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Feeling he was in the way of the nearest camera man, Hutch slipped to one side of the room crowded with forensic specialists, pressing himself against the wall and toward the doorway.

Flashbulbs went off over and over again.

Before exiting, he glanced over toward the opposite wall. Starsky was staring at the grisly scene in the middle of the room, face pale. Then the curly-haired man lowered his eyes and looked away. Hutch started to take a step toward his partner -- not sure how they had gotten separated in the first place -- but Starsky looked up just then and their eyes met.

Hutch felt helpless as he stared across the expanse of the room toward the bleak depths, not knowing what comfort he could possibly offer.

Their look held until Starsky visibly swallowed. Then the shorter man's chest heaved with a sigh as he looked away yet again. And started toward his partner.

Hutch cleared from the doorway, making room for the empty body bag being carried in by coroner's assistants. He moved a few steps down the hall of the two-story house, then stood with his back against the wall. And waited.

Starsky appeared moments later, gaze still toward the carpet as he stopped next to his partner.

Hutch closed his eyes, wondering how it was that they were a single unit in so many ways, yet each had certain pains that he suffered more intensely than the other.

Rape was one thing. Male rape was another. And rape to the point of murder was something else altogether -- a crime that Starsky, for all his street wisdom and experience, seemed to have a more difficult time grasping than other types of abominations human beings could commit upon each other.

For Hutch, it was an awful scene, but no more nor less than most of the other gruesome things they saw in the daily course of their lives. He touched Starsky's shoulder and gently whispered, "You gonna make it?"

Starsky looked up and tried a smile that resulted in a weary grimace. "'M tryin' not to lose my lunch. It should have digested a few hours back."

"I hope so," Hutch noted, "since it's almost dinner time." This time his hand rested on Starsky's shoulder. "Let's get some air. There's nothing else we can do here." He led the way down the staircase, then out the door.

A few minutes later they were in the LTD. The blond looked over at his partner, who still looked dazed. "Want to log us out?"

Starsky dutifully straightened and told Control One that they were now off duty.

"Think you can handle some dinner?" Hutch asked.

Starsky shook his head. Then, "Just wanna go home."

"Okay," Hutch said congenially.

They rode in silence, Starsky gazing out the window, and Hutch trading his attention between the windshield and the man next to him.

Hutch pulled up next to Starsky's apartment building. As his partner reached for the door, he asked, "Want some company?"

A lip corner curled into a semblance of a smile and Starsky shook his head. He opened the door and got out. "See you tomorrow, huh?" He shut the door behind him.

Hutch drove away.

* * *

Hours later, Hutch sat in an easy chair at his apartment, wearing his robe, sipping a beer.

It had been a grisly scene and the chances of finding out exactly what had happened, let alone who was responsible, were slim. Was the victim a prostitute? A lonely man looking for a good time that got out of hand? The target of some sort of sick, sacrificial ritual? A bit of S&M that went too far? The victim of revenge, which the instigator wanted to carry out in one of the more horrifying ways imaginable?

No matter how many times Hutch ran the scenarios through his mind, his thoughts kept coming back to his partner. The pale horror on Starsky's face. He could imagine what the other was thinking.

Hutch closed his eyes, absently circled around the opening of the beer bottle with his thumb and forefinger.

It had been two months since he'd presented his case to Starsky -- presented a thoroughly thought-out, calm recitation of why they should be everything to each other, instead of almost everything. And Starsky had rejected him.

Except that wasn't really true. Never, in any of it, had Starsky rejected him. Starsky had only rejected the idea. For a while, Hutch had felt a tinge of bitterness that there really wasn't any distinction between the two. But as the days, then weeks, went by with his partner just as amiable, as affectionate, as friendly, as concerned as always, Hutch had to accept defeat. Starsky hadn't been lying when he'd said he was glad Hutch got it out into the open. Starsky hadn't seemed self-conscious or the least bit threatened; if anything, he had been concerned that Hutch's feelings were so powerful that they were a burden.

"I mean, Hutch," Starsky had begun worriedly a few days after everything could have changed forever, "it's not like... I mean, well... I mean, you don't have the hots for me or anything, do you?"

The question hadn't been motivated by a desire to protect his virtue. Starsky had been sincere, wondering if Hutch was suffering.

And the blond had loved him all the more. He'd shook his head. "It isn't like that," he'd replied. But how to explain what it was like? "It's not like when you look at a beautiful woman and think, 'I want that. I want to do it with her.' It's more...," he'd trailed off, gathering his thoughts, wanting so much to get it right. Even though his partner had said 'No' unequivocally, Hutch had found his own pride helpless against his partner's desire to understand. Finally, he'd softly said, "It's like, 'I love this person. So much. And I want to show him in every way imaginable.'"

Starsky had looked away, and Hutch had placed his hands on the other's shoulders. "It's all right. I've always believed that 'No' means no. I accept that."

Starsky had looked back at him then, a mouth corner twisting into a sympathetic smile. He'd been about to speak, but Hutch hadn't wanted to hear it all over again -- how his partner believed this was all coming about because Hutch's losses in the female department had been so great in recent months. So Hutch had said, "I don't see any reason to keep bringing it up, so I don't want to say anything more about it. But, buddy... if you ever change your mind, the offer's always open."

Starsky had nodded, not meeting his eye. And that had been the end of it.

And now this. A body ripped apart at its center, a cruel demonstration of what that sort of activity could do.

Hutch got up, put the bottle on the counter, switched off the lights. He discarded the robe and got into bed. He lay there for a few minutes, staring at the shadowy image of the telephone. Then he reached for it.

His fingers pushed the buttons automatically, the sequence of numbers effortlessly memorized from the sheer quantity of recollection.

It was answered on the second ring, the voice sounding tired. "'lo?"

Hutch didn't bother apologizing if he woke the other. "Hey," he said, "just calling to see if you're all right."

"Why wouldn't I be all right?" Starsky asked after a moment, but the tone wasn't defensive. "Just another example of the rotten things human beings can do to each other."

"Yeah," the blond acknowledged with a sigh.

"You not sleepin'?"

"Just got to bed. I'll be all right." He resisted pointing out that it was Starsky who always seemed more affected by this type of crime.

"Yeah. See you tomorrow."

"Night." Hutch hung up the phone, wishing the call had made him feel better.

* * *

Captain Dobey slowly closed the office door behind him, sealing himself off from his men. Ever since the night that Starsky had come to his home, the large black man been looking for signs. Even the next work day, there had been none. His prize detectives behaved the same way toward each other as always. Now, even with two months having gone by, he still found himself looking for any little gesture or expression that might indicate something different. But still nothing was visibly amiss. And he would be tempted to admit that he must have fantasized that late night visit.

Except he had a piece of paper in a safety deposit box that proved otherwise.

* * *

When Starsky entered his apartment, guilt weighed heavily upon his soul. He sighed and headed for the kitchen.

Lanette was a nice girl. She was a clerk down in Records and had been hinting at her interest for a while now. Finally, Starsky had yielded and set a date for tonight. They'd had dinner and gone to a movie. Throughout the evening Lanette had given off signals that she had no qualms about sleeping together on a first date. And Starsky had pretended not to notice. He'd taken her home and left her on her doorstep with a chaste kiss on the lips. He could hardly blame her if she didn't pursue a second encounter.

And he didn't care if she didn't. He twisted the cap off a cold one and leaned against the counter while indulging in the first sip. From that position, his eyes had little choice but to fall on the refrigerator.

Starsky gazed at the calendar attached to the door with a magnet. He took a marker from off the counter and moved to place an "X" over the box signifying today's date. Then he leaned back against the counter and stared some more at the calendar, crossing his arms in between sips of beers.

The month was two-thirds over and all the days prior to today were also marked with an "X". So were all the days of the month previous. And the last few days of the month previous to that.

Starsky turned away from the kitchen with a quiet sigh. He wasn't quite sure why he was doing it. But he didn't have his partner's penchant for analyzing things, so he decided to let it be. He just knew that each "X" meant yet another day's passing since Hutch had made The Suggestion. And Starsky's interest in the opposite sex had been minimal since.

He sat down on the sofa and unsnapped the harness that bound his holster to his body. Then he bent to untie the laces to his sneakers.

He probably would have felt better if it had been Hutch who had gone with Lanette. But Marianne, the blues singer, seemed to be the last in a long line of painful failures, and Starsky could hardly blame his partner for having withdrawn into monk-like behavior, being no more than politely friendly when anything of a female persuasion cast a glance his way.

And Hutch had thought making it with his partner would be the answer to that.

Starsky shook his head, snorting out loud as he pushed the shoes off his feet. His partner had always had the most bizarre of tastes -- from his meticulous health habits, to his love for the most decrepit of cars, to his zest for playing the role of hired killer Eddie Carlisle. And he had thought that sleeping with his partner would cure his unhappiness.

Starsky left his beer on the coffee table and laid his head back against the couch, gazing at the ceiling.

Hutch was one of those people who could never be loved too much. It took all of Starsky's energy simply to love him enough. And Hutch needed to have that love proven, in various ways, over and over again. If you loved me enough, you would sleep with me, he seemed to be saying that night eight weeks ago.

Starsky closed his eyes. He had done the right thing, he told himself over and over, by rejecting his partner's suggestion. He had done what was best for both of them. For if he became yet another one of Hutch's failures, then Hutch would have nothing left, no one to turn to after the relationship fell apart. Starsky's responsibility as the one who loved Hutch most was to pick up the pieces... not create them in the first place.

He was certain that Hutch understood that. Hutch seemed to have taken the rejection gracefully. Nevertheless Starsky knew there had to be some hurt that his partner hadn't allowed to show, just as he was sure -- after the first few days -- that things could continue as they had before. And, so far, they had. Except Hutch had left the door open, refusing to close it, should his partner ever change his mind.

Starsky tilted his head back as far as possible so he could see the calendar hanging on the refrigerator, decorated by the series of X's. He wondered how many days would go by before he no longer felt the need to keep counting.

* * *

Hutch sighed as he entered the squad room and plunked his jacket down over the back of his chair. He'd had a miserable weekend. The plumbing backed up on Saturday morning and the landlord hadn't gotten anyone to fix it until last night. He'd balanced his checkbook and found it was overdrawn. He'd thought he should get serious about jogging again and had pulled a muscle in his thigh. It was a minor injury, one that didn't even cause a limp, but it told of age and how he'd let himself go the past year or so. Added to all these woes was that whenever he'd tried to call Starsky to complain about the unfairness of life, the other's phone had been busy or had rung without being answered.

And it didn't help his mood at all to see his partner sitting in the squad room looking eager and bright-eyed.

"How was your weekend?" Starsky asked while Hutch passed him in favor of the coffee maker.

The blond poured a cup and grunted.

"That bad?" The curly-haired man was looking over his shoulder at him.

Hutch shrugged as he took the chair next to his partner. With a hint of accusation that he scarcely tried to hide, he said, "Must have been dull compared to yours since you were on the phone the whole time."

Rather than looking guilty or reprimanded, Starsky straightened with a smile. "Yeah, I was working out arrangements."

Hutch looked at him, his insides churning. The word "arrangements" usually referred to funerals. Yet, the other hardly seemed bereaved. "Arrangements for what?" he asked cautiously.

The grin widened. "Nicky's getting married."

It was a moment before the statement registered. "Your brother, Nicky?"

"Yep," Starsky verified proudly. "Little Nicky."

Hutch felt a smile twitch at the corner of his mouth. "When's the date?"

"The 22nd of next month."

The blond furrowed his brow. "That's kind of sudden, isn't it?"

Starsky shook his head. "He's known the girl a long time. Been seein' her off and on for a coupla years. Keeps goin' back to her. He sounded really smitten when he called me."

"Oh, that's nice," Hutch said, wishing he could feel happier about it. It wasn't that he was unhappy; it was just that Nick wasn't one of his favorite people. "Does he want you to be best man?"

"Naw, he's going to have his best friend be best man. But we're all gonna be there -- me, Uncle Al, and Aunt Rosie." Starsky shifted uncomfortably in his chair, resting his chin in his hand. "He's having it in New York, at the very same church our parents were married in."

"That's nice," Hutch said again. "You and your aunt and uncle are all going to fly back together?"

Again, there was a nervous shifting. Then Starsky said, "Well, see, Uncle Al and Aunt Rosie are gettin' kinda old."

Hutch felt his smile fade, Starsky's discomfort telling him he wasn't going to like what was coming.

"And," Starsky went on carefully, "they're ready to take a major vacation while they're still spry enough to do so. So, they thought they'd drive to New York. You know, see the country along the way."

That sounded harmless enough. "And you're going to meet them there?"

"Well," Starsky shifted again, "I'm not real big on travel an' all. But since they're so old and stuff -- and, you know, Aunt Rosie lost her license a while back because of her poor eyesight -- "

"Uh-huh, uh-huh," Hutch nodded quickly, feeling a flare of impatience.

"Well, it'd be hard on Uncle Al to spend all those miles behind the wheel." Starsky came out with it: "So, I thought I'd go with them and help out with the drivin'."

It was a moment before Hutch realized Starsky had stopped talking. Then he was puzzled by his partner's nervousness. "That's considerate of you. I imagine, then, you'd be driving back with them on the return trip?"

Starsky shrugged. "Yeah."

Hutch didn't understand what reaction Starsky was expecting from him. And he wondered, not for the first time, how different his life would have been if he'd had the closeness with his own family that Starsky had with his. He smiled. "That's great, partner. Sounds like it'll be a real vacation. Your mom must be excited."

That brought a genuine grin and lowered eyes. "Yeah. She's all happy that Nicky's finally settling down and getting married. And she's looking forward to havin' the whole family there." He hesitated, then, "I'll be gone two and a half weeks total."

"Has Dobey approved it yet?"

Starsky took a form from a pile of papers. "Naw, I haven't put in the request yet. I wanted to tell you about it first."

Hutch shrugged, letting his puzzlement show. "It's not like you need my permission."

"Well," Starsky explained bashfully, "it's just that we've always taken our vacations together. If I take mine now... well, when you decide you want to take one I won't have any time available. So, you'll have to take yours alone, too."

The taller man shrugged again. "It doesn't matter. In fact, while you're gone maybe I'll take a few days myself and do some things you don't particularly like -- fishing and horseback riding, stuff like that."

Starsky nodded and seemed to let out a breath, as though relieved. Then he stood, the paper in hand. "Guess I'll put this in Dobey's In basket."

Hutch watched while his partner moved toward Dobey's office, which was empty, the captain having not put in an appearance yet. The blond wondered again at Starsky's unease, his own lack of reaction. Of course, he'd just as soon Starsky not leave him alone for all that time; it always felt odd working alone or being temporarily partnered with a stranger, but it would be good for Starsky to get away from L.A. a bit. In fact, it might be good for them both. Total dependency rarely made for a healthy relationship.

Captain Dobey entered the squad room, his stride never hesitating as he headed toward his office. "Hutchinson, I want to see you and your partner."

Starsky was just leaving the captain's office, and he stepped back into it while Hutch and Dobey joined him.

* * *

Twenty minutes later the two detectives sat side by side, mouths twisting grimly as they passed a group of photographs back and forth between them.

"No doubt it's the same perpetrators?" Hutch asked. The body certainly looked similar to what he and Starsky had seen two weeks ago. Whip marks covering the victim's back, his body ripped open anally, blood and fecal matter all over the place. The victim's hands were bound and he was gagged. Analysis of the first victim had revealed that two men were responsible.

"The results haven't come back," Dobey replied, "but we have every reason to believe the prints will be the same, as well as the semen analysis."

Starsky sighed, tossing the photos onto the desk, which his feet were perched upon. "Probably gonna come up with a big fat zero, as far as witnesses go," he noted forlornly. "From all accounts, the last victim wasn't a homo or bi or any of those things; just an average Joe. This guy probably is, too."

"Let's not jump to any conclusions," Dobey cautioned. "Otherwise, it'll be too easy to pass up something important. I want the two of you to get on this, investigate every nook and cranny; re-interview everyone who knew the previous victim. A connection between them is our only hope for finding those responsible."

Both detectives nodded as they got to their feet, Dobey having not said anything they hadn't already been considering.

Starsky opened the door and stood to one side to let Hutch pass. Then he snapped his fingers. "Uh, Captain, I just put a vacation request in your basket."

While Hutch, too, stood in the doorway, Dobey grabbed the top paper from the pile. "For when?"

"The end of next month. Be gone two and a half weeks. My brother Nicky's getting married."

The black man's eyes were on the paper. "Humph," he grunted approvingly. While reaching for a pen he asked, "Did you check with Personnel to see how many days you have, so I don't have to?"

"Yeah, talked to them before I filled it out. I got enough to cover it."

Dobey signed the form then held it out.

Starsky snatched it from his hand. "Thanks, Cap'n."

As the two exited the room, Starsky's expression told Hutch that he was surprised his request had been approved with so little fuss.

The blond was surprised at his own feeling of disappointment.

* * *

Three days later, Hutch frowned as he approached the Torino, which was parked at the curb on Twelfth Street. He and Starsky had separated to interview people at the various shops that the most recent victim had frequented, for they were on the same block as the apartment where the victim had resided and been murdered. Now Starsky was sitting in the passenger side of the Torino with the door open, feet on the curb, head in his hand, staring at the ground.

"Hey, partner," the blond said gently, kneeling beside the other. "What did you get?"

Starsky looked up, face pale. "Nothin', Hutch. Not one damn thing. No one could tell me anything."

Hutch waited, knowing there had to be more.

The curly-haired man took a deep breath, gesturing with his arms. "It's just so damn crazy. I mean, who would do a thing like that to somebody? Tie him up, gag him, beat him, sodomize him, then shove a 'wide, sharp object' up his ass to rip him open so he'd bleed to death?" He shook his head. "It just doesn't make sense."

His partner had been tight-lipped about his feelings up until now, going about his job as a professional. Hutch had been waiting for something like this, and now that the time was here he wasn't sure what assurances he could offer.

"I mean," Starsky went on, "it's not like it's just some perverts killing people for kicks. This is too... too cruel. And it can't be just sadists. I mean, they wouldn't gag their victim, would they? They'd want to hear him scream."

Hutch felt his nerves tremble. Talking about the details out loud made him more uncomfortable than just looking at bodies or pictures. It made it all seem more real... and more nauseating. Gently, he noted, "Screams would have alerted somebody."

"Yeah," Starsky agreed heavily. "Okay, so they gag him. Tie him up. Beat him with a whip." He looked up suddenly, haunted eyes bright with an idea. "I wonder if they used the same amount of lashes on both victims. If so, then it might be a ritual of some kind. If not... well, at what point do they decide to stop beating him and fuck him instead?"

Hutch took a deep breath. "Maybe the whipping is just foreplay. When they get excited enough they finish the act."

Bitterly, Starsky said, "Or there's nothing left of the guy's back to tear up anymore."

Hutch chose not to respond to that.

Starsky shook his head, tone disbelieving. "And the sickest part of all... they each fuck the guy, to the point of orgasm, and then they want to kill him in the sickest way imaginable." He glanced up quickly, tone desperate for commiseration. "I mean, after you've had a great orgasm, what do you do? Roll over and go to sleep, right?"

Hutch nodded, more to keep Starsky talking than to agree.

"And if you're really sick you kill the person you've just fucked. But if you've just had a great orgasm, you aren't feeling very aggressive. So, maybe you just use your hands to, like, strangle the person. Keep it simple. But these guys...," Starsky closed his eyes and visibly shuddered. "They just drained their balls and they still got this very precise, gruesome way that they murder the guy. They've already had their orgasm, so what kind of kick can they get out of shovin' something up his ass and ripping his insides out?"

It was a moment before Hutch could gather his wits enough to respond. "Maybe the killing isn't a sexual thing for them. Maybe, like you mentioned before, it's ritualistic." He stood. "They're finishing the process in a way that, to them, is a neat, clean closure to the whole thing."

Starsky also stood, turning to rest his arms on the hood of the car, his back to Hutch. "I wonder if these guys are fags, or just sick perverts."

Hutch swallowed, not having his partner's fondness for the use of labels. "Whether they're 'fags' or not, they're definitely sick perverts."

Starsky shifted restlessly. "You know what I mean. Are these guys outright gay, or are they just 'average Joes', so to speak, like their victims?"

"I don't know."

The other turned around. In a more casual tone, he asked, "Did you find out anything?"

The blond's grin broadened, and he pulled a black book out of his back pocket. "Our latest victim accidentally left his appointment book at the barber shop." Hutch glanced toward the street where the barber shop was. Then he began leafing through the book, enjoying Starsky's interested expression. "On the day he was murdered," Hutch turned to the appropriate page, "he lists a three o'clock appointment with an insurance salesman."

Starsky was looking over Hutch's shoulder. "That the only appointment that day?"


"So, we need to find out who his insurance carrier was."

Hutch tilted his head thoughtfully. "That would be a first step. But note," he pointed, "that he lists 'insurance salesman'. If he were already doing business with that salesman's company, he would have listed the guy as his agent, not just as a 'salesman'."

"One would assume," Starsky cautioned dubiously. Then, "What are you thinking?"

Hutch turned to face him, resting his elbow on the car. "I'm thinking our perpetrators called him up, offered him a great deal on, say, his car insurance, and the victim agreed to an appointment. And that's how the perpetrators got in the door without creating any kind of scene."

Starsky stared at the hood of the car. He drew a deep breath, then let it out slowly. "And once they were in the door, they probably pulled guns or something, huh? So, he'd have no choice but to let them tie him up?"

Hutch flipped the appointment book closed. "That would be my guess."

"Jesus, the victims probably didn't stand a chance."

Hutch got in the passenger seat as Starsky moved around to the driver's side. "No," the blond agreed. "Probably no chance at all."

* * *

They stuck with their hypothesis in the weeks following, but that did nothing to get them closer to those responsible. Nor had they any ideas on a motive, or any possible connection between the two victims.

The only additional information that came from the coroner was that both victims had had a small brand on their lower backs, in the shape of an oval within a square. Both brands were fresh and assumed to have been created by the perpetrators.

The investigation was at a standstill when Starsky pulled the Torino up in front of his aunt and uncle's house. Both detectives got out of the car, and the curly-haired man moved to the trunk and opened it.

Hutch was at his partner's side, helping him remove two suitcases, when Al and Rosie Starsky appeared from the house.

"David!" Rosie exclaimed, holding out her arms. She had gotten plump over time but her gray hair still had many streaks of black.

Starsky left the suitcases on the ground and laughingly endured the huge hug his aunt gave him. Hutch stood back and watched, knowing that his partner thought the greetings Rosie bestowed on him rather ridiculous, since they saw each other numerous times throughout the year.

He also felt a touch of envy at the familial scene.

Al nodded at Hutch and placed a hand on his nephew's shoulder as Starsky and Rosie separated. "We're all packed." He was thinner and a little shorter than his wife, with his nephew's chiseled features and blue eyes.

Somehow, Hutch thought, Starsky's relatives looked older than the last time he'd seen them, at Christmas. They looked a little delicate to be taking such a long trip, and he realized all the more how good it was of his partner to drive them.

Starsky picked up one suitcase, Hutch the other, and they all moved to an Oldsmobile parked in the driveway. The next minute was spent moving luggage around in the trunk, making room for Starsky's additions. Finally, the trunk was closed.

"House all locked up?" Starsky asked his uncle.

The older man dangled the keys. "Yep." He turned to Hutch. "Sorry to be taking your partner away from you, but family duty calls."

The blond chuckled good-naturedly. "Yeah, lucky me. I get to drive the damned tomato while he's gone." He'd promised so the car wouldn't have to sit in one place for so long, inviting theft or damage.

Starsky helped his aunt into the front passenger seat, then straightened to look at his uncle across the hood. "You want to start out driving, or do you want me to drive?"

"You drive. You'll get us out of town a lot faster." Alvin Starsky tossed the keys across the hood to his nephew.

"Okay, get in," Starsky said. "I'll join ya as soon as I read my partner the last rites on takin' care of my car."

Both detectives moved back toward the Torino.

"Your aunt and uncle are lovely people," Hutch said, "but are you sure they aren't going to drive you nuts? You're going to be stuck in the car with them for more than six thousand miles."

They paused next to the passenger door of the Torino. Starsky shrugged. "It'll be okay. Aunt Rosie only nags when she gets bored, but hopefully the sights will be enough to distract her. And the only problem I ever have with Uncle Al is that he snores a lot."

Hutch laid his hand on Starsky's shoulder and squeezed. "Okay, pal. Don't drive like you do on the streets. And make sure you and your uncle trade shifts behind the wheel."

Starsky made a face at the warning. "I know, I know. It'll be great. We'll be fine. Don't worry."

The blond shrugged, not knowing what else to say. "Call me as soon as you get there."

They stood looking at each other a moment, Starsky nodding. Then, "Guess we better get going."


As Starsky moved by his partner, he put an arm around the blond's lean waist and squeezed briefly. "See ya."

Hutch opened the door to the Torino, listening to his partner's footsteps fading on the payment. Just before getting in, he called, "Starsk? Say hello to Nick for me."

Starsky waved a hand without looking back.

Hutch started the motor, knowing he was going to hate the next seventeen days. He couldn't even remember the last time they'd been separated for that long a period. Though there was something to be said for taking a break from someone you dearly loved, he also knew that certain habits were so ingrained that he would be taking many stumbling steps without his partner there to balance him.

Even now, while he watched the Oldsmobile back out of the driveway, he had an urge to turn to the space next to him and make a comment about the way Aunt Rosie's mouth was already moving excitedly. Since there was no one to make the comment to, he merely grunted to himself.

There was more waving from the people inside the Olds as it started down the street. Hutch steered the Torino behind it, waving back. At the first intersection, they went their separate ways.

* * *

Over a week later, Hutch sat in his apartment in the late evening, cards spread out on the table before him, and placed a Jack of Clubs on top of a Queen of Hearts. He was hardly paying attention to the solitaire game, for it was merely a background for his roaming thoughts.

He was bored, lonely, and not above feeling a little self-pity. Starsky had called him at the station earlier in the week to say that they had arrived at his mother's in New York. True to his promise, his partner must have called immediately, for Hutch could hear noises of enthusiastic greetings in the background. Starsky sounded happy and excited, though his voice would occasionally fade as he'd turn from the phone to speak to yet another relative who didn't have the courtesy to not interrupt his phone call. Hutch had no choice but to sit through it, and Starsky said he would call again before they left for their return trip.

The deck ran out and he had lost yet another game. Hutch started to reshuffle, then tossed the stack of cards none too gently onto the table top. This is ridiculous, he decided. He wasn't sure if he meant the mindless game or the way he and his partner were so interdependent. Whatever the reason, if Starsky was having fun, he may as well, too. He went to a drawer to find a road map.

* * *

As soon as Hutch entered the squad room the following morning, Dobey beckoned him into his office. The captain picked up a manila envelope from his desk and pulled a group of photos from it. "These were overnighted from the police in Bakersfield." He handed them to Hutch. "Look familiar?"

When the images he was seeing registered, Hutch gulped, the horror adding to a growing nausea. "Oh, my God," he whispered softly. The pictures were of a murder victim, taken at various angles, lying in a pool of blood and other bodily material, which ran from his ripped back and torn rectum. When he found his voice, the blond asked, "It happened in Bakersfield?" He handed the photos back.

Dobey put them aside and nodded. "From what they've told us so far, the MO appears to be the same. They're asking if we can be of any assistance in finding those responsible. Of course, we'll send them a copy of the case file, but I don't know how much it's going to help." Dobey hesitated. "I thought it might be a good idea for you to go up there yourself and observe the situation first-hand. Maybe you'll see something to tie the three victims together. If nothing else, this proves we've got a pair of serial killers on our hands, and there's no reason to believe they won't strike again."

Hutch nodded agreement. A good, long drive might do him some good, keep him preoccupied. In fact... "Uh, Captain...."


"I was thinking of taking a few days off and heading up in that direction... to fish, maybe do some riding. I was going to turn in my request this morning. But now maybe I can mix business with pleasure and visit the Bakersfield PD on my way up."

Dobey shrugged. "Fine by me. When do you want to leave?"

"I could drive up this afternoon, meet with them, then take a three days weekend. I'll be back here Monday morning."

Dobey nodded again, holding out the envelope. "The Bakersfield detective's card is in here. And don't forget to take a copy of our files."

Hutch stood, feeling a weight fall from his shoulders. It felt good to have something meaningful to do. "Right." He moved toward the door.


The blond turned.

"What do you want me to tell Starsky if he happens to call in, looking for you?"

Hutch shrugged. "Just tell him I'm taking a few days off and he can call me on Monday."

Doubtfully, the captain asked, "You won't be staying any place in particular, where he can get hold of you?"

Hutch felt a sense of freedom as he replied, "No, I won't."

* * *

Detective Tom Newman, from Bakersfield's Homicide Department, adjusted the waistband of his slacks as he and Hutch moved from the latest victim's home toward Newman's car. After meeting the detective at the city's police station, Hutch had gone with him to see the murder site in person.

Hutch grimly noted, "Everything about the crime looks the same as the two in L.A. The only similarities we can find out about the victims is that they were single men -- though one was divorced -- who lived quiet, ordinary lives."

Newman sighed as they halted in front of his Chrysler New Yorker. He was slim, dark-haired and baby-faced, though fortyish. His dark eyes met those of his visitor. "Your coroner down there wasn't able to reach a conclusion about the murder weapon?"

Hutch lowered his gaze, for this was always the most difficult part. After leaning back against the car, he said, "Blood loss, and the resulting shock, was the direct cause of death. As for...," he felt himself hesitant to speak of it, "...what they shoved into them, they've only been able to call it a 'large, sharp instrument'." Hutch met the other man's eye. "They think it couldn't have been just a knife. The damage was more extensive than something a single blade could have caused. The incisions were ragged, not clean. The coroner said something about having the impression of an arrow pushed in and pulled out, though he thought the kind of arrow you use in archery would have been too small for that severity of damage."

Newman gazed at Hutch a moment longer, as though lost in thought, then put away his notepad. "All right, Hutchinson, I guess that's going to have to do for now. I'll drive you back to your car so you can get on your way."

They didn't say much more until entering the parking lot at police headquarters. As Newman halted beside Hutch's car, the blond said, "I'm taking a few days' vacation and thought I'd go up north. Have any favorite fishing spots up there?" He asked more for the sake of conversation than needing advice on where to go. He already had his plans mapped out.

Newman shook his head. "I don't fish."

* * *

The next afternoon, Hutch shifted in his car, trying to get comfortable. He'd gone for a two-hour horseback ride in Sequoia National Park that morning -- something he hadn't done in two or three years -- and his body ached from muscles that stiffened while he drove. He'd taken the LTD, leaving Starsky's car parked in front of Venice Place, as he was sure Starsky wouldn't appreciate his risking the paint getting scratched in the wilderness.

Hutch had enjoyed the horseback ride a great deal. It had been very scenic and he wondered why he didn't indulge more often. He also couldn't keep Starsky out of his thoughts for those two hours. The one time he'd tried to get his city-bred partner to enjoy the open air from the back of a horse it had been disastrous. Or, at least, one would think from all of Starsky's complaining. Starsky had never allowed himself to relax, and he'd complained for the next three days about sore muscles, chafed knees, and the stupidity of the equine species. Hutch had only laughed -- sure that, if nothing else, Starsky had enjoyed the scenery -- but he'd never been able to talk his partner into going again. Still, on this morning, he had day dreamed back to those days of non-stop complaining, realizing that he missed it.

Now, he'd left the parameters of the Park and was traveling north, following the Owens River. Fishing was on the agenda for the afternoon. Then he'd find a nice, quiet motel, get a good night's rest, and spend the remaining weekend doing more fishing and probably some hiking.

He'd been up this way before, years ago, and there was a certain private spot that he hoped to find again. Thankfully, his memory was still clear and as though on instinct, he turned off the main highway and made a few more turns until coming upon a familiar dirt road. He followed it as it curved around a series of boulders, its path parallel to the river. He finally pulled the car to a satisfying halt when the road ended in a clearing next to the water. Across from the clearing was a hill, dotted with trees, which he thought he might try hiking if the fish weren't biting.

He spent the next few minutes removing his equipment from the trunk. Finally, he pulled on his rubber waders and, fly-fishing rod in hand, moved out into the shallow water. He spent a few minutes perfecting his casting rhythm, for it was rusty, and then lost himself for the next couple of hours in the peaceful rushing of the water, the birds overhead, the scurrying of squirrels in trees along the bank. As time went on, he traveled farther and farther down the stream.

He managed to pull in a couple of trout, but keeping them would be too much trouble, so he threw them back. He was more interested in enjoying the process than in capturing prey.

Eventually, Hutch glanced up and noticed that the sun was near the western horizon. Guessing it was about three o'clock, and seeing the flurry of rapids ahead, he decided to take a break and waded over to the bank opposite from the one he'd entered. Glancing back, he saw that he'd traveled so far downstream that he could no longer see the LTD.

Hutch sat down and pulled off the waders. A brave squirrel pounced upon a rock a few yards away, chattering as it regarded him skeptically. Hutch wished he had something to feed it. But his pockets were empty and he settled for a few soft words of greeting. The squirrel was unimpressed and scampered away.

It felt good to be free of the cumbersome boots, and Hutch got back on his feet and started climbing the hill that bordered this section of the river. He couldn't remember if he'd climbed this hill when he'd been here years before.

Starsky, of course, had been with him then. They'd still been in blue at the time, and Starsky had been ever-afraid of the woods, river, and wildlife. Hutch had been amazed that one who could be so tough on the streets could possess such childish fears when taken out of his element. It had been a learning experience, teaching him not only more about his partner, but about people in general, and their various passions and limitations.

Having ridden earlier in the day, Hutch's legs ached as he crested the hill. In most directions, the view presented more hills. But looking northeast, he saw a clearing below with what looked to be a wooden cabin. The cabin was inhabited, for an old Chevy was parked next to it. There were many cabins like it sprinkled throughout this region of the state, and Hutch wondered if he were on private property, though there had been no fencing or signs indicating such.

He heard a rustle in the trees, and slowly -- for he thought he knew what it was -- Hutch turned around. It took a moment for his eyes to focus, for the foliage was so thick, but he eventually made out the outline of antlers. And then black eyes and a square nose.

The deer was staring right at him.

Hutch stared back, not daring to move, for he enjoyed the sight and imagined himself telling Starsky about it later. His partner may act unimpressed, but Hutch was certain that Starsky would appreciate the simplicity of the wildlife if he were here to share it with him.

Suddenly, the deer turned back toward the interior of the forest and bounded away. Hutch thought the animal must have picked up his scent, for there was no movement or sound that could have disturbed it.

Except he heard a shockingly familiar "click" and cold metal pressed against the back of his head. "Don't move," a gruff voice snarled.

The tone was deep, dangerous, and Hutch's heart kicked into high gear, disbelief rushing through him. Where had the man come from? Carefully, he asked, "What do you want?" Money? What else could it be?

The man didn't answer, and Hutch felt a coldness go through his body. He didn't have a gun, for he'd left it in his glove compartment, certain he had no use for it out here. But the man didn't know he was a cop, and therefore wouldn't know how well-versed he was in self defense.

Hutch started to turn his head to confront the other, for he was certain the man didn't really want to shoot him or he would have already done so. But just as Hutch started to turn, his attention was distracted by another man appearing from the trees to the right, holding a pistol in front of him.

This second man was thin, dressed raggedly, and had a heavy beard and small, dark eyes. A smell of body odor reeked from him as -- Hutch realized now -- it did from the first man.

Hutch recognized the coldness surging through him as fear. He was accustomed to facing individuals who wanted to harm him, but not in this environment. Without knowing their intent, he was at a great disadvantage. He kept his voice carefully neutral as he repeated, "What do you want?"

The face in front of him twisted into a grimace of evil and meanness, and then a boot lashed out and Hutch dropped to the ground in a ball, crying out, the most awful pain racing up from his groin and spreading through his body. He clutched at himself, moisture gathering in the corners of his eyes.

His arms were grabbed, pulling them away from his groin, and Hutch knew he was in serious trouble. He tried lashing out with both arms and legs from the ground -- for he was too incapacitated to stand -- but a boot slammed into his ribs, rolling him onto his stomach, and a gun was placed against his temple.

Hutch lay still, gasping for breath. His hands were again grabbed and pulled behind his back. The gun pressed more firmly against his skull, as though in warning.

If they wanted to kill him, he repeated to himself, they would have already done so. Yet, all survival instincts told him it was foolish to try something when a simple pull of the trigger would end his life. Therefore, he endured it as his hands were tied behind his back with rough twine.

"Dammit," he spat, turning his head to look up at the man holding the gun. Again, the evil in that face chilled him. "What do you want?"

His mouth was stuffed with a thick, dirty rag, which was tied around the back of his head. He strained against it, then realized the futility of his action. He was going to need a clear head and whatever energy he possessed to get out of this.

He forced himself to relax, at least as much as his throbbing groin would allow. He was still curled into a partial ball, for the pain was so great.

They were looking down at him, as though calculating. Hutch tried to communicate with his eyes, blinking to demand that they speak to him and tell him what was going on.

Instead of speaking, the first man frowned down at him and held the cocked gun out, pointing it at Hutch's face.

Hutch froze. His eyes were glued to the trigger, knowing the barest pressure would be the end of everything. As he tried to get his racing heart under control, he realized that his ankles were being tied together with more twine. His eyes narrowed as he thought furiously, trying to figure out what these men wanted. And he feared their reaction if they were to take his wallet and find out he was a cop. As it was, wrists and ankles bound, he was no threat to them. Surely, they realized that. Surely, they didn't intend to kill him, or they wouldn't be going through so much trouble to restrain him in the first place.

Once the second man had Hutch securely bound, the first man lowered his gun. Then both men reached down and grabbed Hutch by an arm on either side. They lifted him slightly, then started to drag him, face down, toward the northeast corner of the mountain, where he had seen the cabin.

Hutch held his head up as high as he could, trying to avoid foliage and rocks that were in the path. The two men didn't seem to care how badly the vegetation and rocks pulled at his clothes. Their progress became faster as they started down the hill, toward the cabin.

Dust began to kick up as gravity caused their feet to travel a little in front of him, and Hutch coughed feebly, the cloth in his mouth a severe obstruction to his attempts to purge his system of the debris. His mouth was uncomfortably dry, for the thick material was absorbing any saliva his glands could produce.

It seemed to take forever, but finally they were at the base of the hill, the cabin and its surrounding yard a short distance away. Hutch's chest and stomach felt sore and scratched, but he was no longer feeling self-righteous anger and his panic had eased. He was totally at the mercy of these men and his only hope of freeing himself was to think his way out. And he would need every bit of calm he possessed to do so.

They dragged him across a short field of tall grass, then stopped when he was lying in a spot between two tall posts, about three feet apart, at the south end of the yard. While looking down from the hill before his capture, Hutch had seen the posts but not taken any special note of them. Now, he felt a sense of dread as one of the men straddled his back and a gun was once again pressed against the back of his head.

Hutch lay still while the rope around his ankles was untied. Then his shoes were pulled off, followed by his socks. The feeling of foreboding, knowing that he was dealing with something more alien and sinister than anything he had ever known, returned the chill to his blood. He did not know what they were going to do, but he began to wonder if he should make a move and risk being shot.

And yet, it seemed foolish to think he could have any chance of escape with his hands immobile and an armed man on his back.

His left ankle was yanked to the post. Then Hutch felt the twine again, going around his ankle and the rough wood.

He couldn't settle for this, could not not fight it. He kicked out with both feet, tried to bend his knees and roll himself over, but the man's weight made it impossible. A moment later his hair was roughly pulled and his head was yanked back. The gun was now placed against his ear, its cold barrel shoved into the flesh there.

The panic returned, his heart beating frantically. These men were deadly serious, and he fought for calm as the tying process began again. He wished desperately that he could swallow, but his dry throat made it impossible.

Something in his chest seemed to sink all the way to his stomach when his other ankle was grabbed and pulled to the right. He whimpered as his legs were parted, reminding him of the tenderness in his groin. But they took no pity and tied that leg to the other post. He could only close his eyes against the pain exuding from the center of his body.

Hutch had a moment's relief when his hair was released and he was able to rest his cheek against the ground, the man moving off him. Then they grabbed his arms and pulled up. Hutch understood that they were trying to lift him, and he tried to cooperate, for otherwise his shoulders threatened to be pulled from their sockets. For a moment, he was allowed to rest on his knees -- an uncomfortable position, for his legs were spread so wide -- but then they lifted again, and with grunts of effort he was hauled into a standing position. Already his ankles were being rubbed raw from all the maneuvering. But he knew that was the least of his troubles.

He had one chance now. They would have to free his arms in order to tie his wrists to the posts.

A hand reached to pulled the gag partway down. Before Hutch could even utter a breath of relief, a pistol was shoved into his mouth, the metal scraping painfully against his teeth, the barrel maneuvered so that it pointed to the top of his palate.

Hutch held his breath, not daring to move, but felt sweat trickle down his back and sides as the second man cut the rope that had bound his hands, firmly taking the left one and securing it to the post.

The confusion, anger, disbelief all returned in full force. What did they want? Why were they doing this?

Hutch scarcely breathed, knowing the slightest mistake would set the gun off. All he could do was stare at the fathomless eyes of the man before him.

He felt the sinking sensation again as, finally, his right wrist was tied into place, sealing his helplessness.

The barrel was removed from his mouth and replaced with the gag. Both guns were tossed carelessly to one side. Hutch allowed a moment of relief to go through him, but he snapped to attention again when both men approached him with large pairs of scissors.

As always, he watched their eyes, trying to catch their gaze, because it was the only hope he had of communication. But they ignored his face completely now, and one man stood in front of him and undid his belt. A moment later the snap to his jeans was parted and the fly taken down.

Oh, God. What could they possibly want?

Cold scissors were thrust inside his jeans, from both front and behind, and then the cutting of denim began. Feeling thoroughly helpless, Hutch let his gaze drop to the hands of his captors.

What he saw turned his intestines to water.

One of the fingers was adorned with an old, dirty ring, the metal of which was burned. It was shaped like a square, an oval ornament within the square.

Oh, dear God. Dear, dear God.

It couldn't be. It couldn't be. The MO was to attack the victim within his own home. Not out here, in the wilderness, when he was on vacation.

But the evil, the darkness of these two men, fit with what he had seen of their prior victims.

Hutch felt something die within, realizing he had made a horrible, horrible mistake. From the moment he heard the first "click" of the gun, he should have fought. It would not matter that they would have killed him, for that would have been, at least, a quicker and merciful death. Why had he been so stupid as to assume they merely wanted to rob him? Why had he hesitated during any of it, for even the briefest second? He was going to pay for his lack of thinking with his life... in the worst way. His eyes darted around the yard, looking for the murder weapon... the monstrosity they would use to finish him... after they were done....

He didn't see anything. But he was aware that he couldn't control his trembling.

His jeans and underwear had been completely cut away. He felt rather than saw the hands start on his shirt, for he had closed his eyes in an effort to recover some filament of sanity.

As long as he was alive, there was hope.

And hope flared when he thought of Starsky.

But Starsky was more than three thousand miles away and would not be back for over a week.

When he didn't show up in the squad room, Dobey would send out units to look.

But he wasn't due back at the station for another two days, and these men would be long since finished with him by then.

His car was left abandoned by an old dirt road. A passerby would see it and call the police, prompting a search of the area.

But his car was parked in a remote area, and could not be seen from the motorists driving by.

His head hung as the hopelessness of his situation penetrated. He was naked now. His groin throbbed, as did the upper ribs on the left side of his chest. His mouth was completely dry. But those were the least of his worries.

He heard a crackling sound. Hutch opened his eyes, raised his head enough to see a small fire a few yards to the right. It consisted of small and medium-sized branches. Both of his attackers stood before it and when the flames were sufficiently high, they scooped up Hutch's torn clothing and tossed the bundle into the fire

Hutch could make out the back pocket of his jeans. As the flames penetrated the denim, he could see the thickness outlining his wallet. All of his ID and all of his money were being burned. As was his badge. These men did not know he was a cop. They were not doing this because he was a cop.

They were only doing it because he was a man.

No. They were not treating him as a man. Not as any kind of human being. But as an animal.

No, even worse than that. He was insignificant. To them, he was Nobody.

Hutch squeezed his eyes shut. Why did human beings ever think they truly mattered in the realm of things? They were just puny insects... to be swatted at and squashed... by other puny insects.

He sensed -- smelled -- their presence before he heard them. Footsteps that were coming closer. Wearily, Hutch opened his eyes and saw one of them walking toward him, carrying a coiled whip.

Oh, God.

The man didn't even pause, but walked around Hutch. He did not seem interested in showing Hutch the whip, or in trying to prompt fear. The man's face held no expression of enjoyment. Nor pity. It was as though he was merely carrying out a grim but necessary duty.

The man had no heart, Hutch decided defiantly. Neither of these men did. Their hearts must have been yanked from them at some point in their decrepit lives. Or maybe they had been born without.

Suddenly, a sharp burn flared across the middle of his back, accompanied by the sharp crack of leather hitting flesh. Hutch gasped through his gag and his eyes filled. He'd had no idea it would hurt that much. No idea at all.

He wished he had more faith in God.

Another burn flared from his right shoulder down to the center of his back.


Starsky was in New York, enjoying the love and closeness of family. Watching his brother getting married, which probably ensured that the Starsky line would be carried on. There was probably much celebration and joy.

While Hutch was here. Alone.

The third lash hit diagonally across his back, overlapping the first wound. Hutch sagged in his bonds, his weight pulling at his arm sockets, and closed his eyes.

Starsky was going to be so angry when he got back. So angry that Hutch had gone off, gotten into trouble, gotten killed, leaving Starsky alone.

Tears squeezed through Hutch's eyelids. His chest ached with a desperate wanting. If he could be granted one wish, it would be to tell Starsky that he was sorry, that he hadn't meant for this to happen. That he didn't want Starsky to spend -- the rest of his life? -- looking for those who had killed his partner. And all that time Starsky would be mad at him, not understanding how, once again, Hutch had gotten himself into trouble -- like with Ben Forest, like with Ralph Slater, like when they'd played that stupid game of hide and seek -- that he couldn't get himself out of without Starsky having to come and rescue him.

The next lash hit across his lower back. After the worst of the sting died away, Hutch felt the tickling sensation of blood dripping down his back from the cuts higher up. It felt thick and warm.

The fifth lash hit him -- he wasn't even sure where -- and he thought it puzzling that he was bleeding down the inside of a thigh. After the sixth lash, it occurred to him that the stream wasn't blood at all.

It was urine.

He had pissed on himself and he didn't even care.

He was nothing.