Hutch slammed a hand against the closing elevator door and gave a sharp whistle. The elevator's other occupant managed a vertical leap of at least a foot and, head thrown back in surprise, made contact with the back elevator wall. Rubbing the back of his head, Starsky bent to retrieve the tiny book that had captured his undivided attention. Hutch grinned and shook his head as they walked down the hall to the squadroom.
"Starsky, tell me something."
"Ye-ah?" Starsky asked absently, eyes trained on the book as he flipped one of the miniature pages with difficulty.
"You say you don't want people at work making a big deal about us taking a college class. Or, more specifically, making a big deal about you going to school. How do you plan to avoid that when you walk around the station with your nose buried in a book of pocket Shakespeare?"
Starsky didn't deign to glance up. "I'm gonna have this memorized, Hutch."
Hutch steered a still distracted Starsky around two female officers deep in conversation and guided him, one hand on his shoulder, around the corner. "I don't think the point is to memorize the text. And we're supposed to be discussing 'Antigone' tomorrow night. 'Measure for Measure' is next week."
Starsky shrugged. "I'll read through 'Antigone' again tonight. The version our prof assigned is written in good old plain English. Shakespeare's a whole 'nother ball game with all that Elizabethan fancy-schmancy language. Besides, this is longer. I figure he'll give us something to write for next week and want us to have this read, too, so I better get a running start."
Hutch laughed. "Don't let 'Antigone' fool you, Starsk. Straightforward text doesn't necessarily mean straightforward content. I think someone's just developing a crush on Shakespeare and won't admit it."
"Sure, you can afford to be lackadaisical about it. You read 'Measure for Measure' back in that ritzy private school. It's old hat for you." Starsky wet the tip of his finger and wrestled the uncooperative page once more. Rolling his eyes, Hutch brought all forward momentum to a halt with a clasp of Starsky's elbow, jerking the engrossed reader back when he would have continued.
"That was my senior year in high school, partner. I'll have to reread it, too, you know. But this is your third read-through since we got the syllabus in the mail last week."
Starsky finally lifted his gaze. "What's the problem? You're not starting to regret taking the class, are you? It hasn't even started yet!"
Hutch seized the pocket-sized book and wagged it beneath Starsky's nose. "No, I'm not regretting it. Just didn't know I'd have to--" he lowered his voice to a whisper and leaned closer, "--do a damn strip-tease last night to get your attention away from Good Ole Will."
Starsky laughed and the sound carried its own heat, bathing Hutch's cheeks in a flush. "Was ni-i-ice once you had my attention, though."
"New subject," Hutch said, flustered, and cast a wary look at the temporarily empty stretch of hall.
"All right. Tell me again why we're back at the station for our lunch break?"
"It's simple, Starsk. Getting paperwork out of the way means a better chance of getting home and having a nice evening to ourselv--wait a minute; this is not a new subject." Hutch frowned at Starsky's triumphant and slightly lewd grin. "And here, put this book in your pocket before Dobey catches you with it. He's been supportive of this college thing so far, but if he gets the impression your mind's more on Medieval Vienna than twentieth-century Bay City, we might get a Saturday stint of traffic duty."
Starsky shot him a mock-glare and shoved the book obediently in his jeans back pocket. Hutch had to look elsewhere to avoid viewing the spectacle with wide-eyed astonishment, knowing all too well just how tight the jeans were and how much trouble he had slipping a hand into one of those alluring pockets.
He couldn't resist a question. "Isn't that going to get uncomfortable driving around?"
Starsky tossed a look over his shoulder and then said out of the side of his mouth, "You let me worry about my own ass." He winked and pushed the squadroom door open, and Hutch had to figure out how to close his gaping lips before he could follow suit.
He found Starsky, shoulders slumped, staring down at the coffeepot. "Why the downcast look, Starsk?"
"Not one drop left in the coffeepot." Starsky searched the room, his eyes narrowed as he shook the coffeepot for everyone to see. "Okay," he said loudly, "which'a you guys drained the pot and forgot to make some more?"
"I did," boomed a voice behind them, and Starsky whirled, nearly dropping the obnoxiously empty carafe. Dobey folded his arms over his midsection and looked his sternest. "Since when are you so desperate for coffee in the middle of the day?"
Hutch burst out laughing and Starsky turned an evil eye on him. "Late night, busy morning," he answered the captain, though still looking meaningfully at Hutch.
"The afternoon's going to be even busier," Dobey said dryly. "No time for coffee. I need you and Hutch in my office. Now."
After Dobey vanished into his room, Hutch relieved Starsky of the coffeepot and set it down gingerly with a sympathetic headshake. "Today is just not your day for sudden noises, buddy."
"I'm edgy without breakfast," Starsky grumbled, "and now it looks like I won't get any lunch either."
Hutch paused halfway to Dobey's door and turned, wicked smile in place. "Thought a milkshake was your favorite breakfast," he queried innocently, confident that no one in the room could interpret their code, even if paying attention.
Starsky's face and neck promptly matched his red cotton shirt as he marched past Hutch, whispering, "Oooh, you're gonna pay for that one, smart mouth."
"Name your currency, hot shot--" Hutch would have continued the challenge, but Starsky's raised hand quieted him. Hutch joined him in the doorway and knew immediately the reason why--Dobey was on the phone, and he didn't look at all pleased.
"Flores! Dammit, Flores, answer me! Don't give me that jazz; I've been on to that little scam for years. Flores…Thorpe…Lizzie! Dammit!" Dobey slammed down the phone and looked ready to snap the pencil in his hand between two beefy fingers. He shoved it into his breast pocket with a force that left some doubt as to how he didn't draw blood.
"Get your butts in here!" Dobey shouted. When they'd taken their usual seats, Dobey frowned at each of them for a full minute before he sat back in his protesting chair.
"Which of you two clowns taught them the radio static trick?"
Hutch snorted and Starsky assumed the expression of a six-year-old cherub. "I have no idea what you mean, Cap'n." He shifted in his seat. "You know what he's talking about, Hutch?"
"Not a clue, I'm afraid."
"Right. And I'm Ella Fitzgerald. How the hell am I supposed to run this department if I can't keep constant contact with my detectives? It's for your protection, too, you know. Or have you ever thought--?" Dobey waved a fist at them and sank down in his chair. "Might as well be lecturing a brick wall. Don't have time for it anyway--"
"Something come up, Captain?" Hutch leaned forward in his chair expectantly.
"Just got the call a few minutes ago. A body found in a car over on Chandler down by Twelfth. Female in her mid-thirties, well dressed. Keys were in the ignition, drug paraphernalia in the car." Dobey leaned across the desk and raised his hand in his favorite gesture of emphasis. "The car is parked in front of a vacant house, and this is the wrong kind of lady to be in that neighborhood, much less with a pricey little bag of cocaine in her purse. Something smells bad."
Hutch vacated his chair for a perch on the arm of Starsky's. "So you want us out there to see if we can identify the odor."
"I want to know if we're dealing with accidental death, homicide, or something for Narco to get their teeth into. I want to be able to tell this lady's next of kin why she was found dead on an inner city street."
"Aye, aye, Cap'n." Starsky popped out of the chair and hustled to the door. Tapping the heel of his sneaker against the door, he folded his arms and whistled an impatient tune.
Hutch waved a hand at him. "Hold your horses." He turned back to the captain. "Patrol unit found the body?"
"Yes, Officers Kyle and Hudson. They're still at the scene so you'll have a crack at 'em first thing. They're young but efficient. What's on your mind, Hutch?"
"Keys in the ignition, purse containing drugs still in the car, middle of the day on Chandler?" He brushed a hand through his hair absently. "Something--I don't know. Can't put my finger on it."
Once out of the squadroom, Hutch took an opportunity to scan Starsky's profile. His partner was fairly buzzing with energy, straining for an outlet. The low rumble of leashed power filled Hutch's specially tuned ears, and he nudged Starsky in the side. "What's your big hurry?"
Starsky's look was pensive as he delved into his pocket for the keys. "I've got that feeling that we're barking up a big tree and we chased more'n a cat up it."
Hutch couldn't hide his developing smile. Starsky's enthusiasm for the more challenging, far-reaching cases had always made their partnership--and their careers--more interesting. On the other hand, he felt a shiver threaten his lower spine. Starsky's instincts were often as unerring as the North Star, and far-reaching equaled danger, risk.
"Any week now, Blondie."
Hutch glanced up and discovered that in an odd reversal of minutes ago, he was the one lagging behind while Starsky waited for him in an open elevator, toes tapping.
"Twelfth and Chandler," Hutch half-yelled over the roar of the Torino gunning away from Metro. "Now I know why you're really so eager to--"
"Hutch, don't start with me."
"Hey, come on, you have to know our relationship sits on firm ground when I can tease you about a woman."
"Yeah, but teasing me about that woman is bad for my image."
Hutch gave him a scolding frown. "Starsky, that's cold. So, she might not be Miss America, but--"
"'S not that," Starsky said firmly, concentration locked on navigating the morning rush-hour traffic. "That woman is a quack."
"She's been there almost five years; must be doing something right." Hutch was rewarded with a riled Starsky glare and felt his own temperature escalate without any help from the August sun. This is a game best played by two.
Hutch groaned, exaggerating the effect. "Okay, what changed your mind about her abilities?"
Starsky sat up straighter in the seat and reached one-handed for his shades. "I went to see her a couple weeks after the armored car case. Thought I'd give her crystal ball a whirl. She said my future was to be married within three years. How's that for lousy fortune telling?"
Baiting me, Starsk? You want to hear me say it again? Can't have it on paper, so you want the words whenever I'll give 'em? I can live with that.
Hutch laughed, a sultry rather than amused chuckle. "Well, except for her timing being a little off, I'd say she nailed it, wouldn't you? And maybe the timing was our mistake, not hers."
The glare transformed immediately into a soft smile, and Starsky visibly fought the urge to ignore traffic in favor of his partner. "Ah, babe. Man, you're playing hardball today. What's with all the at-work seduction this mornin'?"
Hutch smiled lazily and yawned. "I figure I'll make sure you pounce on me this evening instead of 'Antigone'." He laughed at Starsky's strangled, throaty noise. Game, set, match, partner. I'm calling the shots tonight!
Conceding defeat with a grin, Starsky grabbed the mic. "Zebra Three to control. Log us out for investigation."
"Roger, Zebra Three. Logged unavailable."
The young man stood across the street from the Mercedes-turned-tomb and watched the milling uniforms and other authorities. Shaking, dressed in tatters, and black, he was invisible to most people and visible to the people across the street only when they needed a convenient scapegoat. Man, he needed a fix. Couldn't go back to his normal source; he'd burned those bridges when he cooked up this scheme. And why the hell was he trying to do something for the cops anyway? What had they ever done for him but make his life a complete shit-hole since he was old enough to catch their attention? No, not for the cops. He wasn't doing jack for the cops. This was for Candace and now Michelle, who shouldn't have been where they were, doing what they were doing, who had fancy pictures of smiling toddlers in their purses. Shit, he needed a fix now. More importantly, he needed a place to hide.
"Hudson says the car wasn't here when they pulled through the neighborhood at six a.m.…what? What you got?"
Starsky was alternately leaning into the open driver's side door and backing out, his arms outstretched and measuring space. Hutch stepped out of his way and tried to decipher his partner's actions. "How much has she been moved?" Starsky asked.
"You'll get the photos soon as they're ready, Detective, but if we've moved her an inch, I'd be surprised. We worked hard to dig in the car around her." The Forensic team member gestured at an approaching dark-colored wagon. "But here comes the SQ, so we'll be moving her shortly."
"SQ?" Hutch asked, wondering if he was the only one missing something. Starsky's face, though neutral and blank to an outsider, told Hutch he hadn't a clue either.
"Slab Queen," a female Forensic team member whispered behind Hutch. "Price Ginny pays for being a female coroner in this male-dominated workforce. She's a good sport about it, though. The first guy who called her that got chewed a new set of ears for five minutes, and she concluded the lecture by saying, 'And that's Doctor Slab Queen to you'."
"Dr. Slab Queen." Hutch covered his mouth as Ginny made her way over to the Mercedes. Starsky gave her his brightest smile, sympathy glowing in his eyes. She stared at both of them, looked down at her pants and blouse, and shrugged.
"What? Sorry I'm late to the party. I got tied up in the lab. What?"
Starsky cleared his throat and turned his attention back to the woman in the driver's seat. Hutch followed his gaze and tapped him on the shoulder. "What'd you have in mind, Starsk?"
"Look at her, Hutch. She's short. She didn't drive here like this; her feet don't have a shot at reaching the pedals. Looks to me like the seat's been adjusted to accommodate a much taller person. Now, unless--"
"Unless she adjusted the seat herself after she arrived, or someone walking by decided to do the honors, both of which stink as possibilities, then she wasn't alone," Hutch finished, stroking his chin thoughtfully.
"Doesn't mean she was dead before she got here, or that we're dealing with murder with a capital M, but my guess is someone drove her here, moved her over to the driver's seat, and high-tailed it."
"Keys in the ignition, Starsky. Houses up and down the street. If she'd been alive, she could have gotten help for herself, surely."
"That's my guess," Starsky agreed. He turned to Kyle, who stood three feet away adjusting his cap over his wavy black hair, wiping sweat from his brow, and staring at the sun with murderous intent. "You canvassed the area, asked if anyone saw or heard something?"
"Yeah." Kyle blew out a forceful puff of air. "Big fat zero on all counts. Nobody we talked to had any information, two of the houses were unoccupied as far as we could tell, and the big one on the corner there, nobody answered the door."
Hutch smiled. "Oh, that one. You have to know how to summon Madame Yram properly, right, Starsky?"
"And how's that?" Kyle asked, looking defensive at the implication that he'd failed in his mission.
"You just walk right in the front door," Starsky answered, grinning.
"Can I please do my job now?" Ginny demanded, and both Starsky and Hutch jumped out of her way.
"By all means." Hutch snagged eye contact with Starsky and pointed at the neglected gray wooden house with the ridiculous cupola. His lips curved into a wicked smile at Starsky's reluctant shrug, and Starsky's expression changed accordingly, threatening future reprisal. Hutch bit back the smile.
As always, the heavy front door opened with little pressure, and Hutch made a disapproving "tsk" sound. "Got to be brave--or stupid--to trust an open door in this neighborhood even in the light of day."
"Madam Yram!" Starsky yelled, scanning the foyer.
"Who's botherin' Madame Yram when she don't wanna be bothered?" called a weary voice reminiscent of crowded city streets, hot dog stands, and brownstones.
Starsky smirked and snorted; Hutch swatted him on the arm and moved toward the large front room where Madam Yram doled out fortunes. "There wasn't a closed sign up," he said loudly.
"Is there ever?" Starsky whispered.
"You're s'posed to feel the unwelcome aura. Aw, come on in and quit wastin' my valuable time."
Madame Yram, aka Mary Polanski, brightened considerably when they entered the dimly lit room. She wore a ludicrous concoction of orange lace and satin that clashed horribly with the bright pink and blue silk scarf tied around her dark curls, but the effect was imposing rather than absurd. She opened her arms wide. "If it ain't Studsky and Hunk! Tell me this is a social call and you're here for your futures. If I got to hold both of you by the hand I just might die a happy woman."
Starsky took his usual place across the round table from the fortuneteller, and Hutch stood his ground off to the side. "'Fraid not, Mary. Here on business. Did you notice anything unusual happening across the street this morning?"
She peered across the table, probing Starsky's face as if reading between the lines of his question. "What exactly would ya define as 'unusual' for this neighborhood?"
Hutch smiled. "Fair enough. Did you happen to notice the arrival of a beige four-door, late-model Mercedes down the street? Hear anything out of the ordinary? Police found the car parked there this afternoon--"
She shook her head and yawned. "Sorry, can't help you. Got in from Sacramento about eleven o'clock and haven't budged from this table. I'm about to hit the sack for a nap."
"Sacramento?" Starsky asked. The surprise in his tone must have come across as an interrogation to Mary, because she frowned.
"Yeah, I was at a fortunetellers' convention. What, ya think I'm lyin'? People in my business are facing a crisis, lemme tell ya. Before long, there'll be a bunch of fakes advertising on TV. Dial-a-Psychic, Fortunetellers Unlimited, and crap like that. Us old school, legitimate types gotta stick together. Anyways, I got up in the wee hours to drive home. Weren't no Mercedes on the street when I pulled in at eleven, but that's all I can tell you."
"That's actually very helpful, Mary, thanks. Helps us narrow things down."
"Why so interested? Can I ask? Maybe I can keep an ear out?"
Starsky turned in his seat for a few seconds of silent consultation with Hutch. After a shared nod, Starsky directed his attention back to their hostess. "A woman was found dead in the car," he said softly.
"Damn. God, I'm sorry." Mary looked floored, her face pale, eyes wide and flashing. "I mean, this isn't Beverly Hills, but we don't usually have that sorta thing goin' on around here."
Hutch placed both hands on the table and leaned on them, so he could look Mary in the eye and convey the importance of his next question. "Do you know anything about the blue and white house down the street?"
Mary stroked a hand through her curls and slowly shook her head. "Other than it's been for sale for two months now? No. Hey, look, I'll keep my eyes and ears perked, okay?"
Hutch smiled. "That'd be great, Mary. We'll let you get some sleep. Oh, and you might want to keep that front door locked. We're not sure what we're dealing with here." He nodded at Starsky, the signal for departure, but Mary's enthusiastic voice halted Starsky's rise from the chair.
"Hold on a minute. Long's you're here, I can at least do your futures."
Hutch backed away, hands up in a declining gesture. "Uh, thank you, but I--uh--had mine done recently. Starsky's due for an update, though, aren't you, partner?"
Starsky had no time to answer before Madame Yram seized his hand and waved her other one over the crystal ball. She draped a scarf over the ball, removed it, closed her eyes as if in pain, and hummed loudly. Finally, she released Starsky's hand. "Your future is…you and your loved one will gain great wisdom, but you will face powerful storms." She grinned at Starsky. "Of course, if those storms get too bad, I'll shelter you, gorgeous."
Starsky's ingratiating smile turned into nervous laughter, and he almost succeeded in upending his chair. He glared at Hutch's smile and took him by the elbow, yanking him toward the hall. "Thanks for the fortune, Mary. Let us know if you hear something interesting. We'll be leaving now."
"What a mess! What a stinkin' mess!" Starsky shouted, kicking the Mercedes' rear tire. "Dammit, Hutch, I like the thought of pulling a high level scumbag off the street, but I'd sure as hell rather not do it this way."
"I hear you, partner. And not to knock your famous radar for these things, but we don't have any evidence that a high level scumbag is behind all this. Could just be garden-variety nastiness." Hutch's hand came down on Starsky's shoulder, as they watched the body bag being wheeled over to the coroner's wagon.
Michelle Danbeck had looked even more like a little girl when placed in the body bag atop the gurney. An artist's rendering of a little girl playing dress-up in an adult, perfectly matched linen business suit. Starsky had choked and looked away from the sight. Hutch had simply felt the chunk of ice such cases developed in his gut expand to freeze his chest.
Ginny looked cool and refreshing, though humanely disturbed by what she'd seen. Her approach snapped Hutch back to reality and seemed to positively impact Starsky, also. One final glance at the gurney, and Starsky focused on the coroner. "Words of wisdom?" he asked, voice hopeful.
Ginny closed her bag and brushed back a tendril of dark hair from her forehead. "You know the drill. Prelim guaranteed by the close of business or your money back."
"Ginny, can you--?"
She smiled at Hutch and halted his question without a word. After a moment of silence, her smile turned apologetic. "You know I don't hand out guesses, guys. This isn't a cut-and-dried case. There aren't wounds or visible trauma in critical places that readily identify a cause of death. I have a feeling body chemistry's going to give us the answer on this one, and I need my lab for that."
Starsky nodded, impatience taking over, and said, "What about time of death? Any chance she was still alive at eleven a.m.? As far as we can tell, the car showed up on this street sometime between eleven and one."
"Well, it must be a prototype Mercedes that drives itself, or she had a driver, because the answer is no. Even taking into account warming of the body from the morning sun since the car's been sitting here, I'd say there's no way she was still breathing at eleven. Unofficially, I'd say she died between six and ten a.m. Considering that a person or persons unknown could arrange her in a natural pose in the driver's seat, I'd say far closer to ten than six. How's that?"
"Beautiful, Ginny," Hutch praised, and Starsky's smile indicated his own gratitude. Ginny yanked off her remaining glove with a snap and threw one hand up in a jaunty salute before she made her way to the wagon.
The young man was shaking now with the intensity of a brain-damaging fever, though fever wasn't the culprit. Fear mixed with withdrawal made for a potent and dangerous chemical cocktail, and he could barely dial the number on the payphone. His body screamed for a fix, but his brain knew he wouldn't be alive to enjoy the high if he didn't find shelter soon. He threw hunted looks around the dark alley behind the closed strip joint and shimmied with impatience as the phone rang in his ear. "Come on, man. Pick up the phone."
"Rowell," a deep, cheerful voice answered on the fifth ring.
The young man sagged in relief. "Nathan, glad you're there. Listen, I need t-to call in a f-favor like right now, man. You got a place I can lay low for a while? Somewhere outside my usual orbit, if you dig me?"
"Who is this?"
He couldn't believe his ears. The voice on the other end of the line was suddenly severe, adamant in denial. "It's LeRon, fool. LeRon Markus? Ring any bells, college boy? I-I got i-in a little over my head with some nasty dudes, and I need major shelter in the immediate future or you'll be comin' to my funeral. I went to Marcel's club, but th-their car was outside and I th-think they a-already got to him. And Th-The A-Angel's moved again. Can't find her. So I'm turnin' to you. You're my last hope, man."
"I don't know who this is, but I'm going to hang up now. You've obviously dialed the wrong number."
LeRon held the phone away and stared at it like it had turned into a crawling insect in his hand. He'd never wanted to play the ace up his sleeve, but desperation demanded it. "Look, you wanna play games? Fine. I know you took my papers when you thought I was too high to know m-my own name. Never cared, bro, 'cause I knew I couldn't do nothing with 'em, but now I figure, I can exact a little payment. Call it royalties, right? You help me disappear for a little while and I'll forget I ever saw you lift 'em."
It took LeRon half a minute to realize he was talking to a dial tone. He shook the phone and then yelled into it, not caring that his intended audience had departed. "It'll come back to you, you pasty-assed fink! One of these days, it's gonna come back. And I hope I'm still alive to see it!"
"I can't stand facing the families, y'know? That has to be the worst part of this job," Starsky said numbly, staring down at a small pothole next to the Torino's front tire. "A man finishes performing a four-hour heart surgery and has to hear that his wife's been found dead. Damn, being a cop sucks sometimes."
"The worst part," Hutch agreed, his own gaze still locked on the sparkling and austere white expanse of Memorial Hospital. "He won't have a spare moment the rest of the afternoon for it to really sink in, though."
"Yeah, but would you want to be his patient? I know he said they can't reschedule this next one, but how the hell does he concentrate when--?"
"He doesn't have a choice, Starsk. The other thoracic surgeon in his practice who performs this procedure is away at a conference. Dr. Danbeck has to do his job, and do it well. We sh-should know something about that." Hutch hated the tremble in his voice, but couldn't stifle it.
Walking the corridors of Memorial never ceased to freeze Hutch's blood, no matter how much he focused on the miracle he'd been given. Today, listening to the doctor talk about his duty as a surgeon when faced with the death of his wife, Hutch had felt his own pulse throbbing in his head. I had to find the person who would dare try to take you away from me. You were lying there. I didn't want to leave you...had to...had to....
Warm fingers danced along the back of his neck. Hutch snapped to attention and found Starsky standing less than two inches from him, a mixture of concern and adoration in the deep blue eyes. Starsky was taking a chance interacting with him this way in the wide-open parking lot, but he obviously deemed it a worthwhile risk. Hutch smiled.
After a parting caress up into the blond hair, Starsky dropped the fingers and said, "You okay? Thought you'd turned to stone for a minute there."
Hutch nodded. "I'm fine. I'm just trying to piece it all together. What was Michelle Danbeck, who was married to a cardiologist and had two small children, involved in that could land her dead in her own car on Chandler? Doesn't make sense!"
"You're thinkin' what I'm thinking, right?"
Hutch tapped one hand on the Torino's roof. "Homicide. Yes, that's what I'm thinking. Proving it--even to Dobey's satisfaction--is going to be the tough part."
"Hutch…" Starsky reached out and tugged discreetly on the hem of Hutch's beige-and-green plaid over-shirt. "This place still gets to you."
Hutch looked away from the warm, loving face staring into his. "Yes. It's been long enough, you'd think I--"
"Shh. Anything I can do to make it better?"
"Not here." Hutch grinned. "But tonight you'll get your chance."
"Count on it," Starsky promised, tugging on the shirt a final time before resuming his all-business expression. "Next step, we put our ear to the street."
"As usual. Only thing to do until the prelim gives us more direction."
But the street was quiet. So quiet that Zebra Three made themselves available for calls, while they tried to track down anyone who could shed light on how the Mercedes ended up on Chandler. After hours of frustrated dead ends and minor calls in which they scored assists rather than baskets, Starsky turned the Torino toward Metro, hoping the lab could offer solid answers.
It was a little after 9:00 p.m. when they gathered in Dobey's office. Frustrating paperwork and a lengthy consultation with Ginny had kept them well past shift's end, but neither detective complained because a painful interview with Dr. Gregory Danbeck reminded both men how fortunate they were in comparison. The doctor had turned up at the station after his final rounds and had seemed a lost soul in need of something Starsky and Hutch couldn't give him. Closure was never possible this early in a case.
Hutch immediately filled a paper cup with water and shoved it into Starsky's hands. His partner sat with the posture of an overcooked noodle, half-sprawling in the chair and looking incredibly weary. Hutch thanked some anonymous benefactor that Starsky's weariness matched his own: mental, emotional perhaps, but no more physical than usual after over twelve hours of work. Hutch perched on the arm of his partner's chair, giving in to eagerness for proximity and unafraid that Dobey would think anything amiss.
"So, tell me what you've got," Dobey said without preamble, as he nibbled on a late supper of two ham-and-cheese sandwiches.
"Fact or opinion?" Starsky asked, turning the water cup around in his hands.
"Both, same as always," Dobey said through a mouthful and dabbed at his chin with a messy napkin.
"Cause of death is definitely a cocaine OD. Lab work is firm on that, and there's concrete evidence that this wasn't her introduction to the drug." Hutch rubbed viciously at his knees, signaling his own frustration. "That hit her husband like a two-by-four to the jaw. He--of all people--should've been able to spot the signs of drug use, yet, he had no idea. Or so he insists, and I for one believe him. He looked--" Hutch glanced down at his partner, who nodded.
"Sucker punched," Starsky finished. "He was in the dark all right. But he wasn't surprised that she was in the city. Apparently, they have this agreement. Twice a month, they ship the kiddies to the grandparents, who live close by, for a couple days, and Mrs. Danbeck comes into town to shop, get her hair done, generally give herself the royal treatment, and then they have a quiet evening all to themselves when he gets home from the hospital. Marriage insurance, Dr. Danbeck called it."
"Sounds plausible that might have been when she made her connection. That fits someone whose drug habit is recreational." Dobey scratched at his hairline and frowned. "So, you're thinking--?"
"Murder," Hutch said firmly. "But here's where we cross right into the realm of opinion."
"Meaning you have no evidence."
Starsky nodded and exhaled sharply. "No evidence, Cap'n, but lots of unanswered questions. Biggest one is who drove her to Chandler? Danbeck is out of the picture. He was called into the ER last night about three a.m. and ended up sleeping over at the hospital to be ready for his early morning surgery."
Dobey waved the napkin dismissively. "Plenty of explanations for that one. Could have been someone who shared her drug habit. Someone equally high isn't going to deal rationally with an OD. She dies; the person finds a place to ditch her and the car rather than seeking help."
Hutch stood and paced in front of the other chair. "Ditched her, but went to all the trouble of arranging her in the driver's seat? And then neglected to re-adjust the seat so it would at least look feasible that she drove herself? Sure, somebody on a high might be that irrational. You can force scenarios to fit the facts, Cap'n, but that doesn't mean they're right."
"Doesn't add up to homicide either, Hutch. She wouldn't be the first upper class woman who's died from a nasty, expensive habit."
"It's not just the drug thing," Starsky said. "It's where her body was found and the fact that nobody we questioned saw anything. Didn't see the car arrive…didn't see anybody leave the car. And there are some desperate turkeys hanging around that neighborhood who wouldn't let a dead body stop 'em from making off with the purse, the drugs, hell, the car if they thought they could manage it--leaving the body on the damn street. But everything was there, neat and tidy, waiting for the right person to find it."
"We have a theory about that," Hutch said softly. He finally stilled the pacing and lowered himself slowly into the chair.
"Well, let's hear it," Dobey barked, ham sandwich halfway to his mouth and temporarily forgotten.
"We think somebody wanted us to find Michelle Danbeck exactly how and where we did." Starsky crumpled the now empty water cup and tossed it back and forth in his hands. "Let's face it, if she'd been found in her condition at home or even in a hotel room, she'd probably be labeled an accidental OD and that'd be the end of it. Now--"
"Now we got enough red flags for a slalom course in Switzerland," Hutch continued. "Why would someone go to all that trouble if there weren't something worthy of investigation? And if our theory is right, then the person who drove her to Chandler probably isn't the killer. That's our key: finding the other person in that car."
"Touchy situation," Dobey said absently into his long waiting sandwich. "You think Dr. Danbeck is going to sit calmly by while we lay out a full press appeal?"
"Yes, he will," Starsky asserted. "He's broken up, but he's definitely more concerned about finding out exactly what happened to his wife than he cares about--"
"Scandal," Hutch supplied, smiling at his partner. "Starsky's right. This guy wants the truth. He wants to understand."
Starsky shot out of the chair and deposited the crumpled water cup on Dobey's desk. "Like you said at the beginning, Cap'n, this one smells bad. Let us run with it. We'll have the full autopsy results tomorrow; we'll know about prints from the car. We'll crawl every inch of street until somebody pops up and gives us the info we need. That's the only way we're gonna solve this one."
The captain regarded his half-eaten sandwich with unsuccessfully concealed disgust. He dropped it quickly on his plate and rubbed his hands together. "All right. You're officially off whatever isn't essential and on this. But if I get the sense that you're chasing a bunch of dead ends and an accidental death, I'm pulling you off. Right now, Thorpe and Flores are still carrying a light load. I have another team out with a stomach bug. I'll be running out of detective teams, and I don't need to be wasting a good one on a non-case. You got it?"
"Flawlessly spelled out, Captain," Hutch answered, rising to his feet, hoping the briefing had neared its conclusion.
"And take your trash with you, Starsky!" Dobey yelled.
Starsky was yawning his way through the sentry's first long speech to Creon, King of Thebes, when the book was snatched from his hands and weight descended on his lap.
"Ooomph!" he groaned as Hutch straddled his thighs.
"Are you insinuating something, Starsk?"
"Insinuating nothing. You weigh a ton!"
"Gee, thanks, partner. Nice to know all that time at Vinny's is keeping me in shape."
Starsky laughed at the wounded look on Hutch's face. He could tell the expression was only partly feigned, so he reached up and traced Hutch's lips with his pinky finger. "You look good enough to eat, babe." He closed his eyes as his pinky finger fell victim to Hutch's tender mouth.
"Smooth try, hot lips, but no sale," Hutch said around the finger he licked gently.
"I'm serious. All the working out's paying off; you're in top form. But y'know, all those muscles," he used his other hand to squeeze Hutch's right bicep, "these long, strong legs," his hand dipped down to caress Hutch's thigh, "and especially what you're carrying around here," hand moving from thigh to crotch and cupping the plentiful mound that awaited his touch, "all of that's gotta add up to some body weight, lover."
"Keep talking like that and you'll have me right where you want me." Hutch breathed through a slight gasp, his eyes darting down to Starsky's fingers tracing him through the robe's terry material. "Or better yet, stop talking," he suggested, and with one hand bracing against the couch cushion on either side of Starsky, he dipped his head and nipped at Starsky's upper lip.
Starsky reluctantly pulled away from the teasing lips. "Um, man, what's with your timing, hm? You've been throwing X-rated looks at me ever since we got home tonight, but you wait 'til I sit down with 'Antigone' before you act on 'em?"
Hutch laughed and waved the book in front of Starsky's face. "Watching you study makes me horny. Who knew?"
"Wow, if I'da known that, I'da signed up for four classes."
"And lost your job in the process," Hutch said, laughing again. "Or flunked out. Twelve credit hours and a full-time career spell disaster even for someone of your many talents."
"Speaking of flunking out," Starsky muttered, reaching for the book that Hutch held just out of his grasp. "Need to finish reading, babe."
"No you don't." Hutch held the book high above his own head. "Bet you can recite this by now."
"Not quite, Hutch. Come on. A few more minutes then I'm all yours."
"I'm impatient. I'm hot as hell for you. I want intimate contact with every inch of your body and I want it, NOW."
"How'm I supposed to concentrate on literature with you talkin' like that? If I'm gonna take this class, I need to take it seriously..." He trailed off at Hutch's change in expression. The seduction in the fair, handsome features had given way to sympathy and understanding. Strangely, Starsky felt his cock pay more attention to that response than he had to Hutch's come-on lines.
"Summary," Hutch said softly. "Give it to me. Right now. Off the top of your head."
"Sum--you mean, of the play?"
"Yep. Summarize Sophocles' classic for me in less than ten sentences."
Starsky blinked. He registered the texture of Hutch's robe and smooth skin on his legs, his own cut-off jeans were growing painfully tight, and above the shoulders, Hutch looked like an expectant professor. The combination was like an inhaled aphrodisiac, and Starsky thought for a second that he couldn't summarize the Miranda speech.
Then the fog cleared and he grinned. "Thebes is attacked by invaders, but Creon's army wins. So, King Creon decides he'll make a grand power statement. His two nephews fought on opposite sides in the battle and killed each other. Creon lays down the law that the one on his side gets a proper funeral while the other one has to rot unburied. But Creon's niece, Antigone, has other ideas, and she breaks the law to bury her brother so he'll have honor in the afterlife, for which Creon sentences her to death. The blind prophet Tiresias tears Creon a new one for being so cruel and stubborn, so he has a change of heart, but it's too late 'cause Antigone has killed herself insteada dyin' slowly, buried alive. After Creon's son--Antigone's fiancé--commits suicide over the situation, Creon loses his wife to suicide, too, and he ends up one doomed and miserable guy. End of story."
Hutch laughed out loud. "Maybe I'm biased because you're the sexiest man alive, but I think you managed to improve on Sophocles. Now list five themes in the play."
"You know, five things you would say the play is about…deeper than the surface plot."
"Love. That's definitely in there. Couple different kinds of love, actually. Power. Abuse of power? Yeah. This is a 'law and lit' class so I guess law has to be a theme, right? I'd say law versus conscience. The real world versus spirituality. Pride, too. How'm I doing?"
Hutch threw the book over his shoulder and grinned as it hit the floor. "You're more than ready for this class tomorrow night, so please give me some of your undivided attention?"
"What'd ya have in mind, besides damaging books? You oughtta be ashamed of yourself," Starsky half-growled, massaging Hutch's lower back.
"Getting you naked and making you scream, among other things."
But Starsky didn't scream. They lingered on the sofa through a heated session of foreplay, but while Hutch voiced his appreciation loudly at every touch of Starsky's lips on his body, Starsky was stunned into silence by Hutch's capable, gentle hands and breathless kisses. The fire in those soft blue eyes surpassed anything Starsky had ever seen throughout their relationship, and the knife-edge desire directed at him stole his capacity for thought. Stripped of all clothing, he found himself led by the hand to their bed.
"I want to get lost inside you," Hutch whispered in his ear, and Starsky opened his arms, welcoming the blond into the bed and onto his body. He was mesmerized, but he wasn't incapable of movement, and he locked his legs firmly around Hutch's waist even as he locked their lips together and held the blond head at the perfect angle to drive his lover beyond reason.
He had always appreciated the equality of their loving, but Starsky knew that tonight equality had been thrown out the window. As he released Hutch's mouth and felt those wide lips descend on his throat, he realized what had stifled his usual groans and shouts. Hutch seemed transformed and worshiped him like a lover he'd won through dangerous battle and great cost to himself. Starsky discovered a need to actually listen to Hutch's nearly continuous litany of love words and endearments. His body was being tenderly manipulated and prepared, but he barely felt the slick, warmed fingers. He only noticed that Hutch would pause occasionally and kiss his inner thigh, resting his forehead against the heated skin and breathing deeply.
Finally, on one such pause, Hutch looked up into his eyes and said, "Have to have you. Now, please?"
Starsky could only nod mutely and assist in the lifting of his legs over Hutch's shoulders. So Hutch really did want to get lost inside him. Starsky had no complaints. Not when Hutch blinked pure adoration at him as their bodies worked in tandem at joining.
"That's it, lover. So strong...you're so strong. Take all I've got," Hutch panted.
Starsky took and gave. He let his hips speak for him, giving each of Hutch's frantic thrusts a passionate counter-reaction. Hutch braced his hands against Starsky's chest and Starsky delighted in the pressure of those hands, so intimate and slippery with sweat against his body, and he returned the favor by grasping Hutch's forearms until he knew his fingernails would leave tiny half-moons that Hutch would have to cover with a long-sleeved shirt.
"So right…that you're my man…so right," Hutch gasped, strain and pleasure breaking the last word in half as he moved a hand down Starsky's stomach. Starsky interpreted the movement and stopped the action, returning the hand to its previous location with a soft shake of his head. He wanted those hands on his chest and Hutch's concentrated passion unbroken. He took himself in hand instead, and watched as that gesture created a new sheen of sweat on Hutch's forehead and put a glisten in the baby blues staring down on him.
Euphoria first seized Hutch, whose eyes grew impossibly wide and then snapped shut as his entire face tensed. He could only manage a broken version of Starsky's name to voice his orgasm and that finished Starsky. Gasping harshly, Starsky bit down on his lip, drawing blood, and flung his arms around Hutch, yanking him down against his body as he lurched in the throes of climax.
Still breathless, Starsky found upon separation that he could actually move, and he used his remaining strength to fetch a warm, damp cloth from the bathroom. He tended to Hutch in smiling silence and swallowed a moan of appreciation as Hutch hugged him and snatched the cloth, bathing him tenderly. Hutch flung it off to the side, but refused to break the embrace.
"Did I do something wrong?" Hutch asked, his voice still tense with the after-effect of lovemaking. "Were you really not in the mood tonight, or something? I didn't mean to come on so strong if you--"
Starsky closed his lover's mouth with soft, slowly moving lips and lowered them both to the bed. "You were beautiful," he said when he pulled back. "Why?"
"You didn't make a sound. Usually, you--" Hutch smiled sleepily. "Usually I worry about them hearing you downtown."
Starsky laughed. "It was…intense tonight, Blondie. I loved every minute of it. I guess I-I got caught up in you. Too busy trying to hear and notice everything you were doing to make a bunch of my own noises. Now, go to sleep."
"I can handle that," Hutch mumbled, eyes closing. "Love you."
"You, too. Always," Starsky replied in a yawning whisper, and he snuggled in the warmth of Hutch's arms until he found the perfect position for sleep.
Hutch's body registered the cold discomfort of empty arms, and he woke with his chest aching, though not with physical pain. Sitting up, Hutch saw that Starsky sat on the edge of their bed, his posture so childlike and endearing that Hutch's breath caught in his throat. Starsky had his knees pulled up tight against his chest, his arms wrapped around his legs, and he curled over so that his chin propped on his knees. Hutch felt a sweeping gratitude that Starsky's body had the agility and range of motion required for the position.
"Can't sleep, babe?"
Starsky turned his head without lifting his chin and smiled. "Nah."
Vehement wagging of curls. "'Course I'm not nervous. Why would I be nervous? Don't have anything to be nervous about."
Hutch kept his responsive grin to himself. The answer's speed and determination contradicted its content. He leaned over and stroked playfully at Starsky's bare calf.
"Oh, really? Nothing to be nervous about? Nothing at all?" His fingers moved to tickle the skin in the crevice of Starsky's bent knee.
Starsky's smile turned defensive and he swatted at the teasing fingers. "Just can't sleep. That's all."
Hutch crawled across the bed and sat beside his partner, pulling his legs up into a matching pose. They made an interesting couple, sitting side-by-side like two bored children waiting for the clown to show up at a birthday party. "So," Hutch began, voice altered because his chin rested on his knees, "this wouldn't have anything to do with our starting class tomor--er--this evening?"
Starsky must have decided that he'd carried the burden alone far too long because he heaved a sigh of admission followed by a resigned nod. "How'd you guess?"
Hutch laughed. "I know you inside and out, lover. Up, down, and sideways. Diagonal even. And sometimes twisted like a pretzel when you--"
"Trying to distract me, aren't you, Hutch?"
"Well, that was my first option. Didn't work, obviously, so on to the next one. Tell me what's on your mind?"
"I don't think I'm ready to be Johnny College Boy."
Hutch couldn't hold in a snort of amusement. "Johnny? I haven't heard that saying in--"
"See!" Starsky interrupted, lifting his chin and unfolding, dropping his feet to the floor. "That's a perfect example. Here I am closer to forty than thirty, going to class with a buncha kids who probably never even heard that saying before."
Hutch choked down immediately on his humor reflex. When his confident, go-get-'em partner started talking about being outclassed by youth, it was time for seriousness and understanding. "Starsky, for the fifteenth time, we're taking an evening class. You'll probably be surrounded by non-traditional students."
"That's what we are. We're older-than-average entering college students taking a course, non-degree status. A traditional student is one who enters college following high school and pursues a degree. What I'm trying to say is that you won't be alone. I can almost guarantee you I won't be the only other thirty-something in the room."
"Yeah, well I expect the professor to be our age or older."
Hutch grinned. "That's not what I meant, clown, and you know it."
Starsky looked unconvinced. He studied Hutch's face closely, and Hutch knew that the active, calculating brain was probing his every facial twitch for signs of humoring him. "Yeah, maybe," Starsky said finally.
"So, being a little older than some of the students in the class isn't the only thing bothering you."
"Well, aren't you a mind-reader tonight?"
"Just trying to be here for you."
Starsky leaned over in a move that spoke volumes and Hutch unfolded immediately, opening his arms in a silent invitation. Starsky curled up in the offered embrace with a sigh of contentment. Nestling his head in the curve of Hutch's neck and shoulder, Starsky cleared his throat and said in a voice that defied argument, "I'm not an academic, Hutch."
"Just stating a fact. That's not who I am."
"Starsky, we've been through this before. There's not a damn thing wrong with your brains."
"Didn't say there was. I can kick your ass when it comes to picking apart a case or…or getting us out of locked boiler rooms." Starsky grinned, but the light in his eyes faded quickly. "You remember how it was for me in the Academy--late night study sessions for even the easiest exams. You'd crack a book for maybe fifteen minutes and then it was night-night, lights out. Me, three hours and I still felt like I was swimming in deep water. Next day, you'd ace the damn thing and I'd end up with a 'satisfactory'."
"Not going to peddle me that line of bull, buddy. Not when I was there and saw the classes you tore through like a tornado, just like there were subjects I worked harder on, too." Hutch lowered his head and nibbled at the bed-tangled dark hair.
Starsky squirmed. "Tryin' to distract me again."
Hutch lifted his head and sighed. "Starsk, college isn't about having a genius-level IQ. It's really about work ethic. And you have always had a top-notch work ethic. Just look at the last couple nights, for example. The class hasn't even started, but you've read the first reading assignment twice and the second one--"
"I'm not following you."
"I had a kid in one of my classes at Minnesota. Name was Aloysius Frampton." At Starsky's snort, Hutch laughed. "I'm not kidding. That was his name, and he got pissy when anyone tried to call him 'Al.' Aloysius had an IQ to rival Einstein's. We all thought he was building a rocket in his parents' garage. Anyway, he failed the class. It was a simple history survey course and he deep-sixed the thing."
Starsky reared his head back and searched Hutch's face. "Really?"
"Really. Wanna know why?"
"Yeah, gimme the punch line."
"Because he didn't give a crap about the class, and he tried to get by on his brains without studying the material. He wanted to spend time on his hobby science projects. The professor of our class wasn't impressed by sheer intellect. He wanted to see some devotion to historical study. So, my point is--"
"Yes, I'm getting it."
"Besides which," Hutch continued, smiling, "I'm not worried at all about your intellect, either. I have firsthand proof that all your synapses are firing properly."
"And how do you figure that, Blondie?"
"You knew to snag me off the market, didn't you?" Hutch asked solemnly. Starsky growled and play-punched him on the arm. Hutch laughed. Then he turned serious, staring down into Starsky's upturned face with love and desire speeding his pulse. "Starsky, I--"
"Yeah?" The Brooklyn accent lent an extra huskiness to Starsky's come-on voice.
"I'm so proud of you. I'm so proud to be with you. I'm--" Hutch's words died under the sudden impact of Starsky's lips. He tilted his head and palmed through Starsky's hair as the kiss deepened. Starsky stroked his cheek, then caressed the jaw line just prior to their pulling apart.
"I love ya, Hutch."
"Enough to lie back down with me?" Hutch asked breathlessly. "We both need sleep. It's going be a never-ending day."
Starsky smiled and left the circle of Hutch's arms, but he remained seated, shoulders slightly down, on the bedside. "In a little while. You go on, get some rest."
Hutch shook his head. "No. Why don't you tell me what's really on your mind so we can both rest easier."
"Got to thinking about that talk I had with the Jameson admissions counselor. You know, the lady who told me about the continuing education program--the--" Starsky waved his hand, "--the Intro to College Program. Hutch, you're taking this class for fun. What was it you said?"
"Enrichment," Hutch said softly.
"Right. For me, it's different. This is a damn dress rehearsal. I do well in this class and it eases my entry into degree status if I choose to go that route. Since I'm taking it for a grade, I can even count the course as an--"
"Yeah, in the Criminal Justice Program."
"So what's the problem? I think it's a perfect set-up. You get to 'experiment' with college with no obligation except the money you paid for the course, and you might actually be making progress toward a degree. It's nice to be able to test the water before you jump in."
"The problem is…aw, hell, this is hard to put into words. I don't want to need this."
"Need what?" Hutch asked, watching Starsky clench and relax his fingers and noting the twitch in the strong jaw that often accompanied his partner's internal battles.
"I don't wanna get in there, find out this ain't my scene, and end up feeling like I'm missing something--lacking something--just 'cause I don't follow it through and get a piece of paper with my name on it."
"For ten years I've been a cop. I'm a damn good cop. I have a gorgeous, smart, passionate lover. I have friends I can count on. I have a good life. Granted, it's not perfect, but nothing is. I don't want to lose sight of all that and start thinking I can't be who I wanna be without making the grade."
Hutch reached out and took Starsky's hand in his. "It's harder for some people to face academic pressure than any other kind of intense situation out there. The thought of tests, papers--making the grade, as you say--can really get under your skin. I imagine it's even more daunting if you're going back into that environment after being out of school for so long. I understand, believe me, babe."
"I thought you enjoyed your college years."
"I did. But I'd had my fair share of it after four years. I think that's why med school didn't work out. You have to be hell-bent on ending up a doctor to push through all the stress and pressure of the first couple years, and I realized I didn't want it badly enough. The Academy wasn't a diploma-mill and the first two years in police work bust your ass, but we pushed through it all because we were both hell-bent on making Detective and working together. We had a goal that made it all worthwhile. Trust me, Starsk, if you find you want this degree, you have the determination, drive, and brains to get it."
"And if I don't?"
"Don't want it," Starsky clarified.
Hutch smiled. "Then I'll remind you what a good life you have, how many friends you can count on, what a good cop you are. Especially how lucky you are to have such a gorgeous, smart, passionate lover."
"Smart ass." Starsky laughed and lunged at Hutch's neck, teeth bared.
Hutch jumped at the sharp sensation against his skin. "Easy there, fangs. Actually, I'm glad to hear you say that."
"I'll have to call you 'smart ass' more often," Starsky purred, nibbling over to an earlobe, which he pulled delicately between his lips.
Hutch hissed and twisted away from the erotic teasing. "Cut it out, Romeo, and listen. I'm talking about what--"
"I know what you meant. Why are you glad?"
"Because it means you're going into this with your eyes open. I think it's healthy to approach a difficult task with the attitude that you like who you are already. And it means you've...you've come a long way from thinking I was better off with 'college-boy' Flores as a partner."
"You're right," Starsky said in his solemn tone. "I have come a long way." He grinned. "Come on, lay down, Socrates. My turn to hold you."
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