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."
"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."
"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."
"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?"
"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."
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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."
"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.
"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."
"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.
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."
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?"
"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?"
"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."
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