A bouquet of roses and lots of thanks to Solo and SHaron for all their help scanning and proofing this classic story. This story originally appeared in the zine, It's Love, Captain, which is still in print. It can be obtained from Secret Pleasures Press. Comments on this story can be sent to Flamingo, who will forward them on to the author.
"Can you do it?"
You would stare hard at a man asking you this question. For added effect, you would fix him with your eyes and make your pupils blacken the iris, to make him think you know the secrets of his soul. Now maybe you do, and maybe you don't. But whichever it is, you don't dare look away. Strength, in a situation such as this, lies in appearing calm, in seeming certain, in maintaining control. And you also don't dare waste any time thinking over the answer; to appear hesitant or reluctant would be the end of your career.
"It'll cost you."
Now watch as the other man settles back in his chair. It is a casual, confident gesture, but you know you have him; at this point it's only a matter of price. Or at least that's the only matter of concern left to the man across the room. You, on the other hand, have quite a bit to think about once you're out of this room.
For one thing, you're not sure you should even be making this deal. Even if this is your - pastime.
"Twenty-five up front, twenty-five once it's done."
You keep your poker face, but inside you sneer. This offer isn't even a joke. It's garbage. You remain silent.
The other man shifts in his chair. His eyes travel around the room, noting every object within - except you. He knows where he stands. About a foot from the edge of the quicksand. His eyes settle on the desk in front of him. "Okay. Fifty up front, fifty behind."
You swallow your immediate reaction, what would have been an audible smirk. You stand up. "No deal. You want them both dead, one hundred's fine. You want them both scarred but alive, then two-fifty's the price. But you want only one of them done, then it's going to cost you five." The logic is simple: Taking both of them out would be difficult, but not impossible, and leaves no - unfinished business - with which to bother you. Likewise, scarring both of them is dangerous, but would leave them so happy to be alive that they really wouldn't concern themselves with you.
Scarring only one of them, however, leaves a clear and present danger. The healthy one is almost certain to use his every resource to hunt you down.
Exceedingly dangerous. But an interesting challenge.
And you have a trick up your sleeve that no one knows about.
Seconds tick away as the man across from you thinks. You stand still, staring down at the man. An unwavering stare can do wonders in a negotiation situation. See that little trickle of sweat down the side of his brow? You made that.
More seconds drag by. The man finally comes to a decision. "All right. Two-fifty now, two-fifty when it's completed. I'll have the first payment delivered."
"Agreed." You relax your stance a bit. Not for your benefit, but for his. He needs to see some physical sign that you also have agreed to the terms. "Please use the same procedure as before when having the cash delivered." You have done this before for him. Your clientele is small but regular.
The other man grunts and slues his chair sideways.
You take your leave.
* * * * *
Hartman sat in his nondescript, bland, two-door Toyota. He'd parked it up the hill a bit from the apartment he was interested in, but not so far that he couldn't see what was going on. Actually, a little further up the hill was a run-down, stucco, one-bedroom home with a decent front yard and fixer-upper possibilities. He made a mental note to come back and speak with the owners regarding a possible sale. The canyon areas, he sensed, were about to become the hottest real estate properties since the beachfront had become popular. And Hartman meant to be the real estate developer to handle this new market. Plus, if he were to be around here on business, he could take care of this little side job without arousing any suspicion whatsoever. Many people questioned why such a successful Realtor still did his own footwork for such lesser properties. Hartman always explained that was why he was so successful: He never lost touch with the basics.
He turned his attention back toward the two-story apartment building down the hill. Two cars were parked out front; one in the driveway, the other curbside. They'd both been there when he'd arrived about five this morning. Hartman had made a note of it; the success of his campaign would depend upon his knowing both their schedules intimately.
And it was to be a "campaign," for that was what he was being paid for. A campaign of surveillance, a campaign of terror; a stalking, a preying, a hunting. A gradual realization on the part of the victim that someone was after him and would hurt him when he was caught.
In other words, Hartman's employer wanted Hartman to play with this victim.
Hartman didn't really care; the more work he had to put into the job the more pay he got. And he recognized within himself the enjoyment he found in controlling another person's life, a feeling of power and strength. What he didn't go in for was the bloody stuff - and he wouldn't take a job if that was what was required. No, his tastes leaned more toward the psychological torments. At least until it was time to finish the job. Then the last act was determined by the wishes of his employer. Or rather, determined by the amount of money his employer had paid him.
Hartman was being paid a lot for this job, in part due to the status of the victim. A person just doesn't go off and threaten one-half of the city's most acclaimed crime-fighting team without a good reason - or a good incentive. Hartman had negotiated himself a good incentive. And his employer apparently had a good reason for wanting to torment the one-half of the team.
Hartman hadn't inquired into the reason for this particular vendetta; business was business and reasons weren't any of his business. But the reasons must be pretty good and pretty painful. Very few went up against the team and lived to tell about it. So there was that danger: The team was good and defeating them would be difficult. But there was also another danger, the one that had nearly caused Hartman to turn down the job: leaving one of them healthy would leave one of them gunning for him. And while Hartman didn't intend to ever be discovered, he knew the one left alive wouldn't give up until he'd found someone to pay for his loss.
There were two ways to win that one. Either the survivor would never find someone to pay, or he'd find someone, but it would be the wrong someone.
Hartman was nothing if not the best. Five years in this little side business and he had yet to be suspected of any of his deeds, much less caught. Hartman was too removed from his victims to be a suspect. He was too much a part of the city's political machinery to ever be thought a candidate for this kind of behavior. He was too protective of his own skin to allow his employers to betray him. (Remember what happened to the one who tried: burned to death in a suspicious office fire.)
No, he'd turn this danger into a challenge. The ultimate game. A clash of wills. A test of nerves. Survival of the fittest.
And don't forget that little trick up his sleeve.
The door to the apartment opened and two casually dressed men walked out. Hartman checked his watch. Six-thirty. The men paused briefly at the bottom of the stairs. They were both gesturing at their respective cars. Some kind of a discussion ensued, with the outcome being they both entered the car parked beside the curb. Hartman watched as the dusty brown car pulled away and lurched down the street.
He waited a good ten minutes before leaving his car. Well-dressed and with a leather folder under his arm, if anyone questioned him he'd merely pull out his business card and tell them he was scouting the neighborhood for availabilities. And if that just happened to get him some business, well, he wasn't the most successful real estate developer in the city for nothing.
Hartman walked up the drive and stopped beside the Torino. Standard issue with a few bells and whistles; he'd have no trouble getting into the interior or the trunk if he so chose. Hartman pulled a set of keys from his pants pocket and selected a rather pointed one. With the air of a master, he used the key to scratch around the lock and give the appearance someone had tried to break in.
That done, Hartman walked up the steps to the front door of the second-floor apartment. Using the same key, he made tiny etchings in the scratchplate and a few on the doorknob for good measure. Satisfied, he made his way back to the car.
It had begun.
* * * * *
You would, after two weeks of foreplay, be ready for something more. You would be anxious for the next step. Eager for the second move. Hungry for the next course.
Desperate, in fact.
Not that the foreplay isn't exciting and arousing. That is the point of foreplay. To ready oneself for the performance. To prepare oneself for the best that's yet to come. And your preparation has been excellent.
Funny how your wife never enjoys the arousal as much as you do.
Shakespeare was right when he said to keep method in your madness. The more methodical the preparation, the more delicious the reward. And you've been very methodical.
First, three actual days of scratching around his car and door locks over a period of seven days. (Mustn't look too eager or too obvious.) That, plus some trampling of the plant life around the building and some wood-gouging around the windows started the itch. It wasn't necessary to actually break in; all you had to do was make it look as though someone had tried. This was just to put him on edge. Give him some warning. Show him something is up.
And after a week of putting your mark on his property, he finally got your message. He installed a new lock on the front door, fit the windows and sliding-glass doors with jambs, and sent his car to the body shop to have the scratches taken care of. Oh, and you noticed a black and white circling the neighborhood every so often. Stepped up patrols. He must have asked someone at work to drive by occasionally and see what was going on.
You also noted that during this first week of harassment his partner stayed over three out of the four nights. Routine behavior, or caused by your activities?
None of this, of course, deters you at all. In fact, you find it quite funny. Especially amusing was the Sunday the two of them spent installing the new locks. While you were working your way through the neighborhood talking to homeowners about the value of their property, they were entertaining the neighborhood with loud arguments over correct installation procedures. And the proper use of tools. And the relative benefits of being a left-handed carpenter in a right-handed wood-working world. And on and on.
No one seemed to mind this interruption into the quiet Sunday afternoon, not even when the installation job turned into a water fight on the front lawn. Make a note: The people around them are so used to them being together that they no longer notice them. This will be most helpful; when you step into their charmed circle, you won't be noticed, either.
Make another note: The changing of the locks was driven by the partner of the victim, not the victim himself. He brought over the new security devices. He began the actual installation. He cajoled and badgered his partner into finishing the job.
This knowledge makes the itch more intense, for this is the first indication of where the greatest danger lies.
Week two of the foreplay became more intimate (as foreplay is wont to do). You sent him some personal correspondence.
Planned ahead in week one, of course. Basically designed to arrive every postal day. And at both the home and office.
The supplies? White envelopes and manila envelopes, available in every drugstore, dimestore, office supply company and post office in the country. A multitude of stamps, from this year's LOVE offering to some leftover Christmas designs. Every envelope addressed by a different typewriter. Not a one touched by ungloved hands.
And the contents? Nothing subtle. A page torn from the paperback edition of In Cold Blood. A few more pages torn from the Sears catalogue featuring various knife assortments (kitchen, hunting, etc.) A particularly gruesome 8 x 10 glossy of one of the victims from that incredibly popular slasher film you took your son to see. A recent newspaper article on that policeman who was killed trying to foil a liquor store robbery. And your particular favorite: A Polaroid of a Ken doll (the hair blackened, of course) with a pen knife stuck up the ass and the hands chopped off. Your daughter will never miss the doll.
Week two brought your victim's partner over four nights out of seven. The remaining three were spent alone. Soon it would be time to force him out of his home and into his partner's. Not that it's essential the final deed be done over there, just easier. Less loose ends to account for. Less reason to suspect you.
As you well know, foreplay can't go on forever. Time to push toward that climax. Time to complete the inexorable climb toward that cliff.
Time to get personal.
* * * * *
Hartman chuckled to himself. He surveyed the room, immensely pleased with his handiwork. Breaking in had been easy, even in broad daylight. There were few locks his master tools couldn't open. And no one thought twice about seeing him in the neighborhood anymore; he was, after all, handling the sale of that little stucco bungalow up the hill as well as the apartment building at the bottom of the hill.
There was a comedian Hartman was fond of (whom his wife hated), a young comic who hadn't had his big break yet, an existential jokester who was still playing the cheap rooms of the comedy clubs. The comic was a font of one-liners, pitched over the heads of most of the other patrons (such as his wife). But Hartman was tuned into him. And he caught all that was tossed. Being in this room reminded him of one of them: the one where the comedian complained that somebody had broken into his apartment and replaced all his belongings with exact replicas.
Hartman hadn't done precisely that, but he'd come pretty close. He'd spent a good hour ever so slightly rearranging the contents of the apartment he'd entered. There was a real talent to this kind of torment, a real art. For instance, he'd poured out the contents of one can of beer and tossed the corpse into the trash, leaving three instead of four. A good trick; a person could swear up and down he'd had four cans in the refrigerator, but secretly wonder at his own memory of the count. A few more alterations in the kitchen had ensued: Exchanging the shelf positions of some cans in the pantry, emptying a single ice tray, turning the coffeepot so the handle faced back.
Then there was the nudging of the furniture. An inch back here, an inch forward there, a slide to the diagonal instead of the lateral. That was good for a bruised shin or a bumped hip. Another favored activity was moving the clocks ahead or behind a couple of minutes. People always expected their clocks to gain or lose a little over time. But it would still tickle his mind.
And how about slipping that clean cotton shirt hanging in the bedroom closet into the dirty clothes hamper? Would he be sure he hadn't worn it a day or two ago? And would he question his memory of smoothing out the bedclothes if they were suddenly a little more rumpled than he remembered?
But the piece de resistance, the crowning glory, had been the bathroom. One simple, masterful change:
A new blade in the razor.
Hartman grinned madly to himself as he quickly and quietly let himself out of the apartment.
The next morning Hartman was again sitting in his car, paper draped over the steering wheel, company folder on the seat beside him should anyone inquire as to his business at this time of the morning in this particular neighborhood. Why, he was just waiting for a potential buyer to show up and meet him for a tour through the Garver home. The appointment was early because the showing was to be done before the prospective buyer went to work. Voila. One perfectly plausible explanation.
Hartman squinted around his newspaper and spied his two favorite police officers emerging from the apartment. The partner had spent the past two nights in a row over here. Extremely protective behavior, although not unwarranted. This protectiveness, Hartman knew, would mutate into vengeance once his work was finished. A vengeance to steer clear of.
Their behavior sent a thrill of excitement up his spine. They always did precisely as Hartman predicted. One edgy, the other calm. One demanding, the other unconcerned. One marked, the other exempt.
Hutchinson slipped through the door first. He put on his sunglasses, adjusted the lay of his jacket across his holster, and scanned the area with the casual intensity of a bridegroom observing his intended.
Starsky followed, stiff-arming Hutchinson out of his way, obviously pissed at the protective behavior his partner was exhibiting. Hartman's heart began to pick up a beat; they'd obviously noticed something about the apartment last night. They'd never left the apartment this wary, or this angry, before.
The sound of Hutchinson's voice carried through the clear morning air, but not the words. Still, Starsky stopped abruptly at their content and turned to face his partner. Hartman could no longer resist, he leaned sideways and pulled a pair of tiny binoculars from his glove compartment. He focused on the two men, now exchanging hard words on the front lawn.
It was their faces he was interested in. The right side of Starsky's, the left side of Hutchinson's...and there, on Hutchinson's left cheek, near the jawline, a red scratch.
Hartman frowned. One good bloody swipe had been meant for Starsky, not Hutchinson. Starsky's apartment, Starsky's bathroom, Starsky's blade. Hartman shook it off. Hutchinson must have been the first to use Starsky's toilet after his sleepover. But that wasn't logical; Hutchinson must have some of his own things over here. After all, he brought a duffel with him almost every trip. He always appeared the next morning in fresh clothes. This point nagged at Hartman.
Shrugging off this one divergence from his plan, Hartman continued to watch as the two men ended their dispute and moved toward the red and white Torino. An ostentatious outward expression of Starsky's manhood, Hartman thought. A little unsure of yourself there, Starsky? Have to go out of your way to prove you've got machismo? The bigger the carbs, the bigger the balls?
He studied the two men, careful as always to note who did what. It was Hutchinson who made the visual inspection of the car. A walk around the exterior, a more careful examination of the underside. Hutchinson reached out to his partner, who grudgingly tossed over a set of keys. Hutchinson carefully opened the trunk and peered inside, awkwardly inserting himself in the black cavern and rummaging within its confines. Starsky leaned against the car's side panel, arms folded, chin on his chest, bored or asleep. Hutchinson finished his trunk inspection and slammed the lid hard enough to jolt his partner. He then walked around to the front.
He released the hood from the driver's seat and moved toward the front of the car. First, Hutchinson ran his fingers underneath the rim of the hood, feeling for extra wires or unfamiliar masses. Then he gently lifted the hood and secured it, scrutinizing the massive engine and its components.
That seemed to awaken Starsky. Like some territorial animal, Hartman theorized, Starsky pushed aside his partner and finished the inspection himself. Don't want your partner touching your most precious possessions? Hartman smirked. Then how do you feel about me touching them?
Not that he had in this particular instance. He planned to do the car later.
The two men finally entered the car. Hartman could almost imagine them both flinching involuntarily as Starsky started the engine. As if in response to that involuntary twitch, Starsky gunned the motor and squealed out of the driveway, skidding down the hill as he tried to control the speed.
Hartman put down his binoculars and glanced in his rearview mirror. Bryan Norton, D.D.S., was just pulling up for his tour of the Garver home. Hartman replaced the glasses in the glove compartment and picked up his folder, ready for - other - business.
* * * * *
Starsky didn't stay at home last night.
Not an unexpected development. In fact, quite expected. In fact, quite planned.
So you drive by his partner's home on your way to do some negotiating on a couple of pieces of canal-front property. And there's that garish Torino, parked right behind the garbage heap his partner calls transportation. Yet another manifestation of an insecure masculinity, you think to yourself. Whether you play it up or play it down, it's just another sign you don't think you have any.
You drive a Mercedes. V-8 engine. Black. Powerful, yet understated.
After you finish closing the deal on those two bungalows, you drive back over to Venice Place. The LTD is gone. Foolishly, they've left the Torino. Parking is no problem on an off-season weekday morning, and you leave your vehicle right in front of the restaurant. In fact, the restaurant owner greets you and asks if you'd like a cup of coffee or tea. You decline, saying you're just here to take a look at the vacant apartment upstairs.
And no one questions you, for you own the building and have a perfect right to be there.
Some little trick up your sleeve, eh?
After a quick look around the empty apartment across the hall, you let yourself into Hutchinson's apartment.
Not bad what he's done with it. Definitely improved its worth. He's refinished the wood floors and posts. Fixed up the bathroom. Expensive touches. Now replacing the bedroom with the greenhouse officially turned the place from a one-bedroom to a studio, but people tend to pay for "feel," not square footage. You'll be able to get a lot for this, considering its ambience as well as its prime location.
Not to mention a new tenant won't attract the kind of destructive "friends" Hutchinson seemed to attract. You should've broken his lease after the last time someone trashed this place. But then if you had, you wouldn't have had this serendipitous entrée into his and his partner's life.
You look around the apartment. Not particularly tidy this morning. The bathroom is a mess. The mirror is a Jackson Pollack of dried water droplets. Damp towels litter the floor. And it looks as though someone pulled the shower curtain off its hooks.
The living area is neat, but the kitchen could use some clean-up. An off-white mash sits in an uncovered blender. A couple of plates with the remnants of what could be dinner or breakfast are still on the table. Coffee cups are spilled in the sink. And an empty pizza carton is still scenting the air with pepperoni. The refrigerator is filled with cartons labeled nutritious and healthy, with produce overflowing the vegetable and fruit bins. Only one tiny shelf holds such everyday foodstuffs as soda and peanut butter.
You pass through the bedroom to move into the greenhouse. Built to code, it opens off to the side onto the fire escape. Another means of access for you. Plants and small trees fill the area, providing plenty of cover should you require it. The apartment doesn't have many places to hide, but this is one of them.
You walk back into the bedroom. The sheets have been pulled from the bed and tossed into a corner for laundering. The drawer in the nightstand hangs precipitously from its runners. You peek inside. Bullets. A box of Kleenex. A tube of medicine. A personal phone directory.
You wander back to the living room and give a final glance to the place. It will be dangerous, but this is where the final injury will take place.
After the initial injuries, of course.
You leave the apartment as you found it. Upon leaving the building, you glance around to see who's out on the street. The restaurant owner is back in her kitchen. The other shopowners are hidden inside their stores. The occasional car drives by.
First you go to the trunk of your car and take out a plastic container. The you walk to the driver's side of the Torino. The tools of your trade allow you easy access. Once inside, you remove the lid to the container and let its contents drip onto the upholstery, the dashboard, and for good measure, the steering wheel.
No one sees you. You shut the car door, making sure it's locked tight. It's not a particularly hot day, but the rays of the sun bouncing around the interior of the car will have soon have that semi-solid dog shit scenting his scarlet pride and joy.
Thank goodness your wife talked you into letting the kids keep that stray puppy they found.
* * * * *
Hartman laid low the rest of the week. Constant threat would only send the two policemen into protective custody. Intermittent threat would keep them on their toes but not send them into hiding.
And so for that week and the week after he went about his business. His other business. He sold a movie star's home in Malibu. He picked up another property in Laurel Canyon. He began renovations on an empty building along the Strand in Venice Beach.
He took his wife to see the touring company of A Chorus Line. He took his kids to Disneyland. He took his dog to the vet. He took his employees to lunch.
And when he'd had enough of the quiet life, he paid a visit on Starsky.
After the affair du aroma, Starsky had had his car cleaned out, and then put it in the secured police lot and left it there. And then he'd signed out a series of unmarked police cars for transportation. A different one every couple of days. Which might have put someone off his trail, except that the fool was still sleeping out of his own apartment. Albeit his partner was with him almost every night, but it was such a pitiful act of bravado. Hartman recognized the symptoms: I'll prove you can't frighten me by staying right where I am. Such behavior may convince the pursued he isn't losing control of his environment or his life, but it certainly gives the pursuer an easy shot.
Hartman had chosen this night very carefully. He knew Starsky would be alone when he came home tonight, or at least Hutchinson wouldn't be with him. The best part about this piece of information was that Hutchinson had given it to Hartman himself. Hartman had run into Hutchinson while showing the apartment next door, and small talk had revealed this precious nugget: Hutchinson would be down at the Forum tonight with his "little brother," watching the Lakers. Now Starsky might have a woman with him, or somebody else, but since Hartman hadn't seen Starsky with anyone but Hutchinson lately, the chances of Starsky having company tonight seemed remote.
And, as Hartman predicted, Starsky had come home alone.
Hartman was taking one small risk this evening. The risk being that he'd opted to stick around and wait for the fireworks to start. And playing to the dramatics of the situation, he was wearing black pants, sneakers and socks, a black turtleneck, black gloves, and a black longshoreman's cap. And just to complete the outfit, he'd blackened his face in the car. His car was parked up the hill where he'd spotted a party going on; no one would notice an extra vehicle parked along the curb (especially since he'd driven his wife's Toyota).
Now Hartman was hidden in a thicket of bushes and trees across the street from the apartment in question. Waiting. Just waiting. There was nothing else to do for now.
And what was he waiting for? It could go either way. Starsky could either call immediately for back-up, ambulance included, or he could simply call for his partner. Actually, he might do both. It depended upon when it hit, how hard it hit, if Starsky remained conscious, and how "conscious" he was while he was conscious.
Hartman settled into the bushes, well hidden by the foliage. Knowledge of pharmaceuticals certainly helped in his business. He always had the most recent printing of the Physician's Desk Reference in his library at home.
Starsky had arrived home a little more than three hours ago. And the lights had gone out in Starsky's place almost half an hour ago. So unless Starsky had skipped eating all together, he'd been dosed by now. And Hartman hadn't noticed that Starsky was one to skip meals. Even if Starsky had brought home take-out with him (which he hadn't), he would have been dosed. Hartman had taken a generous syringe full of carefully chosen liquid and injected it or squirted it into every foodstuff (or near-edible) he'd found. Ice cream in the freezer (squirted over the surface). Leftovers in Tupperware (mostly squirted). Juice. Opened beer. Chinese food in cartons. Pizza. Fruit (injected). Vegetables (injected). Upon reflection, it had looked more like Hutchinson's refrigerator than Starsky's. But then Hutchinson had been staying over rather more frequently than usual.
It had taken over an hour for Hartman to do the job thoroughly. Candy bars in the pantry had been injected. The last six Fig Newtons in the bag. Jars' vacuum seals had been popped to allow entry - spaghetti sauce, gravy (who checks anyway?). Hartman had even stuck his needle into the toothpaste. There was almost nothing Starsky could put in his mouth tonight that wouldn't have come in contact with Hartman's nasty little liquid.
So pretty soon Starsky should have a stomachache to beat all stomachaches. Probably throw his guts up if he stayed conscious. Shouldn't kill him, though. Not unless Starsky was taking some other medication which was contraindicated as a companion to Hartman's little lovejuice. Or unless Starsky had eaten every single thing in the house. No, Starsky would be fine once he got everything out of his system. The fun would be in how he got everything out of his system. One of Hartman's kids had had his stomach pumped when he was little. Swallowed a bottle of baby aspirin. Careless of his wife to leave them out like that.
The ambulance actually arrived first. Hartman figured out later that Hutchinson must have called for the paramedics as he was racing up to the Hollywood Hills. (The newspaper reported that the ailing police officer had managed to call for his partner before collapsing.) It took a black and white almost an hour to get there. The cops proper actually arrived the next day with their crime lab to go over the apartment. They found a house full of tainted food, according to the paper.
Of course, even though the ambulance had arrived first, the paramedics couldn't get inside the place. They stood outside pounding on the door trying to get whoever was inside to open up. The neighbors came and stood out on their lawns and watched. No one else had a key. And there was no one living in the lower apartment at the time. The funny thing was, no one seemed to think this activity was odd.
That's about when Hutchinson careened up. Had his siren and lights on and everything. Flew up the stairs and nearly broke the door down trying to fit his key in the lock and get inside. Knocked those poor paramedics flat on their asses to be the first one in and run to his partner. Newspaper said the officer had been found semi-conscious and was taken to Cedars, where they brought him out of danger. (He never was in any real danger. From the drug.) Newspaper didn't say how those poor paramedics nearly went crazy trying to get said officer out of the apartment and into the ambulance while his partner was trying to tell them what to do and how to do it.
Hutchinson looked crazy that night. His body took on a grace and determination that wasn't there under ordinary circumstances. People parted when he cut through their midst. They jumped when he barked orders. His every movement looked like a karate chop about to happen.
And when Hutchinson came out with his partner, there was an extraordinary tenderness underneath his rage. It came out in the way he kept arranging the blanket around his partner, the way he kept trying to smooth the ride from the apartment to the ambulance. It was a tenderness that nagged at the back of Hartman's mind.
It was one of the most exciting night of Hartman's life.
* * * * *
You knew, of course, it would only be a matter of hours before Hutchinson would start up the machinery to try and extract information from the streets. And you also knew it would be like trying to squeeze blood from a stone. You are too well hidden. The only blood that would come out would be the squeezer's. In this case, Hutchinson's.
Your sources informed you that the heat had been turned on the very next day. Word had gone out, someone had tried to fry Starsky, and Hutchinson wanted to know who. And he wanted to know now. And woe to whomever got in his way; that person's goose would be cooked.
But not your goose. The only tie to you is through your employer. And your employer knows that, should he be caught, if he informs on you both he and his family are dead. You're that good. But that tie is only binding if Hutchinson discovers that your employer is the one with the axe to grind. And out of all the axe-grinders out there, how is Hutchinson going to find the right one?
There is also the possibility Hutchinson could catch you in the act of tormenting his partner. But that's only a slim possibility. Again, you're that good. And even if he did catch you - well, you'd eventually get your chance to take a little revenge.
The worst-case scenario - the reason you initially had a moment's hesitation in taking this job - is that Hutchinson finds no one to pin this vendetta on. Which means he'll keep on looking. And looking, and looking, and looking. Which could become tiresome, and dangerous. It might even interfere with future business opportunities.
You momentarily consider stopping the pursuit here. If you stop it here, Hutchinson might eventually give up his quest. Starsky wasn't permanently injured; if it stops now they may think whoever was behind it got his jollies and went away. Continue on to the final act, and Hutchinson will never rest until he catches the perpetrator and puts him behind bars for good.
Prison isn't a pleasant prospect for you. It cuts into your busy schedule. Your wife and kids wouldn't understand at all. Your realty business would suffer. And who knows what vermin might come out of the woodwork and try and add to your reputation? Prison just doesn't afford the same opportunities to express your talents as life in the free world.
So this is what you face: Leaving the job unfinished, which will not only result in a downward renegotiation of your fee but will also affect your reputation, not to mention that unsatisfied feeling you'll be left with, or finishing the job and creating your own personal Javert who won't rest until you're locked away.
Still, he would have to catch you first.
But you figure what you intend to do to Starsky will keep Hutchinson busy enough to keep him out of your way for a long time. Or at least keep him so busy he won't be able to focus his attentions on catching the perpetrator for quite a while.
And there's always the possibility you'll one day be employed to take care of your blond Javert.
Which would be exceptionally satisfying.
So you go ahead and prepare the acid.
* * * * *
Hartman mused over the latest bit of news he'd picked up. (It came in very handy to be a Realtor for certain high-ranking members of the LAPD.) Seems Hutchinson had been on the verge of facing charges for beating a stoolie who let on as how he might know something about his partner and could remember it for a couple of bills. Make that alleged beating; there seemed to be a difference of opinion on that account. Rank hath its privileges. So does being one-half of LA's finest crime-fighting team. Hutchinson skimmed the fire and came up merely suntanned. The stoolie got caught in a web of outstanding warrants. Hutchinson was absolved of any improper conduct. No one mentioned the alleged beating again.
Finally, Starsky was staying with Hutchinson in Venice Place. After a couple of days off the job, both had gone back to work by the beginning of the week. Desk duty, though. They were off the streets. A protective maneuver, and one which appeared to be working since Hartman had thoughtfully ceased all inquiries toward Starsky in preparation for the final coup. It would, he plotted, lull them into that fabled false sense of security.
Hartman could have engineered the final feat such that someone else actually carried it out. But that would add an extra step to the process, an extra link to the chain, an extra opportunity to get caught. Besides, what he was going to do wouldn't leave Starsky able to identify him. There wouldn't be time before the acid did its job.
All he had to worry about were the fists of rage from Starsky's partner. Hartman wondered what it felt like to be beaten. He'd never even been punched, not even as a kid. If Hutchinson ever caught him, he'd probably pummel him pretty good. Maybe even try and duplicate with his fists the injuries Starsky received from the acid.
That scenario was still predicated on a series of ifs and whens, if and when Hutchinson found him. Which weren't likely to happen, as long as Hartman followed his plan.
* * * * *
You've got it timed perfectly. Before dawn you will slip up the back escape and enter the greenhouse. Hutchinson always runs at six and gets back by six-fifteen. But when he's home on Saturdays he waits till seven and goes a longer route to bring him home by seven-thirty. So you'll wait within the refuge of the plants until Hutchinson goes for his morning exercise and Starsky is left alone.
First you'll climb up the back and break into the greenhouse. You'll plant yourself among the flora and watch for Hutchinson to rise and shine. You'll wait five minutes until you're sure Hutchinson is off and running. You'll then enter the apartment proper, surprise Starsky, and be gone by the back stairs. There will be no one to hear his screams. You'll move quickly to the back of the building, then down the side street to where you've left your car. If anyone notices you, so what? You own or represent a quarter of the properties down here. You're down here all the time. And this particular morning you have an appointment to show the apartment across from Hutchinson's at 7:45am.
Why, you'll be back at Venice Place in time to enjoy all the fun.
Hartman slipped quietly into the darkened greenhouse. Through the plants, through the glass, he could see a lumpy form in the bed. The room divider had been shoved aside, but it was too dark to see any further into the apartment. Didn't matter which one of them was in the bed, which on the couch. He'd get to the one he wanted. Five forty-five. Still dark. Hartman settled in amongst the cover.
This time Hartman wore a conservative sweater and slacks, but had eschewed the all-black of a few weeks ago. After all, he would have to appear dressed for weekend business when he showed up officially at Venice Place. The only concession he'd made to the moment was to wear black gloves.
Next to him sat a black container. He'd leave that as a souvenir. They were sold in a hundred different stores. Hartman had had this one for a good five years anyway. They'd never trace it.
Hartman kept track of the passing time by counting his heartbeats. They never speeded up. Just kept a constant, steady pace.
The lump on the bed moved. Hartman glanced at his watch. Six-thirty. Half an hour to go.
The lump on the bed continued to move, growing larger. Hartman squinted into the dusky morning light. The lump on the bed wasn't one, it was two. Hartman stared.
Two bodies emerged from under the blanket, tussling with each other and the cover. While the one blended into the darkness, the other was immediately identifiable, picking up and reflecting what little light there was in the room. Hutchinson rolled on top of Starsky, covering him with his body.
Covering him with kisses. Hartman felt his skin prickle. His heart was steadily increasing its beat. He'd seen the signs. Why hadn't he paid attention?
The indisputable noises of sex filtered through the partitioning glass. Moans of pleasure, groans of delight. Hutchinson couldn't seem to find enough of Starsky's skin to touch. First he mapped every inch of Starsky's face. Then he travelled down the man's chest, stopping to pay homage to what were obviously sensitive nipples. He slid his way down to Starsky's belly, then disappeared under the covers, his form now hunched over Starsky's groin. Starsky raised his arms and grabbed for the headboard, his head thrown back in ecstasy.
Light was beginning to cast its first dingy fringes into the apartment. The two bodies were easier to distinguish as they writhed together.
Hartman held his breath and waited for the explosion. It didn't come. Hutchinson emerged from his cavern and reached for the nightstand, pulling open the drawer and removing - the tube.
Stupid. Hartman was stupid. This was much more dangerous than he'd expected.
Hutchinson disappeared back into his cave. Starsky moaned, and then Hutchinson was back out in the open. He threw the blankets off both of them, raising on his knees to reveal muscular thighs, tight buttocks, and an enormous erection.
Starsky slid forward, lifting his ass as Hutchinson caught him under his knees and pulled him upward and forward. It was practiced, it was rehearsed; they fit too easily to be novices at this sport.
Both men grabbed for each other, pleading, exclaiming, making love. Hartman's heart thudded in his chest and the sound blocked out the noises from the men. Shit. The evidence had all been there. Staying over at each other's apartments. Refrigerators that mirrored one another. No other companions.
And Hutchinson. If Hartman had been afraid of Hutchinson before, he was panicked now. It was one thing to mess with a man's partner. It was another to mess with a man's - lover. It was a wonder there was only one stoolie with Hutchinson's tattoo on him and not a hundred. Hutchinson would be on an unstoppable rampage if Hartman carried out his assignment.
The two men suddenly shouted in unison and fell into a heap amongst the bedclothes. Hutchinson cradled Starsky, drawing him close and stroking his back. Tenderly, he pulled the blanket up around his partner, easing them both back into the warmth of the bed.
The heavy breathing and low giggling coming from the bed covered the sound of Hartman's own ragged breath. It took every ounce of Hartman's willpower to rein in his runaway heartbeat and slow his breathing. But slowly, gradually, he managed to regain control - yet not quite banishing the tremor in his limbs.
Hutchinson stirred on the bed, sat up, and swung his legs off the mattress. Hartman glanced at his watch. A little after seven. Hutchinson was going out for his run. He watched as Hutchinson dressed in heavy sweats, pulled on ragged sneakers, and after a backward glance at his partner, left the apartment.
You would be very anxious right now. Part of your brain would be right on track. Counting off the five minutes until you had decided it would be safe to emerge from your hiding place. Judging the force of the throw it would take to push the liquid from its canister to its victim. Planning the number of steps it will take to get down the fire escape and back to the car.
Another part of your brain would be horrified at the position you've placed yourself in. You've just found out the mad dog snarling at you is not only rabid but horny. Double jeopardy.
Still another part of your brain craves the release you can only find by completing your assignment. It's an overwhelming urge to finish the job or go mad yourself.
Which part of your brain wins?
You stand up and move into the grey bedroom. Fog has kept the sun from shining its full force down on you. Starsky dozes in front of you, curled up under Hutchinson's protective quilt.
All you have to do is grab the blanket, fling it off him, and pour the acid on his face. That's all you have to do.
And the seriousness of Hutchinson's attachment to his partner doesn't change the fact he'll probably never find you, probably never even know it was you. He may never, ever stop looking, but he'll never discover you.
So what do you do?
Your heart stops. Starsky's name is shouted. The figure on the bed stirs. Hutchinson comes bounding through the door.
You stand there, poised over your victim. "They" are right, everything does happen in slow motion. The beatific grin on Hutchinson's face slides into incomprehension, then fury. He shouts his partner's name again, and begins a panther-like lunge toward the bathroom door. Your gaze moves from the panther's face to the end point of the panther's trajectory: his holster and gun.
It seems to take hours to shift your focus to the man on the bed below you. He has lifted himself to his elbows and is staring at you, a look of sleepy surprise on his face. You stare back.
The one part of your brain is still locked on course. Your hands deliberately lift the container in front of you. The man before you starts to roll, taking forever to pitch off the bed and drop to the floor. He, too, is shouting, a long, drawn-out cry of his partner's name. The sound slides off the bed with him; together, they tangle in an eternal free-fall.
Another part of your brain finally kicks in. Compulsion and money are overruled by self-preservation. Your muscles override your brain, and you slowly force the container into a curve ball across the room. You see three things simultaneously: The container lazily arcing toward the kitchen. The victim sluggishly raising to his hands and knees. The panther reaching his target. You are frozen.
Time seems to be mired in quicksand. Hutchinson pulls his gun from its holster and brings it in line with your head, all in intolerably slow motion. Starsky is scrambling to his feet in excruciatingly slow motion. You face your worst nightmare in unendurable slow motion: You have been caught.
The canister finally lands and shatters in stingingly bright notes. The liquid hisses as it settles upon the finely finished hardwood floor. Hutchinson is moving forward, step by step, deliberately placing himself between you and his partner. He is telling you something, but you can't make out the words. All you hear are blood-red tones of rage.
You take a methodical step forward. You've dropped your weapon. Why doesn't he drop his? You're unarmed. He has you. Will he beat you senseless while they wait for backup to arrive? How much prison time will you get? What kind of deal can you strike? Can you escape before you're sentenced?
Hutchinson is still shouting something at you. What? Can't he see you've dropped the acid? Look. You hold up your hands. Empty.
Starsky is finally on his feet, behind Hutchinson, moving ever so sluggishly toward the entry table. You spot his objective: there on the small desk, another gun.
Foolish! You're unarmed! You're caught! You're arrested! What do they need another gun for? Do they think you have one as well? You don't have one!
Where would you put one? Under your sweater? You lower your hands toward the hem of your sweater. Trembling fingers grasp the wool and begin to lift, to show that you have nothing hidden. Starsky is nearly upon his weapon. Hutchinson is still shouting.
Shut up, Hutchinson, shut up! I'm unarmed!
You hear the sound first. A pop.
You feel the sound next. A dull squish.
A blunt squash.