This story is part of the zine, Commitment, which was published in 1988. It is still available through Agent with Style. Her web page is: http://www.agentwithstyle.com, or you can email her at: email@example.com. The zine originally was produced on a high quality cream-colored paper. It is reproduced to look as much like its original appearance as is possible. Enjoy! Comments on this story can be sent to Flamingo who will forward them to the author.
The squadroom was quiet, empty actually, except for Hutch and his temporary partner, Ray Johnson. He hadn't wanted a new partner, temporary or otherwise, but with Starsky's prolonged hospital stay and recovery, he hadn't been given any choice. Now, after nearly a year, he was almost used to looking across the desk and seeing Johnson sitting there, wheat-colored hair, blue eyes and impossibly young. Rubbing a hand hard over tired eyes, he stifled a yawn, then glanced at the clock. It'll be quitting time soon, I wonder what Starsky's up to?
The phone rang and he snatched the receiver from its resting place, "Hutchinson..."
"Hi, Hutchinson, whatcha doin'?" Starsky's voice, bright and cheerful.
"Winding down the day. Where are you?"
"Home. I got a notice from the board today..."
Apprehension nagged at Hutch and he breathed a silent prayer, "What'd they say?"
Silence, but he could hear the rustling of paper on the other end. He glanced at Ray and nodded when his companion mouthed Starsky? C'mon, Starsky, dammit, tell me. But he wasn't sure he wanted to know.
"They say I can return to limited duty on...Monday!"
Relief and joy washed over him, filled him, and his knees would've given out if he hadn't already been sitting, "Fantastic, babe. Let's celebrate."
"Okay. When? I gotta spend all day tomorrow in therapy."
"And I promised to let Ray try to beat me at racket ball. How about Sunday?"
"Sure, Sunday's fine."
"Spaghetti dinner at my place?" Hutch could feel the grin spread, Starsky was finally off the sick list. Limited duty, true, but it was a start and soon, he'd have his partner back.
"I'll bring the bread and wine. Hutch, uh. ..I've got something kinda important ta tell ya', too."
The suddenly serious tone sobered Hutch, "Important?"
"Yeah, but it'll wait 'til Sunday. Gotta go, I'm supposed to meet Huggy at six."
"Okay, see you Sunday if not before."
The line went dead, and Hutch absently replaced the receiver. He looked up at Johnson, "Starsky starts back on duty Monday."
"That's great, Hutch. Sounds like it won't be long before the two of you are together again."
Hutch didn't miss the wistful note in the young voice. He'd be glad to be partnered with Starsky once more, but at the same time, he'd miss Johnson. They had a lot in common. Both came from Minnesota originally, and both had graduated from the same college albeit with different majors.
"We are still on for tomorrow?" Hutch asked.
"If you're sure you want to."
"Of course I want to, why wouldn't I?"
Johnson didn't answer, silently stapling the finished report and adding it to the others in the Out Box. They maintained the slightly strained silence while signing off duty and walking to their respective cars.
Johnson broke it, "See you tomorrow, around ten?"
"Ten's good. Want me to pick you up?"
"Nah, I'll meet you in the locker room at the club."
"Okay, see you at ten."
Saturday morning arrived quickly and Hutch tied Johnson two games each, proving he was still fit for an old man. Now, showered and dressed, he stopped at one of the pay phones on the way out of the club. Dialing Starsky's number, he wasted time listening to it ring. Where are you, Starsk? Why can't I contact you? Are you trying to avoid me? What do you have to say that must wait until Sunday? He still hadn't talked to his friend when it was time to pick up Kathy for their dinner date.
She flowed into his arms as soon as she opened the door. Fair hair fell to her shoulders and silk blouse and pants drifted gracefully, cinched tightly at her waist. But, while Hutch returned the embrace and eager kiss, a part of his mind was on Starsky. "Where do you want to go?"
"I don't care, surprise me."
"Do you mind if we stop by the Pits for a minute? I've been trying to reach Starsky all day."
"No. Is he joining us? Patty's home, we could make it a foursome."
I wish. "Too late now, but at least I'll know he's all right." If asked, he couldn't have said why he was worried about his partner, he just was. It had something to do with the way Starsky had announced that he had something to tell Hutch, then had made himself scarce.
The Pits was wall-to-wall people when Kathy and Hutch entered. Seating her at a recently vacated table, he made his way to the bar where Huggy presided. Dressed in a bright red jump suit and yellow shirt, he was hard to miss. Raising his voice to be heard above the din, he asked, "Hey, Huggy, have you seen Starsky?"
"What do I look like, his keeper?"
"No, you look like a traffic light. Have you seen him?"
"He was here earlier, but left. He was with a date."
"Thanks." Puzzled by Huggy's tone, but unable to pursue it because Huggy moved off, clearly ending the discussion, Hutch rejoined Kathy.
The night passed with dinner, then some dancing. It was late when Hutch dropped her off at her apartment. He was up for an early morning run, then spent the remainder of the morning shopping for dinner. He hated shopping, but wanted this meal to be special. By mid-morning, the homemade spaghetti sauce bubbled merrily on the stove. A red-and-white checked table cloth adorned his table, an old wine bottle complete with partially burned candle, sat in the center. He added his grandmother's china and crystal and was ready for Starsky when he arrived at seven. The familiar tattoo beat on the door, but it didn't open. As Hutch crossed the room, a niggling apprehension hovered when he remembered Starsky's words, "I've got something to tell you."
He opened the door, "Come in, you idiot. Since when do you knock?" Returning to the kitchen, he added pasta to boiling water.
Starsky didn't respond to the question, "Bread, warm from the oven at Donetelli's, and Chianti. Frankie promised me this was a very good year." Starsky bounced into the small apartment.
Hutch took the proffered bottle and inspected the label. He breathed a half-whistle of respect, "Yeah, Starsk, a very good year."
"Good." Energy crackled around Starsky, and he moved restlessly from place to place. To the stereo to put on music, then to check the plants, finally into the kitchen to smell the sauce. Hutch watched him, wondering at the mood, "What did you want to tell me?"
"After dinner, okay, Hutch?"
Why not now? "Uh, sure. Do you know where you'll be assigned, yet?"
"Huh-uh. I haveta report ta Dobey Monday. Limited duty, wherever it is. Damn. I feel ready for the streets, now." He brought his fist down hard on the sink counter.
Hutch rubbed hunched shoulders, gently, "Trust the doctors, Starsk. Don't be in too much of a hurry."
"I'm not a desk jockey, Hutch, you know that."
"I know, babe." But, if I had my way, that's where you'd stay. "I'll help all I can."
"Yeah," Starsky shrugged and took a deep breath, squaring his shoulders, "Supper ready?"
Hutch squeezed an arm, strangely reluctant to break contact, "Go sit down, I'll dish it up."
Starsky poured wine into the gleaming crystal, while Hutch attended to the spaghetti. Setting the platter in the middle of the table, he started back toward the kitchen when the doorbell rang.
"Stay put, Starsk, I'll get it," Hutch opened the door and his arms were at once full of lavender-scented blonde, "Lucinda! Hey, Starsky, it's Lucinda."
Starsky stood and waved a hand in the direction of the couple at the door, "Hi, Lucinda."
"Hi, Dave. How're you doing?" Arm firmly around Hutch, she moved toward the table, pulling him with her.
"He goes back on duty Monday."
"Limited duty," Starsky interjected.
"We're celebrating. Join us?"
"You only planned on two. Maybe I'll take a rain check." Hutch looked at her, pink tongue caught between even white teeth and color high in her cheeks. She'd blundered in on a private celebration. He felt sorry for her. She had been there for Starsky, a lot when he hadn't been able.
"No, there's plenty, isn't there, Starsk?" He didn't miss the fleeting expression that crossed Starsky's face before he answered, "There's more than enough. Hutch always cooks for a crowd. I'll get another plate."
While Starsky went for more dishes, Hutch seated Lucinda, then went for the salad and bread. When he returned Starsky was pouring her wine and they sat down at the same time.
Raising his glass, he smiled at Starsky, "I'd like to propose a toast...," Starsky smiled back, as he and Lucinda lifted their glasses, "...to my partner. I'm glad you're back."
"M'not back, yet," Starsky's grumble was barely audible over the clinking crystal, but the smile stayed in place.
Lucinda helped herself to salad, then passed the bowl to Starsky, "What will you do while you're on limited duty?"
"Don't know," Starsky didn't elaborate.
"They'll tell him on Monday." Hutch added, dishing up spaghetti. He was unsure if the strain was coming from himself or Starsky. His partner had known the friendly stewardess almost as long as Hutch, but tonight he seemed withdrawn. When he did join in his mirth sounded forced. Hutch didn't miss the aimless way his fork moved the spaghetti around on the plate. What's the matter, Starsk? I thought we were celebrating? But he felt hesitant to voice his concern.
"More spaghetti, partner?"
"No, it tastes great, Hutch. I'm just not hungry."
"Ice cream?" Hutch rose, intending to take the dirty dishes into the kitchen and bring back dessert.
"No, thanks, really, I'm not hungry. I'll help do the dishes, then call it a night. I hafta get ready for tomorrow."
Detouring behind Starsky, Hutch massaged his shoulders, instantly aware of a tension that hadn't been there earlier. "Something wrong?"
"No, just tired."
"Go home, then. See you tomorrow, I'll call."
"Yeah, whatever," Shoulders drooping, he headed toward the door. "G'night, Lucinda. See ya' in the mornin', Hutch."
He left, shutting the door between them, leaving Hutch wondering what had changed. He turned back to Lucinda and caught her clearing the table. "Hey, you don't have to do that."
"I know, I want to. C'mon, if we both pitch in, it won't take long."
Twenty minutes later, the kitchen sparkled. Lucinda hung her dish towel on the refrigerator and turned to Hutch, "That was nice, perfect lift for a working girl." She picked up her purse, "I've gotta run. See you next time I'm in town? I'll call first, I promise."
Hutch pulled her to him and kissed her, "Stay?"
"Can't, I've got a flight out at six. I'd have to get up at four if I stayed here, next time, maybe? I just wanted to see how Dave was doing."
"For what? You fed me dinner."
"For caring." He watched her leave. They had shared a great relationship over the years. Good friends, good sex and a lot of fun without any strings. He turned back to the strikingly empty room. What had happened? The evening started out fine...until Lucinda arrived. He said he had important news. Ease off Hutchinson, if it'd been that important, he'd have told you. After all he didn't object to her joining us...not exactly.
Nothing else to do, unless he wanted to wallow in guilt, and he didn't consider himself all that guilty, Hutch went to bed. Starsky could've asked Lucinda to leave, she would've understood, he continued rationalizing as he fell into a deep slumber.
The next morning, before leaving for the station, he called Starsky...no answer. When he arrived at Metro, Hutch expected to see the Torino parked in front of the building and was surprised by its absence. Worried, he called Starsky again, when he reached his desk.. .still, no answer. Seeing Dobey arrive, he hung up and called out, "Hey, Cap," he waited for the man to turn, "I thought Starsky was starting back on duty, today?"
"He was here early. I assigned him to the D.A.'s and Department of Defense's Task Force on Gunther's Industries. He'll be working out of the Federal Building."
"How'd he take the news?" Hutch felt a lurch in his gut. What the hell was going on? Starsk must be furious.
Dobey raised his eyebrows and hands in a gesture Hutch recognized, "No argument, thanked me, even."
He was pissed about limited duty last night and today, he's happy? Wonder what changed his mind? That's not like Starsky at all, he thought. Reaching for the phone, he got an outside line and dialed the Federal Building, "Sergeant Starsky, please, he's with the Gunther Task Force." He was put on hold and asked to wait for what seemed like hours and in the end Starsky wasn't available, so he left a message.
"Hey, Starsky'll call back. Maybe he'll even meet us for lunch." Hutch looked up to see that Johnson had arrived. His partner, temporary partner, he reminded himself, stood there munching on a donut. It was an act so reminiscent of Starsky that Hutch thought he was hallucinating. Shaking off the feeling, he stood and headed toward the door, "C'mon, Ray, we're not accomplishing much here."
"Where are we going?" Johnson, all enthusiasm, asked as he hurried to catch up.
"The streets, maybe something's happening."
But nothing was and the day stretched on and on. Finally, it was time to leave and he headed home. Thinking over the day, he decided he'd been damn intolerant all day, he owed Johnson an apology. It wasn't the kid's fault that Starsky was acting strange. On a hunch, he swung around and detoured by Starsky's apartment. The parking space in front was conspicuously empty. Now, he really was worried, Starsky still needed his rest, he should have been home hours ago. Maybe I should try Huggy? No, not yet, there's got to be a logical reason for him not being home. He does have a right to come and go without telling me. But, even though the thoughts were true, they didn't alleviate the concern. He spent the rest of the night doing his laundry, reading and half-heartedly studying for the lieutenant's exam, none of which he wanted to do, but all filled in the evening. Tuesday was much the same, quiet day, boring night and no Starsky. By the time he reported for duty Wednesday morning, he was ready to put Huggy onto Starsky.
Before he reached his desk, the phone rang and Johnson answered, "Johnson... Yeah, just a minute, he's right here. Hey, Hutch, it's Starsky."
A tingle of excitement flittered through Hutch's stomach as he picked up the phone, "Hi, Starsk, how's it going?"
"I'm drowning in computer printouts. Sorry, I couldn't get back to you on Monday. It's taking me a while to get a handle on things."
"S'okay, I had a date with the laundry Monday, anyway."
"Yeah? Me, too, after class. Saw Sal, last night, after work."
Oh, forgot about his college courses. "Regular social butterfly, aren't you? Can we get together tonight?"
"Sorry, gotta work late. I'm behind because I can't work this computer."
The sight of Starsky plucking away at the computer keyboard like he did on a typewriter, lingered in Hutch's mind and he couldn't help laughing.
"S'not funny," Starsky sounded like a sulky little boy.
"My turn to be sorry. Don't worry, you'll get the hang of it. The department has them everywhere now."
"So you say. Gotta go. Let's try to get together later this week."
"Looking forward to it, "Hutch slowly replaced the receiver, feeling like a door had slammed shut in his face.
"Hutch, Johnson," Dobey called, coming toward them from his office, "this just came in. Dead body at the Twin Pines Motel. Here's the address."
Hutch glanced at the slip of paper the captain handed him, then pulled his jacket off the chair back and headed for the door, Johnson at his heels.
At the scene, flashed badges got them directions from the uniformed officers already there. Hutch stopped at the door of the neat-as-a-pin room and looked around. Lab and coroner's teams cluttered the small area. A queen-sized bed was the center of interest. The nude body of a young teenager was reflected in the mirrors overhead.
"What've you got for us?" Hutch asked as he entered.
The medical Examiner, a small dark haired woman, looked up from where she squatted near the bed, "Death by strangulation, probably. She's been here at least a day. I'll give you more after the post."
"Window's painted shut, Hutch. No one left this way," Johnson observed from the window at the head of the bed.
"Anyone see anything?" Hutch, turning away from the body, asked one of the uniform's at the door.
"The manager's in the office. Says he's been out sick the last three days. Hired a drifter to man the desk until he felt better," the man answered.
"Let's go talk to him." Hutch stalked out of the room.
"What about the other tenants?" Johnson asked.
Hutch looked at his partner. Well, that's what they teach at the academy. The kid still hadn't learned that tenants in this type of motel seldom knew anything, "You go ahead, kid. I'll talk to the manager."
Hutch retraced his steps down the cracked cement walk, careful to avoid broken glass and trash. A sagging, heavy-set man lounged behind the desk. His eyes were rheumy, nose red. Spider-thin red lines radiated from darker red areas scattered on his face, "You the manager?"
"Yes, sir. Need a room?"
Hutch flipped his badge in the man's face, "What's your name?"
"Rupert Samuels, sergeant. What can I do for you?"
"You can tell me the name of the girl in apartment six."
"I dunno. I was sick, you see..."
"You were drunk...show me the register."
"I can close you down," This was the sort of thing that made Hutch sick. A young girl, runaway probably, lay dead and no one even knew her name; nor did they care. He missed Starsky's street sense and lightning fast intuition. But Starsky wasn't his partner now, Ray was and it was Hutch who was more streetwise.
Johnson finally did manage to find an aging hooker who thought maybe the girl's name was Candi, but she didn't know a last name and "Candi" was more than likely a street name.
Later, following Ray into the Pits, Hutch tried fruitlessly to think of someone, anyone, who might be able to shed some light on this case.
"Hey, Hutch, my man, what's happin'?"
"Lunch and information, not necessarily in that order."
"Angie, two specials," the thin black yelled over his shoulder, then turned to Johnson. "How ya' doin', Ray? Blondie treatin' you right?"
Ray laughed, "I'm fine, Huggy and, yes he's treating me right."
Huggy turned back to Hutch, "Now that the amenities are over, what kind of information?"
Hutch pulled out the Polaroid taken at the crime scene, and laid it down on the bar-top in front of Huggy, "Seen this girl around?"
"Maybe..." Huggy picked up the picture and studied it. "Yeah, calls herself, Candi. She's a hooker...was a hooker." He laid the picture back on the counter.
"Got a last name?"
"Not that I heard. I'll ask around, let you know what I turn."
"Who's her pimp?" Johnson joined in.
"Don't think I ever heard she had one. Possibly free lances, but there's not much of that going on 'round here. The other pimps don't like loners. They think, seeing a loner might give their girls ideas." Huggy tilted his head toward the ceiling slightly, then back to Hutch. "Talk to Slim Willie. He runs a string of young meat like this. Tell him Huggy sent you, he owes me."
"Thanks," Hutch started to ask about Starsky, but their food arrived and Huggy drifted off as the small bar began filling up with the lunch trade. He was the only other person Starsky might have talked to.
"This is the part of the job that I hate," Johnson muttered around his hamburger.
"Then you hate ninety-nine per cent of the job. Why do you stay?"
"I didn't mean the legwork, I meant the attitude that human life has no value. Nobody even knows who that girl was. Worse, they don't care."
The statement so closely echoed Hutch's earlier thoughts that, for a scant moment, he didn't realize Johnson had spoken, "Yeah, I know what you mean. But don't let yourself get burned out because you care too much."
"That's what Joanna keeps saying, but I gotta believe we make some difference or it all seems pointless."
"Oh, we do, Ray, we do, only in small isolated instances, not in the big picture." Shit! Why do I stay?
They found Slim Willie in one of the greasy spoons, holding court with his girls, none of whom looked older than sixteen. But Hutch said nothing, letting it slide, for now; he needed Slim Willie's help.
Slim was a misnomer, as Willie was anything but, his skin hung in thick folds everywhere, his eyes and mouth sunk so deep that they were almost hidden. "Whadda ya' want, cop?"
"Help?" Hutch placed the photograph on the table, "Know her?"
"M'not sure. What's it worth, if I do?"
"I'll overlook the ages of your charges, today, and not run you in."
Willie shifted nervously, his considerable bulk rippling like jello, "All my girls are over eighteen."
"Prove it." Hutch snapped.
"Her name is Candi," One of the girls piped up, apparently anxious to protect her meal ticket.
"Anyone else know her?" Slim Willie evidently decided cooperation was the wiser choice.
"Yeah," a dark-haired Latin beauty added, "I think her last name was Spencer, but Candi was her street name . I don't know her real name."
"Know her pimp?" Johnson asked.
"Don't think she had one, exactly," Willie spoke up, "She worked for that new escort service...uh...L&M Escort...yeah, that's it."
Hutch leaned across the table and patted a pink cheek, "Thanks, Willie, you've been a big help."
"Up your's, cop."
"L&M Escort was boarded up, with a huge sign plastered across the front, telling the world GONE OUT OF BUSINESS. A check of the business license listed the Hobart Corporation as owner of the building as well as the escort service. They still hadn't worked through all the dummy corporations, when they signed off duty. Hutch fervently prayed that no more young girls would turn up dead while he and Johnson took their allotted time off.
Driving home that evening, after dinner at Ray's, Hutch spotted the Torino and decided to follow, hoping he and Starsky could still get together for a beer before it got too late. Then he noticed the blond in the passenger seat, and was instantly, inexplicably, upset. He followed until, getting caught at a stoplight, he lost sight of the car and wasn't able to find it again. Recognizing the area as near the Pits, he went inside, praying that Starsky was there.
"You must be hurtin' to come in here, all alone, Hutch," Huggy greeted him from behind the bar.
"Have you seen, Starsky?"
Huggy's expression was, at once, guarded, "Not lately, why?"
"I lost the Torino nearby and thought he might've stopped in here."
"S'not my turn ta' watch him."
"Dammit, Huggy, I'm worried about him. Sunday, he said he had something important to tell me, but he didn't..."
"Damn," Huggy said, softly, and Hutch almost missed it.
"...and I've been trying all week to connect with him."
"So call him."
"He's never home. Tonight I saw him with a blond."
"Starsky likes blonds."
Huggy shrugged, but didn't look surprised, "Ask your partner."
"I'm asking you."
"And I'm telling you to ask your partner," Huggy moved off and Hutch didn't try to stop him. He finished his beer and headed home.
Once in his apartment, he watered the plants, showered, read the newspaper, then finally gave in, and dialed Starsky's number, but it rang and rang without being answered. He turned in and spent a restless night, staring wide awake into the darkness, or dreaming of Starsky with any number of faceless blonds. Unable to sleep longer, he showered, shaved, then went in early, hoping to finish running down the owner of L&M Escort. Starsky was at his old desk when Hutch entered.
The squadroom was quiet. No one else was there and, for a change, the phones weren't clamoring for attention.
"Morning, partner. How's the Gunther case?" Where the hell have you been and why are you avoiding me?
"Lousy," Starsky glanced up from a handful of computer readouts that lay on the desk in front of him, "What happened to your moustache?"
"It got in the way of my razor."
"Oh." He turned back to the sheaf of papers.
What's the problem, Starsk? "We've got to talk, want to come for dinner tomorrow night?"
"We tried that once, it didn't work. Your ladies are more important." His bitter words took Hutch by surprise and when Starsky glanced up, there was pain in his eyes.
"You pick the time and place and I'll be there," Hutch said quietly.
"I can't promise anything. I'll let you know." He sighed deeply, then gathered up the green-striped pages in front of him, "Look, I just stopped by to drop these off. We're automatically alerted anytime someone runs a check on any of Gunther's properties."
"You got it. Thomas Barrister is the man ultimately responsible for this leg of Gunther Enterprises, but he's in jail."
"I thought it was Bates?" Hutch remembered the dead man slumped in the chair in Gunther's office, cup still clutched in his hand.
"Barrister took over when after Gunther was arrested. We picked him up last week."
"Oh. Do you know who's running things, now?"
"Huh-unh. I thought maybe you could get some leads from here," as he talked, Starsky stood, handed Hutch the readouts, and started towards the door.
Reluctant to have him leave, Hutch took a half-step in his direction, "Starsk?"
"I said I'd call you." Walls were up and the no trespassing sign flagrantly displayed and Hutch knew he wouldn't get inside without a fight. He might have pursued it then, except any further conversation was interrupted by the arrival of the desk sergeant and Starsky made good his escape.
"What ya' want, O'Brien?" Hutch didn't succeed in keeping the frustration out of his voice.
"Call just came in, another hooker dead. Detective Johnson was at the desk when it came over the radio. He sent me up to get you, said he'd be waiting in the car."
This scene was similar to the first, the differences were a different motel and the description of the victim. She was a tiny oriental girl that went by the name of Lotus. She also, was formerly employed by L&M Escort. Routine checks of Missing Persons failed to turn up any information. No one had reported either girl missing.
"Sad little girls that someone just threw away. Does it ever get any easier, Hutch?" Johnson stood there, looking down at the floor with his left hand resting on his belt, while his right plowed furrows through his hair.
"Not really. You just learn to keep them at a distance and most of the time, you succeed."
What would Starsky do, now? How would he make the frustration less? He wouldn't, he'd kick something or throw something, and in laughing at him, the tension would ease just a little...just enough.
They spent the rest of the day at the computers trying to make some sense of Starsky's papers. They hadn't yet when their shift was over. Hutch tried Starsky's number before leaving but there was no answer. This is becoming a routine, buddy, I call and you don't answer.
"A new restaurant opened out by my place, want to try it?" Johnson had his jacket on, and was already standing at the door.
"Sure, why not." Better than trying to second-guess Starsky.
The food was mediocre, not really to Hutch's taste, but he made small talk, ate, and left as soon as possible. Passing a high class restaurant, Hutch spotted the Torino parked in the lot. Wonder what Starsky' s doing in this part of town? Pulling to the curb, he decided to see if it actually was his partner's car. Before he could do more than turn off the lights and engine, Starsky and the same blond from the previous night walked out and to the Torino. Hutch's first thought was to call out, let Starsky know he was there, but instinct, coupled with Starsky's recent attitude, made him hesitate. Instead, he waited until they were in the car and moving through traffic before following. They hadn't gone far when the Torino moved out of the stream of cars and stopped in front of a nice apartment building. The two men got out of the familiar red-and-white car and entered the building. Hutch watched the front until a light went on in a third floor window. The blond pulled the shade but was still silhouetted by the light. Starsky joined him, and Hutch didn't need to be in the room to feel the heat of the kiss. A flicker of fire in his gut brought with it a haunting memory from thirty years ago. He pushed it firmly back into its place in his subconscious and concentrated on the window. His own groin tightened as Starsky reached to unbutton the other's shirt and slip it off before pulling him into another embrace. Hutch didn't want to watch but couldn't take his eyes off the window and was grateful when the two men moved out of sight.
An hour later Starsky emerged smiling contentedly, his hair temptingly disheveled.
Hutch followed the Torino as it wound lazily through the streets and finally stopped at Starsky's apartment. What's up, Starsky? What's happening to you...to us? What're you going to say to me? What am I going to say to you? Starsky would be...no, he'd act angry because, when afraid, Starsky got angry. Starsky attacked.
Hutch waited until the light went on, then climbed the stairs and knocked.
"Who is it?"
Who do you want it to be? "Hutch."
The door opened to a Starsky, all smiles. "Hey, Hutch, c'mon in. We finally connected, huh?"
"I was beginning to think you were avoiding me." Now why the hell did you have to say that?
"Why would I do that?"
"You tell me."
"Want a beer?"
Hutch caught the can tossed at him and waited for his partner to talk. But Starsky sat silently on the couch, beer held lightly between his palms, head down.
"What happened Sunday, Starsk? You said you had something important to tell me, then after dinner, you split."
"You asked me for dinner, then invited one of your ladies to join us."
"That wasn't planned and you know it. Besides, you didn't seem to object."
"What else could I say? Lucinda was there a lot for me when you couldn't be. I owed her."
Hutch felt anger building; held his breath trying to control it, hoping Starsky would continue without further prompting.
"I wanted to talk to you," Starsky whispered.
"You didn't tell me that." Unless you remember that he told you he had something important to tell you.
"I told you I had something important to tell you. Aw, what's the use? I've been trying to talk to you for weeks, but you never seem to have the time," Starsky looked up then, a half-smile pasted to his lips, "Why don't we just drop it, huh?"
"I followed you tonight," Hutch moved to sit in the rattan chair, "from Felipe's to the Emory Arms to here."
Starsky's whole body stiffened and the face he turned to Hutch was a closed mask, "So I had dinner with a guy I met at work, so what?"
"And just stopped by his place to kiss him good night and tuck him in?" He drained his beer and crumpled the can before walking to the kitchen and tossing it in the trash. Without turning, he finished his comment, "I saw the two of you in the window."
"What the hell were you doing following me?" Starsky's voice was icicles.
"I saw the Torino, thought since you'd gotten off earlier than you expected, we could still get together. I figured, if you were with a lady, I'd back off."
"But since I was with a man, you decided to tag along. What were you going to do, protect my virtue?"
Hutch stood then and looked at his partner, "It was a dumb move, you're right. Why'd I do it?" He shrugged. He didn't know why he'd tailed Starsky anymore than he knew why he was angry...why he felt, somehow, exposed, "I guess I was curious," he said lamely.
"Curiosity killed the cat, Hutch," Starsky brushed past him to get another beer, "And you won't like the end any better than you liked the beginning, so, like I said before, drop it."
"Well, I can! It's my life and you can butt out," He emphasized his meaning with vicious finger jabs to Hutch's chest.
Hutch's checked anger exploded, "What the hell were you doing up there?"
Starsky's mouth opened and closed silently several times as he stared at Hutch, eyes wide, "You're the detective, you figure it out."
Hutch remained quiet, refusing to be baited again. He was confused; the emotion he was experiencing felt more like jealousy than anger.
"Aw, right, you want it in words of one syllable? I was getting screwed through the mattress by an expert."
The admission was what Hutch had known it would be, but still, it hit him like a sledge hammer. He was hot and his skin cold...his supper congealed into a sickly blob at the pit of his stomach. Even though he was prepared for it, the statement left him speechless. Why? After years of jockeying for the same woman, different women, sometimes even sharing the same woman...do you suddenly like men? No, not men...man, one very tall, very blond man...and the answer flared bright. Starsky brushed past. "How do you feel about me?"
He whispered the words almost wishing he hadn't said them aloud at all. But Starsky wasn't there to hear and the bathroom door was firmly closed. Using the small amount of clutter as an excuse to linger, Hutch busied himself straightening the apartment, prepared to wait all night if necessary.
Twenty minutes later, Starsky came out of the bathroom toweling his hair dry. Hutch watched him finish, then drop the towel into a basket near the bathroom door; saw surprise fill his face before he snatched the towel back and placed it firmly around his waist.
"You still here? Thought you'd be long gone by now."
"How do you feel about me?" Hutch repeated his earlier question and watched Starsky's sullen facade crumble.
His face went soft and he moved close, cupping Hutch's face with his left hand, "You're what this is all about, you jerk, I love you. I've been trying to tell you for weeks."
"This isn't something new." Quiet statement of fact.
"No. I've loved you for a long time. Just recently I've had a...need, I guess you'd call it, to tell you."
Hutch inhaled Starsky's scent and realized he'd been holding his breath. He'd heard what he feared he'd hear.
"I want to make love to you. Funny, isn't it? All these years of touchin' and holdin' and it's always been enough until now," Starsky commented, then moved away.
"Why the other guy, Starsk?"
"To take your place, so it could stay like it was. So I could love you and maybe, not want you. But it's not working and it's not fair to him."
"Now that I do know, what do you want from me?" Restless, not sure he wanted to hear the answer, Hutch moved a few steps but stopped when he neared the divider, he stood there, absently playing with the leaves on the plant that lived there.
Starsky turned him roughly so that they stood face to face, "What do you want?" Starsky looked at him, stared into him, through him.
"To go on like always. We don't need..."
"Maybe you don't, but I do. I've always been able to control this physical desire for you. But you changed all that. You..."
Hutch could feel the old panic starting, could almost hear the footsteps on the stairs and resolutely pushed the half-formed memory back again, "Me? What did I do? I've never given you reason to believe I love you in any other way than a brother."
"Haven't you? Oh God, Hutch, when you crawled into bed with me at the hospital, I thought I'd die right there. If that tray of food hadn't been sitting on my lap, everyone would've known what I was thinkin'."
The panic was back and this time it was taking over his mind. It's up to you, what you want to be...a man...or...one of them. The voice echoed from a lifetime ago and he struggled to free himself from it and Starsky. Slowly he started backing away, hands held out in front, "Starsk, I can't. I do love you, but...but not like that. I..."
"It's okay, Hutch. Go on, I'll work something out." The last view Hutch had, as he backed out the door, was the sad little smile on his best friend's face.
Down the steps and out the door. He nearly ran to the car; didn't slow until he sat inside, doors locked. Safe from the demon. Starsky wasn't his enemy, hadn't ever been. But the demon had him and right now he could only sit in the car waiting for the trembling to stop, then home to bed when there was no place else to go. World War III could have erupted all around him, but Hutch wouldn't have noticed during the drive home. His mind was carefully blank. Wearily, he undressed, leaving his clothes where they fell and stood looking at himself in the mirror. What Starsky saw, he couldn't imagine. Others along the way of his life had let him know they were interested, men and women alike, but this was the first time he'd been approached by someone who really mattered. No revelations forthcoming from the image staring back at him, Hutch went to bed. A full night of restless battle with the sheets hadn't solved anything by the time the alarm sounded.
The first thing he saw when he entered the squad room was a beaming Johnson. What now? Pollyanna, I don't need. "What happy pill did you swallow?"
"Grumble all you want, nothing's going to depress me today. Last night, Joanna said she'd marry me."
Starsky proposed to me last night, too. How about a double wedding? Except, I said no. Hutch summoned the needed cheer, "Great! I hope the two of you will be very happy."
"No doubt about it. I want you to be my best man." Johnson literally beamed. The grin on his face went from ear to ear and looked permanent.
"Hutch, in my office," Dobey called, postponing his answer.
Leaving Johnson happily shifting through the files and accomplishing nothing, Hutch joined Dobey in his office, closing the door before sitting on one of the chairs in front of the captain's desk. "Captain?"
The captain's face looked like he'd swallowed a lemon. "Starsky stopped in this morning..."
Goldfish started doing flips inside Hutch. The skin on the tops of his hands tingled with electric jolts that crawled up his numbed arms.
"District Attorney Davis offered him a permanent position on his investigation staff."
"He'll have to take the lieutenant's exam," Hutch managed.
"He's been taking classes every since he got out of the hospital and the position won't be officially vacant until Lewis retires, but he's on extended sick leave. Starsky has plenty of time to earn a degree, then take the exam."
Alarms went off in Hutch's head, but he couldn't force himself to move or speak. He knew without asking what Starsky's solution had been as well as what Dobey's next words would be.
"He's decided to take the position. It's quite a feather..."
Hutch stood, almost knocking over his chair, and woodenly left the room. Of course it could be a case of a chance too good to pass up, but he knew better. Starsky was jumping at this position as a perfect way to bow out of Hutch's life. He brushed by Johnson and snatched the receiver up, viciously punched the numbers, "Sergeant Starsky... Whatta ya' mean, he's not available? Tell him Sergeant Hutchinson is calling...I see...uh, no, no message. Thank you."
"Did Captain Dobey tell you? I've been permanently assigned to Metro. We're officially partners, now. Starsky's got..." Again the ear-to-ear grin. Hutch wasn't sure he could cope with all this enthusiasm today.
"Don't mention that name to me again, not if you want to stay my partner." Not this way, Starsk. It hurts too much. I don't want Johnson for a partner, I want you. We'll find another way. I know we can, if we just look for it.
The rest of the day was spent at the computer and on the streets checking out everyone connected with L&M Escort Service. By the close of the shift, they'd traced ownership to Gunther Industries, a fact they already knew, but they still didn't have a name to question.
They were walking to their cars and off duty for the weekend, when Johnson asked, "Hey, Hutch, how about joining Joanna and me for dinner, tonight?"
"Mind if I take a rain-check? I'd like to find out what's going on with Starsky."
Johnson looked disappointed, but Hutch didn't relent and the younger man finally spoke, "Yeah, sure, okay. Maybe Saturday, we're having a barbecue."
"Saturday's fine, around three?"
"We'll see you at three...uh, Hutch, you're welcome anytime... Starsky, too, you know that?"
"Yeah, Ray, I know that, thanks. See you tomorrow." Why would he mention Starsky like that? Easy Hutchinson, he's only being friendly. He went straight from Metro to Starsky's apartment, but the Torino wasn't there and was still missing an hour later when Hutch gave up and went to the Pits.
Straddling a barstool, Hutch ordered a beer, then looked around the crowd for Huggy and, maybe if he was lucky, Starsky. He didn't find his partner, but Huggy brought his beer. The usually flamboyantly-dressed black surprised Hutch by wearing a conservative dark grey pinstripe suit, complete with vest. The Pits was crowded, noisy, and full of smoke as customary, so the attire threw Hutch for several moments as Huggy strutted his finery, obviously waiting for comment. "Hi, Hug, how's it going?"
"The joint, as they say, is jumpin'. Good thing, too, 'cause there's supposed to be coupla high class brothers from New Orleans, lookin' to take up partnership in a jazzy club. Ya' know what I mean?"
"You don't even have a band, let alone a New Orleans jazz group." Hutch had to smile at this latest example of street-side enterprise. Huggy and Starsky, both always looking for the fast buck, the big break, he shook his head in wonder.
Now Huggy looked hurt, "I've got Jasper and his boys."
"I'd forgotten about them," Hutch suppressed his smile with difficulty, "Have you seen..."
"Don't ask me 'bout Starsky. He ain't here and I've been told not to tell you when I do see him." The dark eyes were unreadable.
"What?" He could feel his temper getting the better of him.
"He said he needed some space and that you weren't likely to give it to him, so he asked for my help, called in some old favors. What happened?" Now Huggy looked wary. It was obvious he didn't like being in the middle. His feet did a little shuffle step and his fingers flexed slightly. He looked around the bar, as if looking for an excuse to leave before he had to duck.
Huggy seemed genuinely concerned and Hutch's budding anger died, "I asked him about the blond."
"Oh." No more curiosity, Huggy knew what had taken place and it made Hutch acutely uncomfortable.
"I've got to talk to him. There must be some way to work things out."
"Give him some time, Hutch. He wants space, give him some space, Starsky won't let you down."
Huggy moved off and left Hutch alone with his thoughts. Starsky's gay...well, at least he likes men, but he's always liked the ladies, too.
"Helen and I even talked about having kids, you know?"
Helen and Starsky had broken up, and at the time, Hutch had wondered why, but he hadn't asked and when Starsky hadn't volunteered the reasons, he hadn't wanted to pry.
"Starsk, it's no big thing."
"Hey, you're not that sophisticated. I mean, a man preferring a man is not as casual as someone having a bad cold."
"Is that right?"
"Yeah. I'm not taking a position for or against it, but it's something to contend with. I mean, it's not your usual everyday thing."
And all along, you wanted me that way. I thought you were upset about John Blaine being gay, but that wasn't it at all, was it? You were feeling me out, trying to test my reaction. And I blew it.
Hutch left Huggy's and once more, drove out to Starsky's; still no Torino. He's avoiding me. Told Huggy not to help, well, I'm not a detective for nothing. With that thought, Hutch went home to bed. In the morning he'd find Starsky and they'd straighten this whole mess out. Starsky was a little confused was all. Grateful to be back on duty, even limited duty...glad to be alive. A shower, then a shave and he was in bed, but unable to sleep. He tossed and turned and when he did finally manage to drift off, he dreamt.
Footsteps softly making their way up the stairs, down the hall. Hands coming out of the wall...holding him...undressing him...touching him. The door opening and a long shadow slithering across the room and across his bed.
Hutch bolted upright, breathing hard, palms sweaty, heart racing. No, not the dreams. Mom got rid of them a long time ago. But Father said this would happen, said I'd end up like them if I didn't stop Fred. All right, ALL RIGHT! I'm a grown man, now. I know who I am.
Going into the bathroom, he washed his face with cool water, took a swallow of the same water, then returned to bed and was finally able to sleep.
The ringing phone woke him and he felt like he hadn't slept in a week. A quick glance at the clock told him it was noon and he'd slept through the alarm. He grabbed the receiver, almost knocking it off the night-stand, "Hello."
"Hi, Hutch, it's Kathy. I just got in. Are you free for dinner or something?"
"Yeah, sure. How about a barbecue?"
"Pick you up in an hour."
What the hell, he thought. If Starsky doesn't want to be found, I won't find him. He's probably out with Mr. Wonderful. His resentment was surprising and he began reconsidering his own feelings. How did he feel about Starsky? True, he was like a brother. Just a brother? Another, smaller voice mocked him; so Hutch, as if to prove the point, forced all thoughts of Starsky out of his consciousness and concentrated on Kathy as he maneuvered through traffic.
Tall, thin Kathy with the long, blonde hair, which waved and lay softly on her shoulders...not tight dark curls.
She was waiting on the sidewalk outside her apartment when he pulled the car over. Dressed in jeans, red plaid shirt and cowboy boots, she looked more ready for a Texas round-up than a California barbecue, but she was beautiful to Hutch just the same.
"Hi ya, Hutch. How've you been? How's Dave?"
"I'm fine. I guess he is, too. We don't see each other too often lately." He hurt at the admission.
She climbed in and slid over next to where he sat. "It's only been a week, but I missed you." She was all smiles and sunshine and his spirits lifted.
He slipped an arm around her shoulders; she was the right medicine to cure his confusion. Specters of Starsky drifted away as her perfume filled his senses.
"My partner and his fiancee, Joanna, are having a barbecue at her place. That's where we're going." He explained as they drove away.
"Starsky's getting married?" Her eyes widened in surprise.
Yes, to a blond beach bum who'll treat him... Stop it, Hutchinson! "My new partner, Ray Johnson. Starsky's transferred to the D.A.'s office permanently."
"Oh, sorry. Somehow, I never expected to hear you call anyone else partner. Does this mean you and Dave aren't getting back together." A slight frown knit her brows.
Hutch couldn't stop the sigh that escaped him, "I don't know, honey, I just don't know." He tried to shake the feeling of loss that permeated him, but was patently unsuccessful. His mood lasted even after they reached Joanna's. Ray, aware of his feelings, had evidently warned Joanna and Kathy because no one mentioned Starsky by name the whole afternoon.
The house was in an old, but well kept neighborhood. It had belonged to Joanna's parents and, since their deaths, she'd continued to live there. The backyard, where they sat was nice sized and quiet. With Ray at the grill and the rest of them sitting around the picnic table, it looked like a scene out of California Living. Johnson carefully steered the conversation away from police work and the streets seemed a million miles away. If he'd been able to relax, Hutch could have enjoyed the quiet, but every minute he expected Starsky to bounce into the picture with some lunatic scheme or absurd piece of trivia to liven up the party. This was the way he'd grown up thinking life should be, he'd never been comfortable with the concept and his life had taken a different path when, eight years ago fate had partnered him with the totally unpredictable blue-eyed, curly-haired imp.
"Ken?" Fingers firm on his arm. "Ken..."
"Uh, Kathy, sorry." He shook his head to clear the cobwebs. "Sorry, my attention wandered. What did you say?"
"Do you want some dessert?"
He looked down at his plate, almost empty and he didn't remember eating any of it, "No, thanks," Hutch stood, "I haven't been the best company. Joanna, it really was nice meeting you. Sorry to eat and run. Ray, I'll see you on Monday."
Johnson stood, taking Hutch's plate from Kathy. "Glad you could make it, anyway."
"We'll have to do it again sometime," Joanna smiled as she walked with them toward the door.
Hutch moved to the car and opened the door for Kathy. As he started around the back of the car, Ray touched his shoulder. "If there's anything I can do, just call."
"Yeah, thanks, see you Monday," And then, because he knew Johnson would appreciate the gesture, "partner." He was gratified at the younger man's beaming smile.
He dropped Kathy off, then started for home, but instead found himself driving towards Starsky's. All right, I'll go to Starsky's for all the good that'll do me. But, for a change, the Torino was in its usual spot and lights were on in the apartment. Hutch's feet were leaden on the steps. He feared the coming confrontation, had it really come to that? He knew he'd find no peace until he talked to his best friend.
There was no answer when he knocked, so he repeated the ritual, harder. "Starsky, open up, I know you're home."
"Go away, Hutchinson. I've got nothing to say to you."
That's right, Starsk, when you're scared, attack, but why are you so afraid of me? The show of stubbornness on Starsky's part angered him, and he yelled, "Open this door or I'll kick it in! I swear, Starsky, I'm not leaving here until I've seen you."
The lock clicked but the door didn't open. Hutch pushed and it swung inward. Starsky stood looking out the window, one hand on the nearby wall, the other resting limply on the sill. His shoulders drooped, his head hung down.
"We gotta talk." His fury disappeared at the sight of Starsky's misery.
"Why did you break us up? We were a hell of a team, you never even gave me a chance to see if we could still work together."
Slowly, Starsky turned to face him. The honesty in the blue eyes was hypnotic, "I can't do it. I've lied to myself long enough. I kept tellin' myself that if I waited long enough, you'd start to love me like I love you. But that ain't gonna happen, is it? I can't wait anymore, it hurts too much. It ain't lust, Hutch...hell, I can control that. Done it for eight years. So, after Gunther's hit, I decided it was time to put my cards on the table and you turned me down. You're allowed, but I can't be around you anymore and not hope." He turned away again.
Hutch knew Starsky was being totally honest, and he could see his point, almost. God, there had to be a solution if they looked hard enough. He walked over and put a hand on Starsky's shoulder, giving it a firm squeeze.
Before he had a chance to say anything, Starsky suddenly turned and pulled him into his arms; his mouth on Hutch's. "...and you aren't even a good kisser.", echoed dimly in Hutch's mind. He knew just how wrong he'd been. Starsky was a good kisser...a very good kisser, using not only his mouth, but his whole body. Hutch responded, but as he moved his arms to return the embrace he was roughly shoved away. A sob escaped Starsky and he turned his back again.
"Go away, Hutch. Leave now and don't come back."
Starsky's voice was so husky that Hutch had to acknowledge the truth of what Starsky'd been telling him all along. Could he make the commitment his friend wanted? All he could do was stand and look at his partner's back, taking comfort in his presence. Then, that security, too, was shattered as old memories returned full force. "You're like Fred. I knew you were. You're no son of mine."
Hutch fled. Confused and shaken, he sat in his car for hours, praying Starsky would open the door and make their world right again. But Starsky didn't and, finally admitting defeat, he drove home.