Archivist note: No Easy Answers had to be scanned into an electronic format, then proofed. Special thanks and a bouquet of roses to SHaron for all her hard work on behalf of the Archives!
Comments about this novel can be sent to: kmankatz@CandW.ky
No Easy Answers
Duplessis corrected his last typing error and removed the arrest report from the machine. Tip Moynihan, all wrapped up nice and tight, and his gang of juvenile muggers with him He signed the final page with something of a flourish. It was, if he said it himself, a neat bit of detective work, and Tip would need a miracle worker for a lawyer if he was going to wriggle out from under this time. When he finished this shift, he'd call Hutch in Three Rivers, let him know the good news.
"Duplessis!" The familiar bellow still had the power to make him wince, and he got to the door fast. There all evidence of haste left him, he slowed to a saunter, and stuck his head into the office.
"You whispered, mi Capitan?"
"Smartass!" Dobey barked. "Get in here. Siddown."
Still apparently at his ease, Duplessis slouched into a chair. But his nerve ends were charged and quivering. There was a grimness to the Captain's mouth and eyes that triggered all his instincts to a state of red alert.
"You keep in touch with Hutch, don't you? And Starsky?"
"Sure." This wasn't what he expected. "Are they okay?"
"Maybe, maybe not. When was the last time you spoke to them?"
"Couple of weeks back. Not long after the dinner party."
"They mention any problems?" Dobey demanded heavily.
"None at all. The reverse, in fact. Why, Cap? What's come down?"
Dobey sighed, easing his bulk in the chair. "I've just had the Visalia Sheriff's Office on the phone. Seems like they've been getting anonymous tip-offs linking Starsky and Hutch to a number of crimes."
"What?" Duplessis yelped. "That's crazy!"
"Right. And they're all sex-offenses involving kids. The local T.V. station got hold of it as well, and they're having a field day. No accusations -- just hints, and the usual stuff about do we want perverts soiling our pure and lovely town."
"They're not taking it seriously, are they?" Duplessis couldn't take it in. "The cops, I mean."
"No. But the good Christian souls of the Visalia Moral Majority are, and that spells trouble. Someone's going out of their way to whip up a hate campaign against those two, and it could turn very nasty."
"But -- why, for god's sake?" Duplessis said, still stunned. "Who's to gain? Captain, what's going on out there?"
"Damned if I know." Dobey leaned forward. "But it doesn't sit right with me, and there's more to this than the usual homophobia. Of that I'm certain."
"What does the sheriff think? And what's he doing about it?"
"He thinks it's a personal vendetta, and so do I. They made enemies while they were cops. As for what he's doing -- nothing. Starsky and Hutch have made no official complaint, so his hands are tied."
"Captain -- "
"So are ours," Dobey said. "Officially. When are you visiting them next?"
"Don't know -- I was going to call Hutch about the Moynihan case tonight, but -- "
"Let's see. Today's Thursday. Why don't you take a day's personal time tomorrow? Just a suggestion. You're looking kind of peaky. A run up-country might do you good."
Their eyes met above the cluttered desk, and they understood each other perfectly.
"Could be you're right, Captain. I hear there's good fishing in Three Rivers. I always meant to give it a try."
"Good idea." Dobey sat back, smiling slightly. "Let me know if you land anything."
"I'll do that. In the meantime, just what do we have?"
Dobey picked up a sheet of teletype. "Sheriff DeSoto sent this through. There's the tip-off to the Fresno T.V. station and six anonymous letters to date, each one accusing one or both of them of sex-abuse offenses in the Visalia area. DeSoto's a fair-minded man and he knows a set-up when he sees one. He wouldn't convict a dog on the evidence of an unsigned letter, let alone a couple of ex-cops, even if they are gay. Here's the odd thing -- he says that of the sex-offense cases that are under investigation, two have never been publicized. They haven't even got near a courtroom yet. So someone must have got access to that information in order to throw the accusation at our boys."
"Someone's out to discredit them," Duplessis said thoughtfully. "Maybe more than discredit."
"If the Moral Majority gets out of hand, yes. Think about it, Duplessis. What cases of theirs are big enough, and still pending, for this kind of racket?"
"Gunther," said Duplessis instantly. "And the Hidalgo/Benedic set-up. But Gunther's sick, and they haven't even set a trial-date yet. Isn't he in a private sanatorium somewhere?"
"And unlikely to go before a jury," Dobey confirmed. "The Escort murders are set for next month, right?"
"Late April," Duplessis agreed.
"Okay. See what you can dig up. And keep me posted."
"Yes, Captain," Duplessis said dutifully, and went back to his paperwork.
He didn't make the intended phone call to Three Rivers, suspecting that he would probably learn more by turning up unannounced than if the two men had a chance to decide on their degree of cooperation -- if any. He had the feeling they wouldn't be admitting to any kind of petty victimization. The trick would be to convince them that this was more than petty. But surely they wouldn't have switched off their cop instincts, just because they didn't carry badges any more?
* * * * * *
There had been even more hard work put into the house and its surroundings since his last visit, and for a moment Duplessis acknowledged a twist of envy. The fixer-upper was well on the way to becoming a choice piece of real estate, and they'd make quite a profit when they decided to sell. And maybe they would, if they were getting hassle from the neighbors. On the other hand, knowing the stubbornness of both men, such a thought would be kicked clear out of the ballpark.
Duplessis didn't play his usual fanfare on the doorbell, contenting himself with a couple of short blasts. The door was jerked open almost at once, and Starsky stared at him, wariness and borderline hostility visible for a fraction of a second before being swamped by recognition.
"Hey, look what the wind blew in," he drawled. "Playing hooky, Dave?"
"Something like that," Duplessis agreed, smiling. "You got a cold beer for a thirsty traveler?"
"Are you kidding?" Hutch said cheerfully over Starsky's shoulder. "Come on in. How are things back in the Wicked City?"
"Not so bad," Duplessis hedged. "In fact, that's partly why I'm here. We nailed Tip Moynihan, Hutch. Rock solid. I had a free day, so I thought I'd drive up here and tell you."
"That's good news." Hutch slapped him on the back in congratulation. "I knew you'd do it. Come through to the kitchen, and we'll get that beer. Has Dobey found you a new partner yet?"
"Nope. To tell you the truth, I kind of like working solo."
"That's dumb," Starsky said. "And dangerous."
"Different strokes," Duplessis shrugged. "There's always back-up around, if I need it."
"Back-up isn't like having a partner."
"Okay, but there's no such thing as total protection, and I'd sooner go solo than risk my neck with someone I may not be able to rely on. This way I don't get caught out expecting them to do one thing and they do another." He glanced at Hutch. "Not every team has what you two had, y'know."
"I know that," Starsky snapped, ''but -- "
"We can argue this all day, and never get anywhere," Hutch cut in. "Beer, Dave. Come out on the deck and catch me up on what's happening with the old firm."
Ever obliging, Duplessis did just that, and at the end, after Starsky had fetched refills, he took a deep drink and said: "Well, that's all my news. So what's been happening with you guys?"
"Nothing much," Starsky said casually. "We're fixing up the house, Hutch's job is keeping him on his toes, and that's about it. Life in the sticks."
"Yeah. I could go for this kind of life, let me tell you." He looked around, as if missing something. "Hey, where's the Dop? 'S not like him to pass up a beer."
Two pairs of blue eyes fixed on him. "The cat's dead," Starsky said quietly. "And before you ask, I'm not working at the school any more. I quit. Now suppose you tell us why you're really here. No snowjobs. We've been expecting a call from either you or Dobey ever since the local Sheriff paid us a visit."
Duplessis considered trying to bluff his way out for a moment. Then reconsidered. "Okay. But since you're so smart, why haven't you been in touch with us?"
"This is Three Rivers, not L.A." Hutch pointed out. "And they don't like gays. Big deal."
"Who's giving who the snowjob?" Duplessis leaned forward, holding Hutch's unreadable gaze. "It's more than that. And you know it."
"It's our fight," Starsky cut in. "We can handle it."
"Oh, sure. If it is only the local Moral Majority. But maybe it's not. Maybe it's something from when you were cops. My hunch -- and Dobey's -- says someone is out to get you, and they're using the homophobia campaign to do their dirty work for them. There are only two cases outstanding from your files, and they're both lulus. Lots of big names, lots of big bucks. You're both witnesses. They stand to gain a lot if you two are discredited. Or dead."
"Butt out, Dave." Starsky's voice was cold. "Whatever it is, we'll handle it." There was bitterness in his eyes and the set of his mouth, and an iron determination. "If there is anyone behind it, then they'll pay what's due."
"I will not butt out. Through me and Dobey you've still got the LAPD behind you. Unofficial, okay, but like it or not, you need us."
"You've got no proof," Hutch said. "A hunch, that's all. Maybe someone wants us out of here. But we're not going. Maybe you're right, maybe not. You bring us proof, we'll listen. Until then, we'll fight this our way. On our own."
"Okay Then bite on this. Did the sheriff tell you that some of the crimes the Phantom Pen wants pinned on you haven't been publicized? That not even the kids' neighbors knew? The only way that could get out is by accessing the case records, and the Sheriff is certain no one in his department is the leak. It takes money to buy that kind of information. Money and clout. Take care, you guys. I'll be back." He got to his feet, draining the beer can. "And keep in touch, huh?"
"Sure," said Hutch neutrally. Starsky grunted. And Duplessis walked to his car with the ice-cold gaze of two pairs of eyes boring into his back.
* * * * * *
Duplessis' journey back gave him time for thought, the kind of cerebral detective work that he knew best. Ongoing cases of child sex abuse -- who would have access to them? The investigating officers, and their superiors. Social Services? Perhaps. Maybe the Sheriff's Department had stenographers to type up their reports. Then there was the D.A.'s office, and any hospital involved. A careless word or two, righteous indignation spilled in the wrong ear -- leaks did happen.
And not every hunch was a copper-bottom, blue chip certainty.
Duplessis swore under his breath. This was no time to start doubting his instinct. Cold hard logic worked up to a point, but now it was time for lateral thinking. And he didn't have to make that sideways leap alone.
* * * * * *
The Pits was beginning to fill up by the time Duplessis got there, but Huggy joined him at the corner table with a couple of beers.
"The Doctor Bear prescribes alcohol for the worried frown," he drawled, "so don't be down, jus' paint the town."
"I'll drink to that. Hug, I need a favor."
"You got it. At a price, naturally."
"Sure. Starsky and Hutch have picked up a load of trouble, and I think it starts here in L.A."
"A serpent in Eden, huh? What's goin' on up in the wild country?"
It didn't take long to tell, and Huggy's mobile features grew progressively more concerned.
"No one's come to me askin' questions," he said finally, "but I'm sure as hell gonna start some askin' of my own. This don't sound good, friend."
"No, it doesn't, and I've got a bad feeling about it. Call me as soon as you turn anything, okay?"
* * * * * *
Duplessis put the phone down gingerly, ears ringing from the creative self-expression used by Sheriff DeSoto. The Visalia Department might feel bound to co-operate with a Captain of Detectives, but a lowly Second-Grade got zilch. Except the forcefully reiterated statement that his personal investigation had found no leaks in the department, particularly in something as sensitive as child-abuse. And any further queries better be through the proper channels.
Which got him nowhere. Even if he accepted DeSoto's word -- and he wasn't altogether sure he did -- information didn't need full-scale leaks. It tended to filter out in a process of osmosis. What was that old saying? 'Three can keep a secret -- if two of them are dead.' He frowned at his in-tray, and the overflowing contents, and saw neither. If there were no leaks in Visalia, that just backed up his original hunch. The leak had to be here, in L.A. But how? Huggy's enquiries had come up empty. No one on the street seemed aware that Starsky and Hutch had left the city, although word had got around that they'd quit the force.
Duplessis sighed, focused on his desk, and winced at the amount of paperwork that had piled up. Still, it provided an opportunity for him to slide his brain into neutral and let his subconscious work on the information gathered so far while he tackled some of the backlog. It was a system that had worked well enough in the past, and he had no reason to think it wouldn't deliver the goods this time too.
Fortified with coffee, he started. He was a third down the first stack, and groping for the next file, when his fingers found a single sheet of paper. It was a Xeroxed memo, reminding all officers that the Child Abuse Information Pool had been on computer file for a year now, but was still underused. 'Move with the Times,' it said. 'Make Modern Technology Work For You.' And, further: 'The computer can trace patterns not only state-wide, but nationwide. Save time, and nail your suspects with cast-iron evidence. Use it or lose it!'
In the back of Duplessis' mind, something woke and sat up. If computer files had information he needed, how would he get it, if he didn't have the correct access code? Weren't there whole networks of hackers who claimed to be able to do just that? Sure, the code would be easier, but it wasn't a necessity. Big business, big money, they were all into computers these days. And they'd know where to go for expert help.
Duplessis took the Xeroxed memo for a walk.
* * * * * *
The Computer Department at Parker Center still looked like new. The air-conditioning worked, the carpets weren't threadbare, the console desks unchipped. The team was small -- understaffed, was their permanent complaint -- and subsequently overworked. But Duplessis was welcomed as one who knew computers and appreciated them, unlike the mossbacks who made impossible demands of both machines and operators, and then claimed such modern gizmos had no place in real policework.
Duplessis scanned the room for his favorite programmer, and finally spotted her as she straightened from leaning over a monitor.
"Barbara?" he hissed, gesturing to catch her attention. She looked up and smiled.
"Hi, Dave," she said, joining him. "What's the problem this time? If your PC keeps winning at chess, it's honestly not a fault in the program."
"Pacman keeps getting heartburn," he grinned. "Babs, who gets these?" And he held up the Xerox. She glanced at it.
"Oh, that. Everyone."
"Outside the Department?"
"It's restricted. But -- let's see. D.A.'s office, for certain. Welfare, too, if they put in a specific request for what information they need, and get a one-off clearance each time."
"And that's it?"
"'S all she wrote," Barbara confirmed cheerfully.
"Okay." Duplessis hauled out his notebook. "Can you pull out everything on these cases? They're all in and around Visalia."
"That's not our jurisdiction," she demurred. "You'll need clearance."
"Captain Dobey -- "
"Written clearance," she qualified it.
"I'll get it. Just make a start, huh? And if there's any kind of cross-referencing, pull that too. Any kind, Babs, no matter how tedious or weird?"
Head to one side, she regarded him. "I suppose you want hard copy, too?"
"And -- don't tell me -- you want it yesterday."
"Hell, no. Would I do that to you? Tomorrow'll do fine."
"You're pushing your luck, Dave. Do you know how busy we are in here?"
"I know." He played his trump card. "How about if I do it myself?"
She stared at him. "You'll need -- "
" -- Clearance. In writing. I know. And I'll owe you, Babs!"
* * * * * *
Duplessis had been on his own in the computer room for some time before he realized it -- and at the same time became aware of nagging backache, a splitting headache, and vision that was blurring so badly that the green letters on the dark screen crawled like caterpillars and wouldn't stay still long enough to read.
Not that they were saying anything vital. He eased his back in the chair, and stretched. His hunch hadn't worked out. Lazero, Corey, their lawyers, business associates; there was no link at all, however tenuous, between any of them, child abuse in Visalia, and Starsky and Hutch. At least, he modified it, no link that the computer could find. He'd even checked out title deeds. Nothing.
It seemed that the hunch had turned sour on him, but he was unwilling to let it go. Instinct still said there was something to be found, and somewhere in the bits and bytes of the computer network lurked the answers he needed. It was a case of finding the right questions.
He repeated the search with the Gunther organization, got no better result. Most of that set-up seemed to be out of business now, or were under investigation for their part in the perversion of justice. A couple of lawyers did ring bells with him -- but that didn't mean much. Law firms took what cases they could get. If one associate in a group was dirty, that didn't mean they all were.
Duplessis sat bolt upright so fast that his chair rocked. The group. The 'important' unspecified business conference that Lazero had been supposed to attend in L.A. No one had found out much about it, or even bothered. Business conferences went on all the time. But the timing of this one -- very soon after Gunther's arrest. He checked it, to be certain. Less than a year. Lazero was big time on both sides of the fence. Duplessis swore softly. Try to eliminate a snake like Gunther, and what do you get?
The cut neck sprouts many heads. Lazero could have been one of them. It was a long shot, but it gave him a new direction.
Suppose Gunther wasn't as sick and powerless as they thought. Suppose the empire needed an heir. And Lazero had been one of the contenders.
"Hydra," he whispered, feeling a chill shiver of certainty up his spine and into his scalp. Gunther, deposed and sick, maybe dying, still had power. His hunger for revenge had nearly killed Starsky. Suppose that still rankled. He had money and power. Who would inherit it? Now that Corey and Lazero were out of it, who would pander to the old king's whims to gain the keys to the kingdom?
Gunther had bought an Assistant D.A. And a judge. Top lawyers would be chicken feed. And maybe there were others, working quietly away at their jobs still, just waiting to be called on. Sleepers. In City Hall, or here in Parker Center.
Duplessis actually checked over his shoulder, the sense of menace was that strong, before mentally hauling in on the reins, acknowledging the galloping paranoia with a snort that was half mockery, half fear. He needed to talk this through, sort out the wheat from the chaff, but who with? The obvious and instinctive choice was Hutch, but --
"What the hell," Duplessis said crisply, and called all cross-references for Gunther, Lazero, Corey, Jonathon Welles, et al, keyed machine to print out and left it to do its thing while he paid a visit to the men's room. Cold water on the back of the neck refreshed him briefly -- he detoured to the coffee machine and payphone, calling Sally as he drank the muddy brew.
"Hi, darling," he said cheerfully. "Did I wake you up?"
"No," said his wife blearily, "I had to get up to answer the phone. Dave, do you know what time it is? Are you all right?"
"Two in the morning and I'm fine, sweetheart. Listen, I'm sorry, but I'm not going to be home until maybe tonight. I'm in the middle of something that can't wait."
He heard a sigh. "I know. I married a cop. At least you have the consideration to call home . . . even if it is an unearthly hour by the time you get around to it. All right, I'll expect you when I see you. Take care."
"You're an angel, Sal." He blew her a kiss. "You married a cop, but I married a very special lady."
"Mmmm," said Sally, sleepily. "Bye, love." And put the phone down on him. Chuckling, Duplessis called Dobey's home number.
The captain was not so understanding about being woken in the middle of the night, but Duplessis persevered, told him briefly that he had a positive lead and had to go to Visalia to check it with Hutch. Then, with a certain maliciousness, he added: "It's all in the computer, Cap. I'll leave you a printout."
"Thanks for nothing," Dobey growled. "This better be good, Duplessis, or you're back directing traffic."
"Trust me," he grinned. In spite of the headache, he was feeling good.
The last of the coffee washed down a couple of Excedrin, and he gathered up the computer printout. There was rather a lot of it.
He keyed a repeat print and headed for the door, stride jaunty in spite of his tiredness. But he couldn't control the yawns, and the biggest in the series ambushed him on his way out.
"Graveyard shift-itis, huh?" said a sympathetic, vaguely familiar voice. Duplessis nodded.
"The pits," he agreed. "'Night."
"Yeah," said the uniform with an equally vaguely familiar face, "what's left of it."
"Enough," Duplessis said ruefully, and went on his way.
Once in his car, he dumped the stack of printout on the back seat and logged on with Dispatch. "Authorized overtime," he assured the slightly acid query. "Check with Captain Dobey. And tell him his hard copy will be waiting for him in the computer room, willya?"
"This is police business?" she wanted to know, suspicious.
"Absolutely. I'm en route to Visalia."
"Oh, right. Enjoy the fishing, Detective."
"Jealousy," he murmured, "will get you nowhere. Over and out."
At this hour, traffic was light, and mainly commercial vehicles. Duplessis paid little attention to his fellow travelers. Gunther, Corey, Lazero -- how many others were involved? He had the strong suspicion that he was nowhere near the bottom of this particular can of worms.
Two hours out from L.A., with the sky washed pale lemon by the just visible sun, the garish message of a billboard announced the imminence of a Bob's Big Boy Diner. Coffee, said Duplessis' belly. Food, it added, even more longingly.
It seemed like a good idea. Also he'd made good time, and if he kept going he'd probably incur Hutch's wrath by arriving while all right-thinking mortals were still in bed. So -- breakfast. He pulled in, parking clear of the exit route beside an RV and a panel truck. The diner didn't look busy. He climbed out of the car and headed across the parking lot, and a patrol car left the road and cruised slowly towards him. He gave it no more than a cursory glance. Every cop needs his Code Seven.
So he didn't see the window roll down, or the stubby black barrel of the Uzi protruding. The first he knew of the attack was the karate-kick impact of the first bullet knocking him off his feet and dropping him in the dust. The second hit almost immediately after, the rest churning up dirt and gravel in a spitting swathe as the car took off in a screaming turn, siren wailing.
Duplessis lay sprawled on the asphalt. I'm hit, he thought. Shot. Christ Jesus. His hands had clamped reflexively above his belt buckle, he could feel a warm wetness pulsing out over palms and fingers. No pain. Not yet. Shock. He was in shock.
He'd never been shot before. So this was how it felt. Everything had slowed down, as if the world were spinning to a halt. People were running, shouting, but it was all a very long way away. He tried to move, assess the damage, but every muscle seemed to be locked. It occurred to him that maybe he should try to keep breathing. It would help. God, Hutch was going to be so mad at him. Someone was bending over him, and he wanted to tell them not to move him, to call an ambulance, but nothing came but a cough and a mouthful of blood. He grimaced. Now it was hurting. It was going to get worse, he knew that, and very quickly it did, waves of pain building and washing over him until he was drowning in it.
Sal, he tried to say. Sal. I'm sorry.
There was nothing more.
* * * * * *
"Okay," said Starsky. "Coffee. Toilet tissue. Windex. Eggs. Anything else?"
"Check the sugar?" Hutch suggested, coming out of the bedroom and pausing to fasten his tie. "We're out of cookies. Also the freezer's starting to look empty."
"Gotcha." Starsky made a note while Hutch picked up a slice of toast and took a bite out of it. "Beer?"
"Coupla six packs. Oh, and pick up a bottle of wine. And more bread," he added, swallowing the last of the toast.
"'A jug of wine, a loaf of bread,"' Starsky had a gleam in his eye, "'and thou . . . "'
Hutch couldn't resist it. " . . . Beside me, singing in the wilderness . . ."' he murmured, holding his lover tight and burying his face in the dark curls.
"How about a quick chorus of 'Blueberry Hill'?" Starsky suggested, breath catching as Hutch's lips found the side of his neck and laid a trail of kisses into his collar. "You're gonna be late for work."
"So? You started it."
"True. And I do like to finish what I've started." Hutch's tie was the first casualty, and Starsky was making short work of his shirt buttons, when the phone rang. Starsky closed his eyes and expressed himself in a short obscenity, and Hutch sighed and freed himself.
"Karma," he said, reaching for the instrument. "Put it on hold, lover, this is probably Mac. I'll tell him I'm going to be late."
But it was Dobey's voice, a somber weight to it that was sickeningly familiar. "I'm at Visalia Memorial. You better get over here, Hutch." Deja vu. "It's Duplessis. He's been shot."
"Jesus," Hutch whispered, prayerfully. "How bad is it?"
"Bad. He's in surgery now."
"We're on our way "
"What's going on?" Starsky demanded. "Someone's sick? Hurt?"
"Duplessis." Hutch was punching out Mac's number. "He's been shot. He's in Visalia Memorial. Mac? Listen . . . "
When he'd finished his brief explanation, Starsky was at the door, keys in hand, waiting. "I'll drive," he said. "Hutch, he must have been on his way to see us."
"Right." Hutch fastened his seat belt. "Times like this, I wish we still had a siren and a Mars light."
Starsky showed his teeth as he started the engine. "Who needs 'em? Hang on, babe."
* * * * * *
Dobey was sitting on a yellow plastic chair, elbows on knees, his face a dark mask of anger. Beside him, on the floor, was a stack of printout.
"How is he?" Hutch said. "What happened?"
"He took a couple of bullets. One in the stomach, the other glanced off a rib and punctured a lung. He lost a lot of blood. But the doctors say he should pull through."
"Thank God." Hutch sat down "Who did it, Captain? And why?"
"We don't know yet. But I think it's got something to do with you two." For a brief second the anger was directed at them, hard and accusing, then it was gone, and Dobey gave a helpless shrug. "All I know is that he left a message saying he had a lead and needed to talk it out with you, and that he'd left it all on hard copy in the computer room for me." He shook his head. "If he did, someone tried to make sure I wouldn't get it. I checked before I came up here. Nothing. And the file had been deleted."
"An inside job," Starsky said softly. He was standing very still, one hand resting on Hutch's shoulder.
"Had to be," Dobey agreed.
Hutch looked up, and Starsky's gaze met his. They didn't need to speak. But: "Wheels within wheels . . . " Hutch murmured.
"Luckily," Dobey went on, "Dave brought his own copy with him. It was in the car. I want you two to go through it, see if you can find out what the kid had picked up."
"Any witnesses?" Hutch asked quietly.
"Not directly." Dobey eased his back. "It happened early this morning, in a parking lot of a diner not far from here. People report seeing a police car heading off like a bat out of hell, siren and lights going full blast, and they thought he was chasing the perp."
"But he wasn't."
"Right. I'm waiting for the ballistics report now. Talk to Dave, see if there's anything he can tell us."
"The M.O. sounds kind of familiar," Starsky said softly.
"Don't it, though," Dobey agreed grimly. A doctor approached, white-coated and brisk.
"Captain? Your men can talk to Officer Duplessis now. He's conscious and stable; but I can only allow you five minutes."
"That'll be enough," Hutch said, getting to his feet. "We won't push him, Doctor."
"Room 5c, just down the hallway."
Deja vu. A partner lying flat on a hospital bed, wired for sound. Monitors bleeping their electronic trace. IVs catching the light, their liquid glowing like strange jewels. The arcane over-growth of tubes and wires woven in hi-tech cobweb . . . Hutch shivered, and felt the warm touch of Starsky's hand resting lightly between his shoulder blades.
"I should have listened to him," Hutch whispered. "He was right. I -- "
"Bullshit," Starsky hissed. "It's not your fault. He's a cop, doing his job, just like we did."
"And look where it got us. And him."
"So much for 'back-up when you need it'," Starsky muttered bitterly. "The trick is knowing when you need it. Hutch, will you quit looking like you put him here?"
"I still feel responsible for the man," Hutch said lamely.
"Sure. You trained him, broke him in. He was your partner for a while. And he's a good friend to us both. C'mon, babe, get your head together. We got a job to do."
"Yes." Hutch took a deep breath and took a seat beside the bed.
The face on the thin pillow was very pale, very still, eyes closed, hair a dull tangle, but at least he was breathing without aid, and the EKG blip was reassuringly steady.
"Dave," Hutch said quietly. "Dave, it's Hutch. Can you hear me?"
He had to repeat himself, but there was a flicker of movement. When the brown eyes opened finally, they were unfocussed and very bewildered. Hutch reached for his hand. "Dave. You with us, kid?"
"Hutch . . . ?" The wandering gaze sharpened, and Duplessis turned his head. "Quit callin' me 'kid'."
Hutch smiled. "Okay. Did you see who shot you, Dave?"
"No." Duplessis made a restless movement. "There was a patrol car. I thought, Code Seven. Hutch, the printout -- "
"Dobey's handed everything over to us. But what did you find?"
Brown eyes squinted in thought. "Hunch. But it's gotta be there. The link . . . ."
Hutch leaned forward. "What link, Dave? Tell us what we're looking for."
"Gunther 'n' Lazero. Th' whole set-up with the agencies. Gunther's arrest and arraignment. Tha's why Lazero was in town."
"This is just a hunch? Or is there proof?" Starsky said.
"Gotta be proof in that mess. Somewhere. Shit, I can't think straight . . . Must have been followed, Hutch, but I didn't see -- didn't think -- "
"Who knew you were coming up here?" Starsky wanted to know.
"Dobey. I called Dispatch. And Sal." He bit back a groan. "Christ, Sally, she'll be so worried -- "
"It's all under control," Hutch tightened his grip on the hand he held. "It's all going to be okay, Dave. Trust me."
Duplessis' mouth moved in a shadow of a smile. "Hey. I never been shot before." A pause. "Don't think I want t'make a habit of it. Hutch, don't let her worry."
"Did anyone know what you were working on?" Starsky could see Duplessis' attention fading.
"Computer staff at Parker. But they'd all gone . . . "
"They didn't know what you were following up?"
"No. Don't think so." He frowned, trying to remember.
"Okay. Did anyone see when you left?"
"No. Uh -- yes. There was this guy -- almost walked right into him when I came outta the men's room."
Hutch glanced up at Starsky.
"Who was he?"
Duplessis shook his head. "Uniform. I've seen him around can't put a name to him."
"Did you say anything? Did he?"
Duplessis' eyes were closing, voice slurring. "Few words in passing. Y'know." Then: "Hutch." He was plainly fighting to stay awake. "The printout I left for the captain -- "
"Gone," said Hutch. "And the file wiped. Would you know him again, Dave?"
"Yeah. Certain. He's gotta be in Gunther's pocket, huh?
"He could've called someone. Got me tailed . . . "
"We'll check it out," Hutch promised. "Listen to me, Dave. You're going to be fine. Dobey's got a twenty-four hour guard on your door. Sal'll be here anytime. Don't worry, okay? Me 'n' Starsk are going to be working on what you found. You did a terrific job. Partner."
Duplessis gave him a weak grin. "Attaboy, Hutch. You go get 'em."
"Promise," Hutch said. But the grin was fading, and the brown eyes had slipped closed.
* * * * * *
Dobey was on his feet, pacing, but he paused when he saw them. "Well?" he barked. "Anything?"
"Enough," Starsky said. "You got another rotten apple in the barrel, Cap." And he passed on what Duplessis had said in a few terse sentences.
"He's right," Dobey said. "I got the ballistics report. Not only the same M.O., Starsky. The same weapon."
"They could try again!"
"You think I don't know that, Hutchinson?" Dobey turned on him, but Starsky cut through their anger.
"Captain. Where is Gunther?"
"The San Luis Sanatorium," Dobey said without thinking. Then: "No, hold on. You two aren't in this."
"The hell we're not," Hutch snapped. "What do you call what's been happening to us over the past months?"
"You can't keep us out, Captain," Starsky said, shoulder to shoulder with Hutch. "We're private citizens. We're also involved in this up past our eyeballs. We're the targets, remember? Us, our families, our friends."
"Protective custody'd cramp your style." But that was bluster and bluff, and they knew it.
"Sure, and we'll sue for deprivation of civil liberties or something. Besides, if Gunther or whoever does still have contacts on the inside, how is protective custody going to be any use?"
"Except to put us in one place with a target on our backs," Hutch added. "Just like Lionel."
"I can slap a restraining order on you -- "
"Sure. After you issue a warrant and get a court to okay it. How long is that likely to take? By the time it comes through, we'll have finished our business."
Dobey looked at them, frustrated. "Damn it, I'm trying to keep you safe!"
"What's safe?" Hutch asked bleakly.
Any response Dobey might have made was interrupted by the arrival of Sally Duplessis, accompanied by a woman officer. She looked composed, but her pallor was eloquent. "Captain Dobey? How is he?"
Dobey took her hands. "Fine, Sally. The doctors say he's going to be okay. You'll want to see him -- I'll have a word with the nurse . . . "
"Thanks. Hutch -- Starsky -- " She gave her hands to both of them. "I'm so glad you're here."
"Sal, I'm sorry," Hutch said lamely.
"What for?" Her surprise was genuine. "Oh. I get it. Dave says you take on the cares of the world." She smiled, and squeezed his hand. "Don't worry about us, Hutch. You've got enough problems of your own."
"If there's anything we can do -- " Hutch began, but she shook her head.
"We can manage. But thanks for the offer. And for being here." And she walked into the hospital room that held her husband.
Starsky broke the silence. "C'mon, Blue Eyes, we got a date with Doctor Dracula."
"Who? Oh, right. See you around, Cap." Hutch gathered up the printout. "I'll let you know what leads we find as soon as I can." He followed Starsky out.
"Keep away from Gunther, you hear?" Dobey bellowed. He did not expect, nor did he get, an answer.
Donating blood took half an hour, and Hutch made a detour to a pay phone to call Directory Enquiries. The private sanatorium of San Luis was on the outskirts of Montecito, he discovered.
"Where else?" Starsky sighed, picking idly at the Band-Aid in the crook of his elbow. "Guess we should be glad it's not the other side of San Diego. Or San Francisco. I'll need to fill up with gas, then we're on our way."
There was something in his tone that caught Hutch's notice; a crispness, an eagerness that had nothing to do with the wish to pay off an old enemy. Hutch took a good look at his lover, and recognized the controlled vitality, felt it in himself.
They were back in business.
Their eyes met with perfect understanding. "Then let's go, partner," Hutch said.
* * * * * *
The view from the gardens of the San Luis Sanatorium was spectacular, to say the least, but Robert Praetor paid it no attention. He lit a cigarette, inhaling deeply, but even the nicotine-laden smoke couldn't deaden the heady scent of flowers, the sweetness of the fresh-cut grass. It was a reminder of the normality he had left behind. Right now, wife, children and political career seemed a very long way off, and the blame for that could be put squarely on the expensively-tailored shoulders of Dennis Almiro.
Praetor decided he didn't like the man. He didn't like Jonathan Welles, either. The pair of them reminded him forcefully of the kind of unpleasant creatures that left trails of invisible slime to mark their passage. Moreover, he didn't like the way Almiro's attitude toward him had altered. It was a subtle change, but there nonetheless -- since their dealings had begun, Almiro had become almost condescending -- and there had been hints of a maliciousness that brought home the realization that Almiro felt he had a hold over Robert Praetor, and would one day expect to collect.
"Damn him," Praetor muttered, and ground the half-smoked cigarette underfoot. Almiro would find out how wrong he was when those Swiss bank accounts were in Praetor's hands.
Dear God, it couldn't be long now.
There had been two more minor strokes, yet still the old monster hung on to life. It was unbelievable. He'd hung on to control, as well, which was why his nephew had been excluded from the conference with the two lawyers. Trial business, Almiro had said, with that almost-smirk that made Praetor's fists clench. Good luck to them. How in hell could they hope to defend the indefensible? He'd suggested a sanity hearing, but Almiro had merely smiled. Of course, Almiro and Welles stood to collect a very fat fee. Well, let them try to collect, if Gunther died before he came to trial.
Praetor allowed himself a small grimace of anticipation. If it came to a sanity hearing, the result was a foregone conclusion. The letter campaign underlined the old man's craziness. It was peculiarly and childishly nasty -- and it hadn't worked. So much for the outraged Moral Majority. Oh, Starsky had been forced to quit his job -- but it had been a temporary arrangement, anyway, and due to finish at any time.
But that was all. Praetor felt a certain self-righteous satisfaction. He had known it would have no effect, and he had advised his uncle so. But had Gunther listened? No more than he had over that business with the cat. It wasn't even their cat, poor brute. Its death had accomplished nothing -- it was petty and vindictive and more than a little sick. If he'd known about it beforehand, he'd have put a stop to it. But he wasn't told. He had the distinct feeling there was a lot he hadn't been told.
The deep murmur of a high-powered car engine came to his ears, and he looked up to see Almiro's Porsche disappearing down the drive. Good riddance. The sooner that snake was off his back, the better he'd feel. Perhaps a few words in his Uncle's ear would sow a seed of doubt? Or perhaps he should start working off his own bat -- there were other lawyers, equally as good as Almiro and Welles. He could have his uncle declared insane, committed to a private asylum, and everything would eventually come down to him.
He already had enough on both Almiro and Welles to keep them off his back. In this particular web of poisoned threads, blackmail could work both ways.
"Mr. Praetor?" An orderly had approached on silent feet. "There are two men asking to se Mr. Gunther. Doctor Westmore has told them he's under sedation and not to be disturbed, but they said they'd wait. Do you want to see them, sir?"
"Who are they?" Praetor frowned. "Press?"
"They showed no IDs, sir. Said their names are Hutchinson and Starsky."
Praetor's gut knotted tight in a reflex twist. What in the name of all that was holy were they doing here? Almiro had sworn that nothing could be traced back, and the man was no fool. And anyway, they weren't cops anymore. His hesitation was momentary. "Show them out here, Collins. I don't want to risk any upset to my uncle."
It had never occurred to Praetor that he might someday come face to face with the two men who had been so instrumental in bringing the Gunther empire down. He knew their faces, of course, from the newspapers and T.V. But the reality was -- unexpected.
They were taller than he'd thought. And the way they moved toward him made his stomach clench again. Purposeful. Controlled. Not shoulder to shoulder, but a little apart, like two armed cops approaching a suspect.
But of course they weren't cops, and he was a respected and well-known politician. He put on a smile and went to meet them, hand outstretched.
"Good afternoon, gentlemen. I'm Robert Praetor. How may I help you?"
"We'd like to talk to Mr. Gunther," Hutchinson said evenly. His handshake was firm but perfunctory.
"I'm afraid that isn't possible. He's very frail, both physically and mentally."
"Really," said Starsky. The single syllable spoke volumes.
"My Uncle is a dying man," Praetor said. "I'm handling his business affairs. So if it's anything of that nature -- "
"Don't jerk us around," Starsky said softly. The faded work-shirt and jeans made him look like some itinerant laborer, but it was surface camouflage. The lightweight blue suit Hutchinson wore, silk shirt and tie, were equally misleading. These men were dangerous. And not to be underestimated. Praetor revised his strategy.
"I won't pretend I don't know who you are," he said candidly. "No more 'jerking you around', Mr. Starsky. I just don't know why you're here. If it's something concerning my uncle's previous illegal activities, I can't help. That took the whole family by surprise."
"It would, wouldn't it," Hutchinson agreed. "We have reason to believe that Mr. Gunther isn't quite as frail as is made out. We were very closely involved with his case, as well as the others he is suspected of having a hand in. For the last few months, there has been a hate campaign waged against us, culminating with threats to my family and the attempted murder of a police officer. From evidence that officer had discovered prior to the attempt on his life, the prime suspect behind all of it is your uncle, James Marshall Gunther."
"A police officer?" Praetor did not have to pretend shock and horror. "What happened? My God, I can't believe . . . "
"Interesting thing is, Mr. Praetor," Starsky put in, showing his teeth in a predator's smile, "not only was it the same M.O. as when I was shot, nearly two years ago, it was the same weapon."
"I don't . . . " Praetor struggled to retain his equilibrium. "I don't know what to say."
"Just tell us what you know, sir?" Hutchinson's voice was smooth as a polished steel blade.
"I wish to God I could," Praetor shook his head. "He's insane. Do you know that? But I didn't think he was as crazy as that -- to kill -- " He paused. "What am I saying? That man ran an empire that put the Mafia into second place, by all accounts. Why should he balk at murder? He's crazy -- senile and vindictive. If you say he's doing this, I have no option but to believe you."
"Who visits him?" the tall blond man said. "Does he have access to a telephone?"
"Yes. Yes, the doctor and I saw no reason . . . . But of course, that's going to stop, as of now. As for visitors -- his lawyers are the only ones I know of. Dr. Westmore makes sure that any visiting is strictly limited -- any excitement or agitation could bring on a further attack. His condition is deteriorating all the time."
"Really," said Starsky again. "But it hasn't stopped him sending out his orders, has it? Unless someone else is doing it for him."
"That's a possibility. But being without a phone should put a stop to that. As for the rest, I may not know the answers to all your questions, but I can do something about the situation. I understand you're no longer with the L.A.P.D.? Why don't you take a long vacation -- to Europe, perhaps?" He looked at them questioningly. "All expenses paid, of course. That'll put you well out of reach of any more of my uncle's insanity while I do everything I can to prevent any further damage being done. How about it, gentlemen?"
They didn't even glance at each other. "No deal," Starsky said softly.
nd Hutchinson: "We intend to carry on with our normal lives, Mr. Praetor, and find those responsible for what's been happening."
"Is that wise? Surely these things are better left to -- "
"No deal," Starsky said again. "We don't compromise, Mr. Praetor."
He looked at their set faces, the bleak determination in the steady eyes, and had to control a shiver. No, by god, he thought, you won't, will you? You're as much dinosaurs, out of your time, as he is.
"The choice is yours, naturally. Contact me if you change your minds. I've made you a promise that I'll do everything in my power to right this appalling situation as quickly as I can."
"Yeah," Starsky said. "I've seen you on T.V. I like your speeches. I always thought you came across pretty good. How much damage has this done to your career?"
"I don't know," Praetor said honestly. "Only time will tell. Listen, the police officer -- I want to do something -- compensation of some kind . . . . He's married? Has he family?"
"Talk to Captain Dobey, at Metro," Hutchinson said. "Thanks for your time, Mr. Praetor. We may be seeing you again."
"My offer -- you won't reconsider?"
"Nope," said Starsky. "Have a nice day."
They turned and walked away, and Praetor watched them go with reaction churning in his stomach. He fumbled for another cigarette, discovering that his hands were shaking and it took real effort to control the tremors enough to light the thing.
"Mr. Praetor -- "
It was the orderly again.
"Yes?" Praetor snapped.
"Dr. Westmore says that Mr. Gunther appears to have recovered from the lawyer's visit, sir. If you'd like to see him -- ?"
"No," Praetor said. "No, I'll wait until tomorrow." Right now I could strangle the old bastard.
Something would have to be done, if only to cover himself. It was no longer a matter of humoring a sick man. Something had to be done before Gunther's insane plans reached their deadly fruition. Almiro, much as he disliked him, would seem to be his best bet, if he could ensure his co-operation.
If they could engineer some kind of set-up that would convince Gunther that his old enemies were dead -- that might sort out the whole stinking mess, and gain him the Swiss accounts into the bargain. He should have thought of that before, but perhaps it wasn't too late to salvage something worthwhile.
* * * * * *
"Genuine?" Hutch wondered, en route to the car. Starsky, hands in pockets, shrugged.
"Could be. He didn't know about Duplessis. But the shock-horror could simply be because we traced it back to Gunther."
"He hates the old man," Hutch said thoughtfully. "And he's probably right when he says Gunther's as crazy as a bedbug."
"A bedbug with rabies," Starsky snorted. "Did you get a look at who was in the car that left as we got out?"
"Yeah. I called him a prostitute in a three-piece suit once. Jonathon Welles, the defense attorney. The other guy I don't know, but he could be part of the same firm."
"Defense lawyers, Praetor said."
"Right. I think I'll make a detour to Reception. See you back at the car."
Starsky didn't have long to wait, and there was a hard set to Hutch's mouth when he rejoined him. "Dennis Almiro," he said. "Another of the high-class hookers masquerading as lawyers. I called Dobey, told him what Praetor said, and asked him to see what he can find on Almiro. I'll be surprised if he isn't as deep in the shit as Welles."
"We can make book on that." Starsky started the car. "No one mixed up with James Marshall Gunther can be anything but dirty."
"Well, before this is over," Hutch said with prophetic intensity, "with any luck we'll get to the bottom of this can of worms -- and this time no one gets out of it."
* * * * * *
Power of life and death. It was his to wield as he chose, scepter and sword. Nor would he be thwarted, not by the stupidity of others nor by the treacherous failing of his own flesh. His death was not far off now, he knew that. Almost, he welcomed it; no more the maddening confines of an infirm body. But first, there were other deaths to be arranged.
"Mr. Almiro," he smiled at the lawyer, knowing that the paralysis made a gargoyle mask out of the expression. "I'm appointing you as my executor. You are to have power of attorney."
"I'm pleased to be of service, sir."
"Yes, I thought you would be. As to the matter of your fee -- there is a safety-deposit box at the Bank of America in San Diego. The number and key will be delivered to you once you have carried out my instructions. In the box, you will find the number of a Swiss bank account containing five hundred thousand dollars. I trust this will be satisfactory?" He hardly needed to ask. The gleam of avarice in the man's eyes told him everything.
"And your instructions, sir?"
"You've been working for me for most of your career," Gunther said chidingly. "I understand you've claimed you can read my mind. Anticipate, Mr. Almiro."
Almiro looked at the wasted frame in the bed, remembering the man as he had been two years ago, when the Gunther Industries Empire began to crumble. That was when James Marshall Gunther had first voiced the command that he, Almiro, was about to see carried out. "The elimination, now and forever, of the two individuals who are almost single-handedly responsible for the massive damage inflicted on this organization. Now and forever, gentlemen. Now and forever -- gone."
"Starsky and Hutchinson, sir. I would presume that you wish them to be removed."
"I want them dead, Mr. Almiro." The lizard eyes in the distorted face gleamed. "Dead. You will bring me absolute proof of their deaths, and the money will be yours. And it must be soon. Very soon. Do you understand me?"
"Perfectly, Mr. Gunther." Almiro got to his feet. "I can assure you that your wishes in this respect will be executed immediately." He allowed himself a smile at the apt choice of words.
"Good. You have the potential to go far in my organization, Mr. Almiro."
"I intend to, sir."
"Yes . . . " Gunther chuckled. "Then pay attention. I'll tell you exactly what has to be done."
* * * * * *
"Speaking," Praetor said. The voice was familiar, but with his mind on the speech he was due to deliver next week he could not immediately identify it. He switched the Dictaphone off, dropping it into his pocket. "Who is this?"
"Collins, sir. From San Luis. You wanted to know if Mr. Gunther had any unscheduled visitors? Mr. Almiro arrived half an hour ago. He said your uncle had sent for him."
"Damn! How could he? I told Dr. Westmore to have the phone taken out!"
"He tried, sir. But Mr. Gunther became extremely agitated. I guess they'll try again later, maybe when he's sedated. Anyhow, I thought you'd want to know about Mr. Almiro."
"Yes, I do. Thanks, Collins. I'll be right over. You'll get the usual bonus."
Praetor's thoughts during the drive to the sanatorium were erratic, jumping from speculation to speculation. Was the old goat planning some new insanity? Or was Almiro moving to create an advantage, gain more influence over the unbalanced mind? Praetor swore, and stepped on the gas.
Even so, he was too late to confront Almiro. The man had left by the time he reached San Luis. He glanced at his watch -- almost ten. Late, but not unduly so. The old man should still be coherent. It probably hadn't been such a good idea to postpone tackling him about the murder attempt on the police officer. Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today. The old proverb jangled inanely in his head, a singsong chant from early childhood.
Damn James Marshall Gunther. And Dennis Almiro.
Collins was on duty at the nurses' station, manning the monitor linked to the sickroom.
"How is he?" Praetor asked quietly.
"The visit didn't upset him, sir. He's weak, but stabilized. You just missed Mr. Almiro."
"I gathered that. All right, Collins. I'll be with my uncle, so you can take a break."
"Sir, the hospital rules -- "
"I'm perfectly competent to push the panic button if he has another attack," Praetor said testily. "I want privacy, you understand? Complete privacy. Go on, man. I'll take full responsibility."
Collins wasn't disposed to argue. A twelve-hour tour of duty with another four to go, meant that the chance of a coffee-break was too good to pass up.
Even before he reached the door, Praetor could hear laughter. To begin with, he wasn't sure what it was -- the old man couldn't possibly be watching T.V.? -- but all too soon he recognized the sound. He'd rarely heard his uncle laugh. But he was hearing it now -- a ceaseless chuckling that was completely spine chilling.
The eyes in the pallid sagging face were like chips of dark ice. As cold, and as soulless. "Robert," said Gunther, giving his grotesque smile. "It's late. Come to report, my boy?"
"Yes," Praetor said deliberately. "The murder of the police officer failed. He's still alive."
"A minor hiccough. Someone bungled, Robert. It won't happen again. I don't tolerate bunglers. He will be dealt with."
"Who by? Almiro? Uncle, that man is dangerous! He knows too much -- "
"And you know very little. Almiro will serve his purpose. It would cost him too much to fail now."
"Get rid of him," Praetor said. "Or, by God, I will."
"You can't, Robert. He works for me, not for you. He follows my orders, not yours. He is serving me where you can or will not. It's almost over," he added with satisfaction. "And the latest moves of the game are mine. Did they teach you anything at that fancy school, Robert? Remember the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam?"
"What?" Praetor wasn't prepared to trade quotations, but the mild voice went on.
"Dear me. What a lack in your education. You should read more, Robert. It broadens the mind. 'Tis all a Checkerboard of Nights and Days/Where Destiny with men for pieces plays:/Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,/And one by one back in the closet lays.' It's time to finish the Game. Tomorrow, Starsky and Hutchinson are going to die."
Praetor swallowed harshly. "You can't . . . ." he whispered. Then, recovering himself: "How?"
"Simple. They aren't fools. The trap must be baited. Hutchinson has a sister; she has a young family. The trap will be sprung, and they will die."
"I don't believe I'm hearing this." Praetor looked at the man who was his mother's brother, flesh of his flesh, blood kin. "You're inhuman. In the name of God, Uncle -- "
"There is no God, Robert," Gunther said gently, reasonably, as if explaining to a child. "No God except money, because money buys everything. Power. Life. Death. Money is God." The chuckle surfaced again.
"You're wrong," Praetor said. He felt nauseous. "Money doesn't buy everything. It didn't buy me."
"Didn't it?" Gunther asked, and the chuckle became a wheezing crow of delight. "You're mine, Robert. Body and soul. Bought and paid for."
"No." The nausea died. With ice-cold clarity, Praetor saw what had to be done. "No. You're insane, and you have been for years. You're out-of-date, Uncle -- you're a dinosaur, and your time is over."
"Don't be so melodramatic, Robert," Gunther said dismissively. "You have my word that the Swiss bank accounts . . . "
"I don't even know that they exist outside your warped brain. And if they do, then they're blood money. Tainted. It's over, Uncle James." He picked up the spare pillow. "Think of this as justice, too long delayed."
"You wouldn't dare -- " Gunther croaked, and the mad eyes bulged. "Robert -- " The pillow came down inexorably, cutting off air and light and life from the all-but helpless man.
It didn't take long at all. When the last feeble struggle had long ceased, Praetor replaced the pillow and carefully straightened the white-thatched head, closed the staring eyes. The heart-monitor sang its continuous warning whine, but that didn't matter any more. Nothing did.
He was expecting to feel guilt, regret, even sadness. He felt only relief that it was over at last.
Except it wasn't. How far had Gunther's plans gone? There were others to be made safe, the sister and her children. Almiro had to be stopped. Where would the lawyer go to make arrangements like that? Not to his home. The office, then.
Praetor left by the emergency exit. No one saw him go. Even if they did suspect, it would take time for them to prove anything -- and by that time he would be ready to go to the police himself, tell them everything.
Almiro's car was in its bay in the basement parking lot of the prestigious office block that housed his firm. Praetor pulled in beside it, took the elevator to the fifth floor. He made the ride with tensed impatience, but he never doubted that he'd be in time. So it was something of a shock to see Almiro walking out of the darkened office.
A stiff-armed shove sent him staggering back inside. Praetor groped for the lights, and locked the door.
"Call them off," he instructed tightly. "You hear me, Almiro. Call them off."
"Mr. Praetor -- I'm afraid I don't know what you're talking about -- "
"Don't waste my time. My uncle gave you orders. I am canceling them."
Almiro, recovering from the unexpected assault, tried a shrug.
"I'm sorry, I still don't know what you're talking about. And when Mr. Gunther makes a request of me it is, of course, covered by lawyer-client confidentiality."
Praetor took hold of Almiros' shirtfront. "Listen to me," he said through his teeth. "I don't know what he was going to pay you, or how, or how you're supposed to carry out his insane orders, but all bets are off, Almiro. All dealings suspended. He's dead. He won't be paying anyone his due, except the devil. Call them off."
"Dead?" Almiro stuttered, half-throttled by the grip his collar "You're sure?"
"Oh, yes, I'm sure. Come on, man -- what did he have you do?"
"It's too late," the lawyer muttered, looking stunned. "They left an hour ago. I can't get in touch with them."
"Then phone Hutchinson. And his sister."
"That won't do any good." The man's voice was becoming shrill with fear. "It's too late -- they've been keeping tabs on her ever since I knew that he wanted to involve Hutchinson's family. She was on her own in the house tonight -- kids are sleeping over, husband away. They'll have her by now. Hutchinson can't do anything," he went on, anticipating Praetor's next words, "except walk into the trap. They have their orders, whatever the eventuality. It can't be stopped now. Mr. Gunther made sure."
"How?" snapped Praetor.
"The contract -- 'all fees to be payable only after such time as David Michael Starsky and Kenneth Hutchinson are proven deceased'. Mr. Gunther ordered me to draw it up that way." He shuddered, eyes wild. Then, pitifully: "Are you sure he's dead?"
Praetor threw him back into a chair. "I killed him," he said coldly. "I smothered the life out of the monster. I just wish I'd done it months ago. So tell me where they're taking her, and what Hutchinson's instructions will be -- because there'd better be something I can do to stop this, or I'm coming back for you, Almiro, and I swear you'll go the same way as Gunther."
Shock sagged the lawyer's jaw, and he shrank into the chair.
"Well?" Praetor snapped, standing over him. "Start talking."
* * * * * *
The slight give of the mattress, the breath of cool air as the disturbed covers settled back into place, were enough to rouse Starsky out of the dreamless sleep, and when he reached out drowsily, there was no warm body beside him. The almost silent footfall faded -- the light in the bathroom went on -- and the door to the living room was ajar. The moon was well up, a bar of white slashing across the floor.
But he didn't speak the name aloud -- some instinct forbade it. He lay waiting, aware that Hutch needed a few moments to himself and yet, knowing Hutch, would screw his thoughts and anxieties into a destructive pinwheel if left too long alone.
The bar of white drifted fractionally as the minutes lengthened, and finally Starsky slid from the bed, padding through the dark until he halted on the threshold of the deck. Hutch was standing at the rail, looking out over the river -- silver-etched purity of profile, silver-touched mane, the curve of temple, cheek and jaw washed with the clean cold brightness.
A man made out of moonlight. Night creature. Dreamstuff made flesh.
To speak would be to break the magic. He was content to watch, but Hutch turned then, saw him, and held out a hand.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to wake you."
Hutch's arm around his shoulders sealed out the chill. In the stillness, all sounds were clear, magnified by the darkness. Out there, the eternal cycle went its way -- living, loving, dying -- repeating itself over and over into infinity. Even humanity was only a small part of that. Even he and Hutch.
No. We got something special.
He smiled wryly, because that wasn't strictly true, either. Love is never an exclusive gift, restricted to the elite. Anyone can have a share. The trick is to accept it when it offers. Sometimes it comes in disguise.
And it so nearly didn't happen.
He could remember so clearly his own rejection of Hutch's love, the morning after their first time.
I'd been waiting all my life for it, and I didn't realize it. And times since, when it had seemed to be slipping through their fingers. But we got it back. And it just gets better.
He gave a small shiver of pleasure, smiling, his arm tightening around Hutch's waist.
"You're cold," Hutch said, concerned.
"No," he said honestly. "It's a beautiful night. Look at those stars . . . "
Diamond-spill arching across the zenith, a sight rare as hen's teeth in the thick polluted nights of the city. And a flash, a trail of light almost as swiftly gone
"Did you see -- ?"
"Make a wish," Starsky said. "Quick, before anyone else does."
He felt Hutch's chuckle rather than heard it. "Like the song, huh? Ah, David, I don't need to wish on a star. I already got my dream come true."
"Why can't I think of things like that to say to you?" Starsky wondered, aggrieved.
"You don't need to." Hutch turned to put both arms I around him. "I swear you're the most eloquent person I've ever known, without even opening your mouth."
"That better be a compliment, Blintz," Starsky growled, holding back for the hell of it, and Hutch laughed and kissed him.
"So what did you wish for?" he wanted to know. Starsky gave the matter fast consideration.
"C'mon back to bed," he suggested. "An' I'll tell you."
* * * * * *
Praetor's drive through the night took on all the surreal strangeness of the most subtle of nightmares. The steady purr of the powerful engine, the twin beams of light splitting the darkness, the occasional glaring-eyes truck to be passed, pushing the Audi to its limit -- sometimes he thought he could still hear Gunther's chuckle.
"There is a God," he said aloud, "and it isn't Money." His uncle had given him the clue when he quoted from the Rubaiyat. 'Where Destiny with Men for pieces plays . . . ' Or Fate. It was the same thing. He'd never thought of himself as a fatalist, but as he sped north, unhindered by traffic or Highway Patrol, he was becoming aware what was happening. Had been happening since the beginning. 'Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays . . . ' Gunther, himself, Almiro, Hutchinson, Starsky -- they were all there on the checkerboard. With an unseen hand making the moves. The ending was inevitable. He saw that now. That was why he would not be stopped by a zealous CHiP. He would get there on time, and the woman would not die, and he would undo the tangle of evil that the crazy old man had woven.
In fact, he could start right now. Almiro had a lot coming to him, and was probably packing his bags and leaving town. Praetor smiled, remembering the Dictaphone in his pocket. He'd give Destiny a hand. He took the machine out, rewound the small cassette, and switched it on, laying it on the seat beside him.
"This is Robert Praetor. The time is 0345 on the morning of May 6th and I am driving north along I5 heading for Visalia. I should reach Valle de la Felicitad at 0745. The following is my statement . . . ."
* * * * * *
Dawn greyed out of night, and the trees that had been darker silhouettes against a dark sky took on ghostly color washes, deepening and strengthening with the coming of light.
Starsky lay and watched the changes. It would be a while before the sun cleared the mountain, but the birds were already loud. It was one of the things Hutch loved -- the dawn chorus -- but Starsky knew he wasn't listening to it now. And he wasn't asleep, either. Starsky didn't think he'd slept at all. Their loving had been fierce and tender, but even as breathing and heartbeat steadied to normal, Starsky had known that the respite had been short. Hutch was thinking again, and the simple pleasures of life had small place in things when the White Knight was carrying the cares of the world on his shoulders.
You're never gonna grow out of that, are you?
He couldn't say it. It was as much a part of the Hutch he loved as his klutziness, or the way his hair was thinning, just a little, on the crown.
I'll go grey, and you'll get bald, and it won't matter a damn. You'll still be the White Knight.
The thought took off without warning, blossoming into images culled from a thousand childhood memories -- the comic-book chivalry of Prince Valiant; Arthur of Britain, the Once and Future King; Camelot and the 'brief shining glory' of the Fellowship of the Round Table. Charlemagne was in the myth-cycle somewhere, and Roland at Roncevalles . . . Medieval majesty. And the incongruous Hollywood-tinsel pastiche -- Tony Curtis, in broadest Brooklynese, declaiming: 'Yonder lies the castle of my fadder -- '
Starsky almost smiled. But as suddenly the pageantry and splendor were gone, replaced by a scorched and dusty track, where a scarecrow figure on a thin old horse, clad in battered, rusty armor with a broken lance, rode to do battle with the lowering menace of the windmills . . .
And somehow, they were the same. That same implacable desire for justice, the inability to compromise, the gentleness and gallantry and the cockeyed romantic vision -- they were part of Hutch as they had been part of those long-ago paladins.
"You're thinkin' again," he said to the blond profile. You'll get wrinkles, doin' that."
Hutch turned his head on the pillow and tried a smile. I didn't mean to keep you awake."
"You didn't. Something's bothering you, isn't it? Besides the obvious? C'mon. I'm your best friend. You can tell me, can't you?"
Hutch knew it was futile to lie. Starsky could see through his attempts at deception as if they were plate glass. He reached out, and their fingers linked -- he took comfort from the contact.
"It never ends, does it?" he said bitterly. "Every time we think we've got out from under, made a clean break, something else dumps on us. I used to think we could make a difference, you know? The save-the-world syndrome. Back when we were young . . . " Starsky said nothing. He could feel Hutch's rage and grief and frustration through his skin, and there was nothing he could do or say to ease it. "But you can only give so much. And it's never enough. I thought, getting out when we did, we could get clear. But it's like we're haunted. Like an albatross around our necks that we can't shake. I wanted -- " he broke off, voice stifled suddenly, and Starsky pulled him close, held him, feeling the quiver of suppressed emotion in the long muscles of back and shoulder.
"I know," he said softly. "Me, too. But we don't always get what we want, so I guess we learn to make the best of what we have. The way I see it, that's pretty good. We've been so lucky, lover." He stroked the pale silky hair gently. "How many partners get what we got? Find what we have?"
"Not a lot," Hutch agreed. The words fluttered against Starsky's neck.
"Our kind of partnership, I mean," Starsky said sternly. "Everything else is the gilt on the gingerbread."
That won him a genuine chuckle. "Ah, God, David . . . That's some choice of words."
"I call 'em like I see 'em," Starsky told him, easing back far enough to kiss the wide mouth. "All I'm saying is -- I wouldn't change anything. I love you. I don't care what labels the world puts on us. We get any more hassle, and we'll go down to Bolivia and rob banks."
"Keep thinking, Butch. That's what you're good at." Hutch relaxed in his arms. But the euphoria didn't last. "When it comes down to it," he went on, "what can we do to change anything? Like they told us, we're shoveling shit against the tide. And when the tide finally comes in -- what then?"
"What when?" Starsky queried, valiantly trying to keep abreast of Hutch's downbeat philosophy. He craned up on one elbow to look into Hutch's face. The frown-line that cut deep between the brows was a permanent feature, even in repose. He touched it with a fingertip. The brand of vocation . . .
"What's going to be left?" Hutch whispered. "Whatever we've done -- what gets marked to our account? What difference have we made, David?"
It wasn't a time for lightness. "We are what we are," Starsky said gravely. "We've done what we could with what we had. And I promise you, lover -- there will be a difference because we existed."
There was more he wanted to say, to reassure, comfort and finally cajole Hutch into a better frame or mine -- but the shrill jangle of the phone interrupted before he could get the words out.
"Damn," Hutch said flatly. "Who the hell can be calling at -- what time is it?" He reached for the phone.
"Just past six." Starsky checked his watch.
"This better be important, then. Yeah, Hutchinson -- what? Who is this?"
The voice on the other end of the line riveted him into stillness -- Starsky saw his face change, felt a warning prickle of apprehension.
"What -- ?" he began, but Hutch's gesture silenced him.
"Kath," he said. "It's all right, Sis. Take it slow. I'm listening."
By this time Starsky was sharing the earpiece, listening to Kathy's explanation. No -- the kidnappers would have written the script, Kathy was merely delivering it. And Hutch was repeating the instructions after her, his voice deliberately calm. "Montoya Road. Two miles, then the dirt track through the groves for another mile and a half. Kathy, I got it, it's okay. We'll come get you. It's okay, darling." They heard her sob, draw breath as if to say more -- and the line went dead.
Slowly, carefully, Hutch put the phone down, his face a mask. "Dilly, dilly, come and be killed," he said softly.
Starsky got up, began to dress. "We don't go easy, babe." He slid open the drawer of the dresser, drew out the .38. It fitted snugly into his hand, palms and fingers molding around it, an extension of himself. Tool of the trade. Hutch had followed his example, was sitting on the side of the bed, checking his Colt Python. No need for speech or discussion. One thought, one will, directed them.
"Montoya Road," Hutch said at last.
"I know it. Sounds as if they're holding her up at Valle de la Felicitad." He gave a mirthless smile at the inapt name. "It's pretty near derelict. Owners went bust, put it up for sale. No one bought it, so far as I know. Take us about an hour to get there."
"They'll know that, so we can't afford to stall. Here -- "
From the top of the wardrobe he pulled the box of ammunition, sorting the contents into two piles, and they loaded their pockets.
"We should call Dobey."
"Why?" Hutch demanded. "He can't get there in time to help. And if he alerts the local cops, Kath's dead. This is our fight."
"Am I arguing? But Dobey ought to know what we're doing. That way, he's not gonna be so surprised when we call him to come haul our asses out of a sling."
Hutch's mouth twitched. "Yeah. He always did hate surprises Okay. But he'll try and stop us."
"You think I'm that dumb? This time of the morning, he won't be at Metro yet. We'll leave a message for him. It'll make his day."
* * * * * *
It was just turned seven when Praetor sounded his horn in the signal Almiro had given him. Within minutes he was pulling up beside a ramshackle building that he supposed had once housed the site supervisor. There didn't seem to be anywhere else suitably secure. He switched off the engine, but left the key in the ignition. As he climbed out of the car into the early sunlight, a man appeared in the doorway, one arm out of sight.
"Yeah?" he said suspiciously.
"I'm the nephew," Praetor said crisply. "I've got a message for you."
"It better be quick. We're expecting company."
"Oh, this won't take long." He strode inside as if he'd been invited. The interior matched the exterior, but folding chairs provided an illusion of comfort for the four men there. All Praetor could see was the woman, her terrified eyes and bruised face above the gag. Years of politicking, dealing with difficult audiences and hostile opponents, came to his aid. He'd always been able to think on his feet.
"I'm Robert Praetor," he said without preamble. "I'm Gunther's nephew. I came to tell you that the deal is off. My uncle died last night. All his power comes down to me. I've paid off Almiro, I'll pay off each one of you, and I'll see this woman is compensated enough to keep her quiet. I can arrange passports for each of you to any country of your choice. Any preferences, gentlemen?"
The boldness of the stroke, his sheer confidence, took them off-balance.
"Dead?" said one.
"How much?" demanded another.
"Half a million," Praetor announced. "Each."
Someone whistled in awe. But the fourth man was more wary.
"Hutchinson and his boyfriend are on their way," he said. "They'll be here soon. And she can identify us."
"No problem. You've got a car, and so have I. I'll take her and go and meet them. That'll give you time to get away. Contact Almiro, and he'll arrange the passports and the cash." He moved behind the woman as he spoke, untying the ropes that bound her to the chair. "She won't talk. I guarantee that. The Gunther organization is big as well as rich, and she has children. She'll take the money and keep her mouth shut. No problem." He had her on her feet, half-pushing, half-carrying her towards the door. "Almiro will be waiting for your call, and mine. We'd better go our separate ways before Hutchinson and Starsky arrive." Plausible. Confident. Casual. His assumption of command bought him enough time to get out of the office and across the yard. "Don't speak," he hissed in her ear. "Just get to the car. Around the corner."
"Hey!" Behind him the door crashed open. "Hold it, man! What proof you got, huh?"
The first shot hit him in the back like a mule kick, and the woman screamed, as his legs folded under him and he slid to his knees.
"Get help," he got the words out in a gasp. "The tape -- give it to the police. I'm sorry -- "
If she could just get to the car, she'd make it, he knew that. But even as he fell forward into the dust, he knew they couldn't let her get away.
* * * * * *
Huddled shivering in the doubtful cover afforded by a tilted trailer, Katherine McKinley could no longer believe, as she had at the beginning of her ordeal, that she was existing in a nightmare. This was reality, and terrifying beyond anything she could ever have imagined.
For a few brief minutes, when the man who had identified himself as 'the nephew' had arrived and freed her, she'd almost begun to hope. Now that hope lay dead in the dust with her would-be rescuer. The car they should have made their escape in was just a few yards away, door invitingly ajar -- it might as well be on the moon. To reach it, she would have to leave her precarious shelter, expose herself to the guns of her captors. She'd be dead before she'd made two yards.
Oh, God, Kenny, what's all this about?
She'd parroted the instructions they gave her in a kind of numb daze, hardly registering Ken's promise to come and get her. Now she remembered his words, knew he'd be here at any time, he and Starsky, the White Knight riding to the aid of the damsel in distress, grim echo of their long-ago childhood games.
If she could have turned him back, she would. As it was, she had to wait for her brother and his lover to come to her in the best romantic tradition.
Except that this is no fairy tale. And these dragons are real.
* * * * * *
The spring morning was sweet and clear, and would later be hot. On a morning like this, two years ago, three bullets from an Uzi submachine gun had changed the course of their lives forever. Starsky drove, while Hutch checked their weapons one more time. When they reached the turn-off from Montoya Road, they had relaxed into that state of cool alertness that had become second-nature over the years, and which had carried them into and out of more deadly situations than they could count.
We're still a team, Starsky thought. The best there is. That never changes.
He chuckled, and Hutch shot him a quizzical glance.
"I was just thinking," he said by way of explanation. "Maybe we should have taken Praetor up on his vacation offer. See the world. Europe. I always wanted to see Paris."
"Terrific city if it wasn't full of the French," Hutch said dismissively.
"Okay. Where'd you like to go?"
Hutch considered. "Australia," he said finally.
"Australia?" Starsky repeated querulously. "Why on earth . . . What's in Australia?"
"Kangaroos. Koalas. Kookaburras," Hutch told him. "Also great beaches and no pollution."
Starsky thought about it. "Okay," he agreed. "If we can make a stopover in Tahiti."
"Whatever." The Torino was bucketing over the ruts, raising a pale plume that hung in the warm still air behind them. "How much further?"
"Not far." He slowed to negotiate an irrigation ditch -- Hutch saw a woman crouched a short distance away, a shapeless bundle of brown kneeling beside the narrow channel, washing something in the trickle of water. Starsky saw her in the same instant.
"She's never hoping to get anything clean in there, is she?" Then: "What the hell -- ?"
Hutch had heard the staccato rattle of gunfire too, and his Colt and Starsky's .38 were ready to hand as the Torino rounded the last curve, slewing to a halt in the churned dust between the low building and the man sprawled face down in the dirt.
The empty eye-sockets of the windows spat fire at the car, and both men went flat, Hutch kicking his door open and sliding out, Starsky following to take cover behind the front wheel arch and the bulk of the engine block, ready to return fire. "G'wan. I'll cover you."
Hutch crawled to where the man lay. Dust was settling on the dark stains on the expensive silver-grey suit. Hutch felt for and found a pulse in the side of the neck, and the man moved feebly under his hands.
"Take it easy -- " Useless instruction, because nothing was going to help the man now short of a miracle. A rattling cough told of difficulty breathing, and Hutch got an arm under him to lift and turn -- and abruptly the sporadic gunfire faded into the back of his consciousness. He didn't know who he expected it to be, but he had never expected Robert Praetor. The fine patrician features, short fair hair, were smeared with blood and clotted with flour-fine dust, but the eyes were open, clear, recognizing and afraid.
"Hutchinson." The slurred, bubbling gasp was filled with urgency. "I got her out." Another difficult breath. "Not hurt. She'll get help. If she makes it -- "
"Kathy's safe?" Hutch needed the confirmation, and Praetor's fingers clenched on Hutch's shirtfront. "Where is she?"
"I couldn't -- let them do it. Crazy old bastard. Told you. Dead now. I tried to tell them -- "
"How many are there?" Hutch cut in. "And where's Kathy?"
"Four." There was a spreading sodden scarlet blossom where the suit jacket had fallen open. "Listen. Gunther's idea. He's ordered the contract on you. Fixed it so they only get paid after you're dead. He got Almiro to set this up. And everything else."
"He won't get away with it," Hutch promised, and Praetor's mouth twisted.
"No. I made sure -- " He caught his breath in a groan, the pain beginning to bite. "Listen. My uncle's dead. I killed him. Should have done it months ago, before -- " The strength was bleeding out of him, his eyes glazing, but he found breath enough for one last whisper, so faint Hutch barely heard it. "Not sorry . . . "
The term 'dead weight' is no cliché. Hutch let the slackened body down, closing the eyelids over the set stare, then rolled clear and scuttled to where Starsky crouched. The Torino was listing at an ominous angle -- both offside tires obviously blown, and oil was pooling underneath. "How much of that did you hear?" he asked.
"Enough. We got problems, babe. This car isn't going anywhere."
"Kathy's around here somewhere. All we have to do is get her away safe and make sure these guys are still here when the good guys show up."
"Right. How about we trade my car for theirs?"
"Sounds like a good idea. My guess is it's around back."
"Yeah," Starsky nodded. "How many did Praetor say there were?"
"Three now. I got one of 'em."
"Not lost your touch, lover," Hutch congratulated him, and got a quick, brilliant smile in return. The long barn was behind them, ideal cover that could take them safely the length of the low building and give them a clear view of any car parked beside it. Shrubs, gullies, and trees could give them enough cover to get behind it. With luck.
Movement caught his attention -- maybe twenty paces from the side of the house, an ancient trailer had tipped sideways, and Hutch caught a glimpse of a bare tanned leg. So did someone else, because a shot licked up a puff of dirt beside it and the leg jerked into cover -- and in that instant Starsky's .38 barked and the man on the roof slumped down.
"Kathy," Hutch said. "Oh, sweet Jesus . . . . She's pinned down."
"Cover me," Starsky said. "Maybe I can get to her."
The Colt Python laid down a steady pattern of fire, heavy bullets gouging chunks out of window frames, punching holes in the walls, scattering glass like bright shrapnel, and he was rewarded by a yell of agony.
"Two," he said aloud. "That evens things up . . . "
"Hutch!" Starsky called from the barn, and the lighter bark of the .38 took over from the boom of the Colt. Hutch ran for it, a jinking zigzag that ended in a rolling dive for safety as answering fire sprayed around him.
Safety was relative, and they'd paid for it. There was a bloodstain on Starsky's upper right arm, but it was no more than a graze. Hutch's right hand, however, was gauntleted in red, and a deep gouge ran across the back of his hand and wrist. The fingers didn't answer properly. He transferred the gun to his left hand. "Damn," he said inadequately.
"You got that right." Starsky had reloaded, and fired a quick burst to keep heads down. They slumped back to back, regaining their breath, assessing.
There were no windows in their haven, but the siding was warped into gaps wide enough to shoot through. Starsky squinted at their target, but there was no sign of movement.
"We got to get that car, and get Kathy out of here." Hutch's hand was numb, but a tingle of feeling told him it wouldn't last. He wedged the Python in his belt, and wrapped his handkerchief awkwardly around the wound. Starsky reached over and tied it for him.
"You gonna be okay?"
"I'll make it. Reload for me, will you?" And, as Starsky obeyed: "How's the arm?"
"Fine. Just a nick." He handed back the gun. "Ready?"
They moved the length of the barn, keeping low. Shots abruptly hammered into the doorframe and walls, but neither man returned fire -- they didn't want to advertise their new position. Then a burst of automatic fire raked the barn from end to end, and they flattened belly down in the dirt. Hutch felt a blow like a whiplash across his shoulder blades, but ignored it. Time to worry when it started to hurt.
"Hey," said Starsky, peering through a crack. "We got lucky. There's a car parked at the side. Wanna bet it's Praetor's?" There was a pause, and Hutch saw the dark head turn towards him, features clear even in the sun-barred dimness. "About thirty feet way. Wanna pick up Kath and go for a joy-ride?"
The words and the tone were light, even flippant, but Hutch knew what lay behind it. They were both wounded. His gun-hand was out of action. Gunther's men couldn't get far on foot before the law turned up. And they had to get Kathy to safety.
He felt a thread of disappointment, and it took him by surprise. Up to a point. When he analyzed it, the disappointment was easily explained. They were cops, doing what they were trained to do. Lack of badges was immaterial -- no, that was bullshit. They were enjoying this. Cut out the high-sounding crap, take it back to basics. They were adrenalin junkies, and this was one hell of a high. They were also hunters, and their nature was to be in at the kill.
He laughed softly, and Starsky spared him a questioning glance -- then smiled. "Yeah. It's been a long time," he agreed. "Just goes to show -- what do those Review Boards know?"
"Not a lot." Hutch tried to flex his right hand. The pain flared, but there was movement in thumb and index finger. Enough, even if nothing else was moving. "Trigger finger's okay," he said. "I'll cover you." Starsky took the Python from Hutch's grasp and fitted it carefully into the bloody right hand.
"I'll get to the car, then swing by to pick you and Kathy up, okay?" With infinite tenderness he folded Hutch's fingers around the gun-butt, and Hutch automatically completed the two-handed grip, left hand supporting and clamping closed the right. The consciousness of pain was somehow distant, as if it was happening to someone else. Starsky's lips brushed his. "Keep 'em busy, and you win a Kewpie doll."
"Promise." Starsky smiled, topped up the magazine clip, and snicked it into place with a flourish. Hutch got stiffly to his feet -- he could feel a steady warmth trickle down his spine as he positioned himself behind a crossbeam, where a loose board gave him a good view.
"Ready," he said. Starsky kicked out a couple of boards and bolted out into the sunlight, snapping off shots at windows and doors. The response was a burst of automatic fire that kicked up small dust fountains in a deadly swathe towards the running man. Hutch's Python opened up at the same time, and the firing from the adversaries came to an abrupt halt, but not before Starsky's sprint became a stumbling fall.
Hutch exploded out of the barn, half-crouched, the heavy gun booming wrathful thunder, and Starsky rolled to his feet and staggered back for shelter, one arm clamped to his side. As the Python's hammer hit an empty chamber, Starsky squeezed off a few more shots and they half-fell together into the shadow of the barn, breathing harsh and labored.
I think we better think it out again," Starsky panted.
"Give me your gun. What ammo you got, lover?"
"Half a pocketful. Starsk -- "
"Not to worry. It's just a burn across the ribs. Like my grandmother always said, I must be born to hang." He fished the cartridges out of Hutch's pocket and reloaded the Colt. "Hutch. How long can Kathy hold out? That's no kind of a cover. There could be other snipers out there. Even if there aren't, she so much as twitches and the guys in there'll finish her."
"I know." Hutch squinted into the brightness as if he could get inside his sister's head. "If she stays cool, and we can create a diversion, she can get to Praetor's car. The keys are probably in the ignition -- he was no dummy. If we can keep 'em busy out this way -- "
"That's a lot of 'ifs', babe," Starsky said somberly.
"Yeah. But it's her only chance."
"Right. But will she realize what we're doing, and take it?"
Hutch met his eyes grimly. "That's the chance we have to take. But -- yes, she'll realize. Sharp as a tack, my big sister."
And Starsky grinned at him suddenly. "Well," he said, "either they walk away from here, or we do. And I'd rather it was us."
"I'm with you on that," Hutch agreed. He felt slightly light-headed, as if everything was seen in microcosm, clear and sharp and distant. Starsky was refilling the empty chambers, fitting the Colt back into Hutch's hand.
He tilted his head back against the rough-weathered planking, looking into his lover's shadowed face. Blue-indigo eyes met his, dark with an ancient knowledge. Light splintered through the cracks in the walls, touching on an angle, a curve of curl, silvering.
Starsky. David Michael Starsky. All that was beloved, and fine, and true, and necessary.
Hutch wanted to reach out, to strain his being to absorb and become completely one with his lover. Me and thee. Forever. He watched Starsky's hands, lean and brown, long fingers light and sure as they curled around the gun-butt.
The last battle.
"Hutch." Starsky's voice was quiet, endlessly tender, making music from his name. "I love you."
"Ah, babe . . . " He found he could smile, even if the effort was painful. "This is neither the time nor the place, y'know?"
Starsky's smile was a caress and a promise. "Lover mine, this is all the place we need -- and we got all the time there is."
Me and thee.
So it had been -- so it was -- so it would be.
"Let's finish it." Hutch got to his feet, and Starsky joined him.
"Way to go, partner." Starsky's eyes were brilliant with love. "Bound for glory."
Me and thee.
They were laughing as they burst out into the sunlight.