When the Chips Are Down, Part One
by Sarah Problem
With thanks to Lucy

SHSVS, Episode 11, Part 2

Then Hutch moved, reaching out to cover Starsky's crotch with one large palm. Starsky pushed into the touch, bracing himself with his other hand as he leaned down toward him. Their eyes met again, and Starsky could see the ocean blue eyes turn dark as irises dilated. Hutch's face was flushed now, lips curled in a smile that called Starsky's to them.

Leaning down, Starsky's lips met Hutch's, and both of them softly rubbed and caressed each other as their hands started to mimic the motions on their covered cocks.

It was Hutch who opened first, giving Starsky access to his mouth. Groaning at the taste, Starsky sent his tongue deep, searching out every flavor he could find of their shared day.

He lost track of time, lost in the taste and feel of Hutch under his hands and in his mouth. They parted to breathe and as they did so, Starsky realized his erection was almost painful in the tight shorts, and Hutch's own mound was tight and hard under the stretched cloth.

Giving the swollen mouth one more kiss, Starsky moved toward Hutch's crotch, angling his own toward Hutch's head. They both shifted on the bed until they were in a sixty-nine position. As soon as he was on his side, Starsky's hands were at Hutch's shorts, undoing the snap and pulling down the zipper. Hutch's hands were at his own zipper, and Starsky moaned as his cock was set free.

Pulling Hutch's shorts down a fraction, Starsky first saw the ashen curls that framed his lover's cock. Not quite as blond as the hair on Hutch's head, it was fine and faintly curly, but not very abundant. Starsky reached into the layers of shorts and underwear to grab at the thick base of Hutch's cock, pulling the large organ from where it was swollen down the inside of his shorts. If there had been more room in the shorts, Starsky wouldn't have been surprised to find Hutch's cock head poking out of the bottom of them. As it was, Starsky had to carefully pull and angle the long cock until it was free. He could see it filling, the head flaring and needy.

He could feel Hutch's hands on him and he spread his legs farther apart, wanting him anywhere Hutch wanted to be. He mirrored the movements but also found himself scratching here and pinching gently there in addition, knowing that those spots drove Hutch crazy. He could hear Hutch humming, the sound coming through his body and making it feel as if the large man was purring.

Starsky knew he was making his own noises, and whatever sounds he made seemed to signal Hutch to do the exact right thing. His own nerves hummed and thrummed as if Hutch was speaking for them both.

They played with each other for long minutes, Starsky growing harder and harder just as Hutch was. Starsky could feel himself leaking pre-cum and felt Hutch spread the liquid around his glans and shaft.

He gripped Hutch's cock tightly around the base and pulled it closer toward him, his other hand still kneading Hutch's balls in a rhythm that always seemed to elicit a powerful response. He could see it then, a droplet of pre-cum at the slit. Sliding his hand up Hutch's cock, Starsky milked that drop out of him, rubbing it around the glans with his thumb. More and more leaked out, and Starsky could feel Hutch doing the same to him.

A few seconds more, and Starsky knew they would be sucking each other to completion, but this time he wanted more than that.

Letting go of Hutch's cock, he pushed away, pulling his cock back from Hutch as well.

"What?" Hutch's voice sounded thick and breathless.

Glancing at Hutch, seeing the hot, hooded eyes and flushed face framed by the golden-white hair, Starsky knew what he wanted.

"Wanna screw you," Starsky admitted in a heavy whisper. "Wanna pound you into this bed, lover, and never let you up."

"Return the favor?" Hutch asked with an evil grin.

"Get rid of the clothes. I'll get the stuff."

Starsky pulled away, his heart beating a hundred miles an hour as he gave Hutch an evil grin. Throwing his clothes into the room, not caring how they landed, Starsky hurried to the bathroom to retrieve the lube he had in his shaving kit. He felt deliciously evil and lewd, his heavy cock bobbing in the open as he hurried on his mission.

They usually tried to come together when they made love, to share climaxes, but there were times when they'd take turns fucking each other, letting the other indulge himself selfishly. It was a great freedom--to let yourself go while trusting that the other one would find his own pleasure the same way, in his own turn.

Starsky was in too much of a hurry to be neat, so dumped the contents of the small bag into the sink, grabbing at the tube as soon as he saw it. Returning to the bed, Starsky stood at the end, his whole body throbbing as he looked at his partner.

Hutch was now nude, on his back and looking impossibly sexy with his disheveled hair and long limbs wantonly relaxed. Hutch watched Starsky open the lube and apply a liberal coating to himself but didn't say anything. Starsky knew Hutch was waiting for him to call the shots.

He also knew he'd be free to set whatever pace he wanted--fast or slow--knowing Hutch would enjoy it in his own way. Starsky would have to be careful not to touch him, or fuck him, in ways to bring him off, because he wanted Hutch hard and ready when his turn came. Hutch would be like a tiger pouncing on his kill and Starsky would be relaxed and open to whatever rhythm Hutch wanted to set.

"How do you want me?" Hutch whispered excitedly, a smile on his face.

Starsky tossed the lube to the side of the bed. "On your stomach."

Starsky grabbed the two extra pillows from the other bed as Hutch complied. Coming up on the bed behind him, Starsky helped Hutch position the pillows under his hips. Feeling as if he must be shaking with excitement, Starsky reached under and pulled Hutch's genitals down so that balls and cock could be seen against the pillows. He knew that once he started, Hutch would be tempted to rub himself against the pillows. Starsky didn't want him that close to going off.

Lust threatened to take over, filling Starsky's head with the sound of his own heart and making his cock bob with each heartbeat. He took a deep breath and held it, as he took in the sight of his lover's gorgeous ass. Hutch's butt was lighter than the rest of his skin, smooth and almost hairless. His ass cheeks were nicely rounded, and in between was his secret center--the place that only Starsky had access to. Hutch moaned his anticipation and Starsky was sorely tempted to stroke the thick, long cock that was hardening against the pillows.

Getting more lube, he carefully applied it to Hutch's opening, making sure that he was relaxed enough to accept him. After a few moments, Starsky was sure Hutch was open enough, so took the base of his own cock in hand and moved closer, the other hand on Hutch's hip.

Pressing his cock head to Hutch's center, Starsky waited a fraction of a second to give Hutch time to protest. Hearing none, Starsky pressed forward, his cock feeling electrified by the pressure and heat as he passed the tight muscle ring. It was all he could do to hold still to give Hutch time to relax with the pressure.

"More," Hutch whispered thickly. "Do it the way you want it. Make me feel it!"

Starsky could feel Hutch's muscles relax and pushed farther in, relishing every fraction of an inch that he penetrated into the tight, slick heat. The tight fit squeezed him, making every nerve on the skin of Starsky's cock sing with excitement.

In a moment, he was completely sheathed inside his lover, his cock jumping with his heartbeat. He paused, hands gripping Hutch's hips as he closed his eyes and enjoyed that first sense of completion, his cock buried up to the hilt in the soft flesh of the man he loved more than life itself.

But his control never lasted, and this moment was no exception. He had to move, so pulled back carefully. Then he pushed back in.

The heat and pressure pulled at him, milking his cock. Starsky took a firm grip of Hutch's ass. He could feel Hutch try to move with him, as little as he could, and found that he was thrusting faster and deeper with each passing minute.

Eyes closed, head back and muscles tense Starsky let himself go, humping and thrusting as if he would never do so again. His ears were filled with the beating of his heart and the distant slap of his balls against Hutch's ass. Hutch was talking to him, saying sweet things that he couldn't fully concentrate on, urging him to go faster, harder and deeper.

It was heaven, his body burning and hungry, racing to a climax that he needed more than anything. He quickened his pace, thrilling in the freedom to hump, push and rub in selfish indulgence. He turned his attention inward and was encouraged to take what he wanted with no guilt attached.

His heart hammering, his hips bucking in frantic search of his goal, Starsky could feel it coming like a storm on the move. Nerves thrummed and beat, his insides filled to bursting as it came upon him.

It was like getting hit by lightening, the shock to the nerves and the strained reaction of muscles and flesh stilling him as he hit climax. He fell against Hutch's back, feeling himself slick from his own sweat on the much cooler skin. His body pulsed hard, forcing his semen out in wave after wave of pleasure. He was filling Hutch up with himself, marking Hutch in places no one else ever would.

If he had had his wish, they would have been glued together like that forever. But as soon as the pulses started to die, he pulled out carefully. All he had the strength to do was fall to the side to let his golden lion claim his own pleasure.

When Hutch moved, it was with such strength and purpose that any other person might be frightened of him. Not many knew, as Starsky did, how strong he was. Starsky stayed relaxed as Hutch moved him to his back and placed a couple of pillows under each knee, opening him to Hutch's will.

All Starsky could see in his post-orgasmic state was how golden Hutch was. How big and powerful and how much he lusted for Starsky. The golden tan was splotched with red patches of his sexual flush; his eyes were almost black in their desire, and Hutch's face....

Hutch's features screamed of power, soul deep hunger and the need to claim his prize. Starsky felt his center coated with lube; fingers found their way inside and prepared him. And not one muscle in his body could find any reason to complain. It was nice, even inspiring, to be the subject of such need.

Hutch pushed in carefully, waiting until Starsky gave him a slight nod.

Starsky watched as Hutch's head fell back, his eyes closed and his plush mouth fell open in ecstasy as he sank all the way into Starsky.

Hutch was large, and Starsky was still amazed he had come to accommodate the man. But what had been work at first to accept was now pleasurable. He had gotten used to the feeling of stretching and filling, and while they still had to be careful to prepare each other, his body had learned to desire the feeling of being filled and to look forward to it.

Hutch sighed as he held them together, eyes still closed but bliss written on his face and body. Starsky relaxed even more, knowing the hands grasping his hips like a vice would keep them together.

Hutch followed a pattern that Starsky was coming to recognize as something uniquely his own. Starsky knew he himself tended to fuck frantically when at his highest point, while Hutch tended to slow down, as if he were suddenly hypersensitive. Starsky liked to pull back until he could feel the muscle ring at the sensitive spot under the head of his cock, then push back in, never coming all the way out. Hutch liked to pull out and re-enter, filling Starsky slowly over and over in a maddeningly slow motion.

And he loved it. Starsky loved to see Hutch indulging himself this way. He knew that anytime he felt uncomfortable Hutch would stop, or speed up, whichever Starsky asked for, but he felt far from used or uncomfortable. And little by little, thrust by thrust, Starsky could feel the increase in rhythm, hear his lover's gasps increase in speed and depth.

Just as Starsky was certain that Hutch was close, he saw his eyes open, seeking Starsky's eyes. Holding that deep, heavy gaze as Hutch pushed in harder than he had before, Starsky knew his lover's climax was near. Hutch leaned forward, pushing Starsky's hips up even higher as he tried to go deeper. Starsky pulled his legs back, holding behind his knees to open himself as fully as he could. Hutch's weight increased until Starsky felt as if he were holding Hutch up all by himself.

Hutch froze and Starsky could see Hutch was on the edge. Not moving, close to falling into his climax, Hutch leaned forward and kissed him. Starsky kissed back as much as he could, careful not to move too much.

Hutch threw his head back, his eyes closing as they rolled back, the grip on Starsky's hips growing almost painful.

"Starssss-K!"

Only then did Hutch's hips flex slightly, once, twice, three times as his orgasm rode through his body like a wave. Hutch was filling him over and over with his semen, and Starsky wished that Hutch could stay in that moment forever.

Collapsing forward, touching his forehead to Starsky's, Hutch relaxed onto his partner. Starsky raised his arms to hold him, drawing him as close as they comfortably could in that position. As the next few minutes passed, Starsky could feel Hutch flex his hips once in a while, knowing that Hutch was enjoying the closeness they had even after climax.

When Starsky sighed at the fact that it was becoming uncomfortable, Hutch caught on and pulled his weight off him, pulling out carefully. He curled up to Starsky's side, throwing an arm over him.

They were quiet for a few minutes, Starsky enjoying the body-length contact and wishing they were teenagers again so that they could go another round.

"God, that was good," Hutch breathed huskily, surprising Starsky who thought he'd fallen asleep minutes ago.

Starsky pulled him close, knowing he was smiling evilly. "What can I say, we're the two hottest studs in town."

"Good thing we're keeping each other busy, or we'd have the rest of the city up in arms over our arrival," Hutch snickered.

"Busy enough that I'm starting to get hungry," Starsky admitted sheepishly. "And if we doze off, I'll be starving when I wake up."

Hutch snorted, sounding amused at Starsky's obvious hint. "You've got so much energy, you take a shower, give me a few minutes to recover, and I'll take mine while you make plans for the evening."

Deciding that was a good idea, because he really was starting to get hungry, Starsky kissed him and pulled away.

Time to go out and find adventure, if it doesn't find us first.

Roger Martini, aka The Baron, threaded his way through the mass of late-night gamblers outside Taylor's Mine, one of the biggest casinos on the strip. The objects of his attention--Detectives Starsky and Hutchinson--had been making the rounds of many of the casinos on Reno's brightly colored main street. They seemed to be enjoying themselves, eating at a popular buffet, playing the slots, hitting the craps and blackjack tables here and there, making their way from one casino to another as the mood seemed to strike them.

For The Baron, the evening would have been dull if it hadn't been for the fact that the two detectives themselves were being followed. It had been an interesting game, to follow the four men throughout the evening. The Bay City detectives had caught on quickly that, as soon as they left the hotel, someone was on their tail. The Baron had been amused at the tactics of Detective Starsky, who had led the Reno pair on a merry chase. It had been almost more than he himself could do to keep up with Starsky.

Hutchinson and Starsky seemed to give up the game during their dinner, eating leisurely and obviously enjoying themselves. After spending some money at the games, they started their tour of the strip, even losing their tail once or twice, only to casually walk by the harried Reno detectives and pretend they didn't notice them.

All in all it had been an interesting evening, but The Baron was glad to see Hutchinson and Starsky settle on a late night casino show. He had other preparations to make, and was glad to see this opportunity present itself.

Making his way to the food service area, he moved as if he belonged, eyeing the busy crew as if he had the right to judge them and their work. Walking through the back rooms unchallenged, he kept his eye open for possibilities.

Hutch settled back in the deeply padded booth, trying to relax in the blaring boom of the midnight show. There were several big-name stars in Reno, but he and Starsky had arrived too late and those were sold out for the evening. There were a lot of smaller "theme" shows in all of the casinos, tailor-made for those who wanted to see bright lights and glitter but who didn't want to shell out much money. Starsky had gotten tickets for tomorrow night to see a famous actress that he was fond of, so for tonight one of the smaller shows would do. They had been able to get seats near the front of the stage, close enough to see every fringe on every tassel the chorus girls were barely wearing in the tribute to old stage shows.

My, my, my, Hutch thought appreciatively as he sipped his vodka. They really have some nice looking ladies in Reno.

Hutch himself didn't mind the strobe lights as much as he wished they would turn down the sound a notch or two. The rest of the show--some talented singing, a fairly good comedian and the chorus ladies in their G-strings and pasties--wasn't Shakespeare, but it had its draw. Ladies in G-strings and pasties were definitely part of that draw.

Glancing at Starsky, who was sipping his own drink, he could tell he, too, was thoroughly enjoying himself. If there was one thing that becoming lovers hadn't touched, it was the fact that they both enjoyed watching a beautiful woman. And several women, mostly naked, were enough to keep their attention for long, enjoyable, periods of time

Wonder if our "escort" is having just as nice a time, or are they stuck out in the lobby, waiting for us to leave?

Their tail from the hotel had been obvious, and both he and Starsky decided that either the local cops didn't think much of them, or they wanted them to know they were being tailed. At this point it really didn't matter, since he and Starsky didn't have anything to do with The Baron. They had decided to make it a fun part of their evening to ditch their tail whenever they got bored. Hutch was pretty certain that the two men who were tailing them were also playing the game, since Hutch was certain that if the Reno PD wanted them covered, casino security would be only too happy to keep them on film. Hutch had learned a lot about casino security while in Las Vegas and knew that every mirror--every ceiling tile in the hotel--was probably tied into some camera set somewhere. If the local cops lost them in here, it was only because they wanted him and Starsky to think they were safe from prying eyes.

It's still got to get old, trailing the two of us around. We're not even gambling enough to make it interesting.

The musical number came to an end, the lights dimmed and applause erupted. There was movement in the audience as people got up to make bathroom trips and waiters attended tables before the next part of the show. A waiter came up to them in the darkness and asked if they would like something else. Hutch passed, knowing the vodka would be more than enough for the night. Starsky passed as well. As that waiter left, another stopped at their table, placing a long, thin box in front of each of them, saying, "Compliments of the house," and moving to the next table before they even realized he had been there.

The words were almost lost in the blare of music that signaled the next number, the sudden glare of stage lights almost blinding after the moment of darkness.

As the next song got started and the dancers pranced on stage to the tune of "Hurray for Hollywood," Hutch picked up the box in front of him.

He waited to see what was in Starsky's box. As the lights flickered and the dancers went through their routine, Hutch had to focus to see over Starsky's shoulder. Opening the long box, Hutch was surprised to see Starsky pull out a cigar.

Both men looked sharply around the room, but there were no waiters near them. Whoever had given them the cigars had moved quickly. Hutch cursed himself for not paying more attention.

I should have known this would happen! Hutch gave his partner a look and a nod, and both of them started to get up from the table. I guess The Baron wants us in this, whether we want to be or not. If I had only gotten a better look!

They caught a waiter on the way out and asked for their bill. As the young man who had served them before came up with it, Hutch scanned the other faces of male and female waiters, trying to remember some physical detail about the one that had handed them the boxes. Other than it was a tall male, he couldn't remember any more, his eyes having suffered from the sudden lighting of the floorshow.        

Starsky paid the bill and they made their way out into the lobby.

Finding a fairly quiet corner in between the crowded gambling area and the showrooms, they turned their backs to the crowd. Hutch held up his box and opened it. Inside was a cigar--a Superba Corona Superba.

"Just like mine," Starsky said with a sigh.

Hutch took out the cigar and put it in his shirt pocket. "There's something underneath mine." He pulled out a slender piece of paper, cut to fit the bottom of the box and noticed Starsky removing one from his as well.

Turning it over he read the words:

THE FABLED CRANE KNEW HIM VAIN

He held it out so Starsky could see it. Starsky held his out as well.

FINE PLUMAGE DON'T MAKE FINE AVES

"What the hell does this mean?" Starsky asked, turning his paper over and checking both sides.

"I don't know," Hutch admitted. He took the cigar out of his shirt pocket, looked around to see if he was being watched, then smelled it. It certainly smelled like a Superba Corona Superba, from what he could remember. "But it's either The Baron or someone who wants us to think it's from him."

Starsky frowned. "So, what do we do? We don't have any contacts here to even start an investigation. We have to be home Friday night and, frankly, I want to be off duty this week."

Hutch shook his head, not liking the feeling of walking away from something, but there were times when you just had to leave the work to others. "I think we ought to play this one straight, Starsk."

Looking into Starsky's eyes, Hutch could see he felt the same reluctance to walk away.

"Yeah, you're right. Guess we ought to behave ourselves this time," Starsky admitted, glancing behind his and Hutch's shoulders. "We're too late to the game to play in it, no matter what cards The Baron is dealing us."

"And we don't need these pieces of paper--"

"To have a reason to keep our eyes open." Starsky smiled at him and turned to head down the lobby.

Starsky had spotted their evening tail and was heading toward them. Hutch followed, trying not to laugh as the two men realized they'd been seen and gave each other a sour glance.

"Gentlemen," Starsky began grandly, as if bestowing a great blessing. "My partner and I would like to turn these over to police custody."

The two detectives--one tall, black and distinguished looking; the other smaller, Caucasian, who looked like an out-of-place cowboy--looked at the cigars, papers and boxes with suspicion.

"Look," the taller detective said. "It's bad enough that you know who we are and we know you know who we are, but are you sure this isn't some trick to humiliate us further?"

"Yeah," the misplaced cowboy added. "How do we know what you're up to?"

Hutch sighed, stabbing the box and cigar in the other detectives' direction. "We were handed these at our table by a man we couldn't see, but who was dressed as a waiter. If you have any way to get a film of the transaction you might find you have The Baron on tape!"

Giving each other a glance that spoke of two detectives who've been working together for a while, both men gingerly reached out to take the items from them.

"Come on, you might as well be in on this," the taller man said.

Starsky and Hutch followed the two men as they hurried through the crowd with their prizes, one of them pulling a walkie-talkie out of his inner pocket and saying something that Hutch couldn't hear.

They moved quickly to a door next to the cashiers' cages, following the detectives inside. They were suddenly in a long, sterile-looking hallway with a lot of doors. They ended up at the very last door, and the other side of it looked like what Hutch had always envisioned NASA must look like on the inside.

It was a large room with TV cameras on all the walls, all on and flickering, making the wall look like it was alive and moving. He and Starsky stood back, while the two detectives talked to someone who appeared to be the head of hotel security. Whatever they told him didn't seem to make him very happy.

The three talked for a minute, then, with a glance to him and Starsky, they moved to the other side of the room to play with a TV and what looked like some kind of tape machine under it. The smaller detective asked a question from a passing individual and, after a minute, was brought a large manila envelope in which he put the cigars, boxes and slips of paper.

The security guard fiddled with the tape, all three intent on the image it showed, but Hutch didn't think they could get much off of it. Even from where he stood, it looked too dark.

After a few more minutes of discussion, the two Reno detectives turned back toward them. Neither looked very pleased.

"So I assume it didn't work," Starsky announced, arms crossed and looking bored.

"Afraid not," the smaller detective said, shrugging as if he hadn't expected it to. He offered his hand. "By the way, Detective, I'm Darrel Palmer and he's Smithson."

Smithson gave Starsky and Hutch a tolerant smile while offering them his hand. "Detective Harvey Smithson."

"But you were right," Palmer continued. "The surveillance in this joint is pinpointed on the front doors and the gaming tables. They only have one camera in the showroom; all they watch for is a brawl breaking out. Can't see much detail, and with the house lights off, we can't make out faces."

"We found you two only because we knew where you sat."

"But we're having Security run us a copy of the tape in case our people in the lab can get more out of it," Palmer said.

"So, how long have you guys been tailing us?" Hutch asked, curious to see how honest the other two detectives would be.

Smithson gave them a big smile. "Probably as long as you've known we were," he said. "Can't say you've been considered top priority around here, but you also have the advantage of being able to dress appropriately." Smithson waved toward his suit that looked at home in this security room. "Our new mayor has decided that Reno needs a better image, so plain-clothes' cops have been 'cleaned up' a bit."

"Damned hard to infiltrate people who are laughin' at your monkey suit," Palmer said, bitterness in his voice. "If I'd been allowed to wear my 'tourist' outfit, you never would'a spotted me."

"Yeah, well, what now, gentlemen?" Hutch asked, feeling the day catch up with him. "I know I'm ready to crash. Are you going to need us for anything else?"

"No, we know where to find you in case the captain or the chief needs to see you. We'll turn this in and let the college boys try to figure it all out," Smithson said.

"You goin' straight back to the hotel?" Palmer asked casually. "'Cause if you are, we'll just call it in and have the next guys meet you there. 'Fraid you've got round-the-clock coverage."

"Sure. Whatever," Starsky said, rubbing the back of his neck, telling Hutch that he was as tired as Hutch was. "We're not here to make trouble, but we don't want any from your end either. We are on vacation, you know, and we really don't appreciate being followed all around town."

Smithson shrugged. "Can't blame you there, partner. But it looks like we're both stuck with the way this is playing out."

"Hey, c'mon out here," Palmer said, waving them out into the hallway and leading them back out into the busy gambling area. "Listen, guys, let's make a deal. We've gotta keep you tailed for the next couple of days, keepin' an eye out for that Baron guy, and having to be ready to pull you two in at any time. You could make our jobs real difficult, and spend too much of your vacation trying to ditch us, or we could work together."

"How's that?" Hutch asked, flashing Starsky a look of amusement.

"Tell us where you're going and we'll keep back so far you'd swear we weren't there. And to sweeten the pot..." Palmer looked around furtively, digging into a jacket pocket. His actions made Hutch want to look to see if they were being watched as well. Palmer pulled out a sheaf of dollar-size pieces of paper. "I've got all kinds of coupons you guys can use while you're here."

"Coupons?" Starsky asked. "What kind of coupons?"

"What in Reno doesn't have a coupon attached?" Smithson said dryly. "Palmer here is related to half the workforce in this city. He's got coupons for anything you could want and several things you've probably never heard of."

"Yeah, I've even got a couple for the Stallion Ranch I'd be willing to throw in for you."

Hutch had heard of the place--one of the biggest, legal cathouses in the United States. In Nevada, prostitution wasn't the crime it was in other states, and the legend of Stallion Ranch was known even down in Bay City.

"Look," Hutch began, not very eager to share their vacation with the detectives, but Starsky jabbed him in the ribs before he could continue.

"Tell you what," Starsky said, sounding too interested for Hutch's taste, "pass them all over and we'll give them a look through." He shrugged casually. "If we find something we want to do, we'll wander on over and let you know. If not, then we're on our own if we can lose you."

With Palmer and Starsky exchanging the wide smiles of two men who think they've each got the better part of a deal, Palmer passed the whole wad of paper over to Starsky.

Hutch was glad when they parted, but uncertain about Starsky's deal with the two detectives. He had no doubt there would be another pair of cops to follow them if he bothered to look, but he didn't want to know for sure. It was bad enough that they'd had their vacation sidetracked once, it was going to be a real imposition to have it constantly interrupted by both sides of the law. And at the rate Starsky was taking inventory of the coupons, it looked like they were going to be obliged to go along with the Reno two. The thought didn't sit well with him at all.

And if he even suggests using those Stallion Ranch coupons he'll be free to use both of them, because he's going to find himself sleeping in that extra bed by himself for the next few nights.

Back at the hotel, Hutch put away his toothbrush and turned off the bathroom light. Starsky was sitting cross-legged on the bed, naked, reading through the wad of coupons.

"I still don't like it," Hutch said, walking over to the bed, as naked as Starsky was. "I don't like these guys tailing us."

"Well, I don't either, but we might as well make the best of it. We've got one full day tomorrow, then we're on a plane Friday afternoon. Not like anyone is askin' us what we want."

Yawning, his eyes feeling gritting and his body tired, Hutch pulled up the sheets on his side of the bed. He slipped under them, pushing Starsky with his feet to make him move over.

"Well, at least put those stupid things away, will you? I'm beat." Hutch turned toward the center of the bed, trying to find a comfortable spot.

"Hutch, I'm tellin' ya, these things are like gold! Palmer must save a mint on meals with these things. Buy one, get one free: buffets, dinners, pretzels, ice cream, drinks at the bar. Then there's fifty percent off the evening shows--which I could'a used when I bought our tickets--sixty percent off movie tickets, one day's free rental car, free video game coupons and even..." Starsky announced excitedly, shaking one coupon in the air, "five dollars of free chips at most of the casinos. If we used all of these coupons--"

"We'd be running miles up and down the strip all day, trying to collect on all of them."

"Well," Starsky said with a growing leer, "we could save some running and go out to the Stallion Ranch--"

Hutch was drowsy, but not drowsy enough not to grab Starsky's pillow and throw it at him, making Starsky laugh and spilling the pile of coupons on the bedspread and the floor.

"You can spend all day and all night watching sexy G-stringed girls with bouncing breasts if you want, and I'll be there with you. But you even think--"

"Who? Me?" Starsky chuckled as he swept the loose coupons in a pile, then got up to put them on the dresser. "If I even thought of doing something like that, my lover would kill me. He's the jealous type, you know."

"So I've heard." Hutch relaxed back into the pillow, smiling at Starsky's teasing. "Now turn off that light and come to bed, will you? I'm practically dying here."

Starsky turned off the light, and the room filled with the dim light from the parking lot that filtered in through the thin curtains. Hutch scooted toward Starsky as he slipped under the covers, kissing his cheek as he settled himself.

He really was tired and wanted to rest, but waited to see what Starsky wanted to do. If anyone could get his motor running it was his curly-headed, fully-loaded pistol of a lover.

But Starsky only turned toward him and they settled limbs together carefully, wrapping up in each other.

Hutch relaxed into the embrace, not opening his eyes as Starsky kissed him lovingly.

"I love you, you know."

The shyness in Starsky's voice never failed to grab at Hutch's heart. Starsky said those words a million times a day--in the way he moved and acted, in the way he watched Hutch, and the way he was always concerned about him. But to hear Starsky say them in that uncertain, little-boy voice is what always convinced Hutch that his heart was well and truly owned by this man, and had been for a long time.

"Love you too, babe. Sweet dreams." Hutch could feel the grin against his shoulder. No mistaking that mischievous smile, even in the dark.

"And if I dream about those girls?" Starsky whispered. "The ones with the tiny G-strings and the bouncing boobs?"

"As long as you leave some of them for me to dream about, and you're prepared to act it all out in the morning for my benefit...well...I might be able to forgive you." Hutch laughed, knowing that Starsky wasn't taking any of his threats seriously and glad of it.

"You got it, stud."

And with that Hutch drifted off, his arms full of a naked Starsky and his alarm clock turned off.

Couldn't ask for much more than that for any successful day.

In a booth in one of the casinos, The Baron sipped his drink, eyes on the thinning crowd of late night/early morning gamblers, mind busy with plans and details. He had stuck around the other casino--where he had delivered the clues to the detectives--just long enough to see that his timing had been, as usual, perfect.

He had done his homework, had studied the security layouts of the casinos and found that they all followed a predictable pattern. Most had made the mistake of hiring the same designing firms for their security systems, so most were near enough alike to be identical where it counted.

He knew he was shamelessly indulging himself by giving the two detectives clues to what he was really up to. But there was something irresistible about the idea of inviting them into the game. Maybe it was because they had beaten him in Bay City. He remembered his own mind-numbing shock when he had reached safety after the diamond heist only to find that he had nothing to show for all his expensive planning and hard work. Nothing but cheap glass.

Instead of being angry, he had found a growing respect for the two police officers who had won the game. He had always planned on requesting a rematch, and it had been too much temptation when he had seen the two on the plane. His successful completion of this project was so probable that he had found the excitement seemed to be missing. The local police were easily fooled, spending all their time watching his "hired thugs" and trying to figure out how he was going to hit that armored car convoy. They had easily fallen for the smoke screen.

Really, do they think I would stoop to something that crude? That dangerous?

Of course they did, because they didn't stop to think, didn't do their homework like they should have. It should have been obvious that he was after another prize. One more artistic and much more valuable than mere money.

And if the detectives could figure out what his target really was, then he would have a more enjoyable game than he had originally anticipated.

Don't disappoint me boys.

Starsky rolled over sleepily, reaching for Hutch. The warm, sweet body he was expecting wasn't there and the coolness of the sheets spoke of a long absence.

Hutch? Where--?

As soon as he heard the crinkle of paper from the other bed, he started remembering earlier parts of the morning. He remembered Hutch being restless, getting up and telling him he was going out to get a newspaper. Starsky had a vague memory of dozing fitfully until Hutch had returned, then drifting back to sleep.

Glancing in that direction, he saw Hutch propped up against the headboard dressed in shirt and shorts, long legs stretched out and a paper in his hands.

"Hey, Sleeping Beauty. Good morning." Hutch turned to smile at him. "There's a box of donuts and a carton of milk on the dresser. I couldn't find any decent coffee around here."

Starsky stretched and yawned. "Would've been a better morning if you'd've woken me up like yesterday," he complained sleepily.

Hutch shrugged slightly, looking apologetic. "Sorry, buddy. You were really out of it."

Throwing back the covers, Starsky rubbed at his face and sat up. "That's okay. You all right?"

"Yeah, I just couldn't get those clues out of my mind."

Starsky smiled, recognizing the signs of Hutch on a case. He didn't doubt for a minute that Hutch's mind had tried to figure out the obscure clues in his sleep. "What time is it, anyway?"

"About ten o'clock."

Starsky stood up and walked over to the dresser, opening the box of donuts. Hutch hadn't taken any and Starsky wasn't surprised. Grabbing the still cold milk container and snagging a donut, he padded over to the bed. Hutch gave the donut an unhappy look but didn't say anything as Starsky arranged the other pillow against the headboard and settled himself next to Hutch.

"Don't get too full," Hutch warned. "I'm in the mood for a big brunch."

"Sounds good to me." Starsky took a bite of his pre-brunch snack and eyed the paper Hutch was reading. Didn't look like much he'd be interested in. "You find anything in there to help us figure out those clues?"

"No, but I did talk to Palmer and Smithson. They just came on duty when I was coming back from the store down the street."

"I bet they were glad to see you come up on them," Starsky said around a drink of milk from the container. "There's nothing like having your marks catch you tailing them time after time."

Hutch smiled. "Actually they didn't try to hide from me. I think they really trust us not to make their job any harder. I get the feeling that no matter what their superiors think, those two really do believe that we're on vacation and don't know anything."

"Did they have any news?"

Hutch reached over and took the milk from Starsky, taking a swallow before answering.

"Well, they took in the clues while the second team followed us here. Apparently the big shots haven't made heads or tails of them. They didn't say, but I got the feeling that things are going on in the background with The Baron and the armored car thing, so they're concentrating on that. I don't think that those in charge are giving any real attention to the clues at all."

"Maybe they think The Baron is trying to side-track us away from the case. That they're red herrings."

Hutch looked thoughtful. "They might, but I don't. We didn't know a damn thing about any of his plans, and the local police wouldn't have known or cared that we were here except for that note his henchmen got."

"The Baron is teasing us."

"That's the only reason I can think of why he'd include us. He wants to play another round with us since he lost the last one."

"So...." Starsky took the milk back, taking a gulp. "Let me guess. You want to see if you can figure out the clues."

Hutch gave him a sheepish look. "Look, Starsk, I'm sorry--"

"Don't be," Starsky interjected, rolling over to lean snuggly against his partner. He looked in Hutch's eyes. "I knew The Baron's challenge was going to be like an itch we both need to scratch. There's no reason why we can't do a little research here and there during our vacation. If we don't crack that crazy code of his then at least we tried, and if we do--"

"Then we tell Palmer and Smithson and let them take it to their superiors. What they do with it is their problem."

Hutch was smiling again and Starsky immediately felt as if they had made the right decision. If they ignored the clues, they'd never feel right about their trip, wondering if they could have done something to help.

Deciding that there had been enough time spent on the issue, Starsky leaned over to kiss Hutch and was met with an enthusiastic response.

"Care to take a shower with me before we get to 'work'?" Starsky smiled, wiggling his eyebrows in invitation.

Hutch laughed, using the newspaper to swat at Starsky's ass. "Get going, you lech. We need to eat."

Doing his best to wiggle his rear as he walked, Starsky headed for the shower.

Well, it's one way to spend the day.

They had decided to catch lunch then find the local library to do some research. Hutch knew it wasn't exactly what most people did on vacation, but Starsky also knew him well enough to know when he had hold of something that he couldn't let go. They had informed Palmer and Smithson of their plans, and had received a lunch recommendation in return.

Just a couple of hours, he promised himself over his club sandwich. If I can't find what I'm looking for then I'll drop it. But I know there's something familiar about that passage.

Whatever it was that was trying to fight its way out of his memories, was going to bug him until he figured it out. Sitting quietly as Starsky finished his lunch in the crowded restaurant, Hutch tried to think back to when he had woken up. He had come fully awake hours before Starsky, sure that he had a vital piece of the puzzle. Then, like most dreams, it had disappeared while he was trying to capture it.

'The fabled crane knew him vain.' Now why would that ring a bell?

"Ya know," Starsky said around a mouthful of his lunch, "I keep thinking about that one line. Wasn't it 'Fine plumage don't make fine av...uh...?"

"Aves," Hutch supplied, wiping his mouth with a napkin. "It's a class of animal that includes birds."

Starsky gave him a pleased look. "Knew you'd know what it was. But that sentence doesn't sound right to me. The grammar is wrong."

"Yeah, you're right." Hutch took out a pen and wrote it out on the back of a paper napkin. "It should be 'Fine plumage doesn't make fine aves'."

"Big words. It doesn't sound right," Starsky complained, looking at the bill the waitress just dropped on their table. He reached in his pocket and started digging through their stash of coupons. "If the 'aves' word is short for birds, then plumage is short for feathers, right?"

"That would make it 'Fine feathers don't make fine birds'." Hutch felt himself frowning. "I've heard that somewhere before."

"So we just have to find out how the next one connects. 'The fabled crane knew him vain' has got to hook up somehow; otherwise, The Baron wouldn't have bothered sending it to us."

They both got up, Starsky going to the cashier to pay with cash and coupon. Hutch waited outside, noticing how much hotter it was after only an hour in the air conditioning. At least the day was going to be bright, if fairly hot.

A thought struck Hutch as he got into the rental car. He reached out to put a hand on Starsky's arm. "Maybe we're going about this all wrong."

"Think so?"

"Sure!" Hutch looked at Starsky, feeling that part of his morning revelation coming back to him. "Tell me, what do you think of The Baron's plan--the one to rob the armored cars?"

Starsky turned the engine on and adjusted the air conditioning vents, but made no move to do any driving. His face was serious with thought.

"Doesn't sound like him."

"Precisely! The Baron's profile showed that he went after more artistic items, artwork or jewelry. And when it came to the robberies, he always did the actual theft himself."

"And an armored car robbery is big, messy and depends on way too many people," Starsky agreed. He looked over at Hutch with a look of dawning comprehension. "The robbery is to get the cops' attention, 'cause it's not something he'd even be interested in pulling off! So that means that he is after something else."

"That's what the clues are for. Not to involve us in the bank job, but to give us clues to what he's really after."

"So you think we can find an answer at the library?"

Hutch shrugged. "We can give it a few hours and try. I think I've heard that one phrase before. I've got an idea where to start. You can check out the local papers and see if there's anything going on tomorrow that would catch The Baron's attention."

"Okay, sounds like a plan."

Starsky pulled away from the curb, having gotten directions from the waitress. The library wasn't too far away.

"You don't mind?" Hutch asked quietly. They really needed this vacation, and Starsky had his heart set on being a real civilian for a while. "We could just drop it here."

Starsky shrugged, giving him a bright smile. "So we use our heads for a while. I guess they won't fall off. If we don't try we won't be able to relax anyway."

Hutch smiled back, glad once again to be with someone who understood him so well.

The library was a surprise to Hutch. He'd expected something large, business-like and...well...library-like. What they found was a two-story building with a large, open glass front. Once inside, Hutch found himself on a ramp that cut through the center of the building, displaying three levels on both sides, from the second floor to the basement. The library was completely open in the center, with many plants along the ramp and lining every free space on all the other levels. The air was cool, but not cold, and the plants were green and healthy-looking. Walking to the side of the ramp, he could see down into the open area of the basement, which contained what looked like the children's section. A fountain supplied a small man-made stream that moved across the bottom level, filling the quiet building with the sounds of bubbling water.

It looked and felt like an oasis, with the water and large groupings of greenery, the fanciful stairways and green shaded reading nooks.

It took them both a few minutes to orient themselves. A librarian at a desk at the head of the ramp helpfully pointed them in the right directions. Hutch left Starsky with a collection of local newspapers and went to the section he thought might hold his answer.

After a couple of hours of research and one dead-end after another, Hutch excitedly searched for Starsky with a book clutched in his hands.

He found him where he left him, in a quiet nook surrounded by plants and shelves of magazines and newspapers. Starsky looked up at him from behind a newspaper.

"There you are," Starsky said excitedly. "Know what The Baron is after? Betcha I do!"

"How can you?" Hutch asked quietly, looking around to see if they'd drawn attention. "I just now found the passage I was looking for!"

"Okay," Starsky grinned at him, voice now a whisper, "you go first. Then we'll see if I'm right."

Hutch sat down next to Starsky, turning pages in the book quickly in his excitement. "At first I thought the 'fine feathers' thing was part of a quote. I've looked through every book on quotes they've got in this place and didn't find anything to match. But then..." Finding the page, he put it on the table and pointed out the passage he was interested in. "I finally realized that the word 'fabled' in the other sentence meant that it was from a fable, not a quote. So I looked up various fables and look what I found?!"

Starsky took the book and read the passage Hutch pointed to.

"The Peacock and the Crane. A peacock spreading its gorgeous tail mocked a crane that passed by, ridiculing the ashen hue of its plumage and saying, 'I am robed, like a king, in gold and purple and all the colors of the rainbow; while you have not a bit of color on your wings.'

"'True,' replied the crane; 'but I soar to the heights of heaven and lift up my voice to the stars, while you walk below, like a cock, among the birds of the dunghill.' Fine feathers don't make fine birds."

"See?!" Hutch asked excitedly. "The 'fabled crane' and the 'fine feathers' passage! Right there in 'Aesop's Fables!' We used to read these in school. I knew I'd heard it somewhere before."

"That's great!" Starsky said with a delighted smile. "Now can you guess what The Baron is going to go after?"

Hutch looked at Starsky a bit sheepishly. "Okay, let's hear what you think it is. I don't have a clue."

Starsky turned a couple of newspaper pages over and pointed at a small article in one of the back pages. "Whaddya see?"

Hutch quickly scanned the article. It had to do with a retirement dinner for one of the owners of a local casino--The Olympus. A Raymond Wyatt, the elderly owner of the casino, had announced his retirement in favor of a son, and was being honored at a dinner in his own restaurant by various civil leaders. There was a long list of things he had done for the city since he opened the casino almost fifty years ago. It was on the second column that one word caught Hutch's eye.

"Peacock?" He read that part of the article again. "What's this about retiring the 'Golden Peacock' at the same time? What are they talking about?"

Starsky pulled out a brochure and handed it to Hutch. "The story is at the back."

Turning it over, Hutch saw a bright and shiny picture of a golden peacock. He went on to read about its history, learning that about thirty years ago Wyatt, newly rich from his successful casino venture, had had the eighteen-inch gold peacock made as his first wife's birthday present. It had been given a home at The Olympus, where countless visitors had been able to view it through protective glass and security guards. Several years after the death of his wife, he had lost the peacock over the turn of a single card in a poker game between him and a rival casino owner. The peacock had disappeared into the home of the rival casino owner, although the two had still remained friends. Then about five years ago, the two had played another high-stakes game, with the peacock at stake once again. Raymond had won the piece of artwork back, and it had been on display at the entrance of The Olympus' main dining room ever since.

"It's perfect," Hutch found himself whispering. "This is what The Baron is after."

Starsky nodded sagely. "I looked up some old articles about it. It's eighteen inches tall, twenty inches wide and is actually hollow, so it's not as heavy as it looks. It's worth quite a bit for the gold, but is actually worth much, much more because of the craftsmanship involved. I didn't recognize the artist's name, but apparently it's a one-of-a-kind deal. An article five years ago said it would be worth three quarters of a million in the art circles."

"If I remember correctly," Hutch said, "the peacock is the sacred bird of Hera, and Hera was the wife of Zeus--"

"Who lived on Olympus. Apparently Raymond's first wife was nicknamed 'Hera' at the casino. So that sort of makes sense as a present for her."

"Hey," Hutch said. "Maybe The Baron has been hired by that other casino owner to steal it back."

"Don't think so." Starsky shook his head. "Some of the articles over the years seem to hint that Raymond lost it on purpose the first time. Seems his second wife was doin' some crowing about gettin' the bird for herself, so Raymond 'lost' it to a good friend. He divorced and married again, then divorced again about six years ago. One year after his divorce was final they played that second card game--which was more publicized than the first game--and he 'won' it back. Now that he's retiring, he's planning on taking it off of public display. And I think," Starsky said, his voice growing even quieter, "that they arranged the games that way to keep his second and third wives from getting it."

Hutch found himself nodding in agreement. He'd seen people do stranger things for love.

"Okay, so we know what and why, but do we know when?"

"It's the 'when' that ties it all together," Starsky reminded him. "This Saturday and Sunday are the last days of the display. There'll be locals and tourists all over the place to take one last gander at it. But it's off display now--"

"Let me guess, it's being cleaned." Hutch smiled as the whole thing fell into place. "So they take it away to brush it up for its last hurrah, and while it's sitting in the back room that would be a great time to make it disappear."

"While the cops in the area are all over the banks, protecting them, the Feds are geared up to follow the armored cars around, and no one is worried about a golden bird that the locals are so used to having around they don't even give it a second thought."

"And when it disappears, The Baron will get not only the prize but a lot of public attention he's not gotten before."

Hutch sat back, his mind going over and over the scenario. "But why hand this to us on a platter? He had to have known that we would try to figure out what he's doing. This is almost too easy."

Starsky shrugged. "Maybe he's bored. He did say he wanted a rematch with us, and now he sees an opportunity to bring us in on it to spice up the job. As much as he's gotten away with in the past, he's got to be well set up by now. He's never been caught, has more money than he needs tucked away somewhere overseas, and isn't getting a big thrill out of his 'hobby' anymore."

"So you think he wants to be caught?"

Starsky smiled. "Could be. Could also be we're going to make big fools of ourselves and will look like first class idiots by the time we leave."

"You think anyone will believe us?"

"Well, with that passage and the clues that we were handed, they'll probably give it a look."

"And laugh at us behind our backs."

"That's what I figure," Starsky smiled, leaning over to elbow Hutch gently. "But we're on vacation. Next time they actually want us to bring him in in handcuffs they'll have to arrange it ahead of time with Dobey. They can laugh at us at their own peril."

Hutch laughed himself, nodding in agreement. "Let's get copies of this and see if we can spot Smithson and Palmer. We can dump these off with them and let them call it in."

"They're outside, across the street. In a dumpy blue Ford that's first cousin to yours."

"Well, then, lets get this done and brighten up their day."

The Baron got out of his car, enjoying the bright, clear skies. It was a beautiful day, and a trip to the library was just what he needed.

He hadn't intended to follow the detective pair today, having other things he should be attending to, but there was no real hurry now, and he would enjoy a few restful hours inside that beautiful building.

Not to mention the suspense was starting to get to him. He really did want to know if they had been able to unravel his clues.

Knowing those two, he probably should worry more about them being too smart, rather than not smart enough.

Starsky waited at the front door of the library for Hutch to finish with the copying. It was only going to take a few minutes, so he volunteered to play "spot the cops" once again so they could walk right up and give Smithson and Palmer the paperwork. Starsky was glad to see the two were still there.

He laughed when Smithson actually raised a hand and waved at him.

Nice guys. I like their style.

He was deep in thought when the door opened and someone bumped into him as they entered.

"Oh, excuse me!"

Starsky looked up and found himself looking at Roger Martini.

"How nice to run into you, so to speak!" the tall man exclaimed, grinning at him. "How is your vacation so far?"

"Fine," Starsky said politely, not really wanting to start a conversation. The guy was nice enough, but was a talker when he got started.

"That's great! I'm just here to see what I can find in apartments. Found out I have to qualify as a resident before I can file for divorce. Well worth the wait, if I do say so myself."

"I'm sure it is," Starsky said quickly, looking for Hutch and feeling relieved as he saw his partner on the way down the ramp. "And it looks like we're ready to go. Nice seeing you again!"

He grabbed Hutch's arm and hurried him through the door, letting Hutch know by his actions that they didn't need to stop and visit. At least he didn't need to.

It was still hot and bright at mid-afternoon, and Starsky felt sorry for the two cops stuck in a car in this heat. He gave the two a smile as he and Hutch crossed the street.

"So, how're the spinster sisters today? Looks like you're working hard. They actually pay you two to goof off like this?" Starsky asked with a mischievous smile.

"Yup," Palmer said with a long, lazy drawl. "We pull in a load of bucks just sittin' on our backsides all day, staking out such exciting things as the public library. Never know when someone's gonna get it in his head to take off with a rare book or two."

Smithson, sprawled out in the passenger seat, grunted, looking tired and bored. "Don't you two have anything better to do on your time off? Hell, I'd rather chase you in and out of casinos all day than sit here and watch the shadows grow."

Hutch, who had gone to the passenger side of the car, handed Smithson the copies he'd made. "Well, why don't you two take a gander at this? Pretend like you're actually accomplishing something."

Smithson took the papers, glancing over them quickly, puzzlement on his face. He passed half of them to Palmer. Starsky walked around the car to join Hutch at the window. He and Hutch stayed quiet while the two men read.

"See anything that rings a bell?" Starsky asked after a few minutes.

"Well, shit," Smithson said, looking through the papers a second time. "You'd think we should've been able to pull this out of thin air."

Palmer grunted, rolling his eyes at his partner. "You, maybe, but I don't think I've ever heard of this Aesop guy. Do we buy it?"

"Yeah, I think so," Smithson answered, looking at Starsky and Hutch who were practically hanging in the passenger window. "We'll call in and see if we can't cut you two loose so we can give this to the big shots. But don't be surprised if they laugh it off."

"Yeah, even if they believe it's what The Baron wants you to think, they'll still keep their noses on the armored car heist."

"They've been lusting after capturing The Baron red-handed on that case too long to give up on it."

"Wouldn't expect them to," Hutch admitted. "But you can't say we didn't do our part."

"Beyond the call of duty," Smithson agreed. "Okay, we've got it now and will make our report whether the big brass bites at it or not. You'll both be in the clear if that bird disappears."

The four said their good-byes, and Starsky and Hutch decided to go back and change into their evening clothes to hit the strip early. They had that ten o'clock show that Starsky had tickets to, and there were several casinos they hadn't lost any money in yet.

On to Part 3

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