Part Four

The Devil's Day Off
(A story following the episode "Partner")



-Part Five-

        Since the sun had set, Hutch had lost all track of time in the small cabin. Charley had been beaten until he had made the recording since he had tried to put up a fight. He had tried to get smart and say something stupid, and they had made him do it again. When played over the phone, it would sound as if Charley were responding to an anxious father as to his condition and his treatment.

        Laura, who had watched the beatings with enjoyment, had taken the tape and had left soon after. Whatever plans she had for preparing for her ransom and release the next day were in progress and needed her attention.

        She had left with one of the men, leaving instructions for the two to stay put and stand guard over the prisoners until "Tom" arrived tomorrow evening. His arrival would signal that all had gone well and the next phase of the ransom demands would start. There was a deep, old well in the back behind the cabin that would hide the bodies for years, maybe even forever. And when Charley's ransom money was delivered and a son not returned, the searchers would have no clues as to where to look.

        She's right about that, Hutch thought grimly. This is too far out in the middle of nowhere, and this cabin too disused to have anyone come by this way very often, let alone dig up a well.

        Hutch listen closely to Laura's departure, hearing the sound of a four-wheel drive making it's way down the rough trail road.

        So they've left the station wagon, Hutch decided. It must be too easily identifiable now. But they won't leave it here after we're disposed of. It'll tell every law enforcement official where were the bodies are. But I ought to be able to hot-wire a station wagon. He almost snickered at the idea of anyone having a legitimate reason to hot-wire such a bulky family car. Uh-oh, Hutchinson, you're getting too tired and punchy. Keep yourself focused here.

        Hutch watched the two remaining men. They were both tall, and strong but not massive, and they moved with a military bearing. All signs that they were professionals and not the muscle-bound 'meat for brain' thugs he was used to dealing with. Daddy pays well for the good help, Hutch thought tiredly. But they had made one mistake. Neither he nor Charley had been tied or handcuffed to their chairs, and Hutch's feet were still free, as was Charley's. Too confident that we can't make a move, then. So we'd better make one soon.

        Hutch waited until the guards were talking among themselves before stretching newly mobile fingers and flexing hands and wrists. He may be handcuffed, but he could still use his hands somehow. He glanced at Charley, who'd been bound with twine, hand behind his back and gagged.

        Hutch had felt bad for the kid, he'd suffered more than one gut-crunching blow these last few days. But instead of caving in, Hutch saw a fire in the young man's eyes that hadn't been there before, along with the swollen eye and bloody nose.         

       /Guess you've matured at top speed, kid.   Hutch eyed him uncertainly. Sometimes that's what it takes, learning it's either sink or swim. But just how far can I trust you to back me up here?

        Whatever they were going to do, it was going to call for spit second timing, with Charley either helping or staying completely out of the way. And Hutch hadn't a clue as to what to do next. A few minutes wait did have it's rewards. After conferring, one of the guard picked up one of the two rifles leaning in the far corner and left, apparently to stand watch outside.

        One guard left inside, one outside, and one car. Hutch counted the inventory. Let's work on one at a time, though.

        Hutch leaned back to wait, feeling the time wasn't quite right. The guard seemed content to stand by the door and watch out window, keeping himself too far away to jump. Hutch tried to relax, saving his strength and trying to consider how to get the guard closer.

        Man, I am so tired, Hutch thought distractedly. When I get back, I'm going to sleep for a week. And I'm going to bed at nine every night, no matter what. And no more vacations. I get better rest at home doing double shifts in the middle of August./ Suddenly his stomach grumbled. Oh, yeah, that too.

        This had always been the hard part, being chest deep in trouble, tired and on his own. A strange part of him wished Starsky was here with him, instead of on the outside. It had always been easier to take with his partner around, but for even a small part of him to wish his friend was in this mess with him had to be the height of selfishness, even for him.

        You're spoiled, Hutchinson, he chided himself mildly. You've been in worse than this, and he's always pulled you out before. You've got to do a little recovery on your own once in awhile. Why make Starsky do all the work?

        Suddenly, with his eyes closed and with only the sound of his fellow victim's breathing, Hutch could almost feel as if his partner were standing right there beside him. Hutch relaxed even further, enjoying the feeling of safeness, no matter how fake it was. I could almost reach out and touch you, buddy, Hutch smiled to himself. So how are you doing about now? Agitated out of your mind yet? Got your teeth in a clue, or has McKracken tried to shut you out? Knowing procedures, they've probably put you out to pasture on this one, haven't they?

        But the feeling was fleeting, and Hutch almost sighed at the loss. Maybe it's back to basics time. What do they usually do to draw a guard in? Have someone get sick, right? Not much chance on this guy believing that old trick. Unless.... Hutch eyed Charley again. The kid's face was pretty bloody and swollen, but the kid was alert. It was the gag in the kid's mouth that interested Hutch. It's pretty tight, and if he were to get sick...

        "Charley!" Hutch whispered tightly, turning slightly toward the kid. He had to be careful that the guard didn't hear him talking. But it was too quiet, and Charley hadn't raised his eyes from the floor. Hutch shifted slightly to one side and lifted one bare foot to nudge his neighbor. Angry and scared eyes fastened on Hutch, practically begging for something to do.

        "Sick," Hutch mouthed, watching the confusion spread over Charley's face. "Be sick. Vomit. Choke on the gag." Hutch flashed a glance at the disinterested guard, knowing that he hadn't drawn any attention so far. And with an almost audible sigh of relief, Hutch saw Charley's eyes go wide in surprise. A split second later the surprise was replaced with a look of determination and a nod of the head.

        "Wait," Hutch whispered again. He shifted his position again, needing to look helpless, but wanting to be ready to move in a heartbeat. He put both feet in front of him, flat on the floor and moved his shackled hands from behind the chair's back. He didn't want to have to drag the chair with him when he moved.

        Feeling ready, Hutch nodded toward Charley, and saw the kid echo his moves. Hutch glanced once more at the guard, then at the kid. This is for real Charley, we aren't playing power games here. Hutch took a deep breath and held the kid's eyes, willing him whatever strength he could spare. "Kill." Hutch saw the agreement and determination in Charley's nod. Sink or swim kid.

        Hutch nodded once, then sat back to let the kid do his job.

        It started convincingly enough, as Charley moaned deep and pitifully. The guard turned a scowl toward the captives, but shrugged it off, going back to his surveillance.

        At the second moan, Charley leaned forward, panting around the gag, acting as if he were really ill. Hutch leaned forward a bit, not daring to take his eyes off the kid to watch the guard. "Hey, he's gonna be sick. You'd better get over here!" Hutch called.

        "Tough," the guard replied in a bored voice.

        "He's gagged you idiot!" Hutch yelled back with a touch of panic in his voice. "He can't get sick with a gag on, he'll suffocate on it! So unless you wanna bet you won't need him anymore, you'd better get that gag off!"

        Hutch glared at the guard, and could see that the man was starting to reconsider the situation. Charley cooperated by making deep gagging noises and panting, looking as if her were going to collapse at any minute. Hutch watched as the guard warred with himself as to his next move. Come on, idiot, check the kid out. Hutch willed the man to move. Think of what your boss will do if they need him later and you lost him. Think!

        Then just as the guard was about to move, Charley fell suddenly forward to his knees, convulsing as if in the throws of vomiting, making gagging, wet sounds of suffocation.

        Despite himself, Hutch twisted back to the kid in surprise. Damn! He's good! was Hutch's fleeting thought before he heard the guard toss the rifle onto the table and race over to the captives. He held himself still, not daring to watch the guard in anyway.

        Out of the corner of his eye, Hutch saw movement, and in what seemed to be slow motion, he shifted backwards, grabbing the chair back with stiff hands for stability. He brought his legs up to catch those of the charging guard, scissoring the man at knee level. Hutch shifted his whole body, using his strength and weight to play against the man in motion, feeling the chair overturn as the man threw an arm up to break his fall.

        They both hit the ground with a thud and grunt, but Hutch was more prepared and recovered almost instantly. He twisted, rolling his body forward to cover the guard who had landed face down, wanting to keep the man from recovering long enough to use his hands or knees to push himself up. In the corner of his eye he vaguely registered that Charley had somehow gotten to his feet and was standing off to the side of the two on the floor.

        Hutch untangled a leg and was able to get one knee in the small of the man's back before he could feel the body shift. The man got an arm underneath him, preparing to push or twist to dislodge the detective. Hutch braced himself, knowing that his weight might not be enough to keep the man down, and cursing his lack of hands. But Charley wasn't through, and his movement startled the detective who had written him off. The guard had started to yell, lifting his head off of the dirty wooden floor when Charley's thick hiking boot slammed the man's head back down to the floor with a sickening 'snick' sound.

        Charley stood there wide-eyed, tense and shaking with one foot still in the air, ready to stomp his captor again at a twitch.

        But Hutch knew it wouldn't be needed, feeling the twitches and jerks of the body beneath him as the man was slammed into sudden unconsciousness or death. The total relaxation of the body signaled that this man was down, and Hutch listened to the labored breathing. He wouldn't have been surprised to hear a death rattle, as hard as Charley had stomped. Either way, it was time to move.

        "Good job, Charley." Hutch raised himself, panting at the effort of the past minute and the inconvenience of having no hands to help. "But we've got to get out of here. Turn around and let me at your hands."

        Charley seemed unable to respond for a moment, still shaking at the shock of the fight. Hutch limped over and turned his back to the kids, feeling the rough twine with sore fingers. He couldn't see the knot, but it wasn't long before he had it undone. Charley tore at the gag and gasped in lungfulls of air.

        "Charley, get the rifle off the table," Hutch ordered. He sat down on the floor and drew his legs up to his chest. "See if he's got the cuff key, I need my hands."

        The kid raced over to the table and grabbed the rifle, returning quickly to the man unconscious on the floor. He hesitated for a moment, as if reluctant to touch him.

        "Dammit Charles, I need the key," Hutch said angrily. "Search him."

        As if making an instant decision, Charley placed the rife out of the guard's reach and proceeded to search the man's pockets, deftly rolling him over to make sure he had them all covered. He pulled everything out of each one, and checked each empty pocket. "There's no handcuff key, no car key, just normal junk, sir."

        "Hutch," the detective replied automatically. "Call me Hutch." Drawing his knees closer to his chest, he curved his spine as much as he could, drawing himself into as small a ball as possible. What I wouldn't give to shave off a few inches of height right now, he thought with frustration. He had never been able to do this, but it was going to have to happen. "Listen close, Charley. I need my hands in front of me. But I'm too tall to do this by myself. I'm going to bring my hands under me and try to bring them forward. I don't care if you have to dislocate a shoulder, just don't let me get stuck."

        Charley nodded and stepped back. Hutch exhaled as much as he could and compacted himself even more. As he brought his sore hands down and underneath he forced himself not to grab the middle of the handcuffs to keep them from tearing at his wrists. He angled himself farther forward so he wouldn't be sitting on them, trying to remember the smug look Starsky had worn when they had practiced this at the academy. No matter how hard Hutch had stretched and pulled, he had never been able to overcome his own body length to pull the trick off. Starsky had been delighted to see that his friend's extra inches had counted against him in such an odd way, and had teased him about it. That is, until they hit the streets. Then it wasn't funny anymore.

        I'm going to do it this time, Starsk, just you wait and see. I've got more riding on this time than some stupid academy trick. But it was too close. Hutch was able to clear his rump, but couldn't make the extra space he needed to bring his arms forward. "Charley!" he gasped.

        The kid was there in an instant, grabbing at the cuffs with one hand and bracing his other on Hutch's ankles. In a powerful pull that made Hutch gasp with pain at wrists, elbows and shoulders, Charley allowed him to clear the last few inches. It was with sweet relief that Hutch brought both hands to his chest, ignoring the now bleeding wrists. "Let's go kid. But tie him up first. We need all the time we can get."

        Struggling to stand, Hutch watched as Charley deftly reused the twine to tie the guard the same way he had been tied, even using the gag he had thrown to the floor. Hutch reached for the rife, checking it out and cursing when he saw that both chambers were full, but that there were no extra shells anywhere. They didn't trusted him enough to give him extra ammo? Hutch was frustrated at the low firepower. Or were they planning on taking him out too and didn't want him heavily armed?

        Whatever the reason, Hutch decided to be grateful for what he had. Charley was just finishing up and Hutch handed the him the rifle. "You ride shotgun kid, but be careful, we've only got two shots. I'll sneak out to the driver's side of the station wagon and hot wire the car. When you hear it start, you dive on into the passenger seat. I don't know where the other guard is posted, so watch your head."

        Hutch opened the cabin door carefully, hovering toward the bottom and out of eye-height. The moon was nearly full, but the trees were so dense that it was almost pitch black. He listened carefully, and only heard the soothing sound of crickets.

        No time like the present, Hutch decided ruefully. He squeezed out of the door and moved low toward the nearest dark growth. When no warning was called and no shot rang out he moved quietly to the driver's side door. He slowly pulled at the latch, thankful it wasn't locked. He winced as the dome light came on, but pulled himself onto the cool seat, keeping his head below window level. After quickly pulling himself almost completely in, he pulled the door shut, but didn't close it, fearing the sound of the door latching would echo in the darkness.

         One by one, he reached in and carefully felt for the wires he needed, only slightly hampered by having to use both hands. If only Father could see me now, Hutch thought with a snicker. All that money for a premium education, and his son pays the most attention to his class in Hot-Wiring 101. Wish Starsky had taught me this a lot earlier, like when I wanted to borrow the sports car for prom night and Father said no. The old man would've had a heart attack to see it missing. Hutch finally found what he wanted and pulled down the right wires, twisting the ends to make better contact. Not that I would have had the guts, but it sure would have been tempting! Ruth would've been worth it.

        Almost ready, Hutch reached both hand up to pull the latch on the passenger side door to make sure it was unlocked and ready. Sitting up quickly, Hutch glanced once more at his surroundings, knowing that he would be temporarily blinded if he used the headlights. He placed himself in position and brought the wires together, praying it would start the first time.

        The sudden sound of the engine trying to catch brought Charley out from the shadows and into the car in a split second. Hutch lost the spark and cursed, retrying the connection. After a few more seconds the engine caught and Hutch threw it into drive. He was careful not to hit the gas as his body screamed to do, not wanting to dig the heavy car into the soft ground.

        He had hoped he wouldn't have to use the headlights, but it was too dark and the trees too thick to chance on running into a something and losing their advantage. He flicked on the headlight and cringed, almost ducking as he expected a shot in the back from the second guard. Hutch had no idea which way to go, but bet that they hadn't bothered to turn the car around from the trip in. He pulled a tight U-turn, almost without enough room, and floored the car as much as he dared.

        The rattling and shaking of the station wagon on the little used trail almost shook Hutch's blood slicked hands off the steering wheel a couple of times, and he prayed they didn't scrape anything off of the bottom. But if the guard was anywhere down the road, they needed all the speed and surprise they could get.

        "Charley, keep down, that guard can't be too far away!" Hutch shouted to his passenger.

        And almost on cue, a blast rang out. Hutch could feel the concussion as one headlight was suddenly gone. They both ducked, and Hutch gunned the motor, trying to keep his head down while watching the almost invisible trail at the same time. A second shot rang out, and Hutch heard the spray of glass from behind him before he felt it. Back passenger window, drivers side, he instantly inventoried. We've almost passed him.

        Hutch fought for control of the car as a third shot almost deafened him. Charley had turned to fire out of the blown-out window. "You only have one more," Hutch warned. "Make it count, kid, 'cause I'm sure this guy can re-load."

        There was a sudden turn in the road and Hutch twisted the car hard, almost missing it. Charley was thrown into him, and the detective almost lost control as he heard another shot and the back of the car lurch with a loud bang. Damn! A rear tire! He's after the gas tank now.

         "Make him back off!" Hutch yelled twisting the car under control and willing it to move forward. He'd run all the way to the hiway with a flat if he had to.

        Another loud explosion sounded, but Hutch was prepared for it.

        "I think I got him!" Charley exclaimed. "I aimed at the flash from his last shot. I think he's still back a ways."

        Hutch didn't even see whatever it was they ran over, whether it was a ditch or a log he couldn't tell, but the Station wagon bucked and twisted and Hutch finally lost control. He braked but they slid sideways, landing with a solid crunch as the car swerved into a tree. Hutch felt the jolt all through his body, but he grabbed Charley and jerked at him. "Let's go, we've gotta move! Leave the rife, it'll slow us down."

        In a moment they were out of the car, one lone headlight shone a faint light down the endless trail. Charley tossed the rifle into the surrounding darkness and took a step down the trail when Hutch, hissed at him. "No, in the woods!"

        They had both gotten a few seconds ahead when another shot rang out and what was left of the station wagon exploded, lighting the nearby area with the resulting fire and debris. They were both almost toppled, feeling the blast and heat on their backs. Hutch grabbed Charley and pulled him down and behind an outcropping of rocks, shielding them from the flickering light.

        "Don't look at it, or you won't be able to see in the dark," Hutch hissed in the younger man's ear. "And we've got to stay low. He can use the light to spot us."

        "Can't we just run?" Charley hissed back. The detective could feel the boy trembling.

        "Charley, listen to me." Hutch spoke quickly, keeping his voice calm. "We don't have much cover here, but if we run now the guard would be able to spot us in the fire-light." Hutch glanced down and compared his white t-shirt and tan shorts, with Charley's dark shirt, jeans and shoes. "I'm going to be easy to spot, even now, and I'm not sure how far I can run barefoot. We need to wait quietly and if we're lucky, he'll start searching in another direction. If not, then you stay put, and I'll draw him after me."

        "No!" Charley growled. "You can't get far!"

        "No, I can't, but you can." Hutch gripped Charley's arm tightly, forestalling any reply. "This is my job, Charley. If I do go down, all I want is for you to stay free long enough to get to safety and to show my partner where to find me." Hutch smiled grimly. "And bring Laura and her father to trial, kid."

        Charley gazed at him seriously for a minute, before nodding. And Hutch returned to his surveillance, hoping to see the guard before he got too close.

        All we need now is just a little luck, Hutch thought grimly. And I'd say I was due a little bit of good kind about now.

        It seemed like they had been traveling for hours, and Starsky felt almost surprised that the sun wasn't up yet. He was leaning up against a large tree, watching the almost full moon try to light up the endless night sky.

        Hutch would love this, Starsky thought fondly. He's always saying the cities ruin the sky, during the day and the night. And he's right. One of these days I'm going to let him teach me all about the constellations and tell me the stories he's always threatening me with. The thought was comforting, but didn't stop the wave of weariness that beat through him like an endless drum.

        He, Jerome and Augustine had taken Jerome's jeep for the search. They had stopped several times so far, with him trying to find a direction to travel. But they had had to backtrack when they had found that a trip had taken them too far, or they had to stop and search the map when there were no roads to take them to the right area.

        Now the detective was almost too tired to continue. There had been too little sleep in the past few days, and he was running on pure adrenaline. Only a rogue candy bar had been found to replace his lost energy. At their last stop, Starsky had hardly been able to imagine his friends presence anymore, almost too tired to suspend his disbelief in what he was trying to do

        They had made one last stop on the side of a dark road, miles away from the last little town they had passed. Starsky saw Jerome standing by the four-wheel drive, catching a glimpse of the man's face from the glow at the end of his cigarette. Augustine was a darker shape, still seated on the edge of the passenger seat, waiting on the two men to continue.

        Better get started, before I crash entirely, Starsky thought with a sigh. This isn't going to get any easier. "I guess I'm ready," he announced. "But I'd rather finish the climb to the top of this hill."

        The drive to the top of the hill went quickly and Starsky got out to view the valley and hills that surrounded them. Hutch was out there somewhere, and he was going to find him. They started out the same as all the other times, with Starsky listening to Augustine as she talked him into reaching out for his partner's presence. This time he could only catch a glimpse of his friend, and Starsky held on to it firmly, afraid to let the feeling 'drift off ' until he had a better grip on it. He was concentrating, opening himself to it totally when....

        Starsky suddenly jerked as if pushed violently, even before he could know why. At the same second he heard a distant rumble that echoed the jolt he had received.

        "He's there!" Starsky almost yelled, twisting to his left and pointing at a dim but visible glow in the valley below them. He rushed to enter the jeep, almost dragging a harried Augustine in with him. He bit his lip with impatience as Jerome started the jeep up quickly and made a dizzying U-turn to speed down the mountain side.


        He's there! He's there! Starsky wanted to chant over and over again, being more certain of that than of anything else in a long time.

        Augustine gasped as Jerome made a savage left turn into the paved road. Starsky was glad it was still night, and there had been no cars in their way to slow them down. The detective tried to judge how far they would need to go to before finding a road to take them to the blast location.

        Jerome slowed down just before Starsky would have ordered him to. He could smell the burnt oil and rubber drifting in the darkness and just barely caught sight of the smoke plumb in the moonlight. "Jerome, this is it. Whatever happened in there will require the local police and firefighters." Starsky watched as Jerome switched the C.B radio to the emergency channel. "Better have them send an ambulance too," he added gruffly.

        Starsky didn't even listen in to the call, keeping his eyes on the blackness of the undergrowth. Suddenly he saw a gap, then another... "It's a trail!" he announced.

        Jerome pulled the jeep over and in the headlights there appeared two bare spots in an open area of undergrowth, wide enough to be tire tracks and overgrown enough to be ancient. The detective knew it was the right one.

        "Hang on you two, we're going in," Jerome announced. He pulled the jeep off of the road and into the gap in the brush, not slowing for the bumps and the rocks that littered the ground and the trail area. After a few minutes of roller coaster driving, Starsky could see a definite glow in the trees ahead of them. The closer they got the better he could define a large and growing fire. At the appearance of a sudden turn ahead of them Starsky grabbed Jerome's arm.

        "Stop it here!" Starsky ordered. "Jerome, what kind of firepower do you have? I need whatever you've got."

        "There's a pistol in a box under the passenger seat," Jerome replied dimming the headlight and pulling the jeep over to the side of the trail. "Box of ammo under my seat."

        They all piled out as quietly as they could, and Starsky dug the pistol out from under the seat, glad for the glint and smell of a well cared for gun. Jerome tossed him a box of ammo, and Starsky quickly filled the chambers and loaded another handful in a pocket.

        "You two stay here." Starsky held up a hand when Jerome started to protest. "I don't know how many of them are out there, or what's going on, but I need to make sure that you two are here to bring the reinforcements up to speed."

        "Take care," Augustine patted his arm, her eyes full of worry.

        Starsky nodded his thanks to both of them and headed off down the trail. It would have been hard to follow on a darker night, but with the distant fire and the full mood, Starsky could make it out well enough. He came up to the turn and instead of following it around went off to the side, not wanting to show himself in the flicker of the firelight.

        He moved quickly, using the available light to spot low-level obstacles, barely able to keep himself from tripping or running into something he would have to thrash his way out of. Still yards away from the now identifiable remains of the distant automobile he froze. Something was moving ahead of him, and it had stopped when he did.

        Starsky, cocked the pistol and went into a crouch, aiming the gun at the shadow ahead of him. He held the stance with brute force, stilling the tremor of tired muscles and excitement. After a minute the shadow moved again, heading toward him and keeping low to the ground.

        Starsky concentrated on the moving form, willing himself to see it better in the darkness. He couldn't tell for sure, but as the form grew closer, apparently not realizing he was there, it grew clearer.

        "Charley?" Starsky hissed, watching the figure startle and freeze in place. "Lopez?"

        "Damn! Where are you?" Charley's trembling voice flowed toward him in the darkness. "You're Hutch's partner? From the convention?"

        "Yeah," Starsky dropped his stance and made his way quickly to the kid's side, pulling him around behind a tree to shield them. He glanced at the younger man's swollen and bloodied face. "Are you okay? Where's Laura? Where's Hutch? How many are there?"

        "It's just me and Hutch. Just one guard left and he's after him!" Charley answered in growing panic, gripping at Starsky in fear. "Hutch took off that way to draw the guard, but he won't make it!"

        Both men jumped as a shot rang out in the darkness, the sound rolling and rolling in the thick woods. Starsky felt a savage twist in his gut, but he moved on instinct, grabbing Charley and shoving him toward Jerome's jeep. "That way Charley, your friends are there," he growled gruffly, moving at the same time toward the sound of the shot.

        Starsky moved through the woods as if possessed, open to any sound or movement that would alert him to the guard or his partner. But it was too quiet, only the distant crackle of fire and his own footsteps reaching him.

        Where? Where, where, where, where? Starsky chanted unconsciously. Wanting, needing, a sound to tell him how to move. It was then that Starsky saw it on the ground, pale skin reflecting the firelight. The body was motionless, hidden behind some brush. Starsky held his breath as he cautiously circled the obstruction. Flat on the ground, the large male didn't even flinch at his approach.

        The guard. But where's Hutch? He kicked the rifle away from the body looking frantically around for his partner, remembering with fear the sound of that single shot.

        "Starsk?" a voice croaked hoarsely.

        Starsky halted at the sound of his friend's disembodied voice, unable to pinpoint his location. "Hutch?"

        "Here. Up here," Hutch replied tiredly.

        Starsky turned sharply and let his gaze follow the trunk of a large tree, spotting a glob of white in it's higher branches. "Are you okay? I heard a shot...?!"

        "I'm fine," Hutch's voice drifted down slowly from the branches. "The rifle went off when I beaned the guy. Where the hell have you been anyway?"

        "Hey, I am on vacation, you know." Starsky switched on the pistol's safety and stuck it into the back of his jeans. "Why don't you come on down, huh? Let me get a good look at you while I tie this guy up." Starsky undid a shoe and pulled out the shoestring, going over to tie the unconscious man's hands behind his back. The darker detective wanted nothing more than to see his partner in the dim light, but the details needed to be taken care of. No use letting this guy wake up suddenly and get the drop on them.

        Starsky could hear the sirens of a fire engine and law enforcement echoing in the distance, making their way to the remote location. But Hutch didn't answer and Starsky felt the worry rise again. "Hutch? What's wrong?" he asked with concern, checking his prisoner one last time. "You wouldn't lie to me about being okay, would you? Come on down and keep me company."

        "I don't think I can," Hutch replied softly, sounding to Starsky like he was in some pain. He almost lisped, as if he had trouble speaking. "I got up here kinda fast, but I'm handcuffed and scraped my hands up pretty good. I'm not sure I've got enough grip left to keep from falling."

        "Hang on pal, I'm on my way up." Starsky felt his eyes widen at the thought of reaching those upper branches with handcuffs on. Hutch must have flown, 'cause there just ain't no way... He shook his head in amazement.

        It took Starsky two running starts at the tree, almost walking part-way up the side before he could reach the lowest branch. He pulled himself carefully up one branch at a time, unsure of how good a hold Hutch still had, not wanting to joggle him. He could see Hutch watching him from the upper branches, but his partner made no comments. That's not like him, Starsky thought worriedly. He's hurt worse than he wants to let on.

        Starsky finished the upward climb, and paused to take a good look at his partner. Hutch looked like a version of hell. He was ruffled and dirty, hair sticking up in one place and matted down in another. It was hard to see details in the dark but Starsky could see the split lip he had heard earlier, along with a face that looked bloody and scraped. The man was holding the base of his branch with both hands, leaning his whole torso and head against the main trunk, obviously at the end of his strength and afraid of falling.

        "Hold on a bit longer, babe. I'm almost there."

        Starsky carefully angled to Hutch's side, hanging on to upper branches as he stood and placed a careful foot behind his partner. He shifted his weight to the foot swiftly but smoothly, and slowly lowered himself to straddle the branch behind his motionless friend. Slowly he scooted up behind his partner until he was as close as possible. He could feel the tense and trembling muscles in Hutch's back as the man hung on with what little strength he had. The darker detective grabbed on to a nearby branch in a death-grip with his left hand, and enfolded his right arm around the taller man, pulling him close.

        "Okay, Hutch. You can relax now," he said confidently. "I've got you."

        Hutch let go one muscle at a time. The smaller man encouraged him to lean back and away from the tree, taking his weight off of his shackled hands. When Hutch had leaned back enough, Starsky reached down, bringing Hutch's wrists up for careful inspection. They looked raw and puffy, but Starsky didn't think he would bleed to death.

        "I don't think I can make it down this way, Starsk," Hutch said quietly, leaning back with relief, resting the back of his head on a nearby shoulder. "You wouldn't happen to have a spare handcuff key, would you?"

        "Sorry, I kinda left in a hurry this morning and forgot it. But that's okay. Hear the fire truck? If you're a good boy, maybe we can get them to bring a ladder over here."

        They were both silent for a moment, listening to the clash and commotion of a fire crew getting down to business, along with the various sounds and sirens of law enforcement and ambulance crew.

        "Don't you need to....?"

        "Nope. Jerome and Augustine are with Charley by now. It won't take them long to fill everyone in and let them know we're out here. Let's just take a breather, okay?" Starsky have his partner a quick, one armed hug, willing him to just relax. "Is it me, or is it getting brighter out here?"

        "Dawn," Hutch answered simply, making no effort to move. "You know, if someone had told me I'd spend my vacation watching the sun come up, being held upright by my partner in the upper branches of a large tree, in his dirty clothes and handcuffed, I would have bet a million dollars they were dead wrong and crazy."

        Starsky felt the snicker creep up and let it develop into a laugh, hearing the tired echo of it from his partner. "Well," he began when the laughter had died a bit, "remind me not to let you bet my money for me. You always do tend to bet against a sure thing."

        There was some movement below them, and Starsky could make out a Sheriff's uniform as the stranger moved into examine the bound man. "Hey! We're up here!" Starsky yelled.

        The uniform stood and walked to the base of the tree. "Detective Hutchinson? Detective Starsky?"

        "Yep, that's us. The man down there is a kidnapper, captured by my partner here. You guys in contact with Sheriff McKracken and Captain Harold Dobey? They need to know this."

        "Sure, but this guy's still out," the voice replied. "What's wrong with him? The paramedics will want to know."

        "Beaned him with a rock," Hutch whispered, sounding as if his voice was going.

        "He got hit in the head with a rock," Starsky yelled in reply.

        "And there's a guy at a cabin, up the trail. He was stomped unconscious."

        "There's a guy in a cabin up the trail. He was, uh, stomped unconscious," Starsky repeated uncertainly. "But my partner's hurt too, we need a ladder and a handcuff key. He can't make it down this way."

        "Will do, detective," the voice replied, beginning the call for reinforcements.

        Starsky heard the commotion, but found it hard to see through the leaves and brightening sky. He assumed the fire was nearly out. "Hutch, how did you bean the guy with a rock? And if he was down, why climb the tree?"

        "I got him from up here," was the croaked reply. "I had enough head start on him that he didn't know I'd gotten up the tree. I pitched the rock from here, and he set off the rifle when he fell."

        "Wait, wait." Starsky didn't quite understand. "Rocks don't grow on trees, Hutch. And you're handcuffed. How did you climb up this tree with handcuffs and a rock?"

        Hutch snorted softly, as if the answer should be obvious. "I stuffed the rock in my shorts and carried it up that way. By the way, next time you buy shorts, get some with pockets would ya?"

        Starsky shook his head, feeling the grin threaten to split his face. "You know, I never even got to wear that pair. Remind me not to loan you any of my clothes anymore. You're too hard on them." Starsky heard more commotion at the base of the tree and saw that a ladder was being brought in.

        "You should've spent more money on them, Starsky," Hutch chuckled, moving just enough to watch the fire department start to position the ladder. "They don't fit very well."

        "Great, steal my clothes, then complain about the fit," Starsky did his best to sound incredulous. "Some friend you are! You know, the least you can do to make up for ruining a fine pair of shorts is to volunteer to do...."

        "The laundry," they chorused in unison, both breaking out into laughter.

        Harold C. Dobey drove slowly and carefully along the busy highway, thoroughly enjoying the gorgeous mountain scenery and wonderfully fresh spring air. It was a shame, really, that the spring and summer months were so crowded with vacationers, but Dobey really couldn't complain since he was one of them himself. And it wasn't as if he were in any hurry. Edith and McKracken knew where he was and what he was doing, so why rush? He had all the time in the world to take the scenic route back to Peakness and the Sheriff's office.

        He should, of course, be dead on his feet by now, but actually felt strangely invigorated. Sitting around and accepting scraps all night from the Sheriff's Department when it came to his missing detective had been pure mental torture, but not physically demanding. The surprise call at dawn had been like a shot of pure adrenaline.

        The large man had been tired, and depressed, wondering if he should have let Starsky off on his own as he had. One part of him had wanted to give the man a chance to pull off a miracle, another didn't want him around when Hutch's body was found. He himself had not held out much hope that a cop who stumbled into a million dollar ransom set-up would be of any value alive, but just one less cop to worry about if dead. Then came the call.

        Starsky had been patched through from an ambulance, requesting a person-to-person with him specifically. The detective's quick report on finding Hutch and the facts surrounding the real story had allowed Dobey to inform McKracken privately. He, in turn, picked up the calls from the Sheriff's office sixty miles away.

        In closed meetings that didn't include Andrew Tarran, a new line of attack was planned. Even now, steps were being taken to let the ransom continue, not letting the fact that Charles Lopez had been rescued leak out. When Laura was found 'safe and sound' after being dropped off by her 'kidnappers', she was going to be in for a bit of a shock, as was her father. Dobey chuckled deeply at the thought, almost wishing he would be there to see it. But all in all, he was much happier where he was, out of the action and driving his pickup around the beautiful, sun-lit mountains with a front seat full of sleeping detectives.

        After Starsky's call, Dobey had been able to get a ride to his truck, make a clothing stop at the detective's borrowed cabin and take the sixty-some mile trip to a small town on the edge of nowhere. There he had found the small clinic and his men. After identifying himself, he had been allowed to proceed to the long hall and the row of beds that held a few of the local sick and two strangers. Dobey hadn't realized that he was subconsciously holding his breath until he walked in that room to see the two of them together.


        Another miracle made to order, Dobey had thought gratefully. Only which one do I attribute it to this time, the searcher or the escapee? Or does it really make any difference? The Captain was pretty certain that when it came right down to the nitty-gritty, it would always be too close to call.

        Hutch had looked a mess. He had been showered and shaved and was sitting in disposable greens on the edge of a hospital bed. Both wrists were heavily bandaged. His lip had been split and his face, scraped raw on nose and cheek, glistened with salve. The blond sat stiffly, talking to a Sheriff's Deputy, looking a bit shocked and pale, but nothing that a good rest wouldn't cure as far as Dobey could see.

        Starsky was sitting next to his partner, listening in to his statement to the deputy. The smaller man looked tired, but well. He was sipping on a hot cup of liquid, passing it over to his partner whenever he paused in his recitation, only to have it returned after a taste. Starsky saw Dobey first and passed the cup to Hutch, getting up from his perch with a quick word. Hutch look up and saw Dobey then. He grinned shyly and nodded, then went back to making his statement.

        Dobey stood back from the group, letting Starsky join him in a more private corner of the large ward. "I see you've earned your pay for this week, Starsky. How is he doing?"

        "He's fine, Cap'n. He just needs some rest." Starsky rubbed at tired eyes, oblivious to his own weary condition. "He's been X-rayed and nothing's broken, but he's got some nasty bruises. His wrists were pretty badly lacerated, but no tendon damage. And he's got a split lip, some loose teeth, and the facial stuff will heal with no scarring. How's the ransom stuff going?"

        Dobey shrugged unconcernedly. "We were able to keep the rescue from Andrew Tarran and his men. As far as they know, everything is still running along fine. The Sheriff has a man at the cabin to pick up 'Tom' when he arrives to 'clean it up'. When Laura is dropped off after her ransom, she and her father will be taken in and the Sheriff's men will clean up their crew later."

        "So, what do we do now?" Starsky asked, rubbing again at bloodshot eyes.

        "We get Hutch out of here, get something to eat down the street and take the scenic route back to Peakness," Dobey answered with satisfaction. "They won't need you two until the case comes to trial, and even then Charles Lopez can testify to more than Hutch can. Charles is going to fly back to San Francisco to be reunited with his father. Our job is to stay hidden until after the drop-off, and I'd rather do that on the move."

        Starsky gave Dobey a happy smile. "Sounds great. But I hope you don't expect sharp company on the trip home, Cap'n."

        "Starsky," Dobey grunted, throwing a 'I know you too well' look at his detective. "I never expected otherwise."

        Hutch finished his report, changed into the clean clothes Dobey provided and they all had a quick and simple meal down the street. The first half hour of the trip back had passed quietly, with Hutch nodding off between them almost as soon as he sat down. Starsky had arranged himself in the opposite corner of the truck cab so that Hutch could use him as a back rest. The blond lie slumped over bonelessly, almost obscuring his smaller partner. Starsky hadn't said a word, just arranged Hutch so that they would both be upright and fairly comfortable, then drifted off himself, leaving Dobey to the driving.

        Edith and I still have three full vacation days left. I wonder if Edith would like to meander back to the city instead of staying in camp for the rest of our reservation? Dobey wondered idly. That way we could get back at our own pace, and I wouldn't be around for the Sheriff's department to call in at a moment's notice for unnecessary paperwork. Everyone should be in custody tonight, and these two won't need a guard.

        Dobey glanced at the boneless pile of detectives next to him. They both had been dead to the world for a couple of hours now and had at least another hour to sleep until arriving at Peakness. There, Dobey would make sure that questions were asked and answered once, that statements were taken as quickly as possible and the two men released to go back to their cabin. Those two still had vacation time to attend to, and Dobey intended to see them get back to it before he had to leave.

        The large man sighed and stretched behind the wheel, taking in a lungful of clean mountain air, and turned his attention back to the drive, catching a spectacular glimpse of majestic mountain ranges through the trees.

        It'll be a shame to leave all this, but Edith and I can drive back through the National Park. Maybe share our last few days with something safer, Dobey glanced again at the two in the corner, shaking his head in fond amusement, like maybe a mountain lion, or a bear...



        Ken Hutchinson wiped his brow on his sleeve and scratched his head, replacing the fishing cap so it covered his eyes better in the mid-day sun. He moved smoothly, casting his line only half-heartedly away from the shore. They already had a nice mess of fish for dinner, he wasn't worried about getting any more, but the motions and surroundings were soothing. His only worries at the moment were keeping the sun off his face until it healed, not overtaxing his unbandaged wrists and one taciturn partner.

        They were finally back on the vacation track, everything serious either on hold or completed. Laura and Andrew Tarran were in jail for setting up the kidnapping plot along with a handful of cronies, Charley was back with his father, the Dobeys had left for home, and he and Starsky had tickets for a bus ride home from Peakness in a couple of days. The only thing left on Hutch's mind now was the fact that his partner was closing him off to a big part of the story.

        There's something important he isn't telling me, Hutch pondered, disliking the idea immensely. "We just happened to be searching in that area" might make sense to the Sheriff's Department, but I know him better than that. Starsky doesn't go anywhere or do anything without a purpose. If he found me, it wasn't by accident. But for some reason Starsky would throw up a wall when he asked or hinted at his confusion.

        He's hiding something, and it has to do with the ESP group. He was traveling around with Jerome and Augustine and they left before I could ask them. Even Tina and Gina skirt the issue, changing the subject just like Starsky does. Maybe he just doesn't want to admit that he talked Jerome and Augustine into finding me, that he was forced to put his trust into something he doesn't actually believe in. Hutch sighed, disliking the whole thing, but being at a loss to fight it. I guess if he's that embarrassed about it, then I need to just let it drop. He's been awful forgiving of me, and I owe him more than one on that score.

        So Hutch was letting it go for now, intending to enjoy the remaining days in full force. The best part was that Starsky's arm was pretty much back to normal, as was his own foot. So far, the blond and his curly-haird partner had hiked a little, canoed some, and fished a lot during the day. The cooler evenings were spent cooking outdoor meals at the cabin's grill, accompanied by the charming Calbert sisters.

        The tall detective glanced over at his napping companion. Starsky had managed to find a natural rock outcropping that let him sprawl as if in a lounge chair. For the last hour or so he had been doing just that, reclining lazily with hat over eyes, fishing pole propped up and letting out an open-mouthed, blackboard-scratching snore.

        There go the fish, Hutch though with mild irritation, taking a sip out of his water bottle. He didn't want to admit to himself that he was really irritated at the fact that Starsky had caught three-fourths of the day's catch. Just as he had yesterday and the day before. The fact that Starsky's catch averaged half again the size of his didn't help either. It wouldn't be so bad if he didn't have to brag about it to the girls all evening. His fish stories are getting really unbelievable. And they're just going to get worse, Hutch grinned wickedly, glad his partner couldn't see his face. By the time we get back, none of his stories will be believable.

        It had taken some help, but Hutch had everything set up. The girls had finally been able to introduce them to their brother Robert at an outdoor lunch at their Uncle's place. Robert was a nice kid who enjoyed a good joke, and after some covert negotiation, had taken Hutch's money and made a special trip for him. Hutch had been lucky that Robert had known just where to go to get the item and was willing to do it. He had delivered it yesterday evening on the excuse of dropping by to talk to his sisters. Hutch had carefully packed his purchase for today and it was even now in his fishing gear.

        The first part of this morning, while they were getting dressed for another day of fishing, Hutch had set up the situation. He had regaled Starsky with a local myth that this lake was actually connected to the sea by deep underground tunnels, and that it was believed that once in a hundred years or so, some marine life would make it all the way to the lake. But no marine life had been pulled out in years. If anyone ever did catch any ocean animal out here, they'd probably make the local papers at the least, maybe even be featured in the National Geographic.

        And now that time was at hand. Moving with every bit of skill he possessed, Hutch moved silently over to the sleeping man. Carefully, he pulled in Starsky's fishing line, keeping an eye and ear on him. Can't wake him now, or I'll have to start all over again, Hutch thought evilly. He pulled up the line to the retrieve the hook, discarding the bait.

        With his back turned to conceal his actions, Hutch carefully slit open the plastic packet, pulling out the Japanese delicacy. It was a fully complete, fully cooked and packed-in-oil squid, one of the medium varieties used in the more authentic dishes and sold in many good Japanese groceries. While the oil kept the seafood intact, Hutch knew the squid would disintegrate into tiny bits within a minute or so of being removed from the fresh water lake. Can't leave him any evidence, now can we? Then someone might start believing all those fish stories of his.

        Hutch hooked the squid securely and smoothly tossed the item back into the water, relieved to see that his friend was still napping. He then moved quickly, but silently, into the woods, finding quick cover behind a bush.

        "Starsk? Hey, Starsky! Want to go back for lunch now?" Hutch yelled loudly.

        "Huh? Yeah. Uhmm. Where are you?" Starsky asked sleepily.

        "Indisposed," Hutch answered back. "I'm about ready. Reel yourself in and we can go eat."

        Hutch held his breath. One. Two. Three....

        "Hutch!! Hutch come here quick, you gotta see this! Hurry! Where's a bucket?! Didn't we bring a bucket?! Or a camera?! Damn! Huutch!!"

        Twenty-four. Twenty-five. Twenty-six....

        "Come on! Huuutch!!"

        Thirty-five. Thirty-Six. Thirty-Seven

        "Huuutch?! Where are you?! Ouch! Yuck!"

        Forty-seven. Forty-eight. Forty nine...

        "Ah man!! Damn!! I can't believe this...!"

        Fifty-nine. Sixty. "Starsk? Starsky are you okay?"

        "Oh, yeah. Fine. Just fine. I gotta be cursed or somethin'. Hutch, you are never, ever going to believe what I had on my line just a minute ago."

         You'd be surprised at what I'd believe, buddy, Hutch thought with a smug grin. Miracles happen all the time, don't they?

The End