6

You're the story of my life,

You're the one that got me through the night,

You've been right here by my side

When I needed you...

 

Starsky was pleasantly surprised at how much better the house looked than when he'd last seen it. There was no replacing his beloved French doors or the ruined staircase, but what could be done had been done. The main staircase was considered out of commission until something could be done to put in a new banister. A new banister in this old house...it's not right, and it won't be the same thing, Starsky thought sadly as he made the slow ascent to the second floor with Hutch's help. He was somewhat relieved, though, not to have to go up the main stairs again. Flashbacks of being dragged up those steps in horrible pain, and fear he couldn't even describe...

Hutch got him settled in an overstuffed chair in the library and had moved the color TV (with Huggy's panting assistance) upstairs so he was armed with his remote. The doctor had suggested keeping the runs up and down stairs to a minimum for a few more days, so Hutch was making the upstairs as appealing a spot as possible.

A phone call from Jim Nedloe further brightened Starsky's day.

"We've got something,'' Jim announced triumphantly.

"What?'' Starsky tried straightening in the chair and gave up. He stayed slumped and listened.

"You know that photo that you got in the mail?''

"Yeah.''

"Well, we found a thumbprint on the back of it, and traced it to a guy who had been arrested for brawling at a rally--but he's not a neo-Nazi, he's a Jew. It was stolen out of his grandfather's collection of Holocaust artifacts. Apparently, the old man gives lectures at colleges and various other places here and around the country, and he has a very large collection of Holocaust stuff. This photo came up missing after his speech at Radnor Community College last month. It's not tied together in a neat bundle yet, but it's a start.''

"That's great. Just nice to know something's happening.''

"We'll get these guys, Starsky. And when we do...well, it'd be a hell of a shame if any of them resisted arrest,'' Nedloe concluded with a devilish note in his voice.

"Don't do anything on my account to screw up nailing 'em in court.''

"Don't worry about that, man. This case is gonna be so damn tight when we're done, it's gonna make history in the DA's office.''

"As long as it nails their asses to the wall, I'll be happy. Thanks for calling.''

"Okay. Hey, you feeling any better?''

"Yeah, some. I'm glad to be out of the hospital. My head's better.''

"That's good. We're all in this with you, Starsky. We're gonna nail these bastards but good.''

"Thanks. That means a lot.''

After Starsky hung up, he heard Hutch's footsteps in the hall. His partner soon appeared with a tray laden with enough food for both their dinners. It was a little after five, and not having eaten since a fairly pathetic hospital lunch tray was served, the food was a welcome sight. Hutch was busily spreading it out on the coffee table near the couch and chair when he asked about the call.

"Who was on the phone?''

"Jim. He said they've got a lead.'' He proceeded to explain the photo lead to Hutch.

"At least that gives us a starting point where to look.''

"Yeah, well, at least it's a small college.''

"Narrows it down somewhat, but it depends on how many visitors they had to their little program.'' Hutch handed Starsky a plate bearing a pasta concoction that actually looked quite tasty. "It's linguine alfredo. There's cheese in it, so it's not completely healthy,'' Hutch explained, sinking into the couch holding his own plate.

"It looks great--and I know what linguine alfredo is, smart ass,'' Starsky added, smiling at his partner's little grin.

 

Hutch watched Starsky's head droop a little to the side as he began dozing again in the chair. Convinced his ailing partner had been up and around as much as he should be after just getting out of the hospital, Hutch decided to start the process of getting him bedded down for the night.

"Starsk?'' He waited for the other to respond, his eyes opening as much as they were capable of with the swelling around them. "Wanna hit the hay, buddy?''

"Guess I should. Just not lookin' real forward to movin'.''

"I know.'' Hutch got up and moved to the side of Starsky's chair, taking a hold of his left hand and putting his arm around his back. "I'm not going to put any more pressure than I have to on you, babe. Push up with your right side.''

"Okay.'' Starsky obeyed, his eyes widening at the upward motion.

"Squeeze my hand, buddy.'' Hutch felt a crushing pressure while Starsky made the effort to stand. "Hurts pretty bad, doesn't it?'' He kept a supporting arm around his partner.

"Haven't felt this lousy since...since Gunther.'' Starsky seemed to lean into the contact briefly before starting to move forward.

"You want to try soaking in the tub for a little while? It might help.''

"I guess. It's just...hard gettin' up and down, ya know?''

"I know. Come on. We'll get you in a nice warm tub and then zonk you out with some pain pills. How about that?''

"You're the doctor.'' Starsky managed a little grin.

It was difficult for Hutch to see the profusion of bruises on his partner's body without reacting violently. There didn't seem to be more than a few inches of clear skin anywhere. There was no way to help Starsky move that didn't cause him pain, and maybe worst of all was the quiet way he was taking it. If Starsky had the sniffles or a sprained ankle or even indigestion, he whined. If he was suffering to the threshold of his endurance, he took it like a trouper. The only telltale signs of his discomfort was the occasional bulging of his eyes or a white-knuckled squeeze of Hutch's hand or whatever support was nearby.

"Water feels good.'' Starsky's face registered some relief once he was settled in the warm tub. It was the first time the stress had left his features momentarily since they'd begun the journey from the chair.

"Loosens up the aches and pains a little, huh?'' Hutch tried to keep his tone light as he lathered up a washcloth with soap and prepared to do Starsky's back for him.

"I can do this myself, Hutch. I'm not a baby, ya know.''

"You can't twist around and do your back so shut up and let me do it,'' Hutch retorted, the gentleness of his voice negating any of the sternness of the words.

"Okay.'' Starsky's tone was defeated. It wasn't that this was such a new scenario to them; after the shooting, Starsky had his choice of Hutch or a visiting nurse to help him with a lot of his personal needs. Having chosen his partner, they had both had to get over any inhibitions--Starsky, asking for help when needed, and Hutch, not being deterred by Starsky's stubborn unwillingness to do that very thing and helping him anyway. None of that made Starsky feel any less robbed of his dignity in this whole situation. The men who had entertained themselves with torturing him for two solid hours had stripped him of most of it, and being dependent on his partner again for so much felt like it took the rest away, despite Hutch's matter-of-fact willingness to wait on him hand and foot.

"Is the pain any worse around your lower back, buddy?'' Hutch asked, carefully rinsing off the soap.

"Not really. Not any better, either.''

"Just want to make sure your kidneys are doin' okay. The doctor said they were bruised.''

"I coulda told him that. What was his first clue? The big bruises there or the fact I yelled when he poked them?'' Starsky shook his head. "God, I hate doctors sometimes.''

"You got kind of OD'd on 'em after Gunther, I know.'' Hutch moved into Starsky's view and started soaping up the cloth again.

"Give me that.''

"I'll do your feet and then you can take over. You can't stretch that far and you know it so don't bitch at me about it.''

"I hate this.'' Starsky shook his head and stared at the tiled wall next to the tub.

"Hey.'' Hutch waited, but Starsky wouldn't turn back to look at him. "Hey.'' He waited again, and this time the other turned back to face him, brushing at his eyes as he did, which only made his face wetter since his hands had been in the water. That seemed to frustrate him more. "I remember somebody I know taking care of me a few times when I couldn't do it myself. So what's the big deal, huh?''

"I don't know.'' Starsky looked away, staring straight ahead.

"I know you had a bad time of it, pal. And I know they made you feel pretty lousy--and I'm not just talking about the bruises.'' Hutch's comment was greeted with silence, but a bob of the other's adam's apple. "Anything they said--you know it was a load of crap, right?'' There was a slight nod. "That doesn't change how it makes you feel, though.''

"Not really,'' he replied finally, in a slightly choked voice.

"Starsky, there's no indignity in needing some help. And what they did to you...it shouldn't rob you of your dignity--it robs them of theirs, makes them less than human. Any...being who could inflict this kind of damage...who could enjoy making another human being suffer just for entertainment...those people aren't human--they're raw sewage living in human bodies.'' Starsky still said nothing. "It's okay if you need to cry, buddy. I understand.''

"I'm turnin' into a prune. Can we just get this over with?''

"Sure, pal.'' Hutch started on Starsky's feet, as promised. "What the hell is this?'' Hutch couldn't hide the anger in his voice when he noticed Starsky's oft-sprained ankle was bruised and swollen. He thought he had detected a limp earlier, but with Starsky needing support to walk and not moving very well anyway, he had dismissed it as that.

"He twisted it. I kicked him when he untied my ankles.''

"Does it hurt much now?'' Hutch tried to consciously gentle his tone. He hadn't meant to snap at Starsky and had handled his washing job a lot more roughly and hastily than necessary. There was so much anger welling up inside that Hutch felt he might spontaneously combust on the spot.

"Compared to everything else, it's no big deal, I guess.''

"Want me to put some ice on it when you get out of here?'' Hutch asked, handing him the cloth and moving toward the bathroom door. Starsky shook his head. "I'm going to turn back the bed. You stay put in there until I get back. If you slip, it's not going to do your ribs a lot of good.''

"Aye, aye, Sir,'' Starsky executed an intentionally sloppy salute with a crooked grin. He regretted clipping Hutch off as tersely as he had, but in one more moment he would have been crying like a baby, and that was a little more degrading that he could handle on top of his partner having to partially bathe him.

Hutch walked purposefully out of the bathroom and around the corner of Starsky's bedroom doorway. He leaned against the wall and worked consciously at calming himself down. Rage was consuming him, the overpowering desire to avenge Starsky's suffering ate at his insides like hydrochloric acid. And I can't keep taking it out on him. He's been brutalized enough without me getting abrupt. There was a look in Starsky's eyes that made it seem as if he would shatter into a million pieces at the wrong stern word. There's so much unexpressed anguish in there, and so much fear, and something else indescribable that I just want to make go away. Hutch gathered his thoughts and set about the task of getting the bed ready so Starsky would be as comfortable as possible.

Hutch made good on his word, turning back the bed, arranging the pillows similarly to how they'd been arranged in the hospital, and returning to retrieve his water-logged partner. Starsky felt even worse about behaving like a jerk when he really concentrated on the way Hutch was moving. His back had to be acting up again, and pulling Starsky up and down couldn't be making it feel any better. Hutch had only sat down for a little while to eat dinner and then returned to watch TV for awhile after cleaning it up. Otherwise, he'd been on his feet, waiting on Starsky, or sleeping in a chair by his bed in the hospital.

"I'm sorry I acted like such an ass in there,'' Starsky said quietly as Hutch finished drawing the blanket up to his chest.

"A person can only hide their true nature so long, Gordo,'' Hutch responded with a little smile.

"I mean it.''

"I know. No sweat, buddy. You're entitled.'' Hutch dropped a couple of pills in Starsky's hand and steadied the water glass while he drank to chase them.

"The tub was a good idea. I feel a little better.''

"Good. You want me to hang around 'til you fall asleep?''

"Nah, I'm okay. Go get some rest, buddy. You looked wiped out.''

"I'm kind of looking forward to sleeping prone for a change,'' Hutch replied, chuckling a little. "I'll leave a light on in the hall, and I'm leaving our doors open. If you need anything at all, just call me, okay?''

"Yeah, I will. Thanks.'' He watched Hutch head for the door and turn out the overhead light. The soft yellow light from the hall still cast a comforting glow in the room.

"'night, Starsk.''

"'night, partner.''

Starsky spit out the pills from under his tongue. The thought of dozing into a drug-induced stupor and not being in possession of his faculties unnerved him. It was different at the hospital, with a guard on the door and Hutch posted like a human guard dog by his bed. There was a unit keeping an eye on the house, and Hutch was right down the hall...but still, those freaks had gotten in once, and if they were sneaky or clever enough...

The thunder clapped loudly outside and lightning flashed through the thin curtains. The involuntary start made several points of pain throb. It was stupid not to take the pills, but that didn't make him any less afraid to do it. Another roar of thunder and glare of lightning extinguished the lights. He repressed the urge to call to Hutch. If I felt like a big baby because he was helping me in the bathroom, how'm I gonna feel whining to him because the light went out? Like a bigger baby. Some hot-shot cop...afraid of the dark and a little thunder.

The wind had picked up now, and there seemed to be a symphony of noises assailing him from all sides: the thunder, the creaking of the old house...or was it something else? Almost sounds like footsteps somewhere, the way those floorboards are creaking...on the main stairs, maybe? Or somebody on the first floor walking around?

He forced himself into a sitting position, grunting at the pain the effort caused. He didn't want to yell to Hutch in case there really was someone down there. He pulled himself painfully out of the bed and made his way slowly and stealthily down the hall to Hutch's room.

Hutch had almost forgotten how tiring taking care of a convalescing person could be. Starsky never complained or demanded anything, but he still wasn't able to do most things without some help. Three nights of sleeping upright hadn't worked any wonders on Hutch's back, either. He was more than relieved to sink into the softness of his bed and drift off to sleep, with his partner tucked safely in his room, probably zonked by now with the pain medication. The thunder and lightning of the storm raging outside was a bit annoying, but he honestly figured he was exhausted enough that he wouldn't care.

Hearing footsteps in the hall startled him. Even though it was shadowy, it was easy to make out Starsky's outline in his doorway.

"Hutch?''

"Everything okay, buddy?''

"I heard something downstairs.''

"You sure it wasn't the storm?'' Hutch pulled himself up in bed a little.

"No...but it sounded like...somebody was down there...'' Hutch let the words register, and thinking this had to be the ultimate sacrifice one human could be asked to make for another after three nights sleeping in a chair, he got out of bed and picked up his gun. He didn't want to think about the stiffness in his back, or the delicious fatigue that had been sending him into blissful unconsciousness.

"Let's take a look.'' He tried to force a reassuring grin. He was positive this was all a figment of Starsky's imagination.

"The lights don't work.'' That seemed to unnerve Starsky greatly.

"Flashlight.'' Hutch groped his way to the desk in the corner of his room and pulled a flashlight out of the drawer. "Storm must have knocked down some lines. You wait for me up here. Go lock yourself in your room, and if I'm not back in ten minutes, call back up, okay?''

"I'm not waitin' up here while you go down there.''

"Starsk, you can't move very fast right now. If anything happens, I can't worry about watching out for you. Please--wait in your room.'' Hutch's voice had come out sharper than he planned, but if there was an intruder, he didn't have time to soften every word to his partner.

"Okay.'' Starsky went back into his room, and when Hutch had heard the door lock click, he continued downstairs. A thorough search of the house revealed nothing. The storm was providing a symphony of sounds, creaking and groaning from the house and wild flashes of lightning. It wasn't too unusual that someone who was nervous anyway would pick up on these noises as causes for alarm. Massaging his protesting back, Hutch plodded up the back stairs and knocked on Starsky's door.

"All clear, pal. Must've been the storm. The streetlights are all out too, so I guess it's some downed lines that got the power.'' The door unlocked, and then opened.

"Sorry, Hutch. I thought I heard something.''

"I thought those pain pills usually knock you out.'' Hutch walked in past Starsky, who made his way slowly toward his bed.

"They make me nauseous.''

"Since when?'' Hutch was snapping a little now, but he was too damned tired to care, and he'd have matched his back pain against his partner's at the moment and considered he'd win the contest. Furthermore, the least Starsky could do was take his medication without being spoon-fed and coddled to do it. "Starsky, take the pills and maybe we can both get some sleep.'' Hutch dumped a couple in the hand Starsky reluctantly held up. He watched as his partner put them in his mouth and drank the half glass of water Hutch handed him to chase them. "You need help getting settled again?'' His tone softened a little. He knew he was taking out not only his fatigue, but his own misery over Starsky's beating, yet again, on Starsky himself.

"No, that's okay.''

"Yell if you need anything,buddy,'' he said as he made his way to the door. He could almost sense physically that there was more the other needed, but he gave in to the fatigue and returned to the comfort of his own bed. Starsky would be asleep soon now anyway, courtesy of his medication.

The storm kept Hutch tossing and turning somewhat, but he was tired enough to get at least some light sleep. Again, something disturbed him sufficiently to wake him up.

"Hutch?'' Starsky was at the door again. "I'm sorry...don't be mad, okay? I...I can't sleep. I didn't want the pills...I didn't take 'em.''

"What's wrong, buddy?'' Hutch instantly regretted his lapse of patience with Starsky earlier, and sat up in bed.

"I...I guess maybe it's the storm...I keep...thinkin' I hear somebody downstairs, and I don't want to take those pills... 'cause then if somebody did come...I couldn't hear...I wouldn't wake up.''

"Do you feel any worse?''

"No, but...I...I'm scared, Hutch. I know it's silly, but I just...I can't...''

"Come 'ere.'' Starsky came slowly, his gait seriously impeded by pain, and sat on the edge of Hutch's bed, visibly grateful. "You know that Dobey's got a unit watching the house, and we've got all new locks on the doors--we're safe here, pal.''

"I guess I know that. I...I'm afraid of...bein' this scared, I guess. I mean, before, when something kinda like this happened with Marcos' nuts or even the whole Gunther thing...once it was over, I was okay--I mean, I was a little freaked out, but I got over it.''

"There's nothing wrong with being afraid, Starsk. First of all--and I'm not saying this means you should feel scared here tonight--but those other times, I could say 'it's all over' or 'they're dead' or 'he's in jail'. I can't say that this time. You're not being unreasonable to be concerned about the possibility of another encounter with these turkeys. It isn't gonna happen, because Dobey and I aren't going to let it. But that doesn't make you crazy for worrying about it.''

"It's just...they were here, in the house. When all that shit happened with Bellamy getting into my place and shooting me up full of that stuff...I never slept another peaceful night in that room. But I don't wanna give up on this place. I love this house, Hutch. It feels like home...it's different than just some apartment I rent.''

"Listen to me. They're not going to get back in here. And there's nothing wrong with you for being afraid. People who have break-ins, get vandalized, robbed...we heard about their feelings of being violated back in the academy. Victims of those crimes suffer from that intrusion. And it takes awhile to get some peace of mind back. Not only did they get in the house, but they attacked you in your house...and it wasn't just a bump on the head because you surprised a burglary attempt.''

Starsky's bruises were ugly in the flashing blue-white of the lightning. Dark marks on his thigh and leg visible below the fabric of the shorts were a reminder that the bruises Hutch was looking at on his partner's face extended like some kind of horrible body suit from his head to his knees. And for some reason, that bruised hand bothered Hutch to an extraordinary degree. Maybe it was because it was symbolic of the level of cruelty used against his partner--that something as natural and innocent as reaching out for a beloved photo would be punished so harshly--and all the sadism of what Starsky had been through pierced Hutch's soul to its very core each time he saw that hand struggle slightly to accomplish something without being slowed by the pain.

Hutch got out of bed and started down the hall. He heard Starsky holler a question to him, but he quickly gathered up some extra pillows from Starsky's room along with the pain medication and headed back to his room before answering.

"What're you doin'?'' Starsky asked, as Hutch began depositing his armload on the bed.

"You're going to get settled in here with me for tonight. We both need some sleep.''

"I'm sorry I'm bein' such a pest. I can go back to my own room. I'll take the pillows'n stuff back with me.''

"Come on, get in. Don't argue with me,'' Hutch ordered, with a completely feigned firmness in his voice. Starsky obeyed willingly, and was soon settled in a reasonably comfortable arrangement of pillows behind his back and under his arm to keep the pressure off his ribs. "Okay, we're gonna try this one more time with the pain pills--and no more under-the-tongue maneuvers either--got it?''

"Got it.'' Starsky held out his hand, took the pills, and really swallowed them this time with the water Hutch hurried back to the bathroom to pour. Hutch climbed into his side of the bed and settled in, facing his partner. "Comfortable?''

"Yeah...'' The reply was a little unsteady and quiet. In a flash of lightning, Hutch thought he saw the wetness of tears on his partner's face, and he brushed Starsky's cheek lightly with his thumb to confirm that suspicion.

"What's the matter, buddy? You want to talk to me about it?''

"I was so afraid when they dragged me up here...I mean, I didn't know how I could feel a whole lot worse, after they got done kickin' me...but...I...'' His voice broke badly and he struggled to continue. "...I begged God to please just...let me die...before...I didn't wanna live through that.''

"Aw, Starsk,'' Hutch muttered, sliding closer and carefully putting his arm around the other's shoulders. Starsky rested his head against Hutch's chest and cried softly. "They're not gonna get near you again, I promise you.'' He lay there in silence for awhile, feeling the warmth of Starsky's tears against his t-shirt. "You must be hurting pretty bad skipping that medication for so long.'' He felt a little nod against his chest. "Just hang on, babe. The pills'll help in a few minutes. Hurts to cry, too, doesn't it?'' Another nod, and more choked sobs. "I know it had to be pretty scary, buddy. I understand.'' Feeling like Starsky needed a big bear hug, but fearing putting any pressure on the battered body, Hutch slid his hand into the other's hair and pressed his head closer, leaning his chin on Starsky's curls. "Everything's gonna be okay, pal. I'm right here,'' Hutch murmured, feeling as wracked by the tears and pain as his partner was.

"It was like...it was worse...than bein' some kind of...animal...what they did to me...to the house...just for no...good reason. Just because...of what...I am,'' Starsky choked out.

"Starsky, don't you ever dare feel like anything less than what you are because of those sorry sons'a bitches. You hear me?'' He heard a loud sniffle, and Hutch wondered how he'd speak the next time himself without breaking down. He'd never let himself feel the impact of Starsky's suffering, being so busy trying to make it better for his partner that he'd pushed his own feelings aside.

"Yeah.'' The word barely made it out before another little sob followed it.

"You're okay, buddy. You're safe.'' He lightly ran his hand back and forth across Starsky's upper back, trying not to put any pressure on the bruises there. "Just close your eyes and let the pills work their magic.'' He encouraged Starsky's head to rest on the pillow, bringing his face out of the little haven created by the blanket and Hutch himself. "Feeling a little sleepy there, tiger?'' Hutch asked softly, smiling with relief at the peaceful expression on Starsky's almost-sleeping face as he smoothed a couple of stray curls off his partner's forehead.

"Yeah,'' he mumbled back. "You must get awful sick'a takin' care of me.''

"I get sick of seeing you hurt. There's a big difference. Sometimes that makes me irritable. But I'm not sick of being there for you. Not ever. Got that?'' Another little nod followed. Starsky's hand clamped on Hutch's wrist.

"Hush?'' It was a nearly-sleeping attempt at his name.

"What, buddy?''

"Stay w'me.''

"It's my bed, dummy. I'm not going anywhere.''

There was a little grin on Starsky's face as he dozed off to sleep.

 

 

There was music. Starsky felt the drug-induced stupor lifting slightly, and he focused on the sound. Hutch's voice, the guitar...that was worth forcing the issue and waking up completely. Hutch was sitting cross-legged on the foot of the bed, looking like he'd been up and dressed for hours, strumming softly on the guitar and singing "You've Got A Friend''. In Starsky's opinion, he put James Taylor and Carole King both to shame. It was so rare lately for Hutch to light somewhere with his guitar and play for more than a moment or two, Starsky was afraid the moment would be over before he was coherent enough to appreciate it.

Hutch just smiled when he noticed his audience was conscious, and finished his song.

"What'd I do to deserve that?'' Starsky asked drowsily, not really concerned with the pain that assailed him the moment he stirred. At that question, it occurred to Hutch it would take him most of the day to explain what Starsky had done to deserve that particular song, so he opted for an easier answer.

"Guess I just felt like playing.'' Starsky's return smile was pure joy.

"Play somethin' else, huh?''

"Your breakfast'll get cold, buddy.'' Hutch set the guitar aside and moved toward his partner to help him get propped up so he could eat his breakfast off the tray that was sitting on the dresser.

"You can sing while I eat,'' Starsky offered hopefully.

"What d'you think this is, dinner theater? Man, what a demanding audience.'' Hutch set the tray in place. There were scrambled eggs, bacon, toast, coffee and orange juice on the tray.

"Thanks, buddy. This looks great.'' Starsky started digging into the food, then noticed banging and voices coming from outside. The window was open slightly, letting in the fresh air and the sounds from the ground below. "What's all the racket?''

"The contractor just showed up this morning to start work on the front porch. I also had him take a look at the staircase. He's going to give us an estimate.''

"I hate to ask what that'll cost.''

"Our insurance'll cover it. You know, that is one upside to damage to the house. They apparently thought they were doing something negative by ripping up part of the carpeting in the living room and on the stairs.''

"That was the only thing I can honestly say I was glad to see destroyed,'' Starsky responded, smiling slightly as he chewed. "I was going to ask them to tear out the carpeting up here, too, but they were short on time...'' Starsky chuckled a little and looked up to meet Hutch's relieved expression. "I'm gonna be okay, Hutch. And you were right about the house. It'll get fixed up.''

"You seem in good spirits this morning.'' Hutch returned to his seat on the foot of the bed.

"Look at that weather out there,'' Starsky commented on the sunshine streaming in through the window. "Last night was such a terrible storm, but this morning, there's all this sunshine...kinda symbolic, maybe?''

"You're right, pal. The storm's over.''

"Now we just have to clean up after it. Think maybe I could go supervise for awhile later? I'd really like to get some air.''

"I guess if we took the steps real slowly, it would be okay.''

"I'd probably get my strength back much faster if you'd sing something else.''

"That might be the most ridiculous thing you've ever said,'' Hutch responded, laughing, but reaching for the guitar at the same time.

"Not really,'' Starsky replied, grinning.

Hutch gave in and played three more songs for his greedy audience, beginning to believe that his performance had healing qualities. Starsky seemed not only more cheerful, but slightly more mobile as he shaved and got dressed. It was almost noon when Starsky made his way slowly downstairs with his partner admonishing him to watch his step, walking down slightly ahead of him to catch any slips. The trek was easier than he'd anticipated, though he didn't plan to make it often until breathing was a little less painful.

He was pleasantly surprised that Hutch was willing to take time to just sit outside under a big shade tree in a lawn chair and watch the foundation and framework for the new porch being established. The old one had been torn off at dawn, while Starsky's pain pills kept him zonked until almost noon. Now, he could watch the progress on the new one begin. Stretched out in a lounge chair with the rustle of the leaves above him, Starsky was getting back a little of his old enthusiasm for the house. It was not the source of his bad experience...the slimeballs who did it were, and they had nothing to do with the house.

"Tough life,'' a voice startled Hutch, but didn't stir Starsky out of the doze that had claimed him ten minutes earlier. Dobey was standing before them.

"Have a chair. I'll go grab another one from the garage.'' One thing they had indulged in buying for the house before they ever moved in were lawn chairs. While Hutch was gone, Starsky stirred and woke up, looking a bit startled at seeing Dobey.

"Sorry to disturb your beauty sleep, Starsky,'' Dobey quipped.

"Hi, Cap. When'd you get here?''

"Couple minutes ago. Hutch went to get another chair. Tough life you've got here, laid out in the shade watching other people work.''

"Yeah,'' Starsky replied, snorting a little laugh. "Sure is a tough way to get a vacation though.'' He rested a hand on his damaged ribs.

"I'll second that.'' Hutch rejoined the group, opening his lawn chair and completing their semi-circular chair pattern with Dobey in the middle.

` "Well, this isn't completely a social call. Nedloe and Elliot have someone down at the precinct we think might be one of the turkeys who attacked you, Starsky. We need some kind of ID.''

"I didn't see any of them--they all wore ski masks.''

"I realize that, but you said a couple of them had distinctive voices.''

"Yeah...one was real nasal-like, and another one had a German accent--but I think it was a put on one--and not terribly good, either.''

"Take a listen to this.'' Dobey turned on a small, hand-held cassette recorder.

"I told you I don't know anything about some cop gettin' worked over,'' the voice protested in its high, nasal-twang.

"That's him!'' Starsky straightened in his chair, wincing a little. "That's the one--the one who...the one who laid it out for me real clearly what was gonna happen upstairs. I'd know that voice anywhere.''

"I want a shot at questioning him,'' Hutch spoke up immediately.

"I can't let you do that,'' Dobey retorted.

"I'm telling you, Captain, I can get it out of him.''

"Starsky's ID'll shake him up a bit. I'm sure we can get him to give up his friends pretty easily to save himself a little hard time.''

"I just want to be the one to do the questioning. I won't beat it out of him if that's what you're worried about.''

"Frankly, I wouldn't let you and a weapon within a hundred yards of this suspect.''

"Suspect?'' Starsky spoke up. "Excuse me, Cap'n, but he's no suspect. He's the one. I'm never gonna forget his voice.''

"I just want a shot at questioning him. You know I'm good at what I do. Besides, the fact he beat the hell out of my partner might make him afraid of me to start with--without my ever having to do anything.''

"Well...all right. You can give it a shot. But if you make one false move, Hutch, I'll pull you out of there so fast you won't know what hit you.''

"Got it. Oh,'' he glanced back at Starsky.

"I'll be okay here. I can watch the building project.''

"I'll give Huggy a call.''

"Hutch, I don't need a baby sitter for pete's sake. I'll be fine.''

"Don't argue with me,'' Hutch admonished with a raised forefinger as he strode back toward the house.

"Damn, if he isn't gettin' bossy,'' Starsky grumbled under his breath.

"Starsky, I never asked you this, but now that the investigation is moving forward--you are prepared to testify against these creeps, aren't you?''

"I don't look forward to it in open court, no. I'm not prepared. But if you mean do I plan on testifying against them if it comes to that, you're damn straight I do.''

"That's what I needed to hear.'' Dobey stood up as Hutch emerged from the house, wearing his holster and carrying a jacket.

"Huggy's on his way over. Should be here in about fifteen minutes.''

"Go ahead. I'll be fine right here.'' He noted Hutch's skeptical expression. "Look, I'm not gonna move outta this chair, and if I fall out of it, there are only about six guys working on the porch that can pick me back up again. Go. And then get back here and tell me all the gory details.''

"Okay. But you stay put.''

"Scout's honor,'' Starsky saluted, but Hutch just rolled his eyes and hurried to his car, backing out so he could follow Dobey back to the precinct.

 

Arnold Mercer was a tall, well-built but homely man with close-cut blond hair and a neatly trimmed mustache. His voice was comically incongruent with his appearance. Dobey was right to be concerned about the effect seeing him had on Hutch, though he kept his temper admirably in check as he sat calmly across the table from the slightly taller suspect.

"Arnold Mercer,'' he said casually, as he opened the file folder in front of him. "Arnold, I've got a bit of bad news for you.''

"I have nothing more to say to the police.''

"You've talked to a lawyer, I assume?'' Hutch continued flipping through the file folder's contents, as if this were just a routine meeting.

"I don't need a lawyer to advise me to refuse to answer any questions unless arrested.''

"Maybe this'll be good news for you, then, Arnie. Because I'm here to let you know that you're going to be, in fact, arrested in just a matter of minutes. Right now, the charges are aggravated assault on a police officer, vandalism--which, incidentally, Arnie, doesn't sound like much on the surface, but the judge usually looks at photos of the damage...considers the circumstances...anyway, I digress. Let's see. That was aggravated assault on an officer, vandalism, breaking and entering, and here's a tasty little charge just for you--sexual assault. Bet the boys in prison are gonna be lined up in a regular little welcoming committee for you, Arnie.''

"That's a lie!'' he shouted at Hutch.

"Well, Arnie, unfortunately for you, you don't have to go all the way to commit a sexual assault. You see, you copping a cheap feel or two while you were threatening my partner was enough--oh, did I forget to mention that the officer you worked over was my partner? And, incidentally, that was my house you messed up? Well, just so you know, you got on my turf.'' Hutch slammed the folder shut and stood up suddenly, sending his chair skidding backwards. From the other side of the two-way glass, Dobey started a bit, but motioned to the uniformed officers and the chief, who had come down to watch, to leave Hutch to his ravings unless things got out of hand.

"Look, you better not have any ideas about getting rough with me. I have rights.''

"Rights?'' He strode around the table and leaned down into the man's face menacingly. "You want to tell me about your rights? Why don't we talk about David Starsky's rights. You remember him. The cop you shoved on the floor, kicked, beat and insulted while you were destroying his house? Ring any bells? The same one you had so much fun threatening with all sorts of perversities?''

"Guard!'' Mercer called out, soon realizing when there was no response that he was on his own with the partner of the man he'd tormented, and would have raped if not for the shortage of time. Hutch was leaning on the back of Mercer's chair and the table, suspending his upper body above the man, but not touching him.

"Yell all you want, you rancid piece of shit, but as of this moment, your sorry ass is mine! You might not know this, but you white supremacist lunatics aren't real popular around here. My captain just put a nice big bow on your head and gave you to me for an early Christmas present!!'' Hutch watched the unease in the man's face turn to fear, and now he was on a roll. Damn it, Starsk, you oughtta be here to see this. I never knew I could do the "bad cop'' part quite this well.

"Look, I don't know what you're--''

"Oh don't hand me that!'' Hutch slapped the surface of the table. "My partner identified that pathetic little squeak you call a voice, and let me tell you something, that ID's gonna stick to you like glue, and you're going down hard.'' Hutch backed away and started pacing. "Is that your hang up, Mercer? That squeaky little voice? Is that why you have to find a way to prove you're a man? Does brutalizing someone get you off?'' Hutch worked hard at pulling back his anger. More spouting off and he was going to lose his momentum. "As I see it, asshole, you've got two choices. You can plan on doin' the old bone dance with a bunch of guys in the state pen who are a whole lot bigger and a whole lot lonelier than you for a very long time--gettin' somebody who already likes other men is gonna be just like candy at Christmas for them--or...you can shorten your stay at the men's club by identifying your nasty little friends.''

"You don't have any proof. A voice ID--''

"From a veteran detective who had plenty of time to hear it while you were leaning over him as he lay on the floor, detailing what you were going to do to him? It's not just gonna convict you, it's gonna bury you.''

"So supposing I knew anything about any of this stuff, what could you do for me?''

"I don't give guarantees, Mercer. But we might be able to work out a reduction of some charges with the DA, or perhaps recommend some sentencing adjustments for your cooperation. See, you're dead shit in the water right now. We've got you cold, and we don't owe you nothin', so you're goin' down. The only question is how far and for how long. That part's up to you. And you better make up your mind because if we nailed you, we'll get the rest of your little friends any time now, and the offer'll be withdrawn.''

"I need to think!'' he snapped back at Hutch.

"Don't hurt yourself. I'll be back in ten minutes. You better think real hard.'' Hutch left with a vibrating slam of the door.

"I think he's sweatin','' Dobey said, with a proud smile. "Nice work in there, Hutchinson. You had him on the run.''

"I wanted to kill him,'' Hutch muttered under his breath. "Perverted fucker.''

"Well,'' Jim entered the area where Hutch and Dobey were watching the prisoner wring his hands, "any luck?''

"We're letting him simmer a little.'' Dobey grinned like a cheshire cat. "Then Hutch is going back in there to dangle the carrot one last time. Any leads on the others?''

"Not a thing. The only reason we got this one is the voice. I remembered Starsky mentioning what a weird, squeaky voice the pervert had. When we questioned this guy--started out routine--I just leaned real hard on him because of the voice.''

"Let's hope the bluff worked then and he gives. By the way, Hutch--the chief was in here while you were questioning Mercer. I think I actually saw him smile. He was enjoying the show.''

"Guess I didn't go over the line, then, huh?'' Hutch was riveted to watching his quarry in the interrogation room, wishing for a few unsupervised moments and a blunt object...

"Almost, but not enough to hang yourself.''

"So this weirdo is a student at Radnor College?''

"Yep. And he was a rabble rouser at Mr. Eisenman's speech,'' Jim explained. "Eisenman is the guy they stole the picture from.''

"Any ties at all back to Shoemacher?'' Hutch asked.

"None we've been able to find. That doesn't mean they don't know each other.''

"So Mercer's all we've got?''

"For the moment. So if he fingers his pals, we're home free,'' Jim recapped with a hopeful smile.

 

 

Starsky watched a school bus unloading up the street, and the children dispersing in various directions. Huggy shifted again in his lawnchair, seeming to be restless at the inactivity of the afternoon. Short of going into the house to get them each a beer, he hadn't done much of anything but just sit, talk and occasionally watch the porch work.

"Hutch oughtta be home pretty soon. I'll be okay if you want to get back to The Pits.''

"Diane probably could use a little help with set up for dinner hour.'' Huggy stood up and stretched. "You sure you're okay here, Starsky?''

"I'm sure. I really am not immobile, Hug. I'm just supposed to take it easy for a few days, which is what I'm doing. I won't run up and down the stairs or anything until Hutch gets back.''

"Promise?''

"I promise. I've already been threatened to stay put.''

"Okay then. You take care.'' Huggy started across the front yard to the six cement steps that led from the higher ground upon which the houses sat to the sidewalk in front of them.

"Thanks, Hug.'' Starsky waved him off and took the last swallow of his beer. He was getting hungry again, and figured Hutch would be due home soon, hopefully with good news...and take-outs.

"Afternoon!'' A voice called from the sidewalk. A husky man with receding brown hair, dressed in jeans and a workshirt made his way up the steps and across the lawn to where Starsky sat.

"Afternoon. What can I do for ya?'' Starsky asked, setting his sunglasses on top of his head to have eye contact with the man.

"You must be Detective Starkey.''

"Starsky. Yeah, that's me.''

"Mel Pomeroy. I'm your neighbor next door.'' He held out a hand, and Starsky hesitated a little and then extended his bruised right hand. The other man gave it only light pressure. "I'm real sorry about what happened.''

"Thanks. Have a seat--and call me Dave,'' Starsky offered, gesturing at the empty lawn chair. He knew his story had made it to the newspaper, despite the best efforts to suppress it. He still didn't relish filling in the blanks for the neighbors' morbid curiosity.

"I sure hope this isn't going to drive you out of here. I was pretty happy to hear we had a couple of cops for neighbors.''

"We don't have any plans to move anytime soon. We both like this place.''

"Well, my wife's been bitching for about five years straight about the yard over here. She was real happy that day she saw you out there tearin' the weeds outta the garden.''

"Oh, yeah. I had plans for that garden. May have to wait 'til spring now. I don't think I'll be digging too many holes for awhile. They're gonna put in a new lawn, but that'll probably happen in the spring too. I want to landscape the place first, and my partner and I'll be doing that work ourselves.''

"Old Mr. Oliver wasn't too well for the last several years he was here on his own. This place used to be one of the swankiest on the block. He just let it go after his wife died. Elaine was a real sweet old lady.''

"You've been here a long time then, huh? Hey--would you like a beer or anything?''

"Nah, don't go to any trouble on my account.''

"No trouble. You'll have to get it,'' Starsky said, smiling a little. He had been ordered to stay in the chair, and his throbbing body had no plans to disobey that directive. "There's beer in the fridge, and the side door should be unlocked.''

"Be right back, then.'' Mel headed up the driveway and then returned shortly with two beers in hand.

Starsky hadn't realized that there were even bruises on his legs showing under the shorts he wore, but he shrugged it off, figuring he looked pummeled enough in the face that a few scattered bruises elsewhere certainly weren't shocking.

"Thanks.'' He took one of the beers from Mel.

"Hey, it's your beer,'' Mel reminded good-naturedly. " I just got off work an hour ago. First shift.''

"Where do you work?''

"The paper factory downtown.''

"Oh yeah. We drive by that just about everyday.''

"The house belonged to my wife's parents. We moved in after they took a condo in Palm Springs. Most of these old places have passed on in the same families. Don't see that kinda continuity too often anymore.''

"Not really. So you knew the Olivers?''

"Oh, yes. We've lived here about fifteen years. Old Harry was about 85, I think, when he died last year. Elaine was 70 when she died. Cancer.''

"Too bad. Did you know any of the kids?''

"Nah. I saw the youngest a time or two when he came back for Christmas. Don't know why he bothered, arrogant little bastard. He was in law school, I think. Harry busted his ass payin' for those spoiled brats to go through college...you can see where it got him.''

"How many kids did he have? I think it was the arrogant lawyer we dealt with.''

"Four. Two boys, two girls. None of them worth squat to their parents. The girls married big shots, moved away. One's in New Hampshire, another one's in Santa Rosa--you'd think she was in China. Never see any sign of her. One of the boys died in a car crash when he was a teenager--Danny. His younger brother, Craig, is the lawyer.''

"Amazing. You have four kids...you'd think one or two'd be around anyway.''

"Look, I think we owe you an apology.''

"Who? What for?''

"We have a neighborhood watch here. Only problem is, nobody's been real committed to it since, until the other night, nothin' really serious has happened here. We rotate duty, obviously, and nobody took Saturday night.''

"Well, I don't know as you'd'a been able to stop it anyway. Part of it's my own damn fault. I left the side door unlocked. My partner was out for the evening, and since that dumb lock used to stick, I just left it unlocked for him. I figured if he wasn't home before I turned in for the night, I'd lock up. They showed up about 9:30.''

"I still can't believe no one heard anything.''

"The houses are pretty far apart, and with the shades drawn--plus, a couple of 'em had guns, so my yelling options were a little limited.''

"Maybe you and your partner could talk to our watch group--you know, give us some pointers.''

"We'd be glad to. It'd be nice to get involved in something here. We've both always rented--so we're sort of ready to do the whole 'homeowner' thing.''

"Houses are a good investment.'' Mel nodded approvingly. "Both bachelors, eh?''

"Yeah,'' Starsky responded, laughing a little. "Ain't for lack of tryin'. We've both had a couple of close calls--Hutch was married once.''

"Cops' lives are rough on marriages--my brother-in-law's a cop in San Diego. Been divorced three times.''

"Takes a very special woman, and a lot of commitment to the relationship.'' Starsky smiled a little evilly. "'Course bein' single ain't all bad either.''

"Too true,'' Mel agreed, tipping his beer quite high. It was obvious he had drained most of the bottle. "This'll look good with the new porch out front.''

"We've gotta stop fighting over the paint color pretty soon.''

"What're the choices?''

"Hutch wants white, I want blue or yellow.''

"My wife thinks it oughtta be peach with white trim.''

"Oh God.'' Starsky rolled his eyes. "That'd look real nice with the pink one next door. Hutch and I can pose out front in our tutus.'' Mel laughed from the belly, shaking in his lawn chair.

"Guess you were hopin' for somethin' a little less lady-like, eh?''

"Blue. I just see blue. Hutch wants white--I don't want it to match Schoemacher's place out back.''

"That shithead. Was he in on this?''

"It's still under investigation.''

"His is the only house in the neighborhood that everyone rewards their kids for vandalizing at Halloween.'' That time, Starsky was the one who laughed, holding onto his side.

"Oh, man. Only hurts when I laugh.'' He was still grinning from ear to ear.

"My wife makes a mean goulash. She wanted to send some over--I wanted to make sure you wanted it. You know, sometimes people don't like food shoved at 'em if they don't like it.''

"I love goulash. Hey, she can feed us anytime. Only thing is, we're kinda like strays--feed us once and we keep coming back.''

"I'll go get it out of the 'frige. She also wondered if you liked chocolate chip cookies,'' he added, standing.

"You treat that lady right, or I think I'll marry her.''

Mel just laughed as he started walking back toward his own house.

"You could put it on the counter in the kitchen if you would--wow, that's really great. Thanks.''

"Don't mention it.''

"Is she home? I'd like to meet her too.''

"She's probably at her bridge club. Usually doesn't get home until dinner time. Don't worry. You'll meet her soon enough.''

"Okay. Thanks again, Mel.''

"Be right back.'' Mel headed back to the sidewalk and toward his house. After being ignored by most of the neighbors and taunted by one, it was a nice feeling to be welcomed.

Hutch pulled into the driveway about the time Mel was returning with a foil-covered bowl and a plate of cookies covered in plastic wrap. Assuming a man carrying food was probably not a Nazi, he greeted the man pleasantly and without suspicion.

"Ken Hutchinson,'' Hutch extended a hand to shake, but then ended up taking the teetering top plate off the bowl and holding the door for the unexpected visitor.

"Mel Pomeroy. I'm your neighbor next door. I was just out there talkin' with Dave, and he seemed to like the idea of tryin' some of my wife's cooking.''

"That's one thing Starsky's real agreeable about--food. Thanks very much.'' Hutch set the cookies on the counter next to the bowl.

"She taped cooking instructions on top of the foil on the bowl--just needs a re-heat.''

"Great. Thanks again.''

"I gotta get goin'. We're bowling tonight, so I'm fixin' dinner to be ready when Sally gets home.''

"Good luck on the bowling.''

"Thanks. We're doin' pretty well so far.''

"Great. See you later.'' Hutch watched him head back over toward his house, and then went out in the front to find his partner.

"Hey--you met Mel?''

"Yeah. Seems like a great guy. Food smelled good too.'' Hutch cast an eye around. "Where's Huggy?''

"He went back to The Pits to help Diane get set up for dinner. I figured you'd be home soon so I told him to go ahead. Tell me what happened.''

"Oh, not much, really.'' Hutch sat down in the other lawn chair. "I was a little later than expected because...we made four arrests this afternoon.''

"What?!'' Starsky's eyes popped, and if moving hadn't been such an effort, he'd have jumped out of his chair.

"The turkey with the squeaky voice sure can sing well. Hung his three buddies out to dry. I worked with Nedloe, Elliot and Dobey on questioning 'em. All but one confessed--they want to make deals--cop pleas if they can. The one holding out has been sold out three times over, so it's just a matter of time for him.'' Hutch was grinning widely. "We got 'em, partner.''

"What I wouldn't give to have a few minutes...''

"I had a few of those fantasies myself. I did have a chance to have some fun with Mercer. I think it might just have been my most brilliant performance.''

"Your talent matched only by your humility.'' Starsky snorted a little laugh.

"Ready to go inside?''

"Yeah. I think the work crew is sick of me starin' at 'em all day.''

"Too bad. We're payin' them enough to work and entertain you in their spare time. They're lucky we didn't ask for a soft shoe routine.''

"With straw hats and canes.''

"GRAY!!'' Mel's voice boomed from the sidewalk as he was rushing toward their house. "GRAY!!''

"What?'' Starsky was on his feet by now, and so was Hutch.

"Your house--you want blue,'' he pointed at Hutch, "and you want white--''

"No, I want blue, he wants white,'' Starsky corrected.

"Whatever--gray's a compromise color.'' Mel was a little out of breath, but seemed very pleased with himself. Both had to admit the idea had some merit.

"I like it.'' Starsky was nodding toward the house. "White trim?''

"Works for me,'' Hutch also was looking toward the house, then back at his partner and their neighbor.

"You must wanna see paint on this place real bad, Mel,'' Starsky said, smiling.

"Well, yeah, can't deny that.'' He chuckled a little.

"Damn good idea. I think we'll paint it gray,'' Starsky concluded, and Hutch nodded his approval. "Thanks, Mel.''

"Anytime. I think my ribs're burnin'. I better get back.'' He hurried back toward his house again.

"Think he's crazy?'' Hutch asked.

"Nah. I think he's just happy to have neighbors with heartbeats.''

"Could be,'' Hutch said with a little laugh. "Gray. I think that'll look nice.''

"Me too.''

"Feeling better, pal?'' Hutch lightly put an arm around Starsky's shoulders as they wandered up toward the house.

"Yeah, I do. Coupla beers didn't hurt, either.''

"Beer and pain pills. That's smart.''

"I don't take those until bedtime. I didn't take any this afternoon, or I'd'a been asleep all day long.'' Starsky made his slow ascent up the three steps into the kitchen and sat in a chair there while Hutch pored over the goulash instructions, then set the bowl in the oven and turned it on.

"Dobey thinks we can get some nice tidy convictions on those guys. If we're lucky, it won't go to trial.''

"I don't like to think of them gettin' off too easy.''

"Most of 'em hadn't been caught at something like this before. They were singing like canaries. I don't think we'll have to do much in the line of plea bargaining.''

"What charge is getting shaved off for Mercer?'' Starsky waited while Hutch hesitated.

"The sexual assault charge.''

"Terrific,'' Starsky grumbled.

"The DA felt that would add the least to the sentence anyway, since it was only at the lowest level as far as the legal system is concerned. Look, it wasn't one I gave up on easily, but we had to give him something that sounded like he was getting a lot but really didn't matter that much in terms of the time he'll end up serving. Unfortunately, that charge fit the bill.'' Hutch looked at his partner's somewhat defeated expression. "I'm not saying that 'nothing happened', but that's--''

"What the DA is saying.''

"Unless there's something you're not telling me.'' Hutch watched as Starsky shook his head.

"It makes sense from a strategic standpoint. I just...wouldn't have talked about it to Nedloe and Elliot of it wasn't going to be used anyway... Plus I wanted to think he was gonna be known for the dirty, perverted son of a bitch that he is.''

"Don't worry about that. Word travels fast on the prison grapevines,'' Hutch smirked a little as he washed his hands and then pulled vegetables out of the refrigerator to start working on the salad. "And if we hadn't had it to bargain with, we might have never busted the others. So it wasn't for nothing.''

"Give me the tomatoes and a knife. Maybe I can do something useful over here.''

"Sure. Just pretend the tomato is Mercer.'' Hutch set the two fat tomatoes, a plate and a knife in front of Starsky. "Wash your hands.''

"Yes, Ma.'' Starsky got up and followed orders. He was soon back at the table, slicing while Hutch tore up the lettuce. The smell of goulash was filling the kitchen. "Hutch?''

"Yeah?''

"You did real good with Mercer. Thanks for goin' after him like that.''

"I wish it was an ideal solution.''

"He's goin' to the pen, his nasty little freak friends are goin' with him, and there probably won't be a trial--which'll save me, along with a bunch of Jews and a bunch of neo-Nazis who'd probably decide to stand around waving picket signs--a whole lot of trouble.''