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No Easy Answers
Terri Beckett and Chris Power



"Terrific presentation, Ken!" Mac caught up with Hutch as he left the office, slinging an arm across his shoulders. "Man, you don't know how impressed the bosses are. They're starting to make noises about a permanent position, maybe expansion. How's it feel to be a whizz-kid?"

"At my age?" Hutch chuckled "So long as they're happy, and the checks don't bounce . . . But a permanent position sounds good. I like the work, and I've got a good team."

"Kind of different from being a cop, though, huh? So, how're things up in Three Rivers? I miss having you two around, y'know. Kath and the kids, too. How's the renovation going?"

Hutch gave a wry laugh. "Mac, I told Starsky once that it'd drive me crazy if we had to live together."


"And I was right. I never know what I'm going to find when I open the door -- he could be up to his ears in wood shavings and sawdust, or out on the deck playing poker with a couple of guys from the lumber yard. It'll be tap dancing ostriches next."

"He's having a good time, then?"

"A good time? Hell, he's loving every moment of it!"

It wasn't an exaggeration. Starsky had thrown himself into the mammoth enterprise with an enthusiasm Hutch hadn't seen in him for months, and discovered a talent in that direction that neither of them had suspected. Which only went to show, as Starsky said, that you're never too old to learn. The work was better than any program of physical therapy, and there was a new joy in their sharing -- a domesticity that Hutch vaguely remembered from the first months of his marriage. Except it had never been such fun with Van. The healing was almost complete. Hutch couldn't remember the last night interrupted by nightmares, and their lovemaking had no hang-ups. In short, life was great.

"Well, remember you're taking tomorrow evening off from the redecorating, and having dinner with us."

"I'm not likely to forget the opportunity for a decent meal," Hutch assured him. "Cordon Bleu is not one of Starsk's many talents. It'll be spaghetti sauce again tonight. His turn to cook."

"Say no more. I'll tell Kath to take Bolognese off the menu."

"To be fair, there's not much even a gourmet chef could produce in our kitchen as it is. We do eat out a lot."

"Is the plumbing fixed yet?"

Hutch raised his eyes to heaven. "Who knows?"

There was a surprise waiting for him when he opened the door.

* * * * * *

"Ta-da!" Starsky declaimed, with a flourish, and hit the light switch. "How's this for progress?"

Hutch admired the difference electric light made, taking the opportunity to check out the kitchen -- and yes, fridge and freezer were both working. "Cold beer?" he said hopefully.

"First thing I thought of," Starsky said proudly. "The guy turned up this morning, finished up about an hour ago. No way could I have tackled that job myself."

"Not without frying, no," Hutch agreed, accepting the dew-frosted can Starsky produced. "But does this mean no more candlelit suppers, lover?"

"Those we can have anytime. Electricity is a funny thing," he went on philosophically. "In the immortal words of my grandmother -- you don't trust what you can't see. She had this idea that the current leaked out of wall sockets and lay around in invisible puddles."

"You stole that from James Thurber," Hutch accused, grinning, as he followed him out onto the deck. It was a good place to relax in the evening, a sheltered sun-trap even this late in the year.

"So maybe we had the same grandmother." Starsky gave him a darkly glittering look. "Plagiarism's not a felony. You want to get out of that suit, then maybe you'd act less like a stuffed shirt."

Hutch didn't want to fight. "Tell me more about your grandmother," he invited, watching the play of light on Starsky's face, the way he moved, the unconscious panther grace.

"She never could figure how TV worked, either -- " but he was interrupted by a strident "WAH!" as the Siamese appeared on the deck, apparently from nowhere. "Hey, you're too early. We're not eating yet."

The cat came over to be petted, purring, and settled weightily on Hutch's knee. "Freeloader. S'no wonder you're such a size, getting double rations every day. Starsky, do the neighbors know their cat is scrounging for handouts?"

Starsky frowned. "Don't think they care much. The way I heard it, they wanted a show-quality animal, and this one didn't make the grade so -- "

"You mean they don't want it?"

Starsky shrugged. "They didn't dump her in the street."

"Yes, but a cat needs a home and attention and -- " he yelped as the cat flexed all claws in total agreement.

"Told you to get outta that suit," Starsky said, scooping the cat from Hutch's knee -- it climbed from his arms to drape around his shoulders. "We could always adopt it, I guess," he added casually.

"Why not? Spends enough time here." Hutch brushed fur from his pants and went inside to change. Starsky gave the dark chocolate ears a fond rub, and the cat stropped whiskers along his jaw.

"Looks like you're home and dry, pal," the man whispered, and the cat, who knew that already, purred. "How about spaghetti and Bolognese sauce tonight? For a change?"

* * * * * *

Electric light meant that redecorating could now go on after sundown, an innovation Hutch hadn't considered, but he didn't make too much objection to wielding a brush and tackling the details that Starsky's slapdash roller missed. But he was glad when his lover called a halt, standing back, hands on hips to survey the pristine white of the bedroom walls. "Not bad, huh?"

"Perfection itself," Hutch agreed, moving in behind him to wrap arms around him and nuzzle into his neck. "Hey. I never knew the smell of paint was erotic . . . "

"Me neither." He leaned back, feeling Hutch's grip tighten.

"Well, it has to be that. There's more paint on you than on the wall, just about."

"It'll come off in the shower."

"Shower?" Hutch let go of him so suddenly he almost lost his balance. "We have a shower?"

"Oh. Yeah, I guess I forgot to tell you. We got that fixed today as well."

Hutch gave a moan of ecstasy. "Indoor plumbing at last."

"Smartass." Starsky snorted, and took an exasperated swipe at his ear, which resulted in Hutch wearing a liberal amount of the white latex satin finish as well. "Now we both better get that shower, and fast, before this stuff dries!"

It occurred to him as he stripped off jeans and t-shirt that it had been a while since he and Hutch had shared a shower. At Kathy's place it hadn't been possible -- before that, during the bad times, the thought hadn't occurred to either of them. Now, with their bathroom their own, they could do just about whatever took their fancy. And the more he thought about it, the more the idea appealed to him.

He fixed the spray and ducked under as Hutch came in, and even with the pulse of the water in his ears he could hear Hutch's grumbling as he tried to scrub paint out of his eyebrows. "C'mon in, Blintz," he invited. "The water's fine."

"You just want help scrubbing your back," Hutch accused, and the blond body brushed his as he crowded in.

"Got it in one," Starsky purred, and handed him the soap.

The charade didn't last long, the rising tide of arousal saw to that. Eyes closed, reading Hutch's body like Braille in the game of returning touch for touch, he discovered that somewhere along the way he'd shed a layer of skin, because the lightest contact woke shuddering pleasure in naked nerve ends.

The water beat down, soaking blond and dark hair, welding them together in one sensual whole, and Starsky couldn't tell anymore where he ended and Hutch began, neither did he care. Flesh moved slickly over flesh, joining, fusing, separating briefly to savor the sweetness of renewing the contact. Knowing his knees wouldn't last out much longer, Starsky locked both arms around Hutch's neck, trusting in his strength to keep them both on their feet, and Hutch's mouth fastened on his. Their heartbeats made a double thunder, and Hutch's hands were on his hips, bonding them close, groin to groin, swaying under the driving rain of the shower, since neither of them had a hand free to turn off the spray.

Starsky, balance entirely gone, thought for a delirious moment that he was drowning, but then the tension in him reached explosion point, and he arched to meet Hutch's urgency, coherence lost in the half-laughing breathlessness of their coming together.

* * * * * *

"Well?" Gunther didn't give his nephew time to close the door before he was barking his demand.

"They've disappeared, Uncle James," Praetor closed the door firmly before he spoke. "Both of them."


"No." He opened his briefcase, took out a file. "I contacted Almiro, as you said. This isn't complete yet, but we have been able to make a few discoveries." He gave a concise breakdown of the Escort Agency case, of the ongoing investigations, and those involved.

"Lazero?" Gunther smiled. "An ambitious lout. It doesn't surprise me that he and his cronies indulged in snuff parties. And Detective Starsky was to be part of the entertainment? Interesting."

"Lazero is dead. Internecine warfare, as far as Almiro can find out. Henderson in Las Vegas is the main suspect, but no one can prove it." Praetor's mind was staggering at the sheer enormity of it all. "As for Starsky -- he was retired from the department on a stress disability. The hospital records show he was raped." Praetor paused, unable to conceal his distaste, but his uncle's eyes glittered.

"And Hutchinson?"

"Resigned a few weeks ago. He was absent from Los Angeles for a time, but was back in his apartment above the restaurant at the time of the explosion -- "

"I know that. Where is he now?"

"As I said -- they've both disappeared."

The unholy glint in Gunther's eyes grew brighter. "But you'll find them, Robert. They're no longer police officers. As before, that puts them outside the protection of the force. They are vulnerable. They have to cope with stress, trauma, loss of career. Good. Very good. Our campaign can benefit from beginnings like these. I'm pleased with you, Robert. Continue with your investigations, and keep me informed of all developments."

* * * * * *

It took remarkable little time or effort to accomplish the cat's purpose -- that is, to move in on the two men. The previous owners were amenable to the transfer, and a nominal amount of cash was exchanged for the relevant papers. Except for one point.

"He needs a name," Hutch said firmly, after one glance at the pedigree.

"He's got one. Hasn't he?" Starsky was stroking the animal, both of them enjoying the experience.

"Sure. But no way am I calling 'Maniton Hector of Perigord' when it's chow-time."

Starsky chuckled. "It's a little on the heavy side. Okay, he's 'Puss' until further notice."

"That's hardly the height of imagination," Hutch snorted. "He's attached to you like a shadow. Wherever you are, he is. How about 'Doppleganger'?"

Starsky shot him a look. "That's almost as bad as Maniton-whatever-it-was. Whaddya think, Cat? You gonna answer to 'Dop'?"

Hutch's protest was drowned by the healthy buzz-saw purr of the newly-named Dop, and the decision was accepted by all three.

* * * * * *

Knowing his sister as he did, Hutch should have suspected an ulterior motive behind the invitation to dinner. It was possible, however, that he'd just lost the habit, and was ready to take her at face value. As it happened, it wasn't him she had designs on.

"Dave," she zeroed in on Starsky as they sat down at table, "how much work you got left to do on the house?"

"Almost through," Starsky told her proudly. "Don't tell me, you got the urge to redecorate and you need expert assistance. Look no further, pretty lady -- "

She chuckled, "Not exactly. But I could use some help. Or rather, Heston Junior High could."

"Vicky's school? What's the problem?"

Kathy studiously doled out the salad. "Well, the photography teacher just got pregnant -- "

"Hey, don't look at me!" Starsky's expression was comical.

"Oh, get serious. We need a substitute for the rest of the semester, and I know you've got an interest -- "

"And talent," Hutch cut in.

"Hold it," Starsky said quickly. "Yeah, I got an interest, and I know the techniques, but -- teach? Kath, I got no qualifications."

"I know that. But the point is, we're desperate." He could hear the wheedling note in her voice, and smiled. "I talked to the rest of the School Board. They're all in favor."

"Spoken like a true Hutchinson." Hutch was smirking, and Starsky shot him a glare. "Okay," he capitulated. "Give me an idea what I'd be getting into, and I'll think about it."

Kathy beamed at him, jubilant. "Oh, I knew we could count on you, Dave."

"Think about it, he said," he husband cautioned.

Hutch gave a snort of amusement. "You don't change, Sis. Ever get the feeling you're being railroaded, partner? Great idea, Kath. Keep him from getting soft."

Starsky's look promised retribution. "You'll pay for that, Hutchinson. Kath, before we go any further -- do they know about me?"

He didn't need to explain. "They know you're great with kids, you're an ex-cop, you're my brother's partner. Anything else," she said staunchly, daring him to disagree, "is none of their business."

"Hey, it's just four weeks or so," Hutch put in quietly. "We're not talking career decision here."

"Who's doing the railroading?" Starsky demanded. "The two of you ganging up on me or what?"

"You'd be doing me a big favor." Chicken Maryland was loaded on to his plate like a bribe.

"Right," Hutch nodded. "You say no, and her reputation as Little Miss Fix-it is shot."

"Would you mind?" Kathy snapped. "I'm trying to talk here. Dave, how about it? The kids will love you."

Starsky felt backed into a corner. "Uh, Kath, all I got is a camera -- "

"You don't need any more of your own equipment. They've got their own darkroom, everything, buy the chemicals by the case, stacks of paper -- " She knew she had him then, because there was a dawning light of enthusiasm in his eyes. "I'll call and set up an interview. You can start next week?"

"Sure he can," Hutch agreed blithely.

"When you two have finished fixing up my life," Starsky said, mock humbly, "can I say something?"

"Only if it's 'yes'," Kathy laughed. "I'm sorry, Dave. You will do it, won't you?"

He grinned at her. "Throw in a couple of your home-baked pound cakes, and you got a deal."

"The way to a man's heart," she sighed. "And I thought you were incorruptible. Ah, well."

* * * * * *

The interview, as Kathy had intimated, was a mere formality. The school was desperate for someone competent to fill in for their absent teacher, and while Starsky had little in the way of experience, he had advantages to counter that lack -- he knew and loved his subject, and he was able to communicate his enthusiasm.

The students were not a problem. Those who took the class wanted to learn, and their desire matched his. It was a moot point who learned more as the 'guest lecturer' settled into his new job.

It was a settling-in period for them both, and in more than employment. The days slid past like oil, and weeks became months. For the first time in years, they had leisure to notice the passage of the seasons. Even to realize what seasons were, seeing the differences that hadn't really existed for them in the city.

Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Christmas, New Year. And with the advent of spring, the house was finally finished and fit for inspection.

"Know something?" Starsky said one evening, gazing proudly at the results of months of hard work, "we should have a party."

* * * * * *


Carolyn Duplessis' latest craze was the telephone. Every time it rang, she headed for it at a speed that defied belief, and it took a fast set of feet to beat her to it. Hurdling the dog and a chair, Duplessis scooped the phone out of her reach at the last moment. "Yeah," he yelled over the shriek of infant protest, "who is this?"

"Dave Starsky," came the amused response. "What's with the sound effects? You giving your siren an inside test run?"

"Wish I was. I could turn it off then. Carrie, darlin', Daddy's trying to talk -- y'know, Starsk, my kid would be an Olympic sprint champion if they had a telephone bell instead of a starting pistol."

"Sounds more like a hog-calling champion," Starsky chuckled.

"Right. So, what can I do for you, pal?" Duplessis mouthed a silent 'Starsk' at Sally's inquiring look as she carried the child out of the way.

"This is short notice, I know, but can you and Sal make it up to our place for a housewarming bash? Well, dinner, anyway."

"You finished the place!" Duplessis said, delighted. "When's the party?"

"Day after tomorrow. Our place, Saturday night, seven o'clock. Hutch's sister says she'll put you up overnight, or there's a motel a couple of miles down the valley."

"Think I know it -- we'll book in there, she doesn't have to give us houseroom. Tell her thanks, but I haven't had a one-nighter in a motel with Sal in quite a while."

"You romantic fool," Starsky drawled. Then -- "Uh, Dave, there's one thing more."

"Yeah? Bring a bottle, right?"

"That too if you want, but that's not what I meant. If you haven't already, you'd better tell her about Hutch and me. Then she can decide if she still wants to come."

"Hey, no sweat. I know my lady. See you at seven."

"What do you know about me?" Sally asked sweetly. "And where are you supposed to be at seven?"

"Starsky just invited us to a housewarming dinner," Duplessis said casually. "Saturday night. Can we get a sitter?"

"I'll call Mom. And why have you got that odd expression, honey?"

"Uh -- well -- " he hesitated, then shrugged. "Hutch and Starsky," he went on. ''They're not just sharing the house. They're lovers. Have been for months."

"David," Sally said grimly. "That's a joke in very bad taste. Lots of people share. There doesn't have to be any -- "

"No joke, honey." He faced her squarely, willing her to understand. "They're living together, as in husband and -- husband, I guess. Starsk said I was to tell you, and you have to decide if you still want to go to the party."

Sally looked at him. "How long have you known?" she asked quietly.

"Since Starsk ended up in the hospital a few months ago."

"Oh." Then: "All that fighting and drama -- that was part of it?"

"Indirectly. Maybe." He waited, trying to read her reaction. "Well? Are we still going?"

"Yes," Sally said firmly. "We are. I'll call Mom, she can have Carrie and the dog -- are we staying over?"

"I'll check us into a motel," Duplessis said, grinning widely. "Hey, how about a dirty weekend, doll?" And he leered happily.

Sally swatted him, but smiled. "First things first. What are the color schemes?"

"Huh?" Blankly.

"I shall be glad," Sally said wearily, "when those blond streaks have gone from your hair. They appear to be affecting your brain. The new house, darling one. What are the color schemes? We're not going up there empty-handed!"

"Ah. Right. I'll find out. I know there's a lot of natural wood -- "

"Fair enough."

Duplessis relaxed. She'd taken it as he thought she would. Self-consciously he ran a hand over his hair. Those highlights were an unwelcome reminder of the Sandoval-Connery murders -- the whole Hidalgo/Benedic case. A face and a name picked out of a photo-file -- and Starsky had been raped. It could just as easily have been himself. Sally knew nothing of all that -- and if he had any choice in the matter, she never would.

* * * * * *

It did occur to Duplessis, when Dobey mentioned that he too had an invitation to the party, to wonder if the captain knew of the relationship between his ex-detectives. He thought he probably did. The friendship between Hutch, Starsky, and Captain Dobey was far more than merely professional, and if they hadn't told him outright, he'd probably guessed. And, departmental homophobia being what it was, he'd have kept the suspicion to himself. Wouldn't want to lose his best team, after all -- and if IA had got wind of what was going on, it would have been more than a CUBO charge . . .

* * * * * *

Kathy adjusted the arrangement of mimosa in the flower bowl one more time and stepped back to admire the table. At fullest extension, it would seat ten -- the damask cloth was hers, as were the crystal and cutlery and napkins, and the effect, though she said it herself, was classy. The only fly in the ointment had been that damned cat. He refused to be organized, and attempts to lock him out had been as fruitless as handcuffing Houdini. He was into everything -- levitating onto countertops and tables, investigating with nose or paw or tongue-tip. If that wasn't bad enough, he shed. And cat hairs weren't officially on the menu.

But Starsky wouldn't hear a word against his pet and Hutch irritatingly backed him up, so eventually Kathy and the Dop reached a compromise. He wouldn't squat in the middle of her meticulous table setting, and she wouldn't side-sweep him with a candelabra. To cement the deal, he would have a select plateful of goodies all to himself out on the deck. And anything else he could bum off his human friends. He was eyeing her now from a windowsill.

"You dare," she said warningly, and he blinked at her languidly. Then the doorbell chimed, and the first arrivals came in, and she didn't have time to worry.

She needn't have, anyway. Dop behaved like the aristocat he was -- the food turned out perfectly, the guests were appreciative, and the dinner party went like clockwork. Mac squeezed her hand under the table. "You do good work, darlin'."

Kathy gave him a return squeeze and beamed on the other guests. Captain Dobey she already knew -- Ken had introduced them years ago, on one of her visits -- and Edith his wife was charming. She'd heard about Huggy Bear, though had expected a plumper individual to fit the name -- and she remembered Minnie Kaplan from the same visit when she'd met the captain, though she certainly looked stunningly different out of uniform.

Dave Duplessis and Sally were everything she'd been told.

You 're so lucky, Kenny. Friends like these . . .

She'd gone the whole hog with coffee and liqueurs, and was glad. Everyone looked full-fed and relaxed, and conversation flourished -- primarily about the house.

"This is a fantastic place," Edith said appreciatively. "Harold told me it was a fixer-upper."

"It was," Hutch grinned. "Starsk did most of the work. Didn't do too bad, did he? Once he quit taking the shortcuts."

"It was teamwork," Starsky said smugly. "Like always. I did the sweatin', he did the criticizin'."

"Just like old times," Minnie drawled.

"It's a dream-home," Sally murmured. "One day, maybe, I'd like a place like this."

"A bit far from civilization, for me," Dobey put in. "But I'd say you two have got yourselves quite an investment here. Must have more than doubled its value. What are you asking for it?"

"We're not," Starsky said positively. "This is home. With or without the roses around the door and the white picket fence."

"Hey. You can have the fence if you want," Hutch said.

"Sure. And Dop'd be sharpening his claws on it even before I put it up. Not to mention the mess he'd get into while I was painting it." And Dop, knowing he was being talked about, flexed his paws on Starsky's knee and purred.

"Home Sweet Home," Huggy said, with a certain envy. "Well, I'd say you guys earned it. I got a toast, folks. Here's to the happy couple."

"Amen," said Duplessis and Mac together, fractionally ahead of their wives. And Dobey gave a grunt and nodded -- which answered an unspoken question for both Kathy and Duplessis.

The party broke up very late, everyone going their separate ways. Starsky dumped the last of the dirty dishes into the sink and turned into Hutch's embrace.

"Did I say 'Happy Housewarming'?" Hutch asked into his neck.

"Oh, a couple of times," Starsky said contentedly. ''But you can say it again if you like. S'not midnight. Yet. You got -- " he checked his watch, "three minutes."

"Three minutes isn't a lot of time to make it a Happy Housewarming," Hutch complained.

"Oh, I dunno. You'd be surprised what you can do in three minutes," Starsky purred.

Hutch pulled back enough to look down at him. "Starsk, if you'd read Kinsey, you'd know seven minutes is the average -- "

Starsky chuckled. "Sure I've read Kinsey. And you only got two minutes and fifteen -- fourteen seconds left -- "

"Who's counting?" Hutch demanded, and kissed him. "Let's leave the clearing-up until the morning, huh?"

"Fine by me . . . "

It had been a good day, a pattern for good days to come, Starsky thought, relaxing into the circle of Hutch's arms. A year ago, it wouldn't have seemed possible -- but here they were, out of the force, together in a place of their own, and as much in love as ever.

We made it, he thought, and the thought was warming. And now nothing can touch us.

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* * * * * *

The car was pulled far enough off the road to be almost invisible. Starsky gave it only a passing glance as he drove out of the gate on the way to work, and forgot about it immediately. Until the next morning, when it was there again. This time he remembered to check on the way home, and it was still there. A vague silhouette spoke of occupancy, so it couldn't have been parked up and left by a fisherman, walker or birdwatcher.

For some reason, Starsky couldn't get that car out of his head. For a while he pottered about preparing the evening meal, but his concentration was lacking. Just in time he caught himself about to put two tablespoons of cayenne into the casserole instead of teaspoons. He swore, and dumped the spice back in the jar. The nerves under his scalp and down his spine were hyperactive; it felt like insects with many feet were crawling over his skin, and the resulting tension was knotting his muscles. He was being watched. The conviction grew out of control and took over, so that he spun on his heel, instinctively reaching for the gun that hadn't been there for months. The kitchen was empty but for himself. Of course. No one was at the window nor in the doorway. Not even the cat.

"Shit!" he said aloud. "Am I still crazy?" A perfectly innocent car parked opposite the driveway, and I go off the wall? For God's sake, get your act together.

But even so, he found himself heading out of the house. Maybe he should go over and say hello, find out what the guy was doing in this neck of the woods. Be neighborly. And set his mind at rest.

Starsky cut across the garden to stay out of sight of any watcher until the last possible moment. The sound of a car engine made him freeze momentarily and Hutch's car turned into the drive and braked to a halt.

"Hi," Hutch smiled. "A welcoming committee?" and Starsky realized he had gained a smaller shadow. Dop was stalking beside him.

"Of course," he said, feeling foolish.

Hutch laughed, and carried on up to the house. Starsky swung the gate shut behind him, staring across the road. There was no car. But the wheel tracks were there, grass and undergrowth straightening up as he watched.

"I'm paranoid," he told the cat. "C'mon, let's go finish the cookin'."

Casually, while they were clearing away the remains of the meal, Starsky said, "Did you notice a car in the bushes opposite us when you came home tonight?"

"No," Hutch said.

"No, there wasn't, or no, you didn't?"

"No, I didn't. Why? What's so important about it?" Hutch said, voice puzzled.

"Probably nothin'," he smiled. "You know how it is -- once a cop, and all that."

"You think someone's casing the joint?" Hutch said. There was no disbelief or amusement in either face or voice, for which Starsky gave silent thanks.

"It's a possibility -- kinda thin, though, I guess. This car was out there yesterday morning, this morning, and tonight when I got home. By the look of it he left right after you came home. It's either a coincidence, or maybe we got a prospective burglary coming up."

"Yeah," Hutch frowned. "How much of the car did you see?"

"Not a lot. It's a dark blue sedan. Couldn't make a guess at the model, and couldn't see the license plate. Tomorrow I'll give it a closer look if it's still there."

"Good idea. Maybe we should think about a couple of Dobermans. It's pretty isolated out here, and a prime target for break-ins."

"Yeah, maybe. Though Dop won't like it. And thanks, lover."

"For what?"

"Not tellin' me I'm paranoid."

"When I think you are, I'll tell you fast enough," Hutch smiled. "In the meantime, why don't we take a look at where it was parked. He might have left something lying around."

But he hadn't. There was nothing there but the tire marks, not even a cigarette packet or a discarded can.

"I'm being too suspicious," Starsky admitted. "Either he took all his litter home, or he didn't spend any time at the car. Almost certainly he was a fisherman or something."

"Maybe. But there's no harm in keeping an eye open for him. Just in case."

"And think about the Dobermans," Starsky chuckled. "Hear that, Dop? You could have some competition around here."

"Waow," commented the cat, emerging from a hazel stand.

The next day there was no car parked in the bushes.

* * * * * *

"There is no real improvement, Mr. Praetor," Dr. Kalleran said. "The wheelchair has increased his mobility, but that gives a false impression of physical recovery. There is none, I'm afraid. He is operating on will-power alone."

"Is there deterioration, then?"

"Physically, no, not yet. But it is a matter of time."

Again, that word and its almost imperceptible stress. Praetor looked the doctor square in the eyes. "My uncle is insane," he said bluntly, "and getting worse. Right?"

"He is obsessional certainly," the man said with some care. "And yes, his mental condition does appear to be slowly worsening, but -- "

"He is insane."

"I'm not qualified to make that diagnosis."

"Fair enough." Praetor gave the doctor a disarmingly rueful smile. "Thanks for your time."

Dr. Kalleran accepted the dismissal and left him alone, but Praetor did not go immediately to Gunther's room. He toyed with the idea of having his uncle confirmed insane officially by a psychiatrist. That would let him off the hook as far as this lunatic vendetta was concerned, and would give the defense lawyer a good line for the judge. James Marshall Gunther, not guilty by reason of insanity. And if the old monster was officially declared insane, then he, Robert Marshall Praetor, would become executor of his affairs. But would that give him access to those Swiss bank accounts? He had a gut feeling it would not. So the charade would have to continue, balancing the wasting of time with retaining Gunther's confidence and cooperation until those account numbers were his.

For once the television was not on. Gunther sat in front of the window, his back to the door, his features a pale insubstantial reflection in the glass. A ghost of a man, Praetor thought, left behind in this modern world.

The chair spun round and Gunther faced him, eyes brilliant as dagger points.

"You hired the investigator as instructed?" he snapped. "Report."

"Yes, Uncle James," Praetor said patiently. "I have Hutchinson's address. He's working for Westray Electonics as a security consultant."

"And Starsky?"

"Teaching photography in Heston High School in Visalia."

"What have you done about it?"

"Nothing, as yet. I await your instructions."

"I see. What else have you found out on them?"

"Not much else of any importance."

"Really. Robert, you're a bigger fool than I took you for. Don't you consider the fact that they are indulging in a homosexual relationship to be of 'any importance'?"

Praetor swallowed. How the hell did he know? "Frankly, I didn't. This is California. In some quarters to be gay is, uh, fashionable."

"Don't treat me like an idiot. They don't live or work in San Francisco." He began to laugh quietly, a cold mirth that made Praetor feel vaguely nauseous. "They are giving me weapon after weapon with which to destroy them." Then the laughter was cut short and those all-too-alert eyes scalpeled into Praetor's brain. "Of course. I know what you're doing, and why. You think you can humor me, string me along with platitudes and snippets of information to make me think you're doing as you're told. Hoping I'll have another stroke and you'll inherit those Swiss bank accounts?" He smiled, a slow evil and twisted smile. "Robert, it doesn't work that way. The stroke may have affected my body, but not my mind. Those numbers are up here," tapping one finger on his brow, "and nowhere else. I'll take them to my grave rather than pass them on to someone who hasn't earned them. No more foolish tricks, Robert. Your investigator reports directly to me as well as to you. You have one last chance to redeem yourself. And this, my dear nephew, is what you will do."

The instructions were clear and precise. First would come the hate campaign, the anonymous letters to local papers denouncing the perverted queers living in Three Rivers, and to their employers. This would be followed up by also anonymous tip-offs to the sheriff's office, linking them with every unsolved sex-crime going. Almiro would help out on that last order. Praetor did not need to ask what was the point of such vicious pettiness; Gunther was going to cut them off from everything they valued. Friends, careers, probably family as well. And then?

"When they've been hounded out of the county by the righteous citizens," Gunther went on, "we tighten the screws a little more. Another contract, I think, on ex-Detective Sergeant Starsky. Followed by another campaign against Hutchinson's sanity. Suicide would be appropriate, I think. A nicely ignominious death, eh, Robert?"

"Yes, Uncle James," he croaked, bile clogging in his throat.

"And then, and only then, will I hand over those Swiss accounts. Indeed, you can have everything with my blessing. I no longer have any use for it."

"Uncle James, it seems to be a somewhat long drawn out arrangement, and you are a sick man -- couldn't you -- "

"No. I've made my plans, and you'll stick to them. I've sworn to God and the Devil, Robert, that I will live to see Hutchinson dead, and I will do it. Now, get out of here and start the ball rolling, and don't attempt to draw the wool over my eyes again. If you wish to inherit, you must prove worthy. Agreed?"

"Yes Uncle James." This time he spoke with conviction, when it came down to it, he wanted that money and all the power it would buy. Okay, so this crazy old monster was treating him like a doormat, but no one else ever would. That was certain.

* * * * * *


Hutch returned to the Merced office from the Stockton plant by mid-afternoon. His secretary greeted him with a nervous smile and a couple of messages.

"Mac wants you to call him at Sacramento as soon as you got back," she said, "and Mr. Carson wants to see you in his office even sooner."

"That sounds ominous. Has someone used his parking space again?"

"Uh, it's a bit more important than that," she said, not looking at him. "Shall I get Mac's number?"

"S'okay, I'll call him after I've seen the bossman."

"Um, Hutch, maybe you should call him first."

He stared at her suspiciously. "What's going on here? Has Mac got some serious trouble up north?"

"No," she said, "he's fine, but -- "

"Janie," he said patiently, "am I about to be fired, or something?"

"No!" she flared. "You better not be! I don't know what's going on for sure, but something is. Call Mac, Hutch."

"Later," he said grimly. "Call the old man's secretary and tell her I'm on my way."

So what was coming down? Hutch was frowning as he headed for the elevator. He knew for a fact that the company director had no reason to fire him -- he'd already saved the firm thousands of dollars at the Stockton plant alone, with the prospect of many more thousands at the San Francisco and Sacramento complexes soon to come. From the first meeting, he'd gotten along well with Wallace Carson, and could think of no reason for Janie's obvious concern. Unless a competitor had got wind of the new computer project, and had made a try for the blueprints, breaking through the newly installed security systems to do it. That could well be classified as shit hitting the fan.

Carson's secretary waved him on through with a cheerful smile, and he entered the big office with increased puzzlement. He didn't think that Carole would be quite so happy if the manure was flying around.

"Sit down, Hutch," Carson said. "Coffee?"

"No, thanks. I got some waiting back in my office. What's the problem?"

"Well, Westray haven't got any, but you might have. It looks as if someone is gunning for you, Hutch. This turned up in the post this morning." And he pushed a piece of folded paper across the desk.

Hutch picked it up, started to read, then glanced quickly at the end of the letter.

"Don't bother, it's unsigned," Carson said. "That kind of shit usually is. The bastards are so high and mighty on their moral ground, but they haven't got the guts to put their names to the trash they write."

"Yes," said Hutch numbly. As anonymous letters went, this one was fairly innocuous. The writer wished Mr. Carson to know that his company had unwittingly employed a dangerous homosexual pervert who might at any minute attack his employees' children. Did Mr. Carson know that there were a series of unsolved sex crimes in the Visalia area, and given the presence of this evil person on his staff, what was Mr. Carson going to do about it? It was his moral and God-fearing duty to take steps to protect the righteous.

Hutch dropped the letter on the desk and sat back. "So what are you going to do about it?" he asked.

"Protect the righteous," Carson grinned, and screwed up the paper and threw it into the waste paper basket. "And the innocent. That's the best place for that garbage. But there are implications here which I, for one, don't like. Right from the start, let me repeat what I said when you first joined us. I don't give a damn if you're gay or straight. If I had to fire every gay who worked for me, the San Francisco plant would have to be shut down. I'd probably lose half my workforce, if not more. It's the person and the work he or she turns out that's important, and you do a damn good job. So don't think I'm going to take any notice of that malicious shit. But if the bastard has written to me, he could be writing to other people, and he's doing more than mudslinging. He's making accusations here, in a very unsubtle way, and it seems likely to me someone is out to cause you as much grief as they can. You better warn the rest of your family, and go to the police." He retrieved the letter and its envelope from the waste bin, and held them out to Hutch. "Take this and show it to them. Sheriff DeSoto at Visalia isn't a bad guy, I've gone skeet shooting with him a few times. He's one of the old school, but he's good."

"Thanks. This is the last thing I expected," Hutch said quietly. "And I can't think who'd do it, or why." He checked the envelope -- the postmark said Visalia. "We haven't been here long enough to have made enemies, for God's sake. We left all the old ones behind in Los Angeles," he added with a bleak smile. "And they're more likely to come after us with guns than with this."

"Don't know which is worse," Carson snorted. "Just remember this, the company's behind you. Any help you need in the way of lawyers, cash, whatever, come and see me. Okay?"

"Yes, and thanks. I appreciate this."

"No sweat. Take the rest of the day and get that piece of shit to the sheriff."

"Maybe. After the family discussion."

"What do you mean, maybe? You're both ex-cops, aren't you? Isn't that the kind of advice you used to hand out? So take it, for a change. Let the sheriff's office earn its keep. And good luck, Hutch."

"I think we're going to need it."

* * * * * *

The drive home seemed to take longer than usual, and it wasn't until he took the turning off towards Three Rivers that Hutch remembered he hadn't called Mac. Well, that would have to wait for the next day. If the problem was that urgent then Mac could call him at home. Starsky was sitting at the breakfast bar when Hutch walked in, and he didn't look up when Hutch spoke his name.

"We got an anonymous letter in the mail," he said, sitting beside Starsky and dropping an arm about his shoulders.

"Yeah. All the usual crap. How did you know?"

"The boss got one today, about me. He says to take it to the sheriff."

"Are you fired?"

"Nope. Any help we want with lawyers, and so on, he'll see we get."

"That's somethin', I guess." His voice was flat, and Hutch tightened his embrace. "If this creep sent one to Carson, what's the betting there's one on the way to the High School and I'll bet you any money they won't be so liberal minded. Maybe I should resign right now, before the unpleasantness really starts."

"Where is the letter? What did it say?"

"It's over by the coffee pot. Basically it's tellin' us perverts to get out of the area because they don't want us foulin' their clean air an' corruptin' their kids. What did Carson's say?"

"Variation on the theme, with a sting in the tail." Hutch handed it over, and examined the letter and envelope that Starsky had opened. Both were different from the one he'd already seen, and though both were typed, this one had been done on an old manual, while Carson's had been typed on an electric.

"What gets me is, why?" said Starsky suddenly. "We've been here months now, and no one's bothered. We haven't exactly been advertisin' that we're gay, and there ain't that many people who know, especially in Visalia. No one in the family is going to turn out this shit, so who's got hold of it, and why? I don't buy all this moral crap -- it's all too pat, you know?"

"Yes. So what do we do about it? Take it to the sheriff like Carson said? It's what we'd advise if we were still cops and it was someone else on the receiving end."

"Oh, sure. Ain't so easy when the shoe's on the other foot. First thing to do is warn Kathy and Mac what's going on. As for what else we do -- apart from fight back -- I don't know. But I do know I'm not gonna be driven out by some yellow bastard who hasn't got the guts to put his name to this. Or her name. Hey," he said suddenly, straightening up. "Remember that car a couple of weeks back? I'll bet that's part of it. Or am I being paranoid again?"

"If you are, it's catching. Are you serious about resigning?"

"Fuck it, I don't know! This has thrown me a real curve I'm thinking about it. But I ain't leavin'," he finished with fierce determination. "Yeah, call the sheriff. The worst he can do is laugh in our faces -- "

He was interrupted by the phone, and Hutch answered it to find an angry brother-in-law on the other end. "Why didn't you call me back?" Mac yelled. "Did the bossman tell you what's come down? The letter?"

"Yes," Hutch said coolly. "Calm down, Mac, it's no big deal."

"What! I don't believe you said that!"

"I've still got a job. Is that what you wanted to tell me?"

"Yeah, to warn you before you were called in to the top office. Oh, I knew he wouldn't fire you, but forewarned is forearmed."

"I appreciate the thought. Thanks. But one turned up at the house today. Have you told Kathy?"

"No. Not yet."

"Then you'd better do it. If these scum are writing to Carson, the school is likely to be next. In fact, Kathy might even get one as well, if they assume we haven't told anyone we're gay."

"I'll tell her. The mushroom-shaped cloud over Visalia will be your sister." Mac's temper seemed to have cooled off. "It's probably some nut who wants to buy your place cheap, trying to drive you out."

"Maybe," Hutch said, "but they as sure as shit are not going to succeed."

"Attaboy. Keep us informed, huh? I'll see you at work tomorrow."

"Yeah," said Hutch, and hung up.

"Good old Mac," Starsky said wryly. "Nothin' like family for rallying round in a crisis, is there? Listen, I've been thinking. Let's wait a while, see if this is just a one-off, or if we're gonna get a collection of these. That way we could have a good spread to show to Sheriff Whatsisname for comparisons."

"Sounds like a good idea. I'll pass it on to Mac and the boss."

* * * * * *

For a week, the unsigned letters continued to appear in their mail. Kathy received a couple, kindly informing her of her brother's sin, and demanding that she publicly denounce them. Wallace, Carson, and the rest of the board collected a dozen between them, and all were carefully kept inside polythene bags and handed over to Hutch. The principal of the high school so far did not appear to have received any, nor the PTA. Which seemed a little strange.

"Maybe," said Starsky, "they're saving up a real lulu for the school. Still, it's an interesting pattern. Ours are aimed at getting us out. Kathy's are trying to alienate her, while the rest want you fired and are suggesting we're murderers and sex-maniacs as well as perverts. We got half a dozen different typefaces and machines, more than a dozen different kinds of paper and envelopes, and none of 'em handwritten. All of 'em were mailed in Visalia."

"And I've got a hunch," Hutch said, "that they're written by one person, maybe two. Look at the word patterns, the phrases."

"Yeah, I think you're right. Wish we had access to Forensics. I'd like to see what they make of these. I'd also like to know how he, she, or they can get hold of this many different typewriters."

"They may not need to. The electric machines have interchangeable daisywheels or golfballs."

"Damn it, why didn't I think of that? Maybe I need more coffee. Want some?"

"Yeah, thanks," Hutch said absently. "We've got enough here to go to the sheriff," he went on over the sound of the doorbell. "'S okay, I'll get it," he called.

Hutch opened the door to a heavily built man in his late forties, made bulkier by his uniform and the wide belt slung below a paunch that looked to be more muscle than lard.

"Mr. Hutchinson. I'm Sheriff DeSoto and I'd like a few minutes of your time." While not exactly hostile, his eyes were stone-like, and his mouth set like a steel trap.

"Come on in," Hutch said evenly. "You've just saved us a phone call."

"Yeah?" Noncommittally. Then, as he followed Hutch through to the living room: "You sure put a lot of work into this place. Quite an investment, I guess."

"So we've been told," Starsky said, coming in from the kitchen. "Only we ain't plannin' on cashing in on it. I just made coffee, d'you want some, Sheriff?"

"No, thanks."

"This is Dave Starsky, my partner," Hutch said. "What did you want to talk about, Sheriff?"

"This 'n' that. Why don't you tell me what you were gonna call me about?"

"Poison pen letters," Starsky said crisply. "Sit down, Sheriff, make yourself comfortable. Nobody here is gonna compromise your virtue."

"Poison pen letters," the man repeated. "Care to elaborate on that?"

"Sure," said Hutch. "To my boss, suggesting that he fire me, and that Starsk and me are guilty of a variety of unsolved sex crimes because we are homosexual. To my sister, informing her that I am having an unnatural relationship with a man and she should publicly denounce me. To both of us here telling us we are evil perverts who've got no place here, in this righteous and god-fearing community of Christian souls. This has been going on for about a week now, and we've kept every last letter and envelope. My guess is, you've been sent some too, or you wouldn't be here, right?"

"Could be," DeSoto said mildly. "Are you?"

"Am I what?"

"A homo."

"Yes," said Hutch coldly. "One half of a long-term monogamous relationship. And since when did that fact justify this kind of persecution within the law?"

"Did I say it did? Whatever my personal feelings might be, I uphold the law in this county. To the letter, Hutchinson. So back down, the pair of you, and let me get a sight of what's goin' on. Yeah, my department's received letters, unsigned, makin' specific accusations against you. I'm ignorin' them, because whoever made them wasn't all that clued up on the progress of the various investigations. We know you two ain't involved. But I'm kinda curious as to why this campaign has suddenly sprung up. Seems to me you been steppin' on somebody's toes. Either here or back in L.A. Y'see, I've done some checkin' around myself. Could be you brought this trouble with you."

"No way," Starsky snapped. "Only three people know where we are, and two of them are cops. And all three I'd trust with our lives."

"It's awful hard to disappear without trace when you're holding down a job and driving a car in your own name," Sheriff DeSoto said. "You of all people ought to know that. You gonna show me this collection you got? I'll have to take it away for tests. I'll want your fingerprints, as well."

"It's over here," Hutch said. "Help yourself."

"Intend to," he replied. "Hm. Nice set of groups. Looks like the ones we got match in pretty well. How about that coffee now? You guys got any theories?"

"No," Starsky said, pouring coffee and handing it over. "That's one thing we are short on. We haven't been advertisin' our relationship -- only Hutch's folks in Visalia and his bosses know. And our friends in L.A. The people we've come into contact with have all been friendly, they've made us welcome, and we ain't had a fight with anyone. The neighbors are fine, always been cheerful and welcoming. I can't think of anyone whose toes we've stomped on."

"Me, neither," Hutch put in. "I've got no enemies at work."

"Security consultant, right? Maybe you're too good at your job, Hutchinson. Thought of that one? Could be it's the competition in the electronics business trying to get you out. If it is like that, it could get worse. I'm gonna work on it, anyhow. In the meantime, keep any more of these that turn up, and let me know if there are developments. Okay?" He drained the hot coffee and stood up, carefully gathering together the packaged letters. ''If you find out anything, get in touch," he went on. "You ain't cops any more. If you take the law into your own hands, I'll come down on you so hard you'll think Mount Rushmore hit you. Got that?"

Sure, Sheriff," Hutch said tiredly. "We know the score."

"Good. If you think about havin' a couple of guard dogs, give me a call. Friend of mine breeds Rottweilers. See you around, guys," and he headed for the door.

"Prejudiced but fair-minded," Starsky announced wryly. "He's not gonna get anywhere, but I guess it won't be through lack of effort. That crack about business competitors -- I hate to admit it, but he's got a point there."

* * * * * *

Kathy's afternoon shopping in Visalia had left her just enough time to catch the afternoon TV news round up before starting the preparations for dinner. She fixed herself coffee and took the cup and an illicit slice of fudge cake into the living room, settling herself for a few minutes' relaxation in front of the screen She was later than she thought. The program was almost over.

" . . . Predicting a downswing in prices, which has to be good news whichever way you slice it." The anchorwoman gave a practiced plastic smile. "And now, Jeff Jeffries with our own 'In the Public Interest'." Kathy reached for the remote control. " . . . But first, a problem in one of our high schools. There are things our children don't need to learn, things they should never be exposed to, and it appears that things are developing in the darkroom at Heston High that aren't just pretty pictures. Far from it, in fact . . . " Kathy's finger froze above the cut-off button as the scandal-monger continued his muck-raking. " We're not naming names here, folks, but it seems to me that our children lose their innocence all too soon these days, and they don't need this kind of pervert teaching them all the wrong lessons. Perhaps the School Board should be looking more closely at the people they employ, even on a temporary -- "

"You bastards!" Kathy hurled the remote control at the screen and lunged for the phone, hands shaking with fury. But the station, even when she found their number, wasn't answering. It was probably just as well.

* * * * * *

Starsky checked his watch as he headed up the valley road -- if he was even five minutes late, Dop wouldn't let him forget it for the rest of the evening. How the animal knew what time to expect him home he didn't know, but without fail the cat would appear on the deck seconds after he got in, announcing his arrival with a deep Siamese bellow. He and Starsky would share a pint of milk or a can of beer -- Dop had a preference for Budweiser -- while they figured out what to fix for dinner.

Tonight would be cold cuts and salad. If Hutch remembered to pick up the French bread, there'd be enough for substantial hero sandwiches too. Either late supper -- depending on what time they got to bed, or lunch tomorrow. Given a choice, Starsky would opt for a late supper. Good sex always made him hungry.

He was early -- time to empty the grocery sacks into cupboards and freezer, and to switch on TV for the afternoon news while he popped a can and relished the first mouthful of ice-cool foam. It was the usual round-up of small local events, and he only half-listened as he opened the French doors and gave the two-note whistle that Dop recognized as "chow-time". There was no response. He stepped out onto the deck to try again, and saw Dop stretched beneath the rail.

He knew, even before he saw the dark matted fur around the wound and touched the stiffened body, that the cat was dead. But he said the animal's name anyway. "Dop?" Slowly, he knelt beside it. The analytical part of his mind registered the size of the wound -- small caliber, maybe .22, a clean shot to the head -- while the rest of him absorbed the reality. After a while, he picked the cat up and carried it inside, sat with it across his knees, numbly trying to stroke sleekness back into the ruffled creamy fur. The TV was still babbling. Dully, he registered what was being said, and any other time he would have reacted, but Jeff Jeffries snide scandal-mongering was unimportant compared to the truth under his hands.

The fur wouldn't smooth out. It had lost all its living warmth. "Ah, babe . . . " Starsky heard the choke in his own voice. There was nothing he could do, except dig a hole and bury the body.

The cottonwood tree, bark scarred by the stropping of exuberant claws, was in full glorious leaf. The grave beneath it was pitifully small, but he hadn't finished when he heard the sound of a car engine.

Kathy's journey to Three Rivers was a blessing in that it had given her time to collect herself. But the anger didn't fade -- transmuted, rather, from the first white-hot fury to the kind of Nordic iceberg rage that is all the more dangerous for being nine-tenths under the surface. It was a family trait, and Starsky, who must have seen it often enough manifest in her brother, probably recognized it as she slammed the car door and stalked up the steps.

"Yeah, I saw it," he said before she could speak. "Don't pull any punches, do they?" He looked pale.

"Is Ken home?" Kathy wanted to know.

"Not for another thirty minutes." He led her through to the kitchen, sat her down at the breakfast bar, and poured two glasses of Scotch. "Here. Medicinal purposes."

Kathy glared at him, then the glass, then picked it up and drank the contents in one gulp.

"Dave -- " It took a moment for her to get her breath back. "Dammit, how could they -- ?"

" -- Find out about me 'n' Hutch?" Starsky finished for her. "It doesn't matter, Kath."

"Doesn't matter?" she repeated, outraged. "Of course it matters! They've got no right -- "

He cut her off in mid-tirade. "Kath, listen. I don't give a shit what people think. I've been through all this before, one way or another. I've been a target before. Because I'm a Jew. Because I was a G.I., a Vietnam vet. Because I was a cop. There are always going to be people who hate anything that's different. All I care about is if this mud-slinging hurts you or anyone else -- Hutch 'n 'me, we're used to it. Mostly."

There was a deep weariness in his voice, and she could see the marks of anger and grief on his face.

"What are you going to do?" she asked after a moment. He shrugged.

"Nothing much I can do. Resign, I guess."

"Dave, no!" she objected.

"I don't want to make trouble for you, or the school board. It was a temporary thing, anyway -- I'm just quitting a few weeks ahead of time."

"But you shouldn't have to do that! It's not fair -- "

"Kath, darlin'." His hands on her shoulders were firm, the dark blue eyes gazing down into hers gentle and understanding. "No one ever promised life was gonna be fair. For any of us. The way I see it, I'm luckier than most people. This is a pinprick, that's all. Some killjoy trying to burst our bubble. It won't work, and sooner or later they'll get tired of trying and go after easier game."

He smiled at her, and she tried to smile back. "I hope you're right, Dave," she said doubtfully.

"Trust me." The blue eyes crinkled, the grin widened wantonly, and she laughed and hugged him.

"And I used to wonder why Ken was so crazy about you!"

"Has to be my pretty blue eyes -- it sure as hell isn't my cooking. Go on home, Kath. And don't worry, okay? You'll get wrinkles."

She was smiling as she drove away after exhorting him to take care. Starsky watched the car out of sight, then turned back to the half-filled hole under the cottonwood tree.

Hutch got home just as he set the last turf on the small mound, and Starsky forestalled his question.

"Dop," he said. "I found him on the deck when I got home." He tamped the sod down and straightened up. "Someone shot the poor little bastard." And, when Hutch didn't speak -- "Our penpal is getting meaner by the minute, partner."

"Christ." It was an expletive. Hutch's eyes were bleak. "What harm did Dop do anyone?"

"He lives with us." Starsky got to his feet. "Hutch, Kath was here. Someone tipped off the local TV gossip-hound that a gay was teaching high school. I'm quitting before the School Board has to dismiss me."

He had told Kathy that it didn't matter, and it had been a lie. The weight of Hutch's arm across his shoulders helped to salve a little of the soreness, made worse by the frustration of helplessness, and he knew that Hutch shared his feelings.

The nightmare surfaced that night, for the first time for months, and his own noise woke him. Hutch, face troubled, was holding him close, but as soon as he realized his lover was conscious, he slackened his grip a little, stroking the sweat slick back and shoulders.

"What brought that on, do you think?" he asked softly, as the shudders eased.

Starsky shook his head, willing himself to relax. "Don't know. Maybe I'm punchy. Hutch, what kind of sick bastard would do that to Dop?" The animal had meant more to him than even he had realized -- he was going to miss the little chirrups of feline conversation, of Dop figure-eighting between his legs, or demanding tidbits, or just being a warm furry weight on the bed. He felt a salt stinging behind his eyelids. "Oh, shit . . . "

"I know," Hutch said. "Me, too."

* * * * * *

Starsky's resignation took some of the wind out of the sails of the more Puritan members of the School Board, though the knowing comments of 'no smoke without fire' earned them the sharp edge of Kathy's tongue at the next meeting of the P.T.A. A tigress defending her one cub couldn't have been fiercer.

"I suppose it's escaped your notice," she said savagely to the assembled company, automatically tarring them all with the same brush, "that the majority of sex crimes against children are committed by heterosexuals? This accusation is not only sick, it's inaccurate and damned unfair!"

"Mrs. McKinley -- " the Principal said placatingly, "I do sympathize, believe me, but -- "

"But you'd still see an innocent man pilloried because his lifestyle happens to be a little different from yours. And not because you even have any proof -- no, you listen to the lies broadcast by that slimeball Jefferies and his cronies!" She drew breath, eyes blazing. "Let me tell you something. Dave Starsky is one of the finest human beings I've ever met. He was a cop for eight years and more, and he's got commendations out the ears. He's good, and gentle, and kind, and my kids love him and I just wish there were a few more like him, that's all!"

"Mrs. McKinley. If I could just say a few words?" The principal waited to see if she was about to explode again. "We accepted Mr. Starsky's resignation with considerable regret. In the present climate it seemed best not to object. But let me assure you, when the fuss has died down, we have every intention of asking him to take up his position as guest lecturer again -- "

"What the hell makes you think he'd accept?" Kathy snapped witheringly, and stalked out.

* * * * * *

The poison-pen campaign was one thing -- the death of Dop was quite another. Hutch had the feeling that it was the start of something even more deadly, and that premonition was confirmed when the phone rang late one evening. Starsky was in the shower -- Hutch, clad only in a towel, reached for the receiver. "I'll get it," he yelled. "It's probably Kath."

But it wasn't.

"Shame about the cat," said an unidentified male voice "Of course, these things happen. Nice kids your sister's got. Particularly the girl." And the line went abruptly dead.

Slowly, Hutch put the phone down. Gooseflesh prickled out on his exposed skin, and it had nothing to do with the temperature.

"Was it Kath?" Starsky walked out of the bathroom, toweling his hair.

"No." The ice of fear was becoming white heat of rage -- worse because it must be undirected. There was no target to aim for, no way of defending his family. Except by selling up and getting out, accepting defeat. "No. Our poisonous pal has a whole new field of operation, babe. Looks like better get in touch with the sheriff again."