Under




Under

So I turned myself to face me
But I've never caught a glimpse
(David Bowie)


"Christian!"

Hutch pulled up at the door and turned around. Brandon was jogging down the hallway to catch up with him, his tie over his shoulder and a greasy sheen of sweat on his forehead. He'd run, what? Twenty feet? Hutch kept himself from rolling his eyes, but just barely. Give him another month and he'd be able to pat Brandon on the paunch straining the buttons of his shiny shirt and tell him to lay off the pastries. But not today.

"What?" He let a bit of his impatience show through. Christian was a bit of a hard-ass, and another month wasn't going to make that any clearer. "I got places to be, Brandon."

"Yeah, don't we all."

Brandon was a wit.

Hutch raised his eyebrows at him. "What?" he repeated. Through the hand braced on the door he could feel the steady thump-thump of the music, and the stale beer smell and cigarette smoke seeped through the cracks and into his pores. The place was saturated with it. He thought about squad room coffee. For some reason that helped a lot.

"Relax, Danny-boy," Brandon blustered, tugging on his waistband and smoothing his tie. "You go when you're let go." He stabbed Hutch in the chest with a stubby finger. "Remember that."

Hutch looked down at the finger and slowly raised his eyes again to meet Brandon's watery blues. He didn't blink until the finger curled up and the hand went back into Brandon's pocket. "Don't make me say 'what' again."

Deciding that being offended wasn't in his best interest just then, and settling instead for good-ol'-boy bluster, Brandon let out a gravelly cackle. He didn't punch Hutch on the shoulder, though, which was lucky, because it had been a long day and Hutch wasn't entirely sure he could stop himself from drop-kicking the guy as far as the back office.

"I got something for ya from the boss." From the conspiratorial leer on Brandon's face, it was something good, which, of course was relative, depending on which side of the mirror you lived on. The effect of the big hand-off was spoiled a little when Brandon started patting his pockets with increasing alarm. "It's here."

"Oh for the love of—"

"It's here." He blew a heavy sigh of relief through his bow-lipped mouth when, on the second round through, he found it in his inside breast pocket. With a flourish, he pulled out a gold key on a gold key-ring and dangled it in front of Hutch's eyes. "Whaddaya think of that, eh, Danny-boy?"

Hutch made a point of not looking at it. "What should I think of it?" The key sparked at the corner of his eye. He knew what it unlocked, and there was a grating noise in his head as satisfaction collided with dread.

"You should think you are a very lucky, lucky boy, is what." Giving the key another enticing shake, Brandon worked his way back up to the leer. "Seems the boss is pretty happy with how you got Damien out from under that rap the other day."

"Pays to know people in high places."

"Yeah, well, he's happy, and he wants to show his appreciation." He held the key closer. "She'll be waiting." When Hutch reached for the key, Brandon snatched it back and held up a warning hand. "Not tonight, though. Tonight's the boss's night."

"Fine." Hutch took the key and put it his pocket, then leaned on the door, letting in the music and the lurid play of lights from the stage.

Before he could go through, though, Brandon put a hand on his arm. "Gina's something, Christian. Prime tail. The boss don't give her to just anybody."

Hutch nodded, but Brandon stopped him again.

"And listen, if she gets mouthy—" Brandon mimed a few sharp blows with his knotted fist. "Just don't leave no marks where they show."

Hutch thought of maybe leaving a few marks on Brandon, making sure they'd show. But not today. Once again, he started to go and Brandon held him back.

"Hey, listen, Christian. Speaking of friends in high places." Brandon went up on his toes a little so he could get his mouth close to Hutch's ear. "You wanna maybe divulge the name? Since we're friends." He dropped down and this time he did slap Hutch on the shoulder. "Friends of friends is friends, right? I maybe could use a friend like yours someday."

Hutch's laugh was mostly lost, even to his own ears, as the throbbing music swallowed it up. He leaned down so he was speaking right in Brandon's face. "You sprout wings and fly, and maybe we'll talk about it." With a jovial slap on the shoulder—enough to make Brandon stagger—Hutch turned around and headed into the crowd. "Fucker," he said into the noise, loud enough to make himself feel better. No one noticed.

The club was swinging, every table full, an ass on every stool. The girls threaded their way between them with their trays held high, and every one was loaded. On the stage, three dancers did their thing, spangles and tassels flashing, skin flawless in the strobing colour. One of them hiked a stiletto-heeled foot up onto the her pole and leaned into it, the foot sliding up and up until she was doing the splits. She held it long enough for the johns at the rail to fish frantically for their dollars, then curled the leg and swung around and down until she was splayed on the stage, g-string just close enough for the guys to slip her the bills. As Hutch passed, she crooked a finger at him.

When he got to the rail, she wrapped her hand in his tie and pulled him even closer, planted an open-mouthed kiss on him, all tongue and hungry teeth. She tasted of whiskey and mary-jane. But there was more in her than that. Her pupils were enormous.

"Hey, there Danny," she breathed into his mouth and licked her way around his lips before leaning back.

"Hey, Dix. You okay?"

She laughed and a curl of dark hair fell over her eye. "Flying, Danny-boy."

She might have tried for another kiss, but one of the johns reached over the rail and poked her. "Got some of that for us?"

"Hands off, Johnny," Dix snarled over her shoulder and turned back to Hutch with a smile. "Only for you, sweetheart."

When the guy stretched out a hand for another poke, Hutch grabbed it and twisted hard enough to yank the guy off his stool onto his knees on the floor. "She said hands off. If you want to keep 'em."

He let the guy crawl back up onto his stool. Dix grabbed his tie again and bit his bottom lip before she slithered back up around her pole.

Outside, Hutch sat in the car and held the gold key up to the light. "Damn," he muttered and threw it on the dash, put the car in gear and pulled away from the curb. In the rearview mirror he watched a battered checkered cab edge into traffic a couple cars back. At the next corner, the cab went left. Two blocks later, it was back on his tail. Hutch considered ducking up an alley just for a test, but he was too wiped for games, and the key on the dash was rattling against the windshield.

Ten minutes later he was easing the 'vette into the shadow of a warehouse on Pier Six. Three minutes later, the cab was pulling up along side.

"Heya, Blondie," Starsky said. "How's it goin'?"

"Did I mention that I hate this job?"

"Only sixty or seventy times. Nice shirt."

Hutch looked down and fingered the silk. "Not really my colour."

"You kiddin'? Purple makes your eyes sparkle." He held out a bottle in a paper bag.

After hesitating a moment, Hutch accepted it and took a swig. He grimaced and pulled it out of the wrapper. "Root beer?"

"What? I'm on duty. So're you." He took the bottle back and emptied it. "So, anything?"

Hutch picked the key off the dash and dropped it in Starsky's hand.

"What's this?"

"Key to the castle." Slouching down, Hutch rubbed at his eyes, then blinked at the moonlight broken on the water. "Gina."

Starsky's low whistle was echoed by a ship's horn somewhere on the other side of the bay. "That's good. You're in." He tossed the key back through Hutch's window into his lap. "Show him you're on the team and maybe we'll see the back of this one sometime this decade."

"Yep." Hutch shook his head, pulled at his lower lip. Starsky waited. Finally, Hutch dropped his hand to the window sill and drummed his fingers on the side mirror. "She's eighteen."

^^^


Starsky's alarm went off at 8:15 and then again at 8:20 and then again at 8:25 and then didn't at 8:30 because, somehow, the clock ended up lying in two pieces on the deck outside his bedroom window.

The split shifts were starting to get on his nerves.

As he wandered across the living room scratching his belly and thinking about pizza, he decided, aloud, that the next time somebody went under, it would be at a bank where they could start at 10 a.m. and go home at three. Or five. After the paperwork was done. And maybe he could look at Hutch's face in the daylight for a change, up close, instead of through a high-powered lens. Look him right in his baby blues and figure out where he was at for real.

The guy was getting pasty, living like Bella Lugoosi, coming out after dark like the sunlight would crisp him up or something.

"As of tomorrow," Starsky announced to the inside of the refrigerator, "Crime is a daylight activity!" He nudged the door closed with his hip and leaned on it to drain a carton of milk. "If only."

He didn't cast a nice, long shadow on the floor when he moved around the kitchen, getting the coffee on, because that shadow was a morning thing, not an evening thing. "And I don't mind tellin' you," he said to the empty room as he filled the pot at the sink, "I'm gettin' sick of living all ass-backward."

Three-and-a-half months eating breakfast at sundown. Not that he generally had rigid lines about it--pizza was good a.m. or p.m.--but it was the principle of the thing. It was like the rookie days, bottom of the ladder, drawing the shit shifts. He wondered if Blondie had a blender in his shiny chrome apartment and if he whipped up a carafe of dried liver and vitamin juice before heading out every night to ride roughshod over Brandon's hookers and sidestep offers of free coke and easy violence. Without looking like he was sidestepping, of course. "That's the kicker." Starsky did a little soft-shoe from the sink to the stove. "Tango, partner. It's all in the attitude."

He was heading for the shower, coffee cup in hand and an apple between his teeth, when the phone rang and he detoured around the sofa--not too much coffee spilled on the upholstery from the sudden tack--and clipped the end of the receiver so it bounced up and into his free hand. "Mmffshy!"

He could actually hear Hutch's eyebrow rising.

"I see your verbal skills are finally catching up with your I.Q."

Starsky cradled the phone in the crook of his shoulder and took the apple out of his mouth. "Just gettin' in touch with my inner ape." He threw a leg over the arm of the couch and settled down cowboy style, the coffee cup balanced on his knee. "Are you okay? Where are you?"

"Next you'll be asking me what I'm wearing."

"What are you wearing?"

"You don't want to know." A pause which Starsky filled with a picture of Hutch opening up his $200 suit jacket and looking at some classy silk shirt with mother-of-pearl buttons. "I should've gone Texan."

"Danny 'the Swede' Christian from Texas? That stretches credibility."

"You saying there's no Swedes in Texas?"

"Not credible ones."

Hutch might've laughed, but if he did it was lost in the hiss of traffic on his end, the receiver probably angled away from his mouth under his chin as he did a 360, checking. He was outside, then. Phone booth. Starsky blew out a little breath of relief, settled his stomach with a gulp of coffee, and waited.

"How're my plants?" Hutch asked.

"It takes an hour to water 'em all, you know."

"I know that."

"And that spiny fleshy tentacle one--"

"Aloe vera."

"--has spots."

"What? What kind of spots?"

Starsky grinned into his coffee, and his stomach settled a little more. "Relax, Blintz. I took it down to Mr. Fabrizio."

"And?"

"And he waved his arms at me and shouted stuff in Italian. Said to come back for it next week." He let Hutch lecture him about aloe vera and spots and watering and how plants weren't like carburetors etcetera and so on. Once the coffee was gone, and Hutch showed no signs of winding down any time before dawn, Starsky said loudly over the rant, "You know, if you don't like my vegetable husbandry maybe you should run your own damn errands."

That stopped Hutch in his tracks, and Starsky's stomach got instantly less settled. This damn case was doing a number on his digestion.

When he answered, Hutch's voice was distant--more checking over his shoulder--and a little dismal. "I'd love to, buddy."

Starsky swore silently and got up to stare out the window in the door. The sun was going down. The eucalyptus tree across the road was copper-red against a steel-blue sky. He squeezed the apple, feeling it bruise under his fingers. "Where are you, anyway? I can barely hear you."

"In the parking lot at the pancake house."

"No kiddin'."

"No kiddin'." This time there was a little smile in the voice. "Wanna come down? We can have dinner together at opposite ends of the restaurant."

Starsky left the apple on the arm of the couch, carried the phone out onto the deck and propped it on the railing. The air was sweet tonight, for a change, and the clouds piled up over downtown were white with blue inside instead of smudgy orange. "Sure. It'll be great. Until Frau Dolly asks if Meester Ootch wants the usual. Then it's--"

"--Good night, Mary," Hutch said with him. Then, after a beat. "I always felt more like a Betty." He waited for Starsky's chuckle then added, "Just as well. The pancake house is a little prosaic for Christian's taste, anyway."

"Prosaic?"

"Pedestrian."

"Ah. Proletarian."

"Precisely."

Hutch didn't say anything more. One bare foot propped on top of the other, butt on the deck railing, phone on his thigh, Starsky listened to him not saying anything. The hum of silence on the line stretched longer, a wire vibrating between them. After a few breaths, Starsky slid down to sit on the deck. On the other side of town, Hutch was no doubt leaning against the side of the phone booth in his shiny suit, worrying the receiver in his hand and staring right through the pancake house.

"So," Starsky said, quietly, like that would make it any easier. "Gina." He could picture Hutch checking his watch, swiping a hand across his face.

"Yeah, that's tonight."

"So you're going."

"Yeah, I'm going. Of course I'm going. You think I got a choice about going?" His voice was gravel grating between plates of glass. Smoothing that out a little, Starsky rubbed the heel of his hand up and down on the leg of his jeans. Another taut silence, Hutch's troubled breathing, the grinding of engine brakes in the background. "What's our favourite G-man got to say about it?"

Starsky tipped his head back against the post and sighed. His feet were getting cold. "Agent Kessler--"

"Special Agent Kessler--"

"--Oh and ain't he special. Like a social disease--says you got a cherry assignment and should quit whining. Not everybody gets prime tail on the job."

Hutch's white-knuckled grip on the phone was practically audible. "He did, did he? What did you say?"

Starsky shrugged. "I popped him in the mouth."

"Again?"

"Not really. Guy's learning how to duck. It's very irritating."

Hutch's laugh was dry, like leaves against bark. More brakes on the highway outside the phone booth. There were no shadows on the deck anymore, just the rectangle of light through the door, yellow with no warmth in it.

"She's waiting. I gotta go."

"Yeah."

Hutch didn't go. Starsky's hand was rubbed a little raw, so he curled it into a fist and bounced it on his thigh.

Finally Hutch said, "Close my eyes and think of America."

"Keep 'em open."

"Yeah." Another long pause vibrated against Starsky's ear. "Starsk--"

"I'll be there."

^^^




The pier smelled of salt and wood-rot and creosote, like the whole place could crumble wetly under his fingers. That was at odds with the look of it, standing rainwater chromed by the moon, the bay full of sparks. The big swells of the evening's storm were gone now and a shivery agitation of waves was left behind to cast light into his eyes like iron filings. Hutch steepled his hand over his brow, but behind his eyelids the light still splintered. He wondered how big his pupils would have to be to gather moonlight right through his hand.

"It'll pass," he told himself around the butt of the cigarette. But he closed his eyes against the flare of the lighter, anyway. The smoke tasted almost bitter enough to eat through the memory of bubblegum.

His hand fit into the dip and swell of her hip perfectly, like the curve of her was made for him.

He blew a smoke ring around the moon and didn't turn to look when the familiar grumble of the cab's engine rolled down between the warehouse and the tanker like incoming breakers, so palpable in the heavy air that he could feel it on the back of his neck.

A few seconds later the cab's headlights were throwing Starsky's shadow along the pier and out to sea. Hutch shifted over to make a little room for him on the fender of the 'vette and, after stroking an admiring hand over the candy-apple paint job--new, since the last one had two bullet holes in it--Starsky sat with his feet pulled up and his knees circled in his arms. Settling in.

"Don't scuff my finish," Hutch said.

Starsky's laughter was like a bucketful of smooth stones tumbling into sand, solid and lively with no sharp edges. He went on for longer than the joke warranted, eyes bright and his mouth a satyr-like V that made him look wicked. Hutch closed his eyes against the light and leaned sideways a little to feel the shudder of Starsky's shoulder under the familiar thickness of battered leather. The laughter dislodged something in him, birdlike, wings beating. It took him a second to sort it out, separating amusement from panic. He hadn't realized before how much they felt alike. He settled on laughing, though, having to take the cigarette out of his mouth to do it.

"That's a filthy habit," Starsky said, lifting Hutch's hand by the sleeve of his jacket.

"Good thing it's not mine, then." The moving orange tip of the cigarette left streaks across Hutch's vision. That should've be gone by now; must've had more than he thought, or maybe Gina was getting the good stuff, pure enough to be dangerous. Or maybe it was just him, tuned too high. Whatever it was, he was grateful for the cloud that swallowed the moon.

She drew the white into neat lines on his chest with the credit card. "Monte won' t let me have a razor blade." Her pout tasted like bubblegum. "Maybe you can bring me one."

"You may have to help me kick this one, too," Hutch admitted. While he was rubbing his eyes, Starsky plucked the butt out from between his fingers and flicked it into a puddle where it sizzled and went out. Hutch's hand went automatically to his breast pocket, but just patted it instead of pulling out the crushed pack inside. He only had two more cigarettes in it, and there were still a lot of hours between him and sleep.

"Okay," Starsky agreed as he slid off the fender and stood between Hutch and the returning glare of the moon. "I got the skills." He put a knuckle under Hutch's chin and tilted his head back, angling his own so that the light shafted over his shoulder onto Hutch's face.

The lines didn't sparkle on his skin, but they did in his nostrils when he rolled over and the dust drifted down from his body and across her pale breasts, gusting ahead of his breath. "Maybe you could bring me one next time, eh, Danny?" She smiled, cajoling. "I don't think so," he said, as the sparkle seethed from his seeking tongue up into his eyes, and his pupils opened wide like mouths gasping for light.

"What about this, though?" Starsky asked, pointing at Hutch's eyes, which should have been back to normal before Starsky had a chance to look at them. Should have been, would have been, except Hutch had bolted out of the house, gold key forgotten on the bedside table, had driven fast, fishtailing at the end of the pier, braking just a fraction too late--almost too late--late enough to make him wonder a little as the 'vette rocked back on its suspension instead of tipping them both into the bay. He let Starsky look.

"What about it?" Hutch said, throat raw.

"Is this a one-time thing or a coping thing?" Starsky's face was controlled, his voice measured.

"Both." Hutch didn't look away. Kept the evidence right there, along with the flush in his skin, the rapid patter of his heart under Starsky's hand pressed against his chest. Twenty minutes ago, she'd pulled his face to her dusted breast, and he'd been hard against her thigh, and he'd inhaled and tasted and her laugh was nothing but edges, high-pitched like a little girl's. He'd driven too fast to the pier and braked almost too late. "Neither. I dunno." He leaned in a little, into the shelter of Starsky's shadow.

His hand fit into the curve of her hip, slid around and his fingers fit perfectly at the small of her back, and when he bowed his head to her skin, he found the marks. Four of them just under his fingertips, one under the pad of his thumb in the hollow of her hipbone, blue-purple fading to yellow on the edges. A hand almost as big as his own had gripped her there, yesterday, the day before. Passion. Punishment. He was off the bed and in his clothes and out the door in thirty seconds flat.

"I let her do some lines on my chest and maybe she doesn't notice I'm all talk and no action."

Starsky was still working on the even keel, carefully neutral, but it had that intensity to it, and Hutch felt like a mouse under his unblinking gaze. "You better hope so. Don't want Monte getting the wrong idea about you."

Hutch snorted a laugh and found his fingers in his breast pocket, fumbling for the cigarette pack. He left it there and squeezed his hands together between his knees instead. "I thought about it. Telling him I just don't do girls."

"I hope you were gonna wear your swim trunks when you told him that, because you'd be in the bay wearing cinderblock shoes ten minutes later." There was the slight gleam of humour in Starsky's voice, a blade angled into the light, and then it was gone. "Dobey wants you to come in."

"That's a bad idea."

"Maybe, but it's Dobey's idea."

Hutch shook his head. "I got a meet set with Monte for tomorrow. We blow this now, we'll never get back in."

Starsky dropped his hand on Hutch's shoulder, slid it up until his thumb found skin above the silk collar. "It's the gettin' out I'm worried about."

Behind Starsky's head, the bay was just silver again and the moon was just a moon. Hutch stood, making him give ground. "Monte's gonna want to test me before he opens the door all the way and when he gives the order--"

"An' we both know what that's gonna be--"

"--we got him."

"He wants blood on your hands, you know that." Starsky's finger stabbed at the air between them.

"Of course he does!" The anger felt like drowning, something he'd fallen into, even though he could feel it seething up his throat from somewhere inside. Starsky's expression went stony, mouth tight, stubborn. "C',mon, Starsk. You know the game. No coming in. No fuck-ups. Not now. You think there's any getting out now? You think I can go back to being Ken Hutchinson street cop in this town with Monte still out there?" When Starsky's eyes closed and he shook his head, the anger ebbed, seeping away like water through sand, leaving just a scum of weariness behind. "If I want my life back, we have to make an arrest. We knew that going in."

Turning away, Starsky frowned out at the water, adjusted his cap, let his hands fall to his sides, resigned. "The Fed's gonna want you to wear a wire."

"Nope."

"No way Kessler's--"

Hutch held up a hand to stop him from wasting their time making arguments he knew he was going to lose. "No way I get in there with a wire." He opened the door of the car and leaned on the roof. "We got to catch him with his finger on the trigger."

"Yeah, so long as the gun ain't pointed at your head."

"Doesn't matter where he points it, if you do your part right. A thrilling rescue in the last reel."

"I'm all for being the hero." Starsky's smile didn't make it anywhere near his eyes.

"Good. I always wanted to be the damsel in distress for a change."

Hutch was bending to get in the car when Starsky called his name. He stood up and waited while Starsky came to the other side of the open door and looked him over. He could actually feel it, like Starsky was lighting him up from the inside like an X-ray.

"Tell me straight. Are you okay?"

Jangling his keys for a second, Hutch considered how to answer that. Finally, he said, "No. I'm not okay. I'm.... What's the opposite of okay?"

"Fucked."

"Fucked." That sounded about right. For some reason it made him feel better than he had since Brandon dangled the gold key in the corner of his eye. He grinned. "I'm fucked up. I'm fucked over. I'm fucked sideways and inside-out. I am, in short, deeply fucked." He patted Starsky on the side of his face, then gripped his neck and gave him a reassuring shake, raised his eyebrows and finished with the earnest face. "But Monte's gonna be fucked more."

Starsky was still standing in the same spot, a line of shadow on the silver pier, when Hutch took the corner with a squeal of tires and headed for the club.

^^^


Monte kept him waiting. Hutch made his third round of Monte's office, pausing again at the window. This time he didn't bother to pull the gauzy curtain back. The lawn was still going to be green and perfectly manicured like the gardener trimmed it with mustache scissors, and the pool was still blue, like the clear sky had fallen. Damien was still out there doing laps, kicking up a frothy wake and smacking the water with his tree-trunk arms like it had offended him personally. It was hot out there, and the thug prowling the pool deck looked uncomfortable and mean in his dark suit. Even inside with the air conditioning Hutch's shirt was clinging to his back under his jacket, sweat cooling, making the hairs on his neck stand up. He balled his hand up and smacked it into his palm a few times, discharging nervous energy.

"Relax, Danny-boy," Brandon said from behind his newspaper. He folded down the corner and gave Hutch the once-over with his pale, pig-like eyes. "You're making me tired." He snapped the paper and folded it back, sharpened the crease and folded it again. "What's the spread on the game tonight?"

Hutch shrugged. "Katz knows."

Brandon let out a disgusted snort and threw the paper onto the coffee table. "You should know. You should know everything." He slouched lower and put his feet up on top of the paper. "The boss's gonna ask you and you're gonna look like a putz. Frankly, I don't know what he sees in you." Hutch shot him a withering glare over his shoulder and Brandon held up his hands. "Yeah, that could be it." He aimed a finger at him. "Careful where you point that." Apparently he found himself to be very funny, because he laughed until he started wheezing.

He was still wheezing when Monte decided to grace them with his presence, preceded by his secretary who managed somehow to carry a coffee tray while balanced on heels two stories high. When Hutch had worked his gaze all the way up her bare legs, around the curves and to her face, he found her watching him with a raised eyebrow and her bottom lip caught between her teeth, appraising. He cleared his throat and tried for a charming smile, but barely had it in place before she was walking away.

"So maybe you do like girls, after all," Monte said from the doorway. He gave the secretary a little swat on the ass on her way out. "I'm not sure if that makes things better or worse."

"Mr. Montefiori--" Brandon said, somewhere between a yelp and a gush. He leaped up and tried to straighten his rumpled suit, but Monte waved him off and he sat down on the edge of the sofa, vibrating a little like one of those pocket dogs.

Monte was a sleeker version of his brother Damien, classy, fine-boned where Damien was angular, thin and honed where Damien was thick-set with heavy lifting. If Damien was the guard dog in the family, Monte was the racer. His sleeves were rolled at the wrists, no tie, his dark hair falling over his forehead rakishly, but even his casualness looked calculated and carefully executed, like he'd measured each wrinkle in his shirt for effect the way a painter draped a backdrop. Next to him, Brandon looked like someone had dropped a load of laundry and never come back for it.

Monte smiled a wide, winning smile as he came forward and offered his hand, eyes on Hutch's while they shook. "Have a seat," he said, an order disguised as hospitality, and displaced Brandon from the couch while pointing Hutch to the chair on the other side of the table. He took a gold key out of his pocket and tossed it over the coffee tray so that it skidded over the edge onto Hutch's foot. "You left that behind."

"Did I?" Hutch didn't bend down to pick it up.

"I'm sure it was a mistake." Monte leaned back and spread his arms out across the back of the couch. The winning smile made a brief comeback, lots of teeth that seemed to be all canines, before his face settled into suspicion. "Right?"

"Sure." The key was burning a hole through Hutch's nice, hand-made Italian shoe.

Monte nodded. "Sure. Because Gina said you left in a hurry last night. Didn't even get to the good stuff." From his new spot by the door, Brandon snickered and Monte lifted a finger to shut him up. "That's no way for a gentleman to act. She was insulted."

Hutch cleared his throat, leaned back himself and traced the pattern on the arm of the chair. "I'm sorry about that."

"Care to explain why you made my girl cry?"

Hutch shrugged with one shoulder. "Gina's a little excitable."

Monte didn't blink. When Hutch didn't go on he leaned forward. "And?"

"And I think she did a bit too much blow." Hutch fluttered his fingers next to his ear. "Excitable." He managed to make his smile a little cruel. "I like 'em to move slow, talk less."

Monte shifted his jaw and narrowed his eyes. Hutch waited, kept his hands still, his face neutral. Just about the time his fingers were starting to itch, Monte nodded and released him. "I guess every man's got his tastes."

"I guess so."

Monte set out two cups and filled them from the silver carafe. The rich smell of coffee made Hutch's stomach turn over, but he accepted the cup, anyway.

"Maybe I should consider cutting her stuff a little." Monte's eyes met Hutch's. "Good stuff, though, you gotta admit."

Another one-shouldered shrug. Hutch resisted the urge to rub at the memory of sparkle in his eyes. One slip, and the craving was still there, like a dog at the end of a chain. His skin felt two sizes too small.

"Oh, right. Not for you. In fact, the boys are telling me you're riding their asses about their recreational activities. Why is that, Danny?"

"Simple. Junkies are loyal to the drug."

"And I provide it. And I can take it away."

Hutch put the coffee back on the table untouched. "That kind of leash is fine for hookers whose only decision is top or bottom. But the boys?" He raked Brandon with a pointed glare, case in point, while Brandon tried to be one with the woodgrain. "They got responsibilities. You want them thinking about the job or about their next fix?"

Monte's laugh was a low, purring chuckle. Another quick glance at Brandon told Hutch that it was no kind of signal to relax. "You got balls, Christian," Monte said. "I can't think of three guys still living who would insult me twice, and you, you managed it in the first five minutes." He spread his hands and chuckled again. "You're the fucking ninth wonder of the world, aren't you."

Hutch raised an eyebrow. "You asked."

"You're right. I did. And maybe you tell me why I should let you get away with it, huh? You tell me what makes you so special."

Shaking his head, Hutch stood up, making Monte lean against the couch back again. Brandon's eyes got wide. "Look, you know my rep or you wouldn't have brought me out here." Hutch thought of the real Danny Christian, tall and blond, and very dead, six Federal bullets in the chest in a boxcar in Philadelphia. Starsky had tossed the photo on Dobey's desk and said, "Handsome fella." The guy's file was two inches thick. "You need somebody to clean up the west coast operation, and your brother out there--" Hutch pointed at the pool where Damien was probably on his tenth mile. "--isn't exactly the family Einstein." Monte's expression darkened, but he didn't contradict him. "I got lots of places I could be and you can't be two places at once. Your call."

At the corner of his eye, Brandon was watching with his tie twisted between his hands and his mouth hanging open a little. It would be enough to make Hutch laugh, if Starsky had been there to share the joke, and if Hutch's heart hadn't been hammering so hard behind his ribs he was sure that if he opened his mouth right then, Monte would hear it. And maybe he could, anyway. He certainly sat still for a long time, his head cocked like he was listening to a mouse stirring in the underbrush. Outside, Damien started shouting something, at first unintelligible and then resolving into a pretty creative string of foul-mouthed insults, at least two of them having to do with somebody's mother and his king-sized cock. Monte's attention shifted to the window for a second, and when he pinned Hutch again, he was laughing.

"No Einstein, I'll give you that," he said, rising. He held out his hand and gave it a little waggle when Hutch hesitated to take it. "Okay, Mr. Christian. I'll give you a shot." Brandon giggled at the pun. "Maybe it's time to see if you live up to your reputation." He gave Hutch's hand a crushing squeeze before letting it go. As Hutch was stepping around the coffee table, Monte said, "Don't forget your key."

"Right." Hutch bent to pick it up from the floor and straightened into Monte's fist. Maybe the blow to his mouth wouldn't have toppled him, except that he got his toe caught on the table leg, and he went down on his hands and knees hard enough to send spears of pain up both his arms.

He didn't get a chance even to turn around to get Monte in his sights, because Monte was on one knee behind him, a heavy weight on his back, a hand in Hutch's hair pulling his head up so Monte could whisper viciously in his ear. "You make my girl cry again, Danny-boy, I'll be wearing your teeth for a necklace. Got it?" When Hutch didn't answer, he gave another yank on his hair. "What was that?"

"Got it," Hutch said.

"Got it, what?"

"Got it, boss."

Brandon's giggle scrambled around in Hutch's head like a rodent in a box. Hutch made a note to punch his lights out sometime very soon.

With a last yank, Monte let go of Hutch's hair and instead dangled the key beside his eye. Bracing his elbow on the coffee table, Hutch let go of the carpet with his other hand and hooked his finger through the key ring. That purring chuckle raised gooseflesh on his neck, and then Monte's weight was gone and Hutch was able to stand up. He clenched his teeth to make sure his jaw was still working. The blood he wiped from his lip left a black streak on the blue silk of his shirt cuff.

He dropped the key in his pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. When he had one in the corner of his mouth, he said, "Anything else?"

Monte smiled his predator's smile and swept his arm in a grand arc, waving Hutch to the door. Brandon was already taking his rat giggle down the hall when Monte said, stopping Hutch in the doorway, "Be at the club tonight after closing. I got a job for you."



^^^


It was quiet, even for a Monday, less than a dozen patrons in the club, and the girls on the stage were feeling the downer energy in the room, swaying and turning and holding back on the fancy stuff. Hanging on her pole, Dix was doing a listless stroll, round and round, chewing gum and blowing bubbles half the size of her head. There wasn't much in the way of bills waiting to get tucked into g-strings.

Hutch leaned on the bar and nursed a beer. At the far end, a guy in a tuxedo was passed out, drooling on a cocktail napkin. His pal was drawing a happy face on the back of his bald head with a magic marker. Micky, the bartender, fished a couple of sweaty mints out of his pocket and handed them over to make eyes. Watching them, Hutch wondered if he could maybe get Starsky to help him give himself a lobotomy next time he saw him. Clearly it was what he needed to get through nights like this, and what were friends for? It was only the skittering anticipation of Monte's job that kept him from following the drooling guy's example and crashing--that, and his friend with the magic marker and an overblown sense of his own creative talent.

But his tiredness wasn't the kind sleep was going to cure, at least, not the kind of sleep he'd get anywhere but his own bed. He sipped beer and tried to remember the sound of his own place--the refrigerator had that loose belt that whined and rattled the cannisters on the counter; the cooks in the bistro downstairs arrived at six a.m. arguing in English and swearing in French; the floorboards beside the bathtub creaked and made Hutch wonder if there was a leak somewhere--but he could only see these things as words, like a story someone wrote down for him. He couldn't hear a thing in his own head over the thumping of the music and staccato patter of the coloured lights on his eyes.

He was considering dragging himself off his stool and giving Dix a hard time about the gum when the street door opened and his plans changed. He put the beer glass down, trying to decide whether or not to do a quick fade into the back room. Before he had a chance, she'd already seen him and was on her way down the bar in his direction, one hand trailing across the shoulders of the artist and the sleeper, although, like the pro she was, she didn't look back to acknowledge the whistle the artist cast after her like a hook and line. Let 'em wait. Let 'em want.

As she got closer, her familiar shy-slow smile brightened her face and Hutch tried very hard to acquire instant telepathy.

"Hey there, Handsome Danny."

It was all he could do not to wilt with relief. "Hey there, Alice. Long time."

With a quick glance over her shoulder to catch Micky's eye, she hitched herself onto the stool beside Hutch's and crossed her legs so that her toe nuzzled under his pantleg at his ankle. When Micky was in earshot she scolded in her honey-sweet drawl, "Too long, Danny-boy. How come you're all the way out here from Philly and you never gave Sweet Alice a ring, huh? You tryin' to break my heart?"

She ordered a scotch rocks and gave Micky the slow smile and the wink from behind a blond curl, which was enough to make him decide to polish wine glasses on their end of the bar. Hutch raised his eyebrow at him until he got the hint and wandered back to the art project, where Sleeping Beauty now had a bouquet of pretzel sticks protruding from his ear.

Hutch slipped a hand under Alice's curls so he could cup her cheek, and leaned in to kiss her other one, pausing with his mouth close to her ear to say, "Sweet Alice, what the hell are you doing here?" He let his hand stroke down her neck as he looked over her shoulder at Dix, who wasn't even bothering with the stroll now, but was swaying side-to-side and stabbing Alice in the back with beams from her eyes.

"Shhh, Handsome," Alice soothed, straightening his collar and leaving a space at the end of the sentence for his real name. "I can handle myself. I've been around this block before." This time her smile was no flirtation but pure Alice, that combination of the sweet and the weary that made something in Hutch's chest twist up tight and hum with sympathetic vibration. For the thousandth time he wondered how far she was from home. She leaned close and took his hand, and the scent of gardenias almost displaced the smoke-and-beer stench of the place. "Keep your smile on, okay?" She waited for him to obey and then continued, "I'm here because Huggy Bear needed to send you a message. About Starsky."

She didn't even wince when Hutch's hand closed convulsively around hers. "What about him." He didn't even have to make it a question. He knew. Damnit. Damnit to hell. He raised her fingers to his lips to hide the curse.

"Seems he didn't show up at work today like he was s'posed to, and Huggy went to his house and everything. No one's seen him, not even the Feds."

Stroking his lips across her fingernails, Hutch watched Brandon come out of the back room, fruitlessly smoothing his tie and pulling on his waistband, one eye on the dancers and the other on Hutch and Alice. It was midnight already, an hour 'til close, 'til Monte put Danny Christian to the test. Hutch could almost feel Starsky stabbing him in the chest, saying, "He wants blood on your hands." Starsky, goddamnit. "Fuck," Hutch hissed against Alice's fingers.

Having run out of things to stick in Sleeping Beauty's head, Micky was sauntering back toward them, polishing a highball glass and checking Alice's drink, which she hadn't touched. Hutch warned him off with a stare, but he didn't retreat far. Brandon had given up on the dancers and was just watching the scene at the bar now.

After making a show of gallantly kissing Alice's hand, Hutch leaned over the bar and snagged a napkin and a pencil, scrawled a number and a few words on it and folded it neatly before giving it to her. "There you go, honey," he told her loudly with a wide smile and an exaggerated version of her southern drawl. "You call me, now, y'hear?"

"You can count on that, Handsome," she promised, the flirtatious grin back again, and tucked the napkin into her cleavage.

He waited while she finished her drink in two swallows, and then guided her toward the door. They almost made it, but Brandon caught them.

"Christian. Where you goin'?" He paused to grope Alice with his eyes, and then waggled his eyebrows at Hutch. "Better make it a quickie." He tapped his watch. "Closing time, right?"

"I got almost an hour. That should do it." Hutch winked at him, threw the door open and waved Alice through.

Outside, Alice hailed her own cab, but before getting in, she went on tip-toe to brush her lips across his cheek and whisper, "It'll be okay, Handsome Hutch. I can feel it." He closed his eyes and smiled into her hair when, ballasting optimism with pragmatism, she added, "Don't you get yourself killed. That really would break my heart."

He watched the cab until it made the turn at the end of the block, then spun on his heel and headed off in the other direction, walking fast. Two blocks down he ducked into the harsh fluorescent glare of Chan's Chinese Take-Out and waited in line, drumming his fingers on his thighs and thinking of Starsky on the silver-slick pier, the checker cab pointing at the ocean. "Damn," he muttered, and then added, "Sorry," to the lady with an enormous pink beehive hairdo who turned on him with an offended stare.

Finally up at the counter, he ordered egg rolls. Having caught sight of him through the window from the kitchen, Mr. Chan himself brought the bag out to him. In answer to Hutch's unvoiced question, he pointed to the bulletin board on the kitchen wall just visible through the window. The battered menu with Hutch's note in it was still pinned there, uncollected.

"No Starsky," Mr. Chan said, looking sympathetic for two seconds before dismissing Hutch to serve the next in line.

Back out on the sidewalk, Hutch looked toward the pay phone on the corner, and had taken two steps in that direction when a limo half a block long eased into the curb like the Queen Mary and the tinted window whined down to reveal Victor Montefiori, slick in a black suit and tie, in the back seat. "Christian," he called and crooked a finger.

Leaning in with one hand braced on the roof, Hutch said, "Hello, Monte," ignoring the flicker of irritation in Monte's eyes at the familiarity, and, after bending a little lower, threw a grin in Gina's direction. "Heya, Gina. You're looking pretty."

Gina lowered her long, fake eyelashes slowly in a blink that looked like it might turn into a nap and only opened her eyes again when she was obliquely facing the far window, her profile partially hidden by a sweep of shiny black hair. "Yeah, sure," she said, and put a finger in her mouth to worry a broken nail. Hutch could see the red-painted fragment on the black leather between her and Monte. Where her thigh showed through the slit in her red skirt there were four small, round, livid marks on their way to becoming bruises. Hutch's fingers squeaked a little on the roof of the car as his hand closed into a fist.

"What are you doing?" Monte asked, indicating the street with a lift of his chin. "You got a meet pretty soon."

Hutch held up the take-out bag. "Don't like to work on an empty stomach." His fingers were aching where they gripped the folded top of the bag. "I'll be ready." He straightened to continue his walk, but Monte pinched his sleeve.

"I'm curious, Christian, about this contact of yours, the one at the police department."

"Yeah, what about him?"

"Oh, I don't know. What about a name?"

Hutch aimed his laugh over the roof of the car where it was whipped away by a passing city bus. He scratched his chin and leaned down again to smile through the window. "You don't think I'm gonna show all my aces at once, do you?"

Gina said, "Ha," humourlessly, and added something that might've been, "Bye-bye, Danny-boy."

True to form, Monte watched him, unblinking, for a few seconds and then showed his teeth in that not-smile that warned Hutch to back away slowly. He didn't. "Okay," Monte said with a shrug. "For now." He aimed a finger at Hutch's forehead. "Do good tonight, Christian. For your own sake. I'll be hearing about it."

"What, you're not going to come by to see for yourself?"

Monte's laugh was cut off by the closing window as the limo slid smoothly into traffic. Any idea Hutch had of heading back toward the pay phone was nixed by the black sedan that pulled into the space vacated by the limo. For half a second he felt a flutter of hope that maybe this was the Feds keeping tabs, but as the car drew up even with him, he recognized the thug from poolside at Monte's place.

Hutch ran a hand over his face and pulled himself up straighter. Beside him, shoulders deep in a trash can, a person of indeterminate gender was talking a blue streak. Hutch could just make out something about the proletariat revolution and the fall of the pig-dog, but most of it was lost under the rattle of newspapers and cartons. He tapped the person on the shoulder and handed her--it was a her--the take-out bag. When she hesitated he said, "An army marches on its stomach," and was rewarded with a toothless smile and a fiercely nodding head. She snatched the bag and disappeared into the darkness of the alley, taking her polemic with her.

"Down with the pig-dog," Hutch said to himself as he headed up the block to where the customers were starting to file out of the club. The sedan crawled along beside him. Sleeping Beauty was already on the sidewalk, attempting to land a punch on his good buddy who was dancing around him as best he could while being almost doubled over laughing. The happy face smiled its wobbly smile at Hutch as he passed.

^^^


Starsky figured that the plastic shower curtain on the floor was a pretty bad sign. That and the fact that he wasn't blindfolded anymore. He'd thought things couldn't get too much more miserable when he'd had to lie in the back of the van for hours with the hot sun pounding on the roof, cooking him like a roast beef, but he was proved wrong when, as the air was cooling, he was treated to the sound of Damien Montefiori getting it on with some unfortunate woman up front. Starsky couldn't help but rate the performance, an impulse that accounted for at least one cracked rib and a chipped bicuspid.

Now, as he knelt on the plastic and worried the jagged edge of the broken tooth with his tongue, he wondered if maybe he was having another failure of imagination. Damien was sitting on a stack of crates of scotch, drumming his heels and opening and closing his butterfly knife with a rhythmic snick-whirr-snick- that was making Starsky's hair go prickly on his arms, and over in the corner, Brandon was standing in the shadows, shifting his weight nervously from foot to foot, making his shoes creak. Starsky watched the blade flash as Damien flipped it open and closed, and he did his best to keep his eyes off of the gleeful sneer on Damien's face. Maybe it wasn't gonna be a nice, clean shot to the back of the head, after all.

Still, he hadn't given up on the idea of a daring rescue. It was the last reel, at least for him.

In the hallway on the other side of the door, Hutch was telling somebody to go on home. Whoever it was wasn't obeying. His voice was razor-wire. "Damnit, Dix, would you just get the fuck out of here?" There was a muffled protest and a "Fuck you, too, Danny-boy," and then, after a pause in which Starsky's brain felt like it might tear in two between the opposing forces of hope and dread, the door opened and Hutch came in. The grim expression on his face meant he knew already what he was going to find.

He aimed a finger at Starsky and looked at Damien. "What the fuck is this?"

With a final whirr-snick, Damien snapped the knife open and used it to point at Starsky, too. "That's a pig," he said.

"I know it's a pig. What's he doing here?"

"Dying," Brandon said, and he looked pretty amused at himself. Starsky wondered if he'd get a chance to wipe the grin off his face or not. In any case, he kept his eyes on Hutch. At least that way Brandon's smirk wouldn't be the last thing he saw in this life, which could only be a plus.

Hutch stepped between Starsky and Damien's knife.

"Don't be a dick," Damien said. Starsky couldn't see, but the way Hutch's head tipped back told him that Damien had re-aimed the knife point. "The pig's been dogging you for weeks."

Hutch snorted and his shoulders sagged like the weak-minded were his own personal millstone around the neck. "Who do you think sprung you the other day, huh? He's my contact, you idiot."

"Maybe," Brandon said. "Or maybe you're his."

"What?" Hutch's irritation was like a whip, a quick, sinuous slash in Brandon's direction. Starsky didn't actually duck, but he wanted to. He tried not to smile.

Brandon came forward into the light and opened Hutch's jacket, pulled the 9mm out of its holster and tossed it to Damien, who caught it one handed. "Hey, don't get offended, Danny-boy. You got nothing to worry about. Right?" He was going for a confident wise-guy vocal strut, but the slight quaver underneath ruined it.

They all watched as Damien put the knife between his teeth, slipped the magazine from Hutch's gun and thumbed the bullets one at a time onto the floor. One of them rolled between Hutch's feet and stopped against Starsky's knees. When there was just one left, Damien slapped the magazine home and chambered the round.

Brandon said, "Do your job and we'll all go celebrate your promotion."

Hutch didn't accept the proffered gun. "Do you have any idea how long it takes to cultivate a contact like this?" He jerked his head to indicate Starsky.

Brandon took the gun from Damien and used the butt to give Hutch a shove so that he turned and Starsky could see his face. Hutch didn't look at him.

"According to my research," Brandon said, "this one's so clean he squeaks. Can't be turned."

"Depends what you got to trade."

"Which is?"

"How about a few of Monte's competitors? Conveniently off the streets and Detective Starsky here gets to close some high profile cases."

This time Hutch did look at him, and the grin he shot him was like nothing Starsky had seen before. Starsky knew all about Danny Christian, the real one, and this one. He'd helped Hutch nail it down, helped Huggy plant the word on the street. He'd stood at a graveside once a week with his eyes on his sneakers, not reading the words on the gravestone, so that this guy could be here right now, so that Danny Christian and Dave Starsky would have a reason to be in the same room, if it ever came to it. Danny Christian was as much his creation as Hutch's in some ways. But the man looking at Starsky just then was a stranger.

"Not to mention the chance to do some damage to the guys who did his partner. Monte won't cry over their graves." For a second, something changed in Hutch's eyes, Danny Christian slipping and something else showing through, something beyond weariness, almost grief, and it made Starsky's chest go tight. "They were close, him and his partner." He kept his eyes on Starsky's and, like a light switching off, Danny Christian was back. "You know what that can do to a guy. Revenge is quite a motivator."

"So is self-preservation." Brandon picked up Hutch's hand, put the gun in it, and Hutch's fingers closed around it. At the same time, Damien pulled his own piece. Trying again for intimidating, Brandon leaned in close, but he barely reached Hutch's chin and looked like an overfed lapdog baiting a mountain lion. "He's been snooping. Either he's screwing you over, or you're both screwing us."

"Either way the pig dies," Damien said, and looked pretty happy about that. He wasn't one of those people who lit up like a spring day when they smiled.

"Your only decision here is whether or not you join him." Brandon stepped out of the way, back into the shadows. "Your choice."

Looking down at the gun in his hand, Hutch sighed and then turned an apologetic face to Starsky. "Well, Starsk," he said, and this time the smile was all Hutch. "Who's the damsel in distress in this one again? I forget."

Starsky grinned. "I'm the prettier one."

"Oh please. According to whose standards?"

"A hundred stewardesses can't be wrong." Starsky shifted his weight and got one foot under him, rucking up the shower curtain. "Besides, I have bluer eyes."

Behind Hutch, Brandon and Damien were exchanging glances.

Hutch's gaze traveled over Starsky's shoulder to the back door. "No you don't."

"Maybe not. But I have longer eyelashes."

Hutch bobbed his head from side to side, conceding, his eyes still on the door. "Okay, I'll give you that."

Brandon grumbled, "Cut the crap and quit stalling, Christian."

"Hutch," Hutch said.

"What?"

"He said," Starsky offered helpfully, something like a laugh untwisting inside his chest, "his name is Hutch."

There was a crash out in the club and at the same moment Hutch swung around and planted the muzzle of the 9mm against the side of Damien's neck. The look on Damien's face was comical, like he'd opened a can of peanut brittle and found snakes instead.

"Aw, c'mon, Damien. Don't tell me you didn't see this coming," Hutch said, and then, after a moment, decided, "Actually, I'll bet you didn't." One jab was enough to convince Damien to drop his own gun, and the knife clattered to the floor between Hutch's feet. Hutch kicked them both in Starsky's direction. "And, by the way, we're not stalling. We're waiting."

"Shit!" Brandon spat, fumbling his own little .22 out of his pocket. "Shit, shit, sonofabitch." He raised a shaking arm and aimed the gun at Hutch's head. "I'll shoot. I will so fucking shoot you," he squeaked.

Starsky was busy trying to get his feet through the loop of his arms so his hands would be in front, so he didn't see whatever eviscerating look Hutch got Brandon with over his shoulder, but he did get his head up in time to see the colour draining from Brandon's face when Hutch growled, "Maybe you'll hit me, punk, but I'm sure as hell not going to miss Damien, here. And I bet Monte will be a little ticked off to know that you got his little brother killed and lived to tell about it."

By this time, Starsky had both hands on Damien's gun and he slipped the safety just as someone in the club shouted "FBI!"

"Wait's over," Starsky said.

Hutch put his mouth next to Damien's ear. "The way we see it, you got two ways out of this room. One of them involves a stretcher and a body bag."

Keeping a bead on Brandon who was edging toward the back door, Starsky added, "On the other hand, somebody starts singing loud and clear, and maybe he doesn't end up sitting in the hot seat for conspiracy to murder a police officer." He raised his eyebrows at Brandon, tipped his head a little like he was addressing a six-year-old. "Your choice."

Apparently Brandon wasn't the smartest six-year-old in kindergarten, because he decided to bolt, letting out a little sob as he was tearing the back door open and and another when he came up nose-to muzzle with Agent Kessler's gun.

"Hello, Brandon," Kessler said in that infuriatingly smooth and unflappable New England accent of his. "It seems like you're under arrest."

Hutch gave up his place as guard dog to a couple more G-men who busted in from the club-side door, and stooped to pick up the butterfly knife, flipping it open and slicing through the bindings around Starsky's hands with a couple swift strokes. "What took you so long, Kessler?" he demanded as he pulled the rope off and briefly inspected Starsky's wrists, then raised his fingers to probe the tender bruising around Starsky's eye. "Quite a shiner you got there, partner."

"Manly. The stewardesses'll love it." Starsky winced and pulled away, making his brain rattle around in his head so that he had to hold onto Hutch's arm until everything settled. "Would you not poke at it, please?"

"What do you mean what took us so long? Your girl only called us fifteen minutes ago." Kessler didn't look happy, standing there on the shower curtain with his thumbs in the watch pockets of his suit vest. "This is a pretty cock up." He shook his head like he was very disappointed in a couple of juvenile delinquents. Starsky wondered if he had any kids. If so, it was a sure bet they called him "sir." Apparently deciding that the 'no poking at Starsky's bruises' rule didn't apply to him, he poked Starsky in the chest. "How'd you get made?"

Starsky let his gaze slide in Hutch's direction. "It took a little doing. But it was worth the effort." He let go of Hutch's arm and tucked his hands in his pockets instead. The pins and needles of returning circulation made him wince. "Relax, G-man. It ain't over yet."

The poolside thug who'd escorted Hutch the two blocks to his rendezvous with destiny was sitting in the back of Kessler's car when they all filed out into the alley.

Hutch blew out a relieved breath and said to Starsky, "Looks like he never had a chance to squeal. Maybe Monte's still in his nest, huh?"

"All nice and oblivious. Wouldn't that be just grand?"

"He'll be expecting a report."

"Maybe we can hand-deliver it."

"Maybe I can, you mean." Hutch patted Starsky's ribs and a little yelp escaped Starsky before he had a chance to catch it. "You gotta go get checked out."

Starsky batted his hand away. "And miss this turkey shoot? Are you nuts?" He zipped up his jacket, a decent substitute for medical attention. "I don't need my ribs to aim a gun. All they're gonna do is give me aspirin and orange juice, anyway. I'd rather have a bust and a beer."

In the end, Kessler agreed, but gathered six of his guys as back up. There was a bit of a shouting match over Hutch going in first but Hutch won, partly by pointing out that they really didn't want to get into a shooting war, but mostly by standing very close to Kessler and giving him the Danny Christian face. Useful as that was, Starsky was looking forward to retiring that, the sooner the better. It was too much like sicking a dog on your friends.

As he followed Hutch down the alley toward the 'vette, Starsky said, "You know, I should be philosophically opposed to riding in a car made out of glass."

"Fiberglass."

Starsky held up his hands. "Oh, 'scuse me. String and glass. That's so much better." He stood in front of the car and let his eyes roam over the shiny red finish and swoopy curves. "Can I drive it?"

Again, Hutch patted Starsky's cracked ribs gently and got a grunt in return. Point made. "You can't handle the stick. Ask me again when you're all growed up, Ollie."

^^^


Getting in was easy for Danny Christian. As he leaned on the doorbell, Hutch slid a quick glance at Starsky who stood out of sight beside the door, then set his shoulders and cocked his head like Christian would if he was pissed off and buzzed on the high that comes with killing somebody.

"Mr. Montefiori is busy," the door-thug said as Hutch muscled past him into the foyer, but the guy didn't get a chance to repeat the protest because Starsky sidled up behind him and pressed the muzzle of his 9mm to the back of his head.

"Oh, he'll have time for us, I think," Starsky purred and stepped around the thug to put a finger on thy guy's lips. "Shhh. It's a surprise."

"Where?" Hutch asked him.

The thug didn't answer, but his eyes flicked toward the stairs.

A little shove put the thug in the welcoming arms of one of Kessler's G-men who hustled him out the door. Hutch had already given them the low-down on the house, all the likely places to find the muscle, and now he nodded them to their positions. Two were already outside making their way around the back to take care of the patrol by the pool. The other two headed deeper into the house. That left one to watch over their current catch and one to shadow the two cops as they made their way upstairs.

The house smelled of fresh flowers and a thin drift of perfume. For a second the familiar scent brought the ghost of sparkle back to Hutch's eyes and the sizzle of remembered panic and anger, the sound of his own feet pounding on the hardwood as he bolted out of the house and into the rain. Stopping on the stairs, he rubbed at his eyes, but got going again when Starsky's hand on his shoulder both brought him back and urged him forward. At the landing, he paused and went up on his toes to get a look through the stair-railing at the hallway above. It was empty. Three doors were open and the rooms dark, but light knifed out from under the last door at the end. He eased down and motioned Starsky closer.

"What do you think?" Starsky whispered.

"The light's on in Gina's room. If he's in there with her, we could have a hostage situation."

The G-man, Prentice, swore softly and shifted his gun from one hand to the other to wipe sweat off his palms onto his pantlegs. Below them in the foyer, two of the other feds converged and gave them a thumbs up. The main floor was secure.

"We gotta bring him out here, then," Starsky said. "You wanna yell 'fire'?"

Hutch opened his mouth to answer, but was cut off by the sound of a shot from upstairs.

They took the rest of the stairs in two giant strides and were down the hall in three more, Starsky on one side of the door, Hutch on the other, Prentice tucked into the doorway of the room across the way with a good angle for when Gina's door was opened.

They listened. Nothing. No more shots, no voices. Slowly, Hutch reached over and tried the doorknob. Locked. Starsky met his eyes, settled his grip on his 9mm, and tensed for the bust in, but Hutch held up a hand and Starsky settled back against the wall. Hutch pulled the gold key out of his pocket, tossed it in the air a little to reposition it in his hand and slotted it into the lock. He turned the knob and pushed the door open. It swung inward silently.

"Aw, shit," Prentice hissed, and Hutch's gut went cold.

Slipping around the edge of the doorjamb so as not to block Prentice's line of fire, Hutch eased into the room, feeling Starsky moving in behind him. "Yeah," he agreed with Prentice.

Victor Montefiori was dead. He was splayed across the end of the bed in his dark pants and white shirt, buttons undone to show the red hole just to the left of his sternum. His eyes were open and staring at the ceiling. One hand was twisted in the white sheet like he'd resisted, tried to stop himself from sliding into death. Beneath him, the sheets around his head and shoulders were stained in a starburst of red, like he'd fallen into a crown of thorns, but the blood that pooled in the hollow of his neck and dripped off his shoulder was blotting out the spatter.

Gina was standing beside the bed, between Monte's knees, still wearing the red dress from earlier in the evening, her sleek, black hair falling along her cheek like it had in the car so that Hutch could just make out the unblinking curve of her lashes, the red of her lips. A 9mm hung from her hand, sleek and too big for her, like she shouldn't have been able to heft it at all. Red and black were etched sharply on the pristine white of the room, the night pressed against the high, barred window behind the rich fall of white curtains. It hurt Hutch's eyes.

"I'm not sorry," she said without looking at them.

As Hutch took a step toward her, she raised her arm and aimed the gun at his face. "I won't be sorry about you, either."

Hutch could feel Prentice in the hallway, coming forward, weapon raised, his intention like heat against the back of Hutch's head. Hutch turned a little and held out a hand. There was a blur in the corner of his eye as Starsky hooked the door with his ankle and slammed it shut, then a thud and a sharp grunt of pain as he leaned on it. On the other side of the door, Prentice was cursing and calling to the other agents, but in the room there was nothing, not even breathing.

"Gina," Hutch said evenly. Moving slowly, he held up his gun so she could see it, and then slipped it into his holster. He knew Starsky had the shot, could feel the lines and angles, and kept his raised hand in the middle of the trajectory. Not yet. "You don't have to do this."

At his words, Gina turned to him. She looked tired. Her lipstick was smeared around her mouth. There were marks on her, just where the fabric of her dress opened in a V to show her cleavage, almost covered but not quite. The red crescent imprints of teeth, upper and lower. Hutch heard Starsky's breath hiss, not quite becoming words.

"Who's gonna do it, then?" She sneered, showing neat, even white teeth, and the pink flash of bubble gum. "You?" She blew a bubble, let it pop. There was the thumping of feet on the stairs, Kessler's low voice in the hallway. She tilted her head. "Really. Who?"

"Damien and Brandon are already in custody, Gina." Hutch raised his eyebrows and ducked his head encouragingly. "You can help with that. You can help us make them pay." He held his hand out, asking for the gun.

Her face was pale, her eyes ringed in black, her lips red. She was porcelain, expressionless. "And who makes you pay?"

Hutch froze. His empty hand hung between them. It still remembered the curve of her hip. Under her dress were five small bruises, Monte's fingers writing his claim on her, Hutch's almost the same size, finding the same place. Now, her gaze flicked to his hand and back to his face, and the hatred in her eyes was a shiv of ice between his ribs.

"Who makes Danny Christian pay?"

"Danny Christian's dead," Starsky answered.

That brought an expression to her face. Her brow furrowed in confusion. When her attention slid over Hutch's shoulder toward Starsky, Hutch closed the distance in one stride and, gripping her wrist, squeezed hard enough to make her drop the gun.

She didn't even protest, just stood, bare feet a little pigeon-toed on the plush carpet, looking at his hand circling her wrist until he let her go. Breathing a resigned sigh, she sat down on the edge of the bed next to Monte's legs and bent down to collect up her shoes. "I need a fix," she said wearily as she slumped over her knees and fumbled the strappy platforms on. Now her hands were shaking and she couldn't manage the buckles.

Hutch knelt and started to do them up for her. "We can get you help with that."

"I don't need 'help with that'," she said to the top of his head. "I need a goddamn fix."

Hutch's fingers felt enormous and clumsy as he worked the tiny buckle, finally getting it done and moving to the other one. "Sorry. Can't do that." He felt Starsky move in close before his shadow confirmed it. He sat back on his heels and looked up at her. "You'll thank me later."

As he expected, she didn't look like that was going to be an option worth considering. But as he held her gaze, she blinked and there was a flash of fear in her eyes, maybe even longing that had nothing to do with the drug, and in that brief instant, Hutch could see her like she was, before, when she was just a kid. Maybe she saw that reflected back at her, or maybe she was just hurting the way junkies hurt, but her eyes clouded over. She didn't let the tears fall, though. Instead, she blew a bubble and popped it so that the sugar-sweet air gusted against his face.

The door opened and Kessler was in the room, filling up all available space with elaborate cursing, just that much more obscene for sounding so urbane. Still on his knees between Gina and Monte, Hutch didn't bother to turn around.

Gina slouched low again so her face was level with Hutch's. "Who the fuck are you, anyway?" she asked.

^^^


Starsky didn't start the search until Hutch got back to his apartment. Instead, he leaned against Hutch's kitchen counter and drank a beer and listened to traffic out on the boulevard and tried to make his brain remember that it was evening, time for winding down, not gearing up. His knee bounced, anyway. He was an engine revving in neutral. It was going to take some getting used to, this living on daylight time again. He had another beer.

He was putting the second empty in the sink when Hutch finally showed, hitching up in the doorway for a second when he noticed Starsky there in the dimming angle of light through the kitchen window. He dropped his jacket on the couch. "I hope you left me one," he said, pointing at the bottle in Starsky's hand.

"Left you three." Starsky even opened one for him.

They leaned on the counter side-by-side while Hutch drank it. By the time he was almost done, the warmth of the sun on their backs had faded and the street was quiet and the apartment was soft-edged and shadowless. Hutch reached behind Starsky and flipped the switch on the wall over the sink, then blinked up at the light fixture. One of the bulbs was burned out.

"So," Starsky said.

"So," Hutch said.

"What's it like to be officially alive again, and do I have to call you Lazarus in public?"

Hutch smiled around the mouth of the bottle as he shrugged. "Now all I got to look forward to is taxes."

That idea stuck its pointy end in Starsky's memory and he jumped a little. "Reminds me." He pulled a folded manila envelope out of his inside pocket and handed it over. "Receipts."

"Thanks." Hutch put the bottle down and started to pull the paper-clipped bundles out, holding them up to the light and squinting at Starsky's small, even notations. Check numbers, dates. "I visited my grave," he said offhandedly, like he was too engrossed in the evidence that his apartment had lived a life without him to really be concerned with how bizarre his statement was.

"Huh," Starsky said, scratching the back of his neck to smooth the sudden prickle of gooseflesh. He crossed to the couch, picked up Hutch's jacket and patted down the pockets.

"Pretty cheap headstone. Kinda cheesy with the cherub."

Starsky chuckled. "Well, you're lucky it ain't the real thing then. And the cherub was Dobey's idea. Makes it easier to pick out from a distance." He pulled a pack of cigarettes out of the inside pocket and counted. Mostly all there. "I got to tell you, partner, paying weekly respects at your graveside for four months was starting to do weird things to my brain." He tossed the pack on the table on his way to the bedroom.

"Yours and mine, both, sister." Hutch pulled himself up onto the counter and, with his foot, hooked a chair over from the table for a stool as he shuffled through the receipts laid out across his knees. "Hey, you got my fridge fixed."

His head in Hutch's closet, Starsky shouted, "That loose belt was rattling the cannisters. It was making me crazy." A quick inspection of three leather jackets and two tweed produced a crushed half-pack--unfiltered from Morocco if the label was to be believed--and a bent single. "They didn't let you keep the suits?"

"Not my style."

"Right. You're too pedestrian."

"Plebian. And you spent enough time here to get crazy because of my fridge?"

Starsky's shrug was awkward because he was feeling around under the pillows on the bed. He sat down on the mattress and checked the drawers of the bedside table. Nothing. He didn't bother saying that he'd kept the fridge stocked because you never knew when the case would break and Hutch would be home wanting a beer and a sandwich, or that it made no sense to let the stuff go bad, and less to cart it all the way back to his place. He didn't say that he liked eating at Hutch's table, or that he maybe spent some time lying on Hutch's bed, ankles crossed, arms behind his head, waiting for the sun to go down.

When he straightened up, his eye fell on the plant on the windowsill and the three cigarettes poking up through the leaves. He plucked them out and aimed them at Hutch with an accusing glare, got an innocent face in return. He added them to the pile and went to check the rest of the plants and then to run his hands between all the towels in the linen closet. He even checked the toilet tank and was disappointed to find no water-tight jar back there. "Now you're not even trying," he said as he came back to the kitchen.

Hutch smirked and went back to his receipts. Sometime in there he'd opened another beer.

"You see Gina?" Starsky flapped a hand against Hutch's thigh to get him to slide over so he could check the cannisters. Two in the brown sugar, one in the salt.

Avoiding his gaze, Hutch scratched his forehead with his thumb and concentrated on the rent receipts, then the electric bills. When Starsky pushed him the other way, though, he resisted, leaned instead into Starsky's shoulder. Starsky stopped moving. The overhead light cast Hutch's eyes in shadow, but the tension was there around his mouth. "Her folks came down from Indiana with a lawyer, a cousin or something."

"Okay. Good."

Hutch picked at the staple in the corner of the gas bill. The subtle tremour that passed through him translated into a shaky breath. "You know, until that night when--" The staple came loose and ripped the corner off of his fingernail, making him curse. He sucked on the finger for a moment. "At the club, when I saw her in Monte's limo...." Starsky waited while Hutch looked through the walls, frowning with something more complex than simple outrage. As Hutch shifted uncomfortably, pressed more heavily against him, Starsky could feel him leaning away from it all, Danny Christian, Gina, his complicity. Starsky braced his feet to take the weight while Hutch worked his way up to talking again. When he did, his voice was low, too angry and bitter for confessional. "Until that night, she hadn't been out of that room for six weeks."

"You didn't put her there."

"I didn't get her out, either."

There was no point arguing. It wasn't like Hutch didn't understand as well as Starsky did about shitty compromises and ends and means. Innocence wasn't the issue and he wasn't asking for absolution, anyway. On the counter, Starsky's hands were fists. With no place to blow off that energy, no one to take the punch, he forced them to flatten out again. "Some gilded cage, huh? She was his pet. Did tricks."

Starsky winced at the unintended pun, but Hutch laughed in that ironic, resigned way of his and smoothed the papers against his thigh. "Until she bit his hand off. I suppose it's fitting."

Watching the side of Hutch's face as the smile faded and his eyes closed, Starsky drummed his fingers on the counter. "Did you see her?"

"Yeah, I saw her."

"And?"

"And she tried to scratch my eyes out." When he looked up, Hutch's eyes--unscratched, thankfully--had that old dismal amusement in them, storm clouds lit silver inside by sheet lightning. "Lucky for me she was handcuffed to the bed, huh?"

Starsky looped an arm across his chest and squeezed his shoulder before letting him go and opening the freezer. He went at it with more force than strictly needed to pry stuff out of the two-inch layer of frost and ice inside.

"What about Brandon and Damien?" Hutch asked.

Because he was shaking a plastic container next to his ear, Starsky barely heard him and had to ask him to repeat the question. "Oh yeah," Starsky answered, wrinkling his nose at the label on the container. He pried the lid off and looked in. "Damien's a clam, but Brandon's singing an aria." He looked over the freezer door. "It's called 'All the Bodies and Where They're Buried.' If somebody doesn't shank him as a weasel, he's gonna be gold." Hutch blinked bemusedly at the mixed metaphors and Starsky muttered, "Yeah, yeah, perfessor, sue me." He hung an arm over the door and waved the open container under Hutch's nose. "The tape on the lid says 'kelp.'"

"Yeah, try some. It's good for you."

Starsky shook the container to reveal five cigarettes bundled with string among the green flakes. "I think you should relabel it 'kelp surprise'."

Hutch put the receipts back in the envelope and took the cigarettes out of the container. While Starsky put it back in the freezer and checked behind the cereal boxes, and in the tea boxes, Hutch held the cigarettes under his nose and inhaled a few times with his eyes closed, then, with a dramatic sigh of regret that Starsky heard loud and clear even with his own head under the sink, added them to the pile on the table. "You're killing me with kindness," Hutch said morosely.

"You can thank me later." Starsky stood, tossed the pack he'd recovered from the curve of the drain pipe onto the table, then shoved the chair out from under Hutch's feet and pulled him down off the counter. "Spread 'em," he ordered in his best officer of the law voice.

Hutch rolled his eyes and held his hands out at his sides. As Starsky patted him down, he said, "You're not just using this as an excuse to get fresh are you?"

Pausing with two fingers in the front pocket of Hutch's jeans, Starsky looked at him from an inch away, giving him a slow grin and the bedroom eyes. Hutch's smile faltered and was replaced with something indescribable but which was possibly fear verging on interest. Or maybe the other way around. With a wink, Starsky let him off the hook. "Are you kiddin' me? You think I'd kiss someone with an ashtray for a mouth?" He slipped the two cigarettes out of Hutch's pocket and tsk tsked with them. "Naughty boy."

A few minutes later they were sitting knee-to-knee with the trash can between them, sharing the last beer and shredding cigarettes.

"That was a pretty stupid stunt you pulled, getting yourself picked up like that," Hutch said conversationally. More distant lightning, but not the silver lining kind.

Not bothering to play dumb, Starsky shrugged. "Worked, didn't it?"

"I was doing fine. You didn't have to push him."

Starsky kept his eyes on their hands, groped blindly for another cigarette and broke it open over the trash can. "Sure you were. O' course, give you another week and one more trust-building session with Gina 'n' we'd've found you in a death grip with your teeth buried in Monte's jugular. Least this way we had him cold for conspiracy. If Gina hadn't done her thing, that is."

"Or," Hutch said tightly. His hands were empty, hanging open between his knees, but they weren't relaxed. His words were clipped, and his voice rose as he went on. "Maybe the whole thing goes sideways and I'm out one partner. It could just as well have been Damien holding that gun to your head and I'd be none the wiser 'til they showed me your body, stuffed and mounted over Monte's fireplace."

"But it didn't, and it wasn't so forget it." A glance up at Hutch's face proved that the hypotheticals weren't going to be so easy to shake. Four months of being a hypothetical person made it hard. The lines got blurred. Spend enough time making the unreal real and the brain got used to going there. Starsky knew it, learned it standing in the cold sun and a sharp wind at a fake graveside with real tears running down his face.

He swept the rest of the cigarettes off the the table and into the trash with his arm and tied the bag up tight. "Good-bye, Danny Christian," he said. He yanked the bag out of the can with more viciousness than he'd realized was there. "So long, adieu, sayonara, fuck off."

"Amen."

Starsky braced himself heavily on Hutch's knee as he pushed himself to his feet. "Pick you up early. Crime's a-waitin'."

Slouched back in his chair, Hutch nodded, gaze in the middle-distance, still tracing the hypotheticals. Starsky leaned his hip against Hutch's shoulder and twisted his fingers in the blond hair, pulling him in so Hutch's head was resting against his stomach. They stayed that way for awhile, Starsky's mind suddenly too tired to be anything but blank, Hutch's tension slowly leaking out of him, the muscles in his neck loosening. The fridge came on, smoothly purring.

"I miss the rattling cannisters," Hutch said.

Starsky laughed. "You would." He smoothed Hutch's hair down and stepped away. "Get some sleep."

"Uh-huh."

He was sitting in the same place when Starsky left, taking the rest of Danny Christian with him. But when Starsky was coming out of the alley, having dropped the trash bag in the can out back, Hutch was at the window.

"Hey, Starsk."

Starsky craned his neck and narrowed his eyes, trying to make out details. Hutch was a blank against the yellow rectangle of the window. "Yes, Detective Hutchinson?"

There was a faint blur of white in the hand Hutch held out. "You missed one."

Starsky pointed at him with as much intimidating authority as he could muster from way down there on the sidewalk. "Don't you dare."

A flare of a lighter showed him Hutch's grin, then went out. There was no glow from the butt though. Hutch made a show of breaking the cigarette in half and rubbing it briskly between his palms. Starsky blinked against the falling debris, but the wind carried it away before it reached him.

THE END


Notes: Thank you to Destina and Thayln for giving it the thumbs-up.

Feedback welcomed at troyswann@yahoo.ca.

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