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One More River
Sunday. One day to bridge that gap between shared vacation and Hutch's 8.00 Monday morning. They had made no plans, content to drift through the hours until routine had to be taken up, but after a leisurely breakfast, they headed for Venice Place. There were still some of Starsky's things to be returned to his now fully-restored apartment.
But the key wasn't above the door, and the door was unlocked. Hutch halted in mid-stride, and Starsky barely stopped himself from colliding with him. A rather crumpled Duplessis, blinking, uncurled itself from a dormouse huddle on the couch, plainly disoriented.
"Christ," Hutch said. "Deja vu. Dave, what are you doing here?"
"What time is it?" Duplessis mumbled, knuckling his eyes.
"Ten o'clock," Starsky supplied. "Sally lock you out, or what?"
"Uh -- I thought you guys were due back yesterday, and so I dropped by to fill you in on the latest developments. Except you weren't here. And I thought I'd wait around --"
"Lucky we weren't delayed any longer," Hutch commented, and Starsky grinned.
"Yeah. Weekend traffic's hell. You been here all night?"
"Uh-huh." Duplessis stood up to stretch the kinks out of his muscles.
"Guess I owe you breakfast at the least, then," Hutch began.
"Hell, no. Coffee'll be fine." Duplessis raked his fingers through his hair, with a sheepish smile. "After I use the john, anyhow."
"Make yourself at home," Hutch said, heading for the kitchen, and Duplessis disappeared into the bathroom, to emerge a few minutes later less mussed and more alert. Starsky straddled one of the chairs at the table as Hutch juggled the mugs.
"Forgot the spoons again, Hutch," he commented over his shoulder. "Okay, Dave, what's so urgent it couldn't wait for Hutch to get back to work?"
"There may be a link between those kids -- Connery and Villiers. And there's a boy in County General Trauma Unit now, with multiple injuries, who could be another victim." Duplessis joined him at the table, taking the coffee set out for him. "Huggy gave me some info on Villiers. Swung both ways -- I talked to one of his ex-boyfriends. Villiers used an alias and worked for an agency called Hidalgo."
"Agency?" Hutch queried, his attention now totally on Duplessis. Starsky watched them, the blond head and the darker one, deep in concentration, and just for a moment felt a chill of -- exclusion. Of loneliness. But before it could start to hurt, Duplessis was speaking.
"You know. Escorts. Starsky, didn't you bust one of those joints a few years back?"
"Yeah, but it was a front for prostitution. They were into a helluva lot of side enterprise." He glanced at Hutch, remembering Grossman. "Massage parlors, porno and movies. And kiddies' novelties, just to make it look legal for the IRS."
"You checked Hidalgo out?" Hutch asked quietly.
"Not completely. Not yet. Dobey thinks we may put someone undercover, but it's too early to know."
"And the kid in the hospital?"
"In a coma." Duplessis glanced at his coffee. "I've seen him. He's a mess. The doctors aren't sure he'll come out of it."
"You got an ID on him?" Starsky asked.
"Yeah. Richard Sandoval. White male, aged 27, single. Nothing on file."
"And the M.O.?" Hutch said.
"Almost identical with Connery and Villiers. Except Sandoval is still alive."
"I'm not with you," Starsky cut in, reaching absently for the cookie-jar. "I wasn't in on this, remember."
"Oh. Yeah, well, in all these cases there's evidence of sexual assault, either before or after the working over. Lash marks on face and body. Drugs in the bloodstream -- barbiturate and hallucinogen as well as alcohol."
"Terrific," Starsky muttered, changing his mind about the cookies. "Looks like you got a real sicko loose."
"Bunch of sickos," Hutch corrected. "Dave, you said Hug got word on Villiers' ex?"
"Francis Ellis. Right." Duplessis gave a headshake of disbelief. "Mr. West Coast Executive."
Starsky risked a glance at his partner, but Hutch's gaze was on Duplessis.
"You get anything from him?"
"Not a lot, but--" Duplessis caught a glimpse of his wristwatch. "Christ, Sally's gonna skin me! I said I'd be home before eleven. Listen, why not come over for brunch, both of you? We have a kind of barbeque on Sundays -- there'll be more than enough. And I can fill you in on anything else."
"Starsk?" Hutch said, deferring to Starsky's decision.
He shrugged, grinned. "Sure -- I could use some real home cookin'. Thanks."
"Listen to him. Been feeding him rabbit-food these past two weeks, haven't I?"
Starsky gave him a straight look. "Not a chili pepper in sight," he announced. "My taste-buds have atrophied from lack of use."
Duplessis' grin widened. "Yeah, but you're lookin' good on it. Sally'll take one look and put me on the same diet."
"Vitamins," Starsky advised seriously, and the twinkle in his eyes aimed at Hutch reached its target as he saw a slight flush rise. "Unique mixture."
"Yeah?" Duplessis shook his head. "You're beginning to sound like a health-food freak, Starsky."
"A man could get addicted," he agreed. "But Sunday brunch barbeques are also high on my list. We get ribs?"
"Of course ribs. Let's go, huh?" Duplessis got up and made for the door.
"Uh, Dave," Hutch said, not moving, "you heading for a fast divorce?"
"Wha--? No way! Why?"
"Call her, for god's sake. You don't just turn up with a couple of extra mouths without giving her fair warning."
"Oh." Duplessis hesitated. "Hey, Sal won't mind. We always got plenty --"
Whatever Hutch's concern, the Duplessis household seemed to have no problem with unexpected guests. But then, he already knew that Sally was quite a remarkable girl -- someone who could cope with the odd hours of a cop, and the attendant anxieties, was a rare creature in his experience. Sally coped. She could cook, too. The meal was all Starsky could have hoped for, and afterward the men stayed on the patio to talk shop over a six-pack and keep an eye on the wanderings of the clumsy-footed Labrador pup and the Duplessis toddler, who were diligently pursuing each other in circles.
Duplessis brought Hutch and Starsky up to date on Connery, explained Villiers and the unidentified body and the links between the three. Then he passed on all he knew of Ellis and the Hidalgo agency. There were a lot of gaps.
"Sounds a real lulu," Starsky muttered, reaching for a second beer. "Does Connery have any connections with Hidalgo?"
"Don't know yet. Huggy's checking it out. Captain Dobey doesn't want any official questions asked in case they start getting antsy; it wouldn't make it any easier for whoever he sends in. If he sends someone in."
"Yeah," Hutch said thoughtfully. "Looks like we better pay the Bear a visit tomorrow, partner." But his eyes were on Starsky, not Duplessis. Starsky gave a small lop-sided smile and shook his head.
"Not me, babe," he said softly. "I haven't got past the Board yet, remember? You'n' the kid check it out. Of course, I might well be in the neighborhood, having a drink and rappin' with my old friend Huggy, know what I mean? But," he went on, "I'm not in on this case, yet."
"Sure." Hutch shared an embarrassed grin with Duplessis. "Sorry, Dave. Old habits die hard."
"S'okay." He pushed a beer can into Hutch's hand. "You don't have to apologize, not to me. You told me right at the start you already got a partner, an' I guess I know the score. I've been taking real good care of him, Starsky."
"Yeah, I can see that. 'Preciate it, Dave. These older models take some lookin' after."
"Quit it, the pair of you," Hutch grinned. They were talking as if the Board was a mere formality, and right then that was exactly how it seemed to him. His confidence was firm, unshakeable. It was only a matter of time, and the dream of so many months would be reality. A few short days. He had the feeling those days were going to drag by.
"Hey, listen," said Starsky, "Dave, I hate to eat and run, but my place still needs some work, and I'm running short on days."
"No sweat," Duplessis smiled. "You can eat here anytime, both of you. Do you want me to pick you up in Venice tomorrow, Hutch?"
"No, it's okay." Hutch didn't look at Starsky. "I'll see you in the squadroom."
Farewells made, they headed back for Venice. Neither spoke during the drive, but neither needed to. The silence was a sharing. And a glance at the man beside him as he cut the ignition showed Hutch a smiling face, eyes half-closed.
"Nice kids," Starsky said quietly. "Love's Young Dream. Hey, how come you managed not to blush when he offered to pick you up, huh? And when he said he knew the score?"
"Starsky, you're a louse," Hutch growled, his color now all Starsky could have wished.
"Yeah. C'mon, lover, let's go home."
Home. Venice Place, where their love had first taken its new shape. The place where they had gained a second chance. Sunlight lay across the bed, jungle-striped with shadows, patterns of precious memory threaded with dimly-recalled grief.
Yet so was that other apartment home, and their two weeks in the cabin away from the city. Any place, Hutch acknowledged, was his home if his lover shared it. No, rephrase that. Starsky was his home. He touched the tanned cheek, fingers sliding through the dark curls, and the few inches difference in their heights tilted Starsky's head back as their eyes met.
"Stay here tonight?" Hutch whispered. The day was behind them, the night awaited, and tomorrow. All the tomorrows.
"Dumb thing to say. Where else should I be? We'll have to get us a cat."
"So's we can put it out nights. And an open fire'n' slippers. Just for weekends."
"I'm in love with a flake."
"So what else is new? Let's go to bed, huh?"
Two weeks couldn't have made that much difference, could it? Hutch collected a strung-out chorus of greetings from entrance lobby to squadroom, and Minnie was not to be outdone. She caught his arm and pulled him into a swift hug. "You're looking good enough to eat, Blondie! Boy that vacation musta done you a world of good. How's that trashy partner of yours?"
"Still trashy," he smiled, unexpectedly touched by her caring.
"He looking good?"
"I'm keeping my fingers crossed for Tuesday," she confided. "Fingers, toes, legs, eyes..."
"He'll get through okay."
"Sure he will. But will I survive the strain?"
"You'd better, Minnie. You're all he's comin' back for."
"Hoo! She wishes!" And she swatted his rear with a sheaf of files before dumping them on his desk. "You got a lot of catching up to do, Blondie."
Connery, Villiers, Sandoval. Case notes, photographs, and in the first two files, postmortem reports and statements from family, friends, and contacts. Hutch picked Francis Ellis out of Villiers' file and began to read.
Duplessis came in, tendering a cheerful greeting on his way to the coffee-station. Dobey's door jerked open, and the Captain leaned on the jamb.
"Morning, Hutch. Good vacation?"
"Yeah, fine, thanks."
"Ah-huh. Starsky all primed for the board?"
"Rarin' to go."
"Ah-huh. You and Duplessis get over to County, see if we can get a statement from Sandoval yet. Then you go and talk to Mrs. Bettina Miller." He handed over a sheet of paper. As well as an address in Trousdale, it had the make, serial number and price of a watch, date of purchase, and the name of the store that had sold it. "Came in this morning. Connery's watch."
"Took them long enough," Hutch said. "Okay, Captain. You ready, kid?"
"When you are." Duplessis drained the last of his coffee, peering over Hutch's shoulder to scan the paper. "My car or yours?"
"Wonder if this Mrs. Miller gave him the gold chain as well?"
"You're jumping to conclusions," Hutch said dampeningly.
"So what's the difference between jumping to a conclusion and getting a hunch?" Duplessis demanded.
"Hunches," Hutch grinned, "pay off. Sometimes."
"Ah, I get it. I jump to conclusions, you get hunches. Right?"
Perhaps wisely, Duplessis refrained from further comment, and they left for the hospital.
Sandoval's condition was unchanged, but the doctor was less pessimistic about his chances. The longer his condition remained stable, the better the odds, it seemed.
Twenty-seven years old. He looked a lot younger. Framed by the mane of black curling hair, his face had once been more than handsome. Now it was lash-scored and battered.
"Same M.O. as Connery," Duplessis murmured.
"I read the autopsy report." Hutch was unable to keep the snap out of his voice. Death was something he would never get used to -- nor this knife-edge balance when Trauma teams fought to keep a life from slipping away. As they fought for Starsky's, last May. And there was nothing I could do but wait. And watch. "Come on, Trousdale's next on the list."
"Yeah, okay. Hey, listen, I didn't mean --"
"I know. One of the first things they taught us in the Academy was 'don't get involved'. It was one of the first rules I broke. Keep right on breaking it, too." Sandoval was just a couple of years younger than Duplessis. All the bright might-have-beens of his life cancelled by a few hours' savagery. Hutch shook his head, clearing aside the useless thought. "I'll drive."
The Trousdale address was an expensive condo, part of a fancy landscaped complex around a large oval pool. They walked past hedges of bright hibiscus and mimosa, and Duplessis hit the doorbell. It was a long wait. He was about to lean on the bellpush again when the door opened.
"Mrs. Bettina Miller?" The young cop switched on his best public-servant smile, and the woman smiled back.
"Yes." She must have been in her mid-fifties, but figure and skin tone showed evidence of all the care that money could provide. Her hair was sunlit gold, her bikini a riot of tropic color, and her weight about twenty pounds too much for the brevity of the garment.
"Officer Duplessis and Detective Sergeant Hutchinson, ma'am. LAPD." Hutch showed his ID. "Can we have a little of your time?"
"Police?" China-blue eyes widened, flew to Hutch's face. "OhmyGod, Harvey -- my husband -- what's happened to him?"
"Nothing as far as we know, Mrs. Miller," Hutch assured. "May we come in?"
"Yes, of course. Then what --" She broke off, some of her poise returning. "I guess you won't drink alcohol on duty, but I can offer you coffee -- tea?"
"Nothing, thank you." They followed her into a spacious and elegant room that opened out onto the patio and pool.
"You had me scared for a minute," she confessed, gesturing them to the couch. "I thought that stupid man had walked under a bus or something. He's always got his head in lecture notes, never seems to look where he's going. Sure you won't have a drink? It won't take a minute."
"Well," Hutch's hesitation was slight and deliberate. "If it's no trouble. Thank you. Coffee?" She smiled, the perfect hostess, confident in her ability to seduce even unwanted guests into obedience. He hoped she would retain that poise when he started asking about Drew Connery.
She came back wearing a muumuu that matched her bikini, and carrying a tray. Real silver and English bone china. Hutch waited until she had poured the coffee, offered cream and sugar, then said, "Mrs. Miller, did you purchase a wristwatch four months ago? A man's watch, gold with a gold band, from Kantor's on Rodeo Drive?"
She put down her cup. It did not rattle on the saucer. "I may have done," she said carefully. "Though I might choose to deny it. Certainly I have neither lost a watch, nor had one stolen. Neither has Harvey. More than that I'm not prepared to say."
"Do you know a young man called Drew Connery?" Hutch persisted, and Duplessis produced a photograph. It was one of several Alison Connery had given them -- her brother in a swim-suit, mugging for the camera on a California beach.
"Why?" She leaned back on the cushions and crossed her legs. "I've already said I haven't had a watch stolen or lost, so I really fail to see why this should go any further."
"Mrs. Miller. Andrew Connery is dead, and we are trying --"
"Dead?" Her hand went to her throat. Diamond rings glittered in the sunlight. "Dead? How? He --"
"He was murdered." No easy way to say it. "We're hoping you can help us."
"Why me? I -- I don't know the boy." Her voice was shaking, and tears were spilling unnoticed down her cheeks.
"When he was found," Duplessis said, "he was wearing a gold watch. We checked the serial number, and traced it to you."
"At that time, we didn't have a name for him. He wasn't carrying any form of ID," Hutch went on. "So we checked it out as a matter of routine."
"I -- I gave it to him," she whispered. Duplessis dug out a clean, folded handkerchief from his pocket, put it into her hands. "He was a sweet, kind boy... Who'd want to murder him?"
"That's what we want to find out, Mrs. Miller."
"You don't think that I -- that I --"
"We don't think anything yet." He held her gaze with his own. "We need to build up a picture of him, his friends, his lifestyle, the people he spent time with. Will you tell us what you know about him?"
She drew in a shuddering breath, held Duplessis' handkerchief over her eyes for a moment, then straightened. "Okay," she said, voice steady now. "I met him about six months ago. Harvey was touring the South. Our friends hold a lot of social functions. Dinner parties, tennis afternoons. I'm expected to attend. Harvey suggested I go to an escort agency -- some of my girlfriends use them regularly, to make up numbers at a dinner, or for a safe escort to the theatre if their husbands can't go. It's all very above board," she added, her chin tilted defiantly.
"And what's the name of your agency, Mrs. Miller?"
"Benedic's," she said. "Rachel recommended them. They sent Drew." Her glance slid away. "I know what you're thinking. Middle-aged lady, buying expensive gifts for a pretty boy. But it wasn't like that. I -- I could have been his mother." Her voice broke, and she buried her face in Duplessis' hanky again.
"Mrs. Miller." Hutch put all the sympathy he felt into his voice and his gentle touch on her arm. "Is there someone you'd like me to call for you? To stay with you for a while, until you're over the shock?"
"Would you? R-Rachel Rycoff -- she's in the notebook by the phone."
"I'll see to it." Duplessis went to make the call.
"Did Drew talk about his other customers?" Hutch asked.
"Oh, no. Well, very seldom. He was so -- courteous, you know? It was really sweet to see old-fashioned manners like that in a young man. His family raised him right."
"Did he mention any names? People he worked with, people who hired him?"
"No. He didn't know any of the other escorts. Told me his name was Andrew Benedic. So maybe they all use Benedic as a surname? He never spoke of the others. Sometimes he'd say he'd been to a premiere, or the opera, or the races. Things like that. But no names, and I never asked. He'd have to be discreet, wouldn't he?"
"Yes. When was the last time you saw him?"
"About a month ago, just before Harvey came back from South Carolina. We went to Rachel's silver wedding dinner. It was the fourteenth? A Friday?"
And Drew Connery had died a few days later, on the Sunday evening.
"Did he mention any plans for the next few days?"
"No. He was happy, though. Not worried or subdued. Just -- happy, you know? Full of energy. Alive."
"Had you made any arrangements to meet him again?"
"Yes, This Wednesday. Dolores is holding a yacht party. Harvey hates them. Drew put it in his diary so the agency would know. Oh, my poor baby..." And she sobbed into the handkerchief.
Hutch let her cry it out, made sympathetic noises, while Duplessis hovered anxiously. "Mrs. Rycoff's on her way," he reported, and glanced around the room. "Maybe I should make some more coffee?"
"Yeah," Hutch agreed. "Mrs. Miller, your friend --"
She made an effort to gain control, and wiped her eyes. Her make-up was smeared, but it didn't take away her dignity. "Sorry. I'm all right now. Was there anything else?"
"Did you ever use any other agency, ma'am? Like Hidalgo?"
"No, only Benedic's. Rachel says Hidalgo doesn't have the same class. I mean, Benedic's are very careful. It's all quite respectable. Nothing in the least bit questionable. And their escorts are so very -- safe. You understand?"
"And Drew was the only one Benedic's sent you?"
"Yes. I saw no reason to change. He was a dear boy."
"Did he ever mention, or did you meet Richard Sandoval?"
"No, I don't think so. Is he the one who killed --"
"No. He might be another victim. How about Chris Villiers or Robin Parrish?"
She shook her head. "No," she whispered. "Are they dead as well?" Hutch nodded. "Sergeant Hutchinson, how did Andrew die?"
"He didn't know much about it, Mrs. Miller," Hutch said quietly. She started to speak, but stopped with a visible shudder.
"My poor baby," she whispered again.
Hurried footsteps heralded Rachel Rycoff's arrival. The two detectives stayed long enough to question her about Villiers and Sandoval, but drew another blank. They were relieved to be able to leave after that. Grief, be it your own or a total stranger's, is not easy to deal with.
Huggy was next on the list, and he did not seem surprised to see them when they walked into The Pits. Hutch felt the keenness in the swift dark glance that probed his expression, felt also the caring and concern in that glance. His color rose, and he was glad of the dimness.
Huggy grinned, spreading his hands wide. "Welcome to the Lair of the Bear, my friends. After two weeks roughin' it out in the tall timber, I'm surprised you can remember the way here, Hutch."
"That's why I tagged along with the kid," he said lightly, winning a snort of half-serious indignation from Duplessis.
"Always did figure you needed a keeper." Huggy smiled like an ebony sphinx. "Beers are on the house, just this once."
"Thanks. We'd also like some information, Hug."
"Naturally. Didn't think you came here just for the beer, m'man. Why don't we sit down and be sociable about it, huh?"
They seated themselves in the corner away from the pinball machine and the Space Invaders, three pairs of elbows on the table.
"Our little Cock Robin had about half-a-dozen regulars," Huggy said without preamble. "An' I don't mean escorting ladies to the Opera. Hidalgo's got a second string to its bow. Some of the merchandise sell sex as well as the simple pleasure of their company, an' it's part of the agency's service. A high-class cat-house, even. For lonely ladies and choosy gays."
"Villiers was a part of that?"
"Yeah. Why'd you think he called himself Robin? He knew what he had, and how much he could sell it for. Or rather, how much Hidalgo could sell it for. He got a tidy percentage of the fee, as well as the protection of the agency. Cock Robin was quite a survivor."
"You sound like you knew him," Duplessis said, and Huggy cackled with amusement.
"Not me, boy. He was way outta this league. But I've been hearing a lot about him from someone who did."
"Can we talk to them, Hug?" Hutch put in.
"Maybe, after I've worked on 'em a little. He ain't too keen on the fuzz, an' I gotta convince him you're a for-real faded soul-brother, you dig? But he's scared. 'Specially after Richie Sandoval. Yeah," he nodded to Duplessis, "Richie's out of Hidalgo's stable, worked the legit and the bedroom circuit. Only he was straight."
"Like Connery," the young detective said. "But I guess it didn't matter a damn to whoever killed them whether they were straight or gay. Connery was with Benedic's, Huggy. Has anything come up on them?"
"Nope. Not so far. I'll drop the name around, though. Ver-ee careful-ee. There ain't much goin' around the street, 'cept some real wild speculation, an' I do mean wild."
"Nothing in the gay bars?"
"Nothin'. Except the way-out theories. Had a long talk with my old friend, Sugar. Remember her, Hutch? She remembers you. And Starsk. If anyone'd know anything, it'd be Sugar. But she says she don't."
"Uh-huh. Can you find out how many other agencies run the same kind of double service?"
"Easier to find the ones who don't. I'll give it my best shot, anyhow. An' I'll be in touch, okay?"
"You're welcome. An' tell that partner of yours to knock their eyes out tomorrow, willya?"
"I'll do that."
"How 'bout a toast?" Duplessis cut in, grinning. "To Starsky. And -- whatsisname, the other one."
"Hey, you got it! Huggy laughed, and the glasses clinked together. "I'll drink to that!"
Hutch followed suit, raising his glass.
To Starsky, for sure. To the other half of me. My love and my lover.
Where had the afternoon gone? Hutch smiled, autopsy reports, morgue photographs, sheets of witness-statements, all retreating to the back of his mind. To him, there was only one person in the busy gymnasium: Starsky, pummeling several kinds of brick dust out of the punching bag. No science, but plenty of enthusiasm. And stamina. The lean form moved with vigorous precision, layered with smooth-working muscle, sweat-glossed skin gleaming in the lights. He looked fit and hard and ready for anything the street could throw at him. The Review Board was going to be a pushover. The real -- and only -- test would be out there patrolling their turf. But Starsky was confident, and therefore so was he.
It was difficult to keep his assessment impersonal: easier to let imagination and memory strip away shorts and shirt, reveal the body beneath. Play of muscle and tendon under the tanned, dark-furred skin; quick aggressive grace uncluttered by clothing, expression fiercely intent. Last night that face had shown another aspect. The degree of intensity was the same, but then it had been the blaze of love and the transcendent peak of climax that had been mirrored in flesh and bone and burning blue eyes.
Starsky abandoned the punching bag and sauntered towards him, the smile matching his own.
"Ready for the Big Fight, Champ?" Hutch wanted to know.
"You bet your ass," Starsky chuckled. Then, "And how's your day been, honey?" with a demure curve to his lips.
Hutch grimaced. "Tell you later," he said. "You finished here?"
"Just about. Gimme time to grab a shower, an' I'll be right with you."
"How'd it go at the Range?" Hutch followed him into the locker room.
"Okay." Starsky stripped off quickly, stepped into the shower-stall. "Scored pretty good, if I say so myself. And 'specially on the Practical."
"But of course. Dave 'We-Never-Miss' Starsky, huh?" Yet that was an unspoken worry for them both, still, and until the situation arose for real, there was no way of knowing if Starsky would have some kind of kickback against firearms. It hadn't shown on the Range, anyway. That was as well.
"Right on, babe!" came an exuberant crow above the rush of water, and Hutch grinned and shook his head. He picked up the discarded garments, folded them away in Starsky's Adidas gym bag; then, to take his mind off memories of shared showers, laid out Starsky's street-clothes. One sneaker had to be located and retrieved from under the opposite bench, and by the time he'd put it with the other of the pair, Starsky was out of the shower and toweling himself dry.
The locker-room was empty but for them: instinct and training told him that even as his hands were reaching out for Starsky's shoulders.
Stupid to take chances -- shouldn't do it -- after all, we only need to get caught out once -- Warm and hungry, Starsky's mouth opened under his, and the damp body arched against him, hips moving in a slow, sensual thrust.
"What y'tryin' to do, lover? Send me back for a cold shower?" Starsky whispered.
"No. Sorry. I just --"
"Couldn't wait, huh?"
"Nice to be appreciated," his lover drawled, and with reluctance Hutch let him go. Starsky didn't draw back, though. They stayed together, bodies fitted close, until voices sounded outside the door.
Starsky gave a guilty grin and dived for his clothes, and Hutch cursed himself for a fool. He wasn't a love-sick adolescent, and he sure as hell didn't get a kick out of taking chances, but the sweet poignant taste of Starsky's mouth still lingered, spreading its sorcery through his blood.
Side by side they left the gym, pausing for a moment on the steps leading down to the parking lot. "So where are we going?"
"Back to my place," Hutch glanced at him, smiling. "Thought I'd give you dinner. Maybe breakfast, too."
"Why not?" He stretched luxuriously, grinning back. "Sure. I got a heavy date tomorrow. Don't want to get over-tired cooking for myself, an' stuff like that."
Their eyes met, and both cracked up.
Dinner was a surprise -- trout in almond sauce, with a garnish of salad and petits pois. Starsky's eyes widened as Hutch put the plate in front of him with something of a proud flourish.
"Trout?" The word ended half an octave higher than it had begun.
"Fish is good for the brain," Hutch told him.
"This isn't fish." Starsky prodded the delicate morsel on his plate with tentative reverence.
"Trust me, it's fish. And before you ask, the whole mess came out of cans. It's amazing what you can pick up at the supermarket these days."
"Amazing," Starsky echoed, dissecting a flake of fish and tasting. "Not bad."
"Compliments to the chef?"
"Mmm." He nodded. "S'terrific. Really."
Hutch poured the wine, raised his glass in salute. "To us. Tomorrow," he said softly. And Starsky touched glasses with him, in silent agreement.
Dishwashing never takes long when shared. Neither do the other chores of keeping house. Not that there was a lot to do since Starsky had spent the morning tidying up and just being generally domestic. They finished in the greenhouse for the plant-tending session, with Starsky sprawled on the bench while Hutch misted and fed and watered the philodendron, the spider plants, the African violet, and the assorted succulents. Starsky watched him move from one to another, the large hands and long fingers skilled and careful, and listened to the idiotic one-sided conversation.
Knew plants were supposed to like being talked to -- but getting off on Donna Summer?
"What's that one called?"
"This one?" Hutch broke off the soliloquy. "It's an asparagus fern, Starsk."
"No, I mean its name. What you call it." Hutch's clear eyes regarded him, half amused exasperation, half questioning embarrassment. But Starsky held the gaze, no mockery in his expression.
"Colette," Hutch said at last. Starsky grinned.
"Would I lie to you?"
Starsky reached over and took the pot from him, turning it to inspect the feathery specimen from all angles. "You're a classy broad, Colette," he said seriously. "Bet you don't get off on Donna Summer. Charles Aznavour, maybe?"
"Well, Colette sounds French," Starsky said, logically. "Certainly looks French."
"You," said Hutch with conviction, "are weird, Starsk."
Their evenings together had developed a set pattern, almost a ritual. So much was still unknown and new, they needed the retreat into the security of familiar things, the subtle change fitting smoothly into the patterning. When a word or gesture can suddenly take on a whole new erotic meaning, it was almost relief to slip back into the easy and undemanding ways of their old relationship. For a little while.
Starsky, still enjoying guest status, was allowed to commandeer the bathroom while Hutch finished up the chores, and was sprawled back against the pillows, a book in his hands, by the time Hutch padded out, wrapped in the orange robe, hair a damp fluffy corona. Under cover of reading, Starsky watched through his lashes.
So beautiful... There just aren't words...
"What's the book?" Hutch folded back his side of the covers.
"The book, Starsk." Starsky tilted it to show him the jacket. "Oh. You want to keep on reading?"
"Lights out, then." And the room was abruptly dark. It took him a little by surprise. There was a hesitant mothlike flutter in his middle waiting to become wings of fire in Hutch's embrace. But the expected first touch didn't come, and he didn't know why not -- until the ridiculousness of it hit him.
What am I waiting for? Him to ravish me?
The mental image that conjured up was farcical, and he chuckled. "Hutch?"
"Gonna ravish me?"
Hutch made a snorting sound and rolled to face him. Starsky couldn't make out the expression, only the chiaroscuro light and dark. But the voice was quivering with amusement. "You got a heavy day tomorrow, Starsk. You should get some sleep."
Starsky growled and grabbed. "Yeah. Later. C'mere, Blintz." Firm flesh, hard muscle, and the heat of desire pressed against his thigh. "Thought you'd hold out on me, huh? Huh?"
"Starsk -- David -- you don't want to wear yourself out -- not with the Board tomorrow..."
"So I won't exert myself," Starsky promised, pulling Hutch on top of him. "Want you, lover. Now."
The Review Board was convened in what was colloquially known as the Parker Penthouse, but comfortable chairs and deep pile carpet did not make the waiting any easier. For Hutch, it was tedious; for his Captain, it seemed to be a lot worse. Dobey was mopping sweat from his face with a handkerchief the size of a small tablecloth. Hutch had to smile.
"Take it easy, Cap," he said. "Starsk'll make it through, no problem."
Dobey glared at him, a scowl of resentment corrugating his forehead. "You're too damn confident," he snapped. "Damn it, you know how long he's been on the sick-list!"
A shadow crossed the calm blond features, and Hutch looked down at his fingernails. "Yes, I know. To the last decimal place. But they'll pass him."
"How much longer, for God's sake?" It was a muted rumble. Clearly Dobey wasn't listening to him. Hutch smiled again. The number of people who cared about Starsky gave him a good feeling. He glanced at his watch -- 4:36. Starsk had been in there nearly two hours. Couldn't be much longer, could it?
As if in reward for his patience, the door opened and Starsky came out. He was smiling and relaxed. "They said I should wait in the squadroom," he announced. "They wanna see you now, Cap."
Dobey nodded, and shouldered into the room as if he intended to browbeat the whole Board into agreement that Starsky should be reassigned to full active duty. The two men watched the door close behind their Captain's bulk, then turned to each other.
"Boy, could I use a cup of coffee," Starsky said. "They had me talkin' solid all afternoon, seems like. Hope your coffee dues are all paid up."
"You think Minnie would let me get away without paying? She came round collecting before the vacation. We're safe until the end of the month."
"Great. The way my throat feels, I'm gonna drink up our quota right now."
Hutch paused at the door, aching to know the outcome, and unable to wait any longer. "Well?" he asked quietly.
"They didn't give anything away," Starsky said. "Like Mount Rushmore -- a set of stone faces. I couldn't read 'em."
Minnie was hovering. She moved papers from desk to desk, opened and closed filing cabinets, rearranged the bulletin board, and was finally reduced to emptying empty ashtrays. Starsky perched on the desk that used to be his, and tried not to notice that Duplessis already had his own bits and pieces collected into a box ready for transfer to another desk. Hutch fetched coffee for all four of them, and the vigil continued.
"When they said they'd let you know," Minnie said finally, "did they give you any idea as to when? Like next year? Next week? Tomorrow?"
"No." Starsky shook his head. "Maybe the Cap'll know more."
Phones rang, interrupting him. Hutch took one, Duplessis the other. Both conversations were short. "You first," Hutch said to Duplessis.
"Okay. That was Ellis. I arranged a meeting with him. To ask him more about Sandoval."
"Who might make it," Hutch added his information. "That was the hospital. Sandoval's beginning to respond. Still on the critical list, but he could pull through. When are you meeting Ellis?"
"Tomorrow, five o'clock at his place."
"Sounds like a date, honey," Minnie chuckled. "Keep your back to the wall, y'hear?"
"He's safe, Minnie," Hutch said without thinking. "What gay in his right mind would make a pass at a cop?"
"None that I know of," Starsky drawled wickedly, a broad grin spreading over his face. To his horror, Hutch felt his color begin to rise, but the indignant retort on his lips was postponed by Dobey's entrance. The black face was set in a peculiar expression, and for a moment Hutch could not read it. Then he realized it was relief, delight, and general emotional backlash, all held rigidly under control.
"Starsky, you're back on duty as of tomorrow morning."
Hutch grabbed his partner into a rib-bruising hug, Starsky's arms locking around him at the same time. Duplessis whooped and caught them both in an exuberant embrace, while Minnie wrapped herself around as much of all three as she could.
"Damn glad, Starsky, Hutchinson," Dobey said gruffly, patting whichever shoulder was nearest. "Damn glad..."
I told you so, said the dancing light in Starsky's eyes.
I never doubted you, Hutch answered mentally.
"When you're through waltzing, Starsky --"
"In my office. Won't take a minute."
Dobey didn't prevaricate. Don't try to snow me, his attitude said. "Sit down, Starsky. How do you feel about this?"
"Getting back on the force? It's what I've been aiming for since I got out of the hospital. When they said there was a chance."
"Remember what else they said?" Dobey asked somberly.
Starsky met his gaze squarely. "I know I can't take another bullet," he said quietly. "If that's what you're getting at."
"And you still want back on the street?"
"That's where we do our job, Cap. I want back with Hutch. I don't particularly care where."
"That's what I thought. Well, there's a suggestion for you to think about. The Lieutenant's exam will be coming up in a month or so. You've got a good chance, Starsky. Your street experience and arrest-record could compensate for the lack of a degree."
"I'll talk it over with Hutch."
Dobey didn't say that it was Starsky's life, and not Hutch's. Instead, he nodded. "You do that. And let me know what you decide, either way. Tell me something -- you sold the Board good on getting back on the street. What exactly did you say?"
"I guess," Starsky said seriously, "that I clinched it when they asked what I thought. How fit I considered I was to go back on the street. And I told them that if I had any doubts about whether or not I could cut it, I wouldn't be there. Because I'm not risking anyone's life on a macho-trip. Not mine, not Hutch's. Particularly not Hutch's."
Dobey nodded. "That's what I figured." He cleared his throat. "Good to have you back, Starsky."
"Thanks, Cap. It's good to be back."
The phone rang, evilly, just before eight the next morning, but Starsky was already up, showered, shaved and dressed. He hooked the receiver from under Hutch's groping hand, sat down on the bed beside the moaning hump. "Yeah. Starsky."
A pleasant feminine voice greeted him. "Well, hello, you sound chipper. How are things?"
"Hi, Jaqi." He smiled as he recognized the voice. "I'm fine. You?"
"Overworked and underpaid. Is Ken there? I tried calling his apartment, but there was no answer."
"Get your head together, Hotshot, it's your lady," Starsky hissed at what little was visible of Hutch. "Yeah, Jaqi, he's here. Kinda worse for wear -- we were celebratin' last night."
"Celebr-- You made it? You got through the Board! That's wonderful!" She sounded genuinely delighted. "You must be over the moon -- Ken too, of course. But he never doubted you could do it. When do you start work again?"
"In about an hour, if I can resurrect the dead. Hutch, willya please --"
She laughed. "Hey, don't trouble him on my account. Just tell him I'm home this weekend, and I'll bring Emma along. Maybe we'll finally get to meet each other, Starsky."
"I'll look forward to that," he agreed.
"It's about time. I was beginning to wonder just what was the reason he was keeping us apart. Look, I know you're busy -- just give him a kiss from me, huh?" And she laughed again as she hung up.
Starsky peeled back a corner of quilt, touched his lips to the warm cheek, feeling the invisible blond stubble. "You hear any of that, Rip Van Winkle?"
"What was that about raising the dead?" Hutch whispered against his mouth, eyes closed, as Starsky cupped his face between his hands. "Magician..."
"Nothin' magical about it." He smiled and kissed Hutch again. "That's from your lady. Bet she didn't think I'd deliver."
"Of course Jaqi. She's home this weekend, said she'd be over with Emma."
"Oh." Simple acknowledgement, no more -- Hutch's mind obviously wasn't registering Starsky's words, only his voice, his touch.
"And it's time you were up an' about, love."
"I'm up," Hutch offered hopefully, and Starsky laughed.
"You want me to be late on my first morning back? Because you're going the right way about it."
"First morning back, you gotta be on time," Hutch agreed reluctantly, letting go and heaving himself out of bed, wincing. "Christ. Why haven't you got a hangover?"
"No justice in the world, is there? Besides, I don't get hangovers after two beers. Which is all I had."
"Virtue," said Starsky, "is its own reward."
Starsky might have been on time arriving at Metro, but the assorted greetings and congratulations made him thoroughly late getting to Room 519. This once, there were no recriminations. He was back, and the miracle of his recovery had been confirmed, his return accomplished. The old team was back in business.
Minnie came in with an armful of files, which she deposited in front of Hutch as she turned to hug Starsky. "Hasn't been the same around here without you, honey-lamb," she declared. "Now tell me what Blondie and the Kid were drinking last night?"
"Same as me, only more of it and I hold it better. Where is Dave?"
"In the men's room again, I guess." She looked sympathetic. "Poor baby. Y'want coffee, fellas?"
"Black," said Hutch, "and put him down, Minnie, you don't know where he's been."
"I don't care where he's been," she claimed firmly. "He's one sweet armful, and it does this girl good just to see that trashy grin again."
Starsky kissed her. "Missed you, too, Min," he said fondly.
"Mutual admiration society," Hutch grunted. "Here, partner, take your share of these."
Duplessis came in, looking wan and heavy-eyed. He accepted the stack of files Hutch passed him in silence, and sat down at his new desk, to Hutch's left now instead of opposite. Dobey walked through the squadroom en route to his office. It being impossible for him to look pale, the only clue to his physical condition was the frown on his face. That and the basso profundo growl with which he responded to Starsky's cheerful greeting.
"Nothin' much changes," Starsky commented happily.
The phone call changed everyone's mood. Hutch got to it first, and Starsky saw his face change as he said, "Yeah -- when was this? I see. Yeah. Thanks." He put the receiver down. "Sandoval's dead. Early this morning. Embolism."
"But -- they said he was going to make it!" Duplessis was frankly disbelieving.
"Said he had a chance. Guess his luck ran out." Hutch rubbed both hands over his face. "Autopsy report'll be ready when we are. Damn."
Sunlight glowed on polished mahogany, giving the wood a liquid depth, the grain of it translucent rippled amber. Corey shuffled papers together, set them just so on the gloss, a stark rectangle of white. "The last item on the agenda, gentlemen," he said, "is Garbage Disposal." His voice was cold, matter-of-fact, but the tension in the long hands that rested light and still on the table spoke of his displeasure. "There is a procedure laid down for such matters." Granite-hard eyes raked slowly around the table, pausing briefly at each face, watching for the small changes of expression, for pupils that shifted, eyelids that twitched, mouths that hardened into a defensive line.
"This procedure has been decided upon for its efficiency, simplicity, and cost-effectiveness. It has worked satisfactorily for a number of years. So why, may I ask, has this procedure been bypassed of late? And on more than one occasion."
No one spoke. Some faces frowned, some remained studiously blank. Corey hadn't finished, and no one was going to presume to interrupt him. It wasn't wise to interrupt Felix Corey at any time.
"Carelessly dumped garbage, gentlemen, is both an eyesore and an embarrassment. It is a hazard, as in the last incident, and expensive to rectify. In short, there has been a fuck-up." He smiled, without mirth. "And I will not tolerate fuck-ups in this organization." His voice had not risen above conversation level, but each clearly-enunciated word cut like a separate blade. "Sandoval is now dead. If the set procedure had been adhered to, the inconvenience and extra cost would have been avoided. So," and his eyes made one more circuit of the table, "will someone please explain why that particular item of garbage did not end up in Tadleigh's furnace, but was left in Griffith Park? Not only left there, but left there alive? Well, Mr. Caldwell? This is your province."
"Yes, sir." Caldwell knotted sweating fists in his lap, wanting to blot the wetness from his face as well, but unwilling to display his nervousness publicly. "I don't know yet what went wrong, but I sure as hell intend to find out."
"Good. Who was the driver on that run?"
"Uh, Borrows, sir."
"Borrows. Five-ten, late thirties, dark hair?"
"See to it he doesn't make the run again. Reprimand him, but not severely. The next party Mr. Hart books, Borrows can be part of the entertainment. Jules should appreciate him. He will, of course, be sent to Tadleigh along with the chicken, and will be disposed of as per the set procedure. Is that clear?"
"Yes, Mr. Corey."
"I'm reappointing Jomo to your staff, he'll take over the transportation as of now. There will be no further errors of this nature."
"No, Mr. Corey." A quiet chorus.
Corey stood up, immaculate in his light grey suit, features cool, distinguished: the picture of the successful business man. "That is all. Good day, gentlemen."
The trio of detectives met to discuss developments with their Captain two days later, on Friday evening, when there seemed to be something to go on.
"Ellis knew Sandoval," Duplessis reported. "Hired him a couple of times for dinner parties. But according to him, that was all, he never made it with the kid. I asked him if he knew that Hidalgo ran a sex-service as well as their advertised stuff. Said yes, he did, had used it himself a couple of times. But his affair with Villiers wasn't anything to do with them. He says. He also seemed pretty sick at the idea that Villiers was part of that second stable. But," and he paused, "he said he wants to help. Anything within reason he can do, he will."
"Like making a cover look good?" Dobey asked.
"That could be useful. Hutch, did you get any more from Mrs. Miller and Mrs. Rycoff?"
"Some. Benedic's appears to employ an age-range of twenty-one to fifty. Main criteria are good looks, good manners, good health, intelligence, poise, and education. And trustworthiness. Anyone who can't control the baser instincts is out."
"That's on the surface," Starsky went on. "If there's more to it underneath, Huggy hasn't unearthed it yet. Hidalgo want much the same type, but they do recruit for the bedroom. They cater mainly for ladies, but they're quite happy to supply for gays. His contact is being very difficult about talking to cops, but he's told Hug there are rumors in the Hidalgo stable about a real heavy S&M scene."
"We need to talk to him."
Starsky spread his hands. "We're working on it, Cap."
"Do you at least know who he is?"
"Some kind of relation of Huggy's," Hutch said.
"Sometimes I think half of L.A. is a relation of his," the captain growled. "Duplessis, I want you to try for Hidalgo. Looks like the only way we're gonna crack this fast is by putting a man undercover, and you fit the bill. Find yourself an apartment, work out your cover ID, and see if they'll bite. I think Vice will help us out with a couple of their boys, but I want you in on it, too. While he's getting established, Hutch, you go in on Benedic's. Starsky, if they turn Hutch or the Vice boys or Duplessis down, we'll try you. Second string."
"Gee, thanks, Cap."
"Well, we'll get at least one of you in somewhere, and hopefully we'll be able to wrap up both places. Don't spend more than you have to, okay?" He looked at his watch. "It's getting late. We'll call it a night. Keep chasing that relative of Huggy's -- we're going to need him now that Sandoval's dead. I want to see first-draft plans on my desk for approval on Monday morning."
"Yessir." Starsky saluted.
"Don't presume too much on the delight of this Department to have you back, Starsky."
"No sir. C'mon, kid."
"But isn't Hutch --?"
"Hutch's got a date. So've we, with Huggy."
Duplessis followed him out obediently. "Give me a couple of minutes, okay? I better call Sal."
Starsky led the way down into The Pits, bought two beers, and joined Duplessis at a table. "Okay," he said. "Thought about what name you want to use?"
"Not yet. Thought I'd use the telephone book. Like they teach us, y'know?"
Starsky grinned, remembering. Knight and Day, Hack and Zack, Rafferty and O'Brien; the many aliases he and Hutch had adopted over the years. "Good idea," he said. "So go get it." Duplessis obeyed, and Starsky opened it at the 'D's. He flicked the pages at random, stabbed with a finger, and looked to see what chance had offered. "We got lucky. DuCann?" His grin widened.
Duplessis chuckled. "Sounds appropriate. First name?"
"Not so easy. D. Daniel. Douglas. Donald --"
"Christ, not Donald!"
"Why not? Good solid all-American name --"
"-- and belongs to a duck. I had an Uncle Dennis."
"Dennis DuCann." Thoughtful. "Denny?"
"Right. You're Denny DuCann. Huggy, c'mere."
Huggy ambled across. "How's it goin'?"
"Meet Denny DuCann, Boy-About-Town," Starsky said, smile brilliant. Duplessis endured Huggy's stare of appraisal.
"Right name, wrong image," was the verdict. "You want to visit Cousin Carmine."
"Cousin Carmen?" Duplessis echoed.
"Carmine," Huggy corrected. "My cousin the hairdresser. He'll fix you up."
"He?" Duplessis' eyebrows and voice both went up. "Judas Priest! Where do you get these names, Huggy?"
"Where do we find this cousin?" Starsky wanted to know. Huggy scribbled an address for them.
"Be sure to tell him Hug sent you," he instructed.
"Why?" Duplessis snapped. "Do you get a cut?"
Chez Carmine was closed, but Starsky leaned on the bell until the blind was jerked up, and a lean-featured dark face peered out. "Yeah?"
"Huggy sent us," Starsky pronounced like a password, and Duplessis' sense of humor woke and he had to swallow a snort of amusement. "You Carmine?"
"You got it, man." A keen black stare checked them over. "Guess you gotta be the guys he called about. C'mon in."
He opened the door for them, and preceded them into the salon. Lithe and lightly made, he moved like a dancer. The face had some of Huggy's elfin look, framed by a mane of processed black hair, sculptured like ebony. He flicked switches, gestured to a chair in front of a mirror, and Dave Duplessis seated himself gingerly. Starsky sat nearby, one ankle hooked over the other knee, a small smile playing around his mouth, preparing to be entertained. Carmine walked slowly around Duplessis, studying him, frowning. "New image, huh?"
"Ah-huh. What sign are you, lover?"
Duplessis started at the casual endearment, but managed not to glare. "Capricorn."
"Ah-huh..." Another prowling inspection. "Lessee. Maybe sunstreaks. Yeah. Restyle. That'll be a start."
"Whatever it takes."
"How long's this going to be?" Starsky asked, as Carmine zeroed in on Duplessis' nondescript light-brown mop, hooking comb and scissors from breast-pocket.
"An hour. Two. You want t'wait?"