Elemental Forces
by Sarah Problem

SHSVS Episode 18, Part 2

Back to Part 1

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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