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PART ONE"Come now," Louis Milford admonished as he reached into his pocket for a cigarette. He was a bulky man, six feet tall and some 250 pounds. His right-hand goon, Jeffrey Simons, stepped forward and offered a light. When his cigarette was lit, Milford sat back against the couch and regarded Starsky--undercover name Dwane Mitchells--with a devious smile. "You can't tell me that you and that handsome partner of yours have never..." Milford laughed and glanced at Simons and his accountant, Nathan Tanner, "shall we say, indulged each other."
Starsky sighed as he stood before his "employer". He had thought it would be beneficial that he and Hutch could still be partners while undercover. They acted as high class bodyguards--and dressed the part--for Milford, who owned an expansive estate along the northeast edge of the Angeles National Forest. They had been on the job for four weeks, and they'd had only minimal luck in finding evidence of Milford's involvement in the murder of a couple of police officers, the cause of which they suspected centered around secret gambling establishments owned by Milford. Now, Starsky tried not to flinch at the surprising content of Milford's statement, for he was certain the other wasn't a homosexual. "Mr. Milford, sir, Sam Green and I are best friends all the way down the line, but I'm afraid you have us pegged wrong."
The other's grin widened with amusement. "Sure I do. You work next to that beautiful blond day in and day out, and you are trying to tell me that your separate bedrooms aren't just for appearances' sake?" He laughed and, following their employer's lead, the other two men in the room laughed, too.
"As I said," Starsky forced a smile, "I'm afraid you do have us pegged wrong, sir." Inside, he felt a peculiar sense of danger. He was long accustomed to accusations being made about him and Hutch, mainly from people who didn't appreciate being arrested. Occasionally from jealous girlfriends. Rarer still, an off-the-cuff snarl by a fellow law officer. But he had never felt threatened by such statements before, because they couldn't be proven since they weren't true. Now, not knowing what Milford hoped to gain, Starsky didn't bother trying to force down the growing bile in the pit of his stomach.
Milford stood and patted Starsky on the shoulder as he moved passed him. After exhaling smoke from his nose, he paused and said, "Don't worry, Mitchell. He's all yours. I respect that kind of closeness between men. Especially when I'm paying them a fortune to protect me." He moved to sit behind his big, mahogany desk and waved a hand. "Go on. You're both off duty for a couple of days. I won't need you again until Friday. We're going to Las Vegas and spending the weekend there."
Starsky bowed slightly at the waist. "Thank you, sir."
"Be ready to leave nine o'clock Friday morning."
Starsky left the room, not realizing how suffocated he'd felt until he was in the hallway, which was decorated, as was most of the house, with fine paintings and antique furniture. He peeked into various open doors. It was when he glanced into the library that he found what he was looking for. "Hey, there."
That "beautiful blond" stood decked out in a black three-piece suit, as Starsky was. He looked up from a book. "What's up?"
"Nothin' much. Except we're off duty until Friday. What are you doin'?" Starsky tilted his head to focus on the book. He noticed that a piece of paper was resting on top of the page, and realized that looking at the book was only a cover for reading what was on the paper.
Hutch glanced warily toward the door and Starsky stepped over to close it. The blond said, "I found some papers hidden behind a shelf that could be logs from his gambling establishment. Having everything written on regular pieces of notebook paper would be a good cover for hiding what they really are, don't you think?"
"Uh-huh," Starsky said as his eyes ran down the list of numbers. "Think his beauty parlor is the front for the casino?"
Hutch straightened. "Well, we know the meat market isn't and the gun store isn't. So that leaves the beauty parlor or the gym."
"Wish he'd send us on an errand to one of them."
"Or go himself and need us along."
Hutch poked a finger at Starsky's chest. "You know, since we have a couple of days off, why don't we decide to get a nice, healthy workout?"
"That's an exclusive club," Starsky reminded.
Hutch shrugged. "Maybe he'll give us guest passes. Don't think he'd mind us keeping ourselves in shape at his expense." Now a smile. "He should be able to appreciate how keeping our bods beautiful will make us more efficient at our jobs."
Starsky gave his partner a disapproving look. He went over to a shelf and absently ran his finger along the titles.
"Nothin'. But you're right, that would be a good way of getting in and checking the gym out for ourselves. Let's ask Milford tomorrow morning if he'll let us go there."
"What about tonight so we can get an early start?"
Starsky turned to look at Hutch. Then he muttered, "He's not in the best of moods right now. Lost playing poker to Tanner."
"Tanner cheats." Hutch closed the book and put the loose sheet of paper in his pocket.
"Sure you want to keep that on you?" Starsky asked.
"I want to compare the handwriting to other things in the house to see if it's Milford's, or Tanner's, or someone else's." Hutch put the book back on the shelf. When he turned and saw Starsky still watching him, he assured, "Don't worry. There's no reason for anyone to be suspicious of us." He grinned. "We're well-liked here."
Starsky looked him in the eye. "Right." He drew a breath. "I'm going back upstairs. Maybe watch some TV in my room."
"Yeah, okay. I'll be up in a minute."
Starsky hesitated, not liking the idea of leaving Hutch alone, especially after Milford's statements about his partner's dashing exterior. But he didn't know how to express the unease that he felt, so he left the room without looking back.
* * *
Fifteen minutes later there was a knock on the door. "It's me," the voice said from the other side.
Starsky was stretched out on his stomach on the bed, wearing briefs and a T-shirt while watching a western. "It's open."
Hutch entered with a tray.
"What's that?" Starsky sat up, pleased.
"Crackers and cheese and wine. The best bedtime snack." Hutch put the tray on the table next to the TV. "What are you watching?"
"Nothin'." Starsky got up and turned it off. He pulled out a chair from the table and sat.
Hutch undid his tie. "What's eating you?"
The tie was tossed aside and the blond pulled off his jacket. "Something's bugging you. Come on, what is it?" He loosened the top buttons of his shirt and sat opposite his partner.
Starsky turned in his chair so that he wasn't directly facing Hutch, who was pouring each of them a glass of wine. "Have you ever thought that Milford might be a fag?"
"What?" Hutch set the bottle down and regarded his partner a long moment. Then he took the lid off the round package of cheese. "Starsky, of course he's not a fag. You and I both have seen plenty of evidence of that."
"Well, then, maybe bisexual," Starsky suggested quietly.
Hutch opened the box of crackers and dumped them onto the plate next to the cheese. "We know he likes to enjoy himself." He shrugged. "I guess it's not altogether surprising that he might want to play in bed with men as well as women." He picked up a cracker and spread cheese on it. "Here."
Starsky turned and took it.
"What brought this on?" Hutch asked, preparing another.
Starsky wouldn't meet his partner's eye. "He said some things a little while ago." He put the cracker in his mouth.
"What things?" Hutch, too, began to eat.
Starsky made a face and put the cracker down. "This cheese tastes funny."
The blond made a face of disapproval. "It's too cultured for you."
"Yeah, well, I'll just eat the crackers." Starsky grabbed a few and crunched noisily.
"You don't have to wake up the whole house."
"No one's asleep yet." Starsky sipped his wine.
Hutch sipped as well, then asked, "So, what was Milford saying?"
Starsky lowered his gaze. He felt the twisting in his stomach again. Softly, he said, "You need to watch yourself, Hutch."
"What?" he heard the other ask. "What do you mean?"
Starsky looked up. "Milford. He has a thing for you."
Pale brows furrowed doubtfully. "You sure?" Then a brief laugh. "That's incredible."
"Hutch, it's not funny. You shoulda heard him. He was talkin' like...like...."
Abruptly, Starsky was on his feet, feeling the urgent need to move, his back to his partner. After a pause, he said, "Like he thinks you're the most beautiful person on this Earth."
"I am a beautiful person," the smug voice noted.
Starsky turned around, hands on his hips. "Will you knock it off? I'm serious. He has a thing for you." He swallowed thickly. "You just need to be extra careful."
"What do you mean?" The other seemed genuinely puzzled. "Just because he likes to look doesn't mean he wants to touch. Besides," Hutch took another sip of wine, "I can handle myself."
"Hutch, the man is a killer."
"We don't know that for sure. And what's that got to do with him liking me?"
"Well..." Starsky hesitated, "what if he comes on to you? Then what are you going to do?"
"I've had men come onto me before, on occasion. Saying 'no' has always worked."
"Hutch, Milford's the kind of man who's used to getting what he wants."
Hutch ate another cracker. After swallowing he said, "Did he tell you he was going to...try to get to me?"
Starsky shook his head, frustrated with his partner's denseness. "Of course not. He acted like he wasn't going to come between me and you."
That got his partner's attention. Hutch pulled away a partially eaten cracker. "What?"
"He thinks you and I are making it together. Like...there's no way anyone can be partnered with you and not want to do it with you. He seemed sort of amused by it; I mean, that I was denying it. But then he said he wasn't going to come between you and me because he had too much respect for us."
Hutch picked up the cracker again. "Then what are you worried about?"
Starsky clenched his fists, then released them along with a deep, deep breath. "Just watch yourself. Please?" he said more softly. "For me?"
Hutch dabbed his lips with a napkin. "Starsky, you're missing the obvious here."
Starsky sat back down. "What's that?"
"His...obsession...might be useful. It might allow me to get closer to him and find out more."
Starsky held up a hand. "Hutch, no. No way. I won't allow it. I mean, what if it goes too far and he wants you to go to bed with him?"
"I'll tell him I'm hopelessly devoted to you." Hutch grinned widely at his partner as he inserted another cracker into his mouth.
Starsky shook his head, deflated. "Hutch, you're impossible."
The blond finished his wine. "You can have the rest," he said as he stood, picking up his jacket and tie. He stepped toward the door, then turned. "Imagine how this looks," he said, indicating the clothing he held. "You in your underwear and me leaving your room only partially dressed."
"You know," Starsky sighed, "you make it real difficult to be your partner when you won't take stuff like this seriously...."
"I'll be okay, buddy." Hutch winked. "I can handle myself." He opened the door and left the room.
Starsky sighed again, this time heavily. To the empty room, he muttered, "That's what you think."
* * *
"Of course," Milford sat back in his big leather chair and blew smoke across the desk, "I'll let you into my gym. I like my guards to keep physically fit." He was looking at both men standing before him, dressed in jeans, but then his eyes strayed to Hutch. And stayed.
"Thanks very much, Mr. Milford," Starsky said.
Milford picked up the phone and dialed a number. After a moment he said, "Douglas, this is Mr. Milford. I have two men coming down there this morning who aren't members. Their names are Mitchell and Green. Give them complete access to all facilities."
"Thanks again," Starsky said when Milford hung up.
"We appreciate it," Hutch said, and they both turned away.
* * *
It was nearly an hour's drive into San Bernardino, the city nearest Milford's estate and where most of his businesses were located. Starsky and Hutch worked out for awhile, then covered every inch of the gym that they could, looking for signs of a secret casino. They found none.
When they returned to the main part of the gym, Starsky gestured to the wrestling mats they passed and said, "Hey, let's go for two out of three."
Hutch shrugged. "Sure. Be prepared to lose in two."
Starsky grinned as he took his place on the mat. He didn't care if he lost in two or not. He just wanted an excuse for them to play together. The incident eight months ago with Marianne Owens had pointed out to him how much he and Hutch had drifted apart. He resolved to never let that happen again, especially when danger was near. He'd made an extra effort toward their relationship after the Fitch case ended, and Hutch had responded. If anything, it seemed they were all the closer after having gone through the situation that had been so difficult for them both.
They moved toward each other. Starsky reached for Hutch, but his partner ducked and stepped away. And then Hutch lunged at him and grabbed him by the thigh. The next thing Starsky knew, he was slammed down onto his back, Hutch pinning him with an arm across his collarbone.
"Never have learned how to defend that move," Starsky muttered when he had his breath back.
Hutch grinned. "Won't do it next time. That's my handicap."
Starsky nodded. It was fair enough, for Hutch was once a champion wrestler in college, after all.
They took their places at opposite ends of the mat. They circled each other, arms extended. Then Starsky dived for Hutch's legs. The blond fell back onto his rear, then scissored his partner between his legs. Starsky squirmed free and grabbed Hutch by the arms. Hutch grabbed back and they rolled a couple of times. Then Starsky managed to jump into a sitting position. He grabbed Hutch by the crotch with one hand, feeling the athletic supporter, and with his other jabbed Hutch in the ribs with his elbow. Hutch tried to roll away, but Starsky had more momentum and plopped down on top of him, this time his arm at the blond's neck.
"Gotcha." It gave a him a great deal of satisfaction to say it.
Hutch merely nodded in resignation.
"Hey, Starsky and Hutch."
Their eyes widened as they looked at each other, Starsky easing his hold.
"Who is it?" Hutch whispered.
Starsky raised his eyes without moving his head. The last thing they needed was their covers blown. He saw a short man in an old overcoat looking at them from a few feet away. Thinking quickly about the best course of action, Starsky waved and said, "Hey you, over here." Beneath his breath, he said, "It's Gentleman Gerry." The man was an ex-con who was occasionally good for information.
"Don't let him know we're undercover, or he could use it against us."
Both men sat up as Gerry approached. Thankfully, there were only a few people in the gym, and they all seemed more interested in their exercise than seeing what was transpiring between the three men.
"What are you guys doing way out here?" Gerry asked.
Starsky said, "We'd like to ask you the same thing."
"Hey, I changed to a new beat. Cops out here aren't as tough as back in Los Angeles."
Hutch said, "Guess that means you're back to picking pockets."
"I ain't admitting to anything." Then, "I hope you two didn't get transferred or somethin' like that."
Starsky shook his head. "We have a friend who belongs to this gym, and he got us passes." He glanced around. "We'd heard about it, so thought we'd give it a try since we had the day off."
Hutch said, "How did you get in?"
"I work in the laundry room. Just on my way home."
"Oh," Starsky said. He swallowed, wondering how much of a threat that could be. What were the chances that a laundry man would ever see the owner of the gym, let alone mention the names Starsky and Hutch to him in reference to men who were supposed to be Mitchell and Green? It seemed unlikely.
Hutch got to his feet. "We're on our way home, too."
"That's right." Starsky also stood. "I've had enough for one day." He started toward the locker room. "Nice seein' you, Gerry. And keep those hands out of everyone's pockets."
The other waved dismissively and walked off.
Starsky and Hutch looked at each other. "Let's get out of here," the blond said.
As they headed toward the locker room, Starsky added, "And not come back."
* * *
"The casino has to be at the beauty parlor," Starsky said as they drove back toward Milford's estate in their blue Chrysler New Yorker.
"Unless Milford owns other businesses under false names," Hutch noted.
"Haven't heard him mention anything else."
"Yeah," Hutch relented. Then he said, "In any case, it's going to be hard finding an excuse to check out the beauty parlor."
"We might need to contact Dobey and have him get the San Bernardino police to send in an undercover female officer to check it out."
"Let's stop at the next gas station and give him a call."
* * *
Starsky had decided that being a bodyguard was one of the most boring professions one could ever get involved in. With slot machines clanging all around him, he stood next to a vacant one and watched Milford...who was watching Hutch.The blond was leaning against a railing overlooking the floor below. Milford was a few yards away at the table, sipping a beer with a dance hall girl in the chair next to him. But Milford's eyes were on Hutch. Starsky was back a ways, between the two of them, completing a triangle while under the pretense of watching out for Milford's welfare from a brief distance. He and Hutch had shadowed the man, but they both had been dismissed from being close to their employer with a gesture of Milford's head when the girl had showed up at his table.
The woman was making conversation, but Milford wasn't responding. He kept watching Hutch.
Starsky decided enough was enough. He walked up to Hutch and put his arm around the other's back.
Hutch started and looked at his partner. "What's up?"
Starsky ran his hand up and down Hutch's back. "I'm afraid to say."
"Milford's staring at you like crazy. Even with the knockout at his table."
The blond frowned and his voice had an edge. "Then what are you doing?"
Starsky squeezed Hutch's shoulder. "Letting Milford know that he was right, and that I was lying."
Blue eyes glared at him.
"It's the safest thing," Starsky told him, his voice devoid of apology.
"We should have discussed it first," the other said tightly.
"No time. I just want Milford to understand that if he wants to try to get to you, he's gonna have to deal with me first."
Hutch shifted uncomfortably. "Ease up, will ya? Or we're liable to get thrown out by management for creating a public display."
Starsky dropped his hand and placed it on the railing. He took a few short steps sideways so that their shoulders were brushing. "If he already knows we're good friends, it can't hurt anything to know that his suspicions are correct. It's safer this way."
"Shouldn't you at least pretend to be on guard against anyone who might harm him?"
Starsky sighed. "He doesn't want us around as long as the girl's with him." After a moment, he added, "I don't know why he's so concerned about privacy. Anyone who's looking can see that he's got it bad for you."
"Funny, I haven't noticed at all."
"Good. Keep not noticing. And maybe he'll keep his ideas to himself if he thinks you don't even know he exists...except for the weekly paycheck he gives us."
Hutch muttered, "Who died and put you in charge?" He pushed away from the railing.
Starsky put his hands behind his back and wandered slowly along the nearest row of slot machines, eyes on the lookout for anyone who might be taking an interest in Milford. No one was. The man himself had finally turned his attention to the showgirl, now that Hutch was nowhere in sight.
* * *
An hour later, Starsky was at Milford's shoulder as the man made his way toward his suite. He watched while Milford inserted his key into the lock. As it made a clicking noise of release, Milford turned to him. "You know, Mitchell, you could have saved me the expense."
"Needing two rooms for you both. You can deny it all you want, but I know better." Starsky shifted uncomfortably. "Mr. Milford, with all due respect, Green and I will share a room if that's what you prefer. It just won't be for the reason that you think; only because you ordered us to." He thought it would be best if he kept up the pretense and denied any sort of relationship.
Milford eyed him closely. Then, "Have it your way."
"Good night, sir."
"I won't be up until close to noon."
"I'll let Green know."
"You know, it's okay to lighten up a bit, Mitchell. Las Vegas is for fun. Loosen up. I don't mind my boys enjoying themselves."
Starsky smiled indulgently. "Yes, sir. Goodnight, sir." He turned away.
He knocked lightly on Hutch's door, wondering if the other were asleep. Because Milford stayed up so many hours while in Vegas, they traded some shifts while overlapping others, and it would be Hutch's turn to be with their employer for the early part of the next day.
It took a while, but the door finally opened. Hutch was in his robe and looking a little scruffy. "What?" he said with a frown.
"Milford won't need you until noon."
The frown deepened. "You couldn't wait until tomorrow morning to tell me that?"
Starsky shrugged. "I intend to sleep in. Thought you might appreciate knowing you can, too, if you want."
Hutch nodded and closed the door.
Starsky went to his own room, wishing they had, in fact, told Milford's accountant to reserve just one room for them. He found his partner's annoyance much easier to handle when they were in close proximity. That way, he knew how much Hutch was festering. And he didn't have to wonder.
* * *
The knock on the door was loud, waking Starsky from a deep sleep. "Who is it?" he called groggily.
"Your better half. Let me in."
Starsky untangled the bedclothes and got to his feet. He squinted as he opened the door.
Hutch stood there, dressed in sweats and holding a tray. "Breakfast. Let me in."
Starsky stepped back and grumbled, "Told ya I was gonna sleep in."
Hutch put the tray on the table. Then he went to the curtains and opened them, letting the sun stream in. "Yeah? Well, you aren't the only one with a say in this partnership."
Starsky swallowed, resigned to the upcoming discussion. He put on his robe and sat down at the table. "What is this stuff?" He pulled some lids from the dishes.
"Biscuits and gravy and fruit. That'll get the plumbing going bright and early." Hutch also sat down.
Starsky frowned at him, then concentrated on the food. "Thought you'd want to sleep in a little, too."
Hutch looked him in the eye. "I figure we have some talking to do."
Starsky glanced away.
"You know," Hutch was spooning out gravy for both of them, "I'm fully aware that when one is undercover, one has to make split-second decisions and go with them. But that decision you made last night didn't have to be made right then. We at least could have talked about it."
Starsky shifted uncomfortably. "Do you want Milord pawing at you?"
"Do you paw at every woman you think is good-looking?" Hutch countered.
Starsky focused his gaze on the tray and didn't answer.
"Besides," the blond continued after swallowing a bite from his biscuit, "if he puts his paws on me I'll just tell him to take them off."
"Don't know how you can be so casual about it," Starsky muttered.
Hutch studied him a long moment, then demanded, "Can't you see how your attitude makes me feel?"
"What do you mean?"
Hutch's lip curled. "I feel like some vulnerable little pretty thing that you want to protect."
Starsky felt a flush come over him. He hadn't meant to make his partner feel like that. "Well," he reasoned, "we always try to protect each other. I mean, it would work the other way. Would you like knowin' Milford--or any guy--had a thing for me?"
"I think that would be pretty funny to see another guy try to get to you."
"Oh, great, Hutch, you're a barrel of laughs." Though he was somewhat annoyed at Hutch's response, Starsky was also glad that his partner was now in better humor. "You wouldn't even try to defend my virtue?"
The grin was still there. "I'd have no doubt you could defend it well enough yourself." Then, more seriously, "So, why don't you grant me the same respect?"
"All right," Starsky relented. "Point made." He ate a few bites, but couldn't let the subject go. "It was just that, even last night, he mentioned it again; I mean, about you and me having separate rooms for appearances' sake. He said it wasn't necessary." Starsky shrugged. "I still denied the whole thing." He pushed his food away, for his appetite had disappeared. "Hell, he probably beat off all night thinkin' about you. He didn't go to bed with the showgirl."
Hutch shrugged. "Whatever keeps our employer happy."
Starsky studied his partner a long moment, wondering how much of Hutch's nonchalance was a put-on, and how much was...."You don't like him jerking off, thinking about you, do you?"
"Oh, Starsky, what is it with you? No one can control someone else's fantasies. Fantasies are just that: fantasies. They don't harm anyone. Why should I feel threatened?"
He should have anticipated that response, Starsky realized. "But...you aren't flattered...are you?"
"No. Why would I be?"
"Just don't see how you can be so calm about it." Starsky put down his napkin.
"Don't see how you can be so uptight about it."
"Well, I'd feel pretty damn funny about some guy wantin' my prick or my ass."
"Don't knock what you haven't tried."
Starsky felt something fall to the pit of his stomach. He was afraid to ask the question that popped into his mind...but he couldn't not ask. "Hutch..." he whispered, "you aren't sayin...."
"Don't look like that," the other scolded. "I've never done anything with a man before."
Starsky let out a breath of relief.
"But I have done stuff with other kids."
Hutch dabbed at his mouth. "When I was fourteen years old, a group of us were alone in one of my friends' house. Of course, we talked about girls and sex." He chuckled briefly. "At that age, what else is there to talk about, right?"
Starsky just blinked, wondering if he was going to be sorry to hear what Hutch was going to say.
"I don't know exactly how it came about, but I remember one boy was reading out loud from a dirty book, and we were all getting really aroused. I think there was some conversation about what it must be like to get a blow job. Someone suggested we could do it to each other to see what it was like."
Starsky's eyes widened. "Ah, geez, Hutch." He let out a heavy breath.
The other was still wearing a grin beneath his mustache. "So, we did each other. Laid down in a circle and blew each other." The grin widened. "A good time was had by all."
Starsky put a hand on his stomach. "I think I'm gonna be sick."
"Oh, stop it. We were just kids. Using each other as substitutes for girls."
"So...you did it more than once?" Starsky asked cautiously.
Hutch shook his head. "That was the only time. One of the kids' older brother got wind of what we did, and he told his brother that if he kept doing that, it would make him into a fag. So, that kid told the rest of us that, and we didn't dare touch each other again."
"Man," Starsky said, trying to find some equilibrium. He'd never imagined Hutch doing anything like that. "I can't see...you know..." his voice lowered, "putting another guy's prick in my mouth." He made a face at the mere thought.
"Well, don't worry; there's nobody I know of who wants it from you. You're safe."
"Which is way off the subject, because it doesn't change the fact that Milford might eventually want something like that from you."
Hutch finished his orange juice, then used his napkin again. "Not everyone gets what they want."
* * *
"We struck gold, Hutchinson."
Hutch pulled the pay phone's receiver from his ear so that Starsky, who moved closer, could hear. "You mean the undercover policewoman found something?"
"Right," Dobey said. "The casino is in the basement below the salon. The patrons come in through a back alley entrance. Of course, the San Bernardino police are anxious to organize a bust, but I've persuaded them to hold off until you two can find some solid evidence that Milford is the man behind the casino. As it stands, all he has to do is claim he didn't know it was there. He can buy off his people so they won't testify against him."
"Right," Hutch said. "Tell the San Bernardino PD to hold off a little longer. We can probably find something in the house. There's some papers in the library that'll be all we need for evidence. I've bought a micro camera so that Starsky and I can start shooting the documents when we get the chance."
"That'll work. But make sure you're careful."
"Right, Captain." Hutch hung up the phone and looked at his partner. "Hopefully, just a few more days and our boring employment will be over."
"And none too soon," Starsky agreed with enthusiasm. He led the way to the blue New Yorker, and they began the long trip back to Milford's estate.
* * *
Starsky turned the page of the newspaper, trying to find something to distract his boredom. He had already been through the whole paper twice. Milford and Tanner had been consulting all morning on financial manners, and Starsky sat in a chair next to the big desk. He was on duty, but the fact of the matter was that while Milford was in his home--as he was most of the time--there really wasn't any need for a bodyguard. But he seemed to like to have one around--more for ornamentation for his massive ego, Starsky thought, than for any practical use.
The conversation between Milford and Tanner had become more casual in the past few moments. Hutch took the opportunity to enter. He stood hesitantly just inside the door.
Milford waved him forward. "Tanner and I are finished. What is it, Green?"
Hutch stepped closer in a bashful manner. "Uh, Mr. Milford, sir, I was wondering if I could request a favor."
Starsky watched over the top of his paper, noting how Milford ran his eyes not-so-casually up and down the tall frame before him.
"Well, sir," Hutch began, "I've noticed that you have an impressive collection on the European monarchies in your library."
Milford seemed pleased. "Yes, I do."
"And...well, I'm sort of an amateur historian, and I've always wanted to write a book on the life of King Charles II."
"Oh, is that right?" Milford seemed even more pleased.
Hutch started to fidget. "Well, yes, sir. Actually, I started my book about five years ago but I'm afraid," he laughed self-consciously, "that I haven't had much time to work on it since. Anyway, seeing your collection has inspired me again, and I was wondering if you'd mind if I made use of your vast resources and continued working on my book in your library. It would mean spending a considerable portion of my free time there."
Milford waved a hand. "Certainly, you are welcome to continue your research. I'm flattered that my library will be of use to you. I, myself, never spend as much time there as I'd like. By all means, spend as many hours there as you wish."
Hutch bowed respectfully. "Thank you, sir."
"King Charles II is your favorite monarch, then?"
"Uh, actually," Hutch hesitated, and Starsky was sure the nervousness was genuine now, for he doubted Hutch knew European royalty all that well, "I favor Queen Elizabeth I because she accomplished so much during her reign. But I think that Charles is a more interesting focus for one's attentions."
"I find myself particularly fascinated with the Edwardian line," Milford said. "That was such a great era of European history. Sometimes I wonder if it were true that we are all reincarnations of earlier lives, then perhaps I was The Black Prince."
Hutch grinned good-naturedly. "That might very well be true. Thank you again."
Starsky watched Hutch make his exit, wondering who the Black Prince was.
"Well, Mitchell," Milford said to him, "it looks like your playmate is going to have other distractions for a while."
Starsky made a face to show his displeasure at the implication. But his voice held feigned casualness when he turned his attention back to his newspaper. "Yes, I guess he will." Then he added, "I'm all for whatever his little blond heart desires."
* * *
"Are you crazy?" Starsky whispered as he entered the library in his robe. "It's two o'clock in the morning." He closed the big double doors behind him.
Hutch, still dressed immaculately, looked up from the array of open books spread on the table. "What better time would you suggest to do what I need to do?"
"But you've been up all day and you're on duty first thing in the morning."
Hutch put his micro camera up to his eye and snapped a picture of a sheet of paper that was carefully arranged between some open books. "If I can get this roll of film to Dobey, we may not have to be here long enough to worry about catching up on my sleep."
Starsky came to stand beside him. "Good stuff, then?"
"I think so. I haven't had time to really evaluate the numbers, but that box behind the bookcase seems to be a gold mine. Can't imagine what else the information would be for, if it's not records for the casino. And look at this," Hutch pulled a paper from the box and pointed to a line, "I think this $10,000 may be payment to hit men for killing the two cops."
Starsky nodded, impressed. "Were you able to match up the handwriting from before?"
"Good. Just don't let anyone catch you."
"I only pull out one sheet at a time. That's what's taking so long. I figure if anyone walks in, it'll just look like my research papers amongst all these books."
"How much longer do you figure before you're done?"
"Maybe another hour."
"How about a half hour if I help?"
Hutch picked up the paper he'd photographed and moved to place it back in the box. "Suit yourself."
Starsky pulled out the next sheet and placed it on top of the table. "Since you're on duty tomorrow morning, I'll drive into town and overnight the rolls of film to Dobey."
"That's what I was counting on."
"Hopefully, there will be warrants within a couple of days, and then we're outta here."
Hutch grinned at him. "Are we good, or what?"
Starsky grinned back. "We're good."
* * *
It was with the satisfaction of a job well done that Starsky drove back to Milford's estate late the following morning. He had called Dobey, who was very happy to hear that the film was in the mail. It should be enough to get warrants to both close down the casino and arrest Milford.
As Starsky neared the estate, the music on the radio was interrupted with a news bulletin that a fire had broken out in a high-rise building in downtown San Bernardino. Rescue units from within the area and surrounding counties were being called in to assist, for there were literally thousands of people trapped on the floors above the fire. Starsky felt the instinct to help, but he couldn't risk blowing his and Hutch's covers by assisting law enforcement units. His presence was expected in order to trade shifts with a tired Hutch at two in the afternoon.
When Starsky drove up the long lane to the house, he was puzzled to see more than the usual number of cars parked there. He didn't recognize any of the cars as those associated with Milford's acquaintances.
When he walked in the front door he was greeted by the butler. "Ah, Mr. Mitchell, Mr. Milford requests your presence in the drawing room."
"Where is everybody?" Starsky asked as he followed the butler. The house seemed unusually quiet.
"In the drawing room."
Starsky wanted to ask who owned the unfamiliar cars out front, but he knew the butler didn't indulge in idle conversation. Besides, he'd find out soon enough.
The butler stood aside at the entrance to the drawing room, which was a large, austere room that Starsky had only seen once, when first given a tour of the house. He had been told it was sometimes used for meetings, and that appeared to be the case here, because it held a group of a half dozen men, all seated in a semi circle.
Just as Starsky stepped across the threshold, he heard a poignantly loud double "click". He froze, all too aware of pistols being pressed against his temples on either side.
He felt his intestines twist and coil in on themselves.
"Mr. Mitchell," Milford stood from his chair, turning to face him. "Or, shall we say, Detective Starsky."
The goon, Jeffrey Simons, stepped in front of Starsky and reached inside his windbreaker. He removed his Beretta and patted him down.
Starsky swallowed. It was a big room and he was just in the doorway; he couldn't see past the men seated furthest away. "Where's Green?" he demanded, trying not to reveal his dread.
"You mean Detective Hutchinson," Milford corrected, stepping back. The two men with the revolvers to his head shoved Starsky forward. He stumbled to the floor. A gun was again against his head. His arms were grabbed and he was dragged to one side. When he was able to, he looked up and saw Hutch sitting in the center of the room in a chair, his hands tied behind his back. He was gagged and had been divested of his jacket. His hair was disheveled and his white dress shirt was partially unbuttoned. He was watching Starsky with wide-eyed concern.
A gun was still against Starsky's temple, and he was aware of his hands being tied. It was on the tip of his tongue to deny his true identity, but Hutch had surely already tried that tact and been unsuccessful. Starsky decided to save his strength for whatever lay ahead.
He was pulled into a kneeling position, and his feet were tied behind him.
Milford nodded to Simons. "Now that the other one is here, you can remove his gag."
Simons went up to Hutch and untied the gag. Removing it revealed that Hutch had blood running from the corner of his mouth. Starsky realized then that they had been afraid of Hutch shouting a warning to him and that's why they'd gagged him.
He also realized that the rope around his hands was being connected to the rope around his feet, thereby leaving him completely helpless. Nevertheless, a gun was still pressed against his temple.
Hutch attempted to swallow. "It was Gentleman Gerry," he said to Starsky in a gruff voice.
"That's right," Milford said, grinning dangerously as he moved to stand a few feet in front of Hutch and addressed them both. "Gerry knows that Mr. Milford takes good care of the people who are loyal to him. When he needed a few extra dollars, he called and asked me if I knew that two well-known Los Angeles cops were making use of my gym. He had no idea just how helpful his information was." Milford's voice hardened. "He'll be paid accordingly."
Milford stepped toward Starsky and leaned down. Angrily, he said, "If you've learned one thing about me in the time you've been with me, it's that I respect loyalty and honor. The worst thing anyone can do to me is betray my trust."
A blow slapped against Starsky's face and he fell to one side.
Milford turned back to Hutch, who was looking anxiously at Starsky. "A book, you say," he taunted. "You wanted to be in my library to write a book. What did you really want?"
Hutch only glared at him.
Starsky couldn't stand the thought of Hutch receiving the same treatment as himself. As he struggled back to a kneeling position, he calmly said, "It's too late, Milford." He was pleased when the man's attention snapped to him. "Film we took of your casino records are on their way right now to the Chief of Police at the LAPD. Nothing you do to us is going to save you from arrest. It'll only increase the charges against you."
Milford laughed. "You two haven't been keeping up with the news, have you?"
Both detectives were silent.
"There's a whole city block on fire in San Bernardino. All the police from hundreds of miles around are there. You know what that means? There's no police left to save you. Or to serve warrants on me for at least the next twenty-four hours. I'll be out of the country by then. My private jet is being prepared as we speak. Both of your lives depend upon my mercy."
Starsky felt a flare of hope. Milford wasn't threatening to kill them outright.
The heavyset man looked at Simons, then gestured to Hutch. "Untie him."
Starsky saw the puzzlement on Hutch's face, which reflected his own. Milford now sat back in a leather chair, eyes on Hutch.
Hutch rubbed his hands when his bonds were free.
"Stand up," Milford ordered.
The blond looked at Starsky, and Starsky knew his own expression mirrored his fear of the unknown. Carefully, Hutch stood.
"Move the chair away."
Simons stepped forward and pushed the chair to one side. Hutch was now standing in the middle of a semi-circle of people.
Starsky's heart kicked into high gear, realizing his worst fears were going to come to fruition.
"Why?" Hutch asked with a calm that his partner knew was feigned.
Milford looked at Starsky, and Starsky felt his hair grabbed as metal pressed against his temple again. "Because I'll have him blown him away if you don't do exactly what I tell you."
"All right," Hutch said quickly. He waited until the grip on Starsky's hair eased, then he began unbuttoning his shirt.
Starsky lowered his eyes, wondering if he might throw up. Milford was going to do what Starsky had most feared. Use Hutch and dirty him and humiliate him in front of a room full of people who only wished them harm. Worse, Milford was using Starsky as the pawn to get what he wanted.
After a long moment of no noise except the movement of clothing, Starsky looked up without moving his head. He could see what an effort Hutch was making to not make a big deal of it. With the rest of his clothing removed, he pushed down his pants and underwear in one quick move. The blond's gaze was locked with Milford's, avoiding Starsky's eyes completely.
Hutch now straightened, his hands at his sides.
Milford rose and stepped forward. He looked Hutch up and down, his gaze not leering but one of genuine admiration. When he was close enough, he placed a hand on Hutch's shoulder and whispered, "Nice."
Hutch forced out, "What do you want?"
The man was walking around him. Almost casually, he replied, "The same thing your partner has been enjoying for however long you've been together." Having completed his circle, Milford said, "I have no use for your partner. I can kill him with a word."
Hutch swallowed. "I have a proposition."
Starsky's heart beating faster, as he dreaded what Hutch was going to come up with.
A sly grin spread across Milford's face as his eyes flicked down, then up. "I don't see that you're in any position to make deals." There were a few snickers from the small audience.
Softly, Hutch said, "It might be worth it to you."
Milford's gaze moved down the pale body once again. "I'm listening."
"I'll give you what you want--freely--if you let him go."
Starsky's body sagged, the nausea upon him full force. Oh, God, Hutch, no. No. He was grabbed by the hair. When he was upright, he saw both Milford's and Hutch's eyes watching him. "Don't do it, Hutch!"
His hair was grabbed harder and he couldn't restrain a yelp.
He could see the pain in his partner's eyes. Knew that, for Hutch, there was no choice. Just like there wouldn't be any choice if their positions were reversed.
Hutch's desperate eyes turned back to Milford. "You said yourself that nothing can happen to you as long as the fire is going. You let him go--let him drive away freely with no one following him--and I'll give you what you want. No hassles. If you're a man of honor, I know you don't want it by force."
That drew another admiring smile from Milford. "You know me well."
"Free and clear," Hutch emphasized. "If he's allowed to drive away unharmed."
Milford's eyes darted from one man to the other, his fingers rubbing at his chin. "What guarantee can you give that he'll stay away?" he asked.
Hutch looked at Starsky and his jaw firmed. "You have my word. He won't come back."
Starsky wanted to shake his head--deny it--as he felt some part of himself dying inside. No, Hutch, no. But they wouldn't have a chance if he didn't at least make an effort to appear agreeable. He tried to speak, but only managed a croak.
"Let him go," Hutch pushed again. "And I'll do anything you want. Anything."
Starsky closed his eyes. Oh, God, Hutch. Oh, god. He felt an anger building, its force making him grit his teeth to keep himself from expressing all his hatred for Milford and...Hutch, how can you agree to this?
When Starsky opened his eyes, Milford was still looking from one to the other. To Hutch, he said, "All the promises have been coming from you."
"I'm what you want," Hutch emphasized. "He won't come back, because he knows it'll endanger me." Quickly, he added, "And he won't be able to get help, because of the fire."
Milford nodded thoughtfully. He looked at Starsky, then back at Hutch. Firmly, he warned, "If he dares to return...my men will have orders to shoot him on sight."
Hutch met Starsky's eye. "He won't return."
Starsky heard his own heavy breath. He could see the pleading in Hutch's eyes. Still, he protested, "Hutch, don't."
"It's our only chance!" Hutch shouted at him.
Starsky looked at Milford and demanded, "What are you going to do with him when you're finished with him?"
Milford moved away. After a long moment, he turned around and said, "I'll leave him here. Unharmed. You come back in eight hours--no sooner--and he'll be here along with the butler. The rest of us will be gone."
Starsky gritted his teeth. "You'd better keep your word, Milford. Or I swear I'll hunt you down.... No matter where you are...."
"And you better keep yours. Or both of you die." Milford's gaze hardened. "If there's even a hint of you or your vehicle after you leave here," he nodded toward Hutch, "you'll find him dead." His voice grew dangerously passionate. "Believe me when I tell you that, in such a case, his death will be quite horrifying."
"But if I wait the eight hours," Starsky clarified, his own voice just as dangerous, "he'd better be alive and unharmed. Do you understand me, damn you?"
There was the hint of a smile. "We appear to understand each other...completely." He glanced at the guard next to Starsky. "Cut him loose."
As his bonds were cut, Starsky heard Hutch say, "Let me have a word with him."
"I think I've already been more than generous to two men who have betrayed my trust. You both keep up your end of the bargain and you'll live to see each other again."
"I want to see him leave," Hutch said.
"You don't trust me?" Milford countered with an edge to his voice.
"I want to see him leave. Free and clear. No goons following."
"All right, Hutchinson--Ken, is it?--we'll both escort him to the door." Milford nodded at Simons. "Come on. The rest of you gentlemen get ready to leave."
Starsky was now on his feet. He looked at Hutch defiantly, his insides churning with anger, fear...and disgust at what Milford was going to do in his absence.
Hutch looked equally defiant. But his voice was a plea. "Your safety is the only thing that will get me through this."
Starsky turned away, not wanting to torment either of them any longer. He marched out the open door and down the hallway, all too aware of the sound of bare feet behind him. It increased his anger that Hutch had to walk around naked, even after agreeing to humiliate himself to Milford.
He reached the front door too soon. The butler was holding it open and Starsky stepped over the threshold, resisting the urge to pause and look back. He went past all the cars in the driveway until reaching the New Yorker. He pulled out the keys and opened the door. It was then, with one foot in the car, that he looked back at the house. Milford was watching him, Hutch at his shoulder, and Simons behind them.
The corner of Hutch's mouth moved, and Starsky could see that he was trying to smile.
Starsky threw himself into the car and slammed the door shut. He started the motor and the car fishtailed as he gunned it around the circular drive and headed out of the estate...alone.