Targets
by Sarah Problem

SHSVS, Episode 601, Part 2

Back to Part 1

Hutch swirled the last of his coffee, watching as it moved in a never-ending wave around the inside of the cup. He was in a lot better mood than he had been just a couple of hours ago, when they were being kept cooling their heels at the sheriff's station. He was clean, full, and while he would have preferred to be alone with Starsky so they could talk over the situation in private, that could wait until later.

Withers was sitting across from him and Starsky in the small diner that accompanied the hotel. He and Starsky had been a match in the appetite department and were just now getting through their desserts of all-American pie and ice cream. The deputy had insisted on treating them to lunch, as a business expense, and had seemed eager to get to know them. He was so easy to get along with, Hutch could only assume that he'd been assigned as their babysitter. Or someone to test their stories to see if they'd differ from their statements.

As Withers and Starsky talked over their desserts, Hutch's mind had drifted out of the conversation. Going over the day, thinking that the way he and Starsky had been treated and the way Withers seemed to have a great interest in learning more about them, was troubling. In most cases where a fellow peace officer came across a body, their credentials would be checked, and once confirmed they'd be treated as a fellow officer. Or, at least, their statements would be taken and then they'd be free to go. But Hutch had felt from the start that both of them were under suspicion. That feeling was underscored by the fact that both he and Starsky felt that their personal belongings hadn't just been packed, but inspected as well.

Good thing we didn't bring anything really personal with us, he thought. We didn't bring anything that would point to us being a couple. And I can't think of anything in our belongings that would tie us in with the deceased, no matter who he was. Unless...

It hit him then that while digging through his backpack, maybe he should have been alert to things that were missing or planted, rather than worrying about them finding out something about him and Starsky.

Damn. He grimaced, wishing he were back in his room to take inventory. I was so worried about the one that I forgot about the other. There's too much going on under the surface to trust anyone around here.

"You okay?" Withers asked, looking at him curiously.

Hutch realized he'd given his thoughts away. "Well, truthfully, I'm not sure that lunch is settling well. Starsky knows what a tender stomach I have. I think I'm developing an ulcer." Hutch caught Starsky's glance and could see his partner catch on that he needed to go along with the fib.

Hutch slid out of the booth, hand on his stomach. "Thanks for the lunch, Withers, but I'd better get back to the room and lie down for a while. I'm sure Starsky here can keep you entertained until you have to go back on duty. Nice to meet you." He gave them both a nod and turned to leave.

After a casual walk back to their room, Hutch grabbed his backpack and quickly dumped the contents on the bed. Both he and Starsky had packed sparsely, as if they were going camping. They'd brought only various items of clothing in case the climate changed, underwear, toiletries, and shaving kits. He hadn't notice anything missing during his clean-up, so there was just the extra clothing to go through, and what he'd worn yesterday and today.

After a few moments' inventory, he decided that nothing seemed to be missing or unusual, although it did reinforce his suspicions that their items had been gone through. Things weren't quite as he'd packed them. Feeling that it was too important to put off, he dumped Starsky's things after repacking his own. A quick search of the clothing turned up nothing unusual. He was putting Starsky's items back in place, when he heard a key in the door. Throwing himself down on the bed, stretching out as if he'd been resting the whole time, Hutch was relieved when Starsky came through the door alone, locking it behind him.

"Withers wanted to know if we needed a ride anywhere, since we didn't have a car. He knows a place where we can rent one." Starsky came and sat at Hutch's feet. "Find anything?"

"Nope, but I've still got a bad feeling about this. My stuff looks like it had been gone through, although they did a good job of putting things back the way I had them. I had to really look to notice it."

Starsky looked grave. "You really think someone would go that far? Or are we just getting paranoid as we get older?"

Before Hutch could answer, a thought struck him. Sitting up, he picked up Starsky's bag and tossed it to him, then went to get his own.

"You aren't paranoid if they really are out to get you, you know. Look through your backpack and see if there's something strange about it."

Hutch's backpack was one he'd had for a few years. Made of dark green canvas, it was getting worn in a few places but still served its purpose. As he was inspecting it, he heard Starsky's groan.

Starsky held out a thin sliver of paper to Hutch by its edges. "Looks like we're going to be in trouble."

Hutch took it carefully by the edge. It was part of a Polaroid picture, cut down to show only a face. It looked like it had been taken from a distance, but the quality was good enough that Hutch could identify Aaron Masterson easily. "Where was it?" Hutch asked as he turned the picture over. There was something typewritten on the other side.

Starsky held out his backpack so Hutch could see the small opening in the seam of one of the shoulder straps. "The seam was cut open and that was stuffed inside. Markings on the back look like a license plate number. Someone wanted it to look like we had Masterson targeted all along."

Hutch sat down heavily on the bed, Starsky taking the seat across from him. They leaned close, the need for privacy even more urgent.

"We're being set up, there's no doubt about it. And we can't even be sure if this was planted before or after the sheriff's men picked up our stuff. What do we do now?"

"We don't have a lot of choices right now, Hutch," Starsky said. He reached out a hand and placed it on Hutch's knee. "We don't have any allies here. We don't even have a car. And if we do get one, then where do we go? Who do we talk to? If someone wants to set us up then that picture doesn't have to be the last piece of evidence they try to plant."

"Deputies could be on their way now with a warrant." Hutch looked at the picture again and felt as if their time was running out. Looking up at Starsky, he could see the concern in his eyes.

Damned if we do, and damned if we don't. Which is the lesser evil?

"So, let's beat them to the punch," Starsky said, a small, crooked smile taking over his face. "We turn it in and make a big stink. Get all indignant that someone would think the sheriff's department is that stupid."

"Think we can trust Withers, or should we take this to the top?"

Starsky sighed and sat back, crossing his arms as he thought about the question. "Let's level with him. I'm sure he's been assigned to babysit us, so might as well let him take the information back to his boss. Could be we'd score some brownie points with him."

"Then let's do it." Hutch rose, took Starsky's head in both hands, and kissed him softly. Pulling Starsky close, Hutch's tongue found entrance, dancing with Starsky's as they shared flavors and textures. Then, suddenly, he pulled away. At Starsky's questioning smile, Hutch grinned back. "In case we're in jail tonight and find we're lacking privacy. That may have to last a while."

Starsky groaned throatily as he rose, swatting Hutch smartly on the rear as he turned away. "I always knew you were the worst kind of cock tease, Hutchinson. C'mon, let's get a quick call into Dobey before we turn this in. We may need him to make bail."

After talking to Dobey, who'd promised to start throwing his weight around on their behalf, Starsky had gone out to invite Withers in for a chat. The man had been waiting so patiently for them, that it reinforced Starsky's feelings that he was there to be their friend, spy on them, and make sure they were at hand if warrants were issued for their arrest. He had been too nice and too accommodating for Starsky to take him at face value. Withers sat on one end of the bed as he listened to the story Hutch told of finding the planted photo. Starsky, leaning against the dresser, watched the tall, strong-looking man as he listened to Hutch.

Withers, looking quiet and pensive, examined the small slip of paper he had carefully put into a small plastic evidence bag. "If what you're saying is true, you've both got a huge set of balls to hand this over to me," he said, black eyes taking them both in with suspicion. "If you're lying, this may be some wise-ass way of covering your own tails by beating us to the punch. You'll forgive me if I don't give you the benefit of the doubt."

"As long as you take us back to the station and turn this over to your boss, I don't care if you can stand to be in the same room with us or not," Starsky said casually, smiling slightly. "To tell you the truth, I just want my vacation back."

Withers nodded. "Okay, yeah, we'll take that ride. I noticed that you didn't specify whether you think your bags were tampered with before or after our guys gathered them up. So I guess you have some doubts about our motives as well."

"Let's just say we tend to get a little paranoid with people we don't know," Hutch said smoothly, arms crossed and smiling politely. "What about you? You willing to vouch for all the guys you work with?"

Starsky saw Withers flinch ever so slightly. There is something going on at that station. Let's hope we're trusting one of the good guys.

Withers was silent for several minutes, and Starsky could see how he was struggling with his thoughts.

All three of them were startled at the loud banging on the door.

"Open up! Sheriff's deputies here with a search warrant!"

Withers gave them a calculating look, then a wary smile. Without a word, he slipped the picture and baggie into his back pocket, nodding toward the door as he did so. "That's Minton, better not keep him waiting. He loves to kick in doors."

Glancing at Hutch first to make sure his partner was ready for the fireworks to begin, Starsky went to open the door.

Interrupting another round of door banging, Starsky kept a smile on his face and his body language casual. "Well, more visitors, I see. I take it you gentlemen want something?"

There were five deputies at the door, Minton at the forefront, looking like a kid who's brought home a straight-A report card for the hundredth time in a row. He handed an official-looking document to Starsky.

"That's a search warrant," Minton said smugly. "You'll find it quite in order."

"Oh, I have no doubt about that," Starsky said. He opened the order to glance at it, stepping aside to wave the men in. "I was just curious about how you got a judge to issue you one so quickly."

"My partner and I never seem to get our warrants that quickly," Hutch said, standing with Withers as the others filed into the room. His tone was friendly. "Let alone get one with no evidence to put before a judge."

"Oh, we found some very interesting things this morning," Minton said, eyes dancing with what Starsky could only assume was enjoyment in his victory. "The judge was very interested as well." Minton's attention seemed caught by Withers at that point. "Undersheriff Reed wants you back at the station," he snapped to Withers. "Best get on your way."

At this point the tension in the room was almost tangible. Looking at the other officers, there was that feeling that things were close to a boil under the surface.

"Guess I'll do that," Withers said, smiling, his eyes never flinching from Minton's. "I've got something I wanted to talk to him about. In fact..." Withers glanced at Starsky and Hutch, hand going around to hook a thumb in the same back pocket that he had planted the evidence in. "I think it's about time I talk to the sheriff as well. Some old business I need to take care of." He turned and left.

I hope he's really going to take that to the sheriff on our behalf, Starsky thought, trying not to show his worry. If he's going to disappear with that, there's no way to know if that'll save Hutch and me or tie the noose for our executioner.

"Gentlemen." Minton smiled pleasantly at him and Hutch. "If you don't mind stepping outside, we have some work to do in here."

Starsky checked his watch once again, wondering how long the search was going to continue. Thirty minutes ago, he and Hutch had made themselves comfortable by sitting on the hood of a deputy's car. They were under the watchful eye of a young deputy who didn't bother to introduce himself, and seemed to take his position so seriously that he never took his eyes off him and Hutch. For some reason, Starsky had to fight a strange urge to make faces at the kid, just to see if he could get him to change expressions.

We're going to have to make a stink pretty soon. There isn't enough in that room to take ten minutes unless they've started taking apart the furniture. It's pretty obvious that they're not going to find what they think they're looking for.

Another sheriff's car pulled up, and Starsky saw that Withers had returned, bringing someone with him. By the markings on the uniform, Starsky could tell that the sheriff himself had decided to join the party.

"Looks like we're working our way up through the ranks," Hutch whispered, elbowing Starsky slightly, as if Starsky didn't have eyes to notice that himself. "Wonder if Minton is going to find anything to hand over to his boss."

"What I want to know," Starsky whispered back, "is what they found later that convinced the judge to give them that warrant."

The sheriff was tall, very tall, with broad shoulders and gray hair. His skin was tan and leathery, like Starsky had always imagined a cowboy's would be.

Looks like Paul Bunyan, only I don't think this guy's in a mood for tall tales at the moment.

He and Hutch stood, waiting to see what was going to happen. As the two men spotted them, they turned toward Starsky and Hutch, looking official and grim. Both looking like they were coming to do a job they didn't like.

Starsky could feel Hutch tense beside him. "I think we're in deep shit, buddy."

Before he could reply, the sheriff paused before them, one hand on his hip, the other on the butt of his gun. Withers, standing behind him, looked at them both grimly.

We're in pretty deep, all right, Starsky thought, wavering between anger and tired resignation. I hope Dobey's still making those phone calls, 'cause I've got a feeling I'm going to be sleeping alone tonight.

"You two are Starsky and Hutchinson?" the sheriff asked sharply.

"We are," Starsky admitted politely, returning the sheriff's cold gaze.

"Then I'm taking you both in for questioning on the murder of Aaron Masterson. You'd better start thinkin' of the name of a real good lawyer." With a sharp signal to their young guard, the sheriff stepped back to allow him and Withers to come forward with handcuffs. "Withers, you get them in the car, read them their rights, and then wait for me."

He had wanted to blow his top, to argue and demand explanations from the sheriff as he turned away to go toward their hotel room. After glancing at Hutch, who looked just as angry and frustrated as he was, Starsky knew that wouldn't be part of their game plan. Throwing a fit now would just make the deputies treat them as hostile. That would only work against them in the long run. So he clenched his jaw, allowed Withers to cuff his hands behind his back, and tolerated the pat down as a necessary evil.

The young deputy and Withers walked them to the sheriff's car, opened the back doors, and helped them in before slamming the doors.

After sliding in the driver's seat, Withers turned to face them.

"Look, guys, we don't have much time. I went straight to Sheriff Overton and gave the evidence to him. Overton and Dobey had already been on the phone before I got there." Withers glanced back at the hotel room door, looking to Starsky like he was judging how much time they had. "You've guessed that there's a lot of shit going on under the surface here, and you were right. We think there's some serious rot in our department. Overton has asked Dobey to let this go through so we can continue watching those we don't trust."

Starsky exchanged a startled look with Hutch.

"You mean you want to let the evidence against us stand, so that those who are framing us will think it's working?" Hutch asked, voice tight with anger.

"There's been more evidence against you two found up at that barn where you spent the night. Whoever is involved in Masterson's death isn't going to quit until someone else goes down for his murder. If they think they can make an airtight case, they'll probably try to produce as much as they can. Since Overton and I don't believe you did it, any evidence that points to you can be tracked back to the person, or people, who had the ability to plant it."

"And Dobey's going along with this?" Starsky asked, suspicion tightening in his gut. One wrong move, and there's no telling what kind of hole we'll be digging for ourselves.

"Looks like we'll find out pretty quickly," Hutch said, nodding toward the front of the car.

Overton was leaving the room and walking toward them, deputies spilling out of the room behind him. He opened the door, slid in, and carefully placed his hat between him and Withers.

"How're you guys doin' back there?" Overton said, turning to look at them with a smile. Starsky saw only friendly interest in his face and demeanor. "Sorry about all this. This isn't the best way to visit our wonderful state."

"I've had better trips," Starsky admitted. "What's going on?"

"Withers, back to the station, and let's take the scenic route." Overton turned back to them as Withers started the car. "Well, we've got a problem here, folks. I've only been sheriff here for a couple of months, transferred here from across the state, and I've always had a feeling that things aren't as hunky-dory as they should be. This area is right on the edge of the National Forest, and there's been a lot of protected game poached out of it, and none of the poachers ever caught. I've also been informed that the Feds think that there's a lot of drugs trucked up through our area. They think this all ties in together with some mob families who are moving a lot of their operations down south. Masterson was an undercover agent who was trying to break into the old-boys network. He had been on the job for about three months and was reporting that he was making some headway."

"And what do you think our part in all this is?" Hutch asked.

"Patsies, to take the fall and make it look like the killers were brought in from out of state, rather than any of the local boys," Overton said, somberly. "I've talked to Dobey about you two, and the man is so absolutely dead determined that you couldn't possibly be in on anything shady, that he would've convinced me even if I hadn't been leaning that way already."

"What happens now?" Starsky asked.

"Well, that's the problem. Whoever wants to shuffle this off on you two is workin' overtime. Not only did they plant that picture of Masterson, which was his undercover name, by the way, but some of my men found Masterson's key ring at that barn you two stayed at. By your own story, he didn't go near the place. Now it looks like there may have been a meeting up there and Masterson was killed as he was trying to run back to the camps."

"Shot in the forehead?" Hutch asked sharply.

Overton shrugged. "Current speculation is that you must have known he was undercover, confronted him at the barn, he escaped and you two caught up with him, then made him beg for his life before you took him out. Then, 'cause you're cops, you'd expect to be across the state line just as soon as you gave your statements."

"And that leaves us...?" Starsky asked.

"Between the Devil and the deep blue sea." Overton gave them a big smile. "If I don't take your presence at the murder scene as incriminating, forget about the planted picture, and decide that the key ring is so flimsy that it isn't worth arresting you over, then you two'd get to go home. But that would still leave me in the dark here. So I'm goin' to ask you to help me and ride out the storm for a while."

"You want us to be arrested," Hutch said. Starsky could tell he didn't approve of the idea. "We sit on our asses in jail, and you wait to see what kind of evidence comes in to back up the charges. But there's one problem with that."

"Yeah, we'd be sitting ducks if someone on the inside decides it's better if we should have an accident," Starsky added.

"Very true," Overton admitted. "But if Dobey's right, you two don't walk away from a challenge, and I can tell you right now that in these parts, you aren't going to get very far by trying to dig up information yourself. 'Specially with this over your heads. If you were to distract the bad guys' attention for a while, then maybe Withers and I could root out the troublemakers and find out who's messin' in our playground."

They were pulling into the parking lot of the sheriff's department, so Starsky knew they didn't have much time to decide what to do.

What if everything he's telling us is a lie? Starsky thought, wishing he had some way to tell if they were being played for fools. "We'll need to talk to Dobey," he said.

"I'll put you on a line from the pay phone. No use trusting my line not to have too many ears on it." As Withers turned off the engine, Overton grabbed his hat and opened the door. "Withers," he said loudly, "I expect you to keep an eye on these two. You keep me informed." After slamming the door, Overton walked toward the front door.

After they had been taken in, Withers had allowed them to make their phone calls. Starsky was relieved when Dobey had picked up the phone on the first ring, accepting the collect charge. Not able to speak with too many others within range, he had left it to Dobey to explain the situation. Overton had asked for him and Hutch to go undercover, to help flush out the bad guys. Dobey, admitting he wasn't in the best position to decide that himself, was leaving it up to them, hinting strongly that he wouldn't mind if they headed on home and got back to work on time.

The problem was that he and Hutch were not going to be given any time to confer, it being standard procedure to keep the suspects separated before questioning. Knowing that Hutch's call was going to be to Dobey as well, Starsky told Dobey if Hutch agreed, he'd go along with the plan.

Then he was taken for questioning, where he was interrogated repeatedly about the statement he had left with them earlier that morning. After a couple hours of being nice and refusing to jump at any bull baiting, they made a formal charge of murder and booked him. The charge indicated that either Hutch must have agreed, or Overton had played them all for fools.

By this time it was too late for him to make bail, so all his personal items were collected and he was walked down to his cell to wait until morning.

At least I'm lucky that I'm here by my lonesome, Starsky thought as he looked around his new accommodations. If they stuck me in an empty cell, there's no reason for them to throw Hutch in one that's already full. At least we should be able to watch each other's backs.

During the walk down the lockup hallway, Starsky had noticed that the station had four holding cells, separated by concrete block walls. All were on one side of the hallway. A nice arrangement when a station had the room, because the solid walls kept inmates from interacting between the cells, while it gave those in each cell a bit more privacy. Starsky also noticed that it would also keep other inmates from seeing any misconduct by the guards.

There were two sets of bunk beds. On each of the four beds was a rolled-up, paper-thin mattress with cover, a small pillow, one sheet, and one wool blanket. In one corner was a steel toilet, and in the other a small drinking fountain. Deciding to check it out, he was glad to see that it worked.

Great, at least I won't die of thirst. I wonder if we've missed dinner? When is Hutch going to get here?

The wall clock he had glanced at just before they'd brought him to holding had read 5:30. He hadn't thought to ask, and wasn't about to make a scene and get a guard's attention, just to find out when dinner was. Untying the mattress bundle, he made up a bottom bunk and lay down, feeling as if every ounce of energy was draining out of him as he did so.

I can't believe this has just been one day, he thought, tiredly. Bad enough I get up at dawn and practically trip over a body, but to have to fill out reports and get interrogated all in the same day must mean I'm cursed.

And where is Hutch?

He heard footsteps coming down the hall and turned to see if Hutch had arrived.

As Hutch held out his hands for the cuffs to be removed, he saw Starsky out of the corner of his eye. He was glad they'd have the cell to themselves, at least for a few minutes.

As the cell door banged shut behind him, Hutch went over to sit next to Starsky, who looked like he was just as tired and worn out as Hutch felt.

"Guess we're in it for the long haul, huh?" Starsky said, sitting with his back up against the wall, his arms crossed. "Dobey tell you he's going to get us a lawyer to come by in the morning?"

"Yeah, but I'm starting to think that things are going to happen too fast for that."

Starsky looked at him sharply. "What's up?"

Hutch shifted on the bunk to face Starsky, so he could keep his voice low. "Did Minton question you?"

Starsky shook his head.

"Minton questioned me at the scene and seemed to act as if he already knew I had something to do with the murder. Then he and another deputy named Ryder questioned me again, right before they made the charges. Only this time, it wasn't so much a questioning as it was him telling me how it was going to go down."

Hutch saw Starsky's eyebrows rise. "That sure of himself, was he?"

"Starsk, that guy has got to be dirty. He didn't give a shit what I had to say here or at the scene. All he could do was tell me in so many ways how they'd nailed me as the murderer, and how sure he was that they would find enough evidence to put us both away for life."

"Make evidence you mean." Starsky sighed and rubbed at his face. "Guess we're stuck here at least until tomorrow. Let's hope we get some dinner. Then we might as well get some sleep. Not a lot else we can do."

"I think we should take turns keeping watch," Hutch said. "I just have a feeling things are going to break wide open around here. I don't want to be caught napping when it does."

Hutch sat against the wall on the top bunk, wrapped in a thin blanket, hugging a pillow to his middle. He didn't know what time it was, but figured it wasn't long before dawn. The cellblocks had been quiet for a while, leaving only the cold silence of the night shift going about their duties, and the muffled snoring of several men down the hall. He might have been able to figure out what time it was by the visits by the guards, but it was never the same man, nor did they seem to have a set schedule.

They'd had their dinner on paper plates and were given only plastic spoons to eat it with. It had been decent, some beef stew on mashed potatoes, peas, and a piece of bread. They'd spent some time arguing over the rights to Hutch's bread, Starsky swearing that he was still starving, and Hutch finally giving in. That had taken up a whole thirty minutes of their evening. All they had left was either heckling the other prisoners or talking, and neither of them seemed to find anything interesting to talk about. So Hutch had slept first, while Starsky took the first watch from the top bunk.

Waking up Hutch at some undeterminable time, Starsky had reported that a new prisoner had been brought in and placed in the cell next to theirs. Starsky had managed to get a glimpse of the new guy through the bars and hadn't recognized him. With nothing else to report, Starsky had rolled himself into the bottom bunk and dozed off quickly, leaving Hutch to watch from the top bunk.

Blue paint on Masterson's body. Hutch kept rolling that information around and around, trying to find something that might shake loose and tell him something. It didn't actually have to come from someone on my team. It's not as if the blue pellets would've been hard to come by. But with the planted evidence, and Starsky having been found with my blue pellets, it looks like they're working hard to get us convicted. Convicted? But I don't think they're going to want to wait for a trial or for something else to go wrong. They'd be smarter to take us out of the picture, make us disappear forever. Then everyone would just assume we were guilty. They'll have to move soon, before we get out on some type of bail.

They're running out of time. I can just feel it.

He heard the thick metal door open again, the sharp sounds of metal keys in a metal lock echoing down the hallway. A guard was coming to make another round. Curious, Hutch watched for him to come far enough down the hall so that he could see him. It was a thin, wiry man that Hutch had seen a few times that evening. Each time this guard passed by a cell, he had grabbed the door and shook it slightly, as if he needed to know they were really locked.

As he came into view, the guard looked up at Hutch, who didn't bother to smile at him. Hutch had tried it a couple of times, just to see if it might be possible to start some type of conversation with him, but the look of disgust on the man's face had just deepened. Of the three who took turns checking on them, this guy was the only one who seemed to catch on that he and Starsky had traded placed during the night.

You're not just counting bodies, are you? Hutch thought. You're keeping track of what's going on. You're not happy that we're both not asleep.

As if reading his mind, the guard stopped in front of their cell door, and, instead of testing it and moving on, he looked up at Hutch, staring angrily at him.

When the alarm went off Hutch jumped, the sound echoing painfully around the small room.

"Everyone up!" the guard yelled, his voice barely cutting through the siren-like alarm. "Fire evacuation! Let's go!"

Starsky, who had shot to the cell door like a bolt of lightening, grabbed his arm as Hutch came near.

"Fire?!" Starsky yelled in his ear, yet even then Hutch could barely make out his voice.

"Not sure!" Hutch yelled back. "Didn't see any sign of one!"

As the doors clanged loudly, both he and Starsky tried to see as far down the hallway as they could, but there wasn't much to see. Although there were all kinds of noises and activity. It wasn't until the deputies went to work on the cell next to them, that Hutch saw they were handcuffing the prisoners to a heavy chain, then leading them outside. Watching the exodus, Hutch nudged Starsky when he noticed a couple of men in plain clothing helping prepare the prisoners for evacuation.

Just happened to be passing by, were they? he thought, recognizing the blond-haired Minton as one of the new arrivals. Wonder if he has any idea what triggered this alarm?

The coordinated effort between the deputies went smoothly, and in only a few minutes they had emptied out the other three cells, leaving one lone man on a chain, and Starsky and Hutch's cell the last to be evacuated.

"Watch yourself," Starsky hissed through the sound of the siren and the opening of the cell door.

Minton was in the doorway pointing a gun at them, ordering him and Hutch to the back of the cell. Following instructions, Starsky was handcuffed to the chain in front of the other prisoner, then Hutch was waved forward to be added. They were then led down the hall and through the metal doors with one deputy at the head and Minton following behind, a gun on them at all times. The station lights were starting to flicker, and Hutch could smell something burning.

Oily smoke hit them as soon as they got outside. It wasn't dawn yet, and the floodlights that covered the building and parking lot made the area seem like center stage in some gothic opera. Looking back, Hutch saw smoke rolling out of a small window at the back of the building. Even from his quick glance, he could see a flicker of what must be a fire. There were uniformed and plain-clothed men yelling instructions back and forth, as people ran in and out of the building, some carrying fire extinguishers grabbed from the trunks of cars. Others were helping people out of side doors of the building.

Hutch, Starsky, and the stranger who were handcuffed to the chain were led away from the building, toward the back of the parking lot, where the floodlights grew dim. The blasting sirens suddenly stopped, and Hutch then heard the wail of several fire engines coming down the highway.

"John, give them to me and go get a car," Minton said. He had been careful to keep behind them and the gun trained on them at all times. "We're going to have to take them into town and see if the police station has room for them."

The other deputy nodded and passed him the chain before running toward a row of empty parked cars.

Starsky, handcuffed to the chain in between Hutch and the stranger, turned and looked at Hutch, eyebrows raised in a question.

We're never going to make it to a holding cell, Hutch thought, feeling the chills along his spine. They get us in that car with Minton and that prisoner, and they'll stage a fake get-away, where Starsky and I will disappear for real. They'd never find our bodies out here in the woods.

They had to think fast. Starsky, who had been watching him, suddenly winked.

"I-I can't breathe!" Starsky choked out, bringing his cuffed hands up to his chest. He coughed loudly, doubling over and making his breaths sound thick and strained.

Grabbing him as best he could, Hutch caught Starsky as he started to pull the three of them down to the ground by the chain. "He's got asthma!" Hutch yelled anxiously. "This smoke is cutting off his air! Help us! Someone get an ambulance over here!"

That drew the attention they needed. As the fire engine pulled in, an ambulance was close behind, and several people waved it in their direction. Glancing at Minton through the corner of his eye, Hutch saw frustration flash across his features.

Starsky, now on his knees and rasping loudly, had managed to pull the unknown prisoner down to the ground with him. Any attempt on Minton's part to move the three of them now would draw attention, especially with a prisoner in obvious distress.

The ambulance pulled up and two attendants jumped out, converging on their patient. Hutch stood back, glancing around the area, trying to plan their next move as Minton was forced to unlock Starsky's cuffs to let the attendants care for him. A deputy's car pulled up, and Minton pulled Hutch and the stranger away from where Starsky was being checked over.

"You two, get in the back!" Minton ordered, as the other deputy got out of the car and opened the back door.

"My partner's in trouble!" Hutch yelled angrily, gesturing toward Starsky and the ambulance. "I need to go to the hospital with him!"

Hope against hope, Hutch was watching for any sign from Minton that he would concede in the matter. He knew that Starsky wouldn't have staged the asthma fit if it would have separated them. They just hadn't had time to make better plans.

"He's a big boy, I'm sure he can get along on his own," Minton snapped, gun pointed at Hutch. "Get in the car!"

An ambulance attendant came up, looking uneasily at the cuffed men. "Sorry to intrude, but the patient is insisting that his partner come with him. He's having a lot of respiratory complaints, and we need to take him in for testing. We've got more ambulances on the way, in case things get rough out here."

"Listen," Hutch said calmly, hoping to get the attendant on his side, "Starsky'll be a lot better off if I can be with him. I've been through this with him before--"

"Tell your patient he can see his partner later, after he's released," Minton said gruffly to the attendant, who shrugged and turned to leave. He then looked sharply at the other deputy. "John, you go with the patient and keep an eye on him."

"Are you sure?" the deputy asked, looking uncertainly at Minton, then back at Hutch and the other prisoner. "We should have two deputies in the car with them. Besides, the other guys haven't started to move their prisoners yet. Maybe we need to wait--"

"Damn it, John! Get your ass in gear here! We need to get these men out of the way!"

Hutch's heart sank, as the young deputy seemed to snap to attention and turn toward the ambulance. With the gun on him and the other prisoner, Hutch slid into the back seat, his brain working overtime. The man he was chained with hadn't said a word during the whole evacuation process, and there was no telling if he was in on their frame-up or not. As Minton got in and the car started, he sneaked a look back at the ambulance, wishing he had come up with a way to keep them together.

Sorry, buddy, looks like I dropped the ball on this one.

Starsky sat quietly, chained to a hospital bed, conscious of the young deputy who stood guard at the door.

It hadn't taken the emergency room doctors more than a few minutes to realize that nothing was seriously wrong with the prisoner. Since the idea was to get them both away from Minton, he hadn't bothered to keep up the act once he was at the hospital. Instead he had concentrated on getting in touch with Sheriff Overton or Deputy Withers, hoping they could find Hutch and make sure he arrived at the city jail safely. The young deputy who had ridden in the ambulance with him had made a few phone calls on his behalf, but so far no one had shown up.

Almost an hour now, and no word. I should've done something else! he thought sourly. I should've left it alone unless I could've been sure they'd let Hutch go with me. We can't afford to be separated now. There's no telling where he could be. No telling at all.

He looked up sharply as Sheriff Overton strode into the room, dressed in old jeans and a flannel shirt. Starsky stared in surprise when Dobey came in behind him, looking haggard and worried.

"Deputy, unlock this man. He's no longer in custody," Overton snapped.

Deputy Roberts stood a moment, looking as if he were terribly confused by the order, but turned to obey when the sheriff gave him a withering look. After unlocking Starsky, Overton ordered him out and into the hall.

"You all right, Starsky?" Dobey asked quickly, concern radiating from the larger man.

"Captain! Am I glad to see you! I'm fine, I was fakin' it." Starsky jumped off the bed, rubbing his wrists. Did you and Overton find Hutch?" he asked, voice tight with concern.

The sheriff shook his head, his look grave. "Not a hair. Minton and the two prisoners left the parking lot right after your ambulance, but didn't arrive in town. Minton isn't answering his radio, and no one has seen them. I've got an all-points bulletin out on them now."

"What about Withers?" Starsky asked, hoping that the one other person he could trust might know something more.

"I couldn't get in contact with him, either. Your captain and I have called in the big boys on this, son. Time to admit when we're over our head."

"The FBI is pulling in its men," Dobey clarified, sounding hopeful. "They've got a lot more information on this than either of us do."

"If they had that kind of information, then why didn't they break this ring open before they lost a man?" Starsky asked. He was pacing now, his whole body screaming at him to go into action. "Whatever's goin' down, we can bet that Minton is part of it. He's just been in too many places at the right time. If he had plans to get rid of Hutch and me to keep us from wiggling out of this murder charge, then I don't see them changing their plans just 'cause one of us got away. They've taken Hutch somewhere, and we have to find him."

"How about the three of us bust outta this place?" Overton said, a feral smile at the corner of his lips. "I've got my car outside and some contacts of my own. Let's go see what we can dig out on our own."

Before he could say any more, Starsky was out the door, heading for the parking lot, leaving it to the other two to catch up with him.

Hutch had no idea where he was. He'd lost track of their twists and turns a long time ago. All he knew was that they had traveled quite a ways before turning off the main roadway. Then they had spent time doubling back, going over ground Hutch recognized. Hutch felt as if Minton were killing time, reluctant to do anything with him until a certain predetermined time.

Hutch had spent the time quietly, trying to catalog every landmark he could, while not giving away his suspicions to the two men in the car with him. There had to be a way out of this predicament, but he had yet to have anything come to him. All he could do was wait until they stopped and then play it by ear. As they made a turn onto a gravel road and the car started to slow down, Hutch braced for what was coming.

"Now, Jacobs!" Minton bellowed.

The prisoner sitting next to Hutch moved and Hutch reacted, shoving the palms of his shackled hands into the prisoner's face, hoping to break his nose. But the man was larger than he was, and he easily brushed aside the blow. Elbowing him and grabbing on to the chain that connected them, Hutch twisted, trying to keep the man from trapping him in a corner of the small space in the back of the car. Doubling up, the prisoner dived into him. The weight of the man's head hit Hutch's ribs like a sledgehammer, knocking his breath away even as the back of his head hit the door's window with a crack that made Hutch see stars. Focusing his strength, pushing back the chain that the other man was trying to bring up to his throat, he felt himself forced back against the door. Suddenly the door was pulled opened, and Hutch fell backwards. Before he could find a handhold, his collar was grabbed and he was jerked backwards, half in and half out of the car. Choking on his own collar, Hutch saw the barrel of a gun in his face, and the smiling face of Withers above him.

"Well, welcome to our get-together, Hutchinson. Bet you're surprised to see me here."

Struggling for air, he was pulled the rest of the way out of the car, and his spine jolted as his rear hit the ground with a thud. As the pull on his collar was released, Hutch rolled to his side, just in time to deflect a savage kick to his groin, grunting as the boot slammed into his hip. All three men laughed at him as he gasped for breath.

Minton grabbed his wrists and unlocked the handcuffs. Hutch didn't dare make a move with Withers' gun trained on him.

"You piss-ant cops just never know when you're better off staying out of other's business," Withers said. "Guess you and your partner should have done the smart thing and stayed home this week, huh?"

Hutch pushed himself up to his knees, ignoring all the new sore spots he'd gathered in the last few minutes. "You'd be surprised how often that's crossed my mind these past two days," he said roughly, rubbing his neck. "So, let me guess. You're not one of the good guys, huh?"

Withers squatted down to look Hutch in the eye, but still too far away for Hutch to try rushing the gun. "Let's just say the FBI doesn't pay as well as they should. Not when they assign a guy to the ass end of the US and expect him to give a shit about what goes on. You know how goddamned boring it is out here for a guy like me? Years ago, I might have been happy to get my fangs into some real serious crimes, but there wasn't anything out here to really test a man of my caliber."

"So, you're the one coordinating all the poaching and drug trucks," Hutch said, allowing the disgust to show on his face. "What better person than the FBI agent assigned to the area?"

"Got it in one." Withers smiled, his eyes glinting evilly in the dim light. "It may not look too great on my official records, but it's the unofficial bank accounts overseas that will measure my success. And let me guess, you're going to tell me that I'll never get away with it."

"Can't we get on with this?" the prisoner asked, sounding nervous as he climbed out of the car. "This is getting way too complicated for me."

"We're going to have to change our plans, Bob, so just sit tight," Withers said, standing and backing away from Hutch and the other two men. "Since we couldn't get both cops out here to make them 'disappear,' we'll have to go to plan B."

"And what's plan B?" Minton asked suspiciously.

"This."

Hutch, still on his knees, threw himself to the side as Withers' gun came up, tying to make himself a difficult target. All hell broke loose then, gunfire erupting from the darkness. There suddenly seemed to be people everywhere, yells echoing through the forest, flashlights everywhere. Trying to climb to his feet, Hutch rounded the back of the car, expecting a bullet in his back any second.

A heavy body hit him as he neared a line of trees, knocking him face down into the dirt. As he twisted under the man, he grabbed a handful of hair, ready to knock his attacker out and get away, when the feel of the handful of curls and the body against him told him that it was Starsky.

"Stay down!" Starsky hissed, pushing Hutch down and covering him as the gunfire rang out around them.

Then it stopped suddenly. Loud voices and pounding feet filled the silence. Starsky rolled off him and Hutch rolled over with a sigh, realizing that the good guys had come in time after all. He could hear someone order an ambulance, while cars pulled up and lights seemed to come on from out of nowhere.

"You okay?" Starsky asked quietly, his sitting form only half-visible in the new lighting.

"Sure, but what took you so long?" Hutch asked with a touch of amusement. He could see that most of the men swarming around the area were dressed in black, and the few that weren't had jackets with "FBI" emblazoned on the back.

"Wasn't my fault," Starsky said, smiling crookedly. "I got here as fast as I could, considering I didn't know where I was going."

"Darn near got us all killed!" Dobey's voice boomed from behind him, and Hutch looked up to see his captain coming up the road behind him, wiping his face with a handkerchief. "I think we must have hit two hundred miles an hour on the highway, and at least a hundred on the corners. Does your partner always drive like that?"

Grinning, Hutch stood up and nodded at Dobey. "Captain, you don't want to know what I've put up with all these years."

Laughing, Dobey reached out and slapped him on the shoulder. "Yeah, you're probably right, I don't want to know. Let's get out of the way here. These boys have some work to do."

As they walked back down the gravel road toward the highway, Hutch could hear an ambulance in the distance. Turning for a look back, he could see several men clustered around three men on the ground. One, Withers, was deadly still, and Hutch could see the dark stain of blood in the headlights of a motorcycle. He was obviously dead. Another, Hutch recognized as Minton, by the flash of blond hair. His legs were moving, as if he were in pain. The other man was too far away for Hutch to see who he was.

"How did you find me so fast?" Hutch asked them both.

"It was a set-up," Dobey said. "I thought this whole thing smelled to high heaven, so I made some calls of my own, specifically to a guy I know in the FBI. He checked around and told me that something was up."

"He just told you that," Hutch said, knowing it had to be a lot more complicated than that.

"Let's just say that after all my years on the force, I have more than a few connections of my own," Dobey said smugly. "Come to find out that Agent Withers has been under suspicion by his own people for a long time. They've been keeping an eye on this area and noticed that there were fewer and fewer arrests for poaching, and more and more drug shipments seemed to get through this area. Deputy Minton is an FBI agent who has been in charge of this area for a long time."

"Minton is a good guy?" Hutch asked in disbelief. "I thought he was the one trying to set Starsky and me up for the murder!"

"He was," Starsky said. "That's the assignment Withers gave him. Withers thought Minton was a real deputy, on the take. Minton's job was to go along with the plan and keep the other agents informed about what Withers was doing. This whole thing was set up to catch Withers trying to kill us to make us disappear. Those FBI guys have been camped out in the woods for hours, just waiting for Minton to meet Withers here. Overton found out about it all after he got me out of the hospital, when he threatened to make a federal stink about it all if they didn't tell him the whole truth. He knew about Minton being an agent, but he never knew about Withers. The shit really hit the fan, then, so they told us about this meeting. We got here just as the fireworks started."

"Well, that makes me feel better," Hutch said sourly. "I just love playing bait so the FBI can take down one of their own." Hutch shook his head, sighing tiredly. "So, in all this mess, do they actually know who killed Masterson?"

"They think Withers did, but they don't know that for sure," Dobey said. "They think Masterson tried too hard to get an 'in' on the group, so Withers realized he was undercover and took him out." Dobey shook his head tiredly. "Withers' plan was for Minton to get you both out of jail with that fire, then you'd be brought here, killed, and your bodies hidden. Then they'd fake an attack on Minton to make it look like you escaped, that way people would think you two were actually guilty."

"I figured that," Hutch snorted angrily. "But you mean the FBI let us go through all that just to arrest Withers at the scene of a crime? With all they had on him--"

"It was only penny-ante stuff," Dobey said, his voice growing serious. "I don't have to tell you two how deep this kind of corruption can go. They're not telling me much about it all, and I don't think we'll ever know what's all been going on here, but I'd stake my next paycheck on the fact that they were trying to find out if Withers had any more FBI agents working for him, or if he had mob connections higher up."

"You think that they let Withers operate this long, just to try to find out who gave him his orders," Starsky said.

"What do you think?" Dobey grunted, waving toward the car. "Let's go back to the sheriff's office and wait for everyone to get done here. Then we can see if anyone can make heads or tails out of all this." Stopping suddenly, Dobey gave Starsky a scathing look. "But I'll drive this time, Starsky. I don't ever want to be in a car with you behind the wheel, not ever again!"

Hutch could only smile at Starsky's look of utter indignation as he climbed into the passenger side.

Two days later...

Starsky lay on his stomach in the spongy soil, hoping that the small bush he had chosen to lie near was thick enough for cover. From underneath the branches Starsky could see pretty well, so he was uncertain how hidden he really was. He had been there for a long time it seemed, waiting for their prey to come into target range, and he didn't want to get blown away because of shoddy cover.

I should have found a rock to hide behind, like Hutch did, Starsky thought, his skin starting to itch in places that made him worry about bugs in his clothing. If this doesn't work pretty soon, I'm going to insist on a new plan. I'd rather be out there, stalking my prey than stuck here, waiting. This stakeout is getting to be too much like real work.

Growing more and more uncomfortable, and wondering if maybe he'd found a patch of something poisonous to lie on, Starsky wiggled backwards a bit.

"Will you keep still?" Hutch's aggravated whisper filtered through the bush's foliage.

"How long are we going to be out here?" Starsky whispered back. "I don't think they're going to come this way at all. I'm starting to think we've been duped!"

"Starsky, they have to come by this way if they want to find our flag. All we have to do is wait them out."

Starsky sighed, setting his gun aside, and propping his head in his hands, elbows digging into the dirt. "I had more fun being a sniper, even when I was on the run," he mumbled. "This game is supposed to be exciting, not deadly dull."

Hutch, who was only a few feet away, hidden behind his rock, hissed at him. "Do you want them to hear you?"

Starsky grimaced to himself as his stomach growled. Hutch was carrying their lunch, and until this was over, he didn't see Hutch giving them up without a fight. Sometimes his partner was as stubborn as a mule when he got his mind set on something. Which was a good thing sometimes, but a nuisance when it came to Starsky getting his meals on time. And going hungry wasn't going to make this vacation any more enjoyable. Not after the last few days.

The past few days had been tiring. There had been even more statements to fill out and questions to answer, with no answers given in return from the FBI agents. Withers was dead, Minton would live, and Sheriff Overton had started cleaning out the sheriff's department, seeing many of his men arrested on Minton's statements about them taking money from Withers to turn a blind eye to certain crimes. Dobey had decided to stay in town, and Starsky was convinced it was to keep an eye on him and Hutch, so they wouldn't get into any more trouble.

They'd finally been given clearance to leave, and the three of them had been able to get tickets back to Bay City on an early flight the next day. That had left all day today free, so Overton had invited them all back out to the ranch for a private game of war, with the permission of the elderly owner.

"Hutch, we've been here for a couple of hours now. If someone was coming down this trail, don't you think we would've heard them? I'm beginning to think they went out for a beer or something."

"They'll be here." Hutch sounded totally convinced of the fact. "This is the best spot for an ambush along the trail. I can't see Dobey coming any other way."

Starsky shook his head, even though he knew Hutch couldn't see it. "Dobey's heavy, Hutch, but he's not stupid. He'll know we're lying in wait for him somewhere. If it means crawling over rocks and climbing a cliff he'll do it."

"Look, let's just give it a few more...Uhh!" The crack of a shot from behind them echoed Hutch's exclamation.

Backing quickly out of the bush, unable to turn around because of the tangling branches, Starsky gasped. A second crack filled the air, just as a stinging thump on his left butt cheek told him it was too late for them both.

"Aw, shit!" he exclaimed as he finished extracting himself from his hiding place. He put a hand on his new wound, confirming that his ass had been plastered with blue paint. Looking over at Hutch, Starsky could see he had been hit square in the back.

"Wooohooo! Look at what we got, partner!" Dobey's happy voice echoed through the woods like a bullhorn. "A couple of sitting ducks!" Dobey, decked out in jeans, boots, and jacket, came out from behind a group of trees, waving his rifle triumphantly in the air.

Sheriff Overton, laughing heartily, was close behind him. "Dobey told me you'd be waiting to pick him off, rather than trying to get our flag," Overton said. "I didn't think so, but I have to say he was right on the money this time. Looks like he knows you boys too well!"

Starsky threw an annoyed glance at Hutch, who was trying very hard to look as if he hadn't been surprised by the turn of events. "Yeah, well, Hutch didn't think you guys would take to climbing that steep cliff, so we'd be safe from an ambush. Guess he was wrong."

"Well, that is a steep cliff," Hutch said defensively, "and I figured if you did climb it, you'd make a lot of noise."

"You two tend to forget that I've been a cop since you two were teens," Dobey said smugly, eyes dancing with happiness. "And I not only know how you two work, but I know how to use my resources to my advantage. Overton here knows these woods like the back of his hand. He knew the best place for an ambush. All we had to do was take a trail farther down the hill, come up behind this row of trees, and walk along the top of the cliff all the way up here. Didn't have to climb a thing!"

Sighing, Hutch held out his hand and smiled good-naturedly. "Congratulations, Captain."

"Yeah, and you, too, Overton," Starsky said, holding his hand out to the tall sheriff. "Guess you guys earned that gourmet dinner tonight."

"You'd better have your credit cards ready, boys," Dobey said, patting his stomach. "Overton tells me they have some very good, very expensive local dishes. Might have to try them all out!"

Wincing at the thought, Starsky turned to pick up his gun. "You know," he began, weighing the rifle in his hands, "it just seems a shame that I've spent all day sitting in one spot, and didn't even get a chance to fire this thing." Starsky turned to give Hutch an evil grin.

"Now, Starsky, don't start getting any ideas," Hutch said sternly, his lecture finger up in the air. "After all, just because I was wrong this time--"

"Sure does sound like a shame," Overton said solemnly, turning his gun so the barrel was pointed at Hutch. "All this ammo and we didn't get it used up."

"That's right," Dobey agreed with a cat-like smile, lifting his rifle up in Starsky's direction. "And we've got the rest of the day 'til dinner time. Wouldn't want to leave anything undone."

Glancing at Hutch and seeing agreement in his eyes, Starsky let out a loud whoop as both he and Hutch turned and bolted down the hill.

"You'll never get us alive!" Hutch yelled, dodging behind trees as he made for the trail, Starsky close behind.

"You boys've got thirty seconds!" Dobey shouted after them, menace in his voice. "You watch your ass, Starsky! I got you once, I can get you again!"

Running full out down the trail, Starsky quickly caught up to Hutch and passed him. Hutch might be able to run longer than he could, but he could run faster when it came to something he really wanted.

And this time, he was going to be the one to pick out their stronghold, and it wasn't going to be shooting from behind any damn bush!

After all, he'd been a pretty successful sniper in the past. Time to play the game by his rules!

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