15

So we open up the quarrel

Between the present and the past,

We only sacrifice the future,

It's the bitterness that lasts...

 

With the hunt for Arnold Mercer raging full tilt, it was a little difficult to find the Christmas spirit. Not to be daunted, Starsky managed to drag his partner out on a sunny Saturday afternoon--a rare day off--to pick out the tree that would be the main attraction of the indoor decorations. Since neither of them possessed a wealth of decorations, and money was getting tighter with each passing house payment and utility bill, they had scrounged together all of the remains of the Oliver decorations and grudgingly pulled out a credit card to buy more lights, a few boxes of ornaments and some garland. Hutch dismally observed that Starsky had better be resigned to having a nice tree with nothing under it. When his partner reminded him that by the time they were both 65, the house would be paid for, Hutch merely glared into the upbeat expression on Starsky's face and stalked off down another aisle of the store to find a tree stand.

Tight budgets notwithstanding, no one dissuaded Starsky from buying pine boughs and red velvet bows to decorate the staircase. He hadn't really felt too fondly toward the ornate, perfectly reproduced banister before now, always looking at it as a new copy of the old, historic original. But with the pine and bows hung from it, and two big poinsettias--courtesy of Cecile--on either side of the foot of the stairs, it was an impressive focal point of the house. And no one would know to look at it that the highly polished oak of this new structure hadn't always been there.

Pulling the tree through the front door was probably the holiday's most memorable experience, leaving both men alternately cursing, bickering, pushing, pulling or laughing. Thirty minutes and what appeared to be several million pine needles later, it was in place, waiting like a giant, evergreen black hole to suck in the

conservative supply of lights and decorations. Hutch had to admit that Starsky's inspiration of buying several different flavors of candy canes was a stroke of genius, since they were fairly cheap and helped fill in the gaps left by their fledgling ornament collection. The only problem was resisting the temptation to eat the decorations.

Starsky was delighted to spend his entire day off buying decorations, hauling the giant tree home in a pick-up borrowed from one of the guys at the precinct, and hanging decorations. They ate pizza as they worked, not stopping for an official meal, and Christmas music pumped cheerfully through stereo speakers in the corner of the living room.

"I'm gonna plug in the lights. Tell me where the gaps are, okay?'' Starsky crawled under the tree and plugged in the network of lights.

"Lower left middle,'' Hutch commented, taking in the sight before him. The tree was a giant among in-house Christmas trees, and thanks to Starsky's incessant whining, they had bought an adequate number of lights. The decorations were a little...eclectic, but watching Starsky painstakingly adjust the lights in exactly the spot Hutch had meant, he felt an overpowering rush of all the warm, happy feelings of Christmas.

"How's that?'' Starsky crawled on his knees out of the way, remaining in the lowered position in case he had more work to do. If he'd had a better Christmas with his Aunt and Uncle, he couldn't remember it.

"Looks perfect. Really perfect.''

"All right!'' Starsky straightened to stand and backed up to stand with Hutch, evaluating the tree. "Next year, we buy some decent ornaments.''

"There's nothing wrong with our ornaments.''

"Hutch, we've got some old stuff from the attic, some old stuff of yours from a table tree in your apartment last year, and a few K-Mart specials.''

"And a hell of a lot of candy canes,'' Hutch observed, chuckling a little. Starsky maintained his serious expression for only moments, and then smiled back at him.

"We don't have a topper!''

"Didn't Harry have something upstairs?''

"He had some ratty old angel that looked like one of the bag ladies who live behind the Gospel Mission, but nothin' that's fit for the top of that tree.''

"We could probably make something,'' Hutch suggested, looking at the painfully naked point of the tree top.

"Make something,'' Starsky stated, as if it were the most absurd concept he'd ever heard.

"Yes, make something. You know, a tin foil star or--''

"There ain't no way in hell any tin foil star's goin' on top'a that tree!''

"There ain't no way in hell I'm paying out another $20 for a tree topper.''

"What good is it with nothin' on top? It ruins the whole thing!''

"Oh, Starsky, grow up. We've got enough other stuff on it--''

"It's not the same thing. I'm gonna go look for one.'' He strode to the entry hall, grabbed his jacket out of the closet at shrugged into it.

"All right already.'' Hutch grabbed his own coat and followed Starsky through to the side exit, which was closest to the car. Both paused on their respective sides of the Torino when they noticed an unfamiliar white Sedan deVille pull into the end of the driveway, carrying two occupants.

"What d'you suppose this is?'' Starsky queried. The people in the other car got out and headed toward them. It was dark, but they could see by the streetlights that it was a man and a woman.

"My parents!'' Hutch stated, shocked. He started down the driveway, followed by Starsky. Marion Hutchinson reached her son first and hugged him excitedly. John Hutchinson was close behind, and a flurry of hand-shaking, hugging and back-slapping ensued. Starsky was stunned to see the couple, having been certain they were a lost issue. Now, on the 19th of December, here they were.

"David!'' Marion lunged for Starsky, giving him the standard motherly death-grip hug. "You look wonderful!'' she exclaimed, standing back. Then he remembered she hadn't seen him since almost two years before he'd been shot. She had probably heard the worried ramblings of her son on how bad he looked ever since it happened.

"You're still beautiful as ever,'' Starsky replied, kissing her hand.

"Still a ladykiller too, I see,'' she responded, blushing a little.

"My God, this is quite a place you have here,'' John commented, shaking hands with Starsky and taking in the view of the house. "I pictured this as a shabby little fixer-upper!'' John was a tall man, with receding gray hair and only a passing resemblance to Hutch, mostly in his height and build. The blue-eyed blonde Marion, with her perfect features and soft voice was obviously the parent who had contributed the most to Hutch's appearance and personality.

"I thought you weren't able to come,'' Hutch finally said.

"I gave Sally a crash course in party-planning and told her she was on her own. If I'm going to plan the whole thing anyway, I might as well have given it myself again this year. Besides--we were long overdue for a visit, and I wanted to see the new house.'' She linked her arm through Hutch's. "I hope this isn't going to mess up your plans now.''

"Not at all,'' he responded, smiling widely.

"I'll give you a hand with the luggage, John.'' Starsky started pulling suitcases out of the large car's trunk, and John grabbed the last of it and closed the trunk. Hutch's mother had taken complete possession of him, and he finally accepted that and left the luggage to the others while he walked up to the house's front door with his mother clinging to his arm, chattering incessantly about the house and the neighborhood. Wait 'til she meets the Nazis who live behind us...

"Oh, Ken, it's beautiful!'' she exclaimed, approaching the majestic, pine-laden staircase and caressing the polished wood. "And those French doors!'' Hutch pushed them open for her to walk into the living room. He quickly switched on a lamp. Both John and Marion were noticeably impressed with the high ceilings, original woodwork and vintage furnishings.

"The previous owners sold it with most of the furniture still here. It was in an estate,'' Hutch explained.

"You can get some wonderful deals when people want to unload a place,'' John commented. Starsky had crawled under the tree and plugged in the lights.

"We've gotta put the topper on it yet, and it's kind of--what was that word you called it earlier?'' He turned to Hutch.

"Eclectic.''

"Yeah. Eclectic.''

"It sure is a big one,'' John remarked approvingly.

"Let's get you settled in the guest room,'' Hutch offered, heading back toward the abandoned luggage. "This is really a great surprise.''

"I'm glad. We were worried that maybe our invitation had expired,'' Marion said, happily following her son up the main staircase toward the guest room. John remained on the first floor, admiring the architecture of the old house.

"Ken mentioned to Marion something about some damage you had done here a few months back. Sure wouldn't know to look at it.''

"Does the stairway look genuine to you?'' Starsky asked honestly.

"Genuine? What--? That isn't the original?'' he asked, apparently genuinely surprised. That brought a wide smile from Starsky.

"That's what I needed to know,'' he responded. "This whole banister was just redone. The whole thing was smashed up.''

"I heard you got a little smashed up with it,'' John commented, examining the wood more closely, shaking his head in obvious approval at the replica.

"I was in the hospital a couple of days. Nothing life-threatening.'' Starsky didn't care to go into the gory details, and John didn't pursue it.

"Well, I'm glad things have leveled out a bit now. I guess we should go investigate that guest room.'' He started up the stairs, and Starsky followed. If only things had leveled out...

"...close to the bathroom. Starsky and I can use the one downstairs while you're here, so we won't get a line-up in the morning.'' Hutch was explaining the accommodations to his mother as his father and Starsky arrived.

"The upstairs still needs decorating, so you'll probably find the room a little plain,'' Starsky began. "We tore up a lot of old carpeting and we've been using the hardwood floors in the meantime.''

"In a way it would be a shame to cover these,'' Marion commented, more closely inspecting the floor. "Your grandmother never would lay carpeting over her floors--she used some area rugs, but no carpeting,'' Marion continued.

"Have you eaten yet?'' Hutch inquired. It was near eight o'clock.

"We ate on the plane,'' John replied.

"God help you,'' Starsky retorted. "So, you wanna go out and get something decent?''

"We're fine, really, David,'' Marion responded. "I think we'd just like to get settled in for tonight. Are you two sure this isn't going to be an imposition?''

"Not at all,'' Starsky spoke up, and Hutch just smiled his agreement. "Besides, maybe you can convince your son that we need a decent topper for that man eater of a Christmas tree downstairs.''

"Ken, you have to have something significant on top of a tree that size!'' Marion exclaimed, as if it were a decorator's law he was thinking of violating.

"There, ya see?'' Starsky turned to Hutch.

"Thanks a lot, Mom,'' Hutch grumbled.

"Is that where you two were headed when we got here?'' she asked.

"Yup, except he was tryin' to talk me into makin' one.''

"That might have worked on one of those scrawny little trees your grandparents used to get, but it most certainly isn't appropriate for a tree like that one--or a house like this. Would you mind a little company to pick it out?''

"I think that's a great idea!'' Starsky responded, knowing that Hutch's mother was the best weapon against her frugal son.

"Why don't you stay and get us settled, dear?'' she asked John. "You and Ken can have a visit while David and I pick out an appropriate topper for that tree.''

"He's all yours,'' Hutch replied, laughing at the thought of turning Starsky loose in a store full of Christmas decorations with his mother's lust for shopping and considerable bank account behind him.

Marion was quiet for the first few moments of their ride toward the discount store. When she spoke up, there was a trace of concern in her voice.

"Ken looks pale. Is anything wrong?''

"It's been a rough time for him since Sandra died. The Evan Jordan case was a real roller coaster ride.''

"It wasn't my choice to miss her funeral,'' Marion stated quietly. "John was in the middle of a deal on a thoroughbred, and he seemed to feel that Ken wouldn't miss us that much...''

"He missed you. I mean, he wasn't alone or anything. We have a lot of great friends, so he made it all right.''

"And he has you.''

"He's always got me. That's never gonna change.''

"I'm glad. I hate that Ken is still on the force. I've hoped and prayed he'd quit, do something--anything else. It's so dangerous. But at least I've always known you were there to look out for him.''

"That goes both ways. I wouldn't trust anybody but Hutch to watch my back either.''

"But it's a much different feeling to know that your son is backed up by someone who would lay down his own life for him. Not every cop on the force has that kind of protection.'' She was quiet a moment, and Starsky had no response. He was a little embarrassed at being praised for protecting Hutch's life, which he did as much for his own selfish reasons of wanting to hold onto his best friend as he did for the altruistic purpose of letting Hutch live in his place if it came down to that choice. And I sure as hell would rather be the one who goes first... "I suppose I'm struggling to say thank you.''

"You don't have to thank me. I get my thanks every single day, one way or another,'' he replied, grinning at her. "Besides, Hutch would do the same for me.''

"You aren't seriously going in here to pick out the topper for the tree!'' Marion exclaimed as they pulled into the discount store parking lot.

"Well, yeah, I mean...well, we're not exactly...it has to be...reasonable.''

"Isn't there something a bit more...upscale still open?''

"Well...there's the lawn and garden place not far from here that's got all Christmas stuff set up now, but I can't afford--''

"Nonsense! That's where we're going.'' She waited as the Torino didn't move from its parking spot. "Go on!''

 

 

"So how about the grand tour?'' John asked Hutch after his wife had left with Starsky.

"Sure. We might as well start up here and then go back downstairs.'' Hutch walked him through the rooms, pointing out a few features here and there. John wandered on his own into Starsky's room, which Hutch hadn't really intended to take him through without his partner being there.

"Nice view of the yard and neighborhood from back here, too.'' He pulled back a panel of the well-worn beige drapes that still hung in the window from the previous owners. "Don't see those stone walls too often anymore,'' he commented on the barrier between the Cherry Street and Mulberry Street backyards.

"Starsky's got some big plans for the garden, so he wanted the bedroom overlooking it.''

"Your mother will go nuts when she sees this furniture. She's getting into the whole antique thing now--gives her something else to shop for,'' he added, laughing a little. "This Dave's father?'' He noted the framed photo of Mike Starsky in his dress blues on the wall of the room as he was about to re-join Hutch in the hall.

"Yes it is,'' Hutch responded.

"He died quite a long time ago, didn't he?''

"He was shot when Starsky was ten.''

"Must be one of his commendations or something here,'' John observed at spotting the plaque for Hutch's high school essay victory. Dumb of me to think he'd recognize it, Hutch chided himself as his father took a pair of wire-framed glasses out of his jacket pocket to more closely examine the plaque. "Oh my goodness, that looks familiar,'' he said with a chuckle. "How'd he end up with it in here?'' John joined Hutch in the hallway and they started back toward the stairs to tour the first floor.

"He thought it was a pretty big deal that I placed number two in something national, and since he was the only one who ever did, I figured he might want it. He did.'' Hutch knew the answer sounded a little more bitter than it should have, but he also took a certain pride in showing his father that someone valued his accomplishment enough to display the award in a place of honor.

"That was certainly a nice honor, Ken. Your mother and I were proud of that.''

"Yeah, I could tell, the way you clamored for the plaque.'' Hutch started down the stairs. "I think the builder did a pretty good job reproducing the staircase. It was totaled before, and--''

"What was that last remark supposed to mean exactly?'' John had stopped on the landing, and Hutch paused two steps further down to turn and face him. Just about the height difference he's comfortable with. Just like I'm ten again.

"It means that you didn't give a damn about it because it wasn't the first place trophy and we didn't end up going to the White House. Besides, second place doesn't exist--no one remembers the contestant who almost won, right Dad?''

"If you'd spent a little less time running around with Jack Mitchell and a little more time on your work, it probably would have been number one.'' Okay, Dad, you can play dirty too. Congratulations.

"If I hadn't ended up valedictorian, I might have to back down from that, but I don't have to make any excuses to you about my academic performance.''

"And do you think for one minute you'd have racked up that honor if your mother and I hadn't impressed on you the importance of being your best?''

"What is so important about being number one, huh? I'm still trying to figure that out. Maybe I had to get out on my own and get a taste of the real world before I could see how little that really means in the big picture of things.''

"Now you listen to me. If I hadn't had ambition and drive and hadn't seen the importance in being number one, you wouldn't have enjoyed some of the perks you had. You'd'a been shovelin' horse manure out of the stables after school instead of going out riding while the ranch hands did it!'' he bellowed.

"How many times did I go out riding after school, huh? I was chained to a desk in my room making myself number one, remember? No going out until the homework's done? Ring any bells? If I got a 'B' on something, you didn't say 'nice job', you said 'what happened?'''

"Damn right I did because I knew you were capable of the 'A'.'' He shook his head. "I don't know why we're having this ridiculous argument. You're an adult now, and if you choose to throw away your life, there isn't a damn thing I can do about it.''

"Is that what you think I'm doing?''

"You're 36 years old and you're still playing cops and robbers. When are you going to use that brain God gave you and try for a promotion? Or better yet, go back to college. You could get your law degree--''

"What for? So you could have better bragging rights? Your son the lawyer. Your son the Police Commissioner? Sounds a lot better than your son the street cop, doesn't it?''

"It's unfathomable to me why you want to spend the rest of your life mingling with the scum of the earth.''

"It's the scum we're trying to clean up. We're not mingling with them.''

"I can understand Dave staying on the force. With his background and no education, he probably doesn't have many options--''

"Hold it right there. Don't start putting Starsky down. You don't know what you're talking about.''

"I'm not saying he isn't a good person, but as long as you stay hooked up with him, you're going to be held back. You have this sentimental attachment to him that keeps you from realizing your potential. He's going to keep you from achieving anything worthwhile--''

"John?'' Marion's voice interrupted them, which, Hutch thought sadly, meant that Starsky wasn't far behind her--and probably within easy earshot. "What's going on here?''

"Where's Starsky?'' Hutch asked immediately.

"Right here,'' a quiet response came from behind Marion. "I'll go hook this up,'' he said, forcing a little smile at Marion as he carried a very elaborate-looking gold-accented star with multi-colored lights in the points into the living room.

"What on earth--I leave you two alone for a few minutes and already--John, how could you?'' She moved swiftly up the stairs, and her husband obviously picked up on the fact he had some fast and fancy talking to do to get back in her good graces. He followed her up to the guest room. Hutch was left there on the stairs, caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. He could go upstairs and listen to his parents bickering or he could go down to the living room and face the hurt in Starsky's eyes that would try to hide behind a facade of nonchalance and understanding. He chose the latter.

"You and my mother came up with a good one, I see,'' Hutch said lightly as he entered the living room. There wasn't much point in hoping that Starsky hadn't overheard what his father said, but he decided to act as if it had meant nothing to him. The argument wasn't pleasant, but his father's assessment of Starsky's value in his life really didn't mean anything to him.

"She insisted on buying it.'' Starsky's tone was lackluster as he plugged it into an outlet. "It works. That's good.'' He unplugged it again and laid it on a cushion of the couch.

"Starsk, I hope you didn't put any stock in anything my father said--''

"He's got a right to his opinion,'' Starsky responded, looking back at the tree. "I think I'll turn in early. Give you and your folks some time to visit.''

"Starsky, you know--''

"You don't have to explain anything. I'll see ya tomorrow.'' Starsky smiled slightly and then walked back through the dining room, and soon, Hutch heard his footsteps on the back stairs.

Hutch waited in the living room a few minutes, then began dowsing the lights. It was only nine o'clock, but it was obvious that a cheerful night of interaction wasn't about to happen. If it did, it could happen in the library.

The last person he wanted to run into in the upstairs hall, he did. His father was pacing around near the guest room, the door to which was closed.

"Your mother's pretty upset,'' he said to Hutch, trying to keep his tone light, almost conspiratorial, as if they were both responsible for that situation.

"I'm not surprised. I'm going to turn in.''

"It's nine o'clock, son. You haven't started going to bed earlier than you did when you were six years old, have you?''

"Probably just another one of my character flaws,'' he shot back, heading for his room.

"Look, I'm sorry if I upset you with what I said, but you have to know that your mother and I only want what's best for you--''

"Let me tell you what's best for me. The best thing that ever happened to me was meeting up with Starsky and having him for a partner and my best friend. He's been there for me more times than I could count, and if being a success meant terminating our partnership, or God forbid, our friendship, then I'm happy being your definition of a failure.''

"I never said you were a failure, Ken. Don't put words in my mouth.''

"But I'm not a success, either, in your eyes.'' Hutch took a deep breath. "There's really no point in having these arguments, and now that I'm an adult, I can see how pointless they always were. We don't define success the same way, Dad. To you it's money, position, acquiring a new thoroughbred--and I'm not condemning you for that. That's what means something to you. By your standards, Starsky and I are failures. We're wasting our lives. Even if Starsky goes back to school and gets his degree, which he's planning to do, he won't use it to seek out the kind of success you're talking about. He'd put it to use on the job, or he'd do something that somehow made the world a better place. Because he's got a heart that's so generous he can't not give to others. As for me...yeah, I could have split off our partnership, driven my way to a 'better' job.'' He paused, then continued. "For what? More money? A big office? A title?''

"Those aren't things to be scoffed at, Ken. Money, position--it's easy to cast aspersions at that when you're young and idealistic and have your whole life ahead of you. But when you reach a certain age, you begin to bring into focus what's really important.''

"Nearly dying a couple of times has brought that into a real clear focus. Seeing Starsky lying in a pool of blood on the ground after being riddled with bullets in the police garage brought it into focus. I know what's important to me, and I'm being true to that. It would be nice if you could understand that and respect it.''

"But that's my point--you've faced death more than once on this job, and if you're blown away by some junkie in a dirty back alley somewhere, it would be a huge waste of a fine human being.''

"And if I spent the rest of my life unhappy, that would be a waste, too.'' Hutch took a deep breath and rubbed his face with his hand, bringing it to rest on his chin momentarily. "I'm done apologizing for and justifying my life. It is what it is, it's what I've chosen, and I hope you can respect that as one adult to another. The fact I'm a failure by your definition isn't your fault. And it sure as hell isn't something you should blame on Starsky. To be brutally honest with you, I feel like the richest man in the world right about now, because all the things I have...they're all I need to make me happy. At this moment, right now, I'm not missing anything I need to be my definition of successful.''

"Then perhaps you need to rethink your definitions.''

"Maybe you need to rethink yours,'' Hutch shot back, surprising himself almost more than his father. He strode into his room and slammed the door.

John Hutchinson stood in the hall a moment, a little stunned at the exchange, then returned to the guest room.

 

 

Hutch wandered down the hall toward Starsky's room. It was almost two in the morning, and he had pursued sleep unsuccessfully for nearly three hours. The door was shut tight, making a silent peek inside to see if his partner was sleeping almost impossible. One of the door hinges creaked, and if there was one thing that startled Starsky these days, it was the sound of someone sneaking into his room. Ever since Mercer, that sick S.O.B., Hutch thought. He tapped lightly on the door. Thinking he heard a whispered response, he pushed it open slightly and found Starsky lying on his side, facing the door.

"What's the matter?'' He pushed himself up slightly.

"Nothing. Couldn't sleep. Did I wake you?''

"No. I was awake.''

"Mind if I come in?''

"'Course not.'' Starsky pulled himself up into a sitting position, and Hutch perched on the edge of the bed, near the foot of it.

"I'm sorry about what you overheard earlier. It's very important to me that you know that anything my father said was his opinion--not mine.''

"I know that. I also overheard what you told him out in the hall later.'' Starsky smiled a little in the darkness.

"I meant that, Starsk.''

"I know you did. But your dad might be right--about me holdin' you back. I mean, you could really go to the top if you didn't have me holdin' you down. If you weren't trying to stay partners with me.''

"How do I explain...make you see...'' Hutch seemed to be genuinely struggling for the right words. "You couldn't ever hold me down, buddy...as far as I'm concerned, Starsk, my dad's the visitor here--but you're the home team.''

"Don't make things hot with your dad because of this, okay? I mean, I know how you feel about it, and I understand if things get a little ugly from time to time. But if you guys are gonna have any kind of relationship, you're gonna have to accept him to some extent the way he is.''

"I will accept the way he is--to a point. When he starts insulting you and telling me how to restructure my life, I won't accept that. He can meet me halfway.''

"I sure hope so, buddy.'' Starsky widened his eyes with an inspiration. "Why don't you call Cecile and see if you can set somethin' up for you guys to go out with your folks?''

"I'm not going to start excluding you from this visit because of what my father said.''

"You're not excluding me. I live here. Besides, I'm about due to set something up with Christine, anyway. Give them a normal evening out with their son and his girlfriend, and keep it light. Maybe your dad'll quit raggin' on your life and maybe you won't have reason to get so defensive with him.''

"Starsk, I'm not going to put on a puppet show for my father. Yeah, I would like them to meet Cecile, and I might do just what you're suggesting. But I'm not going to start behaving differently or pretending to care about things I couldn't give a damn less about just to make him happy. I had to do that when I was a kid, but not anymore.''

"I'm not tryin' to tell you what to do. I'd just like to see this visit work out okay.''

"I know that. I'll give it my best shot, but I don't want you to ever wonder where I stand when he starts his soliloquy on where my career ought to be right now. I'm right where I wanna be. Got that?''

"I got it,'' Starsky responded, smiling slightly.

"I better turn in. Early call in the morning.''

"What're we gonna do with them all day while we're at work?''

"I guess they'll have to take in some of the exciting sights of LA or Hollywood or something. But I'll check out the dinner idea with Cecile tomorrow.''

"Okay. See you in the morning.'' Starsky slid down into position to work at sleeping again.

"Starsk?'' Hutch paused at the door of the room.

"What?''

"I...uh...just remember what I said, okay?''

"I will. Don't worry about your dad, Hutch. We'll get along okay while he's here. And I had a real nice visit with your mom tonight.''

"Good. 'Night, pal.''

"Sleep tight,'' Starsky replied, already muffled by the pillows in which his face was half-buried.

 

 

Hutch was up early enough in the morning to prepare breakfast for his parents. Starsky barely flew down the stairs at the last minute to scout the remains, running right to the wire for time as usual. Marion had an itinerary worthy of a Hollywood tour guide, which included making the drive to Beverly Hills so she could drag John around Rodeo Drive. Hutch snickered a little sadistically, thinking of what a master his mother really was at making his father pay for his transgressions. She had been bitterly unhappy that her husband was already picking fights with their son, so it was obvious she had decided he could make it up to her by following her through over-priced boutiques and smiling while she flashed her credit cards.

John seemed uneasy at the lack of any repercussions of the argument. Hutch was civil, if not completely friendly, and Starsky bounced through the kitchen with his usual cheery greetings, and after shoving some bacon and a couple of jelly-drowned pieces of toast in his mouth, was prodding Hutch to put a nickel in it.

The search for Arnold Mercer was becoming more and more discouraging. No new leads had materialized, and increasing emphasis was being put on a nationwide search. It was unlikely he was still in the area, now that he was the prime suspect in the murder of Kelli Thompson.

Starsky continued to feel uneasy, as if Mercer was never too far away, but he said nothing to Hutch about it. It was just an irrational leftover of his ordeal, and there was no point in trying to make it part of their case strategy.

A dinner out with Cecile, Hutch and the elder Hutchinsons did take place that evening, and though it was pleasant enough, Hutch couldn't shake the feeling that he was putting on the puppet show for his father he swore he wouldn't.

Conversation seemed to flow easily between Cecile and John, who entered into an investment discussion that bounced back and forth like a lively round of ping pong. She was able to offer some helpful suggestions to him regarding the world of rental properties as investments, and he was, in turn, counseling her on the best strategies in the stock market. Marion had a plastic smile permanently glued to her face, seemingly used to having John spiral off on tirades about business or high finance in the middle of social occasions. Cecile was little better in that department. She might have an artsy side, but she also had the characteristics of a business viper. A healthy discussion about making money piqued her interest as much as an ethereal discussion of modern art.

The two couples did manage to break free of the "shop talk'' long enough to do a little dancing to the old standards being played in the sedate but expensive restaurant that had been chosen for the evening. While dancing with his mother, Hutch enjoyed one of the few, though brief, interesting conversations of the evening.

"Cecile seems like a nice girl,'' she commented. "Very pretty.''

"She is that.''

"You don't sound enthused.''

"I guess I don't. Maybe I'm not. Starsky's convinced she's perfect for me.''

"David isn't dating her, Ken. She has to make you happy.''

"I know that. She ought to, I s'pose.''

"Maybe it's too soon,'' she suggested gently.

"I think so. I think Starsky just wants to do something to make this whole thing...not as bad as it is--by finding me a replacement. He knows better than anyone else that it doesn't work that way. After four years, he's still looking.''

"He might always be looking. Sometimes there is one right person...I have a friend who lost her husband when she was only 25, and she never has remarried--and she's had offers.''

"So he's shopping for one for me instead, I guess.'' Hutch laughed a little.

"He can't stand seeing you anything but happy. I don't think I need to tell you that.''

"No, you don't. I feel the same way where he's concerned. I hate all the lousy things he's had to live through in the last several years...Terry, the shooting...he sure deserved better.''

"How is he now? He seems like the old David I remember from your visit to the ranch a few years back.''

"To a large extent, he is. I think he's a little more serious...and I know there are a few physical effects left over, though he's back up to speed on the streets, no question about that. He's quieter, thinks more...dying does that to a person I guess.''

"Dying?'' Marion looked shocked. Hutch remembered then that he'd never gone into the specifics with her about Starsky's ordeal. Just that he'd been shot, taken months to fully rehabilitate, and most importantly--that he survived.

"He went into a cardiac arrest not long after the surgical repair work was done. They lost him briefly--he had to be resuscitated.''

"My God. I had no idea. I knew it was bad--that night you called me, you sounded so hopeless.''

"He had survived the cardiac arrest, but there was some doubt as to whether he'd go into another one, or if he'd regain consciousness at all...''

"No wonder he's so important to you now. Moreso than before, even.''

"You're right about that.'' Hutch smiled down at his mother. She was a pretty perceptive lady, and when she wasn't loyally standing at his father's side, she could be a good friend.

"Don't rush yourself with Cecile, dear. If it's right, it'll fall into place.''

"I know. Thanks, Mom.''

"For what?'' she asked as the music ended and they were walking back toward the table.

"I don't know. For coming, I guess.''

"My pleasure, honey.'' She squeezed the hand she was still holding before he released his grip to hold the chair for her.

 

 

Starsky stirred a bit in his sleep. Something was moving around the room, stealthily. Hutch and his parents had gotten home already...he'd heard them come in, even though he was partially asleep at the time. Busy on a stakeout with Grant Shemanski, Christine had taken a raincheck on dinner, but Starsky had declined joining the Hutchinson clambake with a polite excuse about having a date anyway. He felt the time together would do them all good, and give them an opportunity to get to know Cecile.

So who was creeping around the room? It's not Hutch...I know his sounds...could be Marion or John, but why? He fought the urge to roll over and look behind him. If it was an intruder, his best bet was to listen for what seemed like the right time to venture open an eye, maybe carefully get a hold of his gun, which should be on the lower shelf of the ornate antique night stand, inside what looked like an innocent jewelry or trinket box.

Something pounced on the bed, pinning his body beneath spread knees, and cold metal was at his temple.

"Miss me, Jew boy? We've got a little unfinished business together,'' Mercer's voice whispered in his ear. "Don't make a sound. Listen. Hear the silence? I've got your gun, and I've got your partner's. You feel this?'' He ran what felt like a gun with a silencer attached along Starsky's cheek. "Give me trouble, and I'll put a bullet in your head--your partner won't ever hear it--then I'll go down the hall and visit the folks. You know, for an old lady, his mother's a pretty hot little blonde.''

"You son of a--''

"Ah-ah!'' Mercer leaned in close enough for Starsky to smell his breath. No liquor...no pot...damn--that means he's alert, in top form... "Don't get sassy with me, pig. I'm gonna teach you a lesson about that, and good. And you're going to lie here and take it, and keep your mouth shut, understood?'' Starsky made no response. The safety on Mercer's gun was released, and the silencer pressed under Starsky's chin. "You answer me when I ask you a question! Understood?''

"Yes,'' Starsky hissed at him through clenched teeth. If what Mercer said was true, and he had the firepower, he could very easily kill one person in one room of the house with the silencer, and then go finish off the others. He had to play along until he was sure he could overpower him or trick him somehow.

"Now, this is gonna be real nice, right here in this big bed. Lot less clothes to mess around with too. Tell me you want it. You know you do,'' Mercer almost purred in Starsky's ear. His question was met with silence again.

Provoke him to violence short of shooting you...he'll get mad, make noise...

"I told you to answer me!'' He brought the hand with the gun in it back hard across Starsky's face, hitting his jaw with most of the weight of the weapon. "Now, I said, tell me you want it!'' The voice was a hoarse, breathy whisper--getting louder. Starsky shook his head in response to the order.

Besides, unless Mercer's figured out a really new way to do it, he's gonna have to quit sitting on my stomach eventually and move...

"One more time: tell me you want it!'' His voice was well above a whisper now, raspy and low, but still louder than it should be.

Dear God, Hutch, just hear him...notice your gun missing...go get the shotgun out of the Torino...

Starsky felt another heavy blow he hadn't seen coming across the other side of his face. There was blood in his mouth already from the first blow, and he aborted his plan to spit it in Mercer's face. There was a point at which the other man would probably kill him, and that just might be it.

"Goddammit, I said, tell me you want it!''

Hutch, where the hell are you?! God, please, don't make me have to lie here and take this anymore...

"That's fine. I'll just make sure it's a lot rougher than it has to be, if that's how you want it. Maybe that's what turns you on, eh, Jew-boy?''

A crashing sound from behind made Mercer spin around, just in time to see Hutch in the doorway, shotgun aimed at him.

"Drop it! Throw it on the floor where I can see it! Right now!''

Mercer hesitated, and then decided to turn back toward Starsky, hoping to use aiming the gun at him as a means of escape. In one powerful move, the man pinned beneath him thrust upward and grabbed hold of the wrist holding the weapon, propelling both men off the bed onto the floor. Hutch flipped on the overhead light, needing to see who was where in the tangle of limbs writhing on the floor.

"Give it up, Mercer!'' Starsky growled, finally pinning the other man beneath him, aiming the gun at his face. Mercer was still as a statue, not sure what the wild-eyed cop straddling him would do now that the roles were reversed. "I wanna hear you beg for your life, asshole! Come on!'' He pointed the weapon even more purposefully. "Beg me not to kill you!''

"Ken?'' Marion's soft inquiry distracted Hutch, but more importantly, distracted Starsky. Mercer got a hold of Starsky's wrists as he held the weapon and shoved him back, sending two shots into the ceiling. Hutch had to be concerned with pushing his mother into a nearby bedroom and slamming the door, while Starsky wrestled with Mercer.

Another shot was fired, and then glass shattered. Hutch raced back to Starsky's room to find his partner scrambling to his feet, carelessly pulling a robe over his underwear and running toward the door. He almost knocked Hutch over on the way out.

"The crazy bastard jumped out the window--and kept moving!'' His voice was high with surprise as he flew down the hall, not seeming to notice he was unarmed and undressed.

"Starsky!'' Hutch ran after him, carrying the shotgun, which was their only ungainly means of defense at the moment.

"Ken! Dave! What's going on?'' John was demanding from somewhere down the hall, but Hutch didn't have time to care. He raced down the steps following Starsky's path, which ultimately led to the Torino. A dark sedan was squealing away from the curb out front, and Starsky wasn't about to let it get out of his sight. As the car catapulted down the driveway, it only slowed marginally so Hutch could throw in the shotgun and then jump head first through the passenger window. It had been a couple years since Hutch had tried that maneuver, and he was grateful to end up torso-first in the Torino instead of pasted to the side of it. Dressed in a t-shirt and boxer shorts, he cast a glance at his robe-clad partner as he piloted the car onto the road, starting up the siren. Hutch slapped the mars light on the roof and held on for dear life.

"Zebra Three to Control...we are in pursuit of a dark sedan, possibly a Buick Electra, mid-70s, northbound on Cherry Street. Driver of the sedan is Arnold Mercer, escaped convict wanted in connection with another homicide. Should be considered armed and dangerous,'' Hutch concluded the call.

"Roger, Zebra Three.'' Within moments, a call began to summon all units to join in the effort of intercepting Mercer.

"Shit.'' Starsky's terse observation startled Hutch.

"What?''

"We're gonna bust this guy in our underwear. She just called all units! You know how many cop cars are gonna be in on this?''

"You're the one who ran outside this way!''

"He was gettin' away!''

"He still is, Ace. You wanna put a nickel in it?''

"I'll drive--you ride shotgun,'' Starsky quipped back, pushing the Torino to its limits, careening through what were, thankfully, essentially empty residential streets.

"This is Zebra Five. We're gonna intercept at Cherry and Morley.''

"Nedloe and Elliot. This is just perfect,'' Starsky continued to grumble.

The brake lights went on ahead of them, the dark car spinning somewhat out of control but attempting to dart off down Morley in the opposite direction from Nedloe and Elliot's approach. It was cut off by an arriving black and white, each car hitting brakes and skidding sideways, hoping vainly to avoid each other. There was a sickening crunch of metal as the passenger sides of Mercer's car and the squad car met.

Mercer was out the driver's door like a shot, running for all he was worth across the lawn of the house on the corner, marginally slowed by a limp acquired in his jump from Starsky's window. Starsky was out of the Torino and close behind him, bathrobe flying, with his underwear-clad, shotgun-armed partner on his heels. Mercer fired a couple of shots behind him, but he was running so fast that they were not carefully aimed. Starsky got up close, and grabbing the other man's waist, made a fairly smooth tackle, straddling his back and pouncing on the hand that held the weapon. Mercer relinquished it quite quickly as he found himself looking up the barrel of the shotgun Hutch was holding.

"Anybody got a set'a cuffs?'' Starsky called out, trying to maintain his dignity in front of Nedloe, Elliot and a number of uniformed officers, as he sat astride his captive, adjusting the tie on his blue robe.

"Doin' a little undercover work, you two?'' Jim stepped forward, dangling the cuffs in front of Starsky with his thumb and forefinger. Starsky snatched them with a curl of his lip and cuffed Mercer.

"What's the matter, Mercer? No snappy comebacks? No threats?'' Starsky removed his weight from the man's back and yanked him up on his feet. "You're under arrest. For the murder of Kelli Thompson, not to mention escaping from prison--oh, and assaulting an officer. Does that cover it, Hutch?''

"For now. Read him his rights and get him out of here.'' Hutch tried to look serious, handing out orders to the uniformed men as he stood in the middle of someone else's backyard in his underwear.

"He broke into the house, got a hold of the guns somehow...'' Starsky began explaining.

"Look, we wanna be in on any questioning of this nut case, but I think we might be a little more effective if we went home and, uh, got changed,'' Hutch said to Jim. Jack was just approaching, having radioed in the status of he situation to the dispatcher.

"This is really great. Have a pajama party and don't invite me,'' he quipped, snickering at the perturbed looks on the younger detectives' faces.

"We're going home to get some clothes. Meet you at the precinct.'' Starsky wrapped up the exchange rather quickly, heading back for the Torino.

Both of the Hutchinsons could be seen peering out the living room window when their son and his partner pulled back into the driveway.

"Bet Sally never had anything this exciting happen when they spent Christmas with her.''

"You're insane,'' Hutch retorted, laughing at Starsky's comment. "You're also bleeding. You really did a number on your legs tackling Mercer. Face doesn't look too great either.''

"Yeah? Well, you're not anything special yourself.''

"I mean you're a mess. My mother's going to freak out when she sees you.''

"Wouldn't be the first mother to freak out when she saw me. She's tougher'n you think. She'll deal with it.'' Starsky led the way in through the side door, slipping up the back stairs and letting Hutch explain things to his parents, who hurried through the house to meet them.

"Ken! Are you all right? Where's David?''

"We're both okay, Mom. You guys better go up and get dressed. There'll be lab guys here soon enough. I don't think all that'll take long, but we'll have to have your statements on the record since you were in the house when it all happened.''

"You got him?'' Marion asked.

"We got him. More specifically, Starsky made a flying tackle I think might qualify him for the Dallas Cowboys starting line-up next year.''

"I thought he was going to kill him before...in his room.''

"What're you talking about?'' John interjected.

"Starsky was just giving him a little dose of his own medicine. He wouldn't have taken it any further.''

"I'd like someone to tell me what in the hell that was all about!'' John demanded.

"That was one of the men who broke in here and attacked Starsky. He escaped prison, killed his girlfriend, and now this. I didn't expect he'd be dumb enough to come back here, though I should have known. Listen, everything's under control now. But if you want time to get dressed before the lab boys get here, you probably better do it now.''

"This is really wonderful,'' John muttered as he made his way through the house toward the main staircase.

"I'm glad you two are all right.'' Marion paused to hug Hutch quickly before she followed her husband.

The lab people did arrive shortly, going over the scene in a somewhat perfunctory manner. The victims were alive and kicking this time, so they didn't have to rely quite so heavily on the forensic evidence. Hutch's parents only had brief statements to make, and Hutch noticed that Marion only commented on having seen that Starsky had overpowered Mercer and was distracted by her arrival at the scene. She never mentioned what she saw or heard regarding any vengeful utterances toward Mercer on Starsky's part.

Starsky and Hutch, fully clothed this time, made their way down to headquarters to question Mercer. Kelli Thompson's murder was their case, even though finding Mercer related to the prison break had been Nedloe and Elliot's officially. Mercer found himself a human ping-pong ball between the four cops. This time, he insisted on having an attorney present, and was showing remarkable restraint by refusing to respond to any of the detectives' attempts to bait him, not to mention refusing to answer any questions. Not feeling the need to plea bargain with him this time out, his silence was met with a certain level of resolute acceptance by the cops. The evidence would speak for itself, and knowing Mercer, the new and improved version wouldn't last long. He'd hang himself soon enough.

Back in the squad room, Hutch took responsibility for typing up most of the reports. Starsky would have to do his own about his time with Mercer, and he had essentially finished that now, laboriously correcting the final typo and preparing to put it on Dobey's desk.

"Want some coffee?'' Starsky offered as he went to the pot to pour himself a cup.

"Yeah. I don't suppose we'll get any sleep tonight before we go on,'' Hutch remarked, checking his watch. The shattering of glass and Starsky's little yelp startled Hutch out of his report-typing-induced haze. Starsky was standing there with the shattered coffee pot at his feet, still holding his cup in a hand obviously splashed by the hot coffee.

"What happened?'' Hutch was at his side in a moment, and a few curious eyes were on them from a couple of detectives who had been silently working on their own reports in a back corner of the room. "Come on. That's gonna blister if we don't get some cold water on it.'' Hutch encouraged him to move along down the hall to the men's room. Once inside, he pulled Starsky's wrist toward the faucet so the cold water could soothe the reddening skin on the back of his hand.

"Look at that!'' Starsky pried his wrist loose of Hutch's grip and held the other hand out at the same time. Both hands were shaking. "Damn it!'' He held onto the edge of the sink.

"Get your hand back under the water, Starsk.'' Hutch ignored the larger issue and shoved the burned hand back under the cold stream.

"I'm sorry.''

"Nothin' for you to apologize for, buddy.'' Hutch put an arm around his partner's shoulders. "Think it's a little delayed reaction, huh?'' he asked gently. Starsky just nodded. "That's understandable, pal. But we got him this time.''

"Why does he still...get to me like that?'' Starsky shuddered.

"I'll tell you a secret, buddy. Seeing Forest's goons, even after I was safe and okay and mostly recovered, shook the hell out of me.''

"But you were so cool about it. I'm a mess. I can't even pick up a coffee pot.''

"Yeah, well, I had the excuse of the drug to be a shaky mess.'' Hutch smiled a little as he turned off the water and grabbed a few towels to blot off the soggy hand.

"I'm just doin' it all by myself.''

"I didn't mean that. I could hide behind my 'recovery' to be messed up and scared and jumpy. Don't be so hard on yourself. You're doing just fine. So's your hand. I don't think it'll blister.''

"It was like one of my nightmares, ya know? Wakin' up, knowing somebody was there, and then all of a sudden, he was just...on me.''

"Did anything happen tonight, besides him slapping you around a little?'' Hutch nodded to indicate the vivid bruising on Starsky's face. One side of his mouth was badly swollen and there was an equally nasty abrasion on the opposite cheek near his eye.

"Just...his usual crap...lots of talk...threats and stuff.''

"Did you put it all in the report?'' Hutch watched while Starsky looked down, then shook his head. "Why not?''

"Because I don't wanna talk about it anymore!'' he snapped back. "At least, not...with the whole damned precinct,'' he added, more quietly this time. "I thought...for a few minutes there...that this was it, it was gonna happen. I would've rather he shot me in the head, but I thought about what he'd do after he got done with me--which was go visit you and your folks. I knew I had to do what he said no matter what because he had the guns, and there was a silencer on his, so you probably wouldn't have even heard the shot--wouldn'ta had any warning. I didn't wanna take a chance on tryin' to struggle with him because if I lost, I was putting three more people on the line besides just me.''

"You've got a right to be a little shaky, buddy.''

"I thought that if...if worse came to worse...if he got what he came for, maybe he'd leave you and your folks alone. Or if I was lucky, he'd make a clumsy move and I could overpower him. But if I made any move, I had to be real sure of it.''

"You played it the only way you could. I heard him out in the hall--must have been after he left my room. I looked for the gun, but of course, it wasn't there. I heard him go into your room, but I had to take the long way downstairs--down the hall past the guest room and down the main stairs. There's that one little creak near your room and the really big one near the back stairs...so I figured I could sneak downstairs better using the main staircase. And I had to be quiet, because I didn't want to wake my folks, and I couldn't stop and start talking to them and warning them or he'd have heard me.''

"You came in right on cue, partner.''

"Yeah, but it took me a hell of a lot longer than I wanted it to.''

"Big thing is, we got through it, and he's goin' up for a long time.'' Starsky flexed his hand. "Looks like I'll live,'' he commented, smiling a little.

"Mercer's where he belongs, Jordan's dead...from where I sit, it looks like we might both be able to live a little now,'' Hutch said, smiling.