14

And now that you're gone

I can't cry hard enough

For you to hear me now...

 

The early hours of dawn had flowed into the beginning of a regular work day, with reams of paperwork and countless technicalities needing attention in the wake of the death of the infamous "Bridegroom''. While the press anxiously gobbled up this news, Hutch's insides twisted at the thought of what they would have to chew on next. Starsky had continuously told him not to worry, that it didn't matter...but it mattered to him. The thought of his experience with Forest's goons being front page news made him cringe.

Starsky had endured the countless jokes about the little blue Chevette that had to be towed in from the spot where it had landed in the ditch with his usual nonchalance. By the end of the day, it was obvious he was becoming less and less tolerant of the little jabs about him not being able to keep that big machine on the road. Hutch's amused reply was simply that Starsky should consider it the price he paid for his legendary driving reputation.

It was mid-evening by the time they drove in the driveway, home at last. Despite his fatigue, Starsky had a spring in his step at having his partner back again, and apparently not angry at him.

"What're we gonna eat?'' Starsky poked his head in the refrigerator, then in the freezer. What he saw wasn't promising.

"Let's just order pizza.''

"Okay.'' Starsky dialed the number of their favorite pizza place and ordered. Hutch plodded through the house to the TV room and flopped in his favorite chair. It wasn't long before he heard familiar footsteps approaching. Starsky occupied his usual spot on the couch.

"Don't get comfortable. We still have to take in the food.''

"Yeah, I know,'' Starsky replied through a yawn. "Hutch?''

"What?''

"Are you still mad about the paintings?''

"We settled that, buddy. It's over.''

"I know you let me off the hook because you were glad Jordan didn't finish me off, but now that it's over, are you still angry? I'd understand if you were. I just want you to know that I know it was the wrong thing to do and I'll never, ever touch anything that belongs to you without your permission again.''

"Since when?'' Hutch replied, a little laugh in his voice. He was used to Starsky getting into his closet, his spare change, his food...and it was a way of life. He did the same to his partner and had no plans to stop anytime soon.

"I mean stuff like that. The important stuff.''

"I know that, Starsk. It was a mistake. I should have let you explain. The paintings were very personal to me--'' Hutch paused when he saw the return of the contrite expression to his partner's face. "I'm not saying that to make you feel bad, buddy. I just want to explain why I said...things I could never really mean. I was shocked, thrown off balance. I didn't want to ever share those things with anyone else. You lived through half of the experiences with me that made me paint them, so it was natural to show you. But in public?'' Hutch paused. "But you meant well, and Cecile didn't specify that I only showed her a couple of canvasses. It was a mistake. I understand that now. You'd be the last person who'd try to do something to hurt me.''

"When you said you didn't trust me, didn't want to work with me...'' Starsky closed his eyes briefly and took a deep breath. "It was the hardest thing I ever had to hear.''

"You shouldn't have had to hear it, either. It was a bunch of shit.'' Hutch stretched in the chair. "How'd you end up having dinner at the Dobeys'?''

"Rosie stopped by after school, and I was feeling pretty bad, so I guess she considered it a mission of mercy.'' Starsky chuckled. "She's quite a kid.''

"Cecile said two of them had buyers.''

"Your paintings? That's great!'' Starsky straightened up and then slumped again. "But then you didn't want to sell them, so I guess that's not great.''

"Well...it's kind of nice to have my work validated that way.''

"I always told you you were good.''

"But you're biased.''

"Well, yeah, but still...I know crap when I see it. Your paintings were...meaningful. But they weren't so weird that you couldn't find some meaning of your own in it, even if you didn't know what the person painting it was thinking.''

"That's an interesting observation.'' Hutch seemed to ponder the point.

"Ya know, not everybody's gonna know what you were feeling or goin' through when you did those. They're gonna make their own interpretations anyway. You can just be a mysterious artist who says you want people to make their own assumptions.''

"Yeah, I suppose. I have to get a hold of Lucy Barrington one of these days and get the canvasses back, and make a decision about selling the two that are spoken for.''

"Are you still mad at Cecile?''

"That one I'm still working on. Don't push it,'' Hutch warned.

"If you could forgive me--''

"Starsky, Cecile and I don't have a history. And what I can chalk up to good intentions with you, I can't chalk up to anything but insensitivity and pushiness from her.''

"She really thought she was doin' you a favor. I was mad too, at first, but I've done a lot of thinkin' about it since it happened, and if anybody's really the bad guy here, it's me. I knew better. She didn't.''

"What is it with you where Cecile is concerned? You've been pushing her at me since the first day I laid eyes on her.''

"I don't mean to push...I guess I just feel like there's a lot of good chemistry between you guys. I think you enjoy being with her, and she's crazy about you.''

"Listen, pal, when I need a matchmaker, I'll call you. In the meantime, let it lie, okay?''

"Okay.'' The doorbell rang, and Starsky headed to the front door to take in the pizza.

 

 

The rainy season was living up to its name. Thunder rumbled and more rain poured down on an already-soggy earth. Hutch noted how his feet seemed to sink into the grassy ground as he made his way across the hills of the cemetery to the Jerome family plot. It was well after midnight, and he employed a flashlight to find his way to Sandra's resting place. No moon came out that night to light his path.

Starsky would consider this insane. Climbing the fence to visit a grave at midnight--in the pouring rain, no less. Hutch remembered his partner's almost aversion to Terry's grave. It was as if seeing her name carved there in granite, knowing her mortal remains were locked in a vault beneath the dirt made what was already crippling grief unbearable. Hutch could count his visits to Sandra's grave on one hand. It was not uplifting, nor did he feel particularly close to her by staring at a certain patch of sod for an extended period of time. Her spirit had flown, and wherever it was, it wasn't living in a box in the dirt.

Still, since his confrontation with Jordan, the horrible realization that he had been the reason for The Bridegroom's reign of terror, Hutch had felt drawn to visit Sandra's grave. Whether to feel close to her or to punish himself, he wasn't sure. Choosing to do so at midnight in the pouring rain seemed to indicate the latter.

He finally paused in front of the slightly raised stone. A pattern of flowers surrounding a cross had been carved into the granite, along with the name "Sandra Elizabeth Jerome, Beloved Daughter''.

Would have been wife...already should have read "mother''. It's funny...I know I should be cold out here in the rain, but my soul has been so cold since you left that I don't know the difference anymore. You were my whole future, sweetheart. Home, children, grandchildren someday... Now it feels like someone killed something inside of me I can't revive. I look at someone like Cecile, and while I could care for her, or want her in my life, I can't feel for her what I felt for you...even if things hadn't happened with the paintings. It was still forced. Something I did because I thought I should want to. Figured there was something wrong with me if I didn't want a woman like her. Hell, I don't want anybody but you, and that hasn't changed. Maybe it will, maybe not.

What's killing me is to know that you had to die this way because of me. Dear God, Sandra, I'd cut off my arm before I'd have ever hurt you. It was bad enough to know that someone suffered because of me--it's happened before. But this...you lost your life, you carried our beautiful little daughter inside you and she died with you...because of me. I know it's irrational to call it my fault but I feel like it is.

He dropped to his knees in the wet grass and caressed the stone with his fingertips.

I wish I could turn back time. I'd have never introduced myself to you in the grocery store. What a place to meet the woman of your dreams, huh? I went in search of the perfect head of lettuce and found you instead. Hutch found himself smiling at the memory, not noticing that he was soaked to the skin or that the thunder was now being accompanied by lightning on occasion. You were the prettiest girl I had ever seen...I haven't seen one prettier since. I fell in love with you right then--with your smile, and those eyes, the way you moved--you were perfect. And you were so beautiful and perfect inside.

I'm never going to get over you. I know that now. And I'm never going to forgive myself for introducing myself to you that day...for bringing the horror and danger of my work and my past into your world, where you'd still be living now, safe and secure if I had stayed out of it. It's bad enough that Starsky had to suffer for me, but he's in the middle of the danger with me--we've both risked everything for each other willingly, and we signed up for that...you didn't. You coped with being a cop's girlfriend with all the class and courtesy and patience in the world. You'd have coped with the ups and downs of being a cop's wife the same way. But you didn't bargain for this...didn't plan on paying a price this steep for loving me.

Hutch straightened up, startled by another loud clap of thunder and flash of lighting. Realizing he was standing, soaking wet, in the midst of trees during an electrical storm, he started to move away from the grave. He looked back at it, wanting the cold, horrible reality of it to punish his already-battered soul for causing Sandra's death. Not that it was only Sandra and Elizabeth. Madeleine Nolan and Coral Rutherford, two innocent young women, were both dead because of him...people had postponed weddings, lived in fear for months... And Starsky is still having the occasional nightmare because of what was done to him because of me. Maybe you're right, Jordan: maybe I won't be able to live with this forever.

Starsky checked the grandfather clock in the library again. It was after one, and still no sign of Hutch. He had been puzzled to hear the other slide out sometime after 11:30 that night, and now he was getting worried. He kept reminding himself that not only was his partner an adult, but a cop, so it was silly to stand around and agonize over where he was. He could take care of himself. Still...

The side door was unlocked and opened. Starsky hurried down the back stairs, ignoring the deja vu of hearing someone entering the side door when he was expecting Hutch.

"What the--where were you?'' Starsky asked his soaked partner as he dripped his way into the kitchen, shivering.

"I went out.''

"I figured as much. You're soaked--you must be frozen. I'll get a fire going in the library. Come on.''

"Just leave me be, Starsky.'' Hutch pulled his arm away as the other tried to take a hold of it.

"Look, if you don't wanna talk, that's okay. I promise I won't ask any questions. But you're gonna catch pneumonia if you don't get out of those wet clothes and get warmed up a little.''

"All right.'' Hutch plodded up the stairs with his partner, and followed the instructions to go into his room and shed the soaked clothing. When he returned to the library, the fire was beginning to crackle to life, and a glass of brandy sat on the table near his favorite wing back chair, which had been pulled close to the fireplace. He dropped himself into the chair and pulled the folds of his robe around him. He was more chilled than he'd realized, and was grateful that the rain was pounding on the roof now instead of on his drenched body.

"Warmin' up a little?'' Starsky appeared with a blanket, which he tucked solicitously around Hutch's lap and legs. He pulled a towel from its refuge under his arm and started toweling off the soaked blond hair that was pasted to Hutch's head like a clammy cap.

"Starsk, I'm sorry I snapped at you. I just don't want to explain--''

"Apology accepted. And I said you didn't have to, unless there's somethin' you want me to know.'' He continued his task with the towel, resigned to tending his friend's external needs for the moment.

"I'm sorry, buddy,'' Hutch said in little more than a whisper.

"What're you sorry for now, Blintz? You didn't do anything,'' Starsky responded, his tone gentle.

"For what...happened to you. It was my fault.'' Hutch felt the motion of the towel stop momentarily, then resume for a few seconds more. When it stopped again, he felt a comb lifting the towseled strands into an approximation of their right place. Starsky still hadn't said anything. "Jordan was trying to get to me...and he used you to do that. And Sandra...''

"Is that what this is about?'' Starsky handed him the brandy he'd igorned, and Hutch took a small sip of it.

"I went to her grave tonight.''

"At midnight? In the rain?'' Starsky pulled the matching chair close to Hutch's, so they were facing each other in front of the fire that was now giving off a pleasant warmth.

"I had to...I don't know why...but I had to see it. I had to apologize...''

"You had to punish yourself and going out and staring at a grave in the pouring rain and getting pneumonia would be a good start.''

"I feel so damned...responsible.'' Hutch's hands clenched into white-knuckled fists. "If I had just never introduced myself...never met her,'' he concluded, shaking his head slightly.

"I know how you feel, babe.'' Starsky placed a hand on one of the tight fists.

"I guess you do.''

"Hey, you've got one of the victims alive and kicking, right here, to tell you first hand that it wasn't your fault. Hutch, I don't ever blame you for what happened to me. Even if it was some sicko's idea of revenge. It wasn't your fault. And if Sandy were here, right now, she'd say the same thing. She loved you, Hutch. And she knew you loved her more than your own life. She knew you'd have died to defend her and Elizabeth if you could have, if you'd been there or had the chance. Just like I know you'd have gotten between me and those nuts if you'd walked in on the whole mess while they were still here--whether you were outnumbered or not. What Jordan did to you was the cruelest kind of revenge. But you were one of the victims too, buddy.''

"But three innocent women are dead--''

"Because Jordan was sick, twisted--the son of a bitter old crime lord. This was Jordan's fault--not yours.'' Starsky forced the clenched fist to relax, shaking his head at the nearly bloody indentations the nails had made in the palm of Hutch's hand. "When I think about what happened to me, I get angry--real angry. But I get angry at Mercer, mostly. And at Jordan for setting it up, and the others for their parts in it. But it never occurred to me to feel angry at you. Not for a minute.'' He encouraged the other hand to un-tense, holding both and rubbing over the red crescent indentations in the palms with his thumbs. "Quit punishing yourself, buddy. You don't deserve to suffer anymore for Ben Forest. Not one minute more.''

"Starsk, you'd forgive me anything...''

"Probably, but I'd still be smart enough to figure out if there was something I needed to forgive you for. To forgive someone, they have to have done something. You didn't do anything wrong here, babe. All those years ago, you fell for Jeannie and then you felt sorry for her and rescued her--or tried to--from Forest. You didn't owe that to her. You weren't married or anything. You could've walked away, knowing the risks, and let her fend for herself. You laid your life on the line to help her. And because you were willing to risk your life for someone you loved, you've been punished for it ever since. By Forest, by IA, by Jordan...you don't need forgiveness because you never hurt anyone. People got hurt because of the situation.''

"Because of their connection to me.''

"No!'' Starsky released his hands and grabbed his shoulders. "Because of Forest! Because of Jordan--but never...never, ever because of you--got that?''

"Got it,'' Hutch replied quietly, not fully convinced but wanting to calm Starsky's outburst. He looked down at the man who was now on his knees on the floor in front of him, so worried about his state of mind. He forced a little smile. "Anybody ever tell you you should've been a shrink?'' He ruffled a few dark curls gently. Starsky sat back on his heels and smiled a little.

"Gee, maybe I could be the department's shrink.''

"The BCPD'll never be the same.'' Hutch laughed a little, stunned that he actually felt some inner peace, and a little amusement, behind the laugh. Starsky might never be a renowned psychiatrist, but he almost always had the perfect cure for what ailed Hutch.

 

 

Hutch made a quick run to the Barrington Gallery after work the next day, planning to pick up the canvasses and tell Lucy to forget selling the two that were tagged. He was less than pleased to see Cecile's car parked by the curb. Might be just as well, he thought. Let her be present when I can this whole screwball scheme of hers.

"May I help you?'' A short, heavy-set woman with dark hair and glasses, dressed in a business suit, greeted him at the door.

"I'm here to see Lucy Barrington. I'm Ken Hutchinson. She has some canvasses that belong to me.''

"Yes, Mr. Hutchinson. I was at your show on Sunday. I was hoping to meet you. Please follow me.''

"Thank you.'' He followed her as directed through the gallery and through a door marked "Private''. They were in a narrow, short hall leading to three doors. The second of the three was open, and he could hear Cecile's voice.

"Ms. Barrington? Mr. Hutchinson is here about his canvasses.'' She motioned to him to enter the small, attractively appointed office.

"Ken,'' Cecile greeted, looking surprised to see him.

"Cecile,'' he acknowledged curtly. "Ms. Barrington,'' he addressed the tall brunette who had risen from behind her desk, "I would like to pick up my canvasses. You should let your buyers know that the artist isn't interested in selling.''

"I'm very sorry to hear that,'' she replied, calmly. "They brought a good price.''

"They shouldn't have been shown in the first place. I'm not even going to get into what I think of showing an artists' work without his permission--''

"It was my understanding at the time of the show that we had your permission.''

"Well, you didn't. Did you see my signature on anything?''

"No, but Cecile advised me that you had agreed to the showing.'' Lucy was obviously disenchanted with her friend's game of skullduggery, and had no plans to suffer the consequences of it alone.

"Well, she misinformed you.''

"Before you decide to take all the canvasses back, please consider the outcome of the show. You had two sales, and considerable interest from other patrons. You also had a good review in Monday's 'Arts and Activities' section of The Chronicle.'' She tossed the newspaper, folded open to the appropriate section, on the desk.

"It really was a success, Ken,'' Cecile added quietly. He picked up the newspaper, and skimmed the brief summary his show had received in the listing of art shows in the area. It wasn't glowing, but it was very positive. No one was calling him the next Van Gogh, but the critic seemed to find his work "interesting and thought-provoking, definitely worth the gallery visit''. He glanced up at Cecile, who quickly averted her eyes to the floor. Lucy Barrington was not so easily cowed.

"In my humble opinion, you're acting like a prima donna,'' she spoke up firmly. "You didn't want your work shown, but it was, and the results were positive. Now you can either pout and stomp off home because someone did something you didn't like, or you can take advantage of this opportunity which is hard-won for many who aspire to make a living as career artists. Quite frankly, I find your reaction to all this to be immature and absurd.''

"Lucy,'' Cecile chided softly.

"You think it's immature and absurd not to want someone to take it upon herself to ignore your feelings, manipulate one of your friends, and then take something that isn't hers and display it?''

"No, but I think it's absurd not to seize an opportunity when it comes your way, even if you didn't engineer it yourself. Cecile was very wrong in what she did. I don't need to tell you that she placed me in a very precarious position with this scheme. However, it ended well, and I feel strongly that if you are the intelligent man she seems to feel you are, you'll reap the benefits that some people work tirelessly for years to achieve. You've sold your work. You've had a showing. That is success defined for many artists. And you didn't have to lift a finger to make it happen.''

"Which paintings were sold?'' Hutch asked finally.

"The ones marked 'Angel of Death' and 'Hunger'.''

Hutch reeled a bit at her answer. Those were probably the most intensely personal of the lot, the "Angel'' inspired by Starsky's near-death by poisoning and "Hunger'' being a surreal, nightmarish, abstract design in a myriad of dark colors arising from his whole ordeal with the heroin. He thought of how both canvasses had haunted him in their way, lurking among the others. The "Angel of Death'' had visibly unnerved Starsky when he first saw it. A blurry, black-cloaked grim reaper cradled an abstract human form in its arms, leering an ugly, skull-smile at the viewer. "Hunger'' seemed to be a visual interpretation of the mind-boggling horror of the need for the drug, the confusion and the pain...and in some strange way, now he was free of both of them. Someone else had purchased his pain...

"How much did they go for?''

"I had a check drawn up for you. I have the selling prices on deposit, and this is the total, less my commission, of course.'' Lucy handed him a long business envelope. "The enclosed letter will explain the exact breakdown of prices.'' She waited while Hutch opened it, scanned the contents, and had trouble hiding his favorable surprise at the bottom line.

"All right. Go ahead and sell the paintings.''

"I think you're making a very wise decision,'' Lucy commented, smiling slightly. She was an attractive woman, polished and a possessing a very commanding presence. Hutch thought how unfortunate anyone would be to be on the wrong side of negotiations with her.

"Ken, that's wonderful!'' Cecile spoke up. "Maybe we could set up another--''

"Stop right there, Cecile. I am taking Ms. Barrington's advice about making the most of an unfortunate situation. However, if I decide to sell any more of my work in the future, I will make my arrangements directly with Ms. Barrington. If that's agreeable to you.'' He turned to face Lucy.

"Most agreeable.'' She rose and shook hands with him across the desk. "I would say it has been a pleasure--''

"Well, it's been an experience,'' Hutch responded, smiling.

"That it has. I would be interested in seeing a broader range of your works if you should ever decide you'd like to show something again. Please give me a call,'' she concluded, handing him her business card. "My assistant will have brought out your canvasses by now. You can pick them up from her out front.''

"Thank you. And I will consider the idea of another showing. Cecile,'' he said, nodding in her direction as he left the office.

After loading the canvasses in his trunk and slamming it, Cecile appeared at his side.

"Ken, I wish we could just sit down and talk this over.''

"Look, just because I could see some value in what your friend had to say in there doesn't mean that I feel any differently about the way all this came about.'' He walked around the side of the car to get in, but Cecile followed.

"I know I was wrong, but--''

"You know what I find the most despicable about this? I don't like you using Starsky for a pawn in your little scheme.''

"He could have said no,'' she retorted.

"You made him think he was doing me this great favor, and if he said no, he'd be standing in my way somehow. How in hell did you expect him to respond?''

"I'm sorry I got Dave involved in this. But I still think it was a wonderful opportunity that turned out well, and I don't know why you're obsessed with making everyone involved pay for how it happened.''

"What possessed you?'' Hutch finally asked.

"In case you haven't noticed, you clod, I care about you. You confided to me that you didn't know what would happen to your job if the whole drug situation became public knowledge. And I could tell you were scared. And you didn't want to let Starsky down about the house, so you were afraid of what being unemployed would mean. I saw a way to make it better for you. To take away some of the misery you seemed to be in. There's nothing in this for me.'' She shrugged almost helplessly. "I'm not doing it for some hidden motive of personal gain. I did it because you were stressed out and you were scared and you were still miserable grieving for Sandra and I wanted something really wonderful to happen for you.'' She shook her head. "I'm done begging you. I don't know what secret code Dave knows for earning your forgiveness, but if you two are at least speaking again, I'm glad. I wish that kind of tolerance extended to someone else in your life.'' She turned and began walking toward her car. He caught her arm.

"Cecile, I...'' Their eyes locked for a moment, and he could see a genuine remorse, pain...and maybe even something that resembled love in the warm brown eyes opposite his. "I still don't agree with how this all happened. But I...I believe that your intentions were good. And maybe I can't come down on you for not knowing me well enough to know how I'd react.''

"Dave knew. I just wouldn't listen. I was so sure this was a good thing to do... Oh, Ken, I never would have done anything to hurt you. I hope you know that. I just...I wanted to make a difference in your life, to help you. Maybe I was guilty of trying to redeem what happened with Jerry by making something special happen for you.''

"Or maybe your were trying to turn me into the new and improved Jerry. The artist?'' Hutch let go of her arm. "You were so enthused to find out that I did some painting. I knew you were interested in art, had run with the artsy crowd in college. I thought you'd be interested. But you were beyond interested, and it just dawned on me why. I overcame a brush with heroin, and if you could make me an artist, maybe you'd have another Jerry.''

"That's not true,'' she spat, a little too defensively.

"I'm not condemning you if it were true, Cecile. If I could create another Sandra somehow, I'd do it. But I can't bring her back anymore than you can bring Jerry back by turning a cop who had a bad experience into the reincarnation of your tortured artist lover. Yes, I've done some painting to work through some of the misery in my life. But I haven't painted anything in a couple of years now, and it's not exactly in my blood. I'm not going to trade in my Magnum for a paintbrush anytime soon if I can help it.''

"I just feel so responsible for Jerry sometimes,'' she said, tears starting to escape from her eyes.

"I know. But you weren't. We all create our own cesspools. If we drown in them, it isn't the fault of the people around us. You did all you could for Jerry. If he'd lived, and you hadn't bickered with him about his drug habit, he wouldn't have had a positive life. He'd have ended up dead or in jail sooner or later. And you'd have been picking up the pieces, probably not at all successful in your own right, because you'd have been nursing a junkie half the time. I was in that world for just a few short days. Cecile, it's hell. That is what hell is--the nightmares and the pain and the hunger--the high and the crash--Jerry escaped from that hell, not in the ideal way, but he couldn't accept what you were lovingly trying to make him do in rehab. He would have always been the tortured painter. It makes great legend, but a lousy reality.'' He watched as she fought to hold in the tears, and then finally pulled her into an embrace.

"Does this mean you forgive me?'' she asked shakily.

"Starsky thinks I ought to, you know.'' He heard a muffled chuckle against his jacket. "Not that I'd ever tell him this, but sometimes he's smarter than I am.'' He felt her arms tighten around his waist, and she cried softly against his shoulder. He figured some of it was emotion over Jerry, but some of it seemed to be for him...relief at being back in his good graces again.

"Are you free for dinner?'' she ventured, looking up and self-consciously trying to salvage some of her mascara. Hutch kindly provided his handkerchief with a little smile.

"Only if you let me take you out. You cooked last time.'' He guided her with an arm around her shoulder toward her car.

"But you never got to eat it.''

"There'll be other nights for that. Let's go somewhere special, huh?''

"Really?''

"Really.'' He smiled widely. "After all, I'm a successful artist now, remember?'' He patted the side of his jacket where the check lurked in his pocket. "Pick you up about seven?''

"I'll be ready,'' she replied, grinning back as she slid into her car.

Hutch finally enjoyed a pleasant evening out with Cecile. Things were a little strained at first, given the whole art gallery debacle, but they quickly rediscovered their rapport.

Starsky settled in for a quiet evening of sorting the attic. He'd had the brainstorm that maybe there would be some old Christmas decorations stashed up there somewhere, so he began plumbing the depths of cartons, storage chests and even the old wardrobe in the far corner. To his amusement, he found a variety of old hats, dating back to the 1940's. There was a well-worn suit or two in there, which he imagined had been stored since it wasn't quite good enough to wear to the office, but almost too good to throw out. Unable to resist temptation, he quickly shed his own clothes and ended up playing dress up in the old garments from the wardrobe. The mirror on the door of the old cabinet reflected what he considered a fairly sharp image. Thoughts of a trip to Las Vegas, dressed in similar clothing, came to mind. He laughed at the memory of his and Hutch's brush with gambling fever, but regretted that it had been tinged with the tragedy of Jack Mitchell's death.

Casting aside the suit activity and back in his jeans and shirt, he began exploring another carton in the back of the attic he hadn't probed before. He was surprised to find a whole batch of more recent snapshots, not yet put into albums. How anyone could not want their family's belongings was beyond him. When something happened to his mother someday, he would be there to clean out every trace from their old attic. As long as it doesn't have any street value, of course. Nick'll have that stuff cleared out before the funeral.

Photo after photo of family gatherings, some at holidays, were spread out on the dusty wood floor in front of him. Hanukkah is coming, and Ma's not really up to making the trip this year. But Hutch's parents are. They could come for Christmas. He dismissed that idea and kept sorting through the photos. Maybe he needs a little push. He'll have regrets someday... Starsky wondered where that thought came from. Why in hell should he have regrets? They didn't come for Sandra's funeral, and they weren't exactly parents of the year. He went back to his sorting. Did they know how important it was to him that they come for the funeral? Did they only agree to come for the wedding because they felt it was socially proper, and did they think that was the only reason Hutch wanted them there? Did they feel needed to help him face his grief? Starsky tossed the photos he was holding down on the floor in front of where he sat Indian-style. He wanted to ask out loud where these thoughts were coming from. It was as if another voice was in his brain, annoying him with ideas that weren't really his.

"Okay, Harry, you think I should talk Hutch into inviting his folks here, huh?'' he asked one of the photos of the house's last owner.

"Boo!'' A male voice from behind startled him into tossing a couple of photos in the air. "Did I startle you?'' Hutch was standing in the attic doorway, smiling innocently. "Who were you talking to up here, anyway? You slipping over the edge on me?''

"Probably,'' Starsky replied, waiting a minute for his leaping heart to settle back to its normal pace. "Just talkin' to old Harry here,'' he responded, scooping up the photos and putting them back in the shoebox in which they had been stored.

"I hate to break this to you, buddy, but he's dead.'' Hutch lowered himself into the overstuffed chair Starsky usually occupied.

"Nobody's perfect,'' Starsky quipped, straightening up from his position on the floor. "How'd it go with Cecile? Apparently not as well as it could have, or you wouldn't be home by,'' he paused to check his watch, "eleven.''

"Work in the morning.''

"Ah,'' Starsky answered, nodding solemnly, not believing work had anything to do with it.

"Okay, so I'm not exactly Don Juan, all right? Can we drop it?'' Hutch's voice held more of an edge than usual.

"Whatever you say,'' Starsky responded, his tone gentle. He sat on the trunk near the old chair. "But if you wanna tell me what's wrong, I'm listening.''

"It was a really nice evening.''

"Okay. BUT.''

"Huh?''

"There was a really big implied 'but' on the end of that statement, pal.''

"I like Cecile. A lot. And I think we can work past this whole mess with the gallery showing. As a matter of fact, things did move along pretty fast tonight. We had dinner, went back to her place...''

"I'm not pressing for conquest stories. If it's private, just say so.''

"Conquest stories implies that there was any conquest. I don't know what the hell's wrong with me. Here's this gorgeous woman, with a body that would stop traffic, and it's not that she doesn't turn me on...''

"But you still don't wanna take it to first base, right?'' Starsky watched with an affectionate smile as his partner nodded, and a blush started creeping across his face. "Rosey was the first for me...after Terry,'' Starsky said quietly.

"You're kidding.'' The utterance of complete disbelief slid out before Hutch could stop it. He thought of some of the luscious, leggy women he'd seen out with his partner after a respectable time had passed. "What about Kathy?'' Hutch thought immediately of the shapely stewardess they both knew, who had been with Starsky the night of the ill-fated double date with Diana Harmon. Hutch had assumed that relationship was a flaming one.

"Why do you think she stopped calling when she came to town?'' Starsky smiled a little uneasily. "When you've loved somebody like you loved Sandy or I loved Terry...I don't know what it is. It's like the cheap thrills feel...wrong. At least they did to me. 'Course, then I got together with Rosey, tryin' for the real thing again, and that got shot to hell...so I guess the cheap thrills looked easier after all.'' Starsky looked down at the floor, a little self-conscious at discussing the subject at all.

"But Cecile...I don't think she'd be a cheap thrill. We've got some work to do on the relationship, but I think there could be something special with her.''

"So give it time.''

"How much time? She's put up with being my pal for quite awhile now.''

"That's not such a bad thing to be,'' Starsky replied, grinning a little.

"For a woman, it probably leaves a little to be desired.''

"Okay, so it hasn't exactly been a hot romance.'' Starsky shrugged. "She knew when you started seeing each other that you were still trying to get over Sandy.''

"And trying, and trying, and trying...with no luck. I like Cecile, and just physically, yeah, she turns me on. But I like her well enough not to use her for that. Because right now, that's all it'd be. I still love Sandra and I can't get over that.''

"Maybe you need to quit tryin' so hard. Look, I'm guilty of pushin' you at Cecile, because I just kept feelin' like she was a good one, but--''

"She is. That's the problem. If she was just a...a one-nighter, someone I didn't have some kind of emotional...investment in...if I didn't think she cared anything about me beyond just having a good time...''

"All I'm sayin' is let nature take its course. If it's meant to happen with her, it will. If not, you'll go your separate ways and something else'll come along.''

"But I don't want to go separate ways with Cecile. I guess I finally realized that when I saw her this afternoon. She's not perfect, but hell, neither am I. But I really care about her.''

"Did you tell her that?''

"Not in so many words...''

"Use the words. Trust me on this one. Women like words. Lots of 'em.''

"Advice from the love expert, huh?'' Hutch chortled a little.

"Yeah, well, I'll bill you for the consultation.''

"So, you wanna go out and pick up a couple of cheap bimbos?'' Hutch asked, provoking a little laugh from his partner.

"No thanks. I'm working on a project of my own at the moment.''

"Christine, huh?''

"Well, you gotta admit, she's not bad.''

"The way you two were dancing the other night, I was expecting you to leave with her.'' Hutch referred to the little "task force dissolution'' party that had taken place at The Pits after work. Christine and Starsky had started out dancing a little to the jukebox music, and by the time the song "Physical'' came on, they seemed to be following the singer's advice to "get physical''.

"Oh, that.'' Starsky snickered a bit evilly. "Gotta show a little discretion around the gang from work, ya know. But I got a date with her Saturday night--dinner and,'' he cleared his throat, "dancing.''

"Found more old photos over there, eh?''

"Yeah. And clothes, too. There're some really neat old suits in the wardrobe over there.'' Starsky had ignored the inner voice as long as he could. It was prodding again. "Hutch? Did you ever think about inviting your parents here for Christmas?''

"Not once. Why?''

"Well, I just wondered. I mean, we've got plenty of room, and you haven't seen them at Christmas for what, three or four years now?''

"What brought this on?''

"I was thinkin' that maybe if you guys got together again...I mean, when we went to visit them at Christmas, they seemed like pretty good people. They treated me like one of the family.''

"They opted to skip Sandra's funeral. I'm sorry, Starsk, but that sticks in my throat.''

"Maybe they didn't know how much it would mean to you for them to be there.''

"At my fiancee's funeral? It wouldn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that that was a pretty meaningful occasion.''

"Sure it was. But I was gonna be with you, and your friends are all here...maybe they didn't think it mattered too much to you.''

"Why are you so concerned about me inviting my parents here all of a sudden?''

"Well, I don't know exactly, but I just think it might be a good idea.''

"Starsky, my whole life is poised on the edge of disaster right now. I'm just waiting for that article to come out in The Chronicle detailing the information Jordan sent them.''

"Maybe he didn't send them anything. That would be like him. Make you twist in the wind for weeks, wondering when the other shoe would drop. That's his style.''

"And there's still the heroin issue. That'd be a nice centerpiece for Mom and Dad's visit. 'Oh, by the way, your son's also a closet junkie'.''

"Damn it, Hutch, for the last time, you're not a junkie.''

"They wouldn't see it that way. At least my father wouldn't.''

"He wouldn't care that you were forced? That you've never touched it since? Aw, come on.''

"You don't know my father. There isn't room for anything but perfection with him. Number one. Second place doesn't exist--nobody remembers the person who almost won. You don't know what my father was really like. You didn't grow up with him.'' Hutch ran his hand back through his hair and exhaled loudly. Starsky remained silent. "I'm only good enough when I'm perfect, and I've been a hell of a long way from that for a long time now.''

"That was when you were a kid, when he was pushing you to be the best you could. Maybe now that he doesn't have to raise you anymore, you could be friends.''

"We're friends, Starsky. When we visited there, he and I rode snowmobiles, had father-son chats...he got his digs in about my job, how little I had moved up in the department...when was I going to take the lieutenant's test.''

"You wouldn't have had a shot at that kind of promotion three or four years ago.''

"Tell him that!'' Hutch snapped. "I'm John Hutchinson's boy, which makes me special.''

"You said your family wasn't always rich--wasn't 'old money'. What your dad got, he earned, right? Turned a family farm into a money-making horse ranch?''

"Yeah, so?''

"That takes a lot of drive, ambition, commitment to being number one. Maybe he didn't want you to grow up a lazy, spoiled rich kid--maybe he was afraid you wouldn't achieve everything you could if you didn't have the drive he had. He probably wanted you to be a success.''

"I can't believe you're sticking up for him.'' Hutch shook his head. "Look, I love my father. I know he loves me. But I lived for the day I could get out on my own, out from under that constant...drive to achieve.''

"Sometimes parents do all the wrong things for all the right reasons,'' Starsky responded softly. "Ya know, it hurt me a lot, and I'm not just talking about the obvious way, when my dad used his belt on me.''

"That wasn't right no matter what his intent was, buddy.''

"Maybe not, but he thought he was teaching me right from wrong. Where I grew up, you couldn't let a kid ride the fence. Little kids in grade school were running errands and doing odd jobs for the two-bit teenage hoods that were runners for the bosses. My dad saw all that shit up close and personal as a cop, and if he thought I was slipping over the line, showing any tendencies that weren't right...he thought he was doing his duty as a parent to stop it. I don't think he enjoyed it, but he thought he was doing the right thing. At least I have to believe that's what he thought because I loved him too much to think that it wasn't.''

Hutch took a deep breath. He hated talking about this one aspect of Starsky's childhood: his otherwise loving father's tendency toward a heavy hand in the discipline department... Stories he'd eventually been told of his partner hiding in a closet or under a bed to escape what he knew was coming. If he can forgive that...

"Starsk, I know what my father did wasn't as bad as that, but--''

"Sure it was. In it's way. It hurt you, it stressed you out, ruined a lot of your childhood...but don't you think there was some point to it? I mean, the problem with kids are that they don't come with instructions. You do what you know how to do with 'em. Try to do right by 'em.'' Starsky was quiet a minute.

"That doesn't make beating a child acceptable, babe,'' Hutch stated in a soft voice.

"I don't think he did it just to hurt me. He did it to make me the best I could be. 'Course, he had lots of pressures at work, and his fuse got real short near the end too... I think our fathers were both takin' different routes to do the same thing.''

"Maybe I'm not as forgiving as you are.'' Hutch leaned back in the chair, tired of the conversation and tired of dredging up old pain.

"You forgave me.'' Starsky seemed to still take responsibility for having committed an unthinkable betrayal regarding the paintings.

"Maybe because you're worth it.'' Hutch was a little startled he'd said it straight out, but he wouldn't have retracted it for the world when he saw the smile spread across his partner's face.

"Ditto, buddy.'' Starsky was still smiling a little when he continued. "But maybe your dad meant well--and aren't your parents worth it?''

"You shoulda been a lawyer, babe.'' Hutch stood up, squeezing Starsky's shoulder as he passed him on his way to the stairs.

"Well?''

"Well what?''

"What about Christmas?'' Starsky persisted.

"I'll think about it.''

"Fair enough,'' the other replied, watching Hutch descend the steps to the second floor.

 

No story on Hutch's past, or detailing Evan Jordan's perverted plans, surfaced in the press beyond the initial revelation that three women had died as a result of Jordan's vendetta against Starsky and Hutch for arresting his father. Starsky had insisted that all information given to the press imply that they were both targets, because he didn't want to see the public hang all the blame on his partner for the deaths of three innocent young women. By the time Hanukkah rolled around, both were feeling pretty safe in the assumption that Jordan had been bluffing about sending materials to a reporter.

Starsky's mother called to share the news that her heart was doing just fine, but that she had an ulcer in her esophagus that had been causing the pain that came dangerously close to her heart. While an ulcer wasn't happy news, Mrs. Starsky shared her son's relief that it was nothing life-threatening, and something that could be controlled by medication. She still opted to rest and take it easy, rather than make a trip across country for Hanukkah.

Hutch busied himself with his own preparations for that year's Hanukkah festivities. Starsky had a menorah in the front window, but he hadn't said anymore about it than that. For his part, Hutch had found another detective at the precinct of the Jewish faith, and was learning the prayers that went with lighting the menorah. The other man had informed him that Hanukkah was not the biggest religious holiday of the Jewish faith, that he had missed Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur in the fall. A check of the calendar showed that, ironically, Starsky had been in the hospital, recovering from the beating by Curtis's goons during that time. He made a mental note to be better educated next year.

There was also the matter of the gift. Even though custom would dictate a gift every night of Hanukkah, Hutch had opted for one large gift he bought with the proceeds from the sale of the paintings. It suddenly seemed inappropriate to make Starsky wait every year until Christmas to get "the loot'', when the holiday for his faith had already passed.

The thought of inviting his parents for Christmas nagged at Hutch, though Starsky said nothing more on the subject. His partner's conviction that this was a good idea surprised Hutch, but then he recalled how well Starsky had gotten along with his parents when they visited Duluth one Christmas. It also gave him occasion to reflect on some of the good times he' d had as a child, and the complete absence of physical violence from his home. He'd never had occasion to hide under a bed or in a closet from his father's wrath. It was also true that what John Hutchinson now had, he'd worked tirelessly to attain. Maybe he was just passing down that ambition to his son...

On the first night of Hanukkah, Starsky went about lighting the candle, with Hutch by his side, expecting to say whatever prayer was said on his own, with his partner mutely watching. Hutch would have given anything for a camera to capture the look on the other's face when a second voice joined in, in Hebrew, to say the blessing. He finished, the candle was lit, and then he turned to Hutch.

"I don't understand--how did you...you knew the words?''

"Marty Rosenthal in Robbery helped me out a little. He's also given me some pointers on some of the other holidays I should be looking out for.''

"I don't know what to say,'' Starsky muttered, his voice a little choked.

"I figured if you can learn the names of Santa's reindeer, I oughtta be able to handle learning a few new words.'' Hutch watched as his partner laughed a little, then pulled him into bear hug. "Happy Hanukkah, buddy,'' he said, squeezing back. "I've got a present for you.'' Almost squeezed breathless, Hutch wondered how much of it was his desire to give his partner the gift and how much was a defense mechanism against being crushed.

"A present?'' Starsky released him, as expected. Sentiment was nice, but presents were presents, and they demanded immediate attention.

"Park it on the couch, and I'll go get it.'' Starsky obeyed the directive, waiting as patiently as he was capable of where presents were concerned until Hutch returned with the large box, wrapped in blue and silver paper with a huge silver bow on top. He set it down on the coffee table with a little grunt, which only whetted Starsky's appetite when he realized how heavy it must be.

"Can I open it?''

"Since when have you asked permission? Of course you can open it, dummy.'' Hutch laughed a little as he patted Starsky's back. The other man was seriously preoccupied from that point forward in tearing paper, disengaging ribbon and casting it all aside to get a look at what lurked beneath it. Hutch watched as his partner's eyes widened in shock at what he saw. A video cassette recorder sat there among the shreds of wrapping paper.

"Is this really ours?''

"No, I got a hot one from one of Huggy's friends,'' Hutch retorted, smiling. "Of course it's really yours.''

"I don't get it. We can't afford this. Neither one of us can--not after some of the stuff we did for the house.''

"Thanks to you, I'm a money-making artist, remember?''

"What? Hutch, you mean you used that money for this?''

"Yup.''

"But I thought you were putting that in the bank.''

"That's what I wanted you to think.''

"Are you sure about this?''

"Hey, come on, I'm supposed to be the sensible one here. You're taking all the fun out of it,'' he teased gently.

"I just can't believe it. You don't know how bad I wanted one of these things.''

"Actually I do. You've been talking about it for two years now.''

"When'd you get this?''

"A few days after I picked up the check for the paintings.''

"Where'd you hide it? It's not exactly tiny.''

"If you think I'm tellin' you where my hiding places are in this house, you're crazier than I thought you were.''

"This is so...amazing.'' Starsky stared at the box on the coffee table, almost laughing with the pure delight of the gift.

"I hear they work better if you take them out of the box, Starsk. Let's get it hooked up, huh?''

"Yeah, good idea.'' Starsky took charge of carrying his treasured parcel back to the TV room, where they settled in with the instructions and the back of the television turned toward them to get it hooked up. After almost an hour, it was hooked up, the clock set, the channels programmed, staring back at them.

"I got a couple tapes. I'll go get those, and we can find something to test drive it on.'' Hutch hurried upstairs, and Starsky found himself trying to listen to the floorboards to determine exactly where Hutch had found that was safe to hide a Hanukkah present this size. Of course, he probably hid the tapes in another location than the VCR.

"What should we tape?'' Starsky turned on the TV set.

"Let's see.'' Hutch flipped through the TV Guide. "Let's tape the movie on channel eight while we watch the ball game.''

"Great idea.''

Carefully following the instructions, they started the tape rolling for the movie, and then gathered snacks for the ball game.

"I still can't believe you bought me that,'' Starsky said, watching the various colored lights on the VCR's control panel registering its activities while they watched the game. "'Thanks' seems kinda...inadequate.''

"It'll do, buddy.''

"But that was your money from the paintings--rainy day money.''

"I think we've had enough rainy days that we've paid our dues on this one.''

"Still...well, thanks, Hutch.''

"You're welcome, partner. Now quit talkin' over the game, huh?''

"Oh, right,'' Starsky acknowledged, grinning a little. Hutch had taken all the expressions of gratitude he could handle for one night.

After watching the ballgame, it was, of course, necessary to sit up and watch the movie that had been taped. The VCR proved itself to be all the salesman in the electronics store had promised. It delivered a clear picture and sound, and elicited such a complete child-like thrill and fascination in Starsky, that Hutch couldn't help but be amused. They saw several scenes in slow motion, a couple in fast motion, froze more than one frame and ran a few sequences in fast backward motion.

Glad it was a Friday night, Starsky crawled into bed near three in the morning. The evening replayed in his mind like one of the tapes in his new VCR. Hutch had learned Hanukkah blessings in Hebrew, he'd bought Starsky the toy he'd wanted more than any other for months now... Feeling very contented and very special, Starsky dozed off into a deep sleep.

Hutch tossed and turned until close to five in the morning. He could get up soon and start Saturday morning. One nice thing about having a big house was that they could do essentially what they wanted at any time and not wake the other. Finally discouraged with bed, he got up, pulled on his robe and wandered out into the hall. Passing Starsky's room, he could hear quiet, even snoring through the gap between the door and the frame. He smiled to himself remembering the complete delight on Starsky's face at the sight of the VCR, and his emotional response to Hutch's fairly competent attempts at Hebrew. Reading that stupid card on your dresser reminded me that I don't show you very often, and I sure as hell don't tell you any more often...only when you're close to death, or missing, or can't hear me. Well, it feels good to have changed that, just a little.

So what's the draw to the attic, huh? Hutch pondered as he mounted the narrow staircase to the door above. He took in the view of the cartons, chests, and various other old pieces of furniture. Guess he loves this just like any kid would...all these old treasures--i.e., junk. You'd think he was the long lost Oliver relative the way he sorted and tidied and organized this stuff. As if it should matter to him now. He didn't know any of you, but he adopted you anyway. Maybe it's knowing that the people who should care don't that makes him so solicitous about this old junk.

Hutch seated himself in the chair and sorted through some of the photos. All family pictures of Harry Oliver, his wife, and their now-errant children. How happy they looked on the surface. Hard to believe none of them care about any of this. But for some bizarre reason, Starsky cares. Hutch put the photos back in the shoebox he'd been rifling through. Family is important...don't let it slip away, because when it's gone, you can't get it back... Hutch didn't know where that thought had come from, but he knew he'd been uneasy, wrestling the idea of inviting his parents for Christmas. Maybe it isn't such a bad idea. What could it hurt? What will it solve? Probably nothing. But maybe you won't feel so bad when you have to bury one of them. Hutch shivered a little. He hadn't been thinking thoughts like that. Both his parents seemed healthy, and he didn't consider there was any vendetta between them. Just not much rapport. What do I have to show my father that will make him happy? I'm still just a cop, living with my partner beyond my means in a big old house that's half fixed up...no grandchildren for you yet, Dad. No big promotion. I don't want one. So what does that make me? A dismal failure? Probably. But maybe our definitions of success are too different to reconcile. Course, we haven't tried lately, have we? Hutch was a little surprised at the course his thoughts were taking. It was as if a little voice inside was urging him to invite his parents for Christmas, to take Starsky's advice, to acknowledge that his father was less of an ogre and more of a flawed human, just like the rest of the people out there. Starsky's old man sometimes smacked him or used a belt on him, and he still has his picture on the wall of his room and can overlook a massive flaw in his parenting practices and see the love there. But that's Starsky. He can overlook damn near anything if he loves somebody enough... So why can't I give it a shot? Take a look at the old man and his flaws for what they are and then look a little further. Look at the time he spent teaching me to ride, taking me to ball games, cheering at every basketball game, teaching me to drive--and being brave enough to sit in the death seat while I tried it... Hutch laughed at the memory. Somehow these thoughts of his father didn't mesh with the evil ogre that never accepted second place. They were the same man, but that driving perfectionism was a flaw, just like all humans have.

And he never raised a hand against me, no matter how angry he got.

Then there's Mom. All the stuff she did all those years...kind of like throwing out the baby with the bathwater to ignore her because you and the old man don't see eye to eye. Maybe after enough years have passed, you could all reach some kind of understanding...

"Okay, Harry.'' Hutch took a look at the older man in the photos, smiling with his elderly wife firmly tucked under the embrace of one arm. "What is it with this attic, anyway?'' He shivered a little and headed back downstairs to make some coffee.

 

 

Hutch had fixed breakfast for himself, eaten and was already at work on hauling junk out of the basement when Starsky came yawning his way down the back stairs near ten in the morning. Disheveled, unshaven and still in his robe, he grumbled a marginally obscene protest at having to make a new pot of coffee, and after finishing that task, started searching the refrigerator for remnants of the previous night's pizza. He heard his partner rattling around below, and mumbled something unpleasant to himself about early birds and morning people.

"Morning,'' Hutch greeted as he entered the kitchen, carrying yet another carton destined for the garage, which was the last step before the trash pick-up. "Found a few more Christmas decorations in this one you might want to take a look at. Even some lights. Thought I'd test 'em later.''

"Okay,'' Starsky responded through a mouthful of cold pizza.

"I made a decision,'' Hutch announced, and that caught Starsky's attention, hazy though it still was before his coffee. "I'm going to call my folks and invite them for Christmas.''

"That's great!'' Starsky responded enthusiastically. "I think you're makin' the right decision.''

"I figured you would,'' Hutch said, smiling a little as he knelt by the carton on the floor and started pulling out old strings of lights.

"You'll probably electrocute yourself.'' Starsky poured himself a cup of coffee, found Hutch's cup in the sink and refilled it.

"Merry Christmas to you too, buddy.''

"Those look pretty old. I wouldn't chance it.'' Starsky set the cups on the table and took a seat to watch Hutch untangle the old lights.

"Feel free to jump in anytime,'' Hutch commented sarcastically, as he seemed to be getting into a worse tangle than he was in when he opened the box.

"Two people pullin' at it just makes it worse. They're havin' sales on those things all over town.''

"Are they giving them away?'' Hutch snapped back, still working dilligently on the mess in front of him.

"They don't cost a fortune,'' Starsky replied, adequately chastised for his fit of fiscal irresponsibility. "When those things blow up, your funeral and the electrician's bill are gonna cost more than the lights.''

"Smart ass,'' Hutch retorted, laughing a little.

"Okay, I give up.'' Starsky took a seat on the floor across from Hutch and started working with him on untangling the cords. "If we're gonna go out, might as well be together. Hell, at least we'll make festive corpses--wrapped in Christmas lights.''

"Did anyone ever tell you that you have a sick sense of humor?''

"Yeah, you. All the time. After you get done laughin'. What's that say about you?''

"Hanging around with you all these years warped me.''

"Or loosened you up, depending on how you look at it,'' Starsky replied, satisfied to have solved one tangle, irritated at the creation of another.

"You're right. These are hopeless.'' Hutch tossed his handful back in the box. "Get dressed. We'll go get some new ones.''

"Oh, yeah--I wanna get the outside of the house done this weekend.'' Starsky straightened up and headed for the stairs, hurrying up to get ready for the light-shopping expedition.

Hutch took that opportunity to dial his parents' number. Might as well get the invitation on their calendar. He dialed and waited for a response.

"Hello?''

"Mom? It's me. How are you?''

"Ken! I'm just fine. It's so good to hear your voice.''

"Same here. I, ah, was wondering what you and Dad had planned for Christmas.''

"Well, Sally's giving a huge party this year,'' she referred to his sister, who lived with her husband on an adjacent ranch. "I'm probably going to be tied up with helping her out from now until New Year's!'' She had an amused delight to her voice, relishing helping her daughter throw the big Christmas bash this year. Normally, the elder Hutchinsons hosted a Christmas party which had become legendary among the Duluth jet set, complete with sleigh rides, elaborate dinners and overnight lodging for a select group.

"I was going to ask if you and Dad wanted to come and spend Christmas here. We've got the house in pretty good shape now--it still needs work and decorating, but it's looking pretty good.''

"Oh, Ken, we'd love to--any other year. This is the first time Sally's tackled doing the party, and she's really counting on me. What a sweet invitation! You know you'd always be welcome to come here--you could bring someone, or bring David if he wants to come.''

"Thanks, Mom, but I think we'll be spending Christmas at home.'' Hutch was surprised at himself how much staying where they were, in this house, felt like being home for Christmas. "No chance Sally could wing it on her own?''

"No, dear, I'm sorry. I wish you'd reconsider coming out here. We'd love to see you.''

"Thanks anyway, Mom. The schedule's been pretty hectic, and I don't think we can get a lot of time off. We've had to take some time already, after Sandra, and then Starsky was off work for awhile...I think we've stretched Dobey's good humor as far as it'll go.''

"What a shame. If anything at all changes, just let us know. We'd love to have you.''

"Thanks. I will.''

"Everything is going along well at work?'' she asked.

"Fine. Things have settled down a little now that the Bridegroom case is over.''

"You should be very proud of yourself for bringing that lunatic to justice.''

"I didn't do anything. It all happened because he was out to get me. If he hadn't grabbed Starsky to drag me out to meet with him, we'd probably still be chasing our tails.''

"Still, you managed to overpower him and rescue David.''

"Actually, Starsky got loose and shot him. I was unarmed.''

"I see. Well, it's fortunate that you both came out of it all right. That's the important thing.''

"Yeah. In this business, you just never know how many Christmases you've got left, I guess. Well, I'll be in touch, Mom. Good luck with the party plans.''

"Ken, I am sorry about not being able to come out there.''

"Right. I know. Tell Dad I said 'hi'.''

Starsky came bounding downstairs as Hutch said his good-byes.

"You called your folks? When're they comin'?''

"They're not.'' Hutch dug through his pocket for his car keys. "I'll drive.''

"Hang on a minute. Why not?''

"Sally's giving the big party this year--remember the sleigh rides and the big dinner and all that crap?''

"Yeah. So?''

"Well, my mother apparently is needed to coordinate it. But we're invited there, of course,'' he concluded with a sneer.

"You wanna go?''

"No.'' Hutch started toward the back door, with Starsky close on his heels. They got into the Mercury and Hutch started up the engine.

"I'm sorry it didn't work out. Maybe next year.''

"Yeah. Sure. If Sally isn't having a horsheshoe contest or my father isn't selling a thoroughbred--in other words, if there's nothing better to do.'' Hutch pulled out onto the street a little faster than necessary.

"If Sally's counting on your mother for help--''

"Damn it, Starsky, will you stop sticking up for them? God! They passed on coming to Sandra's funeral--that should've given me the message. That was a business deal--I guess I forgot to mention that. I called Sally to wish her happy birthday, back in September, and while we were talking, she let something slip about my dad buying this horse with all these impressive names connected to his bloodline, and how tough a deal it was to orchestrate. He bought the fucking horse in April--same time Sandra died. So that's why they fumbled for some excuse and didn't come.''

"I'm really sorry, buddy. If I'd known that--''

"I knew it, and I was still dumb enough to try to invite them here for Christmas. Won't make that mistake again.''

"I wish it had turned out differently. But hey--we've done Christmas on our own before. Won't be so bad.''

"It's not that.'' Hutch concentrated on the traffic, which was a bit heavier as they neared the discount store that would be their first stop.

"I don't blame you for feeling bad about them not coming. I feel worse about the funeral. I had no idea it was something like that--business. I thought maybe since your dad had some heart problems last year...or maybe they thought they weren't really needed.''

"It's nothing new. I had to bust my ass to get a pat on the head. All Sally had to do was be born. She was always the goddamn little spoiled princess of the family.''

"Are you really mad at her or mad at your folks?''

"I'm not mad at any of them. I'm mad at myself for not knowing my place. First off, Sally was their little princess from the moment she was born. She could get mediocre grades, get into trouble, act like a spoiled brat--and the old man still thought the sun rose and set in her. I spent my whole fucking life trying to do everything right

and I was lucky to get a passing glance. Valedictorian was good for some fanfare, and Summa Cum Laude from college was worth noticing.'' Hutch shook his head in dismay. Starsky didn't comment on the fact they'd passed the discount store and were heading out of the business district again.

"He was grooming an heir, Hutch. That's why you had to be perfect. Sally was just supposed to be a pretty girl who'd marry well. You had to be the one to carry on for him. To be as good as he thinks he is.''

"Now I'm a cop in California and Sally's waiting to inherit the ranch. Isn't that a kick in the ass?'' Hutch snorted a little laugh.

"Do you think he's really thrilled about that, or is he making the best of it? Wouldn't he have driven Sally like he drove you if he'd thought she'd be the one at the helm someday?''

"I don't know. Shit, I passed the store.'' Hutch slowed the car and pulled into the parking lot of a closed bank to turn around.

"Just stop the car a minute, okay?''

"What for?''

"Just stop.'' Starsky waited while Hutch brought the car to a stop in a parking spot in the middle of the empty lot. "You both had your roles to play, buddy. You were supposed to be the protégé of the old man--ambitious, driven. Sally just had to be his daddy's girl--you were the one who would run things someday.''

"And then I screwed up and became a cop. He looked at me like an investment gone bad. Years and years of effort yielded nothing.''

"Did he ever say that?'' Starsky didn't like Hutch's father's obsession with achievement any better than his partner did, but he hated the idea more that Hutch felt so unloved by his parents.

"Here and there. Not all at once. But he was furious when I went into the academy, he's been furious that I didn't strive for promotion, he's made remarks about no grandchildren, and he never lets an opportunity pass to drop a little anecdote about some friend's son who just achieved some big fancy title at a law firm or Fortune 500 company--or who is moving up the ranks in the family business to take over someday. He's got a kid to take over. It's not like nobody's going to carry on the ranch when he's dead.'' Hutch stared out the window in silence for a few seconds. Starsky didn't say anything, glad that Hutch seemed to be talking through it, and not wanting to slow him down. "I'm tired of not being good enough, no matter what I do. And I'm tired of...I don't know...'' His voice was a little hushed, and Starsky could tell he knew exactly what he wanted to say but was hesitating to say it.

"Tired of what else, buddy?'' he prodded gently.

"I'm tired of...of not feeling like they give a damn about me because I'm a cop in California instead of a horse rancher in Duluth. I'm tired of feeling like that poor, stupid kid that busted his ass to please them and rarely ever managed it.'' Hutch looked over at his partner. "I know they loved him, so I try to be him whenever I'm with them, but I can't pull it off anymore because I've failed them in so many ways I can't even count them.''

"Hutch, you haven't failed anybody. I think that--''

"Look, you don't get it, Starsk. And that doesn't surprise me, because you think that real love is unconditional. I hate to shatter that illusion, but a lot of love out there is conditional.'' Hutch's eyes returned to the view through the windshield. Starsky said nothing. He had no reply to that. "Let's go get the lights. We better get started if we want to have the outside done today.'' Hutch started up the car and pulled out of the lot into the traffic. Both were silent until they found a parking spot in the crowded lot in front of the K-Mart store.

"You never failed me, buddy,'' Starsky said quietly. "Not once.''

"Quit worrying about dragging my family here for Christmas, Starsk. I've already got my family right here.'' He squeezed Starsky's arm quickly and then was out of the car, ready to go. Starsky got out, hurried around the back of the car and fell into step with his partner. Before long, they were debating what kinds of decorations they'd get for the front of the house, laughing at the absurdity of the plastic yard snowmen as decorations in a town that never saw any snow.

Two hours, endless bickering, and a considerable amount of spent money later, they returned to the trunk of the Mercury with two filled shopping carts. Starsky figured out a way to stuff the plastic snowman in the back seat.

The exterior decorating project was more fun than either of them anticipated, despite a few annoying moments. Once they'd figured out where the lights could be plugged in, and had made another trip back to the store for outdoor extension cords, they were ready to get creative.

Starsky took up residence on the top step of the porch, wrapping the synthetic pine garland they'd bought with Christmas lights. This would be hung along the roofline and the railings of the new porch, swag style.

Hutch hung a wreath on the door and then set about putting the lights on the small evergreen tree in the front yard. Surrounded by mostly gnarled, aged oaks, the little pine tree looked almost as if it were just waiting for Christmas to snatch the spotlight from its larger, more ominous neighbors.

Christmas music startled Hutch as he was putting the finishing touches on his light-hanging project on the ten-foot tree in front of him. He laughed a little when he saw that Starsky had brought a portable cassette player out on the porch to help them get in the mood for the rest of the day's work.

Starsky trekked over to Mel's and borrowed a second ladder so they could both work on hanging the lighted pine garland.

"Bet you still don't know the names of Santa's reindeer,'' Starsky challenged, carefully checking the dip of garland between two nails. On a ladder about ten feet away, Hutch shook his head with a little grin. "It's not hard to learn. You leared all that Hebrew for Hanukkah but you don't know who the reindeer are.''

"I'm sure Santa Claus will be so offended he won't stop here,'' Hutch said sarcastically.

"You never know. Come on--you remember that poem--about the 'Night before Christmas', don't ya?''

"Only I could draw a Jewish partner who memorized that damned poem.''

"On Dancer, on Prancer, on Donner and Blintzen--''

"That's 'Blitzen', you idiot,'' Hutch shot back, fumbling with an ornery, uneven stretch of garland.

"You say it your way, I'll say it my way. Now, before I was so rudely interrupted--''

"If you don't shut up, I'll interrupt you all right.''

"Ooh, I'm shakin','' Starsky retorted, laughing a little.

"You don't think you have anything to worry about, eh, smart aleck?''

"I--'' Starsky stopped dead when he saw Hutch smiling evilly and flexing all ten fingers in his direction as he leaned on the ladder rungs. "You wouldn't. I'm on a ladder--I could fall and break my neck!''

"You're up there now, but you've gotta come down sometime.''

"Wanna bet?'' Starsky's horrible susceptibility to tickling was one weakness that Hutch rarely played upon, but when he did, he was capable of reducing his partner to a teary-eyed, red-faced, breathless, hysterical basket-case.

"Chicken,'' Hutch muttered, going back to his garland-hanging project. A few moments of silence passed while the final work was completed on the hanging. "How about turning it on and taking a look? Then I can fix it while I'm up here.''

"You want me to come down first? I don't think so.'' Starsky shook his head.

"Starsky, grow up, will you? Now just go down and test the lights.'' Hutch waited while his partner reluctantly started down his ladder and went to the spot on the porch where the lights were to be plugged in. Hutch kept his word and stayed put, following Starsky's directions to fix the uneven spots in the lights. The overcast day wasn't as perfect as night time for the project, but it was easier to see the colored bulbs than it would have been with sunshine.

"Come down and look at it!'' Starsky urged excitedly. When Hutch joined him on the sidewalk, he had to admit it was pretty festive. The colored lights adorned the garlands strung on the porch and the little pine tree next to which the fat plastic snowman sat. Starsky held up his hand and Hutch delivered the anticipated "high-five''.

"What time're you picking Christine up?''

"Oh, terrific.'' Starsky fled back toward the house.

"I'll pick this stuff up. Go ahead and get dressed, Romeo.'' Hutch watched the fleeting blur known as Starsky head for the side door, which would give him the fastest access to the stairs and finally his closet. Something told Hutch that Starsky would be carefully selecting the look for this evening out.

Dusk was just encroaching now, and Hutch noted with some satisfaction that the house looked great. He was still a bit depressed at his parents' refusal of his invitation, but like he'd told Starsky in the car, he felt like his real family was with him right here in this house...at home.

 

Starsky crept in the side door as quietly as possible. It was almost four in the morning, and he hoped to slide up to his room without waking his partner. The date with Christine had been all he'd hoped it would be, and now he just wanted to fall into bed and sleep until about noon.

He moved stealthily up the stairs and tip-toed along the upstairs hall until he noticed a little glow of yellow light coming from the library. He continued to approach it slowly and quietly. Hutch's room was farther down the hall, and there was no way to check there first to see if it was indeed Hutch burning the pre-dawn oil.

"Starsk?'' The familiar voice both startled and reassured him at the same time.

"Yeah, it's me.'' He wondered how Hutch could have possibly heard him. Of course, there were a couple of healthy creaks that defied anyone to "sneak'' anywhere in the upstairs hall.

"Have a good time?'' Hutch asked. He was sitting against the arm of the big brocade-covered sofa near the bookshelves, his feet up and the old throw that usually adorned the back of it over his legs. The book he'd been reading now rested on his lap.

"Waiting up for me, Dad?'' Starsky sat on the corner seat of the couch, kicked off his shoes and tossed his jacket aside. He nudged at Hutch's feet and legs to give him room to mirror the other's position.

"Couldn't sleep.'' He rubbed his eyes.

"You look tired, buddy. Anything wrong?''

"Just...restless I guess.''

"Thinking about your folks?''

"What? No. Not anymore. I keep wondering...doesn't it seem a little funny to you that it all ended so easily with Jordan?''

"I wouldn't call any of that easy, pal.''

"But he didn't send anything to The Chronicle. How do you figure that?''

"So you'll do just what you're doing--tear yourself up with worry over something that won't ever happen. He was bluffing. Maybe he thought you'd hesitate to take him out if you got the chance if you thought your cover was blown anyway.''

"Maybe. I just feel like we're...living in the shadow of the other shoe that's about to drop.''

"I don't think we'll ever hear anymore about it, buddy. I really don't. But even if we do, I told ya before, we'll make it.''

"I believe that.''

"Good.''

"How'd things go with Christine?''

"What can I say? You know what power I have over women. She couldn't keep her hands off me.''

"I think I'm gonna be sick,'' Hutch replied sarcastically.

"Just jealous, as usual,'' Starsky responded smugly.

"Why do you think Jordan didn't send something to the newspaper?''

"I don't know,'' Starsky responded. Sick little bastard probably had something else up his sleeve that just hasn't hit us yet, Starsky thought. He kept that to himself.

"I don't want to quit, Starsk. For years, I've struggled with whether or not I wanted this job. To stay in it and take the risks. But I think it's what we are, and we're good at it, and I don't want to leave it. Now I have to get up everyday wondering how long I'll have a job.''

"We could always move to Duluth and be horse ranchers.'' Starsky had a little smile on his face, but he was serious. If that's where life took them, well, he'd just have to get used to a different kind of horsepower under him.

"Yeah, sure. I can see you being happy out in the middle of nowhere.''

"Oh, I don't know. I hear the University of Minnesota has some pretty good programs, and if your dad would hire me, might help pay the tuition.''

"What are you talking about?'' Hutch looked genuinely puzzled.

 

"I've been looking into taking some classes starting in the winter. I want to get my degree. It's not just this situation, though that kind of convinced me. It's just that I know I don't have anything to fall back on if my job falls through. I sort of thought about that when everything came down with Gunther, and I was laid up for so long. And now with this situation...I was trying to figure out what in hell I'd do for a living. So I'm gonna go back and really do it this time. I know I've fiddled around with a few classes here and there, but now I'm serious.''

"I think that's great, buddy. What're you going to take?''

"Don't know yet. I've got a couple psychology classes and a couple criminology classes...I figure if I'm really going for a degree, there are a lot of requirements I have to take before I have to pick a major. I mean, I don't wanna leave what I'm doin', but I don't like not having a back up plan.''

"What do you know about the University of Minnesota?''

"They made you smart, didn't they?'' He poked Hutch with his foot.

"They did their best,'' Hutch replied, laughing a little. He paused, then looked back up at Starsky. "You'd actually move to Minnesota and live on a horse ranch?''

"Hey, you know me. I'll try anything once.''

"Think I'll turn in.''

"Me too. If Dobey calls us in tomorrow, I'm gonna kill him.'' Starsky got up and started toward the door, with Hutch close behind him.

"Jury'll never convict you, either.''

"Just for your information, Christine knew the names of all the reindeer.''

"Glad to hear you had such a meaningful and mature encounter.''

"It was mature enough. You wouldn't believe when she recited those reindeer names. And you couldn't even do it hanging garlands.'' Starsky didn't fully expect the attack that came from behind, knocking him on his stomach on his bed. The magic fingers were dancing horribly over his mid-section, and the tickle-induced hysteria began.

"I told you to drop that reindeer thing, didn't I?'' Hutch barked in a tone that was about as frightening as the concept of being tickled into submission. "Huh?''

"Get offa me!'' Starsky gasped out, before another fit of uncontrolled laughter rattled him. He thrust a foot backwards toward his attacker, but Hutch was used to the usual moves. Starsky wasn't capable of a whole lot when he was disabled this way. Good thing street thugs didn't think of tickling the cop that tackled them. Hutch, for his part, was laughing almost as hard as his partner, though not quite, revelling in the pure silliness of the moment. Nothing in their lives had been this light-hearted...well, since the last time he'd tackled his unsuspecting partner and tickled him into a frenzy over some inane argument Hutch was intent on winning.

"Name those reindeer now, smart ass!'' Hutch demanded through his own laughter.

"Please...I can't...'' Starsky was still laughing, but he was getting breathless, pinned under Hutch and unable to stop the torturous laughter.

"Come on, name 'em!'' Hutch challenged. A particularly sensitive spot was hit under his ribs, and he decided it was time to really holler uncle as another fit of breathless laughter captured him.

"Hutch, you...gotta...quit it...I can't...'' Starsky was to the point of no return, or so he thought, when the hands were mercifully withdrawn. Hutch always knew when the real signal was to let up, and that was it. He removed his weight from on top of his partner, letting him have a few seconds to breathe. Maybe he'd stopped wrestling and rough-housing around with Starsky very much because ever since the shooting, there was a definite difference in his partner's recovery time. Though Starsky insisted there was no pain involved, he was breathless longer since his lung had been damaged by the shooting.

"You okay, there, partner?'' Hutch sat back on the end of the mattress and patted Starsky's back.

"I think I'm dyin'.'' He rolled onto his back, still panting, but grinning. "You shithead.''

"You asked for it.''

"Like hell.''

"You and your freakin' reindeer. Let's see. There was Donner, Dancer, Prancer, Nixon--''

"Blintzen,'' Starsky corrected.

"Oh--no, it was Blitzen.''

"Start over.''

"Dancer--''

"You started with Donner.''

"Oh. Donner, Dancer, Prancer, Blitzen, Comet, Cuban, Rudolph--''

"It was Cupid and Rudolph doesn't count.''

"You wanna argue the point?'' Hutch flexed his fingers.

"Okay, Rudolph it is,'' Starsky replied, laughing a little.

"'Night, buddy.'' Hutch stood up and headed for the door.

"Hey,'' his rumpled partner called to him as he hoisted himself on his elbows, "sleep tight, babe. Don't worry about anything, okay?''

"Okay. 'Night, Starsk.''

 

 

Starsky had to admit that sometimes seeing festive Christmas decorations in a police precinct headquarters could be nothing short of bizarre. With all the fanfare of two important armed robbery/homicide suspects being dragged along the hall, gold tinsel and cardboard Santa Claus's shared the spotlight.

A significant swat on his rear end made him spin around before he ever entered the squad room.

"Gotcha!'' Christine wielded her newspaper over her head as she headed down the hall toward the exit. Starsky scanned the hall quickly. No one seemed to have noticed the exchange. He was still repressing a giggle, and thoughts of setting up some plans for that evening with Christine, when he strutted into the squad room.

"What's got you in such a good mood?'' Hutch asked, reading a fairly unpleasant coroner's report on their latest homicide case. "Man, what a way to spend the holidays. Take a look at this.'' He handed the folder across the desks to Starsky.

"Nice,'' Starsky commented sarcastically as he held the folder with one hand and filled their coffee cups using the other. "What kind of pervert...'' Starsky shook his head as he sat down with the file, reading the clinical details of the rape-murder case. "We working with Sex Crimes on this one at all?''

"I already called Jan Holland--she's going to meet with us this morning, see if we can work up a profile of this sicko.''

"She's really good. I hear she helped the feds bust some big case when she was on the force in DC.''

"She's taking training to do criminal profiling--but I swear to God, she could save the tuition. That woman's got an eye for it.'' Hutch had only had one instance to work with the friendly, middle-aged Holland, who gave the appearance more of an average homemaker than a top-notch cop. She was very definitely the latter, having built a real expertise in profiling--and catching--rapists and other perverted criminals whose bizarre patterns of violence held vital clues to their identities. "So do we get Christmas Day off?'' Starsky tossed the folder on the desk. His partner's ability to shift gears sometimes still amazed Hutch, but then it was probably that ability that had kept the other sane all these years. Starsky had the biggest heart in the world, and in their business, you couldn't afford to think with that all the time.

"Christmas Eve day, we're on call but we don't have to come in unless something urgent comes up. Christmas Day we're off. After that, it's back to the grindstone. Of course, all that's assuming nothing breaks on one of the cases.''

"I sure hope something breaks on this turkey pretty soon. I really don't want to see him mess up another girl like this.''

"It's probably somebody she knew. Usually is.''

Jim Nedloe hurried through the door with his partner close behind him.

"Guess who just turned up missing?'' Jim asked, settling on the edge of Starsky's desk.

"Who?''

"Arnold Mercer. They did a roll call this morning, and he's gone.''

"How long has he been unaccounted for?'' Hutch demanded.

"Probably since lights-out last night,'' Jack spoke up. "Apparently he had some help from inside.''

"Jordan,'' Hutch muttered.

"He's dead,'' Jack retorted.

"He's behind this somehow. I just know it. Don't look now, but this is the other shoe.''

"What?'' Jim looked puzzled.

"Nothing,'' Hutch responded, hastening to add, "I just mean it seemed as if things wrapped up too easily with Jordan.''

"Well, unfortunately, we can't pin this one on a dead man.'' Jack pulled out a chair and sat at the desk next to Hutch's. "Just thought you oughtta know.''

"Are you guys in charge of looking for Mercer?'' Starsky asked.

"Oh no. That bastard's mine,'' Hutch interjected. "I don't care who's officially looking for him. He's mine.''

"Actually, Dobey did tell us it was our case.''

"He can't do that!'' Hutch objected loudly.

"Sorry to break this to you, Hutch, but he can and he did.'' Jack leaned back in the chair. "But we're not interested in freezing you guys out of this. That's why we're telling you about it. Four heads are better than two.''

"Hutch--take a look at the profile of the killer, based on the forensic evidence.'' Starsky handed him the file. "And it matches the description of her boyfriend that her roommate gave us. She didn't know his name, though.''

"Tall, blond male, blood type A negative.'' Hutch looked up at his partner.

"I think we oughtta find out what Arnie's blood type is, don't you?'' Starsky picked up the phone and called R&I. Minnie checked the files quickly while he waited, and came back with the expected answer. It was a match.

"Think Kelli Thompson could be the girlfriend Norton said Mercer roughed up?'' Jack asked, referring to the dead woman.

"I'd put money on it,'' Hutch retorted. "I suppose we could ask Norton about the girlfriend's name.''

"Why should he tell us anything now?'' Jim asked. "His deal's been cut, he's doin' the time.''

"Because he likes to project this image of being ethical and decent despite the fact he's a piece of garbage. He liked to imply that Mercer was somehow worse than he was, more violent. He might do it just to make himself look good.''

"Let's go visit Norton.'' Starsky rose from his chair. "If that's okay with you guys.''

"Norton's all yours. Just let us know what you find out,'' Jack replied, not appearing in any particular hurry to relinquish the chair he occupied.

Starsky had never seen any of his attackers' faces that night, so for him, seeing Norton was meaningful to some extent. He didn't, however, have much interest in dwelling on that past experience. There was a sick feeling in his stomach as they waited for Norton to be brought to the interrogation room.

If seeing Norton was significant for Starsky, seeing Starsky appeared almost more significant to Norton. He was jittery at the sight of his past victim, and very obviously working at avoiding eye contact with him.

"What's this all about? I thought I was done having to answer questions.'' Norton's clasped hands, which rested on the table, were in the perpetual motion of figeting.

"We need the name of Mercer's girlfriend. The one he used to get rough with.'' Hutch sat in the chair closest to the prisoner, while his partner remained standing, leaning against a wall of the room. He didn't seem interested in getting any closer to Norton than necessary.

"Why should I tell you that?''

"Because of this.'' Hutch pulled the most gruesome of the pictures of the murdered girl out of an envelope and slid it in front of Norton.

"Oh God.'' He pushed it away quickly, looking as if he might vomit.

"That could be Mercer's handiwork. He got out, you know.''

"I know that. Big news around here.'' Norton took a deep breath, and by accident, glanced up and had eye contact with Starsky. The two men evaluated each other for a moment, and Norton was the first to look away uneasily. "Kelli Thompson. He was dating a girl named Kelli Thompson, and he slapped her around quite a lot. I never thought that was right. I guess he got a little carried away one time, and she broke up with him right after that. But he was always trying to get her to take him back.''

"Thank you.'' Hutch picked up the photo, keeping his tone of voice neutral.

"The things that happened that night,'' he began, still looking at the table, and then looking back up at Starsky, "weren't my idea. It was Mercer and Curtis--or Jordan or whatever the hell his name was.''

"But you could handle going along with it because after all, I was just a Jew pig, right? Isn't that what you called me? Don't ask me for absolution.''

"I could have kept quiet. Let Mercer take it all the way that night,'' Norton added, feeling more assertive now. "It's because of me you got to keep your legs together, Jew Boy.''

"You son of a bitch!'' Hutch lunged at the other man, and grasping him by the collar, yanked him out of the chair and slammed him against the wall. "You perverted, stinking piece of shit!'' Hutch barked into his face, yanking him forward and slamming him back against the wall again. "You better watch your back in this place--''

"Hutch!'' Starsky was pulling him back, but was not successful in dislodging his partner's fierce grip on the fabric of Norton's gray prison uniform.

"If that's the kind of action you like to see, asshole, I can make sure--''

"Hutch, shut up! Just drop it!'' Starsky yelled, forcing his partner and the prisoner apart before Hutch could utter any more potentially incriminating threats. A guard appeared at the door.

"Everything under control in here?'' he asked, addressing Starsky, as Hutch seemed in worse shape than the prisoner. Both were panting and glaring at each other.

"We were just leaving,'' Starsky spoke up, pulling Hutch by the arm as he picked up the photo and headed for the door.

Hutch was silent as they stalked down the corridors, going through the various security points and slamming barred doors. Once back in the sunshine of a cool winter day, Starsky spoke first.

"Are you crazy? Threatening a prisoner? If that guard heard--''

"You heard what he said in there! How in hell did you expect me to react?''

"I don't blame you for getting upset. But we got what we came for, and now we can put an APB out on Mercer in connection with the Thompson killing. We knew this wasn't going to be fun.''

"When I think about what those bastards did to you...'' Hutch's fists were clenched until his knuckles turned white.

"It's over, buddy. And all that crap that Norton spouts off--they're just words.''

"Mercer's out of the pen, Starsk.''

"I know. Don't think I haven't thought about that.'' Starsky shuddered almost visibly. "I just hope this helps us nail him sooner.'' Starsky didn't comment on what it did to his insides to know that Mercer was indeed capable of the brutal rape and murder of his girlfriend. It reinforced the fear that had never quite left him after his first encounter with Mercer. And this same nut was involved in a revenge plot against Hutch...and the ultimate outcome of revenge plots are usually death for the victim. Mercer was certainly the maniac capable of carrying it out.

"The other shoe just dropped, Starsk.'' Hutch slid into the passenger seat of the Torino. Jordan's legacy was somehow buying Mercer's freedom--probably pre-arranged through his father's old connections. That figured. He'd set free the man who would willingly do the most damage for the least compensation. And I better put a lid on the panic...it can't be easy for Starsky knowing he's out. He doesn't need me reminding him what that means.

The other shoe just dropped, Starsk... Hutch's voice echoed in Starsky's brain as he shivered against the biting cold of a Minnesota winter. The ground was uneven under the thick layer of snow, forcing him to take his time trekking toward the spot he felt compelled to visit. The other shoe just dropped, Starsk... It was a morbid mantra that kept drilling at Starsky's mind until he thought he'd go mad. Hutch's voice, only distant, ghostly...is that what Hutch is now? A ghost? Or an angel?

The ground was too hard. People who die in the winter and aspire to be buried in Duluth have to wait until Mother Nature is ready to permit them entry. Where did they "store'' Hutch for the winter? What's the point of finding the Hutchinson plot? He's not there...Why won't they tell me where they put him? I can't even be close to what's left...I don't know where to go! Starsky found himself standing in the middle of the desolate graveyard, feeling tears freeze on his face in the wind. Even his voice wouldn't cooperate, wouldn't move past the barrier...He tried so hard, and finally, a wail of complete agony, desolation and loss tore loose from his throat, echoing into the nothingness, unanswered and unconsoled. Then another, and another, Hutch's name, over and over, shattering the silence, threatening to shake the snow off the pines by the sheer force of the pain behind it...

 

 

Hutch shot bolt upright in bed, his heart racing. Something had ripped the blanket of sleep away from him swiftly and violently. He heard it again--a scream from Starsky's room...a deep-throated scream that was filled with agony and terror. Grabbing his gun off the lower shelf of his night stand, Hutch hurried out into the hall, his eyes darting both ways, trying to adjust to the dark. Sliding quickly along the wall, gun held up and close to his body, he soon found himself at Starsky's bedroom doorway. His partner was sitting up in bed, shaking visibly, even in the shadows of the darkened room.

"Starsk?'' Hutch started in response to Starsky's little jump of surprise at his presence. "Starsky, it's just me, buddy. What happened?'' Hutch walked into the room and laid the gun on Starsky's bedside table.

"Hutch? Hutch?'' They were two little exclamations of disbelief and terror.

"That's right, buddy, it's just me.'' Hutch sat on the edge of the bed and put his arms around his partner's still-shaky form. "Pretty bad one, huh, babe?'' He felt another nod against his shoulder as Starsky's arms tightened around him. "It's okay, buddy.''

"It was winter...the...cemetery...'' Starsky forced out in little gasps through his tears.

"What were you doin' in the cemetery, pal?'' Hutch tried to keep his tone light, but he had never felt Starsky shaking this hard in his life, and he'd rarely had anyone squeeze him in the type of vise-like hold Starsky did. "Hey, Starsk, it's okay, babe. Everything's okay. I'm right here,'' he murmured gently, hoping to calm his partner's reaction to the nightmare.

"But you were dead!'' he finally shouted into Hutch's shoulder. "I couldn't...find the...grave...in the snow...and they couldn't....the ground was frozen...and you...they put you...somewhere...but I couldn't find...I didn't know...''

"It's all right, buddy. Just let it out, I'm right here. I'm right here,'' Hutch said softly, patting Starsky's back lightly as he began a slight rocking motion. He felt a violent shudder of tears break loose and more followed. "Shhh. It's gonna be okay, babe. I'm not planning on dyin' anytime soon, pal.''

"Not...without...me, anyway,'' Starsky forced out.

"Not either one of us.''

"I'm sorry...to...go off...like this, but--''

"I know. You don't have to explain it, pal. I know. I've had a couple of nightmares like these in my life, and they're just as scary and painful as the real thing.''

"It was so...real...I was...out there...all alone...calling to you...but you were...'' Starsky choked out in little gasps before he gave in to the tears and just cried while Hutch held him.

"Shhh. It's okay. It's all over now. I'm right here, pal. I've got you.'' Hutch waited a while until he felt Starsky calming a little.

"It's...the nightmare...it was...worse...than any other one...I ever had.''

"All this stuff with Mercer and the case...it's got us both a little jumpy.'' Hutch rubbed Starsky's back gently. "Nobody's gonna take me out if I can help it.''

"I...couldn't...stand it...Hutch...if...you...''

"Don't dwell on that, buddy. Besides, we always manage to land on our feet somehow. You're not gonna have to bury me anytime soon.''

"Not ever,'' Starsky amended, shaking his head adamantly.

"Not ever? That's a tall order, Gordo. I'll see what I can do.'' Hutch laughed affectionately. "You know I'm not ever going to go anywhere if I can help it.''

"I'm sorry,'' Starsky managed, a little of his composure coming back.

"That's okay, babe. I know it was bad. Just lean on me and try to relax, okay? I'm gonna stay right here.''

"I'm glad,'' Starsky whispered, still shuddering a bit and slumping against Hutch. Oh, God, don't ever die on me, partner. I couldn't do this for real...

"Try to relax, buddy. And try to leave me a couple of ribs intact, okay?'' Hutch teased gently, squeezing Starsky a little harder momentarily. The other's grip loosened a bit.

"Just...wanna be sure you're real.''

"I'm real, pal. And I'm fine. Healthy as a horse.''

"All that yogurt, right?''

"The yogurt, the vegetables, the shakes...I'm probably gonna out-live you, Mr. Junk Food Junkie.''

"I hope so.''

"No matter which one of us goes first, it isn't going to be any picnic for the survivor, buddy. But after all the stuff we've shared, the good times we've had, neither one of us could ever really be alone.''

"I was all alone in that cemetery, Hutch. All alone. And I wanted to die.''

"It was a nightmare, babe. Probably brought on by this whole mess with Mercer cropping up again.''

"But it's gonna happen someday.'' Starsky's matter-of-fact statement of reality chilled Hutch's soul. Not that he hadn't accepted that reality more than once during his partnership with Starsky. It just wasn't something he wanted to think about any more often than absolutely necessary.

"I know. But it isn't real now. Don't borrow the pain, pal. One of us won't ever have to feel it.''

"Unless we go out together in a big blaze of glory.'' Starsky chuckled a little, straightening up and sitting back against the headboard.

"I'm not ruling that out as a possibility. Of course, I'd like a long life, and the blaze of glory thing gets less likely when you're eighty.''

"Not really,'' Starsky responded, mopping at his face and finally grabbing a kleenex off the night stand to blow his nose. "See, the way I figure it, as far in debt as we are now with the house and the renovations and the stuff we said we were gonna wait to do that we did anyway? We can't afford to ever retire, so we'll probably still be working the streets when we're eighty.''

"Starsky, if we go by how far in debt we are right now, not only can we not afford to ever retire, but we can't afford to die, either, so there's really nothing to worry about.'' Hutch was smiling, and after an exchanged look, they both burst out laughing.

"What I wanna know,'' Starsky said, trying to repress the fit of giggles which were such a bizarre antithesis from the soul-tearing agony he'd been feeling, "is how you, Mr. Fiscal Responsibility, ended up payin' $25 a yard for that carpeting on the stairs.''

"Hey, that was a sound move. That stuff'll last.''

"Hutch, we barely ever go up the main staircase--we're always running up the back stairs. We've got that cruddy indoor-outdoor stuff back there and this ritzy carpeting that'd stand up to a herd'a elephants out front.''

"This from the man who insisted on the most expensive drapes Covington's has ever sold for those big windows in the living room? Don't talk to me about throwing money around.''

"You wanted me to go to a classy decorating place to pick out the drapes, so what'd you expect?'' Starsky asked, defensively.

"Just because I said foam-backs from the catalog would be cheesy didn't mean you had to spend more on those than we did on the house,'' Hutch retorted.

"Yeah, and we still hafta do the yard and the garage.''

"Oh, shit.'' Hutch just tipped back on the bed, so he was lying across the foot of it. "I'm not gonna die in the line of duty. I'm gonna die of exposure after they foreclose on us and my cardboard box blows off'a me in a storm.''

"You regret buyin' this house?'' Starsky asked, trying to sound casual. He wasn't sure he wanted the truth. But Hutch just chortled a little, and responded with a warm smile still on his face.

"Not for a minute.''

"Hutch?''

"What?''

"When your box blows away, you can share mine, okay?''

"It's a deal,'' Hutch replied, laughing.