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Disclaimer: This story is written for entertainment purposes only.  No profit is being made from it.  No infringement on anyone’s copyright is intended.

 

This story is part three in a series and is the sequel to Loose Ends.

 

Threads:  Research

By Sue David and Valerie Wells

© January 2002

 

September 15, 1979

 

Matt Dixon was a graduate student at California State’s Bay City campus in the anthropology department.  He was working on his master’s thesis and had decided to study the subject of police culture and psychology.  Over the past two years, he had done most of his library research, and had participated in a few field tests with various Southern California police departments.

 

He was delighted to find out that his wife’s uncle was a close friend of a captain of detectives in the Metro division of the Bay City police department.  Captain Harold Dobey and Debbie Dixon’s Uncle Frank were uniformed officers at the same time.  Frank was forced out of the department on a medical retirement just before Dobey made captain, but they had maintained their friendship.  When Frank asked if the captain would help Matt with his work, Dobey was happy to agree. 

 

Frank had also told Matt that if he wanted to study a fascinating case of police behavior, he should be sure to interview a pair of detectives named Starsky and Hutchinson. Frank wouldn't go into any details – he said it was because he didn't want Matt to have any preconceptions before he met the two men – but he did tell him Dobey was their immediate superior and arranging an interview with them should be easy.

 

The annual all Bay City precinct summer picnic seemed like the perfect place for Matt to wander around and interview cops in a relaxed setting.  Dobey had informed the other captains, but he didn’t tell the Metro staff.  Matt wanted him to be sure not to so he had his best shot at candid answers from the detectives.  Naturally, word had gotten around quickly anyway.  His men were detectives.

 

Edith Dobey passed a picnic basket to her daughter, Rosie, and an armload of lawn chairs to her son, Cal.  The captain already had his assignment.  While Edith and the children carried the Dobey family’s picnic items to a table, Harold Dobey was busy helping Dave Starsky get out of the car.  Despite the fact that it was a Saturday and he was not on duty, Ken Hutchinson had to go down to the District Attorney’s office for another brief deposition in the Gunther case.  Just four months earlier, James Marshall Gunther had hired hit men to kill both Starsky and Hutch in the Metro police garage.  Although Hutch wasn’t physically injured, his partner was still on the long road to recovery from his near fatal shooting.  Struck three times by bullets from an automatic weapon, Starsky had narrowly cheated death.  Hutch didn’t like it that he would be going ahead to the picnic without him, but he couldn’t refuse to trust his partner’s safety and well being to their captain and his family.  Hutch had left for the D.A.’s office at ten.  He would give his deposition and be at the ball field by noon. 

 

The Gunther trial was scheduled to begin in just a few weeks.  In addition to the fact that Starsky had been too ill to spend much time out of the house, Hutch was nervous about Gunther still having a long enough reach to harm his partner.  He wouldn’t rest easy until the old man was tried, convicted, and delivered to a penitentiary.  Although Starsky’s memory of the shooting was blessedly sketchy, he was expected to testify in court.  That had Hutch’s hackles up, but there was nothing he could do.

 

Captain Dobey had one strong arm around Starsky’s waist and the other supporting his elbow.  Today wasn’t one of the injured officer’s better days, but he’d done his best to hide that from his partner. 

 

“You doing okay, Dave?”  Dobey asked when they were half way to the picnic table.  Some of the homicide detectives had staked out the table for them earlier in the day.  They thought its proximity to the parking lot, the baseball field, and the restrooms made it the best place to install Detective Starsky for the duration.  The less he had to walk, the better.

 

“Yeah, but... do you mind stopping for just a sec?  I’m... a little... out of breath,” Starsky replied in a quiet voice. 

 

Dobey stopped instantly.  He felt a swell of anger at the condition Gunther’s goons had left Starsky in as he looked across the grass twenty feet to the picnic table.  Twenty feet that looked like two thousand feet to the younger man.

 

“Uh, maybe I should just take you home....” Dobey started.

 

Starsky shook his head and waited for his breathing to improve.  One of the bullets had damaged a lung and he still was having trouble with it on some days.  “No way.  Hutch hasn’t had a minute of fun since this happened, dammit.”

 

“I know, but....”

 

“No.  I’m okay.  Let’s just get over there so I can sit down.” 

 

Starsky started moving forward again and in a few minutes, Dobey helped him to sit at the table.  He didn’t like the thin sheen of perspiration on Starsky’s face, but his worried glance to Edith was met with her shaking head.  She wanted him not to say anything.

 

Edith reached into the cooler chest for a Dr. Pepper, opened it, and handed it to Starsky.  She produced a couple of pills Hutch had instructed her to dispense and dropped them onto Starsky’s palm.  He smiled at her and said, “If I take both of these, I might just sleep through the festivities.”  He tried to hand one back to her, but she shook her head at him.

 

“Dave, are you going to explain to Ken why you didn’t take all of your pills?”

 

“He’s not gonna know if we don’t tell him.”

 

“You think?  I think he counts them,” Harold Dobey chimed into the conversation.

 

Starsky said, “Look over there,” as he pointed toward the baseball field.  When Edith and the captain did as he said, he quietly dropped one of the pills into his shirt pocket.  The Dobeys knew they’d been had.

 

Edith looked at her watch and said, “Okay, it’s only 11:30.  If you decide maybe you should have taken them both, just don’t forget to notice what time it is, okay?”

 

Some of the other detectives had seen Starsky’s arrival.  They waited until it looked like he was settled and then jogged over to speak with him. 

 

Jack Hill had a baseball cap and a jersey in his hands.  He handed them to Starsky and said, “Here’s your stuff for this year’s team.”

 

“But I’m not playin’, Jack.”

 

“Aw, we ordered this stuff months ago.  The guys want you to have them, okay?”

 

Starsky put the cap on and smiled.  “Yeah, thanks.”

 

Hill’s partner, Sean Cavanaugh, pushed the baseball cap down farther onto Starsky’s head.  “There, that’ll keep the sun out of your face.”

 

Starsky spread the team jersey out to look at it.  Every year the plain-clothes detectives played a team of uniformed officers.  This year the detectives had chosen the name “Bod Squad” for their team.  Starsky chuckled at the choice and thanked his friends. 

 

“Where’s your partner, Starsk?” Sean asked.  “The game starts in an hour.”

 

“D.A.’s office.  He’ll be along by then.”

 

“Hey, Cap,” Jack said, “Some grad student is here.  He already talked to Sean and me.  You sure that’s on the up and up?”

 

“Yeah, the kid’s related to an old friend of mine.  He really is doing his thesis on police culture and psychology.”

 

Starsky snorted with laughter at that.  “Whoa... what’s this about?”

 

Sean and the captain explained the process to Starsky.  He was intrigued at what the student planned to gain from the experience, but he told Dobey he’d go along with it. 

 

~*~*~*~

 

Matt sat with Simmons underneath one of the park’s many pine trees.  The blanket of needles on the ground was soft and sticky.  He’d been in the park since the first baseball teams had started to play at eight.   His many interviews had piqued his curiosity about a special facet of police culture – how partners interacted with and depended upon each other.  By the time he got to Simmons, his thinking had changed course.  Matt had decided to focus on partner psychology and culture instead.

 

“How long have you and your partner been a team?” he asked as he scribbled notes in his steno pad.

 

“Oh, about three years,” Simmons answered.

 

“What do you think your best assets are working with,” he paused as he looked up through his notes, and then he said, “Babcock.”

 

Simmons was busy tying his baseball cleats while they chatted.  He was getting ready to meet his partner out on the baseball field for a little pre-game warm-up.  “Oh, I guess it’s that I trust him.  We trust each other, you know?”

 

“Did that take a long time to develop?”

 

“Kind of.  At first, we didn’t like each other too much,” he said with a smile.  “He can be a little arrogant and I’m not the easiest guy to like.  I’m a little bit of a know it all.” 

 

“What helped you to get over this dislike?” Matt asked with interest.

 

“About a month after we were put together, we got in a jam.  He saved my butt in a firefight.  The rest is history, man.”

 

“Firefight?  You mean a gun battle?”

 

“That’s right.  We responded to a liquor store holdup and it went bad.  He got me out of the line of fire after I took a minor wound in my arm,” he said as he rubbed his hand over his upper arm without thinking.  “We hunkered down and waited for backup.  Starsky and Hutch showed up a little while later and helped take down the perps.”

 

Matt looked back through his notes and used his pen to count off the number of times he’d heard those names in previous interviews.  He was getting the distinct impression that this particular pair was a legend at Metro.

 

“Are they going to be here today?  I’ve been trying to track them down for a week.  You see, I’ve decided to focus on partner behavior, communication, and what you guys tell me is called the ‘rules of engagement’ for partners.”

 

“You’ll definitely want to talk to them, then.  They’ve been a team for a long time.  Yeah, they’ll be here, but Starsky was hurt real bad a few months ago.  They’ve been laying low while he recovers.  Hutch ain’t at work much.  That’s probably why you’ve been having a hard time.”

 

“What happened?” Matt asked.  He’d heard there was a shooting, but the other detectives were pretty quiet about the incident.  Matt was in San Diego finishing some field work when Starsky was shot and he wasn’t following the news, so he didn’t know many details.  He was curious about the reasons why the cops he’d spoken with might not want to discuss it.

 

“Well...” Simmons hedged.  “I think maybe you’d better ask Hutch.  I, uh....”

 

Matt said, “I’ve noticed that most of the Metro staff I’ve asked don’t seem to want to talk about it.  Why do you suppose that is?”

 

“I don’t know, man. Maybe cops are a little superstitious.  Starsky was shot and it was real close.  Too close.  I don’t like to talk about it.  He’s still recovering, see, and... well,

I guess I’d be afraid I could jinx it.  You know, tempting fate?”

 

Matt smiled at him and took some more notes.  He wanted to investigate the concept of superstition on the force.  “Thanks, that’s okay.”

 

“I’ve gotta go warm up.  Is that enough for now?”

 

“Yeah, thanks.  I’ll catch your partner later.  I take it he’s playing, too.”

 

“Sure is.  Look, Hutch will be playing in the game.  You can catch him after.  Tall guy, blond.  He’s pitching.”

 

“Thanks.  I’ll look for him.”

 

Hutch was just pulling up to the park as Matt was finishing with Simmons.  His trip to the D.A.’s office had left him in a bad mood.  Answering Gunther’s attorney’s questions drained him.  That the man would try to get Gunther acquitted was obvious, but Hutch wasn’t expecting it to make him as angry as it was.

 

As soon as he got out of the car, he scanned the park for where the Dobeys had set up for the day.  When he spotted the table, he could see his partner was looking like he wasn’t feeling well.  Starsky was talking to Cal when he felt Hutch’s gaze hit him. 

 

“He’s here, isn’t he?” he asked Cal.

 

Cal was facing the parking lot and he looked up to see the tall man striding toward them.  “You know, that’s kind of creepy how you do that.  Yeah, he’s here.”

 

“How does he look?”  Starsky didn’t want to turn around.  He was busy trying to look less uncomfortable.

 

Before Cal could answer, Hutch walked up and around to where he could see Starsky’s face.  “Hi, buddy, you all right?  Hi, Cal.”

 

Starsky smiled.  “Battin’ a thousand, buddy.  How’d it go?”

 

“Don’t ask.”  Hutch shook his head and rubbed the back of his neck with one hand as he reached over and patted Starsky’s hand with the other.

 

“Tell me later?”

 

“Yeah, okay.  Did you eat?”

 

Cal said, “Hi, Hutch. We just got here a little while ago.  You want something?”

 

“No, I have to play.  You sure you’re okay, Starsk?  You look a little tired today.”

 

“Worrywart.  Go play, I’m fine.  Cal’s keeping me company and Rosie is going to fix me a hot dog.  Go on.”

 

Hutch knew his friend wasn’t being completely honest, but he also knew it was important to Starsky that he play in this game.  Starsky had made it clear that he wanted him to and he was going to do it. 

 

“Can you see from here?” Hutch looked toward the field and realized that Starsky would be able to watch the game from there.  Starsky just smiled and shooed him toward the field.

 

When Hutch was out of earshot, he said to Cal, “You think I fooled him?”

 

“Nope.  He’s ignoring it, though.”

 

An hour later, the game was going well for the plain-clothes team.  Hutch had only given up a few hits and one run.  Starsky sat watching for a long time, until the unrelenting sunlight started to make him feel overheated and uncomfortable.  Cal, Rosie, and the captain had all gone to sit at the field where they could cheer on their team.  Edith stayed with Starsky and she noticed that he was not doing well.  She touched him on one clammy hand to get his attention.

 

“Dave, you look uncomfortable.  Are you okay?”

 

He looked toward her and said, “Guess it’s kind of hot and sitting on this hard bench isn’t doing much for me, but I’m okay.”

 

Starsky had been paying attention to the game, but Hutch had also been paying attention to him.  Between pitches, and when he was on base, he glanced back toward the picnic table to check on his partner.  He was getting up to warm up on deck when he saw Edith helping Starsky over to a lawn chair in the shade under a nearby tree. 

 

Hutch took a few steps toward the gate in the low fence when he heard the crack of the bat and Babcock saying, “Hey, Hutch!  You’re up.”

 

Hutch hesitated a moment.  Edith saw him looking at them, so she waved and smiled – doing her best to send him the message that she had everything under control.

 

“Hutch!” Babcock said.  “Hey, you gonna play?”

 

The umpire was calling, “Batter up!”

 

Hutch looked both ways, first toward home plate, then back toward his partner.  He decided to go ahead with his turn at bat.  Fighting the urge to rush over and make sure everything was all right took nearly all of his resolve. 

 

“Yeah, yeah, I’m coming.”  Hutch strode toward home plate; sure he could feel Starsky’s pleasure that he’d resisted the urge to hover.

 

“He’s doin’ great today, Edith,” Starsky said with a grin.

 

“You know how hard this is for him.  He won’t like it if I let you get heat stroke over here.  I’m going to get you another cold drink.  Dr. Pepper, root beer, lemonade, or water, Dave?”

 

“How about a beer?” Starsky asked, knowing what the answer would be.

 

“On pain pills?  Are you trying to get your partner mad at me?  I don’t think so.  Be right back and I’ll surprise you.”  She took one more look at him, making sure he was settled comfortably.  The chair was the type that sits only a few inches off the ground.  He wasn’t going to be able to get out of it without assistance.

 

Throughout the game, Matt Dixon had been wandering among the crowd, talking to the officers and making notes.  When Hutch had taken the field, he’d begun watching him.  Following Hutch’s frequent glances back toward the parking lot, Matt saw a dark-haired man who was obviously not completely well.  Even from a distance, he could tell the man was sitting in a guarded position, possibly in pain, or feeling ill.  That must be Detective Starsky.  He watched Hutch’s turn at bat.  Despite his obvious distraction, Hutch hit a double, sending Simmons home and making it to second base.  He stood on base, keeping one eye on the game and another on his friend. 

 

The sound of screeching tires in the parking lot caused Hutch to snap his attention around to find its source.  He did not like it that Starsky was so close to the parking lot and he was so far away.  The car speeding through the parking lot was just a bunch of teenagers, not a threat to his partner’s safety.  Hutch sighed wearily, longing for the day when he would be able to relax again, secure that Starsky was safe from Gunther.

 

After giving him a root beer, Edith excused herself to go speak with her husband next to the ball field.  Starsky hoped it wasn’t a report on his condition.  The last thing he wanted was for Hutch to get wind of how much pain he was in and insist on taking Starsky home.  He checked the time and reached into his pocket for the second pain pill, knowing he’d have to take it if he stood a chance of hiding his discomfort from Hutch.

 

Matt decided he’d go and talk to Starsky since the game had only run through three innings and Hutch would be busy for a while.  Looking toward where Starsky sat, he noticed the man was alone.  Now would be a good time.

 

Starsky’s eyes were drifting shut when he heard a quiet voice next to him.  He opened his eyes and looked up at a young man he didn’t recognize.  A flash of worry sliced through him, but he immediately dismissed it.  The young man was carrying a notepad and he looked more like a college student than a hit man.  Starsky guessed this must be the student Sean and Dobey had mentioned.  Hutch wasn’t the only one who worried about Gunther trying something before the trial.  That was something Starsky was keeping to himself, although he was sure Hutch was worried about it, too.

 

“Sorry, were you talking to me?” he asked.

 

“Yes.  Sorry to disturb you.  Are you Detective Starsky?”

 

“Who wants to know?”

 

Matt introduced himself and explained what he wanted.  Starsky listened patiently and agreed to speak with him. 

 

“Thanks, Detective....”

 

“Just Starsky, or Dave will do.”

 

“Okay.  Thanks.  I’ve been talking to some of the other partners and your name has come up a lot.  Yours and Detective Hutchinson’s.  I was hoping I could talk to him, but so far I just haven’t been in the right place at the right time, I guess.”

 

Starsky looked past Matt to see that the inning had ended with Hutch stranded on second.  The plain-clothes team was taking the field again, and Hutch was slowly moving toward the dugout to ditch his batting helmet.  Starsky smiled.

 

“You want to meet my partner?  Okay, I’ll bet you I can arrange that in the next thirty seconds.”

 

“Really, how?” Matt asked, smiling back at him.

 

“I’ve gotta go to the can and I can’t get out of this torture trap chair by myself.  Give me a hand up and over there.  You’ll get to meet him, I guarantee it.”  He put a hand up for Matt to help him.

 

Taking the injured man’s hand, Matt said, “I don’t want to hurt you.”  When he saw that Starsky wasn’t going to be able to pull himself up, he put another hand under Starsky’s elbow and hoisted him to his feet.

 

Starsky winced, but said, “No sweat.  Just let me lean on you a little while we move that way, okay?  You won’t have to go far.”

 

Hutch saw the stranger talking to Starsky.  He hadn’t been introduced to Matt yet, and he had no idea that the graduate student would be there.  When he saw the other man pull Starsky up from his chair and start to walk away from the picnic area with him, he forgot the game and headed straight for his partner, vaulting the fence rather than taking the time to go through the gate.  He heard some of the guys calling after him, but Hutch ignored them.  His teammates could either put in another pitcher or call a time out, that didn’t concern him.  Dobey noticed what was going on and he started to move in that direction.

 

True to Starsky’s prediction, Hutch came up behind the two men in less than a minute.  They weren’t even half way to the restrooms when Hutch put a hand on Matt’s shoulder and said, “Hey, what’s going on?”

 

Matt and Starsky stopped in their tracks, Starsky with a quiet chuckle and Matt with a gulp of nervousness.  Matt was only five feet seven inches tall and the blond detective towered over him.  The determined look on Hutch’s face was intense.  He looked at Starsky and relaxed a little when he saw his friend’s smile.

 

Starsky said, “Matt Dixon, daredevil graduate student, meet Ken Hutchinson, partner, best friend, and bodyguard.”

 

“Ha, ha, wise ass.  Graduate student?” Hutch said as he put a hand out to shake Matt’s.

 

Starsky asked, “Was it thirty seconds?”

 

Matt shook Hutch’s hand and replied in a slightly shaky voice, “Certainly less than a minute.”

 

Hutch started to say something, but he laughed instead, the tension draining from him just as Sean Cavanaugh skidded to a stop next to them. Both Starsky and Hutch were laughing at Matt’s expense by then. 

 

"You guys are just too much," Sean said disgustedly, but his eyes were twinkling. "Blondie, get your ass back to the pitcher's mound. You want Jack to pitch this inning? We'd get creamed."

 

Hutch shifted his weight and glanced at Starsky.

 

"Go on," Starsky said. "We can't let the other guys cream us."

 

"Guess not," Hutch said, turning to go. He'd only taken a couple of steps when he turned back. "You sure --"

 

"I'm sure. Scram."

 

"Okay." Hutch loped back toward the field and Sean gave Starsky a grin before he turned to follow him.

 

"So that's your partner."

 

"Yeah," Starsky said. "Can we go on, please?"

 

"Huh?" Matt was clearly puzzled.

 

"The can," Starsky reminded him.

 

"Oh. Yeah. Sure." Matt took his arm again and Starsky did his best to look as if he were walking unassisted, knowing that Hutch was still watching him. After Starsky was finished, Matt helped him back to the chair under the tree. Edith was there waiting, with a tall glass of ice-cold lemonade in her hand.

 

Starsky accepted it gratefully. "This is gonna hit the spot," he said, and took a long swallow. He introduced Matt, and Edith asked if he wanted some lemonade, too.

 

"I've got gallons of it," she said encouragingly, and he accepted. She headed back to the picnic table.

 

"Okay, kid," Starsky said, settling back in the chair and vainly trying to get comfortable. "What do you want to know?"

 

"I'm writing my master's thesis on the relationship between partners on the police force," Matt said. "I'm focusing on communication between partners and that," he waved his hand toward Hutch vaguely, "just now, with your partner. That was amazing. Will you tell me about it?"

 

Starsky frowned thoughtfully. "Well, I don't know if I can explain it, exactly. It's, uh.... " He laughed. "You know what? I don't know what it is."

 

"When did it start?"

 

Starsky's frown deepened. "Seems like it's always been this way, but I guess it hasn't. We met in the police Academy and got to be good friends, and by the time we were out, we knew we wanted to be partners someday."

 

Matt scribbled some notes as Starsky talked and when he stopped talking, Matt looked up. Starsky was looking toward the ball field, where Hutch had just apparently pitched a home run to the other team.

 

"Wish he'd pay attention to the game, 'stead o' worryin' about me," Starsky said.

 

"Can you tell me about the shooting?"

 

"Which one?" Starsky asked, a quirk in his lips that wasn't quite a smile.

 

"There's been more than one?"

 

Starsky nodded. "But I guess you wanna hear about the latest one. That was a close call."

 

Matt waited, pen poised.

 

"I can't tell ya too much, actually," Starsky said after a few moments. "I remember me and Hutch playin' ping pong in the office – they were painting and there wasn't much else we could do. Then we went down to the garage. We were gonna go out to dinner and we were planning when and joking about where. And I was unlockin' the car, and Hutch yelled for me to get down and ... " He stopped again and gave a shrug. "I don't know much after that. I don't remember much else until I woke up in the hospital. Hutch told me that was four days later."

 

Matt whistled.

 

Starsky glanced toward the field again. Hutch was just wiping his hands on his pants, preparing to pitch to a new batter. "It was pretty tough on him."

 

"On him?" Matt said, astonished. "I'd say it was tough on you. Didn't you almost die?"

 

Starsky nodded. "It's a lot harder to watch your partner almost die than it is to almost die yourself," he said, and something in his voice told Matt he'd been on that side of the hospital wall, too. "You feel like you shoulda done something, even if there hadn't been anything you could do. It's your job to keep him safe, and you failed." His eyes were on Hutch again, and when Matt followed the direction of his gaze, he could see that Hutch was watching Starsky, too. Starsky smiled and lifted one hand, and Hutch turned back to the game.

 

"He felt guilty," Matt said.

 

"He felt helpless," Starsky said, not exactly correcting Matt. More as if he were finishing a thought of his own. His eyes went a little out of focus and Matt recalled that the man was recovering from that shooting.

 

"Listen, do you need a break?" Matt asked. "I can come back to you later."

 

"Wouldja mind?" Starsky asked. "I'm sorry, it's the medication. It's pretty strong."

 

"I appreciate you taking the time at all," Matt said, rising. "Can I get you anything?"

 

Starsky shook his head. "Nope. I'm fine. Edith's nearby if I need anything."

 

Matt shook Starsky's hand and wandered over to the ball field to watch the rest of the game.  The two teams held the score at a tie until the final inning.  As they headed into the bottom of the inning, the uniforms were ahead.  The game was nearing its end, and Hutch was sweaty and looked worn out as he left the mound to go into the dugout for the detectives' last turn at bat. He nodded at Matt as he passed him.

 

Hutch was a good player, Matt thought, but he'd be even better if he'd keep his mind on the game. He almost missed a good pitch because he was looking at Starsky, and it would've been a strike. But at the last possible moment, he swung and struck the ball solidly, sending it far over the head of the left fielder, far enough that he was able to make it to second base. The detectives' team went wild, screaming and yelling Hutch's name. They were two runs behind and he'd been the first batter.

 

The second batter walked and the third hit a pop-up fly to center field. Hutch hadn't moved. There hadn't been any opportunity, yet, to try to steal home. The dugout had fallen silent as the next batter came up. Sean.

 

He was almost as tall and lean as Hutch, and held the bat in an easy grip, his eyes narrowed as he looked at the pitcher. He let the first two pitches go by; one strike and one ball. His easy stance never changed. And when the third pitch came, he stepped forward into it and hit the ball cleanly in a long, smooth arc that gave Hutch the opening he needed.

 

Hutch ran as hard as he could and managed to slide into home a split second before the ball thudded into the catcher's mitt.

 

"Safe!" the umpire yelled. Sean was on second and the man who had walked to first was on third base. Matt found himself cheering with the detectives' team, but then he realized Hutch hadn't gotten up. Starsky, under the tree, had obviously noticed, too, and was struggling to get out of the low chair.

 

Matt rose, but others were quicker.

 

"Hutch, hey, what's up, man?" A dark-haired detective from his own team had scrambled out of the dugout and made it to his side, followed by two or three others.

 

"Nothing," Hutch answered, coughing a little. "Twisted my knee, that's all."

 

The other cop helped him up and led him back toward the dugout to the cheers of the other cops. Hutch lifted a hand with an embarrassed grin.

 

Two batters later, the game was over and the detectives had won. After the back-thumping and the good-natured insults and threats of "wait until next year!" were over, Hutch came over to Matt.

 

"Sean said he'd hang out with my partner while I talk to you," Hutch said. He didn't sound enthusiastic.

 

"I really do appreciate it," Matt said. "I know it's a pain in the ass."

 

Hutch laughed and sat down. "No, it's okay. Fire when ready."

 

Matt explained his thesis while Hutch listened.

 

"Good topic," he said.

 

Matt was surprised. None of the other cops had made any comment at all about his topic. But he hid his surprise and asked Hutch about his partnership with Starsky.

 

Hutch glanced toward his partner, who was drinking another glass of lemonade. "I suppose a lot of people have mentioned it to you," he said instead of answering directly.

 

"Yeah. I get the impression you guys are sort of ... legendary."

 

Instead of laughing or looking embarrassed, Hutch nodded. "I suppose that's the impression they gave you. We've been involved with a lot of high-profile cases. We've sailed pretty near the wind a few times. And unlike a lot of partners, it hasn't made us hate each other. We've stuck it out. That's kind of unusual, I guess."

 

"Why?"

 

Hutch frowned and looked into the distance. "I guess, when you work with a guy and spend that much time with him and he sees all your bad sides and sees you hurt and angry and disillusioned, you start to feel uncomfortable with him. But Starsky and I ... well, it just seems to make us closer, I guess."

 

"Why?"

 

Hutch grinned a little. "You studying to be a reporter? That's their favorite question."

 

Matt returned the grin. "No. I'm just writing a thesis."

 

"Fair enough. Why? We fit. We complement each other. He's more optimistic than I am. He enjoys life and he can let the kid inside of him out. He loves Christmas and Halloween and playing games and carnival rides. I'm more ..." He shrugged. "Cynical, maybe. I don't know. But I think I steady him and he steadies me and somehow it all works."

 

"I hear that you two have some sort of psychic connection, almost," Matt ventured.

 

Hutch, instead of laughing or rolling his eyes, nodded. "I suppose we do. At times, we can almost read each other's minds. The way we work, we just seem to know what the other one's doing. We don't need words as much as other people do."

 

"Will you tell me about the shooting?"

 

Hutch's eyes grew serious and he shut them briefly, as if to avoid looking at something painful. "I don't honestly know how I knew those guys were after us. They pulled out of a parking slot and hit another squad but didn't pause. Maybe that was it. I don't know, but suddenly I got very, very scared and I yelled at Starsky to get down and – " He stopped for a moment and swallowed. "He didn't. They shot him and he fell and I shot back, but my hands were shaking so badly I didn't come anywhere near hitting them. And I called his name, and he didn't answer." He stopped again; obviously this was a difficult story for him to tell. Matt waited patiently. Finally, Hutch said, "I ran around the car and he was down. There was blood all over the front of his shirt. He was soaked in blood..." He wet his lips. "I couldn't move for what felt like hours. I just stood there and stared at him and ... finally, I went to him and I knelt by him and I was afraid to touch him. I don't know why. And he was out cold. His lips were white. He was hardly breathing, and when he did breathe, it was harsh. Rattling. Like people breathe when they're dyin'."

 

Matt forgot to take notes, he was so caught up in the naked emotion on Hutch's face. But he knew he wouldn't forget this.

 

Hutch drew a deep breath as if to steady himself. "There was a lot of commotion, but it seemed far away. Other cops, somebody yelling for help, our captain. But all I could see was Starsky, and all I could hear was that rattle in his chest. One of the bullets pierced a lung," he added, looking at Matt for the first time in several minutes. "I reached out and put my hand on his cheek," unconsciously, Hutch's hand lifted and touched his own cheek to demonstrate, "and he opened his eyes. He couldn't talk. He wanted to. He was trying to. But all he could do was form the word – " Hutch blinked rapidly for a moment and finally finished, "goodbye."

 

"He thought he was dying," Matt said.

 

"He was dying," Hutch answered. "He knew it. I knew it. How he survived, I don't know. It's a miracle. Nothing less." He looked at Matt again, but his eyes went past him to the tree where Starsky was sitting, and without another word, he was on his feet and running.

 

Matt turned to look, and he could see, even from this distance, that something was wrong with Starsky.

 

While Matt and Hutch were talking, Sean kept Starsky company.  They talked about the game the detectives’ team had just won and the cases Sean and his partner were working.  Sean assured Starsky that Hutch was fine.  He’d just twisted his knee, nothing serious.  Starsky, on the other hand, had pulled a muscle trying to rise from the lawn chair and he was doing his best to hide his additional discomfort from Sean.  He didn’t want to give his nervous friend any reason to holler for Hutch.  Being treated like he was fragile, despite the accuracy of that assumption, depressed the healing detective.  He wanted things to go back to normal.  His friends were attentive and concerned, but at times, he couldn’t help wishing they’d treat him like they did before he was shot.

 

Rosie Dobey ran up to Sean and pulled on one of his big hands.  “Come on, play Frisbee with me.”

 

Sean looked back at Starsky and said, “No, I’m sorry, Rosie.  I promised to keep Starsky company.”

 

“Come on,” she wheedled.  “Uncle Dave usually plays with me, but he can’t right now.  Uncle Hutch would get mad.”

 

Starsky laughed.  “Yes, he would, Rosie.  He’d probably put me on restriction.”  Sean noticed the slight wince on Starsky’s face as he laughed. 

 

“No....”

 

“Pleeeeeeeeeeasssssse?  Everybody else is busy.”

 

“She’s awfully good at that, Sean.  Go ahead.  You’ll be right over there, for God’s sake. I’m fine.”

 

Sean thought it would be fun to play with Rosie.  She was a sweet girl and the detectives all liked her.  He chewed his bottom lip a little as he decided, taking longer than either the little girl with big, brown, pleading eyes, or the grown detective could bear.

 

“Look,” Starsky said, “Edith brought the morning paper with her so I’d have something to read.  It’s up there on the table in the box with the paper plates.  Bring it over here and I’ll just read while you guys do your thing.  Okay?”

 

“If you’re sure, Starsk.  Okay.  I’m sorry for being so uptight.  I just... worry,” Sean said with a sheepish smile.

 

Rosie ran over to the table and fetched the paper.  “Thanks, Uncle Dave,” she said and she gave him a kiss on his cheek. She and Sean moved off away from the trees to toss the Frisbee while Starsky started on the paper.  

 

He wasn’t feeling well, and he was wishing it was already time for his next dose of pain medication.  Hoping reading would take his mind off of his discomfort, he started on page one.

 

“Vegas Bound Tour Bus Crashes – 3 Dead, 10 Injured” was the headline.  A local tour bus company was under investigation for safety violations.  Now that there had been a fatality accident, the investigation would likely involve police work.  He read through that story and then turned to finish his article on page two.  When he turned the page, his eyes were immediately drawn to the story at the top of page three – “Gunther Trial Jury Selection Starts Monday.”  He hadn’t read many of the articles about the shooting, the investigation, or the upcoming trial.  At first, he wasn’t able to read them.  Later, as his recovery progressed, Hutch had shielded him from them.  Starsky knew and appreciated that, even though he and Hutch never discussed it.

 

Starsky’s eyes were glued to the pictures accompanying the article.  His hands started to shake, his face had gone pale, and he was breathing hard.  The pictures showed the Torino with its shot out windows.  Even in black and white, the large pool of blood on the ground looked grisly.  The second picture was of James Marshall Gunther walking into court for one of the pretrial hearings.  The third picture was worse. 

 

Sometime after the media got wind of the story, a reporter had taken pictures of Hutch at the hospital.   What was happening in that picture was clear to Starsky.  One of his doctors was in the frame with Hutch and Captain Dobey.  Hutch was leaning up against the wall and bending forward a little, with the captain holding his arm to steady him.  Although it was a side shot, the stricken look on Hutch’s face seared into Starsky’s heart.  Hutch’s hands looked like they were coming up toward his face... and they were covered in blood.  Starsky’s blood.  That sight brought a terrifying flashback to Starsky’s mind.  He was lying on the ground and Hutch was there.  He felt something touch his cheek and he opened his eyes.  As hard as he tried to talk, he couldn’t.  His vision was dimming and he knew he was dying so he’d tried to say goodbye.  All of this came back to him and he remembered the look in Hutch’s eyes as everything went dark and he believed his last sight in life would be his frightened partner’s face and the last thing he heard would be Hutch’s voice saying, “No, don’t go!  Please, God, hang on.”

 

Seeing the graphic evidence of what Hutch endured that day was too much for Starsky.  He put a hand up to his chest as if it might help get his racing heartbeat under control, and his limp fingers dropped the paper onto the ground as the park started to spin. 

 

Sean looked over at Starsky as he started to slump forward and to the side.  Hutch had spotted that he was in trouble a few seconds after Sean.  Seeing him falling with his hand up to his chest was terrifying.  Fearing it might be Starsky’s heart, Hutch made his best speed, but his twisted knee slowed him and by the time he reached Starsky, Sean was easing him down to the ground.

 

“Starsky!” Hutch called as he came to a stop and knelt next to his friend, quickly feeling for a pulse.  Starsky was pale, but his color didn’t look like he was having a heart attack and his pulse was strong and fast.  Hutch looked over at Sean and said, “What the hell happened?”

 

Starsky was unconscious; his face was covered with perspiration.  Hutch patted him on the hand and the cheek, trying to revive him.

 

“I don’t know, Hutch,” Sean replied with a shaky voice.  “He was just reading the paper, and next thing I knew he was going down.  I guess he fainted.  I’m pretty sure he didn’t feel too good earlier.”

 

Starsky was starting to moan and turn his head from side to side.  Sean was kneeling on the discarded newspaper.  As Hutch talked softly to Starsky and tried to bring him around, Sean got the paper out from under him and looked at the first couple of pages, quickly finding what had set off the other man.

 

“Shit, Hutch, this must be it,” he said as he held up page three for Hutch to see the pictures. 

 

“Dammit! It’s been four months, when will they stop running that picture?”  The local paper had run those shots over and over during the first two months.  Almost every time something new broke on the case.

 

Starsky’s eyes fluttered open and he said, “Hutch?”

 

Hutch turned his attention to the man on the ground.  “Hey, buddy, you okay?”

 

Starsky looked confused and he was still breathing rapidly. Hutch wasn’t happy with his racing heartbeat, either, but it seemed to be slowing.  “Hutch?  Oh, God....”

 

“Sh, it’s okay, Starsk.  Just relax.  Slow it down.”

 

Starsky nodded and put one hand up to cover his eyes, knowing he’d never get it together if he kept trying to watch Hutch and Sean spinning around him. 

 

Matt had come up behind them by this time and he was asking if he should run and call for an ambulance.

 

“No!” Starsky said. “I’m all right.”

 

Sean and Matt both looked at Hutch for his call.  “You sure you’re all right, Gordo?”

 

“Yeah, yeah, just gimme a minute,” Starsky replied. “Just a little dizzy.  The pictures....”

 

Hutch took his pulse again and said, “No ambulance.  I think Sean’s right, he just fainted.”

 

“Hey,” Starsky said.  He’s right here in front of you.”

 

Hutch laughed at the weak joke.  “Sorry, buddy.  Come on, uncover your eyes so I can see how you’re doing.”

 

Starsky obediently dropped his hand and opened his eyes, relieved that there was only one of everything he could see, and the world had stopped spinning.  Hutch looked in his eyes, satisfied that the crisis was passing.

 

“You ready to sit up?”

 

“Yeah, gimme a hand, huh?”

 

Hutch took one hand and Sean took the other.  They gently sat Starsky up and Hutch got behind him so that Starsky could lean back against his chest.  Matt watched in fascination as the men interacted.  Hutch’s arm wrapped around Starsky to steady him.  None of them had noticed poor Rosie Dobey, standing on the periphery, scared to death that something terrible had happened to Starsky.  Matt just stood back and watched.

 

“Uncle Dave?” she said in a tiny, frightened voice.

 

“I’m okay, sweetheart.”

 

“Rosie, honey, would you please run over to one of the ice chests and get us something cold for him to drink?” Hutch asked.

 

“Sure,” she said, happy to have something to do.

 

“Wait,” Hutch said as she turned to run the errand.  He pulled out his handkerchief and handed it to the child.  “Get this wet with the cold water from inside the ice chest, okay?”

 

She took it and dashed off to where her folks had left the ice chests.

 

Hutch glanced at the paper still in Sean’s hands and quietly said, “Get rid of that.”

 

“Don’t,” Starsky said.  “I want to read it.”

 

“Starsk....” Hutch started.

 

“No.  I mean it. I heard you talkin’ to Dobey.  I have to testify.  Might as well read this stuff now.  I’m gonna hear it and see it in court.”

 

Sean looked helpless, but he said, “How ‘bout I just put it back with your stuff.  You can decide what to do with it later.”

 

Before Starsky could protest again, Hutch nodded his thanks.  He reached for Starsky’s wrist, but got his hand batted away before he could take Starsky’s pulse again.

 

“I’m all right, Blintz.  Was I out long?” This wasn’t the first time Starsky had fainted or lost consciousness since he left the hospital.  The disconcerting feeling was all too familiar; even though it had been almost two weeks since the last time it had happened.  That time, he’d tried to stand up too fast and Hutch barely caught him before he hit his head on the coffee table.  His healing system was stretched taut and any significant upset or physical problem that interfered with his equilibrium seemed to affect him badly.

 

“Nope, just a couple of minutes.” Hutch rubbed Starsky’s arm, trying to help him get warm again.  His skin still felt cold and he was shivering a little, despite the warmth of the day.  Rosie came back with a root beer and the cool cloth.  Starsky took the soda gratefully and Hutch used the cloth to wipe Starsky’s face.

 

“Feels good, Hutch. Thanks.” Starsky put his head back on Hutch’s shoulder and grabbed onto his arm.  “Hutch, that picture of you.  I....”

 

“Starsk, I’m sorry.  I’ve really tried hard to keep you from seeing that stuff.  Maybe I did the wrong thing, but I don’t want you to get too worked up about it.  Gunther’s going down in this trial and we can put it behind us.”

 

“I remembered something.  When I saw that picture, with the blood on your hands, I remembered when I looked up at you and tried to say goodbye.  I thought you were gonna be the last thing I saw.”

 

That thought gave Hutch a chill.  “I know.  I thought I was, too.”  The two men hadn’t talked much about the details of that day. Matt was intrigued as he listened to them open up to and comfort each other.

 

“I need to know something,” Starsky continued.  “What was happening in that picture of you?”

 

“Ah, I don’t want to....”

 

Starsky interrupted him.  “Was that when the doc told you I was gonna die?”

 

Hutch swallowed a lump in his throat as his eyes suddenly filled.  He could only squeak out a single word in response.  “Yeah.” 

 

“It’s okay, babe.  I made it.  You did, too.”

 

Hutch hugged him closer and rested his head on Starsky’s curls, closing his eyes and offering his millionth silent prayer of thanks.  Starsky chuckled in his arms. 

 

“What’s so funny, dirt ball?”

 

“You.  I can feel your heart racing against my back.  Are YOU okay?”

 

Hutch laughed.  “You mean other than having you scare another year off of me?”

 

“Hey, you’re gonna live to be 140, remember? A few more scares and you’ll be back down to a normal life span with me.”

 

“That’s not even a little funny,” Hutch said, giving Starsky a squeeze to convey that he was half kidding and half serious.  “No more scares for you.  You’ve met your lifetime, scare the holy bejeezus out of Hutch quota. You got that?”

 

“Yeah, I hear ya.”

 

Both had clearly forgotten Matt was there, and as fascinating as it was to watch this display of their partnership in action, he also felt uncomfortable. He cleared his throat.

 

Starsky turned his head. "Aw, kid, I'm sorry. We ain't much help with your paper, are we? C'mon, Hutch, we gotta let the kid finish his questions."

 

Hutch looked up and smiled at Matt. Giving Starsky's shoulder a final pat, he moved around and settled himself next to his partner. "Sure, if you're up to it, Starsk."

 

"Hey, never better." Starsky grinned, including Matt, and added, "Go ahead, kid. Fire away."

 

Matt was at a loss. He didn't know how to ask for an explanation of what he'd just seen without sounding stupid. He opened his mouth, but nothing came out.

 

"Look at that, Hutch," Starsky teased. "We took the words right out of his mouth."

 

Hutch laughed, and finally Matt did, too, releasing the tension he felt. "I'm sorry," Matt said. "But that --" he gestured vaguely. "That's unusual behavior for a couple of tough street cops."

 

"Actually," Hutch said, "it's not. Not the feeling. Maybe we're more open about showing it. Let me prove it to you." He waved at Sean, who had resumed the game with Rosie. Sean loped over and knelt.

 

"Yeah, Hutch?"

 

"I'm gonna ask you something," Hutch said. "I want your honest answer. Not the macho cop and not a joke. Okay?"

 

Sean shrugged. "Sure. I guess."

 

"How do you feel about Jack?"

 

Sean stared at him for a moment, a little pucker between his brows. "Whatdya mean?"

 

"I mean, what do you think of him? You like him? You trust him? You hate him? What?"

 

Sean glanced over his shoulder and Matt followed the line of his look to the dark-haired detective who had helped Hutch up when he'd hurt his knee sliding into home. After a moment, Sean turned back. "He's like a brother to me," Sean said, and there was no doubting the ring of sincerity in his tone.

 

"Do you love him?"

 

Matt watched Sean's face. It reddened a little; clearly this line of questioning made him somewhat uncomfortable, but he nodded without hesitation. "Yeah. Guess I do."

 

"Why?" Hutch grinned a little, glancing at Matt, who remembered Hutch telling him that was a reporter's favorite question.

 

"Huh?" Sean stared at Hutch, then glanced at Matt, too. "Well, hell, Hutch. We spend damned near all our time together. I gotta trust that pooka with my life, pal. If he didn't give a shit about me or I didn't give a shit about him, that'd be a helluva mess, now, wouldn't it?"

 

"Sure would," Starsky put in with a heartfelt nod.

 

Hutch patted Sean on the shoulder. "Thanks, man. Go on and play with Rosie and don't let her get the best of you."

 

Sean grinned. "Easier said than done." He rose and trotted back to the little girl.

 

Hutch turned to Matt. "See? I'd lay you good odds that almost every pair of partners out on that street – every effective pair – is the same way. Not all of 'em say so. Not all of them even realize it, maybe. But there's no greater trust than to put your life in the hands of another, Matt, and once you've done that, you just about have to love the guy."

 

"Isn't it true that some partnerships don't work out, and the partners even hate each other?" Matt asked.

 

Hutch nodded. "Sure. But they don't last."

 

"Then you two aren't unique?"

 

"I don't know if I'd say that," Starsky said, and though the words were said in a light tone, the look in his eyes was dead serious. "Me and Hutch are different. We're closer than most. Spend more of our off time together. We're.... " He paused and glanced at Hutch as if for assistance.

 

"The feeling isn't unique, maybe," Hutch picked up the ball, "but the expression of it, and the depth of it, are. Other partners are close. Other partners put their lives on the line for each other. But other partners go home at night and can take off the badge and the gun and leave the job behind. Starsky and I are partners all the time."

 

"What I just saw, a minute ago," Matt said. "Can I use that? Can I describe that in my paper?"

 

Starsky and Hutch glanced at each other and though not a word passed between them, Matt could see that they were somehow discussing his request. Finally, Starsky turned back to him. "Yeah. Why not? We ain't ashamed of it or we wouldn't do it out here in front of God and everybody," he said, grinning.

 

Starsky winced a little and shifted his weight more toward Hutch just as Edith Dobey was walking toward them to find out what had happened.  She could see that whatever it was, the crisis had passed, but she could also see that Starsky wasn’t entirely comfortable where he was.  She shook her head and said, “Ken, what’s the matter with you?  David shouldn’t be sitting so long on the hard ground.” Edith extended a hand toward Starsky, looking him over to make sure he was all right. 

 

“Oh, geez, I’m sorry, Starsk, let’s get you up,” Hutch said.

 

Hutch and Edith helped Starsky to his feet and slowly walked him toward the picnic table.  When they reached it, Edith reached into the box under the table and pulled out a beach towel she’d brought with her, folding it into a makeshift cushion.  Hutch felt her tugging on his sleeve and took the hint that she wanted a moment alone.

 

Matt sat down next to Starsky and the two of them watched Edith and Hutch walking toward Dobey and Cal as they were returning from a horseshoe-pitching contest.  Starsky chuckled.

 

“They’re going to have a little confab over there and I’ll just bet it’s about me,” he said.

 

“Does that bother you?”

 

“Nah.  They’re just trying to take care of me and as much as I hate to admit this, these past few months, that’s been a big job.  I wish Hutch would take a break, but you can see how he is.  Between looking out for me and working on the Gunther investigation, he hasn’t had much time for himself.  That’s why I wanted him to play in the game today.  He needs the diversion and my partner isn’t easily diverted.”

 

“Pretty persistent, huh?” Matt asked.

 

“Like a heat seeking missile.  He made up his mind Gunther was going down for what he did.  Not just to me, but to a lot of other people.  Hutch hangs onto things.  He’d die trying and it’s my job to make sure he doesn’t.”

 

That was food for thought for the graduate student.  His curiosity about the events that had brought these people to the place they were in was almost overwhelming.  Since Matt missed much of the local coverage when Starsky was shot, he decided it would be a good idea to go back and read about what had happened.  He could get newspapers on microfiche in the main campus library.   The little group of people in a huddle about what to do with the man sitting next to him was breaking up and walking back their way.

 

“Looks like they’ve reached a consensus, Dave,” Matt said with a smile.

 

One look at Hutch’s face and Starsky knew what the decision had been.  “Yeah, this is where I find out it’s time for me to go home and grab a nap.  They’re right, too,” he said with a yawn.

 

When Hutch reached the bench across from him, Starsky said, “I’m not going anywhere until I have a piece of Edith’s peach pie.”

 

Hutch had started to speak and now he was standing and looking at his partner, mouth open in an uncharacteristic moment where he wasn’t sure how to respond. 

 

“You’re gonna catch a fly in there,” Starsky quipped.

 

Hutch laughed.  “All right, you’ve got my number.  Pie first, then a nap.”

 

Matt stood and said, “Thanks a lot, you guys.  I have a lot of research I need to do at the campus library, so I’d better get moving.”

 

“Did we answer your questions?” Hutch asked.

 

Matt smiled at him.  “You have no idea how helpful you’ve all been.  I might have some more things to ask later.  Would you mind if I give you a call?”

 

Starsky fielded that one.  “Nope, anytime.”  He gave Matt both his and Hutch’s phone numbers and then watched as the younger man walked away.  Starsky’s detective instincts were telling him that Matt was about to branch in a new direction and he couldn’t help wondering what ideas their time together had given him.  He sat with his partner and the Dobeys, enjoying the pie until his tenth unstifled yawn brought an end to his reprieve from a nap.  After goodbyes all around, Hutch helped him to the car for the drive home.

 

~*~*~*~

 

Within the hour, Matt Dixon was sitting at a microfiche station in the Media Room at the university library.  He had requested fiche for the May Bay City newspapers, in addition to the papers from several other major United States cities.  He wanted to see what the local coverage was like and to compare that with what was printed in other cities. 

 

Starting with the Bay City Times, Matt began searching through the page one headlines until he found the day of the shooting, May 15, 1979.  He sat reading the coverage, riveted by what he’d found.  The additional pictures added a lot to his understanding of how bad the shooting had been.  That first edition running the story didn’t give out the name of the officers involved, but it did speculate that it was unlikely the wounded policeman would survive.  Now that he had met both men, Matt felt a lump in his throat thinking about what Hutch must have gone through that day.

 

After he read the local coverage, he started with the other city papers.  Most of them didn’t have anything for the day of the shooting – nothing until the next day.  However, as he looked at the last of them, he noticed something interesting.  Not quite sure that he had seen what he thought he saw, he reread each of them. 

 

The story was covered in the May 16 morning editions of the other papers, but, naturally, other stories were also being reported.  Matt made some notes and printed out the first few pages of each paper from May 15. Then, he returned the material and left to place a call.

 

Starsky’s phone rang at five in the evening and Hutch grabbed it. “Hello?”

 

Matt knew from the blond’s voice it wasn’t Starsky.  “Detective Hutchinson, this is Matt Dixon.”

 

“Good guess, Matt, this is Hutch.  What’s up?”

 

“Sorry, right, Hutch.  I’m not sure anything is, but maybe.”

 

He had Hutch’s attention.  “Is something wrong?”

 

“I went to the library today and did some background research on the shooting.  I... may have discovered something.  You’re the detective, I was wondering if I could bring what I have by and let’s see what you think.”

 

“Sounds interesting.  Sure, I was just cooking.  Come for dinner and we’ll look at it.”

 

“Oh, you don’t have to feed me. You sure I won’t be disturbing Starsky?”

 

“You kidding?  He’s grateful for any chance to see someone else’s mug besides mine.  Stay for dinner.  He won’t eat much and you’ll make me feel like I still know how to operate a skillet.  I’m making stir-fry.”

 

Matt laughed. “Okay, you twisted my arm.  My wife is out of town visiting her sister.  I was just going to drive through someplace.  Give me the address and I’ll leave now.”

 

When he reached Starsky’s apartment twenty minutes later, Matt found the door cracked open a little.  He tapped quietly, hoping not to disturb Starsky if he was still asleep.  Hutch saw him stick his head into the apartment and motioned for Matt to join him in the kitchen.

 

“Hi, Matt, glad you could come.  I was just getting ready to wake Starsky.”

 

“Does he sleep a lot?”

 

“Yeah, he needs a lot of sleep.  I don’t have much trouble getting him to sleep.  Sometimes, eating is another story.  He loves stir-fry, so I’m hoping to tempt him. Boy’s too skinny still.”

 

Hutch gave Matt a beer and disappeared into the bedroom.  Matt sat down at the table set for three.  He noted the collection of pills sitting next to what must be Starsky’s plate.  Geez, this stinks.  Poor guy.  I wonder how long it will be before he’s back to normal.

His thoughts were interrupted by the sight of Hutch accompanying his obviously uncomfortable partner to the dinner table. 

 

“Matt,” Starsky said, “thanks for coming.  He gets sick of just having me to talk to at dinner.”

 

Matt smiled at him. “Funny, he said pretty much the same thing about you.  How you feeling?”

 

“To quote my Uncle Al, fair to middlin’,” Starsky replied as he sat stiffly in his seat.  Matt noticed the worry lines on Hutch’s face.  The incident in the park must have taken a bigger toll on the healing detective than he wanted to acknowledge.

 

The men agreed to eat first, then look at the papers over coffee.  Hutch did manage to coax Starsky into eating half of what was in front of him – an accomplishment that seemed to please him.  Matt helped clear the table and clean up while Starsky settled on the couch to wait for the coffee and revelations part of the evening.

 

Matt pulled the papers out of his briefcase and spread them around the coffee table.  “I don’t know if this is anything or not, but I thought it was kind of strange.  You take a look and see what you think.”   He hadn’t printed any pages with pictures of the shooting, these were all of the previous day’s events.  His slight smile relieved Hutch’s momentary worry as Starsky picked up the first of the papers and started to read.  Ten minutes later, after both detectives had read them, they went into a huddle.  The two men passed the copies back and forth, shaking their heads and muttering to each other.

 

“Look....” Starsky said as he pointed and handed a page to Hutch.

 

“You think?” Hutch asked.

 

“Maybe,” Starsky answered.

 

Hutch handed a page to Starsky and said, “Detroit.”

 

“Yup, Atlanta, too,” came the answer.  Matt was fascinated again.

 

Finally, the detectives broke their huddle and looked up at Matt.  “What did you make of this?” Hutch asked.

 

“Like I said, I’m no detective, but... how many gangland or execution style murders do you suppose there are in different cities around the country all on the same day?” Matt replied.

 

“Really,” Starsky said.

 

Hutch cleared his throat and rose to pace.  He was obviously thinking and neither man interrupted him.  Finally, he said, “What happened to Starsky was more than a gangland style hit.  What happened to him was an attempted execution.”

 

“They were trying for you, too, Blondie.  Don’t forget that.”

 

“I haven’t forgotten.  I’ll never forget it,” Hutch replied.  “Six high-profile deaths on the same day around the country.  SIX!  I just have to think it’s related.  I can’t believe this is the first we’ve heard about this.”

 

Starsky put a hand up and captured Hutch’s hand as he passed in front of him between the couch and the coffee table.  Hutch stopped immediately and looked at his friend. “Hutch, you don’t make a habit of reading the newspapers from other major cities, do you?  Not to mention the fact that you’ve been a little preoccupied with me.  Huh?  Knock it off and sit down.  We need to talk about this.”

 

"Yeah, I know," Hutch said. He sat, but he kept fidgeting.

 

"So?" Matt said. "Is it important?"

 

"Could be," Starsky said. "It's just too much of a coincidence for me."

 

"Me, too," Hutch put in. "There's got to be a connection of some kind. And if there is, I'll find it."

 

"You?" Starsky raised one eyebrow. "We."

 

"Starsky, you're in no shape --"

 

"Reading files isn't going to hurt me, and my brain still works, even if the rest of me's outta commission at the moment," Starsky retorted, half angrily. "I can also make phone calls."

 

Hutch studied him in silence for a moment. "Okay," he said at last. "It would be nice to have some help. I think this could be a tough one."

 

"Anything I can do?" Matt asked hopefully.

 

Hutch turned in his chair to look at him. "There might be. You already have helped, by bringing this to our attention. Think you could try to find obits on these six guys, see if there seems to be any connection among them? Usually people's occupations and work history are in their obituaries."

 

"Yeah, I can do that," Matt said. "Anything else?"

 

Hutch glanced at Starsky.

 

"Start with that," Starsky said. "We'll let you know if we think of anything else. We don't want to put you in any danger."

 

"Hey, I'm just a college student researching a thesis," Matt said. "Nobody'll be suspicious of me spending time in the library nosing around. I want to help. Don't hesitate to ask."

 

First thing in the morning, Hutch got on the phone to start calling the police departments in the cities where the killings had taken place. The first call he made was to Atlanta. It only took about half an hour to find the first link in the chain. The victim was a known racketeer, murdered in his own driveway as he was leaving for the day. A single gunshot wound to the back of the head. He'd been found in his car. There were no suspects.

 

"This one's been driving us crazy," said the detective in charge of the case. "No fingerprints. No witnesses. No nothing. Not that we're gonna miss this guy, you understand, Sergeant, but it looks bad that we can't pin it on somebody."

 

"What've you got on his connections?" Hutch asked.

 

"It's pretty tangled," the detective said. "I mean, we know he was into organized crime in a big way, but there are so many holding companies and false trails that we haven't been able to figure out who it all goes back to yet. You got a similar case out there or something?"

 

"Yeah," Hutch said grimly. "Gunther Industries."

 

The other detective whistled. "Hey, wait a minute. Hutchinson...you're Dave Starsky's partner, aren't ya? The cop Gunther put the hit on."

 

"How did you know --"

 

"Man, every cop here knows about that. It was on the wire services, in the newspapers. You ain't sayin' – " He stopped and whistled again. "Gunther Industries. That's the connection!"

 

"Could be," Hutch said cautiously. "Worth looking into. I don't have any evidence, just a gut feeling."

 

"We'll look into that angle. Gimme your phone number. I'll let you know what we find out."

 

Starsky had stayed at home and called Detroit and Dallas, getting the exact same sort of reaction from the cops on those cases. The victims were both known organized crime figures. The deaths had been execution style, quick and deadly, and there were no witnesses. One of the victims had been shot coming out of the courthouse after a pretrial hearing, in front of twenty or thirty people, but no one had seen the shooter.

 

Starsky had just hung up from the Dallas call when he heard a hissing sound coming from the kitchen. The faucet had been dripping lately. He sighed and got up to go try to shut it off.

 

Nothin' drives me crazier than dripping water, he was thinking as he moved toward the sink. He saw the smoke a moment too late.

 

Hutch had spent all morning on the telephone and shuffling through the files on the Gunther case, trying to find a concrete connection among the deaths. He knew it was there; it was only a matter of finding it. Starsky had called after he'd spoken to the Detroit PD and had promised to call back after he spoke to the Dallas PD but he hadn't yet. Hutch at first assumed Starsky was waiting for a call back from the officers in charge – he knew he and Starsky didn't always return calls from other departments immediately if they were busy with something – so he didn't worry until the rumbling of his stomach made him look at the clock. It was after one. Starsky should have called by now.

 

He picked up the phone and tried Starsky's. There was no answer. A chill of fear crept up his spine.

 

You're being paranoid, he tried to tell himself. He's taking a nap or so absorbed in his latest model ship that he doesn't hear the phone. Maybe he took a walk to the bagel shop.

 

It was no use. He grabbed his jacket and ran. Starsky was going to kill him. He was really tired of being mollycoddled and had insisted on being left alone to do some things for himself ... but Hutch's heart wouldn't listen to him, and it pounded with fear all the way to Starsky's place and all the way up the steps to the door. He tried knocking, first.

 

"Starsk? Starsky!"

 

No response. Hutch gave in to his fear and opened the door. The living room was deserted. It was only a moment before he noticed the odd smell in the apartment and the dizzy sensation. Instinct kicked in, and he yanked his shirt up over his face, pulled his gun and hurried to the kitchen, where he found Starsky, out cold on the floor.

 

"It's some kind of gas," the doctor told Hutch and Dobey a few hours later in the hospital. "Military issue, we think. We're running an analysis. David's going to be all right, but he's going to be very sick for a couple of days. His lung wasn't healed enough to handle an assault like this and it's set him back. But if you hadn't arrived when you did," he glanced at Hutch, "we wouldn't be having this conversation."

 

Hutch was still light-headed and a little nauseated from the effects of the gas on his own body in the few moments he'd breathed it before he found Starsky. He'd immediately opened the windows and turned on a fan, even before calling an ambulance, and Starsky had regained consciousness and had immediately been violently ill. There was no way to know exactly how long he'd breathed the stuff before Hutch got there.

 

"Will there be any lasting effects?" Hutch asked. "Are you sure he's going to be all right?"

 

"He should be fine," the doctor said reassuringly. "You need to sit down until you feel better and then you need to go home and rest the remainder of the day. You'll be good as new tomorrow, and he can go home tomorrow evening." He patted Hutch's shoulder and walked away.

 

"Those bastards!" Hutch spat, sinking down in a chair. He looked up at Dobey. "They tried again!"

 

“Calm down, Hutch,” Dobey said. “We can’t prove it was Gunther.”

 

Hutch looked at his captain like he had just sprouted a third eye.  “Who the hell else would it be?  The old man can’t stand it that Starsky survived.  He wants to finish what he started.”

 

Dobey sighed.  “I agree that’s probably the answer and that’s the angle we’ll start looking at.  I think we should send him underground.”

 

“Cap, Starsky is still healing.  He doesn’t need to be switched from pillar to post until this trial is finished.  I’ll keep an eye on him.”

 

“You can’t be there all the time, Hutch.  The investigation, the depositions, be practical.”

 

“No.  Think about it, Cap.  That just won’t work.  He needs too many people right now. We’d never be able to keep the leaks plugged between doctors, physical therapists, lab personnel, the pharmacy, and God knows who all else.”

 

“All right, then I’ll assign a black-and-white to him.  From now on, he’s never alone.”

 

“Oh, that’ll go over big,” Hutch said with a snort.  “I’ll tell him.  Dammit!”

 

Hutch dropped his head down into his hands and rubbed his temples.  The person responsible for this latest attempt on his best friend’s life was out there and Hutch was desperate to be sure nothing else happened.  Starsky couldn’t take it.  His system had already endured more than he should have been able to survive.  Hutch’s thoughts were interrupted when the nurses pushed his partner out into the hall on a gurney, headed for the elevator.  Hutch stood and fell into step beside the gurney, maneuvering so the pale man could see him better.  Captain Dobey tagged along behind them, intending to go up to find out Starsky’s room number so he could order the guard.

 

“How you feeling, Gordo?” he asked his decidedly green friend.

 

“Remember when we went sailing last year?”

 

Hutch remembered.  They had gone out on a sailboat to do some whale watching on a day when the water was choppy.  Starsky was horribly seasick.  He swore he’d never get on another sailboat.  The poor man had spent the first hour of the excursion clutching the railing and vomiting.  The rest of the trip he’d been too weak and rubber-kneed to care. 

He had repeatedly muttered about ships with motors and how it was more fun to build scale models of sailing ships than to ride on one as a passenger.

 

“Yeah, that bad?” Hutch answered.

 

“Nope.  Worse.” Starsky said. 

 

Hutch winced at the thought.  “Could be worse,” he said, attempting to lighten the mood.

 

Starsky did his best Marty Feldman impersonation, which really wasn’t all that good, and said, “Could be raining.”

 

~*~*~*~

 

A dark, smoky bar on Belmont was once again to be the meeting place for a hired gun and the man charged with seeing that Starsky never made it to the Gunther trial.  He waited in a back booth, his face all but obscured in the poor lighting, wearing dark glasses and a knit cap that completely hid his short-cropped red hair.  His boss would not accept failure.  Mr. Bates had learned that lesson the hard way.  Dale Hertig was not about to suffer the same fate, no matter how many hit men he had to hire.

 

After a half-hour wait, a slim man dressed in army fatigues from the local surplus store slipped into the other side of the booth.  He did not wear the look of a soldier who had been successful in his mission.  They exchanged no greeting.

 

“He survived it,” the nervous hit man said.

 

“Dammit!” Hertig growled.  “I told you not to fail.”

 

“I did everything I was supposed to.  The blond one was supposed to be at work.  I swear to God it’s true what they say about those two having some sort of Twilight Zone connection between them.  I stayed behind to make sure no one came in time.  Another fifteen minutes or so and he’d have been finished.”

 

Hertig stuck a hand out of the booth, motioning for the bartender to send over another shot of whiskey for him and one for his companion.

 

“I don’t have to report to the old man for another couple of days.  He doesn’t want too much contact.  Let’s just think up something else.”

 

“Don’t the old man want  Hutchinson dead, too?”

 

“Yeah, but he’s more interested in the partner.  I think it galls him that Starsky survived the first hit.  Then, his partner kept our other operative from finishing him in the ICU.  He wants Starsky dead.  Before you point it out, the old man knows it’s Hutchinson who has the most to testify about.  He just doesn’t care.”

 

“Long as Starsky’s watchdog is there, that may be a problem.  Besides, now they know we’re still after him, they’re sure to go to ground.”

 

The two men sat thinking about their dilemma.  Neither of them wanted to meet their predecessors’ fates.  Everyone who had failed James Marshall Gunther wound up dead.  Both the man who tried to finish Starsky that night, and the one sent to kill Hutch in the hospital garage never made it to their arraignments.  The man with the knife died at Hutch’s feet, shot by his associate.  Jenny Brown died of a drug overdose a week after the shooting.  Counting her, Mr. Bates, the two fake cops who riddled Starsky with bullets, the three mechanics from the hospital, and the six others Gunther had killed that same day, the score was Metro Detectives 13, bad guys 0.  The only one to survive was Jenny Brown’s attorney.  He was too hot to bump off at the time.  The men now shakily sharing a shot of whiskey apiece feared they were about to become numbers 14 and 15 on the cops’ side of the scorecard.  The small amount of checking the two detectives had  done on the string of murders from that day had already been reported to Gunther.  Time was not on their side.

 

Hertig spoke first.  “Okay.  We’ve got to get rid of Hutchinson, and we’d better think something up fast… before he gets a chance to put his partner under wraps.”

 

“Car accident?” the hit man asked.

 

“No.  Too unpredictable.”

 

“Want me to shoot him? He’s probably at the hospital.  I’d just have to wait for him near his car.”

 

“No.  He’s onto that.  He won’t make the mistake of going down to that garage without his guard up again.  You know where he lives?”

 

“Yeah, but he ain’t stayin’ there.  He’s been at Starsky’s place.”

 

“Even better.”

 

The two men put their heads together to plan how to finish off both men in Starsky’s apartment.  They would have to wait for Starsky to get out of the hospital to put that plan into motion.

 

~*~*~*~

 

 

Just as Hutch thought, Starsky was not happy at the prospect of having to be watched and guarded.  His recovery was going well, all things considered, and having this happen felt like a setback to him, in more ways than just physically.  Having no choice but to agree, he remained in the hospital under observation and sent Hutch home to rest.  Hutch decided to go to Venice Place.  If nothing else, he could tend to his greenhouse and clear his mind.   The doctor was right, he was starting to feel better, but he needed to lie down for a while.

 

When his gardening duties were finished, Hutch stretched out on the sofa and called Matt Dixon.  He wanted to tell him about what happened to Starsky and make sure he was all right.  As far as he knew, no one but he, Matt, and Starsky were aware of the graduate student’s involvement, and Hutch intended to keep it that way.

 

“Matt, I’m glad I caught you at home.  Listen, you know how we told you we didn’t want to put you at risk?  Well, they tried to get to Starsky again.  I’m worried about your safety.”

 

“What happened? Is Dave all right?”

 

“Someone set off a poisonous gas canister in his apartment and it was close.  He’ll be okay, but the doc says it wasn’t good for his recovery.”

 

“Damn.  I’m sorry, Hutch.  Things have been real quiet around here, but I’ll keep my ears open just the same.  I was just going to head down to the main library to do some more research for you.  You almost missed me.”

 

“No, don’t do that.” Hutch’s concern instantly increased.  “If you’re going to look up those obits, do it on campus.  That’ll be much less likely to draw attention.”

 

“Okay, if you say so.  Sorry I couldn’t get to it earlier today.  I had a bunch of papers to grade for the section I teach.  Should I call you later?  Maybe bring copies to you again?”

 

“I don’t want you anywhere near us.  Just call.”  Hutch made sure he had the phone numbers at both his and Starsky’s homes.  When he hung up the phone, he had a keen sense of dread.  No one should know about Matt, but Gunther had a way of finding out things.  Hutch decided that this next bit of research would be the last they dared let Matt conduct… for his own safety.

 

Hutch called the hospital to check on Starsky.  His nurse told him his partner was resting comfortably and that his vital signs were good.  He asked her to tell Starsky he’d be back at the hospital in a few hours, just as soon as he’d taken a nap. 

 

“By the way… Detective Starsky wants ice cream,” she said unexpectedly before they ended their conversation.  She had helped take care of Starsky when he was in the hospital after the shooting and she felt comfortable joking with him and teasing his ever-vigilant partner.

 

Hutch laughed.  “Oh, really.  Did you give him some?”

 

“He says he doesn’t want our ice cream.  He wants spumoni, from La Valencia on Vine.”

 

“And just what makes you think I might smuggle him some ice cream?”

 

“Hm,” she replied.  “Let me see.  Contraband food?  You?  That must be your friend, Huggy Bear, I was thinking of, I’m sorry.”  She knew how much ice cream Hutch had smuggled in the last time – willing to try anything to get his partner to eat.

 

“Thanks, Patty.  I’ll take that under advisement,” Hutch replied.  He hung up the phone with a smile.  Starsky must be feeling better if he was whining about eating anything.

 

Knowing the crime lab team should have had enough time to check out Starsky’s apartment, Hutch called the captain. 

 

“Cap, Hutch.  Did the crime lab find anything useful at Starsky’s?”

 

“I was just going to call you,” Dobey replied. “They said the place was clean. No fingerprints. No forced entry. Nothing."

 

Hutch swore and slammed his hand against the arm of the couch. "How can there be nothing?"

 

"I don't know," Dobey said. "Best I can figure, they had a key or made one. Which means Starsky's place isn't safe. And most likely, neither is yours."

 

"How did they get the gas into the place?" Hutch demanded.

 

"A canister under his sink," Dobey said. "Timed release. Sophisticated setup. Hard to say when they put it there, but it was set to go off after you left."

 

They couldn't afford to trust anyone.

 

If neither apartment was safe – and Hutch agreed with his captain that they weren't – then that meant they needed somewhere else, somewhere secret, to stay while they waited for the trial. But where? He still didn’t know how it would work with all of Starsky’s current medical needs, but they had to do something to keep him safe.  If Gunther's operatives could get into Starsky's apartment without leaving any signs, they probably knew about Huggy's. They didn't dare stay there. He went through their other friends in his mind and couldn't think of anyone they wouldn't be able to trace – and he didn't want to put any of them in danger.

 

This was a problem he had to share with his partner.

 

Starsky was glumly pushing an unappetizing meal around on the tray when Hutch came in and he looked up with hope in his eyes.

 

"Buddy! Tell me you brought me some real food," Starsky implored.

 

Hutch grinned in spite of the circumstances and pulled a paper bag out from under his varsity jacket. "Have I ever let you down?"

 

"Yeah, but I forgive you," Starsky said, diving into the bag and unloading the cheeseburgers and fries onto the tray, heartlessly shoving the hospital food aside. He dug into the food without another word, and Hutch settled back to wait. Clearly, Starsky's nausea had passed. That or his stomach really was made of cast iron, as Hutch had long suspected, and for some reason, his stomach had just remembered that.  He ate more than Hutch had seen him eat in months.

 

“Save some room for the spumoni, partner.  Patty’s holding onto it for you.”

 

Starsky smiled at that.  When he finished eating and crumpled up the paper – which Hutch disposed of so the nurses wouldn't immediately find out he'd had a smuggled supper – he leaned back and fixed Hutch with an expectant stare.

 

"They didn't leave any clues behind," Hutch said. "Dobey said there was no sign of forced entry. The canister was under your kitchen sink, with a timer."

 

Starsky's eyes widened, but he didn't comment. He knew there was more.

 

Hutch sighed. "Your place isn't safe. Neither is mine. But we need someplace to go. Any ideas?"

 

Starsky pursed his lips and closed his eyes. "Huggy's won't do this time."

 

Hutch nodded, even though Starsky's eyes were still closed.

 

After many moments of silence, Starsky pried one eye open. "Turk."

 

"Turk?" For a moment, Hutch couldn't place the name. Then he snapped his fingers. "Turk! Of course. What are the chances they'd connect us with him?"

 

Starsky shrugged. "Not good, I don't think. You didn't even know who I was talkin' about right away. Huggy's still in touch with him. Worth askin', anyway." He reached for the phone, but Hutch jumped up and put a hand over his to stop him. Starsky looked up, puzzled.

 

"Not on the phone, partner. Just in case."

 

Starsky looked stricken. "Yeah."

 

Instead, Hutch drove over to Huggy's and got the address of Turk's office from him. Turk, an old friend of Huggy's, had talked Huggy into going into the private eye business with him a few years earlier, but it hadn't taken long for Huggy to realize he wasn't cut out for it, and he'd gone back to the restaurant/bar business. But Turk had stayed with private investigation, and had developed a knack for it. He'd moved his offices out of Bay City into the more affluent Santa Monica area. Starsky and Hutch hadn't seen him more than a couple of times since then, when they'd accidentally run into him at Huggy's, but he and Huggy had stayed in close touch.

 

"You think he'll do it, Hug?" Hutch asked after explaining his errand.

 

"I'm sure he will," Huggy said. "He took a shine to you two for some unfathomable reason." His eyes twinkled. He scribbled the address down and handed it over to Hutch and his expression turned serious. "You're bein' careful, right?"

 

"Right," Hutch said. "That's the whole idea."

 

Hutch took a circuitous route to Turk's office to make sure he wasn't being followed and when he got there, took a careful look around before climbing the stairs to the apartment above the office, where Turk lived. He'd been afraid to call to make sure he was home and he just now realized he might not be.

 

But he was. "Hutch!" Turk grinned from ear to ear and pulled the door open wider. "Come on in. Ain't seen you for a coon's age. How's that partner o' yours? I was real sorry to hear what happened to him."

 

"That's why I'm here," Hutch said, accepting the invitation to enter and sitting down in the chair Turk waved him to. Hutch explained his errand, including how dangerous it could be. "I will completely understand if you don't want to get involved," he finished.

 

Turk leaned back and studied him. "Poor li'l Davy," he said, and though the words might've made Hutch smile on another occasion, the grave tone in which Turk said the words took any humor from them. "They ain't gonna give up till they get him or you get them, are they?"

 

Hutch shook his head, unable to speak as that thought took root in his heart.

 

"I can't let that happen, Hutch," Turk said. "You bring him here. Between the two of us, we'll keep him safe."

 

Hutch blew out a sigh of relief. He hadn't known how much he wanted Turk to say yes until Turk said it. "Man, we owe you. Big."

 

"Nah," Turk said, waving his hand. "Y'all saved me an' Huggy's backsides and we owe you. 'Sides, what're friends for? When's he gettin' sprung from the hospital?"

 

"Tomorrow," Hutch said.  “Doc said in the evening, but we’re going to sneak him out of there in the morning with as few people knowing as possible.  That way, if anyone has been snooping around without us knowing, they won’t be expecting him to leave until later in the day.”

 

"I'll be here," Turk said.

 

~*~*~*~

 

Hutch's heart was much lighter as he drove back to the hospital to tell Starsky the news.   Still, he was extra glad for the guard sitting outside Starsky’s room.  Even with that, he was not planning to leave his partner alone again.  He’d stay until they could sneak Starsky out of the hospital in the morning.  In his head, he knew they were not in any more danger than they had been.  He also knew that neither they, nor Captain Dobey were aware of how much danger there really was, or how long it had been brewing.

 

Starsky was relieved to hear they had a place to go and that Hutch would be staying.  “Good.  I don’t want you out there cruisin’ around with no backup.”

 

“I know, buddy.  I really think they’re after you, though.  I’m all right.”

 

Hutch called Dobey to ask him to stop by the hospital so he could explain about their plans.  Dobey walked into Starsky’s room an hour later, looking decidedly unhappy.  After asking Starsky how he was feeling, he got down to business.

 

“Callahan is the officer on duty,” he said as he pulled up a chair.  “I sent Markowitz home.  I think he’s a good officer, but I don’t know him well.  He’s only been at Metro for a couple of weeks.  From now on, I’m not assigning any officers guard duty that the two of you don’t know well.  If you see a new one, you can be sure it means trouble.”

 

“Thanks, Cap,” Hutch said.  “I don’t want Starsky left alone for a minute and I’m going to be out a lot working some leads and  giving depositions and such.”

 

That didn’t work for the captain any more than it did for his quickly objecting partner.  Dobey put a hand up to squelch both of them and said, “Hutch, I don’t want you out there by yourself, either.  I know you don’t want another partner, but I’m going to ask Sean and Jack to help on this. One of them can ride with you when you have to be on the outside while the other stays with Starsky.  If you’re not with the D.A., I want you underground. Someone’s gonna be inside with you all the time, Starsky, in addition to the uniforms when they are necessary.”

 

Hutch wanted to fight it, but he knew he shouldn’t bother.  He explained about their plans to move Starsky to Turk’s.  The detectives had spoken with Starsky’s doctor while they were waiting for Dobey.  They knew him well and were sure they could trust him. The doctor would call ahead and arrange for a physical therapist from a hospital in Santa Monica to take over Starsky’s care for a while.  If they were careful, the necessary new health care personnel from the other city should be able to get to Turk’s without suspicion.  The trial was due to start in two weeks and the jury selection process was already underway.  They would arrange for both Starsky and Hutch to testify as soon in the trial as possible.  They’d be safer once they testified.  The only problem Hutch had with that theory was wrapped up in his belief that James Gunther wanted his partner dead because he could not accept  failure.  He was afraid they’d never rest easy as long as Gunther was alive – no matter how the trial went.  Hutch kept these thoughts to himself and he hoped he was wrong.

 

“Cap, we need to figure out how we’re going to get Starsk out of here without anyone following.  We can’t just take him out the front door.  Gunther’s people are probably watching for that.”

 

“Mm. I’ve been thinking about that.  I have a couple of ideas, but you’re probably not going to like them,” Dobey answered.  “We can take him out of here disguised as a prisoner.  They brought a man in from county lockup yesterday for a heart attack.  We could rig up a fake transfer back to the infirmary at lockup.  We’ll get you over to Turk's from there.”

 

Hutch said, “I don’t like it.  Gunther may have people in lockup.  Too risky.  I already discarded the idea of sending him out with one of the service trucks.  Starsky’s in no shape to be curled up inside of a shipping crate or a laundry trolley.  What’s your Plan B?”

 

The big man coughed and looked from one man to the other.  He knew his suggestion would not set well with either of them – Starsky for superstitious reasons and Hutch because it would be a little too close to home.  “There’s no delicate way to put this, gentlemen.  I think it might be best if we send him out in a hearse.”

 

Dobey watched as Hutch’s face turned white.  He was right, too close to home.  Hutch stood up and started to pace around the room.  “No,” was all he said.

 

“Hutch….” Dobey started.

 

“I said no, Cap,” Hutch replied, interrupting him.

 

Before Dobey could bluster out that he was their superior officer and they’d do what he thought was best, Starsky intervened. “Wait,” he said.  “I’ll do it.”

 

Both of the other men stared at Starsky.  His face was serious, and his voice was calm as he explained his thinking.  “I know you think I’m superstitious, and you’re right.  This ain’t about that – it can’t be.  It’s not just me that’s gonna be in danger leaving here tomorrow, it’s Hutch, and any other cops assigned to this suicide detail of yours, Cap.”

 

“Now, wait a minute, Starsky!” Dobey bellowed.

 

“Let me finish,” Starsky said.  “I’m sorry, Hutch, I know it’s creepy, but let’s just look at this logically, huh?  There’s no disguise we can put me in that’s gonna hide who I am if I try and walk out of here.  I couldn’t move fast before this happened and now, I’m sure I’ll be hacking inside of a minute if I try and make any kind of time walking.”  He paused a moment, giving his partner time to mull over what he’d just said.  When he saw the resignation pass across Hutch’s face, he continued with a smile, “At least I’ll be lying down, Blintz.”

 

Hutch had to smile at that.  “Idiot.”

 

“Glad you see it my way.  We’ll have to rig you up with a disguise.  Maybe you’d better shave off that caterpillar, buddy.  Cap, can you get him a dark wig, some glasses, and a dark suit like they wear at funeral homes?  If you can get a guy to ride in who sort of resembles Hutch in build, we can substitute him.”

 

“Good thinking.  I’ll handle that part.  When we get you to the funeral home, I’ll have a panel van waiting. Hutch, you help him into the van and we’ll have you driven to Turk’s.”

 

The plan seemed sound.  Starsky wasn’t keen on the idea of climbing into a casket, but Hutch was still more disturbed about it than he was.  Starsky looked reassuringly at him, planning to have a long talk with Hutch about the irony of the situation after Dobey left.  He almost had left the hospital in a hearse four months ago.  His superstitious side would probably not think it was such a good idea when they closed the lid on him tomorrow morning.  He shivered a little, but put it out of his mind.

 

Hutch asked the captain to telephone Matt and warn him again to stay away from them.  While they appreciated his help, neither of the detectives wanted him in harm’s way.   The captain said he would do that and he promised them there would be no radio traffic about the transfer, as an added precaution.  They all agreed it was best to do nothing from the hospital room phone, or any other phone Gunther’s people could have tapped.  He already had a lab team on his office, sweeping it for bugs.  When they called with the cryptic message that his special project had been given the green light, Dobey asked the caller to have one of his detectives wait for him in his office, to see that it stayed clear long enough for him to get in and make the arrangements.

 

After Dobey was gone, Starsky watched his unhappy partner as he paced around the room again.  Hutch’s fists were balled up and his jaw was clenched.  “You want to talk about it, buddy?” Starsky asked.

 

“No.”

 

“Come on, I know how you feel.”

 

Hutch stopped his pacing and glared at Starsky.  “No, you don’t,” he said in a tense, but low voice.  “You can’t know what it was like, being told your best friend is gonna die… watching it happening.  God, I.…” Hutch stopped, realizing his words were probably hurtful.  “I’m sorry, Starsk.  I know you do understand.  Shit, you were the one dying, not me.  It’s just… when I got any sleep at all those first couple of days, I kept dreaming about them pushing you out of the ICU with a sheet over your head.  Then, I’d see them loading you into a hearse, just like this is gonna go down.”

 

Starsky motioned for Hutch to come back over and sit next to him.   “I know, really, I do.  Over the years, I’ve had that kind of dream a few times about you, too.  I get it.  This is a smart plan, though.  I don’t like the idea of having them shut me up in a casket any more than you do.  I’m countin’ on you to get me outta there as fast as possible.  Okay?”

 

“Yeah, okay.”

 

“No cake, piece of sweat,” Starsky quipped, trying to get a rise out of Hutch.

 

Hutch obliged him.  “Dirt ball.”

 

“Hey, you’ve called me both an idiot and a dirt ball in the past half hour.  Glad to know this whole mess hasn’t made me lose my touch.”

 

Dobey worked fast, and by eight o'clock the next morning, it was all set up. Hutch had spent the night in Starsky's room on a cot an understanding nurse had found for him. He hadn't slept much. He was too worried about the trip in the morning.

 

Dobey appeared in the doorway just as Starsky was finishing his breakfast – or pretending to. He looked solemn. "We're ready to roll," he said, walking over to Starsky's plate and peering down at the soggy oatmeal with a grimace. He handed Hutch a bundle of clothing. "Here's your getup for the limo."

 

Hutch took the clothing and turned toward the bathroom.

 

"Don't forget to ditch the woolly worm," Starsky reminded him.

 

Hutch rolled his eyes. "Do you realize how long it takes me to grow a mustache? I wouldn't do this for anybody else."

 

Starsky grinned wickedly. "I've missed your vulnerable upper lip anyway."

 

Hutch flipped him off and went into the bathroom. When he emerged, wearing the suit, the wig, and minus the mustache, Starsky shook his head.

 

"If I didn't know it was you under there, I'd be a little nervous about this charade," he said.

 

"I'm nervous anyway," Hutch muttered, tugging at the too-tight wig. "And I feel like a fool."

 

There was a knock at the door and Cavanaugh came in, pushing a casket on a large, covered rolling stand and dressed identically to Hutch. With a liveried cap on, if you didn't look too close, he could have passed for Hutch. Sean would stay behind with Captain Dobey as planned.  He grinned jauntily and kicked the door shut behind him. "Your chariot, m'lord."

 

Starsky chuckled. "You're all heart, Sean."

 

"Hey, this is a nice one," Cavanaugh protested, pulling off the cover and opening the lid. "Look, it's all lined in satin and it even has a pillow. Why ya think a corpse needs a pillow, Cap'n?"

 

"Want to find out, Cavanaugh?" Hutch growled.

 

"Aw, Hutch, be nice to him," Starsky said. He was trying to tie his sneakers, but not having much luck, and Hutch knelt to help him. "You gotta excuse my partner, here," Starsky said to Cavanaugh. "He's a little wigged out."

 

Hutch whacked him on the leg as Cavanaugh chuckled at the pun.

 

"Does anyone mind if we get on with this?" Dobey demanded, frowning.  To say that the hospital’s administrator was unhappy with this plan was an understatement.  Starsky’s doctor had insisted the man could be trusted and that he needed be told.  He’d explained to the captain that taking a casket through the hospital’s halls was bad for their image.  He had the maintenance staff put something together so they could get the big coffin in without anyone knowing what was under the drapes.  Now, Dobey just wanted to get it over with so they were out of the hospital and off to the funeral home. They had to put Starsky in it in his room to be cautious.  Dobey wouldn’t feel comfortable until the detectives were safely at Turk’s.

 

"All ready, Captain," Hutch said. He rose and helped Starsky stand up. Cavanaugh pushed the casket over to the bed and Starsky, with Hutch's steadying hand to assist, climbed in. He lay down. Up until he was actually in the casket, he'd been cheerful, but now he was too pale. He looked up at Hutch.

 

"Don't leave me in here too long, huh, buddy?"

 

"Not a chance," Hutch said grimly.

 

Cavanaugh had taken his cap off and was holding it over his heart. "Ah, laddie," he said in a lilting Irish accent, "sure an' ye look nat'ral lyin' there."

 

"Idiot," Starsky said, laughing in spite of himself. "Shut the damn top, will ya, and let's get outta this place."

 

Cavanaugh reached for the lid, but Hutch put his hand out to stop him. "I'll do it."

 

Cavanaugh backed off and Hutch looked down. Starsky looked up.

 

"Don't know if I can do this, buddy," Hutch said quietly.

 

"It ain't for real," Starsky reminded him. "Go on. We'll be there before you know it."

 

Hutch nodded, reached in to briefly grasp Starsky's hand, and shut the lid.

 

It was pitch dark with the lid closed and Starsky imagined he couldn't breathe. He knew that was crazy, though. Hutch hadn't sealed the lid and in fact, Starsky could see a little crack of light where the lid met the casket. He hadn't noticed that at first. He was glad they were going to drape the casket again in case it showed from the outside.  That might make people wonder why the lid wasn't closed all the way. They couldn't afford a mistake....

 

Then the casket began to move and Starsky closed his eyes. The motion, without being able to see where he was going, made him a little queasy. He heard the sound of the intercom outside, muffled by the casket, and there was a little bump. In a moment, he could tell he was in an elevator, going down. He didn't like elevators much anyway, and the movement was frightening. But it didn't last long, and there was another bump as the casket was rolled out of the elevator and down another hallway.

 

He swallowed hard and bit his lower lip as the casket's stand was folded down, then when the casket was lifted into the hearse. He heard a couple of faraway clicking sounds before the door slammed and all was silent. The silence went on far too long.

 

Finally, after what seemed like hours but was probably only a couple of minutes, Starsky heard another car door slam and the engine started up. The car moved slowly, turned two or three times, then at last, Hutch said, "You okay, partner?"

 

"Sure," Starsky said, lying through his teeth. "Fine."

 

"Stay put until we get to the funeral home," Hutch said. "Then we'll get you out of there and switch cars."

 

Terrific. Starsky hoped it wasn't far to the funeral home. His heart was pounding in his ears and it was hot and stuffy inside the casket.

 

The car jolted, stopped and started, turned corners, and try as he might, Starsky's heart wouldn't stop thumping wildly. He still couldn't breathe. It was too stuffy in there. He was dizzy and a little sick to his stomach. He clenched his fists.

 

Quit being a damn baby, he scolded himself, trying to make the voice inside his head sound like an impatient Hutch. It didn't work. Come on, David, be a man. Show some spine. It's just an undercover gig, just like playing Ramon or any other undercover role. Only today you're playing a corpse. Beats doing it for real....

 

That was the problem. He wasn't that far from having almost done it for real. He didn't remember much about being in the hospital after Gunther. Impressions, sounds, a lot of pain. A lot of pain. The first really clear memory he had was Hutch hollering about a computer printout and the nurse trying to shush him up. Drifting in and out of consciousness, vaguely aware of Hutch or Dobey or Huggy speaking to him or to each other.

 

Take deep breaths. You can breathe. You're okay ...

 

A trickle of sweat rolled out of his hair and down his temple, giving him a chill.

 

Why hasn't Hutch said anything for so long? He must know I'm freakin' out back here....

 

Stop. Start. Roll a few feet. Stop again.

 

Suddenly Starsky realized they were stuck in traffic. Morning rush hour. He felt like he'd been in that damn box for hours. Rush hour had to be long past. He tried to get his watch up to his eyes so he could look at the time, but there wasn't enough room.

 

Why doesn't he say something?

 

"Hu-Hutch? You still there?"

 

In the front seat, surrounded by nose to tail traffic, Hutch missed the whispered plea.

 

Starsky didn't realize how softly he'd spoken. In the casket, his voice had sounded loud to his own ears. He wet his lips and shut his eyes again. He wouldn't panic. He wouldn't panic. He was okay.

 

The car turned left, went uphill briefly, stopped again, and finally he could hear by the sound of the motor's echo that they'd pulled into some kind of structure.

 

"We're here, buddy," Hutch called back cheerfully.

 

The car rocked a bit, a door slammed. Days later – at least it felt that way – the back door opened and the casket was pulled out and the stand unfolded. Finally, the top opened and Hutch peered down at him.

 

"Get me outta this thing," Starsky said, his voice shaking.

 

"Sure, buddy, sure. Hang on." Hutch helped him sit up and called to Babcock, who appeared next to Hutch and helped him lift Starsky out and set him on the floor. Starsky's legs were trembling so he could barely stand and Hutch hurriedly slid an arm around his waist. "Whoa, there, Starsk. You're all right. Aren't you?"

 

Starsky nodded and tried to force himself to stop shaking. "Yeah, sure, never better."

 

Hutch tightened his arm and nudged him gently toward a black panel truck next to the hearse in the garage. "Get in here, partner. There's a pallet on the floor for you to lay down on. I'll drive and we'll get over to Turk's. You sure you're okay?"

 

"He doesn't look okay," Babcock observed.

 

"I'm fine," Starsky snapped. "Let's go."

 

Babcock raised his hands in a gesture of "don't shoot" and stepped out of the way. Starsky climbed into the van under his own power and in a few minutes, they were on their way.

 

"That has to be the longest trip I ever took," Hutch said from the driver's seat. "And you look like hell."

 

"The longest trip you ever took?" Starsky snorted. "Try doin' it inside a fuckin' casket, Hutchinson. Why didn't you answer me a few minutes ago? I was freakin' out in there and I called you and you didn't answer. That didn't help."

 

Hutch swallowed. He heard the note of fear behind the anger in Starsky's tone. "I didn't hear you," he said. "I'm sorry. I know it had to be – "

 

"You don't know," Starsky interrupted. "Aw, hell, Hutch, never mind. It ain't your fault. We didn't have much choice. Let's just get to Turk's, huh? Forget I said anything."

 

Hutch sighed, wishing he dared to pull over and go back to sit with his partner.  He had decided he would be the one to drive, not the man Dobey had sent to do it.  Hutch didn’t want to trust another driver for this part of the trip.  “I really am sorry, Starsk.  I was freaking out, too.  I was focused on the road and the mirrors, making sure no one was onto us.  I....”

 

“Hutch, just get us there.  We’ll talk about it at Turk’s.”

 

Effectively shut down, Hutch did as he was asked.  Starsky tried to get himself back under control, feeling more than a little embarrassed that he had panicked like that.  Being in a small, dark, enclosed space wasn’t something he had a lot of experience with and he had no way of knowing he’d react that way.  The fact that it was a coffin and he had just recently nearly wound up in one for his final ride did nothing to help the situation. 

 

Babcock looked at Hutch with compassion in his eyes.  He knew how upset both of his friends were. “I’ve got the mirrors, Hutch.  You watch the front and sides, I’ll keep an eye on the back.”

 

Hutch was grateful – knowing that his friend meant he was keeping an eye on the man in the back of the van, not just the road behind them.  Jack Hill was waiting for them at Turk’s.  He would take over from Babcock, freeing him up to join his partner in the search for more information on the cross-country deaths Matt had researched.  Hutch wondered if Matt was all right.  The phone at Turk’s should be secure, Captain Dobey was going to see to that.  Hutch would call Matt to make sure he was safe, even though he knew the captain had already warned him.

 

When they pulled up to Turk’s place, Babcock passed Hutch a garage door opener and pointed to the alleyway entrance.  Turk’s office had a garage behind it and the apartment was above them.  Dobey and Turk had already arranged for the van to be kept safely inside the garage.

 

Hutch pulled in, shut off the engine and put down the door before any of them moved.   He stepped between the front seats to the back as Babcock got out and greeted Jack Hill.  They went behind the van and opened the doors for Starsky and Hutch. The opened doors revealed a shaky Starsky being mostly supported by Hutch.  As much as he hated to accept the help, Starsky allowed the other men to help him exit the van. 

 

“Thanks, guys,” Starsky said without looking either of them in the eye.  Hill had no way of knowing what had happened, but he thought Starsky looked awful and Hutch looked worried.  Not an unfamiliar condition for either of them lately.

 

Babcock said, “I’m going to take off.  Simmons and I are going to start looking into some of those other deaths.  We can’t call you, so you call us.”

 

After Babcock changed back into his regular clothes and left, the other men helped Starsky up the stairs to Turk’s apartment.  The climb was unpleasant on shaky legs and he was grateful when he was able to sit on the couch.  Hill disappeared into the kitchen to get a cold drink for his friends with a quick, “Turk is out, but he’s going to check in later.”

 

Hutch sat next to Starsky, watching him sit with his eyes closed, rubbing his temple with one hand in a gesture more familiar to Hutch than to Starsky. 

 

“You want to talk about it, Gordo?” he asked, the worry in his voice unmistakable.

 

Starsky shook his head.  “No, it’s okay, Hutch.  I just freaked.  Guess I’m not big on small, closed-in places,” he said with a chuckle.

 

“I thought it was high places,” Hutch teased.

 

“Aw, shut up,” Starsky answered, patting his friend on the knee and smiling to let him know everything was all right. 

 

“Yeah, sure, it is,” Hutch said to the unspoken comment.  “Guess maybe we never tested you out in a coffin.  Maybe it was the venue, more than the closeness.”

 

Starsky smiled at him.  “Didn’t I tell you to shut up?”

 

Jack laughed.  He’d returned from the kitchen with a glass of iced tea for each of them. 

 

“I don’t suppose you could make this a beer,” Starsky said. 

 

“On your medication?  Not a chance.  Hutch’d kill me.”

 

Starsky muttered, “It’s a conspiracy.”

 

Hutch laughed at him, secure that he seemed to be recovering from the ride.  He went to the phone and called Matt’s home.  His wife answered.

 

“Matt?” she said in greeting, her voice anxious.

 

“No, this is Ken Hutchinson.  Is this Mrs. Dixon?”

 

She took a deep breath.  “Yes, I’m sorry.  This is Debbie.  Can I help you?”

 

“I’m a detective at Bay City Metro and a friend of Matt’s.  Is he home?”

 

“No,” she sobbed into the phone. “I don’t know where he is!”

 

“What do you mean you don’t know where he is?”

 

“He called me late last night from the campus library.  I was staying with my sister out of town.  He, uh, said he was working late and he’d call me when he got home.  He never did.”

 

Hutch was silent for a moment.  “Did he say what he was working on?”

 

“Not exactly.  He said he was helping some friends in the police department.  I guess he meant you.  When he didn’t call, I drove home and....” she broke off crying again.

 

“Calm down, it’s going to be okay, but you have to tell me so I can help,” Hutch said, keeping his voice as steady and calm as possible.  Starsky had started actively listening to his side of the conversation. He got to his feet and joined Hutch at the bar between the kitchen and the dining room where Hutch stood talking on the phone.

 

“The place is trashed and there was a note on the phone.  It says not to call the cops.”

 

“Give me your address,” Hutch said, but Starsky put a hand on his arm to stop him.

 

“No.  This could be a setup.  Ask her to meet you.”

 

Hutch nodded. “ Scratch that.  Meet me at the Coffee Hut on Alice and Washington.  Can you be there in an hour?”

 

“Yes, I’ll be there.”  She hung up the phone.

 

Starsky said, “I’m going with you.”

 

“No, you’re not.  You’re staying right here. “

 

“Hutch....”

 

“What’s the point of smuggling you underground if you go out and get popped first thing?  No way,” Hutch said.

 

“Fair enough.  What about you?  You think you’re not a target, too?”

 

They discussed the situation and Hutch agreed that Sean would go with him to meet Debbie.  He had already promised Captain Dobey that he wouldn’t go out alone, but Starsky knew that promise had better be given to him or it might not hold.  Hutch was second only to Starsky in his ability to rationalize when his actions went contrary to orders.

 

~*~*~*~

 

Dale Hertig answered his ringing phone at ten in the morning. “Hello.”

 

“Son of a bitch, they’re gone!  Both of them,” came the voice on the other end of the line.

 

“What the hell do you mean they’re gone?  Aren’t you watching?”

 

“Yes, but I’m telling you they’re gone.”

 

The hit man explained to Hertig that his informant said Starsky had just disappeared from his room sometime after his last vitals check at six in the morning.  Starsky wasn’t due to be discharged until the evening.  The hit man had checked that through his informant the previous day.  He hadn’t been able to position himself on the floor without being spotted, so he waited outside.  Hutch was in the hospital all night.  When he didn’t come downstairs in the morning, the hit man had snuck up to see what was happening, disguised as an orderly.  He immediately noticed that the guard was gone and Starsky’s room was empty.  A phone call to the hospital gleaned him the information that they had no patient named Starsky in the house.  They had no record of his being discharged – he just wasn’t a patient.

 

“Dammit!” Hertig yelled as he slammed his fist on the desk in front of him.  Then, he laughed a mirthless laugh. 

 

“What the hell’s so funny?”

 

“Oh, let’s just say I have a little insurance policy.  I know how to flush at least Hutchinson out.  Once we do that, getting to Starsky will be easy.”

 

“How do you figure?”

 

“You just leave that to me.  Meet me at the old Staley Tuna plant two blocks up from Pier Nine.  I’ll explain it all there.”

 

~*~*~*~

 

Matt Dixon woke up in the semidarkness of what looked like an abandoned factory.  He could see the remains of heavy assembly line equipment through the glass in the wall in front of him.  The smell of fish was strong in the air and he could hear the sounds of boat horns and seagulls from outside, telling him he was near the water.  His head was pounding and he found that his hands were tied behind him, and his feet were strapped together with duct tape.  He struggled to sit up, fighting the dizziness he felt.  Looking around a bit, he saw that the room he was in was probably an old office and the outside windows had been blacked out, making it impossible to tell what time it was by the dim, filtered light from another area of the building.  

 

The previous evening he had called his wife to say hello and let her know he was working on something.  She never liked it when he was out late at night; he promised her he’d call when he got home.  He never had the chance.  Before he had his coat off, someone hit him on the back of the head and the next thing he knew he woke up in his current condition.

 

He heard the sound of footsteps growing nearer, and a few minutes later, two men with dark ski masks on their faces stepped into the room with him.  The larger man crushed a cigarette out and started talking.

 

“Good day, Mr. Dixon.  How’s the head?”

 

Matt was nervous, and his voice betrayed him.  “It hurts.  What’s going on here?”

 

The shorter man stood to the side and leaned against the doorframe while his companion sat in a chair across from Matt.  Neither of them looked like they planned to hurt him and Matt tried to relax.

 

“Oh, I think you know what this is about.  Want to tell us what you’re doing for the police detectives?”

 

Matt’s mind spun with the thought that Hutch and Captain Dobey were right.  He really should have dropped it.  Why hadn’t he listened?  How had they known?  He had limited his research to the campus library, but he had also called for some information on the obituaries.  He’d even contacted some of the victims’ places of employment.

 

“I’m not working on anything for any detectives,” he said, attempting to deny it. “I’m just a graduate student.  You’ve got the wrong guy.”

 

Dale Hertig laughed at him.  “Come, now, Mr. Dixon.  We’ve had the detectives under surveillance for a long time.  You’ve been seen with them.  We also have other reasons to believe you are involved.  Now, what are you working on?”

 

Matt laughed nervously.  “Oh, that!  Well, that’s nothing.  I’m an anthropology student.  I’m writing my graduate thesis on police culture and I’m focusing on the behavior of partners.  I have been talking to many of the officers at Metro.  That’s all I know.”

 

“Uh-huh,” Hertig said, nodding.  The man behind him laughed softly, thinking that this young man really was an amateur.  “No matter.  You don’t really need to tell us right now.  You’ll do nicely as bait to bring them out of hiding, though.  Just sit tight and you won’t be hurt.  My associate behind me will be watching you and I’ll see that you get something to eat soon.  Relax.” He stood to leave and turned around just before he and the other man shut the door behind them.  “Of course, you know you’ll never leave here alive unless you tell me all you know.  I may not be a graduate student, Mr. Dixon, but that doesn’t make me stupid.  Think about that.”

 

The sound of the door locking behind his kidnappers made Matt’s heart sink.  He’d never been in any trouble.  He’d never even cut school when he was a teenager.  Desperately figuring out how to get out of there without any harm coming to Starsky or Hutch would occupy his time until they returned.  At the moment he had no idea what to do next.

 

It was easy for Hutch to spot Debbie in the restaurant. She was sitting alone at a table, clutching a Kleenex, her eyes still red from crying. He slipped his badge out of his pocket, and showed it to her as he sat down. "I'm Hutch," he said softly, putting it away before anyone else had time to notice it. Sean had taken a seat at the counter, coming in a few paces behind Hutch and pretending he didn't know him, in order to provide protection and allow Hutch to concentrate on Debbie.

 

She nodded and reached out with shaking hands to lift her coffee cup to her lips. "I don't know what to do," she said. "They said not to call the cops --"

 

"I'm Matt's friend," Hutch said. "No one but you and me needs to know I'm a cop right now. Do you have any idea where he could be?"

 

She shook her head, dabbing at her eyes as another tear escaped. "Not a clue. I'm so scared. What if --" She stopped herself.

 

Hutch covered her hand with his. "Try not to worry," he said, forcing away the image in his mind of Lionel dead on the sidewalk outside the hotel. He'd called himself Lionel's "friend," too. That wasn't going to happen again if he could help it. "We'll find him. I have a hunch they only snatched him to draw me and Starsky out of hiding."

 

"Why are you hiding?" she demanded, a little louder than Hutch expected.

 

"Ssshh," he cautioned, leaning close. "Keep your voice down. Did Matt tell you anything about us?"

 

"Just that he was interviewing officers for his paper and that he'd met a couple who would be the featured partners," she said. "That's about it. Between his work and school, we don't get a lot of time to talk. He keeps saying when he finishes school, we'll be able to catch up, but --" Her eyes filled again. "What if I never see him again?"

 

Sean was looking their way with concern, and Hutch glanced at him. Sean looked away before someone noticed. "It'll be okay," Hutch said. "We'll find him. Here's a number where you can reach me," he scribbled Turk's number on a page of his notebook, tore it out and handed it to her, "if you hear anything at all. If you call, use a pay phone, in case they try to trace the call.  We already took a big chance with this meeting.  You should go home. I'll take it from here."

 

"I can't just sit around doing nothing," she said, her voice almost a wail.

 

"I know how you feel," Hutch said. "I really do. But this is our job, not yours. We'll be in touch."

 

She finally nodded and rose to go. Hutch gave Sean the high sign and as she walked out, Sean followed her. He'd see to it she got home safely. Babcock was waiting outside to make sure Hutch made it back to Turk's safely, too.

 

"Anything?" Starsky asked immediately when Hutch came back.

 

"No." Hutch sank into a chair and wearily rubbed his eyes. "He's just gone."

 

Starsky closed his eyes. "Dammit. We should've left him out of this fuckin' mess."

 

"Starsk, we can't blame ourselves every time somebody we know gets in trouble --"

 

"Really?" Starsky opened his eyes and fixed Hutch with a glare. "If it wasn't for us, they wouldn't BE in trouble. You know that was true for Lionel and it's true for Matt."

 

Hutch sighed. In a very real way, Starsky was right.

 

~*~*~*~

 

Matt was left alone for a long time before anyone came back. Finally, the man who had promised to provide him with food returned, carrying a paper sack. He set it in front of Matt with a paper cup full of soda. "I'm going to untie you," the man said. "But be aware that I have a gun and if you try anything, I won't hesitate to kill you."

 

Matt swallowed and nodded. The man untied his hands and Matt ate the food, though he was so frightened he found it difficult to swallow. But it had been hours since he'd had anything to eat or drink.

 

The man sat back, the gun dangling carelessly from one hand, and watched without speaking until Matt was finished. "Better?" he said in an almost friendly tone.

 

"Yes," Matt said.

 

The man tied Matt’s hands again. "Now, do you feel more like talking?"

 

Matt's heart sank. He had hoped he had convinced this man that he didn't know anything.

 

"Come, come, Mr. Dixon," Hertig said with a smile. "I know better. You know I know better. Why should you risk your safety for a couple of cops? To say nothing of your wife's."

 

Matt's blood ran cold. His wife? How did they know about Debbie? "W-what have you done to her?"

 

"Nothing, yet," Hertig said. "But we're keeping an eye on her, too. Would a lock of her hair, perhaps, convince you that we're serious? Starsky and Hutchinson can't possibly mean as much to you as she does. All we want to know is what you found out for them. That's all. Tell me, and you'll be home by breakfast."

 

Matt was in an agony of indecision. He didn't really believe this man would let him leave even if he told him everything he ever knew. He'd seen the man's face. But what if they did do something to Debbie? What if they hurt her, or even killed her?

 

Hertig watched with amusement as Matt struggled.

 

Finally, Matt gave in. He told Hertig about the obituaries. He told him that Starsky and Hutch had connected the deaths with the day Starsky was shot.

 

"And where are they now?"

 

"I don't know. I really don't," Matt said desperately. "The last time I talked to them, Hutch was at home. I haven't talked to either of them since then."

 

Hertig knew that quite well, but he kept his face impassive in the hopes that Matt would tell him something else. When Matt only sat there, pale and plainly terrified, Hertig gave a shrug. "Well, I had hoped you would be more helpful," he said, rising and leaving the room, ignoring Matt's panicked call after him. When the door was closed behind him, he nodded to his lackey. "Send the message."

 

~*~*~*~

 

Starsky had dozed off in front of a ball game, worn out with all that had happened, and Hutch, trying not to disturb him, had found a book among Turk's seemingly endless collection that he thought might take his mind off their situation for a while. He hadn't been reading long when the phone rang, and he pounced on it, hoping it wouldn't wake Starsky.

 

"Hello?" he said softly, glancing at his partner. Starsky muttered in his sleep and shifted restlessly, but didn't awaken.

 

"It's Dobey," the captain said. "We just got a call for you."

 

"And?"

 

"Somebody who said he's got your friend, Matt," Dobey said. "He won't talk to anybody but you."

 

"Shit."

 

"Hutch," Dobey said warningly, "whatever the hell he wants, you are NOT going this alone, do you understand?"

 

"Yeah, yeah," Hutch said. "How do I find him?"

 

"Hutchinson --"

 

"I'll take backup, Captain," Hutch said impatiently. "Now, how do I reach this guy?"

 

"He said he'd call back in an hour and that we should give him a number where he could call you," Dobey said reluctantly. "He didn't stay on long enough for a trace."

 

"Get somebody over here to put tracing equipment on this phone," Hutch said. "Now."

 

There was a short silence, and finally Dobey said, "Cain's already on his way."

 

Hutch gave an unwilling grin. He knew his previous tone of voice had sounded like an order to a rookie. Trust Dobey to be one step ahead of him. "Guess that's why you're the captain and I'm the detective, huh? Thanks." 

 

"You're taking backup," Dobey said gruffly. "Promise me, Hutch."

 

"I promise."

 

Cain, the department's wiretap expert, arrived a few minutes later and went to work. The commotion woke Starsky, who immediately demanded to know what was going on. Hutch had no choice but to tell him.

 

"Where's Cavanaugh and Hill? Or Simmons and Babcock?" Starsky asked.

 

"Sean's keeping an eye on Debbie," Hutch said. "Babcock went back to the station to get Simmons. Jack ought to be here in a minute. He went to get some Chinese."

 

"Then where's Turk?"

 

"He's following a cheating husband," Hutch said with a grin. "He said he might not get back tonight."

 

"You ain't going anywhere alone," Starsky began, but Hutch waved his hand to stop him.

 

"Dobey and I already had this conversation," Hutch said. He opened his mouth to say something else, but just then Hill came thundering up the stairs. He'd recognized Cain's van in the street.

 

"What the hell's going on?" he called before he'd even made it through the door. He handed the sacks to Starsky and stopped in front of Hutch, hands on hips, his face set.

 

Hutch told him.

 

"Fine. I'll call Sean and get his ass back here." Hill ran back down the stairs to use the radio in his car.

 

"Ain't none of us gonna let you leave here alone," Starsky observed.

 

Hutch didn't answer.

 

Cain worked fast and had the tracer in place in plenty of time. Hill came back from calling his partner and told Hutch Sean would be there as soon as another officer could relieve him at the Dixons'.

 

"Eat," Hill insisted, pushing Hutch's chicken lo mein toward him. "You're gonna need your strength and you haven't eaten anything today."

 

When Hutch started to argue, Starsky reached over and gently whacked him on the knee. "Shut up, Blintz," he advised. "Eat or we'll sit on your chest and force feed ya."

 

Hutch had just finished eating when the phone rang. He reached for it, but Cain shook his head, fiddled with his equipment for a moment, and finally pointed at Hutch. Hutch lifted the receiver. "Hello?"

 

"Hutchinson?"

 

"Yeah. Who's this?"

 

"Doesn't matter. I got Matt. Staley Tuna Plant. Come alone." The phone went dead.

 

Hutch let go a string of curses that made Cain look at him with something akin to awe. "Not long enough, was it?"

 

Cain shook his head. "Sorry, Hutch."

 

With luck, the kidnapper was calling from the location where they were holding Matt and it really was the old tuna plant.  Hutch knew it was probably an ambush, but he believed he had no choice but to go there.  After what happened to Lionel, he wasn’t taking any chances with Matt’s life.  He spared half a moment to think about how he was going to get out of Turk’s with a head start, so he could show up alone as the kidnapper ordered.  Starsky interrupted his thoughts.

 

"What'd he say?" Starsky asked.

 

"He said he's got Matt."

 

"And?" Starsky prompted, knowing there was more. "Where's he want you to come?"

 

"He didn't say."

 

"You're lying. Where?" Starsky glared at him until Hutch sighed.

 

"Staley Tuna Plant."

 

"Let's go," Starsky said, getting to his feet.

 

"You aren't going anywhere," Hutch ordered angrily. "I'll go on and Jack, you two follow me as soon as Sean gets here."

 

"No!" Jack rose, too. "You're waiting until Sean gets here and we'll all go together."

 

"Be reasonable," Hutch pleaded. "We don't know what he might do to Matt or how long he'll wait for me to get there. We don't know how long it'll be before Sean gets here. I have to."

 

"Then I'm coming with you," Starsky said.

 

"No, you are NOT," Hutch said. "Sit your ass down." He grabbed his jacket. Starsky reached out to try to grab his arm, but Hutch dodged. "Follow me as soon as Sean gets here," he said to Jack. "Do not, under any circumstances, bring HIM," he jerked his head at Starsky, "with you." He left.

 

This time it was Jack who spat a string of curses.

 

Hutch drove like a madman across town to the waterfront district where the Staley Tuna Plant had been. The plant had closed a couple of years previously and had stood empty since then. Hutch passed the "for sale" sign at the entrance and wasn't surprised to find the gates, normally padlocked, wide open. There were no other vehicles in sight, and Hutch parked so that he could make a fast getaway if necessary. He checked his gun to make sure it was fully loaded and stuffed extra ammo into his pocket. Then he eased out of the car cautiously and stared at the plant, trying to decide the best way to go in.

 

"What the fuck is taking him so long?" Starsky fumed, pacing back and forth across Turk's small living room. It was at least the fourth time he'd asked the question.  

 

"I'll try raising him on the radio," Hill said, but just then they both heard a siren and in a moment, the squealing of tires on the street below.

 

"Come ON," Sean's voice bellowed from the bottom of the stairs. "I know that blond son-of-a-bitch has already taken off."

 

Both Starsky and Hill grinned and Hill called back, "I'm coming."

 

"We're coming," Starsky corrected, shrugging into his jacket and wincing a little.

 

"Starsk, you heard Hutch --"

 

Starsky ignored him and headed for the door.

 

"Starsky --"

 

"I'm going with you," Starsky said without turning around, "and that's all there is to it."

 

Hill gave a loud sigh, but he stopped arguing. "Hutch is gonna kill us all," he muttered, loud enough for Starsky to hear.

 

Sean rolled his eyes, but didn't comment, when he saw Starsky coming down the stairs. Even though this was Sean’s undercover car, Starsky checked to be certain there were door handles in the back seat.  He wasn’t about to get stuck back there.  Sean waited until they were rolling to say, "Your ass is stayin' in the car, Detective, when we get there, if I have to cuff you to the damn bumper."

 

"I wouldn't be in the car if I was cuffed to the bumper," Starsky returned mildly, with a grin.

 

"You know what I mean," Sean said. "You let us handle this and you wait in the fuckin' car or I'll hurt you worse than you are already."

 

"What he said," Hill put in, glaring over his shoulder at Starsky, in the back seat.

 

Starsky leaned against the back seat and kept his mouth shut. He wasn't staying in the car, and they all knew it.

 

Hutch slithered around the outside of the building, listening with all his might for any sound from within. The area was deserted, and there was only the crying of seagulls and the sound of the water sloshing against the pier. He passed the main entrance to the building without even considering entering that way. Finally, he found a side door and tried it. Locked. But Hutch pulled a lock pick from his jacket pocket and was inside in a few moments, grinning a little to himself. Starsky had taught him that trick, only a couple of years before.

 

It was dark inside the plant, the lower windows where blacked out and the high windows gave very little light to the floor below. Hutch stopped just inside the door to give his eyes time to adjust. Most of the plant was filled with conveyor belts and machinery, but a catwalk ran around the upper edge, leading to the office area. Grateful for the silence his sneakers afforded him, Hutch hurried to the metal stairs and eased up them quietly. The offices were dark and deserted, and Hutch's heart pounded in his chest with the adrenalin rush. He was certain they intended to ambush him. Matt probably wasn't even here –

 

Sean pulled up behind Hutch's car quietly and shut the motor off. "Where to first?" he asked his partner.

 

"Starsk? What would Hutch do?" Hill asked.

 

"He'd pick a door out of sight and go in as unobtrusively as possible," Starsky said, pulling his gun out of the holster and checking it. He reached for the door handle.  He was glad Hutch had wanted him to have his Beretta for protection.  Hutch never planned for it to be used to protect him when Starsky was still in recovery.

 

"No way, Jesse James," Sean barked at him, seeing what he was doing. "I told you – "

 

Starsky glared at him and Sean trailed off. "Look," Starsky said in a level voice, "that's my partner in there, alone, trying to save a friend of ours from getting killed like Rigger did. He's gonna take chances and he's gonna be vulnerable because neither one of us could take losing another person like we lost Rigger. If you think I'm gonna sit out here on my ass while the two o' you back up MY partner, you're dumber than you look!"

 

Sean and Jack exchanged a glance.

 

"I know how he's feelin' and I know what he's thinkin' and I'm goin' in," Starsky said. Without another word, he opened the car door and climbed out.

 

Sean let out a sigh and poked Jack in the shoulder. "Come on. He's got a point."

 

"Hutch is gonna kill us," Jack muttered again.

 

They used the same door Hutch had used, but couldn't spot Hutch or anyone else in the darkness. Starsky stood still inside the door, looking around, and followed his instinct to the bottom of the metal stairs, gesturing to the others to follow.

 

Sean reached out and put a hand on Starsky's shoulder, shaking his head. He would go first. Realizing the wisdom of that, considering his healing condition, Starsky stepped back and let him. Jack brought up the rear.

 

Hutch had checked all the offices and still had not found Matt or the men who were holding him. He stopped and looked down at the plant floor, attempting to decide where else to try. By now his eyes were well used to the dimness and he spotted another door, in the corner below, behind a stack of machinery. It took several minutes to make his way across the plant in the darkness.

 

As he approached, he heard voices, low and whispering. He couldn't make out what they were saying, but there was no time to try. A shot whizzed past his head.

 

"Shit!" Starsky spat, hearing the shot. He whirled and took off for the stairs, with Sean and Jack at his heels.  Fear for his partner provided an adrenaline rush that overrode the pain he felt as he picked up speed.  This was the fastest he’d moved in months and in the back of his mind, he knew he was going to pay for it later.  He was already breathing hard and his gait was unsteady.

 

Hutch had thrown himself behind a piece of machinery as he returned fire.

 

"One more shot and we kill Dixon," a voice snarled from inside the room.

 

"How do I know you haven't killed him already?" Hutch yelled back.

 

A pause, and then Matt's voice, shaking, "I'm okay, Hutch."

 

"And he'll stay okay," the first voice came again, "if you drop your gun and tell us where you've stashed Starsky."

 

"Fuck you," Hutch growled. "You're surrounded. You're not calling the shots here."

 

"Oh, really?" There was another shot and a cry of pain from Matt, then silence.

 

In a blind rage, Hutch threw himself toward the door and rolled through, surprising the two men inside and getting off a shot at one of them before they could react. The second of the two men fired at Hutch and a searing pain tore through his leg, knocking him off his feet.

 

But behind him, he heard the familiar, "Huuuuuuutch!" and another shot took the second man down a heartbeat before Starsky appeared in the doorway, with Sean and Jack behind him. The other detectives quickly subdued the two men, cuffing them and dragging them out of the room none too gently, while Starsky knelt next to Hutch. "How bad?" he asked urgently, peering at the blood soaking through Hutch's jeans.

 

"Not too bad," Hutch said through clenched teeth. "Hurts like a mother, though."

 

Starsky gave a slight grin and looked over at Matt, who was unharmed. "I thought they shot you."

 

"I did, too," Matt answered, his face white and his eyes wide. "But the ugly one just hit me when the other one shot his gun."

 

Sean came back into the room. "How many ambulances do we need this time?"

 

"One," Starsky answered, briefly touching Hutch's shoulder before he rose to go to Matt and turn him loose. "Hutch took a slug in the leg."   He was glad that Hutch’s eyes were closed when he stood, stiffly.  Sean reached out to help him, but he waved him off, determined to appear unaffected by the events of the past few minutes.  Hutch was in pain and he hadn’t noticed that Starsky’s breathing was still too fast, and his face was shiny with sweat.

 

"Gotcha," Sean said, turning to go. Jack had already called an ambulance for the two perps Starsky and Hutch had winged with their gunfire.  He chuckled at the thought that Starsky wouldn’t want his partner to ride in an ambulance with the two men who had just tried to kill him.

 

As Starsky released Matt, the other man laughed nervously.  “You guys get into this kind of trouble a lot?” he asked in a shaky voice.

 

Starsky replied, “You have no idea.”  He shook his head to clear it a little.  The room wasn’t spinning, but he was already feeling the effects of his fading adrenaline rush.  If he had any idea how thin his voice sounded, he would have remained silent, but Starsky was concentrating on appearing as normal as possible.  “You sure you’re okay?” he asked, staring through the fuzziness crowding in on his peripheral vision.

 

Matt looked at him and cocked his head to one side as he rubbed his sore wrists.  “I’m fine, but you don’t look so good, Dave.”

 

Hutch heard that and he struggled to sit up so he could get a good look at his partner.  Starsky was shaking his head and holding his hands up in a “shush” gesture to Matt.  “I’m okay,” he said lamely.

 

Even from where he was, Hutch could see Starsky wasn’t exactly fine.  He heard the sound of sirens coming closer to them and he sighed with relief.  “Does he need to be checked?” he asked Matt.

 

The grad student climbed to his feet and helped Starsky up, looking closely at him.  He steadied Starsky and looked into his eyes.  He and Starsky both said, “No,” at the same time.  Starsky smiled as he returned to Hutch’s side and lowered himself back to the floor to sit with his injured partner.  His breathing was slowing and his racing heartbeat felt less thunderous inside his chest.  Starsky took another look at Hutch’s leg wound, using the distraction to keep from looking Hutch in the eyes.  A strong hand cupped his chin and turned his face up to meet Hutch’s gaze.

 

“I’m all right, buddy.  Just relax. Are you okay?” Hutch asked.  He sighed, dismayed at the pain in Starsky’s eyes, but content that he wasn’t in any danger. Starsky nodded that he was fine.  “What the hell are you doing here?” he demanded, but gently.

 

“Saving your ass,” Starsky quipped.

 

Matt stood back and watched their interaction, making mental notes for his paper and kicking himself for turning this ridiculous situation to an advantage.  He never hoped to get a chance to see the partners in action and he couldn’t help but be fascinated. 

 

“I had it under control.”

 

“Sure you did.  That’s why you’ve been ventilated.” He checked Hutch’s wound, looking underneath the blood soaked handkerchief Hutch was using to apply pressure.

 

Sean and Jack came back into the room.  Sean said, “The perps are off in their ambulance along with some uniforms.  The other ambulance should be here in a few minutes. How you doing, Hutch?”

 

“I’m okay.  The bullet went all the way through.”

 

“What?” Starsky asked, leaning in to look closer.  While he did that, Hutch began to discuss the current situation with his partner.

 

He put his lecture finger in the air.  “YOU,” he said to Starsky, “are not supposed to be here.”

 

“Hutch....” Starsky attempted to interject.

 

“Look at you,” Hutch continued.  “You’re out of breath, probably didn’t take any pain pills tonight either, did ya?  Well?”

 

Starsky hung his head a little.  “You gave ‘em to me with dinner.”

 

“I didn’t see you take them.  Did you?”

 

Starsky shook his head and protested, “Dammit, Hutch!  I wanted to stay as sharp as I could.  Looks like you needed me, too.”

 

Hutch ignored him, glaring at Sean and Jack.  “And YOU two!  You were supposed to keep him out of this.  What the hell is he doing here?”

 

Sean and Jack looked at each other and tried to explain that they’d had about as much luck keeping Starsky away as they’d had keeping Hutch from going ahead of them without backup.

 

“Speaking of which, Hutch,” Sean said.  “Dobey is hopping mad at all of us.  I hear he’s set to meet us at the hospital.”

 

“Terrific,” Starsky said.

 

Matt laughed a little.  Then, he hung his head when the four detectives turned on him.  “Sorry, guys.  I just... well... sorry.” 

 

The closest door opened to admit the crime lab team and some uniforms.  They could hear the approaching ambulance and all four men sighed, knowing they were all going to get a lecture from Dobey.  The only thing that made them feel better was that somehow things had worked out for them.  No one was killed and they had the perpetrators in custody to interview for possible leads about what was going on and to verify that the recent events were done at Gunther’s direction.

 

“Um, thanks for rescuing me, guys,” Matt said, hoping to break up the tension.

 

“It’s our fault you're in this mess, Matt.  We’re gonna get you and Debbie to a safe place until we get this resolved,” Hutch said.

 

In the next few minutes, the ambulance arrived; Hutch was assessed and bundled off, with Starsky trailing along behind the gurney.  The paramedic made him take a few minutes' hit off an oxygen tank when he saw his color.  Starsky protested, but a stony glare from his partner silenced him. 

 

Hutch’s injury wasn’t serious.  The doctor said that, apart from the obvious pain, the only thing to worry about was the possibility of infection.  When the doctor finished treating him, he was released to go home, pain pills and antibiotics in hand.  

 

Captain Dobey was waiting for him when he and Starsky emerged from the treatment area.  Starsky was moving pretty slowly and Hutch was leaning heavily on a cane.  Dobey sighed at the sight of them.  Hill and Cavanaugh were sitting together looking like they were all about to face a firing squad.  The two of them looked up at Starsky and Hutch as they hobbled toward them. 

 

“Where’s Matt?” Starsky asked.

 

“I’ve had a black-and-white take him home.  He and his wife will be moved to a safe place within the hour.  Then, they’ll go underground until the trial is finished,” Dobey answered.

 

“Good,” Hutch said.

 

The look on Dobey’s face spoke volumes.  All four officers knew they were about to get the dressing down of their lives.  The captain had arranged to use a small conference room down the hall and he motioned for the four detectives to follow him.  

 

Starsky, Hutch, Hill, and Cavanaugh settled uneasily into chairs around a conference table. Their superior officer closed the door behind him and turned around, leaning back against it.  Starsky could tell the captain’s blood pressure had gone up precipitously.  This was going to be ugly.

 

“Gentlemen,” he started, his voice sounding both steady and furious at the same time, “I think the four of you have a lot of explaining to do.”

 

“Cap,” Starsky started, but he immediately stopped when he caught the murderous look in Dobey’s eyes.

 

“Starsky, if I were you, I’d clam up now,” Dobey said. “I want all of you to listen carefully.” That’s when the yelling started.  “You first, Starsky.  What the HELL do you think you are doing?”  Dobey didn’t stop long enough for any of his questions to be answered.   He rolled on like an out of control freight train. “YOU are supposed to be healing!  You’re not on duty.  Not even DESK duty.  Do you have ANY idea how much paperwork you generated tonight?  Not to even discuss the potential for injury to you, and to the men around you.  Did it ever occur to you that these other officers might put themselves in unnecessary danger because you can’t understand when to stay down for a while?  Dammit, Starsky, am I going to have to assign someone to baby-sit you?  Maybe put you into lock down, only letting you out for court dates?  Huh?  What the HELL were you thinking?”

 

“But, Cap, Hutch....”

 

“But, Cap, NOTHING!  Put a sock in it.  From this moment on, I don’t want to hear of you doing anything more strenuous than HEALING!  Do you understand me?”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

“I mean that. Don’t push me.  Do I need to remind you how close you came to not being here to HAVE this discussion?”

 

Hutch was having a hard time letting Starsky take all of the heat.  He was planning on taking care of this incident himself.  “Cap, Starsky isn’t the only one who....”

 

Dobey spun his head around to look at his other wounded detective.  “Hutchinson, you’ll get your turn.  Just shut up and listen.  Don’t try to defend him.  I’m not buyin’ it.”  He turned back to Starsky.  “What you did was DUMB!  If you don’t stop putting yourself in these situations, I’m going to assign you to traffic detail for the rest of your miserable career.  Assuming you don’t screw things up so badly you can’t ever come back to work.  Am I clear?”

 

“Yes, Cap.”

 

The captain turned to Hutch next.  “You promised me, Hutchinson.” 

 

“I took backup.”

 

“The idea of backup is that it goes WITH you when you go in, Hutchison. NOT that they follow along behind you when they get everything together.  You PROMISED me you’d take backup.  The next time I’ll have Cain TAP that phone so I can have someone listening in on all of your conversations, not just put on a trace.  Dammit!  You PROMISED!”

 

“Did you want me to just let Matt die?” Hutch dared to ask.

 

“Don’t you even start with me, Hutchinson.  If you EVER pull anything like that again, so help me....”

 

“I’m sorry, Cap,” Hutch said, deciding that contrition was the better part of valor in this case. He couldn’t help thinking about how glad Simmons and Babcock were going to be that they missed the blame assignment on this incident. 

 

“Sorry isn’t enough, Hutch.  You put yourself at risk, got injured, and your actions incited that one there,” he said as he pointed a beefy finger at Starsky, “to put himself at risk, too.  Did you think about what you would have done in his place?  Did you think about the chance that he would come after you?”

 

“He told me not to, Cap,” Starsky offered.

 

“No doubt.  I hear Starsky was approximating RUNNING out there at that warehouse.  I hear he had to take oxygen to recover from it.   NO MORE chances.  You got that?”

 

“Yes, sir,” Starsky and Hutch said together.

 

Then, Captain Dobey turned toward Sean and Jack.  They had never gotten in as much trouble as Starsky and Hutch, so they were less used to being on the captain’s hot seat.  Both of them braced for the onslaught.

 

“How many times have you two worked with these two renegades?  Huh?  You two are one of my best teams.  I know you’re smart enough to know how they operate.  Dammit!  I was counting on you to keep them out of trouble.  What the hell happened?  Haven’t you learned by now that you have to stick to them like glue?  Especially when one of them is hurt.  He’s usually the worst of the two!” he exclaimed as he looked at both members of the dynamic duo.

 

“Cap, everything happened so fast,” Jack said.  “We were really right behind Hutch.”

 

“Yeah, Cap,” Sean added.  “You know how they are.  Hutch had to go.  We didn’t know how long Matt had before they’d kill him.”

 

Dobey sighed.  He was yelled out by the time he got this far – a thing for which both Hill and Cavanaugh were grateful.  They all knew that sometimes circumstances took over a situation and this was one of those.  All four detectives stared at him in silence and the big man scanned their faces.  Starsky looked near collapse.  Hutch was obviously in pain and sitting there wasn’t helping.  Sean and Jack looked like two teenagers he’d caught smoking behind the gym.

 

“All right.  The two men in custody haven’t been allowed a phone call yet.  You four get back over to Turk’s place before someone figures out that Starsky and Hutchinson are here.  We didn’t go to all the trouble to put you to ground just to have you screw it up and get blasted on the way out of here.”

 

Starsky sighed heavily.  “Cap, I don’t know if being under wraps is a good idea anymore.  If we stay hidden, who’s gonna be next on Gunther’s list of people to get to us?”

 

Dobey considered that for a moment. “Well, you’re not going back to either of your places.  Go back to Turk’s at least for tonight.  I’ll think about what to do next and we’ll meet tomorrow morning.”

 

All four men said, “Yes, sir.”

 

Jack had driven Hutch’s car over to the hospital.  He drove it to Turk’s with Hutch sulking in the passenger seat, letting Starsky ride over with Cavanaugh.  Both Starsky and Hutch apologized to their respective drivers.  Both of them received assurances that everything was all right.  They all knew how Dobey was.  He blustered and bellowed, but they knew that it was because their group antics had scared him. 

 

When they were back at Turk’s and settled down to get some rest, Hutch had his discussion with Starsky.  The ailing detective looked terrible.  His color was better, but his body trembled with the left over weariness from what he had done.

 

“Do I have to confiscate your gun?”

 

“You think I’d let you?” Starsky asked.  He was willing to accept his partner’s admonishments, but he wasn’t going to take them without comment.

 

“Funny.  Doesn’t matter what I think, anyway.  We both know you need it to protect yourself in case... in case Gunther’s operatives get through the rest of us and reach you.”

 

Starsky didn’t like that thought.  “That ain’t gonna happen.”

 

“Yeah.  You all right?  You don’t look it.”

 

“I’ll be okay.  I’m just tired.  How’s the leg?”

 

“Not bad.  Thanks.”

 

“Yeah.”  Starsky knew that Hutch’s gratitude was for saving his skin, in addition to asking him how he was feeling.  He wanted to talk to Hutch about it, but he was fading fast.  The pain pills Hutch had insisted he take when they got back to the loft were dragging him under and he decided to let them.  The last thing he remembered as he drifted off to yet another drug-induced sleep was feeling Hutch pull an extra blanket over him to help chase away the shivers he was still experiencing.

 

Amazingly, the next morning found Starsky awake first.  He went to the kitchen to make coffee and then checked on Hutch.  Even in his sleep, he looked uncomfortable.  Starsky chuckled at the irony of both of them hurt at the same time.  He also sent up a prayer of gratitude that it hadn’t been any worse.  Hutch would be all right and Matt was only slightly dented. 

 

Sean had crashed there the previous evening and was just beginning to wake up to the sounds of Starsky slowly puttering in the kitchen.  When the phone rang, Starsky was the first one to get to it.

 

“Starsky?” Captain Dobey’s voice said.

 

“Mornin’, Cap.”

 

“I’m afraid I have some bad news for you this morning.”

 

Starsky listened patiently, and the news was bad.  The color drained from his face and he was unusually silent.  He needed to sit down, but couldn’t climb up onto one of the bar stools, so he leaned his back against the wall and slowly slid to the floor.  By this point, Sean was awake enough to see what was happening and was instantly alarmed.

 

“Starsky!” he exclaimed as he got up and walked toward his friend.

 

“You all right, Starsky?” Captain Dobey’s anxious voice said on the other end of the line.

 

Starsky nodded. Realizing the captain couldn’t see him, he said, “Yeah, I’m okay.  I... I gotta tell Hutch.”  He held the phone up for Sean to take it and finish the call and then he leaned his head back against the wall, taking a deep breath to steady himself for what he had to tell his partner.

 

Hutch had heard the phone ring, and was already getting up when he heard Sean shout Starsky’s name.  He came into the room looking disheveled, but awake.  Making the best speed he could in pain and using the cane, he glanced around for Starsky and the look on his partner's face drove everything else out of his mind.

 

"What is it?" he asked, frightened without knowing why.

 

Starsky swallowed and wet his lips. "I got some bad news, buddy."

 

Hutch hurried across the room and put out a hand to help Starsky to his feet.  Sean had hung up the phone and he watched as his friends made their way to the sofa.  Once Starsky was settled there, Hutch sat on the edge of the coffee table, grabbing Starsky’s shaking hands with his own.  "What? What's wrong with you?"

 

"Me?" Starsky shook his head. "Nothin's wrong with me. Honest. It's – it's Cassie."

 

"Cassie?" Hutch blinked. "What are you talking about?"

 

"She's dead, Hutch," Starsky said gently. "Murdered. Dobey just called to tell me a few minutes ago."

 

"Cass is dead?" Hutch let go and sat up straighter, stunned. "How? What happened?"

 

"Just like the others," Starsky said. "Shot in the back of her head, in her car. No witnesses."

 

Hutch couldn't speak for a moment. He didn't think he was exactly mourning her death, but the news was a shock.  She had been his sister-in-law and he thought he should feel something for her loss.  What he felt was sick to his stomach.  He had believed that his ties to that part of his past were effectively severed with Vanessa’s death.  When Cassandra had shown up in Bay City months ago, that had changed.  Now, the woman had been murdered in the same fashion as victims who may have been linked in some way to Gunther Industries.  His face went pale at the thought that Cassandra could have been connected to the black cloud of danger following him and Starsky.  Then, a terrible thought occurred to him.  That thought manifested itself by him speaking one word aloud, “Vanessa.”

 

“Hutch, do you hear me?  Hutch!” Starsky called. He’d tried to get Hutch’s attention a few times and he was becoming alarmed. 

 

Hutch thought he heard Starsky calling to him above the ringing in his ears.  He snapped back to attention and said, “Hey, take it easy. I’m all right.”

 

“Damn, Hutch,” Starsky said. “You scared me.”

 

“Sorry, Gordo.”

 

“Why did you say Van’s name?”

 

Hutch ran a hand through his hair and looked shaken.  Starsky didn’t like what he was seeing pass through Hutch’s eyes – anger, fear, concern, and a dawning realization.  Sean stood back and watched, knowing if he was patient, he’d find out what was happening between his companions soon enough. 

 

With a shock probably equal to Hutch’s, Starsky knew just what his partner was thinking. 

“No,” he said.

 

“Starsk, I-I don’t… I don’t know,” Hutch replied, his stammer creeping into his voice to belie the professed lack of knowledge.  He did know – and he wished to God he didn’t.

 

“Oh, my God.  Tell me it isn’t possible,” Starsky muttered.

 

“Starsk, you know Cassie was trying to get some information out of me months ago.  Remember?  She wanted to know what Van told me the night before she died.”

 

“That couldn’t have had anything to do with all of this.  Van died a long time before we got involved with Lionel and Gunther.  More than a year before then.”

 

Hutch shook his head, not wanting to believe it could have been relevant.  He said, “I don’t know, but I don’t like any of it.”  He didn’t want to jump to conclusions, but a lot of things seemed to be falling into place.  If he was right, their world had gone on tilt even more than it had been.  He and Starsky locked eyes as they both said, “Vanessa was tied to Gunther.”

 

To be continued...

 

Take me to part four in the series – Denouement.

 

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