16

 

Did you ever know that you're my hero,

And everything I wish I could be?

I could fly higher than an eagle,

You are the wind beneath my wings.

 

Starsky stashed the last of the items under his bed, satisfied that he'd wrapped everything he bought, and remembered all his hiding places. While Hutch was less likely to go out in search of gifts, Starsky still wasn't about to trust his resourceful partner in case curiosity overcame him. When he swung open his door, he was startled to see Marion on the other side of it.

"I was just about to knock.'' She smiled a little uneasily.

"What can I do for ya?''

"I wanted your opinion on something I bought for Ken.''

"My opinion?''

"You know him so well, David. I'm just not sure.''

"Come on in.'' He closed the door behind them, since Hutch and his father were around the house somewhere. "What is it?''

"I think he's going to think it's too extravagant.'' She held out a square box which barely fit in her one hand. It had to be a watch. "I saw it on Rodeo Drive, and I loved it, and bought it, and then I got to thinking he probably will toss it in a drawer and mumble something about conspicuous consumption.''

"Have a seat.'' Starsky took the box and gestured toward the overstuffed chair in the corner. Marion sat there while he sat on the foot of his bed and opened the box. A solid gold Rolex looked back at him. "That's quite a watch,'' he commented.

"He's going to hate it, isn't he?''

"Can I make a suggestion?''

"I want you to.''

"Go to the mall a few miles from here. There's a nice store there called Kellerman's. It's like an upscale department store. Find a nice watch there, get it engraved and give it to him. Take this one back. Your instincts were right on.'' He took one last look at the watch before closing the box. He envisioned pawning it and completing the house renovations. Dismissing such mercenary and Scrooge-like thoughts from his mind, he handed her the box back.

"I wanted him to have something really special.''

"Marion, the message you get engraved is going to mean everything to him. The piece of jewelry isn't. As a matter of fact, he's gonna get his back up when he opens something this showy. It's beautiful, and I think he's nuts, but that's how he's gonna react.''

"As if we're buying him.''

"I guess. Hutch isn't materialistic. I'm sure you know that.''

"I do. I am,'' she confessed, smiling.

"Welcome to the club.''

"David, would you like to have this? I could see how much you liked it and--''

"No. Thanks, but I really couldn't accept that.'' He smiled. "Besides, you probably already have my present, right?''

"Of course.''

"I'll stick with that one then, whatever it is.''

"Do you think you could take me over to Kellerman's? I think John's about had the course with shopping, and I don't know my way around.''

"Sure. Wanna go now?''

"Well, it's almost four, Christmas Eve Day. I think we probably should,'' she replied. As she stood up, she seemed to really notice the furniture for the first time. "David! This bed is beautiful.''

"It came with the house. Isn't it great? There's even a set of steps for it.'' He pulled those out from their daytime home against the wall near the headboard.

"This must be over 100 years old! And the dresser!''

"And the wardrobe...yeah, I went nuts over this stuff when I saw it. I mean, I could never afford to buy antiques like these. It's amazing to me they left them.''

"Is this Terry?'' Marion noticed the framed photo on the dresser.

"Yes. I took that photo about two weeks before she was shot.''

"She was beautiful.''

"I thought so.''

"That's a nice photo of you and Ken, too.''

"That was taken about, oh, I guess five years ago now. That little snapshot tucked up there on the mirror is more recent.''

"Was that...right after...your shooting?''

"Yeah. Pretty obvious, huh?'' Starsky squinted at the little 3x5 shot of himself sitting cross-legged in the sand with Hutch kneeling behind him, hands on his shoulders, wearing a huge, sappy grin. Starsky was almost the same color as the white t-shirt he was wearing in the photo, and the red shorts stood out in shocking contrast to the pale legs under them. He was about fifteen pounds thinner than he currently was, and the smile on his own face was faint. He remembered how happy Hutch had been to make their first venture out of Starsky's apartment after his release from the hospital. They had taken a picnic lunch to the beach, and Hutch had found a stray tourist bearing a camera to come over and snap the picture.

"Ken called me the night after it happened. He was so devastated,'' she said, shaking her head slowly. "He was saying things about not wanting to live if you didn't. I told him you'd want him to go on, to be strong...I didn't know what to tell him.''

"From what I hear, nobody really did. He was a little flipped out, just like I'd've been in his place.''

"Do you know what he told me?''

"No.''

"He said that my asking him to live on if you died was the same thing as cutting the wings off a butterfly and then asking it to go on living. I know he told me that in confidence, but I don't believe in letting people die without knowing how important they are. He was almost destroying himself with the idea that you didn't know.''

"We'd had a few rough spots that year. And we'd kind've gotten back on the right track again, on pretty good terms, when it happened. But I knew what it meant to him.'' He was quiet a minute. "But thanks for telling me. That's probably one of the most amazing ways of saying it that I ever heard.''

"I thought you should know,'' she replied, smiling slightly. "Is that your father?'' She noticed the uniformed man looking back at her from the photo on the wall.

"That's him. That was taken about a year before he died, in his dress blues.''

"You look exactly like him!'' She moved closer to look at the picture.

"So I've been told. Sometimes freaks out his old friends when they see me.''

"Wait a minute...I remember this...'' She pointed to the plaque. "That was Ken's award for that essay contest.''

"That's the one.''

"How did you end up with it in here?''

"I just thought it was such an amazing thing, that he'd won something national...he didn't seem to think it was real important, but I wanted him to know that it was. He's so smart...really amazes me sometimes all the stuff he knows. 'Course I can't tell him that. His head'd get so big there wouldn't be room for me in the car anymore.'' Starsky laughed a little. "He asked me if I wanted it, and I did. So there it is.''

"I think that was probably the only time I ever considered leaving John.''

"What do you mean?''

"Ken worked so hard on that essay, and he was so excited about coming in second in the country. We had sweat out every level along the way, and he just kept clicking them off, winning each one. Then we hit the nationals, and when he got second place, we were elated. He went in to tell John--he was reading the newspaper in his study. Ken doesn't get really worked up often, but he was that day. All excited. He told John what he'd won, and John just bent down one corner of the paper and smiled. He said, 'Nice try, son. Maybe next year.' I've never seen Ken look so crushed in my life.''

"For second place in a national contest?'' Starsky asked, genuinely disbelieving.

"It was second place. John's rationale was that if only first places were celebrated, Ken would never be satisfied with anything but the best. All the first place trophies and prizes were displayed downstairs. Anything less went up to Ken's room.''

"And that was okay with you?''

"No, but it was John's rule.'' She shrugged and moved away from the wall with the award on it. "Until that day, I didn't really feel it was important enough to fight with him about. He loves Ken very much, you have to understand that. He just wanted him to want the same things he did. Ken never did see eye to eye with his father on what was important.''

"I guess lots of fathers and sons don't,'' Starsky responded. "I was only ten when my dad died, so I don't know if we'd have gotten along or not.''

"I'm glad you hung this up,'' she said, nodding toward the plaque.

"Hey, we better go get that watch.''

"Right.'' She walked through the door he opened for her and they headed out on their covert Christmas mission.

 

 

The doorbell rang, startling John Hutchinson from the newspaper he was reading, seated on the couch in the living room. Hutch was somewhere upstairs, on the phone with someone from the precinct. Getting Christmas Eve and Christmas Day off hadn't been easy for his son, but he was at least trying to make their visit pleasant. Of course, if he were in a normal line of work, he'd have days like this guaranteed off, John thought to himself as he approached the door.

"Special delivery for Ken Hutchinson,'' a young delivery man announced. He was dressed in a plain blue uniform and cap, nothing notable.

"Thank you.'' He accepted the manilla envelope and reached in his pocket for a tip.

"That's been taken care of, sir.''

"Oh. All right then.''

"Merry Christmas, sir.'' The young man nodded slightly and headed back for a small Volkswagon van parked out near the street at the end of the driveway.

John returned to the living room and tossed the envelope on the coffee table for Hutch. The end was not sealed, and a photograph slid most of the way onto the smooth surface of the wood. He was stunned at what he saw: a photo of his son, filthy and wild-eyed, apparently injecting himself with some kind of drug, judging by the rubber tie on his upper arm. There were others standing around in the picture, but the centerpiece of all of it was his son shooting up.

"Who was at the door, Dad?'' Hutch was coming down the steps now, a little puzzled by the grim expression on his father's face. "Dad? What is it?'' He noticed the envelope immediately.

"What do you have to say about this?'' He thrust the photo at Hutch as he entered the living room.

"Oh my God.'' Hutch tried to keep thinking like a cop. Find out who delivered it. "Who gave you this?''

"Some delivery boy just came to the door with it.''

"From which service?''

"I don't know--plain blue uniform, unmarked Volkswagon van.''

"Could you ID him again if--''

"Stop it!'' John bellowed at his son. "Just stop it right now. For God's sake, Ken, be man enough to face up to this! Don't try to distract me by questioning me like a witness off the street!''

"I can explain this--''

"Then do it!'' he snapped back angrily.

"It isn't how it looks. I was--''

"Pictures don't lie, son. I would hope that you don't either. Now how about telling me the truth about this?''

"That's what I'm trying to do here. I didn't think you and Mom would ever have to hear about this, and--''

"So you just elected not to mention you spent some time as a dope fiend? No wonder you were out of touch for a few years.'' John began pacing the room.

"I wasn't a dope fiend--''

"Forgive me. I've forgotten the newest word for it. Hop-head? Speed Freak?''

"You don't want me to explain this, do you? You just want to chew me out because you think you've finally got proof positive that I'm morally corrupt, a useless piece of garbage because I'm not doing what you think I oughtta be doing. Isn't that about the size of it?''

"I see my son shooting dope into his arm. You're obviously trying to tap-dance around the responsibility for this.''

"There is an explanation for all this, but at this point, it wouldn't matter. You think whatever you like.'' Hutch started for the door.

"There's a note on the back. It says a copy went to somebody named Simonetti.''

"That makes it complete. Neither one of you give a rat's ass about my side of this.'' Hutch completed his trek to the front door, slamming it forcefully enough to dislodge the wreath hanging there. He stormed down the front steps and around the house to his car, and in his haste to swerve out of the driveway at full speed, managed to smash into the right front fender of the Torino, as Starsky hit the brakes to avoid the grey rusted missile shooting out of the property. To Starsky's shock, Hutch only waited long enough for him to back up to disengage one car from the other before he continued his journey, leaving Starsky and Marion and the dented car in a state of shock by the edge of the driveway.

"Are you all right?'' Starsky checked with Marion.

"Fine, I guess. What on earth--?''

"Go in the house. I'm goin' after him.'' He waited until she followed the directive and then hitting the siren and popping the mars light on the roof, took off in a squeal of tires.

Hutch ignored the sound of the siren behind him. If Starsky wanted to take his turn being an unreasonable asshole too, fine. He could just damn well chase the car then and make a little effort in pulling him over. He didn't decrease his speed, and found a couple of sharp turns to take, figuring that would throw Starsky off, since he was a good distance away yet.

Starsky cursed under his breath as he saw no sign of his partner on the road ahead. He could have turned down any number of side streets, gone to any number of places. Cutting the siren, he retrieved the light from the roof of the car and slowed down to a more relaxed pace. Six o'clock Christmas Eve. Where the hell are you going, Hutchinson? Driving like a bat out of hell. And you hit my car with that rolling piece of scrap metal you drive! Damn it! Maybe if I find you, I'll strangle you with my bare hands. Maybe I better see how bad the damage is. Starsky pulled into the oversized lot of a grocery store. Parking in the last space, far from all the other cars, he got out to inspect the front passenger side fender. The headlight was missing, but that he figured from the lack of light on the road in front of him on that side. The hood was sprung, and the fender was crumpled enough that it would probably have to be replaced rather than bumped out. Muttering obscenities under his breath, Starsky got back in the car and tried to figure out where Hutch would go when he was in a world class snit. It wouldn't be to Huggy's, because Huggy would call him on acting weird. He didn't seem to turn to Cecile when he was upset, so that left her out...

The beach near his old place.

Thinking that was the most perverse idea he'd had all night, Starsky started up the wounded Torino and headed for the beach near Venice Place.

Hutch tossed another stone into the water. It was too cold to be out here without a jacket. It was only fifty degrees, and there was a stiff breeze coming in off the water. Should've stuck with it when you tossed your badge that time. Coming back in just cost Starsky a gut full of lead and now you the disgrace of being thrown off the force for past drug use. Simonetti is probably having a pre-crucifixion party around his Christmas tree right about now. Probably calling the house already, looking for the "dope fiend'' cop. And Dad, thanks for your love and support, as always. Never did want to hear my side. On the rare times I disgraced you by getting into trouble, you never did either. You never hit me, but you never wanted to hear my side. "Face up to it like a man,'' or, "At least don't be a liar and a coward.''

It's over. You've feared this moment for six years, and now it's come and gone. Your father knows, Simonetti knows...now you can be fired and disowned all in one evening. Christmas Eve. Merry Christmas, Hutchinson.

"You hit my car, turkey!'' A voice shattered his self-pitying thoughts. He turned to see Starsky, loping along the sandy path to where he stood, carrying a pale blue hooded sweatshirt in his hand. "Put this on. You're gonna freeze to death out here,'' he said, handing it to Hutch.

"How'd you find me?'' He was so relieved for the warmth of the garment that he didn't question where Starsky had found it. At first, he thought it was some old thing of Starsky's, but as he straightened the sleeves, he encountered a ticket on one of them.

"Merry Christmas. That's one of your presents, but I figured you needed it bad enough now to let you have it early.''

"Thanks,'' Hutch responded, smiling a little. "How bad is the car?''

"Probably need a new front fender and headlight,'' Starsky replied as he fell into step with Hutch walking along the shore. "It's been through worse.''

"I am sorry about hitting your car. I figured you'd be out for my blood right about now.''

"Nah. It's Christmas Eve. Now on the 26th, I might kick your ass for what you did to my car, but for tonight, it's okay.''

"Something else to look forward to,'' Hutch responded dismally.

"You wanna talk about it?''

"It's over, Starsk.''

"What's over?''

"The photo Cecile received? A copy of it was delivered by messenger service today. Somehow, my dad either opened the envelope or it wasn't sealed--I don't know. In any event, he saw it. There was a note on the back that said a copy had been sent to Simonetti.''

"That slimy little bastard.''

"He isn't going to be sympathetic, I'm sure of that.''

"I wasn't talking about Simonetti,'' Starsky corrected. "Jordan. We knew the rest of the plan had to come together eventually. I thought maybe Mercer was it, but now I think he was just being the perverted little fucker he is.''

"You think Jordan arranged for this?''

"Merry Christmas, Hutchinson!'' Starsky mocked the lilting tone of voice Jordan used when he was detailing one of his schemes. "It's his M.O., inside and out. Let you get all relaxed and comfortable, and about the time you're relaxing and enjoying the holiday, maybe with family, the other shoe drops and your career is history. Plus, he has it delivered in an unsealed envelope just in case you have any nosy relatives or friends.''

"Actually, Starsk, it doesn't matter who sent the damn thing anymore. At least, not to me. It's over.'' He shrugged. "Maybe there's some freedom in that. The thing you think is the worst thing that can happen, happens, and then you don't have to fear it anymore.''

"This isn't the worst thing that could happen,'' Starsky retorted. "We've both faced the worst thing a few times. This is a walk in the park by comparison.''

"You're right, I guess. It just...feels pretty big right now.''

"I know. For me too.''

"How'd you know I was out here?''

"I dunno. Just a lucky guess, I s'pose.''

"Came here the last time I thought I was leaving the force--only it was by choice that time, and not with my tail between my legs for being a closet junkie.'' Hutch held up a hand. "Before you start another tirade about how that's not what I am, save it. It doesn't matter anymore--the semantics. To Simonetti and IA, it's all the same.'' Hutch slowed his pace and turned to face his partner. "I'm really, really sorry about this, buddy. You're probably going to take this fall with me, and it's not fair.''

"Neither was you getting shot up full of stuff and suffering like some kind of animal and then not being able to have any decent medical attention because we had to hide from the department. That wasn't fair either. Life ain't fair. As far as me takin' the fall with you, hey, that's what partners are for.''

"Not exactly. We don't even have that anymore.''

"That's probably the most retarded thing you ever said.'' Starsky found a small stone and pitched it into the water. Standing side by side, staring out at the dark waves, it seemed like a bleak way to spend the holiday.

"It's true. We're probably both going to get fired, and then--''

"Then what? We'll sell the house, pawn the antiques for all they're worth, pack up our stuff and move on. If our partnership is reliant on departmental assignment, then I've been misjudging things for quite a long time. We can flip burgers down at Huggy's, and you're still gonna be my partner, you dope.''

"You really mean it about moving on? You wouldn't mind moving away?''

"Once the ties are cut with the department, I've got nothin' keepin' me here. I mean, now that your dad knows, we could move out there and--''

"I doubt he'd hire a dope fiend to work on his precious ranch.''

"What?''

"That's what he called me. A dope fiend. He wasn't interested in explanations. Only what he saw in that photo. He just talked me down, said I wasn't facing up to it or taking responsibility, or some such thing. That doesn't surprise me.''

"But it still hurts.''

"I swear I don't know why I let him get to me. He's always treated me that way. Take responsibility. Any time I ever got in trouble, he never wanted to hear anything but a full confession. He never accepted that if I said I didn't do it, I didn't.''

"Did he...was he...abusive to you?''

"No--I think he slapped my face once when I was about twelve, and if I'm remembering the incident correctly, I probably had it coming for mouthing off to him.

It's just that if I was accused of anything, I might as well always confess to it, because if I didn't, he went into this tirade about 'at least being man enough to face up to the consequences of your actions'. He hasn't changed a bit.''

"My dad always listened to me. If he could catch me, that is,'' Starsky recalled with a little smile. "I got off the hook a few times because he believed me--he knew me pretty well. 'Course I got it twice as bad if he figured out I was lyin'.'' He snorted a little laugh. "Sort of encourages you to be honest, ya know?''

"Too bad our fathers didn't compare notes. Probably could have learned something from each other.''

"Maybe. Maybe not.''

"Did you ever hate your father?''

"No. I mean, I got mad--probably mostly scared--when I knew I was gonna get it, but I loved him. He loved me. I know that. He was under a lot of stress at work, and his patience with kids was about zip toward the last couple years.''

"What're we gonna do?'' It was a quiet, unobtrusive question, but it hit Starsky full force how scared and uncertain his partner was about the future. He had always envisioned Hutch as being the one who had so many options if they left police work. Maybe he didn't after all.

"You've got your degree, so you'll probably be able to find something pretty decent.''

"I have a degree, but all my practical experience is on the force, and I haven't darkened the doors of a college in years. I'm probably outdated by now.''

"Maybe something in loss prevention--you know, setting up security systems for stores and things like that? Sometimes I see those jobs in the paper, and they want law enforcement experience along with the degree.''

"I don't want to have to go in and explain this whole mess to another employer. If I go into security work, it's always going to follow me. A history of drug use isn't a drawing card in the security field.''

"So let's buy a shack on the beach and you can sell paintings to the tourists and I can...steal valuables out of their cars while you keep 'em distracted.''

"An artist and a petty thief, huh? Possible.'' Hutch chuckled a little.

"Let's load up all our stuff and move somewhere totally different. We'll find jobs of some sort there, and maybe I can still go back to school...we'll figure somethin' out. Might be sorta fun.''

"You don't have to cast your lot with me, pal. If you can save yourself--''

"I know I don't have to do anything. Unless you don't want me tagging along.''

"Now who's being a dope?'' Hutch responded, elbowing his partner and grinning a little.

"You ready to go back and face the music at home?''

"No, but I suppose we should. Can't stand out here all night.''

"Gettin' a little nippy out here.'' Starsky started back toward the cars, and Hutch followed.

"Thanks again for the sweatshirt. What'd you mean it was one of my presents? How many are there?''

"Well, I just got that today--I saw it at Kellerman's in the mall and I thought you'd like it. The other stuff I got before.''

"How much other stuff?''

"A few things. Well, I guess about five all together--''

"Five? Didn't think I was that good this year.''

"You weren't, but I got carried away with the euphoric sentimentalism of the season. I love Christmas shopping, you know that.''

"I feel really lousy about dragging Dobey into this. All these years on the force, and now to face the music for something that isn't even his doing.''

"Dobey and I made choices that day, and neither one of us regret them. Dobey said so himself.''

"When?''

"After the second picture surfaced. I thanked him for all he did back then, and he told me that he didn't regret helping us out.'' Starsky leaned against his car, now that they had reached their parking spots. "So quit beatin' yourself up about this. We'll get through it.'' Starsky watched Hutch nod a little defeatedly. On an impulse, he reached out and pulled the slouch-shouldered figure into a tight hug. It was returned with equal pressure. "It's okay, buddy. Me and thee, remember? Nothin' the department can do to that.'' Hutch didn't say anything in response, but soon released his hold and stepped back.

"We better get going.''

 

 

Hutch felt like the festive lights of the outdoor decorations were mocking him. His whole world was crumbling around his ears, and the fat plastic snowman by the little pine tree was still smiling as if nothing was different.

Starsky pulled into the driveway first, followed by his partner. They met at the side door, and went in together. John and Marion were seated at the table in the kitchen, nursing a pot of coffee and talking in hushed tones when their son and his partner arrived. Starsky never offered to go upstairs to stay out of the encounter. He felt Hutch needed some back-up here as much as he did on the street.

"It's about time you showed up. Your mother's been worried sick!'' John stood up and shouted toward Hutch.

"Don't speak for me, John.'' Marion's voice was unexpectedly clear and assertive. "Enough is enough. Ken, are you all right, dear?''

"I'm fine, Mom. Look, I'm willing to explain this situation if anyone wants to hear it. If not, I'm going to save my breath.''

"Of course we want to hear it.''

"Excuses,'' John muttered, sitting back down at the table.

"Maybe you should hear what he has to say before you pass judgement. Common street criminals get that much courtesy under the law,'' Starsky spoke up, startling John a little. Hutch's partner had always been the soul of quiet courtesy around John and Marion, but he'd had all he could take of John and his blustering at Hutch.

"Ken, please, sit down and explain this mess to us so we understand what's going on here.''

Hutch and Starsky took the other two of the four chairs at the table, and proceeded to tell the Hutchinsons the whole sordid story from start to finish. Marion dabbed at her eyes occasionally, John remained predominantly silent.

"Why didn't you tell us?'' Marion asked when the last of the details of Hutch's rescue had been related.

"Because of just what happened--I didn't picture a very understanding response. Furthermore, two other cops put their careers on the chopping block to help me, so it wasn't just my confidence to keep or betray.''

"So David is most likely in as much trouble as you are with this Simonetti character?'' Marion clarified.

"Most likely. His part in covering it up probably would be enough for demotion or possibly dismissal. What'll happen to Dobey, I have no idea.''

"I would think that this kind of experience would have cured you of your obsession with this ridiculous, life-threatening line of work. If you're going to be forced out into the world to make some use of your abilities beyond chasing scum, perhaps it's a blessing.'' John stood up and began pacing. "I'm sorry I misjudged you before. I jumped to conclusions.''

"Thank you for the apology. As far as being 'cured of my obsession', that whole topic is purely academic now. It's over, and I'm out of a job. Now you know the truth.''

"When will you know? About the job, I mean?'' Marion asked.

"My guess is it'll all come crashing down after Christmas.''

"If there's anything we can do...'' John began, a little gruffly. "Well, I mean you know you'd have a home with us.''

"Both of you,'' Marion spoke up quickly. "David, you're part of the family, so don't you hesitate to let us help you too.'' She smiled a little sadly.

"Thanks, Marion.'' Starsky returned the slight grin and looked over at Hutch. He looked pale, tired, and miserable. After Sandra's death, Christmas was bound to be an ugly time anyway. Having to rejoice with Jack Elliot over mounds of photos of his baby daughter in various Christmas dresses hadn't raised Hutch's spirits much. Amanda Jane Elliot was almost exactly the same age as Elizabeth Marie Hutchinson would have been. "Hey,'' he looked over at Hutch. "You up to goin' out somewhere and gettin' a bite to eat? It's after seven.''

"Okay.'' Hutch rose from his chair. "How about it?'' he directed toward his parents. Then, looking back at Starsky, "Where were you thinking?''

"LaFontaine's? I can call and see if we can get a reservation.''

"Okay.'' Hutch headed for the stairs. "That all right with you two?''

"Fine,'' Marion spoke up immediately. John nodded, though his expression was still grim.

Dinner at the fancy restaurant was a hollow and depressing experience. No one ate more than a few forkfuls, and the festive Christmas music and decorations seemed to mock their whole situation. After they'd finished eating, the somber group returned to the house, Hutch disappearing upstairs to his room, John skulking off to the library under the guise of finding something on the shelf to read. Marion closed herself in the guest room and Starsky, assessing the evening as a loss in terms of the holiday, settled in the living room with the evening paper and the stereo playing a stack of records. If they weren't going to have Christmas after all, he damn well wasn't going to listen to the line-up of festive carols on the local radio stations.

"Didn't turn out to be much of a Christmas Eve, did it?'' Marion's voice startled him from where she stood near the French doors. Still dressed in her expensive-looking red brocade dress and bedecked in pearls, she appeared unwilling to spend the Christmas holiday in anything less than the proper attire despite the circumstances.

"We kinda had a feeling the other shoe would drop sooner or later.'' Starsky straightened and reached to turn down the stereo.

"No--leave it. I like it.'' She sat on the couch, not far from the ornate Victorian era chair he occupied. It was about as comfortable as the desk chairs in the squad room, but Starsky was determined to sit in it and soak up the atmosphere, since his inclination was generally to hole up in the TV room--the only modern-looking room in the house.

"'Saturday Night Fever'? I wouldn't picture Hutch's mom being a closet disco fan,'' Starsky responded, smiling a little.

"I tried to get John to take lessons with me when it was so popular, but he didn't go for the idea. Said we were too old. I think he was just afraid of what his friends at the club would think if he was out there doing the hustle instead of the fox trot.'' She chuckled a little. "Ken said you really love to dance--he told me that once, when I was telling him about trying to drag his father to lessons.''

"I used to go out dancing all the time during the disco craze. It was fun. Then I was shot, and by the time I got my booty rehabilitated enough to shake it again, I was sort of out of the habit.'' He smiled as Marion laughed at the comment. Both were silent a moment. The last song died, and the next one started. 'Manhattan Skyline', a fairly lengthy instrumental started playing. "You wanna give it a whirl?'' Starsky tossed his paper aside and stood up, offering his hand toward Hutch's startled mother.

"Now?'' She questioned, though she took the hand extended to her and stood up. Starsky pulled her into a tango stance.

"Welcome to Ramon's school of the dance,'' he announced dramatically, adding just the right Mediterranean accent. "You wanna learn the hustle?'' Starsky asked, stepping back and returning to his usual persona.

"Are you serious?''

"There's just one thing you should know first.''

"What's that?'' she asked, obviously amused by the whole experience.

"I have been known to dip without warning,'' Ramon cautioned, flexing his eyebrows lasciviously.

Hutch's mother was a remarkably good dancer, her sense of rhythm excellent and her steps no less graceful or coordinated than the last 25-year-old Starsky had danced with at Fever. She was a quick learner, and before long, she was able to keep up with the steps without any verbal coaching.

The last thing Hutch expected--or wanted--to hear at that moment was the pulsing beat of disco music. He was settled in for a world-class sulk, sprawled on his bed, hands behind his head, staring at the ceiling. It's hard to feel sorry for yourself properly when you can't discern which is your heartbeat and which is the bass from the stereo speakers. He finally unfolded himself from his rest and headed out of his room. How could Starsky be so insensitive as to annoy his parents with some throbbing music--on Christmas Eve, of all times?

John Hutchinson was coming out of the library as Hutch exited his room.

"What is that racket, anyway?'' he asked, annoyed.

"I don't know. Starsky must have the stereo on downstairs. I'll go ask him to turn it down.'' Hutch plodded down the main staircase, with his father behind him. Both froze in the doorway to the living room, stunned by what they saw. To the throbbing beat of "The Hustle'', Marion and Starsky were completing the named dance almost perfectly, laughing and looking as if they were having the time of their lives. Father and son exchanged incredulous looks, and returned to their observation of the dancing. When the song ended, Ramon executed a perfect dip, bringing both himself and Marion to a respectable fit of giggles as they straightened up.

"Hi.'' Starsky noticed the two observers. "Sorry, John, I guess you'll have to dance with Hutch. I already got the girl.''

"What on earth is going on here?'' John demanded, not sounding amused. "Marion, for God's sake, what are you doing?''

"I'm enjoying myself!'' she shot back. "You ought to try it sometime. In case you haven't noticed, we're not at the club. You don't have to worry about your stuffed shirt friends!''

"I'm sorry if I--''

"David, you didn't do anything wrong, so don't apologize,'' Marion interrupted. "Look, we're all a little edgy tonight, so maybe we just need to take a step back here and cool off before this gets ugly. It is still Christmas.'' Hutch still felt a little uneasy playing referee between his parents. Being a fully grown adult did nothing to assuage that discomfort.

"Forgive me if I don't like to see your mother acting like a teenager and throwing herself at my son's partner!''

"Don't talk about my mother that way--ever again, do you hear me?'' Hutch turned on his father with a glare that pinned him to the banister in front of which he was standing.

"And don't you start giving me orders! Maybe this is acceptable behavior in your eyes, but where I come from, 60-year-old women don't behave this way!''

"Oh that's just fine, John. Why don't you remind me how old I am! Why, for a few minutes, I might have gotten carried away and forgotten that I was over the hill!'' Marion shouted back. "I'm so sick of your propriety and your appearances and your priorities for all of us to live by! It wasn't until I spent some time in an environment full of life and love and laughter and complete irreverence for all of that...baloney you've been stuffing down my throat about our image that I realized what a farce our whole lives have been--ever since you bought that first God-forsaken horse that had the ill fortune to win a few races and make you some money. We haven't had a moment's peace since you got the taste for gold and forgot that anything else ever mattered! What disgusts me the most, though, is that I let it happen. I let you raise my daughter to be a spoiled little brat--and I let you bully my son into thinking that there was nothing else in this life more important than winning--achieving! Thank God he survived your...your tyranny! Well, so did I, John. I'm still the same Marion Schuler you married all those years ago--because you loved my energy and passion for life! Now there's a good laugh. Do you remember telling me that? Do you?'' she demanded, moving steadily closer to her stunned husband. "And from the first moment you saw the promise of wealth on the horizon, you've worked at slowly killing Marion Schuler--so you could turn her into...into...one of the Stepford Wives!'' She hurried past John and Hutch, and took the stairs at a good speed. The slam of the door was unexpectedly loud in the room newly silenced by the absence of yelling and the stereo being turned off by Starsky.

"Marion!'' John hurried upstairs after his wife. Hutch didn't intervene; it was more than obvious that his mother could take care of herself.

"I'm sorry,'' Starsky said quietly as Hutch walked past him into the living room. "I guess I shouldn't've--''

"My mother's right, Starsk. This isn't your fault. I haven't seen her like that...I was going to say 'in years', but I don't know as I've ever seen her like that. She looked so...alive. I used to see little inklings that she had a feisty side, but never like that.'' Hutch stood in front of the large tree with the over-sized star glistening as much as it should for what it had cost. Well, maybe spending the money keeps her sane...maybe it's revenge to spend it as fast as he can make it...

"You okay?'' Starsky asked, coming up behind him and resting a hand on his shoulder.

"Been better, but I'm all right.'' He turned toward Starsky and smiled. "Not much of a Christmas, huh?''

"Well, we're alive.'' Starsky looked up at the tree. "Sometimes after all that happened with Gunther, not to mention this crap with Jordan and Mercer...that seems like the whole ball game right there.''

"I know I should put it in perspective that way, but I can't...at least not now. I think I'll turn in.''

"You wanna talk a while?''

"No, thanks. I'm tired. Don't worry about my father, Starsk. You didn't do anything wrong tonight. At least my mother had a little fun out of it while it lasted.'' Hutch started toward the stairs.

"So did I. She's quite a lady, your mom.''

"Yeah, she is, isn't she?'' Hutch paused on the stairs, smiling for a moment before he resumed his upward trek.

 

 

Starsky had stared at the ceiling for over two hours when he finally reached a decision. Inaction had never been his motto. He had never been a "reactive'' person...he didn't just wait for a situation to unfold and react to it, he took action. He did something about it. And now he was going to have to do something for Hutch.

Dressing as quietly as he could, he slithered down the hall and down the back stairs. He stopped in the living room to pick up the manilla envelope with the photo in it and then hurried out to the car. He was relieved not to have been stopped by Hutch, though he doubted his partner was sleeping very soundly, if at all.

The Simonetti residence was in a quiet suburban cul-de-sac, resplendent with Christmas lights and wreaths, trees standing guard in the living room windows displaying sparkling lights. The house where Starsky stopped was dark except for the Christmas tree. At two a.m., that was not a surprise. Gripping the envelope determinedly, he strode up to the door and rang the bell twice. After several seconds, a light went on in an upstairs window, and shortly, the door was opened. A rumpled, disdained Simonetti stood there in his robe.

"Starsky. I should have known.''

"I take it that means you got one of these,'' he replied, holding up the envelope. "Come in.'' Simonetti stood aside while Starsky entered and pushed the front door closed behind him. "It's okay, honey, go back to bed,'' he directed his wife, who only descended the stairs partway before returning to their room.

"I'm sorry to come here this late, but I thought you should hear the story behind this before you jump to any conclusions.''

"The photograph is fairly self-explanatory. Let's talk in the living room.'' He led the way into a pleasantly appointed room, boasting a moderately-sized Christmas tree surrounded by numerous bright packages.

"I know that Hutch and I aren't exactly IA's favorite team, and on a personal level, we've had our differences, but I'm just asking you to hear me out before you go after Hutch for this.'' Starsky sat down in a chair across a coffee table from the couch Simonetti occupied.

"It looks like he was shooting up. You tell me what I'm supposed to see then.''

"You remember Ben Forest--the whole scene when Hutch and I busted him back in '75?''

"Courtesy of his twisted kid, I don't think anyone's about to forget Forest in a hurry. But yes, I remember you two making that bust. He had abducted Hutchinson, hadn't he?''

"Yes. See, Hutch met this girl, Jeannie, and started seeing her, only Forest thought of her as his personal property. She wanted to get away from him, and Hutch was trying to help her. Forest grabbed him to find out where Jeannie was, since Hutch had stashed her somewhere by then. His goons worked him over--the usual interrogation drill--tied him to the chair, blindfolded, and spent the rest of the evening beating the hell out of him until he passed out.'' Starsky ran a hand over his face and continued. "Since he wasn't going to give in to good old fashioned muscle, Forest suggested another strategy. Shoot him up on smack, get him high, hooked, then string him out. Then start asking him about Jeannie again--so by now they were using the beatings and the drug. At some point, he broke, told them where she was, and I guess they let him have a shot of something, because he was flying again for a little while after that.''

"You were there?''

"No, I wasn't there. Not while it was happening. But I was there for the aftermath. They decided Hutch was expendable after he'd talked, so they loaded him in a car and headed for the docks. He heard them talking about dumping him, debating which point would be best, where the water was deepest and the sharks...'' Starsky took a deep breath and continued. "He got away somehow, ran for it. One of the patrol cars spotted him, and called it in, and I was there in a flash. Hutch was dazed, disoriented, sick...he was lying in an alley when I got there.''

"Who were the patrolmen?''

"Bernie Glassman and his partner. I told Bernie I'd take full responsibility. It isn't his fault. I told him not to make a report.''

"So you hid him 'til he kicked it?''

"I took him to a safe place, helped him kick it. Do you have any idea what it's like to see somebody...banged up like that, know somebody's beaten the hell out of him and God knows what else, and not be able to even get medical attention? We knew the department would probably fire him if anybody found out. And Hutch deserved a little dignity, because God knows Forest's people hadn't left him much of it. I never knew for sure when he was in pain if it was the withdrawal or something hurting him that he needed a doctor for. I just had to take care of him as best I could and pray it would work itself out. In a way, it did. He wasn't obviously seriously injured, because he did recover. But he suffered through every minute of that withdrawal cold turkey. And he never touched the stuff again.''

"But you still hid all this from the department? I'm assuming Dobey was in on that little scheme too?''

"No comment. But no, I didn't report it to the department. Look, Hutch has lived the last six years of his life feeling guilty, like he had some dirty secret he had to be ashamed of, because he was hiding from IA. He was a victim. None of this was his choice. All I'm asking is that before you go after him for this, you take a step back and look at what's just, what's right--not just what's in the regulations.''

"Starsky, enforcing the regulations is my job. That's what IA's all about.''

"But it doesn't stop you from being human. Look at that man in that photograph and put yourself in his place. You're a good cop, you lay your life on the line for your job every day, and through no fault of your own, something happens that could take it all away from you. You suffer a horrible ordeal, and then you have to keep paying for it over and over and over again as you sweat out each year wondering if someone's gonna find out you were a victim. Not that you shot up, not that you got high, not that you were a junkie--that you were a victim. Now the only other person who would be likely to make this public is dead. I sure as hell won't be talking and neither will Hutch. So it all rests with you. I know that's probably like a dream come true to bust us, but please, this isn't right. He didn't do anything wrong.''

"You know, Starsky, believe it or not, I don't sit up nights thinking of ways to persecute you two.'' Simonetti smiled and shook his head. "And I don't enjoy this. I do my job, and sometimes that means getting in people's faces, or busting them. That doesn't mean it's always my personal choice.''

"But who is this gonna serve? You bust a good, decent cop off the force because of what some slimeball did to him--that way, the cops lose and the slimeball wins. Look, I'm not gonna beg you because it won't do any good. If I thought it would, I'd be on my knees right now because that's how wrong it is to persecute Hutch for what happened to him. I'm just givin' you the whole story, and hoping that maybe, one cop to another, you'll see that the value of Hutch on the force outweighs the value of following the book on this one.'' Not expecting his words to sink in, Starsky waited with slightly suspended breath for Simonetti's next response.

"If things happened the way you say they did, this is without a doubt an unfortunate situation. However, the department has policies regarding officers having histories of chemical dependencies--''

"But this wasn't a chemical dependency--at least not for more than a few days. He was forced--shot up against his will. And when he was strong enough and coherent enough to be in his right mind again, he rejected it. He fought it, and he's never touched it since.'' Starsky stood up and started pacing. Then another analogy struck him, and though he was less than comfortable discussing it with Simonetti, he launched into it anyway. "You know that there was a sexual assault charge dismissed against Arnold Mercer in connection with his assault on me, right?''

"I heard that. What does that have to do with--''

"If Mercer had raped me, would that make me homosexual? Would you be investigating me to see if I was gay all of a sudden because I was forced to participate in an act against my will?''

"I think that would be a rather archaic approach.''

"This is no different. A rape is a violation, inflicting an act on someone against their will. Hutch's 'addiction','' Starsky made quotes in the air with his fingers, "is no more a reflection on his character than a rape is on the victim's. You wouldn't have thrown me off the force if I had been victimized by Mercer to that degree, provided I could have gotten my head together and done my job--with counseling and time off and reassignment in the meantime if necessary. Hutch didn't have any of those luxuries. My God, I couldn't even take him to an emergency room to get his bruises checked out. He had to beat it on his own, and he had to show up at work like nothing ever happened. And he did it. With no help from any artificial chemicals--including methadone or anything most people would be given to help them get through withdrawal.''

"Starsky, I won't argue that this is an unusual case. It certainly doesn't fit the narrow parameters of a classic 'addiction' or 'habit'. But it doesn't remove the fact that it happened. I can't pretend I don't know about it.''

"Yes you can.''

"You're asking me to cover for Hutchinson, is that it?''

"Yeah, essentially. Because he deserves to keep the job he's done so well for so long. Because it was never his fault.'' Starsky watched the other man rise and pace a bit.

"Go home, Starsky. It's late.''

"You're going to crucify him, aren't you?'' Starsky asked, standing up.

"Quit while you're ahead, Sergeant.'' Simonetti started toward the door. "I will consider what you've said.''

"You haven't decided for sure then?''

"As I said, I will consider what you've told me. I can't give you an answer right now.''

"That's all I can ask. I'm sorry I came by so late.'' Starsky paused at the front door.

"That's all right. I'll tell my kids it was Santa Claus. I had to get up and eat the cookies in an hour or so anyway.'' Something about such a human comment coming out of Simonetti made Starsky chortle a little.

"How old are they?''

"Four and six. I think the six-year-old is pretty suspicious, but as soon as we tell him, his sister isn't going to be spared the vivid truth either.''

"Older brothers tend to do things like that, I guess.'' Starsky thought back of a few things he'd pulled on Nicky in their youth.

"I'll be in touch soon.'' Simonetti opened the front door and Starsky walked through it onto the porch.

"Please think hard about this.''

"I will. Good night, Starsky.'' The door closed quietly but decisively.

 

 

Starsky made his way stealthily up the back stairs and headed for his bedroom. He paused when something caught his eye in the library. Sitting on the windowseat, knees drawn up to his chest beneath his crossed arms, a very familiar silhouette was staring out the window.

"Hutch?''

"Where'd you go?'' The response was little more than a whisper, neither of them wanting to wake their houseguests.

"I went for a drive.''

"Oh.'' The response didn't sound convinced, but also sounded too tired to press for the truth.

"You okay, buddy?'' Starsky moved to occupy his usual seat opposite his friend.

"Wanted to give you something before tomorrow morning. It's right there.'' Hutch indicated a package, about 20 inches square, wrapped in festive paper with a large card attached.

"Can I open it now?'' Starsky asked enthusiastically.

"Of course you can, dummy. I wanted you to open it before morning.'' There was a little smile in Hutch's voice, though not much trace of it on his face. "You'll probably be disappointed. I can't top the VCR.''

"How d'you know I'm gonna be disappointed?'' Starsky picked up the package, which was a little heavy, and felt almost like a framed picture.

"Read the card first.''

"Okay.'' Starsky opened the white envelope with his name written neatly on the front. Inside was a card with a Christmas tree on it, without a pre-written verse inside. Instead, Hutch's writing appeared.

 

Dear Starsk,

I know this Christmas isn't turning out too great, but at least I wanted you to understand what I was trying to tell you about what my dad said the other night. I don't want you to think you've held me back somehow. I couldn't find the right words then, but fortunately, the radio helped me out a few days ago. I heard this song that said, "I can fly higher than an eagle, you are the wind beneath my wings.''

 

That says it all, better than I could. I wanted this gift to remind you of that, just so you stay real clear on that point. And thanks for sticking with me the past few months. I know it hasn't been easy, and you've had to take some embarrassment in the press because of me, and there'll no doubt be more once everything hits the fan with IA. You've been there all the way, and you never complain--even though I do. You've been the wind beneath my wings, pal. Thanks.

 

Love, Hutch

 

"I don't know what to say,'' Starsky responded in a choked whisper.

"You don't have to say anything. Just open the package,'' Hutch directed, smiling a little.

"Okay.'' Starsky laid the card aside on the window seat as if it were his most treasured possession. After a little pause, he tore into the package, amusing Hutch and breaking a little of the emotionalism. Starsky was still the ultimate little kid when it came to presents.

"You don't have to hang it up or anything. I just wanted you to have it.''

"It's...beautiful.'' Starsky studied the painting he held. Soft grey and white, representing mountains, blended into equally muted shades of blue sky. The focal point of the painting was an eagle in flight, slightly abstract in its shape, leaving a trail of blended pastel colors beneath its wings. "When did you do this?'' Starsky asked without looking up.

"I heard the song the day after I had that argument with my dad you overheard--it came on the radio while I was waiting for you to pick up our take-outs. I got the idea for the painting, and I set up shop in the basement, because that's the only spot I figured you wouldn't look.''

"It's...wow.''

"That's the best critique on my work I think I ever got,'' Hutch replied with a little laugh.

"How could you think I'd be disappointed with this? It's beautiful. And every time I look at it, I'm gonna know what it means.''

"Merry Christmas, partner.'' Hutch started to unfold himself from his perch on the window seat.

"Just a minute. There's somethin' I want you to know too.'' Starsky paused, a little uncertain of how he wanted to say what was on his mind. Hutch was standing near the window seat, waiting. Starsky stood up, carefully placing the painting on the seat he'd occupied. "I don't want you to...go around thinkin' that you ever embarrassed me. I...I've always been...so proud to be your partner--and I mean always. No exceptions. The whole time.'' Starsky looked down for a moment. "Maybe I was proudest of you when I found you in that alley.''

"Oh for God's sake, Starsky, I--''

"You survived something horrible, and somehow, you managed to get away. And you know what I thought? I thought 'that's my partner--you can do what you want but you can't keep him down.' I was always real proud of you that you survived, you escaped, but most importantly, you kicked the stuff and you never looked back. That took guts. And yeah, I know I was there to help, and Huggy and Dobey covered...but there were a lot of days and nights when no one was watchin' you after that...and in our business, it's not like you don't have access to it. But you never looked back. You rose above it. No matter what happens now, or what anybody says in the papers or at the department, there's nobody I'd rather call my partner, and certainly nobody I'd be prouder to have for my best friend.''

Hutch didn't answer him, but reached out to his partner and pulled him close. As usual, Starsky knew just what he needed to hear. And if Starsky was one thing, he was sincere. He didn't say a lot of pretty words he didn't mean.

"You want a present?'' Starsky asked, returning the embrace. Hutch smiled but didn't respond. He held on a minute longer, and then backed away.

"A present huh?''

"Yeah--I mean, I can't top this one--nothin' could--but I got a few goodies stashed under my bed.''

"Sounds great.'' Hutch followed Starsky, who carefully gathered the painting and card and carried them with him to his room, where he closed the door behind them and proceeded to prostrate himself on the floor next to the bed, groping under the dust ruffle with a precision that amused Hutch as he rose from the prone position with exactly the items he sought. "I figure I should save this one for tomorrow morning.'' Starsky stashed one moderately-sized box under the bed again. He put three other packages on the bed, where Hutch had seated himself near the foot. Kicking his shoes off and tossing his jacket in the general direction of the overstuffed chair in the corner, Starsky climbed up on the bed himself, sitting near the headboard.

"All three?''

"I told ya I had five all together. You already got the sweatshirt, and I figure I oughtta save one for tomorrow. Guess I kinda got carried away. Go on, open 'em.''

"Okay,'' Hutch responded, smiling a little. His previous grim mood was giving way to his partner's Christmas spirit, and for the first time in days, he actually felt light-hearted. The first package he opened was a book on herb gardening. Hutch had expressed an interest in putting in a vegetable and herb garden in the spring, so Starsky had gotten him the necessary research material. "This is really great, pal. Looks like everything I need to know,'' he said, thinking how nice it would be if they could keep the house long enough for him to plant anything. Jobless people don't live in restored Victorian homes with herb gardens.

"There's a section in the back that tells you how to make some really good stuff with 'em too. Spaghetti sauces, bread--''

"Ah, the ulterior motive revealed,'' Hutch replied, laughing.

"Yeah, well, I'm just takin' an interest in your hobbies,'' he said, grinning.

"Starsk, I only got you one other present besides the painting.''

"And the VCR.''

"Oh, yeah, that--but that was Hanukkah.''

"You coulda bought out the mall and you couldn't'a topped that painting. Now shut up and open your stuff.''

Hutch tore into the next package, a little stunned with what he found. In an ornate gold frame was a posed head and shoulders portrait of Sandra, dressed in her best navy blue dress, highlighted with tasteful pearl jewelry. She wore a faint smile on her face.

"She wanted to have a really nice picture of herself for you to put on your desk. She said I should get it blown up only to a 5x7 since you didn't have much room at work, but since...well, I thought you might like an 8x10 of it.''

"How did you get in the middle of all this?'' Hutch asked, still studying Sandra's face, her smile, remembering how just that faint little smile was enough to steal his heart forever...

"I took the picture. After we did all that goofing around at the house with those before and after pictures and she posed with the paintbrush in her teeth--all that stuff--she asked me if I could take a really good picture. She said she thought it would mean the most to you that way--that it was her picture and that I took it. So she had me come over to her place and take the picture. That was probably about a week before...well, I didn't know if you could handle it right after, so I hung onto it.''

"I don't think I would have handled it too well right after.'' Hutch ran his fingers lightly over the image trapped beneath the glass. "It's beautiful. I never had a really good posed photo of her--I had some candids, but nothing like this.''

"I hope it didn't make you feel bad--but I thought you should have it, and maybe it had been long enough now that you'd like to have it.''

"It's perfect. Thank you. I'll think I'll put it on the shelves near the window in my room.'' Hutch had a set of built-in shelves near the large window in his bedroom, and the photo would fit perfectly among all of Hutch's pictures, which resided there.

"Hey--you've got one more to open.''

"I'm just taking my time here and enjoying it a little, Starsky. Not everyone needs immediate gratification, you know.'' He was repressing a grin as he chided his partner, who took it with as much seriousness as he usually took one of Hutch's lectures.

"Nothin' wrong with a little immediate gratification now and then.''

"No, I s'pose not.'' Hutch started opening the final package, and laughed when he pulled out a bright red t-shirt with the following slogan: "Support the Arts: Kiss an Artist''.

"I thought just in case you got back in the business of selling paintings again, you could wear that to your next gallery showing.''

"It would turn a few heads, that's for sure.'' Hutch held it up.

"You can try it out on Cecile, anyway.''

"Yeah--I ought to wear it on our next date--when we go to one of those overpriced restaurants.''

"Hey, she wants you to be part of the artsy crowd. That means you gotta start bein' eccentric...'course, I always knew you were a little weird.''

"Oh is that right?'' Hutch asked, feigning offense.

"Hey, if your partner can't tell you, who can?'' Starsky grabbed one of the fat pillows off his bed and hit Hutch full in the face with it. In one swift gesture, Hutch pounced on the remaining pillow and returned the blow.

"You're gonna regret this, Starsk,'' he warned after the direct hit to his partner's face.

"Oh yeah? Make me!'' Starsky was off the bed and on his feet in seconds, swiping at Hutch with the fluffy weapon. Sliding off the bed, Hutch swung his pillow in retaliation. "You call that a hit?'' Starsky goaded, swatting Hutch with his pillow.

"You wanna see a real hit? Hold onto your hat, pal!''

Marion wasn't sure what disturbed her, but she soon realized upon coming to that she was hearing a mixture of laughter and voices, both unsuccessfully trying to be quiet. Curious, she pulled on her robe and slippers and made her way quietly down the hall, but soon stopped worrying about the sound of her own footsteps. The wild laughter and only marginally hushed shouts from Starsky's room would certainly more than mask any sound she made. She even knocked on the door, but no one responded. Finally, unable to stand the curiosity, she opened the door.

Amidst a shower of feathers, her son and his partner were still slugging each other with deflating pillows, yelling the occasional derisive remarks back and forth, trying to control laughter that seemed well beyond either one's control. She didn't remember if she'd ever seen Ken have a pillow fight with anyone before, even when he had a friend stay over. He and Jack Mitchell had rough-housed and even attempted an occasional nocturnal escape when they were teenagers. But a pillow fight? Her usually calm, reserved son just didn't seem the type. Of course, he hadn't had Starsky around when he was growing up. That was probably Ken's loss and his parents' blessing, she thought, laughing at the messy battle raging in front of her.

Panting and having depleted the pillows, both fell across the bed in haphazard directions, laughing and still bickering about something.

"Next time we do this in your room--then you'll need new pillows and haveta clean all this up,'' Starsky stated, still breathing heavily.

"Mom!'' Hutch straightened a little from his flattened position on the feather-littered bed.

"I heard voices--sorry to interrupt,'' she said, stifling a smile that refused to be squelched.

"Sorry we woke you up,'' Starsky responded, not in the least regretful for the levity that had shaken Hutch out of his morose spirits.

"Think nothing of it. But you two should get some rest. Santa won't come until you're asleep.'' She smiled a little as she pulled the door closed behind her.

"I don't believe she said that.'' Starsky was still staring at the ceiling, sprawled diagonally across the bed.

"Ouch. That's my head you just hit with your knee, idiot.''

"Then get your head outta my way,'' Starsky countered.

"I think we're too old for this,'' Hutch groaned, tipping back.

"Look at this room!'' Starsky sat partway up. "And I don't have any pillows left.''

"You shoulda thought of that before you clubbed me with one then.''

"This'll take forever to clean up.''

"Well, guess I'll turn in.'' Hutch got up, stretching languidly.

"What'm I s'posed t'do?'' Starsky looked injured that Hutch could consider going to bed and leaving him in the mound of feathers, messy and pillowless.

"You started the pillow fight, pal,'' Hutch kept it up, smiling a little under his mustache. He yawned and stretched ostentatiously, producing a further pout from Starsky.

"Boy that's really somethin'.'' Starsky got up and started picking up the discarded remains of the pillows.

"I'll help you clean it up in the morning.''

"I can't sleep in this,'' Starsky protested.

"So sleep on a couch.'' Starsky shot him a wounded look. "All right already,'' he relented, realizing that the profusion of couches in the large house didn't mean any of them were all that comfortable, and it was Christmas Eve. Hutch could almost hear his mother making some remark about "no room at the inn'' if she found his partner laid out on one of the couches. "You can bunk in with me tonight and we'll clean it up in the morning. Just put a nickel in it because I want to get some rest.''

"Some people sure get grouchy fast,'' Starsky grumbled.

Settled in for sleep, it made Hutch uneasy that he hadn't heard any snoring or sensed any loss of consciousness from Starsky. They were back to back, with plenty of room in the big bed not to bump into each other, but he could still sense the other was wide awake. He hoped this wouldn't be the time Starsky would choose to enlighten him about some new, bizarre Christmas statistic he'd read. Just as he predicted, the voice came out of the shadows.

"Hutch? You awake?'' Starsky asked. Hutch contemplated ignoring him. Sleep was right around the corner if his partner would just keep his thoughts to himself. But Starsky would know if he was faking it.

"Yeah.''

"Mel said Schoemacher put his house up for sale.''

"When?'' That piqued Hutch's interest.

"Coupla days ago.'' Silence reigned again for a few minutes. "Hutch?''

"Yeah?''

"Why do you think he gave up so easy--about the flag and everything? I mean, 'til he put the house up for sale, I kept thinkin' maybe he was gonna pull something else.''

"Having the cops on his back most likely kept him in check. After what happened, he probably didn't want to risk getting tied in to the first incident.''

"Probably not.''

"I didn't know you still gave him much thought, buddy.'' Hutch turned on his back to look over at Starsky, who was still on his side, facing the opposite direction. When he felt the other's eyes on him, he flopped onto his back too and looked over at Hutch.

"It's not that I think about him a lot, but...knowing he was back there...after what happened...'' Starsky paused and shook his head, staring back at the ceiling. "Made me jumpy I guess. Pretty stupid, huh? You're right about him not wanting to mess with the cops.''

"It's not stupid. He's a nut. They don't always follow logic. This one obviously wants to be a weekend Nazi. He wants to live in a respectable neighborhood, hold down a job, keep his record clear, and just hate when it's convenient and safe. I'm tellin' you, Starsk, there was an incident waiting to happen with him and those guys from the watch group. I overheard a few comments last time we went to one of the meetings that made me really uneasy. I'm just relieved he's leaving.''

"Me too. Maybe we'll get some normal neighbors.''

"We've got nowhere to go but up, that's for sure.''

"True.'' Starsky fidgeted with the blanket a moment. "Are you still worried about...you know, the Simonetti thing?''

"At least we have a new euphemism for it--we don't have to call it 'the drug thing' anymore,'' Hutch said, trying to lighten the mood a little.

"I'm serious.''

"Sure I'm still worried. But there's nothing I can do about it.''

"Maybe it'll all work itself out. Maybe Simonetti'll get visited by three spirits or something.'' Starsky rolled back on his side, facing away. "'Night, Hutch.''

"Yeah, sleep tight,'' Hutch replied absentmindedly as he continued to stare at the ceiling. Starsky started snoring a little now. Hutch finally dozed off, having a very distinct suspicion that Simonetti had been visited by at least one spirit that night.

Marion was up early fixing a big breakfast, so the smells wafting up the stairs drew all three men out of hiding by shortly after seven in the morning. If the Hutchinsons were still at odds with one another, they had called a truce for Christmas Day. The group exchanged polite conversation around the breakfast table, though there was a slight strain in the air after the previous evening's argument.

After finishing breakfast, the group adjourned to the living room to open gifts. Needless to say, a heavy cloud hung over them knowing that the following day would probably see the reaction of Simonetti and IA to the heroin incident, but the group seemed able to put that somewhat aside, at least long enough to exchange a few gifts. Unsure what to buy the wealthy couple who has everything, after a two-hour walk through the mall and countless gift shops, Starsky and Hutch had gone in together on a unique sculpted floor lamp that boasted a desert theme. Knowing his mother would love to brag how her son gave her that on their trip to California, and being it looked so, well, Californian, it seemed like the perfect gift. Marion seemed as thrilled as he anticipated she would be, while his father was polite but somewhat dismayed by the large, heavy and very distinctive item.

Hutch was pleased with the watch, though he questioned whether or not his father had taken any part in selecting the inscription: "To Ken: We're proud of you. Love, Mom & Dad.'' He chose not to over-analyze it and just enjoy the moment, slipping it on and setting it. His mother seemed more than a little relieved at the response, and managed to catch Starsky's eye for a little wink when Hutch wasn't looking.

Hutch opened the last of his gifts from his partner, a tan shirt he'd pretty much picked out himself the last time they were in Kellerman's men's department together. Starsky's gift from Hutch was a red jacket he'd admired on the same shopping trip. They had to laugh a little at the fact that they had parted company on that, their official Christmas shopping expedition, and somehow managed to return to the same department in the same store and buy each other's gifts without running head-on into each other.

Starsky finally got around to opening his gift from Hutch's parents. After opening what looked like a shirt box, he was frustrated to find an envelope inside. Great. A couple more Christmases associated with the Hutchinson family and I can start the Starsky National Forest. He forced himself to smile and make a couple of pat anticipatory comments as he opened the envelope. His eyes bulged at its contents. A gift certificate for $1,000 from The Greenery was inside. The Greenery was the lawn and garden store where Starsky and Marion had found the tree topper, and while they were there, he'd explained a few of his ideas for restoring the garden in back, which included numerous plantings and a fountain.

"This is...thank you, but this is too much. I can't accept it,'' he said, smiling a little and putting it back in the envelope. Hutch looked puzzled, and he handed him the gift.

"Of course you can accept it, David. On the condition that you keep me posted and send pictures while you're doing the project.'' Marion smiled warmly. Hutch wondered what the point of giving Starsky $1,000 worth of gardening goodies was when they would doubtlessly be moving as soon as the hammer fell with IA. She noticed his lingering hesitancy. "I would love for you to use that toward restoring the garden--provided you put in that fountain.''

"We'll be insulted if you refuse it, Dave,'' John added, smiling a little.

"I guess that settles it then,'' Starsky replied, smiling back. "Thank you. At the first sign of spring, this'll get put to good use.'' Starsky played the game of optimism, figuring the "good use'' would be cashing it in to support themselves after being fired.

Marion had located a church nearby with a late morning service, so the group made its way there after finishing with the gifts. She had insisted on preparing Christmas dinner with all the trimmings early in their visit, so it was no surprise that she disappeared into the kitchen with threats to the men in the house to stay out of her way while she concocted various masterpieces. They all planned to attend the Christmas gathering at the Dobeys' that evening, an annual event that featured egg nog, punch and assorted holiday desserts Edith created. Christine was sure to be there as well, which put a definite spring in Starsky's step. He hadn't been able to make connections with her for another evening out before the holiday, and once everything came crashing down with IA, it was a pretty good bet he wouldn't be seeing her again. An unemployed cop who leaves the department under disciplinary actions isn't exactly an up-and-coming young detective's ideal catch for a boyfriend. Then again, he had to admit that his relationship with Christine was mostly fun and games anyway. He doubted either one of them harbored any deep emotional bonds with the other.

Cecile had made plans with her family over Christmas, so the get-together for dinner prior to the holiday would be the sole opportunity for her to get to know the Hutchinsons. Hutch was glad his partner had urged him to set up the occasion, feeling that at least his parents had seen him "handling'' Sandra's death sufficiently to start dating again. His mother, of course, had been perceptive enough to know on what a shaky ground his recovery from his fiancee's death really rested.

 

 

Simonetti tightened the last piece of plastic to bring his daughter's Barbie doll house to completion. Another successful construction project in the expanding Barbie subdivision growing along the wall in Tammy's room, he thought, smiling to himself as he watched the little girl subjecting her newest doll to what looked like a very painful hair-styling session. Through the living room window, he could see his wife watching Alex, their son, trying out his new plastic tractor with the huge tires through the puffy mounds of sand in his sandbox. Seems like Christmas just keeps getting better. Magical time of the year with kids. Guess as long as you have them, you don't outgrow it. Makes you feel special granting the kind of happiness and unbridled squealing excitement a few pieces of plastic can bring.

For some inexplicable reason, his mind traveled back to the Hutchinson situation. He had all but put it out of his mind today, figuring tomorrow was time enough to haul him up and start demanding answers. He would have been lucky to even scare up an interested administrator to handle the situation on Christmas Day. Starsky sure did pull out all the stops coming here and pleading Hutchinson's case like that. His thoughts were interrupted by his daughter coming to collect the doll house, which he helped her set up near the tree where the rest of her new treasures were scattered. Within moments, she was deeply involved in getting Barbie settled, and Simonetti finally had a few minutes to stretch out in his easy chair and relax. Picking up the morning paper he'd neglected until mid-afternoon, he started scanning the headlines. Nothing like the reality of the crime, death and destruction going on in the world to shatter a little of the idealism of Christmas. And you're going to go into work in the morning and shoot down one of the good guys...a cop who's busted some of the jerks who commit these crimes. What's his offense? Making the wrong crime lord mad at him? Damn it, that's Starsky talking. Rules are rules. I know there's something about the spirit of the law as well as the letter of it...but if IA starts bending, the whole damned department will be in a state of anarchy. Somebody has to take on the unpopular job of being the watchdog. Watchdog for what?

"Damn it.'' He tossed the paper aside and then looked at his startled little girl who was watching him with wide eyes. "Sorry, honey. Just didn't like the ball game scores very well.'' He tried his best smile, and she returned it, going back to her doll game.

I wouldn't have gone after Hutchinson before unless I had strong evidence he was guilty. The circumstantial elements of Vanessa Hutchinson's death had all pointed to her ex-husband. And if a cop is guilty of murder, he sure as hell doesn't belong on the force. But what is Hutchinson guilty of this time? Being a victim? Getting sucked into the shit he and all the other cops like him wallow in every day trying to clean up society's messes?

Working for IA hasn't made me popular, but it usually has spared me a lot of job-related stress. You follow the book, and if someone falls outside the parameters, you bust him. No regrets, no exceptions. So why isn't this one coming together in my head as a cut-and-dried case of chemical dependency hidden from the department? Why can't I just take Starsky, Hutchinson, and their too-lenient Captain to task? Why in hell am I spending my day off worrying about it? Damn you, Starsky. It would have been simpler if you'd decked me this time. At least I wouldn't have to lose any time thinking that over...

 

 

They had no sooner sat down to an impressive spread of carved ham and all the trimmings when the doorbell rang. Hutch excused himself and went to answer it, not at all expecting to see Simonetti standing on the other side of it.

"I can guess why you're here,'' Hutch greeted, stepping aside for the other man to enter.

"Are you in the middle of dinner?'' he asked, not sure why he cared.

"Just got started, actually. I was figuring you'd at least wait until tomorrow.''

"Take this.'' Simonetti handed him a sealed envelope.

"I don't understand--''

"Call it a Christmas present. I assure you, it's the only one of its kind. Now, I have to get back home. My in-laws are due any minute.'' He turned and walked partway out the door, leaving Hutch at a loss for words. "Incidentally, I can't have it getting around the department that I'm handing out Christmas presents to detectives, so as far as I'm concerned, this never happened.'' He hurried across the porch and down the front steps, walking briskly toward the steps that led to the sidewalk.

"I don't underst--'' Hutch was too late to get his attention, though he had been too stunned to speak before.

"What's goin' on?'' Starsky joined him at the door, watching Simonetti steer his car back onto the road and head for home.

"Simonetti just dropped this off--said it was a Christmas present--and that 'this never happened'.''

"Open it,'' Starsky prodded, his heart moving up into his throat. Hutch opened the envelope and gulped at what he saw. It was the photo, with the message on the back reading: "Simonetti--for your information, re: Ken Hutchinson''.

"He said it was the only one of its kind--Starsk--do you know what this means?''

"It means Simonetti just washed his hands of the situation--and you're off the hook,'' Starsky summarized, grinning from ear to ear.

"But why? I mean, he's been looking for a reason to nail one or both of us to the wall since that whole mess with Vanessa left him and Dryden looking like saps.''

"Maybe since his promotion came through a couple weeks ago, and he's running the show in IA, he's become a bigger person.''

"Starsky.''

"What?''

"What'd you do?'' Hutch's hands dropped to his sides, one of them still holding the photo as he pinned his partner with a knowing stare.

"What d'you mean? I didn't do any--''

"Uh-uh. You had a hand in this, and I just wanna know if it's gonna come crashing down around our ears.''

"You're off the hook, babe. The newly promoted top dog in IA just handed you your freedom, buddy. And as long as Simonetti's at the helm, you'll probably never have to worry about it again, because if he pursued any charges against you in the future, he'd have to admit to having known since now and doing nothing about it.'' Starsky tried unsuccessfully to repress the satisfied little grin that was tweaking his mouth. "Do you realize what's just happened? You're free, buddy.'' From his cool demeanor of almost non-reaction, Hutch lurched forward, grabbed his partner in a crushing bear-hug, lifting him momentarily off the ground. Starsky just laughed at the overjoyed assault as his feet were allowed back on the floor and he was released.

"Is everything all right out here?'' Marion finally appeared in the doorway of the living room. Hutch paused before answering, then looked at Starsky, who was having a hard time stifling a smile of pure delight.

"Better than fine, Mom.'' He took a few steps toward her. "I'm officially off the hook.'' He grabbed his startled mother in a hug and spun her around twice. "The only people who know about...my situation are you, Dad, Starsky, Dobey, and an Internal Affairs Lieutenant who just handed me back the incriminating information, declining to do anything about it. Unless one of those people blows the whistle, which isn't going to happen, it's over.''

"Oh, Ken, that's wonderful news!'' she replied as he set her back on her feet again.

"I just can't help but wonder what changed Simonetti's mind,'' Hutch said, his voice heavy with suspicion as he looked over his mother's shoulder at Starsky, who simply shrugged in exaggerated innocence.

"Maybe he realized how wrong it would be to punish you for something that wasn't your fault.'' She linked her arm through Hutch's as the three of them walked back toward the dining room.

"Knowing Simonetti, though, that's pretty unlikely. But I guess I should just be happy I'm off the hook,'' Hutch concluded, smiling at his mother, and then winking at Starsky. Whatever magic his partner had managed to work to set this situation right, he wasn't about to push for answers. Starsky had pulled off the impossible, and there were no words to adequately express how grateful for that Hutch was. But then, they had a habit of "pulling off the impossible'' for each other when the stakes were high enough.