by librathree (8231282)
“Where were you last night?”
Hutch looked up from under his brows. Starsky hadn’t raised his eyes from the report he was finishing with the aid of two laboring index fingers and two scrunched eyebrows.
“I called ya about ten.”
“Oh.” Hutch scrabbled in his brain for an answer, but Starsky beat him to it.
“Out with Dolores again?”
“Hm? No.” Hutch blinked. “No. I was … just … out.” He realized he was babbling a split second before Starsky gave him a sidelong glance expressing that same awareness.
“Just out?” He kept typing, one side of his mouth twitching in an indulgent half-smile.
“Yeah,” Hutch said, damning his fair skin for so easily revealing his discomfiture. “Just … out.” Not that Starsky wouldn’t have known anyway.
His partner pursed his lips in the ‘I know when I’ve been told to mind my own business’ expression Hutch knew and hated. “Okay.”
Captain Dobey’s door opened and he poked his head out. “Starsky. Hutchinson. In here.”
Hutch hopped up and went to the door; Starsky punched two more keys as if they’d done him a personal wrong, then slid his chair back and followed his partner into their superior’s office.
They obeyed. Dobey gave them both his patented gimlet eye for a moment, then said:
“I think you two need a holiday.”
Starsky and Hutch stared at their captain for the first second, at each other for the next, then back at Dobey.
Typically, Starsky found his stride first. “Well, I wouldn’t say no to a week in Hawaii…” The words didn’t hide the anger coiled in his eyes and body, ready to spring at the slightest suggestion that he wasn’t street-sound. He’d only been back on full duty a month; Hutch knew he was still touchy around any questions about his fitness.
“Not Hawaii,” Dobey said, confirming their suspicion that this had nothing to do with vacations. “In the mountains. A nice high-class resort up north.”
“The mountains?” Hutch said. “Captain, does this have anything to do with that guy who got his head bashed in up north the other day?”
“Head bashed in?” Starsky echoed. “No offense, cap’n, but that doesn’t sound like my idea of a relaxing time.”
Dobey glanced at a file in front of him. “Tony Saronno, age 40, was found in the woods three days ago with his skull crushed. His body was found about a mile away from Thornton Inn, the resort where he’d been staying. It’s a country inn just south of the Oregon border. The police don’t have any suspects or leads, no weapon, no nothing. He managed a handful of ritzy nightclubs in the San Francisco area. The Blue Diamond, The Velvet, couple of others.”
“High end,” Starsky remarked. “That’s the A list in San Francisco.”
“Thornton Inn is a pricey resort,” Hutch said. “You won’t find janitors or schoolteachers taking their vacations there.”
“Or cops,” Starsky muttered. Hutch grinned.
“Well, there’s gonna be two cops there tomorrow,” Dobey said, but a knock at the door interrupted further discussion.
“Come in,” Dobey called.
A tall man entered, a mane of thick salt and pepper hair topping a narrow, lined face, a lean, agile body clad in a suede jacket and jeans that nevertheless spoke of money. He nodded at them and looked expectantly at Dobey.
“Am I too early, Hal?”
“Come on in, Pete,” Dobey said. “This is Detective Hutchinson, Detective Starsky – my old friend Peter Thornton.”
The man leaned over to grasp their hands in a firm grip, dark eyes taking them in with swift, measuring interest.
“Sit down, Pete,” Dobey invited. “I’ve been filling my men in on the situation.”
“Why all this fuss over one killing?” Hutch asked politely.
Thornton answered. “Because there’ve been two. Two men killed in nearly the same place, in exactly the same manner. The only thing they had in common was that they were guests at my hotel.”
Captain Dobey read from the file. “Vincent Gabriel had been a guest at the resort for 10 of his planned 14 days when his body was found in the woods by a hunter. His head was bashed in. He wasn’t robbed. He was a respectable businessman from Seattle, former pro football player, married with two kids, age 39, at the resort for some fishing while his wife took the kids to visit her parents in Portland. Owns – owned – a couple of car dealerships. Jaguars, that kind of thing. No financial troubles, no domestic troubles, no ties to crime. That was last May, nearly four months ago. Now there’s Anthony Saronno, age 40, single. Found three days ago, same way. As far as we know, the two men had no ties whatsoever.”
“I want you two detectives to come up as guests – say, a couple of wealthy businessmen – and see what you can dig up that the police there have missed,” Thornton said.
“Wouldn’t it be better if one of us showed up as an employee?” Hutch suggested. “We could cover more ground.”
But Thornton was already shaking his head. “True, but I don’t have any openings right now, and all my people know it. It’d look suspicious. No one will think twice about a couple of last-minute guests.”
“You think it might be one of your people?” Hutch asked, and Thornton shrugged.
“If it was a guest … that’s a long way to go and a lot of money to pay to kill someone and put yourself on a short list of suspects.”
Watching him, Starsky said, “You’ve really thought this out.”
“Once a cop, always a cop, I suppose.”
“And you were one of the best,” Dobey said.
“But I’m rusty,” Thornton said, though he accepted the compliment with a grin. “And I can’t poke around without raising suspicion.”
“But why us?” Starsky asked.
“The local cops have already been all over the place and come up empty … well, this place is my livelihood and my retirement. People won’t want to come back if they think there’s some sort of psycho hanging around in the woods picking off innocent vacationers. I want it cleared up professionally and with discretion, and I don’t know of any private investigators that I trust. I called Hal,” he nodded at Dobey, “hoping to call in a personal favor.”
Dobey said, “You can rely on Starsky and Hutch. They’re my best men.”
The praise was gruff, matter-of-fact as always. And the partners grinned. Then Dobey played his trump card.
“That is, if they’re willing to do it. I can’t order them.” He and his friend Thornton gazed hopefully at the two detectives.
“I’ll give you two weeks,” Dobey said. “With pay. We’ve worked out what you might call a loan with the local P.D. up there. The sooner you clear it up, the sooner you can start enjoying your vacation.”
“With my gratitude and complimentary use of all the inn’s facilities,” Thornton added.
The partners exchanged a look. They had no hot cases at the moment; investigating a couple of murders in an upscale resort sounded better than slogging through a pile of overdue paperwork, and Dobey’d covered their asses so many times it’d take a lot for them to say no to any favor he asked.
Hutch said, “We’ll do what we can, Mr. Thornton.”
* * *
Outside they began the not unwelcome process of transferring their paperwork and roster of less-than-engaging open cases to other detectives. Starsky stared down at his typewriter for a moment while Hutch quickly sorted manila folders.
Recognizing the tone, Hutch said flatly, “No.”
Starsky looked up under his brows. “No what?”
“No, I do not think Captain Dobey is sending us on a milk run because he thinks you’re too fragile to sneeze by yourself without falling apart.” Hutch used his lecturing tone, the one that told Starsky he was being an idiot. It worked, drawing a half-smile out of his partner.
Hutch kept working, piling folders on top of folders with decisive slaps. “You call a double homicide a milk run? That’s not fragile, Starsk, that’s jaded.”
The smile broadened. “Okay. Say—” with a complete change of tone and expression—“When do I get to meet this Dolores who’s takin’ up so many of your evenings?”
Hutch forced a smile. Dolores. Even her name was perfect; Dolores was perfect for him, at least right now. “When the time’s right.”
* * *
They took a 727 from L.A. to San Francisco, then a little turboprop to Eureka, where they picked up a rental car far nicer than anything either of them could have afforded.
Hutch spent a few minutes figuring out the power everything this flashy hulk of a car seemed to have, while Starsky ran running commentary:
“Flight Zebra Three, you have permission to take off. You’re blockin’ the runway. What’s the delay?”
With a last dirty look toward his grinning partner, Hutch took off northeast. Starsky slouched in his seat, the reports piled in his lap, and closed his eyes.
Hutch drove in silence – nearly absolute silence; the car was so well-padded and insulated the road was no more than the faintest hum under his ass, and the engine a mere purr – and could have sworn he didn’t once glance at his partner for at least 10 minutes.
“What?” Starsky snapped, and Hutch jumped.
“What do you mean, what?” he said automatically.
“You know what I mean what,” Starsky said.
Without thinking, Hutch said, “You didn’t flirt.”
“What?” This one was puzzled rather than impatient.
“With the stewardesses,” Hutch explained. “You didn’t even –” He stopped himself from saying ‘look at them,’ vaguely sensing a dangerous direction. “Talk to them.”
“So?” Mildly belligerent, now.
Hutch gave him a look heavy with the weight of every single day of their partnership. “So.”
And Starsky gave in. “You know I hate airplanes. Tin cans shootin’ across the sky, canned air, canned food …”
“First time I’ve ever heard you complain about canned food,” Hutch murmured.
“I’m fine,” Starsky said. “Feel better already.”
“I didn’t say anything,” Hutch defended himself.
“Yes you did.”
“No, I didn’t. You started this conversation, meathead.”
Starsky opened his mouth. Shut it. Gave Hutch a head-tilted glare that promised vengeance.
Hutch drove in silence for another, oh, 90 seconds, before saying mildly, “So, since you brought it up—”
“I’m fine!” Starsky snapped. Then snorted, a reluctant laugh.
Hutch ventured a grin. “Okay.”
Starsky prodded him fondly, then settled in to read the reports on the two killings, occasionally voicing some detail or other.
Hutch half-listened, finding his partner’s voice soothing, comfortable. Maybe too comfortable, in that it allowed his imagination to wander into here-be-dragons territory, as it had done often of late.
Sensing it, Hutch made himself focus on the case. “Gimme the list of suspects – people – again, will you, Starsk?”
He listened to pages rustling for a moment.
“Okay. We got the staff. Housekeeper’s a 50-year-old woman named Melendez and her two daughters, been with Thornton for five years. Cook’s been there for 10, plus he’s an old pal from Thornton’s police days, plus he has a bum leg from a car accident so he can’t get around real well. Name’s Bachmann, two Ns, and he’s got an assistant, Phyllis Jack, and a couple of waiters he just hired, so they’re on the list of unlikely suspects. Wrangler – what the hell is that?” He glanced up.
“Guy who takes care of the horses, I guess,” Hutch suggested.
“Oh. Well. He’s a guy named Yasha – Yashimura.”
Hutch shot him a look. “He’s got a Japanese wrangler?”
Philosophical, Starsky shrugged. “They got horses in Japan. Marian Hooper the hostess, Tommy Petrone and Mike Radford, bell boys and general help, it says here, Chris Parker, tennis instructor …” His voice took on a comical lilt, “And Madelaine Romaine, masseuse.” He waggled his eyebrows at his partner. “That’s where you can find me.”
Hutch ignored the twinge of irritation that brought on and said magnanimously, “You could probably use it. You’re still movin’ a little stiff, partner.”
He sensed his partner’s surprise – Starsky had fooled everyone else into thinking he was 100 percent, though he ought to have known he couldn’t fool Hutch. Still, he’d kept his tone casual; it was a delicate balance, worrying, but not wanting Starsky to think he considered him weak, a liability.
Starsky went on after the slightest pause.
“That’s everybody in house. Guests: Joy Burke, Mr and Mrs Cameron, Jordain and Alais Duprez, Rick Gallant, Mr and Mrs Leahy, Diana Salazar. And us.”
“How many of them were there when Saronno got killed?”
“Looks like … all of ’em have been here a week. The Camerons are planning to leave tomorrow. Everyone else is here through the weekend.”
“How about when the other guy got killed, the former athlete? Vince Gabriel. Any repeat customers?”
More paper shuffling. “Hm. Burke, Duprez, Salazar.”
“Burke, Duprez, Salazar,” Hutch repeated, correcting Starsky’s pronunciation of Duprez.
“Or it could be one of Thornton’s people,” Starsky said.
“Or some random backwoods lunatic.”
“Could we try to keep a little optimism here?” Hutch muttered, not really irritated.
Starsky grinned. “I’m optimistic about gettin’ a massage.” He wriggled in his seat and Hutch rolled his eyes, fighting a grin. It was good to see his partner so animated. So alive.
Again he forced his brain back from a tempting, damnable detour.
“Any of these people have records?”
The sound of more papers shuffling. “Hm. Burke and Salazar own a film company, Jupiter Films. Duprez—” Typically, he heavily emphasized the second syllable to show he’d taken Hutch’s correction – “has a tax evasion conviction from eight years ago. Hooper … that’s the hostess … hm.” He looked up at his partner. “Prostitution.”
Hutch considered this. “Thornton’s got to know about that, though.”
“They probably met when he busted her,” Starsky said. “Gallant has a couple of arrests for assault but no convictions.”
“That place is a rogues gallery,” Hutch said.
“We’ll fit right in,” Starsky said, closing the file and leaning back in the seat with a sigh.
He dozed after a while, leaning against the well-padded door as the car ate up the miles between town and the resort, miles leading through, first, farmland, then increasingly steep wooded hills dotted with only the most occasional signs of civilization. Hutch felt his shoulders and back unknotting as he took in the unspoiled beauty around him; it would’ve been perfect if they were really coming here for a vacation.
Although he doubted he’d’ve agreed to such a thing had it been suggested. Right now he couldn’t afford to be too cosy with his partner. He’d been wondering for weeks if Starsky had noticed it – wondered, in his more rational moments, if he was a delusional idiot for even hoping his partner hadn’t. But Starsky hadn’t said anything, hadn’t, himself, acted strangely.
Which, knowing Starsky, might easily mean Hutch should prepare himself for an ambush at any moment. His partner was sharper than a lot of people gave him credit for, and when it came to Hutch, Starsky was as near an expert as there was, Hutch included.
The shooting had broken them both open in different ways, and although they’d put themselves and each other back together, Hutch sometimes wondered what had escaped from inside, what demon, once buried deep within him, now rode on his shoulder, whispering constant, insidious things.
And sometimes he wondered if it wasn’t a demon at all.
After a while Hutch realized Starsky was awake, still slumped against the door but one hand now gently rubbing at his sternum.
“Hurt?” he said. Damn it.
“Hm?” Starsky looked down. “Nah.”
Hutch closed his traitor mouth, knowing Starsky didn’t need platitudes about appearances or healing or any of the things he’d been plodding through as day-to-day realities. He swiftly considered and discarded a multitude of things to say before glancing over, helpless, to see Starsky watching him.
“It’s okay,” Starsky murmured, a tiny smile hinting that that just might be true. And from somewhere Hutch found words.
“Remember Lonnie Craig?” He didn’t wait for a response because he knew perfectly well that Starsky remembered. “Remember the day of the funeral, when you went to his mother’s and talked to his family?”
Hutch paused and Starsky obligingly prompted him.
Hutch looked down at his hands, flexing nervously on the steering wheel. “I watched the whole time.”
“I know. I could feel your eyes on me.”
“And when they all gathered around you …” Hutch’s throat closed; he could still see it, still feel the painful swell of pride in his chest. He swallowed. “When you came back, I tried as hard as I could, but …” He smiled, glancing at his partner. “I just couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to tell you that you’re the bravest and the best human being I’ve ever known.”
Starsky flushed, a startling rarity on his dark skin.
Hutch held his own gentle smile. “Not without crying like a baby, anyway.”
And Starsky laughed, unexpectedly.
“Sorry it took me so long to say it.”
Starsky shook his head. “You say it every day. Just not with words. Good thing, too – we’d both be blubbin’ like babies all the time.” He squinted sidelong at his partner, embarrassed. “Don’t go putting me on a pedestal.”
Hutch laughed. “No, I know how scared you are of heights.”
The road curved gently up through the wood, breaking from the trees at last to reveal the Inn itself, a broad stone mansion fronted with smooth lawns, backed by more pine woods climbing up the mountainside.
Pulling to the side of the narrow road, Hutch slowed to a stop, rolled the window down and inhaled.
“Taste that fresh fall air. Clear. Brisk. Unpolluted—”
“Cold,” Starsky finished.
Hutch laid a penitent finger on the button and waited until the car was sealed again before saying quietly:
Hutch looked at his partner. Starsky’s devilish expression sobered.
“Hutch, it’s been six months. You gotta stop treatin’ me like I’m made of glass.” He arched his eyebrows. “Okay?”
Hutch nodded, knowing it was easier said than done. “I’ll try. Sorry.”
Starsky shrugged. “It’s okay. Nice someone cares.” A sudden grin stretched across his face. “Come on. Let’s get out of this hot car and into a cold murder case.”
They crossed a stone bridge over a swift, rocky creek, drove past a few acres of well manicured grounds, and pulled onto the gravel drive that circled round to the porticoed entrance. As soon as they stopped a young man in a dark uniform came out.
“Welcome to Thornton Inn.” He grinned at them, holding out his hand for the car keys. “I’ll bring your bags in and put your car away. Miss Hooper is expecting you.”
They exchanged a look, then left the porter to his work and went inside.
A wide hall, wood paneled, well-lit and elegant, led through the middle of the house to broad glass doors far at the back. They passed the open doors to a living area at the left and a dining hall, white cloths already laid, at the right, then approached a smiling middle-aged red-head who stood behind a mahogany counter.
“Mr Hutchinson and Mr Starsky,” she said, her voice low and slightly rough. “Welcome to Thornton Inn. I hope you’ll enjoy your vacation. I’m Marian Hooper, the hostess. If you have any questions at all, please feel free to ask me or any of the staff.” She lifted a pen in one well-manicured hand and turned the ledger. “If you’d be so good as to sign in, I’ll show you to your suite.”
As they strolled toward the stairs she pointed out the dining room, library and lounge, indicating also the doors to the pool and, beyond that, the tennis courts, gym, sauna/massage rooms, and stables. They passed a middle-aged couple and two women in their 30s dressed in tennis gear, all of whom greeted them cordially.
“Everyone seems to be having a good time,” Starsky observed.
“We do our best to see to it,” Marian said as she led them upstairs. “May I ask how you heard about us?”
Hutch trotted out their prepared story. “Met Mr. Thornton down in San Francisco a year or so ago. He told us all about this place, said if we ever needed some rest and relaxation he’d be sure we enjoyed every minute of it. So my friend and I decided to take him up on it.”
She glanced at Starsky. “You’re business partners, I understand?”
“Manufacturing,” Starsky said. “Construction materials, mostly. Not very glamorous.”
Marian smiled. “But it’s a living.”
“You can say that again,” Hutch said.
* * *
The suite boasted a living room with a bar and fireplace and two bedrooms, one on either side, with facilities ensuite; their bags were already placed on stands at the foot of each bed. The wide french windows in the main room opened onto a broad balcony overlooking a sloping lawn and glimpses of a lake or river about 1 mile down.
“Cocktails at 6, gentlemen,” Marian said, waving them into the room. “Dinner is at 8. Or if you prefer, room service is available 24 hours a day.”
Starsky slid a hand into his pocket but she was already gone, closing the door quietly behind her.
“You don’t tip the hostess, dummy,” Hutch said, going to the windows to look around.
“If she was a hooker, I bet she was a high-priced one,” Starsky said.
“I guess one service industry’s pretty much like another,” Hutch cracked.
“Wonder how close she is to Thornton.” He wandered up behind Hutch, leaning his chin on his partner’s shoulder. Hutch smiled and they stared across the grounds in silence for a moment.
“Where you wanna start?” Starsky said in his ear, and Hutch flinched as his partner’s chin dug in.
“Well, drinks and dinner will give us a chance to mingle with the guests, see if we get some leads. Tomorrow’s soon enough to canvas the staff.”
“Sounds good to me, quimosabe. Especially the dinner part.”
Starsky deliberately drove his chin into the tendon along Hutch’s shoulder with every word, and Hutch winced, laughing, and turned to face his partner.
“I think you need to take some lessons from the masseuse, buddy,” he said, pushing Starsky away. “Come on, let’s get changed and go mingle.”
They cleaned up and went downstairs to the lounge, stopping in the door to survey the scene. The information in the files enabled them to sketch the identities of several of the guests now standing or sitting, draped in silk and velvet, around the dimlit lounge. The Camerons and Leahys, two well-dressed, slightly bored-looking couples, were the least likely suspects.
Starsky glanced at his partner, indicating Gallant with a tilt of his head, and Hutch nodded. Just as sharp crooks smelled cops, good cops knew instinctively when someone was shady, and Gallant had shady written all over him. He was a big man, hard-eyed, bulky with muscle and fat, talking to two elegantly dressed women in their 30s, one brunette, one red-haired.
“Burke and Salazar,” Hutch suggested, snagging two glasses of champagne from a passing waiter’s tray and handing one to his partner.
Starsky sipped at it, said, “Let’s get friendly,” and touch his partner’s elbow to move them forward.
Hutch raised a brow. “One sip of bubbly and you’re all over me like a cheap suit?”
Predictably, Starsky rolled his eyes. “Ha ha. You oughta take that act on the road, wise guy. Friendly with them. Come on.”
Hutch was sitting in the window seat next to the French doors when Starsky came in around 11 o’clock; he crossed the thickly carpeted floor, kicked off his dress shoes, and eased in next to his partner, gazing out as Hutch was doing across the cunningly mood-lit lawns and out to the blue-black glitter of the lake.
“Pretty,” he murmured, working his bow tie loose. Hutch hmmed agreement.
“I think we can cross the Camerons off our list,” Starsky said.
Hutch nodded. “Same with the Leahys. The Duprezes aren’t a couple.” He picked up the file folder from the cushion beside him.
“Yeah, I noticed.”
Hutch grinned. “I noticed you noticing. I especially noticed Alais Duprez noticing you noticing. And her father noticing her noticing you—”
“You’re makin’ my head spin,” Starsky complained. “Although that might be the champagne.”
“Be careful,” Hutch said. “That girl’s got a yen for you, and her daddy didn’t look like he was ready to admit she’s out of pigtails and bobby socks.” Watching pretty Alais Duprez, maybe 18, tall, blonde and right at that endearing stage where a girl longed to be seductive but simply lacked the arsenal, had been the most entertaining part of an evening spent mostly crossing suspects off an already short list. She’d looked his partner up and down and right back up again, smiled like it was her birthday, and latched onto him with all the guileless adoration of puppy love. Starsky, of course, was too soft-hearted to be anything less than gentlemanly to her, and it’d taken her father’s stern intervention to finally draw the pouting child away.
Starsky gave him a look. “Girls don’t wear pigtails and bobby socks anymore, Hutch. Except in dirty movies.” He tugged at his tie again.
“You know what I mean,” Hutch said. “But I agree that they’re not likely suspects. That leaves Gallant – a thug if we’ve ever seen one, in spite of the $200 suit.”
Starsky stood up. “Lemme get outta this monkey suit. I can’t think all wrapped up like a mummy.”
Five minutes later – Hutch winced mentally at the image of the rental tux scattered like shrapnel around the bedroom – Starsky returned to the window seat, clad in grey sweatpants and a dark blue t-shirt with a rip next to the pocket. He settled in next to Hutch again, despite the lack of space, unceremoniously bumping his partner over with his hip, and put his bare feet up on the cushions.
“Am I in your way?” Hutch said archly, scooting closer to the window to make room.
“Nah,” Starsky said, snuggling down. “I do my best thinkin’ in your pocket.”
Hutch turned his face toward the cold glass to hide his smile.
“Joy Burke and Diana Salazar,” Starsky supplied, picking up where they’d left off. “Real nice. Classy ladies. Didn’t seem to mind my asking questions, but they said they didn’t know Saronno or Gabriel at all. Said they make movies for women. They smiled a lot.”
Hutch looked at him; Starsky shrugged. “They smiled a lot.”
“Gallant’s hostile.” Hutch opened the file on his lap. “He didn’t like me asking questions.”
“Didn’t fall for those big innocent baby blues, eh?” Starsky purred.
“But he wasn’t here when Gabriel was killed,” Hutch continued. “So assuming there’s a connection between the two killings, he’s off the list of possibles.”
Starsky read over Hutch’s shoulder. “It’s lookin’ more and more like it has to be someone who works for Thornton.”
“But he didn’t think it was any of his people,” Hutch reminded him.
“Bosses have been wrong before. Cops too.” Starsky’s voice was getting a little fuzzy. Hutch considered how long the day had been, and the fact that his partner still tired more easily than before. Just a little; the sort of thing only he, or Starsky himself, would notice, the sort neither would admit to anyone else. He flipped slowly through the files, keeping his voice soft, lulling.
“The only one on staff with a record is Hooper, and she’s been with Thornton long enough that he’d have to know if she was involved in something that might lead to murder. We’ll have to ask him about her.” He thought about it. One killing might be accidental, a crime of passion, a chance robbery or the like. Two suggested a more calculated motive, despite the violence of the assaults. If they could just find the common thread between the two dead men…
Hutch heard a faint snore and realized Starsky had dozed off leaning on him, as relaxed as if Hutch were a pillow or a giant teddy bear.
Hutch snorted a soft laugh. There had never been any discussion, decisions, or official agreement that no lines of property or propriety divided them; nothing of what they were had come about deliberately, so he couldn’t pinpoint when it had happened that they’d become virtually two halves of one man. Once in a while – he supposed it happened to Starsky too – his partner would do or say something that reminded him, like a slap in the face, that they were two separate beings. Hutch hated those moments, uncontrollable, unpredictable, rare but never rare enough.
But this … this was to be cherished.
Except … sighing, Hutch gently shook his partner awake. He knew that neither his back nor his partner’s would appreciate spending the night in this position.
“Go to bed.” He got up, lifting Starsky to his feet and propelling him in the direction of his bedroom. “See you in the morning.”
Starsky staggered obediently into the other room. “’Night.”
* * *
Hutch woke out of a sound sleep at the slight movement of the king-size bed. He blinked toward the clock until the numbers 3:13 came into focus, then turned over to see his partner on the other side of the bed, on top of the blankets, curled on his side facing Hutch.
Hutch’s insides turned, ridiculously, to mush. He’d known his partner hadn’t slept very well since the shooting, for reasons both physical and psychological, but it was rare for Starsky to admit it, even to him.
“Sorry,” Starsky said, his voice fuzzy with sleepiness. “Didn’t mean to wake ya. I can’t sleep in there. Too quiet. Thought if I could hear you breathin’ …” He shrugged against the pillow and Hutch smiled.
“Well, get under the blankets before you freeze to death.” He worked the covers out from under his partner’s squirming body and tucked him in – then, jokingly, yanked the blankets over Starsky’s head. He used the time Starsky spent struggling free to turn back over and face away from his partner. The last thing either of them needed was to have to deal with Hutch’s secondary reaction to the situation.
Immediately Hutch realized his position could be read as rejection, especially by a partner in a vulnerable state of mind. But if he turned back … if their bodies came into contact …
He found himself offering up a bizarre sort of prayer – to whom, he didn’t know – that his partner be his usual physically presumptuous self, and relaxed when Starsky scooted up behind him, not touching, but stakeout-close, near enough to be entirely aware of each other.
Starsky said tentatively, “You mind?”
Hutch smiled. “Go to sleep. Don’t hog the covers.”
A breath of laughter tickled the back of his neck, followed by a muffled “G’night.”
* * *
In the morning over coffee and pastries they discussed step two.
“Time to tackle the staff,” Starsky said. “Spread it around, keep people from noticing how many questions we’re asking.” He bit into a blueberry muffin and washed it down with the resort’s freshly ground coffee.
Hutch nodded, tearing apart a peach-preserve-filled pastry. “I’ll go horseback riding if you want to try a game of tennis.”
Starsky looked up at him. “Why don’t you play tennis and I’ll go horseback riding?”
Hutch scowled. “You hate horseback riding.”
Starsky shrugged. “I could use the lesson. Just like you could use some tennis lessons.”
Hutch let his eyebrows express skeptical surprise. “If you’re sure …” He sensed a reason under the patently ridiculous “lesson” explanation, but something in the set of Starsky’s face told him not to pursue it at the moment. Starsky’d been gone when he woke up, a relief to him and a frustration to his unprincipled morning erection, but Starsky handled his own moments of neediness better when they pretended, for a little while afterward, that they’d never happened.
“Always wanted to be a cowboy,” Starsky drawled.
“Yeah, a Cadillac cowboy,” Hutch needled. Then he shrugged. “It’s your sore backside.”
Starsky smiled. “That’s why the masseuse is number two on my list.”
* * *
The tennis pro came as a bit of a shock.
“Hi.” He smiled, showing perfect teeth in a gorgeous face, topped with thick chestnut hair and complemented by more than six feet and about 25 years of perfectly bronzed and sculpted body. “I’m Chris Parker.”
“Ken.” Hutch tried not to stare. “Ken Hutchinson.”
Chris pointed the way to the courts. “Have you played before?”
“Off and on,” Hutch said, matching his stride to the pro’s.
“So you’re looking for a workout more than a lesson?”
Hutch smiled. “Well, maybe a little of both. I’m kind of out of shape.” He patted his stomach for emphasis and Chris gave him a quick once-over.
“Really?” The word expressed just the right amount of flattering skepticism. Hutch tripped over the step leading up to the courts, catching himself before Chris noticed.
Chris indicated the small pro shop, its broad windows and glass double doors opening onto the courts, displaying clothes and gear.
“Clothes and rackets et cetera are here for the guests,” he said. “You can get to the gym, showers, steam room and massage room through there—” He pointed to a door at the back of the shop.
Hutch nodded, making note of the layout, and dumped his gym bag beside the shop door. “I didn’t bring a racket.”
Chris turned to the wall of hung-up rackets. “We’ve got a pretty good selection. What size grip do you like?”
Sounds filthy. “Uh … five-eighths.”
Chris began sorting through the rackets on the wall. “Wood, aluminum, or Jimmy Connors steel?” He cast a brief grin over his shoulder.
Chris pulled one off the wall and tossed it at him. “How’s it feel?”
Hutch shrugged, wondering if it was him or if Chris really was dipping everything he said in innuendo. “It’s fine.”
“Okay.” Chris collected his own racket and a can of new tennis balls from behind the counter and said, “Let’s hit some balls.”
* * *
Starsky limped at a leisurely pace back from the stables to the main house, circling around to the annex that contained the tennis courts, gym, sauna and – crucially – the massage room. His two hours of equine engagement had done much to reinforce his theory that if God had meant men to ride horses he wouldn’t have given them …
Starsky chuckled to himself as he limped around the east wing of the main house. Just beyond it, on the other side of a narrow belt of bushes and trees, lay the tennis courts; two were empty. Hutch and the pro were rallying energetically on the third.
He stopped, invisible behind the landscaping, and watched.
First he noticed, with some pride, how well his partner played, how sleek and powerful his movements were around the court. He glowed with vitality and strength, and Starsky found himself smiling as he watched.
Eventually his eye was drawn to the pro, Chris Patrick. He too was a vibrant specimen of healthy masculinity, his muscles more consciously sculpted than Hutch’s, his body more artfully tanned. With his thick, tousled chestnut hair and flawless, gleaming teeth, he looked like a male model. Perfect. Too perfect, in Starsky’s view. His gaze returned to his partner. A more natural, less deliberately designed man, like Hutch, was more …
Face hot, Starsky moved away, not wanting to be caught mooning over his own partner like an idiot, and headed for the gym.
Bad enough being an idiot without getting caught at it.
Then, inevitably, he wondered what would happen if he did get caught.
* * *
They met in the middle, sweaty and panting, and leaned on the net.
Chris wiped his face and blew out a breath, grinning at Hutch. “You’re not quite the sedentary businessman you said you were, are you?”
Hutch shrugged. “Well … it came back pretty quick. You still kicked my ass.”
Chris chuckled. “Just doing my job.”
They went to the side and made use of the waiting towels and water bottles.
After another brief scrutiny, the kind that Hutch suspected he was supposed to just notice, Chris said, “How about a cold beer?” He nodded toward the pro shack. “I think you stayed hydrated enough while we played that it won’t hurt you.”
Hutch smiled, pleased by the man’s conscientiousness. “Yeah, sure.” He followed Chris across the concrete, aware that he was agreeing to something more than just a cold one. Just what, he wasn’t sure, but he found he didn’t really mind. At least it would be an easy opportunity to find out whether the pro should be removed from their short list of likely suspects.
The beers turned out to be in a refrigerator in Chris Parker’s apartment, attached to the back of the pro shop.
Hutch sat at the bar separating small living room from smaller kitchen and looked around the tidy, cheerful apartment.
Chris popped the tops off a couple of Coronas, grabbed a knife and a lime from a handy lemon-and-lime basket on the counter, and in seconds presented Hutch with beer and twist.
“Cheers.” They touched bottles.
“Thanks.” Hutch took a sip, then tipped his head back for a longer draught; the icy beer felt heavenly going down. “Ah. That’s good.” He lowered the bottle, saw Chris watching him, his own beer forgotten in his hand. The pro instantly lowered his head, but he was smiling, and Hutch felt himself blush.
“How long have you worked here?”
Setting aside knife and wounded lime, Chris said, “Three years. Since college. Trying to save up enough to go back to school.”
Chris looked up. “How’d you—”
Hutch indicated the wall of books. “Your choice of reading material’s a little out of the ordinary.”
Chris grinned. “Yeah. Can’t be a tennis bum forever, much as I’d like to.” He collected his beer and came around the counter, sitting on the arm of his couch. Not too close, Hutch noticed, appreciating it. He still wasn’t sure what was going on – no, he knew damn’ well what was going on. What he didn’t know was why he was doing it. Self-torture? Practice? Some sort of weird test of himself?
Dolores would know, he thought, and smiled wryly. Dolores would understand. He had long talks with her. Sometimes she didn’t say much, but things became clear to him anyway.
He looked at Chris. “Just life. It surprises you sometimes, you know?” He took another long drink, hyperaware of the pro’s eyes on him, of his own throat muscles working as he swallowed.
“Yeah,” Chris said with feeling. “It sure as hell does.”
“Speaking of surprises,” Hutch said, “I heard about the guy who got killed. What the hell happened?”
Chris shrugged. “Beats me. That whole scene was awful. Did you know he wasn’t the first one? Another guy was killed a while back. He was a guest here too.”
Hutch shook his head. “Two people? And they never caught the guy who did it?”
“Did you know either of them?” Hutch took another gulp of beer, surreptitiously watching Chris’ reaction.
“No. I mean, you know, I saw them both. They both played a little tennis while they were here. But I didn’t see them other than that. It’s just really strange. The whole thing.” He stared blankly at the far wall for a moment. “Really strange and wrong.” He turned his eyes to Hutch, and they warmed visibly. “Like you said, man. Life really surprises you sometimes.” He drained his beer, looked at Hutch’s empty bottle, and said, “Want another?”
Hutch considered it, finding himself tempted. “Better not. I think I need a shower before lunch.” He got up and Chris did the same, kicking off his tennis shoes.
Hutch collected his bag and went to the gym showers, not as surprised as he ought to have been that Chris followed. After all, there was nothing odd about two men using communal showers after working out. Nothing odd except that he knew damn well there was more to it. That more prickled along his sweat-damp back as he preceded Chris into the tiled shower area attached to the small gym room.
He dumped his bag on the bench and sat down to untie his shoes. For his part, Chris strolled past, stripping as he walked.
“Towels and robes there,” he said, indicating a closet along the wall. Hutch looked up to see him drop his minimal pile of clothing beside the shower stalls, stepping into the nearest – in full view of his audience of one – and turning the water on full blast.
What the hell have I gotten myself into?
He’d certainly seen his share of naked men. His safety, his position, even his life (and, of late, he occasionally thought, his sanity) had sometimes depended on controlling his reactions. But it was a little different here, so far from home, with a man so physically superb, a man clearly flaunting himself for Hutch’s benefit.
He finished getting undressed, grabbed a washcloth and towel from the cabinet, and slapped them over his shoulder, keeping his body language casual and friendly as he walked past Chris to the next stall, grateful for the dividing wall that at least suggested some level of privacy.
“Where are you from?” Chris asked. Hutch kept his eyes on the wall in front of him and hastily unwrapped the fresh bar of soap in the tray.
“Down south,” he said. “L.A. area. My partner and I run a manufacturing company. This is our first visit to this place.”
“How do you like it so far?”
“We like it fine. Very relaxing.”
“You didn’t bring your wives, either of you?”
“No wives,” Hutch said, washing briskly. He was all too aware, even out of the corner of his eye, that Chris was bathing leisurely, stroking soapy hands slowly over his body, turning a simple act of hygiene into an erotic water dance.
“That’s convenient,” Chris said, tilting his face up and letting the water sluice over his body. Hutch rinsed as quickly as he’d washed, grabbing his towel and wrenching the faucets off.
“Well, neither of us has found the right girl yet, that’s all,” he announced. “Besides, our work keeps us pretty busy.” Eyes averted, he left the stall and returned to his gym bag. He dried off efficiently and pulled on clean shorts and a t-shirt, pulling sandals out of the bag to don once he was outside.
“Thanks for the workout,” he called back, hearing the shower shut off as he headed for the door.
“Ken,” Chris called after him.
Hutch stopped at the door, half turning to see the man standing there in nothing but a damp, close-draped, entirely too thin towel.
Chris grinned. “Rematch tomorrow? My morning’s free.”
Hutch eased his grip on the door handle. “Sure.” It was easier than he’d expected to smile. “See you.” He left.
It felt like a deliberate slap in the face of his defenses when he walked into their suite to see Starsky seated by the open french doors, hair wet, shirt lying across his knees and his shorts-clad body moodlit by the noon sun as he rubbed something onto his own chest.
Hutch swallowed against a temptation far more poignant than mere beauty. “Hey.”
Starsky looked up, his eyes not quite meeting Hutch’s.
“How’d the horseback riding go?”
Starsky kept rubbing, shrugged. “Okay. Yashimura’s a nice guy. Real mellow. Didn’t laugh at me – or at least not out loud. Hard to imagine him killing anyone. He never met either of the dead guys; guess they didn’t go in for the cowboy routine.”
“How about Madelaine?” Hutch gave the masseuse’s name a sultry twist.
Starsky dropped both hands into his lap and made a face. “The woman’s a 50-year-old Russian with the body of a tank an’ the technique of a stormtrooper. She rubbed my ass like she thought a genie was gonna come out.”
Droll, Hutch said, “Did she get her three wishes?”
Another grimace. Grudgingly, he added, “She’s a good masseuse, though, gotta give her that. My muscles are all rubbery.”
Hutch grinned. “So when’s the wedding?”
“Hardy har har. Let’s just say if she wanted to kill a guy, she could do it with her bare hands. But I think she’s a no-go.”
“What’re you doing?”
“She gave me this.” He held up a jar. “Said it’d keep the scar tissue more flexible if I used it after takin’ a bath or showerin’.” He reached around his own body, trying surreptitiously to work it into the scars on his back.
“How’d you explain it?” Hutch asked gently, coming closer.
“She asked if it was an accident.” Starsky’s mouth tweaked in a brief grim smile. “I told her no.”
Hutch unclenched his suddenly knotted fists. No, it was no accident. He sometimes thought the only thing that had kept him from killing Gunther was the fear that Starsky might, one day, think less of him for it.
“Here—” He reached for the jar.
Starsky automatically released it, but said, “You don’t have to—”
Starsky twisted around and Hutch gave him a stern look. “Don’t do that.”
Starsky didn’t even pretend to misunderstand. He sighed and straightened out again. Hutch sat behind him, dipped his fingers in the unguent and smoothed it onto the scars on his partner’s back.
“Smells nice.” He rubbed it in firmly, feeling his partner shift a little as he hit sore spots here and there. Only determined staring at the scars themselves, dwelling on the pain and fear Starsky’d gone through, kept his mind and body in a clinical mode.
And even then, only just. Stopping his shaking hand an inch from bestowing a nontherapeutic caress to the bare shoulder before him, Hutch sealed the jar and got up, going to the window, where he stretched, carefully keeping his back to his partner and reining in his thoughts. He’d be sore in a couple of odd places after three intense sets of tennis; idly he stared down toward the lake, considering whether he should sample the hot tub tonight before bed, whether he should risk inviting his partner.
“You really are beautiful.”
Yanked out of his worrying, Hutch turned, scanning the room, wondering what the hell – who the hell – his partner was talking about. Finally he looked at Starsky, who sat as he had throughout Hutch’s reaction, gazing thoughtfully up at him.
“D-did you just say ..?”
Starsky smiled. “Yeah.”
Hutch peered at him. “Starsk, are you okay?”
“Yeah.” He was still smiling, not a kidding-around kind of grin, but one of his dangerously thoughtful expressions.
On cue, he said softly, “I been thinking.”
Nervously, Hutch licked his lips and leaned against the wall, trying to keep his expression skeptical and not frightened. When Starsky’s voice dropped like this, it was serious.
“I mean, I always knew it, you know. I got eyes. But—”
Squirming, Hutch attempted, “Starsk—”
Gently, “No, lemme finish. You know how hard it is for me to talk about stuff like this.” A quick smile, just for him, and Hutch shut up, hot, his stomach flip-flopping. What in God’s name made you imagine, even in your wildest fantasies, that you could ever bring up the topic yourself?
“Sometimes, you know, I say stuff, and I guess it sounds pretty stupid. And … maybe it’s what I really think at the time. It probably is. And you say something different, and I act like I’m not hearing you. But I always hear you. You know?”
Still bewildered, Hutch was relieved he could at least answer this truthfully. “I know.”
“And I’ll think about it for a long time. I have to think about stuff I’ve kind of taken for granted and see if it’s time to throw it out, time to let new ideas in. You help me with that.”
“Starsk, you do the same for me.”
Starsky shook his head. “Not like this. Maybe I can get you to try a super hot burrito, or some monster movie you wouldn’t choose yourself in a million years—”
“If you think I’ve only learned unimportant stuff from you, you’ve got another think coming,” Hutch said, his turn to be serious. Starsky’s smile widened a little, but he held up a hand.
“Okay, but … what I’m tryin’ to say is that there are things I used to think were wrong, and you kinda opened a door in my head for me without makin’ me feel stupid for not seeing it was there all along. And since then I’ve done a lot of thinking.”
“Since when?” Hutch asked, thinking, nervously, John Blaine. It has to be.
“For a while. You know how dumb I am.”
Hutch snorted. “Yeah. Dumb like a fox. What’s back of all this, buddy?”
Starsky shook his head again. “Almost dyin’, I guess. At least it made me understand how some things I thought made a difference really don’t. And one of those things was letting myself seeing how beautiful you are. On the outside, I mean. I already knew about the inside.”
Hutch felt his face blaze. Christ, you can’t even take a compliment from the man without freezing up like a schoolgirl.
“I wondered if I was still too chickenshit to look – to really look – so I checked.” Starsky smiled. “Then I wondered if I was too chickenshit to admit it.”
“Well, you’re two for two,” Hutch said, hearing the husky embarrassment in his own voice. “Starsk …”
“Sometimes … I look at you, and I can’t believe how lucky I am.” Starsky laughed, breaking his own too-serious mood. “I sound like a lovestruck newlywed, don’t I?”
Hutch grinned, although he wondered if either of them would ever find the courage to really open the door Starsky’d just now managed to peek through. At least he knew what was behind it; he wasn’t sure, even now, that Starsky had a clear idea.
“Just don’t expect me to carry you over any thresholds,” he teased back, realizing abruptly: We’re both chickening out, here, aren’t we, buddy? And we both know it. “Or your beautiful partner’ll be in a beautiful back brace.”
Starsky twisted his face into comical dismay. “That’d ruin our wedding night for sure.” He picked up his shirt from his knees and shrugged into it. “I’m hungry.”
“What a surprise. Let’s go see if we can rustle up some grub, cowboy.”
They headed out, Starsky’s arm sliding around Hutch’s shoulders as they strolled down the corridor toward the stairs. Starsky gave him a squeeze, and Hutch thought that they just might get through that door, one day.
Downstairs Marian corralled them with a message from “A man called Dobey. He sounded very gruff.”
“Our business manager,” Starsky lied smoothly, taking the note from her. Hutch plucked it out of his partner’s hands and read “Saronno managed clubs – owner Saul Beldon. Fowler, Gallant work for Beldon also. No link to Gabriel – he’s clean. Keep in touch.”
He handed the note back to his partner as they passed through the hotel headed for the poolside lunch buffet.
“Oh yeah,” Starsky said. “I called this morning to ask who owned the nightclubs. It wasn’t in the files.”
“Fowler,” Hutch repeated. “Who the hell’s Fowler?”
“He was one of the guests when Vince Gabriel was killed,” Starsky said, with that perfect memory for details that Hutch outwardly mocked and inwardly relied on. “Not here now.”
Hutch scowled into the sunlight as they exited onto the long verandah. “Seems strange a cop like Thornton would overlook an obvious mob tie like that. He has to have heard of Beldon.”
“Maybe he let it go cuz there’s no tie to the first killing?” Starsky suggested, folding the message to slide it into the pocket of his shirt.
“But it can’t be coincidental that Saronno, Fowler and Gallant work for Beldon,” Hutch argued.
“Irving Fowler’s a 72-year-old bookkeeper with arthritis,” Starsky said, and Hutch stared at him in amazement.
“It was in the files,” Starsky said, not trying to hide his smug grin. “The day he could kill a 40-year-old athlete is the day I could take that masseuse in two falls outta three. Besides, Gabriel didn’t have any criminal ties. There’d be no reason for Beldon to have him killed, even if Fowler coulda done it. Which he couldna.”
“But …” Hutch trailed off, trying and failing to make a connection between the two murders. If Gabriel and Saronno weren’t both mob killings – was it possible neither of them was?
“Yeah. If Saronno was a hit, what does that make Gabriel’s killing?” Starsky said, turning to squint at his partner, keeping his voice low as the Leahys, Camerons and Duprezes came out onto the patio.
A flurry of waves and good afternoons was exchanged. The ladies headed for the pool while the men headed for the outdoor bar.
Starsky continued. “Is it more bizarre that Saronno’s killing might not have anything to do with Beldon, or that there’re two killers running around this place and the two crimes don’t have anything to do with each other?”
“Starsk.” Hutch sighed, taking hold of his partner’s arm. “I hate it when you’re logical, you know that? Let’s go for a swim.”
* * *
“How about taking a stroll out to the scene of the crime later today, or tomorrow?” Hutch said into his towel, rubbing it over his face, then draping it onto his shoulders. “If you think you’ll still be able to walk.”
His partner had just hauled himself out of the water and now sat on the edge beside him, dripping and staring across the pool.
“Good idea,” Starsky said vaguely.
Hutch, following his gaze, saw Alais Duprez talking to Chris Parker – about tennis, from the gestures both were making. They were a beautiful pair: tall, tanned and gorgeous. The impulse to make a Ken and Barbie joke was almost irresistible.
“She does know how to fill out a bikini,” he observed, glancing at his friend. Starsky didn’t react. Hutch collected his partner’s towel and flung it into his face.
“I said,” he repeated as Starsky lowered the towel and scowled at him, “she does know how to fill out a bikini.”
“Come on, like you didn’t notice.”
Seriously, Starsky shook his head. “I was thinkin’.” He carelessly mopped poolwater off his body and draped his towel over one shoulder.
“Is that what they’re calling it these days?” Hutch said, adding, “What about?”
“I think we need to talk to Thornton again,” Starsky said, completely bypassing Hutch’s attempts at humor. “I wanna know more about his people and more about the holes in those reports he gave us.” He popped to his feet with no sign of difficulty and exchanged the damp towel for his sun-warmed shirt.
Hutch got up, glanced around them, and leaned close for a moment.
“Starsk, you okay?”
His partner stopped at one button, delivering a genuinely puzzled glance. “Yeah. Why?”
“You were staring straight at five feet eight inches of feminine pulchritude in about six square inches of swimsuit, and you were thinking about the case – and you wonder why I’m asking if you’re okay?”
“Hey.” Starsky planted a palm against his own chest. “I’m a professional.”
Starsky squinted at him, drawled, “I’m also starvin’.”
Hutch flung an arm around him and squeezed his shoulder. “That’s more like it.”
On the way to the buffet they ran into Joy Burke and Diana Salazar, both women elegant in sleek one-piece swimsuits and oversized sunglasses which they made a point of sliding up onto their heads when they greeted the partners.
“Gentlemen,” Diana said.
“Nice to see you again … David, wasn’t it?” Joy said to Starsky.
He offered her his ladykiller smile. “Got it in one. This is my partner, Ken Hutchinson. Hutch, this is Diana Salazar and Joy Burke.”
Languid handshakes were exchanged.
“So you ladies make movies,” Hutch said with a friendly smile. Both women returned it, looking the partners up and down with a measuring eye.
“Love stories?” Starsky ventured. “Long candlelit dinners, walks on the beach, that sort of thing?”
Hutch nodded. “Sounds nice.”
The women continued smiling. Joy said, “No, as a matter of fact, we produce erotic films for women.”
A moment of silence ensued.
“Eh – erotic –” Starsky stammered.
“For women?” Hutch finished, feeling his face heat up.
“Women are people too,” Joy said. “They enjoy sex just as much as men do.”
“You make dirty movies?” Starsky blurted.
“Starsky.” Hutch attempted quiet but vehement censure past his own surprise. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t heard of the concept, though he’d never met a woman who admitted to enjoying pornography. But these two ladies, attractive and obviously wealthy, were a far cry from the sleazy world of cheap porn he and Starsky had seen in their work.
“Quality erotica for discerning female viewers,” Diana explained. “Speaking of which, have you gentlemen ever considered a career in the arts?”
The meaning behind the women’s direct smiles and sharply measuring stares became crystal clear.
“Er … arts?” Starsky blurted.
“Oh yes,” Joy purred. “You’re both good looking, and you certainly seem to be … very … fit.” She looked them up and down, running a finger along Starsky’s bare arm. Hutch was irresistibly reminded of a rancher thinking of buying a horse.
“Uh, that’s very … um …” Hutch attempted. Starsky forced a smile, but his expression darkened and Hutch felt a sudden drop in the ambient temperature.
“Thanks,” Starsky said, using the end-of-the-line tone he generally saved for criminals, “but I don’t think your lady viewers would find this very … erotic.” He undid the single chaste button and let his shirt fall open to expose the scars along his ribs. Hutch cursed, silently but viciously.
Surprisingly, though, neither woman seemed disgusted. Diana sucked in a little breath of sympathy; Joy, her face pinched as in concern, stopped stroking Starsky’s arm and laid her long-nailed fingers gently on the shiny scar tissue.
“Oh,” she said softly. “That is a shame.” She stroked, seemingly untroubled by the damaged tissue, and Hutch felt a flare of anger as Starsky gaped at her, his own discomfort erased by her response.
“Yes,” she continued, still admiring Starsky’s stomach and chest with slowly roving eyes and fingers. “I’m afraid appearance does matter in our business … more’s the pity… you certainly are very …” Her gaze dipped lower. “ … fit …”
“Yes, well …” Teeth clenched, Hutch reached out and pushed her hand away. Joy and Starsky turned to stare at him.
“Sorry we can’t oblige you ladies,” he lied with a false grin.
Diana looked him up and down. “Well, what about you?”
Acutely aware of Starsky still staring at him in surprise, Hutch said flatly, “We work as a team.”
The knowing smiles returned full force.
“Well.” Joy looked at Starsky again. “Maybe we can work something out after all—”
Hutch grabbed Starsky’s elbow, hard enough to hurt. “Thanks, ladies,” he said through clenched teeth, “but our mothers would never forgive us. Will you excuse us?” He hauled Starsky away from the poolside, into the shade of the verandah, where the kitchen staff was setting out the buffet lunch.
He stopped, groping for control over the wild, inexplicable burst of anger churning in his brain and gut.
“Hutch…” Starsky’s tentative voice made him blink and look at his partner, still standing right next to him, his brow furrowed.
“Uh … you’re breakin’ my elbow here,” Starsky said, low, and Hutch wrenched his hand free.
Starsky rubbed the abused joint. “What was that all about? You acted like they wanted us for human sacrifices, not some naughty night moves.”
Hutch blurted, “She was—” And stopped himself. She was fondling you and it made me mad. Mad being the operative word, Hutchinson. He breathed in slowly.
Idly rubbing his stomach, Starsky said, “The first time a woman who’s not a nurse has touched me since it happened, and you gotta shove her away.”
Hutch was mortified. “Starsk … I—I’m sorry. I didn’t even … I didn’t think of it like that.“ He grasped his partner’s arm – gently this time. “I’m sorry. Do you want me to –” He looked back toward the women, now arranging themselves artfully on the chaise longues.
“What? Apologize to her for acting like a jealous boyfriend?” Fortunately Starsky sounded more bemused than angry. “Don’t worry about it, Hutch. I didn’t really have a hankerin’ to be that kind of movie star.”
“Afraid you wouldn’t measure up?” Hutch teased, eager to get off the subject of his own idiotic overreaction. “Picture it,” he went on, glad to see the comical dismay on his partner’s face, “an intimate little tete a tete, just you, a lovely lady, a dozen film and sound guys, a few lighting guys, an impatient director, a producer frantic to get it done on time and under budget ...”
“You’re givin’ me performance anxiety here,” Starsky muttered, shuddering. “I don’t know how they do it.”
“Practice, Starsk, practice.”
“Let’s eat,” Starsky silenced him, advancing on the buffet.
* * *
They spent the rest of the day delicately interrogating the other staff members, moving them one by one onto the “unlikely” list, then met Peter Thornton in his office before dinner. His reaction to Hutch’s mention of Marian Hooper’s record was startling.
“I know her record,” he snapped. “I’m the reason for most of it.”
Starsky and Hutch exchanged abashed glances.
“Christ, don’t you men think I know the background on my own people?”
“We’re just trying to cover all the bases,” Starsky said. “Knowing her record doesn’t necessarily mean you know all her friends. Or enemies.”
“For instance,” Hutch put in, “it wasn’t in the files that Tony Saronno ran nightclubs owned by Saul Beldon – and that Gallant’s Beldon’s hired muscle.”
“That’s because I know Gallant didn’t kill Saronno. He was in the lounge drinking all night. I was there too – so was Marian and half a dozen other people.”
“All night?” Starsky echoed.
“We packed it in about one, maybe later,” Thornton said. “I knew about Gallant’s ties to Beldon. His record is in that file. But he has an alibi – me. And he wasn’t even here when Gabriel was killed.”
“Fowler was,” Hutch said.
“Fowler’s pushing 80,” Thornton said. “He couldn’t kill a mosquito. I’m aware of their ties to Beldon, just like I’m aware of Saronno’s ties to him. But Gabriel had nothing to do with any of that.”
“So you think the killings have nothing to do with Beldon?” Starsky asked, politeness overlying doubt.
“That’s what you’re here to find out!” Thornton snapped.
“You might consider helping us,” Hutch put in.
Thornton’s jaw clenched as he forced himself toward patience. “I know you boys’re just doing what any good cops would do, covering all the bases and considering all the possibilities. But Gallant’s in the clear. He’s a scumbag, yes, but he’s in the clear on this one. And I know Marian’s not involved. I know her well enough to know that.”
His meaning was obvious. Hutch glanced at Starsky, silently asking ‘do we keep on him or let it go for now?’
His partner offered the faintest shrug, said to Thornton, “Okay. We’ll keep nosing around, see what we can come up.”
Thornton visibly deflated. “Thanks, boys. Sorry I got a little hot. This could ruin my business. I do think the two killings have to be related, but how?” He shrugged. “That I just can’t figure. They were never here the same time – they didn’t know each other as far as I know, had no connection to each other except that they both had visited here – and even then, Gabriel came every six months or so, even if only for a few days. Saronno’d never been here before this trip. They had nothing in common. Nothing.”
“Well, they must’ve had something in common. Other than the way they died,” Starsky said calmly.
“We’ll talk to you later, Mr. Thornton,” Hutch said.
“If Thornton says it wasn’t Gallant,” Hutch called out as he came into Starsky’s room, “it wasn’t Gallant.”
“Yeah, but maybe Gallant hired it done.” Dressed but with his tie hanging loose, Starsky knelt down beside his bed.
Hutch leaned in the doorway to wait. “Hired who? The gardener? One of the waiters?” He observed the smooth fit of Starsky’s tuxedo slacks over his ass – no underwear, eh, partner? – as Starsky reached under the bed and drew out his missing dress shoe, sliding it onto his foot and getting up.
“It’s just too way out that Saronno’s killing had nothing to do with Gallant,” Starsky repeated – as if Hutch were really disagreeing with him rather than pointing out the holes in their case. “They both worked for Beldon. It screams inside job.”
“We still can’t tie in Gabriel, though,” Hutch said as Starsky headed toward the door. “Speaking of which—” He stood straight, blocking Starsky’s exit, and reached up to fix his partner’s skewed tie.
Starsky stood patiently, a faint smile on his face, and when Hutch finished off with a gentle pat to the cheek and turned away, he slapped his partner’s ass.
“Hey!” Hutch jumped, brushing at his rear end as if he’d been injured. “Don’t wrinkle the tux.”
“You pat my cheeks, I pat yours,” Starsky growled.
“Dope,” Hutch said fondly. “Let’s go eat.”
“It just doesn’t make sense,” Starsky said in the elevator. “The m.o.’s the same. You can’t tell me Saronno and Gallant and Fowler all comin’ here is some kind of fluke. It ties in. It must. And that means, somehow, Gabriel ties in.”
“Well, he wouldn’t be the first amateur crook who got killed,” Hutch said. “Just because he doesn’t have a record doesn’t mean he wasn’t maybe taking a walk on the wild side for the first time and got in too deep.”
Starsky squinted up at the floor indicator. “Yeah, but—”
Hutch sighed. “I hate it when you ‘yeah but’ me.”
“Yeah, but,” Starsky said, smiling, “the thing is, if you’re gonna hit two guys, why do it in the same place and the same manner? You’re askin’ to be tied to both crimes. Why not, you know, hit Gabriel here and Saronno in San Francisco, or vice versa?”
Hutch nodded. “I know.” They’d been over it before, but with a case like this, talking it out – coming at it from different angles, playing devil’s advocate for each other – sometimes led them to the truth.
The elevator let them out on the ground floor and they trooped toward the lounge.
“That alone suggests it was a staffer,” Hutch went on. Starsky nodded.
“But if it was a staffer, why? Were they both hired hits and Beldon paid this staffer to do the job for reasons we don’t know?”
Hutch shook his head. “They’ve got to be connected. It’s just too farfetched for them to be two different killings. And if they’re connected, the connection’s got to be Beldon. It’s got to be.”
“And if it’s Beldon,” Starsky said, low, as they rounded the corner to enter the lounge, “It’s possible Fowler was here to ensure hit number one got carried out, and Gallant was the watchdog for hit number two.”
Hutch nodded. “It’s still weird, but it sort of hangs together.”
“That makes our only real connection—” Starsky began, stopping when they entered the lounge. “Gallant,” he concluded in a whisper at the sight of the man himself, across the room, whisky in hand and talking intently at an uncomfortable looking Chris Parker.
“I didn’t know the staffers ever came in here like that,” Hutch said. Chris wore jeans and an athletic jacket – obviously he wasn’t dressed for dinner with the guests. Just as obviously he wasn’t happy to be in the lounge with them, but none of their conversation carried over the soft classical music coming in over the resort’s P.A. system.
He nodded once and Gallant stopped talking. Both men glanced up, around the room – and their eyes fell on the two new arrivals.
“Wonder what that little conversation’s about?” Starsky muttered as Diana and Joy also spotted them and headed over.
“Let’s see if we can find out,” Hutch said, sidling deftly away and leaving his partner to handle the porn queens, as they’d privately labeled the two filmmakers.
Chris started for the door as Hutch headed their way. His attempt to engage the pro in conversation was met with a smile and a wave.
“Hi, Ken. Can’t stop, sorry. See you in the morning.” With that, Chris strolled right past him. Hutch turned to watch him brush by Starsky and the porn queens and disappear out the door. When he turned back, Gallant was close enough to make the hairs on the back of his neck quiver.
“You’re a nosy guy,” Gallant said. “You and your friend are both real nosy.”
Hutch blinked, drawing his head back to look up the few inches necessary to meet the man’s dark, piggy eyes. “I’m sorry – what are you talking about?”
“You’re askin’ questions you shouldn’t be askin’,” Gallant snarled. “You wanna mind your own business if you wanna have a nice peaceful vacation here.”
“We were only asking about the two murders,” Hutch said, keeping his voice cool, unafraid and unaccusing. “Why should that bother you, Mr. Gallant?”
Gallant backed away a few inches, appraising Hutch. “It don’t bother me,” he said. “It’s gonna bother you and your friend if you don’t knock it off.”
“Are you threatening us, Mr. Gallant?” Hutch put a little steel into his tone. Gallant drained his scotch and walked away without answering.
Hutch watched the man leave; Starsky did the same, then excused himself from Diana and Joy to join his partner. Hutch couldn’t help noticing the women’s lingering gazes; he swallowed back a surge of lust and jealousy.
“What?” Starsky asked. Hutch shook his head and guided his partner to the bar, where they ordered two beers.
“So what’s with gorgeous George?” Starsky asked when the bartender moved away to serve the Leahys.
“I think we’re on the right track,” was all Hutch would say.
“Well, if we aren’t, at least we got another offer,” Starsky said. Hutch took his glass and sipped, looking at his partner over the edge, one arched brow asking for elaboration.
“Joy and Diana still wanna film us.” Starsky shrugged. “What can I say? When you got it, you got it. They think we got it.”
“We?” Hutch said – hearing himself squeak. “As in … you know, we? As in, t-together?”
Starsky’s mouth curled into a sneaky half-grin. “Donno. I got a feeling they’re into the kinkier side of things, though.” He took a drink and glanced at his partner. “Good thing we work so well together.”
Hutch blurted, “We’ve never worked together like that.” He took a big gulp of the beer, knowing he was blushing and wanting something to blame for it other than the image of him and Starsky … working together. Like that.
“S’a matter?” Starsky teased in that throaty purr that tickled along Hutch’s skin. “You chicken?”
Hutch choked on his beer – or maybe on all the dangerous responses he was tempted to blurt to that challenge.
“Of filming a porno flick with my police partner for public sale and distribution?” he said, just managing to fake nonchalance. “Nah, why should that worry me?”
Starsky shrugged one shoulder, catching his meaning. “Yeah, that’d mean instant retirement, no benefits.” Then he grinned. “Well, maybe some benefits.”
“Yeah,” Hutch said, glad the topic was back in the realm of joking. “Try payin’ your rent with that.”
Marian swirled into the room, a vision in champagne-colored silk and diamonds.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” she announced. “Dinner.”
* * *
Hutch played a tough four-set match against Chris Parker in the morning, then flashed a quick wave in the pro’s direction and plunged into the showers, hoping to avoid any intimate tete a tete with the pro without offending him.
He dragged a towel brusquely across his body and dressed still damp, flinging his old sweaty clothes into his bag and banging out of the showers to meet Starsky for their walk.
Chris stood lounging in the doorway of the pro shop, wearing shorts and a smile.
“You’re in a big rush. Was it something I said?” He had a towel around his neck and had evidently showered even quicker than Hutch.
Hutch stopped, smiled. “No. I’m just in a hurry, Chris.”
“Listen, do you want to join me for a late lunch?” Chris edged closer, half a step at a time, deliberately casual. “I don’t have any lessons after noon. We could maybe talk, get to know each other better?” His tone was as gentle and unthreatening as his movements; it came as a not entirely unpleasant shock to Hutch to realize the man was only inches away from him.
A trifle taller, Chris looked down into Hutch’s eyes, smiling, warm, incredibly gorgeous. “What do you say?”
And Hutch had nothing to say.
Chris leaned close, eyes lidded, and Hutch found his own eyes closing in response. Warm, soft lips met his, parted a little, and he relaxed into the kiss.
Mmm. It was nice. More than nice. He felt the heat of those lips against his own, felt it melt into him, down his throat and into his body, just like it would – he knew it would – when he and …
Starsky. And just like that, he went cold all over.
Christ. I feel like I’m cheating on him. I am cheating on him. He might never want me, never touch me like this – and I’m still cheating on him. Damn it.
Gently, Hutch laid a hand on Chris’ chest and pushed, making sure he was smiling when the pro drew back to gaze questioningly at him.
“Sorry,” Hutch said. “I have to go.”
“Ah.” Chris smiled. “That partner of yours.”
Hutch honestly said, “It’s not like that,” not adding that he wanted very much for it to be like that. Exactly like that, like that in every luscious, erotic, dangerous detail. “We’re taking a hike.” He gestured vaguely toward the lake.
Chris backed up, shrugged. “Okay.” His hands stroked gently down Hutch’s arms, let go. “To be continued?” He sounded hopeful rather than insistent, and Hutch somehow didn’t have the heart to tell him there was no chance.
“See you later,” he said.
He met Starsky leaning against the fence at the far end of the courts, staring off into the distance, his face turned down in a pensive scowl.
“Hey,” Hutch said.
Starsky glanced at him, his expression still distant, and echoed his greeting, starting off along the path toward the lake without waiting to see if Hutch would follow.
Hutch did, shaking his head. He’d rushed away from a physically perfect and perfectly willing man to be with his grumpy partner, who’d probably deck him if he suggested how much he’d rather be kissing him. So love makes fools of us all.
They walked a while in silence, Hutch enjoying the beauty of the countryside and trying not to hover too close to his partner as they took a path along a steep slope leading down to the lake.
This was exactly the kind of place he’d enjoy spending a couple of weeks in, camping and fishing and swimming and generally reminding his soul that there was beauty to be had in the world in counterbalance to all the ugliness they saw every day. He’d ask Starsky along, of course, and Starsky would bitch and moan, but he’d come. And everything Hutch wanted to do, Starsky would gripe about, but he’d be right there at Hutch’s side, doing it. And when they got home, he’d complain for weeks to everyone he knew about how horrible it had been. And when Hutch asked, in a few months’ time, if he wanted to come along again, Starsky would come.
Hutch smiled to himself. It might not be the usual kind of love, but it was love.
“What’re you grinnin’ about?” Starsky asked.
Hutch shrugged. “Just thinking.” Impulsively he slung an arm around Starsky’s neck and gave him a quick hug. “Just thinkin’ what a great partner I’ve got.”
Starsky pulled away, faking annoyance. “What, did you see a bear and you’re planning to sacrifice me while you make your getaway?”
“I never could fool you,” Hutch said peaceably.
They walked on in silence for a while.
Then Starsky shoved his hands into his pockets and said, “You want me to tackle the tennis pro tomorrow?”
Hutch glanced at him, puzzled. “No. I’m good, Starsk.” Truth to tell he felt uneasy about letting Chris near his partner. He knew damn’ well why, knew it was stupid, and refused to think further about it.
“You think he’s a likely,” Starsky asked, staring at the pine-needle-covered path.
Hutch shrugged. “No record—” Starsky knew this – “but both the dead men took lessons. He’s one thing they had in common.”
“Other than being dead.”
“Besides,” Hutch ventured, “I think we’ve got a rapport going.”
He meant nothing by it, but Starsky said sourly, “Is that what they’re callin’ it these days?”
“Is that what who is calling what?” Hutch said, surprised to hear the irritation in his own voice, so close to the surface. So much for pretending you don’t know what’s going on.
“I went by the courts yesterday, on my way from the stables to that Nazi masseuse. I saw you and him.”
“And then today when I came by to meet you,” Starsky said, stubborn. His tone and expression said he was waiting for Hutch to confess, and Hutch thought, in a flash of cold fear, did he see Chris kiss me?
“Starsky, what are you talking about?”
“He’s …” Starsky flailed his hands, helpless. “He’s all over you.”
Despite his alarm, Hutch had to smile. Sometimes Starsky seemed so innocent. “He wasn’t all over me, Starsk. He was just flirting. So what?”
“Doesn’t it bother you that he keeps comin’ on to you?”
“No.” He was grateful Starsky’d apparently missed the brief liplock, for a lot of reasons, reasons he’d never imagined applying to them before.
“Well, it’s botherin’ me,” Starsky growled.
They stopped walking in silent accord, next to a broad-boled ancient pine.
“Starsky, please don’t tell me that the fact he’s gay upsets you.” Despite his partner’s discomfort over the whole John Blaine case, Hutch would be willing to bet Starsky had no stupid prejudices – not when it came to other human beings. The wild idea that he might’ve made his partner jealous didn’t please Hutch; if it were even possible for him to hurt Starsky like that, he wouldn’t do it. The very thought made him sick.
Starsky said, “No. That doesn’t upset me.”
“Good. So what’s the problem?”
“It’s not cuz he’s gay. It’s … he’s …”
Hutch smiled. “Too pretty for me?”
Seriously – Hutch felt himself flush at the compliment – Starsky said, “There ain’t no such thing. But he’s just so …” Starsky himself blushed, dark under his anger, and blurted, “He’s a slut.”
Hutch laughed again, a nervous, surprised laugh, empty of amusement.
“That’s not what I mean,” Starsky said immediately. “I mean, he’s a hustler. He is too pretty. Too smooth, too slick. I mean … you …” He stopped, his own second thoughts visible on his face, and Hutch said, “I what?”
Starsky shook his head sharply, mouth clamped shut.
Vaguely aware he was placing a foot on dangerous ground, Hutch pushed. “Come on, Starsk. You started this. I what?”
Starsky blurted, “You wouldn’t want someone like that.” He glared at his partner. “Okay? That’s what I was gonna say. You wouldn’t want someone like that, a hustler, a cheap pretty boy.”
Hutch stared at him for a second in blank amazement, then laughed again. Starsky’s face darkened further. His fists knotted and he started past his partner.
“Starsk, I’m sorry.” Hutch silenced himself, touched Starsky’s arm gently to hold him. He felt faintly drunk, light-headed, without the slightest idea where this conversation had come from or where it was going. “It’s just … do you realize how bizarre it sounds for you to tell me what I want or don’t want in a … male lover?” He laughed again, irresistibly, but the mulish look didn’t leave Starsky’s face.
“So you’re saying I’m wrong?” he challenged, his voice low but still angry.
“Starsk…” Hutch sighed. “What would … why would you think I’d want any kind of male lover at all?”
Starsky pulled away. “I’da had the same reaction if he was a woman. You’re better than that. That’s all.”
“Starsky, I’m playing tennis with him. Why are you so bugged by this?” Starsky’s genuine dismay had gotten through to Hutch; he trusted his partner’s instinct as much as his own and had to wonder if he sensed something about the pro that Hutch had missed.
“You … you seemed to like him.”
Up came Starsky’s head, the wild, defensive look back. “I saw you, Hutch. That wasn’t just ‘he’s likeable’ goin’ on there, and it wasn’t just him doin’ it.”
Hutch drew back, taking a deep breath, dizzy with realization. “Oh. It wasn’t him at all, was it? It was me.”
The look on Starsky’s face said caught.
Hutch said, “Did it ever occur to you that I was going along to see what I could find out?”
“It occurred to me,” Starsky said, still stubborn. “I just didn’t know whether t’believe it or not.”
Carefully, Hutch said, “Would it bother you to think I’d flirt with another man? I mean, not just for the case, but because I wanted to?”
“You’re not gonna get me to admit to bein’ a homophobe,” Starsky grumbled.
Hutch squeezed his arm. “I’m not accusing you of anything. I just want to know what, exactly, is bugging you, so I can –”
“Take care of it,” Starsky finished, looking away. “Only there’s nothing to take care of. If I have a problem with you flirtin’ with some guy, it’s my problem, not yours.”
“Starsk, if I was … was interested in men, you know, and that bothered you, it affects me. It affects us. Is that what’s bothering you? I mean, it’s one thing not to be generally homophobic. It’s another to be a straight cop with a gay partner.”
“Knock it off,” Starsky snapped, pulling away, eyes flashing. “When you’re ready to talk to me about it, I’ll be here.”
Hutch stared at his stiff, angry partner. “I thought we were talking.”
“No.” Starsky held up an accusing hand. “You’re talkin’ around it. You’re talkin’ at me, not to me. When you’re ready to open up, Hutch, I am too. Until then, maybe we better just stick to the case.”
Struck – stricken – Hutch stood frozen, unable to even open his mouth to deny Starsky’s accusations. He hadn’t meant to be defensive, hadn’t meant to be anything but honest, but, backtracking, he saw how his words had slithered away from the truth, trying to get confessions from his partner he was too scared to make himself. He shook his head.
“You’re right. We better keep our minds on the case.”
The tension eased from Starsky’s face and shoulders, but the impatience, the irritation, still darkened his voice.
They started to walk again, side by side but not together, and Hutch fidgeted with the urge to touch his partner for a few steps, then shoved his hands into his jacket pockets, feeling cold, miserable and abandoned.
And deserving of it.
* * *
Starsky moved a little ahead of his partner, knowing he was being petty and unreasonable, but feeling too petty and unreasonable to care. He would have laughed at himself, at his own petulance, but his anger at Hutch was real, too uncomfortable for amusement. What the fuck did he mean by playing this game with the tennis pro, acting like some Mata Hari, and then denying it to his own partner? He can’t have thought Starsky wouldn’t notice it; he noticed everything. Especially about Hutch.
In fact, these days Starsky found himself noticing so much he wondered if he was going crazy.
Sometimes – when Hutch was preoccupied, doing something else, eating, maybe, or typing up a report – Starsky watched him. He looked at him, stared, absorbed Hutch’s image through his eyes until his palms itched with the need to touch. Then he would tear his eyes away and move, or make a joke, or find something to eat – something visceral, something physical, anything to place between him and his partner, to keep him from …
Starsky knelt to pick up a rough-edged stone. A sharp report – rifle, his brain said instantly – made him start, spinning too slowly on one knee to see Hutch jerk to one side, see the tree behind him splinter, spitting wood in white spatters as three more shots hit, close spaced.
“Hutch!” Starsky scrambled to get his feet under him as Hutch tumbled, hitting the ground close to the ledge, scrabbling over and rolling down the hillside before Starsky could even begin to reach for him.
He plunged down the slope, heels sliding and catching in the loose dirt and underbrush, following the red-and-black plaid blur of his partner. When Hutch thumped to a stop against a tree Starsky lunged at him, covering his partner’s back with his body and drawing his gun. His right hand gripped Hutch’s shoulder as he twisted, gun leveled, scanning the hillside above them for any sign of the gunman although he’d heard no further shots.
Over his own panting, he heard Hutch grunt.
“You with me, partner?” he gasped, not daring to turn his eyes from the top of the slope. “Hutch? Say somethin’.”
Hutch groaned and the shoulder shifted under his hand.
“Good enough. Can you scootch behind this tree? We got nothin’ between us and whoever was shootin’ but air.”
He felt Hutch sit upright and ease, with further grunts and groans, around the tree. He edged backward until he too was covered, then glanced at his partner.
“You hit?” Again his free hand went out, a lifeline, his palm resting against Hutch’s heaving chest, leaving his eyes free to search the woods above.
“Don’t know.” The words were raspy with pain and lack of air. “See anything?”
“Not yet.” Weapon ready, he scanned the area, fast, methodical, darting gaze seeking anything moving, anything noticeable, anything at all.
“You might want to speed it up,” Hutch said, his voice tight. “I’m bleeding a little here.”
Adrenaline – admit it, fear – surged through Starsky and he edged forward, on his toes, searching…
He spotted a red jacket topped with dark hair – an instant but clear impression as the man darted from one tree to another.
“Gallant.” He got his feet under him and heard the dull scrape of metal against leather as Hutch drew the Magnum, knowing what was coming. “Cover me.”
Starsky sprang forward, the dead pine needles too slippery under his feet for good balance or traction, and scrambled uphill, free hand often falling to a tree or the ground to catch himself, eyes constantly scanning, seeking another glimpse of red amongst the browns and greens – there – he jerked in that direction before his brain even registered it, tracking with his body, his instincts.
Gallant was running, heavy-footed, clumsy, back toward the resort, his broad back, covered in red – idiot – would have been an easy target for Starsky’s Beretta had they not both been off-balance and moving. Estimating his path, Starsky tried to circle around, hampered by the bad footing and uphill climb, and when he glanced down to get an idea of his footing, the rifle cracked again, close. He flinched back automatically, behind the nearest pine, and another shot smacked into the loamy earth at the base of the tree. He scurried around the other side and saw Gallant running again, gun slung over his shoulder. Too far for a decent shot, and Starsky headed out again, at an angle meant to cut him off from the hotel. When Gallant stopped once more, Starsky sidled behind the nearest trunk and watched the man scan for his pursuer. He was almost within range, facing 90 degrees from Starsky’s hiding place, clearly having lost him.
Hutch, down the hill. Starsky glanced, saw his partner kneeling beside a ragged tree-stump, Magnum in both hands. He squeezed off a shot that hit the tree above Gallant’s head, and Starsky moved, knowing the miss for what it was – a distraction.
Gallant unslung the rifle and leaned against his tree, sighting down the hill. Hutch disappeared behind the stump and Starsky stopped, braced, Beretta leveled.
“Drop it, asshole.”
Gallant froze, indecision screaming from every tensed muscle and clenched finger.
“Blink,” Starsky said, “and it’ll be the last thing you ever do.” He watched Gallant’s back, saw the muscles relax, the fingers open, the rifle slowly descend. He eased closer.
“On the ground. Slow. Like your life depended on it.”
The rifle touched down; as Gallant’s fingers separated from it, Hutch appeared again from behind the stump, the big Colt, now in only one hand, trained on Gallant as he pushed himself to his feet and started up the incline. Starsky advanced, the Beretta’s muzzle unerringly fixed on Gallant’s head as the square ugly face turned toward him, uglier with frustrated anger.
“Face down.” His tone asked Gallant to refuse, and Gallant saw it. He knelt, stretched out both hands, and lowered himself to the leafy ground. Starsky moved around him, came down on one knee, hearing his partner’s approach but not glancing up until he’d cuffed Gallant and yanked him up onto his knees.
Hutch stopped, breathing too hard, and holstered his gun, his face pale and the shoulder of his shirt dark with blood. Starsky swallowed his heart back into his chest, along with all the things he couldn’t say, and hauled Gallant to his feet.
* * *
They saw the flashing lights as they climbed up the slope toward the hotel; a sheriff’s vehicle was parked askew in the long drive, two deputies and Thornton himself just in the process of spreading out as if to begin a search.
All activity stopped as Starsky and Hutch came into view, Starsky pushing Gallant ahead of him and Hutch following with a hand pressed to his shoulder.
A step ahead of the startled-looking deputies, Thornton stopped, planted his feet, and said, “Well I’ll be damned.”
* * *
“I called as soon as I heard the first shots,” Thornton said. “Then I made sure everyone else stayed inside.” He indicated the revolver tucked into his belt. “I was gonna go out looking for you; I knew by the time the local boys got here it’d all be over but the shouting. Good thing you men were prepared.”
One uniform shoved Gallant into the car while the other, an older man developing a bit of a paunch, came back to them.
“You men want to come along with us and give your statements?”
Hutch glanced at Starsky, but his partner seemed to be looking everywhere except at him.
“I’ll come along as well, Cole,” Thornton said, and the deputy nodded.
“Fine with me. I got a feeling this is gonna be an interesting story.”
“You’re bleeding,” Thornton said, sharply, almost an accusation. Hutch looked at his arm, desperate to avoid Starsky’s eyes.
“We got a first aid kit in the car,” the deputy said. “Come on.”
Hutch followed, letting the uniform briskly, efficiently clean and bandage the gouge the bullet had taken out of his upper arm. Ordinarily Starsky would have done this, would’ve teased and fussed and insulted while hands gentler than any lover’s took care of him, their touch alone easing some of the pain. Ordinarily Starsky would never let anyone else do something for his partner if he could do it.
“You’re lucky,” the uniform said, taping down the bandage. “It’s not too bad. Bet it hurts like a son of a bitch, though.”
Hutch looked over his shoulder, saw Starsky talking to Thornton, Gallant’s rifle resting against one collarbone, not even glancing at his partner.
Yeah. It hurts.
* * *
They rode down the mountain into town with Thornton in his car, following the black-and-white carrying Gallant and his high-powered rifle. One brief exchange of glances told Hutch that it escaped neither of them that the local cops trusted Thornton to bring them, but didn’t trust them to drive there themselves.
That glance was the extent of Starsky’s willing conversation with his partner.
Once in town they gave their statements, then listened while Thornton corroborated their identity without admitting their real reason for being there.
Hutch saw Starsky’s scowl when Thornton stopped at half the truth, saw the scowl ease a moment later – saw on his partner’s face, in fact, the same thought process he’d gone through, realizing the local cops would only get pissed off and uncooperative, possibly belligerent, to learn the L.A. cops were there to clear up a case they’d failed to solve. Thornton’s instincts were good.
They waited half an hour, Hutch begging a couple of aspirin and a cup of water from the clerk at the front desk of the small station, only to learn Gallant wasn’t going to talk without his attorney present, and that she wouldn’t get there until tomorrow. So they piled into Thornton’s car for a subdued drive back to the resort.
“Cole said he’d call me if Gallant made or received any calls, or if his lawyer got there early, tried to spring him,” Thornton said. “So we’re OK on that. I still …” He shook his head, eyes glued to the curving mountain road though he drove at a speed, born of familiarity, that made Hutch wince. “I woulda bet the place it wasn’t him, but I sure can’t come up with one good reason he’d be taking shots at you two boys otherwise. By the way, Marian tells me she talked to Gabriel’s widow today. You know he’d come here a number of times in the two years prior to his murder?”
Both detectives nodded. That had been in the files.
“Well, Marian said his widow thought he was having an affair.”
“Here?” Hutch asked.
Thornton nodded. “I don’t understand it. He came here alone, every time.”
“Well, the fact that he didn’t bring his wife …” Starsky shrugged. “Can’t blame her for being suspicious.”
“But how would that tie in with Gallant?” Hutch said.
“An affair’s a good excuse for blackmail,” Starsky put in. “Lotta ways that could escalate t’murder. Or maybe it was something else illicit, not an affair but some other kinda scheme that went bad.”
“But Gallant wasn’t here,” Thornton insisted.
“He wasn’t stayin’ at your hotel,” Starsky specified. “That don’t mean he didn’t maybe hike in to do the deed.”
Thornton shook his head, dissatisfied. “Okay. Farfetched, but let’s say he hiked in from town or from a campsite to kill Gabriel. Why? And he was with me when Saronno was murdered.”
“He didn’t have to kill both of them himself in order to be involved,” Hutch snapped. He ached all over, inside and out, and he just wanted this all to be over with. “Maybe he masterminded both killings for Beldon – for some reason we haven’t hit on – and hired someone – maybe the same someone, maybe different hitmen – to do the deed. The connection to your hotel may be as simple as it was a place away from home where they could both be got at, where the killer could slip away into the woods.” He shrugged. It was as possible as any of their other slim threads. “If he’s got accomplices, maybe we’ll find out when the locals question him.”
“One thing’s for sure,” Starsky put in drily. “If he don’t talk we’re gonna have a lot of loose ends in this case. Nothing ties together except two guys are dead and Gallant tried to kill us. And we’re just assumin’ that ties to gether cuz it don’t make any sense at all any other way.”
Thornton gave vent to a sort of hum of dubious agreement. “I’ll keep on the local boys and make sure they let me know anything they find out. Who knows? If Gallant knows he’s going down, maybe we can make a deal with him to finger his accomplices for a reduced sentence.”
“That’d make our lives a lot easier,” Starsky agreed. He sounded no more hopeful than Hutch felt.
* * *
“You okay?” Thornton asked Hutch when they piled out of his car. The sun was touching the treetops behind the lake and the entire area was peaceful.
“Try the hot tub,” Thornton suggested. “No cure for a bullet crease but it will ease the aches from falling down the mountain, relax all the tensed-up muscles around the injury.”
Hutch looked at his partner, expressionless as he watched one of the valets drive Thornton’s car away.
“Good idea,” he responded to their host without taking his eyes or the majority of his attention off Starsky. When Starsky turned away without word or glance to enter the hotel, Hutch sighed.
Maybe they’d benefit from a little alone time. He didn’t know what to say to Starsky right now – half unsure what exactly was bothering him and half simply afraid to find out – and Starsky was making it clear he didn’t want to talk to him.
Answering Thornton’s questioning gaze with a shrug, Hutch headed for the spa.
Hutch sank up to his chin in the hot foaming water and hooked his arms along the side of the hot tub, closing his eyes with another in what seemed to be an endless string of sighs. He’d be sore tomorrow from that tumble down the hill – not to mention the chunk of shoulder meat the bullet had gouged out of him – but the tub should help prevent the worst of it.
It was good to know even a mad Starsky had his back, he thought. Then was ashamed. Nothing would make Starsky so angry with him that he’d fail to protect him with every last ounce of strength.
He was pissed off, though, no doubt about it. Hutch couldn’t remember the last time they’d been in each other’s company for any length of time without talking, but Starsky’d hardly spoken half a dozen words to him since Gallant had decided to take in a little target practice.
Letting himself be distracted, Hutch considered Gallant, but that was just a different form of frustration and concern. Simply put, they had no case. They had no idea how to tie Gallant to the killings; if he didn’t admit to something under questioning, the most they’d get him on was their attempted murders, and the killings of Gabriel and Saronno would remain unsolved.
Hutch tried to shut off that line of speculation; it was useless. It was wait-and-see time.
Another sigh. It seemed nothing was safe to think about right now.
* * *
He was half asleep when a soft splash startled him awake. He blinked away the steam to see his partner slide into the water across from him, and grinned, stupidly, manically, feeling forgiven, redeemed.
“Hey.” He saw that Starsky had brought a bottle of champagne – no glasses – with him. It sat on the edge of the spa within easy reach.
“Hey yourself,” came the quiet response. “This is the life of Riley, ain’t it?”
“I could get used to it,” Hutch said, careful to match his partner’s tone until he understood how mad Starsky still was at him, and how to wheedle him out of it. He reached for the champagne, having noted that Starsky’d set it between them, and took a swig. It went down like liquid moonlight, and Starsky took the bottle from his hand, tipping it against his own lips. Hutch watched him swallow and swallowed again himself.
“I’ve been kind of an asshole,” he said, unsure if that was the right word, but willing to admit anything that would end this miserable unease between them. “I’m sorry.”
Starsky smiled, just a bit, clearly fighting it, purred, “S’okay. A lot’s goin’ on. A lot’s … changin’. We—”
He began to say something more, Hutch thought, but the bubbling water overrode the start of whatever it was Starsky’d thought better of. Instead he shook his head, picked up the champagne again, took a big gulp, and pushed it toward Hutch – a shared toast to forgiveness. Even if neither of them knew quite what was being forgiven. Hutch took the symbolic drink, still confused, but grateful.
When you’re ready to talk … Hutch wondered how he could ever be ready to talk to his partner about this, how he could ever find the right combination of words to make it sound anything less than insane.
But he needed to try; to do less was to leave them both hanging, leave them with this secret between them, pushing them apart. One of the silent vows Hutch had made after Gunther’s hit was that he would never let them be pushed apart again.
And if this little revelation does just that?
Wide awake now, overheated and restless, Hutch hauled himself out of the tub and grabbed a towel, dragging it haphazardly across his body, then dabbing at the damp bandage on his shoulder. After a minute he looked back at the hot tub to see Starsky, chin resting on his crossed forearms at the edge of the tub.
Hutch flushed. Starsky smiled.
“Will you stop that?” Hutch groused. “You’re starting to make me nervous.”
“I’m just lookin’.” Starsky took another long swig from the champagne bottle, then set it aside.
“I know what you’re doing, you goof. You like embarrassing me.”
Starsky placed his palms on either side and hoisted himself out of the tub; Hutch’s chest tightened as he watched the hot water run down his partner’s hard stomach, over the clinging trunks and down the corded thighs.
Fighting not to pant – at least not audibly – Hutch strategically lowered his towel as his partner padded over to collect one of his own. Starsky took his time, patting here and there, rubbing at his chest, bending to dry his legs ...
Hutch quickly turned, dropping his towel and grabbing a robe, frantically wrapping himself in it and fumbling the belt into a sloppy knot before he felt safe to turn back again.
Starsky tossed his towel into the used linens basket and brushed past him to collect his own robe.
“What if I started ogling you all the time?” Hutch challenged, cursing the catch in his voice that he knew Starsky wouldn’t miss.
“Donno.” Starsky smiled. “Might kinda like it.” He pulled the robe tight, and his smile faltered as one hand pressed against his own sternum, the playful light in his eyes dimming. Hutch could practically hear the thought: Be nice to have somebody look at me without horror or pity.
Hutch reached out and laid his own palm over his partner’s hand, through one heartbeat, two, three, communicating reassurance: you’re still here, and so am I.
Starsky’s gaze rose, touching his with heat, and Hutch lifted his hand, ran his fingertips over his partner’s cheekbone, pushing back the thick hair, then tracing downward to toy with one damp curl just under his ear.
They touched all the time, often in passing, usually unconsciously – no surprise for a thing as necessary to them as breathing. But this was not one of their touches, their countless usual contacts. This – Hutch saw that it hit Starsky at the same instant – was the kind of touch Hutch used with women. Lovers.
“You gonna kiss me now?” If Starsky’d meant the words as a joke, they didn’t come out that way.
Hutch felt his face blaze – he knows, shit, he knows – but he didn’t pull away. “If I were?”
His mouth hinting at a smile, Starsky said, “I don’t know,” his tone low, husky. His gaze – direct, a little confused – was too much for Hutch; he shifted his eyes to his own fingers, caressing the thick lock of dark brown hair under his partner’s left ear. His heart pounded against his ribs, against his throat, boiling his blood, burning him up from the inside.
“Hutch.” The whisper touched his ears as Starsky’s hands came up to grasp his arms. It was overwhelming. Choking, panicked, Hutch turned away, cursing aloud.
Hutch held up a hand, not facing his partner. He forced out the words – “I’m sorry, Starsk” – without any certainty of what he was apologizing for. Only then could he turn around.
Starsky’s face – utterly blank – struck him.
The door banged open and the mingled voices and presence of the Camerons and Leahys hit both men, splashing like ice water against their skin.
Hutch blinked against the noise as the foursome bustled into the spa, laughing, grabbing towels and shedding robes. He watched his partner cut around them and leave, and bent to gather up his clothes, piled in a damp haphazard heap on the bench. He wasted another few minutes making polite noises – naturally they’d heard about the shooting and the arrest, and he had to formulate an explanation that was true and brief, yet dull enough to discourage further questions. Finally he made his way back to the room, his stomach in knots.
The first thing he noticed when he opened the door was that all the lights were on. The second thing was that the doors to the balcony were open. The third was his partner out there, shirtless, sitting on the broad stone balustrade and staring down toward the lake.
Hutch dumped his clothes and gun next to the table, seeing an ice bucket and another bottle of champagne on it. It was open, and, on a hunch, he prodded it. Empty, or nearly. One glass sat beside the glistening bucket, and Hutch suspected the other was in his partner’s hand – worse, that he’d had to fortify himself with this before coming to the spa – he hadn’t had time to drink all this down in the few minutes that had separated their arrivals back in the hotel room. The idea that Starsky’d had to take a belt of booze before joining him out there made Hutch sick to his stomach. What have I done that he can’t face me sober?
Starsky didn’t move when he came out onto the balcony; his back was straight, stiff, and Hutch tensed in response to the anger radiating from him. An empty flute rested in front of him on the balustrade; his hands were fisted on his knees, twisting the sweatpants he’d traded for his swim trunks.
“Starsk …” If he’d had any idea what to say, the words evaporated the moment he opened his mouth.
Starsky had no such difficulty, though he didn’t look at his partner.
“You need to explain something to me,” he said, his voice clenched.
“I know you don’t want to. I don’t care any more. You gotta tell me what the fuck is going on.” Then he looked up. Got up, body tight, coiled, ready for attack or defense. “You gotta tell me, and I mean now, cuz I can’t take any more of this.”
Panicked, Hutch began an instinctive denial, meaning only to buy time. “I don’t know what –”
And Starsky bounced into his face. “Don’t lie to me!” he growled. “Don’t … fucking lie to me.”
The emphasis hit Hutch like a bullet and he reached out. “No. I’m sorry. Starsk … Jesus. I’m just…” Just a complete fucking wreck, out of my mind with wanting my partner. His hands touched, light, wary, bouncing off the taut anger radiating from Starsky’s body.
Starsky snarled, “I saw you. Kissing him.”
Hutch said, automatically truthful, “It was the other way around.”
Starsky shook his head, violent denial.
“It wasn’t anything,” Hutch said – and his partner laughed, a bitter sound, rough with the alcohol he’d drunk.
“It was nothing,” he rephrased. “But you kissed him. So what does that make me?”
Hutch moved closer – and Starsky grabbed him, fingers knotting into the front of Hutch’s robe, shaking him. “Why? If he’s nothing – why him and not me?”
Hands falling to his sides, Hutch stared at him, drowned in sudden, overwhelming comprehension. It wasn’t that he’d thought Starsky was playing a game with his new-found awareness – Starsky never toyed with emotions, his own or anyone else’s – but he hadn’t allowed himself to believe his partner really – really – meant what he’d been hinting at. And because of that doubt, Starsky thought he was playing games.
“You’ll kiss him,” Starsky hissed. “But you push me away.” His eyes pleaded for an explanation, so hurt Hutch would have blurted out the truth if he could have found words for it, words for how tense he was, how tightly strung, how tuned to Starsky’s touch and scent and presence – how oversensitized, how fucking terrified he was of Starsky at this moment, one word, one move away from a lover.
“Because you’re everything,” he whispered, and the hurt on his partner’s face shifted to surprise. Hutch held his gaze, feeling his own roiling emotions bleeding from his eyes as words tumbled out.
“I didn’t mean to – to change like this. I don’t know how it happened. I’m scared.”
“Of wanting you.” Horrified at his own confession, he drew back. “I’m sorry. If …” But he had nothing to follow it with. He wouldn’t move closer, and he was incapable of moving away. He had no more choices.
“Hutch.” The word was wonder, amazement, and Starsky’s fingertips touched his arms, his chest, as if he thought the man in front of him insubstantial, a dream image. When those slender, strong hands knotted into his robe again, pulling him close, Hutch breathed again. He doesn’t hate me. He’s not angry, he’s not afraid of me.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Starsky whispered, head bent, staring at Hutch’s throat.
“Starsk … how could I tell you this? I didn’t know how.” Hutch reached out, irresistibly, hands clasping his partner’s taut biceps. “I thought I was … insane. Starsk …” He whispered his partner’s name, over and over, and each time it meant please, but he had no idea what he was asking for. “Starsk.”
Starsky’s head came up; wild-eyed, shaking, he lifted his face to Hutch’s. Breathing in the last whisper of his name, he answered with a clumsy, devouring kiss that drew a whimper from Hutch’s throat and jolted the strength from his body.
Starsky jerked back – not far, but as if his own body had betrayed and surprised him, as if he thought Hutch would fight, or yell. Hutch pressed his face to Starsky’s, feeling the rough stubble, and Starsky darted in for another kiss, deep but quick. Like he’s stealing them, Hutch thought, like he doesn’t know they belong to him. Hutch slid his open mouth over Starsky’s, inviting, begging with his tongue and body, Starsky’s skin hot under his palms as he pulled them closer together, tasting Starsky’s breath and flesh, not quite familiar or strange – both and neither. Starsky.
The overwhelming sensation was not of freedom, not of a door opening, but of inevitability, of all doors closing, sealing them inside a world where only the two of them existed.
Dizzy, heart racing, he pulled back, gasped, “God … Starsk …”
Starsky made a sound, low in his throat, and as they separated said, against his mouth, “It hurts.” His hand closed into a fist against his own chest, and Hutch nodded, their noses brushing past one another. He laid his hand over his partner’s, understanding and protective at the same time, and Starsky kissed him again and again, breathy, desperate kisses. Hutch wrapped his arms around him, pulling their bodies hard together, knowing they could never be as close as he wanted. It did hurt. A deep ache in his chest, in his stomach, a painful need to touch his partner, to be touched, all over and forever.
They stopped again, barely, gulping in the sliver of air between them, Hutch dizzy as if he’d had a bottle of champagne rather than the merest sip of his partner’s mouth.
“Hutch…” Starsky panted. “Hutch. What’re we …?” His eyes sought out Hutch’s, bewildered and hungry.
Hutch shook his head while at the same time his hands petted, stroked, slid along his partner’s shoulders and back to bring them close again, to keep them from stopping. He bent, kissed Starsky, hard, said, “I don’t know,” and kissed him again. Then stopped, for an instant overwhelmed by the insanity of it. “I … I don’t know—” But his hands were cradling Starsky’s face and he was tasting his mouth over and over, and Starsky fumbled his robe open to slide hot hands around his waist, pressing their hips together.
Feeling Starsky’s hipbones against his, their erections pulsing through thin layers of cloth, Hutch again freed his mouth to gasp.
“Oh, God. Starsk …”
“Don’t stop … Hutch …” Starsky leaned against him, as shaky and burning-hot as his partner. “Don’t stop.” Abruptly he lifted his face, a strange determination tightening the stubbled jaw, and pushed Hutch backward toward the doors.
Hutch stumbled a little over the threshold, bumped his hip into a chair, then hit smack against the wall next to Starsky’s bedroom. Starsky stopped, hands on Hutch’s shoulders, and looked him up and down with the hungriest eyes Hutch had ever seen.
“Jesus …” Stunned, he panted stupidly while Starsky slid shaky hands under the lapels of the robe – then stopped.
“I want to …” He looked at Hutch, asking, and Hutch shrugged off the robe, letting it fall, closing his eyes to the feel of Starsky’s hands, warm, strong, moving at the slow speed of wonder across his chest, along each rib, his thumbs brushing Hutch’s nipples. Over and over. Teasing, tightening Hutch’s chest, making his breath come shorter and shorter as the rough thumb pads tickled.
“God.” Hutch gasped or laughed or both, grabbing Starsky to pull their bodies together. “You’re killing me.” Starsky giggled against his neck, gently bit his shoulder, then sucked.
“You taste good,” he murmured, raising his head. Hutch had seen Starsky’s eyes this way before, the blue dark with desire, but turned on him, that gaze had the power of lightning. Starsky slid a hand down to cup his erection – delicately, uncertainly – and Hutch gasped, arching against the wall.
“Oh. God. No–” He caught Starsky’s wrist, shaking, and answered his partner’s questioning face with a hoarse, “We need a bed. Now.”
Starsky smiled and bodily pulled Hutch through the doorway. He pushed him into a sitting position on the foot of the bed and turned toward the light switch.
“No,” Hutch said. Starsky paused, half-turned, naked sculpted torso and soft, close-fitting sweats, the cotton clearly outlining his erection.
Hutch swallowed. Jesus. “No,” he said, softer. “I want to see you.”
Starsky left the light and came to him, lying against him, pressing him back, laying them both out on the bed, chest to chest, hips grinding, cocks rubbing – all of it strange and new and mind-blowing. Hutch groaned at the feel of his hard-on against Starsky’s, skimmed his hands down to clutch at his partner’s ass, and Starsky gasped, startled, his hips pumping into Hutch in frantic arrhythmic thrusts.
“Ah … Hutch … damn …” Starsky moaned, then writhed – Hutch let go of him, thinking he was trying to get up, but Starsky reached down and wriggled and managed to work his sweats off – then grabbed Hutch’s shorts and pulled them down to his feet – without ever completely losing contact with Hutch’s body. He layered their bodies together again, slowly, and Hutch couldn’t breathe at the hot velvet length of Starsky’s cock against his; he gritted his teeth and opened his thighs and they nestled even closer.
“Oh … fuck …” Starsky bent his head, breathing expletives and incoherencies against Hutch’s chest as his hips started to rock once more. Hutch grabbed him again, two handfuls of hard-muscled ass, and worked their bodies against each other, heat and sweat and friction, driving Hutch close to the edge. Close, but it wasn’t until Starsky groaned his name and covered Hutch’s mouth with his that Hutch abruptly flashed with fire all over and came, hard, clutching, shuddering against Starsky’s body and biting down on the tongue pressed to his. He broke the kiss to vent a thin wail through clenched teeth and reached between their sweating bodies to stroke out the last of his orgasm. Starsky slid off his stomach and joined his fingers with Hutch’s, awkwardly, but the feeling of Starsky’s hand on him sent a thrill jolting through Hutch’s cock and he pulsed again, again, at last going limp with a gasp of release.
Hutch breathed deep, tingling all over, once, twice, three times – then rolled on his side to see Starsky watching him, flushed and still hard, but smiling, eyes sparking with lust and pleasure.
“Never seen you come before.” He slid his fingers over Hutch’s stomach, trailing them in the pearly spatters. “That was … incredible.” His other hand headed toward his own erection, but Hutch batted it away and pushed Starsky onto his back.
“Oh no you don’t.” His voice sounded strange – like he felt – drained from orgasm but still hungry. “This is mine.” He bent over Starsky’s stomach and his partner tensed, sitting up.
“What’re you …”
Hutch shook his head, smiling. He could feel the heat from Starsky’s body against his skin. “Not sure. Never done this.” He laid his right hand on Starsky’s thigh, the left on his stomach, and – out of nerves rather than titillation – licked his dry lips.
“Oh my god …” Starsky whispered, staring at him, and at that tone Hutch knew that he would do anything to be worthy of it. He slid his right hand up, around the base of his partner’s beautiful cock, and it pulsed, growing even harder in his grasp.
“Hutch… oh my god…” The sound was more a whimper of disbelief now, and Hutch worked his hand, hard but not fast, up and down a few times, spreading the wetness at the tip. Starsky’s hips followed his rhythm, matching it, and Starsky’s hand snaked into Hutch’s hair, stroking, caressing. “Hutch … ”
Hand still working, Hutch glanced at Starsky’s flushed, amazed face.
“What do you taste like, buddy?” He bent his head to lick – hoping he didn’t look as nervous as he felt – and Starsky all but shouted his name, hips bouncing, fingers clutching at his scalp. With that kind of encouragement, Hutch thought, what else could he do? He licked again, tasting salt and sweat and arousal, and Starsky shivered. He licked, harder, wrapping his tongue around the blushing head of Starsky’s erection, his partner’s thrusts and whimpers stroking him in turn, until nothing could have stopped him taking the hard wet curving cock into his mouth as deep as he could.
It wasn’t very, but Starsky choked out a guttural cry and jerked under him, and his mouth was flooded with thick salty fluid. He swallowed fast, more in panic than anything else – he’d tasted come before, but even his own wasn’t his favorite drink – and continued to stroke the length of Starsky’s erection as his partner’s body spasmed and danced under him until he was emptied.
With a final stroke, Hutch gently let go of Starsky’s deflating erection and swallowed again. Starsky’s hand was still twined into his hair, and he looked up, past the heaving chest to his partner’s flushed, sated face.
Finally Starsky let go of his hair and flopped limp to the bed, panting like a lion. Hutch waited, one hand on his furry stomach, feeling oddly proud – not at what he’d done, but that he’d done it for Starsky. And – not oddly at all – he felt scared. Scared at what might happen next.
At last, Starsky sighed out a soft, “Oh … god …” And Hutch ventured:
There was no chance Starsky would misunderstand him. He rolled onto his side to face Hutch, looking … looking like Starsky. Not different at all, despite what they’d done. Still himself.
Half-smiling, he murmured, “Are you?”
“I am if you are,” Hutch said, meaning it – then realizing how it sounded. “Sorry. I don’t want to turn this into a game. Starsk …” He reached out, laid his hand on his partner’s jaw, held the sleepy, deep-blue eyes with his own. “… I have to know. Have I fucked everything up by this?”
“Hey – ” That old familiar tone of affectionate censure. “There is no ‘I’ about this. We did this. We wanted it.”
Hutch rubbed his thumb over his partner’s bristly cheek. “I know I sure did. Even though I don’t know why.”
Softer, Starsky said, “Me too. I don’t know why any better than you do. If we’ve fucked anything up or fucked everything up … I don’t know. This is …”
“Virgin territory?” Hutch said, and they shared a short giggle.
“Just c’mere and gimme a cuddle, Blondie,” Starsky said, pulling him into a hard hug, Hutch’s head on Starsky’s chest. Hutch slid his arms around his partner’s waist and buried his nose in the hairs of Starsky’s sternum, breathing deeply.
“I don’t know what’s gonna happen,” Starsky said gently. “But I know I love you, and you love me, no matter what.”
Hutch had a weird upside-down moment of realization that his partner was taking the role of comforter, the strong one. Not that Starsky couldn’t do it – Hutch knew they’d never have lasted if he hadn’t been sure of his partner’s strength – but Hutch so often took the lead, had so often thought that if they ever reached this point, he would be leading, that it felt strange. Wonderful. It made him feel safe and loved – feel it as no one but Starsky had ever made him feel it.
“And I know that what we just did was … good,” Starsky went on. ”Better than good. Lovin’ you like this is just as fantastic as lovin’ you in any other way.“ He laughed softly, his chest bumping Hutch’s nose. “I can’t believe we did it, and I can’t believe we waited this long.”
Hutch laughed in turn, raising his head to look at his partner’s pensive expression.
“But I don’t know what’s gonna happen tomorrow. Or when we go home. Or …”
“I know,” Hutch whispered. “I know. I’m not …” He swallowed. “Listen, Starsk …” He didn’t want to say it, but he had to – and he had to sound like he meant it. “I don’t expect … you don’t have to – ”
“Wait a minute.” Scowling, Starsky sat up, pushing Hutch back onto the pile of pillows scattered against the headboard. “You’re not givin’ me the talk, are you?” He straddled Hutch’s legs and braced himself against the headboard, his face inches from his partner’s.
Hutch was so focused on trying to sound cool about it that he didn’t understand Starsky’s words. “What?”
“The talk,” Starsky repeated, glaring at Hutch. “The ‘I like you but we don’t haveta be exclusive’ talk. The ‘we can still see other people’ talk.”
“The ‘I’m not ready to settle down’ talk,” Starsky went on, his voice heavy with sarcasm, maybe a little anger. “The ‘this isn’t serious’ talk. The talk.”
“Okay, okay …” Hutch took a breath. His heart was racing. “I j-just didn’t want you t-to think that you had to … that we …” Starsky continued to glare at him. Surrendering, Hutch cried, “What?”
Starsky sat back on Hutch’s thighs, shaking his head. “You plannin’ on cattin’ around? Forgettin’ all about what we just did? Makin’ the rounds, goin’ to the clubs, chattin’ up the stews once we get back home?”
“No,” Hutch protested. “I just thought…”
“Or you gonna start hangin’ out at the gay nightclubs, pickin’ up some pretty boys –”
“No!” What the hell? “Starsky, what are you talking about?”
“I’m talkin’ about you and me,” Starsky said, leaning forward. “You an’ me have been exclusive in a whole lotta ways for a whole lotta years. You an’ me were serious a long time before either of us started thinkin’ about this. We got too much between us to do somethin’ like this and then forget about it without it breakin’ us. An’ I for one don’t intend to let nothin’ break us.”
Hutch swallowed, forced out a husky question. “What about women?”
Starsky sat back again, hands on his own thighs, and Hutch held his own hands still, though they itched to make contact.
“Do you wanna forget we did this?” Starsky said, his voice low and harsh, the hiss of a well-oiled slide, chambering a round. Ready to fire.
Hutch felt a shiver trickle down his back, but it was an easy question. “No.”
Starsky leaned in. “Then you better be ready to forget everything else.”
Hutch slid his palms over Starsky’s thighs, covering his partner’s hands with his own, aware he was – ridiculously – half-hard again. Christ, they both were.
Of all the things he’d expected, an immediate declaration – well, command – of commitment hadn’t made the list. And yet, if it had, he might’ve expected it to come in just this weird, backhanded Starsky-esque way.
He whispered, “Yeah.” And smiled. “Okay.”
Hutch started awake to the sharp rap of knuckles on the door of the suite. Blinking away the stupor of deep sleep, he tried to push himself upright, but a dead weight across his chest held him down. A dead weight that was warm and breathing. And smelled like sweaty Starsky.
Grinning, Hutch gently pushed his softly snoring partner onto his back while sliding out from under him. Naturally, Starsky woke up, with a sound halfway between a snort and a question, as Hutch rolled to his feet and grabbed a robe.
God. His body ached; his shoulder burned – the bandage had come off somehow during their clumsy calisthenics, and his entire upper arm was bruised and scraped, raw looking.
Hutch smiled. No regrets.
The knock came again as he was struggling into the robe and fruitlessly feeling around its waist for the belt. It was barely closed around him when he opened the door to reveal one of the bellboys with a note.
Some frantic scrambling resulted in Hutch being able find money for a tip and send the kid away without flashing him too badly. Only once he’d closed the door was he able – naturally – to locate the damned belt.
“What is it?” Starsky’s sleep-muddied voice came from the bedroom doorway. Hutch turned around; at the sight of his partner, leaning naked and sleepy in against the doorjamb, hair mussed and rubbing his eyes like a kid, Hutch found himself grinning.
Starsky dropped his rubbing hand and blinked. “What?”
Hutch shook his head. “Nothing.” He came closer, well aware he was still grinning, and an answering smile teased his partner’s mouth.
“What?” Starsky repeated when Hutch was within a couple of feet.
“I was just thinkin’ how cute you are when you wake up.”
The smile remained no more than a hint. “So no second thoughts?”
“Oh, all kinds of second thoughts,” Hutch said. “But no regrets and no change of heart.” He raised his free hand, briefly stroking before letting his palm rest against his partner’s chest. “No way.”
Starsky finally smiled. “So what’s that? Our bill?”
Hutch blinked. “Oh.” He looked at the folded note, flicked it open. “No. It’s a note from … from Chris. Parker,” he added, on the off chance Starsky didn’t remember. The storm darkening his partner’s brow disabused him of that fancy. “He said he wants me to come out and talk to him. As soon as possible.” He handed the note to Starsky, who scanned it and gave it back.
“I have no idea,” Hutch said automatically, looking around for his clothes. Starsky caught his arm and his eye.
“Well,” Hutch amended, impatient. “I have some idea. Come on, Starsk.” He heard his own tone gentle without conscious effort, sensed that his eyes elaborated: Christ, you’re my entire fucking world; don’t you know it?
Starsky let go. “Sorry.” He shook it off, visibly, and moved away, moved aimlessly about the sitting room. “Guess I’ll go for a walk. Clear my head.”
Hutch watched him, knowing he was still bothered. “Okay,” he said mildly. “I won’t be long.”
In the midst of his pointless fiddling with the empty champagne bottle in its tub of now-tepid water, Starsky stopped, looked up.
“Better not be,” he warned, meaning it but also letting his partner know he wasn’t really angry, “or I’ll come after you.”
Hutch gathered his clothes, wrinkled and still faintly damp. Gingerly clutching them, aware of his own rumpled, sweaty state, he decided to do a quick clean-up and dress in fresh clothes. He was really a mess. Then he grinned, remembering how he’d gotten that way, and glanced at Starsky, feeling oddly shy. But happy. “You won’t have to.”
Starsky smiled. “So get a move on.”
* * *
Hutch left the room a little after 9, crossing the quiet, discreetly floodlit grounds to the gym complex listening to crickets and the growling of his stomach. Room service, first thing, once I get back. The second thing … Hutch felt his face stretch in what had to be a hell of a stupid grin and walked faster. He wanted to get this over with and get back to where he belonged.
Chris opened the door on Hutch’s third rap, wearing shorts and a grin. “Hi. You got my note.”
“Come on in. Sit down.” Chris stood aside and Hutch went in and laid claim to a barstool at the counter, near the door. He didn’t want to do anything that would give the misimpression he planned to stay long.
“You missed dinner,” Chris said, going to his refrigerator. “But you can imagine the topic of conversation.”
Hutch smiled. Then, “I didn’t know you ever ate with the guests.”
Chris shrugged. “We can. I don’t usually, but there’s no rule against it. You want a beer?” He pulled two Coronas out of his fridge, held them up.
Hutch considered, but he was pretty dehydrated from … everything. He fought down another goofy smile.
“Water for me, thanks,” he said, and Chris filled a glass with ice and water from a pitcher in the fridge.
“Want lemon?” he asked, holding one up. “The water here tastes a little funny. Too many minerals.”
Hutch nodded. “Lemon’s good.”
Chris sliced up the lemon on the counter. “Everyone was saying you and your friend almost got killed. That Mr. Gallant came after you with a gun in the woods.” He tweaked the lemon slice over Hutch’s water, dropped it into the glass, and slid it across the counter to Hutch.
“That’s all true,” he said, and took a gulp. The cold water felt great going down his parched throat. He drank half the glass in one go, Chris watching him curiously. “Sorry. Thirsty.”
“It’s cool.” Chris pulled the pitcher out of the fridge and refilled his glass with a grin. “Mr. Thornton said he heard shooting and called the police. That Mr. Gallant’s in jail now.”
Hutch nodded. Chris took a long swallow of his beer, eyes never leaving Hutch.
“What the hell happened, Ken? Does this tie in with the two murders?”
Hutch took another drink. “If not it’s a pretty big coincidence, don’t you think?”
“So it was Mr. Gallant who killed Mr. Saronno and Mr. Gabriel?” Chris shook his head slowly. “Man. That’s hard to believe.”
“Why?” Hutch asked. Chris shrugged, leaning on the counter.
“I don’t know. I guess it’s hard to believe anyone would kill people like that. But it’s hard to believe he took a shot at you guys – and he must’ve done that. Hell, people heard the shots. Everyone was talking about it, about the cops coming up here again. Bad for business, you know?”
“But it’s worse for business having a killer on the loose,” Hutch said. He was a little off balance; he’d expected Chris had invited him here to make a move on him, not to talk about Gallant.
Chris nodded, looking thoughtful. “Yeah. I hope this means it’s all over with.”
“Me too,” Hutch said, draining the second glass of water. His day was catching up with him; he felt limp all over. All he wanted to do was go back to the room, maybe eat a sandwich, and crawl back into bed. With Starsky.
“You’re smiling,” Chris said, doing the same. Hutch blinked at him, blurted:
“It’s been an interesting day.”
Chris chuckled. “I guess so. Do you know – I mean, did Mr. Gallant say why he did it? Why he killed those men?”
“He didn’t say anything to me,” Hutch said. Chris filled his glass again and he took a sip. “But he obviously wasn’t in the mood to have a conversation with us.”
“I don’t even remember him being a guest here when Mr. Gabriel was killed,” Chris said, still scowling faintly. He looked at Hutch for an explanation, and Hutch could only shrug.
“I don’t have the answers,” he said. “The local police will have to try to find that out.” He shook his head; there were still so many holes – big holes – in the case. “They can’t interrogate him ’til his lawyer gets there.”
“Well, I hope they figure it out,” Chris said, finishing his beer. “And I hope this mess hasn’t messed up your vacation too badly.”
Hutch shrugged. “No. I mean, he’s in custody now. Starsky and I can relax and enjoy ourselves.” He planted both elbows on the counter and took another gulp of the water. The room was a little too warm, and the ice felt good in his mouth.
“Good. I’d like it if we could get some more tennis in. I don’t usually get a chance to play someone who challenges me.”
Hutch returned his smile, almost sorry to get off the topic of the murders and onto a more uncomfortable topic.
“I’d like to play some more tennis,” he said, trying to find the right words. He liked Chris, and after all, the guy had hardly outright propositioned him.
Although he did kiss me. In anyone’s book, that counted as an expression of interest. Hutch found words – right or not – and voiced them.
“But I don’t think I’m up for more than that.” He smiled, hoping Chris would understand and not be offended.
Chris smiled. “Really? You sure?”
Hutch looked at him for a long moment, the tousled hair, the handsome face, the bare, tanned chest and inviting smile.
He smiled back, uncomfortable, still a little overheated.
“Pretty sure,” he lied. The truth – I’m crazy in love and you wouldn’t stand a chance – was none of Chris’ business.
“Only pretty sure?” Chris teased. “That sounds like a loophole to me.”
At that, Hutch moved to rise, to make some excuse and go – but somehow he slipped, catching himself against the counter.
“Hey.” Chris came around the counter. “You okay?”
Hutch nodded, falling back onto the barstool. “Sure. Just …” He must’ve been more exhausted than he thought. He shook his head, trying to clear it.
“You’d better sit on the couch for a minute.” Chris took hold of Hutch’s arm and lifted him from the chair. Hutch tried to pull free, but his arm wouldn’t obey, lying heavy in Chris’ grasp, heavy like his body as Chris guided him to the sofa and eased him down, sitting beside him.
“You all right?”
Hutch shook his head. “Yeah. Just tired, I guess.”
Chris said, “You’ve had a long day. Relax.”
A small voice in the back of his brain told him it was time to go, but his body’s sudden lethargy overwhelmed it, letting him sink into the plush sofa.
Chris laid a hand on his thigh, rubbing gently up and down, and Hutch stared at it, knowing he should object. He shook his head, said, “Don’t …” and couldn’t find the words to complete the sentence.
“It’s okay, Ken,” Chris said. “We’re just talking here, that’s all. I like you a lot, you know. You’re a beautiful man, and I looked forward to getting to know you better.”
“I can’t …” Hutch said, still uneasy but unable to articulate his reasons.
“It’s okay,” Chris said. “I understand. Just take it easy for a minute.”
Hutch leaned back, head resting on the back of the couch, breathing deeply, trying to get his second wind and wake up, but each deep breath only seemed to make him more relaxed, make him sink deeper into the soft cushions under him.
Chris spoke gently. “Why did Gallant go after you and your partner? Are you a private investigator?”
Hutch shook his head.
Hutch just stared, wanting to say no but somehow unable to form the word.
Chris’ lips pressed together in annoyance. “You’re cops. That’s what I was afraid of.” He sighed. “I’m really disappointed, Ken. I really liked you.”
Hutch tried to get up, but his muscles were watery, his whole body a puddle on the couch, his brain just as fluid and unable to focus.
“I guess I just can’t win,” Chris said, and laughed. “I keep picking liars. Like Vince.”
Hutch could only stare, half hypnotized, knowing it was important that he listen, that he find out, but also knowing he ought to … ought to … something. He couldn’t think. He could barely hold his head up.
“Vince,” he echoed. Vince Gabriel, his drowsy brain supplied, along with faint alarm bells he hadn’t the energy to respond to.
“I was good for him,” Chris said. “That’s why he kept coming back. He’d go home to the wife and kids and try to pretend he was happy, but it was bullshit. He wanted to believe in all that, but he couldn’t. He’d fake it for a while. Then he’d come back to me.”
Chris sat forward, elbows on his knees, focused more on remembering than on Hutch, but Hutch found himself unable to do anything but watch and listen. He needed to know this, and anyway getting up would be so much effort ...
“It tore him up inside. He loved me. He wanted to be with me. But everyone expected him to be normal. Straight. Wife and kids and family and dog and all the phony bullshit. He wanted to be normal in his head, but his heart kept bringing him back to me.”
Hutch fought to force out the words, managing a hoarse half-whisper. “What happened?”
Chris shook his head, face tight with anger, dismissing the reason even as he spoke it. “His wife. Bitch got pregnant again. He felt like it was, you know, a sign. That he had to stop … stop ‘screwing around.’ ” Chris twisted the words, mocking his dead lover. “As he called it. He said he had to end it. Said it was over. Just like that. Like I didn’t mean shit to him, you know? After all that time, he thought he could just dump me like some fucking—” He pushed himself of the couch and Hutch flinched, but Chris just stood in the middle of the room, stiff, flushed with anger, with remembering.
“He said he was tired of living a lie.” Chris looked at Hutch, laughed, a sharp, brittle sound. “A lie. This. Me. He thought this was the lie, but I knew better. I told him. I told him she was the real lie – that bitch and her brats. That was the lie, not me, and he fucking knew it. He knew it. But he wouldn’t listen.”
So you killed him, Hutch thought, unable to speak, unable to be surprised, unable to move, still, though he knew he should be afraid. He thought of his gun, but remembered – he hadn’t brought it. Why would he? The case was closed, and Chris was no threat. He tried to push himself upright, looking to the door – but it was a thousand miles away and his body wouldn’t obey him. So you killed him.
Then Chris was in front of him again.
“Relax, Ken.” He put his hands on Hutch’s shoulders and Hutch stared up at him, vaguely aware something was off, but too limp to focus on what it was. Chris’s smiling face filled his vision.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to get worked up.” A warm hand cupped his cheek and warm lips pressed his as Chris bore him back with his body, gently but irresistibly. Hutch lay back, feeling the room spin, feeling Chris’ hand slide over his stomach to cup his genitals and squeeze, squeeze.
Hutch gasped; the gentle, rhythmic pressure generated a tingling that spread from his groin, making him feel dizzier, hotter, drunker, mixing badly with the vague alarm prodding at his brain, trying to tell him this was bad, that he didn’t want this.
“Mmmm … real nice.” Chris slid his tongue into Hutch’s mouth, stroking there as his hand stroked between Hutch’s legs.
“Don’t worry, Ken. I’ll take good care of you.”
* * *
Starsky sat on the garden wall separating the rose bushes from the lawn that sloped down toward the lake, staring at the calm black water and wondering how it was possible to feel as if he were entirely changed in mind and body, heart and soul – and, at the same time, exactly the same as he’d ever been.
I’ve loved him for so long it’s like we been doin’ this the whole time – and yet I still can’t believe we did it. We … touched like that. We … made love.
Starsky shook his head, amazed all over again, his body heating up as he remembered. He shivered. He wanted Hutch, right here, right now, wanted to do it all over again and more, wanted to show Hutch everything he felt, prove it wasn’t a mistake, that they weren’t giving up anything …
Starsky shook his head. Still a few doubts, there, Davey?
But it wasn’t doubts – not doubts about him and Hutch. It was fear, plain and simple. Fear that real life – their real life, life in a world that had enough trouble accepting the old ways they expressed their love – would grind away at them until it destroyed this new and fragile bond. No more easy laughter or coarse mockery at the occasional crack in the squad room or bar. No more unthinking affection – it had been unthinking because it was innocent, and that innocence was gone. They’d think about every touch and smile, now. They wouldn’t be able to avoid it.
He’d told Hutch to forget about everything else, but he knew better. They couldn’t. They couldn’t change, not publicly. It would ruin them.
The swish of footsteps through the grass drew him out of his thoughts and he looked up to see a small Latino man – the gardener – strolling around the bushes with a rake over one shoulder. He stopped when he saw Starsky and nodded at him, then commenced gazing into the night sky, his free thumb hooked into his overalls.
“Quiet out here,” the man said.
It was, Starsky thought, but just nodded.
“Out for a walk in the moonlight?” His tone was suggestive; Starsky looked at him but the little man was gazing up at the full moon with a smile.
“Nights like this are made for romance,” he said dreamily.
“Or secrets,” Starsky said, and the man looked at him.
“Si. Especially romantic secrets.”
The back of his neck tingling, Starsky said, “You probably know a lot of the secrets here.” He tilted his head toward the main house.
“Si,” the man agreed. “I see people come and go, you know, and they don’t see me, cos who sees the gardener, you know what I mean?”
Starsky nodded. “You ever see the men who got killed?”
The little man shrugged. “Sure. They both came up here and they ate and they swam and they played the tennis. Lots of tennis.” He looked hard at Starsky for just a second. “And sometimes they took walks in the moonlight.”
Not breathing, Starsky said, “Where’d they walk to?”
Another one-shoulder shrug. “Around. About. Maybe the lake. The pool.”
Again the shrug. “Well, you know … what you do on holiday stays on holiday, si?”
Not if you get murdered because of it, Starsky thought, but he smiled. “That’s the way I feel about it too.” He looked around the grounds, added casually, “So they both took walks and played a lot of tennis.”
The gardener giggled, a high-pitched sound. “A lot of tennis. Some people, they say, you know, that kind of thing is a sin.”
Starsky thought, at a loss: tennis? Then he realized what they were talking about.
“But, you know, whatever floats your boat, si?”
Tennis. He remembered what Thornton said about Gabriel’s wife, thinking he came here to carry on an affair. He remembered the one thing the two men had in common, other than being dead. Chris Parker.
“Hutch.” Ignoring the gardener’s stare, he sprang off the wall and headed for the tennis courts at a dead run.
* * *
Starsky slammed into the cottage door at a run, hitting it with his right shoulder, gun in his other hand.
Chris was on top of Hutch on the couch, both men shirtless; Chris jumped, hands flying away from Hutch’s open shorts as Starsky burst in. Hutch lay there, head lolling in his partner’s direction, his languid movements shouting drugged to Starsky as he trained the Beretta on Chris.
After the first start, Chris stayed crouched over Hutch’s body, hands coming to rest against Hutch’s throat, not tight, but a clear threat.
“Get away from him.”
Chris didn’t move, gaze flickering between the Beretta and Starsky’s face. “You won’t shoot. If you miss me, you’ll hit him.” Hutch shoved weakly at Chris, trying to push him away.
Starsky eased the hammer back. It was entirely unnecessary, of course, but he’d found it very effective in communicating intent.
The pro froze.
“At this range, I won’t even muss his hair. Get off my partner, now, Parker, and maybe I won’t kill you.” He was shaking, from fear and fury, but only on the inside.
The hands left Hutch’s neck and rose, slowly; Chris eased himself off of Hutch and onto his feet.
Starsky glanced irresistibly at his partner, realizing in one ugly stabbing instant that both men were aroused – and Parker moved.
The pro lunged at Starsky and Starsky fired, once, into the man’s muscular thigh. Chris fell with a shout and Starsky backed around him, getting between him and Hutch as the pro curled into a ball and moaned.
Chris rolled onto his back, against the wall, and looked murder at Starsky, who aimed the Beretta between his eyes.
Clutching his bleeding knee, Chris’s anger turned to white-faced fear. “You … you said …”
“I said maybe, asshole.”
Hutch’s voice carried weakly from the couch. “Starsk …”
Whether a plea to stop or simply a call for help, the word stopped Starsky. He reached back with his right hand and Hutch immediately seized it, pulling himself closer, his forehead pressed to the back of Starsky’s leg.
Footsteps pounded up to the door.
“What the hell …” Thornton stopped in the doorway, panting, revolver in hand, his stare divided between Chris and the police partners. The little gardener stood behind him, wringing his hands.
“Call an ambulance,” Starsky said, holstering his Beretta and turning to Hutch. “And I think Gallant’s gonna be gettin’ a roommate.”
* * *
Thornton cuffed Chris with Starsky’s cuffs and made a makeshift bandage out of a towel. Then he performed a swift but thorough search of the tiny apartment while Starsky leaned over Hutch and patted his cheek.
“Hutch? Hutch? What’d he give ya?”
Hutch shook his head, languidly. “Water. Lemon.” His hands floated up, weakly trying to deflect Starsky’s assault.
“I didn’t give him anything,” Chris snarled, his voice thick.
“This,” Thornton said from behind them. Starsky turned to see the man at the kitchen counter, holding a small clear bottle of the sort seen in hospitals.
“It was in the refrigerator next to the pitcher of water,” Thornton said, disgusted – with Parker’s sloppiness, Starsky guessed. “It’s almost empty. Must’ve just poured it into the water.”
“What is it?”
Thornton peered at the label. “Chloral hydrate.”
Starsky said, “He gave him a mickey finn?”
“You shut up,” Starsky said, turning back to him. Hutch’s palms came to rest on his chest.
Starsky bent closer, seeking some sign of awareness in the glazed blue eyes. “Yeah?”
Hutch’s mouth worked. “I … don’t feel good.”
“I’m not surprised,” Starsky said, petting the hair back from Hutch’s forehead. He felt a little hot. “Hang on. You’re OK. I’m right here. We got an ambulance on the way.”
Hutch nodded, swallowing roughly, and Starsky swiftly closed the fly on his shorts, then eased him into a sitting position then sat next to him, supporting him. Hutch’s head hung, as if he were staring fascinated at his own lap, but he leaned trustingly against his partner.
Thornton confronted Chris, still on the floor but with his back against the wall, cuffed hands on his lap, his face chalky and damp from the pain of the bullet in his leg.
“What the hell happened?” Thornton barked.
Chris stared down at his clenching fingers and said nothing.
“He was … him and Gabriel were havin’ an affair,” Starsky said, embarrassed at saying it, off-balance knowing the idea hit a lot closer to home than it would have a day ago. “Him and Saronno too, probably.”
Thornton’s eyes narrowed as he visibly tried to piece things together.
“Then he was in it with Gallant? Or …”
“He musta been,” Starsky said. “He may’ve killed Gabriel on Gallant’s orders – or on Beldon’s orders. Same with Saronno. We don’t –” Hutch tugging at his sleeve distracted him. “What?”
Hutch shook his head, but Starsky, leaning closer, couldn’t make out anything except “no” and “lover,” neither of which helped.
“You might as well spill it now,” Thornton said to Chris. “Between you and Gallant we’re gonna find everything out one way or another.”
“I’ve got nothing to say,” Chris said through clenched teeth.
The gardener poked his nose in the door. “The ambulance is here, patron. And the police too.”
The paramedic patched up Chris Parker and the police took him away, still silent. Thornton followed them into town after thanking Starsky (and Hutch, although the latter hardly noticed) and telling them he’d let them know as soon as he learned anything.
Starsky then prodded the paramedic to check out Hutch, while he hovered worriedly behind him. For his part Hutch scarcely reacted, lolling on the couch while the paramedic went over him, his eyes seldom more than half open, his body boneless and cooperative.
“He’s just been sedated.” The paramedic started to put away his gear and Starsky sat, relieved, next to Hutch on the couch.
“Still, he should probably come to the hospital—”
“No.” Hutch shook his head, clutching at Starsky’s arm as if to pull him between Hutch and the medic, like a shield. “No hospital.”
Starsky laid a restraining hand on his shoulder, said to the paramedic, “If it’s just chloral hydrate, he can sleep it off, right?”
“Yeah. If he were going to have an adverse reaction, he already would have. But …”
“No,” Hutch murmured, slumped against Starsky’s side, shaking his head mindlessly.
“He don’t like hospitals,” Starsky said. “Nothin’ personal.”
The paramedic shrugged. “I don’t like them either.” He got up. “I can’t make him go. You’re police officers; I assume you know what you’re doing. But keep an eye on him and call if he shows any reaction.”
“Will do,” Starsky said, getting up in turn. Hutch flopped over onto the couch, face down, and giggled. Starsky grabbed him bodily and hauled him to his feet like six feet of overcooked spaghetti.
“Come on, you big blond lug. Let’s get you back to the room so you can sleep this off. Where’s your shirt?”
Hutch squinted at him, considerably less than half awake.
“Never mind.” Starsky took a firm hold and maneuvered his partner out of the pro’s cottage and back to the hotel.
* * *
Starsky hauled his partner all the way into Hutch’s bedroom – the one they hadn’t made a mess of earlier – yanked down the covers with one hand, and laid Hutch out, pulling off his shoes before tucking him in and sitting down beside him with a grunt of exhausted relief.
Hutch lay still, wearing only shorts and the small fresh bandage he’d attached to his shoulder before going to see the pro, the rise and fall of his chest his only movement.
Starsky leaned his elbows on his knees, panting, trying not to picture Parker on top of Hutch, trying not to remember how he’d seen Parker’s shorts, and Hutch’s shorts, stretched and filled, taut from their hard-ons, reminding himself that it was drugs and simple physical stimulation, nothing more, nothing important.
Nothing. Christ, he was drugged. He coulda been killed, and you’re bugged that his dick responded to attention like any man’s would?
Starsky leaned forward and Hutch reached out a floppy hand to wrap weakly around his wrist.
Half-open eyes sought to focus on him as Hutch whispered, “I … I didn’t … he … I didn’t …”
Starsky shook his head, instantly aware what his partner was trying to tell him, instantly guilty, as if he’d somehow communicated his own stupid doubts to Hutch. “I know. I know you didn’t. Just sleep. I’ll be right here.”
Hutch tugged, a question.
“Not goin’ anywhere,” Starsky promised. His free hand found Hutch’s face, stroking, connecting, each gentle touch wiping away more of his own fear. “Not ever.”
Hutch closed his eyes, swallowed.
“Stay here,” he whispered.
Understanding, Starsky came around the bed, doffed his own shirt, shoes and jeans, and lay down beside his partner, close, laying one hand over Hutch’s forearm. Hutch’s palm immediately covered it, squeezing.
“Sleep,” he said into Hutch’s ear. Hutch sighed softly and the room fell silent.
Starsky felt Hutch’s pulse under his palm, slowing, calming, and his own body relaxed. He had time to think that he ought to have turned off the light before he fell asleep.
* * *
Starsky woke gradually, warm, cosy, feeling cuddly … feeling cuddled. A deep breath filled his head with the scent of freshly washed Hutch … Hutch whose warm naked body was pressed along Starsky’s side and whose mouth was delivering the wordless sweet nothings that had drawn him from sleep.
He breathed out a hum of pleasure and Hutch nuzzled his ear, purred, “Morning.”
Starsky blinked at the window. It was obvious, even with the light on and the curtains drawn, that it was still dark out. “Morning?” he croaked.
Hutch didn’t pause. “Well. Technically.” He placed slow, warm kisses along Starsky’s neck until Starsky squirmed and giggled.
Hutch sat up, looking down at him; for one really soapy instant Starsky thought he looks like an angel.
“You want me to stop?” Hutch asked.
He actually meant it. Starsky shook his head, slow, emphatic, and Hutch moved in for a kiss.
Starsky stopped him. “I ain’t brushed my teeth. You’re all showered and everything.”
Hutch didn’t smile. “I don’t give a damn if you haven’t brushed your teeth. I had to … to wash him off me.”
At that Starsky wrapped his arms around him, wrapped him in fierce affection, and Hutch kissed him, hungry but not harsh, ’til Starsky forgot about toothbrushing, breathing, everything but Hutch’s taste and scent and feel.
Then Hutch moved to lie atop him and Starsky had to break the kiss.
“Oh, god …” All that flesh, all that Hutch, that long hard cock pressed against his, made Starsky’s brain and body burst into flame.
He slid his palms over the silky smooth skin of Hutch’s back, over his ass, feeling the hard muscles working as they ground against each other. When his fingertips slid into the tight space between, Hutch made a desperate sound in his ear and pumped harder, and Starsky felt his own body throb in response to his partner’s need.
Abruptly he rolled them over and sat up. “I gotta see you.”
Hutch lay spread before him, panting, skin faintly blushing, misted with sweat, his erection lying fat against the golden hair that framed it. Hutch’s eyes never left him as Starsky laid his hands on either side, feeling the blood beat in Hutch’s thighs, watching it pulse in Hutch’s cock.
“Beautiful,” Starsky breathed, involuntarily, and cupped Hutch’s balls. The staring eyes shut and Hutch hissed, hands fisting, then reaching for Starsky.
Starsky smiled. “Oh man …” He slid his left hand around the base of Hutch’s cock. “I’m gonna love havin’ you in my hands like this.”
Hutch chuckled, deep in his throat, and his own fingers found Starsky’s knees – all of him Hutch could reach – and squeezed.
“What’re you gonna do now you got me?” Hutch sounded like his whole body was being squeezed, like his skin was drum-tight around some sort of imminent explosion. Still, the words were a challenge, and Starsky grinned.
“Play it by ear,” he said, and bent close. Hutch stilled, not breathing, but his stomach trembled, and he smelled and looked so good, so perfect, that Starsky opened wide, stuck out his tongue, and engulfed that silky-steel cock as deep as he could go.
Hutch hissed again, hips jerking up instinctively. “God … Starsk …” He scrabbled at the blankets as Starsky focused on the slick smooth flesh in his mouth, how it felt and tasted against his tongue, warm and strange and real. It should have felt wrong, bad – or so he’d always been taught. But it felt like … like making love. It felt exactly like making love, and that had never felt wrong to Starsky.
And it was making love to Hutch. That thought made Starsky smile around his mouthful and run his tongue up one side and down the other, using the moisture to lubricate his hand and work Hutch up and down. Hutch was shaking, breathing in harsh pants, and Starsky realized he was teasing – not meaning to, but taking his time when Hutch’s body was screaming for release.
“I got ya,” he said, though Hutch probably didn’t hear him, and took a deep breath, then wrapped his mouth and hand around his partner and worked him, worked him slow and hard, hearing the pants turn to grunts, feeling Hutch’s hips jerk in rhythm with his own efforts.
“Get up here,” Hutch choked out. “I can’t … I want to touch you.”
Starsky scrambled off Hutch’s legs and up toward the head of the bed, never taking his mouth off Hutch’s erection – until those big hands wrapped around his cock and balls and he had to gasp as the feel of it jolted him to his toes. In reaction his own hand, slick and hot, pumped Hutch faster, and he again closed his mouth over the flushed tip of Hutch’s cock.
“Oh … god … Starsk … I’m gonna …” The word trailed off into a groan as Hutch pumped into Starsky’s mouth, while his right hand frantically worked Starsky, his left sliding back behind Starsky’s tightening balls to seek, to press …
Starsky shuddered, yanking his mouth away from Hutch to cry out at the electric feeling of Hutch touching where no woman had ever dared to touch him, and Hutch came in hot spurts, into the air, over his own stomach and Starsky’s hand. Helpless, Starsky sprawled against Hutch’s heaving chest, moaning, rubbery legs splayed to invite his partner’s shaking, demanding fingers.
“Hutch … god … god …” he clutched at Hutch’s arms, needing him to stop, it was too much, too much – and Hutch’s right hand squeezed and slid, and the left sought and pressed, stroked, pressed – and stars exploded behind Starsky’s eyes and inside his balls and he came, and came, and then collapsed into a shivering heap across Hutch’s stomach, both of them breathing hard, desperately, for an unmeasured space of time.
Finally, with a bone-deep groan of contentment, Starsky pushed himself free of his partner’s sticky body and stretched out beside him.
“I sure hope you’re OK,” he said. “Cuz I’m fantastic.”
Hutch snorted a soft laugh and turned to him. They looked at each other, just looked, for a long moment – soapy as hell, Starsky thought, grinning – then Hutch said:
“I was wrong.”
Starsky blinked. “’Bout what?”
Hutch didn’t even give him time to start worrying. He leaned in, pressing his lips to Starsky’s, and said, “You’re a hell of a good kisser.”
Starsky giggled and grabbed him, pulling him in and arranging him like a big blonde pillow. Ignoring the trashed bed, their sticky bodies, and the morning sun starting to pierce the curtains, they dozed.
* * *
It was Starsky’s belly that woke them the next time, grumbling like a volcano about to erupt.
Hutch started. “What was that?”
“That was my stomach,” Starsky said, pushing Hutch’s head gently from the hairy pillow in question, “reminding me that we missed dinner, that we ain’t payin’ for any of this, and that, therefore, it’s time to call room service.”
“Hedonist,” Hutch said, flopping onto one of the hotel’s pillows, which he considered, now, very second-rate in comparison.
Starsky rolled onto his side and fumbled the phone into reach, setting it on his stomach, punching the buttons and then lying back with the receiver pressed to his ear.
“Hi. This is suite 12. I’d like to order two breakfasts, eggs, bacon, toast, juice, fruit, the works, with –”
Hutch looked over, curious, when he stopped talking.
“Oh. Sorry. No – no. Lo siento.” He disconnected, glanced at Hutch, dialed again. “Wrong number. Housekeeping.”
Hutch snickered throughout Starsky’s repeated breakfast request, and Starsky hit him with his pillow after he’d put the phone away.
Hutch tossed the weapon on the floor and Starsky promptly curled up against him, head on Hutch’s undamaged shoulder.
“Maybe we should clean up,” Hutch murmured, lazily stroking his partner’s chest. “Dress before the food gets here.”
Starsky snuggled closer. “We’re on vacation.”
* * *
Fifteen minutes later, a heavy rapping at the door woke them out of a doze and drew them to their feet.
“Finally,” Starsky said. “I’m starvin’.” They wrapped themselves in the complimentary robes and half-heartedly raced each other to the door, Starsky winning.
It was Thornton. Red-eyed, unshaven and rumpled, he cut to the chase.
Hutch and Starsky exchanged a surprised glance.
“Thought you’d want to hear how it went,” Thornton went on, and Starsky ushered him into the room, Hutch closing the door behind them.
“Thanks.” He sat heavily on the couch. “Came by earlier, as soon as I got back, but you must’ve still been asleep.”
With a great effort of will, Starsky didn’t throw Hutch a guilty glance, therefore unable to see whether Hutch managed the same. He wondered if the room – if they – looked and smelled of sex, if Thornton would notice, or comment. The partners laid claim to the two chairs facing the couch, studiously not looking at one another, but Thornton simply rubbed his stubbled face with one hand and got on with it.
“I can’t believe it. You won’t believe it either. Parker spilled the beans when he thought he was going to take the fall for everything. But … well, I sat in on the interrogation last night, and … he’s a seriously disturbed young man.” Thornton glanced at Hutch. “I guess you noticed that. Anyway, it turns out that he and Vince Gabriel were … you know-” He waved a hand, uncomfortable – “having a … homosexual—” He stopped himself, shaking his head at himself. “An affair’s an affair, I guess. So they were having an affair. When Gabriel tried to break it off, Parker killed him. I’m still not clear on whether he meant to. He admits to being out of his mind and I believe it. It looks like a crime of passion.”
“So how’s this tie in with Gallant and Saronno?” Starsky asked, determined to focus on the case and not on the suddenly all-too-personal angle.
Thornton nodded. “Here’s where it gets weird. You remember Fowler, Beldon’s old accountant?”
“He was here at the time of the first killing,” Starsky supplied.
“Well, apparently he saw it – or enough of it – to have a tidy little blackmail scheme to carry back to Beldon. Parker didn’t know all the details, of course – he’s not in the organization, just a pigeon - but the upshot is Gallant came up here and gave the kid an ultimatum: if you don’t want the cops knowing you killed your boyfriend, we have another little job for you.”
“Kill Saronno,” Starsky said, glancing at his partner. Hutch sat staring into the distance, though Starsky had no doubts he was listening.
Thornton said, “You got it. Don’t know why, yet – Gallant’s still not talking, and I got a feeling he won’t. But Saronno must’ve run afoul of Beldon and they were looking for a way to off him. Fowler’s little story about Parker and Gabriel must’ve seemed like the perfect opportunity.”
“Do you think Chris and Saronno were lovers too?” Hutch’s voice sounded tight, rough-edged. Starsky looked at him again but could tell nothing from his face.
Thornton shrugged. “Could be. Saronno was a player, from all I’ve heard, but I don’t know if he was a fag too. Don’t know if Parker had to seduce him or just play tennis with him until he found a way of leading him off into the woods for a little one-on-one with a baseball bat. Parker didn’t say. He just said he killed him on Gallant’s orders. That he didn’t want to, but he had to.”
“With a little mickey finn to make it easier,” Starsky murmured
“Parker said Gallant tried to make him kill both of you, and he wouldn’t do it.”
“That explains why Gallant came after us with the gun,” Starsky said.
Thornton nodded. “Gallant’s attorney’s here, and he’s not talking, but I think with Parker’s testimony we got enough to not only nail Gallant, but Beldon, too, if we play it right.”
Another knock came at the door and Starsky answered, letting in the kid from room service with a wheeled cart piled high with two breakfasts.
Thornton got up and headed to the door while Starsky tipped the kid.
“I’ll let you two eat in peace.”
“You’re welcome to join us,” Hutch said – Starsky recognized the tone as nothing more than politeness, and figured Hutch was as glad as he was that Thornton demurred.
“Thanks, but I still have to tell Marian everything that’s happened.” He shook his head one last time. “Unbelievable. Well, you men have my thanks, and I hope you’ll enjoy the rest of your stay here. I’ll call Hal and let him know how much you’ve done for me and how much I appreciate it.”
“Let us know if you find anything else out, will you?” Hutch said.
“You bet. See you later.”
Starsky waited ’til the door had closed behind him, then glanced at his partner.
Hutch nodded. “Just … I don’t know. I can’t help feeling sorry for Chris. I mean it,” he added at Starsky’s stare. “He’s got serious problems. Psychologically.”
Starsky took a slow, deep breath. “Okay. You go ahead and feel sorry for him. I’ll pass on it.”
Hutch looked at him, smiled crookedly. One hand rose to squeeze Starsky’s elbow gently. “Okay. Fair enough.”
Starsky nodded toward the cart. “Let’s eat.”
They dug in with gusto, polishing off the food in record time. Starsky volunteered to “do the dishes” – consisting of rolling the cart out into the corridor and closing and locking the door.
“Well.” He clapped his hands, rubbed them together. “Here we are – a five-star resort with all the amenities, and the great outdoors at our disposal.”
Hutch nodded. “So what do you want to do?”
“How many days we got left?”
Hutch squinted. “Eight. Why?”
Starsky turned, looked him up and down in a way that made Hutch blush, and said, “How d’ya feel about not leaving this room for, oh, say, about a week?”
* * *
“Somethin’ just occurred to me,” Starsky said eight days later, as they exited the resort for the last time, bags loaded into the rental car and nothing to look forward to but a long drive, a longer flight, and a life of difficult changes.
Not waiting for Hutch to prompt him, Starsky went on. “We been here almost two weeks and you never called Dolores to tell her where you were, to say hi, to say you missed her ...”
Hutch stopped. Started walking again, his entire body announcing imminent confession.
“There is no Dolores.”
“Then who’ve you been goin’ out with the last few months?”
Starsky opened his mouth. Closed it. Considered for a moment. Then said softly, “So you just made her up to avoid me.”
Hutch shook his head, knowing Starsky would misunderstand but unable to lie. “Yes.” Then, “No, not avoid. That’s not it. To … to let you breathe, and to force myself to let go a little. I needed someone to talk to about you, someone to tell all the things I was afraid to tell you.”
Suddenly Starsky sighed. “Jeez, Hutch. Dolores.”
Hutch looked at him.
“Just cuz I don’t speak Spanish doesn’t mean I don’t know what dolores means. If I was makin’ you unhappy why didn’t you just tell me? You know there’s nothin’ in the world I wouldn’t – ”
He caught himself right as Hutch cut in.
“Do for me. That’s exactly why. I didn’t want you to do it for me.” He shook his head. “Anyway, it wasn’t you making me unhappy. It was me making me unhappy.”
“Well … knock it off,” Starsky growled. “You an’ Dolores are history. Cheer up.”
“Make me.” Hutch smiled, going around the car to the driver’s side door.
Starsky grinned at him across the roof. “You’re on, blondie.”