10

Years may come and go,

Here's one thing I know,

All my life

You're a friend of mine...

 

Volumes of essentially useless information poured into the tip line. Farver and Shemanski eventually complained about being glorified secretaries, so Starsky and Hutch took their turns handling the mundane routine of screening the calls. Their careful analysis of Ben Forest's file as well as his "known associates'' didn't reveal anything of interest. A thorough check of records at New Horizons Real Estate had to be accomplished through Cecile in order not to make it an official investigation. Starsky handled any communications with her, with Hutch happily relinquishing that portion of the task to his partner. Neither were really angry at her, as she had done her best to break it to him gently, and Hutch was the first to admit she was right about him not being ready for a heavy relationship yet. Still, it was understandably awkward to be in touch with her.

Starsky threw himself into the project of decorating the house for Halloween. Despite Hutch's lack of interest in the holiday, Starsky was loving every minute of carving the three giant pumpkins, two of which sat on the porch, with the forlorn-faced oblong pumpkin taking up residence, much to Hutch's dismay, on his favorite windowseat. Bunches of Indian corn were attached to the front, side and back doors. The crowning touches were courtesy of Rosie Dobey, who was anxious to share with Starsky her new found skill of making "ghosts'' by putting big pieces of white sheet over cheap children's plastic balls and tying them at the "neck'', leaving the remaining fabric to hang loose. To her delight, Starsky spent most of one Sunday on a ladder in the front yard suspending them from the large trees, while she stood on the ground and supervised his efforts. The front yard took on the appearance of a haunted forest when they were finished.

Discovering that the two detectives were only a bike-ride away from her home, Rosie sometimes showed up on a weekend day, and occasionally had visited Starsky after school during his convalescence. She had grown to be a very pretty and intelligent little sixth grader, and Starsky maintained she was better company than most of the adults he knew.

The week before Halloween, the neighborhood "painting party'' took place. On a breezy, sunny Saturday morning, the neighborhood watch group plus several other neighbors, Huggy, Nedloe, Elliot and Minnie showed up to work on the project of painting the house. In return, Starsky and Hutch had a pig roasting in the back yard, which was Huggy's primary vocation during the paint-a-thon. Wendy was on hand to keep a constant flow of refreshments and snacks going out to the workers. There were a couple kegs of beer and various other snacks, cocktails and party foods in store for the cookout that was to follow, when wives and families of the painting volunteers would arrive to round out the party. The detectives signed up to take their turn on the watch rotation, barring a conflict with their usual work schedule. In addition to taking a turn at patrolling, they had devoted a few evenings to training the volunteers in some of the basic techniques of patrolling and also given advice on how much to investigate on their own and when to report something suspicious to the police. Their help had earned them the enthusiastic help of the watch participants.

Paul Pomeroy and Starsky had set up stereo speakers in a few windows in strategic locations in the house to pump music out to the painters. Hutch was thoroughly convinced they would probably burn down the house by shorting out all the wiring, but Starsky argued that this was why they'd spent all that money on rewiring the place. With everyone eating Wendy's ham rolls, small sandwiches, cocktail weenies and chips and dip, intermittently dancing and hamming it up to the music that throbbed out of several windows of the house, it was debatable when the party really started.

Remarkably, by the time dusk was approaching, and the outdoor lanterns were hung at strategic locations in the backyard, the house was painted. To everyone's amazement, the efforts of over twenty people assaulting the structure from all sides coordinated very well, and the grey house with white trim could finally take its rightful place among the other restored homes of the neighborhood.

Indoors, the contractor had finally finished the structural work on the staircase, and all that remained was to stain the wood to match the house's original woodwork. The french doors had been stripped, re-stained and hung between the living room and dining room, and the living room and entrance hall. The hardwood floors were polished and a large rug that had been found in the basement boasting an attractive Oriental pattern had been cleaned and used to substitute for carpeting in the living room. There would be rich burgundy carpeting on the main staircase, beginning with the tread of the first step. Credit cards had been utilized to hang beige tie-back drapes in the living room and scalloped shades in the dining room. The dining room table had been replaced with one found at an estate sale for about half its real value. The kitchen cupboards were to be refinished by Mel, Jim Nedloe, Hutch and Starsky the next weekend. They'd cut their teeth on staining the French doors and done quite well, so the kitchen was next on the agenda. What had begun as Starsky's pie-in-the-sky idea of a restored Victorian-era dream house was beginning to take shape, thanks to unfortunate circumstances yielding insurance money, a lot of hard work, and a lot of help from a wonderful group of neighbors and friends.

As soon as they assessed the decorating needs of the second floor and the cesspools of other people's leftover junk in the attic and basement, the lack of respectable landscaping and the weed-choked lawn, it was obvious they still had miles to go. Somehow, though, that thought didn't depress Hutch the way it had in the beginning. Starsky had always had a strange love for the house, almost as if it were human, and tinkering with it for a lifetime didn't seem to bother him. Hutch, on the other hand, had eyed it suspiciously as a time-consuming, money-guzzling monster at the outset. Now, with some of the work completed, and the overwhelmingly peaceful sense of "home'' he felt about the place, the thought of doing a little bit here and there for the next several years didn't worry him at all.

"Quite a party, eh?'' Starsky's voice startled Hutch out of his thoughts as he stood at the kitchen sink, watching the people milling around the backyard.

"I still can't believe how great they've all been to us--we couldn't have ever gotten all this stuff done this fast on our own.''

"So why don't you look happier?'' Starsky pulled another covered tray of Wendy's much-in-demand ham rolls out of the refrigerator.

"I'm happy.''

"You're supposed to smile when you say something like that.'' Starsky ate one of the rolls and tossed one in Hutch's mouth as he opened it to answer. Hutch chuckled a little as he started chewing. "That oughtta make you happy. I think I ate the last tray of these by myself.'' The ham, cream cheese and green onion concoctions had captivated Starsky's tastebuds all day. "Now answer my question.''

"I was just thinking...did you see Jack Elliot's wife? She must be due next month.'' Kelsey Elliot was indeed extremely pregnant as she waddled around the yard, trying to keep track of her two older children, ages 10 and 12.

"Talk about your afterthoughts,'' Starsky said, smiling. "Think Jack planned on that?''

"I don't know as Kelsey planned on it.'' Hutch was still in a reflective mood. "Sandra would have been due about the same time.''

"Hutch, I'm sorry. I never even thought--''

"Don't apologize, buddy. I'm going to be seeing pregnant women all my life. I can't let that depress me. It just makes me think so much about her now because the timetable would've been about the same.''

"One thing I am sorry about is how I pushed you with Cecile. That one was all my fault and I was way out of line with that. I know we sort of talked about it the other day, but you didn't have both oars in the water at the time, so now I want to say it when you do.''

"Things would have gone along all right with Cecile if it hadn't been for that damn photo. So unless you sent that, it's not your fault.''

"Yeah, but you weren't ready.''

"She acted real casual about all of it at first, like she was okay with just being friends for awhile. All of a sudden when she got that photo, things weren't moving fast enough and she was unnerved about the heroin thing.''

"Looks like the Dobeys just got here,'' Starsky said, leaning past Hutch to look out the kitchen window. "Come on, pal. Let's go enjoy our own party, huh?'' Starsky picked up the tray of snacks and led the way back outside to the festive cookout.

Paul Pomeroy couldn't wait very long after dinner to start recruiting musicians and planning some sort of musical program for the evening. The crowd was already in a musical mood, since the radio had pumped out tunes for some dancing, and even an impromptu sing-a-long, complete with a Motown-style (though pathetically uncoordinated) dance routine from Starsky, Jim Nedloe, Mel Pomeroy and Dobey on "The Way You Do The Things You Do''.

Hutch was coerced into performing a few numbers, and soon had the crowd clapping and singing along with "Black Bean Soup'' among others. Starsky joined him before long, and they did an acoustic version of "Stuck in the Middle with You'', which actually summed up their lives pretty well. Paul was happy to provide some back-up while Hutch took a break, and Starsky ran through a few of the Jim Croce songs he liked so well. Hutch didn't say anything, but he had opted to take his leave of the sing-a-long group to avoid hearing Starsky's rendition of "Time in a Bottle'', which could usually get him misty on a good day. He wasn't spared completely, as Starsky's voice wafted in the open kitchen window. He was relieved when Starsky relinquished the singing duties to Paul, who began a series of well-known folk tunes to keep the sing-a-long going.

He noted with some satisfaction that the main staircase was very close to being fully restored. With nothing left to do but the staining and carpeting of the treads, the house would be back to normal before long. He paused at the foot of the stairs to take in the view. A chill ran up and down his spine when the thought of what must have run through Starsky's mind the last time he made the trip up those steps, being dragged by the arms, stretching his battered body until tears came from the pain, and the impending threat of something Hutch didn't even want to think about. It's very admirable you still want to live here, Starsk. Maybe you should've asked me if I can get past what happened here...

He turned away and went back outside to join the party.

 

 

Starsky turned over again and spent more time staring at the pattern of leaves in the moonlight rippling across the ceiling. He'd analyzed himself forward and backwards trying to figure out why he couldn't sleep. It wasn't the food, and he wasn't particularly upset about anything--at least not any more than usual. The threat of exposure of Hutch's drug situation was always there, nagging at the back of his mind. Arnold Mercer's squeaky voice and beer breath was there too, along with words that were so indelibly stamped in his memory that they wouldn't let him go. Things so sickening that he'd been embarrassed to even tell Hutch. That's a good one. Street-smart homicide detective and you don't think he's heard stuff like that before? Truth is, I haven't heard some of that stuff before. Pray to God I never have to hear it again. But it's always there...and there was never a doubt that Mercer planned to carry all of it out with an audience watching... Oh, God, and I wonder why I have insomnia... Dear God, please, just one night I don't have to replay all that in my mind before I go to sleep... Mercer has power over me as long as I let him... Shrinks. Useless advice for $100 an hour... Why did I even bother to let anything slip when I talked to the department's shrink? Why did I mention Mercer at all? Cost me another session a week later, when I felt just as lousy and scared and humiliated and messed up...only this time I knew enough to play the game, to lie like a horse thief so he'd sign the right form that put me on active duty.

Depressed at sleep eluding him for over two hours, Starsky finally got out of bed, making the two steps expertly without thinking. He pulled on a robe and slipped down the back stairs to the kitchen. There were dirty dishes everywhere, since neither of them had felt like cleaning up at two in the morning and none of their guests seemed inclined to clean up after themselves.

Ham rolls disappeared first, then the remains of a batch of pasta salad brought over by Edith Dobey. He was glad the Dobeys were late. Edith's Italian pasta salad, with pieces of pepperoni and black olives and onion and Italian dressing was one of his favorites, and only her late arrival had spared this little clump left over for his personal pleasure. Normally she found her bowl cleaned to the bottom at every party.

Wendy's brownies capped off the gastric nightmare, two in rapid succession, chased by milk, which seemed more appropriate than the cola he'd been chasing the rest of it with. Burping, he tidied up after his little snack and headed to the living room to look for the newspaper. He was full now but no more sleepy than before.

The staircase.

Starsky paused alongside it, and finally walked around to the foot of it. He'd never used the main staircase since he was dragged up the steps that night. Ain't you got no decency? Mercer's mocking voice was back again. Worse than that, his hands were back. Traveling where they wanted, voice working with them, describing what was coming... If he had been living alone, he'd have taken another shower, just to get rid of a feeling he couldn't put into words--like maybe the pounding water would wash away the memories... If Hutch noticed he spent twice his normal time in the shower lately, he hadn't said anything. He probably didn't notice. Even then it wasn't like Starsky exactly hogged the bathroom, and there was always the one downstairs if he got sick of waiting.

Nice try, Starsky. Think about how many bathrooms there are in the house and the practical aspect of the fact that you're crazy--how long Hutch has to wait for the bathroom. But you can't get away from Mercer and what he said and wanted to do, what he already did...that's his legacy to you for the rest of your life, man. Won't ever go away... See a shrink would be most people's advice. Tried that. How in hell can I tell a stranger the things he said to me when I can't even tell Hutch? And can a shrink turn back time and make it not happen? Uh-uh. So what good is it? I ask a question and he answers it with another. And I pay $100 for that--or the department does but then they know I'm nuts and put me on desk duty for six months while I contemplate my navel once a week with a therapist. Not an option.

"Starsk?'' Hutch appeared at the hallway railing above where Starsky stood at the foot of the stairs. "Thought I heard you moving around. Everything okay?''

"Sorry I woke you,'' Starsky responded, still staring at the steps and not Hutch.

"That's okay. Not like we have to be at work in the morning--I guess it is morning, huh?'' Hutch came down the uncarpeted steps, tying his robe. "What's the matter, buddy?''

"Nothing. I just...I couldn't sleep, so I came down for a snack.''

"How long have you been standing here?''

"I don't...know. I was thinking, and then...I guess I just ended up standin' here to do it.''

"You wanna talk?'' Hutch joined him at the foot of the stairs.

"'Bout what?''

"Starsky, I know you're still not okay with everything that happened. Give me some credit for having eyes--and knowing you.''

"I don't think I wanna get into this now.''

"Then when? Or with whom? Look, I hear you at night, and I know how long you're in the shower and I know why.''

"You hear me at night? And what are you talking about with the shower?''

"You talk in your sleep sometimes. Don't even ask me to explain myself about the shower because we both know what I'm talking about.''

"I'm sorry--about wakin' you up and hogging the shower.''

"Starsky, for God's sake--do you think I care about a few ounces of water or a couple minutes of lost sleep? I want you to let me help you.''

"Help me what? Forget? I can't, all right!!'' Starsky yelled back him, feeling tears welling up in his eyes. His throat was nearly closed. "I don't know what's wrong with me. I wasn't raped. Why am I still hanging on to this...feeling like I was?''

"Because in a way, you were. The physical act didn't happen, thank God, but you were put through all the preliminary terror, the inappropriate touching--to quote the law--and the helplessness, and--''

"That's the worst. Waiting and knowing what's coming and not...not being...not able...'' He seemed at a loss for the right words, and hesitant to say any more.

"Hey, it's okay, buddy.'' Hutch moved toward his partner laid a hand on his shoulder. "Part of this is my fault, Starsk. I didn't handle it well, hearing what they did to you...look at how I reacted to Norton's statement. God, I put it on you to comfort me about what happened. How in hell were you supposed to feel like you could talk to me about it? You've been trying so hard to hold up for me, to keep me together with this damn drug situation hanging over my head. Who's holdin' up for you, huh?'' Hutch asked gently, sliding his arm around Starsky's shoulders. "I've been so damned wrapped up in whether or not somebody finds out about the addiction that I haven't even taken the time to find out if you were getting over this.''

"Don't call it that,'' Starsky asserted. "It wasn't an addiction. You were forced-''

"And they got me hooked. Technically--''

"NO. It was an...aftermath of torture. You weren't an addict, Hutch. That makes it sound like it was your fault, like you were on it longer than you were.''

"And here we go again. This isn't about me, buddy. Come on. We're going to sit down and talk this out.'' Hutch started leading him toward the TV room.

"What if I...can't?''

"There's no rush, Starsk. But I think we both know you need to get this off your chest.'' Hutch sat on the end of the couch, and Starsky sat on the edge of the opposite end.

"Cold in here,'' Starsky stated, shivering a little.

"We can turn up the heat.''

"Yeah, then when we get the utility bill we'll have to give up groceries for two weeks. I'm the one who said let's turn the heat way down and dress warmer.''

"You'd have said anything to get this house, buddy,'' Hutch responded with great affection in his voice.

"Guess you're right.'' Starsky smiled slightly.

"Wanna share?'' Hutch had pulled the throw off the back of the couch and covered himself, leaving a more than ample section of the fabric for his partner.

"Yeah.'' Starsky smiled again, broadly this time, and moved to the cushion next to Hutch. Shoulder to shoulder and tucked under the blanket, Starsky felt the worst of the shivers subsiding. He followed Hutch's lead as the other slid down in the cushions and rested his feet on the coffee table.

"Here we are, livin' like kings in this fancy big house,'' Hutch quipped. The picture of the two of them huddled together under a blanket in the small back bedroom of the house on Starsky's old couch struck them both funny. Before long, both were laughing, thinking of how ridiculous they looked, and how utterly absurd their whole situation was, living in what amounted to a small mansion but unable to afford to turn up the heat.

"I still like it, though,'' Starsky responded as he got his breath back.

"Me too. Maybe we could get promoted or something--then we could have heat and everything,'' Hutch suggested, still chuckling a little.

"We've talked about that before. You thinking again about taking the Lieutenant's test?''

"Nope. You?''

"Uh-uh.'' Starsky settled more comfortably. There was no need to reiterate the reasons. Promotions would inevitably split up their working partnership, possibly take them off the streets, and neither one was pleased with either part of that equation. Pushing papers would be depressing. Pushing papers alone would be unthinkable.

"Talk to me, Starsk.'' Hutch's head was resting on the back of the couch, and he didn't move his gaze from the ceiling. Somehow, that made it easier to start. Once Starsky began, he found it impossible to stop. It amazed him how easily it all poured out now, when he felt so remarkably secure. He found the voice to say the words that had made up his nightmares, to repeat to Hutch everything that was said, from the horrible derisions against his religion to Mercer's threats. Hutch listened quietly, only occasionally asking a gentle question of clarification. When he was finished, he still had the shower issue to confront, but he hoped Hutch would let that go for the time being. Recovery wasn't coming easily from this one, and he needed Hutch's patience more than anything else.

"I don't want to talk anymore tonight,'' Starsky concluded, keeping his downcast eyes focused on the brightly-colored throw that covered them.

"Rome wasn't built in a day--or a night. No need to handle everything at once, babe. I'm glad you told me the whole story.'' Hutch turned his head toward Starsky.

"Me too.'' Starsky returned the look and smiled a little.

"You're looking me in the eyes again, buddy. I'm real glad to see that.''

"What're you talkin' about?'' Starsky's brow wrinkled a little.

"Since all this happened, you almost never looked me in the eyes when we talk. It was as if you were avoiding eye contact with me.''

"Maybe I was,'' Starsky admitted, turning back to stare straight ahead. "I was...I don't know...ashamed, I guess.''

"Of what?''

"That I didn't fight back more. When we got upstairs, I just didn't have it in me anymore. And I...I was afraid...of getting beaten up more. Since the shooting, I...I sometimes don't know how...sturdy everything is. I didn't know what would happen if they kept at me much longer. It hurt so bad by then...I didn't know how much...damage...''

"Starsky, you fought back a hell of a lot more than most people would have, and probably more than you should have. You earned most of your injuries fighting back. You've got nothing to apologize for, buddy. You sure as hell don't have anything to be ashamed of.'' Hutch smiled slightly. "As a matter of fact, Norton referred to you as the 'toughest SOB he ever saw'.'' Starsky actually laughed a little at that. "I also believe he used the term 'wild animal' to describe trying to subdue you. You gave those bastards a real run for their money, pal. You didn't go down easy. But there's not a lot of glory in that if it gets you smashed up.''

"I s'pose not.'' Starsky looked back at Hutch. "But I didn't want you to think that meant that I...that I wanted it or something. That's what Mercer said, right before Norton started talking about the time. He said 'look at him now--not fightin' back. He wants it.' I didn't, Hutch. I just couldn't see any way out,'' Starsky finished in a shaky voice.

"I know that, babe. I never would think you did, anymore than any other victim wants it, no matter how much their attacker might want to say they do to fuel his perverted fantasies. There are also people who survive rape because they finally give in when they're overpowered and don't incite their attackers into killing them. That doesn't make those people guilty of something. And it probably makes the people who love them damned happy because even if they've suffered, at least they're alive.'' Hutch paused, then found Starsky's hand under the throw and squeezed it. "At least that's how I would've felt. Not like you asked for it or like you were less than what you are because something terrible happened to you against your will. And if you'd had to give up fighting to save your life, and that had been the consequence...'' Hutch paused, seemingly choked up himself now, "I'd've thanked you for living through it and staying with me instead of antagonizing them and making me go through losing my best friend.'' He felt a crushing pressure back from the hand he was holding. Starsky was mopping at his eyes with the other hand.

"You mean that? You're not just...tryin' to make me feel better?''

"I really mean that, Starsk.''

"Then it's okay,'' Starsky said, his voice a little strained with the tears he was successfully controlling now.

"What is?''

"All of it.'' He looked at Hutch in that matter-of-fact way he had, like the answer was so simple anyone ought to be able to figure it out. "Because I don't feel like a coward anymore.''

"My God, Starsky, you never were. Not for a second.''

"I guess I know that now. I just felt like...I gave up. I let them...I let Mercer...'' He paused. "But now, I...I guess I can see some sense to it, like maybe I knew what I was doin' on some level, even if I couldn't think real clearly right then.''

"You've got damned good instincts for survival, buddy. That's what kicked in. You told me outside of Schoemacher's house one night that you were picking your fights a little more wisely. And that's precisely what you were doing then. Fighting an impossible battle and incurring major casualties just on the principle of the thing is a waste of lives--even in a war. On your own individual scale, incurring more severe injuries or even death to stop something you ultimately couldn't stop would have been just foolish, not courageous. You were too smart to get yourself killed...thank God.''

"I don't know how smart it was...''

"Plenty smart. Plus, maybe your grandmother was onto something about you being one of God's chosen people. By some wonderful miracle, it didn't happen.''

"I prayed so hard, Hutch. I never prayed like that--except when you were sick or after...Forest, or lookin' for you when you were in that damned canyon.''

"And somebody up there heard you.''

"I'm really tired.'' Starsky's head drooped over to one side on the back of the couch. It seemed like he was already partially asleep.

"Me too, partner,'' Hutch agreed, settling in to nap right there on the couch. With Sunday off looming ahead, they could afford to catch up on some rest as the early hours of morning crept up on them.

 

 

After breakfast, they began the grisly task of cleaning up after the previous night's party. They flipped a coin to assign duties, with Hutch taking the yard and Starsky starting in on the mass of dirty dishes in the sink. Unfortunately, there was no putting this off, as tomorrow's work schedule looked pretty formidable, and this might be their last stretch of free time for awhile. Discouraged by the lack of success in tracking Jordan, they had opted to personally follow up on the calls to the hotline that had been scrapped after careful analysis. They found Jordan in the first place following up a long shot, so it seemed appropriate to try it again.

When the phone rang, Starsky picked it up with dripping hands and wedged it between his head and shoulder while he kept working.

"Dave, hi, it's Wendy.''

"Hey, Wend, what's up?''

"Did you survive last night?''

"Oh, yeah.'' Just barely, but then I guess she meant the party.

"I thought if you were free maybe we could go take in a movie this afternoon.''

"Sounds like a good idea. We're just getting things cleaned up here...'' He backed away from the sink to look at the clock. "How about I pick you up around two? We could probably make the three o'clock show at the Showcase.''

"Great. See you then.''

Starsky hung up and looked back out the window. Hutch was making pretty good inroads on the yard, and the pile of dishes had shrunken considerably. He didn't foresee any obstacles to making his two o'clock date with Wendy.

Hutch wasn't saddened to have an afternoon to himself to catch up on some reading. The only drawback of living with Starsky had been a backlog of reading materials. While Starsky had always liked to read, he didn't seem as inclined to do it since the incident with Mercer and his fellow goons. Maybe long periods of silence and solitude weren't what he needed at the moment, and Hutch finally concluded that he was glad to let his quiet time slip a little if it was helping his partner recover. If one ever truly recovers from something like that. I wanted him to open up, tell me everything. Now that he has, I can see why he was losing it. And I agreed with the DA that we could do without the sexual assault charge. Starsky's convinced it was still a sound tactical move. So why do I feel like an insensitive shithead for going along with it? Of course, testifying to all of this in open court wouldn't have been a walk in the park, either. And we did find Norton and the others through Mercer. The lead on Curtis came through Norton, so ultimately, it was a sound strategy. But sometimes the principle of the thing is just as important...

Hutch relinquished the comfort of the wingback chair he occupied near the fireplace in the library. If old Mr. Oliver hadn't left this furniture, we'd probably have moved the lawn chairs in here. Last time I let you do the budgeting, Starsky. He picked up the phone and dialed Huggy's number.

"Quite a party last night, man,'' Huggy commented.

"Thanks for doing the pig duty, Hug.''

"No problemo.''

"Hug, you've got some friends in the state pen, right?''

"Man, Hutch, you really know how to hurt a guy,'' Huggy responded in feigned indignation.

"I'm not kidding around.''

"A few guys from the old neighborhood, yeah.''

"You know anybody who could put a word out on the prison grapevine?''

"Sure.''

"Good. I want you to drop the word that Arnold Mercer, who just got transferred there last week, is AC/DC.''

"Hutch, are you sure you--''

"We had to dismiss a charge to get some information from him, Hug.'' A beat of silence. "It was a sexual assault charge.''

"In Starsky's case?'' Huggy asked, shocked.

"Yeah. He wasn't raped--it never went that far, but Mercer really terrorized him with it. I had to agree to dropping the charge, since it didn't go all the way and we needed the bargaining power. But I want Mercer known for what he is.''

"A little helpin' of street justice?''

"Something like that.''

"Consider it done. You know, that's going to make things pretty hot for him on the inside.''

"He made things pretty hot for Starsky. I...I know this probably isn't the right thing to do, but I can't help it. I feel like I have to do...something.''

"Tell you what. I'll sit on this for a bit, and if you still want me to put the word out in, say, a coupla weeks, you let me know. You gotta cool down, man. Think this through. I mean, sure, you're not doin' anything direct to Mercer, but you gotta know what it'll mean for him on the inside. And you said Starsky wasn't--''

"It was only for a lack of time, Hug. He was all ready to get started. The jerk watching the clock pulled the plug on it--thought it would take too long. He was literally saved by the bell.''

"I'm still gonna wait on this, man. Hutch--this ain't you. I can always go ahead, but I can't ever take it back, if you should change your mind.''

"Okay. Do what you want, Hug. Thanks.''

Hutch hung up the phone and went to sit on the windowseat with Starsky's sad-faced pumpkin. He felt a sick heaviness in the pit of his stomach. He'd never pulled strings like this to indulge a revenge fantasy, but after hearing a minute-by-minute, literally blow-by-blow description of Starsky's ordeal, he couldn't stand the thought of any part of it going unavenged. Starsky was strong, and he had bounced back quite well from the whole ordeal, but there were still those innermost feelings of fear and shame that he had only confided to Hutch the previous night. It was safe to assume they would never be confided to a therapist, so pressuring Starsky into counseling would have been pointless. Starsky had laid them all at Hutch's feet, and now Hutch felt he should do something to make it better somehow.

The doorbell shook him out of his morose thoughts. He inclined his head out the window, and saw Cecile's Cadillac parked at the curb. She was one of the last people he wanted to see. Figuring she probably saw him sitting in the window, he resigned himself to answering the door. When he swung it open, Cecile stood before him in jeans and a beige sweater, her hair hanging loosely about her shoulders. It was the antithesis of the strait-laced professional he usually saw.

"Hi, Ken. I'm sorry to drop in on you like this, but I think we should talk.''

"Come in.'' Hutch stood aside as she entered the house.

"The house looks beautiful--I can't get over how lovely it looks with the new porch and the paint job.'' Her face fell slightly when she turned toward the stairs.

"The contractor just got done rebuilding it. It'll be stained and re-finished next week. Mel Pomeroy next door found another old place with French doors, so those have already been re-finished and hung.''

"The doors are perfect. I'm sure the staircase is going to be beautiful too. Looks like he did a fine job reproducing it.''

"Starsky found an old picture in the attic that showed the original staircase.''

"How is he?''

"Starsky? He's just about back to full speed now. He's a quick healer, fortunately.''

"I'm glad. I really like Dave. I was so sorry to hear about that whole incident.''

"Cecile, I thought we pretty much covered everything we had to say to each other at Tony's. Unless this is related to the case.''

"No, it's not related to the case.'' She looked toward the living room. "Could we possibly sit down a moment?''

"I'm sorry. Please.'' He gestured toward the living room. The lapse in courtesy wasn't entirely accidental, but now it seemed petty.

"This is personal.'' She sat on the edge of the ornate sofa in front of one of the large front windows. Hutch occupied a nearby chair. "I...I made a mistake.''

"About...?''

"When I saw that photo of you, it brought back a lot of...frightening memories for me. It made me face something again that I've had some success in putting out of my mind, at least recently.''

"I'm sorry you had to get involved in all that.''

"I was very wrong to blame you for what happened to you back then. To imply somehow that you would lapse back into an addiction you didn't take on voluntarily...it was very insensitive of me.''

"I appreciate what you're saying, but apologies really aren't necessary. You made a decision. You have a right to see or not see anyone you choose.''

"But that's just the point...I ran scared, Ken. To be very truthful with you, I've missed you in the last couple of weeks. I know I made all these speeches about not wanting to be friends, but I underestimated how much I enjoyed that--even if it doesn't move beyond that.'' She looked down at her hands, folded in her lap. "I really feel silly about the way I...said things. I was pushy.''

"No you weren't. I've been, well, maybe stand-offish is the word. I know you were right about one thing--I'm not ready for anything heavy. Not this soon after Sandra. I completely understand if you're not interested in hanging around with me. I'm not real good company at the moment.''

"On the contrary. You were great company. That's what I miss. All the things we used to talk about...we have so much in common.'' She smiled a little uneasily. "Do you think we could just kind of forget everything I said that day and pretend it didn't happen?''

"No. You know about...the heroin. And I know about your past now, and I don't think, as friends, we want to forget that ever happened. Maybe we just know each other a little better now.''

"Does that mean if I invited you over for dinner some night this week, you might accept?''

"I might,'' Hutch responded, smiling.

"I know--why don't you invite Dave and Wendy to join us? She made all that food for our picnic--I'd like to do something nice for her. And I'd like a chance to visit with Dave again, when he wasn't being all abrupt and professional because I just dumped his partner.''

"Sounds great,'' Hutch said, laughing a little. "Our schedule could get a little dicey this week.''

"What else is new? How about Tuesday night? If something comes up, I guess Wendy and I can have dinner and you guys can eat cold leftovers.''

"Gee, thanks, Cecile. I don't know when I've felt more needed.'' He was still smiling. "I'll ask Starsky, and he can get a hold of Wendy. As a matter of fact,'' he looked at his watch. It was five-thirty. "He's probably over there right now. Kill two birds with one stone.'' Hutch went to the phone on the small table in the entry area and dialed Wendy's number. He had seen it posted by the kitchen phone for several weeks now, so it was emblazoned on his memory.

Wendy carried in two bottles of cola and joined Starsky where he sat cross-legged on the floor. Having found another willing monopoly partner, Starsky was determined to polish up his somewhat defunct skills on the game.

"You still owe me $1,000.'' She handed him the pop.

"I offered to give you my utilities and Atlantic Avenue.''

"That's okay. I'll figure out some way for you to work off your debt later,'' she said, smiling a little evilly. The ringing of the phone froze her crawl toward Starsky in its tracks.

"Great timing,'' he said sarcastically, grinning a little. Wendy sat on her couch and picked up the phone.

"Hello?'' She waited while the caller spoke. "Hang on a minute.'' She held the phone out to Starsky, none too pleasantly. "It's for you,'' she said in an exasperated tone.

"Oh.'' He took the phone and, assuming by her irritated demeanor that it must be the precinct calling, barked his own response. "Starsky.''

"Starsk, I'm really sorry. Sounds like I called at a bad time.''

"No, that's okay. What's up?'' He glanced up at Wendy, a bit puzzled why Hutch would evoke such a terse response from her.

"Cecile's here, and we had a chance to talk things over...she invited us to dinner Tuesday night--she wanted you to bring Wendy, so I thought since you were both there, this would be a good time to check with her.''

"Sure. Hang on.'' Starsky moved the phone away from his head slightly. "You free for dinner Tuesday--with Hutch and Cecile?''

"I thought they broke up.''

"I guess things are looking better. Whaddya say?''

"I can't Tuesday.''

"Oh. Okay.'' He went back to the phone. "Sorry, buddy. It's a no-go. Wendy can't.''

"Cecile's just motioning to me to ask you.''

"Oh, sure, I can. She gonna want a third party there?''

"She said she'd like a chance to visit with you again. Okay?''

"Sure. That's fine. Whatever you set up's okay with me.''

"Great. Talk to ya later, pal.'' The connection was broken, and Starsky handed Wendy the phone.

"What's the problem?'' he asked.

"I've gotta hand it to him, his record is perfect--flawless and unbroken.''

"Meaning what?'' Starsky asked, the irritation beginning to seep into his voice.

"Meaning that I have never spent an entire date alone with you that we haven't seen or talked to Hutch. When I visited you in the hospital, I had to make an appointment with Hutch. When I visited you at home, he called or stopped by the house every time I was there, as if you weren't capable of existing without him for more than two hours at a time. Suddenly, what was supposed to be a romantic picnic for two turned into a foursome--without even asking me--and every time we've been together, he's called you or you've called him. You even turned me down to come to my folks' house for dinner and meet my brother--who's only here about once a year--because Hutch was 'having a bad day'. He wasn't sick, he wasn't between life and death--he was just depressed. And you drop everything to sit and hold his head.''

"Hutch is my partner, my best friend--what'd you think I'd do if he needed me?''

"Tell him to get a life of his own, maybe.''

"Maybe you're not real clear on what he's been through in the last several months.'' Starsky unfolded and stood up, hands on hips, ready for a fight. If Wendy really wanted to open this can of worms, he was damn well going to close it.

"His girlfriend died. I know. And I'm sorry. But quite frankly, I'm surprised he noticed.'' She stood up also now.

"And what the hell does that mean?''

"When would he have time? Besides, he's already got a doting wife looking after him. My only mistake was trying to break up the marriage!''

"You--'' Starsky covered his mouth, literally, and took a deep breath. His mother had instilled in him a certain respect for women, and the word that was coming next would have violated everything she'd ever taught him. "I have nothing more to say to you.'' He picked up his jacket off the chair and headed for the door.

"Oh that's right--run home to Hutch. Well, if Cecile wants to date a twosome, that's her prerogative. I like to take it one at a time.''

"Don't worry. You sure as hell won't be put in a position to worry about it again.'' He slammed the door behind him.

Starsky was still fuming when he pulled the Torino into driveway and stopped with a squeal of brakes. He noticed Cecile's car, belatedly, and was sorry he'd made such a dramatic entrance. He let himself in the side door and started up the back staircase.

"Starsk? That you?''

No, it's Jack the Ripper, Starsky thought angrily. Why punish Hutch when you're mad at Wendy?

"Yeah. Hi, Cecile,'' he shouted from where he stood.

"Hi, Dave,'' she called back.

"I'll be upstairs. I, uh, I don't feel too good. Something I ate.'' He continued up the stairs without waiting for an answer.

Predictably, within less than five minutes, he heard Hutch's footsteps on the stairs. Starsky was still pacing his room, trying to work off his anger.

"Starsk? What's wrong?''

"I told you.''

"Yeah, right. You're pacing too fast to be sick and you look fine. Now level with me.''

"You've got company.''

"Cecile'll wait for a minute.''

"Look, I just need a little time to cool off, okay?'' Starsky finally stopped pacing and faced his partner.

"Okay. Everything's all right, though?''

"Yeah, fine,'' Starsky answered, a little exasperated. Hutch nodded and went back downstairs.

Cecile stayed another half hour or so, and then Starsky watched her large car pull away from the curb. He'd taken up residence in Hutch's usual spot on the windowseat in the library, watching daylight turn to dusk, lighting his pumpkin as the darkness deepened. He still didn't turn on the lights in the library.

"So are you in here or is it just me and the pumpkin?'' Hutch asked from the doorway, where little yellow light from the hall spilled into the room.

"Yeah, I'm here,'' Starsky replied sullenly.

"You wanna tell me what happened?'' Hutch sat on the opposite side of the curve of the windowseat.

"Not particularly.''

"You never let me off the hook that easily.''

"Guess not,'' Starsky said through a little snort of a laugh. "Wendy and I are finished.''

"Why? What happened?''

"Nothing. It just didn't work out.''

"Starsky, I wasn't born yesterday. You don't just suddenly decide to stop seeing somebody for no good reason.''

"She's too possessive.''

"Really?''

"Well, she's possessive and she's jealous, and--''

"She was upset that I called you, right?'' He didn't wait for Starsky's admission or denial. "I heard her on the phone today, and I know she was a little less than thrilled to see me the other day when she came over.''

"You live here, Hutch. If she didn't wanna see you, she shoulda stayed home.''

"The point is, you live here too, and if she wanted to see you, she had to get me in the bargain. Judging by how she sounded today, she's probably sick of having your partner in the deal.''

"Then she's better off hitting the road because that's how it is.''

"I would understand if you wanted more space--if you wanted me to back off so you could--''

"Could what? Spend my life listening to little barbed remarks every time we did something together? No thanks. Look, Wendy just wasn't the right choice for me. If she can't accept our friendship as part of the package deal, it wouldn't last anyway, so there's no point in my trying to smooth it over with her.''

"I'm just trying to tell you that I understand if you want me to stay out of the way when you're with her. I only called today because you were both there, and I figured it was a good time to find out if you could both make it.''

"Don't start apologizing to me. You didn't do anything wrong.'' Starsky stared out the window a minute. "And don't you dare stay out of my way, either.'' He nudged Hutch's knee across the space between them with a stocking foot.

"I am sorry about Wendy, buddy. I know you liked her.''

"And once again, the same sterling Starsky taste in women that brought you Rosey Malone and Kira brings you Wendy the wonderful.''

"Let's not get started on bad taste in women, pal. I really don't want to relive that history.''

"You picked Sandy.''

"And you picked Terry. Maybe there's hope for us yet.'' Hutch laughed softly.

"Tell me about Cecile,'' Starsky probed, still staring out the window. Lights were coming on in the various houses as the night wore on. The teenagers across the street with all the rock posters on their walls had lit up their bedrooms. The girl's drapes were quickly closed, but her younger brother didn't seem to care about such details, plunking down at his desk and dejectedly opening a book. Sunday night homework. "That's the worst kind.'' Starsky was startled to have voiced the thought out loud.

"What?''

"Sunday night homework. All that stuff you leave 'til the last minute and then your folks come down on you about mid-afternoon Sunday 'cause you haven't done anything.''

"I think mine came down on me a little earlier than Sunday afternoon.''

"Probably Friday afternoon.'' Starsky laughed a little.

"Actually--''

"No,'' Starsky replied, in complete disbelief. "No kid does homework Friday afternoon.''

"One did.'' Hutch raised his hand with a slight grin. "That was the first thing out of my mother's mouth when I got in the back door. 'Better get at that homework so you have some free time this weekend.' Just one day I wanted to throw those damn books out the window and do something fun.'' Hutch seemed to have started watching the bent head of the neighbor boy now.

"Homework on Friday...man, that's child abuse.''

"It is, huh?'' Hutch responded, laughing a little.

"I think I'd rather be beaten.''

"It wasn't that bad, Starsk. I never had to do what he's doing. I was usually at the movies right about now.''

"Or jetting around in Jack Mitchell's $40,000 sports car, right?''

"Wealth has its moments, I guess. But that car's probably been sold for scrap by now, and I wouldn't've bought a house with Jack Mitchell. The important stuff doesn't come with the big price tags on it. Hey--I'm hungry. I suppose you ate at Wendy's place.''

"Mostly junk at the movie. We didn't have anything at her place. What'd you have in mind?''

"Nothing special. I just thought we could fix some dinner.''

"Okay. Anything down there to fix?'' Starsky asked, unfolding from his position on the windowseat and heading for the door. Hutch was close behind him.

"There's some hamburger in there, and a box of that mix with the cheese sauce and macaroni in it.'' Hutch watched the predictable pleased reaction the presence of something like Hamburger Helper evoked in his partner.