Elemental Forces
by Sarah Problem

SHSVS Episode 18

**********

"Hey, Gordo, must be your lucky night. Guess these airport cops just aren't doing their jobs properly. Somebody ought to call in and complain."

Starsky gave Hutch a smug grin, patting the hood of the Torino as he walked around to the driver's side door. He knew he had taken a chance when parking in the "white zone," but since they were just going to walk Huggy to his gate, he couldn't see paying for parking if he didn't have to.

"Told ya they wouldn't tow it. They all know class when they see it."

Ignoring his partner's gagging noises at the word "class," Starsky got behind the wheel. It had been a nice, clear evening that had turned cool and crisp as the sun set. They had shared a quick meal with Huggy, then sat around and visited while he packed. Now that they'd done their duty by seeing him off for his month-long vacation, he and Hutch were free of obligations for the evening. The chilly air called to him, made him want to put some miles on the Torino and get out of the city.

"Let's go for a drive," he suggested, waiting for Hutch to settle before pulling into the busy airport traffic. "It's after ten, and if we get out of the city, the freeways will be practically empty."

"You and this car," Hutch said teasingly. "Aren't you ever going to outgrow this infatuation? This fixation on such an obvious phallic symbol--"

"Doesn't come close to matching yours! Mine is just bright, fast and loud. That monster Magnum you carry, on the other hand, is big, pointy, and shoots big bullets. That sounds like a hell of a lot more of an image problem than mine does."

"Asshole." Hutch joined him in laughter. "Okay, I could do with getting out of the city for a while. But let's go north this time."

Turning on the radio and leaning back in the seat, Hutch laid his arm on the back of it, fingers lightly touching the back of Starsky's neck, stirring his curls. Starsky smiled and reached out to squeeze Hutch's knee.

They made their way through the maze of parking lots, special lanes and terminal exits until Starsky finally found the on-ramp he wanted. Traffic was still thick, even at this time of night, but at least it was moving at a respectable rate. It wouldn't be long before they'd have the freeway mostly to themselves.

Starsky reached down to adjust the radio, one eye on the road. "You know, there's a place we might--"

"Watch it!"

At Hutch's exclamation, Starsky glanced in the rearview mirror and quickly turned the car to the right, careful not to cross the line or jerk too hard. A large Cadillac had swerved suddenly into his lane, near his back wheel. Just before it would have hit the Torino, the driver swerved violently back into his own lane.

"What the hell?"

"He's speeding up," Hutch warned. The driver must have hit the gas, as it pulled past the Torino in a burst of speed. "Something must be going on with the driver, Starsk. Looks like he's going to lose control!"

The car swerved again, this time bouncing off the divider, throwing sparks, then sharply veering back into its lane.

Hutch grabbed the mars light and opened the window, placing it on the roof as Starsky hit the siren. Hutch grabbed the radio, calling in the plate number and asking for a highway patrol response. Starsky tried to keep up but stayed a safe distance behind. If the driver saw the light or heard the siren it wasn't making any difference in his driving.

The Cadillac increased speed, bumping against the cars on either side of it. One car was sent into a spin, hit the divider and came to a stop. Starsky had to slow down to miss the second car, as the driver fought for control. Ahead of them, he could see taillights making crazy patterns as other cars tried to avoid being hit. Blaring horns and screeching tires filled the night air.

"Watch out!" Starsky yelled, catching sight of the Cadillac farther down the road. "He's gonna lose it!"

Pumping the brakes carefully, Starsky had to turn the car sharply to be able to avoid another car that had been bumped out of control. He hoped fervently that no one was following close enough to hit them. As he skidded to a stop, he saw the Cadillac hit the center divider at an angle, propelling the front of the car up and over, rolling the heavy piece of machinery over once before it came to a stop, right-side-up.

They weren't rear-ended, although Starsky could hear a thunder of screeching brakes and wondered how close it had been. Hutch, who had been braced for the stop, was already on the mic, requesting an ambulance and a paramedic, demanding to know where the Highway Patrol was.

With the mars light still running, Starsky turned off the motor and siren, but left the lights on. Getting out of the car, he saw that traffic had come to a standstill and he could hear the noise of horns and angry voices behind them.

In his headlights, Starsky could make out the wreckage of the Cadillac--bits and pieces of metal bright in the headlights and what few freeway lights there were. The front and sides were smashed; the top was caved in, but so far, no sign of the driver.

Avoiding the obstacles in front of him, Starsky ran toward the wreckage, looking for signs of leakage, flames or sparks. He could smell motor oil and radiator fluid. Thankfully, the smell of gasoline was minimal. There were other people coming out to look and he could hear Hutch yell at them to stay back and get back in their cars. Multiple sirens echoed in the distance as he got closer. It was hard to see because of the randomness of the lighting, so Starsky approached cautiously, not wanting to hurt himself on sharp objects that might be hidden in the dark patches.

As he came to the mangled driver's window he could barely make out a body spread over the front seat. The body had a man's shape and size and looked to be jammed head first into the passenger's side footwell. He reached in and touched the man's back, just as Hutch arrived on the other side of the car.

"Can you get the door open?" Hutch asked sharply, pulling at the front passenger door, then at the one in the back. "The doors are crushed shut. We can't get him out that way without some equipment. I'm crawling in the back."

Starsky was testing both doors on his side, pulling the handles with all his might. He then reached in through the broken window of the driver's seat, to see if he could manhandle it open. Nothing moved.

"No dice. They're jammed on this side, too."

Hutch was already inside, having pulled himself through the back window. He was now leaning between the twisted bucket seats, hands moving quickly, but carefully, to ascertain the man's condition.

Whoever he was, he was well dressed, Starsky noted, seeing what looked like a tuxedo. Must have been driving home from a party.

Hutch held up a hand, and as it caught a random bit of light, Starsky could see it was covered in blood.

"I've got a pulse, but he's bleeding somewhere," Hutch announced. "Get one of those ambulances down here!"

Backing away from the car, Starsky whistled loudly to the approaching Highway Patrol car that was weaving its way through the various wrecks, waving his arms to get the patrolman's attention. As the car pulled up, Starsky flashed his badge. "Got a live one!"

"Ambulances and fire trucks already on the way!" the young Highway Patrolman said, nodding at Starsky's badge as he grabbed his mic. "You see it happen? Any more cars farther up?"

"See it? We were practically in it. This was the lead car, but there are some stopped up ahead, you can see their brake lights. Don't know if they need help or not, but a lot of the ones behind us do."

Leaving the officer to call for more help, Starsky went back to the wreck.

"He still there?" Starsky stuck his head into the driver's window. He noticed that Hutch had taken off his light jacket and had thrown it over the man's back.

"Still here, but bad off," Hutch muttered, hands still moving lightly, testing and touching. "They better get here quick, Starsk. I don't dare move him, or do anything more to check him out. His pulse isn't very strong. I can't find where he's bleeding without moving him some more."

Sirens grew loud and screeching, the pavement flashed red and blue in spots as help arrived. Starsky could see the Highway Patrolman waving in an ambulance. "Got one now, Hutch. Looks like--"

Starsky froze as his eyes caught site of movement that didn't belong. Inside the back of the car, something on the floor had caught a bit of light and whatever it was had Starsky's hair standing on end. Starsky blinked once, then twice, eyes on the darkness of the floorboard.

Then it moved again, and Starsky knew exactly what it was.

"Hutch! Freeze!" Starsky hissed. "Don't move!"

"What?" Hutch looked up at him in surprise but held himself still.

It moved again, slick and smooth in the darkness, just under the hem of Hutch's pant leg. As Hutch started to open his mouth to say something he stopped, the fair features going pale in the dim light, eyes wide as they met Starsky's.

It was moving again, this time under the hem of Hutch's bellbottoms, moving around his ankle.

"There's...something..." Hutch gulped audibly, bloody hands gripping the back of the seat tightly.

"Yeah, I know. Just don't move, okay? Let me get some help."

Starsky looked up at the various men getting out of the ambulance and several police cars. Stepping back, not wanting to startle what was inside the car, he yelled for them to all stay back, that there was a problem. When questioned he asked for a flashlight.

The young Highway Patrolman tossed him one and he turned back to the car.

"Hold still, Hutch. Just. Don't. Move."

"Wasn't planning on it," Hutch said softly, looking and sounding brittle. "I can feel it moving around. It's moving up my calf and has a good grip on my leg. Starsk, it's big!"

Shining the light off to one side so he wouldn't startle it, Starsky could make out the thick, muscular body and pale, brown scales of some sort of snake. A big, thick snake.

"Oh, shit! Snake," Starsky hissed, his mind trying to think of what to do."

"No shit?" Hutch replied, sounding calmer than he looked. "Never would have guessed."

"Damn! Is it poisonous?"

Starsky almost jumped at the unexpected voice in his ear. He hadn't realized that the Highway Patrolman was looking over his shoulder.

"No idea, and I don't want us to find out," Starsky replied, his mind racing. The snake was still moving. The only good news he could see was that since Hutch was squatting, it probably couldn't get higher than his knee, his jeans would be too tight at that point.

"We don't have time for this," Hutch hissed, frustration overtaking the pale features. "This guy is going to die if he doesn't get some help!"

"I know, I know! But none of those guys are going to want to get in this car with that thing on the loose." Remembering something from a nature show, Starsky turned to the Highway Patrolman. "Look, go ask those firemen if they have one of those extinguishers that gets real cold, you know, the ones that freeze the fire out."

As the patrolman went to meet with the firemen and ambulance crews, Starsky turned back to Hutch.

"You just hang tight, buddy, and we'll get this guy out'a your hair in just a minute."

Starsky turned, ignoring the muttered "Where the hell would I go?" as he had another idea.

"I need a tire iron, too!"

"I'll get mine!" the patrolman yelled, racing for his trunk.

Starsky turned the flashlight back to the floor of the car. From what he could tell, there was more of the snake under the seat than there was tucked into Hutch's pant leg. Starsky had never heard of a snake moving around tail first, so the head must be at Hutch's end. All they had to do was convince the snake that Hutch wasn't a nice, warm place to be and they could flush it out.

As the fire chief and the patrolman arrived--one carrying a fire extinguisher and the other a tire iron--Starsky stopped them, and as quickly as possible explained what he wanted to do. All in agreement, the three of them took their positions.

As the fireman leaned into the rear window on the opposite side, and the patrolman got his revolver ready, Starsky resumed his position, slipping the tire iron in through the window, while a wide-eyed and a confused-looking Hutch watched.

"Lookit, Hutch, this is what we're going to do." Starsky signaled to the fireman who was half in the window on the other side of Hutch, fire extinguisher ready. "You lean as far over toward Fireman...uh..."

"Joe," the fireman volunteered quickly.

"You lean toward Joe as far as you can, so he can aim the extinguisher over your front and toward your knee. It's going to be really cold, and as he moves it down your leg the snake will feel winter comin' and decide to leave. When he does, I'm going to pin him down with the flat end of the tire iron. Joe is then going to drop the extinguisher, grab you and pull you out'a the window, and patrolman--"

"Jack."

"Yeah, Jack here is going to shoot it. Got it?"

"Sounds like fun," Hutch muttered as he began to lean away from Starsky. "Let's hurry this up, okay? This guy can't wait around anymore."

On the count of three, Joe the Fireman switched on the extinguisher and aimed it at Hutch's knee. By the surprised look on his partner's face, Starsky knew it must have been really cold. The spray was moved farther down his leg, and as it moved, Starsky could see the snake move as well. After a moment, the broad, flat head of the snake appeared near the toe of Hutch's boot.

Jamming the flat end of the tire iron down on the back of the snake's neck, Starsky yelled for them to move. Before Hutch was halfway out window on the other side, Jack was over Starsky's shoulder with the gun. Starsky kept up the pressure on the twisting reptile, could feel it lose its struggle to hang on to Hutch. But as soon as it lost its hold and Hutch was out the window, Jack shot three times at the writhing reptile.

It stopped moving after a moment, but Starsky, not being one to trust a snake any further than he had to, used the tire iron to roll the carcass into a plastic sack someone had handed them. The next thing Starsky knew, he had pulled the heavy sack through the window and had dumped it several feet behind the wreck.

Almost shaking with relief, it was all Starsky could do not to pull a shell-shocked Hutch into his arms. Instead, he settled for thumping him soundly on the back, earning a glare instead. "Just our luck, huh?"

"And how's that?" Hutch asked, looking tired and a bit jumpy.

"Well, what are the odds that we would run into a snake? Is that freaky or what?"

"Par for the course, I guess."

The fire chief came up to them. "The paramedics say that the snake is going to need to be brought in to the hospital. They think the guy may have been bitten."

"That would explain why his car was tap-dancing all over the freeway," Starsky said, shaking his head. "It wouldn't have had to bite me to get me to drive like a madman."

"I'll take it in, in the trunk," the patrolman offered. He turned to the two detectives. "Could you two follow me to the hospital, so I can get your info there? I'm going to need some witnesses or my captain isn't going to believe this."

"We'll be there." Starsky grabbed Hutch's arm and guided him toward the Torino, mindful of his partner's bloody hands and wet leg. As Hutch got in, Starsky leaned toward him, keeping his voice low. "And while we're there, we're going to make sure you're okay."

"I'm fine, Starsk. It didn't bite me or anything."

As he shut the Torino door, Starsky noticed that he wasn't actually shaking, although it felt like he was.

I sure hope you're okay, Hutch, 'cause I just might have had a heart attack!

In a few minutes they were following the Highway Patrol car, lights flashing and siren blaring toward the hospital.

**********

Starsky took the phone call at Hutch's apartment, while his partner was in the shower. They didn't have to stay very long at the hospital--just long enough to make sure Hutch was okay and give their information to the patrolman. He had given them Hutch's number and the number at the station in case there was any news. Starsky repeated what they had told him, as soon as Hutch came out of the bathroom.

"A Western Diamondback," Hutch echoed, shaking his slightly damp head. "No wonder the guy was driving like that. He must have been trying to get away from it."

"No one would be thinking very clearly, that's for sure." Starsky went over to wrap his arms around him. Hutch leaned into the embrace, hooking his own thumbs in the loops of Starsky's jeans. "Very poisonous. Add to that the fact that someone cut off the rattles, and you've got a very dangerous, silent weapon to let loose in someone's car."

"Someone wanted that man dead."

"Too bad it worked."

Even though the man was alive upon arrival and they knew they had a possible snakebite victim, the hospital staff had been fighting a losing battle. While the snake was certainly poisonous, the victim had a nasty head wound as well. It was going to take an autopsy to determine what had actually killed him.

"You were damn lucky, Hutch," Starsky said softly, running his hands lightly down Hutch's back, feeling the muscles under the soft, damp skin. "It could have bitten you, too."

"Probably would've killed the snake. I'm too mean to have even noticed."

Pulling him even closer, Starsky chuckled into Hutch's neck, "Oh, yeah, I keep forgettin' how closely you're related to Superman!"

Such are the stuff of nightmares, Starsky thought with a chill. Damn, how I hate those things! Snakes, creeping up on you like that...

As if he could read his partner's thoughts, Hutch pulled him closer, holding him tight. Starsky then felt Hutch's warm breath at his ear.

"You did great tonight, babe. Stood fast, came up with the answers and did what you had to do." Hutch's voice was silky, heating up those chilled places in Starsky's spine. "I know there isn't a damn thing in the world you wouldn't do for me. Love like that should be rewarded, don't you think?"

Hutch gave him a soft kiss.

"You are quite the con man, that's what you are," Starsky replied teasingly, pulling back just enough to see Hutch's eyes. "A sweet-talking, never-up-to-any-good con man, who just wants to get into my pants. My ma warned me about men like you, yet here I am, fallin' for your evil ways one more time."

Hutch laughed, his blue eyes dancing. "Your mother warned you about con men who might be after the family jewels, huh? Well, that's a switch."

"Okay, so she warned me against bein' one," Starsky admitted with a laugh of his own. "But I was warned, and here I let you slip passed all my barriers." He leaned in and brushed Hutch's warm lips with his, lingering a moment. "And, oh, man, am I glad that I did."

They kissed slowly--shallow, light caresses at first. When Starsky sought entrance, Hutch sucked him in, and they spent several minutes taking turns tasting and exploring each other's mouths.

Starsky's hands roamed freely, tracing Hutch's spine with the tips of his fingers, until he met and burrowed under the wet towel. Hutch moaned as Starsky's hands found and gripped round buttocks. He concentrated on kneading Hutch's ass, pressing their crotches together, Hutch's erection clearly outlined under the towel. Starsky's own cock was growing hard and ready in his jeans.

Hutch's hands were under Starsky's shirt up to his shoulders, holding him in place as he delved deeply into his mouth.

"No fair!" Hutch gasped as they parted, both of them short of breath. "I need more skin than that, lover."

"Need a shower."

Hutch pulled him close again, nuzzling at Starsky's neck. His warm tongue trailing a wet line from his collarbone to his jaw, as Starsky gasped.

"No, you don't."

"Need a shave."

Hutch's mouth found his earlobe, making him squirm, then moved on to the corner of his jaw. Starsky could feel Hutch's lips slide softly up over his jaw, stopping to rest at his mole. "No, you don't."

There was no more arguing as Hutch's hands found the buttons of Starsky's shirt. He stood silently as Hutch undid the buttons and pulled the shirt just over his shoulders, exposing his chest.

The flush on Hutch's face grew darker, and his eyes grew hot and smoky, as he looked Starsky over. As Hutch reached down to his belt, Starsky took his wrist, holding it back.

"Want you tonight, babe," he whispered, leaning over to kiss Hutch's chin. His hands found Hutch's ass again. "Want you all damp and glowing in that big mirror in there." He could hear Hutch's breathing catch as he nipped at his chin. "Always love to see an angel fly."

Hutch groaned and wrapped his arms around Starsky's neck, his mouth finding Starsky's and demanding entrance. As they kissed deeply, Starsky rubbed and massaged the slick, soft skin under his hands, fingers digging into solid muscles at times and places calculated to make Hutch gasp.

Soon, his fingers found the cleft of Hutch's ass, hot and damp from the shower. Starsky's heart was pounding furiously, as he followed it down as far as he could reach without letting go of Hutch's mouth.

They were pressed together, Hutch's chest sliding deliciously over Starsky's where the shirt was open. He could feel the hard hammering of Hutch's heart against him, could feel the desire fueling the movement of the hands at the back of his head and in the tongue that dueled with his.

Starsky felt like he was burning from the inside out, his cock hard and pulsing hungrily in its trapped space. Hutch felt so good against him, so sweet against his skin, under his fingers and in his mouth, but it wasn't enough.

Not losing contact, he leaned into Hutch as they kissed, making him take a step back, then another, moving his golden lover back into the bathroom that was still damp and steamy.

"Now, Hutch?" Starsky asked as soon as they were in the room, his hands roaming Hutch as Hutch's fingers wove themselves in and out of his curls. Getting a breathy nod he released Hutch, turning him around to face the large bathroom mirror, pulling the towel from around Hutch's hips.

Leaving the light off, Starsky stood behind him, pulling Hutch's arms back to place his hands on the back of Starsky's head. Starsky pressed himself against Hutch's back, chin at his neck, leaving Hutch's body open to his view.

Hutch watched for a moment, his eyes black in the mirror, his flush tingeing the gold of his body with a bit of bronze. Then he sighed and closed his eyes, leaning his head back onto Starsky's shoulder, letting his lover look his fill.

The light from the living room fell in soft waves over the smooth body, shimmering like gold in the floating strands of hair that haloed Hutch's head, glinting faintly in the brows and lashes on his lit side. The rest of his torso was outlined in pale planes and dark sharp valleys. Starsky's hands followed the light, fingers stroking across the places that glowed, then scratching lightly at the places that existed in the shadows.

Like looking into his soul. Parts of him hold such happiness and light, other parts he keeps hidden, out of sight.

His fingers explored the thicker skin and pebbled texture of bronze nipples, moving up the firm plane of muscle to shoulder, feeling the ash-gold of sparse underarm hair, then up the hard muscles of arms to elbows and back down again. He could feel how Hutch's skin reacted, how he sighed and moaned as Starsky touched him, the small tremors that followed his fingers.

Starsky paused a moment in his caresses, reaching between them to unsnap his jeans, to unzip them and free his own cock, groaning as it found space to enlarge against Hutch's ass, finding the cleft as naturally as breathing.

Hutch's cock responded as well, still as yet untouched. Starsky watched as the firm, long organ filled with desire. It started out thick and heavy among Hutch's balls, braced by narrow hips and thick thighs. And as Starsky touched him it grew to standing, the head growing, flaring in search of contact, of loving.

The sight made Starsky's mouth water, and he sucked on the tender skin of Hutch's shoulder. How many times had he taken that monster into his mouth, tasted its flavors? No matter the number, it would never be enough.

Hutch was groaning now, the hands laced behind Starsky's head were pulling him forward, begging for more contact. Starsky saw and felt Hutch's hips flex forward, his moan almost painful as his cock found only air.

Pulling open a small drawer, Starsky grabbed for the tube stored there. Unwilling to let Hutch go, he used one hand to loosen the lid, let the tube leak onto the counter and swept a large dollop of the cool gel onto his fingers.

As he continued to touch Hutch, he warmed the gel in his hand. Then, suddenly, he grabbed at Hutch's cock, taking it firmly and pumping it from the tip to the root, feeling it slide roughly in his fist.

"AH!" Hutch gasped deeply, body jerking forward. Starsky's other hand held Hutch's hands in place, keeping Hutch stretched and opened to him.

He pumped once more, squeezing the shaft firmly, pressing the glans as it passed through his fingers.

"Ohhh...yess...pleasestarsk! Pleasemore!"

He started a regular rhythm, pushing and pulling Hutch's cock as he worked the organ, feeling Hutch move to brace his feet farther apart, as he began to thrust to Starsky's timing.

Starsky's blood was burning, flowing hotly from the vision of Hutch in the mirror, the smell of heat-flushed skin under his nose to fill Starsky's cock to what felt like bursting. He found himself pushing his cock against Hutch's ass in counter-rhythm to Hutch's thrusts, rubbing himself in the crevice.

It was more than he was going to be able to stand, yet he wanted more.

Grabbing the base of Hutch's cock tightly, he made his finger and thumb into a tight ring. his other fingers splayed across Hutch's sac, and he forced Hutch to stop.

The groan he heard was almost heartbreaking, and he could feel how hard it was for Hutch to keep his hands up and away from himself.

"Don't stop! Pleaseplease!"

"Soon, Golden Boy," Starsky breathed thickly, putting more of the gel on his fingers to warm. He brought his fingers to Hutch's crevice and slid coated fingers down to his center. "Damn, Hutch, you look like half an angel, half a demon like this. You get me so hot just watching you, knowing I can have you, seeing how I can make you fly!"

He pushed fingers inside, hearing Hutch gasp at the penetration and feeling him bend slightly to open himself more.

One finger, then quickly two found their way inside the tight, hot tunnel. It was as if Hutch were molten inside, and Starsky's cock ached with the need to be where his fingers were. But Starsky added a third finger instead, feeling the muscles under the tender, thin skin stretch for him.

"Gotta be now! Oh, Starsk! Do it now!" Hutch moved his arms then, bending forward to brace his hands on the bathroom countertop, spreading his legs farther, presenting himself to Starsky.

Starsky gripped the base of his needy cock harshly, taking a breath at the sight before him. It felt lewd, him with his shirt open, but still on, his jeans barely down past the bottom of his balls, and Hutch spread out naked and demanding in front of him. He was so close now, the sight of it was almost enough to make his body cross the line of no return.

Using the other hand to spread Hutch's ass cheeks, he placed himself, now rock-hard and painful, at Hutch's center, only nudging the puckered rose of flesh. Hutch moved backward and Starsky pushed in, feeling the volcanic heat surround and engulf him in one quick stroke.

His balls felt crushed, he had pushed inside so hard. For what felt like an eternity neither one moved, although Starsky could feel slight tremors in both of them, the call of lust and desire trying to force them forward. For as long as he could, Starsky held himself still, marking the moment when he and Hutch were once again one body, one breath, one heart.

Who was the first to move he didn't know. Their bodies took over and they both worked toward a cadence that sang of life, love and trust, Starsky's body following the song of mating and mated.

He knew when he rubbed Hutch's special spot, felt the shock in the body under and around him. He repeated the stroke and Hutch rewarded him with a gut-deep rumble of pleasure that was almost like the purr of a huge cat. Starsky quickened his pace, thrusting hard and deep, centering his focus on Hutch's pleasure, feeling as it grew strong and took over his lover. Hutch was leaning hard on the counter top, talking to him, saying wonderfully sexy things that Starsky only half caught in his fight to hold back his own climax.

Bending over, he reached around for Hutch's cock, finding it hard and desperate for his hand. He pumped it in time to his thrusts, trying to bring it all together, feeling it come to a peak when Hutch gasped and yelled his named. Starsky milked his cock in that moment when Hutch's body froze, and as Hutch groaned and twitched in his hand, Starsky felt the cum--hot from Hutch's desire--as it was propelled outward, splashing Starsky's hands and the bathroom counter.

He held on as long as he could, before his body took over. His hands found Hutch's hips and gripped hard, moving Hutch back and forth even as Starsky thrust hard and deep inside of his lover.

Time had no place in his mind as he gave over to the sensations, feeling as if his heart, head, and cock would explode at any moment. It was sweet agony, to be so close, yet not quite there, to have it last just...another...heartbeat...longer...

It was fireworks and starlight, like a whole galaxy swirling before his eyes as he came. As his body clenched, forcing his semen out and into his lover, he could only hold on for dear life. When his head partly cleared, he found himself still on his feet draped over Hutch's back, hips still flexing slightly with the leftover pulse of ejaculation.

He was breathless, weak and trembling, realizing that it had to be only Hutch that held them up. So, despite his desire to remain connected, he carefully pulled out of Hutch, guiding him down with him to the cold bathroom floor.

Hutch wrapped around him, both of them breathing heavy in the aftermath. They held on to each other for a few minutes, Starsky wondering if he were ever going to get the strength to move again, when Hutch's fingers trailed lightly down his middle, from collarbone to spent cock.

"Looks like I need another shower. Want to join me this time?"

Starsky's mind wrapped itself lazily around the idea and decided it definitely held some appeal.

Well, if neither one of us is related to Superman, then we sure should be! If I ever see him walking around with a red cape and tights, I can't say I'd really be surprised.

**********

"Do you realize," Dobey mumbled grumpily from behind his report covered desk, "that I'm beginning to wonder if I can leave you two alone for two minutes?"

Hutch flashed his partner an amused look. He and Starsky, who'd not had a full night's sleep, had gotten up in pretty good moods. Dobey, on the other hand, had not been in a major auto accident the night before, yet seemed to be the shell-shocked one this morning.

"Captain," Starsky began, "it's not our fault we just happen to be sensitive to our surroundings."

"That's right," Hutch chimed in. "If we didn't have our eyes and ears open at all times--"

"Yeah, yeah." Dobey flipped another page, eyes scanning the reports from the night before. "I still say you two are just trouble magnets, primed to keep me shelling out good money for antacids and hair dye. I've got more grey hairs that can be blamed on you than from both of my kids."

"But you must admit," Starsky said, eyes dancing as he tried to act serious, "that the 'elderly' look is very dignified, sir."

"Yeah, and you're one to talk," Dobey growled softly, spearing Starsky with a "look." "Just remember what goes around comes around. I'm not blind to just how many grey hairs are managing to find their way to your head!"

Hutch hid a grin as Starsky flashed him a surprised look, then raised his hand to pat at his curls.

Now he's got you worried, Hutch thought with amusement. Ten seconds alone and you're going to be asking me where the grey is. And some people say Dobey doesn't have a sense of humor!

Dobey searched through the papers on his desk and fished out an eight-by-ten photograph. He handed it to Hutch. It was a portrait usually done for publication purposes. Hutch hadn't gotten a good look at the victim's face, but the mass of "salt-and-pepper" hair--heavy on the salt--looked like the style and color Hutch had seen in the dim light of the wreckage. He was a handsome man--even features, dark brown eyes. He was smiling, healthy-looking, and in an expensive business suit.

"The man who died last night was Robert Danforth Rushlow, the owner and manager of The Visionary."

"The Visionary?" Starsky repeated, looking surprised. "Hey, I've read that one, it's a--"

"It's a piece of junk is what it is," Hutch broke in, handing the photograph to Starsky. "All they print are 'incredible' stories that aren't true, rumors and horoscopes."

"Some of those stories are true!" Starsky protested.

"Which ones? The 'My Stepmother is an Alien out to Take Over the World,' or 'Ninety Pound Man Eats Full Grown Shark in Horrific Beach Encounter?'" Hutch snorted in disgust.

Starsky blinked, looking a bit embarrassed. "Well, I didn't say those were true," he mumbled. "But if you looked close enough you'd see that they do cover some important local issues. Sometimes they'll even be the first to break a corruption story, when none of the other papers would touch it. They're the ones who reported some of those bribes the last mayor got caught taking, even before the other papers found out about it. You've just got to be able to pick out the important ones."

"Well, whatever the heck it is, he was the owner of the paper and is worth millions!" Dobey stabbed at the papers on his desk with his finger. "And despite the fact that his life isn't supposed to be worth more than any other murder victim's life, everyone from the DA on down the line is already under pressure to find out what's going on.

"We've been lucky so far that the morning papers have only reported it as a fatal accident. But you can bet that by the evening editions they'll have it down as murder, and maybe even the snake aspect. We need to get cracking on this case before we lose what little edge we may have.

"Since you two were at the scene last night and don't have any other pressing cases at the moment, I'm handing it to you. I want this handled properly, and you'd better keep me posted."

Shuffling the papers into a folder, Dobey handed them to Hutch and waved them out of his office.

**********

Nothing really interesting here, Hutch thought, looking over his half of the divided report file. A really good education, a top college...but not the best that could be bought. No sign of a juvenile record, adult history is clean. Not even a parking ticket in his personal files.

Robert Rushlow, in his mid-fifties, was from upper middle-class parents, majored in journalism, and upon graduation went in with several partners and bought a bankrupt news press. Over the last twenty years he'd dumped the partners, legally, and by smart marketing and sensational stories managed to make his paper a staple in every local supermarket in the country.

Local boy makes good, at least in the money department. But I don't see anything that would get someone mad enough to kill him.

Taking a sip of his coffee, he glanced at Starsky who was seated at his desk opposite him. He tried not to smile, remembering how Starsky had made a beeline to the men's room after their meeting. Hutch knew he must have been checking for grey hairs because of Dobey's remark. If there was a down side to knowing your captain too well, it was that he knew your weak spots just as you knew his. Which was a sobering thought.

I wonder how much he really knows about Starsky and me. If he doesn't know--or suspect--that we're now a couple, he's not beyond figuring it out sooner or later. Sometimes I wish he already knew, just so we wouldn't have to watch ourselves all the time.

"Find anything?" he asked Starsky, not wanting to dwell too much on thoughts that would go nowhere.

Starsky shrugged. "Just that they're still working on the forensic end of things. Preliminary autopsy results, along with the emergency room notes, show that Rushlow was actually bitten twice by the snake, once on the ankle and once on his upper calf. The venom of a Western Diamondback is pretty poisonous, but he was just beginning to show some of the symptoms at the hospital. He had multiple head wounds, cracked ribs, a broken arm, and heart problems when he was submitted."

"So they don't think the bite actually killed him?"

"They won't know for sure until the autopsy results are in, but I gotta tell ya, Hutch, it sounds to me like the accident was caused when he first saw the snake or first realized he'd been bit. That guy was driving like he was scared to death and fighting off the devil, not like he just wasn't feeling well."

A chill went down Hutch's back as he remembered the warm, heavy feel of movement against his boot, then later the touch of snake skin on his calf. Once he'd realized what it was, it had taken every bit of willpower he had to hold still. Just the memory made him feel a small stab of fear.

"The report on the snake," Starsky continued, looking at another page, "was that it was an adult, complete with fangs, but had had the rattles removed."

"Those things just don't slide in and out of expensive cars."

Starsky gave him a worried glance. "Let's hope they don't slide in and out of cheap ones, either. I spend too much time in your car to be worryin' about snakes livin' somewhere in all that mess. You find anything interesting in there?"

"You mean, did I find out that he's gotten death threats from a competitor, is into something shady, or has a jilted lover in his past? No, he looks clean from what's on the sheets."

"But if he's got money..."

"There's no telling what he's been up to that failed to get reported." Hutch sighed. "He was an only child, his parents are deceased. He's got a second wife; they'd been married for three years. His first wife of twenty years died of cancer; no foul play there. No children."

"Who'd he marry? His secretary?"

"Nope. She's not the kind to have a job, just a 'career.' He married well, apparently with her family's full approval."

"So, the bad blood must be in the business side of things."

"What was he up to last night, anyway? Have you got anything on that?"

Starsky flipped through some more papers. "There was a charity ball at the estate of Jason Brigman, one of those well-heeled bank owners. They were collecting money for some sort of children's charity that Brigman's wife runs. Quite a few people were there at the time, so we've got a lot of ground to cover. According to the statement taken from Rushlow's wife, the last time she saw him was when he was dressing for the occasion. She wasn't feeling well and decided not to attend. He said good-bye and left around six-thirty."

"No doubt they'll have some household staff we can talk to to confirm that."

"It also looks like we'll have a lot of ground to cover from those who attended the charity ball. I figure Mrs. Rushlow would be a good place to start. Strange that it was such an important function and yet she didn't attend with her husband. Means she wasn't going to be in the car with him that night."

"If not her, the servants might know something," Hutch added, nodding his head. "If they don't pay well, then we may get lucky and find an employee who's not too concerned about keeping secrets."

"Well, no time like the present."

**********

The drive to the estate was eye opening. Way up in the hills, the view was incredible, with most of the city around the other side of the mountain and the ocean taking center stage. Starsky was impressed even before he saw the house itself.

It was all very expensive and very impressive, just like he'd expected. Starsky found himself trying to guess what the whole thing cost. He finally gave up, deciding he didn't really want to know.

After driving up to the door, they were let in by a butler and taken to a large room with an ocean view to wait for the widow. The room was decorated in a modern style, without being overdone. It was clear that careful attention had been paid to achieve a style that screamed "wealth and taste," now marred by the addition of what were clearly flowers of condolences. As soon as they were alone, both men went to the window.

"Now, this is the house I want to retire in," Starsky said softly to Hutch, who was standing at his elbow in front of the wide windows. "Look at the view!"

"And the pool and the furnishings and the hired help." Hutch chuckled softly. "I would have to choose a high maintenance lover, with delusions of wealth."

"And if you don't set your sights high, you won't ever get what you want. You just get what you deserve." Starsky gave him a small, mischievous smile as they both turned back to the room.

It's really nice, but there's not much I've seen so far that would tell us who really lives here. Too bad we can't just drift around and get a look at the back rooms without a warrant. The bedroom, bathroom, or an office could tell us a lot more than this room can.

Both had wandered to opposite sides of the room, looking at the flowers and reading some of the attached cards, when minutes later Mrs. Rushlow came into the room. Starsky was struck with her bearing, which was quiet and sorrowful. Dressed all in black, she looked to be in her late forties, her hair and person neat, but not made up for company. Her eyes were red and she looked as if she were truly upset, but in control.

"Gentlemen? My butler has told me you are here to talk about my husband's death?"

"Yes, thank you for seeing us, Mrs. Rushlow." Hutch took out his badge and held it up gently, a sympathetic expression on his face. "We appreciate you being able to see us this morning. We realize this must have been a shock for you."

Starsky watched her face, saw the polite nod as she gestured for them to be seated. She was a nice-looking woman and had a very calm and regal bearing about her that didn't seem to be put on.

The detectives sat on the couch as she took an arm chair.

"I am very willing to help you, gentlemen, because I want my husband's killer caught."

"You believe he was murdered?" Starsky asked quietly, watching her closely.

Her eyes grew flinty as they took him in. "Detective, from what I understand, poisonous snakes don't jump into cars to hitch rides. Even if they only intended to scare or intimidate him, their actions resulted in my husband's death. He was murdered, and I want the killer or killers found."

That's interesting. How did she know about the snake?

"Do you know of anyone who would want to kill your husband?" Hutch asked.

Mrs. Rushlow sighed and shook her head. "I've been asking myself that question all night, and to be honest, I don't know enough of his past dealings to be able to say if he had enemies or not."

"How long have you been married?" Starsky asked.

"About three years. Robert and I met after the death of his first wife and dated for a couple of years before we married."

"I understand that there was a charity ball last night to raise money for a children's charity." Starsky continued. "You were unable to attend?"

"I suffer from frequent migraines, Detective. A fact you can verify with my physician. I have learned, from painful experience, that if I know one is coming on, I might as well cancel any plans I have for the rest of the day and evening." A look of tired frustration crossed her face. "I really intended to be there last night, since I was one of the committee members who arranged the ball and helped recruit those on the guest list. I called Amanda Brigman and let her know hours beforehand that I wasn't going to be able to make it. She was very gracious, saying she understood and would make my apologies for me. Robert was not very happy about going alone, but he felt that at least one of us should be there. He loved getting his picture in the paper, any paper."

The last had been said with a bit of disdain.

"So you last saw him...?"

"At about six-thirty. Cocktails started at seven. I went to bed--as many in my staff can confirm--and tried to relax so I could fall asleep. I was still awake when the officers showed up to inform me of my husband's death."

"And that's when you decided it was murder?"

"After the officers told me about the snake in the car, what else could I assume?"

So much for her knowing privileged information. Wish they hadn't mentioned the snake.

"So we should be able to contact Mrs. Brigman and confirm your husband's arrival and departure times?"

"Very easily, I should say. I've been getting phone calls all morning from friends and associates wishing me condolences, as well as the arrival of flowers. My husband was very rich, and many courted his favor. There were a lot of people at that ball who will know exactly when he arrived and when he left."

"He must have left quite a fortune behind." Hutch said the words softly, and to Starsky's eyes Mrs. Rushlow didn't look to be startled or upset by the statement. "All of which goes to you, I assume?"

"I'm sure you gentlemen have done your homework," she said with a slight smile. "I'm from a very respected family that has had its share of success in business. I came into this marriage with my own money and a signed pre-nuptial, in case things between Robert and me didn't work out. I think there are several charities that will profit from my husband's death, but I'm not sure what the terms of his will are, nor if he had changed if after we married. I have more than enough money of my own to last a lifetime. I didn't need his." Her eyes went to her hands on her lap. "Robert had his faults and wasn't the best husband, but I loved him anyway. I'd give everything I have to get him back."

Her words felt real to Starsky. If all the money in the world could buy back a human life, he could certainly see her writing out that check with no hesitation.

"You said he wasn't the best of husbands, Mrs. Rushlow. Could you be more specific?" Starsky asked.

A tinge came up to her face, her eyes still on her hands. After a moment she raised her eyes, looking at both him and Hutch.

"I've had some suspicions, for about six months now, that my husband was not being faithful to me. I haven't had my husband followed, although I certainly could have paid to have had it done."

"Why didn't you?"

She smiled weakly. "Pride, I guess. I wasn't willing to believe that he would cheat on me, even though the evidence indicated otherwise. I'm not a young woman anymore, and this is my first marriage. I was not interested in having children of my own, but would rather help out as many children's causes as I could. It was a bit...unsettling to think that Robert might have married me for something other than love, and…well…I didn't want to think he could tire of me so easily. No woman wants to think that the man she felt she waited her whole life for wasn't worth the wait."

Starsky looked at Hutch and saw him look back with the same thought.

Well, sounds reasonable. I can certainly see her point.

"What makes you think he was cheating?" Hutch asked.

"His decreasing interest in sex, for one thing," she admitted. Starsky could see that the honesty was making her uncomfortable. "He's barely touched me these last few months, even though I've always been very interested in his company. Despite his heart problem, which was being managed by his doctor and a better diet, he had always been very sexually driven. At the same time he was losing interest in me, he started spending more time 'at work' where he couldn't be reached, and had started driving himself around."

"And you think the reason he started driving himself around was...?"

Keen eyes regarded him unflinchingly. "To keep the staff from knowing where he was and who he was spending his long evenings with. At least...that is what I believe was happening. I wish now I had confronted him with it, dealt with it while I could. Now, I'm not sure I really want to know."

"Would you mind us talking to your staff?" Hutch asked.

It was a bold question. in most cases it had gotten him and Hutch booted out on their ears, but Starsky knew that it was a good method used to gauge just how deep the "cooperation" ran.

But the lady only nodded, as if the question were not only expected but proper. "Surely, please be my guest. I'll inform them that I need them all to cooperate." She lowered her voice, her slight smile only making her look tired. "But please understand that a few staff members were brought in by my husband before our marriage. Whether they will feel free to cooperate with you will depend on them, and who they feel loyal to. I'm sure that they may wish to...honor my husband's memory."

"And who would that be?"

"The butler, William Anderson, the chauffeur, Isaiah Jenkins, a few of the maintenance staff, and anyone my husband worked with or handled his business affairs."

Hutch wrote down the names.

"If you'd like to talk with them, I can send them in individually. I will, of course, leave you to your privacy while you talk with them."

Starsky rose as Mrs. Rushlow stood; Hutch was still scribbling notes. "Thank you, ma'am. We'd like to get started on this case while the facts are still fresh."

After she left the room Starsky sat back down, looking over Hutch's shoulder to read his notes.

"Whadd'ya think?"

Hutch shook his head in admiration. "Very classy. She's got the breeding, that's for sure, but it's not gone to her head. She's right about the children's charities. from what I've heard, she's a real force in keeping a lot of donations floating in. I don't think she married him for his money."

"So you think she was being truthful?"

"Sounded that way to me."

"Yeah, me, too."

They broke off conversation as the butler--a middle-aged man, severely dressed in his uniform, down to the immaculate white gloves--entered the room.

"Mrs. Rushlow has informed me that you wish an interview with me?" His expression was stiff and disapproving.

"Yes, Mr...uh..." Hutch checked his notes. "Mr. Anderson. Please have a seat."

"Thank you, but I prefer to stand."

Well, they couldn't all be easy, Starsky thought with an internal sigh.

**********

Hutch thought the interviews had gone well enough, even though they garnered very little information. It came as no surprise to him that Rushlow may have gained some loyalty with his staff over the years. They did their jobs, didn't ask questions and were treated well. So it seemed that if Rushlow had any enemies, or a mistress, he didn't exactly broadcast it to his employees, where it could trickle down to his wife.

The chauffeur, Isaiah Jenkins, seemed very uncomfortable during the interview and finally gave them something to go on.

While he didn't actually know if his boss was sleeping around or had any enemies after him, he did happen to casually slip in the fact that a man of his employer's wealth would have been the target for a lot of talk. Just because it wouldn't be reported as gossip by The Visionary, his own publication, didn't mean that some other rack-rag wouldn't have printed a rumor or two.

"After all," Jenkins had admitted with a shrug, "I'm approached all the time by reporters from the competition, willing to pay me for spicy gossip about my boss or his wife. Just because I don't play that game doesn't mean everyone else who works here is as discrete."

With that in mind, they went to visit Rushlow's secretary. A nice-looking woman, who was clearly upset by the death of her boss but agreed to talk with them. She answered their questions without hesitation, but with little interest in volunteering any information. When the subject of a mistress or girlfriend was broached, she made it very clear that if he had one, Mr. Rushlow was careful to keep the information to himself. They got the impression Mrs. Gunnells would not have approved of any such behavior from her boss.

Hutch believed her, although noted that she had only been with Rushlow for a few years. By the time they left the office, it was clear to Hutch that Rushlow was very adept at keeping his private life private, at least from those in his office.

"You know," Starsky said as he drove the Torino back to the freeway, "I keep thinking about what the chauffeur said. If he does know something, he's found a good way to get us the info without actually betraying what loyalty he may feel to his boss."

"That's a good point," Hutch agreed. "If anyone is going to have 'the scoop' on him, it's going to be the competition. It's worth a shot, and I know just who to go to with this."

"Yeah? Who's that?"

"C.D. Phelps." Hutch grinned at the look of surprise on Starsky's face. "I think after that last column she wrote, she might see her way to doing us a favor or two."

Christine "C.D." Phelps had ridden with them a few years ago, to gather information for her articles in The Dispatch on "Counter Culture Cops: The New Breed." Originally resistant to the idea of a "ride along," he and Starsky had changed their minds quickly when C.D. had turned out to be a lovely lady.

"As hard as we both went after her, I'm surprised we came out of it so well," Starsky admitted.

Hutch remembered how they had both been relentless in jockeying for her attention, and how embarrassed they had felt when reading her first article. She had taken them to task for ignoring calls and being belligerent to perpetrators as they went about their business, calling them "Mutt and Jeff."

Once they had leveled with her, that they'd been asked to ignore calls in favor of sticking to a high profile case, and showed her what they were up against on the streets and at the station, she really began to get the story. When she had almost been a victim of violence, having been taken hostage by a madman, her tone had changed completely. The next article had called them "heroes."

"Well, I don't think competition for a date with her will get in the way this time." Hutch chuckled. "It wouldn't hurt to have some good press on our side, so maybe she'll do us this favor so we can owe her one."

"Just what I like, being in a reporter's debt." Starsky rolled his eyes.

"Can't be helped, buddy. Best we can do is be careful who we make our deals with. If it's got to be someone, I'd rather owe Chris. I think she'll be square with us."

"Can't argue that point. Let's go see if she's in."

The offices of The Dispatch were just as loud and frantic as Hutch had imagined they would be. There were phones ringing everywhere and people moving as if some deadline were only minutes away, which Hutch assumed was probably true. They had been told where to find C.D. and given directions through the building's maze, without even an interested glance at their badges.

It didn't take long to spot her across the room, or hear her for that matter. Hutch found himself smiling at the forceful tone of her voice as she yelled her displeasure in to the phone. The few years since they'd seen her had certainly not done her any harm; she was still very nice-looking. Hutch had developed a lot of respect for her writing over the years. She wasn't one to pull punches when she thought they'd do some good, and because of her relentlessness, a lot of ugly situations had been brought to her readers' attention.

"Hope she's in a better mood for us," Starsky said quietly as they made their way to her. "Sounds like we definitely caught her at a bad time."

As they walked up, she slammed down the phone, not even looking surprised as she registered their presence.

"Tell me," she began, with an evil smile, "is it still against the law to hire hit men to take care of total idiots?"

"Is this a research question?" Starsky asked with a matching smile.

"Oh, totally. All hypothetical, of course!"

"Then, yes," Hutch said with mock sadness, "it's still illegal."

"Well, then, a girl can only dream, I guess." She smiled for real this time, reaching out to shake their hands. "Well, what brings you two out this way? Don't tell me I'm on my way to jail for some reason?"

"Uh, no, you're safe for the moment," Hutch said with a laugh. "But we could use a favor. Off the record, so to speak."

"Oh, I love doing favors," she said sweetly. "Although I warn you that I can draw blood in payback. Let's grab the first empty room we can find, so we can talk without all my nosy neighbors getting the scoop on us."

**********

Hutch was amazed at the results. After Chris had listened to their story in private and had promised them she wouldn't report on the case until after an arrest had been made, she agreed to call around and see what she could dig up for them.

After calling and getting research started in The Dispatch's own archives, she called some friends of hers at some of the other papers, including a few tabloids. He and Starsky had been correct in thinking that there was a bit of cooperation behind the scenes, and that a lot of cross-publication acquaintances had developed over the years.

While she was busy on the phone at her desk, Starsky had called Dobey to report in, while Hutch got everyone coffee. Starsky later relayed that Dobey expected them to obtain statements from those who attended the ball, to confirm when Rushlow had arrived, to whom he talked, and when he left. But once Starsky explained how they were following a hot lead to a secret girlfriend, Dobey relented and decided to put other officers on the more mundane tasks. For now, they were free to follow their noses, as long as they reported in regularly.

After about an hour, Chris hung up with a smile on her face.

"Got some news for you guys! Seems that Mr. Rushlow may have a little love nest on the side. Word is that he's been seen, in very discrete places, with a sexy young actress who is still in the 'casting couch' stage of her career. Apparently the second Mrs. Rushlow isn't the first wife he's cheated on. I don't have names for them all, but it seems he's been known to be a ladies' man from way back. And it seems he is buddy-buddy with enough of the other tabloid owners that he's managed to stay out of print, even when one of their reporters gets a juicy bit of gossip.

"So he was stepping out," Starsky said, interest written on his face. "Got a name to go with the latest fling?"

"She goes by the name of Crystal Song, but I doubt you're going to find that name in the phone book. I do know that she does bit parts in soap operas once in awhile--one filmed at the Burbank studio called 'The Call of Destiny.' Their office should have the information on where she can be found."

"Thanks, Chris." Hutch gave her his best smile as he got up to leave. "We owe you."

"Oh, you can count on that!" Chris agreed enthusiastically, her smile predatory. "Be prepared to give blood when I come for it."

As they made their way out, Starsky sidled up to Hutch, his whisper full of amusement. "She's got better connections than Huggy does. Get the feeling that we've just bitten off more than we can chew?"

"I'm sure of it," Hutch admitted with a laugh. "We'd better be careful, or we'll find we're 'Mutt and Jeff' again to someone other than Dobey!"

**********

Grabbing something quick to eat, they then headed to the studio. They decided it would be faster all the way around if they didn't show their badges, but pretended they needed to find the actress for other reasons. People tended not to give out information to cops without their boss' okay, but they'd give them to delivery people with no thought.

Stopping to get a large manila envelope and a ream of paper, Hutch stuffed the envelope and sealed it, then wrote Crystal's name on it and roughed it up a bit, making it look "well traveled."

After arriving at the studio where they filmed the soap opera, Hutch left his jacket, holster and gun with Starsky and walked with the envelope up to the front desk, announcing loudly that he had a script for Crystal Song and was having trouble delivering it.

The desk was busy and no one really wanted to deal with him, but the third time he made his announcement, a harried-looking lady waved him over to her desk with resignation.

"We don't usually do this," she said, as she pulled out some books and started thumbing through the information inside.

"I appreciate it, though," Hutch said sweetly. "I've been paid to deliver this script to her personally, but no one seems to be able to tell me where she is. Someone's going to have my head if she doesn't get this by tonight!"

He was given the address of her agent, where the script could be delivered, then sent quickly on his way.

At the agent's office, they presented their badges to a worried-looking secretary. Her boss was summoned and, after a few words, went back in his office to call his client and ask her to come in. He did insist on a warrant before giving out his client's personal information. The agent returned quickly, saying that Crystal Song wanted to cooperate with the police. He gave her real name, Gail Gossett, and her address and told them that she had agreed to meet with them there.

The apartment was in a part of town that indicated she was probably receiving some help, if not outright being supported by someone. The rent would have been too high for a struggling actress, let alone one that seemed to be living on bit parts that were few and far between.

The door was opened by a young woman that Hutch wouldn't have said was more than twenty if she was a day. Small-boned, almost fragile-looking, she had long, dark hair, and brown eyes in a round pixie face. And it was clear as soon as she opened the door that she had been weeping violently. She had on no make-up and was in a bathrobe, looking small and lost.

"Miss Gossett?" Starsky held out his badge. She barely looked at it, only nodded and opened the door wider.

Hutch noticed the obvious signs of wealth throughout the room. Most of it seemed very masculine, which reinforced Hutch's thoughts that this was not so much Miss Gossett's apartment as it was Rushlow's, and that the lady who now occupied it was only a guest.

She led them to the living room, where she plopped gracelessly in the center of the couch.

"I guess it's all over, huh?" She pushed the hair out of her face, unmindful of how it looked. "End of the line. Time to go back and work for a living. Guess I should have had my bags packed before now, right?"

"You think we're here to roust you?" Starsky asked softly.

"Sure, why not? I'm sure Robert's people want me out as soon as possible. Maybe so they can close out the lease on this place, so it won't show up on the books. I'm sure there must be someone who doesn't want Mrs. Rushlow finding out what her husband was up to."

"No, Miss Gossett, we're not here to kick you out," Hutch said causally, watching as she took out a cigarette from a pack on the coffee table and lit it. She was upset, but her hands were steady. No signs of nervousness. "We're here to ask you some questions about Mr. Rushlow."

"Not much to tell, is there? We met at a party a couple of years ago, he gave me some nice things, got me a job once in awhile, and moved me in here. I saw him when he felt like coming by, and I made sure I wasn't around him when the wife was. Now he's gone and had a stupid accident, ruining everyone's good time. Nice kick in the head when you wake up and find your lover's death announced on the front pages."

Hutch exchanged a look with Starsky. It wasn't often that they were offered unflattering honesty.

"When was the last time you saw him?" Hutch asked.

She leaned back bonelessly, her cigarette making smoke curls in the air, eyes focused on the ceiling.

"Two days ago, when he came over during lunch for a quickie. He called yesterday during his lunch hour and said he'd be by after the party last night. But he didn't show up so I had some drinks and went to bed. Guess I know why he didn't show." She laughed sharply, then clenched her jaw on it.

"You think his wife knew of you? Did his secretary know?"

"He didn't think anyone knew, and if they saw something out of order they probably knew better than to ask too much. He didn't seem to worry about it, but was careful when we went out. Me? I don't know, never met her." She gave them both a sharp look. "I'm not stupid, detectives. I didn't have any delusions that he loved me, or that he'd ever leave her. We both had a good deal and used each other. I just...just..."

A few tears started to run down her cheeks, and she wiped at them impatiently with her hand. "I just never had anyone I knew die on me, and Robert was a really sweet guy. Never mistreated me or lied to me. I don't give a shit about the wife, but Robert dying like that just isn't right. Stupid traffic accident..."

She gave into it then, tears coming faster than before. Starsky walked over to a box of tissues on an end table and brought it over to her. She nodded in appreciation.

"Do you know if Mr. Rushlow had any enemies? Anyone who might be after him?"

"Don't have a clue," she said around wiping her nose. "He didn't talk business with me. If there was any gossip from the studio, he'd eat it up, and sometimes I'd see it the next time his paper came out. But we didn't talk about his business much. Why all these questions, anyway?"

"Just regular police business." Hutch gave her his best smile.

"Y-you want me to pack up now?"

Hutch looked at Starsky and shrugged.

"That's not for us to say, Miss Gossett," Starsky said. "But it might help if you had someone stay with you. I don't think sitting around here by yourself is a real good idea right now. When, or if, you're asked to leave will depend on other people, but you may be better off leaving under your own power than being kicked out."

She nodded vigorously. "Yeah, you're right. No use leaving things to the last minute. I've got a few friends who could put me up for a while, give me time to get my butt in gear and get a place of my own."

"But wherever you go, make sure to keep your agent informed, in case we need to get hold of you again," Hutch cautioned. "Tell him that he's to let us know where you are if we call. We don't want to have to tell anyone you were hard to find."

"Sure. No problem."

As they sat in the Torino, they discussed Gail's reaction to the news. Both men agreed that she'd acted as though it was truly the shock of Rushlow's death that had brought her to tears. Neither of them saw anything that said jealousy of the wife might have driven her to desperate measures, or that she had any other concern than her meal ticket had just punched out.

Hutch noticed it was near quitting time. "You want to get something to eat, then head back and fill out our reports?"

"Might as well," Starsky said. "Dobey will want to have everything on his desk tomorrow morning, and I'd rather eat first, then type them all out. No telling when we'll get off for the night."

**********

Snakes filled Starsky's dreams, slithering in and out around him, filling his mind with soft hissing and the scrape of scales against his skin. He awoke with a jolt, sweaty and shaking, eyes searching in the early morning light for any telltale movement amongst the covers. It took him a moment to realize that he was safe in his own bed, with Hutch beside him.

"You 'kay?" Hutch asked thickly, rolling over to look at Starsky with sleep bleary eyes. "Whas wrong?"

"Just snakes on the brain," Starsky admitted with a sigh, relaxing enough to take a deep breath. He glanced at the clock. "I'm okay. We've still got an hour before the alarm goes off. Go back to sleep."

"You sure?"

"Yeah. I'm okay."

"You're more than okay," Hutch said affectionately, moving closer and throwing an arm heavily across Starsky's middle. Hutch nuzzled the crook of his neck, making his blood start to warm. "You're wonderful. And I know of a way to take your mind off snakes."

Starsky laughed, knowing exactly what was on Hutch's mind. Hutch's cock was hard against his thigh, and as Starsky moved against it, Hutch sighed and moved his hand down Starsky's abdomen. Long fingers twisted through the soft curls on his chest, tugged at the thicker ones around his cock.

He almost purred as Hutch gripped his cock firmly, stroking him smoothly. It felt wonderful--both the hand on his cock and the sweet mouth that was working on his collarbone. But this morning he wanted more.

Raising his knees as far as he could under the covers, he spread himself so Hutch's fingers would find their way to his center. His balls were caressed, rolled between strong fingers, then were cupped and massaged gently. He loved the attention, the way it made all his nerves sing and his body grow hot with the need for more.

When a finger found his center, he moaned. "Want you inside, Hutch. Want to hold you that way."

Hutch kissed him, softly for a moment, then harder, needing entrance to Starsky's mouth. After a moment he pulled away, leaving Starsky panting and empty. Hutch returned a minute later, pulling the covers away, exposing Starsky to his view.

"Gorgeous man," Hutch said softly, his eyes drinking him in. Hutch moved between his legs and leaned over to kiss the center of his chest. Starsky touched the tousled hair as warm lips found his heart. "You always make me so hungry for you. How can I ever get enough?"

A slick finger entered him at the same moment Starsky's cock disappeared behind Hutch's luscious lips.

"Ooohhhh...yeah...Hutch...." He could only grunt the words, his body quivering with pleasure. His hands still on Hutch's head, he leaned back and closed his eyes, letting all thoughts go. There was only his cock in his lover's mouth, and now two fingers massaging and searching his secret place.

Hutch took it slow and easy, drawing out his pleasure as long as possible. All too soon, though, Starsky felt the urge to move faster, to thrust in and out of the loving mouth. Hutch must have sensed it as well, for before he could say anything, Hutch had pulled back and was coating his full cock with lube.

Leaning over him again, Hutch kissed him sweetly, then guided his cock to Starsky's center, pushing himself in smoothly.

Starsky gasped, feeling the head of Hutch's cock spread and stretch his insides to their fullest. What had taken time to get used to in the beginning was now pure pleasure, muscles and nerves excited by the feeling of the hardness inside him. When Hutch was fully sheathed, Starsky pulled him down, taking Hutch's weight on his body as he demanded his mouth, his very breath.

Hutch was so hot! Volcanic inside his ass, molten inside his mouth, it felt as if Starsky were melting into a helpless puddle of sensation as Hutch started to move inside him.

It was pure bliss--feeling Hutch moving, having him rub him in all the right ways. He could feel Hutch letting go as well, hear his ragged breathing, feel the desire coiled in those powerful arms and legs, see the muscles move on that well-defined stomach as Hutch thrust within him. When Hutch angled to hit his sweet spot, Starsky couldn't help but voice his approval, encouraging the action.

How long they managed to last this time he didn't know, but it didn't matter when every moment lasted an eternity. As it built up in him, when he could no longer deny his own completion, Hutch's hand was there, pulling and squeezing his cock until Starsky exploded, coating them both.

Hutch, head thrown back, a low moan rolling from him, grabbed his hips and rode him frantically, following Starsky's climax with one of his own.

Pulling out, Hutch fell back upon him, both of them breathing harshly, both clinging to the other as their breathing evened out and their bodies relaxed against each other.

Starsky drifted then and would have been just as happy to stay that way, if it hadn't been for the alarm that went off, reminding him that the day was not theirs to play with.

It was Hutch who finally moved in order to slap off the alarm, sighing with what sounded like resignation. "C'mon, lover. Time to get up. If I've got to, you have to."

As Hutch got out of the bed Starsky turned on his side, watching him. "Hutch, say you want to get a poisonous snake. Where do you go to get one?"

Hutch looked at him in surprise, and Starsky couldn't blame him. He wasn't sure where the question came from himself. "I don't know, you go out and catch one, I guess."

"Catch one? I mean, really? How many people are really going to go out and take a chance on getting bit themselves? How long would it take you to wander around until you found one? Do those type of snakes even grow around here?"

Hutch paused in the bathroom doorway, looking at him with a small smile. "You really do have snakes on the brain, don't you?"

"Hutch, that wasn't no little baby snake that someone might try to catch on their own," he insisted, getting up to follow Hutch into the bathroom. "That was a huge mother of a snake! Like it was a hundred years old! Who's going to handle that kind of monster, keep it alive, cut off its tail and stick it in the back of a car? I mean, that thing was a lot bigger than the one that they planted on us at Pine Lake."

Hutch turned on the shower as Starsky got out their towels. "I don't know, Starsk. Closest I've ever gotten to one is at the zoo and that time at the lake. Guess you think we should look into the snake angle, huh?"

"Well, nothing else has panned out so far. Might as well see where the possible murder weapon came from."

Hutch stepped under the spray and made room for Starsky to join him. "Well, then we'd better get going. Dobey won't be happy if we start the day late."

**********

At the police lab, the technicians had been able to determine what kind of snake it was from research books, but were unable to give them any more information. Being busy, they had no qualms about letting the two detectives inspect the snake for themselves.

They found it in a freezer, properly bound and tagged. Starsky borrowed the lab's Polaroid and in a show of bravado, one that was not lost on Hutch if his raised eyebrow was any indication, gave the camera to Hutch and unwrapped the dead snake himself.

It was really heavy, and Starsky thought it must be at least six feet long. He had thought it would be hard for him to make himself touch it, but when he realized it was clearly frozen through and as stiff as a log, he found it merely unpleasant, not terrifying. Since it was stiff, there wasn't much they could do to pose or unwind it, so he placed a ruler next to it so the width could be determined, and they took a picture of what was left of the head.

They copied the various measurements from the lab technicians' report on the snake to take with them. Next stop was the county zoo.

**********

Once at the zoo, the manager was very helpful and walked them over to the Reptile House, introducing them to Jack Flint, the senior keeper. The man looked to be in his early sixties, and as they were introduced, the manager seemed pleased to mention that Jack had been with them, working with the zoo's reptiles and amphibians, for almost thirty years.

Flint was tall, with the look of the outdoors about him. Grey hair, a weathered face and a firm handshake greeted the two detectives after they were introduced. He invited them to the back area, away from the zoo crowds.

"Wow, it's hot back here!" Starsky exclaimed as they entered a room filled with tanks on three walls and various pieces of unidentified equipment, making the room look like a large lab area.

"We have to keep it warm all year long for the reptiles. They enjoy the heat a lot more than we do," Flint added with a grin. "Now, how can I help you?"

"We're looking for information on Western Diamondbacks. We think one was used in a murder case, and we're wondering how hard they are to handle."

"A murder case? Are you saying the victim died from a bite?"

"Wouldn't that be unusual, for the victim not to die?" Starsky asked.

"With prompt medical treatment, it doesn't have to be. Unless the victim was elderly, very young, or had other health problems. Snake bites are rarely fatal anymore." Flint leaned back against a lab table and crossed his arms with a frown. "As for the snake itself, well, they're native to this area, although you don't hear about them in the cities much. They like the deserts, and are, of course, cold blooded. They've got a hemotoxic venom, which attacks the blood system and can certainly be fatal without the anti-venom. If they're not hunting, they strike defensively, but are pretty excitable. This time of year they'd be starting to look for a den to spend the winter if they weren't already in one. They hibernate during the cold months."

"How easy is it to catch one alive?" Hutch asked.

Flint rubbed his jaw. "Well, depends on how big it is, I guess. I doubt you'd want to fool with a large one, since you're more likely to get bitten before you could get out of its way. A professional could handle it, and I'd say that if you knew where they were sunning themselves, you could catch and bag one fairly easily."

"What about a big one?" Starsky asked, handing over the photograph. "This one was huge."

Hutch saw Jack's eyebrows move to his hairline as he got a good look at the picture. "Yes, you're right. That is a good-sized one. How many rattles did it have?"

"Don't know," Starsky admitted. "They'd been cut off."

"Ah, so the victim wasn't warned. I guess I can see that. Such a shame, though. Do you have any measurements on it? How long was it?"

Hutch was looking through his notes when the door opened and a young man walked in. Tallish, brown hair mussed, wearing shorts, the kid looked to be about eighteen or nineteen years old.

"Hey, Jack. We've got company?"

"Professional company this time, Don." Flint looked at the detectives expectantly. "This is Donald Romero, our animal keeper volunteer. He works here before and after school, and sometimes during lunch. He's looking forward to getting a Zoology degree once he gets into college. We're all proud that he's following in his family's footsteps, so to speak. Do you mind if we include him in this?"

Donald was all eager smiles as he waited for their answer.

"Sure," Hutch said after getting Starsky's nod. "Don't see why not."

Flint repeated the questions and answers that had been given so far. Donald, too, seemed surprised at the size of the snake in the photo.

"It measured about six feet, eight inches in length," Hutch said after checking his notes again.

"Wow, that's a big one!" Donald exclaimed. "The zoo had one that big, Old Agatha, but she died about a month ago. The replacement snake we got isn't nearly that long."

"Is that an unusual size?" Starsky asked.

Hutch noticed that Flint, looking over the boy's shoulder at the photograph, was now looking a bit uncomfortable. Flint looked up suddenly, as if he realized he'd missed something.

"I'm sorry, what was the question?"

"Is that an unusual size for that type of snake?" Starsky repeated.

Flint shifted a bit, arms crossing once more. "Yes, actually it is unusual. We're guessing they can grow to seven feet, but I don't know of any reliable sources that prove that any that large have ever existed. In the wild, six feet is usually the top size you'll find on a good day."

"But Donald said that Old Agatha, your old snake, was that big?" Hutch pointed at the picture.

"A bit bigger, actually--"

"But she'd have been that big without the rattles, Jack," Donald interrupted eagerly. "She got really big because she'd been here for years and years. No wildlife to hassle her, so she didn't have anything to stop her from growing." Donald shrugged a little sadly. "I'd always hoped I see her grow to seven feet, just to see if she could, but she didn't make it."

Hutch glanced at Starsky to see if his partner had felt the change of atmosphere in the room. One moment Flint was all outgoing, then the next it was as if he had pulled in on himself, the smile on his face looking forced.

He could tell from Starsky's glance that his partner had caught it as well.

"So, it would take a real expert to not only handle a snake this size, but to find it as well?"

Flint hesitated a moment, then nodded his head. "I'm forced to agree with you, gentlemen. The person that used that snake would have had to know something about them."

There was a moment of silence that grew uncomfortable between them. With a glance at Starsky, Hutch smiled and nodded toward the tanks that lined the wall. "How about Donald taking me out among the public and showing me the new snake. I think I'd like to see a live one, from a safe distance this time."

Donald was pleased and eager to show him the displays, jabbering proudly about his responsibilities and his love for reptiles. Donald was like a proud parent as he pointed out the new snake, Little Aggie, and extolled her snakely virtues.

Hutch kept an ear open for any details they might use in their case, but most of his thoughts were in the back room with his partner and Jack Flint.

Something went on in there once he saw the picture of the snake and heard the size. Hopefully, he'll be more receptive to talking without the kid around.

They hadn't been gone long before Starsky and Flint came out, both looking a bit closed off, and all four said their good-byes.

"What did he say?" Hutch asked as soon as they were outside.

"Not much more than he said before, that it would take someone with experience to handle a snake that size, but that a lot of people were interested in snakes nowadays. There are some people who liked to keep them, outside the city limits, but he didn't really know anyone in particular. He also seemed to back off on the fact that that snake's size was pretty rare."

"Did you get the feeling that he recognized that dead snake?"

"Yeah, I did. I don't know how you can tell one snake from another, but maybe the measurement is the key. That seemed to throw him."

"Then why wouldn't he say anything?" Hutch asked.

"Like I'd know?" Starsky smiled at him. "Guess we'd better do some more detecting, partner, 'cause my gut is telling me that guy knows more than he wants to admit."

"Well, let's hope Dobey thinks we're on the right track, since we're going to have to call in and report on what we've got."

**********

Dobey decided he wanted them to report in person. After giving him a rundown on what they'd found so far, he gave them copies of the statements from those who had attended the charity ball with Rushlow.

"They've all been consistent so far. He arrived about seven, left at ten."

"Which would put him just where he was on the freeway at the time we saw him," Hutch said. "Provided we've got the location of the charity ball right."

"You do," Dobey said. "From what we can tell, he was heading straight for his girlfriend's apartment. Didn't have time to stop anywhere."

"So the snake was probably placed in the car at his home or at the party," Starsky observed.

"Unless it was placed there in some other location," Hutch added. "We don't know how long it took to react to its surroundings."

"I'll get the other detectives to check into the valet arrangements for the ball," Dobey said. "See if there was an opportunity for someone to get to the car where it was parked." He looked at his watch. "I want you to go back to the zoo and see what you can get out of Flint. Sounds to me like he's got something to hide. Even if he's only got a suspicion, it'll be better than nothing."

**********

It was almost noon by the time they arrived back at the zoo, and the weather had warmed up. This time, both detectives left their jackets in the Torino, remembering how hot and humid the Reptile House was.

They found that Jack Flint had already left for the day. Donald had put in his hour for lunch and was back at school, and two new zoo assistants were cleaning out tanks and preparing meals for their charges. Neither one of them could help the detectives very much. They did find out that Jack had left at his normal time, so there was no evidence that he had been spooked by their questioning.

At the zoo office, they were able to get a list of those who worked at the Reptile House, but the fact that any of the zookeepers and their assistants were pretty much free to go from one enclosure to another during the course of a day didn't do much to narrow things down.

They decided to drive by Flint's home, to see if they could catch him for another round of questioning. It took them awhile to find the address, since they weren't familiar with that part of the city. The house was a small one, neat, but with a lot of shrubs and trees that seemed to hide it from view. There was a pickup truck in the driveway and a yellow Volkswagen parked in front.

Flint answered the knock on the door, his eyes revealing a quick flash of panic before he pulled himself together.

"Detectives? I thought we had already been of some help to you." His voice was mild, but his stance in the doorway told Hutch they weren't welcome to come in.

"We just thought we'd stop by and see if we could ask you a few more questions."

Before Flint could answer, a female voice answered from behind him. "Oh, let your company in, Jack, I've got to be going anyway."

As Flint turned around, Hutch saw an older woman standing behind him. Tall, thin, with grey hair braided down to her waist. she looked like she may have had some Native American blood in her. The impression was reinforced by the blue shirt tucked into well-worn jeans and the turquoise jewelry she wore around her neck and on her ears. She looked like she had just arrived, a large handbag on her shoulder.

"Hello." Starsky said cheerfully, around Flint's shoulder. "Have we met?"

Flint did not look happy as he stepped back, allowing his visitors a better view inside. His company nodded at him and Starsky.

"I'm Martha Romero. I work with Jack at the zoo. Are you friends of Jack's?"

"They're here on business, Martha. They're detectives."

Hutch, watching Martha's eyes, could tell that the news wasn't a surprise.

I get the feeling he's already told her who we are.

"Are you related to Donald?" Starsky asked brightly. "We met him this morning at the zoo. He sure is some kid."

Martha's eyes grew guarded, belying the smile that greeted Starsky's question.

"Yes, as a matter of fact, he's my grandson. I'm very proud of the boy. He's working hard and plans to be a zoologist."

"Just like his grandmother," Flint said with a dry smile. "Really, detectives, I don't know what more I can tell you. Martha and I--"

"Have finished our visit, Jack. And I've got to get back home and get some chores done before Donald gets back from school. If you gentlemen will excuse me." She strode toward the door and the men moved to make room for her to pass.

"Would you be available later for a few questions?" Hutch asked her.

"Questioning? Has someone done something wrong?" she asked casually, as she turned to face him, eyebrows raising to her hairline.

Hutch looked at Starsky for help.

"Uh, well, we're doing research on a case." Starsky gave her a charming smile. "Sometimes I guess we just forget we use a lot of work phrases. Comes with the job, I guess."

"Well, I'm sure that if you can't get what you need from Jack, you're out of luck, gentlemen. He's one of the best handlers at the zoo."

She nodded at them, turning to walk toward the Volkswagen.

Hutch exchanged glances with Starsky.

She didn't answer the question, did she?

**********

The talk with Flint was a bust, but Starsky wasn't surprised. The man was closed-lipped and uncomfortable, that was for sure, but what did they actually have against him but supposition? There wasn't anything that he and Hutch had to use as leverage to get the man to open up.

He's feeling guilty about something, that's clear, Starsky thought. You can see it all over him. Guess we'll just have to keep digging and see if we can find another angle to pursue.

They had confirmed the employee list with Flint, then talked about the fact that the zookeepers were a pretty friendly bunch and were in and out of all the displays to help out and visit, everyone keeping in touch with what was going on. He was also clear about the fact that without breaking the tanks, their specimens were safe from the public, and special care was taken with those animals that were poisonous. No one wanted a zoo visitor hurt, even if they were trying to steal them. After visiting hours, the lab doors were kept locked when no one was working.

Flint said good-bye at the door, looking relieved that they were leaving.

"So now where do we go?" Hutch asked as Starsky pulled the Torino out of the driveway. He sounded just as frustrated as Starsky felt.

"That snake's got to be the key. Whoever put it in Rushlow's car didn't think it would be traceable. But that's the kind of murder weapon that's just as dangerous to the handler as it would be to the victim. Who's got that kind of knowledge about snakes if not a zookeeper?"

"Flint did say that there are snake collectors, and that they're not unknown to this part of the state."

"Yeah, he said that, but I noticed he didn't have any names on hand to give us."

Hutch grunted. "I get the feeling that if he really had any he'd have been shoving them in our faces."

"Exactly. He doesn't want us snooping around the zoo employees, so he's throwing us half-baked facts to try to get us to go away. He was having to dig for reasons to point us in other directions."

"Think we should catch up to Martha Romero?"

"I'd say so. Maybe we can get something from her that Flint couldn't give us. We can hit her with the snake pictures and see if she freezes up."

**********

They drove by Martha Romero's house, but she wasn't there. No car was in the driveway and no one answered the door. Checking his watch, Starsky saw it was after high school hours. From what Martha had said, he'd assumed the grandson lived with her. No kid around either.

"Okay, think we ought to start on the other zoo assistants?" Starsky asked, getting back into the car. "You'd think there'd be someone who knows something. Maybe if we get the right one we can find out what Flint's problem is."

Hutch sighed, rubbing his eyes. "We might as well. Maybe we'd better call in. I'm beginning to wonder if we need to start back with the wife and girlfriend. The girlfriend might have had a jealous boyfriend on the side. Maybe we're making a mountain out of a mole hill."

Feeling that the day was loosing its warmth, Starsky reached into the back seat for his jacket, slipping it on before starting the car.

"If we can get a few more of the assistants questioned tonight, we'll get a better feeling about where to start tomorrow."

"That's true. I just wish we had something more concrete for our reports. We can cross off those guys we talked to this afternoon, so there are only a few people left. Let me see who's closest." Hutch searched his shirt pocket. "You still have the picture?"

"I thought you had it. Let me check--"

As soon as Starsky put his left hand into his jacket pocket, every warning bell in his brain went off, freezing him in place. Inside the deep pocket, small, soft, woolly fingers were touching him back. Moving on their own.

"Hutch," Starsky whispered, keeping his voice very quiet and very level.

Something in his voice and posture tipped Hutch off. "What's wrong? You okay?"

"There's something in my pocket."

Every hair on Starsky's body was standing on end now, and he could feel the prickle of sweat break out all over his body.

Hutch's eyes grew wide. "Something bad?"

"I think it's trying to hold my hand." Starsky bit down on a hysterical giggle, because that's exactly what it felt like it was doing.

"Has it bitten you?"

"Don't think so."

"Okay. Don't panic and don't move." Hutch reached slowly for the mic. "I'll call in an ambulance and paramedics."

Starsky closed his eyes, trying to relax. He could feel the sweat starting to trickle down his neck and fervently hoped that the internal tremor he felt wasn't making its way to his hand. He tried not to notice every movement of each of the small, hairy fingers that touched and caressed his fingers, tapping on his rings.

So far, whatever it was seemed content to just explore him like it was learning a map.

Or searching for a vulnerable spot.

Just as he was sure he was going to jump out of his skin, Hutch said his name softly.

Starsky looked at him, seeing the touch of fear hidden behind the confidence in Hutch's eyes. Moving slowly, Hutch reached out and took his right hand, gripping it firmly.

"It's going to be okay, buddy."

Starsky squeezed back. "Yeah, just keep sayin' that, okay?"

Hutch smiled slightly. "You got it. Every thirty seconds if you want. Just hang on. That ambulance should be here soon. I think I should get out and open your door for you, so they can get a good look at that pocket. I'll take it slow. Let me know if anything gets worse."

"At the top of my lungs."

Hutch let go of Starsky's hand and carefully opened his door, then trotted around to the driver's side. He opened the heavy door gently, opening it wide, then squatted to look closer at Starsky's jacket.

"I can see an outline. It's still moving, isn't it?"

"A little. I…I…" Starsky swallowed thickly. "I think it's a spider!"

Hutch nodded, eyes still on his pocket. "I think so, too. Has the right shape."

"Those paramedics here yet?"

Starsky received a small smile. "I'm sure they'll be here any minute now, buddy. Just hang on. You're doing great."

Starsky could just hear the blare of a siren in the distance now, but it was another car that pulled up on the street in front of the house.

At the sound of a car door, Hutch stood up. "It's Donald Romero."

"Hey, detectives!" Starsky didn't turn to look, but could tell the kid was walking toward them.

The sirens in the distance grew louder.

"Stay back, Donald," Hutch ordered. "We've got a problem."

"Wait! Hutch!" Starsky said, a thought forming in his mind. "The kid may be able to help us."

Hutch squatted back down, eyes on Starsky's face. "He's not an expert, Starsk."

"I have a feeling those ambulance and paramedic crews may not be experts either. If he can ID it, that'd be better than nothing."

As the vehicles pulled up, Hutch nodded at him. "You can talk to him while I'm letting the rescue team know what's going on."

Starsky closed his eyes again, listening to Hutch say a few words to Donald, then hearing his footsteps as he went to meet the rescue team converging on the car. His hand was starting to prickle and itch.

"You, okay, Detective?" Donald asked quietly. "It's in your pocket?"

Starsky took a breath and opened his eyes, watching the boy squat to fill the space Hutch had left.

"I think so. It was moving around a lot at first, but it's pretty still right now."

Donald, eyes focused on the pocket, nodded wisely. "You know, you're pretty cool for someone who's so scared. Most people would have panicked and moved too fast. And I think you're right, it looks like a spider to me. Let me..."

Without warning, Donald put a hand at the bottom of the pocket, pushing up.

"Stop!" Starsky hissed, heart lurching as he felt whatever it was move farther up the back of his hand. "Don't touch it!"

But Donald didn't see Starsky's angry glare. He was leaning closer when Hutch grabbed his shoulder and pulled him back roughly.

"Donald! That's enough! Let these men in here--"

"But I know what it is!"

There were several men standing just behind Hutch, all of them with eyes on Donald.

"How would you know that, son?" a paramedic asked.

"Because I have one for a pet. It's a Mexican Redknee tarantula, or something similar. You can see a bit of one of its legs through the top of the pocket. It's got a red knee--"

"You sure?" Hutch asked sharply. "How can you be sure?"

"Because it's the right size, and it's got the right markings. Unless he's allergic to bee stings, a tarantula bite won't hurt him any more than that. They make great pets, and I know how to handle them." Donald was almost pleading with them now. "You don't have to hurt it or anything."

Starsky could see the three men look at each other uncertainly.

"Okay, guys, look," Starsky began, trying to calm himself down at the same time. "This kid says he's got one, so I figure he knows what he's talking about. Bee stings won't harm me, so let's give the kid a shot."

"Detective Starsky--" the paramedic began, looking uncertain.

"It's his call," Hutch interrupted, not looking too certain himself. "Donald is the fastest way to get this done safely. If Starsky says it's him, then it's him."

"It's him." Starsky looked at Donald, who was practically beaming with pleasure. "But we're going to have to find something to put it in, if you want it to survive. You've got something in there that'll hold it?"

"Yeah, just hang cool for a minute; I'll go get a container."

As soon as he was gone Hutch was next to Starsky, trying to see what Donald saw. "It's not moving anymore?"

"No," Starsky whispered, just low enough for Hutch to hear. "But I swear, Hutch, that kid does something unexpected like that again, and I'm not sure I'm going to keep from embarrassing myself right down the front of my pants." He gave Hutch a grin, forced as it was.

"In the Torino?" Hutch replied around a small smile of his own. "Not likely. I'd bet my paycheck on that."

Donald was back in a moment, carrying an empty, clear plastic container and a lid.

"Here, let me put the lid on the back of his wrist," Donald explained calmly, "and I'll nudge the spider forward until it's on the lid. Then I'll just put the container over it. If it jumps or anything--" Starsky tried not to flinch. "--then just hold still and I'll pick it up, okay?"

At his nod, Donald placed the lid just where he said he would. as the boy gently pushed on the bottom of the pocket, Starsky could feel the large, hairy spider crawl farther up the back of his hand. He didn't dare look at it, didn't want to see it, because he knew that if he did, it would just make it harder to hold still. Even now his hand must be shaking; it was certainly feeling itchy and prickly.

Despite himself, his mind followed every step of every leg, every brush of hair against the hair on the back of his hand. It seemed to take forever before the last touch of spider disappeared from his skin and he heard the snap of plastic.

"Got her!"

Without even thinking about it, without even knowing he was doing it, Starsky found himself across the car seat and crawling out the passenger door almost the second after Donald spoke.

"You okay?" Hutch asked, coming around the front of the car to meet him. "It didn't bite you? Let's see."

Hutch grabbed Starsky's arm and was looking at the back of his hand, as he pulled him in the direction of the ambulance.

They both looked it over as the ambulance crew came up to him. The back of his hand was red and rashy-looking, the skin itching even more than before.

Donald, who had been showing off his catch to the paramedics, came over, grinning like crazy. "You guys want to see her? She's really nice!"

"Maybe later," Starsky said hastily, as he flexed his hand as the ambulance crewman asked him to do.

"I don't see a bite, Detective. How are you feeling? Anything painful? I'd like to check your vitals if you don't mind."

Donald looked over Starsky's shoulder with concern. "Did she bite you, or is it just a rash? I've had that before."

"You have?" asked the attendant, looking curiously at the boy.

"Yeah, they get scared and sometimes rub urticating hairs off their body. The hairs are really sharp, like tiny glass slivers, and get your skin all scratchy and itchy. That's why you can't let them near your face, in case a hair gets in your eyes."

They all looked closer, and Starsky thought he could see some tiny, almost invisible hairs on the back of his hand.

"Get some tape," Donald continued, "and you can tape most of them off. Grandma just gave me some cream for it last time, and it stopped itching after a few hours."

The attendant looked uncertain. "I can call it in and ask."

"Please do," Starsky said. "I'd rather not go in to the hospital, if you don't mind. I think if it bit me, I'd know. And I trust the kid to know what he's talking about."

**********

Hutch gave the paramedics the information they needed for their report, while the ambulance attendant saw to Starsky's hand. It had been almost all Hutch could to do not to hover over Starsky to make sure it really wasn't as bad as it could have been.

As Starsky was getting his hand tended to, Hutch walked over to Donald who was examining the spider inside the plastic box.

Guess I might as well get it over with. He's so enthusiastic that I'd hate to disappoint him.

"I'll take a look at it," Hutch said, smiling at the boy. "As long as it doesn't get loose."

Donald laughed. "Don't worry, they're not bright enough to get out of their containers."

He held it toward Hutch, who actually found himself interested. The tarantula was about six inches across--most of those inches were legs and a huge bulb of a body. It seemed to be covered in wiry hair all over, in a stripe-like pattern. It was all he could do to contain a shudder as he imagined what Starsky must have been feeling as it camped out on his hand. "So their bite isn't that poisonous?"

"Nope," Donald said, eyes still on the spider. "They eat crickets, so they don't need much venom. Plus they have those sharp hairs they can shed when they're scared. They can bite you, but it's not much more than a bee sting, if they've got any venom built up." Donald's look turned serious. "It's their looks that keep things from bothering with them. Most people think they're poisonous, because they look like they should be. But they really make pretty neat pets. Thanks for not killing it."

"Glad we didn't have to," Hutch admitted. "I'm not sure what we would have done if you hadn't arrived. I'm glad to know that even if we hadn't handled it well, my partner wasn't in any real danger. it sure was a lot easier on the nerves to let you do it."

"Is this part of your case? I mean, tarantulas just don't crawl around and hide in people's pockets. Did you come here to see me and Grandma?"

Sharp kid. That spider had to have been planted, but that could have been done any time since Starsky took his jacket off. Last time I saw him with it on was before our last visit to the zoo. That's going to make it hard to pin down. We must be getting close if someone felt the need to warn us off.

"I don't know what this means, Donald." Hutch shrugged, casually. "We were here to see you and your grandmother, but no one was home when we got here."

"She should be home soon. I usually drive her to the zoo for the evening, when she works the late afternoon shift. I get to stick around sometimes to help out. You want to wait inside?"

Hutch nodded, relieved that they were invited in. It would give them a chance to talk to the boy. "Sure, let me go and check on Starsky. We'll be right in. Oh, and I'll have to keep the spider for a while." He didn't want anything to happen to a possible clue.

Donald nodded and handed it over. "Sure, I'll call some of Grandma's friends and see if she's there. But she really should be home any time now."

Hutch, trying not to look at the contents too closely, made sure the container was sealed and that the small air holes in the top were too small to permit escape. The ambulance was just pulling away and Starsky was walking toward him, rubbing at some cream on the back of his hand.

"Kid was right," Starsky said. He held up his hand so Hutch could give it a good look. "It itches, but they say that'll fade away in a few hours. Taping it really helped. Got rid of all those sharp hairs that were sticking me."

"You really okay?" Hutch asked softly, wishing they were someplace private.

"Yeah, sure." Starsky had a little bit of embarrassment around his eyes as he glanced warily at the container in Hutch's hand. "Put me undercover, or in the middle of a firefight, and I can hack it, but get me around creepy crawlies..."

Hutch laughed. "You and most everyone else in the world, partner. I think we've both had our share of creepy crawlies for a while. You sure you don't want to hold this thing?"

"Very!" Starsky nodded toward the front door. "We get to go in for a while?"

"Yeah, the kid invited us. The grandmother should be here soon. But we're on thin ice until she arrives, you know."

Starsky nodded. "Kid's in high school, so he's probably still a minor. Can't question him like an adult without a parent or guardian around. Looks like Grandma is it, and she's not here yet."

"But we can see if he's old enough. Could have been left back a year."

"We can ask. The kid's bright, he may have seen or heard something that will help. Just for the record, I'd like to know where that spider came from, how easy they are to get, and when it got into my jacket."

"We'll just have to be careful to keep it neutral until we know for sure."

**********

They didn't have to worry about awkward silences once inside. Donald was a fount of information about his pets, and there was a dizzying variety of them. He did have a tarantula that was the twin of the one in the container, only his was called Tina. Donald also had several snakes of the small, harmless variety, several lizards, and a tank full of bugs to feed them. And that was just in his room.

There seemed to be a pack of cats that roamed the rest of the house, along with several small dogs, a few caged rabbits, and a sick squirrel tucked safely on a shelf in another cage in the garage.

Donald explained that people often drop their unwanted animals off in the zoo parking lot, and he and his grandmother would keep as many as they could. He told them about having a hard time deciding whether he wanted to be a veterinarian or a zoologist, but since his grandmother was a fixture at the zoo, he could come closer to getting a scholarship for that than for veterinary school.

Hutch saw a wistful look on the kid's face when he said it, and thought that Donald had wished it could have been the other way around. They also discovered, in an off-hand way, that just Donald and his grandmother lived in this house. His mother had died last year, but no father was mentioned. Discovering that Donald's mother was his grandmother's daughter, and all three shared the same surname, he thought it best they not bring up the subject.

They had only had an opportunity for a quick tour when they heard a car in the driveway and the loud sound of a door slamming.

"Grandma's home! Wait until she hears what happened."

Martha Romero was not glad to see them, and Hutch caught a flash of anger that she tried to hide as her grandson greeted her enthusiastically. She obviously had seen Starsky's car in the driveway and recognized it. But she didn't have a chance to say anything before Donald went into an excited spiel about their recent excitement.

After Donald got through the story, he asked Hutch to show her the spider.

"See, it's just like Tina."

Martha smiled at her grandson. "Yes, it is, and I can see where it must have caused some excitement. But I'm going to be late if we don't get the animals fed and tucked in, Donald. I'm sure these detectives understand that I have a job to go to."

"If you wouldn't mind, Mrs. Romero, we'd like to ask you a few questions." Starsky gave her a charming smile. "After all the excitement, it would be nice to be able to tell our captain that we actually got something done today."

It was a tense moment before she nodded stiffly. "Let me walk you to your car while Donald gets some of his chores done. That will save us some time and we won't be late."

Hutch looked at Starsky as they walked to the Torino. It was obvious that Mrs. Romero was angry with them. When she turned to them, her eyes were flashing.

"You had no right to go into my house without permission," she said, crossing her arms in front of her, "or to ask my grandson any questions."

"He invited us in, ma'am," Hutch said smoothly. "We realize he's underage, so we haven't discussed our case with him."

"Is there any reason why you would have any objection to us questioning the boy? He seems to know a lot about snakes, and we would appreciate any information he could give us."

"You've already talked to Jack. He's the resident expert at the Reptile House. He's put in almost as many years there as I have. Donald won't come close to his expertise for years. I have to get ready for work now, gentlemen. Good luck with your case."

With that she walked away from them, leaving them standing next to the Torino.

"You get the feeling that we're this close to finding the answers?" Starsky asked, his expression thoughtful.

"Like we're standing on them." Hutch went to get into the Torino, tarantula container in hand. "But let's get this to the police lab and see what they can find out about it. I'm getting tired of carrying it around."

Hutch heard Starsky mutter as they got in, "This is the last time that thing's getting a ride in my car."

**********

Hutch let his mind wander as Starsky drove them to the station. He studied the spider inside the container, trying to get used to its frightening appearance. Intellectually, he knew it was just a spider, a living thing that was built to survive in its own way, with no malice toward anyone or anything, but he still wasn't comfortable with it. He was glad it was in a container so he could feel safe from its actions.

Or, is it the one who's better off because it's safe from my actions? he wondered with amusement. I know my first instinct would be to get away from it, probably hurt it, then it would be as upset with me as I am with it.

That Donald is quite a kid. He's smart, enthusiastic and knows his own mind. I can't remember being that certain about anything at that age, except that I was glad to be graduating and going on to something else. He already knows what he wants to be. Too bad it's going to be such a struggle for him and his grandmother.

He remembered when Donald first came in on their meeting with Flint, before Flint had seemed to close up on them.

There's something there I'm missing. It's right in front of me.

"I really wish you'd quit moving that thing around," Starsky grumbled, glancing at the spider's container as they sat at a stoplight. "What if it gets out?"

Hutch laughed. "Then this car would be empty in two seconds."

Starsky laughed as well. "No shit! But I'd rather not have it happen while we're going the speed limit."

"Point taken." Hutch put the container down, away from Starsky. "Starsk, I think we're missing something. Remember when Donald came in the first time we were talking to Flint? How he seemed to close up at that point?"

"Yeah, I do. You're right, Flint was pretty open until then. So something the kid said or did shut him up."

"I don't think it was because Donald arrived. He seemed fine until then. So, what was it Donald said that did the trick?"

It took them a moment to replay the conversation in their minds. When it came to them, it came with a rush.

"Old Agatha!" they chorused.

Hutch could feel excitement fill him as the pieces fell into place. "That snake that Donald mentioned, the one the zoo used to have until--."

"What if it didn't die, Hutch? What if that snake we've got in the lab freezer is the same snake?"

"Maybe that's why Flint was so uncomfortable once Donald started talking about it, and how it would have been the same length as the snake we found, without the rattles."

"Flint knows it's the same snake."

"Or thinks it could be the same one."

"That's the question. Did he know this before Donald arrived, or did it hit him after something was said?"

"I'd say it hit him then," Hutch said. "If he'd been lying or hiding it from us before Donald showed up, then I don't think he'd have invited the kid into the discussion."

"Think we'd better find Flint and have a talk with him, real quick."

**********

Flint had picked up his home phone on the third ring. He had agreed to talk with them again, at his home. Starsky got the feeling that he had made a decision, and wasn't looking forward to the outcome.

Nothing was said as Flint let them in, until Hutch handed him the plastic container.

"What's this?"

"You should know," Starsky said casually. "You're the zoologist around here."

"I know what it is, but I don't know why you have it."

"Someone decided to warn us off our case, Mr. Flint." Hutch crossed his arms, pacing the man's front room as Flint stood at the door. Starsky stood back, watching. "Someone put that in my partner's jacket pocket this afternoon. And he didn't take his jacket off until we visited the zoo that last time. It must have been someone who knew who we were, and knew what car my partner drives, don't you think, Mr. Flint?"

"I don't know anything about it, detective." It didn't look to Starsky as if Flint were hiding anything. "They're not poisonous, you know."

"Doesn't have to be, to be a warning," Starsky said, keeping his tone clipped and guarded.

Hutch turned suddenly, strode toward Flint looking like iced anger, eyes flashing in a look Starsky had seen chill the worst of men.

"I," Hutch began, eyes boring into Flint's, his voice low and threatening, "do not like it when a man is murdered. I do not like it when hundreds of people are put in danger on a busy freeway because some man is forced to fight for his life. And I do not put up with people threatening my partner, in any way, shape or form. So, Mr. Flint, if you don't want your ass dragged down to headquarters and your house searched, I would advise you to quit hiding things from us and tell us what you know!"

Starsky felt the hair stand up all over his body, loving it when Hutch got forceful. They had planned this on the way in, but Starsky could feel the anger radiating from Hutch, a coldness that burned.

Nothing on Earth like my boy when his back is up! he thought proudly.

"I don't know anything!" Flint shoved the container back at Hutch, turning to slam the front door as hard as he could. He turned back to them, looking as if he were almost ready to break. "You don't understand. I could hurt some very special people by saying something I shouldn't. To put them under suspicion..."

"They'd only be under suspicion if there's something in what you tell us," Starsky said sharply, watching the indecision on Flint's face. "This is our job, Flint. We're after the real killer, not just anyone we think we can pull in."

"This isn't going to go away, and neither are we. If you know something and we find it out later..."

Hutch's words hung in the air until Flint rubbed his face tiredly and nodded. "Okay, I'll tell you what I know. I just..." He looked at both Starsky and Hutch, sadness on his face. "I just hope I'm terribly wrong."

**********

The sun was starting to set when Starsky, Hutch, and Flint arrived back at the zoo. It was starting to get colder now, more like fall, and even though the zoo would be open for a bit longer it seemed deserted. Starsky turned up the collar of his jacket, even though he knew it was going to be uncomfortably hot where they were going.

There were no visitors in the Reptile House. As they approached the staff room, Flint stopped them with a hand. Starsky and Hutch stood to one side and let him go in alone. Before long, the two assistants whom they'd met earlier in the day came out the door, obviously going home for the evening. They both nodded at the detectives as they passed. Behind them was Donald, who lit up when he saw them.

"Hey, guys! How is everything?"

"Going along, kid. What are you up to?" Starsky asked with a casual smile.

"Just helping out, putting in my time for credit," Donald smiled. "You guys still working on your case?"

"Well, we're here to talk to Flint. He still might be able to help us," Hutch said casually.

"That's great news. you won't keep him long, though, will you? He's invited me over to his house for the evening--says he's got some new specimens he wants me to see. I'm going to meet him there."

"Shouldn't be too long," Starsky said, patting the kid on the shoulder. "Why don't you go wait for him, and we'll try not to take up too much of his time."

"Sure. See you guys later."

After the kid left Starsky looked at Hutch, knowing his partner was feeling the same thing he was.

We can't help this, can't help who gets hurt from the fallout. If this works out like I think it will, he can't help but be another victim. Unfortunately, we've got a job to do.

They entered the staff room, and Starsky was once again hit by the heat and the smell. Flint was down at the end of the long room, talking to Martha Romero. As they walked in she turned, her face going from puzzlement to angry as she saw them.

"I've told Martha she needs to talk to you," Flint said softly, walking away from her, turning to lean on the edge of a lab table. He crossed his arms across his middle, eyes on his feet, looking like a man who expected his insides to be ripped from him at any moment.

"Nothing to talk with them about, Jack." She smiled frostily at him and Hutch. "You're the last word on reptiles at this zoo. Only thing I could do would be to repeat what you've told them." She turned back to the task on the table in front of her. "Besides, I think these detectives have long overstayed their welcome and should be getting back to whatever case they were working on."

"Since that case includes finding out who killed Donald's father, I would say we're in the right place, wouldn't you?"

Hutch's quiet voice seemed to freeze her on the spot. Starsky watched as the words sank in and she seemed to fold in upon herself. When she finally turned to face them, anger and disappointment were radiating from her. Her eyes were all for Flint, who didn't look up at her.

She never even looked at Hutch when he read her her Miranda Rights, didn't even blink when it was announced that she was under arrest. It wasn't until Hutch had asked her twice if she understood them, and asked if she wanted an attorney, did she look at him.

"Yes, I understand very well, detective. And, no, I don't want an attorney. I don't suppose there is any reason for me to trust my friends anymore, let alone a stranger." She turned to look back at Flint. "I suppose I have you to thank for this, Jack. After all these years...? And here I thought I knew you."

Flint didn't say anything, but Starsky could see the painful way the words seem to hit him.

"He won't have anyone left now, will he?" Her voice broke then, her eyes wandering the room as if she were somewhere else. "First, a mother who didn't know any better than to live her life at the whim of a married man, then a father who refused to acknowledge that he existed. Now you've even taken me away from him."

"He didn't do anything, Mrs. Romero." She turned to look at Starsky as he spoke. "You're the one who put that snake in Robert Rushlow's car. You're the one who caused his death."

"He wasn't supposed to die. It was just a warning. The snake bite wouldn't have been fatal if he'd gotten to a hospital. I...I didn't plan on it ending up like it did."

"You planned it ahead of time, didn't you?" Hutch asked quietly. "You wanted him to pay for Donald's college tuition. You told everyone that Old Agatha had died, that you got rid of the carcass, so there wasn't anything left for the other assistants to study. You removed the rattles and kept it somewhere safe, until you found a chance to place it in Rushlow's car."

"A snake that size could scare some sense into a man, don't you think?" Starsky asked, watching her face. "That's why you wanted the biggest one you could find. And she was getting old, no one expected her to last much longer anyway."

"Is that how you knew it was me, Jack? Because I got rid of her carcass before you got back from vacation?" She looked at him with disbelief. "I thought you believed me, even though you were angry that I broke protocol to bury her. But you doubted me even then?"

"You've forgotten how long I've been your friend, Martha." Jack's voice was soft and full of pain. "Did you forget all those years when you complained about your daughter having an affair with a married man? Do you remember telling me how you worked on Sarah to get her to let him go and find someone else? How much you suffered for her through the years, when she got pregnant by him yet refused to make him acknowledge his own child? How you've hated him for practically destroying her when he married someone else? You told me everything, Martha, shared everything with me but his name!"

Starsky watched as Martha's eyes went hard. "Yes, I told you all that. You were like family, Jack. You saw how weak Sarah was, how she clung to the hope that one day he would marry her instead of use her up and throw her away every time they got together again. But by the time I found out who it was it was too late. He'd already remarried. With a woman who spent nearly twenty years waiting for him, and a son who was almost eighteen. He went about his business like they didn't exist, as if his son didn't have to live with 'father unknown' on his birth certificate. If it hadn't been for those letters I found, after she died..."

Martha's voice broke, and she sobbed suddenly, harshly. "He was the only thing between Sarah and me. My daughter always chose him over me, over her own son! The least the bastard could do...sh-should have done was...was help...Donald."

She lost it then, doubling over to her knees as grief took over and she sobbed into her hands.

Starsky went to her side and talked to her softly, as Hutch searched his pockets and produced a handkerchief.

As they helped her up, Starsky could see she wasn't the only one who had lost control. Jack Flint, still standing quietly over to the side, arms wrapped so tightly around his middle that Starsky didn't see how he could breathe, had tears running down his face as well.

**********

Hutch tried to carefully balance an armful of case folders, as he walked into Dobey's office trying not to slop the hot coffee he held. Dobey had been in a bad mood for a couple of days now, and heaven only knew what he would say if Hutch got the files wet.

"Hutchinson! Did you bring in the Bluelander file?" Dobey bellowed, hunched over his desk like an angry grizzly. He was digging hurriedly through files on his desk, his face in a scowl. "We've got to go over that Bluelander file for your court appearance before we update those other ones. How you two can find anything I--!"

"Isn't this it?" Starsky asked casually, picking up a file that had slid off Dobey's desk just moments before. "Great filing system, Cap'n. You'll know which ones are important because of the number of footprints on 'em."

Dobey reached over and grabbed the file out of Starsky's hand, just as Starsky gave Hutch a wink.

"Very funny, Starsky. Maybe I ought to see if R&I could use your brilliance for a couple of weeks. Now get some of those files your partner has brought in and get started. We need to check to see if these jokers are out on parole, if they're still in, or if they've skipped town. I want these kept up-to-date in case we ever get that computer system they keep promising us."

Hutch happily divided the files as Dobey ranted on, handing Starsky the bigger half, getting a tongue stuck out at him in return. He was glad when the phone rang, so he and Starsky could get settled while Dobey's mind was somewhere else.

Hutch had just gotten through half of the first file in his lap when Dobey hung up the phone and cleared his throat.

"That was a call from the DA's office. he's very happy about the way the Rushlow case is turning out. They're going to file for Murder One on Martha Romero."

"If he's happy about it, then he must think they can get a conviction," Hutch said, not sure it felt like good news to him.

"She kept swearing she didn't mean to kill him," Starsky said quietly, eyes on his own files. "And that spider she put in my jacket pocket while we were talking with Flint wouldn't really have hurt me."

"Unless you'd been driving," Hutch pointed out. "Then there's no telling who could have been hurt."

"How did she get that spider in your car, anyway? Did you find out where she got it?"

"She actually had it in her car that day," Starsky said. "Someone had it for a pet and decided they didn't want it anymore. She had gone to pick it up intending to give it to her grandson. He already had one and she thought he'd be tickled to get another. She stopped by Flint's to talk to him and found out there were cops sniffing around the zoo. When we arrived it freaked her out, so after she left, she snuck back, got the spider, and put it in my jacket. She realized later it would have only pointed to someone at the zoo as the perpetrator, but by then she couldn't take it back."

"Doesn't look like she thought anything through," Dobey growled. "She's going to have a tough time trying to convince a jury that just because the snake bites might not have killed him, that she didn't mean for something fatal to happen."

"You're right," Hutch agreed. "And the way she planned it is going to count against her as well. She told everyone the old snake had died and that she took it out to give it a proper burial. But she really just removed the rattles, stuck it up in a tank in her attic with a heater to keep it warm, then kept an eye on the papers and Rushlow's movements. She didn't think ahead of time that someone would go to the zoo to ask about the snake, or that they would put any significance on the fact that she had arranged to have that particular night off."

"She didn't think it through at all," Starsky agreed. "She was all anger and revenge. Guess I can't help but think of how Donald is going to take all this. He's a good kid. All this must be throwing him for one hell of a loop. First his mother dies, then the father he didn't even know about is killed, and now his only living relative is going up for Murder One. Kid can't seem to get a break."

"You both said that other guy...Flint...was fond of the kid. Is he going to be there for him?"

Hutch sighed. "He wants to be, Captain. He loves that kid, and has since he was born. But Donald won't have anything to do with him since he blames him for his grandmother's arrest."

"Won't even talk to us."

Hutch heard the hurt in his partner's voice. Neither one of them could blame Donald for his reaction, since it had been a huge blow. Flint had broken the news to him after the arrest and had tried to be there, but Donald loved his grandmother and it was going to take time. But Hutch thought that no matter how long it would take, Flint would be waiting for both him and his grandmother.

"Your job is to find the truth, not fix everyone's lives," Dobey said softly, eyes on the folder on his desk. "By the way, this is still behind the scenes, but the DA told me that he's been contacted by Mrs. Rushlow's attorney. Apparently the widow is interested in meeting her husband's son, and is looking into setting up an account for his college expenses and a trust fund for him when he's twenty-five. She's looking into ways the kid can get a good chunk of his father's estate."

"Now there is a classy lady!" Hutch exclaimed, feeling a bit better about the case.

"Very." Starsky agreed. "Not many around who would do something like that for the kid of a cheating husband."

"And another thing I need to mention, while I've got your attention. I've gotten several calls from C.D. Phelps wanting to talk to you two about this case." Dobey looked at them both with speculation, his eyes watching them sharply. "Seems you've been hard to get hold of and she says it's time to fork over that blood you've promised her. Now what's that all about?"

Uh, oh. payback time. Hutch looked at Starsky, who looked as though he'd had the same thought. I don't think Dobey's gonna like knowing we owe Chris a few favors.

"Captain, did you know that Two-tooth Jones was due to be released three months ago, and there's no notation here about his having any parole or not?" Starsky asked casually, tapping the top file on his lap. "Why, this guy could be anywhere by now."

"And this guy, Captain. I know for a fact that Flores and Thorpe got him put him back in the pen for six months, and this file doesn't even show it's happened yet. These files really are in awful shape."

When he peeked at Dobey he could see that the captain clearly wasn't buying it.

"Well, I'm glad to see you two so gung-ho for this project," he said suspiciously. "Because the next few days are going to find us busy getting all these files caught up. Glad to know I won't be hearing any complaints from you two about it, will I?"

"No, sir," he and Starsky chorused meekly.

Not for a few hours, anyway.

**********

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"You Are My Holiday", by Candy Apple

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