11

And when you push from behind

I know I can

Cover a mountain with the palm of my hand...

Oh, babe, you can make history young again,

You could rewrite it, you could decide

The things that should or shouldn't have been,

You could look at me in the scheme of things,

Oh, babe, you could make history young again.

Hutch had been looking very forward to Tuesday evening. He hadn't seen or talked to Cecile since their reconciliation on Sunday, and he was anxious to get what he considered a promising friendship back on track.

"Starsk! Come on, we're gonna be late!'' he called down the hall toward Starsky's room. The dark head poked out the door. Starsky was in his jeans and an old sweatshirt. "You're not dressed yet.''

"I'm not goin'. I think I'm gettin' sick.'' The voice was tinged with a distinct nasal quality. Hutch made his way down the hall, and predictably, laid a hand on Starsky's forehead.

"You're right. You're warm, buddy. I'll call Cecile.''

"What for?''

"You've got a pretty significant fever, there, Starsk.''

"I'll be okay. I'm just gonna take some aspirin and lie down.''

"But you won't drink any fluids if I leave you to your own devices, and you can't just ignore a fever like that.''

"Look, I'll go downstairs, get a big pitcher of ice water and put it on the nightstand, okay?''

"You go lie down. I'll get the water. And the thermometer. Don't argue with me.'' Hutch waved a finger briefly in Starsky's direction as he started down the hall toward the back stairs. Ever since the shooting, Hutch had been on needles and pins every time Starsky got the sniffles or indigestion. Starsky fervently wished Hutch would relax and accept that he wasn't made of china on the inside anymore. The bullet wounds had healed, the repair work had been successful. But Hutch's tendency to parent his partner had only increased as he seemed to perceive Starsky's health as more fragile than it was.

Starsky curled upon his bed, dreading the next few days of work. Having depleted all sick and vacation leave, unless he passed out on the floor, he'd have to be on the job. A sinus-rattling sneeze resounded through the room as Hutch arrived with the water. Never one to worry about catching whatever Starsky had, he sat on the edge of the bed and stuck the thermometer in his friend's mouth.

"I'm tellin' ya, Hutch, go on or--''

"Shut up while that thing's in your mouth. Honestly. Worse than a kid.'' Hutch checked his watch to start timing the reading.

"Yulknce,'' Starsky mumbled.

"What?''

"You look nice,'' he enunciated, holding the thermometer out of his mouth momentarily. "Will you please just get going so you're not late?''

"The only thing holding me up is your big mouth that can't stay shut long enough to get your temperature taken.'' After the instrument had been dutifully re-inserted, Hutch smiled slightly. "Thanks. It's new.'' He fidgeted a little with the lapel of the wheat and brown tweed sportcoat.

"Shmstbspcl,'' Starsky managed. Noting Hutch's blank expression, he started to take the thermometer out again but his hand was intercepted and pushed down.

"Quiet.'' Hutch checked his watch, was silent a few more seconds and then took out the thermometer to check it again.

"I said she must be special--new jacket and everything.''

"She's special and you're sick. This is 102 degrees. You think I'm going anywhere?''

"Yup. To Cecile's. You can call me a time or two and see if I'm still breathing if that'll make ya feel better. I got water, I got aspirin, and I got a telephone--I'll call you if I need anything, okay?'' He noted the coming objection and intercepted it. "I know the last time you went out, all hell broke loose. That's not gonna happen again. The doors are locked, Mercer and company are behind bars, and I can take care of myself. Now go.''

"Curtis isn't. Behind bars, I mean.''

"No, Curtis isn't. But we haven't heard from him lately either. Hey, I know all the neighbors around here, the watch is out tonight--I think it's Mel and Kurt from across the street. Will ya just go have some fun?''

"Okay. But just long enough for dinner.''

"That'll really be nice. Go over there, throw down your food and then dump her. Classy, Hutch. She oughtta love that.''

"I'm going to get you a cool cloth. Here. Take these.'' He handed Starsky two aspirin and poured a glass of the ice water. Starsky did as he was told. Hutch hurried down the hall to the bathroom and returned with a cool, damp washcloth.

Starsky had to admit that as lousy as he felt, he liked being taken care of and babied a little. But Hutch and Cecile had already had one false start, and he had strongly believed all along that his partner and the attractive brunette were a good match.

"How's that feel, buddy?'' Hutch was bathing his face slowly, and it felt like the heat was being sucked right into the washcloth. He involuntarily raised his chin a little so Hutch could get his neck while he was at it. "Pretty good, huh?'' There was a distinct smile in the voice. Starsky opened his eyes finally and smiled back.

"Yeah, pretty good. Now go.''

"Starsky--''

"GO.''

"Okay. I won't be late. And if you feel any worse, you call me. And I've left the aspirin here--and don't forget to keep drinking some water. Check your temperature again in about an hour--''

"Got it. Now get out of here.'' Starsky shoved at Hutch, encouraging him to stand up from his perch on the edge of the bed. If his long legs hadn't been able to reach the floor, he might have fallen off the high bed.

"Okay. I can still call her--''

"GO. There's the door. Don't let it hit you in the ass. Now GO.''

"You rest now,'' Hutch admonished as he hesitantly made his way out the door, and finally, Starsky heard the footsteps as he headed down the back stairs toward the side entrance. The door shut decisively, loud in the silent house.

First solo flight since it happened. Why don't I feel quite as confident as I played I did? I'm sick, that's why. Otherwise I wouldn't care if he went out and I was here by myself. I know better than to let that one incident make me afraid to be alone. The cool cloth sure felt good. He musta taken it back to the bathroom on the way out.

Starsky got up and plodded down the hall to the bathroom. Finding the washcloth in question, he repeated the motions of wiping his face and neck, but it didn't seem to have the same calming effect. It did make him feel a little cooler though. He returned to his room and crawled back up on the bed.

Something was nagging at him, disturbing his rest. Starsky forced his eyes open and realized he must have gone to sleep. Checking the clock, he noticed it was seven-thirty, an hour since Hutch left. Some great nap. The phone rang again. He pulled himself up and answered it.

"Starsk? You sound terrible. Is everything okay?''

"I'm okay,'' he croaked back. His throat and congestion were both getting worse, and he knew he was burning up.

"What's your temperature?''

"I dunno. I took a nap,'' Starsky responded, feeling a bit disoriented.

"Check it now. I'll wait.''

Starsky obeyed, a little slowly and clumsily, listening while Hutch made small talk on the other end of the phone about Cecile's impressive menu of home-cooked gourmet food. He pulled the thermometer out and was unnerved at what he saw.

"It's the same,'' he lied to Hutch, not wanting to destroy the other's evening.

"You're lying. What is it really?'' Hutch waited, knowing very well he wasn't getting the straight story, and judging by Starsky's slightly slurred voice, he figured it wasn't good news.

"Hndrdfr,'' he mumbled.

"What?!''

"It's a hundred and four,'' Starsky repeated, secretly glad Hutch was pushing. He felt lousy, almost like he might pass out, and wasn't crazy about being alone anymore.

"I'm on my way.''

"I'll go take a shower.''

"Stay right where you are. We'll work on bringing it down. I don't want you to shock your system bringing it down too fast. Drink some more water if you feel up to it. I'll be there as soon as I can.'' The connection broke before Starsky could object. "I'm sorry, Cecile. I've got to go home. His fever's 104 and--''

"That's high. You better get going.'' She rose from her seat on the couch to follow him to the front door. Cecile's restored vintage home was elegantly decorated, accented with numerous antiques and boasted a sparkling chandelier by the stairs. They had only begun to visit about home restoration and the time and energy Cecile had put into her project when Hutch became uneasy and called home.

"I'm really sorry about dinner. You went to so much trouble.''

"It's not your fault he's sick, Ken. That fever's too high to play around with. Will you give me a call later and let me know if he's okay?''

"I sure will. Thank you for being so understanding about all this.''

"Don't mention it. London Broil makes great cold sandwiches,'' she replied good-naturedly.

"Good night.'' He hurried out to his car and started toward home. A couple of blocks from Cecile's house, he slapped the mars light on the roof and hit the siren to cut through the busy intersections between the neighborhoods.

He cut the siren and retrieved the light from the roof as he approached Cherry Street. No sense attracting all the neighbors' attention. Pulling up in the drive, it occurred to him that Starsky had been right about Cecile. She was definitely worth the effort.

"Starsk?'' Hutch called upstairs as he started mounting the steps to the second floor. "Starsky?''

"Hutch?'' It was kind of a weak croak from Starsky's bedroom.

"Hey, there, buddy, how're you doin'?'' Hutch approached the huddled form on the bed that was clutching at the comforter he had wrapped around his body.

"Not so good. I got undressed because I was so hot, and then I got cold...now I'm gettin' hot again.'' Starsky's face was flushed, and the dark hair was clinging to his forehead in sweaty ringlets.

"I want to check that temperature again, then I'm calling the doctor.'' He carefully placed the thermometer in Starsky's mouth and then pushed the damp hair back with a gentle hand. The heat that greeted his touch unnerved him. "Everything's okay, babe. Just relax.''

"Not goin' t'the hsptl.''

"Maybe he can prescribe something. I think we should get you on an antibiotic pretty fast. I'm not messing around with this fever. Do you feel warm now?'' He watched as Starsky nodded. "Lie still. I'm going to get a washcloth and some water and see if we can cool you down a bit.'' Hutch went to the bathroom and gathered his supplies, which consisted of a towel, a washcloth and a plastic basin of room temperature water. He returned to his patient and checked the reading on the thermometer.

"Sorry, Hutch. I messed up your dinner with Cecile. She's probably mad.''

"Shhh. Don't you worry about Cecile. She was very understanding about the whole thing. No harm done, buddy.''

"Wha' was it?''

"Still 104.'' Hutch slowly bathed Starsky's face with the cloth, then progressed to his neck. The cloth was radiating warmth when he'd finished. He dipped it in the water again and held it in his hands a moment to warm it a bit before touching it to Starsky's shoulder and arm, which was his next project.

"Whaddya think's wrong with me?'' Starsky asked weakly, willingly relinquishing his grip on the quilt around him so Hutch could cool his shoulder and arm.

"What else feels bad, huh?''

"My throat, and my nose is gettin' plugged.''

"Okay. Probably just a real bad flu bug. I'm going to get you cooled down a little and into bed--instead of on top of it here--and then I'm calling Dr. Silverman.''

"'kay.'' Starsky didn't say anything else while Hutch worked on sponging him off with the cloth. There was no point trying to tell his partner how glad he was that he'd come home. He felt too weak and Hutch knew anyway.

With Starsky cooled down slightly, and having cajoled him into downing some ice water, Hutch called the doctor Starsky went to for any of his routine medical needs. There had been numerous specialists involved in his recovery from Gunther's attack, but he preferred to stick with the friendly, older man who had previously handled all check-ups, prescriptions and other minor catastrophes since Starsky's Aunt Rosie had set up his first appointment with him after he moved to LA.

The call to the doctor's home eased Hutch's mind greatly, as the other man immediately recognized Starsky's symptoms, including the high fever, as part of a very bad flu bug that was going around that many of his patients had. He told Hutch he'd call a prescription over to the pharmacy right away.

"Good news, pal. You're not terminal,'' Hutch said cheerfully, sitting on the bed and resuming his gentle sponging with the cloth.

"What've I got?'' Starsky turned away from him to cough.

"Just a really bad cold. He said some of his other patients have it too.''

"Feels like I'm dyin','' Starsky muttered.

"I know. But you're not. Now turn over on your side so I can do your back, huh?''

"Just got comfortable,'' Starsky grumbled, obeying.

"You must be getting better. You're bitching at me again,'' Hutch responded with a smile in his voice.

"Sorry.'' Starsky's apology sounded sincere.

"I was kidding, babe.'' Hutch patted his shoulder, and then carefully toweled off any moisture left by the cloth. "Okay. You can lie back. Legs are next.''

"This'd probably be more fun if they were Cecile's,'' Starsky quipped as Hutch uncovered one leg and began cooling it down with the cloth.

"Hopefully hers aren't this hairy, anyway.'' Hutch was glad to hear Starsky laugh a little, even if it did end in another coughing jag.

"Are you gonna hafta go get the prescription?''

"No. I called Huggy. He's pickin' it up for us.''

"Good. I'd...kinda like you t'stick around.''

"I'm not moving until that fever goes way down.''

"I feel better now.''

"You're not as hot as you were when we got started, that's for sure.'' Hutch was repeating the entire process again, starting back at his partner's forehead, and finding less intense heat this time around. "Here. Drink this.'' Hutch paused to fill another glass with ice water and held it while Starsky dutifully swallowed as much as he could.

"Feels good going down,'' he said, lying back on the pillows.

"How 'bout I call Huggy and tell him to bring a big Slurpee along with the prescription, huh?''

"Yesss,'' Starsky agreed, savoring the thought. He was quiet while Hutch made the call back to Huggy's and put in his order for a Slurpee, preferably cherry.

"Cecile's place is really nice,'' Hutch stated conversationally as he worked his way down Starsky's arm. "She's got it finished, totally restored. One thing she added was a chandelier by the stairs. Between you and me, I think it's overkill.''

"Too showy, huh?'' Starsky asked, eyes closed. The cooling influence of the cloth was relaxing him, along with the reassurance of Hutch's presence.

"A little. She gave me the grand tour.'' He blotted the right arm and Starsky lifted it while Hutch tucked it back under the covers again. Beginning the left arm, he continued. "She turned the attic into a studio--she likes to paint. She's pretty good, too.''

"You should get back to doin' some painting.''

"I was never very good, Starsk.''

"Good artist, lousy art critic,'' Starsky grumbled. "Say--you could take time out to take off your jacket if you want.'' Starsky was a little amused that his partner had flown in the house, landed at his side and worked tirelessly on the fever reduction activities ever since, still fully put together in sport coat and tie.

"Good idea.'' Hutch took off the jacket and tossed it on a nearby chair and soon sent the tie flying to join it. He rolled up his sleeves and after unbuttoning the top two shirt buttons, looked much more relaxed.

"I meant what I said. I liked some of your paintings.''

"Starsk, if I doodle on a cocktail napkin, you tell me it's an interesting design. You're not exactly objective, buddy.''

"Guilty as charged. But I still think you're good. Didn't you ever enter anything in school?''

"Like what?'' Hutch was back to the legs now, letting Starsky have a rest from turning to have his back done. Starsky paused for an earth-shattering sneeze. "Gezhundeit.'' Hutch grabbed a couple of kleenex out of a box on the night stand and handed them to Starsky.

"You're gonna catch this,'' Starsky warned hoarsely as he started blowing his nose.

"I've lived through worse. Now tell me what you meant about entering things?''

"You know those science fairs and art contests and stuff? Did you ever enter anything?''

"A couple of essay contests, a few tennis tournaments, stuff like that.''

"Bet you won the essay contests.''

"No,'' Hutch responded, smiling. "I got second place in one, honorable mention in another.''

"Outta how many people?''

"I don't know.''

"Was it just your school or local or what?''

"National,'' Hutch responded quietly, toweling off the left leg and then re-covering his partner. "I want to check that temperature again before you start sucking on that Slurpee.''

"National? Like the whole United States?''

"The whole United States,'' Hutch said, laughing a little.

"Wow. Second place? For real?''

"Starsky, that was twenty years ago. So what?''

"That's amazing. Outta all those kids, yours was in the top two? Bet your parents were really excited about that.''

"Not really. It wasn't number one. The first prize winner and his parents got a trip to the White House.''

"But yours was the second best--I mean, that means it's just about the best in the whole country, and maybe it really was the best because some of that stuff's subjective, and if it was just one judge's opinion--'' Starsky was obviously becoming agitated on this point.

"I think you're delirious. Calm down, pal. You'll drive that fever right back up if you get all worked up over nothing. Now shut up so I can check your temperature.''

"No, this is important. Weren't your parents kinda excited?''

"Starsky, there is one simple fact about my parents. They love me very much, and they gave me everything they could. But with them, second place isn't anything. It's not the winner. Not the best. Therefore, it isn't any more meaningful than nothing at all.'' He stuck the thermometer in Starsky's mouth. "Now be quiet so I can check that.''

"Ithnktsmthg.''

"Don't try to talk.''

"I said,'' he removed the thermometer much to Hutch's exasperation, "I think it's something. Do you still have it?''

"What?''

"The essay--the one that got second place?''

"I suppose, somewhere.''

"Can I read it?''

"If you put the thermometer back in and leave it there. Don't make me take it the other way.''

"Oh yeah? You and what army?'' Starsky shot back defiantly.

"You don't want me to put it under your arm, huh?'' Hutch smiled innocently as the thermometer went back in his partner's mouth without further comment. The doorbell rang, signaling Huggy's arrival. "I'll be right back.''

"Lkutfrst.''

"I give up. What?'' Hutch stopped in the doorway. Starsky removed the thermometer again.

"Look out first. Before you open the door, huh?'' The genuine concern in Starsky's face saddened Hutch a little. There were still a few scars from the ordeal with Curtis's henchmen that hadn't faded. Of course, with Curtis unidentified and not behind bars, it wasn't an invalid fear.

"Always do, pal. Be right back.''

Huggy, his prescription bag and large cup from the nearby 7-11 store were a welcome sight.

"How's the patient?'' he asked cheerfully.

"Better I think. I'm just checking his temperature again now. Thanks for getting this stuff.''

"The pleasure is mine, of course,'' Huggy responded.

"You want to enter the germ zone upstairs or should I give Starsky your best?''

"Remote control, my man. I'll pass on the visit for now.''

"Probably a good idea.''

"Well, I got a happenin' crowd for a Tuesday night, so I'm gonna head back to the bar. Anita's holdin' down the fort, and--''

"We love her like crazy but wouldn't exactly trust her with the family fortune, huh?''

"Crowds make her nervous.'' Huggy headed back out the door.

"That's encouraging. See you later, Hug. Thanks again.''

"Oh, Hutch--you given any more thought to what we talked about Sunday?''

"What--oh, right.'' Hutch took a deep breath. "No, I haven't. But I will.''

"Do that. Later, my friend.'' Huggy headed down the walk toward the curb.

Hutch returned to the second floor, sorry to disturb his patient, who had nodded off while he was waiting. The thermometer was on the nightstand. Hutch held it up to the light.

"Pretty good huh?''

"102.6--hey, progress, partner. Let's get you propped up, huh? Can't drink a Slurpee flat on your back.''

"Guess not.'' Starsky was repositioned to sitting against the headboard against carefully arranged pillows.

"Here. Says to take one every four hours.'' Hutch dropped a capsule in Starsky's hand and then handed him a glass of water to chase it. "Now, you get this.'' He handed his partner the frozen drink.

"So where's the essay?'' he asked after a long draw on the straw.

"You're serious?''

"That's big stuff, Hutch. I never won anything as important as that.'' Starsky took another pull on the straw. His face was very flushed now, but between Hutch's tireless efforts and the prescription, the fever would be contained and eventually conquered.

"It's probably in the attic somewhere in those cartons. I never look at that old stuff.''

"Come on. You got any other old stuff from high school?''

"It's probably all in that one carton up there, but--''

"Just bring the box, huh?''

"Starsk, that's ancient history.''

"But you never talk about it much, and I wanna know.'' Back to the Slurpee.

"Okay. I'll go see what I can find. But when you finish that, we've got to sponge you off again. You're not exactly cured at 102.6, ya know.''

"I know.''

"Here. Put this on while you're sitting up.'' Hutch held a pajama top for Starsky while he slid into it. "I'll go up and look for that stuff.''

Hutch was completely puzzled by his partner's sudden interest in his high school days. Why Starsky would want to look at stale old yearbooks depicting a bunch of preppy teenagers posing with tennis trophies was beyond him. His obsession about the essay was even more confusing. Yet somewhere, lurking in the back of his mind, a part of him was rejoicing at the attention that old achievement had finally gotten. His parents had conservatively complimented him for a "good effort'' and put his prize money in his savings account and that was the end of the hoopla. Several weeks of revising and agonizing to get that essay just right, and making it through all those preliminary steps...and for what? Maybe for tonight, Hutch thought with a little grin as he lugged the lone carton of high school memorabilia down to Starsky's room.

"Thought ya died up there,'' Starsky grumbled as he loudly drained the Slurpee cup. "Now I gotta go.'' Starsky slid out of bed and made his way down the hall. He was back quickly, climbing back among freshly fluffed pillows. Hutch sat next to him, retrieving his washcloth after pressing a hand on Starsky's forehead.

After completing another sponge job, Hutch was satisfied they'd both been through enough effort for awhile, and settled next to Starsky, leaning against the headboard, and began pulling trinkets out of the carton he set on the bed in front of his cris-crossed legs. Starsky took in all the yearbook photos with great interest, asking for clarification of who everyone was, what Hutch was doing in them, which people were his friends, who he dated--essentially, the story of his life.

Starsky was surprised by the number of awards and honors Hutch had racked up during his high school years. He'd always known Hutch was smart, and then found out he'd been valedictorian of his class, but he hadn't known he'd won a couple of regional chess tournaments, maintained a solid record while he played basketball and also earned a local junior tennis tournament title. Add to that the essay honors, and Starsky was duly impressed.

"Man, you must've been awful smart.''

"Think so, huh?'' Hutch responded, smiling. He felt Starsky's cheek. It was noticeably cooler.

"Can you read me the essay? My eyes are kind of burning, and I don't feel so great.''

"It can wait, buddy.''

"But I wanna hear it.''

"Okay. Let's get you flatter in case you want to go to sleep.'' After moving the pillows to allow Starsky to lie back, Hutch pulled out the old folder with the carefully typed, slightly yellowed pages inside.

"What's the name of it?''

"'How I Can Make a Difference'. Pretty corny stuff, huh?'' Hutch seemed to be as flushed as his feverish partner now, and Starsky chuckled affectionately.

"Did you pick the topic?''

"Hell no.''

"Read it to me.'' Starsky listened in silence as Hutch read the three page essay detailing the ways in which one person can, in fact, make a difference in the world around them simply through their own individual actions. Things like concern for the environment, charity to the needy, empathy for others, concern for social justice...all the values that had become trendy were all there in Hutch's old essay. Hutch was socially responsible and concerned before it became the hip thing to be. When he'd finished, he assumed Starsky was asleep by looking at the closed lids.

"Hey.''

"Thought you were sleeping, pal.'' Hutch stopped his movement off the side of the bed.

"Shoulda been first place.''

"Thanks, buddy.'' Hutch didn't sound convinced.

"I mean it. I know it probably sounds dumb 'cause I didn't know ya then, but I'm real proud of the kid that wrote that essay--and did all that other stuff. I'm real proud he'd wanna hang out with me.'' Starsky watched a little gulp wiggle Hutch's Adam's apple.

"I'm just proud you let me, babe.'' He brushed his hand across Starsky's forehead and rested it on his cheek a minute, ostensibly to check his fever, but Starsky fully received all the love and gratitude that were really behind it. "Get some sleep, buddy. I'll be right over there in that chair. Don't be startled if you feel me check you out once in awhile for the fever. And you'll need another pill in about three hours.''

"Okay.'' Starsky let himself drift. "Night, Blintz.''

"Night, Gordo. Sleep tight.''

 

Starsky slept quietly a few feet away. In the dim light of the bedroom, Hutch squinted at the words he'd so carefully chosen all those years ago. "Second place doesn't exist, son. Nobody remembers the contestant who almost won.'' Starsky would have been shocked, horrified even, by Hutch's father's credo. Sometimes during his childhood, Hutch had felt like just another one of his father's prized racehorses: driven, groomed and trained to win...and judged by the return on his investment. Second place doesn't exist... That need to win had made him a competitor. He'd even resorted to playing mind games on Starsky during their partnership. His partner, born and raised in an environment that made him tough, confident and street-smart on the job, threatened the fearful part inside of Hutch that was compelled to be the best. He was good, a skillful cop--Hutch knew that about himself. But he'd envied Starsky's more extensive street experience (though he seldom envied the tougher childhood his partner had survived), and the Kenneth Hutchinson who'd been programmed not only to achieve, but to be the best--number one--questioned that he really was the superior half of the duo sometimes, so he found ways to prove to himself he was still superior. Whether he'd catch Starsky in a mind game because he was smarter or because Starsky trusted him and didn't weigh each thing Hutch told him didn't matter in the early years. After Gunther, it began to matter. Watching Starsky dying in an ICU unit, being the "brains'' of the duo didn't mean anything. Neither did being number one, or being superior. He had been letting his father's priorities seep into his own behavior, despite his overt desire to reject them. When you spend your entire life living from one pat on the head to the next, and they are few, far between and very hard-won, it's hard to break that pattern.

Starsky came along and shattered it into a million pieces. He was like a tidal wave of energy crashing through Hutch's orderly life. With Starsky, Hutch got so many rewards just for being in his space. Just because Starsky loved him. Not only did he find his achievements celebrated, no matter how minor they seemed to him, but he found his failures analyzed by a forgiving heart that never condemned him. If he messed up, Starsky never let him take more than his share of the blame, nor did he let Hutch sink into thinking he was somehow personally inferior because he made a mistake, or because he got in the middle of bad circumstances.

If I've been "parenting'' you, babe, you've done your share too. You've been the proud parent I never had. The one who loves unconditionally, who would hang even the ugliest children's art works in places of prominence. The one whose eyes light up like a kid at Christmas when I sing, who rejoices and takes pride in all my second places, honorable mentions... The one who could love a dirty, wild-eyed junkie in a grimy back alley, a raving madman grieving over the corpse of his prostitute girlfriend...who would touch hands tainted with a deadly plague without a moment's hesitation...who can get excited over a damned 20-year-old essay...who, sick and feverish, in one blustery fall night, can validate my entire youth and all the little victories I worked so hard for that I thought were meaningless... Maybe I finally can relax. After all, I know I've got first place firmly sewn-up--at least in your eyes. So what would I have to keep competing for?

You're proud of me. Of the principled sophomore who sat up nights to organize this little essay. The kid who said that each man doing the right thing, taking moral responsibility for himself, could make a difference--that's who you're proud of...not a bitter, world-weary cop who'd pull strings to orchestrate a prison gang rape.

I'm going to live up to that soul that's still in me somewhere. Because you love me for that part of me you know is there...the artist, the singer, the philosopher.

Hutch got up and walked stealthily over to the bed to check Starsky's temperature. On an impulse, he leaned down and rested his forehead very lightly against the feverish warmth of his partner's. It didn't seem as hot to the touch as before.

"Hi.'' Starsky's quiet greeting startled Hutch. The other could usually sleep through an earthquake, but he was awake now, almost as if the power of Hutch's thoughts, more than his touch, had been enough.

"Hi yourself. Just checking your temperature.''

"I'm hot.''

"It's probably still high. How about I cool you down again--would that feel good?''

"Yeah,'' he responded with a faint smile. "But you should go to bed. Gotta get up early.''

"Don't worry about me, buddy. I'm just fine.'' Hutch shook down the thermometer and placed it in Starsky's mouth. "No talking this time. I'm going to get some fresh water. I'll be right back.''

Starsky watched his partner leave the room for the bathroom. He thought back of the essay Hutch had read earlier, and how little his partner ever seemed to think of his own accomplishments. The Hutchinsons are a nice enough family, but they sure have their priorities screwed up. No wonder the poor guy trips over his feet--and his tongue--when he's trying so hard to make a good impression. Shit, you made him jump through hoops and even when he jumped through nine out of ten of them, you scolded him for missing the tenth, not making it through the other nine successfully. You were blessed with a bright, artistic, sensitive kid, and nothing he ever did was quite good enough. He never thinks anything he does is anything special, no matter how special it really is. He turns nearly the color of the Torino when he gets any praise, and he never thinks he deserves it. Bet you never even framed the award he got for his essay...

"Okay, let's have a look at this.'' Hutch set the basin and cloth on the night stand and checked the thermometer. "Progress, buddy. 101.6.''

"You call that progress? I'm sweating like crazy.''

"Well, that's better than the chills. And it's going down instead of up, so you're getting better.'' Hutch took the comforter off the top of the covers to make the bed a little less stifling. "We're going to sponge you down and then move you to the cool side of the bed.''

Starsky relaxed and let Hutch do his work. Everything handled with the usual gentleness and caution Starsky remembered from his days recovering from the shooting. Hutch had taken over just about every task that didn't require an R.N. or licensed medical staffer to complete. He'd learned all the physical therapy exercises that could be done at home, cheerfully put up with Starsky's alternately depressed or irritable moods when he was in a lot of pain, and never acted as if any of it was a hard job. Without thinking, Starsky shifted onto his side. He was so warm he didn't want to wait for the ultimate relief any longer.

"Feels pretty good, huh?'' Hutch asked in response to an involuntary moan of relief at the washcloth making its way down Starsky's back.

"Mmhm.'' He relaxed as the heat and sweat were soaked into the cloth, then the soft terry cloth of the towel was there, gently blotting any leftover moisture. A particularly nasty coughing jag rattled him, and he felt a reassuring hand settle in the middle of his back momentarily until it passed.

"Okay now?'' Hutch waited for the nod. Starsky turned over so he could start on his arms. "Cough's getting down into your chest, pal. I should get a vaporizer or something in here.'' He moved to the second arm. "If your fever stays down, it would probably do you good to take a shower. The steam would loosen things up.'' He covered the second arm and started on the legs. He glanced up at Starsky and their eyes met for a moment, and held. There was a wealth of unspoken gratitude in the look, and Hutch just smiled and continued his work. He couldn't help but fear anything getting into Starsky's lungs after the shooting. He always harbored the worry that somehow the repaired lung wouldn't withstand a strenuous illness like pneumonia.

When Hutch finished, he got his partner repositioned on the cool side of the bed and hurried downstairs to replenish the supply of ice water. Upon his return, he encouraged Starsky to drink some, then take his next pill.

"Feels good over here. Cooler,'' Starsky said, smiling slightly.

"Just keep covered up. I know you're warm, but you don't want to get chilled.''

"What about tomorrow?''

"I'll call Dobey in the morning. Don't worry about that.''

"We're out of sick days.''

"So let him dock us. He can call Silverman if he wants verification.''

"We can't get docked. House insurance comes due this month.''

"Starsky, you worry about the damnedest things at the damnedest times.''

"So who's gonna pay it--the good fairy?'' Starsky started coughing again, an unpleasant, chesty sound.

"Just settle down. It'll get paid. Dobey hasn't docked us yet. What reason would we have to play hooky now? It's not like we don't want to work on our cases.''

"Did they frame it?'' Starsky wasn't looking at his partner, but was fidgeting with the hem on his sheet.

"What?'' Hutch honestly couldn't figure that question out, and he knew Starsky was way too coherent to be babbling deliriously.

"Your award, or certificate, or whatever--for the essay.''

"It was already a plaque. They didn't have to.''

"Where'd they hang it?''

"I had it in my room for awhile, but I put it away after a week or so.''

"Is it in there?'' He nodded toward the box on the floor near the bed.

"Yeah.''

"Can I see it?''

"Sure.'' Long past being annoyed at Starsky's curiosity on this point, Hutch smiled as he dug through the old memorabilia and fished out the small, shield-shaped wood plaque with the engraved brass plate on it. He handed it to Starsky.

"That's nice.'' He looked back at Hutch. "Why'd you take it down?''

"Because it didn't mean anything to anybody...including me...until now.'' Hutch smiled at his partner, who was squinting to read all of the inscription. "Would you, um, want to...uh, keep it?''

"Can I?'' Starsky responded with a little smile.

"It's probably a dumb question. I just thought maybe...since you were, you know, interested...''

"I'd love to have it. I know just where I'm gonna put it, too.''

"You're not hanging that up, Starsky,'' Hutch admonished.

"My plaque, my room. I can do what I want with it. It's going right over there, next to the picture of my dad, right where the evening sun'll hit the brass on it. Thanks, Hutch.''

"You're not serious about hanging it up. You don't have to do that.''

"I know I don't have to. I want to.''

"You already hung that ugly painting in here.'' Hutch referred to a painting he'd done of the beach at night, complete with the moon and stars. To him it had always looked like something VanGogh might have done when he was drunk. Starsky had found it in the attic, framed the stupid thing and hung it over his bed. Repulsed by the barf-green carpeting that ran throughout the house, Starsky had pulled that up and polished up his hardwood floor. All the accents in the room were varying shades of blue, and Starsky's argument was that the painting tied all the colors together. He was right about that part, but Hutch still couldn't picture anyone wanting it as a focal point in their bedroom.

"Hey, watch what you say about my painting. You saying I have rotten taste?''

"No, I'm saying you're too polite to take it down if it's driving you nuts.''

"It's tranquil. I like it. It stays. And this,'' he gestured with the plaque, "goes right up there by my dad's picture. No more arguments.''

"You're right. No more arguments. You go to sleep.'' Hutch took the plaque and set it on the empty side of the large bed. "And get your arms under the blanket before you catch pneumonia, dummy.'' Hutch held up the covers while Starsky obeyed wordlessly. "Forehead feels cooler,'' Hutch announced, resting his hand there briefly. "I'm going to dig through my stuff for the vaporizer. I know I've got one somewhere. I don't like the sound of that cough.''

"Okay.'' Starsky was settled back in bed again, shifting on his side to go to sleep. He drifted off listening to the sounds of Hutch rifling around overhead in the attic, locating and hooking up the vaporizer, then settling back in the chair. He noticed the last lamp go out, leaving the room in darkness. But this darkness was friendly, peaceful and secure.

 

 

The first thing Hutch did when morning dawned was call Huggy. Upon asking his friend to forget the conversation they'd had about Mercer, Huggy simply replied, "What conversation would that be?'' Hutch hung up, smiling, relieved that his two friends were able to see deeper into his soul than he himself could.

 

 

 

Hutch called Dobey when his call to Huggy was finished. The captain was ruffled, but ultimately understanding. The doorbell startled him, and brought him hurrying down the stairs and through the house to the front door to be sure the visitor didn't ring again. It was only eight, and Starsky was still asleep. Hutch wanted to keep it that way. He was shocked to see Cecile standing on the front porch with a grocery bag in her arms.

"Good morning,'' he greeted, opening the door. "Oh, God, I'm sorry. I completely forgot about calling last night--it was pretty late by the time we settled down.''

"That's okay, Ken. I brought some things I thought might help. How is he?'' she asked, as Hutch carried the bag and she followed him to the kitchen.

"Better. His temperature was 101.6 the last time I checked, and going down I think. I'm worried about the cough. He had some lung damage in a shooting a couple years back, and I always worry about what pneumonia or even a healthy dose of bronchitis would do to him.'' He looked in the top of the bag.

"Get out of there.'' She shooed him away and started unpacking it herself. "First, I have frozen orange juice pops. Best way to get vitamin C down bad patients.''

"God, you really do know him, don't you?'' Hutch laughed as he accepted two ice cube trays filled with the orange liquid with toothpicks stuck in the middles.

"I'm the ultimate bad patient. Takes one to outwit one. I have grape-flavored cough syrup--also for the fussy patient who hates the taste of everything.'' She set that bottle on the table and kept unloading. "Next, we have Tylenol, either for him or for his nurse. And, for the man who probably hasn't eaten since last night,'' she pulled out a bundle of foil-wrapped items, "we have cold London broil sandwiches.''

"I don't know what to say. I stand you up for dinner, and then you do all this.''

"You didn't stand me up. You had an emergency. There's a difference. You look wasted. Did you get any sleep at all last night?''

"Not much.''

"Maybe you can get a nap today. He'll probably be better once the fever is down. Even if he's sick, he won't need so much constant attention.''

"Then you don't know Starsky as well as I thought you did,'' Hutch responded, smiling. "Thanks again for all this.''

"Don't mention it. Listen, I have a meeting at nine, so I better get moving. If you need anything, give me a call. And as soon as you can, we'll try for dinner again.''

"Sounds great,'' he said, smiling as he followed her back through the house to the front door. "Thanks, Cecile.'' He leaned forward, intending to give her a little peck on the cheek, and somehow ended up lips-on-lips, lingering for more than a peck.

"Guess you're not as sleepy as you look,'' she said, smiling as she backed away a little. "Hold that thought for when you can get a relief nurse.''

"Will do,'' Hutch responded, holding the screen door as she passed through it and headed down the front steps to the walk. "Cecile?''

"Yeah?'' She turned around just before going down the cement steps to the sidewalk.

"Let's make that dinner real soon.''

"You got it. Call me.''

"Count on it,'' Hutch replied, still smiling. As she drove away, he realized he was still standing in the open door with a ridiculous look on his face. Hastening to close it, he was startled by a robust coughing jag at the head of the stairs. Upon discovery, Starsky's face flushed from more than fever. "And just how long have you been lurking up there?'' he challenged his partner, who had put on an old suit of sweats and his socks.

"Ah...I, uh, just got here.''

"Sure you did. That's why you're blushing up to your earlobes.''

"I'm sick, remember?''

"Not that sick. You're nosy.'' Hutch started back toward the kitchen, and Starsky followed him, coughing and sneezing his way down the stairs. "What're you doing out of bed anyway?''

"I'm hungry.''

"I was coming up in a few minutes with breakfast.''

"I'm not dying, Hutch. Just,'' he paused for a very significant sneeze muffled by a handful of kleenex, "sick.'' He looked more bleary-eyed and miserable after the sneeze, and Hutch took mercy on him.

"You still feel warm?'' He tested the forehead.

"Yeah, but not as bad.''

"Your face feels cooler. Before you start shoveling stuff in for breakfast, let me check your temperature again.''

"Aw, come on, Hutch. I feel,'' he paused to sneeze again. "Better.''

"You sound great.'' Hutch directed him to a seat at the kitchen table and stuck the thermometer in his mouth.

"Whtsllths?'' Starsky indicated the pile of supplies on the table. Hutch had learned to decipher well by now, and figuring that was a "What's all this?'', he answered accordingly.

"Cecile brought us some supplies. She made sandwiches out of last night's dinner, and brought some cough syrup and other stuff.''

"Ndlps.''

"What was that?'' Hutch removed the thermometer to check the reading.

"And lips--I never saw such a smooth move as that. You were headin' right for her cheek and she somehow managed to get her lips in the right place.''

"How'd she do that?'' Hutch asked, almost sincerely.

"It's all in the neck--kind of a duck and twist thing.''

"Sounds like the voice of experience,'' Hutch accused.

"Sometimes you just gotta get it however you can.'' Starsky flexed his eyebrows. "So'm I gonna live?''

"At 100.9? Damn straight you're gonna live. Here,'' Hutch said, handing him one of the orange juice cubes. "Reward.''

"Cecile made these?'' he asked, happy to attack anything cold, wet, and refreshing.

"Yup. We'll have a couple of the sandwiches later for lunch.'' Hutch put the rest of the supplies away and went about fixing breakfast.

"She likes you.''

"I like her too.''

"That's progress, then.'' Starsky was smiling when Hutch glanced back at him, and he had to return it. Maybe things were finally looking up a bit.

 

 

Starsky's cold kept him sidelined for a few days, but luckily didn't progress into the feared pneumonia or bronchitis. He went to see his doctor for a check up later in the week, and was told that several patients had been hospitalized at the fever stage. Hutch had done his job well. Starsky made it a point to hang the essay plaque exactly where he said it was going as soon as he was up and around again. Hutch never commented on it, but Starsky knew how much it all had seemed to mean to his partner.

Halloween arrived with all its trick-or-treaters and scary movies. Hutch had to admit the house did look festive for the holiday, and with the prospect of getting to know Cecile better, Starsky healthy again--both physically and emotionally--he could start to care about things like that.

Thanksgiving loomed on the horizon, and Starsky was in favor of inviting relatives and friends and having a big holiday dinner at the house. His argument that they had the room for it now was a valid one, but something in Hutch didn't have any desire to invite his parents after they'd declined to fly out there for the funeral. He also could foresee a wealth of snide remarks and criticisms over the condition of the house, the impracticality of it, and his decision to set up housekeeping with his partner. Starsky didn't push the issue, figuring Hutch had his reasons, some of which Starsky very clearly understood after their late-night essay discussion, and he settled for inviting his mother. The news on that front was not promising as she finally admitted she'd been having some health problems, and the doctor didn't think the trip would be a good thing for her. After an hour-long phone call of attempting to drag out of her what was wrong, she revealed she'd been having chest pains off and on, the cause of which hadn't been identified yet. Needless to say, she wanted to remain near her own doctor.

The news of his mother's questionable health took the bounce out of Starsky's attitude, but he vowed to keep in regular touch with her, and Hutch was constantly reminding him that not only had the doctors not found anything wrong at this point, but that there were numerous things that could cause her discomfort that were not all life-threatening. Since he relied on Hutch's assessment of all health-related issues to a greater extent than he relied on his doctor's, Starsky was calmed by that thought, and they made plans to host a small gathering of friends for Thanksgiving dinner.

The press had made a daily activity out of "updating'' the public on the progress of the Bridegroom task force. What this essentially amounted to was regular columns and articles berating the police department for their lack of action in solving the case. There was no doubt that the investigation had suffered as a result of the series of personal setbacks plaguing two of the task force's primary detectives. Nedloe, Elliot, Farver, Kennedy, Shemanski and Walling, however, all devoted some time each day to some investigative activity related to the serial murders. The hotline had fizzled, no worthwhile sightings of Evan Jordan had been reported. His bank accounts had been cleaned out the day he disappeared, and it was apparent his grandmother had kept those accounts well-filled. Being a student at USC and holding down a very part-time work study job on the campus was not sufficient to build up the balances he'd had at his disposal. They had also most likely bought him a very good cover and hasty departure.

Starsky was crouched over his desk, studying the coroner's report on a new, unrelated homicide. Hutch was on the phone, arguing with Bill in the evidence room about a piece of victim's clothing each was convinced the other had misplaced. Into the relative quiet and routine of this Thursday morning in early November, Christine Walling crashed through the squad room doors triumphantly waving a file folder over her head. It didn't excite Starsky that she was heading for his desk with such unbridled enthusiasm. The curvy blonde with the assertive personality had established early in her tenure in the male-dominated squad room that she was not to be hit on or harassed or treated any differently than any of the "guys''. Starsky had once made the mistake of playfully swatting her with a file folder, and she'd turned around and informed him that he was a Neanderthal sexist pig, and that if he ever pulled such a stunt again, she'd file a sexual harassment complaint against him. Since Starsky sometimes playfully hit Hutch on the butt with a file or newspaper, he hadn't thought it was a terribly erotic gesture at the time. He was treating her like she'd asked to be treated--like one of the guys. From that day on, he'd kept a distinct and very noticeable physical distance between himself and Walling. Now she was homing in on him like a heat-seeking missile, landing with one hip on the edge of his desk and spreading out photos on top of the file he was reading.

"I've got it!'' she declared enthusiastically.

"Got what?'' He sat back in his chair.

"You said that Evan Jordan's photo looked familiar, right?'' She tucked her hair behind her ear as she leaned forward to show him two photos. "This is the photo of Evan Jordan that made you notice something familiar,'' she indicated the photo of Jordan with the Irish setter, which his grandmother had provided. "This is a photo of Ben Forest, taken out of one of your old case files. Notice anything?''

"Oh my God.'' Starsky slid the photos closer to each other. Jordan was younger, had longer hair, and was smiling pleasantly as opposed to the close-cropped, middle-aged, grim-faced Forest in his mug shot. The features and coloring were almost identical. Hutch had deserted his desk at the mention of Forest's name, and now the three of them were huddled around Starsky's desk, staring at the two pictures.

"Remember how Mrs. Jordan said that her daughter didn't marry Evan's father? What if...'' Starsky let the sentence trail off unfinished.

"I'll call Minnie. She ought to be able to check on Jordan's birth certificate.'' Hutch grabbed the phone and quickly gave Minnie the assignment of finding out who was listed as Jordan's father. He kept wishing Christine would be called away to another project, wanting to discuss the implications of all this with Starsky. If Evan Jordan was, indeed, Ben Forest's son, he was probably the one behind the syringe and the photo mailings.

"Hey, what's the occasion?'' Jack Elliot noticed the gathering of detectives around Starsky's desk.

"Possible connection between Evan Jordan and Ben Forest,'' Christine spoke up proudly.

"No shit?'' Jack looked over Starsky's shoulder at the photos. "Looks like him--what're you thinking--son, nephew?''

"Son. Jordan's mother never married his father, and we never did have the father's name,'' Hutch clarified. The phone rang, and he pounced on it, figuring it would be Minnie with an answer. He appeared to deflate as soon as he'd answered the phone. He thanked her and hung up. "Father is listed as unknown.''

"That's not too surprising, even if it is Forest. He was married wasn't he--before we ran into him?'' Starsky started digging through the files.

"To Mary Jane Brittingham. She died a few years before he was arrested. They didn't have any children,'' Christine replied.

"Very interesting,'' Jack picked up the photo of Jordan. "Huh.''

"What?'' Starsky looked up at him.

"This a spare copy of this photo?''

"Yeah.''

"Got a marker?''

"Sure.'' Starsky pulled open his middle desk drawer and handed one to Jack. The older man hunched over the desk next to Starsky's and did something to the photo, then tossed it back in front of Starsky. He had drawn a cap, sunglasses and a mustache on Evan Jordan. "Remind you of anybody?''

"Curtis,'' Starsky stated succinctly. "The hair's the right length and color, he's a student--wouldn't stand out at the Eisenman rally--''

"And he's loaded--has the ready cash to peel off a few grand and pass it out to get a job done,'' Jack added. "And it would be in his best interest to do something to distract you two from the case, and that in turn distracted us for some vital days while we chased Neo-Nazis around instead of looking for this little shit.''

"But Schoemacher--the flag--'' Starsky was momentarily confused at such a coincidence, then he remembered that Jordan had been in their house to place the mannequin in Hutch's room. "He saw it when he came to the house...''

"Took the idea and ran with it.'' Jack nodded. "Makes sense.''

"Why didn't we think of that before?'' Hutch looked at the photo and then handed it to Christine to examine.

"Because we were all doin' what he wanted us to do--runnin' in the opposite direction,'' Jack stated simply. "He probably is smart enough to know that if you attack a cop, all the other cops he works with are gonna want in on that case, and that takes the spotlight off the task at hand--nailing this little bastard to the wall.''

"We still don't have proof positive he's Curtis.'' Hutch was hesitant to accept such a neat, comprehensive package. But Ben Forest's son might have access to the drug information, and be able to use it to distract him from the investigation, and what had happened to Starsky was certainly an effective diversion.

"Where the wheels came off for him was in two places,'' Jack continued. "First, he didn't plan on Schoemacher having such an airtight alibi for the night it happened. Second, he thought he'd paid the scum he hired well enough to keep their mouths shut. Not a smart little crook, is he? There's not enough money printed to predict what hired scum are gonna do when they're nailed.'' Jack smiled slightly. "Did keep us chasin' our tails there for quite awhile though. Gotta hand him that much.''

"This is all terrific, but we still can't get a line on this guy. I mean, how many dead end tips have we each followed in the last week alone?'' Starsky slumped back in his chair.

"Maybe he's moving around as Curtis now--moving in the redneck circles where he won't stand out much,'' Christine suggested. "Even though we've been hunting for 'Curtis', our description is very vague--fits any one of hundreds of guys who wear caps and sunglasses and hang out in bars.''

"Wearing their sunglasses?'' Starsky added.

"He was trying to stay incognito to do that deal. He probably wouldn't have to worry that much just mingling around in a bar. Of course, if he disguised himself to be Curtis, there's no reason he couldn't have altered his appearance again,'' Christine replied. "We've got to accept the possibility we could be looking for a man with short black hair and a mustache, or a blond, or a bald guy with earrings--he could be anywhere, looking like anyone.''

"Thanks, Christine. You just made my day,'' Jack grumbled. Jim Nedloe was just arriving, and immediately gravitated to the muttering group.

"What's new?'' He leaned over Starsky's shoulder to see the photos. "Ben Forest? What's this got to do with him?''

"Plenty, maybe. We think Evan Jordan is his kid,'' Starsky explained.

"Whew. Never would've guessed that one.''

"Starsky said he looked familiar, so I went back through all their old case files,'' Christine explained. "I missed it on the first two passes because I was looking for Jordan--possibly under another name or a minor offense that Starsky and Hutchinson wouldn't necessarily remember. Then, I started looking for a resemblance. Voila! There he was.''

"I don't know if asking his grandmother directly about Forest is a good idea. If he's in touch with her, she might tip him off that we know,'' Starsky commented, having located Mrs. Jordan's phone number among his notes.

"Yeah, but she turned him in in the first place, Starsk,'' Hutch responded.

"True...''

"Ever think of asking his mother directly?'' Jim suggested. "Farver and Kennedy talked to her a while back. Let me get them up here and we'll hammer this out right now.'' He picked up the phone and dialed Mike Farver's extension. Stan Kennedy answered, and Jim told him to bring his partner up to the task force office ASAP. Christine tracked down her partner, Grant Shemanski, and he agreed to join the meeting. The group of detectives gathered their materials and headed down the hall to the cubby hole that was still reserved for the Bridegroom case.

The final pair of detectives arrived quickly, the tall, lanky Farver choosing his usual perch against the window sill while his partner sat on the edge of the desk. Furnished with a desk with a chair on either side, two telephones and two spare straight chairs, the office was not conducive for large gatherings. The walls were peppered with maps, reports, notes on tips--both fruitful and worthless--photos of the victims, crime scene photos, composite sketches of Jordan and a few photos of him. Starsky always made sure Hutch got a chair facing away from the wall containing the crime scene photos. He'd spotted the ones depicting Sandra's corpse before Hutch had, and snatched them off the wall. He informed the rest of the task force that those photos would remain in a folder in the drawer, clearly labeled, and were not to be brought out in Hutch's presence. This had led to a not-entirely-pleasant exchange between Starsky and Farver, who stated that he could understand Hutch's emotional involvement in that portion of the case, but suggested that perhaps that was why he didn't belong on the task force. Starsky had countered with the suggestion that if Farver had a problem with it, he could take it up with Dobey. The response was that since Dobey had obviously made a bad judgement call in letting Hutch get involved, that would be pointless. Starsky then suggested that if Farver really couldn't handle the idea, they could take the discussion outside and settle it once and for all. At that point, Jim Nedloe had intervened, reasonably stating that this was the task force Dobey assembled and the Chief approved, and so therefore the whole discussion was academic.

"We got everybody rounded up so we could make a decision about how to proceed with a couple of new developments,'' Jack began. He explained the suspected connection with Ben Forest and the possibility of Evan Jordan being the elusive "Curtis''. Kennedy, a soft-spoken man with reddish hair and a close-cropped beard, was the first to speak.

"His mother's name is Renee Curtis--she married some guy in Palm Springs a couple of years ago.''

"Odd he'd use it then,'' Starsky commented.

"Not if he's playing with us,'' Shemanski added. "If this is some kind of convoluted game to him.''

"You mean intentionally giving us clues?'' Hutch clarified.

"And waiting to see how long it takes the dumb cops to figure it out,'' Christine spoke up.

Little did they know, if this was the case, that he had also already provided a clue to his paternity. Hutch squirmed in his seat, and Starsky picked up on his discomfort. There was no way to spare Hutch the backlash when Jordan was arrested, if in fact he was the one sending the veiled threats of revealing the drug incident. Starsky resisted his almost automatic response to Hutch's distress signals and kept the hand that wanted to gravitate to the other's arm firmly in his lap. Instead, he stood up, ostensibly to get coffee. Farver played right into his hands by settling into the vacant chair. The other detective had a decidedly childish streak in him, and Starsky played it like a maestro as he poured himself a cup of coffee from the pot they had "borrowed'' from the squad room. He returned to sit on the arm of Hutch's chair. After he'd had a swallow or two of the coffee, the expected hand gravitated up, snitched it out of his grasp and drank from it.

"How was his mother about all this when you two talked to her?'' Jim asked Kennedy.

"Shocked. Horrified. Complete denial. Essentially denouncing her own mother as some kind of senile old fool who was ruining her son's life by causing this whole mess.''

"Swell.'' Jack got up and started pacing. That was a short-lived activity in the cramped quarters. "I think we should ask the grandmother about Forest.''

"Agreed,'' Hutch responded, forfeiting the coffee cup to Starsky again with a knowing glance and the ghost of a grin.

"All in favor,'' Christine said, encouraging a show of hands. It was unanimous.

"You two want to do the honors?'' Jack asked Starsky and Hutch.

"If that's agreeable to everyone,'' Starsky responded. There were nods in all directions.

"I guess it's back to Granny's place then,'' Hutch concluded, as Starsky relinquished his seat on the arm and Hutch rose from the chair in almost one coordinated gesture.

 

Hutch had said very little during the drive to Grace Jordan's estate. Starsky had gone on about something, but Hutch had to guiltily admit to himself he'd tuned him out shortly after leaving the precinct. His whole career lay in Evan Jordan's hands, and there was little reason to believe that a serial killer, the man who had killed his fiancee, the same nut who had ordered and watched the attack on Starsky with such relish, would refrain from blowing his cover. There was no use drawing any security from the fact that no one at the department thus far knew about the items he'd received in the mail but Starsky and Dobey. They'd all know the whole story soon enough. His days riding in this seat were numbered...

"...it doesn't matter. It won't change anything.''

"What?'' Hutch realized he was supposed to respond somehow, and he saw little point in faking it. Starsky would know.

"I guess it boils down to one thing--me and thee, partner. Jordan can say what he wants. We'll deal with it.'' Starsky stopped the Torino in the circle drive of the house. Hutch just smiled faintly at his partner, and they got out of the car and headed for the entrance.

Grace Jordan was reading a book, seated near her fireplace when the maid led the two detectives back to the living room where they had met with her previously.

"Have you found Evan?'' she asked immediately, laying the book aside.

"No, Mrs. Jordan, but we need some further information from you.'' Starsky paused. "It's regarding Evan's father. His birth certificate lists him as 'unknown', but I'm sure you know who it is.''

"Yes, I do.''

"And?'' Hutch prompted.

"Ben Forest. He's dead now. He passed away a couple of years ago.''

"He died in prison. We're very familiar with Ben Forest,'' Starsky explained.

"Why does that matter now?''

"It could be significant to the case,'' Hutch replied. He hoped she wouldn't ask for an explanation of how it would be significant. Maybe she already knew.

"Evan was very close to his father, strangely enough. He wasn't around much for the boy, but despite every other despicable thing about him, he seemed to genuinely love his son.''

"How about your daughter--how did she feel toward him?''

"Surprisingly agreeable. He supported them both very well, and tried to see the boy whenever he could. She felt he handled an awkward situation the best possible way. In a sense, I suppose I must agree with that.''

"He was in touch with his father after he was arrested?'' Hutch asked.

"You mean after the two of you arrested him?'' She smiled at their startled expressions. "I read the papers, detectives. I remember which policemen arrested my grandson's father.''

"You knew about this and you didn't think to mention it before?'' Starsky prodded.

"I knew but I didn't see how it related to anything, and I didn't want Evan to receive biased treatment. Ben wanted to adopt the boy, give him his name. Neither my daughter nor I would permit that. At least this way, he was distanced from the negative aspects of being part of the Forest...family business.''

"Was he part of that at any time?'' Hutch asked.

"I don't think so. He was just a teenager when Ben was arrested. His father's incarceration was very hard for him to accept. He harbored a great deal of anger over it. The fact his father was a criminal was a mere detail in his mind.'' She paused a moment. "What led you to the connection?''

"Family resemblance. Evan looks just like his father,'' Starsky responded.

"I keep hoping he'll call me. I would tell him to give himself up, go to the police before this all ends in tragedy.'' She shook her head. "I don't understand how this happened. I know Evan was deeply affected by his father's death, but to murder three women? And in such a macabre manner?'' She took a deep breath and sighed. "He was a good boy for the most part--a few of the usual scrapes. I worried about him visiting his father in prison, spending so much time with him...but how do you influence someone to commit crimes like those?''

"Can't answer that, Mrs. Jordan.'' Starsky moved toward the door, and Hutch followed his lead. "Thank you for your time today.''

"Is this information meaningful at all to your investigation?''

"Obviously if Evan has a significant connection to a major crime figure, living or dead, it could affect his ability to go into hiding, or possibly give us some insight into where he might be,'' Hutch explained. Starsky was relieved that he'd picked up the ball and run with it, because beyond the heroin issue, nothing was coming into focus as a major point of interest where Jordan's parentage was concerned.

"You will notify me if you find him?'' she asked. Starsky found this amusing, as the entire Western world would be notified when he was found, via blaring headlines and hordes of TV reporters clogging every municipal building remotely connected to the criminal justice process.

"As soon as possible,'' Hutch replied.

The rest of the day was spent reorganizing the manhunt to search for Ben Forest's son. This meant hunting down all his old contacts, checking out all his favorite hiding places and activating the snitch network accordingly. A hasty strategy meeting of the task force was called to map out specific plans and assign projects to each of the four pairs of detectives.

Farver and Kennedy drew the short straw to handle the paperwork. Since Walling had found the lead in the first place, and she and her equally junior partner, Shemanski, had been dumped on mercilessly with hotline assignments and detail work, it seemed only fair to let them get a little field experience.

Walling and Shemanski would question the listing of Forest's minor known associates and assorted "muscle''.

Nedloe and Elliot would question the higher-ranking members of Forest's organization, and also investigate those who had been suspected of having ties to the crime boss but had never actually been arrested.

Starsky and Hutch ended up with activating the snitch network, since they were voted to have the superior set of street contacts. They would also visit Ben Forest's old haunts and hideouts and follow up on the whereabouts and new businesses of any proprietors who had since closed their doors.

After talking to every low-life snitch that ever owed them a favor, Starsky and Hutch staggered in through the side door and nearly collided with each other in the attempt to procure a beer out of the refrigerator. Wordlessly, they plodded back to the TV room and sprawled there, Hutch slouched in a chair and Starsky on the couch.

"I feel like a second year rookie,'' Starsky grumbled from the spot where his face was semi-buried in a sofa pillow.

"Why second-year?'' Hutch retorted, equally lackluster.

"'Cause first year I woulda thought this was a big deal next to helping little kids cross the street alone and answering calls about barking dogs.''

"What time is it?'' Hutch asked, yawning and sliding further down in the chair.

"Two, I think. It was about ten-to in the car, so I figure by now...''

"Don't strain yourself and look at your watch.''

"Look at your own.'' Starsky rolled onto his side, facing the back of the couch.

"Do you know how many snitches we have?''

"Too damn many.''

"How many junkies do you suppose we saw today?''

"Huh?'' Starsky flopped over on his back and looked over at Hutch. His partner was staring straight ahead, as if lost in his own thoughts.

"Junkies? Hypes?''

"Quite a few, I s'pose.''

"It's easy, sitting here in this house, in clean clothes...to be real judgmental.''

"What're you driving at?'' Starsky had the sinking feeling his delicious drowsiness wasn't going to be sated anytime soon.

"I was one of them for awhile.''

"Damn it, Hutch, that isn't true.''

"How do you know? How do we know how those people got started? And whether or not there was anyone there to care if they got started or to try and stop them?'' Hutch took another gulp of his beer and closed his eyes. "We could lose everything, Starsk. One word from Jordan, and it's over.''

"Provided they take the word of a serial killer over a cop.''

"We're talking about IA--Simonetti. Besides, if Jordan had one photo, he probably has a lot more. I'm sure his father armed him well.''

"Let's not assume the worst--''

"Starsky, I'm going to be unemployed soon. Worst case scenario--we'll both be unemployed soon. Not to mention having it splattered all over the damned newspapers.''

"We'll take the blows as they fall, buddy. No point in borrowing trouble.''

"If you can get out of this with your job, do it. I don't want to take you down with me.''

"If they take your badge over this, I'm going to be right behind you. None of this was your fault and you don't deserve to be punished for the sins of Ben Forest.''

Starsky watched Hutch's expression, which seemed unchanged. Something twisted inside Starsky as he noted the passage of time on his partner's face. Hutch didn't look old by any stretch of the imagination, but he was changing. Starsky imagined he probably was too, but then, when you confront yourself in the mirror every morning, you don't notice the changes. "Hutch?''

"Yeah?''

"Stop worrying about it.''

"Sure.'' Hutch snorted an ugly little laugh.

"I mean it. You're not alone in this. I promise you, somehow, it'll be okay.''

"It's not that I don't appreciate the fact you want to make this better somehow, buddy. It's just that there are some things in this world beyond your control, and this is one of them.''

"No, it's not beyond my control. It's not beyond my control to say we'll face it together, and we'll get by somehow. Even if it all crashes around our ears. They can fire us, put it on the front page of the paper--so what? They can't give us the death penalty over it. We'll start over. Other people have lost everything and had to start over and they've done it. We will too.''

"Okay.'' Hutch rested his head against the back of the chair and closed his eyes. Starsky relinquished the comfort of his couch and knelt next to Hutch's chair. The other man started a little at the presence of his partner, who rested his chin on his folded arms on the arm of the chair and stared up at him.

"I can handle anything they'd throw at us except splittin' us up, and they don't have a rule on their books that can accomplish that one. So I'm not worried.''

"What about the house, buddy?'' Hutch finally moved his arm so his hand rested on Starsky's back. "We're so tight for money now that our only hope is our raise next year.''

"I don't wanna lose that. But I can do without it. The only thing that really...scares me...'' Starsky paused, as if the next words were either too frightening or too personal to actually utter, but he finally finished, "are things like, well, like when you were sick...'' Starsky never had to mention the plague by name. Both knew what it meant when Starsky simply said "when you were sick''. "I couldn't do anything about that... 'cept watch you die.''

"You did do something about it,'' Hutch responded quietly.

"Callendar did something about it. I could try all I wanted, but I didn't have the power to save your life.'' Starsky paused again, and Hutch moved his hand lightly back and forth. While the plague wasn't a happy memory for Hutch, it was just that. To Starsky, the mere mention of it was like a cross to a vampire. "Ever since that...I...I guess I know what's important. Simonetti and all his goons can't touch that. So that's why I'm not worried--and I don't want you t'be either.'' Hutch looked down at the sincere pair of eyes that were studying him so intently. How he'd prayed for those eyes to open in that sterile ICU room, so many days after Gunther's hit men had almost closed them forever.

"Guess we're okay then, huh?'' Hutch asked in a choked whisper, feeling more emotion than he'd realized was there. He watched Starsky's face break into a broad smile.

"That's the spirit,'' he said softly. He turned his head to rest it sideways on his crossed arms. The almost unconscious motion of Hutch's hand started easing the discomfort in Starsky's left shoulder. The old injury had acted up ever since the incident with Curtis's goons. His arms had been pulled back or yanked around so many times that the occasional soreness resulting from the shooting in an Italian restaurant years earlier had been making more regular appearances lately. "Mmmm,'' he purred. "You're almost as good as the girls at Sunset Massage.'' Starsky chuckled a little as the hand that had been moving back and forth across his upper back froze. "And you're an authority on the girls at Sunset Massage, I suppose?''

"Well, bein' a cop, you hear things...'' Starsky waggled his brows a little.

"You're worse than a old hound. Next you'll want me to scratch behind your ears.''

"If you feel up to it,'' Starsky quipped, still not moving.

"Shoulder been bad lately? Kind of looked like you were favoring it.'' Hutch resumed the previous motion, and felt Starsky relax under it.

"Kind of. Oh, that feels good. You can forget the ears if you want,'' he quipped with a little smile. Hutch kept it up for a few more seconds, then ruffled Starsky's hair before he stood.

"Come on. Let's go turn in before you nod off there.'' He offered a hand to pull the other up, which Starsky accepted with his right hand, letting his left arm have a little rest and enjoy the benefits of the mini-massage that had relaxed the sore muscles.

"Gettin' old,'' Starsky groaned as he was pulled to his feet and followed Hutch's slow-paced walk toward the stairs.