Rules of Engagement

by Susan

 

sjames_centre@yahoo.com

 

 

 

“Good to know the rules, Starsk,” Hutch told him as they left the station that night.  

 

“Well, it’s not exactly a rule.”  A faint smile curled at the corner of his mouth.

 

“Excuse me, but ‘I’m always right’ sounds like a rule,” Hutch shot back.

 

“Okay, maybe it is a rule. Rule number one. Like the prime directive. Starsky is always right. Like tonight.”  His smile widened.

 

Hutch wasn’t amused. “Let’s just go eat. But not the diner again. I want real food.” 

 

“Sure, Hutch, whatever you say.”  

 

“Since when?”

 

Hutch wanted to kill him. But when? Before they ate or after? Give the condemned man one last meal? It might be easier if they ate first, Starsky always let down his guard when he was full.  Got sleepy and careless. He hadn’t exactly worked out how he was going to do it. He was torn between a slow and painful death and something quick and unexpected. Death by opera? He smiled to himself, pleased at its brilliant simplicity. A little Wagner was a powerful thing. He imagined what three hours could do. He pictured Starsky tied to a chair, begging for mercy. Or what about death by junk food? Force feed him burritos? Give him a terminal case of indigestion—that would work and no one would ever suspect Hutch, they all knew how much crap Starsky ate. He liked that. There was a certain poetic irony to it. Hoist by his own petard and all that.

 

He watched as Starsky bounced across the diner from the men’s room and slid into the booth opposite him. Since when did he do that?  Hutch felt a foot in his lap. Oh, since now. Starsky grinned, reached over for the menu, and did a kind of sexy brushstroke under the table, the pressure alternating between heel and toe.

 

“Move your foot. Someone will see,” Hutch said, his voice husky.

 

“Sure, Hutch, whatever you say.” Starsky moved his foot. In small circles.

 

Hutch had a flash of himself as the Incredible Hulk, his pants in shreds, burst open at the seams.  

 

“I meant re-move your foot.”  Hutch traced a small round scar on the table with one finger, shifted sideways in his seat. The foot followed.

 

“Say please,” Starsky answered without looking up from the menu. He was humming now. It sounded like Blueberry Hill.

 

Hutch watched the waitress cross the diner, heading towards them. “Now!”

 

“Say please.”

 

The waitress stood at the end of the booth, pulled a pencil slowly from behind one ear, dug a pad from her apron pocket, and looked at them expectantly.

 

“Please...” 

 

Starsky lowered his foot, Hutch coughed, and the waitress tapped her pencil impatiently against the pad. Starsky smiled up at her, the smile he reserved for sweet old ladies, little girls, and grumpy waitresses. “He’ll order for both of us. He knows what I like.”  

 

Hutch felt a blush start a slow crawl up his neck. He really was going to kill Starsky. He’d fuck him to death if he didn’t think Starsky might actually enjoy it.

 

“Can we get two cheeseburgers, two fries and two Cokes? Please.”  And one cold shower.

 

“And no onions,” Starsky added. He winked at the waitress. “I got a date later.”  

 

Hutch kicked him. 

 

 

 

It was late. Or early. Depended which side of the day you were on.

 

“Starsk?”  If he couldn’t sleep, neither would Starsky. Love was like that, Starsky always told him. You were supposed to share everything.  He poked him in the ribs.

 

“I’m asleep,” Starsky grumbled.

 

“Too bad.” He poked him again. The shoulder this time. “I want to talk. About tonight.”

 

“Don’t worry about it. Happens to everyone sooner or later.”

 

“Very funny. I want to talk about before. In the alley tonight. You should have waited for me. Next time you might not be so lucky and I’ll be talking to myself.”

 

“You are talking to yourself. I’m asleep, remember?”  He buried his head under the pillow.

 

“I’m serious.”  He pulled the pillow off Starsky’s head and barely resisted the urge to hit him with it.

 

“I know you’re serious. Seriously crazy. Anyway, you’ll never really be alone. I plan to haunt you after I’m gone. I’m going to follow you around, whisper in your ear, grab your ass when no one’s looking.”

 

Hutch almost smiled at that. Almost.  “You do that now.”

 

“True. And besides, I wasn’t lucky tonight, I was right. Always am. Rule number one, remember?”

 

“You are so full of shit.  I swear, if you …” 

 

Starsky sighed, reached over to turn on the bedside lamp, and blinked a few times against the light. He propped himself up on one elbow facing Hutch.

 

“Remember when I told you that you were in love with me. And you said you weren’t?”  

 

Low blow. “That was different.” And I was lying, anyway,

 

“Was I right or not?”

 

“Yeah, you were right.”

 

“And when I said we could make this work, and you said we couldn’t?”

 

“That has nothing to do with tonight and you know it. You should have waited for me.” He sounded angrier than he meant to. Not as angry as he was, though. Or as scared.

After a moment's hesitation, Starsky tightened his lips into a thin line, and took a long, slow breath. Hutch wondered if he had pushed too hard. If Starsky would push back.

Starsky finally said, “Feltham was taking off the back way. You had your hands full with Doyle. Anyways, I was right; he had the stuff on him. Like I said he would.”

 

“You also said he wouldn’t have a gun. And he did. And you almost got killed. Over a couple of fuckin’ necklaces.”  Which is why I wanted to kill you. Which he had to admit was sort of illogical. “When I heard the shots, I thought …”

 

“I ducked, didn’t I?”  He reached out and touched Hutch’s cheek with one hand. “Besides, they were really, really expensive necklaces. Did you want to explain to Dobey how we lost him?”

 

Hutch wanted to shake him. What about next time? What about when there was no door or no car or no fucking anything to duck behind? What about then? But he said nothing, just leaned in against the warmth of Starsky’s hand. Swallowed his fear and put it away for another day.

 

He finally found his voice. “You make me crazy. You get yourself killed over something stupid and I will never speak to you again. Let’s make it rule number two. No getting killed over stupid stuff. Understood?”

 

“Fine. Rule number two. Got it.”  He turned off the light, turned on his side and pulled the sheet up over his shoulders. “Hutch?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“You worry too much. Together, we’re invincible, a couple of regular superheroes. Now go back to sleep.” 

 

“One of these days someone’s gonna have kryptonite. What’ll you do then?” he asked quietly.

 

But Starsky was already asleep.

 

~~~

 

“God, I hate that,” Starsky complained as he reached across the table to grab the last piece of pie.

 

“Hate what?”  Hutch leaned back in the chair smiling. He knew where this was going and planned to enjoy the ride.

 

“That thing you do.” He swore as the piece fell apart halfway between the pie plate and his plate.

 

“I thought you liked that thing I do.”  Hutch wagged his eyebrows at him.

 

“Why do you always tell me what I want?” He picked up a stray piece of apple from the kitchen table and popped it in his mouth. Licked his fingers.

 

Hutch resisted the urge to lean across the table and lick Starsky’s fingers too. “Touchy, touchy. All I said was that you didn’t really want that third piece of pie.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Because it’s bad for you.”

 

“No, I mean why do you have to tell me what I want?” 

 

“Because I’m arrogant.”  Because I know it bugs you. Because I like make-up sex. Because we have nowhere to go today.

 

“No shit, blue eyes. You know what I want now?”

 

“To ravish me? To make me come so hard I see stars?”

 

“Oh, you’ll see stars all right.” 

 

He did. He was pretty sure they both did.

 

~~~

 

 “We need to talk,” Starsky said to him from the other end of the couch.

 

Starsky was naked. When had that happened? Hutch usually noticed when Starsky got naked. But it was late and they were both tired—the kind of tired that made Hutch wish he could just be in bed without having to get there. He needed a transporter, he thought.

 

“We need to talk,” Starsky repeated.

 

Hutch wasn’t in the mood to talk. He was in the mood to be unconscious.

 

“You know, Starsk, when we started . . .”   He never knew what to call it. Going steady?

 

“Dating?” Starsky offered.

 

Hutch wished he would put his pants back on since it seemed he wasn’t too tired to be distracted after all. “We’re not dating, don’t ever it call it dating. Geez.”

 

“Fucking?” he suggested.

 

“Whatever. Anyway, I thought one of the best things about being with a guy was that I’d never have to hear that again.”

 

“What?”

 

“We need to talk.”

 

“We do? Oh right. I said that, didn’t I? Ma called when you were in the shower this morning. She sounded lonely. She wants to know if I’ll come for Passover. She said we we’re both invited.”

 

Hutch was suddenly awake. “We?”

 

“You. Me. We.” 

 

“I don’t know. I thought maybe I’d go to Duluth for Easter.”

 

“I? It’s never ‘we’ with you, is it?” Starsky bent down to pick up his clothes from the floor.

 

“Starsk, now isn’t a good time to start this.”

 

Hutch watched him pull his jeans up over his hips. This was serious—Starsky never argued naked.

 

“There’s never a good time. You went to Duluth alone at Thanksgiving.” He sat on the coffee table facing Hutch.

 

“You know why.” He was going to tell his parents, he’d told Starsky. But in the end, he hadn’t told them anything. Hadn’t even known where to start.  He knew somewhere deep down he’d never really planned to tell them at all.  He suspected Starsky knew it too.

 

“I know what you said.”  Starsky’s hands had closed into fists and now he opened them slowly and rubbed them against his thighs.

 

“And you said you understood.”

 

“I lied. You lied too. Did my name even come up?”

 

“Not telling isn’t the same as lying. It’s just easier. You don’t know them. And I didn’t want to go through all that if—”  He turned away.

 

“If?” Starsky’s voice was cold. “If what?”

 

“If you didn’t, you know, if you decided . . .”  

 

“Look at me.”

 

Hutch turned to face him and didn’t like what he saw.

 

“If I decided what, Hutch?”

 

“Nothing.” He ran a hand through his hair, stalling for time.

 

“Say it,” Starsky demanded.

 

“If you decided that being together was too hard. That it wasn’t worth the lies we have to tell.”

 

Anger flashed across Starsky’s face.  He stood and pulled on the crumpled shirt and shoved his bare feet in his shoes. He felt in his pockets for the keys to the car as he headed toward the door.  “I’ll be back later,” Starsky said without looking at him.

 

“When?”

 

“When I stop wanting to smash my fist in your face.”

 

At two, Hutch gave up waiting and went to bed. He left the hall light on. Just in case.

 

 

 

 

The sound of the front door opening, or maybe closing. woke him up. Or it might have been the muffled thud of someone bumping into furniture. Hutch glanced at the clock. Three-thirty.

 

“Rule number three,” a voice said from the doorway.

 

“Starsk?”  

 

“You expecting someone else?” 

 

He heard footsteps and the sound of shoes being kicked off. Hutch wanted to see his face, he wanted to know if it was anger or remorse or just plain stubbornness that made him come back. He reached for the light but Starsky flipped him onto his back and straddled him, his legs pressed up hard against Hutch’s hips.  He grabbed Hutch’s wrists in one hand and held them back over his head.

 

“Get off me.”  

 

“Shut up and listen. Rule number three. No lying. Not to each other. You wanna tell your father I’m your swim coach or your golf buddy or your bridge partner, fine. Tell him what you want.  We lie to everyone else. I can live with that. But not here, and not to each other. Understand?”

 

“Starsk . . . let me go.” 

 

“Understand?” Starsky said into his ear, his voice low and husky, the word stretched out so that it wasn’t really a question at all.

 

Starsky’s breath was hot against his face, his shirt rough against his own bare skin.  He nodded into Starsky’s neck and his cock jumped. He heard Starsky’s low laugh as he moved back and forth against him. Hutch gasped and lifted his hips.

 

“Not good enough.” Starsky kissed him hard, all tongue and teeth and heat. “Say the words,” he said breathlessly. He used both hands to hold Hutch’s wrists on either side of his head.  He bent low and slowly pulled a nipple between his teeth.   

 

Hutch shivered and struggled to find the words. “Rule number three . . . no lying.”  

 

Starsky let go of his wrists, stood and pulled off his shirt and pants. His skin flashed silver as a car passed by the open window and light flickered through the blinds. Hutch grabbed him by the hand and pulled him back down beside him. His hands moved on Starsky’s chest, up to the hollow of his neck and then they were tangled in his hair, pulling him down on him. Hutch groaned as they moved together, his breath coming hard and fast, his world shrinking until there was only the sound of his heart and Starsky’s skin against his and the feel of their cocks pressed together.  And when he came, both palms pressed up against Starsky’s and his name on his lips, he finally understood.

 

~~~

 

Two weeks later, Starsky started making plans with the DEA to go undercover. He was getting a new wardrobe, compliments of the department, and a black Mercedes 450SL. He got a new name too, Mateo Moretti, Mattie to his near and dear back east, though Starsky guessed he didn’t have many of those. Not after reading the file the feds sent over. It was thick and nasty and as Hutch pointed out, only contained the things the feds knew about and none of the things they didn’t.

 

The real Mattie was sitting in a safe house somewhere in upstate New York watching Search for Tomorrow and working out his witness protection deal—life in some suburb in exchange for testimony against his previous employer. The DEA agent, Frank Vaughan, newly transferred from New York City, had had the bright idea that maybe Mattie could be useful in California too. Danny Moretti, Mattie’s third cousin, once or twice or maybe three times removed, ran a drug operation out of Hollywood. It was just far enough outside Bay City that the chances of anyone recognizing a tarted-up Starsky were pretty slim—or so they hoped.

 

“We can kill two birds with one stone,” Vaughan had argued when he’d pitched the idea in Dobey’s office. Dobey had nodded and Starsky had looked excited, but Hutch had just wanted to punch the word “we” right back down Vaughan’s throat.

 

Danny Moretti agreed to take Mattie in, sight unseen. “Because you’re family,” he said. Danny knew that Mattie had gotten himself in hot water back east and he’d bought the line that Mattie needed to get away for awhile – “until things cooled down.” He and Mattie hadn’t seen each other up close and personal since they were both five—at their cousin Freddie’s baptism at Santa Maria’s Church in Brooklyn—which meant this whole bait and switch scheme had half a chance to work. Hutch worried that half a chance was generous.  

 

Mostly, Hutch wasn’t happy about Starsky going in alone. They spent a day trying to find a plausible cover for him, but finally gave up. Just not that much call for tall, blond Mafia types, Starsky told him.

 

“I could’ve been adopted,” Hutch insisted stubbornly.

 

A week before Starsky was to put on the fancy clothes and the new name, he and Hutch sat on the couch playing another round of “Name that Relative.”  

 

“Your aunt on your father’s side. Owns a hair salon.”

 

“Ah, that would be Aunt Carmen. Lovely lady. If you like large, older women, with small warts and big feet.”

 

“Name Uncle Vito’s children, in order. Professions, for bonus points.”

 

“Bonus points?”

 

Hutch slowly undid the top two buttons on Starsky’s shirt and smiled encouragingly.

 

“Oh,” Starsky said. He cleared his throat. “Okay then. Rudy works for a stockbroker in Manhattan. Joseph is a lawyer and Dorothy . . . wait, wait, don’t tell me . . . Dorothy is a nurse.”

 

Hutch started doing up the buttons, shaking his head.

 

“Too bad. You were off to such a great start, too.”

 

“I know! She’s a doctor, right?” 

 

Hutch nodded, undid the buttons again, and rolled one of Starsky’s nipples between two fingers. Starsky gasped.

 

“Now, where did you go to high school? College?” He started on the other nipple.

 

“Our Lady of Perpetual Help. No college.”

 

Hutch bent down and licked the nipple slowly. Then he lifted his head and looked up at him, smiling. “Job experience?” He undid the buckle of Starsky’s belt.

 

Starsky tried to help and Hutch smacked his hand away. Starsky moaned again and lifted his hips off the couch, looking for more contact with Hutch’s hand.

 

“Job experience,” Hutch repeated. “Mattie’s, not yours.”

 

Starsky closed his eyes. “Few years running numbers for Vinnie, then got promoted up to enforcing, lately moved on to more exciting things like murder . . . Oh God . . .”

 

Hutch unzipped Starsky’s pants and slipped to his knees between his open legs. “I want to hear about Danny now,” he said, his voice a low growl.

 

“He hangs out at the Jungle Room,” Starsky answered raggedly. “He has a fondness for expensive vodka and pinball and – ”

 

Starsky lifted his hips and Hutch pulled his jeans down past his hips in one swift motion.

 

“And?”

 

“And he’s allergic to nuts.”

 

“Good thing I’m not,” Hutch laughed.

 

~~~

 

Starsky became Mattie one afternoon a week later.  He left the Torino and keys with Hutch, slipped into one hell of a black silk suit, slapped on a little dab of Brylcreem, and drove the Mercedes to the Jungle Room, a stripper bar in Hollywood, and Cousin Danny’s favourite hangout. Danny was a classy guy who liked his women dumb. It was easier to impress them that way.

 

They agreed there would be no contact for the first two weeks, no calls, no secret messages through Huggy, no meetings in back alleys. It scared the hell out of Hutch, but he accepted that Starsky had to be Mattie if this was going to work. 

 

The feds had set their sights pretty high. They wanted Starsky to catch Danny doing something really bad. One of them had actually said that, “Catch him doing something, really bad, would ya?”

 

“Squeezing the toothpaste in the middle?” Starsky suggested.

 

“That’s not exactly a federal offense,” Vaughan said.

 

“The way he goes on about it, you’d think it was.” Hutch retorted, looking at Starsky.

 

The agent raised one eyebrow. Starsky shrugged.

 

In the end, they narrowed it down to a few possibilities. Buying or selling a shipment of drugs, killing someone. Not Starsky though, Hutch reminded them, since that would defeat the purpose of the assignment. Starsky’s suggestion was catching Danny leaving the toilet seat up.

 

“Another federal offense?”  Vaughan asked Hutch.

 

“You have no idea.”

 

And there would be no wires. Cousin Danny was also known as Paranoid Danny.

 

They said goodbye in the squad room and did all the manly things men do on those occasions. Hutch was pretty sure that no one saw their hands touch briefly under the desk or the look on Starsky’s face when he turned to go.

 

 

Leaving the station later, Hutch found a small envelope on the front seat of the car. Inside were Starsky’s necklace and a short note.

 

For safekeeping

Rule number four: No worrying. I’ll be fine.

Ciao

 

S

 

 

Hutch stood in the empty parking lot and remembered all the things he’d meant to say. Like be careful and don’t take chances and remember the rules. And I love you. That most of all.

 

 

The first postcard, addressed to Mrs. Carmen Moretti, arrived in Hutch’s mailbox a week later. It was a night shot of Mann’s Chinese Theater, all neon and glitz and bad taste. The writing was a loopy, left-handed scrawl that stopped him dead in his tracks.

 

Dear Aunt Carmen,

Hope you are well. Things are great here. Love my new job.

Miss you.

Love and kisses,

Your favorite nephew

 

In the squad room the next morning, Hutch slid the postcard under the plastic that covered the blotter on his desk.

 

Two days after that, it was the Hollywood sign, and a message for Uncle Vito.

 

Danny is real good to me.

Dick says hi. He misses you.

Mattie

 

 

He came home from the station each night, made dinner, and talked to his plants. He read a book about the secret life of ferns, caught up on six months of National Geographic magazines, and watched what he wanted on TV. He stopped by Huggy’s a couple of times, played some pool and came home early. Life is short, his father told him once. It was the days and nights that were long.

 

 

Two weeks after Starsky went under, there was a postcard of the Brown Derby waiting for Hutch when he came home.

 

Dear Rudy,

Things are really quiet here now. I’m starting to wonder if maybe I should take it personal.

I’ll call on the weekend when it’s cheaper.

Mattie

 

The next week, a Friday, he got another postcard, postmarked the day before.  God bless the postal service, Hutch thought as he flipped it over.

 

Dear Aunt Carmen,

You’ll be happy to hear I found a new church.  Stella del Mare. Mass is on Sundays at 11. I go alone since Danny’s not exactly the churchgoing type.

I miss everyone. Give Little K a kiss for me when you see him.

Mattie

 

 

He found a listing in the phone book for a Stella del Mare Catholic Church in Culver City and started counting down the hours. He’d tell Dobey and Vaughan on Monday.

 

On Sunday morning, half an hour early, he parked three blocks from the old church and walked back as slowly and as calmly as he could manage. Inside, the church was cool and dark and smelled of candles and furniture polish. He genuflected quickly and slipped into an empty pew on the side to wait. Outside the confessional an old woman waited her turn, her white hair covered by a red scarf. A teenaged boy, who looked like he’d stopped in on his way to the basketball court, stood beside her. Hutch watched the boy and remembered. “Small boys, small sins,” Father Peters had always said before giving Hutch his penance. All it took was three Hail Marys, one Our Father and a few words in Latin to wipe the slate clean. How many Hail Marys would he need now?

 

During Mass, he stood and sat and knelt with the faithful, one eye on the altar and one on the door. He listened as the choir sang Ave Maria and sat through a sermon about love and duty and knowing the difference. He put five dollars in the collection plate passed to him by a gray-haired man in a shiny suit. Between Communion and the Recessional Hymn, with still no sign of Starsky, Hutch began to say his own prayers to a God he’d stopped believing in years before.

 

Half an hour later, he walked back to his car, his back damp with sweat, panic nipping at his heels like a hungry dog. He stood in the street, one hand shielding his eyes against the noon sun and took one long, last look around before getting in the car.

 

He knew he couldn’t go home.  And he couldn’t do what he really wanted to—walk into the Jungle Room waving his badge and his gun in Danny’s face and demanding to see Starsky. So he drove the only place he could think of.

 

 

 

“Hey, Huggy,” he said as he pulled out a stool from the bar.

 

“Hey, yourself.  You still minus your better half?” 

 

“Yeah.” He sat and rubbed at his eyes with both hands.  “I was supposed to meet him this morning and he never showed. I’m sure he’s fine.”  It sounded even more like a lie when he said it out loud.

 

“Where?”  

 

“Stella del Mare. It’s a – “

 

Huggy let out a low whistle. “I know what it is. Our boy Starsky’s setting up meets in stripper bars on Sunday mornings? He’s been under way too long, my man.”

 

He shook his head. “It’s not a strip bar.”  

 

“They sell booze and they got naked girls. Last time I checked, that’s a stripper bar.”

 

“It’s a church. On Duquesne in Culver City. I was just there. I sat through Mass waiting for him, for crying out loud.”  Even as he said it, he could feel doubt starting to creep in, like light under a door.

 

“A little prayer never hurt nobody. But I’m telling you, Stella del Mare is a bar on Beryl in Redondo Beach.”

 

Hutch reached in his jacket pocket, pulled out the folded postcard and spread it flat on the bar. A hundred white sails against a cloudless blue sky. Welcome to Redondo Beach.  Weak with relief, he reached across the bar, grabbed Huggy’s face between both hands and kissed him quickly on the lips.

 

“You are fucking brilliant.” 

 

Huggy chuckled. “Bout time you figured that out.”

 

“I’m starving, Hug, think I’ll have the Starsky Special. I have some time to kill.”

 

“One double cheeseburger and onion rings coming right up.”

 

 

 

Club Stella del Mare was a fancy name for a dive.  One look and he knew the strippers here would be like players on the Dodgers’ farm team – on their way up to the big time or sliding back down, ass first.  

 

A blonde on stage, wearing nothing but a g-string and a vacant kind of smile, wrapped one leg lazily around a silver pole. She looked bored and a more than a little stoned. She moved to a beat that played inside her head – her slow gyrations had nothing to do with the song that blared in the background.

 

Hutch sat at a table against the wall, nursing a watered down scotch in a dirty looking glass. He watched the Sunday night traffic pass in front of him, men with nowhere else to be, smoking and drinking the night away. But still no sign of Starsky. He checked his watch again, holding it up against the small candle on the table to make out the time.

 

“You got somewhere to be?”  a voice said over the music.

 

Hutch looked up. “Not really, but my date is late again.”

 

“Again?”  One eyebrow lifted, gum cracked.

 

“Always.”

 

“How ‘bout I keep you company while you wait? You’re kinda cute.”


“So I’m told.”  He smiled and patted the chair beside him. “Have a seat. You’re kinda cute yourself.”

 

Hutch felt a hand on his leg under the table. His cock twitched. Good to know all that time without Starsky hadn’t put it permanently to sleep.

 

He coughed. “Maybe you’d better move your hand. I don’t think it’s that kind of bar.”

 

The hand moved slowly up his leg and traveled around his crotch until his cock was begging to be let out to play.

 

“Starsk, stop.” 

 

“Mattie to you, buster.”   He sighed and put his hand back on the table.  

 

“Aunt Carmen to you, buddy.” He grinned. “Nice touch, those postcards. How’d you manage it?”

 

“Every time Ma comes to town, she buys a shitload of them, then never gets around to sending them. I got a drawer full at home. Bought a bunch of stamps before I left. No one raises an eyebrow when I write them. Danny says it’s sweet.”

 

“Guess he hasn’t noticed the address.”

 

“I don’t address them till I’m standing in front of the mailbox. He hasn’t asked me about that yet.” He looked around for the waitress. “I need a drink. I’ll be back in a minute.”

 

Hutch watched him walk to the bar and pat the ass of one of the girls as she passed by him. She turned and looked him up and down and smiled. He smiled back, wrapped one hand around her wrist and pulled her close. He whispered something in her ear and she giggled and nodded. For a minute, Hutch didn’t know who he was seeing, Mattie or Starsky. He didn’t like the feeling.

 

Starsky came back with a large vodka on the rocks. He saw Hutch’s questioning glance and muttered, “I know, I know. I hate vodka. But Danny likes it, so now I like it too.”

 

“What else does Danny like, Starsk?”  Christ, I sound like his mother.

 

“He likes the way I drive. Three weeks and all I do is drive his ass around town.”

 

“All you do?”

 

Starsky ignored him. He tapped his swizzle stick against the table in time to the music. “Never knew Hollywood had so many damn strip bars. Danny ain’t happy unless there’s two naked tits within groping distance. You know how hard it is to find one a bar where no one knows me? We’re all the way out in Redondo Beach, for Christ’s sake.”

 

“Maybe next time we could meet at a church. In Culver City, for example. I hear it’s lovely there this time of year.” He hid a smile behind his glass.

 

“You nuts? Culver City?”

 

“Yep. Nice Catholic neighborhood.” He was having a hard time keeping a straight face. “In fact, I know a beautiful old church on Duquesne.”

 

Starsky reached over and felt Hutch’s forehead. “No fever.”

 

“Yeah, good choir too. Their cover of Ave Maria is just outstanding. Breathtaking, really.” He hummed a few bars for Starsky.

 

“You feeling okay, Hutch?”

 

“If only I could remember the name of the church … starts with an S I think.” He waved his fingers in the air, like he was trying to catch the words as they flew by. “Saint something or other. Wait, don’t tell me. I know! Stella del Mare!”

 

“Stella del Mare? Isn’t that the name of this bar?” Understanding flashed across his face. “Shit.” He drained the rest of the vodka from the glass and looked a little queasy.

 

“Is it?” Hutch asked, his tone just this side of supercilious. “Oh right, it is. How confusing. A person might arrange a meeting and the other person could go to the wrong place and wait and wait… A person might even start to worry.”  A person might even light a candle or two. Just in case.

 

“How long would that person wait? For the other person to show up?” 

 

“Probably all through Mass, maybe even after.”

 

“Shit.”  He stared into his empty glass, looking guilty.

 

Hutch almost felt sorry for him. Until he noticed Starsky’s shoulders start to shake under the expensive silk of his jacket. Starsky held a hand over his mouth and Hutch swore he heard him giggle. 

 

“A church. Shit,” Starsky repeated.

 

“You said that already. Three times. ” He started laughing too. From this side of things, the side where Starsky was alive and well and less than two feet away from him, it was kind of funny.

 

Over two more drinks—beers this time—Starsky told him how he’d found out next to nothing while driving Danny around for three weeks.

 

“I don’t understand it,” Starsky said. “According to Vaughan, Danny is the Next Big Thing in drug dealers. But the guy can’t even pee without someone holding his dick. All he does all day is drive from bar to restaurant to bar. He talks to strippers and bartenders and waitresses, no one else as far as I can tell. He never even brings home a girl. We watch TV and play pinball till four every morning. I’ve been with him eighteen hours a day for three weeks and I got nothing on him. Not even squeezing the toothpaste in the middle.”

 

Hutch grinned. God, I missed you. “Just you and him all day?”

 

“No, this other guy – Vic  Petro-something – is always around. He’s the one who gets to hold Danny’s dick every time he takes a leak.  And a kid, Joey Mancuso. He’s about eighteen, I think, looks like a choirboy. Can’t figure him out, he never says shit. We’re like Danny’s entourage.”

 

“He really as paranoid as they say?”

 

“Yeah. He makes Vic go inspect his food to make sure there’s no nuts in anything. Danny told me he almost died a couple years ago when he ate a peanut butter cookie by mistake. He’s convinced someone’s out to get him. Won’t park in underground garages either. Half my time is spent driving around looking for parking spaces.”

 

“Someone is out to get him, remember? You. Me. BCPD. The DEA. Pick one. Where’re you spending your nights? Danny give you your own place?”

 

“I wish. I got a room in his penthouse. Place is huge. Five bedrooms. His sister lives there too. Isabella. Her and Danny are tight.”

 

Hutch’s stomach did a little flip-flop. “Vaughan never mentioned a sister. She ever meet the real Mattie?”

 

“Don’t think so, she’s a few years younger than Danny. Asks me a lot of questions about the old neighborhood, though. The family, too. Good thing we studied up. She doesn’t work either. Plays tennis every afternoon in Beverly Hills. Danny said she’s pretty good. And she likes to cook for me. She makes incredible meatballs.”

 

“You like her?” 

 

“Yeah, I do. You know who she reminds me of? Remember the cousin on The Munsters? The normal one in the middle of all that weirdness? What was her name?” He drummed his fingers on the table.

 

“Marilyn,” Hutch said.

 

Starsky looked surprised and a little impressed.

 

“Don’t look so shocked. I watch TV too, you know. I remember she was also the pretty one. Should I be jealous?”  Should I be? It wouldn’t be the first time you fell for a pretty girl.

 

Starsky laughed. “Nah, you have a way cuter ass than Issie. And I prefer blonds these days, anyway.” He put a hand on Hutch’s leg under the table and squeezed. “And I’m her cousin, for cryin’ out loud.”

 

“Maybe you should come in, Starsk. It’s possible Vaughan is wrong about Danny.”

 

Starsky shook his head. “He’s getting his money from somewhere. Maybe I just picked the wrong time to go under. Bad guys take vacations too. Give me a couple more weeks, okay?”

 

“Two more weeks. And not one day more. Deal?”

 

Starsky nodded. “Deal.”

 

“Where does he think you are tonight? How’d you get away if he’s got you on such a short leash?”

 

Starsky looked a little embarrassed. “I told them I had a date.”

 

“Ah. And how’s that going for you?”

 

“Not too bad. I see potential. But I don’t think I’m going to get lucky tonight.”

 

“Me neither.” Or anytime soon, it seems.

 

“How’s work?”

 

Nice change of topic, Starsk. “Fine. Spent the first week writing up old reports. Now Dobey’s got me filling in for guys on vacation. Next week, he wants to me partner with this new kid fresh out of uniform. Drive around with him, show him the ropes, wipe his ass. Like I did with you.”

 

“Yeah, right. Like I did with you.”

 

There was a silence, then Starsky stood and straightened his tie. “I gotta get back.”  More resigned than willing.

 

“I know. I just. . . never mind.  Be careful.”  Be safe.

 

“Yeah, yeah, I know the rules. Though I think I got a better chance of dying of old age on this gig.”

 

“Starsk?”

 

He turned back to look at him. “Yeah?”

 

Hutch smiled. “Keep those cards and letters coming in.” 

 

He hummed a few bars of Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime as Starsky walked away.

 

Hutch took the long way home, watered the plants and went to bed.

 

~~~

 

 

The next morning, Dobey and Vaughan listened patiently to Hutch’s report about his meeting with Starsky. He leaned up against the filing cabinet and told them all about Vic Petro-something and Joey Mancuso. About the strip clubs and the pinball games and even about the sister who loved to cook for him. He left out the part about the postcards and the church and how his dick twitched every time Starsky smiled at him. Then Vaughan said something about how Starsky would have to stay under for as long as it took to get the goods on Danny. Then Hutch said something back about how Vaughan had watched too many episodes of The Untouchables and maybe Mattie was full of shit and there were no goods to get. Hutch thought he heard Vaughan mutter something about how maybe Starsky wasn’t up to the job, but he couldn’t have, because when Hutch was holding a fistful of Vaughan’s shirt and telling him to repeat it a little louder so that everyone could hear, Vaughan had nothing to say.

 

“Hutchinson! Calm down!”  Dobey bellowed.

 

“Sorry, Captain.” He wasn’t sorry, but he backed off anyway, both hands in the air.

 

Dobey continued, “Look Hutch, I know you’re frustrated Starsky hasn’t made any progress yet. But that’s all the more reason to keep him under a while longer.”

 

Vaughan cleared his throat, straightened his tie and nodded. “Moretti made it clear that his cousin was a big dealer out here. Danny’s lifestyle supports that. According to the IRS, he earned $10,000 last year but look how he’s living—penthouse, fancy car, silk suits. His bar bill alone is probably more than you make every year. There’s no way he’s clean.  We just have to be patient.”

 

Hutch glanced at the clock. His head hurt in that familiar place behind his eyes, and his hands were numb from the effort of keeping them unclenched and five feet away from Vaughan’s smug, self-satisfied smirk. He wanted a coffee and two aspirins and ten minutes alone with Starsky. Not necessarily in that order. How did the day get so fucked up so fast?

 

Hutch let out a long breath. Dobey wants calm? He could be calm. He could be Mr. Fucking Freeze. “I talked to MacLeod over at Narcotics in Hollywood last week and he told me Danny Moretti’s never made it onto their radar screen. Not even a damned parking ticket.”

 

“All that proves is that Danny’s too smart to get caught,” Vaughan said.

 

He swallowed hard. “Something’s not right. I want in.”

 

“What do you mean you want in?” Vaughan was pissed, small beads of sweat popping up on his forehead.

 

“I want in. Huggy can put out the word today that someone from out of town is in the market for a kilo of heroin or coke.” He leaned over the desk, palms flat against the wood. “Captain, I’ve done this before. I can give Danny a nudge. Find out if he’s really a player or not.”  

 

Vaughan didn’t give Dobey a chance to answer. He stood behind Dobey’s chair, arms folded. “If we do it your way, we only get Danny. If we take our time, leave Starsky in for a couple more months, we can take down his whole organization.”

 

Hutch’s Mr. Freeze act took a direct hit. “A couple more months? Captain? Did you know about this?” A vein started doing a dance in his neck and he rubbed at it with one hand.

 

Dobey leaned back in his chair and looked from Hutch to Vaughan and back to Hutch. “I agree with Vaughan,” he said. He held up a hand when Hutch started to protest. “Up to a point. If Starsky’s got nothing solid in two weeks, we’ll try it your way.”

 

“Captain Dobey! This is my operation,” Vaughan sputtered.

 

“And these are my officers, Agent Vaughan.”

 

Mr. Freeze was history, a small puddle on the floor under Hutch’s feet as the paced in front of the desk. “It can’t be Danny! Starsky’s with him all day and he says he hasn’t done anything. He hasn’t even jaywalked, for Christ’s sake. I’m not saying he’s a saint, I just don’t see him as the new heroin king of Hollywood.”

 

Vaughan got quiet. Then his eyes narrowed and he said, “Are you saying Starsky’s with him twenty-four hours a day? Is he sleeping with him too?” He said it slow with just the smallest emphasis on him.

 

Hutch could feel the sound of his own breathing, the pulsing in his ears. Was Vaughan guessing or did he know?

 

Vaughan watched Hutch and repeated, “Is he sleeping with him too?” but this time the emphasis had shifted sideways to sleeping and Hutch wondered if some of Danny’s paranoia had started to rub off on him.

 

Hutch knew he’d lost. “Fine, two weeks.”

 

He left the office and went in search of aspirin and a way to tell Starsky that he’d be drinking vodka and playing pinball a little while longer.

 

~~~

 

 

The new guy was named Tim Martin. All fair hair and freckles and so clean Hutch swore he heard squeaking every time he moved. Hutch wanted to call him Timmy and ask him where Lassie was. But he didn’t. He’d save that for when Tim did something stupid or annoying or called him sir one too many times.

 

“Why are we parked here, sir?”  He shifted uncomfortably in the front seat.

 

“Stop calling me sir, for Christ’s sake. My name is Ken Hutchinson. Call me Ken or Hutch or Hutchinson. Just stop calling me sir.”

 

“Sorry, sir. But why are we parked here? It’s been two hours. Aren’t we supposed to be interviewing witnesses from that bank robbery last week? I’m sure that’s what Captain Dobey wanted us to do.” He flipped open a brand new notepad and pulled a freshly sharpened pencil from his shirt pocket. “There are no witnesses in Hollywood on my list. I have Bay City, Venice and Santa Monica. Definitely no Hollywood.”

 

Hutch continued to stare out the window. “I’m hoping to spot some movie stars, Tim. I hear the cast of Gilligan’s Island is having lunch together and I want Ginger’s autograph for my collection.”

 

Tim closed the notebook and tucked the pencil back in his pocket. “I’m more a Mary Ann kinda guy. Something about pigtails and short shorts, I think. . .”

 

Hutch looked over at him and rolled his eyes.

 

Tim blushed so hard the freckles disappeared. “You’re pulling my leg, right?”

 

“Yes, Tim, I’m pulling your leg. And we’re just not parked here, we’re doing what’s called surveillance.” He sounded like Miss Roberts, his grade one teacher.

 

“What are we surveilling, I mean, looking at?”

 

“We’re watching that apartment building across the street. I haven’t heard from Starsky in five days and I want to make sure he’s okay. So we sit here until I see him or hear from him. Got it?”

 

“Yes, sir, er, Hutch.”

 

“And if you tell Dobey, I will have a wild raccoon bite your dog so it will get rabies and die a slow painful death. Maybe you’ll even have to shoot it.” Now he was mixing up Lassie and Old Yeller. Where was Starsky when he needed him? He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel.  Where was Starsky?

 

Tim look confused. “I don’t have a dog, sir.”

 

“Never mind. Just watch for Starsky. Wake me if you see him. You do know what he looks like, right?” Black curly hair, blue eyes, best ass in the city.

 

“Sure. I saw him pitch a few times last summer. He’s got a good arm for a leftie.”

 

An hour later, Tim tapped him gently on the shoulder. “Sir? Ken? Hutch? I think that’s Starsky now. With those three men. Coming out of the building.” He stuck a finger out the open window and pointed.

 

Hutch smacked his finger down. Hard. “This isn’t show and tell. You don’t point, for Christ’s sake!”

 

It was Starsky, all right, resplendent in sunglasses and black silk. The sunlight glinted off the oil in his slicked back hair. Starsky was talking and bouncing keys in his left hand as they walked. Danny was smiling and Vic was laughing and the kid Joey was just staring over everyone’s head looking bored. They stopped in front of a large white Cadillac and Starsky opened and closed doors like the good chauffeur he was. He walked around casually to the driver’s side and paused for a second before opening the door. He looked down the street at the LTD and gave the barest hint of a nod and smile. Then he unlocked the car, climbed in and pulled away from the curb. Hutch wilted with relief and let out the breath he’d been holding for five days.

 

“What do we do now, sir? Follow them?”

 

“We eat lunch. What do you feel like? Hamburger? Burrito?”

 

“Actually, sir, I’m kind of a health food nut. I’d rather have a salad or Japanese noodles, to tell the truth.”

 

Hutch laughed and started the car. “Timmy, my boy, this may be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

 

Tim looked nervous. “Sir? Are you pulling my leg again?”

 

 

A few days later, Hutch told his favorite fern they needed a new plan. He said “they” but he really meant “he” since the fern was really not much help when it came to police work. Over cereal and coffee, he got an idea—it wasn’t quite a plan yet—but it was a start. He decided quickly that Dobey or Vaughan didn’t need to know—they’d shoot it down before he was even finished pitching it. Starsky would like it though. He called in sick and started planning.

 

He phoned Huggy and told him he’d be there around noon. Tim stopped by with a carton of miso soup at eleven and Hutch coughed and hacked on cue. If he noticed Hutch was wearing tennis shorts under his bathrobe, he didn’t say. Tim spent half an hour asking him about old cases while Hutch sat at the table and ate the soup. He yawned loudly and Tim took the hint and got up to leave. He said shyly that he hoped Hutch felt better the next day. They had him paired with Warshawski, famous for his bad breath and poor digestion.

 

After Tim left, he packed his gym bag, dusted off the Torino and stopped by Starsky’s place to pick up the new custom-strung Wilson racket he’d bought him for his last birthday.

 

 

“You want to play tennis where?  Huggy put down the glass he was drying and stared at him.

 

“I told you, the Beverly Hills Country Club. There’s a woman I want to meet . . .”

 

Huggy raised one eyebrow.  “A woman? Exactly how long has our boy Starsky been gone?”

 

Et tu, Huggy?

 

Hutch laughed and felt a blush crawl up his neck.

 

“I want to meet her, Hug, not sleep with her. Her name is Isabella Moretti and she plays tennis every afternoon at the Beverly Hills Country Club. I’m hoping she has a drink after she plays. I’m hoping to be the guy who buys her that drink. But I need to get in and I need to leave the badge and gun at home. I thought maybe you knew the cousin of a friend of your mechanic’s uncle . . .”

 

“Say no more. It shall be done.”

 

“How?” It was probably better not to know.

 

“If I told you that, you wouldn’t need me anymore. And then who would keep me in the style to which I’ve become so accustomed?”

 

“What do I owe you?” He reached for his wallet.

 

Huggy waved him off with a smile. “Consider it a gift. The course of true love must not be thwarted.”

 

“This is about work, Huggy, not love.”

 

“This is about Starsky, correctimundo?”

 

“Well, yeah, sort of.” Always.

 

“I rest my case.”

 

“Thanks, Huggy. We owe you one.” Assuming it works and I don’t get suspended and Starsky never finds out I borrowed his new racket.

 

 

 

Huggy was a miracle worker. Hutch gave his name to the guard at the gate and was waved through with a smile and “Have a good game, Mr. Hutchinson.”

 

He had no idea what Isabella looked like, but thanks to his pal in the DMV, he knew what kind of car she drove. He wandered around the lot, keys in hand, hoping he looked like someone looking for his car. He finally found hers parked at the back of the lot in the shade of a huge palm tree. It was a sleek black Corvette convertible that Starsky would have wet himself over.  He casually reached in and turned on the headlights, then went to the front desk inside the clubhouse to report it.

 

She came out a minute later in a white skirt and t-shirt, her hair pulled up in a long, dark ponytail that bounced when she walked. He watched her and remembered why he used to like women so much.

 

“Leave your lights on?” he asked as she passed him on the way back.  She left a hint of what he thought was White Shoulders in her wake, like Vanessa.

 

“Yes. You’d think the person who noticed them could have turned them off, instead of calling me out here.”

 

“He probably couldn’t get in. Car’s locked isn’t it?”

 

She laughed and it sounded like singing. “It’s a convertible, for heaven’s sake. And the top is down.”

 

“Oh, right.”  He looked at his shoes.

 

“Was it you who reported it?”

 

He nodded slowly without looking at her and shoved one hand in the pocket of his shorts.

 

“Oh Lord,” she said.  I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to imply . . .”

 

He looked up and met her gaze. “Yes, you did. And I deserved it. I think I was struck a little dumb by the car. She’s a beauty. What year?”

 

“It’s a ’60. I bought it at an auction back east last winter and drove her out here myself. She drives like a dream.” She looked at him like she was trying to decide something. “I was just about to have lunch. Would you like to join me?”

 

“Are you sure? I wouldn’t want to intrude.”   

 

“Don’t be silly. It’s the least I can do. You did save me from having to call the auto club when the battery died. I can’t imagine why my lights were even on. Oh well. They’re off now. Come on, I’m starving. The restaurant here makes the best peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.”

 

He grinned and held out his hand. “My name’s Ken. Ken Hutchinson.”

 

She shook his hand and smiled. “I’m Isabella.”

 

 

If it had been a real date, he’d have been more than a little in love by dessert. They talked about art and movies over Pouilly-Fuissé and the best sole amandine he’d ever had. He told her how he played football in college and painted when he had time and she told him how she wrote bad poetry and was a sucker for a man who played the guitar.  She told him how she’d wanted to join the pro tennis tour when she was eighteen—she was good, not great, she knew—but a ski accident and two months in traction put an end to that. Her knee had never been the same since.

“Now I take journalism classes at UCLA and play tennis.” It sounded like an apology.

 

“No job?” he asked.

 

“No. My parents were killed in a car crash a few years ago and between the insurance and the settlement, we were left pretty well off.”

 

“We?” 

 

“I live with my brother, Danny. He does even less than I do.”  Her eyes darkened and she shook her head. “I’m sorry. I never talk about him.”

 

Hutch reached across the table and covered her hand with his.  “Go ahead, I’m a good listener,” he said and felt like a heel.

 

Her eyes wandered to somewhere behind his head and she suddenly shoved back her chair and stood up. “I’ll be back in a minute. Someone I need to talk to just went into the bar.”

 

He ordered coffee and dessert for them while she was gone, then went to the men’s room. As he passed the bar on the way back to the table, he saw Isabella standing at the bar talking to someone. He was about fifty with short salt and pepper hair and looked like a tennis game would put him in the coronary care unit before the first set was over.

 

Isabella came back, brushing one hand lightly across his shoulders as she passed behind him. Her face was flushed, but it could have been the wine, he thought. She was quiet as she ate the peach tart, distracted. He watched her and wondered what had gone on the bar.

 

“Everything okay, Isabella? You’re pretty quiet.”

 

“Sorry. It’s just . . . well, that man in the bar—he’s not a very nice man. My brother owed him some money so I just paid him. I tried to convince him to stop letting Danny . . . my brother is too fond of the ponies for his own good. Too much time on his hands, I guess.”  She looked embarrassed. “There I go again. Telling you things I shouldn’t.”

 

She paid for lunch and as he walked her back to her car, he took a deep breath and asked her out to dinner that night.

 

She looked pleased. “Sure.”

 

“Great. I’ll pick you up around eight. I know a place that makes a peanut butter and jelly sandwich that’ll knock your socks off.” He leaned in and kissed her lightly on the cheek as she got into her car. It was definitely White Shoulders.

 

She started to pull away, then squealed to a stop and called back to him, “Ken? Don’t you want to know where I live?”

 

Shit. “Sorry, I was struck dumb again.”

 

“The car?”

 

“You.”

 

She laughed and called out as she drove off, “Embassy Tower Apartments, ask for Isabella Moretti.”

 

~~~

 

 

He had a date. Didn’t he and Starsky have a rule about going on dates? Like rule number fourteen or forty or four hundred—no dating. But it wasn’t really a date, was it? It was important undercover police work. Starsky would understand that—when he told him—if he told him. What if he was there when he picked her up? What if he wasn’t? Damn. Whose idea was this anyway? Oh, right. That fucking fern. It had serious some explaining to do.

 

He settled on the tan pants and a white dress shirt. Black leather jacket. He left the gun and badge in the glove compartment. Brought killer flowers instead.

 

Promptly at eight, he gave his name to the doorman. “Penthouse Two, Mr. Hutchinson. You can go right up. Miss Moretti is expecting you.”

 

The elevator played a muted version of a Burt Bacharach song he couldn’t place, and opened a moment later in front of the penthouse door. He stepped out and heard a low drum roll from somewhere far away.

 

Monty Hall shoved a microphone his face. “What will it be, loverboy?”

 

“I’ll take Door Number Two, Monty.”

 

Hutch raised his hand to knock and the audience booed loudly.

 

“Not a popular choice, Detective Hutchinson. Would you like to reconsider?”

 

The audience cheered behind him. He swiveled his head and saw five rows of Captain Dobeys all dressed like Little Bo-Peep. He saw Vaughan in the back row wearing a white dunce’s cap and robe.

 

Monty pointed a long finger at the elevator door. A big black number ONE appeared across it.

 

“It’s not too late to choose Door Number One, go home and forget your idiotic plan. Isn’t that right, gentlemen?”

 

All the Dobeys cheered. Vaughan shrugged.

 

“I’ll stay with Door Number Two, Monty.”

 

Monty leaned in and whispered in his ear, “Don’t say we didn’t warn you.”

 

His breath was a blast of winter.

 

“Let’s see what’s behind Door Number Two!” Monty shouted.

 

Hutch took a deep breath and knocked. From inside, he heard Isabella call out, “Would someone get that? I’m not ready yet.”  He heart, or maybe his stomach, did a little flip when he heard Starsky answer “Sure”.  

 

The door flew open.  Starsky was barefoot and bare-chested, and one hand held a large white towel against his wet hair. Hutch’s breath caught somewhere deep in his throat.

 

“Hi, Mattie,” Hutch said as nonchalantly as he could manage.  

 

Starsky stepped out into the hall and yanked the door shut behind him. “What the fuck are you doing here?” he said between clenched teeth. “Are you nuts?”  It sounded like someone was squeezing his. He draped the towel around his shoulders.

 

“Probably,” Hutch answered breathlessly and shoved the flowers under Starsky’s nose. 

 

Starsky sneezed. “You brought me flowers? You don’t bring your partner flowers when he’s undercover. Have you lost your mind?”

 

“Probably. Now shut up and let me in.” And for Christ’s sake, put a shirt on. You’re killing me.

 

“You’ll blow my cover.”

 

“No, I won’t. I’m here for Isabella, you idiot. She’s my date.” And don’t you dare quote the rules at me.

 

Starsky held the door closed with one hand wrapped tightly around the doorknob and pushed Hutch back. “I can’t go back in there with you,” he whispered.

 

“Give me a little credit!” he hissed. “I know how to play the game. Don’t you trust me?”

 

Starsky chewed on his lower lip. “It’s not that. Look down.”

 

Apparently some parts of Starsky were happier to see Hutch than others. “Why, Starsky, you old dog. You did miss me.”

 

“It’s been four weeks. And you look. . . .”

 

“You don’t look half bad yourself. Just think of nuns and puppies and open the damned door. She’s going to wonder what happened to you.”

 

“Gimme a minute.” Starsky closed his eyes, scrunched up his face and repeated the word Ma a few times. Then he opened the door behind him, started shaking Hutch’s hand and pulled him in. “Hey, Issie!” he shouted. Ken here survived the famous Moretti Inquisition, so I guess you can go out with him.”

 

She came out from the bedroom and laughed. “Gee, thanks, Mattie. Sure you don’t want to come and be our chaperone?”

 

“No, I’ll let you two lovebirds have some privacy. Look, he brought you flowers. I never get flowers from my dates.” 

 

Hutch glared. Starsky coughed.

 

“So? How do I look?” she asked as she spun around. A blue dress that changed the color of her eyes, white pearls, sandals. The dress clung to her the way the skin clings to a grape.

 

Beautiful. “Perfect, except for one thing.”  Hutch reached in his jacket pocket and handed her a small box wrapped in blue paper and tied with white ribbon.

 

She pulled off the ribbon and ripped open the paper. “White Shoulders! How did you know?”

 

Ex-wife’s favorite. My favorite too, once upon a time.

 

“I didn’t. I spent an hour at the perfume counter trying to find the right one.  I think the salesgirl thought I was crazy.”

 

Starsky stood behind her and rolled his eyes as she pulled the small bottle from the box. She handed it back to Hutch with a small, sexy smile, “How about you do the honors, Ken?”

 

He unscrewed it and tipped some onto his finger. She held back hair and he rubbed some slowly behind her left ear and then her right.

 

“Don’t forget here.” She leaned back her head and guided his hand to the hollow of her throat. His hand lingered there for a heartbeat too long.

 

Starsky cleared his throat. “Cigarette, anyone?”

 

“Good night, Mattie. Don’t wait up,” Isabella said and kissed Starsky on the cheek.

 

“I want to hear all about it later,” Starsky said as they left.

 

Hutch wasn’t sure who he was talking to.

 

 

 

They took her car to Les Halles, a small bistro in Santa Monica two blocks from the beach. Over a bottle of Côte de Rhône so expensive that he would knew it would have him eating beans and toast for the next week, Hutch was by turns charming and witty and self-deprecating. Somewhere between the arugula and the rack of lamb, between telling her about his lousy taste in ties and the new play at the Pasadena Playhouse, he realized he was enjoying himself for the first time in four weeks. Enjoying himself so much he’d almost forgotten why he was there. He’d almost forgotten how much he missed Starsky.

 

“I didn’t get to meet your brother tonight. Maybe next time . . .”

 

Isabella leaned delicate elbows on the table. “Danny was in the den when you arrived. With his . . .friends. He’s not very sociable with my dates. We have an understanding.”

 

“Oh?”

 

A line appeared between dark eyebrows. “Who we date is not open for discussion.”  Her words were clipped. Then she smiled, but it didn’t get anywhere near her eyes.

 

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to pry.” He almost meant it.

 

Her eyes softened. “You’re not. It’s just that Danny does things—is involved in things—I don’t like, and sometimes we have to step back and give each other some breathing room. It’s not always easy.” 

 

“So Danny has more going on than gambling away the family fortune?”

 

She picked up her empty wineglass and stared into it, as if her fortune lay in the bottom, like tea leaves. He thought he saw the smallest tremor in her hand.

 

“And since Mattie’s been staying with us—” she started, then stopped, and didn’t start again until a few minutes later, and then it was to tell him what it was like to drive the Corvette west across the desert at sunset. How the sun hovers over the highway like a round, crimson portal to another world. And how it always disappears before you reach it, no matter how hard and how fast you drive. Then she shook her head and he caught the honeysuckle scent of her perfume, and knew that White Shoulders would never remind him of Vanessa again.

 

The waiter placed Hutch’s order of crème brulée in front of him—she’d turned down dessert, all the tennis games in the world wouldn’t burn off those calories, she’d protested. But now she watched him eat it, eyes wide like an orphan staring into a bakery window at Christmas, until he laughed and slid it, half-eaten, across the table in front of her.

 

Half an hour later, on the sidewalk outside the restaurant, she pulled her shawl tight around her shoulders and reached for his hand. He felt her small fingers thread through his and marveled at the ease with which he wrapped his thumb around hers. The ghosts that seemed to haunt her during dinner were gone.

 

“It’s a beautiful night. Let’s go for a walk on the beach,” she said. When he looked unsure, she pulled him by the hand towards the corner. “Come on. We can come back for the car later.”

 

“Okay. I wasn’t ready to give you back to that cousin of yours, anyway. I don’t know nearly enough about you yet. How can I take you home before I know what you eat for breakfast and what baseball team you root for and when your birthday is?” Christ, Hutchinson, you’re a bastard.

 

“What do you want to know?”

 

“Everything.” Come on, Isabella, just give me something I can take to Dobey. Please.

 

They stopped under a streetlamp and she looked up at him, laughing. “Granola and yogurt, the Dodgers of course, and July third. Anything else?”

 

“Just one thing. Where are we eating tomorrow night?”  

 

He bent and kissed her slowly, her face made luminous by passing headlights, and tasted crème brulée and Côte de Rhône and freedom. As his lips brushed the nape of her neck and her breath warmed his skin, he thought of Starsky and mourned the loss of a freedom they’d never really had.

 

 

She’d come to California to train with a tennis coach she’d heard about, Isabella told him, and decided to stay even after her knee betrayed her and her parents were killed. She swung her sandals by the straps and tucked her arm through Hutch’s as they walked barefoot on the wet sand.

 

“I could never leave now,” she said quietly. “It’s home.”

 

He nodded. “Yeah, for me too.”  

 

She drove him back to her apartment building, and said good night downstairs in the lobby. He asked if he could call her and she wrote her number on the back of a pink dry cleaner’s receipt he found in his jacket pocket. He kissed her—on the cheek this time—and waited with her until the elevator came. She went up to Starsky and he went home alone.

 

 

~~~

 

The phone rang. It took some effort, but Hutch opened his eyes and reached for it. He hooked the phone by its cord and the receiver fell to the floor. He fumbled for it, recovered it and croaked his name into it.

 

“I’m sorry to wake you up, sir, but I thought it might be important.”

 

He didn’t recognize the voice. He looked at the clock. Four-fifteen. Shit. It only seemed a minute ago that he’d finally fallen asleep.

 

“Who is this?”

“Tim Martin, sir. You might not remember, but I rode with you the day before yest—”

 

“I’m asleep, not senile.” He kicked off the sheet and sat up in the bed, his bare feet resting on the cold floor. He wiped a hand across his face and shivered in the breeze from the open window. “What do you want?”

 

“I wasn’t sure whether to wake you up or not, sir—Hutch—but he’s been in there for two hours and he didn’t look that good when he went in. It just seems hinky, if you know what I mean.”

 

“I haven’t got the faintest idea what you mean,” he said. Had he and Starsky ever been this eager?  He took a breath. “Who’s been in where for two hours? Wait, give me a minute.”

 

He pushed up to his feet and stumbled through the shadows to the kitchen, pullling the long cord behind him. Grayness trying to be daylight edged through the curtains. He cradled the phone between his shoulder and ear, filled the kettle, and set it on the burner. He turned the knob on the stove and the flame drew a blue asterisk under it. Hutch stared at it for a long moment.

 

“Okay, who are we talking about?”

 

“Detective Starsky, sir,” Tim said. “Your partner,” he added helpfully.

 

His hand halted in mid-air over the tea canister. “Tell me. Now.

“After the other day, when we were doing surveillance, and then your partner and those men came out of the building and I almost got us made because I pointed…”

 

“Get to the point.” 

 

“Well, I knew I needed practice. Surveilling, I mean, not pointing. So I had the night off tonight and I drove over to where we parked the last time and just sat there. Sir, can I ask you something?”

 

“What?” 

 

“I drank a lot of coffee to stay awake, but that made me want to pee real bad and I didn’t want to get out of the car, in case something happened, so . . . what do you do, sir? About relieving yourself?”

 

“Mason jar. So what happened?” He paced back and forth across the small kitchen.

 

“Well, I really had to go, so I just sort of opened the door and leaned out.”

 

“Not that! About Starsky!”  The phone cord caught on the leg of a chair and he swore and pulled it free.

 

“Sorry. About two hours ago, those same three men exited the building.  Detective Starsky was with them, and it looked like they were helping him. The younger man had one arm around his waist, holding him up. It was kind of dark and I can’t really be sure but I think he was bleeding.”

 

Shit shit shit.

 

“Where?” He dragged the phone to the bedroom closet, and threw a shirt and jeans on the bed.

 

“Outside the building, like I said.”

 

“Where on his body was he bleeding?” 

 

“His face, sir. His nose was bloody. His shirt looked like it had blood on it too, but it could have been from his nose. He was conscious though—at least he was when he got in the car—when they got here, I’m not so sure. Anyway, they put him in the back seat of the Cadillac and drove away. So I followed them here. They took him inside two hours ago and only one other person has gone into the house since then. No one’s come out either. I didn’t know if I should call the station and have them send out a black and white, but that would blow his cover and what if he just fell and busted up his face? I hope I did the right thing calling you.”

 

“You did good, Tim. Where are you now? What color is your car?”

 

“On Gilmore, at the corner of Valencia in Santa Monica. I have an old black Buick. Well, it’s not really mine. It’s my mother’s but she said—”

 

“I’ll be there in twenty minutes. If anything happens or they leave with Starsky, or even if they leave without him, call it in.” Hutch wondered how he managed to keep his own voice so calm when he felt like his heart was beating outside his chest. Practice, he guessed. “Is that clear?”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

“What did the other guy look like? The one that went in the house?” 

 

“It wasn’t a guy, sir. It was a woman, around twenty-five, long dark hair, real pretty. She drove up in an older black Corvette convertible about an hour ago. She didn’t ring the bell, just pushed the door open and went in. Do you have any idea who she might be?”

 

Hutch was silent, the words caught somewhere in this throat.

 

“Sir?”

 

“Yeah, I know exactly who she is.” Hutch had the sense of things falling miserably into place.

 

He shut off the screaming kettle on his way out the door. But he couldn’t shut off the voice inside his head. The voice that kept repeating that this was all his fault. Him and his stupid fucking plan.

 

It was five o’clock by the time he swung off Bank onto Gilmore. Sleeping cars dotted the driveways of old frame houses, dark except for a few early risers. If he closed his eyes, he imagined he’d be able to smell coffee brewing in those kitchens, hear the toilets flushing, the showers running. A black cat with white paws scuttled across the street in front of him and disappeared through a hedge. A boy on a bike tossed folded newspapers onto empty doorsteps. At the corner, a man with a coat thrown over striped pajamas tugged at the leash of a beagle who was sniffing around the base of a telephone pole.

 

He found Martin’s car where he’d said it would be. He pulled in behind him, killed the motor and tried to ignore the nerve that twitched in his jaw. He stepped out, his right leg stiff from the effort of not flooring the gas the whole way there, and walked the five feet between the two cars. He slid into the front seat of the Buick.

 

“Where?” was all Hutch said.

 

Tim pointed to a small pink bungalow across the street, five or six houses down. Red geraniums were dying in cedar window boxes. The Cadillac was parked in the narrow tar driveway, the Corvette out front. It stood out from the Fords and Chevys and Datsuns like fine china at a police picnic.  Yellow light leaked out from behind drawn shades.

 

Tim looked over at him. “Do you have a plan, Hutch?” he asked. If he was tired, it didn’t show.  “What are we going to do?”

 

I’m going to walk up to the door and ring the bell and ask them if Starsky can come out and play. You are going to sit here.”

 

Tim said nothing but looked a little hurt.

 

“Sorry.” Hutch ran a hand through his hair. “Stay here. I’m going to go do a little snooping.” He had one hand on the door handle and pushed it open. “Do you have your gun with you?”

 

“Yeah, Be Prepared is my motto. I was a Boy Scout.” 

 

“You still are, Timmy.”

 

Tim ignored the comment. “Hutch, are you sure I shouldn’t call for backup? Aren’t there rules about this sort of thing?”

 

“The only rule I care about is getting Starsky out in one piece. Everything else is up for grabs. Look, give me half an hour. If I’m not back, call in the cavalry.”

 

 

Hutch sprinted across the street in front of the car and slipped into the front yard of the house next to the pink bungalow.  The houses were only ten feet apart and he inched his way down the narrow patch of weed and grass that separated them, his gun heavy and reassuring in his hand. He crouched under a side window, listening for something other than the sound of his own shallow breathing.  

 

There were two windows on this side of the pink house—bedrooms he thought—both dark. A five-foot-high chain-link fence closed off a small backyard where rusted patio furniture sat abandoned on white and pink flagstone. An old red bike leaned against a sagging wooden tool shed.

 

The gate was closed, but not locked. He opened it slowly and entered the backyard, his back pressed up close against the wall. Patio doors opened into the kitchen, where he could make out a yellow Formica table and matching chairs in the early morning light.  There was another window beside that one—the den maybe. Flickering blue light from a television set danced around inside. He jiggled the metal handle on the glass door, but it didn’t budge. He cursed and retreated to the side of the house and tried the window closest to the back. The frame had been white once, and flecks of old paint dusted his hands when he slid up the sash. He hated the thought of going in through a window when he couldn’t see what or who was on the other side, but he had few options. Going back to the car without Starsky wasn’t one of them.

 

The room he climbed into was big enough for a single bed, a small dresser, and a desk and chair. An off-white chenille spread covered the bed. On the same wall, in a plain black frame, a smiling man and woman leaned against the rail of a ship, two small dark-haired children between them, squinting into the sun. The door was closed and light from the hallway spilled under it.

 

He leaned up against the door and listened to the voices coming from the front of the house. One of them was Isabella’s.

 

“—can’t just leave him here, Danny. He knows everything now.”

 

“But Issie, you heard him, he won’t tell anyone. He promised.”

She laughed, a short and cold sound. “Don’t be a fool. He’s a cop. He would’ve promised anything to get Joey to stop.”

 

Oh God.

 

Hutch leaned his head back against the door and fought the urge to go in there shooting like a one-man SWAT team.

 

“But Issie, we can’t just—”

 

“We don’t have a choice.”

 

“You’ve should’ve told me he wasn’t Mattie when he showed up last month.”

 

“I wasn’t sure. I had to wait until I got the photo album from Aunt Carmen.”

 

He heard Danny’s voice again, whiny now. “Don’t you think someone is going to be looking for him? When they don’t hear from him, they’ll come looking for us.”

 

“Let them. There’s nothing to find in the apartment and no one knows nothing about this place.”

 

Someone does now, bitch.

 

“Danny, stop it.” Isabella’s voice was angry. She didn’t sound very Beverly Hills Country Club now. “You and Vic take the shipment to Cochrane like we planned and then come back here. Joey can watch him while you’re gone. Then we’ll take care of Cousin Mattie and things can get back to normal. Don’t fuck this up for us.”

 

“I don’t like it, Issie. It’s messy.”

 

“It’s not your job to like it. Now get out of here or you’ll piss Cochrane off. He hates waiting.”

 

He heard grumbling—probably Danny again—and the sound of the front door slamming shut. A car pulled out of the driveway.

 

Two down, two to go. Hold on, Starsk.

 

“Joey, put him in the small bedroom, then come eat.” Isabella ordered. “How many eggs you want?”

 

Hutch’s stomach turned and he ducked into the closet. An old muskrat coat that smelled like mothballs and old perfume pressed up against him. He could smell his own rank sweat too. His own fear. His trigger finger itched. It would be so easy . . .

 

The bedroom door opened and he heard a thud and a muffled moan. Starsky?

 

“C’mon, pretty boy, let’s get you settled.”

 

The bed creaked. Joey muttered something and Hutch heard the unmistakable sound of the back of a hand connecting with a face and Starsky moaned again.

 

You got one minute to get out of here, asshole, or you’re dead.

 

“Joey, breakfast!”

 

The bedroom door slammed shut. Hutch hesitated before opening the closet door, more than a little afraid to find out how bad it was.

 

He pushed open the door.

 

Oh God.

 

Starsky lay on the bed, shirt undone, mouth covered with duct tape, his hands tied together and attached by a belt to the iron headboard. The bedspread was a Jackson Pollock canvas, red blood spattered on a white background. Starsky’s forehead and hair were a sticky mess of dried blood.  Small red circles dotted his chest, like chicken pox or measles or . . . cigarette burns.

 

Oh God.

 

Hutch stumbled the few feet across the room and crouched down beside the bed. Starsky’s eyes widened when he saw him—relief or fear, maybe. He pulled the tape carefully off Starsky’s mouth and held a finger to his lips.

 

“Hutch?” His voice was hoarse and low.

 

“Yeah, buddy?” He leaned in to hear him.

 

“Glad to see you finally came out of the closet.”  He curled one lip into a wry half-smile, then groaned against the pain.

 

Hutch wiped uselessly at the blood on Starsky’s face with a corner of the bedspread. He lay still as Hutch undid the belt buckle and gently lowered his bound arms. Starsky’s eyes never left his face, his gaze taut as tight string. Hutch laid the gun on the bed and untied the knots with damp and shaking hands, keeping one eye on the door. As the rope fell away, Starsky reached up and touched one hand to Hutch’s cheek.

 

Starsky shifted on the bed, trying to sit up, and let out a small yelp, like a wounded dog. “Ribs hurt.”

 

“Crybaby.”

 

Starsky rubbed at his wrists. They were raw and ugly and the least of their problems. “You got a plan, tough guy?”

 

“Thought about jumping out the window. But making a run for it only works if we can both run, right?”

 

Starsky shrugged and looked apologetic.

 

“We could shoot our way out.” He pointed the gun at the door and made small popping sounds.

 

“Start with Joey, okay?” His eyes darkened.

 

“Or we could just wait until the cavalry shows up.”  

 

 “My hero.”  

 

“Looks like we’re going out the window then.” Hutch’s voice hitched a little when he said, “Always did want to elope with you.”

 

“Hutch.” Starsky looked at him. He had that look he got when he offered Hutch the last piece of pie or let him come first. The one he got when he thought he was being noble. “I’m not sure I can. Maybe you should go—”

 

“I left you alone with that fucking family for four weeks,” he said through clenched teeth. “You’re not staying here another minute. Joey could be back any time.”

 

Joey’s name did the trick. He was Starsky’s new boogeyman, Hutch guessed. Like Forrest was his.

 

They made their way carefully to the window, five feet that felt like five miles. Hutch almost lost his nerve when the moment came to step through the window and leave Starsky alone in the room, if only for a minute. Hutch propped him up against the dresser, handed him his gun, and backed out the window. Starsky followed him through, each movement written in pain across his face. Outside, Starsky leaned against the pink stucco, sweating and shaking, and almost cried when he saw how far it was to the sidewalk.

 

At the curb, Hutch waved at Tim to bring the car around. Between them, they managed to get him into the back seat.

 

“Leave the door open,” Starsky muttered when Tim started to close it.  “I think I’m going to be sick.”

 

Hutch leaned up against the car, and rested his outspread hands on the roof, trying to settle his own stomach, to calm his breathing. To get his damned hands to stop shaking.

 

Tim rested a hand on Hutch’s shoulder. “Detective Starsky’s okay, sir. I know he looks like a mess, but it’s probably nothing that a hot bath and good night’s sleep can’t fix. Really.”

 

Hutch nodded.

 

“Sir, I really think we need to move the car away from the front of the house. We haven’t apprehended the suspects yet.” The Boy Scout was back.

 

“Yeah. Move the car down the block and call the station. Tell them to send a couple black and whites and call Captain Dobey. Ring a doorbell if you have to.”

 

Hutch leaned into the back window. “Starsk? He’ll take care of you. I need to do something first. I’ll catch up.”

 

Starsky nodded and looked at Tim. “Who’s the redhead?” he asked Hutch.

 

“I’m Tim, sir, Tim Martin.”

 

“Lassie’s friend?”

 

Hutch suppressed a small smile.

 

Tim looked hurt. “You too, sir?” Hutch heard him say to Starsky as he walked away.

 

 

~~~

 

She opened the door on the second ring. As a budding criminal mastermind, she still had a lot to learn. Apparently she’d taught Joey everything she didn’t know, since he came to the door a minute later, fork in hand, to see “what the commotion was all about.”

 

“You really should check first, Issie.” Hutch told her. “You never know who might come calling.” It turned out she knew more nasty words than a full member of the Beverly Hills Country Club really should. And a few that Hutch didn’t know. But those were in Italian, so maybe they didn’t count.

 

Starsky refused the hospital. The paramedics warned him that without stitches the gashes on his forehead would leave scars, that the burns should be dressed properly, that his nose might be broken. He waved them all away and said there was only one thing he needed, and he could only get that at home. For once, Hutch didn’t argue, just told the paramedics that Starsky was always right, then muttered something under his breath about the prime directive. Tim agreed to take him back to Hutch’s place.

 

Vaughan, who arrived with Dobey half an hour after Tim made the call, sputtered and yelled about procedure and backup and evidence. One look at Starsky though, sitting bruised and bleeding in the plush velveteen of Mrs. Martin’s car, shut him up pretty quickly. He went back in the house and had Joey singing like the proverbial canary before Danny and Vic returned. All in all, he looked pretty pleased with the way things turned out. Hutch wondered if he’d still be pleased when he called in a few favors and had Vaughan transferred to the Wilmington office. He heard there was a big illicit diet pill trade there.

 

Isabella belonged to Hutch. He warned away the other officers with a finger and a look and told Dobey he was driving her to the station and booking her himself—they owed him that much for what she’d done to Starsky. He left out the part about what she’d done to him.

 

“She’s all yours, son. Drive careful.”

 

In the car, she ranted and cursed called him names. Called his parents names. Questioned his paternity. Questioned his virility. His favorite was the last one, “fucking blond fag.”

 

“Bingo,” he said, looking at her in the mirror. “Finally got one right.”

 

She was quiet.

 

“Of course I’ll deny it if you ever bring it up. No one will believe you, you’re just not that credible. And it’s an old rumor anyway. But just between you and me, Starsky’s a way better kisser than you’ll ever be.”

 

 

 

It took longer than Hutch expected. Four hours of talking and typing was followed by another two hours at a meeting that Vaughan insisted on calling a debriefing, but was really just about him trying to explain away how the DEA had been so wrong about Danny and so clueless about Isabella. The real Mattie, dragged away from a safe house poker game, insisted he had never specifically mentioned Danny by name. The cousin he had been referring to the whole time was Isabella. Or so he said. “Danny couldn’t run a lemonade stand” was how he’d put it.

 

Vaughan made noises about wanting Starsky to come in and give a statement that afternoon. Hutch said he wanted world peace, but he wasn’t getting that anytime soon either. They compromised. Hutch would bring Starsky in after a few days, and Vaughan would get to keep his balls.

 

Hutch wanted ten minutes alone with Joey Mancuso. Dobey said no, Vaughan said no, but the guy in Corrections who drove Joey over to the county jail—the same guy whose son Hutch had helped out when he’d been falsely accused of rape three months before—gave him five minutes. It was enough.

 

It was almost six when he climbed the stairs. He stood at the top for a moment, his head resting against the door, one bruised hand gripping the knob, and wondered if he could do it. Wondered if he could look at Starsky without his heart cracking in two. Wondered if he could let him out of his sight ever again.

 

~~~

 

 

Starsky hadn’t made it to the bed. He lay sprawled and sleeping on the couch under the old brown and yellow afghan, one bare foot poking out. An open bottle of aspirin and a half-empty glass of water sat in a puddle on the coffee table beside him. The television was still on, the volume turned low. Hutch recognized an old black and white episode of Gunsmoke as he bent to switch if off.

 

“Hey, I was watching that,” Starsky said. “Festus was about to get lucky.”

 

“Festus never gets lucky. And you were sleeping.”

 

Starsky shifted a little and winced. “Was not. Was just resting my eyes.”

 

Hutch sat at the end of the table, his knees pressed up hard against the couch. He tipped three aspirins into his hand.

 

“Hard day at the office?”

 

He swallowed the aspirins with a gulp of the lukewarm water and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He tasted blood.  

 

“You have no idea.” 

 

Hutch passed two tablets and the water to Starsky and watched him swallow. He hooked two fingers under Starsky’s chin and lifted it a little—the cut on his forehead didn’t look so bad now that it was cleaned up. No broken nose either, it seemed. “Do we want to talk about it? I can order pizza.”

 

 Starsky shook his head. “Tomorrow.”

 

“For talking or for pizza?”

 

“Both. Help me up. It’s making me dizzy, you sitting over me like that.”

 

It took a minute and a few bad words, mostly from Hutch, to get him sitting with his feet propped up on the coffee table. Starsky patted the empty space beside him.

 

“Sit.”

 

He moved over to the couch and Starsky leaned in against him, his head resting on Hutch’s shoulder, his hand on his knee, his gaze somewhere in the middle-distance. Starsky took a breath.

 

“I didn’t say thanks. For getting me out.”

 

It felt like a wire had just tightened around his heart.

 

“Thank Tim, not me. I would’ve slept through it all, remember?” He lifted a hand and scratched at the back of his neck. “I’m sorry.” He sighed a long breath. “For not getting you out sooner. For not realizing it was Isabella. I should’ve known, Starsk.”

 

Starsky lifted his head and looked at him. “What about me? I lived with her for a month and never realized. She suspected I wasn’t Mattie and never let on. I thought she was the normal one, remember?” His eyes crinkled in a smile. “At least I didn’t kiss her. That really would’ve been dumb.”

 

“How did you know—?”

 

“I didn’t—not for sure—until just now. You miss girls, Hutch?”

 

“No.”

 

Starsky raised his eyebrows.

 

“No,” Hutch repeated. “I miss you.”

 

“Good.”

 

They sat quietly until Hutch’s eyes slid shut and he drifted for a while. Until he got poked in the ribs.

 

“Wake up, my arm’s asleep.” Starsky said and pushed him off.

 

Hutch sat up and rubbed a kink out of his neck. The apartment was almost dark now, the shadows long and slanting against the wall.

 

“While I was laying here all afternoon not sleeping,” Starsky said, “I came up with some new rules. Wanna hear them?”

 

Hutch groaned. “Do I have a choice?”

 

“Nope.”

 

“I need a beer for this. Want one?” He stood and stretched. Kicked off his shoes.

 

“Sure. Anything but vodka. Rule number . . .what are we up to?”

 

“Five or six, I think. No, five. Four was no worrying. Didn’t do so well with that one.”

 

“Okay, rule number five is no meatballs.”

 

Hutch handed him the bottle and went back to the kitchen in search of food. “Forever? But I like a good meatball.”

 

“I thought Issie was such a great cook at first. Turns out the only thing she could make was meatballs. What about no meatballs for six months?”

 

“I can live with that. Deal.”

 

He found a bag of potato chips on top of the fridge. Good enough. He brought the bag back to the couch, opened it and held it out in front of Starsky before sitting down. “Anything else?”

 

“One more,” Starsky said around a mouthful of chips. He brushed stray crumbs off his shirt. “Rule number six. It’s about perfume.”

 

“That’s easy, I don’t wear perfume.”

 

“Not you, women. From now on, the first question we ask every woman we meet is what perfume do you wear? And if the answer is—”

 

White Shoulders?”

 

“Yep.  If it is, we arrest her and throw away the key. You know it’s no coincidence that Isabella and Vanessa wore the same perfume. Eau de Bitch.”

 

They finished the chips and beer in silence. The good kind. That kind that comes between conversations, not the kind that replaces them.

 

“Hutch?”  

 

“Yeah, Starsk?”

 

“Wanna go to bed? I ain’t promising anything. My bruises got bruises and my chest hair’s a little singed in places, and I think maybe my big toe on my left foot is broken, not to mention I’m still a little woozy if I sit up too fast.” He yawned loudly. “I’m a little tired, too.”

 

“What about your lips, how are they?”

 

He thought for a second. “Think they’re okay.”

 

“Well, how about we start there then and figure out the rest as we go along. Same as we always do.” He pulled Starsky up from the couch and kissed him softly. “So far, so good.”

 

Halfway between the couch and bedroom, Starsky stopped and rubbed a tired hand over his face. “Hutch, do we have a rule that says we have to be awake for sex?”

 

Hutch smiled. “It’s not exactly a rule, but it usually works better when we’re awake.”

 

“Damn, that’s what I thought too.”

 

Starsky was asleep even before Hutch turned out the light. He listened to his slow and even breathing, and matched it, breath for breath until he was asleep too. He woke just after midnight, and watched the lights of passing cars flicker across the ceiling like ghosts. Starsky stirred briefly, then turned on his side, sighing into the pillow in his sleep. Careful not to wake him, Hutch reached into the night table drawer and removed the sealed white envelope he had placed there four weeks earlier.  He ripped it open and dropped the necklace into his hand. He warmed the small round disks between his fingers, then passed both ends of the leather cord around Starsky’s neck and fastened it. Welcome home, Starsk. Hutch fell back to sleep soon after and didn’t wake again until morning.

 

~~~

the end

 

 

 

 

 

This story first appeared in the Kass’ Blood and Destiny zine.  I’ll be forever grateful to her for believing I could pull this off.

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