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Part One

White Feather


Katherine Robertson

Part Two

Harold Dobey had indigestion. Two Alka-Seltzer plopped and fizzed in a glass while he idly scanned a report on the latest perils of smoking. He was glad he'd given that dangerous vice up, except now Edith was after him to cut down on his calories. In all His wisdom, why had the good Lord made those who should eat the least like food the most? He swallowed the concoction without thinking about it, and turned the page.

The phone rang, shattering the calm, and he grabbed it up, irritated because it had startled him. "Dobey," he grunted.

"Captain Dobey? This is Captain Shemansky, OCID. We picked up one of your men an hour ago. He's in the DA's office, right now. Maybe ya better come down here—and bring Sergeant Starsky with ya—"

Dobey jerked the receiver away from his ear as the connection was abruptly broken. It was Hutch, of course, and as his belly rumbled and grumbled from the seltzer, he snatched up his coat, yelling for Starsky.

"Yeah? What's up?" Even as he asked the question, Starsky was on the move, hooking holster and jacket on his fingers. "Where're we goin'?"

The captain looked into the dark blue eyes with sympathy. "To rescue your partner, Dave. Shemansky's got him at the DA's." He watched Starsky's expression change, harden into lines that meant trouble for anyone who got in his way. He was proud of this man, proud of the battles he'd fought and won. Starsky was a good cop. Belonging at his side was another good cop; one who right now must be feeling all alone. "Let's get those fuckers," Dobey said under his breath.

Starsky smiled. "Not to worry, Cap'n. Whatever mess Hutch is in, he'll be okay." The smile disappeared as he shrugged into his holster, "Or somebody'll pay."

Natalie Scott, assistant DA, made a face as she waved away a noxious cloud of cigar smoke. "Kill that stogey, will you?" She was well educated, ambitious, and knew exactly what tone of voice to use when she wanted something. Right now she wanted to toss the blowhard from OCID out the window, along with his cigar. Then she could interrogate the tall, blond cop with the ice-blue eyes. Her glance took in his clothing; camelhair jacket, tan cords that looked custom-tailored, expensive cowhide boots that were scuffed...this was no dime store yahoo.

He shifted position, his glance meeting hers, sober, but not unfriendly and she liked that. On her desk lay his shield case and an envelope with a thick wad of money in it.

"You did call Captain Dobey?" she asked again, seeing Hutchinson look up, alert, expression wary.

Shemansky nodded. "Yeah. Told him to bring his partner, too."

That got a reaction. Scott saw the blond bite his lip, and slouch down in his chair. Funny way to feel, she thought. "What's your partner's name, Sergeant?"

"Starsky. David Starsky." Hutchinson's voice was soft.

"Does he know what you're being charged with?" Might as well see how he felt about that remark. But the anger blazing in those eyes shocked her. What had happened to the gentleness?

"And just what is the charge, Miss Scott?" Each word had a knife-edge.

"Knock it off! We caught you with the goods, plus an equal amount in your account. And you put it there! Who paid you off?"

"Go play with yourself, Shemansky." Hutchinson turned to glare at the older man, his distaste obvious. "When Dobey gets here you're gonna choke on that weed!"

They stopped talking after that, the woman wondering just how she was supposed to handle this mess. It stunk—and that was only her first reaction. Why wasn't IA handling this? She'd never trusted the OCID cop; his type belonged in an old movie.

Her gaze drifted back to the detective who sat flexing his fingers. They were long and shapely, with well-manicured nails. His mouth had the corners turned down...she wanted to see him smile. He interested her.

"Captain Dobey and Sergeant Starsky, Miss Scott," the box on her desk droned. She pressed the intercom, "Send them in, please."

She settled herself, waiting for them to come in. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Hutchinson straighten up, color mounting in his cheeks. Shemansky looked like a hypertensive bulldog as he faced the door.

A dark-haired man was first in the door. He ignored her as he hurried to Hutchinson's side, placing his hand on his partner's collar. This had to be Starsky.

"Can't leave ya alone for a minute, can I?" he said, a slight smile lighting up his features. "They rough you up at all?"

She decided it was time to intervene. "Have a seat, please. And you, too, Captain Dobey." She reached across her desk, shaking the big, ham hand, smiling. This was another legend in the LAPD.

Both men took seats near Hutchinson, barely acknowledging Shemansky's presence. "Now, then, Miss Scott, what's this all about? Why is one of my detective's being held? What's he charged with?" Dobey sounded stern, but his expression was neutral.

She wasn't fooled. The Metro captain's loyalty to his men was well known. She responded carefully. "Sergeant Hutchinson was seen accepting an envelope—in a public place—from a man who then disappeared. Eyewitnesses reported that a gust of wind scattered some bills from that envelope on the steps of the bank, and when they collected them and handed them to the sergeant, he took them. He next went into the bank and asked for his bank balance."

She nodded toward the smirking Shemansky. "OCID has reason to suspect that the sergeant had already received a payoff for turning down an undercover assignment."

"'That's a lie!" Starsky leapt to his feet, rounding on the captain. "You know Hutch wouldn't take a bribe if his life depended on it!"

She almost smiled. He was a good-looking, impassioned man, obviously loyal to his partner. "Thank you," she said evenly, "I'm sure you'll make a good character witness, Sergeant, but the truth is your partner needs more than that to clear his name. These are grave charges."

A steady gaze held hers, and she felt compelled to ask, "Do you want to make a statement, Sergeant Hutchinson?"

He nodded switching his attention to Starsky. "First of all, ma'am. I didn't take a bribe...I want that clearly understood. Second, if I were going to take one, fifteen thousand isn't enough to persuade me...I don't need it."

Scott stared at him, hearing the slightly haughty tone in disbelief. Even Captain Dobey looked bewildered. "What do you mean, you don't need it?" she inquired.

He let out a long sigh before reaching into his back pocket for his wallet. With a deft touch he removed a card and placed it on her desk. "Call that number and ask for James Dunlap." He looked apologetically over at Dobey. "Sorry, sir, somehow I never expected this to come up."

"What's going on here?" exclaimed Shemansky, getting up and leaning over the desk. "James Dunlap is head of one of this town's biggest brokerage houses. What's he got to do with this?"

Hutchinson gave him a look of such deadly contempt that Scott felt the chill, and so hastily dialed the number, asking for the gentleman in question. When a deep voice answered, she extended the phone to the detective.

He got up, propping his long frame against the desk, his back to Shemansky. "James? It's Ken Hutchinson. Listen, can you do me a favor? Thanks. I'd like you to tell a couple of people in the DA's office my approximate worth." He laughed. "No. Two cents won't help me a bit, I'm afraid. How long do you need? Yeah, trust fund, annuities...the whole shot." He put his hand over the receiver, "Can he call back in about fifteen minutes?"

She nodded, at a loss for words. She saw more than this stupid case sliding down the drain. God, how she'd love to throttle that cretin, Shemansky!

"That's fine, James. The number's 974-3888. Yeah, well I don't have any choice." He handed back the receiver and went back to his seat, huddling with his partner and Dobey. The three of them talked quietly.

Shemansky lit another cigar and headed for the door. "Gonna make a pit stop," he said crudely, "so don't start the party without me."

Scott shook her head, then began making notes to bring her boss up to date. She raised her glance to see Hutchinson staring somberly out the window. She watched him a moment, then went back to her writing.

Dobey leaned back, clearly uncomfortable in the small chair. "Hutch, do you want me to call one of the PA lawyers?" He rubbed the top of his head, started to say something else, but instead stared at the telephone.

Shemansky came back, blowing out a large ring of smoke as he closed the door. When he set his cigar in the ashtray on Scott's desk, she picked up a small vase, lifted out the flower, and poured water over it. The look he gave her was one of astonishment.

She smiled sweetly. "You want another one, go outside." Then she turned to Hutchinson, "Do you wish an attorney present? I mean, a defense lawyer?"

Something about him had changed, lending him an air of resolution she hadn't noticed before. She decided things were going to get worse insofar as her case was concerned.

"Why don't I wait until Dunlap calls back?" was his reply. He shook his head, smiling at his partner.

On cue, the phone rang and she snatched it up, waving for Shemansky to remain seated. "This is Natalie Scott, Assistant District Attorney, Mister Dunlap. May I have that information before you talk to your client?"

He named a figure which made her stare hard at the blond. "That much?" She was glad she was sitting down.

"Let my captain talk to him, too. Please." He looked at his hands. "I don't want him to have any doubts, either."

Dobey got to his feet, leaning over the desk to take the receiver. 'This is Captain Dobey. Hutch is one of my men." He listened, sending a puzzled glance Hutch's way. "I see. Well, thank you very much." When Hutch stood to take the phone, Dobey averted his gaze.

"James? Thank you. I suppose you'd better get copies of all the paperwork—taxes, too. Send the DA one, and one to me." He fingered the cord, expression troubled. "Yeah. Maybe it's for the best. 'Bye." He hung up, clearly uncomfortable.

Scott couldn't help but ask, "With all that money, why did you become a law-enforcement officer?"

"I happen to like the work—" he smiled at Starsky, "—and the people. Most of the people, that is." He shrugged, rubbing his palm against his thigh. "It's a good job."

Starsky came to his rescue. "Hey. I dunno how much we're talkin' about here, but did it convince you that Hutch doesn't need the money?"

She smiled at his declaration of faith. "Well, it remains to be seen if he can prove that someone else deposited that money in his name. I do have to admit this changes things."

"The hell it does!" snapped Shemansky. "How do we know he didn't get rich by takin' bribes? He sure as hell doesn't have the balls to be a cop in my book!"

The blow Hutch gave him almost broke his jaw.

The remains of two Big Macs lay on Starsky's table, along with some soggy French fries. Several beer bottles stood on the drainboard, light glinting off their sides. The TV was on, but no one was watching it.

From the bedroom came the low murmur of voices. One, urgent, persuasive, was Starsky's; the other, halting, falling to a whisper now and then, belonged to Hutch. They lay on the bed amid a tangle of covers, Starsky on his side, his left hand sifting through Hutch's hair. "Dunno why you make things so hard for yourself," he protested. "Why'd you think you havin' money would make any difference?"

The eyes that met his were too bright. "Not to you, of course, but to the others—like Dobey. Did you see the way he looked at me when he found out? He was sick."

"Not half as sick as he looked when you clobbered Shemansky. I thought he was gonna have a stroke!" He hugged his lover close, dropping a kiss on the cool shoulder. "Someone up there likes you, babe, 'cause right now you should be on suspension instead of on report. Thank God, Scott felt you'd been provoked." He chuckled. "You wait until that four-flusher tries to explain his swollen jaw."

Hutch ran a finger down Starsky's chest, smiling ruefully. "That was sheer stupidity on my part...even if he did have it coming." He pulled Starsky's hand down to his mouth, pressing a kiss on each fingertip. "I never touch the money, you know. It simply gets reinvested. Dunlap handles the whole mess. Not that he doesn't get paid for it..."

Starsky didn't want to talk about Hutch's money. He recalled his feelings about Jack Mitchell and how jealous he'd been watching the two 'rich' boys rehashing their memories. He put his chin on top of Hutch's head, heart full to overflowing. Hutch was worth more to him than all the money in the world, anyhow, so who gave a damn? "Bet he does...most of those guys make a mint." He paused, then asked softly, "What'm I worth to you?"

The warm body he held stilled a moment before Hutch raised his head. "More than I've got, Dave, you know that." Hands roamed over his torso, tenderly separating his chest hair to rub at his scars. "All I really had to give was my heart—"

"Shh, that was all I wanted in the first place." He smiled down at Hutch. "In fact, I'm damn glad you are loaded, otherwise..." he shook his head, " ...Scott might've believed Shemansky's cock and bull story."

Hutch didn't answer him, merely nodded, then kissed Starsky's upper arm, nuzzling gently along the muscles. He let out a long sigh, finally relaxing. "When I was first assigned to Metro, Dobey looked me up and down and grumped about my 'image' not being exactly what he'd had in mind for Homicide. Since I was still in uniform I thought I looked like every other cop—what was the problem?" He rolled onto his side, reaching over the plump up the pillow, then laughed. "He told me that his 'men' had to work some of LA.'s toughest neighborhoods and anyone who looked 'soft' was in trouble. He almost teamed me with Malone until I reminded him about you."

"Yeah. Never thought either one of us was gonna get our transfers. What with you in Venice and me sweatin' my buns off at Rampart..." He slid down beside his partner, rubbing his nose in Hutch's neck, snorting and nuzzling until Hutch snickered. "You remember all those nights we spent talkin' to each other? Bitchin' and complainin' about the other guys—"

Hutch stopped the flow of words with his mouth. "Mmm. You had the worst district, but I had Iron Mike on my ass day and night."

They exchanged glances, understanding and pity for the dead man bringing a halt to the conversation. Then, Starsky buried his face in Hutch's middle. "I better not catch anyone after your ass these days. B'longs to me, now." He reached around and slapped the tempting derriere possessively.

"Damn straight," confirmed Hutch, grabbing the hand before it could do any more damage. Arching up, Hutch settled it on his groin, gasping when Starsky immediately closed his fingers around the flaccid cock. "Hey! I may have money, but I can't buy another one of those...take it easy."

Starsky merely smiled, eyes slitted. "You're right. Not one as good as this one, anyway." He bent over to brush his mouth across the hardening organ. "My mom always said I was a lucky son-of-a-bitch. Look at you; rich, gorgeous, hung like a horse—" his voice dropped to a growl, "—and all mine." His lips closed around warm flesh, and he heard Hutch moan. When he felt hot, hard fingers close around his own cock, he began a gentle, insistent sucking. The memory of things past receded almost to oblivion.

There was a mocking bird singing somewhere in the distance. Helena woke with a start, trying to roll over to see what time it was. Birds didn't sing at night back in Philadelphia—at least not in the city. Sparrows, starlings, pigeons...they had the good sense to sleep when the people did. She ran heavy fingers through her hair, trying to sort through its tangles. Now that Lud was gone she was going to get it cut. With the baby coming she wasn't going to have time for all that braiding and brushing. Besides, after he was born there would be the tremendous job of packing and moving back home. She couldn't stay here—too many memories of her husband. Tears ran down her cheeks, disappearing onto the pillow where they would turn as cold as her heart had turned.

There were two reasons she was holding onto her sanity: Lud and her baby, and the all-consuming need for revenge. The other cop lived; her husband was dead. She placed her hands around her swollen abdomen, feeling the life beneath the taut skin. He was in a hurry to get here, her little one, and by the time he drew his first breath the man responsible for killing his father would have drawn his last. It seemed a fair exchange. Stavros and Miklos agreed with her; the others would fall in line when they learned the truth. She listened to the bird song, wondering why on earth it sounded so happy. She hated it.

Harold Dobey sat up straight in bed, staring with dry-eyed exhaustion out at the night. Edith lay beside him, covers pulled up over her head to show her exasperation. He knew she wasn't asleep; she was far too smart to hope for that when he was this restless. But she hadn't been at all surprised to learn about Hutch's money—or should he say 'investments'? He'd seen the stricken look on Hutch's face, followed by an expression of pure guilt. He'd also seen Starsky's features; eyes wide with surprise, then that fiercely defensive look had reappeared. He grudgingly let out a grump of laughter, causing his wife to clutch at the spread with an even firmer grip. That made him laugh harder until the bed shook. When she sat up, eyes flashing in the darkness, he held out his hand. "Don't yell. I can't help it. I'm so damned mad at that fool cop I want to go down and—"

"—eat the rest of the chocolate cake," she finished for him.

Her fingers were warm and comforting on his arm. "Harold, you know as well as I do that that boy never intended to deceive anybody! He wanted to be a cop! And I can remember what you said the first time—"

He felt her nails dig into his forearm as she warmed to her subject. Starsky and Hutch were her favorites, with Starsky having a slight edge. He grimaced as his flesh was probed even harder, probably because she knew he knew what was going on in her mind. He had to admit to favoring Hutch, God knew everyone else was quick enough to point it out to him. But there had always been something very basically decent about him, plus a finish that had been unusual. He was a good, honest cop, with a mind like a steel trap. But this...he placed his hand over Edith's, stilling her attack. "I know he didn't do anything wrong but he shouldn't have been so secretive about his background." He brushed his mouth over her hair, seeking comfort from her closeness. "That bulvon Shemansky had better not press charges," he muttered, eyes closed as he replayed the scene in the DA's office.

"You've been listening to Dave," Edith chided sleepily as she settled down. "Get some rest, honey. Please."

But the moment had passed and Dobey found himself once again staring out the window. He thought about his own beginnings and how hard it had been in those early days. Hell, he and Edith had counted every dollar before paying a bill. Other, darker memories began crowding in, and hard-faced men with lOUs—his—stood in shadowy cadres. His gambling on the ponies had nearly wrecked his life, and he knew what poverty was all about. What sort of temptations had been laid at Hutch's feet? What was it like to be rich? Worst of all, why hadn't Hutch trusted him enough to tell him?

It was only after Edith had coughed once, dug her elbow into his side, and turned over that he surrendered his personal hell and went to sleep.

The review board took less than an hour to dismiss all charges against Detective Hutchinson. The brouhaha in Scott's office never even came under consideration. Several pairs of hostile eyes glared at a livid Shemansky as if he belonged on a slide under a microscope. Starsky's barely controlled whoop of glee didn't help matters, but resulted in a slight softening of some expressions. Hutch, clearly nervous, thanked each board member personally before leaving the hearing room. He was also careful to avoid any contact with the OCID man.

"Didn't I tell ya? Didn't I say that there was no way they were gonna believe any of that bribery crap?" A jubilant Starsky snapped his fingers to dismiss further discussion. "I'm starved. Where do ya want to eat? My treat."

Hutch had to smile. "Why in hell aren't you a lawyer? With that kind of faith you could win every case." They were walking down the freshly waxed hallway, Starsky's soles squeaking as they scuffed the floor.

A typical shrug was his partner's response. "Never had the dough. I got an uncle in Florida who's a real estate lawyer, and a cousin in New York who specializes in class-action suits, but that's it." His smile returned. "Now, let me ask you the same question. You had the bread, and the why aren't you a lawyer?" He dug in his pocket, bringing out some change and several crumpled bills. "Either Huggy's or someplace I can use Diner's name it."

How I love you, Hutch thought for the thousandth time. Starsky's zest for life, his insatiable curiosity, his surprising patience when it really counted. He grinned at his irrepressible companion. "Didn't want to be a lawyer. Didn't give a damn about the dough, and Huggy's'll be fine. That answer your questions?" He wanted to grab him, hug him until he gasped for breath and then run as fast as he could, Starsky in hot pursuit. They'd done that once when they had first become lovers, racing along the beach, splashing in the surf, hearts so full and heads so empty that nothing else existed in all the world except the two of them.

Something in his expression must have given Starsky a clue as to his thoughts for he came to a halt near the fire exit and said, "Beat ya down the game?" Challenge fired the blue eyes and he fairly danced as he waited for an answer.

Caution was thrown to the winds; they locked gazes for a moment, then Hutch pulled open the heavy door. "My legs are longer," he announced as Starsky braced himself against the steel, "and I'm younger." He knew what the reply was going to be—it was always the same.

His statement was met with the scorn it deserved. "Maybe so, pal, but I'm faster!" With that Starsky was off, a streak of jeans and leather, feet moving so fast they were blurred. But it was the rear end that was the lure, and as Hutch passed him he delivered a swat to one pocket. "Great moves, but don't wear yourself out." He was almost to the landing when he slipped on something unseen. Grabbing the rail, he jerked himself around, colliding with the descending Starsky. The breath was knocked out of them both and they collapsed in a laughing heap.

"You were losin' and you knew it!" Starsky accused, chest heaving as he righted himself. "Same as back in the Academy. Your feet are too damn big!"

Using Starsky's knee as support, Hutch got to his feet, shaking his head. "Slipped on something, turkey, that's all. You always were a sore loser!" They were alone, surrounded by concrete walls and hidden from view. It took only a second to see an answering need in Starsky's eyes before Hutch reached for him. He bent to kiss the warm mouth, shutting out everything else. When he pulled away, Starsky was smiling.

"What's so funny?"

A hand stroked his cheek. "You. And me. Us. You still hungry?"

For more than food. However, this wasn't exactly the place to get careless. And, with both of them frustrated, tonight would be wonderful. "Yeah. But Huggy's is closer. I promise not to eat any onions..." Hutch allowed himself one final touch to those curls, then sighed. "C'mon, partner. We've work to do."

Starsky nodded, and they went down the remaining stairs side by side. "No onions, huh? Should I wear a tie tonight?"

Hutch laughed, "Sure. And nothing else. So don't break the speed limit getting to my place."

Fingers touched his hip. "No to worry, darlin', I'm not gonna break anything before I get there."

Sunlight nearly blinded them as they opened the fire door, and they stepped briskly out into it, putting on sunglasses. Starsky dug out his keys, then glanced at his watch. "An hour at Hug's, then let's go shake down a snitch or two and see what they know about that guy who gave ya the money."

"You know, I keep seeing his face—not just from our meeting—but from somewhere else. I think I know this guy, but I can't place him."

Nodding, Starsky got into his car, frowning at Hutch's words. "You don't s'pose he's in one of the mug books, do you? Hell, that would be real piece of luck." He yawned, running his fingers through his hair. "God, I could use some sleep. You as tired as I am?"

Hutch shook his head, admitting, "If I say 'no' I'm lying. If I say 'yes' you might not come over.

How's about 'maybe'?"

The Torino coughed, sputtered, then died. Starsky pumped on the pedal until the smell of gasoline filled the air. "Damn it to hell! I just had this thing overhauled, what the hell's wrong now?"

Hutch closed his eyes and put his head back. "You and I both know the answer to that, partner. She's like us—getting on in years." He turned to observe the strong profile, studying it intently. "Time to retire the Tomato, maybe look for something a little less conspicuous, eh?"

Instead of the usual tirade, Starsky merely sat still, head down. "You're probably right, Hutch, but every time I think about even lookin' at another car, I—I can't."

He wanted to take Starsky in his arms to soothe away the hurt. Even with all the damages repaired, a new paint job, and shiny new leather upholstery, the car wasn't the same. It was harder to start, slower in the stretch, and now parts were getting scarce. Hutch felt like bawling. He'd never in his life loved a car like Starsky loved this one. He thought fondly of the LTD and its successor, but compared to the Torino they had merely been conveyances. "You could always keep her, Starsk," he murmured. "She'll be a classic one of these days—and in beautiful condition."

"I hate growing old, Hutch. I hate the whole fuckin' idea of aches and pains and gout..." He turned the key in the ignition and the engine turned over, purring like a kitten. He grinned, patting the dash. "Atta girl. Let's show this damn town just what you can do." But behind the excitement, behind the determination, there was the slightest echo of sadness.

Hutch heard it, acknowledged it, and asked, "Wonder if Huggy's got any of that Tecate beer left? Maybe I can buy a six-pack for tonight."

The look Starsky gave him was just this side of lecherous. "You know you can't drink that damn stuff! You always end up on your can..." Realization hit him and he began to laugh as he sped down West Temple street.

"They let him go. Why? Because he's loaded, that's why. What d'ya mean what do I mean? He's got bucks, moola, cabbage. Jesus, don't you understand anything? He's fucking rich! Yeah, rich enough to paste me in the kisser in front of an assistant DA and get away with it. Hang on for a minute—"

Shemansky's secretary stood in the doorway, her pretty face as smooth and bright as new honey. She was a lulu—and smart, too. "Yeah? What's up?"

"Sorry to disturb you, sir, but you've got two visitors in your outer office. They say it's important." She arched a perfect brow and smiled. "But they don't look important. Shall I have them wait?"

Her chutzpah always cheered him up. "Only a minute or two, honey. They're from IA...don't like to be kept waiting. I'll be off the phone in two shakes." He put his hand over the receiver until she was out of the room, then said urgently, "Listen. This business is getting sticky! Have you heard from your contact yet about the delivery? I'm not gonna be able to sit out here on this flagpole much longer, you got that? Anders getting blown away the first night made it look bad on the department. The chief's having a thorough investigation of the whole affair—so you get things rolling from your end or I might have to cooperate with IA!" He stopped, listened, lit a cigar and blew the smoke into the receiver. His collar felt too tight, his gut was twisting in knots, and suddenly he was very, very tired. "For your information there are two creeps from IA in my outer office, very anxious to talk to me—'nough said? Yeah. And you see to it that something's done about that cop. Why'n hell didn't your boys know about his money? Right."

He hung up without saying good-bye. Jerks, all of them. Always thinking they could buy and sell poor working stiffs and never get their hands dirty. Just like that asshole from Metro. He rubbed his jaw, tenderly palpating the discoloring bruise.

Finally, laying his cigar in the ashtray, he pressed the intercom button. "Send them in, please," he said in his most controlled voice, "and bring us some coffee." He sat back, watching the smoke rise in the room. Viciously, he hoped at least one of the bastards had asthma. If that wasn't a possibility, he hoped and prayed they had an axe to grind with Hutchinson.

Usually neither Starsky nor Hutch gave much thought to their office mail, especially if they weren't waiting for results of lab tests, or inquiries to departments back east. So, while Hutch checked, Starsky went on ahead, stopping at the candy machine for his morning snack. He had just decided on a Three Musketeers bar when he heard Hutch striding toward him. He hid a grin, feigning deep concentration. He could almost feel the descending hand, fingers curving above—but not touching—his rump as he bent over. There was a pause, a muttered "Shit!" and his partner hurried on. That was one of the biggest turn-ons he had: Hutch's admiration for his "killer buns." He tilted his head so he could watch the blond walk up the hall, noting the handful of mail he carried. To look at Hutch nobody'd guess how bad he still felt about Anders, and his wife. They'd seen her and her family at the funeral; pale, solemn, sort of like his own people when his father had died.

Starsky hated funerals; hated the flowers, the cold faces of the dead, the pain of the living. He'd watched Hutch cry for Gillian, for Van, and for him. Those tears had hurt more than the bullets.

He was suddenly aware he was standing in the hall crushing a candy bar to a pulpy mess and Hutch was nearly through the squadroom doors. Damn. Then he remembered that they were having a briefing that morning on Anders' murder, which meant all the detectives would be there. He stuffed the bar into his pocket and sprinted up the hall, managing to slide into his seat just as the captain left his office. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Hutch casually sorting the mail, tossing most of it in his direction.

"Good morning, men," Dobey said, looking straight at Starsky. "The first item on the agenda concerns the murder of a brother officer—"

What was it called? Starsky tried to remember but the word escaped him for a moment. He was looking at Dobey, yet seeing Hutch as well. Yeah, peripheral vision, maybe that was it. Hutch was holding a legal-sized envelope, staring at it with a puzzled expression. He looked at the captain, then back down at the paper, studying the front before turning it over. Why didn't he just open the stupid thing, Starsky wondered.

The details of Anders' death were unpleasant, but not out of the ordinary. Shot in the head while his hands were tied behind his back—typical execution, followed by disposal of the body in the ocean—what the hell would these mothers do without the Pacific? He turned to stare at his partner, and in doing so caught several others doing the same. Hutch's expression was so remote Dobey might have been talking about a stranger, but Starsky knew better. He saw Hutch's neck bend ever so slightly, exposing his nape. Jesus, how vulnerable he was.

He had to look away, afraid he'd betray his feelings. Shame had nothing to do with it, merely the desire to hold close their secret. Hell, they'd been accused of being lovers when it had been laughable, when any two guys who stood next to one another for more than five minutes were considered fags. They had teased each other, steadfastly refusing to give up their need to touch. Until that one day when the touch of a hand wasn't enough.

Dobey was busy passing out flyers, giving Starsky time to pick up his mail. Before he could open the first envelope, he saw Hutch holding something between his thumb and forefinger.

It was a white feather.

whitefeather3.jpg (75742
click illo to see larger image

Somebody had sent his partner a chicken feather—but what for? The question died unsaid when he heard someone behind him whispering.

Coward coward coward! Chicken.

Furious, he turned in his chair just as Dobey handed him a flyer. With blind deliberation he crushed it into a ball as the captain moved away. He knew the other men saw what he'd done, but he didn't care. All he could see was Hutch's face; pale, stern, and incredibly remote.

"Let's get outta here, partner," Starsky said bluntly. "I need some fresh air."

Hutch got to his feet without comment, following him out into the hall. He still held the feather.

"That thing come with a note?" Starsky asked, taking it from ice-cold fingers.

"No. I think it's self-explanatory, don't you?" Typical Hutchinson reaction; haughty, sarcastic.

Starsky ignored it and put his hand out for the envelope. "Let me see that." When Hutch complied with a shrug he examined it closely, noting it was postmarked Ventura. "You made any enemies in Ventura?" he asked. "I mean, this ain't exactly your ordinary greeting card." He sniffed the feather, then made a face. "God! This is right off a chicken...smells like a barnyard."

"Which means the sender may keep chickens," Hutch added automatically. "Or, this is simply another one of Shemansky's classy touches."

They began walking down the corridor. Starsky placed the feather back in the envelope. "Maybe S.I. will find something for us to check out."

Hutch merely stared at him, shaking his head. "Starsk, I hate to point this out, but the white feather is only a symbol, not a warning. It means somebody thinks I'm a coward..." He looked away, frowning.

"Goddamnit! You know better than that! It's nothin' but a lousy feather, sent by some sicko." He couldn't imagine even Shemansky pulling a stunt like this. Surely, nobody at Metro had done it.

"No. Don't try to sugarcoat it. It's something I have to live with. I wonder if they know you're supposed to send more than one." His laugh was bitter.

"The point is, pal, just who would send somethin' like that to you? Not to your home address, but here!"

Hutch came to a halt, eyes narrowed. "You're right," he said slowly, "which means whoever sent it must want me disgraced in front of the other cops so they'll believe I'm yellow. Of course, there's always the chance there's another one waiting at home."

"Fat chance. Hell, everybody here knows better than that."

His loyalty won him a brief smile and a wink. It was reward enough.

"Nevertheless, we're going to find out what we can from this little token and see who's behind it." Hutch sounded more like himself again, and it was obvious from the look in his eyes that the responsible party was going to regret it. He strode along, nodding as they passed three patrolmen.

Starsky nodded. "Maybe we're looking too close to home, Hutch. Maybe it's somebody with an old score to settle." He held open the elevator door for the ride down to Forensics, trying to recall anyone with a big enough grudge to do this.

"Give it up." Hutch held up the envelope. "Most of our street friends aren't familiar with the significance of a white father. It's got to be someone who thinks he's justified...and my refusing to go under has to be the reason."

"What about Anders' family?"

Hutch glanced sharply at him, all attention, but as he held open the door to the lab he said, "I don't think so. Hell, first some jock tries to frame me with money, then this. Doesn't sound like a family out for revenge. More like someone wanting to make me look bad."

"Just keep it in mind, partner," was all Starsky replied. He looked around the forensics outer office, a heavy ache in his heart. One of these days Hutch would be here; it was where he'd always dreamed of working after their street days were through. He felt a hand placed on his shoulder, turned to meet a pair of blue eyes and had to smile. "Not gonna change your mind, are you?"

"Don't think so, but you can try again if you want." Hutch was smiling back. "By the time I get here we'll be living together, won't we?" he murmured. "That should help some...for me it will, anyway."

"Can I help you?"

They both jumped, then hurried over to the desk. The black woman who sat behind it wore a vivid blue smock that was in sharp contrast to the neutral colors in the cluttered room. "Haven't seen you two for at least a week," she offered. "What needs looking at this time?"

Hutch seemed to lose his air of confidence as he extended the envelope. "This was delivered to me here at the station. I'd like it dusted for prints—other than mine and my partner's—and—and the feather inside examined." He took a deep breath.

She eyed him quizzically, but merely jotted notes on a piece of paper before removing a plastic bag from a drawer. "Drop it in here. How many people handled the envelope," she asked a trifle dryly.

Starsky chuckled, "Probably half of Metro, but give it a shot, willya? This is important."

Her mouth curved slightly as she taped the baggie closed. "Always is with you, Starsky, always is." She stared at the both of them, then pointed at Hutch. "I hear you're considering S.I. when you make lieutenant—" Her dark gaze raked over him. "Well, we can always use new blood—even if it is the honky kind."

Hutch grinned at her sarcasm. "Hopkins, it's people like you who make me want to stay on the streets." He leaned over the desk to shake her extended hand. "But thanks for the vote of confidence."

Starsky watched the exchange, feeling a little of his grief lifting. Hopkins had always wanted a street assignment, but she had joined the force back in the days when female cops were either office personnel or meter maids. Now, in her late forties, she knew more about forensics than many of the specialists. She'd mother Hutch, bully him, and keep him away from the wolves...what more could Starsky ask?

"I hate to break this up, but me'n Hutch gotta see a man about a feather—and other things." He walked toward the door, then looked back. "You and Millie still play poker on Thursdays?"

She got to her feet, hands on hips. "You got a mouth to match those ears! Now get lost and let me see if we can find out what happened to the rest of this chicken!" She held up the envelope and made a face.

It was raining; not the soft-breezed misty rain of spring, but a true storm whipping in from sea. The hills were obscured by the low cloud cover, and in the cemetery the grass was the color of jade. A lone, black-clad figure toiled up a slight incline, black hair plastered to her face. In her hands she bore one white rose and a paper bag already soaked through. Her features were hard, her eyes jet set in white marble. All her attention was concentrated on a tarp-covered mound strewn with fading flowers. She began making a whining noise deep in her throat as she neared the plot. "Such a mess," she whispered. "Lud hates things all messy." Her swollen body made it impossible for her to bend over to pick up the dead bouquets so she struggled to her knees, ignoring the mud and cold. With shaking fingers she set the flower at the head of the mound, brushing away the rest of the tributes. Her head bent as she prayed.

After a minute or two she looked up and began loading the old flowers into the bag. "They told me the turf goes on tomorrow, honey. And Miklos said the headstone will be here right after that." Tears welled, fell, were ignored. "I miss you so much, so much. So does the baby." She labored to her feet, picking up the bag. Without looking at the grave again, she began the downward journey toward a car parked on the winding drive. Three large men dressed in dark suits were waiting for her there. Without speaking they settled her in the vehicle and slowly drove away.

It was the first night Hutch had been alone since Anders' death. In a way he was glad; it meant there hadn't been time to think about the events of the last few days. Starsky always claimed he did too much 'thinking', but it was how he maintained his sanity in trying times. He was blessed with a fair amount of common sense—thanks to his grandmother—and many a night he'd come home and hibernated while the world went spinning along without him.

All of it except Starsky, who never let him forget that he wasn't alone, not really, or that he was the most important part of Starsky's own world.

The only world I really want. He poured himself a scant ounce of brandy and went outside to look down at the patio. There were still diners there so the myriad aromas of French cooking wafted up, masking the delicate scents of the flowers.

He was careful not to stand out on the landing, not wanting the patrons to see a man in white shorts peering down at them. Since he and Starsky had become lovers the place had taken on new significance, and at night, when customers and staff were gone, they often sat near the fish pond and talked about the future.

Two middle-aged men were sitting there now, wine glasses in hand, staring at the koi. It was obvious they were close—and comfortable with each other. He smiled, then went back indoors, feeling a little lost. More and more he found himself wanting to have a home, a place where he and Starsky could share their lives.

He put on the stereo and pulled the blinds, sitting in the dark, listening to a selection of Rampal favorites.

He was shocked when he saw it was almost ten o'clock. His first impulse was simply to go to bed, but he wanted to hear that lazy chuckle of Starsky's one more time. He pulled the telephone onto his lap, then punched the familiar number.

"Knew you'd call."

He grinned, cradling the phone closer. "Yeah? What makes you so smart?"

There was that chuckle. "Got you, didn't I? That makes me go to the head of the class." The voice grew deep and incredibly inviting. "I can be there in two shakes. Want some company?"

He hesitated, finally pushing aside the truth. "No. But only because I've some heavy thinking to do and you wouldn't let me do it." Behind him, the music swelled and ebbed, song of the sea. He wrapped the phone cord around his hand.

"Damn straight, babe. Those kinda thoughts make you crazy. Besides, if I'm there ya can bounce 'em off me."

My rock and my fortress. "Yeah, and if I have to I will, but tonight let me do this my way."

There was an audible sigh before Starsky replied. "Want me to pick you up in the morning? I could come over a little early..." Again, the words were a velvet invitation.

Hutch laughed, spirits lifting at the blatant sexuality. "Make it early enough and I'll cook breakfast for a bonus." His muscles tightened as he stared down at his groin. Jesus, his lover had only to speak and he was lost.

"I love you," he said softly.

Silence for a long moment, then, "What's not to love?" The husky tone was Starsky's way of masking his true feelings.

Hutch wasn't fooled. "Nothing, babe, that's why it's true. Now say good-night and get some sleep."

"See you about six, that okay?" Starsky was himself again. "Oh, I want a stack of pancakes on the side with lots of syrup." Laughter, then the connection was broken.

"Sure you do," muttered Hutch as he returned the phone to the coffee table. The record had shut off, and the room was dark and silent. He heard murmurs of conversation from the restaurant, but he was so used to it that it really didn't register.

Down time.

He thought about the white feather; the report from SI had stated crisply that it was from a White Leghorn and had been plucked from a living bird rather than picked from the ground, which meant there was no soil attached to it.

Strike one, he thought. Strike two had been the envelope, which came as no surprise...a mass of smudged prints, nothing more. Ventura was the only clue and it was a nothing one. He had no friends up there, and insofar as he knew, no enemies. Starsky had suggested they look for someone who raised chickens, but he knew it was a mere shot in the dark because a lot of the citrus growers kept small flocks of hens for bug control.

Shit! He got to his feet and began pacing. For some reason the two events that were driving him nuts didn't seem connected. Starsky was ready to corner Shemansky and shake him until some answers fell out, but Hutch knew instinctively he hadn't sent the damn feather. There wasn't an ounce of subtlety in Marvin Shemansky's whole body.

He bumped his shin, cursing his clumsiness as he hobbled into the kitchen. What he needed was a cup of coffee; what he wanted was a bedful of Starsky. His partner was right.

Despite his mood he had to smile. If he'd said yes to Starsky's offer they could have made love both tonight and in the morning. His imagination took over and he spent the next few minutes playing out a sexual fantasy that left him hard and aching. He refused to beat off; he'd use that tension in the morning when both of them could appreciate it.

That made him feel better, so he turned on the light and brewed some coffee, drinking it strong and black to clear away the cobwebs. Of far deeper significance was the matter of someone trying to frame him. He took his cup into the living room and sat at the piano, stroking the keys. He thought back to the seemingly endless lessons, taken only to please his mother. He wasn't sorry now—especially since Starsky loved to hear him play—but how he'd despised them at the time.

Hutch scowled; he was doing everything but concentrating on this mess! Was it a sign of age, or was it because it mattered only to him? No, that was vastly untrue. Dobey had begun his own quiet inquiry into the confrontation at the bank, asking if Hutch minded. The captain had been businesslike and a little reserved, and Hutch had felt the gulf widening between them. Something had to be done before he and Dobey lost their very special rapport.

Begin at the beginning, Hutchinson. Go back to that first meeting at OCID. Who was there? Moving over to the couch, he sat down and closed his eyes, leaning back so he could picture the room and its occupants. It had all started then.

The downstairs door slammed, and he jumped to his feet, listening for the sound of footsteps pounding up the stairs. Damn fool! Starsky must've had a hormone attack—as he called them—and decided to spend the night. Hutch realized suddenly the entry was dark and hurried over to switch on the hallway light. It was only when he opened the door that he discovered no one was there.

So, who had slammed the door? He stared down, gut tightening when he saw a long, white envelope on the bottom riser. Of course, the door hadn't been slammed by someone coming in, but by a messenger leaving. A messenger who wanted him to find the envelope right away.

Ignoring the fact he was clad only in his skivvies, he went down the stairs two at a time, throwing open the door and looking out, hoping to catch a glimpse of his new mailman.

Not a soul was in sight, naturally. Chez Helene was closed, the staff busy inside with clean-up. Just his everloving luck!

With nerveless fingers he picked the envelope up by the corner, noting there was no postmark this time. He knew what was in it; knew what had to be in it, and felt bile rising in his throat. If only Starsky were here! Slowly, he climbed back upstairs, jaw set so hard his teeth ached. Sonuvabitch! Whoever it was knew where he lived, and knew he was home. He'd been watched before—by experts—but this gave him the creeps. No threats, no note at all.

How do you know this one isn't different, moron? He turned on the light, holding the envelope up to it, seeing nothing except the very distinct silhouette of a small, curled, chicken feather. Who needed a note? Someone had passed a decision and he had been found guilty of cowardice.

He was filled with an icy calm; perhaps his judge was right and he'd better come to terms with it. The one, fucking time in his life he'd turned down an assignment...had he lost his nerve?

He began shaking with emotion, identifying it as anger; hell, it was fury! He wasn't yellow and he knew it. He had his police record to prove it, his commendations.

But a man was dead because he'd turned down a job. No! Anders is dead because he accepted the job! That was what he had to keep uppermost in his head. He dropped the envelope into a baggy and set it on the table, then sat down so he could get back to thinking about the rest of this goddamn puzzle. Fact: OCID had contacted Dobey because he could pass as Fass. Fact: Posing as Fass would get him into Keating's confidence, and when Keating bought whatever the hell Fass was selling, OCID would have an eyewitness to the transaction.

Fact: He was positive the real reason for asking for him was because they needed a body...Hutch's head snapped up, and he leaped to his feet, smacking his forehead with the palm of his hand. Whoever it was didn't want a dead cop, they wanted a body that could pass as Fass! His gaze narrowed; Anders didn't fit the bill so he was murdered. His mouth stretched into a grimace, and he whispered, "Oh, I'm gonna find out who you are, you mothers, if it's the last thing I do."

He stripped off his clothes, then showered, leaving the bathroom light on for Starsky in the morning. It wasn't much of a start, but he was certain he was right. He and Starsky would begin digging into the proposed buy with Keating and see exactly who was responsible for the hare-brained scheme. The austere features of John Templeton came to mind, followed quickly by those of the mousy little man named Al Somethingorother. Satisfied, he settled under the covers, getting up momentarily to drag out the tube of gel and place it under Starsky's pillow.

It would be put to good use.

His last thought was not about the white feather.