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: phantomgiggler221@yahoo.com

Part 1

In the Shadow of the Serpent

by

Margaret Sinclair and Trish Boulding

Part 2

Chapter 10: Becker

The officers from Metro Division had arrived and were securing the scene. Dobey had taken one look at Hutch's arm and immediately called for an ambulance. The man Paula had hit in the firefight had already been loaded into it and was waiting to be taken to the hospital while the paramedics worked on Hutch's arm. The blast from the shotgun had ripped away a huge section of skin from his upper arm, but had thankfully missed the bone or any major arteries.

Becker had gotten the drop on the man who had shot Hutch and knocked him out with the butt of his gun. That suspect had come to again and was now sitting cuffed in the back of a squad car. The bodies of the security guard and the man Becker had shot were on their way to the morgue.

After cuffing the two suspects and moving them to the office, Becker had sat with Paula while she tended Hutch. As they'd waited for Dobey and the others to arrive, he had begun to explain to them both who he was and what he was doing there.

It turns out he was Slater's partner. He knew about Slater's involvement with the Sultan, but claimed that Hutch and Paula were mistaken about his motives for it, that Slater was really working undercover to bring the Sultan down. He also claimed Slater had not been responsible for killing Paula's partner. He had repeated this story to Dobey when he'd gotten there.

Paula was furious. "You're not buying any of this rubbish, are you, Captain Dobey?" she protested, glaring at Becker. "Tell him, Ken. Tell him he's lying!" Hutch started to shrug, then thought better of it; despite the pain medication he'd been given, his arm still hurt like Hell.

Dobey, Paula, and Becker stood near where Hutch sat on the back of the ambulance. The paramedics had cleaned and bandaged the wound, but a doctor would have to remove the shot and surgery might be needed on the damaged muscle. They had already started an I.V. and would soon take him to the emergency room.

Dobey looked at his wounded officer, then back at Paula and Becker. "I don't think this is the time or place for a discussion," he said. "Let's get Hutch patched up, then I'll be willing to listen to both sides of this. But not before!"

Paula opened her mouth to protest further, then shut it again as she looked at Hutch's pale face. Seeing him go down had shaken her up more than she liked to admit, even to herself. Dobey was right, getting him to the hospital came first. But then Becker had a lot to answer for.

She wished she could ride with Ken in the ambulance, but she knew there wasn't room, so she followed in her car. On the way, she started to cry so hard that she thought she might have to pull over. By the time they reached the hospital, though, she was in control of herself again. She checked her face in the mirror, wiped her eyes and blew her nose on a tissue, then hurried into the E.R.

Hutch had already been taken back to a treatment room. She sat next to Captain Dobey in the waiting room, staying as far away from Becker as she could manage. What seemed like hours later, a doctor finally came out to talk to them.

"How is he?" Dobey asked after the doctor had introduced himself to them.

"Very lucky. He lost a good deal of blood, but not enough to require a transfusion at this time. I removed all the shot from the wound and stitched it closed. He shouldn't need any further surgery, but the arm should remain completely immobilized for several days, until the stitches come out, and even then he should limit his use of it until it fully heals. The muscle may be weak for sometime, but he should not have any permanent impairment."

"Thank God!" Paula breathed, relieved.

Dobey grinned and shook the doctor's hand. "Amen! And thank you, Doctor Anderson."

"You're welcome. He wants to go home and I'm willing to let him. But someone else will need to drive him and, if possible, he should have someone stay with him overnight as well."

"I'll do both of those things for him," Paula spoke up. "When can he leave?"

"Right now. I've already signed the release papers. Watch him carefully, Miss Hamilton. He will need to rest as much as possible or he could start bleeding again and he could still go into shock. Also, the dressing on his arm should be changed daily. If there's any sign of infection or if he should run a fever over a hundred and one degrees, he will need to come back to the E.R. right away."

"I understand," Paula said. "I promise to take good care of him."

"I'm sure you will," he smiled. "And, if I am not mistaken, here he comes now."

Hutch felt silly riding in a wheelchair, but it was hospital policy so he had not argued. The nurse's aide pushed him to where Dobey, Paula and Becker were waiting for him. He smiled as Paula took his hand in hers.

"How do you feel?" she asked him.

"A little groggy and a bit silly being pushed around like an invalid, but otherwise not too bad." He answered her honestly. "Whatever they gave me for the pain is pretty good stuff!"

"That will wear off in another hour or so," the doctor warned. "By then, you will need to have your prescription filled. The instructions will say to take one pill every four hours, but you can double that if you need to. Feel free to call me if you have any problems or questions. The number is on your discharge papers."

"Thank you, Doctor Anderson," Hutch told him.

The doctor patted him on his good shoulder. "You take care and behave yourself, Ken. No offense, but I don't want to see you back in here again!" Hutch laughed and the busy doctor went back to his other patients.

"All right, you heard the man, Hutchinson, and I'm making it official. As of now, you are off the duty roster!" Dobey told him sternly.

Hutch had pretty much expected that, but he still didn't like it. "But, Cap!" he protested. "What about Starsky? He's still out there somewhere!"

"Why don't you ask Becker where he is," Paula said quietly. "I bet he knows!"

"I really must be out of it!" Hutch thought to himself. He had not even thought of that. They all turned and looked at Becker expectantly.

"Well?" Dobey barked, "Do you?"

Becker looked around at where they were. "As I believe you stated earlier, Captain, this is neither the time nor the place for us to be discussing this. Officer Hutchinson needs to be taken home and I need to get back to my office. In case you have all forgotten, the President will be here in less than 72 hours and I still have a lot of work to do before then."

Dobey was starting to get angry. "First, Slater stonewalls us, and now you!" he snarled. "I'm beginning to believe Agent Hamilton was right about you two after all!"

"I don't need to explain myself or my actions to any of you!" Becker shot back. "This is a Secret Service case and all information about it is on a strictly need to know basis. And, right now, none of you need to know. Should that change, I will fill you in at that time. Now, if you will excuse me?"

He started to walk away, but Hutch caught his arm with his good hand. "Not so fast, Becker. You won't blow me off! This is my partner we're talking about here! If you know something about where he is or what has happened to him, I have a right to know."

"Forgive me, Hutchinson, but at the moment you are in no shape to do anything for your partner, even if I were to tell you where he is. But I promise you that Slater is doing all he can to see that he is returned safely."

"So, the Sultan does have him!" Hutch responded. "Where? Tell me!"

But Becker shook his head. "I'm sorry, Hutchinson, I really am." He looked at Dobey once more. "I will contact you if you or your department can help in any way." He turned and left before Dobey could say anything in return.

"Are you just going to let him walk away?" Paula cried.

"What can I do?" Dobey asked her. He sighed heavily and gently gripped Hutch's shoulder. "Go home, Ken," he told him. "I'll keep you up to date."

"Not that there has been a whole lot to tell!" Hutch shot back, then was immediately contrite. "I'm sorry, Cap'n. This isn't your fault."

Dobey smiled. "I think you're entitled, Ken. Take him home, Paula. And thank you for taking care of him."

The nurse's aide pushed Hutch out the door and helped him into the car. Neither he nor Paula said much on the ride back to his place. What could they say?

Paula helped him up the stairs and got him settled on the couch in front of the television. "I'm going to go get your prescription filled," she said. "Is there anything you need before I go?"

He shook his head. He could not believe that after all they'd been through they were still no closer to finding Starsky. No, that wasn't true. They had taken two prisoners at the warehouse. Maybe Dobey would learn something from them during questioning. It frustrated him not to be able to be there, helping.

After Paula had gone, he sat and stared at the midday news without really seeing it. Then the phone began to ring. His hopes rose as he reached to pick it up. Maybe Huggy had some new information for them. Or perhaps Dobey had got something out of one of the prisoners. His good mood evaporated when he heard the voice on the other end.

"Hutchinson? May I come over?"

"What do you want, Becker? To tell me again how sorry you are that you can't tell me anything?"

"I really think you will want to hear this. I've known Slater a long time and I won't do anything to betray him, but he may be in way over his head on this one.

"I couldn't tell you everything in front of your captain, but what you said at the hospital got to me. As Starsky's partner, you should know the whole story. Just in case this thing blows up in Alan's face."

"You've got my attention," Hutch said. "How soon can you be here?"

"Ten minutes."

"All right, come on. Before Paula comes back from the pharmacy."

Almost exactly ten minutes later, Becker knocked on Hutch's door. The blond got up with a grunt from the sofa and let him in. "You'd better make this quick," he told Becker as he led him back into the living room. "My pain medication is wearing off and I'm not in a very good mood."

"I'll try, but it's a long story."

"Then you had better start talking."

Becker took a seat on the sofa and Hutch sat down beside him. He would have preferred to remain standing, but he felt a little woozy and didn't like the idea of passing out in front of Becker. The Secret Service agent took a folder out of the briefcase he'd been carrying and drew a photo out of it and laid it on the sofa between them.

"Who's that?" Hutch asked, picking it up.

"The man known as the Sultan. You don't need to know his real name."

"He looks younger than I thought he'd be," Hutch said, studying the photograph with interest. The man in the picture couldn't be much over thirty. He had striking features with dark hair and eyes and an olive complexion. "He also looks Middle-Eastern. Any chance he actually is some sort of Arabian royalty?"

Becker shook his head. "He is from a very wealthy family, though. But I guess not wealthy enough for his tastes. Or perhaps just not generous enough in spreading their wealth around to suit him. Either way, he has worked very hard to amass a fortune of his own, both by legitimate and illegitimate means, and been quite successful at it. He not only deals in drugs but just about anything else you can imagine."

"How'd Slater get involved with him?" Hutch asked, handing the photo back. "And don't try to sell that crap again about him being undercover and all."

"You're right. Slater was working for him. But not for profit.

"Alan has a son, Grant, who served in 'Nam. His plane was shot down just before the end of his second tour of duty and Grant was never found. He was listed MIA, but Alan later learned through certain channels that Grant was alive and being held in a POW camp along with several other American prisoners.

"He went to the Administration that was in office at the time and told them this and requested that they start some kind of negotiation to get Grant and the others back. But they wouldn't do it. They said that the political atmosphere wasn't right just then to try opening diplomatic relations again and that they were sorry, etc., etc.

"Alan then asked to be allowed to organize a covert military operation to go in and get his son and the others, and was again turned down. The Watergate scandal had just broken and those in charge had other things on their minds than a few missing soldiers."

"So Slater went to the Sultan for help," Hutch said quietly. "It makes sense. A man like that would have connections all over the world and perhaps even his own little private army somewhere."

Becker nodded. "Something like that. The Sultan agreed to help him...but at a price, naturally."

"The counterfeit plates."

"You've got it. Slater stole them and gave them to the Sultan in exchange for him using his resources to rescue Grant. But the Sultan had other ideas.

"He foresaw the usefulness of having a Secret Service agent at his disposal. He strung Alan along as long as he could with tidbits about his son's whereabouts and plans to get him out, then, when Slater began to catch on to that, the Sultan had Paula's partner killed and framed Slater for it. He's used that to blackmail him ever since. That and the slender hope that he still might be able to help Grant."

"How does Starsky come into it?" Hutch asked.

"At first, he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. But then, when the Sultan's men uncovered the connection between you and Agent Hamilton and learned that she was coming to LA to get your help in making her case against Slater, the Sultan decided he might have other uses.

"Also, I believe he holds some sort of a grudge against you for a large drug bust the two of you helped bring about a couple of months ago. It seems it seriously delayed his plans to take over the West coast and this is a guy who's big on revenge."

"So I've noticed," Hutch said. "So. What do you and Slater have planned now?"

"Getting your partner out of harm's way is on the top of the list. Slater doesn't want any more innocent blood on his hands. In fact, if all goes well, Starsky could be home tomorrow."

Hutch caught his breath. "Tell me the plan," he said. "I want to help."

Becker looked him over pointedly. "You've got to be kidding! You can barely stand up!"

"Tell me or I go to my captain with everything you just told me and he goes to your boss."

Becker shook his head. "You're bluffing. You wouldn't endanger your partner like that."

"The way I see it, Starsky couldn't be in any more danger than he is now. That is, if all this is true. How do I know you're not lying to me, Becker? Like Paula said?"

"I saved your bacon back in that warehouse, Hutchinson. Yours and Hamilton's. That ought to be good for something."

Hutch shook his head. "You could just as easily have set us up, just like Slater set up Paula's partner."

"I told you Alan didn't do that! It was the Sultan!"

"It still worked out awfully well for him though, didn't it? The only man who has any hard evidence against him is killed before he can make his case."

"If that were true, why aren't you and Hamilton dead right now?" Becker asked quietly. "I've had plenty of opportunities to do it, even before you knew I was involved. Yesterday when I supposedly tightened the nut on your oil pan down at Merle's, I could just as easily have cut your brake lines or planted a bomb. But what I was actually doing was removing the tracking device the Sultan's man had put on your car."

Hutch reeled back, surprised. "God, and I led them straight to Carla! Who put it on there, Becker?" Hutch thought a moment, and then it came to him like a bolt out of the blue. "Gary Marshall. That slimy little worm! He did it that day I saw him out in front of Huggy's, didn't he?"

Becker nodded. Hutch couldn't sit still anymore. He got to his feet and began to pace. "All right, Becker. I'm beginning to believe you. But I still want to go with you tonight."

"No way! Look at yourself, Hutchinson! If you insist on doing this and you collapse out there, you could end up getting all of us killed!"

Hutch shook his head. "I'll manage, Becker. I have in worse shape than this. Because whether or not I believe everything you've told me here, I still don't trust you. Not with my partner's life. So, am I in or not?"

Becker sighed. "I suppose you're in. But I really wish you'd reconsider. For Starsky's sake if not for your own."

"Tell me the plan," Hutch insisted stubbornly. So Becker told him. Hutch sat down again and listened carefully. He'd have to conserve all the strength he had if he was going to do this.

The pain medication they'd given him at the hospital had worn off completely, and his arm hurt so much it was making him sick. Maybe Becker was right; maybe this was a bad idea. But no matter how bad off he was, he still had to be in better shape than Starsky. God only knew what they were doing to his partner!

No, he had to go. If he didn't and something went wrong, he'd never forgive himself. And if he did and they all were killed, at least then he and Starsky would go out together, just liked they'd always joked they would. Butch and Sundance. Me and Thee.

"Hold on, buddy!" he thought as Becker began pulling the plans for a large house from his briefcase. "I'm coming for you!"

Chapter 11: Mind Games

Starsky was drifting in and out of a pain-induced daze when the sound of a key turning in the lock of his door brought him fully alert. With an effort that took almost all he had, he pushed himself up on his elbow on the cot and managed to sit up. He'd rather have stood up, but he knew that was beyond him at the moment.

The man who'd interrogated him and another he didn't recognize cautiously opened the door and entered the room. The sight of their drawn guns almost made him laugh—in the shape he was in, what the Hell did they think he was going to do?

"Hey! Look who's come to visit me!" he quipped. "And you've brought a friend. Well, the more the merrier! What's up, guys? Is this business or did ya' just want another look at me in my underwear?"

"Told you he was funny," the first man said to the one who'd come in with him.

"Yeah, he's a laugh riot!" the second man replied sarcastically. "Ought to go on t.v. That is, if he ever gets out of here again!"

The two men put their guns away and crossed the room to take Starsky between them and roughly pull him to his feet. He bit back a scream as the movement jarred his abused shoulder. He hated having to lean on them, but, if he hadn't, he would have fallen on his face.

"Careful!" the second man warned sharply. "The boss wants to talk to him, and that means he has to be conscious!"

Starsky was too busy not blacking out to come up with a snappy comeback. The two men half-led, half-carried him out of the room and up a stairway. They passed through what looked like a storage room and walked for what seemed like a mile or more down a long hallway until they finally reached their destination: an elegant dining room.

After being so long in the dim basement, the bright sunlight streaming through the floor-length windows was enough to temporarily blind him, so he couldn't make out too much detail at first. The two men holding him up dragged him around to a place at one side of the table and shoved a chair under him. Starsky sank into it gratefully, wheezing like an old man.

Slowly, his eyes adjusted to the light and he saw that the table in front of him had been set for a meal; he must have been brought in near the end, as most of the serving dishes were nearly empty. Any other time, the food might have looked good to him, especially considering how long it had been since he had eaten. But in his present condition, it only made him feel nauseous.

A man with dark hair and intense dark eyes was seated across from him. It was the same man who'd watched and given the orders while Starsky was being questioned earlier. "I'm assumin' you must be this Sultan I've heard so much about," Starsky said.

The man smiled. "There are some who call me that," he replied. "I'm pleased you could join me, Detective Starsky. I was just about to have dessert. Would you like something?"

"A glass of water would be nice," Starsky told him hoarsely. The Sultan gestured to one of the servants who were clearing the table and he brought Starsky a glass and a pitcher of water and set it beside the empty plate in front of him. Starsky reached for it with his good hand and managed to fill the glass without spilling any of it on the tablecloth, though his hand shook terribly. He drained the glass in one long gulp and filled it again.

"Thank you," he said when the second glass was half-gone as well.

"You're welcome. So, you must be wondering why I've brought you here."

"Is this a guessing game? Or were you plannin' on telling me?" Starsky shot back. The water had helped to revive him a little and he was able to sit up a bit straighter in his chair.

The Sultan chuckled. "Ah! I admire a man with a quick wit! Yes, Detective, I was planning to tell you. You see, I have followed the activities of you and your partner for some time now, and I have come to the conclusion that you are a man of rare talent. I believe that talent is being wasted in your current career, so I would like to invite you to come to work for me instead."

Starsky snorted a laugh. "You're kidding, right?"

"Not at all. I believe you would do very well in my organization and that we could both find our association to be very profitable."

"Okay, say I were to even consider this. What about my partner? You said it yourself: I'm only one half of a team. Are you gonna offer him a job, too?"

"I had considered it, but I'm afraid your partner has already formed a new alliance on his own."

"What are you talkin' about?" Starsky asked, frowning. "What new alliance?"

The Sultan gestured again and one of the men who'd brought Starsky in turned and took a large manila envelope from a drawer and handed it to the Sultan, who in turn passed it across the table to Starsky. "What's this?" he asked without opening it.

"Why don't you see for yourself?"

Starsky lifted the flap and cautiously put his hand inside and drew out a small stack of black and white photographs. He looked at them and was surprised to see that they were all of Hutch and some woman he didn't recognize.

"Her name is Paula Hamilton," the Sultan told him as he slowly sorted through the stack. "I believe Detective Hutchinson once worked with her, back when he was assigned to the City Division."

"She's a cop?" Starsky asked, surprised. He looked at the woman in the pictures more closely. She was tall and blond like Hutch. And pretty. She looked like a class act.

"Not anymore. She works for the Federal Bureau of Investigation now."

"Wow! She's a lot better looking than any of the Feds I've ever worked with!" Starsky declared.

"There's that wit again!" the Sultan chuckled. "Yes, she is attractive, isn't she?"

Starsky looked up from the photos and saw a strange gleam in the other man's eyes. "So, Hutch called up an old friend in the Bureau to help him look for me. How does that relate to what we were talkin' about before?"

"I'm afraid you are mistaken. Agent Hamilton was the one who contacted Hutchinson, not the other way around. Her partner, Derek Hunter, was killed in the line of duty a little over a year ago. I think perhaps she has finally found someone to replace him."

Starsky frowned. "No way! You don't know nothin' about Hutch if you believe that!"

"Really? Look at those pictures again, Detective Starsky. Use that talent of yours that's made you so good at what you do. What does it look like to you?"

Starsky didn't want to, but he couldn't help himself. He flipped through the photos again more slowly this time. The first showed Hutch and the woman together in what looked like a bar. With a shock, he suddenly recognized that it was The Pits. She and Hutch were hugging each other while Huggy grinned off to one side.

The next showed them sitting in a booth with a drink in front of them both. Hutch's back was turned to the camera, but you could see the woman's face. She was smiling as she reached across to touch Hutch's hand.

Others showed them riding in Hutch's car, going in and out of Hutch's apartment together, eating a meal at the table in his kitchen, etc. In almost all of them, Hutch was smiling.

"Who took these?" Starsky asked as he tossed the pictures back onto the table and lifted the glass again for another drink.

"That is not important. What is is what these pictures show. Pardon me for saying so, Detective Starsky, but your partner does not exactly look distraught over your disappearance."

"What's he supposed to do? Cry all the time?"

"Perhaps you are right. A man does not always wear his heart on his sleeve. Oh, by the way, did I mention that she was staying with him?"

"That still doesn't mean anything. They're old friends. I've even stayed at his place from time to time."

The Sultan gestured again and the man took another photograph from the drawer and passed it to the Sultan who handed it to Starsky. "They say each picture is worth a thousand words," he commented softly. "What does that one say to you?"

This picture was not like the others. The quality was coarse and grainy, but still plenty clear enough for Starsky to see what it was. Hutch and the woman were in his apartment again, standing by the window that looked out over the beach. Only this time, the woman was wearing a nightgown and Hutch had his arms around her, kissing her. Starsky didn't want it to, but it hurt.

"Well?" the Sultan asked softly.

Starsky dropped the picture back onto the table. "Take me back to my cell," he said.

"What about my offer? Aren't you even going to consider it?"

"Go to Hell," Starsky told him. The man's cruel laughter followed him down the hall as the guards carried him back towards the basement.

Once he was alone, Starsky curled up once more into a ball on the cot. Throughout this nightmare, the one thing that had kept him going had been the thought that, somewhere out there, Hutch was looking for him. Now he felt as if a dark pit had opened in his soul.

What was Hutch doing? That picture had to be some kind of a hoax. But, what if it wasn't? What if he got out of here, only to find that his partner wasn't his partner anymore? He kept seeing all those pictures of them together in his mind: Hutch buying her a drink at The Pits, Hutch smiling as they left his apartment, Hutch kissing her...What if Hutch wasn't even looking for him anymore?

"What happened to 'me and thee', buddy?" he whispered.

He and Hutch were so close, closer than he'd ever been to anyone else in his entire life. Hutch was not only his partner but his best friend as well. Their personalities and strengths each complimented the other's perfectly.

There were people who'd speculated that something more than just friendship was going on between them, but it wasn't like that. He loved Hutch like a brother; had shared more with him than he'd ever shared with his real brother. He and Nicky had grown so far apart that they hardly even spoke to each other anymore.

Starsky felt tears stinging his eyes and didn't try to stop them from falling. It wasn't so much the idea that Hutch and Paula were lovers that got to him as the thought that this going on now, while he was stuck in this crappy little hole in the ground. How could Hutch do it? How could he be out enjoying himself?

If Hutch were missing, he'd have been going nuts. He would have been out there combing every inch of every rat hole in the city looking for him, not sitting at Huggy's drinking a beer. And he sure wouldn't have been out on a date!

No, that picture had to be some sort of fake. Either that, or it didn't tell the whole story. But that still didn't stop it from hurting.

Chapter 12: A Falling Out

Paula had never been so furious in her life. Half an hour had passed since she had come back from the pharmacy and found Becker sitting in Hutch's living room, and she still hadn't cooled down. She couldn't believe that Ken had decided to work with him and Slater! After all she'd told him about them!

Becker had left shortly after she arrived, to "give them some privacy to work things out between them," he'd said. She had slammed the door behind him then turned on Ken.

"What was he doing here?" she'd asked indignantly as she'd stormed back into the living room.

"Paula, why don't you go get yourself something to drink and sit down," he'd answered her. "I need to talk to you."

"Damn right you do!" she'd muttered, but had done as he'd asked. She had poured herself a glass of wine, anticipating that she was going to want it, and taken him a glass of water to take his pills with. He'd taken a double dose then launched without preamble into his story. He'd told her all about Slater's son and the plan to rescue Starsky that evening.

"And I still say that it's rubbish!" she'd shouted. "It's a scam, Ken. It has to be."

"I only said that his story made sense! I didn't say I completely believed him or that I trusted him!" Ken had returned tiredly. "In fact, that's why I have to go! I don't trust either him or Slater with Starsky's safety!"

She'd taken his hand. "And what about your safety?" she'd asked. "What if your arm starts to bleed again or something while you're out there tonight? You heard what the doctor said! You can't help Starsky or anybody else if you put yourself back in the hospital!"

He'd rubbed his eyes as he'd struggled up off the sofa. "I'm going, Paula," he'd said in a tone that didn't invite any more argument. "I have to. Can you understand that?"

She'd nodded. "Oh, I understand," she'd told him with a sigh of resignation. "I just don't like it!"

Ken had gone to lie down for a while. He would need all the rest he could get if he was to stand any chance at all of being able to pull off this stunt tonight. Paula still sat on the sofa, sulking.

Becker would be back for Ken at seven o'clock. For some time, she had debated with herself whether she should just pack her things and leave before then but had finally decided that that would not be fair. Even if she were angry with Ken, she had promised she would stay with him tonight. And that was her intention. If Ken or Becker didn't like it, that was just too bad.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The Sultan looked up from the book he'd been reading as Slater entered his study. "I was pleased to hear that you will be joining us for my little get together this evening," he said. "Though, I must admit, I was also surprised. You usually avoid being seen with me in public." He was seated in a chair before an impressive fireplace.

Slater took a seat in another chair nearby. "That's true. But an evening of poker just sounded good to me," he answered casually. "And working for you has tended to isolate me from my normal social contacts."

"Then I'm gratified that I could afford you this opportunity for some much needed recreation. Is all in readiness for Rogue Star's meeting with your esteemed President?" the Sultan asked.

"I spoke with her this morning by phone and she said that she's ready on her end. I still have a few lose ends to tie up here, but I assure you everything will be in place when the time comes," Slater replied.

"Good, good," the Sultan nodded. "I feel I owe you an apology for our disagreement before. You have been a man of your word and a valuable asset to me."

Slater frowned. "We both know that I would not be doing this if it weren't for my son. I served this country loyally for more than twenty years. But I find it difficult to continue to uphold and preserve any government that would tell me that my son is expendable, simply because those in office are afraid of ruffling a few political feathers."

"Their loss has been my gain, then," the Sultan said; then he leaned forward in his chair to place his hand on Slater's arm. "You will see your son again, Slater. I promise you, I will fulfill my part of our bargain."

"That's what you've been saying for over a year now!" Slater returned vehemently, pulling his arm away.

"I know, I know," the Sultan soothed him. "I'm sorry it is taking so long. These things are complicated."

"That's basically what they told me at the Pentagon!" Slater said bitterly, getting up from his chair and crossing to lean on the mantel, his face turned away from the other man. "I...I can't help but wonder what he's going through!" he whispered brokenly. "It wakes me up nights sometimes." He turned to face the Sultan once more. "I lost his mother when he was only a kid. Grant's all I have in the world!"

"I am aware of these things," the man known as the Sultan said softly. "That is why I know I can trust you. You will never betray me as long as I am your only hope of ever seeing your son again alive."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Somehow, Ken had managed to change out of the torn and bloodstained remains of the shirt he'd been wearing that morning and into a clean one without her help. Paula winced just at the sight of it in the trashcan; it was definitely beyond repair. Thank God Ken wasn't!

"Becker will be here in an hour," Hutch commented quietly as he finished doing up the last of his shirt buttons one-handed. Even the small exertion of changing had left him pale and sweating. Paula watched him as he struggled first into his shoulder holster and then back into the sling they'd given him at the hospital and wondered how in the world he thought he'd get through the next few hours. But she knew better than to try to dissuade him.

"Would you like something to eat before he gets here?" she asked him instead.

Ken stopped what he was doing long enough to glance up at her in surprise. It was not at all what he had expected her to say. "Yeah," he said then, "That might be a good idea. Thanks."

She got up from where she had been sitting on the couch and went into the kitchen. He could hear her opening cabinets and then she reappeared in the doorway. "Hope you're in the mood for canned soup," she told him dryly. "That's about all you have out there."

Hutch blushed slightly. "Yeah. Well, with everything that's been going on this week, I haven't had a chance to get to the store. Soup sounds good. Hope I at least have some crackers to go with it?"

"You do," she answered him shortly. She went back into the kitchen. He sat down on the couch and closed his eyes again briefly as he listened to her getting out a pan and running the can opener.

He must have dozed off for a moment, because the next thing he knew, Paula was sitting next to him putting a mug of hot soup into his good hand. A tray on the coffee table held a second mug for her, a plate with a few sandwiches on it, an open box of crackers and a couple of cans of soda. "This is nice. Thank you," he told her again after he had taken a sip from his mug. She nodded but didn't say anything.

They ate in silence, Paula's anger and hurt like a third person sitting between them on the couch, keeping them from being able to talk to each other. Hutch couldn't blame her. No matter what his reasons for it, his willingness to work with the men she thought had arranged her partner's murder must feel like a slap in her face. And yet, she had still cared enough to worry whether or not he got something to eat before he went out and to put his soup in a mug instead of a bowl so that he wouldn't have to juggle a spoon.

Becker knocked on the door just as Paula was taking the dishes back out to the kitchen. "Are you sure I can't talk you out of this?" he asked as Hutch let him in.

"I don't think that's possible," Paula answered for Ken as she came back out of the kitchen.

"Then can I at least persuade you to stay in the car? If you were to go down in there...!"

"It's all or nothing, Becker," Hutch told him as he worked to get his good arm to go into the sleeve of his jacket. It kept sliding off of his other shoulder. "That was our deal. Either I'm in this thing all the way or I'm on the phone to Dobey right now!" He still couldn't get his jacket to cooperate. Unable to stand it anymore, Paula finally took it away from him and held it for him.

Becker stared. "Look at you, Hutchinson! You can't even put your coat on by yourself! This is crazy!"

Paula suddenly whirled to face him. "Shut up, Becker! Just lay off him or I'll put your arm in a sling!"

Becker just looked at her with his mouth open a long moment then suddenly began to grin. "I bet you could, too!" he laughed. "Maybe you ought to go along with us as back up!" he added jokingly.

"As a matter of fact," she informed him coolly, "I've already decided that I will."

It was Hutch's turn to stare. "Now wait a minute, Paula..." he began.

"Don't you dare try to talk me out of this!" she interrupted him. "I don't trust this Bozo and his slime ball partner with your safety any more than you trust them with Starsky's. I'm in, too, or I'll get on the phone to Dobey and blow the whole deal myself. And, unlike you, Ken, I'm not bluffing."

Becker looked at Hutch and Hutch shrugged his good shoulder. "You heard the lady," he said.

"God help us!" Becker muttered under his breath as they all headed out the door.

Chapter 13: The Best Laid Plans

The Sultan's "little gathering" was well under way. The party had begun in the formal dining room, where the servants had served a sumptuous seven-course meal to their employer's forty of fifty guests. Then the ladies had all gone into one room to visit and listen to a string quartet while the men all retired to the Sultan's study to play serious poker.

At the moment, Slater guessed there must be at least ten thousand dollars on his table alone, and yet for most of the players present that amount was next to nothing. "Carla was right," Slater thought as he looked around him. Many people, both in LA and across the nation, would have been shocked if they'd known the names of some of the men sitting in this room this evening.

Slater leaned back in his chair and surreptitiously checked his watch. It was almost eight o'clock. He folded his hand and excused himself from his table.

~~~

A few miles after they'd left the main road, Becker switched the headlights off and killed the engine and let the car coast off onto the shoulder and under the cover of some trees. Hutch's head fell forward a little as Becker set the brake and he awoke with a jerk, hoping Becker hadn't noticed that he'd fallen asleep on the trip. A quick glance showed him that he hadn't.

Paula, unfortunately, had. She frowned at him in the dim light, but didn't say anything. Hutch pulled himself up straighter in the seat and looked around at where they were.

Under any other circumstances, the view would have been breathtaking. The lights of the city glittered below them, a jeweled carpet stretching all the way to the horizon. A couple of hundred yards in front of them, at the bottom of a gentle slope, a beautiful home lay tucked in the folds of the surrounding hills. Lights glowed in its windows and the faint sound of music drifted up to them on the cool breeze.

Becker checked the safety on his gun. "I still wish you'd reconsider going in with us, Hutchinson," he said as he returned it to its holster.

"Can it, Becker," Hutch answered him as he opened the door on his side of the car and got out. "We're wasting time. Let's go."

It wasn't that far to the cover of a low stone wall; they crossed the distance at a gentle jog, and yet it was still enough to leave Hutch winded in his current condition. Once there, he leaned against the wall heavily, hoping he could catch his breath without being too obvious about it as Becker checked his watch and surveyed the rest of their route to the house.

He knew from the briefing Becker had given him earlier that there were usually at least four guards on foot patrol at any given time but, at the moment, none of them was in sight. Becker finished his brief survey and signaled them that it was clear. Hutch braced himself, drew in another deep gulp of air, and followed as the other two climbed over the low wall and ran in a crouch towards the patio. Slater was supposed to have disabled the alarm on the French doors there. If, for some reason, he had not, this whole venture would soon come to an abrupt end.

Becker wrapped a sleeve of his jacket around the butt of his gun and used it to break one of the panes in the door. It shattered with a minimal amount of noise and the three of them held their breaths as they listened tensely for the sound of an alarm. Nothing happened so, a few seconds later, Becker reached through the hole he'd made and unlocked the door. A moment more and they were all inside.

The music was louder here and now they could also make out the soft murmur of distant voices, broken at intervals by the sound of feminine laughter. The Sultan's guests seemed to be having a good time. Hutch hoped all of them were being sufficiently entertained enough to stay where they were. All they needed was to encounter some unexpected drifter wandering the halls.

From the plans Becker had shown him, Hutch knew that they now stood in the smaller of the house's two dining rooms. The room where Starsky supposedly was being held was in the basement, the door to which lay further down a hallway to their right. The lights in this part of the house had been turned down to their dimmest settings, leaving it just light enough that the servants wouldn't bump into the furniture while still conserving on the electric bill. In the midst of the current energy crisis, even the wealthy were having to think of such things.

They moved silently on thick carpeting down the hallway and into what seemed to be a storage area, then down a set of concrete steps to the basement. At the bottom was a narrow corridor and, at the end of that, a stout looking door. A burly man in an ill-fitting tuxedo was asleep in a chair beside the door, a bottle of what appeared to be champagne still dangling from one hand.

Becker patted the unconscious man down and produced a ring of keys from a pocket, soon locating the one that fit the lock on the door. He gestured with his chin to Hutch and Paula to watch his back as he turned the key in the lock then cautiously prepared to open the door. If the Sultan had discovered that Slater was double-crossing him, then this might be a trap. He raised his gun and slowly swung the door inward.

~~~

Starsky was dozing again when the sound of his door being unlocked woke him up once more. "Whoever you are," he grumbled without even opening his eyes, "go away! I don't feel like entertainin' any company!"

"Are you absolutely sure about that?" a voice he didn't recognize answered him. It was the faint hint of amusement in his tone that finally made Starsky curious enough to crack open his eyelids and look up at the tall black man standing next to his cot smiling down at him. "Detective Sergeant David Starsky, I presume?" he said.

Starsky painfully pushed himself up on one elbow, frowning. "Who wants to know?" he shot back.

"I'm Brian Becker of the Secret Service and I've brought someone with me who would very much like to see you. However, if you're really not interested, I could send him away for you."

Becker's joke went unnoticed. Starsky was too busy staring at the man who'd come through the doorway behind Becker. "Hutch," he whispered, his voice breaking slightly.

"Hey, buddy," Hutch answered him with a grin, his own voice none too steady. "You about ready to blow this joint?"

Starsky was already struggling to sit up. Hutch rapidly crossed the small distance between them and offered his partner his good arm to help him. It was then that Starsky noticed the sling Hutch wore on the other one.

"What the Hell happened to you?" he asked him, and got a lopsided smile in return.

"It's a long story...I'll tell you later," Hutch promised. Starsky had made it into a sitting position. Hutch allowed him a second or two to rest before making the effort to stand. "Do you think you can walk?" he asked with genuine concern. Even the short distance to Becker's car might seem like a long journey to an injured man. Hutch knew from recent personal experience. What if Starsky couldn't make it on his own?

But Starsky was already getting to his feet. "Are kidding, pal? Right now, I could dance...if you asked me nice!" he joked, flashing that thousand watt grin of his. "If you'll just hand me my pants...?"

The grin faded somewhat when he saw the change in Hutch's expression. "Hey, come on, Hutch! This isn't funny! Give me my pants." Hutch was definitely blushing now. "Hutch?"

"I don't know what to say, Starsky! I'm sorry. I didn't even think about...!"

"Aw, Hutch!" Starsky interrupted, protesting. "How could ya' forget my pants!"

"Hey, I said I was sorry!" Hutch shot back. " I didn't do it on purpose! I've kind of had a few other things on my mind, you know?"

The argument might have continued for several minutes if Becker had not stopped it then by loudly clearing his throat. "As amusing as this is, gentlemen, we're on rather a tight schedule here! So, if you don't mind...?" He gestured towards the door. Both partners ducked their heads contritely.

Hutch took Starsky's good arm and placed it across his good shoulder. "Come on, Starsk," he said. "Becker's right. Let's get you the Hell out of here." It was hard to tell who was supporting who as they hobbled for the door. Becker brought up the rear, shaking his head.

~~~

Gary Marshall was having the time of his young life. When he'd first studied to be a journalist, he'd imagined himself traveling all over the world, mingling with the most interesting, powerful and wealthy people on earth. But reality had hardly lived up to his dreams.

At first, it had been hard to even find work. And then his editors had all seemed dead set on giving him only the most boring and mundane assignments. How would he ever make a name for himself covering children's science fairs and dances at the senior citizens' center?

Now, all that had changed. He was living the life he'd always wanted and it was all thanks to the Sultan. And all he had had to do was put that tracking device on Hutchinson's car and take a few pictures for him.

Not that he was planning on making a career out of crime! But he had not been able to resist the chance to be involved in something so exciting. Getting back at Hutchinson and his partner had just been icing on the cake.

The memory of how they had embarrassed him two years ago still rankled. He'd been fresh out of journalism school and looking for his first big break. He'd stopped in at The Pits for a drink one afternoon and had chanced to overhear Starsky and Hutchinson talking to the owner about this big drug deal that was going down at the docks.

He'd followed them to where this deal was supposed to go down, but he'd been clumsy. They'd spotted him and had set him up, luring him into an alley and jumping him then locking him in the trunk of his own car until all the excitement was over. Afterwards, he'd gone to their captain, hoping to get them at least suspended, if not fired outright. And the man had just laughed at him, saying that the officers had done it for his own good and that he was lucky they didn't prosecute him for obstructing justice!

But all that was behind him now. The story he'd write once this was over would be enough to land him any assignment he wanted, or maybe even win him a Pulitzer! And, in the meantime, here he was, eating the finest food and rubbing elbows with the rich and famous. He was truly in Heaven. The only thing that could possibly make it better would be to be able to personally rub those two cops noses in it.

No, wait! Why couldn't he? Well, at least gloat to one of them at any rate. Starsky was right here on the premises, being held in the basement. He had a sudden urge to pay him a little visit.

~~~

Paula had stayed outside to watch the stairs as Becker and Ken had gone into the room to get Starsky. She had strained her ears to hear what they were saying in there, but had not been able to make any of it out. Long minutes passed, during which all she could do was wait and worry, and then they had finally come out again, Starsky leaning heavily on his partner but moving under his own power.

Thank God for that at least. They had not really discussed what they would do if he hadn't been able to walk. Now, if he and Ken could both just hold up long enough to make it to the car!

Ken caught sight of her worried expression and smiled. "Paula! This is Starsky!" he introduced them, almost as if they were at The Pits or something rather than in the middle of a rescue behind enemy lines. A strange expression had crossed Ken's partner's face for a moment when he'd first seen her, but now he, too, smiled.

"How're you doin'?" he asked her politely.

"Better than you are, I think," she'd answered him honestly, looking him up and down. His color was terrible and he was already wheezing, his shorn hair intensifying the image of a man hanging on by his fingernails. And yet her comment had only served to broaden his grin.

"Yeah, well. You're not exactly seein' me at my best!" he returned lightly.

Becker rolled his eyes. "Far be it from me to break up this little party," he put in irritably, "but I think we'd be wise to hurry. We've been incredibly lucky so far, and I for one would like to get out of here before our luck runs out!"

"It just has!" Gary Marshall declared from the top of the stairs.

Chapter 14: Hail, Hail...

Dobey picked up his phone on the second ring. "Metro Division," he growled tiredly. Hutchinson wasn't the only one this case was beginning to take a toll on.

Despite the gruff fašade he tried so hard to maintain, it was well known that he felt a fatherly concern for of all of the officers under his command, and was especially fond of his two "problem children". Their continuing inability to locate Starsky frankly had him worried sick. And while Hutchinson's injury hadn't exactly thrilled him, at least as long as he was home recovering he did not have to worry about him.

"Cap'n Dobey?" Some of Dobey's exhaustion dropped away as he heard the familiar voice on the other end. Maybe this was the break they'd been waiting for.

"Yeah, it's me. Is that you, Huggy?"

"You got it! Man, am I ever glad I got through to you! I been tryin' to reach Blondie for over an hour but no one answers at his place!"

Dobey's brow furrowed slightly. "Huh. Hope Paula didn't have to take him back to the hospital!" he said half to himself. Surely she would have called him if that were the case. "I wonder where they went?"

"I wouldn't know. But listen, that's not why I called! You know that meetin' the Sultan and Big Eddie were s'posed to have this morning at that warehouse? Well, Big Eddie now thinks the Sultan set him up and he's really on the warpath about it. I just heard from a reliable source that he's somehow found out where that big house of the Sultan's is up in the hills and that he and some of his boys are planning to make a hit there tonight."

Dobey stopped worrying about Hutch and focused his full attention on what Huggy was saying. "Good Lord! Was your source able to give you an address?"

"Yeah."

Dobey whistled silently to himself as he wrote down the address Huggy repeated to him. "This is one pricey neighborhood you're sending me to, Hug. You sure this is right?"

"Hey! Have I ever steered you wrong before?" Huggy asked huffily.

"No, you haven't. My apologies, Huggy. You got any idea when this is coming down?" Dobey asked as he retrieved his gun from a drawer of his desk and made sure that it was loaded before slipping it into the pocket of his coat.

"My source said nine o'clock."

Dobey checked his watch. "It's already eight-thirty!" he exclaimed. "You aren't givin' me much warning here, Huggy!"

"Hey! I told ya' I been tryin' to reach Hutch for over an hour!" Huggy protested in turn.

"Again, my sincerest apologies," Dobey soothed the temperamental informant as he got up from his desk and got ready to head out the door. "Thanks."

"You're welcome. Be careful up there!"

Dobey hung up the phone and hurried out into the squad room, bellowing orders as he went.

~~~

Marshall smirked at the sight at the bottom of the stairwell. He had the gun he had begun to carry since going to work for the Sultan in his hand and was amazed at how much it bolstered his confidence "Well, well! Look at this!" he taunted. "The two hotshot detectives caught with their pants down by the punk reporter! This is even better than I could have hoped for!"

"Look, Marshall, if you're gonna crow about it, at least get it right!" Starsky shot back indignantly. "Technically, only one of us has his pants down! I thought you reporters were trained to notice stuff like that!"

Hutch groaned and covered his eyes. "Damn it, Starsk, I said I was sorry! So just let it go, will ya'?" he mumbled.

Becker and Paula could only stare at them both. Any minute now Marshall would sound the alarm and they were all going to be in deep trouble. How could they possibly be joking around?

Marshall didn't seem to appreciate the humor of the situation either. "Don't make fun of me!" he shouted, his face twisting into an ugly snarl. "I've been laughed at enough because of you two and I'm not going to put up with any more of it, do you hear me?"

"Stop it, Gary, you're scaring me," Hutch replied in a bored tone, but Starsky felt his arm tighten slightly around his waist, warning him his partner was about to make some sort of move. He braced himself, hoping he was ready for it.

"Ken? What are you doing?" Paula asked in an undertone, but Hutch ignored her.

Marshall was livid to the point of almost hopping with rage. "If you aren't afraid, you're dumber than I thought you were!" he ranted. " I've seen what the Sultan does to his enemies! And I'm going to enjoy watching him do it to you!"

Hutch's voice and eyes suddenly both hardened into ice. "I've seen it, too, Marshall. I saw what he did to Carla! Are you proud of your part in that? It was that thing you put on my car that led them to her! In my book, that makes you just as responsible for her death as they are!"

Starsky felt sick. "Carla's dead?" he asked softly.

Hutch nodded, not taking his eyes off Marshall. "Yeah. One of Gary's new friends blew her head off with a shotgun for trying to help me find you," he told him, wishing there was a way he could have broken it to his partner more gently.

"God!" Starsky breathed. "That poor kid! At least maybe she didn't feel nothin'!"

At the mention of Carla, some of the bluster had gone out of Marshall and he had gone pale. "I had nothing to do with that!" he gulped. "I admit, I put the tracking device on your car, but I never had any idea they were going to kill that girl!"

"What did you think they would do?" Hutch returned coldly. "That's the kind of people your new pals are, Marshall! And what makes you think they will hesitate to do any less to you, once they decide you're no longer of any use to them?"

Marshall tightened his grip on his gun, hoping to regain something of his former self-assurance. "That's not going to happen," he stated with a certainty he no longer felt. "You see, I'm not really involved in anything illegal! I'm just pretending to be, just like when you guys go undercover! Once I get my story, I'll turn all the evidence I've gathered over to the authorities, and then I'm out of here!"

"Try telling that to a judge!" Paula put in, having finally picked up on what Ken was trying to do. "That is, if the Sultan lets you live long enough to go to trial once he finds out that you're planning to turn on him!"

Marshall had started to sweat and the hand that held the gun was no longer steady. "Oh, my God!" he said in a choked whisper, thinking out loud, momentarily distracted by this new threat to his own safety. "What am I going to do?"

It was exactly what Hutch had been waiting for. He let go of Starsky to charge up the stairs three at a time with Becker right on his heels. They were on Marshall before the younger man ever knew what hit him and soon had him disarmed and unconscious on the floor.

Left on his own, Starsky reeled and would have gone down if Paula had not been there to catch him. She grabbed him by whatever she could get a hold of to help keep him on his feet and he was forced to do the same until he'd managed to regain his balance. "Thanks!" he told her then with a sheepish smile, slightly winded and still leaning on her for support.

"My pleasure, Detective Starsky," she replied with a lift of her eyebrows and a bit of a mischievous twinkle in her eyes.

Caught off guard, Starsky laughed in delight. "Hey, if you're gonna be that way about it, maybe you'd better start callin' me Dave!"

"Are you hitting on my girl, partner?" Hutch teased as he came back down to help Starsky up the stairs.

"Who, me?" Dave asked, leaning on them both now, his expression one of pure innocence but his dark blue eyes dancing.

Becker was left to become the voice of reason once again. "I really think we need to get a move on, people!" he warned them sternly as they reached the top of the staircase.

Paula looked down at the unconscious man lying on the floor. "What should we do with Marshall?" she asked, nudging him slightly with the toe of her shoe with the same slight air of disgust she might have worn if she'd been examining a dead bug. "If we leave him, the Sultan and his men will more than likely kill him."

"Serves him right, if ya' ask me!" Starsky muttered darkly, all trace of humor gone from his face and tone.

Becker glanced at Hutch, who shrugged his good shoulder. "I wouldn't shed any tears over him!" he declared. "But I guess we'd better take him with us anyway."

Becker nodded and stooped to lift Marshall onto his shoulders in a fireman's carry. "All right, let's go," he said, and then all Hell broke loose.

Chapter 15: ...the Gang's All Here!

By the time Dobey and the squad from Metro had arrived, the grounds surrounding the Sultan's house had become a war zone, the loud staccato popping of semi-automatic gunfire echoing from the surrounding hills. The captain parked his car behind a group of black-and-whites and made his way carefully from the cover of one vehicle to the next until he was crouched beside the SWAT team commander.

"Sounds like World War Three is goin' on in there, Dix!" he commented to his long time friend.

The tall, redheaded ex-marine nodded his agreement. "Keep your men back a minute or two, Hal, until mine can get things a little more under control," he drawled. "We're better equipped to handle this kind of situation than ya'll are!"

Dobey looked from his own ordinary, slightly wrinkled tan business suit to the other man's sleek, full body riot gear, complete with helmet and face-shield, and didn't argue.

~~~

Inside the mansion, chaos reigned. One moment, laughter and the lively strains of Mozart had filled the air. The next, the night was shattered by the sounds of men cursing and women screaming, punctuated by the deadly tympani of gunfire and the crash and tinkle of breaking glass.

"What do we do now?" Paula asked softly. Blocked from their original route back to Becker's car by a panic-stricken tide of the Sultan's guests, she and the others had been forced to try to make their way out of the house through the kitchen instead, but had found this way out blocked as well, this time by equally panicky servants. They had backtracked to try their original escape route again, only to find it still unusable.

The stress and constant running were beginning to take their toll on the injured pair. Both were pale and staggering and Starsky especially seemed to be having trouble catching his breath. Hutch caught Paula's eye and shot her a worry-filled glance.

"Starsky needs to rest," he told her shortly. "Otherwise I'm afraid he's going to pass out on us!"

"Oh...Yeah?" Starsky protested, pulling back from his friend slightly to look him up and down critically. "You...should take a look...in the mirror, partner!" he panted.

"He's right," Hutch admitted, gently pulling Starsky closer to his side again, though whether this was to better steady his partner or himself, he wasn't exactly sure. "I'm almost as bad off as he is right now...no offense, buddy!" he quickly soothed.

"None...taken," Starsky answered with a ghost of a smile. "Jus' thought...you needed to own up...too."

"Neither of you look very well," Becker confirmed. "But I'm not sure what we can do about it under the circumstances."

"I hate to say this, but maybe we should find somewhere for the two of you to hide until Becker and I can find a safe way out," Paula said.

Hutch didn't like it one bit, but was hard put to argue with her reasoning. Without Starsky and himself slowing them down, the other two would stand a much better chance of getting out of this place in one piece. And while he didn't particularly care about Becker, Paula's safety did matter to him.

"All right," he agreed. "We'll try the kitchen again, and if we still can't get out through there, Starsk and I will find somewhere and sit tight until you two come back for us." "If you can come back for us!" he added silently.

Starsky was surprised by Hutch's easy acquiescence, but didn't comment. Whatever Hutch's reasons for agreeing to such a plan, he trusted him. Besides, he was hardly in any shape to bicker over it.

He didn't miss Paula's reaction either. She, too, had expected Hutch to put up a fight and had been surprised when he hadn't. She just looked from one partner to the other and shrugged. "Okay, let's go then," was all she said.

The kitchen route, if anything, was even more inaccessible than before. The Sultan's guards had taken the place of the panicked servants, leaving no possible chance for any of the attacking force to sneak in that way and, unfortunately, also no chance for the rescuers to sneak out.

"So, that's it then," Becker sighed. "This is where we part ways."

Hutch nodded. They had located a large linen closet in a relatively quiet hallway just off the kitchen. It was large enough for him and Starsky and the still unconscious Marshall all to fit into.

"If we haven't found a way out in twenty minutes, we'll come back to check on you," Paula promised.

Becker had already put Marshall into the closet. Now Hutch wordlessly handed over the support of his partner to him for a moment so that he could speak to Paula. They moved away from the others a couple of steps to give themselves some relative privacy to say their goodbyes.

"Listen," he told her softly. "I've been thinking...if you do find a way out, perhaps the two of you should just go on without us. You could go to Dobey or maybe to Becker's boss and then come back for us with reinforcements."

Paula's mouth had dropped open in surprise then turned down in an angry frown. " While the Sultan does God knows what to you and your partner while I'm gone? No way, Ken! You know I was never overly fond of this plan to begin with. But now that I'm here, there's no way I'm going to leave without you!"

"Paula...!"

"Hush! I'm not going to stand here and debate the issue with you. So just shut up and kiss me, will you? Hopefully, I'll be back for you in less than twenty minutes, but if something should go wrong..."

Sensing he was fighting a losing battle, he gave in and bent to kiss her as she'd asked. "Be careful!" he told her firmly as he took over Starsky again from Becker to help his friend into their hiding place. "Don't take any unnecessary risks!"

"I won't take any risks you wouldn't take!" she smiled at him in reply.

"Why doesn't that reassure me much?" Hutch asked his partner, who just grinned as they ducked into the closet and pulled the door shut behind them.

Hutch settled his partner as comfortably as he could in a corner of the closet then rummaged around in the dim light until he found and pulled down a big tablecloth from one of the shelves. It wasn't as thick a cover as he'd have liked, but it would do. He spread it over Starsky, who sighed gratefully, and then crawled in under it with him, adding his body warmth to that of his partner's.

"Thanks, Hutch. But how did ya' know I was cold?" Starsky asked curiously.

"That's easy, Sherlock," Hutch teased back. "I've only been feeling you shiver ever since we got you out of your cell!"

It was too dim for him to see his partner blush, but he could hear it in his voice. "Yeah, well, I couldn't really tell if that was me or you shaking!" he chuckled.

"Some of both, I think," Hutch admitted.

They sat in silence for several moments then Starsky spoke up again. "Guess you and Becker must have hit Marshall pretty hard for him to stay out this long! Think we should check his pulse or somethin'?" he asked.

"Probably," Hutch said, but made no move to do it. His anger with Marshall for the part he'd played in Carla's death was still very close to the surface. He was half afraid that if he touched the man, even lying helpless as he was, that he'd end up throttling him. Starsky picked up on his partner's mood and let it go.

More silence, then Starsky carefully broached the subject that had been bothering him for quite some time now. "This probably isn't any of my business," he began tentatively, "but you and Paula seem to be a little more than just old friends."

Hutch didn't answer for so long that he was afraid he wasn't going to. Just as he was getting ready to take the question back and apologize, Hutch sighed and shifted next to him. "Yeah, I suppose we are," he said.

"I first met her back when I was assigned to City. We weren't regular partners, but we worked a few cases together...a couple of stakeouts. You know how it is when you're out there sitting in a car all night, just waiting for something to happen with nothing else to do but talk. We got to know each other pretty well."

"So, did you two go out together back then?" Starsky asked. If Hutch was just picking up on an old relationship...but his partner was shaking his head.

"No, we didn't. I'm not exactly sure why...I mean, I liked her well enough, but...this was right after Van left, you know?" Starsky nodded. He was all too aware of the scars his friend still carried from his failed marriage. "And you know, too, how the department is about the female officers, Starsk! You're supposed to work with them, treat them just like one of the guys, but you're not supposed to get too close! You know what I mean?"

Starsky nodded again. "Yeah, I know," he admitted. It all made perfect sense. "So, what now? I mean, are you two getting serious or anything?" he asked, carefully keeping his tone neutral. This was what he wanted, what he needed to know.

Hutch hesitated again then shrugged. "Maybe...I don't know, Starsk! It's too soon to tell! Paula's a special lady, all right. And she's really been there for me this past week. God, Starsk!" Hutch drew another deep breath and Starsky felt him shiver again, though this time he knew it wasn't from the cold. "When you disappeared like that...!"

Hutch stopped again, unable to put all of what he had felt into words. Starsky gently squeezed Hutch's nearest shoulder, feeling like a heel that he could have ever doubted their friendship. It was obvious now that his partner had indeed been going through seven kinds of Hell looking for him.

"I'm telling you, pal!" Hutch went on; "Without her around to hold me together, I think I may have gone nuts! Especially that day when I got home from finding out about Carla only to find that damned envelope full of your hair!"

Starsky reached up and touched the stubble on his scalp self-consciously. "So that's what they did that for!" he muttered half to himself. "I'm sorry, Hutch...I had no idea..."

Hutch turned to him, puzzled. "What are you apologizing for?" he asked. "God knows none of this was your fault!"

Even as guilty as he felt about it, Starsky couldn't bring himself to tell his friend what he'd thought. Damn the Sultan anyway for ever showing him those stupid pictures! He should have known better than to think that Hutch would have been distracted from searching for him by a simple fling. It was obvious now that his partner might really care about this woman. Well, if Hutch thought she was something special, then so did he. And even if he couldn't ever confess what he'd thought to Hutch, he was still determined to do his best to make up for it.

"Hutch, listen," he began; "When this is all over, if you should want to..." But he never got the chance to finish his thought, because just then the door of their hiding place was pulled open. He wasn't armed, but Hutch was. His partner instinctively brought his gun up as they both braced themselves for the worst, then relaxed again as they found themselves not facing a pack of the Sultan's guards as they'd expected, but looking instead all the way up a pair of very shapely legs to Paula's face.

"Something's happening out there!" she told them both in an excited whisper. "The shooting's stopped and all of the Sultan's men have moved to the front of the house. Come on! Now's our chance to get out of here!"

Hutch couldn't quite suppress a grunt of pain as she helped him to his feet, stiff from having had to fold his tall frame into such a tight space, even for such a short time. Then he and Paula both reached to help Starsky to his feet. Becker was right behind Paula and stooped to pick up Marshall again, who groaned as he was moved, but otherwise still didn't show any signs of coming around.

"I think the police have arrived," Becker told them shortly as they all hurried for the doors to the patio once more.

Starsky, leaning on Hutch again with the Sultan's tablecloth still wrapped around his shoulders and moving surprisingly well for someone who could barely stand a short time before, wrinkled his brow in confusion. "Wait! If that's true, then why are we sneakin' out the back? Why not just wait until they come inside, then leave with them out the front door?"

"Because not everyone in blue is a good guy this time, Starsk," Hutch told him. "Paula thinks the Sultan may have bought himself some protection on the force. Also, this operation wasn't exactly authorized."

"Meaning Dobey has no idea you're here and wouldn't approve if he did," Starsky interpreted for himself. Hutch nodded. "All right, I get the picture."

"Good," Becker said stiffly, "Now why don't you do more running and less talking for a minute? We can fill you in on everything as soon as we're all safely in the car!"

Starsky stuck out his tongue at Becker's back then said to Hutch in a stage whisper. "Grumpy, isn't he?"

Hutch could only chuckle as they all made their way unchallenged out of the house at last and up the short rise to Becker's car.

Chapter 16: One of Those Days

The grounds surrounding the Sultan's house had been secured at last and Big Eddie and a number of his men had been taken into custody. Miraculously, despite the number of rounds that had been exchanged, no one had been killed and only a few people had suffered minor injuries, mostly from flying glass or tripping over each other in the general rush to escape. The paramedics had finished with those and the ambulances had already been dismissed. Dobey now stood alongside Agent Slater, a young lieutenant from the division that held jurisdiction for this area of the city, and the Police Commissioner in the Sultan's private study, trying to wrap things up.

"How much longer will you need to detain my guests?" the owner of the elegantly decorated room asked. "It has been a very traumatic evening, to say the least, and I am sure they are all understandably anxious to return to their homes."

The identity of some of those guests was to blame for the Commissioner's continued presence on the scene. Normally, he would not have been summoned or even have known anything had occurred until long after the fact. But he just happened to have been dining at another home in the neighborhood when the "disturbance" at the Sultan's had broken out—that was the Commissioner's term for what had taken place here, not Dobey's. Once he had arrived and seen the caliber of the personages involved, however, the Commissioner had quickly decided that this "incident" merited his personal attention. This was an election year after all!

In spite of the fact that he was well outside his normal jurisdiction, the Commissioner had put Dobey in charge of the investigation since the evening's events might be connected to a case his division already had underway. The lieutenant had agreed, keeping any ill feelings he might have had about it to himself. In fact, Dobey guessed that he might even be a little grateful to hand this one over to someone else. He didn't blame him. This interview had already lasted over half an hour and Dobey had yet to get a single thing worth jotting down in his notebook. He still had it out though, pencil poised, just in case. He was starting to feel ridiculous as well as frustrated. And his superior's attempts to grease the wheels of justice had only served to give Dobey the beginnings of what promised to be a whale of a headache.

Dobey sighed. "I will be more than happy to let them go...as soon as we're finished here. Now, what did you say your name was?"

The enigmatic, dark-eyed man only smiled. "I am sorry if I appear uncooperative, Captain, but I prefer not to have my name associated in any way with such a sordid business."

"I assure you, sir, that any and all information you give me would only be shared with those authorized to have it," Dobey countered, forcing himself to remain polite.

Their host only shook his head. While the others in the room all stood, he was seated comfortably in a dark red leather chair before an impressive fireplace. A cheery fire burned in the hearth behind him, lending its warmth and golden color to the tastefully decorated room. "I am afraid that is not good enough," he said. "No offense, but such matters do tend to find their way into the public records."

He had a point. Police records were easy enough to obtain if you knew how. Dobey heaved another sigh.

"I think we can fill out the report without that information, Captain," the Commissioner put in then with an ingratiating smile. "We certainly must have enough evidence to make a case against the perpetrators of this attack without needing to involve this man either as a witness or to file a complaint!" Dobey hated it that his superior was fawning so over a man who was most likely responsible for, among other things, both Carla's death and whatever had happened to David Starsky. But he hid his feelings and went on with his work.

"Is this property in your name, sir?" he asked.

The man in the chair only smiled once more. "No, Captain, it is not. The house belongs to a friend of mine who has kindly allowed me to use it while he is out of the country on business. And, before you ask, I would prefer not to reveal his name either."

"That's all right," Dobey told him with a small smile of his own. "If I need that information, I can always get it from the county's tax records." The man in the chair's mouth turned down in a slight frown. Dobey pretended not to notice either it or the angry glance the Commissioner had sent his way. Instead, he went on with the interview.

"Do you know of any quarrel someone might have with either you or the owner of this house that could have provoked the assault that took place here this evening?" he asked. Not that he expected an honest answer, but it was still proper procedure to ask.

The man's dark eyes glittered in the firelight and he was smiling again. "All successful business men have enemies, Captain. And I have been more successful than most, as has my friend. However, I cannot imagine anything I have done to warrant such an attack. Those in the circles I move in wage their battles with their wits, not guns. I cannot vouch for the actions of my friend but I do not believe he would have such...crude adversaries either."

"I see...so you're claiming this is just a random act of violence, then?" Dobey asked, an edge of sarcasm creeping into his tone in spite of his best efforts.

Their host shrugged eloquently. "What else can I think? Unless you can offer a better suggestion?"

Dobey felt his anger rising. He had opened his mouth to make a suitable reply but was stopped by the Commissioner cutting in. "Just what are you insinuating...Captain?" he asked sharply, placing heavy emphasis on Dobey's lesser rank. "And I would be careful of my reply if I were you!"

Dobey took a few deep breaths and forced himself to calm down again before answering. "With all due respect, Sir," he began, "What happened tonight was no 'minor disturbance'! We're dicussin' a full scale gun battle here!"

The Commissioner's face was reddening. "I am aware of that...Captain!" he growled, again with heavy emphasis on Dobey's rank. "And the men responsible are in your custody. What more do you hope to accomplish by this line of questioning?"

"I intend to find the facts, Sir! That's my job! Our job, in case you've forgotten!" Dobey was shouting now in spite of himself.

The man in the chair leaned back as if enjoying the show. Slater, so far, had not said anything at all. He stood a little apart from them all almost as if he were trying not to be noticed. The Commissioner's face had gone purple and the veins were bulging in his temples. His voice when he spoke again had dropped to a deadly hiss.

"Your job, Captain Dobey, is the apprehension of criminals! That has been done here! Now, should you wish to continue this useful public service in the future, I suggest you stop badgering this man and return to your station, where you can put your interrogation skills to better use on some real criminals, and allow this citizen and his guests to return to their normal lives!"

"Are you, sir?" Dobey suddenly asked, ignoring his superior and turning instead to face the man in the chair again.

"Am I what?"

"A U.S. citizen?" Dobey clarified.

The man shook his head. "No, Captain, I am not, though I am in your country legally and should therefore be entitled to a certain amount of courtesy as a guest, surely!"

"May I ask whether your visit is for the purpose of business or merely for pleasure?" Dobey inquired, once more ignoring the Commissioner's angry attempts to stop him.

"A little of both," the dark-eyed man replied. "My corporation maintains offices in almost every major city in the world, including LA. I am currently expanding my operations along the West Coast, so I have obtained an extended visa in order to accomplish this. I am also scheduled to attend the Governor's reception for the President later this week. The Governor is a good friend of mine and will certainly vouch for me if needed."

"I am sure that will not be necessary!" the Commissioner was able to get in at last.

"Or possible," Dobey added sarcastically, "Being as you still haven't told us your name!"

The Commissioner spun around and swiftly stormed across the short distance that had separated him and Dobey, only stopping when his face was inches from the big black man's own. "That's enough!!" he snarled. "I think Lt. Aymes, Agent Slater and I can finish up here without you! Take your prisoners and go back to your station at once, Dobey, or risk an official reprimand!"

"Yes, Sir!" Dobey returned with an exaggerated salute and stalked out of the room. It wasn't that the idea of a reprimand particularly bothered him, but now was not a good time to risk anything more serious, such as a suspension. Not with Starsky still missing and the men who killed Carla still at large. No, this was one investigation that Dobey had every intention of seeing through.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Starsky had somehow made it to the car more or less under his own power, but it had cost him everything he had left to do it. Now, sitting beside him in the backseat with his partner's shorn head resting on his shoulder as the car sped down the dark, narrow road, Hutch tried again to check his pulse, but still couldn't tell whether Starsky had passed out or was just asleep. Either way, they would not be able to get his friend to a hospital soon enough to suite him.

He hated to admit it, but he might need to see a doctor as well. A soft gray fog was lurking at the edges of his vision and it was all he could do not to just give in to it and let it engulf him. His pain pills had worn off some time ago and every little jolt and jog in the road went through his injured arm like a hot poker.

Paula, sitting on Hutch's other side, felt him flinch again as the car hit another pothole. She was doing her best not to bump up against his injured arm but it was nearly impossible in the moving car on the rough, winding road. She glanced at him worriedly, then leaned forward and spoke softly to Becker.

"What's our ETA to the hospital?" she asked.

Becker shook his head. "I'm sorry, Agent Hamilton, but we're not going to a hospital."

Hutch, who'd been on the verge of drifting off, was instantly completely awake again. "Now wait just a damned minute, Becker!" he protested. "What do you mean, we're not going to the hospital! In case you haven't noticed, Starsky needs medical attention now!"

"And he's going to get it!" Becker assured him quickly, "But a regular hospital is too dangerous. We're headed to see a friend of mine. Don't worry, he's a doctor! He runs a little private clinic about twenty minutes from here."

Hutch settled back in the seat again. He wasn't too happy that Becker had waited till now to spring this little detail of his plan on him, but he also knew that he was in no position to do anything about it. Yet.

~~~

The officers working the late shift carefully avoided Dobey as he made his way through the squad room toward his office. Their Captain could be a bear on a good day, and the current situation had done nothing to improve his disposition. They all breathed a little sigh of relief when the door to his office had closed behind him.

Dobey took off his crumpled suit jacket and hung it on the coat rack behind the door, then slowly sank into his chair behind his desk. He was beyond tired and could not remember when he'd been home last. Was it yesterday or the day before that his wife had come by to bring him a hot, home-cooked meal and some fresh clothes? He looked again at the badly wrinkled jacket and decided it must have been the latter.

He'd spent the past two hours interrogating Big Eddie and those of his gang that he'd taken with him when he'd attacked the Sultan's place. Two hours of questioning with nothing to show for it but this damned headache that nothing he took seemed to make a dent in. For all of his bluster and bravado, Big Eddie was apparently just as scared of this "Sultan" as everyone else in this city. So scared that neither he nor his men would talk, even when Dobey had offered to try to make a deal with the DA to reduce their jail time in exchange for their testimony about the Sultan's activities.

He sighed and picked up the phone and dialed Hutchinson's number. He let the phone on the other end ring for a good ten minutes but still couldn't get any answer. And this was the third time he'd called since he'd gotten back to the station. He hung up then dialed the number of the hospital where Hutch had been treated earlier.

"Dr. Anderson, please," he asked the woman who answered. There was a brief pause then the by now familiar voice came on the line.

"This is Anderson."

"I'm sorry to keep bothering you, Doctor, but this is Captain Dobey over at Metro again. I just called Detective Hutchinson's house again and there's still no answer there. I can't imagine Miss Hamilton letting him go out for anything less than a medical emergency. Are you absolutely sure he hasn't been brought back into the hospital?"

"If he had, I should have been notified since he was my patient. Hold on a moment and I'll check again with the admissions desk."

As he waited, Dobey rooted around in his desk drawers for the bottle of aspirin he kept there. He found it and shook two tablets out into his hand and swallowed them dry, even though he had already taken two less than an hour before. Then, knowing the number that much aspirin was likely to do on his stomach, he chased them down with a couple of Tums.

Anderson came back onto the line. "I'm sorry, Captain, but no one using Hutchinson's name or fitting his description has been here tonight. Have you checked with any of the other hospitals? If it really was an emergency, perhaps Miss Hamilton took him somewhere closer to his home."

"I already thought of that," Dobey sighed. "And they've all told me the same thing you just did."

"I see...well. Perhaps you should call his regular physician then?"

"Dr. Anderson, as far as I know, you're the closest thing Hutchinson has to a regular physician right now!" Dobey stopped himself and took a deep breath. "I'm sorry," he said then; "I know this isn't your fault. I'm just worried about him!"

"I understand. I promise that I will notify you if I should hear anything at all."

"Thank you, Doctor," Dobey told him wearily and hung up the phone again, then just sat and stared into space for a minute or two, trying to think what to do next.

Suddenly, a thought occurred to him that hadn't before. Maybe Ken was home after all! Maybe there was just something wrong with his telephone! That was it, surely!

He got up and went to the door of his office. The officers out in the squad room all jumped as Dobey stuck his head out of his office and bellowed, "Hey! Someone call down to Dispatch and have them to send a unit over to Hutchinson's place! Now!! If no one answers the door, tell whoever they send that I want the place checked out thoroughly for any sign of anything out of the ordinary. Either way, I want them to radio back to me with a full report of whatever they find immediately. You got that?"

"Got it, Cap!" one of the officers responded, already on it.

Dobey went back into his office and shut the door again. A short time later, the phone on his desk rang. Dobey snatched up the receiver and brought it to his ear. "Yeah?"

"Captain?" the familiar feminine voice of the night dispatcher said. "I'm patching through a call to you from Adam 2."

"Okay," Dobey told her, then waited as the dispatcher confirmed the connection with the unit in the field.

"Adam 2, this is Dispatch. You're patched through to Captain Dobey. Go ahead."

"Captain?" a voice crackled over the line. "Are you there?"

"I'm here, Adam 2. What have you got for me, Watts?"

"We're over here at Hutch's like you requested, Cap," Sergeant Watts answered him. "My partner and I went up and rang the bell and knocked on the door several times, but didn't get any answer. We checked the front door and it was locked, so we walked around outside a bit, checked the back door and looked in the windows. There's a light on in the living room, but no sign of anyone inside and nothing appears to be out of place. I'd say all was secure here, Captain."

"Except there's still no sign of Hutchinson or any clue where he went," Dobey said softly.

"What was that, Captain? I didn't quite catch that last part," Watts came back.

"Hmm? Oh! That's all right, Sergeant. It wasn't anything important," he told the officer on the scene. Wonderful. Now both of them were missing! What the Hell was going on? Dobey leaned forward on his elbow, lost in speculation.

"What do you want us to do now?" Watts asked after listening to several seconds of static-filled silence from his superior.

Dobey pulled himself upright in his chair again, shaken from his train of thought. "There's nothing more you can do. Thank you, Watts. You can go on about your regular patrol," he told the sergeant wearily. "But I'd appreciate it, if you don't get too busy, if you could drop by again a time or two before your shift ends and let me know if anything there changes."

"Will do, Cap. Adam 2, out."

Chapter 17: On the Road to Nowhere

Marshall had come to at last. He sat slumped next to Becker in the front seat, moaning and complaining and holding his head. "Damn it, Hutchinson, what were you trying to do, crack my skull?" he grumbled. "You'll be lucky if I don't file charges of police brutality on you this time!"

"Yeah, and I'm sure the judge will be real sympathetic to your cause, Dirtball!" Hutch retorted. "Especially when he finds out how you were holding a gun on me and my partner at the time! Not to mention the two federal agents you were threatening!"

Marshall answered with a two-word statement and an obscene gesture and Paula had to grab Hutch by his bad arm to keep him from going over the seat after him. "I'm sorry," she told him softly as he gasped in pain. He just looked at her a long moment, then nodded to show that he understood why she'd done it.

"You're right," he said, settling back, cradling his injured arm. "I shouldn't let the worthless little weasel get to me. I could've caused Becker to wreck the car and killed us all!"

An uncomfortable silence settled in the car other than Marshall's continued moans and mumbling, which he wisely kept too low for Hutch to make out whatever he was saying.

"I thought you said this place was only twenty minutes away!" Paula said sometime later. "Seems like we've been traveling for twice that!"

Becker looked up at her in the rearview briefly then turned his attention back to the road. "I think I may have missed the turn in the dark," he admitted sheepishly.

"What?!" Hutch shouted as he came forward in the seat again. "If this is your idea of a joke, Becker, it isn't funny!"

Becker met his gaze in the rearview. "Who's joking?" he returned. "Don't worry, I know we can't be too far off..."

Hutch put his good hand on Becker's shoulder and squeezed hard enough to make sure he had his attention. "That's not good enough! Now, either you find this place pronto or you turn this car around and head back for the nearest hospital in LA."

"I already told you, we can't risk going to a regular hospital!" Becker retorted.

"Wrong! What we can't risk is the chance of my partner slipping into a coma or something while you take us all for a nice drive in the moonlight! So do you know where we're going or not?"

Becker was silent a moment, then suddenly brightened. "Wait! This is it! This is the turnoff!" he declared, guiding the car off the road they'd been traveling onto an even narrower dirt road.

"This must be some clinic!" Paula mumbled sarcastically as they wound their way through dense trees. "Who the heck does your friend treat out here, Becker? Bears?"

"Actually, he sees a very exclusive clientele," Becker answered with a slight smile as they suddenly came out of the woods onto pavement again.

Hutch whistled softly as he caught sight of a large modern building in front of them. Lights glowed in the windows despite the late hour. "I thought you said this was a small clinic!" he commented.

Becker only grinned again as he pulled the car up to a covered side entrance. A number of men and women in medical garb were already standing outside, waiting for them. The man who seemed to be the doctor in charge took one look at Starsky and called for a gurney. Paula helped Hutch out of the car on one side as the medical staff gently lifted Starsky out on the other.

Hutch ran to catch up with the medical staff as they whisked the gurney carrying his partner into the building, down a short hallway and through a set of swinging doors, his long stride leaving Becker and the others far behind. He reached the doors a second after the gurney had disappeared inside and started to follow, but found a big man in blue hospital scrubs blocking his way. "I'm sorry, but you're not allowed into the examining area," he said, his tone polite but firm.

"The Hell I'm not!" Hutch protested. "I am not letting anyone take Starsky out of my sight again! Get out of my way!"

The orderly looked ready to argue the point. Paula, who'd just then breathlessly caught up with Ken again, braced herself to play referee once more. But just then the head doctor stuck his head back out into the hallway. "Of course you may come in, Detective Hutchinson...if you promise to stay back out of the way until we've finished our exam. You, too, Agent Hamilton."

Hutch strolled past the orderly with a smug expression, but sobered as soon as he saw his partner. "How bad is he?" he asked the doctor in charge quietly.

"We'll know in a minute," the doctor answered without looking up. Hutch felt Paula's arm go around his waist as they stood near the doors and watched as the medical staff gave Starsky a thorough examination, talking among themselves in quiet, professional tones that gave Hutch no way to tell if what they were finding was good or bad. A few minutes later, the doctor stepped away from the table. "Let's get that I.V. started," he instructed as he came to stand near Hutch by the door.

"Well?" Hutch asked anxiously.

"Your partner's shoulder has been dislocated again. We'll give him something to help reduce the swelling at the site and will know in a few hours if he will need surgery or not this time to correct the problem. Meanwhile, we've already begun treating him for dehydration and shock. He has a few new bruises from rough handling, but otherwise, his time in captivity does not seem to have exacerbated the other injuries he sustained in the car accident much."

"What exactly does all that mean?" Hutch asked.

The doctor smiled. "It means that his dislocated shoulder is your friend's worst problem right now. Everything else can be fixed by giving him plenty of fluids, a decent meal or two and some rest."

Paula felt the tension leave Hutch's body for the first time since this thing began. "Thank God!" he breathed. "And thank you, doctor! When do you think he'll wake up?"

"Not for several hours at least. I think he passed out as much from exhaustion as the pain," the doctor replied. "So, now that we have your partner back on the road to good health, why don't you let me take a look at you?"

"Not unless you can you do it here because I'm not leaving him alone." The doctor seemed trustworthy enough, but after all he'd been through, Hutch wasn't exactly in a trusting mood.

The doctor did not seem offended. "Of course. Nurse, please bring another exam table," he ordered. The nurse nodded as if there were nothing out of the ordinary about the situation and left the room. A moment later she and the big orderly were back wheeling the requested table between them. The orderly didn't seem to bear any grudge from their earlier dispute; in fact, he helped Hutch to climb up onto the table.

Paula gasped when the doctor gently removed Hutch's sling, revealing his blood-soaked sleeve. "I think you should lie down, Detective" the doctor urged softly.

That seemed like a good idea. The room seemed to have tilted slightly in the last few seconds and the fog from before was back at the edges of his vision thicker than ever. He knew he was about to pass out, but he was fighting it.

"Paula!" he managed, his tone desperate. She stepped closer and took his good hand.

"I'm right here," she assured him.

"I...I think I'm gonna..." Hutch gripped her hand hard, valiantly trying to focus on her face. "Don't leave Starsk alone!" he begged her. "Please? Only one I trust! Don't...don't let anyone...!"

"I won't," she promised as she felt Hutch's grip on her hand go slack as he lost to the swirling nothingness.

Chapter 18: The Sultan's Plan Nears Completion

The Sultan's men all knew how to read his moods well enough to realize that it was best to avoid calling any attention to themselves as he stormed back into his study. Slater followed at a slightly slower pace. The Sultan crossed the room and threw himself gracelessly into his favorite chair in front of the fireplace, then looked up at the agent, fury burning in his dark eyes.

"How could this happen?!" he shouted. "How did this mere...detective," he pronounced it as if it were a dirty word, "breach my security! He had to have help!! Someone inside this organization had to have helped him!"

Slater was still frantically thinking how to respond to that, when the guard standing near the door spoke up. "Excuse me, Sir," he said quietly, the slightest tremor of fear present in his voice—he had been one of the guards present as the Sultan had "disciplined" the man who was supposed to be guarding Detective Starsky's cell. The body was even now on its way to be dumped in the ocean. "But no one has seen Gary Marshall since the party."

The Sultan was on his feet and across the room again so quickly that the man gasped. "What is this?" he hissed, reminding Slater once more of a snake as he pinned the terrified man in place with his eyes. "Why was I not informed of this sooner?" His face was only inches from the guard's and the man was visibly shaking now.

"I...uh...you were busy, Sir! And we wanted to make sure that the information was correct before we bothered you!"

"And have you made sure of this?" he asked softly.

The man nodded rapidly. "Yes, Sir! We have searched both the house and the grounds. I assure you, he is not on the property."

The Sultan stepped back again, nodding. "I see...Good work! You may leave." The guard fled gratefully, closing the door behind him. "Yes," the Sultan declared softly, "This does make an odd sort of sense!" He stood lost in thought for several seconds before finally dismissing the matter with a wave of his hand. "Ah, well, it is of no great consequence at the moment. I have already made arrangements to contend with this 'Big Eddie', and shall deal with Mr. Marshall and Detectives Starsky and Hutchinson in due time as well. Right now, I have more pressing matters to attend to. Is all in readiness?"

Slater nodded. "Rogue Star arrives tomorrow, and the President will be here the day after that. His secretary has scheduled a private meeting with the Premier's widow on the afternoon of his arrival before the reception that evening."

"Did you have any trouble establishing her identity, following the fiasco with the original plans?" the Sultan asked, settling into his chair once more.

Slater shook his head. "My department believes the original conspiracy was limited to a small group within the Premier's own Embassy. Since Rogue Star's credentials have been cleared by the Premier's home country through my office, there wasn't any problem."

"Good! Good! You have renewed my faith in you, my friend! Just two more days, and you're work here will be done and we shall be on our way to Brazil to start work on our plans for that long overdue reunion with your son."

"Have you heard any more news of Grant's condition?" Slater asked quietly.

"I am sad to say that the prisoners are not well treated, but my sources assure me that your son and two other POWs remain alive and relatively healthy yet."

"How much longer until we can get Grant out of that place?" Slater asked in a tortured tone.

"Not much longer, Alan," the Sultan promised. "Not much longer at all. As soon as we are finished here, all of my attention will be free to focus on this project and all of my resources will be at your disposal. I think it is safe to say that he should be back with you in time to celebrate Christmas."

Slater nodded, looking away to hide the tears in his eyes, embarrassed to have this man see them. The Sultan only quietly smiled again to himself as he picked up the book beside his chair and began to read.

~~~

For Hutch, returning to consciousness was like slowly crawling up from the bottom of a deep, dark pit. His eyelids felt like they weighed twenty pounds apiece as he struggled to lift them, but some nameless need drove him to keep trying. One thought kept echoing in his muddled brain: there was something important he was neglecting, something he needed to know about... Suddenly, that something had a name: Starsky!

Paula was dozing when the hoarse whisper woke her up. She sat up straighter in her chair and looked over at the occupant of the bed beside her. Ken moaned softly and repeated the name he'd called out, "Starsk!"

She got up to stand next to him and gently took his good hand in her own, careful of the IV still taped there. "Shh!" she told him, reaching with her other hand to stroke his cheek. "It's all right! Starsky's fine, Ken. He's right here; open your eyes and you can see for yourself."

Hutch groaned again and finally managed to crack his eyelids. He turned his head towards Paula's voice and waited for his vision to focus. "Paul?" he asked thickly.

She smiled and squeezed his hand. "Yes, Ken. I'm right here," she assured him. "How do you feel?"

"Not so hot," he returned honestly, then, as the fog lifted a little more, his earlier panic washed over him again. "Where's Starsky?" he demanded, struggling to sit up. "Is he okay?"

"He's fine, Ken," Paula repeated patiently, placing her free hand on his unbandaged shoulder to gently restrain him. "He's right here. Look." She stepped to one side so that he could now see that there was another bed in the room. In it lay his partner. Starsky was curled up on his side, facing away from them, only the top of his darkly stubbled head showing above the covers but Hutch recognized the familiar lump his friend made asleep. Paula felt the tension go out of him once more.

"Has he been awake any yet?" Hutch asked, settling back into his pillow and focusing on Paula again.

She shook her head. "Not yet, but the doctor said his vitals are good, so there's nothing to worry about. They put his shoulder back in place again. It was probably a good thing he was out at the time! They used this thing with weights that looked like something out of a medieval dungeon!" she told him with a small laugh.

"So, no surgery?" Hutch asked.

"No surgery," Paula confirmed. "But he may need some PT after the sling comes off."

Hutch nodded, relieved, but immediately regretted it as the movement made his head swim. He closed his eyes and gulped and felt Paula's hand gently squeeze his. "How long was I out?" he asked after the room stopped spinning again.

"The rest of the night. It's a little after seven in the morning. You didn't lose as much blood this time as before, Ken, but you didn't have it to lose. They thought for a while that you might need a transfusion." Paula kept her tone light, not wanting to let him know how worried she'd been.

Hutch looked down at the IV line in the back of his hand and started to nod again but caught himself in time. "Have you been awake all night?" he asked then, finally noticing the dark circles under her eyes and her mussed hair.

"Mostly," she answered him honestly, but offered him a weary smile before he could apologize. "Hey, I made you a promise, remember?" she said with another squeeze of his hand. Hutch squeezed her hand back. It had felt strangely good to have Paula looking out for him this week. In every other relationship he'd ever been in, he'd always been the caregiver. "Every other relationship but one," he corrected himself, glancing over at his sleeping partner again.

He knew he didn't really have the words to express to her how he felt about her yet, but suddenly he wanted to try. "Paula..." he began, but was interrupted as an older woman in a nurse's uniform bustled into the room just then.

"Well! Good morning, Detective!" she greeted him cheerily as she crossed the room and opened the blinds to let in the morning sunshine. Hutch winced as the light hit his eyes and the nurse smiled apologetically as she closed the blinds a bit once more to take the edge of the brightness. "It's good to see you awake! The meal cart is on its way up with the breakfast trays. Are you hungry?"

Before Hutch could answer her, a muffled voice spoke up from the other bed. "Summon menshun food?" it inquired blearily.

Hutch chuckled as the nurse moved around to help Starsky sit up in his bed. "Ladies!" he declared as if announcing an act at the circus, flashing Paula a wide grin. "My partner, The Walking Stomach! Should have known all that talk about food would bring you around! How you feelin', Sleeping Beauty?" he asked as Starsky made it into a sitting position at last. The nurse had raised the head of his bed and was now adjusting his pillows to support his back. She spared a moment to give Hutch a brief disapproving glare that only caused his grin to broaden.

"Better if you'd stop shoutin'!" Starsky groaned back, reaching up with his only free hand to clutch his aching head. His other arm was wrapped in a sling and strapped against his side to keep it immobile. "Jeez, Hutch!"

"Sorry, babe," Hutch said then in a softer tone, though still smiling. He had missed teasing Starsky and knew his friend didn't mind that much.

"'Sokay," Starsky assured him, "Just keep the volume down a little. So, what was that I heard about breakfast?" he asked, looking up hopefully at the older woman who was still bending over him, checking first his pulse then his IV line.

"The trays are on the way now," the nurse repeated with a motherly smile and pat on his shoulder. Hutch rolled his eyes. What was it about his partner that brought out the maternal instinct in most women? Though he had to admit Starsky did look rather pitiful at the moment. With his hair all gone like that, he reminded Hutch uncomfortably of pictures he'd seen of Holocaust survivors.

The nurse was now raising the head of Hutch's bed for him. "There you go!" she said when that was done and Hutch's pillows were arranged. "I'll be right back." She bustled back out of the room again. Hutch sighed in relief. Perpetually cheery people sometimes tried his nerves, especially when he didn't feel well.

Starsky looked over at him then with a kind of goofy smile on his face. "So, what all have I missed?" he asked casually, as if he'd just been out of town to see his mom or something rather than being held prisoner the last few days.

Hutch and Paula brought him up to speed until the breakfast trays arrived. Starsky grinned in anticipation as his was set on the bed table in front of him. His expression quickly turned to dismay, however, when the cover was lifted. "Hey!! What's this? Where's my food?" he asked indignantly. Hutch turned to see what all the ruckus was about.

"I'm sorry, Detective," the nurse was saying, "but after all the days you've gone without food, the doctor thought it best to start you on a liquid diet and slowly work you up to solids again."

Starsky looked from his tray to Hutch's. Hutch's tray contained generous portions of bacon, eggs, toast, and cereal, along with orange juice, milk, and coffee. He looked dejectedly back at his own: milk, apple juice, and something in a bowl that he couldn't figure out at all. He picked up his spoon and poked at the beige liquid suspiciously. "What the heck is this stuff anyway?" he asked plaintively.

"Cream of Wheat," he was informed. Starsky shivered and pushed the bowl to the furthest side of the tray. "You should at least try it, Detective Starsky," the nurse scolded. "It's good for you and it tastes better than it looks!"

"I'll take your word for it!" Starsky pouted. The nurse frowned, but patted his shoulder again. She was treating Starsky the way a mother might a slightly spoiled child.

"Don't I even get a cup of coffee?" he asked in a hurt tone. "Hutch got coffee!" Starsky was sounding more and more like a sulky two-year-old. Hutch had to turn his head and firmly cover his mouth to keep the laughter he felt welling up from escaping.

"No caffeine," the nurse said. "Doctor's orders." Starsky looked as if he were about ready to cry. The nurse seemed to take pity on him. "If you eat all your breakfast," she told him. "I'll bring you a treat."

"What?" Starsky asked, his face brightening a little.

"How about some Jell-O? Or maybe a Popsicle?" the nurse asked.

"Goodie!" Starsky replied in a tone that dripped sarcasm. The nurse only patted his shoulder again and left.

Starsky looked after her, then down at his tray again, then over at Hutch's. "Trade?" he offered hopefully.

Hutch shook his head, once more regretting the movement though the dizziness passed more quickly this time. The laughter was still very close to the surface. "No way, pal!" he told him, covering his tray protectively with his good hand.

Starsky put on his pleading face. "Aw, Hutch, please? At least share with me! How can you stand to sit there and watch me starve?"

There was very little Hutch could refuse his partner when he looked at him like that. "All right," he said at last, beginning to divide his food onto two plates, giving Starsky the lion's share, but not commenting on it. "Here, Paula, give that to him before he starts bawling!" he grinned. "And if that makes you sick, Starsk, it serves you right!"

"Thanks, Hutch!" Starsky managed, his mouth already full of Hutch's breakfast. The nurse could return at any minute and Starsky was determined to get as much of the food down as he could before getting caught. Hutch hid his smile behind the rim of his coffee cup. Starsky looked up and caught him and stopped shoveling in food long enough to reach out with his good hand. "Here!" he demanded, "How about some of that, too?"

Hutch wordlessly relinquished his coffee cup to Paula who in turn passed it to Starsky who downed at least half of it in one long gulp.

"Ahh!" he sighed contently, passing the nearly empty cup back. "Thank you, Hutch! You're a life-saver!"

Hutch looked down at the toast crumbs floating in the bottom of his cup and wordlessly set it aside before digging into what was left of his meal with a little more aplomb than his partner was using. Paula only shook her head, amazed and amused once more by the antics of the two men. She leaned over the bedrail and lightly kissed Hutch on the cheek, then sat back down in her chair, leaned back and closed her eyes. The next thing either man knew, she was asleep.

Hutch glanced over at her, only to have Starsky catch him looking. He had no idea what expression he might have been wearing, but Starsky only grinned and pretended to concentrate on his food again. Hutch blushed and cleared his throat, which only made his partner grin more. "Hey," Hutch demanded, softly so as not to wake the sleeping woman between them; "if you really aren't going to eat your Cream of Wheat, pass it here."

Starsky grimaced as he leaned over to do as Hutch had asked. Their eyes met and Starsky suddenly smiled again. "Thanks for coming and gettin' me, Hutch," he said simply. "Oh, and by the way, I like her," he added with a mischievous twinkle in his eye.

Hutch blushed harder and didn't say anything at first. Then, when Starsky had turned away again, he quietly said, "Yeah, Starsk. I like her, too." He picked up his glass to finish his juice.

The nurse chose that moment to come back into the room. She took one look at Hutch's food on Starsky's plate and let out a shriek of outrage that was loud enough to wake Paula again while Starsky rapidly gathered the last few bites of egg onto the last of his toast and stuffed it all into his mouth at once. Hutch couldn't help it; he laughed so hard he sprayed his orange juice across his bedcovers.

Part 3