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Retribution

Written by Valerie Wells

 

The heavy gates swung open with a rusty, creaking sound, and the white-haired man stepped through alone, carrying a bag with his few belongings inside. The guard gave him a pat on the back. "Taxi's waiting, Jim," he said. "Good luck to you."

It was the same thing he said to every prisoner who left the facility on parole and most of them at least smiled at him. But not this man. This man did not even acknowledge that he'd spoken. He simply walked away, toward the waiting taxi. He was bent with age and arthritis, and had difficulty getting in. The taxi drove away, and the guard watched it go, shaking his head a little as he threw the switch to close and lock the gates again.

What could a man that age do to start over? Jim had been at the prison longer than the guard had worked there. He was a fixture in the place. He had no friends among the other prisoners and no visitors. Seldom received mail or asked to make a phone call. He had to be in his 70s now, at the end of a long sentence. No one even seemed to remember what he was in for, and he never sat around the yard, like the others, and talked about his former life. He was just Jim, who had always been there and always would, it seemed -- until last week when he'd been unexpectedly paroled.

Sometimes, the guard reflected, it might be kinder to keep men like that in prison, where they'd be fed and have a place to sleep, rather than send them back out into the world. But he had other work to do, other prisoners to oversee, and it wasn't long until the vision of Jim walking away to the taxi faded in the pressure of other duties.

~*~*~*~

The oppressive heat was a given in Southern California, but in spite of the 30 years he'd lived in it, Ken Hutchinson had never gotten used to it. He wearily wiped sweat from his forehead and cursed the morning rush-hour traffic inwardly as he peered hopefully through the windshield for his exit. It was only a quarter-mile ahead, but in this damned traffic jam, it would probably take him half an hour or longer to reach it. The cell phone lying on the seat next to him rang and he cursed again, aloud this time. Snatching it up, he barked, "What?" into it.

"Morning, Captain," a cheerful voice said into his ear. "Stuck in traffic again?"

"Yeah," Hutch said. "So what couldn't wait until I get there? If I ever do."

"Chief wants to meet with you," the voice said. "Shall I tell him it'll be a while yet?"

Hutch peered through the windshield again and made a few mental calculations. "About 45 minutes, I'd say."

"Okay. I'll tell him an hour and that'll keep him off both our backs."

"Thanks, Minnie," Hutch said. He shut off the phone just as the traffic unexpectedly speeded up, just long enough to allow him to get to his exit and turn off. Glancing up at the freeway overpass, he could see the accident that had caused the clog, and shook his head in disgust. At least he was out of it now. It only took a few minutes to reach headquarters, park his car, and enter the blessed cool of the building. He made a mental note to himself to take his car in tomorrow to get the damned air conditioning fixed. He didn't want to spend one more morning roasting in traffic.

He was already loosening his tie and shedding his jacket as he entered the squad room and greeted a few of his men who were hanging around filling out reports and drinking coffee. Just as he reached his own office and tossed his jacket over a chair, one of the younger men, who'd just made detective, stuck his head in.

"Cap? Got a minute?"

Hutch sank into his chair and waved at another chair. "Sure, Jenkins. What is it?"

Jenkins shut the office door and sat down. He was obviously nervous. "It's my partner, sir."

"What's wrong with your partner, Jenkins?"

"Nothing, sir. He's a good officer, very conscientious. It's just that..." Jenkins stopped and shifted in his seat.

"Well, spit it out, man, I have an appointment with the chief in a few minutes," Hutch snapped, then regretted it. God, I sound like Dobey, he scolded himself, and the thought brought a grin to his face. The grin apparently reassured Jenkins, who returned it.

"I had hoped I could be partnered with Brinkman, sir," Jenkins said quickly.

"Brinkman?" Hutch searched his memory and the only Brinkman he could come up with in the division was a uniformed officer...a female uniformed officer. What the hell was her first name? Jennifer?

"Todd Brinkman, Cap," Jenkins said. "Made detective last month, just before I did. We were in the academy together, sir, and we're friends, and I had hoped we could work together. Sir."

Oh, that Brinkman. Hutch remembered him now. The division had grown since he and Starsky had been detectives there, and he had trouble remembering the several new officers that had been transferred into it since the last round of sergeant exams. He studied Jenkins, who was still shifting uncertainly in his seat, and had a brief flashback of himself and Starsky, sitting in this office all those years ago, asking Dobey to partner them. He smiled, a friendly, companionable grin. "What does Brinkman say to this?"

"Well, sir, he, uh, he asked me to speak for both of us. He's a little, um, afraid of you. Sir."

"Afraid? Of me?" The thought made Hutch laugh. "Oh, shit. I really have become Dobey."

"Dobey? Sir?"

"My captain. When I was on the streets," Hutch said. "A good cop. A really good cop. Best ever. But gruff on the outside. Damn, could that man bellow when he wanted to. Took me and Starsk a while to get over being scared of him, too."

"Starsk? Do you mean Lt. Starsky, sir? At the academy?"

"That's him," Hutch said. "He was my partner."

"I didn't know that." Jenkins looked intrigued.

"I'll get the paperwork put in today, Jenkins," Hutch said, noticing the time. He was supposed to be in the chief's office in 10 minutes. "I don't see any reason why you and Brinkman can't be partners. But remember one thing."

"What's that, sir?"

"I have certain expectations of my detectives, Jenkins. And partners. I expect them to work as a unit, to watch each other's backs, and to get the job done. That's easier if you're friends. It's also harder in some ways. Don't wait for things to get bad before you come to me. Don't try to fly solo. I'm your captain, and I'm here to back you up. Okay?"

"Yes, sir," Jenkins said.

"Okay. Get out of here and go earn your pay. I'll have you and Brinkman partnered by the end of the week." Hutch waved him away, and Jenkins left, looking much happier than when he'd walked in. Hutch stood up again, put his jacket back on, rearranged his tie, and went to the chief's office.

It turned out that all the chief wanted was to tell Hutch he'd been asked to speak to a class at the academy about the Gunther case, which was the last one he and Starsky had been involved in together. That case had become textbook stuff for cadets to study in their coursework on organized crime, something that Hutch found both pride and regret in. Pride, that the names Starsky and Hutchinson were in the academy textbooks, together. Regret, that the case had brought their partnership to an end.

He wasn't surprised. He or Starsky usually gave a lecture on the case to every academy class, but he was getting a little tired of rehashing it year after year. One did not say "no" to the chief, however, and Hutch agreed to give the lecture the following week.

The rest of the day was largely uneventful, and Hutch was just getting ready to go home for the day when his cell phone rang again. He answered it with considerably more charm than he had that morning.

"Hi, Dad. It's Josh."

"What can I do for you, son?" Hutch said, genuine pleasure in his voice. Since the boy had taken a part time job a couple of months before, he'd hardly seen him or heard from him.

"I need a favor."

"Uh-oh. You didn't get some girl in trouble, did you?"

"Dad."

"Sorry. Just my attempt at humor." Hutch rolled his eyes and heaved a silent sigh. It got harder every year to talk to his own son. Nobody's fault, he supposed. The kid was growing up, and since the divorce, it wasn't easy to stay close. Thank God he didn't seem to have that difficulty with his daughter. Yet.

"I need a letter of recommendation for my college applications," Josh said, apparently choosing to ignore his father's "attempt at humor."

"And you want your old Dad to write it? Don't you think they might consider me a little biased?"

"Not you, Dad. Uncle Dave. Do you think he'd do it?"

"Why don't you ask him? Why are you asking me?"

"I want you to ask him for me," Josh said.

"I see. Okay, I'll ask him. What should he say in this letter? 'Joshua Hutchinson is a terrific kid who'd be an asset to your university and you'd be crazy not to accept him'?"

"Something like that," Josh said, laughing. "Maybe not quite so obvious."

Hutch grinned.

"And would you ask him to sign it with his full name? I mean, 'Lt. David Starsky,' not just 'David Starsky'? I think that would impress them more."

"Oh, definitely. Should he include a list of all the medals and awards he's won over the years, too?"

"Dad."

"Sorry." Hutch suppressed the chuckle that threatened. "I'll give him a call tonight. Okay?"

"Thanks. I better let you go, then. I have to get to work."

"Hey, Josh, before you go..." Hutch was feeling awkward again. For a moment, he'd felt almost comfortable talking with Josh.

"Yeah?"

"Can we get together this weekend? Dinner, or something?"

"Sure, Dad. Sunday, maybe? I'm off work. I've got a term paper due Monday, though, so I won't have much time."

"Sunday's fine," Hutch said, relieved. "Tell your sister, too, huh? I'll pick both of you up about one, and we'll go get a pizza or something."

"Okay. Bye, Dad."

Hutch turned the phone off and looked down at it for several moments, feeling regretful again. College applications. Good Lord. It seemed like only a few months ago that Josh had just been learning to ride a two-wheeler. Hutch remembered standing on the sidewalk, trying to carefully explain the concept of riding a bicycle, when Starsky had roared up in his latest hot-rod and simply taken over. Hutch had watched, certain that Starsky, Josh and the bike were all going to wind up wrapped around a tree, while Starsky ran along beside Josh and then, with a mighty push, had let go. And Josh had ridden off down the street by himself, totally unaware that "Uncle Dave" wasn't hanging on. And had come safely to a stop at the end of the block, flushed and proud, while Starsky had beamed just as proudly, giving Hutch a light punch to the shoulder and proclaiming, "See that? Kid's a natural."

I must be getting old, Hutch thought, stuffing the phone in his pocket and heading out the door. My kid's old enough for college.

Even so, he almost forgot to call Starsky about the letter. He was just turning on the news when he remembered. It was late, but Starsky had always been a night-owl, and Hutch had promised Josh, so he dialed the familiar number.

"Hello?"

"Hi, Hannah. It's Hutch. What are you doing up so late?"

"Hi, Hutch! My school carnival's going to be on the news, so Daddy said I could stay up and watch it. Channel 4. Turn it on, quick or you might miss it."

Smiling, Hutch obeyed, leaving the sound down. "Get your dad for me, will you, honey?"

"Okay. But don't make him miss me on the news."

"I wouldn't dream of it," Hutch said. He waited, and in a few moments, Starsky came on the line.

"Better make this fast, buddy, or there's going to be one very unhappy little girl here," Starsky said by way of greeting.

"It's nice to hear your voice, too," Hutch said dryly. "Would you rather call me back?"

"Nah. I can see the boob tube from here, and anyway, I got the VCR set to record it. What's up?"

"Josh needs a letter of recommendation to send with his college apps and he wants Uncle Dave to write one for him."

In the background, Hutch could hear Hannah's squeal, "There I am! See it, Daddy? I'm on TV!"

"I see it, sweetheart," Starsky said. "You look terrific."

Hutch could see it, too, Hannah and several of her classmates singing. She did look terrific. "Damn, she's getting big," Hutch said, watching. "When did she grow so much?"

"She's 10 now," Starsky said. "Didja expect her to be wearing diapers or somethin'?"

Hutch laughed. "No. I guess I haven't seen her lately. She's going to be a heartbreaker, Starsk. Have you thought about getting a large, mean dog to keep the boys away?"

"Are you kiddin'?" Starsky demanded. "Her dad's a cop, for chrissake. I don't need a dog. I got a gun."

The segment ended, and Hutch turned the TV off. He didn't want to watch the rest, anyway. The news always depressed him.

"Okay, sweetheart. Now you gotta go to bed," Starsky was saying.

Hutch could hear Hannah's voice over the wire. "Okay, Daddy. Good night. 'Night, Hutch!"

"Tell her I said 'good night,'" Hutch said.

Starsky repeated the message to his daughter, then said, "Okay, Hutch, what's this about Josh wanting a letter? Why the hell's he want me to write it?"

"He thinks 'Lt. Starsky' at the bottom will impress them," Hutch said. "He specifically requested that you sign your full name and title."

"And write it on academy stationery, I suppose."

"Probably."

"Okay, sure. No problem. Goddamn, Hutch, that kid's going to college? How the hell you gonna pay for that?"

Hutch laughed. "I'm not. His grandparents started him a college fund when he was born. Jill, too. And Josh has been working. He'll be okay. I might have to help a little, but I won't have to cough it all up."

"Shit. I guess I better hope Hannah turns out to be brilliant and gets a scholarship. Ain't no rich grandparents in this family."

"Are you on 'daddy duty' all by yourself tonight? Where's Nancy?"

"Workin'. They put her on graveyard shift. Nursin's worse than bein' a cop, buddy. Good thing I got regular hours these days or the babysitting fees'd kill me."

"Yeah." Hutch stretched out on the couch, feeling more alone than he had for a while, even with his best friend on the other end of the phone. The emptiness of his apartment had seemed to echo tonight, more so than usual, since his thoughts had been on his son since talking to Josh earlier. And hearing Hannah's voice and being reminded that Starsky was not alone, not divorced, not watching his child grow away from him, had made it worse. Oh, he was glad Starsky wasn't alone...but it made his own situation stand out more.

"Hutch? You still there?"

"Yeah, just thinking. One of my detectives asked me to partner him with a pal from the academy today."

"Oh, yeah? Who?"

"Jenkins. Wants to be partnered with Brinkman."

"Good match," Starsky said. "Didja say yes?"

Starsky always seemed to remember ever cadet he'd ever taught, Hutch reflected. Any time Hutch needed information on a new officer in his division, he could ask Starsky, and if the officer in question had been in one of Starsky's classes, he remembered him and could fill Hutch in. Every time.

"Yeah. I said yes."

"Good boy. You won't be sorry." There was a brief silence, then Starsky asked, with a gentler tone, "You okay, Hutch? You sound kinda down."

"I am kind of down," Hutch answered. "Old age, I guess."

"Aw, you ain't old, Hutch," Starsky chided him. "You're younger than Dobey was when he had your job."

"Not by much."

"Missin' the streets? I could remind you of a few incidents that would make you glad for your nice, safe office."

Hutch smiled a little. "It's not the streets I miss. It's..." he stopped.

"What?"

Hutch sighed. "I gotta go do the damn Gunther lecture next week."

There was another brief silence. "I see," Starsky said.

And he did see. Hutch knew. Starsky understood how he felt about it. Even though Hutch had brought Gunther down, dismantled his organization beyond repair, sent the man to prison -- and Starsky had recovered, after nearly dying from those bullet wounds -- the department would not agree to let Starsky go back on the streets. He'd been given a choice. Desk duty, or permanent disability. His heart had been affected. Not enough to keep him from leading a normal life, or expecting a normal life span. But too much to allow him the kind of activity a cop on the streets went through, day after day.

After Starsky's months of convalescence, he'd accepted a job teaching at the academy. And Hutch had taken the lieutenant's exam, and from there had been promoted to captain, taking over when Dobey retired. Gunther had not won. He hadn't killed Starsky or Hutch. But he had been the reason they were no longer partners. And for that, Hutch would never forgive him.

"Hey, partner," Starsky's voice came over the wire, softly.

Hutch smiled a little. Starsky still called him "partner" and probably always would, in spite of the 20 years it had been since they'd truly been partners.

"Yeah, buddy?"

"He didn't take away 'me and thee,'" Starsky said. "Nobody could do that."

"Yeah."

 

The motel's neon sign flashed red and orange light through the window, but the old man bent over a stack of papers at the desk paid no attention. His seedy surroundings were only temporary, and he much preferred this room to the cell he'd been forced to call home for the last 20 years. Certain carefully concealed foreign accounts would provide him with quarters more in keeping with his tastes as soon as he could retrieve the money, and he'd already made some phone calls arranging to meet with those who had been watching over his business interests while he was in prison. Those phone calls had not been entirely welcome on the recipients' ends, but the old man in the motel room was not concerned with whether those underlings were happy or not. He knew he still had the connections necessary to back up his wishes with muscle, and so did they.

It had taken almost a month, but he had found the information he needed. He looked down at the papers on the desk.

Captain Kenneth Hutchinson. Lt. David Starsky. Both still alive. For now. But the old man had a score to settle, and they wouldn't be for long...

 

Hutch wet his lips nervously and straightened his tie before opening the classroom door and striding in, trying to look confident. Rows of fresh-faced young police cadets turned and looked at him expectantly as he nodded and made his way to the lectern at the front of the room.

They were all so young. Hutch cringed inwardly. Some of them were barely shaving, for crying out loud. And soon they'd be out on the streets, putting their lives on the line. As dangerous as being a cop had been when he was on the streets, it was nothing compared to the gangs and drug wars going on out there today. And a heartless city was sending mere kids out there to deal with it...

Just about then, he caught Starsky's eye. Starsky was sitting in the back of the room, chair tipped back dangerously against the wall, rooting for him silently. Hutch stopped his thoughts from running away with him, cleared his throat, and began the Gunther lecture.

Afterwards, he was absurdly pleased with the intelligent questions the kids -- no, the men -- asked. They asked how he'd known where to look for the information he used to bring Gunther down. They asked about police methods of 20 years ago compared to today's. They were admiring without descending to hero-worship of an officer legendary enough to be in their textbooks. But then, this was one of Starsky's classes. And somehow Starsky managed to be everyone's favorite instructor, in spite of his well-deserved reputation for toughness. He turned out cadets who were ready to face the danger and the frustration of being a street cop. And those same cadets remembered Starsky fondly long after they'd left the academy.

But then came the question Hutch dreaded, the one someone always asked.

"Captain," asked the only female cadet in the class, "what was it like to hunt down the man who had shot your partner? Isn't it difficult to keep your emotions in check in a situation like that?"

Hutch lifted his eyes to meet Starsky's, and in an instant was transported back to that intensive care unit. In his mind, he was sitting in that chair on the other side of the glass, watching as his partner's life slipped away, as his world crumbled...

"You don't," he answered honestly, still looking at Starsky. "The only thing you can do is try to keep those emotions under control, rather than let them control you." He had to pause to collect himself and he saw that Starsky was having a similar reaction. It was part of the reason both of them hated giving this lecture every year -- the memory of how close they'd come to losing each other was still fresh, even now. "My partner was dying," he went on, after a moment. "There wasn't anything I could do to help him. But I could go out and find the man responsible for hurting him. I could put that man away. I was dying, inside, too. But I couldn't give in to it. I had to channel that grief and pain into action."

The cadet who had asked the question had tears in her eyes, but her voice was steady as she said, "Sir? Is it true that partners are closer than family sometimes, then?"

"Yes," Starsky answered for Hutch, rising and moving to the front of the room. He joined Hutch at the lectern and put his arm around Hutch's shoulders. "It's true, Morrison. If you're lucky enough to get a good partner like Hutch, you're gonna find yourself with a lifelong friend. You don't get much closer than somebody who'll lay his life on the line for you. This man is closer to me than my brother."

"Even though you're not partners anymore?" Morrison asked.

"We're still partners," Starsky said, tapping his own chest. "In here. Where it counts."

 

"I need a beer," Hutch said after the class had left. "Wanna join me?"

"Sounds good," Starsky said, picking his jacket up off the chair. "I'm done for the day. Are you?"

"No, but I'm taking off anyway," Hutch said. "My bomb's in the shop. Give me a ride home?"

Starsky grinned. "Again? What's wrong with it this time?"

"Air conditioner."

Starsky shook his head mournfully. "You'll never learn, will ya? Why the hell you don't buy a decent car, instead of sinking money into that piece of shit..."

"I've got child support to pay," Hutch retorted, keeping his face straight, though he found a great deal of comfort and fun in the old argument over his taste in cars.

"It'd be cheaper to buy a decent car than to keep paying to have the old one fixed," Starsky said, leading the way to the parking lot and his own almost-new -- and bright red -- car. At least it didn't have a white stripe, but only because Nancy had threatened to poison his food if he did such a thing.

Hutch grinned at the thought, and Starsky promptly demanded he share the joke.

"I was just remembering the argument you and Nancy had when you bought this about the paint job," Hutch admitted.

Starsky grinned, too. "Aw, I was just teasin' her," he said. "I wouldn't really have had 'em paint a stripe on it like the Torino had. I'm a family man now," he added, virtuously.

Hutch rolled his eyes as Starsky gunned the motor and drove out of the lot.

Huggy's was gone, though Huggy himself was now the proud owner of a seafood restaurant in

west L.A. But Starsky had a favorite watering hole not far from the academy and it wasn't long before they were both sipping cold beers.

"I'm taking the kids out for pizza Sunday," Hutch said. "Wanna come?"

"Real pizza or that vegetarian crap you like?" Starsky asked suspiciously.

"Real pizza," Hutch said. "The kids won't touch the 'vegetarian crap.'"

"In that case, I accept. I'll bring Hannah, too. She'd love to see Jill and Josh."

 

But when Hutch stopped his rental car in front of his ex-wife's home to pick up his son and daughter, only Jill was ready to go.

"Josh is working," Jill said apologetically. "They called him in, and he's trying to buy a car to take to college and..." she trailed off, seeing the disappointment on her father's face.

"I could help him buy a car," Hutch said, feeling left out again. He hadn't even known Josh was saving for one.

"It won't hurt him to earn the money himself," Abby said. "I'd much rather he did, in fact."

"You're right," Hutch said. "As usual."

Jill winced a little, and Hutch noticed with a guilty pang. That kind of exchange had preceded most of his and Abby's fights when they were married, though this time he had really meant it. Abby was right. Josh should earn the money for a car and take responsibility for it. So Hutch produced a smile for Abby and put his arm around Jill. "Come on, honey. Starsk and Hannah are meeting us there."

"Have fun," Abby called after them.

"Thanks. I'll have her home before dark," Hutch said teasingly.

"See that you do, young man," Abby answered in the same tone, and Hutch could feel Jill relax under his arm.

"I wasn't going to start a fight with her, Jill," he said quietly as they went out to the car.

Jill stared at him with so much surprise he was tempted to smile, but he suppressed it. "How did you know?" she demanded.

"You're my daughter," he said. "I know every expression on your face, honey."

She sighed. "I just got so tired of you guys fighting before the divorce, and now I hate it that you're divorced."

"I know." He held the door open for her, something he noticed men didn't seem to do anymore, but he'd never gotten out of the habit. Jill didn't comment, she simply slid into the seat and reached for her belt. Hutch got in on the driver's side and put his belt on, too, knowing Jill would scold him if he didn't. "It's been five years, honey," he added, starting the car.

"I'll never get used to it, though," she said. "Even though half my friends' parents are divorced, too. We all hate it. Weekend visitation. Your parents fighting over whose turn it is to have the kids at Christmas. Stepparents."

"When did we ever fight over Christmas?" Hutch asked mildly. "And you don't have stepparents."

"No, but I'm bound to, someday. Everybody seems to."

"You might have a stepfather, because your mom's too pretty to stay single forever, but you don't have to worry about a stepmother," Hutch said, a little bitterly.

Jill looked at him speculatively for a moment before saying, "You sound awfully sure."

"I am. Twice burned, honey. I'm done. I won't be going through it again."

"Maybe I'll never get married," Jill said with a sigh. "It's too complicated."

"I hope you won't be scared off getting married just because your mom and I didn't make a go of it," Hutch said. "Look at Starsk and Nancy. There's a happy marriage."

"Yeah. I guess so."

 

Starsky and Hannah were waiting for them and had already procured a booth and ordered sodas for everyone. Hannah was delighted to see Jill, whom she'd always considered an honorary big sister, and chattered happily to her about Girl Scouts, her school play and her piano lessons, allowing Starsky and Hutch to talk to each other without having to entertain the kids.

"No Josh?" Starsky asked quietly.

"He's working," Hutch answered. "Too busy earning money for a car to spend an afternoon with his old man. No Nancy?"

Starsky shook his head. "Worked 7 to 7 yesterday. She's sleeping it off."

"God, Starsk, look at us," Hutch said.

"What? What's the matter with us?"

"We used to do things. We used to be in the thick of the action. And now, we're a couple of middle-aged, middle class guys watching everybody else do things."

Starsky grinned. "I don't see that as a problem, babe. I mean, the action was kinda dangerous sometimes, remember?"

"Yeah," Hutch agreed unwillingly.

"I'd rather drive my kid to her piano lesson than get in a shootout with a drug dealer," Starsky said. "Wouldn't you?"

"I don't miss being in shootouts," Hutch said firmly.

"Then what's wrong, partner? You're really going through some shit, aren't you?" Starsky said, lowering his voice, with a glance at the two girls. But they were oblivious to their fathers, Hannah rapt at Jill's description of her first date a few weeks before.

Hutch sighed. He wasn't even sure himself. Finally, he said, "I miss you. I miss us."

"And the Gunther lecture always brings it back," Starsky said understandingly.

"Yeah."

"Aw, Hutch." Starsky sighed and ran a hand over his hair. "I know. Me, too. But time marches on, buddy. And I'm still here. That ain't gonna change. We don't work together anymore, that's true, but I'm still here, anytime you want me. All you gotta do is call. You get lonesome, you want a beer, you wanna talk, whatever, babe. Just call, huh? Even if it's 3 in the mornin'. What are partners for?"

 

 

The old man waited impatiently, glancing at the bus station clock and cursing the underling who was late. He'd waited 20 years already, and now that he was so close to his goal, his patience was exhausted.

But the man finally appeared in the doorway and stood there uncertainly, looking around, even letting his eyes rest on the old man, but clearly not recognizing him.

"Moretti," the old man hissed at him.

Moretti's head snapped around and he gaped at the old man on the bench. "Mr. Gunther? Is that you?"

"Of course it is, you idiot," Gunther snapped. He knew he'd changed in the last 20 years, and this young pup had hardly been more than a boy last time he'd seen him, so he could hardly blame him for not recognizing him. It irritated him, anyway. He rose and indicated with a jerk of his head that Moretti should follow him.

Once they were in the motel room and Gunther had motioned the other man to a seat at the small, creaky table he used for a desk, he shuffled through his papers and produced a handful of photographs. These he handed to the younger man. "I have a score to settle, Moretti," he said. "A 20-year-old score. And you," he paused meaningfully, "are going to see to it that it gets settled. Right this time."

Moretti looked down at the photographs. The top one was a posed studio portrait, and showed a blond man in his late 40s, a woman a little younger, and two kids, a blond boy and a girl with slightly darker hair. He looked at the next one. The same blond man, much younger, standing with a dark-haired man with curly hair. The third was of the dark-haired man, coming out of the police academy. He raised his eyes to Gunther questioningly.

"Don't recognize them, do you?" Gunther asked bitterly. "Their names are Starsky," he indicated the photo in Moretti's hand, "and Hutchinson," he pointed to the family shot. "Those two decimated my organization, Moretti. They were a thorn in my side for a couple of years before that, and they finally finished it and sent me to prison."

"I'm surprised you didn't put a contract out on them," Moretti began, freezing at the sudden rage that appeared on Gunther's face.

"I did, you moron!" Gunther slammed a fist into the table, making it rock dangerously. "Two of my men ambushed them in the police parking garage and shot Starsky, but somehow the son-of-a-bitch survived. And before I could order a second attempt, Hutchinson," the way he pronounced the name, he made it sound like a swear word, "somehow collected enough evidence for an indictment. It's not going to happen again, Moretti. I want them eliminated. I want them eliminated permanently. And if you fuck it up," he paused again, leaning forward menacingly, "it will mean your own life."

"Sir," Moretti said slowly, "there's almost nothing left of the organization. I mean, after you, uh, went away, Dickerson and Ingalls tried to repair the damage --"

"You think I don't know that?" Gunther demanded. "For 20 goddamn years, I've had to rot in that stinking prison, knowing those two incompetents were all that was left to rebuild my organization. But I've kept track, Moretti. A couple of my men are out of prison now. Another one is due to be released next month. And I may be old, but I can still do what needs to be done. We will survive. But before I can concentrate on my business, I want to see Starsky and Hutchinson dead. Do you hear me?"

 

The garage had finally called to say his car was fixed, and Hutch was waiting, none too patiently, for the courtesy driver to show up. It was another hot day and it was too early in the season for this much heat. It probably meant a nasty storm was brewing. Hutch peered up at the cloudless sky. Maybe not...

A car horn arrested his attention, and he pulled the curtain back a little more. The courtesy car had arrived. He picked up his jacket, barely remembering to put it on before opening the door. The sight of a holster and gun might give the driver pause, and Hutch didn't feel like showing his badge and doing a lot of explaining this morning.

He slid into the passenger seat and managed a polite smile.

"Morning, Mr. Hutchinson," the driver said. "Sorry I'm a little late. Freeway traffic."

"I know all about the freeway," Hutch said, thinking the driver couldn't be much older than Josh. What a dead-end job...

The driver whistled softly to himself, a tune Hutch didn't recognize, as he pulled out into the street. Hutch stared out the window, not really paying much attention to where they were going, until he realized they'd missed their turn for the freeway ramp and had entered one hell of a sleazy neighborhood. He turned his head to say something to the driver and found himself facing a gun barrel.

The driver pulled into an alley and stopped the car. "I got a little present for you from an old friend of yours," he said, an evil glint in his eye.

"Hold on a minute, pal," Hutch said, keeping his voice steady and his eyes on the driver's face. "I think you might have me mixed up with somebody else."

"I don't think so," the driver said. "Get out of the car."

Hutch obeyed -- he didn't seem to have much choice -- and as soon as he opened the car door, two more men appeared from behind a pile of trash. Both held guns. Guns equipped with silencers.

The driver reached into his pocket and produced a silencer of his own, which he screwed onto the gun in his hand. He grinned. "Do you remember a man named James Gunther?"

Gunther! Hutch swallowed. It had been a long time since he'd been in a spot like this. The reassuring weight of his own gun, safely in its holster under his arm, brought his adrenaline level down to a steady pulse instead of a wild rush. If he could just keep them talking, just for a few minutes, think of a distraction...

"Surely you remember James Gunther," the driver said. "He remembers you. He sent us, in fact. To finish the job he started 20 years ago. Only this time, we came for you first. Your friend Starsky is next."

Starsky...oh, God, not again. Never, never again...

That was the impetus Hutch needed. In a sudden move he hadn't had to use for years, he drew his gun, shot the driver and hit the dirt, hearing the whiz of the bullets from the other two men's guns as they barely missed him. Rolling onto his back he shot twice in quick succession, hitting one and missing the other, but the next two shots hit the second man, too. The first wounded man squeezed off another shot and only Hutch's quick reflexes saved him. The bullet drove into the ground inches from his head.

He scrambled to his feet, covering all three men and reaching for his cuffs. Thank God he'd learned to obey regulations and had them on him. Even captains had to make an arrest sometimes. The driver was dead, so Hutch handcuffed the other two together and pulled his cell phone -- an invention he cursed as often as not -- from his pocket. Dialing headquarters, he barked at the dispatcher, "This is Hutchinson. Send an ambulance, a coroner's wagon and two marked units to Blaine and Sixth, the alley halfway down the block. I've just been ambushed."

"Yes, sir, Captain," the dispatcher said. "Are you hurt, sir?"

"No. I'm fine. And call the academy after you've done that. Get Sgt. -- I mean, Lt. Starsky and tell him to meet me in my office in half an hour. Tell him it's urgent."

He put the phone away and gazed down at the men on the ground. One was in too much pain to pay any attention to him; the other gazed back with blazing hatred in his eyes.

"You missed," Hutch said to him. "The kindest thing I could do right now is finish the both of you off. Because if the legal system fails and you go free, Gunther will get you somehow. And even in prison, I doubt you'd be safe. He doesn't like failure much."

The man didn't reply. Hutch put his gun away.

"But I don't intend to finish you off," he continued. He heard sirens in the distance. "I'd rather let you take your chances. And who knows. Maybe I'll get to Gunther before he gets to you. Then you'd owe me one, motherfucker."

 

The marked units arrived to deal with the men, and Hutch drove the courtesy car to the garage to pick up his car. Just as he thought, their driver had been ambushed, too. But he'd been lucky. The fake driver had only hit him over the head and left him at the side of the road. He'd flagged down a cop and reported it only moments before Hutch had driven up.

"I'm so sorry, Mr. Hutchinson," the driver said, holding an ice pack over the lump on his head and looking a little green around the gills.

"It's not your fault," Hutch said, and patted his shoulder. "I hope they didn't hurt you too much."

"No, I'll make it all right," he said.

Hutch retrieved his own car, paid the bill with his credit card and winced more than a little at the total, before heading for the station. Starsky was already waiting in his office. He took one look at Hutch and shot out of his chair.

"Holy shit, partner, what the hell happened to you?" Starsky demanded, grabbing Hutch's arm as if to steady him.

"I'm okay, Starsk, take it easy." Hutch shrugged out of his jacket and started to hang it on a hook. It was the first time he'd taken a good look at it. It was filthy and torn and there was even some blood on it. No wonder Starsky'd been worried. Hutch smoothed his hair with his free hand and tossed the jacket over a chair. He told Starsky what had happened and watched as his partner's eyes widened and his face went dead white.

"Gunther," Starsky said slowly. He rubbed at his eyes. "Didn't he get life?"

"Yeah," Hutch said dryly. "And 'life,' unfortunately, means 20 or 30 years, tops. I'd say it's a safe bet that he's out on parole."

"And out to get us," Starsky said. All the light had died out of his eyes. The sight of that worried Hutch as much as the thought of Gunther did.

"Hey," Hutch said quietly. "We'll get him. I got some power now, remember? I can send men out there to find him. He won't get us first."

"He almost got you this morning," Starsky said.

"But he didn't. And now we're on our guard, buddy. We'll be alert for him now."

"Hutch, you know even if you send guys out there to get him, he's still got connections. He knows where to look for us. And he ain't got a damn thing to lose by burning us."

"We have a few connections, too," Hutch said grimly.

"Not any more," Starsky said, slumping in his chair wearily. "Oh, God, Hutch..."

"Hey," Hutch sat down next to him and put a hand on his arm. "Don't."

But Starsky raised stricken blue eyes to him and said, slowly, "Hutch, think about it. Before, it was just us. We didn't have wives and kids who could be hurt to get to us. And it was 20 years ago, buddy. Huggy ain't got his ear to the ground no more. Sweet Alice is dead. Mickey's dead. We ain't been on the streets for one hell of a long time. And we don't have nobody out there any more."

"No, but I've got a whole slew of detectives out there," Hutch jerked his head toward his office door, "who do. I'll put every man on it if I have to."

"You can't do that."

"Can't I? Watch me. Things are different now. Detectives don't cruise the streets anymore unless we have a drug sting going on or something. They investigate cases after the uniforms have made the collars or at least mopped up the blood. A big dog like Gunther, putting a contract on a couple of cops who put him away, that qualifies as a reason to put a whole bunch of detectives to work on the case in my book."

"And what about our families?"

That stopped Hutch for a moment.

Starsky's voice shook a little as he said, "My God, if he knows enough to waylay the guy bringing your car home from the shop, Hutch, he knows you got a coupla kids. He knows about Hannah --" his voice failed completely on that word.

Hutch wordlessly put his arm around his buddy's shoulders.

 

It only took a couple of phone calls for Hutch to realize what he and Starsky had put Dobey through time and time again. The chief told him that unless they had more proof than a two-bit hood's word for it that Gunther had put a hit out on them, there wasn't much they could do. The parole board acknowledged that Gunther had been paroled, but wouldn't give him an address for the man.

Starsky sat in the chair across the desk and listened without comment as Hutch tried every avenue he could think of without success. Finally, Hutch put the phone back in its cradle with much more force than necessary and swore vehemently.

"Call Jenkins and Brinkman," Starsky said quietly.

Hutch stared at him. "You gone crazy, pal? They just made detective."

Starsky nodded. "Yup. I know that. And they got something to prove. And they're good, Hutch. I trained 'em. I know. Call 'em, buddy."

Hutch shrugged helplessly and called the dispatcher. "Patch me through to Jenkins and Brinkman. This is Hutch...Hutchinson."

In a moment, Brinkman's voice came through the phone. "Yes, sir, Captain?"

"I need you two to come in. Now. And meet me in my office," Hutch said. He could almost see the two men exchange glances of What the hell are we in trouble for? so he added, "I need your help, fellas."

"Sure, Cap. Be there in 10 minutes."

It was actually less time than that before the two young detectives arrived. Both greeted Starsky with warmth and took the seats Hutch waved them to with more than a little trepidation on their faces. Hutch looked at Starsky to fill them in.

And Starsky did, no holds barred. He told them everything, winding up with, "When we were on the streets, we used to bend the rules sometimes. We had to sometimes, to get the job done. I ain't gonna tell ya to do that. But I can speak for my partner over there, if you do, and if you can justify it, we ain't gonna see a thing. You dig?" he added, lapsing into the slang of his youth for a moment.

Neither detective smiled. Both simply nodded, after a momentary exchanged glance.

"We drove our poor captain crazy, didn't we, Hutch?" In spite of the circumstances, Starsky grinned at the thought.

"Yes, we did," Hutch agreed fervently. "I never really realized what we were putting poor Dobey through."

"Yeah," Starsky said. "So ya see, guys, legally speaking, there isn't a whole lot we can do. Gunther hasn't made a move personally. We got nothin' on him. Nothin'. For all we can prove, the old guy's out of the joint and tryin' to go straight."

Hutch snorted, and Starsky nodded in agreement.

"Yeah. And pigs can fly. But what we need from you is his location. Who he's been in contact with. Who he might have workin' for him. Anything we can get. But it's gotta be on the sly, okay? Unofficial. Can ya do that for us?"

"It's not an order," Hutch clarified. "I can't order you to do this. I'm asking. Not as your captain. As a fellow officer who needs a favor. If you say 'no,' it won't reflect on my treatment of you in any way."

"You can trust Hutch on that," Starsky put in. "He's a man of his word. He's fair."

The two detectives looked at each other for a moment and Hutch could almost hear their silent communication. Finally, Jenkins nodded. "Okay. We'll give it our best shot. I really hope we can turn something for you, Cap."

"Thanks, Jenkins."

 

When they had gone, Hutch looked at Starsky. "I think you and I ought to see about getting a little protection for our families."

Starsky's eyes sobered. "Like what? You said the chief told ya no soap."

Hutch wearily rubbed his eyes. "How does Hannah get to school?"

"I drop her off on my way to work," Starsky said. "Her best friend's mom picks both girls up and takes Hannah home with her, and I pick her up there on my way home."

"Do you trust the best friend's mom?"

Starsky nodded. "Nancy's known her since they were in college."

"Can you get away in the afternoon to pick Hannah up yourself? Or could Nancy?"

"It'd be pretty tough on Nancy. She doesn't get home until about 7:30 in the morning and she usually goes right to bed. And they won't change her shift. She already asked. And I've got a class that starts at 3."

"Damn." Hutch rubbed his eyes again. "How about if I do it? I could take her to her friend's house."

"I'm wondering if she's safe at her friend's house," Starsky said bleakly.

"She'll need to stay inside until you get there. I think she'd be safe enough inside, if the mom keeps the doors locked and doesn't let anybody in."

"That'd mean telling her what's going on," Starsky pointed out, "and if I was her, I'd refuse to have the poor kid at my house, endangering my own family."

"Jill," Hutch said suddenly.

"Jill?"

"I could pick Hannah up and take her to Abby's and Jill could watch her until you get off work," Hutch said. "I'll pick Jill up, too. Don't want her riding the bus until this is settled."

"Those two girls, alone for maybe two or three hours, until one of us could get there?" Starsky asked skeptically. "How is that safer than Tina's?"

"Abby's there, that's how," Hutch said. "She works from home now. She can handle knowing what's going down."

"But could she handle Gunther's goons if they showed up?" Starsky demanded.

"She's got a gun and she knows how to use it," Hutch said grimly. "And she wouldn't hesitate to use it if the kids were in danger."

"If nothing else, the change in routine could throw Gunther off," Starsky said thoughtfully. "But ain't you afraid for Abby and Jill? And what about Josh?"

"Josh is hardly ever home anymore," Hutch said. "He's working, you know, and Jill said he's also on the track team. He's pretty stubborn, too. I don't think telling him to be careful's going to do much good, but I'll give it a shot."

Starsky grinned a little. "Takes after his old man, huh?"

Hutch returned the grin. "Yeah."

 

The arrangements were made and though Hannah was unhappy about being separated from her best friend, even temporarily, she was soothed with the thought of spending a lot of time with Jill and "Aunt" Abby. Her father had only told her what she had to know for safety's sake: That a man he'd helped put in prison had recently gotten out and until they were sure he'd "learned to be good", he'd feel better if she went somewhere else after school for a while.

Hannah's crystal-blue eyes, so much like her father's in shape and expressiveness, had rested on his face for several long moments, until she finally nodded. "Okay, Daddy."

Starsky felt strongly that Hannah understood a lot more than he really wanted her to, but if it helped keep her safe, maybe it was worth it.

Hutch had been more blunt with his own family. He'd arrived at Abby's at dinner time on a night when he was certain Josh would also be home, and Abby, as he'd hoped, had invited him to eat with them. For a while, it was almost like they were a family again. But Abby's eyes had seldom left his face while he tried gamely to act "normal," and as soon as dinner was over, she'd demanded he give his real reason for "dropping in."

"Mom," Jill had protested feebly, but Hutch had held up a hand, and she'd subsided.

"Your mom's right," he said. "It wasn't just a casual visit. Remember the Gunther case?" he asked his ex-wife.

She drew a sharp breath. And nodded.

"He's out. He already sent a couple of goons to make an attempt on me, and until Starsky and I can catch the moth...son-of-a-bitch, we don't want to take any chances with anyone's safety. If he knows where we are, he knows where you are. Abby," he leaned forward a little, "can you stand guard over the girls after school? You still got your gun?"

"Yes, I do."

"Daddy," Jill said, her eyes wide and frightened, "you think this man would hurt one of us?"

Hutch put a protective arm around his little girl -- even if she was as tall as her mother, she was still his "baby" -- and nodded soberly. "He might, honey. I don't know. But we want to be careful. I know I've told you this before, and your mom has, too," he paused and looked at his son very straight, "but my being a cop puts the whole family at risk if some crazy decides to get even. Don't talk to anyone you don't know. Don't admit your last name to anyone who asks. Don't tell anyone where you live. Don't tell anyone but one of us where you're going. Make sure we know who you're with, how you're getting there, and exactly what time you'll be home, every hour of every day. I'm sorry," he paused again and shook his head sorrowfully, "I know this puts an unpleasant burden on you both, but it's necessary. I wouldn't ask if it weren't."

Jill's eyes were still far too big with fright, but she made a valiant attempt to pull herself together. "You got it, Dad. Right, Josh?"

"Yes, sir," Josh said, much more quietly than he normally spoke. His eyes were a little too wide, too.

"Don't go anywhere you don't have to go," Hutch went on. "We'll get this guy as fast as we can. I promise. It won't be forever."

 

Jenkins had called while Hutch was gone and left a message on his machine. Hutch called the young detective immediately.

"Whatcha got?" he demanded.

"We interrogated the suspects in the hospital," Jenkins said, dispensing with any formalities. "Berber refused to say anything -- kept demanding a lawyer. The other guy, though," and his voice deepened into a self-satisfied chuckle, " is scared out of his wits. Brinkman made sure of that."

Hutch gave a grim grin. "Did he, now? Where did he learn that technique?"

Jenkins chuckled again. "A little extra-curricular tutoring from Lt. Starsky in academy, sir. An after-hours course he only gives to certain promising cadets. Strictly off the record, you understand."

"I do, indeed," Hutch said, chuckling a little himself. "And what did this Starsky-inspired interrogation reveal, Sergeant?"

"Well, sir, the other guy -- name's Henderson, Jack Henderson -- said he didn't know where Gunther was holed up, but he did know he's trying to piece his organization back together. Coupla guys named Dickerson and Ingalls have been running a very abbreviated version of said organization the last 10 years or so. Took 'em a while to recover from you and your partner, sir."

"I'll bet it did," Hutch said.

"And it was those guys who hired him and Berber to tag you, sir --"

"Jenkins," Hutch interrupted. "Do me a favor, huh?"

"Yes, sir? What is it, sir?"

"Would you please quit calling me 'sir'? It's Hutch. Almost nobody but Starsk and his daughter calls me 'Hutch' these days, and I really, really get tired of 'Captain' and 'sir.'"

There was a brief silence while Jenkins took that in, and Hutch grinned a little, picturing the younger man's discomfiture. Finally, Jenkins said, doubtfully, "Um, that doesn't really seem respectful, sir...Hutch. Sir."

Hutch laughed. "Not 'Hutch, sir.' Just 'Hutch.' Okay? Please."

"Right. Okay," Jenkins hesitated a moment more, then said, "Uh, shall I go on?"

"Please do."

"The driver you shot was some flunky Henderson knew from his last time in stir and it turns out he owed Gunther a favor for something -- got him a job, I think, even though he was in prison. So I'm afraid Gunther still has some connections in spite of you messing him up so bad."

"What I figured," Hutch said wearily. "At least we got a couple of names. Don't s'pose you got Dickerson and Ingalls' first names, did you?"

"Why, yes, sir -- I mean, Hutch -- Todd did do that. Cal Dickerson, short for Calvin, and Benjamin Ingalls. They're about your age and they were so low down in the organization when Gunther went up that they slipped the noose."

"Careless of us," Hutch said. "But with an organization that big, I suppose some of the guppies got lost in the sea of piranha."

Another silence, then an uncertain chuckle. "Guess so."

"Good work, Jenkins. Tell Brinkman I said so, too. Anything else?"

"Not yet."

"Okay. Keep me posted." Hutch replaced the receiver.

 

But nothing else turned up the rest of the week, and by Friday, Hutch was in such a state of nervous tension that he was snapping at everyone in sight over the least little thing. After reducing one of his female detectives practically to tears -- she was one of Starsky's cadets, and he suspected Starsky's thorough schooling in "hide your emotions" was the only thing that kept her from breaking down -- he decided he'd do the department a favor and cut out early. He was just reaching for his jacket when the door opened and Starsky barrelled in, shutting it behind him with his foot exactly as he had always done.

Starsky took one look at Hutch and shook his head. "Had a bad week, huh, buddy?"

"How the fuck do you know?" Hutch demanded, still short-tempered.

Starsky grinned and slung an arm around his shoulders. "I've known you too long, pallie. I can see the fire smoldering in your baby blues. Besides, Minnie called me over at the academy and told me you was reamin' everybody and needed a steadying influence. So, here I am."

Hutch relaxed and returned the grin. "Since when are you a steadying influence, partner? As I recall, I was the one who had to peel you off people when we were on the streets."

"I was the peeler once in a while, too, buddy," Starsky said indignantly, but his eyes danced with amusement.

"Okay, maybe," Hutch conceded. "Now and then."

"I guess your usual sweet temper means you ain't heard nothin' else," Starsky said, plopping his still-lean body down in a chair.

Hutch shook his head. "Not a word. Jenkins reported in this morning to apologize for it and called me 'sir' about half a dozen times while he did it." A sudden look on Starsky's face made Hutch suspicious. "Wait a minute."

"What?" Starsky asked innocently but with his eyes on his hands.

"You asshole! You told him to call me 'sir,' didn't you?"

"Why would I do that?" Starsky asked, still innocently, but he made the mistake of looking up at Hutch, and Hutch could see the laughter dancing in the blue depths.

"To drive me crazy, that's why! You know how much I hate that!"

Starsky gave in and laughed. "I'm sorry, Hutch. When I heard he was coming to your department, I couldn't resist. I told him you were one hell of a tough bastard, and he'd better call you 'sir' or he'd pay dearly for the omission."

Hutch laughed, too, and it felt good after the stress he'd been under all week. He pretended to aim a blow at Starsky, who obligingly pretended to duck. "Wouldja take it back if I buy dinner?"

"Now there's an offer I can't refuse -- if you'll let me pick the place."

Hutch sighed deeply. "Tell me you don't want to eat at Taco Hell."

"You kiddin'?" Starsky demanded. "I want a real dinner, buddy. How's Huggy's?"

"Huggy's would be terrific."

Neither one saw the quiet phone call made in the hallway as they strode away, arms around each other, laughing.

 

Huggy's new seafood restaurant was appropriately hushed and dim, but with an open, friendly feel about it that made it as popular for its atmosphere as for its food. As Starsky and Hutch entered the foyer, the group of people waiting to be seated made it plain they should have made a reservation.

"Shit, Starsk," Hutch said softly. "Look how crowded it is."

"'S okay," Starsky said calmly. "We'll get in fast. Watch this." He went forward to the hostess, gave her a blinding 1000-watter, and said, "Reservation for Starsky. Two. Non-smoking."

She checked her list, then looked up apologetically. "I'm sorry, Mr. Starsky. I don't see your name here. Do you remember who took the reservation?"

"Huggy did. Personally. You can ask him. Tell him Starsky and Hutch."

She peered at him uncertainly for a moment before lifting the phone beside the desk and asking for "Mr. Bear." Starsky choked back a laugh at that. In a moment, she said, "Mr. Bear, a Mr. Starsky is here and he says you took a reservation for him for tonight, except he isn't on the list...Mr. Bear?"

In seconds, Huggy himself burst through the crowd and pounced on Starsky and Hutch. "My two favorite po-lice-men," he said with a blinding grin of his own, putting an arm around each and propelling them forward. To the hostess, he said, "Honey, anytime these two show up, and I mean any time, they got a reservation. It's standing. It's permanent. Okay?"

She nodded, looking a bit bewildered, as Huggy dragged them through the crowded restaurant and triumphantly seated them at a freshly-cleaned table. "There you go, fellas. Best thing for you tonight's the shrimp scampi, Hutch," he said, adding to Starsky, "and we got the best steak and lobster your taste buds every danced on, my curly haired friend."

Starsky and Hutch looked at each other for a moment before Hutch gave in with a grin and said, "Huggy, we bow to your superior judgment."

Huggy grinned. "I'll go place your order. And I'll try to steal you both a beer from the bar on the way back, too."

The food was as good as Huggy had promised, the beers were cold and imported, and both men felt much better after having eaten. Huggy dropped by their table every few minutes to chat as long as he dared, but he had a busy restaurant to run, and after about the third time, Starsky couldn't help chuckling.

"What's so funny, buddy?"

"Huggy," Starsky said, shaking his head and grinning at Hutch. "Remember what a hustler he used to be? Selling pet rocks one week and religious medallions the next? Registering voters and running his cousin's magic store? Now look at him! You were talkin' about what middle aged, middle class guys you and me are. Have a gander at Hug, man! It's hilarious."

Hutch grinned back and a chuckle escaped him, too. "I guess it is. Don't tell him, though, Starsk. You'll break his heart."

They paid their check, having to bribe a waitress to tell them the amount, since Huggy never wanted to let them pay for their meals anymore, and left the restaurant. The night had grown cool and clouds scuttled across the full moon, sure signs of an approaching storm.

"Wanna come back to the house for a brew, partner?" Starsky asked, unlocking his red car and grinning over the roof of it at Hutch. "Or you got a pressing appointment someplace?"

"Not me," Hutch said, spreading his arms wide. "But won't Nancy need peace and quiet before she goes to work?"

Starsky shook his head and swore half-heartedly as he dropped his keys and bent to retrieve them. "Nah," he said, his voice slightly muffled by the car between them. "She's off tonight. Got another 12 hour shift tomorrow, though. 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. So she'll wanna go to bed early. But as long as we're quiet..." he stood up again, just as Hutch experienced the most chilling deja' vu he'd ever had. A car had pulled out of a parking space, lights off. It was coming toward them. And as it passed under one of the lights illuminating the parking lot, Hutch caught the dull gleam of metal.

"Starsky! Get down!" he screamed desperately, diving for the ground and praying that Starsky would obey the command. He hit the asphalt harder than he intended to, almost knocking the breath out of him, and rolled quickly, pulling the gun he still wore and shooting a terrified look under the car. A couple of shots rang out and he heard them slam into the side of the car. He scrambled to his feet to return fire, but the car was already speeding out of the lot and away into the darkness. Hutch scrambled around the car and found Starsky standing up, dirty and with a scrape on his cheek, but otherwise unhurt. Hutch grabbed him in a fierce, wordless hug, then pulled away to examine him from head to toe, as restaurant patrons and employees rushed outside to see what the commotion was about.

Starsky was almost translucent in his pallor at the near miss, so much like the last time, and very shaky about the knees, but he tried to smile reassuringly at Hutch. "I'm okay, babe," he said softly, pitched for Hutch's ears alone. "I'm okay."

"Thank God," Hutch said. It was almost a sob.

Starsky slid an arm around his friend, tightly holding on, as Huggy skidded to a stop in front of them.

"Holy shit," Huggy said eloquently. "You guys okay? Both of you?"

"Fine, Hug. We're fine. Call the cops, huh? Get a license, Hutch?"

Hutch shook his head. "Too quick."

"I did, but only a piece of it," Starsky said. "California plate. HCG and then, I think, a 1. Dark colored Nissan. Tell 'em, Hug, huh?"

 

Even after all the explaining had been done, the uniformed cops filled out their reports, and all was quiet again, it was still early. Starsky wearily ran a hand over his hair, fingered the scrape on his cheek, and tried to smile for Hutch. "Damn. There goes my car again. I thought I was done gettin' shot at."

"Starsky," Hutch began, but found his voice wouldn't obey him. Trust Starsky to try to make a joke. It was his way of coping.

"Hey," and Starsky's voice was soft, comforting. "It's okay, partner. I'm scared, too. That was goddamned close. Still want that beer?"

"Yeah. If you're still offering."

 

"I know I been off the streets a long time, buddy," Starsky said once they had settled down on his couch, with the oldies station playing softly on the radio and the house around them silent. Both Hannah and Nancy were asleep. "But I ain't never missed spottin' a tail. We were not tailed."

"Nope," Hutch agreed readily. He'd been alert for that, too, since this had begun. Hell, he'd never stopped. Old habits die hard.

"So somebody followed us. Later. Somebody staked us out. And that means somebody knew we were goin' there. We only decided ourselves just before we left your office, Hutch. Know what that means?"

"Worm in our apple," Hutch said promptly.

"Yeah." Starsky was thoughtfully silent for a long moment. Finally, he said, "And you know what that means, partner? It's 'who do we trust' time. 'Cause we can't trust nobody till we know who the mole is."

"Nobody but me and thee," Hutch said quietly.

"Like always," Starsky agreed.

Their eyes met and held for several more moments. Close to 30 years of a friendship so tight, so close, so in tune that they could read each other's minds, flowed between two pairs of blue eyes for an interminable time.

"And that means," Hutch said, speaking aloud what had just been silently communicated, "we gotta ride this pony ourselves, partner."

"Under any other circumstances, I'd swear by Jenkins and Brinkman," Starsky said. "But this time it's our asses on the line. And I don't know who mighta got to them in the last few weeks. I'd swear they're straight shooters...but I don't want to trust our lives to that."

"I'll leave them on the case," Hutch said after a moment's consideration. "But we won't be trading information. They give. We take. One way."

Starsky nodded. "Good idea. That way, if they're straight, we still might get some help from them. If they're crooked, they won't have much to take back to Gunther." He shook his head. "Ya know, Todd Brinkman was one of my best boys. I had really high hopes for him. In fact, I had a little bet with Cap'n Ackerman that the kid'd make detective before 30. And I won."

Hutch grinned in spite of himself. "I also hear you gave him the benefit of your after-hours interrogation class."

Starsky chuckled. "Yeah. But he wasn't supposed to tell."

"He didn't. Jenkins told me. And he wouldn't have if he didn't know we'd been partners. Starsk," Hutch leaned toward his partner and put a hand on his arm, "don't talk about his potential in the past tense. We don't know they're the moles. You're one hell of a judge of character. If you believe they're straight, I believe they are. This is just a precaution. Okay?"

"Okay."

Starsky produced a battered chess set for them to play with, since both felt slightly safer while they were together, and it was almost like old times. They laughed and talked deep into the night, and when Hutch realized how late it was getting, he also realized the promised storm had broken full blast while he'd been getting his ass whipped at chess.

"Holy shit," Starsky blurted when a particularly loud and close thunderclap made him jump. He went to the window to peer out and said over his shoulder, "It's comin' down like Judgment Day out there, Hutch. I think you better stay here tonight."

Hutch joined him at the window. It did look pretty uninviting. And it had been a long time since he and Starsky had been able to spend a whole evening together. So he shrugged and grinned. "You talked me into it."

"I even got a bed for ya to sleep in this time, partner," Starsky said with another grin. "Guest room. No couch."

"Wow," Hutch said, pretending amazement, like he didn't know there was a third bedroom in his best friend's home. "That's terrific."

Starsky clapped him on the back. "Come on, let's finish that chess game."

It wasn't long, however, before a frightened little voice came from behind them. "Daddy? Daddy, it's storming." Hannah crept into the room, looking much younger than her 10 years in her Pooh pajamas, clutching a very battered Ollie. She froze in her tracks at the sight of Hutch and color stained her cheeks. "Hi, Hutch. I didn't know you were here."

"Your dad and I are having a grown-up version of a slumber party," Hutch said with a gentle smile. "I hope we didn't wake you."

"No, it was the storm. I -- I don't like thunder," she faltered, looking even more embarrassed. She crept a little closer and snuggled up on the couch, trying to look grown up. She set Ollie firmly down beside her, though she kept one hand on the stuffed bear. "Can I just watch you play for a while? Till I get sleepy again?"

"Sure, sweetheart," Starsky said, leaning over to kiss the top of her head. "You can even play, if you want. I just beat the pants off Hutch. Maybe he'd like to try playing you."

"Thanks a bunch, Starsk," Hutch teased. "First I'm humiliated by getting beat by someone my own age. Now you want to humiliate me further by letting your daughter trounce me, too."

Hannah giggled, just a little, but it encouraged Hutch. "Daddy taught me," she said. "And I can beat him. Sometimes."

Hutch gave a loud, theatrical sigh. "Might as well sharpen your claws on your poor Uncle Hutch, too, as long as you're here."

She did beat him, but he felt that he'd at least given her a run for her money. When he tipped his king over in defeat, she beamed at him, ruining the effect with a loud yawn. Blushing again, she covered her mouth. "Excuse me."

"I think somebody's ready to go back to bed, huh?" Starsky said. He rose and extended a hand to her.

"Can Hutch tuck me in, Daddy? I don't get to see him very often."

"Sure," Starsky said, glancing at Hutch. Hutch rose, took the child's hand, and took her into her room, done so completely in Pooh that he wondered how she managed to sleep in here. It was definitely loud. A very large stuffed Pooh, almost as large as Hannah, occupied the bed.

"Sure there's room for you in there, too?" he asked her.

She grinned, looking like a smaller, feminine version of her father. "I don't sleep with him," she confided. "I make him sleep on the floor, and Ollie and me take the bed. Daddy told me Ollie belonged to you once."

"I was just keeping him for someone," Hutch said. "Looks like he found his rightful owner when you came along."

"And before you, he belonged to Terry," she said, crawling into bed and scrambling under the covers -- also covered in Pooh pictures.

Hutch winced a little. The memory of Terry was still fresh, these years later, and the pain her loss had caused Starsky. Him, too.

"I'm named after her, you know," Hannah said through another yawn.

"I know. Remember me? Your godfather?" Hutch teased gently.

"Hannah Teresa Starsky," she chanted softly, grinning at him and looking like her dad again. "Gimme a kiss goodnight?"

"Of course." Hutch leaned over, kissed her forehead, and pulled the covers up. "Sweet dreams, honey."

"'Night, Hutch." She rolled over, pulled Ollie up tight against her chest, and was breathing deeply before he left the room.

 

"How a lunatic like you are managed to produce a darling like that little girl is beyond me," Hutch teased when he returned to the living room. "Must be Nancy's influence."

"Hutch!" Starsk protested, grinning. "I'm wounded! How can you say that? She takes after her father. Got my charm, my good looks..."

"I just hope she's not as delusional as you are, Gordo," Hutch added.

 

Hutch woke early the next morning, but not before Nancy had left for work. Hannah was eating her cereal in the kitchen, accompanied by Starsky, very rumpled, but more or less awake. Hutch stopped in the doorway and grinned at the sight. His partner had never been much of a morning person. Right now, he was drooping over his coffee and blinking blearily at the morning paper.

"Morning, Starskies," Hutch said cheerfully, drawing a groan from Starsky but a smile from Hannah. He sat down and accepted the cup of coffee Hannah scrambled to get for him.

"I can make toast for you, Hutch," she offered. "Unless you'd rather have cereal. Or both?"

"Just coffee, honey," Hutch said. "I'll get breakfast at home."

"We don't have the stuff to make his morning glop around here," Starsky muttered.

Hannah giggled.

 

Starsky did come around enough to drive Hutch back to the station to collect his own car, and they parted with a wave. Further plans to find Gunther could wait for now. Starsky was afraid of upsetting Hannah if they talked about it in front of her, and with Nancy at work all day, there was nothing to do but wait.

Hutch stopped the car in his own driveway. He got out, stretched a little, bent to pick up his own newspaper off the porch and reached into his pocket for the key. Some instinct warned him, just as he inserted the key in the lock, and he threw himself backward, barely in time. The lock, and the door, exploded outward, scattering wood, glass and splinters all over the porch and Hutch, who luckily had instinctively rolled himself into a ball to protect his head.

In only moments, his neighbors were swarming into the street to see what the noise had been -- many of them still in their nightclothes. It was still pretty early on a Saturday.

The nearest neighbor, a man Hutch had spoken with many times and even shared the occasional beer with on a hot night, ran to him immediately. "Hey, Hutch, you okay, man? That was close."

"Too close," Hutch agreed, allowing the man to help him to his feet.

"I called the cops," the neighbor, George Nichols, said. "Soon's I heard the boom. You sure you're okay?"

"Yeah, fine. Thanks. Hey, can I use your phone, too? I don't much want to barge in there right now," Hutch said, indicating his damaged quarters.

"Sure, Hutch, yeah. Come on. Cops won't be here for a few minutes."

Hutch dialed the familiar number and when Starsky's voice answered, said simply, "They tried again."

A sharp, indrawn breath, then the anxious, "You okay, partner?"

"Fine. Shaken up is all. Blew the front off my place."

"Rigged door?"

"Yeah."

"Holy God. I'll be right there." Starsky broke the connection.

Hutch relaxed marginally. Starsky was coming. They'd face it together, as always.

As an active officer, deskbound or not, Starsky still possessed a siren and light, and by using both, he arrived at Hutch's moments before the uniformed cops. He flung himself out of his car and ran full tilt for Hutch, followed by Hannah, whom he'd had to bring along. She took one look at the demolished front of her favorite "uncle's" house and burst into tears, throwing herself at him and clinging to his waist, just as Starsky clung to his shoulder and arm.

"Uncle Hutch, you could've been killed!" she sobbed, her tears soaking through his shirt. He bent to lift her into his arms, and she transferred her embrace to his neck, clinging so tightly it made it slightly difficult to breathe. He knew how upset she was by her calling him "Uncle Hutch," a name she hadn't used for years. Since she started school, it had always been simply "Hutch," a habit picked up from her dad.

"Ssshhh, honey. I'm okay. I wasn't hurt at all. Let go and look, and you'll see, baby."

She cried for several minutes, while Hutch stroked her back and Starsky stroked her hair, before she pulled herself together enough to draw back a little and look at his face. With one small, trembling hand, she reached out and stroked his cheek, so much like her dad's gesture at times like this that it brought a mist to Hutch's eyes. "You're really okay?"

"Really," he assured her.

"But you're crying," she said.

"Just a little, baby." No point in lying about it, not with those Starsky-blue eyes boring into his.

"You're scared, aren't you?" she asked softly.

"Yeah, I am. I'll be okay, though. Now your dad's here."

She managed a trembling smile. "Daddy'll make it better for you?"

"He always does, baby." Hutch exchanged a grateful glance with his partner, who tightened his hold on the back of Hutch's neck and gave the blond hair a gentle touch.

 

A blatant attempt on an officer's life -- the third such attempt in less than two weeks -- finally got the chief's attention, and finally the wheels were in motion to hunt down James Gunther and any of his remaining cronies as were out of prison and possibly active. But two more weeks -- quiet weeks, thank God, Hutch thought one afternoon, alone in his office -- failed to turn a single clue.

Not that he and Starsky were sitting on their hands. They'd been spending nearly all of their free time pounding the pavement, just like they used to, looking for old contacts, hunting for clues of any kind, running down any lead at all, no matter how much of a wild goose chase it seemed.

Starsky called in every favor he had a right to, and many he did not, from officers he had trained who were now stationed all over the city. Hutch did the same with officers he knew and had worked with.

Trouble was, they had to be covert in their operations. They didn't want anyone to be too clear on their movements for fear that whoever the mole was would give their location away to Gunther. They'd made no progress at all in finding out who that was. And they were also afraid of Gunther going so far underground they'd never find him, if he figured out how diligently they were looking for him. All that intrigue made their job that much more difficult.

One night they were staked out in front of a building one of Jenkins' and Brinkman's contacts had sworn was a hideout for Ben Ingalls' portion of Gunther's remaining operation. It was getting late and both had already put in a full day at work. Starsky tried valiantly to suppress a yawn and glanced at his watch in the dim glow of a nearby streetlight.

"I'd forgotten how damn dull stakeouts were, partner," he remarked to Hutch.

"Me, too. Wish it could've stayed forgotten."

Starsky gave a weak grin.

It was another couple of hours before anything happened, and then it wasn't much. A very thin, very young woman came out of the building, trying to balance a cardboard box full of manila folders. She staggered toward a tiny Ford parked at the curb and tried juggling her keys and the box simultaneously so she could load the box into the car. Both men were as tense as high-E fiddle strings, watching her.

"Whattya wanna do?" Starsky hissed.

"Let her get loaded up and drive away, then pull her over," Hutch said promptly. "No sense spooking anyone else who might be in there. Maybe she'll sing us a song."

Starsky grinned again, a bit grimly this time, while they waited and watched. Sure enough, the young woman got the car open, loaded the box into the back seat, and drove away. Starsky and Hutch followed her, waiting until they were a couple of blocks away from the building to hit lights and siren and pull her over.

Starsky walked up to one side, Hutch on the other, both with badges in hand. She looked terrified.

"I'm afraid I have to ask you to exit the vehicle, ma'am," Starsky said, glad he remembered the proper "cop talk" after so long teaching.

Trembling, she obeyed. Starsky led her back to his car, asked for her license, and ran the usual "make" on her. It all came up clean. Meanwhile, Hutch was pawing through the folders in the box, but every one he opened was full of things like shipping lists and warehouse inventories -- information they could probably use to finish breaking Gunther's organization, but nothing that would help them find the man himself.

"What -- what's he doing?" the young woman asked, finally noticing Hutch in her back seat with his flashlight.

"Searching your vehicle, ma'am," Starsky said.

"But why? I mean, don't I have some rights? Am I under arrest? What have I done?" She looked ready to burst into tears.

"We're looking for a dangerous criminal, Miss -- " Starsky looked down at her license, "Miss Walden, and we have reports that you work for him. We're trying to track him down. If you help us, it'll be easier for you."

Now she really looked terrified. Her trembling became so pronounced that Starsky put a hand on her arm to steady her in case she fell. "Who -- who are you looking for?"

"Ben Ingalls!" Hutch declared triumphantly, emerging from the car and waving one of the folders. "Here it is, Starsk! Finally. The asshole -- " He broke off as he watched Starsky catch the swaying young woman just as she fainted into his arms.

"Better call an ambulance, Hutch," Starsky said, lowering her gently to the ground.

Hutch hurried over to join Starsky and handed his partner the file. Gently opening one of the young woman's eyes, he used his flashlight to check her pupils' reflexes and felt her skin. "She just fainted, buddy. She'll be okay in a sec. You still got any ice in your soda?"

"Yeah." Starsky rose and reached into his car for the paper cup he'd been drinking out of. "Ain't much."

"Won't take much," Hutch said, reaching into his pocket for a handkerchief and pouring a little cold water and ice into it. He folded it up and used it to bathe Walden's wrists and temples, and in a few moments, a bit of color returned and her eyes fluttered. When she opened her eyes and looked up into the two men's faces, she paled again.

"You're okay, Miss Walden," Starsky said reassuringly. "My buddy here's a crack first-aid expert. Feel like sitting up?"

"Not yet, Starsk. Let her lie for a moment till her color gets better," Hutch said. Starsky nodded, and in a few minutes, she tried to sit up. Starsky helped her and supported her with an arm around her back.

"Ben's...a criminal?" she asked finally. "Is that what you said?"

Hutch nodded.

"How...how bad? I mean, what did he do? Did he kill somebody?"

"He's been tryin'," Starsky said grimly. "So far he hasn't succeeded."

She looked from one to the other rapidly. "You two?"

Starsky nodded. "On someone else's orders," he said. "And that's the guy we really want. Ingalls can help us get to him. Can you help us get to Ingalls?"

She bit her lip in indecision for several heart-stopping moments before finally nodding. "Yes. I can. How much trouble am I in?"

"If you help us," Hutch said, mentally hoping he and Starsky still had the knack of hiding information they didn't want the brass to know about, "you won't be in any. We'll keep you clear out of it."

"Really?" She lifted teary eyes to his. "Because, honest, I didn't know. I just got out of school and got this job doing the books for this guy. It looked like a simple shipping and receiving warehouse. I haven't seen anything shady going on."

"I believe that," Hutch said. "These guys are pretty good at covering up their 'shady' deals."

 

They took her to the station and she gave them all the information she could. Looking at the transcript, it looked good. Ben Ingalls, unfortunately for him, had very regular habits. Arrived at the warehouse office promptly at 9; left promptly at 5:30; ate his lunch at the same greasy spoon two blocks away every day. At first glance, Walden's box full of files didn't seem to contain anything they could hold over his head, but with a grim look at each other, Starsky and Hutch decided without a word spoken aloud that they would comb those files all night if necessary to find something they could threaten him with.

"Miss Walden," Starsky said as they finished with her, "it would be safest for you to vanish for a couple of weeks. Got any out of town relatives you could visit? Or do you want us to put you in protective custody?"

She paled again, so rapidly that Hutch grabbed her arm and made her sit down. She rubbed at her eyes. "My mom lives in Seattle," she finally said.

"Then go to her. Now. Tonight. Leave her name and address with us, and we'll be in touch. Okay?" Hutch leaned forward a little.

She nodded tremulously. "Do I dare go home for some clothes?"

"Sure. We'll send a policewoman with you for safety's sake," Starsky put in. He looked around the room and spotted Dayna Collins, one of his own cadets -- well, not a cadet anymore, but someone he knew, at least. "Dayna," he hollered in his inimitable Starsky style. "Come give the lady an escort home, willya? Earn your damn money for a change."

Walden looked a bit startled, but Collins only grinned back at him and said, with a mock salute, "Yes, sir, Lieutenant, sir. Will there be anything else this evening, sir?"

Starsky returned the grin. "Nah. If I was 20 years younger and single, now..."

"Lieutenant," she scolded, her eyes dancing, "that's sexual harassment."

"We used to call it 'flirting,'" Starsky said.

Collins came closer and shook a finger in his face. "Times have changed. Sir."

"Aw, get outta here," he said, laughing. "Damn. Makin' me feel old. I ain't old, ya hear me?"

"I hear ya," she drawled in a near-perfect imitation of Starsky's lingering New York accent. She turned to Walden, professional again. "Are you ready, Miss Walden?"

Still looking confused, Walden nodded and the two women left.

"You plan on skating through your whole life on that Starsky charm, partner?" Hutch inquired.

"As long as it keeps workin', yeah," Starsky returned unrepentantly.

 

Led by Starsky and Hutch, who were carefully disguised, a small army of plainclothes officers handpicked by the two of them stationed themselves at the greasy spoon Ingalls favored. Starsky and Hutch themselves were seated in the restaurant, near the back. Hutch's dead-giveaway blond locks were covered by a dark wig. Starsky wore a ball cap over his curls. Both were dressed as construction workers.

The other cops were scattered around the block. Some were also dressed as construction workers and were out in the street, pretending to patch potholes. Jenkins and Brinkman were working in the restaurant itself; Brinkman a bum at the counter and Jenkins in the back, pretending to cook. Although he actually had cooked hamburgers for his boss and his boss' partner, proudly presenting them in person. "Can't have my captain and favorite instructor starvin' while they wait," he'd said with a grin as he deposited the plates on the table in front of them.

Starsky and Hutch glanced at each other and burst out laughing. Jenkins simply grinned wider and sauntered back to the kitchen.

"Can he cook, I wonder?" Hutch asked in a stage whisper.

Starsky took an experimental bite of his sandwich. "Yup," was all he said before digging in with good appetite. Hutch followed suit.

Promptly at 12:30, Ben Ingalls came through the door and took a seat at the counter. As pre-arranged, Starsky removed his ball cap, smoothed his hair, and replaced the cap, backwards. Ingalls exactly matched the description Walden had given them. Jenkins emerged from the kitchen, balancing a tray, and placed it on the counter. He turned as if to go back into the kitchen, but by then his partner Brinkman had moved down the counter to sit closer to Ingalls, who gave him an uneasy look and shifted in his seat. When Jenkins was sure Ingalls was covered on that side, he reached under his apron and produced his gun. Brinkman had his out, too.

"Ben Ingalls, you are under arrest," Brinkman informed the man.

"What? Who the hell do you think --" but Ingalls broke off as Jenkins approached from his other side, and Starsky and Hutch rose to join them, guns drawn.

"The charges are attempted murder of an officer of the law," Starsky informed Ingalls with relish. "Three counts, pal. Two for my partner here, and one for me."

Hutch removed the dark wig. "Ken Hutchinson," he introduced himself grimly. "My partner, Dave Starsky."

"Officers," Ingalls began, though he was visibly upset, "I'm afraid you're gravely mistaken. I've never tried to harm either of you --"

"Not personally, maybe," Hutch said, his anger showing. He was out of practice at being undercover and the nearness of the man who had ordered the attempted hits, particularly the one on Starsky at Huggy's restaurant, undid his tenuous control. "But you gave the order. You or Dickerson. We're taking you down for a heavy fall, asshole. Nobody messes with my partner!"

"Hutch," Starsky said, sensing how close Hutch was to the edge.

And, as always, that one word from his partner brought him back. Hutch took a better grip of himself, shook off the emotion and settled his professionalism back in place. He nodded to Jenkins, who gleefully put the cuffs on.

 

Starsky and Hutch argued all the way back to Metro about who should interrogate Ingalls.

"Let Brinkman and Jenkins do it," Starsky kept insisting. "I taught 'em well. We'll watch through the two-way. We're too close to the case, buddy, we might fuck it up."

"I want a shot at that asshole motherfucker myself!" Hutch practically shouted.

"Hutch..."

"Starsky!"

"Hutch! Remember tracking down Elmo Jackson's killer? Remember how Dobey let us take care of it, as much as he wanted the guy himself? Remember that, Hutch? You gotta delegate this one, babe. You gotta." Starsky's voice softened. "At least, neither of us have to look at this guy as the one responsible for our partner's death. We're still here. Together."

Hutch's eyes softened in response, and he nodded. "Okay, Starsk. Okay."

~*~*~*~

Hutch couldn't have said he "enjoyed" watching the interrogation, but he clearly recognized Starsky's favorite "good cop-bad cop" scenario as Jenkins and Brinkman did the job. Brinkman, normally a soft-spoken, almost painfully polite young man who looked like an altar boy, took the "bad cop" role and did it so well, Hutch thought with a grin, that he'd make an innocent man confess. Jenkins was the folksy "good cop," who only wanted what was best for the suspect, getting him coffee, offering a cigarette, making friendly remarks.

Starsky positively beamed as his proteges handled the interrogation. "Good, ain't they?" he said at one point, looking so much like a proud papa that Hutch couldn't help laughing. "What's so funny?" Starsky demanded

"You. Them. How do you decide which cadets to teach this to, Starsk?"

"The ones who remind me of us, partner," Starsky said promptly, never taking his eyes or attention away from the two-way mirror. "It don't work if they ain't got the touch. These two had the touch. I saw it a mile away."

Hutch shook his head. Brinkman was good, he admitted it. "How'd you know that choirboy would be such a good 'bad cop'?"

Starsky grinned. "It's that choirboy look that makes him good at it, Hutch. Nobody expects those big blue eyes to hide such venom. Always worked for you, too."

"You were usually the 'bad cop'," Hutch protested.

"Not always. You took it sometimes. And it always startled the perp so bad when the White Knight turned into the Avenging Angel, it made it hard for me to keep a straight face. It's the shock value. I knew Brinkman'd have a ball doin' it. So that's who I taught to do it."

~*~*~*~

Sure enough, Ingalls broke, faster than Hutch would have thought possible. It wasn't an hour before Brinkman slammed out of the room in classic "Starsky Rage" mode and came back in a few minutes, calm and friendly, offering to spring for coffee if Jenkins would go and get it. Hutch couldn't help it; in spite of the circumstances, he laughed aloud, glad for the soundproof room. That had always worked for him and Starsky. It still worked.

Jenkins, with a warning look at Ingalls, rose to go after the coffee, and that's when Ingalls broke.

"Okay, okay. Gunther calls us, man, we haven't actually seen him. I'm not sure where he's staying. But Moretti's been there. Moretti's the middle man. He gets the orders, he brings them to us. He does the snooping to find out where Starsky and Hutchinson are. And let me tell you guys, Gunther is damn near insanely mad at us for having failed three times already. One more failure and he's gonna put hits out on us. I'm surprised Moretti ain't dead already."

"How has Gunther maintained such power after 20 years in prison?" Jenkins inquired.

"Money, man. He's got a couple million -- at least -- stashed in foreign accounts. And he's got a couple of cops in his pocket, too. Don't know their names. Saw one of 'em once. Only for a second."

Jenkins and Brinkman exchanged a worried look. "Would you know this cop if you saw him?"

"Her," Ingalls corrected. "It's a woman cop. Sort of blond. Think she bleaches it. She's about 30, maybe a little older."

Hutch glanced at Starsky, who had gone white to the lips at the man's words. "What is it, buddy?" he hissed, reaching out a hand to steady his suddenly-shaky partner.

"Teller. He's talking about Amanda Teller," Starsky said, in that voice he always used when he just knew something. Hutch had learned to trust that instinct. He grabbed the intercom.

"Hutchinson," he barked into it. "Pick up Amanda Teller. Officer Amanda Teller. And bring her in for questioning. Don't waste a second!" He hung up and turned to Starsky. "How'd you know who he meant?"

"Never completely trusted her," Starsky said, calmer now that action had been taken. "Just a gut feeling. Almost tried to figure out a way to keep her from getting past the exams. But she knew the material, passed all the physical tests. Had a clean background. Squeaky clean. No good reason to fail her. No reason except my gut. In the academy, that ain't good enough. Only on the streets. Only with your partner."

Hutch patted his back. And they waited.

As soon as Ingalls got a look at Teller, he confirmed Starsky's "gut." She was the cop. The one who fed Gunther information on Starsky and Hutch through Moretti. She worked on the same floor with Hutch, in the radio room, but apparently had no trouble finding time to listen at doors and pump other officers, none of whom suspected her real reason for asking questions.

 The other officer, it took very little time to discover, was a training officer at the Academy, who fed Moretti information on Starsky.

From there, it wasn't very difficult to track down Moretti, and through him, James Gunther. A few weeks later, Starsky and Hutch sat in a courtroom together and watched the trial of James Gunther on conspiracy to commit murder.

Neither one of them found it easy to believe this bent and broken old man still wielded the kind of power required to organize such a far-flung conspiracy.

During a recess, Starsky said to Hutch, "Think of how different things would be if that man," referring to Gunther, "had been an honest businessman. If he'd put all that power and brain work behind discovering a cure for cancer or inventing a more fuel efficient car or something."

Hutch nodded. He had no answer for that.

"If he had, me and you might still be out there," Starsky went on. "We might still be partners."

"We still are partners," Hutch said gently. "Didn't we just prove it, these past couple of months? We brought him down, buddy. Together. Sure, we had help. But we've always had help. Dobey. Huggy. Alice. The Black Baron."

Starsky grinned feebly at that last name. "Yeah. You're right. But the bottom line was always us, babe. Me and thee. Together."

Hutch patted his back affectionately, and they went back into the courtroom. In the end, Gunther was found guilty and sent back to prison for 20 years to life. This time, at his age, it was highly unlikely he would live to get out a second time.

~*~*~*~

Josh's high school graduation party was everything he could have wanted. Hutch hired a band and didn't embarrass his son by sitting in and singing, badly as he wanted to. Starsky ruffled the kid's hair and warned him about "fast college girls," which warning went in one ear and out the other, of course. Josh proudly showed off the car -- a complete bomb, more than worthy of the Hutchinson Squash legacy -- that he had finally managed to buy. And Hutch confided to Starsky that his worst fear had proven unfounded. Josh was going to UCLA. He'd be nearby, could live at home and commute, rather than going off to college in some distant place.

Starsky grinned at his partner when he told him that, as relieved as he was. "I'm glad to hear it. Want to keep him where you can offer Dad Advice on a regular basis, don't ya?"

Hutch shrugged, a little embarrassed. "I'd just miss him, buddy. You know."

"Yeah." Starsky looked down at Hannah, holding his hand. "You hear that, short stuff? No going off to college in West Virginia or somewhere. You gotta go to school where Dad and Uncle Hutch can keep an eye on ya."

"Of course, Daddy," she said, big blue Starsky-eyes trained steadily on his. "I'm going to UCLA, too. And then I'm gonna be a cop. Just like you."

Starsky and Hutch exchanged startled and appalled glances. In one voice, they both said, "Oh, my God."

The End

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