This story first appeared in the zine Code 7 #4. All the Code 7 zines are still in print and available from Agent with Style, Mysti Frank: www.agentwithstyle.com. Special thanks to Solo for getting it ready for the web. 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.
Blinded by the Light
"Would you believe they blew it? A four-run lead and they blew the goddamn game!" In disgust, Dave Starsky turned off the little transistor radio that was never far from his side during the Dodger playoffs, and glared out the car window into the night. He knew that part of his frustration was the ten bucks he'd had riding on the outcome — to Hutch, at that — but coupled with a no-nothing stake-out, tonight was really the pits. Annoyed by his partner's silence, he turned, ready to do battle. "Well, aren't you gonna make some smart-ass remark about winning? You always do."
Ken Hutchinson rubbed his chin, making an unsuccessful attempt to hide his delight. "Hell, you're already miserable. Why should I stop your guilt trip, just because you want me to?" He took out his wallet, counting the bills. "Hmm. I won the check pool yesterday . . ." His grin flashed in the dim interior of the car. ". . . and Monday Restivo paid me the fifteen bucks he borrowed. I can make change for any bill you've got."
Smiling in spite of his disgust, Starsky shook his head. "Sorry, pal, all you're gonna get from me is an IOU payable in the year 1990." He tapped Hutch on the knee. "I'm good for it, if I live that long."
"You'll live," came back the sardonic reply. "It's only winners who die, just before they get to spend their dough. Losers live forever." He sighed, then shoved his wallet deep into his back pocket.
"God, I don't think I can take another night of this waiting," Starsky complained. "Sitting in this heap you call a car, and living on rotgut coffee . . . you sure losers never die?"
"Positive. But we may — of boredom. You wanna take a break? I sure could use the potty, as my auntie used to say." Without waiting for Starsky's answer, Hutch leaned forward to lift the mike.
"Wait! Look who's leaving Jake's," Starsky hissed. "Hot damn!" He pulled Hutch's hand away from the radio and switched on the ignition. Driving the LTD was hell, but at least it gave him something to do, and he had to admit it didn't attract attention the way the Torino would in a location like this. The engine coughed, then growled when he changed gears. "Isn't that Snake? And — he's carryin', Hutch, he's carrying!" His tone was jubilant.
They watched the shadowy figure, distinctive in its tight pants and shirt, skirt the glaring neon lights and enter the alley behind Jake's Bar and Grille A large, dark sedan pulled up, and their quarry got in, shouting something in Spanish to the driver.
"You get that?" Starsky asked, edging the car away from the curb. Sometimes Hutch's knowledge of Spanish saved them a lot of guesswork. It also threw a lot of people off guard.
"Yeah. Wants to go to a place called Rosario's — on Pico and Mariposa — and pronto, hombre!" quoted Hutch, grinning. "Driver must be deaf for him to yell like that." The grin vanished. "Unless he spotted us and wants to throw us off his tail. Wouldn't put it past that sneaky little bastard. For Christ's sake, don't lose him!"
The sedan — a sleek Continental — slid out into traffic, making a careful move into the left lane before picking up speed. Starsky immediately made the same move, watching in the rear view mirror to see if they'd picked up a tail. God knew they'd been sitting in front of Jake's long enough for someone to get suspicious. "Nada, so far. Maybe that driver really is deaf."
"I dunno, but you'd better get behind him, now. There's no way you can jump the divider if he makes a sudden turn at the light."
Without comment Starsky moved over, making certain he kept two cars between him and the Continental. He just hoped the driver didn't decide to open up with all four hundred horses at once. He could still turn, but this way had the option to go straight ahead if those were the driver's instructions.
Hutch reached for the mike again. "This is Zebra Three. We are in pursuit of a late model Lincoln Continental — dark blue or black — license. . . ah. . . special plates F*L*A*S*H. Run a make for wants and warrants. Do not intercept vehicle. This is merely a ten-twenty-eight."
"Roger, Zebra Three, message received. Vehicle is registered to a Daniel E as in Edward Mayhew. Four Fifteen Bella Vista Way, Los Angeles. No outstandings."
Hutch winked at his partner. "Thank you. Code Four . . . and Zebra Three out." He sat back, eyeing Starsky thoughtfully. "Y'know, this doesn't make sense. Think Mayhew's a front?"
Grimacing, Starsky said emphatically, "No bets with you. Hell, that car's got to be a red herring. I'll bet Mayhew supplies the contacts, and Snake's just a lousy runner." He shook his head. "Odd are we're gonna come up empty-handed, just like last time." He hunched down over the wheel, watching the careful progress of the other car. "Guy's not bad, ya know?"
"Huh? Oh, he's okay. No, I think you're wrong. We both saw Snake carrying. He's on his way to a buy, buddy. At least we'll catch one fish, maybe a couple." Hutch leaned forward, fingers tapping the dash. "Mariposa's just a couple of blocks further, and FLASH there hasn't put on his turn indicator . . . maybe it's a legit address."
Starsky moved the old car neatly behind a battered VW. "If he turns we nab him for a traffic violation. Bigger crooks than him have been pulled in for a dumb trick like that." He fell silent as he maneuvered through an intersection, noting there was only the bug between them and the limo now.
His partner frowned. "No traffic bust. We're gonna stick like gum on a shoe until Snake gets to wherever he's going." He smiled at his partner. "I just happen to know that the little fink has a shack on the outskirts of Redondo Beach . . . and if we lose him, we'll send a unit over there . . . just in case."
Starsky glared, voice rising in indignation. "What d'ya mean, lose him? Fat chance!" He settled down, closing the gap between the LTD and the little VW. Then, as a van tried to squeeze in front of them, the driver of the Limo turned left on an amber.
"Hey!" yelled Hutch. "He's making a U-turn! Damn! Snake must've made us. Lemme at that radio!" He slapped the Mars light on the car roof.
"Hang on!" chortled Starsky. "I'm gonna show that, sleezo driver a thing or two about getting out of a real squeeze." He whipped the car to the right, barely missing a pick-up, then, tires screeching, drove the LTD right over the divider. There was a sickening crunch when the undercarriage hit the concrete, but outside of Hutch's pained expression nothing else seemed damaged.
"Go get 'im, Lone Ranger," Hutch commanded, grinning in fierce appreciation of his partner's driving skill. He made another grab for the mike, nodding as cars began pulling over in response to the siren, giving them a clear view of their quarry. "This is Zebra Three. We're in pursuit of a dark Continental, license F'*L*A*S*H, registered to a Daniel Mayhew. Owner is suspected of a one-one-three-seven-seven-a. This is a Code Four, I repeat . . . a Code Four. Zebra Three out."
Starsky shot a sideways glance at the blond. "You forgot to tell them where we are," he said. "Careless, Hutch, that's what Dobey'd say."
"Nope. Sloppy. That's what he'd say." He began checking his gun.
"Ass. You just don't want anybody else in on the bust, do you?" Starsky's satisfaction as he gunned the engine made his own opinion known.
"Can't see you risking our necks with your crazy driving and not making the collar. I'll never hear the end of it, 'cause you'll blame my car."
"Look at that jerk!" exclaimed Starsky. "He's tryin' to hide behind the truck. Sheesh!" He swerved just in time to miss a slow-moving van. Shaking his head, he made a face at Hutch. "This heap's got about as much power as a snail in heat," he grumbled.
"Never mind my car," retorted Hutch. "FLASH's pulling over, and we're still not that far from Rosario's." His eyes narrowed. "Think we should shake 'em up a bit, then let them go — and see what they do next?"
Starsky pulled over, several yards behind the sedan, watching it intently to see what the occupants' next move might be. When nothing happened, he stared at his partner. "Let them go? Hell, no. They're not going to make any meet, now. We'll bust Snake for carrying, and maybe pin something on this Mayhew." He checked his gun before opening the door. "Let's go."
"Yeah. Let me get the flashlight before we get too close. Can't see a damn thing through those tinted windows." Hutch closed the door firmly, then strode toward the waiting limo, watching as the window was slowly rolled down. With Starsky close behind him, he ducked his head to flash the light at the driver. He could make out two men in the back seat.
"Were we exceeding the speed limit, Officer?" came the inquiry in a decidedly affected drawl. "I mean, it looked to me like you were the ones breaking the law." This last was said with a lisp that brought quick color to Hutch's cheeks, and an outright stare from Starsky.
"Will you step out of the car, please?" Hutch asked politely. "I'll need to see both your ID and your chauffeur's license." He took a pace or two backwards, hair silver-white in the streetlight's glow.
"For you, anything," came the immediate response. The driver got out of the car, and fished in the pocket of his uniform jacket for his wallet. Handing it to Hutch, he smiled, but said nothing more.
The rear window rolled down and Snake Moreno stuck his pockmarked face out, glaring at the two cops. "What's the matter? You got nothin' better to do than bust people on their way to a business meeting?"
"Shut up. Just let the man give me a ticket and we'll be on our way!" The disembodied voice was low and even, revealing nothing about its owner.
Keeping a careful eye on Hutch and the driver, Starsky strolled around to the far side of the car and tapped on the window. "I'd like to see some identification, please. And Snake, you can get outta the car and spread 'em. You know the routine." Sensing resistance to his order, he added, "One of you'd better be the owner of this vehicle or show good reason why you're in it. And what kinda business meetings take place this time of night — even in this end of town?"
Slowly, the window rolled down, allowing Starsky to peer into the dim interior. A pair of dark, hostile eyes met his. A hand with a huge diamond pinky ring on it reached inside the jacket.
"Just the ID," warned Starsky, leaving little doubt as to his meaning. He shot a glance over at Hutch who had already checked the young chauffeur's license, and was now busily frisking Snake, who was submitting with poor grace. Hutch turned angrily when the driver made a lewd remark, then giggled.
"Remove your driver's license and hand it to me, please," Starsky repeated, waiting until the fat wallet was withdrawn. He smiled to himself. Could have had the stupid bastard on charges of attempting to bribe an officer, but a narcotics bust was always better. The license was shoved at him and he scanned it closely. There wasn't any doubt; the man was Daniel Mayhew, age fifty-six, living at the address the DMV had given. "Mister Mayhew, would you please open the brief case beside you?" he asked casually, noting that Snake instantly drew away, only to have Hutch's big hand push him back against the car.
Mayhew's reaction was expected. "You can't do this. Can't make me open that case without a search warrant. I know my rights." His voice carried a lot of conviction.
Starsky smiled, eyes cold. "You may know your rights, sir, but Snake there doesn't enjoy any. You see, he's on parole, and a known drug dealer and worse. We've had him under surveillance for several months now. Since you don't want to open it, we'll let Snake do it." His tone changed, suddenly hard. "Or are you claiming ownership, sir?"
He looked over the top of the car, exchanging grins with Hutch. Worked every time. They had the guy over a barrel, and in a moment or two he'd hang Snake out to dry. Then, because the runner was a squealer, Snake would probably rat on Mayhew.
"You're not narcs, are you? Lord, how I hate narcs!" The chauffeur, soft face twisted into a grimace, shook his head, his long dark hair floating around his cheeks. "You can't be narcs — he smells too good." A pouty smile was aimed at Hutch.
With a quick lunge, Hutch had the younger man by the collar, hefting him into the air until his booted feet dangled six inches above the ground. "Now, you listen to me, punk! One more wise-ass remark from you and you're gonna get hauled in for soliciting! You keep your mouth shut until we question you, you got that?"
"Easy, Hutch," Starsky cautioned. "He's just being stupid. Ease off, partner." Afraid that their simple bust might go down with a charge of police brutality, he handed Mayhew back his ID and walked over to stand beside Snake.
Hutch let go of the chauffeur's collar, staring long and hard at his partner. "Want to bet he's more than a chauffeur to Mayhew?" He jerked his thumb toward the man in the back seat. "Hell, this is turning into a case for Vice, isn't it?" Then he moved away, leaning into the car. "Would you like to get out and place the briefcase on the trunk?" He glanced at his watch. "And make it snappy, we don't have all night."
Sullenly, Mayhew got out of the car, and thunked the case hard on the trunk. He was heavier and taller than they'd expected, and Starsky suddenly drew his gun, waving it toward the tense figure of Snake. "You, get back in the car, and take Sweet Lips with you. I don't wanna see either one of you move so much as an eyelash for the next few minutes." He saw the driver arch an eyebrow and anger got the better of him. "You open your trap one more time and I'm gonna let my partner rearrange your face. Now, get behind that wheel!"
In two strides Hutch was at the door, reaching in to yank the keys from the ignition. He smiled. "Just in case you get any ideas, sonny." He slid them into his pocket then rejoined Starsky. Turning on the flashlight, he faced Mayhew. "Now, open up."
Silently, Mayhew produced a key ring, selecting a small key that fit into the lock. He gave it a twist, then lifted the lid, stepping back. His expression was one of contempt. "My lawyers will have me out before morning, you'll see. I've no idea what this case contains . . ."
Starsky lifted out a plastic bag containing a white, powdery substance, weighing it expertly in the palm of his hand. "About half a kilo, I d say. How many bags we got here, Hutch?"
His partner began counting, then whistled as he took the bag Starsky held. "Counting this one, there's twenty-four . . . that's a lot of snort. Jesus!" He stared at Mayhew, then Snake. "Who do you know with that kind of cash? Starsk, this lot's worth about two mil on the street." He frowned, looking back toward Rosario's.
"I know that look," muttered Starsky, pulling Hutch away from the car. "What in hell have you got in mind?"
A large finger jabbed his shoulder and Hutch put his face right against his partner's. "These turkeys aren't gonna give us a thing, pal. But, if their meet is with somebody who doesn't know them . . . maybe we can pull a switch on them. Go in and actually make the deal. What d'ya say?"
"I don't like it," Starsky said instantly. "We'd have to wait for a black and white to take these three away, and Snake's about as trustworthy as his name. How do we know he wasn't settin' Mayhew up? Nah, too risky." He grinned. "How's about this? We go in with them. We hold the case, act as Mayhew's muscle . . . and if the going gets rough . . ."
"We end up getting blown away. I like it!" Hutch made a face, then went back to talk to Mayhew. "This is your lucky night," he began, "because my partner and I want the fish you're dangling for. Here's what we want you to do . . ."
The station was quiet, except for the sound of papers shuffling and the occasional ring of the telephone. Starsky, yawning at the hour, looked over at their prisoners with satisfaction. The bust had been a solid one, and outside of Snake, who was spilling his guts in the presence of a court stenographer, and the wide-eyed chauffeur, the rest of the prisoners sat solidly, all familiar with the booking process and their chances of going to jail. The young driver was obviously taken with all the uniforms that came and went. Most of the time, however, his glance returned to Hutch, then flicked away if the detective happened to intercept the look.
Amused, yet irritated by the boy's blatant interest, Starsky got up and leaned over him. "You can save that stuff for your boss. My partner ain't your type."
If Hutch heard him he gave no sign, merely kept filling in the lines on the arrest sheet. Finally looking up, he smiled wearily. "You call the narc boys? Bet we saved them some leg work tonight. Can you imagine nabbing Antonio Rosario Luca y Ibarra? They've been after that bastard for years." He yawned, then grinned. "Dobey'll probably give us a couple of days off, so we can have a few sessions with the press. Gotta keep the TV boys happy."
Starsky perked up at that. "Yeah? You think so? Hell, tomorrow I better wear something a little more . . ." He glanced down at his grubby jeans. ". . . elegant."
"Hmm. And just to show you my heart's in the right place, I'm going to let you answer all the questions and grant all the interviews."
Instantly suspicious, Starsky stared at Hutch, seeing nothing but the guileless look which usually meant he was up to something. "Why? How come you're all of a sudden so damn shy? How come I get to be the hero?"
The blond head shook. "Don't want to take away any credit. It was your idea and it worked. Let's just leave it at that. Okay?" The smile was gone, and there was a look in the blue eyes that was disconcerting. When Hutch wore it, there were very few people who challenged his word. Starsky was one of the few, however, he had the good sense to know when to pry. With the number of interested onlookers around, he decided to wait until later.
"You about ready to split? You can drive me home in that jalopy, and spend the night if you want."
Was there the slightest hesitation before Hutch nodded? Starsky wasn't sure, but if so, then it meant Hutch had other plans . . . and he wanted to know what they were. "Come on, we can grab a bite to eat if you like. How does El Gordito's sound?"
"At this time of night? Christ, you're unbelievable." But the smile was back, and together they sauntered out of the squadroom, avoiding the Watch Commander, who was surrounded by shouting members of the press.
"If ya don't want Mexican; how's about a piece of pie and a glass of milk? That's not gonna kill you." Starsky wasn't sure why he didn't feel like leaving Hutch to his own devices yet, but he knew something was bothering his partner, and that always bothered him.
"True. Maybe that little place on Sixth. Great apple pie there."
"Apple? I was sort of thinking about Hawaiian Custard Supreme, the one with the coconut and strawberries and . . . "
"Spare me the ingredients, pal. I was raised in plain pie territory. Apple, peach, and cherry. Berry, pumpkin and mince." He looked thoughtfully at his partner. "You've always been more the strudel and coffee cake sort — cheese Danish for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Why the switch?"
Starsky shrugged, wondering if he should tell Hutch the real reason he was trying so hard to develop a taste for exotic pies was the counter girl at the Hula Hut. He'd spent more bucks than he could count buying the damn things, but so far she refused to go out with him.
"Yeah, well, I got tired of them, that's all." He smiled at Hutch's goofy expression. It was nice to know that your best friend really didn't give a damn what you ate or wore or said; well, almost didn't give a damn. It made everything they did very, very special. He got into the LTD and sat back, sliding a glance over at the classic profile, the fair hair. Hutch was a class act all the way, and that made things very special, too.
The pies were flaky and fresh, the atmosphere relaxed at this time of night, and the two men sat and talked far beyond midnight. When Starsky finally glanced at his watch, he said unbelievingly, "Where'n the hell did the time go? It's almost two!"
Standing up, Hutch tossed down some silver for the tip, then picked up the check. "My treat, but you still owe me ten for the ball game. Don't forget." There was a faraway look in his eyes as if he were already contemplating spending the money, and he smiled at his partner. "Don't look so forlorn. Maybe you'll get lucky tomorrow. Besides, you're going to be on TV. That'll make up for the shitty day, won't it?"
When they were back in the car Starsky turned in the seat to stare at Hutch. "I still wanna know why you're pullin' this shrinkin' violet routine. So, tell me. Come to think about it, lately you've been acting really weird whenever the department's come in for any publicity. Why?"
Hutch didn't respond, merely pulled away, heading for Starsky's at too fast a speed. "Just drop it, nothing's wrong," he said curtly.
"Don't give me that shit!" Starsky retorted angrily. "Hell, you'n me always used to stick our faces in front of the cameras. Or at least try to grab some of the credit for our busts." He heard the worry creep into his voice, and noticed that Hutch was biting his lip in frustration. "Since when have we held out on each other, partner?" he asked softly. "If something's bugging ya, tell me what it is. Did I do something outta line?"
He watched the long fingers wrap themselves tighter around the steering wheel, gripping it as if it were a life preserver thrown out to a drowning man.
"Hutch? Can't you tell me?"
He wasn't prepared for the sudden turn, nor the bump when the car came to an abrupt halt by the side of the road. High on the hill just above his apartment, the traffic was almost nil. It was as good a place to talk as any. He waited quietly while Hutch sat staring out into the night. When he did face Starsky all life seemed to have drained from his features. "I-I've got something to tell you. Something I've been trying to say for over six months, but I haven't had the balls to do it."
Starsky felt sick, and sour bile rose in his throat. "You wanna quit and you haven't had the guts to tell me. Right?" God, what would it be like without Hutch?
Only slightly relieved when he saw Hutch shake his head, he thought back to six months ago. Since his partner always had reasons for what he did, maybe remembering would help.
With a sudden chill, he recalled an event that had changed his life; and he somehow knew what was coming. He closed his eyes, waiting for Hutch's speech.
Hutch, obviously searching desperately for the right way to say what he had to say, cleared his throat, but the words weren't forthcoming. He bit his lip, finally turning toward his partner.
Starsky, wanting to help, found he was tongue-tied, so simply sat quietly, hoping against hope that this wasn't going to change everything in his life.
"I don't want to quit," Hutch blurted out. "Oh, not that I haven't wanted to before. Hell, you know me. Always ready to run away and hide." The blue eyes, colorless in the darkened interior of the car, were wide and very frightened. "I don't know how to say this, Starsk. God knows I tried to tell you when John . . . was murdered. I wanted to then . . . I wanted to . . . "
The pain in the halting voice came close to making Starsky cry. Nobody should hurt this much, least of all Hutch. But he knew if he spoke, this confession would come to a complete halt. He was acutely aware of his partner; the familiar odors of sweat and aftershave mingling with that out-of-doors smell he always associated with him. For a moment, Starsky wanted nothing more than to get out of the LTD and say goodnight, just as if everything was all right. But Hutch had to unburden himself. Maybe then they'd be able to straighten things out. "Tell me, pal. I'm not gonna bite you. What the hell's the matter?" He made himself sound merely curious, forcing a lightness into his voice that was totally alien to the way he really felt.
The head lifted, fear replaced by grim determination, and then Hutch said, "I'm gay. Didn't think it would ever matter, but it does, doesn't it? I saw that when you found out about John. Knew I wouldn't be able to keep it a secret forever. Sorry. I never meant to deceive you."
They sat listening as the whisper of tires announced someone was driving by, then, face still composed, Hutch looked over at his partner. "'That bad? You can't think of anything to say to me?"
Say what? Tell his partner, his best friend, that his confession didn't amount to a hill of beans in the scheme of things? That nothing would ever change their friendship? He stared long and hard at the handsome face. "I know," was all he could say.
There was total silence in the car as Hutch digested the admission. Outside, lights glaring, a car sped by, intent on laying as much rubber as it could on the long stretch to the top of the hill. Then, after a few more minutes, he spoke. "What the hell do you mean, 'you know'? What're you saying?"
Inhaling, suddenly starving for air, Starsky shrugged. "I know you're gay. Known for a long time, but it never mattered much . . ." He stopped when he saw the look on Hutch's face and knew he'd said the wrong thing.
"Oh? Never mattered? That's goddamn generous of you, buddy." Hutch's tone changed, became hard, demanding. "Just when did you decide that I was queer?" Suspicion sat in chill hauteur on Hutch's features. "Or have you been following me? Tell me!"
"Never followed you. Never thought of you as queer," said Starsky honestly. "Just sort of guessed it after we were partnered. Hell, I dunno why or how, Hutch. Honest!" He felt his own anger rising and recognized how dangerous this situation was for both of them. "Let's drop the whole subject, huh? I wanna get home. I'm bushed." He wondered where all the little speeches he'd rehearsed early in their partnership — on the off chance Hutch might admit anything — had gone. Rotten timing, that was the whole problem.
However, Hutch was making no move to start the car. With a sinking heart Starsky knew the subject wasn't about to be dropped.
"So, if you knew, why didn't you say something to me? Why didn't you ask me about it?" Hutch looked out the window, lowering his voice. "I wish I could believe you, but I think you're just saying you knew so I won't feel so bad." He laughed, a bitter sound. "Nobody's that understanding, not even you." He turned to face his friend. "Either you ask me whatever you want to ask me, now, or we're never going to discuss the subject again. Is that clear?"
The car windows were steaming up with their body heat, and the lights from the occasionally passing cars inscribed bright circles of white on the windshield. Both men, squinting against the brilliance, averted their glances, then once again looked back at one another.
Realizing that Hutch would be willing to sit out here all night just to make his point, Starsky sighed deeply. "All right. I gave you every opportunity in the whole goddamn world to tell me about it when we were workin' on Blaine's murder. Think back . . . " His voice rose as he relived those days once again. "In fact, I made an ass of myself tryin' to get you to talk to me. All you did was go around makin' self-righteous speeches about how goddamned prejudiced everyone was." He curled back his lip. "Mister Holier-than-thou, right? You're real good at that game, Hutch. I was almost ready to believe I was wrong about you. Just like now. For some reason, I'm feelin guilty as hell because I didn't tell you I thought you were gay." He shook his head in bewilderment.
Again the car was filled with silence. Hutch, expression now one of anguish, bent his head, fingers working on the steering wheel. "Forgive me," he murmured, "because I can't forgive myself. God knows I've wanted to tell you, Starsk, but why should I dump this shit on you? When I saw how upset you were — about John — I swore I'd get it off my chest. But I figured another shock like that and you'd get the feeling your whole world was collapsing. I figured it wasn't fair . . ."
Starsky clenched his fist. "Knock off the self-pity, damnit! You didn't give a fat fuck about my feelings then, and you know it! All you were tryin' to do was crawl so far back into that goddamn closet of yours that nobody'd ever dig you out." He smiled ruefully, suddenly aware of how stupid this whole argument was. "Hutch, I wasn't lyin' when I said it didn't make any difference to me. You're still my best friend, my partner. Nothing's changed." He saw Hutch lift his head to stare at him, and slowly his smile faded. The man didn't believe him . . . what the hell was he supposed to do now? Stubbornly, he repeated the words. "Nothin's changed."
"So, that's how it's going to be? Gee, I can't imagine why I was scared out of my fucking mind. Okay, buddy, if that's how you want to play your hand, fine." The voice dropped, tempered as steel. "Only get this straight. I am in the closet. I intend staying in the closet. I like my closet! And at no time are we to refer to this again. No questions, no making dumb remarks about guys for me, no special help when they're telling gay jokes down at the station. To all intents and purposes, Starsky, this conversation never took place."
It was all Starsky needed to see red. Whatever force of nature had helped him control his tongue vanished at the bitter words. Reaching out, he jerked Hutch's hand roughly away from the ignition key. "Just a goddamn minute! I'll decide when this conversation is over. You think you can trot back into that so-called closet and nobody's gonna be any wiser? Hutch, you're the stupidest asshole I know!"
Working up to a real fury, Starsky increased the pressure on Hutch's wrist. "You think I'm the only one who knows about you? Shit, Huggy knew before me . . . and we both know he's as bi as they come . . . don't deny it, partner. Why in hell did that faggy chauffeur swoon all over you? Huh? I'll tell you why . . . because he KNEW! It's why whenever we've gone into any gay bar, or anywhere there's a bunch of gays, they look us both over and head for you. It isn't just because you're blond, and better-lookin' than anybody's got a right to be . . . they know. Just like you know about them."
He permitted himself a sideways glance at Hutch's profile, then zeroed in again. "You can sit there and deny every word I'm sayin', but I'm right and you know it. So don't tell me what we can or can't talk about, 'cause I intend talking to you about whatever I want — just like always! You get my drift?" Starsky released Hutch's wrist, taking no satisfaction from the fact that Hutch immediately began rubbing it. What did register was that his partner hadn't tried to pull away. He was suddenly aghast at what he'd said about all the men coming on to his partner. "Dunno why I said all that stuff about the qu . . . gays and you. Sorry."
Hutch didn't answer, merely turned the key in the ignition and started the car. He rolled down the window and after a minute or two the moisture on the windows began evaporating, running down the glass in great drops. Turning onto the curving street leading to Starsky's apartment, he sped up, obviously anxious to drop off his partner.
Starsky, for his part, was relieved not to have to respond to any more cutting sarcasm. When the LTD came to a halt in front of his place, he got out, nodded, then went up his front steps without looking back. He knew a pair of eyes were watching to see he got in safely, it was routine. He also knew if he turned around, made one gesture of conciliation, he was lost. And, from the conversation they'd just had, he knew he wasn't going to give his partner an inch. They'd come this far; he wasn't about to let Hutch scurry back into his padded closet even if it was safer than being out in the sunlight. As he opened the door and switched on the hall light, he heard Hutch driving away.
It was only then he allowed himself to falter, knees unable to hold his weight. Shaking, he locked and bolted the door, then headed for the cupboard where he kept his bottle of brandy. Two very generous slugs later, he managed to calm down. But when he walked into the bedroom, doubts began to surface, and he sat heavily on the edge of the bed, suddenly very alone in the darkness. What if his angry words had driven Hutch away? What if his partner decided to ask for a transfer — to a place where he wouldn't be reminded of his confession — or his partner? He felt defeated, betrayed. He'd told Hutch nothing but their friendship mattered, why hadn't Hutch believed him?
Because, of course, it really did matter. Quickly, he stripped off his clothing and slid under the covers. Time enough in the morning for a shower; all he wanted now was to fall asleep and not wake up before noon. "Hutch," he whispered into the room's chill, "ya gotta believe me. I'll prove it to you, honest I will." But in the back of his mind was still the question Hutch hadn't answered. Why the sudden reluctance to be interviewed — his partner had never been the shrinking violet type before. He winced at his imagery. Jesus, he'd have to watch that kinda stuff from now on. Deciding it was too fucking late for worrying, he closed his eyes, waiting for fatigue to bring him mind-numbing rest.
It was so quiet he could hear the tiny motor in his clock radio. Sighing, he finally sat up to stare at the illuminated clock dial, growing angry because sleep was evading him. He punched his pillow. "Goddamn you, why'd you have to act like that? We coulda talked . . ." he turned over, facing the wall, vowing that each day he'd try to draw Hutch out a little more, force him to discuss things. Just talking would eventually clear up all their problems. Wouldn't it? Throwing back the pillow so he could lie flat and stare up at the ceiling, he prayed the answer was 'yes.'
It was after eight the next morning when Hutch breezed into the station. Cheeks flushed from the warm winds, fair hair ruffled, his eyes bright, he immediately caught the attention of the clerks who were hurrying to place the day sheets in each squadroom. Smiling, dropping a flirtatious word here and there, he strode to the elevator, head high.
Once the doors slid shut, however, Hutch lost the smile, his expression becoming distant and aloof. When he stepped out of the elevator and walked toward the squadroom, there was no one who even dared bid him good morning. Meeting one of his fellow detectives, he nodded, then pushed open the squadroom doors and went straight to his desk, to all intents and purposed unaware that his partner was already sitting across from him.
"Hi," said Starsky, studying the high color, the windblown hair.
"Hi," said a cool voice. "You got the papers on that bust last night?" Hutch held out his hand expectantly, eyes meeting Starsky's briefly.
"Nope. Not in yet. Seems some lawyer got Mister Daniel Edward Mayhew out on bail in the wee hours this morning. You wanna guess why?" Gaze narrowed, Starsky waited, knowing that nothing made Hutch madder than to learn one of their busts had sprung a leak. He suppressed a smile, for sure enough, the blond head raised, the cool gaze warming to curiosity.
"How'd that happen? We had him tight! Shit!"
Managing a rueful grin, Starsky explained. "Well, he swore on a stack of Bibles that all he was doin' was giving Snake a lift. That he'd never been down into the Tenderloin district before — which I believe — and that all that coke belonged to our friend, Snake Ibarra." He shrugged. "Trouble is, he's clean. Remember, no priors, no outstandings?"
Hutch scratched his head, then sighed. "I don't buy that for one minute. Remember, he was carrying the key to that friggin' case." He leaned forward, eyes snapping with familiar determination. "All we have to do is dig, Starsk. We'll find something on him. I know it." He got to his feet and headed for the coffeemaker. "You want a cup?" He held out Starsky's favorite blue one.
Feeling the tension ease in his gut, Starsky nodded. He'd been right. Outside of a little understandable nervousness, Hutch was fine. Hell, by the end of the day they'd be laughing and cutting up same as always. They were too good a team to have problems. Who in the hell cared if Hutch was straight or gay? He accepted the coffee, warming his hands on the rough pottery, discovering with surprise that his palms were clammy. "Thanks," he said, returning Hutch's smile.
His partner was walking back to his seat when they heard a commotion in the hall. Two patrolmen were having a hard time with a man dressed all in black, and for a second it looked as though he might break away. Then, hands still cuffed behind him, all resistance suddenly collapsed and they literally had to drag the prisoner into the squadroom. He was young and very pretty; obviously a hustler. Starsky risked a glance at Hutch, recalling their conversation of last night. Shit!
With ill-concealed distaste the older cop shoved the youth into a chair, smirking when the cuffs rubbed cruelly into his flesh. "Just pretend you're in for some rough trade, loverboy, and you'll enjoy every minute of this." Pitassi leered at his partner, then smiled over at the watchful detectives. "Gives me such joy to arrest criminals of this magnitude," he said sarcastically. "Can you imagine this punk bein' stupid enough to trick right around the corner from the station? Christ! The world's full of Adam Henrys, ain't it?"
"Have you read him his rights?" asked Starsky coldly, hating the casual reference to assholes, deliberately used to embarrass the boy. He stared hard at the young face, obviously already used to such treatment. The prisoner, dark eyes insolent, returned the look, almost daring anyone to help him — for a price. The tight black shirt had been ripped from shoulder to wrist, exposing warm, brown skin. A bruise was growing on his cheek.
"Book him and get him the hell outta here!" snapped Hutch, getting to his feet. "You expect us to throw pennies? Jesus!" He stalked into Dobey's office, slamming the door behind him.
There was a moment's silence before Pitassi's partner began the interrogation, typing in the responses the hustler gave him.
Harry Crofts was a tall, thin cop with hair the color of carrots. There was a standing bet that no one could accurately count the number of freckles on his long face, let alone his body. Pale blue eyes peered out of the speckled flesh, and he was usually grinning. Today was the exception.
"Something wrong, Harry? You look like your shoes hurt." Starsky saw the hustler turn to stare at him, then felt color stain his cheeks. The scrutiny was one of interest.
Pitassi shook his head, speaking in a deep, sorrowful tone. "He's trying to give up smoking again. That's why we busted the whore, here. I wanted to cheer him up. It's hell working with a man of convictions." The little eyes peered at Starsky. "But you know all about that, don't you?" There was amusement in the cop's voice.
"Leave Hutch outta this," warned Starsky, adding, "and watch your mouth. If Dobey hears you callin' names, you'll be on the carpet before you can sneeze." He went back to his report, still keenly aware that the hustler was watching him. When the cuffs were removed, he heard the involuntary groan of relief and wondered how long they'd been on. Wondered also what Hutch was doing in the captain's office. Hiding out, probably, ashamed to face the world and this pitiful kid who was at least honest about his preferences. He met the brazen stare, deliberately raking his own glance over the slender body before turning away. It gave him no pleasure to see the kid's eyes narrow in speculation.
"I'll bet you're hard trade, Curly. Look me up when these apes are at the banana stand . . ." The boy stood up, laughing, ready to be led away.
"What's that in your back pocket?" asked Pitassi suddenly. "You were told to empty them downstairs. Gimme that!" He yanked a folded paper out of the hip-hugging jeans.
"Read it. Give you a lot of laughs." But his sarcastic tone held a trace of wistfulness, as if the kid knew what was ahead.
Pitassi opened the paper to the front page, hooting as he did. "The Advocate! Hey, that's heavy reading for a piece of fluff like you." Casually, he tossed it over to Starsky. "Here, get Hutch to explain the big words. We gotta get this little lady safe in a holding cell . . . make the boys real happy to have a woman spend some time with 'em. Come on, darling, hope you brought your Crisco." He grinned over at his partner, and led the boy away. Crofts tore off the arrest sheet and followed, shaking his head.
The hustler looked back over his shoulder at Starsky. "Read it. I gotta ad in the pink section — name's Scooter." He looked terribly young right then, and vulnerable, but he pulled away from Pitassi's grip and said, "Hey! Get your sweaty hands off me!" His voice, raised with long practice, floated back down the corridor.
The squadroom was empty now, and Starsky got to his feet, furious without knowing why. He rapped loudly on Dobey's door. "You can come out now, Hutch. The dangerous criminal's been taken to the dungeon." He drained his cup and refilled it, adding too much sugar and not caring. This situation was ridiculous. Before, Hutch had at least sat through these sessions, sometimes even adding his own caustic comments.
Last night's conversation came to mind, including his accusations that every gay knew about Hutch. Was that what his partner was afraid of? That the little hustler would say or do something to prove his point? Then, another thought hit him, so that when Hutch did open the door, he was staring thoughtfully into space. Did his partner and the hustler know one another?
He felt slightly sick at the implications. Looking up at the honest, if troubled, expression, he knew he was wrong. "Well, come all the way out, will ya? We've got to follow up on last night's bust. Let's go talk to the narcs."
Hutch wasn't listening, wasn't even looking at him. Following the line of his partner's gaze, Starsky glanced down at the table and saw the gay newspaper in full sight. "Kid left it," he explained awkwardly. "Said it might prove interesting." he forced a grin. "Pitassi said you'd explain the big words—"
Without warning, Hutch snatched up the paper, yanking it open to the pink pages. "Yeah? What word did he want me to explain to you, pal? Nellie? Fats, femmes, bondage?" The light eyes scanned the printing, then looked deep into Starsky's. "Piece of information, partner. I don't read this garbage. I don't buy the goddamn magazines, and I don't need this shit!" The strong fingers ripped out the ad section, tearing it into shreds. "Come on. I've been on the phone to Masterson. He thinks he can tie Mayhew to the Ibarra bunch in a couple of days." Head high, Hutch tossed the paper scraps into the trash basket. Starsky, features carefully neutral, picked up the discarded white section, folded it into a small square and shoved it deep into his jacket pocket.
Hutch was holding open the door. "C'mon, Starsk! You know those damn narcs, they're likely to be gone by the time we get to the elevator . . . hurry up."
"Nah. Not a chance. Masterson never leaves his office until after he's held a briefing." Starsky checked his watch. "Ten minutes, then we can worry." Deliberately slow, he sauntered through the doorway, grinning at his tense partner.
It worked. Hutch smiled, his whole expression softening as he watched the exaggerated slow pace his partner was affecting. "Jerk," he muttered. "Move your ass before I — uh — kick it!"
They looked at one another, pink mantling Hutch's cheekbones. Starsky bit back the retort he normally would make about Hutch wanting to pat his ass, and wondered if they'd ever kid around like that again. So, to make up for the uncomfortable moment, he snaked out his foot and tripped Hutch. The blond man, eyes lit for battle, wrestled him out into the hallway. "Get going. Jesus, you're impossible!" A wide grin changed his entire expression.
Starsky lay on Cathy's couch, eyes focused moodily on the glowing embers from the huge log that had been burning since dinner time last night. Near dawn, he'd kissed the pretty stewardess goodbye, promised to feed the cat, then settled down to snatch a couple of hours of sleep before leaving.
But sleep hadn't come, nor had peace of mind. The dinner had been great, the sex had been good — not great, but good — and Cathy had been as sweet and loving as ever. He closed his eyes, going over their time together. What had gone wrong? No phone calls for either of them; no visitors or roommates to bring their lovemaking to an abrupt end. Just a real nice time . . . so what was wrong?
He sighed, twisting his torso so he could study the sparks that still rose from the log. He'd gotten up from the table, taken the dishes into the small kitchenette, then drawn her into his arms in front of the fireplace. Romantic, and he'd been in the mood, watching Cathy let down her hair, its dark gold catching the firelight. She'd responded eagerly to his kisses.
And Hutch's hair always catches more light than anyone's, even hers.
Grimly, he sat up, trying to deny it had been the memory of his partner's hair in the firelight that had somehow made him lose the urgent need for sex . . . why? Hell, he'd always known Hutch's looks were classic, and the head of blond hair held its own attraction for people. He ran a finger over the woven flowers on the back of the couch, tracing their outline for as far as he could reach. So, why had the image of his partner popped up at that particular moment?
Disgusted, he got to his feet and went over to the raised fireplace, removing the ornate brass screen so he could scatter the embers and extinguish the last coals. He didn't like what he was thinking, nor did he even want to admit the thought. The fact remained, nevertheless, and he was too honest to deny it. That brief recollection of Hutch had somewhat dimmed his ardor for the luscious Cathy.
Carefully, he cleaned off the hearth, then set the screen back in front of the grate. Ambling out to the kitchen, he found a small, open can of cat food and dumped it into the cat's dish. Next, he filled a little bowl with fresh water, and called the cat. When she didn't appear, he sighed in exasperation, heading for the bedroom to pick up his clothes. They were, of course, the place where she lay sleeping, her long, white fur generously spread over his navy cords and shirt.
"Bitch," he murmured resignedly, lifting the animal onto the bed. "Your breakfast's in the kitchen, so why don't you go eat?" The cat ignored him and went right on with her nap.
Feeling lonely and at loose ends, Starsky dressed, deciding a shave could wait until he got home. He let himself out, locking the door behind him. Cathy wasn't due home for a couple of days, and there wasn't any reason to hang around an empty apartment.
Maybe he'd call Hutch and see if he wanted to do something. Starsky went down the apartment steps, blinking at the brilliant sunshine. It was still cool, and for that he was grateful; later on the temperature would climb, and the smog level would be deadly. He stood for another minute or two, undecided, his expression growing solemn. There wasn't much use in calling Hutch because he probably wasn't home yet. Hadn't been at seven-thirty this morning.
Starsky unlocked the Torino, absently wiping at a sticky spot on the door handle. He'd stopped by Hutch's place last night on the way to Cathy's. The street had been packed with cars from the restaurant patrons, so he'd swung around the corner to park. The LTD sat across the street, engine cold, the damp beach air beginning to condense on the metal. He'd left his hand-print on the hood.
The car interior was warm, and Starsky sat for a moment, letting his body absorb the heat. He flexed his shoulders, easing a bit of the ache out of them; making love had been easier when he was twenty, he thought wryly. He started the car, sitting while the engine purred, thinking again about last night.
He'd run up Hutch's steps, stopping to fix the loose tile on the fifth riser for the umpteenth time, and knocked loud enough to wake the dead. What had he hoped for? Hutch to go with him over to Cathy's? Starsky smiled even now at the thought. No, just the need to see how his partner was — that was all. So why hadn't he let himself in? He always had in the past . . . had he been afraid of what he might find? Whatever the reason, he'd waited a few seconds more then gone around to Chez Helene's patio, quizzing the waiters; Hutch hadn't eaten there, but he had picked up a bottle of wine about six p.m.
So someone must've picked him up.
Starsky slammed on the brakes at a stop sign, suddenly realizing that he'd been driving on instinct alone and was only about half a mile from Hutch's. Glimpsing his reflection in the rear view mirror, he decided he didn't like what he saw. Lower jaw dark with stubble, eyes bleary — Christ, he looked like a drunk. A drunk in a lousy mood, at that.
He drove on, watching the ever-present joggers along Washington doing their number, but there was no gleam of bright hair in the lot. Besides, Hutch never ran this far from home, so the chances of seeing him over here were pretty slim.
A blaring horn behind him brought him out of his reverie, and he floored the accelerator to keep from being rear-ended by the heavy-handed idiot.
Looking back, he grinned. There was a suitably dense cloud of exhaust to choke the wise-ass . . . and no Hutch to glare reprovingly at him for acting that way. Starsky glanced at his watch; it was nearly eight-thirty, maybe his partner was home. It was worth a try, and he really did want to see the big jerk. Mood lifting, he turned onto Ocean and sped along the narrow street, taking note of the wary expressions that marked his passage. The Torino was a familiar sight on this street and he took a certain satisfaction in being recognized, even if he didn't know why.
There was plenty of parking at Venice Place, and he got out of the car and eagerly climbed the steps to the landing, this time taking the key above the door to let himself in. On the chance that Hutch was sleeping he closed the door quietly behind himself, and stood surveying the large, sunlit living room. He arched his eyebrow — the place was all picked up, neat as a pin, with not even a discarded beer bottle in sight. First time for everything, he supposed.
Cocking his head, Starsky listened, almost certain he'd hear the deep, slow breathing that would tell him Hutch was asleep. He grinned, hearing a faint noise out on the porch. Hell, that explained it; his partner had gone to bed out there, and probably hadn't even heard the phone ring. Quietly, he made his way toward the sound, ready to rouse Hutch from sleep.
Sunshine was filtering through the blinds, painting all the greenery with gold, and the rich smell of growing things rose in the warm air. To Starsky's disappointment, however, the noise proved to be a blind brushing against a large plant, rustling the leaves just enough to be heard. He noted the bed was made, and obviously hadn't been slept in.
So, his partner had spent the night with someone, all right. The question was who? Insofar as Starsky knew, there weren't any new ladies in the blond's life. And why, he wondered, didn't he ever think about Hutch dating guys? Christ, he'd already told the man he didn't care — was it because bisexuality didn't fit his own ideas of what sex was all about? Or because the shadowy world of ac/dc raised too many uncomfortable memories of Rampart Division and the vice raids?
He wandered into the little kitchen, sitting down on one of the old-fashioned chairs. He knew Hutch had loved Gillian, had gone around pale and quiet for weeks after her death. His partner just wasn't that good an actor! Had he ever felt that way about a man?
Wearily, Starsky closed his eyes, suddenly too tired to leave and drive all the way home. At the same time, a niggling fear told him that Hutch might not be too pleased if he came home and found his partner here. He got to his feet, eyes narrowed. If the blond got mad, tough shit. They'd always dropped in on one another; if he wanted to prove nothing had changed, what better way?
Feeling justified, Starsky rummaged around in the refrigerator, grinning when he found a half-full bottle of root beer at the back. There was no snack to his liking, but the soda would at least quench his thirst so he guzzled it down, setting the bottle in the sink. That way Hutch would know immediately he was here. He scratched his chin, then ambled sleepily back to the porch, flopping full length on the bed. Within a few minutes he was sound asleep, hand trailing on the cool floor.
An hour later, a car door slammed outside Venice Place, and Hutch waved goodbye as the vehicle pulled away. He ran lightly up the first four steps, then paused, coming slowly back down to stare out at the curb. There, parked in front of the art gallery, sat the Torino. Quickly, he glanced up at his front window, but saw no one. Then he strode rapidly down to where the car was parked and put his hand on the hood. The metal was warm, and not just from the sun . . . Starsky hadn't been here too long. Quietly, he climbed the stairs, letting himself in without a sound. Looking around, he saw the bottle in the sink and smiled. Starsky's unsubtle way of letting him know he'd been by.
Not that he had any doubt. The deep rumble of his partner's snores led Hutch straight out to the porch where he stood staring down at the flushed face and flattened hair. He studied the long, irregular features with real affection, making a careful distinction between that emotion and another one. "So, you knew all along, you bastard, and let me sweat my balls off before I told you," he murmured. He felt a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. "You don't miss a thing, do you, pal? And I bet your curiosity's killing you about now." The smile faded, replaced by a grimace. There was no way he was going to let his partner into that part of his life. They shared enough now, and for what it was worth, he owed someone else a degree of privacy. Sighing, he moved away, wishing life wasn't so damn complicated. Maybe when Starsk woke up they'd talk, but right now he was bushed; it'd been quite a night. The smile returned, and as Hutch headed for the shower, he began whistling.
It was the sound of water that woke Starsky up. Hutch, finally home, was now busy washing off whatever memories he had of the night. Starsky lay, eyes closed tight, trying not to think about anything. When the sounds from the bathroom ceased, he rolled over, peering into the living room.
Hutch came out of the bathroom, rubbing his skin vigorously with a big white towel. The sun, still low enough to filter through the front windows, gilded the lean body until it shone, glistening with droplets which rolled off the satiny flesh. Hutch never glanced toward the porch, merely continued to blot his body, finally tossing the towel back into the bathroom. He padded into the bedroom area, returning with a pale blue terry robe that he quickly donned, running his hands over the thick fabric. He tied the belt, smiling as he made his way into the kitchen, humming softly to himself. Drops of water trickled slowly down his neck from his wet hair. He looked relaxed — almost smug — until he saw Starsky watching him.
Instantly, his expression became guarded, closed. "Sorry, didn't mean to wake you." His smile was forced. "Didn't think I could, not the way you were snoring."
"Hell, nobody could sleep with you big-footing around like that," complained Starsky. He wanted to sound cranky, wanted his partner to believe he'd wakened only moments before. Not watching the man dry himself.
Caution disappeared as Hutch grinned broadly. "Hey, I may not be cat-footed like you, but I'm not so bad. Campbell, now there's a man with lead feet." He came out on the porch, sitting easily on the edge of the bed, shaking his wet head. "I thought you were spending a couple of days with Cathy. What happened?"
Starsky shrugged. "She was on standby and got called. I'm going back tonight to feed that cat of hers." He was suddenly aware of water dripping onto his warm arm. "Jesus! Will ya quit with the shower? I can get my own, ya know!" He began tossing off the covers, then held them in place, remembering the damn French briefs he was wearing.
Hutch didn't miss the hesitation, and rose immediately, going back into the other room. "You're safe now," he said cuttingly. "I'm too damn tired to be turned on by you."
"That's not why I did it, and you know it," said Starsky quietly. "Don't be such a shit, Hutch." He threw the covers aside and grabbed for his pants. "Who's turnin' who on? You're the one naked under the robe. So, maybe I was gettin' off on you!" he stared hard at his astonished friend, holding Hutch's gaze by sheer will power. As he sauntered closer, he saw something bright flash in the light eyes, and recognized the danger signal. Hastily, he dropped his aggressive stance and held out his hand. "Is this how we're gonna be? You running scared, and me saying things to hurt you — or make you mad?"
Shaking his head, he turned abruptly on his heel, angry because his eyes stung with unshed tears. "Why'd you have to tell me if this is what it's gonna be like? God damn you! Everything was great until you hadda go noble on me." He felt his fury building, but felt the loss of Hutch's trust even more, and lashed out as he spun around. "Who gives a damn about your love life? I sure don't!"
His tirade was cut short by a swiftly moving body. Strong arms enveloped him and he held onto Hutch for dear life.
"Don't!" begged Hutch. "You know how much I care about you. Jesus, Starsk, you're my best friend. It tears me up to see you hurting so much . . . because of me." A shaky laugh as he rubbed the curly head. "Never knew anyone to get under my skin like you do . . . or care like you do, either." The blond head bowed, and Hutch hugged his partner hard before breaking the embrace. Just as he did, Starsky wiped his nose surreptitiously on the terry robe.
"Hey! Cut that out!" But there was laughter behind the complaint, and Hutch shook his partner until a rueful smile lit the long features. "Ass. If you wanted a Kleenex all you had to do was say so." He led Starsky to the couch, and, pushing the unresisting figure down, sat as close to him as he could, making certain that his robe covered his lap. "If you thought you were mad before, this'll probably really frost you." He took in a huge breath before continuing. "I've got a lover. Have had for over a year." He stared down at the floor, finally raising his eyes to meet Starsky's shocked glance. "Yeah," he said doggedly, determined to answer any and all questions, and then take the consequences. ". . . a lover . . . just one guy, and we're really good together, Starsk."
"You mean, you two really love each other?" Starsky asked, disbelievingly. "Like Gillian?" He grimaced, but didn't apologize. "You know what I mean, 'for keeps' stuff?"
Hutch drew back momentarily, frowning a bit. His hair was drying, but curls still clung to the strong neck. "Like in 'fairy' tales?" He shook his head in denial. "I learned a long time ago they don't really come true," he replied softly. "So we have to settle for the closest thing. For a gay relationship, I suppose this is it."
Starsky sat back, scrutinizing the familiar features, knowing deep inside that the man next to him was trying desperately to convince himself about his feelings. "Don't say any more, Hutch, it's okay. I think I understand," he said. Carefully, he placed his hand on the hard thigh, absorbing the living warmth beneath the robe. He felt the muscles quiver for an instant, and experienced a quickly-denied, momentary triumph. "Maybe some day you'll meet the right one, huh?"
Hutch's soft smile grew hard, matched by a cool glance as his gaze flickered swiftly over Starsky. "I hope you're not offering yourself, partner. I'm not worth the sacrifice."
The sarcasm broke the mood and Hutch rose to his feet, heading for the kitchen. "Oh, don't get me wrong, I appreciate your offer — if you were making one — but we'd end up killing each other and you know it."
Stung, Starsky leaped up, following the other man into the warmth and sunlight. "I wasn't tryin' to turn you on! And I sure as hell wasn't offering anything! I got more 'n I can handle right now." He felt stupid; seeing the sudden grin that flashed across Hutch's face, but knew he'd said the right thing. Besides, he hadn't really been trying to give Hutch dibs on his body . . . hadn't even given it any thought.
"You can say that again. I'm not about to have a bunch of irate females on my ass because you've got the hots for me." This was said wryly, accompanied by the clatter of a frying pan and several dishes being dumped on the counter. "Eggs? Cheese or onions or both? Fries?"
The subject was effectively changed and while Starsky showered, Hutch fixed his partner a huge breakfast, watching the food disappear with apparent satisfaction. When the last bit of egg had been wiped up with a piece of toast, and the last sip of coffee drunk, he sat back, smiling at his friend.
Starsky leaned back in his chair, and wiped his mouth with the napkin. "That was good — as usual." He stared thoughtfully at the blond, finally asking, "Where'd you learn to cook, anyway?"
Hutch chuckled. "You're weird. I've cooked God knows how many great dinners for you, and it took eggs and fries to get you to ask where I learned. Well, believe it or not, when I was a kid I was pretty talented in my grandma's kitchen. She believed that every boy would die of starvation if he couldn't fend for himself." He smiled, eyes soft with memories. "The funny part is my Grandpa couldn't boil water. Grandma got up and cooked three squares for him every day until he died. Guess that's why she made sure all the boys knew their way around her kitchen."
"Did you cook at home much?" Starsky asked, remembering a few of his own disasters in his mother's kitchen.
The lean frame stretched as Hutch got to his feet, expression now neutral. "No, we had a cook. Oh, I made the odd sandwich and raided the pantry, but that was all. My mom felt that meals were an event, for the most part." He ran his fingers through his hair. "Of course, when I got married, Van was a virgin in the kitchen . . ." He laughed aloud. "Starsk, we ate some of the damnedest messes in the world, but it was kind of fun at first. She was sharp, you understand, and could whip up a meal in a minute. But we did eat some godawful combinations."
"What's his name, Hutch?"
Hutch showed no surprise, merely shook his head. "Sorry, pal, that's none of your business. Let it go, or I'll regret having told you anything. Just be glad there's someone who cares for me, huh?" There was a note of pleading in Hutch's voice, and he began removing the dishes hurriedly from the table.
But the gadfly of curiosity was biting at Starsky, and he persisted. "What's the matter? You afraid I'll publish his name on some hit list? Hell, I'm just curious, that's all." He didn't say he felt he had the right to feel that way, since he obviously didn't.
He was surveyed by clear, blue eyes. "I know you're curious, but I'm not going to tell you, so quit pushing. I'm gonna go change, so why don't you do the dishes, okay?"
Eyes narrowed, Starsky nodded, making up his mind to ferret out the name of this lover who apparently meant enough to Hutch that he felt the jerk needed protecting. Alarms raced up and down his spine . . . and he called out after the retreating figure. "Do I know him? Is that why you're bein' so damn close-mouthed about it?"
"No! You don't know him! Have never met him! And aren't likely to if I have anything to say about the matter. Just back off —"
"Or what? You'll blow my head off? Slap my hand? Wash my mouth out with soap?" Starsky grunted his disgust. "Is he famous?" An idea struck him and he could barely get the words out fast enough. "Are you makin' it with Harry Markham? I knew he had the hots for you, but . . ." Starsky poured liquid soap into the sink, swearing as it ran down the drain. Hastily, he plugged the drain with the stopper, then added more soap. He'd noticed the director's interest in Hutch, but at the time it'd seemed as natural as sunshine. Everyone gravitated toward Hutch, and Markham's interest had been slight at first, only becoming more obvious as their assignment wore on. Still, he had to admit he had never really given any thought to them being involved. "Hutch? Did ya hear me? Is it Markham?" he added the dishes to the soapy water, careful to place the cups on top of the plates.
"Nope. Nor anyone else I've met on duty." Hutch was standing behind Starsky, speaking almost directly into the still-damp curls.
Starsky jumped a foot. "Damn you! I almost broke a cup."
"Aw, poor lamb. You can buy me a new one." Hutch grinned, then stood back for his partner's appraisal. "New sweater, what do ya think?"
What did he think? The color was a sort of blue/green with a fleck here and there of brown. It was just right for Hutch's coloring and hugged the broad shoulders perfectly. Starsky hated it, knowing instinctively who must have bought it. "Goes real good with those cords," he said truthfully, "but isn't it a little warm for September? You're gonna bake."
Hutch's expression was thoughtful and he let his gaze travel over his partner with slow interest. "Gee, if my eyes aren't deceiving me, you're wearing navy cords and a matching shirt . . . or don't you feel the heat?"
"That's different!" Starsky snapped, wiping his hands across his butt. "It was cool last night. I just haven't been home to change, yet."
Hutch was already removing the sweater, folding it, then placing it on top of the dresser. "True. And since Cathy's place from here is only about thirty miles out of your way, it was natural to stop by and check out your partner, right?" The cords were removed next, exposing the long, tanned legs. "Then, when I wasn't home, you decided to wait around, just in case I needed a little hand holding." Hutch padded into the living room, leaning over to snag a pair of wrinkled jeans from behind the couch. Meeting Starsky's gaze, he slid easily into them, buttoning them up with great deliberation. Face grave, he once more joined his partner in the kitchen. "I'm a big boy, Starsk. A night out is just that — a night out. I'm not about to elope with some fairy prince," he said dryly, "so let me go, pal, and I swear I'll try to keep from shutting you out. But don't ask me to tell, because I'm not going to."
Starsky was silent, watching the play of light that dappled Hutch's body as he began moving restlessly about the apartment. Just what was there about this other guy that made Hutch so protective? Looks wouldn't do it — hell, he was willing to bet Hutch was better-looking than any lover. Money? Hutch had that, too. Not that you could tell, but it was there. He followed his partner out onto the porch, helping to make up the bed, but not speaking. Together they spruced up the room, then strolled back into the still-cool living area. He knew more about Hutch than anybody; why, suddenly, wasn't it enough? He'd memorized the features, the moves, the crazy habits Hutch had, and knew most of his past history. Why in the ever lovin' hell wasn't it enough?
Preoccupied, he was surprised when Hutch flopped down on the couch, smiling broadly up at him. "What're your plans for today?"
Starsky sat on the other end of the couch, shaking the cobwebs out of his head. "Gotta feed Cathy's cat, take the Torino in for a lube job. Nothin' much. Why?"
"Well, first I have to catch a few z's. Do some shopping. You want to come back and watch the Dodger game with me? Then we could drop by Huggy's for a few beers, shoot a little pool. That sound all right?"
A huge weight was lifted from Starsky's chest, one he realized had been there for quite a while. He felt slightly giddy with relief. "Deal. I'll grab some junk food, be here about seven." He got to his feet, fingers snapping. "You're gonna be sorry you ever won that ten 'cause tonight my luck's gonna change. And pool's my game."
Yawning, Hutch nodded. "Sure it is, just like ballet's mine. Now, get outta here and let me get some sleep before I start charging you rent." He got to his feet and began pushing Starsky toward the door, his big hands exerting pressure on the powerful back. Suddenly, he let them drop to his sides and stepped back. "I'll be waiting," he said softly. "Don't stand me up."
"Only if I get a better offer from Cathy's cat!" came the quick retort.
There was the clatter of Adidas on the stairs, the door slammed, and as Hutch walked over to the window, he heard the ever-familiar growl of the Torino. He pulled the curtain aside to watch his partner take off in a swirl of sand and dust. "Some things never change, do they?" he mused as he pulled down the blind, effectively closing away the morning heat and sunshine.
By the time he tumbled into bed, his body was shaking with fatigue. It had been a hell of a night, and if he wanted to match wits with Starsky, he had to get at least six solid hours of sleep. Still, maybe it would be like old times again. He'd missed that a lot. He crawled between the cool sheets, expressing his pleasure with a deep sigh. He had no further recollection of the day.
"Shit, it must be a hundred outside," complained Starsky to the uncomprehending feline who lay in regal splendor close to the air conditioner. Her long, white fur lifted and fell as she groomed herself. The dark man grinned wickedly, then decided not to risk her needle-sharp claws. "Cathy told me you liked the back yard, Vanilla. For two cents I'd make you sit out there and bake like the landlord's poor mutt is. You're one spoiled animal."
Never missing a stroke, the cat merely cast a baleful amber eye in his direction, then ignored him completely. Starsky, miffed, nevertheless made certain she had enough food and water for the night. There was a message on the answering machine from Cathy letting him know she wouldn't be getting in until around two the next day. Too late for a date, unless he wanted to spend the night. He shook his head at the hopeful note in her voice. "Sorry, schweetheart," he drawled, "but I've got some choice action with Goldilocks tonight. Him 'n me are gonna do some pub crawlin' after the game."
It was only after he got home that he began wondering about the euphoria he was experiencing. Why was he so damn happy? He was acting as though he and Hutch hadn't seen each other for weeks, which was stupid. He ran up the front steps and let himself in, staring for a moment around his apartment as if he'd never seen it before.
At least it was cooler here, the outside greenery absorbing some of the punishing September heat. Glancing at his watch, he saw that he had about seven hours to kill. Six, really, if he left early and drove slowly down to Venice, stopping to grab something to nosh on. Maybe pick up a couple of falafel's. Hutch liked them.
Quickly, he stripped off his clothing, padding around in the nude just because it felt so good. He flashed back on a golden body and scowled, well aware of what he'd been thinking at the time. Not about him and Hutch, but about his partner and some other guy. It was too early for a beer, but he took one anyway, wiping the condensate from the bottle across his forehead and sighing aloud at the relief it brought. Maybe a quick nap might make him feel better. He hadn't slept all that well last night — or the night before.
He lay across his bed, listening to the chkk, chkk, chkk of a rainbird sprinkler. The sound of water pattering on the plants outside was restful, and the sprinkler's chucking hiss was regular enough to become monotonous. As his eyelids closed, he thought about his partner. Poor Hutch, he'd actually shivered when he'd been touched on the leg. Jesus, him and Hutch? Not until pigs flew.