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No Easy Answers
Terri Beckett and Chris Power



The early Code 7 was Duplessis' idea, and Hutch wasn't about to argue. He needed to think, to check out the way forward that had suddenly presented itself to him. A swift kick in the ass out of the L.A.P.D.! Or a more leisured departure? It wasn't a new thing by any means. Over a year ago he had thrown his badge into the sea. Then his reasons had been anger and disgust as well, but directed mainly at the system and the futility of what he was trying to do. But such a decision should not be made by emotion.

They were sitting in a snack bar, Hutch in the corner seat, Duplessis between him and the rest of the world. Neither spoke. Hutch recognized that this other partner was deliberately giving him space, isolation, to work things out. He raised his coffee cup in silent thanks, then leaned back in his seat and sought for logical thought. It wasn't so difficult. Clear-eyed assessment of himself showed him just how far downhill he'd gone, and that if he didn't take positive steps, he was going to get someone hurt or killed. Probably Duplessis.

'You're too good a cop,' Dave had said. Should have put it in the past tense. He was getting too old, too slow, and was too screwed up to function at his best. To go on like that would invite tragedy. And since he was being honest with himself he simply did not want to be a cop any longer. Bottom line. Out of the force, he and Starsky would have a better chance of making a new start. Together. Their own problems were enough to carry, without the added burden of other people's trauma and distress that he inevitably found in police work. Time to quit, before someone he cared about was injured or worse. Time to quit while he could still rebuild.

Running away? Maybe.

Recognizing limitations and accepting them? Or was that another name for running?

Time to quit for his own sake, his own survival. And after that, Starsky's.

Because there was something he could do, and he wasn't at the end of his rope. Be positive, Hutchinson. The power games and the abuse are symptoms, the real man is still there, needing help. Give him a stronger anchor, and he can ride out the storms.

"I got to make a phone call," he said quietly. "Won't be a minute." But there was no reply from Starsky's phone.

Hutch said nothing about his plans to Duplessis. Starsky had to know first. Then Dobey. But Starsky still wasn't answering the phone when he rang again from the squadroom. So it had to be Dobey first.

It wasn't going to be easy, of course, though nowhere near as hard as telling Starsky would be. His partner had already made himself pretty clear on the issue. Well he, Hutchinson, had some clear opinions on it as well, and it was time Starsky did some listening.

"Cap," he said, poking his head round the door, "can you spare me some time?"

"Sure," Dobey sat back, pushing paperwork away from him. "What's the problem?"

"I'm resigning," Hutch said, his voice confident and determined. "I'm going to work out my notice, less whatever leave I'm due, and that's it."

"Can't say I wasn't expecting this," Dobey said quietly. "How's Starsky?"

"I haven't told him yet. He's still bitter over the Board rejection. But once he's over the worst of that, he'll need a new direction. We both will."

"Anything I can do, I will. You know that. I know some people who want to hire ex-cops for security work, stuff like that. I'll phone around and see what I can turn up."

"Thanks, I appreciate that."

"I won't waste our time by trying to talk you out of it," Dobey said, "but Jesus, I am so sorry."

Hutch shrugged. "We're still alive," he said. "Some cops don't get a chance to resign."

"Hutch," Dobey leaned forward, elbows on the desk. "I'm not blind, and I'm not stupid, and I'm not asking questions out of line, but in some ways I know you two a lot better than the department shrink. Jerry's a good man, and good at his job, but I don't think either of you have been open with him. He can't help unless he knows all the facts. All of 'em, Hutch. Trust him, huh?"

"Starsky isn't in the department any more. And as of two weeks, neither am I. We'll work it out."

"He still needs counseling. So do you. Let Jerry help."

"We'll see. I better get back to work. I'll have my resignation typed out and on your desk before the end of the day. And thanks for everything, Cap."

"Forget it," Dobey said gruffly. "But don't forget who your friends are."

"No way." Hutch's smile was stiff, but genuine.

* * * * * *

It was done. Typed out, neat, official and irrevocable. An opening door into a future leading who knows where, and he was walking it with renewed confidence and hope. He'd made the right decision. Hutch was deeply, instinctively certain of it. He'd tell Starsky tonight since he wasn't answering his phone, and then start job hunting. With the leave due to him, he had only a couple of working days to put in before the new start. And he remembered there were some loose ends to tie up, apologies to make. Especially to Jaqi.

Hutch signed his resignation; took it in to Dobey. It was accepted with regret, but Dobey had some sheets of paper for him in exchange.

"I've been doing some phoning. Names and addresses -- the top one is Hal Nash of Carter-Goldstock in San Francisco. He'll see you any time you can get up there. The others are mostly in L.A. or San Diego."

"Thanks. I don't know what else to say."

"Don't have to say anything. Have you told Starsky yet? Or Duplessis?"

"No. There's no answer from his place. I guess he's out. I'll tell Dave tomorrow."

"Yeah, well, good luck."

Hutch smiled, sketched a quick salute and went back to his desk. Once more he rang Starsky's number. Still no answer. Regardless of what he'd said to Dobey, it was more likely that Starsky was ignoring the phone. No matter. He'd tell him after work. There'd be a fight, almost certainly. Hopefully, Starsky would eventually calm down enough to see the advantages. Jerry had said give him space. And while Hutch wasn't altogether sure he trusted the man's advice, he had little else to go on right now. So he'd give him space, and time to think about the future. He himself had some debts to pay.

Jaqi's phone rang, and she picked it up. "Hi, honey." The voice was familiar, cheerful, and Jaqi blinked at the phone in her hand.

"Hi, Hotshot," she drawled, putting down her pen. "Long time no hear. Phone company cut you off?"

"Uh, sorry. Guess I called at the wrong time -- "

Jaqi could have bitten her tongue. "No, Ken, I'm just having a bad day, and I can't switch the bitch off. You're just the antidote I need. How're you doing, darling?"

"Fine. You?" His voice softened. "And Emma?"

"Angelic as ever." The secretary popped her head around the door, and Jaqi mimed 'busy'. "The neighbors finally fenced their yard, so she can't get to the pond, and she's given up trying to catch the cat. How's Starsk?"

The pause was infinitesimal, but her attuned ear caught it. "Doing okay." This was where he usually sent his love to Emma and rang off, and this time Jaqi was determined to prevent it. This time she was ready to pin him down.

But before she could voice her plan, he forestalled her. "I was wondering," he said, "I know it's kinda short notice, but how about dinner tonight? There's some things I've got to tell you."

No depression, no hesitation, but a confidence that was almost cheerful.

"Sounds good to me," she said, intrigued, "Eight o'clock?"

"Yeah. That'll be great. I'll pick you up."

"See you then, Hotshot," she smiled, and rang off.

* * * * * *

It was six-thirty before Hutch and Duplessis were able to log off. Duplessis had been ignoring his partner's distracted mood. When Hutch was ready, no doubt he'd talk.

They headed for the car park in silence, but just before they parted for their cars, Duplessis said what he'd been thinking for more than a week now. "Hutch. I may not be the partner you want, but remember I'm your friend. If there's anything I can do -- "

Hutch paused and gazed at him. "Thanks, Dave " It was the first genuine smile he'd seen from Hutch since before the Review Board. "'preciate it."

"Yeah, well, get some rest, willya?" Duplessis gave him an answering grin. "It's getting to me, y'know? Riding with a zombie."

"Point taken." Hutch tipped two fingers to his brow as a salute, and turned away.

* * * * * *

Hutch showered, shaved and changed in record time, and headed for Starsky's apartment. At the first gas station flower vendor he bought roses, laying them carefully on the back seat, then drove on to Starsky's.

The absence of the Torino was totally unexpected. He parked in his usual place, ran up the steps and let himself into the apartment. No one was there. The television was blank and silent. The stale air hung heavy, but from the open door of the bathroom came the damp scent of soap. Piles of towels and dirty clothes confirmed its recent use. Starsky had obviously changed and gone out. Good sign or bad? Had to be good. He'd started to tidy up the kitchen and some of the groceries were put away. But the rest, Hutch discovered, were in the garbage pail. Spoiled, defrosted -- he'd gone to the store to restock?

"Ah, babe," Hutch said softly, "we'll make it," and settled on the couch to wait for Starsky's return.

And waited.

Hutch glanced at his watch. He'd be late for the date with Jaqi, maybe he should phone her, take a rain check. If Starsky was stuck in a line at the supermarket checkout he could be a while yet.

'Over-protection. Counter-productive,' Jerry had said. 'Give him space. Take time for yourself.'

Hutch scowled. Instinct did not help. One part of him said stay, the other said go; don't trust the so-called experts; trust Jerry, he's okay. And the signs did seem to be good. Go, and let Starsk continue to work it out, or stay and -- what? Give him space, give him time. Hutch found paper and a pen, wrote a quick note: 'Hi, partner. I've got something very important to tell you. I'll catch you tomorrow. Take care. Love you.' He put the note on top of the television and left.

* * * * * *

The supermarket was on his way home -- on impulse Starsky pulled in to the parking lot. If he was going to clean his act up, he might as well start here. It felt a little like the first time after being let out of the hospital. Everything was too bright, too loud, too much. Shining vistas of aisles, lined with shelves full of brilliant colors, lit by unforgiving fluorescent glare. No Hutch at his side now to lend support if he needed it. He had to cope with this alone, in a skin that somehow felt wrong on him, as if he were out of synch with the reality outside him, and someone else was looking at the world out of his eyes.

His spine was still prickling, but he made himself go ahead. The place was full of women -- housewives with kids, little old ladies, a couple of flashily-dressed girls obviously on a coffee-break picking over the avocados -- they were all staring at him, he could feel their eyes on the back of his head like lasers.

What was wrong in a guy shopping alone? He'd done it before, dozens of times, so what was different now? He'd hardly filled half the basket with the cleaning materials he needed before he started feeling antsy. A couple of office clerks were giggling beside the detergents. They stopped when he reached between them for a box of Tide, started again as he moved away.

By the time he reached the checkout, he felt like he had two heads or something. An exhibit in a freakshow. Roll up, roll up, see the faggot ex-cop go out of his freakin' mind.

He didn't linger. Within the hour he was back in the safe confines of the apartment, heartbeat slowing, the sweat of panic clammy and cold. He resolutely ignored it. He had things to do.

He started in the bathroom, because it seemed logical. Had to have a routine about these things. Do things in orderly fashion. The bath gleamed from its Dow scrubbing, chrome faucets shining like silver. The toilet bowl was pristine from the application of Vanish. He frowned at the droplets of water on the floor, wiped at them, then picked up the bottle of Mr. Clean and did the job right.

Nowhere showed the effects of L.A.s air pollution more readily than panes of glass. He polished every inch, inside and out until he ran out of Windex.

The paintwork needed wiping when he finished the windows. He swabbed it thoroughly with Fantastik.

The film of dust on teak was Pledged away, leaving only the lemony clean scent of polish. It made him realize how grimy he felt, the dust and sweat of his exertions filming his skin. Sluiced away under a scalding shower, it left him clean, smelling antiseptically of Gold Dial and Prell. He bundled up the wet towels for the laundry -- straightening, caught sight of himself in the bathroom mirror.

Hair a damp dark tangle. Skin scoured by soap. Jaw shadowed by stubble. Eyes . . . He looked away from their gaze after one glimpse of the indigo emptiness.

This was what they'd seen, in the supermarket.

No wonder they stared, he acknowledged wryly. How often do you see a zombie in the Safeway?

No more. He was going to get his act together, show the world he could make it through. He owed it to Hutch.

* * * * * *

At five minutes past eight, the doorbell rang, and Jaqi opened the door with a flourish. "Come on in, I won't be a minute -- " she started, then froze, clutching the bunch of yellow roses he put into her hand. "Ken, what the hell have you been doing to yourself?" The over-long hair had been combed, the face freshly shaven, blue shirt, yellow tie and sports jacket were neat and tidy. And he was sober. Unfortunately, shirt and jacket hung on him, and the gauntness of his features emphasized the weight he'd lost even in the short while since she'd last seen him. He was poised and confident and she didn't trust the front.

She tossed the flowers in the general direction of the hall table and dragged him inside. He looked startled, then smiled.

"I'm okay," he said. "And you look good enough to eat. Is that dress new?"

"Yes, but don't change the subject. The way you look, the cat wouldn't touch you. When did you last get a night's sleep?"

"Hey, I've been busy. No rest for the wicked -- "

"Terrific. Stand there and let me look at you."

"Jaqi -- "

"Hush up!"

"All ready to go?" he asked brightly.

"No," she said, making a snap decision. "I have a sudden craving for a night at home with my favorite cop. How about it?"

"But -- "

"Have you been eating properly?" she cut in on his lame objection. He hesitated, and she read his pause clearly enough. Junk food snatched on the fly, too much black coffee gulped down too fast, too many hours in a working day.

"Of course I have," he said defensively.

She didn't believe it. "Glad to hear it. Come and sit down while I fix something to eat." She smiled up at him. "Hey, indulge me?"

"Well, if you put it like that . . . "

"I do."

"Okay by me. Listen, there's something -- "

"It can wait." She steered him to the couch, took his jacket and tie, unbuttoned his shirt collar. "Just relax while I fix a meal. Then we can talk."

She paused at the record deck, put on an album of guitar music and turned the volume low. Then she retired to the kitchen, sticking the flowers into a vase full of water. Luckily, tomorrow's dinner was already in its casserole in the fridge -- while it heated, she could throw together a simple salad. Chocolate mousse would do for dessert -- Emma's favorite, but it was in a good cause.

She left the chicken paprikash to take care of itself, poured two glasses of wine, kicked off her shoes and joined him on the couch.

"Here y'go," she said. "One of the finer Sebastiani Californians. A vintage year. Gift from a grateful client. Treat it with respect."

"Nice," he said after the first sip. "It's great to be spoiled, but really, I'm fine."

"You don't look it," she said, leaning against him. "So tell me what's wrong?"


"But -- "

"Okay. I know it seems like you only see me when I've got a load of trouble, but this time it's different."

"Hey, what're friends for?"

Hutch laughed and gave her a swift hug. "You're special, Jaqi. One of the most special people I know."

Jaqi sat back and studied him. It wasn't a front. He really was as confident and optimistic as he looked.

"Hutch," she said, "what's happened?"

"I've resigned. Only a few more working days -- "

"You what?" Incredulously.

"Resigned. Quit."

"Dear God in Heaven!" Shock and delight widened her eyes. "Why now?"

"Lots of reasons." Abruptly his face grew somber. "One of them being I had it proved to me a couple of times that I just can't cut it out on the street anymore. Another, well, Starsk failed the Review Board. Stress disability."

"So you've quit because of him." There was an edge to her voice that she could not keep out.

"No." Hutch stared into his glass. "I've got to be totally honest. I quit for me. Ain't gonna study war no more," he added with a grin.

"Starsky failed the Board. He would have taken that badly."

"Yes. It's been rough." He took another drink of the wine. "Ever since that Escort Agencies case it's been -- " He broke off, eyes dark with pain. "But I'm hoping we're through the worst now, and we can start to build."

"You and Starsky." Jaqi toyed with her own drink. "I've got to be honest too, lover. I can't see it, somehow. There's been so much pain and grief between you -- it isn't going to go away overnight."

"I know that," he said with some impatience.

"And it isn't going to stay away, either."

"Jaqi, I know what I'm doing."

"I know," she sighed. "I don't like to see you hurting, is all, love. Don't mind me. What are your plans?"

"Dobey's given me a list of contacts. I'm going to take the leave due, and we're going job hunting. Thought we'd try this one first. It's up state and the break away from L.A. might do Starsky some good."

"You'll move away from here?"

"No, not unless we find work somewhere else. This company has its headquarters in Oakdale, but it's got branches in L.A."

The plans for a hopeful future continued through the meal, and by the time she served dessert, Jaqi was heartily sick of the 'we' as in Hutch and Starsky. He wasn't being deliberately thoughtless. When Hutch had first told her about his feelings for Starsky she'd told him right out that he was making a mistake. But she had also said: "I'm your friend, I'll be around if you need someone to listen, or to pick up the pieces." Not entirely his fault that was how he was treating her; as a trusted, loved, friend. But something was changing -- had changed? -- within her, and if he said that particular kind of 'we' one more time, she would break a plate over his head. Since she wanted to keep the dinner service intact, she used Emma as a diversion, and their conversation turned to safe ground.

The evening drew on to midnight, and instinct told Jaqi that he would soon smile and kiss her and leave. And she did not want that. She'd study her own motives later, but right now she wanted him to stay. She knew he would if she asked, because she was his friend and he loved her, and sex between them was good -- healthy and natural -- she added to herself. Jaqi smiled, held out her hand and said "Come to bed, lover."

* * * * * *

Hutch slept and Jaqi drowsed, warm and content as a sated cat, but his increasing restlessness put an end to her catnap. She craned up on one elbow to switch on the bedside lamp, and he flinched away from the flood of light without waking. On his face was a rerun of the distress she had seen on earlier visits, and one hand flung out in an unconscious gesture of entreaty. "David . . . " The ache of grief and loneliness in the single whispered name choked the words of reassurance in her throat -- she caught the hand, held it between her own, gathering him into her embrace. He sighed, relaxing against her, sliding into deeper sleep.

Damn you to hell, David Starsky! I thought that confidence was too much. He just isn't sure of you, is he? Jaqi scowled up at the ceiling. It was time to do some reassessing. Hutch was as involved with his partner as ever, but did Starsky still feel the same way? He'd failed a Board, and was probably out of a job, but even before that he'd been making Hutch's life hell. The simple truth was that he didn't deserve the kind of love and loyalty he was being offered. Whereas she -- and there Jaqi stopped. No strings. That had been part of her relationship with Hutch right from the very start. She had imposed it, just as she had the other ground rules later on. No strings, just friends, who enjoyed each other's company and bodies. And now? Hutch wasn't a cop. No more weird hours, thirty-hour days, nine-day weeks. No more danger, no more corpses. He loved her. He thought he was in love with David Starsky. That could change. If she wanted, she would make it change. Jaqi contemplated the ceiling and knew she wanted it. Love -- in love -- a fine distinction, but a vital one, and surely within her influence.

David Starsky. A rival now, as perhaps he had not been before, and she had three powerful weapons to fight with: her love, her woman's body, and her daughter. But the contest had to be fair and open. Starsky should know who and why, then make his own choice to fight or concede. Perhaps he would concede and be glad to. It could be he was backing away from the sexual side of their relationship, and their problems stemmed from that as much as his beating-up and the failed Board. Time would tell. Tomorrow, as soon as she had free time, she'd pay him a visit.

That decided, Jaqi settled to sleep, curled around the man like a tigress around her one cub.

* * * * * *

Hutch didn't have a chance to call from Jaqi's. As soon as he got to the squadroom, he rang again. There was no answer. In disbelief he cleared the line and re-dialed. Still no answer. Either Starsky wasn't back since last night, or he was refusing to pick up the phone.

"Trouble?" said Duplessis gently.

"Uh, no. Starsk's out, I guess."

He hadn't told Dave yet that he had quit, Starsky had to know first. Should have been the first to know, but he was being oddly evasive. "I'll drop you somewhere at lunch break, pick you up later. I've got to make sure he's okay." And to hell with Jerry Greenbaum's 'space'.

"Sure," Duplessis said cheerfully. "Let's hit the street, compadre."

Hutch did not find it easy to concentrate the rest of the morning. The empty parking space outside the apartment, the unanswered phone-calls, raised too many questions. Some of them, at least, were answered when he turned onto the road. The Torino was in its accustomed place. He breathed a sigh of relief, parked behind it, and loped up the steps. No television sound could be heard as he rang the bell, and let himself into the apartment.

"Star -- " he began, but the call was cut off by amazement. The place was transformed. It gleamed. The scent of lemon polish hung heavy in the air, tickling his sinuses. Everything was in immaculate symmetry, as if a team of window-dressers had gone through it, creating a glossy and unlikely image of the perfect bachelor pad. He caught himself wondering briefly if he'd walked into the wrong place, and almost checked the number on the door, but there was his partner in the kitchen, about to pour coffee. Wearing a clean blue chambray shirt and pressed -- pressed! -- Levis, shaved, combed and squeaky-clean. In fact the only sign Hutch could see of his previous state was the shadowed gauntness in his face.

"Hey," Hutch gasped, a grin of delight widening. "You've been busy."

Starsky's answering smile was uncertain at first. "It needed doing," he admitted. "You were right. So I did something about it."

"That's great," Hutch said quietly. "Ah, David, we're going to pull through this."

"Sure as hell gonna try."

Slowly, Starsky came to meet him, and they moved into each other's arms with cautious care, relaxing with sighs of relief in the mutual embrace.

For a long time they stayed silent, drawing strength from it, and the beginning of healing.

"I missed this, y'know," Hutch whispered, eyes closed, face turned into Starsky's hair.

"I know. Me too, Hutch. I'm sorry."

"S'okay. Listen, I've got something to tell you," and he didn't try to keep the enthusiasm out of his voice.

"Yeah, I got your note. But I got somethin' to tell you, too. Can I go first?"


"I guess we don't have much time. This is your lunch break, right? Sit down, babe. I'll fix you some coffee."

Reluctantly, Hutch let him go, and sat on the couch.

"I've been trying to call you," he said tentatively. "And you were out when I came round last night."

"Yeah. Want some cookies?"

"No, thanks, just the coffee."

"Coming up." He brought the mugs through, went back for the sugar bowl and put it in the center of the gleaming coffee-table "Let me say it, Hutch. You can tell me your bit later. I've been treating you like a bastard. No, let me finish," he said as Hutch started to speak. "I know all the excuses, the reasons, the stages of trauma reaction and all the rest of it. Okay, it wasn't entirely my fault, but I should have tried harder. I didn't. It was easier to put you through hell." He loaded the sugar spoon, held it poised over the bowl, frowning. "That was wrong. So was not seeing Jerry. It wasn't his fault I flunked the Board. The way I was, he didn't have any choice."

"David -- "

"Was, lover. I'm getting better. Slowly. I went to see Jerry last night. I'm seeing him again this afternoon."

"That's fantastic!" Hutch laughed and stretched out a hand. "Davie -- "

"Oh, sure, there's a long way to go," Starsky didn't see the gesture, he was concentrating on the sugar in the spoon. "But I'm trying, Hutch. I'm over all that anger, the self-punishment, then taking it out on you. Power games. They were the sickest. But it's in the past now, and I'm gonna make it up to you." Absently he emptied the spoon back into the bowl, and refilled it. "I cleaned myself up, and this place, kind of like part of the apology. I am getting better, Hutch."

But it was as if Starsky was on automatic, his attention was elsewhere. Puzzled for a moment, Hutch watched him load the sugar spoon yet again, hold it over the bowl. Watched as it was weighed, measured, almost checked grain by grain before Starsky emptied it back into the bowl and refilled it. And again. But this was no childish game. The process continued, totally engrossing, totally meaningless, and Hutch sat and watched with Jerry's warning crystallizing in his brain. Any kind of compulsive or obsessive behavior . . . The apartment hadn't just been cleaned up. It had been scoured, polished and arranged to perfect symmetry.

Starsky never even noticed his silence, absorbed in his private ritual, until Hutch couldn't stand it any longer and reached out and took hold of Starsky's wrist, arresting him in mid-refill. But he couldn't find the right words to say to the mildly surprised eyes.

"Your coffee's getting cold," he said helplessly. And Starsky looked at him as if he'd spoken in Sanskrit.

"After I've seen Jerry," Starsky went on, ignoring the pause and interruption, "I'm going to start looking for jobs. Really looking, not just playing at it. But I'll be here when you come back tonight."

"That's great," Hutch found the words with difficulty. He was stupid to expect a fast miracle cure, but at least Starsky was beginning to walk the long road, and of his own volition.

"Davie, I've got to tell you -- "

"Tonight," Starsky smiled. "G'wan, you'll be late back otherwise "

Hutch opened his mouth to object, but suddenly it was easier to agree. There was no time left now, not for all he wanted to say. And since he wasn't sure how Starsky was going to react, he wanted time to break the news the right way.

If there was a right way

"Tonight," he promised. "I love you."

* * * * * *


Having made her decision, Jaqi was not one to postpone the confrontation. It wasn't going to be the easiest thing she'd ever done, and it surely wouldn't be something she was going to enjoy doing, but like a dose of ipecac, it was necessary.

Traffic was worse than usual, and by the time she pulled up behind the Torino on the quiet street, the afternoon sun was casting long shadows across the sidewalk. Jaqi straightened the skirt of her cream linen suit, tugged the jacket over her hips, and squared her shoulders. She looked how she wanted to look -- poised, confident, and feminine. Okay, girl. Here goes nothin'.

Her heels clicked briskly as she climbed the steps.

From the occasional hint Hutch had let slip in conversation, she knew that Starsky had let things slide. She was braced, therefore, to expect Slob of the Year, and when she had to ring the doorbell a second time, that expectation was strengthened. She was not prepared for the sight she got when the door did open. If this was 'letting things slide' . . . ? Starsky was almost too neat, and somehow it didn't sit right on him. She had a fleeting urge to ruffle his hair out of its brushed perfection. He stared at her, wary, startled, not-quite-hostile. Well, not yet.

"Hi," she said casually. "Remember me? Jaqi?" For a moment, no reaction, then she wondered if he was just going to close the door in her face. "I'd like to talk to you," she went on. "Can I come in?"

There was a pause. Then, neutral: "Sure."

He stepped back and she walked inside. It was cool, pleasant after the sticky heat, and the mess she'd been led to expect was non-existent. Plainly he was making an effort. But that was irrelevant. The door closed behind her, and she turned to face him, wondering if she had made a mistake by confronting him on his own ground. Neutral territory would have been better. Too late now, though.

"Coffee?" he said finally, as if he'd just remembered a lesson in etiquette.

"No, thank you. This isn't a social call. I've come to talk about Ken. Specifically about Ken, you, and me."

That did, at least, get him to look at her, but there was a shuttered look behind the blue eyes. No trespassers? she wondered. Too late for that, baby blue.

"What about us?" he demanded, and his tone was a warning to back off.

She curled her fingernails into her palms. "There's an old saying that 'three's a crowd'. You know it?"

"If I wanted Twenty Questions, I'd call my mother," he said shortly. "What are you getting at?"

"Things have changed," she said. "We've changed, all of us. Ken and I -- we've been friends, and lovers, for a long time. I didn't want our relationship to be any more than that, particularly when he told me about you. But it's different now. He's got a chance to lead a normal life now he's resigned from the L.A.P.D."

Starsky didn't speak, but his basilisk stare raised the hairs on her neck.

"A normal life," she repeated, consciously cruel, "with all the love and caring a normal family can give him. He's got so much to give, and he's just throwing it away in a relationship that's going nowhere. He loves me, and he loves Emma. And he needs us. I'm going to see he gets what he deserves to have -- "

"I think you better go," he said softly.

Jaqi nodded, and gathered her courage about her like a cloak. "In case you hadn't noticed," she said evenly, "that was a declaration of intent. Just so you know where you stand. I love him, and I'm going to have him. If I have to fight you for him, I will. Fang and talon."

And with that, she turned and walked out of there, not hurrying. It wasn't until she was sitting in her car that she started to shake.

* * * * * *

Starsky stared at the closed door for a long time, unmoving. Hutch had quit. Hutch had quit, and not told him. Told her, but not him.

Normal life? What the hell did that mean? She knew they were lovers. Hutch had told her that. And told her, too, about the rape. Nothing 'normal' about him now.

Hutch had quit, and hadn't told him. Told her, instead. The words became a taunting jingle that rattled around inside his head.

Jerry had betrayed him to the Review Board.


Now Hutch, partner, lover, had betrayed him to her.


Starsky doubled over, arms wrapped around himself, as if the pain he felt was physical.

Her perfume hung in the air, an echo of the challenge thrown down. Had to do something about that, before he did anything else. Had to clean the place up. Clean her out of it.


"Why?" he demanded aloud. "Fuck you, Hutchinson! Why'd you do that? What the hell do you want from me?"

* * * * * *

It was an overdue end to another day, and Hutch greeted it with unalloyed relief. One more shift, and that was it. Finis. End of Chapter.

Did he regret it? Hutch thought about that as he waited at a red light. They'd made some good friends, he and Starsky, people who would stay friends. Huggy, the Dobeys, Duplessis and Sal, Minnie and quite a few others. Oh, not many, but better quality than quantity, and these were solid gold.

When it came down to it, his regrets were for the unfinished business, and he wasn't about to lose sleep over that. No, it was time to let others take over. He and Starsk had paid their dues and then some. Now it was time to get on with their lives. Once Starsk was okay -- and he would be, in time. No question about that.

The light turned green and he was on the move again, heading for Starsky's apartment.

He bounded up the steps, calling "Hi!" as he walked through the door, and broke immediately into a fit of coughing. The place reeked of air-freshener, enough to choke a healthy horse. "Christ, Starsk, what -- ?"

Starsky stalked from the kitchen like something predatory. "You told her, you bastard. You told her and not me." His voice was hard, flat, and brittle with rage.

"What?" Hutch blinked. "What are you talking about?"

"You quit," Starsky said. "After all I said, you quit. And then you tell her!"

"I was going to tell you today, but you said leave it until now," Hutch snapped, irritated by this unreasoning attack. "What's got into you?"

"Big deal. When did you talk all this over with her? What else did you spill? The lousy way you're getting treated? The way I got raped?"

"You're crazy -- "

"Oh yeah, that too -- "

"Don't be dumb! I never told her any -- " Hutch got hold of his own temper. "Wait a minute. Jaqi's been here?"

"She knew!" Starsky yelled. "She knew and she's taking you away from me because I'm not worth shit!"

Astonished, Hutch reached for him, to have his hands punched away. "That's not true -- "

"You quit and you didn't tell me! That's true. Had it all arranged with her, sewn up nice and tight. Gonna cut out on me, partner?"

"You listen to me!" Hutch bellowed, closing the gap between them and getting a handful of shirtfront. "Dammit, you're going to listen! Yes, I quit. And I've been trying to tell you that since yesterday!"

"You told her. Not me. When? Last night!"

"We need a new start. I'm going to find us one." Hutch bit the words out over Starsky's fury.

"You didn't tell me!" Starsky seemed stuck in a groove, even if he wasn't making sense.

"Will you shut up and listen? You better get your act together because we're starting over whether you like it or not. Are you hearing me?"

"You didn't tell me!" There was a hard glitter, midwinter midnight, burning cold in Starsky's eyes.

And something in Hutch snapped.

"For Christ's sake, I'm telling you now! Jesus, they told me to expect personality problems, but in the past few weeks you've gone through enough changes to confuse a fucking chameleon! What more do you want from me? Blood? I already gave you that when I killed Lazero. Anyone else you want wasted? I've taken all the power trips and abuse you could throw at me, but this is the end of the line. You're gonna get your head back into gear and do it fast! Because I've had it!"

Starsky wrenched away, fabric tearing. His eyes were feral, almost black. "You told her. Judas." The words burned like acid on hot metal. "Well, tell her something else, from me. You tell that dumb-bitch interfering cu--"

Hutch's fist smashed the incomplete obscenity against his teeth, snapping his head back. Starsky collapsed in a loose uncoordinated sprawl against the night table.

Hutch didn't even look back as he walked out.

Starsky quite literally did not know what had hit him. "Hutch --" It was no more than a croak, and it didn't carry, but anger and hurt rose in him, blazing through him like a flame and he was on his feet, lurching, a loose-kneed stagger into the living room. "Hutch --"

The door slammed.

Too late. Too late.

"No -- !" Grief and rage found voice in a howl that was barely human. The flame leapt up, swamping everything, blanking out thought and reason. "Judas!" It was a scream of uncontrolled fury, and he hit out blindly, fists connecting with fragile things that leapt and spun and fell and shattered and the anguish and bitterness were too great to be contained any more, breaking out of him, leaving him strengthless in their wake in the midst of devastation.

He slumped to his knees, but even they couldn't hold him upright any more. He slipped down to lie full-length, fingers clenched in the rough pile of the carpet as the fibers grew steadily sodden under his cheek.

* * * * * *

No limits. I really thought there were no limits. Hutch drove by instinct out through the fast-darkening streets to Venice. Well, it's not the first time I've been dead wrong. Reached my limits a long time ago, but I was too stubborn to admit it. What the hell kind of game is Jaqi playing? He didn't believe the half of Starsky's hysterical accusation, but certainly she must have said enough to set him on a short fuse. Hutch needed answers. He'd go straight over, get to the root of the matter, take it from there.

He parked outside Jaqi's house and hit the doorbell. She opened the door, startled but equally delighted when she saw him -- until she read his expression. Emma, in a white nightgown, charged past her mother with a screech of happiness, and he scooped the child up for a hug before untangling her arms and handing her back to her mother. "Bedtime, Emma," he said. "Jaqi, you and I have to talk."

She nodded, and maybe the child sensed something of his mood, because she didn't try her usual wheedle for extra time. "C'mon, sweetheart," her mother said. "You can see Uncle Ken later. Ken, fix yourself a drink. I won't be a moment."

She put on a bright smile before rejoining him. Something was wrong, and he was angry. With Starsky? With her? "So, Hotshot," she said, pouring herself a drink, since he hadn't even sat down. "What's the problem?" She couldn't remember ever seeing that expression in his eyes before.

"Why did you go to see Starsk?" he demanded. "And what did you tell him?"

"Is this an interrogation, Officer?" she said lightly. "Should I call my lawyer? Take the Fifth?"

"Don't play games with me!" he snapped, and she met his anger with a curt brusqueness of her own.

"All right," she said crisply. "I went to tell him that I love you, that Emma and I need you and you need us. Or words to that effect."

He let out a muffled expletive. "What in God's name gave you that right?" he demanded, and there was more than anger in his voice and eyes.

"All the times you came to me, dammit!" she shot back. "When you were drunk, and hurting, and you needed someone who could love you and care for you. All the things we've shared gave me that right. You're not gay, Ken. You need far more than Starsky could ever give you, even if he wanted to and was capable of it!"

"You don't know what you've done . . . " He shook his head. "You've made a mistake, Jaqi. How much of one I don't know, yet. Right from the beginning you made the rules and set the boundaries on our relationship. It's too late to change them now, just because you've changed your mind."

"That's not what changed, Ken. Before, you were a cop, and I couldn't make any commitment. Things are different now."

"Because I've quit? I'm the same person, Jaqi. Maybe you should have remembered that before you interfered. I'm sorry. We had some good times."

He started to leave, and Jaqi panicked slightly. She still didn't know what had gone wrong.

"If you walk out that door now, there's no coming back," she said, staking everything on one more toss of the dice. "Sit down, let's talk this over -- "

It came up snake-eyes. "Goodbye, Jaqi," he said, and shut the door behind him.

In the bedroom, Emma started to cry.

* * * * * *

Another door closed to him, and this time with more regret. Jaqi had been special, and in other circumstances he might have found with her what he and Van had sought in vain. But whatever they had had together, he and Starsky had more, and could do again. He'd miss Jaqi, and Emma, but too much hung in the balance for half measures and backward glances.

Circumstances meant a change in plan. Hutch drove back to Venice, fixed some coffee, then sprawled on the couch and hooked the phone towards him, dialing Greenbaum's number. "Jerry," he said, after the answering machine's tone, "this is Hutch. Starsky and I had a fight and I decked him. I know you don't make housecalls, this is just so you know the score. I've quit the force and I'm going up state for a while. I'll be back in a few days, hopefully with jobs for us. No way am I quitting on him." He gave a variation of the same brief message to Dobey's home answering machine. Then phoned the Pits and gave Huggy a more detailed run-down.

"Hug, it's Hutch," he said, rubbing a hand over his eyes. "I'm asking a favor, pal."

"Speak, o faded bro, an' I will deliver. Anythin' within reason," he added with an evil chuckle.

"Starsky's sick, you know that," Hutch said without preamble. "He won't ask for help yet, and the shrink says he has to make that decision himself, no outside help. Like from me or anyone else."

"Yeah, I know that, man, but -- " All humor had gone from the Bear's voice now.

"No buts. It's gotta be his choice. Huggy, I can't help him. Not any more." Briefly he faltered. "We had a fight . . . ."

"So what else is new? Hutch -- "

"I decked him. I walked out. I've handed in my resignation and I'm leaving town -- "

"Hutch -- "

"Dammit, listen to me! I'm coming back. Keep an eye on him. But don't interfere, and don't let him know you're there unless he asks for you. Got that?"

"Since what you're askin's what I do anyway, I guess I c'n see my way clear. Oh, man, what can I say? You got it, babe. Keep in touch, huh?"

"Yeah. Thanks, Hug."

There was one more person to contact, and he couldn't be dealt with by a phone call.

* * * * * *

Taste of blood, metallic salt, filled Starsky's mouth. His tongue explored clumsily, flinching away from the throbbing soreness of a split lip. His jaw ached solidly. The back of his head and left shoulder, where he'd struck the unyielding wood of the night table, pulsed nauseatingly when he moved. So for some considerable time he didn't, and when at last he did it was only to curl himself awkwardly, jerkily, into a fetal huddle on the floor, knees drawn up, face buried in arms, retreating into oblivion.

No thought, no feeling, no emotions. Wasted. Empty. Like the prospect of life without Hutch.

Around him, in the silent apartment, night closed in.

* * * * * *


Hutch parked in front of Duplessis' house and glanced at his watch. By now they should have had dinner, the dishes would be done, and the kid put to bed. He would be interrupting their evening, but only briefly, and it couldn't be helped. What he had to say wouldn't take long, and he owed the kid -- he corrected himself with a wry smile -- owed the man an explanation. Duplessis was pushing thirty, for godssake, and a good cop. And a damn good partner in his own right. It wasn't his fault that for Hutch he was and always would be the wrong partner.

Taking the small package from the seat beside him, Hutch walked up the short paved path. The dog heard him; its adolescent barking rattled the windows, and Duplessis' bellow failed to shut it up. The front door opened before Hutch reached the porch, and Duplessis grinned, a welcome, a frantically squirming Labrador pup under one arm.

"Worse than the Hound of the Baskervilles," he said cheerfully. "Come on in. You've missed dinner, but there's coffee. Or beer?"

"Thanks, but I can't stop. You got a minute?"

"Sure." Duplessis sounded puzzled. "We'll go through to the back yard." He led the way, snagging a six-pack from the fridge en route. "Make yourself at home," he said expansively, dropping into one of the redwood patio chairs and gesturing at another. Hutch carefully put the packet on the slatted table.

"That's my badge," he stated quietly. "Can you give it to Dobey tomorrow? He's already got my resignation."

"Your -- ?" Duplessis sat bolt upright. "But -- Hutch -- Why?"

"It's something I've wanted to do for a long time. Okay?"

"No it's not okay!" Duplessis leaned forward, concern clear on his face. "Hutch, can't you tell me why?"

Hutch shrugged. "You know a few of the reasons. You've had to cope with them. Usual cop burnout is one. I'm tired, Dave. How tired you won't know until you get there, and I'll pray God you never do."

"Shit," Duplessis muttered, looking dazed. "Shit, shit, shit . . . . I'll be back in a minute. Have a beer."

It was the work of a moment to liberate a couple of shot glasses and a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label, then he rejoined the man on the patio. "I guess," he said, sitting back down and pouring out the Scotch, "all this means you won't be working out your two week's notice."

"Leave. Actually I should work tomorrow, but I won't."

Duplessis handed him the glass without comment. After a minute or two: "What does Starsk think of this?" he asked quietly. "A while back, you said he didn't want you to quit."

Hutch studied the inch of liquid in his glass. "I told him. But I'm not sure he understood. He was pretty mad about -- something else at the time."

"Oh," Duplessis said blankly.

"I decked him." Hutch gave a bleak, humorless smile. "Not the first time I've slammed a door on his head, metaphoric or actual. Ask Huggy. Nor the last time, probably."

"Yeah, but . . . " and he hesitated.

"Yeah, but perhaps not the best time to do it, all things considered." Hutch finished the sentence for him. "I know, but I wasn't thinking straight myself at the time. What's done is done. I'm going upstate for a few days to see a man about a job or two. I could be gone a week -- maybe more."

Duplessis refilled his glass, and Hutch's. It was growing dark, the swift twilight of a tropic night. Duplessis could hardly see the expression on the shadowed face opposite him.

"But I'm coming back. I'm not giving up on Starsk. It's him and me, Dave. All the way along the line." He gave a snort of laughter. "Could be it's as well I'm gonna be out of the way for a while. He's gonna be sore as hell."

He drained the glass again as if it were no more than water, and topped it up himself.

"Anything I can do?" Duplessis asked. "When are you leaving?"

"Tomorrow morning. I was gonna fly up tomorrow night, but the more I think about it, I'd go stir-crazy sitting on a plane. I'll drive up, stop over with my sister in Visalia." He stood up, blinked, and sat down again. "What the hell did you put in that drink?"

"Pure unadulterated Johnnie Walker. Finest kind," Duplessis assured him. "Maybe you better have some coffee."

"I gotta go," Hutch said, as if registering the lateness of the hour. "I didn't pack yet. Oh, hell. Can you keep an eye on my plants?"

"No sweat," Duplessis grinned. "I'll see they're okay and Sally can talk to 'em for you, so they don't pine."

"Donna Summer," Hutch said incomprehensibly. Then: "They like Donna Summer. Gets 'em off."

"Oh. Right. Anything else I can do?"

"Don't think so." Hutch considered. "You could drop in on Starsk, I guess. Just to make sure he's okay. Could be I've given him more of a set-back than just the headache, in which case watch your step." He shook his head. "Damn. I wish -- " But he didn't complete the sentence. "This'll give him space, give him a chance to get himself together before I come back. That's what Jerry'd say. Wish I could believe it."

"Hey," Duplessis said quietly. "He'll be okay, Hutch."

"Yeah. Thanks for the drink, Dave." And he groaned. "Shit, I forgot. Called everyone but Kathy. My sister."

"Use our phone,' Duplessis suggested. "And I'll fix you some coffee."

"Thanks. For everything, Dave."

"Anytime. You know that. And don't fret about your greenery."

"Least of my worries." Hutch got carefully to his feet. "Dave, if you do see that crazy partner of mine, remind him I am coming back?"

"Consider it done," Duplessis said gently.

* * * * * *

Driving north had definitely been a good idea. Even the vagaries of other drivers made no difference. He was doing something, not sitting in a damned plane being taken somewhere. "Like Starsky," he smiled ruefully to himself. "I need to be in control." That reminded him of Jaqi, and he sighed. God, he would miss her. She'd been a friend. He owed her a hell of a lot. But not enough.

Don't look back too much. Concentrate on the future.

The freeway slipped steadily behind him, the brown velvet of the hills fold on fold on either side. It was difficult not to think, not to remember. Best to concentrate on the future. Like, for instance, what the hell he was going to tell his sister -- knowing Kathy, she would expect an explanation for his sudden visit, and would work on him until she got it.

"Of course you can come," she'd said. And then: "What's wrong? What's happened?" with concern and not a little suspicion in her voice.

He seemed to recall saying that he'd tell her when he got there, which brought him back to the original problem. The bare facts; that he'd quit the force after so long, but before he'd put in his twenty years, would not be enough. All the whys and wherefores would be dug out, held up to the light and inspected like so much household linen, as if she could shake them out and fold them neatly away in the proper place. At least, that would be her aim. But it had been many years since he had taken his troubles to his elder sister; not since he'd left home; and he had no intention of telling her the whole of it now.

Maybe a stopover in Visalia wasn't such a good idea. However much Kathy might care for him, Hutch was pretty certain she wouldn't understand, and he didn't want the well-meant conventional advice she was sure to hand out. Nor did he want the wounds laid bare and searched out by her brisk efficiency.

He'd stay overnight, as arranged, just long enough for a brief hello-how-are-you-and-Mac-and-the-kids, then he'd be on his way. Even Kathy wouldn't set much mileage out of so short a stay.

But there was at least two hours of freeway between him and Visalia, and there was a limit to the amount of forward planning he could do. It was inevitable that the last scene between him and Starsky would get a lot of replays.

* * * * * *

It was going to be another scorching day, Duplessis realized as he climbed the steps to Starsky's door -- his shirt was sticking to his shoulder blades, and the sun was bouncing glaringly off every reflecting surface. Adjusting his sunglasses, Duplessis hit the doorbell.

He didn't know, had no idea, what to expect, but it seemed that he'd been leaning on the doorbell for an hour at least, and he was wondering if maybe Hutch had broken Starsky's neck, or worse. The scenarios got rapidly more gruesome as the seconds ticked away, and he was within an ace of getting out his gun and blasting the lock off when he heard movement from inside, and the door opened four inches on its chain.

"Christ," said Duplessis, "did you get -- " he bit off 'the number of the truck that hit you,' and changed in mid-sentence to "Are you okay?" Which was also pretty dumb, because he plainly wasn't.

He hadn't seen Starsky in more than two weeks, and the man hadn't looked exactly one hundred per cent then. Now he looked terrible. His face was all planes and angles, pared down to basic bone structure, eyes sunken and shadowed. There was blood caked in a crusted dark trickle on his mouth, and the lower lip was a puffed and swollen travesty. One side of his jaw was discolored by a darkening bruise only partly hidden by heavy morning stubble. He blinked at Duplessis like a man waking from a bad dream, or maybe unable to wake from one. He made two attempts to form words before finally managing a gravelly croak. "I've had better days."

"Looks like it." Behind his shoulder, Duplessis could see a litter of wreckage. "Anything I can do?"

Slowly and with obvious effort, Starsky shook his head. "Nothin' anyone can do," he said, almost as if talking to himself. Then: "Thanks, anyway." And began to close the door.

Duplessis got a foot in it. "Hey," he said quickly, "I gotta go, but I'll be around tonight. If there's anything you want." And, lamely: "Take care, you hear?"

There was a pause, then Starsky nodded, and Duplessis took his foot out of the door. It snicked shut with a kind of finality.

Duplessis drew a breath, shook his head, and started back towards the street. He was halfway there when he almost collided with Huggy, heading in the opposite direction.

"Two minds with but one single thought," Duplessis quoted, giving him a grin.

"You got a call from Blondie, too?" Huggy asked, glancing up at the silent house.

"Yeah, kind of," Duplessis said. "He took off north this morning. I thought I'd better check Starsky out."

"Yeah, man. Me, too " Huggy jerked his head at the closed door. "How is he?"

"He's had better days," Duplessis echoed what Starsky had said. "I don't know, Hug. He looked -- tuned out. Like maybe he didn't hear anything I said."

"Figured it'd be like that."

"Yeah?" Duplessis cocked an eyebrow. "I better get to work, I guess."

Huggy nodded, eyes still on Starsky's door. "Listen, man, you come on down to the Pits soon as you can, an' we'll have a council of war, bounce some ideas around."

"You got a date," Duplessis promised.

* * * * * *

It had been the insistent ringing of the doorbell that had finally penetrated the shell surrounding him. The effort involved in just getting to his feet was almost beyond him. He was cold, chilled to the bone, and as stiff as if every joint had set solid, immovable.

Duplessis' anxious face swam and the concerned enquiries were so much gibberish until finally the sense of what he was saying got through, and Starsky managed to frame a coherent reply. But at last he was left alone, with reality lurking to face him from every corner.


He didn't want to think, because thinking meant realization of what had happened, and he knew he couldn't cope with that yet. He got himself to the bathroom, ran the tub full and soaked, the moist heat first aggravating and then easing the aches. His skin was crinkled and soggy by the time he got out. He didn't dress. There was orange juice in the fridge, which slaked his thirst, and then he went back into the bedroom and crept under the quilt. Mechanical actions, without any background thought. He was functioning on the most basic of levels, the hurt animal in the safety of the den, licking the wounds, resting up.

* * * * * *

Duplessis' hope that Dobey would be calmed down, having got over the initial shock, was justified. When the captain called him in the dark face was heavy with depression, not anger.

"Can't say I couldn't see it happening -- but damn it's hard. Losing the both of them . . . I guess I was thinking it'd have happened sooner if it was gonna happen at all. I was expecting it right after the Board -- I suppose I was hoping that they'd get things straightened out, as the time passed, and something'd turn ... " He shrugged. "Damn."

Duplessis made a sympathetic noise, but there was nothing he could say. The explanations were not for him to give. If indeed Dobey needed any.

"Well? Do you think he'll change his mind? I can sit on this -- " Dobey indicated the letter " -- for a week, maybe. He had leave coming . . . "

Duplessis coughed. ''I think he meant it this time, Captain," he said, and found himself fixed by the dark eyes.

"In other words, you know something I don't?" Dobey commented shrewdly. "Okay, son. I get the picture. If I ask no questions, I get told no lies. Anyone ever tell you you've picked up a habit or two from Hutchinson?"

Duplessis gave a small smile, deciding to take that as a compliment.

"All right. You've got a couple of weeks paperwork to catch up on, at the least. Should keep you busy until I can get you fixed up with a new partner." He paused. "Dave -- off the record -- have you got any idea what they're gonna do? Are they staying in the city?"

"Uh -- I'm not sure." Duplessis backpedaled quickly. Well, how should Dobey know that they weren't together? If he hadn't been told himself by Hutch, he wouldn't have believed it either.

"Too soon to know, huh? Okay. Well, if you see 'em before I do, tell 'em to stay in touch."

"Will do," Duplessis said obediently, and wondered wryly if he'd ever get the chance.

He logged off early, and made straight for the Pits. The place was very nearly deserted, and Huggy signed for him to join him at the bar, setting up a cold beer in readiness.

It tasted good after the dusty heat outside, ice lotion to a parched throat. Duplessis drained half of it, then settled himself on the barstool. "So," he said quietly. "What're we gonna do?"

Huggy gave the polished surface in front of him a cursory wipe-over. "Guess we could start by comparing notes. What did Hutch tell you?"

"They'd had a fight, he'd lost his temper, decked Starsk, and walked out. When he came over to my place, he told me he'd resigned. Don't know how long he'd been planning it. He headed out for Visalia this morning."

"Yeah. He's got a sister there." Huggy buffed up the brass bar fittings absently. "He said Starsk was sick. Needed help, but had to realize it himself. And I wasn't to interfere unless he asked for help." He gave a self-mocking smile. "Don't know if he really thought I'd sit back and wait."

"Don't think it matters that much," Duplessis said. "I never made any promises, Hug. Anyway, how serious do you think this fight was?"

"Well, it wasn't no lover's tiff, if you get my drift," Huggy snorted, then realized what he'd said.

"The paths of true love never do run smooth, and like that," Duplessis said easily, registering Huggy's embarrassment but ignoring it. "Hey, man, I know the score, okay?"

The dark velvet eyes regarded him steadily for a moment. "Yeah, okay. Well, like I say, this had to be for real."

"You've known them for years. They've had bust-ups before, surely?" Knowing Hutch, Duplessis couldn't see even a saint putting up with the man's mood without the occasional objection. And whatever else he might be, Starsky was no saint.

"You better believe it. I even refereed a couple. But nothin' like this."

"And it's not the first time Hutch has dumped his badge, either -- "

"That, too." But the unspoken coda made Duplessis nod.

"But not like this. Okay, I can dig it. So let's take a worst-case scenario. Hutch said he was coming back, but if he doesn't -- " He paused as a thought struck him. "Christ. Hug -- what if Hutch doesn't come back? What's Starsky gonna do?"

He didn't need to say more. Huggy shook his head. "Uhuh," he said with certainty. "Don't got no worries on that score, Dave. Sure, I know it happens. But I know the type, and Starsky and Hutch ain't it. They're tough, those two -- inside and out. When the chips are down, they got what it takes to come through. Like you say, I've known 'em for years."

"I hope you're right," Duplessis murmured. Suicide was one of the endemic diseases of the profession, and merely because Starsky was no longer a cop, he wasn't disqualified or granted immunity. More like the reverse. Then again, if the man really was bent on self-destruction, would they be doing him any favors by getting in his way? But if anything did happen that he might have prevented, he'd never be able to face Hutch again.

"Give me a six-pack of Coors and a pizza to go, Hug," he said, pulling bills from his pocket. "I've kept the wake with one -- I may as well go sit shivah with the other."

* * * * * *


Habits ingrained during childhood can sometimes be hard to break in adult life. Katherine McKinley sometimes felt she had spent her formative years looking after her kid brother. Their mother had had a difficult pregnancy with her second child, when Kathy was six, and it was weeks before the small infant had been released from the hospital. Even then it took months for their mother to recover her full strength, and in the meantime Kathy had appointed herself as surrogate nurse to her new brother.

In all fairness, once he was out of babyhood, the boy had given little cause for concern other than the usual childhood ailments, but Kathy, out of habit, love, and because hers was a managing nature, continued to 'take care of' her brother. They had been close as children, and she had dealt with the infant problems he'd brought to her with efficiency, dispatch, and the wisdom of her extra six years. Ken grew into his teens, and in the natural course of events they began to drift apart, though it had taken her a while to realize it. Arguments became more frequent as the adolescent showed his resentment of her bossiness. When he finally left home after a fight of epic proportions with their father, Kathy had been bitterly hurt and upset -- not just over the fight, or his leaving, but because he had not confided in her all his anger and frustrations, as he would once have done.

As time passed, and she was married with a family of her own, Kathy was able to understand and come to terms with some of her brother's rebellion. But Ken no longer confided in her. Nor did she expect him to. Though over the years they had regained a lot of their earlier closeness.

The kids worshipped Starsky, as they did their uncle. In -- what was it? Eight years? -- he'd become family. Between them, they never forgot birthdays, or Christmas. In that time she'd had some weird phone calls from them, some more sober than others. But last night's was different. He wasn't drunk, that much was obvious, but the tone of his voice was something else. Tired, determined, and lonely. Katherine McKinley glanced at the kitchen clock. Nearly two. She realized she'd been half-expecting an apologetic cancellation, and didn't know whether to be relieved or worried that it hadn't come.

She glanced at the clock again. Three minutes after two. She smiled to herself in self-mockery. He hadn't given her a precise time, so she could just quit sitting around as if she was waiting for the Second Coming, and get on with her own life. The phone rang right then, making her jump like a goosed antelope, but it was a friend calling about the next P.T.A. committee meeting, wanting a plan of campaign.

Halfway through, Kathy heard a car pull into her driveway.

"Dee," she cut in on the flow, "I have to go, my brother's just arrived from L.A. Yes, the cop. No, he can't give us a talk on crime prevention. I'll call you back tonight. Yes, I promise," and put the phone down quickly as the doorbell rang. A single chime, not the fanfare he normally used when he visited.

She opened the door, took in her brother's near exhaustion at a glance, and didn't miss a beat. "Ken, honey," she kissed his cheek, accepting his hug, "and on time for once. It's so good to see you."

"You, too, Sis."

"Come on in, Ken." She led the way through to the kitchen. "I was about to fix coffee. You look like you could use some. Or would you rather have tea?"

"Whichever. How is everyone?"

"Same as always. Mac's out of town, he'll be back tomorrow; JJ's at college, and the kids are still in school. They'll be home at the usual time, so you've got an hour or so to rest up until the horde hits. If you can face it -- you look ready to drop."

"I'm okay. It's a long drive."

And then some, she thought grimly. "Well, Vicky and Martin are really looking forward to seeing you," she said cheerfully. "They'll be sorry that Dave didn't come along, though. They scored a whole bunch of Brownie points with their classmates, having your pictures all over the papers with the Gunther case." She had the feeling she'd missed something, a reaction that should have been there but wasn't. He took the coffee she put in front of him.

"Vicky's still determined to study medicine?" he said casually, as if it wasn't an attempt to change the subject.

"My daughter the brain surgeon." Smiling, Kathy went along with the switch of topic. "Martin hasn't made up his mind yet."

"He's given up wanting to be a cop, then." He smiled, but it was a fraction too late, too obviously forced. Kathy put a plate of cookies in front of him. When in doubt, offer food.

"Months ago, thank heaven. We did have a phase when he was going to become a lawyer and reform the whole system, but right now it's a toss-up between the Air Force, astrophysics, or the life of a movie stuntman."

"Kid's got brains," he said wryly. The tension of tiredness was beginning to ease, but in Kathy's astute eyes the barriers were still up. And that wasn't like Ken at all. More, he was far too thin, and the gauntness gave him the look of a sick man, old before his time. Right now, a stranger would put him at the same age as Mac, or even older, and Mac was ten years his senior. Her kid brother had no business looking like that.

"Ken," she said quietly. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing." He yawned and stretched until his joints cracked. "I'm wired, that's all."

"Don't snow me, Ken. I'm not blind. Something's on your mind, and its worrying you."

"Look, Sis, don't make mountains out of molehills. Just give me a while to unwind, and I'll put you in the picture, okay?"

"Something is wrong," she said, convinced.

Hutch laughed, genuine, gentle amusement in the sound. "Never change, do you?" he sighed. "We've had some really rough times. Starsk isn't too fit right now, and I've got business in San Francisco which could be promising for both of us. Will that hold you until I get my second wind?"

"What kind of business?" she said stubbornly. "I thought this was a vacation."

"No. We are both off the force. No longer cops. You want a reason, call it burn-out, the endemic cop's disease. Now can I rest?" There was a set to the wide mouth that she recognized.

"Okay," Kathy agreed. "Well, if I can't give you the third degree, at least I can feed you better than any fast-food joint. Deal?"

Their eyes met, identical shades of blue. Identical expressions of stubbornness as well. But: "Deal," Hutch smiled. "Kath, I'm too beat to fight with you."

"Good," she said, and got to her feet. "So why don't you get some sleep? You can have JJ's room."

* * * * * *

Once more unto the breach, and like that. Duplessis played a cheerful fanfare on the doorbell and was relieved when the door opened, this time without the unnerving hiatus.

Starsky blinked at him. He didn't actually say: 'what are you doing here?' but the question was clear in his face.

"Thought you could maybe use some company," Duplessis said before the door could be shut in his face, and strolled past to unload six-pack and box on the counter top in the kitchen. "Iron rations. Don't know about you, but I'm starving."

"You don't got a home to go to?" The voice was still, husky, hoarse, but on the whole the man did look better. The apartment had been cleaned up as well.

"Sure," he changed the subject easily. "You need to see a doctor?" The bruising, and swellings, could conceal more serious injury.

"No." Starsky shook his head.

Duplessis didn't feel inclined to press the point. While he didn't think the man was about to evict him, neither was he being made to feel exactly welcome. He certainly wasn't going to start an inquisition into Starsky's health or state of mind. If it came to that, he realized, he didn't know the man well enough to know what was normal for him. He could count on the fingers of one hand the number of occasions he'd spent time with Starsky, with or without Hutch. And the casual friendliness extended to him on those occasions had been only that, no more than a surface thing. Oh, he'd never really had the chance, or the inclination to look deeper, but then from what he'd heard there weren't too many who had got past the facade Starsky showed to the world. Even in the department.

"In that case, Doc Duplessis prescribes a pizza and beer." He set the oven on low and slid the box onto the top shelf. "Plates?"

"In the cabinet." Starsky sounded slightly bemused.


Duplessis found the plates, and dished out the pizza, popped a couple of cans. "Here," he said, "enjoy." And raising a can, "Skol."

"L'chaim," said Starsky, automatically and drank.

"Food's not bad." He was looking more relaxed. One slice of the pizza was gone, and he was reaching for another.

"Yeah," Duplessis annexed a second piece, licking the cheese strings from his fingers.

Starsky grunted something. He was looking past Duplessis' shoulder, and it dawned on Duplessis that he was watching the door. Almost as if he were waiting for someone else to arrive. A chunk of pepperoni stuck in Duplessis' throat for a moment, or something did, because it was suddenly difficult to swallow. There was only one person he was waiting for.

"Hey, Starsk," he said, and watched the man's eyes slowly focus on him. "Hutch asked me to remind you he'll be back in a couple of days."

"Oh," Starsky blinked. "Yeah." Then something like resentment sparked in his eyes. "He told you he quit?"

"Yeah, last night."

"Terrific!" The can slammed down on the coffee table with enough force to bring beer foaming from the ring pull opening. "How come I'm the last one that motherfucker told? Who else knows? Did he put it out on the radio for Chrissake?"

"If he did, I didn't hear it," Duplessis snapped. "Told me last night, after he was here. Which is why I'm here. Because he asked me."

"I don't need a fuckin' nursemaid!"

"You haven't got one. What you have got is a bust in the chops to remind you you can push some people too far."

Starsky sat silent, then slumped back with a mutter of something that might be an apology. Then: "Where's he gone, d'you know?"

"San Francisco. To see a man at Carter-Goldstock."

"San Francisco," Starsky gave a derisive cackle of laughter. "Where else?"

"I'm beginning to see what he meant," Duplessis remarked caustically, "about slamming doors on your head. Have some more pizza and shut up."


By the time the food was gone it was full dark outside, and Duplessis knew it was time he left. But he paused on the threshold. "Are you going to be okay?" he said to the silent figure on the couch. "Can I get you anything?"

"I'll be fine," Starsky said. "Hutch'll pick up anything I need when he gets back." There was a pause. "Thanks for stopping by."

"De nada," he said quietly. "See you around, Starsk." And got out of there.

* * * * * *

Who really could claim to know Starsky, Duplessis wondered, besides Hutch? Or who could claim an inside knowledge of either one? They had acquaintances, sure -- brother officers, casual friends. Everyone knew them, or at least, knew about them. They were part of department legend, after all. But how many friends? Real friends who would go to the wall for them, cover for them when things got tough, laugh with them, cry with them?

Damn few. The overall impression he'd received when he'd first transferred and got partnered with Hutch had been one of resentment. He hadn't known why. Now he thought he did. 'Me and thee' . . . That had been their watchword, with its coda, 'against the world'. And the implication had been clear -- they neither wanted nor needed anyone else. The benison of that close knit bond carried with it an inevitable bane -- the exclusivity shut out everyone else, people who would care, given the chance. And in the nature of things, those same people came to resent this exclusion.

Within the department, perhaps only Captain Dobey could be called their friend -- and he, by virtue of superior rank, excluded himself. Which left -- Dave Duplessis. And how far was he prepared to go?

As far as I can, he promised silently. No one should be in that situation, not of their own will. But maybe they hadn't realized it was even happening until it was too late. They'd developed an interdependence, a symbiosis, like oak and ivy, growing into and through each other. The roots went deep and if, as now, they were torn only partway out, the bleeding went on and on. And there is no styptic in the whole of nature for those wounds.

It has to be a mistake to get that close to anyone. He would not make it.

* * * * * *

Starsky sat in the darkened apartment frowning at the vague shape of the pizza box. Something wasn't quite right. He tried to isolate it. That took effort, and concentration wasn't easy, but he did get it pinned down eventually. Hutch. Or rather, something he'd said. Couldn't narrow it down any finer than that, and the next logical step was to ask Hutch. So where was he? San Francisco covered too wide an area, he needed address, zip code, and phone number. Duplessis obviously didn't know or wouldn't tell, but he knew someone who would. He reached for the phone, punched out the number.

"Ain't this just the Pits," caroled the familiar voice, to a background cacophony. "Whaddya say, can I make your day?"

"Hug, it's Starsky."

"Hey, how y'doin', man?"

"Need your help, Hug," he said. "Can you come over? It's not something I can talk about over the phone."

"Sorry, Starsk, I can't," Huggy said. "Man, this place is jumpin'."

"Okay. So talk to me. Where is Hutch? I've got to talk to him."

"He's gone up-state. He'll be back in a couple or three days. No sweat m'man. He'll be back."

"I know that!" Starsky snapped. At least, I think I do. "But -- never mind. Did he drive or fly? Where's he staying?"

"Hey, I don't know, Starsk. He didn't say."

"He must have."

"He didn't, man! Listen, I gotta go, they're comin' out of the woodwork with their hands full of money. Quit worrying, Starsk, he'll be back."

"But -- "

"Gotta go. Take care, y'hear?" and the line was cleared.

Slowly Starsky replaced the phone. Huggy didn't know or wasn't telling? The sense of isolation grew up like walls of ice, chilling him in the darkness. But Hutch was coming back, wasn't he? What more did he want --

The phrase triggered the memory of Hutch's angry voice. "What more do you want from me? Blood? I already gave it to you. I killed Lazero."

"Hutch?" Starsky whispered into the silence. Then he moved for the phone. Huggy could find out the facts he needed -- use his Vegas contacts, Primrose McGregor among them. But before he could dial, he put the instrument down. He didn't need to bother Huggy. All it would take would be a call to Henderson.

And he didn't want to make that call.

The darkness was oppressive, and hid too much. Starsky switched on all the lights and prowled through the rooms without properly seeing them.

Hutch, what have you done?

That was dumb. He knew. His partner didn't need to pull the trigger himself, all it would have taken was a phone call. Justice, of a kind, but not their kind. How the hell could Hutch of all people . . . .

Starsky pulled up short, found himself staring at the bed with its dark blue cover. A new thought came to him, fighting its way through the barriers of repression and control. How would he be feeling, reacting, if it had been Hutch who'd been raped?

He rejected the thought immediately, but it wouldn't go away. So in the end, he braced himself and faced it. He'd be there. All the time. Just like Hutch had been for him. He'd take all the shit because all that monstrous pain and anger had to have an outlet and what are partners for anyhow? As for Lazero -- fuck justice. He wouldn't have made a phone call. He'd've been on the next flight out with his gun and Lazero would have got the full clip blasted right through his filthy crotch. Except for the last bullet between the eyes.

Would he have loved Hutch any less? Found him unclean?


Starsky looked around the room, at the rest of the apartment, so scoured and polished and ordered it was a travesty of itself. "Crazy," Starsky said, "as a bedbug." Hutch was right. He had to get his head back in gear, and soon. Hutch would be coming home in a day or so. No question of that, no matter what Jaqi might say or do. Maybe she was a lovely woman, but what he and Hutch had was rare. And when it came down to it, unbreakable. He looked at his watch. Too late, now, of course. But first thing in the morning, he'd phone Jerry for an appointment and they'd get down to some serious work on his brain.

* * * * * *

Hutch blinked the heaviness from his eyes and found himself gazing across an unfamiliar room at an equally unfamiliar trophy-laden bookcase lit by diffused sunlight from the Venetian blinds. The wall was decorated by several USC pennants and a poster of Cheryl Ladd.

JJ's room. Kathy's house. Right. Having established his surroundings, Hutch hauled one arm from beneath the covers and groped for the night-table, fingers groping blindly for his pocket-watch. 12:35? He held it to his ear to find out if it was still ticking. It was. He'd almost slept the clock round. It felt strange, uncanny, to be so rested. There was still a residue of tiredness deep in his bones, though, and he wasn't sure he'd ever shake that. Legacy of the job.

Except that he didn't have a job. Yet, he reminded himself. A little time and a little luck could change all that.

"A new start," he said aloud to drive back the surge of doubts. How was Starsky doing? Better? Worse? How much harm had he done walking out the way he had? How much more harm if he had stayed? Trust Jerry, that's all he could do, and trust Starsky's innate strength.

Hutch sat up, drew in a deep breath. They were going to make it.

Basic physical needs provided a distraction. He needed the bathroom. Then coffee. Then maybe even food.

The house was quiet, he discovered, and empty. In Kathy's neat pine plant-littered kitchen the table was set for a solitary meal, and a note was propped against the bowl of fruit. "Gone to the store. Back soon. Make yourself at home. Love, Kath."

Suddenly Hutch felt hungry. While fresh coffee was perking he took a shower, dressed, and returned to find it ready to pour. Drinking it black and strong, he found it honed a fine edge to his appetite -- he found eggs and bacon and a half-empty bag of frozen hash browns, and while they were cooking he buttered a few thick slices of rye bread.

He made a leisurely meal, enjoying the food and the lack of pressure. He'd stay for another couple of hours, then carry on to San Francisco, check in somewhere for the night, then tackle Carter-Goldstock.

Sounds of car engine, banging doors, and cheerful voice heralded Kathy's return. She came into the kitchen like a fresh sea breeze, and he smiled a welcome.

"Well, good morning," she said. "Or is it afternoon? Yes, it is. I thought you'd gone into hibernation, Ken. Any coffee left?"

"Sure, or I can make fresh."

"What's there'll be fine. Can you give me a hand with the groceries?"

He helped carry the heaped brown paper sacks into the kitchen, and helped put things away under Kathy's supervision. He was aware, all the time, of her eyes on him, assessing him, and knew it was only a matter of time before she started in with the inquisition.

He was right.

She sat watching him until their coffees were finished, and then he sighed and said: "Okay, Sis. Spill it."

"I'm not going to pry," said his sister, which he knew from experience meant exactly the opposite. "But can't we talk about what's troubling you? I want to help, that's all."

"I know. But there's nothing you can do, Sis."

"I can listen," she said stubbornly. "Ken, things seemed to be going so well for you at the beginning of the year. What's happened? Something's gone badly wrong, hasn't it?"

"Yes." He considered how much he could tell her. "Everything was fine," he said, "then we went undercover on a homicide investigation. Things turned sour, and Starsky -- he got beaten up. Had to face another Review Board, and didn't make it through. They call it a Stress Disability Discharge, but what it means is he's been kicked out."

Kathy put a hand over his. "Oh, Ken. I'm so sorry. You must both be devastated. Was he badly hurt?"

"Not physically, but he wasn't able to handle it. Both of us burned out. I did what I could to help him, but between one thing and another I was under too much pressure to help as I should, I guess. So I quit. Dobey gave me some names and addresses, and I'm checking them out for openings. Carter-Goldstock have got some factories in L.A. so I'm going up to see their security head, see if he can get us jobs. It'll be a new start, a new direction for both of us. Starsky needs it, and God knows I do."

"Oh, Ken, I'm so sorry," she whispered. "All those years as cops . . . "

"Don't be sorry. I'm not," he smiled. "We did the best we know how, and I got no regrets on that score. As for the future, well, it isn't going to be easy for a while. Starsk still isn't fit, but he's getting there slowly. Once one or both of us have jobs, that'd help."

"Yes, of course it would." She was caught by his confidence, although she could sense the doubts beneath the surface. "Carter-Goldstock. I know that name. Electronics, right?"

"T.V.s, stereos, stuff like that."

"Thought so. They're one of the companies Mac is always bitching about. He should be able to tell you quite a bit about them. You'll need to know what you're being interviewed for."

"Yeah, well, I was planning on driving up in a couple of hours time."

"Then unplan. You can leave first thing in the morning and get there in plenty of time for the afternoon. Talk to Mac first, you don't go into these things blind."

Which made sense.

"Okay, Sis," he agreed. "What's for dinner?"

"Pot roast. Kenny, don't take this wrong, but have you seen a doctor?" He stared at her blankly. "Well, you're much too thin, your color's bad, you look sick."

"Too many working hours, not enough sleep -- that's a combination that'll fuck you any time," he said without thinking, then saw her face. "Sorry, Sis. I'll be okay, that's behind me now. Believe me."

She snorted. "Well, at least you'll get food and rest while you're here."

* * * * * *

Kathy's kids had grown up some since Hutch had last seen them, and though he knew what a difference even a few months can make in the swift-changing years of puberty, he was still illogically surprised.

Victoria McKinley had the best of both worlds, inheriting as she did her father's build and her mother's fairness -- she had a dancing grace, and all the bubbling vivacity of a bright and happy girl on the threshold of womanhood. Martin was all Hutchinson, and it was easy for Hutch to see himself at that age in the blond boy not yet grown into the big-boned frame.

But Martin had no more than the usual occasional spat with paternal authority, there was no real conflict between them at all. Martin and Mac were friends in a way he had never been with his father. Both of them were overjoyed to see him, and of course wanted to know where Starsky was. He told them Starsky was sick, as if he had a head cold for Godsake! but they accepted it without question. It was distraction enough to compliment Vicky on her scholastic achievements, to congratulate Martin for yet another sports trophy to add to the collection on his bookshelf, to listen to their cheerful and excited chatter.

Jim 'Mac' McKinley wasn't an unusually big man, maybe a couple of inches taller than Hutch himself, but slimmer in build and dark haired. Another good friend. There was a genuine warmth and friendliness in the clasp of his hand.

"Man, it's good to see you!" And he pulled Hutch into a rib-bending bearhug. "How the hell are you, Ken-boy?"

"The worse for wear," Kathy said shortly. "As is obvious. Dinner in half an hour, okay?"

"Sure, doll. Give Ken'n'me time for some catching-up. C'mon into the den -- we got time for a drink before we eat."

Once they were alone, the bonhomie became more serious concern. "Kath told me you quit the force, Ken, and the trouble you and Dave have had. Can't tell you how sorry I am to hear it. She also said something about you trying for work with Carter and Goldstock."

"Yeah, that's right. They're on the list Dobey gave me."

"Ken, you don't want to work for them," Mac said earnestly. "Have a beer. Believe me, you wouldn't stick out a month. They cut corners, penny-pinch, and go through employees like a scythe through corn."

"Don't tell me," Hutch lounged back in the comfortable wing-chair. "They're competitors of yours, right?"

"How did you guess?" Mac groaned. "Yeah, they are, and they fight dirty. They've poached some of our best brains and ideas over the last couple of years."

"So what is your unbiased opinion?" Hutch asked. Mac didn't answer at once, sat frowning at the far wall, obviously thinking hard. Hutch could almost hear the cogs grinding.

"Have you got an interview all set up?" he asked abruptly.

"No. Just that this friend of Dobeys will see me when I show up."

"The Security head, right? Nash?"


"Ah-huh. I've got to make a phone call and it might take a while. Will you tell Kath not to wait dinner for me if I'm not there on time? You'n'me can talk about Carter-Goldstock and your job afterwards. Okay?"

"Fine by me," Hutch shrugged, and left him to it, finding an equally comfortable chair in the living room.

Mac came out of the den as Kathy was filling up plates. His expression gave nothing away, and Hutch wondered what he'd found out about the company.

Then Mac caught his eye. "Got a proposition for you, Ken," his brother-in-law said. "How about a fishing trip? Me and Martin are going up to Three Rivers tomorrow. Why don't you come along? We can loan you the tackle."

"Well -- " Hutch began doubtfully, but Martin cut in on him.

"Hey, yeah! That'd be great! I got this new carbon fiber rod last birthday, and Dad taught me some new flies. I caught a trout this big -- " an improbable size was indicated " -- last time, and I'll let you try it out if you like!"

"The trout or the rod?" His mother smiled. "Sounds like an offer you can't refuse, Ken."

"What about Carter-Goldstock?" Hutch demanded, fixing his brother-in-law with a steady stare.

"We'll talk about them later. And a company called Westray Electronics. Heard of it?"

"Of course. You work for them."

"Right. How about that fishing? With no interview set you can spare a couple of days, and Starsk isn't expecting you back yet, so -- ?"

Which sounded as if Westray had a job prospect for him as well. Nepotism it might be, but he didn't care, if there was a chance of a job.

"Guess you don't have to twist my arm, at that," Hutch conceded. When was the last time he'd been fishing? "Sounds like a good idea. I can't remember when I last went to Three Rivers."

"That's settled then. Jim, you can call and fix accommodation," Kathy said briskly. "Vicky, we'll go on that shopping spree we've been promising ourselves, once these three are out of our hair."

Vicky would have bounced in her seat if she'd been younger. As it was, she just glowed. "I really need something new for the winter," she wheedled. "And maybe some new jeans. Oh, and I. Magnin has these terrific new sweaters. All the girls are wearing them -- "

"Just remember the impoverished state of your poor father's bank balance," Mac instructed, mock-sternly. "Ken, we'll make an early start, if that's okay with you."

Hutch nodded. The more he thought about it, the better it sounded. It would be good to get out into the clean open air and the peace of the riverside. He did wonder, briefly, if maybe Kathy had set him up for this trip -- she abhorred untidy edges and loose ends. Especially when it came to people. Well, he didn't mind being shepherded along with the rest of the flock as long as he didn't lose much time. He wanted to be back in Los Angeles before too long. He wanted to be back with Starsky.

* * * * * *


Starsky looked abstracted, as if his mind was on something else entirely. Jerry idly set the polished spheres of his desktop Newton's Cradle swinging, enjoying the rhythmic click-click-click.

"Dave," he said quietly over the mesmeric sound, "do you blame Hutch?"

That got Starsky's attention. "Blame him for what?"

"Anything." Jerry shrugged. "Tell me how you feel about him quitting, for starters."

"I didn't want him to," Starsky said. "Not because of me, anyhow. I tried to tell him that after the Review Board. I guess I didn't want to be the reason for any action he took. Which is dumb, but I didn't see that at the time. Being a cop -- it's not just a job, it gets to be part of you. The White Knight. If he quits -- if it ever lets go of him -- it has to be because he wants to for him, not out of some dumb feeling of loyalty for me. I tried explaining that. It didn't come out right. Nothing did between us.

"Jerry, I watched what was happening to Hutch, and I couldn't prevent it. We were both on a downhill slide. Take it right back, and I guess Gunther started it. Hadn't been for that, and the changes it meant for both of us, and . . . maybe . . . we wouldn't have become lovers. Stayed the way we were -- loving each other like brothers, best friends, that final step never taken. Did we have a choice? I'm not sure. Walked into it eyes closed, riding high on the euphoria. Never guessed what kind of shit we'd be wading in . . .

"Maybe that's not fair. We weren't kids; we knew the score. We should have been able to handle it."

He fell silent. Jerry watched the kinetic energy of his desk toy diminish into immobility, and waited.

"Tell me about it," he said finally. "Tell me why you think you couldn't handle it."

Starsky shook his head. "If I knew the answer to that . . . "

"Think it through, Dave. What changed? What happened?"

He got a disbelieving stare. "'What happened' is why I'm here. I was raped, dammit."

"Yes," Jerry said calmly. "Tell me about it."

The disbelief transmuted into anger. "About being raped? What the hell do you want? The clinical details? How it feels to have -- " He choked, breaking off, recovering. "It hurts," he said savagely. "It hurts is what. It hurts like nothing else, and it's not all physical. Christ. I don't know the words, Jerry. I thought I knew about rape. Seen enough cases, interviewed victims. But when it's happening to YOU . . . "

Jerry could hear a barely perceptible tremor in the words, see the tension in Starsky's body. "Go on," he prompted.

"I thought I knew all about it," Starsky went on, more quietly now, plainly fighting for control. "But I didn't. It isn't just the pain. I've had worse. It's being completely helpless. Not being able to do a damn thing about what was being done to me. It's not just the physical thing -- that's bad, but so's stopping a bullet. It's inside the head. It's mind fuck, Jerry. Being used. That's the violation. That's what rape is. Having no control over what's happening to you." His breath caught raggedly in his throat. "That's what I was doing to Hutch, wasn't it? Power-games. Christ, no wonder he decked me. If I'd been him, I'd have broken my friggin' neck."

"Are you asking me or telling me?" Jerry said softly. He could hear Starsky's grief and anguish clearer than speech as it changed the timbre of his voice and the pattern of his breathing.

"What gets me -- what really gets me -- is that he let me do it. He just let me do that to him. I never thought he was a masochist."

"I don't think he is," Jerry assured.

"But I'm not the same Dave Starsky who walked out onto the police parking lot nearly two years ago. Or the same man who went undercover in Benedic's. So who was it Hutch loved?" There were no barriers left for Jerry's expertise to breach.

"I don't know, Dave. Can any of us know why anyone loves us?"

"I wish you wouldn't answer a question with a question." Starsky blinked a couple of times and sniffed surreptitiously and Jerry pushed a box of tissues across the desk. "What we had -- I don't think we can ever have that again."

"He's coming back, Dave. That has to mean something,"

"Yeah. He's coming back. But I still don't know what is going to happen to us."

"Do any of us know that?"

Starsky shook his head. "All I can hope is that there'll be something left for us when we get through with this mess."

"In a way," Jerry said thoughtfully, "that's in your hands, Dave."

Starsky's eyes were steady and suspiciously bright.

"I know," he said.

* * * * * *

"Kath," Mac said, as the kids began to clear the table, "you'll excuse me from dishwashing tonight. Me'n'Ken need a conference."

"Sure. Why?"

"Tell you later." Mac gave her a kiss. "Also we'd like coffee in the den."

"Ten minutes," she said, and Mac ushered Hutch along the hall.

"So what's the story?" Hutch shut the door behind him and settled into the armchair. "And what have Westray got to do with it?"

"Okay. For a start, Carter-Goldstock does have vacancies in Security at their Long Beach plant. But it's about equal to a Desk Sergeant's job. Now, we at Westray don't have a Security Department as such. We contract local security companies to handle that. With me so far? Compared to Carter-Goldstock and the giants, Westray is small. But we're damn good. Like I said, they've poached people and ideas from us, and they're not alone. Electronics is a growth industry, Ken, and we aim to grow right along with it. We got our own think-tank, and we've known for a while we were going to have to rethink our policy on security. A buddy of mine is heading the committee that's looking into it." Mac looked annoyingly smug. "That call I made was to Rafe Tucker, our head of Personnel. How does a consultant's job suit you?"

"Huh?" Hutch said lamely. He'd been expecting some form of offer, but nothing as high powered as that sounded.

"Check out the plants, tell 'em what's needed, help set it up, be part of the running of it."

"Mac, that's -- " Words failed him. "Dammit, Mac, if you're doing this because you feel sorry for your poor, out-of-work brother-in-law . . . "

" . . . You'd tell me where to stick the offer, and rightly too. Nepotism be damned, Ken, you're the right man for the job."

It sounded good. It'd be a challenge, something completely new, but that was what he needed now. He could meet that challenge, he knew, and make a good job of it. And so could Starsky, given time.

"Hell, Mac -- I don't know. I like the idea, I'd be lying if I pretended I didn't. But I'm half of a team. I can't give you any answer until Starsk and I have talked it through."

"That's okay. Take a break fishing for a couple of days, think it over."

* * * * * *

The drive to Three Rivers took a couple of hours, and Mac was in no hurry. The weather was good, the traffic light, and although the scenery fell short of spectacular through the endless dark green of the citrus groves, Hutch could remember the prospect of the beautiful valley ahead.

By midday he was settled at the riverside, perched on a vantage point on water-smoothed boulders, his shoulders wedged comfortably against the warm rock. He had one of Mac's old straw Stetsons pulled down over his eyes, Martin's second-best rod in his hand, and a six-pack cooling in the stream below his perch. Water sound and birdsong crossed the t's and dotted the i's, and Hutch drew in a deep lungful of the pure perfumed air. That was one of the things he had always relished about vacations away from the city -- breathing clean air. But this wasn't a vacation, just a hiatus.

He was going back -- but not for long. He and Starsky would be able to shake the L.A. dust from their shoes, and get out. The more he thought about it, the more the idea appealed. L.A. really was the Pits. When he added all the faults together, he couldn't understand why anyone would want to live there.

It wasn't even as if he was a native Angeleno, after all. The only reason he'd come to L.A. had been the job, and Van. The only reason he'd survived there had been his partner. Who was still trapped there. But who was also better equipped to survive in it. For a little while longer, at least.

"Hutch!" a young voice yelled. "You got a bite! Wake up, you're gonna lose it!"

"No way!" And he gave his attention to the business in hand -- or at least, at the end of the taut line. The trout was a sizeable one, and put up a good fight before he got it to the net and landed it. But then, to Martin's amazement and thinly veiled disgust, he carefully removed the hook and slid the fish back into the river. "The next one may be a keeper," he said. "But that one gets another chance."

Like Starsk and me. Off the hook.

* * * * * *

By ten that evening, Martin was sprawled in front of the television in his room and by common consent the two men left him to it and ambled slowly down to the riverbank and sat on the rocks. The night sky was an unforgettable shade of blue-black, and in the crystal air the stars were a profligate spill across the darkness. The lights of the motel behind them were a gentle glow, dotted by dancing fireflies.

"The whole family's crazy about this place," Mac said quietly. "King's Canyon too. Once or twice a year, we book a cabin up there for a couple of weeks. Recharge the batteries."

"Sounds great."

"It is great. My idea of heaven. Just hope the hereafter takes the hint."

Hutch shrugged. "Heaven or hell, they're what you make 'em, I guess," he said noncommittally. "In this life or the next. But it's kinda difficult to be that negative out here."

"Ain't that the truth," Mac smiled. "Here's to the positive," he went on, raising his beer can in salute. "Which brings me around to you. Kath told me what you'd told her about Dave, and quitting the force. He must have been beaten up bad. What did they say? Stress disability?"

"Yes," Hutch said.

"That figures. Saw a lot of it in 'Nam. The trouble is, guys like Dave can handle the trauma better than the label. Give 'em time and they can come to terms -- but if you stick the jargon on them, throw them on the garbage heap, that can be the last straw."


"Okay, I know you're not ready to talk about it. Let's change the subject."

"It's not that," Hutch said quickly. "Well, not entirely. It didn't happen to me, Mac, so it's not my . . . if I'd gotten there sooner, maybe it wouldn't have happened. I guess he blames me for it to that extent. Maybe he's right."

"Was there any way you could have been there sooner?"

Hutch had asked himself that question too many times. "No."

"Then it's not your fault. You told me once, years ago, that all the shit goes with the badge. Well, now that's behind you. You're out of the combat zone, more or less intact, so quit feeling guilty about it because your buddy is walking-wounded."

Hutch shook his head. "Mac, you don't know the half of it. And you don't want to. Listen, I'm going back to L.A. tomorrow. When I've talked to Starsk, I'll call you about the job."

"You just say the word, Ken. I'll be waiting."

* * * * * *

The next morning Hutch found it impossible to concentrate on the fishing. The air was clear and fresh, the sun bright and warm -- but something vital was missing. Starsky was in L.A. and Hutch need to speak to him suddenly, needed to hear in his partner's voice -- what? That he was better; worse; missing him; hating him. Just to hear his voice.

"Mac," he called up-river, reeling in his line. "I'm taking five. See you in a while." He didn't wait for a reply, left the rod safely wedged between rocks, and headed back towards the motel and the payphone.

He punched out the number and waited. And waited, while a chill weight grew in his gut. Answer the phone, Starsk. Come on, lover, pick it up. Talk to me, huh?

"Yeah?" said a breathless voice, and Hutch lost words for a moment. "Who is this?" Guarded, suspicious.

"Me," Hutch said stupidly.

"Hutch." The single word said on a sigh, and Hutch could read nothing from the tone.

"How are things?" he asked after a moment. There was a pause.

"Okay, I guess. You?"

"Okay." Stilted, stupid conversation, saying nothing. Hutch took a deep breath. "I'm coming back," he said. "Tonight."

"Tonight?" Was there really a note of hope in the word, or was he imagining it? "When? What time?"

"If I leave here about five -- sometime after nine, I guess."

Another hesitation. "If you want to risk my cooking? I could fix something -- "

"No, meet me at Venice Place." Then, because he couldn't help himself: "Ah, babe, I've missed you."

There was the sound of a caught breath. "Goes double for me. Hutch -- " He heard the yearning in the whispered name.

"Listen," he said quickly, past the lump in his throat, "I've got things to tell you. Good things. We've got a lot to talk out. David -- " He caught a glimpse of Mac and Martin heading for the car. "I got to go. Looks like we got an early lunch break. I love you -- " That was when his money ran out and the line went dead.

"Ken," Mac greeted him amiably, as he joined them. "Martin wants to go photograph bears -- want a drive up into the Park?"

"No," Hutch said, unable to smother his grin. "No, I'm going home early, Mac." And he knew he couldn't wait until evening. "Like right now, in fact."

"Awshit, Uncle Ken -- " Martin began, but his father gave him a stern look.

"There'll be other times, Martin. Ken's got things to do. Ken-boy -- call me soon, huh?"

His parting handclasp was warm and reassuring, and the sense of that was with Hutch on the journey home.

It didn't seem to take to long to drive back as it had to drive out -- maybe that was due to his changed mood. The sun gave the haze of pollution over the city a deceptively golden glow -- after the clean air of the north it tasted metallic, stale, and burned unpleasantly in his sinuses. He finished the journey in air-conditioned claustrophobia, and was glad to find his usual parking place clear. He glanced at the lights of the restaurant across the sidewalk. Business at Chez Helene was good tonight.

He walked upstairs, groped for the spare key automatically -- it wasn't in its place above the door. Of course, Duplessis had it. So he hunted through his pockets until he found his own, and let himself in.

The apartment had a musty closed-in smell about it -- he turned on the air-conditioning, stripped and showered, hardly needing to towel himself dry -- the temperature was probably in the eighties still. After pulling on clean clothes he-checked his watch. Six. He'd told Stark nine -- he'd better call and tell him he was on his way right now.

That was when the doubts set in. He was presuming too much, and he knew it. Starsky's illness wasn't going to be cured in the space of a few days, especially since he, Hutchinson, had walked out on his partner after hanging a fist on his jaw. Did he really expect Starsky to welcome him back with the fatted calf? Regardless of the provocation, violence was the worst possible response he could have made, even if it felt good at the time. And it had, he acknowledged bitterly.

Nor had it been merely on Jaqi's behalf that he'd struck out, either. But that excused nothing. Since then, their one contact had been a single phone call. Sure, Starsky had said the right things, but -- Starsky had shown a Jekyll and Hyde act to the world before, and for all he knew, this could be another part of it. Another phone call would be no help. Hutch needed to see him, to find out if the changeling was still there behind his lover's eyes. To discover the extent of the damage he had done.

Because if the changeling was still there, then all of his tunnel-visioned, over-confident plans for them both would be flushed straight down the toilet.

A car backfired outside, the sharp gunshot of the sound jolting him.

Okay. He gave himself a shake. First things first. Check out the plants, see what's in the cupboard, then go see Starsk. Pick up any groceries en route. Or we can send out for pizza.

The optimist says the bottle's half-full.

* * * * * *

He walked out into the kitchen -- and was thrown off his feet by a massive concussion. The floor heaved underneath him. His one coherent thought was "Earthquake!" then the sound hit in an earshattering blast that tumbled furniture and windows and cracked walls and the floor sagged and the front wall groaned and screamed and fell away to be rebuilt in flame.