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Fractured Discipline - Part One
It definitely qualified as the proverbial week from hell. Hutch was exhausted, body and soul. But he was happy. They'd come through it in one piece, again. Euphoria at the miracle of survival elevated his happiness to something approaching bliss. He didn't want to move any time soon.
He was flaked out on his back on Starsky's sofa, toes tucked up against the arm, knees drawn up to ease his aching spine. Too many hours spent sitting in a car with poorly contoured seats that offered inadequate support had left their mark. His head was slightly tipped forward, resting against Starsky's thigh, pale golden hair spreading across the dark denim. He needed the contact, just to convince his Doubting Thomas of a brain that Starsky was still here, even if it meant a stiff neck next day. He'd originally lain down with his head flat on the sofa but after a few minutes Starsky had reached across and bodily tugged at him until he'd given in and shuffled gracelessly backwards.
And it offered almost as good an angle for gazing up furtively at Starsky. At least he hoped furtively. Probably not though. Starsky usually knew exactly what he was doing. Hutch tried not to tempt fate by permitting himself too much gazing. Easy enough to close his eyes for a moment.
It was about ten thirty. The drapes had long since been pulled across the open windows to keep out the dark and he could hear the faint susurration of fabric swishing to and fro in the breeze. No smog for once but still a faint taint of exhaust fumes.
The TV droned on in the background, old-fashioned voices punctuated by corny music. Starsky was watching a past-its-sell-by-date monster flick with apparently unwavering attention. Hutch had lost track long ago in favor of relaxing, consciously trying to release the tension from each abused muscle, consciously trying to banish the potential events that never quite happened – this time – from his overwrought brain.
The urge to gaze up at Starsky again threatened to overwhelm him and he gave in to it. He needed its comfort to anchor him in the safe present. The rustle of Starsky's hand digging through the popcorn, the crunch as he chewed. The sight of his jaws moving, muscles working in his bare throat. The week was over. They were still safe.
Hutch shifted as imperceptibly as possible in an attempt to improve his angle of view. Instantly the hand abandoned the popcorn and brushed over his hair.
"Yeah." More seemed to be expected. "Back's aching a little." The almost-lie sufficed. The hand moved down to rest briefly on his shoulder, then dived back into the popcorn. Probably Starsky had elected not to pursue the point: time and experience had taught them both infinite care around each other's frailties.
The TV droned on, uninterrupted. And Hutch gazed on, uninterrupted.
Hutch knew intimately how to deal with fear. Driven by sheer necessity, he had discovered a workable technique and thoroughly schooled himself in it over the last year and a half.
He'd now had a rest, a few hours to distance himself from the afternoon's events; and he'd permitted himself to wallow in a certain amount of indulgence. He needed to examine what had brought the fear and be certain that he had banished it. His defences needed constant monitoring for the first indication of weakness.
All that made the first part of the week hell was overwork, pure and simple. Some vile 72-hour stomach bug had wreaked havoc with Metro's manpower. Everyone able to stay out of the men's room was putting in all the hours God sent. He and Starsky had been pulling double shifts for days on end, often with a couple of hours extra thrown in on top.
Each day (or night) followed a variation on a similar pattern. Sitting in Hutch's slum of a car on a supremely boring stakeout. Another shift back at HQ trying to catch up with the paperwork they had foolhardily shoved to one side the previous week in the hope of finding a "quiet patch". Trying to sort out which cases previously allocated to sick detectives couldn't wait. Trying to give assistance to a couple of outsiders drafted in from a neighboring precinct – probably more time consuming than it was worth. Trying to field calls from "concerned members of the public" who feared they would soon have no police cover at all and trying to reassure them that their neighborhood was not about to drown in a tsunami of unchecked crime. Trying to get out on the streets to investigate the cases that couldn't be deferred till more cops recovered. Trying to keep things running when Dobey too succumbed.
On Thursday evening, a gray and shaky-looking Dobey staggered in from his sickbed. He was uncharacteristically subdued in manner and volume. But there was nothing wrong with his alertness. He observed Hutch struggling not to attract attention as he bent awkwardly to recapture a sheet of paper that had floated from the typewriter to the floor. He noticed the paper-white mask concealing Starsky's naturally dark skin tone and the caution with which he eased his shoulders into his leather jacket as he prepared to leave for the next dose of stakeout.
Before they could drag themselves out the door he bellowed, "Starsky, Hutchinson. Hang around a few minutes. I'm running through some reallocations in my office right now." At least he intended to bellow. His diaphragm settled for lower energy goals.
His brain was still functioning well enough to recognise that it wasn't prudent to explain that he was rejigging jobs solely because his prize combination of detectives looked ready to drop and sleep on the squadroom floor. Least of all because Starsky looked ready for another "rest" in hospital. And thankfully his brain was functioning well enough to offer a plausible excuse.
He re-emerged from his office. "Agnello, Davisson. I want you taking over the Squires stakeout as of now. Starsky and Hutchinson will fill you in before they leave." Agnello and his partner were "on loan" and didn't know the area well. "Starsky, I want you and Hutch out patrolling tomorrow. It's a waste of our limited resources to have you snoozing the night away in your limo while we have men trying to keep a lid on streets where they're tourists. Time for you two to earn your pay." And time for you both to manage a decent night's sleep. Was the excuse too transparent? "Clocking on nine a.m. sharp."
He fixed his detectives with what he hoped was a reasonable facsimile of his usual intimidating glare. Then he barrelled – softly – back into the shelter of his office and slammed the door – not too aggressively. Half-expecting a less considerate entry by Starsky to complain vociferously that he was as able as the next cop to put in days and nights for a week, he held his breath. No explosions. Nothing. He let the breath out quietly. Made the right decision.
And one applauded by Hutch, though he was careful to keep his approval to himself. He didn't think that so much as a muscle in his face twitched.
After briefing the other pair, he drove Starsky home twenty minutes later in complete and unusual silence. Neither had the energy for anything else. Starsky fell asleep in his chair while Hutch was fixing them both a sandwich. He hardly woke up even when Hutch poured him into his bed, put his sandwich in the fridge for the next morning and wrote a note explaining its presence, then quietly locked the door on his way out.
Friday began promisingly. No stakeout, so back to the Torino. Starsky turned up more or less on time, giving every indication that he was positively bouncing with health and joie de vivre once more. Hutch breathed a very silent prayer of thanks that his partner had recovered so quickly from the week's depletion of his resources: these days, post-Gunther, it always took longer.
When they arrived at the station, Starsky wandered off to confront the cold drinks machine. Dobey caught Hutch's attention, raised an eyebrow in minute and silent query, then looked satisfied at Hutch's slight nod of the head.
Within minutes, they were back in the Torino and prowling the streets.
The morning slipped by effortlessly without incident. Before Hutch knew it, it was past midday and Starsky's turn to buy lunch. To Hutch's disgust, which he vented vociferously and which met with the usual cavalier treatment from Starsky, he chose a fast food outlet and emerged with a lethal selection of fats and preservatives in dyed cardboard, piled high on a plastic tray. With an air of unsuppressed martyrdom, Hutch chewed on some tasteless variant of a fishburger that had probably no acquaintance with fish.
He surreptitiously eyed Starsky's fries and decided they must be healthier. He reached across to help himself just as Starsky passed him a cup of coffee. The result was predictable. The plastic lid flew off and a sizeable glob of watery coffee splurged up before flopping down on Hutch's denimed thigh.
"For Chrissake, Starsk!" he yelped, his strangled voice shooting up an octave. "Oh fuck, that was boiling."
"Aw, sorry, Hutch." Starsky was instantly contrite and in full mother-hen mode. "Is it gonna blister? I'll race back and get you some ice."
"Don't be stupid. It's not that bad." His voice still sounded tight, Starsky wasn't sure whether with annoyance or pain, and he was trying to pry the soaking denim away from the skin. Doubtless very pink skin. "I'll live – though my descendants might not if you'd splashed it any further up."
Starsky was still fussing. He had a sudden brainwave. Running for ice might have been banned, but what was wrong with the plentiful cubes floating in his Coke? He ripped off the lid, thrust in his hand and deposited the contents on Hutch's abused thigh.
Hutch in reflex snatched his leg away from the wet cold. The cubes slid down onto Starsky's seat covers. Only to be followed by a generous libation of Coke as Starsky, fearing the ice wasn't adequate first aid, sacrificed a fair percentage of his drink to soothe the heat away.
Hutch remained unimpressed. He threw back his head, rolled his eyes dramatically and opened his mouth to draw breath.
Only to look across at Starsky and realise that he was beginning to snicker. It was too infectious to resist and he collapsed back down into his seat.
"Here, let me rub it better," Starsky snorted helplessly. "Jeez, I don't think the passenger seat will ever be the same again. I'm gonna charge you for the valeting."
They were still giggling hysterically – Hutch thought they must both be more punchy than he'd realised from all the overtime – when the car radio growled into life. They both froze.
"All units, all units, immediate assistance required. . . ." The location given was only a few blocks away. Starsky tossed the remains of lunch onto the back seat and spun the car round while still listening to the rest of the message. ". . . grocery store cash robbery. One officer down, one armed robber down, one robber believed unarmed fleeing the scene on foot in the direction of Painter's Factory." The old factory was even closer than the store.
Hutch dealt efficiently with light and siren and radio response, then hung on grimly as the car slewed round the corner. He glanced briefly across at Starsky, who was all too clearly relishing the opportunity to let rip, then began scanning the sidewalks for any trace of the fugitive.
"Starsk!" He pointed down a narrow alley on the right. He'd just caught a subliminal glimpse of a man charging in. He knew it was a dead end and that it gave access only to the now-derelict office building on the left. Both men left the Torino at a dead run, organising their tactics with their usual lack of verbal communication. Hutch drew his Magnum as he dove into the alley, leaving Starsky to enter the neighboring building by the front door.
The alley held the usual quota of sour smelling refuse and muck but nowhere much for a man to hide. Even as he raced to the side door, he heard a splintering of wood that announced Starsky was smashing his way through the front entrance. The side door was hanging brokenly off its hinges: probably had been for some time, it didn't look like new damage. He entered with caution, straining for any tiny sound that would give away where his quarry had run. Nothing.
He looked about for inspiration. At the far end of the corridor, running parallel with the alley, was another set of stairs. If the thief had turned to the front door, he would surely have run into Starsky. He hadn't. So he'd probably run for the back stairs. Pausing briefly to check the empty rooms along the corridor, Hutch began bounding up the stairs.
He felt a wave of frustration. He had no idea where the suspect had disappeared. He was out of contact with Starsky. What should he do? Straight on up the stairs to the roof? Or check out each floor? Reason couldn't guide him, only his gambling instinct. After the slightest of pauses, he launched himself up the next flight. By the time he was pounding up the eighth flight, he was grateful that he was in good shape these days. Even so, he'd begun to pant. Another landing, then another floor of offices.
The next flight ended in a small landing with a fixed ladder of rusty metal leading up to a trapdoor to the roof. Hutch cursed softly under his breath. The trapdoor was padlocked. The thief hadn't come this way. He was spinning round to head back down the stairs when he froze. There were muffled thumps coming from somewhere above. Starsky and the suspect.
Without hesitation, he shot off the padlock, swarmed up the ladder, shoved the trapdoor open with a clatter, then slid out onto the roof, keeping as low as possible. It took only a heartbeat to locate Starsky: he always seemed to know where he was by a sort of built-in radar, so reliable he hardly ever even thought about its existence.
He was the full width of the building away, maybe 200 feet, and he was grappling on the floor with the suspect. Hutch assessed the situation quickly. Not possible to fire, no way of being sure of not hitting his partner. But he still yelled out with perfect assurance, "Halt right there or I'll fire." The suspect either didn't hear him or was calling his bluff.
He began to sprint across the roof. He had time to thank God that the building had been empty for only a couple of months: no gaping holes or weak spots.
He had covered only half the distance when fear clutched hold. Whether panic had given the suspect extra strength or whether Starsky was putting in more effort to end it before it dragged on too long, the fight had suddenly heated up. He saw the pair roll over a few times away from him.
Towards the edge of the building. The unguarded edge of the building. No rail, just a small lip about 6 inches high.
He screamed "Starsky" in warning but it was too late.
Both men plummeted over the side, eerily silent. For a nanosecond he stood frozen by shock. Then he pelted towards the edge. He stopped short twenty feet away, suddenly unable to face whatever was lying several floors below. It took only a few seconds to pull himself together but time behaves oddly in a crisis. It felt like hours. Then he stepped forward. He knelt down as he approached the edge because he didn't entirely trust his sense of balance at the moment, then inched forward on his knees. Even that was too much. He lowered himself to his belly and crawled. Hardly breathing at all, he inched forward over the lip.
And stopped breathing altogether. Starsky was lying no more than six feet beneath him, spreadeagled over the suspect. They had landed on a narrow secondary-level roof. Hutch called out softly, "Starsk, speak to me!"
There was some disorganised movement below, then Starsky replied in a shockingly normal voice, "It's okay, I was just winded. He broke my fall."
"Don't move. I'm coming right down."
A quick glance along the roof edge revealed a ladder connecting the two levels some yards away. Hutch leapt to his feet, all immobility banished now there was a distinct possibility that the world hadn't ended. Seconds later he was crouching at Starsky's side.
"Where does it hurt? Is your back okay?"
"Nowhere. And yeah. I'm gonna try and get up, I'm just a little shocky, that's all. I think my mattress is out cold though."
"Just take it gently, nothing too sudden."
Starsky managed to haul himself to his feet, with some strategic assistance from Hutch, who watched him carefully for any sign of pain. He detected no more than the odd wince.
"Go and sit down by the wall. I'll deal with him, then I'll run back down and call an ambulance."
Hutch first checked that the suspect still had a pulse and was indeed unconscious, then cuffed him as quickly as he could before turning back to his partner. Much as he needed to reassure himself that Starsky was more or less intact, he had been on the streets too many years to risk turning his back on an unrestrained perp, no matter how harmless he looked. He knew Starsky would understand.
He could feel his own knees turning wobbly with delayed reaction. Sitting down next to Starsky and holding onto him without ever letting go seemed very appealing but he knew he had to get downstairs again.
"Don't move," he admonished him again firmly, relieved to hear no wobbles in his voice at least. Discipline was good for something.
Starsky flashed his lop-sided grin at him: "You'd better not be too long then."
And that, essentially, was that. After calling for assistance, Hutch ran up the stairs again, then slid slowly down the wall to come to rest next to his partner, shoulders touching. Starsky reached out for his hand, then closed his eyes against the December sun and tipped his face back.
They said nothing at all.
Two ambulances turned up, plus a couple of officers to escort the prisoner. The suspect, now woozily conscious, was loaded into one and driven away. He had fared far less well than Starsky and had sustained several possible fractures, certainly a broken thigh. And Starsky was loaded into the other. Hutch hated seeing him carried down from the roof on a stretcher but the paramedics insisted. Best not to take any chances, he thought. Then he sighed as the craziness of the sentiment, given their job, hit home.
He was about to climb up into the ambulance when Starsky sharply pulled him up short. "Hey, Blintz, ain't you forgetting something? You ain't abandoning the Torino here. Won't be a car left to come back to if you do that in this neighborhood."
Hutch paused. He had a point. And he didn't look as if he was in medical danger. He found it almost impossible to refuse Starsky anything anyway, so he rooted in his pocket, extracted his keys, checked with the paramedics where they were taking Starsky, then went to start up the car. "See you there," he called out.
He watched the ambulance pull away out of sight, then leaned forward to rest his forehead on the steering wheel. He took a few deep breaths, trying to maintain a veneer of calm while the engine thrummed. Panic was scrabbling with sharply filed nails at the edges of his brain even though the emergency was over. A perfectly normal reaction, he reassured himself. Nothing to worry about. Control's still holding.
The radio dragged him back. It was Dobey, eager for more details from Hutch than the bald report that had come through to him. He sounded borderline frantic too, as if he couldn't quite find it in himself to believe that Starsky was more or less unhurt.
Hutch, amazed at how coolly professional his own voice sounded, reassured him. Getting to be good concealing things. Dobey promised to meet him at the hospital.
Hutch pulled up with a screech of tyres and whiff of rubber more reminiscent of Starsky's style, then dashed into ER. He felt a burning need to see Starsky right now. While they had been together on the roof, leaning against the wall and each other in the soothing sun, it had been possible to believe that he had suffered nothing worse than a few bruises. Now that they were separated, he was beginning to doubt his own memory.
He advanced purposefully on the receptionist, flashing his badge, only to hear his name being called.
"Hey, Hutch, over here. I'm fine." Starsky, already in a blue hospital gown, was sitting in a wheelchair, being propelled along by an orderly. Hutch smirked: just like Starsky to be so worried about Hutch worrying that he'd hijacked some poor soul from his duties, all to make things easier for his partner. The orderly was now allowed to push the chair back to a cubicle and leave.
"Haven't been here long. Just waiting for the doctor to come out and speak to me."
Hutch nodded absently. He felt as if he wasn't fully in contact with his surroundings. His knees were going wobbly again. Just shock symptoms. Perfectly normal. He grasped all his self-control and twisted it into a stronger rope so Starsky wouldn't notice anything amiss.
"Sit down on the couch before you fall down." So much for escaping detection. He sat. It seemed the easiest thing to do. "I'm fine, really I am. They'll give me a quick once-over then pack me on my way. Doctors have better things to do than kiss a few bruises better."
Hutch smiled but he knew it was sickly at best. "Dobey's on his way."
"Would've thought he had better things to do too. I take it everyone's over the bug if he has the time to traipse over here." Beneath the growl, Hutch detected a gleam of satisfaction at their captain's concern. "If the doctor sees him, she'll probably hospitalise him instead. He didn't look too hot yesterday."
Hutch was smiling his agreement when the doctor arrived, a tall red-haired woman in her early thirties, neither attractive nor plain. She looked competent.
"Detective Starsky," she leaned over to shake his hand, "I'm Doctor Janet McKitterick." She paused, clearly wanting to know who Hutch was.
"This is my partner, Detective Ken Hutchinson."
She shook hands with him too, then continued as he didn't seem about to leave. " Well it sounds like you've been extremely fortunate. Under normal circumstances, I'd just prod you about a bit and hopefully send you on your way. But in light of your surgery and the injuries you sustained eighteen months ago, we're not taking any chances. I want to test you thoroughly before I'm satisfied." A small smile touched her lips. "Besides, my colleagues would never forgive me if I missed a repair needed by the best living advertisement for their skills.
"So it's going to be a major prod and poke. You'll be fully engaged for the next two or three hours, then I feel inclined to keep you in overnight for observation."
Hutch saw the beginnings of a pout hovering around Starsky's lips. But he saw beneath it Starsky's desire to avoid spending any more time in hospitals that wasn't absolutely necessary. The sterile, characterless rooms with those indescribable odors underlying the liberal antiseptic brought back too vivid memories of weeks of pain after Gunther.
He took up arms on his friend's behalf. "Is that really necessary? He didn't hit his head at least he said he didn't. I can stay over at his place tonight to keep an eye on him. And if it's rest he needs, a good night's sleep's always so much easier in your own bed." He'd judged that confrontation would get him nowhere but reason might do the trick.
He willed the doctor to hear the subtext without him having to reveal more. She looked thoughtful suddenly.
"Okay. As long as the tests don't turn anything up, I don't see any reason you shouldn't go home, Detective Starsky. If you feel up to it, you can even go by the precinct to deal with your reports when we've finished with you. But I'd like you to have tomorrow off to recuperate, Detective Starsky." She looked down at him. "You'll probably feel sore by then anyway."
"Not as sore as last time. Thanks." He favored her with a blazing smile.
She left with a promise to send an orderly along shortly to wheel Starsky away for his first battery of tests. Hutch was thinking about kicking up a fuss until he was invited along too but stopped when he caught sight of Starsky's almost imperceptible shake of the head.
Captain Dobey arrived soon after. Hutch thought he looked improved from the previous night but still far from full strength. He gave him a brief account of what the doctor had said. Dobey agreed without demur to Starsky taking the next day off and suggested that Hutch should stay home too, in view of the hours they'd put in during the crisis. He agreed it would be good if they could come in later to write up a preliminary report but stressed only if Starsky felt up to it.
Starsky, predictably, glowered at the implication of weakness. "I'll be there. I'm just bruised and shook up. It was just a tumble for Chrissake, it isn't like I dived off Niagara Falls in a barrel."
Hutch thought better of pointing out that a small fall like that could break your neck just as easily as a more spectacular drop. It had happened to a school friend of his back in Minnesota in a riding accident when he was still in his teens. But further discussion was prevented by the orderly's arrival.
As Starsky disappeared, Hutch called out, "I'll be waiting in the relatives' room."
"Yeah, hope you're going to send the Cap'n back to his office soon. Someone's gotta keep working."
Hutch and Dobey stood in silence for a moment after his departure, looking at one another wryly.
"Let's go find some coffee and the relatives' room," Dobey suggested finally.
That didn't take long: they both knew where everything was from intimate and unwanted familiarity with the department. They sipped in silence until Dobey asked, "What happened, Hutchinson?"
Hutch thought for a moment. "I haven't checked it all out yet with Starsky, so some of it's still guesswork. The suspect had to have gone in the side door, not the front. And he must have started up the back stairs, or Starsky would have seen him. I think he must have cut through the building, don't know which floor, to the main stairs. Probably he thought he'd double back down them. But when he saw Starsky he headed up to the roof."
He looked at Dobey and read the unspoken question. "It was just one of those things, Captain. They couldn't have been wrestling for more than a couple of minutes. The suspect's a big man, a piece heavier and taller than Starsky. I'm not sure I'd have subdued him any quicker. It was nothing to do with any weakness from his injuries. You know he's been on the streets for months now with no trouble. Our success rate's as good as ever." His voice sharpened on his partner's behalf. "What gives you the right to doubt he's up to the job?"
"Hutchinson," said Dobey warningly. "I'm not doubting, I just need to know how one of my officers came to fall off a roof." He sighed. "It's the accidents you can't predict that take men away so quick you never even see it coming."
A pause: "One thing more. You sure you couldn't have got there quicker, shot the perp maybe? You didn't hesitate?"
Hutch opened his mouth to reply furiously, then stopped himself when he heard the real question. His voice soft, he almost whispered. "No, Captain, I'm not blaming myself. Not this time. It really was just an accident."
Dobey frowned to maintain his gruff image. "Glad to hear you've made some progress, son."
"Ohhh yes, I've learnt a lot since Gunther," he said quietly, eyes fixed on the scratched top of the coffee table.
"And you've done well." A moment's hesitation. "Wasn't at all sure you could do it, you know – let Starsky go out on the streets again. And still keep letting him go out on the streets after days like today as if nothing had happened." Dobey seemed faintly embarrassed at putting something so personal into words and unsure of what reaction he would provoke.
Hutch surprised him by looking up from the table and meeting his eye. "And I'll keep on doing it," he said firmly before dropping his gaze back down to the table. "But I wouldn't claim it was 'as if nothing had happened' . . . ." He trailed off.
Dobey cleared his throat and struggled to his feet from the sagging chair, which groaned alarmingly. "If I don't get back soon, Metro'll fall apart without me. Call by later if you can for the reports but only if Starsky's not too worn out. If he is, they'll keep. I trust you to maintain some control over your partner."
Hutch was left alone. The problem with being alone is that it offers an unparalleled opportunity for self-analysis. He leaned his head wearily back against the scuffed fake-leather chesterfield, eyes closed. He knew the captain had a right to the answers he'd asked for. And he knew that he'd answered honestly. He had learnt a great deal in the months since Gunther's hit. And he would let Starsky go out and do his job in the same way tomorrow – well, the day after tomorrow.
However, eighteen months ago he had no conception of how painful the learning and readjustment would prove. Some of the pain he'd fully expected: the pain of not knowing initially whether Starsky would even live; the pain of seeing Starsky suffering as he clawed his way slowly back to health.
When Starsky began the lengthy process of physiotherapy to regain lost mobility and fitness, Hutch's support had been unwavering. He was always there. He knew instinctively whether Starsky needed bullying when pain and discouragement were overwhelming him or whether he needed sympathy and comfort. He never made an error in reading the right response and he never gave too little or too much. Starsky was adamant that he would return to the streets. It was just that sometimes in the dark hours his belief wobbled. Hutch's belief in him might have been carved in granite on Mount Sinai.
He walked every step along the winding mountains and valleys of Starsky's progress. His own fitness level improved dramatically as he worked out with Starsky, as he ran further in the mornings, cut out the unhealthy foods that had slipped quietly into his diet. He threw out from his closet the pants he'd bought to accommodate his increased weight and resurrected old ones. Thank God I didn't throw them away! He took indefinite leave of absence from work, with the exception of doing whatever was required on the Gunther case, and lived on family money so that he could push Starsky like a personal trainer towards a goal that seemed ever more attainable.
Gradually they began to resurrect their old social life, first just short evening visits to The Pits, then meals out, then meals followed by a beer or two stretching into the night. Finally Starsky pronounced himself ready to begin dating again. Hutch dug through his address book and found suitable women to start him off. Nothing too strenuous to begin with: joint dates in restaurants, trips to the movies, evenings spent bowling.
Hutch could see the shadows of pain and fear being driven away. The times when Starsky erupted with frustration at the slowness of his recovery or feared he would never fully recover grew few and far between, then petered out altogether. After six and a half months the hospital team expressed the opinion that he was ready to be assessed for a desk-job as preparation for returning to his old job. Hutch fixed the appointment with a huge sense of achievement.
One sunny Monday afternoon in early winter they strolled to the park to celebrate. They tossed a frisbee around for a while. Hutch carefully observed how much better Starsky was able to stretch out to the side for a catch. He never ceased watching Starsky's every move: partly to monitor how well his physical recovery was progressing and identify any problems that might indicate a relapse or that they were overdoing things; partly to try and figure out if he could do anything different to hasten the healing process.
Watching a little terrier triumphantly race off with it in its mouth caused a few minutes' hilarity – and also the opportunity for Starsky to flirt with its good-looking lady-owner. Hutch rolled his eyes when he saw her give her telephone number. Everything seemed delightfully normal. And when they both returned to work in the near future, things would be more normal still.
After playing on for another ten minutes, Starsky called a halt and expressed a desire for ice cream. Hutch walked off smartly to track down a vendor. He returned with two cones and a newspaper, then sat on a bench to read. Starsky flopped down on the grass opposite. Hutch noted automatically the ease with his partner accomplished the maneuver and felt that life was good.
With the sudden violence of an earthquake, Hutch's world shattered into jagged shards like knives. If the sun had vanished and fiery clouds had rained down blood, he wouldn't have noticed. Oblivious, he was transported away to his own circle of hell and was lost to the Monday afternoon he'd been innocently enjoying as if no monsters lurked under the bed. Fear made his breathing shallow, sweat beaded his face. He hadn't felt such terror since he raced back to the hospital when Starsky was dying.
He didn't have to search deeply to find the source of the panic that was throttling him so furiously. He was petrified at the prospect of Starsky returning to work. He couldn't identify why it had struck now rather than when he made the appointment. He had, however, a good notion as to why it had left him untroubled up till this point.
In the previous few months he had focused utterly on ensuring by any means he could muster that Starsky achieved what he so ardently desired: a full return to his job. Hutch hadn't thought much about what that would mean: all that mattered was ploughing on like a tank towards achieving that goal, summoning all his strength to shove aside any obstacles that threatened Starsky's success. He had permitted nothing to distract him. And in a sense, he hadn't missed their partnership on the streets. Starsky's recovery was just as much of a partnership; Hutch hadn't needed anything more.
But Starsky's imminent return to Metro had rudely shifted the beam of Hutch's tight focus. He knew that the desk-job would be only temporary. Sometime soon, weeks or months, Starsky would fly through his next assessment and be out on the streets once more. And Hutch didn't think he could handle it. He didn't think he had the strength to tolerate the risk of losing his partner again.
He sat there frozen, as if his brain had shut down. He hadn't a clue what to do. He couldn't step into the future. Equally, he couldn't blurt out to Starsky that he wanted him to abandon his dream – his future.
Eventually, he was dragged back to the park because he was aware of something shaking his knees. He was surprised to find his eyes screwed tight shut. He decided he'd have to open them and face the world. People were still playing happily in the park, walking their dogs, eating sandwiches, kissing, a hundred and one normal activities, regardless of his pain.
He looked down. Starsky was kneeling in front of him, a hand grasping each of Hutch's knees. He'd stopped jiggling them and was staring intently into Hutch's eyes. He looked worried. "Hey, Hutch, come back to me."
Hutch suspected that he'd been calling his name for some time. Well he certainly couldn't pretend that nothing had happened. The newspaper had dropped unheeded to his lap and there was a revolting gooey mess in the centre where his ice cream had disintegrated. Did I eat any of it? Oh god, what am I going to say to Starsky? He's not going to let this go.
"So where'd you go, Blondie? You gonna tell me about it?"
A long pause ensued. Hutch struggled to gather his wits. A straightforward refusal would not go down well.
"There's nothing to tell." Starsky looked unconvinced. Can't say I blame you, buddy. "I was just thinking . . . how far we've come, stuff like that." Hutch aimed at a smile. "No big deal." Keep it vague. Don't give him anything to latch onto.
"Yeah, right." Starsky sat down on his heels and rested his chin on top of his hands, which still covered Hutch's knees.
"Look, Hutch, we're going to make it you know. Stop worrying about the assessment. All these months you've been glued to my side, never a break. Why don't you take some time off for yourself? I don't need babysitting no more, pal. The Independent's showing one of those god-awful trendy French films – all long silences and meaningful glances in black-and-white artistry. Go and see it. You know it's not my kind of thing." He watched for Hutch's reaction but he was holding himself still as stone, as unreadable as unreflecting dark water. "Go on, it'll do you good for a change."
Of course, Starsky was right and Hutch knew it. He had to go and find some place quiet to think. He needed to discover how he was going to deal with his paralysing fear and he couldn't put off the attempt. Maybe not the cinema, but Starsky was offering him just what he needed, time alone.
He sighed. He folded up the newspaper carefully so that the mess wouldn't leak. "Yeah, sounds like a good idea. It's just hitting me that the assessment's really just a few days away. It seems so strange . . . Come on, let's walk back and I'll pick up my car."
He was hugely relieved that Starsky said not a word on the way home but he did drape an arm round Hutch's shoulders and keep it there. Hutch felt as if it was the only thing anchoring him to the world.
In the end he drove to the ocean. By the time he arrived, it was early evening and there were few people about. He stretched over to the glove compartment, rooted around through the junk and finally extracted a few sheets of paper. More excavation produced a biro. He tucked them into his jacket pocket. He walked slowly down onto the sand, bent to remove his shoes and socks and began walking steadily.
It was not difficult to identify what he was afraid of. Any cop knows the streets are dangerous. Eventually luck runs out, even for those who appear to lead charmed lives. Hutch was getting older and that made it so much harder to retain his belief in immortality. He knew now with complete certainty that Starsky wasn't immortal at all.
He asked himself if he was afraid of his own death. No, he would deeply regret the pain it would cause Starsky but he wasn't afraid of dying. Equally, he knew that he wasn't eager to die. Life around Starsky was way too enjoyable even if it involved a certain cost: he wanted it to continue.
He drifted to a halt. Forcefully he expelled a breath to clear his lungs, if not his head. He drew out the biro and slim wad of paper. He needed to set out all his options clearly. That would reveal to him how to deal with the fear. He took a death-grip on his belief that he would find a way and held it closely enough to his chest to throttle it.
He divided the first sheet into three columns with neat freehand lines. Above the left one he wrote carefully "Actions", above the middle he wrote "Potential Consequences", above the right he wrote "Outcome". Pausing, pen hovering above the paper, he elected to start with the worst-case scenario. As he finished each new point, he neatly drew a horizontal line to divide them.
I leave the force.
I lose Starsky.
S. has a new partner. I daren't trust anyone else but me to be his partner.
even more frightening
S. resigns too.
I stay but take a desk-job.
S. has a new partner and stays on the streets.
see 1.1 and 1.2
S. settles for a desk-job too.
I stay on the streets and live with the fear.
I'm S.'s partner. I'm the only one I dare trust to be his partner.
I endanger him because my fear paralyses me.
I'm too overprotective: S. can't do the job properly.
I stay on the streets and conquer the fear.
I'm S.'s partner. I'm the only one I dare trust to be his partner.
Our partnership remains the way it should.
the only acceptable outcome.
Hutch sighed morosely. He knew he'd left out some important things. If he refused to go back on the streets with his partner, Starsky might imagine that he didn't believe Starsky was good enough any more. He couldn't allow that.
No, it was really very simple. Scribbling on his sheet of paper had only been a delaying tactic.
Starsky needed to return to his old job. Hutch had fought so fiercely over the past months to help bring it about – he couldn't do anything now to jeopardise it. Neither of them wanted another partner. Part of the joy of the job was doing it together, no one else could provide that feeling of rightness.
And deep down, Hutch knew that neither of them would be as safe with another partner. Both were used to automatic backup from the other, being able to read each other's intentions without words. In another partnership, each would still instinctively expect that sort of backup in a fast-moving crisis – they'd relied on it for so many years so that it was now part of them. But if didn't materialise when they expected it, that could all too easily be lethal.
So it came down to conquering the fear. Writing anally neat lists wasn't going to give him the key.
He didn't dare seek professional help. If he saw a police shrink, that would be the quickest way of ensuring that he didn't work with Starsky until the problem was resolved – if ever again. He didn't want that and he knew for a certainty that Starsky wouldn't want it. Besides, as long as Starsk was desk bound, Hutch wouldn't be endangering him.
Nor would seeking help privately be easy. He didn't want to worry his partner by explaining his problem. Not unless it became unavoidable in order to protect Starsky. And there was no way he could visit a therapist privately without him knowing something was up – they were never really apart.
So . . . he had to find a way by himself. If he failed, he promised himself that, for Starsky's safety, he would go for professional help. But only as a last resort.
He folded the paper neatly and put it in his jacket pocket. He stood up, found he was stiff, stretched and walked down to the water's edge. It was calm near the shore but when he raised his head, he could see foaming white horses further out. He kept going until the wavelets lapped his bare toes. Eyes closed, he stood immobile.
His mind was quite blank. It was an uncomfortable feeling, creating a sensation akin to panic.
He wasn't sure why it should unnerve him so badly until he remembered a Spanish exam he'd sat, eons ago. He hadn't thought about it in years. When he'd turned over the paper and scanned it eagerly, he'd been shocked silly to find that he couldn't make sense of any of the words. He hadn't been nervous about the exam; he'd confidently expected to find it easy. The letters metamorphosed into black random patterns in serried lines on white paper. It might as well have been Mandarin. He sat there stunned, on the verge of panic and running from the room to throw up. Then he'd taken control of himself, asserted enough discipline to stop himself from bolting, taken a deep breath and turned the paper back over so that it was face down again. He'd looked at the clock. He'd forced himself to sit calmly for five whole minutes, doing nothing but remind himself that he was good at Spanish. Then he'd flipped the paper over and looked a second time at the Spanish text. It now made perfect sense. He'd done extremely well, just as he'd anticipated.
Cautiously, Hutch looked inside the cupboard where he'd stuffed his panic over Starsky. If he hadn't imprisoned it effectively, he wouldn't have been able to function in the traffic while driving. It now tried to come storming out. He slammed the door shut and bolted it for the moment.
Another door creaked open unexpectedly and a long-buried memory emerged. His first time at the movies, accompanied by his mother and grandmother. He couldn't remember how old he was – pre-school? It had been a disaster, at least in his mother's eyes, and for him an emotional experience of searing intensity. He had been promised something pleasurable and had been appalled when it nearly broke his heart.
In those days moviegoers expected two films for their money. Hutch couldn't recall what the main feature was. The supporting movie had told a simple story about a young male seal, found by some children on a beach. He was badly injured so they took him home, tended him, bonded with him, grew to love him. A kindly adult let in on their secret explained that he must have been attacked by a larger, older male as they established their territorial boundaries.
The summer passed by and eventually they realised, with adult guidance, that they could keep their seal as a pet no longer. He was fully restored to health and needed more than the safe bathtub they could offer. After much soul-searching, they took him back to the beach where they had found him so that he could return to his real life. They pushed him down onto the sands in a pram. Who uses a pram anymore? They lifted him out and watched him lumber into the waves, where he swam gracefully away into the sunset. The movie ended in a cloud of happy, emotional music.
Hutch watched for a horrified moment then screamed at the top of his lungs. He sobbed and sobbed inconsolably. First his mother attempted to soothe him. Then she became angry. Hutch knew that he was embarrassing her by making a scene. Lots of heads were turning.
His grandmother suggested quietly that they should leave the auditorium. His mother seized him by the elbow and half-dragged him out, hissing "Be quiet, Kenneth. I don't know why you're making such a noise but stop it right now. Whatever will people say? You wouldn't want Mrs Wingate" (a neighbour from their road watching curiously with her daughter) "to think you're a cry-baby, now would you?"
Hutch didn't care. He carried on screaming. His mother fell into tight-lipped silence, trying to subdue him with a basilisk stare. He ignored her.
Then, in the red velvet foyer, his grandmother knelt down in front of him. "I'm sorry, Kenneth, but we don't understand. It was a beautiful, happy movie. We thought you'd enjoy it. Please tell me, what made you cry?"
Hutch looked at her in astonishment. How could people be so dumb? He was so taken aback by his relatives' stupidity that he forgot to cry. The sobs subsided to painful hiccups. "Don't you see?"
"No, Kenneth, I don't. See what? You're going to have to tell me. I don't understand what's wrong."
Kenneth loved his grandmother so he tried to explain: it wasn't her fault she didn't understand.
"He went back to the sea . . ." He faltered, unsure how to put his pain into words and feeling more sobs ready to explode as he thought about what he had seen.
"Yes, darling, but that was good. He was a seal, a wild animal. He couldn't live in captivity, it wouldn't have been fair on him. The children were going to miss him terribly but they did the right thing."
"The right thing!" His voice rose alarmingly and he caught his mother's furious stare. A deep breath: "Yes, of course they were going to miss him. That's not the point. He was going to get killed." The adults looked completely mystified and exchanged baffled glances. He realised that they still didn't understand. "The other seal. . . ."
"What other seal?" his mother broke in crossly.
He sighed in exasperation at her slowness. "The big seal, the one that hurt him before the movie began. He's waiting out there somewhere. The ocean isn't safe. He'll find the young seal and fight him again and this time he'll kill him. The children won't be able to help him." He lost control completely, imagining the gaping, bloody wounds as the seal gasped his last, pain-filled breaths. His sobs were as piercing as ever.
His mother was about to reprimand him when his grandmother quelled her with a glance. She folded him in her arms, comforted him, tried to convince him that the young seal was now older and stronger, he'd be able to beat the other one if it attacked him.
Hutch listened politely, because he loved her. He calmed down sufficiently to eat the ice cream she bought him (his mother disapproved); he returned to his seat and dutifully watched the main feature.
But he didn't believe her. The fear he felt for the seal was like a stone on his chest. He knew what the outcome must be.
It was a long time before his mother took him to the movies again.
Hutch stared into the distance, while the wavelets sucked at the sand beneath his toes. He was glad the seal had swum into view again. Even though it was years since he had last remembered the film, the surge of terrible emotion that had overwhelmed him as a young boy was perfectly preserved.
It seemed ironic that now, thirty years later, he should be equally tormented by a similar scene in his own life. Sure, Gunther might be behind bars but there were plenty of other big, powerful men who would want to hurt Starsky. And Hutch recognised quite clearly that try as he might, he couldn't always stop them.
So, he was back to the fear. Oh fuck, my jeans are wet! He needed to come up with a plan. And it had to be a good plan.
All those years ago at the movies, he hadn't really driven out the fear. But he had managed to force it out of sight and sit through the feature as if nothing earth shattering had happened. He'd done it because he loved his grandmother, pure and simple. She was upset because he was upset and he couldn't bear that.
And when he'd panicked in the exam, he'd recovered. He'd made the fear go away. He'd done it by self-control and discipline.
Hutch sighed, knowing that the future was going to cost him. He'd found his answers. His plan had to work because he loved Starsky. He had to provide whatever Starsky needed. He had to forge his discipline together in layers like steel for a sword. In the months before Gunther, feeling tired, old and stale, he'd allowed his discipline and self-control to grow slack. Never again, he swore. The punishing routine of Starsky's recovery had helped him recover those lost strengths. His task now was to hone them and hone them and hone them again, until they were a seamless part of his soul. He would succeed, because there was no alternative.
Purposefully he turned round and strode back to his car.
Starsky sailed through his assessment for a desk-job. LAPD was generous. (And Dobey fought like a tiger and schemed like a politician.) Hutch was assigned the same duties. They tended to be mechanical and left him time to construct with precision and love the shields he would need when their street life resumed. He never wasted an opportunity to work on them.
He believed that Starsky was unaware he had a problem. Of course he knew that Hutch was a little nervous. That was, after all, normal. Starsky still had to pass his final assessment. Even though the doctors were thrilled with the completeness of his recovery and were predicting that he wouldn't have to wait much longer, something might still go wrong.
And when all was said and done, Starsky had nearly died. So Hutch thought he was entitled to exhibit some concern, provided he ensured that his overriding emotion on view was keen anticipation. He was surprised that Starsky was being so patient at putting in desk-time. He guessed that age and experience had matured some of the "Want it now, have it now!" attitude. He told Hutch he wanted to be sure he had to take the assessment only once, twice would look bad on his records, and he wouldn't push the hospital to recommend it too soon against the doctors' better judgement.
One day Hutch was surprised when Starsky handed him a well-thumbed paperback. "Take it. You know Pete Fawley in Records? He gave me this when I was in the hospital. Didn't want it back – said he'd bought himself a new copy."
Hutch looked non-committal. It was some lurid-covered science-fiction novel. Not something he would choose to read. On the other hand, he could tell Starsky was keen and wasn't going to be put off easily.
"Go on, it's really well written. It won't hurt you. You'll enjoy it, despite the cover. Just try it out, you won't be able to put it down, promise." Starsky's pleading indigo eyes burned the surface of his skin.
If he could make Starsky happy by so small a sacrifice, he would. Perhaps not so small – it's door-stop fat and really small print. He took it.
Starsky had a date lined up with a secretary from another department that evening, so Hutch settled down with a beer on the couch. He expected to be bored. He wasn't. Only a few pages in he experienced a sinking feeling. The young hero was stricken by acute fear and had to control it in potentially lethal circumstances. Coincidence, it has to be.
He shut the book and thought hard, feeling slightly panicked. He longed to dismiss his suspicion but couldn't. He knew that Starsky could be extraordinarily perceptive, especially where his partner was concerned. And he could be unexpectedly subtle: people tended to misjudge this quality, seeing only the brash surface. Hutch knew far better.
The book was fat. He idly fanned the pages. Had Starsky given any hints previously? Had Starsky known what had hit Hutch in the park when the panic first struck? He tried to recall exactly what his partner had said.
While thinking, he absently noticed that there were three or four slivers of paper marking various pages. He investigated them, starting at the back. He couldn't find anything in the text to show why Starsky (or Fawley?) had inserted them.
The final one, nearest the front, made him feel light-headed. A section in italics drew his eye. He knew then that his secret wasn't a secret at all.
I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.1
The book dropped to his lap.
After a while he began reading again. Starsk was sure to ask if he'd read it. He'd probably test him just to check Hutch wasn't lying. To his surprise, he found it as enjoyable as his partner had promised.
Next morning he sat tensely waiting for Starsky to pick him up. He'd been awake for hours, trapped in a kaleidoscope of conflicting emotions. He couldn't face explaining what he'd been going through. But at the same time he detected an unmistakable glow of pleasure in being so thoroughly understood. He recognised that his inability to hide his emotions sprang from the depth of Starsky's love for him. He was also scared: what if he could conceal nothing from his partner's acute vision? He needed to keep some secrets, even from Starsky.
Starsky was late and sounded his horn for Hutch to come straight down. He summoned his discipline, determined not to show how nervous he felt, and skipped lightly down the steps.
Starsky leaned over to pull up the door catch. Hutch observed with detached approval the smoothness of his stretch. He sat down and slammed the door shut.
"Morning," Starsky greeted him as if nothing was out of the ordinary.
"Yeah, morning. You're ten minutes late, you know. I take it you had a good, long evening." Hutch reasoned that if he could deflect his partner long enough, it would be too public back at Metro to discuss the book and its implications.
Starsky grinned, "Yeah, terrific!" The grin faded a little and took on some frown qualities. "Well, not so terrific."
"So just okay?"
"Yeah, just okay. Probably won't bother to look her up again."
"Pity. She's a real stunner."
"Yeah, just not such stunning company."
Hutch ground to a halt. He couldn't think of anything else to ask without prying. If he didn't get a grip, he'd embarrass himself by demanding a blow-by-blow account of the evening's sexual marathon, just to fill the time.
Mercifully Starsky let the silence accumulate for a while, then he began to chatter about work, which required little more than grunts and monosyllables from Hutch in response.
When Starsky parked the Torino at Metro and switched off the ignition, he thought he'd been let off the hook. He was reaching for the door handle when his partner stopped him dead.
"So, did you read the book?" The tone was casual but the accompanying gaze was keenly speculative. Starsky had wriggled round sideways in his seat so that he faced Hutch.
"Jesus, in one evening?" Hutch relented: "Yeah, I made a good start. You were right, it's good. Wasn't easy to put it down." He paused for a beat and felt brave. "He's good on psychology."
He saw Starsky's gaze soften and the ghost of a smile.
Silence fell. Hutch found he didn't want to move. Starsky put one hand on his shoulder, one on his knee. Hutch could see he was working through how to say something. He sat mesmerised, both scared and eager to hear what it was.
"Hutch, I'm gonna fix up that appointment today. It's time for us to get out from behind those desks before we get glued to the furniture permanently. We're both ready to go back."
"Starsk, what makes you so certain?" Hutch breathed.
"I just know, Blondie." He began rubbing the nape of Hutch's neck. He leaned his head back into it and Starsky responded by rubbing harder. "You trust me, don't you?" He didn't wait for an answer. "I'll be fine, you'll be fine. It won't be perfect, nothing ever is. You and me are both old to know that. But it will be 'me and thee'. I can't promise you it'll be just the same as before. We're both old enough to know that nothing's ever the same. But it'll be even better. We've both learnt a lot since my accident. We know what's important, we know what we want. All that stuff before Gunther – Kira, whatever – it's gone, Hutch. You're not that person any more. We've been through the fire and we've come out purified . . ."
He broke off, looking flushed. The fingers at Hutch's neck stopped tangling in his hair. "Fuck, I've been eating too many of your books while I've been laid up."
"It's a disease you can catch from ingesting too many turgid SF sagas as well. Herbert would be proud of you," Hutch teased gently.
"Well, you ready to make the appointment?" His face was quite still but Hutch detected the yearning in those deep blue eyes.
"Yes, as soon as we get in." There, he'd said it.
Starsky's smile blazed brilliantly. "You'll see, things will be fine."
It was only when he was safely behind his desk that Hutch realised that the word "fear" had never been mentioned.
Starsky was right. Things were fine. When their first dangerous situation on the streets tested out Hutch's defenses against the fear, they held. He tinkered with them constantly to strengthen them and each time they held back the fear, he grew more confident in his own ability to function. Not just to function adequately but at his peak.
The months slipped seamlessly past, until the stomach bug hit the precinct, and now here he was once more stuck in a relatives' room in a hospital, waiting. And waiting. With plenty of time for self-analysis.
He sighed and wished he could consult Starsky's watch. The clinically austere and comfortless clock on the wall informed him his partner had been gone about two hours. He was tired; he still hadn't recovered from all the overtime, let alone this afternoon's tension. But he was too wired to sleep. He compromised by lying down on the battered sofa, feet hanging off over the arm. It could be a lot worse, he really is all right. He kept on repeating his mantra.
The clock ticked on. When Starsky had been gone for almost three hours, Hutch began to worry in earnest. Did it mean the doctors had turned up something with their tests? If all registered normal, wouldn't they have finished with him by now? Eventually he lurched to his feet and started pacing back and forth.
When the door opened without any warning knock, he spun round, ready to take out his frustration on whoever had disturbed him. But it was a smiling Starsky.
"Stop worrying, Hutch. Everything's all right." Just as Hutch was about to interrupt and give him a real grilling to be sure that he wasn't hiding anything, Starsky leapt in again. "I knew you wouldn't believe me, so I brought along Dr McKitterick to convince you." He stepped out of the doorway to let her into the room.
She looked amused that Starsky had predicted his partner's reaction so accurately. "Detective Hutchinson, your partner is doing very well. None of the test results gave any cause for concern at all, and we tested him exhaustively. Work seems to agree with him." She smiled. "As for this afternoon's tumble, it's lucky he landed on top. Your suspect is quite badly injured. Several broken ribs, among other things, and a fair degree of internal injuries."
She saw the shadow cross Hutch's face as he contemplated what would have happened had Starsky been pinned underneath, given that his insides had been so thoroughly mangled by Gunther's bullets.
"Detective Starsky has sustained some bruising and, as I said earlier, he'll probably feel stiff later. So take him home, keep an eye on him and make him take it easy tomorrow. I recommended that he take aspirin if he's too uncomfortable."
"And Craddock's okay too," Starsky added cheerfully. Hutch felt a twinge of guilt. He had never enquired who the officer down was, let alone how he had fared. Clearly Starsky had. "Off duty, wrong place, wrong time," he supplied in answer to Hutch's unspoken question. "I dropped by his room on our way here."
"So, what do you think?" Hutch asked, scuffing the carpet with his toe.
"Yeah, let's get 'em done tonight." Neither noticed the doctor's bafflement at their broken train of thought and verbal shorthand.
They thanked her for her care, then left. She stood at the relatives' room door and watched them go. She was surprised to see Detective Hutchinson lean over on the way out and grab his partner's wrist. Then she realised he was consulting his watch. Belatedly she understood their cryptic conversation: they'd been discussing whether to return to the station and write up their reports. She wondered how long they'd been partners.
Dobey was still at the precinct, eager to hear Dr McKitterick's report and grateful for the update on Craddock, who had still been in surgery when Dobey was at the hospital. The two detectives settled down to type up the paperwork as quickly as possible.
On the way home, Hutch insisted on calling at a foodstore to buy something decent for dinner. Shortly before eight, Starsky turned the key in the lock of his front door. To say that it had been a long day didn't even begin to cover it.
Now that he was away from the precinct, Hutch felt punch-drunk with euphoria. He catalogued the onset of the jitters with clinical detachment and watched his hands begin to shake. His mind informed him calmly that he was about to come down with a bad case of delayed reaction. He knew from experience that he had to act quickly before he fell apart completely.
He commenced mothering Starsky mercilessly. He guided him to the couch and settled him down. He brought him fruit juice – no alcohol in case he needed painkillers later. He drew him a warm bath to relieve the ache of his bruises. He threw in some soothing oil he'd once picked up at a street market in the hope that it would ease the pull of tight scar tissue. He set out clean fluffy towels to warm, he retrieved Starsky from the sofa. He managed to let him walk to the bathroom on his own two feet and restricted himself to holding onto one of his arms. (He hoped he kept it toned down to "hold" rather than "clutch".) He forced himself to leave his partner to undress and bathe himself while he prepared the steak and salad he'd purchased. And he forced himself not to stand like a servant at Starsky's elbow to wait on him at table.
At about nine, he shepherded Starsky back to the sofa and made him lie down while he took care of the dishes. A quick scan of the TV listings threw up the ancient monster movie, which Starsky said he wanted to watch. Hutch protested that it finished too late but Starsky wouldn't budge. Besides, he was probably right: they both needed to unwind before they would sleep. So Hutch disappeared to make popcorn. He returned to find Starsky sitting upright.
"You missed the first five minutes."
"You don't need to fill me in, thanks. I don't suppose it will be so complicated I can't catch up." He couldn't resist the sarcastic dig at his partner's viewing habits.
Starsky patted the sofa and Hutch lay down in the space beside him, cautiously because his back was hurting. He gazed up at his partner. They had survived, he was happy. He didn't want to move any time soon. Just contemplate how he had found this safe haven. He drifted blissfully.
The movie was still droning on but Starsky had finished the popcorn. Hutch tried to reach back for the bowl, intending to make a refill. Starsky's hand on his chest stopped him.
"No, I've enjoyed enough sin for one night. The movie's nearly over anyway." Hutch drank in the sleepy smile and stayed put.
He had learnt today that his defenses against the fear held out on the streets even when pushed to the limit. He could afford to congratulate himself. He'd won. He had wrapped discipline and self-control around his weakness like armor plate and they were sufficient. Okay, Dobey knew he was worried today. But that was no different than before. His boss and fellow officers knew that he watched out for Starsky, Starsky watched out for him.
Months ago now, when Starsky survived without injury his first exposure to gunfire post-Gunther, Hutch had exposed a serious flaw in his system. Discipline could be wound only so tight. He realised that evening that there was a point at which it would explode catastrophically and he was perilously close to a stress fracture. Thinking quickly, he worked out that he needed to avoid this testing to destruction at all costs. Maybe if he eased the tension on the rope and let it out a few notches . . . .
He was desperate after that first firefight. As soon as Hutch shut the door of Starsky's place behind him, he gave free rein to the terrible urge to be over-protective. He switched into full mother-hen mode, even though Starsky was completely uninjured. It worked. He could feel the fractures in his armor healing themselves, closing over. He no longer sensed that he was going to fly apart into destructive shards ready to slash through anything in their path.
And to his amazement, Starsky permitted him to mother him. He made no complaint, nor did he try and wrest control back from Hutch. Hutch guessed that his partner had figured out what was going on. But just as the fear had never been mentioned, Hutch's safety valve was left in silence and shadows. He was grateful.
And he worked hard to ensure that he didn't abuse the privilege. Never once did he slip up at work where their fellow-officers could see. Never once did he indulge himself unnecessarily when there was no imminent danger of a blow-out. And when he felt that he had to invoke his emergency procedure, he sensed Starsky's wordless support enfolding him like a blanket.
He knew that without evenings like tonight, lying quietly on the sofa, resting his head against Starsky, no amount of discipline would enable him to return to work as if nothing had happened.
He stretched luxuriously, pushing his head against Starsky's thigh and his toes against the sofa arm while arching up his back like a cat. He felt his partner's attention drop to him instantly. "You want to go to bed now, babe?" A hand massaged his shoulder.
"No, don't be silly. The movie's not finished yet. I'd hate to be responsible for the tension of not knowing what happened keeping you awake," he teased.
Starsky's lazy lop-sided smile bathed him in its glow. He closed his eyes. Then he opened them again quickly. He needed to locate one of Starsky's cushions. Now. He hugged it to his stomach, ensuring unobtrusively that it lay across his groin. Starsky noticed.
"I can pull the afghan down if you're cold?" He didn't wait for an answer but twisted round to snag it down from the back of the sofa without disturbing Hutch's head from his thigh. Then he threw it out to the side, over Hutch's legs, and carefully tucked it round his partner as far as he could reach.
Hutch formed a mental grimace. Much as he appreciated seeing that Starsky had managed the awkward turn without any discomfort, he wished he'd left well alone. He was going to roast now. But he didn't dare make a fuss and draw attention.
The truth was that Hutch was nursing another problem.
As a cop, he knew that the best place to hide a secret is often beneath another secret. Not beneath any old secret, but beneath the kind of secret that isn't really a secret any longer. If people think they have unearthed something and solved the puzzle, they often won't bother to dig any deeper to see if something else is lurking.
So Hutch was relying on his two secrets that weren't really secrets to hide the remaining secret. He and Starsky had never openly discussed how close he had come to being so overwhelmed by fear for his partner that he couldn't return to his job. They had skirted it indirectly and dealt with it. He felt Starsky's unstinting support as he struggled to thwart the problem. But nothing had been said overtly.
Starsky understood perfectly that the only way Hutch could maintain the discipline that kept the fear locked away was by periodically letting go of his control and indulging in over-protective behaviour. Once upon a time Starsky would have refused to put up with this occasionally smothering blanket. But like Hutch, he had learnt much over the last eighteen months. And like Hutch, he was prepared to pay the price of maintaining their partnership. But nothing had been said directly.
Sometimes, for long periods at a stretch, Hutch thought that his final secret was safe. But at other times he doubted. Most people might not suspect the existence of the secret beneath the layers of secrets. But Starsky wasn't most people. He was an exceptionally good intuitive cop who rarely missed emotional clues. But if he had detected anything strange, he gave no hint that Hutch could pick up.
Not knowing whether Starsky knew was unsettling, to say the least. But all Hutch could do was act as if Starsky didn't know and hope that his camouflage was good enough. Even the most delicate probing would only serve to alert Starsky's instincts to the fact that there was something hidden. The concealment was a form of deception, which didn't feel good. But it was like conquering the fear: there was no other way. He had to do it.
Hutch had fallen in love with his partner. It hadn't been revealed to him in a blinding flash of light, there had been no road to Damascus revelation. "Fallen" was the wrong word altogether. He couldn't pinpoint when it had happened. It had been an imperceptible shift.
Being in love had crept through his defenses by stealth. He thought that if it had been something sudden, he might have resisted it. He would have seen the attack coming and might have fought it off successfully. The truth dawned on him gradually in the months after Gunther's hit.
Not when Starsky was first shot: he doubted then that he could live without his partner but physical desire had no part in his unbearable cocktail of grief, anger, guilt and loss.
But when Starsky was beginning to recover and Hutch began to trust that his own life could start up again, he started experiencing the strangest sensations. Thoughts and emotions flitted at the edge of consciousness. It was like seeing someone out of the corner of your eye, then finding they'd disappeared when you turned to look at them directly. Or like watching a badly tuned TV where you could almost make out the images and interpret the soundtrack but not quite.
Hutch had been puzzled, intrigued even, but not worried. The almost-thoughts didn't seem threatening: far removed from the gut-wrenching nightmares he'd experienced after the hit. He waited in the belief that when he was good and ready to understand, his brain would show him the complete thought. And it did.
He became aware in the hospital that he was spending hours staring at Starsky, especially when he was asleep. He might have read a book – several books – but watching the slow rise and fall of his breathing was more engrossing and never failed to hold his attention. It filled him with a sense of peace he couldn't find anywhere else. Even when his partner was awake, he could barely drag his eyes away from him to acknowledge any other presence in the room.
But when he examined this tendency, it didn't seem strange. Even when they were both healthy, he was aware that both he and Starsky concentrated their attention on each other to an unusual degree. It didn't matter where they were, at work, relaxing together or out on a double date. It had been part of their relationship for years. It was how they were able to predict each other's thoughts and actions with so little verbal communication. And he knew that he loved Starsky more than anyone else in his life. So it wasn't inexplicable that he should be unable to take his eyes off him. He'd come so close to losing him that he needed the constant reassurance of his existence.
It was just a little strange that the curve of his eyelashes, the line of his throat, the junction of neck and shoulder, the sweep of his collarbone, had become so hypnotic.
He had also become vaguely aware that something was different about his response to being in physical contact with Starsky. But again, it hadn't been a disturbing realisation. They had always had a very physical relationship and he'd always enjoyed its warmth. There had been a lot of touching in the hospital, more than usual even for them. Starsky had needed a lot of comfort to help with the pain of his injuries and the psychological trauma of what had happened. Hutch had needed a lot of comfort for the loss he'd so nearly suffered. Hutch had noted curiously that being in contact with Starsky produced a heightened sense of pleasure, a deepened sense of peace. The world outside was more effectively blocked from his consciousness. But when he examined this phenomenon, it seemed completely comprehensible as a reaction to the hit.
Hutch sighed. Perhaps he'd known all along what was going on but had refused to acknowledge it. He'd enjoyed a few remarkably kinky wet dreams involving his partner – he would certainly never have told them to Starsky under any circumstances. With hindsight he had been extraordinarily obtuse in ignoring their blatant message. But at the time he'd succeeded in dismissing them: he'd gone without sex for months because of concentrating on Starsky's recovery; he hadn't been in contact with any women who could provide the body for his dream sex life. As if his brain couldn't have supplied some image from one of his long string of girlfriends – the nurses even – as a more convincing template than Starsky!
What had finally forced him into reading the message his brain had been sending was Starsky's resumption of dating. He hadn't had any inkling of trouble when he set up that first double date. He still didn't understand when out on it. He was just vaguely surprised that he didn't enjoy it more. He'd been looking forward to resuming his own sex life: in the abstract at least – perhaps it was peculiar that he hadn't any particular woman's face in mind when he visualised it. He came away from the evening haunted by a sense of unease. He'd hoped that Starsky hadn't noticed: he didn't want to spoil his partner's well-deserved treat.
It was during their second evening out with a couple of women that all the little signals and clues finally coalesced into a pattern he could interpret.
They were sitting in the trattoria waiting for dessert, chatting about this and that. He'd watched Starsky intently all evening to be certain that he was enjoying himself. He had a vague feeling that his own girl was just slightly uncomfortable for some reason: maybe he'd been neglecting her a little. But he needed to look into Starsky's eyes to read that he was happy. Then, before the waiter showed up with their orders, Starsky placed his hand over his girl's where it lay on the white damask cloth.
Hutch was transfixed. His head swam, his throat tightened, clammy sweat beaded on his back and soaked his shirt. He recognised the emotion. He was consumed by jealousy. His brain had finally found a way to make him take notice. All the changes he'd catalogued and dismissed so readily flew into place. They were joined by a cohort of clues he'd managed to ignore completely. How could he have failed to notice that there was a correlation between his erections and Starsky's presence? Easy, the ostrich part of himself snapped in a last-ditch attempt at self-justification, Starsky was never absent. What was I supposed to do? Never have an erection at all?
Thinking of erections was fatal. His face flushed from bone-white to bright red as he realised that his penis was extracting vengeance for his previous refusal to act on its suggestions. His first instinct was to flee to the bathroom to calm down, splash his face with water, anything that might help him regain his balance. But that was out of the question. His figure-hugging slacks weren't going to conceal anything. He had to stay put and brazen it out.
Starsky was speaking to him. "Hey, Hutch, you look like you've seen a ghost. What's wrong? You can't get food poisoning that quick, can you?"
For Chrissake, can't you give me some space for once? "Um . . . I just came over hot for a minute. The ice cream'll cool me down . . ."
He couldn't think of anything more convincing to add. Shit, the women were looking worried. He must look really strange.
"Do you want to go outside for some air? I can come with you if you want – you're not going to faint, are you?"
"No! Quit fussing." Hutch knew he sounded annoyed. "It'll pass, just give me a minute or two's peace and quiet."
He felt Starsky's eyes boring into him for a moment as he assessed how bad he was.
"I'll hurry up the waiter." This Starsky accomplished with a huge song and dance, which made Hutch more uncomfortable than ever. He could feel heads turning all over the room. The only good thing was that the embarrassment had taken care of his erection. It was safe to make a swift exit to the men's room to pull himself together.
He stood at the sink, splashing water onto his face and peering into the mirror. He looked spooked. Wild-eyed, white round the lips, definitely not healthy. He took hold of the porcelain, lowered his head and tried to breathe normally. Much as he would have liked to hide here, lock himself in a cubicle, climb out the back window, anything to avoid going back to his table, he knew that he couldn't. And if he didn't resurface soon, Starsky would come to check on him.
Having willed himself to relative calm, he studied himself in the mirror again. He didn't look too bad. Time to walk back to his group as if nothing had happened.
He judged afterwards that he'd carried it off very well. He'd deflected a few more concerned comments from Starsky, managed to join in the conversation and laugh at Starsky's jokes without hysteria making him sound like a berserk hyena. He managed to drive Susan back to her apartment but wasn't surprised when she seemed reluctant to invite him in.
Life carried on. He coped. For the first week or so he tried to hide his secret as far from the light as possible in the hope that it would remain undetected. Maybe if he subjected it to pitch darkness for long enough, it would wither like one of his plants? Of course it didn't.
Then, while pounding the streets on his morning runs, he started letting it out from its prison cell to examine it. It surprised him. He suspected that the seeds had germinated in the months before Gunther: his impatience, bad temper, tiredness and general restlessness had been symptoms of his refusal to acknowledge what his body was desperately trying to communicate.
It was also while running that he began to work out a plan. Stuffing it in a cupboard and hoping it would go away wasn't enough.
Telling Starsky about the problem was an option so obviously impossible that he didn't waste time analysing why it was a bad move.
But he was surprised that he so readily rejected "terminal decline from unrequited love, crash and burn". He didn't actually feel morose: worried that Starsky might find out, yes. And deeply regretful that there wasn't a hope in hell of trying out for real what his dream self had enjoyed so spectacularly. But he wasn't miserable. Seeing his partner lying so close to death, hearing that his heart had stopped, had granted Hutch a terrifying view of the mud churning at the bottom of the pit of despair. This wasn't the same at all. In the hospital, he would have made a pact with the devil himself to save Starsky. If unrequited sexual love was the price, so be it. It certainly didn't negate the joy of being at Starsky's side day after day.
And he knew beyond any doubt that no one was more important to Starsky than he was. His partner might date but the women weren't close to him the way he was. They weren't really that much different from going to the movies – entertainment, an enjoyable evening out, a break from routine and the hard work of recovery. Realistically Starsky was a bachelor well on his way to forty, old enough to be set in his ways: Hutch thought it unlikely he'd find another Terri. He might have to revise this sometime in the future, but not yet.
There was, of course, another convincing reason not to pine to death. Starsky couldn't fail to notice and he'd demand to know what was going on.
So Hutch opted for concealment and enjoying what he had. As time passed, he tried hard to fool himself as well as Starsky. His musings on his discovery that he could harness self-control and discipline to drive down his fear were of course not completely honest. A long-forgotten seal and an exam paper weren't his only models. There was also the matter of living successfully with concealed passion.
And after more than a year of coping with his problem, he knew he'd been right. The regret was there, turning the knife in quiet moments, usually when Starsky wasn't with him. But it was always tempered by the joy of his friendship. He was happy, very happy, despite the flaws.
Very occasionally, when he judged it was safe, he let his mute love out to play cautiously where the shadows were thickest. Amongst the swirling emotions brought on by today's near-miss, Starsky wouldn't decipher the true reason for the gazes that lingered longer than usual or understand why his partner craved the warmth of physical contact so much more urgently tonight.
And so Hutch lay there, eyes shut, waiting for the movie to finish, sleepy but too adrenaline loaded to doze off, over-warm but too aroused to throw off the afghan and camouflaging cushion. Tinny music signalled the rolling of the credits. Soon he would have to move. Time to concentrate on not thinking about his erection and fool it into quiescence.
Starsky turned the set off by remote. Silence. Hutch couldn't bring himself to shift. Just another few minutes, no work tomorrow.
Then Starsky's voice, much closer than he expected, surprised him. "Hey, Sleeping Beauty, time to wake up . . ." The soft, low tone conspired with the gentlest brush of fingers (lips?) across his forehead to undo any progress he had made.
Either the shock of the proximity of the voice or the unexpectedness of the caress, he couldn't say which, caused his eyes to fly open. He found himself staring straight into Starsky's violet eyes only inches away. Starsky sat up abruptly, equally surprised. Hutch reflected that he'd probably thought he was asleep. Instead of the bleary, endearingly unfocussed gaze he'd expected, he'd been confronted by complete alertness.
The phone rang. And rang. It sat on the coffee table at Starsky's end of the sofa. He made no move to pick it up. It continued to ring.
"Pick it up, Starsk. It's probably the office."
"Your turn." Starsky's tone was completely blank.
Hutch sighed audibly and moved to comply. His legs were trapped by the afghan, so he caterpillar-humped backwards until he was lying across Starsky's lap, then he stretched out his arm. He couldn't quite reach, so wriggled his legs vigorously to loosen the afghan and gain more maneuvering space.
Starsky leaned over and gave the cover a firm yank. It came away, trapping the cushion in its folds. Hutch's fingertips made contact with the handset and he pulled it towards his ear, trying to get a firmer grip. He was suddenly horribly aware of Starsky's hand grasping the upper reaches of his inner thigh to balance him as he stretched. Totally unprepared for the contact, he felt his trousers tighten. For a split second, he suffered a nightmare premonition of imminent disaster and cursed his self-indulgence in not moving off the sofa sooner. He could hear Captain Dobey's puzzled voice coming from the receiver.
He closed his eyes again and halted with the handset somewhere in limbo. Was there going to be a volcanic eruption to dwarf Krakatoa? Or would Starsky decide to reject any knowledge of the third secret?
Somewhere in the background, he could still hear Dobey's disembodied voice, now sounding higher volume and worried. Fuck, if I don't answer he'll assume we're unable to respond and send a squad car to investigate.
He pried his eyes open again. He came no nearer to dealing with Dobey. The fingers had stopped grasping his thigh and had begun a sensuous circling movement inches from the crotch of his jeans. He held himself quite still. Over the background of Dobey's voice, he heard his own breathing quicken and roughen, felt his jeans become painfully constricting.
Starsky's face loomed above him, pupils huge in the lamplight. His own eyes fastened in fascination on Starsky's glistening lips and catalogued their measured descent. A burgeoning lump against his shoulder blade filled him with wonder.
He stopped breathing. He let the handset fall to the floor. He heard it go dead. He felt the kiss. Gentle, tentative, but overwhelming.
He was so frozen by surprise that he couldn't respond, not until he sensed the first hint of withdrawal. He moaned in disappointment and instinctively pursued the retreating mouth, desperate for more contact, desperate not to reject what was being freely offered, desperate that the chance might not be given a second time. His hand, freed from the phone, buried itself in thick, dark curls to anchor his partner's head.
Starsky's lips parted slightly above his. His tongue swiftly probed between them, drawn as irresistibly as if summoned by a magical piper. He tasted a faint aftertaste of salty popcorn while the scent of sandalwood soap and faint aftershave tickled his nostrils.
Now it was Starsky who seemed stunned into immobility. But Hutch could sense tiny noises coming from his partner's throat, vibrations transmitted through the closeness of their bones rather than heard, which plainly indicated pleasure. Careful not to spook him, he ran his tongue sensuously along the line of Starsky's teeth. Obediently they parted and his tongue slid beyond to curl round his partner's like a cat brushing against its owner's legs.
He wasn't prepared for the effect on himself. He had believed that his attempts to keep his passion for Starsky under control had been effective. Now he learned the truth. The passion and lust that swept through him bore as much resemblance to his dreams as a woodsman's campfire to a forest conflagration. He knew he couldn't douse it again down to a controlled, domesticated flame.
Nor was he prepared for the effect on his partner. For half-a-dozen heartbeats he gently brushed back. Without any warning, he attacked, demanding entry fiercely to Hutch's mouth. Each man pushed furiously, nipping at lips, duelling wetly. Hutch tasted salt and knew dimly that Starsky had bitten his lip too hard.
Without conscious volition, his hips struggled to maneuver Starsky's hand from inner thigh to groin. He refused to cooperate and Hutch moaned in frustration. His skin beneath the old denim soared to such a pitch of sensitivity that each circling motion must be searing a scorched trail into his flesh.
But his complaint bore some fruit. His partner's free hand seized hold of the front of Hutch's shirt and began to pull it with sharp, urgent tugs from his waistband. When the fingers began massaging his bare stomach, Hutch thought he would disintegrate and blast apart like a dry branch in the path of an explosive cloud surging down the slopes of Vesuvius.
At the point of disintegration, he was distracted by a nagging sense that he'd forgotten something crucial. His cock, given delicious, unlooked for freedom after so many months of denial, frantically tried to quash any rational thought. It nearly succeeded.
Oh my god! Dobey! He withdrew his hand from Starsky's hair and immobilised the hand at his stomach before it tackled his belt buckle. He struggled to disengage his lips. "Starsk?"
There was no response, no indication at all that Starsky had heard him. He spoke more firmly. "Starsk, listen to me." At the same time, he gently pushed against his partner's chest in an effort to make him sit up. He daren't use too much force as he calculated that it would only produce a tussle for mastery. The last thing he needed right now was to start off a wrestling competition.
This time there was some response at least. Starsky followed the guiding hand on his chest without resistance and looked into his eyes. Hutch shivered at what he saw. He had seen that expression on Starsky's face before but had never expected that he would be its cause. He remembered nights after difficult cases when a soaring adrenaline high had been the only thing keeping them on their feet. They would phone up a couple of girls and go out, excitement burning in their veins like a drug, nothing on their minds but sexual conquest. He had seen that look on Starsky's face, focussed, utterly confident in his own irresistibility, eyes blazing into his own private world, as he slow-danced with whichever girl he had mesmerised. His breath caught in his throat. Had he been so sensitive to Starsky's sexual magnetism, even then?
He couldn't afford to be mesmerised. He swivelled round so that he sat on the sofa next to Starsky, facing towards him, one leg hooked underneath himself. Avoiding moving suddenly, he placed his hands on Starsky's shoulders and shook them gently. He felt afraid to risk eye contact in case cobalt-blue witchery drained away his wits, but equally he knew that Starsky was more likely to be swayed by his own pale blue eyes if he put enough resolution into them.
He tried again, keeping his voice low. "Starsk, you have to listen to me right now."
He listened to his partner's breathing. It remained unchanged, rapid and shallow, and when he glanced down his lips were slightly parted. And swollen with kissing. He quickly looked away, not trusting himself. "Starsky, that was Dobey on the phone. You remember the phone ringing? He'll send a squad car along to investigate if we don't let him know everything's all right. We have to phone the precinct right now." He emphasised his urgency by another gentle shake.
As he looked into his partner's eyes, he saw the furious intensity leach away, then he watched Starsky's gaze fall on the table and register the fact that the cradle was minus its handset.
"Shit," he said succinctly. He drew a deep breath and held it, clearly searching for some control. "Can you make the call, Hutch? Don't think I can manage it."
A smile twitched the corner of Hutch's mouth. "I don't know what makes you think I'm any better off."
"Well, let's see, you don't sound like you ought to be admitted to hospital for breathing problems and palpitations. How's that for a good reason?"
"Okay, anything to keep you happy." Hutch bent down and retrieved the handset, then pressed the cradle and dialed.
The call was intercepted by switchboard and patched through to the captain's car. It didn't surprise him that he picked up immediately and bellowed at full volume, "Dobey!"
He sat on the edge of the sofa and leaned forward, trying to block his awareness of Starsky's proximity. "Captain, it's Hutch. . ."
He was rudely interrupted. "Hutch! What the hell's going on there? Another minute and I was dispatching a couple of officers to check on you both. I hope your explanation's damn good!"
Hutch was horribly aware that occupying only the edge of his seat was a bad idea. Starsky had wriggled around behind him, ostensibly to get nearer to the phone at Hutch's ear. Hutch felt his blush deepening as his overwrought brain – no, not his brain – registered the delicious sensation of Starsky's thigh pressing erotically against his own. And Starsky's crotch brushing against his lower back. He swallowed.
"Uh, Captain . . . there's nothing to worry about just ignore me if I moan with ecstasy , we were really tired. We'd fallen asleep watching TV and the phone woke me. I was just disorientated I guess and dropped it."
"Hutchinson, I'm amazed sometimes you've never managed to shoot yourself with your own Magnum . . ."
Oh my god! Hutch helplessly caught his breath as Starsky's teeth nipped his ear lobe. "Just give it time, Captain." Starsky's tongue tentatively probed the depths of his ear, then began to swipe the soft skin behind it, investigating the little pit formed between his jawbone and skull. He wasn't going to survive this conversation. He covered the mouthpiece and hissed, "Cut it out!"
Mouthpieces are sensitive. "What's going on back there? Hutchinson, are you paying any attention to what I'm saying?"
"Sorry, sir." He improvised. "Starsky's tickling my feet." Oh god, I should have kept quiet. At least Starsky had desisted from nibbling and licking and his brain might function better for the rest of the conversation.
"Well get him to stop. Listen, Hutchinson, I'm sorry to drag you out again after this afternoon but we have a major situation. I need you both here."
Hutch's heart sank. They were both too tired for this. Starsky was now fully focussed on listening in.
"And why us?"
"The gunman's asking for Starsky."
"No, just your partner. His name's Tony Weeks. We don't know how he knows Starsky – he has a conviction record for mugging but he wasn't the arresting officer. See if Starsky knows the name."
Starsky twisted the mouthpiece round. "No, Cap'n, don't meaning anything to me."
"Okay. I'm almost at the crime scene. I want you to get down here as soon as you can. I still need to liaise with the officers handling the situation before it thumped down on our doorstep to get all the details. We'll hold off till you're both here. No sense having to repeat it."
"You know the offices of the law firm Bridges and Sutterman?"
"Yeah," put in Starsky. "Swish."
Dobey grunted in agreement. "We're trying to find out if there's any connection with the hostage taker. Haven't found one yet. Okay, I'm just parking the car. I'll see you here."
The connection went dead. Hutch put the phone back down and stared at it for a minute. Starsky had already slipped out from behind him and was standing by the sofa. He squatted down by Hutch and put a hand on his knee. "Come on, partner. Go wash your face and we'll hit the road."
Hutch obeyed. He was shocked by what he saw in the mirror. Dobey's news might have taken care of his erection, but he looked like a man who'd just enjoyed a night of wild passion. He was flushed pink, his hair was an unruly mess, his lips were swollen. Where Starsky had bitten too hard had blood crusted over it. His eyes burned too brightly.
The only good news was that he couldn't spot any obvious love bites.
Quickly he washed and combed, then emerged to strap on his Magnum. His partner was looking at him with some amusement.
"What?" he demanded.
"I think Dobey would prefer that you tucked your shirt in for the briefing. Wouldn't want to add any more to our reputation for scruffy dressing, would you?"
Hutch blushed even pinker and complied. Starsky had clearly run a comb through his curls and found his gun and jacket while Hutch was in the bathroom. Hutch envied him his dark coloring: he didn't look half as ravished as his fair-skinned, fair-haired victim.
Starsky drove in silence for some minutes. Hutch was grateful. The lawyers' building wasn't too far and he desperately wanted to avoid starting a conversation that couldn't be brought to a proper conclusion.
"So, Blintz, why d'you tell Dobey I was tickling your feet?"
Hutch blushed again. It's going to be a really embarrassing night if this happens every time my partner speaks to me. "Could it have something to do with the fact that you were licking my brains out through my ear? I had to come up with something. It felt like an innocent enough excuse till I actually said it out loud."
Starsky laughed softly in his throat. The sound was so erotic and suggestive that Hutch's blush deepened. He cursed silently. Maybe he could make Starsky blush too? "Amazing how sensitive phones are these days, don't you think? I wonder if Dobey could hear you licking and drilling my ear right next to the ear-piece? I guess he was just too polite to say anything about all the slurping."
He noted smugly that he had rattled his partner's composure. Starsky shot him a panicked glance. "Oh shit, you don't think he could hear that, do you?"
Hutch looked away and shrugged noncommittally. Silence fell once more.
It was Starsky who broke it. "Hutch, we need to talk about tonight."
"Oh no we don't," Hutch shot back sharply. A pang of guilt stabbed him when he caught a hint of vulnerability in his partner's expression. He could see he was casting about for something to follow up with but not finding it, so he stepped in hastily. "I didn't mean 'we're not going to talk about it, period', just 'we're not going to talk about it right now'."
"But it's important . . ."
"Yeah, it's important. Too important to start on just minutes before we arrive at a crime scene. Too important to talk about when we're both so exhausted the only thing keeping us upright is adrenaline. We still have tomorrow off, it'll keep till then."
"I'm not gonna stand for you putting it off forever."
"I won't, I promise. Just not now, okay? We need to come up with a plan . . ."
"Yeah, I already came up with a plan." Starsky caught sight of Hutch's questioning gaze. "I wanted you, so I decided to kiss you."
Hutch snorted with laughter. "That was your plan?"
"It worked, didn't it?" said Starsky defensively. "You kissed me back. Enthusiastically, as I recall." Poor Hutch blushed again and felt himself twitching hopefully.
"Okay, it worked. It had a few flaws, though."
"Poor timing?" Both men collapsed in hysterical giggles.
"Yeah, that for starters. Seriously, we need a broader plan, something more long term." He watched the effect on Starsky. His face had turned suitably grave.
"How about we keep on kissing and see what happens?"
"Starsk!" His voice rose up through the scale in reprimand.
His partner looked chastened. "Yeah, you're right, Blondie. It's too important to start and then have to leave hanging. And too distracting. We'll talk it through tomorrow, 'kay?"
Hutch thought he had finished, but no. "You meant the long-term thing, didn't you?"
"Starsky," he began in exasperation. "You agreed we're going to drop it." A heartbeat's pause: it wasn't fair to deny Starsky that little security. "Yeah, I meant it."
His partner smiled lop-sidedly. "So," he began again. Hutch felt incipient annoyance. "This Weeks guy." Hutch felt guilty. "Remembered anything about him yet?"
He shook his head. "Fuck all. You?"
"Nope. Maybe you never even met him – that'd explain why he hadn't asked for you as well."
"Could be, but we're not often separate on the job. Maybe he doesn't know you from the job — maybe it's social or something?"
"Yeah, possible I guess. We'd better hope Records turned up a decent mug-shot."
There was nothing else left to say. The rest of the journey passed in silence. Hutch tried to keep his mind blank.
The whole area outside the offices of Bridges and Sutterman was seething with men and women. Barriers had been erected to keep the curious public at bay out of harm's way: not that there was much evidence of a curious public at this hour in an office district, although there was a fair smattering of journalists, including a bored-looking television crew. They were greatly outnumbered by armies of cops in uniform and plain-clothes, many of whom Hutch didn't recognise. A few members of a SWAT team, kitted out in full body-armor, were visible and were doubtless accompanied by colleagues out of sight on surrounding rooftops.
Looking incongruous among the sizeable collection of police cars and vans sat an ordinary city bus, parked with its wheels on the exit side right up on the sidewalk in front of the lawyers' impressive doors. Looking ominous was a trio of ambulances on standby.
Starsky parked the Torino as close to the barrier as possible. They flashed their badges for entry and scanned the crowd for Dobey. A uniformed cop so youthful looking that Hutch felt he should still be in high school spotted them and came across. Starsky clearly recognised him.
"Hi, Shepherd. Seen Dobey around?"
"Yeah, I'm supposed to be taking you to him. We're using the boardroom as a temporary HQ. If you'll follow me?"
More pass flashing to gain admittance through the revolving glass doors. Hutch glanced round the expansive lobby: it certainly warranted Starsky's epithet "swish". All tasteful black marble, jungle-like foliage plants of statuesque proportions, and expensive modern art. He doubted that they were copies.
"We're using the stairs rather than the lifts. We don't want to spook him with the sound of moving machinery," Shepherd explained as he led the way up to the second floor. He came to a halt in front of a set of impressive double doors in some exotic dark hardwood. "Here we are." He knocked and opened up one leaf, then moved aside to let the detectives through. "Seems like a real psycho, don't envy you. Good luck!" He turned back towards the stairs.
The partners looked at each other, then sauntered in. It was a room calculated to impress. Underfoot was a deep-piled cream carpet. Starsky judged that it must be very new or they had exceptionally good cleaning staff. Hutch noted the fashionable artists' work lining the walls. Dominating the room was a substantial rectangular table in a wood so dark it was almost black. Heavy drapes in a self-patterned black brocade reeked of money. These clearly weren't the sort of lawyers to come to if you had a petty argument with your neighbour over an overhanging tree. Hutch knew that his father would feel right at home.
Several people sat scattered around the table. In addition to Dobey, he thought he recognised one man as a captain from another precinct. The others were all strangers. A telephone sat in front of a middle-aged man near the far end of one side.
Dobey started things rolling. "Come on in and take a seat. People, the fair hair belongs to Detective Ken Hutchinson, his partner is Detective David Starsky."
None of those watching saw any signals, but they settled on two chairs down at the end of the table nearest the window, apparently by mutual consent. Starsky decided that the chairs were too far apart. He picked his up and moved it right next to Hutch's, close enough to touch thighs.
"I'll make the introductions," Dobey carried on. He was sitting at the top of the table nearest the doors. "Clockwise from my seat, on my left is Mr Edward Bridges, the managing partner of this firm." He looked the image of a successful lawyer, late middle-aged, a well cut sober suit, conservative but not outmoded, thick grey hair perfectly barbered. He nodded at the detectives, distant but not unfriendly.
"Next to Mr Bridges is Mrs Marsha Nichols, the firm's office manager." She smiled warmly at the two new arrivals. She was an attractive woman in her early fifties, dressed very much in the same style as her employer – conservative dark suit, expensively cut, with the addition of a piece of conservative and expensive jewelry; conservative hair style, expensively cut.
"Moving on, we have James Buchanan." This was the man with the telephone sitting in front of him. He was in his mid-fifties, ordinary looking, stocky without being overweight, calm. "He's our expert negotiator and a civilian. He's successfully handled a lot of hostage situations."
"Then on your side of the table is Captain Giacomo Leoncini of Fourth Precinct. You may already be acquainted?" All three men nodded. "The situation started on his turf."
Leoncini was tall, thin, dark complexioned, smartly (but not expensively) dressed, and about forty-five. From what Hutch had heard, his reputation was excellent.
"Perhaps you'd like to fill my men in on the story so far. Wouldn't say no to knowing more details myself, for that matter."
Leoncini nodded and was about to begin when Starsky interrupted him. "Sorry, but I want to hear background about Weeks first. It's really bugging me that I don't remember who the hell he is. Did Records fish out a mug-shot yet?"
Dobey considered his request and then agreed. "Okay, Starsky. We'll do it your way. Here's the file." He extricated one from a pile in front of him and signalled Leoncini to pass it along. "The picture's recent – he was arrested about a year ago and served a short spell inside for mugging a young woman. There was nothing about the crime to indicate he might turn to hijacking and hostage taking. No undue threats or violence, he just snatched her bag in a crowded mall and ran. And he was a model prisoner. He's twenty now."
Starsky fairly snatched the file from the table as Leoncini slid it over the polished surface towards him. He opened it and Hutch leaned in even closer until their heads were virtually touching. The photo showed a good-looking young man, slim but well muscled, with a heavy curtain of straight fair hair falling to his shoulders. The notes underneath described him as 5 foot 11 inches, about 155 pounds.
Dobey added more information. "Although it's recent, his hair's different now. Much shorter. He didn't grow it back so long when he came out of prison. We've taken a few shots with a long-distance lens today but with the poor lighting after dark they aren't any real help." He shoved an envelope across to Leoncini to pass along again. Hutch captured it, rifled through the contents and put them down without bothering to hand them to his partner.
Starsky was still peering intently at the mug-shot. Finally he looked up into Hutch's eyes. Hutch shook his head very slightly. "Yes, you do," insisted Starsky. "About six years ago, maybe even a little more. He was a small kid for his age, must have had a growing spurt later. But he had that same mane of dark golden hair. No matter how scruffy he looked, the hair was always immaculate. He tagged along with a gang of kids who were just getting into minor crime. One day we came out of Wally's Diner to find him breaking into your rust-heap of a car. I told him he should've had more taste and waited till I had my machine parked."
Hutch frowned. "Yeah, you wouldn't book him, just gave him a severe talking to. He hung around you for a while."
"Yeah, just for a few weeks. I really thought he was going to keep his nose clean. He used to wash my car, things like that. But he didn't like you much. Think you scared him." Starsky smirked.
"That's right. Don't you remember overhearing him one day talking to his friends? He had some god-awful nickname for me that had us in stitches. What was it now?"
Starsky's smirk broadened to a grin. "The Golden Ice Queen." Both men laughed. No one else joined in, though a hint of a smile crossed Dobey's face. "I'll swear he thought you were going to blow him away when we walked round the corner."
"So what happened to him?" asked Hutch.
Starsky frowned. "He just kind of disappeared. His ma moved away, out of the city. She was Italian, with relatives out somewhere in the sticks. Never heard no more about him."
Dobey nodded. "That fits with the report in the file. His folks moved back to LA just before the mugging."
"So," said Hutch, "that doesn't advance us very far. Knowing how he knows Starsky doesn't give us a clue about why he's holding the hostages or even why he wants Starsky."
Buchanan spoke for the first time. "His behavior today is strongly suggestive of mental disturbance, probably quite severe. Witness statements indicate paranoid delusions."
Hutch frowned. "Wouldn't that sort of illness have shown up when he was in the pen?"
"He might well not have been ill then, or the symptoms might have been so mild as not to be noticeable. He did a good job of keeping a low profile. There's been more than enough time since for the illness to develop."
"Why isn't his mother here? Has anyone asked her if he's had symptoms like these?"
Leoncini stepped in. "We can't. She died in a car wreck three months ago. It seems like she was close to her son – she visited him in jail regular as clockwork and the warders say he always looked forward to seeing her. Exchanged letters regularly too. We've had men visit her neighbors. They all tell the same story as the warders. Kept a low profile, no obvious signs of anything odd. A good boy who put out the trash for his ma and didn't play noisy records or have antisocial friends round at ungodly hours. In fact he didn't have friends round, period. They mostly described him as a loner."
Buchanan frowned. "It all ties in to a fairly classic profile."
"Okay," said Starsky. "I can picture the man now. Let's hear the story."
Leoncini nodded. "Have any of you heard of Lascelles Animal Farm? It's a few minutes drive from Fourth Precinct's offices." Blank looks and shakes of heads all round. "It's a real neat place to take the kids. It's not a working farm, more like a zoo, only with domestic animals. You know the sort of thing, pigs, goats, sheep, cows, small pets. You can take a short ride in a pony and trap, help with the milking, stroke the rabbits and guinea pigs. It's been there several years now – started by a group of hippies who decided to settle down – and they do a great job. They take in school parties to teach them about life outside the smog, that sort of community thing. It began on derelict land opposite Friary Park, but eventually they were granted permission to use some of the parkland as well. The council gave some money towards building a little cafeteria."
Hutch looked impressed.
"Just before five o' clock this afternoon several people were waiting in line to board the 390 bus. We're lucky enough to have several witness statements from a few of them about what happened next."
"How?" demanded Starsky. "I thought he was holding hostages."
"Oh yes, he still has about fifteen men, women and children. But he's also released quite a few in the course of the evening. Course, he's also killed a few and wounded some others.
"The clearest and most comprehensive statement is that provided by Mrs Elena Christodoulos, a widow of about sixty, who had spent the afternoon visiting the farm with her four-year-old granddaughter, Leni. I'll read bits of it out to you, seems the easiest way." He paused while he flicked through a sheaf of papers in front of him.
"Mr Bridges, can we have some of these statements photocopied?"
Marsha was already rising from her chair and walking round to Leoncini. "Just tell me how many you want. There's a machine next door."
"Thanks. Four sets, please. No, make it five. We might need a spare." She took them and silently let herself out the door.
"Okay," Leoncini resumed his briefing. "This is what Mrs Christodoulos had to say:
"There had been a long gap in the bus service and the line was longer than usual. Leni was bored with waiting and grizzly. Harry Silberman was standing in front of me. He lives in the next street from me but I don't know him well – just to say hello, how are you doing, that kind of thing. He turned round and asked if he could give Leni a sweet as it might quiet her. I said yes, and it worked. It was then that I noticed the young man standing in front of Mr Silberman. He was glaring hard at Leni and I was glad she'd piped down.
I kept an eye on him after that because I wanted to avoid any trouble. I noticed that it wasn't just Leni he was glaring at – he looked real fierce at Mr Silberman. I couldn't work out why. It wasn't like he was creating any nuisance. I decided I didn't want to sit too near him on the bus. He didn't seem quite right, somehow. You know what I mean?
The bus finally arrived a few minutes after five. A few of us cheered or muttered, 'About time too!' You know how pally people get when they're all suffering one of the little inconveniences of modern life together? But the young man didn't join in.
The young man – it turned out his name was Weeks but I didn't know that then – sat at the front of the bus on the right-hand side. The pair of seats behind him was free too and Harry sat there. I carried on down the bus with Leni and sat in the row behind Harry.
Because the service had been so poor earlier, the bus wasn't far off full, especially towards the rear.
I was just thinking about what I would give Leni for her tea, when everything went wrong. The young man leapt to his feet. It caught my attention because we had just passed a stop and I thought maybe he'd missed it. But then he began shouting and he pulled out a gun.
I was terrified and pushed Leni down towards the floor, then threw myself on top of her. I thought we were all going to die. I can't remember exactly what he was yelling, but it was things like, 'Stop following me, stop spying on me!' That sort of thing. I was lying with my head facing into the gangway, so I could still see some of what was going on.
It all happened so fast. He screamed louder, I think something like 'You ain't ever going to spy on me again!' And he shot Mr Silberman, in the throat I found out later. I was so horrified I couldn't make a sound. There were a few screams behind me, but not many. I think most folk were petrified of drawing attention to themselves. He was obviously deranged. And most people had dived for cover, like me.
I heard the bus driver swear and saw him look round at Weeks, but he waved his gun at him and told him to keep going. So he turned eyes front and did what he was told.
Then he yelled at us all to be quiet. Most folk did just that, he was so scary. But poor Raffaella Gattoni didn't. She just kept on screaming louder and louder. So hysterical she couldn't stop, I guess. She's always been – I mean always was – highly strung. So he marched back towards her and shot her in the face point blank. A few of us got spattered with the mess. I knew then that we were all going to die. It was really quiet.
We drove on past a couple of stops. The driver just kept driving so we didn't pick up anyone else. There was still no sign of the police.
Then the driver tried to strike up a conversation with Weeks. He was a braver man than me. He asked, 'So why d'you shoot that poor old man?'
What was really bizarre was that he got a civil answer, no threats. It was something along the lines that Mr Silberman was following him. He thought he was spying on him while he walked round the farm. Mid-afternoon, he went to the cafeteria for a cup of coffee. When Mr Silberman came and sat down at the same table, he knew for certain he was a spy. And then of course the poor man had to go and stand behind Weeks in the line for the bus, and choose the seat behind his."
Leoncini stopped and cleared his throat. Marsha, who had just returned with the photocopies, entering the room as silently as she left, supplied him with a glass of water.
"Thanks, Mrs Nichols. Would you mind handing round the xeroxes to the other detectives and Mr Buchanan? Then I'd like the same number done of this statement, please." He took a couple of sips before continuing.
"Mrs Christodoulos's statement goes on at length until she was released. She's one observant lady. But that's the most important part."
Hutch asked a question. "How long did it take for us to realise something was wrong?"
"Not long after the events I've just read out. Mr Silberman must be one of the luckiest men alive. We actually have his statement – it's in with those I've just asked Mrs Nichols to photocopy. What he says backs up what Mrs Christodoulos heard – he remembers sharing the table. It was busy and there weren't any free."
"But I thought you said he was shot in the throat?" Starsky frowned.
"Yeah, he was. But the bullet went through without hitting anything major. Missed his veins, arteries, windpipe, the lot. Can you believe it? For that matter Mrs Christodoulos is also damn lucky. The bullet came out the back of his neck in a downward trajectory and wedged high in the seat behind. If she hadn't been crouching to protect her granddaughter, it would have hit her somewhere in the upper chest."
Hutch whistled in acknowledgement.
"And Mr Silberman's lucky escape explains how we found out about the hijacking. Seems that Weeks decided he wanted Mrs Gattoni's body dragged to the front. That turned out to be really messy and one of the passengers's threw up, which didn't help the atmosphere in the bus. He had a couple of the men throw her out the front doors.
"When they came to do the same to Mr Silberman, they realised he was alive. They were brave men. They managed to convince Weeks that it wasn't necessary to throw him off at speed. They feared he wouldn't survive the impact. So they volunteered to carry him off while the bus was stationary and set him down on the sidewalk. He stood over them all the time waving his gun. They went back inside and the bus pulled away again."
Leoncini sighed. "That's when we were brought in. There were pedestrians who saw Mr Silberman being lifted out, and saw Weeks' gun. They called the police, who also found Mrs Gattoni's body."
"That must have been hours ago," remarked Hutch. "What's happened since?"
"Nothing very constructive. He began by shooting another hostage, in the arm this time, to prove he meant business when my squad cars came too close."
"Still alive?" asked Dobey.
"Yeah, he almost bled to death, but he was eventually among a group released. Weeks drove around for an hour or so, apparently at random. He made the driver pull into a gas station when they were running short of diesel."
"I take it you let him have more?" said Dobey.
Leoncini grimaced crossly. "We didn't have much choice. We managed to start up negotiations while he was on the forecourt. He insisted on a field telephone."
"Any demands?" put in Starsky.
"Oh yes, he wanted safe passage to the airport, a private jet to Mexico, and 4.25 million dollars in cash. Would you believe he asked for nothing bigger than a ten dollar bill and wanted a million in singles?"
"Four and a quarter, not five million?" Dobey sounded mystified.
"Yeah, he was very specific. By this stage Mr Buchanan had been called in to handle the negotiating."
"And sadly I achieved less than I'd like. He wouldn't negotiate himself. He selected one of the passengers. It was the same passenger who'd pulled in the field phone through the window. Weeks had too much sense to get close to the glass himself."
"So it's important that he wouldn't speak with you himself?" queried Starsky.
"Definitely. If everything's passing through an intermediary I don't have the chance to develop any rapport with him and it makes it much harder for me to judge his mental state."
"Loony toon seems like a reasonable guess," muttered Starsky under his breath.
Buchanan ignored him. "The other problem is that it lets him shift the responsibility onto the go-between if things aren't going to his satisfaction. That makes it much easier for him to take retaliatory measures if he doesn't like what we're doing. I think Mr Tait chose to pick up the field phone because he figured it would make him valuable to Weeks. That worked up to a point but it was a two-edged weapon. Weeks shot him later on."
"Shoot the messenger?" guessed Hutch.
"Yeah, least he's still alive though. He'll probably make it."
"Was that how he forced you to hand over the diesel?" Dobey wanted to know.
Leoncini stepped back in. "No, but same sort of scenario. We said no, he said yes, finished up by shooting two hostages and having them tossed out of the door. One dead, the other's okay. He wasn't much short of a full busload to start off with, so plenty more victims to hand. We gave him the diesel."
"What you need to do in these cases is to try and wear the hostage taker out", explained Buchanan. "Going in to attack clearly wasn't going to work, at least not without catastrophic casualties. Having hostages shot at intervals is hard to take but it's preferable to a whole busload of dead passengers in a premature botched rescue mission."
Hutch frowned. "You didn't know for sure how much ammo he had."
"No," agreed Buchanan. "And would you have been willing to gamble on him being almost out?" Hutch stayed silent. "Besides, we were almost certain because of what we learnt from the hostage injured at the gas station that he had an excellent supply. He'd been boasting to the passengers and rattling the boxes in his pockets."
"What the hell was he doing going to Lascelles Farm with an arsenal stuffed up his shirt?" wondered Starsky.
Buchanan shrugged. "Who knows? It's probably a reaction to paranoid symptoms he's been experiencing for some time. For all we know he's been shopping at the local supermarket armed to the teeth for weeks. It's just the bus passengers' misfortune that today was the day he finally acted on his delusions."
"How about a marksman?" asked Dobey.
"He was clever. He was real good at not exposing himself. He also had hostages on their feet positioned around the bus reporting to him any movements they could see – and forming a good human shield at the same time."
"So you opted to try and wear him out," Dobey prompted.
"Yeah, let nature take its course. Tiredness, calls of nature, lack of food and drink, all those things work in our favor over time. But you need to be very patient and not rattle his cage too much."
Leoncini broke in again. "And we managed to get him to release five hostages in return for the fuel. This group included Mrs Christodoulos and her granddaughter."
"But once he had the fuel, he broke off negotiations," Buchanan took up the thread again. "He had Mr Tait toss the phone out of the window and had the driver set off. Again, as far as we could tell, the direction of travel was random. I was very disturbed when he stopped talking to us. Not a healthy sign. And we've heard precious little about his demands after he first came up with them."
"And I take it he's still not talking as the phone in front of you's not exactly busy?" Starsky commented.
"If I might interrupt a moment?" Mr Bridges enquired politely. "I think it would be a good idea if Marsha made coffee for us all. You wouldn't mind, would you, Marsha?" She shook her head. "You don't have to worry about her running all over the building. There's a kitchenette right next door."
Everyone seconded the idea and off she went again.
Buchanan sucked in his breath and looked dismal. "It didn't go particularly well after the gas station. He stopped once and re-established communication via the field phone, which he demanded back. But he didn't care for what we had to say. That's when he shot Mr Tait and had another passenger toss out the phone again. More random driving. Then around nine thirty he decided he wanted food. This time he demanded a walkie-talkie, not a field phone." He fell silent.
Leoncini carried on for him. "It followed much the same pattern as the gas deal. He did some shooting, he took on board some food, he released more hostages. Ten this time. James here tried to persuade him to let off all the children. He insisted on keeping one."
"Did he shoot to kill?" Starsky asked.
"No, this time he tried out kneecapping."
"Couldn't you have targeted him when he tossed out the wounded?" Hutch wanted to know.
Leoncini looked glum. "He stayed well back in the bus and forced the other passengers to do it."
"This was when we came up against his new development," continued Buchanan. "He'd retained the walkie-talkie. Suddenly he informs us he's ordering the bus driver to head for these offices. It made no sense. He's not on the list of employees. He's not related to any of the employees as far as we can make out."
"And we certainly had no involvement with his trial," put in Bridges.
"I didn't imagine you did," said Hutch dryly.
"But there must be a connection somewhere," Starsky insisted. "It just doesn't make sense otherwise. How about a connection through his cell-mates?"
"We've already tried that," admitted Leoncini. "Zilch."
"He's been here since about ten thirty," Buchanan continued. "He was very smooth entering the building. Obviously we had it cleared in advance. We had high hopes that a marksman would be able to take him out as he exited the bus. Much too canny. He had the bus pull right onto the sidewalk so it was only a few yards to the doors and the vehicle made a good barrier between him and us. He surrounded himself with the remaining hostages, about twenty-five individuals, arranging the tallest men closest to himself. And you remember he wouldn't release that final child?" Everyone nodded. "He gave her a piggy back, so we couldn't get a sighting. He made her kind of crouch over his head, so we didn't have a hope in hell."
"So where is he now, and how did Starsky get dragged into it all?" Hutch wanted to know.
"He released another ten hostages – not the little girl – then he pressed right on up to the fourth floor," Leoncini explained. "It's open plan office space. We know he's settled down somewhere in the middle. He feels safe, I think, because it's not like being trapped in a little room with only a single way out. But we can't see him because it's all little partitions between people's work areas. We know he hasn't shifted from the fourth floor. The lifts are locked off and we have members of the SWAT team guarding the stairwells above and below that level. And SWAT team individuals outside are keeping a keen watch through the windows, both to check for movement and to take a chance for targeting him if it presents itself."
"We need to back up a bit," Buchanan interrupted. "He threw the walkie-talkie down in the lobby. He's now using the internal phone system. Probably a hopeful sign," he remarked thoughtfully. "When he arrived, he demanded an extension number where he could reach us. And when he settled down on the fourth floor, he called us to give us his extension number. But he wouldn't talk at that stage."
"And Starsky?" Hutch prompted.
"Yeah, that was a complete surprise. He picked up the phone and announced out of the blue that he would negotiate in future only with some cop named Starsky. We managed to keep him talking for long enough to find out that he was with Metro. So we contacted Dobey. The rest you know."
Hutch thought it prudent to remain silent as to why they had been so slow to contact Dobey about something of this magnitude on his patch. Now wasn't the time to play politics and Dobey didn't seem inclined to pursue it.
"And there was no hint about why he wanted me?" Starsky asked for clarification.
"None at all," Leoncini assured him.
"I can make a fair guess though," added Buchanan. "From what you say, it sounds as if he liked you."
"But that was years ago," Hutch protested.
Buchanan spread his hands. "People have long memories sometimes for kindnesses received. Starsky might well be the only cop for whom he's ever felt any affection or trust. It's probably important that he asked now. It suggests that he's aware that time's running out for him and he desperately needs someone who might be on his side, however remotely."
Marsha arrived with the coffee at this point. By unspoken agreement, the men used the opportunity to take a break and review what they had heard in silence for a few moments.
Hutch could tell that Starsky was gearing up for another question. "Marsha, has anyone shown you the photo of Weeks?"
"No, the head of personnel came in earlier and went through our files. She would know everyone employed here."
Hutch didn't feel fully confident that the assurances that Weeks had no hidden connection with the firm meant very much. He suspected that the evidence on which they rested was shaky in the extreme.
"And what about you, Mr Bridges?" Starsky was still pursuing his point. "Have you seen the photo?"
"I don't think anyone thought it was worth showing to me. I have virtually no contact with people in the sort of posts he'd fill. He wouldn't be qualified for anything much more than a messenger."
"Take a look, both of you." Starsky slid the file across the table.
Mr Bridges looked first. He frowned. "He does look kind of familiar but I can't place him. How about you, Marsha? You have a better eye for that sort of detail than I."
She took the proffered file and removed some sleekly fashionable spectacles from her purse. She took her time and looked carefully, clearly considering her answer. "I'm sure you do recognise him, Edward." She glanced down the table towards Starsky. "We have underground parking beneath the building for senior employees. I've seen this man working there as the attendant. For some months, I'd say, but I'm not sure when he started. And not every day. It's the sort of thing you don't pay attention to."
The detectives could see the dawning light in Bridges' eyes. "You're right. So why didn't Anne recognise him?"
"There might be several reasons," Hutch suggested. "Changed name to hide his criminal past – I don't imagine your firm would be eager to employ someone with a record. Or possibly one of your employees has been doing some subcontracting on the side."
"If you'll excuse me," Marsha said, "I'll use the other extension in the corner over there to phone Anne Morgan. That's head of personnel. She might be able to help now we have a lead."
"Please, go ahead," Dobey waved her politely over to the little side table with the phone.
Dobey folded his hands across his stomach. "Back to the Weeks and Starsky connection. How did he react to hearing that Starsky was here?"
Leoncini and Buchanan exchanged glances. Buchanan spoke. "He doesn't know yet. We didn't want him to demand Detective Starsky go in immediately he arrived. We needed time to fill him and his partner in properly." He looked across at the two detectives. "There was some risk he'd see you arrive but we judged it remote. The SWAT team out on the roofs can't see our man, but they can see whether there's any movement on his floor. They had orders to inform us if he sent anyone to look out the windows. And we were certain he wouldn't risk exposure himself. If he had, you wouldn't be needed here now."
"You gonna tell him then?" asked Starsky softly.
Buchanan thought about it for a minute. "Generally I would do a great deal to prevent an untrained negotiator from meddling in one of my cases. But I think I have to adapt here." He pulled in a deep breath and then expelled it. "I think you should be the one to do the phoning."
Starsky was already on his feet. "Hold on a minute," Hutch said sharply. "Do you have any advice for my partner on how to handle it?"
Buchanan shrugged. "Sorry, not really. Weeks is too unpredictable. Until I have some material to make deductions from, I've no idea."
"Basically your position is 'Go ahead and I'll tell you afterwards if it was a stupid thing to say'." Hutch's voice had acquired an aggressive edge. He didn't like the sound of this at all.
Buchanan refused to be intimidated. "Yeah, I guess so."
Starsky tried to catch Hutch's eye. He could see Dobey was preparing to restrain his partner before he blew up. Hutch was still glaring at the negotiator. "Hutch," he said softly, a breath above a whisper. Hutch looked across instantly. Whatever he read in Starsky's eyes made him back down. Dobey relaxed. Leoncini looked impressed.
"Well, Cap'n, you ready for me to make the call?"
"Go ahead," he nodded. "The only advice I can offer is use your instincts. They're usually good."
Buchanan pushed back the vacant chair next to him for Starsky to sit down, then thrust a slip of paper at him with Weeks' extension number scrawled on it.
Starsky sat down, drew a deep breath, then looked across at his partner. "Hutch?"
He came round the table to occupy the chair Marsha had vacated and pulled it close to Starsky's. He leaned in so that he could listen.
Starsky had raised his finger to dial when Marsha cut in unexpectedly from the side of the room. "You do realise you can put the phone on loudspeaker, don't you?"
"Um . . . no," said Hutch. "How?"
"Will it pick up everything from this room if I do?" asked Starsky.
"Yes, it's very sensitive." Hutch experienced a horribly ill-timed flashback to his earlier conversation in the Torino with his partner. He quickly stuffed it back where it came from. "Everything said in the room would be picked up, so we'd all have to be really quiet. But the rest of you would be able to hear what Weeks was saying," she explained, looking at the officers and Buchanan.
"Okay, put it on loudspeaker," advised Buchanan.
She walked over to make the necessary adjustments and told Starsky that he should speak normally in the general direction of the microphone.
Starsky dialled. The phone rang for a long time and he began to think Weeks wasn't going to pick up. But he was wrong.
"Yes?" came a very insecure man's voice.
Starsky guessed it wasn't Weeks: too shaky and probably too old. He introduced himself and asked to speak to Weeks. Everyone listened tensely to the rustlings and mutterings at the other end.
Then another voice: "This is Tony Weeks. Starsky?"
"Yeah, how ya doing, kid? I didn't know you'd moved back to your old neighborhood. I'm sorry to find out you've been inside – I thought I'd dissuaded you from a life of crime when you were a kid."
"Might have worked too if my ma hadn't moved me away. So why didn't you hear when I was picked up, it being your precinct and all?"
"I got shot about eighteen months ago. It was bad. I couldn't work for months."
"Jeez, sorry to hear that. You're doing okay now though?"
"Yeah, good as new."
Hutch listened. The conversation sounded so normal it was surreal. This man was worrying about Starsky being shot in the line of duty when he'd left a trail of death and mutilation halfway across the city?
Starsky pressed on. "So what can I do for you, Tony?"
Silence filled the room. Hutch thought that maybe he'd refuse to reply. But no. "I'm in deep shit here."
"I know, Tony. So what can I do to help?"
"You still got that negotiator there? Buchanan?"
"Yeah, he's here in the room with me."
"I don't trust him. I want to talk to you instead."
"I'm here. They tracked me down for you and hauled me in, just like you asked. Go ahead."
Whatever reply Weeks might have been preparing to make was lost in the cacophony that burst over the open line. There was the sound of screaming. Weeks' voice cut through the racket bellowing "Shut up". A chair (chairs?) fell over noisily. Then a gunshot rang out. Someone – Weeks? – slammed the phone down at the other end.
Dobey looked worried. "What in hell's name was that?"
"Don't sound hopeful," Starsky muttered. "You got all your men under control?" he demanded of Buchanan. "Is the SWAT team still sitting on the stairs or did they get tired of waiting and decide on finishing up quick and going home before midnight?"
Buchanan leapt for the other extension and made a call. Then he turned back to the others. "Nothing to do with us. It was sparked off by something happening in the room. Call his number again, Detective Starsky."
To everyone's surprise, the phone was picked up almost immediately.
"Tony, hi, it's Starsky again. That sounded really scary. Want to tell me what happened?"
Tony sounded jittery when he spoke. "Dunno. Some of the hostages started shouting. They panicked, I guess. I had them all sitting down on chairs. Don't like them standing above me. I yelled 'Shut up' at them and then the Chinese man jumped up. I figured he was going to attack me." His voice wobbled.
Buchanan wrote on a piece of paper, "Getting tired," and put it in front of Starsky.
He nodded and carried on. "Tony, shooting the hostages isn't such a great idea. We all want to get them and you safely out of here. Shooting makes people panic. We all need to keep calm."
"I know." Weeks sounded bizarrely contrite. Hutch heard the young teenager he had been six years ago. "I have an idea, Starsky . . ." He stopped as if waiting for permission to speak.
Buchanan raised his thumb in the air.
"Tell me, Tony."
"I'm getting really tired here and I'm sick of all these hostages. The kid's getting whiny too."
"It's way past her bed-time."
"Yeah, I guess so. And the man I shot – he's bleeding bad all over the floor. It's really upsetting everyone."
"Tony, have someone apply pressure to the wound, hard, it'll help. Can me and my partner come in and bring him out?"
"Yeah, that was my idea. If you would come up here and be with me, I'd let all the hostages go."
"What about my partner? Can he come with me?"
"You still with Hutch?"
"Yeah, haven't managed to get rid of him yet."
"Er . . . I'm not sure." The hesitation came across strongly.
Buchanan looked at Starsky significantly and mouthed, "Push!" Hutch unconsciously moved still closer to his partner's side.
"Tony, I need Hutch to help me carry the wounded man outside. I can have paramedics waiting in the stairwell, but you wouldn't want them to come in, would you?"
"No, that sounds okay then. It's just I don't feel comfortable around him. Too much ice. What was it I would call him? The Ice Queen. You wouldn't think gold could be that cold and fierce. He wasn't very friendly to me, you know. I could tell he disapproved of you helping me and being my friend. Let me think a minute . . . . Okay, he can help you shift the man and take the other hostages away, but he's not staying here."
"Okay, Tony. I need a few minutes to organise the paramedics. We'll give you a call when we're on our way up."
"That's fine. Oh, I forgot. No weapons."
"Okay, no weapons. But you don't mind flak jackets, do you?"
Silence. "Okay, Starsky. The jackets are all right. Just no weapons. I'll be waiting for your call." The phone went dead.
Starsky could sense the impending explosion from his partner. It wasn't long coming. "Starsk, you need to renegotiate that right now. Sending you in alone is not an option. There won't be anyone to cover your back and he sounds a complete nutcase."
Starsky shook his head. "It's the best deal we're going to get. All the remaining hostages go free and he trusts me. I can probably talk him down, no problem."
"NO!" Hutch's shout was uncomfortably loud, even in so large a room.
Starsky glanced at Dobey, willing him to stay out of it for now. Across the table, Leoncini looked on in obvious fascination. "Hutch," he said quietly. He laid a hand gently on his partner's arm where it lay on the table and squeezed. Hutch subsided visibly. "It really is the best deal going. Better than Buchanan managed. And we need to act fast, not give him time to regret freeing his hostages."
Buchanan nodded in support. "Another factor to consider is Week's clear dislike for you, Detective Hutchinson. Your presence is more likely to cause things to go wrong than help your partner. Weeks is jealous of you. By all means go and help bring down the wounded man and the hostages. That should give you the chance to observe the layout of the floor, which might come in useful later."
"You mean if Starsky's injured," Hutch muttered.
"No, I mean in all sorts of possible outcomes. But I promise you that if you remain with Weeks, there's a much higher chance of disaster. He doesn't trust you. You annoy him. You scare him. That's the last thing we want. And Starsky's right. The less chance we give him to reconsider, the better. My vote is we move now."
Dobey nodded. "I don't like the sound of Starsky being alone up there any more than you do, Hutch. But I don't think we're going to get a better offer. Giacomo?"
"Yeah, I agree."
"Okay, so we're agreed." Starsky was already stripping off his leather jacket and removing his gun. "Order the flak jackets. I want a word in private with Hutch. We'll be in the kitchenette. Marsha?"
"Next door on the left as you leave the room."
Starsky put his hand on the small of Hutch's back and gently propelled him outside. As he shut the door behind them, he heard Buchanan on the phone chasing the flak jackets and Dobey quizzing Marsha about whether her talk to the personnel manager had revealed anything further.
Hutch thought that the kitchenette was definitely large enough to merit the full title of kitchen rather than the diminutive. He turned round to shut the door, then rested his forehead against it. He felt embarrassed by his outburst.
"I'm sorry, Starsk. It was unforgivable to leap in like that."
Starsky tugged him round and placed a finger on his lips. "Shush. No, I'm not mad at you. It's no different than the way you've always acted. You would always have kicked up a stink about me going in alone like this."
Hutch frowned as he considered. "Yeah, you're right. Okay, I'm not sorry. I think you cut a lousy deal with Tony. And I wouldn't trust him an inch. Half the time he sounds like the teenager we knew, half the time he sounds like a psycho. Don't turn your back on him."
"No, I wasn't planning to. Stop worrying, I'll be all right."
"Don't make promises you can't keep," Hutch said wistfully.
"Okay, just stop worrying! And if I need the cavalry, don't be late."
Hutch didn't bother to reply. He knew there was no more to be said. He briefly felt a fierce urge to kiss his partner. He dismissed it: it was not the time to start mixing work and private life. He knew without a doubt that their partnership would not survive that sort of confusion.
So he opened the door. As he walked back to the boardroom, he shrugged out of his jacket and began removing his gun holster.
Dobey nodded in greeting when the pair reappeared. Hutch felt he was being silently assessed to see if he was ready to go along with the plan. Presumably he satisfied his captain's scrutiny as nothing was said.
Buchanan looked up from the file he was studying. "The flak jackets should be here any minute."
"Did your personnel manager turn up anything?" Hutch wanted to know from Marsha.
"Nothing concrete. But it seems highly probable that there's some private subcontracting going on. I can recall the faces of four attendants. But there are only three in our records. However, we have no idea who Weeks' contact is. We'd need to pull time sheets for the real attendants and try to work out who was theoretically on duty on the days I saw Weeks. The trouble is that I don't recall exactly when he was on duty."
"Thanks for trying, anyway. It's probably not relevant at present." Hutch frowned slightly. He hated to be without information that might have potential value.
The arrival and fitting of the flak jackets kept them all busy. The paramedics appeared just as the last loops were being fastened. Hutch hated wearing them. They were too heavy. He felt restricted and clumsy.
Starsky made the phone call to announce their imminent arrival. Tony sounded eager. At least he picked up the phone after only a couple of rings. Hutch noted that he no longer forced a hostage to act as a go-between.
He, Starsky and the two paramedics began their march up the stairs to the fourth floor. Hutch was very aware of the unaccustomed jacket dragging on his shoulders.
Starsky told the paramedics to wait on the landing below, which was where the two SWAT men were stationed. Then he and Hutch went on alone.
Double doors, again in a dark wood, separated the stairwell from the work area. A porthole window in each gave them a limited view of the interior. Starsky motioned to Hutch to stand back. He knocked on the glass.
He heard Weeks' voice inviting him in. He'd been assured that the security system that would normally require a code to be punched into a pad at the side of the doors was turned off. But it was still a relief when the door yielded to his pressure and swung inwards.
"Is it okay if I come in, Tony?" He didn't want to run any unnecessary risks.
"Yeah. Is Hutch with you?"
"Sure, you said it would be all right for him to help me with the wounded man. Can we both come in?"
"Okay, just don't make any sudden moves."
Starsky and his partner stepped into the room. It was large, running right through the building. A long row of broad and high windows ran down each side. But they couldn't see Weeks or the hostages, who were concealed in the forest of partitions around the desks in the central space.
"We can't see where you are, Tony. Too many partitions."
"Just keep on walking forwards."
They did so, making sure that Starsky took the lead.
Weeks was holed up in a large open area right in the centre of the floor, completely protected by partitions. He smiled in delight to see Starsky and frowned uncertainly at Hutch.
The hostages were behind him, sitting on the floor or chairs. They looked either petrified or blank. A man lying on the floor, heavily stained with blood, was clearly the casualty. A middle-aged woman was applying pressure to a thigh wound. The little girl was sitting on a man's knee dozing. Hutch was grateful that she felt secure enough to do so.
Starsky asked permission to go and deal with the injured man. "I think he's okay," Weeks said, sounding nervous.
"Um, Starsky, I've been thinking. . . ." Hutch's heart sank, then started beating overtime. "I know I said you could help Hutch carry him down to the paramedics, but I really made a mistake there. If I let you go down the stairs, you might not come back to help me. So I've decided that Mr Brotzen over there can help Hutch carry him and you can stay here."
Hutch bit his tongue. Nothing he said would convince Weeks to do what he wanted. He had to leave it to Starsky. "We did agree Tony. And I'd rather help Hutch myself. Mr Brotzen's too old to be lugging dead-weight down the stairs."
Hutch saw a wintry look close down Weeks' face. The teenager had disappeared. Starsky saw it too and decided this wasn't the moment to push. He shrugged as if he didn't care. "If it's okay with Mr Brotzen, it's okay with me. What do you think, sir?"
Mr Brotzen looked astonished to be drawn into the discussion but played his role coolly. "I'll manage."
Weeks looked relieved and the cold faded away. "Okay, that's good. Off you all go. I'm sorry you've all been kept out so late. And I'm sorry the bus driver got lost. Maybe the police will organise rides home for you."
Hutch was relieved that none of the hostages opted to dispute his version of events. They all gathered together in a herd and looked to him for a lead. He and Mr Brotzen managed to haul the Southeast Asian man to his feet and stabilise him between them. He moaned alarmingly but was still conscious.
"It's going to be okay, sir. We have paramedics waiting just down the stairs. You'll soon be feeling a lot more comfortable."
He began heading out of the partition jungle. Any hope that Weeks would follow to ensure he left and thus expose himself to the SWAT sharpshooters on the surrounding roofs proved vain. As he looked back, he saw him sit down on one of the chairs.
He made eye contact with Starsky and then kept going towards the door. It seemed a very long way and he half-expected a bullet in the back. He had never realised that Weeks disliked him so intensely. Perhaps he hadn't at the time; maybe it was all a later interpretation of how he had felt as a teenager.
He successfully transferred the wounded man into the care of the paramedics, who strapped him efficiently onto their stretcher. When they were finished, he set off down the stairs, sending everyone else in front of him. He could hear that some of the hostages had begun to weep. The little girl was still asleep.
He was met at the boardroom level by Dobey.
"Well done, Hutchinson," he nodded his approval quietly before addressing the group of former hostages.
"Now, if all you people would come this way, we will supply you with food and hot drinks, restrooms, blankets, and any extra clothing you may need. You are welcome to phone relatives to reassure them you're safe.
"We've summoned a doctor who will give each of you a preliminary examination to check that there's no damage done and he's already on his way. We're lucky the hijacker selected offices equipped with every convenience – there's a first-aid room one floor down from here which we can use for the examinations. We'll send each of you down with a police escort who will remain outside the door. There's no possibility of Weeks showing up uninvited but we want you to feel safe. Should the doctor recommend that anyone ought to go to a hospital, there are ambulances outside. And if anyone wishes to go to a hospital anyway, just let us know.
"One other thing: we're going to have to ask you to remain here until we can debrief you.
I know you must all be anxious to go home, but anything you can tell us about tonight might help our colleague. The man who exchanged himself for your safety is Detective David Starsky. I think you owe him all the help you can provide."
There were muted murmurs of agreement. Hutch admired his captain's ability to project an air of calm assurance. Dobey led the rescued hostages through into the boardroom.
Hutch turned back to the wounded man. The paramedics were occupied in some emergency measures to stabilise his condition before carrying him the rest of the way down to the ambulance. "May I have a moment with him?" he asked.
The paramedics nodded. "Not too long, we want him in hospital as soon as possible."
Hutch leaned over the stretcher. "What's your name, sir?"
"Mr Lee. Sorry, no speak good English. Refugee."
"I understand. Can you tell me, do you have any idea why Weeks shot you?"
The man closed his eyes for a moment. "I not understand. He tell me ‘Stand up'. I stand quick. He shoot."
Hutch thought back. Then he realised that it had been a language problem. "I'm sorry, sir. I believe that what he actually said was ‘Shut up.' When you stood, he thought you were going to attack him."
"Need to improve my English." Despite his pain, Hutch detected a glimmer of a smile on the refugee's face.
"Yeah, I guess so. I won't detain you any longer, sir. Someone will be in contact with you for a statement when you are more comfortable in the hospital. Do you understand or should I go through that again."
"No, I understand. Thank you."
The paramedics finally moved off towards the stairs. Hutch went into the boardroom again, conscious that this time there was no Starsky at his side. And also conscious that he had no idea of what was going on two floors up. He wouldn't hear anything, not even a gunshot.
The boardroom looked quite different from when he had left it. It seemed much smaller, purely because it was now full of people. Enough officers had been called in to take the witnesses' statements so that they wouldn't have to wait in line. Men were bringing in chairs from surrounding rooms to accommodate everyone.
Marsha was on her feet liaising with a man and woman in uniform. Hutch caught the word "coffee" and guessed she was explaining where they could go to start producing drinks.
Leoncini was occupied on the phone in the corner ordering blankets to be brought up and making arrangements to procure some hot food. All modern conveniences indeed, Hutch thought. It seemed they had decided to heat up soup in the kitchenette next door.
A knock at the door heralded the arrival of four SWAT men. Hutch heard Dobey delegating them to escort the ex-hostages, a few at a time, to the nearest washrooms so that they could freshen up. Again, Marsha was there to give information.
It was a hive of activity and Hutch felt left out. No one had allocated him a job. He seemed to be the only person in the room at a loose end. Even Bridges was busy. He'd taken on the task of looking after the little girl while the man who had been holding her gave his statement. She'd woken up now and appeared to be chatting animatedly with her new friend. Hutch guessed that the formal lawyer might also be a doting grandfather – he seemed very at ease in his role.
Buchanan was sitting in with one of the witnesses while her statement was being taken. Hutch guessed that he was eager to sift through the new information in the hope of building up a better picture of what made Weeks tick. Not that it was going to help Starsky. Whatever Buchanan deduced now, they had no way of letting his partner know.
His eyes were drawn irresistibly to the boardroom table. Starsky's jacket lay draped carelessly across it, his holster and gun sitting forlornly in their nest of leather. Hutch found the reminder that Starsky was unarmed deeply disturbing.
And the phone they'd used to contact Weeks sat there balefully as if in quarantine. Obviously people were using the phone in the corner to make any calls to ensure that Weeks always had access.
He willed it to ring. He already felt desperate to have some confirmation that Starsky wasn't in trouble. But of course it remained silent. He knew it was going to be a long, painful night. Now that he wasn't busy, his tiredness was making itself felt. He yawned and rubbed at his face. He struggled out of his flak jacket and eased his holster back on.
The seat in front of the phone was vacant so he took it.
Before long Dobey turned up at his elbow. "Hutch, we have cans of soup on the way to heat up for everyone. Should be here any minute now. Will you go and help Marsha organise that? She says there are bowls and spoons in the kitchenette cupboards, so we don't have to stoop to plastic cups."
He got to his feet, collected Marsha and went to investigate the kitchenette. A vivid memory of Starsky's finger resting on his lips plucked fiercely at Hutch as he opened the door. He dismissed it firmly.
The cans were already piled on one of the counters, alongside several loaves of sliced bread. Hutch wondered who had known where to find an all-night supermarket. Marsha found an apron in one of the drawers – Hutch thought with amusement that nothing seemed to shake her adrift from her unflappable efficiency – and swiftly had four pans sitting on the rings. Soon she had him carrying through bread and steaming bowls on a tray she conjured from somewhere. The ex-hostages and hungry police were kept happy and Hutch was kept busy.
He noted as he came and went that the atmosphere in the boardroom was subtly changing. The survivors had begun to accept – for now at least – that they were truly free and were beginning to relax. A couple were becoming quite boisterous with euphoria.
Eventually he was able to tell Marsha that they were the only two left without food. She poured out two final bowls and made Hutch sit down with her at the little kitchen table. He realised that she had a knack for making people do what she wanted without seeming to push. He would far rather have been sitting by the phone in case Starsky or Weeks rang. Instead he found himself sitting down dipping bread in soup.
They ate in silence for a while, then Hutch remarked, "You know that you and Mr Bridges don't have to hang around any longer, don't you? You've been a huge help, but if you wanted to go home and get some sleep that would be okay."
She smiled. "Yes, I know. Captain Dobey made it clear while you were bringing down the hostages. We don't want to leave. I've worked for Edward for years – most of my working life, in fact. This firm means a great deal to me. I've invested a lot of myself in it over the years. Neither he nor I feel it would be right to abandon the offices till everything's resolved. I know this is only a building, not human lives. But it's still important to us."
Hutch nodded his understanding. "We certainly wouldn't want to force you to go. And you're quite safe here."
She looked up from her bowl. "But your partner isn't, is he?" Worry replaced her usual mask of cool competence. "It must be difficult" – she paused as if assessing whether she had chosen the right word – "agonising for you, knowing he's up there somewhere and there's nothing you can do. Those poor people are so relieved to have escaped with their lives that I think they've almost forgotten it isn't over for you."
He shrugged, feeling uncomfortable. "I'm used to it." He too assessed what he had said. "No, not used to it. But I accept it, we both do, it's part of the job."
She looked thoughtful but said nothing more.
Shortly afterwards, they returned to the boardroom. It remained crowded but the chair by the phone was still unoccupied. He sank down wearily.
It wasn't long before Dobey came to join him. "Hutch, you look like the walking dead. I want you to take a break."
"I'll be fine. I just need to be doing something. Maybe I could help take statements or something."
"Hutchinson, it wasn't a request. You have a choice. You can rest your head on the table here and take a nap. Or you can go lie on the floor in a corner out of everyone's way. But you're closing your eyes and keeping them closed."
He shifted restlessly. "It won't make any difference. I'm not going to get any sleep while Starsky's up there visiting with the neighborhood psycho. I might just as well be gainfully occupied."
"I said it's an order. You need a break. No arguments. The way you look at present you won't be fit to help your partner when he needs it." He scanned the room. "Marsha, can you bring some blankets over here for Hutch, please?"
Hutch knew he'd been manipulated but felt too weary to fight back. He let Marsha wrap the blanket round his back and shoulders, leaned his head forward and rested it on his arms. He felt Marsha place a hand on his back. "I'll see if I can find a cushion for padding," she promised.
She seemed able to produce anything. The cushion arrived. He readjusted himself. Despite his insistence to Dobey that he wouldn't sleep, he drifted off, lulled by the quiet murmuring of voices around him.
He came to with that horrible sense of disorientation that strikes when you wake up somewhere unfamiliar. He realised when he raised his head off the cushion that his neck was stiff. He circled it slowly to work out the kinks.
The room was restored to something more nearly approaching its previous state. The freed hostages had all disappeared, presumably to their homes or the hospital. The cops taking statements had all gone. So, he thought, back to the original group.
Leoncini was stretched out on the floor, covered by a blanket. Buchanan was sitting within arm's reach of the phone, a couple of yards from Hutch. Dobey was at the head of the table again, sifting through statements and making notes. Edward Bridges and Marsha Nichols were sitting close together at the opposite end of the table, talking quietly.
What made the room seem so different from when he first saw it was its sheer untidiness. Chairs were scattered everywhere in little clumps. Footprints marred the pristine cream of the carpet. Someone had had an accident with tomato soup. Blankets were piled higgledy-piggledy in a couple of corners. Surprisingly, there was none of the expected debris of cups and bowls underfoot. On reflection, perhaps it wasn't so surprising: Marsha had presumably taken at least some clearing up in hand.
He had no idea of the time: three thirty-five, according to the expensively austere boardroom clock on the wall above the door.
Dobey had heard him stirring and was looking at him down the table.
"Any news from Starsky, Captain?"
"No, Hutch, you know I'd have woken you if anything started up. Feeling more rested?"
Hutch thought about it. "Yeah. Wouldn't say no to a cup of coffee."
"I'll rustle one up. Need to stretch my legs anyway." He hoisted himself heavily out of the chair and waddled stiffly out of the door. Hutch followed his example, stretched comprehensively, and began pacing slowly round the room to start his circulation moving again.
When Dobey returned with coffee for those still awake, he wordlessly handed Hutch a sheaf of statements to wade through. He sat down again near the phone and started reading. Nothing gave him any deeper insight into Weeks' state of mind. He kept going in the fragile hope that there was some gem hidden somewhere amongst all the words for him to find.
The phone rang. Hutch's hand snaked out and captured the receiver before Buchanan had a chance to react. He registered the annoyance on the other man's face as he pressed the handset to his ear. He ignored Buchanan's silent demand for possession.
Would Weeks recognise his voice? He opted for a neutral, "Hello."
"Captain Dobey, hi." It was Starsky's voice. Hutch realised that he wished to conceal Hutch's potentially unsettling and threatening presence from Weeks.
"Are you okay? Christ, it's been hours!"
"I'm fine, Captain. We're both a little tired. I thought you would be worrying by now so I asked Tony if I could call. He agreed it was a sensible idea."
"Have you made any progress?" Hutch asked urgently.
"No, we're fine."
"So you think you'll be up there for much longer?"
"Yeah, sure hope so."
"Can you persuade Weeks to let you call in progress reports on the hour?"
Hutch heard muffled voices at the far end.
"Perhaps, he's not too sure. Don't worry if you don't hear from me, Captain. Speak to you later." The line went dead.
Buchanan was not pleased. "If that had been Weeks, it could have seriously undermined Starsky's position."
Hutch knew he had a point but was unwilling to admit it. "It wasn't Weeks," he snapped.
Dobey stepped in to defuse any argument before it started. "So what did he have to say, Hutch?"
Hutch related Starsky's end of the conversation for the others to analyse. Leoncini had been woken by the ringing and had come back to sit at the table.
"So," Buchanan summed up their predicament. "He might be able to call us in an hour's time but he might not. That's not helpful. It doesn't give us any firm basis for a decision to send in a SWAT team if he doesn't contact us."
Dobey intercepted Hutch's attack. "Mr Buchanan, sending in a SWAT team on that sort of evidence would be premature. I won't sanction any attack without more definite evidence that all other options are exhausted. I value Detective Starsky highly and will not risk him in order to resolve the situation more speedily when a longer-term approach seems likely to result in a more desirable outcome."
Leoncini nodded his support. "I agree. No SWAT team until we know it's a workable option."
They returned to waiting. Hutch finished his pile of statements. It was now almost an hour since Starsky's phone call. He could feel the tension building furiously inside until he could sit still no longer. He began pacing round the room.
Four fifty-five a.m. came and went without a call. No one said anything. Hutch knew that there was nothing that could usefully be said. The silence became more claustrophobic and oppressive. Dobey and Leoncini gave up shuffling the files in front of them. Buchanan was engrossed in examining every detail of his hands resting on the table.
At seven minutes past five the phone rang. Marsha jumped visibly. Buchanan held himself very still. Hutch nodded at him to take charge of the phone, which had been set to loudspeaker mode in preparation for the anticipated call.
Starsky's voice came through calmly. "Hi, Mr Buchanan, can I speak with Captain Dobey, please?"
Buchanan interpreted this as a request for Hutch and made space for him to come and speak into the microphone.
"I'm here, Starsk. We're on loudspeaker this end. What's with the delay?"
"Dunno. Things are still fine."
Hutch interpreted this to mean that Starsky didn't want to go into details. How close was Weeks to the phone? Could he pick up anything of what was being said? Hutch tried to be as circumspect as possible. "So no change?"
"Yeah, think so."
"You don't want us to change our approach?"
"That's right, same thing." A raised voice came through but the listeners couldn't decipher the words. Hutch didn't like the tone: sharp and querulous. "I'll try and talk again later. Tony wants to say something to me now." He rang off.
Hutch felt as if he was being tortured. He had no way of knowing just how trigger-happy Weeks was. Starsky didn't sound tense. But Hutch knew that he was a good actor when the job demanded it. And if Weeks was a complete loony, how much help would Starsky's instincts be in assessing his own danger?
He had to move. He had to leave the boardroom before he exploded with worry.
As he neared the door, Buchanan shouted behind him: "Detective Hutchinson!"
"Let him go. He won't wander far." It was Dobey, confident that Hutch would not mount a one-man rescue mission to save his partner under the present circumstances.
The heavy doors cut off Buchanan's reply.
Hutch stalked round the second floor for ten minutes for so. When he felt a little calmer, he found the washroom and freshened up. His over-bright eyes stared back at him wildly from the mirror. He no longer felt tired but recognised that was deceptive. He hadn't dozed for long enough or deeply enough to make up his sleep deficit. It was the mounting agitation ripping him apart that had temporarily thrust the exhaustion aside and it would crash in on him again later. He saw that he was unnaturally pale. The unflattering fluorescent light strip threw into relief the deep lines round his eyes and carved gullies in his cheeks. He didn't blame Buchanan for believing that he had lost it.
He returned to the boardroom to endure more waiting. By comparison, the time he had spent at the hospital that afternoon – or rather the previous afternoon – seemed positively benign. Time was playing more tricks. Dr McKitterick and her reassurances seemed months rather than hours ago. And he didn't think tonight's events would qualify in her view as "taking it easy".
He sat back down in his chair and concentrated hard on gathering together all the control and discipline he could dig up. He had called all his reserves into action. There was nothing left.
Six o' clock passed without any call. By this time everyone had given up all pretence of being occupied. The edgy atmosphere crackled with tension. Marsha and Bridges had abandoned their quiet conversation hours ago.
Around ten past six, Leoncini began to tap his fingers in an irregular beat on the table. A furious glare from Hutch failed to penetrate his private world. Dobey shifted his bulk uncomfortably. After five minutes or so of this new torture, Hutch had to act or explode with fury. "Captain Leoncini? Cut it out, will you?" By a supreme effort of will he kept his voice tightly controlled.
Leoncini stopped his fingers in mid-beat and stared at them as if they belonged to someone else. "Sorry, didn't realise I was doing it. Bad habit."
Hutch grunted his thanks.
Shortly after six thirty, Hutch was driven to pacing again. Buchanan jumped when he stood up as if awoken from a trance. He too rose and commenced some stretching exercises. Marsha disappeared and returned with more coffee. Hutch noted that even her calm self-possession was beginning to fray.
Hutch stood by the window to drink and looked out. He knew that it would be dawn in another ten minutes or so. The first glow that precedes sunrise proper was already visible. He was aware that Leoncini had joined him.
After a few minutes, Leoncini turned back to the table. "Buchanan, do you think we should phone and try to find out what the hell's happening?"
He answered without hesitation. "No, I strongly recommend not. Sure, Detective Starsky might not have been able to phone because things are bad. But if they are bad, I don't think a phone ringing will help him any. And sometimes no news is good news. Patience – we still need to wait it out."
Leoncini nodded his understanding and returned to the table. The silence resumed and stretched on interminably.
It was now quite light. Hutch could see the squad cars and men still outside on the street clearly. He sighed and sat down once more.
He was checking the clock again – now six fifty-eight – when the phone rang. Everyone jumped. Hutch leapt out of his chair and seized the receiver before he remembered it was still set to loudspeaker. He toggled the switch and put back the handset.
"Hutch? That you?" Starsky sounded jubilant. Hutch let his breath out and leaned his weight against the edge of the desk.
"Yeah, we're on loudspeaker." Hutch realised as the words left his mouth how events earlier this evening had changed things. Before today he wouldn't have worried that Starsky in a fit of enthusiasm might say something inappropriate for all to hear. Something else for him to get used to.
"Yeah, I know. My brain's still functioning." Hutch felt a twinge of guilt at the impatient tone in his partner's voice. "Come on up, will you? It's all over."
"You're not hurt?" Hutch couldn't help himself.
"No, I'm fine." More impatience. "Come on, what you waiting for?"
He needed no more encouragement. He spun round and left the room running, vaguely aware of the two captains and Buchanan following in his wake.
He tore up the stairs two at time, the combination of anxiety and relief lending his legs gazelle-like power. He remembered to call out so as not to surprise the SWAT team on the landing below the fourth floor, then skidded across to the double doors. He quickly peered through the porthole. No Starsky, no Weeks in sight. He banged one leaf open and charged through, gun in hand just in case. The door slammed violently behind him.
"We're still in the middle of the forest. Just keep coming, you can't miss us."
He discovered Weeks sitting handcuffed securely through the metal arm of a chair. Starsky stood behind him. Looking at him gave no hint that this was the morning after the night before. His face and body language looked positively exultant. He was bouncing on his toes out of sheer excitement. He seemed as undamaged as he had claimed when Hutch raked his eyes swiftly over him, just to check for himself.
"I read him his rights, he's all ready to ship downstairs."
By this time Captains Dobey and Leoncini had arrived, flanked by the SWAT men, who were training their impressive weaponry firmly on Weeks. Behind them stood Buchanan, eager to be in on the end of the siege.
Weeks looked far too cowed and innocuous ever to have caused such carnage and fear. He was sitting hunched forward, bending over his knees so that his face was invisible. He hadn't even raised his head when Hutch burst in so forcefully.
Dobey took charge of the situation. Starsky unfastened the prisoner just long enough to free him from the chair, then snapped the cuffs on again. At Dobey's direction, Leoncini and the two SWAT men guided him towards the stairs. As he passed by Hutch, he glanced up briefly with a look of virulent hatred that surprised him. Then he was gone, head drooping dejectedly once more.
Just before he went through the doors, he twisted back with one more surprise. "Bye, Starsky. I'm real sorry to have put you to so much trouble. Maybe you'll come visit me in jail."
Starsky said nothing and then he was gone.
"Not if I have anything to do with it!" muttered Hutch.
"I wasn't planning to take him up on it. He's ill. He needs psychiatric treatment, friendship from me ain't going to cure him."
"So, are you going to let us know what happened or are you going to make me wait till I read your report?" Hutch was desperate to know details.
Starsky smiled blindingly. "How much is it worth to you?"
"Come on! I'd like to get to bed before mid-day." The mention of bed brought forth a blazing flush of red from somewhere below Hutch's shirt collar that raced up to his hairline. Starsky noticed it and grinned. Dobey also noticed it and looked baffled.
The captain ignored the blush and decided to push things along. "If you can manage the Readers' Digest version, we'll all be grateful I'm sure. The quicker you give it, the sooner you can go home. Otherwise I'll let Dr McKitterick know that you can't be trusted to rest outside a hospital and ask her to haul your ass in for a few days' forcible recuperation!"
"Have a heart, Captain. There's no way we'll be finished with the paperwork till this afternoon."
Dobey's expression softened slightly. "It won't even be started before this afternoon. Soon as I hear a resume, you're off home. Both of you. I don't want to see you at Metro until late tomorrow morning. Otherwise I'll be in need of hospitalisation when Starsky's doctors are through with me."
"Here or downstairs, Starsk?" Hutch wondered if the scene of Starsky's undoubted ordeal might make him feel less than comfortable when reliving the last few hours.
"Good idea, maybe Marsha and Mr Bridges will get to hear the end of the story?"
"They still here? Thought they'd have packed up long ago."
Hutch smiled fleetingly. "I don't think they could bear to abandon their baby until they knew we'd taken care of the wolf." Starsky looked puzzled. Hutch sighed and tried again. "They couldn't bear to leave the offices until we'd thrown out the intruder." Light dawned.
Marsha Nichols and Edward Bridges were indeed still waiting in the boardroom. She warmly congratulated Starsky on his success and moved off to make yet more coffee.
Personally Hutch thought that his partner looked wired enough without caffeine on top of the adrenaline. But trying to veto it would be the mother-hen act to end all mother-hen acts. He said nothing and mournfully watched Starsky gulp down a cupful, then ask Marsha for a refill.
Starsky had waited until Marsha sat down before beginning his account. He was prowling round the room, nursing his second cup of coffee. Clearly he was too fidgety to settle. Hutch sighed. He knew that when the high ebbed away, Starsky was going to feel like death.
A further delay was caused by the reappearance of Leoncini, who had entrusted Weeks to his subordinates and rejoined the group.
"Ain't much to tell really," Starsky began. Some of the elation in his eyes was overshadowed by a moment of introspection. "We talked and talked and talked. Couldn't really tell you what about, half the time. I just kept going with anything that calmed him down. Football, baseball, vacation spots, movies, his childhood, my childhood. Almost anything 'cept police work. That made him think too much about you, Hutch, and that wound him up."
Hutch frowned, baffled. "But I don't remember it being like that when he was a kid. Sure, he liked you a lot more than he liked me, but I never felt he hated me."
Starsky considered carefully. "No, I think you're right. I don't think it was how he remembers it. But memory don't always tell you the truth. You edit things. Tony's into editing big-time."
Hutch nodded in acceptance.
"Anyway, I just kept talking or tried to keep him talking. Whenever I hit on a topic of conversation that seemed to relax him, I babbled round it for as long as I could. If he started to tighten, I tried something else. The important thing seemed to be to fill the silence. He told me silence really scared him."
This time it was Buchanan who nodded.
"I knew it would be hard on you all if I didn't let you know I was doing okay." Starsky might have said "all" but Hutch sensed his partner's eyes boring into him as he spoke. "But it just wouldn't have been sensible to broach the subject with Tony at first. He was really volatile emotionally."
"How volatile?" Hutch had to know the worst. "Gun-waving volatile?"
Starsky thought for a moment or two, clearly torn between upsetting his partner and telling the truth. "Yeah, there was a certain amount of gun waving, specially for the first hour or so. I got to be good at seeing when it was coming so I could sidetrack him before it happened most times." He kept his gaze unwaveringly on Hutch's face to gauge his reactions. Hutch kept a tight hold and managed to look neutral.
Satisfied that no explosion was forthcoming, Starsky carried on. "Gradually his mood swings pinged back and forth less often. About three thirty, I flew the idea of phoning you to check in. I was really cautious and took it slow. He was a piece calmer than he had been but I wasn't too sure he wouldn't swing right back to being threatening. It took a good twenty minutes for me to feel it was the right moment to make the call. And I'm sure you all worked out for yourselves it wasn't such a great idea for him to know I was talking to Hutch."
"So what went wrong with calling on the hour?" Hutch wanted to know.
Starsky's pacing happened to have brought him directly behind Hutch's chair. He came to a halt for the first time and placed a hand on his shoulder.
"I guess it wound up the tension no end when you didn't hear from me." He sounded apologetic. Absently he placed his other hand on Hutch's neck and began to massage it. "It just wasn't a good moment. Tony's mood swings were happening further apart, but they were still there. He was having a bad one. I just hung on until he sounded happier."
He carried on massaging Hutch's neck and fell silent. "Better?" Hutch nodded. His tense neck muscles were feeling better. The only problem was that a demanding, seductive warmth had begun to spread outwards from his lower stomach. He willed it to die back down.
Starsky had begun roaming again.
"The second time I missed my call was different. I could feel he was winding down, step by step. You know how it is, he'd relax, then he'd go tense again, relax again, then something would set him off. But each time, the relaxation seemed that bit deeper. He was getting sleepy – yawning more and more. When six o' clock came, I just didn't want to break the rhythm."
Buchanan stepped in. "That was the right decision. And we were happy to play the waiting game this end."
Hutch refrained from pointing out that there had been moments when that had been in some doubt.
"The sleepier he sounded, the more sure I felt I shouldn't touch the phone." He was still pacing energetically round the room.
Hutch felt he could trace the surplus energy dissipating from his partner's body as electric charges. He wondered if he was up to hearing how Starsky had finally wrested the gun from Weeks.
Starsky had stopped again, this time opposite Hutch. "Anyway, I didn't need to play the hero in the end. Course, I'd been looking out all along for an opportunity to get his gun away. It just didn't come. He was too sharp and unpredictable. Then would you believe it, in the end he fell asleep. I didn't trust my own judgement at first. Till he began snoring like a freight train." He shrugged self-deprecatingly. "So I crept to my feet, then pounced. He was so out of it he didn't even struggle. He looked just like some kid who can't wake up in the morning." He shrugged again. "And that was it, I guess."
Hutch closed his eyes and let the relief wash over him. All his terrifying visions of Starsky and Weeks wrestling dramatically on the floor with the gun trapped between them were completely inaccurate.
There was a moment's silence while everyone contemplated Starsky's account.
Then Buchanan offered his congratulations. "We don't like heroics in my job. The quieter the resolution, the better." He smiled. "If Captain Dobey ever decides to get rid of you, look me up. I'm sure I could give you a reference for a new profession."
"I don't think that will happen just yet," commented Dobey dryly. "Ask me in a few months' time. The pair of them will probably have rubbed me up the wrong way enough times by then for me to want some well-earned peace."
Leoncini smiled. "Are you saying your officers here are too much of a handful?" Clearly he sympathised from personal experience of similar difficulties.
Dobey snorted an impressive "Harrumph" of disgust in pained response, sounding uncommonly like a furious bull.
Hutch desperately wanted to spirit Starsky away before the adrenaline burned off and his partner collapsed on the floor with exhaustion. "Is there anything else, Captain? It's been a long day."
Dobey regarded him keenly. "I don't know why you're both still here. I ordered you to disappear once we'd had the resume. I take it you're done?" he growled in Starsky's direction.
"Think so, Cap'n."
Hutch was on his feet as soon as he heard "disappear". He moved smoothly round the table while the captain was still speaking and began to steer his partner towards the door.
"Just stop right there! Not so fast!" bellowed Dobey. "Did I say you could go yet?"
"Well yes," said Starsky innocently. "I think you did." He looked for confirmation at Hutch, who nodded.
"I hadn't finished," he blustered. "I feel responsible for ensuring there are no accidents caused by an out-of-control Torino . . . ."
"I'll let Hutch drive as a special treat," Starsky offered.
Dobey was not to be placated. "No way. You're both unfit to be behind a steering wheel. I'll give you a ride home myself in my own car. I can't trust the pair of you not to bully anyone else to let you go your own sweet way. And I'll get someone to follow in the Torino, so you won't be parted from your baby for too long. Meet me downstairs in five minutes while I wrap up things here before I go back to the office."
The detectives managed to take no more than a single step towards the door.
"No, hold it right there. If I let you out of my sight, you'll sneak off. You're sticking with me."
Dobey was as good as his word. He kept the pair at his heels as if on leashes whilst he dealt with the immediate aftermath of the hostage situation. Bridges and Marsha Nichols had finally been persuaded to leave their office building and bade goodbye to their companions through the stressful night. The cool and collected Marsha surprised them both by emphasising her thanks with a hug for each of them and a firm handshake for Captain Dobey and the others.
Finally Hutch was able to slide into the back seat of his captain's car. He was rather hoping that Starsky might sit up front but his partner threw himself inside next to Hutch.
"Starsky's place?" queried Dobey.
"Yeah, it's closer," Hutch agreed. In the rear-view mirror he could see the Torino pulling away. He hoped that the officer landed with the heavy responsibility of driving it suffered no mishaps en route.
He leaned his weight against the door and window and looked over to check on his partner. There was still no sign of Starsky coming down.
Starsky caught his eye and smiled. A lazy, dangerous, bedroom smile, both beguiling and threatening. Not appropriate for the back seat of their captain's car. Then he stretched his foot across so that his ankle brushed sensuously across Hutch's calf. He withdrew it before Hutch began to purr audibly with pleasure.
While Hutch's brain was busy hoping that Dobey was too occupied keeping his eyes on the road to notice, Hutch's body had quite different ideas. He felt the tiredness that had been slowly creeping over him flash burn like dry autumn leaves on a bonfire. Heat flooded his groin until he feared Dobey would feel its warmth in the front seat. He flushed with a complex mixture of sexual desire and embarrassment.
Starsky's body across the seat acted on him like a powerful magnet. He firmly clasped his hands together in case one strayed to rest on Starsky's thigh. Or worse. At the same time he yearned for Starsky to reach over and touch him once more, consequences be damned. He tried desperately to block memories of the evening at Starsky's place, only to find that the sensation of his recent neck massage was equally arousing.
He was painfully aware that he was fighting a losing battle for control. He refused to look at his partner but could feel his eyes burning on his naked skin. He longed for the ride to be safely over.
Eventually his wish was granted. Hutch barely waited for Dobey to bring his car to a halt before he thrust the door open and leapt out. His hearing didn't seem to be working properly. Dobey had wound down his window and was saying something or other. It could be Greek for all Hutch understood. He tried to form the right sort of expression and make the right sort of noises but nothing coherent would emerge. He prayed that the captain would blame exhaustion for his problems. And also for the unusual silence between his normally voluble men: they hadn't spoken a word to each other since stepping into the car.
Starsky was making a much better job of acting normally. But maybe he was feeling more normal than Hutch? Hutch watched him uncoil with cat-like grace from the back seat, exchange a few words with the captain, and then saunter round the front of the car to the sidewalk. The sway of his hips was mesmerising. Hutch was breathing in short, painful-sounding gasps through parted lips. His feet seemed sunk in concrete.
He watched Starsky advance purposefully towards the Torino, now parked behind the captain. He was fascinated by the rhythmic play of muscles in his butt, beautifully revealed by the tight jeans and short bomber jacket. Starsky stalked all the way round his baby, scrupulously checking that the officer hadn't marked the paintwork. Finally he nodded his satisfaction and retrieved the keys.
Starsky put a hand on his partner's arm to turn him in the direction of the building, then propelled him forward with a hand at the small of his back. The contact was so light that it should have felt like thistledown. For Hutch, it represented an irresistible force. He shuddered convulsively even though his shirt and jacket protected his skin from the heat of his partner's palm. He never saw Dobey pull away from the kerb, once the officer who had transported the Torino was on board.
He halted at the door as if unable to move of his own volition, while Starsky struggled briefly to fit his key in the lock. He could hear nothing but his blood pounding in his ears and his breath rough in his throat. He stood motionless outside until Starsky's fingers closed gently on his arm with the merest suggestion of a tug. Hutch stepped obediently over the threshold.
Starsky bounced round to push his front door shut, before methodically locking it. Hutch stood frozen to the spot where his partner had deposited him.
The catalyst was Starsky reaching to pull off his own jacket. Hutch was never able to explain why this small movement shattered so calamitously the control he had successfully wrapped around himself over the last months. But the collapse was absolute, like a tidal wave crashing over a delta.
Before Starsky had shrugged so much as a shoulder free, Hutch flung himself at this partner. The impact shoved his back heavily against the door, which rattled furiously. Starsky's huff of surprise turned into a grunt of discomfort as the back of his head thumped the wood.
Some part of Hutch noted smugly that Starsky's eyes registered shock and uncertainty. It felt good to rip away his partner's sense of being in control. It was some recompense for the smugness he had detected when Starsky was so much more functional than he.
His hands swiftly pinioned Starsky's against the door before they could fight back, then forced them outwards and upwards. His brain didn't register that only token resistance was offered. If he could no longer exert control over himself, he needed to exert control over someone else.
He leant down to kiss Starsky fiercely on the lips. The small cut Hutch had suffered earlier opened up again. He was no longer able to distinguish whether the moans were his or his partner's. He was aware of nothing beyond the taste of Starsky's mouth, the scent of his skin, tainted with sweat from the night's exertions, and the roughness of his morning growth of beard. Each scrape along his cheek set his nerve endings alight and danced in his groin.
The hot fullness in his jeans screamed for relief. He thrust his hips forward and pushed a leg between Starsky's knees. For a few seconds the rubbing satisfied him. He pulled away from Starsky's lips to gasp in oxygen. He was being driven berserk by the sound of his partner's quickened breathing, by the unconcealed lust he identified in his dark eyes.
He plunged once more deep into Starsky's mouth. It was no longer enough. He pulled back in momentary confusion. Then he knew that he needed to explore more flesh. He released one of his partner's hands. Clumsily he began to tug at the buttons of Starsky's shirt. He couldn't quite decipher how they worked. Snarling deep in his throat with frustration he grabbed the shirt placket and yanked hard. Buttons skittered across the floor in all directions. Starsky yelped with excitement. Hutch recaptured Starsky's free hand and pinned it down again.
The column of his partner's neck had exercised a potent fascination over him for months. He loved to contemplate it, running his eye along the curves and hollows, imagining nipping the soft skin where it joined his shoulder. He didn't find women's necks so magically erotic: try as he might, the difference remained inexplicable. Finally he had unrestricted access. He worshipped the olive skin for a long moment, then bent and attacked. He licked, bit and sucked frantically. The wet sounds of his attack aroused him as much as the velvet softness beneath his lips. Briefly he released the neck to run his lips across Starsky's stubble-roughened cheek. The contrast in texture was electrifying.
He lunged again for the neck, feeling Starsky jerk beneath him as he clamped down on the skin. His partner's breath was now coming in noisy shallow pants. At some point, unable to bear any more stimulation, he started throwing his head about to escape from Hutch's lips.
Hutch felt an electric bolt hit his groin. His hands flew from immobilising his partner's arms to immobilising his head. He buried his fingers in the dark curls and massaged the scalp beneath without conscious intent. Starsky had begun to whimper. Hutch could hear his fingernails scratching on the door behind him like a cat sharpening its claws on a tree.
Without warning, Starsky's hands clamped on Hutch's back. The contact wasn't gentle. He pulled Hutch forward powerfully. As Hutch lost his balance slightly and tipped forward, he fell against Starsky's hips, which had surged away from the supporting door.
The sensation of their engorged cocks meeting, still divided by layers of denim, lifted him to ecstasy. It became impossible to feast on his partner's inviting neck – concentration failed him. He threw back his head. Somewhere in his head he could hear himself muttering "Oh my god," but his vocal cords were long past co-operating.
His head had lolled back so far that he was finding it difficult to breathe. So he looked into Starsky's face. The transformation was astonishing. He knew every line and plane of it, he had examined its nuances of expression in a million different situations. But he had never seen such raw sexual hunger and pleasure. It fed the fever in his groin like throwing gasoline on a fire.
Whatever Starsky read in Hutch's face, it pushed him to action. When his teeth nipped an ear, Hutch's body shrieked a warning. If he didn't find some distance right now, his jeans were going to be very wet. Desperation gave him the strength to shove Starsky back up against the door and hold him there by the shoulders.
Starsky's vocal cords were still working. "Hutch?" The breathless, choked question conveyed protest for the loss of contact, a plea for its restoration, a demand for an explanation.
Hutch was beyond a reply. He dropped a hand to his partner's chest and contemplatively raked through the curling hair. Starsky moaned again but made no move. He seemed to have resigned himself to filling whatever role it was that Hutch needed from him. Hutch's fingers skimmed tenderly over the scars from Gunther's bullets, before homing in on a nipple. It grew firm and he exerted more pressure, rolling it between his fingertips. Starsky's rough breathing switched to gasps punctuated by pauses as he struggled to hold himself still.
Hutch itched to run his lips over the chest and learn what it felt like to follow the lines of the muscles with his lips instead of his eyes. But he knew that it would be too awkward as they stood by the door. He stood quietly in the middle of the roaring blaze and contemplated his partner's body.
Starsky's gasps for breath drew Hutch's eye down to his stomach, half-revealed through the gaping shirt. He was mesmerised by the heaving muscles. He dropped to his knees and pulled Starsky's shirt out fully from his jeans. He ran his hands in wonder over his stomach. It stilled beneath his touch. Starsky appeared to have stopped breathing altogether. The door was taking all his weight. He looked completely passive, almost asleep, but Hutch could feel the tension cording his muscles and sensed that although the cobalt eyes were nearly closed, they were fixed on Hutch with absolute attention.
Suddenly Hutch's hesitancy evaporated, blasted away by the heat of desire. He seized hold of Starsky's belt and unfastened it. Part of him was surprised at how easily it came undone. Not like the wretched buttons. It whipped out of its loops like a snake. Hutch dropped it carelessly. The button and zipper yielded without a struggle. Hutch dragged the tight jeans down to his partner's ankles, then ran his hand back up to his thigh, wondering at the feel of the coarse, curling hair. With infinite care, he inserted a hand upward beneath Starsky's briefs to lightly grasp one rounded buttock. He saw the stomach muscles quiver with excitement at his touch and heard Starsky begin breathing again, a deep explosive gulp followed by swift pants. He kneaded the muscles cupped beneath his hand. Fingernails began to scratch the door again.
Signals from his nose began to filter through from Starsky's crotch, inches from his face. Musk and pheromones enticed him to lean in until his nose was buried in the briefs. It was exotic, overpowering, hypnotic. He began to rub his nose and mouth into the junction of thigh and body, along the border of the briefs. The warm dampness of sweat acted like a siren lure.
Starsky's moans increased in volume. His hips began to move, wordlessly begging Hutch to shift his attentions a little further sideways. Hutch removed his hand from his partner's buttock – more protests – and slid the briefs downwards, dropping them to fall on top of the jeans.
He was transfixed by the sight of Starsky's balls. The skin roiled and swirled in a never repeating pattern, like molten lava in a pool. He reached out a finger to touch and watched in fascination as the rippling effect increased where he pressed. His attention was only diverted when Starsky's penis brushed against his cheek. A bolt of arousal shook him. His final inhibitions were scorched away.
Anchoring Starsky with one hand round his buttocks, he plunged his tongue into the dark curling hair at the base of the penis, then traced a rippling, sensuous path upwards to the tip. Starsky's entire body jerked in response and his hands leapt away from the door to bury themselves in Hutch's fine golden hair.
The urge to suck and swallow overwhelmed him and he slid his lips over the head. The sensations assaulting him took him by surprise. He had never really understood the erotic thrill of the act. Now he was intoxicated. He was driven senseless by the smell, by Starsky's increasingly frantic responses. When he realised that he couldn't fit everything in his mouth, he curled his free hand round the base, now slick with saliva, and created a counterpoint to the movements of his tongue and lips. He abandoned himself to sensation.
The closer he brought his partner to orgasm, the higher his own arousal blazed. When he heard Starsky scream his name and felt warm fluid gush into his mouth, he wanted to scream with exaltation.
Reluctantly, he released the softening penis. He felt Starsky sliding slowly down the door towards the floor. He carefully supported him as best he could, until his partner was sitting on the floor, feet together, trapped inelegantly by his jeans and briefs.
"Oh my god." Starsky's eyes drifted open and searched for Hutch. He was still kneeling in front of him, gasping with exertion, tense as a bowstring. He was flushed pink, droplets of sweat had collected in the hollow of his throat. He whimpered in his throat as Starsky leaned forward. As soon as Starsky's fingertips touched his groin, he threw his head back and screamed in bliss. Wetness spread across the front of his jeans and Starsky trailed his hand across it in fascination.
Hutch awoke for the second time that day unable to work out immediately where he was. The ceiling was all wrong. The texture beneath his body was strange. Then something told him that he was at Starsky's place. But it wasn't the ceiling above the sofa – he knew that particular patch intimately. For that matter he was a surprisingly long way from the ceiling. He certainly wasn't in or on the bed. And he was too warm.
He struggled to sit up and found that he was trapped. A line of cushions ran down his back and he had been thoroughly encased in a blanket like a mummy.
"Starsk? What's going on? Where are you?"
No reply. He grumbled to himself as he fought free enough to sit up. Now this was really strange. He was still in his jacket. He still had his holster strapped on, though no gun. And he had been lying on the floor facing the door. The outer door to the apartment. It had fresh scratch marks at about eye level.
He shut his eyes abruptly.
"Oh – my – god." His face blazed red with embarrassment. He was on the verge of hauling himself to his feet and letting himself quietly out, when Starsky appeared from the kitchen, carrying a tray.
He was wearing his blue towelling bathrobe. His hair wasn't completely dry. He must have showered.
"Afternoon, Blondie!" He sounded shockingly normal and cheerful and was wearing a smile of fearsome intensity. Hutch couldn't think what to say so kept silent. "I began to think you'd never wake up without assistance, so I went to make coffee. You gonna get up for it or do you want it there to kick-start you?"
The implications of "there" shot through Hutch's brain like fireworks. He decided he had to get to his feet at all cost. He grimaced. His jeans were as stiff as a board at the front. Finally he was upright and staggered to the sofa, still without saying a word. Starsky bounced along in his wake.
He drank the coffee in a couple of gulps. It was strong enough to blast a rocket into orbit. His brain was refusing to operate, befuddled in a panicked haze.
Starsky was still prattling away as if nothing had happened and was waving a slice of toast in front of him. "You really look rough, Hutch. Have something to eat then take a shower. That'll perk you up in no time."
Hutch thought that he had been altogether too perky earlier. All he wanted now was to hide in a dreamless sleep, preferably till judgement day. But Starsky refused to be deflected. Hutch managed to swallow the toast, then left for the bathroom under his own steam. He didn't want to be dragged there by Starsky.
He stayed under the shower until the water ran cold. He was in a dilemma. He didn't want to pull his jeans back on, bearing as they did the stigma of this morning's madness. On the other hand he couldn't wander round wrapped in a towel, not under the present circumstances, and he didn't want to have to ask Starsky if he had any of Hutch's clothes in his closet.
He was still sitting on the side of the tub debating the issue when Starsky called out, "I've left you some clean clothes outside the door."
He snaked a hand out to capture them and dressed slowly. Finally he emerged into the living room, wearing them like armor.
His heart sank. Starsky was sitting on the sofa and he looked deadly serious. The earlier "everything's a normal day" attitude had disappeared completely. Hutch sighed but still said nothing. He sat down at the opposite end and waited for whatever was coming.
"Hutch, we agreed to talk today. About us," he clarified needlessly.
"I'm sorry," Hutch began. "I just can't believe I did that. I'm really sorry."
Starsky looked baffled. "What? Why the hell are you sorry for agreeing to talk? We need to discuss things. I'm not about to let you put it off."
"No, I mean I'm sorry for what I did this morning."
Hutch looked up from the floor to see why his partner had stopped talking. His heart missed a beat when he saw his lascivious smile. His groin twitched hopefully. He ignored it. "It was really unforgivable."
Starsky was still smiling. "Well sure, it was a little undignified. I usually take my clothes off for sex, right off, I mean. And I expect to see more of my partner. In fact, I expect to see all of my partner. I guess I'm flattered you couldn't wait." The smile turned into a fully fledged grin. "Tell me, Hutch, when was the last time you ended up with wet jeans. High school?"
"I guess so." Hutch saw the funny side and laughed despite himself. "Maybe it becomes a problem again as you grow older?"
Starsky's grin turned predatory. "I wouldn't worry too much about it. I know a sure-fire cure."
"I don't think I want to know."
Hutch turned serious again and found fascinating insights somewhere down near his shoes.
"But it still doesn't change things. I shouldn't have done it."
"For Chrissake stop being so obtuse, will you?" Hutch snapped. "I shouldn't have slammed you up against the door and assaulted you."
"Oh, so that's what you're driving at." Starsky's bedroom smirk had returned. "Hutch, just use your head for a minute. After all, you're supposed to be a detective, right? Just think about it. I'm five foot eleven. I'm strong, fit and a street cop – even if I did fall off a roof yesterday. And my Ma taught me how to say no. If I hadn't . . ." he paused for a moment, then adopted an old-fashioned voice to suit old-fashioned words " . . . if I hadn't 'welcomed your advances', don't you think I'd have done something about it? I'd have decked you, you idiot, if you wouldn't have listened." He saw dawning belief on Hutch's face. "I was enjoying it – the whole novelty thing. When was the last time you dated someone strong enough to pin you to the door and hold you there?" He thought for a moment. "It was a real rush, letting go like that. Letting you use your strength like that."
Hutch still wasn't ready to admit defeat. "But weren't you worried? I mean, your partner suddenly turns into this ravening monster?"
"I think the words you're looking for are 'passionate lover'," Starsky suggested helpfully.
"Lover? Yeah, I kind of like the sound of that," Hutch murmured.
"So, lover. When you going to stop sitting in splendid isolation over there and act like one?" Starsky demanded with a well-practised pout, patting his knee at the same time.
Hutch considered the proposition. Then he swung his legs up and shuffled until his head was lying on Starsky's knee and his feet were wedged against the sofa arm. Just like the previous evening: except that Starsky had been wearing more then than just his bathrobe. Hutch blushed at the implications. Starsky smiled knowingly and began playing with the fine golden hair.
Hutch had one final attempt at claiming guilt. "But I lost control," he whispered. "It shattered like glass. I couldn't . . . " he spread his hands as he searched for the words, " . . . I couldn't keep myself within bounds. I didn't have any discipline. I could have done anything."
"No," Starsky reassured him, "Not anything. You wouldn't have hurt me. And I told you, if I hadn't liked what you were doing I'd have stopped you." He captured one of Hutch's hands and kissed it. "Anyway, it's not like it was any big surprise. We both know what you're like after a bad day. You always have to cut your control some slack, before everything goes haywire. Yesterday – last night, it was really ferocious, not just bad. 'Course you needed to let go. And I ain't complaining. I had a terrific time."
He smiled and scattered a few more kisses on Hutch's hand. "Besides," he went on, "I love it when you take my advice – you usually kick up such a god-awful fuss before you can bring yourself to follow it." Hutch looked baffled. "You remember, my long-term plan: 'keep on kissing and see what happens.' I assumed you'd decided it was a good one."
Hutch snorted. "Okay, I'll admit it was good as far as it went. But we really have to think about the future."
"Just halt right there, Blondie. Stop being so cerebral!" Hutch refrained from commenting on the dictionary word. "I have another plan to tide us over the next few hours."
Hutch sighed forlornly. "Which is?"
"I'm going to call out for a pizza. Then we're going to bed."
Hutch looked uncomfortable. "Starsk, I don't want to dampen your enthusiasm. But I'm still whacked. If I go to bed I'm going to fall asleep, period. For hours."
Starsky smiled gently. "I know that, Blintz. That's I want you to do. Sleep. We're supposed to be showing up at work tomorrow bright eyed and bushy tailed. If we devote the rest of our break to passionate sex, Dobey's going to complain we look like shit. I ain't prepared to compromise my record for that," he teased. "Not now I'm an ageing semi-invalid."
Hutch looked relieved. "Okay then, order the pizza. With healthy toppings," he added, knowing well enough that healthy toppings were about as likely to show up as snow in June in LA.
While Starsky was busy on the phone, he quickly slipped into the bedroom and stripped down to his briefs before climbing into bed. He suspected that if he gave his partner a free show and undressed in front of him, both their late lunch and any idea of sleeping would vanish into nothingness.
By the time his partner came in to check out what he was up to, he was already tucked up in bed, the sheet drawn demurely up to his chin. Starsky put on his best deprived little-boy look: "Hutch, I'm disappointed. I was really looking forward to finally getting to see you strip. I could have helped with the difficult things like buttons and such."
"I'm sure. But I want my pizza and I want my sleep. You'd better go back and wait for the delivery man."
They picnicked in bed, propped up against pillows and ignoring the inevitable crumbs and accidents with topping. When they were finished, Starsky got up again to draw the drapes to block out some of the bright afternoon sun. He climbed back in and lay down on his back without speaking.
It wasn't quite what Hutch wanted. "Turn onto your side," he ordered. "I want to cuddle your back."
He obeyed without demur. Hutch snuggled up against the warm, desirable flesh. It was hard to believe that it was really happening. He felt wonderfully relaxed but not quite ready to sleep.
"I thought we were going to sleep now."
"Not just yet. There's still a few things I want to know."
"Okay, just make sure it doesn't take all afternoon, will you?"
He planted a few kisses across Starsky's back while he thought what he was going to say. "What the hell was I doing trussed up like a mummy by the door?"
"You were too heavy to carry and I thought you'd get cold if I didn't cover you up."
"You mean I passed out? I've never done that after sex before."
"No, you didn't faint or anything. I checked to make sure. You were just sleeping. But you collapsed like a falling tree. Toppled right over. It was really dramatic. I didn't expect it. And I wasn't sure whether it was a tribute to my skills or whether you were just bored." He twisted his head round to peer at Hutch. "For all I knew you always fall asleep like that. Don't women complain that men do it all the time – after sex, I mean?"
Hutch frowned, feeling vaguely that his sexual technique was being impugned. "Well not me, pal. I usually aim at a little post-coital conversation to keep my partner happy." He blushed suddenly.
"I wouldn't worry about it. It probably won't happen again. It was some sort of reaction to being under pressure and then having it all released. Bet you if we have sex often enough, the tension won't be able to build to the point where you end up snoring like a train soon as it's let out of the bottle."
Hutch could hear the smile in his partner's voice. "Okay, I believe you, Dr Starsky."
"You ready to go to sleep yet, Hutch?"
"No, a bit longer."
"So, I want to know something too."
"Why didn't you tell me you were in love with me?"
Hutch's head jerked up off the pillow. "You knew?"
"Sure I knew. I worked it out months ago."
"Christ! You didn't guess when we went to that trattoria, what was it called? With Susan and whoever you were with?"
"Valentino's? No, least not right away I didn't. But you acted real strange that night. It wasn't long after that that I put the pieces together."
"I don't believe this, Starsk. Why didn't you say anything?"
There was silence for a moment. "I thought about saying something. I felt the same way."
"So why didn't you?" Hutch demanded. "And why the hell were you dating women like crazy again?"
"You were happy to date too, as I recall," Starsky pointed out. "I guess I just wanted to be sure. We'd been together so much after the hit. I wanted to be certain that it wasn't the comrades-in-arms syndrome. There weren't so many women, either. And I didn't do that much with them." He stopped, unwilling to go further along that path.
"Starsk, how long did it take you to decide?" Hutch's voice had taken on a steely edge.
He felt the shrug. "A few weeks I guess."
"Why didn't you say anything then?" Hutch sounded pissed off.
"I was waiting for you to say something. I thought maybe you weren't comfortable with the idea and if I gave you time to work your way through it, you'd get round to talking about it eventually. "
"So why last night? What was so special about last night?"
Starsky shrugged again. "I guess I finally ran out of patience. I knew you were gazing at me all evening. I just couldn't stand it any longer and went ahead. Otherwise I might have been drawing my pension before you acted."
Hutch wasn't mollified. "You let me go through months of agony for nothing!" His voice rose sharply.
"Agony? You sure about that? You wouldn't be telling little porkies here?" Starsky didn't sound convinced.
Hutch couldn't lie to him. "Okay, not agony. Not exactly. Some pain though." He sensed Starsky waiting for the truth. He kissed a shoulder blade. "Okay, I admit it, this has been the happiest eighteen months of my life."
Starsky's hand reached back and petted his thigh as a reward. "So, Blondie, what were you waiting for?"
He kissed the other shoulder blade to give himself time. "I was afraid," he confessed. "You might have read me like a book but I hadn't read you. I had too much to lose if I said something and drove you away."
Starsky let out his breath. "Okay, you're forgiven. So I really would have been drawing my pension?"
Hutch smiled and blew on his neck. "Yeah, I guess so."
"You ready to go to sleep now?" asked Starsky again, sounding sleepy himself.
"Not quite. Closer though."
"Those plans you're so keen to make . . . . It's all a waste of time, you know. We can manage without them, providing we sort a couple of things out."
"I don't think so," Hutch protested, yawning. "What about Dobey? What about our jobs? Where are we going to live?"
"Hutch, we've known Dobey for years. He ain't going to say nothing to no one, least of all the IA, unless we do something really stupid, like having rabid sex in front of other cops on the bed during a stakeout in a hotel room."
"Do you think he suspects?"
"It don't matter. But it might help our cover if you try not to blush quite as red as you did in the boardroom and the car this morning."
Hutch blushed like a beacon at the mere recollection. This is going to be fun if I keep on doing that, he grumbled to himself. "What about our colleagues?"
"We've always been a law unto ourselves. We've always pawed each other in public. No one will notice the difference, promise."
"Okay, maybe you're right," Hutch granted. He thought some more. "Okay, you are right. I think we can carry it off."
"Living together won't be a problem either," Starsky assured him. "We're together most of the time anyway these days. Dobey never bats an eye if you pick up my phone or I pick up yours. No one would bat an eye if we bought a place somewhere to save money on keeping up two places." After a pause he added, "And if it all blows up in our faces, well – we'll have to deal. No good trying to guess how until it happens."
"Okay, I believe you," Hutch said. He found the idea of sharing a house with Starsky intensely exciting, a future so dream-like it didn't seem real. He realised that if he contemplated the prospect too minutely, he wouldn't sleep after all. So he stuffed it in a corner to retrieve later and examine at leisure.
Starsky still had more to say, punctuated by a yawn or two. "I can only <yawn> think of two other things yawn we need to discuss <yawn.>"
Hutch yawned in sympathy. "Which are?"
"We need to buy a manual."
Hutch yawned even more widely. "A manual? I don't follow."
"I'm looking forward <yawn> to a very active <yawn> sex life. Hope you are too. <Yawn> This scenario <yawn> wasn't covered in the book Ma gave me <yawn> when I hit puberty."
Hutch blushed furiously in sudden understanding. "'Kay. We'll take a long drive soon and look for something." He yawned and closed his eyes. "That all?"
"Nope. <Yawn> One final thing to sort out." Suddenly Starsky sounded more alert. "I was hoping to hear some words . . . ."
"Hmmm? Thought that was what we'd been doing all this time." Hutch felt himself teetering perilously on the brink of a chasm of sleep to rival the Grand Canyon.
An elbow jabbed him sharply in the ribs and yanked him back for the moment. "No, Blondie." Starsky was insistent. "Some special words. You ain't going to sleep till I hear them."
Suddenly Hutch understood, despite the fog wrapping around him more thickly by the second. "Thought it might be too soapy for you."
"No, I'm waiting . . . ."
"'Kay, Starsk. I love you," he breathed softly in not quite a snore. He nuzzled his face into the neck in front of him.
"Love you too."
The reply floated to him as he finally fell off the edge and drifted through the clouds below into sleep. He dreamt of a hand raising his to his lover's lips and feather-down kiss.
Then the mists rolled in to clasp his body protectively. All sensation was lost in loving darkness.