The Stranger
by Candy Apple

SHSVS, Episode 603

**********

Well we all have a face
That we hide away forever
And we take them out and show ourselves
When everyone has gone
Some are satin, some are steel
Some are silk and some are leather
They're the faces of the stranger
But we love to try them on...

--"The Stranger" by Billy Joel

**********

"What a lousy rotten way to die," Starsky commented, shaking his head as he crouched near the badly beaten body of what was once an attractive young woman. "Don't fight back and you get raped. Fight back and you get raped and murdered. Terrific choice."

"The lab boys have all the photos, so she's ready to go as soon as we're done," Hutch said, standing behind his partner. "You think we missed something?"

"No, I guess not." Starsky stood, finally tearing his gaze away from the dead woman. "It's hard to believe the others just fell down and gave up. I'm wondering what she did that freaked him so much that he beat her up like this and killed her. He didn't kill the others, and they said they fought him."

"Maybe not hard enough to provoke him, or maybe she was stronger..." Hutch shrugged. "Maybe he didn't mean to kill her. Her head's pretty close to the brick ledge by the fireplace. There's no visible blood there, but it's not impossible that she fell and hit her head." Hutch looked around the nicely appointed living room of the spacious first floor condominium unit. "The link sure isn't social status. The first victim lived in an old house in a working-class neighborhood, the second one in a housing project, and now he's in the high-rent district. The boy gets around."

"You guys all set?" Ginny approached them, two men from the coroner's office behind her with the gurney.

"Yeah, we're good," Starsky responded. "When--"

"I'll have a prelim on your desk this afternoon," she said with a slight smile.

"Thanks," Hutch said, returning the smile.

Out in the bright morning sunshine, the two detectives took in the surroundings. The dead woman's condominium was part of a pricey four-unit, one-floor building. The building was part of a new condo development in the suburbs of Bay City, and most of its residents were highly paid professionals: doctors, lawyers, CEO's or, in the case of the deceased woman, their spouses. The Spanish hacienda-style stucco structures were accented with red tile roofs and wrought-iron railings. The windows were arched and outlined in black. Professionally landscaped yards boasted mature trees that had obviously been transplanted at great expense to give the area a "settled" feeling. The development itself had the look of a wealthy Spanish village.

Brenda King was married to a local attorney, Raymond King, whom they were trying to locate. A neighbor indicated that King was out of town on business, but had no idea where. Their next stop was Smithers, Crandall and King, Raymond King's law firm. Undoubtedly, someone at his firm would have his itinerary and knowledge of how to contact him.

In the past three months, there had been three rapes, and all demonstrated a similar MO. The perpetrator gained entry through a first-floor window and surprised his victim, either already in bed or, in one case, coming out of the shower. The two surviving victims had described him as a man of medium height and build, wearing jeans, a dark t-shirt and denim jacket. Unfortunately, he also wore a black or dark blue ski mask and gloves, which made any further identification impossible, though his first victim thought he was white, based on the coloring around his mouth. Neither of the women could agree on whether he had brown or blue eyes. When the third victim turned up dead, Starsky and Hutch inherited the case from Garner and Hughes, a strong team of veteran detectives who worked primarily with Sex Crimes. Brenda King's death made it a matter for Homicide.

"You can bet the pressure's gonna be on for this one," Starsky said as they walked back toward the Torino. "I understand the assistant DA just bought a condo here."

"Pressure's always on when someone commits a crime in an area that's not supposed to have any."

Smithers, Crandall and King was a prestigious law firm housed in a sprawling suite on the upper floor of one of the city's priciest skyscrapers. The receptionist seemed anxious to usher the two casually dressed detectives out of the lobby shortly after their arrival. The middle-aged woman wore her gray and black hair upswept and was dressed in a conservative dark business suit. She led them down a hall behind the reception area to the desk of Raymond King's secretary.

"How can I help you?" she asked, brightening considerably upon seeing her visitors. A young woman in her early twenties, she was dressed as conservatively as her colleague, but her blonde hair hung to her shoulders, and her personality was much more outgoing.

"We need to reach your boss, Mr. King," Starsky explained. "We understand he's out of town, but we figured you'd have his contact information."

"Well, yes, of course. I just spoke to him earlier this morning. He's representing a client in a case in Tucson, Arizona." She took a piece of notepaper and wrote a hotel name and two phone numbers on it, then handed it to Starsky. "The first number is the hotel; the second number is the courthouse there, if it's an emergency. I hope nothing's wrong?" she probed, her brow furrowing a bit.

"We really should speak to Mr. King directly," Hutch responded. "Thanks for the information."

"If there's anything else I can do--" she began, waiting until both men had turned back to face her. "Well, I'm always glad to cooperate with the police," she added somewhat coyly, giving them an appreciative smile.

"This would be a nicer city if there were more good citizens like you," Starsky said, his tone oozing his own brand of sugary charm that many women seemed to love. Hutch merely flicked his eyes heavenward before giving Starsky's sleeve a tug as they moved toward the door.

"She liked me," Starsky gloated as they got into the elevator.

"She was looking at both of us when she said that." Hutch pressed the button for the ground floor.

"When I turned around, she looked up--she was checkin' me out as we were leaving."

"You should work on your self-image, Starsk," Hutch retorted with heavy sarcasm. "I hate to break it to you, but she could have been checking me out."

"I saw which way she was looking," Starsky asserted, grinning. "She was lookin' at me."

"She's too young for you."

"Too-- She's over eighteen, isn't she?"

"Barely," Hutch responded sourly.

"Then she ain't too young." Starsky grinned. "You're jealous."

"Don't be ridiculous. Of her?"

"Don't try to deny it, Blondie. You're jealous."

"Should I be?" Hutch shot back. Touche, he thought, grinning inwardly.

"You know I got a weak spot for sexy, leggy blonds." Starsky reached down and goosed his partner just before the elevator doors opened, leaving a somewhat flustered and red-faced Hutch to face the incoming tide of suit-clad businesspeople.

As they walked out to the car, Hutch said under his breath, "I'll get you for that later."

"Promise?" Starsky responded, flexing his eyebrows as he slid behind the wheel of the car.

**********

The phone call to Raymond King was not pleasant. It's bad enough to tell a man his wife's been murdered. It's worse to have to explain that she was raped and beaten. If that isn't difficult enough, add into the mix that it all happened in the pricey new condo he'd just bought six months ago--because of the rising crime rate near the high-rise apartment complex they were living in previously.

"Any new ideas on how to go after this sick bastard?" Dobey asked after the phone call was completed in his office.

"There's always a decoy, but since we can't fix a pattern yet on how he's choosing his victims, there's not much way to set anything up," Hutch offered. "I know Garner and Hughes have already scoured the old case files looking through the MO's of every similar degenerate on record, but that's iffy at best. We have a half dozen guys who are on the street who fit the profile. Garner and Hughes found three of them, and we're going to look up the other three, maybe go back and interview the first three...." Hutch watched as Dobey nodded solemnly.

"In other words, you've got no damn idea where to start with this," he surmised.

"Let's say we're still forming our strategy," Starsky offered with a slight smile.

"You better get it formed, because this psycho isn't just raping women anymore. Now he's killing them, too, and there's not too much indication that he's finished!"

"There has to be some connection between the three women. Some place where he saw all of them, or some reason he met all of them. We just have to go over again the same ground the first team did. Garner and Hughes are good cops--they haven't been sitting on this. We're planning to get started right away at going over all of it again, to see if we can pick up something new."

"Then get to it. Keep me informed. You can imagine I already heard from the DA's office this morning," Dobey grumbled.

"The seedy underbelly of crime hitting too close to the high-rent district, huh?" Starsky needled, standing.

"Something like that. All eyes are on this now, so get out there and prove me right for pushing for you two to take this case."

As they returned to their desks, Starsky poured coffee while Hutch started looking through the case files on the first two rapes.

"He's in a sunny mood this morning," Starsky muttered, handing Hutch his coffee before sitting down with his own.

"Why do I see our day off fading on the horizon as a distant memory?" Hutch chortled a little.

"There's really nothin' in these files, y'know," Starsky said, leaning back in his chair, perusing the file on the first victim.

"Yeah, I know." Hutch sighed. "There's gotta be something, Starsk. Some reason he picked them."

"Maybe he's a random nut--ever think of that? I mean, maybe he just spots a woman and follows her and if the opportunity is there, he does his thing."

"I really hope that's not the case, because if it is, tracking him is going to be close to impossible."

"We need to meet with Garner and Hughes," Starsky said. "Find out what they chased down in case it's not all in the files. We've gotta look at every place these ladies do business, every service person who might have been to their homes...."

"We'll call them and get together before we go see the ladies."

**********

Paulette Garner was a tall, full-figured woman in her forties with short sandy hair and glasses. She wore very little make-up, and her clothing was quite tailored. Craig Hughes was slightly older, a slender, balding man with wire-rimmed glasses who looked more like an accountant than a cop. His deceptively harmless appearance gave him an edge on the streets, as he was an excellent marksman and considerably stronger than he looked.

The four detectives sat around the table in an interrogation room, the case files spread out among them.

"I'll tell you right up front, I'm not happy to lose this case simply because one of the victims wound up dead," Garner said bluntly. "It's still primarily a rape case, and we've been working it since the beginning."

"It wasn't our decision to take over, Paulette," Hutch responded. "But Brenda King's death does make it a homicide, and that means it's under Dobey's umbrella."

"We're aware of the departmental issues, Hutchinson. We don't have to be happy with it," she added. "At any rate, the primary concern here has to be stopping this psycho."

"We need to know what you've done, where you've been--"

"We've put in sixteen hour days on this thing," Hughes spoke up, cutting Starsky off mid-sentence. "We've run down so many blind alleys and dead-end leads it's not even funny. These two women don't appear to do much of anything at the same place. They have different mechanics, different hairdressers, different grocery stores, different social circles, different dress shops..." He shrugged, leaning back in his chair. "The only thing they had in common was that they both had occasion to go to the Bayside Mall frequently. But even that was in different capacities. Tiffany Cramer was part of the custodial staff there and Sharon Mitchell loves to shop and meet friends there. We did our best to check out that lead, but it's pretty impossible to hunt down every employee in every store--let alone the mall personnel like Tiffany herself. We didn't find anything we thought was worthwhile there, but it's up to you guys if you want to go over that ground again. I photocopied my notes on our interviews with the mall folks," Hughes said, sliding the two sheets of paper toward Starsky, who was sitting on his immediate left.

"Thanks, this is a big help," Starsky said, looking at the long list of names.

"It's not comprehensive, but we did our legwork on that lead," Garner emphasized. "So, what are you two planning to do now that the ball's in your court?"

"First we have to make sure we aren't retracing your steps, and then we need to talk to the surviving victims again. We also need to visit today's crime scene again to be sure we didn't miss anything."

"Mr. King's probably back living in your crime scene by now," Garner opined.

"Dobey's keeping it sealed through today for us. We've been through the place but we want to go over it a little more carefully." Starsky picked up the papers and gestured with them. "Thanks for your help."

"If we can be of help with the case, let us know," Hughes said. "Just because we're a little teed off at departmental politics doesn't mean we don't want to see this pervert nailed."

**********

Tiffany Cramer's small apartment was neat and tidy, furnished with well-worn pieces carefully accented with strategically placed doilies and throw pillows to cover the threadbare spots. Despite her simple surroundings, she had a flair for color and style that was reflected in the bright oil paintings on the walls. Flowers, butterflies and landscapes added an incongruous beauty to the drab walls of the apartment. Sirens could be heard nearby, and neighbors were arguing vociferously on the other side of too-thin walls. But Tiffany Cramer's apartment looked more like a starving artist's studio than a unit in one of the city's tougher housing projects.

A pretty young black woman with large brown eyes, and hair pulled into a tight ponytail, she had a pleasant smile and quiet demeanor. When the two detectives arrived, she was dressed in jeans and her blue Bayside Mall smock.

"I'm afraid we're running a little late," Starsky apologized. "I hope we aren't making you late for work," he added as they took seats on either end of the light blue sofa.

"My boss has been really great about all this. He'll understand if I'm a little late," she said, sitting in a chair nearby. "Would you like anything to drink?"

"No, thanks, we're fine," Hutch responded, smiling. "I can't help noticing your paintings--did you paint those?"

"Yes, I did," she responded, smiling. "I love to paint; I've been doing it since I was a little girl."

"Have you ever shown your work?" Hutch persisted.

"No," she said, laughing a little. "It's not that good."

"I think you should really take it to a gallery, Miss Cramer. They're lovely."

"Thank you. I didn't expect the cops to be art enthusiasts."

"Hutch does some painting himself. He's pretty good at it, too," Starsky said, sounding like a proud parent.

"Really? Have you shown your work?" she asked, genuinely interested.

"Touche," Hutch said, chuckling. "I haven't shown mine either."

"I dare you to take one to a gallery," she challenged. "I will if you will."

"Oh, I don't know..." Hutch let the words trail off uneasily, shaking his head a little.

"Who knows, maybe we'll both end up rich and famous. Of course, that'd mean leaving all this," she said, gesturing around the room.

"I'd miss getting shot at on a regular basis," Hutch replied jokingly. Then, he became more serious. "Miss Cramer, I know this is a difficult subject, but we really need your help. There's been another assault--"

"You mean a murder. I saw it on the news, and I figured it was the same pervert from the way they said he got in. I begged the landlord for three solid weeks to fix the lock on my kitchen window..." She didn't finish the sentence, swallowing. "I told the other detectives everything I could remember."

"We don't want to make you relive all the unpleasant details, Miss Cramer. Honest," Starsky said. "We have the case files and your statement. What we're most interested in is lifestyle information. There's some reason this guy targeted the three women he chose. We need to find that link if we're going to find him. So far, nothing's adding up."

"I didn't know the other woman who was attacked. I don't know about this third one--they were withholding her name."

"Brenda King. She's the wife of a local attorney," Hutch said.

"Nope, doesn't ring a bell," she said, shaking her head. "I don't exactly run with lawyer's wives. Between work and school, I don't do much socializing at all."

"You're studying art?" Starsky asked.

"No, actually, I'm taking business courses. I don't want to live in a dive like this forever. I can be a starving artist without taking expensive classes in it."

"According to your statement," Hutch began, opening his notepad, "you attend classes at Bay City Community College three nights a week and work full-time, mostly days, at the mall as a custodian. Do you have any hobbies, or belong to any clubs? Any restaurants or other business places you frequent?"

"I can't afford to eat out, and I don't have time to join clubs right now. I lead a very drab life, Detective. It has to be that way right now until I get my degree. I work as many hours as I can get at the mall, and I'm trying to keep my grades up. I mean, sure, I grocery shop, I go to the movies with a couple friends from work once a week--all that's in my statement."

"Yes, it is. Is that the only place you go?" Hutch persisted.

"Just work, campus, the library, the grocery store, the movies, the bank, and sometimes the deli a few blocks from here. I don't remember if I mentioned that in my statement before."

"I don't think so, no. What's the name of it?"

"Rudy's Sandwich Shop. They've got really good cold cuts and some of their prices are pretty decent, actually. Whenever I treat myself to take-out, it's from there."

"Okay. Now when you go to the library, do you use the campus library or the public library?" Starsky asked.

"Mmm...both. Mostly the campus library, but if I want to pick up any books to read for pleasure, I go to the public library on Sheridan Street. It's a little bit of a drive from here, but it's a beautiful library and they have a better selection of books."

"When was the last time you were there?" Hutch asked.

"About three days ago. I went there this weekend to get a couple books." She gestured at the two hardcover books on the coffee table. One was an historic romance novel and the other appeared to be a book on dealing with the aftermath of rape. "I'm still trying to get a handle on that," she said a little uneasily, noticing Hutch's focus on the book. "There's a really good counselor at the college," she added.

"I'm glad," Hutch said sincerely, smiling. "We appreciate you taking time to talk with us. I know this isn't an easy subject."

"No, but I want to do what I can to nail the bastard who did this. I used to have a tough time meeting all my deadlines before, but you oughtta try it when you can't go to sleep at night, listening to every little noise... I nailed the windows shut when I got home from the hospital, so unless they break 'em out, or hack through the deadbolt, they can't get in now."

"You nailed your windows shut? You need a fire escape--"

"Detective Hutchinson, I would rather burn alive in ten fires than go through that again."

"Understandable," Hutch responded mildly. "Thanks for your time." He rose, and Starsky did the same. Tiffany followed them to the door and opened it. "If you need anything at all, or you think of anything, call us at one of these numbers," he said, handing her a card.

"Thanks, I will. You'll let me know if you catch the guy, right?"

"Most definitely," Starsky responded, nodding.

The coroner's report was waiting for them when they returned to the station. Brenda King did not die from any sort of accidental fall against the fireplace--she died from a very deliberate blow to the head. They were no longer hunting a serial rapist, but more than likely, a serial killer just beginning his rampage.

**********

Hutch silently cursed himself once again for having bought that "Grease" soundtrack for Starsky. It was eleven o'clock before they made it back to Starsky's place, they were just getting around to fixing a patched together dinner of soup and leftovers, and Starsky was bopping around the kitchen, giving John Travolta a run for his money on all the lead vocals. Right now, neither Travolta nor Starsky were welcome noise pollution as Hutch poured the canned soup he'd heated up into two bowls. His leg was bothering him the way it usually did when it was going to rain and he'd been on his feet all day. If that wasn't enough to make him grouchy, the thought of how great it would feel to twist it around in awkward positions for the bedroom gymnastics he'd been hoping to engage in tonight finished the job.

Hutch was about to snap Starsky's head off in no uncertain terms for adding his own weight to the already unhappy leg and a too-tired back by draping himself over Hutch and wrapping his arms around Hutch's middle. Somehow, though, he forgot about all that as Starsky swayed them slowly to the music, crooning "Hopelessly Devoted to You" in Hutch's ear. Instead, he turned and accepted the embrace, which turned into a slow dance.

My head is saying, fool, forget him
My heart is saying, don't let go
Hold on to the end
That's what I intend to do
I'm hopelessly devoted to you...

As the song ended, and another, more up-tempo number began, Starsky moved back a little.

"You're leanin' on me a lot, babe. It's your leg again?"

"Damn thing feels like it's still jammed under the car tonight."

"Must be gonna rain. Go sit down and I'll wait on ya for a while. After dinner, you can soak in some warm water and I'll give you a massage, how's that sound?"

"Pretty damn good." Hutch kissed Starsky's mouth quickly and took him up on his offer to serve dinner, sitting down at the table with a little grunt of fatigue. "We're gettin' old, Starsk. We don't even have to listen to the news anymore to know when it's gonna rain." Starsky laughed out loud at that. "I'm glad you're so happy about becoming old and decrepit."

"Well, 'long as I'm gettin' old and decrepit with you, I don't mind so much. But I was thinking about my grandmother. She used to say the same thing--that the good thing about gettin' old was that you knew it was gonna rain before anyone else did, and you were never wrong."

"Oh, great. Now I sound like your grandmother."

"You're the one who brought up this getting old crap, not me," Starsky said, laughing.

"Pretty soon we'll have a mortgage."

"If we were real old, we'd have everything paid off. We're just old enough to be achy and young enough to be in debt." Starsky set the sandwiches he'd made out of the cold chicken on the table with the bowls of soup.

"Thanks for cheering me up, Starsk." Hutch rolled his eyes as he helped himself to a sandwich.

"Anytime, buddy." Starsky chortled a little evilly as he began eating.

**********

Hutch leaned back against the tub and groaned contentedly. Starsky had taken a quick shower himself and then filled the tub in which Hutch was soaking, and now he was massaging Hutch's leg with the same skill and gentleness he had way back when Hutch had gone through physical therapy after his brush with death in the canyon. Like he would with any perp who was fool enough to cause Hutch any real pain, Starsky pursued every muscle spasm in the leg and dealt with it swiftly and effectively.

Of course, Starsky usually didn't pursue perps in the nude, and Hutch had to admit he was enjoying watching his naked partner's movements as much as he was enjoying the therapy on his cranky old injury. The bathroom was warm and steamy, and he was beginning to long for more contact with a warm, moist, freshly showered Starsky.

As devoted to his task as he was, Starsky was starting to show a little fatigue himself, and after a couple of telltale signs of strain in his expression, Hutch called a halt to the massage he'd have been content to let go on forever. Starsky was leaning over the tub with his arms extended, putting a lot of effort into his work, and it was obviously pulling on some muscles that didn't flex as easily as they used to.

"I better get out of the tub before I fall asleep in here," Hutch said, smiling. "Leg feels great, babe. Thanks."

"Doesn't hurt anymore?"

"Not very much at all. Not anything like before."

"Good. Let's dry you off and get your beautiful blond body into bed. I think your third leg needs a little attention," Starsky quipped, grinning at the rising erection Hutch was developing.

"Third leg, huh?" Hutch responded, pulling Starsky into his arms. "Should give us an interesting edge in the three-legged race at the next police barbecue." Hutch smiled as Starsky snorted inelegantly at that imagery. Then, he put his mouth close to Hutch's ear and whispered hotly.

"It's long, sturdy and powerful, babe," he said, one hand straying down to pump the hard shaft. Hutch groaned and thrust into the busy hand, which stilled. "Not here. In bed, where I can do it right." Starsky moved back and pulled Hutch by the hand out of the bathroom into the bedroom, leading him purposefully toward the bed, which he'd turned back while Hutch was starting his long soak. "Get in and get comfy," Starsky said, pushing the covers all the way back.

"Do I get any say in how this is going?" Hutch teased, following orders nonetheless, settling back on the mattress and easing over to make room for Starsky.

"Nope." Starsky grinned widely then. "But that doesn't mean you aren't gonna like it." With that, Starsky moved down to hover over the rigid cock that rose above its nest of gold. He ran his tongue up the underside in one long stroke, dragging a ragged groan out of Hutch, who grabbed a pillow and stuffed it behind his head. The sensations were one thing, but watching Starsky work his magic was too good a show to pass up.

With one hand rolling and cupping Hutch's balls and the other straying under him to grip and massage his ass, Starsky took the long cock as far into his mouth and throat as he could manage. Putting all his effort into pleasing Hutch, the dark head was bobbing now with the motion of the sucking. Just when Hutch thought he couldn't feel any better, a questing finger began probing between his cheeks, teasing the opening there. He let out a sound that was somewhere between a gasp and a groan, his hips bucking as much as they could with the dual motions of Starsky's mouth and hands. As the finger managed to slide just past the opening, he shouted, feeling the first of the spasms shake him, his seed being eagerly swallowed by the hungry suction on his cock.

When it was over, Starsky released the spent cock and kissed it gently, then moved up to lie next to Hutch, resting his head on Hutch's shoulder.

"That was great, babe," Hutch said, feeling dangerously close to dozing off in the sleepy afterglow. Starsky hadn't had his needs tended, and yet he felt too lethargic to move. Then he felt the gentle humping motion against his hip--safely on the other side, away from the recently massaged leg. "Let me take care of you--"

"Lie still, darlin'. Your hand'll work. I'm real close," Starsky added, groaning as Hutch wrapped a hand firmly around the straining cock and began pumping. It seemed Starsky deserved something more, but he was insistent, and Hutch had to admit that he was pleasantly relaxed and not all that excited about moving. Feeling Starsky's warm body undulating against him, the hard cock in his hand beginning to surge with expending fluids, and hearing Starsky's moans of pleasure caused Hutch to come dangerously close to getting hard again. When Starsky had stilled and slumped against him, Hutch ran his other hand through the dark curls and kissed the top of Starsky's head.

"Tomorrow, I'm gonna love you into next week," Hutch promised, his voice sounding slurred, even to him.

"Mmm. Sounds nice," Starsky agreed through a jaw-stretching yawn. "Just next week?" he added, a definite smile in his voice.

"Next century?"

"That's better." The next sound Hutch heard was soft snoring. A moment later, he was asleep.

**********

He was lying on his stomach, his left leg drawn up a bit. But that wasn't the foremost thing on Starsky's mind--it was the feather-soft touch of something warm and a bit moist on his left buttock. It felt good. He groaned contentedly and drew his knee up a bit farther. That drew a soft chuckle from somewhere behind him. A very familiar chuckle. Starsky grinned into the pillows and waited for the next sensation. He didn't bother opening his eyes; the sleeping beauty routine obviously had his partner hot and bothered, so who was he to interfere?

The soft touch of lips was back again, but this time moving in closer to his center, a tongue tip teasing the soft flesh on the inside of his buttock, not quite reaching the now exposed target. He tried thrusting his ass up a bit, but the sensations didn't increase. Instead, they turned into a series of little kisses planted along the seam between cheeks that were gently separated by two large, warm hands.

Then the tongue returned to the little pucker and began licking and prodding in earnest. Starsky thrust his growing erection against the sheets and squeezed his pillow in a death grip.

"Hutch," he mumbled, not sure if he wanted his lover to stop what he was doing or do more of it. It didn't really matter, because Hutch was obviously moving at his own pace, taking his time. There was something so...wanton in lying there, held open this way, every part of his body attuned to what was happening in that one little spot.

The tongue moved away, and soon he felt Hutch's large, sleep-warmed body moving over his back, blanketing him.

"Good morning," he whispered hotly against Starsky's ear.

"Can we do this instead of the alarm from now on?" Starsky quipped, grinning.

"Told you I was gonna do it right this morning--or should I say, I'm gonna do you right this morning?" Hutch responded, a smile of his own obvious in his voice. As the last words were uttered, a long, lubed finger slid into Starsky's moistened opening. He lurched a little in surprise, then gasped and thrust against the bed again. "That's it, babe, open up for me," Hutch encouraged softly, using the finger to stretch and lubricate while his free hand slid up Starsky's back, rubbing gently. The first finger was removed and then replaced with two, which began stretching more aggressively. "Yeah, you're ready for it, aren't you, beautiful man?" Hutch teased, kissing his way down Starsky's back.

"Now, babe...gotta be soon," Starsky gasped, writhing with pleasure as the fingers rubbed over his prostate.

The fingers were withdrawn, and Hutch moved up, whispering in Starsky's ear again.

"I love you." He kissed the ear and then moved back, and Starsky could feel the mattress dipping here and there as Hutch moved to prepare himself. "Raise up for me." The feeling of the strong hands on his hips and the slight command in the voice threatened Starsky's already shaky control, and he fought hard to calm himself enough to enjoy this to the fullest. He drew his knees under him, raising his ass, offering it eagerly.

A moment later, he was being opened and filled as Hutch slid steadily but carefully into the tight channel. When they were fully joined, he paused, reaching under Starsky to fondle the heavy balls there, then to grip and gently pump his aching cock.

"Hutch," he grunted, the word barely audible, trying to warn his partner how close he really was. Hutch apparently needed no more cue, because he planted a kiss on Starsky's spine and gently released his cock, bracing himself on his arms on either side of Starsky's body. The pumping began slowly and built to a steady rhythm. Starsky lost himself in the creak of the springs, Hutch's soft moans and gasps, and most importantly, the hard cock moving in and out of him, stretching him, claiming him. He began thrusting back against Hutch, shuddering in pleasure with each stroke.

The speed and intensity of the thrusts picked up, adding the satisfying slap of flesh to the blend of sounds that was almost as intoxicating as the sex itself. Some part of Starsky's mind registered that he was going to be shifting in the driver's seat all day, unable to escape the reminders of this morning's lovemaking. The thought made him crazier, and he felt the beginnings of his climax, resisting the urge to get up on all fours. Hutch was moving hard and fast now, and he didn't want to disturb that cadence. They were gasping and crying out almost in unison, and when Starsky came, it was with a cry of ecstasy torn from the pit of his throat. Hutch's own movements became more erratic and Starsky heard the shout of his name before he felt Hutch's orgasm, felt himself being filled, and then felt the wonderful weight of the warm, damp, sated body that began to press his him into the mattress. He didn't resist the downward push, letting it flatten him, his legs straightening out in the process.

Hutch was in him, on him, and all around him. He couldn't move with Hutch's weight pinning him to the bed, Hutch's softening cock still inside him.

"Wow," he managed, trying to catch his breath.

"Anybody ever tell you," Hutch began, then paused to catch his breath, "you have a gorgeous ass?"

"Yeah. My big horny blond partner," Starsky quipped, reaching behind him to stroke Hutch's hair as the other man rested his head on the back of Starsky's shoulder.

"Felt so good," Hutch admitted, catching the hand and kissing it. "You feel so good."

"You felt pretty good yourself. Still do." He managed to squeeze Hutch's flaccid cock with tired internal muscles. "Wish you could loan it to me for the day," he said, chortling.

"There's not much I wouldn't do to make you happy, Starsk, but I draw the line there." Hutch kissed the shoulder near his mouth and carefully eased out of Starsky. "Insatiable comes to mind," he teased, moving up to lie next to Starsky, who shifted onto his side, ready to snuggle into the arms that waited for him. His legs tangled with Hutch's and his body was cradled lovingly. Hutch rubbed up and down his back gently. "I love you."

"I love you, too, babe. More'n anything," Starsky asserted.

"It's only five a.m.," Hutch said, smiling.

"If we eat breakfast in the car, we could stay in bed two more hours."

"I think we could stay in bed forever and I'd never get enough of you." Hutch kissed the end of Starsky's nose.

"I'd be willing to experiment for four or five years and see how it goes," Starsky offered, hugging Hutch tightly.

"Just four or five years?" Hutch asked.

"For the bed experiment. If you're talkin' about us, you're stuck with me forever."

"I better be. Did I mention I was crazy about you yet this morning?" Hutch had that wonderful, slightly sappy grin on his face that said he was head over heels. Starsky never ceased to be thrilled that he was on the receiving end of that expression.

"Maybe not in so many words, but that one really loud 'Oh, God, Starsky' kinda said it all," he quipped, kissing Hutch's lips quickly.

"Smart ass." Hutch laughed and then sighed happily, letting his eyes drift shut. "I am."

"Huh?"

"Crazy about you."

"I know. I'm crazy about you, too, Blondie. Go to sleep."

**********

Barely arriving as the clock struck 8:00, Starsky and Hutch were summoned into Dobey's office. The captain looked grim as he sat behind his desk, hands folded on top of the blotter.

"Number four was just admitted to Mercy Hospital."

"Damn. You're sure it's the same guy?" Hutch asked.

"Got in through a downstairs window, raped and beat the woman, then left. From what she told the ambulance attendants, he was an average-sized guy wearing jeans, a denim jacket and a ski mask."

"My God. There's usually a month between his assaults," Hutch pointed out, looking at Starsky. "If he's picking up the pace like this--"

"Hopefully it means he'll get sloppy and make a mistake," Starsky interjected. "Who's at the scene?"

"We just got the call from the hospital. The victim managed to call the ambulance, so how much evidence has been disturbed or lost, I'm not sure yet. Probably plenty." He wrote down an address on a piece of paper and handed it to Starsky. "When you finish at the hospital, go have a look at the house. I have a black-and-white unit there keeping an eye on things. Keep me posted."

"Right, Cap'n," Starsky responded, and they headed out for Mercy Hospital.

**********

Linda Sherman was a divorced, middle-aged woman of average size, with curly brown hair that brushed her shoulders. It occurred to Hutch that perhaps the rapist was making a point of not choosing any two women exactly alike. Sharon Mitchell, the first victim, was a tall, very thin white woman of nineteen, single, with short black hair; the second victim, Tiffany Cramer, was an attractive single black woman in her twenties of average height and build; and Brenda King was a petite, very pretty blonde in her mid-thirties and married.

The latest victim had been badly beaten--much worse than Sharon Mitchell or Tiffany Cramer. Both of those women had only suffered the blows necessary to overpower them. Brenda King had been beaten to death, and Linda Sherman looked as if she only marginally escaped the same fate. As she lay in her hospital bed with one eye swollen shut and her face badly bruised and distorted from the beating, Starsky and Hutch made their first attempt to question her.

"Ms. Sherman, I know you're in a lot of pain, so we aren't going to ask you right now to tell us the whole story," Hutch said gently. "The ambulance attendants told us what you told them, so if you could just confirm that we have the information correct with a yes or no answer, that'll do for now." She nodded slightly, and Hutch began his recitation of the story.

A man attacked her in her bed, overpowered her, raped her, and proceeded to beat her, despite the fact she had offered him no serious resistance. She felt that she had survived solely because her dog, a cocker spaniel who had been barking frantically since the start of the attack, had finally found some way to get her closed bedroom door open and gone for the man's leg. He was apparently not armed, because he didn't attempt to shoot the dog. He also had trouble getting it off his leg, finally retreating back through her window, managing somehow to dislodge the dog long enough to slam the window shut and make a run for it. She'd passed out for a time, and when she came to, she called the ambulance.

"Did the man say anything?" Starsky asked when Hutch had finished confirming the facts.

"He just threatened me and said it would be worse if I fought him. So I didn't fight him, and look what he did," she mumbled through a badly swollen mouth, a tear trickling out of the corner of her eye.

"I'm sorry, Detectives, but you'll have to come back later. The doctor said five minutes," a nurse reminded them from the doorway of the room.

"May we come back and ask you a few more questions later?" Hutch asked. The woman nodded slightly. "This case is our top priority, Ms. Sherman. I'm going to have an officer posted outside your room, so you don't need to be afraid, okay? We're going to nail this guy."

"Thank you," she muttered, sniffling and wiping at her eyes.

"Thank you, Ms. Sherman," Starsky added, nodding in her direction before they turned to leave.

"There was one thing," she said, making both men pause and turn around. "He said..." She swallowed, then managed to pull herself together enough to make the statement. "He said, 'isn't this what you wanted?' I don't know what he meant."

"Did you recognize his voice at all?" Starsky asked.

"No. I...I don't do anything that would make someone think I wanted this!" she shouted, and the nurse entered the room, approaching the bed.

"You need to stay calm, Ms. Sherman--"

"Would you be calm?!" she bellowed in response, making the nurse step back a bit.

"Please?" The nurse looked at Starsky and Hutch and gestured toward the door. They took the cue and left, then watched as another nurse entered the room with medication, probably a sedative.

"I just wanted to tell her it was him and not her," Hutch said. "Doesn't matter what she did or didn't do, she didn't deserve that." He gestured at the closed door of her room.

"Well, whoever he is, he's got a possible leg wound that's gonna need treating, depending on how good a job the dog did on him."

"Why so fast? He just killed Brenda King last night."

"Maybe he got off on the killing. Maybe it was a bigger rush than just the rape, and he went back for more. Or the killing really sent him off into pscyholand, out of control. Hey, you better let Dobey know you've decided on a uniform on duty here," Starsky said with a grin. "He's not gonna like that."

"What if the guy comes back?" Hutch asked, heading for a telephone to call Dobey.

"Why would he? She can't ID him unless he does some damn fool thing like show up here."

"You said yourself he might be out of control--psycho. Who knows what he'll do?" Hutch picked up the phone and started dialing.

"I think you're thinkin' with your heart and not your head," Starsky commented quietly.

"What's that supposed to mean?" He hung the pay phone back up and stared at Starsky.

"It means you wanna do something for that poor lady in there, so you're postin' a guard on her door when she probably doesn't need it. We need to get over to her house and have a look around."

"I still want a guard on her, and I'm not thinking with my heart." Hutch dialed Dobey's number again.

"That wasn't a criticism, babe," Starsky responded, squeezing Hutch's shoulder before leaving him to his phone call.

**********

Linda Sherman's tidy white bungalow was located on a quiet street, lined with similar houses. It was trimmed with pink shutters and accented with numerous pots of pink flowers.

"A rapist could pick this place out a mile away as belonging to a lady," Starsky said, barely sidestepping one of the omnipresent pots of flowers.

"You think he picked her out that way?" Hutch turned the key in the lock, listening to the yipping and yapping of the panicky cocker spaniel. "Got the doggie treat?" He reached back to Starsky, who handed him the rawhide bone they'd picked up for appeasing the dog. Hopefully it would consider it a worthy substitute for their flesh.

"Uh, yeah." Starsky handed it over to Hutch, who smiled and shook his head a little. Starsky was still a bit uneasy with dogs he didn't know, and that was something that wasn't about to change.

"Just try to be sure he doesn't take off out the door."

"Maybe we should've called Animal Control."

"For a cocker spaniel?" Hutch turned to look back at his partner in disbelief.

"He already bit the perp, didn't he?"

"You want to wait in the car while I try to apprehend this rabid beast, or do you think you can back me up here?"

"You don't have to get snippy about it." Starsky crouched in a position that looked like he was waiting to receive a football rather than apprehend a fleeing dog. With an upward flick of his eyes, Hutch wondered how this man could be so brilliant on the streets and so damn useless in cornering a small dog.

"His name's Sunshine."

"If somebody named you Sunshine, wouldn't you bite people?" Starsky asked.

"You've got a point." Hutch put the key in the lock and slowly opened the front door with one hand, doggie treat at the ready with the other. He was confronted with a small, honey-colored cocker spaniel who backed slightly away from the door but continued to bark incessantly. "Hey, there, Sunshine," he said in his best placate-the-dog voice. "We brought something for you. Yes, you're a good dog, aren't you?"

While Hutch worked his magic on the dog, Starsky gave up on his crouch and looked around the front porch. The attacker had gotten in through a side window, so it wasn't surprising nothing was disturbed here. By the time he returned to the front door, Hutch was patting the dog on the head and giving it the chew-toy.

"Just let him sniff you, Starsk," Hutch said, waiting while Starsky reluctantly offered the dog a sniff of his hand before venturing to pat it on the head. "The nurse said Ms. Sherman asked if we'd take the dog to her sister's place."

"If that dog pees on my seats, you're cleaning it up," Starsky stated flatly. "If we're gonna haul dogs, we're gonna start takin' your car."

"Starsky, sometimes it amazes me how the milk of human kindness just flows through your veins." Hutch straightened from his squat next to the dog, and it followed him around as they walked through the house.

"Hey, just because I don't like doggie droppings in my car doesn't mean I'm not a nice guy," Starsky protested as he wandered through the living room, looking at books on the shelves, magazines on the coffee table, a sweater tossed over the back of the couch--all things Linda Sherman had seen or touched or used before she was attacked. The house was the same, but she'd never see it or anything else the same way again.

"Starsk?" Hutch's voice came from the bedroom, which was separated from the living room by a short hallway.

"Yeah?"

"This look familiar?" Hutch held up a romance novel.

"Should it?"

"It's not the same title, but it's the same kind of book Tiffany Cramer had on her coffee table. Actually, it might be the same author."

"So they like the same books," Starsky said, shrugging. Then his expression changed as realization dawned. "Look in the back," he said, as Hutch was doing that very thing.

"Bay City Public Library - Sheridan Street" was stamped on the card tucked in the pocket affixed inside the back cover. Tiffany Cramer's name appeared four names ahead of Linda Sherman's on the small card.

"You think our boy hangs out at the library?" Starsky asked, taking the book from Hutch and thumbing through it. "Man, this is really corny," Starsky commented, shaking his head.

"Look at the cover, Starsk." Hutch waited while Starsky obliged. The cover showed a rugged-looking pirate, complete with eyepatch, clutching a wild-eyed maiden clad in a tattered, low-cut dress, hair flying wild.

"Do I have to?" Starsky passed the book back to his partner.

"Remember what Linda Sherman said the guy said to her--'isn't this what you wanted?' Maybe we've got a sicko going after ladies who read racy romance novels. A lot of these books are big on the old 'hero rapes girl/girl falls for hero' theme."

"So this fruitcake might think these women are going to fall in love with him?" Starsky asked, raising his eyebrows.

"Maybe. Maybe it was the realization that wasn't going to happen that made him go berserk and kill Brenda King, and then beat Linda Sherman the way he did.

"It's kind of a stretch. Lots'a women read these."

"Let's find out if Brenda King or Sharon Mitchell did, and if so, which library branch they used."

After completing their search and analysis of the crime scene, the two men radioed headquarters to get Sharon Mitchell's address. The small one-floor house they approached was the antithesis of Linda Sherman's: paint peeled from the siding, a side window was boarded up, a screen hung torn from the frame on the screened porch, and there was an old jalopy parked on the front lawn with the hood open. Rock music blared from a radio that sat near the car, and there were various mechanics' tools scattered on the lawn. The house was reasonably typical for the neighborhood.

They walked onto the screen porch, and Starsky reached to knock on the door when it opened. A tall, thin man in his twenties stood before them, dressed in a tank shirt and jeans, tattoos covering most of both arms. His greasy black hair hung partially in his eyes, and his breath smelled heavily of liquor.

"Police," Starsky said, flashing his badge. "We'd like to speak to Sharon Mitchell."

"She's at school," he grumbled, pushing past them to return to his work on the car. "You find the guy yet or are you just comin' back to ask more stupid questions?"

"We're new to the case," Hutch explained. "And you are?"

"Frank Sterns."

"Well, Mr. Sterns, rest assured that it's our top priority to nail this guy."

"Yeah, we've heard that one before--two months ago. I guess bein' he killed somebody, now it's a big deal."

"It was always a 'big deal'," Hutch said. "Now that he's killed someone, it's a homicide case, which is where we come in."

"The first cops they sent out here looked like a couple of my old high school teachers. Can't picture them out bustin' crooks." He leaned farther into the mouth of the car, adjusting something with a wrench.

"Actually, they're a good team," Starsky said, peering into the car's engine himself, curious. "But now the case is ours, and we have our own ideas on how to go about it. Did you live here at the time Sharon was attacked?"

"No. I asked her twice about moving in together, and she kept saying no. I moved in afterwards. She didn't want to be alone at night anymore." He straightened and wiped his hands on his jeans. "So what else do you have to ask? Look, she's been through a lot with this shit. She's all messed up. How about going out and getting this guy instead of making her answer a bunch of dumb questions?"

"We don't want to make her go over the rape again. We just have a few other questions for her--some things that have come up from the other cases that might help us put together why this guy chooses the women he does," Starsky explained.

"She'll be home pretty soon. If you wanna go inside and have a beer or something, go ahead."

"Thanks," Hutch responded, smiling. "You mind if we take a look around inside?"

"What for?"

"The attack happened here. We never saw it when it was a crime scene."

"Sure, I guess so...go ahead. I've gotta finish up out here. I'm due at work in half an hour."

"What do you do?" Hutch asked.

"I work the loading dock for Hanover Shipping. That important?" he asked.

"Hard to say," Starsky said. "We're trying to get a good picture of the people each one of the victims had contact with. There's a common thread somewhere--something that binds a bunch of women together who aren't otherwise similar."

"So it's probably somebody they all know?"

"Or someone who knows all of them. Does Sharon have any friends or acquaintances you think we should talk to? Any weird guys she's had to give the brush off?" Hutch probed.

"Oh, man, she knows a lotta people. We both do. I mean, I don't think it's anybody we know...not somebody we hang out with. There's nobody that seems like they'd do something like that. I don't know all of her friends, but I haven't seen any...weirdos hanging around."

"Okay, we'll talk with her more about that. Thanks," Starsky concluded, and they entered the small house, leaving Frank to finish up outside.

"Well?" Hutch asked, wandering around the cramped living room and into the small kitchen.

"He doesn't strike me as a serial rapist and killer. Seems like a harmless sort." Starsky paused by the window that had been boarded up. "This where he got in?" he asked Hutch, who joined him in the living room again.

"Side window in the living room--yeah, that's it. She was grabbed right over here somewhere, I guess, near the bathroom."

"Right there." A female voice startled them from behind. Both men turned to see Sharon Mitchell standing inside the front door. "I came out of the shower and toweled off my hair, and walked out, and...and he was there." She tossed an obviously heavy bookbag on the somewhat worn sofa, sending her purse to join it. Dressed in a sweater and jeans, she looked every bit the part of the average college student. "Frank said you had more questions about my friends or something." She sat on the couch next to her things. "Sit down if you want."

"Thanks," Hutch said with a little smile, sitting in a nearby chair while Starsky took the empty seat on the other end of the couch. "I'm Detective Hutchinson, this is Detective Starsky. We're new to the case, so we're doing a little legwork of our own now."

"I don't think it was anybody I know. There was nothing about him that seemed familiar."

"Were you able to see anything about him? Hair, eyes, skin color, anything?" Starsky asked.

"Not really," she said, shaking her head. I know I saw his eyes, but you know, it's weird. I can't see them in my mind anymore. I remember they were cold--like...like a crazy person's eyes."

"Did he say anything?" Hutch asked, watching her intently.

"Yeah, a few things, but I don't remember much. I was screaming part of the time, and...I just don't remember all the details. I don't want to."

"This is very important, Ms. Mitchell," Starsky explained. "Please try to remember anything he said. Even a word or two."

"Something about...something about wanting it--the usual crap bastards like that say to women."

"Do you remember how he said it? How he phrased it?" Hutch pressed.

"It was a question, I guess, now that you mention it." She frowned in concentration. "Like, 'Don't you want this?' or something like that. I...I'm sorry. I just don't remember exactly."

"That's okay, Ms. Mitchell. Believe it or not, this is a big help."

"Really? Why?"

"He said something similar to at least one of the other women. Anything we can start to piece together about this guy may be the thing that helps us nail him," Starsky explained.

"Good. Hey, look, I hope Frank didn't give you a bad time."

"No, not at all," Hutch said, smiling as they rose to leave. "He was very cooperative."

"He's a good guy. Wish it hadn't taken something like this to make me see that. Now it doesn't much matter," she said, standing up and walking with them to the door. "I can't picture..." She let the thought trail off, blushing a little, as if realizing that she was about to say something very personal to two total strangers.

"Is there a counselor, maybe on campus, that you--"

"No," she cut Starsky off mid-sentence.

"If you decide you'd like the numbers for any rape counseling services, just give us a call at this number," Hutch said, handing her his card. "And, if you think of anything else that might help--"

"Yeah, I know. Look, the other cops already tried to get me into group therapy. I'm not into shrinks, but thanks."

"Just one more thing, Ms. Mitchell," Hutch said. "Do you read romance novels at all?"

"Excuse me?" Her eyes widened a little. "What kind of a question is that?"

"I suppose it seems like a strange question," Hutch acknowledged, smiling. "It could have meaning for the case."

"Yes, I do read them once in a while. My college reading gets a little heavy, so it's nice to read something brainless sometimes."

"Do you buy them or check them out of the library?" Starsky asked.

"Library. I don't really care about building a permanent collection, if you know what I mean," she added with a slight smile.

"Which branch?" Hutch asked.

"The Sheridan Street branch. It's a little walk from here, but it's a great library. They have everything I'm looking for, it seems." She frowned. "This is going to help the case somehow?"

"Any similarities we can determine between the victims may lead to finding the man who did this," Hutch explained.

"I have a couple in my nightstand that still need to go back. I suppose they're overdue by now." She walked into the bedroom with the two detectives behind her and pulled two books out of the nightstand drawer. Both were by the same author, and both covers depicted similar themes. "Don't think I'll be wanting these again anytime soon."

"Thank you, Ms. Mitchell. Believe it or not, this could be a big help." Hutch smiled as he handed the books back to her.

**********

Hutch rubbed his temples with the thumb and middle finger of his left hand as he laboriously scratched figures onto a notepad at Starsky's kitchen table.

"Think we have enough for a down payment yet?" Starsky joined him at the table with two beers and a bowl of popcorn. "The movie starts in five minutes. It's late. Why don't we do this Thursday?" he said, referring to their next day off.

"We might not get Thursday off if something doesn't break with this case." Hutch took a drink of the beer. "There's no question we've got enough to probably get a bank talked into giving us a mortgage on something decent, but if we get too big a monthly payment, we're going to be screwed for any spending money, and I don't want to be so bad off we can't fix the place or maintain it."

"You figuring in my savings, too?" Starsky pushed the passbook toward Hutch.

"No. I was just using our account with the down payment money in it. We have to keep our savings, Starsk."

"We could put a little something with it. I mean, I'm not rich or anything, but I've got some stashed away I could spare, and I know you've gotta have some money you're squirreling away for a rainy day."

"Of course I do, but that's the whole point--to have it for the rainy day, not to blow it."

"Investing in a house isn't 'blowing it'."

"It is when the rainy day comes along and your bank account is empty."

"Just take a couple grand outta my account then. If it rains, you can take care'a me." Starsky leaned back in his chair, grinning and flexing his eyebrows.

"This is serious."

"Okay, babe, I know it's serious. But it's not like either one of us is gonna let the other one be out on the street or somethin'. Anything I got is yours, and I know you'd take care'a me. So let's just throw all the money in one place and see if we've got enough to make a down payment and still have whatever you think we need in a rainy day fund." Starsky sighed. "I hate this two-account shit anyway."

"IA'd love to get wind of a joint bank account. This one is risky enough," Hutch said, indicating the passbook he'd been poring over.

"That's nothin' compared to moving in together. If you're that worried about IA, we better scrap this right now."

"Look, we can call moving in together an investment decision. Everybody knows you've been trying to convince me to invest in a house off and on over the years--you did talk me into it once. So we invest in it and save on the rent. But if we add to that pooling all our money into a joint bank account, we might as well send out announcements."

"You're right."

"I don't like it any better than you do."

"I know." Starsky turned the beer bottle around in his hands. "Want me to tune in the movie?"

"Yeah, go ahead. I'll take a quick look at this and then call it a night."

"Okey-dokey." Starsky got up, picking up the popcorn bowl and moving it just as Hutch was about to reach for more. "If you want me or the popcorn, we're gonna be over here on the couch," Starsky teased, giving Hutch a devilish grin.

Chuckling and shaking his head a little, Hutch turned his attention to the passbook Starsky had left out for him. It seemed odd, looking through it this way...but odd in a good way. In a married sort of way. Hutch looked at his own bankbook sitting there and wished there was some subtle way to show it to Starsky. It seemed one-sided that he was going over all Starsky's business, and yet Starsky was in the living room watching TV and didn't appear to have any interest in Hutch's bank balance. Well, maybe when it's not competing with the Channel Nine late night creature feature, he'll be more interested.

Hutch flipped through the pages of the small book, most interested in finding the current balance. He paused when one uncharacteristically large double entry caught his eye:

10-16-76 Withdrawal $1,600.00

10-20-76 Deposit $1,600.00

There was something about that set of dates that stuck in his mind, but it wasn't coming together. Whatever it was, it didn't include any memory of Starsky taking out big bucks for anything.

"Starsk?"

"What?" Starsky turned down the volume on the television.

"What was going on in October of '76?"

"Could you be a little more specific?" Starsky asked, laughing softly.

"Wait a minute." Hutch looked at the dates again. "Gillian--Gillian died in October."

"What're you talking about?" Starsky turned off the television now and returned to the kitchen table. Hutch held up the book.

"You withdrew sixteen hundred dollars from your savings account the day Gillian died, and you put it back in four days later." Hutch watched as Starsky seemed to pale a bit, pulling out a kitchen chair and sitting down at the table. "What did you do with that money?"

"I thought...I thought I was gonna need it, but turns out...I...I didn't."

"For what? Starsky, what the hell is this about?" Hutch felt a sick suspicion crawling into the back of his mind, but he refused to acknowledge it. No, he wouldn't. He couldn't have. He never told me...

"I went to talk to her, you know that."

"Yeah, I know you talked to her--gave her a chance to tell me herself before you told me. We've been over all that. But what's this got to do with it? If it's nothing, and it was something else, and it's none of my business, then tell me that. But if this had something to do with Gillian, I wanna know."

"I didn't know Gillian very well. She might not have turned out to be the decent person she was. I didn't know what I was gonna run into when I talked to her. How she'd react. I...I just didn't want you to get hurt, or embarrassed...or worse. I mean, what if she'd been on Grossman's side?"

"She wasn't. She never would have been."

"I know that now. But I had no way of knowin' it then."

"You could have trusted my judgment, Starsky. I thought you did, and that's why you talked to her first instead of just blowing her cover with me. I thought you recognized that she wasn't just some...hooker."

"I knew you were crazy about her, but I didn't know her, Hutch." Starsky ran a hand over his face tiredly. "I've seen a lot of people turn out to be somethin' you'd never guess they were. I wasn't in love with her, so I had to be the one to look at her objectively."

"What did you do with the sixteen hundred dollars?"

"What do you think I did?" Starsky snapped back, getting up and pacing. "I offered to pay her off. This plus another three grand I was gonna pull outta my retirement fund. It wasn't much...I mean, I know she was makin' good money with Grossman, so I knew that forty-six hundred wasn't exactly a fortune, but I thought that plus the promise of not getting busted might appeal to her, even if she wasn't all you thought she was. I was trying to give her an out, in case she didn't love you enough to do the right thing."

"You offered Gillian money to leave me?" Hutch challenged, standing up.

"I told her it would be an investment in that boutique she wanted to open, and I told her I thought she should open it in Cleveland," Starsky blurted. "She turned down the money. Not in so many words, but it was like she didn't even dignify it. She just...she just said, 'You love him, too.' That's all it was about, babe. I didn't want you gettin' any more hurt than you had to. I didn't know if she'd tip off Grossman, or if we'd end up having to bust her... I had to know."

"My God." Hutch took in a deep breath and expelled it, then walked over to the sink and leaned on the counter with both arms. "You were going to pay her off. Were you going to bother to tell me what went down or just let her leave me a 'Dear John' letter?"

"I wanted it to turn out however was best for you, and I didn't know how to make that happen any other way. I love you. I didn't want you gettin' hurt."

"I guess that plan didn't work too well, then, did it?" Hutch snapped angrily. "She faced off with Grossman and ended up dead for it!"

"I didn't tell her to go have it out with old lady Grossman! I didn't think she'd do that. God, Hutch, how could you think I'd do something to endanger her on purpose?"

"It's bad enough that you decided to go behind my back and confront her without so much as telling me--"

"If I'd been the one to tell you, would you two have ever been able to reconcile? Stay together? Would you have trusted her if I'd told you and then she'd gone straight? It had to come from her, Hutch. I know you. You wouldn't have ever felt the same way about her if she wasn't the one to come clean with you about what she was into. I had to give her that chance so if she really loved you as much as you loved her, she could make the right choices. And she did, Hutch. She did make all the right choices, and she didn't even touch the money. All she cared about was you."

"I could have told you that if you'd talked to me! But no, I forgot--I'm incapable of making a character judgment. How in the hell do you think I manage as a cop, huh? Probably just because you're there to keep me from screwing up! If you'd come to me with that whole mess, I could have told you that she loved me."

"Are you mad at me again for confronting her or mad about the money? If you're mad about the whole fucking thing, what the hell did you let it lie all this time for? I thought you understood it."

"Dear God, Starsky, you went to the woman I was in love with and offered to pay her to leave town. How do you want me to feel?" Hutch shook his head, then pushed away from the counter to face Starsky. "What's really pathetic is that you still don't get what I'm really upset about."

"The money! That's fucking obvious!"

"You lied to me!"

"I never lied to you!" Starsky shouted back, almost unable to hear the conversation, his heart was pounding so loudly in his ears.

"Oh, yeah? Well, I don't seem to remember you telling me about this goddamned money!" Hutch yelled back, picking up the passbook and hurling it at Starsky. It landed just short of its target, at his feet.

"What would it have solved?" Starsky asked, his tone normal now as he picked up the bankbook. "You knew I confronted her and she made the right choice. Honest to God, Hutch, this was a detail." He gestured with the book. "When was I supposed to tell you? While you were crying over her dead body? Maybe when her family told you to stay the hell away from the funeral? Maybe when you were cryin' yourself to sleep the night she died? Damn it, Hutch, when would've been a good time for me to go into details?"

"Any time between now and then would have been just great," Hutch responded, his tone even and tight with barely controlled anger. "You treated her like a common whore, throwing money at her to make her go away because she wasn't up to your standards. Who the hell are you to look down on her?"

"That wasn't what it was about and you know it. I never looked down on Gillian, but I'd never met a hooker before who didn't have a price. She was different, and when I saw that, I hoped you could work things out. I figured we could help her once you knew the score."

"You kept this a secret all this time." Hutch sat back down at the table, shaking his head, smiling a little sadly. "The longer we sleep together, the more I find out that I don't know about you. Sometimes I feel like I don't know you at all."

"What the hell's that supposed to mean? You know me better'n anybody else in the whole world ever knew me."

"Then no one ever really knew you, buddy, because I sure as hell don't."

"Hutch--"

"All that...that...shit you went through when you were a kid. You just buried that and never trusted me enough to talk to me about it. And now this. Why don't we just handle all of it right now, Starsky, because I'm not up for many more surprises."

"All of what?" Starsky sat down at the table again, his legs feeling a little shaky. He didn't like the tone or the direction of this conversation.

"All the shit you're keeping from me! Let's have it. Right now. No more omissions, no more details, no more family skeletons. Put it all out there. Right now. What else are you keeping from me?"

"N-nothing," Starsky stammered. "Hutch, I didn't try to keep this from you. I swear. I didn't think it was important. I didn't think much more about it at all after I put the money back in the bank and time went by...."

"This is a pointless conversation." Hutch got up and walked toward the door, grabbing his jacket off the chair where he'd tossed it a couple hours earlier.

"Where're you going?" Starsky was on his feet then, following him.

"Where the hell does it look like I'm going? I'm leaving."

"Leaving?" Starsky repeated, his voice coming out fainter than he expected. "Babe, please, don't do this--"

"I'm just going home, Starsky." Hutch shrugged into his jacket, reaching for the door, but Starsky grabbed his arm.

"Don't leave like this. If we were in our house now, you'd have to stay here and work this out with me."

"Now isn't the right time to bring up living together. Let go of me."

"Hutch, come on, we need to talk about this."

"Talking about it isn't solving anything. You can't understand where I'm coming from, and...and I don't like how I'm feeling right now. I need some space."

"What about work tomorrow?" Starsky released Hutch's arm.

"What about it? You've driven for the last three or four days, so I'll pick you up in the morning at the usual time."

"I didn't mean to keep anything from you, Hutch. Honest I didn't. I--"

"Don't, Starsk. Just...drop it for now." Hutch opened the door and walked out on the porch, turning to go down the stairs.

"I love you," Starsky said softly. "I know you're mad and I can't say anything else you wanna hear right now, but I love ya more than anything in the world, and I didn't mean to--"

"I know you do." Hutch's resolve softened a bit and he turned to look back at Starsky. "This isn't about not loving you. It's about...I just need some space, Starsk. I'll see you in the morning." He started down the steps, then paused. Part of him wanted to go back up and resolve the argument in the obvious way: take Starsky in his arms and make love and forget about whatever it was that he was so angry about. But that wasn't going to solve anything, and all it would do is leave the wound there to fester. Steeling himself against temptation and resolving not to look back at Starsky again, he completed his trek down the front steps and out to his car.

**********

Starsky closed the door and locked it for the night, wandering back into his empty apartment in a daze. He stood and stared at the kitchen table for quite a few minutes, taking in the papers where Hutch had scribbled figures, and then looking at the notorious passbook that had started it all. Oh, babe, don't you get it? If I were trying to hide anything from you, would I have handed it to you? It was just a detail. Just a detail you couldn't take hearing on top of all the other details you had to cope with. Gillian's skin flicks in Grossman's collection, imagining the woman you loved selling it to the highest bidder...

Starsky went into the living room and sat on the couch, staring at the dark TV screen. Going to bed would mean lying there without Hutch. Staying up all night would mean he'd be in no shape to hit the streets in the morning. He turned on the television and stretched out on the couch, pulling the blanket off the back of it and snuggling under it. There was some late-night talk show on, and that was good enough. Anything to dispel the silence of the empty apartment...

**********

Hutch turned over for the third time in as many minutes and looked at the clock. He'd slept without Starsky since they'd become lovers, but rarely. And never because they'd had a fight that was too serious for them to still sleep together. Finally giving up on sleep, he got up and went into the kitchen, found a clean glass and filled it with milk. He contemplated beer, but since he'd already had a couple earlier, he figured enough was enough. He ran his hand absently over his mid-section, wondering if a few too many beers were contributing to the slightly softer feel of things in that area.

He walked out into the greenhouse and sat on the bench, sipping his milk. He felt that same sense of betrayal he'd felt when he found that Starsky had hidden a whole dimension of his childhood from him. At least that he could attribute to some misguided sense of family loyalty that kept Starsky silent--the same way so many abuse victims stayed silent. But this...this was about him. It was Hutch's lady who was dead, Hutch's lady who was offered a cash payoff like any cheap whore to get out of town. Part of him wondered if Starsky wanted her to go. Maybe the money wasn't just a test of character. Maybe he didn't feel she was worthy of his partner.

Hutch sighed, leaning back on the bench. That wasn't fair, and he knew it. Starsky loved him as much then as he did now, but he wasn't planning marriage and mortgage with Hutch back then. They were best friends, would-die-for-each-other partners. But not lovers. What Starsky did about Gillian, he did for Hutch.

But when is love too stifling? How much of your life do you let someone you love run for you? Is it okay for them to just step in without so much as giving you a passing consultation and do something that drastically changes your life forever?

Would Gillian still be alive if Starsky had come to me first and not confronted her? And if the money really wasn't that big a deal in Starsky's mind, why hide it all these years?

Why hide anything at all? Why did Starsky keep certain things to himself even when they were supposedly telling each other everything? And, most of all, if he's kept his childhood cloaked in secrecy, and sat on this secret all this time, what else has he got in his Pandora's Box that I haven't been told?

With the milk gone and no solution at hand, Hutch left his dirty glass in the sink and went back to bed. Sleep, and the answers to his questions, continued to elude him until it was time to get ready for work.

**********

Hutch was outside Starsky's apartment at the appointed time, and gave the horn two sharp honks. He hadn't summoned Starsky that way since early in their first year as partners. Normally, he just parked the car and went in after his partner, who was almost always running around frantically to make it out the door on time. Starsky's greatest love affair was not with Hutch, but with his snooze alarm.

Drumming on the wheel, Hutch waited five minutes, and when there was no sign of Starsky, he gave the horn another angry punch. He was functioning on almost no sleep, and he was in no mood to rush into work late because Starsky couldn't move his ass out the door on time. He rubbed his tired eyes, and when he completed the gesture, Starsky was just coming out his front door and down the steps. He moved slowly and lethargically, as if he were tired in both body and spirit.

"'Mornin'," he mumbled, sliding into the passenger seat and closing the door. "You could'a come up."

"We're running late," Hutch retorted flatly, driving toward headquarters.

"Hutch--"

"Starsky, don't. Just let it be for a while."

"Sorry I was late. I fell asleep on the couch about five o'clock, and the alarm's in the bedroom..." He let the sentence trail off unfinished. After a brief silence, he asked, "How long before we can talk about this?"

"It doesn't work that way. I can't give you a date and time when I want to deal with this. I said I needed space, and I meant it. Just let it lie."

"Are you sleepin' at your place again tonight?"

"Probably."

"If I don't say anything about this, can we just--"

"Can we just what? Sleep together? Fuck each other and forget it?" Hutch snapped back.

"This feels too much like breaking up, Hutch." Starsky let a long silence follow that statement. "It scares the hell outta me, and I don't like it."

"I'm not crazy about it either. But you can't solve every issue in a relationship by crawling into the sack together."

"If we were married and I was a woman, would you be sleepin' at the Y over this? Or is it easier to walk out on me because we're not married, and we're never gonna be, no matter how much we might wanna be?"

"If a woman I married had hidden something important from me for a period of years, yeah, I probably would be." Hutch shook his head. "This hasn't got anything to do with gender or the absence of a piece of paper with our names on it."

"I don't know what else to do, Hutch. I apologized. If it helps, I didn't sleep most'a the night, and I missed ya so much I thought--"

"No more. Starsky, damn it, I don't want to do this now. We've got a job to do, and if we're going to keep on working together, our personal problems can't get in the way of that."

Starsky fell silent then, swallowing a little and turning his attention to the scenery out the passenger side window.

"I need to know something," Starsky said finally.

"What?" Hutch kept his eyes focused on the road.

"Are you gonna leave me over this?"

"I already told you I don't want to talk about this now. Call us in."

"Hutch--"

"Call. Us. In." Hutch's tone left no room for discussion. Starsky hesitated a moment, then picked up the mic and declared Zebra Three officially on duty.

**********

"Seems like goin' to the library is getting riskier all the time," Starsky said, as they approached the entrance to the Sheridan Street branch of the Bay City Public Library. "Remember the Erlewine case last year?"

"I remember it," Hutch responded flatly, pulling open the door and letting Starsky pass through it first, following him. When they approached the circulation desk, Hutch spoke first. After introducing them and showing ID, he asked the young woman behind the desk for the check-out histories of Sharon Mitchell, Tiffany Cramer, Brenda King and Linda Sherman.

"I'll have to get my supervisor's approval before giving out that information," she said, smiling pleasantly. She had shoulder-length red hair and green eyes, and judging by the way she smiled at Hutch, a definite taste for blonds. Starsky thought of teasing his partner about robbing the cradle as the barely eighteen-year-old girl left the counter to speak to an older woman at a nearby desk, but refrained.

"May I see your identification, Detectives?" The older woman approached the counter. With short, neatly styled gray hair and glasses, she was dressed in a sweater and slacks. She looked to be in her fifties. Both detectives produced their IDs, which she briefly examined. "Here is the information you requested," she said, sliding the cards toward them. "If you'd like photocopies, I'll have Tina make them for you."

"Please," Starsky responded, and the woman gathered the cards and handed them to the girl, who disappeared into an office behind the counter.

"May I ask why you want this information on these women? Are they in some kind of trouble with the law?"

"Not at all. It's part of an ongoing investigation," Starsky explained. "We're not really at liberty to say more at this point."

"I see." She turned to accept the copies Tina had made and handed them to Starsky.

"Who else has access to this information?" Hutch asked, looking at the sheets over his partner's shoulder.

"The circulation desk staff work with it regularly, checking books in and out to patrons. I suppose anyone on the library staff has access, but we're the only ones who would have reason to use it."

"Could you get us a list of your staff? Names, job titles, home addresses and phone numbers?" Starsky asked. He was seeing similar titles appearing on all four women's records.

"Well, yes. Let me check with the branch manager. She may have something like that already made up. Is someone here suspected of engaging in some sort of criminal activity?"

"As my partner said, Ms.--I'm sorry, I didn't get your name," Hutch said.

"Quinn. Maureen Quinn."

"As my partner said, Ms. Quinn, we're not at liberty to go into details at this point."

"I'll ask my manager about the list. You may have a seat over there if you like." She gestured toward a grouping of a couch and two chairs near the magazine racks.

"Thank you," Hutch responded, and they went to the indicated area and sat down. Hutch occupied one of the chairs while Starsky sat on the corner of the couch closest to it. Hutch picked up a "National Geographic" magazine and started thumbing through it.

"Tina's still checkin' you out," Starsky said, deciding even inane banter was better than silence. And, truth be told, the young redhead was still doing her best to check Hutch out discreetly from behind the circulation desk.

"She's a little young for me," Hutch responded, still looking through his magazine.

"Hutch?"

"What?" He kept his eyes on the magazine.

"I love you," he said in a whisper, keeping one eye on the other people milling around the library to be sure they were out of earshot.

"Starsky, I'm not prepared to talk about this here."

"Nothin' to talk about. I just wanted ya to remember that, even if you're mad." He was quiet a minute. "Do you--"

"Let's stay focused on what we're doing here. We can't get off on personal discussions and work a case at the same time."

"Sorry." Starsky picked up a magazine and flipped a few pages without really looking at it. He was relieved when Ms. Quinn returned with three sheets of white paper, stapled at the upper left corner.

"This is our personnel listing," she said. "If you have any questions, you should contact Janice Logan, the branch manager. Her name is circled."

"Thank you very much," Hutch said, accepting the list as they both stood. "We appreciate your help with this."

Back in Hutch's car, they stopped at a fast food place and Starsky went inside to buy their lunch. He returned to the car and settled into the passenger seat. Resigned that Hutch was not about to discuss anything personal, he picked up the personnel list.

"Not many men working at the library, are there?"

"I have a feeling that's going to be a dead end. There are only four males on the list, and one of them is crossed off and marked retired. This could all be coincidence. Lots of women read romance novels."

"Each one of these ladies read one by the same author. See? Ramona Kensington." Starsky handed the sheets back to Hutch. "And check out those titles."

"'Passion's Price,' 'Claimed,' 'Fire of Love'...sounds like the usual sappy titles on those things."

"Passion? Claimed? Fire? Sounds like this lady might write a few ravaging scenes in her novels."

"The whole Rhett Butler carrying Scarlett O'Hara up the steps routine?" Hutch asked.

"Maybe this guy has some hang-up about women who read romance novels that involve some sort of rape scenario that's presented in a romantic way."

"If he's got a moral objection, raping them is a funny way to express it. I could better see killing them as some kind of punishment, but raping them? If he sees them as guilty of something for reading this stuff, then he'd be no better than they are by raping them."

"Well, yeah, but you remember what Linda Sherman and Sharon Mitchell said? The guy said something about them wanting it."

"A lot of rapists say shit like that, Starsky."

"'Isn't this what you wanted?' Wasn't that how he said it to Linda Sherman? Not the usual, 'Yeah, baby, you want it' crap. The way that question is phrased, it sounds like there's some reason in his twisted, sick little mind that these women wanted to be raped. And maybe readin' this kind of stuff is what gave him that idea."

"Sounds plausible. But he'd have to know who they were and what they were reading. That puts us back to this list of a few guys."

"I guess we can start there. But it could be anybody who hangs out at that branch of the library. Could be an employee, but it could also be someone who just spends time there and sees the women. Maybe some sicko who hangs around the library checking out what the women are reading. Who knows what gets this guy off?"

"Libraries. I can picture a lot of things as sexual turn-ons, but that wouldn't be one of them." Hutch took a drink of his cola, still leaving his burger untouched. "I do, by the way."

"What?"

"Love you." Hutch was quiet a minute. "I just don't like feeling I can't trust you."

"Can't...? Because of the money?"

"Because you keep things from me, Starsk. Important things. It's hard to trust someone when you keep finding out serious, important things you didn't know about the person you're sharing your life with. I feel like you know all there is to know about me, but yet I keep finding out things about you--usually not because you tell me, but by accident. It hurts, Starsky. It hurts like hell and I don't like it."

"I don't suppose you'd believe me if I said that I didn't think the money issue was important? What was important was what happened to her, what choice she made, what kind of lady she really was. I didn't think it mattered whether I offered her money or not."

"This has very little to do with Gillian," Hutch said, looking at Starsky. "It has to do with you, with what you keep from me, and...and it's about what you did back then, not what Gillian did or didn't do. And what you did does matter."

"Can I say anything that would make a difference?"

"I don't know, Starsky. I honestly don't know. And that's why I wasn't ready to talk about this now. I'm not trying to punish you or drag this out. I just can't help how I feel about it, and I don't know what you could say or do right now that would make a difference. So let's just let it rest for a while."

"I didn't like bein' without you last night."

"I wasn't crazy about it, either. But I'm still planning on sleeping at my place tonight."

"And I'm not invited."

"Not now, because I don't want to solve this with sex."

"I won't do anything."

"I need space. You sleeping six inches away from me isn't space. If you really love me, Starsky, just back off and let me work this out."

"Okay," Starsky responded simply, forcing down a bite of his lunch, feeling it stick in his throat.

**********

"You think this guy is picking his victims based on their library habits?" Dobey asked, raising an eyebrow. Hutch shrugged.

"It's a theory. All four of the women frequented the Sheridan Street branch of the Bay City Public Library. All four of them checked out books by the same author--all historical romances. We haven't checked out the actual books to see if the theory holds, but given those titles, I think it's a safe bet that they all contain the 'hero rapes heroine, heroine falls for hero' scenario. Two of the victims recall their attacker saying something about them wanting it, only he phrased it differently than the usual demand or statement--he asked them a question like, 'Isn't this what you wanted?'"

"Where's your partner?" Dobey asked, frowning. "He went after a candy bar ten minutes ago."

"I don't know, Captain. Must have gotten sidetracked. There's not much more he can add to what I've told you."

"All right. But if this guy is choosing ladies from watching them at the library, you might have already tipped him off by going in there today. If you're going to get these books, either do it at another branch, or..." Dobey raised his eyebrows a bit, looking as if he had an inspiration.

"Or?"

"Send Lizzie Thorpe in to check them out and see if our guy takes the bait."

**********

Lizzie walked down the hall toward the squadroom, sorting through the contents of a file she'd just picked up in R & I. Arturo had drawn the short straw to type up their reports for the day, so she had taken on the task of doing the research on a couple of their prime suspects in the murder of a liquor store owner. While it had appeared to be a simple armed robbery gone wrong, the more the case unfolded, the more the evidence was pointing to the victim's lifestyle of heavy gambling as the possible cause of his demise. Researching his friends' histories was turning up a wealth of misdemeanor and felony charges relevant to gambling, book-making and petty theft.

Her attention was diverted from the file by the sound and fury of Starsky beating a confession out of the candy machine. At first, she chuckled and shook her head and continued toward the doors of the squadroom. However, the more she listened to the commotion, she realized it was an unreasonable response to a stuck vending machine button--even for Starsky. She approached the site of the battle between man and machine and risked restraining Starsky's left arm, which was directing his fist into the front of the machine yet again.

"Hey, how much did it cheat you out of? A week's pay?"

"Every time I put money in this thing, it's the same old thing." Starsky pulled his arm away, but Lizzie grabbed it again.

"Look at your hand, Starsky," she said, all humor gone from her voice. Starsky said nothing, just looked down at the red and bruised knuckles where the skin was slightly broken in places and oozing a bit of blood. "That's your shooting hand, pal. You want to tell me what this is really about?"

"Not particularly." He pulled his arm away, though there was no trace of anger in the gesture.

"Come on. Let's get some ice on that hand before it swells."

"I'm due in Dobey's office."

"If your hand swells up too much, you won't be able to shoot with it, and if you can't shoot, you'll be stuck behind a desk."

"Okay," Starsky agreed, caving in much more easily than she'd expected.

"Go wait in the interrogation room. I'll get some ice. Hang onto this for me." She gave him the file folder and hurried toward the elevator, not waiting for a response.

After getting a small plastic bag filled with ice and some paper towels at the cafeteria, she returned to the interrogation room where she'd told Starsky to wait, and was almost surprised to see him sitting at the table. She'd expected him to take off for his meeting with Dobey, but instead, he waited as instructed, flexing his hand with a look of discomfort on his face.

"That was a smart move," she teased, wrapping a paper towel around the ice bag before taking a hold of Starsky's wrist and guiding his hand down to the table. She held the ice on top of it.

"Thanks."

"It might help to talk about it," she said, smiling slightly.

"It might, but it's personal, and I can't. But thanks anyway."

"Must have something to do with Hutch," she surmised, and Starsky gaped at her, opening his mouth and then shutting it again. "As I was saying..."

"If you apologize to somebody for something, and they still don't forgive you, and make up, how do you deal with that? I mean, every relationship I've had, if I screwed up and said I was sorry, it was okay."

"Well, sometimes people making the same mistakes over and over again and keeping on apologizing for them doesn't make it right."

"I didn't think I was doing that, though. I did something I thought was a good thing to do...the right thing to do. I still think it was the right thing to do, and I don't get why it was so awful. But that doesn't matter. I'm willing to apologize for it because it upset him so much, and I was tryin' to do just the opposite by doin' it in the first place."

"Let me get this straight. You did something that you still don't think was all that bad, and you did it for Hutch, and he's mad about it and won't accept your apologies?"

"Yeah, that's about it. I don't know if I'm making 'the same mistakes over and over again'. Maybe I am."

"Why is he really angry? Can you tell me that much? Do you even understand why he's angry?"

"He's angry because of what I did, but he's more angry I didn't tell him about it. I wasn't trying to hide it, I just didn't think it was that important that he knew. It seemed like a detail."

"This is a little tricky to figure out hypothetically," Lizzie said, smiling. "If he's upset you didn't tell him something, then he's probably feeling betrayed, like you kept something from him--like you didn't trust him enough to confide in him. I know how that feels. My ex had a tendency to keep a lot of things to himself. Including the affair he was having, but besides that--he wasn't open with me. I felt like I never really knew him."

"That's what Hutch said--that he didn't feel like he knew me--and that's ridiculous. He knows me better than anybody else. We've been friends for years."

"One revelation can make you feel like you don't know your best friend, or a family member, or even a lover. If you and Hutch have the kind of friendship where you tell each other everything, and he's playing by those rules, and then he finds out that you aren't playing by them one hundred percent, he could feel a little betrayed."

"I don't know how to fix it," Starsky said, a heavy note of defeat in his voice. "And I'm kinda sick of tryin' to figure out how to say the right thing. I feel like it's some kinda IQ test. If I can say the right thing or identify the right issue, I win. If not, no deal."

"Maybe that's how I made Tony feel," Lizzie said, referring to her ex-husband. "He never understood that it wasn't about the fact he had sex with some bimbo he picked up in a bar. It was about the loss of trust. About going to work at night and not being able to trust that he was home with Jenny where he belonged. Or that when he went out, he was really going back to work to catch up and not scoping out the action at the nearest bar or meeting his girlfriend for a quickie. I knew I'd never trust him again."

"But I didn't do anything that bad to Hutch. At least, I didn't think it was that bad. I thought it was a good thing. I thought it was the right thing. I didn't see the point in telling him."

"Maybe you have to tell him things whether you see the point in it or not. Let him decide if it's important, but don't make that decision for him and keep it to yourself. Was it totally about not thinking it mattered, or were you sort of afraid how he'd react?" Lizzie moved the ice bag and Starsky flexed his hand, visibly feeling some relief.

"A little'a both, I guess," Starsky admitted. "Thanks," he said, holding up the bruised, clammy hand.

"Don't mention it. You're getting angry about this whole thing, or you wouldn't have been beating the crap out of the candy machine."

"It did eat my quarter."

"Starsky."

"Okay, I'm angry. I don't wanna be, but it just doesn't seem fair. I feel like he's poundin' me over the head with this thing and he doesn't want to hear what I have to say--he won't even let me talk about it. He says he needs space."

"That's tricky, closed up in a car together all day." Lizzie smiled, thinking about a minor squabble she'd had with Arturo over the way he'd handled questioning a suspect a few weeks earlier. Their time in the car had been fraught with tension and left both of them in horrible frames of mind until they resolved it. "Try to nail him down to fix this, because it's a bad distraction," she concluded, standing up. Starsky rose also, handing her back her file.

"Yeah, I know. I'm doing my best."

"Be honest with yourself, Starsky." Lizzie rested her hand on his arm. "Be honest with yourself about why you didn't tell him, and then maybe when you apologize one more time, it'll work."

"I'd hate like hell to be a perp you were interrogating in here," Starsky quipped, laughing softly.

"Sorry. I'm used to playing 'good cop' and wheedling information. I think it threatens Arturo's machismo for me to be the 'bad cop'."

"Have you mentioned that observation to him?" Starsky asked, as they left the room and headed down the hall toward the squadroom.

"What is this? You and Hutch are bickering so you want all the partnerships to be at odds around here?"

"Misery loves company," Starsky responded, grinning.

As they entered the squadroom, Lizzie went to join Flores at their desks, and Starsky found his partner sitting at the typewriter, pecking away with an intense look on his face.

"Nice of you to drop in," Hutch stated tightly. "In case you're interested, Dobey wants to see you, me, Lizzie and Flores in his office in ten minutes."

"Sorry. I got sidetracked."

"What the hell happened to your hand?" Hutch's gaze fixed on the bruised, scraped knuckles, and--to Starsky's utter shock--one large hand moved across the desks to gently hold his, turning it back and forth while Hutch examined it.

"I got into a fist fight with the candy machine."

"You're sure nothing's broken?" Hutch raised up a bit in his chair for a closer look, feeling the fingers of Starsky's hand carefully.

"No, but it ain't my hand." Starsky looked at Hutch for a long moment, his eyes a little too bright, then got up and pulled his hand away, striding quickly toward the doors and out of the squadroom.

"Dobey give you any idea what he wanted?" Arturo's question startled Hutch, who was still staring at the doors. He'd just put a note on Arturo's desk while the other man was on the phone.

"Huh?" Hutch looked at the note Arturo waved in his direction. "Oh, right. He wants to bring you and Lizzie in on the rape-murder case. I think he wants to use Lizzie as a decoy."

"What?!" Arturo's eyes bulged. "Over my dead ass," he retorted, his tone level but laced with an almost deadly anger.

"It's not like she hasn't done decoy work before. We all have. It's part of the job--going undercover."

"This animal rapes and beats women to death. If anything went wrong--"

"You, Starsky and I would be her back-up. Do you seriously think that any one of us would let something go wrong?"

"We might not be able to stop it. This is ridiculous. Busting conventioneers is one thing, but luring a guy like this--"

"Lizzie's lured a guy like this before. A serial killer who preyed on women at that dance club, Fever. He abducted her and almost killed her. But you know what? We found her because of a clue she'd left for us when she was grabbed. She's that good a cop. Some psycho killer grabbed her right out of her car in the parking garage, and she had the presence of mind to leave us a clue that ended up saving her life."

"She never said anything about that."

"Why would she? It was almost two years ago, and it all turned out well. Maybe she doesn't think she has to prove to you that she can handle herself in a dangerous situation. Trust me, she can."

"Maybe this guy you were after liked to play with his victims. This rapist doesn't mess around. If we lose her, even for ten minutes, it could be too late."

"Would it be all right with you two if I had some part in this discussion?" Lizzie joined them. "I appreciate the concern, but if there's some way I can help get this psycho off the streets before he attacks another woman, then I want to try it. Since the case Hutch was telling you about, I've taken karate and I'm a hell of a lot better shot. I learned from my mistakes in that situation. And I trust you guys to back me up."

"One mistake, and--"

"Arturo, look, I appreciate your concern, I really do," Lizzie said sincerely, "but this is one situation where being a woman is an advantage. You guys can't do this on your own, and the decoy you put in this position can't be some wet-behind-the-ears rookie whose best experience is prostitution sting operations."

"I'm not promising that I'm going along with this," Arturo stated flatly. "We'll have to see what Dobey has in mind."

"And while I appreciate your concern, partner, it's not your call," Lizzie said, keeping her tone gentle but assertive.

**********

Starsky looked at himself in the bathroom mirror, then rested his head against it a moment. It was bad enough that he was spending most of his day dwelling on a personal problem instead of his job, but that dramatic rush out of the squadroom was definitely not one of his finer moments. He looked at his reflection again and winced. His eyes were bloodshot and a little puffy, and after blowing his nose three times, he still sounded and felt congested.

It had been that touch, the genuine love and concern in that large hand that had held his...and the thought of losing that touch forever just because he'd made a mistake.

"Be honest with yourself about why you didn't tell him, and then maybe when you apologize one more time, it'll work."

Lizzie's words haunted him, and while he knew all the things he'd said about wanting to do what was best for Hutch and not wanting to hurt him more at the time were all true, he also knew that he'd feared Hutch's reaction to the fact that he'd offered Gillian money to leave town. It was a fairly demeaning thing for him to have done, and all over again, he felt that respect for Gillian that she'd not only not taken it, but not dignified it at all. Still, he hadn't known any more about her than the fact Hutch was infatuated with her. Hutch had also been infatuated with Vanessa, enough to marry her and ignore all the danger signals of what kind of life he was going to have. He'd been infatuated enough with Jeanie to risk his life to save her from Ben Forest, and paid a horrific price for it. Hutch wasn't lucky in love, and his passions for a particular woman could be so intense that he didn't really think too clearly. He thought with his heart when he was in love, and Starsky wasn't about to trust Hutch's heart, or possibly his life, to something so uncertain.

Maybe that's what hurts the most. He could ignore huge warning signs of trouble with the women he's loved; he took all sorts of emotional and mental abuse from Vanessa and yet she divorced him. But now, with me, he can distance himself over one single misstep I make. Our whole relationship hinges on one mistake made out of love.

Starsky splashed water on his face and resigned himself to looking like he'd either contracted a terrible head cold in the last fifteen minutes, or that he'd been doing just exactly what he'd done: crying in the men's room.

**********

Hutch, Flores and Lizzie were already in Dobey's office when Starsky joined them, coffee cup in hand.

"Sorry I'm late," he said quietly, finding a chair near Hutch. The proximity felt good, even if the walls were still there between them.

"Starsky, you look like hell," Dobey said. "If you've got a cold, you better go see the doctor. We're going to need you at the top of your game if we go ahead with this operation. You're all going to have to be at the top of your game for this."

"I'm fine, Cap'n. Just a little dose of the sniffles."

"All right, here's what we're looking at. Four women, all four raped, two severely beaten, one dead. The murder may have been accidental as a part of the beating or it may have been intentional. The women are from diverse backgrounds, they're physically dissimilar, and they don't know each other. The only thing they appear to have in common is patronage of the Sheridan Street branch of the public library, and a taste for steamy romance novels written by one particular author, Ramona Kensington." Dobey had one of the novels, entitled "Claimed," on his desk. He handed it to Lizzie, who grimaced, thumbing through the pages before handing it over to Arturo.

"Real bodice-ripper crap," she said. "I read one of her books when I was pregnant with Jenny and spent some time in the hospital."

"So they are rape-themed stories?" Starsky asked, accepting the book from Flores and showing it to Hutch. He turned it over and looked at the photo of an aristocratic-looking young woman on the back of the dustcover. Judging by the style of her clothing, the photo had been taken many years earlier. The biographical sketch merely stated she'd been born in Sacramento and resided most of her life in Bay City. She was the author of eighteen novels and numerous stories and articles before her retirement. "Guess this is a newer edition. Says here she's retired now."

"New edition, old photo, obviously," Lizzie added. "The novel I read involved this young, virginal woman taking a job as a governess for this wealthy widower--"

"Sounds like a "Jane Eyre" knock-off," Hutch commented.

"It was kind of an R-rated version of that, yes," Lizzie agreed. "Long and short of it is, he rapes her shortly after she arrives, slaps her around most of the time, and by the end of the book, both realize they're in love and she's pregnant from the rape, so everyone lives happily ever after. I have a friend who reads everything this woman writes, and it's all essentially the same sort of garbage. I guess you either go for that or you don't, and apparently, the women who go for it buy a lot of books."

"Anyway, our only tie-in is this one issue. Since we don't know how long before he strikes again, we don't have a lot of time to spare. I want to send one of our people to the library to start checking out these books. Be seen looking at them, carry them out in an obvious way so our boy can get a good look. Thorpe, given your experience with decoy work and your training and experience now working Homicide, I think you'd be the ideal person to handle this assignment. Now the folks at the library have already seen Starsky and Hutchinson, so Flores would be your contact on the inside. In case the perp is an employee or the relative of an employee, I don't want to plant Flores in a job there and have to take them into our confidence. But he would be frequenting the library on a daily basis, and you would be visiting it every couple of days to get a new one of these wonderful novels for your reading pleasure. Starsky and Hutchinson would handle surveillance from the outside, watching for our boy to show up."

"One question, Captain. These women were attacked in their homes. My daughter lives with me, and I don't want any risk of some psycho following me to my real home address."

"We'll get you set up in a rental place--somewhere we can watch you. You'll have to live there and not go home in between, because if the perp starts watching you, we want him to believe in your cover."

"So I'd be going undercover with a different identity for a period of time?"

"Yes. If you agree, we'll work out all the details of your cover. We already have a rental property in mind."

"I don't like it," Flores said flatly.

"You have a suggestion for improving the plan, Flores?" Dobey asked.

"Find a cop who can do the decoy job in drag. Putting a woman in this position is asking for a disaster. At least if there was a slip-up with a man in the middle of all of this, our pal couldn't do his thing."

"Please don't take this personally, gentlemen, but none of you would make a very fetching lady," Lizzie responded, smiling. "It's dangerous, but it sounds reasonable. I'll have good back-up." Lizzie nodded. "I'm all for it, Captain."

"Hey, I'm not convinced this is a good idea, and I'm your partner, remember?" Flores protested angrily.

"Flores, the only person with veto power on this plan is your partner," Dobey spoke up. "If she's in favor of it, it's an order."

"Come on, guys, help me out here," Flores said, turning to Starsky and Hutch, who had fallen wisely silent as Dobey moved from sharing an idea to issuing an order.

"If Lizzie's comfortable with doing this, we're behind it all the way," Starsky said. "It's her call as far as we're concerned."

"Absolutely," Hutch concurred. "It's dangerous as hell, but I think you know that," he said to Lizzie, who nodded.

"I know. But this animal is destroying these women's lives, and now he's turned into a killer. If this theory holds water, and he really is after ladies who read naughty novels, we owe it to his victims--to all the women in this community--to use that to our advantage to nail him."

"Then it's settled. We'll meet back here first thing tomorrow morning and plan our strategy, and get the ball rolling by tomorrow afternoon." Then, as an afterthought, he added, "Why don't you run a check on the author and see if you can find out where she is and what she's up to now?" he said to Flores. "I seriously doubt she's got anything to do with all this, but we should have the information. If this psycho is obsessed with her books, there's every possibility his obsession might extend to the author herself."

"Right, Captain," Flores responded, taking the book with him.

**********

"Thanks a hell of a lot for the support in there," Flores snapped at Hutch as he passed them, storming out the doors of the squadroom.

"Ditto," Lizzie said, only her expression was friendly and genuine.

"I just hope we're doing the right thing," Hutch said.

"So do I," Lizzie admitted. "It's a long shot, but I think we have to try it." She checked her watch. "Well, it's been a long day, guys. I'm going to head home and spend some time with my daughter. Might be a while before I can do that again."

"'Night, Lizzie," Starsky responded, and she waved back over her shoulder as she walked out, not looking behind her.

"Starsk, what happened? Are you sick?" Hutch asked, resting his hand on Starsky's shoulder.

"No, I'm not sick." He swallowed. "I'm goin' home, Hutch. I'm tired, and we've got a lot goin' on tomorrow."

"Okay. I was figuring on driving you home--"

"Don't bother. I borrowed a car from the motor pool." He looked at Hutch. "I guess I need some space now."

"Is this some kind of...punishment for me?" Hutch asked quietly, aware of their surroundings.

"No. But I can't take any more'a this today. I've got a headache and I'm tired and I just wanna go home."

"Is your hand okay?"

"Still there," Starsky said, flexing it a little. "See you tomorrow, Hutch."

Hutch watched as his partner left the squadroom, a definite slump to his shoulders. At loose ends, Hutch grabbed his jacket and headed out the door, planning to stop at Huggy's for something to eat before going home and putting in another empty night.

**********

The Pits was already jumping with the dinner crowd by the time Hutch arrived and found the last empty booth.

"Hey, you look lopsided," Anita greeted cheerfully, setting a beer down in front of him. He hadn't placed his order yet, so was surprised to see two beers on her tray--his and Starsky's "regular." She set the other on the table. "You want to order now or wait for Starsky?"

"It's just me tonight. Bring me a burger and a salad, huh?"

"Sure. So where's that gorgeous partner of yours?"

"He had other plans," Hutch lied, smiling a little.

"You let him out alone, huh? Very trusting, you are. I wouldn't let that boy out of my sight if he were mine," she joked, chuckling. "I'll be right back with your salad. You want that burger medium with the usual stuff on it?"

"Yeah, that's great," Hutch responded, managing to keep up a pleasant expression until she'd left.

"I wouldn't let that boy out of my sight if he were mine." If he were mine...

He is mine and I'm making him suffer. I prayed so hard for him to survive, to be all right, to stay with me. He did, and now I'm treating him this way?

But can I base the rest of our relationship on the fact that I'm happy he's alive? Is that enough to smooth over any of the rough spots? Sometimes everything else seems trivial by comparison, but should it?

"Thinkin' that hard can do brain damage," Huggy said, sliding into the other side of the booth. "Where's Starsky?"

"Am I not allowed to go anywhere without him?" Hutch snapped.

"Sorry, my man. Guess I hit a nerve."

"No, I'm sorry, Hug."

"You two must'a had some blowout."

"What makes you say that?"

"Call it a wild guess."

"We had an argument."

"I figured. You wanna talk about it?"

"Not really." Hutch took a drink of his beer.

"You orderin' 'em two at a time now?" Huggy pointed at the extra beer Anita had left on the table.

"Anita assumed Starsky was with me."

"I see. You mind?" Huggy reached for the beer.

"No."

"So what'd he do that's got you so mad?"

"I just said I didn't want to talk about it."

"I heard ya. Didn't believe it, though."

"He kept something from me. Something important." Hutch's voice dropped. "Something about Gillian."

"Gillian? That was years ago."

"Did you know that Starsky tried to pay her off to get out of town?"

"No, I didn't know that. I know he had me check her out, but I didn't know what he did about it until I got the tip that Grossman was goin' after her."

"He tried to pay her to leave town. And he never told me."

"She was gonna stay and level with you, right?"

"Right."

"Starsky told you he talked to her."

"Yeah, he told me."

"So you're just mad he didn't tell you about the money."

"It's pretty important, Huggy. I was in love with her, and not only did he go behind my back--which I never felt real good about, but I got over it--but he offered her over four grand to hit the road."

"Where would Starsky get four grand in a hurry?"

"His savings and his retirement fund," Hutch responded, taking another drink of beer.

"Let me get this straight. Starsky puts his savings and his old age money on the line tryin' to protect you from your legendary fine taste in women, and you're mad about that?"

"Thanks for putting it that way, pal," Hutch said with a humorless snort of laughter.

"Sorry, my man. I just don't see what you got to be so mad about."

"It's my life, Huggy. That's not even really the issue here."

"Then enlighten me, before I give you the bartender's 'dumbest argument story of the year' award."

"He lied to me."

"About what?"

"Haven't you ever heard of a lie of omission? Makes me wonder how many other omissions are floating around out there. If he thinks I won't like it, he just doesn't tell me?"

"Sounds like you're throwin' away the baby with the bathwater."

"Excuse me?" Hutch looked up at Huggy as the other man got up to leave the booth.

"Old saying of my mother's. Kinda like throwin' out all the good with just a little bit of the bad. Ain't none of us walkin' around that's perfect. You just gotta be careful not to throw out somethin' real important while you're worryin' about the little stuff."

"I never said I was throwing anything out. I haven't dissolved the partnership. I just...needed time to think this through."

"Sometimes you do some bad damage holdin' onto somethin' too long. Just be careful. You and Starsky...you got somethin' special."

"Yeah, I know. I probably better go have a talk with him."

"Now you're on to somethin'. You want me to have Anita bag you up some food to go?"

"Yeah. Dinner for two."

**********

Hutch knocked on Starsky's front door, concerned not to see any lights burning. Shifting the take-out bag to his left arm, he fumbled for his key to Starsky's front door and let himself into the apartment. He was a bit startled to see a solitary figure sitting on the couch in the dark.

"Starsk? I knocked--"

"I heard ya. Maybe I'm not interested in talkin' right now."

"That why you're sitting here in the dark?" Hutch turned on a lamp, and Starsky blinked a few times at the change in lighting. "I brought dinner."

"Not hungry."

"Okay. It'll keep." Hutch set the food on the table and went to the living room, sitting on the couch close to his partner. Starsky still wore his jacket, and looked as if he'd walked in the door from work and sat on the couch and never moved. "How's your hand?" Hutch asked, picking up the bruised hand that rested on Starsky's thigh.

"Still there." Starsky let it lie like a dead fish in Hutch's hand until Hutch drew it up to his mouth and kissed the bruised knuckles. "Don't." Starsky pulled his hand away. "Don't start somethin' and then walk outta here again."

"Who said anything about walking out? Starsk, I want to talk this out with you, if you're still interested in listening."

"What made you pick now?" Starsky still hadn't looked Hutch in the eye since he'd arrived.

"I know it's stupid, but when I touched you in the squadroom, when you were hurting and I couldn't help..."

"You didn't say anything."

"You left in a car from the motor pool. What was I supposed to do? I ended up going to Huggy's, and he sort of nudged me in the right direction. He said I was 'throwing out the baby with the bathwater'."

"Ma used to say that sometimes."

"You deserve an explanation for why I was so upset about this whole mess."

"I kept something from you. I got that point, Hutch."

"That's true, you did. But I overreacted." Hutch stood up and started pacing. "When I was married to Vanessa, I kept discovering things she was keeping from me. Some of them were little things. Money she spent that she shouldn't have, running around with male 'friends' that I really knew, deep down, were more than friends. Even the last time I saw her, she was lying to me. My whole marriage was one giant betrayal of every single vow we took."

"I'm not Vanessa," Starsky said.

"No. God, no, you're not. I know that. I just felt this overwhelming sense of deja vu when I found that bank book entry, and there was this situation that was so...relevant to me that you hadn't told me everything about--"

"I said I was sorry. I can't go back and change the fact that I offered her money, and I can't go back now and tell you about it when you think I should have. Honest to God, Hutch, I didn't mean to lie to you. But if you're gonna punish me this way every time I make a mistake because you had a bad time of it with Vanessa, I'm not gonna always be sittin' here waiting for absolution."

"I told you before that I wasn't trying to punish you. I needed time to work through this, to get over it, to not be angry about it. All we would've done was fight if we'd kept on talking about it. What I was trying to say before...I didn't say it very well." Hutch sat on the coffee table across from Starsky. "My first experience at marriage wasn't exactly great. As a matter of fact, I've never had a serious relationship yet that didn't either involve a whole lot of deception or...or getting dumped. Before we got together, I'd pretty much made up my mind I wasn't going to take a chance on it again."

"If you can't trust me now, Hutch, you're not ever gonna trust me. And if what I did, or the fact that I didn't tell you about it, wipes out all those years of trusting each other, I know I'm never gonna live up to your standards. I can try, but I know now I'm never gonna make it."

"It doesn't wipe out trusting each other. I trust you with my life, Starsky."

"Yeah, but do you trust me with your heart? Do you trust me as much as you did before you found out about that money?" Starsky sighed. "Maybe I'm super sensitive about this because I'm just a little bit guilty."

"Of what?"

"Of keeping this under my hat. Most of it was because I thought you just couldn't handle much more right then, and later, it didn't seem all that meaningful once you'd put the whole mess behind you. But maybe I let myself believe that, and didn't tell you, because deep down, I was afraid of how you'd react. Of what you'd think of me offering to pay her off. So maybe I'm not so perfect. Most of my reasons for not telling you were exactly what I explained last night. But there's this little part of me that didn't wanna own up and face the music. So maybe I'm no better than Vanessa was when it comes down to it."

"There's no comparison between you and Vanessa, babe." Hutch reached out and took Starsky's hands in his. "I know why you did it. I know you did it because you love me and you were trying to protect me. I love you for protecting me. It's what we do--watch each other's backs. Just...I need you to level with me and not do things behind my back. Even if you do it for all the right reasons, I just don't like that feeling that you're stepping in and making changes in my life without giving me the full story."

"I know. I'm sorry about that, and I'm sorry I didn't tell you about it. I'll try not to just barge in and fix things anymore. Can't promise I won't fall off the wagon if I think you need me." Starsky's mouth twitched upward a little.

"You're always there when I need you, buddy." Hutch reached out, laying his hand against Starsky's cheek. "I'm sorry I was so hard on you about this. You didn't deserve to be hurt so much for something you did because you loved me."

"Still wanna play house with me?" Starsky asked, grinning.

"For the next fifty or sixty years, sure."

"Maybe we can get the mortgage paid off in that time," Starsky joked, tugging on Hutch's hands to move him over to the couch. Hutch readily complied, pulling Starsky into his arms. "I missed you so much," Starsky whispered against Hutch's shoulder, holding on tightly.

"Glad I'm not the only one. I thought I had to be nuts missing you like I did when we were sitting together in the same car." Hutch pulled back enough to rest his forehead against Starsky's.

"You know what this means, don't you?"

"What?"

"We've got two nights' worth to do in one night."

"Guess we better get started on it then." Hutch covered Starsky's mouth with his own, his tongue hungrily demanding entrance. Starsky's response was instant, his mouth opening and sealing with Hutch's, a little groan escaping the back of his throat.

Hutch fumbled with Starsky's jacket, unwilling to break the kiss. He felt the scrape of the zipper's metal teeth and the softness of well-worn leather, then the warmth of Starsky's body beneath the cotton of his shirt. Somehow, they divested Starsky of his jacket, just as Starsky became impatient with the jacket Hutch was still wearing, tugging at the soft suede until it surrendered.

When faced with the holsters, they finally parted for air, laughing and gasping a little at their own intensity. Both men dispensed with their own holsters and then went for each other's buttons, managing to open both shirts simultaneously. Starsky pounced on Hutch, pushing him back down on the cushions, climbing on top of him on the couch, pressing their bodies tight together as he devoured Hutch's mouth again. Reluctantly leaving Hutch's mouth, Starsky trailed hot, eager lips along Hutch's jaw to his neck, where he nipped and sucked at the tender flesh. Hutch's hands were in Starsky's hair, tugging him back up for more kisses.

Starsky worked on the stubborn button and zipper on Hutch's jeans, moving away from Hutch's mouth again as the material opened. Freeing the hardening column from its confines, he captured it in his mouth, sucking almost desperately.

"Oh, God, Starsk..." Hutch gasped, arching into the hot suction, feeling nimble fingers sliding into his underwear, easing it down farther and taking possession of the globes of Hutch's ass, squeezing and kneading. Just as he was beginning to soar with the sensations, the eager mouth left him.

"Want you, babe," Starsky whispered against Hutch's ear. "Wanna take you to bed and make love to you so good you'll never wanna sleep without me again."

"Oh, Starsk," Hutch said, taking Starsky's face in his hands, "I never wanted to sleep without you anyway. You don't have to prove anything to me. In bed or anywhere else."

"I thought you were gonna leave me for a while there," Starsky admitted. "I didn't know how to fix things."

"Be pretty tough leaving the other half of my soul," Hutch responded gently, pulling Starsky down for a long, slow kiss. "Let's go to bed."

The trip to the bedroom was a little clumsy, disarrayed clothing slowing them a bit until they shed the rest of it in a heap next to the bed. With just the glow of the living room lamp and a little moonlight to illuminate the room, they wound together in the middle of the bed, kissing and caressing, reassuring each other of their love.

Starsky finally broke away long enough to reach into the nightstand drawer for the lube. He moved back over Hutch, kissing him again, before moving back on his knees between legs Hutch spread eagerly for him. While his lubricated finger eased inside the snug opening, Starsky stroked the heavy balls with his tongue, sucking gently, working his way to the underside of the rigid shaft. He added a second finger and began stretching, brushing over Hutch's prostate firmly.

"Starsk...do it, babe. Now," Hutch gasped, bearing down on the probing fingers.

Starsky looked up at him from between the widely parted thighs, then moved up for another kiss.

"I love you," he said, kissing Hutch again.

"I love you, too. How about showing me, huh?" he added, smiling and running his hand back through Starsky's hair.

"You gettin' a little eager there, Blondie?"

"Starsky, if you tease me now, I may have to kill you."

"It'd almost be worth it to see the look on Dobey's face at the murder scene," Starsky retorted, chuckling. "Okay, babe, no more games," he concluded, moving back and kissing the inside of Hutch's raised thigh before helping to get his partner's legs over his shoulders.

He eased in slowly, gently, since Hutch was urging him on before he'd done much stretching. When he was fully sheathed, he waited, letting his partner adjust. Hutch was breathing heavily, his features looking a bit strained.

"Everything okay, darlin'?" Starsky asked softly.

"Guess...I'm still a little...uptight," Hutch managed.

"Just relax, babe. Breathe deep and relax." Starsky began stroking the slightly faltering erection. It responded immediately to his touch. "That's it, partner, just relax and enjoy yourself." Starsky fought to keep the strain out of his own voice, resisting the urge to start thrusting. He could feel some easing of Hutch's muscles, and he knew without being told when to move.

They set an easy rhythm, neither wanting this to end too quickly. Hutch reached up and Starsky took the cue, joining hands with his partner, lacing their fingers. Hutch wanted to come from the motion of their union alone.

Slowly, the room filled with the sounds of their lovemaking. Their joint moans of pleasure mingled with the rhythmic creak of the bedsprings and the gentle slap of flesh on flesh. Hutch let out a long cry, his whole body tensing and arching as his internal muscles squeezed and massaged Starsky. Hutch's climax brought Starsky to his own peak, with a few passionate shouts of his lover's name.

Long moments later, as he slowly came back to his senses, Starsky eased the long legs off his shoulders and moved up into arms that were waiting for him.

"You're still mine," Starsky whispered against the silky blond hair, burying his nose in it, as if trying to absorb as much reassurance as he could of Hutch's presence. "Love ya so much," he whispered.

"I'm always yours, babe. And I know you're always mine." Hutch smiled, resting his forehead against Starsky's. "I just have to get used to being in love with the person I trust most in the world. This is the first time for me the two have mixed, and I guess I'm not used to it yet."

"You've had some rough times, darlin'. Trouble is, you were with people who were just using you, or didn't bother to see how beautiful you were inside, or were too blind to see what they were missing out on by walking away. 'Course, that worked out for me. Left the field wide open." Starsky flexed his eyebrows, and Hutch laughed softly.

"You make me sound too perfect, buddy."

"Nobody's perfect, but in my book, you're damn close."

"So are you."

"We're real lucky to have found each other then, aren't we?" Starsky joked, kissing Hutch lightly.

"I'd say we're just about the luckiest people alive," Hutch responded in complete seriousness, moving in for another kiss.

**********

Starsky was stunned to have awakened before the alarm clock intruded on his rest. His head still shared a pillow with Hutch, their bodies still lightly entwined. He risked enough movement to draw the covers over Hutch's shoulder, which was probably a little too cool being bare all night. Hutch stirred a little but didn't wake up.

Treasuring this rare moment to study his sleeping partner, Starsky took in the strong features, the full lips slightly parted in sleep and a bit pinker from the previous night's kissing, the pale lashes that matched the impossibly soft, silky blond hair that was in a wonderfully sexy disarray. Yeah, somebody made love to you real good last night, didn't they? So good that Mr. Rise'n'Shine is sleeping so hard the alarm is gonna have trouble getting through.

Seeing that they had only moments before the rude intrusion of the ringing alarm, Starsky decided to wake his partner a little more gently. Easing down under the covers, he found the beginnings of a morning erection and took it in his mouth, sucking gently. The long legs shifted, a warm thigh resting even closer to his cheek as he worked.

Then, with a groan, Hutch was awake, gasping a little, his hand finding Starsky's head under the covers and stroking his hair.

"Oh, yeah, babe. Ugh, yeah, that's good," Hutch panted, beginning to thrust gently now into the eager mouth that surrounded him. A moment later he came, feeling deliciously spent and sated.

"'Mornin', beautiful," Starsky said, moving up and pulling Hutch into his arms. His own rigid erection was rubbing against Hutch's thigh.

"We need to take care of you." Hutch's large hand wandered down to cup Starsky's ass. "Got an idea," he said, stroking Starsky's cock teasingly before rolling over and drawing up his knees.

The thought of some nice, slow, sleepy morning sex was too enticing to refuse. Groping for the lube, Starsky added a little to himself before probing the opening he still found slick. Carefully easing inside, he spooned around Hutch, holding him close. Neither moved for several long seconds. Then Starsky slowly pumped in and out, both men savoring the closeness and content to prolong the union.

Though he enjoyed the sensations, Hutch's sated body wasn't quite ready for another climax. He relaxed and felt Starsky reaching his, moving a little faster, broken cries of pleasure sending warm breath against Hutch's neck.

They were silent and still for a long time, staying joined, making no move to separate or face the day. Starsky's hand moved up in a lazy caress of Hutch's chest, brushing over sensitive nipples. Hutch captured the hand and frowned at the slight discoloration of bruising and the scrapes that were left behind from Starsky's run in with the vending machine. The frown softened into a smile when he saw the glint of the gold bracelet on Starsky's wrist. No matter what, it had never been removed since Hutch put it there Christmas morning. He kissed the bruised hand.

"Does it hurt much?"

"Only when I move it," Starsky said, a heavy trace of humor in his voice. "Nah, it's nothin' serious." He rubbed his cheek against Hutch's hair. "Hutch?"

"Hm?"

"I promise I won't keep any secrets from you on purpose anymore. It's not that I ever wanted to lie to you or keep things from you, but I guess...I guess I just did. I've got no good reason for it."

"I shouldn't have brought anything up about your childhood. I understand why you didn't talk about that before. As for this other situation, it's over and done with, babe."

"There really isn't anything else. Honest. I'll do my best to make sure there never is. I don't want you to worry about that."

"I'm not worried." Hutch closed his eyes and relaxed, still holding Starsky's hand, still feeling him inside his body pressed up against him. "There's something I should tell you, too."

"What?"

"It was unfair of me not to say it to you when you asked me, but I was angry and holding onto it.... Just because we have a fight or I say I need space, you don't have to be afraid I'm going to leave you. If it were legal, if there were some way to do it, I'd marry you in a heartbeat. People have differences, they fight sometimes, sometimes it gets ugly...but there's just about nothing I can think of that would make me leave you for good. I don't know as I could."

"Guess I'm a little skittish about that. I never did fall in love with somebody who stuck around very long," Starsky admitted quietly, resting his head against Hutch's. "I just know I can't get by without ya, darlin'. I can handle all the other stuff, but not that."

"I know. Believe me, I know. Last year, after you were shot...for that time before you woke up..." Hutch let the thought hang there a moment. "I know what it feels like to face my life without you being part of it, and you know what? I didn't want it. So don't worry about me taking off anytime soon over an argument, okay?" Hutch kissed the hand he was holding.

"Okay."

"Dobey said 'first thing' for that meeting," Hutch reminded regretfully.

"Think we could stay here another ten minutes and still make 'first thing'?"

"Not if we want to take a nice, hot shower--together."

"You're right. That could take a while," Starsky concluded, planting a loud, smacking kiss on Hutch's shoulder.

**********

Karen Patterson lived at 245 Hunter Street in a tidy first-floor unit of a two-unit rental property. She was a divorcee who was currently searching for work, filling her unemployed hours with visits to the library to catch up on reading her favorite author--Ramona Kensington. An attractive strawberry blonde with a good sense of fashion, she cut an attractive figure as she made her way into the Sheridan Street Library.

Few people would have guessed that she was really an undercover homicide detective named Lizzie Thorpe who truly couldn't stand Ramona Kensington's cliched steamy bodice-rippers.

As she made a show of browsing the shelves of romance novels in the fiction area, she was oblivious to the intense observation she was receiving from Arturo, dressed in a sweatshirt and jeans, fake glasses in place, sitting at a table littered with psychology books. Masquerading as a college student doing research, he kept a close eye on the movements of his partner.

Meanwhile, ensconced in Hutch's less-obtrusive car, parked on the street that ran alongside the library, Starsky and Hutch shared a bag of take-out food from The Pits and watched the comings and goings around the building and parking lot. They noted general descriptions of the male library patrons and their cars, and waited for Lizzie to emerge to see if she snared any interested followers.

"You think Flores'll back off long enough for someone to get close to her?" Starsky asked, chewing a large bite of his hamburger.

"As long as we're doing stuff like this--daytime surveillance--I'm sure of it. What I'm worried about is that he's going to interfere with things too soon if we do hook our boy and he makes a move."

"At least if we arrest him for something, we can get the blood and semen samples from him. If he's seen following Lizzie and then breaks into her place, that oughtta be enough."

"Yeah, it will be. Provided Arturo doesn't jump him before he gets into the house. Lizzie's planning to do some napping in the daytime and spend the nights in bed with her gun."

"Gives target practice a whole new meaning," Starsky quipped, reaching for some fries.

"Pervert," Hutch responded, laughing.

"How're things goin' with Arturo and Caroline? He say anything to you about how they're gettin' along?"

"Not recently. I guess there's nothing new on that front. Why?"

"He's in love with Lizzie. That's obvious as hell."

"If you're talking about his reaction to this assignment, I wouldn't want you going undercover to lure some maniac who raped and beat men. I wouldn't have wanted it whether we were lovers or not."

"I know. But look where we ended up. All I'm sayin' is that they're more than just partners."

"As far as I know, they're keeping it platonic."

"I hope they can. It's just all over his face when he looks at her. I've seen people look less interested on their wedding day."

"Here she comes," Hutch said, shifting a bit in the seat, watching as Lizzie made her way down the sidewalk from the front entrance and across the parking lot toward her car.

"I'm lookin' at a guy in a green station wagon," Starsky said.

"Where?"

"Two rows over from Lizzie. See that pea green thing with all the rust on it? There's a guy in there. Shit, where are the binoculars?" Starsky started rifling the glove box, then hung over the front seat so he could dig around in the back. He finally straightened with the binoculars in hand. "I think you've got something growin' back there."

"Very funny."

"Looks like a younger guy. Kind of slimy-looking. He's checkin' her out." Starsky watched a few more seconds as Lizzie got into her car--or rather, Karen Patterson's car--a bright yellow Chevette, and drove out of the lot.

"Shit. He's got a girlfriend or wife or something," Starsky said as a young woman hurried out of the library and got into the car he'd been watching. The two occupants kissed, and the car pulled out of the lot and headed in the opposite direction.

"Mr. Blue Plymouth Fury doesn't," Hutch said, nodding toward the large blue car that pulled slowly away from the curb.

"He wasn't at a good angle to see what she was carrying out for books--unless he just stalks ladies at the library."

"Nobody else is following her, so let's see if he does," Hutch suggested.

They followed the blue car, which remained a good distance behind the yellow one Lizzie drove, until he turned down another side street.

"You think he made us?" Starsky asked, as they continued in the direction Lizzie was driving.

"No. I'll call in his plate number. My guess would be he lives down there."

Hutch's guess proved to be right, and the remainder of their day was spent discreetly tailing Lizzie. Unfortunately, they appeared to be the only ones interested in tailing her. A very long week passed during which they learned more than they ever wanted to know about the patrons of the Sheridan Street Library and their comings and goings, but no sign of a man tailing Lizzie or even nibbling at the bait.

**********

"I hate all-nighters," Starsky grumbled, shifting again in the back seat of Hutch's car.

"Quit your bitching. I even cleaned out my car for you, you ungrateful asshole," Hutch teased, taking another drink of his coffee. "And I agreed to take the first shift. So what have you got to complain about?"

"Plenty. There're better things I could have up my ass right now than one of your broken seat springs." Starsky grinned, still keeping his eyes closed, listening to the slight choking sound from the front seat.

"Damn you," Hutch muttered, wiping his chin with a napkin.

"Big, long, smooth, hard things...pumping in and out and in and out--"

"Don't make me come back there," Hutch warned, waving a finger in Starsky's general direction.

"What do I have to do to get you back here, Blondie?"

"Starsk, give me a break. What's the point in having a hard-on you can't do anything with?"

"I could take care'a myself back here. I'm not worried."

"That'd work great if you had to shove it back in your pants and get out of the car, wouldn't it?"

"Ouch." Starsky let out a long sigh. "Okay, so whaddya wanna do instead?"

"I thought you were taking a nap."

"Your back seat isn't as comfortable as the Torino's."

"Bullshit. It's bigger. There's nothing wrong with my back seat."

"Your back seat is perfect, darlin'. It's the car's I'm not sold on."

"Starsky."

"Sorry. So when do we get off?" Hearing Hutch's exasperated sigh, he hastened to add, chuckling, "Sorry, babe. Bad choice of words."

"Garner and Hughes will take an early morning stint from six until eleven. At eleven, Lizzie's going out to do some fake job hunting. Dobey wants us to follow her during the day."

"If she's not goin' to the library, what's the point? What's the point'a the whole thing, for that matter? It's starting to look like we're barking up the wrong tree here."

"All we know is that we haven't seen the guy follow her. We don't know that he didn't get her name or address off her library card. Arturo said there was a male custodian and a male librarian on duty yesterday. The custodian was using spot remover on the carpeting not far from where Lizzie checked out her book, and the librarian was re-shelving books. Both probably saw her, both possibly could have seen what title she was checking out. If one of them makes a move, we wouldn't have a lot of warning. They could start tailing her from here."

"I guess she can't go to the library every day." Starsky was quiet a minute. "I wonder if he scopes out bookstores, too, or just the library."

"All four women had library books."

"They aren't the only women who've been raped in Bay City in the last few months. Maybe we're missing somebody that should be part of this."

"We have everyone who was attacked in a similar situation where the entry pattern and MO matched."

"Doesn't mean he couldn't vary his entry pattern based on opportunity."

"True."

"All'a this overtime should help the down payment fund, anyway."

"There is that," Hutch agreed, seeing a slightly brighter side to their extended hours. "What time've you got?"

"Almost two. If you're sleepy, I'll trade with ya. I'm awake anyhow."

"Feeling okay?"

"I think I went at it a little hard with the weights the other day. My side's hurting a little."

"I'm sorry about that, babe."

"Why? You didn't do it, I did."

"Because I think you're still upset about our argument."

"You can't stop arguing with me because I'm too stupid not to take it out on myself in the gym," Starsky responded, laughing a little. "Or on the vending machines."

"You must've been pretty angry."

"I was." Starsky straightened to a sitting position. "I was mad at you for makin' me sweat it out, and we couldn't talk about it, so I guess I just had to get it out somehow. The weights and the vending machine were in the wrong places at the wrong times I guess," he concluded, shrugging.

"Guess it's a good thing I let you take it out on them first," Hutch said, smiling.

"I never would'a taken it out on you anyhow. I love ya too much." Starsky moved up to lean on the front seat. "Wouldn't hurt a hair on that gorgeous blond head'a yours." He trailed his fingers through the back of Hutch's hair.

"This sure has been a miserable few nights," Hutch lamented, leaning into the stroking hand. "When this is over--"

"No hard-on discussions, remember?"

"Yeah, right," Hutch conceded, laughing. "Let's just say you and I have a date with drawn shades and an unplugged phone."

"No arguments there. But hey, it could be worse. At least we're miserable together."

"Maybe it's not so miserable after all then," Hutch said, catching the questing hand and kissing it.

**********

Lizzie had dozed off and on during the first four hours of the night. Lying awake in bed all night had seemed like a good idea in the swell of enthusiasm of planning the assignment, but after the first full week of absolutely no action, she couldn't seem to find the adrenaline to lie in bed and not nod off. The telephone startled her. Frowning, she rolled over and picked it up.

"Hello?"

"Hey, baby, gettin' lonely over there?" a sultry male voice asked.

"It's four a.m., Artie." She barely stifled a laugh at Flores' somewhat pathetic attempt to sound like a phone pervert.

"So? You're supposed to be awake anyway."

"I was. But what's your excuse? You're supposed to be asleep so you can be eagle-eyed tomorrow."

"Couldn't sleep. I should've been doing the stake-out with Starsky and Hutch."

"Having three of you sit there would be a huge waste of effort. Besides, they're going to watch out for me. I'll be fine. But thanks for checking up on me."

"It's not too late for you to back out of this assignment, Liz. Please think about it. This guy doesn't play games. You could get hurt."

"I know. But I think about what he did to those women, and I just can't let that go. Not if I can do something to get him off the streets. I wanted to get into real police work, and that's what I'm doing."

"Okay. Can't blame me for trying." He was quiet a minute. "You've got a lot of guts."

"Thanks, partner. I'm a little jumpy, if you wanna know the truth."

"I still don't know why I couldn't be your upstairs neighbor or something. That apartment's vacant over you." There was the sound of another voice in the room, and Arturo covered the phone and said something in response. "I gotta go. Um...be careful, huh?"

"I will. Get some sleep. I'm in good hands."

"Yeah, I know. Be careful."

"You said that already."

"Oh, right." There was a pause. "'Night, Liz.

**********

In a thicket of shrubs not far from the small two-unit, a dark-clad man adjusted his binoculars. The sheer curtains in the bedroom obscured his view, but he was sure she was in there. It would be dawn soon.

This wasn't the night...not yet. But soon.

**********

The next day proved to be as boring and uneventful as its predecessors. "Karen" went to several shops and boutiques and picked up job applications, did some light grocery shopping and went back to her apartment. Then, just as day turned to dusk, she surprised her two bodyguards by heading out to her car, getting in and starting down the street.

"What the hell's she doing?" Starsky asked, straightening in his seat while Hutch started up the engine.

"This isn't part of the plan," he said evenly. "Looks like she's moving the timetable up a little. She's heading for the library."

"But Flores isn't there!"

"Maybe that's why she's doing it," Hutch said, watching his speed to stay a good enough distance behind Lizzie that anyone watching her wouldn't also pick up on their presence. "I think she's worried about the same thing you were--that he won't let anybody get close without scaring them off."

"It's getting dark. I don't like this."

"If we're gonna draw this guy out, we've got to take some chances. I think we're all so busy protecting Lizzie because she's a friend that we haven't thought like cops. We're all acting like a bunch of big brothers. She's thinking like a cop. This guy isn't going to stalk her in broad daylight." Hutch pulled up to the curb on the street across from the library. They both watched Lizzie get out of her car and hurry inside, holding the book she'd checked out the day before. "It would have been better to have someone inside, just in case that's where he is."

"I could go in and look around a little, pretend I'm just there for the magazines."

"Suppose that girl or Ms. Quinn are working? A nice, loud, 'Good evening, Detective' ought to fuck us up royally."

"You're right."

"We'll just have to wait and keep an eye on her. His MO has been to attack them at home, so we've got no reason to expect he'll do anything here."

"What's taking so long?"

"I swear, you're worse than Flores. She's been in there about three minutes. She couldn't pick out a book that fast."

A few minutes later, Lizzie emerged from the library with another novel and got into her car. She drove back to her apartment and went inside. There was no sign of anyone but Starsky and Hutch tailing her.

"Nothin'," Starsky grumbled, shifting restlessly in the seat. Just then the radio came to life with an emphatic "officer down" and "armed robbery" call. The address wasn't more than ten blocks away in the nearby business district.

"Call Lizzie and let her know she's on her own," Hutch said, pulling away from the curb as Starsky called them in as responding. He then asked to be patched through to Lizzie, informing her that they were on their way to an officer down and would be back as soon as possible.

**********

Lizzie hung up the phone and sighed. She'd made the little trip to the library hoping to attract the attention of the man they were looking for, but now that she was alone, she found herself hoping, deep down, that she hadn't succeeded. Though nighttime brought a certain creepiness to it, knowing she was being watched by two cops she trusted who had saved her life once before had taken most of the fear out of the assignment. She glanced at the phone and thought of calling Arturo, but that was absurd. Starsky and Hutch would probably be back in position before he could get there, not to mention the fact it would be less than popular with his wife for him to run off to Lizzie's undercover apartment just because she had a case of the jitters.

Clad in a robe and slippers, she went to the small kitchen and filled the tea kettle, setting it on the burner to heat while she looked through the small box of assorted tea bags she'd brought with her. Hopefully, the tea would have the unusual combination of giving her a little caffeine to help her stay awake while relaxing her a bit at the same time. She smiled as she looked through the assortment, which Arturo had tossed in her carton of provisions. She'd only mentioned in passing liking a cup of tea to help her unwind in the evening, and he'd remembered it and picked out a very nice variety of herbal teas from a health food store she favored.

I know it's corny, but damn, all the good ones are taken, she thought dismally, jumping a little at the whistle of the tea kettle. He's smart, sexy as hell in a sort of understated way, with those big brown eyes and that killer smile, kind, caring--and chivalrous. She smiled at her own thoughts as she bobbed the little teabag up and down in the cup of hot water. She'd fought so hard to be taken seriously as a cop that if someone had asked her how she'd have felt to be paired off with a "chivalrous" partner before being hooked up with Flores, she would have cringed. Now, thinking of how genuinely worried he was about her safety on this assignment, the way he always opened the door for her, the way he was always ready to do the chasing or the tackling, but somehow managed to let her have equal time to use her own skills in subduing suspects...

"Damn," she muttered to herself, setting the tea bag on the saucer and taking a sip of the drink. She'd been on the other side of the coin--she'd been the wife who discovered her husband was cheating and was left to raise her daughter alone. How could she do that to Caroline? Arturo's wife was a lovely person and a wonderful mother. They'd had more and more problems since her miscarriage, and Arturo had confided that his wife was seeing a therapist now to work through her depression and grief over that loss.

How could I walk in now and take her husband away, too? For that matter, even if we gave in to what we both know we're feeling for each other, could he actually walk away from her after what they've just been through? Could he leave Alicia? Could either of us live with ourselves for taking what we wanted regardless of the cost?

Sighing, she took her tea with her into the bedroom and set it on the nightstand. She picked up the novel she'd just checked out of the library and wished it held any lure. Then again, a nice cup of tea and a good book probably would have put her to sleep, and that wasn't the goal. She checked to be sure her gun was safely under her pillow and tossed her robe on the foot of the bed, slipping between the sheets and stuffing enough pillows behind her back to sit up comfortably. Thinking she might gain some insight into what made the killer tick, she opened the Ramona Kensington novel and scanned a few pages.

**********

"You think Lizzie's called in another unit by now?" Hutch asked, watching the ambulance drive away carrying Simmons, who had been wounded in the shoulder, and his partner, Babcock, whom Hutch was sure had lost several years off his life when his partner went down. Fortunately, it appeared the wound's greatest threat was blood loss, and as soon as Babcock had dropped the shooter, he'd been diligently applying pressure to the wound. Starsky and Hutch had been at the scene for about forty-five minutes.

"Dobey said to call Garner and Hughes if we needed extra help, so she probably did. We better head back over there and see what's up." Starsky watched as the coroner's wagon picked up the remains of the shooter. "Glad it wasn't the other way around this time," he said, getting into the passenger seat of Hutch's car.

"That asshole's got a rap sheet a mile long. Gotta love parole boards," Hutch commented, starting up the engine. "The girl he shot in his first robbery is still a vegetable, but she's not dead, so he's out on the streets."

"Well, Babcock just revoked his parole. Good riddance to the SOB."

"Yeah, one down and how many thousand to go, huh?"

"Anybody ever tell you you're a regular shaft'a sunlight?" Starsky teased, grinning.

"I do my best, partner."

**********

Lizzie looked at the clock, noting that Starsky and Hutch had been gone over forty-five minutes. She knew Dobey would be irate that she hadn't called in another back-up team, but when Starsky'd given her the location of the officer down call, she didn't anticipate them being gone very long. Besides, every cop in driving distance to that call would show up there, so they should have been free to return fairly soon.

But it was nearing eleven and they still weren't back.

She blinked a few times, fighting drowsiness. The bed was comfortable, the book was atrocious, and the tea had relaxed her far more than she wanted.

**********

"Everything looks quiet," Hutch said, pulling up to the curb again. "Lights are out."

"Somethin' doesn't feel right about this." Starsky took out his gun and released the safety. "There's no other unit. Why would she turn out the lights and try to lure the guy with no back-up?"

"Probably the same reason she went to the library tonight without warning us first. She's been concerned right along about this guy spotting one of us."

"I wanna have a look around."

"Hold it. Somebody's at the door."

**********

She came awake with a scream, feeling the oppressive weight on top of her in the bed. Like a horribly real shadow, the dark-clad man loomed over her, straddling her and pinning her in place, her right arm caught beneath his body, his hand restraining her left arm against the bed. With his free hand, he backhanded her, cutting off her second cry of fear.

"Isn't this what you wanted?" he hissed.

She assessed her trapped condition, and realized there was precious little else she could do now but play along with him and hope to get at least one arm free, hopefully her right, to get her gun.

"Yes," she said, forcing herself to lie still. "God, yes!" she said, putting an exhilaration in her voice that was driven solely by the cold terror she felt.

Her attacker seemed temporarily unnerved, as if he didn't know how to react to that response. He reached up and slid his hand into her hair, then grabbed it tight and forced her head back. His masked head was moving down toward hers. She felt the sickening sensation of his mouth against her own, and the knit of the mask around it. Resolved to remain calm enough to relax him, she endured the painful pull on her hair and the horrible feeling of being kissed.

And then his hand left her wrist, leaving her left arm free, so he could pull at the sleeve of her nightgown. As the fabric tore, she prayed she could manage the gun left-handed and slid her hand under the pillow, resisting the urge to stop him from tearing at the gown. Her right arm was still beneath him, and this was her one chance to stop him before he could really hurt her.

She felt the cold metal of the gun, focusing on it instead of the unpleasant feeling of his hand moving over her body and his mouth badgering her own with unwanted kisses. Just as her hand closed around the gun, there was a crash from the living room, and as the startled assailant abandoned his assault and lurched away from her, she pulled the gun out from under the pillow and held it in both hands, aiming it at him as he started to run.

"Freeze, police!" she shouted, and he spun around, just as another shadowy figure tackled him and threw him to the floor. Lizzie switched on the light as she heard the first sounds of fists connecting with flesh, accompanied by angry shouts. Arturo was on top of the masked man, who now appeared unconscious from several blows to his face.

"Flores!" Starsky shouted, grabbing the other man and pulling him back, only to lose his grip on him as he struggled to go after the fallen attacker again. "Damn it, Flores, stop it!" He grabbed Arturo again and this time Hutch was there, both of them fighting with all their strength to contain the other man's rage and drag him away from the attacker.

"Get some cuffs on him!" Starsky shouted at Lizzie, who shook off her momentary shock and got out of the bed, her gun still aimed at the man sprawled on the floor. She took the cuffs Starsky tossed to her and secured one wrist, rolled the unconscious man over, and locked his wrists together at his back. Finally free to adjust her tattered nightgown and pull on her robe, she picked up the phone and called for an ambulance, then asked to be patched through to Dobey.

By now, Arturo was sitting on the foot of the bed, breathing heavily while Hutch hovered nearby, as if he expected him to lunge for the man on the floor yet again. Starsky poked at the man with his foot, then squatted and pulled his mask off. The bruised, bloodied face of a man in his late thirties was revealed. With his brown hair and common features, there was nothing exotic or sinister about him. In his unconscious state, he looked like the guy next door.

"Don't know what I expected him to look like," Lizzie said, giving voice to all their thoughts. "Some kind of monster, I guess," she added, her voice a little shaky. Arturo got up and went to her, and she accepted the embrace readily.

"You okay, Liz?" he asked, pulling back a little. She smiled and nodded.

"I will be."

"I'll take you to the emergency room," he said.

"No need. He didn't do any damage."

"Your mouth is swelling up."

"Nothing an ice bag won't fix. I'm fine, Artie, really," she said gently, doing her best not to see the man so close to her as a knight in shining armor. She had reached her gun and had hope to save herself before he'd come flying in and "rescued" her, but she had no guarantee her attempt would have worked. It could have just as easily backfired. "Thanks, partner," she said, hugging him again.

"No more arguments. You're shaking like crazy. You could be in shock."

"Arturo's right," Hutch said. "Besides, we should have the emergency room report for the case file, even if all you got out of it was a fat lip. Gotta have something to back up that 'assaulting an officer' charge."

"Okay, okay, I'm outnumbered," she conceded, smiling. "Just let me get some clothes on, huh?" She moved away from Arturo, which she had to admit, if only to herself, was remarkably hard to do. Picking up the jeans and blouse she'd tossed on a chair when she changed earlier, she went into the bathroom to get dressed.

"You did a real number on this guy, pal," Hutch said, looking at the battered face of the unconscious man.

"What was I supposed to do? Stand by while he raped my partner? And by the way, where in the fucking hell were you two?!" he demanded.

"We responded to an officer down call. We told Lizzie, and we assumed she'd call other back-up," Hutch explained. "It was Simmons, by the way. Took one in the shoulder."

"If I hadn't shown up here tonight, just on a fluke--"

"Hutch and I would'a been bustin' in here and pullin' the guy off her. We weren't more than twenty seconds behind you, Flores."

"Yeah? Well every second counts when some son-of-a-bitch is tearing her clothes off!"

"I know you're upset, but you better just settle down," Hutch advised, pointing a finger in Flores' direction. "You're acting like an angry lover, not a cop," he said in a much lowered voice.

"I suppose you'd let some slimeball climb all over your partner and then give him a fucking tea party! Not very damn likely."

"He's got ya there, Hutch," Starsky said, heading toward the front door to lead the paramedics back to the bedroom.

But my partner already is my lover. And he's right. It'd only be a stroke of luck if I didn't kill the bastard right there on the spot. Shit, Flores, what have you gotten yourself into?

**********

Lizzie was relieved when the perfunctory once-over by the emergency room physician was complete. She'd called her mother to alert her that she'd be coming home that night, as soon as she gave a preliminary report to Dobey, and she was looking forward to seeing her daughter and getting a good night's sleep in her own bed. As soon as she was dismissed by the doctor, she went back to the waiting room where Arturo was pacing like a caged panther. If he was this overwrought about a fat lip, she wondered how he'd survive a bullet wound.

"All set?" he asked, brightening as soon as he saw her.

"Clean bill of health. I could have told you that," she added, smiling, then frowning at the discomfort on the left side of her mouth. "Well, almost a clean bill of health."

"Let's go, then. Dobey'll be waiting for us." He fell into step beside her, placing a reassuring hand on her back as they moved toward the exit.

"How'd you happen to show up tonight anyway?" she asked as they walked across the parking lot toward the car.

"I was restless and I got worried. So I came over to check things out." He unlocked and opened the passenger door for Lizzie, closing it after she was seated in the car. When he slid into the driver's side and fired up the engine, he added, "I can't believe they just took off like that."

"Don't blame Starsky and Hutch. It was up to me to phone for a replacement back-up unit. I wasn't in any immediate danger when they left--well, except for possibly being bored to sleep by that novel."

"So why didn't you call for another unit?"

"The officer down call wasn't more than ten or twelve blocks away. I figured they'd get there, every car within driving distance would also be there, and they'd be able to leave and come back before another unit could even make it over there. I didn't have any way of knowing it would be someone we all knew who was shot. Which reminds me--did you hear anything about how Simmons is doing?"

"He was still in surgery to remove the bullet, but they thought he'd be fine except for needing some PT after he heals up." Flores paused. "The guy we grabbed tonight is fine, too. I guess he'll probably be released from the hospital first thing in the morning so we can book him."

"Has he said anything? Do we know anything about him yet?"

"His ID reads Christopher Paul Schneider and his address is right across the street from the Sheridan Street Library. He hasn't said a word other than to demand a lawyer and bitch about police brutality. I'm sorry now I didn't get more licks in."

"That wouldn't have accomplished anything but getting you suspended." Lizzie paused, taking in her partner's solemn expression. "Everything turned out okay. I'm fine, the perp's in custody, nobody got seriously hurt. How about looking a little less grim? We ought to be celebrating."

"He almost raped you."

"But he didn't. When you came in through the front door, I had my left arm free and my hand was on my gun under the pillow. It's tough to rape a woman when she's just blown your dick off." Lizzie smiled as Arturo had to laugh, in spite of himself, at her crude assessment.

"Would sure slow him down," he concluded, shaking his head, still smiling. "You're one hell of a cop, partner. I'm really proud of how you handled this whole thing." He let the silence hang for a moment. "Of course, I've always been proud to be your partner."

"Thanks, Artie. That means a lot to me."

"If you weren't such a good cop, I'd've busted you in the chops for calling me 'Artie'," he teased.

"You don't expect me to say 'Arturo' every time I want you to pass me the salt at lunch, do you? It's a beautiful name, pal, but it needs shortening. You know, kind of like cutting off the end of 'Lizzie'."

"You don't let me get away with anything, do you?" he said, chuckling.

"Not if I can help it."

**********

Based on the attempted assault on Lizzie and the MO of Schneider's entry to her apartment--through the living room window--a judge signed a search warrant for the man's car and residence. Armed with those documents, Starsky and Hutch headed for the small bungalow on Westdale Street, a tidy, working-class neighborhood characterized by similar homes that overlooked the parking lot of the Sheridan Street Library.

The exterior of the house was unremarkable. A single-story yellow house with white trim and white awnings, it was situated on a narrow lot with a long driveway running alongside it, leading to a small, one-car garage behind it. Starsky went up the three front steps onto the porch and rapped on the front door while Hutch watched the second exit, a side door that opened onto the driveway.

"Police, open up." He waited, but there was no response. They hadn't expected one, but they also had no way of knowing for sure that Schneider lived alone. Using the key found on Schneider, Starsky unlocked the front door as Hutch joined him, and they entered the small house, flipping a light switch they found inside the door. It illuminated two lamps in the living room.

The house was tidy and clean, with a very ordinary interior. The furniture was not new but was also not tattered and worn. The colors were predominantly brown, tan and beige, and the walls were adorned with what looked like family photos mixed in with some decorative landscapes and other items.

"Guess they don't all have aluminum foil for wallpaper," Starsky commented, referring to the utter normality of Schneider's dwelling compared to those of similar nut cases they'd encountered over the years.

"There's got to be something here."

"He's a good housekeeper, that's for sure," Starsky said, running a fingertip along the top of a natural wood doorframe and finding no dust there.

"You figure this is his room?" Hutch asked, standing in the middle of the larger of the home's two bedrooms. It contained a double bed, dresser and overstuffed chair. Everything was tidy and immaculate. Even the few personal effects on the dresser were neatly arranged.

"If you're a neat freak, where do you hide your trophies?" Starsky pondered aloud. "The closet." He opened the folding door, revealing a rack with neatly hung clothing, an upper shelf with carefully stacked shoe boxes, and a floor with a few larger cartons pushed against the back wall of the closet. In front of them were four pairs of shoes, also lined up perfectly.

"He ought to be arrested for being this damn neat, even if he wasn't our guy," Hutch quipped, snorting a little laugh as he stood behind Starsky.

"Well, let's see what all's in these boxes." Starsky began the task of pulling out the cartons and searching those.

"I'm going to check out the other bedroom. Maybe he stores his goodies in there."

"You know, he probably burned his clothes by now, if they were bloody, and there's no indication he took anything from the scenes."

"And you said I was a shaft of sunlight."

Hutch went down the hall and began his own search. What he found in the second bedroom sent him hurrying back to his partner.

"Take a look at this," he said, thrusting a photo in front of Starsky's face as he sat on the floor, sifting through what looked like old income tax records.

"Yeah?" Starsky looked at the photo of an older woman with gray hair and glasses, smiling, dressed in a cranberry-colored dress accented with a double string of pearls.

"So? That his mother?"

"Look at her face, Starsky. Closely." Hutch waited. "Remind you of anyone?"

"Can't say it does."

"Then look at this." Hutch handed him a much older photo in a gold frame. It appeared to be the same woman, only thirty years younger.

"Oh, my God--it's her." The face looking back at him from the photo was the same one that appeared on the back of the dust cover of all Ramona Kensington's novels.

"Our friend is Ramona Kensington's son." Hutch announced, as Starsky stood and followed him back to the spare bedroom. "All Flores could find out about her was that her real name was Jane Middleton and she had retired to Palm Springs."

"Her background didn't seem all that important," Starsky said, shrugging. "Lots of psychos pick up on something in books or movies, and it's not really got anything to do with the person who wrote the book or made the movie. At least, most of the time it doesn't."

"You think she abused him? Molested him? What? I mean, the guy needs some reason to go out and do things like that to women who read his mother's books. He's obviously got a serious sexual twist, but the rapes are getting more and more violent to the point he's killing his victims or beating them nearly to death."

"Look at this house, Hutch. I like my place clean and tidy, but this is compulsive. There's no dust on his cartons. It's like everything is...is... Felix Unger clean."

"So Mom was a neat freak who smacked Junior around for not cleaning his room?"

"The whole neat/clean thing is probably just one part of it. Or the result of something else." Starsky sighed. "Technically, we still haven't found anything that proves anything."

"We haven't searched every inch of this place yet, and we haven't searched his car. There's got to be something. Even Mr. Clean has to have left some evidence around."

The rest of the search inside the house yielded nothing obviously incriminating. Disappointed, the two detectives turned their attention to the car, a gray 1978 Monte Carlo. Like the house, the inside of the car was immaculately clean. Under the front seat, however, was the golden piece of evidence both men had been seeking: a small spiral notebook in which Schneider had recorded the daily itineraries of all four of his victims, including their addresses and workplaces. The final entries involved Lizzie's undercover address, car and license number. He'd been following her for about three days, from the looks of the log. In the glove compartment was a pair of binoculars.

"How'd we miss this guy?" Hutch asked, frustrated. "He was following her, and so were we."

"We were watching Lizzie and the library. We weren't watching all these houses along here. If he parked facing the street, like the car is now, and stayed back here near the garage, we wouldn't even see him from the angle we were watching, from the side street. He must'a been following us following her. How the hell did we not notice him?"

"Dobey's not going to be happy about that. Three of us all hovering around her and not one of us noticed the perp. That's just great. He watched us--and found the right moment to get in while we were gone."

"Maybe he was in some sort of disguise."

"Yeah, he better have been in some sort of disguise, or Dobey's gonna put us in one--blue with matching hats and whistles," Hutch stated grimly.

**********

After receiving accolades from Dobey on her handling of the assignment, Lizzie was more than ready to call it a night. She had truthfully told Dobey that she couldn't clearly see the scuffle between Flores and Schneider and therefore was not aware how much was necessary to subdue the man. Given the fact the arrestee's injuries were all very superficial and didn't amount to much more than a few bruises, Dobey didn't anticipate too many problems with IA, or much credence being given to police brutality charges. Starsky and Hutch were still searching Schneider's house and car. Lizzie didn't envy them their long night.

"Looks like your mother's waiting up for you," Arturo said, parking at the end of Lizzie's driveway. A light was burning in the living room window.

"She's been worried sick while I was on this assignment."

"I'll pick you up about noon tomorrow. Maybe we can grab some lunch before we go in. I'm going in at the regular time, so if anything comes up you need to be in on before noon, I'll come get you."

"I should probably just go in. I can always take some time off later."

"You've had a hell of a night, Liz. Dobey said not to worry about coming in first thing."

"I want to be in on questioning Schneider."

"Starsky and Hutch'll probably do that. After all, it was their case. We were just helping out."

"Maybe I could push some of Schneider's buttons."

"I don't doubt that."

"Meaning what?" Lizzie frowned.

"Now that he knows you're a cop, he'll probably be pretty hostile."

"You're probably right. I am beat."

"I'll walk you up."

"It's just a few yards, Artie. I'll be fine. Get home to Caroline. She'll be worrying about you." As Lizzie started to open her door, Arturo took a hold of the hand closest to him.

"When I heard you scream... Liz, I...if that guy had really hurt you..."

"Hey, come on," she said, smiling and squeezing his hand. "I'm fine, partner. I'm real glad you showed up when you did. We make a hell of a team."

"We sure do," he said a little sadly. "Liz, I--"

"You better get home," she said gently, releasing his hand and touching his cheek briefly. His hand came up and covered hers immediately, and he leaned into the touch.

"Artie...we can't do this."

"I can't help it."

"We have to help it. Caroline's been through so much with the miscarriage. Think about her...and Alicia. They need you." She paused. "I do, too, but they were there first."

With a sad smile, she pulled her hand away and got out of the car. Before closing the door, she leaned back in to see her partner sitting there with a somewhat devastated look on his face. "I don't know if this makes it better or worse, but...it's hard for me, too. You're the best partner I could ask for. Let's not let anything mess that up, okay?"

"Yeah, okay," he said in a hushed tone. "Get some sleep, partner," he added with a little smile.

"You, too." Reluctantly, she closed the car door and walked up to the front door. She turned and waved at Arturo, and he flashed the headlights once in response.

Please believe me, Artie...it's as hard for me as it is for you. On that thought, she unlocked her front door and went inside, leaving Arturo to go home to his family.

**********

With the suspect being kept in the hospital overnight for observation, Dobey had mercy on his two detectives and sent them home with the order to be back on the job first thing in the morning. By 3:00 a.m., they had stripped off their clothes and crawled into bed, cuddling up together.

Hutch took in Starsky's pale color and the slightly rapid breathing. Concerned, he stroked the dark curls and spoke softly against Starsky's ear.

"You okay, babe?"

"Just got some aches and pains." There was a pause. "God, I'm tired, Hutch."

"I know. We've been running on a couple hours' sleep here and there for the last week or so."

"I didn't used to get winded like this."

"You've got a few more miles on you now. We both do, Starsk. People get older and--"

"Thanks, but we both know it's not old age settin' in."

"You're lucky--"

"To be alive, I know."

"Well, yes, you are, but I was going to say that you're lucky to have the stamina you have--which is still better than most people's best."

"But it's not my best. I was the guy who could work all day and play all night and get up and do it all again the next morning without breakin' a sweat." Starsky sighed. "I miss that guy."

"I know," Hutch responded, rubbing Starsky's back in long, soothing strokes. "I know it's hard to get used to there being some limitations on your energy that weren't there before. Maybe we can get home early tonight and get some rest. Dobey might let us off the hook--"

"I'm not asking Dobey for favors because I'm too fucking weak to pull my share."

"Hey, where'd that come from?" Hutch pulled back so they were face to face, only inches apart. "You're the strongest man I know."

"You don't get out much then." Starsky tried hard not to smile, but did anyway.

"I get out plenty," Hutch responded, chuckling and hugging Starsky close again. "How about a massage? You always sleep like a baby after one of those."

"We've only got a few hours before we have to get up again. Stay put." Starsky smiled. "Feels pretty good right here," he added, snuggling against Hutch. "'Case I haven't mentioned it lately, I love ya a whole lot, babe."

"I love you, too. For what it's worth, I'm exhausted and my back is killing me from spending so many nights sitting in the car or sleeping twisted in the back seat. We've both got our battle scars and our nasty little pains that make us feel old and washed up."

"You always know what I need to hear," Starsky said, his speech slurring a little as he started dozing.

**********

"Dobey said a black-and-white is bringing Schneider over here now," Hutch said as Starsky hung up the phone. It was shortly after 9:00, and after rushing in to work "first thing," they'd ended up talking fast about angles and long driveways to quell Dobey's wrath over finding their perp was sitting across the street from the library, watching them. The wrath had only been modestly lessened, and they'd been dismissed to their desks to catch up on the paperwork for the case until Schneider and his attorney arrived for the questioning to begin. Personnel from the forensics lab were going over Schneider's house with a fine-tooth comb, hoping to find something the naked eye missed.

"I was just talking to the woman the world knows as Ramona Kensington," Starsky announced. "If I'd grown up with her, I think I'd be psychotic, too."

"Why?" Hutch asked, chuckling.

"She's rude, arrogant, self-righteous, stuck-up, rude--"

"You're repeating yourself." Hutch paused. "You know, Starsky, I wish you'd just come out and say what you feel."

"Okay, so she got under my skin," Starsky admitted, smiling a little. "She said Christopher would never amount to anything, so it didn't come as any surprise that he had turned to something sordid and illegal to occupy his time, and she further said that he did all of it simply to spite and humiliate her."

"She might not be far from the truth."

"Probably not. Long and short of it is, she's not willing to talk to us unless we subpoena her or go through her attorney."

"That's easy enough to do. Let's see what sonny-boy has to say first."

**********

Christopher Schneider was one of the most average-looking men Hutch had ever seen. With his brown hair, clean-shaven face and wire-rimmed glasses, he reminded Hutch of the guy who had done his taxes a couple years earlier. Ironically, by trade, Schneider was an accountant. His attorney was one of the better known defense counsels in town, and he had a good record of getting his clients off the hook--even the guilty ones. Max Hoffman was definitely a good man to have on your side, and a not-so-good one to have on the other side of the interrogation table.

"My client has agreed to answer some of your questions, but I warn you, if this session becomes hostile or abusive, he will invoke his right to remain silent."

"There's no need to get hostile or abusive," Hutch stated calmly, opening up the manila file folder in front of him. "We have a significant body of evidence mounting against your client, and at least two witnesses who may offer a voice identification. He attacked a police woman and began a sexual assault on her person, which fortunately did not progress to the level your client's other assaults did."

"Alleged assaults," Hoffman corrected. A portly man in his early fifties, he tugged uncomfortably at the neck of his dress shirt, loosening his tie a bit. He reminded Hutch more of a longshoreman than a lawyer.

"Of course. Starsky, you want to get started?" Hutch asked agreeably, turning on the tape machine.

"Mr. Schneider, we'd like to hear, in your own words, why you were in the bedroom of the apartment at 245 Hunter Street last night."

"My client declines to answer that question."

"Can't say as I blame him, but if he's not going to cooperate at all, there's not much point to this," Starsky responded. "All right, let's move on to something a bit more specific. Why did you climb on top of the woman in the bed and begin kissing and fondling her?"

"I thought that's what she wanted," he stated simply before his lawyer could get his mouth open. Hoffman looked annoyed beyond words.

"Were you acquainted with Detective Thorpe prior to that night?" Hutch asked.

"No."

"Then what would make you think she wanted you to make a sexual advance on her?"

"I didn't know she was a cop."

"Assuming for a moment she wasn't, what made you think she wanted you?" Starsky probed.

"Because it's what those women really want. That's why they read about it all the time."

"This interview has gone far enough--"

"No, Hoffman, this has to be said," Schneider interrupted, holding up a forestalling hand at his attorney.

"You asked for my help and representation in this matter. If you're not going to cooperate with my advice--"

"I'm tired of no one having the courage to call these women what they really are!" Schneider shouted.

"What are they, Chris?" Starsky asked quietly, calmly.

"They're hypocrites, liars...closet whores!"

"Closet whores?" Hutch asked, frowning.

"Those books. They read those books because that's how they want it."

"How do they want it?" Starsky prodded.

"They wanna be somebody's whore," he said, surprisingly calm, given his outburst a moment earlier. "They want a man who's gonna show them who's boss and take what he wants."

"Is that why they fight and scream and plead with you not to rape them?" Hutch challenged. By now, Hoffman had merely crossed his arms over his chest and given up. His client was obviously not playing with a full deck, and he intended to have his say while he had a captive audience listening.

"It's part of the act. If they gave in, they'd have to admit they really wanted it. It's their secret fantasy. It's what every woman really wants."

"Is that what Brenda King wanted? Is that why you killed her?"

"I...I didn't mean to kill her. She...she fought so hard, I couldn't...even after...I didn't have a choice. I had to quiet her down, and I hit her too hard."

"Why did you attack another woman the next night?" Starsky prodded.

"I thought...I thought she'd be like the others...quiet down once she got what she wanted. But she kept screaming and that damn dog..."

"Is that what your mother taught you?" Starsky asked, producing one of Ramona Kensington's steamier books from where he'd stashed it on the seat of the chair next to him. "This is what women want?"

"Leave her out of this."

"Is that what you're thinking about when you're with these women?" Starsky asked. "About your mother getting what she deserves?"

"I...I'm not gonna say anything else."

"We found this journal in your car," Hutch said, holding up the notebook. "All the victims' names are in it. You sure you don't want to cooperate? Right now, you're facing the death penalty. We've got no reason to go easy on you. The only hope you've got is cooperate now, and the DA might take that into consideration when deciding whether or not to go for the death penalty."

"It is apparent that my client is overwrought and in need of some counseling before you continue questioning him," Hoffman interjected, seeing his case crash and burn around his ears. Schneider held up a hand again.

"I'm fine," he said, taking a deep breath and regaining his composure. Hoffman shook his head and resigned himself to saying nothing more.

"Why did you really go after those women, Chris?" Hutch asked, leaning forward on his elbows on the table.

"I can be forceful," he said. "I can be forceful. I am not weak!" He slumped back in his chair. "I don't want to talk about this anymore."

"You heard my client, Detectives," Hoffman spoke up, though he sounded discouraged, as if questioning why his big-mouthed client chose now to be reticent, after having blown any hope of being proven innocent of the charges.

"We heard him, Hoffman," Starsky said, rising. "Loud and clear."

**********

Starsky and Hutch met Lizzie and Arturo at Huggy's for lunch. Lizzie looked well rested and, with the exception of the bruise near her mouth, showed few ill effects of her encounter with Schneider the previous night. Flores, for his part, looked like he'd been awake forty-eight hours straight and seemed more than a little distracted throughout the conversation.

"I'll bet you ten-to-one that Hoffman goes for an insanity plea," Lizzie said, stabbing several pieces of lettuce in her garden salad. "He's like some kind of twisted version of Norman Bates, obsessed with his mother." She paused before taking a bite. "Sad thing is, somebody ought to arrest her for turning him into a neurotic basketcase."

"Maybe we oughtta go back to his place and look for the wig and the housedress under the floorboards," Starsky responded, chuckling. "I'd guess Mommy gave him some sort of hang-up that he wasn't strong enough or effective enough--you know how he went on about being forceful?" He paused while Hutch nodded. "Then he looks at the men she writes about. Men who show their power by dominating and raping women. So how does he prove he's all Mommy thinks he should be?"

"By going out and becoming the kind of man he thinks she admires," Hutch responded, sighing. "Man, the things people do to their kids."

"You feeling okay today, Lizzie?" Starsky asked, taking a bite of his hamburger.

"Oh, sure, I'm fine. I'm just glad we got that nut off the street." She looked over at Arturo, who was still staring at his mostly untouched club sandwich. "You're not getting sick on me, are you?" she asked, pressing the backs of her fingers lightly against his cheek as if to check for a fever. He seemed to barely resist flinching away from the touch.

"I'm all right," he said a bit abruptly.

Silence reigned for a few moments as nearly empty plates were pushed aside, and finally, Flores pushed his partially full one aside as well.

"Dessert, guys?" Anita asked, picking up the dishes. "We mess up your sandwich order, honey?" she asked Flores, who smiled and shook his head.

"Just not too hungry," he responded.

"You're lookin' a little droopy. Better get yourself some rest. Lots of flu going around right now." She picked up the last of the dirty dishes and put them on her tray. "We've got a special on hot fudge sundaes," she said, giving Starsky the eye.

"Bring us a big one," he said, indicating himself and Hutch.

"Bring him a small one," Hutch corrected.

"So you can eat half of it while you're pretending not to eat it? No way. One large hot fudge sundae, please, sweetheart," Starsky said to Anita, flashing her his best smile. That was good for at least twice the normal serving of hot fudge.

"Oh, why not. Bring us one, too, and I'll work on forcing it down him," Lizzie said, smiling and nudging Arturo, who barely managed a smile.

**********

"I know this isn't going to be easy, but if you're not going to be comfortable with me, with us being partners, we're in real trouble," Lizzie said, as Arturo started up the car to return to headquarters. Starsky and Hutch were pulling out in the Torino, entering the flow of traffic just ahead of them.

"Give me a little time, Liz."

"Time for what? You know how I feel about you, and I know how you feel about me, but that doesn't change anything else in our lives."

"How can you say that? How can it not change everything else in our lives?"

"You still love Caroline and Alicia, don't you?"

"You know I do." Flores sighed and rubbed his forehead with one hand, the other on the steering wheel. "If I didn't, things would be pretty clear cut."

"Do you want to break up the partnership?" Lizzie asked quietly. "I don't want to lose your friendship, and I don't want to lose our partnership, but if we can't work together, we need to admit that."

"No, I don't want to end the partnership." Arturo sighed. "I just want to know one thing, and then I promise I won't ever bring it up again."

"What?"

"If I weren't married--"

"You wouldn't be safe alone in this car with me," Lizzie said, smiling and winking at him, waiting for Arturo to smile back. Finally, they both laughed.

**********

Starsky was sound asleep, on his stomach, face pressed into the pillow, curls every which way, one hand stretched out on Hutch's side of the bed. Even in sleep, it seemed Starsky knew when Hutch wasn't nearby. Hutch watched the first rays of sunlight cast their glow on his lover's skin, following with his eyes the curves of shoulder to back to waist to the swell of buttocks that were barely covered by the sheet Starsky had kicked lower through the night.

They'd made love the night before, which was nothing unusual in itself. Still, this rare morning off was giving Hutch the golden opportunity for a little Starsky-watching. He felt a bit ridiculous standing by the bed naked, holding his guitar, but he hoped the result would be worth it. Slipping carefully into bed and covering himself to the waist as he sat against pillows he stuffed behind his back, he was glad the movement hadn't disturbed Starsky. He wanted to do that in his own way.

He started quietly picking out chords on the guitar, watching Starsky's face go through its waking contortions while the still-foggy brain registered the music.

Longer than there've been fishes in the ocean
Higher than any bird ever flew
Longer than there've been stars up in the heavens
I've been in love with you

Hutch smiled at the sleepy eyes that were blinking and looking up at him blearily. They soon crinkled into a broad Starsky smile.

Stronger than any mountain cathedral
Truer than any tree ever grew
Deeper than any forest primeval
I am in love with you

Starsky moved over and rested his head on Hutch's thigh, closing his eyes again, as if he wanted to just soak up the sound without the distraction of sight. The warm weight felt good against Hutch's leg, his only regret being that he couldn't reach out and touch Starsky and play the guitar at the same time.

I'll bring fire in the winter
You'll send showers in the spring
We'll fly through the falls and summers
With love on our wings

Starsky was perfectly still and silent, listening to Hutch's voice. In any other circumstance, Hutch would have thought his partner had dozed off again, but he knew as long as he sang, he'd have Starsky's attention. He sacrificed fumbling a few chords to reach out and stroke the dark curls just once, gently. He smiled as Starsky leaned immediately into the touch.

Through the years as the fire starts to mellow
Burning lines in the book of our lives
Though the binding cracks and the pages start to yellow
I'll be in love with you
I'll be in love with you

He set the guitar aside, glad to be free of the hard wood so he could accept the much warmer, softer feeling of Starsky's body against his.

"Love that song," Starsky said softly, his voice sounding a little strained as he buried his face against Hutch's neck. "Love you, too."

"And I love you," Hutch responded, smiling and nuzzling the curls near his face.

"Kinda incredible thinking about gettin' old together, isn't it?" Starsky swallowed. "I hope we can."

"I know. So do I. I want to get old with you. I want to be old and gray together. I want to live long enough to see you drive too slow," he added, laughing. That brought a snort of laughter from Starsky.

"You're gonna have a hell of a wait for that," Starsky responded.

"Good. Take forever. I'll be here."

Together, they made music of their own the rest of the long, lazy morning.

**********

Author's acknowledgments: Songs quoted in order of appearance:

"The Stranger" by Billy Joel

"Longer" by Dan Fogelberg

Both songs are the property of those who hold the rights; they do not belong to the author.

**********

Send your comments to :
ZebraThree Productions: z3prod@yahoogroups.com
Author: blair_lady@yahoo.com

In two weeks on Starsky & Hutch:
"The Veil," by Ellis Murdock

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