Hutch carried two heavily laden plates, beer cans tucked securely under each arm, into the living room and dropped down on the sofa beside his robe-clad partner, who was studying a piece of paper as if it held the answer to their current investigation.
"The syllabus?" Hutch asked, setting up their late-night meal on the coffee table.
"Yep. Man, Hutch, that looks good. I could eat the plate, too." Starsky snatched one half of the impressive cold-cut sandwich and chomped into it. Hutch laughed.
"If you hadn't jumped me the minute we closed the door behind us, we'd have eaten before now."
"Imgghr lifkfjump youmff…."
"I can usually break your code, Starsk, but not when your mouth's full."
Starsky swallowed. "I like jumping you."
"So I noticed--not that I'm complaining." Hutch bit into his own sandwich and after a moment, said, "What did you think of class tonight?"
Starsky pointed the sandwich at the syllabus now resting in his lap. "Eleven papers, Hutch, plus a big one at the end. How'n the hell--?"
"Eleven small papers," Hutch clarified. "Would you rather a couple of those papers be a midterm or final exam instead?"
"Nah. I hate exams. A five-to-eight-page paper might be small to you, but it sounds like a novel to me right now, especially when the first one's due Monday."
"Monday before the department office closes. I think he's being more than fair. He's allowing almost a week to write each paper, but he's only giving himself two days to grade them."
"And we have to be ready to discuss 'Measure for Measure.' Told ya I needed a head start." Starsky shook his head and bit down on the sandwich. "Anf dicschfmm is--" He stopped and swallowed quickly. "Sorry. Discussion is thirty percent of the grade. Didn't notice that until Garner mentioned it tonight."
Starsky popped the top on his beer and took a long draught.
"Back to my earlier question. What did you think of class?"
Starsky put the can back on the table. "It's not as bad as high school or even some of the Academy classes. You know, the teacher calling on you and making you feel like a chump if you don't know the answer right off the top of your head. But I get the feeling that Manning knows exactly who's not talkin' much and who didn't read, or who's not payin' attention. He's got it together. He might look more like a student than a professor, but that doesn't fool me."
"You like him, don't you?"
Starsky nodded. "Yeah, but I'm trying hard not to."
Starsky's face was deadly serious when he said, "Because in school whenever I actually liked a teacher, I ended up with a lower grade. Figure that one out. What about you? What you think of him?"
"I think he's ideally suited for this kind of course. I'm actually glad he's not a lawyer. Can you imagine what it would've been like taking a class under some slick, silver-tongued lawyer? I'd rather work in Supply for a month."
Starsky laughed and scrunched his nose in amused distaste. "Well, Professor Hit Man wouldn't have been any fun, either."
Hutch shivered dramatically, grinning. "Ugh. You're right; Professor Gage was definitely one of those 'put you on the spot' kind of teachers. I walked in the room and got attacked right off the bat." He nibbled at the sandwich, lost in a memory of his undercover experience at Jameson. He shrugged the unpleasant thought off and smiled at his enthusiastically chewing partner. "Sounds like you're okay with the class, then?"
Starsky nodded. "Yeah." After a sip of beer, he added, "I think so. The first hour was--" he pointed a thumb downward-- "but I guess I redeemed myself in the last half. As long as every week's not open season on cops, I can handle it."
Hutch reached over and caressed Starsky's knee. "You reacted like a professional, babe."
"Oh? So I concealed how much I wanted to get in her face?"
Hutch threw his head back and roared at the image Starsky's comment produced. "Oh, yeah. Yeah. Starsk, I know that look, and if hardened felons back the hell down from it, what do you think it would've done to a twenty-year-old college kid? You concealed it nicely, trust me."
"That damn pen tapping. We need to use that in interrogation sometime. It's effective. And why wasn't she picking on you, Detective?"
Hutch brushed fingertips on his t-shirt and puffed out his chest. "I'm her type, I guess. What can I say?"
"You're trying to get me started," Starsky accused.
"Finish your sandwich."
"Hutch, something I said tonight bothered you, didn't it?"
Hutch frowned. He'd hoped that Starsky hadn't noticed. Right, he was in love with one of the most observant individuals on the planet. "What you said about Creon and justice as opposed to revenge…."
"You were talking about me, too. I'd have broken Gunther, brought him down any way I had to, my philosophy about murder having nothing to do with justice be damned if you'd--" Hutch averted his face from Starsky's bright eyes.
"You arrested him, babe. Sent him on a one-way ride into hell courtesy of the American justice system."
"Yes, but the other way was there, thrumming in me, too," Hutch argued, looking back at Starsky and murmuring, "Without the hope of knowing you were alive and healing, I'd have given in to it."
"In the heat of the moment, maybe, if he'd given you a chance to draw down on him, not cold with time to think about it."
"Heat of the moment or not, Starsky, what's the damn difference--?" Hutch felt his chest tighten as Starsky's raised eyebrows silenced him.
"I know what you're thinking about, and it's apples and oranges. Lieutenant Slate planned a murder. Going after Biggs in the squadroom was heat of the moment, but planning a murder? That's a different story. Not only that, he was using his badge and the weight he carried on the force to have his cake and eat it, too. He wanted to get the ultimate revenge on his daughter's attacker and still walk around a free man himself. You're not capable of premeditated murder, but if I hadn't come back to you and you'd killed Gunther in cold blood, what would've been your next move?"
Starsky nodded. "Exactly. You'd've turned yourself in the next minute, or…or…" Starsky let the sentence hang and he gripped Hutch's hand, for his own sake as much as Hutch's. "Like I told Janet, we don't expect our badges to protect us. You 'n' me both have done some crazy things when pushed to the limit, but we've always faced up to the consequences. We're not gods, Hutch, but we don't go around leveling iron fists on people. We're not in Creon's camp for sure."
"Oh, to have your clarity of thought," Hutch marveled.
Starsky snorted. "One of my two main purposes in life is to keep you from wallowing in self-examination."
"Yeah? And what's the other one?"
"To supply your daily quota of orgasms," Starsky said without hesitation, winking, and ducking as Hutch hurled a crumb of bread at him.
The next day's heat index was exceeded only by Hutch's frustration. He'd decided by lunchtime that scaling a sheer rock wall in ballet slippers would be an easy task compared to finding a lead in the Danbeck case that didn't end in a blind alley. Less than a minute after Starsky polished off the last bite of a chiliburger that gave Hutch sympathetic gastric pain just from proximity, the car radio blared with a patch-through landline call from Huggy. Mouth full of turkey salad sandwich, Hutch gestured wildly at the mic. Starsky waved fingers shiny with grease at him and Hutch rolled his eyes, thrusting a napkin at his partner and grabbing for the mic himself.
"Hutch? Glad I caught you. I made contact with The Angel. She's willing to entertain you two gent'men whenever you want."
"Finally! Much appreciated, Huggy. We've been running in place on this thing."
"Uh, Hutch, if I was you, I'd have that cannon out of my holster and in full view for intimidation purposes. She's moved into a neighborhood that don't take kindly to heat, you catch my drift? Her new pad's a one-room over on Farrington. Town View, Number 13."
Starsky grimaced and leaned over to share the mic. "Sounds like she stepped down a few rungs on the ladder."
"Yeah, Curly, her fortunes ain't what they once were, but she's still got an unlimited supply of brains and her spirit would do Ali proud, so don't go showin' her none of your bright-eyed sympathy. She thinks you 'n' Hutch both walk without the formality of stepping on the ground. I guess everyone's gotta have a blind spot."
"Bad day at the bar, Hug?" Hutch asked, grinning at image of The Bear in his "mean mistreater" role.
Starsky took the mic from Hutch and said peaceably, "Thanks for the connection, Huggy."
"Yeah, yeah. Pay some on your tab and call it even."
"Who's he kidding?" Starsky laughed as Hutch cranked the car.
"Can't blame him for trying," Hutch shot back, wanting to wipe the chili smudge from Starsky's chin with a lingering fingertip, but settling for tossing another napkin into his partner's lap and pointing at the offending spot. "I think he's still not over being kept in the dark about us."
Thursday lunch-hour traffic was heavier than usual, and the drive ate twenty minutes of their shift. Hutch pulled in front of the first ramshackle apartment building, and Starsky patted the glove compartment in front of him fondly.
"Glad we're in your car. I wouldn't want to subject the Torino to the hubcap hungry sharks in this neck of the woods."
Hutch groaned. "Right. Like you haven't taken that precious car into worse areas of town than this. The only reason you haven't had trouble before now is the common knowledge that you'd rip the balls off anyone who even had a larcenous thought in the Torino's vicinity."
At Starsky's heated grin, Hutch lifted a finger. "And don't even walk into that big open door I provided you, because these pants are the only ones I had clean today, and they're two sizes too small and tight enough already!"
Starsky laughed. "Why else do ya think I've been following you all day?" He made a show of allowing Hutch to take the lead.
Hutch kept one hand beneath his jacket within a second's reach of his Magnum, but the derelicts hanging out on the front steps and in the hallways and stairwells of the apartment building showed no sign of wanting a confrontation.
The door to Room 13 was wide open as if The Angel had been expecting them any moment. Despite the obvious invitation to enter, Starsky, hand beneath his light jacket, too, peered with one eye into the room and called, "Angel?"
"Ye-ah, I hear you. See you, too. With my mind."
Hutch smiled at The Angel's standard greeting and took the first step into the room. He pulled up short so suddenly that Starsky plowed into his back. Flushing at the faux pas of staring, Hutch looked off to the side at the dingy bed tucked away in a corner and tried to compose his thoughts. He heard Starsky's intake of breath and hoped his partner would equally salvage the blunder. Too late. The Angel had burst into her knowing laughter.
"Not what you were expecting? Don'tcha recognize The Angel?"
Hutch forced a smile and watched as Starsky did the same. No, she wasn't what they'd expected. The black woman in the rocking chair looked even less like the sequin-gowned lady in the photo on her table. Gray nearly dominated the dark curls and she'd lost weight, the unhealthy weight loss of someone sickly. Her dress looked like a hand-me-down from someone twice her size. Huggy was right, as usual, about her spirit. Despite the thinned face, the chocolate eyes were capable of warming smiles or slicing a man in half.
"Thank you for seeing us," Starsky said, bowing low over her hand. She giggled. Starsky released her hand and moved over to the side, his intent clear; it was Hutch's turn to pay homage.
Hutch noticed, chest burning, that Starsky unobtrusively slipped a newspaper over the needle and spoon on the side table by the rocking chair. Hutch decided against embarrassing Starsky by letting on that he'd seen the subtle movement. He bent over The Angel's other hand and kissed it with a bright smile. She giggled again.
"Why don'tcha quit making fresh and tell The Angel what you here for? I'm guessin' you chasin' another hype?"
"We're hoping you could help us locate someone, yes. His name's LeRon Markus. Do you know him?" Instead of letting her hand go, Hutch tightened his grip because The Angel's face had twisted in acute pain.
"The Angel knew… Lord knows, she knew there'd come a day. Yeah, I know him. Known him for years. What's he done?"
"We're not sure. We only want to ask him some questions."
"Give it to me straight," she snapped at Starsky.
"Angel," Hutch said soothingly. She flashed her eyes at him with equal fervor.
"You think I'm gonna get word to him that he needs to blow town? If I's gonna do that, I'd do it anyway. What's the harm in telling me why you want him?"
Hutch glanced at Starsky and then leaned closer to The Angel, speaking softly. "We have reason to believe he has information about an abandoned Mercedes on Chandler and the dead woman found in the car."
"Dead? You mean, killed?"
"At this point it's definitely a suspicious death," Starsky said.
"LeRon ain't murdered nobody. He's not capable. Even strung out, he's not capable. You can take The Angel's word on that."
"We'd like to, Angel, but we can't. If LeRon had nothing to do with her death, he has nothing to fear from us."
The Angel snorted scornfully at Hutch's reassurance. "Hah. Right. A young, black junkie with nothing to fear from the po-lice? That's a laugh. LeRon had to fear everybody. How many times did he try to go straight--kick the habit? Lemme tell ya something. Everyone who's had one--even one!--horseback ride bears the mark. A big 'H' like that 'A' in old-timey book…what was it? 'The Scarlet Letter?' Some people manage to hide it better." She closed her mouth and looked away from Hutch, who released her hand as if bee-stung and stumbled back a few steps, trying to ignore the look of blatant alarm on Starsky's face.
"LeRon couldn't hide it," The Angel continued, looking at Starsky. "Stuck out all over him. Even when he'd go off it for weeks, he couldn't keep an honest job. Somehow the boss'd figure out what he'd been, and LeRon'd get booted out. I watched him go through that cycle more times'n I wanna count. He's a good boy! Bigger heart than any man in this godforsaken city."
"When's the last time you talked to him?" Starsky asked.
"Couple months ago, right before I moved over here. He was working again, but he wouldn't talk about it, so I'm sure it was something I'd've been worried about. Most likely running errands for somebody willing to take advantage of his habit."
"Do you know where we can find him?"
The Angel sighed. "After his mama kicked him out, he didn't have a proper home, poor boy, and was too damn proud to do anything about it. I'm only telling you this 'cause I know if he's done got himself hooked up with killers, he'll be safer with you. Last I heard, he'd set himself up a little squatter's pad in an abandoned warehouse at the end of Marshall. He went to the Mission every day for a shower and a bowl of soup. If he's not either'a those places, I don't know how else to help you." She looked in immediate danger of crying, but her face turned harsh instead of soft with sadness and she closed her eyes. "Go now. The Angel is tired."
Starsky kissed her hand again. She smiled through the rough mask. Hutch backed away without repeating the gesture of chivalry, and The Angel's closed eyes flew open. She watched him warily.
"Swiiing lo-o-w, sweet chariot," she crooned suddenly in that incredible voice that shook Hutch's soul. "Comin' for to carry me home. Swiiing lo-o-w, sweet cha-ariot, comin' for to carry me ho-o-me…."
Hutch smiled and walked up to the chair, seizing her hand and planting a soft kiss on the palm. She laughed. "Knew you couldn't resist."
When they reached the door, her voice halted their exit. "You find LeRon, you tell him I wanna see him."
Hutch felt Starsky's eyes on his profile all the way down to the car. He felt the dark blue stare as he drove away from the apartment building. The concerned sideways glances didn't cease until he snapped, "I'm fine, Starsky!"
Unfortunately, LeRon wasn't fine, and Hutch spent the rest of the afternoon in a numb daze. He'd seen countless dead bodies in every imaginable condition, but nothing prepared him for the blow to his equilibrium from the young man seemingly at perfect repose on a dirty mattress in a warehouse corner. Only the syringe at his side told a different story.
Hutch heard Starsky talking to him, but he made no effort to respond. Starsky eventually disappeared and some corner of Hutch's mind knew his partner had gone to call in. The first black-and-white unit arrived just moments later. Part of Hutch flared back to life when a young officer made an off-color remark about heroin addicts and wound up with an irate Starsky in his face.
"What?" the officer shouted. "What'd I say? It's the truth. It always kills 'em in the end. Once a junkie, always a damn--"
Hutch had to intervene, pulling Starsky back by the shoulders.
"What's his problem?" demanded the officer's partner. Hutch glared at the uniformed cops.
"The man's dead!" Hutch answered, his voice more in control than he felt. "I'm sure you have more important things to do than stand around passing judgment. We want this treated like a crime scene." He felt the tension in Starsky's shoulders give way beneath his hands. When the officers moved well out of earshot, still shaking their heads in unison, Hutch breathed a barely audible, "I love you," and released his partner.
Hutch kept his composure during the next six hours only through years of learned discipline and meditation. Everywhere he turned, he faced a grim reminder of the nightmare he'd narrowly avoided. He and Starsky endured a harrowing session with LeRon's mother, who exhibited next to no signs of mourning, merely a resigned acceptance of a fate she'd foreseen years ago for her son, whom she hadn't seen in ten years. She'd kicked him out so his "nasty habit" wouldn't be a bad influence on his younger brother.
Hutch still felt the remnants of the odd daze when he followed Starsky into Dobey's office an hour later. He sank into a chair, grateful for a minute to catch his breath, and listened to Starsky update the captain on where they stood in the Danbeck investigation.
The captain's skepticism about LeRon's death being anything other than a self-inflicted drug overdose, whether purposeful or accidental, should not have surprised Hutch, but he sat forward in the chair and interrupted their superior mid-sentence.
"Captain, believe me, Starsky and I aren't trying to manufacture a case out of thin air. We have enough to do without creating more work for ourselves. But look at the facts: a wealthy homemaker is found dead of an OD in a section of town she has no business in; we have an eyewitness who could ID the driver of her car as LeRon Markus, a street hype who should have no plausible reason to be with Michelle Danbeck--"
"And who apparently ran with a nasty set," Starsky interrupted, "that our snitch refused under any circumstances to discuss."
"The same snitch," Hutch continued, "who made us chase him into an alley. Fleet Feet's one of our best, Cap'n. He puts up a tough show whenever we track him down for info, but he'd do anything for us; he knows he owes us for his second chance. Something had to seriously spook him into running the minute he caught sight of the Torino."
"Add that to the fact that LeRon's longtime pal has gone suspiciously AWOL and LeRon turns up dead. I'm seeing a fuzzy picture here, Cap'n, that needs some clearing up."
Dobey shook his head. "He's a junkie. Even if he's involved with something shady, there's still no hard evidence of--"
Hutch threw his hands in the air and jumped to his feet. "What is this? Connect the dots, all of a sudden? Come on, Captain, there're a lot of unanswered questions here. Do you--?" Hutch took a deep breath. "Do you have any idea what kind of will power, what strength of purpose, it took for a junkie to walk away from a purse filled with credit cards, cash, and cocaine, not to mention the jewelry she was wearing? Do you? No? Well, I do. I. Do."
Starsky neared and a warm hand pressed against Hutch's back, and Captain Dobey looked ready to raise his fist and lecture. The phone shrilled. Dobey grabbed the receiver, growled into it, and fell immediately silent. He hung up the phone. "Get down to the lab; Ginny has something for you. Looks like you're on target. She's leaning toward ruling homicide in the Markus death."
They found Ginny in her small anteroom office off the main lab. She looked up from a file and smiled. "That was fast. I don't usually have such luck tracking you two down."
"What've you got, Ginny?" Hutch asked sharply. He felt Starsky's hand brush against his elbow and calmed. Ginny gave no sign of noticing an undercurrent. She reached over and took a file from a stack, opening it and glancing through it.
"On the surface, it looks like a garden-variety heroin OD. I'm not the detective around here, but I'd say that's what it was supposed to look like. Unfortunately for person or persons unknown, somebody made a mistake. There were no fingerprints on the syringe. None."
"When LeRon's or--"
"Yes," she interrupted Starsky. "Not picking up LeRon's prints wouldn't have set off the alarm bells. Hypes often travel in pairs precisely because sometimes they need help with the tourniquet and injection. But in this case, someone either used a brand-new needle and wore gloves, or the syringe was wiped clean. Why? That's not standard procedure for addicts; I know that much. That got me looking a bit closer. I found barely noticeable with skin tone, but easily identified bruising on the right temple. That's evidence that Mr. Markus was held at gunpoint, I'd say shortly before death. The sum of those parts is a forced injection--at least, that's my humble estimation."
"If he was held at gunpoint, why wasn't he just forced to inject himself?" Starsky asked. "His prints would've been on the syringe and we wouldn't be standing here right now talking about murder."
"He may have passed out, or under those conditions, he may not have been able to manage the physical dexterity required for injection," Ginny answered. "Panic does strange things to people."
"And the gun was just a bluff," Starsky said, continuing her line of reasoning. "As long as someone wanted us to write it off as a heroin OD, they couldn't go putting bullet holes in him."
"He might have called that bluff," Hutch said. "A junkie who walks away from that stash in Michelle's car is capable of refusing to shoot himself up. God!" Hutch left the room at a brisk stride.
Starsky glanced up from his copy of "Antigone" and frowned. He'd known all afternoon that Hutch was battling demons, and had been powerless against them. Right now, Hutch was sitting at his kitchen table, staring aimlessly down at the newspaper spread in front of him. Starsky closed the notebook in which he'd been scribbling down notes for his paper and threw "Antigone" down on the sofa beside it. He'd had enough. Only a distracted, hurting Hutch would chew absently through the spaghetti sauce and meatball sandwich Starsky fed him without protesting the concoction. It was only a miserable Hutch who'd snap at him for asking what Garner meant precisely by a "reaction paper," and who would insist on washing off the day's grit and grime without someone to scrub his back and other parts.
Starsky crossed over to the table and bent down, arms sliding around Hutch's shoulders, lips seeking out his smooth cheek. "Why don't we call it a night, Blondie?"
"Starsky," Hutch said with a note of warning.
"Shh," Starsky ordered softly and tilted Hutch's head back so he could kiss his hurting blond, admittedly from an odd angle, but successfully nonetheless, judging by Hutch's soft moan.
Hutch clung to his lips and Starsky smiled into the kiss. He would make up for the last several hours. He'd see to it that Hutch melted into a dreamless sleep. He'd-- Starsky opened his eyes. Hutch had pulled out of the kiss and was staring at him.
"Starsk, I'm not--"
"You think I don't know you're not up for a grand seduction? What, you think I was kissin' you like that just so I could have my way with you?"
Hutch grinned. "Considering that your sex drive is more durable than a fall-out shelter, yes."
"Sorry, that's not what I had in mind."
"What did you have in mind?"
"Why don't you let me take you to bed and show ya?" Starsky wheedled, slipping his fingers through Hutch's hair with just enough pressure to massage the scalp. Hutch reached up and seized the busy hand and kissed the palm lingeringly. Starsky closed his eyes. "Hey, don't mess with my resolve. Are you coming or am I gonna have to drag you?"
"By the hair, caveman?"
Starsky cursed the flush of color he could feel taking over his cheeks. "If I hafta."
Hutch laughed and Starsky decided the joke at his expense was more than worth it.
"I should really water--"
"Forget the damn plants for once," Starsky growled, and tugged on his partner's hand until Hutch rose and embraced him.
"Been an asshole tonight, haven't I?" Hutch murmured into his ear.
"All part of your charm." Starsky laughed. "I get off on you playing hard to get."
"Oh, is that what I was doing?"
"Yeah, but now you're just being irritating."
Once Starsky had maneuvered Hutch to the brass bed, he quickly divested him of the shorts and jersey, and stepped back so Hutch's wandering fingers could locate his belt buckle. "I'm supposed to be doing the work here," Starsky protested.
Hutch pulled the zipper down slowly. "I like undressing you." His hand shifted, searching, and Starsky bit down on his lip. "Getting that first peek of…" Hutch's thumb tickled across his crown. Starsky grasped the knowing hand and tugged.
"Stop. I got definite plans and you're messin' with 'em."
"You're in charge," Hutch said, smiling, and raising his hands in surrender. Starsky nodded firmly, shed the rest of his clothes, and pushed the already nude Hutch back on the bed.
"Oooh, yeah, love it when you get like this," Hutch purred.
"Not what you think," Starsky corrected, climbing on the bed with him.
"You're not going primal on me?"
"Nope," Starsky said. "You're way too tense tonight. It'd be more pain than pleasure. I wanna drown you in pleasure." And with that, he took Hutch's lips in a gentle kiss. He pulled away quickly and kissed the hollow of Hutch's throat. "I want to put you to sleep so maybe tomorrow you'll talk to me."
"I'm not exactly mute right now."
"You know what I mean. You won't get past it until you talk, but you're not ready. I know you better'n you know you," Starsky said sagely, punctuating the words with a sloppy kiss in the center of Hutch's chest.
"You do," Hutch said softly, his hands finding purchase in Starsky's hair.
Starsky arranged his partner as comfortably as possible down to the perfect fluffing of the pillow behind the blond head. He warmed his hands with the scented oil on the nightstand and devoted himself to the expanse of silky skin that waited, the glisten of anticipatory sweat stirring his own need.
With discipline he didn't know he had, he covered nearly every inch of Hutch's body with his mouth and hands, instinctively knowing which part needed lips and which benefited most by fingers. He knew he was driving Hutch insane, could tell by his body's twitching, by the strangled sounds emerging from pursed lips. He offered no mercy or respite. Only when Hutch lay mindless beneath him, the day's painful associations obliterated in erotic haze, would Starsky transfer his attentions and guide him over the threshold.
He knew when the moment arrived. Hutch arched taut, exhaled in a breathless scream, and pleaded with foggy eyes. Starsky smiled and took his lover's needy erection in hand, but his touch was soft, caressing, and Hutch whimpered rather than shouted his way to climax. Starsky bathed him eagerly with open lips, thrilling at the sounds of Hutch's satisfaction.
He twisted out of Hutch's reach, when a large hand sought his own neglected cock. "No, go to sleep. Don't want you to even breathe hard."
Hutch frowned. "But--"
"Sleep," Starsky repeated. "I'll accept an IOU."
Hutch shook his head. "You're a stronger man than I am," he mumbled, his eyes already closing. Starsky smiled.
"Never been in love like this before," Starsky whispered against Hutch's forehead, stretching out and pulling the snoozing blond into his arms.
Starsky nearly fell off the bed when the phone blared in the darkness. For a second, he thought about tossing caution to the wind and answering it himself. He shook his head in disgust. No, Hutch would be more upset at the risk than having to wake up. This was yet another problem that sharing a house would solve. He woke Hutch and moved so his partner could reach the phone.
"Hutchinson. Hey, no problem. What're you doing there? Oh. How's Lizzie holding up? Right. So, what's going down? Um hm…yeah. Jesus! No, no this is critical info. Thanks. Hold on." Hutch leaned farther across the bed and rummaged in the drawer for a pen and pad. "Got it. Okay. 555-7890. Thanks."
Hutch hung up the phone and paused in mid-stretch. Starsky stroked his back. "What?"
Hutch sat up and turned around. "Flores fielded a call at the station--"
"Their case has them on the graveyard shift tonight. Anyway, Rudi called wanting to get in touch with us. He won't talk to anyone but us. Arturo said he sounded scared out of his mind."
Starsky sat up, rubbing his eyes, and looked at the clock. "Almost two in the mornin'. Got to be something to do with Marcel."
"That's what I'm thinking." Hutch's smile was starlight in the relative darkness, and Starsky knew it had nothing to do with the phone call. "Come'ere, you."
Starsky leaned forward at the soft command, only to be wrapped in strong arms and kissed tenderly. "What was that for?" he asked when Hutch released him.
"For giving me what I needed earlier." Hutch's smile faded as he looked at the phone. "I have a feeling we're going back to work after just two hours of sleep."
Twenty minutes later, Starsky led the way up a rickety fire escape in an alley between two three-story buildings. Like Venice Place, Rudi's loft apartment was situated above what was a flourishing restaurant during the day. Standing off to the side on the narrow top step, Starsky rapped on the door and flashed a nod at Hutch, who waited on the opposite side of the third step down, weapon at ready.
The door opened a crack, and a frightened face peeked into the night. The fear gave way to a relieved half-smile, and Rudi waved a welcoming hand, stepping back to let the detectives inside.
"Where is he?" Hutch asked, looking around and holstering the Magnum.
Disheveled, clothes wrinkled, Rudi's appearance reflected his state of mind. "In the bedroom."
Starsky turned around. He had taken in their surroundings in one observant glance and had seen nothing in the large, faux-Oriental studio apartment that resembled a separate room, much less one with a bed.
Rudi sighed and flung an arm out, gesturing across the wide-open space at the wall painted to give the appearance of bamboo. "Behind the partition," he clarified. "It's wall-to-wall. Just push it gently; you'll see the handle. I'm going to fix him something to eat and make him eat it, dammit."
Hutch located the handle and pushed. The room revealed was no gaudy Shangri-la, but a modest sleeping area with Spartan furnishings except for a king-size bed that swallowed the slender black man curled into a near fetal position in its center.
Marcel uncurled in a startled explosion of arms and legs and scrambled back toward the headboard. "RUDI!"
"Hey, easy, Rudi called us. We're here to help." Starsky fished out his badge and flipped it open for the frightened man to see.
Pounding footsteps heralded Rudi's return. He pushed by Starsky and dropped a tray of bread and cheese on the nightstand before he practically leapt onto the bed and pulled Marcel against him. "Shh, I'm right here. Right here, hold tight. These are the cops I told you about. We agreed to call them, remember?" He cradled Marcel's head against his chest and looked up, wide-eyed. "See, you believe me now? Look at him! You think he'd be in this shape right now if he didn't know someone was trying to kill him?"
"We never said we didn't believe you, Rudi. We're here, aren't we?" Hutch sat down on the foot of the bed and tried to make eye contact with Marcel. "Marcel, I'm Hutch, and the man with no fashion sense is my partner, Starsky."
"Hey!" Starsky protested, playing along and knowing full well what Hutch was doing.
Marcel raised his head and managed a small laugh. "Ain't neither of you candidates for GQ."
Hutch grinned. "Well, we can't all have Rudi's taste in clothing."
Marcel smiled. "Nobody dresses better than Rudi."
Rudi rolled his eyes, laughing. "Got to live up to the stereotype, right? The sacrifices I make for the sake of gay pride."
Marcel gave him a shove and moved out of the protective hold and a few feet away on the bed. "Watch your mouth, Rudi. This ain't happy hour at Prism."
Rudi grinned at his friend. "Don't worry. I gave them the litmus test."
"Litmus test?" Starsky asked, watching the two men share a private smile and wondering if Marcel's close shave had changed the nature of their relationship.
"Yeah. When you two didn't conjure up an excuse to arrest me after I pulled my butch Romeo routine, I figured you were okay."
Starsky winced, remembering his reaction. "Sorry about the wrist."
Rudi smiled and rubbed his arm. "No harm done. Damn, you got one hell of a fine grip, though." His tone labeled the last remark a sincere compliment.
Starsky was mildly alarmed at the vivid flush spreading across Hutch's neck. Before the tide of color could reach his partner's cheeks, Starsky rushed to intercept the dangerous conversation. "It's late and I'm sure Marcel needs some sleep, so why don't we hear the story? What happened?"
Marcel looked at Rudi, who nodded. With a practiced eye, Starsky catalogued Marcel's body language and appearance. The man could have been Huggy Bear's twin in size, though not in mannerism or style. Starsky figured he was probably quiet and unobtrusive as a rule outside of his stage performances. His clothes were in worse condition than Rudi's; one black pant leg was ripped and coated with street dust, and his beige shirt had obvious sweat stains. Starsky guessed that Rudi's clothing had come by its wrinkles through constant physical comforting, similar to the telltale signs his own clothing had worn after a bout of holding Hutch. His mind flashed on the image of a needy, addicted Hutch clinging in his embrace, and he banished the thought quickly. Rudi was talking in low, reassuring tones, urging Marcel to tell everything.
"I left for Vegas Wednesday morning."
"Marcel," Rudi said firmly.
"All right!" Marcel shouted. Rudi reached over and clasped one slender black wrist and Marcel calmed immediately. "Rudi says you guys came round the Prism Wednesday asking for me, looking for LeRon."
"Yes," Hutch said, face blank and giving away no hint of what had transpired since then.
"Tuesday afternoon a couple of well-dressed Johns came in the club while I was practicing for the night show. Bought me a drink, wined and dined me real fancy nice, you know? Told me they wanted to hire LeRon for a snatch-and-run job. The mouth of the two offered me what he called a facilitation fee if I could help them find him. I told 'em all I knew--where LeRon's crashing lately, where he hangs out. 'Bout an hour before closing, one of them came back and laid five hundred big ones on me. Thanked me like a gentleman and said he'd liked my act. He even gave me a card for a dude in Vegas who runs a jazz club and told me if I ever wanted to branch out, I should look this guy up."
"So you just dropped your job here and headed out?"
Marcel's lips twisted into a grimace, and he looked quickly away from Starsky. "I didn't drop it. I just switched with Kayla for Wednesday and Thursday nights' shows. I'm s'posed to sing tonight and Saturday for her. Look, this was a chance I couldn't pass up. Clubs in Vegas shell out some righteous dough for the right act and it's close enough I can double up and triple my weekly take. I got--"
"Debts," Hutch said with ferocity in the one word that caught Starsky's attention. "Five-hundred dollars in your pocket must have been burning quite a hole."
"Yeah, so? I get lucky in Vegas. I owe money to two bookies and one card-runner here, so yeah, I thought I might clean up out there and get out from under it."
"All right. What happened in Vegas?"
"The first day, nothing. I played around the slots and tables, went to see the man at the club. Classy joint. I sang for him and he liked what he heard, so he asked me to come back this afternoon so his partner could hear me. I told him I would." Marcel's face changed and he started to shudder. Rudi moved closer.
"Something happened on the way to the second appointment, right?" Starsky asked, already seeing the pattern fall into place.
"I-if you c-call someone taking a sh-shot at me at the same time I nearly got r-run over right outside my m-motel something happening, y-yeah."
"Double jeopardy," Hutch said, eyes fixed on Starsky, who nodded.
"What? What's that?" Rudi demanded, bouncing a look between them.
"A hit technique that's usually foolproof," Hutch replied. "Professional, precise. The driver and sniper synchronize so that the sound of the shot stuns a target and leaves an opportunity for a clean, fatal hit-and-run, which is what usually goes down in the books. It might sound like overkill, but it's ninety-nine percent accurate. Marcel must lead a charmed life. How did--?"
"I dunno. I guess I--" Marcel took a deep breath and rolled his shoulders several times. "I tripped over a pothole in the street. I-I heard the shot and I-I think instinct took over. I'm not even s-sure how I m-missed the car, but I just kept running and didn't stop 'til I spotted a cab. Had him take me to a fleabag and c-called R-Rudi."
"I dropped everything and went to get him," Rudi said. "He wouldn't hear of going to the Vegas PD, and I didn't really wanna deal with the unknown, either, so I brought him back here and talked him into letting me call you."
"W-why would someone wanna...I'm…I'm nothing."
Starsky stared at the checkered bedspread to avoid meeting Marcel's eyes until he could relocate his cop's impartiality. "Offhand, I'd say the same people you sold LeRon to are not taking any chances on you living to tell tales."
"Wait just a damn minute!" Rudi barked.
"Starsky--" Hutch began, but stopped at the hand Starsky lifted.
"Sold?" Marcel threw uncertain looks around the room, one for each man. "What're you--? What the hell are you trying to say, man?"
"Come on, Marcel, you've been around," Starsky said with dangerous neutrality. "You really expect me to believe you thought these guys offering you a fee were LeRon's fairy godmothers?"
"What should I have thought? They'd heard about his rep for quick, in-out deals. He'd make one helluva professional thief if he could stay off the horse."
"Yeah?" Palms down on the bed, Starsky leaned forward and said, low and tight, "He won't hafta worry about that now!"
"What's...what's he talking about?" Marcel whined at Hutch.
Hutch turned to face him. "LeRon was found dead this afternoon. Evidence suggests that he was murdered and someone used heroin to do it."
"LeRon. D-dead?" Marcel's voice had diminished to a mere whisper.
Starsky threw up both hands and turned his back on the bed.
"Where was he? Where'd you--?"
"Oh, God. If they f-found him there, he died th-thinking I...no one else knew where he was crashing at night."
"The Angel knew," Starsky said without turning around. "That's how we found him."
"Th-The Angel! You been to see The Angel? She know LeRon's dead?"
"No, we're planning on breaking the news to her later today," Hutch said gently.
"She don't have to know a-about m-me, right? I mean, what good would that--?"
"Why not?" Starsky asked, swinging around again. But Marcel clamped his lips together and trembled. "No, we won't be telling anyone outside our chain of command that you're here or what you've told us. We have no intention of letting you end up like LeRon."
"Marcel," Hutch said with a slight headshake at Starsky, "has LeRon said anything to you recently about his activities? How he's been affording his fixes?"
"No…he said about a month ago that soon he'd be able to skip this town and get a fresh start somewhere, but he wouldn't spill any details. I-I haven't seen much of him lately. He did say something kinda out in left field…about a week ago. We were having a drink before one of my numbers, and he said he hated a world where rich white, married women figure they gotta have drugs to be happy."
Starsky exchanged a meaningful look with Hutch. "Do you know of anyone else LeRon would turn to in a jam? Someone he'd confide in?"
Marcel chewed on his bottom lip, shook his head slowly, and then bit down on his lip again. Rudi squeezed his shoulder. "What about that guy you two grew up with?"
Marcel's head snapped up and he blinked at Rudi. "Nathan? Nah, he'd never go to Nate."
Hutch stood up and folded his arms. "Right now we're willing to follow up the longest shot you got. Who's this Nathan?"
"Nathan Rowell. We were tight as kids. Stayed close until he got himself a scholarship to college and then went on to grad-u-ate scho-ool." Marcel's smile turned into a sneer. "We wasn't good enough for him anymore. LeRon tried to keep us all in touch but he eventually gave up on that lost cause. He'd rather drink from the sewer than turn to Nathan."
"Aw, shit," Starsky said with feeling. "Shit. What a lousy time for it to be such a small world." Just our luck--we take a college course and end up having to interview the postdoc about a homicide victim.
Marcel and Rudi both stared at him. He decided to ask another question rather than volunteer information. "You and Nathan grew up together?"
"Yeah. Nathan don't even know who his real father is. His mama committed the unpardonable sin of fallin' for a brother when Nate was a baby and they moved in with him in our neighborhood. 'Least, that's the story I heard. Mr. Wallace was one hell of a dad, if you ask me, but Nathan didn't give a shit about that when he got on his 'I'm white and I'll prove it' kick. When he turned eighteen, he stopped calling the man anything but 'mother's friend.' How's that for a slap in the face?"
Rudi sighed as if sorry he'd introduced the subject. He looked at Hutch. "Look, what's the next step?"
"The next step is to get Marcel into protective custody. If we're dealing with people who have the connections to set up a hit in Vegas that quickly, then you can't guarantee his safety here. We'll need a full description of the men who came in the club and more information about the club in Vegas, too."
"Mind if I use the john first?"
Hutch waved a hand at Marcel with a smile. "Yeah, we'll give you a chance to catch your breath and eat. It'll take us a little while to get things squared away."
After Marcel disappeared into the bathroom, the door slamming behind him, Rudi stretched his legs out and folded his hands behind his head against the headboard. "All right. Lay your cards on the table. How much trouble is he in?"
Starsky fielded that query. "He's dancing awfully close to an accessory rap, but a lot of that has to do with intent. It's in his favor that we're gonna have an interesting time proving that LeRon's injection was really forced. It'd be an even cuter trick to prove that Marcel's information led directly to LeRon's death."
"Detective Starsky, you might think he knew what he was getting LeRon into, but I don't. Not because Marcel's naïve, but because he wasn't thinking beyond the money. He heard the money offer and his brain shut down. I'm telling you he's as addicted to gambling as he was to the heroin, and as much as I'd like to think this close call might break his habit, I'm not holding my breath."
"You should definitely encourage him to cooperate fully with us from here on out," Hutch said. "His information could prove vital in helping us find who killed LeRon. More importantly, we suspect LeRon's murder is tied up with another suspicious death, and the hit on Marcel supports that theory. Anything Marcel can do to help us will help his cause in the long run."
"Fine. Whatever goes down, I'm sticking with him, so wherever you plan to stash him for safekeeping, you better make sure it's big enough for two."
Starsky couldn't restrain a furtive, fond glance at Hutch, whose lips curved into a slight smile.
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