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Hutch winced as his companion lit up yet another cigarette. That made three in the last half hour. Smoke didn't normally bother him. Like most everyone else, he'd smoked for a while in college in the sixties, when it was the cool thing to do. But since the General Surgeon had released their findings on the health risks of smoking, Hutch hadn't lit up in years. In the past nine weeks he'd inhaled enough second hand smoke to undo his fifteen-year abstinence. His lungs probably had more tar in them than the blacktop they were parked on. The van smelt like an ashtray in a bus station. Hell, he smelt like one.

As much as he'd like to make an issue of it, Hutch held onto his temper and rolled down the window. Smoking was the least of Detective Joseph Lowery's shortcomings. Assessing the gray-haired, pot bellied cop, Hutch couldn't help but think that the man represented all that was wrong with the force. He hated cops like this, guys who were just coasting until they reached retirement age. He couldn't remember the last time the older man had made a legitimate bust or did anything beyond the minimum requirements of his duties. The most active thing Lowery did was clock in and clock out each day. Surveillance was all he was good for, and even there, Lowery wasn't exactly a pinch hitter.

Hutch stared up the street that intersected the one their van was parked on. They could just see Anderson's driveway from here and part of the path to the door.

In a short time, Starsky would be pulling into that driveway . . . and he was going to have to sit here and listen while his new lover screwed some twisted stranger. Hutch wasn't anticipating the burst of jealousy that tore through him at just the thought of Starsky making love to someone else. It had been hard enough sitting out here listening to his partner fuck that girl the other night when his love had been unrequited, but now that they were involved, the very idea of Starsky with someone else was unbearable.

Funny, with all the hoping and dreaming he'd done about this over the years, Hutch had never really considered how being Starsky's lover would affect them professionally. It didn't happen often, but the job had called upon them both to court someone for inside information in the past. Now, just the thought made him crazy.

He had no idea how this had happened so fast. Since when did he get so territorial after a one-night stand, even with someone he knew and cared about?

This development wasn't good. Hutch had known his partner long enough to know how Starsky responded to jealous lovers. If this was going to work out, Hutch knew he was going to have to get over this pettiness fast. But it was like asking someone to get over breathing. He wanted Starsky for his own, forever, period, and that was just not going to happen. Though his hedonistic friend might be up to broadening his sexual horizons with a little homosexual experimentation, Hutch honestly couldn't see his partner settling down with him the way Hutch longed for.

Stifling a sigh, Hutch returned his attention to the files he was sorting. He had all of DMV's records on the license plates of the participants in Wednesday night's ceremony. Minnie had pulled the records of any with a criminal history. Hutch was now putting them together. So far, there was nothing too promising. It wasn't at all the kind of suspects they'd expected to be dealing with in a cult that had three known ritual murders to their credit this year alone. For the most part, the flakes at Wednesday night's ceremony seemed to be the same kind of pathetic thrill seekers that that loser Slade had conned when they were investigating those vampire slayings.

It didn't make any sense. In the nine weeks Starsky had been working as Anderson's groundskeeper and doing small jobs for the guy, they had logged at least six ex-cons with murder records coming and going, but not a one of them had been here Wednesday night.

"If you're gonna go for dinner, you better get outta here now," Lowery said, interrupting him a few minutes later. "Dobey said your partner would be showing up in about an hour."

Hutch nodded and met the older man's bored brown eyes through a thick cloud of smoke. He hated leaving the van for even short stretches, in case something broke. Lowery wasn't the kind to take risks, even when another officer's life was on the line. It wasn't likely that Starsky would show up early, but Hutch could take nothing for granted, not when they were out of contact like this. If Starsky were in trouble, he was gonna need more of a back up than this lazy slob.

But Lowery was right about one thing. If Hutch didn't go now, it would be hours before he could leave the van again. He needed to hit the rest room and get something to eat. Over seven hours had passed since Dobey had forced him to eat half of the sub their captain had ordered for lunch. Although he wanted to be here every minute, just in case, it wasn't humanly possible. Between the paperwork this long-term op generated, the court appearances for their pending cases, and his voluntary surveillance duty, Hutch was feeling stretched pretty thin himself. He knew that Dobey was right, that he wasn't going to be any use to his partner if he wore himself out worrying like this, but it was hard to let go, even for an hour. He didn't really relax until Starsk was back at Villar's dump at night, safe in bed.

"Don't know why you insist on sittin' here every night when you could be home watchin' the game," Lowery commented.

Normally, Hutch was as responsive to the other cop's verbal gambits as a dead trout, but this kind of remark got on his single remaining nerve.

"Starsky is my partner," Hutch snapped.

"Even so, it ain't like he's out there on his own. Maloney'n me've been watching this dump for over two months now. If there was any trouble, we'd—"

"Call it in?" Hutch couldn't contain his sarcasm.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Lowery bristled.

Recognizing that he was going to have to spend God knew how many more nights trapped in this man's company, Hutch made a conscious effort to tone down the aggression. "Nothin'. You want anything from the diner?"

Lowery might be a feckless waste of space, but he wasn't the worst cop on the force. When his partner Maloney was on duty, Hutch had to deal with the same apathy and listen to how the LAPD was going to hell in a hand basket since those affirmative action laws had put so many blacks on the force. Lowery might be a pig, but at least he wasn't a racist pig.

But Hutch's comment had apparently hit the other man where he lived. Truth had a way of doing that.

Lowery removed his headset and glared at him from the back of the van. "We can't all be hotdogs like you and your partner. Some of us want to live to see retirement, which you guys are never gonna do if you don't stop grandstanding the way you do."

Translation—stop making us look bad.

"Right," Hutch said, reaching for his jacket. "You want somethin' from the diner or what?"

For a moment it seemed that Lowery might actually have had enough balls left to be genuinely offended by a comment that would have landed Hutch a knuckle sandwich with another kind of cop, but the gray-haired cop relented and said, "Bring me back a jelly donut and a coke."

Hutch repressed a shudder and nodded. Not even Starsky would have asked for a coke with a jelly donut. Coffee, perhaps, but never a coke.

As he stepped out of the stuffy van, the cool evening air kissed his face. That first breath, lush with the scent of bunchgrass, California sagebrush, and blue gum eucalyptus trees, made him feel like he'd never breathed before; it was so fresh and clean. Drawing those growing scents deep into his lungs, Hutch was reminded of what California had been like when he'd first moved out here, before it became so developed.

It was an illusion, of course. This suburb was no less built up than any of its neighbors. Everything wild and free had been tamed decades ago. Their van just happened to be parked on a street that fronted a copse of woods that acted as a sound barrier between the residential neighborhood and the eight-lane highway behind it. But as he started down the block, he was grateful for the illusion.

Off duty for the next hour and free of Lowery's company, Hutch allowed his mind to wander as he walked to the diner three blocks away. It was hardly surprising that his thoughts bee-lined to the one subject he'd prohibited himself from dwelling on while on active duty—last night with Starsky. Though he'd been plagued by the potential disaster this change in their relationship could bring, Hutch hadn't allowed himself to relish how incredible last night had been. Now that he could do so in relative privacy, Hutch let himself remember how good Starsk had felt in his arms, how right, how perfect, everything from their first kiss to the inevitable climax had been.

He still couldn't believe that it was real, that Starsky had kissed and held him, that they'd fallen asleep cuddled together, and, perhaps most unbelievable of all, that Starsk wanted more. Ken Hutchinson just didn't get this lucky.

He could hardly wait for this night to be over, so that they could have their talk. He wasn't sure what Starsky might have to say to him. He'd expected their relationship to fall apart this morning. It was just so hard to even imagine his macho partner wanting him. But Starsky's note had been encouraging and Hutch's own memories of last night reinforced the good feelings he had about this. Beyond his initial panic that Hutch was going to freak over his arousal, Starsky had been fine with everything they did. No squeamishness, no obvious reservations or inhibitions . . . they hadn't been very adventurous, but they'd both been too exhausted and emotionally stressed out to handle much anyway. That would doubtless change, if not tonight, then after this case broke.

Damn, but it was hard waiting, Hutch thought as he walked through Tony's Place's swinging chrome door. Realizing that he had no conscious memory of the last two blocks, Hutch had to smile. It felt great to be in love.

The diner's interior was pure Americana, one of the thousands of cookie-cutter fifties joints that Starsky loved. The air was rife with the smell of sizzling hamburgers, laughing patrons, and clinking crockery. It was the nearest restaurant to County General Hospital, so the place was pretty much packed no matter what time you arrived.

Hutch detoured long enough to use the bathroom and then took the red vinyl booth he'd spent the last two months eating in. He was slowly working his way through Tony's Place's uninspired menu. He stared at tonight's entry, wondering if he had the stomach or the nerve to try the meatloaf. The last thing he needed later was indigestion.

Deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, Hutch smiled up at the matronly blonde waitress and ordered a large garden salad, which at least gave him a fifty-fifty chance of getting something green into him.

Glancing at his watch, he wondered what Starsky was doing right now. Considering traffic, he was probably on his way over. The tingle that ran through him at the thought of just glimpsing his partner as Starsky walked into Anderson's freak show was absolutely ridiculous. He'd known this man far too many years for this kind of reaction. What mystery or thrill could there be when you were with someone you'd listened to burp and snore for over a decade?

But reaction there was. Hutch couldn't remember feeling anything this strong for more years than he cared to think about. What he had felt for Gillian came close, but even that paled to the sheer thrill just the thought of loving David Starsky gave him.

"You're looking happy tonight," Mona, his usual waitress, commented as she came by to collect his empty plate a short time later. "Someone doing better?"

Hutch looked up, startled. "Huh?"

"You usually arrive right after County's visiting hours," Mona explained. "You usually look so worried that I figured someone close to you was in the hospital, long term, like."

Was that why she was always so kind to him, Hutch wondered, startled by how bad he must have looked if absolute strangers were reading his anxiety over his partner.

"No, no one's sick. Thanks for asking, though," Hutch said.

"I'm glad to hear that," the gracious blonde said with a huge smile. "You want some desert tonight? The lemon meringue is pretty good."

Normally, he wouldn't have even been tempted. The past two months eating had become something he had to force himself to do. But tonight, he had a real hunger. Still, the salad had been huge and his duties were far too sedentary of late to be stuffing himself with lemon meringue. Maybe when this case was over and he was back to his usual jogging routine, he and Starsky could splurge and buy a whole pie.

"No, pie tonight, but thanks, Mona," Hutch refused. Remembering Lowery's request, Hutch added, "Oh, if you could stick a coke and a jelly donut in a bag, that'd be great."

"Sure thing." Mona smiled. She was gone and back with his order and bill in an instant.

After another quick stop in the men's room, Hutch was on his way back to the van.

The sun had set while he was at Tony's Place. In the darkening twilight, Hutch watched a bat swoop across the street as he started back to the van.

It was strange. He'd walked this same street every night for the past two and a half months and never before noticed how beautiful it actually was with the row of neat little white and pink stucco ranch homes on his right and the woods on his left. It was a sleepy, peaceful neighborhood. The golden lamplight spilling out from the huge picture windows in the front rooms over the manicured lawns gave him a cozy feeling.

Shifting the paper bag with Lowery's donut in it, Hutch quickened his pace. Starsky would be arriving pretty soon.

Hutch squinted as a car turned down the street he was on, temporarily blinded by the light. Another faithful customer on the way to Tony's, no doubt, he thought.

He'd gone another few yards when a rustling in the woods behind him to his left drew his attention. Hutch had been thinking stray dog or raccoon when he heard the noise. The last thing on his mind as he turned was a mugger, but the huge shadow rushing him could be nothing but a man.

Hutch's hand leapt towards his gun . . . about ten seconds too late. Before he could get a clear view of his attacker, he felt a heavy weight smash into the back of his head. His last clear thought was shit, not again as he tumbled to the blacktop.

Starsky took his time as he left the car, postponing the inevitable as long as possible. He didn't want to do this, didn't want to deal with this scum. All he wanted to do was go back to Hutch's and crawl into bed with his big, blond partner and see what kind of magic they could make together.

Sighing, he shook off his hesitation and walked purposefully up the steps to a wide, circular porch supported by tall columns. Seventy or eighty years ago those columns would have been stark white. The lady of the house would probably have taken afternoon tea out here. Concentrating on that safe, normal image, Starsky worked the devil head doorknocker.

"Hail, Satan," Vincent Baldino, the muscular, dark haired ball of belligerence that Starsky had been paling around with for the last six months or so, met him at the door. Dino was still in his street clothes, Starsky was glad to see. "Oh, it's you. Where the fuck've you been, Mikey?"

"Cool it, Dino. You will not believe the night I've been having," Starsky complained, slipping into his undercover persona with an ease that was beginning to worry him. He could feel everything about himself hardening as his body adopted the air of a man who got off on pain and torture.

"What's up?" Baldino asked, looking absurdly relieved to see Starsky/Villar, like the creep had some real attachment to him.

Even though Starsky knew what Baldino was, the scam still made him vaguely guilty. Dino thought he was a friend. Though a confirmed sociopath, there was something likable about Baldino. When he wasn't molesting underage kids or losing his hair-trigger temper, the guy had a sincerity about him that was appealing. But safe as he might seem at the moment, Dino was wired wrong. Sooner or later, Baldino would short-circuit, as all psychopaths eventually did, and then his friendship with Starsky wouldn't mean diddley, 'cause the Dino that joked and laughed would be gone and he'd be dealing with the pain freak that had hospitalized Scarpaci last night.

Still, at the moment Dino was in his buddy-buddy mode, so Starsky grinned and responded to him in kind, laughing as he explained, "The fuckin' Mustang stalled on me again."

"Fuck, man, we'll have to see about hooking you up with better wheels. Can't have Mr. Anderson's new driver late for duty." The shorter man laughed and slapped Starsky on the back. Baldino was built like a bouncer; although small of stature, he was all muscle.

Starsky nodded and followed the ex-con inside.

Starsky had learned long ago that there was more to undercover work than just mouthing the lines that would be natural to the criminal element you were portraying, more than making the required, token gestures at the appropriate moments. If you were going to live to see the other end of an undercover assignment, you had to become your persona—you had to walk like him, breathe like him, think like him, and even fuck like him. That was the only way you stayed alive.

Sometimes when playing a petty crook it was an aura of subdued desperation and dangerous, frustrated hunger Starsky had to project. But Villar was no petty criminal. The man was a cold blooded, sadistic murderer. This portrayal was far subtler than any which Starsky had taken on before. As Villar, he had the paradoxical task of appearing both controlled and unstable. Every breath had to exude menace, so that when he stood naked among these loonies later, they would know that he was the sickest bastard among them and not mess with him.

That he was very good at this was not something of which Starsky was proud. The change came almost too easily to him. He felt as if he were reverting to something, instead of assuming a role.

And maybe in some ways that wasn't so far from the truth. He'd walked this thin edge in the jungles of 'Nam, always just one breath away from snapping and learning to glory in the blood and the savagery. He'd flirted with his darker side only once since he'd returned Stateside, during the Hames kidnapping. He'd lost control of his killer instincts the day that he'd blown those two kidnappers away after he'd seen Hutch fly through a glass door when they shot him.

He knew that what he was doing here was dangerous. He'd never go in for the sick stuff these twisted perverts got off on, but Starsky knew if he let this dangerous side of himself out too often, the time would come when he wouldn't be able to stuff the predator back into the dark corner of his soul where he kept it caged.

The unconscious respect creeps like Baldino accorded him was testimony as to how successful Starsky's darker half was when let out to play. The ex-con treated Starsky/Villar like he was a warm bottle of nitroglycerine.

"Everyone's here already," Baldino reported as they moved to the changing room, which looked more like a high school locker room than anything else. Its presence was discordant here in this house of depravity.

"So? Didn't your mama ever tell you it's chic to be fashionably late?" Rule Number One of undercover work—never appear overeager. It was a dead give away to the bad guys, with the cop in question inevitably ending up that way.

Wishing for some privacy, Starsky nonchalantly disrobed beside the dark-haired pervert. Dino was busy shoving his own clothes into his locker, so he didn't see the .22 Starsky stuffed into his boot as he put it back on. Guns hadn't been a problem last night, but Starsky always liked to have a little extra firepower in case of trouble.

"Mr. Anderson was not amused," Baldino related as if this were the most horrible fate that could befall a man.

Knowing that it could very well be just that, Starsky shrugged with a monumental lack of concern. "Too bad. Short of sproutin' wings and flyin' here, this is the best I could do. He waited, didn't he?"

"Yeah, but . . . ."

"Come on. Quit your yappin'," Starsky ordered, pleased to note how Baldino shut up on cue.

Guys like Baldino puzzled Starsky. Like most mob bosses, Anderson would be nothing without someone like Baldino to do his dirty work for him. Yet, the Dinos of the world always deferred to these figureheads like their bosses were doing them some kind of favor by allowing them to work for them. It was more than an overgenerous paycheck. Baldino deferred to Starsky/Villar the same way when they were alone, like maybe the guy really felt better having someone there to tell him what to do with himself all of the time.

Naked save for his socks and boots, Starsky reached for his shoulder holster.

"Not tonight," Dino said, stopping his hand. Starsky was way too conscious of their nakedness as the thug stepped in close to him. "Leave the Beretta in your locker. Only ceremonial knives are allowed in for the final initiation."

It was only at this point that Starsky noted the wicked dagger secured to the belt of Baldino's robe. The blade had to be nine inches long.

"But I wore it the other night," Starsky protested. Every instinct he had was screaming that it was a bad move to leave his piece behind. Though nothing untoward had happened during Wednesday's kinky scene, this wasn't the kind of company you took chances with.

"Wednesday you qualified to play in the big league. Today's the World Series, man. No guns. Either you're one of us or you're out," Baldino said.

Starsky was abruptly aware of the .38 in the next locker, upon which Dino's hand was casually, or not so casually, resting. For all that Dino was struggling to keep things light, Starsky could sense the danger in the air, the possibility of sudden violence.

There was no way Starsky could get his Beretta unholstered or draw his backup before Dino fired.

"Come on, Mikey. I know none of us like to go without back up, but you know me. Nothin' bad's gonna happen to you. I swear. I'll be right there beside you." The earnestness was completely sincere.

"So what's gonna go down?" Starsky asked, his heart hammering wildly against his chest.

"Nothin' you ain't done before. Same as your last initiation ceremony, I bet. It's a piece of cake, man. You know the ropes."

Starsky, who didn't even know where the ropes were, let alone how they were rigged, gave an unconvinced nod. He had the .22. It wasn't much in the way of firepower, but it would have to do.

"This is just up your alley," Dino assured. "Chill out. You're gonna love it. I swear."

Trying to appear nonchalant, though his hackles were standing on end, Starsky took a step back from Baldino and put his holstered gun in on top of his folded clothes.

As he started to slam the locker door shut, Dino's hand halted him again. "The.22, too."


Starsky froze. He couldn't do this naked. He could not walk into that freak show completely unarmed, even though he knew Hutch was listening just a block away. His throat could be slit before the surveillance van was even in motion.

"Come on, Mikey. We ain't got all night. You wanna do this or what?" Baldino challenged, losing patience.

This was, after all, what he'd spent the last nine weeks working for. There really wasn't any choice. Giving a mental prayer that Hutch would get here fast if the need arose, Starsky retrieved the .22 from his boot, put it in the locker beside his Beretta, slammed the door shut and snapped the combination lock closed.

"That's my man!" Baldino relaxed and clapped him on the shoulder.

Feeling more naked and vulnerable than he had in his entire life, Starsky slipped into one of the long black, hooded robes that were popular in this sort of circle.

As he did so, he noticed Baldino put his .38 into his boot. Apparently, the no guns directive applied only to newcomers. Not liking what that said about what was going to go down here tonight, Starsky concentrated on getting the robe to fall right.

Anderson's group's robes were more stylish than most. These had large, strategically placed holes at the genitalia. The things didn't look so much obscene as ludicrous in Starsky's embarrassed opinion. He didn't know how a guy was supposed to appear menacing and diabolical with his privates flopping around like a banked fish.

"Ready?" Baldino enquired.

Starsky nodded and started towards the adjoining ceremonial chamber where he'd screwed that chick in front of the congregation on Wednesday night. He turned the knob, only to find the door firmly locked.

"Not that way," Dino said.

"Huh?" Starsky paused.

"That room's for the day-trippers. You've graduated to the inner circle now."

Knowing that that was supposed to be a good thing, Starsky pasted a grin on his face and said, "No shit!"

In no way did he allow his body to telegraph the alarm he felt as they passed by the room where he'd planted his bug. Hutch and his back-up were going to be monitoring an empty room while he was doing God only knew what with these freaks. This was getting better by the moment. Now he was not only unarmed, he was completely without back-up.

He followed Dino down a set of stairs into what had probably originally been a wine cellar. The walls were thick, the staircase down pretty long. Not much in the way of sound was going to carry back up to the street from down here. Staring at the solid concrete blocks that formed the walls, Starsky doubted if a gunshot would even be heard on the street above.

The room Baldino led him to met with Starsky's cinema-induced expectations. The large chamber was a sick parody of the Roman Catholic churches that Starsky had visited. A white marble altar dominated the front of the hall, but the offerings made on this one weren't of bread and wine as in those traditional churches. The long slab was equipped with adjustable restraints that would allow a sacrificial victim to be manipulated as desired without releasing the bonds.

As he entered, Starsky could see that there was someone bound to the altar, but the robed cultists gathered around concealed everything but the sacrifice's feet.

So far, the offerings Starsky had seen bound in these sick ceremonies were purely symbolic. No one had lost their life, but he hadn't really been permitted into the cult's inner sanctum before tonight. Everything he'd seen and taken part in so far was fairly open to the public, at least to those with stomach enough to stand the perversions.

This room was far more disturbing than the hokey chamber he'd seen on Wednesday, which had had more in common with Ezra Bean's set-up. This room was the real thing. The very air seemed to throb with menace.

From the second he and Baldino entered, Starsky was freaked by the place.

Above the altar hung an upside down crucifix. The figure nailed to the cross was naked with highly disproportionate genitalia. On either of the sidewalls were thirteen evenly spaced plaster hangings that were the satanic counterpart to the Catholic's bewildering Stations of the Cross. In these, the characters were pictured as engaging in acts so obscene that they made even the street-wise cop uncomfortable.

Even to Starsky's agnostic viewpoint the set up was highly offensive, mostly because the chamber was consciously intended to do just that. Its major purpose was to offend and blaspheme by its very existence.

The air of gothic horror was made complete by the flickering candlelight which lit the scene. Dozens of standing iron sconces with six inch wide, circular black and red candles cluttered the room, casting a fluttering orange glow over everything that added a surreal edge to it all.

Starsky's gaze flickered over the pornographic religious regalia and the eight robed celebrants who'd come to enjoy this unholy gathering. Wednesday night there had been nearly thirty whackos, but tonight there was only this handful. Taking in the hard male faces that turned their way, Starsky gulped. Aside from Baldino, they were strangers to him. These weren't the twisted flakes that he'd partied with a couple of days ago. This group was hardcore. The real thing, not those jaded day-trippers. The shark inside Starsky stirred, recognizing its own kind.

All this passed by on an almost unconscious level as he scanned the room, for once Starsky got close enough to the group to distinguish their features, his eyes were riveted on the altar itself. Or, more precisely, on the offering pinned to the altar.

Wednesday night a shapely brunette had been strapped naked on the slab in the other, less ornate chamber. The girl had seemed as excited by the restraints and the cult's observation as by the ceremony that had followed. Tonight's supposedly voluntary, symbolic sacrifice was blond and male. Every feature of that tautly bound body was chillingly familiar.

Starsky froze at the sight of that golden nimbus surrounding the bound offering's head. Hair so gold it was almost white, those tiny curls in its sleek, shoulder length tumble of gold . . . last night he'd fallen asleep with his fingers tangled in those curls.


Remarkably enough, Starsky's step didn't falter too long when he beheld his partner spread-eagled on Satan's altar. Just a momentary pause and then he was moving again.

Despite Starsky's outer composure, his heart was pounding frantically as his mind tried to accept what he was seeing. What the hell was Hutch doing here? How had these freaks gotten their hands on his partner? Was his cover blown? Was that why Dino had taken his guns from him? Was everyone in the van dead? And, most importantly, how was he going to get them both out of this alive?

No, if his cover were blown, Dino wouldn't have been so friendly upstairs, Starsky told himself. He didn't know how these wackos had gotten Hutch, but as he took in Anderson's welcoming expression, he realized that his own cover was still intact.

He allowed no trace of recognition to touch his face as he studied the bound man and frantically reviewed their options, which were pathetically limited. The odds were nine-to-one. And he didn't even have the damn .22 on him. He knew Baldino was packing, but he had no way of knowing how many of the others were carrying. Every one of them had one of those long, wicked daggers sheathed at their waists.

Remaining unmoved under Hutch's wild, terrified stare was the hardest thing Starsky had ever had to do.

"Villar! You've joined us at last!" Anderson purred urbanely from beside the altar.

Starsky ripped his gaze away from his partner, transferring it to the reedy, grandfatherly figure looming over his friend. Anderson's face was almost kindly, his voice soft and lulling, his attitude nothing short of charming. It was only when one looked deep into those crazed blue eyes that the benevolent image shattered.

Despite the gentle visage and voice, the ludicrously gaping robe, high-lighting Anderson's gray-haired genitals, and the oh-so-pleasant smile, Starsky felt himself shudder. His earlier question was answered with a vengeance. This was how a guy appeared menacing and diabolical in these stupid gowns.

Starsky pulled himself together with an effort and tried to keep his head clear. If he panicked now, they were both dead. From the way Anderson was smiling at him, it was clear that his own cover hadn't been blown. He was going to have to work with that.

"Villar, let me introduce you to my companions—the inner circle of our little family here," Anderson said, in a tone that let Starsky know he was honored simply to be amongst these men. Anderson first gestured to the thin brunette on his right and then went on to introduce the entire group, "This is Father Anthony Balducci, a defrocked Roman Catholic priest. Beside him are Adam Tapscott, Will Marvel, and Rob Powers. To my left are Karl Beck, Mitchell Harding, and Ron Stevens. All have worked in our Lord's service for many years and are well favored in his sight." Anderson sounded as though he had that information straight from Satan himself, but, considering some of the crimes Anderson was suspected of committing, Starsky figured that was entirely possible.

He stared at the assembly. They weren't at all what he'd expected. With the exception of Mitchell Harding, who had long, glossy black hair, the men all looked like stockbrokers, clean cut, polished, successful and arrogant. Harding had black hair; Beck was nearly as golden as Hutch, but the rest were all brunettes or sandy blonds.

It was only their eyes that were the same. Though the color varied from man to man, their gazes all had that cold distance that Starsky had learned marked the deadliest of killers, the kind of wackos who could carve a dozen people up for fun and then go out for a pizza.

The shark inside him tensed as he came under the group's observation.

"Gentleman," Anderson continued, "this is our new initiate, Michael Villar. His credentials are impeccable. In the short time he has worked for me, he has more than proven his worthiness. Tonight, he will be elevated to our inner circle and accorded full honors thereafter."

"Welcome, brother," the group intoned as one.

Starsky nodded, trying to play it cool, trying to ignore Hutch's terrified stare. "Thanks," Starsky said, "it's good to be here." Recognizing that a question would not be out of place at this point, Starsky gestured to Hutch and asked, "What about Blondie here? Is he one of our inner circle?"

A pause followed, then Baldino stepped closer to him and grinned. "You're gonna love this one, Mikey. The guy's a cop. He busted me ten years or so ago. I did three years 'cause of this pig! I bagged him comin' outta the diner tonight. Can you imagine that? The guy musta been livin' around the block for years and I never knew it. Figure it's time for some payback!"

Baldino reached down Hutch's body and gave Hutch's balls a savage squeeze that made Hutch cry out in pain.

Starsky wanted to explode into action, tear the freak off his partner, and take Dino apart, but there were eight other armed wackos watching him. He had no gun, no back-up . . . no hope.

Schooling his features, Starsky stood stone still. Villar wouldn't react to Baldino's action and, for both Hutch and his sakes, Starsky couldn't, either. But it was the hardest thing he'd ever had to do. He'd never been so scared in his life. They were in deep shit here. If back-up didn't show up soon, Starsky had no idea how he was going to get them out of here.

"Really, Vincent, must you give away all our secrets!" Anderson reproved Baldino.

"Sorry, Mr. Anderson," Dino apologized. "But you said you were gonna offer him to Mikey and I thought . . . ."

"It's all right, Vincent. But in the future, please be more careful," Anderson cautioned. "What about it, Mr. Villar? Is this scene too heavy for you? Do you have any problem with our sacrifice being a cop?"

Starsky was almost preternaturally aware of Beck and Stevens' hands moving beneath their robes at that point. It didn't take a genius to know that they were arming themselves to deal with an incorrect answer.

If Hutch and he were going to live, there was only one reply he could give at this point. Drawing a deep breath, Starsky got himself as firmly back in character as he could manage under the circumstances. Shrugging his shoulders, he gave what he hoped was a convincing grin and replied, "I always have problems with cops, Mr. Anderson. This is the first chance I ever had to do anything about it, though."

Right answer. Anderson smiled, while Beck and Stevens' hands reemerged from their robes.

So far, so good.

"Very good, Villar. I knew you wouldn't disappoint us," Anderson approved. "Let us begin. Gentlemen, we come together to celebrate our Dark Lord's mystery. We welcome our brother Michael Villar to our fold and rejoice as he joins us in our celebration of our Lord's Black Mass. Now, if you will all join me, we will begin."

Stepping back so that he stood directly under the upside down crucifix, Anderson opened his arms towards the floor and said in the tone any rabbi or priest might use at services, "In the name of our father, who stands alone against sanctimony and hypocrisy, I begin this mass. Let us now recite the credo of our faith. We believe in the one god, and that god is Satan. We believe in . . . ."

It had been easier for Starsky to blend into that crowd of thirty on Wednesday night, when the fact that he didn't know the proper responses wasn't as important. Tonight, he felt as if all eyes were upon him as he stumbled through the perverted prayer, always a breath behind the group. Still, no one interrupted the ritual to draw attention to his lapse. Even though he felt as though he were screwing up, his performance seemed adequate to cover his ass. And, who knew, perhaps this perverted mass varied enough from group to group that the responses would be different, that he wouldn't be expected to know this stuff word for word straight off the bat.

As the cultist's voice droned on and Starsky felt that weird power building around him, he tried to keep his attention focused on the ceremony, but his eyes kept returning to the naked man in their midst. When their gazes touched, Hutch barely moved his lips, but Starsky saw him mouth the word gun. Hutch's raised eyebrows made the word a question.

Starsky gave a nearly imperceptible, negative shake of his head.

He felt the panic that shot through his partner as if it were his own. Hell, it was his own. No matter what went down, it wasn't going to be good.

The Black Mass progressed along the same lines as it had Wednesday night—a series of blasphemous prayers and bewildering bell ringing that should have been ridiculous, but which chilled Starsky's blood, because whether nerves or imagination were its source, he could feel that strange tingle in the air that grow stronger as the group progressed with their ritual, as though what they were doing here really did something on a psychic level. Starsky didn't want to think about that. He was freaked out enough just knowing how well armed his opponents were. He didn't need to attribute any super powers to them.

He wondered how long these wackos had had Hutch. Baldino had said they'd snatched him coming back from the diner. Starsky knew his worried partner had been taking his meal breaks a good hour and a half before Starsky was scheduled to arrive at Anderson's. Starsky had been here almost twenty minutes himself, which meant that Hutch had probably left the surveillance van close to two hours ago. Surely, their back up had noticed that Hutch was nearly an hour late? Someone had to be looking for him by now. For that matter, why hadn't they seen Baldino transport Hutch into the house?

But maybe they had seen Hutch get here and just not realized it. There was that attached garage. It opened directly into the kitchen. No doubt that was how Anderson's group had brought in all their victims. So, in the surveillance team's defense, maybe the cops in the van hadn't observed anything more unusual than Dino driving his car into the garage. But they had to know something had gone wrong. The cult had arrived, but the chamber they were monitoring where the ceremony had taken place on Wednesday, the room where Starsky had planted that bug weeks ago, was quiet as a tomb. Why weren't they checking out that silent mike? Hutch and he would've been scoping the place out almost an hour ago. How long was it going to take before their coworkers clued into the fact that there was an emergency situation going on here and that there were officers in need of assistance?

Maybe that would never happen. Maybe Dino had killed everyone in the van. But, no, if that had been the case, if the cop in the van had missed his check-in, there would've been a dozen cops in here ten minutes later. So, Starsky had to assume that the cop out there had made his regular contact with headquarters and was just too dense or distracted to realize that there was a problem. The only ceremony they'd taped was Wednesday night's, where more than thirty people had been in attendance. There was every possibility that the cop in the van might've thought the final initiation ceremony was cancelled, since only this handful of Satanists had shown up.

Starsky gnawed at the problem while the ritual progressed, giving the required responses along with the rest of the group while he tried to figure a way out of this mess.

All too soon, the chanting portion of the ceremony was over.

With a theatric flair, Anderson raised his arms up and intoned, "We will now celebrate the most sacred of our unholy sacraments, the celebration of the flesh. Our Dark Lord requires that we abandon all puritanical ethics and indulge our bodies in the darkest, most forbidden of pleasures, for only in that way do we truly free ourselves from our adversaries' chokehold on our will. As you took of his daughter the other night, Satan now asks you to take of his son, Michael Villar. Tonight you will break every commandment that has ever enslaved your will, including the first," Anderson warned. "Will you accept this final step and throw off our enemies chains? Once you make this commitment, there will be no backing out. Betrayal will be dealt with most effectively. If you speak of our rites outside of this building, punishment will be swift and final. Do I make myself understood?"

Starsky gave a slow nod, "Yes, sir."

"Conversely, the rewards of obedient, dedicated service will be many—starting with this prize before you. I offer this virgin sacrifice to you to welcome you to our circle. Will you accept it and all the responsibilities it entails?"

Feeling every eye upon him, Starsky gulped, hoping against hope that the bozos in the van would take this decision out of his hands and rush in like the cavalry. But, as usual, reality was nowhere near as fair as fiction. He let the moment stretch as long as possible.

There were two ways he could play this—refuse and pray that he lived long enough to make it to his guns in the locker and that Hutch survived long enough to be rescued once Starsky ran out of bullets and died, leaving his partner in the hands of these ghouls with their ceremonial daggers. Or, Starsky could play out the scenario as he had on Wednesday night, bide his time and then slip away unnoticed to the bugged chamber to get help once he'd been accepted as a bone fide son of Satan. Neither alternative was to his liking, but the latter had a slightly higher chance of succeeding.

It also meant that he was going to have to screw his partner here in front of this group of sickos. Starsky tried to absorb that thought, tried to look at it as a viable alternative, but his mind rebelled against it and spit it back at him.

He read the same realization transfixed on Hutch's horrified features.

Last night, with all its tenderness was a million years away, everything and anything Hutch had said then, meaning it at the time. But that offer was light-years away from what was going down here. There would be no tenderness here, no sharing, no giving—only taking, by force in front of these slavering voyeurs. They'd be lucky to even make it out of here alive.

And if they did survive . . . Starsky knew that if he went through with this now, that fragile dream that had been conceived between them last night would die stillborn, dead before it ever had the chance to see the light of day. This depravity would kill it more surely than Starsky's paranoid prejudices ever could have. If he went through with this, Hutch would fear his touch, be repulsed by him for all time. Starsky wasn't sure he wanted to live in a reality like that, a reality where Hutch would shirk from his hand. But what other choice had they?

It wasn't even his decision to make. Hutch was the one this was going to be hardest on, the one who was going to have to suffer the pain. So, it was his partner's right to decide how they would play this scene. He hadn't a clue what he would do if Hutch said no. There was no way he could take on all nine of these freaks unarmed.

Starsky waited before offering his answer to Anderson.

Hutch's eyelashes swept down as his cheeks filled with color. After a moment's pause, the strong, square chin gave an almost imperceptible nod of assent.

Agreement to what, Starsky wondered—refusing or playing along?

Everything in him wanted to just start punching and fight their way out, but Hutch was shackled to that damn altar, and, even on his best day, Starsky knew he couldn't have taken on eight guys as big and fit as Anderson's inner circle alone.

If he made any kind of a play now, they were both dead. Even if he just announced that he'd changed his mind and tried to bail, there was no way Anderson could let him walk out of here after announcing his plans to kill a cop. Starsky could see that Stevens and Beck now had their guns in their hands, though they were holding them out of sight down by their sides, concealed in the folds of their robes. Dissent was suicide. Hutch had to know that as well as he did.

The only chance they had at getting out of here alive was to play along. Sooner or later the cavalry would arrive to save them. If nothing else, Dobey would be calling the van in about a half hour to see how the ceremony went. The minute whoever was in the van told the captain that Hutch had gone out for lunch over two hours ago and not returned, Dobey would insist that they investigate. So, if they could hold out for thirty more minutes, they might just get out of here alive, if not unscathed.

Counting that Hutch's thought processes had followed their usual habit of mirroring his own, Starsky viewed that nod as permission to play along. Taking his chances, he drawled to Anderson, "I'm in. Like I said Wednesday, I've been looking for a group like this all my life."

It was the right thing to say. Anderson and Baldino relaxed immediately. A second later, Beck and Stevens discretely holstered their weapons.

"Very good. In reward of your decision, I offer you this sacrifice. Vincent here was quite eager to have it for his own, but since this is your initiation into our ranks and you are such close friends, he has agreed to offer you first dibs."

"Thanks, Dino," Starsky said, keeping in character.

"Don't mention it, Mikey. Enjoy. It might make up for some of the time you spent inside," Baldino said.

Realizing that the time had come, Starsky took a deep breath, praying that he'd be able to get it up under this kind of pressure. Garnering every ounce of his courage, he walked to the altar with an arrogant confidence and feigned sense of anticipation that took every ounce of his will and acting talent to project. Help would come, Starsky told himself. He just had to hold on till then.

"I assure you that our offering is a virgin to men and fully acceptable as a sacrifice to our lord," Anderson said as Starsky moved closer to the altar.

Starsky's gaze jumped to his partner's face. From the shamed blush that flushed through those familiar features, Starsky had a pretty fair idea of how Anderson had made that determination. Just the thought of that degenerate laying hand upon his partner's body that way made him want to kill.

But he couldn't think about that now. If he was going to get them out of here alive, he had a role to play.

"What do you want me to do?" he asked the Satanist leader.

"The same as last time." Anderson smiled benignly down at the wild-eyed detective bound on the altar. "As you embraced Satan's daughters, so shall you embrace his sons."

Starsky gulped. Same as last time.

Last time he'd gone down on that shapely brunette and gotten her off with his mouth. The knowledge that all those freaks were watching and the fact that he hadn't even known her name had made it kinky as all get out, but, basically, it wasn't anything he hadn't done a thousand times before. But Hutch wasn't a woman. He'd never touched another man's cock, let alone gone down on one. And now he was supposed to do it like a pro in front of these hardcore killers.

Don't think about it, his mind shouted at him, shaking him out of his incipient panic. Just do it.

Starsky reminded himself that he was supposed to be an ex-con and knowledgeable about these things. He just had to think of his initiation into kinky gay sex as part of the territory, same as doing that chick Wednesday night had been.

Only, Starsky was no longer certain that he could bluff his way through this terrain. That was his partner tied to that slab of marble—kind, wholesome Hutch, not some twisted stranger who got off on chains and sacrilege.

Starsky forced himself to divorce his idea of Hutch from what he was about to do here. They had to hold on until the good guys arrived. To do that, he had to play this game. So, he couldn't think of the man tied to that alter as his best friend. He just had to think of Hutch as another part of the assignment.

Wracking his brains, Starsky struggled to remember his encounter with that brunette Wednesday night, trying to figure out what was required of him. The first thing he'd been ordered to do was bring her to orgasm with his mouth and tongue.

Cold beads of sweat popped out on his brow. He'd never thought of Hutch that way before the past twenty-four hours. He'd gone down on any number of women in his day, but that was normal, expected. He'd never sucked cock; until last night, he'd never had the urge, impulse or even curiosity. Although he'd been exploring the concept in his daydreams all day today, this wasn't how he'd pictured it happening.

There was no time to gradually work his way past the inhibitions of a lifetime. He wasn't sure he could take even Hutch's cock-head into his mouth, let alone the other seven inches. Just thinking about sucking cock in front of all these people made him queasy.

But if he was going to get them out of here alive, he would have to go down on Hutch and do a lot more than that if the cavalry didn't get their asses here in the next sixty seconds.

Straining his ears for a siren, Starsky could detect nothing but his own rapid, panicked breathing. So much for the cavalry saving the day, he thought, taking a determined step towards the altar.

He was no novice to blowjobs. In his time, he'd received more than his share, but, knowing the mechanics did not necessarily ensure smooth technique. And, for both their lives' sakes, Starsky had to be smooth. He had to appear as ruthlessly efficient at sucking cock as he had at fucking that kinky chick Wednesday night or the gig was up.

Starsky had to admire his partner. Hutch's attitude was perfect. As Starsky crouched between his wide-spread legs, Hutch seemed to shrink in on himself as if to avoid him. Hutch's face settled into grimly determined lines of suppressed terror that was over-ridden only by his innate stubbornness.

Starsky recognized the expression. He'd worn it himself on many occasions. The stony tightness declared that whatever his enemies might throw at him, Hutch was determined to appear outwardly unaffected.

Hutch had listened in Wednesday night. His partner knew precisely what the game plan was. If Starsky was less than sanguine about fellating and fucking his partner, Hutch must be even more freaked by the concept of being on the receiving end. Starsky realized that Hutch's fear was no more feigned than his own would be if his partner were about to fuck him.

Starsky's stomach clenched in frustration. In his current role as the sadistic Villar, he couldn't offer Hutch any consolation. Hell, that sick bastard would probably get off on his victim's fear, would probably make a joke of it.

Inspired, Starsky began to talk. "Don't be lookin' to the audience for help, Blondie! I don't know where they got you from, but you're all mine now. It's just you and me from here on in. Just me 'n' thee." Starsky repeated the words Hutch had used to calm him last night, catching and holding Hutch's frightened gaze, allowing his own eyes to say everything the restrictions of his role wouldn't allow him to voice. The way they were positioned right now, Hutch was the only one who could clearly see Starsky's face.

Hutch's Adam's apple bobbed convulsively. His eyes shut tight—perhaps in dread, Starsky thought, or perhaps to block out his awareness of all those hot gazes breathlessly watching them.

"Mouth and tongue," Anderson sharply reminded Starsky as he began to reach for his friend.

Both partners flinched at the interruption.

Drawing a deep breath, Starsky rested his palms flat on the tops of Hutch's spread thighs, right below the prominently displayed hipbones. Starsky let his thumbs lightly skim down and inwards, ruffling the baby soft, nearly invisible blond hair. The subtle caress was visible only to himself.

Hutch felt it, though. Starsky could feel the unexpected pleasure ripple through the tense body, sensed how hard his partner fought against it.

Starsky lowered his head, ignoring how Hutch's body stiffened as Starsky's moist, hot breath wafted over his groin and inner thighs. If Hutch found his mere breath that repulsive, Starsky had no idea how his buddy was going to survive what was to come. He fervently willed their back-up to arrive.

Though he'd had no trouble at all today on getting off on the idea of Hutch sucking him off, he still hadn't been able to picture himself enjoying doing it to Hutch. But now, Starsky found himself strangely unrepulsed while staring down at his friend's vulnerable penis and balls, breathing Hutch's scent into his lungs with every shot of oxygen he took.

That warm Hutch scent was getting inside him, stirring responses that Starsky knew he shouldn't be having. Not here, not with Hutch being forced like this. Yet, the closer he came to that cock smell, the more excited his pulse grew. His heart was pounding, his blood rushing downwards. His response was so inappropriate that Starsky almost wished he'd failed.

He prayed that Hutch would know that this wasn't how he'd wanted things to go between them. But, even if Hutch did understand, how could he fail to be disgusted by someone who could get aroused by this kinky scenario? This was depraved by anyone's book, yet Starsky's cock leaped to attention like all the other degenerates around him. Hutch had to be hating him for that.

Still, his unanticipated excitement was a godsend of sorts. When he bent over Hutch, Starsky was shocked to realize that he was almost eager for the taste of him. Starsky knew his response was sufficient to fool his audience.

When Starsky opened his mouth wide to suck in the tip of Hutch's circumcised dick, he knew he looked like a pro. Or at least he hoped he did.

Hutch's bitter, salty flavor burned through him like a mouthful of scotch. Breathing became Starsky's immediate priority. Although Hutch was flaccid, he was still big.

Starsky discovered the trick of leaving his mouth wide enough to breathe around Hutch. A moment later, he discovered something else. He really liked the taste and bulk of Hutch filling his mouth. Hutch's unique, subtle flavor was making his own body respond in a very unsubtle manner.

This was supposed to be horrible, Starsky reminded himself. He tried to believe that it was fear making his cock go hard, but Starsky knew arousal when he felt it. It was touching Hutch that was doing it, and that was so wrong in this perverted situation. Only an absolute degenerate would get off on doing something like this to his tied up partner.

Hutch, at least, was behaving as expected. He was still fighting him, still stiff with terror everywhere but his cock.

Starsky lifted his head up to see Hutch's face.

Hutch's eyes were closed tight, his features creased with the strain of denial.

"Look at me, Blondie! Open those beautiful eyes of yours and look at me," Starsky ordered.

After a moment, Hutch hesitantly complied. There was a wild, desperate light brightening that familiar gaze that Starsky had never seen before. Hutch looked cornered, frantic.

"You want me to do this," Starsky said raggedly, drinking in Hutch's scent with each breath. He could hear the need in his own voice, could only imagine what his eyes must be telling Hutch. But he couldn't stop now. He had to get Hutch to relax enough to get through the rest without getting torn to pieces. They couldn't do that if Hutch kept fighting him.

Sensing the relaxing effect his voice was having on Hutch, Starsky kept up a stream of conversation.

"You want me to take you and own you," Starsky continued in a tone so gruff and thick with passion that he barely recognized it himself.

Hutch appeared almost hypnotized by it, however. Those crystal blue eyes were riveted on his face, as though Starsky were the only thing that was real to his partner at this moment.

Feeding into that illusory isolation, Starsky went on, "You've always wanted another man to do this to you, deep down in that dark place you never admit to. You don't get darker than this, baby-blue. They've given you to me and you're mine now. Fight me all you want, but we both know you're gonna submit to me in the end. 'Cause that's what you've always wanted to do—submit to me."

It was the sort of taunt that Villar might use in a situation like this, but it was working on focusing Hutch's attention solely on him, which was all that mattered to Starsky.

It had to be getting close to the time Dobey would make his nightly call. Their back-up would be here any minute, Starsky kept telling himself. They just had to hold it together for a few more minutes. They could do that—easy. Yeah, right.

Feeling the rapt attention of every eye in the room and his partner's near-mesmerized gaze heaviest of all, Stasrsky poked his tongue tip out and delicately flicked it across Hutch's saliva-slick glans.

Hutch gasped. Starsky felt him shudder.

"That's better," he said. "Let it go." Remembering where they were and what they were supposed to be doing, Starsky continued, "Our Dark Lord desires your submission, and I demand it. Submit to me, feel me, let me feel you shiver under me."

Starsky deployed his tongue again, this time in a more intricate pattern. He knew from being on the other side of this what that whisper light teasing did to a man, how it ripped a guy apart with ecstasy.

Hutch groaned, a long painful sound as the resistance seemed to be violently stripped from him by that delicate pleasure. Starsky's efforts were rewarded with an immediate stiffening of that long, thick shaft. Its color went from a pale, petal pink to a furious red in seconds as it filled with blood.

In that moment, there was only the two of them. Anderson and his devil-worshipper goons vanished from Starsky's reality, even the awareness that Hutch was bound and helpless faded. Fire, pure and wild, sizzled between them.

The totally focused, totally shocked expression on Hutch's face told him that his partner was feeling exactly the same thing.

Starsky could feel the threads of flame that were connecting them, reaching out to embrace Hutch's burning flesh. He felt connected to his partner at this moment as he'd been to no other lover, not even Terry.

Though their bodies were barely touching, Starsky could feel what was going on under his partner's skin—fear, horror, revulsion at being forced to perform this way, but fiercest of all was the over-riding, inappropriate want. Hutch's flesh was screaming out for his touch. That shocking need was there in Hutch's eyes, a hunger that the victim of this kind of depravity had no business experiencing.

It stunned Starsky as much as it excited him. He'd hoped to relax Hutch if possible. Though he'd wanted to, Starsky hadn't really believed that he'd be able to turn Hutch on in this situation, even if Hutch were attracted to him.

But there was no doubting Hutch's present arousal. When Starsky moved over the Hutch this time, Hutch's hips surged up to meet him.

Hutch's gaze was fixed on him now, its intensity building an envelope of privacy. As Starsky worked his mouth up and down that pulsing cock, he could feel the unbound passion rampaging through Hutch.

Every time he glanced up the length of his partner's sweaty body, he would find that electric blue stare fixed on his mouth as if Hutch were memorizing every moment of the event, instead of hating it.

His hands cupping Hutch's lean backside, Starsky guided his partner's thrusts. The rhythm they found together was wild, as primal as a force of nature.

Hutch's thrusts abruptly faltered. Starsky felt the deep spasm that reverberated throughout Hutch's body and then the startling sensation of heated liquid splashing the back of his throat.

He was thrown by the unexpected feeling, the shock of a guy coming in his mouth. He froze for an instant, torn. Everything in him wanted him to spit the jism out, it tasted so gross. But Hutch's face, braced for rejection even as he climbed the ladder of release halted that impulse. Somehow, Starsky gulped down the bitter-salty outpouring around the impeding bulk of that massive cock.

He could feel the organ withering between his lips, deflating with every spurt. When it seemed Hutch had nothing more to give, Starsky released it.

Thunderstruck, Starsky gaped down at Hutch's upturned face, reading the incredulous wonder that was etched into every line of the strong features. That he could have derived that kind of pleasure in such horrific circumstances was incomprehensible . . . but there it was, shining bright from Hutch's face.

Starsky wasn't sure what that meant, all that he knew was that it made him feel soft inside . . . and that was the one thing he couldn't afford to be, not here, not now, not if he was gonna get them out of this alive. So he ripped his gaze away and hardened his features.

He couldn't be weak before Anderson. He had to be the psycho ex-con who thought only of his own pleasure and didn't give a fuck about anyone else.

When Starsky looked away and hardened his features, the body beneath him tensed.

Before he could look back to make amends to Hutch with his eyes, the private cocoon they'd forged between them was shattered.

Both detectives started at the sound of Anderson's lust thickened voice. "Very good, Villar. Very good, indeed. You worship his flesh with far more vigor than you displayed with Wednesday night's offering."

Lifting himself from Hutch's groin, Starsky shrugged. He redonned his undercover persona with difficulty. "I told you the other night, I prefer blonds."

"Ah, yes. If you'd be so kind as to move back a little," Anderson requested with perfect manners.

Still dazed from tasting Hutch that way, Starsky did as asked and leaned against the side of the altar, allowing Anderson to take his place between Hutch spread-eagled legs.

Starsky grew nervous. He didn't want this degenerate anywhere near Hutch.

How much longer would it be before their back-up realized they needed support? He'd thought they'd be here within a half hour, but, though it felt like an eternity, Starsky was dismayed to realize that little more than ten minutes could have passed in actual time since the ceremony started.

Anderson smiled down at Hutch before saying, "I told you that you would fall to our Dark Lord's power. No man can withstand His temptations. You give your flesh willingly to Him now. Though your mind resists, your body knows its lord and master. You will now offer the ultimate sacrifice to our Master, my friend."

Hutch grimaced with repugnance as he squeezed his eyes shut and turned away.

Starsky recognized Anderson's intentions too late.

The time to move had been in those moments right after he'd come, when everyone was a bit dazed from the vicarious thrill. Now the element of surprise was lost and Hutch was about to pay dearly for Starsky's stupidity.

Baldino stepped up to Anderson, offering a huge golden bowl. Inside was a thick, sweet scented, blood red gel.

The cult leader dipped his index and middle fingers deep into the tub, withdrawing a healthy amount.

Starsky shivered in fear as a Stevens rung the small brass bells again.

Anderson's free hand slipped under Hutch's butt and lifted his hips as high as the restraints would allow. Then, without warning, Anderson plunged his fingers deep into Hutch's body.

Hutch screamed at the brutal invasion, the sound reverberating eerily through the stone chamber. Sweat and tears dripped down Hutch's face as he grimaced in agony as Anderson continued to force his fingers up inside him.

Starsky felt that brutal invasion as though it were his own body being violated. The savagery of it and Hutch's pained outcries ripped him out of his shock-induced haze. His action was automatic, instinctive. Starsky lurched for the sadistic pain freak torturing his partner, and stopped when Hutch sobbed, "No . . . don't . . . not . . . augggghhh . . . not now!"

"My apologies, but your time has come," Anderson crooned, misunderstanding.

But Starsky knew he'd been ordered to stop, so he clenched his fists in his robe and just stood there, watching impotently as this degenerate raped Hutch with his fingers.

It seemed to go on forever. Anderson's long fingers continued to violate Hutch's rectum. The old bastard was relishing the torment.

With every sadistic twist those hidden digits made in Hutch's body, at every helpless cry his partner gave, Starsky's rage blazed brighter. He felt like he was going crazy, as if there were fire burning him from the inside out. He wanted to rip Anderson's throat out with his bare hands and watch the son of a bitch bleed to death.

He was a hair's breadth away from losing it completely. If he let go of that control now, there'd be no coming back. The savage he'd kept imprisoned for years would break free and the upstanding cop Starsky had fought to make himself would be gone.

Starsky had to defuse. He'd let his dark half out too often in the past nine weeks. He couldn't afford to lose it now. Hutch was counting on him.

While it might be personally satisfying to kill Anderson, Dino's gun would make certain that neither Hutch nor he made it out alive. Though he no longer cared about himself, he was determined to get Hutch out of this depravity alive. He owed Hutch that much.

So, he looked away from what was being done to his partner, allowing his gaze to rest on the one thing in the room that wouldn't incite him to murder—Hutch's face.

It was lined with pain, sweat and tears dripping down the tortured features. Hutch's eyes were squeezed shut, but they opened, almost as if Hutch had felt Starsky staring at him.

Fever-bright with pain, those crystal blue eyes settled on his own. The pain and desperation were plain, as was the hopelessness. It was obvious that Hutch didn't believe they were getting out of this alive. But looking at Starsky seemed to help. Hutch appeared to brace himself as their eyes met and held, seeming to take courage and comfort from Starsky's mere presence.

"You're a lucky man, Villar," Anderson said, calling Starsky's attention back. "Our offering is truly a virgin, tighter than that youth you were so eager for a few days ago."

"Blondie here will do fine. Move aside," Starsky forced roughness into his dry mouth, anxious to end his partner's ordeal.

"Not so quick," Anderson said, removing his fingers from inside Hutch so fast that Hutch grunted at their abrupt withdrawal. "Get down a minute, Villar."

Starsky hesitantly eased off the altar, then stepped back, reluctant to allow any distance between himself and Hutch.

Anderson moved to Hutch's feet, Baldino to his head. Both men did something to Hutch's restraints, and then flipped Hutch over onto his stomach. Within seconds Hutch was once again spread eagled across the altar, only this time face down.

Starsky gulped. He knew what would follow, but every iota of him rejected it. Please, not this way . . . let that damn squad car arrive . . .

But there were no sirens, only the excited breathing of the unholy congregation around them.

"Your assistance, please, Mr. Baldino," Anderson said sweetly.

Dino put the bowl of lubricant down on the altar beside Hutch and then reached out to cup Hutch's buttocks. Baldino roughly squeezed the pale cheeks, pressing his thumbs up the center of the crease, and pushing down until they pierced Hutch's anus.

"Uaagghh . . . ." Hutch grunted in pain.

Starsky bit down on his inner lip until he tasted blood as Baldino's hands moved again to brutally spread Hutch's buttocks to bare his anus to the light. He held the cheeks apart, pulling so hard to keep them separated that Starsky could see the line where they were joined turn white under the stress of it. The stretch alone had to hurt like hell.

It was too much for Hutch, who knew what was going to happen. He started screaming, "No! Please, no! Don't! Please!" The pathetic pleas degenerated into "God, oh, god, no, oh god . . . ." as Anderson's fingers moved in.

The tiny golden bells chimed as Anderson's greasy fingers once again violated Hutch's body. This time Hutch's scream was closer to a shriek. It shook Starsky to think how much it must have hurt, because he knew how hard Hutch was trying to control himself for his sake.

Anderson's hand withdrew almost immediately, but it left behind a souvenir. Starsky only got a brief glimpse of the tiny white wafer deposited there as Anderson and Baldino's hands simultaneously withdrew. The intruding wafer was small, but it had to be agonizing.

"Now you may begin, Villar," Anderson said, vacating the altar. "Remember, no hands. Mouth and tongue only."

"Gotchya," Starsky growled, silently promising his shuddering partner that he'd make this fiend pay for this.

Starsky climbed back up onto the altar. With less hesitation than before, he knelt between Hutch's forcibly splayed thighs. His own arousal was long dead, killed by Anderson's sadism.

Starsky futilely wished that he was able to see Hutch's eyes. He needed to feel that spark of unity now as he never had before. All he could see was Hutch's long back with its scar on the left shoulder, the sweaty tangle of hair at the back of Hutch's neck . . . and the way Hutch's sides were shaking, as if he were weeping silently with his face hidden against that cold white marble.

Starsky's nerve all but deserted him. How could he go through with this?

He glanced around the candlelit church of Satan. Anderson, Baldino and Tapscott were close enough to snap Hutch's neck the moment Starsky made a play, and, even if they hadn't been that near, there were still six other armed and aroused sickos watching them. There was no way they'd make it to the door alive. No way at all.

He had no choice here. It was do it or die. Even if he died, there was no guaranteeing that his death would spare Hutch the humiliation to come. Anderson or Baldino would be more than happy to take his place up here behind Hutch.

Hutch was gonna hate him forever for this. But at least if he went through with it and bided their time till rescue arrived, Hutch would be alive to hate him.

Not thinking about what he was doing, he put both his hands on Hutch's butt and spread those flat cheeks out wide. Sticking his tongue out, Starsky felt around for the wafer. Its sharp edge pricked his taste buds. Resisting the impulse to vomit, Starsky loosened the obscene thing with his tongue, then swallowed it down. The desecration made his stomach lurch.

It was all Starsky could do to keep the foul thing down inside him. It was only the knowledge that Hutch was in less pain now that it had been removed that made it at all bearable.

Feeling his own courage about to balk, Starsky put all thought from his mind. They were either going to do this or die and they sure as hell weren't gonna die here, not like this.

So Starsky tuned out his audience and tried to figure out how he would manage this with a limp cock.

Feeling the tension in Hutch's body, Starsky realized that if he entered Hutch when his partner was tensed like this, he would rip him to pieces.

He had to relax Hutch. But Anderson's insane restrictions forbade him from touching Hutch with his hands.

Starsky's heart froze at the helpless whimper Hutch gave as his buttocks were nudged apart. Every muscle in Hutch's body turned to lead as he seemed to brace himself for penetration.

Starsky's tongue darted out and tentatively licked at the red, swollen anus.

At that first touch, Hutch shrank away. But the unthreatening tickle of Starsky's tongue had some effect. Slowly, Hutch's body began to untense.

Starsky concentrated on what his tongue was doing. He'd never done this to another person in his life. But if he could make this better for Hutch, he'd do it, gladly. And, the more his tongue worked, the less strange it seemed. His own breathing and pulse rates increased as he submerged himself in Hutch.

Starsky pushed his tongue up through that tight bud of muscle, forcing it to cede to his will.

Hutch moaned at the penetration. It was painful, Starsky could hear that. His partner was sore as hell.

Starsky kept rimming as long as he could, stopping only when Anderson's harsh, breathless, "Get on with it!" shattered the strange, sensual haze into which he'd managed to sink.

At least Hutch's shoulders weren't shaking anymore, Starsky thought, hoping that Hutch was no longer crying.

To his intense shame, Starsky found his body more than ready to meet Anderson's demand. The circumstances had very little to do with his present state. It was touching Hutch that had gotten him so hot. And there was no way for Starsky to tell Hutch the truth, that it was touching him that had aroused him, not the sick circumstances.

If they survived this, Hutch would always believe that Starsky had gotten turned on by this depravity. But, at least Hutch would be alive to hate him, Starsky told himself as he shifted to position himself for entry.

To his shame, his cock was aching, throbbing with need as Starsky dipped his own fingers into the lubricant bowl Dino had left on the side of the altar. He coated his pulsing shaft, almost coming at the feel of his own hand.

Hutch drew in a deep breath as Starsky laid hands on his butt and positioned himself. Hating how much he wanted Hutch, Starsky slowly forced the blunt head of his circumcised cock past that tight ring of guarding muscle. Although he knew Hutch would derive no pleasure from this, Starsky's own body couldn't help but respond to the tight heat that immediately gripped his cock-head. Hutch was perfect around him, a blazing, squeezing fire that set his own flesh burning.

There was no mistaking Hutch's grunt at the penetration as anything but pain.

Beads of fresh sweat burst out all over Hutch's pale back and he went rigid under the hurtful entry.

"Oh, Christ . . . ." Hutch sobbed.

Mocking laughter met Hutch's cry, then Anderson said urbanely, "I'm afraid He won't help you here, my friend."

Shocked out of his body's visceral reaction to the penetration, Starsky prepared to withdraw. He'd take his chances with the wackos.

"Don't," Hutch gasped. The order, though said softly, was distinct. A second later, Hutch's body tightened around his invading cock.

Don't what, Starsky wondered, his body ready to nova at that delightful squeezing. Don't continue? Don't move? Don't stop?

The pause stretched far beyond Starsky's endurance. He glanced over his shoulder to see that the other men present were coupling as well. It was at about this point on Wednesday that the ceremony had degenerated into an orgy, Starsky remembered, wondering if he could make his move now.

But then he saw that Stevens was standing off to the side, out of immediate range. His gun was drawn. His aroused cock looked nearly as hard as his automatic.

Starsky's attention was called back to what he was doing when Hutch gave him another squeeze. He took the small hump Hutch's butt made up at him as tacit permission to continue.

With a relieved sigh, Starsky loosened his controls. He carefully lowered his weight, sinking into his partner as gently and unhurriedly as he could manage.

It still hurt Hutch like hell. Starsky could tell that from the fresh sheen of sweat that dewed his partner's skin and the way the passage would constrict around him when the pain became too much. He wanted to stop when that happened and wait for Hutch's body to accept him, but there was no way a creep like Villar would be that considerate of his victim. Although almost everyone was absorbed with their own celebrations of the flesh, Stevens was standing guard and might notice if Starsky were too gentle. He did his damnedest not to purposefully hurt Hutch, but it was almost impossible not to. His role aside, there was a point in the sex act where a man simply could not stop, and Starsky was at it.

That squeezing sensation was incredible. Hutch was so tight, so hot and slick around him. The fit was perfect, like Hutch had been built for him.

As Starsky plowed that virgin channel, he knew that every inch was paid for by his partner's pain. And he did it anyway, and it still felt great, even though he hated himself every second.

His controls finally caved in. Starsky found himself thrusting for all he was worth, owning Hutch as he'd owned no other lover in his life. He laid claim to Hutch's body. The chains holding Hutch only accentuated his ownership.

His wild, no doubt agonizing ride halted as Starsky's hips finally molded into the muscular buttocks beneath him. He'd opened Hutch all the way. He could go no deeper. Hutch was his, all his.

Coherent enough to notice how Hutch shivered beneath him at the play of breath over his neck, Starsky impulsively licked the soft, slightly sweet skin beneath Hutch's nearby ear.

"You hangin' in there, babe?" The whisper was almost a sub-vocalization, breathed directly into his partner's ear.

Hutch's entire body shook beneath him as he nodded, then Hutch's hips gave a little squiggle, which Starsky translated as an order to get things over with.

The friction that movement caused was enough to take the matter completely out of Starsky's hands. Instinct took over and he started to thrust again.

He lost himself to the fire in his blood, riding Hutch hard. Under the combined fear and prolonged anxiety, Starsky's body exploded within moments. He slumped down onto Hutch, too exhausted to withdraw.

Around them, Starsky could hear the sounds of other couples uniting in a similar fashion as the orgy continued.

Hutch drew a ragged breath and turned his head as far towards Starsky as his restraints would allow.

"Don't stop," Hutch urgently whispered, his voice ragged.

"What?" Starsky asked.

"Only you. Please. Only you . . . ."

Of course. On Wednesday, Anderson had mounted the sacrificial offering once Villar was through with her.

As if on cue, a heavy hand gripped Starsky's shoulder.

"Well, done, Villar, but it's my turn now," Anderson said.

Starsky glared up at the cult leader, making sure that it was irritation alone that showed in his brusque attitude. "I ain't done yet. You said the offering was mine as long as I could keep it up."

"You honor our lord with your virility. Continue, please." Anderson laughed, running his hand up the inside of Hutch's thigh, right beside where Starsky's knee was planted.

Both men flinched at the contact.

"Like I said the other night, it's been a while," Starsky said.

Anderson gave an evil chuckle and drew a less than enthusiastic Baldino close to him. "Carry on, then, by all means."

Relieved, Starsky turned back to his partner. He could still feel Anderson's curious stare scorching his back.

Starsky resumed pumping his half-erect cock into that tight body, counting on the friction to bring him up again. He fell into rhythm as he pumped himself to fullness deep inside Hutch's tight heat.

There was no sobbing from Hutch this time, his partner lay there, apparently limp with relief at being spared becoming a party favor.

It took longer to achieve completion this time, which was good, because it kept Hutch from having to endure another partner. Starsky could hear the coarse cries around him as the Satanists reached orgasm, and a short time later, his own body was convulsing with pleasure for the second time that night. Since Gunther's hit, that hardly happened anymore.

When the haze of climax cleared, Starsky gazed dazedly around to find that the others had completed their celebrations of the flesh and were once again watching the couple on the altar.

Anderson laughed at Starsky almost good-naturedly. "If you're quite through, Villar, we'd like to complete the service. You've made our Dark Lord very proud tonight. Perhaps in the future you may serve Him in other areas."

"You only have to ask," Starsky gasped, reluctantly disengaging from Hutch's body.

Hutch hissed as Starsky's cock eased out of him.

Anderson slapped Hutch's buttocks the second Starsky had pulled clear of him, laughing with malignant glee. "If you think that's bad, Mr. Policeman, wait until you see what we have planned for you later."

Pretending not to hear Hutch's stifled sob, Starsky carefully climbed down from the altar and turned his back on his partner. Villar wouldn't care about Hutch's pain, and Starsky wasn't sure he could hold it together if he looked directly at Hutch after what he'd just done and knew he was the source of that pain.

So, he concentrated on the mundane, like standing up. He wasn't entirely certain if his legs would hold his weight. They did, just barely, with residual protests and wobbles.

Starsky glanced around the candlelit chamber. Tonight's ceremony was following the same pattern as Wednesday night's. The sated, disheveled celebrants were gathered together, drifting towards a golden box on the far side of the altar. Baldino had told him it was the unholy tabernacle where the ingredients for the final rite were stored. Starsky didn't know what a regular tabernacle looked like or was used for, but he was willing to wager that the originals didn't have filigree demons sexually cavorting with humans worked into their surfaces.

The only difference between tonight's main event and the one starring that kinky brunette was the fact that the offering on the altar hadn't been cut loose yet. Anderson had freed the girl right after Starsky and he had finished mounting her the other night.

Figuring that it wasn't an unreasonable question for Villar to be posing, Starsky asked as innocently as possible, "What about Blondie?"

The group halted at his overloud inquiry.

"We'll get back to him, don't worry. Right now, we have your baptism to get through before we can finish the ceremony with the final sacrifice." Anderson said.

"Come this way, please."

"Ah, right," Starsky pulled himself together and rejoined the group.

When they had all assembled before the golden box on its pedestal, Anderson addressed his followers. "We welcome Michael Villar to our elite ranks and recognize him as one of our own. We invite our new brother to finalize his commitment to our Dark Lord and seal his bond with our most sacred sharing—the baptism of blood. We will begin with this token ritual and advance to the ultimate gift we can give our lord."

A respectful hush fell over the following.

Starsky knew that that final gift was probably going to be Hutch's life. Whatever he did, he was going to have to do it soon.

At Anderson's cue, Baldino moved forward to the tabernacle and withdrew a golden basin. Starsky's stomach roiled as he saw the basin's thick, red contents lap up and down the bowl's sides as Baldino moved, leaving a glistening red trail staining the gold. The blood was just starting to thicken. Whatever they had taken it from couldn't have been killed too long before the ceremony had started.

Baldino stopped before Starsky. Tapscott stepped up to Starsky and quickly undid the front of his robe.

Starsky's body was tensed to explode into action, but Stevens was still standing guard just out of range.

Starsky tried not to shiver at the unveiling, but he'd never felt so exposed in his life. His panic level was in the red zone as Anderson dipped his hand deep into the basin and brought forth a handful of the sickening gore.

Human blood . . . they'd said it was human blood . . . .

His skin was crawling as that hand approached, a scream growing in his chest. Was he going to let them put that crap on him? Villar would have done this in the past as a matter of course, Starsky knew that. He understood that he had to hold it together just a little bit longer, but . . . it was human blood!

Or maybe not. On the point of freaking, Staraky reminded himself about the last bunch of sickos Hutch and he had encountered who were into this stuff. They'd used goat's blood. And Simon Marcus' followers had used cattle.

Starsky stared at the basin. There was an awful lot of the stuff in that huge dish, maybe a gallon or more. Baldino could barely hold it up straight. It had been over six months since the LAPD had buried those John Doe kids. No way was this fresh red bounty that old. Since they hadn't found any new corpses in the last few days, chances were it was just animal blood. Unless, of course, there was another missing runaway's body waiting to be dumped in one of the back rooms.

No, Dino would've said something if they'd had a new toy. It had to be animal blood.

Not that that made it less disgusting. Starsky was standing here with his nude front exposed, waiting for some wacko to paint him with blood that might or might not be human. On any level, that was hard to accept.

As that gore-slicked hand was about to touch his chest, a scream formed in his throat. He couldn't do this, he just couldn't . . . .

On the verge of losing it, Starsky felt every panic impulse brutally shut down as the part of him he struggled to keep submerged fought free and took control. The shark wasn't afraid of the sight of blood; it hungered for it. That dark killer turned Starsky's grimace into a legitimate grin, forcing him to behave like the ex-con he was pretending to be.

So he held stone still, not even flinching as Anderson painted his chest and genitals with the sickening gore. The blood was cold and clammy against his skin, sticking like spent semen . . . or spilled blood.

Inside the dark corner of his mind where the real Starsky had been relegated, he mentally shuddered in revulsion as the Satanist's hand gathered his cock and balls in his palm, then caressed them almost lovingly as he spread the noisome liquid over him. But the shark didn't betray any of his disgust. To the contrary, the shark's shaft blossomed under the attention, as Villar's no doubt would have.

It was pure physiology, Starsky told himself. Anytime a guy got fondled, he got hard. That was just human nature.

Even so, Starsky was ready to choke on his own vomit; he was so repulsed by the scene.

He stared down at his blood-slick, engorged cock, wanting to disown it. First it had raped his partner and now it was getting turned on by some sadistic Satanist. His cock would never feel clean again.

Anderson kept talking while his hands moved over Starsky, but he filtered most of it out. Anderson seemed to be saying something about claiming him in the name of Satan.

Pushing the horror out of his mind, he concentrated on one important fact—that Hutch was temporarily safe.

Wondering if Hutch were even conscious, Starsky stared past Anderson's left shoulder, at the altar.

Hutch was conscious. He had craned his head around, so that he could see what was going on. Hutch had never looked so pale. His handsome face appeared bloodless as he watched the proceedings.

For the briefest instant, their gazes locked. There was no hope left in Hutch's eyes, but they seemed to offer Starsky strength none-the-less. Hutch seemed to be sending him the message that, no matter what went down, Starsky wasn't alone. They might be going to die in this corner of Hell, but they'd be going out together.

Starsky would have sworn that nothing could have made this situation bearable, but Hutch's courage gave him the strength he needed to pull himself together and get the shark back under control.

If Starsky had to let the shark slaughter every one of these sickos, he would. No matter what it took, he was getting Hutch out of here. He just hade to bide his time and make his move when the moment was right. The shark would know when.

Sensing that Anderson's initiation spiel was winding down, Starsky pulled his gaze away from Hutch.

Baldino returned the basin to the tabernacle, while Anderson led them back to the altar. Tapscott and Stevens were already there, turning Hutch over so that he was face up again.

Taking his place beside Stevens, Starsky stood there with the front of his body dripping cold, smelly blood, doing his best not to pass out.

"You did good, man," Dino said as he stepped up to his other side, giving Starsky's shoulder a brotherly pat. "I knew you wouldn't let me down. Now comes the sweet part. You're gonna love this."

Starsky gave a tight nod. He could feel the change in the air. The shark was stirring inside him, aroused by the smell of blood and the fear on the wind.

Baldino gave his shoulder a squeeze, smiled and moved to take his place at Anderson's right hand side.

His predator instincts on overdrive, Starsky watched Dino pass something wrapped in black satin to Anderson.

Anderson took the long, cylindrical bundle in his hands and then reverently unwrapped it. The object turned out to be a dagger identical to those worn at all the cultists' waists. Offering it first to the ground and then to the four quarters, naming Satan and four demons as he did so, Anderson blessed the object as Starsky had seen Roman Catholic priests bless the host in their sacrament. When he was done, Anderson looked over at him.

"Michael Villar, it is with great happiness that I present this to you. As our newest member, the honor of first blood is yours," Anderson said.

Starsky swallowed hard. He could feel Hutch's hopeless gaze digging into his face. The cavalry wasn't coming; that much was clear. If Hutch and he were going to get out of here, it was up to him. But at least he wasn't unarmed now.

Accepting the dagger, Starsky said, "Thanks. You, ah, want me to kill the cop?"

He indulged himself and met Hutch's eyes. Everything in him tightened up as Hutch gave another of those barely perceptible nods of assent. He knew what it meant. Hutch was telling him to play along and save himself. He'd have done the same thing if their positions had been reversed. But that was not happening. Live or die, they were in this together.

The pressure mounting inside him until every nerve was ready to snap, Starsky tore his eyes away from Hutch.

It was Dino who answered him from the head of the altar. "Not right away, Mikey. We wanna have some more fun with him—you dig?"

"Yeah, I dig," Starsky said. His nerves stretched that tiniest bit further before he hit his breaking point. One minute he was standing there perfectly in character, and the next, the shark was loose.

Stevens didn't even see the move that buried Starsky's dagger in his chest. Starsky pulled the knife back out as fast as it had gone in.

He moved so quickly that the rest of the Satanists didn't have time to react as their guard was taken out.

Stevens went down like a ton of bricks, but not before Starsky had relieved him of his automatic. With a dagger in his right hand and the automatic in his left, Starsky felt safe for the first time since he'd entered this infernal room.

There was no time to check the clip. Starsky just thumbed off the automatic's safety and started firing. Father Balducci, Tapscott, and Will Marvel, whom Starsky had never even heard speak, dropped almost simultaneously. The shots reverberated through the room like thunder, practically deafening him.

Rob Powers lurched at him with his dagger, but the shark took care of both him and the blond, Karl Beck, with chilling efficiency.

Two shots, two bodies. It didn't get more perfect than that in the shark's world.

That left only Mitchell Harding, Dino and Anderson, who had all had the sense to scatter to the wooden pews when the feeding frenzy started.

A shot whizzed by Starsky as Baldino and Harding opened fire. Anderson didn't appear to be carrying a gun. He just stayed down low in the pews on the left side of the chamber and let his henchmen protect him.

Starsky dived for cover, only realizing when he was down and shielded by the altar that his partner was still trapped out there in the open. Shit. That wasn't going to work.

Taking his chances, Starsky scampered for cover behind the nearest pew.

Baldino obviously hadn't seen him move. Dino was still shooting at the altar.

Harding, however, rose to get a better angle on Starsky, and lost his life to the shark in that nanosecond he was unprotected.

Seven down. Two to go. But Baldino was still firing at the altar. Hutch hadn't been hit . . . yet, for Dino was aiming at Starsky's last position.

Starsky could see that his partner's eyes were focused squarely on him. Hutch was obviously aware of his own vulnerability. He was lying quiet and motionless to keep attention off himself. But he flinched every time one of Dino's bullets ricocheted off the altar.

Knowing only one way to draw the fire from his helpless partner, Starsky rose to his feet and let Dino get a beam on him.

"Hey, Dino!" he shouted as he dived further down the pew, flattening himself against the hard marble floor.

Dino missed him, barely.

"Police, give it up, man," Starsky shouted.

Three shots thwacked through the wooden pew an inch from his face. This wasn't good. While Dino had him pinned down like this, Anderson could be moving to get Harding's gun. He couldn't let that happen. Starsky glanced around the side of the bench to see what Anderson was up to.

He'd moved, all right, but not for the gun. Anderson had risen and was standing over Hutch. Catching Starsky's eyes, Anderson grinned at him. The malice in his expression chilled Starsky's blood.

"Too late, Villar!" Anderson said, raising his dagger high above his head, directly over Hutch's chest.

Starsky didn't think. He just fired.

Peripherally, he was aware of Dino moving, but Hutch's peril outweighed his own.

Starsky's bullet pierced Anderson's lined brow before the Satanist had time to move. The impact sent the dagger clattering into a nearby pew as Anderson toppled over backwards.

Dino froze, Starsky temporarily forgotten as he stared down at his boss.

"What the . . . ! Mr. Anderson! No!" an insane howl filled the room, then Baldino went off into a tirade of, "You fuckin' traitor! You're a cop! A cop," Baldino blazed, his face livid, almost as red as the blood dripping from Anderson's shattered skull.

From day one, Starsky had known it would come to this. The only question that remained in his mind was whether he'd have the time left to chamber his next round before Dino started shooting.

With no more thought than Starsky would give to killing a mosquito, Starsky took aim at his drinking buddy and pulled the trigger. Only an ominous click followed, no gunfire. The clip was empty.

Baldino had him cold, his gun centered right on the crouching Starsky's chest.

"Tough break, fucker!" Dino grinned and fired.

Starsky threw himself to the side and made the only offensive move he could. Dino was more than ten feet away and Starsky had never had any talent with knives, but apparently the shark was capable of extraordinary acts when pressed to the wall.

Dino's bullet pierced Starsky's trailing robe, far too close for comfort.

A breath later, Starsky's dagger pierced Dino's chest on the left side. Not through the heart, but close as made no difference.

Baldino's gun fell from his limp hand. He dropped to his knees, a shocked expression on his face as blood drenched the front of his robe. Starsky saw Dino's hands fumble to the dagger's hilt, which was buried deep in his chest. As he groaned and struggled for breath, pink bubbles emerged from Baldino's mouth and nose with every outward breath.

The silence in the chamber was complete.

Staring at the carnage around him, Starsky took a couple of deep breaths and tried to calm his racing heart.

Standing, he stumbled over to Baldino and picked up Dino's .38.

The suspect was down, disarmed, and no longer a threat. Proper procedure demanded that Starsky cuff his prisoner and call for an ambulance.

He clicked back the gun's hammer.

"Starsky!" Hutch called from the altar.

Starsky glanced behind him.

"Don't," Hutch said.

Those blue eyes pleaded with him as they hadn't when Starsky had raped him less than fifteen minutes ago.

He'd die for this man. So would the shark. Whenever Hutch asked him for anything, he usually gave it to him. So did the shark. But tonight the memory of Baldino forcing Hutch's buttocks apart so that Anderson could bury that wafer inside Hutch was too much with him.

There was no thought to Starsky's next action. He just raised the gun and put a bullet through Dino's forehead. Breathing hard, he stared at the grisly results.

He should have been sickened by the blood and splattered gray matter that was spreading all over the pew and floor, but all he felt was a grim sense satisfaction. Now it was over.

The shark lived in a world where moral obstructions didn't exist. That simple reality was a seductive place to visit. Which was no doubt why the world was plagued with psychopaths, Starsky realized as he gazed down that tempting path of that perfect existence. It would be so easy to . . . .

"S-St-tarsk . . . ." the one voice that had never feared the conscienceless monster that dwelt within him called Starsky back from the brink.

Recalled to his circumstances, Starsky focused on his partner. Hutch was still shackled to that cold slab.

He was almost afraid of what he'd see in Hutch's eyes now. Starsky wanted to run and hide, but . . . his partner needed him.

Starsky gruffly asked, "How you doin', partner?"

Though he looked inches away from losing it, Hutch gave a weak, obviously forced smile. "I've been better. You gonna let me up from here or what?"

Starsky looked at the restraints on Hutch's right wrist. In his struggles, the metal clamps had bitten deep into his flesh, leaving Hutch's wrists a bloody mess. But aside from the gore, the manacles appeared pretty straight-forward. Lock and key.

"They need a key to open," Starsky said. "You wouldn't know where . . . ?"

"I think Baldino put the key in that box over there," Hutch said, his chin gesturing towards the box the basin of blood had been stored in.

Starsky left his partner, stepped over three of the bodies, and crossed to the tabernacle.

Hutch was right. The key was beside the golden basin. Starsky was back with it in a moment. He carefully undid the locks at Hutch's wrists.

He winced just looking at the puffy flesh, knowing that those hands had to hurt like hell.

The moment he lowered his arms, Hutch's face twisted in pain and he groaned.

Without thinking, Starsky reached out to rub his arms, knowing it was the only thing that'd help. Hutch's flinch was hardly surprising, considering the circumstances, but it hurt like a kick to the balls.

Starsky pulled his hands back. Consumed by guilt he muttered, "Sorry," at exactly the same moment Hutch did.

A chasm of pain gaping between them, they stared into each other's eyes for a long moment. Unable to even think about what he'd done, let alone face Hutch in the aftermath of it, Starsky pulled his gaze away first, closing his hurt away.

This wasn't about him. He wasn't the victim here. He had no right to lay his pain on Hutch now, not after he'd . . . .

Shutting that thought down, Starsky unlocked the shackles at Hutch's ankles. He did his best to minimize the contact. He couldn't stand to feel Hutch shrink away from him again.


He tensed at Hutch's soft tone, hardening himself, knowing gentleness would finish him. He didn't deserve compassion. What he deserved was . . . well, once he found Hutch's gun, his partner could administer what he deserved.

"Do you know what they did with your clothes?" Starsky asked in a dead tone, not even glancing at Hutch's face.

There was a long silence, then Hutch reported in pretty much the same voice Starsky had used, "There's a storage room behind the altar. They kept me in there till I woke up, then took my clothes. They're on an orange crate back there. I can get them . . . ."

"You can't even stand yet," Starsky said. "I'll be right back."

"Starsky . . . ."

He heard Hutch, but he was already moving and didn't stop. If he slowed down, he'd crack.

The room was a small, disorganized broom closet. Starsky switched on the overhead light and stared around. Piles of delivery boxes, stacks of candles, mops, brooms, and bottles of cleaning supplies littered the limited space.

Hutch's clothes were rolled up in a ball on a Golden Groves orange crate. His holstered Magnum rested on top of a five-gallon plastic paint bucket.

Starsky gathered them up into his arms and returned to the ceremonial chamber.

Hutch was sitting up when he returned, rubbing at his legs. Even from across the room, Starsky could see the goose flesh prickling his partner's tanned skin.

Starsky forced his gaze away. If things had gone as planned tonight, he might have had the right to look at that beautiful golden body, but . . . that particular what if had been buried here tonight. He'd count himself lucky if he maintained the honor of calling this man his friend after what had gone down here, and he wasn't even banking on that. Hutch would be fully within his rights to shoot him dead on the spot.


He almost jumped at the soft sound. Shaking himself, he brought the clothes over to the marble altar.

"Here," he said as normally as he could manage.

Starsky's hand shot out to steady Hutch as he slid off the altar and his unsteady legs swayed beneath him. "You all right?"

Hutch nodded, looking vague and shell-shocked as he clutched Starsky's arm. Starsky could feel the heat of those fingers through his robe.

"Yeah," Hutch replied, gravel-voiced. He sounded like he'd screamed or cried himself hoarse, which, of course, he had. The slightly-dazed, blue gaze fluttered about the obscene furnishings of the chamber before coming to rest on Starsky.

"I'm going to get dressed," Hutch said, releasing Starsky to fumble with his clothing.

Hutch's swollen hands were shaking too badly to work right, so Starsky helped him get into his tan cords and black button down shirt.

"I, ah, guess I better get outta this thing," Starsky said once Hutch was dressed. "And find out what the hell happened to those bozos in the van. Anderson's freaks didn't do anything to the van—did they?"

"No." Hutch shook his head, still seeming out of it. "It was just me they caught. I was coming back from dinner. Lowery should be all right."

"He's not gonna be when I get through with him," Starsky said.

He was no longer surprised that no one had come looking for Hutch. Starsky had worked with Lowery before. Lowery's lunch hour often stretched out to two or three. He'd probably just figured Hutch was doing the same thing.

"You, ah, wanta wait upstairs?" Starsky offered, not wanting to leave Hutch alone in this chamber of horrors.

"One of us should stay on the scene till forensics arrives," Hutch said. "Go clean up. I'll be okay."

Starsky nodded. The perps were all dead and it was unlikely the evidence would be disturbed, but it was never a good idea to leave a crime scene unattended.

"I'll be right back," he promised and hurried for the stairs.

He debated whether he should shower first or go into the other chamber where the mike was to call in back-up, but he didn't want Hutch to have to deal with the inevitable questions in his current state. They'd been waiting for back up for over a half hour now. They could wait another five minutes.

Once in the locker room, Starsky quickly slipped off his robe and ran to the shower stalls in the adjoining room.

Looking down at his blood-smeared body, he felt like he was going to puke. The scars from Gunther's assassination attempt looked particularly lurid with all that blood darkening them. It was crusting brown in his chest hair, like his own blood would when it would begin to dry.

He sluiced himself off with burning hot water. Using the harsh brown soap in the stall, he scrubbed at the red gore on his torso hard enough to take the skin off.

Much as he wanted to, he couldn't afford to linger. In less than three minutes, he was back at his locker, frantically trying to don his clothes while still soaking wet. He had to get back to Hutch.

His jeans and red corduroy shirt were completely drenched by the time he got them on. He pulled his white jacket on top. Starsky had , started to turn to the door when he realized he was barefoot and unarmed.

Once he had his boots and holster on, Starsky went to the room where Wednesday night's ceremony had taken place and kicked in the door.

"Lowery," he shouted into the dark room, "call for a coupla meat wagons and then get your ass down to the basement!"

Turning, he raced back to the stairs and down to Hutch.

He needn't have been so frantic. He found Hutch sitting in the last pew by the door, looking down at his clasped hands.

"Hi," Starsky said, for want of anything more intelligent.

Hutch looked up at him and forced a weak smile. He looked rough, but nowhere near as bad as he had a right to.

"How you doin'?"

"You gonna keep asking me that?" Hutch snapped with his usual short temper.

Starsky bit his tongue.

"Sorry," Hutch said a second later.

"No, I shouldn't've—"

Hutch's eyes weren't meeting his. "I'm gonna use the can. I think there's one over there." Hutch pointed to the door beside the storage room. "I'll be right back."

Starsky took a couple of steps after his partner, but Hutch never looked back as he walked stiffly to that other door.

It had just closed behind Hutch when there was a commotion behind Starsky.

"Freeze, police!" the authoritative command was conveyed by a voice far too young and uncertain to carry it off properly.

Starsky sighed as he recognized the speaker. Of all the patrol cars out there, it was just their luck that it would have to be this one that got their call. It figured that Lowery had waited for the uniforms to give him the all clear before coming in.

Starsky took a deep breath. He didn't have the patience to deal with the over-eager rookie right now. "Cool it, Baker. It's me, Starsky. Go out and call for a coroner's wagon if Lowery hasn't done it yet."

"Yes, sir, right away, sir," Baker snapped, reholstering his weapon. It was only after the uniformed rookie had left that Starsky belatedly realized that he should have also requested an ambulance for Hutch.

Patrolman Mitchell, a big muscular black man who looked like the ideal police officer with the clean cut figure he presented in uniform, entered the chamber. "Starsky? What happened?"

"You don't wanta know. What the hell happened to Lowery? He stop for donuts on the way over?" Starsky snarled, disgusted with the world in general right now.

"I'm right here," Lowery said as he entered the room.

Starsky saw red when he laid eyes on the older detective.

"What's that donut crack supposed to mean?" Lowery demanded.

Starsky was on him before Lowery had even finished speaking. Starsky slammed the older man into the wall beside the door, the hard bone of his forearm pressed tight to the other cop's windpipe. Satisfied, he watched Lowery's eyes bulge with terror as his face filled with blood.

"It means that my partner was missing for over an hour and you never bothered to call it in. It means that we almost died in here while you were sittin' on your fat—"

"Detective Starsky?" Mitchell interrupted his tirade, tugging on his arm.

Starsky didn't even hear Mitchell. All that existed in his universe at the moment was the jerk whose negligence had nearly gotten Hutch and him killed. If this loser had been on the ball, that silent mike would have been investigated before the ceremony had even had a chance to start.

Starsky couldn't ignore Mitchell when the uniformed cop used all of his 6'4" strength to physically haul Starsky off of Lowery.

Separated from his target, Starsky turned on Mitchell, ready to go through him to complete the job. He wasn't sane at that moment. He'd kill to get to Lowery.

Mitchell's handsome face showed that he was fully aware of the danger he was in. "Detective! Detective Starsky!"

Finally recognizing that Mitchell wasn't his target, Starsky tried to go around the man. Mitchell blocked him, holding Starsky in place.

"It's not worth it," Mitchell said. "Captain Dobey's on his way. Let him deal with it."

"What's going on?" Hutch asked, startling Starsky when he pushed Mitchell off him. Hutch's eyes moved over the scene, quickly interpreting what was going on. Freed, Starsky lurched for Lowery, but Hutch's hands replaced Mitchell's on his arms. He was not getting loose without hurting Hutch. "Get the hell out of here, Lowery. Now."

Lowery didn't have to be told twice. He was gone before Hutch had stopped speaking.

Hutch held onto him while he took some deep breaths. When the bloodlust had passed, Hutch let go and took a step back.

The forensics team arrived at that moment and they all cleared out of the doorway to let them in.

Mitchell followed them towards the front of the room. When the uniform finally got a good look at his surroundings, Mitchell gaped at the candlelit chamber in open shock. "What the hell is this place?" His dark gaze settled on Anderson and Baldino, who were crumpled in spreading pools of their own blood, then moved on to the other seven corpses. "Son of a . . . what in the name of God happened here, Starsky?"

"God had very little to do with it. You don't want the details. Take my word on it. Just go upstairs and get that damned coroner's wagon here, okay?"

"Yeah, sure, Starsky," Mitchell agreed, his attitude slightly bewildered.

"Thanks, Stew," Starsky thought to add. "I, ah, I'm sorry about before."

"Don't mention it. Lowery had it coming."

Starsky nodded.

"I'll go see what's keeping those wagons," Mitchell said, seeming in a hurry to get out of the basement.

Not that Starsky could blame him.

He stepped to the front of the chamber, staring at his handiwork while the forensics team started photographing the corpses. The shots had been flawless, all nine of them kill shots. Though every one of the bastards had deserved to die, it was scary to know that he was capable of killing like this, so fast and efficiently. The firefight hadn't lasted more than three minutes.


He looked around at the soft call. Hutch was standing right behind him, watching him with a worried expression.

The snug tan cords, black button down shirt and lustrous black leather jacket only accentuated Hutch's unusual pallor. Hutch's moustache stood out like a dark slash above his upper lip. Standing there amid all those bodies, right next to the altar he'd been raped on, Hutch appeared vulnerable, lost.

Starsky stepped closer to him.

"How you doin', partner?" he asked, forcing himself to meet Hutch's gaze.

Hutch looked like he was barely holding it together.

Even though he felt he no longer had the right to touch, Starsky took a firm grip on Hutch's muscular upper arm, sensing that, despite the awkwardness between them, Hutch needed something real to hold onto right now. Starsky prayed that Hutch wouldn't flinch away from him again.

He felt the shiver that coursed through Hutch's long frame, but other than that, Hutch held firm. No flinch, no pulling back, in fact, something seemed to relax in Hutch's eyes at his touch.

"'M fine."

Though it was the last thing Starsky wanted to talk about, he knew he had to check. "I, ah, didn't think to call an ambulance. Are you . . . I mean . . . ."

Hutch turned bright red. "No, I'm fine. I checked. I don't think I'm bleeding. I'm just . . . sore."

Remembering that the lubricant had been red, Starsky challenged, "How could you even tell if you were bleedin'? You gotta let someone check you out . . . ." Halfway through his protest, Starsky's gaze dropped to his scuffed boots. He was unable to discuss this subject while looking directly at Hutch's face.

Neither of them took chances with their health. When they were injured, they always went to the doctor. It hurt to hear Hutch argue against common sense. "I don't need a doctor, Starsk, or any tests. It wasn't Anderson, thank God. It was you and you were careful. No doctors, Starsk, please. I just wanna go home."

Starsky nearly choked, his throat closed up so tight with emotion when he heard Hutch thanking God that his partner had been the one to rape him.

"I'm sorry, Hutch. You gotta let the doctors check you out. If something were to happen to you . . . ."

Panic flared in Hutch's eyes, and with it his temper. Taking a vicious shot, Hutch hissed, "Something did happen to me tonight. You owe me. No doctors. That's final."

Though he knew he should stick to his resolve to have Hutch checked out medically, he wavered under that implacable tone. Unable to stop himself, he glanced up at his partner's face. At first all he could see was Hutch's anger. But as their gazes held, that dropped away. He'd never seen Hutch look so . . . scared, so defenseless. Every shred of dignity had been torn from him. Was it any wonder Hutch wanted to hold on to what little pride he had left?

"Starsky, I swear. I'm just . . . sore," Hutch insisted, pleading again.

Like he could tell, Starsky thought. By the time Hutch was aware of a problem, it would be too late. Starsky had seen enough peritonitis in 'Nam to know that.

"There's no way you can tell, babe. You can't even see . . . there. I'm sorry, but you gotta be checked out." Starsky stuck to his guns.

Hutch bit his lip, his eyes going wild. "I can't, Starsk. I just can't. Please . . . ."

This was fully as bad as being forced to rape his partner.

"Hutch, you know I'm right. Don't do this. We can't take that kinda chance. It's your life."

It was there in Hutch's eyes that it didn't matter to him right now that he might die. The desperation flared, then Hutch said, "Okay. You check me out then."


"If I'm bleeding, you can call for an ambulance. If not, we drop the subject. Deal?" Hutch asked.

The last thing Starsky wanted was to see what he'd done to Hutch, but if he refused this request, Hutch was going to hate him. That was crystal clear in those tense blue eyes.

Starsky looked around the chamber. The forensics team was occupied taking pictures of the corpses. No one else was around.

"Okay. Bathroom, now."

Moving around the exterior of the crime scene, they quietly slipped into the room beside the broom closet.

Hutch snapped on the overhead light. Starsky closed the door firmly behind them and moved to the sink to wash his hands. He could feel Hutch watching his face as he dried his hands with a paper towel off the roll beside the sink.

As soon as Starsky was done, Hutch turned away from him, dropped his pants down around his ankles and bent over to lean across the wet sink.

Starsky crouched down to get a better perspective. His hands were trembling as he reached out to part Hutch's buttocks. It didn't help that he could see bruises forming on the pale flesh.

Thankfully, the light was good in here.

Bending close, Starsky stared at Hutch's rectum . . . and nearly lost his cookies. The entire area was swollen, a bright angry red, and there was something red seeping out . . . .

"God, Hutch, you're bleeding all over the place," Starsky said.

"It's the lubricant. Here, check . . . ." Hutch reached to the side for something, handing Starsky a long length of toilet paper a moment later. "It scared the hell out of me, too."

His hand shaking, Starsky took the paper and reached forward to clear the area, realizing a second or so before he made contact how abrasive that paper was going to be against the abused flesh.

Bringing the toilet tissue to his mouth, Starsky soaked it with spit and then gently wiped away the red stuff. When he saw it against the white toilet paper, he could see that it's color was wrong for blood.

Still nervous, Starsky carefully examined Hutch's anus. It was swollen and way too red, but he could see no rips or tears. Bracing himself, Starsky made a more intrusive exploration, pretending not to notice how tense Hutch was around his finger as he did so. He couldn't feel anything out of place. No rips in the passage's slick surface. And when he withdrew his finger, all that was on it was more of the lubricant.

"Well?" Hutch asked, holding onto the sides of the sink with a white knuckled grip. His face was as red as the lubricant on Starsky's finger.

Feeling as though he'd just raped Hutch a second time, Starsky gulped and got to his feet. "I don't know, Hutch. I'm not a doctor . . . ."

"Was there any blood?" Hutch demanded, rising back up and tugging his pants into place.

Starsky sidled around him to wash his hands again.

"Not that I can see, but . . . ."

"No buts. This subject is closed. Now get the hell outta here."

Ready to puke at the cold anger in Hutch's voice, Starsky slipped out the door.

The forensics team was still hard at work a few yards away. Dobey hadn't gotten here yet. Not knowing what to do with himself, Starsky gravitated to the back of the room and stood there staring down at the scuffed marble floor. He felt, rather than saw, Hutch join him a few minutes later.

"Hey," Hutch said after a long silence.

Starsky looked over at him.

"I, ah, I'm sorry," Hutch said softly, touching his arm. " I shouldn't've gone off on you like that. I never even thanked you for saving my life."

"Don't thank me," Starsky snapped. Seeing how Hutch tensed at his outburst, he immediately apologized. "I'm sorry. It's just . . . you're the one who kept us alive. I should be thankin' you."


"You didn't give us away, partner. Even when things got rough, you kept it together."

Hutch shrugged. "We didn't have any choice."

"You really believe that?" Starsky asked, swamped with his own guilt again.

"We both would have ended up as sacrifices and dead any other way. With you . . . doin' it . . . it wasn't so bad." That last was offered in a tight voice.

He was amazed that Hutch could discuss it at all, much less tolerate his touch.

Hutch's courage was more than he could take. Starsky felt his own guards falter. His voice shaking as bad as his insides, Starsky choked out, "Wasn't so bad? They-they made me rape you, babe."

Hutch's control appeared to falter. A rapid-fire barrage of emotion flashed through the bright eyes before Hutch's expression stilled into something that Starsky could only define as abiding gentleness. "We were both forced."

"You don't . . . blame me?" Now he felt like he was going to start bawling any second.

Hutch's eyes widened in unfeigned shock. "Ahh, Starsk . . . of course I don't blame you."

For an astonishing instant, Starsky thought his partner was leaning forward to kiss him on the mouth, but Hutch merely rested their foreheads together.

Breathing the same moist air, Starsky took comfort from the intimate contact.

"You're shakin' all over," Starsky said when Hutch finally drew back.

"Nerves," Hutch said, shrugging the reaction off.

"It . . . hasn't hit me yet," Starsky confessed. Hearing a disturbance outside the chamber door and Dobey's voice raised in anger, he drew Hutch to a nearby pew. "Sit those shakes out here while I handle this bunch."

The next hour and a half passed in a jumble of questions, endless verbal reports, with everything culminating with Starsky handing over the gun he'd stolen from Stevens to IA for them to investigate the nine shootings.

A faint pink light was beginning to play along the eastern horizon when they were finally dismissed. Weary, they stumbled to Hutch's battered black Ford, the latest in his friend's infamous line of wrecks.

"I'll drive," Starsky offered.

"I'm all—" A wide yawn interrupted Hutch's protest. Giving Starsky a sheepish smile, Hutch opened the passenger door. "Maybe you'd better."

Starsky started the ignition. The motor's constant rattle sounded especially grating this morning. Letting it pass, Starsky carefully guided the banged up heap away from the odious building.

The atmosphere in the car became unbearably strained once they'd left the Church of Satan's police-car-clogged driveway behind them and turned on to the deserted suburban streets.

The time before sunrise when the late night revelers had found their way home and the morning rush had yet to start was, in Starsky's opinion, the most desolate hour of the day. The stillness seemed unnatural. Starsky's impression wasn't helped any by the tension in the car.


"Yeah?" Though the roads hardly required his concentration, Starsky didn't move his eyes from the blacktop.

"What did you tell Dobey?" Hutch's control was incredible. He sounded entirely professional.

"It was only a verbal report," Starsky said. Then realizing that stalling would only make things more difficult, he continued, "I told them you were kidnapped and tied to the altar against your will. Then I told them about Stevens tryin' to shoot me and Anderson tryin'ta stab you."

"And . . . the rest? Did you . . . ?"

"No, I didn't mention . . . the rest." Starsky wondered if that was how they were gonna refer to it from now on. The rest. Neat and unemotional, those two words covered a plethora of horror.

"It's gonna have to go into Dobey's report tomorrow," Hutch said in a dead tone.

Starsky schooled his face and voice to a calm blankness as he responded, "Only if you want it in there, partner."

Starsky glanced over to see how Hutch had handled his unprecedented suggestion.

Too much had happened to his partner tonight for anything to go easy on Hutch at this late hour. Tears stood out brightly in his partner's eyes. When Hutch spoke, it was in a tone of hopeless desperation. "What do you mean 'want it in there'? We don't have a choice. We've got to report it."

"Give me one good reason why," Starsky calmly demanded.


"You heard me," Starsky said.

Hutch's voice dropped. "Starsky, do you know what you're suggestin' here?"

"Yeah, I know. I'm not sayin' we should make anything up, Hutch, just not mention everything that went down. Unless, of course, you're plannin' on bringin' me up on charges?" It would be within Hutch's rights, and Starsky wouldn't blame him if he did.

Hutch gaped at him for a moment, then fixed his stare on the fists he had balled up in his lap. "Don't be an idiot. Of course, I'm not gonna press charges. You were forced . . . ."

Starsky cut in, detailing the cold facts of the case, "Hutch, I still did it. If you recall, Anderson even gave me the opportunity to walk before things . . . got too heavy. We both know that lettin' me go wasn't in that sicko's game plan, but we got no way to prove that now. We put everything in that report and it becomes official, public record. The scandel sheets're gonna have a field day with it. I don't want that. Not for you or me or for the force."

It all seemed too much for Hutch to handle. His voice shaking, Hutch said, "I don't know, Starsk. It feels . . . dishonest, like we're falsifying a shooting report or something."

"I know . . . ." Starsky raggedly confessed. "It feels that way to me, too. Hell, that is what we're doin', but what the hell else are we gonna do, buddy? We tell all, it'll be around the precinct before the mornin' shift starts and out on the street two hours later. Our credibility's gonna be shot to hell. And for what? It ain't like tellin's gonna add some years to a sentence. All it's gonna do is wreck our careers."

"You're . . . right. It just seems so . . . ."

"It stinks. I just don't know what else to do. We . . . we could tell the captain before we make our report . . . ask him what he thinks we should do," Starsky said. He didn't like the idea, but he realized that they were both too close to this situation to see it clearly. All Starsky wanted to do was turn back the clock and make like last night never happened. Hutch had to be feeling that even stronger than him.

"Tell Dobey . . . ." Hutch repeated, like the words were something out of a foreign language.

"Babe, if we can't handle tellin' him, how we gonna field the heat from the whole world knowin'?" Starsky heart broke at the pain in his partner's face. Normally, Hutch could face any trial without quelling, but this was a lot for even the White Knight to handle. Knowing what was right and living up to it were often two entirely different things. His partner had always done the right thing, as far as his professional ethics went. It was wrong that Hutch had to be put through this now.

"You're . . . you're right . . . . We should tell Dobey. Let him decide," Hutch whispered, seeming to deflate, as though the last of his pride had been physically ripped from him.

Something snapped inside Starsky at that look. This was not happening. Every joker on the street was not gonna have some comment to throw at Hutch about his partner loving to take it up the ass, for that was what this was all gonna eventually translate into if it ever got into an official report. Starsky knew it, even if Hutch couldn't see it yet. As much as he trusted their captain, Starsky was unwilling to risk even a whisper of this floating around the precinct.

And, since Hutch was too noble to take it upon his own conscience, Starsky decided to take it upon himself. He already had a rape and nine deaths on his scorecard tonight. What was a little withholding information on top of that?

Decision made, Starsky pulled the Ford over to the side of the road and turned to face his partner.

"Okay. This is how we're gonna play this. Look at me, Hutch," Starsky commanded of the shaken man at his side. "We're gonna tell them that you were kidnapped, stripped, and bound to that altar and that Anderson and Baldino were gonna kill you. That ain't no lie. It's the truth. I'm askin' you, as a personal favor to me, to leave the rest out. I take full responsibility for it. Can you do that for me, partner?"

Hutch's eyes sank shut as his full lower lip was caught between his teeth.

Starsky's heart twisted in his chest as a single silver tear seeped out of Hutch's left eye and ran down his cheek. He waited for the rest to follow that first escapee, but Hutch ruthlessly held his emotions in check. After the night they'd put in, Starsky didn't know how his partner held his sorrow back. Both his own eyes were stinging and he knew he'd be joining Hutch if his partner broke down, but somehow, Hutch held it together yet again.

Not opening his eyes, Hutch gave a defeated nod, then his head sank back against the headrest, leaving a totally upset Starsky staring at the vulnerable line of that long, tanned throat and at the two moles there. Starsky ached to lean forward and nuzzle those moles, but . . . that was never gonna happen. Not in this lifetime. Tonight had made sure of that, if nothing else.

Taking a deep breath, Starsky got hold of himself and muttered, "Thanks, partner."

Another nod, and still those eyes didn't open, like Hutch could no longer stand the sight of him. Not that anyone could really blame him, least of all Starsky, who just accepted the silent repudiation and restarted the car.

As far as he could tell, Hutch's eyes remained closed for the entire trip back to Venice Place, but he wasn't asleep; Starsky would swear to that.

"We're here, partner," Starsky announced as he pulled to a stop in front of the restaurant. He was too tired to think coherently and before he could consider the consequences, he asked, "You want me to come up for a while?"

The silence that followed was long and painful. As it stretched, Starsky realized the stupidity of what he'd just said. Like Hutch could possibly want him around after tonight . . . .

For an articulate man, Hutch was doing a lot of stammering tonight. The understandable refusal came out reluctantly, but the hesitation didn't lessen the hurt any when Hutch answered, "No, I-I-I'd like to be alone, if you don't mind."

"You sure you're gonna be all right? You want I should call Huggy?"

"No, I'll . . . be okay. I'll see you tomorrow. Bring the car back when you pick me up."


Without even looking back at him, Hutch fled the front seat. Starsky watched until Hutch was safely inside his door, then peeled away from the curb.

He was so tired his bones hurt, but instead of heading home, he turned on Fourth for Metro. There was no time like the present. He had some creative writing to do before he lost his nerve. That way, when Hutch came in tomorrow, the report'd be a fait accompli'. Hutch would either have to file a report that went along with his, or shop him to Dobey.

The way Starsky felt right now, he didn't give a rat's ass which way it went down. The thing he'd cherished most in his entire life had been destroyed tonight. He had nothing left to lose and even less to live for.