Disclaimer: The characters and events in this story are purely fictional. Some are the product of the authors' imaginations and others are the property of others, used here without permission but with no intention of infringement on any copyrights. Any deviations from the Canon of the televised series or historical discrepancies are due to either artistic license or human fallibility (you choose which). <g>
Dedication: This story is a first for both of us, and, as such, we would gratefully like to dedicate it to the memories of those who believed in us even before we believed in ourselves: Margaret's friend Susan Beasley (20 years wasn't nearly long enough, Sus!) and Trish's "Mum". Thanks for all of your love and support. We miss you both every day!
Comments and constructive criticism are welcome (please be nice—remember, this is our first try at this!). Compliments will be especially appreciated. ;-) E-mail us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
In the Shadow of the Serpent
Margaret Sinclair and Trish Boulding
Chapter 1: Out of the Frying Pan...
Starsky came to with a groan, wondering where he was and what had happened to him. One thing he knew immediately, he was not in his bed! He was miserably cold and wet; there were aches and pains of different sizes all over his body and a sick, dizzy feeling in his gut.
His head wasn't too good either, with a kind of "morning after" fuzziness going on in his brain. Cautiously, he cracked open his eyes to take a look around. He gasped, scared, until he realized that he wasn't blind after all. It was just dark wherever he was. As he waited for his heart rate to slow down again, his eyes gradually began to adjust to the dim light and he started to be able to make out some of what was around him.
He seemed to be at least partially inside some sort of a shelter—though not much of one as it sure wasn't doing a whole lot to protect him from the weather! He was sitting down in this cramped, little space with something hard pushed up against his knees and chest so tightly that it was difficult to take a deep breath. Cold rain (or at least, he was assuming it was rain) was falling in his face and running up into his hair. With a shock, he realized he was upside down.
"Well, that explains the dizziness!" he muttered to himself. His voice came out in a hoarse whisper and his throat hurt when he talked, so he quit trying to and listened for a moment instead. Other than his own breathing and the dripping sound of water, it was utterly, eerily silent.
Then, suddenly, a bright flash of lightning split the darkness, temporarily blinding him again, followed almost instantly by the loudest clap of thunder he'd ever heard. It literally rattled the teeth in his head and must have rattled his brain a bit, too, because all at once, in a rush of images that left him reeling a little, his memory returned.
Two days before, he and Hutch had been sitting in the squad room when Dobey had come in and asked for a volunteer to go up to Frisco to meet this minor dignitary from some foreign government or other and his two traveling companions and escort them back to Los Angeles for a big reception the governor was hosting there for the President. Not the kind of assignment that Dobey's men would normally be asked to take, but things were slow, so he and Hutchinson had said they'd take it.
The captain had agreed, but then he'd told them that, since they were so far behind on their reports, only one of them could go. He and Hutch had flipped a coin for it, and Starsky had lost. But, after an hour or so of Starsky's pouting, Hutch had decided to be a nice guy and let him go instead. He knew how much his partner hated doing paperwork!
Starsky had gone up by plane that afternoon and taken a cab to the four star hotel where the dignitary and his entourage were staying, only planning to be away overnight. But it turned out that the dignitary was afraid to fly. His aide informed him that they had rented a car so that they could drive back.
The dark-haired detective hadn't minded much at first-he loved to drive! But then he saw the ugly white sedan the rental agency had waiting for them the next morning. It was big and new and clean enough, but had no personality at all. He tried to talk the dignitary into letting him get something a little classier, but had been coolly informed by the man's aide that the car they had was adequate for their purposes. So he'd put their few suitcases into the trunk, loaded up his charges and reluctantly gotten behind the wheel for the long trip back to LA.
Looking back on what happened next, Starsky couldn't pin down exactly when he'd begun to sense that something wasn't right. Cops who spend as much time as he and Hutch had on the streets soon develop a kind of instinct about such things and, not long into the trip, his had started to make him uneasy. For one thing, the dignitary and his friends hardly spoke at all, and then only to each other in their own language. Starsky soon gave up trying to make small talk with them and had concentrated instead on his driving, beginning to wish he'd let Hutch take this job after all. For another, the dignitary's aide had repeatedly refused to let him call Dobey to update him on their whereabouts. When Starsky had protested that departmental procedure required him to report in at least once every 24 hours, the aide had gone on to explain that the dignitary had received several death threats, and so the Secret Service had taken authority over security for the trip.
"This has all already been cleared with your captain by them," the aide had said. "So there will be no more need to contact him until we reach Los Angeles."
"Great!" Starsky had thought, "Not only do I get to play chauffer to these clowns, I get to be the Secret Service's errand boy as well!" More and more, he began to feel that Hutch had gotten the better end of this deal.
Now, hanging by his seatbelt in what was left of the wrecked rental car with the cold rain falling in on him through the shattered windshield, Starsky could only feel extremely grateful that his partner wasn't there!
The foreign dignitary and his aides were really assassins on the way to try to take out the President. Starsky had accidentally overheard them talking when they had stopped to fill up the sedan at a little out-of -the-way gas station just before they'd driven up into the mountains. Thinking Starsky was still in the men's room, they'd been arguing with each other, lapsing into and out of English. He hadn't been able to understand much of it, but had picked up enough to know that he was in trouble.
Starsky had circled around the back of the station and gone into the building through the service door on the side away from where the sedan was parked at the pumps. Hunched down behind a rack of dusty maps, he'd tried to get the elderly owner's attention.
"Psst! Hey, Pops! You have a phone in here?" Starsky whispered, eyes glued to the sedan. Only one of the three men he'd come here with was visible from where he was. Any minute, they were going to start wondering what was taking him so long.
The owner looked up from the magazine he'd been reading with an annoyed glare. "Who are you callin' 'Pops'?" he growled.
"You're right! I'm sorry," Starsky quickly apologized, desperate to avoid wasting any time arguing with him. "Look, this is an emergency! I'm a police officer and I need to use your phone!"
"You want to make a call, you use the pay phone outside!" the older man said, turning his attention back to his girlie magazine.
"No! You don't understand! I..." but Starsky didn't get to finish his explanation as just then one of the assassins came in through the door behind him.
"Is there a problem, Detective?" the man posing as the phony dignitary's aide asked.
Starsky straightened up and turned around with what he hoped was an innocent expression on his face.
"No problem," he smiled. " I was just looking around. Thought I might find a souvenir I could buy for my partner, since he didn't get to come along with me on this trip."
"Don't got no souvenirs!" the elderly station owner groused. "Not enough traffic comes by here to be worth it to me!"
"Are you ready to go then, Detective? The Premier is understandably anxious to be on his way." You had to hand it to the guy, he was cool, giving no hint that he was anything other the mildly bored aide of an important official.
Starsky's gun was in his shoulder holster under his jacket. If he'd been alone, he might have risked going for it. But if he did, the station owner might get caught in the crossfire. The old coot was annoying, but that wasn't enough reason for Starsky to want to risk his being killed or injured. So, Starsky paid for the gas with his credit card and he and the three men got back in the car and drove on.
As Starsky had driven, his mind had been frantically going through his options.
Were they on to him? If not, he still might have the element of surprise. If he were to gradually speed up, then suddenly slam on the brakes perhaps he could get his gun out while the other three men were still rattled.
Glancing at the man in the front seat beside him to make sure he didn't notice, Starsky reached down beside his seat and found the seat belt. He slid it slowly across his lap and into the buckle, muffling the snap with a loud cough. The man beside him looked at him curiously but by then Starsky had both hands on the wheel again. "'Scuse me," he said, and the man turned his attention back to the road.
On the next downgrade, Starsky let the sedan pick up a little speed, then kept inching the speed up as they climbed the next rise, careful not to gun the engine and give away what he was doing. He'd braced himself to make his move, when the man riding beside him happened to glance over at the speedometer and let out what sounded like a curse in his own language. Starsky stood on the brakes hard, fighting with the steering wheel as the car fishtailed on the narrow road. The other man, dazed from having hit the windshield, nevertheless had a grip on the wheel now as well and one of the men in the backseat leaned forward and slid something around his neck.
Starsky continued to fight for control of the car even as the wire around his neck tightened and cut off his air supply. All of the passengers were yelling and cursing at him and each other and suddenly the shoulder on the left side of the road dropped away, leaving only the guardrail between them and a long steep drop down to a wooded ravine. Starsky heard the rear doors open as the two backseat passengers decided to jump for it just as the car went through the guardrail and plunged toward the trees below.
Now, he didn't know how many hours later, here he was, peering out through the spidery web of cracks in the car's windshield, but all he could make out in the intermittent flashes of lightning were dark, silent trees.
"I've got to get out of here!" he thought. "Somehow, I've got to find a way to let Dobey and the Feds know that these guys were phonies. Hutch, old buddy, this would be a good time for that psychic connection thing everyone always says we have to start working! Come on, Hutch! Come find me!"
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
When Hutch woke up this time, the room was light. The window was open and the curtains fluttered in the cool morning breeze. Sounds of the tide coming in on the beach below his apartment and the raucous cry of seagulls floated into the room. But it was some other sound, he knew, that had awakened him—a sharp sound, part of a dream which had been haunting him throughout the night, but which drained away each time Hutch woke like water out of a wash-basin. Perhaps a dog had barked. But now everything was quiet and there was only the flash of the sun on the windowpane and the sound of the hungry seagulls down on the beach.
Like the first strokes of a paintbrush on a big sheet of paper when you are still not sure how the picture is going, Hutch knew that something was wrong, wrong with Starsky, and all he could think was:
"No one's going to believe me, pal, but somehow I know you're in trouble! If I'm wrong, I'll never hear the end of it. But if I'm right...!"
And with that Hutch got out of bed and pulled on his pants.
Chapter 2: ...And Into the Fire.
Dobey looked up from the large stack of reports he was reading as Hutch came into his office. "Isn't this your day off, Hutchinson?" he asked in a gruff tone, but Hutch knew that the captain was all bark and no bite. "Well, almost no bite," he amended silently.
"Cap, have you heard anything from Starsky yet?" the blond detective asked as he propped a lean hip on the edge of Dobey's cluttered desk. The captain was surprised to see the normally meticulous officer dressed today in faded jeans and a wrinkled t-shirt. Dark circles under Hutch's eyes indicated he probably hadn't slept well.
"No, I haven't!" Dobey shot back, "and when he does call, he'd better have a damned good excuse for it, too!" The captain's bluster hid a soft heart and Hutch could tell that Dobey was as worried about his partner as he was.
Still pretending to be annoyed, the captain searched briefly through the papers on his desk, muttering to himself as he did. "Maybe I should call that hotel he was supposed to meet the Premier and his aides at and see if they've checked out yet..." Dobey found the number and dialed the phone. Hutch paced nervously as the captain waited for an answer, then leaned over the desk while Dobey spoke to the person on the other end.
"Can you tell me how long ago they checked out? When? I see...Is it possible you could tell me if any of them mentioned which flight they would be taking? They did what? Yes, thank you. You've been very helpful." Dobey hung up the phone and sat lost in thought until finally Hutch couldn't stand it any more.
"Well?" he almost shouted.
"Hmm? Oh! The desk clerk at the hotel says they all checked out two days ago. She remembered Starsky well and says he mentioned something about them renting a car and driving back to LA. Seems he invited her along for the ride."
In spite of his worry, Hutch had to smile at his friend's antics. "Did she happen to catch which agency they rented the car from?" he asked. Dobey nodded even as he reached for the phone again.
"Matter of fact, she just happened to be on duty when the Premier's aide called the desk and asked if she knew of an agency nearby. She even put the call through for him." Dobey finished dialing the phone a second time. "Hello? Yes, this is Captain Dobey of the Los Angeles police department. I need some information about a vehicle you rented two days ago."
Dobey described Starsky to the rental agent and told her he had been traveling with three other men, then listened to the agent's reply. Hutch leaned so far over the desk that he was almost in Dobey's face, but still could not make out the other end of the conversation. Dobey glared and made a shooing gesture at him, so Hutch went back to his pacing until Dobey hung up the phone.
"Seems Starsky made an impression on the rental agent as well. He wasn't too happy with the car they'd been given and tried to talk her into letting him have something else. She was able to give us the license number and a complete description of the vehicle.
"I think it's time to be concerned. I'm calling the Embassy to see if they've heard anything from their people. Meanwhile, why don't you post an APB on the car? Here's the description from the rental agent." He handed Hutch a small slip of paper. "I hope we're overreacting, Ken. And God help your partner if it turns out that he's just out joy riding with his new friends!"
A short while later, Hutch looked up from his desk and saw Dobey standing in the doorway of his office. "Can you come in here, please?" he asked. If Dobey was being polite, then it had to be bad news. Hutch got up and followed the captain into his office closing the door behind him.
"What is it, Cap?" Hutch asked as he perched on the edge of the chair in front of Dobey's desk.
"I just got off the phone with the Embassy. The Premier and his party have not been heard from in the past 72 hours." Hutch started to get up to rush out of the room, but Dobey stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. "It gets worse, Ken. A guard at San Francisco International found a body this morning in a storage closet. The description matches that of the missing Premier. The coroner says he's been dead at least three days."
Hutch sank back into the chair. "Oh, my God!" he breathed. "Then who the Hell is with Starsky?"
"I don't know, but I think its time the Feds were involved. If our John Doe up in Frisco is the Premier, then this just became a government investigation. I'll get on the wire to the FBI and the Secret Service and set up things with them. And I'm putting you in charge of the investigation at our end, with finding Starsky being your top priority. Take as many men as you need and good luck, Ken."
In an office inside a building across town from Parker Center, a pretty brunette smiled as she finished speaking to Captain Dobey, hung up the phone, then immediately picked it up and dialed out again.
"Sky? This is Rogue Star. Tell the Sultan I just received some news about our missing men..."
Hutch had been drawing blanks for almost two hours when it suddenly occurred to him to call Starsky's credit card company and see if there had been any recent charges made on his account. Bingo! His partner's card had been used two days before at a gas station off Route 101. He got the phone number and called the station's owner and described Starsky to him.
"Yeah, I remember your partner! He and some foreign types were in here the other day. I remember because your friend kept buggin' me, wantin' to use my private phone to make a call. Why don't you teach your officers better manners?" Hutch hung up on the rest of the tirade. Starsky was alive! Or, at least, he had been as of Saturday morning. A lot can happen in 48 hours.
He grabbed his jacket and was just starting for the door when he ran into Huggy Bear coming in. In all the years they had been friends, he could not remember Huggy ever having come to the station house before. He said it wasn't good for his image.
"What's up, Huggy?" he asked.
"Hey, Hutch. Where's your partner? Something big's going down and I thought I'd better come and tell you both about it in person."
"Starsky's been missing for two days and may be in serious trouble. I was just on my way out to follow up a lead on where he might be."
"Then don't let me stop you! I can tell you on the way. Let's go!"
"Thanks, Huggy. But are you sure you want to come along? The men Starsky was last seen with may already have killed a man."
"Are you kidding? I can take care of myself, Hutch. And you may need the backup."
"All right then. Come on."
Bright sunlight was shining in his face when Starsky came to this time. He had fallen and hit his head when he'd undone his seat belt and must of passed out again. If the stiffness of his body was any indicator, he must have been out for some time. His head was pounding with every beat of his heart and all the little aches and pains he'd felt the first time he'd come to after the accident had turned into big ones. He squinted, blinking back tears from both the pain and the bright light, and was finally able to get his eyes to focus enough to take a look around.
Things didn't look any better in the daylight than they had before in the dark. The road they had been traveling on was not heavily trafficked, and so it was really no surprise that no one had come yet to investigate the crash, nor was it likely that anyone would soon. Which meant he was on his own. It was time to take action.
First, he would have to find a way to get out of the car. The roof had partially collapsed as the vehicle had rolled over and over down the steep embankment, leaving him only just enough space to wriggle around a little on his back and the door on his side was jammed against the earth of the hillside. Maybe things were better on the passenger side of the car.
He turned his head to see and found himself almost nose to nose with the corpse of the man who'd been riding beside him in the front seat. He jerked back, startled, then cried out as the movement sent a sharp stab of pain through his right shoulder and arm. Darkness hovered at the edges of his vision and he broke out all over in a cold sweat. If he'd had any doubts left about how serious his situation was, he didn't any more. Starsky was no doctor, but he knew enough about first aid to realize that he needed medical attention. And soon.
Suddenly, he got angry. He'd never liked this damned car in the first place. He refused to let it become his coffin. Bracing himself against the pain, he slowly managed to work his way around until his feet were toward the front of the car. Then, with a yell, he kicked as hard as he could against the broken windshield until he was finally able to knock it out, allowing him to crawl out of the mangled car. He staggered to his feet and looked up the steep embankment towards the road.
"No way I'm making it back up there!" he muttered to himself. As weak as he felt right now, he doubted he could even walk very far. But he knew he had to try. The sun was shining brightly yet it was still cold enough that his breath hung in clouds in the air. He had to find some sort of shelter and, more importantly, a phone or something not only to call for help but also to call the station and warn them about the assassins.
He turned away from the road and looked off towards the trees. Was it his imagination, or was that a chimney over there? Starsky reached in his pocket and slowly, painfully took out his wallet and removed his badge and dropped it on the ground. If anyone came to check out the wreck, they'd find it and know he had been here. Maybe they'd call Hutch...
Bracing his injured arm tight against his ribs, he limped off in the direction of the house.
What Huggy had to say had not improved Hutch's mood any. If the black man's sources were correct, then something big indeed was going down.
The sale of illegal drugs had been big business in Los Angeles ever since the city's earliest days. It's close proximity to both the ocean and the Mexican border had long made it a tempting spot for those who dealt in all types of illicit merchandise to set up shop. He and Starsky routinely dealt with everything from small time addicts selling only enough pot to high school kids to pay for their own next fix to big time drug lords who regularly brought in and distributed millions of dollars worth of heroine and cocaine.
But recently, things had changed. More and more of the small time dealers were disappearing and being replaced with members of an organization unprecedented in the size and scope of its operations. And rumor had it the whole thing was being run by just one man, known on the street only as the Sultan.
"This is one bad dude, Hutch!" Huggy was saying as they wound their way up the narrow mountain road towards the gas station where Starsky had last been seen. "Those dealers who refuse to join his organization soon turn up in the morgue. And their corpses haven't been pretty. I've seen guys I didn't think were afraid of anything back off if this man's name gets mentioned."
"But what does this have to do with Starsky's disappearance?" Hutch asked, slowing to negotiate a particularly bad curve in the road. The mountain's bulk loomed close to the left and on the right there was only a low guardrail between them and a steep drop down into a wooded ravine.
"That's what I was coming to tell you, man! The word on the street is that the Sultan is letting it be known that no one can stand up to him and his foreign backers and not get burned. And there's been whispers that he might even be planning on trying to take down the President during his visit because of some laws he's pushed through Congress lately that are making it tough on his South American suppliers."
"And you think these men posing as the Premier and his aides might be his men?"
"You got it. Hey! Why are we stopping?"
"Look." Hutch said, nodding to a place in the middle of the turn where the guardrail had recently been broken through. Just the sight of the ragged hole in that frail barrier made Hutch's blood run cold.
He stopped the car just past the gap in the guardrail and he and Huggy got out, Huggy grumbling a little because of how close the drop was on his side. His complaints died in his throat though when they both spotted the remains of the white car that lay at the bottom of the ravine.
Unmindful of his own safety, Hutch leapt over the guardrail and went sliding and skidding down the sharp muddy grade. Huggy followed at a slightly more cautious pace. Hutch reached the car and felt his heart stop...until a closer look revealed that the corpse lying half through the gap left by the missing windshield wasn't his partner. He bent and checked for a pulse out of habit, even though the angle of the man's neck made it plain he was dead. He straightened and looked around as Huggy joined him.
"Oh, man!" Huggy hissed as he looked at the dead man. "Is he...?" Hutch nodded. "And it isn't...?"
"No, it's not Starsky," Hutch answered.
"Well, thank God for that! So, where is he then? This is the car, isn't it?"
Hutch nodded again. "This is it, all right. The license plate numbers match the ones the rental agent gave us." Hutch squinted in the bright sunlight, then suddenly pounced on something shiny on the ground nearby.
"What is it?" Huggy asked, crowding in close to look.
"It's Starsky's badge! He has to be nearby. Starsk!" he shouted. "Hey, where are you, buddy? It's Hutch! Come on, answer us Starsky!"
Huggy caught his sleeve and pointed. "Look!" he said. A stone chimney was just visible above the tops of the trees about a quarter of a mile away. "If it was me stuck out here, that's where I would go!"
"You're right. Come on!"
The chimney belonged to a rustic-looking little cabin nestled back in the trees. It was probably someone's weekend hunting retreat. The door had been locked, but someone had broken in. Drawing his gun, Hutch motioned for Huggy to hang back and slowly crept up to the open door. He burst into the cabin's one room prepared to defend himself, and almost fell over Starsky, who was passed out cold on the floor just inside the door.
"This is starting to get old!" Starsky thought as he slowly regained consciousness once more. At least this time he wasn't cold. He opened his eyes and found Hutch's lighter blue ones smiling down at him.
"Hey, Starsk! How're you doing?" Hutch asked him softly.
"Better...now. How'd you get here?"
"I traced your credit card to that service station up the road. Huggy's there now calling for an ambulance, so rest easy, pal. You're going to be all right."
Hutch started to get up, but Starsky clutched desperately at his hand. "No! Wait, Hutch! I need to tell you something! Those guys I was with...!"
"Were imposters. We know, buddy. It's okay. Dobey's got the Feds working on it. Now rest, will ya'?"
"But...how did you find out?" Starsky asked, his eyes wide with surprise. "I only knew about it because I overheard them talking. They're working for some guy called the Sultan. And, Hutch...I think they were going to try to assassinate the President."
Hutch drew in a sharp breath. It had been one thing to hear it from Huggy as a rumor, and another to have Starsky confirm it for a fact.
"I'll radio Dobey as soon as the ambulance gets here," he told Starsky. "Now, relax. You don't look too good."
"I don't feel too good!" Starsky agreed with a ghost of a smile, lying back on the cabin's little cot. Hutch had come for him. Everything would be all right now.
Chapter 3: The Sultan Strikes
Huggy Bear sat in one of the uncomfortable plastic chairs in the emergency room waiting area and watched Hutch pace. Finally, a doctor came out of the examining room where the paramedics had taken Starsky and looked around. Hutch approached him hopefully.
"Detective Hutchinson?" the doctor asked. Hutch nodded and the doctor smiled and offered Hutch his hand as he introduced himself. "I'm Dr. Richards. Your partner's going to be fine. His right shoulder was dislocated in the accident and he sustained a mild concussion and cracked a couple of ribs. Also, I was concerned about that wound on his neck but, while it looks ugly, no real damage has been done to his larynx. His throat will be sore and he might be hoarse for a few days.
"That's about it other than some minor scrapes and bruises and a touch of exposure from the night he spent out in the weather. There shouldn't be any complications, but I want to keep him overnight for observation just to be safe. You should be able to take him home tomorrow."
Hutch breathed a sigh of relief and smiled. "Thanks, Doc. Is he awake? Can I see him?"
"He's been asking for you." The doctor answered kindly. "Go on in and stay as long as you like. We'll be moving him up to a private room just as soon as a bed becomes available."
"Thank you again, Doctor!" Hutch grinned, pumping the doctor's hand. "Come on, Hug! Let's go see Starsky!"
Starsky's right shoulder, neck and chest were swathed in bandages, one eye was black and nearly swollen shut and his dark curly hair was even more unruly than usual. Yet to Hutch he looked absolutely wonderful. Starsky's eyes lit up as Hutch and Huggy walked into the tiny examining room.
"Hi, partner! How ya' doin', Hug?" He greeted them hoarsely but with a huge grin.
"We were just going to ask you the same thing," Huggy answered with a grin of his own. "Man! You look like you went a round with Sugar Ray Leonard!"
Starsky chuckled. "Feel like it, too!" He looked at Hutch again and grew more serious. "The Feds have anything on those guys yet?" he asked.
Hutch shook his head. "Nothing so far. I called Dobey, though, and he said that an agent from the Secret Service is on his way over to interview you. Some guy by the name of Alan Slater."
"Good. I'll be glad to tell him anything I can."
The three men visited a while then Huggy excused himself, saying he had to get back to The Pits. He'd left the new bartender in charge and thought he'd better go and see how she was doing. "I'll be by later to check on you, Starsky. Anything you want me to bring you?"
"How 'bout a burger? Or maybe a big bag of tacos?" Starsky asked hopefully.
"You got it, my man!" Huggy promised, laughing.
"You need a ride, Hug?" Hutch asked, remembering that the other man had come with him in his car. "You're welcome to borrow the LTD. Dobey said it was okay for me to hang around here for a while, being as this was supposed to be my day off."
"No, thanks, Hutch. I'm good. I'll just hop a cab. See you tonight!"
Not long after Huggy had gone, another man stuck his head into the room. He was forty-ish and of average height and build, with thinning sandy hair cut in a military style. He was dressed in a dark suit of the type that seemed to be favored by federal agents in all branches. "Detective Sergeants Starsky and Hutchinson? I'm Agent Slater of the Secret Service."
The three men shook hands. "Sorry I can't offer you a chair!" Starsky joked. Other than the bed, there was no furniture in the tiny room—nothing else would have fit.
"That's all right," Slater smiled, "This shouldn't take long."
Slater let Starsky tell the story in his own words, making notes in a small notebook as Starsky talked and only interrupting once or twice to ask a brief question. "I see..." he said, closing his notebook and putting it away when Starsky had finished. "Well, thank you, Detective. I'm sure this will be useful in our investigation."
"Anything more yet on the men who did this?" Hutch asked.
"Not that I've heard, but I'll let you know as soon as any new information comes my way. Don't worry, Detective Hutchinson. I'm sure we'll soon find the men who attacked your partner."
"What about that John Doe up in Frisco?" Starsky asked. "Any ID on him yet? Was it the Premier?"
Slater nodded. "I'm afraid it was. The Premier did not bring anyone with him from his home country, so two men from the local Embassy were assigned to aide him during his visit. The Embassy's description of the aides they sent doesn't jive with that of the ones who rented the hotel room in San Francisco. The real aides have not been seen since they left the Embassy and the secretary who was supposedly in contact with them is now missing as well.
"We now believe that she may have been part of the plan. If so, the real aides have probably also been killed. The men we are dealing with are obviously quite ruthless. I would say that you were lucky to be alive, Detective Starsky.
"It was the men we are looking for who met the Premier at the airport, led him to a remote area and killed him, hiding the body in the storage closet. He was strangled, Detective Starsky, probably with the same wire they tried to use on you! Then at some point between the airport and the hotel, they picked up the third man, who was then checked into the hotel as the Premier. The imposter attended all the functions that the Premier was to attend in San Francisco, and would have done the same here in LA with no one the wiser." Slater rubbed his hands together and smiled.
"It was actually a rather clever plan! As you know, the Premier was from a tiny country and not well known outside of it. The imposter and his phony aides could have walked right into the Governor's reception next week and right up to the President. Even if the body in the storage closet had been discovered before then, no one would have ever suspected that the dead man was the real Premier if your Captain at Metro division had not already begun that investigation into your whereabouts, Detective Starsky. So, in a way, you and your department may have saved the President's life!"
"But why would they make up all that stuff about the Premier being afraid to fly?" Starsky asked. "As you said, they had everyone fooled. So why go to all that trouble?"
"That's the ironic thing, Detective Starsky. The real Premier was afraid to fly! Time constraints had forced him to agree to take the flight to San Francisco, but he had already called and informed his Embassy that they had best arrange for some other means of transportation to take him the rest of the way. It seems he'd had a premonition once that he would die in an airport."
"And he did, poor guy," Starsky murmured, thinking how close he had come to being killed by the same men who had murdered the Premier.
"Yes," Slater said distractedly, glancing at his watch. "Well, I think that will be all for now, Detective Starsky. I'll be in contact if we need to ask you any more questions."
Hutch spoke up as Slater turned to go. "Do you think there's any chance they might still want to harm Starsky? Maybe we should post a guard or something. At least until he's out of the hospital."
Slater shrugged. "I don't really think that's necessary, but if it would make you feel better..."
"It would." Hutch said.
Slater nodded. "I'll see to it then. Anything else? Then, if you'll excuse me." He turned once more to leave.
Just as he reached the door, a pretty brunette nurse came into the room. Slater nodded politely to her as they passed one another in the doorway and she smiled at him slightly in return, a smile that brightened as she spoke to her patient. The nametag on her uniform identified her as Susan Campbell.
"The doctor has ordered a mild sedative for you, Detective Starsky," she said, producing a loaded hypodermic and a packaged alcohol wipe from the pocket of her uniform. She tore open the wipe and carefully swabbed Starsky's arm, then removed the cover from the needle and checked the syringe for air bubbles before injecting its contents.
"Ow!" Starsky protested mildly as the needle pierced his skin. The nurse smiled at him apologetically, finished emptying the hypo and patted him gently on his injured shoulder. "There, now! That wasn't so bad, was it?" she asked.
"Do I get a lollipop?" Starsky grinned. Hutch snorted and covered his eyes and the pretty nurse giggled. "I'll see what I can do," she told him with another gentle pat. "Anything else I can get you while I'm at it?"
"Yeah, can I get something to eat? I haven't had anything since day before yesterday!"
"Dinner will be served in about an hour. And by then you ought to be up in your room. Can you hold on till then?"
"I'll try...what's on the menu?"
"Salisbury steak," she told him. Starsky pulled a face, and she giggled again. "I know what you mean. Perhaps your friend can get you something else? There's sandwiches and stuff in the cafeteria. There's even a salad bar."
Starsky raised his eyebrows at Hutch. "Would you mind, pal?" he asked.
Hutch looked at the nurse. "I really don't want to leave him alone..."
"I can stay with him until you get back," the nurse offered. "I was about go on break anyway."
"Thank you," Hutch told her gratefully. "I promise I'll hurry. Be nice, Starsk!" he warned his friend playfully.
Starsky stuck out his tongue and the nurse giggled again. Shaking his head and chuckling to himself, Hutch left to see if he could find something Starsky would eat.
Less than ten minutes later, he was back, juggling a couple of wrapped sandwiches, a bag of chips, and a can of soda for his partner and a cup of coffee for himself. "Hope turkey and Swiss is okay, Starsk," he was saying as he entered the room. "That salad bar looks pretty good, too. I might go back once..." He stopped, staring at the empty bed. He went back out of the room and stopped a passing nurse in the hallway.
"Excuse me, ma'am," he said. "Do you know which room they've moved Detective Sergeant David Starsky to? I'm his partner."
The nurse, a matronly black woman with graying hair, smiled and shook her head. "I don't know, officer. But I can check for you. Come with me."
Hutch followed her to the nurses' station where she went behind the counter and rapidly began to shuffle through a rack of charts. "Here he is," she said, flipping a chart open and scanning it. She frowned. "That's funny! It says here your partner is still in the ER. Let me see if anyone else knows where he was moved to."
"Susan Campbell was with him," Hutch offered helpfully as she started to turn away. "Maybe if you were to page her...?"
The black woman turned back with a strange expression. "Who did you say was with him?" Hutch felt a shiver go down his spine.
"Her nametag said Susan Campbell," he repeated.
The black nurse shook her head. "Mister, Susan hasn't worked here in nearly a year! She quit last December to stay home with her new baby."
Hutch dropped the food onto the counter and grabbed onto it for support. Suddenly, he felt as if the floor had tilted. "Maybe I read her nametag wrong," he said, though he was positive he hadn't. "The woman who was with my partner had long, dark hair...pretty, mid-twenties, about 5'6".
"That doesn't sound like Susan! Or anyone else working this shift for that matter! We've had some students in here the last few days helping out. Maybe she's one of them. Cora? We got a nursing student on duty today named Susan Campbell?"
Another nurse stuck her head out of a supply room behind the nurse's station. "Susan Campbell? No, not that I know of. How is Susan anyway? Is the baby walking yet?"
"Excuse me!" Hutch interrupted. "But would a student be allowed to give an injection? The woman who was with him told us the doctor had ordered a sedative for my partner and gave him a shot."
The black nurse was definitely looking upset now. "There's no order for a sedative in this chart! And students are certainly not allowed to administer meds! What did you say this woman looked like again? I'm calling security!"
But Hutch was already running down the hall. "How could this happen?" he kept asking himself over and over as he frantically searched the ER for some sign of his missing friend. "I was only gone ten minutes!"
Meanwhile, outside a side entrance to the hospital, two dark-suited men finished loading a shroud-covered body on a stretcher into the back of a black station wagon. A discreet magnetic sign on the door identified it as belonging to Thompson and Sons Funeral Home.
Across the street, Agent Slater lit a cigarette as he watched the men climb into the front of their car and then got into his own, started the engine and followed as the black car left the lot and merged into the afternoon traffic.
Chapter 4: Limbo
Hutch stepped into Dobey's office. "Any word yet, Cap?" he asked for perhaps the fifth time in twenty minutes. But Dobey did not point that out to him.
"Sorry, Hutch. No new leads have come in. No one at the hospital remembers a nurse or nursing student fitting your description being on duty in the ER that shift, and no one saw anything suspicious. I'm still waiting for Slater to return my call. His office says they haven't heard from him since you saw him last." The big black man ran a worried eye over the young officer as he sat down in the chair beside the captain's desk. In the past few hours, it was as if Hutch had aged ten years.
"Damn it," Hutch cursed softly. "I told Slater we should post a guard!" Dobey placed a comforting hand on Hutch's shoulder as he slumped forward to rest his head on his arms on the corner of Dobey's desk. "I never should have left him! If anything's happened to him..." he began, but left the thought unfinished.
"Listen," the captain said quietly. "Why don't you go home for a while? I promise I'll call as soon as I hear anything."
Hutch shook his head, sitting up again and rubbing his hands over his face. "Thanks, Cap. But I'd rather stay here, if you don't mind." They both jumped as the phone on desk began to ring. Hutch tried not to get his hopes up as Dobey leaned across to answer it.
"Hello? Slater! Where the Hell have you been?!" Dobey shouted. "What do you mean, what's the matter! Don't you ever call your office? Detective Starsky is missing. Yes! Again! Hutch left him in the ER for ten minutes and he simply vanished. Of course my men are investigating...What do you mean, it's not a Secret Service matter?!" Dobey drew a deep breath, and when he spoke again, he was no longer shouting, yet, somehow, he managed to sound even more menacing.
"Look, Slater, I don't give a damn about jurisdiction. One of my men is missing and most likely in danger, and you know and I know that he wouldn't be if not for your department's screw ups! So, are you and your men going to help us find him or not? I see. Well, don't think you've heard the end of this, Slater."
Dobey slammed the phone down and stood panting and glaring at it. "I guess that means we can't expect any help from the Secret Service," Hutch said softly. Dobey squeezed the younger man's shoulder sympathetically.
"I'm so sorry, Hutch," he told him gently. "But I promise you that this department will use whatever resources it takes to get Dave back." Hutch nodded. Then let his head sink back onto his arms again.
The phone rang again and Dobey snatched it up and snapped, "What?!" He listened a moment then his expression changed. "Yes, he's right here." He covered the mouthpiece with his hand and spoke to Hutch. "Ken? It's for you. Someone named Paula Hamilton with the FBI. Says she may have some information that could help our investigation."
Hutch jumped up and grabbed the phone. "Paula? Yeah, this is Ken. What do you have for me? Why can't you come down here to the station? All right...all right. Do remember The Pits? Yeah, that's the place. I'll meet you there in twenty minutes."
"Well?" Dobey asked as Hutch hung up the phone, grabbed his jacket and started towards the door. The younger man paused long enough to give Dobey a brief explanation. "Paula's a...friend. She used to be a cop, back when I was still stationed at City. We worked a few cases together before I was transferred to Metro. I'd heard she left the force to go to work for the Bureau. Seems she's a Special Agent now."
"You trust her?" Dobey asked warily. Past incidents involving government types, not to mention the argument he had just had with Slater, made Dobey ready to be suspicious.
Hutch smiled slightly. "I used to. I haven't seen her in years. But right now she's the only hint of a lead we've got so far."
"Watch yourself, Hutchinson," Dobey said gruffly. " I've got enough on my plate at the moment looking for that partner of yours. I don't need to be worrying about you, too."
Hutch smiled as he as he finished shrugging on his jacket. "I will, Cap," he promised.
Down in the police garage, Starsky's prized red Torino was still parked next to his own battered LTD, just like it would have been on any other day. But today the sight of that damned striped tomato brought a lump to Hutch's throat. "Wherever you are, partner, hang on!" he whispered, lightly brushing his fingers along the nearest door. "I'm trying to find you!" He got into his own car and peeled out of the garage without looking back.
In a mansion somewhere in the Hollywood hills:
Slater glared at the guards who had escorted him into the room then ignored them as he crossed to stand behind the tall, dark man who stood before the room's large picture window, gazing out at the view.
"You need to tell your goons that I'm not like them, to be summoned to your presence like a dog being called by its master!" Slater growled.
"You're right," the tall man said without turning around. "Dogs are loyal creatures."
Slater drew in a sharp hiss of breath and drew back as if he'd been slapped, his face going red at the insult. "You can't talk to me that way!" he protested.
"Can't I? I do not see how you can stop me. But I am not in the mood, nor do I have the time to discuss this right now." He turned and looked past Slater to the two guards who still stood in the doorway. "Is my guest comfortable?"
"We put him in the basement, like you said," one of the guards answered.
"I don't understand what you wanted him for anyway," Slater grumbled. "You've put me in a very awkward position. If his partner finds out that I am involved with you..."
"So what if he does?" the tall man asked, focusing his gaze on Slater at last, dark eyebrows arching above cold, black eyes. "I've already paid you more than you are worth, Slater. And seen very little in the way of results for my money. I have begun to consider terminating our association."
"Your men are the ones who blew their covers!" Slater protested. "Do you know how long it took me to set that up? Yet, in spite of their blundering, I may still be able to pull this thing off. But not if Hutchinson or anyone else catches wind of my part in this."
"Very well, I will give you another chance. What do you require?"
"At the moment, just for you to back off until I contact you. I'm already taking a huge risk, just by being here."
"All right. I will wait for your call. But do not take too long, Slater. Or you risk more than being tried for treason."
Slater nodded, shaken slightly by the threat. He turned to leave, but then stopped to ask, "What do you want with Detective Starsky?"
The man known as "the Sultan" smiled slightly. It was not a pleasant expression. "The distraction alone has been worth the effort of bringing him here!" he said. "Dobey has most of his force out looking for him. And the more of this city's police force we have occupied elsewhere, the less likely it will be that anyone will stumble onto our little scheme until it is too late. Also, he is here to pay a debt he and his partner owe me, not only for past inconveniences, but now for the death of one of my best men as well.
"I neither forgive nor forget those who cross me, Slater," he added softly. "Remember that!" Slater swallowed, then left without another word. Despite his own problems at the moment, he did not envy either Starsky or Hutchinson.
Hutch pulled up and parked in his usual place outside Huggy's place, The Pits. He slammed the door of the LTD and started inside, when a voice calling his name stopped him. Hutch turned around and groaned as he recognized Gary Marshall, a reporter for the Daily News.
"Hey, Ken!" Marshall greeted him as he trotted up to stand beside the blonde detective. "Is it true what they're saying on the streets?"
"How should I know?" Hutch asked with a tired sigh. "You're the ace reporter! Why don't you tell me what's going on?"
"Word is something big is going down. How about you and Starsky filling me in?" Marshall paused and looked around. "Hey? Where is your partner anyway?"
Hutch shook his head. "He's busy, Marshall. Just like I am, so get lost. As far as I know, there's not a damned thing happening outside of the usual, run-of-the-mill hold-ups, homicides and drug busts that I came here to get a drink and forget about for a few hours. So why don't you go annoy someone else? I'm off duty."
"Aw, come on, Ken!" Marshall protested. "Give me a break! You know how my editor is! Look, I have this source that told me there's a new drug baron, someone called 'the Sultan', running all the small time dealers out of business all up the west coast. Is this true?"
"If this source of yours is so well informed, why don't you ask him?"
"I would, only...he's disappeared. We set up a meeting, but he never showed. I even went to where he usually hangs out to look for him. Nothing. It's like he's vanished into thin air." Hutch suppressed a shiver. It was too much like what had happened with Starsky. " So, I came here, hoping to get some info from Huggy Bear," Marshall continued, "but he won't talk to me either."
"I don't blame him," Hutch said, moving to step around the reporter. "Now, if you'll excuse me?"
Marshall caught him by the arm. "You really should treat me nicer, Hutchinson," he said. "I'm going to get this story! And when I do, I can either make you and your partner heroes, or I could make your whole department look like a bunch of bumbling idiots!"
"Go to hell, Marshall" replied Hutch, jerking his arm away and going on into the bar.
Chapter 5: In the Serpent's Lair
Exhausted and hurting, Starsky lay back down on the rickety cot to stare up at the cracked, water-stained paint of the ceiling. He'd woken up several hours before to find he was no longer in the hospital. At least, he didn't think this was a hospital.
The room he was in was tiny, only about six by six, with a plain concrete floor, no windows, and no furniture except the cot he was lying on. The bare mattress beneath him was filthy and smelled of sweat and fear and other, less pleasant things. A single dim, bare bulb was the room's only light source and heavy foam padding covered both the walls and the back of the room's one door. The door was securely locked from the outside.
In the time since he'd come to, Starsky had worn himself out yelling and pounding on the locked door, without ever getting any response from the outside. Now he lay shivering, despite the room's warmth. The pain medication he'd been given in the emergency room had long worn off. His head and shoulder both were throbbing and the pain from his cracked ribs made it difficult to take more than shallow breaths. His stomach cramped with hunger.
"Where the Hell am I now?" he wondered to himself out loud.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Huggy came out from behind the bar as soon as he saw Hutch come in. "Any word on Starsky?" he asked quietly.
Hutch shook his head. "Is Paula here yet?" he asked.
Huggy nodded. "Yeah. I put her in a booth in the back. Who is she?"
"An old friend of mine. She's with the FBI now and says she might be able to help us out."
In spite of the situation, Huggy grinned. "Man, how come none of my old friends are that good-lookin'?"
"Huggy, I didn't know you had any!" Hutch joked as he followed the slender black man to the back of his place.
Paula saw them coming and got up from the booth to greet Hutch. "Huggy's right!" he thought as he returned her brief hug, "She does look good!" Paula was tall, almost as tall as he was in her heels, with long blonde hair, gray-blue eyes and legs that any woman would kill for. She was dressed at the moment in a professional-looking dark suit jacket and skirt that were tailored to compliment her generous curves, her hair piled up on top of her head.
Hutch glanced at the empty glass in front of her as they both sat down in the booth. "Bring the lady another of whatever she's having, Hug, and a beer for me," he asked.
"You got it!" Huggy smiled, and left to get their drinks.
"It's been a long time," Paula said then, reaching across the table to brush his hand with her fingers.
"Yes, it has, Paul," he agreed. "But I didn't think this was a social call."
"You're right. I'm on a case and I need your help." Paula told him softly. "You're the only person I know in LA that I can trust!"
"I thought the deal was that you were going to help me!" Hutch protested. "I'm sorry, Paula, but until my partner is found, my caseload is full." He started to get up, but she stopped him with a hand on his sleeve.
"If I'm right, my case involves your partner as well."
Hutch sat back down. "I'm listening."
"What do you know about Alan Slater?" she asked.
"Other than that he's the Secret Service agent in charge of security for the President's upcoming visit and a jerk, not much."
"Well, he's a lot more than just a jerk, he's a traitor. He was in on the Premier's murder, which makes him part of the plot to assassinate the President."
Hutch blinked, surprised. "Are you sure of that, Paula? That's a pretty serious charge."
"I'm sure...but I don't have enough evidence to prove it. That's why I'm here. And until I have more information, I can't be sure who else is in on this. Anyone up to and including my own boss could be involved."
"If that's true, then it would explain how the imposters were able to infiltrate the Premier's staff so easily. But what does this have to do with Starsky? He never knew any of this or he would have told me."
Paula shrugged. "Maybe Starsky didn't want to put you in danger." Hutch shook his head. "Or maybe Slater was afraid he'd heard more than he was telling. I don't know, Ken. But you've got to admit it's a heck of a coincidence that your partner disappeared right after talking to Slater."
Huggy arrived with their drinks just then but, sensing the tension between them, set them down without comment and went back to tending his bar. He knew he could get the story out of Hutch later.
Hutch took a long swallow from his beer, then met and held Paula's gaze. "All right. I believe you. I know you too well to think you would jump at shadows. So why don't you back up and tell me the whole story."
She did. "As you know," she began, "the war in 'Nam, followed so closely by the Watergate scandal, hurt a lot of people's faith in this country and our government. Maybe that's what happened to Slater. He lost his only son in 'Nam, right before the President decided to pull our troops out. Maybe that's when he stopped caring. I don't know. But Slater's record before then was exemplary. He's put in over twenty years in the Service and has numerous citations."
"So what makes you think he's gone bad?"
"I never would have suspected anything. Until my partner and I were called in to help the Secret Service shut down a big counterfeiting ring last year. Over a million dollars in phony bills and the plates went missing before we could turn them in. And my partner was sure it was Slater who took them."
"So why didn't you and your partner nail him then?"
Paula looked down into her glass. "We never got the chance. Derek...my partner was killed in the line of duty right after that. We were out on an anonymous tip to pick up a group of fugitives who'd escaped from a prison down in Texas. Something happened to our backup, they never showed and someone tipped off the fugitives that we were coming. They opened fire on us before we were even all the way out of the car. Derek was hit in the chest and died before an ambulance could get there."
Paula lifted haunted eyes to meet his. "The fugitives were rounded up and put on a bus back to Texas. On the way, the bus apparently blew a tire and the driver lost control. All the prisoners and the three Texas Rangers on the bus were killed in the crash. It happened in a remote area, so no one ever found out what actually happened. A passerby called in the accident, but by then it was all over.
"Without any evidence to back up Derek's allegations against him, the investigation of Slater was dropped." Paula's voice was tight with barely contained fury. "He came to the funeral, Ken. Said he just wanted to let me know there were no hard feelings about the investigation and that the Bureau had lost a fine man. He was laughing at us, Ken! He set us up, had Derek killed and he was laughing at us!"
Hutch reached across the table and took her hand and squeezed it. "I'm sorry, Paula. I know how hard losing your partner must have been. But are you sure Slater was involved?"
"Derek was sure, Ken. Slater's dirty and I will prove it, whether you help me or not."
"Then I'm with you. But we can't do this alone. You trusted me enough to come to me with this. Now, do you trust me enough to let me choose our backup?"
Paula nodded. "I trust you. But be darn sure of who you trust!"
Hutch smiled slightly. "Believe me, Paula! I'm not gonna do anything that will put Starsky in any further danger! And my priority is still finding my partner. If we happen to be able to make your case against Slater in the process, I won't mind. But Starsky comes first!"
Paula nodded. "Understood," she smiled. "So, where do we start?"
Hutch finished his beer and got up from the table. "First," he said as he took out his wallet and tossed a few bills for Huggy onto the table to pay for the drinks, "I want to put in a call to my boss. Captain Dobey's as straight as they come, Paula, and I trust him with my life!
"Then...then I think I know someone who may be able to tell us something more about this Sultan guy. His men were the ones who posed as the Premier's aides, so, if Slater's involved, they must be working together. It could explain why the Department's heard so little about his operation 'til now."
Hutch put in a quick call to Dobey from Huggy's pay phone to tell him he was following up on a lead. Then he and Paula left Paula's car at The Pits and both rode in the LTD to a street corner in a seamy part of town. It was around ten o'clock and all the working girls were out strutting their wares. Many of them disappeared into the shadows as they recognized the battered LTD, but one woman looked up and waved. She glanced around nervously to make sure her pimp wasn't in sight, then offered Hutch a genuine smile as he pulled up beside her and she leaned in the open driver's side window.
"You working tonight, Hutch? Or just out showing your new girlfriend the sights?" she asked coyly.
"Hello, Carla," Hutch greeted her warmly. "When are you going to give this up? You've got too much going for you to be wasting it out here on the streets."
"Thanks, Hutch. But you're flattering me. I don't got no skills or education to do nothing else, you know that, and I got to eat! But it's nice of you to care. Where's Starsky? Surely this is business and not a date."
"This is my friend Paula and, yes, this is business. Starsky's disappeared and we think this new drug boss in town may have had something to do with it. A man called the Sultan. You heard of him?"
Carla shuddered and looked around again before opening the car door and getting into the back seat of the car. "Drive," she said and Hutch put the car in gear and pulled away from the curb. Carla slumped way down in the seat as they drove and kept looking around cautiously. "The Sultan's a very bad man, Hutch. Take my word for it, the less you know about him, the better."
"Carla, he may have Starsky! I have to know anything you can tell me!"
Carla bit her bright red lip for a moment then nodded. "Okay, I'll tell you. For Starsky. The two of you have always gone out of your way to be nice to me, so I owe you." She slumped even further down into the seat, clearly afraid to been seen talking to Hutch. But she told him what she knew.
"The Sultan started moving into LA a coupla months ago. Since then, he's taken over not only almost all the drug business in town, but almost everything else, too. He makes all the pimps give him a cut of their take, or his men work them over. And he expects any girls he chooses to be available to work the parties he gives up at that big house he's got up in the hills. I went to one once. You wouldn't believe some of the people that was there!"
"Like who, Carla?" Hutch asked, but she just shook her head.
"Uhn-uh. I value my skin too much to name names. Let's just say it's no wonder the cops can't ever get anything on him!"
"That's good, Carla. That helps. Can you tell me any more? Do you remember where this house was?"
Carla shook her head again. "Sorry, Hutch. I've already told you more than is healthy for me. I'll try to find out what I can about Starsky for you, though. I hope he's all right."
"Me too, Carla," Hutch said softly. "Me, too." He checked to make sure the street was clear, then pulled over and let her out. "You call Huggy at The Pits if you hear anything or if something comes up and you need some help. Don't take chances! I don't want you to get hurt helping me," Hutch said as he pressed several bills into her hand. She had to have money to show for the time she'd been away from her corner, or her pimp would get suspicious. He paid her her usual rate, then took another twenty out and told her to hide it. "You spend that on you!" he told her firmly.
"Bless you, Hutch!" Carla sniffed. "But you know I can't get caught holdin' out!" She turned to check again that no one had seen her, then hurried away into the night, back toward her corner.
Hutch drove in silence for several minutes before Paula spoke up. She hadn't said anything since before Carla had gotten into the car.
"You getting a soft spot, Ken?" she asked softly.
Hutch smiled a little. "Carla's a nice girl, Paula. She's helped Starsky and I out a lot in the past."
Paula nodded her understanding. "She must like you, too, to take the risk she took tonight." Paula sighed and looked out the window. "Where are we going now?"
"I'm going to take you back to your car, then I'm going down to the station to talk to Dobey. I don't think it's a good idea to discuss this on an open frequency. Why don't you drop by my house later and I can fill you in on what he says."
"Sounds good," Paula agreed as they pulled up near where her car was parked behind Huggy's place. "What time should I be there?"
"Give me about an hour," Hutch answered as he wrote down the address for her then handed it to her along with his spare key. "If I'm not there when you get there, let yourself in and make yourself at home."
Paula nodded and Hutch watched her until she was safely in her car before he drove away.
Chapter 6: The Waiting is the Hardest Part
Starsky was bored. Bored and hungry. "Hey! The room service in this place stinks!" he yelled for something to do. He had not expected a response, and so was surprised when he heard the sound of a key turning in the lock of his door.
He sat up on the cot and waited to see what would happen, wishing he had a blanket or something he could wrap around himself. He still wore only the skimpy gown they'd put him in at the hospital. Thank God, at least, that they'd let him keep his underwear!
A big, burly man slowly opened the door and looked around, then nodded to someone behind him. Then the dark-haired nurse from the ER came into the room carrying a covered tray. Starsky frowned at her in confusion.
"Susan?" he asked.
The woman smiled and shook her head. "I thought you would have figured out by now that that isn't my real name," she answered as she set the tray down next to him on the cot. "Sorry about the poor quality of our hospitality," she quipped, "but we've been rather busy."
"That's okay," Starsky answered, trying not to drool too obviously as she removed the tray's cover and the smell of fried chicken wafted out into the room. "I'm just glad you didn't totally forget me." His stomach growled, but he was wary about eating the food.
"Go on! It's not poisoned!" the woman said as if able to read his thoughts. Starsky picked up a piece of chicken and took a cautious bite, then began to eat with gusto. The woman stood and watched him with quiet amusement as he made short work of all that was on the tray.
"So," Starsky began as soon as he'd finished washing down the last biscuit with a big gulp of iced tea. He'd been even thirstier than he'd been hungry. He set the empty plastic cup back onto the tray and wiped his fingers on a paper napkin. There hadn't been any silverware. "What is this place?"
The dark-haired woman shrugged. "For you...let's call it a waiting room."
"Oh? What am I waitin' for?" he asked.
She smiled and shook her head. "That would be telling," she answered. Starsky felt himself beginning to get mad, but controlled his anger for the moment.
"Do I at least get to know your name?" he asked, putting on his most charming smile.
The woman laughed. "I think a woman's more appealing if she keeps an air of mystery about her," she teased, gathering up the tray. "I've enjoyed our visit, but I have to go now. Maybe we will get the chance to talk again later." She turned to leave.
"Wait!" Starsky called, starting to get up to stop her from going yet. The burly guard reached for what was probably a weapon, but the woman stopped him.
"That won't be necessary," she told the guard. "Detective Starsky won't be giving us any trouble, will you Dave?"
Without warning, Starsky's legs turned to rubber. He grabbed in vain for something to hold on to as he lost his balance, but there wasn't anything. His knees went and he crashed to the floor.
"The food! It was drugged!" he accused the woman dully.
"Of course!" she laughed. "Much more pleasant than a needle, don't you agree?" He passed out hearing her laughter.
It had taken longer than Hutch thought it would to fill Dobey in on what he had learned and to plan their next move. The captain had hand-picked a few of his most trusted men to continue the investigation and to keep a discreet watch over Carla, then had ordered Hutch to go home for a few hours.
"Get some rest, Ken," he'd said. "It won't do Dave any good for you to collapse from exhaustion!"
He saw that Paula's car was already parked next to the curb as he pulled into his driveway. When he opened the door of his apartment, the smell of food cooking drifted out to greet him, reminding him that he had not eaten anything all day. He shrugged out of his jacket and shoulder holster and hung both in their place behind the door, then followed his nose to the kitchen.
Paula looked up from setting a large bowl of salad on the table and smiled. "I thought I'd fix us some dinner," she said. "Hope you don't mind."
"Not at all!" he answered her honestly. "It smells great. What did you fix?"
"Vegetarian Lasagna," she replied as she turned to take a bubbling casserole dish out of the oven, closing the door with her knee. Paula had taken off her high-heels and her jacket and untucked her blouse from her skirt. Her long blonde hair was down now and hung loose around her shoulders and down her back. Hutch leaned on the edge of the counter for a moment and just watched her as she moved confidently around his kitchen in her stocking feet. He found himself thinking she looked even prettier now than she had at Huggy's earlier.
Paula set the dish on the table and smiled a bit shyly. "What were you thinking just now?" she asked him.
Caught off guard, Hutch found himself blushing and stuttering. "Hmm? Oh! J-just that it looks good! The food, I mean."
Paula giggled as she stood back and checked to make sure she hadn't forgotten anything. "I chilled a bottle of wine. Would you mind getting it out of the fridge? Everything else is on the table."
Hutch got the wine then held her chair for her before sitting down across from her. He opened the bottle and poured some wine for them both as she cut and served the lasagna.
"Mmm!" Hutch commented after the first bite. "This is great! What's in it?"
"This and that," Paula smiled. "Just stuff I found in your fridge. Do you really like it?"
"Are you kidding? I bet even Starsky would eat this, and he's the original junk food junkie!" Suddenly, Hutch pushed his plate back and got up from the table and fled to the other room. Worried, Paula followed him and found him in the living room staring out the window at the dark beach below his balcony.
"What is it?" she asked softly. "What happened?"
Hutch shook his head and, to her surprise, she realized he was near tears. "I'm sorry," he apologized, clearly embarrassed. "It's nothing."
"Ken, it obviously isn't 'nothing'! Please tell me what's wrong."
He lifted a hand and rubbed his eyes. "It's stupid," he said softly without turning around. "But, sitting there, all of a sudden it occurred to me that Starsky never did get anything to eat before he disappeared. Wherever he is, he may still be hungry! And...well, knowing that, I suddenly couldn't eat anything either."
Paula crossed the room and carefully wrapped her arms around his waist from behind, leaning her cheek against his shoulder. "That's not stupid," she whispered. "I think it's the nicest thing I've ever heard." She stepped back a little and made Hutch turn around and face her. "We'll find him, Ken," she promised him. "Don't give up."
Hutch smiled and touched her cheek. "Thanks, Paula. I wasn't planning on it, but thank you for understanding how I feel." He suddenly yawned a huge yawn. "The Cap's right, I'm dead on my feet! I'm sorry about the meal, Paul, but I'm really not hungry right now. I think all I want is a hot shower and a few hours sleep. You go ahead and eat and stay as long as you like. Do you have a place to stay tonight?"
She shook her head. "Not yet. I called you as soon as I hit town, so I haven't had a chance to find a hotel yet."
"You're welcome to stay here, if you want. You take the bed and I'll crash out here on the couch."
"I don't want to put you out..." she protested.
"Nonsense! What are friends for? It's settled then. Give me your keys and I'll get your suitcases out of your car before I take my shower."
"Okay. And thanks, Ken."
"Thank you," he said. "Seeing you again has been the only bright spot in this whole damned thing!" He took her keys and hurried out the door before it could turn into another of what Starsky liked to call "soapy scenes".
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
An ugly man with bad breath and a cruel smile was slapping him in the face. "Time to wake up now!" he taunted. Starsky groaned and opened his eyes to find he was in another small, dingy room with no windows, but different than the one he was in before. He was tied to a chair with his hands securely bound behind him with Bad Breath only inches from his face. Another man and the dark-haired woman stood in the background, watching.
"Make up your mind!" he moaned. "First ya' drug me and knock me out, now you're mad 'cause I won't wake up!"
The man had no sense of humor. He proved it by backhanding Starsky in the mouth. "You don't talk 'til you're told to!" he snarled.
"Fine! I'll speak when I'm spoken to...if you promise to either go get a breath mint or else stop breathin' in my face!"
The ugly man drew back his hand to hit Starsky again, but a word from the second man stopped him.
"Get on with it!" he told his bully boy.
"Yeah!" Starsky quipped. "Stop wastin' my time!"
The ugly man smiled an even uglier smile. "All right, funny guy, tell me what you told your partner!"
"About what?" Starsky asked. He braced himself for another blow, but that didn't prepare him for what happened next. Instead of hitting him, this time the bully grabbed his injured shoulder and twisted. Starsky screamed before he could stop himself.
The bully grinned. "Laugh that off!" he snarled. "Now, tell me what I want to know or this time I'll really hurt ya'!"
"How can I tell you anything if I don't know what you're talkin' about!" Starsky protested.
"Tell us what you overheard before the accident. And this time, you'd better not leave anything out!"
"Huh? All I heard was that they worked for some guy called the Sultan and they were planning to bump off the President! The rest of the time, they didn't say anything...at least, not in English!" He looked past the bully to the dark-haired woman. "You were there outside the room when I talked to Slater, so you must know all this already!"
"That's true, that's what you told Slater. We want to know what you told your partner," she answered him.
"Nothing! That's all I know and that's all I told Hutch. Neither of us knows anything else!"
The man in charge nodded and the bully twisted his arm again even harder than before. Starsky screamed again and blacked out.
The bully laughed and grabbed Starsky by the hair, tilting his head back as he drew a knife and brought it close to Starsky's face.
Chapter 7: The Death of a Hooker
Hutch didn't realize he'd fallen asleep until the phone ringing woke him up. He rolled off the couch, grabbed it and brought it to his ear, instantly wide-awake. "Hutchinson."
"Ken? This is Dobey! I think you'd better get over to Huggy's right away. Carla somehow managed to shake our surveillance officers. We've been trying to find her again all night."
"My god, Captain! Why didn't you call me?"
"You were dead on your feet, Ken. And you couldn't have done anything I didn't do. I've got half a dozen men out looking for her."
Hutch was already reaching for his jacket and shoulder holster. "Damn it! Anything could have happened to her by now!" he muttered as he shrugged into them both. "Why should I go to Huggy's, Cap? What's he got for me?"
"I'll tell you if you'll just hold on a moment and listen!" Dobey barked back. "We still haven't located her, but she just called Huggy's place a few minutes ago. He said she wouldn't tell him where she was and that she sounded pretty scared. Said she didn't trust anybody but you"
"All right. I'm on my way to the Pits! Maybe she'll call back," he said and hung up the phone. Paula came out of the bedroom as he was heading out the door.
"What is it?" she asked when she saw his expression.
"Carla just called. I'm on my way to check it out. Huggy said she sounded scared."
"I'll grab my shoes and come with you." Paula was already dressed in jeans and a sweater. She ran into the bedroom and came right back out again with a pair of sneakers in her hand. She put them on in the car as Hutch drove as fast as he could to The Pits. Huggy met them at the curb.
"Dobey said you were on your way."
"What's up?" Hutch asked him.
Huggy shook his head. "I don't know, man! Carla called, but I couldn't get her to tell me where she was. She was crying so hard I could barely understand her. All I could make out was that someone must have seen her talking to you because two guys were following her. I tried to get her to come here or just go to the police station, but she wouldn't listen. She just kept saying how scared she was and to call you...then she hung up."
"Damn! She spotted the surveillance team and thought they were the Sultan's men!" Hutch said, pounding his fist on the steering wheel in frustration. "Stay near the phone, Hug. If she calls again, tell her it's all right, the men following her were police officers I sent to watch out for her. I'll call Dobey and get him to send some more men out to help."
"Will do! And I'll let you know if I hear anything else. Good luck!"
Hutch peeled away from the curb and headed again for the same part of town he and Paula had visited the night before. If it had looked shabby in the dark, it looked even more so in the light of day. All the working girls were gone from their corners and the streets were practically empty except for the occasional tramp.
Hutch drove in silence as he slowly cruised up and down each of the nearly deserted streets, anxiously scanning every possible hiding place for any sign of Carla. Paula helped him look and did not attempt to make conversation. She knew there was nothing she could say to lessen Hutch's sense of guilt for putting Carla in danger.
After some time, the radio crackled to life, startling them both. "Zebra 3, Zebra 3. This is Dispatch. Please respond."
Hutch recovered first, reaching for the mike and keying the response button. "This is Zebra 3. Go ahead, Dispatch."
"You have a call from Captain Dobey. I'm patching it through to you now." There was a short pause then Dobey's gruff voice came on. "Ken? Are you there?"
"I'm here, Cap. What is it? Have you found Carla?"
"Yeah." Another pause, this one longer than the first, then, "I think you'd better come down to the station, Ken," he said quietly.
Hutch swallowed hard and pulled the car over to the curb and stopped before keying the mike again. "She's dead, isn't she?" he asked then. Paula could hear the pain in his voice.
"Two beat cops, Tony Parelli and Sean O'Connor, found her about ten minutes ago," Dobey confirmed, "in an alley off 7th Avenue. The coroner's on the way there now to pick up the body. Parelli says it looks like someone used a shotgun on her at close range. She never had a chance." Another pause, then the captain added, "I'm sorry, Ken."
"So am I," Hutch answered in a broken whisper. Paula reached across as if to comfort him, but pulled her hand back without touching him, uncertain how he would respond. He looked out the window for a long moment, blinking back tears, then keyed the mike once more. "I...I'll come in if you want, Cap. But I think I'd rather just go home again for awhile, if you don't mind."
"Of course. I'll call you there when the coroner's report comes back. This isn't your fault, Ken! You hear me?"
Hutch swallowed again. "Sure, Cap...Zebra 3, out." He reached over and switched off the radio, then slumped forward in his seat, his head going down onto his arms on the steering wheel, his shoulders shaking.
"The captain's right," Paula said then. "This isn't your fault. The surveillance team got clumsy. She shouldn't have been able to make them!"
Hutch lifted his head and drew a long, shaky breath. "Carla spent her whole life looking over her shoulder, Paula! It's how she'd survived this long! I never should have put a tail on her without warning her," he said. "If she had only known they were there to protect her, she wouldn't have run away!"
But Paula wasn't buying that. "You can't be sure of that, Ken!" she argued. "You didn't tell her about the surveillance team because you knew she didn't trust the department. She didn't trust anyone but you."
"And I let her down." Hutch sighed again. Paula reached out again and this time laid her hand on his arm.
"You're not Superman, Ken," she told him gently. "You can only do so much."
Hutch turned and glared at her, his grief turning to anger. "I screwed up, Paula! Stop trying to make excuses for me! I made a mistake and Carla's dead because of it!"
Paula pulled her hand back, her own temper rising. "Okay! So, maybe you made a mistake! You're human, just like the rest of us. But you didn't pull the trigger, Ken. Someone else did that, probably one the same people that have your partner. Now, are you going to sit here all day wallowing in guilt and self-pity? Or are you going to pull yourself together and get back out there and find the ones who are really responsible for all of this?"
Hutch stared at her a moment, then nodded. "You're right, Paula. This isn't doing anyone any good. I...I just don't know what to do now!"
"Well, I do! First, we're going back to your apartment so that I can fix you some breakfast...Ah! Don't argue with me! You need to eat, Kenneth Hutchinson, or you're going to fall flat on your face!"
Despite the situation, Hutch couldn't help smiling. "Yes, Mother," he answered her meekly, chuckling at the dirty look she shot him. He put the car in gear and drove back to his place, feeling a little better than he had before. He still felt that Carla's death was at least partially his fault, but Paula was right in pointing out that they didn't have time for him to get bogged down in a guilt trip right now.
As soon as they reached the apartment, Paula went straight for the kitchen as Hutch reached for the phone to call Huggy to let him know what had happened. He had just finished that and hung up the phone when someone knocked on his door.
He got up from the couch and went to answer it, but when he opened the door, there was no one there. He shrugged and had started to close the door again when he spotted the small, plain manila envelope propped against the porch railing. He stooped and picked it up and brought it back inside with him, closing the door behind him.
"Who was that?" Paula called from the kitchen.
"I don't know. They left some sort of package, though," Hutch answered her as he examined it. The envelope was lightweight but obviously not empty as something inside it shifted with a soft skittering sound as he turned it over in his hands. There was no writing on either side to indicate who it was from or what it might be about.
Paula appeared in the kitchen doorway, drying her hands on a towel. She watched curiously as he cautiously tore the envelope open and reached inside. He drew out a single sheet of typing paper. On it, printed in pencil, were only two words: "Back off."
Hutch felt a cold shiver go down his spine, but could not stop himself from looking to see what else the envelope contained. Paula dropped the towel and rushed forward with a cry as Hutch reeled drunkenly, only just managing to keep him from hitting his head on the hardwood floor as he collapsed. Unnoticed, the envelope slipped from his nerveless fingers, spilling its contents onto the floor at Hutch's side: handfuls of dark, curly hair.
Chapter 8: Slater Makes A Move
Hutch tried not to gag as Paula forced him to swallow another sip from the cup she held to his mouth. "What the heck is that stuff?" he spluttered, grimacing at the sickeningly sweet taste.
"I mixed sugar in orange juice," she told him as she made him take another swallow of the vile concoction. "My mother was diabetic and this is what the doctor always had me give her when her blood sugar got too low. How are you feeling now?"
"A little better," he admitted reluctantly. The whole thing was terribly embarrassing. One look at that damned hair, and he'd gone down like the heroine in a bad Victorian novel. At least he was on the couch now instead of the floor!
Paula smiled and, to his eternal gratitude, stopped trying to get him to drink any more juice. She put the cup on the coffee table and drew the blanket she'd spread over him further up under his chin. "You just lie there and behave, then, and I'll finish getting your breakfast," she said, patting his shoulder as she got to her feet.
"I'm such an idiot," he told her when she came back into the living room from the kitchen with a loaded tray.
Paula looked at him questioningly as she set the tray down on the table, then helped him to sit up and handed him a cup of hot coffee. "Why? Because you let your blood sugar get so low that you fainted? The last few days haven't exactly been a picnic for you, Ken. And you push yourself awfully hard. Cut yourself some slack."
The coffee banished the last lingering taste of the juice, which helped to settle his stomach. He took another gulp, then set the cup aside and attacked the food on the tray, suddenly ravenously hungry. Paula smiled to herself behind the rim of her own coffee cup as she watched him eat, thinking that, even with his hair mussed and the dark smudges that still lingered under his eyes, he was very handsome. He caught her looking at him, and grinned back at her around a forkful of eggs.
"This is wonderful, Paula!" he told her sincerely. "I owe you! When this is over, it'll be my turn to cook a meal or two for you!"
"I might hold you to that," she answered softly.
Hutch finished his breakfast and leaned back again with a sigh. "I've got to admit, that's much better!" He looked at Paula with a glint of mischief in his eyes. "Okay, Oh Wise One, what do we do now?" he asked her.
"What else can we do? We wait for the autopsy report and, in the meantime, we hit the streets again. Someone killed Carla in broad daylight and I can't believe no one saw anything!"
Hutch threw aside the blanket and got to his feet. "Let's go, then," he agreed.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The Sultan looked up from his breakfast as two of his men entered the dining room. Sunlight streamed in through the floor length windows and gleamed on the polished silver and tastefully patterned china of the elegantly set table. "Well?" he asked as he finished pouring himself a second cup of coffee and reached for another piece of toast from the silver rack beside his plate.
The taller of the two men spoke up. "The girl won't be doing anymore talking," he confirmed.
The Sultan nodded. "Good, good! And my little note for Detective Hutchinson?"
"All is just as you ordered, Sir," the taller man said.
The Sultan smiled. "Very well, you may go," he said waving the men away with a nonchalant gesture, his attention already focused once more on the open newspaper resting beside the toast rack on the spotless linen cloth.
Slater watched him a moment in silence, then could no longer contain himself. "Are you sure that package was a good idea?" he asked, banging his fork down on his plate. "I mean, if it were me you'd sent something like that to, I would be more likely to come after you with more determination than ever!"
The Sultan glanced up briefly, then turned his attention back to the article he'd been reading. "Perhaps that is my intention," he said.
Slater threw his napkin down next to his nearly untouched plate and got up to quickly cross the small space between him and the other man. "Are you mad?" he hissed. "Why stir up any more trouble at this point in the game?"
The Sultan slowly raised his eyes from his paper once more. "Do not presume to tell me what I should or should not do, Slater," he warned softly. "How I amuse myself is my own business. Yours is to come up with a new plan to get my operatives close enough to their target to do their job. Time grows short."
"I am aware of that! And, I've been thinking. If the Premier's widow were to come to the U.S. in person to escort her husband's body home, it would hardly be polite for the President to refuse her an audience while she was here."
The Sultan smiled again. "Yes, I like it. It's much simpler and thus more foolproof than our original plan. Tell me, who did you have in mind to portray the grieving widow?"
Slater smiled slightly. "Who else but your most loyal and best trained assassin? How soon can Rogue Star be packed? Perhaps she might enjoy a brief holiday in an exotic location?"
When Hutch pulled into the police garage, the Torino was still in its usual spot. He frowned at it as he pulled his car in beside it and shut off the engine. He knew of several officers who coveted Starsky's parking spot, and was amazed that no one had even mentioned yet moving his car to another part of the garage...until he realized that it had only been sitting there four days. It seemed more like four years!
He and Paula had spent the day talking to pushers, junkies, pimps, street people...anyone who might know anything at all about the Sultan's operation or where he might be holding Starsky, but without results. Either no one knew anything useful, or those who did were afraid to talk. Not that Hutch blamed them after what had happened to Carla.
They'd eaten lunch at Huggy's, but he had not had anything new for them either. "Man! I've never seen the people in this city buttoned up this tight before, Hutch. Creeps who'd sell out their own grandmother for a dollar clam up when it comes to the Sultan. I'm sorry." Huggy took it as almost a personal insult when he couldn't provide whatever information his friends needed.
Dobey had called just as they were leaving The Pits to let them know the autopsy results were in. Hutch had only stopped long enough to drop Paula off at his place—she was still wary of being seen down at the station—before going in. He got out of his car and headed for the elevator without looking at the Torino again.
The captain looked up as Hutch walked into his office. "Here's the report," he said as he shoved a folder across the desk toward the blonde officer. "Mostly, it just confirms what we already knew: Carla was shot in the head with a shotgun at close range. Needless to say, death was instantaneous." Hutch picked up the folder and flipped it open, wincing at the photos of the crime scene, which were on top.
"God," he breathed. "What a waste! When Starsky and I first met her, she was just a kid, Cap'n! This scared little runaway from Oklahoma. She never told me her story, but rumor had it she left home to get away from her mother's boyfriend. We tried more than once to get her off the streets, but I don't think she thought she deserved a better life.
"You know, even with as little as she had, she was always trying to help someone else. Last Christmas, Starsky and I bought her a coat, because she'd given the only one she had to a little old lady outside a homeless shelter." He closed the folder and dropped it onto the desk again. "I really want the guys who did this to her, Captain."
"I know you do, son," Dobey replied. "So do I. There's one other thing we found that wasn't in that report." He handed Hutch a small folded piece of paper. Hutch raised his eyebrows questioningly as he opened it. On it, in slightly smudged green ink, was a name: "Alan Slater". Hutch drew in his breath sharply.
"Where did this come from?" he asked in a tight voice.
"The coroner found it hidden in Carla's shoe." He got up quickly and came around his desk to catch Hutch by the arm before he could make it out the door. "Where are you going?" he demanded.
"To find that son of a bitch!" Hutch answered, his voice level but his blue eyes snapping with barely contained rage. "This confirms that he's involved with the Sultan! Carla was killed because she was trying to bring this to me."
"And do what when you find him? This still isn't exactly enough to take to Slater's superiors. And, with Slater's record, we're going to need a strong case if we want to be able to make it stick!"
Hutch didn't like it, but it made sense. Some of the tension went out of him again and Dobey let go of his arm. "So, what do you recommend, Captain?" he asked tiredly.
Dobey propped a hip on the corner of his desk. "I've already got the lab boys working on that envelope you found. Who knows? Maybe we'll get lucky and they'll be able to lift a print or two off of it. In the meantime, we keep doing what we're doing all ready. We stay out there and we keep our eyes and ears open until something breaks. And it will break, Ken. And I have a feeling it will be soon."
"I hope so, Cap," Hutch sighed. "Because this waiting is killing me!" He turned and slowly left the office again. Dobey watched him go then went back to work on the pile of paperwork that covered his desk.
"Hey!" one of the uniforms coming on duty called as he caught sight of Hutch crossing the garage toward his car. Hutch had seen the new officer around the squad room, but had not yet learned his name. "I noticed you had some oil in your spot after you left yesterday! You might want to have that checked out!"
"Thanks," Hutch answered him without stopping. "I will as soon as I get around to it."
"Well, if I were you, I wouldn't put it off too long!" the other officer called over his shoulder as he headed on towards the elevator.
Hutch sighed as he reached the LTD and stooped down to look underneath. Sure enough, a sizeable puddle of oil had stained the pavement of his spot. Oh, great. Just great.
He really wasn't in the mood to deal with such a mundane problem at the moment, and yet he had learned the hard way not to ignore any signs that his old car might be in imminent danger of breaking down. Again. So he resigned himself to a stop at Merle's garage on the way home.
"Any word on Starsky yet?" Merle asked quietly as Hutch tossed him his keys. Hutch only shook his head and then went in and sat down on the old faded green Naugahyde sofa in the waiting area while a tall black man he did not recognize put the LTD up on a rack and looked around underneath. A few minutes later, the unfamiliar mechanic joined him there.
"It wasn't anything serious," he said as returned the keys. "Just a loose nut on the oil pan. I tightened it up for you."
"Thanks. How much do I owe you?" Hutch asked him as he stood up, reaching for his wallet.
"Merle said to tell you no charge," the mechanic told him with a smile.
Hutch nodded, putting his wallet away again, then looked the man over more closely. He was dressed in grimy coveralls with the name "Brian" stitched above the pocket instead of the "Merle the Earl's Custom Cars" logo that Merle's employees usually wore. "I haven't seen you around here before. Are you new?"
The mechanic smiled again, an easy smile full of white teeth. "Nah, I usually work for a friend of Merle's in a garage over on the South side. Several of Merle's regulars have been out with the flu, so my boss sent me over to give him a hand for a few days."
"Oh. Well, thanks again." Hutch shook the man's hand, climbed into the LTD and left.
A couple of hours later, the same mechanic was sitting in a bar, winding down after work, when a man in a dark suit sat down on the stool next to him.
"Buy you a drink, buddy?" the man in the suit offered.
The mechanic glanced up and snorted. "Sure, why not?"
The suited man signaled the bartender and ordered two of whatever the mechanic was having. The bartender poured the drinks, took the suited man's money and moved to the other end of the bar to wait on other customers. The mechanic took a sip of his drink, then reached into a pocket of his coveralls and handed a small box to the man in the suit.
"Here's a present for you," he said.
Alan Slater nodded and slipped the box into his own pocket. "Thanks, B.B., I owe you," he said.
The mechanic snorted again and took another drink from his glass. "No problem! I just hope you know what you're doing."
"So do I!" Slater agreed, taking a deep swallow from his own glass. "We have to move quickly," he said then. "The Sultan's girlfriend flew out from LAX this afternoon. She'll be back again as the Premier's widow in a few days. We've got to get Detective Starsky out of the way before that happens."
Brian nodded. "We're still going with the same plan?"
"Yes. The big poker game is tomorrow night. I'll make sure that the way in is clear and the guard is out of the way. You take care of Starsky."
Brian nodded again and raised his glass. "You're the boss!" he said with a small smile. The two men finished their drinks and went their separate ways.
Chapter 9: A Brief Respite
Hutch slammed the car door as he got out in spite of the late hour. He was usually far more considerate of his neighbors, but tonight he just couldn't seem to care. He was too angry and frustrated and sick over what had happened to Carla and might be happening to his partner.
He'd intended to go straight home after the stop at Merle's garage, but had decided to go for a drive instead and had somehow found himself cruising his and Starsky's beat. He told himself he was doing it because it was a good idea to at least put in appearance, to give the criminal element in the area the illusion that it was business as usual. But the truth was, the more he thought of it, the less he could stand the idea of just going back and sitting around at his place waiting for the phone to ring.
Driving had finally proven not to be enough of a distraction either, and he had somehow found himself back at Huggy's again for another beer or two. There he'd planted himself in a back booth away from the crowd and more or less just stared off into space until Huggy had finally shocked him back to reality with the news that it was almost closing time. He'd started to argue, but a glance at his watch had confirmed his friend was telling him the truth.
"You okay to drive, Hutch?" Huggy had asked him gently as the tall blonde was stiffly unfolding his long limbs from the booth he'd been occupying the last several hours. "Maybe I should call you a cab or somethin'."
Hutch had looked at him with weary eyes. "Thanks, but I'm not drunk, Huggy," he'd protested tiredly. "In fact, I don't think I had more than two beers the whole time I was here!"
Huggy had glanced up at Diane, the bartender, and gotten a quick nod of confirmation. "Sorry," he'd said then, a bit sheepishly. "I just thought..."
"Yeah, I know," Hutch had smiled sadly, tossing a couple of dollars on the table to pay for his beers. "And I might have tried it, too...if I'd thought it would help. Thanks again, Hug." He'd patted his friend on the back and slowly headed out the door and on home. There was nowhere else to go.
Paula was sitting on the couch when he came in. She got up and came to meet him as he took off his jacket and shoulder holster and hung them behind the door. "Any new leads from the autopsy report?" she asked, squelching the impulse to grill him on where he'd been for so long.
He shook his head, seeming not to even be able to muster the energy to speak. He looked so beaten and lost that it almost broke her heart. "Dobey called a little while ago to let you know they hadn't been able to get anything off that envelope." Still no response. "I made dinner," she told him once he had finished hanging up his things and just stood there without moving for several seconds. "Are you hungry?" He shook his head again. "You need to eat, Ken," she scolded gently, reaching out to touch his cheek.
Hutch breathed a heavy sigh. "I know, Paul. I'll try." He followed her into the kitchen and sat down at the table, but really did not do more than push the food around on his plate. Paula doubted he even looked at it enough to know what it was.
Afterwards, Hutch helped her do the dishes. He had offered to do them, but she did not want to leave him in the kitchen alone. She tried to lighten the mood with small talk, but it all fell on deaf ears.
She still hadn't looked for a hotel. Neither of them had even thought about it. So, she finally quietly told him goodnight and went to bed again in his bedroom. Long after she'd turned out the light, she could hear him pacing in the other room.
Finally, unable to bear it anymore, she got up and padded softly on bare feet back into the living room. Ken had turned out the lights, but she could see him in the soft glow that came from the window, standing in the same place he had the night before, looking out at the moonlit ocean. And, just as she had then, she crossed the room and wrapped her arms around his waist from behind.
He was like a taut bowstring, so tense that he was literally shaking. It was no wonder he couldn't sleep! He couldn't keep on this way; it wasn't good for him. Then suddenly she thought of how she might help him to release some of the pent up emotions going on inside him.
The first kiss took him by surprise, but then his arms came up and pulled her closer as he kissed her back with equal feeling. "Come on, Ken," she whispered with a small smile, taking his hand. "Come to bed."
He followed her without a word back into the bedroom, but covered her hands with his own to stop her when she reached to remove his shirt. "Why are you doing this?" he asked her uncertainly.
She laughed softly. "Because you're wound so tight that you're about ready to explode!" she told him. "And...because I want to. I think maybe I have for a long time."
She reached for him again and this time he did not resist her. They undressed each other quickly and fell into the bed, where he made love to her with an almost desperate passion before falling into an exhausted sleep. She lay awake for some time, holding him tenderly, protectively as he slept. "Please, God," she whispered. "Let Starsky still be alive and, if it's not asking too much, let us find him soon! Ken can't take much more of this!"
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Starsky lay curled up on his side on the cot. His shoulder hurt so bad it was all he could do not to whimper and it was getting harder and harder even to think straight. He'd blacked out when the man with bad breath had re-dislocated his shoulder, and come to once more in the same room he'd been in before being questioned. He had no way of knowing how long he'd been out or how much time had passed since he'd woke up.
He hadn't yelled or pounded on the door this time. He hadn't been up to it. And no one had come, though hours had probably passed.
The drugged food he'd been given earlier had come up shortly after he'd come to. He'd gotten rid of it as far from the cot as he could then lain back down again, trying to ignore the smell. He felt like he ought to be hungry again, yet he wasn't. He was terribly thirsty though. "Probably dehydrated," he thought. "What if they've all just gone off and left me here?"
Starsky shivered involuntarily at the thought. He wouldn't have been able to break out of this room if he were healthy! And he sure as Hell didn't stand a chance in his present condition.
So he lay there in a ball and did his damnedest not to think too much about how badly he hurt or how thirsty he was or, least of all, what it meant if his captors truly had abandoned him here. This crappy little room could very well be his tomb.
Not that he was really all that afraid of dying. As much pain as he was in at the moment, it almost sounded good. But he couldn't do that to Hutch.
He could only imagine what his partner was going through right now. "If our places were reversed, I'd be a basket case!" So he guessed he'd just have to hang on.
"You'd better hurry though, partner! I'm pretty sure shock is settin' in and I don't know how much longer I can hold out!"
In spite of how late they'd gone to bed, Hutch woke up early the next morning. Paula was still there, a soft warm presence beside him in the bed. He watched her sleep, thinking again how lovely she was.
Funny how he'd never really noticed it before. Maybe he hadn't let himself notice, back in the days when they had first worked together. It would not have actually been against departmental regulations for them to have become involved back then, but it wasn't exactly encouraged either. And his recent divorce from Vanessa had probably left him "gun shy", so to speak. So perhaps he had subconsciously kept his distance.
Now, he wondered how he could ever have been so blind. She was truly beautiful, inside and out. He had no idea how he would have kept his sanity the last couple of days without her! But he did know this: once this thing was finally over and Starsky was home, safe, and the bad guys were in jail where they belonged, he had no intention of losing touch with her again.
He leaned over, intending to wake her up with a kiss, but just then the phone began to ring, so he rolled over instead and snatched up the receiver. "What?" he snapped, annoyed, but immediately forgot his irritation when he heard Huggy's voice on the other end of the line.
"Hutch! Hutch, is that you, my man?"
"Yeah," he answered, "What's up, Huggy?"
"I just got word that there's going to be a meeting between Big Eddie and some of the Sultan's top men! Seems Eddie's still refusing to join the Sultan's operation, but whether this meeting is to work things out between them or to have a final showdown no one can tell me! Either way, I thought you might want to know."
"You were right! Where and when is this going down?" Hutch asked as he got out of bed and started pulling on his pants. Paula was awake and had been listening to Hutch's end of the conversation. Now, she got up and began to dress as well.
"That's just it! It's supposed to be this morning at an abandoned warehouse off San Pedro!"
"Thanks, Hug! I knew you'd come through!" Hutch hung up the phone then picked it up again and began dialing rapidly.
"What is it?" Paula asked, as she hurriedly ran her brush through her hair before pulling it back into a ponytail. "What's happened?"
Hutch cradled the phone between his head and shoulder, trailing the cord behind him as he rummaged through his closet for a clean shirt. He found one and quickly buttoned it up, then turned to find his shoes.
"Huggy says a meeting is taking place this morning between some of the Sultan's top men and a local dealer known as Big Eddie. I'm calling the captain now."
Paula was pulling on her sneakers as Hutch finished the brief conversation with Dobey and hung up the phone again. "I'm coming, too, Ken," she said then.
"It could be dangerous," he cautioned.
"I know," she said as she reached for her suitcase. "But, then again, so can I!" She strapped on the shoulder holster she had pulled from her bag, quickly checking her gun to make sure it was loaded before tucking it into the holster beneath her jacket.
"Paula, you're my kind of girl!" Hutch laughed as he grabbed up his own jacket and holstered weapon on their way out the door.
The warehouse was a two-story building with boarded up windows located in the same part of town where Carla used to make her living. Hutch thought of her briefly as Paula circled the block and found a spot in the alley that ran behind it to park. They had decided at the last minute to take Paula's car instead of his because the battered yellow LTD was so well known in the area.
"Looks quiet," Paula said as she shut off the engine. "So, do we wait for the back-up or check things out on our own?" Hutch was already climbing out of the car. "I guess that answers my question," Paula smiled to herself as she got out also and softly shut the door.
They both drew their weapons and moved slowly up the alley towards the backdoor of the warehouse, carefully scanning the area as they went for any sign of the Sultan's or Big Eddie's men. Nothing moved, not even an alley cat, among the stacks of trash that lined the alley. They reached the door without incident.
"Do we go in?" Paula asked, but, before Ken could answer her, shots rang out from inside the building. Hutch raised his gun and dropped into a crouch as he pushed open the door and ducked inside. Paula was right behind him, looking back over her shoulder to make sure no one was coming in behind them from the alley.
The door led into what was once an office. A dilapidated desk still occupied a corner of the room and a man wearing the uniform of a security guard was in the chair behind it, slumped over onto its dusty surface. Hutch crossed the room quickly to check for a pulse and shook his head. The man's body was still warm, so he had not been dead very long.
He had turned to say as much to Paula when she suddenly brought her gun up and cried out a warning. "Behind you!" He ducked instinctively just as the two men she had seen through the office's other door fired several shots their way. They ran behind a pile of old crates as Paula returned their fire from behind the cover of a filing cabinet. They had spotted her and Hutch at almost the same moment as she had seen them and had already had their guns out. If not for Paula's warning, they would have had Hutch cold.
Taking advantage of the momentary break in the men's fire, Hutch crawled across to join Paula behind the file cabinet. "That was closer than I like it!" he panted, his heart still racing. "Thanks, Paula."
She nodded, still scanning the large dim space beyond the office door for any signs of movement. "You're welcome. Do you think its safe to go out there?"
Hutch grinned and shook his head. "No...but I'm going anyway. Cover me."
They both scurried from the shelter of the filing cabinet to that of the doorframe. Hutch looked and listened a moment more, then ran in a crouch out the door for the cover of another stack of crates that lay a little closer to the office than the one that the bad guys were hiding behind. They got off two shots as he ran, one kicking up the dust from the floor only about a foot away from him. Paula fired back and Hutch heard a muffled grunt from behind the other stack of crates. One of her shots must have found its target.
He glanced back towards the office, got a nod from Paula, and started forward once more, sticking to the cover of the crates as he inched closer to the other men's position. All of a sudden, a third man they had not known was there appeared from behind another pile of crates off to his right, a shotgun tucked up against his shoulder and aimed at Hutch's head.
Hutch dove for the floor, but the other man had already fired. The roar of the shotgun was deafening in the closed space. Hutch gasped as the edge of the blast caught him, tearing into his arm. He hit the floor and lay there, stunned.
He heard Paula screaming his name, but couldn't answer her. The fall had knocked his breath out and the pain in his arm was causing black spots to dance at the edges of his vision. He fought with all he had not to pass out. The man who had shot him had ducked back out of sight behind the crates.
Taking advantage of the momentary distraction, one of the first men decided to make a move. He rushed out from behind his cover firing shot after shot into the office doorway. Paula ducked and was forced to pull back away from the doorway, caught off guard and unable to return his fire. Hutch turned his head and saw his Magnum lying on the floor a few feet away. Despite the pain it caused him, he struggled to raise his injured arm to reach for it, hoping to help Paula.
All at once, a fourth man appeared as if out of nowhere. He fired his weapon and brought down the man who had gone after Paula, then turned to look at Hutch. To Ken's surprise, he recognized him. "Brian?" he asked, confused. From the corner of his vision, he saw Paula at the door again, her gun up and ready to fire.
"Don't shoot!" he called. "I think he may be on our side!" He looked up again at the familiar face. What in the world was a mechanic from Merle's garage doing here?
"It's all right, Agent Hamilton," the man called. "As Officer Hutchinson told you, I'm one of the good guys, though I'm not exactly who he thinks I am. My name is Brian Becker and I'm with the Secret Service."