5

If ever the going got rough

You never were the kind

To think of backing down,

So when you got more than your share

In a minute,

I knew your heart was in it,

Knew that it would make you be your best

Put you to the test

But if sometimes it seems not worth the battle

That's when you'll see

You can count on me

Because I'm with you all the way...

 

Over the next several days, the detectives, along with a small task force hand-picked by Dobey, followed up numerous leads--essentially, legwork--in what was beginning to seem like a vain hunt for "The Bridegroom''. Three days after the mannequin was left in Hutch's room, Ian Gardner went to the press, angry at the lack of action by the police department. The killer was quickly named "The Bridegroom'', and every newspaper and tabloid in the country jumped on the bandwagon with the predictable cheesy headlines: "Death Did Them Part'', "Until Death Do Us Part'', "Roses for the Bride'' and "Marriage Can Be Murder'' were only a few. The reporters somehow scouted out photos of the victims from family or friends, photos of Hutch, photos of Starsky and Hutch together, along with the exposé of how one victim's fiancé was being allowed to spearhead the investigation and question of how appropriate that was. Dobey spent most of his time barking "no comment'' into his phone or dancing while the commissioner and the DA shot at his feet.

The receipt found in Coral Rutherford's bedroom wasn't a terribly solid lead. Officers questioned the management, interrogated every employee, but only a couple of customers who had bought new basketballs from Al's Sporting Goods had made any impression the clerks. One of those customers was an eighty-year-old woman who bought the ball for her grandson, and the other was a young man, whose good looks had attracted the attention of the co-ed who had been working the register at the time. Even so, no one remembered anything outstanding or distinguishing about anyone who bought a basketball on August 17th, the date on the receipt.

Two area stores reported stolen mannequins, and one warehouse manager where a couple of major stores stored their spares admitted he wouldn't be sure if one was missing or not. One mannequin was located, dressed in tassels and lace underwear in a fraternity house on a nearby campus, and the other was unaccounted for, though the manager said he thought it was a brunette anyway.

The roses were the best lead. An expert said they appeared to be fresh from a garden, which would have to be fairly extensive and well-kept to produce that number of perfect specimens all at once. There were no signs of disease or insect infestation on any of the flowers, which the expert informed them was commendable and probably the result of tireless fertilizing, spraying and ideal conditions. The quest for area rose enthusiasts commenced.

There were only a few wedding-related links between the three women. All three had tried on dresses at two specific boutiques and sampled the foods of one particular caterer, who turned out to be an elderly woman who did all her own cooking out of her kitchen and didn't own a single rose bush. All employees of the two shops were re-interrogated and investigated, but to no avail. No rose experts were uncovered, nor did these people seem likely suspects as serial killers. The vast majority were women, and most of them were settled family people without police records--not that that was any iron-clad guarantee they weren't guilty, but it was a pretty good indicator.

Starsky had a brainstorm that made him the favorite dartboard target of the lower-ranking members of the task force, but since all admitted it had merit, it was put into motion. Scanning all area newspapers for the last year, wedding and engagement announcements were all checked, one-by-one, to uncover any that had ended badly--the wedding canceled, a tragic death or suicide by the bride--anything that would leave a devastated or angry potential groom behind. Then they would find out if there were any rose experts in that crowd--or at least anyone who had close ties or access to someone with an extensive garden.

The investigation and press hassles occupied long hours each day, and by the time the two winded detectives made it home, there was barely time to do anything else but heat up TV dinners, take showers and fall into bed. It was on such an evening that Starsky found an unwelcome greeting in the mailbox. In a plain white business envelope with his name neatly typed on the front was a single sheet of typing paper with a gruesome black and white Holocaust-era photo paper clipped to it. The typed message read: "Hitler had the right idea. Watch your back, Jew-boy.''

"Shit.'' Starsky stuffed it back in its envelope, mindless of prints, his hands shaking slightly. Hutch looked up from his seat at the table where he was finishing off his dinner. Starsky had gone out to pick up the mail, which they had both forgotten at the curb on the way in, while his partner finished eating.

"Bad news?''

"Yeah, you could say that.'' It was obvious by the position of his hands that Starsky was about to tear it in half, but Hutch stood quickly and took the envelope from him.

"You mind?'' he asked before opening it.

"Be my guest.'' Starsky dropped into one of the chairs at the table. Hutch opened the envelope and scanned the contents.

"Damn it. If he thinks for one goddamn minute he's getting away with this--'' Hutch was headed for the door when Starsky stood and grabbed his arm.

"We've got no proof.''

"I've got all the proof I need and you can let go of me.'' Hutch jerked his arm away. "I've had enough of this diplomatic bullshit. This is taking it too far. You are not going to take this from anybody, least of all that sorry piece of shit that's passing for a human being with the Nazi flag in his window!'' Hutch raced down the three steps to the entry way and out the back door, making quick progress toward the car. The wall that ran between the yards made the trip on foot impractical, and unbearable when you were irate and just wanted to get your hands around your neighbor's throat as soon as possible.

"Hutch!'' Starsky missed catching his partner, and he didn't wait for Starsky to catch up to get in the car. He tore out of the driveway practically on two wheels, and took off, tires screeching to pay Mr. Schoemacher a visit.

Starsky jumped in the Torino and pulled out right behind Hutch, figuring someone had to be there to temper what could be a disastrous scene.

The grey Mercury raced up to the curb in front of Schoemacher's white house, and Hutch was already out of the car and halfway up to the porch before Starsky could bring the Torino to a stop and run after him.

"Schoemacher!!'' Hutch pounded on the front door with the side of his fist.

"Hutch, come on--''

"You stay out of this!'' he shouted at Starsky, pointing a long finger directly at him.

"This is about me, damn it!''

"Just back off. I've had all I'm gonna take from this asshole.''

"May I help you?'' A young woman with sandy blonde hair, wearing a bathrobe, yanked open the door, glaring angrily at the two men.

"I wanna see Schoemacher, NOW.'' Hutch flashed his police ID.

"He's not here,'' she responded, deadpan.

"I suppose you wouldn't object if I came in and saw for myself?''

"Yeah, I would, unless you've got a warrant. If you don't, get your ass off my porch.''

"Look, lady, your boyfriend, husband, whatever--just bought himself a whole lotta grief. You pass that message on to him. And tell him to watch his own back.'' Hutch turned and stormed down the front steps, and Starsky followed. They heard the door slam behind them.

"What were you plannin' on doing if he was home?'' Starsky asked as they approached Hutch's car.

"I don't know exactly,'' he admitted. "I saw this...filth and I lost it.'' Hutch gestured with the envelope that was clutched in his hand.

"You know that between the two of us we just destroyed any hope of lifting prints off that thing.''

"Sure, as if the sick SOB wouldn't wear gloves. I'm sure they teach them that in Nazi training.''

"Look, let's go home and get some rest. We'll deal with this in the morning.''

"Starsky, you're so damn calm about this.''

"No I'm not.'' Starsky took a deep breath. "Remember I told you that the adjustment to high school out here wasn't real smooth? Well, my Uncle Al had a theory about jerks who make fun of and hassle other people. You give 'em what they want when you let 'em rile ya up. If you can turn the joke back on them, or just ignore 'em, it drives 'em nuts because it takes away their power. Back home, I had a bunch of friends, and we backed each other up when there was a fight. When I got here, I was all alone. No back up. The best defense--offense, really--for me was to just ignore it or crack a joke. It made the other person look dumber than if I went nuts and tried to take 'em on.'' Starsky glanced back at the house in front of them. "This jerk is no different. He wants a fight. He wants to do something so he can get one of us suspended or tossed off the force for beating him up--preferably me, since I'm the Jew, but you'll do nicely too. He's goading us.''

"He's good at it.''

"Yeah, he is. But we're too smart for that. This kind of stuff gives me chills, and I'm not gonna lie to ya and say it doesn't make me feel bad or depressed or insulted, but it ain't worth givin' him what he wants.''

"I've gotta say I'm surprised at how you're taking this.'' Hutch opened the driver's door of the Mercury and sat in the seat.

"Let's say I've learned to pick my fights a little more wisely. This one ain't worth the hassle. 'Course if I get anything else in the mail, I'll know enough not to handle it like a first year rookie. If he makes another move we can trace, I'll sue the fucker for harassment. We could use the extra money to rebuild the garage.'' Starsky walked back to the Torino and slid behind the wheel. This time, Hutch followed him.

 

Over the next few days, both detectives had their fill of roses. Upon obtaining a list of experts and enthusiasts from two local rose growers' clubs, they spent most days wandering through gardens, assessing how many American Beauty rose bushes were in full bloom, as these were the killer's rose of choice. Most of the gardeners were more than happy to show off their handiwork, even if it was in connection with a murder investigation. None reported any of the blooms being stolen, though at least three elderly women somewhat reluctantly offered lists of friends and family who either requested, received as gifts or cut roses from the gardens.

The wedding announcements from the last year's newspaper clippings unearthed six disgruntled potential grooms: four break-ups and two accidental deaths. None of these people tied in to the rose aspect of the case, and none seemed likely suspects, though all were interviewed and added to the growing collection of three-ring notebooks on a shelf in a special office set up for "The Bridegroom'' task force. Everyone was clocking in tons of overtime, but nothing was fitting together.

The friends and relatives of the rose growers were questioned mostly by the junior members of the task force, who were first-year detectives getting plenty of legwork experience under the tuteledge of the senior members of the team. Starsky, Hutch, Jim Nedloe and Jack Elliot were the primary investigators coordinating the effort, but a newly partnered pair, Grant Shemanski and Christine Walling were the fortunate recipients of all the detail work in support of their more experienced co-workers' brainstorms.

Nedloe and Elliot reviewed the interview results with the younger team, finding four people they felt were worth seriously investigating. One was a middle-aged man with a long history of mental and emotional problems, including some violent episodes involving his ex-girlfriend. Another was a young man Shemanski and Walling described as "surly and uneasy'' with the encounter. The other two were men with criminal records involving assault and robbery respectively. Both had cut the roses themselves from their grandmothers' gardens for their girlfriends.

Hutch was surprised to find a message from Cecile Valentine among the many others waiting on his desk one sunny September morning. Out of curiosity more than interest in Cecile, he dialed the number.

"Cecile Valentine,'' the voice answered crisply.

"Cecile, this is Ken Hutchinson. I have a message here from you.''

"Good morning, Ken. The reason I called was that a friend of mine is opening an exhibit of her paintings Saturday night at a small gallery downtown--the Barrington Gallery--and I wondered if you'd like to come to the opening with me? You mentioned once that you did a little painting yourself, so I thought this might be of interest.''

"Well, that's a really nice offer, Cecile, but--'' He looked up at Starsky, who was giving him an exasperated expression, as if the impending refusal of the invitation was unthinkable. And Starsky was probably right. Going out for an evening on the town would most likely be good for him. Like most things that are good for a person, that didn't make it any more appealing. Nonetheless... "I hope you don't mind that my schedule is a little unpredictable right now. I think I have Saturday night off, and I'd like to go, but I can always get a call--''

"I'll have a lot of friends there, so even if you have to leave unexpectedly, I'll be able to get a ride home. How about it?''

"Sounds great. What time should I pick you up--we can have dinner first.'' He noted Starsky's approving grin and rolled his eyes. After writing down Cecile's address, he hung up and sneered across the desk at his partner. "Happy?''

"Ecstatic.'' Starsky grinned back at him. "She really likes you.''

"Yeah? That's real nice for her, but I'm not really ready to get into anything serious with anybody else. I just don't feel it.''

"Hutch, you don't have to marry her. You're just getting together with her. Believe me, I'm the last person who would think you'd be ready to run out and find a replacement. It doesn't work that way. But it'll do ya good to get out and have a little fun. What're you gonna do?''

"Art gallery opening.''

"Ah,'' Starsky nodded, approving of it for Hutch but infinitely relieved it would be his partner, and not him, standing around staring at abstract paintings for the evening.

"So how about you, Romeo? What big plans have you made for Saturday night?''

"I got a date with a pile of cartons in the living room and your bedroom wall.''

"My what?''

"I'm going to repaint that wall. Aren't ya sick of the guest room yet?''

"Well, yeah, but I can--''

"I said I'd do it. I just haven't had time yet. Now that we're finally getting--supposedly--a weekend off, I've got a list of stuff to do that won't quit.''

"So do I, but you're still pushing me out the door with Cecile.''

"Yeah, but you need a lift. You'll have fun. Cecile seems pretty nice--and she's not too hard to look at, either. Did you see those legs?'' Starsky whispered confidentially across the desk.

"No, I hadn't noticed she had any,'' Hutch snapped back sarcastically. "I've been depressed, Starsk--not dead,'' he retorted, smiling slightly.

"'Sides, I got a date Sunday afternoon with Lola.''

"Lola?'' That name was a new one.

"Remember the curvy Spanish girl with the big, uh, rose garden we talked to?''

"You didn't actually agree to go back there and tour her greenhouse.''

"I'd tour her greenhouse any day of the week.''

"We do have to be back to work Monday.''

"If I don't show up, you'll know she offered to keep me. Did you see that estate? Man, her old man musta been loaded.''

"She probably killed him and buried him under the rose beds. I'm tellin' ya, she's a viper, Starsk.''

"Long, lean and slippery. Couldn't agree with ya more,'' Starsky replied, winking as he strutted to the nearest file cabinet to replace the folders he was carrying.

 

Hutch was a little surprised at himself when he found it hard to figure out what to wear to take Cecile out for the evening. He felt so out of practice at dressing up for anything that his sport coats seemed like foreign garments. He had worn one old battle-scarred one to a couple of court appearances in the interim, but he hadn't been "dressing to impress'' for quite a while. Over five months, he thought, as he straightened his tie, then took it and the shirt back off, opting for a turtleneck instead. Next he tossed that back on the bed and dug through the closet for another shirt. Finally, he settled on a cream-colored dress shirt, open at the neck, a camel-colored sport coat and light brown pants. The knock at the door startled him, and soon was followed by a dark head popping in a small space as the door opened.

"You're gonna be late, blondie. If you spend any more time in front of that mirror, you're gonna put down roots.''

"This was your idea, so don't make any smart ass remarks.''

"This was Cecile's idea. You look fine--now quit messing with your hair and get movin'.''

"Do you think I oughtta shave off the mustache? Sandra always said--''

"Not before you pick Cecile up, you shouldn't. Now come on. You're stalling.''

"Yeah, I know.'' Hutch turned away from the mirror, which he really hadn't been looking at anyway. "It feels...wrong.''

"Going out with somebody? There's nothing wrong with just goin' out for the evening.'' Starsky sat on the foot of the bed. "Look, the first time I went out with somebody after Terry, I felt like I was cheating on her. But then I remembered her telling me that day at the amusement park that I couldn't stop living because she did. Kinda said it all.''

"Well, I guess I am running late. I should be home early.''

"Okay, Ma. I got your number by the phone an' everything.''

"Oh shut up.'' Hutch laughed as he started downstairs with Starsky close on his heels.

"Have fun, okay?'' Starsky followed him to the side door off the kitchen. The builder was due the following week to put on the new front porch, but for now, they were doomed to use the side door with its temperamental lock. "I'll leave this unlocked for ya.''

"Probably better lock it--at least before you turn in.''

"Will you quit obsessing about this and just leave, already?'' Starsky prodded. He watched his partner head for the car.

"Starsk?'' Hutch almost said something more about the lock, not understanding why he was so uneasy on this point. After all, Starsky was a cop, not a little kid on his first night alone. He stifled the impulse.

"What?'' Starsky waited through the long pause.

"Nothin'. See ya later.'' Hutch got in the car and began backing out of the driveway. Starsky was a little puzzled by the aborted statement, but he shrugged it off and headed back to work on painting Hutch's wall.

 

 

Cecile was good company. Hutch hadn't anticipated enjoying himself, but he found the attractive brunette to be as smart as she was pretty. They dined on salad and whitefish at a trendy little restaurant a few blocks from the gallery, and sipped white wine while they discussed art in general. Dressed in a tailored red dress and heels, she looked sophisticated, yet pretty.

"Any progress on the big case?'' she finally asked, as he dreaded she would. The killer had thus far not come to dinner with him, but now he was there.

"We've been following up a ton of leads, and one of them is bound to pan out. It's unfortunately a long process with a lot of unglamourous legwork.''

"I didn't mean to put you on a spot. I imagine it's all confidential.''

"A lot of it is.''

"Ken, I get the feeling you're a little uneasy with this.''

"With what?'' He knew he was guilty as hell and had just been busted, but he tried to deny it a little while longer.

"This evening.'' She was quiet a moment. "I read about what happened to your fiancee, and I want you do know that I'm not interested in pushing you into anything. When I meet someone I like, I want to get to know that person. I was hoping I wouldn't put you off by calling you. Quite frankly if I had waited for you to call me, I'd have been too old to go out after dark.'' Something in the remark struck Hutch funny, and he laughed. Again, he was guilty as charged, and he was glad Starsky had pushed him into going out with Cecile. They visited awhile longer and then started out for the gallery.

 

 

Starsky backed away from the wall, happy to see the paint had covered the ghost of the message easily. Of course, it was possible it would show through after it dried, but not likely. He checked his watch. Nine-thirty. Hutch should be hob-nobbing with the artsy set by now, he thought, smiling to himself as he cleaned up the paint supplies and started toward the stairs. He was surprised to hear the side door open and the sound of footsteps on the first floor.

"Hutch? Hey, what're you doin' home so early?'' he called downstairs as he descended the back staircase carefully carrying the roller tray he planned to dump in the laundry room sink. There was no response to his question. "Hutch?'' He set the tray in the big double sink, dried his hands on an old towel hung there and went out to the kitchen to find his partner.

 

Hutch dropped Cecile off at her apartment near midnight. He'd had a good time, and he made plans with her to get together for lunch one day during the week. He wasn't ready to pursue anything too hot and heavy, and she seemed to realize that and was not offended by his refusal of her offer of a nightcap. He found himself humming along with the radio on the way home.

The house was completely dark when he pulled into the driveway. That was a little peculiar because normally, if not on a date, Starsky would be glued to a late night creature feature on a Saturday night. Hutch figured his partner had gotten tired and turned in for an early night's sleep. He was a little disturbed to find the side door still unlocked, but assumed Starsky probably forgot it or decided to leave it that way.

Hutch flipped on the kitchen light and froze at what he saw. The table was turned on its side, the chairs tossed aside--one of them broken, and several dishes that had been sitting on the counter top were scattered, broken, on the floor.

Drawing his gun, Hutch made his way stealthily to the doorway between the dining room and kitchen. He slowly pushed the swinging door open and saw nothing but darkness until the yellow kitchen light cast a glow into another ransacked room. Not only was the large dining room table overturned, but it looked as if it had been chopped with an axe, with two of its legs broken off, and several horrible marks on the surface. The french doors leading to the living room had been devastated: the frames hacked ruthlessly, and all the beveled glass broken out and scattered on the floor.

He resisted the urge to call out to Starsky. He knew he should call for back up and not go further alone, but all he could picture was what condition his partner must be in, somewhere in the ruined house. The extent of the damage was only a sideline technical fact in his mind. Starsky was his greatest worry now, and even in the vandalized living room, there was no sign of him. The walls, however, told a story. Swastikas were spray painted in black in four different places, every picture that had been on the mantel had been broken out of its frame and either torn or defaced, the most vicious emphasis on the photos of Starsky's family. The living room French doors were also destroyed. What ultimately stopped Hutch in his tracks to briefly marvel at the hideousness of the damage was the massacred staircase. Only the steps were intact. The banister, obviously pummeled with an axe, just vaguely resembled its former self. But the banister in the open portion of the upstairs hall was all in one piece, and what he saw there froze him momentarily. He could see Starsky's hands, crossed one in front of the other, somehow attached to the railing as he slumped against it in the upstairs hall.

"Starsky!'' Hutch raced up the stairs and dropped to his knees next to his partner. "Starsk? It's me.'' He checked the pulse, which was strong, though rapid. His face was badly bruised, his shirt rumpled, torn and hanging haphazardly on his battered body. His wrists were bound together, and then tethered to the banister using his belt, his arms stretched tautly above his head. Given his probable injuries, he may have passed out from the pain if not a blow.

Hutch fumbled with the twisted leather and belt buckle, finally liberating the other's arms. There was a little whimper and movement of swollen facial features as he lowered them.

"It's okay, babe. It's just me. It's Hutch, buddy. I'm right here.'' He worked furiously at freeing the bound wrists, and carefully slid his semi-conscious partner to lie on his back on the floor, tucking his jacket under Starsky's blood-matted curls. He took advantage of his partner's dazed state long enough to leave him to call for an ambulance. He rushed into Starsky's room and yanked a blanket off the bed and returned to where Starsky lay on the floor. A quick assessment told him there were cracked or possibly broken ribs on one side, some type of head injury which had produced a fair amount of blood and judging by the raw, bloody marks on his wrists, he had been restrained a long while. He carefully covered his friend.

"Starsk, it's me. Come on, babe, can ya hear me?'' He took Starsky's hand and leaned in close to his face. "I'm right here. It's all over. I'm right here, buddy. You're safe now.''

"Hutch?'' The voice was weak and strained, and Starsky barely opened his eyes to slits.

"Right here, babe. Right here.'' He stroked back through the other's hair. "Shhh. Don't try to talk,'' he responded to the constricted expression on Starsky's face. Hutch pulled out his handkerchief and blotted up a little of the blood that was still oozing from Starsky's nose and the corner of his mouth. He was relieved to see the blood around his partner's mouth appeared to be coming from a split in his lip and not from deeper inside.

"Hurts,'' Starsky whispered, a single tear rolling slowly from the corner of one swollen eye.

"I know, pal.'' Hutch caught the tear with a clean spot on the handkerchief. "Your side mostly?''

"Uh-huh...'n' m'hair,'' he mumbled.

"Your hair? You mean your head, pal?''

"Pulled...m'hair...Hutch?''

"What, buddy?''

"Don't let him...'' He reached weakly up at his partner with the hand Hutch wasn't already holding. "Help me...''

"Ambulance is on the way. I'll be right here with you, babe. Just hang in there.'' He captured the questing hand with his free one, and noticed it was bruised and swollen. He held it much more gently than the other. "Who did this, Starsk?''

"Four or five of 'em...big...bigger'n you...taller...'' Starsky winced again.

"Okay. Just relax. You don't have to talk anymore.''

"Ski masks...I can't...ID 'em.''

"Doesn't matter, pal. Just relax.'' Hutch was pleased to hear the bellow of Dobey's voice downstairs, directing the ambulance attendants up the mangled staircase to the second floor. The captain had made good time meeting the ambulance there, as he only lived about five minutes from his two detectives' new home--two or three minutes with lights and siren.

Hutch tried to stay in Starsky's line of vision while the paramedics checked him out and prepared him to be moved to the gurney.

"What the hell happened here?'' Dobey asked, looking a bit frazzled. Dressed in an old suit of sweats, he had obviously not lost any time getting himself together and beating the ambulance to the scene.

"I came home and found him tied to the banister up here. The house was trashed...he says four or five guys in ski masks did it--all larger than I am. That's the most he can tell us right now.''

"How bad is he?'' Dobey asked quietly.

"He's been worked over pretty well, but I didn't see any bullet or knife wounds. He's got a good sized lump on the back of his head, and some bleeding from it. I know who did this. And I'm gonna go settle it right now!'' Hutch started down the hall but Dobey grabbed his arm and yanked him back.

"If you've got a lead, Hutchinson, you give it to me and I'll follow it up.'' He assessed the fire in Hutch's eyes, the readiness to defy any authority that stood between him and the person he believed had hurt Starsky. "If this is what I think it is--a hate crime--your partner's going to need you. Trust me--I'll follow up on this situation most assertively. Now who do you suspect?''

"This one's mine, Captain,'' Hutch said in low, but firm, voice.

"That partner is yours, and it's a pretty safe bet he's been through hell here tonight. You take care of him and let me take care of business. If you go off like some kind of half-assed vigilante, you're just going to ruin our chances at a good bust. Now who do you think did this?''

"Schoemacher and his goons. The nut that lives in the white house right behind us. He's got a Nazi flag in his back window, he insulted Starsky to his face and sent him a threatening note with a picture of a concentration camp mass grave several days ago.''

"And this is the first I'm hearing about it?''

"We both handled the note and the envelope, as well as the picture. There were no decent prints to be had there. We went over there, and his wife claimed he wasn't home and refused to let us in. I guess it was his wife... At any rate, we haven't heard any more about it. Until tonight.''

"The white house out back?''

"That's the one.''

"I'll take a black and white over there and check it out. Now you stick with Starsky. I think you know I'll do everything I can on this one.''

"I know. Thanks. Thanks for getting here so fast tonight.'' Dobey just waved a hand of acknowledgment toward him as he hurried down the back stairs to find officers to accompany him on his visit to the neighbors.

Starsky seemed to be drifting in and out of consciousness in the ambulance, and that made Hutch reluctant to cooperate with waiting outside the emergency room. The only thing Starsky did when he came around was ask for Hutch and reach for him. Up to that moment, Hutch had been there every time.

He paced the hall like a caged animal, trying to drink a cup of coffee kindly offered by a nurse. He was relieved to see Nedloe and Elliot hurrying through the entrance.

"We just heard on the radio about Starsky,'' Jim spoke up immediately. "How's he doin'?''

"Don't know yet. They're still checking him out.''

"One of the guys down at the precinct said he heard something about Nazis,'' Jack added.

"They really trashed the house, spray painted swastikas all around. We've got a nut living behind us who has a flag in his window.''

"Isn't it a little stupid then for him to attack Starsky? I mean, why not just invite the cops over to watch?'' Jim sat on the end of a couch, and finally Hutch stopped pacing and occupied the other end of it. Jack took a nearby chair, slumping in it slightly.

"I know, but I don't know as this guy is long on brains. He's sure got enough hate to go around, though.'' Hutch shook his head.

"How bad's the damage?'' Jack asked.

"I couldn't give a damn less about the house.'' Hutch stood up and started pacing again. "What the hell are they doing in there?'' he erupted. Just then, a doctor in turquoise scrubs approached him.

"You must be Hutch,'' he said with a smile.

"Is he asking for me?''

"Well, it's about the only word we've heard for the last several minutes. I think I heard it in response to 'does this hurt', 'how did this happen', and 'take a deep breath'.'' The doctor's young, bearded face was wreathed in a reassuring smile. He adjusted his wire-framed glassed on the bridge of his nose. "I'm not making light of this--is it Mr. Hutch?''

"Hutch is fine.''

"Like I was saying, Hutch, I'm not trying to minimize that your friend's been through a lot of pain and apparently a very traumatic experience. But there doesn't appear to be any serious internal damage. His kidneys are bruised--he's taken some heavy blows. He's got four cracked ribs on the left side, a concussion, and more bruises than you'd want to count, but all in all, I feel he'll make a full recovery barring any unforeseen complications.''

"Which could include?''

"Well, in an extreme situation, his kidneys could malfunction if the trauma was severe enough, but I don't anticipate that in this case. He is coherent though not terribly cooperative. I'm going to move him to a private room for tonight, because I think he needs some peace and quiet. I want him observed closely on the outside chance of any kidney problems or complications from the concussion. Incidentally, when he talks about his hair hurting? There's an area where a clump of hair was pulled out forcibly. My guess would be that whoever did this pulled him in a direction he didn't want to go, and his hair went with them but he didn't. It'll grow back, but it probably hurts like hell right now.''

"When can I see him?''

"As soon as we get him settled in his room. I--''

"I want to stay with him. He's been through something--''

"That's no problem. That's one of the reasons I ordered a private room, because I had a feeling he probably shouldn't be left alone given what he's been through. The only way we settled him down at all was promising him he'd get to see you as soon as we were done. The nurse will come and get you in about ten minutes or so. He'll be on the sixth floor.''

"Thanks, Doctor...''

"Stevenson. Rob Stevenson.'' He extended a hand and Hutch shook it. "I'll be on duty tonight, so I'll be checking on him from time to time. We're going to go ahead and let him sleep a little if he wants, but we still need to wake him periodically because of the head injury.''

"Okay. Thanks.'' Hutch watched him retreat down the hall and back through a set of double doors.

"Sounds pretty hopeful.'' Jim joined Hutch where he stood.

"I'm more worried about the whole experience than I am the injuries. Those heal.''

"Hutch, I've been fortunate enough not to be a victim of a crime like that, but I have a couple of friends who have had racially-motivated incidents in their lives. It makes you feel real bad, but when you once see that you're not the one who's deficient or has a real problem, it gets better.''

"Thanks for coming by,'' Hutch said as he walked back with Jim closer to where Jack was sprawled, half-dozing, in the chair.

"We were just coming off a double shift. I'm going to drive the zombie over here home,'' Jim pointed a thumb toward his yawning partner.

"I'm gettin' too damned old for this schedule,'' Jack grumbled as he pulled himself to his feet. "Hey, tell Starsky to hang in there. We'll stop by and give him a hard time tomorrow.''

"Just like any other day,'' Jim chimed in.

"I'll tell him. Thanks again.'' Hutch watched them walk out, grateful for the tension-breaker when he needed it most. He only had a few more minutes to wait before the nurse appeared and escorted him to Starsky's room.

The two or three minutes seemed to expand, and Hutch found himself increasingly uneasy at waiting for the nurse. Besides, it was rare for either of them to observe strict hospital etiquette when waiting to see the other after being brought in with an injury. Hutch proceeded up to the sixth floor himself, trying his best to discreetly peek into the little square windows in the doors until he approached one he didn't have to investigate through the window. He heard Starsky's voice very distinctly.

"...to leave me alone and let Hutch do it.''

"Hutch isn't a nurse, Mr. Starsky,'' a female voice replied, sounding strained to its limits of courtesy. The word "Hutch'' had received an extraordinarily sarcastic emphasis. "Please lie back. I know you're uncomfortable, but we can't put you on your left side, now can we?''

"Hey, buddy, how're you doin'?'' Hutch made his entrance, exasperating the nurse further and spreading a look of peace over his partner's bruised features.

"I'm trying to get him settled into bed. Maybe you can talk some sense into him,'' the nurse replied sternly.

"I can take care of doing that.'' Hutch approached the bed where Starsky sat, but received a glare from the nurse. Hutch felt Starsky's hand slip into the hand that was hanging at his side, as if he wanted to physically restrain Hutch from leaving him. Hutch said nothing, but held the hand firmly against his side, to reassure his partner that he had no intention of going anywhere.

"Mr. Hutch--''

"Hutchinson,'' Hutch corrected tersely, sufficiently unhappy with the nurse's abrupt demeanor around his partner. Starsky could be exasperating to hospital personnel, but anyone with two eyes could see he'd been through enough that night without getting the stern treatment from the nurses.

"Mr. Hutchinson, I'm sure you are aware that your friend here has a number of injuries and shouldn't be irresponsibly jostled around--''

"Look, Ms...Halleran,'' he read off her tag, "I spent many hours taking care of my partner while he recovered from extensive surgical repair of the damage caused by multiple slugs from an automatic. I didn't 'irresponsibly jostle' him then and I have no plans to start now. If they trusted me in the ICU of this same hospital to turn him when he needed it, I think you can probably trust me on this one. Furthermore, if he wants me to do it for him, I'm going to be the one who does it.''

"Fine.'' She turned and marched toward the door and finally, blessedly, was out of the room.

"Already making friends with the natives, eh, buddy?'' Hutch teased gently as he released Starsky's hand and began fluffing the pillows on the bed where Starsky remained sitting tentatively on the edge. It was a relief to see his partner upright and fully conscious. "Where does it hurt, huh?'' Hutch's soft, solicitous question was almost more than Starsky could answer past the lump in his throat. Enduring over two hours with the gang that broke into the house, all he'd wanted to hear was Hutch coming home for real. Now here he was. The relief was overwhelming. "Starsk?'' Hutch sat next to him on the bed. "Hurts just about everywhere, doesn't it?'' He caught a tear that was escaping his friend's eye with the light brush of a thumb.

"She wanted me on my back,'' he responded. "It hurts, Hutch. I don't wanna be on my back.''

"The doctor said you had a couple nasty blows to the kidneys. He doesn't think they'll be any serious problem...just sore.''

"Not just that...it's all over,'' he said quietly.

"All over?'' Hutch leaned back and untied the neck of the hospital gown. He found Starsky's back to be a mass of bruises. "And she wanted you on your back...my God.'' He fought tears that were welling in his eyes and retied the gown. Standing up, he patted Starsky's shoulder gently. "Wait right here. We need more pillows.''

Hutch scanned the quiet hall for some sign of a friendly nurse. He was beginning to think that was a contradiction in terms, given their recent experience. So many wonderful nurses during Starsky's recovery from the Gunther ordeal, all very sensitive and solicitous...how could they draw this one jerk on tonight of all nights?

"Can I help you?'' Hutch spun around, surprised to see a pleasant smile, attached to a candy-striper.

"I need pillows--my friend does. I'm trying to get him settled, and...he's pretty bruised up so I can't just put him flat on his back.''

"He's in 619?'' she asked, gesturing toward the room behind Hutch.

"Yes.''

"I'll be right back.'' He watched as she hurried down the hall. She was probably near 30 years old, a bit older than the average candy-striper, with medium-length sandy hair. A very average-looking woman who seemed like an angel at the moment. He ducked back in the room to find Starsky still sitting dutifully where he'd been left.

"A candy striper is getting us some extra pillows.''

"My right side hurts, too.''

"I'm hoping if we get enough pillows under you we can put you sort of on your right side, maybe leaning back a little. Don't worry. We'll figure it out, buddy.''

"Pillow delivery,'' the candy striper announced cheerfully as she came into the room wheeling a laundry cart full of fluffy white pillows. Hutch liked the way her mind worked. "I figured I'd just bring a whole pile of 'em so we could use as many as we need. Would you like some help?''

Hutch glanced at Starsky, and his partner nodded, realizing Hutch seemed hopeful for an affirmative answer.

Between the candy striper, whose name turned out to be Wendy, and Hutch, they loaded the bed with pillows and managed to get Starsky propped in a position, much like Hutch had described to him, which defied even Starsky to complain. He was surrounded by softness on all sides, but his weight still supported so it didn't pull on the injured ribs. There was even an especially fat pillow for his left arm to rest on so it didn't press on his side. Wendy put up the left side rail to keep it all securely in place, and smiled at the relaxed look on the patient's face.

"You look pretty comfortable there, David,'' she said, smiling as she smoothed the blanket one last time before stepping back from the bed. "Mind if I come visit you tomorrow night and see how you're doing?''

"I'd like that,'' he said, smiling back at her.

"It's a date then. You get some rest now.'' She started out of the room past Hutch.

"Thanks for all your help,'' Hutch called after her.

"Don't mention it.'' She smiled warmly back at him and exited with her laundry cart bearing only one of the several pillows she'd shown up with. Hutch hoped no one else on that floor needed an extra anytime soon...

"Feel better?'' Hutch took a seat on the right edge of the bed. Starsky slid his arm around his partner's forearm so that his badly bruised right hand rested on Hutch's elbow.

"Yeah, lots.'' Starsky tried a grin, but the swelling around his mouth prevented it from resembling much more than a grimace.

"What happened to this guy, huh?'' Hutch reached around to gently cover the hand on his arm. Starsky seemed to pause before answering, then forged ahead.

"One of 'em stepped on it when I reached for Terry's picture. I...I didn't want to watch them...tear it up. I was on the floor in the living room, and they were just taking their time destroying...all our pictures.''

"How long were they there, babe?'' Hutch asked softly.

"Couple of hours. I heard 'em come in downstairs about 9:30, I think, 'cause I remember thinkin' it was awful early for you to be getting home.''

"You want to talk about it?'' Hutch asked, rubbing lightly the spot on Starsky's arm where his hand rested.

"I'm sorry about the house, Hutch,'' he said in a choked whisper.

"Hey, you've got nothing to be sorry about, buddy.''

"Did you see what they did?'' Starsky shook his head. "We can't ever fix it.''

"Of course we can fix it.'' Hutch brushed a tear off Starsky's cheek. "You don't have to worry about that now.''

"But they just...destroyed the whole thing. The staircase and the French doors and all the stuff that made it so...special.'' He shook his head slightly. "You were right all along...we shoulda never bought it.''

"No, I wasn't right all along. Starsk, that house is feeling like home...for a lot of reasons, none of which involved the woodwork. You know that feeling of 'home' I was talking about before?'' Starsky nodded, swallowing back tears that seemed insistent on escaping. "Well, I still feel it. Right here in this stupid hospital room. It's that feeling that comes from being with your family, and you don't need a particular building to feel that.'' He smiled down at his partner, who still looked as miserable as before. "There's only one thing in that house I can't replace, and that's you, pal.'' He watched the bobbing Adam's apple for a moment.

"I just wanted to hear you come home...so they'd...stop,'' he murmured. "I didn't want you to get hurt...but I just wanted them to leave me alone.''

"I know, pal. I wish I'd gotten there sooner. Everything's gonna be okay, I promise. We'll fix everything up the way it was...or we'll find another fixer-upper we like better, huh?'' Hutch was relieved to see a little ray of happiness in his partner's face.

"You'd buy another house with me?'' Starsky asked, sounding surprised, as if he'd only narrowly convinced Hutch to do it the first time.

"Why shouldn't I? You a bad credit risk or something?'' Hutch smiled. "Get some rest, buddy. I'll be right here. The doctor's going to come check up on that thick skull of yours, so don't be surprised if you get disturbed in a little while.''

"They're gonna want a statement.''

"Not tonight, partner. Not til you're rested up and feel ready.''

"It was pretty awful, Hutch...the things they said...things about my mother...stuff you just can't let pass, ya know? I mean, I knew I was outnumbered no matter what I did, but I couldn't just listen to it and not...not do something. But what happened to the house is my fault. If I'd'a done what he told me to do...well, I think they were afraid of killin' me or something because finally they stopped beating me and started on the house...which was better than what they did after that...they pushed me down on the floor and then they were on either side, just...kicking me hard as they could...everywhere.'' Starsky shuddered visibly. "I think that's when the ribs went.''

"What did he tell you to do that you wouldn't?'' Hutch asked gently, watching Starsky's eyes drop so only the motion of the lashes blinking let him know they were still open.

"Lick his boots.'' Starsky looked up at him with an expression that was pure Starsky arrogance and defiance. "I told him to go fuck himself.'' He seemed a little fueled by that declaration, and he continued. "And I gave the bastard a half dozen other anatomical suggestions of what he could do with his boots. He beat the hell out of me with these other two holding me, but as long as I had wind, I kept tellin' him off.''

"Was this before or after they kicked you?''

"Before. I couldn't move very much right after. I was just sort of curled up in a ball on the floor. That's when they started yelling at me to get up, hitting me on the back with something...a couple of things, I guess...I didn't look. I couldn't move, and they were yellin' at me to get up...the one guy grabbed my hair and tried to pull me up, but the hair came out instead.'' Starsky took a shaky breath. "They started in on the house again after they got done kicking me. He'd tell me to do somethin', and I wouldn't, and he'd direct them to smash something up. It just kept on...it was like it was gonna go on forever...''

"What made them leave?''

"They busted up the doors and the stairs...Hutch, they were gonna do somethin' else, but the guy who was callin' the shots said no. That's why I was upstairs. They were takin' me up there to...they were gonna...you know...but he said it was too late, that they'd be takin' to much of a chance--and he was kinda pissed off at that because he said they'd wasted too much time--like...doing that to me was supposed to be, I don't know, some kinda grand finale. I guess one of 'em knocked me out because the last thing I remember is...him pullin' my arms up and tyin' 'em up there...and untying my ankles so he could...'' Hutch noticed the bruised fingers on the sleeve of his jacket contract into a clutch on the fabric as Starsky turned his face toward the wall.

"Did they...'' Hutch took a deep breath. He didn't know how to ask the question, and he wasn't sure he wanted the answer. "They didn't...?''

"No. I told ya, they didn't have time, according to their boss. He thought it was gettin' too late, and they oughtta split.'' Starsky looked back down again, and when he spoke, his voice was a shaky whisper. "When they were draggin' me up those steps...I...I was never so scared of anything in my life.''

Hutch watched Starsky for a minute, not sure of what to say. Anything that came to mind seemed so useless. He rested his free hand on Starsky's shoulder.

"I'm so sorry you had to go through that, buddy. Are you sure nothing happened--you'd tell me?''

"I'd tell you.'' The implication being that Hutch would be the only one entrusted with that confidence. "I...I just can't...stop thinking about it. If they hadn't run out of time...''

"But they did. And you're safe, buddy. You know that, don't you?''

"Yeah...''

"I'll get us a uniformed guard, and I'm going to be right here. They're not going to get near you again. You can bank on that. I promise you everything'll be all right. Just relax, babe.''

"Okay.'' Starsky was getting drowsier now, feeling a bit unburdened by having told Hutch the basic outline of his ordeal. He closed his eyes and curling his bruised fingers around the fabric of Hutch's jacket, reassured himself his partner was right where he was supposed to be. "Hutch?'' He felt himself slipping off to sleep, but there was something else he wanted to say.

"What, buddy?''

"Love you.'' Most of the tension of consciousness was leaving Starsky's features.

"Love you too, pal,'' Hutch answered quietly, carefully covering the bruised but assertive fingers that held onto his jacket. He wanted to scream, go work off some of the hostility that was building up inside from listening to Starsky's story.

Work it off? Short of taking my own posse over to Schoemacher's house and pounding the shit out of him until he was a mass of pulp on his front porch, what would work off this hostility? Hutch closed his own eyes a minute. Starsky loved that dumb house and all of its little characteristics. What must it have felt like to watch that destruction happen? God, what went through your mind when they dragged you upstairs, knowing what they had in mind? What did they say to you? How did they tell you? If they hadn't run out of time, would there have been anything left of you after... Hutch felt the bile rising in his throat. He swallowed convulsively a few times and tried to pull himself back together. It was more important to let Starsky sleep peacefully, if only for a couple of hours, until he was disturbed to be examined again. And there would be no escaping those sore fingers that were holding on so tenaciously without waking him.

I thought losing Sandra and Elizabeth was going to kill me. Now I know what would have killed me...losing you too. You've been my strength for the last five months, my anchor, my sunshine...what they were going to do to you...what they already did...could I ever say enough to make up for it? To make you not feel low and degraded and abused? Hutch resigned himself to remaining motionless on the edge of the bed, happy to watch Starsky have a short break from all the suffering he'd been through. When the doctor came back, he'd get a hold of Dobey and ask for the guard. And he would try not to feel guilty for having pleasant thoughts of Cecile. We were looking at paintings, then just walking and talking and getting to know each other...while Starsky was being beaten, brutalized, tormented and threatened with the most unthinkable degradation...and he'd be the first one to pat me on the back and say "way to go'' if I said I had fun. If I said that just maybe, someday, I'll be up to risking it with another woman...thanks to you putting the pieces back together again, buddy. Feels like sitting here with the other half of myself. Scary to think about not being able to make it without another person...When thinking about it hurts so much, why do so many people have to remind us so damned often? I'm so sick of watching you suffer. You're so damned gentle...God, life sucks sometimes. All you did was find a house, try to make a home, and live and let live. And this is what they do to you...

"How is he?'' A whispered voice came from the door. It was Dobey.

"Sleeping.'' Hutch forced a little smile.

"I've got a man posted outside,'' Dobey continued to whisper, not moving any closer for fear of disturbing the peace that had settled over Starsky. "I'll send Nedloe and Elliot for the statement tomorrow.''

"They'll be a good choice,'' Hutch whispered in agreement.

"Has he said anything yet?''

"Enough. They really put him through hell. It'll be a hard story to hear. What about Schoemacher?'' Dobey and Hutch were essentially lip-reading by now, wanting to avoid waking Starsky.

"Has an alibi--about as airtight as you can get. He and a group of his goons were pulled in on a drunk and disorderly downtown at a bar. Seems a group of black college students came in, and things got ugly.''

"Damn it.'' Hutch's slightly louder vocalization brought a little moan and shift from Starsky. He silently stroked the part of Starsky's arm where his hand rested, and that seemed to quiet what little disturbance there had been.

"Well, don't worry about anything at the precinct. We've got enough guys up to speed on the case. Everybody who knows Starsky wants in on finding these bastards...they're practically lined up taking numbers. As far as the task force, Nedloe and Elliot want in on this, so I'm putting Farver and Kennedy at the helm of the Bridegroom mess. All we're doing right now is processing tips from nut cases anyway. Just take care of him.'' Dobey nodded toward Starsky. "I'll be in touch tomorrow.''

"Thanks, Captain.''

"Get some rest yourself, Hutch. You won't do him any good if you pass out on him.''

"Okay. Good night.'' Hutch watched him slip back out of the room and then looked back at Starsky. Well, pal, we made it through one more...

Starsky came to, thinking he had never felt so lousy in his life. He couldn't breathe without hurting somewhere, and moving seemed like an unattainable goal. There was a damned light shining in his eye. Then the other. Voices. He finally surrendered to waking up, realizing he was still holding onto Hutch's jacket, and his partner hadn't moved.

"Hey there, partner.'' Hutch's smile was the first thing to come into focus, next was the doctor from the emergency room, Mr. Poke and Pinch. If it's got a big bruise on it and it's swollen, wouldn't you be able to assume it hurt without actually testing it? Starsky asked himself. At least now he was probably just going to ask him some inane questions to determine if his brain had turned to mush since he dozed off.

"Can you tell me your name?'' Here we go, Starsky thought.

"Fred Night,'' he replied, bringing an instant laugh out of Hutch. "Sorry.'' Even Starsky had to smile because it was worth everything to see a little break in his partner's tension. "David Starsky.''

"The year, David?''

"1981,'' he replied with a sigh made shaky by the pain it caused.

"Do you know where you are?''

"In hell, I think, only it oughtta be hotter.''

"Starsk,'' Hutch chided.

"Memorial Hospital.''

"You sound healthy to me.'' Dr. Stevenson chuckled a little as he made a few notes on Starsky's chart.

"Can I go home then?''

"Whoa, not so fast, pal.'' The doctor was still smiling. "I want to keep an eye on you for a couple of days. I think we can let you go Tuesday afternoon if all goes well--and I think it will.''

"Tuesday?'' Starsky seemed discouraged at that edict. It was Saturday night, or more truthfully, the early morning hours of Sunday.

"That's if you're on your best behavior. Try not to alienate all the nurses, huh?''

"I think Ms. Halleran needs a refresher course in sensitivity to patients' needs,'' Hutch spoke up. "She was going to put him flat on his back, no extra pillows. If a volunteer hadn't given me a hand here tonight, we couldn't have gotten him settled comfortably at all.''

"I'll have a word with Ms. Halleran. I'm sorry you had a rough start tonight. I expect to wake you up one more time, probably around...'' he looked at his watch, "four a.m. Then I'll make sure you're on the later breakfast rotation so you can get a little sleep. If you need anything, I'll be around until probably seven or eight this morning.''

"Thanks, doc,'' Starsky responded, forcing a little smile as the doctor took his leave. "Want your arm back?'' Starsky asked Hutch, moving to relieve his partner of his bondage.

"I guess I wouldn't object to moving over to that chair.'' Hutch carefully removed his arm and Starsky rested his on the bed. "Need the bathroom yet?''

"Nah. I was gonna have a couple beers and watch the tube before...all this happened, but since I didn't get the beers, I'm okay.''

"How about some water, huh?'' Hutch poured a small cup of water and guided Starsky's right hand while he took a few swallows. "Better?''

"Yeah.''

Hutch pulled the large padded chair across the room, bringing it to a halt as close to the bed as possible.

"Hutch?''

"What, buddy?''

"Was it Schoemacher?''

"Doesn't look like it. But that doesn't leave out his goons. I guess he and some of his merry men were in lock up downtown for a drunk and disorderly.''

"Swell. No leads.''

"Hey, no case business tonight. Get some sleep before the doctor and his little flashlight get back. We'll worry about it later, okay?''

"Okay.'' Starsky's eyes drifted shut again, and Hutch dozed off shortly thereafter, sprawled in the large chair next to the bed.

Schoemacher had the perfect alibi, and most of his known associates were in the lock up with him when Starsky was attacked. Nedloe and Elliot were therefore busily researching the network of neo-Nazi and skinhead groups in the area, hoping to find some kind of worthwhile lead. Minnie and several members of the R&I staff were putting everything ruthlessly on hold to run any computer checks or dig through any files that the investigation into Starsky's case might require.

Nedloe and Elliot visited the hospital early the next afternoon for Starsky's full formal statement. Hutch hadn't budged from the room since Starsky had been admitted, with the exception of one fast trip to the cafeteria while the doctor threw him out to examine the patient. Listening to the whole story in explicit and vivid detail was not a pleasant sentence for Hutch, but he concentrated on maintaining his calm demeanor for Starsky's sake. Starsky, for his part, held up very well telling his story, inwardly grateful he'd had some quiet time with Hutch the night before to try to deal with the initial shock of what had happened.

Further incensed by the statement, the other team of detectives left the hospital with a new resolve to bring the case to a hasty conclusion. Aside from the physical brutality, the sadistic destruction of part of the house, as well as so many photos and other items, not to mention what the capstone of the evening was originally intended to be drove them to vow double shifts until an arrest was made.

Starsky had been understandably subdued since Nedloe and Elliot left, staring toward the window and fidgeting with the hem of his blanket. He'd avoided eye contact with Hutch, and seemed to be trying to physically shy away from conversing with his partner. Knowing Starsky as he did, Hutch had a pretty good idea what the problem was. Starsky's tale had been brutal and upsetting and reasonably graphic, but there were a few details he was obviously holding back. He took a seat on the edge of the bed and waited until Starsky turned away from the window of his own accord and looked at him.

"You left a few things out of what you told Nedloe and Elliot, didn't you, buddy?'' he asked gently but assertively. It was hard to tell if Starsky was blushing under the myriad of purple, red and blue discoloration of much of his face, but it almost looked like the little area around his ears was pinker than it had been before. "Starsk, we can't nail these bastards if we don't know the whole story.''

"I can't, Hutch.'' Starsky shook his head a little. "I don't wanna...testify about somethin' like that.''

"Listen to me.'' Hutch covered Starsky's hand with his own. "I'm your partner first, a cop second. Whatever you tell me, it doesn't leave this room without your O.K. Got it?'' This isn't some anonymous witness...not some frightened victim I'm cajoling to make a bust...this is Starsky. And no matter what else happens, the most important thing is how he feels. Not how good a bust we make. I'm not playing cop on him, pushing for details when he feels this lousy. "I'm sorry, buddy. I didn't mean to upset you. I just...I wanna nail these bastards.''

"The one...who really wanted to do it? He had real active hands,'' Starsky said quietly.

"Enough to add a sexual assault charge?'' He watched while Starsky nodded. "Okay, pal. You don't have to give me any more details than you want to.''

"But you wanna make it a charge.'' Starsky wiped at his eyes with his free hand.

"I can't lie to you and say that I wouldn't like to add it to the list of charges. But the most important thing to me in this case is you--not the kind of bust we make. I don't blame you for feeling...I don't know...but feeling confused or ashamed or scared or whatever. But you know the bottom line is that you have nothing to be ashamed of, don't you?''

"I guess.'' Starsky picked up the remote and turned on the television. He was finished with true confessions for now. "Wanna watch the soaps with me?'' he asked, trying to lighten his tone a little. Hutch just nodded and smiled, returning to his

 

usual post in the big padded chair next to the bed.

Hutch was strangely resolved to letting others handle the case, spending his time at the hospital taking care of his partner, to the consternation of certain nurses. Starsky finally did fill in a few more blanks for Nedloe and Elliot, enough for them to add another charge to the list and be further incited to make a bust soon.

Hutch found himself dismissed Sunday night, as Starsky and Wendy seemed to have plans to watch the airing of "The Amityville Horror'' on TV, and Starsky assured his partner he would be safe to leave and get some rest.

 

 

Wendy was unveiling the junk food collection on the bed table in preparation for the movie. She ordinarily didn't work Sunday night, but she'd stopped in Sunday afternoon to see how he was doing, and after determining they were both looking forward to the thriller coming up on TV that night, she agreed to come back and watch it with him. He didn't know why that should make him so happy. She was definitely not his usual type. She wasn't ugly by any means, but she couldn't exactly be called beautiful either. Still, there was something very endearing in her smile and her warm brown eyes. In all fairness, he had to admit he'd never seen her dressed up. She was either in one of those God-awful uniforms or in jeans and a big shirt to flake out and watch the movie.

"So is your partner going to take some time off to stay with you when you're released?'' She startled him out of his thoughts.

"Probably. Unless the captain nixes it. I doubt he will.''

"If you need some help, I usually am free afternoons, if I can bring my typewriter.''

"Your typewriter?''

"I'm a free-lance writer. Articles, short features...that kind of thing. That's why I have a flexible schedule and volunteer here at night sometimes. Most volunteers don't want the late night shift, except a few nursing students.''

"So you do this just to...well, do it? Not for college or anything?''

"No, just for me. I like working with people, and writing can make you a little

isolated at times. This is a good way to meet new people, even if they aren't usually at their best when I see them.'' She smiled as she handed him a can of cola. "I hope that's okay. I didn't know if you were on any medication, so I was afraid to bring beer.''

"They finally had mercy on me and gave me some pain killers, so I better skip the beer anyway.''

"I didn't think you were going to talk Hutch into leaving.''

"He needed to get out of here for awhile--grab a shower, get something to eat. I'm trying to convince him to stay home and sleep in his own bed tonight. It's not like I'm dying or anything. But I was real glad he was here when he was.''

"Halleran is a real pain.'' Wendy shook her head. "She bullies all the patients, so don't feel like she picked you out or something. I hear Stevenson really went up one side and down the other.''

"Great. She'll probably poison me in my sleep.''

"Only if one of the other nurses doesn't poison her first.''

"It wasn't just Halleran. It was...well, I was just real glad he was here.''

"How're you feeling tonight, anyway?'' She tuned in the station now, then settled in the large chair with a bag of Doritos and her own can of cola. Starsky was happily crunching cheese puffs, smiling at the thought of Nurse Halleran figuring out why there were little orange patches all over the sheets.

"Lousy. But I didn't expect to feel much better right away. Actually, it gets worse before it gets better.''

"Sounds like the voice of experience.''

"Let's say I've been through the drill more than I'd like to remember.'' He inclined his head more toward Wendy. "So what about you?''

"I feel okay.'' She smiled devilishly.

"I meant tell me about yourself.''

"Not much to tell.''

"Don't buy that. Come on...give.''

"Well, I was born in Sacramento, then moved out here to become a famous screenwriter.'' She cleared her throat. "When it became painfully obvious that I needed to go to plan B, I started writing short pieces and submitting them to magazines and newspapers. I got a few things published, and here I am. It's a living, though not as lucrative as I hope it will be someday.'' She paused. "Do you want to talk about what happened?''

"Not really. A bunch of creeps got into my house, did this, smashed up part of the house--it wasn't too pleasant.''

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable.''

"Well,'' Starsky laughed a little, "it doesn't get much more uncomfortable than this.''

"I suppose not,'' she responded, smiling. "You and Hutch seem to be pretty good friends. You've been partners a long time?''

"Yeah. We got to be really good friends in the academy, and we made it a goal to end up partners as soon as we could. He's more like family. Actually, we just bought the house a few months ago that got worked over along with me. It's a really...was a really beautiful old place--lots of room. It needed some fixing up...now, I don't know as there's much point. The staircase and the french doors are totaled.''

"Oh, my God--you weren't kidding about them trashing it.''

"No, I wasn't. They destroyed anything that made the house distinctive. I mean, even painting and patching it up won't be the same.'' He swallowed a time or two, suddenly wishing he was lying there with Hutch in the chair Wendy occupied, in that blissful silence that settled over both of them when they needed to rest and heal.

Hutch slowed the car as he approached the house. There were four cars in the driveway and a couple others on the street. The whole first floor was lit up, and people were milling around in front of the illuminated living room windows. Completely puzzled by what he saw, he parked on the street and walked up the driveway to the side door. There was a new knob and deadbolt lock where the rickety old knob had been. The locks had obviously been changed. He turned the knob, relieved it was unlocked so he could enter his own home without knocking.

Music wafted from a radio in the living room, and the smell of fresh paint and cleaning chemicals assailed his nose. The kitchen had been tidied up, the broken chair repaired and set near the cupboards with a little sign warning "fresh glue''. He pushed the swinging door open into the dining room, and was shocked at what he saw. The house was alive with people from the precinct, most of them in grubby work clothes, all diligently performing some type of restorative task. The shattered french doors had been removed, and the gashes in the door frames had been filled in with something and stained. They looked a little scarred yet, but not bad. The swastikas were a thing of the past, having left only faint ghosts which were being covered with fresh paint.

There was little anyone could do for the staircase, but the splintered wood had been cleaned up and the steps vacuumed.

"About time you showed up,'' Dobey bellowed, gesturing toward Hutch as he continued rolling paint on the wall. Dobey in overalls and a work shirt was not a sight Hutch was used to seeing. The captain seemed to rarely be in anything more casual than a tie and sweater, but now he was paint-spattered with the rest of the precinct personnel, which included Minnie, Jim Nedloe and Jack Elliot, several other people who looked familiar but Hutch couldn't immediately name, and of course, serving hot snacks to the workers was Huggy, sharing goodies he'd brought from The Pits.

"What...I don't understand...'' Hutch stammered, feeling awkward, shocked and deeply moved all at the same time.

"Rumor has it Starsky might get sprung Tuesday afternoon. Can't have him walking in on this place looking the same as when he left it,'' Dobey explained, meeting Hutch in the middle of the room. "We rounded up some volunteers from the department, pulled together a few supplies, and invaded your house early this afternoon. I figured you'd be tied up at the hospital most of the day.''

"I don't know what to say,'' he noticed most of the team had slowed a bit, watching him. "Thank you all, so much. I really...can't find the right words... I know how much this is gonna mean to Starsky.''

"Shut up and have some pizza,'' Huggy bailed him out of his speech-making bind by handing him a plate with two slices of pizza on it and leading him back to the TV room. "You look like hell, man.''

"I've been at the hospital since last night. I'm just going to grab some food and a shower and go back. Starsky was all for me getting out of there and going home, but I think he's more worried about me than he is okay with being on his own right now.''

"How's he doin'?'' Huggy sat on the couch, across from Hutch's seat in the overstuffed chair.

"Physically, he'll be fine once everything heals up. Emotionally, mentally--I don't know. He's...Starsky. He makes it somehow. God, Hug, I'm sick of watching him...hurt. After the whole mess with Gunther...now this...damn it, he doesn't deserve all this shit.'' Hutch set the pizza, only partially eaten, on the coffee table. "The way they treated him...shouldn't happen to the nastiest son of a bitch on earth. It's just so fucking unfair that it happened to Starsky.'' Hutch brought his clenched fist down on the arm of the chair.

"Life ain't fair, man,'' Huggy replied softly. "I don't have to tell you that.''

"No, you don't.'' Hutch leaned back in the chair, infinitely exhausted. He fought the urge to doze and straightened up, ready to spring out of the chair.

"Hey, why not catch a few Z's before you go--''

"I want to be back by the time the movie ends.'' Hutch didn't explain himself, and Huggy didn't ask. "This was a really...amazing thing for everybody to do. I know I'm not too eloquent tonight. Please tell them how much this means to us, huh?''

"Sure thing, my man. But I think they know.''

Hutch didn't lose a lot of time showering, shaving and changing clothes. He finished the cooling pizza he'd left on the coffee table in the TV room and thanked the workers again, who were beginning to disperse as it drew close to 11:00.

When he arrived at the hospital, he met Wendy in the hall on his way to Starsky's room.

"He's sleeping,'' she informed him.

"That's good. You guys enjoy the movie?''

"Well, part of it. He slept through the last hour, but I think he's doing all right.''

"Thanks. I'm going to go spend a little time with him.''

"Goodnight.'' She smiled and headed down the hall. Hutch slipped quietly into the room and settled in the chair that was still warm. He'd have preferred to sit facing Starsky, but he didn't want to disturb him by moving the chair, so he resigned himself to face the end of the news broadcast instead. Apparently Wendy had opted not to wake Starsky with turning off the TV. Hutch was startled when a hand brushed his shoulder lightly.

"Hey.'' Starsky was smiling at him.

"Thought you were asleep.'' Hutch smiled back, turning his chair to face his partner.

"Nah, I was fakin' it.'' Starsky winced a little as he tried to shift positions onto his side. Finally successful, he still didn't look comfortable.

"You okay there, pal?''

"I'm gettin' stiff from bein' in the same spot so long. This hurts worse, I think.''

"You wanna sit up, maybe move a little?''

"No, but I probably oughtta. I kinda have to go anyway.''

"Okay.'' Hutch assisted with the painful process of getting his partner on his feet, and Starsky insisted he could deal with his own personal needs once he was in motion. Hutch busied himself fluffing pillows and straightening sheets, chortling a little as he fished out a half dozen cheese puffs from amidst the mound of pillows. "I see Wendy brought snacks,'' he called to his partner, who was just coming out of the bathroom.

"Oh, yeah, the cheese puffs,'' Starsky admitted with a self-deprecating grin. Hutch met him halfway and supported his arm as he made the uneasy motion to sit on the edge of the bed. "I knew I was losin' 'em somewhere.''

"How about sitting up a minute or two?''

"Yeah, this hurts but it feels good to change positions.''

"Got some good news for you,'' Hutch announced, sitting on the edge of the chair. "Dobey rounded up a bunch of people from the precinct, and they've done all sorts of clean-up and painting at the house. You really wouldn't know it was...well, that it was messed up as badly as it was.''

"That's nice.'' Starsky was flexing his right hand, testing the fingers that seemed less swollen though more vividly colored.

"Starsk, I know that fixing up the rooms doesn't make what happened any better, but--''

"Did they fix the doors? The staircase?'' He watched Hutch's helpless expression. He knew it was misplaced hostility, but it needed to come out sometime.

"No, buddy, there wasn't much they could do with those just yet. They did take the old stuff out, so everything's at least neat and--''

"And what? I'm gonna forget what happened in the living room because they painted over the swastikas? I'm not gonna think about what they told me they were gonna do to me upstairs?'' Starsky's voice was shaking, but he was working hard at keeping his emotions under control. He was angry now, and all the time he'd spent being subjected to those nuts' abuse and torment, writhing around ineffectually while they beat and degraded him was all flooding into this outburst. It felt like some kind of torrent that wouldn't stop. He grabbed a vase of flowers off the nightstand and threw it against the opposite wall, instantly regretting the motion and holding onto his throbbing side.

"Starsk, it's okay to be mad but don't hurt yourself, huh?'' Hutch looked around the room, picked up another, smaller vase and handed it to Starsky. "Try this one. It's not as heavy. Just don't throw it as far.'' Hutch's tone was gentle and serious. There was no trace of ridicule or reprimand in the words.

"Nah, this one's from you.'' He looked at the mixture of yellow and white daisies in it, still breathing faster than his ribs wished to allow, trying to concentrate on the bright flowers while he attempted to slow his respiration back to normal. Hutch stood up beside him and put an arm carefully around his shoulders, rubbing his arm gently and slowly. The motion soon seemed to guide the speed of his previously rapid breathing as Starsky leaned into the contact.

"What happened?'' The infamous Nurse Halleran entered the room, noticing the broken glass on the floor.

"A little accident with the vase,'' Hutch explained. "I'll be happy to clean it up.''

"I'll send someone in from housekeeping. Mr. Starsky, you belong in bed.''

"I've been there all day. I was gettin' stiff.''

"That isn't unusual, given your injuries. It's way past time for lights out.'' She didn't say any more than that before she left the room.

"Maybe she's been declawed,'' Starsky suggested, smiling slightly. "I'm sorry.''

"Don't apologize, buddy. The dragon lady's probably right though. You ought to get settled again and get a little sleep for real.''

"Okay.'' Starsky allowed himself to be helped back into a relatively comfortable position again, feeling drowsy as Hutch drew the blanket up to his chest. "Are you gonna be able to get time off when I get outta here?''

"I talked to Dobey. He's been great about everything. He knows you're not on your feet yet.'' Hutch positioned his chair close to the bed again and sat down, resigned to another night in a semi-upright position. "Movie boring?''

"No. I just got sick of making small talk with Wendy. She's a real nice person but she never shuts up. I wasn't up to it, so I pretended to conk out about the time the kid gets an imaginary playmate with red eyes--remember that part?''

"I think my personal favorite was that pit of black goop in the basement.''

"That was cool too. I just didn't think I should risk opening my eyes to watch. Would have started up the monologue again--kinda like pullin' the string on one of those dolls?''

"I get the picture, buddy,'' Hutch responded, laughing a little.

"If it's not Schoemacher, who do you think it is, Hutch? I mean, why? It's not like I have some kind of sign in the front yard that says 'Attention Nazis: Jew Inside'.''

"That's not funny.''

"You're tellin' me,'' Starsky responded, his slight smile fading rapidly. Morose humor was usually his last resort when he felt too desolate to come up with anything else. He and Terry had been alike that way. At the very end, he had told her he didn't want to talk about basketball, and she'd said something like "do you want to talk about funerals?'' Remembering how that comment ripped his heart out, he regretted using similar humor on Hutch.

"Nedloe and Elliot are tracking down all the extremist groups in the area--basic legwork and hunting. Dobey said there are a lot of folks pitching in.''

"How about you? You want in on the witch hunt too?''

"I'd rather be here. Besides, I feel better being on top of the situation, watching out for you. I know Dobey's assigning the best people to guard the room, but even the best still isn't the same as knowing I'm doing it myself.''

"I'm kinda glad you feel that way.'' Starsky's eyes seemed to be drifting shut.

"Relax and sleep, pal. I'm right here.''

"Always are,'' Starsky responded, grinning a little. "You're worried about 'em comin' back for me, aren't you?'' he asked, his smile disappearing. "You don't have to answer that, 'cause I already know. I am too. I'm...I'm really afraid...if they came back...I couldn't...if they had more time and they did...''

"Starsk, you listen to me.'' Hutch moved from his chair to sit on the edge of the bed, and placed one hand on either side of Starsky's face. "I give you my word they won't ever touch you again--do you hear me?''

"You can't promise--''

"I am promising. Right here, right now. The rest of the world can do the glamorous part of this and catch the bad guys. Until that happens, I'm going to be no more than a hiccup away--got that? Have I ever broken a promise to you?''

"No,'' Starsky responded, shaking his head slightly.

"I'm not about to start now. We're going to get through the next couple nights, then we'll get settled back home, and I won't let you out of my sight until we know who's responsible and they've been stopped.''

"Okay.'' Starsky's eyes did close and stay closed this time, and he felt much safer than he had while his partner was gone during the movie. Confident that Hutch could, and would, handle anything that came up, he let himself slip, and within moments, was sleeping deeply.