Comments about this novel can be sent to: kmankatz@CandW.ky
One More River
"Hi, Hotshot," Jaqi said as Hutch opened the apartment door, and stepped into his embrace. He kissed the offered mouth.
"Hi," he said. "How did the trip go?"
She pulled an expressive face. "It's going to take a lot more work, and I've already been working on Delgado for two months. Dammit, I've seen more of him and his tribe than I have of Emma. Or you."
"What's the hold-up now?" He led her into the room. "Hey, you want coffee?"
"Prefer tea, honey." Jaqi collapsed onto the couch and stretched long, slender legs. She was wearing a tailored pantsuit in mint-green, her hair twisted up on top of her head, and she looked like a million dollars. "Same old problems. The maņana syndrome, and Senor Delgado's inability to take a woman businessman seriously. He's a charmer, a real old-fashioned gentleman, but ..."
"A woman business-man, huh?" he grinned. She threw a cushion at him.
"You know what I mean. The hell with it -- what about you? That vacation has done you a world of good, Ken. You look a lot better. Pretty terrific, in fact."
"Thank you, fans."
"No kidding. I was getting worried about you. Again. But I guess I don't have to anymore, not now that Starsky's back to work." She bounced to her feet, and joined him in the kitchen, sliding her arms around his waist. "Mmm. Let's not go out tonight. We can send for a pizza or something... I'm so glad he made it through," she went on against his shoulder blade. "For both your sakes."
"Amen to that." Hutch turned and held her close, his cheek resting on scented hair, and knew he had to tell her. Now. Today.
Jaqi was special. He loved her without actually being in love with her. Maybe, given time, that would have happened, bringing with it its own heartaches, because right from the start she had made it clear that she didn't want marriage or any kind of permanent commitment. And he needed the oneness, the sense of completion that only Starsky could give him, a completion he knew instinctively he would never find with anyone else. So, because he loved her, and owed her, she had to know.
"That vacation certainly did something for you," Jaqi said, leaning back in the circle of his arms, hands on his shoulders. "You look -- like something lit up a sun inside you."
"Has to be love. Knew I shouldn't have stayed away so long. Okay, who is she? And have you told her she'll have to share?" She was relaxed, smiling, teasing, no tension or sign of any jealousy.
"There's no other woman, Jaqi."
"Glad to hear it. Emma's very attached to her big blond uncle, and she's a little young to change horses in midstream. But if you tell me you've found yourself a pretty little beach-boy, I give you fair warning, I won't believe you." He didn't answer. "Ken?" She lifted her hand to his face. "What's happened? What the hell have you gotten into?"
"Nothing that hasn't been waiting for nine years."
"Nine --? Are you telling me you've been in the closet for nine years? Who is this man?"
"The other half of me," he said simply.
Her eyes widened. "Starsky," she whispered.
She didn't pull away, just searched his face with anxious eyes. Alongside the concern now was a hint of pain and anger. "Are you sure?" she demanded at last. "Ken, have you thought about this with your head? I know how much you care about him -- while he was in that hospital, he was just about all you talked about. You called him your brother, once."
"He still is." Partner, best friend, brother. Lover.
Gently she freed herself and walked away, stood at the window looking down on the street. Hutch concentrated on the mundane, making the tea, pouring it into the cups. Jaqi twice started to speak, but stopped abruptly, and the increasingly uncomfortable silence stretched out.
Then she spoke. "Since it's Starsky, that kind of puts a different light on it," she said at last. There was an odd note in her voice. He didn't answer, and she turned around, came to him slowly. "I'm not going to lie to you or pretend I'm not mad or shaken up. You gave me the truth, as you see it, so I'm going to do the same. You're making a mistake, Ken. You both are. Oh, I can see why it happened -- I think -- death coming that close, and all those weeks of waiting you went through. It's no wonder your head got turned around and you need to hold on with everything you've got. But it's a mistake, honey, and you're going to end up with more pain than you thought possible." He started to interrupt, but she put her fingers over his mouth. "I'm not going to play Dear Abby, or offer you a load of advice you don't want. All I'm saying is -- I'm your friend. And I'll be around, if you need someone to listen. Or to pick up the pieces." She reached up, touched her lips to his. "He's a lucky guy, that partner of yours. I wouldn't share you with a girl, you know."
"Jaqi, it isn't any kind of emotional backlash from the shooting --"
"Not from where you're standing, maybe. But we're not going to argue about it. And I still want to meet him."
"So how about tomorrow? We had a date to take Emma to the zoo."
"Whatever you can work out." She looked around for her purse. "Can I take a raincheck on dinner tonight? You've thrown me a curve, and I think I need time to work it out."
When it came down to it, he realized he'd expected something of the kind. Once she'd gone, he picked up the phone. After three rings, it was answered. "Busy?"
"Nope. Just got in. But I thought you were."
"I'm not. Come on over?"
Soft chuckle. "You bet. I'm on my way."
Since Hutch hadn't mentioned anything about Jaqi's intentions for the weekend, she'd hardly figured in Starsky's mind. He hadn't asked what had happened to the date the previous night, and Hutch hadn't volunteered an explanation for it. But he should not have been surprised to see the bright green Porsche Carrera parked outside Venice Place when he returned from his shopping expedition to drop Hutch's supplies off before taking his own back home.
He shouldn't have been surprised. But the jolt was not a pleasant one. A few weeks ago, he wouldn't have felt this way -- would have been able to meet the lady in Hutch's life with a healthy interest and enjoyment and gratitude, because he knew Hutch owed her. Now -- he realized he was viewing her as a threat. And that was wrong. He was frowning as he climbed the stairs, and straightened his face with a conscious effort before rapping at the door.
"It's open." Hutch's voice. Starsky took a breath like a man about to dive into dark water, and walked in.
She wasn't one of Hutch's usual ladies. He supposed he'd known that from the beginning, when Hutch had first told him about her. She had none of Van's tiger-lily poise, or Abby's prettiness. She was strong-featured, as he knew from the photos Hutch carried, and the long glossy red hair was beautiful. She knew how to wear it. Her eyes, too, were lovely, green and clear as glass. They crinkled when she smiled -- as she was smiling now, mouth curving -- one hand held out. "Hello, David. I've heard so much about you."
And Hutch, dammit, was standing there grinning, the kid in his arms, blond heads on a level.
She could be his daughter.
"Hi," he said, returning her smile with the full-voltage lady-killer version, and took her hand. "Hutch has told me quite a bit about you, too."
How much does she know? Has he told her? What has he told her?
"Say hello to Uncle Davey," Hutch was saying to the child, who was staring distrustfully at the stranger, one hand firmly hooked onto his collar, the other clutching a doll. Uncle Davey? Jeez! "S'okay, honey, he doesn't bite."
Jaqi lifted the little girl down laughing, smoothing back the Alice-fall of blonde. "Say hello, Emma --"
Starsky hunkered down to the child's level. "Hi, Emma. Hutch says you're going to the park."
She smiled suddenly, got dimples, and held out the doll for his inspection. "Her name's Lucy," she confided. "Mommy brought her all the way fr'm San Diego."
"She's real pretty," he approved solemnly. "Just like you."
Dimples again. She forgot her wariness. "We're going to the park and the zoo. You can come too if you like."
Hutch's eyes on him. And Jaqi's. Both unreadable. He grinned at Emma and stood up. "Some other time, sweetheart. I'd love it, but -- got things to do." The formalities now. "Nice meeting you, Jaqi."
"Sure you can't make it, Starsk?" Hutch wanted to know.
"Sorry, pal." He shrugged. "Got a date." He didn't miss the flash of surprise in the blue eyes. "See you around."
"Yeah -- sure..."
Damn you Hutch! Starsky slammed the door behind him, stood in the middle of his living room, eyes closed, trying to switch off his feelings and failing. Why did you do that to me? Four -- five months. Hutch had known her since -- when? Before Thanksgiving? When it hadn't seemed they had much to be thankful about. A rough time for them both, his own enforced inactivity chafing him into irritability. Hutch, saddled with one of the rookies -- a glory-hound, as he remembered, and a prize pain-in-the-ass -- had let Starsky take his discontent and bad temper out on him and hadn't complained. He had taken to drinking, though, and Starsky did know that. Then, suddenly, Jaqi.
She'd done what he couldn't. Hadn't the ability or the energy to do right then. She'd straightened Hutch out, put a halt to the downward slide. Hutch had been the better for her love and caring. Starsky, although he hadn't met her, had been grateful to her, had liked her for being what Hutch needed.
So what's changed?
He recognized the emotion, the hurt. It had felt like this with Kira. Jealousy. Only now, it was Hutch. He was jealous because Jaqi was intruding on what he and Hutch had.
Maybe that's how it was with Kira, too. Only I was too dumb to see it. We were both too dumb -- only knew that what we had was worth too much to be flushed down the tubes because of a woman.
What we had then -- what we have now...
His shoulder had ached badly, as it hadn't done for weeks, and he'd taken a couple of the prescription codeine to ease it. Possibly that was why he slept so heavily, but the touch of a hand, and his name spoken, roused him from the formless and uncomfortable dreams.
The light from the living room haloed the pale hair. "Hutch? Wha' --?"
"Wouldn't have woken you, babe, but you were dreaming."
"Was I? Oh, yeah --" He tried to sort out thought and action from a sleep-fogged brain. The clock's digital readout was a fuzzy 11:45, and it was dark. "What are you doin' here?"
"Tried to call you earlier, but there was no answer. And when I dropped Jaqi off, thought I'd come over. You okay?"
"Sure. I went down to The Pits." Awake now, but too comfortable to move, he was content just to have Hutch there. "Was she upset?"
"Because you cut out?" Hutch was unbuttoning his shirt, kicking off his shoes. "Hell, no. She did say you ought to come over when she's cooking dinner. Thinks you need fattening up."
"God, another one?"
"It's the strange effect you have on women, Starsk."
"And she didn't expect you to stay?" He hated saying it, but had to. Hutch, standing up to free himself of his pants, paused with one leg out.
"I don't know. Maybe. Does it matter?"
Not so long as you're here, lover.
"No. Just wondered." He shifted to make room, and Hutch slid in beside him, the embrace as natural as the night. "Glad you came over."
"Where else should I be?" Hutch murmured against his mouth as gentle fingers traced familiar paths of pleasure and Starsky's breath caught in his throat, transmuting his answer into a sigh.
And then, no words at all.
Eyes closed, Hutch turned his head on the pillow until his cheek rested against silken curls. Starsky did not stir, and he listened to the unaltered breathing with a sense of deep content. This peace had little to do with sexual fulfillment, and it pervaded every part of him, the warm comfort of a hearth on a winter's night. The week had gone more swiftly than he had dared to hope. Nights spent alone had dragged, and the solitary early-morning awakenings saddened him, but the sweet companionship of the days was as it had always been. Save only that the depth of their loving had added to it.
A prickle of unease grew slowly to disturb him. Jaqi. So sure he was wrong. She'd made that clear both Friday evening and yesterday when Emma was out of earshot. He'd told her as best he could the way it was, but knew she was not convinced. Not that she doubted his sincerity, of course not. She just knew he was making a mistake.
How do you tell a lady who is a friend and was a lover that you don't need her any more?
And when he inspected his own motives objectively, he realized that when he had told her about Starsky he had half-hoped she'd walk out on him. But she hadn't.
On the contrary, she obviously intended to remain in his life. As a friend: waiting to pick up the pieces, put them back together, and then what? 'She didn't expect you to stay?' Starsky had said. No, she hadn't. That had been something of a relief. But the way it had been done had galled more than a little. As if Jaqi was deciding he should go to his lover. He could almost hear her say it -- go and lie with him, don't worry about me. When you've got him out of your system, you'll come back to my bed.
You're the one who's mistaken, Jaqi. You have nothing now I need or want. He is all and everything.
He moved his hand from shoulder to furred chest, felt the slow steady beat of the heart under his palm slide the rhythm into his own, and slept.
Backstage at the Green Parrot, Starsky rapped at the door with the glitter-star painted on. "Sugar? It's Starsky and Hutch."
"Just a minute." A throaty voice, the three words declaimed to an audience.
"Wonder who she'll be today," Hutch muttered. "Want to place a bet?"
Starsky grinned, but before he could answer the door swung open and Carol Channing stood poised on the threshold. "Hello, boys. Come on in." Sugar swayed aside, and with an expansive gesture ushered them into the dressing room.
"You've got some information for us?" Hutch said, and the entertainer nodded.
"Yes. Of course, it might not be any use, but it could tie in with one or two things." He came back to the dressing table, sat down, watching them in the mirror. Behind the Channing facade, the man's eyes were hard, assessing. "Boys are being killed. Pretty boys. A shocking waste, don't you think?"
Hutch heard the anger under the cynicism. "Yeah," he said quietly. "What do you know about it, Sugar?"
"Nothing. But I know someone who might."
"Who's your friend, then?" Starsky put in.
"No friend of mine!" Sugar hissed with sudden venom. "I've had to clean up behind him once too often!"
"You want to run that by me again?"
"He calls himself George Smith. He's got a store a couple of blocks from here, sells radios, cassette recorders, VTR systems. And all the accessories. Oh, he's legit. But he's got a hobby." He was putting the finishing touches to his make-up, hands working in small angry movements, but the mascara went on without flaw. "He makes his own video movies. With kids." The Channing mask disappeared, and Sugar met Hutch's reflected gaze. Despite the heavy cosmetics, the blonde wig and slinky gown, there was a kind of dignity in him, the strength of a survivor, and the bitter wisdom of someone who had seen everything and remained unbroken. "I didn't have proof before," he said. "I don't have proof now, none that I'm going to give you, anyhow."
"Sugar --" Hutch started.
"Don't interrupt, it's not polite." Momentarily Channing emerged to slap his wrist. "As far as I know, George hasn't killed anyone. Yet. But he's hurt a lot of kids. Hurt them badly, and not just physically. He's into S&M in a big way. With juvies. Maybe he can give you a lead." He broke off to light a cigarette, drew in a deep lungful of smoke. "It's men like that," Carol proclaimed, "that give gay a bad name."
"Sugar, when did you get all this? Who from?" Starsky demanded.
"Didn't you hear what I said? Go ask Georgie about the pretty boys with their faces all slashed up. I simply must fly now -- I never keep my public waiting. So long, boys." And he swept out in a trail of scented cigarette smoke and Chanel No. 5.
"Hey!" Starsky grabbed for an arm but missed. "Sugar, the address!"
"But you're the detective, darling. Try Yellow Pages."
"Let your fingers do the walking," Hutch muttered, a reluctant grin widening his mouth. "You gotta admit, she's got a helluva line in parting shots."
"Huh," Starsky growled. "One of these days I'm gonna forget my manners and deck a lady. C'mon, Detective."
George Smith was a tall stooped man in his late forties. Lank black hair flopped over a high pale forehead, and hot brown eyes glittered as he approached the detectives. There was a febrile energy in him that they immediately saw and recognized. On uppers, hyper, and therefore unpredictable. Which could work for them as well as against them. "Poke a stick into the anthill and see which way the toad jumps," Hutch whispered.
"Yeah -- huh?"
"You guys interested in anything in particular?" Smith began.
"Yeah," Starsky said. "Homemade video movies," and put his badge under the man's nose.
The toad took off like an Olympic sprinter, heading for the back of the store. Hutch lunged after him, and Starsky whirled, diving for the street door and the side alley. Knowing that the escape route would be cut off by his partner, Hutch crashed through the swinging doors in Smith's wake, hounding him close, and as they erupted into the alley, threw himself forward in a sliding tackle, his weight slamming into Smith with crashing force.
Both men went down. Hutch rolled to his feet, reaching for his gun, but Smith was not about to give up. Flailing around on the garbage-strewn ground, his hand closed on broken glass. Blood ran red through his fingers as he gripped it, but he didn't seem to feel the pain. On his back, he lashed out, and Hutch didn't leap back fast or far enough. The jagged edge scalded like a thin line of acid down the side of his leg from knee to ankle, and he almost fell. At the same time, Starsky thrust past him, and a sneaker connected with Smith's jaw, snapping his head back, putting him out.
"Hutch?" Starsky said as he slapped cuffs on the prisoner.
"S'okay. Just a cut," he managed through gritted teeth. "Probably looks worse than it is."
"Yeah, sure." Starsky hauled off his belt, wrapped it above Hutch's knee and pulled it tight. "But you don't have to be kosher on my account, lover."
Hutch didn't answer. Denim and flesh had been opened up, and blood had soaked his leg even in the short time before Starsky's first-aid. It hurt like hell, and he could not quite convince himself that it was not as bad as it looked.
"Siddown," Starsky instructed. "Keep your weight off it, and don't move. I'll get the ambulance."
Within a couple of hours, Homicide and Vice had Smith's merchandise.
"I think we've seen enough, Starsky," Dobey said flatly. "With the other charges, there's enough here to send him down the river for a good long time."
Starsky hit the rewind button on the VTR and the TV screen went mercifully blank.
"Quite a collection," Captain Schwartz murmured, looking at the stacked cassettes still in the carton. Starsky slid the ejected tape back into the protective sleeve, feeling an unprofessional yearning to rip the casing open and try to erase the recorded images by destroying them. He still felt slightly nauseous, even if he'd stopped actually watching the screen after the first couple of minutes. "Good job, Sergeant. Good clean bust."
"Thank you, sir." Starsky said neutrally. If Vice were on the ball, they'd have put a stop to Smith's games sooner. He stomped on the unworthy thought. It wasn't true, anyway. "You need me any more, Cap? I got reports to finish."
"Get to it," Dobey told him gruffly. "Oh -- what did the hospital say?"
"I'm picking him up when I'm through here. But he won't be back to work for a while."
"Uh-huh. Sounds like we'll have to rethink our side of the Benedic's plan. We'll talk about it tomorrow."
As it happened, the Summit Conference about Benedic's had to be postponed still another day, since arraignment and pre-trial hearings required Starsky's presence. With the usual paraplegic snail's pace, the Wheels of Justice kept him kicking his heels until late even then; he didn't make it back to Metro until almost eight. Duplessis and Dobey were already running through the DuCann scenario. Both glanced up as Starsky came in.
"How's Hutch?" was Duplessis' first question.
"Twenty-five stitches and griping about it like hell," Starsky said. "No way is he gonna be fit to go undercover, Cap. He can't even walk far for at least a week. Can't have a gigolo with a limp."
"A limp what?" Duplessis asked disingenuously. Both Starsky and the Captain ignored him.
"Well, you're our second string, Starsky. Think you can handle it?"
Starsky leaned back in his chair. "Benedic's is the easy side. Duplessis' the one in the hot seat."
"It is? I mean -- I am?"
"Can it, you two. Starsky, I don't know how much work you and Hutch have done on his cover, but if it's possible to use some of it --"
"We got Huggy calling in a few favors, I'll let him know the change, see what else he can come up with."
"Right. Oh, by the way, you did a good job on Duplessis."
Duplessis grinned under the casually-styled sun-streaked mane. 'Our Alexandrian Look' Carmine had called it. "Sal hates it," he said. "But I think maybe I could get used to it."
"She knows you're going undercover?"
"Yessir. But I haven't told her details. What she doesn't know --"
"-- she can't fret about." Starsky nodded. "Goes with the territory, Dave."
The next few days were so hectic that Starsky was unable even to visit with Hutch, a situation that was fast becoming intolerable. The phone calls snatched in the infrequent breaks of the days were not enough, and Hutch, denied outside distractions, was fast becoming terminally bored by his unwanted leisure.
Jaqi dropped by twice en route to or from work, picked up groceries for him and collected his laundry. He was grateful. When she suggested the Friday night dinner date, offering to fix dinner, he accepted. He was unlikely to be otherwise engaged, with things as they were.
Starsky, informed of the arrangement during a fast phone call, seemed to have no objection. None that he voiced openly, anyway. Until Friday evening, that is.
"I'm bored," Hutch greeted his partner as he walked into the apartment. Starsky grinned.
"I was gonna ask how you were doin'. Guess that says it all. Here y'go -- these were delivered downstairs." He deposited a package and some assorted mail on the coffee-table, stood there with his hands wedged into his pockets. "When's she arriving?"
"When she gets here."
"I better not hang around, then. Listen, how about I come over tomorrow and fill you in? On the case?"
"Look forward to it," Hutch said.
"'Kay. Be good, huh?" A parting injunction, and the apartment was Hutch's again, and empty without Starsky. Hutch picked up the package, opened it. The Book-of-the-Month Club finally struck lucky. Renaissance Art. He opened it at random. Glossy full-color illustrations tempted the eye, and he became engrossed.
Since Starsky had left only minutes before, Hutch did not expect to see him re-enter.
"Forget something?" he queried, glancing up from the Sistine Chapel frescoes.
"Uh-uh. You might say I remembered something," Starsky said, crossing purposefully to the couch, kneeling beside it, and reaching for the zipper of Hutch's fly. "Like it's been five days, lover." The smile was brilliant.
"Starsk -- what are you -- hey, I got a date tonight --" Hutch protested, but it was at best half-hearted. The clever hands, the mischievous grin, the sheer presence of Starsky, were doing things to his pulse-rate.
"You just stood her up," Starsky said softly, unsnapping the waistband of Hutch's jeans and easing them over his hips. "Better call her. S'only fair. Before I'm through with you, you won't have nothin' left for anyone else, babe." He laughed up into Hutch's bemused face. "Go on. Call her." And as Hutch reached for the phone, punched out the number, Starsky bent his head to tease the growing erection with lips and tongue.
"Uh, Jaqi? Ken. Look, honey, I'm not gonna make it tonight. Something's come up --"
"You'd better believe it," Starsky chuckled. Hutch managed to cover the mouthpiece in time to stifle his own gasp of pleasure as the lapping tongue discovered sensitized flesh.
"Didn't your mother ever teach you not to talk with your mouth full?" he hissed. "Uh, yeah, Jaqi. Sure. Some other time. I'll call you."
He fumbled the receiver back onto the cradle and groaned as Starsky devoted his full attention to the matter in hand. "OhgodStarsk -- don't stop --" He felt the soundless chuckle, and his body arched in response. Five days. It's been five days. Is that all? He was as desperate for this loving as if it had been five months. His hands tangled in the dark curls, guiding where no guidance was needed. "Starsk -- I can't wait." He moaned the words. "Please, lover -- c'mon now, ohgodIcan'twait --"
But Starsky plainly didn't mean for it all to be over too soon. He changed his field of operations, staying in control of the situation. Hutch was his to control, hips bucking, twisting in the cushioned softness of the couch, shuddering, then crying out as the exquisite spasm of release shook him.
"Figure I know what you like now, lover mine," Starsky whispered, and kissed him, stroking the sweat-dampened hair back from the wide brow. His mouth tasted salt. "Can you make it to the bed? The couch is kinda cramped for what I got in mind."
"I'm not completely crippled, idiot," Hutch said. "Give me a hand up, willya." And with Starsky as a more than willing crutch, he managed the few short strides to the bed, sprawled there and enjoyed the luxury of having Starsky strip him.
Lying naked then on the cool sheets, he watched Starsky, lazily cherishing the sight of him, lean and tan and fully aroused. Contact came at last, skin sliding silken over skin, with Starsky's hands on him, easing him into position, stroking.
"You got a tan line, babe."
"Mmmm... Sorry 'bout that... "
"You're beautiful." Starsky's soft voice had a reverence as well as the throaty purr of desire. "So beautiful... Golden cougar... Are you ready for me yet?"
"You know what happened the last time you played games like this," Hutch warned, gasping. Warm breath brushed his nape, and teeth nipped his shoulder.
"I remember. But if I'm the noisiest screw in L.A., you're gonna run me a close second, boy."
He closed his eyes, letting sensation take him flying, and rubbed himself against his lover like a cat. "Yeah?"
"You bet. I'm going to fuck you right into the ground."
The first thrust was unendurable pleasure-pain and he sobbed aloud, surrendering to the torrent of feeling as Starsky took possession of him, body and soul. Floodtide swept him onward, strong hands gripped him, measured thrusts slid deep, impaling him on pinnacles of ecstasy, climbing high, higher, until every breath was a moan. His body was beyond his control, moving involuntarily to demand more, insatiable, writhing, his voice a breath-gone chant -- ohdearGod, harder -- harder, lover -- lover NOW --
Dimly, half a world away, he heard himself scream.
"Toldya..." Starsky whispered into his neck. "Y're just as noisy as me."
"Bastard," Hutch mumbled. His eyes were closed, arms wrapped around his partner, a comfortable tangle of limbs on the dusk-shadowed bed, warm bronze and dull gold.
"The hell you say. You loved it." The soft words fluttered against the skin of his throat. "You could still make your date with whatsername." A hand trailed idly down his flank. "Or you could tell her forget the dinner, we'll just play troy games."
"That's the kinkiest idea I ever heard. You don't mean it."
"No, I don't. I'm not gonna share you. She'll have to watch."
"That's even kinkier. I'm not having you corrupt my lady, Starsk."
"She's good, huh? But you don't kiss'n'tell, do you, Hutch? Does she drive you out of your skull with the things she does to you?" Hutch felt the shudder run the length of Starsky's body, the hand clenching on his thigh, heard the husky whisper change helplessly. "Hutch -- ah, Hutch, I want you again..."
"Sshh. My turn." Gently, Hutch moved against him, over him, hands caressing, his mouth capturing Starsky's, tasting, drinking deep of his need, intoxicated by him. He held his lover a willing prisoner as he traced the patterns of seduction on the lean body, drawing away a little for the joy of having Starsky reach for him. "Beg for it..." Exulting in the power he had, hearing the breathless pleading urge him on, he pinned Starsky beneath him so that he could watch the transfiguration in the beloved face at the onrush of orgasm.
Sometime afterwards, "Too heavy for you?" Hutch asked.
"No. Stay there."
"Why'd you come back? I mean, you knew I was supposed to be seeing Jaqi."
"Guess I was jealous," Starsky confessed. "Oh, yeah, I know, Hutch, but when we talked this all out, before we came back, it was different. Then was then, and now is now."
"Theory is different from practice."
There was a pause. Hutch shifted sideways. "Starsk. Are you saying you want us to give up girls?"
"No! I mean -- hell, Hutch, I don't know --"
Propping himself on one elbow, Hutch looked down into Starsky's face. Even in the darkness, he could see the frown-line that speared between the heavy brows. "David. Tell me what you do want." A rush of tenderness swept him, and he kissed the furrow of tension. "I love you. You know that. If you want proof --"
"You just said the most important thing, Hutch."
"No. Listen to me. I've been this route before. With Van, I didn't know what it meant. Now I do. If you want it this way, I can say it for you, David, and mean it -- 'forsaking all others --'"
Slender fingers sealed his lips. "Don't, Hutch. Don't make promises I can't keep." Starsky's voice was shaking slightly, sure sign of emotional distress. "We don't need that. It's just that I'm a selfish bastard, and possessive as hell, and if you didn't know that already, you do now."
"Let's say it doesn't exactly come as a surprise."
"Okay." There was a short silence. Then, "Hutch. Does Jaqi know about us?"
He had been waiting for this question for a while now, but now when it came he was unprepared for it. "Yes. I told her." No response. "I should have talked to you about it first, I know, found out how you felt about her knowing, but --"
"No big deal," Starsky said quickly. "She's not the first. Hug knows. There'll be others, sooner or later."
But that was surface reasoning, not the way he felt, and Hutch knew it. "I'm sorry," he whispered.
And Starsky's breath caught on a sound like a sob, his arms tightening painfully around Hutch. "A selfish bastard. I told you."
"But lovable," Hutch murmured, and kissed him. "I take it you're not going home tonight?"
"You throwin' me out, schweetheart?" Laughter threaded the growl, to Hutch's relief.
"Go to sleep," Hutch commanded, mock-sternly. Starsky relaxed into his arms with a sigh of drowsy content. "I'll throw you out in the morning. Schweetheart..."
Dave Duplessis stood and stared at his reflection in the mirror. The difference brought about by the sun-streaks and the styling was amazing. The clothes helped, of course. He hadn't worn some of this stuff for years, and some was brand new, but it wasn't his style. No way. It was thankfully less obvious than a hustler's outfit, but even so, he looked like the Great American Gigolo.
Goes with the badge, and like that. He gave his forelock a flick and turned from the mirror. Exit Dave Duplessis, cop. Enter Denny DuCann -- job description? Escort. Neat euphemism. He tried to control the frisson of excitement that tingled in his gut. First real undercover assignment with the LAPD, and a milestone in his career. He hoped he could pull it off. He had the best back-up man there was, anyway. Didn't need Dobey or Starsky to tell him that.
Right on cue, the doorbell of his new cover apartment chimed. Duplessis carefully adjusted the mask of his persona and opened the door, to let the facade slip instantly. "Oh, hi, Starsky. Thought you were one of the new neighbors dropping by to borrow a cup of sugar or something."
Starsky pushed the door to behind him. "Didn't they teach you Lesson One in Sierra County? Don't let your cover slip in public. Yours or your team-mates'. You could just have blown it -- if anyone had been around. Remember, the name is Stewart, not Starsky."
"Okay." Starsky, hands in pockets, was wandering around the little apartment. "Yeah. Neat place. You payin' weekly or monthly?"
"Weekly. Dobey said --"
"I know." Starsky opened the refrigerator, peered inside. "Christ. Yogurt?"
"I like it."
"You're as bad as Hutch. He breeds the stuff. When's your interview?"
"Tomorrow at two." He tried for a short laugh. "I'm kinda nervous about it."
"Don't be. It won't hurt."
"Yeah, but..." Duplessis trailed off. He had a lot of questions he wanted to ask, things he needed to talk out and discuss. Hutch wasn't going undercover, and right now wasn't available. "Starsky. Can we talk?"
"What about?" The aimless perambulation continued, Starsky tracing an idle finger along the piecrust carved edge of the dresser, picking up the glass hemisphere of the paperweight Duplessis had placed on display, squinting at the blown design trapped within.
"The job. The case. How we handle it. Just -- talk, you know?"
I wish you'd quit fidgeting, Duplessis thought, irritated, then realized that Starsky was probably just as nervous as he was himself, which made him feel better. "Look, I guess I just need..." He didn't know what he did need. Or he didn't know how to put it into words. "How do you handle it?"
Starsky turned the paperweight between his fingers, the smooth sphere catching the light. "'Moondancer,'" he said, reading the base. "It's beautiful."
"Sally gave it to me. Our first anniversary." He felt a twinge of homesickness. It wasn't that Sal didn't understand what he had to do, and it wasn't the first time. But he'd miss her. "Starsky, how far do I have to go? I was thinking, last night --" Jeez, he sounded like a raw rookie in his own ears.
"Lie back and enjoy it." The tone was distinctly hostile. "For God's sake, kid, you're not playing 'Postman' -- if the agency takes you on, you'll be escorting lonely ladies and sometimes screwin' them. So they may not look like Bo Derek or Brooke Shields -- close your eyes and pretend, if you can't get it up any other way."
Duplessis didn't expect that much of a put-down. Okay, he could have phrased it better, but -- "You're not married," he said shortly. Starsky stared at him, and Duplessis couldn't read his expression. "I don't like cheating on Sal, that's all." It wasn't all, it wasn't anything like it, but he suddenly knew he couldn't tell the truth to this cold-eyed stranger. Couldn't vocalize his fear of the unknown, the twilight world of homosexuality, of the false colors he would be flaunting.
"Then tell Dobey and get yourself off this case." Starsky didn't raise his voice, but his eyes blazed. "We don't have time to fuck around with your adolescent scruples, Duplessis. You know the score. So either you do the job, or butt out."
Well, he'd deserved that, Duplessis reflected. He began to wish he'd never started this.
"I want to stay on the case, and I'm gonna do whatever I damn-well have to." He met the anger with his own brand of mulish stubbornness. "I just thought --"
"Yeah. Write to Dear Abby. Go to confession. Whatever." He drew a deep breath. "No. I'm sorry. That was -- I guess I'm kinda antsy, too."
Duplessis shrugged. "You're human."
"Really. Listen, if you've got any doubts about whether or not you can follow through, now's the time to tell 'em. Dobey won't put you down for being honest about it. Better now than later. You talked to Hutch about this?"
"Don't." Concise advice. "He's your contact, not your wailing wall."
"Hey. I'm not that dumb!"
Starsky grinned suddenly. "Right. I better go, anyhow. Just stopped by to say good luck."
"You too," Duplessis said, but Starsky was gone.
So what's biting your ass? It was a question Starsky was asking himself too often, and he wasn't liking any of the answers. Suddenly he was ultra-sensitive, seeing difficulties out of proportion, jumping at shadows. Why? The case?
Granted, he'd been on the sick-list for too long. He was rusty, needed to get back into the swing. Oh, it wasn't any kind of test, no one was keeping score. Only himself.
No need to bite the kid's head off.
Duplessis had unknowingly touched a nerve. "You're not married," he'd said. Legally, that was true. 'A bachelor gay.' Well, they hadn't meant it in that context. Emotionally, mentally, even physically, all the ways that counted, he was married. Had been for years, but hadn't known it. Hutch was his mate, his life-companion, his partner and his lover.
If that isn't a marriage, what is?
Not for us the chuppah, the canopy; the wineglass broken underfoot. "If I forget thee, o Jerusalem..."
But that dream of a wedding had never been truly his own. A transplant from his mother and aunts. A graft that hadn't quite taken.
How many of those Jewish princesses did they parade out for me like fillies for a stallion? Until I got drafted, went away, and came back a different man. And still they tried. "When are you going to settle down, bubeleh? Find yourself a nice girl..."
"I'm getting married, Momma. Her name's Terry. She's a lovely lady. You'll like her."
"A shiksa, Davey?"
But that didn't happen for us. And they buried my shiksa with the bullet still in her brain.
His mind experimented with another scenario.
"I've fallen in love, Momma."
"Ah, Davey, that's wonderful! But not another little shiksa?"
"No, Momma. A shaygetz. A blintz. I'm in love with Hutch."
His imagination supplied no answer to that, except an echo of his own voice, on the return from Vegas only months ago, after Nicky's blow-up. "I knew it'd kill Momma if she found out."
With me and Hutch, it's different. No comparisons at all. But will she see it like that? Can she?
Hutch was waiting in one of the back booths at The Pits. He looked up and smiled as Starsky slid into the seat opposite. "Hi, babe. How y'doin'?"
"Okay. I can't stay long. How's the leg?"
"Nearly functional. Still stiff, though."
"Uh-huh." Standard responses. His eyes were hungry for the look of his lover, the pale gleam of his hair in the dimness, the love shining from him like sunlight. Starsky could almost feel the lonely aching part of himself uncurling, opening up like a flower to absorb it. "Huggy, how about a couple of beers over here?"
"You've seen Duplessis?"
"Yeah. He'll do."
"Your place fixed up?"
"Sherwood Court. A condo down at the Marina."
"Sounds fancy." Hutch accepted the beer Huggy put in front of him. "How about the rest of the cover?"
"All set. Stuck more or less to the original ideas we worked out. I signed on for an extension course at UCLA this morning." He paused, took a drink. "How does Classical Literature grab you?"
Hutch blinked. "I was going to try for 'Human Relationships'. Can I ask why that?"
"Liked the sound of it. And the course syllabus looked pretty interesting."
"Tell me about it."
All we have to do is reach out. Did I say that? You were wiser. We sit here, only inches apart, making polite noises -- and I can't touch you, or say what I want to say.
Stifling a sigh, Starsky took out the folded paper, passed it over. "I skipped a lot of this stuff in high school. I thought I could find out what I missed." Their fingers touched as Hutch took it, and the brief contact seemed to burn clean through him. Is it always going to be like this? he thought in stupefied wonder. A look, a touch -- spark to tinder.
Hutch only glanced at the printed sheet. "Your interview is this evening."
"Yeah. At seven. Hug's been workin' overtime on the new background."
"I know. It's pretty near watertight. How about after? You got anything planned?"
"Where and when?" Starsky dropped his voice instinctively.
"I'll meet you. At the Miramar, say?"
"I'll be there from seven-thirty." Just for a moment, his hand closed over Starsky's. "See you then. Take care."
The interview for the escort service position was conducted from the start as if he were applying for an executive post in some multinational corporation. He presented his credentials at the front office, which was all glass and chrome and just one of several dozen companies leasing office-space, then was sent up to the eighth floor. The reception area there was spacious, plant-populated, and gave a tinted but splendid panoramic view over the Pacific.
They ran the organization like well oiled clockwork. His interview with the Director, O.F. Searls, was scheduled for seven. It was seven exactly when the receptionist ushered him into the office.
Starsky was not by nature a chauvinist. But in the LAPD, where women rarely rise above the rank of lieutenant, he was unused to seeing a female boss. The woman seated in the big leather chair behind the desk, however, looked as if she could be the match of any man.
Dragon Lady, he thought. There was that air of cool, diamond-hard efficiency about her. And a very considerable femininity. Sleek black hair was drawn back onto a loose knot, not a wisp out of place. It wouldn't dare. Her eyes were dark, too, behind the tinted Dior lenses. The smile was professional, no warmth behind it. She wore tailored bottle-green silk in a Chanel jacket, a single gold-set diamond pin over the left breast. There were no rings on the narrow hands. O.F. Searls looked like a lady who was very much in charge.
And she's not gonna buy a snowjob just because I got a pretty smile.
"Mr. Stewart." She stood up, offered her hand. He took it, feeling perhaps he ought to bow over it and click his heels. "Please sit down. This is Mr. Munro, my Personal Assistant. Can we get you a drink?"
"Scotch, thank you. On the rocks." Starsky took the chair she indicated, nodding at the man sitting a little way behind the Director. He seemed to have perfected the art of self-effacement to the extent that he might have been invisible. It was he who brought the drinks -- Starsky's Scotch and what looked like a tonic-water for his boss -- before retiring to his spectator position again.
"You come to us very well recommended, Mr. Stewart -- or may I call you David?" The smile was brilliant, calculated to make him feel not quite at ease. "Perhaps you'd like to tell me why you left Miami?"
Huggy's Florida contacts must have gone overboard.
"Change of scene," he shrugged. "To be honest, it's all college-kids down there now. I thought I could do better for myself out here."
"You don't mind my saying you're a little past the age for this kind of work?"
Starsky raised one eyebrow. "Maturity has to count for something."
"Indeed." She smiled again. "And with Benedic's it does. Tell me a little about yourself, David."
It had seemed the best idea to stick to the truth as far as was possible, so Stewart differed from Starsky only after the return from 'Nam. He had had a variety of jobs, most of them borderline legal -- but had no police record. He was taking a course at UCLA, and enjoyed a lifestyle that needed more money than he could earn from casual labor.
"Amateur playboy," she commented.
"Looking to go pro." He tried the smile, and thought she thawed slightly.
"I think we may be able to offer you a position, David," she said, closing the file on her desk decisively. "Two weeks on a probationary basis. Would that suit you?"
"Whatever you say."
"Very good. Mr. Munro will see to the details." She stood up, the interview plainly over. "I hope you'll enjoy working for Benedic's, David."
It was past eight when the cab pulled up outside the Miramar -- Hutch was waiting as promised, the blue Dodge parked where he could watch the movements of the clientele. Starsky walked across, slid into the passenger-seat.
"How'd it go?"
"Felt like I was auditioning for 'Chorus Line' or something." He grinned. "Almost expected them to ask if I could tap-dance."
"And can you?'
"Like Gene Kelly."
"What else." Hutch pulled out into traffic, apparently aiming for the Pacific Coast Highway. Starsky checked the following cars for several minutes, but it didn't seem they were being tailed.
"We goin' anywhere in particular?" he asked at last.
"Why? You in any hurry?"
"You could say that," Starsky murmured. His fingers touched the back of Hutch's neck above the collar, where the hair curled fine and soft. "Unless we find somewhere to park, and use the backseat."
"-- gross? I know."
"Who was it said we're not crazy, empty-headed kids?" Starsky wondered aloud. Hutch mumbled something against his neck. "What?"
"You did," Hutch said, rolling onto his back. The room was growing dark now, the familiar shapes of Hutch's apartment benevolent shadows. "On the beach, when we were talking about what it'd be like back in L.A."
"And I was wrong." The hunger sated, at least for the moment, he felt more relaxed than he had all day. Hell, all week. "I haven't been like this since I was eighteen."
"Me neither. And I didn't like quickies any more then."
"Don't be dumb. I couldn't hold out either."
"I just --"
A rustle, and Hutch was leaning over him, hands cupping his face. Voice gentle. "Hey, it's okay, lover. I know. I'm part of this too, remember?"
The need to hold and be held, unchanged, undimmed. He squeezed his eyes shut, the intensity of love painful. A touch, warm and soothing, traced the lineaments of his face, skin and tissue, cheekbones, jawline, throat, then rested on the pulse beating between his collarbones. Last time we can be like this until the case is over. However long that takes. Last time. Last time.
"I love you," he whispered desperately. And still could not say what he wanted, give voice to his fear. How can I live without you? How did I ever live? Having known this glory, how can I exist on the light of common day?
Days. Weeks. Maybe more. Living apart. Can't even see each other. No contact except possibly-tapped phone calls. Not enough. It never was, even before. You think I don't know how it was for you when I was in the hospital? Dying. I know. Dope couldn't kill that pain, because it wasn't physical. Drinking didn't make it go away, either, did it? But you found a -- substitute -- in Jaqi. Methadone.
Now -- we're mainlining. Hooked.
Help me make it through the night.
"It's going to be all right, babe," Hutch said quietly. "You can handle it."
"Just one of my many talents. I guess it's too much to hope you could stay here for the night?"
"I'm supposed to be back at Sherwood Court. Don't tempt me."
Easy enough, to smile now. Even to laugh. Hutch believes in me. Believes I can do what I have to. I can't let him down. Won't.
It was easier than Starsky's pessimism had allowed him to expect, mainly because he was able to keep busy, without spare time to think. The days were the most fun, something else that was a surprise, because he'd long since lost the discipline of study, and was prepared to have problems in that respect. It wasn't so. After the first unsureness, he found he was looking forward to the coming days' lectures more and more. He wasn't out of place in the class; he wasn't even the oldest there. And a new world was slowly unfolding itself to his eyes.
The professor, Morgan Lewis, was a man in love with his subject. It was infectious. He began at the beginning, with the Epic of Gilgamesh, and three days of that just about blew Starsky's mind. It was all there, and he'd never known -- a story as old as civilization itself. Two who had challenged even the gods in their bonds of friendship and love.
... the axe at my side,
A love-song, a lament echoing down four thousand years. Starsky had gone through the rest of that day in a trance. We're not alone. He wanted to share his discovery with Hutch, but since he couldn't, he wrote it down. There would be time, later. He didn't want to forget it.
The theme of sacred friendship, running like a golden thread through the ancient epics of war and death and the gods, at times took on such a personal note that he felt the poets were speaking to him alone, that the message had been hidden then for him to find now. His and Hutch's love was a Rosetta Stone, a cipher holding the key to understanding something so deep and fundamental that he could marvel that it had taken so long for him to see it.
We're not the first, Hutch. Funny, it felt like that to us -- but maybe it always does. And it doesn't matter that the path we take others have walked before us. The best company, babe. Wait till I tell you. A Roll of Honor.
No one will ever make songs about us. But even so -- we belong.
Somehow that made Hutch part of his days. He didn't know how. But it helped.
The evenings, he was busy too. Benedic's didn't believe in breaking a guy in easy. In ten days, all but one of the evenings had been booked for him. Munro had made sure that he was correctly outfitted, advised him to have his hair trimmed, and concocted a fictitious 'background' for him that showed the man had a flair for creative writing, should he ever want out of the escort business. Starsky got a look at it when his photograph was required for the book, by which time he'd been given to understand that his probationary period had been satisfactory. David Stewart was on Benedic's payroll.
It wasn't hard work. Some of it was pretty tedious, some totally incomprehensible. Some of it might even have been enjoyable, once upon a time. The ladies were all of a kind, wealthy with time on their hands, and mostly in their later years. The oldest of Stewart's 'dates' was the matriarch of a prominent political family, old enough to be his grandmother and almost completely deaf. He was less her escort for the evening than someone to help her in and out of cars, seats, up and down steps. She ordered him about unmercifully, as she did everyone, but tipped generously. She'd been pleased, and it seemed she wasn't alone in that. And so far, it had been just what the public face of the agency offered -- all look but no touch.
There was, as yet, little to report when he called Hutch. But the calls were a lifeline, and he found ways of saying the important things without putting them into words.
I love you. I miss you.
Then, a breakthrough. It didn't come in the way he'd expected -- if he'd expected any way. He was given no briefing for the booking, unusual in itself, no hint if she required an escort for the opera, or a party, or what. No clue -- only a name, Marina Thorne, and an address in Malibu.
He knew why he was there as soon as she opened the door. She was younger than his previous customers, late thirties, maybe, and sleekly high-boned beautiful. She looked him over, from head to foot, impersonally, the way she might judge a horse or bloodstock, gave a short nod, and said, "Let's not waste time, David. No talking, no pretty words. I bought myself a stud, not a poet."
The customer is always right, he reminded himself, somewhat stunned.
And David Stewart had made it onto the bedroom circuit, too.
Two weeks as Denny DuCann were having their effect on Dave Duplessis. He could walk down Hyperion Avenue with confidence and without his spine prickling so bad he felt it must show through his shirt. He was walking a narrow line, however, and he knew it. His persona wasn't a hustler, a cruiser. Or mustn't look that way. Hidalgo didn't like the hustler image. So far, they liked him. So far. He'd made a few contacts, but discovered nothing much of interest. More and more, he was coming to the realization that unless he was accepted by the gay side of the agency, he stood little chance of finding anything out. Though if he got on the list for one of the 'party' sessions, he was hardly likely to enjoy it, even if he survived.
He was due to meet with Hutch at the Coq d'Or, the latest and newest bar on Hyperion. He'd been there once already, with a boy from Hidalgo who seemed to know everything about everything, and who said the Coq d'Or was the place to be seen.
An awful lot of people wanted to be seen, by the looks of it, and Queen was playing loud enough to set up sympathetic vibrations in his teeth as he eased his way through the crowd to the back bar, which had the advantages of being a little quieter and a lot more intimate. The black-clad blond man looked up as Duplessis slid onto the stool beside him. "Hi. Sorry I'm late."
"That's okay. You're here now." He felt the swift glance of appraisal as Hutch checked him out. "Worth waiting for. Drink?"
Hutch got the barman's attention. "Vodka on the rocks, with a twist. Twice. Okay, Denny?"
"Fine," Duplessis agreed, glancing at the clientele without being too obvious about it. They fitted in well, he and Hutch. If it came to that, Hutch was possibly the best-looking guy there, he thought. The blond hair was silvery silk, contrasting with the gleaming black leather of his jacket.
"Your drink," Hutch said again, patiently, and sotto voce, "Keep it up. You're doin' good."
"Thanks, Hu -- Ken."
"Really." Hutch was grinning at him. "You want to dance?"
"Do I -- we -- have to?" The crush out there was daunting.
"No. But we'll fit in better with the customers if we do."
"Raincheck," Duplessis hedged, and took a gulp of the vodka. As he did so, a muscular individual straining the seams of a plaid shirt leaned confidentially close.
"Busy tonight? Maybe some other time, huh?" And a large hand stroked possessively over Duplessis' denim-clad buttocks. Duplessis nearly choked. But before he could retaliate, Hutch's hand closed on his arm like a vice, and a voice in his ear murmured: "Smile. He's paying you a compliment."
Duplessis swallowed hard, stitched on a beautiful smile, and turned it to his admirer. "Do that again, baby -- and I'll break your face," he said sweetly. "I'm with someone, okay?"
The man's doubletake was a classic, and Don Juan vacated the bar in a hurry, looking for easier targets. Hutch's hand remained clamped to Duplessis' arm, but the blue eyes were sparkling with amusement.
"You're learning," was all he said.
"Yeah, well, I have this crazy-jealous lover."
"Right. I think we better dance. Looks like the best way of keeping you out of trouble."
Dancing in the Coq d'Or didn't differ much from dancing any place else, except that the dancers were entirely male, and the boogie a touch more explicit. Duplessis, in role, put everything he'd got into it. Besides, he enjoyed disco-dancing.
"Hey." Hutch interrupted his train of thought. "You're not supposed to be having a good time, remember?"
"Right." He gave a rueful grin. "Better get on with it, I guess."
"Whenever you're ready, kid."
"I wish you wouldn't call me that." Duplessis gave an exaggerated sigh, and pouted, and Hutch swallowed his laughter. Obedient to instruction, 'Denny' started to cruise some of the other customers, and rather to his surprise, started getting cruised in return. He was getting noticed, which was what he was here for. This was Hutch's cue to play the jealous lover, and they kept up the act for the duration of the time they were in the bar. The place to be: to see and be seen. And if word got back to Hidalgo, so much the better.
An hour later, Hutch slumped into a chair in Duplessis' Silverlake apartment, massaging his temples. "You got any aspirin?"
"Sure. My ears are still ringing, too."
"I thought it was just me gettin' old." Hutch took the pills, washed them down with the coffee Duplessis made. "One thing for sure, that place is no use for passing on any info. Anything new?"
"Not much. But I'm seeing Mr. Sutcliffe in the morning. According to Skip -- he's the one says the Coq d'Or is Hidalgo's shop-window -- Sutcliffe is the man who organizes the gay side."
"Which could mean someone's noticed you. Good. Maybe it's a break for the good guys."
Duplessis grinned, perching himself on the edge of the breakfast bar. "Right, I'll call you as soon as I get away, set up a date."
"Yeah. Somewhere quiet, huh?"
"You got it. Hey, I know this isn't exactly relevant, but that Belle Vue is one hell of a place."
"The conference center?"
"That's what I thought. Tuesday night, I found out different." He shook his head reminiscently. "Hutch, if Sal ever finds out about that side of the job, it will be a fast divorce."
"I won't tell her if you don't," Hutch said, and caught himself on a yawn. "Sorry. I'm whipped."
"You want to stay over? I can crash on the couch."
"No thanks, I -- oh, hell, it's a long drive back to Venice. And we might as well enhance your cover. You got yourself a roomie."
If there ever was a stereotyped gay, Duplessis thought, Sutcliffe was it. He looked, spoke, acted like the Queen of the West Coast. If it was a facade, it was a clever one. In fact, if it was a facade, the man deserved an Oscar for acting ability. The man didn't walk, he minced.
"Denny -- a pleasure. Truly." Even the voice was an affectation. A limp paw curled weakly into Duplessis' hand and let go again. "Do sit down. Drink? Oh, you have one already, that's good. Now, suppose you tell me all about yourself."
"I already did this scene," Duplessis said, looking mildly bored. "When I got the job. Mr. Allison said you liked my record, wanted to discuss something with me."
"Mmm. We are blunt and to the point, aren't we?" He sounded arch, but irritated.
"Time is money. Y'know?" Duplessis almost successfully concealed a fake yawn, and saw Sutcliffe's eyes narrow slightly.
"Oh. Quite. That's the right attitude. You come very highly recommended, Denny. By one of our most respected clients. Mr. Ellis thinks very highly of you. But tell me -- do you have anyone - special?" Delicately phrased.
"There's one guy I see pretty much on a regular basis. Why?"
"Just ascertaining a few facts. You know we have a market for that kind of entertainment in Hidalgo."
"Yeah. You recruiting? What's my cut?" That was definitely score one to Duplessis -- he saw the swift readjustment in Sutcliffe's face as he said it, jumping the gun.
"Your usual fifty per cent. With a bonus for -- special duties."
"Uh-huh. The kinky stuff. I'm not into that scene."
Sutcliffe steepled his fingers and smiled. "You know the motto of Hidalgo Inc., Denny. 'The customer is always right.' Well, on the swinging side, we have another. 'There's nothing you can't buy.' It costs, naturally. But the bonus is your affair."
Duplessis let himself look avaricious and interested. "You mean I get the whole package? Besides my usual cut? Just how kinky do I have to be?"
"Oh, it varies, of course. But you understand that our kind of clientele can't just -- cruise." He made it sound like a dirty word. "It wouldn't be politic. Or safe. We provide a service. If there's anything you really won't go for -- well, then, we'll see that you don't get asked to do it. How does that sound?"
"Interesting." And it was, in more ways than Sutcliffe could guess. "Can I think about it?"
"Well, of course, Denny. Just don't take too long, hmm? I just know you're going to be enormously popular."
"Yeah," said Duplessis. Villiers and Connery and Sandoval had no doubt been 'enormously popular' as well. "I'll, uh, let you know as soon as I decide."
"Do that," Sutcliffe smiled at him. "I'll look forward to you joining us, Denny."
And Duplessis was able to smile warmly as Sutcliffe shook his hand again, secure in the knowledge that he wouldn't have to go through any 'audition', thanks to Ellis's co-operation.
He played it to the hilt when he called Hutch, and heard laughter in Hutch's voice over the phone. "He must really have sold them on you, Dave."
"Yeah. Sexiest thing since Al Pacino. Remind me to thank him sometime."
Hutch chuckled. "Sure."
"You heard anything from Starsk?"
There was a short silence. "Not a lot. Don't worry, he won't be stealing your thunder. He turned Benedic's gay recruiter down."
"No. Someone named Corey. Different species of animal. Like a mako shark, Starsky said."
"He also said to keep your ears open -- Benedic's are expecting a lot of custom in the near future, he's been put on stand-by like the others, with no explanation why. You may be able to pick something up from one of your contacts."
"Gotcha. Hell, I gotta split. See you later -- tomorrow?"
"Book the Versailles and the Tiberian." Corey made a checkmark in his books. "The Catullus -- Nichols and his party are down for that. That leaves Xanadu and Gauguin free at present. Now, available staff --"
Munro passed the clip-files across the desk. "They're all on stand-by."
"Good. Mr. Hart is already catered for. I'll have Caldwell notify Borrows that he'll be needed. That should satisfy Jules. Alex, however..." He turned the pages slowly. "Alex is no chicken-hawk, unlike Hart. But unlike Jules, he likes quality. And can pay for it. For Alex, we need something a little more mature. None of your fauns, this time." He smiled at Sutcliffe. "Let me see. This one is new."
"Stewart. Didn't you check him out?"
"Oh, yes. Straight. It's a pity, as Alex might go for that macho-type." He studied the photograph and the 'biography' typed below. "This is for real?"
"The usual ten per cent. The clients love it. Eat him up. He's one of Benedic's prime cuts. A stud. Marina graded him A."
"Really?" Corey's right eyebrow climbed. "I think we'll have to keep a close eye on Mr. Stewart. He could be a valuable asset to Benedic's. One way or another." He continued leafing through the files. "We have seven days, gentlemen. Let's hope we can come up with something really special for our out-of-state guests."
Board meetings at this level were not often called, unless circumstances dictated. As now. For nearly a year, the Principal had had his activities somewhat curtailed, and the news of a sudden deterioration in his health now called for more extreme measures than the rigmarole of arrest-trial-appeal. James Marshall Gunther's eventual conviction and imprisonment had created something of a tidal wave throughout the occasionally stormy seas of the Affiliation, but the confederation had held because it was a useful and profitable arrangement. It was not so much a merging of territories under one chief, as an alliance between city-states under an elected head. No dues were paid, no allegiances bought or coerced, at least on the surface. It was for the benefit of all concerned. But Gunther was now in prison, and had suffered a stroke. There would be an election.
The entertainment of delegates, candidates, and their entourages became the responsibility of the host-group. Corey turned his attention to the venue of the meeting. Belle Vue would be entirely unsuitable, and was in any case to be used for some of the entertainment. Tadleigh Hall, up in the mountains, was his immediate alternative. The Great Hall of that pseudo-Gothic mansion would provide all the amenities required, and security was as tight as the latest intruder-surveillance could make it. He would put preparations in hand.
The main contenders for the throne were a mixed bunch, but Corey was clear in his own mind who should get it. The Vegas candidate had a public persona as spotless as that of the Principal had been, perhaps more so. At the same time, he possessed the ice-cool intelligence and ruthlessness that would enable him to take control of and hold the Affiliation together. If not now, then sooner or later.
Corey intended to rise with the Vegas connection. He did not have a vote, of course, but he had influence, and Alex was not one to forget his supporters. And he rewarded loyalty.
Another Alexander come to weld together the city-states and fashion for himself a latter-day Empire.
"Make sure Alex has the pick of the Books," he said, and Munro's eyebrows climbed.
"All of them?" he wanted to know. "Including the legit stables?"
"All of them," said Corey, and smiled again.
"Okay, Hotshot," Jaqi called from the kitchen. "Specialty of the house. Pears Helene."
"Sounds good," Hutch smiled. "But does it go with Chicken Marengo?"
"Don't be picky. Clear some of those dishes out of the way, huh?"
He obeyed, then poured more wine. "I really appreciate this, Jaqi," he said as she came in with the dessert.
"So I should think. But if the Mountain can't come to Mahomet, what else can a girl do but come over, lock, stock, and cordon blue. How's Starsky doing? And Dave?"
"Okay. Both well settled in. Too early to expect anything, though."
"Yes, of course. It's only on TV that crimes get solved in an hour, with time out for commercial-breaks."
"We should get so lucky. Heard anything from Delgado yet?"
"Sure I have." She pulled an expressive face. "Two dozen roses and an invitation to join him and his wife on their yacht for a short cruise off Baja California."
"Going to accept?"
"Don't know. I'm still thinking about it."
The conversation was a little stilted, as it had been all evening, and the reserve was on both sides. It was the first time they'd been alone together since he'd told her. Somehow it had been easier when Emma was around. Hutch tried to analyze his own feeling, but failed. Other thoughts got in the way, constant questions that had no answer. How's Starsk making out? Does he miss me as much as I miss him? The loneliness was bad. He hated waking up in an empty bed. There was no substitute now for his absent companion.
Jaqi's fingers were a light caress on the back of his hand. "Hey, why the blue look?" She smiled. "And relax, honey. You've been waiting for that damn phone to ring all evening. You're off-duty, for God's sake."
"Not while Dave and Starsk are undercover," he corrected. "I told you, they could call in anytime."
"Fine. But why so edgy? Why so worried about Starsky? He's fit enough or they would never have passed him. Or are you just missing having him around?"
He moved his hand away. "Why did you come over?" he asked quietly.
"I'm beginning to wonder," she snapped. "I'm trying to be a friend, Ken, but I'm not cut out to be a fag-hag!"
Hutch stood up, the chair-legs grating on the floor. "You'd better leave now," he said, ice in his voice. "Thanks for the meal."
"Ken... I'm sorry," Jaqi didn't move. "That was a bitchy thing to say, and it's untrue. It's just that I do care about you, and I don't want you to get hurt. And it makes me so mad when you won't open your eyes and --"
"-- see it your way?" he finished.
She smiled, meeting his eyes with a proud lift of the head. "Stupid, isn't it?" she said wryly. "After all I've said about not trying to change your mind, always being a friend, being there whenever you need to talk. But it still stands, honey." She left the table, reached for her jacket. Hutch picked it up, draped it across her shoulders. "You're going to be lonely without him," she said. "I'll be around; no strings, only a friend." Unexpectedly, she leaned forward, kissed his mouth with gentleness and promise. "Take care, lover."
Before he could make any answer, the phone rang. He reached it in two swift strides. "Yeah?" aware of Jaqi standing by the couch, a sudden anxiety in her eyes.
"Hutch, I got a relation who wants to meet a faded soul-brother," said Huggy. "Can you come over?"
"Uh, no, Hug. I'm on standby for Duplessis. Can you get here?"
"That might be kinda tricky. Y'see, the kid is skipping. He don't want to stay any longer in L.A. than he has to, and he don't want to spend that time traveling around. If you get my drift."
"Someone's looking for him?"
"No, but," Hutch could almost hear the shrug, "he's real scared."
"Do your best. If he won't, I'll arrange something."
"'Kay. Call you back if it's no deal."
"I see what you mean about not being off duty," Jaqi said as he put the phone down. "Another reason to make myself scarce. 'Night, lover."
"G'night." He found he could smile at her. After all, their friendship wasn't that fragile. "And thanks."
"You're welcome. Forget the A1 Bitch, please? But remember the rest."
"I'll do that."
He walked her to her car, watched the tail-lights out of sight, and returned to the apartment. The untouched dessert still sat on the table, chocolate sauce congealing. But he hadn't the stomach for it anyway. Instead he filled the percolator, sat and drank the wine. Remembering another unfinished meal. And Pinot Noir Blanc.
He had half-expected another call from Huggy, but it didn't come. The doorbell rang, and Huggy was over the threshold as soon as the door was open enough to admit his lean frame. And behind him he towed a slender figure muffled in a light tan raincoat, collar turned up, hat pulled down.
"We're on our way to the airport," Huggy said, dropping onto the couch. There was an air of harassed exasperation about him. "One way ticket for one to Honolulu."
"How long have you got?" Hutch asked.
"Couple of hours. Hey, man, I could kill for coffee."
"It's all ready. Why don't you go fix it while your friend and I have our talk?"
"Sure. C'mon, nephew, take your coat off an' relax. We ain't goin' anywhere for a while."
"Nephew?" Hutch queried.
"Yeah. Two or three times removed. Hutch -- Cinnamon. Cinnamon -- Hutch." Recalling one Primrose MacGregor, the detective did not blink.
"Hi," said Cinnamon, tossing his hat aside and shrugging out of the coat. And Hutch did blink then. The boy was wearing a cream suede suit, the pale color emphasizing the darkness of his skin, and eyes like a startled fawn's gazed up at Hutch. His hair might have been processed, or the loose curls natural, inherited along with the thin straight nose. Multiracial genes had come together to provide Cinnamon with an androgynous beauty, and the boy knew it.
"Stock in trade," Huggy drawled. "Here's your coffee, Hutch."
"Thanks. Okay, Cinnamon, what do you know?"
"About what?" he said guardedly.
"Don't be cute," Huggy snapped. "I told you - this guy's okay."
"About the killings. Why don't you sit down?"
"Yeah, well --" He perched on the edge of a chair. "Not so much. What I do know is Hidalgo caters for all tastes, an' man, do I mean all. There ain't nothin' you can't buy if you got the bread."
"Did that include Chris Villiers, Drew Connery, Richie Sandoval?" Hutch asked.
A fine sweat sheened Cinnamon's features. "Maybe. Jules, Jeff, Hart, they're all into S&M. They buy, Hidalgo sells."
"Connery didn't work for them," Hutch said.
"That don't matter a damn. There's a consortium of some kind. They run a pack of agencies and clubs: Hidalgo, Principe, Benedic's, Pacific Escorts, Apollon --"
"Who do you work for?"
"Did. Hidalgo. They don't know it yet, but I quit. Wrote 'em a letter, said a family emergency, hadta go home. Only they don't know where home is."
"These guys who buy -- do you know of any links with the dead boys?"
"Richie turned Jeff down, I know that. He was straight. Happy to screw the ladies, but wouldn't touch the gay side. Especially the rough stuff. I don't know about Robin -- Chris -- and I never met Connery. Benedic's like their merchandise to stay home nights when they're not working. Very choosy about their bedroom service, an' very discreet. Airtight security on it, too, man. Hidalgo are a little easier on the rein."
"Those names, Jeff and the rest. You know any more about them?"
Cinnamon hesitated, took a drink to cover the pause. "Names I don't know. Think they come from outside, up-state, or out-of-state. Big men. Important men, and not on the side of the angels, know what I mean?"
"And then some. Can't say about the other agencies, but Hidalgo runs a special service for -- well, organized crime, I guess. They come to L.A. for conferences, conventions, and their wives or ladyfriends get to see the sights. Escorted by selected studs. Escort only. If the men are into gay, then Hidalgo provides for that as well."
"There's nothing you can't buy if you've got the bread," Hutch echoed softly.
"That's right." Cinnamon shrugged, stood up, wandering about the room. Uneasy and restless though he was, he moved with a liquid grace. "Including snuff parties. Hell, there's always been guys who disappear -- make their stake and take off. But when they start turning up dead, and that kind of dead, it's time for this boy to take off as well. Before those freaks decide they want to try dark meat."
"How long have you been in this business?"
"Nearly four years. Right now, I figure I can earn as much and more in Honolulu. Maybe start up my own, uh, escort agency."
"Maybe you've got the right idea. Okay, Cinnamon. Let's go over it again, and in more detail."
Hidalgo did not have a staff cafeteria, but it did have a lounge for those members of the working personnel who were on standby. Duplessis chose a glossy leather armchair in a corner of the room, and sprawled in it, his head buried in the Sports section of the L.A. Times. His attention was not on the baseball scores. Bobby Lewison called a casual greeting on his way to the coffee percolator on the small bar, pausing on the way to talk briefly to Paul Trent. Trent was a six-foot-four, dark-haired All-American Football Hero, straight as a die, and he dwarfed Bobby's elfin slenderness. He was also not happy around gays, especially swishy gays, and Bobby was somewhat in awe of the ex-College star. Duplessis did not like Trent much, so when that gentleman's personal bete noir made its appearance, Duplessis was hard put to control his grin of anticipation.
Skip Rogers boogied into the room with a small transistor radio pressed to one ear, white shirt open to the waist, white jeans so tight they might have been sprayed on, his silver blond hair bouncing in wild disarray about his head. The beautiful child-face was grinning with an unchildlike maliciousness.
"Paulie!" he shrieked. "Hey, I've heard of a place that'll give you a hundred bucks for every inch you got, wild-man! Care to earn yourself a fast four hundred, huh?"
"Can it, you little freak!"
"Sweetness and light, sugar, Momma Sutcliffe doesn't like the macho-trips on her babies. Hi, Bobby, make with the coffee, will you? Black'n'sweet." He blew Trent a kiss as he passed him, and executed a few fast dance steps. The usual febrile energy crackled around him, and Duplessis wondered again if it came from drugs or a natural hyper-activity. "Hi, Denny, how they hangin'?"
"Just as they should," he smiled. Evidently the grapevine had been busy, and Skip was not as offhand as he had been.
"Terrific. Hey who's that blond hunk I saw you with the other night? Lookin' mean, moody, an' magnificent in black leather at the Coq?"
"Yeeaahh..." A long-drawn-out drawl. "Beautiful hands. Oh, man. Kinda broad and long fingered. You seen him, Bobby?"
"No," cautiously, "should I?"
"You bet your ass, child. He's just your type, I promise. Say, he could even be Paulie's type," he went on, raising volume and pitch for Trent's benefit. "I'll bet he has this secret thing about bein' dominated by older guys in black leather."
"He's welcome to him," Duplessis said. "Ken plays the macho game for real, and he's just too damn jealous. D'you know, I can't even --"
"Skip!' Sutcliffe interrupted the wilder flights of fancy, descending on the small group like a maiden aunt on errant nephews. "Put that out of sight at once!" And he twitched a square of bright orange out of Skip's right hip pocket. "How many times do I have to tell you? Hidalgo does not advertise."
"I do," Skip purred, and got his wrist slapped.
"No you don't. Go and change, as well. This isn't Castro Street."
"If I don't, will you spank me?" Skip breathed, and gave an outrageous pout when Sutcliffe shook his head.
"Go and change," he repeated, and Skip obeyed, undulating away until he reached Trent, then ruffling his fingers through the immaculate hair and sprinting out of the door like an Olympic champion. "That child gets away with murder," Sutcliffe sighed. "I really don't know why I let him. Bobby, go and drink that somewhere else, I want to talk to Denny."
Duplessis folded the paper, dropped it on the coffee-table. "Yes, sir?" he asked, wide-eyed. It was an expression he'd practiced assiduously in front of a mirror, and on test-runs he'd been told it was very effective.
"I've just been talking to Mr. Ellis on the phone. He told me you stayed over."
"Yeah, well, you said it was okay if I did."
"Quite. He's very pleased with you, Denny, but of course you know that. Such a pleasant man, Mr. Ellis."
"Yeah, he's a pussycat." Duplessis smiled. He'd spent the night in Ellis's guest room, alone. It reinforced his cover, and lessened the problems.
"I hope your boyfriend won't cause any trouble about it. Hidalgo doesn't like trouble." Was there a threat there?
"He won't, sir. I told you yesterday, we've talked it out. He understands it's just a job."
"Good. The extra bonus will be with your check as we arranged. Oh, by the way, Mr. Ellis hinted that he'd like to purchase exclusive booking on your services for a couple of weeks. He's an excellent customer, and we've made these kind of arrangements before. How do you feel?"
"That'd be fine by me. As long as Ken doesn't get to know. It might sound kinda unbusinesslike to him, if you know what I mean."
"Quite. Well, I won't tell him if you don't." Sutcliffe gave an arch chuckle. "Back to the daily bread, my dear. Mrs. Hargreaves wants an escort to lunch at Chasen's. Room 707, at the Beverly Hilton. She is expecting you."
"Yes, sir." He could feel Trent's eyes gazing rather contemptuously at his back as he headed for the door. So he turned and blew him a kiss, just for the hell of it.
Skip's bright head appeared briefly around a distant door.
"Hey, Denny!" A piercing yell. "Come on round to Marco's tonight, if you're free. I wanna hear more about your blond friend!"
Denny, Duplessis thought, you're in, kid.