky flopped an arm over Hutch's shoulders and pulled him along as he walked in the direction of the car.

"Oh is that so?'' Hutch asked, indignant.

"It's for sale!!'' Starsky stopped dead in his tracks in front of a large, paint-thirsty Victorian-era house.

"So?'' Hutch's heart froze at the implication of his partner's excitement. He recalled the ill-fated money pit that had been Starsky's first--last--and only property purchase.

"Look at it! I love this house, Hutch! I've always kinda thought it was neat, but I never thought it'd be for sale. Come on.'' He hurried up the six cement steps that led from the main sidewalk to the sidewalk stretching to the front porch of the house.

"Starsky, be careful. You'll probably fall through that old porch.''

"Oh for pete's sake. It just needs some paint and--'' As he said that, his foot went through the second step, throwing him off balance and dumping him very unceremoniously on his rear end at Hutch's feet.

"I told you to watch your step.''

"Damn. Think I sprained my ankle.''

"Can you move it?'' Hutch crouched next to Starsky, no longer happy to have been right.

"Not right now. Just a second.'' Starsky took a deep breath and managed to move it slightly. "Shit. This is just what we need.''

"First we have to get you off the ground.'' Hutch leaned forward and Starsky put his arm around his partner's neck while Hutch pulled upward. "Think you can make it to the car like this?''

"Yeah, but I want to write down the phone number--''

"Starsky, the porch damn near killed you. Do you want to risk what's on the inside?''

"So the porch is rotted. Doesn't mean the foundation is. Come on, buddy, you got a pen?''

"You're hopeless.'' Hutch dug around in his pockets until he produced a pen. He held the pad in his right hand while Starsky wrote the number with his left, giving them the odd appearance of a pair of mismatched Siamese twins to a passing couple who seemed intrigued by the whole scenario.

"There. Now I can call from home tonight while you're waiting on me.''

"While I'm doing what?'' Hutch teased, knowing perfectly well he would be doing exactly that, along with applying ice packs and generally spoiling Starsky rotten while he flaked out on his couch with his foot propped on a pillow. He began to wonder if Starsky's propensity for twisting that particular ankle had less to do with its weakness and more to do with a plot to extract servitude from him.

 

Starsky did have a mild sprain, with some swelling and bruising, which made Hutch further question his sanity for wanting to inquire about the rat trap where the injury had occurred.

"The realtor said they're real motivated,'' Starsky announced as Hutch finally sunk into a chair himself. After treating the offending ankle with ice packs and treating Starsky with a large pizza and now a dish of rocky road ice cream, he had earned the right to relax awhile.

"Starsk, this price tag is still a little on the high end, isn't it? I mean, even if you made them an offer, could you afford this place--and you know it needs work.''

"I'm sick of pounding my money down a rat hole on rent. I thought this would be an investment.'' He was quiet a minute. "You know the price wouldn't be out of reach if...'' He looked up at Hutch hopefully.

"Oh, no!'' Hutch waved a warning hand in front of him. "Not again.''

"You got your money back.''

"Yeah, but you didn't and I felt guilty and split mine with you. I'm not going in for that again. Besides, we're not handymen. We'd hardly clear a profit by the time we did all the work that mess needs done on it.''

"I wasn't thinkin' of sellin' it again...''

"Hold it. You want us to live there?''

"It's a big house, Hutch. The realtor said there are two staircases and it wouldn't take much to make it a two-unit--you wouldn't even know I was there.''

"Do you have even a vague idea how big the monthly payments would be?''

"Depends on what we put down. Take a look at this.'' Starsky handed him a small pad of paper, the first sheet of which contained a myriad of figures. "That's only $250 more per month than our combined rents.''

"Only?''

"We could afford it.''

"Not and make all the repairs and do all the updating.''

"But I was allowing some cash out for that in the downpayment figures.''

"Starsky, we'd be cleaning ourselves out. Besides, what happens when you get married?''

"I don't know. Haven't done that so far. If it's a two-unit, we could still live there. One side would be big enough for two people and even a kid. It'd be a long time before one of us would have to move.''

"You've got this all mapped out, huh?''

"Can we please just go through the house? If you really hate it, I'll drop it. I promise.''

"You can't go traipsing through houses with your ankle like that,'' Hutch objected, hoping he had saved himself from his partner's real estate plans by virtue of the injury.

"The doctor just told me to take it easy for a few days. For us that just means not running down alleys or jumping fences for a day or two. I can hobble through a house.'' Starsky was beginning to look worn down by his partner's reaction, but he made one last stab. "Please?'' He had found it unusually effective in the past, especially when coupled with the right basset hound eyes.

"All right, we'll go look at it. But I'm not making any promises, Starsky.''

"That's good enough for me.'' Starsky smiled contentedly and reached for the phone to make an appointment.

The next day saw them down at the precinct, two days shy of the end of their vacation, negotiating with Dobey to let them have the case. Predictably, he shook his head immediately. They even tried pleading for working with Nedloe and Elliot officially. The response was unchanged.

"You're too emotionally involved in this, Hutchinson,'' Dobey repeated, becoming irritated at their refusal to take no for an answer.

"Yes, of course I'm emotionally involved. But as Starsky so aptly pointed out to me yesterday, I was pretty emotionally involved with the Gunther case and you didn't pull me off that one. I handled it. I didn't kill the old bastard with my bare hands...appealing as that thought was. I still acted like a cop. That's what I am. And I'll do the same thing on this case.''

"Besides, I'll keep him on a short leash, Cap,'' Starsky spoke up, the ghost of a smile haunting his face. Hutch shot him an admonishing look that silenced any further comments. For a tense few moments, Dobey considered the option of enforcing his decision and pulling his rank, but he could count the times he'd done that to these two on one hand. He finally exhaled loudly, like he usually did, and let them have their way. They would be allowed to work with Nedloe and Elliot.

The morning was spent talking to Sandra's friends who were to be members of her bridal party, several of her co-workers and a few more of the service people she had contacted prior to her death. They were re-doing much of the other team's legwork, but fortunately, both Nedloe and Elliot were mature enough to recognize the value of four heads working an investigation over just two. Further, they acknowledged the possibility that Sandra's friends might confide something to the woman's fiancé they wouldn't tell the police.

Depressed by dwelling on the murder most of the morning, Hutch was in a completely irritable frame of mind by the time they arrived at the house to meet the realtor. Of course, the fact she was a pretty brunette with a bubbly personality only enhanced Starsky's enthusiasm for the project. Hutch's grief was still keeping his enthusiasm for the opposite sex on hold, so even this little diversion did nothing to lighten his spirits.

"I'm Cecile Valentine, New Vista Real Estate.'' She extended a hand first toward Starsky, who shook it, flashing one of his best smiles.

"Dave Starsky. This is my partner, Ken Hutchinson.'' As the two shook hands, Starsky detected a puzzled look in her eyes. "We're detectives,'' he added.

"It's a pleasure to meet you both,'' she responded to Hutch's polite smile and nod. "I'm so sorry about your ankle, Mr. Starsky,'' she began, as she led the way to the side entrance of the house. "As you can see, we've roped off the front porch entrance and put up a warning sign. I had no idea the steps were that unsteady. I've been up and down them a few times since I listed this last month.''

"I'm sure it'll be fine,'' he replied, still smiling. "Call me Dave, Cecile.''

"I'm afraid you'll be seeing the house at a bit of a disadvantage. The front entry is very impressive. We're going in through the kitchen.'' Once she had made contact with the house, key in lock, her bubbly demeanor seemed to dissipate. She was all realtor, concerning herself with the task at hand. "The house was built in 1889. It's one of the older homes on the block, but this is an extremely stable area in terms of property values.'' She opened the door and flipped on a dim light. They were on a large landing, which would allow them to go down a dark staircase into the basement or up three steps into the kitchen. "Again, please bear in mind that you have a much more impressive entry in front.'' She led the way up the three green-carpeted but nearly threadbare steps.

"Obviously needs some decorating,'' Hutch observed, barely missing catching his foot in a large, shredded tear in the carpeting.

"The owner was an elderly man. He just passed away about a year ago. The estate was recently settled, and so the house is on the market. His health was not good in the last several years, so he was not able to make all the improvements the house needed.'' She put up a yellowed window shade over the kitchen sink. In the flood of daylight, one of two observations could be made. Between Starsky and Hutch, both were.

"Nice view of the yard out back,'' Starsky commented, looking out the window. Of course, the overgrown, weed-infested garden which was the centerpiece of an equally neglected lawn left something to be desired as a view.

"Needs a whole new lawn,'' Hutch grumbled, looking over his partner's shoulder. Starsky turned to him with a withering lip curl.

"The price reflects the fact the house needs work. But the elegance is all here. With a little restoration--'' Cecile flipped on another light in a hall that led to the main entry, "this place could be one of the finest homes in the Bay City area.''

Even Hutch couldn't argue that point. If you wanted to embrace this money pit with both arms and your bank account, it could be spectacular. The woodwork was dusty but mostly intact and the open staircase leading to the second floor was nothing short of stunning, rising halfway, then turning to complete the path to the second level. He was trying to picture how one might convert the place into a two-unit without destroying its character.

"We'd want to have it inspected,'' Hutch spoke up finally. Starsky was startled by the statement, since they hadn't even seen the majority of the house.

"That's no problem. Being the house is vacant, you would be free to have any type of inspection done you saw fit, provided it didn't damage the property. The living room is really lovely. You'll have to picture it with some cleaning and decorating done, but it is truly beautiful.'' She pushed open a pair of heavy oak French doors off the entry hall to reveal the spacious room, which boasted an ornately carved fireplace with marble mantel, two large windows facing the front of the house, and the airy feeling of 9' ceilings.

"Wow,'' Starsky was taking in all the charm and history of the atmosphere. Hutch was still doing his mental renovation calculations.

"Is it safe to assume that the carpeting and window treatments are pretty much a loss throughout the house?'' he asked.

"Essentially, yes. As I said, this house has been let go to some extent because the owner was an elderly gentleman who couldn't do the repairs, and quite frankly, I don't believe was in a financial situation to undertake major renovations. He died in a rest home last year. The house has been vacant almost three years.'' She was easily able to tell that Starsky was in love with the place, and that Hutch was cautiously admiring of its historic charm but also fatally aware of its flaws. "Mr. Hutchinson, this house is structurally sound--''

"Except for the front porch,'' Hutch interjected.

"I'm talking about the foundation, the walls, the roof. Mr. Oliver, the previous owner, had a new roof put on about eight years ago. The plumbing, heating and wiring systems are old--I'm not going to lie to you about that--but they are all in working order. I have copies of inspectors' reports back at the office, and of course, you are more than welcome to have any of your own inspections done.''

"If this house is such a deal, why is it still sitting here?'' Hutch probed. Starsky was watching them like a tennis spectator, as the conversational ball moved from one to the other.

"The family is anxious to settle the estate. It quite frankly has almost no curb appeal despite the fact it's structurally sound, there is a lot of work to be done, and many people are afraid of old utilities. I own a home in a similar vintage--mine was built in 1896--and I'm still using the original equipment except for the wiring, which I would quite frankly recommend re-doing in this place. I had a short that almost caused a fire in my place a few years back, and then I updated it.''

"Well, let's see the rest of it. How's the ankle, pal?'' Hutch turned to Starsky, who had taken up residence on the edge of a dusty couch while the discussion took place.

"I'd like to see the rest of the house and then get off it. I think it's swelling like crazy.''

"Okay. Let's go to it then.'' Hutch followed Cecile, and Starsky followed him. The rest of the first floor, in addition to the living room and kitchen, boasted a formal dining room, study, bathroom and bedroom. The bathrooms, thankfully, had been updated in the 50's. They weren't necessarily the latest in fashion, but the fixtures were sufficient.

The second floor offered four bedrooms, another bathroom and a library. There was an attic above that, which Starsky reluctantly passed on visiting to favor his ankle while Hutch and Cecile made the upward trek. He was satisfied he at least didn't have to be continuously defensive of his dream house. Hutch was nit-picking, but he wasn't knifing the idea.

"You've been in policework a long time?'' Cecile asked conversationally as they mounted the steps.

"Seems like forever, sometimes.''

"You and your partner have been detectives for most of that?''

"Most of it. We met in the academy,'' Hutch said, smiling slightly.

"This house was his idea, right?'' She pulled the cord on the overhead light.

"He spotted it. We've considered investing in something off and on. We're just looking for the right one.''

"Well, what you see is what you get,'' she announced, smiling a little. "The family is selling the place as is. Everything that's still in the house, stays. I suppose if you want it hauled away, however, we could negotiate something to that effect.''

"Looks like lots of personal stuff here.'' Hutch crouched by a string-bound stack of letters which sat on the top of a hope chest. "They're just leaving this stuff here?''

"I was tempted to burn those when I listed the house. It doesn't seem right.'' She seemed to have forgotten herself and her professional demeanor for just a moment as she spoke ill of her client, the seller. She recovered quickly. "I think this attic could be finished into a lovely living space. Your partner said you might want to convert this to a two-unit?''

"Well, we've never really considered being 'roomies' before, and we both like our privacy.''

"Oh, but it would still be just the two of you here?''

"One in each side,'' he retorted, smiling slightly, though puzzled why she was so interested in their living arrangements. He walked toward the dormer window, noting the slope of the ceiling above, which consisted mostly of aged rafters. There was a panoramic view of the neighborhood, and Cecile was right about what a pleasant and unique living space this could be. Starsky had happily stated on the way over to the house that if they converted it, he'd let Hutch have his choice of units. This complicated things. Initially, the lower unit with the large back porch that just cried out to be converted into a greenhouse would have won. This attic room, though...there was something peaceful about it that made it seem like the perfect retreat from everything.

"Since the lower unit would have most of the big rooms, this might offer a chance at some spaciousness for whichever of you chooses the upper unit.''

"I was just thinking about that.'' Hutch wandered back toward the center of the room where Cecile stood. "My partner and I have to do some figuring. I can tell you right now we wouldn't be paying the full asking price.''

"I'm sure the owner would consider any offers, but you must understand that this is a very grand old home, and even though it needs a considerable amount of work, the potential is worth a great deal. It truly is a fine investment. Your partner has a good eye.''

"He must be improving, then.'' Hutch laughed to himself at the thought of their last real estate venture.

"I beg your pardon?''

"Oh, nothing. Just an old running joke between us,'' he explained lightly.

"Hey! You two still alive up there?'' Starsky was calling from the foot of the stairs, obviously tired of being left out of the action for so long.

"We're on our way down,'' Hutch replied, waiting as Cecile began her descent of the stairs ahead of him.

"What was it like?'' Starsky asked immediately as Hutch emerged from the door that led the the steps.

"Like Cecile said, it has real potential for finishing. There sure is a lot of personal junk in this place. They're leaving everything. I guess in terms of furniture, that's a good thing.''

"All this stuff stays?'' Starsky looked positively elated, and Hutch elbowed him in the ribs when Cecile wasn't looking. No point in letting them know that leaving their garbage was a selling point, Hutch thought to himself.

"I told Cecile we'd have to do some figuring,'' Hutch explained as they headed downstairs, Starsky bringing up the rear as he hobbled along on his bad ankle.

"We haven't seen the basement yet, gentlemen. It's right this way.'' She led the way through the kitchen, and Starsky signed off again to wait at the table. He landed in a chair quickly and winced as he flexed his ankle.

"Gettin' pretty bad, huh?'' Hutch squatted by his partner's feet and lifted the edge of the pantleg slightly. It was obvious that if they were to remove the shoe at that moment, it would never go back on again.

"I think I overdid it a little.'' He tried to smile at Cecile, but Hutch's probing of the injury didn't improve his outlook. "Don't start moving it around! The doctor already did that and it hurt like hell.''

"I don't suppose you put the elastic bandage on it this morning.'' Hutch straightened up, having been admonished from further examining the ankle.

"Makes it feel worse,'' Starsky retorted defensively.

"I'll go take a quick look at the basement and then we'll get you home.'' Hutch didn't wait for a reply, but instead followed Cecile down the narrow steps to the basement.

It was an unremarkable old basement, but from all preliminary checking, the foundation appeared sound and the basement dry. There was another myriad of junk accumulated there, but a couple truckloads to the local Salvation Army would probably take care of that. At a loss for anything sparkling to say except to point out the dryness, Cecile was rather quiet and their investigation of the basement, short.

Standing near their parked cars, the trio faced the house as they talked, agreeing that the two men would go home and do some figuring and get back to her by the next day.

"You want to get some take-outs?'' Hutch asked as he drove the Torino toward Starsky's apartment. The other had gladly relinquished the exertion of foot pedals on his swelling joint.

"Mexican.''

"Italian,'' Hutch countered.

"Nah--that means you'll order some rabbit food over noodles for me. I want some real Italian--spaghetti with meatballs or lasagna--''

"How about burgers?'' Hutch pulled into the parking lot of a McDonald's Restaurant. "What do you want?''

"That house.''

"Starsk, come on. We haven't even put a pen to paper yet to see how the numbers work out. Now what do you want to eat?''

"I want that house, Hutch. More'n I've ever wanted anything before. Come on, you know we could swing it.''

"I know no such thing until I do some figuring. Now what do you want?''

"Nothing.'' Starsky crossed his arms over his chest, and his face bore a distinct frown. His partner was not impressed.

"Don't pout, Starsky. You're acting like a five-year-old about this. It's not like buying a new skateboard. For God's sake, it's thousands and thousands of dollars--a major investment. Now either tell me what you want or you can go hungry!''

"Didn't you like it? You haven't said anything since we left. I mean that big staircase and all that woodwork and that big yard out back and--''

"It isn't that simple. There's a lot to consider. We have to do some figuring when we get home. Now for the last time, what do you want?''

"A Big Mac and fries and a strawberry shake. And one of those little pies, and a Coke. Oh--and--''

"Starsk, I've only got two hands. You've only got one stomach. Be reasonable.'' Hutch got out of the car and headed up toward the restaurant, leaving his partner with yet something else to pout over until he returned.

Upon arriving home, Hutch carefully assisted with the uncomfortable task of freeing Starsky's foot from its shoe. After wrapping it up in ice packs and propping it on a pillow, Hutch again served his partner dinner in the living room. They ate in relative silence until Hutch finished his meal and went to the desk to find a couple of note pads, pencils and a calculator. What ensued was a chaos of numbers, figures, and flying notepad pages.

Hutch called a friend who was in the construction business, and finally convinced him to at least give them a ball park idea of what a new front porch and the conversion to a two-unit would involve on a house that size. The man wouldn't commit to anything without seeing it, but the range of figures he quoted left Hutch reeling a little. The conversion to a duplex would have been easy if the upstairs hall had not been partially open, overlooking the entry hall. Closing that up without destroying the staircase altogether was going to be tricky at best, prohibitively expensive at worst. The utility bill figures the realtor provided added to their angst, since that tacked yet more onto the top of the monthly expenses. They could put more down than Starsky originally figured, but the renovations would cost more than they planned, so those funds, and then some, would be needed.

"Starsk, I just don't see it.'' Hutch tossed the pencil and paper on the coffee table and leaned back in his chair. "Between the regular monthly bills we have to pay and the cost of putting that place in shape...''

"We can scratch the satellite dish idea, and if I take the upstairs, we don't have to close it off. You could still lock your French doors and the door to the kitchen and you'd be private. I'm not worried whether or not you can see into my hallway, for cryin' out loud.''

"I suppose we don't need to make quite so many permanent structural changes, huh?'' Hutch looked back at the figures. Suddenly, spending thousands of dollars to make sure Starsky had to knock before entering his living space seemed absurd. A little mutual respect and common courtesy would take care of that.

"I can clean out the garden and the shrubs and stuff myself and plant new things. We can scratch the landscaping, Hutch. I know we need a professional to put in the new lawn, but we could do some of the other yard work. And if we made do with their furniture--''

"I still think we need to get the wiring taken care of, and I'm not convinced we should scrap our idea of putting in a new furnace. Besides, we won't have any air conditioning in that place all summer if we rely on the old one. Normally, that's okay. If we get another heat wave like last year--over 100 for about three weeks?''

"If we do the wiring and the furnace but skip the two-unit thing and the landscaper, how're we doin'?'' Starsky straightened from his slumped position on the couch as Hutch picked up his pad and pencil again and began figuring.

"If we don't try to do all the redecorating up front, and we do most of that work ourselves...'' Hutch did more diligent figuring. He looked up at Starsky. "Now don't get all riled up, but if they'll accept our lowest offer, I think we could swing it.''

"They're gonna take it. I just know it, Hutch. I'm tellin' ya, it's meant to be.''

"I just don't want you to get your hopes up. They might counter, and if they do, we can't meet their price.''

"I'm gonna call Cecile.'' Starsky reached for the phone.

"I think morning is time enough.''

"It's only nine. Don't ya think she'd be willing to write it up tonight? I mean, if somebody else got that house...''

"Okay,'' Hutch responded with a chuckle. No one else had wanted it in the last few months, but lest he live out the rest of his days with Starsky blaming him for the loss of his dream house, Hutch relented.

Cecile was only too happy to stop in and draw up the purchase agreement and accept their deposit. She felt confident she could reach the spokesman for the family that night to notify him there was a purchase agreement, and she promised to get them an answer as soon as possible.

 

 

"Sometimes I amaze myself,'' Starsky commented, sliding behind the wheel of the Torino, juggling an order of Mexican take-outs. The tall, darkly beautiful girl behind the counter had definitely liked what she had seen when Starsky walked in, and he had used his usual charm on her, which, given her age, was sufficient to cultivate her blossoming interest in him.

"Yeah, me too.'' Hutch rolled his eyes, lending a negative connotation to his agreement. "She's all of what, 18?''

"You're just jealous,'' Starsky retorted, gunning the engine. "Cecile was sure checkin' you out yesterday.''

"Oh, don't be ridiculous. She was trying to sell us that rattletrap--''

"Hutch, don't start. That's our house.''

"Not yet it isn't.'' Hutch felt a certain relief in that situation.

"It will be.''

Starsky pulled up in front of police headquarters, claiming a prime parking spot just ahead of another pair of arriving detectives who honked at him. Jim Nedloe hung out the window and the two exchanged crude hand gestures back and forth, the other pair laughing as they rounded the corner for a less appealing spot. Jim and Starsky had an ongoing joke about the parking arrangements ever since Starsky, driving a loaner from Merl while the Torino was in the shop, had pulled a few slippery traffic maneuvers to get a front spot away from Nedloe and Elliot. In a hurry to make a meeting with Dobey, he hadn't noticed he was undercutting fellow detectives for the spot. The two men had exchanged honked horns, and a couple of oaths out open windows before they got a good look at each other. Neither ever let the other live it down. Hutch and Elliot remained amused spectators.

"One of these days, Jim's going to front-end you trying to get this spot.''

"Not the second time,'' Starsky replied, still smiling.

The two were still joking around about Cecile, Hutch thoroughly unconvinced that there was any truth to the notion she had been checking him out in anything but a professional capacity, when they arrived in the squad room. Hutch plunked down at his desk and the smile on his face slowly faded as he spotted a new addition to his desktop. A small ceramic bride and groom looked back at him from the spot where they stood next to his pencil cup. Starsky was pouring coffee, but when he turned, he noticed Hutch's fixation on the object.

"Hutch? What is it?'' He didn't see what it was his partner was fixated on, only that the other was frozen in space by the sight of it.

"Where the hell did that come from?'' he asked, as if Starsky should know. "What?'' Starsky hurried around the desk and spied the little statue he couldn't see from the other side. "What the--?'' He scanned the room. Hutch slid his chair back suddenly and strode quickly through the room and out the doors. "Okay, who's the wise-ass?'' Starsky demanded angrily. The others stared up at him, seeming startled. "Come on, whose sick idea of a joke was this?!'' he demanded, his voice rising with his anger. "Answer me, damn it!!''

"What's going on out here?'' Dobey burst out of his office, ruffled by the commotion.

"Take a look on Hutch's desk, Cap'n. I guess there's somebody around this place with a damned perverted sense of humor.''

"My God,'' Dobey said quietly. "Does anyone know anything about this?'' Dobey asked in a more well-modulated tone. All heads shook slowly, and a few negative murmurs accompanied the motions. "Has anyone been in here today--delivery people, visitors--''

"Sure, Cap'n. Just like any other day,'' one detective observed. "The pizza guy was here an hour or so ago, there have been two bookings and somebody came up from the mailroom. And that's just while I've been watching.''

"Starsky, put that damn thing in an evidence bag.''

"Right.'' Starsky grabbed one of the bags from the drawer of the desk and using a kleenex plucked from a nearby box, lifted it carefully and dropped in into the bag. The phone rang. "Starsky,'' he barked into it.

"Sorry to disturb you at work, Mr. Starsky. This is Cecile Valentine. We have an answer on your purchase agreement. The owners have accepted your offer.''

"That's great news,'' Starsky replied lifelessly. All the more reason to hate the person who pulled this stunt. Not only had it hurt Hutch deeply, but it had ruined a moment in which Starsky felt he should have been dancing in the streets.

"You are still planning to follow through with the deal?'' she asked. Did I sound that disinterested? Starsky asked himself.

"Most definitely. It really is good news, Cecile. And please call me Dave, huh?''

"Okay, Dave. You and Mr. Hutchinson will need to meet with me to sign some papers and discuss financing as soon as possible.''

"He's not here right now. I'll talk it over with him and call you back, okay?''

"Fine. I'll be in a meeting for about an hour, but then I'll be in the rest of the afternoon.''

"Great. Thanks again, Cecile. I really am happy about this.''

After hanging up the phone, he set out to find Hutch. He knew it couldn't be too difficult, as the blond half of the duo had no car and there were a limited number of hiding places in the precinct. The men's room on the third floor, a less frequently-traveled site than the one near the squadroom, was locked.

"Hutch, you in there?'' Starsky tapped on the door. No response. That meant he was in there. Anyone else would have yelled something back at the inquiry. "Come on, buddy, open up, huh?'' The lock finally clicked, and Starsky pushed open the door. Hutch had returned to the mirror, his back to Starsky.

"Sorry to take off like that,'' he said, his voice a little on the husky side.

"It's okay, pal.'' Starsky locked the door behind himself now. "Dobey had me bag it like evidence. Everybody claimed they didn't do it. Guess we'll find out.'' Starsky leaned back against the sink next to the one his partner was holding onto as he stared into the mirror. Starsky evaluated Hutch's tired face with great compassion. He couldn't resist sliding an arm around the hunched shoulders and resting his head against Hutch's for a moment.

There was a knock at the door. Starsky ignored it and continued, speaking to his partner in reassuring tones.

"Hutch, come on, pal. Look at me, huh?'' He waited while Hutch looked up as directed. "Cecile called.'' Another knock. "Oh, keep your pants on!!'' Starsky yelled at the closed door.

"About the house?'' Hutch sniffled a little and straightened up.

"Congratulations, partner. We just bought ourselves a house.''

"They accepted the offer?''

"Yup. We got it!!'' He watched Hutch's face transform into a slightly more cheerful expression, and even if his partner wasn't overcome with joy, Starsky figured he could use a hug for reasons of his own, so he hugged him excitedly anyway. Hutch squeezed back firmly before he was released. "She wants us to come in and sign papers today and talk about financing.''

"Hey, come on, open up!'' The angry voice from the other side of the door suddenly became familiar. Simonetti, of all people. Here we are, closeted in the bathroom together with the door locked. That looks good, Starsky thought. And of course, he'll try to make something out of it no matter what we say... What the hell, let's give him a show...

"Mess up your hair,'' he said to Hutch, who immediately caught on, and with an evil smile, followed the directive. Starsky disarrayed himself slightly, leaving one shirttail hanging loose and sauntered over to the door, casually flipping the lock. "'morning, Simonetti,'' Hutch greeted cheerfully, passing through the door as Starsky opened it for him. He smoothed the wild strands of blond hair into place and left the scene with a definite smirk.

"Hey, if it ain't Laverne--or is it Shirley?'' Starsky quipped as he passed the other man. Simonetti was left with his jaw slightly agape.

Hutch was holding the elevator for Starsky, and as soon as the doors closed, both burst out in such a fit of laughter that they were barely contained enough to return to the squad room.

"Did you see the look on his face?'' Hutch asked, mopping tears of laughter from his eyes.

"Yeah. Besides, he's been lookin' for a way to hang us out to dry since that whole mess with Vanessa. He'd'a made a big thing out of it even if we'd come out all strait-laced and tidy.'' Starsky chuckled evilly. "God I love jerking his chain.'' Starsky shook his head, still smiling at the thought. "You sure you're okay, pal?''

"Oh I'm fine now,'' he responded, barely able to contain the twitch at the corner of his mouth.

Dobey was rummaging through a file drawer in the squad room when his two detectives returned.

"I sent the statue down to the lab. We should know something about prints pretty quickly. I made it top priority,'' Dobey nodded toward Hutch as he headed back toward his office.

"Thanks, Captain.'' Hutch followed Starsky to their desks.

"Let's see, we need to pick a time to go meet with Cecile...'' Starsky chewed on his lower lip as he looked over the afternoon's calendar. They had somehow just ended their leave, a few days early, and already they were getting booked with the follow up on the case. "Maybe we oughtta go right now. Then we'd be back by the time the lab had anything for us.''

"Maybe she should cool her heels until this evening. I don't want to play around with this house thing while I'm working this case.'' Hutch was not nearly as enraptured with the whole project as his partner, who seemed crestfallen at his remark.

"Aw, come on, aren't ya even a little excited? Think about it, Hutch--no more landlord, no more living in a sardine can full of neighbors--all that room--a HOUSE!''

"Will you keep it down?'' Hutch scanned the squadroom a little uneasily.

"What's the matter with you? You don't think anybody's gonna know you bought a house? We do have to turn in address changes, ya know.''

"It's not final yet.''

"They accepted the offer--all we gotta do is say 'okay' and sign a couple papers and go to the bank. It's almost--or don't you want to go through with it?''

"I'm a little preoccupied with the case, I guess.''

"Well, so'm I, but I'm still excited.'' Starsky exhaled loudly as he watched his partner begin making notes and sorting through the accumulated papers on his desk. "Hutch?''

"What?'' He finally looked up at the other man, a little irritated.

"When're we goin'?''

"Now.'' Hutch threw down his pen none too pleasantly and rose from his chair, snatching the jacket off the back of it. "Well?'' he prompted Starsky angrily from the door he held open.

"I gotta call her first,'' he answered quietly, picking up the phone and dialing Cecile's number. Hutch walked back into the squadroom and sat against the desk closest to the door while Starsky made the call, reached the agent and confirmed she could meet with them immediately after her meeting. He knew he'd taken out his bad mood, inspired by the statuette on his desk, on his partner, but Starsky would understand, and he was in no mood to launch into heartfelt apologies. He felt hostile and angry and he wanted to lash out. Besides, there were times when he loved Starsky's child-like enthusiasm and other times he found it as irritating as any parent would. His partner's tendency to "eat dessert first'' sometimes irked the work ethic in Hutch, though he could hardly accuse Starsky of shirking his duties. His joi de vive could be just plain tiring when one felt as mentally lousy as Hutch did at the moment.

"We're all set,'' Starsky announced, picking up his jacket and finally going through the door Hutch held for him.

The meeting with Cecile went smoothly, signing the final purchase agreement and going over their options for financing. An appointment was made for the following day at the bank to meet with a loan officer. Cecile felt their chances were good to be approved for a mortgage, based on the income and credit histories they provided her. Upon returning to the precinct, they were informed that the lab found no prints on the statuette, so Hutch's mood didn't improve as the day wore on.