A World Full of Jokers
“Starsky, hurry it up! We got a call!”
Hutch cracked the Torino’s passenger window just enough to yell at his partner. Starsky was jogging across the street, jacket pulled over his head, trying to juggle coffee cups and sandwich bags while dodging puddles. A strong gust of wind sent a solid sheet of rain through the narrow opening, and Hutch leaned back, swearing. Over the sudden violent drumming of water on the roof and door, the squawk of the radio was barely audible.
“One Adam Fifteen, see the man, Nineteenth and Woodbine, reported automobile accident. Caller advises caution, the cause of the accident is reported as a downed power line.”
Hutch sighed. Why people couldn’t exercise the common sense to stay home in the face of the worst storm to hit Bay City in fifty years was beyond him.
Yeah, home—safe, warm and dry, just like me. Serve, protect and catch pneumonia.
An unprecedented twenty-four hour downpour had Bay City swamped. Gutters overflowed everywhere, some streets near the docks had been impassable for hours, and according to the radio mudslides were starting to endanger homes on hillsides as far south as San Diego. While the weather had done something to knock back the day’s crime rate, the downside was that every able-bodied city employee had been drafted to assist where needed. Hutch had spent two miserable hours directing traffic in the pouring rain at an intersection in an area left without power, while Starsky had been commandeered to act as coordinator for a crew cleaning up an overturned oil tanker down the street. He was weary, chilled and still damp; Starsky, in his tight jeans and soaked sneakers, was even worse off, and there was no end in sight to the whole miserable day.
Hutch eased the driver’s door open just far enough to let Starsky slide in and ended up with cups and bags dumped unceremoniously into his hands as his partner reached for the key.
“Where we headed?”
The big car rumbled reassuringly to life. Despite Starsky’s loudly repeated expressions of confidence in his baby, Hutch had overheard enough mutters about damp spark plugs to know he had been secretly concerned that the Torino might stall out under the constant soaking. On another day he might have teased his partner about it, but today he wisely kept his mouth shut, concentrating on fumbling everything to safety without dropping any containers. Starsky reacted to the wet much like a cat would and had been fantasizing aloud for an hour about hot coffee and dry towels. Dropping his cup would probably have landed Hutch on his ass in the closest puddle.
“Bay City Museum. There’s been a break-in.” Hutch concentrated on keeping the coffee cups level as Starsky squealed away from the curb, fishtailing slightly on the rain-slick pavement.
“Oh for—” Starsky snarled. “And why are we responding to a 459 call, instead of the nearest uniform? We aren’t wet enough already?”
“According to dispatch, the guard claims that his partner’s disappeared, too. He sounds pretty spooked. The museum’s in one of the areas where the power’s out.”
Starsky gave a disgusted grunt. “So we gotta miss supper because some rent-a-cop gets the heebie-jeebies? Man, I’m hungry enough to eat the bag, never mind the sandwich.” He wheeled the car hard right around a corner, sending coffee sloshing.
Hutch yelped and shook the hot liquid off his hand. “Dammit, Starsk! I’m already wet, I don’t need a scalding, too.”
“Sorry.” Starsky had the grace to look sheepish. “Any damage?”
“Nah. A few skin grafts and my fingers’ll be good as new.” Hutch couldn’t resist a little jibe, and was rewarded with a tired smirk.
For a few minutes they drove in a silence broken only by the rhythmic slap of the windshield wipers, Starsky concentrating fiercely on the road. Even at their top speed the wipers barely kept up with the deluge. Occasionally visibility was completely lost as the storm picked up yet more force.
As he eased cautiously through another unlit intersection, Starsky said abruptly, “Hey Hutch, you think there’ll be anybody there at this time a night?”
“Besides the security guard? Not likely. Why?”
“I need to renew my membership. I got it in the mail a week or so ago, and I kept forgettin’ about it. I thought if somebody was there—”
“You have a membership at the Bay City Museum?” Starsky’s range of interests never ceased to surprise him. “You never told me that.”
“Oh, that girl I was seein’ a while back—remember Amanda? The secretary with all the frizzy red hair?” Hutch nodded. “She dragged me out there one day and got me hooked. Turns out it’s a lot more interesting than she was.” Starsky chuckled. “It’s a really cool place, Hutch. You been to check it out lately? They’ve got a whole whale skeleton hanging right over the big staircase so you can see all the bones and stuff when you walk up. And a few years back, they had this real important archeology guy come from back east and do their Egyptian hall. They’ve got mummies and scarabs and all kinds of neat stuff. They even unwrapped one of the mummies so you can see all the innards.” Starsky’s voice held ghoulish satisfaction.
“Don’t you get enough nightmares from too much pizza and bad movies without looking at naked mummies?” Hutch leered in Starsky’s direction. “Never thought you went for older women.”
“Aw, jeeze, that’s disgusting! Anyway, it’s not naked, it’s embalmed. And . . . “
Temporarily comfortable in the warmth and dryness of the car, Hutch closed his eyes and tuned out the rest of the amateur Egyptology lecture, content to listen to the sound of Starsky’s voice, his musician’s ear appreciating the cadence and intonation as much as the actual words.
Over the years, he’d become so accustomed to using his partner as the standard by which he measured anything he truly valued—loyalty, courage, integrity, friendship, trust—that it had not come as a real surprise to find Starsky had also become his yardstick for love and beauty. Not that Starsky was beautiful, strictly speaking. His nose was too big, his features too uneven, his hair too untidy. There were times when he was tired or angry that he could look as rough as any thug they dragged in from the streets. Only those indigo eyes, framed with lush lashes, were truly extraordinary. Yet the whole package fit together so well that sometimes when Starsky smiled at him, Hutch felt himself go weak in the knees.
He’d never dared confess his love to Starsky. Abiding love and aching desire might haunt his dreams, but gave him no rights. What Hutch feared, even more than Starsky’s anger or contempt, was making him uncomfortable. He could easily envision their friendship being eroded by Starsky wondering what each word or touch might imply, and by his own need to censor himself. So the only course was silence. Despite his feelings—or perhaps because of them—Hutch found it easier than ever to encourage Starsky in his hopes for the future.
In fact, since the shooting he’d worried about Starsky’s declining interest in women more than Starsky did. He had at first assumed it was physical, then worried it was psychological. The scars marring the furry torso were horrific even to the most loving eyes. Yet Starsky showed no discomfort stripping down in the gym or on the beach and was as ready as ever to go dancing or flirt with any female between nine and ninety. The difference now was that it almost never went further than that. When Hutch had tried to bring up the subject, Starsky had laughed at him and said he’d decided to try quality instead of quantity for a while.
Hutch tuned back in to Starsky’s monologue just in time to catch “ . . . suck their brains out through their noses?” Starsky glanced over at him expectantly.
“Really? That sounds like one of those weird books of yours. Sure they weren’t pulling your leg?” Hutch couldn’t figure out who was sucking whose brains out, or why—or when the conversation had taken a turn down Grand Guignol Avenue—but slight skepticism was always a safe response, since it usually got Starsky to elaborate without letting him know that Hutch had no idea what was going on.
“Don’t think so. That Jackson guy was supposed to be one of the best Egyptologists around before he got killed.” Starsky pronounced the unfamiliar word very carefully, a sure sign that he was impressed
“Let me guess, the curse of King Tut.”
“No, it was an accident in New York, a few years ago. He and his wife were setting up a display and some kind of big stone fell on them. Real shame. I’d’ve liked to hear him sometime. The museum people say he used to give great talks.”
“Speaking of the museum—” Hutch broke off as the Torino plowed through another puddle, spraying water high over the hood, and slid around the corner into the cross-street beside the museum. Normally an attractive, modern building, the early dusk and driving rain made the museum loom beneath the low-hanging clouds like a castle from the worst of Starsky’s horror films. The total lack of electric light in the area turned the sculptures flanking the stairs into menacing gargoyles and the decorative plantings into dangerous shadows.
“Doesn’t look too cheerful,” Starsky muttered.
“It’s just a power outage, not a satanic plot. And I’m pretty sure that’s not Count Dracula at the door, either.” Hutch pointed to a uniformed figure hovering just inside the main entrance doors.
“Yeah, well, if he says ‘I never drink—wine,’ you’re on your own, buddy.”
The two detectives ran up the wide stairway through the rain, making a futile effort to shield themselves with their still-damp jackets. The guard swung the door open as they approached.
“Man, am I glad to see you guys!” he exclaimed in obvious relief. “This is all just too weird!”
Hutch flashed his shield. “I’m Detective Hutchinson, and this is my partner Detective Starsky. The dispatcher said you’ve had a break-in?”
“Yeah, and Frank, that’s my partner? He’s gone!” The guard was just a kid, so wide-eyed and jittery that Hutch was very glad to see that his holster was still buttoned up. This looked like one of those situations where a combination of nerves, adrenaline and firearms had the potential for leaving innocent bystanders in the hospital.
“Okay, just calm down, give it to us from the beginning,” Hutch said soothingly as he peered around the gloom of the foyer, searching for any obvious signs of trouble. The huge area was filled with indefinable shadows, some of which he assumed were caused by display cabinets. A vast shapeless form floating over the staircase startled him for a moment, until he remembered Starsky jabbering about a whale skeleton.
Sinister enough to give anybody the creeps. Good thing I’m a tough, grown-up cop.
The kid was still shuffling from foot to foot and throwing the occasional nervous glance over his shoulder, but having two armed cops for company calmed him down enough to tell his story more or less clearly.
“We come on duty after the museum closes,” he said, leading them toward the security station. “One of us is always at the front desk to keep an eye on the security panels.” He gestured at the dimly lighted monitors behind the desk. “The other one patrols the halls. We take turns doing it, so nobody gets bored from just sitting and watching. We’re supposed to check in by radio every ten minutes.
“Everything was real spooky tonight after the power went off. Even with the emergency generator, there’s only the stairwell lights on and the security system, and you couldn’t see anything anywhere.” The boy shivered. “Frankie, he laughed at me, said I was bein’ a pussy, but it really was scary in some of those rooms back there. So he said he’d take the patrols if I was scared to do my job.” In the dim glow from the monitors, Hutch could see the embarrassment on the kid’s face.
“So you stayed here the whole time?”
“No way! I can handle anything he can. I did my round and then Frankie started on his. About halfway through, I saw the alarm light go on at one of the rear windows. I called Frankie, but he didn’t answer. I kept on calling, but he just never answered.”
“Did you go look for him?” Starsky cut in.
“No. Procedure is, if anything goes wrong the person at the desk calls the cops and stays put.” The two detectives involuntarily exchanged looks; the idea of staying put when his partner didn’t answer the radio was unthinkable to both of them.
The guard caught their expression and said defensively, “I know it sounds dumb, but it’s the rule. Back in Chicago a couple years ago, some thieves lured the desk guy away and just walked right out the front door with about five million worth of stuff.”
Hutch nodded. “Okay, then. You stay here, and we’ll check things out. Where’s that window where the alarm’s showing?”
“Down in the basement, in the back storage area. The window’s at the end of the hallway.” The guard pointed to the monitors again. “There’s a layout of the whole place there, and it’s hooked into the emergency power.”
Hutch leaned over Starsky’s shoulder as he examined the illuminated schematic board. Starsky followed the corridor with his finger and asked, “Where’s the closest exit door?”
“There’s a fire exit halfway along the corridor, here.” The guard pointed. “But it’s a fire door. The alarm goes off if you open it. And all the doors except the front door are hooked into the alarm system after hours anyway.”
“So if anybody came in through that window they’re still in the building,” Hutch said, also tracing the corridor, counting the doors indicated.
“Or went back out through it already.” Starsky grinned. “Sure make things easier for us.”
The guard looked sick. “Oh, fuck, they could have taken anything out of there by now.”
“Hey, you followed procedure, right? Nothing to worry about.” Starsky’s grin showed an edge of teeth this time. He gave his partner a light slap on the shoulder. “Come on Hutch, let’s check this out.”
“What do you think?” Hutch said quietly as they moved out of earshot.
“I think ol’ Frankie’s pulling the kid’s leg. He probably set off that alarm himself and he’s sittin’ somewhere laughing his ass off at the doofus getting all panicky.” Starsky gave a little snort. “Some partner, huh?”
“Yeah. Not exactly crime’s worst nightmare.”
When they reached the end of the foyer they faced a pair of hallways heading in different directions.
“So do we split up?” Starsky said uneasily.
“No.” Hutch made sure to keep his face expressionless. “Dark as it is, we’d probably end up shooting at each other. Or Frankie, if he actually is fooling around down there. Might as well play it safe.” He didn’t miss Starsky’s little sigh of relief. Guns, cars, thugs with knives—Starsky was fearless in front of them all, but give him a eerie setting and he was like a kid at a ghost story session.
Lit only by the glow of the emergency exit signs, the hallway seemed longer and narrower than it had any right to be. By the time they reached the stairs at the end, they were both glancing uneasily into the shadows between the display cabinets and had instinctively moved so they were nearly back to back. Hutch tried to shrug off the nervous tension that was building, telling himself over and over to stop being a superstitious idiot, but his sensible side could not stifle the deepening apprehension. Something was wrong in this place; he could feel it in his bones. He could hear Starsky breathing behind him, deep, slightly forced breaths that meant his partner consciously kept them under control, and reached back to lightly rub Starsky’s side. Under his hand the stiff back relaxed noticeably. Starsky chuckled softly, and then chilly fingers lightly squeezed his.
“Big brave pair a cops, huh?”
There was both affection and mockery in that whisper, and Hutch smiled involuntarily. Starsky might get rattled, but he never lost his sense of humor.
Because of the emergency lighting there was better visibility in the stairwell, and they clattered quickly down the two flights to the basement. However, the lower hallway they emerged into was even darker and gloomier than the main floor. The only lights were spaced far enough apart to leave whole sections in darkness. Reluctantly, Hutch pulled out his flashlight. He’d have preferred not to use it, since the light made the person holding it an obvious target for any hidden shooter, and played hell with night vision as well, but it was too damn dark to risk stumbling blindly any longer.
Starsky produced his own light and pointed it over Hutch’s shoulder toward the end of the corridor.
“Window’s that way.”
Following the twin circles of yellow light, they made their way cautiously toward the back wall. The window itself was at shoulder level for Hutch, and he examined the frame while Starsky held the light closer.
It didn’t take long to spot the heavy layer of old paint, chipped in places but still intact. Hutch stepped back and shook his head, puzzled. “This window hasn’t been touched. And even if somebody wanted to get in here—look at it. Nobody bigger than a five-year-old could squeeze through.”
Starsky raised his light higher and gave a soft laugh. “Look up, Hutch.”
As Hutch’s eyes followed the light upward, he saw a trickle of water moving steadily down the wall, following the wire of the alarm system until it connected with the upper edge of the window frame.
“Don’t tell me,” he said in disgust. “The water shorted out the alarm system. And our security guard’s buddy decided to have some fun.” Starsky nodded in agreement. “We better have a look around anyway. If we do nothing else we can throw a scare into the asshole, maybe threaten him with handcuffs or something.”
“Told ya. Like we didn’t have any real work to do on a night like this. Made us miss supper for nothing.” Starsky had that look in his eye that meant trouble.
Hutch rolled his eyes. “You know, the world doesn’t actually revolve around your stomach, Gordo.”
“Nothin’ in it to revolve around,” Starsky grumbled. “Come on, let’s get it over with. I’ll check out the other end, you start here.” Before Hutch could say a word, Starsky trotted briskly back toward the far end of the hall. He had to squelch a sudden urge to call him back, as his form blended into the shadows. Once more damning himself for an idiot, he turned back to the first doorway and opened it cautiously, sweeping the beam of the flashlight around the room. Nothing was visible but stacks of dusty boxes.
By the time Hutch had gone through three rooms, he had discovered nothing except that the museum definitely needed a better cleaning staff, and he needed some allergy meds. His eyes had begun to sting and his nose to itch, and he knew any minute he would be sneezing uncontrollably. As he stepped out into the hallway, ready to call it quits, he suddenly realized how quiet it was. There were no footsteps, no rustling sounds, no Starsky griping under his breath about the unfairness of life.
“Starsky?” he called.
There was no reply. Hutch felt the hair on the back of his neck try to rise. The last two doors at the other end of the hall stood open, and he moved swiftly down to glance in. The last room was completely bare, and the one next to it held only more stacks of boxes, a half-dismantled shelving unit and something that looked like a large irregularly framed mirror standing in the middle of the floor. Except for the open doors, there was no sign his partner had ever been there.
Hutch dashed back down the hallway, yanking open the remaining doors with little caution. Like all the others he had seen, the rooms overflowed with boxes and shelves crammed with odd-looking objects—and held absolutely no trace of Starsky. Backing out of the last room, Hutch turned in a slow circle, looking up and down the hall.
Nothing. No movement. No blood. Not even a drag mark anywhere in the dust. Nobody could have taken Starsky out without making any noise at all, let alone get rid of his—Hutch refused to let himself even think the word “body.” There just hadn’t been enough time. And even if Starsky had seen someone suspicious, he wouldn’t have gone off after him without so much as a warning yell.
The terrible feeling of apprehension settled even more deeply into his chest.
“Starsky! Starsky!” This time it was full shout that echoed through the hall and into the stairwell.
There was no answer.
“What the fuck?”
Starsky blinked fiercely in the sudden brightness. After the pitch darkness of the two rooms he had searched, the unexpected glare of the overhead ceiling lights was blinding. The disorientation he felt nearly made him dizzy. He shook his head and peered around the room as his eyes gradually adjusted.
Coulda sworn the door was over there. How’d I get twisted around so much anyway?
Seen in the light, the room was just another cluttered storage space filled with crates, a halfway broken-down shelving unit stacked with unidentifiable junk, and behind him something that looked a bit like a large upright mirror. There was definitely no security guard—alive, dead or tied up. Putting away the flashlight, Starsky headed back into the hallway. Even with the lights back on, the place looked bleak, with its chipped and dingy paintwork and worn-out floor tiles.
“Hutch?” he called. “Hey, Hutch!”
There was no answer. None of the other storage room doors were open. Starsky looked up and down the corridor in confusion.
“Hutch? Where are you?”
The way his voice echoed off the walls was unmistakable. This place was empty.
His skin started crawling and his heart speeded up. “Hey, Blintz, this ain’t funny!” Starsky hated the hint of a quiver in his voice but couldn’t help it. Two years ago, abandoning him down here might have been Hutch’s idea of a joke, but now . . .
Hutch doesn’t play those kinda games any more. Something’s wrong.
Starsky drew his gun and backed toward the stairwell. The light he had welcomed just moments ago now left him feeling too exposed, a highlighted target against the wall. By the time he reached the access door to the stairs, he was sweating and slightly dizzy from turning to scan back and forth along the hall. The relief he felt at finally getting out of the exposed area was outweighed by rapidly growing alarm.
Where’s Hutch? How could somebody get at him without me hearin’ anything? And if he took off, why didn’t he let me know? Despite his fears, Starsky couldn’t bring himself to call out again.
The only rational thing he could imagine was that for some reason Hutch had returned to the guard station. As he crept up the stairs, Starsky heard a low murmuring noise, growing louder as he neared the top. Once more drawing his gun, he slipped noiselessly along the corridor toward the entrance hall. Reaching the corner, he cautiously peered around into the foyer, and stopped dead in astonishment.
The entrance hall was completely altered, brightly lit and decorated in a motif that to Starsky’s eyes looked vaguely oriental. Colored paper lanterns hung from the ceiling, delicate painted screens concealed most of the display cabinets, and small, elaborately carved tables were scattered in various nooks. A crowd of women in elegant cocktail dresses and men in dark suits stood around talking and laughing, while waiters in white jackets and bow ties carried trays loaded with champagne flutes and finger foods. In the middle of the floor stood a long buffet table, and a bar now occupied the angle where the main staircase met the back wall.
Starsky surveyed the room in disbelief, unwilling to take in the changes. How the hell did this happen so fast? Did I have a blackout down there or somethin’? And where’s Hutch? No matter where he looked, no bright blond head stood out above the upscale crowd. His eye finally fell on the one thing that had not changed—and looked utterly out of place: the security desk in front of the main entrance. He was relieved to see the young guard there, though he noticed that even the kid had spruced up and put on a much nicer uniform
As Starsky pushed his way through the mass of people, muttering half-hearted apologies, he noticed several of the guests staring at him in disapproval. Guess I’m not exactly dressed for this party, am I? Too fuckin’ bad. The guard’s face had the same disapproving look as he took in Starsky’s appearance, and he came out from behind the desk to intercept him.
“Hey, what’s going on in here now? And where’s my partner?” Starsky demanded.
“This is a fund-raising evening, hosted by the Friends of the Bay City Museum.” The guard gave him a fake apologetic look as he took in Starsky’s battered sneakers and clinging jeans. “I’m sorry, sir, but there is a dress code for the evening.”
“I’m not a guest, I’m a cop, remember? You’re the one that made the call.”
“There must be a mistake, officer,” the guard said stiffly. “Nobody reported anything to me, and I didn’t make any calls.”
Starsky blinked. The feeling of unreality and danger that had swamped him in the basement returned with a rush. “Sure you did,” he said, trying to keep his voice calm and reasonable. “You were talkin’ to me and my partner fifteen minutes ago. Said there was an alarm signal, and your partner disappeared when he went down to check it out.”
“I’m sorry, officer, but that’s definitely wrong. I’ve never seen you before in my life. And I’m the only person on desk duty here tonight.”
With a half-laugh, Starsky looked around the entrance hall. “Okay, you got me. Good joke. I don’t know how this all got set up so fast, but it’s a joke, right?” He looked around, searching for the members of the squad who had to be hiding and snickering behind the folding screens and display cases. “Whose bright idea was it? Babcock? Estevez?”
The guard didn’t seem inclined to play along. “There’s no joke, sir.” Starsky had a feeling his sudden demotion to civilian again was a sign of trouble. “Nobody called the police, and there’s been no trouble here this evening. I think you better move along quietly before you disturb the guests. The mayor’s here, you know, and Senator Lowell, and other very important people. This isn’t the place for whatever kind of problem you’ve got.” He gripped Starsky’s arm, urging him firmly toward the exit.
For an instant, rage gripped Starsky so strongly he could scarcely breathe. He fought the temptation to pull out his gun and show this little twerp what a problem really was. Using all his will power, he brought himself under control. He knew himself well enough to understand that a large part of the rage was covering fear, and he also knew he couldn’t let himself give in to it. Whatever was going on was starting to feel like major trouble for his missing partner. Hutch needed him free and thinking straight. He couldn’t afford to lash out and start a confrontation that might get him tangled up with suits whose only concern was keeping everything calm and quiet for the big shots.
He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Then he pulled his badge from inside his jacket. “Now. Pay attention. This is a badge. I am a cop. There was a call about trouble here and my partner and I responded. Now you wanna cooperate a little here, or do I put the cuffs on you in front of all these important people?”
The sight of the badge brought the guard to a standstill. He squinted at it for a moment and then dropped his hand. “Look, uh, Sergeant, could we maybe do this someplace besides the front door? There’s some really important people here tonight . . .”
“Yeah, yeah, you already told me that.”
“ . . . and they won’t like having their fancy shindig disturbed. There’s a lot of money on the line tonight for the museum, and if things get uncomfortable for anybody, we’ll both lose our jobs.” The guard’s voice had dropped almost to a whisper, and he was once more trying, though more subtly this time, to urge Starsky out of the main lobby area.
Starsky dug in his heels.
“Think real hard now,” he said sweetly. “You still say you didn’t call us?”
“No!” The young man nearly shouted and then glanced around, eyes wide. “For the last time, I did not call the police,” he hissed. “And if anybody else did, they didn’t tell me, and they didn’t report any trouble to me. Now would you please get out of here before my boss sees you?”
“And you haven’t seen my partner? Tall blond guy with a mustache, wearing a green and white jacket?” Starsky said as evenly as possible.
“If you have a partner, I haven’t seen him,” the guard said desperately. “I’m telling you, nothing’s happened here all night!”
He’s tellin’ the truth.
The realization hit Starsky so hard that he felt a moment of vertigo. Over the years, his natural instinct for seeing the truth had been sharpened by experience with questioning with frauds and phonies of every description. And he was seeing truth now. In the face of everything he knew had happened to him in the past hour, Starsky could tell that as far as the guard was concerned, every word he said was true.
What in God’s name is going on?
Panic wasn’t far off, but he forced it back with sheer willpower.
Hutch needs help. Gotta hold it together.
Starsky focused firmly on the image of his partner tucked away in some quiet corner of his heart. The calm center of a world all too often torn apart by violence and brutality, the unwavering support in times of danger and pain, the source of strength for body and soul through every trial. Hutch needed help. Starsky had to keep his act together enough to make sure there would be help. That’s all there was to it.
“Look, Detective, please, can’t you just go?” The guard was once more tugging on Starsky’s sleeve, and the whine in his voice was more pronounced. “Check in with your people again? Maybe—”
“All right, all right, I’m leaving!” With a snarled curse, Starsky turned and shouldered his way through the crush to the front door, this time collecting truly annoyed looks and too angry to care. The only thing that kept him moving forward was the growing feeling of danger, telling him he had to get to the Torino to call this in and get help looking for Hutch.
Pushing roughly through the door, he was halfway across the top of the stairs when he was halted by another shock. The storm that had been battering the city had cleared completely, leaving not a cloud in the night sky. Even stranger, there was no sign of its passing. All around, streetlights and windows glowed, the pavement was dry, and there was no trace of storm debris littering the gutters. There was no mud on any of the swanky cars pulling up at the curb, and well-dressed people piled out and strolled up the stairs, laughing and chattering, without either raincoats or umbrellas.
As he looked down to the street, a dark late-model Cadillac drew up below him, and a uniformed police officer got out of the driver’s seat and opened the rear door. At the sight of the man stepping from the car, Starsky felt his heart nearly slam to a stop.
Hutch—in an expensive suit that fit him better than anything Starsky had ever seen him wear and a pair of shoes that probably cost more than the two of them together took home in a month, with his hair cut in the latest conservative style and a flash of gold watch on his wrist. For a moment Starsky was sure he was having hallucinations. That simply could not be Hutch down there, looking so much like the old pictures of his father during his days as a CEO.
Finally he managed to catch his breath and got his legs to move. He stumbled down the steps toward his partner, calling his name.
“Hutch!” He gasped out as he finally stopped in front of the other man. “What the fuck is goin’ on here?”
Hutch turned to look at him, and the expression of disgust and annoyance crossing his face was like a punch in the solar plexus. “Oh, for God’s sake. You’ve got some nerve. What are you doing here?”
“Wha—what? What’m I doin’ here? What’re you doing . . . dressed up like somebody outta GQ . . . where’d you get that suit anyway . . . and how’d you get your hair cut so fast . . .”
Starsky knew he was babbling, but the sight of Hutch up close unnerved him even more than seeing him step out of the car so unexpectedly. His partner looked cold. The normally warm blue eyes were chips of topaz, his face harshly set, and under his mustache—his neatly trimmed mustache, Starsky noted with a feeling of unreality—his lips compressed into a grimace of distaste. Hutch had never looked at him like that, not when he was puking drunk, not even when he had pulled some really dumb practical joke with Hutch as the hapless victim.
“Hutch?” His voice trailed off miserably.
“You’ve run through just about all the excuses you’ve got, Starsky.” Hutch’s voice was flat and deadly. “It’s bad enough you’re a useless fuck-up on work time. If you’re stupid enough to cause a scene at a public function then you’ve given me all I need to finally have your badge pulled.”
“My badge? Hutch! What’re you, crazy?” Starsky reached to touch the other man’s arm and watched in horrified shock as Hutch stepped back out of reach, the grimace of distaste growing almost to a snarl.
“Dobey! Get this drunk piece of shit out of here!” Hutch said sharply, and then turned back to the car, shutting Starsky out as completely as if he no longer existed.
As Starsky was about to take a step forward, find something to say that would end this nightmare, a hard hand caught his arm and a familiar voice behind him said, “You heard the man. Let’s go.”
He tried to shrug the hold off, still struggling to move, and the hand tightened brutally on the pressure point at his elbow, yanking him around so hard he nearly fell.
“Christ, Starsky,” Dobey said, “don’t you get tired of finding ways to get in trouble?”
Starsky could hear himself breathing in rapid shallow gasps, unable to get any air into his straining lungs. The man holding him was Dobey, without a doubt—thinner by around fifty pounds, and dressed in a patrolman’s uniform—but nevertheless unmistakably Harold Dobey, looking just as furious as his captain ever did when faced with a wayward Starsky. Too stunned to resist, Starsky let himself be muscled away from the staircase and off to the corner of the building, Dobey keeping himself between Starsky and the last stragglers still making their way into the museum. Starsky threw one desperate glance over his shoulder, to see Hutch—God, that can’t be Hutch!—shoot his cuffs, straighten his tie, and assist a slim brunette out of the car with a gallant little half bow.
Before Starsky could recognize her, Dobey grabbed the front of his jacket and slammed him sharply against the wall. “Looks like IA finally owns your ass, boy. The lieutenant’s just been waiting for you to fuck up again and you’re right on schedule.” Starsky didn’t respond. “Starsky! Just what are you stoned on this time?” Dobey’s voice was harsh, without a trace of the concern Starsky was used to hearing even the angriest of the captain’s tirades.
“I dunno.” Starsky’s voice sounded unnaturally calm to his own ears. “What was that stuff Alice drank before she fell into the rabbit hole?”
Dobey shook his head. “You could have been a good cop once. What a damn waste of a badge.”
“Tell me something,” Starsky said in that same eerily calm voice. “What’s the date?”
Dobey’s expression twisted from anger to something close to contemptuous pity. “Thursday, September 16, 1982. You need to know the time, too? Maybe your address?”
If anything had been able to penetrate Starsky’s horrified daze, the disgust in Dobey’s voice would have shamed him. As it was, he could barely assimilate it.
“And Hutch . . . ”
“Lieutenant Hutchinson!” Dobey barked. “And the lieutenant will be wanting to see you tomorrow morning in his office—clean and sober for a change.” The older man gave a cruel little smile. “Do us all a favor, Starsky. Don’t show up.” With one final shove, he ground Starsky back against the wall, and then let go, ostentatiously wiping his hands on his pants as he turned away.
For a minute Starsky simply leaned against the wall, too numb to move. He was dimly aware that his arm was throbbing where Dobey—Dobey! What the hell?—had squeezed it. His shoulders ached from being slammed against the wall, but his physical discomfort seemed far away.
It’s the right date. It looks like Hutch. It looks like Dobey. But—
His mind began to skitter like an animal caught in a trap. The panic he’d held under control since the moment Hutch hadn’t answered his call built inside him, growing into something with the potential to rip his mind loose and leave him adrift in this nightmare with no way out. With a snarl, he grabbed his elbow exactly where Dobey had and ground his thumb into the bruise forming there until the bolt of pain made his eyes water. Brutal but effective, the physical shock cleared his head enough to tamp down the fear and allow him to think.
They’re all fakes. It’s the only answer. This whole thing’s some kind of a setup, like Terry Nash. But there’s so goddamn many of them! Gotta get away from here. Gotta get help so I can find Hutch. Gotta find somebody that’s not in on it.
He straightened his jacket, wincing at the pull through his back. Whoever this fake Dobey guy is, he’s one strong sonofabitch. With a quick glance to make sure no one was paying attention, Starsky stepped around the corner of the building onto the side street where the Torino was parked.
And stopped dead.
Faintly, over the white noise in his ears, he heard a high whimpering sound. The still-functioning part of his brain told him he was the one making it. His knees weakened and he slid down the wall of the museum to end up half-kneeling on the sidewalk, shaking his head in disbelief.
The Torino was gone.
Hutch slammed the telephone down. “Shit!” He barely resisted the urge to hurl it across the room. Three goddamn calls—what do they think “officer needs assistance” means? He swore again and ran his hands through his hair.
After his first call to the dispatcher, he had returned to the basement and systematically searched each room again. When the security guard stubbornly refused to leave his station to help, Hutch had bullied the master key set out of him and told him to keep making calls for help.
Calls that had so far gone unanswered.
Reality blurred into a never-ending succession of closed doors, cluttered rooms and dark corridors. Apart from the pounding rain, and echoes of his own footsteps and voice, the building was silent. As far as Hutch could tell, there was nothing out of place anywhere: no sign of a struggle, no door open that should have been closed, or vice-versa. It was a shock when he looked at his watch and realized that over an hour had passed since he had last spoken to Starsky.
Almost that long since I first called for back-up. Where the fuck is everybody?
He clenched his fists as another wave of guilt and fear swept through him. Where are you, Starsk? How could I have lost you so fast? Adding to his misery was a splitting headache, only partly due to the incessant noise of storm-driven rain battering at the windows. He sank down into the chair beside the desk, and groped for the phone again.
“What the hell are you doing in my office?” A sharp female voice behind him brought Hutch lurching to his feet, reaching for his gun.
The woman facing him from the door was very tall, wearing a dripping ankle-length rain slicker and carrying a huge emergency flashlight. Behind the light, Hutch got a vague impression of a sharp pointed chin, big round glasses and a straggle of wet hair.
Squinting against the glare, still keeping one hand on his weapon, he pulled out his badge. “Detective Hutchinson. And you are?”
“Louise Deschênes. I am the director assistant of the museum.”
“Okay, Miss Deschênes . . . ”
“Doctor Deschênes,” she broke in. “And I repeat, what are you doing here? The security company called me with some wild story about people disappearing in the museum.” Under other circumstances Hutch would have found her lilting French accent charming; given his headache and worry, he could only resent the extra effort it took to understand her.
He took a deep breath to calm himself. “It’s not a story, Doctor. My partner and I were called by one of your security guards because the other one had disappeared. We started searching the building, and then my partner disappeared. I’ve been looking for him ever since.”
“Preposterous,” she snapped. “How could someone disappear from here? Even without the hydro, we still have emergency power for the security system. To leave the building is not possible without setting off an alarm.”
“I’m not saying anyone left the building,” Hutch said. “What I’m worried about is that they’re still in here somewhere, injured or incapacitated. I haven’t had a chance to search more than the lower floor—”
“You did what!” Deschênes exclaimed. “You went into exhibition areas without permission? Do you realize how delicate some of these artifacts are? God alone knows what kind of damage you have caused.” She shook her head. “I must insist that you leave at once. And I will ensure that your superiors are aware fully of your responsibility for any damage to our exhibits.”
“I’m not leaving until I find Starsky.” Hutch’s voice was low but implacable. “And my superiors will back me up.”
“We shall see about that.” She marched over to the desk and reached for the phone.
“Good luck. I haven’t been able to get through to anyone.”
As Deschênes snatched up the receiver, footsteps sounded in the corridor, followed by a familiar bellow.
“Hutchinson! Where are you?”
“Captain Dobey! Thank God!”
The wave of relief Hutch felt at the sight of Dobey in the doorway turned to dismay as two uniformed officers appeared behind him, and Hutch got a closer look at his captain in the glare of their flashlights. Dobey looked exhausted, his face strained and his suit wet and muddy. The two uniforms behind him were in no better shape.
Hutch’s concern spiked sharply when no other officers entered the room.
“Captain?” he burst out. “Just Kettering and Gutierrez? Where’s everybody else?”
Dobey shook his head wearily. “We’re it.”
“Didn’t you get the message? Starsky’s gone!”
“There’s been a mud slide up in the Donovan area. Three houses completely buried. Every available man we’ve got is out there trying to evacuate the area and hunt for survivors.” Dobey shook his head again. “This is the best I could do right now.”
“Excuse me,” Deschênes interjected, coming forward into the light. “You are a captain, yes? This man’s superior? Could I then ask you to have these people leave the building before they do any further damage?”
“And who are you, ma’am?”
“This is Dr. Deschênes,” Hutch said. “She’s the museum’s assistant director, and she thinks her precious artifacts are more important than a police officer’s life.”
“I did not say that—”
“Ma’am, if you would please let me get the story from Detective Hutchinson?” Dobey’s firm interruption silenced Deschênes long enough for Hutch to jump in.
He tersely related the evening’s events, beginning with the radio call from the dispatcher. “And when I yelled for him there was no answer,” he concluded. “I’ve been looking ever since, but . . . ” He spread his hands helplessly. “I haven’t been able to search a quarter of the place yet.”
“What about this missing security guard?”
Hutch shook his head. “No sign of him either. If I didn’t—”
He broke off at a muffled shout from the corridor, followed by several thumps and some garbled cursing.
Hutch pulled his gun and ran toward the noise, evading Dobey’s grab for his arm. In the entrance hall, two dark figures were rolling around on the floor by the guard station, exchanging punches and expletives with equal fervor. Hutch’s attempt to separate them earned him a vicious kick to the shin from one and a barely-dodged backhand from the other. It took the combined efforts of Hutch, Dobey and the two patrolmen to force the two combatants apart.
“That’s enough!” Dobey’s bellow finally quieted the struggling men long enough for Deschênes’ light to illuminate them properly.
Kettering was restraining the young security guard. Despite a torn shirt and bleeding nose, he kept trying to wrench himself free from the patrolman’s hold. Gutierrez more than half supported an older man in the same uniform, who seemed barely able to stay on his feet.
“Who are you?” Dobey stepped between the two, trying to keep their attention on him.
“Who’s askin’?” the older man slurred, and swayed, tilting sideways so far he nearly slipped out of Gutierrez’ hold.
“That’s Frankie. My partner,” the young guard spat as he tried to pull away from Kettering again. “Do you know how much trouble you got us in, asshole? Huh?”
“Ah, shaddup. Punk kid. Can’t teach damn kids nothin’ these days.” Frankie’s wheezing laugh sent a cloud of alcohol fumes wafting over the group.
“Maudits, this man is drunk!” Deschênes said in a tone of horrified incredulity. “What kind of a security company are we employing?”
“Hey bish, wash yer mouth—”
Hutch leaped forward and only a fast half turn sideways by Gutierrez saved the hapless guard from a slap to the head.
“Easy, Sarge,” the patrolman said soothingly. “He’ll puke if you hit him. My clothes are in bad enough shape tonight as it is.”
Hutch stopped. “Where’s my partner?”
“Who?” Frankie’s glazed eyes could barely focus on Hutch.
“We were searching the basement because your buddy here got worried when you didn’t answer him, and my partner disappeared down there. Now where is he?”
The tone must have penetrated the alcohol haze in Frankie’s head enough to make him conscious of danger. With a visible effort, he straightened in Gutierrez’ hold, and when he answered his enunciation was painfully clear.
“Wasn’t in the basement.”
“‘M tellin’ you, I wasn’t in the basement. Upstairs. Third floor. Nice li’l place by the Spanish exbitit, er, exhabit. You know, Doc,” he appealed to Deschênes. “Where the comfy chairs are.”
“Oh, mon dieu,” Deschênes moaned, and covered her eyes with her hand.
“So you’re saying you haven’t seen my partner?” Hutch grabbed Frankie’s chin and pulled his head around so he could see the man’s face.
Frankie nodded vigorously. “Ain’t seen nobody all night ‘cept the kid.” He threw a disgusted look across at the younger man. “Snitch.”
“Asshole!” The kid yelled back and tried to break away from Kettering again.
“All right!” Dobey raised his voice. “Unless you two want to end up in a cell for obstructing an officer, you’ll shut up and calm down!” The two men grumbled and shot furious looks at each other but stopped struggling and nodded reluctantly.
“Thank you,” Dobey went on. “We’ve wasted enough time. Hutchinson, you tell Kettering and Gutierrez where you’ve already been, and then the three of you cover the rest of the place. I’ll question these two fine specimens.”
“Captain, maybe I could get more out of them?” Hutch wanted nothing more than to have a few minutes alone with the drunken asshole who’d started this whole nightmare. Drunk or not, the guard could obviously read Hutch’s mind all too clearly, because his eyes widened and he began struggling again. When Gutierrez tightened his hold, Frankie slumped down as if trying to disappear inside his uniform collar.
“That wasn’t a suggestion, Hutchinson,” Dobey snapped. “I may be getting on a little, but I think I can still remember how to interrogate a witness.”
“Yes, sir.” Hutch reached for Deschênes’ flashlight. “I’ll borrow this, Doctor.”
“No,” she said crisply. “I shall accompany you. I want to make sure my exhabits are safe.” As Hutch opened his mouth to protest she added, “Four eyes are better than two, n’est-ce pas? I know this building like my own home. If there is a hiding place here, I will find it.” She snatched the light back from him and headed down the corridor.
Two hours later, a very subdued group gathered in Deschênes’ office again. The power was still off, and without any available heat, the damp chill from the outside was seeping into the building. Even cramming four large men into an office not much bigger than a medium-sized bathroom didn’t provide any real warmth. Deschênes had pulled an afghan from an armchair in one corner and wrapped it around her shoulders, but she was still shivering.
The scientist had been surprisingly cooperative during the search, leading Hutch time and again to hidden spaces he would never have noticed on his own. Now with their hunt producing no results, she seemed to be reverting to her earlier prickly and skeptical demeanor. She paced from the desk to the bookshelves behind it, picking up books or artifacts, fiddling with them and then setting them down, only to repeat the process thirty seconds later. Her fidgeting scraped Hutch’s nerves raw. By the way she kept glancing at the phone, he could tell she was considering another attempt at calling for higher authorities to have her unwelcome visitors evicted.
Kettering stood nearly at attention in front of Dobey, his eyes flickering nervously between Hutch and the captain, while Gutierrez hung back near the door, obviously trying to avoid coming into the direct view of either man. Only by a sheer effort of will could Hutch hold himself quiet and still. His dread increased with every moment Starsky remained missing, as did his gnawing feeling of guilt.
Questions swirled round and round in his head. Where could he have gone? What did I miss? What should I have done? Worst of all, he could not come up with one single answer that would help.
“We’ve been over the whole building, Captain,” Kettering said. “No sign of Sergeant Starsky.”
“We’ll have to look again,” Hutch ground out. “He didn’t just vanish into thin air. There must be a storeroom or a cabinet or something that you’ve missed.”
Dobey looked over at him and shook his head. “Hutchinson,” he said. “That’s enough.” He turned to Kettering. “All right, you’ve done what you can in here. You and your partner start on the alley and then search the buildings down Lisgar Street. Keep your eyes open, and make sure you don’t miss anybody: night watchmen, drunks, cab drivers—you name it. As soon as we can get some more people in here, we’ll quarter the whole area.”
Kettering nodded once, and double-timed out the door and vanished into the darkness, Gutierrez on his heels.
Behind them, Deschênes suddenly slapped her hands together, stomped back to her desk, and yanked open one of the drawers. She pulled out a bottle of brandy and looked at them inquiringly.
“Gentlemen, may I offer you a drink? Purely for, how do you say it? Medical purposes? We are all cold and wet and tired.”
Hutch shook his head, but to his surprise, Dobey nodded.
“That’s kind of you, Doctor. But a small one, please. We’re still on duty.”
Deschênes sank into her desk chair and rubbed her forehead with her fingertips. She poured a generous slug into the pottery mug in front of her, and two smaller ones into Styrofoam cups she dug out from some clutter on the bookshelf.
Hutch sat down across from her and accepted the cup she handed over to him. The brandy burned going down, and he shuddered. The sudden inner heat made him aware of just how chilled he’d become. From somewhere he dredged up the energy to give Deschênes a grateful smile.
“Thanks. I needed that.”
“We all require some fortification.” She held up the bottle, and Hutch let her pour another, smaller drink for him. The three of them sat in exhausted silence for a few minutes, savoring the illusion of warmth the alcohol brought.
Still, Hutch couldn’t stay seated. Now that there was no activity to occupy his mind, the guilt and fear that had been haunting him for the past hours broke free. He had been hoping against hope that he was wrong, that Starsky was somewhere in the building, maybe hurt, maybe sick, but there, alive and waiting for rescue. Having that last faint hope dashed finally broke his control.
“I did it again,” Hutch said. “Let him down again. Bellamy, Marcos, Gunther—God, how long before I kill him?”
“Hutch!” Dobey’s voice was harsh as lye against his scorched conscience. “If you’re going to have hysterics, do it on your own time, not mine.” The reprimand brought Hutch up short, and Dobey went on in a gentler tone. “You didn’t do anything that the two of you haven’t done a hundred times before. Something went wrong tonight, but that doesn’t make it your fault.
“Now, I’m going to call in the forensics unit and have them go over those storerooms with a fine-tooth comb. I’m also going to put out an APB on Starsky, and call for every officer who can be spared. We’re going to search the whole area with a magnifying glass.” He shook his head. “Lord, I wish this city weren’t half under water. How many people we’ll actually be able to pull away from other emergencies is anybody’s guess.”
Hutch took a deep breath. He knew Dobey was talking mainly to give him the chance to pull himself together, and he felt both grateful and embarrassed.
Captain’s right. I’m reacting like a civilian, not a cop.
“I’ll start searching again. Go through the building one more time.”
Dobey shook his head. “The uniforms can do that just as well as you can. What Starsky needs now are your brains, not your feet. If this is some kind of a setup, it had to be planned well before tonight. You need to think about what’s been going on in the past few weeks: anybody he’s had a beef with on the street, any girlfriend problems. You know the drill.”
“I’ll need to pull case files, too,” Hutch said. “See who’s gotten out of prison recently. And check if our two security guards have any friends or relatives in trouble. I don’t remember us ever coming up against either of them before, but there’s always a chance.”
“I shall be wanting to have some words with them myself,” Deschênes said. Despite his own feelings, Hutch couldn’t help a twinge of sympathy for the guards. Judging by the undertone of ground glass in Deschênes’ voice, they’d be lucky to escape with their balls intact.
“Well, so far they’re both sticking to their stories. The young fellow—Willy Ransome—claims everything went down just like he told you. Frank Wiegand, our drunk, says he figured on a night like this there wouldn’t be any trouble or a supervisor coming by to check things out, so he brought a bottle along with him and found a quiet place to have a few snorts and a snooze. Claims he fell asleep and had no idea anything was wrong until the noise we made woke him up.”
“Think they’re telling the truth?”
“Probably, except I suspect the kid knew about the bottle.” Dobey shrugged. “Weigand’s pissed off at the kid for calling for help, so my take is he figured Ransome would just dither around and not do anything. Now he’s caught and he wants to spread the blame.”
“I’ll check them out anyway,” Hutch said. “And, Captain—” he paused as an idea took hold. “Do we have any contacts to quietly check out the museum?”
“What do you mean, ‘check out the museum’?” Deschênes shot to her feet, setting her mug down hard enough to slop brandy across the desktop. “You can’t think that what happened to your man has anything to do with us, surely? If some criminal has done something here, that isn’t our fault. We cannot accept any liability in such a situation.”
Hutch found himself looming over the woman, nearly trembling with the effort of restraining himself from shaking her until her teeth rattled.
“Lady, a police officer is missing!” he snarled. “Do you get that? You’ve got a hell of a lot more to worry about here than getting sued.”
“It is the police department which will be sued if you people make any public speculation about the integrity of this institution!” She glared back at him. “Some of the most important people in the city are on the board of directors. It is preposterous to suggest that we have any responsibility here.”
Dobey raised his hand. “Calm down, Doctor, please. Nobody is suggesting there is any wrongdoing on the part of the museum. Yet.” He glanced at Hutch. “Are you thinking it might have something to do with the museum itself instead of being directed specifically at Starsky?”
“It’s a possibility,” Hutch said. “What’s been bothering me is how fast and slick it all happened. If somebody were trying to get to Starsky, they wouldn’t have done it here. There was no time to plan anything. How could they have known we’d respond to a call at the museum?” He forced himself to speak slowly enough not to falter over the words. “On the other hand, a night like tonight would be the perfect time to use this place without interruption. If some people here are up to something crooked, and Starsky stumbled on it by accident while he was searching those storerooms, maybe they decided to do something about it.”
“Crooked how?” Dobey said doubtfully. “You really think somebody’s going to tackle a cop over some old pots and spears?”
“There’s a lot of valuable stuff here, Captain.” Hutch felt his breath catch. “On the way over here Starsky was telling me about a big Egyptian exhibit. I bet a lot of those artifacts have gold or jewels on them. Isn’t that right, Doctor?”
“Yes.” Deschênes wrung her hands. “Some of the artifacts Dr. Jackson contributed are priceless. Our South American gallery also contains a great deal of gold and jade. And the Native American pottery is very valuable. It represents one of the finest collections in the world. Unscrupulous private collectors will pay a fortune for authentic works in good condition. And metal and gems can so easily by pried loose, melted down . . . ” She broke off, biting her lip and running one hand through already tangled hair. “We will have to have every piece inspected and re-appraised to make sure nothing has been stolen and replaced with a forgery.”
“And there’s another angle,” Hutch cut in. “How well do you know the contacts the museum has for obtaining items?”
“What do you mean?”
“The museum receives shipments of artifacts regularly from all over the world, right? What better cover for some drug smuggling than a nice respectable museum crate?”
Deschênes bristled. “I can assure you, Sergeant, all of our curators and technical staff are highly trained professionals, very well respected in their field. The idea that one of them would be involved in criminal activities is ludicrous.”
“Hutch has a point,” Dobey said. Meeting her outraged glare, he went on more gently, “Doctor, you’d be amazed at how many respectable people I’ve seen get tempted by the idea of fast and easy money. We’ll need a list of all your employees here, and if Starsky doesn’t turn up by morning, we’ll start calling them in for interviews.”
Deschênes raised her hands in appeal. “Captain Dobey, please! I can assure you that all our personnel are above suspicion.”
Hutch’s voice was soft and cold. “Ma’am, my partner’s gone. Your assurances aren’t worth squat.”
“Captain, I must protest.”
“Doctor, I might have expressed myself a little more diplomatically than Detective Hutchinson, but I agree with the sentiment. Our priority is to find our missing man, not worry about hurt feelings.” Dobey paused, and then said in a speculative tone, “You do realize that if we go to court for a search warrant it will be on the public record?”
“That’s blackmail, Captain,” Deschênes said stiffly.
“That’s reality.” Hutch met her eyes. “I can guarantee I know some reporters who will be more than happy to make it front page news.”
He watched as Deschênes clenched her fists, and then turned away from him. “Soit,” she said grimly. “What do you want from me?”
“The museum’s personnel files, to begin with,” Dobey said.
“And shipping and acquisition records,” Hutch added. “Let’s say the last six months.”
“Do you have any idea how much paperwork that is?”
Hutch shrugged. “We’d better get started then.”
He couldn’t seem to get warm.
Starsky shivered as he halted at the mouth of another alley and squinted through the shadows, searching for a gleam of candy-apple red.
By now he wasn’t even expecting it. Stubbornness was all that still kept him searching, a grim determination not to give in to insanity until he was sure there was nothing else left.
The first thing he’d done after rousing from his half-faint on the sidewalk had been to walk all the way around the museum, avoiding only the main entrance and the small parking lot at the side where the fake Dobey kept watch over the Cadillac. Finally having to accept that the Torino was not where he’d left it, he’d spent the past fifteen minutes searching systematically through the streets for two blocks in each direction.
As he moved toward the next corner, preparing to head to the next quadrant of his search grid, the thought he had pushed firmly into the back of his mind finally forced its way into the open.
It was raining before. I know that. My feet’re still wet. We wouldn’t’ve parked this far away. If the car isn’t here, this isn’t where we were.
Another chill, unrelated to his damp clothing, swept over his body, and he unconsciously tugged his jacket tighter. His fingertips felt as icy as if he’d been outside in the depth of a New York winter without gloves. Starsky knew he was at least partly in shock, but instead of the unfocused, cotton-headed feeling he usually associated with shock, every sense he had seemed to be hyper alert.
If you have a partner, I haven’t seen him.
Dobey, get this drunk piece of shit out of here.
What a damn waste of a badge.
Starsky felt lost, adrift, afraid in a way he couldn’t remember being since the day he’d boarded the plane for Vietnam. That same sensation, of being dragged away from everything familiar and beloved by a power too strong to defy, settled with crushing force on his shoulders and tightened like iron across his chest.
Added to it was that hollow feeling of betrayal that had only become familiar to him once he was in country. He kept seeing Hutch’s mouth curl in distaste, the dismissive lift to his shoulder as he turned away.
And worst, a kind of vindictive triumph blazing in his eyes, as if Starsky had absolutely predictably fucked up, and Hutch was ready to savor the fallout.
No, goddammit! Cars don’t just vanish! People don’t just . . . Hutch wouldn’t . . .
He broke off. That was the thought he really couldn’t face. If Hutch wasn’t who he’d always been, then things like missing cars and weather that changed too fast and a skinny Dobey roughing him up didn’t mean a thing.
Gotta be one with the green, Davey boy.
Starsky’s head jerked and he glanced around involuntarily. For a second he could have sworn that quiet sentence had come from the shadows beside him instead of from the shadows of memory.
“I don’t need this,” he told the darkness. “I don’t have time for this.”
Can’t never trust what you see in a ville. Always be lookin’ behind what you think you see.
“Fuck off, Deacon,” Starsky muttered. “This ain’t Long Bihn.”
Nevertheless, when he paused at the next corner, he scanned the street carefully in all directions and even looked upward, checking the roofs and windows for any gleam of metal in the night. Part of him knew it was crazy, but the voice from the past had brought back instincts learned at such a price he’d never been able to entirely suppress them.
Being as one with the green.
Starsky knew what was happening to him. He was slipping back into the combat mindset. What in his outfit they’d called being as one with the green. The poetic sounding term had been used with ugly and bitter irony, but nevertheless all had recognized it as the only thing keeping them alive. Starsky’s smile was both nasty and reminiscent. It was Deacon who’d come up with that expression: skinny, quiet Deacon, who looked like a shaved hippy with his little round glasses and wispy red goatee, his nose always buried in a book of weird poetry or Eastern philosophy. A lot of the FNGs, especially the meathead ones, had thought putting Deacon down was a way to prove themselves. It sobered them up in a hurry when the guy they’d flattened with one punch turned out to be their lifeline to survival once they were away from the base. Deacon was part of the green. He could find his way along treacherous trails without compass or radio, had an uncanny nose for booby traps and ambushes, could speak to the locals in any one of a half dozen different dialects. The grunts with brains did what they could to imitate him. They learned, sometimes the hard way, that the green could be both ally and enemy. If you were as one with the green you accepted that you weren’t in Kansas any more.
Another quick scan of the roofs and Starsky slipped around the corner, setting his back against the wall. No sign of the Torino down this street either, and suddenly he was sure there wouldn’t be. He could look through the whole damn city and there wouldn’t be a candy-apple red Torino with a white stripe anywhere. No sandwiches sitting in the passenger’s wheel well, no coffee cups cooling between the seats.
I got Hutch extra sprouts and that funny tofu spread he likes. And he never even got to eat it.
The thought sent another shiver through him.
I will not believe this. Gotta find the Torino. Gotta get back home. It’ll be okay.
Hutch can’t hate me. I’ll die.
Even as the words came into his head, he laughed at the melodrama. But the laugh came out harsh and shaky, like glass fragments stuck in his throat. Recalling the cold contempt in those eyes and the harsh words thrown at him brought the disorienting feelings of betrayal and panic even closer to the surface.
Victor Charlie don’t raise no fools. Don’t be foolin’ your own self too.
“I know Hutch.” He hated the doubt and fear he could hear in his voice.
It ain’t just knowin’ about the green, kid. You gotta know ’bout you.
“I know Hutch,” Starsky repeated firmly. If there was bedrock anywhere in the world, it was in knowing Hutch. And that meant there was only one place to get answers.
Without another glance down the streets, Starsky retraced his steps toward the museum. Every step added another layer to the shell of chill and doubt growing up around him since the confrontation with Hutch, but he kept walking.
When you were as one with the green, you trusted only what you knew.
As he passed a phone booth, he slowed and then abruptly turned back. Digging through all his pockets, he managed to gather enough change, and then with a deep breath, dialed the squad room. It was almost a surprise when the connection went through; he’d more than half-expected the phone to reject his money.
"Metro, Carlsen speaking," an unfamiliar voice said.
"Sergeant Hutchinson, please."
“Sorry, there’s no Sergeant Hutchinson here.”
“Wait, wait, okay, how about Lieutenant Hutchinson?” Starsky held his breath.
The pause was so long that Starsky began to wonder if he’d been left on hold. Then the voice came back.
“Lieutenant’s off duty tonight. Can I transfer your call to someone else?”
“No.” Starsky swallowed hard. “Thanks. I’ll call tomorrow.”
It took three tries to fumble the receiver back into its cradle, and Starsky wasn’t sure how long afterward he stood looking down at his trembling hand. It had been on the tip of his tongue to ask to speak to Sergeant Starsky, and until he saw himself shaking he wasn’t honestly sure what he would have done if he’d heard his own voice coming back through the receiver at him.
Run screaming into the night, probably.
Remember, boy, things go dinky dau, the green can be on your side or Victor Charlie’s.
That was probably the real difference between the guys who were as one with the green and the ones who weren’t. The ones who tried to be—guys like Starsky—took it into their bones that nothing really made sense any more, and the only way to survive was to rely on your instincts and to never let your guard down. The other kind got sent home in body bags.
Trust what you know.
Five minutes later, Starsky was tucked in beside a dumpster near the mouth of an alley from which he could see both the museum’s front door and the side parking lot. He’d been careful to make sure his approach was not observed, slipping down a side street and scrambling over the fence at the end of the alley. Given the tone of what Dobey had said to him, he wouldn’t put it past the man to have him detained if he were spotted.
He settled himself on the ground, squirming into the most comfortable position he could find, tucking his hands into his jacket pockets. Patience had never been his strong point, but stakeouts he could do, no problem. He’d learned how to wait in a place far more dangerous than Bay City.
The green’s old, Davey boy. It takes its sweet time, and you learn to take it, too.
It had come as a shock to Starsky to find he didn’t lose those skills after he got DEROS’d. Somehow, he’d expected to be able to go back to being Dave Starsky, civilian, once the need to be as one with the green was gone, and it had rocked him to discover he’d lost that Dave Starsky somewhere in the vicinity of Long Binh. He’d come to terms with it eventually when he realized being as one with the green was another way of saying good cop instincts. He’d come to value that ability, even while struggling not to let it run his life. You couldn’t live totally in the green as a civilian, or you ended up like those crazy guys living under bridges and seeing Victor Charlie in every shadow.
Being as one with the green was what had always given him just that little edge over Hutch on the street. Hutch could think things through, but Starsky could feel them, like the ants that crawled over your skin when you lay in ambush, or the faint whiff of tobacco on the breeze that told you who was walking into that ambush.
The green’s any place Victor Charlie’s at home. You ain’t at home there too, your ass belongs to him.
Starsky leaned his head back against the rough metal of the dumpster and closed his eyes. He wasn’t going to think. He wasn’t going to speculate. He wasn’t going to drive himself crazy with “what ifs.” He was going to watch and pay attention, and use the information he collected.
Whole different kinda green here, Deacon. Sure hope I remember all that shit you taught me.
As the evening wore on, fewer people climbed the stairs into the museum, and gradually small groups and couples began to drift out. Though the night wasn’t cold, Starsky felt himself slowly but surely stiffening up from a combination of damp clothes and the bare brick behind him. He shifted position as often as he could, moving slowly and smoothly to avoid disturbing the shadows shielding him, but still the ache building in his chest and legs couldn’t be denied. He didn’t waste any energy cursing Gunther and his hitmen; he’d done that often enough in the past two years.
The Cadillac and Dobey were clearly visible from Starsky’s hiding place. Starsky found some snide amusement in observing that Dobey didn’t have nearly as much patience as he did. The older man would sit for a few minutes trying to read some sort of a magazine by the car’s interior light, then toss it aside with a grimace of annoyance and get out to pace around the car for a while, only to repeat the whole performance again. The first time he pulled out a cigarette and lit it, Starsky felt his eyes widen in disbelief. Part of the reason Hutch had stopped smoking years before was because of Dobey’s disapproval of the habit.
At around ten-thirty, a tall, beautiful brunette pushed her way through the doors and paused at the top of the stairs, her head falling back as she took a deep breath. If Starsky hadn’t been so numb, he probably would have betrayed his position then and there.
Vanessa Hutchinson took another deep breath and rolled her shoulders back and forth, a movement that somehow didn’t fit with the sophisticated emerald green sheath and classic jewelry she wore. As she took a step toward the stairs, the toe of one sandal tangled with the other and she stumbled slightly, almost staggering before she recovered her balance. Watching her descend the stairs one careful step after another, Starsky shook his head.
Vanessa was drunk.
It wouldn’t have been obvious to a casual observer: high heels, a tight skirt and steps just a little too wide for a comfortable stride would make most women move cautiously. But Starsky had years of experience dealing with drunks. He was familiar with that rigid stance and the exaggerated care to move steadily. Vanessa was drunk, and an experienced drunk at that.
By the time Vanessa reached the bottom of the stairs, her steps were noticeably wobbling. She stopped twice before she made it to the car, breathing deeply and steadying herself. Dobey, who had been leaning on the hood smoking again, pushed himself erect and strolled to the back to open the door for her, moving slowly enough to make his lack of respect obvious. Vanessa said something Starsky couldn’t hear, but Dobey’s nasty bark of laughter was clearly audible. He stood watching with a smirk as she half-fell into the car, making no effort to help her, and slammed the door quickly enough that a scrap of green cloth was caught in the door.
For a moment Starsky felt tempted to follow as the big car pulled out of the lot, but he squelched it. Vanessa wasn’t important.
Oh, yeah? She’s dead, y’know. You saw her body—hell, you felt for her pulse because you were sure Hutch was too freaked to do it right. She’s dead.
Yeah, and Dobey ain’t skinny and Hutch doesn’t own a thousand dollar suit and I’m not crazy, so what the fuck. I’m waitin’ for Hutch.
Trust what you know.
He settled back, daring to shift and stretch more vigorously now that the danger of being spotted from across the street was gone.
More and more people were leaving now, standing chatting on the sidewalk as they waited for cars to pull up or hailing the cabs cruising by in hopes of picking up a fare. Starsky’s attention was caught suddenly by a gleam of blond hair at the rear of a group of men emerging from the building. They were all talking intently as they descended the stairs, paying little attention to the people around them.
He fits right in there. Suit like that, and his haircut—is this what Hutch would’ve been like if he hadn’t left home?
One of the men gestured, obviously offering Hutch a ride, but Hutch shook his head in refusal. As the other men moved toward the parking lot, Hutch stepped into the street, raising his hand to flag down a taxi.
Starsky was on his feet in an instant, all aches and stiffness forgotten. At a hobbling run, he made his way back to the end of the alley and the other reason he’d chosen this particular spot to hide. On a little patio behind the store on the other side of the fence sat a rusting VW bug with unlocked doors. Starsky shoved the driver’s seat back as far as it would go and fumbled with the wires under the steering column.
For a moment there was no response.
“C’mon, baby, be nice,” he muttered. “Can’t have picked the only damn car around with an empty tank.”
The bug sputtered once, fell silent, then suddenly came to life with a rattling wheeze.
“That’s it, sweetheart. Put out for daddy.” Starsky gently nudged the choke and gave a triumphant whoop as the rattling evened out to a steady purr. There was no time to let the engine warm up. Shifting into first gear and playing with the choke, clutch and gas, he nursed the little car out to the street and hung a left.
He pulled up to the main road intersection just in time to see a cab swing to a stop at the curb beside Hutch. Starsky sighed with relief as the blond climbed in without looking around, and the cab merged smoothly back into traffic. Starsky pulled out and followed.
Traffic in the museum area was steady for the time of night, and Starsky melted into the flow without a hitch. The cab moved sedately, signaling turns politely and keeping close enough to the speed limit. The driver appeared to have no idea he was being followed, and despite his disdain for the little rust bucket he was driving, Starsky gave an approving pat to the dashboard.
Nobody would ever look for a tail in a Volkswagen.
Things were going so well, Starsky almost instinctively prepared to make the turn toward Venice when they reached it and had to cut back sharply across a lane as the cab sailed past without slowing down.
Dumb ass. Guy who wears a suit like that won’t be livin’ in Venice Place.
As the little convoy moved toward the wealthier sections of town, traffic thinned out a bit and the cab speeded up. Starsky fell behind, and tried to coax a little extra power out of the reluctant bug with more dashboard pats. In this area the VW was more conspicuous, and he was caught between the risks of losing his quarry and being spotted. Luckily for him, both Hutch and the driver still seemed oblivious to their scrappy little shadow. Starsky shook his head with disgust.
Hutch should’ve spotted me by now. My Hutch woulda spotted me.
Just as Starsky was beginning to wonder how much longer he could keep up, the cab made a sudden turn into the drive leading through a garden courtyard up to an apartment complex. Starsky felt a stab of recognition as he drove by the sign. Bay City Gardens was an upscale condo development, quietly notorious as a place where wealthy men stashed their girlfriends away from the prying eyes of wives and families. There had been more than one hushed-up complaint from there—calls made between influential offices, charges suddenly dropped and witnesses developing faulty memories.
Starsky pulled the VW to the curb past the entrance to the complex and let it sputter into silence. With a final pat to the dashboard, he slipped out, holding the door so it closed with a barely audible snick. He ran into the courtyard and threw himself behind the tangle of shrubbery forming an ornamental barrier all around the perimeter, thanking every piece of luck he had that the vegetation was there as the cab turned and its headlights lit up where he had been standing a second before. In the backwash of light, he saw Hutch’s tall frame heading up the outside stairs to the second floor.
The buildings around the central court were all connected by second floor balconies. There was a staircase only a few feet away, and Starsky crept up, hoping to be able to get a better view of where Hutch was going. As his head emerged from the stairwell, he saw Hutch walking toward him and froze. This end of the building was in shadow, but there was still no way Hutch could miss him if he came much further. There was no cover on the balcony itself, and if he dived back down the stairs Hutch would spot the movement even if he didn’t recognize who it was. The thought of having this strange Hutch chase him through the shadowed courtyard brought out cold sweat on Starsky’s back.
Up ahead of him, Hutch paused at a door. The night was quiet enough that Starsky could hear a jingle of keys. The door opened a few inches and then stopped. Hutch pushed the door again, and then rattled it sharply.
“Open the damn door.” Though he kept his voice was low, it was impossible to mistake the annoyance in it.
Vanessa locked ya out, huh, buddy? More things change, more they stay the same.
Expecting the beginning of a shouting match through the partly opened door, he was surprised when there was movement inside the apartment, and then the door swung completely open. He caught a half-glimpse of a woman’s arm draped in a blue negligee.
“Why the hell did you put the chain on?” Hutch snapped.
“Well, hi there, handsome.” Starsky’s eyes widened at the familiar soft southern drawl. Sweet Alice? “Wasn’t expectin’ you tonight. Thought you and the little woman were puttin’ on the solid citizen act.”
The flat crack of flesh on flesh echoed along the balcony. The blow was so quick and casual that Starsky didn’t even register the movement until he saw Alice fall against the doorframe, one hand to her cheek.
“You know, sweetness, there really is only one thing your mouth is good for.” Hutch’s voice held that same chilly indifference and contempt that he had used on Starsky earlier. He grabbed the girl’s shoulder and shoved her back into the apartment, slamming the door behind him.
Starsky wasn’t even conscious of moving until his shoulder hit the door. Despite the building’s expensive reputation, the construction was cheap: the door tore out of the jamb like a piece of wet cardboard, and Starsky catapulted into a small foyer, with only a split second to be grateful Hutch hadn’t had a chance to put the chain back on. Hutch and Sweet Alice stood frozen, looking back at Starsky in astonishment. Hutch was gripping the girl’s shoulder with one hand, and the other was raised as if Starsky’s entrance had interrupted another slap.
“What the fuck—” Hutch let go of Alice, and took a half step forward, the amazement on his face darkening into fury.
Starsky hit him twice—right to the gut, left to the chin as he folded from the first blow—and Hutch went down, eyes rolling back in his head, and lay motionless.
Starsky stood poised over him, panting, adrenaline flooding him, so wired that it only gradually dawned on him that Hutch wasn’t moving. He stepped back, waiting for the attack, for the other man to attempt to sweep his feet out from under him, or roll over and lunge.
What the hell? There’s no way I can take Hutch out with just two punches!
He was concentrating so fiercely on Hutch that Alice almost took him by surprise. The flash of blue at the edge of his vision was all the warning he had, barely enough for him to get one arm up to keep Alice’s fingernails out of his eyes.
“You bastard!” she shrieked and ripped at his arm, raising bloody scratches along his wrist. Her other hand pounded at his chest and shoulder. “Bastard!”
“Shit!” Starsky shoved her away hard enough to send her stumbling to the floor. She scrambled backwards, eyes wild, almost hissing at him in her rage. When her flailing hand hit Hutch’s body, she rolled over, fumbling at his head and shoulders.
“Ken! Kenny!” She patted at his face, ran her hands down over his chest. “Wake up, baby! Please!” She was sobbing now, harsh wet little sounds of rage and fear.
Starsky backed away, sucking at the blood on his hand. Watching Alice was repellent, like watching a damaged animal groveling over its injured master. Disgust and pity warred inside him. Steeling himself, he stepped forward to put a hand on Alice’s shoulder and pull her away.
Alice writhed away like a wounded weasel and came up on her knees, a gun in her hands.
Goddamn stupid, Starsky. That’s why she was all over him.
The only thing that saved him was her unfamiliarity with the big weapon. As she fumbled with the safety on the gun, Starsky lunged and kicked it out of her hand. Alice screamed and fell back, curling up into a ball and shielding her head with her arms.
“What the fuck’s the matter with you?” Starsky roared. “He punches you out, and you try to shoot me? You nuts?” He snatched the gun off the floor and snapped the safety back on. He nearly shoved it in his waistband, then remembering the wild look on Alice’s face, he popped the magazine. That went into his pocket.
The foyer was open to the living room, and the kitchen beyond it. There were three closed doors leading off the living room, and the second one he tried was the bathroom.
Starsky dropped the empty gun unceremoniously into the toilet bowl.
Alice was still huddled on the floor in the foyer. She had pulled herself close to Hutch again and was awkwardly stroking his face and hair, sobbing softly. As Starsky approached she looked up at him, fear and anger struggling on her face, with fear gradually winning out.
“Come on, Alice,” he said gently. “Get up. I won’t hurt you. Just don’t come at me again, okay?”
Starsky watched her expression change again. The tears stopped as if by magic, to be replaced by an expression of sultry seductiveness that Starsky had only ever seen directed toward Hutch.
“Sure, Starsky. You won’t need to hurt me. I’ll be good to you—you know I will. You just scared me. Don’t be mad, sugar.” The honey-sweet drawl promised carnal rewards to tempt any man.
Starsky swallowed. Sweet Alice had never turned the charm on him before—all her attention had always been for his partner—and he found himself wondering how the hell Hutch had ever been able to resist her. Even knowing what she was doing didn’t lessen its effect.
“Go sit down a minute,” he said stiffly. “I need to check on him.” He gestured toward the man on the floor, unable to actually call him “Hutch” out loud. In fact, he suddenly couldn’t even think the name in connection with what he had seen here.
Hutchinson still hadn’t moved. Starsky leaned down and found the pulse at his throat, strong and steady. There was no reaction to his touch. He crouched down over the unconscious man and for the first time had the chance to really look at him. The hair was the same shade of sunlit gold, but confined in the expensive haircut, it looked less natural. Starsky thought of how many times he’d ruffled Hutch’s hair, and grimaced. He couldn’t imagine running his fingers through that . . . hairstyle.
There were hard lines around the eyes that his Hutch had never developed, despite the toll their years on the street had taken. And the mouth—there was cruelty there, and petulance too. Starsky shook his head despairingly. His Hutch could be cranky, with a sense of humor that sometimes drew blood. But always, underneath everything else, decent and fair. This mouth . . . Starsky shivered. It was the mouth of a child who enjoyed pulling wings off flies.
And had never been smacked for doing it.
None of Hutch’s strength and gentleness here. None of the compassion and integrity that made him so vulnerable and yet so effective as a cop.
Starsky stood up, fighting the urge to wipe his hands on his jeans.
Not my Hutch.
The sense of relief he felt was enough to make him giddy. A weight he hadn’t even realized was there slipped from his heart.
Whatever else is fucked up, this isn’t my Hutch. Thank you, God.
Starsky felt lighter and stronger than he had since the moment he had returned to the museum foyer. Maybe he was in the Twilight Zone, but even just knowing that much for certain was more of an anchor than he’d had all night.
Now all I have to do is figure out where the hell I am, and how to get home.
Alice had curled up in one of the armchairs in the living room, pulling her legs up under her. Her robe was open just enough to give Starsky a tantalizing glimpse of curves, and when she saw him looking in her direction she shimmied her shoulders slightly so that it revealed even more. He looked away. Tempting, yes, but the same way a poisoned apple could be tempting. Remembering her eyes looking at him over the gun barrel, he knew if the balance of power shifted again he wouldn’t get away unharmed.
In the kitchen, he ran cold water over the scratches on his hand and then checked the icebox. It was nearly empty, except for a couple of bottles of champagne—bet he keeps her in the good stuff—and a few condiments. In the freezer were a bottle of vodka and several trays of ice cubes. Starsky knocked a few cubes into a dishtowel and took it back out to Alice.
“Put that on your eye. You’re gonna have a shiner there. And get your stuff together.”
“What do you mean, get my stuff together?” Alice looked up at him, wide-eyed, fear once more in her face. “You can’t make me go anywhere. This is my place. I haven’t done anything.”
“You can’t stay here,” Starsky said patiently. “He hit you. There’s one of those women’s shelters—”
Alice began to laugh, an ice-edged laugh that made Starsky’s skin crawl. She sat up straight, pulling the robe around her, meeting his eyes with a cool closed-off gaze. All the seductive coquettishness she had been displaying vanished in a heartbeat, and Starsky knew he was finally seeing the real Alice.
“You want to take me to a fucking shelter? Put me in some flophouse with a bunch of loser broads and their screaming kids and do-gooder dykes all over the place telling me how ‘oppressed’ I am?” She shook her head. “No way. This is my place.”
“He hit you,” Starsky repeated. “You’re going to just . . . take it?”
“Look around.” Alice made a sweeping gesture with her hand. “This is my place. That picture on the wall is an original. So is that.” She pointed to a small oriental rug under the coffee table. “I sleep in silk sheets. He gives me jewelry and takes me to the best restaurants in the city, and any time I want a dress or shoes all I have to do is send Ken the bill.” She shook her head with a wry little smile. “What’s a slap or two between friends?”
Starsky sighed, feeling a sense of grief that surprised him. “You know,” he said almost to himself, “the Sweet Alice I knew was a hooker, but she wasn’t a whore.”
Alice heard him, and laughed that cold laugh again. “Call it what you want, it beats all hell out of peddling my ass for Belle Kates down on Chandler Street. Or going down on my knees for you in the alley back of some taco dive.”
“For me,” Starsky repeated. “Alice, I wouldn’t—”
“Oh, sure, now you wouldn’t. Now that I’ve got somebody to look after me. But I remember the old days, don’t think for a minute I don’t. Ken got me out of that and away from all of you pigs that think you can get your freebies from a working girl.”
Starsky shook his head and walked slowly back out to the foyer. Standing over Hutchinson, he felt that grief once more, only far more deeply.
What kind of a place is this? Who are these people?
“He’ll kill you.” Alice came to stand beside him. The satisfaction and anticipation in her voice made Starsky’s skin crawl. The ugly gloating on her face stripped her of all beauty.
“Better not let him catch you looking like that. He might wonder if he shouldn’t trade you in for somebody safer.”
“He’ll kill you,” Alice repeated venomously. “And he’ll let me watch.”
What’s she getting off on more? The idea of me getting hurt—or him getting hurt without her having to do anything about it?
“Him? Kill me?” Starsky nudged the unconscious man with his toe. “Sister, you gotta be kiddin’ me.”
Without another glance at either of them, Starsky headed out the door into the night. He felt the hair on the back of his neck trying to stand up and was extremely glad he’d thought to dump the gun in the john. By the time anybody got that piece dried off enough to use again, he’d be long gone.
Preferably somewhere I can soak in bleach.
The VW was still sitting by the curb where he’d left it. Sliding into the driver’s seat, he leaned his head back against the cushion. He felt limp with exhaustion and yet so tense he could feel his nerves humming with static electricity. When he closed his eyes, he couldn’t stop seeing that . . . that travesty of Hutch.
He sighed, once and then again. The need to have his own Hutch beside him was close to a physical ache.
“Oh, Jesus, babe, I gotta get home. Hutch? Tell me how to get home?”
There’s only two ways back from the green, Davey boy. You go out smart or you go out dead.
Isn’t this fucking rain ever going to end?
Hutch shook his head, sending water droplets flying, and tried to wipe his eyes against a hunched shoulder. The downpour of earlier in the evening had tapered off to a mere drizzle, which was probably something to be thankful for. There was still no power and the only light on the street came from the flashers on two black and whites and Dobey’s car. Sparks of red and blue reflected off the wet pavement and turned the falling rain into curtains of jewels that broke apart and spilled into the gutter.
He winced as he hefted the box of papers he carried into the already crammed trunk of Dobey’s car. Straightening up, he put a hand to his lower back and stretched carefully, biting down on a curse as a wave of pain spread outward from his spine.
Starsky would already have his hand there, in just the right place. He’d probably make a joke about buying me one of those Obus cushions for my chair, too. And when we got off duty, he’d give me a back rub and make me sleep with that stupid heating pad he claims he got for the cramps in his chest. But I know he bought it partly for my backaches. Did I ever tell him how much I appreciated it?
Hutch cut that thought off. “What ifs” and “should have dones” were deadly for a cop.
Especially for one who feels the way I do about his partner.
“Are you unwell, Detective?”
Deschênes’ voice startled him, and he whirled to face her, only barely managing to catch himself as he skidded on the wet pavement and slammed the trunk lid down with one flailing arm. Deschênes made a grab for his elbow and steadied him.
“Detective?” There was definite concern in her voice.
“I’m okay.” Hutch managed a smile for her, thankful the darkness hid the heat in his face. “It’s been a long day.”
“And the night will be longer, yes?” She patted him awkwardly on the shoulder. “Be of good courage. I heard one of the patrolmen say that your partner has, what was it, ‘brass balls’?”
Hutch nodded. “He does. Big time.”
Deschênes looked puzzled, then shook her head. “Faith and hope and courage have not failed you yet. Do not abandon them now.”
“Thank you.” The unexpected kindness brought a lump to his throat. “Look, if I was outta line before—”
“You were a brute and a pig,” she interrupted cheerily. “And my manners were those of the female dog, so we shall consider ourselves even, no?”
Hutch was startled into a laugh. At the moment, Deschênes looked very much like a skinny, drenched owl, with her round glasses reflecting the alternating red and blue glow of the Mars lights, and the dancing shadows accentuating the strong nose and chin. Not precisely an attractive woman, but with enough intelligence and character to make up for a lot of physical shortfalls.
A few years ago, Starsky and I would have fallen all over ourselves to try and impress her.
Or maybe not. How often did the two of us pay attention to anything more than a girl’s looks? Did the girls even matter, compared to putting one over on each other?
Would’ve been nice if I could’ve grown up without Starsky damn near dying first.
Out loud, Hutch said, “Deal. We’ve all had a rough night.”
Before Deschênes could respond, Dobey’s voice came from the other side of the car.
“Get the door, Hutch.” He was puffing slightly as he balanced two boxes against the side of the car, trying to shield the contents from the rain with a precariously draped garbage bag.
Deschênes made a sound of annoyance and darted around the vehicle, yanking the door open and heaving the cartons out of Dobey’s arms and into the shelter of the car. She brushed away stray raindrops, tucking the garbage bag around them the way Hutch had seen mothers tucking in sick children.
The gentleness didn’t extend to Dobey.
“Is it too much to hope we could finish this without reducing all our records to mulch?” she snapped, straightening up to fix him with a glare.
“That’s the last of them, Doctor.” Dobey swiped a hand over his face and hair, trying to clear away some of the water running into his collar. “We can unload in the garage at the station.”
Deschênes rolled her eyes. “I still do not understand why this could not have been done here—oh, never mind. Are some of your men remaining inside?”
“Yes, the forensics technicians are still examining the storerooms. We’ve called the supervisor from the security company, and he’ll be overseeing the search.”
“Why do I feel no slightest reassurance?” Deschênes adjusted her glasses. “I have contacted Dr. Whiting, our chief curator. He is immediately coming to take charge, and ensure no heavy official foot damages something priceless. I will accompany you, Captain.”
“You’re coming with us?” Dobey said in surprise. “We could be at this all night.”
“But of certainty I will come. Part of my responsibility here is to ensure the cataloguing of all new acquisitions. If anything is wrong with the shipping records, I shall know. And I also am familiar with many of our field people. I know their habits, their idiosyncrasies.” She grinned. “I can decipher their handwriting.”
Dobey glanced at Hutch, who shrugged. “If the good doctor wants to help, we need all we can get tonight. And besides,” he summoned up a shade of a smile himself, “if we keep her busy at Metro she won’t be siccing the museum’s lawyer on us.”
Deschênes looked at him over her glasses. “I can do that from the gendarmerie just as well as from here, if need be.”
“In that case, Doctor . . . “ Dobey opened the passenger door. Deschênes shook herself violently, spraying water in all directions, and then slipped into the seat.
Dobey looked over at Hutch. “We’ll meet you at the station.”
Hutch shook his head. “I’m going to Huggy’s first. Get him to put the word out on the streets.”
“The only word Huggy will be putting out tonight is for seating space on the ark.” Dobey shrugged. “Go on. Huggy’s your best shot.”
After Dobey and Deschênes drove away, Hutch trudged back around the corner to where the Torino waited. He hesitated for a long moment with his hand on the door handle, unable to actually go through with opening the door. It felt like treason, as if getting into the driver’s seat would be the final confirmation that Starsky was truly gone.
When he finally pulled the door open, the smell of stale coffee and sandwiches nearly turned his stomach. His knees gave out, and he collapsed into the driver’s seat, feeling himself start to shake. He leaned back, turning his face into the seat, closing his eyes, breathing deeply as if there might be a remnant there, a few molecules of Starsky left behind to draw into his bloodstream.
Hutch was dreaming, and he knew it. He also knew he couldn’t waste time on sleep, but was unable to pull himself awake. He stood in his bathroom, naked, his arms around Starsky, his chin resting on Starsky’s naked shoulder. Starsky’s head leaned back against Hutch’s shoulder, and Hutch’s arms were around Starsky’s waist. In the waking world, he’d never felt Starsky’s body pressed against him completely nude, but as sometimes happened in dreams the touch was familiar, as if they’d done this a thousand times before. Starsky’s buttocks fit perfectly against his groin, and his hands came up to cover Hutch’s elbows and pull them even closer together.
Starsky’s eyes met his in the mirror, and the look of satisfaction and contentment they exchanged made Hutch’s heart jump. His struggle to wake lessened. The temptation to savor Starsky’s touch, Starsky’s happiness in his arms for just a few more seconds was irresistible.
Even when the reflection appeared behind them, Hutch couldn’t rouse himself. The man looking over his shoulder in the mirror was familiar, but it took a second for Hutch to realize he was looking at himself, at a double reflection.
“But that’s not really me,” he thought fuzzily. “I’m already here.”
The figure behind him raised one arm, and Hutch realized in horror that the second reflection of him had a knife in his hand. He tried to move, tried to raise his own arm to deflect the blow, or at least twist aside so the knife would hit him instead of Starsky, but he was paralyzed. The arm reached around his chest and the knife swiped casually across Starsky’s throat.
The mirror blurred into a bright red curtain.
Behind him he heard his own voice, gloating and hard.
“He’s on my side now. He’s not coming back.”
Hutch jerked upright, banging his forehead on the Torino’s window hard enough to bring tears to his eyes, arms and legs flailing, bruising against the steering wheel and gearshift. His breath came in desperate pants, as if he’d run for miles.
Slowly, reality came back: the burble and splash of rain, the darkness outside the windows broken only by the flashers from the patrol cars. The memory of what had happened that night.
Starsky’s blood hazing the bathroom mirror.
“What the fuck was that?” Hutch didn’t realize he’d spoken aloud until he heard his voice cracking like a teenager’s on the last word.
He ran his hands down over his face, realizing he was soaked again, this time with sweat, not rain. He was clammy and shivering, acid rising up in his throat. With a moan, he pushed the door open and practically threw himself out to stand in the rain, welcoming the chilly beat of water on his face and hair. He ripped off his jacket and let the rain soak into his clothes, trying to rinse away the sensation of wrongness that seemed to ooze from his skin.
By the time Hutch got back into the car, he was drenched. He made a half-hearted effort to wring out his shirt, and then gave it up. Nothing except a complete change was going to do any good. He was still shaking, but at least most of it was from cold and not bone-deep terror.
“What the fuck was that?” he repeated softly. No nightmare, no hangover, not even the floating dreams induced by heroin had ever been so vivid, so real.
Something’s wrong. I can feel it.
He took a deep breath and said out loud, feeling foolish, “Starsk? Can you hear me? Hang on, buddy. Just hang on. I’m coming for you.”
The drive to Huggy’s was a nightmare in more ways than one. Before he put the key into the ignition, Hutch should have adjusted the mirrors and pushed the seat all the way back to accommodate his longer legs. He did neither. In a totally irrational way it was a comfort to drive in the slightly awkward position required to keep everything set for Starsky’s convenience. Most areas were still without power, so there was nothing except the Torino’s headlights to lead the way through the rain-drenched dark. Some streets were just flat-out flooded, and the lack of light meant there was no way to tell how deep the water was. Halfway down Wilson Road, Hutch realized he was driving into a pool deeper than the hubcaps, and he ended up having to back up for almost two blocks before he found a safe place to turn around.
By the time he pulled up at Huggy’s back door, his hands were cramped from his tight grip on the wheel, his head was throbbing full throttle again and he was shivering uncontrollably.
As he pushed open the alley door, Hutch was greeted by familiar noises and smells of food that made him think here at least was an oasis of normality in a night of insanity. When his eyes adjusted to the dimness, he realized normality was definitely on vacation here, too. The interior of the Pits looked like a cross between a soup kitchen and a refugee camp. In the light from a few strategically placed kerosene lanterns, he could see the restaurant was packed with people. Many wore pajamas under their coats, and a few huddled protectively over odd bundles beside them. Children, maybe a couple of dozen, Hutch guessed, clung tightly to their parents; a half dozen teenagers clustered near the silent jukebox. The whole place had a somber, subdued air, and more than one person sobbed softly.
“Hey, Anita, how’s those sandwiches comin’?” Huggy’s voice called from near the front.
“Hold your shorts, Huggy Bear. Give us another minute back here,” a frazzled sounding voice responded from the kitchen.
Hutch made his way through the crowd as carefully as possible, stepping around more bundles on the floor and once even a baby’s bassinet. Huggy and one of his cooks, both swaddled in bright yellow rain suits, were in the process of carrying a huge soup pot out the door. He caught up to them just in time to hear Huggy say, “Careful, LeRon,” in a warning tone. “Watch that step. That’s five gallons of Mama Bear’s best chicken soup we got here. Don’t be trippin’ over your own big feet. ’Bout damn time you got here, golden boy,” he added over his shoulder.
Hutch opened his mouth and a hand tapped his shoulder. He turned and had a box shoved into his arms.
“Here, Hutch, make your blond self useful and take these out to the van.” Anita pushed a wisp of hair from her forehead with the back of her hand. “And tell LeRon to drive careful: they’re just now sayin’ on the radio there’s power lines down all over the road.” Before he could try to get a sentence out, she gave him a slight shove. “Don’t just stand there lookin’ pretty. We got two more deliveries to make.”
With a helpless shrug Hutch hefted the box, which was filled to the brim with wrapped sandwiches, and followed the path of the soup pot. Outside the front door stood a battered van, and Huggy and LeRon were carefully arranging the pot in the front passenger seat and fastening the seat belt around it.
“That oughta hold ’er,” Huggy said in satisfaction. “Tell Father Matthew there’ll be another pot on the way when the van comes back. And don’t be drivin’ like a fool, LeRon.” He turned, grabbed the box from Hutch and maneuvered it into the back seat. “Go on, boy. Huggy Bear Express rides again.”
LeRon nodded without a word, climbing into the driver’s seat. The van coughed and sputtered and lurched off into the night.
Huggy turned to Hutch. “C’mon, let’s get inside.” He did an exaggerated double take. “Not that you standin’ out here would make any difference. White boys don’t have the sense to come in out of the rain no more?”
He gripped Hutch’s arm and urged him back into the entranceway. It wasn’t until Huggy shut the door behind them that Hutch realized it had been pouring rain again, and he was once more completely drenched. Water squelched in his shoes with every step, running down his pant legs and his back in chilly streams.
Huggy halted and fixed Hutch with an unfriendly look. “So you finally found some time for this part of town? Not that I don’t welcome a visit from my brothers in blue n’all, but pretty well everything’s over now but the shoutin’.”
Hutch shook his head in frustration. “Hug, what the hell’s going on here? Who are all these people?”
Huggy’s face was unusually grim. “You didn’t hear?”
Hutch shook his head again.
“You ’member them firetrap apartments up on Brady Street?”
Hutch felt something go cold deep inside him. “The place where Sweet Alice lives?”
Huggy nodded. “Well, they ain’t a firetrap no more.”
“Jesus,” Hutch breathed. “How bad?”
“Three dead, ’bout a dozen in the hospital, and another dozen that would be if the emergency room wasn’t stacked up three deep already. Everybody else was damn lucky to get out. Father Matthew took in as many as he could up at Our Lady, but there’s no food there. So, Huggy Bear’s caterin’ service to the rescue.” He waved his hand around. “We at least still got gas for cookin’.”
Huggy jerked a thumb towards the kitchen. “She’s got some burns, but she wouldn’t stay at the hospital. She’s tryin’ t’help out.” For the first time, his eyes seemed to focus completely on Hutch. “Hey, bro, you lookin’ rough. What’s happenin’? And where’s—” He broke off. “Ah, man, don’t be tellin’ the Bear there’s more trouble tonight.”
Hutch nodded, a lump closing his throat.
“Starsky’s—” he couldn’t continue and closed his eyes. “Starsky’s disappeared,” he finally managed to get out.
“Couldn’t say it better myself,” Hutch replied. He shivered violently as more water dripped down from the ends of his hair, sliding inside his shirt collar and down his spine.
“C’mon.” Huggy took hold of his arm again and pulled him towards the corner of the bar, where two men sat on a box crammed into the angle between the bar and the wall.
Huggy made a shooing motion with one hand. “Jimmy, Lucas, I’ll ask you two to park it somewhere else for now. Sergeant Hutchinson and I need some privacy to converse.”
The older man rose slowly, wincing a little, but the younger leaned back against the wall and crossed his legs, looking up at Huggy with a half-sneer.
“You kickin’ us out for the ofay, Huggy? Seems you ain’t sparin’ much room for the brothers tonight.”
“Lucas, this is a bad night and it’s gonna get worse and I ain’t in the mood for any ’a your black power shit. Unless somebody changed the name on the sign, it’s my bar, and that means I make the rules. Now move your black ass!”
“Hug, don’t—” Hutch tried to break in, only to have Huggy cut him off.
“’N you be quiet! Looks of you, you’ve had a worse night than both these two put together. Now move it!” Huggy barked.
“Yassuh, massa Huggy. Us boys just be movin’ right along.” Lucas got his feet with exaggerated alacrity and waved his arm with a flourish to indicate Hutch should take the seat.
Jimmy rolled his eyes, and tugged at Lucas’ shoulder. “C’mon, blood, you know Starsky n’ Hutch. They tight with Huggy, and they play fair.”
Lucas sneered again. “Yeah, ol’ Huggy does fine for himself with a pair a’ tame cops to back his play.”
Hutch had had enough.
“Hug, do you want me to step outside so you can deal with these gentlemen without interference from your ‘tame cop’?”
“There ain’t nothin’ to handle.” Huggy’s voice lowered and lost all trace of its street accent. “There’s a time and a place, and tonight isn’t it. I’ve got more important things to worry about than how to deal with some black power wannabe. You do not want to get on my bad side, Lucas Train. Not tonight.”
The two locked eyes for a long moment, and Hutch was beginning to wonder if he really did need to step in when the kid finally looked away and backed down. His “some other night, then” was surly, but obviously more for show than any real threat. Behind him, Jimmy rolled his eyes and shrugged apologetically. The two retreated, Lucas swaggering over to the group by the jukebox and throwing the occasional glare back at Hutch and Huggy.
Huggy turned his back and gave Hutch a slight push.
“Go on, sit.” He grinned. “Since I went to all that trouble.”
Hutch sank down on the box, feeling exhaustion swamp him once more. Closing his eyes, he leaned his head back against the wall.
The memory of the dream came back, vivid and clear as if he were experiencing it again. Starsky nestled contentedly in his arms, soft curls brushing his cheek, displaying no trace of shyness or discomfort. He’d fantasized such a scene so often, but this had a ring of truth much deeper than any erotic dream. He’d felt Starsky, hell, he’d smelled him.
And he’d seen that other version of himself.
To his surprise, even though he’d seen it for only a fraction of a second in a mirror in a dream, his other face was crystal clear in his mind.
Cold. Spoiled. Scarred with entitlement and dissatisfaction.
Oh, yeah. Seen faces like that in jail every day. Punks that think the world owes them a living. Hurt for the fun of it. Destroy what they can’t steal. Nice to know my subconscious thinks that much of me.
“Hey.” Huggy’s voice pulled him suddenly from his thoughts. Hutch’s eyelids creaked up like a rusty garage door. Huggy was holding out a towel in one hand and a glass half full of some dark liquid in the other. “Can’t tell right now which you need more.”
Hutch looked down at the glass with a feeling of nausea. “I better not, Hug. I haven’t eaten all day.”
“Well, that’s one thing I can fix.” He dropped the towel into Hutch’s lap, set the liquor down on the bar and vanished into the kitchen. By the time Hutch had gotten up the energy to rub the towel over his head and down inside his collar a few times, Huggy was back, stripped out of the rain suit, wearing the tamest jeans and sweatshirt Hutch had ever seen him in. He deposited a tray with a bowl of soup, a sandwich and a glass of milk in front of Hutch, and then plopped himself down cross-legged, claiming the glass of liquor for himself.
“Eat up and bend my ear.”
The first spoonful of soup nearly stuck in his throat, but once it hit his empty stomach, Hutch suddenly realized how ravenous he was. Between bites and slurps, he told Huggy the story, pausing only when Huggy rose to get him a second sandwich and more milk.
When he finished, Huggy shook his head.
“Can’t see it, Hutch. There’s no word out on the street about anybody gunnin’ for Starsky, for either of you. Gotta tell ya, since Gunther took the fall, lotsa folks think you two got Teflon armor, y’dig? Bullets bounce off and you leap tall tycoons in a single bound. Somebody that big couldn’t take you down, what chance does your average scofflaw have?”
Hutch rubbed his eyes. “That’s even worse. It means it’s somebody flying under the radar, somebody we can’t anticipate at all.”
“Or like you said, it’s something about the museum, and Starsky just got caught by accident.”
Hutch put the soupspoon down. “Can you check it out for me, Huggy?” He waved his hand toward the darkened crowded bar. “I know it’s a bad time—”
“When hasn’t it been a bad time?” Huggy shook his head. “You’n’me and Starsky go back far enough, you don’t need to ask. Let me make a few calls.” He paused. “Assumin’ the phone company isn’t as fucked up as everything else tonight.”
“Do what you can.” Hutch leaned back against the wall again. “I keep thinking if only I weren’t so damn tired, I could think what it is I’m not seeing.”
“Huggy?” A soft lilting voice came from the other side of the bar. “Anita wants to know—oh, hi, Handsome Hutch. What brings you down here tonight?”
Hutch looked up. Without fancy clothes or a trace of makeup, Sweet Alice looked both younger and wearier than Hutch had ever seen her. She was wearing a baggy sweater and pants obviously borrowed from somebody much taller, the cuffs rolled up over and over to keep from dragging. Her left arm was bandaged from knuckles to elbow, and a multicolored scarf completely covered her hair, but the smile she always had for him, while a bit strained, was as sweet as ever.
Hutch set the tray aside and rose, taking her hand and gently kissing the fingertips below the bandage. “Are you all right, sweetheart? Huggy said you got hurt.”
She shook her head. “Just a little singed around the edges. I got off easy.” She reached up self-consciously and touched the scarf. “I’m gonna be needin’ a new hairstyle, though. Think I could set up an appointment with Mr. Marlene or Mr. Tyrone sometime?”
“You sure you want either of us anywhere near you with a curling iron?” Hutch smiled.
“Well, you certainly have a different approach, I’ll say that for you.” Alice looked up at him through her lashes and dimpled a little more.
“Alice,” Huggy broke in, “you hear any word ’bout somebody havin’ it in for Starsky?”
“Oh, no!” Alice tightened her fingers on Hutch’s hand. “Not Starsky!” She looked around the bar, as if only just realizing Starsky was not with them. “What do you need?”
“I need to find him,” Hutch said fervently. “But Alice, you’re hurt. You ought to take it easy.”
“My arm’s burned, not my tongue,” Alice replied tartly. “And Momma always told me that was hinged in the middle and flapped at both ends. I know some people I can talk to. I’ll give you a holler as soon as I hear anything.”
“Thank you.” Hutch lightly cupped her cheek. “If there’s anything—wait a minute. Alice, do you have anywhere to stay?”
She shrugged. “Haven’t even had time to think about it. I guess I can go to one of the motels . . . ” She shrugged again. “Someplace that’ll take me without luggage.”
“Here.” Hutch pulled out his key ring and took off his house key. “You can stay at my place. I won’t be there until . . . until Starsky’s home.”
Alice looked down at the key for a long moment, and then carefully folded Hutch’s fingers back over it. “No thanks, handsome. I’ll find my own place.”
“I might like it there too much.” Her smile wavered slightly before she caught herself. “I might not want to leave.”
Hutch hung his head, suddenly ashamed of himself.
What a time for all those years of encouraging feelings for my own benefit to bite me in the ass.
He forced himself to meet her eyes.
“I’m sorry, Alice,” he said with genuine remorse.
“Aw, honey. Think I haven’t always known where I stood?” She patted his hand gently. “You never made me feel like a workin’ girl, and that’s the nicest thing anybody could do for me.”
“In that case—” Hutch fumbled with his keys again, and held out another. “Starsky’s place. He won’t mind.”
Alice’s fingers hovered over the key for a moment. “You sure about that? Anything there you two might not want me to see?”
To his horror, Hutch felt himself blush beet red. “St-Starsky probably left the toilet seat up,” he managed to stammer out.
Alice laughed softly. “Men.” She took the key and tucked it into her pocket. “I’ll start making those calls. You take care of yourself, you hear me, Hutch? Starsky’s gonna want you all in one piece when he gets back.” She winked, patted Hutch’s hand again and headed for the pay phone.
“Alice. Use my office,” Huggy said.
She looked back at him inquiringly. “What about you, Huggy?”
“I’ll start with a couple brothers here. We can spell each other off.” He looked at Hutch sharply. “You listen to Alice, my friend.”
“Gee, Huggy, I’m a big boy now,” Hutch said shortly. “Got a gun and everything. I can take care of myself.”
“Yeah, yeah, same song, different tune. I’ve seen your righteous avenger act when Starsky’s in trouble. You push the line every time, and then ride right on over it. You older now, even if you ain’t wiser. Use your head for somethin’ besides banging on walls.”
Hutch felt himself blush again.
“Thanks, both of you. For everything. Huggy, that soup was a lifesaver.” Slowly, he forced himself to move, feeling the strain of every hour of the past day deep down in his muscles. His legs wanted to tremble, and he locked his knees until the feeling passed.
“I’ll be at the station.”
As he turned to leave, two voices behind him harmonized on “good luck.”
Starsky was dreaming and he knew it. He also knew he couldn’t waste time on sleep, but was unable to pull himself awake. He stood in his bathroom, looking at his reflection in the mirror. He felt good—comfortable, with the easy bone-deep relaxation that came after good loving. Hutch was behind him, strong and solid, his cock firmly pressed against Starsky’s ass. It definitely felt like Hutch was up for round two. The part of him that knew he was dreaming wondered why this didn’t feel weird, but the rest of him was just fine having as much of Hutch touching him as he could get. He wiggled a little, enjoying the smooth slide of skin on skin.
“Didn’t know you were so smooth all over, Blondie,” he murmured. “All that nice Nordic skin . . .” He reached back to stroke Hutch’s shoulder, closing his eyes to savor the pleasure.
The arms around him suddenly tightened violently.
Starsky’s eyes flew open.
The reflection in the mirror wasn’t Hutch—it was Hutchinson, wearing the same look of ugly disdain and triumph he’d had at the museum. Starsky watched, frozen in horror, unable to move as the man holding him raised one arm and a knife came into view.
“You’re on my side of the mirror now,” Hutchinson said, as the knife came down.
Starsky jerked awake, snarling, his arms flailing wildly, banging into unseen obstacles. He could still feel the hand tightening on his throat, and he choked and coughed, struggling until he felt his head rap sharply into something cold and hard.
The blow knocked the sleep loose long enough for Starsky to realize he was in the back seat of a car. That set off a new wave of panic, and he drew his legs back and kicked desperately at the door, sure he was locked in and set up for a one-way ride. The door at his feet held, but the one behind him gave like a cheap beer can. Starsky shot out backwards, landing on his ass in wet grass, his legs tangling in the seat belt and holding him trapped beside the car.
For a second he was too stunned to do anything but pull in whooping breaths and try to get his spinning head and stomach off the carousel and back to solid ground. Slowly, carefully, he untangled his legs and got up.
When he’d left Bay City Gardens, fatigue had crashed down on him so hard he was nearly staggering by the time he got back to the car. He’d sat behind the wheel, his mind totally blank. For a few minutes, he’d been unable to concentrate long enough to even remember how to spark the ignition. When he’d finally gotten the car started, he’d driven on autopilot, turning left and right without any conscious thought.
Looking at where he’d ended up, he cursed and then smothered a laugh before it turned into a sob.
The Volkswagen was carelessly pulled over at the end of a little gravel lot near the entrance to one of the walking trails in City Park. Starsky had dumped himself onto his ass about six feet from where his tree should have been. At home, this was where a sturdy little western red cedar flourished, nourished by the occasional surreptitious visit from Starsky bearing bone meal and fertilizer. Here the space was occupied by what looked like a bed of succulents, their flat thick leaves and angular flower spikes looking alien and unnatural in the predawn gloom.
All those times I ragged Hutch about that tree, and now I’d give my left nut to see it.
Slowly, stiffly, Starsky made his way to the driver’s side and sat down. His back and chest ached from the curled up position he’d slept in, another reminder of Gunther. The gift that keeps on giving, he thought bleakly, as he carefully twisted and stretched to try and loosen up. Through the screen of trees across the road he could see the sky just beginning to lighten, the first pale gray threads marking the coming dawn.
I’ve been gone most of the night. Hutch is gonna be out of his mind.
Starsky pounded on the steering wheel without any real force, simply needing to feel something real under his hand, something that existed, that wouldn’t float off into thin air like a wisp of cloud.
“Okay,” he said out loud. “Think. Where do I go when things go dinky dau?”
That was easy.
Hutch. But in this Twilight Zone, Hutchinson was at the very least an unfriendly. At worst . . .
Starsky shivered at the dream memory of that hand closing around his throat.
Okay, no Hutch. Starsky put his hand to his stomach, feeling a flash of real physical pain as that thought once more sank home. Who else? Dobey? No, the new improved Dobey was Hutchinson’s stooge. Which left—
For a moment he hesitated. He and Hutch had joked often enough that they wouldn’t have been able to keep their badges if they really knew about everything Huggy was up to. Now it didn’t seem quite that funny. Going by what he’d seen here so far, he’d find this world’s Huggy holed up in a drug den with an Uzi in one hand and an underage hooker in the other.
But then it wasn’t like he had much choice.
Maybe I oughta go looking for Frank Tallman instead. He’s probably chief of police.
With a sigh, he fumbled under the VW’s steering column again.
The predawn traffic was light, but nevertheless Starsky decided to keep to the back streets. As the wealthier parts of town gave way to businesses and then to the beginnings of urban decay, he grew even more cautious. The thought of being pulled over in a stolen car and having to try to pass himself off as somebody who belonged here was just too daunting. A vision of being stopped for a traffic check by this world’s version of himself brought a half-hysterical laugh.
Wonder which of us would be more freaked out?
It wasn’t until he was a block away from where the Pits would normally be that Starsky began to have second thoughts. There was no guarantee that even if this world’s Huggy owned a bar, it would be in the same place. He slowed the bug down to near walking speed and started scanning the storefronts. In the gray half-light, none of them looked familiar.
Things always look the same till they look different, Davey boy. You gotta learn to know it before you see it.
Starsky shook his head sharply. Too little sleep, no food, too much stress. No wonder he was having flashbacks.
When he saw the car it didn’t register at first; if it hadn’t been for Deacon’s ghost voice still somewhere between his ears, he might have driven right past. As it was, he was level with the driver’s door before something tweaked his attention, and he turned to look at the Torino parked slightly askew on the other side of the road.
He slammed on the brakes so hard the VW’s tires squealed in protest and the engine nearly stalled out. Without conscious thought, Starsky pulled the bug to the curb. He could feel his knees shaking slightly as he got out of the car. It took all the courage he possessed to walk across the road toward the Torino.
A white Gran Torino.
With a candy-apple red stripe swooshing along the side and over the top.
Numbly, Starsky made his way around the car. Even in the half-light, he could see the car was unwashed and unpolished. The driver’s fender was dented, and a long rusty scratch ran down the back passenger side and curved up onto the trunk, ending in a palm-sized rust spot.
A sudden burst of anger caught him totally unawares. Without thinking, he kicked savagely at a tire.
What the fuck have you done to my car?
The anger acted like a shot of amphetamine, bringing him up prickly and alert, on hair-trigger edge. Slowly, he turned and looked at the buildings around him. The names on some of the building fronts were vaguely familiar, things he’d never really paid attention to but had seen so often that they’d registered in his subconscious.
Where the big painted board reading “Huggy Bear’s the Pits” should have been was instead a plain, whitewashed wall. Under the whitewash, the building looked exactly the same as it would have at home, maybe in better shape, but essentially the same. The neon lights were gone as well, and so was the awning over the door. In its place was a neatly lettered sign in a black cursive writing that Starsky couldn’t read at all.
For a split second, he panicked—wild thoughts of brain damage or alien invasion running through his head—and then he realized he could read the sign in the next-door window that said “Alterations While U Wait” without any difficulty, and pulled in a calming breath. Looking up and down the street again, he saw that all the other signs were in plain English and said perfectly normal things.
Checks Cashed Here. Two For One. Ice Cold Beer.
So why does Huggy’s look like something out of the Arabian Nights?
Starsky squinted and still couldn’t make head or tail of the script. He stepped closer, and from the corner of his eye saw the front door was slightly ajar. Not much, but at that time of the morning it should have been locked tight. Huggy was never open this early. Not for deliveries, not for extra business . . .
Starsky’s head snapped around to look at the white Torino.
Not even for nosy cops on the hunt for info.
Starsky pulled his Beretta and eased toward the open door. He gave it a slight nudge with one foot, just enough to widen the opening for him to slip through. He set his back to one wall, taking a look around. There was nobody in sight, though he could hear faint voices from behind the door leading to the main part of the building. The entrance area was lit only by one bare bulb at the far end, but what that weak light revealed made Starsky’s eyebrows rise in shock.
The wall opposite him was bare except for an almost life-size poster of a young black man wearing glasses, lightly bearded, one fist raised in a black power salute. In bold dark letters across the bottom of the poster were the words The Autobiography of Malcolm X. A small table beside the poster held some books and pamphlets, and Starsky inched over and risked a glance down.
Most of the books were Malcom X’s autobiography, though there were several leather bound volumes with more of the incomprehensible writing in gold lettering on the front, underneath which were the words “An English Translation of the Holy Koran.” A stack of small pamphlets with the title The Teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammed, and some larger ones with the heading Nation of Islam. A book on Mohammed Ali. A copy of Soledad Brother.
Jesus H. Christ! Huggy’s a Black Muslim?
Starsky shook his head. Huggy Bear might have been an inner city boy born and bred, but he had always seemed to have a wry sense of perspective on himself and everybody around him that let him view people’s prejudices and foibles with irony rather than anger. Could that front of equanimity have been just another one of the man’s many poses?
The English language is not the exclusive property of the white man.
Not Deacon’s memory-voice this time, but Huggy’s, and Starsky winced.
Might have to have a talk with him when I get back. Maybe—
A muffled crash from the inside room brought Starsky up sharply, gun at the ready. As he took another step toward the inner door, a wave of nausea and dizziness hit him so hard he reeled back against the wall. The dizziness was like a thick cloud of buzzing insects around his head, leaving him distracted and off balance. He had to brace himself against the wall to keep from falling. Clenching his teeth, he swallowed hard, trying to force the bile back in his throat, then lost the struggle and retched helplessly.
It took a few seconds before he could drag himself upright and get his stomach under control. He spat and wiped his mouth, listening intently, aware that he hadn’t been able to keep quiet or alert enough to meet a threat if one was approaching. But whoever was inside hadn’t even noticed him; instead he heard another crash, followed by a yell of mingled pain and anger.
Fighting down sickness every step of the way, Starsky inched forward and pushed the inner door open a couple of inches. Without the wood blocking the sounds he could hear clearly, and the voice froze him in horror.
“I said I want answers, you fuckin’ coon! Now give it up!” New York voice slightly softened by an overlay of California, and harsh with rage and frustration.
Another wave of nausea hit Starsky, and he almost missed the reply.
“Got . . . nothin’ for the Man,” Huggy’s voice was low, punctuated with a gasp of pain, but deadly cold with its own anger. “Nothin’ to tell no white devil.”
His voice broke off under a meaty thunk, followed by another cry of pain.
“Fuck you, white bread!” It was snarl of defiant agony.
Starsky drew in a deep breath and shoved the door all the way open, Beretta raised and ready. “Freeze!” he croaked out.
The room beyond was what in his world was the main room of the restaurant. Here, there were several rows of metal folding chairs, a long table topped with a podium where the bar would have been, and behind them in place of the bar mirror a slightly lopsided screen. Where the jukebox should have been were a tall bookcase and a stand holding a movie projector. Another table was on its side, a typewriter and mimeograph machine lying in several pieces in front of it. Scattered all over the floor were books and loose sheets of paper.
Huggy was lying in front of the podium in a tangle of downed chairs. His mouth was split and bleeding, and there was a raw lump high on his forehead that Starsky recognized only too well as coming from a boot to the head. He wore white pants and a loose white top, both now splotched with wet scarlet. Standing over him with his back to Starsky, a blackjack in his left hand—
A man with black curly hair, almost long enough to touch his shoulders. A worn brown leather jacket and faded jeans, adidas on his feet.
The worst thing was that Starsky didn’t even feel surprised.
Shoulda known—if there’s a thee, there’s gotta be a me. But this?
He shuddered. His brain wanted to curl up, to shut down, to just go away until this nightmare was over. But that wasn’t an option, not on the streets of home and not here in this place that was beginning to seem more and more like the front porch of hell.
“Freeze,” he repeated, more loudly.
“I’m a cop.” The other Starsky dipped one hand into his jacket, brought out his shield and waved it carelessly over his head. “Get lost, unless you think you’re up to joining the party.”
“A cop,” Starsky repeated, feeling his stomach heave. “Isn’t that a coincidence. So am I. Now back away from him, unless you want to find out the hard way if we carry the same caliber.” He eased through the door and moved to the side, so he could keep his double covered without putting Huggy into the line of fire.
“Hug, you okay?”
His double chuckled, a nasty little sound that rasped at Starsky’s nerves. “Oh, he’s too uppity to answer to his real name these days. What’re you calling yourself now, boy? Ali Bear? Huggy Mohammed?”
Huggy pushed himself up on his elbows and wiped the blood off his chin with one shaking hand.
“Don’t wear no slave name for the Man no more. And I got nothin’ to say. To either—” he turned his head, and caught sight of Starsky. He made a little choking sound and slumped back down to the floor, eyes wide.
The other Starsky looked down at him with another nasty chuckle and then slowly turned around.
Unlike his first look at Hutchinson, the sight of his own double left Starsky with no feelings of disbelief, doubt or confusion. Only a bone deep rage and revulsion.
What a damn waste of a badge. Dobey got that one right.
His double’s hair was longer than his, and even allowing for the exertion of beating up a helpless snitch, looked tangled and dirty. His eyes were pouchy and slightly bloodshot, the pupils wide even for the dim light. There was an overall softness to his face, the jowly look that usually followed when beer was the primary food group, and a small but quite distinct bulge over his belt. For Starsky, who’d worked like a demon to get himself back in shape after being shot, it seemed like the ultimate slap in the face. He felt his stomach churn again.
Waste all that work I did, all the work Hutch did . . .
This guy didn’t have Hutch.
The thought stopped him cold in his tracks. No partnership. No me and thee. Starsky shivered. How did the other him cope with the job without a partner to share those long nights on stakeout, to back him up without question, to laugh and brainstorm and bitch with? How did he survive without Hutch to hold him through the pain of poison and bullet wounds and heartbreaking loss? Come to that, how did this world’s Hutch survive without Starsky? Had anyone written a name on the window of an isolation ward for him to see? Had there been someone to stand between him and the needle in the room right above this one? Someone ready to throw his whole future away on a gamble to prove him innocent?
No wonder they’re fucked up.
His double had been studying him as well, and now he shook his head in mock sorrow that did nothing to hide the rage banked in his eyes.
“Y’know, if I was just a little more mellow, I could say this is funny. They made you look like my brother instead a’ me. Won’t be foolin’ nobody down at Metro.”
“They?” Starsky kept his eyes and gun on the double and moved closer to Huggy, who still lay motionless on the floor, except for the wide, panicked eyes tracking back and forth between them.
“Won’t work.” He gave a loose-lipped laugh and laid a finger along side his nose. “Tryin’ to say I’m a bad cop. I know what I know.”
“Yeah? Well what I know is, it’s not even seven in the morning and you’re high as a fuckin’ kite,” Starsky said harshly. “And poundin’ on a civilian. Or is that just SOP in Bay City from hell?”
“You think you can make it on these streets actin’ like a choirboy? Lemme tell you somethin’, whoever you are, there’s only one way to handle them, all of ’em. Gotta get the first punch in and never look back.”
“Tell it to Internal Affairs.” To his surprise, Starsky felt a deep sense of satisfaction at the words. He’d never had any use for IA, but in this case he’d be more than happy to hand the son of a bitch over on a silver platter.
“Oh, man, choirboy, you’re in for one big surprise.” The double pulled a chair around and straddled it. Despite his attempt at casual body language, anger broke through the mockery like rust remnants through a bad paint job, ruining the easy attitude he tried to project. Starsky was relieved that he seemed to be too high on whatever he’d used to realize it.
Time to make sure you’re not getting careless is when it looks like Victor Charlie is doin’ just that. Can you spell trap, Davey boy?
Starsky nodded, just as he remembered doing all those years ago when he’d heard Deacon say it the first time. Instead of sliding the Beretta back into his shoulder rig, he slipped it into his pocket and with the other hand righted one of the fallen chairs.
Never taking his eyes off his double, Starsky grabbed Huggy under the arms and eased him up into the chair. Carefully, he lifted Huggy’s chin, checking out the damage. The lip was visibly swelling, and there was a bruise blooming over the side of his face, but the bleeding had stopped. The lump on his temple was nasty, but Huggy’s eyes looked normal, without any of the foggy disorientation of concussion.
Starsky held up his hand. “How many fingers do you see?”
In answer, Huggy raised the middle finger of his left hand. “Fuck off, white bread,” he mumbled and spat blood, narrowly missing Starsky’s shoes.
“Come on, work with me, Hug. That’s some crack on the head you took. Can you see? Blurred vision, dark spots, dizziness, anything?”
“See just fine.”
Starsky leaned down and placed his hands on either sides of the other man’s rib cage. “Okay, breathe in as deep as you can, unless it really hurts.” Huggy snorted but did as he was told. Starsky sighed. “Well, no broken ribs anyway. Any place else that’s bad?”
“He got a couple a shots on my kidneys. I’ll be pissin’ pink tomorrow.” Huggy made an ugly pained sound. “Won’t be the first time.”
“All right.” Starsky looked around. “You got a phone here? I’m calling this in.”
“No,” Huggy rasped. Starsky’s double laughed, a shrill noise that made Starsky’s stomach lurch again.
“C’mon, man,” Starsky began, but Huggy cut him off.
“They take me in, I don’t come out alive.”
“Got that right,” the double smirked. “Don’t know about where you come from, bro, but here? We know how to deal with uppity niggers. None of that black power, burnin’ down the city shit in this town.”
Starsky shuddered and fought back another spasm of nausea. A vague memory crossed his mind of some scientist saying something about two bodies not being able to occupy the same position in space.
I shouldn’t be feelin’ this sick. Maybe two Starskys in the same place is bad news.
“Where’s that phone?” He forced the words out past the bile and saliva pooling in his mouth. Huggy slumped down in the chair, closing his eyes.
“Don’t you get it, hot shot?” His double propped his chin on his folded hands. “Nobody’s gonna care. And even if they do?” He laughed again and patted one jacket pocket. “I got somebody bigger than the president, right here. Doesn’t matter who you are, FBI, ATF, whatever, you got no chance.”
“I’ve heard that before.” Starsky began to back toward the wall where the pay phone would be in his reality, his hand on the gun in his jacket, never taking his eyes off his double. The man was too cocky, too sure of himself for a guy who’d been caught red-handed committing police brutality.
It was Huggy who took them both by surprise. Starsky caught a flash of white movement out of the corner of his eye, and even as Deacon’s voice in his head yelled—
CAN YOU SPELL TRAP!
Huggy lunged off the chair and toward the podium. He caught the edge of it with one hand and brought it clattering down to the floor with him. Starsky took one step forward and then Huggy sat up, a sawed-off shotgun in his hands and murder in his eyes.
Starsky yanked out the Beretta as his double rose to his feet and pulled his own gun.
“C’mon, motherfucker,” Huggy’s voice rose. “See if the white devil got red blood too?”
The double snarled wordlessly, bringing the gun to bear right between Huggy’s eyes.
“Drop the guns!” Starsky snapped. “Both of you!”
Neither of them even looked in his direction. He saw Huggy’s finger tighten on the trigger, his double steadying his aim.
“Don’t do it! Put the gun down!” Starsky wasn’t even sure which one he was talking to. “Don’t—”
The two shots came so close together only a trained ear could have detected the two flat barks of the Beretta against the bull roar of the shotgun.
Pain howled through Starsky, a white sheet of agony tearing his chest open. He realized he’d dropped his gun and was folding at the knees, but then everything began to gray out as the pain cut his connections to his body and his consciousness one at a time, like snipped puppet strings.
Blackness claimed him.
Hutch pulled the Torino into its normal spot in front of Metro and killed the engine. He sat, rubbing his forehead, unwilling for a moment to leave the sanctuary of the car. It somehow seemed the height of irony that the parking space was there as usual and Starsky was not.
Though the clock said it was close to dawn, the hovering clouds still left the sky pitch black. There wasn’t the slightest sign of brightening on the horizon but the rain had finally ended. Hutch tried to convince himself it was a positive sign.
Finally pushing himself up and out, he stood beside the car for a moment and looked up at the building.
Now for the hard part.
He knew what was coming: the endless scutwork of scouring records, working the phone, turning the pieces of the puzzle over and over, trying to fit them together in various combinations. And always being aware, no matter how hard he tried to ignore it, of how many cases passed over his desk where the pieces would never fit together, where there was never justice or even an ending, happy or otherwise. The department’s public relations people always made sure the newspapers got the full details on the successes. Unless they were directly involved, civilians never saw the really hard cases, the ones where you knew who the bad guy was but couldn’t prove it, or worse, where there was never enough evidence to get a lead in the first place.
I’ll find you, Starsk. No matter what it takes. It hurt like hell to accept, but even as he made the vow Hutch wasn’t sure he would be able to keep it.
Entering Metro made Hutch realize once again just how badly the storm had affected the city. Hallway traffic that usually resembled a busy anthill was almost nonexistent, with only one elderly uniform manning the front desk. He waved vaguely at Hutch and went back to the telephone, apparently trying to explain to the person on the other end that the police had no control over the power situation in the city.
There was no one else waiting at the elevator, for which Hutch was grateful. He got on and punched the button, then leaned back against the wall, closing his eyes . . . and dreamed.
He was flat on his back in Starsky’s bed, both of them naked. Starsky knelt between his legs, leaning forward to run his fingers gently over Hutch’s shoulders and chest.
“That feels good, babe.” Starsky’s voice was warm as melting chocolate, the tone he used only when he was totally content.
“Starsky,” Hutch whispered. Pleasure and satisfaction swamped him. He fought them back. He wanted nothing more than to surrender to the tangible sensuality and happiness between them, but there was something . . . something important . . .
“Starsk? Where are you?” he managed to say.
Starsky looked down at him, indigo eyes dark and puzzled. Then he smiled gently and placed one palm firmly over Hutch’s heart.
“Right here. Where else would I be?”
Hutch tried to form the words, to ask again, but he was suddenly paralyzed, unable to move his lips, unable even to blink. He could feel that his eyes were closed, but somehow could still see the reflection in the mirror over the bed, Starsky's scarred back bent over him, his own face desperate, mouth open and eyes closed.
Suddenly, his image in the mirror opened its eyes.
“He’s on the wrong side of the mirror,” the image said, meeting his eyes. “Bring him back. Find him!”
“ . . . find him? Hutch?”
Hutch’s eyes snapped open. Jack Babcock was braced in the elevator door, holding it open with his right arm while gripping several files between his left side and the folds of a sling, and looking at him with obvious concern.
“Hutch? You okay, man?”
Hutch shook his head violently, scrubbing his hands through his hair.
“Hutch?” Babcock stepped forward, using his good hand to take hold of Hutch’s arm. “C’mon, let’s sit you down some place.”
“No.” Hutch pushed himself away from the elevator wall and shook his head again. He stuffed away the memories of the . . . what? Dream? Fugue?
Christ, I can’t lose it! Starsky needs me! Gotta hold it together.
He forced himself to meet Babcock’s worried eyes. “I’m all right. Just tired.”
“Hell of a night,” Babcock agreed. “Dobey’s got everything set up for us in Room 4.”
“Us?” Hutch looked pointedly at the sling. “What’re you doing in, anyway? Thought you were on sick leave?”
Babcock shrugged and grimaced. “Can’t work the streets, but I can look through files and use the phone. Might as well be useful for something.”
“Thanks.” Hutch felt a lump in his throat and swallowed hard.
Huggy, Sweet Alice, Babcock, Dobey, even Dr. Deschênes in her own prickly way, were all pulling together to help. Nothing and nobody could replace Starsky at his side, but the knowledge that he wasn’t facing the search alone gave him another jolt of energy that straightened his back and sent him down the hallway with renewed strength.
Room 4 was one of the smaller interrogation rooms, usually used when meeting with suspects and lawyers. It didn’t have the standard one-way glass, but it did have a larger than usual table. The file boxes Dobey had brought from the museum were stacked against one wall, and Minnie and Deschênes were sitting on opposite sides of the table, each with a steaming cup at hand. Minnie had one stack of folders piled in front of her; Deschênes, two.
“Hutch!” Minnie got up and gave him a quick hug. “Any luck?”
Hutch shook his head. “Not yet. Huggy’s getting the word out, but he says he hasn’t heard anything about a hit on Starsky.”
“Who is this ‘Huggy’?” Deschênes asked, looking up from her folders.
“Huggy Bear Brown,” Minnie said. “Bartender, informant, hustler—”
“Friend,” Hutch said quietly. “Huggy knows everything and everybody on the street. He’s pulled our chestnuts out of the fire more than once.” He gestured at the piles of folders. “So what’s the story?”
“I’m checking the museum’s personnel records first,” Minnie said. “Trying to cross-check and see if there’s any connection to any cases you and Starsky worked.”
“And I am matching shipping records with acquisitions.” Deschênes patted the two stacks in front of her. “We keep very careful records of acquisition for purposes of provenance. It is not likely that anyone attempting to smuggle material through the museum would be able to access both sets of records.” She gave a grim little smile. “Except for me, of course.”
“We’ll take you on trust for now, Doc,” Hutch said. “So what can I do?”
“Here.” Minnie shoved a stack of files in his direction. “Decipher some of Starsky’s chicken scratches for me.”
“How about me, Doc?” Babcock pulled a chair to her side of the table with his good arm. “Just tell me what you need.”
Deschênes glanced at him and to Hutch’s surprise, blushed slightly. Even more oddly, Babcock looked a little flustered, too, like a teenager trying to get up the nerve to ask out the prom queen.
Despite his own turmoil, Hutch couldn’t help a smothered smile. Both of them could do worse. Babcock was a good cop, not bad looking, and a decent all-round guy. Dried off and combed out, Deschênes wasn’t bad either. Without rain and shadow obscuring her glasses, Hutch could see attractive gray eyes, and her cloud of light brown curls softened the angular lines of her chin.
“Here.” She grabbed a section of each of the two stacks in front of her and slapped them down in front of Babcock. These,” she pointed to one pile, “are shipping invoices. Each shipment is itemized and each item receives a tracking number. These,” indicating the other pile, “are the matching acquisition records. Each item on this page should have the same tracking number as is on the invoice.”
“How detailed is the information?” Hutch asked. “I mean, ‘one crate of miscellaneous artifacts’ isn’t going to tell us all that much.”
Deschênes threw him a sizzling glance over the top of her glasses. “We may be academics, but we aren’t complete imbeciles at the museum. Granted, it isn’t criminal smuggling we have concerns about, but I have dealt with matters of theft and forgery before. Every individual item must be catalogued at both ends and the description must be sufficient to make the item distinguishable to the receiver.”
“And what if the person who does the unpacking at the museum just fakes the acquisition record?” Babcock looked up from the pages he was matching.
“It is policy that no shipment is ever handled by only one person. And while everyone has their own field of, how do you say, expertness?”
“Thank you, expertise, no one is always working in the same area. If I were to try to make a plot with someone elsewhere to receive something in a specific shipment, there is no guarantee I would be the person to do the unpacking.” She shook her head. “I think you should not raise your hopes on this.”
“Right now we don’t have much else to go on,” Hutch said bleakly.
He opened the first file in front of him.
Hutch had gone through scenes similar to this: trying to decipher dream codes from Simon Marcus; hunting for the person who could provide an antidote to a deadly poison. He could remember clearly the desperation, the soul-crushing knowledge that time was running out and he was running just one critical step behind. But in those cases, there had at least been some names to go on. The motive might have been incomprehensible, but at least the people involved were identifiable.
This . . . how did you deal with someone you loved vanishing into thin air?
For the first time, Hutch truly understood those desperate parents searching for their vanished children, who haunted police stations for years, who put up posters and paid out their life savings to conmen and traveled across the country on nothing more than a hint of a possibility. When it was somebody you loved, could you ever really give up?
Deep inside, he knew that he’d do whatever it took to find Starsky. If what that was turned out to be the rest of his life, well, it wasn’t like he’d be using it for anything else without Starsky anyway.
He read old case files and made lists of names that Minnie took down to R and I, ate and drank whatever she set in front of him when she came back with another armful of files. His fingers turned dark and greasy from the residue of carbon paper. He squinted at Starsky’s handwriting, once or twice close to tears as a particularly Starskyesque turn of phrase jumped out at him from an arrest report or witness statement.
Time took on a weird quality he remembered all too well. A cross between molasses taffy and a roller coaster. He’d read for what seemed like hours and then, eyes burning, look up at the clock to see all of fifteen minutes had passed. The next time he looked up, convinced he’d spent seconds on a meaningless report, another fifteen minutes were gone, and he’d feel a flash of panic at the wasted time.
Combat time, Starsky had called it, the first time he’d gotten up the nerve to tell him about it while they were still in uniform. He’d expected Starsky to be amused or puzzled, but it turned out he knew exactly what Hutch meant. Under pressure, without enough food or sleep, almost everybody’s sense of time went haywire.
“Y’know how in movies, people are always synchronizing their watches when they go on a mission? Well, that’s why. Nothin’ abnormal; that’s just the way the human mind works.”
Hours passed. Huggy called twice, Sweet Alice once, neither with anything to report. Hutch tried to tell himself that no news was good news, that if Huggy and all his connections couldn’t find out who was behind Starsky’s disappearance then maybe there wasn’t anybody behind it. He could imagine Starsky turning up safe and sound any minute, calling to complain about Hutch abandoning him at the museum in the pouring rain, demanding to know where his car was.
Whistling past the graveyard, and he knew it.
And always in the back of his head, the memories of his dreams: Starsky as his lover, Starsky in the wrong place, Starsky through a looking glass—
He couldn’t shake the feeling that despite all the work they were doing, he was missing something.
That those dreams were trying to tell him something.
Hutch shook his head savagely.
Getting as crazy as Simon Marcus, if I’m going to believe dreams mean anything.
He was getting up to pour himself another coffee—God, my stomach will never recover from this—when Babcock suddenly spoke up.
“Lou? I think I found something.” Babcock looked back and forth from one piece of paper to another with a frown.
It had taken Babcock and Deschênes less than an hour to get from “Sergeant” and “Doc” to “Jacques” and “Lou.” Hutch noticed that Babcock’s chair had moved distinctly closer to hers as time went on. As she leaned closer to examine the papers in front of Babcock, the two of them looked at each other for a second, and Hutch saw Deschênes blush slightly again.
Deschênes looked from one sheet to the other for almost a minute, a frown gradually taking over her face. Suddenly she yanked off her glasses and threw them down on the table.
“Maudits merde!” she swore savagely. “How could I have been so stupid?” She flung herself back in her chair and tugged viciously at a handful of curls.
“What? What is it?” Hutch went over to her.
“I have been wondering all morning how someone could alter the acquisition records to disguise bringing in contraband, no? Well, nobody did.” She gave her hair another tug. “They altered the shipping invoice instead.”
Hutch and Minnie crowded in between the two chairs to look over her shoulder.
“See?” Babcock pointed from one page to the other. “Six items on the shipping manifest—”
“And six on the acquisition record,” Minnie interrupted. “So what?”
“Ah, that’s the thing.” Babcock was grinning, pleased with himself. “Not the same six items. At least not originally. Look at the way the words are all fu—er, smudged up here. It looks like somebody just typed over the old information without doing a good erasing job.”
“So what’s the altered item?” Hutch scanned the list. Babcock was right: the blotched mess of words was impossible to decipher, but obviously represented two separate entries typed over each other.
“One freestanding mirror, unknown origin, frame composed—”
Hutch felt a jolt run down his spine, like ice-cold electricity, sending every hair on end and every nerve tingling
“Mirror?” he broke in, staring down at Deschênes. “A mirror? You’re sure?”
“Yes, it’s quite clear on this page. Why?”
“One of the rooms Starsky searched in the basement—I saw a mirror in it. Big thing, nearly as tall as I am, but with a funny shape. I remember thinking it wasn’t something I could see a woman wanting in her dressing room.”
“That large?” Deschênes looked puzzled. “That is odd. Most ancient cultures didn’t have the ability to produce enough flat glass to waste on luxuries like that. Mirrors are usually hand size, and made from polished metal.”
“Would it be valuable?”
“Enough to ki—harm someone for?” Deschênes shook her head. “I don’t see how. Unless it was backed in solid gold—which according to the description it is not. No gold, no gemstones, nothing. It might be an interesting scientific curiosity, might lead us to a whole new understanding of the level of advancement of the culture that created it, but kill for that? Absolutement non.”
“Where did it come from?” Minnie flipped through the shipping manifest.
“Here.” Deschênes took the pages and turned to the back. “A private donation from the Billings Institute.” She frowned. “I have not heard of them.”
Minnie grinned. “I do believe that’s my cue.” She grabbed a stray piece of notepaper and jotted the name down.
“Wait a sec,” Hutch said. “While you’re at it, check out the shipping company too.” He squinted at the page Babcock held up to him. “Centurion Transport Systems. Somebody altered that shipping manifest. It might be interesting to find out where along the line it happened.”
“Gotcha.” Minnie headed out the door, nearly running.
Hutch leaned heavily against the table, only to straighten up a second later. He pulled out his notebook and flipped through it, hunting for a number he had used occasionally, but not often enough to know by heart.
The phone at the other end rang long enough for Hutch to wonder if this might be an area still affected by the storm. He was about to give up when he heard it clattering off the hook.
“Turquette Investigations.” J.D. Turquette’s Louisiana drawl sounded rough and raspy, as if he’d spent the night smoking cigars and drinking cheap whiskey somewhere, although knowing the man, Hutch was pretty sure that if Turquette had been up all night, he’d have been out helping stranded citizens. In Hutch’s opinion, Turquette took Chandler’s words about private eyes on the mean streets way too seriously.
“Hey, J.D., it’s Hutch.”
“Hutch!” Turquette coughed harshly, but when he spoke again, his voice sounded more alert and clear. “Hey, man, Huggy called about four of the a.m., told me what’s gone down. Any word on Starsky?”
“Maybe a chance of it. We’re checking out a couple of companies, but I thought you might be able to run them by some of your old connections, see if there’s anything out there.”
There was sound of rustling and rummaging on the other end, then Turquette said, “Hit me.”
“A shipping company called Centurion Transport Systems. And something called the Billings Institute. Might be a charity, a school, we don’t know.”
“Ah’ll start diggin’. You hang in there, man, y’hear?”
“I hear. Thanks, J.D. We’ll owe you.”
“Credit’s good with me.”
Hutch sat back down, suddenly feeling limp and exhausted as the adrenaline rush washed through and away.
A mirror. Dear God. How did I know? Or maybe, what do I know that I don’t know I know?
Starsky was dreaming again.
He and Hutch were naked, this time in Starsky’s bed. Hutch sprawled on his back, Starsky kneeling between his legs, leaning forward to run his fingers gently over Hutch’s shoulders and chest.
“Feels good, babe,” Starsky murmured, hearing his own voice deep and warm with satisfaction. This was where he belonged, this was how it should be.
“Starsky,” Hutch whispered. The sound was full of pleasure, but the soft blue eyes looking up at Starsky held fear and confusion.
“Starsk?” Hutch’s voice was thin and strained. “Where are you?”
Hutch sounding so worried bothered him enough that it made Starsky struggle against the blanket of contentment wrapping around him. He moved one hand down and placed the palm firmly over Hutch’s heart.
“Right here. Where else would I be?”
“Starsk—” Hutch struggled to get something out, but no more words came. His eyes fixed unblinking on the mirror above them.
Frightened, Starsky looked up. He could see them both reflected there, his scarred back partly obscuring Hutch, his upturned face tight with strain, eyes screwed shut as if trying to hide from himself.
Starsky’s reflection opened its eyes.
“You’re on the wrong side of the mirror,” the image said, meeting his eyes. “You have to get back!”
Starsky opened his eyes.
He was looking up at a ceiling covered in plain white acoustic tiles, some slightly crooked and water stained, as if the roof wasn’t completely reliable in the rain. When he turned his head, he could see a double-hung window, partly open, covered with a worn pale blue curtain that moved slightly in the breeze. The walls were also pale blue and bare except for a small crucifix hanging opposite the window.
He was lying on a narrow army cot, covered with a light blanket. His chest hurt, a deep grinding ache that spoke of damaged muscle, far more serious than a strain or bruising.
I’m not dead.
For a minute Starsky wasn’t sure why that thought was uppermost in his mind. When memory flooded back, he sat up with a panicked jerk. The blanket covering him fell away and he clawed his T-shirt up with shaking fingers. Scars, plenty of them, ugly as hell, but none that he hadn’t been carrying for two years. As he looked at them, he could feel the pain underneath them subsiding until it was no more than the normal morning stiffness.
With a groan, he sank back down on the cot and stared up at the ceiling.
Okay. I’m not dead.
Outside of the stiffness, he felt pretty good. In fact, he was starving. The nausea and dizziness he’d been feeling off and on ever since he’d walked out of the museum—this world’s museum—were completely gone. He spared a wistful thought for the coffee and sandwich he’d never gotten to eat last night.
Carefully he sat up, stretching out the stiffness, and looked around. The room was very small, containing nothing but the cot, a nightstand holding a lamp and a Bible, and a battered armchair squeezed in by the door. Hanging over the back of the chair was his jacket; folded on the seat were his shirt and jeans, with his holster on top. He got up to check. Badge, wallet and keys in his jacket pockets, but no gun.
Yeah. I dropped that when—
Don’t wanna think about that. Just . . . don’t.
Standing there in his skivvies in an unfamiliar place made him feel far too vulnerable, and he reached for his clothes. He’d just managed to get his jeans zipped when there was a soft tap on the door.
“Yeah?” he said cautiously. Another quick look around told him his choices for defending himself came down to a book or a lampshade. He braced himself for whatever would come when the door opened.
Instead, a woman’s voice asked, “May I come in?”
“Uh, sure, I’m decent.” Sorta. Starsky ran a hand through his hair, wishing for a razor and a toothbrush.
The woman who peeked around the edge of the door was plump and middle-aged, wearing jeans, a yellow gingham shirt, and a black veil and wimple that covered her hair.
“Oh, good, you’re up!” she exclaimed. “How do you feel?”
Starsky rubbed his eyes and stared at the veil. “Kinda confused, ma’am. Can you tell me where I am?”
“You’re at the Salt and Light Mission,” she replied. “I’m Sister Rose. Brother Thomas and Brother Matthias found you lying in the alley near the corner when they went out this morning. We couldn’t see any injuries, so we decided to keep you here for a while. It’s a good thing you finally came around. Brother James was starting to think we needed to get you to the hospital.”
“No, I don’t need a hospital. I’m just a little sore—and hungry,” Starsky added.
“Well, that’s good to hear. I’ll have Brother James come up and take a look at you, and he can bring you some breakfast too.”
“Thanks, uh, sister.”
Starsky sank onto the chair. Judging by the light coming through the window, it must be close to noon. No wonder he was hungry.
Was that real, what happened this morning? Did I really see . . . me? And Huggy?
A cold wave of something that did not quite feel like grief broke over him.
Oh, yeah, I saw it all. And I got a pretty good idea why my chest hurt as bad as it did when I woke up. Huggy couldn’t have missed him from that range.
He scrubbed both hands over his face and shivered all over. Too many shocks, too quickly. Part of him wanted to crawl back into the bed and pull the covers over his head until all the craziness just went away. At the same time, his sense of the green told him it was time to move. His body might feel nearly normal, but he still had to find the way back home. Soon. There was no logic to it, no reason why he knew his time was running out. But then back in the green, half the time he’d never consciously known what triggered the sense of danger, the knowledge you had to go here instead of there, now instead of later.
That didn’t make the instinct wrong. Just made it hard to explain.
I know I gotta get home. Before all this weird shit makes me crazy.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
“No shit, Deacon,” Starsky muttered and ran his hand over the front of his T-shirt again, rubbing at the hard ridges of scar tissue he felt there. “I oughta be giving Superman a run for his money right about now.”
Hutch is the one who’s gonna be crazy. He’ll be taking the city apart looking for me, and having flashbacks every minute, too.
The memory of his dream came back to him, sharp and vivid. Hutch in his bed, in his arms. Loving, happy, no barriers of mind or body between them. And the mirror—
Why do I keep dreamin’ about mirrors? And why do I keep dreamin’ about me n’ Hutch in bed together?
Trust what you know.
I know Hutch.
“Jesus!” Starsky shot to his feet, his heart hammering, and then looked apologetically at the crucifix.
Hutch. He tried the word again. Then he tried another.
“I love Hutch.” The soft words seemed to hang in the air around him like the fading tones of wind chimes. “Wow.”
He threw himself back onto the bed with a laugh, bouncing the mattress a little just for the joy of it.
“I love Hutch.” Louder this time, more positive.
Wait a sec. What does that mean? I always loved Hutch, pretty much right from the academy. What’s different now?
Starsky laughed again.
Well, for one thing, Davey boy, you’re dreaming about Hutch with a boner. Don’t remember you doin’ that back when you were studying up on police procedure and criminal code violations with him.
The “why” was pretty obvious. Was there a better friend, a better man than his partner, and so damn beautiful—
Well, yeah. Starsky gave himself a little mental kick in the backside. Gorgeous hair, and skin like cinnamon buttercream and that lush mouth . . .
Starsky grinned. “First thing when I get back, Blondie,” he promised. “We’ll find out who’s a good kisser.”
A better “why” might be why had he never seen it before?
Starsky searched his memory, but couldn’t think of any one moment to point to when his feelings had crossed the line. A thousand pictures of the years together tumbled through his head like the shaken insides of a kaleidoscope. Taking care of each other through major and minor hurts of body and spirit. Blending their different styles into one seamless whole that moved without effort from the streets to their private life. It seemed he’d always felt completely safe with Hutch and completely comfortable. They’d understood each other and accommodated each other’s flaws for so long it had become instinctive.
Starsky knew in his bones that nobody in his adult life had ever cared for him as deeply and as steadfastly as Hutch did. And everything went both ways. Starsky had never known anyone who appreciated being cared for as much as Hutch did. His eyes, already beautiful—there hadn’t been any joke about that for Starsky—positively glowed with happiness whenever Starsky did something nice for him.
Shit. I think we got married a while ago. Too bad nobody threw us a party.
“I love Hutch.” He said it again, just to hear the words out loud. “I love you.”
And then he stopped as reality once more crashed in. Wherever he was, it wasn’t with Hutch. The Hutchinson of this world was the ice-eyed bastard who beat Sweet Alice, cheated on his wife and wore suits way too expensive for a cop’s salary.
I gotta get home. Get back to Hutch.
For the first time, that thought was not simply one of escape, but of homecoming.
A rap at the door startled him, and he sat up. With the sound came a smell of bacon and coffee that made Starsky’s stomach growl.
“Come on in,” he said happily, pulling the door open. “I’m really—”
Starsky froze, staring at the man in the doorway. The last time he’d seen that hawk nose and those hooded eyes, he’d been in a courtroom watching a Satanist who called himself Rodell being sentenced to life in prison.
“No!” Starsky’s body came back to life and he threw himself around the bed toward the chair, scrabbling instinctively for his holster, only to remember the Beretta was gone.
Rodell stood very still in the doorway, holding a tray out in front of him. “It’s all right, brother,” he said soothingly. “Nobody here will hurt you. You need to calm down before you make yourself ill.”
“Whaddya want?” Starsky clenched his fists, pushing the chair slightly forward so at least that much flimsy weight was between them.
“Want? Nothing at all. I’ve brought you some breakfast. Sister Rose said you were awake and hungry.” Rodell smiled slightly. “Is it all right if I put the tray down? It’s getting a little heavy.”
Starsky glanced quickly at the crucifix. “I thought this was a Catholic place.”
“It is. The Salt and Light Mission. Most of us here are Franciscans. I’m Brother James.” Rodell was speaking quietly and simply, the way Starsky himself had done often enough to try to calm someone having a freakout on the street.
Starsky forced himself to move away from the chair and stand by the foot of the bed. I can take him if I have to, he calculated. None of his goons here, and I can make it out the window before anybody can get through the door.
Rodell put the tray down on the nightstand, and then backed up to once more stand beside the door. “How do you feel? Are you in any pain? Do you think you need a doctor?”
“I’m fine,” Starsky said harshly. “I just want out.”
“You’re free to go at any time.” Rodell indicated the open door. “But you said you were hungry. Why don’t you try some breakfast first?”
Starsky’s stomach grumbled, and he looked at the tray longingly. But the idea of trusting anything this man had been near didn’t sit right.
A glance at Rodell showed him the man hadn’t moved from his position. He looked very much as if he’d wait there all day for Starsky to make up his mind. Physically, this Rodell was eerily similar to the one Starsky had seen presiding over a sacrificial alter. The deep sonorous voice certainly sounded the same. But the robe he wore now was a plain rough brown fabric, tied with a rope cord around the waist, with a dangling string of beads that it took Starsky a moment to identify as a rosary. A small wooden cross hung from a thong around his neck, right side up. And while nothing would ever soften those harsh features, the eyes were different, no longer holding the flat black glare of a fanatic, but kinder and somehow calmer.
Maybe . . . maybe not everything went to shit here? Maybe some things changed for the better?
Starsky cautiously approached the tray. He wouldn’t touch the coffee, he decided. That would be too easy to doctor. But the bacon and toast should be safe, maybe even the eggs.
He grabbed the plate and started shoveling in food.
Starsky inhaled half the plateful before he remembered his manners.
“Thanks,” he said, around another bite of toast. “That’s just what I needed.”
“You’re welcome,” Rodell smiled, and Starsky was surprised to feel himself smile back.
“So, what do you folks do here at the mission?” Now that his first hunger had worn off, Starsky felt a need for information.
“May I?” Rodell indicated the armchair, and Starsky nodded, feeling embarrassed. Rodell sat down and continued, “We mainly work with the poor people in the area. We have a soup kitchen and we run a free clinic several days a week—most people around here can’t afford medical insurance, so even getting their children vaccinated is a challenge. We have a counseling program for teenagers, to help them with their schooling and job prospects. Sister Rose and Sister Agnes Marie also work with prostitutes, trying to get the girls off the street and into safe shelters.”
“Sounds like you do a lot of good.”
Rodell shrugged. “We try. Scripture tells us that we will be judged on how we treat the least of God’s people. Most of us will fall short.”
Starsky mopped the plate with the last bit of toast before setting it back on the tray. “Thanks,” he said again. “That hit the spot.”
“Good. Good. Glad to hear it. Now, do you feel up to coming downstairs to the clinic so I can take a look at you? And maybe answer a couple of questions?”
Starsky stiffened. “What kind of questions?”
“Just some information for our files. We respect people’s privacy as much as we can, but we do need to keep some kind of a record of our clients, in order to get access to funding.”
“I won’t be needin’ any help. I’m not from around here.”
And you wouldn’t believe how true that is. Starsky had to stifle a laugh.
“Well, at least your name, then?”
Starsky thought quickly. What were the odds that this world’s Starsky had ever come around the mission? He and Hutch would have if it was on their beat, would have tried to make friends and get the brothers and sisters to work with them, but somehow he had the feeling his double had been more comfortable with people he could just beat up on.
Starsky decided to take the gamble.
“Dave. Dave Starsky.”
Rodell sighed and looked at Starsky for a long moment. Starsky was sure he could read sorrow and disappointment in his voice.
“I’m afraid that’s a lie, brother,” Rodell said at last.
“Yeah? Why do you say that?”
“I had the radio on in the kitchen while I made breakfast. It was the first item on the news. The body of Detective Sergeant David Starsky was found this morning just a few streets away from here. He’d been shot.”
Shit. Snake eyes.
Starsky licked his lips. “Was there anybody else?”
Rodell nodded. “His body was found at the Nation of Islam offices. So was that of a man called Rashid X. He’d been shot dead as well.”
“Damn,” Starsky whispered.
“I agree,” Rodell said sadly. “I knew Rashid. He wasn’t of our faith, but he and his people were trying to do much the same for their community as we do here. He was . . . intense, and very committed to his beliefs. But not some violent radical, which is what the media is already trying to label him as.”
“St—the other guy was beatin’ on him.” Starsky closed his eyes and felt the whole surreal scene wash over him again. “Trying to get information out of him about something. I broke it up.” He looked at Rodell. “Hu—Rashid just snapped. He had a hidden gun, got to it, and—” his throat tightened up. He looked at Rodell in anguish. “I was too slow.”
“Now that has more the ring of truth to it. Sergeant Starsky, God rest his soul, was a brutal thug, with a very loose interpretation of proper police work. Whenever any of us had to deal with him it was, shall we say, difficult to be charitable.”
Crapped out all the way.
Starsky rubbed a hand over his face.
“It’s a good thing I’m not frightened by the thought of ghosts, or angels, or spirits,” Rodell went on. “And considering the size of the breakfast you put away, I’m reasonably sure you’re not a ghost or a spirit.”
Surprised by the hint of humor, Starsky met his eyes. The quiet compassion there helped him to find his voice.
“Look, how about we just say I’m not from around here and leave it at that?”
Rodell nodded. “We could. Scripture tells us that we often entertain angels unaware. But tell me one thing: the place where you’re from, does it have anything to do with those scars I saw on your chest?”
Starsky took a deep breath and said firmly, “Look, Brother, um, James, is it? I’m not a ghost. I’m not an angel. I’m not proof of heaven, or life after death or anything else like what you’re thinking, okay? I’m just a regular guy who’s in the wrong place at the wrong time. And all I want to do is get back home.”
“If you say so. Is there anything you can tell me about your home?” Rodell asked eagerly.
“It’s Bay City. Only not exactly this Bay City. Things aren’t perfect where I come from—like I said, it’s not heaven—but from what I’ve seen here so far, I figure you people got the short end of the stick.”
“And the scars?”
“I got shot, two years ago. But I didn’t die.”
Rodell looked skeptical. “I’m rather surprised by that.”
Starsky grinned. “So were a whole bunch a’ doctors and nurses. But I pulled through. Even made it back to the street. Surprised the hell—oops, sorry. Surprised a whole bunch of people. Especially the guys who tried to splatter us all over the garage.”
Rodell made a sharp sound, and put a hand to the cross on his chest. “Wait. In the police garage? Two years ago?”
Starsky reached his hand out tentatively. “Padre? You okay?”
Rodell shuddered, and then nodded. “I’m sorry. That’s just a . . . a very painful memory for all of us here.”
“Why? It sounds like you didn’t have much use for your Starsky.”
“It wasn’t Sergeant Starsky who was shot.” Rodell looked away, and Starsky felt ice drift into his gut.
“Tell me. What happened?”
Rodell didn’t respond directly. He looked over at Starsky with eyes filled with pain. “I’ve seen many grievous things in my days in the missions. So often we see the good cut down, while the evil are left to flourish, the innocent afflicted and in poverty while the guilty live on the fat of the land. I’ve always tried to accept that the Lord’s ways are not our ways, and that while on earth we human beings can only see through the glass darkly. But that shooting shook my faith in God’s mercy and justice as nothing else ever has.”
“Brother? Who’d they shoot?”
“Detective Sergeant Joan Meredith and Detective Sergeant Minnie Kaplan.” Rodell’s voice held the sound of a fanfare of trumpets. “Bay City’s finest.”
“Dear God. Meredith? And Minnie?” Starsky shook his head fiercely. “Aw, no, man, that can’t be right.” At Rodell’s nod, he sighed. “How did it go down?”
“They were ambushed in the police garage, apparently by men disguised as police officers. Joan was in front of the car at the driver’s side. She was shot in the back and killed instantly. The coroner said it was so quick she never knew what happened. Minnie had a chance to draw her gun, but they shot her down before she could fire. She died three days later in the hospital without ever regaining consciousness.” Rodell grimaced. “Apparently it was a blood bath.”
Rodell paused, and then said hesitantly, “Brother, can you tell me . . . If you aren’t an angel, are you saying you’re still alive?”
“We had some warning. They scraped the car, and my partner saw them and yelled for me to get down.” Starsky shrugged. “And afterward, he wouldn’t let me die.” There had been all kinds of medical explanations, but for him that had always been the only real answer. Starsky’s tie to his partner was strong enough that he either had to stay with Hutch or bring him along, and no amount of pain or suffering was enough to make him give up and pull Hutch over the edge.
“The girls would come here often,” Rodell said with a sad smile, and touched the crucifix again. “They’d bring over some of the working girls, especially the young ones, instead of arresting them, and try to help us get them out of the life. They helped us when we held fundraising days, and tried as best they could to keep the truly bad element in the district under control. They weren’t always orthodox, but they had one of the best records in the city.
“After they were killed, we heard from some sources that they were investigating something that could bring down someone very important. Rumor had it there was a great deal at stake: money, power, influence. Then when they were—gone—and people started looking through their files, there was nothing. No evidence, no notes, not even hints or ideas about who they were after. And Minnie was a fanatical record keeper; she would write down everything they did in a day. Filled notebooks by the dozen. Oh, everybody made all the right noises about brave officers and finding the criminals and cleaning up the city, but . . .” he shrugged. “Two years on, and hardly anyone even remembers their names.”
“Was one of the people who investigated Lieutenant Hutchinson?” The words nearly stuck in Starsky’s throat.
Rodell looked at him carefully before he spoke. “Scripture tells us that bearing false witness is a sin, and the law tells us that slander is a crime. I know neither Joan nor Minnie ever trusted him, but I have no evidence of any wrongdoing on the lieutenant’s part.”
“Lieutenant Hutchinson is one of those of whom Scripture warns us. The false shepherd who betrays the flock. The whited wall that hides corruption. The talk on the street is that sometimes when there’s a big drug arrest, once the dust all settles, there isn’t nearly as much money to be found as would be expected, knowing the habits of drug dealers. And sometimes all the drugs that go into the evidence locker don’t necessarily come back out. Or perhaps, they do come back out, but not when they’re supposed to. There are rumors some investigations are compromised, and some criminals warned in advance of arrests.”
“Not just an asshole, but a crooked cop, too?” Starsky felt his world slip sideways once again. “So that’s where the fancy suits come from? And the apartment for his girlfriend?”
“The ironic thing is, Lieutenant Hutchinson comes from a wealthy family, and married well, too. Any criminal activity he had engaged in certainly isn’t because he needs money.”
Starsky felt his breakfast congeal in his stomach.
Oh, yeah. Like me n’ Hutch haven’t seen guys like that before. Have everything, and still gotta spit in everybody’s eye just to prove they can.
“At least my partner didn’t get hurt, and he tracked down the man behind it all and arrested him.”
“Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord, and we mortals are to put our trust in Him. But when you see good friends die so senselessly, and justice ignored, it is difficult to accept.” Rodell gave Starsky a piercing look. “Could it be that you have been sent here to balance the scales?”
Starsky kicked angrily at the nightstand. “I don’t know! Things are different here. Not much in some ways, but a lot in others. I mean, you’re different—”
“Me?” Rodell’s eyebrows rose. “You have seen me?”
Starsky smiled grimly. “Trust me, Padre, that’s something you don’t want to know. Let’s just say you’re a better man here and a lot better off, okay? And that’s what I mean. Maybe the same person is behind the shootings here, maybe not. Maybe I can do something to change things here, or maybe anything I do will just make things worse. I don’t even know if telling you something will mess things up. I just don’t know! And even if I could do something, I have to get back. Time’s running out on me, I can feel it. I don’t belong here, and I can’t stay.”
Rodell rose to his feet. “I understand. The Lord gives us our own burdens, but also our own strengths. We must use those as best we can. So, is there anything I can do to help you?”
Starsky patted his stomach. “You’ve already helped a lot. I could use a shave . . . ”
“Come with me. We can send you on your way clean and well fed, if nothing else.” Rodell touched his cross again. “And I will keep you in my prayers.”
“Thanks. I’m Jewish, but it can’t hurt.”
“The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is our God too,” Rodell replied. He raised his right hand and rested it lightly on Starsky’s head. “May the Lord God bless you and keep you and make His face to shine upon you.”
“Amen.” It had been a long time since Starsky had heard that particular blessing, and the words warmed and comforted him in a way he would never have expected. With new determination, he scooped up his holster and jacket and put them on. Rodell picked up the breakfast tray.
At the door, Starsky paused for a moment, gnawing on his lip. He wasn’t sure if the question on his mind would help or hurt, would have any meaning or start a chain reaction that would spiral completely out of control. But the need to know was strong enough to outweigh caution.
“Padre, can you tell me one last thing?” Rodell nodded. “Have you ever heard of a man named Gunther? James Marshall Gunther?”
Rodell nodded. “Of course. James Gunther is one of the richest men in America. He’s already being considered a serious candidate for president in the next election.”
The phone call from Turquette came just as Hutch was ready to start climbing the walls. Deshchênes and Babcock were still working their way through the stacks of papers but had found no other altered records, either from the museum or any other shipping company.
Minnie had called up from R and I about an hour before to report that the Billings Institute was a small think tank located in Washington that produced scientific papers debunking occult phenomena and trendy pseudoscientific theories.
“You know the kind of thing: spoon bending, Atlantis, who built the pyramids, aliens stealing our DNA,” Hutch could almost see the grin on her face. “Those guys who work for the Billings Institute must have a whole thesaurus full of synonyms for ‘fraud’ and ‘crazy’ and ‘ignorant.’”
“Anything on Centurion?”
“Nothing so far. I’m still looking.”
As he hung up the phone, Hutch felt more bewildered than ever. A scientific think tank? What were a bunch of scientists doing trying to smuggle some kind of an artifact from one museum to another? And why?
Maybe because it’s not a fraud?
The thought brought Hutch up short.
Could that be it? These people make a living shooting down wild theories. Suppose they actually found something real, and they’re trying to hide it?
The thought made him dizzy. He could practically feel his brain trying to twist itself into a pretzel. Despite all the caffeine floating through his system, the effort of trying to fit all the increasingly weird puzzle pieces together made his head pound and throb.
Too much coffee, too much worry, no sleep. I’ll be hitting the wall soon. Oh, Starsk.
With a stifled groan he pushed himself to his feet. Maybe stretching his legs and getting some cold water instead of coffee would help clear his brain out. The headache and nausea spiked sharply as he made his way along the hall toward the water fountain, and suddenly reaching the men’s room was Hutch’s most important goal in life.
The second he stepped into the john, he knew he’d made a mistake. His eyes fastened on his reflection in the mirror over the sink and he couldn’t look away. He walked toward it, mesmerized, not noticing anything else until he stumbled into the edge of the sink, and the porcelain jabbed him hard in the leg. The pain sizzled up his body and joined the throb in his head in a symphony of blue and white sparks.
With a moan, he closed his eyes.
The dream was different this time, so much so that at first Hutch wasn’t sure he was dreaming. He was standing in the men’s room in front of the mirror, in the exact position he had been a moment before. Instead of his own reflection in the mirror, he was looking at Starsky. Starsky, staring out at him with an expression of total trust and dawning hope.
“Hutch!” the figure in the mirror said. “Hutch, I wanna come home!”
“It’s the mirror, Starsk!” he cried out. “You have to come back through the mirror.”
Starsky didn’t seem to hear him. “I wanna come home,” he repeated. “Hutch, please, find me. I can’t stay here.”
“Starsky! I’m here!” The words seemed to bounce off the mirror and the tiles around him, echoing louder and louder, but the man in the mirror was oblivious.
Desperately, Hutch stretched out his hand, and saw his Starsky-reflection do the same. He pressed his palm against the mirror and for a split second felt, not cold glass, but warm skin pressed tight to his.
“Come back through the mirror,” he shouted, and tried to grab the hand he felt. An irresistible force pulled him violently in two directions. He shrieked as a brutal ripping pain tore through him—
He was sitting on the men’s room floor halfway between the sinks and urinals, his entire arm numb and cold, his back aching from where he’d landed on the floor.
“Starsky? Starsky!” he scrambled to his feet and looked frantically around and into the mirror. Only his own image looked back at him, hair disheveled, face chalk pale except for the dark circles under wild, bloodshot eyes and the purple-gray of his lips.
I look like I belong in Cabrillo. Or maybe down in lockup in restraints. What the fuck was that?
Stop this shit. You know what’s going on. It’s that mirror thing in the storeroom. Whatever it is, it’s real, all right, and somehow, Starsky got caught in it.
The sensible part of his brain—the part that had been trying to register an objection ever since the moment this nightmare started—tried to scream out a protest, but Hutch shut it down ruthlessly.
If you convince yourself to be rational this time, you’ll lose him.
Hutch rubbed his numb arm, feeling the pins and needles of circulation returning as it warmed up. He bent over the sink, splashed a couple of handfuls of water on his face and ran a damp hand through his hair. When he looked back into the mirror there was some color in his face, and though he still looked strained and at the back end of exhausted, he was reasonably sure he could pass as sane.
I need to hold on. Something’s going to go down fast and I don’t have time to convince people I haven’t gone ’round the bend about this.
With a groan, Hutch bent again and took a few more swallows of water. His arm was getting back to normal, and he flexed his hand experimentally.
As good as new. Or at least as good as it can be right now.
Hutch took one last look around the washroom, scrutinizing every corner as if by some magical chance he’d managed to bring Starsky home and just hadn’t noticed him hiding behind the wastebasket or in a cubicle. Then he headed back for the interrogation room with a determined stride.
Gotta get back to the museum now. This whole thing’s tied to it.
It wasn’t until he opened the door of the interrogation room that he realized his headache and nausea were completely gone. Before he had a chance to wonder about what that could mean the phone rang, and he snatched it up.
“Hutch?” J.D. Turquette’s voice was fast and strained. “Man, I hate to bring the bad news, but you got a world a trouble headin’ your way.”
“What d’you mean?” Hutch’s fingers whitened on the receiver. “What have you found?”
“Those two names you gave me? The Billings Institute and Centurion Transportation? They’re both fronts for the Agency.”
“The Agency, man.”
“Shit,” Hutch said softly.
“Manure. Fertilizer.” Turquette’s voice was grim. “If you’ve been doin’ any official searching at your end, they already know about it. If you need to do somethin’ on the QT, you don’t have much time.”
“Shit,” Hutch repeated. “Okay, listen, J.D., are you in any trouble?”
“Doubt it. The people I talked to don’t have much love for the Agency. They won’t go runnin’ off to tattle on me.”
“Unless somebody makes it worth their while.”
“You really know how to cheer a guy up,” Turquette said dryly. “Tell you what: I hear a bottle of tequila just callin’ my name. All the way from a nice beach somewhere down by Tiajuana. I think I’ll be headin’ down to find it, have me a little vacation in the sun until all this blows over.”
“Christ, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pull you into something like this.”
“No sweat, man. I’m a little fishie, not worth the bait. Couple days in the sun, and I’ll be forgotten. Hasta la vista, amigo.”
The phone went dead.
He looked up to see Babcock and Deschênes watching him with concern.
“How bad is it, Hutch?” Babcock asked.
“It’s the National Security Agency.” At Deschênes’ blank look, he shook his head impatiently. “It’s the federal government. Spies, secrets, cover-ups, cloak and dagger, keep the citizens in the dark while the men in suits do the dirty work and we all go along pretending we don’t notice.” He slammed his fist down on the table. “How the hell did we get into this?”
“Are you saying federal agents have Starsky?” Babcock looked as dismayed as Hutch felt.
“And what does this have to do with my artifact?” Deschênes was looking back at the piece of paper with the museum acquisition record. “There is nothing on here that would be of any interest to spies.”
“Did anybody look at the mirror?” Hutch retorted. “I mean really look at it? For all we know, there’s a hidden microdot on it somewhere with plans for a new type of nuclear bomb.” As Deschênes opened her mouth he added, “And if you say ‘preposterous,’ Doc, I just might throw something.”
“What I was going to say,” Deschênes enunciated very clearly, “is that we should perhaps take a second look at it.”
As Hutch was about to open his mouth, the phone rang again.
He snatched up the receiver. “Yeah?”
“Hutch!” Minnie’s voice was high and scared. “Captain Dobey says to tell you there’s company coming. Hide anything you don’t want taken.”
“I hear you. Minnie, do not come back here, you get that? Stay at your desk and pretend you never even saw me today.”
“Okay. Be careful—”
Anything else Minnie might have said was lost as Hutch slammed down the phone. He only managed one step back to the table before he heard the door click open. As he turned to face it he saw, from the corner of his eye, Deschênes grabbing up the altered invoice and the acquisition record and shoving them into the back pocket of her slacks. By the time the door had fully opened, she was sitting again, pen in hand, bent over the pile of records as if she had never moved at all.
Captain Dobey entered first, his face set and mouth thinned with fury. Behind him came an all too familiar figure.
The sudden violent surge of hope almost made Hutch dizzy.
It’s true. Christ almighty, it’s true. He wouldn’t be here if we were barking up the wrong tree. Hang on, buddy. I’ve almost got the answers.
“Sergeant Hutchinson.” Cole’s blocky body and grizzled brush cut hadn’t changed much in the years since Hutch had last seen him. Maybe a touch grayer, a little more granite in the lines of his face, but the essential bulldog in the man was not affected by age.
Dobey pulled the door shut so quietly it was more telling than any slam. “We have a problem, Hutch. Agent Cole tells me—”
“Your investigation of Sergeant Starsky’s disappearance is about to compromise a matter of national security,” Cole interrupted shortly. “I am here to ensure that you cease and desist any activities that would endanger the interests of this country.”
“If you know what I’m doing, then you know why.” Hutch kept his voice even and held Cole’s eyes steadily. “Starsky disappeared in that museum, and now I know you know what’s happened to him.”
“That’s not an issue I’m authorized to comment on.”
“Then get on the phone to Washington and find somebody who is authorized,” Hutch said. “My partner’s disappeared and I’m pretty sure I know where to look for him. I’m getting him back with or without your help.”
Cole turned to Dobey. “Captain, this investigation is terminated immediately on my orders. Everything to do with it will be classified as top secret, and can be discussed with no one at any time on pain of criminal charges. It’s your responsibility to ensure that the people under your command follow those orders.”
“You can’t tell me not to investigate the disappearance of one of my men!” Dobey roared.
“If necessary I will go over your head—as high as I need to. My orders come directly from Washington, Captain. You don’t have any choice.”
“Washington’s a long way from here.” Hutch said. “Orders can be misplaced.”
“Not in this case. Sometimes the good of our country calls for sacrifices that may seem harsh. Sergeant Starsky served in the military. His record speaks for itself. Unlike you, he would understand that security sometimes comes at a price.”
“Fuck national security!” Hutch pushed in nose to nose with Cole. “Yeah, Starsky was a soldier. He already did his share in Vietnam, he’s done it on the streets here at home, and you’re just going to abandon him in the name of national security?” He threw his hands into the air. “What good is national security if it means nobody is secure from the government we’re supposed to be protecting?”
“Hutch is right,” Dobey added. “We’re not part of whatever damn game you’re playing here and neither is Starsky. We didn’t sign up to be pawns in a battle nobody is even willing to admit is going on.”
Cole shook his head. “Let me explain the stakes to both of you. This is not a game. You, Captain, were in the military. Your reserve status can be reactivated immediately, and you can be subject to court-martial for disobedience to orders. As for you, Hutchinson, we can have records provided to indicate that you evaded the draft. That makes you subject to military law as well. Pursue this matter any further, and you could both spend the rest of your lives in prison.”
“And suppose I decide to pursue it?” Deschênes spoke up. “There is no possible way you could prove I was ever in your military.”
“Ah, yes. Dr. Louise Deschênes. Canadian citizen, here on a work permit. If you give us any trouble, we will have you arrested as an undesirable alien and deported. You will find having that on your record will make any future employment in your field out of the question.”
Deschênes’ mouth tightened into an almost invisible line, and she sank back into her chair. One hand folded into a fist on the table in front of her, the sound of her nails scraping against the plastic loud in the sudden silence.
“Well, then. I thought you’d all see it my way.” Cole wasn’t gloating, his face didn’t have enough expression for that, but there was no mistaking the satisfaction in his voice.
“And that’s it? We just give up? We let Starsky go?” Hutch demanded.
Cole hesitated. “Off the record—strictly off the record—Sergeant Starsky will be searched for by people who have more experience than you. Goodbye, gentlemen, ma’am.” He turned to leave.
As Cole reached for the doorknob, Hutch said quietly, “Starsky went through the mirror, didn’t he? It’s some kind of a door to somewhere and Starsky accidentally walked through. Isn’t that right?”
Cole paused and turned slowly. “Walked through a mirror? You’ve got quite an imagination, Hutchinson.”
“In that case, you won’t have any objection if I go back to the museum and put a couple of rounds from my Magnum right through the damn thing, will you?”
Cole’s eyes widened. “Are you crazy? Have you got any idea—” He clamped his mouth shut abruptly and slammed one hand down on the table. “Goddammit!”
“Bingo.” Hutch smiled. “I wasn’t sure you’d fall for that.”
“You have no idea what you’re dealing with.”
“So give us a little help,” Dobey said.
“Let me make it easy for you,” Hutch added. “I’m going to keep looking for Starsky, no matter what. You think I’m worried about jail? The only way you’ll stop me is if you shoot me right here.”
Cole nearly snarled in frustration. “The level of security clearance that would be required before I could get authorization to tell you anything is so high—”
“Then let us tell you.” Deschênes sat forward. “There is a word, hypothetical? Is that correct?” Everyone nodded. “Very well. Let us say, by hypothetical, that someone has discovered an artifact which appears to be a mirror, but is actually some kind of a transportation device, about which we, obviously, have no knowledge.” She raised an inquiring eyebrow.
Cole nodded slowly. “If we were speaking strictly hypothetically, I suppose that could be possible.”
“Your Billings Institute is set up for just this kind of thing. To study such hypothetical objects,” Deschênes went on. “For national security.”
“So why would this hypothetical object end up in a junk room in the basement of the Bay City Museum instead of at some top security military science lab?” Hutch demanded.
“I’m not a scientist. And everything about the Billings Project is so highly classified I doubt anybody outside of the office of the president knows the whole story. I’m just a field agent: I do what I’m told and don’t ask questions. Anything I do know is rumor and guesswork. But the bottom line is, they decided to hide your hypothetical object because it isn’t safe to do anything else with it. This is so completely out of the range of our scientific knowledge that nobody knows how to deal with it. Imagine handing a chimpanzee an expensive Swiss watch. How long would it last? Now imagine that Swiss watch capable of blowing up the world. How long would the world last?”
“So you hid it,” Deschênes said slowly. “Here.”
Cole nodded. “The brain boys think in maybe ten or twenty years, our technology will be advanced enough that we have a reasonable chance at figuring it out without destroying it or ourselves. They say computers are going to get a lot faster and a lot better, and our information about subatomic something or others . . . I don’t understand a fraction of it. But they hope by the turn of the century we might advance past the chimpanzee stage.”
“So what does anybody know about our hypothetical object?” Dobey asked.
“In a nutshell? Nothing. We don’t know who made it or how. We don’t know how it works, and why it works sometimes and not others.”
“Do you know where it goes?” Hutch said eagerly. “That’s the only thing I’m worried about right now.”
Cole shook his head. “We don’t know if it goes anywhere.” As both Hutch and Deschênes started to speak, he raised a hand. “Let me put it this way: nothing has ever come back.”
“I won’t accept that,” Hutch said harshly. “There has to be a way.”
“If there is, we don’t know about it. And this discussion, hypothetical or not, is now closed.” Cole’s eyes hardened, and his face seemed to close into a fist. “All of you,” he glared around the room, “are reminded of the penalties I mentioned. They can and will be invoked if there is ever any suggestion that you have compromised security.”
“I’m going to get him back,” Hutch said simply.
Cole shook his head. “I repeat, you’re dealing with national security issues. Believe me, I sympathize with your concern for Starsky, but you have no security clearance and no interference from you will be tolerated.” He took a deep breath, and held Hutch’s eyes. “Inside of an hour, security agents will have that museum locked down and anything removed that might be compromised by your search. But if you’re caught within a mile of the place before then, you’ll spend the rest of your life in prison. I can guarantee you that.”
He gave one general curt nod and was out the door before anyone else had a chance to speak.
Hutch turned and picked up his jacket. “I’d better get a move on.” He checked the pockets automatically for his extra rounds and then slipped the jacket on.
“Hutch, what do you mean? Move on where?” Dobey demanded.
“To the museum.”
“Cole told you—”
“You heard him, Captain. Cole gave me one hour. I’m going to get Starsky back.” He smiled slightly. “Or I’m going after him. Either way, I’m not leaving him alone wherever he is.”
Dobey reached out and gripped Hutch’s shoulders. “Think, son. You’re risking more than just your own life.”
“The world didn’t blow up when Starsky went through. With any luck, it won’t blow up when he comes back. Please, Cap.” Hutch’s voice dropped. “We’ve been through so much. I can’t just leave him.”
Dobey nodded, and dropped his hands.
“Thank you. Can you . . . if something . . . our folks . . .?”
Dobey nodded again. “I’ll see to it. Now go bring our boy back.”
Hutch was halfway to the elevator before he heard the sound of footsteps behind him. He looked back to see Babcock and Deschênes running after him. He didn’t pause until he reached the elevator and slapped the button, then he turned to face them.
“Look, you two better stay here. I’ve pretty well burned my bridges, but there’s no point in both of you going down in flames too.”
Babcock shrugged. “You’re gonna need backup.” He lifted his sling awkwardly. “I’m not Starsky, but right now I’m what you got. But Lou, I think maybe this’ll get hairy—”
Deschênes’ eyes were blazing. “They used my museum. And that thing, whatever it is, is my artifact. If nothing else, I am better qualified to examine it than either of you.” She gave a nasty little grin. “Besides, I have a strong urge to give Agent Cole a spit in the eye. Threaten to deport me, does he? Fils de cauchon!”
“I’ll second that, whatever it means,” Babcock took her hand. “But, Lou, you gotta be careful.”
She shrugged. “As you said, Hutch needs backup. And we are what he has.” She gave Hutch a pointed look. “I suggest you do not waste any more of your hour in arguing.”
Hutch nodded. “Let’s go, then.”
“Will you be able to stay with us?”
Starsky and Rodell stood at the back door of the mission, looking out on the alley where Starsky had been found earlier. Knowing his double’s death had made the news made Starsky edgy, and Rodell had obligingly steered him away from the common areas where people lined up for lunch and waited to be seen at the clinic.
A fast shower and shave in the men’s quarters had Starsky feeling better than he had in a couple of days. Still, the combination of tension and urgency that had built up inside rode him hard, and his mind was only half on his companion.
“Stay?” Starsky threw Rodell a blank look.
Rodell shrugged. “The man we knew as Sergeant Starsky is dead. You say that I am a better man here than where you come from. You, I would judge, are a better man than the Starsky of this world. Perhaps this is why you were sent to us.”
It took a moment for Rodell’s words to sink in.
“Take his place—right his wrongs?” Starsky shook his head. “I told you, I’m not an angel. Like you said, you have your own strengths, you have to work out your own problems. And . . . I’m not sure how to explain it. I don’t belong here, and I can’t stay. I can feel it.”
He really could feel it, too. Not the nausea and sickness he’d experienced while his double was still alive, but a more subtle wrongness. It crawled along his nerve endings, itched like finely ground glass in the marrow of his bones, and it drove him to move.
“Everything’s got a natural home, I guess,” Starsky struggled to explain. “It’s like, you can take those big jungle animals out of the wild and put them in a cage in the zoo. It won’t kill them most of the time. But a lion can’t really be a lion in a cage. It’s something that looks like a lion, but the lion spirit, that part’s dead. And I think that’s what it’d be like here for me. Maybe my body could survive for a while. But the part that makes me real, that makes me Starsky, that part wants to go home. And it won’t survive much longer.”
Rodell nodded. “Our souls know where they belong.”
With Hutch, Starsky supplied silently. My soul belongs with Hutch.
“So what will you do?” Rodell asked.
“I’m not really sure yet.” Starsky grinned and shook his head slightly. “Have to work it out as I go along, like always. Be harder to do on my own, though.”
A sudden thought struck him, and he pulled out his wallet. Holding out a few bills, he said, “Are these any good here?”
Rodell took a ten and looked at it carefully. “Ordinary American currency as far as I can tell.”
“Okay, that’ll make some things a little easier.” Starsky took out the rest of his money and divided it in half. He held one handful out to Rodell. “Could you get this to, uh, Rashid’s family?”
“You don’t owe blood money here,” Rodell said. “You may need it for other things.”
Starsky pushed the money forward. “Back home, Rashid is a good friend. Doesn’t feel right not doin’ something for him.”
Rodell took the money, and shook his head chidingly. “You’re a stubborn one, aren’t you? I’ll make sure the family gets it.”
“Thanks. Well, I guess I’d better get moving.” Starsky held out his hand and they shook. His grin was a little shaky. “If you never hear from me again, you’ll know I made it home.”
“Go with God,” Rodell said, and sketched a cross in the air.
By the time he’d exited from the alley onto the street, a part of Starsky wished he hadn’t been so quick to turn down Rodell’s suggestion. Being homeless and alone made him feel like he was being sucked down into a dark well. He tucked his hands into his jacket pockets and straightened his shoulders, trying to put the swagger back into his walk, missing the solid weight of the Beretta on his shoulder.
Exactly where am I going? What am I doing?
Trust what you know.
That’s not much help. What do I know?
I need to find a way to get back home.
I keep dreaming about mirrors.
I love Hutch.
Starsky laughed a little. Not a big list at all, and not much on it would help. Only his memory of Hutch served as a small but intense fire, keeping the worst of the darkness at bay. He tried to force himself to think but the same words kept swirling back around in his brain.
Mirrors. What is it with mirrors?
Mirror, mirror, on the wall. Mirror image. A mirror over my bed. A mirror at the museum. Alice through the looking glass.
Something in that list teased the edge of his brain like the sound of a mouse scurrying along the wall in the middle of the night.
A mirror over my bed. Me and Hutch. A mirror—
Does the me here have a mirror over his bed?
Starsky thought back. Something his double had said. Something like—
“I got somebody bigger than the president right here.”
Bigger than the president.
Wouldn’t that be the ultimate kick in the head. This world’s Starsky working for Gunther.
The thought was unendurable. Starsky felt his breakfast push upwards from his stomach, and stopped in his tracks. Someone behind him cursed and shoved past, almost knocking him over, but Starsky didn’t react. He forced himself to swallow and breathe. Slowly, the world tilted back upright and he got himself under control.
Gotta check him out.
No! I gotta get home. Hutch . . .
“. . . considered a serious candidate for president in the next election.”
Maybe this Gunther wants more than power from behind the scenes. Maybe this guy wants to go all the way.
Starsky’s vision seemed to narrow to a bright tunnel, then winked out. Across the dark screen of his consciousness flashed a black and white scene out of some old newsreel. From Europe, during the war. Columns of brown-shirted men wearing armbands marched through the streets, saluting as they passed a reviewing stand. Then everything twirled and twisted into a bright mosaic of color. Now the brown shirts marched in front of the Washington Monument.
The man on the reviewing stand was James Marshall Gunther.
Starsky’s eyes snapped open. He looked around wildly, seeing only the same ordinary Bay City street as before. Everything quiet, everything normal, no marching fascists or dictators in sight.
With a groan, Starsky got his feet moving again.
It doesn’t mean anything. I’m not Collandra. I can’t see the future.
But what if it’s real?
But what if? You gonna let that asshole do to the country what he did to you?
This isn’t my place. I gotta get home. Hutch is waiting for me.
“Me and Hutch don’t make deals.”
Starsky swiped a hand fiercely across his eyes, trying to scrub away the vision and the tears half-blinding him.
Don’t ask this. Please.
The green understands duty, Davey boy. Not mercy or pity, but duty . . . oh yeah, that it understands, big time.
Knowing what he had to do seared his heart with such violent grief that it was a physical pain. Doing this might mean he’d never get back home, might never have a chance to tell Hutch about his feelings, let alone have a chance for a Happily Ever After. But there was no help for it. He couldn’t shrink from this duty and still go back to Hutch with clean hands.
And Hutch deserved, at the very least, a partner with clean hands.
Oh God, Hutch, I’m sorry, babe. I’m so sorry. But I gotta do something. Anything else I could walk away from, but not this. Not if he was in with Gunther. It’s like the whole fuckin’ universe is out of synch.
Grimly, Starsky headed down the street, every step dragging, as if he plowed through calf-deep mud. The desperate urge to run for safety struggled with the need, just as strong, to stay and do his duty. Oh, yes, he recognized those feelings all too well.
Back into battle. Back into the green.
The first phone booth he came to had been vandalized, but he found another inside a laundromat a block further down, this time with an intact phone book. His first piece of good luck came in the form of this world’s Starsky living in an apartment close to downtown rather than at Starsky’s own current address or out on Ridgeway. Without the pilfered Volkswagen, either of those would have been a costly taxi ride away.
Starsky debated for a moment between walking and calling a cab, then decided on the cab. He had very little money left, but he had even less time.
By the time the taxi arrived, Starsky had paced a groove in the sidewalk, and the three women doing their laundry inside had moved nervously away from the window. He tried to keep calm, telling himself that if any of those ladies got antsy enough to call a cop, he’d be in deep shit, but he couldn’t still the need to move that ate at him.
Can’t rush the green, Davey boy. Green don’t work on Western Standard Time.
“I don’t have time, goddammit!”
Starsky didn’t realize he’d spoken out loud until he caught the cabbie’s startled look in the rearview mirror. He forced a weak smile.
“Sorry. Got a pretty heavy date comin’ up.”
The cabbie’s expression changed to a rueful grin. “Women, eh? Can’t live with ’em, can’t chain ’em up in the back yard.”
“Uh, right.” Starsky nodded his head slightly. Well, better being thought of as an overeager boyfriend than as a nutcase.
When the cab pulled up, it was at another modern apartment complex. Starsky paid off the cabbie, acknowledging his parting dirty joke with a half-hearted laugh. He settled in a doorway across the street to scope out the building. Though it looked nothing like Bay City Gardens, the place had the same air of being both expensive and sleazy. Not the kind of place Starsky would ever have considered living in himself, even if he’d been willing to spend that kind of money on an apartment.
Luckily, it wasn’t quite expensive enough to have a doorman. Starsky only had to wait a few minutes before a woman pushing a baby stroller and trying to juggle several bags approached the building’s front door. He jogged across the street, gallantly held the door and two bags while she maneuvered the stroller into the lobby, and simply followed her inside.
His double’s apartment was on the second floor. Starsky approached cautiously, almost expecting to see an investigating team already there, or at least crime scene tape sealing the door. But the place seemed deserted, and within two minutes Starsky had the door jimmied and was inside.
He closed the door and paused, taking in his surroundings with a mixture of amusement and distaste. The décor attempted a Playboy Mansion look, Bay City branch, but came across like a frat house bordello. Not that everything was bad—there were one or two pieces of furniture Starsky liked himself. But as expensive as much of it was, there was no sense of order or style, just a seeming determination to proclaim a high-end, swinging bachelor life.
Starsky shook his head and started looking around. A pile of bills on the kitchen counter caught his eye, and as he shuffled through them, his eyebrows rose steadily. His double was either in hock way past his eyeballs or he was living on a lot more than a cop’s salary.
As he put down the bills, he spotted a notebook and picked it up. He leafed through the last few pages and threw it to the floor, cursing. He and Hutch sometimes teased Dobey by turning in outrageous reports or pretending their note taking was haphazard, but this was beyond pathetic.
“Does this place even have an IA?” Starsky muttered, then picked up the book and made himself examine it again. Page after page filled with slapdash notes, witness reports without crucial information, and random doodling unrelated to police work. Even knowing nothing about the cases, Starsky easily read between the lines—questions that were never asked, evidence passed over, crucial things that could make an arrest stick, if only his double had bothered.
Sloppy or crooked. Probably both. How the hell did he ever get a shield?
Starsky tossed the notebook to the counter in disgust.
Puttin’ off the bad stuff don’t make it easier. Just makes it more dangerous.
“Yeah, yeah, I get it,” Starsky muttered and gave the notebook a disdainful flick with one finger. “Oughta take this home and show it to Dobey. Teach him to appreciate what he’s got.”
With a resigned shrug, he started his search.
Sloppy cop, sloppy habits.
It took Starsky less than ten minutes to find what he was after. His double hadn’t made much effort to hide it, just dumped everything into an old stereo carton and shoved it into the bottom of his linen closet. As he looked at the contents, Starsky felt the last trace of hope that things were not as bad as they looked flicker and die.
Burn in hell, you son of a bitch, he thought bleakly. You were gonna let this ride, weren’t you. Let two good cops get killed without any payback.
With a heavy sigh, he sat down on the floor and rummaged through the mess. Computer printouts, looking very similar to the ones Hutch had come dancing into the hospital with two years ago. Copies of witness statements and arrest reports. Entire case files, still in the official BCPD folders. Notebooks. Starsky counted thirteen, all filled with Minnie’s tiny, neat block print. He skimmed through, read a page here and there.
Not everything was the same, but there was enough that he had no difficulty following the trail. And just like at home, that trail led straight back to James Gunther.
And then it got worse.
There were several crumpled sheets of paper shoved down into the end of the box. Starsky pulled one out and unfolded it
It was a letter.
Dear Mr. Gunther,
My name is David Starsky. I am a detective with the Bay City Police Department. As you can see from the enclosed copy, I have some information that could be useful to you. I am prepared to negotiate.
Starsky threw the page aside as if it had burned him.
When his hand stopped shaking, he lifted the paper for another look. That sheet held no more writing, but as Starsky unfolded the other wrinkled pages, he saw that each held a slightly different version of the letter, as if his double had been trying out variations in wording to see which sounded best. But none of them left any doubt that his double had been trying to blackmail himself into a position in Gunther’s criminal organization.
Suddenly it was all too much. Starsky scrambled up and bolted for the bathroom.
The second he stepped into the john, he knew he’d made a mistake. His eyes fastened on his reflection in the mirror over the sink and he couldn’t look away. He kept walking until he felt the sink pressing against his thighs, but his body still tried to move forward.
With a moan, he closed his eyes.
The dream was different this time, so much so that at first Starsky wasn’t sure he was dreaming. He was standing in the bathroom of his double’s apartment in front of the mirror, in the exact position he had been in a moment before. Instead of his own reflection in the mirror, he was looking at Hutch. Hutch, staring out at him with an expression of desperate need and dawning hope.
“Hutch!” he cried out. “Hutch, I wanna come home!”
“It’s the mirror, Starsk!” Hutch said urgently. “You have to come back through the mirror.”
Starsky shook his head. “I wanna come home,” he repeated. “Hutch, please, find me. I can’t stay here.”
“Starsky! I’m here!” The words seemed to bounce off the mirror and the tiles around him, echoing louder and louder, but the man in the mirror was oblivious.
Desperately, Starsky stretched out his hand, and saw Hutch do the same. He pressed his palm against the mirror and for a split second felt, not cold glass, but warm skin pressed tight to his.
“Come back through the mirror,” Hutch shouted, and Starsky tried to grab the hand he felt. For a nightmarish moment he felt as if he were being ripped apart, as if some irresistible force pulled him violently in two directions—
He was sitting on the floor of the john, his back aching where he’d slammed against the door, his arm cold and numb almost to the shoulder.
“Hutch? Hutch!” He scrambled to his feet, looking around frantically. In the mirror he saw only his own wild-eyed face, white as a ghost.
“Jesus Christ! What was that?” His voice was so hoarse and shaky he barely recognized it. Tentatively, he reached out and touched the mirror, feeling nothing but the normal chill of glass under his fingertips.
Just a mirror.
“Come back through the mirror.”
“Through the mirror? C’mon, Hutch, I need more! What do you mean?” He shouted his frustration, pounding his fist on the sink. “What is it with mirrors here?”
Mirror image. Mirror in the museum. Alice through the looking glass.
“The mirror in the museum?” Starsky thought back to the ugly piece of furniture he’d seen in the storage room. “Through the mirror?”
Slowly, he sank down onto the commode, rubbing his arm, vaguely aware that the numbness was wearing off, replaced by pins and needles prickling, as if his arm had been asleep.
“Okay, think, Davey.” He bit his lip and looked up at the mirror again, hoping against irrational hope for a glimpse of Hutch. “So. We went to the museum. I went into that room with a weird mirror in it. And ever since everything’s different. Hell, even the weather was different last night. So, did I end up doing like they did in that Star Trek episode, where the transporter messes them up? They end up in an alternate reality where everybody’s a bad guy, right? Only instead of a transporter, I walked through a mirror.”
It sounded so silly Starsky began to laugh helplessly. But as his eye caught the mirror again, the laughter died away.
Hutch. Dobey. Sweet Alice. Huggy. Rodell. Me. All different.
If the mirror isn’t the answer, what is?
“Come back through the mirror.”
Hutch’s words echoed in Starsky’s head, the tone frantic and serious. Hutch—or at least his dream version of Hutch—believed the mirror was the answer.
Trust what you know.
“Always comes back to that, doesn’t it?” Starsky said, looking once more at his own reflection. “Who do we trust? Me and thee, like always.”
He got up, rubbing at his arm again. The numbness and chill were almost completely gone, but the antsy tingling in his nerves had increased, as if something crawled under the skin. Starsky scratched roughly at his arm, wondering if Hutch had felt like this going through withdrawal.
“I’ll come back through the mirror,” he told his reflection. “Gotta do this first, but I’m comin’ back to you, babe, I swear it.”
Steeling himself, he headed back to the closet and its damning box of evidence. He squatted down once more, sifting through the piles of paper.
What the hell do I do with this? There’s gotta be some honest cops who’d use it the right way. But how do I find them?
Hoping for some other inspiration, Starsky pulled the box further out of the closet. Behind it was more paper. It looked as if it had been tossed in haphazardly and had missed the container. Wedged in the corner behind the papers was a creased and battered paperback. Starsky reached in and pulled it out. Despite its poor condition, the cover was familiar—he had bought the same book himself a few years before, and he was pretty sure it had ended up on Hutch’s bookshelf somewhere. Robert Redford, in his shirtsleeves, tie loosened, stood beside a desk, looking down at Dustin Hoffman, leaning back in a desk chair, feet propped on one of the drawers. Behind them stood Jason Robards, arms folded, with his usual stern look on his craggy face. There was a typewriter on the desk and two phones and stacks of papers. The title of the book was the same as the copy he owned. But the authors—
“Nick Starsky and Bob Woodward.” Eyes widening in disbelief, he reread the authors’ names a second time, and then a third.
“Nicky,” he whispered and suddenly felt a huge lump in his throat, a prickle in his eyes. “Aw, Nicky, you made good.”
It was totally unreasonable to feel pride in the accomplishments of a man he didn’t know, who wasn’t really his brother at all. And the pride was laced with pain at the knowledge that if this world’s Nick had done well, then there was a damn good chance his own brother never would. Still, looking at the book gave him a feeling of renewed hope. At least one Starsky brother wasn’t a fuckup.
The idea unfolded so quietly Starsky wasn’t aware he was thinking. He flipped the book over and scanned the jacket blurb, the words vaguely familiar. Whatever else was different in this reality, it appeared that Richard Nixon hadn’t changed his spots one iota. And the team of Starsky and Woodward had lived up to the heroic image of the movie stars on the cover.
Not everything’s twisted over here. Nixon and Gunther are still bad guys. Woodward’s still a good guy, and so were Minnie and Joan. Maybe Rodell’s right. Maybe there’s a way to settle some things up.
“I got somebody bigger than the president, right here.”
Starsky looked from the book to the box at his feet and then back again.
Send it to Nick.
The idea fell into place with an almost audible click. A sense of rightness, of wholeness, poured through him, easing the crawling of his nerves and the weary pain in his heart.
“It could work,” he muttered. “How hard could it be to find the address for The Washington Post? That way somebody from here does the work. It could even look like it came from their Starsky. Maybe he got a conscience or something. I do the right thing and I don’t fuck up their world either.”
This Nick’s got a partner. Here, he’s the one understands about doin’ the right thing and going the distance. This is the way it’s meant to be.
Starsky took one last look at the book, ran his finger lightly over the names on the front and then tucked it carefully into his inside jacket pocket.
Gotta show this to Hutch. He’ll plotz.
He swept the loose material from the closet floor and threw it on top of the stack in the box. Some of it slid off onto the floor again. He picked it up and shoved it inside his jacket, hefted the carton off the floor, and checked one last time to make sure there was nothing he’d overlooked. He headed for the door.
There was no warning. No voice in his head, no feeling of unease or sickness or any of the other weirdness that had plagued him for the past twenty hours. All Starsky’s thoughts were on finding the nearest post office, how much postage to Washington would cost for a box this big and if he should put a note inside supposedly from his double, expressing remorse for his wasted life.
He was less than ten feet from the door when it flew open, and Hutchinson stopped dead at the threshold, eyes wide and mouth dropping open. Starsky’s arms were weighed down with the box of paper, and even if his hands had been free there was no gun in his shoulder rig. He stood, flat-footed, as Hutchinson reached inside his suit coat and drew his gun.
“You! More lives than fucking cat!”
The right side of Hutchinson’s face was bruised and slightly swollen. He was still a handsome man, nothing could change that, but the distortion and discoloration seemed to emphasize the superficiality of those good looks and bring out the cruelty underneath.
“You sure you dried that off real good?” Starsky casually jerked his chin in the direction of the gun. “Be a shame to have it misfire and blow your pretty face off.”
“Do you have any idea how much this gun cost me?”
Despite the situation, Starsky almost laughed out loud. Hutchinson sounded like a spoiled child, whining that somebody had played with his special toy. He wasn’t far from a full-blown pout.
“Next time I’ll shove it up your ass.” Starsky put as much schoolyard jeering into the words as he could. All he had now as weapons were words, and if he didn’t make the best use of them it would all end here.
“You know all about taking it up the ass, don’t you?” Hutchinson slid one hand over his crotch. “You want to remind me again about the good old academy days?”
“Not unless you want me to barf all over your shoes.” Starsky didn’t have to fake his outraged disgust.
He’s not Hutch. Can’t let him get to me. He’s not Hutch.
“Easier all around just to kill you,” Hutchinson said, licking his lips. “You’ve already been reported dead. Means I don’t even have to worry too much about getting rid of the body. I can close the books on you for good. And that,” he pointed at the box, “will go into the incinerator where it belonged in the first place.”
“Why are you doing this?” Starsky demanded. “You’ve got money, lots of it. You’re going up the ladder, hell, you’ll probably make chief before you’re fifty—”
“Chief?” Hutchinson laughed. “Typical. That’s the highest somebody with your gross nature can imagine, isn’t it? The police chief of Bay City.” He shook his head pityingly.
“So what are you after?” Starsky took a cautious step toward Hutchinson.
Keep him talking. He wants to tell you how superior he is. Let him.
“The big time,” Hutchinson said smugly. “Gunther might or might not win the nomination for president. And he might or might not win the election. But once he has an organization set up for a political campaign, there’s no reason it can’t keep working. And by the next election, or the one after that? Who knows how far a man with a solid background as a police officer can go? Some commendations, some money, knowing the right people in the right places—” He shrugged.
“You’re gonna push Gunther out and take over,” Starsky whispered, hoping he sounded suitably horrified and impressed. He slid another step forward.
“He always did play it too safe. He thinks being cautious covers all the angles, but he’s forgotten the most important rule of all. Just like you did.”
“Yeah? And what’s that?”
Hutchinson raised the gun. “There’s always a bigger shark out there somewhere.”
Starsky didn’t hesitate. He hurled the box straight at Hutchinson and made a break for the window. Behind him, Hutchinson cursed violently, and the gun barked. Wherever the bullet went, it didn’t come close. Starsky raised his arms over his face and threw himself forward, feeling the glass shatter under his weight, hearing the musical tinkle of falling shards. His body hit the fire escape, the glass crunching beneath him. Sharp slicing pains in his forearms and back told him he’d been cut, but nothing bad enough to slow him down.
He rolled to his feet and plunged down the fire escape, letting himself drop in huge careless leaps, slipping once to slide several steps on his butt before he caught himself. Behind him the gun roared twice more, and one of the bullets struck the handrail close enough to shower him with sparks. He jerked away, nearly falling again.
He jumped all the way from the last landing, sprawling on his stomach into the alley, feeling his jeans rip on the roughened pavement. He rolled over and over, knowing full well that if he stopped for even an instant Hutchinson would get a bead on him. Stumbling, scrabbling, only half on his feet, he managed to get around the corner and then recovered his balance and ran.
For two blocks, he ran flat out, arms and legs pumping hard. Then he whipped onto a side street and immediately slowed to a casual stroll. No running feet followed him, no outraged shouting from pedestrians, no shots. If Hutchinson had chased him down the fire escape at all, he hadn’t followed any further than that.
If he didn’t come after me, what’s he doing? Can’t call in an APB on a dead man.
Starsky drew to a stop and hunkered down in the shelter of a doorway, trying to catch his breath. It suddenly dawned on him why he wasn’t being chased, and dismay curdled through him.
He’s got what he came for—the evidence. Once that’s all burned, he’ll be after me again. The Starsky from here maybe coulda found sources to get more evidence, but I sure as hell can’t.
He groaned, and raised a hand to his head, stopping at the sound of crackling paper. Carefully he reached inside his jacket and pulled out the extra material he’d scooped off the closet floor.
A computer printout. Two of Minnie’s notebooks. Lionel Rigger’s case file.
Not much. But it’s all I got left now.
Guess Nicky’s gonna have to do some real investigative reporting after all.
He pushed himself to his feet.
Starsky left the Federal Express office whistling under his breath, with a sense of accomplishment that lightened both his heart and his feet. It had taken all of his remaining money to buy a large enough envelope for his papers and pay for shipping it to Washington. There was no way he could replace all the information he’d lost, but he’d wheedled a pen and a piece of blank paper from the girl behind the counter and spent fifteen minutes writing down every name, date and fact he could cram onto a single sheet. If Nick Starsky were the man he seemed to be, that would be enough.
On the point of sealing the envelope he’d paused, tempted to include some personal message. After a few minutes struggling to find the right words, he’d licked the flap before he could change his mind. Nothing he had to say to his own brother would have meant anything to a stranger.
Out on the sidewalk, Starsky paused and took a look around. Evening was coming on, and though it was not quite dusk yet, the shadows were lengthening along the ground.
Twenty-four hours. No wonder I’m dead on my feet.
The museum wasn’t visible from where he stood, but it wasn’t far away. He’d taken another taxi, sweating every tenth mile on the meter with fear that he’d use up too much money and not have enough left for postage. He’d been lucky that there was a Federal Express office close to the museum; there wasn’t a post office in miles. As it was, he’d barely made up the last dollar digging nickels and pennies out of his pockets. He’d kept looking over his shoulder as well, half expecting that Hutchinson had put out an APB after all, and that a black and white would appear behind the cab.
Now that the papers were safely on their way, Starsky let himself relax.
I’ve done what I can here. I’m heading home.
He still wasn’t sure what he was going to do when he got to the museum. Hutch’s cry of “Come back through the mirror!” echoed in his head, but what did that mean?
One step at a time. Just get there first. Last mile.
Starsky turned in the direction of the museum just as a dark Cadillac squealed around the corner and pulled up across the street. Hutchinson jumped out before the car even stopped rolling and charged toward him, gun drawn.
At home it would have been no contest. Starsky had the sprinting speed, but over any distance Hutch’s longer legs and regular training gave him the advantage. He could only hope that Hutchinson was as slack about keeping in shape as he was about fighting.
Distance and time both seemed to warp as he ran. He saw the museum building from blocks away, but it seemed that he ran for an hour and never got any closer. His chest ached, his leg muscles burned, and a ferocious stitch started up just under his rib cage on the left side. He gasped for breaths that he couldn’t drag in deeply enough. Sweat ran down into his eyes, and he blinked and twitched.
His legs were weakening, shaking. He had no strength left, no resources to draw on. Another few yards and he’d stumble, then go down. He threw his head back, gulping frantically for more air.
And saw, dead ahead, the museum steps.
A last surge of strength carried him up the stairs and onto the landing in front of the main doors. He looked around. Hutchinson was half a block back, looking in as bad shape as Starsky felt, but not stopping, either.
Starsky yanked on the door.
He yanked again, feeling panic well up inside him. The door stayed stubbornly closed. He looked over his shoulder again. Hutchinson was closer. He seemed to realize that Starsky was trapped.
They’re closed. I’m too late.
There was sudden movement in the gloom beyond the doors, and Starsky caught sight of the security guard he had seen the night before. Desperately, he pounded on the door, then pulled out his badge and held it up to the glass.
The guard stopped and looked toward the door. Starsky pounded again, and waved his badge back and forth.
Slowly, the guard moved toward the door. Starsky glanced back. Hutchinson had paused at the bottom of the museum steps, a terrible smile on his face.
No! Jesus, no! Gotta get out!
The door in front of him opened a crack.
“You again?” The guard said. “What are—”
Starsky pulled the door open and staggered past him, ignoring his shouted protest, and headed for the back hallway as fast as he could manage.
The stairway to the basement seemed to have more turns than it had the day before. Starsky’s head swam as he pounded down and around and around again. When he reached the bottom of the stairs, he took two lurching steps and fell flat. Behind him, he heard yelling from the main floor, and it gave him one final burst of energy. He dragged himself upright and down the hall to the storeroom he’d left the night before.
His hand was wet with sweat and slipped uselessly on the doorknob before he finally managed to turn the mechanism. And then he was inside. He fumbled at the wall and snapped the overhead light on.
His eyes went to the mirror, and he almost groaned in disappointment. He’d pinned so much hope on it, yet there it stood, same as yesterday—nothing impressive, no Star Trek-like flashing transporter lights or soft beeping sounds. It was just an ugly, weirdly-shaped upright mirror.
Am I nuts? A fuckin’ mirror? If this doesn’t work, I’m trapped and I’m dead.
Despite his intense disappointment, he moved forward for a closer look, hoping he could see something—hell, anything—that would help him figure out what to do. He wasn’t sure how long what he saw took to really register.
Three people faced him through the mirror. One was Babcock and another a tall skinny woman with glasses whom he’d never seen before. Their mouths moved, and they pointed at him in excitement.
And between them was Hutch. Hutch turning to catch sight of him, his face lighting up so intensely with joy and relief that Starsky felt warmed even through the glass and whatever distance there might be between the two rooms.
He could see Hutch’s mouth moving, too, but couldn’t hear his voice. What he could hear came from outside the storeroom, pounding feet down the hallway, closer and closer.
Trust what you know.
I know Hutch.
Starsky tucked his chin down, closed his eyes and charged straight for the mirror.
When they got down to the car, Babcock and Deschênes climbed into the back of the Torino without a word. Hutch put the pedal to the metal, pulling away with an engine roar worthy of Starsky himself. The trip to the museum was made in tense silence.
The part of Hutch’s consciousness that concentrated on driving was mildly astonished to see that the roads were dry and mostly clear of debris and stranded cars. There were still places without power, but nowhere near as many as the night before. Sometime during the night and day he’d spent huddled inside Metro, consumed by his frantic search, the rest of the world had gotten on with their lives and cleaned up the city.
He felt a bitter pang of envy for people who could just clean up and carry on, and then a flush of shame as he remembered Sweet Alice and the rest of the people sheltered at Huggy’s. He wasn’t the only one who’d lost everything that mattered in the blink of an eye.
Would I have the same grace Sweet Alice showed last night if I lost Starsky?
Hutch was pretty sure of the answer. He would survive, do his duty, endure—because he would owe it to the memory of his friend—but it would be an existence, not a life.
Not without Starsky.
He glanced at the clock and pressed harder on the accelerator.
About two blocks from the museum, Hutch slowed the Torino. Over his shoulder, he said, “Is there a back way in, just in case Cole gets here a little early?”
“Yes,” Deschênes replied. “Turn right at the alley. Be careful.”
Hutch could see why. The Torino barely fit into the passageway, and he had to maneuver carefully to keep from losing a mirror to a dumpster. The alley was short, and it ended at a small open space holding three cars and a small loading dock. Deschênes was out of the car even as the motor died, sprinting for the door beside the main loading area. Hutch and Babcock caught up to her as she fumbled with her keys, swearing under her breath.
The door opened straight into a dank stairwell, and Deschênes led them one flight down into the basement hallway. As he stepped out of the stairwell, Hutch took a sharp breath.
My God, has it only been twenty-four hours since I was in here? It feels like a year and a half.
Now that he was here, Hutch found himself reluctant to enter the storeroom. He was gripped by a superstitious fear that the weird tangle of guesswork and logic that had led him this far would evaporate the instant he actually saw the mirror at the center of it all. Afraid that he’d realize his imagination had lead him down a blind alley and wasted precious time on a phantom.
Squaring his shoulders, Hutch pushed ahead to the storeroom and yanked the door open, bracing himself, not entirely sure what to expect. Except for a layer of fingerprint powder on almost every surface, the museum storeroom looked nearly the same as it had the night before: neatly stacked boxes and half a shelving unit along the wall, with some extra shelves leaning against it. All slightly rearranged by the searchers last night, but otherwise the same.
And in the center of the room, the mirror.
Hutch approached it cautiously, uncertain of what to do, afraid even to touch it. Deschênes had no such qualms. She brushed by him and went up to it, running her fingertips over the frame, peering closely at it from every angle. After a moment she straightened up, looking totally baffled.
“This is not natural,” she said in a bewildered tone. “No culture I’ve ever heard of could have constructed this. No wonder the government is trying to hide it.”
“Can you see anything that might help us understand how to use it?” Hutch bent to examine the frame, but could see nothing that he recognized as a control panel or operating mechanism.
Deschênes shook her head slowly. “I am sorry. I will keep looking, but I see nothing of help to us.”
Hutch’s shoulders sagged, and he put a hand over his face to hide the sudden burn of tears in his eyes. He had been so sure this was the answer, so sure that when he entered this room he would see Starsky looking back at him through the mirror. But the glass was blank, reflecting back only the room around him.
“I blew it,” Hutch said dully. “Starsky isn’t there. It’s just a mirror.” Something inside him shriveled under the cold blast of reality.
“Uh, Hutch? Take another look,” Babcock said softly. As Hutch turned, he added, in a distinctly frightened voice, “You ever see a mirror do this?” Babcock’s uninjured arm was stretched out, fingertips trembling just at the surface of the glass. A barely visible blue glow was spreading out through the glass from that point of contact.
There was no reflection of Babcock in the mirror.
“Mon dieu!” Deschênes sounded scared, too but there was an undercurrent of excitement to her voice. She moved to stand beside Babcock and waved both arms. “We are not there!”
Shocked, Hutch stared at the reflection. It was true. The mirror still seemed to show the room behind him, but there was no longer an image of the three people standing in front of it. He peered more closely and saw the shelves and boxes were not disarranged at all in the room in the mirror, but still stacked neatly as they had been on his side the previous night.
A wild flush of triumph ran through him as hope revived.
Hang on, buddy. Almost home.
“I was right.” He repeated it more loudly. “I was right! It isn’t a mirror. It’s a door.” He took a step toward the mirror, only to have Babcock block him with one shoulder.
“Careful! What are you gonna do?” Babcock said. “You heard what Cole said. They don’t know how it works or why or where it goes. Suppose you get half-way through and get, I dunno, stuck?”
“Starsky made it through. No reason I can’t.”
Babcock grimaced. “Yeah, but where is he?”
Hutch checked to make sure the Magnum was loose in its holster.
“Not where we can see him, but maybe he hasn’t figured out yet what happened to him. I’m going after him.”
He tried to take another step forward, and this time Deschênes gripped his arm. “Don’t be a fool!”
He shook her loose. “I’ve got a feeling there’s not much time. I have to get to him and get him back before—”
“And how do you know that this door leads to the same place he went? And how do you intend to get back yourself?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know!” he yelled. “I just know I have to find him, that he’d do it for me, and he’s—”
“Holy shit!” Babcock broke in.
Hutch and Deschênes whirled, staring at the mirror. In the room on the other side, the door had swung open, and a blur of brown and blue catapulted through it.
“Starsky!” Hutch shouted.
Starsky paused, then seemed to catch sight of them in the mirror. His eyes widened and a huge grin split his face. The next instant he was heading straight for the mirror at a dead run.
The yell seemed to start in mid-word as a flash of blue light broke open the surface of the mirror. Starsky popped through the light like a jack-in-the-box and tripped on the bottom edge of the frame, tumbling across the floor to slam into Hutch’s legs. Behind him, Hutch heard Babcock and Deschênes gasping and jabbering away, but he paid no attention.
“Starsky!” Hutch threw himself to the floor, grabbing at his partner. Starsky struggled away, scooting backward on his butt and elbows, eyes fixed over Hutch’s shoulder.
Hutch looked back and felt cold shock right to his fingertips. Another figure entered the mirror room. Scrambling clumsily to his feet, he turned to face . . .
The man in his dream. The man who wore his face.
Seeing his alternate self while awake and conscious was worse, far worse, than his nightmare. His double wore a look of thwarted rage and frustration, every line of his face marred by arrogance and cruelty. Hutch had no doubt that all the demons he struggled with in his own soul had been allowed free rein in his double. Judging by his murderous look, there was no doubt of what he was after.
Who he was after.
Hutch wasn’t conscious of drawing the Magnum, He held it in a slightly shaky hand, pointing it at the mirror, and watched that misbegotten reflection of himself do the same. Its eyes fixed on Starsky huddled at his feet.
Deliberately, Hutch stepped forward between his double and Starsky.
“You want him, you bastard?” he grated. “Try me instead.”
He steadied his gun, watched the figure in the mirror do the same, a coldly reckless smile on his lips.
I think we both might die.
Hutch didn’t flinch.
“Do not fire!” Deschênes gripped his arm urgently.
Hutch didn’t take his eyes from the mirror.
“Get back, Doc. This could get bad.”
“Attends-moi! Think!” “Deschênes said fiercely, and tried to give his arm a shake. “Would people capable of building this not have a way to protect themselves from the other side? Do not fire!”
Hutch hesitated, lowering the gun slightly. His double saw it, and brute triumph spread across his face. His finger tightened on the trigger.
As if in slow motion, Hutch watched the big gun recoil. It almost seemed that he could see the bullet emerging from the end of the barrel, heading for the glass.
There was a brief sputtering noise, and a small but brilliant flare of light raced around the edge of the mirror. Without thinking, Hutch pushed Deschênes backward, yelled, “Get down!” and threw himself on top of Starsky.
He was expecting an explosion, and there was . . . something. A huge soundless flash that burned even through his closed eyelids; feeling dragged in a million different directions, as if every atom of his body was on its way to a different galaxy.
And then nothing.
After a long moment of silence, Hutch dared to uncurl himself from around Starsky and peered up through watering eyes. The mirror was a sheet of vacant, dark gray, neither reflecting nor transmitting. A hairline crack ran diagonally from top to bottom.
The mirror crack’d from side to side, Hutch thought, and stifled a hysterical laugh.
Behind him, he heard Babcock say in an admiring tone, “Dr. Deschênes, I do believe we’ve broken a national security asset.”
“Would you have preferred an interdimensional gun battle?” The words were tart as ever, but Deschênes’ voice trembled badly. Hutch looked around to see them both on the floor, Babcock lying over Deschênes, much as Hutch himself had covered Starsky. Babcock did not appear at all inclined to move.
Hutch turned his attention to Starsky, who still lay sprawled out beside him.
“Starsk? Are you all right?” He reached down for Starsky’s shoulders. “Let me take a look at you.”
“Get away!” Starsky tried to scrabble away, flailing out with one arm.
“Starsky, hold still. It’s me.”
“No! Don’t touch me!” Starsky’s eyes were unfocused and wide.
Everything seemed to slow down. The air was thick in Hutch’s lungs and his legs felt like stone. The pain clawing his heart and guts was unlike anything he’d ever felt. No matter what had happened to Starsky in the past, he’d turned to Hutch for comfort like a magnet to steel. What could have possibly happened in twenty-four hours that left his fearless, affectionate partner shrinking from him like a frightened child?
“Starsk. It’s me, partner. It’s Hutch.” He made his voice quiet and soothing, let his hand fall back to his side. Above all else, he had to stay calm and unthreatening. “Come on. Nothing to be afraid of. It’s going to be all right. It’s just me.”
Starsky tilted his head as if listening, and then his eyes cleared. For the first time since he’d hurtled back into their world, he really looked at Hutch. Tentatively he raised his hand, then said, “Is it really you?”
“It’s me, buddy. It’s Hutch.”
“But is it really you?”
“It’s the real me. I promise. He’s gone. He can’t get you now. See?” He gestured behind them toward the mirror. “The mirror broke, and there’s no way he can get through.”
Starsky didn’t even glance at the mirror. Instead he shifted slightly closer.
“Are we friends?”
The quiver in Starsky’s voice broke Hutch’s heart and his self-control at the same time. “Jesus, mushbrain, I love you! Don’t you know that? Love you to death!”
Starsky made a broken little sound that was either a laugh or a sob and flung himself at Hutch so hard he almost drove them both to the ground. His arms closed around Hutch’s waist, hands clutching fiercely on his back, face buried against his shoulder. Hutch pulled him in tight.
Starsky was here, he was alive, he sounded sane, if terrified, and he remembered Hutch. The world could be dealt with later. For now nothing else mattered.
Hutch wasn’t sure how long their embrace lasted, but he finally realized that Starsky was squirming.
“Hutch!” a high, breathless voice insisted. “Squishin’ me!”
He loosened his hold, expecting Starsky to pull away. Instead, his partner simply took a deep breath and then leaned back against him.
“Buddy?” Hutch gently tipped Starsky’s chin up. “C’mon, look at me. I want to see if you’re hurt.”
Starsky obediently looked upward. “Not hurt. Pretty tired, and real freaked out, but I’m okay.”
“Let’s get you out of here then before the cavalry comes. We need to get you to a doctor.”
“Don’t need a doctor,” came the mutinous mutter from beside him.
“Hutch, I haven’t been stabbed or shot or beat up. And if something is wrong with me, what’s a doctor gonna do about it, huh? I don’t think there are doctors with medical degrees from the twilight zone around here.”
“You’ve been missing for twenty-four hours. We have to get you checked out!”
“Uh, guys, I think you need to argue about this someplace else.” Babcock crouched down in front of them and tapped his wristwatch.
“Shit!” Hutch pulled away and scrambled to his feet. “We’ve only got ten minutes. Sorry, buddy, but we’ve gotta move.” He leaned over and gripped Starsky under the arms.
“I can get up,” Starsky grumbled, and helped hoist himself to his feet. He swayed a little but when Hutch tightened his hold, he pulled away, and took a cautious step. “I’m okay.”
He took another step and then looked back at the mirror, and from there around the room, taking in the disheveled contents. “What the hell happened in here?”
“Long story. How about we tell it someplace else?” Hutch gave him a gentle push in the direction of the door.
As the four of them exited into the hallway, Starsky paused, and stared back at the mirror. He glanced at Hutch, eyes once more unfocused, holding a touch of panic.
“You sure it’s broken?” he said, so quietly that Hutch only heard because he was stood so closely beside him.
Hutch shook his head. “I don’t know. But I’d say if it weren’t broken, we’d know about it.”
Starsky opened his mouth, and Hutch shook his head. “Later, okay? We really need to move now.”
Starsky nodded, pulling the storeroom door shut with a firm thunk. He shuddered once, violently, from head to foot, and then turned back to Hutch.
Starsky stuck close to Hutch’s side until they emerged from the building into the parking lot. Once in the open, he threw back his head and turned slowly around. Before Hutch could stop him, he broke away and ran over to the Torino. He looked the big car over for a moment and ran a loving hand along the hood. His smile was blinding.
“I’m back!” His voice echoed through the small courtyard. “Oh, man, Hutch, you shoulda seen what they did to my car!”
Hutch shook his head, biting his lip to hide a smile. “Trust you to think of the tomato first.”
He turned to Deschênes and held out his hand. “Thanks, Doc. We owe you one. I think you may have saved all our lives back there.”
Deschênes grinned. “I cannot say I have enjoyed the experience, but it has been . . . interesting.” She gripped his hand and then surprised him with an enthusiastic hug and a kiss on the cheek. “You will have to share the story sometime. What happened on the other side.”
“I just hope you don’t end up getting deported. I mean, how are you going to explain all this?”
“Explain what?” Deschênes batted her eyelashes with an innocence that would have done credit to Starsky himself. “I have been most stringently warned by an agent of your federal government not to interfere, and of course as a good citizen, I have complied with his instructions. I will be totally shocked and surprised tomorrow to find any damage and will call loudly for the discipline of the careless agents of the police who treated my museum so badly. “
“Um, Lou,” Babcock said diffidently. “You know, what you probably need is a really good alibi.”
“You know, being able to prove you were someplace else while all this—” he gestured at the closed door, “was happening. Now, I know a place, Trattoria Milano? It’s got nice tables out in the garden We could have some dinner, make sure the waiter notices us, pay by credit card to prove we were there? How’s that sound?”
“Dinner together? And then, perhaps afterward, some dancing?” Deschênes’s smile was pure flirtation. “Just for the purposes of an alibi, of course.”
“Well, not all of it for the alibi.” Babcock’s face was a little pink, but he returned the grin.
Deschênes turned to Hutch. “Will you two need help with your alibi?”
Hutch bit back another grin at Babcock’s frantic headshake.
“No, thanks. I’m taking Starsky home. We have to notify Dobey and get a story straight. And I’m still going to try getting him to a doctor.”
“No doctor,” Starsky said firmly.
“Five minutes, guys. We’d better make like trees,” Babcock said urgently. At Deschênes’ puzzled look, he grinned. “Gotta leave. Never mind, it’s English. Starsky, good to have you back. Hutch, take care, y’hear? We’ll all have to have a beer and figure this out in a day or two.”
“My auto is still over there.” Deschênes pointed to the other cars. She and Babcock hurried across the courtyard, and after a few steps, Babcock took her hand. Deschênes paused beside a blue Volkswagen heavily dotted with rust and primer spots and hauled out her keys again.
Beside Hutch, Starsky began to laugh softly.
Starsky was staring at the VW. “Nothing.” He turned to look at Hutch, still chuckling. “Just—what goes around comes around, I guess.”
The VW roared to life, sputtered a few times, then pulled into a tight turn and rocketed off down the alleyway, Deschênes and Babcock both waving as they passed the two detectives.
“C’mon, buddy,” Hutch pulled open the Torino’s door. “Let’s go home.”
Starsky settled back in the Torino and closed his eyes. Hutch cranked the key, steering the car carefully down the alley and out to the street, moving much more sedately than Deschênes’ VW. Starsky felt him making a series of quick lefts and rights, almost as if trying to lose a tail, but he couldn’t bring himself to worry about it. Every mile they put between themselves and the museum made him feel more secure.
Exhaustion threatened to drag him under, and he ached every place his body had hit the ground, but the ugly burning and clawing through his nerves and bones were gone. They had winked out the instant he’d hurled himself at the mirror and crashed into Hutch.
He still wasn’t quite sure how he’d done it, and at that moment made a conscious decision not to worry about it. It might matter to some people, but David Starsky wasn’t one of them. He was home, Hutch was beside him, and everything else was just like those things that got written up in tabloid headlines, forgotten ten minutes later. The familiar deep grumble of the engine, the smell of old leather and sweat and coffee that permeated the air, even the slightly softer spring of the passenger seat under his rear—those were what was real now.
Starsky rolled his head sideways on the seat back and cracked his eyes open slightly to get a look at Hutch. Even the deepening twilight couldn’t hide the fact that his partner looked awful. There were huge dark pouches under his eyes, and his face was drawn with weariness, adding years to his age. One side of his mustache had a slightly ragged look, as if he’d been chewing on it in nervous tension.
This is what he’ll look like as an old man, Starsky thought. He smiled slightly, imagining Hutch, white-haired and wrinkled. There was a deep sense of comfort at the thought of them aging together.
Still be beautiful. Still be mine.
There was a certainty and satisfaction to that thought as well.
Starsky’s comfortable half-doze was broken when Hutch suddenly slammed on the brake and said, “Shit!” under his breath.
“What?” Starsky started up and looked around, heart hammering and cold sweat on his palms. His hand reached instinctively for a gun that wasn’t there. “What’s wrong?”
“I forgot,” Hutch said, sounding guilty. “I gave Sweet Alice the key to your place.” He looked at Starsky apologetically.
“Alice? Why’d ya do that?”
“She got burned out last night in the storm. Didn’t have any place to go. And she still tried to help me . . . ” Hutch shrugged. “I couldn’t just leave her sitting at Huggy’s.”
A hot flare of green-eyed jealousy shot through Starsky. It surprised him, and he tried to push it back.
Can’t put a leash on him, now can I? He’s never taken Sweet Alice up on it before. But if he plays with her straps again I might kick him in the nuts.
“Why not your place?” He hoped he’d put in just the right amount of normal, disinterested curiosity.
“She has more sense than I do,” Hutch said with a little smile that couldn’t mask the guilt and regret in his eyes. “She knows better than to feed hopes that can’t survive.”
Starsky nodded. “It’s okay. Rather go to Venice anyway.” He tried to keep his voice light. “Want to make sure you’re really you.”
Hutch winced. “Did—did that, that other . . . hurt you?”
Hutch caught it. “Starsk?” His voice trembled.
Starsky put his hand on Hutch’s arm and felt the tension vibrating through him like a high note on an over-strung guitar. Hutch was spooked big-time.
“It’s okay. He never got a hand on me.” Starsky rubbed Hutch’s arm soothingly. “All talk, no action. “
Hutch nodded and started to drive again, but the jerky way he took the next corner told Starsky he still wasn’t convinced. Starsky leaned back against the seat and closed his eyes again, but left his hand where it was. After a few minutes Hutch relaxed a little, his driving smoothing out.
Starsky figured he’d gotten out of cars and climbed the stairs at Venice Place hundreds of times over their years together. They’d spent a lot of time there, both good and bad: quiet evenings hanging out, parties, wakes, tending each other’s illnesses. There had never been a time when he’d felt he couldn’t just show up and walk in. But this time, as he stood on the sidewalk in front of the building looking up toward Hutch’s windows, he felt a sense of welcome deeper than any he’d known before.
Welcoming or not, the climb up the stairs reminded Starsky just how tired he was. He was stiffening up from his tumble down the fire escape, and a couple of the cuts throbbed. But thinking back to what could have happened, he wasn’t going to complain.
’Cause if I do, Hutch is gonna stuff me in the car and drag me to the emergency room in handcuffs.
As the door closed behind them, he heard Hutch turn the lock with a definite click and give a gut-deep sigh of relief. He looked over his shoulder, one eyebrow raised.
“Sorry.” Hutch looked sheepish. “Kinda spooked, I guess.”
Starsky nodded. “Guess it was harder on you,” he said. “At least I kinda had it figured out, but—”
The rest of the sentence got smothered as Hutch stepped forward and yanked him into a ferocious hug. “Worse for me?” Hutch whispered. “Oh, God, only you would . . .” his voice died away. Starsky could feel the big body trembling again, and he returned the embrace, shifting his stance so he could take more of their weight. Hutch lowered his forehead onto Starsky’s shoulder and held on, shaking, while Starsky stroked his hair.
When he finally let go and straightened up, his face was slightly pink. “Sorry,” he muttered. “Didn’t mean to get all weak-kneed on you.”
Starsky tenderly ran his hand through the tangled blond hair again.
“Know the feeling.” He squeezed Hutch’s shoulders lightly, and without even thinking leaned forward to press his lips to Hutch’s mouth.
For a first kiss, it wasn’t bad. If he’d thought about it beforehand, Starsky might have worried so much about the mustache and the slight height difference, and Hutch just generally being a guy, that he’d have frozen and screwed it up. But with no real warning for either of them, it wasn’t bad.
In fact, pretty darn good. Hutch’s mouth was warm and soft, and he opened up the second Starsky pushed a little, sucking in his tongue with a moan that Starsky felt all down his body. The mustache rubbing against his face felt like strokes from a soft paintbrush. Starsky shivered and went for a deeper taste.
Then Hutch was shoving him roughly away, his eyes wide and his face splotched with scarlet instead of pink. “Don’t!” His voice was hoarse and shaky.
“Hutch, it’s okay. I love you.”
Hutch turned aside, the red fading from his face, leaving him almost chalky pale. He scrubbed both hands over his face, and then looked back at Starsky with tormented eyes.
“I love you too, but this isn’t right.”
“You’ve never even looked at a man before, and now you’re coming on to me? You’re just confused. Don’t play around. It’s not right.” Hutch’s voice trailed away weakly.
“Wanna bet? You gonna tell me you weren’t dreaming about us while I was off in never-never land?” Starsky challenged.
“Dreaming?” Hutch whispered.
“Yeah. Dreams. You and me, naked, in my bed, looking at each other in the mirror, happily fucked out and ready to start all over again? You gonna tell me you didn’t see any of that?”
“No.” Hutch’s face was flaming again. “I saw it. Felt it.”
“So what’s the big deal?”
“Starsk, please . . .” Hutch stretched out one hand. “We can’t.”
Starsky felt his heart drop to his toenails. The one thing that had never occurred to him was that Hutch might not want to—might not be able to—love him back.
Might as well go for broke. Lay it on the line once and for all.
“Why not? I love you and you love me, and neither of us is drunk or crazy or underage. What’s the problem?”
Hutch made his way unsteadily over to the couch and slumped down on it as if all his bones had melted. He put his head down into his hands. Starsky stood over him, waiting helplessly for the ax to fall.
When Hutch finally looked up, his face was grave and determined.
“Yes, I love you. I love you and right now I want you so damn much I’m not sure if I’m not crazy. But if your last twenty-four hours have been anything like mine, your head’s so messed up you don’t know if you’re coming or going.” At Starsky’s slight snicker, the pink returned to his face. He shook his head. “I do want you. And right now, you’re so happy and grateful to be back, you might even think you want me. But what if I do take you to bed? And tomorrow or the next day or next week or two months from now you get this all worked out in your head and you realize you aren’t in love with me? You’re just glad to be home? Glad I’m not . . . not him? And that I used you knowing you were messed up? What kind of a friend would that make me?”
Starsky felt a flash of anger run through him like a shot of moonshine, raw red heat frizzling every nerve.
“Use me? Just what the hell d’you think I am, Hutchinson, huh? One of your dumb ass bimbos?”
Hutch’s stricken look stopped him cold.
“Please don’t be angry,” Hutch said softly. “I want to do the right thing for you. More than with anybody else in my life, I want to do it right. And that means I can’t let you push this until I know you’re sure.”
With anybody else, the assumption that he needed protection from himself would have set off another flare of temper. But Starsky had seen that “watch out for my partner” look of Hutch’s often enough.
Dumb blond. He’ll do the right thing if it kills him. And the way he’s looking at my mouth right now, it just might.
“At least I don’t have to worry about whether I came back to the right place or not. You’re my Hutch, all right.” With a sigh, Starsky leaned down and gently kissed Hutch’s nose. “So, if we’re not gonna do the horizontal boogie, how do you want to play this? Your call.”
Hutch shivered all over, and the pink flared back into his face. Starsky risked a quick glance down to his lap and had to hide a smile.
Not kidding about how much he wants me.
“I think,” Hutch said after a moment’s silence, “that you should grab a shower while I make us some supper and call Dobey.” At Starsky’s grimace, Hutch raised his hand. “A lot of people have been looking for you and worrying about you. We have to call the search off, and we have to come up with some kind of a reasonable explanation for what happened. The longer we put that off, the more likely it is something will bite us in the butt big time.”
Starsky nodded reluctantly. “You’re right. I just wanna forget all of it, but it won’t go away unless we make sure it’s buried.” He tried out a sultry smile and an eyebrow waggle. “You could use a shower, too. Wanna save hot water?” Hutch pointed his finger, and Starsky backed off, hands in the air. “Just a suggestion.”
Hutch hauled himself to his feet and put his hands on Starsky’s shoulders. His eyes were soft and loving. After a long look that made Starsky feel that he was being memorized, he tugged gently, and Starsky went willingly into the embrace.
“I’m not saying no, Starsk.” Hutch’s voice was warm against Starsky’s ear, sending a pleasant tingle down his back. “I’m just saying let’s not rush. Let’s make sure we get it right.”
Starsky turned his head and pressed a light kiss to Hutch’s cheek. “I can live with ‘not right now,’ he murmured. “But not too long, okay?”
Hutch nodded jerkily and stepped away.
On the way to the shower, Starsky found himself making a circuit of the apartment. He ran his hand along the piano keyboard, savoring the delicate cascade of notes and the two slight flats that Hutch could never quite get tuned out. He detoured into the greenhouse and rubbed leaves from several different plants between his fingers, taking in the texture and the scent of clean, fresh green. A pat for the ugly little statue on the coffee table and a quick stroke for the afghan on the back of the couch completed the round.
He noticed Hutch watching him from the kitchen with a look of concern on his face, and smiled ruefully. “Just checking,” he said.
Hutch nodded and pulled the fridge door open without a word.
Walking into the bathroom, Starsky yanked back the shower curtain and started the water running. It wasn’t until he stripped down to his underwear that he realized he’d unconsciously kept his back to the bathroom mirror. Angrily, he told himself to turn around and look, but at the thought every muscle clenched and froze. The memory of Hutchinson’s face, his hand on Starsky’s neck, brought a wash of cold sweat all over him. His throat went dust dry.
Can’t look. Can’t see that again. Can’t do this. He felt his knees buckle and slumped against the wall, leaning his forehead against the tile.
“Starsky? You okay in there?” Hutch’s voice just outside the door pulled him out of the spiral of panic.
“’M fine,” he managed to croak.
There was a moment of silence, and he could picture Hutch standing there, face crinkled with worry, debating whether or not he should open the door and see for himself. The thought brought a shaky smile to his face.
I’m home. This is my Hutch.
“I’m fine,” he repeated more loudly. “How’s supper doin’?”
Hutch muttered something Starsky couldn’t hear over the sound of running water and then moved away.
Starsky straightened up and finished undressing. It was only as he was about to step into the shower that he realized he still hadn’t looked at the mirror.
What’s it matter? Don’t need to—
“No fuckin’ way!” The words came out as a snarl, and Starsky whirled to face the mirror, body tensed, fists clenched and ready to lash out.
It was a mirror. A plain, ordinary bathroom mirror, slightly fogged over, but reflecting nothing except what was directly in front of it. Starsky’s breath whooshed out of him. He stared at the mirror for another few seconds, cataloging everything he could see in it, comparing it to what was around him.
Nothing out of place at all.
With a snort, he stepped into the shower and pulled the curtain.
Maybe Hutch is right about taking it slow after all. If I’m this freaked, it won’t take much to blow everything all to hell.
Damn, I hate when he’s right.
Hot water had never felt so good. Starsky let the warm spray loosen up his bruised muscles and inspected the cuts he could reach. None of them were deep or long enough to need stitches, though a couple would be sore for a few days.
Got off lucky, he thought and shivered, thinking of those who hadn’t been so lucky.
Breathing in the warm steam scented with Hutch’s soap and shampoo, the last knots of fear in his shoulders and stomach gradually eased off. Hutch always smelled good to Starsky, with a scent he’d come to think of as green: clean, light, and natural, without the chemical undertone that so many soaps and aftershaves held. Now he could add something else to that description.
He felt his cock harden and hastily turned the water to cold.
If Hutch is gonna keep the brakes on for a while I’m gonna have to keep my dick calmed down. Walk around all night with a hard-on and one of us will do something stupid, that’s a guarantee.
It was only the thought that Hutch would probably want a share of the hot water that finally got Starsky out of the shower. He wrapped himself in Hutch’s bathrobe and tossed his dirty clothes into a pile in the corner. As he shaved he let himself check out the mirror again, and once more saw nothing reflected in it but Hutch’s steamy, familiar bathroom. The faint smell of food began to mingle with the scents from the shower, and Starsky hastily rubbed the water out of his hair and pulled Hutch’s comb through the tangles, swearing under his breath.
The wonderful smells intensified when he opened the door and led him into the kitchen, his stomach growling in earnest. Thick slices of leftover meatloaf were browning in one skillet while Hutch tended a mixture of shredded potatoes, onions and peppers in another.
“Oh man, your special potatoes?” Starsky leaned over the frying pan for a good long sniff. “You do love me.”
He’d meant it partly as a joke and was surprised when Hutch looked away, blushing slightly.
“Hey.” He reached out to gently tug at Hutch’s hair, pulling his head around.
Hutch’s eyes were tender and his smile as warm and affectionate as Starsky had ever seen it. “Oh, I do, Starsk. Believe it.” He cupped Starsky’s cheek for a moment.
Starsky’s cock jerked. Reality narrowed down to Hutch’s hand against his face, Hutch’s eyes holding his, going smoky blue. He could feel his heart beating, slow and heavy, like the far-off rumble of thunder vibrating through his body.
Oh boy, have I got it bad.
Hutch seemed to realize they were heading at warp speed toward the line he didn’t want to cross. He yanked his hand away and took a step back, turning to the stove and gripping the spatula as if turning the potatoes in the frying pan required the concentration of a marksman on the target range.
“I, um, called Dobey.” Hutch had to clear his throat twice before the words came out clearly.
Starsky drew a deep shuddering breath and pulled himself together. “What did he say?”
Hutch flashed him a rueful sideways grin. “Bellowed about not following procedure.” Starsky laughed.
“The official story is going to be that I found you unconscious behind a dumpster a couple of blocks from the museum. You can’t remember anything since noon yesterday, you have no memory of ever being in the museum and you have no idea who knocked you out or how you got where you were.”
Starsky snagged a stray piece of red pepper and pulled his hand back hastily when Hutch lifted the spatula.
“Think anybody will buy that?”
“Best we can do. Dobey thinks with the mirror broken, the government’s biggest worry is going to be keeping everything quiet. If we make it clear we won’t shoot our mouths off, they won’t have a reason to worry about us.”
“As if anybody would believe any of this anyway,” Starsky groused. “Hey, maybe we could write a movie script!”
Hutch groaned. “One venture into Hollywood wasn’t enough for you?”
“Nope, this time you’re the hero. They can’t cut your line.” Starsky twisted away from the swat Hutch aimed at his rear.
“Don’t feel much like a hero,” Hutch admitted. “Just tired and confused.”
“Go on, then. Get your shower. You’ll feel better. I’ll stir the potatoes.”
Hutch hesitated for a moment. Starsky snagged the spatula away from him and gave him an encouraging elbow in the direction of the bathroom.
“Okay. But no sneaking in extra garlic,” Hutch warned.
“Aw, c’mon, just a little more,” Starsky pouted.
“Do you want to get kissed again?” Hutch said, and then stopped, a stunned look on his face. “I can’t believe I said that.”
Starsky laughed out loud. “In that case, no more garlic. But it better be a damn good kiss.”
“ . . . and then I saw you and Babcock and what’sername? In the mirror. And I knew I was right. So I ran for it. And here I am.”
Hutch shook his head.
“I gotta tell you, Starsk, I’m not sure even Hollywood would buy this one.”
Starsky chuckled. “I was there, and I can hardly buy it.”
He felt pleasantly relaxed and full. The two of them sat at the kitchen table, empty plates in front of them. The first helping of meatloaf and potatoes had gone down in silence, both of them so hungry they had no attention to spare for anything other than food. Over seconds they’d traded stories. Halfway through Hutch’s dream of Starsky getting his throat cut, Starsky jumped up and pulled two beers out of the fridge. He almost expected they’d end up getting plastered as they’d often done in the past to break the tension after a rough case. But Hutch latched onto his hand while he described the scene at Huggy’s, and instead of knocking back the booze they held hands. It felt a little funny at first, eating with one hand and holding Hutch’s hand in the other, but the connection between them was worth the slight awkwardness.
Starsky’s attention sharpened. Hutch’s voice sounded funny, and he wouldn’t look directly into Starsky’s face. He looked embarrassed and slightly scared.
“What?” Starsky shook their joined hands lightly. “C’mon, say it.”
“The other me. Hutchinson. He didn’t . . . do anything?”
“Rape me, you mean?” Starsky said quietly. Hutch nodded, his eyes fixed grimly on his knife and fork. “You already asked me that.” Hutch flushed and tried to pull away. Starsky tightened his grip. “No. Look at me, babe.” Hutch glanced up reluctantly. “I wouldn’t hide that from you. Not now. Maybe before, but not now. He wanted to kill me, but he wasn’t even much good at that. Nothing else.”
Hutch dropped his head back and stared up at the ceiling, blinking fiercely. “Sorry. I just couldn’t stop thinking. With the way I feel, and with the way he was, what if those feelings got all twisted up into . . and you said he hit Sweet Alice, and I kept thinking . . .”
“Shhh. Stop it. He didn’t touch me. And if he had it wouldn’t be your fault, any more than it’s mine that the other me shot Huggy. They made their own choices. They did what they did with their lives. It’s not us.”
Hutch didn’t quite look convinced.
Oh, boy. I’d better keep an eye on this for the next little while. Or we are never gonna make it past first base.
Time for a distraction.
Starsky snapped his fingers. “I just remembered. There’s one thing I can prove.” He heaved himself to his feet, wincing a bit as stiffening muscles protested. He snagged his jacket from the living room and returned to the kitchen table.
“Here.” The battered paperback was still in the jacket pocket and he pulled it out almost reverently, handing it to Hutch. For a long minute, Hutch looked down at it blankly and then without a word got up and went to his bookcase. When he returned, he held his own copy of the book. His hand trembled slightly as he laid them side by side on the table.
The only difference was Nick Starsky’s name on the front cover of the one Starsky had brought with him.
“I’m sorry,” Hutch said quietly.
Hutch shrugged. “I think this means Nick—our Nick—probably won’t measure up.”
“Probably not.” Starsky sighed. “Not that I’m gonna quit kickin’ his ass every chance I get. But you’re right. He makes his choices, too, and he’s gotta live with them.” Starsky tapped the book. “But this guy’s made choices, too. And just maybe, that means there’ll be two worlds where Gunther gets his.”
“From your mouth to God’s ear.” Hutch suddenly yawned, and stretched his arms back. “I should be excited and worried and have about a million questions, but all I can think is that if I don’t get some sleep I’ll fall over right here.”
“I’m with you there.” Starsky couldn’t hold back his own yawn. “Dobey’s not seeing me tomorrow unless he comes over here with a backhoe.”
“Good. You take the bed.” As Starsky opened his mouth, Hutch shook his head. “No arguments, buddy. You’re sore, even if you won’t admit it, and the couch won’t be much good for you.”
“I was going to say we’ll take the bed,” Starsky said.
“I’m not gonna push anything, but I want to be close to you.”
“Goddammit!” Hutch shot to his feet. He grabbed Starsky’s hand and dragged it roughly against his crotch. Through the sweatpants Starsky could feel him, hot and hard, getting larger under the involuntary caress of Starsky’s fingers.
“You sure you want to tease me?” Hutch snarled. “You can’t trust me. I can’t trust me!” Dropping Starsky’s hand, he turned away. Starsky could see his hands shaking as he ran them through his hair.
“Hutch, come on.” Starsky made his voice firm and quiet. Hutch shook his head and refused to turn, his back a tense, stubborn wall.
“I’m not teasing. You think I need time, and I’ll go along with it if that’s what you want, but I’m damn sure of how I feel. Whatever you want, you get.” He could see Hutch tense up even more. “I mean it, Hutch. You want me on the floor right now, I’m yours. If you wanna play it cool, we’ll do it that way. But—” He broke off.
“But?” Hutch said softly.
“I don’t want to be alone in bed, or out on the couch. I’m gonna dream, I know that right now. I need to know you’re there. I’m sorry if that’s too much for you, but that’s what I need.”
No fair, Starsky, and you know it. He can never say no to what you need.
Starsky stayed silent, waiting.
Eventually Hutch turned around. There was a wry smile on his face. “You always know how to wrap me around your finger, don’t you?”
“Yup. Same way you do me.”
Hutch nodded. “Might as well be married.” He sighed. “So which side of the bed do you want?”
Starsky grinned. “It’ll be okay, babe. You’ll see. Give me five minutes to get things ready.”
Hutch rolled his eyes. “I don’t think I want to know.” He started stacking plates in the sink, deliberately not looking toward the bed.
Starsky headed straight for Hutch’s closet and got to work, humming happily under his breath.
This might not be what he expects, but it should work. Calm him down some, anyway.
When Starsky finally called, Hutch approached the bed and then stopped, eyes widening in disbelief.
“What the hell is that supposed to be, the Berlin Wall?”
Starsky had taken all of Hutch’s spare blankets and pillows, lined them up exactly down the middle of the bed and covered them with the sheet and blanket.
“Bundling,” Starsky replied, undoing the belt on the robe.
“Yeah. I read about it in a book on the Pilgrims. See, in those days, there weren’t many ministers, and they’d have trouble getting around to all the little towns in the wintertime. But kids would still want to get married. So what their parents would do is, they’d let them sleep together at somebody’s house, but they’d put all the clothes and blankets and stuff in between them so they couldn’t get at each other. Bundling.”
Hutch shook his head, but a smile gradually took over his mouth. “You’re making that up.”
“No, honest, Hutch, I did read it.” Starsky looked pleadingly across the bed. “It’s the best I can do.”
Hutch hesitated for a long moment, than dragged his sweatshirt over his head. When he emerged, he gave Starsky a challenging look. “I sleep naked.”
Starsky dropped the robe. “So do I.”
Hutch shivered all over and looked away.
“Sorry.” Starsky didn’t mean it, and he could tell that Hutch knew it. He lifted the blanket and eased himself between the sheets. Lying down, having all his aches and bruises supported by something besides his own weary muscles, was sheer bliss. He closed his eyes.
There was some more rustling and then the other side of the bed dipped. Hutch wriggled and twisted a bit, then lay still as well.
“You okay over there?”
“Never better.” Starsky wasn’t at all surprised to realize it was true.
“Here.” Hutch’s hand appeared at the top of the pillow barrier. “In case of nightmares.” Starsky reached up and took it. It wasn’t the world’s most comfortable position, but he could live with it.
“Good night, John-Boy.”
The last thing he heard was Hutch’s quiet snicker in the dark.
When Starsky woke it was morning, and there was a warm solid body wrapped in his arms, pressed tightly against him from shoulder to toes. Starsky grinned in sleepy contentment. Hutch’s conscience might have had reservations, but his heart and his body knew where he belonged. Their makeshift pillow barrier probably hadn’t lasted ten minutes after they’d gone to sleep.
Right where he oughta be. Next to my heart, so I can look after him and love him.
Starsky could feel his smile getting wider. He tilted his chin down slightly to brush his lips across soft hair.
It felt right and natural. Hutch’s weight felt right, too, and real. Because of his height, Hutch often looked boyishly skinny, but there was heft to those broad shoulders, and the long lean arms and legs were built on sturdy bones. Starsky had thought it might take a while getting used to sleeping with somebody bigger than he was but so far, so good.
In fact, he felt good. A little bruised and sore, a couple of cuts still with some sting to them. But no sickness, no subtle wrongness itching along his nerves. No sense of panic trying to break loose and send him running madly. Everything was clear and sharply in focus. He was home.
Hutch made a soft snuffling noise and turned his head, morning stubble and mustache scraping gently along Starsky’s shoulder. The light rasping sent a tingle along Starsky’s nerves.
Umm. Wasn’t expecting that.
He rubbed his cheek lightly against Hutch’s hair, feeling the fine blond strands catch in his own beard.
Uh huh. I better get used to shaving more often. Blondie’s got tender skin.
The thought of leaving whisker burns on Hutch’s body sent a shock through him that started a slow burn deep in his belly. He squirmed a little, not sure if he was trying to stoke the arousal or tamp it down.
Hutch’s eyes opened slowly and he smiled
“Morning to you too,” Starsky said.
A night’s sleep had cleared most of the lines from Hutch’s face and restored his smile. Even better, there was none of the confusion and guilt left that had worried Starsky the night before. When Starsky lowered his head, Hutch lifted to meet him, and the kiss was as deep and hungry as any he’d ever had.
They turned and rolled without breaking the kiss. Starsky felt Hutch’s hands slide up and down his back, then move a little lower to squeeze his ass. Starsky jerked involuntarily and then shifted back slightly to press his rear into Hutch’s hands.
Help yourself, buddy.
His own hands went exploring as well. Hutch was smooth all over, but not soft at all. The big muscles in his shoulders and upper arms bunched and flexed under Starsky’s fingers and instead of making him nervous, the feeling excited him.
No holding back now. We take each other as we are.
That thought made Starsky push back a little more and shift his hands to Hutch’s front. Just as smooth, all the way down his chest and past his belly button. The hair lower down was very fine and Starsky tangled his fingers in it, playing around to get up enough nerve to reach for Hutch’s cock.
When he finally took hold, Hutch gasped and froze, every muscle going rigid. Then he slumped down against the mattress with a deep sigh.
Hutch’s cock was definitely a little longer than his own, maybe not quite as wide. Starsky was surprised at the heat. Mine doesn’t feel that hot. The foreskin was the really different thing, and Starsky ran his fingers along from base to tip, cataloging the changes in texture, fascinated to see the organ pulse and swell even more.
“Starsk, are you . . . measuring me?” To Starsky’s relief, Hutch sounded amused more than anything else.
Starsky felt himself blush and was tempted to pull his hand away, but forced himself to leave it right where it was. “Well, I’m thinking, I mean, one size should fit all, right? And guys do it all the time, so it’s gotta work. But you’re, um, kinda hung, buddy.”
Hutch collapsed with a laugh. Starsky poked him in the ribs, and Hutch laughed again. “Sorry. I guess I was expecting I’d be the one to have to worry about what would fit.”
“You don’t want to be on top?” Starsky couldn’t help sounding surprised.
“Oh, God, yeah. Top, bottom, sideways, everything.” Hutch’s voice was strained. “But I think we better figure out how first.”
“Anything you want. You know that.” Starsky deliberately spread his legs.
Hutch pulled him close, but didn’t say anything.
Hutch shivered and pressed his face against Starsky’s neck. “I had this fantasy,” he said in a halting voice. Starsky made an encouraging noise. “I’d be in bed or in the shower, and I’d imagine you behind me, holding me. I’d—” he stopped and Starsky felt a shaky breath. “I’d jerk off with my left hand, pretending it was you doing it, pretending I could feel you there behind me.”
Works for me.
Starsky nudged him with his shoulder. “Roll over.”
“Huh?” Hutch looked up, eyes dazed.
“Over. On your side. No, dummy, other way.”
Halfway through the turn Hutch realized what Starsky intended, because he shuddered and made a soft moaning sound. Starsky turned, too, shifting up and fitting himself against Hutch’s back. He pulled slightly on his top shoulder, so more of Hutch’s weight rested against him, his ass pressing against Starsky’s cock.
Starsky gave an experimental thrust with his hips, feeling his cock glide along smooth, sweat-damp skin.
Okay from this end, he thought, and bit back a snicker. He reached across Hutch’s body and took hold of his cock.
“Tell me if it’s good,” he whispered, and began to stroke.
Hutch’s breath caught. “A little tighter.”
Starsky firmed his grip. From this angle, the difference in size and texture between them was more apparent, and it felt strange, as if he was jerking himself off but with a different cock. Then Hutch began to move, rocking back and forth in rhythm with the movement of Starsky’s hand. Feeling the muscles in Hutch’s ass and thighs bunch and relax as he moved set the pace for an echoing beat in his own body. They moved together as easily as they did anywhere else.
Starsky wanted to take some time to explore, to drag it out, give Hutch the maximum thrill. But the feel of their bodies rubbing together, of slick skin sliding, the sound of Hutch’s moans and gasps, blew all his control right out the window.
It’s going down fast and hard and right now.
He snaked his other arm between Hutch’s neck and the pillow, intending to hold his partner closer. To his shock, Hutch grabbed his hand and shoved the two first fingers into his mouth.
The hot, wet suction might as well have been on his cock. Starsky yelped, rubbing his hips wildly against Hutch’s ass, pushing himself in closer, keeping their jerking bodies together hard enough for the friction to bring him off.
Hutch sucked his fingers frantically, moaning, his cock swelling still more as Starsky pumped him harder.
“Fuckmefuckmefuckmestarsk,” came out in a muffled scream, and then Hutch was coming in hard spasms, cock pulsing all over Starsky’s hand, body jolting as if given electric shocks.
That was all it took to push Starsky over the edge. He ground his hips, hard, feeling the pleasure rush through his body and out his cock like a bursting dam. He felt every pulse of his cock as he came, every twitch against Hutch’s skin.
Hutch collapsed, his full weight resting on Starsky’s side. Sweat ran down his shoulders and side, tickling Starsky’s sensitized skin, and he was gasping for breath as if he’d run all the way from Metro. Starsky wasn’t in any better shape, his own breathing deep and hoarse, every muscle limp as overcooked spaghetti.
It was Hutch who finally got up the energy to move. With a grunt of effort and a sticky, sucking sound, he pulled himself away and flopped on his back. Starsky managed to turn his head. Nothing else wanted to move. But the instinct to check out his partner was as strong here as anywhere else.
Hutch was sweaty and wiped out and looked as thoroughly fucked as anybody Starsky had ever seen. When he finally opened one eye, the look he gave Starsky was admiring.
“You can say that again, partner.” Starsky shifted slightly so their shoulders were touching. He raised his left hand, looked at it for a moment and licked his fingers cautiously, grimacing at the taste. “That’s gonna take a little getting used to.”
Hutch stretched lazily. “You don’t have to swallow.”
Starsky reached over and grabbed Hutch’s chin. “Listen up, Blondie. We just came like a couple of freight trains, and I figure it’s only gonna get better from here on. So there ain’t gonna be anybody shortchanged in this bed. You got it?”
Hutch smiled. “I got it.” He ruffled Starsky’s hair, and let his hand drift down to cup the back of his neck.
Starsky pulled up a corner of the sheet, and started to wipe them both clean. “Anyway, we’ll have lotsa time to practice.”
“We’re only off duty until tomorrow.” Hutch sounded dead serious, but when Starsky looked up, his eyes were crinkling and he was pressing his lips together to hide a smile.
Starsky tossed the damp sheet over his head.
“Blah! Get that off me!” Hutch clawed it aside and glared up indignantly.
“See what I mean about practice?” Starsky grinned. “Next time we’ll remember the towels.”
“Practice, huh?” Hutch grabbed him and hauled him down into a kiss. When they came up for air, Starsky pushed him back into the pillows. Hutch’s face was flushed, his eyes once more that passionate smoky blue.
“How much practice?” he whispered.
“Better pencil in time for the next fifty years or so,” Starsky replied, and kissed him again.
“Well? Whaddya think?”
Nick Starsky leaned across the desk, watching impatiently as his partner once more shuffled through and then carefully aligned the stack of papers in front of him.
The other man shook his head, and patted the pile. “How much confidence do you have in your brother as a source?”
Nick looked down at the padded envelope on his side of the desk, addressed to him in a familiar spiky scrawl. He ran one finger lightly over his name and then shrugged.
“I always knew Dave wasn’t a good cop. In fact, reading between the lines of what people said to me after the funeral, I’d say he was a pretty lousy cop. But he wasn’t stupid, and he always had good instincts, even if he never used them much.”
He ran his fingers through his hair and took a couple of restless steps back and forth. “I don’t know. What if Ma hadn’t died so young, what if Poppa hadn’t sent him to California . . .” He shrugged again. “That’s always haunted me, you know. What if?”
“What if he was trying to turn over a new leaf?” the other man said. “Maybe he finally figured it was time to stop screwing up his life and make a fresh start?”
“Would be nice to think that, wouldn’t it?” Nick said. “All I can say is: the story does hold together. The things he claims happened did happen, it’s on the public record. How much can we trust the background material? Your guess is as good as mine.”
“If even half of this is true, hell, even a quarter—” His partner tapped the stack again. “Bigger than Watergate.”
“And more dangerous.” Nick pulled the papers over to his side of the table and riffled them like a pack of cards. “Murdered witnesses, dead cops, a crooked judge, fraud, blackmail, extortion—who knows how wide and how deep this is gonna go?”
“Yeah. I’d say if this goes bad, getting threatened with an audit by the IRS will be the least of our worries.”
“You scared?” Nick suddenly sobered. “I mean, we’re married, we’ve got kids . . .”
“Too much to lose?”
“Or maybe we just got smart.”
“Yeah.” The man’s eyes drifted toward the wall and the awards framed there. He glanced back at Nick. “Still, it would be kind of nice to have a matched set up there, wouldn’t it?”
Nick yelped with laughter. “One for each of us, huh? In case we ever split up?” He leaned back in his chair, put his feet up on the desk and gave the plaque on the wall a long look. “It’s gonna take time, and it’s gonna be hard. Make Watergate look like a Boy Scout picnic. With what we’re up against, even if we don’t get killed, we may never get to the bottom of it.”
“But we’ll give it a shot.”
“You mean you’re in?”
The other man rose and stretched his hand across the desk. The two of them shook once, solemnly, a pact made and settled.
“We’re in. Let’s take the son of a bitch down.”
Nick flipped over the top page and picked up the two pictures clipped together underneath. With a hard grin, he said, “James Marshall Gunther, say hello to Deep Throat.”