4

Winter's coming with its cold compassion,

A killer's loose and the dead stand trial,

God's the only witness on file,

Man's inhumanity to man's in fashion...

The next two weeks of working on the case proved to be nothing but frustrating. Dogged detective work of following up on every old boyfriend either woman ever had, every co-worker, and every service person connected with wedding plans who had contact with either of them, with special attention to those who had worked with both, yielded nothing of interest. Most all of them either had airtight alibis or just didn't have any reason to want the women dead. Of course, the latter factor was always open for further discovery, so those who couldn't account for their whereabouts with back up from a witness were kept on a list of possibles.

Hutch seemed annoyed by the whole upheaval of moving during their investigation, but Starsky's excitement eventually was a little contagious. They were approved for a loan shortly after applying, and closed the house deal two weeks after the acceptance of their purchase agreement.

Starsky got out of his lease fairly easily, since the landlord had received another inquiry recently from a prospective tenant. Hutch had another two months to go on his, but his landlord split the difference, which gave Hutch a month to live in his familiar surroundings. He also was relieved that his plants could remain in their home until the greenhouse work was finished at the house. Starsky had been perfectly happy to make that one of the three priorities: the new furnace with central air conditioning, a new front porch, and Hutch's greenhouse. The summer was alreadying heating up, so leaving two air-conditioned apartments for one steamy rattletrap was a little grim for either of them to face.

All decorating activities were put on hold for obvious financial reasons, which meant extensive cleaning of what was there and making do until they had the time and money to start restoring the place. Hutch grumbled about living in the neighborhood "Munster house'', referring to its dire need for paint and landscaping. Starsky generally laughed it off, figuring the neighbors had been looking at it that way for several years, and a few more months wouldn't offend their delicate sensitivities. He did vow to throw himself into the outdoor yard work whole-heartedly, which was a grim pledge as the summer heat crept up to 90 degrees or higher most days.

As the cleaning and moving activities stepped up pace, both men found themselves more often opting to sleep in their new house than to travel back to their apartments. The new heating and cooling system was working beautifully, the electrician had done his work, and it made more sense to skip the travel time to and from the house.

After cleaning the carpeting and rolling some paint on the interior walls to freshen up the place, it was starting to feel like home. The old furniture was very usable, and in excellent condition for the most part. Starsky happily added his spring and mattress to the four-poster bed in the room he chose to sleep in upstairs, amused to no end that the average person actually had to use a little pair of wooden steps to climb into it. Hutch planned to dispose of the bed in the downstairs bedroom and use his brass bed. He was a little irritated at the cramped, unimpressive nature of the room compared to the upstairs bedrooms, but then he had free run of the largest rooms in the house. Of course, Starsky had handiest access to that attic space, which Hutch definitely coveted. If finished, it would be his favorite room in the house.

The last of Starsky's belongings were packed late on a Thursday night, with Huggy's cousin, who owned a delivery service, due the next morning to collect the furniture and cartons in his truck. Starsky had cut a deal with the landlord, selling him most of the furniture except for the watercooler, his fanback chair, his couch and his spring and mattress.

"Lot of memories in this place,'' Hutch leaned against the kitchen counter, eating the last of a cookie he'd found hiding in the cookie jar. The container was probably the only thing Starsky hadn't packed yet, and now he was carefully wrapping that in newspaper and adding it to the last open carton.

"Yep. Always seems like the down side of movin', even if you like where you're goin'. I'm gonna miss it.''

"Any regrets?''

"Nope,'' Starsky responded, looking up from the box with a grin. "I love that house.''

"I can tell,'' Hutch replied, laughing a little at Starsky's eternal enthusiasm over their new home.

"You don't like it much, do ya?'' He looked up again at Hutch, this time wearing a very somber expression.

"It's a great investment, Starsk. I gotta hand it to you this time. If we can ever afford to get it fixed up the way it should be, the resale would put us on easy street.''

"Resale? You wanna sell our house?'' Starsky straightened up from his crouch now, obviously completely discombobulated at the concept of losing his dream house.

"Not before we move in, dummy. I mean in a few years, if we get it fixed up, it'll really bring a great price.''

"I don't believe this.'' Starsky threw his hands in the air and let them slap down at his sides.

"Don't believe what? You planning on growing old there?'' Hutch asked, still smiling.

"Maybe. I was planning on it being home. Not just a piece'a real estate.''

"Starsky, be realistic. Things change. You're going to get married eventually and want kids and half a house you share with your partner isn't going to be right for that. Hopefully, before we have to sell it for some reason, we can get it renovated and make a nice return on it.''

"What about you? Why're you puttin' all this on me? I ain't married yet, am I? Besides, that place is big enough to fix up so--we've been over all this before. I guess I just gotta accept that you don't care anything about that house.'' Starsky plopped dejectedly onto his couch.

"I didn't say that.''

"You didn't have to,'' Starsky responded quietly. Feeling adequately chastised and tremendously guilty for apparently crushing his partner's feelings, Hutch made his way to the living room. How Starsky could make him pay so dearly for a fleeting moment of insensitivity without even raising his voice annoyed Hutch at the same time it amazed him.

"I'm sorry if I acted like I didn't care about the house. I didn't mean for it to sound that way.'' He stood there, feeling a bit awkward at Starsky's lack of response. "Damn it, Starsky, I said I was sorry. Are you going to sit there and pout all night?''

"I'm not pouting. I just...I thought...nevermind.''

"You thought what?'' Hutch prodded, sitting on the edge of the couch near his partner.

"I thought you were kind of excited about the house. That you liked it too.''

"I do like it.''

"But you're already thinkin' about sellin' it.''

"That's just being practical, buddy. You've gotta think of a house's resale value. That's just good business. I didn't say I wanted to sell it now.''

"Okay.'' Starsky looked over at Hutch. "Um, this might not be the greatest time to bring this up, but...''

"What?''

"I've been thinkin' about dividing up the house and everything?''

"Yeah?''

"Doesn't it seem kinda dumb sometimes? I mean, we got two stairways, all sorts'a room--it's not like we'd be bumpin' into each other all the time. And we could have a signal or something if one of us had...company. I was just thinkin' that there's this really big bedroom upstairs--''

"The big one that gets the morning sun and has the great view of the whole neighborhood? Yeah, I noticed.''

"Well, I'm takin' the one on the back of the house--I like that one, and I want to fix up the yard, and it's real shady from all the trees--but I really was looking at that room you're gonna use downstairs, and it's kinda cramped and, well, sorta ugly.''

"I noticed.'' Hutch chuckled a little.

"Why don't we just try it for awhile--just using the house the way we want to? If we find out we're gettin' in each other's way, we can always change it back so we're on separate floors all the time. I don't mind taking my company up to the library if you wanna use the living room.''

"I suppose I could just close the French doors if I want some privacy.''

"And I could still go to the kitchen down the back stairs, and the library is on the opposite end of the hall from your room, so even if you came up and went to your room, it wouldn't have to disturb me.''

"I guess with a little effort, we could make that work pretty well.''

"I'll help ya move upstairs tomorrow.''

"Okay.'' Hutch leaned back in the familiar cushions.

 

 

Over the next few days, Starsky's things were moved in and settled in the house. Hutch brought most of his belongings as well, leaving only the furniture and a few last minute things at the apartment he barely occupied anyway. Construction had begun on the greenhouse, and it was expected to be finished within another week or so.

Starsky spent most of his off time in the weed patch that was known as the garden. While Hutch agreed they couldn't afford professional landscaping services to restore it, he also wasn't delighted with the prospect of doing it himself. Like a child who volunteers to always clean up after it if he is given a dog, Starsky promised to handle the garden duty. There was no green thumb required at this point; just plenty of muscle, a shovel and several large trash bags.

There was a paint-depraved gazebo in the middle of all if it, with a couple of trellises attached. The roses which should have been growing there had long since turned to brown, petrified claws hanging onto the old wood. The backyard alone was almost 200 feet across by 200 feet deep. The front portion of the lot extended another 100 feet to the street. All of the homes in the area boasted these big yards. They had all been mini-estates in their day, and Starsky couldn't wait until their house could take its rightful place with the more elegantly maintained homes in the area.

The upper storey of the house behind them was visible over the fieldstone wall that ran the full length of the street between the houses on Mulberry Street and those on the street behind it, where their house faced, on Cherry Street. The developers here obviously had a thing for berries all those years ago, Starsky thought, smiling to himself as he hauled yet another filled trashbag to the back of the garage. He had managed to wangle an afternoon off while Hutch testified in court, and he was going to make the most of it, 90-degree weather notwithstanding. As he returned to the garden, mopping his forehead with the back of his hand, he noticed something in the upstairs window of the house behind them that he hadn't noticed before: a red flag bearing a white circle in the middle, which was the backdrop for a black swastika. Terrific. Just what I need. End up with some weirdo skinhead teenager for a neighbor. He thought of cleaning up and going over there, making an issue of it...but this is a free country. They might not be able to act on their warped ideas, but no one can stop them from expressing them, he concluded, trying to shrug off the offensiveness of the symbol and go back his gardening. The thought nagged the back of his mind that the flag had not been there before...maybe I didn't notice it, or maybe whoever lives there is displaying it because of his new neighbor... and that was paranoia. He decided he had overlooked it before, and opted to do his best to ignore it, and the neighbors who displayed it.

Hutch arrived home shortly after six, having spent most of the day waiting to testify and only a few minutes actually doing it. He stopped on the way to pick up a couple of pizzas, figuring Starsky was either already dead from heat exhaustion or at best wouldn't be feeling in the mood to go out. It was a given there was nothing in the kitchen worth fixing. He went in the side door and left the pizzas on the kitchen counter. Looking out the kitchen window, he saw his partner diligently hauling a wheelbarrow full of weeds and sod clumps toward a pile near the garage. He had to hand it to Starsky; after a mere afternoon's labor, he had most of the garden cleared of the weeds and grasses. The large stones that had been used to make a border around it, leaving a gap for the path made of flat flagstones was easily visible now. While Hutch was admiring its potential and discarding his jacket and tie, he happened to glance at the house directly behind them. The swastika seemed to leap off the flag that hung like a shade in one of the upstairs windows. He knew it hadn't been there before, and he wondered what Starsky's reaction had been. He certainly knew what his was. He stuck the pizzas in the oven to keep them warm and walked out of the air-conditioned comfort of the house back into the heat and humidity of the day.

"Hey, buddy, it's lookin' good,'' Hutch said cheerfully, determined not to launch the conversation with the flag issue.

"Thanks. I've got most of the clean out work done,'' Starsky replied, a little breathless. There was a grimy-looking white-gray ball of fabric that used to be Starsky's tank shirt on one of the large rocks that outlined the garden, and even his red shorts were soaked. "I've gotta go take a shower before I pass out. Man, it's hot out here.''

"That's a lot of work for one afternoon, pal. I brought pizza home.''

"Great.'' Starsky seemed subdued, even moreso than just due to his fatigue. Hutch figured he had spotted the neighbors' "decoration''.

"Starsk, I noticed the flag back there.''

"Yeah, me too. Probably some dumb teenager who thinks it's cool.''

"Yeah? Well, I plan on walking over there this evening and having a talk with them.''

"What for? It's their business what they hang in their window.''

"It's offensive.''

"So is the color of the house next door, but that doesn't mean we can make them repaint it.'' Starsky nodded toward the carnation pink house to their left. It was impeccably maintained, beautifully restored...and eye-splittingly pink.

"There's a big difference between a pink house and a swastika.'' Hutch started back toward the house. "I am going over there after dinner.''

"If you're doing it for me, don't. The worst thing in the world you could do would be to let some little pimple-faced weasel think he's gotten under our skin. Hangin' that damn thing up there is a way to get attention, to stir something up. And if for some reason whoever hung it there knows I'm Jewish, and that's why it's there, I'm not givin' them the satisfaction of sending my mommy over to their door to make them take it down.'' Starsky plodded along behind his partner, glad air conditioning and a shower were only a few more steps away.

"I wasn't trying to speak for you. It offends me, alright? It denotes fascism, bigotry and genoicide and I don't like looking at it.''

"I know what the hell it represents, buddy. And my parents and grandparents knew what it represented too, along with a few cousins over in Europe who had the misfortune of living in the wrong place at the wrong time. You're not tellin' me any news bulletins here, Hutch.''

"I didn't know you lost anyone you knew...I guess we never talked about that.''

"It wasn't anyone I knew.'' Starsky pulled two beers out of the refrigerator, handing one to Hutch. "I wasn't even born yet. But they were relatives my grandmother knew, and my dad knew slightly. The point is, there were a few dead Starskys in Hitler's death toll, and I don't ever forget that. But you can't make someone take something down out of their window because you don't like it. And to be honest with you, if I took personal exception to every slam on Jews I hear in a given day, I'd be too busy defending my religion to do anything else.''

"What're you talking about?'' Hutch suddenly wondered who on the force or among the people they knew would have made any ethnic or religious slur at Starsky.

"Think about it. Just yesterday, one of the guys in the squad room told a whole bunch of us that he'd sold his car? He was real proud of gettin' his price since he said the guy tried to 'jew him down'. Did ya ever listen to how people talk about a Jewish businessman who makes it big? He's a scheister, a tightwad, a 'typical' Jew--whatever the hell that is--he's obviously morally corrupt, anyway, if he's rich. It still happens, Hutch. Every few days I hear something, but I guess after awhile, you learn not to take it all seriously. The guy who sold his car, McAllister in Robbery? He's a nice guy. I've had lunch with him and his partner when you were out sick, and I doubt he even realizes or gave a thought to the fact that I'm Jewish when he used that term. Just like I doubt the neighbors put that flag up because of me. And if they did, well, that's their right. It's their house.''

"I wouldn't picture you being so easy going about all this.''

"This is gonna sound bad, and that's why I don't often explain myself. It's gonna sound like every other bleeding heart minority group who whines for special favors because of the church they go to or the country they were born in or the color of their skin. I don't believe in drawing those lines either way--for favors or discrimination. But here goes. People have been takin' pot shots at Jews for centuries... Then Hitler came along with his agenda...the point is, it's not new, and it won't probably ever change completely. All I know is my grandmother said 'be proud of what you are, and don't forget that you're one of God's chosen ones'. I don't know about us bein' some exclusive group of chosen people, 'cause I can't believe God makes choices like that, but I am proud of what I am. I don't have to demonstrate on a street corner--but I don't have to go slithering over to some snot-nosed neighbor and beg him to take a hunk a' cloth out of his window, either.''

"Okay. Point made. I won't say anything to them.'' Hutch was quiet a moment, sipping his beer and mulling over what his partner had said. "Damn good attitude, partner.''

"I'm gonna grab a quick shower before we eat, okay?'' Starsky's subject change signaled Hutch that the discussion of religious persecution was over. Their respective religious upbringings had never been more than a source of additional holidays and learning experiences for each other. That it should be an issue had never occurred to either of them. And so it never was...until the flag appeared in that window.

If their conversation had set a serious tone, it was lost when Starsky returned and they dug into the pizzas. They were busily mapping out landscaping plans and final finishing plans for the greenhouse. The glass work was done, so Hutch was going to begin bringing his "babies'' over as soon as they had installed shelves and hooks, a project that would occupy most of Saturday. Having been initially skeptical about this living arrangement, Hutch had to admit to himself he was oddly content. It was nice sharing a house with Starsky, even if he didn't know exactly how to put that into words to his partner without it sounding strange or awkward. The most natural explanation he could think of was that it felt like home. Maybe he didn't have a wife and kids, as planned--or at least not yet--but why should that preclude having a house and feeling the warmth and the companionship of a family? If Starsky wondered why his housemate had an odd, borderline sappy, grin on his face as he ate, he didn't ask. After all, he was guilty of a similar expression himself.

Minnie, sainted woman that she was, had volunteered to clean out and lay shelf paper in the kitchen cupboards and drawers. While it was their hope to eventually redo the kitchen (since someone in the 1950's had seen fit to install glossy-enameled cupboards with ultra-modern handles), for now, the clean-up work would have to do. Starsky had been drafted to help with that task, and while the two of them laughed and argued over the work, Hutch slid upstairs to take a shower and leisurely unpack some of his books and other belongings in the library.

The jangling phone startled him out of his peaceful project of organizing his books on his portion of the full wall of shelves. He answered it by the sixth ring.

"Dobey here. We've got another one, Hutch--same M.O. as Sandra and Madeleine Nolan. There's a black and white at the scene. 124 Vista Court, Apartment 3. Nedloe and Elliot are on another case, so I need you and Starsky to get down there right away.''

"Damn it. Will do, Captain.'' Hutch hung up and hurried into the bedroom to pull on his jeans and a shirt. When he made his way down to the kitchen, he began dreading the whole situation. How in hell could he walk into that girl's bedroom and... He shook off that thought and entered the brightly lit room. Minnie was solicitiously smoothing out a piece of shelf paper on an upper cupboard shelf while Starsky held her waist, offering the expected flirtatious remarks while she pretended to be shocked.

"Starsky! Does your mother know what a nasty little boy she has?'' Minnie was chiding him as he completed what she must have considered one of his more inspired lines.

"Starsk, we've gotta go,'' Hutch cut in abruptly. "That was Dobey--there's another one.''

"Another--? Oh my God.'' Starsky hurried to the hall closet and retrieved his holster from the hook on the back of the door. Hutch was fastening his as Starsky returned to the kitchen.

"I'll finish up here,'' Minnie volunteered, climbing down from her position of kneeling on the cupboard.

"Thanks, Min. Just go ahead and lock up. There's probably no point in waiting for us,'' Hutch said, heading out the door.

"Thanks again, schweetheart,'' Starsky gave her a peck on the cheek and hurried after his partner.

"It's been almost four months since Sandra's death.'' Hutch shook his head. I thought the SOB had given up.'' He stuck the mars light on the roof of the Torino as they backed out of the driveway and sped down the street, siren blaring.

"Think the neighbors are gonna put up with us very long?'' Starsky noticed a few people migrating to their porches or front windows as they raced toward the address Dobey had given Hutch.

Starsky brought the car to a respectable screeching halt by the curb in front of a large frame house which contained several one-room apartments. On the third floor they could hear the commotion of the uniformed team, crime lab people and the coroner's office representative swarming on the murder site. As they approached the doorway, weaving through the clog of residents and police that occupied the narrow, low-ceilinged hall, Starsky caught Hutch by the arm.

"You talk to the crime lab guys and the uniforms--stay out of the bedroom. I'll deal with the scene, okay?''

"Starsky, this is our case. I have to--''

"I'll be the eyes for both of us on this one. I won't miss anything important. There's no reason for you to have to see that...again,'' Starsky whispered.

"Okay. I'll see what the lab boys've got.''

Starsky approached the bedroom doorway, took a deep breath, and found his nostrils filled with the smell of fresh blood. He felt more like vomiting now. The deep breath had done nothing to alleviate that impulse. It had to be almost 85 degrees in the apartment. It was not air conditioned, and the smell of death was heavy in the air. The M.E. was just leaving the room as he arrived.

"What've we got?''

"Female caucasian, mid-20s, blonde, petite--just like the other two. Multiple stab wounds, some bruising--this one fought back a little more than the others--you can see by the way the room's essentially trashed. Also, she has more bruises and scrapes and a couple of very superficial cuts that would indicate they were wrestling for the knife at some point. Yup, he got a live one here,'' the M.E. commented. Noting Starsky's grim expression, and realizing he'd succumbed to the insensitivity that sometimes accompanied seeing too many mangled bodies in too short a span of time, he moved on to a more factual discussion. "I'd say time of death was about five o'clock.'' It was now well past nine.

"Thanks, Pete.'' Starsky took in the scene, reliving his discovery of Sandra's body all over again. This young woman could have been her sister. She was lying diagonally across the bed, the spread having been somewhat smoothed around her, with a single red rose clutched in her right hand. It was frightening how yellow her blonde hair looked next to the bluish-whiteness of her skin.

"...like I was saying, Sergeant, I found the receipt right in here by the dresser.'' A young uniformed officer was leading Hutch into the bedroom. Before Starsky could object, Hutch was there, in the cramped, stifling little room, the air heavy with the odor of blood. He watched Hutch register the scene in front of him, reel almost visibly, but maintain his composure.

"That was the only thing out of the ordinary?'' Hutch forced himself to turn away from the dead girl and focus on the young officer who had felt it necessary to show him exactly where he had found the small cash register receipt from Al's Sporting Goods for a new basketball. Of course, assuming it didn't belong to the deceased was a bit sexist if not silly, though no such item was found among her things.

"That was it. Well, other than...you know,'' he replied, nodding toward the dead girl.

"Right. Thanks.'' He watched as the other left the room and turned back to face Starsky, who was already urging him out of the room. But it was too late. The image of this dead woman, and his own dead fiancee, was already stamped indelibly on his brain. "Who found her?'' he asked.

"Come on, let's get out of here.'' He gave Hutch a gentle push toward the door, and they both exited the bedroom and directed the coroner's people to go ahead and load the body in the body bag. "Landlady found her. I think that must be her over there,'' Starsky indicated a short, stout woman with curly gray hair. She was dressed in a bathrobe and slippers.

"Are you the landlady?'' Hutch asked.

"Mildred Homister,'' she replied.

"The victim's name--she was one of your tenants, obviously,'' Starsky spoke up.

"Coral Rutherford. Poor thing. She would have been married in a week.'' Mrs. Homister shook her head slowly. She was shaking almost visibly. "Dear God, I've never seen anything so horrible!''

"What brought you up here to look for her tonight?'' Starsky continued. He was keeping one eye on Hutch, but his partner seemed to have handled the murder scene as professionally as he handled everything else. If it had torn him up inside, he was hiding it well, as usual.

"Coral was late with her rent, by a few weeks. I told her that was all right--she was a nurse's aide, didn't make a big salary. I know she had lots of bills with the wedding coming up. She promised to pay me when she got paid, which would have been yesterday. She works nights, so when I saw her come home around eight this morning, I didn't want to bother her. I figured she probably hadn't been to the bank yet, and she is always tired when she gets home. I thought it odd, though, after she ran her errands this afternoon, she didn't come by to pay the rent. I waited, then I went to the door about six--her shift starts at seven--but there was no answer. I thought she must have slipped out while I was making dinner. I decided to try one more time, around six forty-five, in case she couldn't come to the door for some reason the first time. When I knocked, the door opened a little on its own. I came inside...and that's when I found her.'' Mrs. Homister ran a hand back through her hair, obviously distressed. "So close to her wedding!''

"Do you know her fiancé?'' Hutch asked.

"His name is Stu--I assume short for Stuart. I don't know his last name. Seems like such a nice young man. He works for the tool and die company not too far from here.''

"Did you see or hear anyone else entering the building between, say, four and seven?''

"A few of the tenants come home around five-thirty or so, getting out of work at five and all.''

"Let me get a list of their names from you.'' Starsky dutifully wrote down each of three names and apartment numbers while Hutch watched the gurney being wheeled through to the door. He left his partner with the landlady long enough to help the uniformed men dispel the little gathering of gawkers and get the body out of the apartment.

Next, they visited the apartments of the residents who had arrived home from work close to the supposed time of death. The majority had to be hauled into their apartments away from the spectator group near the dead woman's unit, but none had anything worthwhile to add. No one had seen any visitors or heard anything out of the ordinary upon arriving home.

After exchanging a few final words with the M.E. and the crime lab team, the detectives exited the apartment house and were relieved to breathe in the warm but fresh August night air.

"Kyle, the uniform who found the receipt? He also found a hand-written wedding guest list,'' Hutch stated grimly. "I have her address book and the guest list with me.''

"Shit. Same drill. So we're looking for some lunatic who has it in for brides. Why? Spurned by one? Lost one? Wants one but can't get one?'' Starsky was pacing a little near the Torino. Residents were gathered on their lawns, enthralled with the real-life drama unfolding in their neighborhood...the vultures of morbid curiosity gathered on their perches. Hutch slid into the passenger seat, and Starsky got behind the wheel, starting up the car.

"Better head down to Metro and do our thing,'' Starsky said flatly, referring to the report and going over the dead woman's address book and guest list.

Relieved that the victim's family and fiancé were going to be notified by the first officers on the scene, they put together an initial report for Dobey and set up a staggering itinerary for themselves starting first thing in the morning. They would have to question the family, the fiancé, go over the guest list--hopefully with a family member or friend who could give them some background information.

They rode home essentially in silence. Sandra's death was heavily on both their minds, having been so vividly re-enacted in Coral Rutherford's tiny apartment. There was no logical pattern to the killer's acts...his timing was erratic--one month between Madeleine Nolan's death and Sandra's death, now four months until he killed again. But his M.O. was unmistakable.

"Looks like a hell of a day ahead of us, buddy.'' Starsky turned off the engine when he had stopped the car near the rickety door of the slanting garage. One more thing that needed extensive repair before the Torino or the Mercury would be entrusted to its care.

"Yeah. I'm glad to be home now, though,'' Hutch sighed as he got out of the car. After he said it, he realized how much like home it was starting to feel...home being a safe haven where you can rest and heal. Philosophical thoughts were cut short by a string of blistering curses from Starsky as he rattled the knob on the side door. It had a perverse propensity for sticking at the most unpredictable and generally annoying times. It finally relented, and they made their way inside, locking up for the night and dowsing lights as they traveled toward the second floor.

"Hutch?'' Starsky paused in the middle of the hall, before they parted company to their respective rooms.

"Yeah?''

"You okay with all this? I mean, I didn't want you to have to see...you know, back at that apartment.''

"I know. I'm all right, Starsk.''

"Okay. If you...um, can't sleep or anything...I'm gonna leave my door open.''

"You don't have to. I'm fine, really.'' Hutch smiled faintly.

"Okay. G'night, buddy.''

"Sleep tight, pal. Set your alarm for five-thirty.'' Hutch was starting down the hall, waving an instructing finger at his partner.

"Six.'' Starsky retorted.

"Five forty-five.''

"Deal.'' Starsky grinned slightly as he retreated into his bedroom.

 

Hutch woke up to his own groaning voice. He realized he had been tossing and turning with unpleasant thoughts about Sandra and finding her body, but he had dozed at some point, and now was awake again. He got up and went to the bathroom, then splashed cold water on his face. It was hard finding his way in the dark, since the twists and turns of the new house were more elaborate and less familiar than those at Venice Place. He walked stealthily down the hall toward Starsky's room. As promised, the door was away from the frame by about a foot. He could hear Starsky's even breathing as he stood in the doorway, watching the hump in the bed rise up and down where the moonlight illuminated it.

He stood there a moment, not sure what to do. He wanted to say something, anything, to rouse his partner and not have to go off somewhere by himself and think about Sandra's death-whitened corpse clutching that single red rose. Starsky had been so right to try to keep him away from the corpse of Coral Rutherford, but they were the detectives on the case, and he couldn't very well tell the uniformed cops there that he didn't want to see the body.

"Hutch?'' Starsky's groggy voice startled him. He suddenly realized he had been standing there with his hand on the doorknob, thinking.

"Sorry I woke you, buddy.''

"That's okay.'' Starsky pulled himself up in the bed. "Can't sleep?''

"Havin' a little trouble, I guess.'' Hutch was uneasy about actually taking Starsky up on disturbing him, and he was still loitering in the hall.

"Come on,'' Starsky said, motioning to him to come in and then patted the bed. "Park it right there.'' Hutch moved slowly across the room and sat near the foot of the bed. "Rough night, huh? To tell ya the truth, I didn't feel too good about what we saw there tonight either. Made me think about Sandra again--not that I don't think of her anyway, but it had to be rough for you.''

"Worse than I thought. It seems like...I don't know. Like it's harder now...harder than when I saw it...thinking about it...''

"That's because when you saw it tonight it was somebody else. But when you remember it, it's Sandra.''

"I guess that's it.'' Hutch pulled himself more completely onto the foot of the bed. Only his long legs had allowed him to make the initial jump without the steps. Starsky was as delighted as any respectable five-year-old would be with the big old four-poster. To Hutch, it seemed like a hell of a lot of trouble to get in and out of bed.

"Ya know, you're doin' really great, buddy. I mean, that you can even work this case the way you do...don't feel funny if it gets you down once in awhile.''

"It gets me down all the time. Sometimes I'd just like a rest from it...from feeling so lousy all the time.''

"You'll get a rest from it, pal. Trust me. That part of it does get better. One of these days you'll laugh at something and you'll really feel the laugh like you used to. Or you'll be able to look at the good things you have, and be happy you've got them--instead of just feelin' lousy about what you lost.''

"I'm way ahead of you there, buddy. I know what I've got that's good, and maybe I'm finally smart enough to appreciate it.'' Hutch was quiet a minute. "I know I've been about as much fun as a root canal about this house deal,'' Hutch paused for Starsky's chortle, "but I think tonight, maybe for the first time, when I first got home from work and then when we came back tonight...I haven't had a real home in a long time, Starsk. I've lived on my own, in an apartment--or with Van--but that doesn't qualify...I guess what I'm workin' like hell to say is that a house or apartment is just a dwelling. It takes something meaningful to make it 'home'. I felt that for the first time in a long time when I got home tonight. I felt like I was 'home'.'' Hutch waited for some response from the shadow-bathed figure sitting up in the bed. None came. "Starsky? Are you awake?'' Since Starsky had pulled his pillows up behind him and was leaning against the headboard, Hutch thought he might have lost his partner during his faltering explanation.

"Yeah,'' came the strained reply. A sniff or two followed.

"What's the matter?''

"I just...'' Starsky took a deep breath. "What you said...means a whole lot to me.'' Another sniff, and then there was movement while Starsky wiped at his eyes quickly with the back of his hand. "Sorry.''

"Don't be sorry. At least now you feel as choked up and miserable as I do.'' Hutch waited a moment, and they both laughed softly.

"Wanna go raid the 'frige?''

"Starsky, it's three in the morning. If we do that now--''

"We'll be getting up two or three hours earlier. So what? I'm hungry. Come on.'' He slid over the side, feet landing expertly on the wooden steps, and made it to the floor without stumbling. Hutch wondered if he could accomplish the same feat in the dark at three a.m. Probably not. Of course, he wouldn't be all that motivated to try, either.

 

 

All day Wednesday was a grim experience, interviewing members of Coral Rutherford's family, her overwrought fiancé and a list of her friends and co-workers. Just when it seemed the day could not become more depressing, they returned to Metro to a stack of urgent messages from Ian Gardner, Madeleine Nolan's fiancé. Hutch picked up the phone and dialed the number, with Starsky listening in on the extension.

"Mr. Gardner, this is Sergeant Hutchinson. I just received your messag--''

"I received something in the mail.''

"What was it?''

"A photograph,'' he responded. A long pause followed. "An ungodly, horrible photograph!''

"Of what?''

"It's Madeleine...as she must have looked...after...''

"My God.'' Hutch had brief eye contact with Starsky, but couldn't stop to consider that he might receive such a parcel himself one of these days. "Obviously you've opened and handled it, but don't touch it any more than necessary--''

"Don't worry,'' he replied emphatically, as if touching the photo would be the last thing he'd ever want to do.

"My partner and I will be right there.'' Hutch hung up the phone and hurried out the door with Starsky close on his heels.

Ian Gardner was not an easily ruffled man. He was British by birth, very quiet and refined in his demeanor, and generally completely composed. The man who swung open the apartment door was wild-eyed and jittery, looking a bit like Dr. Jeckyll halfway through the transformation, with hair that had escaped from its neat style and brushed the top of his glasses, his necktie askew on his blue dress shirt and large patches of sweat visible under his arms.

"It's on the coffee table,'' he directed the two detectives as they entered his small, neatly kept living room. Hutch picked up the photograph, using a handkerchief, and read the bizarre message neatly printed in red ink on the back of it. "'White lace and red roses.' Sick bastard.'' Hutch tossed the photo back on the coffee table.

"It was in the mailbox by the front door.''

"Addressed just like any other envelope, but no postage,'' Starsky observed, examining the plain white business envelope with the name and address neatly typed on the front of it. "I would guess a hand delivery.''

"You think the man who did this--oh, dear God--you think he brought it here himself?'' Ian demanded.

"Possible. Might be part of the rush.'' Starsky regretted being so blase in his terminology, but sometimes that was better than giving in to the emotionalism of the moment. Ian seemed to be rising to the occasion much better the more clinical the discussion became.

"Mr. Gardner, as you can appreciate, this kind of case could cause a panic,'' Hutch began. "We have reason to believe he may have killed another young woman just last night.'' Ian's face registered surprise, and Hutch hastened to add, "We are very hopeful that this information will not be released to the press. This nut is obviously ready to come out in the open and claim responsibility for these crimes now, and turning it into a media circus isn't going to help anyone--''

"Except maybe some other poor girl like Madeleine. The community doesn't even know what kind of madman is out there, what kind of danger they're in. If another young woman dies this way, it's the fault of the police department for keeping silent!''

"And if this looney tune thrives on attention, he's going to be motivated by the publicity to keep on killing. To make himself more famous.'' Starsky really didn't blame the man for his concern, and there was a grain of truth to it. However, giving a serial killer a title and front page coverage would bring every copy cat, lunatic, fanatic, professional confessor, reporter and sleazy true crime writer out of the woodwork to hamper the investigation. He expressed this thought as well. "You see, when we turn this into a free-for-all in the press, we reel in every bozo with a screw loose to confess to it, every lead and development is threatened with press exposure...it will ultimately hamper the investigation significantly, and that could lead to more deaths.''

"What do you do now?''

"Take this to the crime lab, see what they come up with and we keep following up every possible lead on all three cases, with special attention on the new set of information the most recent case has generated. Mr. Gardner, my fiancee and my unborn daughter died because of this lunatic. We have no intention of sitting back and letting him get away with it.''

"I didn't realize your lady was expecting.''

"I found out earlier the day she was murdered. So you see, we have a very great motivation in solving this case. You don't need to worry that we aren't following it up in the manner we think will lead to an arrest the fastest.''

"Of course not. I'm sorry if I implied that you weren't. It's just...Madeleine and I were so very happy. We were going to move to London for awhile, live with my family there...it was like seeing an entire lifetime shatter in an instant.''

"Very well said,'' Hutch replied, shaking his head slightly. "We'll let you know as soon as there are any new developments. My guess is he probably wore gloves to handle all of it, but you never know. Maybe we'll get lucky.'' He moved toward the door and Starsky followed. They were reasonably confident that Ian Gardner would not sell his story to the nearest tabloid.

The lab came back with results that were predictably disappointing. There were no usable prints on the envelope, except for Ian's.

"Just when I think this guy can't top himself, he manages,'' Hutch commented bitterly as he added the notes on the lab's findings to their growing case file. The slam of the file cabinet drawer almost raised Starsky and a few other detectives off their chairs. "Sick son of a bitch,'' he spat angrily.

"We're gonna get him, partner. He's getting frisky now. He's gonna slip up and when he does, we'll be right behind him to catch him and hang his ass.''

"Why doesn't that console me?'' Hutch sneered back, plopping in his desk chair and agrily rifling through his desk drawer.

"Because you're pissed off and you don't want to be consoled,'' Starsky answered matter-of-factly, opening a candy bar and taking a bite. Hutch suddenly realized they'd worked through lunch and it was approaching dinner. Starsky hadn't complained, letting his partner pile-drive his way through the first day of investigating the Rutherford murder and also the discovery of the grisly photo.

"What is the point of all this?'' Hutch slammed the desk drawer. "Some psycho is out there killing women and we're pushing papers!'' he yelled, slapping a file folder loudly on the desk for emphasis.

"Hey, Hutch, come on--''

"Don't you start with your 'rah-rah, we're gonna get him' speech! We don't know that! In the meantime, he's walking right up to doors and leaving calling cards--he waltzed right into the fucking precinct and left a trinket on my desk and we still don't know who the hell he is! Apparently, no one around here can find their ass with both hands and a roadmap!'' Hutch stormed out of the office, leaving Starsky speechless. When his partner summed it all up that way, their inability to get a solid lead did look pretty pathetic. Dobey finally emerged from his office and came to lean against Starsky's desk, facing the detective as he rocked back in his chair, still nibbling unenthusiastically on his candy.

"He's not handling this, is he?'' Dobey asked candidly.

"Most of the time he is. Worst part of it is, he's got a point.'' Starsky dropped his feet from the desk and ended up sitting straight, much to Dobey's amazement. He was still fully expecting the day to come where Starsky would make that move, the chair would slip and he'd fly backwards and break his neck. That potential disaster was averted yet one more time. "I'd say he was losin' it too if the guy hadn't walked right in here and left him that statue. I mean, it is pretty pathetic that he could come in here and do that and we still don't have a lead.''

"Think he'll pull it together? This is a major case, Starsky. I understand Hutch wanting to be in on it, and I understand you not wanting to give it to another team, but we can't afford a lot of foul-ups on this. Women are dying, and we're about this far away from a public panic and a nationally-known serial killer situation complete with a cheesy nickname and tabloid headlines.'' Dobey was gesturing with a nearly non-existent space between his thumb and forefinger.

"I know that, Cap. I think Hutch'll come around. He blows up once in awhile, but he's handling himself just fine on the case.''

"All right. But keep me posted. And don't keep this case if there's a danger of it getting messed up. I'm going to rely on your judgement, Starsky.''

"We won't let ya down, Cap'n.''

"How is that house of yours coming along?'' Dobey asked as he stood near his door, ready to retreat into his office.

"Well, we've got some painting done and I tore out all the weeds and overgrowth and dug up the garden area, so it's comin' along. Why don't ya stop by this weekend--bring the family? The yard is a kinda ugly, but things are cleared up enough to cook out. We can give you guys the grand tour, such as it is.''

"Thank you for the invitation. I'll ask Edith and let you know.''

"Okey-dokey. I better go find that crazy partner of mine.'' Starsky was on his feet and out the door quickly, wondering just where Hutch would have holed up this time.

Hutch was halfway to the house before he realized he had taken off like a bat out of hell from the precinct and left Starsky without a ride. Oh, well. If you can't find a ride in a precinct full of cop cars, you're a pretty shitty excuse for a detective, Hutch fumed to himself. So why am I mad at Starsky? Like the proverbial mountain, he was there. That's as good a reason as any. Hutch pulled into the driveway and parked near the garage, next to the Torino. As he walked to the side door, he noticed the swastika flag again in the neighbors' window. He was still sorely tempted to go over there and give them a piece of his mind, and he was in just the mood to do it. But Starsky's point about giving some adolescent neo-Nazi that kind of satisfaction was certainly a valid one. Of course, that was assuming that it was just a rebellious teenager and not a hang-out for fanatics. Might be the reason the house was so cheap--backs up to a hotbed of lunatics.

Hutch pulled a cold beer out of the refrigerator and went into the living room. Something caught his attention on the stairs. On each step was a single red rose, leading all the way to the second floor hall. Determined not to disturb any evidence, he hurried back to the kitchen and, depositing the beer on the counter, drew his gun and slithered up the back stairs. He carefully inspected each room until he spotted the continuation of the path of roses. They stopped at the door of his bedroom. He slowly pushed the door away from the frame, and he was completely unprepared for what he saw there. On his bed, clad in her wedding dress, was Sandra...he blinked and tried to reason with himself that that was impossible...and upon clearer focus, he could see it was a very life-like mannequin, arms crossed over her heart as if in her coffin, a single red rose beneath her hands. Above the bed, scrawled on the freshly painted white wall in haphazard red-brown letters: "ONLY ROSES FOR THE BRIDE''. He backed out of the room and leaned against the wall in the hallway for support. The artificial bride's corpse was still in his line of vision. He gulped a couple of times to moisten his throat, which had gone completely dry. He wasn't sure if he was going to vomit or pass out or lose his mind. The mental imagery was so bizarre, that initial moment of shock when he saw the form on the bed and actually thought, for just a split second, that it was Sandra...it all seemed to be swirling around him in a kaleidoscope of horror. Taking a deep breath and resolving not to allow himself to be overcome by the whole ordeal, he turned away from the hideous sight and retreated down the back stairs to the kitchen. He dialed Starsky's direct extension. It was grabbed on the first ring.

"Starsky.'' The voice was less than pleasant.

"Starsk, it's me--''

"Hutch--is something wrong?'' There was immediate concern in the voice now.

"I'm at the house--there's something here you've got to see. Um, I guess we need lab people...''

"What is it?''

"He's been in the house, Starsky. He left a souvenir.''

"Have you checked the rest of the house?''

"No.'' Hutch realized now how little like a cop he was acting. Starsky's voice was snapping him back to reality. "But I'm going to right now. I don't think he's still here.''

"Maybe you ought to just wait for me to get there. I'll call for back up just in case. Stay put. No sense in givin' him the advantage.''

"Okay.'' Hutch hung up the phone, not thoroughly convinced he shouldn't be searching the house. After another moment passed, he did just that, from basement to attic. Nothing was disturbed, and there was no sign of forced entry. He was in the living room when he heard the screech of tires and roar of sirens out front. Starsky had commandeered a black and white, and with Dobey in the passenger seat, was driving it like a man possessed. Behind them was another black and white, and the crime lab van.

Starsky was racing across the ratty lawn toward the side door with Dobey several paces behind with two uniformed officers. Hutch met them at the door.

"It's upstairs. I think you should take the back stairs, because part of it's on the front staircase. I've checked the rest of the house. It's clear--no sign of forced entry.'' Hutch had pulled himself under control well, but Starsky still gave his arm a brief squeeze as he hurried past him.

Starsky led the way upstairs, with Dobey, Hutch and the other officers close behind. He spotted a few of the roses near Hutch's bedroom door, and braced himself for something unpleasant. The sight seemed to shock him almost as much as it had his partner. He pulled forward one of the lab people who had joined the group and instructed him to photograph the scene from all angles. Hutch was relieved to have Starsky in the driver's seat, with Dobey looking over his shoulder. He felt a little ineffectual following the lab people around and pointing out the roses on the staircase, but he still had no desire to spend much time in that room looking at the mannequin wearing a dress almost identical to the one Sandra would have worn on their wedding day--but instead, wore on the day of her death.

"This's blood, Cap.'' Starsky motioned to another member of the crime lab team, who began taking scrapings from several spots on the grisly message.

"No sign of forced entry...who else has keys to your house?'' Dobey led the way out of the room.

"No one that we know of. I'll get a hold of the realtor and find out if she knows of any other possibles on that.'' Starsky scratched his head and watched the lab team checking the room out carefully, even picking up hairs from the carpeting. He snorted a little laugh to himself. As in most cases, they'd most likely end up with a bag of hair and dust bunnies traceable to the occupant of the room.

The mannequin was wrapped in plastic and removed for further analysis at the lab. The roses were bagged and the stairs meticulously inspected for any traces of hair, dirt, footprints or any other sort of trace evidence. This, of course, gave them more busy work to follow up on--now they could try badgering every source of mannequins in the area. More dead end busy work, Starsky thought defeatedly. He went out to join Hutch and the uniformed officers on the lawn in deciding how they would split up to question the neighbors. Hutch had already claimed the Mulberry Street homes, planning to get a good look at the swastika flag's owners. Starsky decided he would go along on that little errand. They would leave the other neighbors to the black and white units.

The house in question was fairly well-kept, though the lawn and shrubbery could have been better maintained. The large white house was about the same size as their own, if not slightly bigger, with black shutters and a red front door. Hutch rang the bell, and they waited for a response. Since it was the middle of the work day, it wouldn't be unusual for no one to be home, so they were about to leave when the door opened and a bleary-eyed man peered out at them. He was unshaven, in an undershirt and shorts, probably in his mid-30s. His blond hair was close-cropped in almost a crew cut.

"Yeah?'' His demeanor was not friendly.

"I'm Detective Hutchinson, this is Detective Starsky. We'd like to ask you a few questions--''

"About what?''

"We're your new neighbors, directly behind you,'' Starsky spoke up. "Someone broke in and--''

"You accusin' me of something, Jew-boy?''

"Listen, you--''

"Hutch, let it go--it's not worth the effort. No, we're not accusing you of anything, Mr....?''

"Schoemacher.''

"Mr. Schoemacher. We had an intruder enter the house at some point today, and we're trying to determine if any of the neighbors saw or heard anything out of the ordinary.''

"I work nights. I've been asleep all afternoon...til now. I gotta get ready for work and get something to eat, so if that's all...'' He started closing the door.

"No, that's not all,'' Hutch interrupted, reaching out a hand to push the door back from closing. "I just want you to know I'm going to be watching you...very closely. Just keep that in mind.''

"Yeah? And I don't want you and your Jew on my property again--keep that in mind.''

Starsky grabbed the arm that was headed to stop the slamming door yet again. "Hutch, let it go. He wants a scene. We're not givin' him one.''

"What's with you? Doesn't it bother you--''

"Not here. Let's check with the other neighbors and get this over with.'' Starsky started down the front steps. Hutch was a little dumbfounded. In the old days, this whole discussion would have been reversed. Starsky was usually the one to swing first and ask questions later. Hutch considered his partner's restraint and maturity to be impressive.

A thorough check of all the neighbors didn't reveal any new information. No one had seen or heard anything unusual. The lab reported that the message on Hutch's wall was indeed written in blood, and traces of it were human, possibly Sandra's. The prevailing opinion was that a small portion of Sandra's blood had been mixed with the blood of a goat to produce enough to paint the message. No other promising results had been gleaned from the evidence by a little after seven, when Starsky announced he was finished with the day and was ready to go home. The subject of Schoemacher and his anti-Semitism hadn't come up again, but the moment they were alone in the Mercury and headed away from the precinct toward home, Hutch revived it.

"You still haven't told me why you're so calm about that fanatic that lives behind us.''

"I'm not calm about it.''

"Starsky, for God's sake, will you say something? Tell me what you're thinking.''

"I'm thinking that all my life I wanted a house like ours, and that I love that house and I was so excited about the whole thing...and now this happens. I just don't wanna talk about it. And goin' over there and makin' a scene so he can have you hauled up on assault charges isn't gonna solve anything. It's just one of those things.''

"You're not that calm about it, Starsk. I know you.''

"What do you want to hear me say?'' Starsky turned away from staring out the passenger window to gazing penetratingly at his partner. "Do you want me to say that it hurts like hell to be called names and treated like a piece of shit because of your religion? I think that's kind of obvious. In my neighborhood back home, we were such a mixed bag that ethnic slurs didn't accomplish a hell of a lot. Somebody might call me a 'kike', and I'd call him a 'wop', or whatever, and we'd either end up friends or beat the hell out of each other. Most of the time we didn't pick those fights because only a tiny handful of the people there were WASPs. Most of us could be called by some kind of ethnic slur, so tossing 'em at each other was kinda silly.'' Starsky sighed. "First real taste of it I got was when I moved out to LA to live with Aunt Rosie and Uncle Al. I was real popular in high school back home, but out here--they thought I talked funny, I dressed funny, I was the wrong religion--hell, even at home I was out of my element. Uncle Al was raised Jewish but he converted to being Catholic when he married Aunt Rosie, so I finally just blended with the atmosphere and gave up.''

"Didn't they make any attempt to respect your faith?''

"Oh, yeah, I guess. There was a menorah in the house for Hanukkah, but it didn't mean much to anybody but me. And the other holidays--I don't know. They kinda fell by the wayside. I know I don't practice it now the way I ought to, but that doesn't change the fact that's what I am.''

"Starsk, if you want to move out of that house, you know I'll understand.''

"I don't want to move. That bastard's not gonna take that away from us.'' Starsky leaned back in the seat. "It's just something I've gotta try to ignore.''

"I'm probably guilty of not respecting your religion either. I mean, I don't give much thought to what holiday it might be on the Jewish calendar.''

"Yeah, because you don't look at me and see a Jew--or a guy from New York, or a guy whose family was poor--you look at me and you see me.'' Starsky smiled. "So if you forget a few Jewish holidays, it's probably my fault for not teachin' 'em to ya.''

"I notice you taught me about Hanukkah--the one where I feel guilty if I don't buy you a present every night for a week.''

"Hey, you wanna respect my religion, doncha?''

"Turkey,'' Hutch retorted, chuckling a little.

"I'm not gonna let that looney behind us be a problem. He can have his little flag and run around thinking he's part of the master race if it makes him feel better. My grandmother used to say that men who aspire to be dictators do so to compensate for having deficient genitals.''

"Your grandmother said that?'' Hutch's eyes widened as he pulled into the driveway.

"Well, not to me, but I heard her say it to my mother once. I know they giggled about it plenty.''

"I know I'll never look at Schoemacher the same way again,'' Hutch responded, laughing a little.

"Listen, I'm gonna clean things up upstairs. You stay put down here, okay?'' Starsky said as they entered the kitchen.

"That's not fair, Starsk. I'll give you a hand.''

"No you won't. Just take the load off in the living room and I'll go up and get things cleaned up.'' Starsky started pulling cleaning supplies out of the narrow broom closet in the corner of the large kitchen. When he straightened up and turned, Hutch was right behind him and surprised him by pulling him into a close hug.

"What would I do without you, huh?'' Hutch didn't let go.

"More cleaning?'' Starsky offered, returning the pressure. Hutch laughed, and pulled back, still holding Starsky by his upper arms.

"You were right.''

"About what?'' Starsky was completely puzzled by his cheerful partner's behavior, especially in light of the ugly day they'd both had.

"I felt that laugh.'' He released Starsky from the two-handed clutch, and patted his shoulder. "Thank you.''

"It's been a lousy day, buddy. We both need a laugh or two. See if you can find anything good on the tube tonight. I won't be long with this.'' He raised the bucket and mop slightly to illustrate his point as he started up the back stairs.

Hutch went to the downstairs study which they had turned into a TV room and looked up the night's listings. And he truly did wonder what he would have ever done if Starsky hadn't survived his brush with death at Gunther's hands. He shook off the grim thought and relaxed on Starsky's old couch, listening to the sounds of life and movement from the second floor...and he relished the warm feeling of being home.

Starsky mumbled a few obscenities at the stubborn stains on Hutch's wall that refused to budge. He had gotten the majority of the gruesome message removed but a sufficient trace of it remained to make repainting the wall a given. He also figured that Hutch wouldn't really be comfortable sleeping in there, but would of course deny that and try it anyway. Feeling the drain of the long day, he plodded to the linen closet, pulled out a fresh set of sheets and made up the guest bedroom across from his room. Glad to be finished at last with the work, he returned the cleaning supplies to the laundry room behind the kitchen and went to join his partner in the TV room.

Hutch was sound asleep on the couch, TV Guide open on his stomach, almost obscured by one large hand that had been holding it. The TV was on, so Starsky settled into a nearby chair and started channel-hopping with the remote until he found an episode of "Lou Grant''. Relieved to lose himself in someone else's angst for awhile, he settled in to watch. His own dozing was short-lived when his partner's agitated vocalizations shook him out of his sleep. Damn it. The nightmares are back. "Hey, buddy, it's me. Come on, wake up.'' Starsky got up and crouched next to the couch. "Hutch, you're dreaming. Come on, partner.'' He shook Hutch gently, and the other finally opened his eyes, a little frantically at first, until he focused on Starsky.

"It's you,'' he mumbled sleepily, falling back onto the couch and closing his eyes again.

"Who were you expectin'?'' Starsky asked with a grin.

"You don't wanna know,'' Hutch replied grimly, rubbing his face a couple of times and pulling his hair back off his forehead.

"Wanna talk about it?'' Starsky expertly aimed the remote over his shoulder and turned off the TV, settling himself on the floor next to the couch.

"Not much to talk about. Just...that thing that was on the bed upstairs...only this time, it got up...it was Sandra...damn it, Starsk, it was so real. But the dress was white, and she was...almost blue under it, the way somebody looks on the slab.''

"God, that was an ugly one.'' Starsky rolled his eyes. "Anything happen, or was she just standing there?''

"She started walking toward me, and...there was blood...dripping...'' Hutch's voice broke but he fought to continue, "She was coming out of the room toward me, so when you shook me, I thought...''

"I'm sorry, babe.'' Starsky sat on the edge of the couch and laid his hand on Hutch's shoulder. "I promise you we're gonna get this creep.''

"It won't bring her back,'' Hutch responded in a broken voice.

"No, you're right about that, pal.'' Starsky just sat there in silence, slowly massaging the spot on Hutch's shoulder where his hand rested. Damn the psycho. He had to do this and start up those god-awful nightmares again.

"I miss her so much,'' Hutch murmured.

"I know. I do too, partner. She used to stick up for me once in awhile.''

"A couple of junk food addicts, you two,'' Hutch admonished with the trace of a smile in his voice.

"At least when she got to pick the restaurant they served something that wasn't green, leafy and healthy.'' Starsky felt a lump in his own throat. Sandra had been a third member of their inner circle, not just "Hutch's girlfriend''. She had teased Hutch mercilessly about his health food interests, much to Starsky's delight, and she had even purposely misconstrued the "me and thee'' term, backing out of some of their bickering with the disclaimer "This is one of those 'he and me' things again.'' Like Terry, she loved them both, teased them both, and treated their friendship as a given, making Starsky feel welcome anytime he was included in one of their outings. She had even talked to him about Terry, and on Terry's birthday, which Starsky had told Sandra was still a hard day for him, had given him a gift. She had paid to have a star named for Terry in the Star Registry, and even had a little map of the constellations so she could point it out to him. It seemed like he had forgotten to mourn the friend he'd lost in Sandra, feeling like his grief was far too insignificant when compared to Hutch's.

"Starsk?'' Hutch seemed surprised to see his partner in as bad a shape as he was. "What is it?''

"Sandy,'' Starsky replied simply, using the nickname that only he was allowed to get away with. Sandra firmly insisted on being called by her full name to everyone else, but she always let Starsky call her Sandy. "She was a really good friend.''

"She was, wasn't she?'' Hutch smiled. "Makes me so angry sometimes, when I think about her and Terry. What life would have been like if...''

"Sandy would've liked Terry.''

"One big happy family,'' Hutch answered, sadly.

"Do you ever feel like there's just no chance to find anybody else like that?'' Starsky asked, wishing he hadn't turned this into making Hutch console him.

"Every day. You've seen a lot of women since Terry, even gotten kind of serious with a couple, but you haven't found 'the one' again either.''

"I always thought that idea that there's only one right person for you out there was a crock of shit--you know, with all the people in the world, statistically, it would seem like there oughtta be a whole bunch you could get along with.''

"I agree with that. But I also think the number of soulmates you run into is pretty limited.'' Hutch shifted positions and Starsky moved to the other end of the couch so his partner could sit up and put his feet back on the floor.

"True.'' Starsky nodded. "Wait here.'' Starsky disappeared from the room and Hutch could hear him rifling through one of the boxes still stacked in the corner of the living room. He returned with a fat photo envelope. "I got these developed right after...well, I didn't think you'd want to see them then, but since you had such an ugly vision of Sandy just now, maybe these'll help.'' He handed Hutch the envelope and sat next to him on the couch. Hutch opened the envelope and pulled out the stack of pictures. Some of them were just shots of the little house he and Sandra had bought, Starsky's before and after pictures, but in many shots, Sandra was striking a pose. She always liked to ham it up for the camera, and Starsky, loving photography the way he did, adored her as a subject.

Hutch laughed out loud at a shot of her stretched out in a full length pose on the kitchen counter, with a small paintbrush clenched in her teeth as if it were a rose, dressed in her jeans and an old work shirt. Another shot showed her sitting cross-legged in the middle of the floor of the living room before the painting and carpeting was started, curling her lip and pointing downward at the horrible-looking brown carpeting that was eventually torn out and replaced.

"I didn't know she was in so many of those shots.''

"Well, I showed up with the camera, and you know her,'' Starsky replied, laughing a little. Then Hutch came across what Starsky considered the best treasure of his photo session: the picture Huggy had taken of all three of them, disheveled and grubby from a day of painting, Sandra sitting on the middle rungs of the ladder with "her two favorite guys'', as she called them, standing on either side of her.

"I think we've found the one we get framed.'' Hutch smiled at Starsky, who grinned back.

"Consider it done.''

"We better call it a night. Early call in the morning.'' Hutch stood up and started toward the door of the room.

"I fixed up the guest bedroom for ya. I couldn't get your wall totally cleaned off, and I thought it might be a little...nicer. I put some of your stuff in there, too, so you oughtta be able to just use that room and not have to go in the other one. I'm gonna get some stuff at work tomorrow from one of the guys in housekeeping--they have a cleaner that's supposed to work on...those kinds of stains.''

"Thanks, buddy. Goodnight.''

"'night, Hutch.''

"You coming up?''

"Pretty soon, yeah.''

"Okay. See you in the morning.'' Hutch left the room and Starsky could hear his footsteps on the stairs. He tucked the photos back in the envelope and made a mental note to drop off the negative for an enlargement.