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Part Two

White Feather


Katherine Robertson

Part Three

The buzzing of a bee woke Starsky. Since he'd once had a bad reaction to a bee sting, he sat up immediately, wondering where the little bastard was. It was on his bedside table, buzzing angrily—and continuously. The alarm clock, of course. Even as he shut it off he had to restrain himself from tossing the thing. His mom had used one of those Big Ben alarms that sounded more like the local fire department but never left you wondering what was making the noise. Now there were snooze alarms, 'bird-call' alarms, and the buzzer types.

He yawned, riffling his hair. For his money the best alarm was the blue-eyed-blond kind that kissed you awake and sort of nuzzled your neck. That never failed to wake him up. Grinning, he headed for the shower.

It was early enough that traffic was still sparse as he sped toward Venice. How many times had he been to Hutch's? How many nights had he stayed? Not enough, never enough. Their loving was so good, so complete, that they often wondered why they hadn't seen the writing on the wall sooner. Maybe the reason it was so good now was because they'd waited.

He turned onto Ocean, studying the early-morning street people as he drove. For the life of him he couldn't understand Hutch's fondness for this neighborhood. He knew part of it was the lure of the beach, which was only a couple of blocks away; but the truth was that the little hole-in-the-wall businesses and homes had been showing their age even before the sixties flower-power days. Hutch was so damn stubborn, though, you couldn't budge him. He smiled when the soft pink of his lover's apartment building came into view. That stubbornness translated into dogged determination on the streets, and something else when it came to their loving one another.

He pulled around the corner seeking the shade to preserve the Torino's paint job. He'd probably have to get another car soon, but he wasn't going to trade this one in. He got out and locked the car, thrusting the keys into his pocket. Nope. Was going to restore it to its original beauty and keep it as a classic, just like Hutch suggested. With a loving pat on the hood, he headed for Hutch's.

He knew as soon as he let himself in that his partner was asleep.

The shades were still down and a comfortable silence pervaded the place. He smiled, removed his Adidas and dropped them beside the couch before stripping off his clothes. As he padded into the bedroom alcove, Hutch turned over, sprawling on his back. One hand held the sheet over his groin, the other rested on his chest. Starsky stood silently, smile gone, another emotion building fast. He knew if he was very quiet he could slide into bed without waking Hutch. They were so attuned to one another that recognition was subconscious. That was what he wanted today; wanted to wake Hutch up by loving taking him while he slept. Nice work if he could get it, he thought wryly.

Before he moved, though, he glimpsed something white—an envelope—in a plastic bag. Instinct told him what it contained, but he needed to see for himself. Hutch hadn't even opened the fucking thing, had he? Starsky did it for him, lifting the feather out, placing it in his palm, staring at it. Nothing but a symbol, nothing but a stupid feather. But it stripped his partner of his pride, made him feel small and cowardly. Before he could stop himself, he'd crushed the feather and ripped up the envelope. He dropped them into the trash and made his way to the bed, slipping in beside Hutch. More than ever he wanted to make love, extra-hard loving, not rough-and-tumble, but close.

He slid his hand under the pillow, seeking the tube of gel. There was enough light in the room for him to see and he prepared himself rapidly, his fingers bringing his cock to respectable hardness. Hutch's breathing changed, his eyelids fluttered and his hand moved across the sheet, curling over his genitals. His clean smell carried across to Starsky and he committed it to memory for the thousandth time.

"Come on, darlin', ease over on your side," he whispered, hands slipping under the relaxed torso. Obediently, Hutch moved, long back curved and supple. Starsky followed, positioning himself close to the warm body. Proximity was having its usual effect; his cock was engorged and throbbing. "Good, babe, so good," he crooned, fingers stroking over Hutch's ass. He laid his head on a hard thigh, then pressed a kiss onto the flesh. "So easy, so easy, Hutch. Gonna make it good."

Hutch gave a long sigh, but didn't wake. Starsky smiled to himself; maybe he thought he was dreaming. He felt under the covers, seeking the soft cock. He wasn't surprised to find it stirring from its nest of fine curls.

He brushed himself over Hutch's hips, then smoothly parted them, easing into position. Wordlessly, he pushed, knowing he would gain entry without difficulty—three years had made things easy for both of them. "Ah, babe," he murmured, pulling Hutch down on him, shuddering at the heat.

Hutch woke up, hands gripping Starsky's for a minute. "Jesus, you that hungry?" he asked sleepily.

Starsky chuckled and thrust deeper, feeling the responding, contracting muscle pulling him in. "Always wanna make a meal outta you," he declared, setting to work to make Hutch forget breakfast and everything else. He fucked with long, slow strokes, listening as Hutch moaned and swore his pleasure. "Yeah, that's it, darlin', make me work for it...move that ass, babe." His fingers reached down to lift the puckering sac, pulling it up and back. Hutch arched and cried out, further impaling himself.

"You bastard, I'm gonna be minus my hardware if you do that again," he groaned, hands tightly gripping Starsky's.

"No way. Just hold on tight and enjoy the ride. Here we go..." He changed rhythm, alternating slow, deep thrusts with fast, shallow ones. Hutch reached around with those long arms and dug his fingers into Starsky's buttocks until he couldn't pull back. "Oh, so ya want it that way, huh? Well, you got it!"

He struggled to his knees, pulling and helping Hutch at the same time to lie on his stomach. Freed of the extra weight, he slid out of the slick channel and waited until his breathing was back to normal. After planting a loud kiss on each mound, he used his knee to spread Hutch's legs. "Mmm, dunno about you, but I'm damn near the edge."

Hutch's only response was a lifting of his ass and the waggle of his middle finger. Grinning, Starsky thrust hard, closing his eyes in ecstasy as strong contractions began squeezing him. He didn't open them until he felt Hutch stiffen and gasp, calling out his name as he came.

He buried himself as deeply as he could, swept away by his need to control the bucking figure beneath him. The distinct odor of sex now mingled with the sharper smell of their sweat, filling his nostrils. "Gonna come...gonna come..." he cried, molding himself to Hutch, his seed jetting into welcoming heat and oblivion. Hutch had raised up, supporting him, murmuring words of love that burned themselves into his brain. He remained where he was, body pressed tightly to Hutch's, hands touching, caressing whatever they could reach.

He drifted in and out of sleep; using Hutch's larger body as a hammock which offered comfort and warmth while he rested. When he slid from Hutch, he was turned and cradled, kisses showering down on his curls and face. Smiling foolishly, he asked, "What're chances of getting a shower and some breakfast?"

"About as good as mine are of getting a ride to work." Hutch let him go, got out of bed and headed for the shower. "Me first, then you."

Starsky nodded, pulling the sheet over his head to keep the light from his face. From the bathroom came the sound of water and Hutch brushing his teeth. After a few minutes, he called out, "Hey, I shoulda come over last night, huh? Then you could've fixed dinner, too."

Something warned him he was in trouble, and he opened his eyes to see a towel flying his way. It was very damp and heavy, and dropped on his face with a splat. "Yuck! Is that any way to treat the guy who just fucked ya blind? Some lover you are."

"Yeah, well next time I'm returning the favor...only you can't cook like I can." Mischievous blue eyes peered around the corner at him. "What can you do, Starsk?" came the purring question.

"I'll show you, you egotistical bastard! Get outta that shower and—" Another towel, wetter than the first hit him smack in the midriff, knocking the wind out of him. "Jesus! You always this ornery in the morning?"

Laughter, followed by a washcloth. "Only when my sleep is interrupted by a sex maniac like you."

"Yeah? From now on I'll make sure you're wide awake," Starsky retorted in an aggrieved tone, picking up towels and washcloth as he made his way toward the bathroom.

He was ambushed by a damp figure that grabbed him and began smothering him in kisses. "Don't you dare wake me up another way," Hutch growled, wet hair leaving a trail of water across Starsky's chest. "That's the biggest turn-on in the world." He smiled, eyes filled with love. "You're a walking, talking, Kama Sutra, and I'll probably be in my grave in another year," he laughed, kissing Starsky's mouth, "but I'll die happy, babe. God, I'll die happy." One final, very long kiss and Hutch was getting dressed.

Starsky stood stock still, dazed by the whirlwind assault. He could do nothing but grin, so headed for the bathroom, showering and shaving slowly, body tingling where Hutch's fingers had dug into his flesh. Christ, he felt ready for anything.

The smell of fresh coffee and bacon drew him to the kitchen where he stood watching his lover prepare breakfast. Their eyes met and he smiled, suddenly embarrassed.

"I don't serve naked hunks as a rule, but in your case..." Hutch grinned suggestively and tilted the coffee pot toward Starsky's exposed torso.

He took the hint, dressing quickly and returning to a table loaded with bacon, eggs, toast, and his favorite jam. Hot coffee steamed in his cup. Hutch tossed him a napkin as he sat down, pushing the cream pitcher closer.

He took it, added sugar and began stirring the fragrant brew absent-mindedly. If they had a house they could start every day this way. He looked up. "I love you," he said softly. "I wanna live with you."

Hutch's expression didn't change; instead he placed his hand over Starsky's, nodding his head. "I know. That's why I was in the bank the other day." The fingers squeezed his. "Anytime, Dave. We can start looking anytime."

Discarding the spoon, Starsky got to his feet, coming around to look down at Hutch. His heart was so full that once again he was speechless. Crouching so he could stare into Hutch's eyes, he finally said, "You sure? I mean, you wanna take a stab at it?"

They both began laughing, and Starsky drew Hutch out of the chair, their lips sealing the pact.

John Templeton's walnut-paneled office was as neat as his hard-working secretary could make it. His law books were in order, the papers on his desk in their proper boxes, and a small carafe of coffee sat full of fresh-brewed Jamaica Harrar.

The room's two occupants ignored their surroundings, concentrating instead on a sheaf of papers spread before them.

Templeton cast a long-suffering glance at Al Caulkins. They had both worked together on other cases, winning most of them, but lately Al seemed preoccupied, almost disinterested in his job. Templeton felt restless; colleagues and friends were urging him to run for Attorney General and he was actually giving it serious consideration. This fiasco with Fass and Keating might spell finis to his plans if they didn't accomplish something soon. District Attorney Busch wasn't known for his patience, especially in an election year.

"Al, you told me that our mole was certain Keating and Fass were going to meet. Why hasn't he contacted you?"

Caulkins shook his head, his expression concerned. "I waited until eleven last night and he never phoned. He said before he wasn't in any danger, but I'm beginning to wonder."

Templeton began sorting the papers in front of him. "I don't like this at all. The way this case stands right now, that detective was certainly right in refusing us." He pressed his fingertips together and stared at the smaller man. "He set a bad example, Al, that's what I object to. We can't have officers routinely turning down assignments."

Caulkins got up to pour himself a cup of coffee. He stood with his back to Templeton. "We also can't have them getting murdered, can we?"

"The blame for that lays at Shemansky's feet!" Templeton snapped. "That idiot swore Anders would be safe." He'd only spoken to the eager young patrolman once and had come away impressed by his zeal. His lips compressed.

Caulkins sat down, eyes hidden behind thick lenses. "Maybe he was fingered by a disgruntled detective, eh?" he murmured evenly. "Maybe there's more to this than meets the eye." He sipped his coffee, then scribbled something on a piece of paper. "Just a reminder when our man contacts me," he explained, tucking the note in his pocket.

"You're wrong, Al. Much as I dislike that type of egotistical hothead, I can't believe he arranged the murder of a fellow officer. To what end? Just because the man bears a striking resemblance to Wilhelm Fass doesn't mean he's cut from the same cloth." Templeton knew he was defending Hutchinson, but for some reason Caulkins' remarks irritated him. He hated to think any LAPD officer was involved with the likes of Keating and Fass.

His pronouncement was met with a somber stare. "John, this whole situation is distasteful. Still, we have to consider our list of suspects very carefully. I don't for one minute think Hutchinson was involved in the actual killing. However, there is his considerable—ah—portfolio to explain."

Templeton frowned. "So you're implying his money is the result of underworld dealings? There's no proof of that, whatsoever." The hairs on the back of his neck prickled. He sat as still as a cat, watching Caulkins.

A shrug, followed by an oblique look. "Did you believe him when he said he never touches it? I think it highly unlikely...unless it wasn't obtained legally." He nodded, putting a visible period to his statement. "In fact, I'm thinking of checking further back in his record to see if the resemblance between him and Fass might just be familial." He smiled, his expression cunning and conspiratorial.

That did it. John Templeton was not a patient man and he'd heard enough drivel. He got to his feet and said cuttingly, "Al, that's not only ridiculous, it sounds absolutely paranoid! There is absolutely no justification for this line of reasoning." He gathered the papers up and rang for his secretary. "Put these in my attaché case, if you will. I want to take them home to study."

Turning back to see Caulkins observing him, he said, "Al, I want to meet this so-called mole of yours. So far he's come up with nothing—which is why we're less an officer. If he's deep under then I'll meet him somewhere, but it's imperative I talk to him. Is that clear?"

Caulkins paled visibly. "That's not possible, John. I can't compromise his safety! He's been under for a long time..."

"Then perhaps it's time we bring him out," retorted Templeton sharply. "Or we may be less another cop! You have two days to arrange a meet, no more. Now, good day." He ushered the older man out the door, noting that Caulkins' hands were shaking. He wondered about his health momentarily, then went back into his office and shut the door. He still had a few contacts who owed him favors. Maybe there was a way to get Keating and Fass without wasting any more policemen.

The Pits had only two occupants when Starsky and Hutch arrived, and they were already well into their cups. Huggy rolled his eyes, gave an expressive shrug, then said, "I know America's favorite couple ain't here for no social call this early in the a.m., so what's your pleasure?" He smiled benignly. "I mean—your other pleasure?" He watched a swift rush of crimson color Hutch's face, while Starsky's eyes grew even brighter. Three years since these two had tied the knot—or whatever it was called now, and they seemed to grow closer every time he saw them. 'Word on the street is that you are lookin' for one mean dude, that right?"

Starsky settled onto a barstool, fiddling with a salt shaker. He glanced quickly around the room, then nodded. "Yeah, but we're also in the market for info on somebody who's partial to sending feathers through the mail." He smiled at Hutch. "It's driving my partner crazy."

Huggy stared at them both. "Starsky, you've come in here more times than I can remember askin' one dumb question after another, but this one takes the cake. What are you talkin' about?"

"Somebody's sending me white feathers, Hug," Hutch said quietly, "probably because I refused an undercover assignment."

"You still ain't making sense. You mean somebody's saying you're yellow?"

Hutch smiled. "Streak a mile wide, amigo." But his eyes held a haunted look.

"That's shit and everybody knows it!" snapped Starsky. He then proceeded to fill Huggy in, omitting nothing. "See, we sorta made this pact to be more careful, and Anders gettin' iced was proof Hutch was right," he finished.

"Leon Keating makes 'nasty' a compliment," remarked Huggy seriously, serving each of them a cup of coffee. "An acquaintance of mine had dealings with him once. Said the dude is loco."

He held up one hand, fingers pinched together, then made a snipping motion, features pulled up in a grimace. "Keating's got one foolproof way of punishing anyone who doublecrosses him." He shook his head. "And that's castration."

The detectives stared at one another, Hutch letting out a low whistle. "Before or after he kills them?"

"Who said anythin' about killing? There's more capons on the streets, Blondie, than you can imagine. He's got a lieutenant who's as good as any vet."

"Makes sense. That explains why we can t get to him, huh?" Starsky commented, eyes glittering. "But it doesn't explain why Anders was iced. Why didn't he castrate him as a warning?"

Hutch reached into his jacket, removed one of his cards and turned it over to write on. "That's not hard to figure out," he said without looking up. "Somebody told him Anders was a plant, so what good was he to Keating?" He leaned over the bar, handing the card to Huggy. "Keep this for me, will you? It's the number of my broker—and a very good lawyer." He smiled. "Who knows when I might ask you to do me a favor?"

Huggy studied the name, eyebrow arching as he recognized it. But the look he gave the detective was puzzled. "Hutch, if you're plannin' to do something illegal in the near future, then I don't want no part of it." He flicked the card with a fingernail, and turned to Starsky. "I dunno what our white brother has in mind, but you better think about changing partners, pronto."

Hutch shook his head, expression serious. "I'll give you a full explanation later, Hug, just keep it where you can make a call in a hurry if you have to. There's some heavy stuff being dumped on me right now, and I may need you to contact one of these guys to bail me out."

"Bail you out? Mmmnn. Starsky, for the last time, take ol' Huggy's advice and split! This dude must be in serious shit, man." Then, seeing the look Starsky gave Hutch, he added, "No dice, right? In that case, Huggy's next bit of advice is to stay away from The Pits, 'cause I can't afford this sort of legal aid."

Hutch didn't smile at the remark. Instead, he said quietly, "You know if you ever need anything from us, we'll deliver. And that includes the best lawyer in town." He placed his hand on Starsky's back, half-pushing him off the barstool. "Come on, we've got work to do."

"Don't we always?" Dark blue eyes met Huggy's. "That's gospel, what Hutch said. You call us and we'll come runnin'." Then he flashed an irrepressible grin as he headed for the exit. "If any of Keating's butchers drop by, keep your legs crossed!"

"It's too late," Huggy called after him, "Arlene's ruining me, fast." Chuckling, he watched them leave, then headed for the phone, intent on calling somebody who knew exactly how sharp that knife was. A man with a long memory and nothing more to lose. If he was lucky, by tonight he'd have good news for his two friends.

Hard fingers on his arm nearly made him drop the receiver. He whirled around, heart pounding. It was Starsky, deadly serious. "Christ, man, you outta your mind, scaring me that way?"

"Sorry, Hug, but I gotta make this quick. Check around and see if anyone's heard about somebody bein' in the chicken business. You get my drift?"

So, apparently this deal with the feathers was heavier than it appeared. Knowing Hutch, it was probably eating away at him. "Troubles? I'll see what I can find out."

"Thanks." A press of fingers, a nod of the dark head, and Starsky was on his way, broad shoulders filling the doorway, blocking the sunlight.

"Via con dios, amigo," Huggy said softly.

"You know I hate driving down here! Why can't you spend a couple of hours comin' up to my place?"

The speaker was a powerfully built, swarthy man with a thick mane of silvery hair stylishly cut. Despite the early hour he was sweating profusely. He was dressed in the blue denim shirt and jeans of a rancher; his straw hat lay where it had been tossed onto the couch.

"Simple, dear brother," Alex Collis drawled, his dark eyes surveying his brother with barely concealed hostility. "This was all your idea—yours and Helena's, and now it's all we talk about. Besides, I hate the smell of your goddamn chickens." He removed his Madras shirt, revealing a bronzed, muscular chest and the well-developed biceps of a boxer. He had a mass of tight, black curls which were neatly trimmed. When compared to his elder brother, Miklos, he looked almost small, yet he was at least three inches taller. Of the five brothers, Alex was the only one who had raised any objections to the escalation of harassment on behalf of his widowed sister.

Miklos dismissed his comments with a sneer. "Those 'goddamn chickens' put you through college. You didn't think they smelled bad then, did you?" He stalked over to the window, glancing at his watch. "Where the hell are they? Betcha that scrap heap of a Camaro couldn't make it, eh? I want to beat the traffic going home." He turned back to study his brother. "Talk about stink! Diesel...smog, phew.'"

Alex ignored him, heading into the still-cool kitchen. He was used to Mik's bitching. He acted as if his fifty acres in Ventura was Irvine Ranch or something. He'd long ago ceased feeling guilty about his college days for the simple reason he'd paid back every borrowed nickel plus interest. He and his wife and two kids didn't need this sort of trouble, especially since Helena was developing into a real nut case.

He poured himself a large glass of V8 and searched until he found some grapefruit juice for Mik. Carrying both glasses into the living room, he handed one to his impatient brother, a peace offering of sorts. "Sit down and quit fussing. Stav and Nicki are always late—it's in the blood, and Harry wasn't sure he could get away. What's this all about, anyway?"

He took a long swallow, licking his lips in appreciation. Eyeing his elder brother as he levered himself into the big contour chair, he felt an increasing apprehension. "Mik, you and I both know Helena's sick, don't we?"

"And why is that?" Huge fingers curled around the glass, flesh white over the knuckles. The juice disappeared in two gulps, but he held onto the tumbler. "She's a driven woman these days...and we're going to see she gets justice." Mik looked at his watch again, scowling. "Lud was a good We aren't going to forget that!"

Christ, how he hated this caveman mentality! This was today; his brother-in-law had died in the line of duty under mysterious circumstances, nothing more, nothing less. With each meeting of the family, Alex's distaste and fear grew. He was beginning to feel sorry for the poor bastard who'd turned down the job.

He was spared further thought on the matter when he heard loud voices outside. "Finally. They must have gone to pick up Harry," he said to Mik. "Get the door, will you?" He didn't add that otherwise Stavros the stevedore might just barrel through it with Nicki following and bitching about the mess. Nick the Prick—even when they were kids! He smiled; what a divergent lot they were—and how like a fucking Greek play this had become!

"Hey! Alex, whatcha got to drink? Root beer? Seven-up?" Stavros Collis stood just inside the living room arch, his huge frame dwarfing even Miklos. A dazzlingly white shirt, open at the throat, accented a burst of black, wiry chest hair. When he smiled, his thick and luxuriant mustache barely moved. The smile faded as soon as he saw Miklos, who merely nodded. "Ah, our curator of chickens is here. How's the family, Mik?"

"Shut up, Stavvy. Let's get this over with. I don't want Helena putting in her two bits' worth." This from Nick, his garish polyester outfit a distinct contrast to his brothers' simpler clothing. His grey hair shone with a heavy layer of pomade. Despite his dandified wardrobe, his eyes were hard.

Alex tuned them out, concentrating instead on his younger brother. Harry didn't look well; his olive skin was positively waxy today, and his glance darted nervously around the room while his thin, bony fingers played with his jacket zipper.

Drugs again. Alex fought down his disgust and went over to where Harry perched on the edge of the couch arm. "How're things going?" he asked softly, hoping the booming voices of the older men drowned out the question. "You don't look too hot."

Liquid brown eyes met his, hell in their depths. "'m not so hot, Alex, guess it's a touch of the flu." He bent over, folded on himself, his longish dark hair hiding his features. Alex patted his shoulder.

"Maybe something to drink'll help. Come on." He heard Harry stumbling along in his path, breath catching in a sob, and his heart twisted in his chest. When they were in the relative privacy of the alcove, he spun around, grabbing his brother. "What is it this time? Jesus Christ, man, you're killing yourself!"

The thin figure shook and Alex pulled him into an embrace, rubbing his back. "Ah, Harry, it's okay. What do you need?"

"F-fifty bucks, Alex. I'll make a novena to the Blessed Mother if you'll just front me this time—"

Aghast, Alex slapped his face. "You shit! If I give you the dough the best thing you can do is shoot up and die! Don't you ever bargain with me like that!" He crossed himself. "The Church would never approve of what we're doing, now, so keep that kind of talk out of here." He saw the hurt, the mark of his hand on Harry's cheek and was engulfed with shame. He'd come so close to this himself. Only his wife's love and support had seen him through the tough times. "I'm sorry, but you scare me so damn much! Come on, have a drink." He pulled out a decanter of Canadian Club, pouring two fingers into a paper cup.

Like a dumb animal, Harry nodded, eyes fastened on him. He gulped down the whiskey, following with another, finally whispering, "I'm scum, Alex. Better off dead, better for the whole family

Alex didn't try to stop the flow of bitter words, merely stood dose, offering his presence. When the diatribe stopped, he fished in his wallet and brought out two twenties and a ten. "For what it's worth, Harry, I understand. But we need you now, so don't let us down."

Harry snatched the money, counted it, and then tucked it into his pocket. "Sure, sure. Where does this next one get delivered?" Now that he could see relief ahead, his hangdog demeanor disappeared and he actually smiled. "Bet that cop wonders what in hell's happening, right? Man, I'd like to be a fly on his wall."

Alex didn't laugh. "The smartest thing we could do would be to convince those three to let this go. I know you liked Lud, but nothing we do is going to bring him back."

His words fell on deaf ears; Harry, for all his problems, had loved the man married to his sister. Maybe Lud had sensed that the youngest Collis boy was different than the others and had made an attempt to become his friend. It was Harry who'd moved in with Helena—and who wanted to see this Hutchinson character punished even more.

Alex could stall no longer. They sat around the dining room table, faces somber as they discussed their sister's future and the detective's fate. Mik, still sweating, produced the final feather, smiling as he placed it on the table. "Plucked from a virgin," he boasted, chuckling at his brother's stares. "Well, they're as good as." He grew stern. "Enough small talk. After that cop gets this last feather, we're gonna get down to hard business. Helena's due to deliver real soon, and I want somethin' positive to tell her when she goes to the hospital."

Alex groaned, putting his hand to his forehead. "And what's that supposed to mean? If the poor slob isn't bleeding from all parts she isn't gonna have the kid? I swear, Mik, you sound like something out of a bad movie!"

He couldn't believe it. His brothers were glaring at him as if he'd come in on the bottom of somebody's shoe. "What, short of murder, is going to satisfy her?" he demanded. "You know, the police department has a real nasty way of making life miserable for people who harass them. I'd hate like hell to be in jail if and when Helena really needs my help."

"Come off it, Alex! You know damn well that cop isn't sayin' anythin' about no chicken feathers!" snickered Harry, "so don't go tryin' to scare us into changing our minds." He snapped his fingers, his gaze going from face to face. "It's what Helena wants," he said somberly.

Finally admitting it was useless to argue, Alex gave in. He was too close to his family to walk away; which was what any sane man would do right now. "Okay, what's this great and wonderful plan? And what am I supposed to do?"

Immediately, the tension in the room evaporated and smiles appeared on the strong, dark faces. Alex knew they were blaming his education for his behavior, because what else could it be? He wondered absently if the blond cop had any family. God, what if they were as crazy as the Collis' were!

Hutch sat in the observation room, watching his partner question Huggy's friend through the one-way mirror. The only way the man would agree to talk to them was to be treated like any other suspect. He was a large black man, thick gold chain gleaming against dark skin, electric blue nylon shirt almost luminous under the bleak neon lights. Custom-made yellow snakeskin shoes were molded to his broad feet. The man was a ladies-man; it stuck out all over him. He went by the nickname of Ramrod, now a hideous misnomer in light of what had been done to him.

Nevertheless, Huggy had warned them to treat him as if nothing had happened until Ramrod was comfortable with them. Hutch had deliberately kept his gaze on Ramrod's face, yet he felt almost compelled to see for himself just what showed under those snug-fitting dark pants.

Just then, Starsky got to his feet, leaning against the wall, scowling at their 'suspect'. It was Hutch's cue to go into action, but he took a moment to study the graceful drape of his partner's body, the well-defined swell of worn denim. He smiled, what a turn-on the man was! Almost eagerly he strode over to the door, opening it to meet that amused, affectionate gaze that made him weak in the knees. "This the guy?" he said roughly, shoving pity aside in order to show compassion. He knew all about self-respect, and how it felt to lose it. "My partner tells me you know something about Keating."

Brown eyes met his, locked, sparked, and then Ramrod said quietly, "Huggy tells me you got questions."

"Go get us some coffee, Starsk, and whatever Mr. Ramrod wants to go with it." He smiled as Starsky stared at him. "Misery loves company, partner. Trust me." He sat down, exchanging another searching glance with the black man. "Help us get this scum. It won't undo anything, but when Keating's sent to prison, I'll bet he doesn't sit down for a year!"

Ramrod's face split into a huge grin, his strong teeth so white it hurt to look at them. A hand slapped the table, and Hutch felt the reverberations shake the rest of the furniture.

"You got a deal, white bread! The brothers will make life hell for him, man. Shit! Who'll be the woman then? I like it!"

Starsky grinned, shaking his head as he left the room.

Hutch grew serious, leaning forward until he and Ramrod were nose to nose. "Leon Keating's never seen the day when he was as much a man as you are, and don't forget it! If you'd been shot in 'Nam, or had had cancer, or even shot on the streets, you'd have ended up the same way, but you'd feel different, right?"

The black man was silent, rubbing calloused fingers over his close-cropped hair. "Yeah, but knowing that don' help me deal with losing my balls to a motherfucker like Keating."

Hutch nodded. "If we nail the bastard, maybe one of the bloods will send you his." He had to reach this man, who, tough as he was, was near tears. "Help us. Huggy can tell you nobody'll find out."

Once again, Ramrod was silent, then his hand snaked out and Hutch grasped it in a street greeting, grateful for Starsky's insistence that he learn to do it properly. "His ass is grass, man. Just tell us what we need to know."

Just then Starsky came back with his hands full and pushed against the door with his shoulder. Hutch got to his feet, holding the door open while his partner hurried to the table. "I got three coffees, a steak sandwich, and fries," Starsky announced.

A tall, grey-haired man, passing by in the corridor, shot a sharp glance his way. Hutch's guard went up and he quickly closed the door, barring their 'guest' from view. "Guess who I just saw?" he remarked.

"Yeah. Must be slummin'," was all Starsky said. He pushed the food toward Ramrod, then wiped his fingers. "I put sugar and cream in the coffee. Don't want ya claimin' we're tryin' to poison you." He smiled, cocked an eyebrow at Hutch. "Believe it or not, the special is chicken salad, and I didn't have the guts to bring you a sandwich. With your luck it might have a stray feather in it."

Hutch shook his head at Starsky's humor, then reluctantly sipped the muddy-looking liquid. "Ugh. To hell with the chicken. This stuff'll ruin your guts without any help." He set down the Styrofoam cup. "Seriously, partner, our man here has decided to help us make Keating's life miserable."

"All right! Ramrod, you're one smart dude." Starsky sat down, pulled a smashed chocolate bar out of his jacket pocket, and peeled back the paper. Looking up, he saw both men staring at the candy. "Got it the other day, forgot it." He grinned.

God, I love you so much, Hutch thought. Never taking his eyes from his partner, he explained, "See, Sergeant Starsky has this thing about never throwing anything away...and that includes dead chocolate bars."

Ramrod's mouth was full of steak and onions, but he managed to make a face. Nearly choking as he swallowed, he said, "You two are nuts. Huggy'd tol' me that, but since he's a wiffo himself, who believed him?" A handful of fries followed the steak. "But you're all right." The coffee cup was drained in one huge gulp, then Ramrod sat back, eyeing them shrewdly. "Okay, ask away."

All frivolity vanished as the two detectives, heads together, began picking the man's brain.

John Templeton continued down the corridor, remembering the look on Hutchinson's face while he'd closed the door. He'd seen the curly-haired detective in the hall and recognized him as another of Harold Dobey's men, probably Sergeant Starsky.

At another time he might have asked who they were interrogating, but he was on a mission that might produce the name of Al Caulkin's mole. It had been three days since their meeting, and the man still hadn't surfaced.

Caulkins was avoiding him and he knew it. So he was going on his own hunt. A few calls had led him to Metro, leaving him with the suspicion that Al's mole came from here, which might explain why Hutchinson had been suggested as a ringer for Fass.

He smiled to himself as he signed in at the desk. The R and I clerks wore their usual harried looks as they scurried around the office, searching for files that everybody wanted yesterday. He watched the hubbub with interest, then spotted a short, slender officer with piercing, dark eyes, and raised his hand, finger pointing toward himself.

The man nodded and walked over. "Can I help you, sir?"

"I think so." He looked at the officer's ID. "I'm John Templeton, Sergeant Rodriguez."

Mention of the name brought a spark of interest to Rodriquez' eyes. "Sorry. Should have recognized you right away. What can I do for you?"

"Well, save me some time, for one thing. Can you recall anyone who has been transferred to OCID without the requisite paperwork?"

The cop slowly shook his head. 'I've been here for more'n three years and we haven't sent anyone over there—most of our guys retire on a stress or injury disability." He shrugged. "Frankly, workin' for Captain Shemansky's not high on anybody's list."

Templeton nodded. "Perhaps I'm not phrasing this right. Maybe somebody from—say, Narcotics, was sent there—they spend more time undercover. Have there been any—ah—unusual requests for transfers to other divisions within the last ten months?"

He knew Rodriquez was curious, so he pressed on. "Our office is afraid that one of your men has gotten himself into trouble while working deep undercover—and may need rescuing."

The brown eyes narrowed. "Shouldn't you be looking through personnel files, sir?" He indicated a pile of mug books. "These are criminals, not undercover cops. You sure you were told your man is from Metro?"

He sighed, silently cursing Caulkins and his secrecy. "More or less. Are you positive you've had no transfers?" He reached for one of the books. "Take ten, sergeant, and see if you spot anyone who used to work here."

Light dawned, and Rodriguez whistled. "Why didn't you say that's what you wanted? It just so happens we've got a special book for cops who've crossed the line...and been convicted." Almost eagerly, he took down a slim volume and flipped it open. "Take a look at these, sir. Maybe your man's in here."

Templeton felt his heart begin to pound as he pulled the book toward him. "Thanks. I'll need you to answer some questions, but not for a little while." He fell to work, searching the pages with a strange feeling. These were former officers, men who'd somehow fallen through the cracks, choosing crime after years of working for the law. Funny. They looked just like all the other criminals. A familiar face stared blankly out at him, and he remembered the case. Murder, arson, blackmail, all from a man who'd worked long and hard for sixteen years on a beat. Quickly, he turned the page.

"Find anything?" Rodriguez asked, obviously wanting to get on with his work. "I'm afraid there's no thin' else here that'll help you." He waited a minute then sat down at a paper-strewn desk.

The DA took the hint, admitting defeat at this point. That admission, however, only added fuel to his curiosity. Caulkins had to have used a cop, that was a foregone conclusion, and since Metro seemed to be the matrix for all the contention, then it should follow that the mole was from Metro.

But what if Caulkins is lying? What if there isn't any mole? Stunned by a flash of insight, John Templeton stepped back, gaze rigidly fixed at the wall. Peripherally, he could see Rodriguez staring at him, getting to his feet, coming over...

"You okay, sir? I mean, you want a drink of water or a cup of coffee—anything?"

"No. Thank you, sergeant. I just remembered an appointment—an extremely important one. Thanks for your help." The lawyer carefully closed the book and handed it back. "Sorry to have wasted your time. It seems I may have been mistaken."

He left the room, head bent in thought. He barely noticed that the door to the interrogation room was wide open and its former occupants gone.

"It's not enough!" Helena Anders spread her fingers across her belly, feeling the muscles contract. "I tell you he hasn't suffered enough!" A tiny moan gusted from her lips and she reached for her brother's hand. "He must pay, before my son draws his first breath! Please, Stavros...please."

"Shh! Shh! The baby only shifts a little, 'lena. It's not your time yet." Huge fingers curved around her small ones. "I gave you my word, so he will pay. Now, rest. Better yet, sleep."

She closed her eyes, pillowing her head on one of Lud's old sweatshirts. Perhaps Stavvy was right and she worried too much. The doctor had told her she must get more sleep for the labor ahead. "I want to talk to Harry," she murmured, "as soon as he gets home."

"Of course," came the soothing reply. Clumsy fingers patted her head. "Now, take a nap."

Black eyes stared feverishly at him. "I will shoot him down myself if you are afraid."

"No!" he said firmly, drawing away. "Would you bring shame to your husband's name by becoming a murderer? Your baby has already lost his father, will you force him to lose you, too?" He looked down at her, brows beetled in anger, shaking his head. "We will find a way, little one, but you must stay out of it."

He stroked her hair, managing a tired smile for her. "He will time."

She sighed, then turned away. "There must be blood, Stavvy. Enough to pay for Lud's life." Behind her closed lids she pictured a pool filled with the betrayer's blood. She smiled.

Her brother stared at her, frowning. He shivered when he saw her expression and crossed himself as he left the room.

Harry was sitting on the couch, removing his shoes. He looked up when he saw his brother. "Thought I heard your voice. She all right?"

"No. Worse than before. We have to speed up our plan or she's going to try to kill him, herself."

A crafty look crossed Harry's face. "Might be the easiest way out in the long run. Hell, look at her! She could plead insanity and mean it. No jury's gonna convict someone in her con-"

Stavros slapped him hard, fury darkening his features. "You slime! After what she's been through, you'd expose her to a public trial! God, Momma'd be proud of you, wouldn't she?"

Harry rubbed the reddened mark on his cheek. "And what would she say about you slappin' me around?" He got to his feet, out of reach and taunted, "Take care of Harry for me, he's the baby..." He snatched up an apple from a bowl on the table, teeth biting deep into the rosy flesh. "You always were too damn quick with those hands of yours. How many times did she hafta bail you out, huh? You're nothin' but a bully. Always were—ask Helena."

Stavros winced, and turned on his heel, fists clenched. Harry's mouth was too tempting a target—he longed to smash it, bust open a lip, knock out a tooth or two. Shoulda done it years ago. He needed something to hit, and soon. As he grabbed up his car keys, an image of Hutchinson standing with a group of detectives at Lud's funeral came to mind. Maybe he should use the fucker for a punching bag; that would shut up the whole crazy family, wouldn't it?

He started the car, cursing when the engine failed to catch. When it did, he backed out into the street, leaving a patch of rubber ten feet long. He'd show that drugged-out, pitiful excuse for a brother just who had Helena's interests at heart! Between Alex's contempt and Miklos lording it over them with his stupid chicken ranch—he'd had it. A few beers at Diver Joe's and he'd be fine—then he'd start looking for the yellow-bellied coward who was responsible for Lud's death.


They had stopped by Huggy's to thank him for locating Ramrod and persuading him to spill what he knew about Leon Keating. The man's story had been sobering and edifying. Starsky, noting the set of Hutch's mouth while he related the tale to Huggy, leaned forward and smiled at his partner. "Wanna play a game of pool? Five'll get you ten, you lose." It was an invitation his partner seldom refused.

He watched as Hutch considered the challenge. It was a no-go, he knew as soon as their eyes met. "You got something better in mind?" he asked softly.

That brought a wide smile, but the answer was still no, and so he shrugged. Lights out would be early had happened before. He slid off the barstool. "Well, if I can't take your money, or seduce you, I'm goin' home. You do have your car still parked in the back, don't you? Bad as the LTD—nobody would steal that, either."

"That's my secret, Starsk. You buy the flash, and naturally everybody wants to steal it. In the meantime, my cars sit safe and sound." He patted his stomach, looking vastly pleased with himself. But when Huggy moved away to answer the phone, he lightly touched his lover's shoulder, looking deep into Starsky's eyes. What was exchanged was between the two of them only, but it was enough to relax the tension in Starsky's stance. "I'll pick you up in the morning, okay?" Hutch said.

A thrill ran through him as his lover, unsmiling, nodded. More than anything in the world, Hutch wanted him at that moment, wanted to hold the beauty, the leashed power and sweetness of the man. When Starsky looked at him like that, those wonderful eyes shining with love—and trust—he felt so damn good about life that nothing could ever threaten them. He stared back, captivated momentarily, then the feeling was gone, all the safety and warmth fleeing with it. "I may call later," he murmured huskily as he fished for his car keys.

Strong fingers clasped his elbow. Features still solemn, Starsky said quietly, "Just be careful, Hutch. Check the shadows for once, willya? Some chickens work at night, and so do some surgeons."

His wrist moved in a gesture almost too quick to comprehend, but Hutch knew the meaning. Castration. He shook his head. "Hey, there are certain parts of my anatomy that I hold very dear, and those happen to be a couple of 'em."

They were walking toward the rear exit when Huggy's voice intruded.

"Better listen to your main man, Hutch, 'cause he's right. Talk on the street is that Keating's only waiting for the word and then he makes his move." The thin shoulders hunched, and the owner of The Pits looked them both over. "Be a shame if Starsky lost the only person dumb enough to play pool on his terms. The man would starve..." Eyebrows arched over eyes bright with empathy. "Go softly, blond brother, it's a mean world out there."

Hutch nodded at their friend. "Not to worry. My luck's gotta change. Dobey's sure Leon's going to make a mistake and Fass will bury him for it." He opened the back door and peered up and down the alley, which at this early hour was packed with workers' cars. "G'night, you two. Trunk's full of dirty clothes, so I'm going to stop by the laundromat on the way home."

This was addressed to Starsky, who stifled the urge to ask if the 'laundry' was all sheets. Sometimes Hutch didn't appreciate his sense of humor. "Got change?" he asked instead.

Blue eyes sparked with mischief. "By some miracle I haven't been mooching it all for your damn candy. I'd be rich if you ever paid me back." He stepped into the alley, his hand jingling the pocket change.

"Stuff it, Crosius. You're already loaded," Starsky retorted before closing the door. Huggy was gesturing for him to join him at the bar, so he hurried over. "Yeah? What's up?"

"Didn't want to say anything in front of Hutch, but one of my contacts says that there's trouble brewing in the DA's office." Huggy turned around and drew off a glass of draft beer, pale gold in the amber light, and slid it across to his friend.

Starsky hitched himself up onto the barstool, savoring the first swallow of cold beer before answering. "Don't take this personally, Hug, but who in the hell do you know who's got an in at the DA's?"

Huggy snorted. "Starsky, your ignorance is showin'. You're forgetting the little people who work in the halls of glory."

He resembled a crafty trader as he leaned across the bar, his aquiline nose a prominent cipher on the brown skin. "My contact happens to work the hours from six to midnight cleaning up after the big-wigs. You'd be surprised at how many of them stay after work to make phone calls." He refilled Starsky's glass. "My man, who has reason to dislike your brothers in the DA's office, overheard Templeton talkin' to somebody who was apparently giving him all the wrong answers. Templeton threatened to expose something and somebody, then slammed down the phone and got his gun outta his desk...he was definitely a man in a bad mood."

Waiting until a party of bowlers was seated and served, Starsky had time to think over what Huggy had just told him. Never in a million years would he have believed John Templeton would lose his cool—the man was reputed to have a heart of ice. What had happened to make him angry—correction, furious? Maybe he ought to do a little snooping around.

He glanced at his watch. Almost nine; should he call Hutch and let him know about this? Or should he just forget about it until tomorrow when they were on duty? He drained his glass, left three bills on the bar for his beer, and sauntered out the entrance, a man with no particular destination in mind. It was only a twenty-minute drive from here to Parker Center and the traffic would be sparse now. Maybe he and Templeton should have a chat; and then again, if the DA was already gone, maybe he should inspect the premises—talk to Huggy's snitch. One thing he did know; that business about the gun...who had Templeton been talking to?