You Are My Holiday
by Candy Apple

SHSVS Holiday Special

**********

The delicious scents of the Paul Muni special hung in the air, and the sun was slowly setting on the horizon. All their best plans to celebrate Hanukkah to the fullest this year had so far been thwarted by long shifts and a heavy caseload. This was already the fifth night and with no time off in the foreseeable future, they had asked Lizzie and Arturo to cover their shift so they could have one night free.

With the little menorah in Starsky's living room window, the two men gathered there to light the candles. Starsky lit the Shamash, and as he held it, recited the first part of the prayer.

"Ba-ruch ata, A-do-nai E-lo-hei-nu,
me-lech ha-o-lam, a-sher ki-de-sha-nu
be-mits-vo tov, ve-tsi-va-nu le-had-lik
neir shel Chan-nu-kah."

As Starsky lit the first two candles, Hutch recited the next part, with only a few hesitations in his maiden voyage reciting anything in Hebrew.

"Ba-ruch ata, A-do-nai E-lo-hei-nu,
me-lech ha-o-lam,she-a-sa ni-sim
las-a-vo-tei-nu ba-ya-mim ha-heim
ba-ze-man ha-zah."

Starsky handed Hutch the Shamash, and together, they recited the final part of the prayer as Hutch lit the remaining candles.

"Ba-ruch ata, A-do-nai E-lo-hei-nu,
me-lech ha-o-lam, she-he-chya-nu
ve-ki-ya-ma-nu ve-hi-gi-a-nu
las-man-ha-zeh."

For a few moments, they simply stood and watched the little flames dance. Then Starsky turned to his partner with a soft smile.

"Thanks for celebrating with me."

"I should have learned that years ago, celebrated with you every year."

"Y'know, I'm sort of glad you didn't, because now, it's more special. It's like we're starting our traditions, now that we're together."

"Whatever holidays you observe, babe...teach me about them. Even if I don't end up celebrating with you, I want to at least understand them, or participate in whatever way I can--like you've always participated in all the holidays I'm used to."

"I love you." Starsky wrapped his arms around Hutch and held on tightly, smiling as the hug was returned.

"Time to eat," Hutch said against Starsky's ear, and Starsky laughed.

"How'd you know I wanted you to whisper something sweet in my ear just then?" he asked, still smiling.

"Can't let the Paul Muni special burn, now can we?"

"My mother'd never forgive you. Wait'll you see dessert." Starsky grinned and rubbed his hands together.

"Dessert? Starsk, we haven't even had dinner yet." Hutch pulled the casserole dish out of the oven and carried it to the table, which was set with dinner plates, good linen napkins and wine glasses. Starsky poured the wine while Hutch served the food.

"It's something really special. Kinda like you, Blondie." Without further adieu or flattery, Starsky spread his napkin on his lap and began to dig into dinner. The two men ate heartily, enjoying the food and conversation.

When the pot roast was reduced to a few scraps of meat and a couple left-over carrots, Starsky went back to the kitchen to retrieve his secret dessert. Upon returning to the table, he unveiled from beneath one of the linen napkins a plate bearing numerous little pastries.

"Thought it was about time you tried one'a these." Starsky pulled his chair over so he sat close enough to Hutch for their knees to touch.

"What is it?" Hutch looked at the little golden brown pastry he'd picked up off the plate.

"That is a blintz, Blintz." Starsky smiled, reaching over to run his finger over the smooth crust. "It's smooth and golden on the outside..." He pushed Hutch's hand with the pastry in it toward Hutch's mouth. After the first bite was taken, he concluded, "...sweet and soft and wonderful on the inside." He leaned in for a long kiss, sharing the flavors of the dessert before moving away again. "See, I told ya 'blintz' was a love name, didn't I? Means you're golden and soft and sweet inside. It's what I always meant when I called you that, darlin'." Starsky rested his forehead against Hutch's, and they both smiled.

"Too bad I can't produce something nice like this and tell you it's called a 'Gordo'," Hutch quipped, kissing Starsky again. "Starsk...there just isn't a word for you. Not one that could say what I want to say." He paused, then stood up. "Wait right there." Hutch went to his jacket where it was hung by the door and pulled a small wrapped package out of the pocket. "Happy Hanukkah." He set the package in front of Starsky, who eyed it a little warily. It was wrapped in dark blue foil with a silver ribbon. "I promise it's a real present," Hutch added, laughing softly at Starsky's suspicious expression.

"Okay, if you say so." Starsky smiled as he opened the little package, and then paused to examine the small, flat, square felt box in his hand. It was the wrong size for a ring box, which he'd known before he opened it, but now that he could see the burgundy velvet covering of the box itself, he knew it was from a jeweler. "Hutch...what'd you do?"

"Just open it, already," Hutch encouraged, smiling anxiously. Starsky opened the hinged lid of the box and stared at it mutely. "Try to contain your excitement," Hutch said, figuring he had chosen yet another gift that wasn't the type of thing Starsky wanted to unwrap. He vowed to himself that he'd buy some of the gadgets his partner was after next time around.

"Hutch...I...it's beautiful." Starsky took the gold bracelet out of its box and examined it more closely. It was a small but sturdy elongated link design, just large enough to be masculine but definitely small enough to be in good taste.

"You really l-like it?" The barely noticeable stutter wasn't lost on Starsky.

"It's perfect, babe." He pulled Hutch toward him and they kissed, lingering for several long moments before parting again. "Just like you."

"Let's try it on and see if it fits." Hutch took the bracelet, and Starsky offered his right wrist to Hutch, who fastened the clasp.

"I've never had anything like this," Starsky said, honest awe in his voice as he tilted his wrist a little back and forth. "It musta cost a fortune," he added worriedly.

"We worked a lot of overtime last month. I saved up." And pulled a little out of savings.

"My present for you isn't nearly this good," Starsky said, fingering the bracelet reverently.

"It's not a contest, buddy." Hutch took Starsky's hand in both of his and held on tightly. "I just wanted you to have it, and when you look at it, remember how much I love you."

"I'll always remember that, but I still love the bracelet." Starsky kissed him again, then pulled Hutch into an enthusiastic hug. "I love it. Thanks."

"I love you, and you're welcome. Can you forgive me for just getting you one present and not one for each night?"

"Yeah, you're forgiven," Starsky said, smiling. "I'll be right back."

He disappeared into the bedroom, and suddenly Hutch longed to just follow him there and spend the rest of the evening making love. He hoped that was next on the agenda. A moment or two later, Starsky reappeared, carrying a flat, square box wrapped in festive paper. It looked suspiciously like a pizza box.

"You got me a pizza. You shouldn't have," Hutch quipped.

"Just shut up and open it." Starsky handed it to him and sat in his chair again.

"With an invitation like that, how could I resist?" Hutch snorted a little laugh as he tore into the paper. "Starsky, this is a pizza." He stared at the pizza box in disdain.

"It's a pizza box, dummy. I needed somethin' to wrap it in, and Huggy gave me one of his unused pizza boxes. C'mon, open it, already," Starsky urged, practically vibrating in his chair.

"All right," Hutch agreed, chuckling. "Starsky--what is this?" Hutch stared at the record album inside the pizza box.

"The pizza box is kind of a little bit'a perverted humor, babe. Look on the back of the album."

"It's signed," Hutch said, stunned. The Buddy Holly album he held in his hand didn't have the same title as the signed one he'd managed to find before, but it bore a very authentic-looking signature. "Where did you get this?"

"I've been lookin' for one ever since I burned up the last one. All my cousins have been in on the act back home, lookin' at every rummage sale and in every antique place and collectible shop. Ma found this one at an estate sale--some guy who had a huge record collection and lots of memorabilia. I don't know what you have to do to make sure the signature's for real, but there's a picture in there of Buddy Holly and the guy who used to own the album, so I think it's authentic."

At Starsky's words, Hutch carefully tilted the album cover and the small black-and-white glossy photo slid into his hand. It depicted Buddy Holly shaking hands with a middle-aged man.

"Ma said she asked the lady to see a photo of her late husband so she could compare them."

"No putting one over on your mother, is there?" Hutch said, laughing.

"She's pretty picky. I told her to be careful not to get ripped off...more accurately, not to get me ripped off."

"Starsk, you were worried about the bracelet...this had to have cost a small fortune."

"I guess the lady selling off the collection was about the same age as Ma, and they got to talking. Ma told her the story, and she gave her a good deal on it. Said she wanted somebody who would really love it to have it. So I wired Ma the money, and the rest is history."

"This is incredible. I never thought I'd get something like this again," Hutch said, examining the signature again. "You didn't have to do this, babe. I never blamed you for what happened with the album. It was an accident. I hope you haven't felt guilty about it all this time."

"Not exactly guilty...just real sorry. You were lookin' so forward to that record, and you had it for a couple hours and then I ruined it."

"Hey, I know what you went through while you were looking for me, and then at first when it seemed kind of touch-and-go with me in the hospital. You were half asleep on your feet when you came over that night. You'd been wrapping up the Pardee case and worrying about me... I'm just glad you didn't make a dumb mistake on the street and get yourself killed."

"You were so nice to me about it. I expected you to be furious, but you were so nice and you didn't get angry. I figured you wouldn't speak to me for a week," Starsky concluded, laughing a little.

"It was an accident, Starsk. You didn't mean to do it. And I sure wouldn't give up a week of our relationship over a record. Not then, and not now. I really wasn't angry, and I really didn't blame you."

"I know. That's why it was so important to me to get it for you. I've had it almost two months. It's been driving me crazy."

"You drive me crazy." Hutch moved in for a kiss and met with no resistance. "I want to take you to bed and have my wicked way with you."

"You do, huh?" Starsky responded, grinning before they kissed again.

"Men in bracelets make me crazy with lust."

"If I'd'a known that, I'd'a started wearing 'em a lot sooner."

With the dishes and disarray left behind in the kitchen, they moved quickly to the bedroom. Unwilling to stop kissing long enough to get undressed, the two men managed to wrestle out of their clothes before tugging the covers back and sliding into bed.

Hutch rolled them until he lay atop Starsky, receiving no more than playful resistance as he devoured his lover's mouth and ran eager hands over the warm, naked flesh. It was Starsky's hand that went for the nightstand drawer, tugging on it until it opened.

"Eager, are we?" Hutch teased, kissing him again.

"Come on, babe. Want you," Starsky responded breathlessly, pulling Hutch down for another kiss. "Bring that big thing up here and let me get it going," Starsky teased, gently stroking Hutch's growing erection. The thought of plunging into the hot wetness of Starsky's mouth in preparation to plunge into the hot tightness of his ass made Hutch's cock surge with excitement.

Hutch moved up on the bed as Starsky moved down a bit, and Hutch grabbed onto the headboard as his cock was engulfed in an eager mouth that began sucking and licking furiously while Starsky's hands busied themselves cupping and rolling Hutch's balls, while kneading his ass and moving toward his center. He began panting and gasping out his pleasure, and the salacious part of his mind wished he could somehow see this from outside himself. See Starsky down there between his legs, sucking him and pleasuring him, while he writhed shamelessly and groaned with pleasure.

He felt his climax building and began thrusting into Starsky's mouth, working to keep his movements from getting too harsh. Two strong hands gripped his hips, pulling back, and his cock slipped free of the hot wetness that had surrounded it.

"You're not finished, babe. You gotta do something for both of us now," Starsky said.

"Lube," Hutch managed, and found the tube quickly pressed into his hand. He moved back to let Starsky slide up on the bed, which he did. Then he rolled over and got up on elbows and knees, presenting Hutch with a view that made him fumble with the tube he was using.

His fingers coated, he began preparing Starsky, who rotated and wiggled his ass provocatively with each stretching motion. Hutch knew his lover was putting on a bit of a show for him, but he pushed that thought to the back of his mind and simply enjoyed it, seeking with his fingers that little knob that would make all his partner's gyrations genuine.

When Starsky shouted and grabbed the sheets, he knew he'd found it. He rubbed the little gland a couple of times firmly, knowing the jolts of pleasure that reverberated through Starsky's body would go straight to his cock. Withdrawing his fingers, he coated himself quickly with the gel and slid slowly but steadily into the welcoming body beneath him.

For just a moment, they were perfectly still and totally silent, bodies joined and pressed together.

Then Hutch's body demanded movement, and he began thrusting, feeling Starsky move in a perfect counter-rhythm. For some reason, the creaking of the bedsprings was an inexplicably sexy sound, defining the motions of their lovemaking. In this position, Hutch could indulge himself fully, relishing the sensations and sometimes even watching his cock as it moved in and out of its tight sheath.

Starsky was making a few little broken sounds of pleasure, his voice rising more and more now as he moved up off his elbows to his hands and knees, giving him more leverage to thrust back against Hutch.

Suddenly, Hutch could feel his climax building until he came, his rapid, irregular strokes and cries of completion spurring Starsky on to his own climax. Sated and deliciously tired, they slumped onto the mattress, Hutch still blanketing Starsky's body beneath his. Starsky wasn't objecting to the weight; he was merely lying there, trying to catch his breath, one flushed cheek visible. The gold of the bracelet glinted in the dim light that spilled into the bedroom from the living room. To Hutch's surprise, as if reading his thought, the eye he could see opened, and Starsky moved his wrist just a bit from where his arm lay, somewhat bonelessly, on the bed. Starsky's mouth curved up in a smile.

"I love you," he said quietly. Hutch rested his cheek against Starsky's, stealing an odd, sideways kiss.

"I love you too, babe." He watched the smile broaden a little as they shifted onto their sides, Hutch slipping free of Starsky's body in the movement. What they'd lost in the ending of that union, they more than made up for in their tight spoon-like position.

"Hutch?"

"Hm?" Hutch closed his eyes and nuzzled Starsky's neck, ready to drift off to sleep.

"This is the best present in the world."

"None better," Hutch agreed, and with a little kiss to Starsky's shoulder, he fell asleep.

**********

"Just listen to this!"

"Starsky, I've been listening to it for the last hour. It's phenomenal. Will probably change the course of history of the western world. How about reading an article instead of the ads?"

"Because you need help picking out my Christmas present, and I'm just tryin' to give you a hand, that's all."

"I don't need help picking out your Christmas present." Hutch rolled his eyes and continued to stare at the front of the apartment complex that housed their suspect in an armed robbery case. They'd been there nearly three hours now, waiting for the guy to show so they could arrest him. At least one of those three hours had been spent listening to Starsky extol the virtues of the Atari home video game console. In a magazine loaded with newsy, socially relevant articles, Starsky had found the centerfold picture ad with its extensive listing of features.

"You got it already?" Starsky looked up from the magazine.

"You just got your Hanukkah present last night. What are you worried about Christmas for? We've got a week."

"Yeah, that was pretty special," Starsky said fondly, fingering the gold bracelet around his wrist.

"So was last night," Hutch said, stealing a glance at their surroundings before taking Starsky's hand in his.

"According to Jewish tradition, though, I should get a present every night for all eight nights."

"So I go into Christmas seven in the hole, is that it?" Hutch joked, checking the time on Starsky's watch before releasing his hand. It was almost dinner time. "You said I was forgiven."

"You could make it all up to me with this one present." Starsky held up the magazine. "We'd never have to go to Huggy's to play arcade games again! We could do it right in our own living room!"

"I don't go to Huggy's now to play arcade games, and it would wind up in your apartment, so what's this we business?"

"I'm not usually home alone anymore, babe. You're usually with me, so if I had it, we could both use it."

"Starsky, I don't even like those stupid games."

"Dobey's getting one for Rosie." Starsky finally flipped to another page in the magazine. "She put me up to talkin' him into it," Starsky added, grinning.

"I feel sorry for Dobey when Rosie starts car shopping. Probably call up good old Uncle Starsk to give her advice."

"Whatever I'd come up with'd be better than that funeral car he got Cal."

"If you hadn't made that remark about the backseat, the poor kid wouldn't have ended up owning a two-door Chevette."

"Well it did have a big backseat. Cal hated the car, and it was the only good thing I could come up with to say about it. I didn't know Dobey was right behind me."

"Then you don't need one of these Atari whatever-you-call-it things. You can go play with Rosie."

"Fine. Probably end up gettin' another bag'a bird seed for Christmas," Starsky grumbled.

"I didn't buy you a bag of bird seed last year, smart ass. I got you trail mix. You're always feeding your face, so I tried to get you something healthy. I'll have you know that was gourmet trail mix, and so was that dried fruit basket. It wasn't the cheap stuff."

"Guess that's why I got so many birds around my place."

"You didn't actually put it in the bird feeder."

"That's what I said I was gonna do with it."

"You're incredible." Hutch shook his head, then sighed.

"That's what ya said last night, Blondie." Starsky spared a hand from his magazine to squeeze Hutch's thigh.

"Do you know how much that stuff is per pound?" Hutch protested.

"What stuff would that be, darlin'?" Starsky's hand crept farther up Hutch's thigh.

"Sex isn't the answer to everything," Hutch chided.

"Maybe not, but it's always worth a try," Starsky said, grinning and flexing his eyebrows. "You can relax. You ate the trail mix, remember?"

"I did not."

"I put it out in a bowl on my kitchen table. Every time you came in, you took a handful. You've got big hands. It was gone in three days."

"I might've had a few bites, but--"

"Okay, whatever," Starsky responded with a lingering grin, going back to his magazine. "I bet Toy World has some great sales on these game systems this time'a year."

Hutch rolled his eyes and let his head drop back against the headrest. It was going to be a long stake-out.

**********

As he pulled the blue LTD up near the front entrance of Toy World, Hutch firmly believed that fate had a wicked sense of humor and was targeting him as the source of its perverse amusement. Of all the businesses in Bay City that could have been robbed, of all the gas stations and liquor stores and obvious targets, these perps had to pick a frigging toy store. The biggest one in town, the one with all the "great sales" on Atari game consoles.

"I hear the ambulance," Starsky commented as they got out of the car. "You suppose they're runnin' slow or we're runnin' fast?" He glanced back pointedly at the LTD. "They must be runnin' real slow."

"That's not the best way to get on Santa's A-list, partner," Hutch scolded before they walked through the double front doors of the large, brightly painted storefront. A statue of a giant clown holding balloons was the first thing they noticed when they walked in the door; Santa Claus standing near the front cash registers, drinking coffee, was the second thing.

"This call is beginning to feel like a bad LSD trip," Starsky said, glancing from the clown to the coffee-drinking Santa.

"There're the uniforms." Hutch led the way to the check-out lane where everyone was gathered. A young woman lay on the floor unconscious, blood soaking the front of her blouse as a distraught older man held increasingly soggy bunches of paper towel over the wound.

"I thought you were the ambulance guys," he said a little frantically, looking up at the two detectives. A man in his mid-fifties, the bright blue store uniform vest he wore over his gray sport shirt bore a nametag that read Sam Joslin, Manager.

"They're right outside," Starsky said. "Get somebody out there to direct 'em, huh?" he said to one of the young uniformed officers, who hurried toward the front entrance. "Can you tell us what happened here?" Starsky squatted next to the supine girl and the man. He lifted one limp wrist to take her pulse. It was already cool. "I'm not getting a pulse," he said to Hutch, who crouched on the other side and checked the pulse at the girl's neck.

"She's gone," Hutch said softly, looking at the young woman with great sadness. She couldn't have been older than twenty, a somewhat plain-looking girl with straight blonde hair. Probably a college student trying to make a few bucks during the holiday rush, and now she was dead.

"Give us some space here, guys," the first paramedic on the scene directed, and all three men moved out of the way, Mr. Joslin looking shell-shocked and somewhat puzzled as to what he should do with his bloody right hand. Hutch pulled out his handkerchief and handed it over to the man, who accepted it gratefully and wiped his hand.

"She was a holiday employee--temporary help, from the college," he said sadly. "Nice girl. Good worker. She came in tonight to cover for somebody who called in sick."

"Can you tell us what happened?" Starsky repeated his earlier question.

"We close at ten. Our hours are extended a little for the Christmas season. We'd just locked the front doors. We thought everybody was out of the store, but we must've missed checking someplace. Once we lock up the entrance, we have one employee wait by the doors to let out any last minute shoppers and the employees who don't have to stay to close the registers and straighten the store."

"It's after midnight now, so you closed at ten, as usual?" Starsky asked.

"Yes. You don't know how much damage a bunch of over-anxious Christmas shoppers can do to a store in a day, and during this season, we're too busy to stay on top of it all day long, so we have a lot of straightening and re-stocking and replacing misplaced merchandise to do before we can go home."

The paramedics, who had been working on the girl to no avail, placed her on a gurney and hurried toward the ambulance out front.

"I thought you said she was dead," Mr. Joslin asked, looking hopeful at the paramedics' urgent movement with the wounded woman.

"They have to try everything to revive her, and they need a doctor to pronounce her dead. They'll probably radio the hospital from the ambulance," Hutch explained. "What was her name?" Hutch asked, pen poised to take down the information.

"Sandra Franklin."

"Was Sandra the only cashier still here?" Hutch asked.

"Yes. She was just getting ready to leave. She helped with tidying up the store, and then she had to close out her register. She's new at counting the money and adding things up with the receipts, so it was taking her a little longer than the others. I was right up there, in the manager's office," he said, pointing to a slightly raised enclosure that was open at the top, located down at the end of the bank of check-out lanes. "Mort--he's our Santa this year--he was helping the stock guys tidy up when it happened."

"It was just the three of you in the store then, besides the robbers?" Hutch was still taking notes while Starsky was wandering a bit, though his "browsing" was all business as he assessed the crime scene.

"No. Mike and Brian Fisher were here, too. They talked to the first cops who got here, but they're both underage, and their parents picked them up. They wanted to take them home, so I guess the cops who got here first let 'em go. I was looking after Sandra."

"You have an address and phone number for these kids?" Hutch wrote down the names.

"Sure. They work stocking shelves and cleaning up, after school and on weekends. Real good kids, hard workers."

"So you were down there in that office?" Starsky said, pointing at the enclosure, moving back toward Hutch and Joslin.

"Yes. I already had a lot of the money there, getting it ready to go to the night depository at the bank. Sandra was just finishing up her register."

"Where'd the robbers enter?" he asked.

"I'm not sure--like I said, they were just...there all of a sudden, right down there a few feet from the end of Sandra's check-out lane. I hit the silent alarm as soon as I saw them. There were three of 'em. Two real tall guys--a little taller than you," he said, gesturing at Hutch. "The third guy was shorter than the others--average height. He stayed back near the doors, like he was standing guard."

"Can you describe them?" Starsky pressed.

"'fraid not. They were wearing red ski masks."

"How festive," Hutch commented with bitter sarcasm.

"Did you get close enough to notice eye color, or maybe skin tone around the eyes?" Starsky asked.

"Uh...yeah, actually, I did notice that one of the tall guys was black. The eye holes were pretty good-sized, so I could see some skin. I think both of the others were white guys, but I'm not positive--I just know there was only one black one."

"So the others could have been any other skin tone but black?" Hutch clarified.

"Right."

"What were they wearing besides the masks?" Starsky asked, pacing now near the area where the robbers had supposedly stood.

"Dark clothes--probably jeans and some kind of jackets. Just dark, regular-looking street clothes. I don't remember that too clearly."

"How many of them were armed?" Hutch asked.

"All of 'em. The guy by the doors...he had a rifle. The other two had smaller guns."

"Hand guns or smaller rifles?" Starsky asked.

"Hand guns. One was a revolver, and the other was a bigger one, a little squarer in shape."

"What did these guys say when they showed up?" Hutch sat against the counter behind him, thinking that Starsky could have the secretarial duties on their next interview. He was getting tired as they neared the end of what had become a sixteen-hour day, and the words were almost blurry on the notepad page as he kept scribbling them. It didn't help that images of that young dead girl's face were haunting him. Poor kid, just trying to make a few bucks for the holidays...

"The one taller guy--the black one? He said something like, 'let's have all that money, baby' to Sandra. She froze, like she was too scared to move. Then the other guy said 'hand it over, bitch'. And then it doesn't make any sense how things happened."

"What do you mean?" Hutch frowned, looking up from his notes.

"Well, she just sort of stared at him a minute. She didn't resist, and a second or two later, she started trying to pile up the money to give it to the other guy, who had a bag with him. For no good reason, the other one shot her. Just like that. The guy with the bag looked really surprised--he sort of jumped when the shot was fired. And he started yelling at the guy who did the shooting. Lots of really bad language, asking him if he was some kind of 'crazy mother' or something like that. Then the guy who just shot Sandra scooped up the money and shoved it in the bag and ran for the door. They all took off. I ran over to Sandra, and Mort showed up with some paper towels from the restroom in back to try to stop the bleeding."

"So the man shot her for essentially no reason at all," Starsky summarized.

"It was like he was mad that she stared at him. Maybe she didn't move fast enough. I don't know. Who knows with these crazy druggies roaming the streets these days?"

"Did these men seem like they were under the influence of something?" Hutch asked.

"What they did was crazy! I pressed the alarm, and I was up there in the office, and they didn't even notice me, but she was doing what they told her, and not smarting off to them or anything, and then they just go and shoot her down dead!" The man's voice shook a bit, and he swallowed.

"Could you identify their voices if you heard them again?" Starsky looked back at the drying blood on the floor where the girl had lain. "Poor kid," he muttered, more to himself than the others.

"I think so. I'd have to hear it to know if I recognized it. I think I could."

"We'll need your home phone number and address in case we need to get in touch with you when you're not working." Hutch took down the information the man provided, and thanked him for his cooperation.

"You wanna talk to Santa now?" Starsky said, his attempt at humor sounding flat, his heart not in it. Dwelling on the senseless shooting of the young cashier wouldn't do either of them any good when they had a case to investigate.

"Maybe you can sit on his lap and tell him to bring you those three assholes in handcuffs for Christmas."

Santa was still nursing his coffee, sitting against the end of a check-out lane. He'd removed his festive hat, wig and beard, and now was just a slightly overweight, and probably well-padded, fortyish man with brown hair and features that seemed to make him a jolly-looking Santa when in full costume. His name was Morton Hooper, and he was an insurance agent by day and department store Santa by night to make extra money to buy Christmas gifts.

He gave the detectives essentially the same story Joslin had given them, but he'd been on the other side of the check-out aisles, still in the store, when Sandra Franklin was shot.

"What were you doing when the robbers first arrived, Mr. Hooper?" Hutch asked.

"I had helped the boys straighten things up, but I was getting tired, and you know, it's not really my job to do that, so I was gonna head home. That's why I was up here. The kids were still picking up a few of the toys in back."

"Did they see you?" Starsky asked, glancing toward the part of the store where Mr. Hooper indicated he'd been standing. There was no good spot to hide there, and Santa Claus couldn't exactly stand there and not be noticed by gun-toting hold-up men.

"I guess they did. They said 'nobody move', and I didn't. Just stood there with my hands up. Guess they didn't think I was gonna make trouble." He shook his head and smiled a little. "Maybe they weren't afraid of a guy in a red fat suit."

"Yeah," Starsky said a little dismissively. "How'd it go down?"

"Didn't Mr. Joslin tell you the whole thing?" Hooper asked, frowning a little.

"Yes, but we'd like to hear it from you, too. You are an eyewitness," Hutch added.

"Well, by the time I walked up, they were already there. I didn't see 'em come in. They said 'nobody move', and nobody did. One of 'em had a bag and told the girl to put the money in the bag."

"Sandra Franklin, the victim?" Hutch clarified.

"I suppose. I didn't know her name. I only work here nights, and I'm always in the middle of the store, where the big Santa's workshop display is. I don't really know too many of the cashiers who work up front."

"What happened then?" Starsky prodded.

"I guess she was moving too slow or something--she didn't do what he told her to right away--so the other one told her again, called her 'bitch', I think, and then shot her."

"Did she make any sort of move that would provoke him to shoot her?" Starsky asked.

"I couldn't see too well. She had her back to me, but I don't think so. Guess somebody just had an itchy trigger finger."

"Sounds like it," Hutch said, forcing a slight upturn to his mouth that didn't quite make a smile. "Thanks for your help, Mr. Hooper. We'll need your address and your home and office phone numbers."

**********

Hutch navigated the nearly deserted streets toward Venice Place. Starsky was snoring softly in the passenger seat. Despite a momentary flare of jealousy for the oblivion his partner had slipped into for the moment, Hutch didn't really begrudge him the rest. The damp, rainy weather was giving Starsky some aches and pains from his incision, and this day had dragged to an epic length. It was almost three in the morning, and they'd first signed in at work before eight. Even Dobey'd had mercy on them and told them to report in at noon.

Bringing the car to a stop at the curb, Hutch reached over and gently touched a few curls, not wanting to startle his lover out of what was turning into a pretty sound sleep.

"Hey, sleeping beauty. Come on, time to wake up so we can go to bed again," Hutch said with a definite smile creeping across his features. He was bone tired, emotionally drained from their visit to the slain girl's parents, and haunted by the image of a young, innocent life cut so short. Still, he couldn't keep himself from smiling as his fingers touched the silky curls, felt the warmth of the head beneath them, and watched the healthy rise and fall of Starsky's breathing. He leaned over and kissed the slightly parted lips. A moment later, the same lips smiled.

"Guess this makes you my prince, huh?" Starsky said through a yawn. "Wakin' me up with a kiss?"

"Come on, babe, we're home. Let's get some rest."

"I was doin' okay 'til you woke me up." Starsky grinned at him, getting out of the car as Hutch did. The street was deserted, and Hutch took advantage of the moment to put his arm around Starsky and pull him close, walking inside the building like two lovers who didn't have to hide from the world. At least when the world was sleeping, they could be a little brazen.

"You want anything?" Hutch asked, going into the kitchen to pour himself a glass of milk. He was too tired to really fix anything, even though he was hungry. He hoped Starsky was more interested in sleep than food.

"Thought about a beer, but I think some Tylenol'll work better," Starsky responded from the bathroom where he'd gone to heed the call of nature. Hutch could hear water running now, and knew Starsky was washing his hands. In a moment, he was heading for the sleeping alcove.

"Still hurting?" Hutch asked, pouring a glass of water and handing it to Starsky before going to make his own stop in the bathroom.

"Just sort of stiff and achy. Nothing deadly. I'm okay." Starsky tossed down two pills and chased them with the water.

By the time Hutch returned from the bathroom, Starsky's clothes were in a heap on the floor near the bed, and Starsky was tucked under the covers. The slob-like way Starsky had dispensed with his clothes and crawled into bed spoke volumes to Hutch about how tired his partner really was. He followed suit, tossing his clothes down in a similar fashion. Noticing Starsky's briefs were on top of the pile, Hutch sent his own boxers flying toward his pile and got into bed.

"Want me to rub anything and make it feel better?" Hutch said, smiling. Starsky laughed tiredly.

"Nothin' personal, babe, but the only thing that could get me up tonight would be a pulley system. I'm too damn tired."

"Okay." Hutch pulled Starsky into his arms, loving the way they seemed to fit together in bed like two puzzle pieces. "I'm pretty whipped myself."

"Arms feel good," Starsky slurred, and Hutch smiled. He pulled Starsky even closer, holding him tighter. It was nearly-sleeping Starsky language for wanting to be cuddled. "Love you, Hutch," he said softly.

"Love you, too, sweetheart. Go to sleep."

"Why do you think he shot her, Hutch?" As tired as Starsky was, his cop's brain wasn't letting him rest. Hutch hadn't been able to reconcile the whole scenario in his mind either. Resigned to talking about it at least until the Tylenol really kicked in and Starsky passed out into a dead sleep, Hutch offered his theory.

"Panic. No other explanation for it."

"You mean her or him?"

"Well, both a little. She was too scared to move fast, and he panicked and shot her even though he really had no reason." Hutch was quiet a minute. "There's one other possibility."

"Hm?"

"She recognized his voice."

"How do you figure that?" Starsky stirred a little, obviously interested in the conversation as more than a verbal tranquilizer now.

"Well, Joslin said she was frozen--afraid and panicky when the first guy told her to hand over the money. But when the second guy spoke, she stared at him, and then started to get the money together and he shoots her while she's doing what she was just told to do. Now if she stared at him because she recognized his voice, maybe it took him a second to decide how to handle that situation."

"So he kills her. Just like that."

"Just like that," Hutch echoed, sadly. "Any and all of which may be a bunch of bullshit. She's dead, so she can't tell us. Guess we just have to find the SOB who pulled the trigger on her and ask him."

"What'd you make of old Santa?" Starsky asked.

"Seemed awful cool for somebody who just watched a murder right in front of him. His hands were steadier than mine."

"His name and address checked out. No prior record or anything. Near as we can tell so far, he's an insurance salesman who moonlights as Santa Claus."

"And just doesn't mind watching young women gunned down in front of him," Hutch added.

"Seemed like a real nice family," Starsky said, referring to the Franklins. "I'll never forget the look on her little sister's face. I hated havin' the kids there when we told the parents. I thought they should've been upstairs and not hearin' this."

"They had to know. The boy was probably what, twelve? The girl was at least fifteen or sixteen. They needed to know how their sister died."

"They were all waitin' up for her. And we show up instead." Starsky drew in a long breath. "I hate makin' people go down to the morgue and ID their kids. I mean, we know it's them, and we've got all the information."

"Channels and procedures, babe. No way around that," Hutch said, his hand lightly rubbing Starsky's shoulder. "I don't like it much either."

"I promised her dad we'd nail the bastard who killed her for no good reason."

"We will."

"She was an honor student. Got all As, didn't have a record, no juvie stuff. Workin' to buy Christmas presents."

"She's the only present they want now, and she's gone." Hutch sighed.

"All that crap I was buggin' you with about the video games? Forget about it." Starsky squeezed Hutch tightly. "I got the only present I need. Nothin' else'd mean anything if you weren't with me, babe."

"I know that, Starsk. I feel the same way. But it's still okay to have a wish list." Hutch smiled a little. While picking out gifts paled in importance next to human life, being alive and healthy enough to wish for what you wanted for Christmas wasn't all bad either.

"Okay. I'll give it to ya tomorrow."

"You have it written out?"

"Yeah. You know, all the information so you can find the right stuff."

"Good night, Starsky." Hutch rolled his eyes as he relaxed to get some much-needed sleep.

"'Night, Hutch. You make a list for me, too, huh? So I can get ya something you really want."

"You already did," Hutch said, holding him just a little tighter as they dozed off to sleep.

**********

When they arrived at work the next day, Minnie was just leaving the squadroom.

"I left you some files you might want to take a look at. Unsolved cases from Robbery," she added in a hushed voice.

"Similar MO as last night's?" Starsky asked, as Minnie followed them back into the room to their desks.

"In the last three weeks, two other large stores have been held up. One was Roswell's--that pricey place in the Bay Harbor Mall? The other was Newmeyer's Department Store. Each time, it was three guys in ski masks," she said, tapping the two file folders with her finger. "Nobody was shot at either of these robberies, though."

"Great work, Min," Starsky said, picking up the files and looking through them.

"So when do I get recommended for something more exciting than Records?" she asked, crossing her arms over her chest. Starsky looked up at Hutch, who shrugged a little helplessly. "I could be taking my hot leads to some other team, you know," she added.

"I suppose we could make sure Dobey knew who drew the parallels, here," Hutch offered.

"Oh, and you might want to mention what I dug up for you on that mortician's brother," she added casually, moving toward the door, flashing a little grin over her shoulder as she left.

"Minnie's been stuck in Records a long time," Hutch said after she'd gone.

"That's because she's good at what she does, and when she does stuff like this, she digs herself deeper, because it's like having a detective permanently trapped in Records--doin' all the digging and research we don't have time to do."

"That's not fair. She deserves a shot at playing a role in some of these folders she hauls around," Hutch waved one of the folders in front of him.

"We'll mention it to Dobey. Maybe he'll put in a word for her to get a transfer." Starsky went back to the file. "These have to be the same guys. Two tall, one shorter, all in red ski masks. Same basic weapon descriptions.…"

"None of them got the part about the darker skin tone on one of the perps," Hutch noted.

"They either didn't ask, once the witnesses said the guys wore masks, or nobody noticed."

"Looks like we need to visit these two stores and talk to a few of these folks."

"Better clear it with Dobey first," Starsky said. "Robbery's gonna love us playin' in their sandbox."

"Yeah. Better they argue with Dobey."

"'Argue' implies he's gonna let 'em get a word in," Starsky retorted, chuckling as he tapped on Dobey's door. At a barked word of welcome, they went into the office and set the files in front of Dobey.

"Looks like we have the third in a string of robberies here, Cap'n. These two cases are still unsolved over in Robbery."

"Great work, you two," Dobey said, smiling and nodding as he skimmed through the files.

"Uh, actually, Captain, it was Minnie Kaplan who brought us the files," Hutch said. "It's not the first time she's found something useful."

"Really? I'll be sure to tell her supervisor," Dobey went back to looking over the files.

"She'd like a transfer out of Records," Starsky added.

"So would half her colleagues down there." Dobey looked up. "You think she could handle herself on the streets?"

"She's sharp, she doesn't rattle easily," Hutch said. "Might be worth at least giving her a chance to prove herself."

"I'll consider that," Dobey said, nodding. "Meanwhile, get on this." He handed the two files back to Hutch. "I'll call Danner in Robbery and tell him we'll need his guys' cooperation. Kreswell and Beecher are two of his best men, so if they're coming up empty, it probably isn't for lack of trying," Dobey stated, referring to the two detectives currently working the Robbery cases.

Hutch poured two cups of coffee while Starsky headed for the door of the squadroom.

"Give my love to Kreswell," Hutch said with a lilt in his voice. Starsky shot him a look that was pure venom before heading out the door.

"That was dirty, Hutch," Flores said, chuckling from his seat a few desks away. Kreswell was known around the department as a seedy old bird who generally looked down on anyone who wasn't white, male, and a twenty-year plus veteran of the force. When Beecher transferred from Missing Persons to Robbery--a transfer he'd been begging for for years--the condition was taking the place of Ron Kreswell's retiring partner. Other cops in the department sent Beecher sympathy cards when the partnership was announced.

"You're just mad about that remark Kreswell made about your driving," Hutch countered, barely containing a grin, holding up the coffeepot in silent invitation. Flores nodded and held out his cup, which Hutch filled before returning the pot to the coffee maker.

"'Wetbacks can't drive for shit' isn't a valid critique of my driving skills."

"Well, according to him, Jews are too tight to pay for lunch, too." Hutch returned to his chair.

"Can't picture you letting that one pass."

"Starsky can take care of himself. He said Kreswell was right." Hutch looked up to see Flores' startled expression, then added, "Starsky explained to him that it was against his religion to buy lunch for assholes."

"He must've loved that," Flores responded, laughing.

"Beecher thought it was a good line, but Kreswell's face turned the color of the Torino, he was so mad. We had to meet them at Huggy's to exchange some information on a robbery-homicide, and I swear, Kreswell pulled away from that curb so fast--he drove worse than you wetbacks do."

"The only reason you gringos drive so conservatively is because you aren't good enough behind the wheel to have a little fun with it."

"You better take that back, man," Starsky responded as he came through the doors. "Can't leave you two alone for five minutes. Where's Lizzie?"

"She had to go pick up her daughter from school. She called to go home sick."

"Any problems with Kreswell?" Hutch asked as Starsky tossed two fat folders on the desk in front of him.

"Other than an anatomical suggestion of what I should do with these files, no. I told him I only file misdemeanors there." Starsky sat on the edge of the desk and picked up Hutch's coffee, taking a drink. "He's not happy to work with us," he said, utterly insincere regret in his tone.

"He's still mad you won't buy his lunch," Hutch responded, leaning back in his chair. "And drink your own coffee," he scolded, taking his cup out of Starsky's hand. "It's on your desk."

"Oh," Starsky said, seeming to notice the cup for the first time. Duly chastised, he went to his own desk, facing Hutch, and sat down. "You wanna go talk to the Fisher boys first or these folks?"

"The Fishers. Let's make appointments with the managers who were on duty at these stores when the robberies occurred, and we can swing by there later."

"Okay." Starsky opened their current case file and called the home phone number for the Fisher brothers. While he was on the phone, Flores walked over and leaned on Hutch's desk.

"Hell of a way to inherit a case," he said, picking up the photo of Sandra Franklin's face that had been taken on Ginny's slab the night before. She looked as if she were only sleeping.

"The shooting was so pointless, even from the perps' perspective. She was doing what she was told. We figure she might've recognized the guy's voice."

"Nobody got shot in the other robberies, huh?"

"Nope. Everybody complied, nobody got hurt, the money was stolen, end of story."

"Something had to be different about this one, then. Guess if there's a chance she recognized the guy, you're going to have to do a lot of digging into the girl's life to find out who her friends were."

"You working on anything right now, or you wanna give us a hand since Lizzie's tied up for a while?"

"Just paperwork. If Dobey okays it, I'm all yours. You want me to follow up on the girl?"

"If you wouldn't mind. I don't want to let the trail get cold on this, and these robberies have all occurred within a ten-day period. I feel like we're racing with the clock on this one. These guys have killed now, so they have a whole lot less to lose by getting trigger happy on their next job."

"I think I've been in homicide too long," Flores said, chuckling as he moved a couple crime scene photos aside. He stopped on the one that featured Morton Hooper, in his Santa Claus suit, standing by the taped outline where the victim had been. "Just seems like this oughtta be the official PD Christmas card or something."

"Anyone ever tell you you have a sick sense of humor?" Hutch chided, gathering up his photos, unable to resist smirking a bit himself at the dark humor.

"Yeah--you. While you're laughing."

**********

After witnessing a robbery-homicide the previous night, the Fisher brothers had stayed home from school for the day. Aside from the fact both boys were significantly shaken by what they'd seen, their school principal had thought it best to let the news cool off a bit before the boys returned. Ghoulish curiosity was bound to be disruptive whenever their classmates got the chance to question them, but the delay would hopefully tone it down a bit.

Mike, seventeen, and his brother, Brian, sixteen, were both tall boys with sandy hair and blue eyes. Mike was a high school football star, and a number of his awards lined the family's fireplace mantel. Brian, the more slender and quieter of the two, had added a few debate team awards to the family room display. Dressed in jeans and t-shirts, they sat on the leather couch across from the two detectives, who occupied matching brown leather chairs. The boys' mother hovered close by in the kitchen, which was connected to the family room by an open doorway.

The boys told essentially the same story Joslin and Hooper had told the previous night.

"Can you think of any reason why the robber shot Sandra?" Hutch asked, and the older boy shrugged.

"Didn't make any sense to me. Guess she wasn't moving fast enough. But it was weird, because he shot her after she started piling up the money to give to him. She was doing what he said."

"I really got scared then, because I figured they were gonna just shoot us all down," Brian admitted. "Maybe to get rid of witnesses."

"Did you hear the man's voice clearly? The one who ultimately shot Sandra?" Starsky asked.

"Yeah. It was kinda deep, but that's about all I remember. I remember thinking it was deep," Brian repeated.

"Where were Mr. Hooper and Mr. Joslin again?" Hutch asked, as if to clarify the facts for his notes.

"Mr. Joslin was in the manager's office, and Mr. Hooper was standing a few feet closer to the check-out lanes than we were," Mike said.

"After Sandra was shot, what happened?"

"They took off, and we all went to see how Sandra was. Mr. Joslin tried to stop the bleeding, and Mr. Hooper brought paper towels and stuff out of the bathroom. I never saw so much blood," Brian said, his voice trailing off a bit.

"Have either of you guys noticed anybody weird hanging around the store? Was there anyone in there before closing who didn't belong?" Starsky asked.

"I don't think so. At least, we didn't see anybody," Mike responded. "Mr. Hooper sometimes stays over a half hour or so to help us pick up some of the worst of the mess the kids leave from the Santa's Workshop area, so we were working on that."

"There was one guy who showed up last week who was sort of weird. He came in and talked to Mr. Hooper for a while, and I thought it was funny because here are all these little kids in line to see Santa and here's this old guy who's gotta be at least forty standing there talking to Santa and making the little kids wait," Brian recalled, laughing.

"That old, huh?" Hutch asked, grinning as he made a few notes. "Did you overhear anything they were saying?"

"No, not really. I heard him say something about getting together later, but that was about it. I don't know what they were talking about," Mike said.

"I didn't hear anything either. We were pretty busy that night," Brian added.

"Could you describe him?"

"Yeah. He was a little taller than Mr. Hooper, had dark hair, and he was wearing jeans and a dark-colored sweatshirt," Brian stated.

"Think you'd recognize him if you saw him again?" Starsky asked.

"I'm not sure. I didn't get a real good look at his face. But I could try. How about you?" He turned to his older brother, who shrugged.

"I didn't really pay attention. I just remembered thinking that Mr. Joslin would probably get on him for talking so long and making the kids wait. We always get in trouble for having friends come in and visit, so we figured Mr. Joslin would throw this guy out, too, if he caught him. But he left before Mr. J came around to check things out."

"Thanks, guys. You've been a big help," Hutch said, standing. Starsky followed suit.

"You got any leads?" Brian asked.

"It's pretty early yet, Brian, but we're following up on every significant piece of information we find. We really want to nail the guys who shot Sandra," Starsky explained. "If you remember anything else, just give us a call at the number on the card we gave your mom," he said as Mrs. Fisher appeared in the doorway of the room.

"I'll show you out if you're through," she said, smiling slightly.

"Yes, we're all set, thank you. The boys have been a big help," Hutch said.

"I'm glad. I hope you find these animals."

"It's our number one priority," Starsky responded.

**********

"What do you think about the forty-something guy who was visiting Hooper?" Hutch asked, opening up his hamburger as they sat in the Torino in front of the fast food restaurant where they'd bought lunch.

"Maybe, maybe not," Starsky said, shrugging.

"Not too worthwhile, is it? 'A slightly taller than average guy in his forties' could probably describe about a fourth of the guys in Bay City."

"We better get in touch with Flores and see what he's turned up, if anything." Starsky took a bite out of his chili dog. A few seconds later, he reached for his cola and gulped a couple swallows.

"You know, Starsk, one of these days, your stomach is going to turn on you." Hutch calmly continued eating after his dire prediction, and Starsky took another bite of his hot dog, undaunted.

"You've been tellin' me that for years."

"Just because it hasn't happened yet doesn't mean it won't."

"Thanks for the tip," Starsky retorted, chuckling.

As soon as they'd finished eating, they asked the dispatcher to patch them through to Flores.

"What've you got?" Hutch asked.

"A lot of sad college kids telling me what a great girl she was, a couple of professors who told me what a great girl she was, and her last employer--guess what he told me."

"We get the drift. Nothing of interest, huh?" Hutch asked, smiling.

"Not really. She seemed to be a nice girl, a good student--nobody has anything bad to say about her. But then I'm not real sure what I'm looking for--just a voice, which none of us ever heard."

"According to one witness, it's a deep voice. That trigger anything?" Starsky asked, pulling Hutch's hand toward him with the mike in it.

"No. Well, a couple of the guys I spoke to had deep voices, but one is really heavy set, and the other is one of her professors--an old guy with a limp. The rest of the voices didn't strike me as unusually deep. I'll type up my notes when I get a chance. I just heard from Lizzie, and she's on her way back in. I guess her mother's staying with her daughter the rest of the day. We have a couple leads we have to track down on the Standish case, but when we come back in tonight, I'll put something together for you to add to your file."

"Thanks, Arturo," Hutch said. "We really appreciate the help with the legwork. We're on our way to the other stores right now."

"Buena suerte, amigos," Flores responded, and broke the connection.

"Good luck," Hutch translated.

"Ah," Starsky said, nodding. "Maybe I oughtta take Spanish."

"What?" Hutch was gathering their trash to dispose of it in a nearby garbage receptacle.

"In college. We've been lookin' at the Winter semester schedule. Maybe I oughtta take Spanish. 'Course you've already had all that, so if we're gonna take something together, can't be that."

"There's no reason you couldn't sign up for a beginning Spanish class, too. Actually, that'd be a great minor for you since we spend so much time working with people--being bilingual is a great help."

"I don't wanna bite off more than I can chew."

"An entry level class shouldn't be that difficult, or involve a lot of papers and heavy reading or writing assignments. It'll be learning a lot of vocabulary words, some basic grammar principles, probably practicing it and working on your pronunciations."

"You could help me with all of that."

"You know I'll help you any way I can, but you're not going to need as much help as you think, babe," Hutch said, smiling.

"I didn't do too great in high school."

"We already established you didn't try very hard," Hutch responded, laughing. "That makes a big difference." He got out of the car and disposed of the trash. When he returned, Starsky was still sitting there in silence, obviously deep in thought. "Starsk, look at me." Hutch waited until the direction was followed. "You're gonna be a great student."

"I am?"

"Yes, you are. You're smart, you like to read, you're a fast thinker, and you want to learn. Professors thrive on students like that. I think you're going to like college, and I think you'll be good at it."

"You're not just sayin' that? I mean, I know you said even your dumb friends ended up with degrees, but still...it just looks so hard."

"You've been watching too many episodes of 'The Paper Chase'. I'm telling you, there's nothing mystical about it, and the professors are trying to help you learn, not trick you. And if that's not how they're behaving, then the problem lies with them, not with you. Lousy students are the ones who don't care and don't try. Any professor who's any good at all is going to want to help genuinely dedicated students to learn and excel. I'm not gonna lie to you, buddy. There's a lot of reading and writing and hard work involved in getting a degree. But it isn't some kind of magic rite of passage that only a select few can survive."

"Looks like it sometimes."

"College is always a little scary before you really get started at it. I think most people are a little intimidated by it. I know I had my worries when I had to leave the security--the known little world of high school--and go into the adult world of college."

"You were already a good student, though."

"You're going to have to develop your study habits and your skills as a student, because you're new at it. You were new at being a cop once, too. New at firing a gun. New at driving a car. Anything you do well now, you were a beginner at somewhere along the way. And with each of those things, you probably worried about being able to do well at it."

"Everything but the driving. I was born to drive," Starsky asserted. As much as Hutch wanted to come back with a snappy retort to that, he had to admit that Starsky had some fabulous driving skills. In all the time they'd been riding together, Starsky drove probably seventy-five percent of the time, and they'd only had one serious accident. Of course, it was on the tip of Hutch's tongue to remind his partner that they'd never had a serious accident while he was behind the wheel, but he refrained.

"Guess I'm being a baby about this college thing." Starsky's statement startled Hutch out of his thoughts.

"It's okay to have the jitters, buddy." Hutch reached over and patted Starsky's thigh. "But you'll do just fine."

"You're not just saying all of this to make me feel better?"

"You keep asking me that. No, I'm saying it because I believe it. If I thought you were too dumb to manage college, I'd discourage you from trying it. Which is probably wrong thinking, but I don't like to see you get hurt, and if I thought you were going to fall on your face, I'd probably try to talk you out of going."

"Thanks."

"For what?"

"For not teasing me about this." Starsky looked out the windshield. "I'm really nervous about it, and…talking about it helps."

"Good. Keep talking to me, babe. I won't tease you about this," Hutch assured gently, and Starsky smiled.

"Did I mention today that I love you a whole lot?" He turned to look at Hutch.

"Probably not since this morning," Hutch responded solemnly. "I was beginning to doubt your feelings for me."

"Turkey." Starsky laughed and started up the car. As he pulled out into traffic, still smiling, he added, "I love you, you jerk."

**********

The Bay Harbor Mall was a teeming mass of humanity. Every parking space in the visible distance was filled, and a few spaces that weren't parking spaces were also filled by ingenious shoppers who didn't mind having one tire on the curb, no room to open their doors, or a parking ticket on their windshield. Starsky pulled up in front of the main entrance and looked around at the chaos. In spite of it surviving countless chases, collisions, sabotage attempts and various other indignities, there was no way Starsky was leaving the Torino in the path of these Christmas shopping storm troopers in their deceptively innocent-looking assault vehicles.

"There isn't even a safe spot to leave the car with the police permit out," he complained.

"Maybe we ought to see if we can find where the mall security guys park."

"Good thinking."

"I'm trying to get the mileage off my final days as the brains of this team," Hutch quipped, and Starsky snorted a laugh.

They did locate a small parking alcove close to the building where two shopping mall vehicles were parked and pulled the Torino in next to one of them.

"Of the twenty cars that drove in behind us, we're probably the only people who found a parking spot," Starsky opined as they walked along the sidewalk in front of the mall until they came upon the main entrance. Inside, the halls were alive with shoppers, most laden with multiple shopping bags. Starsky paused to look in the window of the toy store, where one of the coveted Atari game systems was displayed along with an array of the available games. "Wow--they've even got Space Invaders!"

"Be still my heart. Starsk, come on, will ya? We're already late to meet with Olson," Hutch said, referring to the manager of Roswell's department store.

"I bet they're almost out of 'em. Hutch, you better get a move on if you're gonna get me one." Starsky could barely suppress a grin as he waited for Hutch's reaction. Sure, he wanted one of the machines, but he also knew perfectly well he could pick one up after Christmas if his passion for it still burned. The fun now was in bringing Hutch to full grinch mode.

"Thanks for the tip."

"You're a grinch, you know that?" Starsky stated petulantly, stalking down the hall with Hutch at his side, heading for the large store at the end of the hall with its brick facade and bold white letters.

"You better watch out, Starsk. Bad little boys end up with coal in their stockings."

"At least somebody shopped for them," he added, putting on what he considered to be a fairly convincing pout. "Don't try and tell me you're not gettin' me anything."

"We're here on a case, not to Christmas shop."

"Somebody'd have to get robbed to get you into the mall at Christmas time," Starsky persisted. Hutch paused and turned to face his partner, who also slowed to a halt. With the lecturing finger wagging at Starsky, Hutch proceeded to deliver a scolding worthy of any exasperated mother with a misbehaving child in tow.

"I don't know about robbed, but I swear, Starsky, if you don't shut up about that stupid video game thing, somebody's gonna get murdered here."

"You proud of yourself now? You scared that poor woman," Starsky said mildly, referring to the stout older woman who passed them, giving them both a somewhat puzzled, unnerved look.

"She probably thinks you're out on a pass from Cabrillo State."

"I was treated there for nymphomania. And that was before I got together with this sexy blond with the great ass."

"The case, Starsk?" Hutch gestured toward the department store.

"Okay. But when we get done here, let's go buy some decorations."

"We have decorations."

"I have decorations, and you have...well, one or two decorations, I guess. We don't have any decorations we picked out together."

"Okay," Hutch conceded, smiling a little. "Just one store, and not for long. We already had our lunch break."

"We'll watch for shoplifters."

"All right, already." Hutch was laughing softly now, and Starsky had to smile. Yeah, you're some tough grinch, babe.

Raymond Olson was a tall, slender man in his late thirties with black hair and a small moustache. He met with Starsky and Hutch in his office, which was located on the second floor of the upscale department store.

"I've already told my story to the police. I'm not sure why another account of the crime is necessary," he said with some irritation. "It is a bit troubling that three men could walk in here, steal a full day's receipts, and walk out and the police can't seem to do anything about it."

"The police are doing something about it, sir," Hutch responded. "That's why we're here. Unfortunately, investigations take time. No one wishes more than we do that they would all move swiftly and smoothly."

"You said on the telephone that you suspected these men have committed other robberies?"

"We'd prefer that information be kept confidential for the time being, but yes, the pattern of the robbery here is similar to two other robberies. One of them involved a fatal shooting, which is why we have the case now," Starsky explained.

"Well, we close at ten during the holidays, and the cash in the register drawers is counted at each individual department. The manager of each department brings the evening's receipts to me, here, and I put it in the safe. We bank first thing in the morning before the store opens." He paused. "Would you gentlemen like coffee?" Both men offered a polite "no, thank you." Mr. Olson got up and served himself some from a small pot sitting on a nearby file cabinet. Returning to his chair, he continued. "I was in the office alone, about to put the money in the safe, when these three men in red ski masks burst into the office and demanded I hand over the money. One of them was holding my assistant manager, Darlene Russell, with his arm around her neck and a gun at her head. They were all armed, so I piled up everything I had and threw it in the bag the one man held out for it. They used Darlene as a hostage to get down the stairs and out the door that leads out to the parking lot instead of back into the mall. Our mall entrance is locked with a metal gate at night. As soon as they were outside, they shoved her down on the sidewalk and got into a dark colored van of some sort. That's all in the report."

"The man who spoke to you, how would you describe his voice?" Hutch asked.

"His voice? I really don't know. It was an average man's voice, I guess. No particular accents or speech impediments that I noticed."

"Would you call it light or deep?" Starsky asked.

"Sorry to be so vague, but average, I suppose. It wasn't anything remarkable."

"Were you able to discern the skin color of any of the men?" Hutch asked.

"No. They were wearing masks and gloves. I already told the other officers that."

"Right, but sometimes the eye or mouth openings in the ski masks will show you enough to tell," Starsky explained.

"Maybe so, but it all happened fast, and I was too busy watching what they were doing with Darlene and trying to get the money in the bag to notice details."

"Understandable," Hutch conceded, nodding slightly. "Did they stop downstairs looking for the money first and then come up here, or did they start out up here?"

"They must have started out up here, because Darlene was in the outer office area, tidying up the customer service desk you passed on your way in here. They seemed to know exactly what they were doing, and where to go for the money."

"The other detectives questioned all your employees at the time. Do you have any personal suspicions? Are there any former employees who might be holding grudges?" Starsky asked.

"I provided all that information to the other detectives."

"I'm sorry, it wasn't in the file," Starsky responded honestly. The only thing they'd found were the notes on the employee interviews; there was no information on former employees or Mr. Olson's personal suspicions. "The other team is probably following up on it and neglected to put a copy in the files."

"Fortunately, we've only had to let a couple people go in the last several years. We've had a number of resignations and new hires, but not very many...stressful dismissals."

"Is Ms. Russell available? We'd like to speak to her," Hutch said.

"No, I'm sorry, she's still out on personal leave. This whole thing was very traumatic for her. I'm trying to convince her to come back to work, but she's not at all comfortable working here now. I trust you have her home phone and address?"

"Yes, we do. Do you have store security here, or do you rely on the mall security?" Starsky asked.

"We have one plainclothes security employee. He was on duty that night, but had already left by the time the robbery occurred. He didn't notice anything unusual prior to closing."

"We have his statement in the file. Still, if the robbers were in the store after it closed, they must have gotten in before the main gate went down between your store and the shopping mall hallway, and the outside entrance was locked," Hutch stated.

"Well, yes, that's true. This is a large store, gentlemen. Two floors, both very large, with numerous fitting rooms, storage areas and restrooms. There's no way to completely search all of those areas to be positive no unauthorized personnel are in the store after closing."

"Could you give us a walking tour?" Starsky asked. "Show us around the office area here, and walk us through some of the areas you're talking about with the fitting rooms and storage areas?"

"Of course. You'll understand, of course, I don't want to disrupt the shoppers."

"We'll be discreet, and there's no need to show us any areas that are in heavy use, like the fitting rooms. Just so we know where they're located relative to your office and the entrances," Hutch explained.

Mr. Olson took them on an extensive tour of the large department store, and Starsky found himself taking in the expensive Christmas decorations and the obvious affluence of many of the customers. Dressed in jeans and leather jackets, accompanying Mr. Olson in his dark business suit, the two detectives didn't exactly blend with the atmosphere. While the manager stopped to speak to one of the sales clerks behind the perfume counter, Starsky was startled by a female voice behind him.

"I need a man."

Amused, he turned around to find himself looking at a woman who appeared to be the quintessential society matron, complete with designer suit and expensive gold jewelry. Her gray hair was swept up dramatically on top of her head, her make-up perfect. Spying a sign next to the display she was looking at, Starsky couldn't resist teasing her a bit.

"Sorry, ma'am, but I'm not the 'gift with purchase'," he said, grinning a little as he pointed to the sign. Disarmed, she laughed.

"I'm trying to pick out a cologne for my son, and I have no idea what someone his age would wear. My husband wears this one, but I know he doesn't want to have the same thing his father always wears. I like this one." She handed him a bottle and he sniffed, the pungent scent making his eyes bulge a little. "Apparently that isn't a good choice," she said.

"Try this one. Every time I wear it, this gorgeous blond I know just can't stay away from me." Starsky handed her a bottle of his own favorite cologne.

"Oh, that is nice." She sniffed the air then. "You're wearing it, aren't you?"

"It's my favorite."

"Thank you. This will do very nicely." She motioned to the sales clerk, who headed eagerly toward her, ready to make a sale. "I'll take two of these," she said, holding up the bottle.

"Starsk?" Hutch approached him now. "You picking up women at the perfume counter now?" He whispered to his partner as the woman busily made her purchase.

"She said she needed a man. Who was I to deny her?"

"Just tell her you're taken, babe. I have no problems denying her."

"Where's Olson?"

"He's haggling with a customer about a return," Hutch explained, gesturing toward another counter where the manager appeared to be placating a very large, very annoyed woman.

"Thank you so much for your help." The woman Starsky had advised on cologne now had two small Roswell's bags in hand. She handed one to Starsky. "Merry Christmas."

"You didn't have to do that," he said, smiling. "The advice was free."

"This must be wonderful cologne. I sprayed it, and you multiplied," she said, gesturing toward Hutch. "I suppose he's not the 'gift with purchase' either?" she joked.

"Definitely not. He's taken."

"Most of the good ones are. Thank you again," she said, preparing to leave.

"Thank you. I really shouldn't--"

"Think of it as a gift to your blond friend," she said, grinning knowingly and raising a perfectly arched eyebrow at Hutch. "The one who can't stay away when you wear it?" With that, she was on her way, soon disappearing into the crowd of shoppers.

"Are we that obvious?" Hutch asked.

"Guess I'm so in love with ya that I'm just oozing it all over the place," Starsky replied, smiling broadly.

"Stop oozing. Olson's on his way over. Feeling's mutual, by the way."

After the rest of the tour of Roswell's, Starsky reminded Hutch of his agreement to spend just a little time picking out some decorations together.

"I think we oughtta get a tree for the greenhouse." Starsky paused in the hallway to watch the line of small children waiting excitedly to see Santa Claus. One by one, they approached the large man in the chair. While most of his girth was probably padding, he was a good-sized man with a resounding belly laugh that seemed to delight the children--except for one who cowered near his mother in mortal fear of the booming "Ho Ho Ho". "Let's get our picture taken with Santa, whaddya say?"

"Starsky, I outgrew wanting to sit on Santa's lap thirty years ago."

"I didn't say you should sit on his lap. The only man I want you sittin' on is me. We could just get our picture taken with him. Come on, Hutch, please? It'll be fun."

"Waiting in a line of twenty four-year-olds will not be fun."

"It's somethin' you can tell your grandkids about."

"We're not having grandkids, Starsk, unless there's something you're not telling me about that extra inch or two you've put on."

"If you get me in trouble, are ya gonna marry me?" Starsky teased, still watching the jolly Santa do his routine to the squealing joy of the children.

"I wish I could," Hutch responded softly.

"Get me in trouble or marry me?" Starsky quipped, then looked at Hutch with all the love in the world. "Someday, even if we're old men when it's legal, we're gonna get hitched, babe."

"Let's go get our decorations, and we'll stop by here on the way back--see if the line's shorter?" Hutch offered, his smile not quite dispelling the sadness in his eyes. Hiding wasn't easy on either of them, and being denied the right to handle their relationship the way they saw fit by archaic, Victorian laws never ceased to frustrate them. Still, delighted with Hutch's suggestion, Starsky agreed, and they made their way to the more moderately priced department store at the other end of the mall.

As they approached the aisles laden with ornaments, garlands, lights and other accouterments, Starsky persisted about the tree.

"How big a tree d'you suppose we can get up the steps at your place?" he asked, taking down a box of blue ornaments and looking them over carefully.

"How about a nice wreath for the door?" Hutch suggested, pointing to a very attractive artificial wreath with a big red velvet bow.

"Yeah, get one'a those. You didn't answer my question," Starsky persisted, putting the blue ornaments back and picking out some sparkly gold ones instead.

"You have a tree at your place."

"It's a table tree, Hutch. Come on, I mean a big tree! Like somethin' that size." Starsky pointed to a seven-foot artificial scotch pine.

"Think about my stairway and then take another look at that tree you just pointed at. We'd never get a tree that size into my apartment."

"Hey, y'know, I bet we could get the box that one's in up the steps with no problems. You put 'em together--the artificial ones don't come like that," he said, gesturing at the assembled tree in the display.

"And we'll store it where exactly during the year?"

"Maybe Edith'd let me put it in that big storage shed they've got behind the garage. She already let me stash some stuff there when I did my cleaning a year or so ago. She and Dobey don't use a lot of the space in it anyhow, so she told me I could put some stuff there. You remember that."

"Yeah, I remember it. That doesn't mean she wants to take on storing our Christmas tree."

"Our Christmas tree. I like that," Starsky said, gathering more ornament boxes, as if the purchase of the tree was a foregone conclusion.

"I don't remember agreeing to buy the tree."

"You will. You better get a move on and pick out some lights and garland. Can't have a naked tree in the middle of the greenhouse. Come on, Hutch, think about it--with no lights in the greenhouse but the Christmas tree lights...makin' love under the tree," he added in a breathy whisper.

"You want gold or silver?" Hutch asked, holding up the garland.

**********

With their purchases being held for them at the parcel pick-up door of the store, they hurried back through the mall toward the entrance closest to where they'd parked the car. The line-up near Santa Claus had dwindled to three small children and their parents.

"C'mon, Hutch. They won't take any time at all."

"Don't you feel just a little ridiculous?" Hutch asked, looking around self-consciously as they got in line. The young mother ahead of them eyed them suspiciously. "She probably thinks we're perverts," Hutch whispered to Starsky.

"We are, but not in a way she's gotta worry about."

The line did move quickly, and before long, they found themselves at the head of it. It was a draw who looked more nonplussed by their presence--Santa or the "elf" working with him. The exasperated middle-aged woman dressed in the elf suit motioned to them to come up on the little platform where Santa Claus sat in all his splendor.

"We just want to get our picture taken," Starsky said. "Promise we won't try to sit on your lap."

"That's a relief. I thought that fat ten-year-old was a kneeful until I saw you guys show up," Santa Claus confided in a low voice. Putting on his Santa persona for the benefit of the children still waiting in line, he summoned the somewhat beleaguered elf who was now holding the instant camera.

Letting out a resounding "Ho Ho Ho", Santa Claus smiled for the camera as Starsky and Hutch leaned in on either side of him, each with a hand on his shoulder. Forgetting about the elf with the camera, or the impatiently waiting children, or even Santa himself, Starsky looked over at his partner. The overhead lights in the mall were glinting off the highlights in his blond hair, and the smile he gave Starsky at that moment was more radiant than all 300 lights that would go on their new tree. As he returned the expression, the flash of the camera startled them both.

"Hey, we weren't lookin' at the camera!" Starsky protested.

"Sorry, sir. One to a customer. Next, please."

"Nothin' worse than a pushy elf." Starsky took the photo and stalked off.

"Thanks," Hutch said to the annoyed woman, as he followed his partner down the hall toward the exit.

"Can you believe her? Would you take some half-witted picture'a people while they weren't even lookin' at the camera?" Starsky demanded, outraged. He gave the door a bit harder push than necessary as they left the mall and headed toward the car. "What kinda photographer is she, anyhow?"

"Starsky, she's a housewife dressed up like an elf. Probably trying to make some money to buy Christmas presents. She's not a photographer, and you were one of the more difficult children she's dealt with today."

"It was such a good idea, too." Starsky opened the driver's door and got into the car. "Come on. We gotta pick up the tree," he said to Hutch, who had opened the passenger door, but was standing outside, looking at the photo. Finally, he got in the car and handed Starsky the photo.

"You're right, babe. It was a great idea."

Starsky smiled when he looked at the photo, captured at the exact moment that Hutch had caught him staring like a lovesick sap and returned the expression. A jolly Santa Claus was between them.

"Maybe she's not such a bad photographer after all," he conceded.

**********

With the trunk open and tied down over the large Christmas tree box, Starsky would only consent to park in an employee parking area at Newmeyer's. Not at all sure he trusted his fellow men not to make off with the new Christmas tree, he wasn't taking any chances.

"You better hope we don't have to chase anyone before we drop that off at my place," Hutch said. "I'm not explaining it to Dobey if we cause a traffic tie up because our Christmas tree ends up in an intersection."

Marsha Jansen, an attractive woman in her early thirties, was the store manager at Newmeyer's. She relayed a similar tale to Mr. Olson's. Three armed men had stormed her office just after the cash drawers were all turned in, and she handed over the money at gunpoint. One of the gunmen held a teenage salesgirl hostage while they collected the money and then fled with the terrified girl to the main entrance, where they pushed her aside and jumped into a waiting dark van.

The salesgirl was working in the jewelry department when Starsky and Hutch arrived, so Ms. Jansen introduced them. A cute, petite brunette with large brown eyes and bobbed hair, Lisa Ryan told her story--essentially the same one Ms. Jansen had told them about the robbery itself.

"Do you recall anything else about the man who was holding you?" Hutch asked. "Any little detail, no matter how silly or unimportant it might sound, could make all the difference."

"He was really big. He kept pulling me along, but it felt like he was going to pull me right up off the floor all the time. He had a real deep voice, and he kept threatening me not to say anything and not to move. He was really creepy, and he had a deep voice."

"Creepy?" Starsky repeated.

"Well, yeah--he kept telling me he was going to do all these awful things to me if I screamed or tried to get away. Must've been some kind of sicko who got off on threatening women. His cologne was gross, too."

"His cologne?"

"Yeah, it was real pungent and sort of disgusting-smelling."

"Could you pick it out again?"

"That's easy. I can show it to you." She walked around the counter and led the way to the perfume section. Chewing her lower lip, she looked through the men's testers before pulling out a large gray bottle. "This stuff right here."

"Evening Mist?" Hutch took the bottle from her and sniffed. Jerking his head back, he handed it to Starsky.

"No wonder he had to kidnap a woman to get her close to him." He handed the bottle back to the girl. "Y'know, I just smelled that someplace.…"

"Roswell's?" Hutch asked.

"No. But it's kinda familiar."

"I know. I thought so, too."

"Probably more than one guy wears this stuff, though I can't figure out why," Lisa added.

"Do you think you could identify his voice if you heard it again?" Hutch asked.

"Oh, yeah, I could identify it," she assured, nodding.

"Thanks for your help, Lisa. Believe it or not, the cologne could be an important detail," Hutch added.

"Really? Good. I hope you nail the jerk. I just want one chance to show him a few of the self-defense moves my dad taught me after what happened."

"You did the right thing. Fighting armed robbers can get you killed, even if you know some moves," Hutch explained. "People can get themselves killed not playing along, so it's good to know those moves in case you're ever in a situation where you can use them, but as a rule, don't antagonize armed hold-up men. Give them what they want."

"I know you're right. It just makes me mad, y'know? I work here every day after school to make some extra spending money, and these jerks come in and steal more than I make in a month in one night. I'm gonna be a cop, see if I can do something about creeps like that."

"You are, huh?" Starsky asked, smiling.

"I suppose you don't think I could do it," she said, crossing her arms over her chest. Hutch looked at Starsky, raising his eyebrows inquisitively. Remembering how completely they'd underestimated Sally Hagen, Starsky simply smiled sweetly and avoided antagonizing the girl.

"I'm sure you can do whatever you set your mind to, Ms. Ryan. Best of luck to you."

"Thanks. Say, do you ever take ride-alongs? I've been dying to do that with real cops--the one time I did it, they put me with these two fat, glorified ticket-dispensers who spent most of their shift eating donuts and telling dumb jokes."

"Must've been Brightman and Lyddon," Hutch quipped, laughing.

"How'd you know?" she asked, stunned.

"Lucky guess, that's all."

"Oh, great, I got to ride with the worst cops in Bay City."

"Tell you what. After the holidays," Hutch began, taking out one of his cards and writing on the back of it, "call Captain Dobey at this number and tell him we agreed to take you on a ride-along." He handed her the card.

"Better give her a code word. Dobey'll never believe it," Starsky retorted.

**********

"So how did you know it was Brightman and Lyddon?" Starsky asked as they walked back to the car.

"I ran into Brightman in the cafeteria a few weeks ago, and he was telling all these ridiculous jokes about the teenage girl they'd had riding along with them the night before." Hutch slid into the passenger side of the car as Starsky started it up. "Santa Claus."

"Huh?"

"The stinky cologne. Our favorite Santa was wearing it."

"Today?" Starsky frowned, confused.

"No, not today. Last night, at the toy store. Hooper."

"That's where I smelled it before."

"But Hooper doesn't fit the description of the tall guy with the deep voice. Even if he was wearing the smelly cologne," Hutch said, somewhat defeated.

"So? That stuff's real strong. Maybe she was smelling it and he was the guy standing next to the one holding her. Remember, neither Ms. Jansen nor Mr. Olson described both the tall guys as being quite as tall as Joslin did."

"So maybe we have a rotating cast of perps?"

"Could be," Starsky said, then paused, watching as a tall black man walked into the employee entrance of Newmeyer's with a red and white suit over his arm. "When's the last time you saw a black department store Santa?"

"Unfortunately, never. You think he's a fake?"

"No, he's got the suit, and it's not like he could slip by unnoticed as an imposter. I think he's for real, all right, but it's pretty unusual."

"You think Santa Claus did it? I don't want to go to Dobey with that one unless we have an airtight case," Hutch stated, laughing.

"Each one of the stores had one, and each one got robbed. None of the three store managers describe all of the guys identically, though they're close, and all of them have the same basic MO with handling their cash drawers at the end of the day." Starsky nodded toward the entrance where the man had just gone into the building. "And one of our perps is tall and black."

"Sandra Franklin was new at her job and it took her longer to reconcile her drawer, so instead of it being in the manager's office, and her being long gone when the hold-up men arrived at Toy World, she was still there, and so was a nice big fat stash of money."

"She died because she was a change in plans they didn't count on."

"Right. Instead of hitting Joslin for the cash, they got sidetracked, and they panicked," Hutch suggested.

"And we've still got the possibility that she recognized the voice."

"Great theory. How do we prove it?" Starsky navigated the dinner hour traffic, heading for Venice Place to drop off the tree before reporting back in to headquarters. "Plus the Santa near Roswell's works for the mall, not the store itself."

"True, but he's stationed right outside their main entrance. He probably can see a lot right from where he sits, and what he can't see, he could scope out easily enough on his breaks."

"That guy we just saw goin' into Newmeyer's was pretty tall," Starsky added.

"So was our buddy at the mall. Hooper could be the third man on some of the robberies--he's average height--and the guy who visited him at the store that night could be the third man who was at Toy World."

"And the way they've got it rotating, it'd be tough to pin it on them as a team, because one of them always has an airtight alibi. Hooper was a witness to the robbery, and the guy at Newmeyer's is in the file someplace with a statement as a witness. I bet the mall guy is, too."

"Speaking of the file..." Hutch let the statement hang a bit ominously.

"Don't give Kreswell the satisfaction of confronting him with it. We'll tell Dobey about it, after we solve the case." Starsky grinned a bit evilly.

**********

After the awkward Christmas tree box had been delivered to Venice Place, and with considerable cursing, had been maneuvered up the stairs and into the apartment, Starsky and Hutch returned to headquarters. With the files spread out on their desks, they began to line up a cast of suspects for the robberies.

"You figure Hooper as the third man for Newmeyer's and Roswell's?" Starsky asked, making a three-column list with each store name as a heading.

"Yeah, and put down our shopping mall Santa at Toy World and Newmeyer's."

"And the guy from Newmeyer's at Roswell's and Toy World. Plus there's the anonymous 'slightly taller than average guy' who visited Hooper at the toy store that night. We'll make him the third anyplace we need a third."

"Okay, that puts one average guy, one slightly-taller-than-average guy, and one tall guy at Newmeyer's. That would fit with the descriptions Marsha Jansen gave us."

"Roswell's would have one tall black guy, a slightly-taller-than-average guy and one average guy," Starsky recapped. "Toy World ends up with two tall guys--one of them black, and a slightly-taller-than-average guy." Starsky tossed his pen down. "It fits."

"Yeah, but we've got nothing concrete." Hutch slumped back in his chair, sighing tiredly. "This is all just speculation."

"So now we start checking alibis. See if our buddy at Toy World can account for his whereabouts the nights of the Roswell's and Newmeyer's robberies, and do the same with our Santas from the mall and Newmeyer's."

"Maybe we oughtta do that tomorrow. I'm beat. How 'bout you?" Hutch asked, gathering up the files.

"Yeah, I could do with something to eat and a few hours' sleep."

"Well, well, well," Kreswell's voice carried from the door of the squadroom, drawing the passing attention of a couple other nearby detectives, as well as Starsky and Hutch. "Got the case all wrapped up yet?" he asked, strolling into the room.

"We're making progress," Hutch answered shortly.

"You don't do too well sharing information with other departments, do you, Hutchinson?"

"Those weren't our orders, Kreswell," Starsky spoke up. "Our orders were to take over the case because now it's a homicide." Starsky looked more intently at the other man's face. "Looks like you're as popular as ever," he added, noticing a developing shiner around Kreswell's left eye.

"Yeah, well those robberies aren't homicides," the older man replied, pointedly ignoring Starsky's comment.

"We've got reason to believe they're all tied together, which makes all of it a homicide matter," Hutch responded. "Look, if you've got a problem, take it up with Dobey."

"Lotta good that does." Kreswell headed for the door. "Damn department's run by Jews and spooks."

"You have a problem with how this department's run, Kreswell?" Dobey's voice boomed from behind Hutch, startling him, as he hadn't seen the captain slip somewhat noiselessly through the door of his office. Dobey was big, but he was sneaky.

"Just givin' your golden boys here a hard time, that's all," Kreswell back-pedaled.

"Yeah? Well you better can the attitude, Kreswell. You've already got one harassment case pending with Internal Affairs. You don't need to dig yourself a deeper hole."

Without further comment, Kreswell turned and strode out of the room.

"Who filed the harassment complaint?" Starsky asked.

"Lizzie Thorpe. Kreswell made an ethnic slur at Flores and when she said something to him, he made an obscene remark to her. Flores got in a good right cross before a couple uniforms broke it up. Unfortunately, Flores is going to get called on the carpet for turning things physical, but with his record, he'll probably just get a warning."

"He shouldn't get anything. Kreswell belongs in a cage," Hutch retorted hotly. "He withheld information out of the file on the Roswell's robbery, and that's just what we know about. God knows if we even have the complete case files here."

"That so?" Dobey asked, crossing his arms over his chest. "Guess I need to have a talk with Kreswell's captain." Dobey shook his head. "It's a damn shame. He's a fine detective when he wants to be."

**********

Starsky's fatigue seemed to wane as soon as they returned to Hutch's apartment. He had the wreath on the door in record time, and was busily rearranging things in the greenhouse to make room for the large Christmas tree.

"I'm not putting the tree up tonight, Starsk," Hutch said tiredly, leaning against the doorframe.

"We're not gonna get a day off until this case is in the bag, and there're only five days 'til Christmas."

"Tell you what. If we get out of work at a decent hour tomorrow, we'll come home and get right at it."

"Promise?"

"Yeah, I promise." Hutch moved over to where Starsky was standing and pulled him into his arms. "Time to hit the showers," he said against Starsky's ear.

They were barely finished washing up when Starsky pounced on his lover, pushing him gently against the tiles and claiming his mouth. Hutch groaned into Starsky's mouth as the kiss went on, Starsky's water-slick cock nudging at Hutch's as he pressed their bodies close together. Starsky's hands slid around to Hutch's ass, kneading the fleshy cheeks firmly, fingers trailing into the crevice between them. He sacrificed Hutch's mouth to take in a few quick breaths before licking and sucking at a taut nipple.

"Starsk…yeah, that's it, babe," Hutch gasped, letting his head rest back against the tiles as Starsky sucked one nipple, then the other, to pebble-like hardness.

"Gonna turn you around, beautiful. Got plans for that gorgeous ass of yours," Starsky whispered hotly in his ear.

Hutch offered no resistance to being maneuvered so he was standing facing the tiles, feet spread, ass thrust out invitingly as he braced his arms against the wall of the shower. He was out of the direct spray of the water, and the main sensation he focused on now was the soft touch of Starsky's lips as he moved down Hutch's spine with a series of hot kisses. It wasn't long before gentle hands parted his buttocks, and the warm lips were kissing their way along the crease there. Hutch closed his eyes and waited for the sensation he knew was coming.

Starsky's tongue teased his center, swirling around it, poking a little, then withdrawing. Hutch groaned involuntarily, resting his forehead on his arm as he leaned on the tiles. He heard a throaty chortle from Starsky. The evil tongue continued its teasing little probes, tickling his most sensitive areas from the back of his balls to the top of the seam of his buttocks and back again. When he thought he couldn't stand any more of the hot, tickling sensation, Starsky reached outside the curtain, and Hutch figured he was grabbing for the lube he'd left on the toilet lid before they started their shower.

"The water'd work, babe," Hutch said eagerly, ready to feel Starsky moving inside him without a lot of preliminaries.

"Just a little to keep things moving, darlin'." Starsky kissed one butt cheek, then the other. "Don't wanna hurt any of your beautiful self."

Starsky was true to his word, just spreading an adequate coating of the gel inside Hutch and stretching him a little before coating himself. Then the blunt tip was against Hutch's opening, and a moment later, pushed inside. He felt the hot invader moving slowly but steadily until it filled his channel and stretched him satisfyingly. Starsky wrapped around his body, fingers sneaking up to pinch and roll Hutch's nipples, one hand sliding back down to cup and fondle the heavy balls. Starsky's other hand moved from Hutch's chest down to grip the rigid cock, pumping it in time with the firm thrusts.

Starsky's cock pumped in and out of him with increasing speed, rubbing over his prostate as his cock was squeezed and massaged. They were moaning and panting together now, thrusting hard and fast toward completion. He wasn't sure if it was the rapid rhythm or the enticing thought of the lingering tingle he'd feel when he sat down the next day that pushed him over the edge, but sooner than he wished, Hutch found himself letting out broken cries of pleasure, his seed spurting over Starsky's hand and probably on the tiles. Hutch felt as if he came forever, and he could tell by Starsky's rhythm and his shouts that he was coming, too, pumping his juices into Hutch until he came to rest, breathing heavily, against Hutch's back.

He slowly moved back and slipped free of Hutch's body, then gently turned him and drew him into his arms, steering them both under the water, which was cool now. Making quick work of it, they washed off the traces of their lovemaking and got out from under the too-cool spray. Starsky took charge of drying his lover thoroughly and bundled him up in his robe. Never one to pass up a wet, naked Starsky, Hutch returned the favor. They headed for the bed and, leaving the robes behind, climbed in and met in the middle, arms and legs tangling together. Hutch laughed when he looked above them on the headboard to see a large clump of mistletoe tied to it.

"At this rate, we'll never get out of bed," he said, paying up the required kiss.

"You got a problem with that?" Starsky asked, moving in for another kiss.

"Not as long as you put some on the headboard at your place so we're never caught unprepared," Hutch joked, launching another round of kissing that would carrying them far into the night.

**********

Reasonably sure that no one was watching him, Starsky indulged in ogling his partner's butt as he walked from the desks to the file cabinets and back again. His building grin widened when Hutch sat down just a bit carefully.

"Stop that," Hutch chided quietly.

"Stop what?" Starsky looked affronted, but he knew it was hopeless. He'd been busted.

"Staring at my ass," Hutch whispered, looking around.

"Can't help it if it's my favorite thing to look at. Can't help it if I'm thinkin' about riding it long and hard in the shower--"

"Starsky, if you don't shut up now, I will kill you right where you sit," Hutch shot back.

"No you won't. You need somebody who can work that sexy ass of yours until you can't sit down." Starsky barely suppressed a chortle, as he watched Hutch's face turn red from his collar to his hairline.

"It could be a long, cold winter for you if you don't behave yourself."

"It'd be a long, cold winter for you if I did." Starsky flexed his eyebrows, and Hutch had to laugh then.

"You win." Hutch shook his head and went back to looking up the home phone numbers for their Santa Clauses. Today was the day they planned to check out the alibis of each man, and do their best to turn their speculation into a solution for the case.

"How's it going?" Lizzie asked as she walked up behind Hutch, looking at the array of papers from the files scattered on his desk.

"We're doing our best to bust Santa Claus," Starsky retorted.

"I'm not sure I want to hear this," she said, smiling.

"What's this we hear about you and Arturo having a run-in with Kreswell?"

"I feel really awful about that. I should have just stayed out of it." She sat against the edge of the desk. "He made some slur at Arturo about lazy Mexicans because we were taking a break in the cafeteria. Of course, he said it low enough so only we heard it. It really made me mad, so I told Kreswell that men who had to put other men down that way usually did it to compensate for being sexually inadequate. He said I should know, since I had probably had sex with all the guys in Homicide to get my transfer--only he said it lot cruder than that."

"He deserved a right cross for that," Hutch said, grimacing. "I'm not surprised Arturo gave him what he had coming."

"He was out of that chair in a flash, and I barely saw what happened before Kreswell was on his butt on the floor, looking pretty stunned. Arturo was ready to go at him again, and Kreswell was getting ready to fight back, but Beecher and Simmons broke it up. I've never seen Arturo that angry before. I thought he was going to rip Kreswell's head off."

"Hey, you don't let anybody disrespect your partner. Not like that," Starsky said. "I'd'a decked the asshole, too."

"I hope that's all it was. I mean, I love him for doing it, but I want to think he did it just because he's my partner, not...well, you know..." She let the phrase hang there a bit awkwardly.

"Maybe a little of both. It's no secret he's attracted to you, Lizzie," Hutch said quietly, making sure they weren't being overheard.

"It's probably not a much bigger secret that the feeling's mutual. But he's married, and he's a hell of a partner. I'd hate to lose a good partner for a roll in the hay."

"Flores is a pretty ethical guy," Starsky said. "I don't think he'll pursue it."

"He's ethical, but he's human, too. Part of me thinks I should give up the partnership, because I think it's hard on him with Carolyn. He won't ask for a new partner, but maybe I should."

"Do you want a new partner?" Hutch asked.

"No, of course not."

"Then keep the one you've got. Good partners are one in a million," he said, looking over at Starsky, who smiled and ducked his head. The little spark in the exchange didn't appear lost on Lizzie as she smiled at the two of them.

"I'll keep that in mind. So what's this about busting Santa?" she asked, and they proceeded to fill her in on the case.

**********

The funeral for Sandra Franklin was held that afternoon, and in the name of following up the possibility that she recognized the voice of her killer, Starsky and Hutch donned dark suits, and with the permission of the family, mingled with the mourners. The young girl lay in state in her open coffin in the vestibule of the church, while friends and family members paid their final respects.

"She looks even younger, doesn't she?" Hutch opined softly, looking down at the girl in the dark green velvet dress with white lace trim that her parents had chosen for her final attire. According to her mother, Sandra had picked out the dress for the holiday parties the family was hosting between Christmas and New Year's.

"We're gonna get these bastards, Hutch," Starsky responded quietly. "I know, it's gettin' to me too, buddy. This is a rotten time'a year to bury your daughter."

"Not that there's a good time." Hutch backed away from the side of the casket, and Starsky followed him. "Lots of kids from the college," he commented, inclining his head toward a group of young people who were moving in the direction of the casket.

"See anything interesting so far?"

"No, you?"

"Nope." Starsky moved farther toward the group of family members who were talking in hushed tones several feet away. "Hey, Hutch--that guy look familiar to you?" Starsky nudged his partner and inclined his head toward a tall man who was talking to the dead girl's mother.

"Yeah. Real familiar. Especially the profile." Hutch stared intently at him. "Let's see if we can get an introduction." They approached the family group, which consisted of Mr. and Mrs. Franklin, Sandra's sister, Kelly, and the man in question.

"Excuse us, Mrs. Franklin. We just wanted to let you know that we'll be in the back of the church during the service, if there's anything you need."

"Thank you, Detective," she said, smiling slightly.

"I don't believe we've met," he said, turning to the man. "Detective Hutchinson. Mr. and Mrs. Franklin were gracious enough to let us be here today in an official capacity." He held out his hand, and the other man shook it, his expression somewhat neutral. "This is my partner, Detective Starsky." Starsky shook hands with the man, who had so far remained silent. He was about their age, with brown hair and wire-framed glasses.

"Pleased to meet you. Rick Franklin," he said...in a very deep voice. A very familiar deep voice.

"I have the feeling we've met before," Starsky said. "You look familiar."

"Maybe he saw you at the mall, Uncle Rick," Kelly said. Despite her red-rimmed eyes and pale face, the thought seemed to bring a bit of devilish amusement to the young girl's expression.

"Actually, I was trying to preserve the officers' dignity. I recognized them right away as the only two adults I've had my picture taken with this season," he responded with a smile.

"Bay Harbor Mall, yesterday," Hutch said, pointing at Franklin, who nodded.

"Ho ho ho," Franklin retorted softly.

"Mr. Franklin, I wonder if you would be kind enough to come down to headquarters later and answer a few questions for us? I understand you were a witness in the Roswell's robbery?" Starsky asked.

"I really didn't see much. This seems like an inappropriate place to discuss this."

"Actually, it's very appropriate. Our primary goal in this case is to find the man who ended Sandra's life so needlessly. I'm sure that's something her family wants as well," Hutch said, pinning Franklin with an intent gaze.

"What's the problem, Rick?" Mr. Franklin spoke up. About the same height but a bit older than his brother, with salt and pepper hair, he was capable of an imposing presence. "These men have our full cooperation in trying to find the bastards who killed Sandy."

"I'm willing to cooperate, Ted. I just think this is the wrong place to discuss the case. I'll be glad to answer your questions, gentlemen. Would three o'clock tomorrow be satisfactory?"

"Actually, we'd prefer to do it today. We can give you a ride downtown after the funeral dinner," Starsky said.

"I'd like to spend some time with my family, not at police headquarters."

"You'd be doing us a greater favor to cooperate with the detectives, Rick," Mrs. Franklin said, fighting to keep her composure. "We want to stop these animals before they do this to another family. Please, go answer their questions."

"Did you know that Rick was a witness in the Roswell's robbery?" Hutch asked Mr. Franklin.

"Not until yesterday afternoon, at the funeral home," he said. "We certainly would have mentioned it if we had known prior to that."

"Of course, sir. We should probably go inside. Thank you again," Hutch said to the family before he and Starsky made their way inside the church. "We've gotta keep an eye on Franklin," he whispered.

"I think Mr. Franklin'll tip us off if he leaves before the service, don't you?"

"Yeah, but I can see him through the open doors from right here," Hutch said, indicating an empty pew at the back of the church. "If he moves out of our line of sight, we better go back out there." They sat down, and Hutch kept close watch on their suspect.

"Hard to believe the guy would shoot his own niece."

"Sure would explain why she recognized his voice, and why the odd hesitation. Also, he didn't shoot her right away. It was as if he had to pause to make a conscious decision to do it."

"That whole thirty seconds or so was his sorry excuse for a conscience," Starsky responded.

**********

The funeral service passed uneventfully, and the next few hours were spent discreetly tailing the mourners from the church to the cemetery, and then to a nearby restaurant where the funeral dinner was being held. Glad to help out with a possible major robbery-homicide bust, Lizzie and Arturo watched the restaurant while Starsky and Hutch slipped back to headquarters to call Sam Joslin , Lisa Ryan, and Mike and Brian Fisher. Hopefully, they could do a voice line-up with Rick Franklin later that afternoon.

"I'm dropping the harassment charges against Kreswell," Lizzie said, after taking a drink of the coffee they'd brought with them.

"Why?" Arturo looked at her, while she continued to watch the restaurant entrance.

"He'll drop the assault charge against you with IA if I drop the harassment charge. You know you're in hot water about that, and Carolyn's not going to like it when she finds out you're in trouble at work because you were defending my honor in the cafeteria."

"You're my partner--not to mention the fact that there's not one man in my family that would let another man speak to a woman in his company that way. Carolyn knows that about me."

"Yeah, she knows she loves your chivalry, but is she gonna love it when it's directed at me?"

"That's ridiculous, Liz. You don't turn it on and off. Either you respect women or you don't. Don't you dare drop any charges against that son-of-a-bitch, because if he pulls something like that again, I'll knock him back down on his ass and we'll be back to square one. You take him to the mat."

"I made a remark at him first."

"No, he made an ethnic slur at your partner first. He started it."

"This sounds like something Lori would say about a fight on the playground." Lizzie shook her head, thinking of how frighteningly similar Kreswell was to the schoolyard bullies her daughter complained about sometimes.

"Kreswell's no better than a garden variety bully--and a bigot, besides."

"What'd Dobey say about Christmas?" Lizzie asked.

"We're probably going to have to work Christmas Eve."

"I thought you were going to ask Hutch if they'd cover it since we covered the last night of Hanukkah for them."

"They've been pulling eighteen-hour days on this case. If Dobey lets them have Christmas off, I don't want to screw that up. Our caseload hasn't been nearly that urgent or heavy. Besides, if we work Christmas Eve, we'll get Christmas Day off as it is. That's what he said."

"I'll talk to Hutch. Maybe he'll agree to cover Christmas Eve so we could have the whole holiday. We've both got kids to consider--Lori's counting on me being home for Christmas. It's the first year...well, my ex is going to want to take her if I'm not home Christmas Eve, and then he won't bring her back until late on Christmas Day."

"Why not?"

"Because he's mad about the divorce, mad about my job... I wouldn't put it past him to try for custody."

"You're her mother," Arturo protested.

"Yeah, I'm her mother. Her mother who works long hours, lots of nights and weekends, and gets shot at every now and then. He's made plenty of remarks about that not being the right line of work for a 'good mother'."

"You're a great mother! I've seen you with Lori." He looked back at the restaurant entrance, but there was still no sign of any of the family leaving. "You think if you work Christmas Eve, it's going to give him some kind of foothold with a judge?"

"I think it's really important that I spend Christmas with my daughter. For a lot of reasons."

"Maybe Simmons and Babcock would take our Christmas Eve shift."

"Not likely, but we can ask. Hutch and Starsky would probably do it because they're friends of ours."

"Let's check with Simmons and if he says no, I'll ask Hutch."

"Okay." Lizzie nodded. "Speaking of..." She gestured toward Hutch's car as it pulled into the restaurant parking lot.

"Hey, Liz?"

"Yeah?"

"Thanks for speaking up to Kreswell for me. You didn't have to do that, but..." He shrugged.

"Partners, right?" she said, smiling.

"Partners," he confirmed, returning the smile. Lizzie averted her eyes, avoiding staring just a little too long at those warm brown eyes and that perfect smile.

Starsky got out of the car and walked over to where Lizzie and Arturo were parked. Lizzie rolled down her window.

"We got the witnesses comin' in at four. That oughtta give us time to question him for a while. Anybody come out?"

"Not from the Franklin group," Lizzie responded.

"Good. We'll take over from here. Thanks again, guys."

"No problem. We might need a favor one of these days," Lizzie said, smiling.

**********

"I can't believe you have to do this the day of my niece's funeral," Rick Franklin complained as they sat at a table in one of the interrogation rooms.

"Would you like some coffee, Mr. Franklin?" Hutch offered.

"No, thank you."

"Any objections if we tape record this?" Hutch asked.

"I guess not. Do you have to?"

"It's as much for your protection as it is for ours. Gives both sides an indisputable record of questioning, so we can't imply you said anything you didn't."

"I don't have anything to hide. Go ahead."

"Let's get started then. This shouldn't take too long." He opened the case file on the Roswell's robbery. "You were still in the mall when the robbery occurred?"

"That's right. I saw my last kid at ten. You wouldn't believe how late those people will wait in line to see Santa Claus when it's busy. I was helping Helga tidy up."

"Helga?" Starsky asked.

"The elf. You met her yesterday. There's another elf named Craig, but he usually just works weekends."

"Helga the elf didn't see anything?" Starsky asked.

"No. She left by ten-fifteen. I walked toward Roswell's, because there's a mall employees' exit there that runs behind some of the stores. She doesn't like walking the long hallway at night because a clerk was assaulted there once several years ago. My car was parked out near that exit, so we left by different doors. She knows a lady on the custodial staff, and they often walk out together."

"What did you see exactly?" Hutch looked down at the file.

"It should be right in front of you."

"Humor me," he said, giving the man a feigned smile.

"I saw a man in dark clothes running up the escalator, which they had turned off when the store closed. I found that odd, but I didn't think much of it. I went out to my car, and as I was pulling out of the parking spot and driving toward the mall--you have to circle around it to reach the Filmore Street exit--I saw three men run out of the store, shove a woman down on the sidewalk and drive off in a dark van."

"You didn't have a chance to catch the license number?" Starsky asked.

"I was more concerned with checking on the woman they'd dumped. I was afraid she might be hurt--or worse. It turned out to be Darlene, the assistant manager."

"Right. Tell me, Mr. Franklin, where were you on the night of the nineteenth?" Hutch asked.

"The nineteenth? That's the night Sandra was killed."

"Do you recall where you were?" Starsky prodded.

"I was at home when Ted called me--"

"At the time of the robbery," Hutch clarified.

"I...at home, I guess."

"You're not sure?" Starsky pressed.

"Well, yeah, I was home. So what?"

"Were you alone?" Hutch asked.

"My girlfriend spent the night."

"What time, approximately, did she arrive?" Starsky was carefully taking notes, keeping his expression neutral.

"I want a lawyer."

"All we asked was what time your girlfriend showed up. And you're not under arrest," Hutch added. "At least, not yet. We just want to establish your whereabouts at the time of your niece's death."

"This is monstrous. Why would I kill my own brother's daughter?"

"We didn't say you did, Mr. Franklin," Starsky responded. "But we would like an answer to our question."

"About midnight. She works as a cocktail waitress at the Jungle Club."

"You were alone then from what time until approximately midnight?" Starsky asked, still making notes.

"I got off work at five--I had the day shift. I went out to eat at a place called Guillermo's, not far from the mall."

"They've got great burritos there," Starsky said, smiling slightly. The folksy statement seemed to unnerve the man even more. "You left Guillermo's at what time?"

"Seven. I had a margarita or two, and the service is slow."

"You were alone between seven and twelve then?" Hutch summarized.

"Yeah, I suppose."

"You went straight home?" Starsky clarified.

"Yes."

"Anyone who can confirm that?" Hutch asked.

"Yeah--I just did. Now unless you're prepared to charge me with something, I'd really like to go back over to my brother's--"

"There's just one more thing, sir. It actually would clear up this whole situation."

"What's that, Detective Hutchinson?"

"Some of the witnesses to Sandra's shooting heard the killer's voice. If you would be willing to do a line-up--"

"I thought they all wore red ski masks," he said nervously. Starsky smiled evilly.

"How did you know they were red?" Hutch asked calmly.

"Ted must've said something about it, I guess."

"Your brother and his family didn't know that detail. It hasn't been in the newspapers."

"The witnesses saw what color they were."

"So you found this out from which witness?" Hutch persisted.

"I...I don't remember. I know that I heard it somewhere. Probably from somebody at Roswell's."

"You didn't see the masks when you saw them shove the assistant manager down and take off after the robbery?" Starsky asked.

"No, I wasn't close enough."

"Mr. Franklin, isn't it true that you were at Toy World that night, and that you're the one who shot your niece, because she recognized your voice?" Hutch went for broke, and Starsky appeared a bit uneasy, the accusation seeming like a long shot.

There was a long silence and an almost audible buzz of tension in the room as the seconds stretched.

"It was an accident," he said, his voice shaking a bit. "I never handled guns before. I loved Sandy. She was a sweet kid, my brother's first born. My God, I never meant to kill her," he said, sobbing into his hands now. "When we went in, we always took the safety's off the guns, in case...in case we were confronted and needed to shoot fast. I never fired the gun I was using before that night, and all of a sudden, it went off, and she fell..."

"You're saying you didn't shoot her because she recognized your voice?" Hutch asked.

"God, no. I'd've gone to prison before I'd have hurt her. I loved her! I watched her grow up! She was like a daughter to me."

"You didn't offer any objections when your friends wanted to rob the store where she worked?" Starsky asked, unmoved by the display of emotion.

"She wasn't supposed to be working that night. Her mother was worried she wasn't spending enough time on her studies, and she told her to cut back her hours at the store. She was only supposed to be working from three 'til six that evening. Laura told me that herself," he said of the dead girl's mother. "She wasn't supposed to be there at all that evening, and even if she had been, she was supposed to be done with her register and on her way home when we got there."

"She was slower at it because she was new, and she didn't have much experience closing the register at night," Hutch said quietly.

"The Newmeyer's and Roswell's jobs went off without a hitch. Nobody was supposed to get hurt. Nobody did on those jobs. I was in on the Newmeyer's job myself, and even that little girl I used as protection to get through the store and back outside was fine. I never hurt her."

"You threatened to," Starsky said.

"She kept harping about how we were going to be sorry and I got tired of her bratty mouth. I said a few things to scare her, that's all. I never planned on hurting her, and I didn't. None of us did. It was all about the money. That's all." He wiped at his eyes. "It was a dumb idea that got out of hand. We never should have done it at all."

"So why did you?" Hutch asked.

"We were all doing these Santa jobs to make extra money. Mort's got a little gambling problem, Tony had some kind of big debt pressing down on him--I'm not sure what. Me, I just wanted to score a few grand the easy way."

"Tony Carlisle, the Santa over at Newmeyer's?" Starsky clarified.

"Yes."

"You all knew each other?" Starsky asked, puzzled at the connection between the three moonlighting Santas.

"We all got the jobs through QuickyTemp Temporary Services. All of us had signed up there because we needed some extra cash, and they said they had a lot of job openings over the holidays. I was thinking more of working sales or stock or something in a store. I didn't really plan on this Santa Claus thing, but when they suggested it, it paid pretty well, so I took it. I've been laid off for almost a year, and this job had more hours than a lot of the other possibilities. I work construction, and the company I worked for laid off a bunch of people last year. I've had a terrible time getting work. Not for lack of trying. So this job was a real break, and the Bay Harbor Mall actually paid pretty well for a Santa Claus job."

"How'd you meet up with Carlisle and Hooper?" Starsky took a drink of his coffee.

"Will Voight, the guy who works at the agency? He called me one day and asked if I could come in after hours to talk about another job opportunity." He paused. "I'll take that coffee now, if you don't mind." He took off his glasses and ran a shaky hand over his sweaty face.

"Sure." Hutch got up and left the room, returning a few moments later with a styrofoam cup of coffee, which he placed in front of Franklin.

"Thanks." He took a drink, then a deep breath, and continued. "When I got there, the place was closed, and it was just Voight, myself, Carlisle and Hooper. Voight had this plan to do the robberies. We all told him he was crazy, but the more he talked about it, and about rotating us around...the better it sounded. I guess he knew we were all pretty desperate for the money."

"Voight masterminded all of it then?" Starsky asked, leaning back in his chair. "That's awfully convenient. A fall guy you can all pin the rap on for planning it all."

"Look, I can't help how it sounds. I'm not saying that what happened to Sandra was Voight's fault. I should've never handled a gun when I didn't know any more about it than I did. I got nervous and it just...happened. But Voight did get us all together and lay out the plan. We were all pretty desperate for the money, so we all finally agreed to do it. Nobody was supposed to get hurt, and the money was incredible. We targeted the large stores. Toy World was the last one. We didn't want to push our luck."

"Any reason you called your niece 'bitch' when you told her to put the money in the bag?" Hutch asked.

"I couldn't very well call her 'Sandy', now could I?" he retorted, annoyed. "It was bad enough I had to say anything, but I thought if I sounded tough enough and scared her enough, she'd get a move on. I was afraid one of the others would shoot her. Now isn't that ironic?" He shook his head. "If I cooperate with you, if I testify, is there anything you can do for me about the charges? I know they're going to be heavy."

"We can't make those promises, Mr. Franklin," Starsky said. "That's up to the DA. But we can make recommendations based on your cooperation with us."

"I guess that's all I can ask. I know I fired the shot that killed Sandra, but if I'd never gotten into this mess in the first place, it wouldn't have happened. What I've lived with since it happened... I'm not a violent person. You can ask anybody. I've got no record. I've never even been in a fight. I don't own a gun--don't want to."

"Why didn't you come forward after the shooting?" Hutch asked.

"And face my brother? My family means a lot to me. I've had a couple bad marriages and some hard times, but they've always been there for me. My older brother's my best friend--always has been. He gets mad and he gives these speeches about what I'm doing wrong with my life, but he's always there for me, and he and Laura always made me part of things with their family. I love them. How could I tell them I killed their daughter?" He took his glasses off and wiped at his eyes again. "Going to prison isn't the worst part of this. Seeing Sandy in that casket today, knowing I put her there..."

"Mr. Franklin, you're under arrest for armed robbery and felony murder," Starsky began, before reading him his rights.

**********

Will Voight was working calmly at his desk in a small office at the QuickyTemp employment agency, when Starsky and Hutch appeared in the front office and showed the secretary their ID. She directed them back to Voight's office, watching them anxiously as they walked through a large room full of occupied cubicles to the area that contained two private offices. One was for Voight as the assistant manager, and the other was for the general manager, an older man who was busily talking on the telephone and taking copious notes as the detectives approached Voight's desk.

A man of average build, a bit on the tall side, Voight matched perfectly the description of the man who had visited Mort Hooper at Toy World the night of the robbery.

"William Voight?" Hutch asked.

The man looked up from his paperwork as they flashed their badges. Before they could say anything else, Voight produced a gun from his middle desk drawer and aimed it at them, pulling the trigger. Fortunately, though they didn't have time to draw their own weapons, they'd both seen the gun in time to dive for the temporary cover provided by the desk. Amid the screams of co-workers and the sounds of chaos from the outer office as people scrambled to safe hiding places, Voight stood and aimed his weapon toward Hutch, putting the two in a strange stalemate. Hutch, gun drawn, had it pointed at Voight.

"You might as well drop it, Voight. Even if you shoot me, you won't have the chance to shoot him before he shoots you," he said, nodding toward Starsky, who was on his feet with his own gun trained on Voight.

"This is your last warning, Voight," Starsky said ominously. "If you don't drop the gun right now, I'm gonna drop you. Real simple. Put it down, now."

"You drop your gun or I'll shoot your partner!" Voight shouted, brandishing the gun toward Hutch.

"You do and you're a dead man for sure. The only way you're walkin' away from this is if you drop it right now."

Voight seemed torn, and after a long, tense moment, he set the gun down on the desk and raised his hands in surrender. Hutch pushed him against the wall and cuffed him, while Starsky read him his rights and took possession of the gun on the desk.

"How'd you find out?" Voight snarled at Hutch.

"Just a little old-fashioned detective work, Voight."

"It was that rat, Hooper, wasn't it? Bastard wanted more than his share. Said he'd squeal if he didn't get it. That son-of-a-bitch! I'm gonna get him for this! I'll get all of 'em!"

"You'll have your day in court, Voight, but this ain't it, so shut up," Starsky said, joining Hutch in leading their prisoner through the main office.

"Everybody okay out here?" Hutch called out, and the bewildered, shell-shocked workers began nodding their heads a bit dazedly. The general manager emerged from his office, ashen-faced and stunned, watching as his assistant was hauled away in handcuffs.

**********

"You buy Franklin's story?" Starsky asked, staring at the tall green pole that would become a Christmas tree as soon as they put the proper color-coded branches in the corresponding slots. "You wanna read directions or do branches?"

"I'll read directions and sort the branches out by color, and you put them in."

"You want me to slide these hard rods into these waiting holes?" Starsky flexed his eyebrows.

"Pervert." Hutch laughed as he set a tray on the table in the greenhouse. Two large, steaming mugs of hot chocolate sat on either side of a plate of frosted, decorated Christmas cookies. At Starsky's delighted expression with the seasonal treats, Hutch explained, "We always used to have cocoa and cookies while we did the tree back home, so I thought..." He let the sentence trail off unfinished.

"I'm sorry our time-off request didn't come through, babe. Maybe next year, huh?" Starsky moved over to where his partner stood and wrapped his arms around him.

"It's okay, Starsk. We've gotten vacations denied before." Nonetheless, Hutch squeezed back gratefully. "Besides…" he pulled back, resting his forehead against Starsky's. "…all I need for Christmas is right here."

"All I need for always is right here, you big gorgeous blond." Starsky smiled, stroking Hutch's cheek lightly. "When that bastard aimed that gun at you, I think it shaved about ten years off my life."

"Didn't do much for mine, either," Hutch quipped, smiling. "But it turned out okay, so let's not let it spoil tonight, huh?"

"Okay. Plus, we at least got Christmas Eve and Christmas Day off, even if we don't have time to fly to Minnesota."

"Uh, Starsk--"

"No. Don't tell me we don't have that off either."

"Well, technically, we still do, but..."

"But what?" Starsky asked, exasperation in his tone. He could already feel at least part of their duty-free holiday slipping away.

"Lizzie and Flores covered the last night of Hanukkah for us."

"So what? They're not Jewish, and they're not involved with anybody who is, so what would they care? This is different."

"Yeah, I know. Flores asked if we'd cover Christmas Eve for them. Their shift ends at midnight, and we'd still have Christmas Day off."

"Sounds like you already made up your mind." Starsky released his hold on his partner and went over to the tree box to start rifling through the horrible mass of fake pine piled up there.

"You're upset."

"It's our first Christmas...well, not really our first one together, but our first one...together. I thought we could have the time to ourselves. I'm just disappointed, okay?"

"I haven't committed to it yet. I wouldn't do that without checking with you. If you don't want to do it, I'll tell them we already have plans."

"Nah, we'll do it." Starsky sighed. "They're always there for us, so I guess fair is fair."

"You sure?"

"Yeah, I'm sure."

"You're not going to be cranky and impossible through the whole shift?"

"I said I'd do it. Don't push your luck," Starsky added, grinning a little. "You never answered me about Franklin." Starsky handed Hutch the instruction sheet. "Come on, let's have some action here," he said, snapping his fingers a couple times and pointing at the tree box. Hutch started sorting branches, while Starsky worked on placing the top piece on the pole.

"Depends on what Ballistics says about the weapon--how much pressure it takes to pull the trigger. You can only do so much by accident."

"He seemed really upset. I'm just not sure if he's upset 'cause the girl's dead or upset because he got caught."

"That's the big question. At least Voight spilled the beans on Hooper and Carlisle."

"That miserable bastard deserves to rot in the joint. Hey, do you have any decent Christmas music?"

"There's a radio station playing it around the clock. I'll put that on." Hutch went to get a portable radio. He returned a few minutes later with the strains of "Deck The Halls" wafting from the little speaker.

"Perfect."

Hutch arched an eyebrow, as he watched Starsky bend over to pick up a couple small branches.

"Yeah," he agreed, "perfect."

With Hutch dutifully sorting and giving out instructions, and Starsky placing branches, the tree was assembled in no time at all. The lights were a bit more challenging, since Starsky's experience didn't extend beyond one string on a table tree, and Hutch had never been in charge of the lights on the big tree back home. Grateful that their masculinity was only being threatened in front of each other as they struggled with the strings of lights, they finally managed to replace the one dead bulb that had bedeviled them for over an hour, and ultimately got the strings all plugged together in the proper place. All 300 multi-colored lights sprang to life as soon as Starsky crawled behind the giant corn plant that stood guard over the outlet and plugged in the extension cord.

"Wow," he said, stepping back to look at the tree, which took up most of the greenhouse. Still, the multi-colored lights spread an almost other-worldly glow in the room, reflecting off the glass.

"We still have to do ornaments and garland," Hutch reminded, opening up the various boxes and bags containing the rest of the decorations.

"Don't move," Starsky directed, gesturing with a hand as he darted out of the greenhouse. A moment later, he returned with a quilt and two pillows. As Hutch watched him, a bit puzzled, he spread the quilt near the tree and tossed the two pillows on it. "Don't ya think we've earned a break?" Starsky sat on the quilt, holding his hand out toward Hutch.

"We did work pretty hard on those lights," Hutch agreed, taking the offered hand and joining Starsky on the quilt.

"I wanna see the lights reflected on that smooth, gorgeous skin of yours, babe." Starsky's hand trailed from Hutch's cheek down his throat to rest on the part of his chest exposed by the open top buttons on his shirt. "I love ya so much, it still scares me sometimes."

"Still thinking about Voight? Don't, buddy. I'm fine."

"I still think I better check you out all over just to make sure you didn't bruise anything when we hit the floor," Starsky said, grinning.

With moves that were getting as smooth and practiced as their work on the streets, they divested each other of shirts, jeans, underwear and socks. Wrapping around each other, they kissed eagerly, hands roaming over the newly exposed flesh.

"I think I'm making love with the angel that belongs on top of the tree." Starsky smiled, stroking Hutch's hair back from his face, letting his fingers tangle in the soft blond strands. "You look magical."

"That's just the way you see me, babe," Hutch said, leaning in for another kiss. "Nobody sees me like you do."

"Then they're blind idiots."

"I'm not really sorry we're spending Christmas right here. Just us."

"Me, neither."

Neither man was willing to relinquish the embrace to do anything more creative than moving against each other, kissing, nibbling and finally thrusting their way to a shared climax.

"We could finish the tree tomorrow night," Hutch suggested, kissing the flesh near his lips as his head rested on Starsky's chest. A warm hand moved soothingly up and down his back.

"Yeah, sounds good. Besides, we might need another break between doing the garland and the ornaments."

"Might take us from now 'til Christmas to get it up." Hutch raised his head a little at his own choice of words. "Uh, the tree, I mean." Starsky laughed softly.

"Somethin' tells me we won't have to wait that long," he retorted, pulling Hutch down for another kiss.

**********

As the Christmas Eve shift drew to a close at two-thirty in the morning, Starsky was not a happy man. They'd broken up three domestic disputes--one pair of brothers were seriously brandishing pistols at each other over whether an angel or a star would top the tree--and apprehended a couple of inept, very inebriated men trying to hold up a liquor store. The liquor store bust was only rewarding until it cost them another two hours in getting a straight story from the frightened Italian store owner who spoke no English, booking two drunken perps who were intent on confessing to several other crimes, including breaking into the Federal Reserve, and writing up the reports on all of it, which they knew Dobey would be looking for first thing the day after Christmas.

"If he wasn't havin' us over for dinner tomorrow, I'd say his first name was really Ebeneezer," Starsky grumbled as he tossed the report in Dobey's "in" box. "I notice he's home nestled and tucked in his bed with visions of sugar plums dancin' in his head while we're here working."

"After our promotions to captain come through, we can do that, too," Hutch responded, piling up the papers on his desk. "Hey, the ballistics report came in on the gun," he said, reading over the report.

"Which one?" Starsky was already putting his jacket on.

"Franklin's gun from the robbery. It could have gone off accidentally, according to this. It was an old gun, and apparently it wasn't functioning properly. Normally, it would take too much pressure to fire it to be believable as an accident, but the report says this one might have gone off accidentally with only minimal pressure on the trigger."

"Huh." Starsky took the report from Hutch and scanned it. "Well, so maybe he's tellin' the truth. But that doesn't do Sandra much good, does it?"

"No, unfortunately, it doesn't. Maybe it'll be of some comfort to the family."

"Yeah, maybe, if anything can be right now."

"Are we ready to get out'a here?"

"Anytime."

"My place?" Hutch asked as they got into his car.

"You have custody of the tree, so Christmas is at your place," Starsky quipped. "I hid your present there a few days ago."

"You hid it at my place?"

"Well, yeah, once we put the tree there, I figured we were gonna put the presents out Christmas Eve. Which is almost over."

"We can still put everything under the tree, and we don't have to be over at Dobey's until four, so we have plenty of time to sleep in and open our presents...or whatever," Hutch added, grinning.

**********

With the wreath on the door and the big Christmas tree in the greenhouse, Hutch's apartment was more festive than it ever had been before. Starsky plugged in the tree, and both men put their packages under it. As Hutch arranged the two boxes he had for Starsky, he could feel two sapphire eyes drilling holes into him--or more accurately, the wrapped packages.

"Tomorrow morning, partner," he said tiredly. "I don't think I could keep my eyes open right now, anyway."

"Nah, me either." Starsky also put two packages under the tree. They both stood back and admired their handiwork. "What'd you get me that goes in a box that big?" Starsky asked, pointing at the large, red foil-wrapped package with the giant gold bow Hutch had placed under the tree.

"If I were going to tell you that, I wouldn't have wrapped it. I could ask you the same thing about that big flat one. Looks like you're trying to give me the album again for Christmas," Hutch teased, pointing at the large flat box wrapped up in paper bearing big smiling snowmen on it and a large red bow.

"There's nothin' in the rules that says stuff's gotta get wrapped in the box it came in."

"Maybe we ought to have a little of that spiked egg nog for a nightcap, huh?" Hutch suggested.

"Sounds great, babe. I got a better idea. Let's take the spiked egg nog to bed with us. They're runnin' a bunch of Christmas movies all night on channel six, and I can put the TV on the dresser so we can watch 'em in the sack. Whaddya think?"

"I think it sounds like the beginning of a Christmas tradition," Hutch said, smiling.

Propped in bed with the TV playing "It's A Wonderful Life", cups of spiked egg nog in hand, and the helpful tuft of mistletoe on the headboard, they toasted the holiday and settled in to share some lazy kisses and doze a little as they watched the old movie.

Hutch came to near the end of the movie, realizing he'd fallen asleep. Starsky was curled up against him, head on his chest, sleeping soundly. Jimmy Stewart was just in the process of being showered with love and support from his family and friends, and Hutch felt his heavy eyes drifting closed again. He squeezed Starsky a little tighter in his arms, and remembered how, as his partner struggled through the long, painful recovery from the shooting, he'd thought Hutch would somehow be better off without him.

"It's a wonderful life as long as I've got you, partner," he said in a whisper, kissing Starsky's hair lightly.

"Hush?" Starsky raised up a little, and Hutch slid a hand into the thick curls and urged his head back down gently.

"Go back to sleep, babe. Just telling you how much I love you."

"Mmm." Starsky smiled and snuggled closer. "Worth wakin' up for. Love you, too, Blondie." With a jaw-stretching yawn, Starsky fell asleep again, and Hutch was close behind him.

**********

Hutch opened one eye, and confirmed the sun had risen. He was alone in bed, and being treated to a Starskyesque version of "Jingle Bells" just before the mattress dipped and the smell of hot coffee fully registered with his foggy brain.

"Merry Christmas, sleeping beauty. Time to get up." Starsky handed him a mug of coffee as he sat up in bed.

"Starsk...it's only eight. We're lucky if we've had four hours' sleep." Hutch took a drink of his coffee.

"Come on, Hutch. It's Christmas Day. You don't sleep in on Christmas Day."

"That's in the rule book, huh?" Hutch had to smile in the face of such enthusiasm. In the past, he'd found it tiring. For some reason this year, right now, tired as he was, he was finding it endearing. Guess you're in love this year, you pathetic sap, he chided himself silently. He set his coffee aside. "Okay, let's have at it."

Starsky grabbed Hutch's robe and held it for him while he slipped into it and picked up his coffee again.

"You're not too anxious to open the presents, huh?" Hutch teased.

"I've been starin' at that big one for the last half hour, and I can't figure it out. I'm dyin' here. It's the wrong size for anything I asked for and it's too light to be a stereo."

"I thought I told you no shaking and lifting," Hutch scolded.

"I didn't shake it. I didn't even lift it. I just kind of shoved it a little, and it wasn't very heavy."

The tree was already lit, though the lights were considerably less vibrant competing with the daylight that streamed in the windows of the greenhouse. Starsky already had bagels and cream cheese out for them to nibble while they opened gifts. Apparently, he'd decided there would be no delays with mundane activities like breakfast--or shaving. Next to the platter holding the bagels was a framed picture. Hutch picked it up and smiled when he saw it was the snapshot of the two of them with Santa Claus in the shopping mall.

"I was thinkin' about that, Hutch." Starsky sat on the bench he'd moved over so it faced the tree. This way, they could sit close together, near their tree, and open the gifts. "Could we get our picture taken together sometime?"

"We've got a lot of pictures together," Hutch responded, joining him on the bench.

"Some snapshots, sure. But a real nice picture. You know...like, uh...like a couple would have. Posed and everything." He smiled a little. "I know it'd probably be awkward, you know, with the photographer wondering what we were doing having a picture like that taken, but--"

"Next day off we get, we'll dress up and go get a picture taken. You know a good photographer?"

"Yeah, me. But I wanna be in the picture," Starsky quipped. "I'll find us a good one, though."

"Not one of Huggy's cousins with a Polaroid and a booth at a swap meet or something."

"Okay, a really good one."

"Go get the big box, Starsk. You're not going to enjoy a second of this until you open it," Hutch said with a laugh.

Starsky was off the bench like a shot, retrieving the big box and returning to the bench with it. It took two of them to keep it from sliding off onto the floor, as Starsky wrestled diligently with the paper and ribbon. Finally, they set it on the floor, and Starsky pulled open the flaps, confounded to find mounds of styrofoam packing peanuts inside.

"If I open all'a this and there's a piece'a paper at the bottom, you're in big trouble," he warned, scooping out the packing material, sending it scattering all over the floor. Finally, he came upon another wrapped package, which he pulled out and held on his lap while he tore into it. The Atari game console sat there before him, in all its splendor. "I never thought you'd get me this," Starsky said, visibly shocked.

"That's half the fun of surprising somebody," Hutch said, laughing. "Not much of a surprise if you're expecting it, is it?"

"S'pose not," Starsky said, looking back at it. "Thanks, Hutch. We can go over to my place and set it up after we get back from Dobey's."

"If you're not sick of playing with Rosie's by then. Something tells me you'll be drafted for game duty."

"I doubt it. Cal's probably gonna have that covered."

"He's too mature for that now, remember?" Hutch reminded soberly.

"Oh, yeah, I forgot. He's a man of the world now. All of nineteen. Mr. College Man."

"Do I get to open something now?" Hutch teased.

"Oh, yeah, sure! Open that big flat one you were worried about earlier."

"Okay." Hutch picked up the package and returned to the bench with it, tearing into the paper. He truly was curious about this one, and laughed, shaking his head when he found the same unused pizza box that had housed his album for Hanukkah.

"Sorry, babe. But it fit perfectly."

Hutch opened the lid on the box and gaped at the contents. It was a small framed painting, one he'd seen one Sunday that past fall when he dragged Starsky to an art fair. It was just a simple frozen winter landscape featuring lots of snow, pine trees and a split rail fence. He'd lingered by the painting that day, a little unnerved at just how much it reminded him of Minnesota at Christmas time. It was pricey and by an unknown artist, so he'd reluctantly passed on it.

"How'd you get this?" Hutch asked, freeing it from the box and holding it up so he could get a better look at it.

"While you were looking at those serapes a few booths down the line, I went back and told the artist I wanted that one, and we traded business cards. I guess 'cause I was a cop, he trusted me to come back to his gallery and buy it, so he took it down and held it for me."

"I love it, Starsk. It's perfect."

"Nope." Starsky slid closer. "The painting's nice. You're perfect."

"Not hardly, buddy."

"Y'are to me, and I'm the only opinion here that counts."

"You got that right," Hutch responded, smiling and leaning in for a long kiss.

"My turn?" Starsky asked, eyeing his second package.

"Go ahead. You'll probably be disappointed with this one, though, after the Atari."

Starsky stood there holding the gift, his expression clouding a little.

"What's wrong?" Hutch asked, wondering where the unbridled joy had suddenly gone.

"Guess I'm not always real polite with some of your presents, am I?" Starsky sat on the bench. "I don't mean to do that, Hutch. Honest. I never thought about it...I guess I never thought about not telling you what I really think about something, and that's not always great when it comes to presents."

"Hey, Starsk, quit beating yourself up for not being excited about a tree certificate or a bag of trail mix. Some of that was teasing because you never gave me a break with the hints about what I should get you."

"But some of it was because you thought it was a neat idea, and then I act like a spoiled ten-year-old with it."

"Five-year-old," Hutch amended.

"Thanks a lot," Starsky retorted, laughing. "It's funny. I've been giving you a hard time about that Atari thing all month, and I think it'll be a lot of fun--I've honestly wanted one. But now, I guess I'm just glad that we're together, and sometimes I'm just so..." Starsky swallowed hard. "So grateful I'm still here for another Christmas. When you think about people dying, and how life goes on without 'em... It still would have been Christmas all over the world today, whether I was here for it or not, but I'm real glad to be here for it. I'm not saying this right."

"You're saying it fine, but you're wrong," Hutch said firmly, and Starsky's head snapped up at the statement. "It wouldn't have ever been Christmas again, anywhere on Earth--for me--if you weren't here. Or Hanukkah, or Thanksgiving, or Halloween or Valentine's Day or Groundhog Day. There's not one day on the calendar that I would have gotten up happy, or that I would have looked forward to, or that I'd have felt so much love, or so loved, that I thought I just couldn't feel any more. If I'd lost you, all that would have gone with you. So it might have been Christmas this year somewhere, but not here, and not for me. Not ever. Not without you." Hutch pulled his partner into his arms and held on tightly. The lump in his throat was manifesting itself as a few tears, and he could feel a few coming from Starsky as well, if the faint tremor in his body was any indication. "You are my holidays, babe."

"I wouldn't wanna celebrate anything without you either, darlin'. Wouldn't have anything to celebrate."

Hutch pulled back a little, and they both brushed hands past their eyes.

"We're a great pair. Couple of sentimental old men," Hutch said, laughing.

"We oughtta be in great shape about the time we hit eighty."

"I hope the Christmas after I turn eighty, you're still waking me up too early and dragging me out of bed to open presents."

"If I can still crawl out'a the bed and toddle out to make coffee first, you got a date."

"So open it."

"Would you be real upset if I said I changed my mind and wanted to save it 'til last?"

"Gee, I'd be forced to open another present then. I'll try to cope." Hutch got up and grabbed his last package, which was about the size of a large sweater box, and reasonably heavy. Curiosity piqued, he tore into the package and pulled the lid off the white box inside. Pushing aside the tissue paper, he pulled out a pale blue set of sweats accented with white stripes on the arms and legs.

"Matches your eyes," Starsky said.

"This is really nice, Starsk. I guess my old ones are getting a little whipped."

"Keep goin'. There's more in there." Starsky leaned forward anxiously, watching as Hutch pulled a pair of brown corduroy pants out of the box. "They're just like the ones that got totaled when we were busting those guys down at the docks last month. I know you liked those real well."

"These are great. I really missed those pants. Kept meaning to get some more." He came to the last item in the box--a pair of white silk boxer shorts.

"Those are a present for me, because I can't wait to get big handfuls of you when you're wearing 'em."

"You're impossible," Hutch responded, laughing. "I'll, uh, try them on later," Hutch said, carefully returning the items to the box. "Looks like it's your turn again," he said, nodding toward the one remaining package in Starsky's lap.

Starsky dug into it with a grin. When he opened it, he frowned with confusion. Inside was a small passbook from Bay City Savings and Loan, and beneath it was a folded-up classified ad section.

"I don't get it."

"Look in the passbook, Starsk." Hutch watched while his partner obeyed.

"Hutch, there's four thousand dollars in here."

"That's right. Look at the name on the account."

"Kenneth R. Hutchinson and David M. Starsky--we're both on here?"

"You remember when I had you sign all that stuff when I helped you with cashing in that old insurance policy your mother used to have on you so you could buy the better one?"

"Yeah?"

"Well, I slipped the card in for the account with the other papers, so I could put your name on it, too. I needed your signature to do that. Anyway, this account has the money you gave me back from my part of that lousy house deal you got us into, and every time I won a bet from you, or had some extra cash, I threw it in the account. With that, and the interest, it added up in a hurry."

"These are houses for sale, Hutch." Starsky picked up the newspaper.

"You're quick this morning, babe." Hutch chuckled softly, reaching over to stroke Starsky's still bed-rumpled curls. "I want us to find a house together. I know we need to save a little more, and look for a while to find something that's right for us. I want to live with you, Starsk. I want us to have a home. Things that are ours. I don't want 'your place or mine' for the rest of our lives. I want home. With you."

"I want that, too," Starsky said, his voice a little strained. "But if we do that, people might think--"

"People have to prove it, and what we do in the privacy of our own home is nobody else's business. It makes perfect sense that we would consider investing our money as we get older instead of throwing it away on rent. A house is an investment, and with what we both pay for rent, we could have a nice one, and probably still save something per month and have something to show for it in the equity we're building. Even if we weren't life partners, this would be a smart financial move for us at this stage of our lives."

"You've given this a lot of thought," Starsky said, smiling as he scanned the ads.

"I've thought about a lot of things lately. I just don't like yours and mine anymore. I like ours."

"Yeah, me, too. This is the best present you could've ever gotten me. Kinda feel like I just got proposed to."

"You did." Hutch leaned over for a kiss. "Does this mean the answer is 'yes'?"

"You mean you had any doubts? 'Course it is, you big blond beauty. I'd have to be nuts not to say 'yes' to you. To this," he added, gesturing with the classifieds.

"Maybe we ought to get a little more rest before we head over to Dobey's," Hutch suggested, tilting his head in the general direction of the bedroom.

"Rest, huh? That's a new name for it."

Starsky was on his feet in a flash, leading Hutch back to the bed with a spring in his step. When they neared the bed, Hutch grabbed Starsky around the waist and threw them both down on the mattress, wrestling playfully with him as they cast robes and underwear aside and rolled together on the bed, kissing and caressing and putting up half-hearted battles for the top position. When they were both breathless and even more rumpled and disheveled than they'd been to start, they finally came to rest with Starsky lying atop Hutch.

"Merry Christmas, Hutch," Starsky said, smiling down at his lover.

"Merry Christmas, Starsk."

**********

HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

Thanks for a great season! We'll see you next year!
ZebraThree Productions

**********

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