free web hosting | free hosting | Business Hosting | Free Website Submission | shopping cart | php hosting

Second Chances

Written by Valerie Wells

The thunk of the newspaper as it landed against the front door woke Hutch up, even though he could remember a time when he needed an alarm to wake up. He wasn't sleeping as soundly as he used to. He had good reason.

He yawned, glanced at the glowing red numbers on the clock across the room and tossed the blanket aside. Five-twenty-two. But he knew he wouldn't be able to go back to sleep anyway.

Padding softly across the room, he peeked in the bedroom door at his partner, sound asleep on his back. The hair on Starsky's chest hid the scars, which weren't as prominent as they'd once been, though the ones on his back were still an angry red. That chest rose and fell with reassuring regularity, and Hutch backed away.

Going into the kitchen, he started a pot of coffee, then retrieved the newspaper and sat down on the rumpled blanket on the couch to read it. By the time the coffee was done, Starsky was stirring and Hutch heard the toilet flush.

"Up pretty early, aren't ya?" Starsky asked through a wide yawn of his own.

Hutch gave a slight shrug.

"Coffee on?"

"Yeah." Hutch watched, trying not to be obvious about it, as Starsky headed for the kitchen to pour himself a cup. The swagger wasn't quite as pronounced as it used to be. But it was there. And soon it would be back in all its glory. Already Starsky moved more naturally, with less pain and stiffness than he had.

Starsky came back and leaned against the doorframe, not as if for support, but in his former, half-lazy way. He grinned at Hutch. "Last day."

"Sure is," Hutch said, more fervently than he meant to.

"Hey," Starsky crossed to the couch and sat down next to him. "You gonna get all soapy on me?"

Hutch shook his head. "Nope."

"Good." Starsky swiped half the newspaper and leaned back, tucking one foot under the opposite leg and studying the sports page with great interest. "I'll be damned," he said after a few moments of silence. "They're already talkin' about the Series."

"It's only a month away," Hutch said.

"And I never even made it to a single game," Starsky said, shaking his head.

"You were...busy," Hutch said.

"Yeah." Starsky sipped his coffee and turned the page. "Hey, look at this," he said, surprised. "Kiko's team made the paper!" He showed Hutch the photo of a high school football game. "Is he good?"

"Yeah, he's good," Hutch answered, taking the page and looking at it. "Figures he'll make varsity next year."

"Time kinda gets away from ya," Starsky said, taking it back. He was soon absorbed in reading the account of Kiko's game, while Hutch forced himself not to watch him doing it. "Guess I better get showered and dressed," Starsky said a few minutes later, after glancing at the clock. He rose, giving himself a little push against the couch to help himself up, and started toward the bedroom. He stopped before he got there and turned. "Hutch."

"Yeah?"

"I'm okay. Really."

Hutch forced a smile. "I know."

Starsky held his eyes for a moment, gave a half-grin, and turned away.

* * *

"Okay, David, this is the hard part," the physical therapist said, strapping on the electrodes. "If you pass this, I'll have no choice but to send you back to work."

"Not till after I've passed the psych exam," Starsky said, wiping sweat from his eyes. Already he'd been through a tougher physical endurance test than any he'd ever taken in the Army, and now they wanted him to run on a treadmill, probably until he dropped from exhaustion. But if that's what it was going to take for him to convince them he was ready to go back out on the street, he'd do it. He'd do it if it ki-- no, scratch that thought. He'd come too close to that already.

"The psych exam'll be a piece of cake," Hutch said from his post on a stool in the corner. He held a sandwich in one hand; he'd taken his lunch break in time to be present for this portion of Starsky's physical and nothing Starsky could say or do would budge him. He was going to be there.

Dan, the physical therapist that Starsky had come to know far better than he ever wanted to know a physical therapist, grinned. "Ah don' know nothin' 'bout psych exams," Dan said, affecting a southern accent a' la' Prissy from "Gone With the Wind." He often did such things unexpectedly, making Starsky laugh when he was in the middle of a particularly painful bit of exercise. "All Ah know is, you gots to pass this heah test, Sahgent, Sah."

Starsky grinned. "I'll pass it," he said with that cocky confidence he'd had to force in the last few months. It no longer came naturally. "What do I do?"

"Just walk," Dan said, dropping the accent. "Keep up with the treadmill. When it goes faster, you better go faster, too, or it'll spit you out into the floor."

"Okay," Starsky said, gripping the bars. "I'm ready."

It was harder than he'd imagined. After only a few minutes, he thought his legs would fall off. But he kept going. He set his teeth, ignored the ringing in his ears, the pounding of his heart, the sweat stinging his eyes, and kept going. He refused to look at Hutch, or Dan, or the clock on the wall. There was only the bars he gripped and the movement of his legs. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Dan watching the heart and respiration monitors and making notations on a chart. Hutch was out of the range of his peripheral vision.

An eternity passed before Dan reached out, flipped a switch, and the treadmill slowed and halted. "How do you feel?"

Starsky was breathing so hard he found it difficult to answer, but he gasped, "Fine. Terrific."

Dan grinned and tossed a towel at him. "Sure you do. You look like a feather would knock you flat on your can."

Starsky stopped in act of wiping his face. "You mean I didn't pass?"

"Pass?" Dan's grin widened. "You did better than I could do, David. And I didn't get shot and almost die a few months ago. Yeah, you passed. With flying colors."

Starsky let out a whoop. "You hear that, Hutch? I passed!"

Hutch smiled back at him, but there was a shadow of worry in his eyes.

* * *

The psychologist's exam was just as stressful in its own way. The department sent him to an outside psychologist, rather than the department man, in order to get an objective opinion. And Hutch most emphatically was not allowed to accompany him.

Sitting on the expensive leather couch in the psychologist's waiting room, Starsky felt sweat trickling down his back and removed his jacket. This is so stupid, he thought. Why the hell do I need to talk to some head-shrinker for them to let me go back to work?

Finally he was called in.

"Mr. Starsky? I'm Ian O'Connell. Sit down." The man waved him to a chair and sat opposite him, holding a small tape recorder. "Don't mind this. It's more accurate than handwritten notes," he said with a smile when Starsky eyed it suspiciously. "Now, I have to ask you some very personal questions. Please don't let it bother you."

"Sure," Starsky said, leaning back and crossing his legs in an effort to look relaxed.

"Do you have nightmares?"

Starsky hesitated. What was the right answer? Because he did. He relived the shooting two or three times a week in his dreams. But sometimes he was the one getting shot, and sometimes it was Hutch.

"Mr. Starsky?"

"Yes, sometimes," he answered reluctantly.

"Do you have trouble going back to sleep afterwards?"

Starsky shook his head. "Not usually." Because Hutch had an uncanny knack of knowing when he'd had one of those dreams and almost the moment Starsky awoke, Hutch would be in his room, straightening the blankets, getting him a drink of water, and once in a while sitting on the bed with him until he went back to sleep. Starsky didn't think the psychologist needed to know that.

"Do you leave a light on when you sleep?"

Starsky frowned. "No. I can't sleep with lights on."

"Do you ever feel afraid when you're alone?"

Since Starsky had hardly been alone for months, he wasn't sure how to answer that. Hutch was always around. If he couldn't be there, Huggy was. Or Edith. Even Rosie Dobey had taken a turn "babysitting," as she called it. Everyone had been afraid to leave him alone for a long time. "No, I'm not afraid," he answered at last.

"Do you think about getting revenge on James Gunther?"

That one Starsky could answer with no reservations. "Gunther's in prison," he said. "He's not going to get out any time soon. And that's a worse punishment for a man like him than anything I could dream up. So, no. I don't."

Whether Hutch thought about revenge was something else again.

"Are you afraid to die?"

"I don't know if I'd call it 'afraid,'" Starsky said slowly. "I mean, I did sort of die, when my heart stopped in the hospital. I don't remember much – no, really, I don't remember anything. I don't want to die. But I can't say I'm afraid of it."

"What would you do if you were confronted with a situation where you had to make a choice between your own death and that of your partner?"

"Hutch would survive," Starsky said promptly.

"How can you be certain you would sacrifice yourself to save him?"

"I've been in that situation, doctor," Starsky said. "It was me or him. I chose him. You can ask him. You can read the report."

O'Connell studied him thoughtfully for several moments. "Do you believe he would do that for you?"

"Yes. In a heartbeat."

"What if you had to choose between yourself and a citizen in danger?"

"If me and Hutch were both there, we'd probably both dive in and save the citizen," Starsky said, a glimmer of a smile in his eyes. "It's how we work. Maybe it ain't smart, but that's what we do."

O'Connell smiled. "Are your parents living, Mr. Starsky?"

"Only my mother."

"How old were you when your father died?"

"Ten." Starsky kept his voice level.

"How did he die?"

"He was a cop. He got shot down by a guy he'd helped put away."

"And still you wanted to be a policeman?"

Starsky nodded. "Sure. Never wanted to be anything else."

"Are you married?"

"No."

"May I ask why not?"

Starsky swallowed. "My fiancιe was killed a couple of years ago."

"How did she die?"

"Same way my dad did," Starsky said, striving to keep the bitterness out of his voice. "A guy killed her to get even with me."

O'Connell studied him even longer this time. "I see. There's been a great deal of tragedy in your life, Mr. Starsky."

Starsky shrugged. He had a sinking feeling this wasn't going well.

"How can you continue to do your work when it has taken so much from you?"

"To keep it from happening to other people," he said. "Somebody's gotta fight for the good guys."

* * *

"How'd it go?" Hutch demanded the moment he walked in the door.

Starsky tossed his jacket on a chair and sank down onto the couch. "I don't have any idea. He wouldn't tell me nothin'."

"What'd he ask you?"

"Am I afraid to die, do I have nightmares, who would I pick if you and me were in a life and death situation. Stuff like that."

"When will you know?"

"He said a few days." Starsky closed his eyes and lay his head against the back of the couch. "Dammit."

Hutch was silent for long moments. Finally he said, very softly, "What if they won't let you come back?"

Starsky opened his eyes and met Hutch's. "I don't know."

* * *

The next week seemed to take years to pass. Starsky had been on pins and needles since the psychologist's test, and Hutch was almost as nervous as he was. They tried to act normal. Hutch went to work. Starsky puttered around the house, played basketball with the children at Terry's old school and spent most of his time wondering what the report would say. Dobey had promised to call the moment it landed on his desk.

But days passed and there was no word.

"I can't take much more suspense, Hug," Starsky said one day, having a beer with Huggy.

"You need to learn patience, my man," Huggy said, refilling his glass without waiting to be asked. "These things take time. They wanna make sure you won't snap and shoot somebody."

"Why is this time different?" Starsky demanded. "I've been shot before."

"We know," Huggy said shortly. "But you never damn near died before."

Starsky was silent, swirling his beer in the glass but not drinking it, while he thought about that. "Hug, tell me something."

"If I can," Huggy said.

"While I was out – " he paused and took a drink for courage, "how was Hutch?"

"What d'ya mean?" Huggy got very interested in wiping the bar top.

"How did he act? What did he say? He won't tell me."

"Then maybe I shouldn't, either."

"Huggy, come on. I need to know. I have a good reason for askin'."

Huggy drew a deep breath and finally met his eyes. "He was half wild, Starsk. I wouldn't have wanted to be Gunther if you'd died."

Starsky nodded slowly. "That's what I was afraid of. I'm not sure..." he stopped.

"Not sure of what?"

"If I ought to go back, even if they let me. For Hutch's sake. I mean, what if it happened again? Or what if it was him? Will we still be able to work together? Will we always be lookin' over our shoulders for the next guy with a gun?" Starsky ran a hand over his hair.

"Hutch has been workin' while you been sick," Huggy pointed out.

"I'm not 'sick', Huggy."

"Recovering, then," Huggy amended.

"But he hasn't been on the street much," Starsky said. "Once in a while, with temporary partners. Mostly he's been doing investigations. Out of danger. Nobody gunnin' for him. No perps with guns. For weeks after the shooting, he was just gathering evidence for other cops, and then there was the trial, when he was in court every day..."

"You afraid he's lost his edge? Or that you have?"

Starsky nodded.

"Nah," Huggy said. "Not you two. You'll slip right back into the harness like ya never left."

"Do you really believe that?" Starsky demanded.

"I really do," Huggy said.

* * *

The phone was ringing when Starsky got home and he sprinted across the room to answer it before whoever it was gave up. "Hello?" he said, breathless.

"Starsky? Are you all right?"

His heart gave a leap. Dobey. And although he was a little tired – no, a lot tired – of everyone constantly asking him if he was all right, he tried to understand their concern. "Fine, Cap. How're you? Didja hear from the head shrinker?"

"I just got the report."

"And?" Starsky couldn't keep the impatience out of his voice, try as he would.

"Welcome back," Dobey said, and he couldn't keep the elation out of his.

Starsky let out a triumphant whoop, louder than the one when he'd passed the treadmill test. "Cap, that's terrific! When do I start?"

"Monday. And tell your partner his days of taking it easy behind a desk are over, too, would you?"

"I'll do that," Starsky said, grinning all over his face. "I can't wait to tell him that."

"And Starsky..."

"Yeah?"

"Be careful, will you?"

Starsky's expression softened at the heartfelt concern behind the question. "Sure, Cap. I don't wanna go through this again, either."

* * *

Hutch was late; he'd stopped for Chinese food. When he came in the door, juggling the cartons, Starsky was already popping the tops on a couple of beers. After relieving Hutch of half his load, Starsky stuffed a bottle of beer into his partner's hand and clinked his own against it.

"Buddy, we're back on the road, startin' Monday!"

Hutch blinked at him uncomprehendingly.

"Hello? Hutch? You with me?" Starsky couldn't keep the grin off his face. "I go back to work Monday. You do, too, by the way. Dobey said to tell you you're off desk detail."

Hutch set the rest of the food on the coffee table, still wide-eyed. "Are you kidding? They're putting you back on the street already? Are they crazy?"

Full mother-hen mode, Starsky could see that. "No, they're not crazy. I been tellin' ya for weeks that I'm fine. I passed all the physicals. I passed the psych exam. I'm fit for duty. Why mess around?"

"Starsky..." Hutch set his beer down, too, and his brows drew together. "You are not ready to go racing around the streets chasing thugs. Not this soon. You'll have to ease into it. You –"

"Whoa," Starsky said, taking Hutch by the arm and steering him to the couch. "Hutch, I've been exercising my tail off to get back in shape. I've been to the range every week and I re-qualified, no problem. I'm ready."

"Maybe I'm not," Hutch said.

"Dobey ain't gonna lay nothin' heavy on us right away," Starsky said reassuringly. "He told me that. We're gonna be doing some investigations – after the bad guys have been chased up and down the fire escapes by somebody else," he added with a grin. "It'll be okay."

"Starsk, I'm scared," Hutch said. "I don't know if I can handle this, even if you can."

"You can. I know you can."

"Starsk, I'm scared," Hutch repeated.

Starsky turned so he could face his partner. "Look here, Hutch, we need to get somethin' straight. I know you're scared. You think I'm not? But we can't do this if you're spending all your time looking over your shoulder for me. You gotta trust me and I gotta trust you. Like always. You can't risk yourself – and me – by looking over your shoulder all the time, buddy."

"I know that," Hutch said. "What I don't know is if I can do that. Turn my back and not look over my shoulder for you. That was a damned close call you had."

"You wanna quit?" Starsky asked bluntly.

Hutch hesitated, bit his lower lip and finally said, "No."

"I don't, either. I've been half-killin' myself to get in shape to go back out there. I'm ready. I gotta do it, but I ain't doin' nothin' without you. You with me or not?"

"I'm with you."

 The library was almost deserted, but that was a good time to get research done. Mary Ann Tirpak, blonde and blue-eyed and so shy that sudden noises made her heart race, sat alone at a study table in a corner of the university library, books all around her and several sheets of notebook paper already filled with notes. She was so absorbed she never heard the approaching footsteps.

"Hi."

Mary started, almost knocking several carelessly stacked books off the table. She looked up to see the library custodian, a man she'd often seen but never paid any attention to before. "Uh, hi," she said.

"It's almost closing time," he said. "I'm afraid you'll have to finish up and go."

"Oh, I'm sorry," she said, flustered. "I had no idea it was so late."

"It's okay," he said, smiling. "I'll get the rest of the place shut down and come back when I'm done. That'll give you time to pack up your stuff."

"Thanks," she said. He walked away and she started to stack books and papers. One by one, the lights shut off until the only ones left were right above her. He came back just as she was zipping her backpack.

"Ready?"

"Yes," she said, slinging the backpack over her shoulder and trying to adjust it comfortably.

"Come on. I'll walk you out," he said. "It's pretty late for you to be out there alone."

"Thanks," she said. "But I just live across campus in Miller Hall."

"You're walking?" He sounded surprised. "Yes," she said. "I don't have a car." "I'll walk you out anyway," he said. "I can see Miller Hall from the side door. I'll watch to make sure you get there safely."

"That's nice of you," she said, and even managed to smile at him. He held the door for her and locked it, but when she turned to go, he grabbed her arm and slapped his other hand over her mouth. She was too startled to scream. Her backpack slid to the ground.

Hutch was late. Starsky paced back and forth in his living room, dressed and ready and more than a little impatient to get going.

Hutch was usually the one – no, make that used to be the one – who was always telling Starsky to hurry and teasing him about sleeping too late. What could be keeping him? Starsky had already tried calling. No answer. He must be on the way...

Finally, at 8:15, a quarter of an hour after they were supposed to be on duty, Starsky heard the unmistakable sound of that ridiculous Belle as it pulled up outside. He sprinted through the door and down the stairs.

"Please," he implored his partner, "please don't make me ride in that." "Would you like to suggest a different mode of transportation?" Hutch inquired. "Yours, for instance? Since yours is still at the garage getting re-fitted with radio and siren –"

Starsky heaved a sigh. "Okay. Okay. You win." He got in the car and slid down until his head was barely visible above the door. "Man, I feel stupid."

"You look stupid, too," Hutch said, but he was barely suppressing a grin. "Thanks," Starsky grumbled. "Why the hell did they fix your car already and not mine?"

"I needed mine because I was on active duty," Hutch said patiently.

"You did not need a radio and siren while you were on sick leave for six months. Buddy."

That was inarguable, so Starsky didn't reply. "We're late."

"No, we're not," Hutch said. "We're not patrolling, we're investigators now – at least, temporarily – and therefore we begin work at 8:30 a.m. instead of 8 a.m."

"Really," Starsky said.

"Really." Hutch turned onto the main drag and added, "That also means, partner, that we get off at a reasonable hour, and we have weekends off. How do you like that?"

"No kidding? That's all right," Starsky said, pleased.

"Don't get too used to it," Hutch warned. "You know Dobey. He'll find a way to make us work nights and weekends and holidays, too, if he can."

Starsky grinned, so pleased to be back at work that the thought didn't even disturb him. "Promise you'll never tell him I said so, but I've missed Dobey."

Hutch snorted. "He said the same thing about you."

"He did?"

Hutch nodded. "But I promised not to tell you," he said wickedly.

Starsky chuckled. "My lips are sealed."

The floor was unnaturally quiet when they came up the stairs – Starsky refused to use the elevator and Hutch couldn't change his mind – and Starsky felt all his instincts go on alert. "Hey," he said, grabbing Hutch by the arm. "Where is everybody?"

Hutch shrugged. "I don't know."

"It's too quiet. It's deserted, in fact," Starsky said. "That ain't right." He reached under his jacket, and Hutch stopped him.

"Hey, come on. Gettin' paranoid on me? You're the one who told me not to look over my shoulder all the time, remember?"

"Yeah," Starsky said, grinning a little. "What's safer than a police station, huh?"

Hutch turned and met his eyes and they held the look for a long moment. A police garage was where Starsky had been shot. No place was safe. But Starsky clapped his partner on the back and gave a shrug.

"Come on. This is stupid." He turned and led the way down the hall to their squad room. Hutch followed silently.

As soon as Starsky opened the door, the room erupted in cheers. A cake sat on his and Hutch's shared desk, and seemingly everyone on the floor was present. Starsky froze in confusion.

Hutch laughed and slung an arm around his shoulders. "Welcome back, buddy." He propelled Starsky toward the desk and Starsky looked down at the cake. A slightly lopsided Torino made of frosting decorated the top of the cake, and the words "Welcome Back" were written in more frosting around it. "Sit," Hutch commanded, pulling out a chair and giving Starsky a gentle push.

Starsky sat, still speechless with surprise.

Minnie produced a guitar from behind her back and handed it to Hutch. He strummed the instrument to make sure it was in tune, then led the group in singing "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow." Even Dobey sang along, his eyes twinkling, while Starsky blinked back the mist that came to his own eyes.

"Okay, that's enough, dammit," Dobey said gruffly, when the song was over. "Grab a piece of cake and get the hell back to work, all of you."

Minnie stuck her tongue out at him with a saucy grin, but Starsky hadn't missed the quick, hard grip Dobey had given his shoulder and he wasn't fooled by the gruff tone.

"It sure is good to see you here," Minnie whispered under cover of the general chatter while the others cut the cake. She dropped a kiss on top of his head and gave him a hug.

"Thanks, Minnie," Starsky said.

She put one hand under his chin and studied his face for a moment.

"You sure you're –"

"Yes, Minnie," he said with a grin. "I'm okay. I'm fine. I'm rarin' to go."

She smiled. "Just checking."

"So this is why we were late, huh?" Starsky demanded of Hutch as the group started to break up and go back to their work.

Hutch shrugged with one shoulder, grinned a little, and said, "Well, yeah. Had to give them time to get ready for you."

"Blintz," Starsky said affectionately. "Givin' me that line about us startin' work at 8:30. Since when?"

"So I lied. So sue me," Hutch said unrepentantly, taking a bite of cake. "Eat, Starsk. It's chocolate."

By the time everyone was gone and the mess had been cleaned up, Dobey had appeared with a file folder.

"Here you go," he said, dropping it in front of Starsky. "Your first case. It's not pretty, but it'll keep you busy."

"What's the story, Cap?" Starsky picked up the folder and opened it, casting a quick eye over the preliminary report.

"College girl, raped and murdered. Seemed straightforward enough, but the eyewitness recanted," Dobey said.

"Eyewitness? To the murder?" Hutch asked.

Dobey shook his head. "No. The girl's body was found in a trash bag in the basement of an empty house, and a neighbor saw the suspect dragging an obviously heavy trash bag into that same house a few days before the girl was found. Now that neighbor, who originally identified the suspect out of the mug book, is insisting she can't identify him."

"Somebody got to her," Starsky said.

Dobey nodded. "That's what I think. And so far, that's all we've got to tie him to the crime. Your job is to find another way."

Starsky sifted through the folder to find the crime scene photos.

"Oh, God," he said, wincing as he looked at it. "How long before she was found?"

"Over a week," Dobey said. "The witness coming forward is how she was found. When the word went out that she was missing, the neighbor called in and said she'd seen a man dragging this heavy bag into the empty house across the street but she didn't think anything of it at the time because she assumed someone was moving in. The guy was wearing a uniform that she mistook for a mover's uniform."

"What was it really?" Hutch asked.

"Custodian. At the girl's college."

Starsky and Hutch exchanged a glance.

"We can't pin it on him just because he works at her college," Dobey warned. "It's a big school."

"And it's also a place to start." Starsky rose and tucked the file under his arm. "Come on, Blondie. I wanna do some police work."

When Starsky and Hutch cornered the custodian at the library, he was all sober concern. "It's awful about that poor girl, isn't it?" he said, shaking his head. "She spent a lot of time in here. Seemed real sweet and shy."

"Did you ever talk to her?" Starsky demanded. It was his turn to be "bad cop."

The custodian, Hal Planka, shook his head. "Just 'good morning,' that kind of thing. I didn't even know her name until they came around a few weeks ago and told me I was a suspect. Can you imagine?"

"You were seen," Hutch put in.

"The neighbor just thought it was me," Planka corrected, but pleasantly. "I mean, it was dark. Honest mistake on her part."

"Did you see this girl in the week or so before she disappeared?" Starsky asked.

"Sure. Like I said, she spent a lot of time in here. She was here most afternoons, sometimes in the evening, too."

"Anybody approach her? Talk to her?"

Planka shrugged. "I didn't notice if they did. I mean, I got my work to do, you know."

"The coroner's got the date of death down to within a couple of days, considering the last time her roommate saw her," Starsky said evenly. "Can you tell us where you were the day she disappeared?"

"Home," Planka said. "They asked me that already. I was off that weekend."

"Can you prove it?"

"Nope. Wish I could. I live alone and I was just hanging out at home that weekend."

"Doing what?"

"Probably watchin' the tube," Planka said. "I don't know."

"What was on?" Hutch asked.

"I don't know," Planka said, and now there was a note of impatience in his voice.

Starsky and Hutch exchanged a glance.

"Look," Planka said more calmly, "I been through this already a few weeks ago with the other cops that come and arrested me. I told 'em everything I could think of that might help. I'm as shook up by that poor girl dyin' as anybody else, and not because I'm under suspicion. Okay? It's awful to think the students here ain't safe on campus. Hell, maybe none of us are. I wanna help, I just can't. I don't know nothin'."

"Whattya think?" Starsky asked as they walked across campus to Miller Hall to interview the dead girl's roommate.

"I think he did it," Hutch said with certainty.

Starsky froze in his tracks and stopped Hutch with a hand on his arm. "Huh?"

"I said, I think he did it."

"Did I miss somethin'?" Starsky asked quizzically. "As I recall, you're the one who always ribs me for jumpin' to conclusions."

"I'm not jumping," Hutch said.

"Then what do you call it? You sound like you're ready to go testify in court."

Hutch shrugged one shoulder. "I guess I got used to your 'gut,' as you call it, and then when I was out here on my own for so long, I –" he paused and colored a little, "–well, in cases like this, without any real evidence, I'd ask myself 'What would Starsky say if he were here?' and I got to the point where I learned to trust my instincts."

Starsky stared at him so long that Hutch's color rose a little more. After a long pause, the corner of Starsky's mouth rose in a half-grin and he slapped Hutch on the back. "Okay. That's all I wanted to know. Come on." He turned back to the path and they completed their walk to the dormitory without further conversation.

Mary's roommate was a small, dark girl with glasses whose eyes swam with tears as soon as they identified themselves. She'd been expecting them and was waiting in the common room.

"We know this is upsetting for you, Deanna," Hutch said gently, sitting next to her and putting his hand over hers. "I'm sorry we have to go through all this again, but –"

"Whatever it takes to find the scum that killed Mary," the girl said fiercely.

Hutch was a little startled at her ferocity, and drew his hand back. "Okay, then," he said, glancing at Starsky, who gave a little eyebrows-raised look back. "When was the last time you saw Mary?"

"Saturday night, five weeks ago," the girl said. "We'd only just started the semester, but Mary's – I mean, Mary was – a very serious student. She always had her papers done weeks before they were due and she always read ahead of the assignments, and..." she paused and wiped her eyes, took a deep breath, and went on, "We were also roommates last year," she explained, addressing her remark to Starsky, who sat across from her. "I knew her as well as anybody. She wanted to teach, and so she worked very hard at her own studies.

"Anyway, we had a paper due in the history class we were both taking, just a short paper, but she never let her homework pile up and so after dinner that night, she said she was going over to the library to work on it. I had a date, and she left before I did."

"What time?" Starsky asked.

"My date was for 7 and she left about 15 or 20 minutes before Greg got here," the girl said.

"Do you know how long she planned to stay there?"

"Until she was done," Deanna said. "Probably until they closed at 10. That was her usual routine. I got home around midnight and she wasn't here, and that scared me. She never, never stayed out late."

"So what'd you do?" Hutch asked. All this was in the report, but he and Starsky always liked to hear their stories from the people themselves.

"I called the library, but they were closed, of course. So I called the infirmary – Mary had asthma and sometimes had to go there if she was having a bad day – but she wasn't there. Then I went and got our RA out of bed –"

"Your what?" Starsky interrupted.

"Resident Assistant," Deanna said. "Sort of, uh..."

"An older student who lives on the floor and oversees the residents, Starsk," Hutch supplied.

"Oh."

"I got Cindy out of bed and told her Mary wasn't home yet, and she called the housemother and then we called the police," Deanna finished. "They weren't very helpful," she added, a little bitterly.

"What do you mean?" Starsky asked.

"Well, Mary was 19. They said she was an adult and we couldn't report her missing until she'd been gone 24 hours, and even then, if she seemed to have left on her own, there was nothing they could do." Deanna raised wet, accusing eyes to Hutch. "If somebody'd started looking right away, they might've found her before...before..."

Hutch put his hand over hers again. "Believe me, I understand how frustrated and upset you were," he said.

"Me, too," Starsky added with feeling.

Deanna's eyes traveled to Starsky and she looked at him thoughtfully for a moment before nodding. "I think you do. And it's not your fault. It's the law, I guess."

"Then what, Deanna?" Starsky asked.

"She didn't come home and Sunday night we called the police again. We'd called her parents, too, by then, and her dad –" Deanna had to stop for a moment, "– her dad came unglued. He's the one who raised such hell with the cops they had to start looking for her. But nobody found her until the, the neighbor lady called..." Her voice trailed away and she started crying in earnest.

"Dammit, somebody has to have seen something!" Starsky muttered angrily as they walked back to the car.

"The uniforms questioned everybody in sight, Starsky," Hutch said. "I know, but somebody missed something. Somebody saw something and didn't think it was important or forgot it. Or somebody heard something. How can a girl just vanish from the middle of a campus and nobody saw anything?" Starsky stopped walking and gestured at the library building. "Look at that. All these buildings are practically on top of each other. Dorms and classrooms and the library all stacked up. And it was a Saturday night, when college kids are raising hell. How come nobody saw anything?"

Hutch remained silent, recognizing that Starsky was thinking out loud, thinking like a detective. Starsky stared at the library for several moments as if expecting it to speak to him. Suddenly he took off running and after a moment's stunned surprise, Hutch followed. He caught up as Starsky skidded to a halt next to a building that was half behind the library.

"You shouldn't be running yet," Hutch said sternly. "You're not ready to –"

"The student union," Starsky interrupted, a little out of breath. "Somebody had to be in here that night. Probably a whole bunch of somebodies. And I'm gonna question every damn one of 'em."

Hutch opened his mouth, thought better of it, and allowed himself a grin and a hand on his partner's shoulder. "We better get busy, then."

Several days later, the two detectives sat at Hutch's kitchen table, with their notes from the dozens of campus interviews spread out around them. Both were studying them with great concentration.

Starsky broke the silence. "Twenty-seven kids," he said disgustedly. "Twenty-seven! And not one of them remembers anything! What the hell were they doing in there?"

"Watching TV, playing pool, doing homework, flirting," Hutch suggested with a sigh. "Besides, the library door faces the other way. Even if one of them had been looking out at the right moment, they might not have been able to see anything."

Starsky sat silently for several moments, looking at his notes. Suddenly, he shot out of his chair and grabbed his jacket. "Come on."

Hutch followed, puzzled, waiting to ask where they were going until they were in the car and Starsky was driving – much too fast – toward the campus.

"I thought of something," Starsky said in answer to the question. "I don't know how we missed it. I feel like an idiot."

Starsky screeched to a halt outside the library in a clearly-marked no parking zone, but Hutch left the light on top of the car to alert the campus security guards that it was a police vehicle. He had to trot to keep up with Starsky's long strides toward the library door and almost collided with his partner at the entrance. Mutely, Starsky pointed to the top of the door.

Hutch looked up. He couldn't see what Starsky was trying to show him.

"What?"

"In the corner. Look."

Hutch looked again, squinting against the sun's rays, and thought he saw a lens poking through a slot in the corner of the entrance. "Security camera?"

"What it looks like to me. Let's go." And Starsky was through the door and most of the way to the desk before Hutch recovered and followed him.

"Yes, we do have a camera at the door," the librarian said after Starsky had shown his badge and asked his question. "But I don't have access to the tapes. Let me call campus security." She picked up the phone.

"How'd you know that was there?" Hutch inquired.

"I didn't. I just hoped it was," Starsky said.

"The head security guard is on his way," the librarian told Starsky.

"I hope he can help you."

"So do I," Starsky said fervently.

But when the man arrived and heard Starsky's story, he shook his head. "The cameras don't go on until after closing time," he said regretfully.

"I want to see the tape anyway," Starsky said stubbornly. "Just in case." "Okay. Come with me."

In the security office, the guard sorted through the tapes stacked on a shelf until he found the one from that night. He put it into the machine on his desk and turned on a monitor on the wall. There was frame after frame of nothing but the empty sidewalk.

After several minutes of this, the man frowned. "That's funny."

"What is?" Hutch demanded.

"It's closing time," the man answered, pointing to the time displayed on the monitor. "After it, in fact. And the custodian hasn't come out and locked the door yet."

Both Starsky and Hutch leaned forward and examined the next several frames even more closely. By the time the screen display read midnight, they'd come to the same conclusion.

"He didn't leave by the front door," Hutch said.

"There must be another door," Starsky said with a questioning inflection in his voice.

The guard nodded. "There's a side door. But students aren't allowed to use it. It's just for the maintenance crew to –" he froze midsentence.

"The maintenance crew," Starsky repeated. He glanced at Hutch and two pairs of eyebrows rose together. Starsky turned back to the guard. "There a camera on that door?"

The guard shook his head. "No. The maintenance crew only use it to take garbage out and stuff like that."

"Do we have any proof Mary was in the library that night?" Starsky said to Hutch, who had read the original statements most recently.

"A couple of students remembered seeing her there, yeah," Hutch said. "But they left before she did."

"What time?"

Hutch frowned and thought. "About nine. Maybe nine-thirty. Before closing, anyway."

"Who was on duty that night? Got a roster?" Starsky asked.

The guard rose and went to a file. "Hammond. Gene Hammond."

"I didn't go out the front door," Hammond said when Starsky and Hutch interviewed him. "I locked it from the inside and went through the side door. Kind of against procedure," he added, a little shamefaced, "but I was taking the garbage out at the same time and the Dumpster's on that side of the building, so it was easier than making two trips."

"Did you lock the side door? Are you sure?" Starsky demanded.

"It locks automatically," Hammond said. "It's only the front you gotta lock with a key."

"Can a person get out from inside without a key?" Hutch asked.

"Yeah. Got a suicide latch on it," Hammond said.

"A what?"

"Fire safety rules," Starsky said to Hutch. "Doors on public buildings gotta open from the inside."

"Did you see or hear anything unusual that night?" Hutch asked Hammond. Hammond shook his head. "Honest, Officer, I've wracked my brain a hundred times since all this happened. I can't think of a thing. I wish I could."

Starsky suddenly snapped his fingers. "How about the next day? Anything weird the next day? Or the day after that?"

Hammond started to shake his head, then stopped the movement. "Actually..."

"What?" Starsky pounced.

"Well, it's probably not important, but, well, the library's closed on Sundays. I came back to campus on Sunday night for a recital by the Cavaliers – that's the young men's vocal group – and I thought I saw a light on in the library. So I went over there and Hal was mopping in the back. We've got a sort of glorified janitor's closet in the back part of the library and he was mopping. And I asked him what he was doing in there on his day off, working, and he said he'd forgotten to do it Friday before he left and didn't want to leave it for Monday."

Starsky gave Hutch a triumphant look.

"It's not proof, Starsk," Hutch said in answer to the look.

"No, but it's more than we had," Starsky said.

"Okay, say Planka did it. Hammond left without checking to make sure everyone was gone, or maybe Planka took the girl out before Hammond left," Hutch said. They were back at his kitchen table, still surrounded by notes. "He waited till Hammond was gone, and he took her into that janitor's closet and killed her. Cause of death was –" Hutch pawed through the papers.

"Strangulation," Starsky supplied. "But she was beaten and raped, too. Might've been messy."

"Yeah." Hutch wet his lips. "You never get used to it, I guess."

"Nope." Starsky's tone was understanding. "So first he has to dispose of the body," Hutch went on after a moment, "and then he came back Sunday night to clean up his mess."

"Why wait till Sunday night?" Starsky said thoughtfully.

"Expected the place to be quiet and deserted," Hutch suggested.

"Nobody around. Students finishing the homework they left all weekend. Everybody else at that concert."

Starsky was staring thoughtfully into space and didn't answer. Hutch started to say something else, but thought better of it. Starsky had that look he got when he was close to figuring something out.

"If Mary was working on a paper," Starsky said slowly a few moments later, "wouldn't she have books and stuff with her?"

"Yeah," Hutch said.

"They ever find her books and stuff?"

Hutch frowned, then looked through the papers strung around on the table. After a few minutes, he said, "No. No mention of it."

"Whattya s'pose he did with her stuff?" Starsky asked, one eyebrow raised.

"Dumped it?"

"That's a big load," Starsky said. "You got a dead body of a 19-year-old girl in a trash bag. And a big stack of books and paper and the like, too? A guy's only got two hands."

"The Dumpster's right outside the door," Hutch pointed out.

"Uh-huh." Starsky frowned a moment longer and went to the phone. "Mr. Hammond?

Detective Starsky. I gotta question. When you dumped that garbage the night Mary Tirpak went missin', didja notice anything else in the Dumpster? Books or anything?" He listened in silence and suddenly his face brightened. "Really? Where's that?" He gestured wildly at Hutch, who put his head next to Starsky's in time to hear Hammond's answer.

"Lost and found's in the student union."

The next morning, Starsky and Hutch went to the student union, identified themselves, and asked to see the lost and found box. It contained a couple of jackets, a few notebooks, other miscellaneous items, and at the bottom, a history book. Starsky produced a handkerchief and picked that up. "Call Deanna," he said to Hutch.

Deanna identified the book as the one they used in the class she and Mary had been in together. But there was no name in the book.

"That's a required class," Deanna said. "All the sophomores take it. I don't know if that's Mary's book or not."

"Gene Hammond found this layin' by the Dumpster the night Mary disappeared," Starsky said, very gently.

Deanna bit her lip.

Hutch, using a pen to avoid messing up fingerprints, was turning the pages of the book. Near the back he found a couple of sheets of notebook paper covered with scribbled notes. Deanna saw and caught her breath in a half-sob. Hutch met her eyes. "That's Mary's handwriting," Deanna said in a trembling voice.

After they dropped the book off at headquarters to be dusted for prints, Hutch said to Starsky,

"The chances of getting a good print off that book, what with everybody handling it –"

"Are slim," Starsky finished. "I know. But it's worth a shot."

"Yeah. Because he's guilty, all right," Hutch said.

Starsky's mouth quirked in another half-grin. "Whattya say we go talk to that nice neighbor with the bad memory while we're waitin' on the lab?"

"Good idea."

 

"How we gonna play it?" Hutch inquired as they pulled up outside the house.

"You be sweet and understanding and I'll be a jerk," Starsky said.

"Gosh," Hutch said with wide-eyed innocence. "That's a real stretch for you, isn't it? Think you can handle it?"

"Har, har," Starsky grumbled.

The neighbor proved to be an elderly lady who looked like Central Casting's idea of the perfect grandma. She was even wearing an apron and wiping her hands on it when she answered the door. "May I help you?"

Starsky flashed his badge. "Police, ma'am. We're investigating the Tirpak murder. Can we come in?"

"I've already spoken to –"

"We know," Starsky interrupted. "We have some more questions."

She blinked at him a moment, then stood back. "Of course."

Hutch took over once they'd sat down, turning on the charm. "We know you identified Hal Planka as the man you saw carrying the trash bag into the house," he said. "And then later decided you'd been mistaken. What made you think you were wrong?"

She dropped her eyes and shook her head. "It was dark, and I didn't really get that good a look at him. The photo they showed me looked like him, of course, but once I saw him in person –" she stopped.

"Where did you see him in person?" Hutch asked.

There was a long pause before she finally said, "I, uh, I went to the university to, uh, to see a play. And I saw him there."

"That isn't true, is it?" Starsky asked bluntly. "He came here, didn't he? Did he threaten you?

Scare you off?" She shook her head, eyes still down, and Starsky reached out and caught her wrist. "We can't help you if you lie to us."

Hutch saw a tear trickle down her cheek and almost interfered, but he knew Starsky wasn't hurting her and it was possible she was near the breaking point, so he kept his mouth shut.

After several moments, she looked up. "You have to understand," she said, her lips trembling.

"I'm here alone. I don't even have a dog. He said – he said – "

"What did he say?" Hutch asked, putting his hand gently over hers. Starsky still had hold of her other wrist.

"He said it wasn't him I saw, and if I kept saying so, he'd – he'd make me wish I hadn't," she finished miserably.

"Threatening a witness," Starsky said to Hutch. "It's enough to take him in."

"If you'll sign an affidavit to that effect," Hutch said to her.

"I can't! Don't you understand? He'll get out and he'll come after me!" "We do understand," Hutch said. "If you sign the affidavit and if you go on record identifying him as the man you saw carrying that trash bag into the other house, we've got him. For murder. He won't be able to come after you. He'll be too busy making little ones out of big ones."

She smiled faintly at the last sentence.

Suddenly inspired, Hutch drew a photo of Mary out of his shirt pocket. "You want to let this little girl's murderer go free?"

The woman looked down at the photo and fresh tears sprang to her eyes. "Is that her? I never saw a picture of her."

"Her name's Mary Ann Tirpak," Starsky said. "She was only 19. She wanted to be a teacher. She never let her homework pile up and she spent all her free time studying. She didn't drink, never touched a cigarette, and she was her parents' only daughter." He leaned forward. "I don't know why this creep chose her. Maybe just because she was there. But that girl will never have babies, she'll never teach a class, she'll never do anything again, because some slime murdered her. And right now, lady, you're the only way we can lock him up."

She raised her eyes to Starsky's and slowly nodded. "Let's go."

They left the lady to give a statement to a policewoman and visited, the lab. The fingerprints on the book were badly smudged, but they did get one good print, which they traced to Planka. He had a record – nothing major, just small-time shoplifting, possession and one conviction for simple assault.

"The rest of Mary's books and things are still missing," Hutch said to Starsky. "This proves that Planka touched this book, but it doesn't really tie him to her murder. It's all circumstantial, even the witness seeing him drag the bag into that house."

"With that, we've got enough for a search warrant," Starsky said. He lifted the nearest phone. "Starsky," he said into it. "Our witness has just signed an affidavit that it was Planka she saw after all. Now we need a search warrant. Can you take care of that?" He listened, then nodded.

"Okay. Two hours."

Two hours later, they were pulling up outside the apartment house where Planka lived. This time of day, it was pretty quiet. They could hear a TV playing a game show in one of the apartments, but most seemed empty.

"His is at the end," Starsky hissed to Hutch. "He should be at work right now, but –"

"We should've brought backup," Hutch hissed back. "This guy's dangerous."

"Harcourt and Williams are around the corner," Starsky returned calmly. "They're watching the other side of the building."

Hutch froze and stared at him. Starsky grinned.

"No more takin' chances, buddy," he said.

"You could've said something," Hutch complained.

"And miss seein' that expression on your face? No way." Starsky inched forward and eased his gun out from under his jacket. Hutch did the same. When they reached the door, Starsky knocked on it with the butt of his gun and hollered, "Police! We have a warrant! Open up!"

There was no response.

Starsky glanced at Hutch, gave an almost-imperceptible nod, and Hutch kicked the door in. Both dove through it, guns up and at the ready, but the apartment was empty. Starsky pulled a radio out of his jacket pocket. "Nobody home," he said into it. "You guys hang out there and let us know if you see anyone."

"Gotcha, Starsk," Harcourt's voice came back.

Starsky put his gun and the radio away and started searching the apartment. Hutch applied himself to the bedroom area in one corner of the efficiency. He was down on his knees peering under the bed when he let out a triumphant sound.

"Whatcha got?" Starsky asked.

Hutch reappeared, his blond hair mussed from the edge of the bedcovers dragging over it, holding a backpack. He opened it, using the corner of his shirt to touch the zipper, and inside were several books and a couple of notebooks, containing the same handwriting Deanna had identified as Mary's.

"Gotcha, you son-of-a...." Hutch muttered under his breath with venom in his voice.

He was interrupted by the squawk of the radio in Starsky's pocket.

"Yeah, Harcourt?"

"Starsk, you and Hutch better head to that old lady's house," Harcourt's voice said. "Just heard a call on the radio. Disturbance. We'll meet ya there."

Starsky was out the door and on his way down the steps before Hutch could even stand up. He followed at a dead run, still clutching the bookbag, and had to dive in through the Torino window.

"I wish you wouldn't run so much –" he began.

"Hutch, please," Starsky said, biting his lip as he squealed around a slow-moving Volkswagen.

Hutch shut up and hung on and Starsky drove like a man possessed, squealing up in front of the woman's house even before Harcourt and Williams, who'd had a head start. They were there a moment later, and all four scrambled to get to the house, guns in hand.

Planka appeared at the door, holding the woman in a chokehold with one hand, a gun pointed at her head. "Don't you pigs make a move," he screamed, with a hysterical note in his voice. "I'll kill her! I swear I will!"

The woman's face was dead white, her eyes wide with terror.

"Easy, pal, easy," Starsky said gently. "Let her go, man. It's too late." "No, it isn't!" "It is, Hal," Hutch said. "We found Mary's backpack in your apartment. We don't need her testimony anymore. You're going down, and there's nothing you can do about it."

Planka stared at him, and the gun slowly started to drop away from the woman's head. But Harcourt made a movement and Planka jerked the gun back up. "I'll kill her anyway," he said, his hand shaking. "She started it. If it wasn't for her –"

Harcourt slowly rose and aimed his gun. "There's four of us and only one of you," he said evenly. "You can't get past all of us, no matter what you do. Make it easy on yourself and give it up."

Planka looked toward Harcourt, and Starsky took his opportunity. He sighted and shot, catching Planka in the leg and dropping him, howling, to the porch. The woman let out a piercing scream, and the other three officers converged on Planka and had him cuffed and subdued before he could return fire.

"Holy God, Starsk," Hutch said when it was over. "That was one hell of a chance you took there. What if you'd hit that poor old lady instead?"

Starsky holstered his gun and gave Hutch a weak grin. "Told ya I'd been practicing on the range. You think I spent all these weeks watchin' 'The Price is Right'? Hell, no. I've been on the range every damn day."

Hutch stared at him and Starsky's grin grew until it was his old thousand-watter.

"I'll be damned," Hutch said, shaking his head and slapping Starsky on the back.

 

"You sure we ought to be the ones doing this?" Hutch asked, adjusting his tie as Starsky put the car into park.

"Yes," Starsky said firmly, turning the rear-view mirror so he could make sure his own tie was straight. "I gotta. Just go along with me on this, huh?"

"Okay," Hutch said with a shrug, getting out and waiting for Starsky. They walked up to the front door of the house and Starsky rang the bell.

The family had apparently been having supper when the two detectives arrived. An older man answered the door, still holding a napkin in one hand.

"Mr. Tirpak?" Starsky said, holding his badge out. "I'm Sergeant Starsky. This is Sergeant Hutchinson. May we come in, just for a few moments?"

"Is there some news?" the man asked, going a little pale.

"Yes, sir. Good news."

Tirpak stood back and motioned them in, and his wife and teen-age son joined them in the living room, both with questioning looks on their faces.

Starsky put his badge away. "We've caught Mary's killer," he said without preamble.

Mrs. Tirpak put a hand to her throat and tears filled her eyes. "Are you sure?"

"Yes, ma'am," Starsky said. "We have a witness, we have physical evidence, and we have a confession."

"Can you be sure he'll be found guilty?" the boy asked, a little bitterly. "With the confession, he'll plead guilty and probably get a slightly lighter sentence," Hutch said gently, "but even so, he'll do at least 20 years."

"Thank God," Mrs. Tirpak said, reaching out for her husband's hand. He took it and held it in both of his.

"Thank you, officers. Thank you for coming to tell us."

"Just doing our job, sir," Starsky said. He turned to go, snagging Hutch's arm as they left.

"Feel better now?" Hutch asked as they got back into the car.

"Yeah." Starsky started the car and turned it around in the Tirpaks' driveway. He drove in silence for some moments. "Hey, Hutch?"

"Yeah?"

"One of the questions the psychologist asked me was why I wanted to be a cop after all the stuff that's happened."

Hutch glanced at him. "What'd you say?"

"I told him somebody needed to fight for the good guys," Starsky said, keeping his eyes on the road. "You know why I wanted to go tell that family in person that we'd caught Planka? Instead o' lettin' the DA call 'em on the phone?"

"Why?" Hutch asked, knowing the answer.

"'Cause sometimes the good guys win," Starsky said, looking over at Hutch briefly.

Hutch put a hand on his shoulder and they drove on in companionable silence. As they pulled up outside Hutch's apartment, Hutch squeezed the shoulder under his hand. "Hey, Starsk?"

"Yeah?"

"It's good to have you back."

The End

Feedback?  GordoBlintz79@wmconnect.com