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No Easy Answers
Terri Beckett and Chris Power



There was a routine to Starsky's evenings, almost a return to the old pattern of his working life, as he marked time waiting for Hutch to come back. Now the waiting was almost over. He wasn't sure how he felt about it, and all his sessions with Jerry hadn't crystallized that. A lot of things had got straightened out, but not that. He wasn't sure if he was ready yet.

Oh, he had something to show for his efforts. He was making progress, Jerry assured him, en route for a complete discharge and a clean bill of health. And if the job agencies hadn't been too helpful as yet, at least he was on file with them. There was time. He wasn't hurting for cash, but he couldn't just sit around doing nothing. He'd go out of his skull for real.

He unloaded the two sacks of groceries from the supermarket, replenishing the deleted stock of his food cupboard, then hacked a couple of slices from a loaf to construct a sandwich. With a glass of cold milk, it would hold him until he had time for a proper meal. Taking a healthy bite, he switched on T.V., kicked off his shoes, and sprawled on the couch to watch M*A*S*H*.

He could never remember afterwards what the episode had been about. As the credits rolled, he hit the remote channel button -- and caught the last few minutes of a news-flash.

" . . . At a few minutes before eight o'clock tonight, an unexplained blast ripped through a popular Venice restaurant. Chez Helene was packed with diners at the time of the explosion, and it is not yet known how many dead -- "

The screen showed devastation. Starsky had often enough heard of someone's blood running cold, but what he felt was worse -- ice flooded his veins and froze there, numbing sense and thought, and only one word crystallised out of the chill.


He didn't stop to think. He didn't even remember that Hutch wasn't even home yet, still on his way from Visalia. He simply acted, going with the instinct, as he had -- how long ago? -- when Soldier's bomb had wrecked Hutch's car.


* * * * *

It was a waking nightmare, a holocaust of devastation. Bomb, quake, whatever had caused it didn't matter. Once the instinct for survival had got Hutch out of the ruined apartment, and discovering that he was miraculously intact, the instinct for help took over. The rescue teams needed all the help they could get. Part-deafened by the initial blast, shocked and bruised, he could still function. He helped shift timbers, dug at shattered brick and plaster, to get at trapped victims -- helped carry bodybags and stretchers, fought to cheat death again and again.

Sooner or later, his own exhaustion was going to catch up with him, but until then he was going to do all he could.

* * * * *

By the time he reached Venice Place, there was nowhere to park in a three-block radius. Starsky slewed the Torino into the mouth of an alleyway and sprinted for the scene of the disaster, surreal now in the swift onset of night, floodlit by the emergency services. They had the fires under control now -- crews of men were working in the wreckage, burrowing into the heap. All that was left of Hutch's apartment was a crazily-tilted floor and two walls -- front and side had disappeared into the pile of rubble that was all that remained of the restaurant.

Ducking under the warning barriers of yellow plastic tape that cordoned off the area, he crossed the gleaming wet road and was headed off by a uniformed patrolman. "Sorry, pal, back behind the tape, okay?"

"I'm a cop," Starsky said automatically, not even remembering that he wasn't any more. "My partner's in there."

In the confusion, he wasn't asked for any I.D -- the officer hesitated, and Starsky was past him, making for the devastated building, not knowing where to begin to look -- until suddenly a man moved through a beam of light, and the shock of overlong gilt blond shone out like a beacon.


The ice melted. The constriction in his chest eased. He's okay. Thank God, he 's okay. He drew in a deep breath to call out, then didn't. This was hardly the time or the place for a romantic reunion scene. There was work to be done and he'd better get on and do it. Hutch hadn't seen him, was helping carry a casualty to one of the fleet of ambulances, and plainly wasn't hurt, so Starsky followed his lead and started doing what he'd been trained to do. But inside him, something was singing.

There wasn't time for discussion, for light conversation with the dazed man working at his side. It wasn't necessary. They were a team again. Hadn't ever been anything else. They were working together, side by side, as if one will directed them, a still center in the midst of chaos.

But even the energy of adrenaline bottoms out eventually. Hutch faltered, grabbed for support, but the slick panels of the ambulance failed him, and Starsky got to him as his knees folded, steadying him, taking his weight.

"I got you, partner." Reassurance to unheeding ears. "I got you."

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* * * * *

Hutch had lost all control over his world. Images left fleeting impressions -- arms strong around him, hands gentle on his face -- cold white light of a hospital corridor, the strange sensation of being carried along by that light, flat on his back, like a leaf on a river. The whiteness was too bright. It misted into grey, deepening into black, and he drifted into it, wearily grateful for the gift of oblivion.


" . . . Letting him go. He'll be fine. Bring him back in a couple of days, we'll check the burns on his hands . . . "

"C'mon, babe. I'm takin' you home."

Cruel mockery. He didn't have a home any more. And which bastard was using Starsky's voice? Dirty pool. Had to be against the Geneva Convention. He couldn't focus at all. They'd washed his eyes out with some kind of medication, and he peered through his personal fog, got a vague impression of dark hair . . . . He wanted desperately to sleep. But he had to know.

"Starsk?" God, it wasn't even a croak.

"Who else? C'mon, lover, let's get out of here." Voice harshly husky, as if the throat was raw, but still unmistakably Starsky's.

Hutch still didn't believe it. "What are you doing here?" he wanted to know.

"Tryin' to take you home. Will you come on?"

"Can't." Home was a crazily-tilted floor with no street wall. Home was shattered glass and splintered furniture. Nothing made sense. Home was the lover he had left bleeding by a betrayal worse than any inflicted by Alex Lazero and his pals. Besides, he'd quit the force, and Starsky had said he'd leave him if he quit. "Can't."

"Sure you can. Want to park your ass in this chair?"

His next clear impression was of cushioned softness beneath him, comfort he could relax into. Should probably get a shower. He could smell himself, stink of smoke and sweat and dust. Too tired. Later.

Everything hurt. Some things more than others. Best idea seemed to be to go back to sleep, figure out answers when he woke up. If there were any answers. Right now, nothing was . . .

Something cool and wet moved over his face and neck, stinging in cuts and grazes he'd managed to forget about. It jerked him the last little distance into full consciousness and he blinked his eyes open to gaze up at the face bent close over his, frowning slightly with concentration. Reflex snapped his eyes shut, and a tide of confused emotions rose in his throat and threatened to choke him. Grief, guilt, shame.


"Starsk . . . "

"Hush up. You should be sleeping." Still husky, but the harshness muted to a velvet murmur. "Take it easy, Hutch." Fingertips traced gently over his eyelids, spilled the liquid that pooled under his lashes. "It's all right, babe. Everything's gonna be okay now."

"Starsk. I quit." It was vitally important that he get this understood. "I -- tried to tell you. But -- "

"It's okay. We'll talk it out later. Just let me take care of you for now, huh?" There was a world of tenderness aching in the quiet words, all the love he thought he had forfeited, and right then Hutch couldn't handle it. He groped blindly for contact, discovered his hands were mittened with bandaging, but it didn't matter because Starsky was lifting him into an embrace, holding him close, fingers of one hand twisted in his hair. For an instant he tensed, waiting for the gentleness to become the thoughtless hunger that he'd experienced too often, but the hand that circled over his back and shoulders eased the fear. They would talk later. In the meantime, this was Starsky, who had called him lover, and something within him that he had hardly allowed to hope began to breathe and grow, feeding on the caring that enfolded him.

Let it be real. Please God, don't let me be dreaming this. Let it be real . . .

* * * * *

The tune played on the doorbell had become familiar of late, and it jolted Starsky out of the doze he'd fallen into. Morning. Hutch. If that maniac at the door woke him up . . . But nothing short of Gabriel's Horn seemed likely to disturb the sleeper right then, so Starsky dived for the door and cut the cheerful jangle off mid-note, glaring at Dave Duplessis, seeing a pale and soot-streaked face bisected by a wide white grin.

"Hi," said the apparition. "Did you see the news? I got over there soon as I could log off duty, and -- damn, I'm saying this all wrong. Listen, I've salvaged some of Hutch's stuff. Some clothes he'd left in suitcases, a few of the plants. They're in the car. Sally'll take care of them for him until he gets back in town. It's gonna come as a helluva shock for him, though. Are you okay?" he asked belatedly.

"Yes," said Starsky.

"The place is a wreck, and what isn't busted is smoke damaged. Apart from the stuff in the cases. But I think the plants should make it. If they haven't been too badly traumatized. At least, the ones I got in the car -- "

"Dave," Starsky cut in, "you got diarrhea of the jawbone? Did you catch that off Hutch?" Sudden laughter welled up in him. He wanted to hug Duplessis, shout halleluiahs to the uncaring sky. "Leave the clothes with me, he's gonna need them. And one of the plants -- that philo-whatsis if it survived."

A guarded expression crossed the young face, as if his sanity was being seriously doubted.

"Starsky -- "

The laughter bubbled up again. "It's okay, I freaked out completely. Hutch is here, Dave. With me."

"What? But -- How? When? Shit! Was he -- is he -- ?"

"Yes, but he's okay. Shook up, singed around the edges, but somebody up there likes him. Do me a favor, Dave. Give us some space, huh?"

"Huh?" Duplessis looked understandably dazed. "Oh, uh, yeah, sure. Plant. I'll get the plant. And the cases."

"I'll give you a hand."

After he had finally shut the door on Duplessis' departure, Starsky thought he heard a half-smothered and exultant yell. But it wasn't important. Bearing the philo-whatsis as if it was a work of art on a golden platter, he carried it carefully into the bedroom and set it carefully on the night table, where Hutch would see it as soon as he woke up, living proof that not everything he held dear had been destroyed.

The day crept past on silent cat feet, and Starsky hardly moved from the bedside, self-indulgent in his scrutiny of the man lying unconscious in his bed. Grime-dulled fair hair spilling onto his pillow, closed eyes sunk in shadowy hollows. How come I never noticed you losing weight? Hands slack on the covers, the stark white of the bandaging contrasting with the tan of wrists and forearms. I'll never disbelieve in miracles again. To have come alive out of that . . . It's about as big a miracle as you coming back to me. Because until now I wasn't sure you would.

Afternoon sun was streaming through the window when Hutch began to stir -- Starsky pulled the blinds half-down so that the brightness dimmed to a golden twilight, and resumed his vigil, rewarded at last by the flutter of eyelids, and a vague blue gaze fixing on him, squinting slightly.

"How're you feeling?" Starsky touched the matted blond hair gently.

"Great," Hutch mumbled. "Fantastic."

That was hilarious, but the laughter that rose in his throat stung his eyes as well. "Oh, sure," he said, "you come through Armageddon in Venice Place, and everything's fine?"

"You're here." Two words, but the look in Hutch's eyes said more than the words could.

"I'm here," Starsky agreed, past the lump in his throat. "Hutch -- we have to talk. Maybe it should be left until you're more with it, but -- the way I look at it, the sooner we clear the air, the better it'll be. For both of us."

Something that had been reborn behind the weary, smoke-scoured eyes began to die again, and he couldn't endure it.

"Don't, Hutch. Don't look at me like that. This is why we have to talk, so we both know where we stand. Truth or consequences, huh?" He tried for a smile, but Hutch did not relax. Starsky recognized the grim tension that had been so much a part of the man in their last weeks together -- the feeling of a man bracing himself to face the unacceptable again. It hadn't been there during the case, before the rape, or even immediately after -- it had grown like an invisible cancer that had fed on his own bitterness and violence.

"Truth or Consequences," he said again, more firmly this time. "Maybe we've come through more than one kind of fire. We ought to find out what we got left."

Hutch nodded, silent, and Starsky took a deep breath. Okay, so Hutch wasn't going to help on this.

"I've been talking to Jerry. He said walking out the way you did was the best thing you could have done for me. Shock therapy." His fingers found a tangled strand in the blond hair and he started teasing it gently out.

"I wasn't thinking of that. Of anything." Hutch turned his head on the pillow, jerking free of the stroking fingers. "I just snapped."

"I know." Starsky waited, but Hutch said nothing more, and the silence stretched until he couldn't bear it any longer. He had to ask. "And now?"


"I -- don't know." A week ago, even a day ago, he would have been certain. But a week ago, yesterday, he hadn't had Starsky sitting there looking at him, eyes wide and clear.

"I love you, Hutch." Emotion held under tight control. "I love you, and I know that you love me. That doesn't change. It's about the only thing in all that's happened that hasn't. I don't think it ever will, no matter what we do with the rest of our lives."

"I walked out on you -- " Hutch started.

"And I pushed you to it. I was sick, I know that. Guess I'm not completely out of the woods yet, but I'm better than I was. I'm getting my head back into gear, straightening it out." There was no irony or bitterness now. "You were under pressure as well. So you cracked up. But we're both going pick up the pieces. Because we're both survivors." There was nothing Hutch could disagree with in that clear statement of facts. "Hutch -- where do we go from here?" And he stopped, plainly unable to voice his greatest need. "Do we start over, build something new?"

"Dobey's got my resignation," Hutch said. "I'm not going back to being a cop."

" Duplessis told me. And I wouldn't want you out on the street without me to cover your back. Not that Duplessis wasn't a good partner, but -- " And he stopped again, as if unsure of his ground or unwilling to presume too much. The silence grew, and Hutch watched the muscles in Starsky's jaw tighten with strain. But he said nothing, and Hutch knew the next move had to be his.

Build something new, Starsky had said. And -- I love you.

He let himself look at the familiar, well-loved face. How much of the old Starsky was still there? How much of the changeling? There was a new peace in the dark blue eyes, and gentleness in the unsmiling mouth. Starsky looked older, Hutch realized suddenly; lines of new experience bracketed the mouth and pale threads glinted in the curls just above his ears.

All his life, Hutch had taken risks. Hell, he'd made a career out of it. There was no reason to alter the habit of a lifetime.

"Starting over . . . " he said the words experimentally, and saw new hope and joy blaze up like a beacon in Starsky's eyes, so that he stumbled on the next words. "We've both changed -- maybe we need to take it easy, get to know who we are again -- "

"S'okay, babe. I'm not about to push you into anything." The smile lit up the room and the years fell away. "No panic, right? We talk it through in stages, there's no rush. Right now it's my turn to administer the TLC. Haven't had the opportunity for far too long. Trust me?" There was a depth of pleading in those two words that went beyond the light bantering tone. Trust me -- after all the hurt I gave you.

Hutch wanted to say something to reassure, to show that he too was going to give it his best shot. But the words wouldn't come. Instead: "I love you."

"And I love you." Starsky got up. "That makes for pretty solid foundations."

Between birth and the grave there is no moment like the rediscovery of a love thought irretrievably lost, and for that short space of time they basked in the warmth of it. Then Starsky gave himself a shake. "You must be starving. How about I fix us something to eat?"

"Sounds good to me. So long as it's not chicken soup," Hutch grinned.

"Up yours, Hutchinson. You'll get what I dish up, and like it." And he vanished in the direction of the kitchen. Hutch relaxed back on the pillows, feeling slightly light-headed and still not completely sure what was real and what wasn't. And not caring.

" . . . Oh the boy can't help it, he was born to please . . . "

Hutch found an unaccustomed grin threatening to split his face from ear to ear.

" . . . Got himself a figure that's just made to squeeze . . . won't you kindly be aware that the boy can't help it . . . "

Off-key, loud, exuberant and totally out of tune, Starsky was singing.

* * * * * *


Food and another twelve hours solid sleep helped put the finishing touches to Hutch's recovery. He woke with the fragrant aroma of fresh coffee titillating his sinuses and a feeling of vague and inexplicable optimism that grew with a sudden surge when he turned his head and saw the plant in pride of place on the night table. Some side-shoots were broken, some leaves singed and bruised, but Phyllis was still in pretty good shape, all things considered. Much the same could be said for his own state. He rolled over, discovering that he was alone in the bed, but the second pillow was dented, a tangible reminder of another head and a dreamlike memory of warmth and enfolding arms.

His smile of reminiscent happiness faded somewhat as his nose registered other odors unrelated to coffee and breakfast. Boy, did he need a shower. And from the feel of his jaw, a shave.

Starsky appeared in the doorway in the midst of these discoveries, his smile a bright benediction that matched the sunny morning. "So you finally quit hibernating. Timed it just about right, lover. Coffee's ready, and the rest is almost there."

"Great," Hutch said with an answering grin, and started to get up.

"Stay put," Starsky ordered firmly. "It's gonna go on a tray and you'll eat it right where you are. TLC, remember?"

"Uh . . . okay. Hey, when did you rescue Phil?"

"Phil?" Starsky looked puzzled and a little concerned, as if Hutch had suddenly started talking gibberish.

"Phil." Patiently, Hutch indicated the philodendron.

"Oh. Right. I didn't. Duplessis brought it around yesterday while you were asleep. He had your suitcases as well, so I took them in. He says he saved what plants he could and Sally's looking after them for you."

"How'd he know I was here?"

"He didn't, but I told him. He just called to let me know he'd salvaged what he could, in case I'd seen it on the news." A small sheepish grin crossed his face. "He seemed pleased. I think."

"The last of the great romantics," Hutch snorted. "But I know how he feels."

"Softie." But the taunt held no malice. "You're just saying that so's you get breakfast in bed."

"Guess that could have something to do with it," Hutch agreed solemnly. "But right now what I really would like . . . "

Starsky raised an interrogative eyebrow in an expression so corny that Hutch had to laugh. "Is a shower," he finished his request. Starsky stared at him blankly.

"Shower?" he repeated, as if the word were vaguely obscene. "You can't have a shower."

"Why not?" Hutch's turn to look blank. "Who says?"

"Because, and I do. You want to argue, you can do it over breakfast."

The breakfast tray was loaded with enough for two. Orange juice, scrambled egg, toast, English marmalade, coffee. Hutch accepted the weight of it across his knees and launched another protest. "Starsk -- if there's something wrong with your sense of smell, mine is working fine. I'm gamey, for God's sake."

"I had noticed. And after you've eaten -- eat! -- we'll do something about it. But the shower is out."

"Tell me why, dammit!"

"Because, dumbo," Starsky said patiently, cutting into manageable pieces for him, "your hands are wrapped up like an Egyptian pharaoh's, and you're not supposed to get burns wet."

For some reason, Hutch hadn't thought of that. "Oh." He subsided around a mouthful of scrambled egg.

"Right. Oh." Starsky gave a triumphant smile. "S'okay, we'll work it out, no problem. You're due back at the hospital sometime today, to have them checked out, and the dressings changed."

"Oh. I am?"

"You are," Starsky confirmed, and poured coffee.

"Any news on the explosion?" The brew was hot and sweet.

"Don't know. I haven't had the T.V. or radio on. Didn't want to wake you. We can find out at the hospital, I guess."

Starsky finished his meal before Hutch, and left him to it, and finally Hutch ate the last mouthful, drank the dregs of the coffee, set the tray on the night-table beside Phyllis, and was about to throw back the bedclothes when Starsky came back. Carrying a bowl of steaming water and with several towels draped over shoulders and neck.

"Oh, no." Hutch grabbed the sheet and held it protectively under his chin. It didn't need a detective to deduce the reason for the purposeful advance. "You're not giving me a sponge bath."

Starsky halted, staring at him. "It's a bit late for maidenly modesty, Hutch," he pointed out mildly, struggling with the grin of sheer delight that threatened the demeanor suiting the task ahead.

"It's not that," Hutch objected, feeling every bit as silly as he knew he looked. "Starsk, I'm not an invalid. How about a compromise?"

"No shower," Starsky was adamant. "But -- I guess a soak in the tub can't hurt, so long as you keep those bandages dry."

"Deal," Hutch agreed thankfully. But getting up wasn't as easy as it should have been. Muscles strained and twisted during the frenetic rescue attempt had stiffened, and he hadn't realized it until he tried to stand upright.

"You trying out for Quasimodo?" Starsky wondered, giving him a shoulder to lean on into the bathroom. "We better get the doc to check out your back while we're at it."

"Just stiff, I think," Hutch said, climbing gingerly into the tub and letting Starsky ease him down into the water. "God, that feels good!" The bathroom was thick with pine-scented steam -- Starsky must have emptied half a bottle of bath-oil into the water. Hutch leaned back, closed his eyes, and relished the feel of heat soaking into sore muscles. It was also luxury beyond telling to have Starsky's fingers massaging shampoo into his scalp, rinsing out the lather, soaping again.

"I could get to like this," he warned, not opening his eyes.

"Hedonist," Starsky said softly.

"Any chance I get," Hutch agreed.

The hair under Starsky's fingers, dark with wet, was silky and tangle free as the label on the conditioner promised. Silently, he soaped the bath-sponge, ran it carefully along each arm, avoiding the bandaging, lathered neck and shoulders and chest, rinsed. He was wet to the elbows himself, curls sticking damply to his brow -- Hutch was sybaritically relaxed, letting himself be ministered unto as to the manner born.

He was probably a Turkish pasha in another life, Starsky reflected. It was an oddly erotic thought.

His hands faltered, and Hutch murmured a drowsy: "Don't stop . . . " The contours of flank and belly, invisible in the foam-clouded water, were rediscovered by touch alone, familiar, remembered, and the sponging became caresses before either of them quite realized what was happening.

Starsky sat back on his heels, and blue eyes met blue. Words were superfluous, and he couldn't say it, anyway. The first move had to be Hutch's. He had inflicted too much hurt over the past weeks to be able to initiate anything himself. Hutch had to want this as much as he did.

And: "Yes," said Hutch quietly. "But not here, babe. I don't think either of us is that athletic any more."

Starsky looked away, unwilling for Hutch to read the twin emotions of relief and disappointment that rose in him. Hutch's bandaged hand touched his hair, stroked feather-light down to the angle of his jaw.

"We got all the time there is," he whispered. "Forget the bad times, just remember the good."

I'm scared, Starsky wanted to say, and I want -- need -- this, but still the words would not come. He glanced at Hutch, saw his own fear and need mirrored there, and that came to his rescue. Both of them were too experienced now for the innocent sensuality of their first lovemakings, but it had been so long since they had shared the erotic delights of rediscovering over and over again all the pleasures of their bodies. As in the cabin. And the beach, the trails, the lake and its glacier-cold water -- and Hutch's bed, with those plants casting jungle shadows over tanned nakedness.

The warmth of arousal was a steady throb in his groin, bringing back the parallel memories of halcyon days, and nights, and the brutally uncaring hunger of his sickness. The good and the bad.

Hutch stood up, climbed out of the tub. His penis was heavy, not fully erect, and Starsky remembered a deserted beach, and Hutch walking out of the shallows, a kouros, a sungod . . .

"Why don't you dry me?" suggested the familiar voice, velvet-soft, bordering on provocative. No hint of uncertainty there, just a total trust. Starsky took a deep breath and reached for the towel.

He was cautious, almost clumsy at first, veering between gentleness and briskness until he let himself see again the contrast between tanned skin and white fabric, the texture of Hutch's belly under the webbing of water soaking into the towel, and the act turned into a ritual almost of worship, enough in itself.

Except that it wasn't, and couldn't be.

The bed was rumpled, but it didn't matter -- Hutch's hair and skin were shades of gold against the blue of the sheet, and Starsky's fingers were all thumbs as he tugged at the recalcitrant buttons of the sodden shirt.

It was dropped to the floor finally, joined by his jeans, sloughed like the skin of a snake. If only he could cast off memories as easily. The fear was too strong in him -- fear of what he had done, what he might still do. He was afraid of hurting Hutch again, of losing control, of the thoughtless savagery that could still destroy them both. Help me, he wanted to say. I don't want this to go wrong. And I'm scared.

If Hutch was feeling the same, he didn't show it. The gentle eyes held no emotion but a kind of grave trust, and Starsky couldn't betray that. He went into the arms that opened for him as if he'd never been away.

He'd forgotten what Hutch's mouth tasted like, forgotten how a kiss could stop his breath, make his head swim and his heart race. It had been so long since a kiss had been anything but a crude and meaningless prelude. He wanted to make it last. Hutch's arms were tight around him, but the pressure of the gauze-wrapped hands was light, a reminder, if one was needed, of the injuries. The moves would have to be his.

In a way that made things easier. He felt Hutch move, twist his body enough to half lift Starsky on top of him, a wordless offer -- whatever he wanted would not be denied him. And now he knew what he did want; eventually, when he had rediscovered with lips and tongue every erogenous zone of his lover's body. If they could both hold out that long.

Taste and scent and feel, familiar, remembered, fresh and new, potent as they had ever been He was losing himself in the heady delight of pleasing Hutch and pleasing himself, and if he didn't act soon, it was going to be too late, and somehow it was important, vital, that this should be right and perfect, canceling out all that had gone before.

Rededication. Hutch was a starfish sprawl as Starsky knelt back for a moment, looking at him, and words weren't necessary now, either. Hutch lay back, steadied him as he straddled the lean hips, positioning, and they moved together, Starsky arching to take Hutch's thrust, crying out at the impalement, unsure whether it was pain or something else, but not caring because the sense of being filled, possessed, loved, was the most erotic thing he had ever known and he couldn't hold back if his life depended on it. They were locked together, moving together towards a shared climax -- this time it would happen, this time it would be right and how it should be -- and he felt Hutch shuddering with the onset of it, rode the surge and heard his own voice sob his lover's name and the floodtide was in and through and past him, leaving him spent and shaking.

"C'mere." He was gathered into Hutch's embrace, gentle lips touching his eyelids, taking the wetness from his lashes, moving to his mouth so that he tasted the salt of his own tears. "Don't cry, lover. Please."

"I'm not. I don't think so." He felt slightly light-headed, delirious, and couldn't get control over his breathing, which probably explained Hutch's mistake. "I love you, that's all." Except that the human tongue had not the words for the rest of what he felt, the incredulous joy that was filling him as wine fills a cup until it overflows.

"That's all? Seems like quite a lot to me." Hutch shifted a little so that Starsky could lie in the curve of his arm. "But then, I'm kind of prejudiced where you're concerned."

"Warts and all?"

"What warts?"

Starsky gave a sleepy chuckle and rubbed his cheek against the smooth curve of Hutch's shoulder.

"Yeah, you're prejudiced all right."

* * * * * *

The eye of the storm was a place of stillness. Peace. Starsky was filled with a sense of wonder, of relief. We came through. In spite of everything.

It had been so close. Closer, in a way, than the shooting. Now, as then, the healing would take time. But the first steps had been taken -- they could find again all that had been lost, build again what had been broken, recapture that deep sensual certainty. They could do it. But they needed time and space to do it. Starsky took the phone off the hook. Leave us alone. He needed no one but Hutch -- wanted no other company within touching distance -- reassurance, if he needed it, of their continuation. I love you or I do not live at all.

No half-measures or double standards. The world was still out there, waiting with traps and harshness ready to try to destroy. To pretend otherwise would be to live in a fool's paradise. But they would face it together, and on their own terms.

Strangely, perhaps, the primary need was not sexual. The simple being together was all they needed, and the lovemaking was only another facet of that. There was no urgency about it -- here at the still center it seemed they had discovered a way to weave every moment into the pattern of their loving -- every action, however mundane, becoming a part of the whole. Most important, there was no more fear -- of hurting or being hurt. That demon had been exorcised forever.

* * * * * *

Duplessis stared unseeing at the sunny garden, a frown indenting between the russet brows. No phone calls. Not since he'd been around to deliver the cases and the salvaged philodendron. Well, okay, he hadn't really expected a call, but when he'd tried to call Starsky, the phone was apparently off the hook. And Huggy's reaction had been kind of strange when he'd told him where Hutch was -- joy in sorrow. Duplessis sighed. He supposed he could understand that. Being gay must be a helluva hard row to hoe at the best of times. But those two had so much going for them, had come through so much, and they so plainly cared -- no, loved -- each other, even when a state of open war was declared between them.

So what was the situation now? Had the blazing happiness he'd seen in Starsky's face survived? Had Hutch told him he'd quit the force and wasn't going back to it? Were they reconciled or -- ? Dammit, this was worse than a daytime soap opera. But what should he do? Starsky had asked for space. He'd had three days of it. Well, almost three days. What if -- ? Maybe -- ?

A hand dealt a stinging slap to his wrist.

"Wha -- ?"

"Stop it," Sally snapped. "You're biting your nails."

"I was not!"

"Mentally you were. Clear up to your elbows. What is it? A case? Talk to me, Dave."

"No. I mean, no, it's not work."

"Then it has to be Hutch."

"I'd just like to know if they're friends again."

"Of course they are. You men are like overgrown kids sometimes, fighting and making up."

"This is different," he said stiffly. She couldn't know how different.

"Oh, of course it is. Always is. So go and find out instead of cluttering up the deck like an abandoned hound pup."

"Sure," he snorted. "So I stroll up to the front door and say: 'Hi, guys, have you quit killing each other yet, or should I call back later?'"

She sighed. "Sometimes, darlin', for a smart cop you're really dumb. Go give Hutch a bulletin on his plants."

Duplessis grabbed her in a hug that left her breathless. "Sal, you're a genius! Why didn't I think of that?"

"You don't expect me to answer that, do you?" she laughed.

"You're more special than you'll ever know," he told her, heading for the door. "Back in a couple of hours -- "

"Hold it," Sally called after him. "Don't you think it might be an idea to get a briefing on the plants ready to pass on?''

* * * * * *

When Starsky opened his front door, one glance was enough to tell Duplessis he needn't have worried. There was a look of settled peace about the man, something he'd never seen before -- the look of someone who had come through hell and was now -- he didn't know how to put it. Duplessis gave himself a swift mental kick. "Hi," he said. "I just dropped by to let Hutch know the plants are all okay."

"So come on in and tell him," Starsky invited. "We'd offer you coffee, but we gotta get down to the hospital for Hutch's check-up."

"Hey, no sweat. I'll drive you there, if you want." He made the offer without thinking, but it wasn't turned down.

"Thanks -- it'll give the three of us a chance to catch up on the news."

Hutch was shrugging carefully into a jacket, and his smile of welcome was unforced. "Thanks for the salvage job, Dave," he said before Duplessis could speak. "For the cases as well as Phyllis."

"You're welcome. Her brothers and sisters are doing okay, mostly, and Sally's administering first aid and TLC in equal quantities to the hurt ones. She says there's nothing won't make it through." As he spoke he was assessing Hutch -- who also looked a new man; settled, at peace with himself and his world, confident of the future. The difference in them both from the distraught sufferers of just a few weeks ago was startling. Ain't Love grand? said a small, only surface-cynical voice in his head. "She's going to try to root some of those cuttings," he finished.

"And the rain-forest shall rise again," Starsky intoned, laughing. "C'mon, babe, haul ass. Dave's driving us, so you don't have to break your back in the Torino."

"Sounds good to me. Speaking of which, where is my car?" Hutch went on. "I don't remember seeing it after the explosion."

"Uh, yeah, that's something else I gotta tell you. You were probably climbing over it when you were moving rubble. Most of the front wall fell on it. It's kind of -- flat."

Since Hutch was speechless, Starsky stepped in. "Where is it?" he asked.

"At the police pound. It's really scrap metal," he added, needlessly, in Hutch's opinion, judging by the whimper that escaped him.

"I'll get in touch with Merle," Starsky promised. "He can shift it, and maybe find you another one. Soon as we get back from the hospital, babe, you better start phoning your insurance company."

"And come round to my place, see what else was salvaged," Duplessis said. "It isn't a lot, but I guess every little helps. You can store anything with us for as long as you need, anyway."

"Thanks, Dave," Hutch said quietly. "I appreciate this."

"S'okay," he shrugged. "No big deal."

* * * * * *

Memorial took Hutch into its depths, leaving Starsky and Duplessis to wait. It was an all-too familiar scenario -- the smells and sounds of a busy hospital, the impersonal bleakness of the waiting area made somehow worse by the attempts to humanize it, the lousy vending machine coffee . . . Okay, this time it was only a routine check-up, but there had been too many other times, too many bad memories.

"You've been a good partner to him, Dave," Starsky said abruptly. "And I owe you for that. But I thank God he resigned. Should have let him quit when he wanted to, but I wasn't thinking straight. I was too sick to consider anyone but myself."

"How are things now?" Duplessis asked cautiously.

"Good. Getting better. My brain's unscrambling itself. Hutch is back, and he's staying." He fixed the younger man with an unreadable blue stare. "How long have you known that Hutch and me are lovers?"

"Since we got you to the hospital after the rape," Duplessis said frankly. "It was nothing Hutch said. Just a lot of things suddenly added up."

"No judgments?" Starsky asked steadily. "No phobia?"

"Hell, no. It may not be my scene, but I'm not throwin' any stones, man. Different strokes, and like that."

Starsky looked away. "Then you're a rare animal, Dave."

"Maybe. Whatever, you're both friends of mine. Bottom line. You made any long-term plans yet?" he said, changing the subject.

"No. That's something else we have to talk out."

"Ah-huh." Duplessis leaned back in the chair, crossed his legs. "Well, at least the explosion was an accident, so that's one less thing to worry about."

"What?" Starsky glanced at him, startled. "Of course it was an accident. What else could it be?"

Duplessis gave him a hard stare. He had to be kidding. "A bomb, maybe?" he suggested. "Except it wasn't. It was a gas leak."

"A bomb?" Starsky repeated. "Are you crazy? Thought I was the only one with galloping paranoia. Who the hell would want to plant a bomb under Chez Helene?"

"I didn't say it was Chez Helene," Duplessis said patiently.

"You mean -- Hutch could have been the target? Dave we're not cops anymore."

"I don't believe I'm hearing this." There was an edge of anger under the crisply bitten-out words. "Starsk -- you were cops for how many years? And how many enemies have you made in that time? Guys you've put away, people with a grudge -- sweet Christ, man, they're not going to let up just because you're no longer cops! In fact, they're more likely to close in -- you're out in the cold now. Without the protection and resources of the department. Look what happened last time you chucked your badges away."

"That was different -- "

"Bullshit. There are any number of bad guys who could be gunning for the pair of you." He paused, softened the harshness of his tone. "I'm sorry. You and Hutch are back together, and that's great, but don't lose all sense of proportion in the rosy glow."

"Back off!" Starsky snarled. "You're way out of line!"

"The hell I am, and you know it!" For a moment they faced each other, hackles raised. Then Duplessis decided to back down. "Just watch yourselves, that's all I'm saying."

The tension bled out of Starsky in almost the same minute. "Yeah. I guess you got a point. Okay, sorry I bawled you out like that."

"De nada. Listen, I'm going to see if I can find the cafeteria and some decent coffee. You want a cup?"

* * * * * *


Lucidity came in flashes, at first forgotten as soon as they faded. But gradually memory began to string itself together like beads on a thread -- bright crystal beads containing isolated images etched clear and sharp without obvious connections.

With returning consciousness came awareness of his body and its surroundings. Half of him felt strange. Heavy. Unresponsive. As if it no longer belonged to him. Talking was oddly difficult, and it enraged him to hear his lucid thoughts emerge as slurred gibberish. His room -- unfamiliar -- was luxurious and comfortable, but there was no television. That, too, was irksome. But the gentle, self-effacing attendants would not obey his orders, and tried to soothe his furious outbursts as if he was a child throwing a tantrum, until finally they added something to the drip and he floated in and out of reality for a long time.

When at last he was allowed to wake properly, he felt much better. His right side was no longer quite so leaden, he could move his fingers a little, talk more clearly. And the pieces of memory fitted together into whole pictures. There were still blanks, but the pictures now had meaning.

He remembered who he was.

James Marshall Gunther.

He remembered he had power.

Faces came to him, obsequious fear in their eyes, and in him was the knowledge of life and death and the power to use that knowledge like a weapon. He had built an empire. He was a kingmaker. He smiled, realizing why those who ministered to him were so respectful. It was well that they should be. But they obviously needed to be reminded that his word was law, and when he demanded a television in order that he keep informed, they would supply it without question and immediately.

But his order was still denied. "Soon, Mr. Gunther," said the woman. "You've been very ill, and we must be sure your condition has stabilized before we can allow in outside pressures. You have been very ill," she repeated as his anger rose. "You suffered a severe stroke. It could have killed a weaker man. Any excess strain would set your recovery back."

"Garbage!" he barked, pleased that even with the slur, his voice still had strength. "You're fired! Send Bates in here."

"Mr. Bates is dead, sir."

A picture, tinted like an old, sepia-toned photograph; Bates sprawled in an armchair, apparently asleep, but the fine porcelain teacup was shattered in the saucer by the death rictus that had gripped him.

The power o f life and death.

The woman was doing something to the drip, and he fell asleep cursing her.

He woke next to find a television in his room, a remote control set on the left-hand night table, within easy reach. Good. He had never tolerated slackness. Clearly it was time he took up the reins of command again. Smiling his anticipation, Gunther selected his usual channel, settling to watch the run of current affairs, stockmarket deals, and news.

The news. Worldwide and local.

"A tenth person has died following the gas explosion at the Chez Helene restaurant in Venice," the newsreader intoned, and pictures sub-headed with a date filled the screen. Uninterested, he watched scenes of garishly-lit devastation while the voice-over detailed the lists of dead and seriously injured, adding the latest victim with a kind of impersonal relish. But Gunther did not hear it. A man had crossed the screen briefly, part of a stretcher detail. A tall man, dirty, bloodstained, disheveled. Gunther knew him. Would never forget him.

"Hutchinson," he said aloud. "Kenneth Richard Hutchinson."

Another flashback. No static snapshot this time. That man standing in his doorway, walking forward, as grim and implacable as the Goths that had entered Rome, and about to wreak the same destruction. The destruction of an Empire.

"No!" No man lays hands on an Emperor. "No!" But he had been pressed face down on his own desk, helpless and ruined, while barbarian hands pulled back his arms and snapped steel about his wrists, while the cold harsh voice chanted an arcane litany.

James Marshall Gunther, you have the right to remain silent. If you give up that right anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to speak to an attorney and to have that attorney present during questioning. If you so desire and cannot afford one, one will be appointed for you without charge before questioning.


* * * * * *

Starsky had to make a concerted effort to throw off the effect of Duplessis' lecture, but it had brought home to him how much he needed the stability of a planned future. That hadn't been a necessity before -- before, he had known who he was, where he was, where he was going. Now he was in Terra Incognita, and he needed a road map and a definite destination nearly as much as he needed his partner to be at his side.

But there were more important things to be done. Like phone calls to the insurance companies, getting them moving, and to Merle the Earl to have him collect the scrap heap and hunt out a replacement car. This wasn't easy. Merle had developed an irrational aversion to any Hutchinson vehicle, but Starsky got an agreement eventually. He was smiling when he put the phone down and sauntered into the kitchen. Hutch was standing at the countertop, putting the finishing touches to a plateful of rather overstuffed submarine sandwiches -- his hands were more mobile now under a far lighter dressing, and he could just about cope. Starsky slid his arms around his lover's waist.

"Whatever's in those, I'm starving," he said. Hutch turned to face him, and Starsky pulled the blond head down for a kiss. I

"Tuna salad in mine," said Hutch, when he was allowed to speak, "and pastrami, onion and tomato in yours, with pickle. What did Merle say?"

"That he'd do his best to find another Hutchinson Original, but it'll cost you -- bad for his reputation, having to have cars like that in his yard." He reached around Hutch for his sandwich. "There's a six-pack in the fridge. Where do you want to eat?"

"How about in bed?" Hutch suggested, sounding casual, and Starsky's knees went to jelly. "Just how starved are you, partner?"

"Ravenous, unfortunately," Starsky admitted. "And we can't make love when my gut's rumbling like the 1812 Overture."

"So we eat first. Satisfy the baser appetites," Hutch said solemnly, but his eyes were full of love and laughter.

"Really. What's for dessert?"

"You need to ask? How about Starsky a la mode?"

The pace was slower, this time, infinitely leisured, through a languid blood-warm afternoon, shades drawn against the sun, relearning delight half-forgotten, reaffirming a commitment that had never truly been lost.

"I never stopped loving you."

"I know. Me neither."

Golden light gilding sweat-sheened skin, highlighting contoured muscle, sleeking body-hair, shadowing eyes.

"Come in me, lover?"

"I don't want to hurt you -- "

"You won't. We'll be careful. Ah, Hutch . . . "

Careful anointing of urgent flesh in slow and deliberate ritual, carnal worship in every touch and caress. Thighs spread, lifted, locking against moisture-slick flanks, and slow, slow joining of flesh in flesh, no pain at all, not even overlaid by pleasure.

Head pressing back into the pillow, Starsky squinted up at the beloved face, shadowed, intent, a small frown of concentration on the blond brows as he exercised a conscious control. The glow backlit the tousled mane in a hazy nimbus. Archangel . . . .

It was past time for being careful -- his body knew what it wanted, hips arching, and he pulled Hutch down and into him in exquisite penetration.

"Now?" Breathless whisper of entreaty.


* * * * * *

"Plans," said Starsky into Hutch's neck. "We gotta make plans."

"Mmmph," said Hutch into the pillow. The weight on Starsky, like an overstuffed eiderdown, was warm and comforting, but there were small gritty irritations under his ass and he thought they might be crumbs from the sandwiches. So, reluctantly, he was going to have to get out from under.

"Are you listening to me?"

"Mmm. Yes. Indubitably."

"I bet. C'mon, y'big lunk, let a guy breathe, willya?" He softened the words with a kiss and Hutch obediently slid down to lie at his side. With relief, Starsky squirmed free of the crumbs.

"Plans?" said Hutch.

"Oh. Yeah. But whatever we decide, it has to be what we both want, not one saying okay just to please the other. Right?"

"Oh, absolutely."

Hutch wasn't paying attention. Starsky could tell that by the stealthy hand that was exploring his hip and thigh. He took hold of the errant wrist. "Hutch."

"Okay, okay." A martyred sigh, a trifle overdone. He grinned.

"Later for the funtime. Right now -- we talk." There was a pause, then: "You first," and "After you," came together, and both men laughed.

"We gotta be sensible about this," Starsky insisted. "What about jobs? We can't afford not to be working at something. I'm down with a couple of agencies."

"Job." Hutch was bolt upright. "Shit. Mac."


"I went up to Visalia," Hutch explained. "Mac's firm need a security consultant for a while. It could be permanent, but he wanted me to try out for it."

"Sounds good to me. At least one of us'll be earning hard cash -- and there're agencies in Visalia. Hell, I'll wash dishes if I have to. So, we find a place of our own and -- "

Hutch was silent, frowning up at the ceiling, and with a gut wrench Starsky realized that he'd been presuming too much, making plans without consultation. He sighed. "Sorry. You should tell me to shut up. Talk to me, huh? You don't have to leave L.A. if you don't want to." He paused. "I guess -- you have to decide about Jaqi."

"I already did. Right after I decked you." Hutch looked guilty. "I went to see her, told her how I felt. And that she didn't have any right to decide my future. So that's all over, babe. Now -- what about you?" He craned up on one elbow so that he could look down at his partner. "What do you want?"

It was Starsky's turn to fall silent then.

"I'm not sure," he said at last. "I want to be with you, wherever you are. But wherever that is -- maybe we could use a change of scene. Even if it's not permanent. We -- "

The sharp jangle of the phone cut him off, and Hutch felt him go rigid. "You want me to get that?" he offered.

"No." Starsky slid from the bed and padded into the living room. "Yeah? Oh, hi, Huggy . . . "

The tone was one of relief. Hutch got up and followed, leaning on the doorjamb, just watching as Starsky talked. It had been too long since he had been able to see and appreciate all the things he loved about the way Starsky looked . . . . Oh, no classical beauty, too much definition of muscle for that, and a distinct lack of aesthetic proportion, but Michelangelo or Rodin or one of the master sculptors who glorified the reality of mortal flesh and bone, not some romantic ideal, would have agreed with him. He liked the clean lines of shoulder and back, the way the hair grew in little spirals into the nape of the neck -- the indentation of the spine and the 'runner's girdle' of muscle at the hip, even the frankly bandy knees . . .

"Thanks for calling, Hug." Starsky put the phone down, and turned. "Hey, what's with the sappy expression?"

Ridiculously, Hutch felt himself color. "Just admiring the scenery," he said lightly, and changed the subject. "Who did you think was calling, anyway?"

Starsky sat down on the couch. "Mom," he said flatly. "I wrote her a long letter a week ago. Told her I was off the force, and why -- none of the gory details, just the stress disability -- and she wasn't supposed to worry about me. Next thing I know, she's on the phone telling me to come back to New York, and that I could move in with her."

"I take it you don't want to do that?" Hutch sat next to him.

"Are you kidding? I can remember New York winters. They get snow there, Hutch!" He gave an exaggerated shudder. "I can't remember what I said to her, except that it was an unqualified refusal. So now I keep expecting a call from her saying she's flying out here to look after me. Or trying to make me feel guilty enough to go home with her." He tried for a wry smile and Hutch put an arm across his shoulders. "Guess that's something else we have to deal with. But I can't tell her about us. Not yet."

"When you're ready," Hutch said. He knew how he felt himself, but he wasn't about to push Starsky into anything. "You were talking about maybe a change of scene," he prompted.

"Yeah." Starsky left the couch, as if he needed to be on the move, too restless to be still. He walked to the window, looked out. "I want a fresh start, Hutch. You and me in a place of our own, away from L.A. We've been cops in this city for too long, we know it all too well. All the dirt in the streets, the skuzzy alleyways, the gutters, the sewers. Sometimes I wonder if we haven't been living in them all along, right next to the lowlife. But they didn't know any different -- and it was getting so neither did we." He swung to face Hutch. ''I want out," he said simply. "Took me a long time to realize it. But that's the bottom line."

"Me, too." Hutch joined him. "I found that out for sure when I was with Mac, up in Three Rivers. Look, Visalia may be Smalltown, U.S.A., but the air's clean, and the pace of life is like it's in another world. We could check the place out, see if that's where we want to settle."

"If Mac can help you get a job -- "

"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it." Hutch picked up the phone.

Kathy's screech when she heard his voice almost deafened him.

"Ken, I've been going crazy since I saw the explosion on T.V.! Are you okay?" After he calmed her down, she was overjoyed to hear they'd patched up their differences, and Hutch told her no more than that. Anything more, including the news of the devastated apartment -- could wait until later.

There were more urgent matters to be discussed, and he wasn't sure how he'd go about it.

"Told her we'd be there tomorrow afternoon," he said as he replaced the phone.

"Fine," Starsky's arm closed around his waist. "Well, we'll have to make an early start. So maybe we should have an early night?"

* * * * * *

Hutch found the words he needed next morning, en route to Visalia, but not until they were an hour on the road. Starsky was quiet, almost subdued, and there were bruise-dark shadows under his eyes. Neither of them had got much sleep the previous night, and not because they had spent it in lovemaking. If Hutch had need evidence that Starsky's cure was still incomplete, the night would have convinced him.

He had never been told the shape of the primary nightmare that haunted his partner -- indeed, he didn't really want to know. But it had crashed back into their shared peace like a juggernaut, wrenching him out of sleep to find Starsky shuddering convulsively, staring blank-eyed into the darkness.

It had been some time before he could be persuaded to relax enough to sleep again.

It was inevitable that it should leave its mark, and not just in simple physical tiredness. But the depression did not last -- it was a fine day, once clear of the smog, the roads were clear, the Torino was humming along at a steady sixty, and Starsky's hands relaxed on the wheel, an almost-smile slowly settling on his mouth. Life was good, and getting better, and Hutch was reluctant to draw notice to the cloud on their horizon. But there were things that had to be sorted out before they reached Visalia.

"Mac could change his mind about the job," he said quietly. ."Him or his bosses. Because there's something else I want, David, and they may not like it. If you don't want it, then -- I guess I can live with it, but -- "

"Huh?" Starsky shot him a quizzical glance. "Hutchinson, you are not making sense. Gonna elucidate?"

"We're lovers," Hutch said. "I don't want to hide that any more. I love you and I'm proud of you, of what we have. But there are going to be a helluva lot of others who'll make judgments. Like I said, I don't want to hide. But I can handle it if you decide it's better if we do."

"My decision?" and Hutch nodded. "Okay, let's talk this thing through." He was silent for a few minutes, eyebrows pulling together in a frown. "Okay," he said again. "On the one hand, if we stay in the closet, it's easier to socialize, get jobs, stuff like that. On the other hand, I may worry about how my Mom'll take it, but the rest of the world can go screw itself. Double standards, but what the hell." He gave a quirky grin at Hutch. "Yeah, I love you, too, and yeah, I'm tired of living a lie. If Kathy and Mac can't handle that, then there are other places. Then again, on the other hand, a job is a job -- "

"That's three," Hutch cut in.


"Three hands." Hutch was grinning too, inanely.

"Smartass. As I was saying, on the other hand, a job is a job, and Mac's firm are going to be paying good money for a security consultant with your kind of experience. But so could other less homophobic businesses. In San Francisco, for starters. This is a new start, a new life, and it's gotta be on our terms."

"So we tell Kathy and Mac and take it from there."

"That's what I said, didn't I?"

"I guess so. It won't be easy."

"I know that." Starsky freed one hand to lay it over Hutch's, intertwining their fingers briefly. "Quit worrying, lover. We're together. That's all that counts. Sure there'll be problems -- with the bigots and the rest of the zoo. But it's me 'n 'thee, Hutch."

"Me 'n 'thee." It was, as it had always been, a pledge.

Kathy must have been waiting with her ears straining, because she came out of the house as they climbed out of the Torino and grabbed them both in a bear hug.

"I knew it'd work out," she laughed. "You men! Worse than kids! I'm so glad you're friends again. What did -- " and she froze, eyes on the white bandages on Hutch's hands.

"Ken! What on earth -- ?"

"Don't panic, Kath. Superficial burns, that's all."

"Superfi -- That's all? Are you going to tell me what happened?"

It was Starsky who took her gently by the elbow and led her into the house. "It's a long story, and the neighbor's'll stare."

"Seems there was a gas leak," Hutch explained once they had Kathy seated in her living room. "Built up underneath Chez Helene, and finally something touched if off. I was lucky -- "

"Lucky!" she cut in argumentatively, and he hushed her.

"People died, Kath. I was helping with the rescue work. I know."

"I saw the newsflash on T.V., so I went along to see if Hutch was okay, and helped out, too." Starsky exchanged glances with his partner. "After that, our -- differences -- seemed to get into proportion."

"So I should think!" Kathy snapped. "Ken, you might have been killed -- "

"Might-have-beens don't mean a thing." And he smiled at her. "I was lucky." He met the dark blue gaze and repeated it. "Very lucky."

"But your home, Ken, all your things . . . I hope to God you were properly insured," his sister added, taking her usual commonsense approach, and saw him grin.

"Adequately enough. I'm a Hutchinson, remember? We play it safe." At which Starsky hooted, and Hutch aimed an exasperated swat at him.

"You two," Kathy snorted. "Worse than the kids. Now, I want to hear all your news, but I'll just get us all some coffee -- "

"Hold it, Kath," Starsky said, serious now. "We've got something to tell you, first. And you may want to throw us out afterwards."

She stared at him, realized he wasn't joking, and looked at her brother, who was sitting silent, letting Starsky do the talking. "What's the matter?" she wanted to know. "Don't tell me you've both -- " and she searched for any explanation that might fit, coming up with the weirdest and most unlikely she could invent on the spur of the moment " -- converted to Scientology or something?"

A small smile lightened Starsky's gravity. "Nothing quite as bad as that," he assured her, and reached for Hutch's hand. "Kath, me 'n' Hutch are lovers."

Kathy felt her inquisitive smile freeze in place. If this was a joke, it was in pretty poor taste. She fixed her brother. "Ken?"

He wasn't smiling. There was a look of serenity instead, of settled content, pride, and -- yes -- love. "S'right, Kath. We're lovers."

The solid, reliable foundations of Katherine McKinley's world weren't ready for that revelation, and quivered unnervingly. She groped for control. "Since when? I mean, how long . . . " She faltered to a stop, staring at them, stricken and unable to hide it, but not knowing why. And gently, quietly, her brother's partner began to answer her questions, taking his time about it and, she realized suddenly, giving her time to let it sink in, come to terms with it, his hand all the while linked with her brother's, for all the world like a pair of honeymooners, and that was ridiculous . . . .

He'd fallen silent, and she realized with something of a shock that he'd finished his story, and was waiting for her to react, and she couldn't.

"I think," he said, "I'll take a walk while you're thinking about it."

And Ken said: "We'll take a walk -- "

"No one," said Kathy firmly, "is going anywhere until someone has made me a medicinal cup of something. Lord, you surely know how to give a girl a surprise, don't you?" And it was easier to smile, even though it was a bit shaky.

Starsky smiled back. "You got it. Coffee?"

The moment the kitchen door closed behind him, Kathy looked square at her brother. "Oh, Ken. You do seem to go out of your way to make things tough for yourself."

"Maybe." He shrugged. "But the bottom line is -- I love him, and he loves me. That's the way it is. You going to show us the door now, or what?"

Kathy gave him a sidelong glare. "What on earth for? I'm sure you've seen one before." And laughed as he did a double-take, holding out her arms. "Oh, come here and give me a kiss, you big lummox. Did you really think I'd throw you out? You may be crazy, but you're my brother and I love you! Just give me time, huh?"

"Whatever you need, Sis." He hugged her hard enough to bend ribs, and she detected a slight note of huskiness in his voice. Did her acceptance really mean so much to him? She hugged him back, a small part of her wishing he was still small enough to put over her knee. But a much larger part was already looking ahead.

"So what are your plans now, hon?"

"Depends on Mac." Ken looked down at her. "Maybe that job offer won't be open when he finds out about me and Starsk. We're prepared for that, Sis, so don't fret about it."

She snorted. "Mac? The last liberal of the sixties wouldn't care if you screwed collie-dogs -- "

His expression brought her to awareness of what she had just said -- an almost direct quotation from her husband -- and she felt her color rise as Ken hugged her again, chuckling. "Well, dammit, you know what I mean. I better go see if Dave's finished wrecking my kitchen."

He let her go, and she made her escape, pulling a sheet from the roll of paper towels and blowing her nose before facing Starsky, whose expression told her that he understood, and sympathized.

"Do I get a hug, too?" he wondered, and she sniffed back the last of the tears.

"Vicky is never going to forgive you," she confided into his shirtfront.

"Ah, I was too old for her anyhow. Besides," he added, holding her at arms length, "do you really think I'd have made a good son-in-law? It's gonna be tough enough having me for a brother-in-law. Think about it."

"I have," said Kathy firmly, tearing up again, and gave him another hug.

* * * * * *

The conference in the hospital anteroom was low-voiced but heated.

"I thought we agreed -- no T.V!" The dark-haired man in the expensive business suit snapped at the white-coated medical staff, who glared at each other.

"Quite so. But circumstances changed." The senior doctor, Westmore, was silky with controlled calm. "His condition was improving, but as you may imagine he is far from an easy patient. In view of his insistence on a television, and his reaction when his demand was refused, I decided that letting him have one would be the lesser of the two evils. His blood pressure -- "

"So what happens? He sees something he doesn't like and goes crazy. Then suffers a relapse!"

"Mr. Praetor. You must be aware that your uncle's mental condition has been affected to some extent by the severity of the stroke. These bouts of irrationality are not entirely unexpected. What he saw may not have been related to his attack. The relapse is not serious -- there's been no further loss of function."

Robert Praetor, James Marshall Gunther's sole nephew and probable heir, stared the doctor down with all the hauteur he could summon. "And the T.V. is still there."

"According to his wishes. Yes."

"Autocratic old buzzard . . . " Praetor muttered under his breath. But he knew from experience that money talks, and Gunther's money had a louder voice than most. He still found it hard to believe the sheer extent of his uncle's involvement in organized crime, but there was no doubt of the legitimate power the man had also wielded. The political power that, until a short time ago, he might have inherited unstained. But the revelations that a sensation-hungry press had splashed across the country had not done his hopes any good at all, and he bitterly resented the dutiful visits he had been pressured into making. "He's an evil old monster," his mother had said, "but he has the money, so it's in your own interests to be nice to the creature. There's no one but you to inherit, Robert. We might salvage something yet from this unholy mess." So much for sisterly love. But, on the other hand, Praetor had to admit to a certain admiration for his uncle. The man was an achiever, an empire-builder. Had in fact built two -- the legitimate and the criminal. The latter was regrettable, but the actual achievement, the sheer brilliant ruthlessness entailed in the construction, control, and maintenance of both had to be admired. Up to a point.

"Since that one episode, Mr. Gunther has remained calm," the Head Nurse put in. "There doesn't appear to be any further deterioration."

"Nor, to be fair, any substantial improvement. His condition appears stable," Westmore said. "That's the best we can say."

"And his memory?"

"Much the same. Very patchy. His lawyer came this morning, and got nowhere."

Praetor made no comment. Reminders of the inevitable trial and all the renewed publicity was something he could do without.

"I'll see him now," he said instead.

The man on the bed ignored him at first. The T.V. screen was showing a discussion between a big Wall Street stockbroker, a member of OPEC, and a major Japanese businessman, but suddenly it was blanked out, and Gunther slid the remote control under his pillow left-handed. The right hand lay on the neatly folded coverlet, waxen and unmoving.

"Sit down." An order, slurred but distinct. Praetor sat.

"You're looking well, Uncle James." It was a lie, of course. The unnaturally pale face was subtly misshapen, one side slack-muscled, the corner of the tilted mouth wet.

"Hutchinson," said that mouth now, and the gimlet eyes glittered.

"Excuse me?"

"I -- want -- him -- punished."

Praetor did a quick review of the medical staff, but couldn't recall the name. "I'll inform Dr Westmore, Uncle James, if -- "

"Fool!" The epithet was spat out with contempt. "Hutchinson. Kenneth Richard. Detective Sergeant, Metro Division, LAPD. See to it."

For a moment Praetor gaped at the old man, then his excellent memory clicked a face to the name. The arresting officer. "Uncle -- " he began, but the remote had been brought out, and the TV came back to life.

"Report back."

"Uncle James," Praetor protested, "you can't mean that. You don't realize what you're saying. The man is a police officer -- "

"Don't argue with me!" The snarl sprayed spittle like venom. "Do as you're told, damn you!" A nurse charged into the room like a quarterback after the ball, and added something to the IV. "Do it, boy!" But the sedative worked fast, and the raving dropped to a mutter and finally silence.

Praetor got out of there. His knees felt weak. His uncle was talking like a mob boss. That wasn't irrationality, the by-product of a stroke. That was sheer insanity. Dear God. The sooner the old bastard died, the better for all concerned. This was the Eighties, not the Thirties. No, James Marshall Gunther had outlived his time. He was a dinosaur. And in his nephew's eyes, he should have sunk back into the swamp years ago. Robert Praetor had no intention of pandering to the whims of a mad and senile old man.

Not even for a fortune.

* * * * * *


Lying with the scent of Kathy's cherished roses rioting in the air, Hutch found he couldn't feel any regret for leaving L.A. Summer there scorched through August and into September, reminding anyone who needed it that the city had grown up out of the desert, like a spiny cactus. Out of the confines of concrete and asphalt and glass, the artificial environments which could and did support miniature rainforests, the small growth on the hillsides would be browned, naked earth cracked and dried.

But here, the groves of citrus ripened and glowed, and lawns were still green from sympathetic tending. It was pleasant, and peaceful, and as far as he was concerned, life had only one small drawback. He had a job, and a company car, but as yet, he and Starsky didn't have a place to call their own.

"We can't stay here much longer. We ought to start looking for someplace of our own." The warmth of the late summer evening was soporific, so Hutch was hardly surprised to get no answer from the supine Starsky. The sunglasses masked his eyes, so there was no way of telling if he was even awake. Hutch, however, was not disposed to be patient. "I said -- "

"I heard what you said," Starsky murmured. "What's eatin' you? Kathy threatening to throw us out?"

"Anything but," Hutch snorted. "She ducks the issue whenever I mention it. But -- "

"I know." Responding finally to the concern in his lover's voice, Starsky rolled over and pushed himself up on his elbows, squinting up at Hutch's face. "This has been coming on for weeks, right?"

"You know me too damn well," Hutch admitted. "Yes. It has."

"You're not so hard to read, babe. Which is why I did something about it."

"Huh? What? When?" The Hutchinson stutter surfaced in surprise.

"I called a few realtors. While you were at work. The only thing I couldn't be sure about was our price range." He sat up and brushed off grass. "So I got a cross-section." And he laughed in delight at Hutch's pole-axed goldfish expression. ''Hey, I'm not just a pretty face, y'know."

"You can say that again." Hutch swallowed his amazement. "The body's not bad, though."

"Flatterer." Starsky grinned and bent a wrist at him. But it wasn't just flattery, or even the blinkered adoration of a lover -- he was looking, and feeling, better than he had for months, and he knew it. It wasn't accidental. When Hutch had started working with Mac at Westray, leaving his partner at a loose end, Starsky had got out from under Kathy's feet in the only way he could think of at short notice, by signing on for casual work with the peaking citrus harvest. The sheer physical labor had gone a long way to restoring his lost condition, and the sun had deepened his tan to a burnt copper that made his eyes look even more vividly blue. Sitting there lithely cross-legged, smirking like a self-satisfied tomcat, he looked to Hutch once again the man he had fallen in love with in the spring, no trace of the trauma that had split them apart. Those scars, unlike the pinkish traceries on breast and back, weren't in view. Hutch was still aware of them, as he was of his own. But they were a unifying force now, no longer destructive.

"Why didn't you tell me this earlier?" he wanted to know.

Starsky shrugged. "The time wasn't right. Didn't want it to look like I was being pushy. Or that we're in a hurry. The last thing I want is to hurt Kathy's feelings."

"What about my feelings?" Kathy wanted to know, setting a laden tray of lemonade down on the patio table and resuming her seat in the lawn chair. "And don't say listeners hear no good of themselves, Kenny -- I have the ears of a -- I don't know, Dave, what's got good hearing?"

"A bat?" he hazarded.

"Right. I have the ears of a bat, and nothing escapes my attention."

"Wrong," said her brother smugly.

"Wrong? You dare to contradict your big sister."

"Unless they're black and hairy. They weren't last time I looked. Starsk? You're closer."

''Nope." Starsky gave Kathy careful scrutiny. "Pink and naked. Like always."

Kathy fixed her brother with a gimlet stare. "Kenneth. You forget, I have raised three children and I can spot a cover-up at fifty paces. Just what am I not supposed to have overheard?"

"Don't jump on us, that's all, Sis. We were talking about moving out."

"What on earth for?" She looked, as Starsky had predicted, hurt and affronted. "There's no need. There's plenty of room here, and -- "

She would have gone on to catalogue all the reasons for them not moving out, but Starsky forestalled her.

"Kath," he said softly, "when you and Mac got hitched, did you want somewhere of your own, or did you want to live with your in-laws?"

Kathy, like her brother, had the kind of fair skin that blushes spectacularly, and she could feel one coming on.

"That was different," she said lamely.

"Not a bit. You've been great -- you and Mac -- and we needed the breathing space. But it's time for us to move on." And, with an unrepentantly wicked grin, he added: "Besides, we'd hate to shock the kids, and it's cramping our style. Just a little."

The blush reached full flower, like the bloom on a peony. With brotherly cruelty, Hutch gave a howl of laughter, and Kathy threw a cushion at him.

It wasn't that she didn't see their point. But having the two of them around was reminding her how much she'd missed her brother without even realizing it. At least she knew it wasn't family antagonism driving them out. Vicky had been the only one to greet the news of their relationship with anything but equanimity, and that wasn't altogether surprising, since she'd had a teenage infatuation with Starsky for several years. Her histrionic wail of: "Oh, gross!" and subsequent weeping into her pillow had transmuted into a refusal to acknowledge that anything had changed. If, indeed, there was anything that had changed to the outward eye. Kathy couldn't think of anything. Martin's response had been a 'you've got to be kidding me' look of disbelief -- whereas Mac, with a twinkle in his eye that should have warned her, just asked, "When's the wedding?" and narrowly escaped having a bowl of salad dressing upended over his head. No, her family had taken it in their stride. But if Dave and Ken wanted a home of their own -- well, she could understand that. It just better be somewhere close enough for frequent visiting.

She said so.

"Well, sure," Starsky agreed. "We'd move in down the block -- "

"Oh, dear . . . " Hutch murmured, tilting his face back to the sun. "There goes the neighborhood . . . ."

" -- but we couldn't afford it," Starsky continued, blithely ignoring him. "Not even on Mr. Security Consultant's salary."

"Oh, I don't know. You got the rest of the citrus harvest yet. You could earn, oh, twenty or thirty bucks . . . "

"You got the key to the executive washroom yet?" Starsky sniped sweetly.

"Peon," Hutch drawled, grinning and enjoying himself enormously.

"Stalemate," said Kathy quickly, removing the pitcher of iced lemonade from Starsky's reach. "Dave, why don't you fetch what details the realtors gave you? We can sort out some possibles."

* * * * * *

Realtors, as Hutch knew from close association with one, use a whole different language from the rest of civilization. Or rather, while the words sound the same, the meanings are altogether something else. Somehow he never expected to find that difference daunting. He should have known better.

Starsky, having more time to spare, had done some preliminary viewings, and after going through the possible choices, had worked out a program for one weekend, starting on Saturday morning and running clear through to Sunday evening, doing nothing but look at properties for sale.

By Saturday night, Hutch's head was spinning. He was becoming ever more certain that a realtor's idea of a 'desirable residence' had nothing in common with his. By noon on Sunday, he was convinced of it.

"How much more?" he asked wearily, staring at the cheeseburger he was too punchy to eat. His partner climbed back into the driver's seat.

"Just two, babe." Starsky reached over and took his hand. "Hey. I know you're tee-ed off. Two more, okay? And the last one is clear up near Three Rivers, so I booked dinner at Ard Farkles'. Kind of as a reward."

Hutch sighed, eased his back, and found a smile. "You're weird."

"I try." And the grin went a long way towards brightening Hutch's afternoon.

Their first viewing after lunch turned out to be a rambling 'period' house, far too large for the two of them, for all its charm. It was also more than they could comfortably afford.

"Since we're not planning to start a family," Hutch said, after escaping the enthusiastic agent, "I think we can rule that one out. Did you manage to give him the impression we wanted to start a hotel or something?"

"Summer visitors. Bring in the loot." Starsky started the car. "I thought you might like a little more space. We've been living in apartments for too long."

"Space? Man, they could hold the next Police Ball in that place. What's next? The Little House on the Prairie? The Gingerbread Cottage?"

"Up here," Starsky pointed out firmly, "they're into Rustic. In case you hadn't noticed."

"Could hardly miss it. Starsk, whatever the next one's like, we've earned that fancy dinner tonight!"

Starsky's mouth curved in a small secret smile. "Yeah. Well, there's a reason I saved this one 'til last."

Hutch gave an overdone theatrical moan and slumped in his seat.

The drive was an almost concealed turn-off from the road, hedged thick with greenery, and the car lurched over ruts and potholes for what seemed like half a mile before Starsky pulled up beside a flight of steps and fished for keys. The smile got wider. "C'mon. This one's empty."

Bemused, Hutch followed him up to the door, waited while he fought with the lock, and walked inside.

"My God," was all he could find to say, and even that took some minutes. The place was empty, as Starsky had said. Gutted would have been a better word. It seemed to be all one room, a dusty expanse lit by the big grime-encrusted window that faced westward. The sun was ruthlessly highlighting every fault and flaw. "Starsk. This is a fixer-upper."

"You got it," Starsky agreed proudly. "Whaddya think?"

"What am I supposed to say?" Hutch wondered aloud. "'What a dump' or 'this has possibilities'?"

"What do you want to say?" Starsky countered. "Take a look around, willya?"

There were two bedrooms, opening off a narrow hall. There was a bathroom, or what could pass as one. There was a kitchen. The rest of the place was the enormous living room, empty, resonant. Hutch's footsteps echoed on the dusty wooden flooring. There was a fireplace -- natural stone -- that wouldn't take too much to restore. And plenty of shelf space. One of the bedrooms had good north light, ideal for a studio -- God, what was he thinking? Was he actually liking this dump?

"There's a deck," Starsky said. "Out here."

Double doors, glazing in need of repair, opened out onto a railed redwood patio, cracked, peeling, neglected. Hutch didn't see that. He saw the cluster of aspens, green-gold against a backdrop of darker pines, shimmering in the light breeze. A ruby-throated hummingbird, curious about the intruder on its territory, hovered for a moment's scrutiny before darting away. And directly below, a summer-shallow river murmured over its stony bed, a gentle ceaseless chuckle.

Hutch drew a deep breath. "How much is this place again?" Starsky told him. "It's daylight robbery. How about we offer a couple of grand less, see what they say? There's a lot needs doing -- "

"I knew it," Starsky said with a self-satisfied smirk. "I knew you'd go for this place as soon as I saw it."

"Yeah, well, I always did have lousy taste." Hutch didn't appreciate being out-maneuvered.

"So what else is new?" Unmoved by the implied insult, Starsky perched on the railing. "You could even fish from here, y'know. Look."

"Sure, and get the line snagged on the bushes every time. Will you get off there?"

"It's safe enough." But he came willingly into Hutch's embrace. "You really like it? Huh?"

"God help me, I really do." Hutch shut him up with a kiss. "It's a wreck, and I must be out of my tree to even consider it, but -- yes."

"Sure you don't need convincing?" Starsky's hand had slipped into Hutch's back pocket, caressingly.

"Ah," Hutch caught on, only a little late. "In that case -- convince me."

Making love on aged and weathered redwood planking has its hazards, the least of which being splinters, but this is a small price to pay for bucolic bliss. Sometime over the past few weeks, freed of the city and its pressures, they had found the leisure to rediscover laughter.

"We're too old for this," Hutch objected, breathing hard.

"Speak for yourself, Grandad. I'm just getting into my prime."

"I noticed . . . "

The deck planking felt warm to the touch, with a friendly roughened texture like the coat of some large animal. Starsky's eyes reflected the darkening zenith and the arching greenery before they squinted shut in a small grimace of pleasure. He smelled to Hutch of sun and sweat and dust, and tasted entirely of himself, an intoxicant more powerful than any aphrodisiac in the world.

"Do we have neighbors?" Hutch wondered, mumbling the question into Starsky's hair some time later.

"Suppose so." Starsky sounded as somnolent as he felt. "Why?"

"Because if they're in earshot, we probably shocked 'em out of a year's growth."

"Up here in the Wilderness? No way. Probably think it was the mating call of the Greater Spotted Sapsucker or something."

"Or something is right," Hutch snickered. "Well, now we've -- uh, christened the place, I guess we have to buy it."

"Knew you'd see it my way."

"Yow," agreed a new voice. Startled, both men looked up, and found a pair of slightly-crossed sky blue eyes gazing intently at them from a coffee-colored mask. Seated comfortably on the narrow rail, tail curled neatly around paws, was a Siamese cat.

"The local wildlife seems to approve," Starsky chuckled, recovering first. Hutch zipped himself up -- he found the intent blue stare unreasonably unnerving.

"Where the hell did that come from?" he wanted to know.

"The neighbors, I guess." Starsky, still recumbent on the deck, was making friendly overtures at the animal, and after a period of mature consideration, it poured itself off the rail and stalked across to touch noses. "Hey, she likes me."

"No accounting for tastes," Hutch said somewhat sourly. He'd been discomfited by a cat, and he didn't like the feeling. "C'mon, Starsk, leave it alone."

"Whaddya mean, 'it'? You could be insulting a high-class lady here."

"No chance. Like attracts like."

"You're just jealous." From noses, the cat progressed to cheekbones, rubbing the side of its face against Starsky's, purring with a depth and resonance that was amazing. "Hey, she really does like me."

"Probably homing in on the nearest sucker for a meal-ticket," Hutch pointed out. "Cats do."

"She's not a stray. Look -- collar and address-tag. She must belong to our neighbors thataway."

"All cats are freeloaders. But she's a handsome specimen, I'll say that."

"The Hutchinson Accolade," Starsky told the cat, which slitted its eyes at him in understanding, prrrrped a farewell and walked sedately away, tail vertical. "Followed by the Siamese Salute." He glanced at his watch. "Looks like we're just in time to get to the restaurant for the meal I promised you. And we can call the realtors first thing tomorrow."

"I've been railroaded, haven't I?"

"In the nicest possible way -- yes."

* * * * * *

"It's willpower." There was something close to awe in Dr. Westmore's voice. "Your uncle's strength of will is phenomenal. Physically, his condition isn't improving -- he has no mobility on his right side, and his speech shows no sign of improvement. But he refuses to even acknowledge the disability." He broke off and shrugged. "I'm sorry to be so negative, but there is no way of knowing how long this can continue."

Maybe the old goat will burn himself out, Praetor thought wryly, but he merely nodded gravely and went to his uncle's room. He had been expecting the wheelchair, after the doctor's briefing, but he did not anticipate Gunther's facility with it, and the swift smooth turn from the window to face him.

"Good morning, Uncle James," he said crisply to hide his surprise. "How are you today?"

"Progress Report," Gunther snapped.

"I beg your pardon?"

"Report, boy. The Hutchinson case."

"Ah . . . " Humor him, instinct said. "I'm not finding it easy to get information, particularly from the Police Department," he hedged. "I'm sorry, Uncle James, but this is new ground to me. I'm a politician, not -- " He had 'criminal' on the tip of his tongue, but common sense substituted " -- an investigator."

"Which is why there are professionals to do this kind of work, Robert." Gunther regarded him witheringly. "Hire one, you fool. Better yet, take Dennis Almiro to lunch, and mention my name. Ask if he still owns the condo in Marina del Rey. Then tell him you want to know all about Hutchinson and his partner. Both of them, don't forget that. I want their current itinerary: workload, ongoing cases, coming court appearances. I want to know their contacts, their friends, their enemies. Everything, Robert. Tell Almiro I want a complete file. He'll understand. Five days, Robert."

Praetor shook his head. "Uncle James, I don't understand this -- obsession of yours." He had to say it, even if it triggered another flare of temper. "What's done is done, surely, and with the trial date due to be set, surely it would be more politic to -- "

"You fool." No explosion of fury, but a serpent hiss. The pale eyes blazed, fixing on him with hypnotic intensity. "How did Irene ever produce something like you . . . ? Listen. Welles will postpone that trial indefinitely." The powered chair advanced on him with a low hum. "I'm a sick man." And the smile was a wolf's. ''I won't live to face a jury. But neither will Hutchinson." Praetor's retreat was blocked by the wall, and the chair stopped inches away, keeping him pinned. "He destroyed so much, he and his partner . . . So much of what I built up over the years. Destroyed in a matter of hours. He will pay for that. I shall destroy him, Robert. He will be debased, hounded, and finally exterminated."

Praetor stared at the twisted face. This cold ruthlessness was infinitely worse than the maddened rage he had witnessed before. But it was still madness and he would have nothing to do with it.

"No. You can't do that, dammit."

"But you can, Robert. You will."

"Impossible. My career -- "

"Ah, yes. Your . . . career." Gunther backed off a little, smiling. "You were running for governor, weren't you?"

"Until your arrest, yes. Since then, the publicity . . . "

"So. He owes you, too."

"The man is a police officer," Praetor said, biting the words out. "He did his job."

"Save your pious righteousness for your electorate, Robert. Politics depend more than anything on one thing -- money. With enough dollars behind you, it won't matter if you're a cross between the Boston Strangler and Charles Manson."

"No one has that kind of money," Praetor said sharply.

Gunther's smile widened. "I do," he said softly. "Oh, you don't know how much I have. No one does, except me. And no one can touch it except me. Numbered Swiss bank accounts, Robert. I have half a dozen of them. A fortune in diamonds. Enough to buy the loyalty of every Senator and Congressman in the country. Enough to buy the Presidency, if you want it, Robert. All you have to do is give me Hutchinson, and it's all yours. All of it." And while his nephew stared, he backed further, swung the chair to face the window again. "Go away. Think about it. And contact Almiro. Five days, Robert."