This story was originally printed in the S/H zine TURNED TO FIRE, published by Idiot Triplets Press in 1994. Special thanks to Daphne G. for translating to electronic format. The author is not on the internet and doesn't have email. Comments on this story can be sent snail mail to Flamingo, PO Box 823, Beltsville MD 20704-0823, and will be forwarded to the author.
"BUTTON, BUTTON . . ."
Sixty-one minutes later they pulled up in the parking lot, helping a shaken Reina Kendall out of the car. Starsky managed a weary smile for his partner. "Damn, I'm good," he said as he locked the car.
"Good, hell!" Hutch snapped, shaking his finger at his unrepentant partner. "Lucky, yeah, but why we're not dead I'll never know." He heaved a sigh. "Right now, my guardian angel is demanding a new assignment. Ever since I met you, I've been using 'em up like crazy."
Reina caught his arm. "Please, don't scold him. We're here thanks to him."
Hutch stared at her in disbelief. "Well, pardon me, but you're as nuts as he is. You should work with him for eight years . . . You'd see."
"C'mon, we got things to do." Starsky began to walk over to the Kendall building, Hutch and Reina behind him.
"Does Phillip know I'm coming?" she asked, suddenly hanging back. "What if he doesn't want to see me?"
Hutch grabbed her hand. "He wants to, and besides, he needs you. It'll be fine . . ." Together, they raced across the street, against the light, and into the rapidly emptying building.
"When we get up to your husband's offices, we'll wait outside." Starsky said. "You two got some catchin' up to do and sure as hell don't need Hutch and me to help you."
To his vast relief, Reina didn't waste time or emotion arguing. Starsky could see her body tense as the elevator came to its stop. Hutch always did the same thing, like racehorses on the day of a big race. Even now, pressed against Hutch's front, he felt the hard muscles flex and relax, then flex again. Maybe he wasn't aware of his own tension, or maybe he just knew what his body was doing, who knew? Then, strong fingers moved against his spine, and he smiled to himself. Hutch, using their own private signals, saying everything would be fine.
Starsky and Hutch sat with Captain Dobey in Phillip Kendall's outer office. The meeting between husband and wife had been tearful and loving. They had gone into his office, his tall frame shielding her from staring eyes.
"Makes you believe something good will come out of this, eh?" mused the captain.
Hutch nodded. There was that niggling little something in the back of his mind that had nothing to do with what was going on now. Starsky was like a restless cat, picking up a magazine, tossing it down, glaring at the bank of phones on Minnie's desk, daring any one of them to ring so he could do something.
Phones! The little thought rolled around like a marble in an arcade game, refusing to fall into a hole. Hutch pressed his fingers to his temples and pressed hard. And the marble fell.
He rose to his feet and approached Minnie's desk. She had stayed on, offering her help if she was needed.
"Minnie," Hutch said. "Can you get some information for me?"
She looked delighted to be asked. "Anything, Sergeant. What do you want?" She took her glasses off and began polishing them with a tissue.
"I was wondering if Mr. Devereaux made his usual flight to Rome. Can you check and see? There was some doubt that he'd be there on time."
She was a sharp cookie. No protests, just a knowing gaze that told him he didn't have to spell it out. "I'll get right on it," she said. The glasses were set firmly back on her nose.
Quickly, he told Starsky about his suspicions.
Nodding, his partner went back to Dobey and whispered a few words to him. Dobey rubbed his scalp, fixed his tie, and got to his feet, leaving the office. Starsky came back to Hutch.
"He's gonna talk to the guy who's got the tap set up." Starsky dropped into a nearby chair. "Ya know, all along there's been something that doesn't fit. Too many loose ends."
Hutch agreed. "I know. Usually kidnappers keep in touch, especially if they want more ransom. This has been a game of cat-and-mouse, with a chicken feed payoff."
"Yeah," Starsky agreed. "Because if this ain't about Reina Kendall and drug money, what's it about?" He glanced at his watch. "Hutch, we gotta get down to Ensenada before dark. All we got going for us is that you speak the language and I drive like a maniac. That poor kid's in deeper shit now that we know he ain't with his mother."
"You said it," Hutch replied. "I figure this Devereaux is the weak link. He's the one who missed picking up the kid. He claims it was unavoidable, but what if he's lying?"
Starsky cocked his head. "Are you trying to tell me that Devereaux set this up, then went all the way to Rome so he won't look suspicious?" His brows drew together and he began rubbing one finger along the side of his shoe. "And that he's got the kid stashed somewhere in Ensenada with a woman who ain't who she claims to be?" Heavy, dark lashes lifted and Starsky's eyes gleamed with anger. "If you're right . . ."
"Yeah, what are best friends for, right?" Hutch said, staring at Kendall's closed door. "It all sounds great - except what's Devereaux's motive?"
"Shit!" Starsky swore under his breath. "Why do you always want all the answers? There's a little boy who ain't gonna get any older if we don't do something soon. Let the business with Devereaux wait, Hutch." Starsky reached out and gripped Hutch's arm with strong fingers. "Flip's only chance is us."
Just then, Kendall and Reina came out of his office. It was obvious they'd reached a decision to postpone whatever differences they still had in order to face this new ordeal.
Minnie walked over to Hutch, frowning. "Something's wrong, Sergeant. However, here's the information you want. Peter did miss his flight. He caught the backup instead." She tapped her pencil against her teeth. "Frankly, I don't know why he missed the first one."
"Minnie, remind me to tell your boss to give you a raise. Is there a recent picture of Devereaux around? I just had an idea." He dashed out of the office, calling Dobey's name.
Two doors away, Dobey popped his head out, a finger to his lips. "Hutchinson! Shut up! Do you want everyone to know we're here?"
"No time for that, Captain," Hutch said excitedly. "We need a cop to go to LAX and wave Devereaux's photo around." He heard Starsky's soft tread behind him and saw his partner thrust a business shot of Devereaux into Dobey's hand.
"Minnie the Marvel just handed me this," he said. "All the flight info is on the back of the photo." There was a determined thrust to his jaw. "Hutch 'n' me are leaving for Baja right now. We can't hang around here any longer."
Dobey looked doubtfully at the picture. "This is going to take some time. We'll have to chase down the flight attendants, and God knows where they are." With a jerk of his head, he indicated the elevator door. "Get outta here and be careful. You've got no jurisdiction down there. Contact a Sergeant Padilla in Ensenada before you do a damn thing!"
"Come on," Starsky said, half-pulling Hutch. "We've got a long haul ahead of us. Traffic's gonna be bad enough."
Hutch said under his breath, "Yeah, it is, but I've got to visit the men's room before we leave. So do you. You're no camel, either."
"Sheesh! Usta be I could make that decision for myself. When did you adopt me? I mean, where's my dignity?"
Hutch made a face as he opened the door to the men's room. "Dignity? I'm talking about nature and you want to look dignified." He turned his back while he used the urinal, smiling to himself when Starsky did the same. Damn fool!
Hands washed and faces wiped, they left and entered the elevator. "Wish these things went slower, don't you?" Starsky commented. "I always wanted to stop between floors and screw you."
Hutch laughed. "That's outrageous, and yet coming from you it's as exciting as hell. Cut it out."
He saw the lecherous, beautiful smile begin and his insides began to turn to jelly. "You would, wouldn't you?"
"Damn straight I would, but not here." Starsky shook his head. "It's harder than I thought it would be - fallin' in love with you, I mean. I find myself drifting off into dreamland when I need to concentrate on drivin' or the bad guys." He paused as the elevator doors slid open, blue eyes focused on Hutch. A few people hurried toward the exit; none tried to enter the elevator.
"Yeah, I know," Hutch muttered. "Right now, we don't have the luxury to daydream. But, Lord, it's wonderful when we do." He straightened up, patted his jacket to make certain his gun was out of sight, and strode toward the front desk and the two security guards on duty. They gave them curt instructions on what they were to do in case of trouble, then left the building, inhaling great lungsful of the freshening afternoon breezes.
As they were crossing the street, Starsky said, "I told Reina we'd leave the Cougar at Metro because I'm not drivin' to Ensenada in a strange car. Besides, I want the radio so we can call for backup if we need it."
"Have to use the Ensenada channels, don't forget. Hell, we'd be better off with walkie-talkies. I'll pick up a couple of them. Let's move it."
There was a phone message for them at headquarters. Kendall had received a call from a man demanding more ransom. He had agreed and been given directions for a meet. By the time Starsky and Hutch were ready to leave, they had the location pinpointed on a map of Ensenada. Hutch sat beside his partner, committing the street names and directions to memory. It would be nighttime and the mercados would be filled with people; not a place to study where to find someone.
"I suppose it's lucky there are so many tourists this time of year," Starsky commented as they passed Capistrano. We'd get nowhere fast tryin' to pass you off as a native."
Hutch looked at him in disbelief. "Starsk, have you ever looked at yourself - really looked - in the mirror? Do you think you can pass for a Latino?" He began to laugh. "When I was in Mexico City, there were more blond Mexicans than you could count. Hell, I was just blonder than most, that was all."
Grinning, Starsky said, "Yeah? And how many of 'em were over six feet and had baby-blue eyes?"
"Nice try, but it won't work this time," Hutch said sternly. "Just keep your mind on reaching the border before the tie-up."
Starsky shook his head and turned on his indicator, moving over to the fast lane. The accelerator crept up as the coastal towns were left behind. By six they were out of San Diego and on the road to the border. Bleary-eyed, Starsky pulled over. "I dunno about you, but if I'm gonna be up all night, I need a cup of coffee. That road to Ensenada is still rough and I don't want to end up in some ditch."
Stretching, Hutch agreed. "Yeah, I need to walk a bit. Seems we've driven about a thousand miles today." He pointed to a Denny's. "There! The poor man's oasis. Two coffees to go and a couple of doughnuts for the gut."
Starsky's smile was beatific. "Make them Danish and I'm your man." He moved over to the off ramp, avoiding a big rig heading for the same destination. "Don't know how those guys stand bein' on the road year after year," he commented.
"Maybe it's like being in the navy," Hutch replied. "They love the far horizon. Me, I want a place to park my car, stash the hardware, and forget about what's going on in the world." He looked at his partner's profile. "Oh, yeah, one other thing: somebody to share it with . . ."
"Damn straight. When this job's over, we're gonna talk." Starsky left the freeway and headed for the Denny's.
Dusk fell when they were only five miles from Ensenada. By the time they arrived in the little town, the streets were filled with shoppers and visitors. Per Dobey's instructions, they had contacted a Sergeant Padilla, who had led them to his superior, a Lieutenant Cordoba. Two undercover men reassured them everything was ready for the meet. White teeth flashed in dark faces when they saw the red Torino. "Some auto, no one will ever see it." But there was envy in their dark eyes.
"Well, now the challenge begins," Hutch commented as Starsky parked the car and they strolled down to the gaudily-lit entrance to the Mercado Ensenada.
Laughter and shouts filled the spicy-scented air, and a tempting array of fruits and seafood lay spread in nearly every stall.
Hutch used his superior height to read the signs. "Down at the end of the fish row." He watched as Starsky eyed the crowd. "The pescaderos are as bad as used-car salesmen." He grinned at Starsky's indignant expression. "They have to be, Starsk, 'cause their cargo can't sit on a lot, day after day."
"Smart-ass. Just lead the way. And we're supposed to look for a blonde who could pass for Reina Kendall." He shook his head.
They had been waiting for almost ten minutes before they spotted her. A woman with huge, terrified eyes, peering from behind a jumble of cardboard boxes. She was dressed in the dark clothes of the stolid seņoras who moved from stall to stall, arms filled with sacks. Her head was uncovered and nothing could disguise her pallor or the light brows above her eyes.
They approached her casually, aware there must be other eyes watching them, seeing they carried no bundle or suitcase that could be taken as ransom. Stalling for time . . . that was always the way. There never was enough time.
Hutch spoke to one pescadero, who beamed when he realized the rubio knew his language. Starsky stared as his partner purchased a section of yellowtail, generously tipping the man.
"Are you nuts?" he asked. "What the hell are we gonna do with that, shoot somebody with it?"
As they sauntered along, Hutch said quietly, "He was watching the woman a little too closely, partner. The last thing we need is for someone to tip off the kidnappers." He smiled. "I love yellowtail, damn shame we can't save it."
"Never mind your fuckin' fish!" Starsky snarled, slipping behind a pile of boxes. The woman still hadn't moved except to crouch down out of sight.
"Don't be afraid, ma'am. Me and my partner know about your call for help. That's why we're here."
"You did call your husband about Flip, didn't you?" Hutch saw no reason to hedge.
She hesitated, then nodded, her eyes suddenly wary. "Did you bring the money?" One arm raised to pull the rebozo closer around her shoulders, and Hutch saw the tracks on her exposed arm, the hunger in her eyes. He felt sick.
"Look, lady, you said they were gonna kill your boy!" Starsky said impatiently. "We're here to take you back, so let's not waste time. Where is he?"
She flinched, as if struck. "Please," she begged, "not so loud. I'll take you to him. Hurry."
Hutch set his purchase down on one of the top cartons and said something under his breath. There was nothing wrong with the woman's hearing, however, because she quickly said, "One or two . . . I never know where the other are. Sometimes a man drives up to the bungalow, talks to Ricardo, then leaves. I've never seen his face because he only comes at night."
"Is he the one who brings your . . .?" Starsky just pointed to her arm, all the time following her furtive movements.
"My fix. Just spit it out," she said bitterly. "All I want is for you to grab the kid and take him away. I'm so worried about him." She led them up a darkened alley for a couple of blocks and then stopped short, pointing to a small, deep-in-shadows bungalow with a walled patio.
Hutch came abreast of the girl. "Is he all right? I mean, can he travel fast out of there?"
She shivered, staring up at him. "I don't know . . . maybe not. Please, take him back to his father. Ricardo keeps him drugged all the time . . . He's gotten so weak." She turned to Starsky and cried, "I-I can't go yet . . . just get the boy and leave."
Impulsively, Starsky gathered her to him, patting her back with awkward sympathy. "Hey, Hutch 'n' me won't leave here without you along. So get that out of your head. Just tell us where this Ricardo is and we'll do the rest."
"No! I have to go in and unlock the door for you. Do you have a car?" She was watching the shadows at the back of the patio. "Don't kill him."
"Lady, the last thing we want to do is kill a Mexican in Mexico," Hutch said earnestly. He was getting edgy, beginning to feel the adrenalin surge that sometimes made him sick afterwards. If they didn't move soon, he'd puke. He began to move along the alley, careful to keep to the darkest shadows. He'd never forgotten the time Starsky had rubbed dirt in his hair to dull the reflection off it. It had been a lesson learned, sometimes ignored; but the gesture itself had made an indelible impression.
She nodded, appeased, and slipped past them into the night. "I don't like it," Starsky muttered. "She's too damn scared. I got the feeling she's not telling us everything, don't you?"
Hutch nodded. "She's crawling through that little window on the side, just above that bush. Wait! She's got a flashlight, no, a candle. Come on, let's follow her."
They crept toward the rear of the patio wall, found a heavy gate almost hidden in a sprawl of bougainvillea. Starsky slid along the wall, lifting the gate latch with braced fingers. The latch eased off its wooden perch without a sound. Hutch went in first, leaving Starsky to prop the gate ajar so they could bring the boy out. A light gleamed at the back door, and the woman pushed it open just enough to let them in.
Without a word she led them down a tiny hall, then into a room at the end. The candle cast long, wavering shadows on the walls, but Hutch was drawn to a little cot in the corner. "Starsk, over here," he said softly. "Bingo."
The woman came closer, and the light haloed the child's head. He was fair, pale lashes dusting his thin cheeks. One dirty hand lay against a tearstained pillow. Hutch gently touched his shoulder. "Flip . . . Flip . . . wake up." There was no response and he nudged the boy harder. Behind him he heard Starsky's indrawn breath.
"It's no use," the woman moaned. "He's drugged. He won't wake up for several hours."
Starsky was on her like an avenging angel. "You bitch! How could you let this happen? Even if he ain't your own son, where's your heart?"
She drew back like a snake, hissing her anger. "Shut up! If I hadn't suggested Ricardo drug him, he'd be dead by now! Just get him out of this hell hole and leave me in peace!" She calmed down and turned toward Hutch. "I risked my life to contact his father. I know how awful I am . . . but the kid . . ." Great silent waves of anguish wracked her slim frame. "Take the blanket, otherwise he'll be cold. He never lets it out of his sight."
Without another word Hutch swaddled the child in it, lifting him easily onto his shoulder. "Come on, partner, we've still got a lot to do . . . so let's get outta here."
Starsky drew his gun and backed out of the room, extending his right hand toward the woman. "Are you comin' with us or not? We gotta go, lady, so make up your mind."
They all heard the scrunch of tires on the gravel in the alley. "Damn!" Hutch swore. "We've got company."
The woman panicked. "Go! It's probably Ricardo . . . if it's a blue two-door Ford. I . . . I know how to distract him. Dear God, get out of here!" The candle shook in her grip.
Starsky hesitated for only a moment, watching as she ran out of the room and into the small bathroom, candle in hand. Before he could make a move she set the ragged curtains on fire.
"Smart move. Now, let's get outta here. I gotta go help Hutch."
She was strangely calm, even returning his smile. "Don't worry about me. There's another way out. Just go!"
Starsky nodded, then raced to the back door and out across the patio. Hutch must have made it out into the alley because he was nowhere in sight. He saw several people converging on the house and his heart sank until he realized these were neighbors. He recognized the word "Bomberos!" Good old phone book. He'd always told Hutch it was invaluable.
Hutch, meanwhile, was running along the alley, trying desperately not to jostle the boy too much. He heard people screaming, then heard the sound of crunching gravel again. He stopped, turned to face whatever was behind him, and saw smoke rising from the little bungalow. Where the hell was Starsky? A shadow detached itself from a doorway. A moment later he spotted two figures emerging from an old car. "Mira! Mira!" one shouted. "Esta corriendo!"
"I know you saw him, you bastard," Hutch said savagely. "But you don't know I see you." He gently placed the unconscious boy in a doorway and drew his Magnum. To his relief, Starsky ducked back out of sight.
They had parked near the waterfront. Just as Hutch was putting his gun back in its holster, Starsky raced up to him.
"Let me have him!" he yelled. "You run ahead and start the car. Run like hell, Hutch, 'cause we ain't got a chance if we don't get outta here."
"Gotcha," Hutch said, crouching low at first to keep out of the car's headlights, then dodging behind a large van. He saw Starsky scoop up the kid as if he were a sack of potatoes, toss him over his shoulder, and run down the alley, pushing trashcans over as he went.
When Starsky passed him, Hutch stepped out. He had drawn his gun and aimed it at the car. "Vamanos!" one of the men shouted, slamming the car door just as it started up.
Hutch grinned fiercely. "Vamanos, yourself." A shot whizzed past his head, and he pulled the trigger, aiming for the front tires. The right one burst with a loud bang. Hutch turned and raced after his partner. With their pursuers on foot, they had a far better chance of escaping.
Another shot rang out, but he could tell by its sound that the men had dropped back. He didn't try to fire. Ahead he saw Starsky with the boy. "Hey! Starsky. Wait up."
Gasping, his partner slowed down. "What was that gunfire back there? I thought we were goners for sure."
"Nah. Here, give me the kid and you go on ahead. They're on foot now. We've only got a couple of blocks to go."
Starsky handed over the boy without protest. "If we get separated, hide out down by the waterfront . . . that langosta place."
"Langosta de Mar," Hutch said as he shouldered the boy. "Get going, because if they call the cops and say we kidnapped a kid, we're in deep you-know-what."
"Gotcha. Be careful." Hutch caught Starsky by the arm. "Where's the girl? I thought she was going to follow you." Starsky paused only long enough to shake his head. "Don't ask, we ain't got time. I think she's okay because all the neighbors were out there and the two bozos are chasin' us."
He glanced over his shoulder. "See ya in a few minutes. Now, let's get the hell outta here!" He began to run, darting side to side like a quarterback on his way to a touchdown. In the darkened alley, he soon disappeared.
Hutch shifted the boy so that he had a better grip on him. "Flip, it's too bad you're not awake. This is gonna be an 'E' ride all the way." He deliberately chose to run along the fence lines, ignoring the barking dogs, the startled cackle of sleeping hens.
As he ran, he forgot the child's slight weight; all his senses were on the sounds behind him. How soon the dogs barked next would tell him where their pursuers were. The gravel crunched loudly beneath his boots and he swore under his breath. No need to panic, only one more block until he turned onto the other street and by then Starsky should be driving back to pick them up. But where were Lieutenant Cordoba and his men?
He imagined he heard the roar of the Torino's engine as he ran, but the noise was behind him. Instinctively, he chose to dart between two buildings, cutting across a paved yard with a fountain splashing droplets onto the tiles. He nearly slipped but reached the other street before anyone saw him. Sweat poured off his brow and down his neck. Flip's blanket became uncomfortably warm. He found a narrow pathway, grass soft as velvet, and he sighed with relief as he raced along.
"Wha . . . what's going on?" It was the boy, struggling to get down. Hutch held onto him for dear life. "It's okay. Don't panic," Hutch said. "I'm a cop and my partner and I are going to take you back to L.A. Just hang on!"
"Bu . . . but . . ."
"Sorry, kid, hold on and keep quiet." Hutch let out a deep breath. His lungs hurt like hell and he wondered if he'd lost Starsky in the confusion. From the breeze he knew he had to head left to the ocean. He hoped his partner hadn't turned into that alley looking for him. Now that Flip was awake, he couldn't stash him someplace to find out. He reached an intersection, saw no car even remotely resembling the Torino, and headed toward the ocean. As he ran, his thoughts were on his partner.
"Where the hell are you?" Starsky muttered as he drove along the crowded street. Hutch should have reached the corner where they were to meet almost five minutes ago. He had watched a fire engine careen around the same corner as it headed toward the fire, but hadn't spotted the woman who was impersonating Reina Kendall anywhere. Probably decided to take her chances with the crooks. She could always claim the kid set the fire. Or, maybe like he and Hutch, she'd slip away in all the confusion and get lost.
Mexico was a big country and there were plenty of little towns to hide out in. They'd gotten what they wanted, and if Lady Luck stayed with them, they'd be safe before dawn. He decided to head for the little seafood bar; undoubtedly that's where Hutch had gone.
He slowed down as a truck came roaring out of the alley, his heart pounding in his chest like a very loud drum. He knew they wouldn't recognize the Torino - unless they'd been followed all the way from L.A.
But where were Hutch and the kid? The truck made a right turn and began cruising along the street, heading away from the ocean. Starsky's eyes narrowed. For some reason Hutch had had to change plans, and those s.o.b.s were after him. Very quietly he made a U-turn and began following them, keeping far enough back that they wouldn't spot him. He hoped that Hutch would spot him first and hide until their pursuers went past.
He drew his gun, put it in his lap, and crept along after his prey.
"We're almost there, Flip, so keep your head down," Hutch whispered to the boy. "My partner's looking for us, and we'll have you back with your mom and dad in a few hours." Hutch's side hurt, but he dismissed it as merely being unfit for this kind of challenge.
"Mister? I gotta . . ."
The guttural sound of a slow-moving vehicle caught Hutch's attention. "Shhh," he said. "Flip, it's real important that you don't talk. When we're safe and out of here, then we'll have time to get acquainted. Okay?"
He scanned the nearly deserted street and shrank back, trying to hide Flip. Now that the kid was awake, he was tempted to put him down, grab him by the hand, and force him to run. Unfortunately, the boy was too weak.
He saw the truck about the same time the driver spotted him. And about a block away, he noticed the Torino. Without hesitating, he stepped off the curb and into the street, crossing swiftly to the opposite side. He grabbed Flip by the wrists and reached for his gun with his right hand. "Listen, son, this is important. You get down behind my back as far as you can, do you understand? There's a couple of bad guys who want to take you back to that house . . . and I know you don't want to go with them. You understand?"
"Yes, sir," came a muffled, very scared voice. "But I'm not . . . not . . ."
"Not now! We'll get to the intros later. My name's Hutch, and your dad sent me and my partner to find you." He saw the truck make a wide sweep of the street before it turned. He frowned. Where in hell were the Mexican police? A very unwelcome thought occurred . . . What if they were more interested in drug money than in two cops rescuing a kid? What was it Starsky had said? Nothing's simple.
He crouched down behind an old Buick, so solid that he knew bullets wouldn't go through the heavy steel frame. His mind registered the muted screech of tires and the distinctive growl of the Torino's engine. "Attaboy, come to Papa," he whispered.
Suddenly, he let go of Flip, rolled him in the blanket, and ordered him to stay down behind the car. Then, with the truck lumbering toward him, he braced himself along the trunk, sighting the Magnum. "You jackasses never learn, do you?" he muttered.
He heard two shots, each from a different direction, and grunted as a bullet hit the rear bumper and then slammed into his shoulder. Nothing much, but the breath rushed out of him all the same. Who was the jackass now?
There was a loud thump, a howl, and he grinned. His partner had effectively removed the jerk who had come up behind him. The truck slowed down, and now he could see the driver stick his head out the window, calling to his friend. Hutch raised his gun, aimed, and squeezed the trigger. The bullet went through the windshield with vicious force, and a moment later the truck crashed into a parked car, the metal screeching as it rubbed off paint and metal.
Hutch ducked. Starsky had pulled around the body in the street and was now alongside the Buick. He leaned over and opened the door. "Move it! I hear sirens . . . We gotta get the hell outta here!"
Hutch tossed his gun onto the passenger seat and whirled around to pick up the boy, who hadn't so much as raised his head. "Come on, fella," he said. "It's almost over. Let's go." He grunted in pain as he hefted the child over his shoulder, but there wasn't time to change positions. People were beginning to surge onto the street and they had to get away before anyone got a good look at the Torino. He dumped the heir to the Kendall millions unceremoniously onto the back seat, and as he got in slammed the door shut. "Now or never!" he shouted. Starsky obeyed, the tires squealing in protest. Hutch glanced back, staring at the pall of smoke now hanging over the neighborhood. "Hope the girl got away," he said softly.
"Shoulder hurt yet?" was Starsky's only comment.
"Nope, but it will tomorrow." He managed a grin. "He's okay. We did it."
Starsky slowed the car down and switched lanes. "Thought I'd try another approach to the border. May take a little longer, but I don't trust Cordoba and his flunkies."
"At least you didn't plug a Mexican citizen," Hutch said glumly, leaning over the seat to observe their guest. "Hello, Phillip Kendall the Umpteenth. Glad to be here?"
One small hand wiped hair back from a very pale face. A little voice said, "Yeah, sort of . . ." Eyelids drooped sleepily. "But my name's . . . really, I'm called . . ." The boy slumped back against the seat, asleep.
"Poor little guy," Starsky said, "can't even remember his name. Maybe he thinks we're just more kidnappers and he's afraid to talk." He drove on, avoiding the mercado where merchants were still packing away their goods.
"You know what I always wanted to buy?" Starsky said. "One of those onyx bowls of fruit - watermelon, bananas, peaches. That'd look great on my kitchen table." He sounded wistful.
"Partner," Hutch said fervently, "if you get us out of this without a hitch, I'll go down to Olvera Street and buy you the biggest damn bowl of dyed-onyx fruit I can find." For some reason, picturing his triumphant entry at Starsky's apartment made him forget his aching shoulder.
They passed through the border without raising so much as an eyebrow. Afterward, Starsky declared that maybe Cordoba had arranged to have both the fire and the shootout put down as drug-related incidents with no Anglos involved. Starsky also said, "It's lucky the kid's blond. Probably figured he was yours."
"Wish he'd wake up. He looks like he could use a good meal," Hutch commented as they sped toward Chula Vista. They'd stopped twice to notify the Kendalls of their success, but each time the pay phone had been out of service - once because it had been ripped off the wall.
Starsky pulled into an all-night service station. "I wanna get a look at that hole in your shoulder," he said, "and see if there's a phone here. You stay in the car while I make the call. Then I'll go to the john and you come in after me."
Hutch shot him a look. "I need to use the facilities, and I want Flip to go in, too. I'd like to clean him up before his folks see him."
Starsky laughed. "Just be careful that some old biddy doesn't bash you for takin' a kid into a bathroom." He grew somber. "You can see if he has to go, but we'd better clean him up in the car . . . after I look at your shoulder."
Hutch was suddenly tired. A hot shower, his own bed, and a week's sleep. To hell with the shoulder. That reality was hours away; not only the drive, but the reams of paperwork, the questions to be answered. He sagged down in the seat, and when Starsky got out he made no effort to move.
"Mister? Hutch? Can I have a candy bar? And I need to pee real bad."
"Hunh?" Hutch stared dazedly at the small face peering up at him. Woeful as it was, the expression in the eyes was alert - and suspicious.
"Sure, kid, sure. Lemme wake up and . . . ouch!" Hutch gingerly touched his shoulder. The pain did the trick. Wide-awake, he opened the car door and got out, allowing the youngster to clamber over the seat and out of the car. "Come on . . . I'll take you to the men's room. I'll check and make sure nobody else is in there. Oh, wash your face and hands while you're at it, okay?"
But the boy was looking at Hutch's jacket, his eyes wide. "Is that blood? It sure looks like blood."
No use in lying, the kid was too sharp to insult him. Hutch nodded. "Sure is. There was this bull that got loose from the bull ring, and he was running down the street and I tried to grab him by the horns . . . and he . . . well, he got away."
A brief smile crossed the boy's lips, but he didn't challenge Hutch, merely shrugged. "You can't stop a bull like that . . ." He left off what he was going to say, grabbed his crotch, and began to dance. "Hurry up or . . . I'll pee my pants."
Fortunately, the men's room was unlocked and empty. Hutch leaned against the door while the kid did his business. He heard the sound of running water and smiled. He was glad his partner hadn't heard the story about the bull.
Inside the store, Starsky had his back braced against the only wall that wasn't filled with shelving. He held the receiver in his right hand while his left one felt in the coin return slot. Finally, Dobey answered.
"Good news, Cap'n. We got him. Well, just a little trouble. No, the kid's okay . . . Kinda sleepy, but by the time we get to L.A. he'll be fine. Hunh? They want us to take him to the marina? That makes sense. Better yet, it's closer. Sure, we'll be careful."
Starsky hung up. Other than the night manager and his clerk, there was only one other person in the store. They had looked at him, then at his car and Hutch, and gone on robbery alert. It didn't help that he was wearing the leather jacket that permitted a view of the bulge under his arm. He decided to take action before it became necessary. All he needed was some trigger-happy citizen to blast away because he got scared.
The manager stared at him, not the friendly type at all. Starsky went up to the counter. "I'd like two sodas, one chocolate milk shake, and one of those kid's hamburgers." He leaned forward, as if taking the man into his confidence. "Don't worry, I'm gonna show you my ID, so you can relax."
The man turned grey, color draining rapidly from his face. "No sweat, man, I don't need no ID. Whatever you want, it's yours."
Starsky pulled out his badge and flipped it open. "Just so there's no misunderstanding. Make up my order and we're on our way. You got that?"
The manager shot a quick glance out at the Torino, and nodded. "Guaranteed. Three minutes flat. Anything else?"
"How much? And get that kid out of the back, let him fix the burger." He found his temper getting shorter by the second.
"George! Get out here! Man wants a junior hamburger on the double." The manager's voice was shrill.
Starsky watched George carry out a mop and a squeegee. "One coke, one root beer, one shake, one hamburger," he said. "Now." He deliberately turned his back on them and walked over to the door. Hutch was just bringing Flip Junior from the john.
Hutch fussed with the boy's clothing, shaking his head at the messy tee shirt. "Marshmallow," Starsky murmured to himself.
"It's ready, sir. That'll be $2.25." The manager also was watching Hutch, a frown on his face. Starsky put the money on the counter. "Picked up a lost child. Wanna come out and see if he's from around here?" he asked casually.
The man shook his head. "Naw, anymore we got mostly Mexicans. Bracero kids. Where'd you find him?"
"Just south of here. Been on his own for a couple of days. He's hungry."
The manager looked indignant. "Hey! Don't think I turned him away, mister. Little kid like that. If you'd said something, I would've thrown in the hamburger and shake for free."
This time Starsky smiled. "Glad to hear it. Some kids really have bad luck. Take care." He sauntered out of the store toward the car.
"Think he'll call the cops to check on your story?" Hutch asked after Starsky had brought him up to date. "He sure was giving us the glum eye."
In the back seat Flip was busily devouring the hamburger and shake, making little sighs of appreciation as he chewed.
Starsky took a quick gulp from the can of A&W, handed it to Hutch, and settled down for the next leg of their journey. "Dunno. He was kinda slow on the uptake." He rolled down the window. "Meanwhile, Dobey says that Kendall's worried that someone might have his office and home staked out. Sooo . . . We're to bring Flip to the marina." He glanced sideways at his partner.
"I guess it makes sense." They were already past San Diego and on the part of the freeway that ran parallel to the ocean. There was a full moon, and row after row of whitecaps surged toward the shore. It was an endless cycle, hypnotic in its rhythm; Hutch never tired of it.
Tonight, however, he felt like hell; his shoulder throbbed, blood was sticking to his shirt and jacket, and he wanted to sleep. Still, he looked over at Starsky.
"Want me to drive for a while? You've been at it the whole damn day." He watched the man he loved more than anyone else turn his head slightly and grin.
"Thanks, but not tonight. You don't look so hot, and we need at least one of us awake." Starsky jerked his thumb toward the back seat. Their passenger was already asleep, the remains of his feast spilled in his lap.
Hutch smiled. "Poor kid. He's sure had a rough time of it."
"He'll be fine. Mommy's back and Daddy'll probably take them to Tahiti on the yacht. For some people, that's the way it works."
He was too tired to argue, but Hutch knew the flaws in Starsky's terse summary. Reina had to return to her fancy spa, Flip had to return to school, and he and Starsky had to find out who in hell was responsible for this mess in the first place. "We don't exactly have a happy ending," he murmured, trying to stay awake. "There's still a lot to be done . . ."
A hand, firm and gentle, touched his leg. "Get some rest. I'm too tired to think straight. But there's nothing more we can do until the kid's back with his family."
Starsky began to whistle - an off-key, offbeat, unrecognizable tune. It was just what Hutch needed to fall asleep.
"Wake up, partner. C'mon, we're only a few miles from the marina." Starsky's voice, husky with fatigue, penetrated Hutch's subconscious like a dull fork, prodding and poking until he had no choice but to respond.
"What time is it?" He sat up, rubbing his eyes, moving his shoulder to see how it felt. It still hurt, but most of the soreness seemed to be in his back, probably from carrying Flip in such an awkward position. "How's the kid?" he asked Starsky as he rubbed his eyes.
Still cuttin' z's." Starsky yawned, winced, then said, "You suppose you could rub my neck for a couple of secs? I feel like it's stretched out of shape."
"Pull over and I'll see what I can do." They were both suffering from adrenalin letdown now, and he knew the last few miles would seem unbearable.
He got out of the car, walked stiffly over to Starsky's side, and opened the door. In the back seat, Flip sprawled in loose, deep slumber, mouth open like a baby bird's.
Starsky got out, groaning as he flexed his legs and arms. "I feel about ninety-seven, maybe ninety-eight," he said when Hutch turned him around and put his hands on the nape of his neck.
"Yeah? Don't get coy. You look about a hundred and ten, wise-guy, even if you do still have all your hair." Hutch knew exactly how to get his partner to relax: banter and massage, insult and massage, snipe and massage. He removed Starsky's jacket, wincing as his own shoulder protested. "Come on, lover, bend over the hood. Pretend it's the couch, or the table, or the . . ."
" . . . or that damn piano!" Starsky grunted, head bent as he leaned into the pressure of Hutch's fingers. "I had indents on my belly for two weeks."
"You're a liar," Hutch retorted as he kneaded the tight muscles on Starsky's nape. "We never once did it on the piano. Where the hell were you if you remember that?" But he grinned because he knew Starsky would bring this up later on . . . sex on the piano. Like hell!
"It's true," Starsky swore. "You were too drunk to remember. I sounded like Van Cleef while we were doin' it, so help me."
Hutch choked on his laughter. "Van Cliburn, you hopeless clod . . . although I suppose it doesn't matter because it never happened." Finally, he ran his hands down Starsky's spine, producing the shudder that meant he was relaxed enough to drive again. He patted Starsky's butt just for good measure. "I pronounce you cured of this malady. Let's go."
"Never said I wanted to be cured, just get some relief," Starsky muttered, his eyes suddenly shuttered behind heavy lids. "You'd make a helluva doctor . . . starve to death in a year, all because you think you hafta cure people."
"Well, in your case I might make an exception, but only because you're cute. Now, let's get going. We've got a couple of anxious parents waiting for their son." Hutch climbed back into the car and slammed the door.
Nodding, Starsky slid onto the seat. "Right. But we're not gonna work all night. Dobey'll have to wait until tomorrow for our report. I'm too damn tired to make any sense out of what went on in Ensenada."
Hutch let out a long breath. "I know. The only thing we do know is that we rescued the kid." He ran his fingers through his hair, then said wearily, "Oh, yeah, there's the matter of getting my shoulder attended to. Doesn't feel like more than a scratch."
The noise of the engine drowned out Starsky's reply. They both knew he'd been lucky. Somewhere, God knew when, there was a bullet with a name on it.
The noise woke up their passenger. He coughed, pushed the papers onto the floor and got to his knees. "Where are we going?" he asked, eyes now wide and bright. He finished his shake with loud, slurping noises.
"Don't you remember? You're going home. Your folks want to meet you on the KAMA. It's all over, Flip." Starsky looked in the rear-view mirror, trying to understand the boy's confused look. He suspected that when he saw his parents everything would clear up. It was the drugs, of course. He remembered Hutch's lapses of memory in those first few weeks after he'd been hooked.
Hutch snapped his fingers. "God! I hope to hell Kendall didn't tell anyone that Flip's safe! The last thing we want to do is tip off whoever's responsible. Did you warn Dobey?"
Starsky shook his head. "Sorry, never gave it a thought. Maybe Dobey did. But you're right. This case isn't over yet."
He found a parking place directly in front of the entry gate to the Kendall dock. As they got out of the car, he saw the lights from the KAMA reflected on the water. It was a pretty sight.
Hutch bent over Flip, pushing his hair from his face, dabbing at the corners of his mouth with his handkerchief. "That's it," he said. "Wouldn't want them to think we didn't take care of you, would we?"
Slowly, the boy shook his head. He hung back as the gate swung open, his bare feet pale in the moonlight. Hutch shook his head. "Hey! It's okay. They're not going to yell at you." He slid his arms around the thin shoulders, and urged him toward the yacht. "Look! On deck . . . it's your mom and dad."
"Here they come! Oh, God, there he is . . . my baby!" A slim figure, dressed in a short white dress, ran toward them, closely followed by Kendall. Starsky, all smiles, beckoned to their charge. "Look! Wave to your folks . . ."
"What the . . .?" Hutch stopped abruptly as two skinny arms wrapped around his leg, and the boy burst into tears. "No! No!" he cried. "No . . ."
Reina Kendall dropped to her knees and reached out to claim her son. With desperate hands she tried to pull him away from Hutch. "Honey, it's Mommy . . . Look, Flip, it's Mommy." She buried her face in her hands. "Oh, he doesn't remember me."
But Kendall had stopped beside Starsky, a frown creasing his brow. He stared, then turned a puzzled glance to the cops. "That's not my son," he gasped, ". . . that's not Flip! Good Lord, you've brought us the wrong boy!" At that moment the same realization struck Reina. She reached for her husband, screamed, then fainted.
Hutch swore softly, pried the child's arms from around his leg, and lifted him up to eye level. "I don't understand," he said. "We followed the directions exactly. The kid was lying on a cot, drugged to the eyeballs, and . . ."
He looked at Starsky, sick at heart. "If this isn't Flip Kendall, who in the hell is he?"
"I dunno, Hutch. But I get the feeling we're back to square one, don't you?" Starsky let out a long, exhausted sigh.
"Does it hurt?" Starsky asked quietly as Hutch sat slumped back against the seat. It was a stupid question, one that at any other time might have provoked a reaction from his partner. But Hutch's pain wasn't coming from his shoulder, it was coming from his heart. Despite Kendall's protests, Captain Dobey had been adamant. Tired cops make mistakes, he'd said, and his men were too damned exhausted to work around the clock! They had watched the little boy they'd rescued being escorted by a social worker to another office. He had cried, wanting to go with "his cops." They'd both felt like hell.
"I'm gonna take you home, and get us something to eat, and then I'm puttin' you to bed," Starsky said firmly.
"And what about you?" Hutch asked as his partner turned onto Washington Avenue, headed for Venice Place. It was nearly dawn, grey, and cool, and quiet. He had stitches in his shoulder, he smelled like a bottle of Lysol, and his back hurt from hauling that kid - the wrong kid - around. "I mean, you must feel about the same. Sore back and arms, not to mention the condition of your ass from sitting on it for so many hours. Christ, we're getting too old for this kind of work, partner, aren't we?"
"I dunno about you, Hutch, but another case like this and I'm gonna toss my gun and badge on Dobey's desk and make for the damn hills."
There was so much frustration and pain in Starsky's voice that Hutch said nothing more. Ahead was Venice Place. Even in the predawn light, it was pink. A cool, inviting shade right now, offering warmth within its walls.
Starsky parked around the corner as he always did when he was spending the night. Customers and shop owners needed the area out front. "Come on. Time to unwind," he said.
Hutch snorted. "I'm unwound and unglued already from that shot I had at the hospital, pal. Just lead me to the stairs and I'll feel my way up the steps. You can push me when I stop."
Groaning, Starsky managed to get from behind the steering wheel. He steadied Hutch while they staggered to the front steps. "I'm sure glad the school's not open yet," he said, "'cause we look like two winos after a night on the town."
It took Hutch almost three minutes to crawl up the airs, another one to find his key, and at least two minutes to get him deposited on the bed. Starsky slammed the door shut, shot the dead bolt, and return to Hutch. He surveyed the long frame, the bloodstained shirt and jacket, and announced, "I, Sergeant David Michael Starsky, am going to take a leak. And then I'm going to sleep for one whole week. Got that?"
The last thing he remembered doing was removing his jacket and placing it over his head.
"Jesus," muttered Hutch as he struggled to wake up. "Where am I?" He rolled over and whispered, "Starsk? There's something in bed with us. It's brown and smelly and sitting on your head."
A groan, followed by some fervent swearing, informed him that his partner was in no mood for conversation now or in the near future. He lay there, acutely aware of how he smelled, how sore he felt, and what a mess this whole damn case was.
He raised his head, watching the sunshine trying to penetrate the curtains. Judging by the shadows in the room it was about ten a.m. Shit! He supposed he might as well get up, which he did with great difficulty. He slid off the bed, stood up, and staggered into the bathroom. Once in there, facing the mirror, he gaped at himself in disbelief. He still had on all his clothes, including his boots, and now he knew why his side ached; he was still wearing his gun and holster. The depth of Starsky's fatigue hit him like a blow. The poor guy must have crashed as soon as he'd sat on the bed.
He turned on the shower, stripped off everything, inspected his bandage, and managed a weak grin. "Alive and kicking, what more do I want?" God, no wonder the storeowner had been so jumpy last night. By the time he'd shaved, he was thinking about something to eat. A lot of something to eat. He didn't know how they were going to find Kendall's son, but Starsky and he had to have a break.
Before he dressed he checked the phone. No messages. Dobey had promised them twelve hours, maybe they'd get all of them.
He glanced over at Starsky's unmoving figure. Getting him up was going to prove difficult, but from long experience he knew the secret. Quickly, he donned a robe and headed for the kitchen.
Ten minutes later, he had fresh coffee, instant waffles and ham, and eggs, over-easy. The coffee was the simplest part, the rest he produced by raiding the refrigerator.
But before he called Starsky he phoned Metro, asking for Dobey. He listened soberly, answered a few questions, then hung up. At least one mystery had been solved. Starsky would be pleased about that. He poured himself a cup of coffee, drank it, then fixed one for Starsky, which he carried into the bedroom alcove. "Rise and shine," he said loudly as he placed the cup on the bedside table. With care, he began pulling the jacket from Starsky's head.
Two hands shot out, grabbed the smelly leather relic, and jammed it back over the dark curls. "Touch it again and die!" Starsky snarled. He flopped onto his side and grunted, "What the hell have you got in this bed? Feels like a rock."
"Then it's your rock," Hutch said silkily. "Come on, tough guy, haul ass . . ."
The jacket was tossed across the room, and Starsky rose from the bed, ready to throttle his partner. "Haul ass? Well, I'm gonna haul your ass to the back door and throw it down the stairs if you don't shut up! I'm a dyin' man, Hutch! Dyin' of exhaustion . . ."
He stopped the tirade and sniffed the air. "What's that? What's cookin'?" He sat back down on the edge of the bed.
"Sausage, maybe. Waffles, possibly. Ham and eggs, probably. But then again, if you're that tired . . ."
Blue eyes watched his every move. "How's your shoulder? What've you been up to?" The gaze ran over Hutch's clothing and the eyes narrowed. "What time is it?" Starsky asked, reaching for the coffee cup.
"Time for you to shower and shave, partner," Hutch replied. "I'll cook while you wash and change. Your robe's hanging on the back of the bathroom door."
"I know where I left it," Starsky grumbled as he headed for the bathroom. "Think I'd never spent the night here before." He shut the door behind him.
Hutch listened to the sounds Starsky made as he shaved. Drawers banging, shower curtain sliding, water tested, the thump of feet as they gained purchase in the tub. Without seeing him, Hutch could time his exit from the bathroom almost to the minute.
It was different when they showered together. He smiled.
"Well, you can always get a job as a short-order cook if you ever decide to give up police work," Starsky said contentedly as he wiped his mouth with a napkin. He had eaten a prodigious amount, lingering over a third cup of coffee. He smiled. "Now, who's gonna wash up? You or me?" This was easy. Hutch would get indignant, tell him to get his butt into the kitchen, and then they'd have a hot debate about the rules always changing . . . They'd end up damn near coming to blows . . . but not quite.
"Neither," replied Hutch quietly, all seriousness. "We need to talk." He began stacking the plates, waiting for Starsky to gripe about being unpredictable. But his partner sat very still, a sudden look of unease in those expressive eyes.
"Talk about the kid we rescued, dummy," Hutch said, suddenly realizing that Starsky was still afraid things might change between them. Not even if hell froze over insofar as he, himself, was concerned.
"I called Dobey before I got you up. He told me the kid's name is Nicholas Wingate . . . age nine. And guess where he was playing when he was snatched?"
Starsky set his coffee cup down, and grinned. "Drake damn Park! Same day as Flip Kendall."
"You got it," Hutch said. "And guess who grabbed him?"
There was no hesitation. "Easy! Those sonofabitchin' gardeners! The ones in that old Dodge." He gathered up the cutlery, dumping it into his mug. "But the real question is still - why?"
Hutch shook his head. "Not quite. The real question now is, is Peter Devereaux mixed up in one, or both, or either of these disappearances? And . . . where in the hell is Flip Kendall?"
All the air left Starsky's lungs. He began making bread crumbs out of an uneaten slice of toast. "So why didn't the Wingates report their kid missing? Do you suppose that was Mrs. Wingate, posing as Mrs. Kendall?" He shook his head, running his fingers through his damp curls, then stroking his chest lightly. His eyes darkened with something other than curiosity. His whole body was alive with tension. It was clear he didn't want to talk about these things.
Hutch couldn't stand it. He rose from the table, gathered up the dishes, and dumped them into the sink. The questions could wait; they couldn't. He turned around to face Starsky. "I don't know about you, but the last thing I want to do is play twenty questions. How about you?"
Nodding, Starsky got to his feet and took off his robe. "We ain't wearin' enough to play more than one hand of strip poker, so to hell with games. How's your shoulder?"
The man was beautiful, Hutch thought, watching patterns of light play over Starsky's body. He'd never found the over-developed muscles of the bodybuilders to be a turn-on, but this guy, who moved like a panther, could make his bones melt. "My shoulder's just fine," he lied, removing his robe. He smiled and held out his arms. "Let's go back to bed."
Starsky began to laugh as they settled down, sheets shoved about until they fell on the floor. "Remember the first time - at my place? God, we were so damn modest, I dunno how we ever got around to fucking. All I knew was I had to have you . . . had to actually show you how I felt." He sat back on his heels, eyeing his lover. "It's been a hell of a ride, hasn't it?"
Hutch gazed up at him. "Yeah. Gets better each time. I'm so damn greedy any more that sometimes I . . . I . . . wish . . ." He looked away, unable to say more.
Starsky straddled him and leaned down to kiss him. "I know. You wish you had two of everything, right? 'Cause one just isn't enough. Babe, I been thinking that for months now. It isn't because I don't believe in what we've got, and I know I know how to use it, but I want all the feelings at once."
Hutch reached up and cradled the long face, kissing Starsky's eyelids. "That's it! I want to make love to you while you're screwing me. I want to play double sixty-nine! I want to give you more than I can. I thought for a while I was going nuts." He sought Starsky's mouth and tongue, losing himself in the sensations.
Starsky pulled away, eyes hot with need. "Way I figure it, if we had two of everything, we'd be dead by now. Let's get practical . . . I want you. What can't we do?" He began to stroke his cock, watching Hutch's face while he did.
"Can't put any pressure on my shoulder, for starters, which lets out me screwing you into the mattress, or you hefting my legs up to the ceiling." He grinned, face reddening as he spoke. "Fortunately, the bullet hit something not needed for what you've got in mind, am I right?"
Without smiling, Starsky nodded. "Just give me a second or two, blondie, and we'll be on our way." He stared down at Hutch lying beneath him, almost spread-eagled. "Turn on your left side and relax." He got off the bed, took the phone off the hook, and opened the bedside cabinet. "So, you get off on six inches of steel, do you? Wanna try for seven?"
Hutch turned on his side, shivering as a pair of warm hands slid down his spine, listening to the voice purring in his ear. He groaned as exploring fingers spread lubricant and desire in equal amounts inside him.
Starsky's breathing grew more labored, and Hutch knew his lover was pumping himself to full hardness. It was going to be good - fast and hard at first, then slower and more loving. He heard a sudden exclamation and the fingers withdrew, clamping down hard on his thighs as Starsky slid close behind him. "Wish I had a ruler," Starsky murmured. "I think it's an eight."
They made love twice, Starsky driven by some inner urge to possess Hutch's very soul. Hutch begged for more, using his ass as an enticement his lover couldn't resist. He dared Starsky to invent new positions, then groaned with the pleasure they produced. Only once did Starsky forget about Hutch's shoulder, and a sharp yell only served to incite him further.
Now, sated unto exhaustion, they lay sprawled in each other's arms. "What the hell was in that breakfast you cooked? Spanish fly?" Starsky muttered while he struggled to get up. "I felt like a con being released from prison after ten years in solitary." He ran a shaky hand down Hutch's thigh, then lifted the flaccid organ nestled in blond curls. "Gone from an eight to a four in an hour. I musta done something right."
Hutch ignored his shoulder, reached up and pulled Starsky down across his chest. "Right? You damn near killed me! But you know what scares the hell out of me?" He rolled over, pinning Starsky beneath him. "It was so damn good, so . . . so . . ." He began kissing Starsky until he begged for breath.
"God, Hutch, with encouragement like that I might be good for another round. Lookit Junior . . . He's revived."
Fingers closed firmly around Starsky's cock, ringing it with gentle pressure. "Do your best, lover, but if I want to walk today, I've got to get in the tub." Bright blue eyes held an invitation and Hutch's fingers relaxed. "Come in with me," he coaxed, "and I'll finish this with my super-deluxe massage that Sweet Alice charges fifty bucks for."
It was nearly twelve-thirty when Starsky and Hutch spotted Dobey returning from lunch. He looked tired and grim, and they felt a flash of guilt at their own refreshed condition.
He stopped, eyed them suspiciously, then said, "You two, in my office. I'll bring you up to date on what the hell's going on around here." He surged ahead, his detectives following at a slower pace, nodding at the other cops who were all busy with their own caseloads.
"Shut the door," Dobey ordered as Starsky entered, "and sit down so I can look at you both without going cross-eyed." He removed his jacket, loosened his tie, then sat down at his desk. He studied their faces but said nothing.
They sat where they usually sat, not too far apart, casually attentive, and, for them, very quiet.
Their behavior seemed to mollify Dobey for he spread out several sheets of paper, each one covered with notes. "Now, while you were asleep we had a couple of breaks in the Wingate case."
That brought them upright in their chairs, their interest immediately engaged. "You found his parents?" Starsky asked. "What the hell did they have to say?"
Dobey shook his head. "My story, my speed, Starsky. When I'm finished, ask your questions." He cleared his throat. "First of all, the Ensenada police rescued the woman who'd called Kendall. She's Harmony Wingate, the boy's aunt. She's also a cocaine addict with a very expensive habit."
Starsky looked at Hutch and nodded; it was what they had expected . . . at least the drug end of it. "So she arranged the snatch?" he asked, pausing when Dobey's brows drew together. "Sorry, Cap'n, your story."
"She babysits her nephew when his parents are travelling. They make a lot of business trips - they're returning from Canada right now; that's why they knew nothing about their son."
"Excuse me, Captain," Hutch said, looking confused. "Do the Wingates know the Kendalls?"
"Shut up and let me tell this, will you?" Dobey snapped, glaring at them both. "The Kendalls' and the Wingates' sons both attend the same school and are on the same soccer team. They're school pals and live in the same neighborhood." He rubbed his scalp, then pulled out a handkerchief and blew his nose. "Excuse me, but the pollen's killing me. Now, where was I?"
"Trying to make a point about both families, sir," Starsky muttered, not hiding his impatience.
"Yeah, well, one thing came out when we talked to the kid. Both families have the same gardener, have had for a couple of years. The difference is that Harmony Wingate got a crush on one Billy Shale - gardener - who was mixed up in something much bigger than she ever dreamed. She even had a fight with her brother and moved in with Shale. He talked her into using little Nicky as a decoy."
Hutch had heard enough. He got to his feet and glared down at Dobey. "No way are you going to convince me that some two-bit punk thought up a swap scheme this complex! Only a mind like . . ."
"Hutchinson!" Dobey roared, surging to his feet. "If you don't sit down and let me finish, I'm going to personally assign you to desk duty for thirty days!"
Hutch sat down, still furious. Starsky covered his mouth with his hand and looked suitably meek.
"As I was saying, Shale convinced the girl to go along with their plans, promising her lots of money for drugs."
The captain mopped his brow. "Now, her story is that she didn't want them to use her nephew, but Billy swore it was all sort of a weird practical joke. For a lot of money, she and the boy were to go to Ensenada and pretend to be Reina Kendall and Flip, nothing dangerous at all. Kendall had more money than he knew what to do with, and he'd never miss such a small amount. After he forked over the hundred thou, she could take the boy home. His folks would never know."
"Sure, like Nicky wouldn't tell them what happened," Starsky said derisively.
Dobey glared at him. "Of course, after they snatched the kid they drugged him so she'd play along with whatever they did. To her credit, she stuck it out, finally guessing that little Billy was going to get rid of them as soon as Kendall paid the second time."
"Cap'n," Starsky said slowly, shaking his head. "I agree with Hutch. Those gardeners didn't think this stuff up. I don't care what she says. Somebody else was the brains."
"That explains why they were in Ensenada!" Hutch exclaimed. He grinned at Starsky. "They weren't after us, pal, they were already there to finish off the girl and the kid! We blundered in on their action so they had to stop us." He patted his shoulder. "Talk about dumb luck!"
"Just be grateful he was a lousy shot, partner. I know I am," Starsky said as he watched his partner. "I hope the little accident he had puts him out of commission for a long time."
Dobey pushed away the papers and sighed. "So, Shale and his buddy are under wraps in the Ensenada jail, awaiting extradition. Not that we'll see them without a fight. The Baja authorities want to charge them with smuggling, arson, and attempted murder."
"With our luck, they'll sit down there for six months," Starsky commented, "and meanwhile, what are we doin' about Flip Kendall?"
Hutch's shoulder was beginning to throb and he was in no mood to sit in the squad room and make phone calls. He turned his attention back to Dobey. "Any objection if Starsky and I do a little bloodhounding this afternoon? We owe you some time, but we need to talk to the Kendalls."
Dobey looked at the two of them. Starsky was fidgeting with the slightly frayed cuff on his jeans. Hutch was definitely favoring his shoulder. "You're supposed to get that thing checked today?" he asked, wondering when he would be able to stop worrying about them. Danger seemed their constant companion, controlling their lives most of the time. They had become the worst kind of junkies . . . feeding off adrenalin, taking chances, driving too fast, snatching meals when they had time. Feeding on their own friendship to the exclusion of others. He'd seen many partnerships, some starting out as tight as these two, going their separate ways after either death or marriage changed things. God help the woman who married either one of them. God help the survivor if one of them got killed. All he could do was keep on bullying them. Nothing else worked.
"See to it you keep me informed," he muttered, gathering up his papers. "And don't develop radio trouble, either!"
"Wouldn't think of it, Cap'n," Starsky said, answering for both of them. He got to his feet and pushed his chair to the side of the desk. "We've got a couple of leads now that the Ensenada business is out of the way." His eyes narrowed. "The feds still have taps on Kendall's phones?"
Hutch stood up, his hands moving restlessly across the back of his chair. "My money's still on Devereaux, and I think he's down to the wire. Either we locate Flip Kendall within the next twenty-four hours, or we're gonna find his body somewhere." He shook his head. "And then what do we tell his parents?"
He put a hand to Starsky's back and shoved gently. "C'mon, partner, let's show the captain we still have some hustle left."
The remark made Starsky groan, but he walked out of Dobey's office without any protests. "We'll keep you informed," Hutch said virtuously, just as Dobey was about to utter those very words for the thousandth time.
Kendall's secretary met them as they walked up the hall to her boss's office. Her short figure fairly bristled with suppressed excitement, even her wiry grey hair seemed to contain sparks. She put a finger to her mouth, pointed toward a half-open door, and scurried into the room behind it.
"Looks like Minnie hit the jackpot," Starsky said as they followed her in. Compared to the luxury in Kendall's front office, this was a poor substitute, but at least it was private.
Hutch sat down rather heavily, his expression drawn. "Good news or bad, Minnie? Don't be gentle."
Her sharp eyes missed nothing. "You look terrible. Did they get the bullet out?"
Starsky stared. "Where'd you hear about that? We made sure Hutch gettin' shot wasn't mentioned in the report." He sat down next to his partner and waited for an explanation, suddenly suspicious.
"Don't get on your high horse with me, young man!" she snapped. "My boss told me . . . when he and his poor wife went home. And a more desolate couple you never saw." She sighed, her anger gone. "It was a wonderful thing you did, brave and dangerous, and I'm happy for that other little boy. But you have to find Flip before his mother dies of a broken heart . . ." Her tone changed. ". . . or his father commits murder without ever finding his son."
Noting that his partner had nothing to say, Starsky made the effort. "Okay, I'm sorry I upset you, but me 'n' Hutch don't want any publicity. Because if Devereaux gets wind of it . . ."
Minnie held up her hand. "Will you let me tell you what I found out? My lord, after all the trouble I went to to get this for you . . ."
Hutch smiled at her. "We knew you'd do it! Minnie, I'll sit on my partner while you tell us what you dug up."
She sniffed. "You may be tall as all get-out, but you're weak as a kitten, young man." She eyed Starsky with disapproval. "What were you doing when he got shot, Sergeant?" she asked.
"Saving my life - for the last time, I hope. Starsky never lets me down." Hutch wiped the sweat from his forehead, then asked, "Did Devereaux board that plane or not?"
"Well, let's just say that someone boarded the later flight to Rome, but one of the stewardesses who had flown with Pete several times is willing to swear that he wasn't on that plane."
"Minnie, you're a treasure," Starsky said. "But there's still that call from Rome. Remember? If that's real, then no matter what we've got, we got nothin'."
Hutch shook his head. "Wrong, partner. There're two ways Devereaux could've fooled Kendall. The connection was lousy, so if an imposter made the call, all that static would serve to disguise his voice. The other way would be to send ahead a tape, then have an accomplice play it." He saw Starsky frown and he made a face. "Yeah. That's too farfetched even for me."
Minnie cleared her throat, and looked over her glasses at them both. "Why couldn't Pete simply have made the call from somewhere nearby? With direct dial it's easy to call from anywhere and say what you want. That's what I think, anyway."
She paused, as if to stare out a window that wasn't there. "Go on talking, please, it'll make me concentrate on something that Mr. Kendall said yesterday . . . about the Rome office."
Starsky turned to Hutch. "You don't look so hot; maybe I better take you to see the doc now instead of later."
"No way. I want to find that kid." Hutch's cheeks were flushed and sweat now beaded his whole face.
Starsky sighed. He'd play along for a little bit but not for long. Ever since that damn plague, Hutch seemed to tire more easily. He fought it, and sometimes it made things even worse. Instinctively, though, Starsky knew it was too soon to make a scene.
"So all we hafta do is prove there's a connection between the Wingate kid being snatched and substituted for Flip, and the disappearance of Flip for whatever reason." He looked at Hutch, smiling. "Then all we hafta do is tie Devereaux to one or both snatches. Piece of cake!"
The smile he received from Hutch was blinding. He grinned back, feeling lucky once more. "Minnie," he said. "How tight are you with your boss? I know you go back a long way and that Mrs. Kendall trusts you, but how much does Phillip Kendall trust you?"
She never batted an eyelid. "More than you think. I know he didn't tell me about Flip, but would you if you thought your son's life depended on silence?"
She sat down at the small desk, her eyes big and dark in her round face. "You can't fool me. Your partner there has never liked Pete Devereaux for a minute. It's instinctive distrust. My boss thinks the world of him and his genius. Now, I'm like you, Sergeant. I neither liked nor disliked Pete. He's always been considerate and generous to me." It was obvious the confession was growing painful. Minnie removed her glasses and began wiping them.
"But lately things have changed. Pete's always in Rome, or Paris, or Amsterdam. And something's not quite right . . . I can't put my finger on it. For one thing, Kendall Enterprises has grown too large for an old lady to keep track of. My job now is to protect the Kendalls . . . from being hurt." She settled the glasses back on her nose and smiled, a fierce, raptor smile. "So what do you want this old bird to do?"
Starsky grinned back. "Hutch, what do you think needs doing?"
Hutch leaned forward, voice low and urgent. "Find out where Pete Devereaux is, Minnie, because that's where we'll find Flip."
When the telephone rang in Phillip Kendall's study, it shrilled like a banshee . . . or so it sounded to him. He stared at it, afraid it would be a wrong number, or the cops, or his office. Let it ring three times had been the instructions, then pick it up and wait . . . He waited. On the third ring he lifted the receiver with trembling fingers. "Hello?"
"One time only. Two million dollars to be deposited in a Swiss numbered account by six p.m. Second, forget the Fiorenzi deal . . . it's dead insofar as Kendall Enterprises is concerned. The boy is all right, will be until seven p.m. Is everything clear?"
The voice was male, disguised, but Kendall recognized it. His reaction was to sweep his highball glass off the table and leap to his feet. He fought to keep his own voice calm.
"Anything else? I mean, what's two million when there's a lot more? And why the hell should I pay out more? You let me speak with my son, then we'll talk." He held his breath. This was not what the cops had told him to say. He began to shake with fury. He'd kill him!
"No deal on talking to Flip. He's safe for the moment. But you're right, what's two mill to you? You . . ."
"No word with my son. No Fiorenzi deal. Plain and simple. You've been jerking my strings long enough . . . Pete." Oh, shit, what had he done? He hadn't meant to do that.
There was a harsh laugh on the other end of the phone. "A deal's a deal, Phil, and this one's personal. Flip's alive and kicking, but his fate's in your hands . . . so make up your mind."
"Why? Why are you doing this?" Kendall's anguish burst through his reserve. "He's just a little boy . . . why use him to hurt me . . . and Reina? Christ, Pete, I'll set you up in your own business, if that's what you want. I'll give you the two million for capital . . . if that's what you want. Only don't hurt Flip." His anger grew. "So help me God, I'll kill you myself if so much as a hair on his head is out of place."
"Don't make threats you can't keep. As for setting me up in business, what do you think I've been doing all these years as your foreign office representative?" Devereaux had thrown off any effort to disguise his voice. "Do you honestly think I want to work for you the rest of my life? Well, sit down and listen to this, baby, because you've got a shock coming. Who the hell do you think fronts Alta Bena? Kendall Enterprises does!" Pete's laughter, horrible with its distorted sound, rang through the small study.
"You bastard!" Kendall shouted, distracted for a moment by the sound of voices coming from the front of the house. He recognized Starsky's distinctive accent and almost sobbed with relief.
"I don't give a damn about anything but my son," he said softly, waving the two cops in, pointing to the phone. "If you'll tell me where he is, I'll do whatever you want, meet whatever demands you want."
Kendall studied the two men before him; they had immediately grown quiet, their expressions similar . . . hungry, knowing. They knew all about people who committed murder, who betrayed friends. He searched their eyes and found what he sought. A desire to be in at a kill. He could trust them to rescue Flip without thought to their own hides. They'd already proved it for the Wingates, hadn't they?
"Well? Where's the Kendall charm?" sneered Devereaux. "Or has it suddenly occurred to you that you no longer live on Mt. Olympus? How's it going to feel when your favorite errand boy becomes more powerful than you? It almost makes my next news even more shocking."
Wearily, bracing himself to face whatever lay ahead, Kendall said, "What now? Haven't you done enough?"
Starsky and Hutch drew closer, and Kendall automatically took the phone from his ear, grateful for their support.
"How's Reina? Let's hope she hasn't had to sell any of her stock in Kendall Enterprises for her very naughty habit. I had to pay quite a few people a tidy sum . . . but they were willing. She was such an eager pupil."
Frowning, Hutch stared at his partner. Why was Devereaux still talking? Surely the man had enough intelligence to know that by now the phones were tapped.
His heart sank. Was Flip already dead? He gestured to Starsky and scribbled a note for Kendall. "Going to listen in," was all it said. Hutch showed the note to Kendall, who nodded.
"Dobey said the van was in back," Starsky said as they raced through the halls toward sliding patio doors.
"Yeah. It's near the garages . . . dark blue . . . says 'Plumbing' on the side," Hutch responded. "Something's wrong, Starsk, and I can't put my finger on it. You got that same feeling?" He yanked back on the glass door and cursed, fire racing through his shoulder.
"Here! Lemme do that, stupid. If we can catch this joker today, I'm gonna put you to bed for a week."
Hutch gave him a look of total disgust, then dashed outside. The van was only a few feet away, and as they made for it they fell silent. Cautiously they opened the side panel on the van and climbed in. It was warm but not unbearable, and the two men who sat inside wore looks of rapt concentration. Without a word they flipped a switch so that the detectives could listen in on the conversation.
". . . Never mind all that, Pete. Please, I beg you, tell us where Flip is . . . that's all you have to do."
There was a long pause, then a malicious chuckle. "That's nice, but back to business. First, you call Rome . . . get that deal cancelled . . . then arrange for an electronic transfer of the money. Your credibility with the Italians will be in ruins when you're exposed for fronting your own competition . . ."
"Wait! You owe me an explanation, damn your soul! I can understand you hating me, understand your wanting your own business, but what the hell did my wife and son ever do to you?"
Kendall, choking with emotion, made the four listeners avoid eye contact with one another.
"God, you're thick!" Devereaux said. "Reina provided you with an heir so that your stinking dynasty would continue. She never thought I was good enough to move in your circles. Oh, it was all right that I spend my life making money for her to toss around." The laughter was bitter. "But I got my revenge when you sent her to Rome, didn't I? Now where is she? A junkie? Probably hooking for a fix."
Starsky and Hutch stared at one another. Devereaux didn't know! He hadn't found out about Kendall's wife, which meant she was safe so long as they kept her out of sight.
"Minnie's place!" Hutch whispered. "I'll have a squad car take Reina over there." While Hutch used the radio, Starsky turned back to listen to Kendall's response.
"And my son? What threat is he? He's got his whole life ahead of him. Pete, for God's sake, don't do anything to him . . ."
A giggle, low and ghoulish, came over the receiver. For some reason it was more frightening than the laughter. "But he's the whole trouble, old man. He's the heir to it all . . . and I'm going to see that there isn't anything for him to inherit!"
A red, blinking light came on the control panel, and the two technicians did a thumbs up. The origin of the call had been traced. It was time for them to leave.
They raced back to the house just as Kendall was hanging up the receiver. "They traced it!" Starsky announced breathlessly. "He's somewhere in the BIOGROW manufacturing complex. It'll only take a few minutes to pinpoint his location, so we gotta go."
"My God . . . I want to - damn - it's right here . . ." Kendall suddenly swept everything off his desk. "Map. You need a map. Where . . . aha!" He bent down, lifting up a rather soggy folded paper. "The factory buildings - you'll need this."
Starsky grabbed it. "One more thing, then we're outta here. Since your partner doesn't know your wife came back, don't let him know. That way she stays safe."
"Partner? How could I have been so goddamn blind!" Kendall surveyed the broken glass on the floor. "Sergeant, please . . . we . . . we . . ."
He turned away, and Starsky and Hutch left him alone. The only thing that mattered now was getting Flip out of that psycho's grip. Devereaux sounded as if he was about to crack. Starsky prayed they'd be there when he did.
Hutch took custody of the map as they got into the Torino. It was only a matter of time. By the time they got to BIOGROW, the cops would have a location - at least of the phone. Then he and Hutch would have some place to look for the kid. He put on his sunglasses and adjusted the mirror. More than anything he wanted to be in on the kill.
The partners stared at one another, knowing the danger, accepting it without reservations. "Got nothing better to do," Hutch said in an icy tone. "I want this s.o.b., Starsk."
"Good," came the curt rejoinder. "C'mon, let's go." Like a powerful cat, the Torino roared to life. "Now, take a gander at that map of the plant. You can study it while I drive."
"I just pray we're not too late. That poor kid's been through enough hell." Hutch squinted as he tried to read the map. "Who printed this thing? Can't read half of it."
"You know what scares me?" Starsky said. "Devereaux's really enjoying this. He's a psycho, Hutch, and that means we don't have a clue as to what he'll do next." He glanced at his watch. "I want to get there before the next shift comes on at four."
Hutch turned a puzzled face to his partner. "How in the hell has old Pete escaped detection? And why hasn't anybody found the kid? I don't like it, not one damn bit." He chewed on his lip. "You and I both know if we catch Devereaux but don't find Flip, he won't tell us." He flexed his sore shoulder but said nothing.
"I know," Starsky replied. "Also, why in hell did he stash Flip there? What's wrong with some old apartment?"
Hutch snapped his fingers. "He couldn't! Today everyone's on the lookout for strangers with kids who don't seem to belong to them. Well, Flip Kendall no more resembles Devereaux than I look like Dracula . . . so he had to find a place where the kid wouldn't be seen."
Starsky nodded. "Maybe, but this guy's really cold, pal. He won't think twice about killing a little kid."
As they got on the Santa Ana freeway, they received a call from Dobey saying he was sending reinforcements. They headed south, joined by an unmarked vehicle filled with uniformed cops. Two black and whites passed them, apparently cruising.
Before the two-mile mark both units peeled off, headed down surface streets toward the warehouse district. Starsky and Hutch exchanged looks. "One for the money . . ." Starsky said.
Next, the unmarked car exited the freeway and made a right turn onto a small street.
"Two for the show . . ." added Hutch.
Ten minutes later they left the freeway and began searching through the myriad warehouses for the Kendall complex. Most of the parking lots were emptying out and the traffic was terrible. It was four-fifteen and the shadows now sloped across the buildings, softening the drabness of the area. Starsky swore under his breath as he turned up yet another street.
"Wait!" Hutch said. "There it is!"
They stared, their expressions hard. Beginning at curbside, the huge block of buildings was bordered with masses of green and splashes of color. Kendall obviously felt that even as gritty a neighborhood as this needed the magic touch of his company's products.
"Just goes to show you, partner," Starsky sighed as he checked the clip in his gun, "everywhere we go we're knee-deep in you-know-what."
Hutch agreed. "But at least this kind looks good." Something caught his attention and he swore. "Get us out of here, Starsk, and park around the corner."
Starsky obeyed immediately, backing the Torino down the street. "What the hell did you see?" he asked.
Hutch ducked down in the seat and whispered, "Take a look at the two men working near that BIOGROW van. If they're gardeners, I'm Queen of the May."
Starsky's glance raked over the two men. "So they're upwardly mobile workmen . . . Is that what's bothering you?" Nevertheless, he opened the car door and studied them more carefully, then began walking toward them.
Hutch strolled along just a step or two behind him, pausing to admire a bed of white and purple alyssum. Out of the corner of his eye he saw them keep right on working, putting the clippings into a leaf bag. For the end of the day, their uniforms were too clean.
"Afternoon," Starsky said as he walked by. "You sure keep this place lookin' great." He studied their faces, one white, one brown, filing them away for future reference. He waited for Hutch to join him. "You ought to get a gardener for that jungle you've got," he said in a loud voice. The Mexican was short and stocky with smooth, olive skin.
The Anglo was another story. Tall, slender, his complexion was blotchy. He wore glasses with heavy lugs. His dark hair was greasy.
Hutch approached them. "Do you work for individuals, too?" he asked. "My friend here keeps complaining that my yard needs pruning very badly." He shrugged. "I like it green."
Without looking up, the Hispanic said, "Yo no comprendo, seņor . . ."
Hutch appeared confused, cast a helpless look at the Anglo, who deliberately turned away. The cop's expression hardened; he looked scornfully at both men and said in fluent Spanish, "Vete con el cuento a otra parte, seņor, no lo creemos." When the Anglo whirled around to glare at him, Hutch grinned, then jotted down the numbers on the side of the truck. As he walked away, he added, "Anotare tu nombre y direccion en mi libreta. Buenos tardes."
"What the hell did you say to him?" Starsky asked. "He turned red as a beet!"
Hutch didn't answer until they were just outside the entrance gate. "I said, 'Tell it to the Marines, mister, because we don't believe you.' Then I said, 'I'm jotting down your name and address in my book. Good afternoon.'" He looked back at the van and frowned. "High school stuff, Starsky, but it was enough to make 'em pack up. Did you recognize either of them?"
"Nah. Both strangers. So why didn't the white guy answer you? He was about as helpful as a fly on a bull's ass." Starsky shrugged. "You must of rattled his cage when you let out that spiel."
But Hutch was still staring at the van and its occupants. "Maybe I'm out of line. Maybe Kendall insists that his gardeners look that neat, but there's just something about the Anglo that bothers me . . ."
"You want to hold them for questioning? They're probably feds and we'll waste a goddamn hour tryin' to explain." Starsky's voice held a note of impatience and he glanced at his watch. "Shift's changing, c'mon."
They walked toward the main gate, watching as semis and small pickups left the yard. They could see row upon row of the huge BIOGROW trailers lined up for loading. At least fifteen cars were parked near a small cluster of buildings they knew to be offices.
"I never realized how many people worked here," Starsky mused as they neared the main gate.
Hutch spotted two of the undercover cops driving up to the gate and being waved through. "Three to get ready . . ." he said.
Starsky was studying the faces of the workers, looking for that sudden flash of apprehension cops recognize. So far he was drawing a blank. He watched an office type complete with briefcase hurry over to a bright yellow Duster. "He kinda looks . . ."
"Nope," Hutch said, studying the man. "Younger, taller, darker . . . than Devereaux."
Frustrated, Starsky clenched his fists. "Hutch, it's getting late! This guy isn't gonna be here . . . He may have already moved the kid - for the last time."
A large man in a dark plaid suit lumbered toward them. His expression was hostile. "You two want something? You got some ID?"
Hutch sighed and looked at his partner. "Everybody wants ID, don't they?" He flashed his badge case. "This good enough to get us in?"
Starsky did the same. The man's expression changed to one of mere curiosity. "You got a name, mister?" Starsky asked.
"Sure, Bob Pickens . . . just Pick for short." He was too large to be embarrassed by his nickname.
"Well, Mr. Pickens," Hutch said, producing his notebook. "Can you tell us where the phone with this number is located? It's important."
Pickens bent to study the number, then looked at them, openly curious. "That's the dispatch number. Whatcha need that for?" His heavy jowls rested on his collar. Finally, he pointed toward the small grouping of buildings. "Dispatch is the third one, closest to the docking bays."
Starsky said, "One more question, then we'll leave you alone. Have you seen Peter Devereaux today?"
Pickens scratched his head, disturbing the thinning thatch of grey hair. "Funny you should ask about him. I been here for at least seven years and only saw him a few times." He broke into a big grin. "Now, Kendall, well he's usually down here two - three times a week . . . makin' certain everything's runnin' smoothly. But young Pete . . ." He scratched his head again, frowning. "Maybe . . . coulda been him . . . but different." He shrugged. "Damnedest thing . . . right on the tip of my tongue . . ."
"You said he looked different. In what way? Please, this is very important." Hutch didn't want to rattle the man. The poor guy was obviously trying to remember.
The frown disappeared and Pickens said, "I know. It was his clothes. Didn't even recognize him at first. He had his hair slicked back, too. Yeah, he had on new glasses . . . For another thing, he wears fancy suits . . . but he had on one of the uniforms . . . like he was going to be working."
His voice lowered and he looked troubled. "He wasn't driving his own car, either. That was one of the reasons it took me a couple double-takes to recognize him."
Starsky's patience was at an end. "Think man! What was he driving?"
"Why, one of the vans the gardeners use. I remember because he had a guy with him, said they was gonna unload some sacks of fertilizer. Said it was a test batch." A thick finger pointed to a shed about fifty yards away. "Never did that before. Hey! Where you guys goin'?"
Starsky and Hutch raced toward the shed. They were immediately joined by three of the other cops who had been mingling with the workers, apparently searching for Devereaux.
The shed was heavy-grade aluminum, its sliding door fastened with a huge padlock. Just as Starsky was about to fire a round at it, Pickens came toward them yelling, "No! I got a key! Don't bust it!" He dragged out a huge ring of keys, selected one, and handed the ring to Starsky.
"How long ago did you see Devereaux?" Hutch asked as Starsky wrestled with the lock. He had a sinking sensation that he already knew the answer, and that he had actually been talking to the man and let him and the Mexican get away. His insides were churning.
Pickens only affirmed what his instincts knew. "'Bout ten minutes ago . . . and the other guy's name was Jorge." He gaped when all the cops drew their guns as Starsky pulled the door open.
"Jesus! What's going on?"
Hutch noticed a crowd beginning to gather and quickly ordered two uniforms to keep them out of the way. Starsky flipped on a switch, flooding the shed with light. A blast of heat escaped, accompanied by the overwhelming stench of fertilizer. A ceiling fan kept the air circulating, but that was all. They stared in dismay at all the sacks. Could a little boy survive in such a place?
There was one small consolation. Trained as they were, there was no smell of death. "Flip? Hey! Flip? Can you hear me?" Hutch shouted. "Yell if you can so we can get you out!" He tried dragging one of the bags away.
Starsky scowled. "Don't even think it, Hutch," he said. "We'll get some of Kendall's men to move these." He met his partner's anguished gaze and murmured, "I don't think he's here. Maybe that's where Devereaux's heading. In which case . . ."
Hutch's shoulders sagged in resignation and he nodded. "Yeah, I could have . . ."
"No, you couldn't," Starsky said quickly. "I didn't recognize him, either, if that's what's tearin' you up. We're so close, partner. Don't give up now."
"Give up! Who the hell's thinking about giving up! I'm just furious that he slipped through our fingers . . ." Hutch's eyes resembled blue ice. "You wait until I get my hands on that son of a bitch!"
The big foreman, Pickens, came forward, and Starsky said, "Are you sure this is the only place you saw Devereaux go?"
Pickens chewed his lower lip, tilting his head to one side. "Well, maybe he went to the tool shed next, and then - yeah - he got some gas. That was just before he took off."
"Let's go!" Starsky shouted as he tried to push past Pickens.
"Hang on, Sergeant," said the foreman. "I'll save you some time and give you the key right now." He produced the massive key ring, removing the needed key and handing it to Starsky.
"Just leave it in the lock and put the chain and all in the shed; I'll lock it later. I'll stay here and we'll get these sacks moved." There was an angry glint in his eyes. "I take it you're lookin' for the boss's boy and you're afraid something bad's happened to him. If he's here, my men and I'll move heaven and earth, don't you worry about it."
Hutch gave Pickens's brawny arm a pat. "Then we'll trust you to let us know if you find something - anything - that might be a clue. You know what belongs in here; we don't. Thanks for cooperating." He dashed after Starsky.
Pickens wasted no time; with a few bellowed orders, he had some of the onlookers busily restacking the heavy bags. Once the word leaked out that Kendall's son was missing, no one seemed interested in going home.
The tool shed was much larger than the storage shed. It was located only a few yards away, but all around it were coils of wire, plastic drums, and stacked maintenance equipment too bulky for internal storage. Starsky unlocked the padlock and grunted when the huge chain began to slide out of the door handle. He grabbed it with both hands and jerked it free, almost losing a kneecap when one end swung back.
Hutch caught it. "Give me that damn thing before you kill yourself." He dragged the chain through the doorway, dropped it with the lock and key on top, and inhaled sharply. Unlike the other shed, there was no ventilation in here and the heat was stifling. Although the building was larger, it was crammed with row after row of tools, paint cans, labelled boxes, and small, locked cabinets.
"At least it ain't fertilizer," Starsky commented grimly as he glanced around. "I guess we don't have to look for anything that wouldn't hold a kid, do we?"
They exchanged looks, remembering cases never spoken of. "C'mon," Hutch said. "Let's get some light on the subject. Over there, those look to be the overheads." He strode past several boxes of truck headlights, shaking his head as it registered how many thousands of dollars were represented in that one area.
He didn't hesitate to flip all the switches; in moments the entire shed was filled with flickering neon light. "Now, let's get to work."
Five other cops arrived to help in the search. "We're looking for a box or crate or . . ." Hutch hesitated. ". . . or drum or large bag . . . something that could hold a kid. If you've got a hunch, follow it, no matter what common sense tells you. We all know what gut feelings are. Let's do it."
The searchers fell silent as they moved quietly down the aisles. Without orders they split the shed into sections, each man working diligently. Starsky and Hutch, on opposite sides of the shed, avoided one another. The thought of not finding the boy was unbearable.
A shout from the rear of the shed made them lift their heads.
"Sergeant Starsky! Wanna give this a look?"
Starsky hurried over, watching as one of the men stood with a large canvas tarp in one hand. He pointed down to a wooden box that lay next to several more. "Didn't think much about it at first, but when I checked . . . this one has holes drilled in the top and sides . . . the others don't." He bit his lips in anticipation.
Starsky wasted no time. He got down on his knees and put his mouth to one of the holes. "Flip? Flip, if you're in there, try to move. Your dad sent us . . . Come on, son."
Hutch had found a crowbar and a wedge. "Drag that box out into the open," he ordered. "Maybe the kid's tied up and can't move. Or maybe he's unconscious." He refused to believe anything else. Whatever was in there was light, and when the box was set down a muffled noise came from inside.
Grins appeared, and the men gathered to watch as Starsky and Hutch pried off the lid. Inside, damp and filthy but wide awake, lay a tightly bound blond boy.
"You Flip Kendall?" Hutch asked, almost afraid the answer would be no. "Your mom and dad are gonna be real glad to see you." He choked, his voice failing him.
Tears welled up in blue eyes and a sob escaped from dry lips. "I'm Flip, and . . . and . . . I messed myself."
Reassurances greeted the announcement, and several pairs of hands hastened the release of the roped and duct-taped arms and legs. Relief soon turned to anger, however, when the men realized that Flip Kendall had almost died a horrible death. Most of the cops began cataloging the items found in the box, one of which was a brand new soccer ball.
"For God's sake, let's get a message to the Kendalls," Hutch told Starsky. "And this time tell them to come here. And tell them to have the kid's doctor meet them here."
"Why don't you wanna do it?" Starsky asked, not missing the look of pain still on Hutch's face.
"Because I don't want to tell them I screwed up on nabbing Devereaux. Now go! He's gonna be out of the country if we don't hurry."
Starsky nodded, grinning when he saw Pickens carrying Flip toward the restroom. "You feeling okay?" he asked, noting the tape burns on the skinny arms.
"Uh-huh, but I want my daddy. Is he here yet?"
"He will be, tiger. You just hang on. Your mommy's coming, too." On impulse, he slid up both legs of Flip's filthy jeans. There, on his left knee, and still faintly pink, was a large scar. He grinned when he saw it. Without a doubt, this was Kendall's son.
"Uncle Pete was mean to me," quavered the child. "He locked me up and said I had to eat crackers and water." A tear stole down a grimy cheek.
Pickens cradled him closer. "Well, that's all over and done with, young'un. After you're cleaned up I'm gonna take you to the cafeteria and see if we can't find some ice cream." He stared defiantly at Starsky, who merely nodded and waved him on.
"Whatever he wants is okay by me," he said. "I got a call to make."
As Starsky returned from making the call to the jubilant Kendalls, he saw a familiar car pull into the lot. Dobey got out, looking pleased as punch. He'd forgotten what an imposing figure the captain was. Starsky grinned affectionately. "He's fine, Cap'n," he said, anticipating the first question. "The yard foreman, a guy named Pickens, has him at the cafeteria . . . stuffing him full of ice cream."
Dobey nodded, his dark eyes beaming. "Where's Hutch? I want you both to hear this." He looked around, not seeing the Torino. "He didn't leave, did he?"
"Nope. He's asking some of the guys about Devereaux." Starsky briefed Dobey on their encounter, and how bad Hutch felt about not seeing through his disguise. "He fooled me, too, but you know how Hutch is . . ." He shrugged.
"Well, I've got some news that may cheer both of you up. Let's go find him." Dobey began walking toward the main building.
"Hey! Starsky! Wait up." Hutch, behind them, waved to his partner. He covered the distance between them in seconds. "Oh, hi, Captain. Any news of Devereaux?" For all his flushed expression, there was a quiet relief in his eyes.
"Good work, both of you," Dobey said with obvious pride. "And, yes, there's news." As they walked along, Dobey explained that Shale had cracked, linking Devereaux to both kidnappings, promising the gardeners a large enough bribe that they went along with the bait-and-switch kidnapping scheme. Billy told his girlfriend it was his idea in order to impress her, and after she was down in Ensenada, forced her to impersonate Reina Kendall to save her nephew's life.
The first demand for ransom was for Billy and his partner, Fred Stanton, who was in on the actual scheme with Devereaux.
"Migawd," muttered Starsky, "Devereaux's really devious. No wonder things started to unravel."
The captain gave a snort. "You can say that again. A few minutes ago we had a call from the CHP. Seems a white BIOGROW van was doing eighty on the 210 freeway. It cut in front of a big rig and got rear-ended. Shouldn't have done too much damage, but it turns out the rig's gas tank was full. And so was the van. At least ten five-gallon cans. Burst into flames. They're both in critical condition at City of Angels."
"Devereaux and Jorge!" Hutch breathed. He stared at his partner. "Where the hell were they going with the gas?" The truth dawned on him all of a sudden. "Maybe to burn down Kendall's house?"
"Or maybe to destroy all traces of the deals he'd pulled in the office. That sounds more like Devereaux to me." Starsky shook his head. "Who'd believe it . . . hunh?"
Hutch grimaced. "I won't until he's positively identified. That bastard could have given his wallet and everything else to some down-and-outer just to escape."
"I haven't finished," Dobey growled. "The ironic part is that the big rig he cut in front of was one of Kendall's . . . on its way up north. The guy had just left here about an hour before. In fact, he'd seen Devereaux and his friend unloading some bags of fertilizer. He ID'd the van as the one Devereaux had been using because the trucker had scraped the front fender of the pickup when he'd left the yard. He figures Devereaux was trying to play payback."
"Always said he was an asshole," Starsky said. "Now maybe we can get back to something simple, like homicide. This corporate crap is too damn dangerous." He grinned at Hutch's expression. "Haven't I always told you that white-collar crime will be the death of us all?" He winked at Dobey. "What I have here, sir, is a partner with a bum shoulder, a wounded ego, and in need of sleep. Can I take him home?"
Dobey stared at them for a long minute, then nodded. "Be in the office at eight a.m. sharp. You've got a mountain of paperwork to do, and after that there's your own caseload . . .
"Oh, Starsky, what the hell was the Pitassi case doing in your files? That's a robbery division number." He was getting warmed up to the subject. "And no more getting involved in cases that don't belong to Homicide!" he shouted, shaking his finger at their retreating figures. "Just because this one turned out all right . . ."
Hutch leaned on Starsky's arm. "So help me, the man's right. I swear I'm never going to investigate anything more than shootings and knifings and . . ."
"And whatever we've got ahead for us," Starsky added as he unlocked the Torino and pushed Hutch down on the front seat.
"I'm gonna tuck you in. Take the phone off the hook and go to sleep in my own bed. There's no rocks in it."
He started up the car and pulled away from the curb. "This rescue stuff is for the birds, ya know? Takes all your energy just chasin' around like a bunch of nuts. We need vacations, both of us . . . but you, especially."
Hutch groaned and closed his eyes. "All I want now is about twenty hours in the sack. I don't want to even think about anything else."
Starsky drove along in silence, his own body aching with fatigue. He needed about twenty hours in the sack himself, plus the time to think about what they were going to do about their lives together. He let out a long sigh. His damn brain hurt from thinking; he needed to veg out for a couple of weeks.
"Starsk? Pick me up in the morning?" A hand with very strong fingers closed over his thigh.
He gunned the engine. "I'll be there, partner. Then down to Metro. Then," he grinned, "we're gonna walk on the beach in the moonlight . . . and talk."
Hutch's smile was incandescent.
Starsky began to whistle.