The Unforgotten
by Sarah Problem


SHSVS - Episode 503, Part 1

Chin on hand, elbow on desk, Starsky tried to suppress a sigh as he rifled through what must have been the hundredth file of the day. Since he was the one who had insisted on going through them all, it wouldn't do to start making a production out of it. But still, it was pretty boring and only seemed to rub in how far behind he was.

I've been off the street for too long! I don't recognize half of the names on the current arrest reports, and there's no telling where some of our "regulars" are now. I'm never going to get caught up at this rate.

He couldn't understand why he was feeling so low. It wasn't that long ago that achieving this very position, this job and his partnership with Hutch had seemed almost beyond his reach. As much as he had gone through, as much as they both had gone through, he should still be bouncing off the walls with happiness at his return. Instead, he seemed to feel as if he didn't belong anymore.

He glanced up at Hutch, who was sitting across from him. Hutch, who was busy talking on the phone to a witness, caught his glance, checked around the busy room and gave him a happy wink and smile. Starsky threw him a grin before turning back to the files, hoping he was too busy to tell how faked it was.

I'm acting like a spoiled kid, who's gotten everything he ever wanted for his birthday and still isn't satisfied, he decided with chagrin. After that last case I know I should feel better about coming back. Maybe I'll feel better when Hutch and I get back on the streets for a full shift and I get back to full duty. I never did like spending all my time behind a desk.

He knew he shouldn't have been surprised at the changes that had happened out on the streets, let alone in the department. While he was recuperating, life and crime had gone on without him, and it was going to take some study to catch up. And it hadn't helped that he was constantly finding Arturo Flores' stuff in his desk. No matter how hard he tried, it still rubbed him wrong to be reminded how Flores had filled in for him. But if Starsky hadn't realized how childish it would look to pull out all his drawers and erase every sign of the man, he would have done so in the first minute he'd gotten possession back.

And the kicker was that he even liked the man! Flores didn't deserve that kind of treatment, not even symbolically. But the urge was still there and Starsky didn't know why.

"Hey, Starsk, you up for lunch?"

Starsky looked up at Hutch and could see concern reflected in the blond's eyes. He looked at his watch. It wasn't quite 11:00 a.m. yet. "Little early, isn't it?"

Hutch shrugged. "Might as well hit the cafeteria early. You know what a rush it'll be later. Unless you've found something in there that's so fascinating you can't pull yourself away."

He was about to agree when the phone rang. Shrugging to Hutch, he picked it up.

"Detective Starsky here," he said loudly, enjoying the feel of the words. Now, that he enjoyed. He winked at Hutch.

"Detective David Starsky? You work for Captain Dobey?"

"Yes, that's me."

"Oh, thank goodness I got you!"

The caller sounded like a young female on the edge of hysteria. "You were looking for me in particular?" Starsky asked with a bit of surprise. He didn't think he'd been back long enough for word to get around.

"Yes. I'm afraid you don't know me, Detective. I'm Tina Kidman. You knew my brother, Carl Kidman? While he was at the Robert Johnson Rehabilitation Center?"

Unpleasant memories came back to him of the place he had been sent after his release from the hospital. Starsky hadn't done very well there and could still remember Hutch's anger at the doctor who had assigned him to that place. He himself couldn't say he had any fond memories of it, except for the fact that he had met a lot of special people there.

"Carl? Yeah, I know him." He was a tall, dark-haired young rookie who had lost an arm to a bullet. The kid had only been on the force for a year when it happened, yet seemed to have adjusted better to his injury than Starsky had. "Haven't seen him in a while. How's he doing?"

The silence on the other end made the hair on his neck stand on end. He could almost feel the bad news from where he was.

"Carl... Carl killed himself a few days ago. He was buried yesterday."

It was like a punch in the gut. Carl? No! Not Carl!

"I'm so...so sorry, Miss Kidman! I didn't realize... I mean, I didn't know he was feeling that bad."

"Neither did we." Starsky could hear the deep sadness in the girl's voice. "He still had bad times but Carl was...was always so motivated about moving past his loss. He had found a new job in town and was looking forward..."

She broke down on the phone then and Starsky kept silent, giving her time to collect herself.

He started as he felt a hand grip his shoulder. He looked up at Hutch, into the worried blue eyes, and nodded that he was okay. Starsky covered the mouthpiece. "You go on down. I'll catch up in a bit."

Hutch looked at him uncertainly, worry still plainly etched on his face. Starsky smiled weakly and Hutch nodded back, leaving Starsky to his phone call.

He could hear Tina trying to gather herself on the other end.

I can't believe Carl would do such a thing! He thought, still feeling shocked at the idea. He was always so upbeat, always worried about the rest of us. Always clowning around and keeping our spirits up. He knew that he could have called on any of us if he was feeling that low. We would have been there for him!

They had been a mixed bunch that met for various physical therapy sessions and to use the pool and other equipment the facilities provided. People from all walks of life, from all sorts of occupations and backgrounds, met and exchanged stories about their traumas and recoveries.

When Starsky had started going to the rehab center he had been barely able to get around on his own, not even able to drive himself there. He had met quite a few others who had gotten hurt in the line of duty: cops, a paramedic, a deputy, firemen, Highway Patrol and those who had done their time in ‘Nam and come back with severe wounds.

Carl had been one of the youngest. He was a rookie, only twenty-three, when he caught a bullet that had splintered bone and torn muscles too badly to save. Starsky had had quite a few private conversations with the younger man, and they had both encouraged each other when depression set in and pain seemed to take over. Starsky had been taken with the younger man's seemingly ceaseless enthusiasm.

It's been ages since I've seen him or talked to him. After that last session I never looked back. His stomach twisted at the thought. Why didn't I call any of them, or go back to visit? Was I so caught up in myself that I couldn't find room to care about them anymore? Am I that shallow?

"I'm s-sorry, Detective. It's just that—"

"I understand, ma'am," Starsky interrupted, feeling sad and sick inside. "Thank you for calling and letting me know. I guess I should have come by to see how he was doing."

"Can...can you come and talk with me, Detective?"

Starsky was surprised at the request. "Do you need help with some of the departmental paperwork? I don't know much about death benefits but—"

"No. It's just that, well... Carl was going to call you in the next few days. There's something terribly wrong going on. He had some suspicions... I... Please, Detective, can you come and meet with me? I can't do this over the phone and I can't bring myself to come into the station."

Starsky was intrigued by the desperate and fearful tone in her voice. "Yeah, sure. We'll meet you anywhere you're comfortable."

"We?"

"If there's something wrong, maybe my partner will be able to help as well. Unless you'd rather I came alone."

Tina was silent for a moment. "Do you trust him?"

"With my life."

"All right. If you trust him I guess Carl would trust him, too."

Starsky took the address of a restaurant where Tina wanted to meet. She hung up soon afterward and Starsky started toward the cafeteria to pick up Hutch.

The cafeteria was just starting to fill up, so it took a few minutes for Starsky to spot Hutch's blond head. He felt a sharp jab when he saw Hutch sitting at a table with Flores. Even now he didn't like seeing Hutch and Flores together. It wasn't a feeling he was proud of.

Gotta get over your jealousy, Davey boy! Hutch is your partner, in ways Arturo Flores will never know about. Can't blame the guy for missing him. Just shows he has good taste.

He nodded politely at Flores as he came up to the table, part of him pleased with the way Hutch smiled up at him and patted the seat of the chair next to him. Such a small thing that meant so much. "Saved you a seat, partner."

"Hey, there he is! How're you doing, Starsky?" Flores asked, smiling.

Still standing, Starsky nodded to Flores and smiled back. "Fine, now that I'm almost earning my pay. How's the family?"

Flores shrugged casually, but Starsky could see a hint of sadness behind the man's eyes. Flores and his wife had lost a child not too long ago and Starsky could only imagine how they both still mourned the loss.

"As well as can be expected," Flores admitted, looking a bit uncomfortable with what must be a sensitive topic. "Hey, you going to sit and join us?"

"Can't. Hutch and I gotta go. We've got a meet to make in a few minutes."

"Something important come up?" Hutch asked with interest. "I was waiting for you before getting anything to eat."

"Yeah, that was the call I got. We'll have to grab something along the way."

Hutch turned to Flores and shrugged. "See you later, okay?"

"Sure," Flores said, smiling at them both. "You know me, Hutch. Enjoy your company any time. Catch you when you're not working. You take care of my first partner, Starsky, or I may just take him back."

"You betcha," Starsky replied, turning to leave before the small flare of jealousy at Flores' words could be acted upon. He knew the man was only teasing. Flores and his new partner, Lizzie Thorpe were already showing signs of becoming a tight team.

Grow up, he admonished himself. This isn't the playground. We've got a job to do.

They were both in the Torino before Hutch spoke.

"You going to tell me what's going on?"

"I got a call from the sister of Carl Kidman. You remember me telling you about him? He was one of the guys from the rehabilitation center. The one that Dr. Norman sent me to."

Hutch shrugged. "I guess I do. I never did actually meet him, did I? What's up?"

Starsky sighed as he maneuvered the car through traffic. "He killed himself a few days ago."

They were both silent for a moment, then Hutch reached an arm along the seat of the car, giving the back of Starsky's neck a comforting squeeze before he replaced it on the back of the seat.

"I'm sorry, buddy. He was a friend, wasn't he?"

Starsky nodded, eyes still on the traffic. "Yeah, he was. And the thing is, Hutch, that I can't believe he'd do such a thing. He'd been a rookie, over in the Belvier division, when he got shot by a kid tryin' to break into a home. They tried everything they could to save his arm, but there just wasn't enough left for them to work with. I used to kid him that he'd taken the hard route to becomin' a lefty." Starsky heard Hutch chuckle. Neither man was unused to morbid humor. "He was so young, Hutch! And he was so upbeat about what had happened to him. Not that he didn't have his hard times. But he knew he could come to any of us to talk. At least..." Starsky sighed. "At least I thought he knew that. I guess I should'a made more of an effort to keep in touch."

"You said his sister called. Is she okay? Are we going to help with the funeral arrangements?"

"He was buried yesterday. His sister wanted to meet with me, alone. She sounded afraid, along with being upset. I told her we'd be right over."

"Did she give you any clues why she would be afraid to talk to us?"

"No, not really. She said Carl was going to come and talk with me in a few days." He gave Hutch a significant glance. "Funny, how he'd have these plans to come and talk to me then just kill himself like that."

"It just takes one weak moment, Starsk." Hutch's voice was soft, as if it were painful for him to admit. Starsky could feel Hutch's eyes on him. "You remember how bad it was for you, how down you got at times. You remember—"

"Yeah, I remember," Starsky cut him off, not wanting to talk about his own bad times. "But I knew I always had you there, Hutch. Even at my worst times I don't think I could've done anything to myself. I couldn't hurt you that way. Nor could I have hurt Ma, Nicky or any of the rest of my friends like that. I can't believe Carl would do something like that either. He had my phone number. He knew where I worked. He could have called me any time. This just feels wrong, Hutch."

Why would you do this, Carl? How could you get so low that you would hurt all of us this way? You know I would have been there for you.

Hutch hung back as they approached a small, family oriented restaurant. He wondered if Starsky had met the sister before and knew who to look for.

I guess I should have paid more attention to all those new people you met while at the center. I was so full of concern for how you were doing that I wasn't paying much attention to anything besides your progress reports. If I'd been listening closer, maybe I would have caught on earlier that you were lying to me. If I'd gone in with you and met these people, they may have been able to tell me how badly you were really doing.

Hutch pulled up short behind Starsky and watched as he scanned the half-full restaurant. A small, brown-haired girl in the far corner waved to them, and Hutch followed as Starsky nodded and moved toward her with a bit of uncertainty.

I wonder why all the theatrics of wanting to meet him here?

Starsky slid into the booth across from the young lady, leaving space for Hutch at his side.

"You're Tina," Starsky announced, taking her offered hand and holding it in both of his. "I'm Dave and this is my partner, Ken. How're you doing?"

The girl was young, Hutch guessed she was just under twenty years old. Long brown hair hung loosely down the back of her blue shirt and jeans. She had been crying heavily and wasn't up to caring about her own appearance. It was obvious her grief was very real.

"Not too good, if you know what I mean," she said sadly, putting on a smile that looked forced. "Carl always said he should get all the guys together sometime for a party or something. It would've been nice to have met you there."

"Yeah, it would have," Starsky said gently. "Is there any way I can help you? I know this must be an awful time for you and your family."

"No, thanks. But I did want to talk to you about something." She pulled her hand back and Hutch watched as she fidgeted nervously. "I know this may sound like a shocked relative talking, but...but I really don't think Carl killed himself."

"Is his case under investigation?" Hutch asked carefully. "Do the police think there was foul play?"

"Carl was found in his room, with a gun in his hand and...and...." Tina sniffled then, her voice breaking and her red eyes growing wet. "The police who came to investigate said it was a classic suicide. They didn't want to take what I had to say very seriously."

"What was it you told them?" Starsky asked.

"Carl had decided to go back to school and learn to do some sort of therapy. If he couldn't go back to being a cop he still had this need to help people." She smiled sadly. "He seemed to have a knack with people, could bring out the happier side of them. You know?" She looked at them hopefully, smiling when Starsky nodded in confirmation. "That's why he was at the rehabilitation facility a lot. He was talking with the therapists and the office staff trying to find out exactly what he could be able to do with only one hand. You know, sort of feeling out the profession."

"And he was still interested in doing that when he k...died?"

"Oh, yes. He was still looking into possible funding and what his benefits would be. But he'd started to look more and more worried this last month. When I asked him if anything was wrong, he'd just smile and shrug it off. He looked really downbeat after going to the rehab center, I think it was last Thursday, and I pushed him a little more. He said there was something bothering him, and that he was thinking of contacting a friend of his, a Dave Starsky, who was a cop and could do some poking around for him. He said he had a bad feeling."

"Did he say about what?" Starsky asked.

Tina shrugged. "He said that things weren't making sense. When I asked him if he meant at the rehab he said ‘no'. But I remember that he started acting worried a couple of months ago, when another friend of his at the rehab center killed himself. He was devastated. Claimed it had to be some sort of mistake."

"And that was when you noticed a change?" Hutch asked.

"Yeah, it was about that time. Ever since then he'd been sort of...watchful. And since the other deaths—"

"Other deaths?" Starsky asked, looking shocked. "What other deaths do you mean?"

"There have been several over the past few months. Last month it was a guy named Robert Abernathy. A few weeks ago it was another guy named Rufo Tamayo. Both of them—"

"Both of them were in public service," Starsky admitted softly. His face was growing pale. "I knew them, too. From the rehab. I didn't know they were dead."

Starsky sat back heavily in the booth. Hutch took a second to squeeze his knee under the table, wishing he could do more in public.

Tina continued. "Carl was upset, too. He said it didn't make sense, that they didn't have any reason to kill themselves. He said...he said...."

Tina lost it then, hiding her face in her hands as she started to cry. Hutch dug into his pocket for a handkerchief, giving it to the girl who nodded her thanks.

Hang on, partner, Hutch thought sadly, seeing on Starsky's features how much the news hurt. We'll get through this, too.

"What did Carl say, Tina?" Starsky's voice was low, disbelieving.

"He s-said that he didn't think they were really suicides. He had been asking some of the cops at the station for details, off the record." Tina finally looked up and gave them both a watery smile. "He said his ‘cop instincts' were telling him that things weren't what they seemed, and he wanted to talk to you about it."

"Did he tell you any details?" Hutch asked her. "Did he say anything specific?"

"No, that's all I know." Tina shrugged slightly, and Hutch could see the trauma and fatigue of her brother's death catch up with her. "Could you please look into his death, Detective Starsky? I-I'm afraid I can't bear to talk about it yet, but I'm sure you can find the police reports."

Hutch felt his stomach tighten further, looking at autopsy reports and photos of some stranger was never easy, but it was pure torture when it was someone you knew. If he could save Starsky that experience....

"We'll look into it, Tina. Take my word for that." Starsky patted her on the arm. "Do you need us to drive you back home?"

She shook her head. "I took a cab here, and I'm going to take one back. I'd just like to be by myself with my thoughts for awhile before I get back home. Mom and Dad haven't been taking this well and I need to get my head together before I see them again. They don't know that I was coming to talk to you, or that I don't think it was suicide. They can't seem to believe it was suicide themselves."

"We'll let you know if we find anything, Tina," Starsky assured her as they rose to leave. He dug a card out of his wallet and handed it to her. "Here's my home phone. Give me a call if you need to talk."

"Thanks. I will."

They both left then, each mulling over his own thoughts as they made their way out to the Torino.

Carl was right. It just wasn't like something any of those guys would do! They had everything to live for. Just like Carl did.

Starsky didn't know how long he had been sitting behind the wheel before Hutch placed a warm hand on his thigh.

"I'm sorry, Starsk," Hutch said softly, eyes soft with sympathy. "I know how much it hurts to lose a friend. I know how hard it is when you have to deal with relatives who don't want to accept what's happened."

Starsky felt a flash of anger. "You sayin' you don't believe her? You think that Carl probably took his own life?"

Hutch sighed deeply, leaning back in his seat. He rubbed at his face, looking drained and tired.

"They were all pretty bad off, Starsk. They were all permanently disabled, faced with the loss of their lives as they'd known them. They could have—"

"You didn't know them!" Starsky was surprised at his own vehemence and gave Hutch an apologetic glance. "Sorry. I know that you hung back at rehab so I'd do it by myself and feel as if I was accomplishing something on my own. You never had a chance to meet these guys and get to know them like I did."

"Which was a mistake," Hutch said, sounding bitter. "I should have been there to make sure you were doing okay. You needed me and I—"

"I admit that was a rough time," Starsky conceded quickly, not wanting Hutch to blame himself for his difficulties. "But we were both trying to handle the situation the best we could. Even if it wasn't the kind of therapy and support I needed at the time, a lot of those guys had good doctors and really were learning how to cope with their losses." Starsky stared at his hands, fingers clenching the steering wheel so tightly his knuckles were a stark white. He sighed and forced himself to relax his grip. "You just didn't get to know them like I did. I can't see any of those guys just…just packin' it in like that."

He chanced a glance at Hutch, who was no longer looking at him. He saw sadness, and maybe even more than a touch of guilt in his features.

Starsky felt a pang at the look. "You...you don't think that I could've—"

"No!" Hutch's reaction was quick and sharp, as were the eyes that found Starsky's. "No, not that. You would never have done that to me, no matter how bad off you were."

"You're right." Starsky sighed. "But I know I almost gave up in a lot of other ways." He reached over, and without looking around to see if they were being watched, took Hutch's hand in his. "If it hadn't been for you—"

"You might not have been a cop, Starsk, but you still had that spark of life," Hutch squeezed his hand hard. "You would have found a way in another job. You would have found some purpose and joy in whatever you could do with your life."

"And that's what I'm tryin' to tell you, Hutch. Even in the short time I got to talk to them I could tell that they had their eyes on the prize. They knew what they'd lost, what they still had, and they were working damn hard to either make their dreams come true or build new ones."

Hutch looked at him sadly. "All it takes is one lapse in judgment, Starsk. Just one dark, endless night and no one there to catch them."

"I know that. I also know that they could've been a lot worse off than I thought they were. But I've just got this feeling..."

"Cop's gut?" Hutch's slight smile made Starsky's heart jump. Hutch was so beautiful when he smiled like that.

"Yeah." Starsky gave him a smile in return. "Somewhere under this mess of a chest and scar tissue it's still there."

"You do know that Dobey isn't going to welcome you second guessing the detectives at those other stations. Not with closed cases. We've already got a full roster, and with...uh...."

"With me still getting up to speed, I know," Starsky finished, knowing that Hutch didn't like reminding him of the painfully obvious. "But there's nothing that says I can't do some looking around on my private time and during the odd moments at the station."

"Don't you mean ‘we'?"

Starsky smiled as he started up the Torino, feeling a bit more of his old life fall into place.

"You know, partner, the more I hear that word, the better it feels. We had better get some of that paperwork done so we can make some phone calls."

Hutch glanced at the clock, wondering if he should say something to Starsky. It was past six o'clock and the evening shift had arrived a couple of hours ago. Like other long days working with forms and files, Hutch felt restless, bored and more than ready to go home, but Starsky was still on the phone. From the look on his face, accompanied by dark mutterings and hasty scribbling on his memo pad, Hutch could tell that he hadn't been getting the answers he wanted.

If the other case files are closed as suicides, then the detectives on those cases aren't going to be in any rush to dig them back up. They're also not going to be too happy with the suggestion that they may have screwed up somewhere.

Hutch had already filed everything away and decided to quit pretending to be busy. He leaned on his desk, obviously listening into Starsky's part of the conversation and trying to catch Starsky's eye.

"Yeah, yeah, I know you've read me the report twice now, Gus, but isn't there—" Starsky sighed and looked up at him, frustration in his eyes. "No, I'm not saying you missed anything, but...you know—"

But he knows darn well that's what you're implying, buddy. Don't push too hard.

"Okay! Okay. Fine. But would you mind keeping the file warm for me?" Starsky grimaced and rubbed at his face with his free hand. "Look, all I'm asking is that you make sure it don't get lost until I can come over and pull it, that's all. Is that such a big favor to ask? I'll owe you one, okay? Okay?" Starsky's grip on the phone grew tighter and Hutch could see his partner's jaw clench. Whatever Gus was saying, it wasn't polite. "Thanks a hell of a lot, Gus. You're a real pal!" Hutch closed his eyes and tried not to jump as Starsky slammed the handset back into the cradle.

"So, what did Gus have to say?" Hutch asked with a tired smile. "He tell you to go jump off a cliff? Stuff it? Give you detailed instructions on how to kiss his—"

"Very funny." Starsky gave him a dark glance as he started to scribble frantically on his note pad. "All I wanted—"

"Was for the guy to admit he and his partner had screwed up a murder case by stamping ‘suicide' on it and closing the file. Frankly, Starsk, I don't blame him or the other detectives for blowing you off. You're not the height of tact today. Talking to Dobey when he's in a bad mood would have been easier."

Starsky paused for a moment, then looked up at Hutch, his glower softening a bit. "Yeah, I guess. But you know how hard it is to get records from other stations. Neither of these guys' deaths were covered by anyone here at Metro. So if those guys could'a just been a bit more willing to help me out, it would've saved us a lot of time when it came to pulling files."

"Starsk, from what I overheard they gave you what info they could. The cases are officially closed, remember? They did go out of their way to dig them up for you, didn't they? They do have other things to do besides worry about making you happy, you know."

Hutch watched as Starsky's shoulders slumped, weariness taking over his features. "Yeah, you're right. I could'a been more diplomatic. Guess I'm not as patient as I useta be."

"C'mon, partner, let's go get something to eat and call it a day. It's time to go home."

Starsky nodded, tossing his pen on top of the desk as he got up out of his chair. Hutch made for the door, more than ready to go home and spend some quality time alone with his lover.

Starsky parked the Torino down the street from Venice Place, wishing for the hundredth time that the restaurant below Hutch's apartment wasn't so popular. Neither he nor Hutch seemed to get any decent parking anymore.

Checking for traffic, he got out and walked around the back of the Torino, giving it a once-over. He gave it an affectionate pat on the trunk.

The old girl looks like nothing ever happened to her. Wish I could say the same.

Starsky knew he was lucky to be alive, that Hutch didn't give a shit about his scars any more than he cared about Hutch's. But there was always that vain spot inside that would make him wish his repairs had been as seamless as the Torino's.

At least mine can be covered up and no one's the wiser. Other people have it so much worse than me. Why can't I let it go?

Guilt washed over him as he thought of Carl and the others from the rehab center. He opened the door to the stairwell and closed it softly behind him. Staring at the stairs in front of him, he could clearly remember a time when walking up them to Hutch's apartment had seemed more than he could ever manage. And here he was, feeling sorry for himself when so many others had it worse.

Taking the steps one at a time, savoring the easy feel of such an accomplishment, he reached the top and looked back down.

I was so ready to give it all up at one point, and Hutch was there for me. If he hadn't been there, would I have made it? Could I have gotten so depressed that I would have wanted to end it all?

Starsky couldn't see himself giving up on life when he'd spent most of his adult life trying so hard to keep it. He also knew he couldn't do something like that to Hutch and his own family, as well as all his friends at the station. Giving up on your dreams was one thing, but giving up on life was another.

And maybe that's why he couldn't accept the fact that Carl or the others would have killed themselves. They had family, and friends, too, and most importantly, they had had the will to survive.

Starsky jumped as the door swung open.

"What are you doing out here?" Hutch asked with a teasing smile as he held the door wide open. "Contemplating your navel or what?"

"In a manner of speaking." Starsky smiled slightly as he walked into the familiar room and started to take off his jacket and gun. "Guess I'm still a bit shocked from hearing about the suicides."

As Starsky reached up to hang his gun on the wardrobe hook that was saved for his stuff, long, strong arms wrapped around his middle. Starsky hung up his weapon and relaxed into the embrace a second later, enjoying the feeling of power and strength in the body behind him. He smiled as Hutch's chin found the tender spot between his neck and shoulder, and he could feel warm breath catch in his hair.

"You okay?"

Starsky thought about it for a moment, relaxing in the safety of those enfolding arms. Easy to give the quick answer, but not always the best way to go.

"Guess not," he admitted. "Feels like I've been sideswiped."

"I'm sorry." Hutch's nose nudged Starsky's hair, looking for his left ear. Breath danced over his ear as it was nuzzled. "I know how bad it feels to lose a friend."

While he was enjoying the attention, Starsky wasn't quite ready to relax into the offered comfort. Sighing to himself, he raised his hand and cupped Hutch's face, holding the blond head closer to his own. He knew Hutch only wanted to be comforting, but he didn't feel like he could stand still very long. "'Fraid I'm not...."

Starsky was squeezed hard as lips found his neck. He could feel more than hear Hutch say, "Let me know what you need."

Starsky turned in the loosening embrace, gave Hutch a quick peck on the lips and pulled away to walk to the kitchen. "Count on it. Just not quite ready to settle down yet. I'm starving. What've we got planned for tonight?"

"Uh...thought we'd decide once we got here. I've got a few pieces of cold chicken, sandwich stuff, or we could order out."

"Chicken." Starsky decided quickly. He really wasn't hungry, but needed something to do. Eating would work and the chicken was there. He opened the refrigerator and pulled out the leftover chicken. "What else you got?"

They spent the next few minutes pulling things out of the refrigerator and cupboards. By the time they were done, it looked like a picnic spread out on the table. Lots of bits of this and that, but not enough of any one thing to get really full on.

Starsky sat down to fill his plate as Hutch brought the coffeepot over and filled two cups.

"So, did you get anything to work with?" Hutch asked the question casually while he filled his own plate, but Starsky could tell Hutch was watching him out of the corner of his eyes.

"No, not really. But if there'd been any obvious pointers to murder then they wouldn't be listed as suicide cases, would they?"

"What have we got?"

Starsky set down his uneaten chicken leg and picked up his coffee instead. "Carl was found dead on the floor of his apartment. Head shot, at close range, left temple. He was apparently standing at his front window when he did it."

"Gun?"

"Carl didn't own any that they could find records of. This one was reported stolen a couple of years ago. It was in bad shape, not taken care of properly, so probably has been sold on the street a coupl'a hundred times by now."

"And the others?"

"Robert OD'd on pain killers. He'd had several back surgeries that didn't seem to do him much good and had gone through all kinds of pills. Decided to take a bottle or so of them with almost a quart of good whisky. Rufo jumped off the roof of his apartment building."

Neither one of them said anything for a few moments, Starsky finding he was more interested in his coffee than the food. Hutch seemed to only have interest in his own plate.

"You're not going to ask about possible motives?" Starsky asked, watching Hutch eat too slowly to be really interested in the meal. He could feel that Hutch didn't think much of the evidence Starsky had so far, which was nothing. Starsky could feel the frustration twisting his stomach.

"Because they were all crippled in some way, everyone expects them to have a reason for pulling the plug, right?" His voice and anger grew as he stood suddenly, turning to pace the living room. "Not that they could've been of any use to society, huh? Or had loved ones who didn't care if they couldn't earn a buck or two. Hard to believe that they could find or accomplish new careers, or start new families or—"

"Is this dinner show going to last very long? I'm almost ready for dessert."

Starsky turned toward Hutch angrily, ready to say the first nasty thing that came to mind, when he saw the slight smile on Hutch's face. Hutch was looking at him with sympathy and understanding in his eyes.

"I'm not arguing with you, Starsk. I'm on your side, remember? You feel like they've been given the shaft, and maybe they have. But we need facts to work with here. And I know you're frustrated with the detectives on the cases, but look at it from their point of view. Why would they dig further when all the right signs were there and they have a hundred other cases to get to work on?"

"Do you think I'm barking up the wrong tree? Think I'm too involved and overreacting?"

Hutch pushed his plate away and planted both elbows on the table, steepling his fingers while propping his chin on his thumbs. "I can't call this one, Starsk. I know how hard it is for someone to face a crippling disability."

Hutch's eyes grew shiny, his voice went soft. "I also know that everyone is going to handle it differently, and for some that means giving up on themselves." Hutch held up a hand to stop him before Starsky even realized he'd opened his mouth. "I can see where it happens. We both know how tough it can be to not only have to give up your career and your dreams, but have to deal with the social changes as well. All it takes would be one moment of despair...."

"So you do think I'm overreacting."

Hutch stood up and came over to him, placing a large palm on the middle of Starsky's chest. Exactly where the scars were the thickest. "It's your gut, Starsk. No matter what they had to do to keep you alive it's still a cop's gut. You knew those people, and if you say something is wrong with those deaths then I'll bet my life's savings on it." Hutch gave him a smile that made Starsky's insides melt. "There isn't a bullet in the world that could have touched that."

Smiling widely, Starsky stepped closer and wrapped his arms around Hutch, squeezing hard. Resting his forehead on Hutch's shoulder, he felt his gut relax even more as Hutch returned the embrace. How warm and safe it felt to know that someone understood you and loved you anyway.

Starsky sighed a happy sigh while enjoying the closeness. "Dinner show's over," he announced into Hutch's shirt. "And I'm still hungry."

Hutch laughed as he pulled away. "You mean you're just now hungry. Go eat before I have to pack all that food away again."

With a swat at Hutch's well-shaped behind Starsky headed for his neglected plate.

Now if I can only get Dobey to let us look into these cases, we'll be all set to go and find those guys some real justice.

They had debated about whether they wanted to go out for the evening or not, and since they couldn't really decide what they wanted to do, it seemed that a quiet evening at home won by default. So they settled on the couch, side by side, Hutch with a book and Starsky with the TV and a snack. Hutch was glad that Starsky seemed content to leave the deaths alone for a little while. They both needed some down time, even if it was only for a few hours. Tomorrow would come soon enough.

A few hours had gone by and evening had fallen, when Hutch found himself wondering if he should give up and find something else to read. It was a murder mystery Arturo Flores had loaned him weeks ago, when they were still working as temporary partners. Hutch didn't really care for murder mysteries. The well done ones made him feel as if he were back at work, and the poorer ones made him frustrated with their lack of realism. But Arturo had sworn that this story was worth his time, and Hutch had agreed to read it so they'd have something to talk about. Somehow he hadn't gotten to it before now and it was time to either read it or give it back.

Unfortunately, it hadn't impressed him so far.

Reaching up to turn a page, he started when something white flashed in front of his eyes. It was a popcorn kernel.

"Haven't you finished that yet?"

Hutch flashed an annoyed glance at Starsky as he picked the popcorn off his shirt and tossed it back into the bowl on Starsky's lap. "Apparently not, Dumbo. And watch what you're doing, will you? You're getting popcorn all over the place."

"Wasn't me," Starsky said, with that "I'm totally innocent" tone that told Hutch it had been thrown on purpose. He glanced at the spine of the book Hutch held. "A murder mystery, right? I thought those things drove you nuts?"

"Flores said it's a good story. He said—"

"I'm sure he did," Starsky interrupted, turning his attention back to the TV.

Hutch was finally starting to get interested again in the story when two small, white objects flew between him and the pages.

"Starsky!" Hutch grabbed at one kernel as it rolled down his chest, missing the other. "Stop it!"

"What? Stop what?"

"Stop tossing popcorn!" Hutch brushed at the greasy spots the popcorn had left on his shirt. "You're making a mess and you're going to ruin the book!"

"Popcorn? Oh, you mean this stuff?"

Starsky rolled sideways toward him, placing his left hand lightly on Hutch's left leg before tracing his fingers lightly up his thigh. Hutch froze as those long, well-formed fingers traced their way up his zipper, only to find their way to the piece of wayward popcorn nestled in a fold of denim at Hutch's hip.

"Is that what all the fuss was about?" Starsky tossed it back into the mostly empty bowl, his sultry look belying his concern. "You mean to say that you're gonna nag me over one piece of popcorn?"

"Uh...three." Hutch swallowed thickly, hoping he was playing this game correctly. "All that grease and salt...all over your hands and now all over my shirt! You really ought to clean up your own messes, you know."

Starsky moved closer, eyes sparkling and his face slightly flushed. "You know, you're right. Maybe I ought to make sure your book is okay—" Grabbing it out of Hutch's hand, Starsky closed it and leaned over Hutch to toss it carelessly toward the end table. It didn't sound like it made it, but Hutch found he really didn't care at this point. As their eyes were locked on each other, Hutch felt something fall into his lap.

"Oh, damn!" Starsky sighed dramatically as he surveyed the new mess. "Look at me, all butterfingers! Now, don't you move while I get this popcorn all cleaned up."

Hutch could only shake his head dumbly as he watched Starsky move off the couch. Kneeling between Hutch's knees, Starsky leaned on hands planted on either side of Hutch's hips. He could feel the heat from the touch run straight to his crotch. Hutch felt his face flush in arousal as Starsky leaned in closer, an eerie evil look of mischief sparkling in the dark blue eyes.

"Wouldn't want to get any grease on the couch, would we?"

Hutch could only shake his head in answer, hands grabbing on tightly to the sofa as his mind gleefully warned him of all the things Starsky could have in mind for him in this position.

"Good. Time to clean the place up for the night."

Hutch watched as Starsky leaned forward until dark curls blocked his view. Heat from Starsky was like the sun on a cool day as their bodies moved closer. Hutch drew in his breath as he felt the tip of Starsky's tongue lick at the greasy spot on his shirt.

Hutch could feel his heart accelerate at the feeling, his cock hardening in response to the feeling of tongue through the thin material.

Starsky hummed as if he were enjoying the taste, and Hutch could only imagine what the butter and salt tasted like. Breathing a bit faster, Hutch tried to relax as the tongue moved farther down and to the side, leaving moist cloth clinging to his chest.

Hutch heard himself moan deeply as the cleaning tongue found his left nipple through the clothing. Eyes closed, Hutch lost himself in the feeling as Starsky played with the nub, the cloth between them making it feel rough and ultra sensitive. After another moan, Starsky left that nipple and mouthed the shirt as he made his way to the center of Hutch's chest, to the first expanse of open skin. Hutch felt himself flush deeper as the strong mouth took in the middle button of the shirt. He didn't know if Starsky had only unbuttoned it or had bitten it off, and he didn't care. Soon he could feel Starsky nose into his shirt, and mid-evening stubble rubbed against his skin, leaving little wakes of fire as Starsky nuzzled into the right side of Hutch's shirt in search of the other nipple.

Hutch jerked and gasped just as Starsky found it, warm breath warning him a fraction of a second before it happened.

"Y-e-s-s-s-s-s...." Hutch moaned, arching his chest into the hot, moist suction pulling at sensitive tissue. His cock jumped, almost pinched painfully in his jeans, and with the arch Hutch tried to rub his crotch against any part of Starsky he could reach.

Letting go of Hutch's nipple, Starsky barked a short laugh at the movement. "Not yet, pal." And then proceeded to lick at Hutch's stomach and down toward the top of his jeans.

Hutch needed to watch now, as Starsky shifted enough to bring up a hand to undo the rest of Hutch's shirt buttons. He pulled Hutch's shirt out of the top of his jeans just enough to give his tongue access to his navel, then below, to the skin just above the top of the denim.

Starsky stopped then, and looked up at Hutch. The look in Starsky's hooded eyes matched the heated color of his face. Hutch groaned as his cock pulsed and complained at its confinement.

For me! I still can't believe he can get so hot for me...by touching me and making me fly. I can't believe how little it takes between us to get to this point. How did we ever stay apart?

He met and held those blue pools of lava that were his lover's eyes, letting Starsky see the heat and need in his own. Hutch groaned deeply in the moment where they did nothing but look at each other.

And with the moan, Hutch watched in amazement as the blue pools of Starsky's eyes grew even darker. Starsky's smile looked even more wicked than it had before.

"You like that, huh? You like it when I touch you," Starsky whispered, only slightly louder than the beating of Hutch's heart. "You're always touching your chest, you know. When you're hot. When you're thinking. You stroke your chest when you're watching something that turns you on. Even when we weren't together, you touching your chest was something I always found myself watching."

Hutch grunted at the words, feeling open and exposed at how well Starsky seemed to know him. The way he seemed to know things about him that he had never known about himself.

"You're driving me crazy!" Hutch gasped, moving to put his arms around Starsky, to pull him down on top of him so that he could feel Starsky's heat and weight all over his body.

But he was trapped by Starsky, who had his wrists pinned to the couch. Starsky leaned on them enough to let Hutch know that he wasn't allowed to move them again. Those were the rules. "Short trip, babe. You've been nuts for ages. I just know how to bring it out in you."

Hutch gripped the cushions, letting Starsky know he was going to play along.

Grinning like a Cheshire cat, Starsky released his wrists and placed his hands, palm down, on each side of Hutch's pelvis.

"Look at the mess I made. Guess I'll have to take my time to make sure it's cleaned up properly."

He leaned down and started eating the spilled popcorn from Hutch's lap and crotch, taking minute bites of fabric and sensitive skin underneath as he captured each kernel. He took some softly, and others as if he were attacking some sort of prey.

Hutch was in wonderful agony, the bites and nips increasing the hardness and demanding pulse in his cock. Thankful that he had not worn his tightest pair, he jerked from Starsky's ministrations as well as a great need to give his cock more room. He was hard and leaking now, the urge to touch and rub at himself growing harder to deny with every passing second.

He panted, body feeling charged beyond endurance and his knuckles white with their grip when Starsky looked up at him. He realized there was only one kernel left, and he held his breath as Starsky gave him a slow wink and then dove for the kernel.

Sharp teeth nipped at him as it disappeared, yet the teeth didn't stop. A sharp line of nibbles and sucking sensations followed the length of his cock from outside his jeans and down his thigh to the head of his crown.

Gasping, Hutch could hear himself whimper, needing to come, wanting the attention of that wonderful mouth to push him to the edge and over. He was too close to handle the exquisite torture for long, but not nearly close enough to get off with the fabric between him and what he really wanted.

"P-please..." He gasped, blood racing and his mind soaring with his pleasure and need. "Starsk...I can't..."

Starsky straightened and quickly, but carefully, pulled at the zipper. Hutch felt another heady rush of pleasure as his suffocating cock filled a bit more. In a moment Starsky had a hand inside that tight space, taking and shifting Hutch's cock from its prison of jeans and boxer shorts.

"Ooohhh..."

Hutch shifted as his cock was completely freed to expand almost painfully and slap against his stomach, he opened his legs even wider as Starsky pulled the waist of his boxers down under his balls, pushing them closer to the base of his cock.

Panting hard, body tense and trembling with his fight not to let go of the couch, Hutch looked up into Starsky's face, seeing the dark, hooded, lust-filled eyes that must mirror his own. But where Hutch knew he must look so flushed as to be burnt on the outside, Starsky's complexion made him look as if he were burning from within.

They locked eyes for one long second, communicating things between them that modern man would never have words for, until Starsky slowly lowered his head. Holding Hutch firmly by the base of his cock, Starsky tugged him upwards and Hutch gripped the couch with the last of his strength, tensing for that volcano of a mouth to finally touch him the way his insides were demanding to be touched.

He tried to watch, but his body jerked and his head was thrown back as climax hit him like a Mack truck. His whole world became that hot mouth and tongue, his whole soul in the muscles, tendons and male wiring that beat and pulsed as if they were separate things that demanded he now give his all.

It was his all that he gave, pulsingly, into Starsky's waiting, unmoving throat. Hutch could feel himself emptying into it, how much he couldn't say other than Starsky swallowed carefully a few times because of it. He felt as if he were pumping out every bit of blood in his body, the weakness of completion making him feel loose and empty in his gut and chest. He didn't know what he was doing, other than he lay like a slowly dissolving puddle of a human being, feeling pleasure flow through and around every part of his body.

He floated then, opening eyes to fuzzy vision and the sight of Starsky carefully letting his soft cock slip from his lips. The room suddenly felt cold as the air hit his wet organ, but not enough to make his body care one way or the other.

"Damn...babe...." Hutch whispered, feeling almost too drained to even manage those words. How to tell Starsky how good that felt? How to put into words what most people had never been able to express well?

Got to show him.

He met Starsky's dark eyes, took in his pained, desperate expression hidden behind the smile that claimed his delight in Hutch's reactions. Hutch smiled back. A smile of anticipation.

I'll show you, Starsk. Just give me a minute to get my feet back on the ground and my heart back in my chest.

Sighing, not wanting to make Starsky wait too long and be too close to coming before he could start, Hutch struggled to sit up, not caring how exposed he still was. Finally able to let go of the couch, his hands still stiff from their death grip, Hutch pushed at Starsky, waving at him to stand up.

As shaky as Hutch felt from completion, Starsky was visibly shaking with his own need. Still sitting, Hutch grabbed at Starsky's hips to bring him closer, letting Starsky know that he wanted him to stand close so that Hutch's face would be at Starsky's crotch.

He knew Starsky was close; could feel it in the clenched muscles, trembling hips, and the hands that gripped Hutch's shoulders.

Not too fast though, love. Not too fast....

The bulge in front of his face drew him. He could smell Starsky's arousal and the scent of it seemed to clear his mind of any fog left from his own completion. Starsky was very hard, the outline of his cock head clear and sharp underneath the tight, well-worn fabric. He knew that Starsky must be close to hurting in jeans that tight. Hutch leaned forward slowly and placed a careful, gentle kiss on the mound. Leaving his lips in place for a long second, he could feel the pulse through the fabric. Starsky sighed deeply then, the sound full of contentment and eagerness.

He reached up and unzipped Starsky's jeans carefully, mindful of his partner's habit of going commando. Only when the zipper was safely down did he undo the straining button at the waist, listening to Starsky groan deeply as he shifted in the freedom and as his cock snapped to attention in front of Hutch's face.

Starsky's cock was more than skin and blood. It was art. Hutch was amazed at how perfect it looked on his partner. Not small when unaroused, Starsky's cock was tall and wide when hard and ready. Its thick base sprang from a mass of wild curls that wove around and clung to his rose-colored sac that was even now drawn up tightly to Starsky's body.

The grip on his shoulders tightened dramatically when Hutch reached up to lovingly trace a swollen vein from base to glans with one hand, and to cup and rub at testicles with the other. Starsky was panting now. Looking up beyond the muscled, hair-covered chest Hutch could see Starsky's head thrown back and his body strung like a wire, his desperation making Hutch's shoulders ache.

Gripping the base of the thick member, Hutch guided it to his mouth. He drew it in carefully, listening to the deep moans Starsky was making and feeling the flex of buttock in his free hand to gauge how close to coming Starsky was.

Just a little bit more, Starsk. Wait just a little bit more....

As the cock filled his mouth he felt surrounded by the feel, taste and smell of Starsky. If Starsky hadn't been so big, and it still so new to him, Hutch would have tried to swallow him whole, to take him as far down his throat as humanly possible. Hutch wanted him, wanted all of him to be a permanent part of his body, to make them so connected that they could never be pulled apart.

As Starsky's moans and trembling increased, Hutch realized he wanted Starsky to take what he wanted. Grabbing both of Starsky's wrists, he pulled the hands from his shoulders and placed them on either side of his head. Grabbing both of Starsky's bare buttocks in his hands, he squeezed them gently, moving his mouth back and forth around the hard cock loosely, letting Starsky know he was free to set his own pace.

As Starsky took up the rhythm, shallow at first, Hutch took a deep breath and tried to loosen up his throat muscles, trying to allow Starsky to go as deep as he could. He could tell Starsky was trying to go shallow, and even now when he was half out of his mind with need, he didn't want to hurt him.

"Uh...Uhuhuhhhh...." Starsky moaned deeply, picking up the pace. The sound echoed lowly throughout the room, and Hutch could now only picture Starsky's head thrown back all the way—that tense, almost painful look he had when lost in the ecstasy of his growing climax.

But Starsky was trying too hard to be gentle. When he pulled back, leaving only the tip of his glans still in Hutch's mouth, Hutch braced himself and pinched Starsky hard on his left butt cheek. Startled, Starsky shoved himself hard into Hutch's mouth.

"Oooooooohhhhhh...yesyesyesyes," Starsky moaned deeply, almost sounding as if he were in pain. Pumping harder now, fucking his mouth so deeply that Hutch fought to keep from panicking at the depth of it, Starsky seemed to teeter on the edge of losing control. Hutch tried to relax and time Starsky's pace so he wouldn't choke or gag at the new depth. He placed one hand on the front of Starsky's hip, leaving one still gripping a round buttock, in case he found himself in trouble.

Starsky was pumping frantically now, deeper than Hutch had ever been able to let him go before. The moaning from deep in Starsky's chest turned into a growl as he started to buck frantically. The hands holding Hutch's head now grabbed fistfuls of hair as he moved Hutch's head back and forth in time to his thrusts.

"Huuuuuuuu...ttttttcccccccchhhhhhh...uhhh!" Starsky yelled just as Hutch could feel the thick cock swell a fraction more, feel the glans flare a bit more as it grazed the back of his throat. And just as Hutch was about to give up on breathing altogether Starsky stiffened entirely.

It came then, Hutch could feel the warm spurts down in the back of his throat, the pulsing of cock that was echoed by Starsky's gentle and shallow thrusts. But Hutch needed a breath, needed to swallow before he choked, so pulled back gently. He knew how startling a swallow could be right after a climax. Starsky's hands went lax in his hair, and Hutch knew he could pull away completely if he wanted to. But he wanted to hold Starsky in his mouth for as long as Starsky wanted to be there. Hutch looked up to see Starsky looking down at him, love and appreciation in his eyes.

They stayed that way for what seemed like ages, but couldn't have been too long. Hutch could feel the tremble in Starsky's body, knowing that the weakness of climax was going to pull him down eventually. The gentle hands combed through Hutch's hair with infinite tenderness, which meant that the only reason Starsky hadn't collapsed yet was because he wanted this moment to last as much as Hutch did.

Starsky's cock, lax and soft in Hutch's mouth, pulled away from him with a slight movement of Starsky's hips. Hutch held out his arms as Starsky collapsed on top of them, both of them too hobbled in twisted and undone clothing to be very graceful in the embrace. Somehow Hutch had enough strength to turn them sideways so that they lay lengthwise on the couch, Starsky a heavy weight on top of him, clothing left to fall any which way.

Nothing mattered to Hutch now. Not the way they looked, the mess of saliva and sticky cum that had been left behind, nor the fact that they had a nice, clean bed they could be relaxing in. All that mattered was that some deep need was being fulfilled by the close, loving contact of post-climax. As much as the body cried for the completion of sex Hutch had always been aware of another, just as demanding need, to share the afterwards. Those peaceful moments of complete satisfaction with someone he loved pleasured other, hidden parts of himself.

Shifting under Starsky, who seemed to have already fallen asleep, Hutch moved just enough to get a stray elbow out of his ribs before letting himself doze off.

Some unknown time later, Hutch heard the voice of a newscaster from the TV. Looking around in the light from the end table lamp, it took Hutch a moment to remember what they'd been up to. Starsky was draped across his chest, snoring softly. A pretty picture, but Hutch could tell by the stiffness of his joints that they both needed to move to the bed for the night. Running a tongue over the inside of his mouth he decided the amount of damage was minimal, and well worth the result.

"Hey, Starsk?" He murmured into the curls that were tickling his chin. "We gotta get up and go to bed. C'mon."

Pushing the weight of his partner up, Hutch managed to pull himself out from under Starsky as the other man glanced around the room in sleepy confusion.

"Bedtime?"

"Sure is. I'm getting too old to sleep on the couch anymore, let alone with Godzilla on top of me." Hutch slipped off his shoes, socks, pants and tangled underwear before he stood up to head for the bathroom. "I'll get cleaned up first, then meet you in bed."

"Sure," Starsky remarked, voice slurred with drowsiness. He stretched like a cat, making Hutch pause a moment just to watch. "Time to go to bed so we can fool around."

Hutch snorted in amusement as he closed the door, not only at Starsky's sleepy version of an evil leer but because he himself was starting to feel more than a bit interested in the idea.

We keep this up, Starsk, and we'll never have any strength left for work! We'll both end up old and gone before our time, having climaxed ourselves to death!

He smiled at his own mussed and self-satisfied reflection in the bathroom mirror.

And what better way to go?

It was already a week after Carl's death and Starsky didn't really have much to go on. He and Hutch had put in the paperwork and had gotten copies of the reports from the other deaths, but no matter how many times they read them neither one found anything out of place. It hadn't helped that the detectives at the scenes had barely scratched the surface, not bothering to do much digging.

It also didn't help that he'd finally had to admit to himself that Dobey and Hutch were right. If he and Hutch had had those cases they probably would have handled them in the same fashion. If it quacked like a duck...

At least Hutch is listening to me.

Sitting at his desk, he toyed with the papers on Rufo's case, trying to ignore the stack of files on their current cases that he should be looking through. There wasn't much left he could do now. He'd talked to the families as best he could, walking that fine line between opening those painful wounds and finding what they might know that could help. But even the families were confused, some only now able to come to terms with the deaths. None of them could say for sure what had been going through their loved ones' minds, the deaths themselves putting horrible doubts into their heads. They themselves were asking "why didn't we see?"

The families can't believe it was suicide, are still struggling with the idea, but they can't say it was murder any more than the forensic teams could. The detectives handling the cases didn't see any reason to dig further. I think Dobey must have signed off on us getting these reports just to humor me. "Gotta give the nut case some leeway, he's been through a lot."

He felt bad as soon as he thought it, but it was true that he wondered how confident Dobey was in his abilities. Since he'd been back Dobey hadn't yelled at him or treated him like he had before.

Guess I can't blame him too much. I've still got to prove myself in a lot of areas. At least Hutch isn't acting like I'm made of glass. At least, not since our last case.

Starsky sighed, eyes back on the pictures of Rufo's body at the scene. It wasn't pretty.

He remembered Rufo. Not much older than he was, the firefighter had been severely burned while trying to save an elderly couple who were trapped in the upper floor of an ancient apartment complex. He had gotten both of them out, one dead and one who never made it to the emergency room. Rufo had lost most of the skin on one leg, an arm, and one side of his face. Starsky had sat and talked to him at the center while waiting for their separate appointments.

"I'd do it again" is what he'd said, Starsky remembered, wishing he could remember Rufo's face more clearly. Even though both of them died, he said it would have been worse if he had had the chance to go in and hadn't taken it. He said the look in their eyes, when they realized that someone still cared enough to come for them, made it worth the pain.

And his family, so proud of him and so thankful that he'd survived. His wife loved him, his kids loved him, and he was looking forward to getting back to desk duty, even if he couldn't be on the front line anymore.

I just don't believe that he jumped off that roof. Nor can I believe that Carl would shoot himself, or Robert take those pills.

None of them were the type to give up.

Or is it that I just don't want to think that they could have given up on life? Because if they could have, then I could have, too?

Hutch sat down at his desk in front of Starsky and passed over a full cup of coffee. Starsky nodded his thanks.

"Maybe it's time to cut it loose, partner."

He looked up to see Hutch's eyes on him, sympathy and determination on his features.

"Was wondering the same thing," Starsky admitted reluctantly. "But I just can't seem to let it go, Hutch. They were good guys and I feel like I can't walk away from this."

"Gut feeling."

"Yeah. Still there. Still yellin' at me to do somethin' about it."

Hutch took a sip from his own cup as Starsky only played with his. He sat and listened to the normal bustle of the squadroom as he waited for Hutch's response. He knew he was probably going to get some kind of Hutchinson lecture about needing to let the past go. Might as well get it over with for the evening.

I'm at a dead end here. I have to admit that. We've got other cases to work on.

But he still didn't have to like it.

"Asher's," Hutch said suddenly, cup frozen halfway to his mouth as he looked at Starsky with a bit of hope in his eyes. "Didn't you say once that a lot of those guys from the rehab center would meet at a bar called ‘Asher's' once in awhile? Wasn't there some sort of group they asked you to join?"

The name threw him for a moment, and he tried to think back. Then it came back to him and he was surprised, and chagrined, that he had forgotten about it.

"Damn! You're right! Abe Jorgensen and Robert Abernathy asked me to come a coupla times, but I never felt like going. I know they seemed to consider it a kind of club, one where you had to have been injured while on some sort of public service job. It was something they all had in common."

"Carl was a rookie, Robert was a highway patrolman and—"

"Rufo was a fireman. All wounded in the line of duty." Starsky felt a chill flow up his spine to mess with the hairs on the back of his neck. "That's it, Hutch," he said slowly, feeling a bit of the puzzle fall into place. "I'll bet my retirement that that's the connection!"

"It still doesn't make any sense." Hutch shook his head as if he were reluctant to interfere with Starsky's enthusiasm. "Why would anyone want any of those guys dead?"

"I don't know, but now that it's hit me I've got to check it out. I can call Tina Kidman and see if her brother gave her any details. Then I can crash the party and see what develops."

"What do you mean, crash the party?" Hutch was looking at him suspiciously.

"Think about it, Hutch," Starsky asked in a whisper. "This is murder I'm talking about. Whoever did it isn't going to walk up and turn himself in just because a cop comes and starts asking questions. I fit the pattern, so if I go in just to be able to drown my sorrows with friends—"

"But you're healthy and back on the job. None of those other guys were able to make it back to work except behind a desk."

"And at the time I left it was pretty clear I wasn't going to make it back to the streets." Starsky watched Hutch wince at the memory. It had been a bad time for both of them. "None of those guys really knows me very well. They don't know you at all. Anything they've heard about me has been through the grapevine. We both know how off that can be."

Hutch shook his head, looking unhappy with the idea. "Starsk, you know Dobey isn't going to go for this. He's certain that you're digging for fool's gold with those cases. He thinks...."

"That I'm working out some issues, right?"

Hutch gave him an embarrassed look.

"Okay. Great. So, I do it on my own time. He's got no say what I do after hours."

"You're not counting me out, are you?" Hutch asked, looking as if he were ready to argue the point.

"You? Never." Starsky gave him a wide grin before pushing the case folders aside and grabbing the newer ones. "Now, we'd better get some work done on the cases we've actually been assigned, or Dobey will never let us have any free time."

And for the first time in days it felt as if he was finally getting something accomplished.

On to Part 2

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