House of Mirrors
by Hutchrules3

SHSVS, Episode 609, Part 2

Back to Part 1

The next few days were as Hutch had predicted, Starsky thought--rich folks trying to outdo each other over exotic cuisine, with talk of cars and condos and vacation homes. To ensure no one went home sneering at Hutchinson hospitality, Hutch's parents made frequent rounds, inquiring about grandchildren and favorite activities, admiring clothes, weight loss, and new haircuts, and generally providing anything and everything the guests desired.

Well, Hutch's mother, actually, Starsky corrected himself as he and Hutch followed Polly, Cathy, and Hutch's father to the dock on Saturday afternoon. Though he was a pleasant enough mingler, Richard Hutchinson clearly preferred to play host from the deck of the Id, leaving the household responsibilities and pleasantries to his wife.

Most of the other men, having already taken a spin on the Id, had gone to the nearby country club for a round of golf. Several of the women were in the garden with Miranda, helping with floral selections and arrangements for the night's dinner dance. It was the highlight of the Labor Day festivities, and, while the Hutchinsons hired both caterers and serving staff, Miranda would allow no one but herself to take charge of the flowers. As a result, Richard had finally persuaded his children and their guests to join him on his prize. Polly and Cathy bantered cheerfully about the tennis game the foursome had played earlier; the girls had won, and they weren't about to let the partners forget it.

They boarded the Id in short order, and Starsky, Hutch, and Polly settled into passenger seats while Cathy helped her father launch the boat into the open water. Polly slipped on sunglasses and dug into a large tote for sunscreen, which she slathered generously over her slender arms and legs. Noticing both men were shirtless, she extended the bottle of Coppertone. "Want some?" she offered. "I know you both have good bases, but you don't want to end the day with a nasty sunburn, especially with the big dance coming up."

She had dropped her voice to a languid, lush Southern drawl, and Starsky couldn't help laughing. He accepted the sunscreen, while Polly responded to Cathy's invitation to take a turn at the tiller.

Opening the bottle and squirting lotion on his hand, Starsky began to apply it to his shoulders and face. "Polly seems real nice," he commented. "Definitely the kind of girl your sister would pal around with."

Hutch made a murmured sound that might have been agreement. Starsky tried again, extending the sunscreen.

"Want some?"

Hutch shook his head.

"Well, would you mind doing my back?"

Hutch turned to look at him, with an Are you nuts? expression on his face. "Starsk," he said in a low tone that was almost a hiss. "We can't do that here, and you know it. Not with my dad less than a hundred feet away and watching every move I make."

"What 'that'?" Starsky asked, genuinely bewildered and slightly annoyed. "I'm askin' you to put sunscreen on my back, Hutch, not give me a blowjob in the middle of the lake."

Hutch's eyes shot toward the stern, where his father was giving Polly a steering lesson.

"Will you calm down?" Starsky admonished. "He's busy; he's not even lookin' over here."

Hutch didn't move, other than to hunch his shoulders until Starsky thought they would touch his ears. He looked like a kid waiting to get caught with cigarettes or girly magazines. Starsky sighed. "Hutch, c'mon," he coaxed. "What's the matter with you? You've been jumpy as a cat ever since we got here, and you've barely said six words to me. It's not like your folks can read our minds." He grinned mischievously. "At least, I hope not."

"Can't take the chance, Starsk." Hutch ignored his partner's attempt at humor, eyes never leaving his father. "You don't know how he is...if he senses something's going on, he'll find a way to get at the truth. And Cathy's right; I don't feel like dealing with it right now."

"Well, he's sure as hell gonna know something's wrong if you keep this up," Starsky countered. "Relax, will you? In case you haven't noticed, this is a sailboat, not a prison barge."

He kept his eyes on his partner until Hutch finally yielded, letting his shoulders drop and his body relax against the thickly padded seats. As Starsky watched the tension ease from his face, he knew Hutch was enjoying the sun and the water despite himself. Though Starsky blew him a lot of shit about being a "Sea Scout," he understood that Hutch loved the water as much as the mountains, and was as happy in it as...well, as a fish in water.

"That's better," he said approvingly, leaning back, too. "So. What do you think of Polly?"

"I think she's great," Hutch replied. "She and Cathy really hit it off when they met at the tennis club, despite some of the obvious differences."

"Yeah." Starsky tipped his head back and closed his eyes, reveling in the warmth of the sun on his face. "Cathy's got kids...she's got a cat; Cathy's got a husband, she's got a 'same sex partner'." He grinned. "Your sister's quietly startin' her own little tolerance movement out here, isn't she?"

"That's Cathy," Hutch said, and though Starsky couldn't see it, he knew his partner was smiling fondly. "She just likes people for people; all the other stuff is irrelevant as far as she's concerned."

They sat in silence for a while, basking in the sun, the slight spray from the boat's clean movements through the water, and the brisk, fragrant lake breeze. "Your dad seems to like Polly, too," Starsky said, almost too casually. "And I bet he doesn't have a clue that she's a lesbian."

"Starsk," Hutch warned. "Don't start."

"Look, Hutch," Starsky said, opening his eyes and facing his partner. "All I'm sayin' is...Polly's just being herself, and your dad's treating her like one of the family. So I'm betting you could loosen up, and he'd be equally in the dark."

"Polly's not his son," Hutch pointed out. "He hasn't known her for nearly forty years, so he can't know how she's changed since she embarked on a homosexual relationship."

"Hutch--" Starsky began.

"Give it up, huh?" Hutch requested. "I'm doing the best I can."

His voice was weary enough that Starsky felt guilty about badgering him, and he retreated, leaning back against the seats to enjoy the sun and silence once more. He must've dozed off, for when he was aware of his surroundings again, Hutch was no longer seated beside him. The sound of voices reached him from the boat's stern. Hutch and his father were there; Polly and Cathy had gone to the bow, where there was a flat area perfect for tanning.

"No, Dad, I think you're wrong there," Hutch was saying as Starsky strained to listen. "Sure, these kids are screwed up, and I'm sure they could benefit from some couch time, but until we get some more funding for their parents, who are usually out of work and in incredible debt--"

"Don't be naive," Richard interrupted, and his voice was lazy and so condescending that Starsky knew it had to be pushing Hutch's buttons. "You can't just give these people money, you have to work on the source of the problem."

"Which is?" Starsky could tell from Hutch's tone that he was restraining his temper, trying not to bristle at being called "naive" after ten years as a homicide detective.

"You have to work with them, correct the essential internal conflicts that keep them rooted in unhealthy stages of development," Richard informed his son. "If you simply give them money, who knows what they'll do with it?"

"Buy food, most likely," Hutch responded tightly. "Even you shrinks can't label that as an oral fixation."

"Now, Ken," Richard chided. "You know it's not as simple as that. Until the deeper-rooted issues are resolved, they'll simply remain fixed where they are. Your jails will only become more crowded and your job more dangerous. Treatment--long-term treatment--is the key to truly turning someone around."

"And who's going to house them and take care of their families while you're poking around their subconscious, huh?" Hutch inquired. "I doubt repressed memories emerge with a wad of cash in hand."

"There's no need to be supercilious," Richard admonished. "Just because we don't take a problem out and shoot it doesn't mean we can't eliminate it."

"I don't--"

Though Starsky couldn't see his partner, he could tell by the abrupt halt that Hutch had stepped away--to bite back the words that would only make things worse and that he would regret later.

"You know, you were always such a thinker, Ken." Richard's voice remained unruffled. Clearly he was nowhere near as affected by the conversation as his son was. To him, Starsky figured, it was an intellectual exercise; to Hutch, it was something he faced on the streets every day, and it tore his guts out not to be able to do more. "I don't know when you acquired this...materialistic belligerence, this sense that throwing money and enough force at something can solve it. I can only guess that it is the product of your years as a police officer."

There was only silence from Hutch, and Starsky knew what his partner must be thinking: that his father had dropped his job into the conversation right on schedule. Never, Hutch had told him, did Richard miss an opportunity to remind Hutch how he felt about his son becoming a cop, rather than carrying through on his medical career. Never did he fail to cluck his tongue over the perceived deterioration of Hutch's intellect and refinement.

Never did he cease reminding Hutch, in a hundred seemingly benign and yet pointed ways, what a disappointment he was.

"My dad's a good man," Starsky remembered Hutch saying, on the few occasions he spoke of Richard, just as Cathy had told him when they first arrived. "But he's always wanted me to be something I'm not--him."

There was the abrupt sound and feel of someone plopping on the seat beside him. Starsky felt more than saw his partner's mixture of dejection and frustration at his father's attitude. He badly wanted to reach over and curl his hand around Hutch's knee, but he knew that would only make things worse.

As soon as they were off the boat, though, he was going to do something about it.

Steps pounded on the path, passing through the dapples of early evening sun. Accustomed to such disturbances, birds and squirrels merely observed from the trees as the slender, athletic figure passed below. Steady, determined exhales accompanied the rhythmic feet and pumping arms. Squirrels and birds went back to their business. For a moment, there was silence, broken only by the occasional hum of insects and the lazy call of a contented bird.

Then more footsteps sounded on the packed earth, but their sound was somehow more...ominous. Branches shivered and there was a beating of wings as the tree occupants retreated or fled for higher ground. The jogger, focused only on the task at hand, either didn't sense the danger or didn't realize for whom it was meant.

Seconds later, there was a muffled scream and the sound of a body being hurled roughly to the ground.

"Please...please..."

Only the trees heard the cries, and they could only bear witness.

"Hutch, babe, all I'm sayin' is that this is our last day," Starsky coaxed, struggling to keep his emotions--and his voice--under control. "We're leavin' tomorrow; can't you lighten up a little?"

"'Lighten up'?" Hutch echoed tersely. "'Lighten up?' What the hell are you talking about?"

"Look," Starsky tried again. "You've kept five feet of daylight between us for as long as we've been here, and it's starting to get to me. It's not like I want you to give me a big goodnight kiss before we go to bed, but it would be nice if you at least treated me like a friend."

"Starsky--" Hutch stopped short, then shook his head.

Starsky pushed himself up from the picnic table and strode a few steps away, unable to bear the strained look on Hutch's face. He had cajoled his partner into coming here, to a park that sprawled over a mile and was rich with isolated picnic spots. Set at just the edge of Hutch's neighborhood, it wasn't the ideal spot, but the town was small, and their choices were limited. At least there was a lake between them and the Hutchinsons. Tucked behind a cluster of thick shade trees so they were hidden from other eyes and potentially loose lips, he had hoped Hutch would somehow transform back to the attentive, gentle lover from home.

So far, however, the conversation had been less than encouraging.

"I'm sorry," Hutch whispered behind him, and Starsky turned to see his lover's eyes cast down to his clasped hands. "But...I'm not sure I can explain it in a way that's not going to sound lousy."

"Try me," Starsky said gently, easing back onto the bench and reaching out a hand to stroke his partner's back, as he always did in these types of situations.

Hutch drew away.

"Godammit, Hutch," Starsky growled, losing his own temper as he pulled the hand back as if it had been burned. "We're alone. There's nobody in sight...what are you worried about?"

"Godammit, yourself," Hutch shot back. "You're the one who told me to come here, and you and Cathy are the ones who told me to keep it quiet this weekend. So now I'm here, and it's quiet...and I feel like...like I'm living in two separate worlds."

609-4.jpg"One where you belong and one where you don't," Starsky assumed. "I get that."

"No," Hutch murmured. "That's just it."

There was a beat of silence between them, then Starsky inquired, "What's it?"

"I..." Hutch shook his head. "Starsk, I'm scared. Not getting shot in the alley scared, but scared to touch you, even look at you, for fear that someone, somewhere is gonna see us and hightail it back to my dad."

"And if they do?"

"I don't know!" Hutch snapped, then halted, apparently making every effort to rein in his disproportionate anger. "That's the thing, Starsk, don't you see? This is where I grew up; I've got a history with these people. And my dad may not be Marcus Welby, but he's not the anti-Christ either! I've never been able to...to give up the hope that someday he'd accept me, and that we'd finally sit down and really talk to each other."

"And if he finds out about us...?"

"I don't know what he'd say...but I'm thinking that chance would be gone forever." He turned to Starsky and sighed. "And I...I don't know if... I just don't know."

Starsky's heart gave a hard, hurting lurch. Suddenly the man he loved looked tortured and defeated, and Starsky hated seeing him that way.

"I don't know, Starsk," Hutch repeated, his voice rasping hoarsely. He tilted his head up toward the fading blue sky, and Starsky saw dampness shimmering in his eyes. "When I'm here...there's so much pressure to be..."

"Someone you've never been," Starsky reminded him past the tightness in his throat.

"No, that's not true," Hutch disagreed. "This is part of me--some of me anyway--no matter how much I may not like it. And maybe I'm not prepared to turn my back on it forever."

"This isn't you," Starsky argued. "This is someone you might have been years ago, or might've been if you'd gone a different way, but saying you're like this now is like saying my reflection at the fun house is the same as the one at home."

In spite of himself, Hutch snickered. It was an apt analogy. For the first time since they'd gotten up that morning, he turned and looked at Starsky. Now, far away from prying and judging eyes, he let himself remember why he'd fallen in love with this man. It wasn't just the lush dark curls, the finely muscled body, and the killer ass--though none of that hurt. It was expressions like the one Starsky wore now--the ones that said he wanted to know what Hutch was feeling, wanted to know how he could help, how he could take away the pain.

A dozen times since they'd arrived, he had longed to reach out and bridge the gap he'd put between them, but there were too many chances of being caught. The house already rang with echoes of his father's criticism, and Hutch knew the clamor would be deafening if Richard learned about him and Starsky. So he kept his distance, even though it was killing both of them. Even now, his hands and body ached for Starsky's touch, and he felt cold and depleted, as if he were running low on some vital body substance.

Suddenly, he didn't care where they were. He reached out, tucked his hand behind the back of Starsky's head, and pulled him forward. Their lips met, and he tasted salty sweat, a hint of suntan lotion, and the beer Starsky had brought with him to the park. He let himself submerge into the kiss, into the reminder that he was loved by this man--unconditionally. Something he had never gotten from his father.

Starsky's own hand had come up to clasp the back of Hutch's neck. He returned the kiss, their tongues dueling lazily, and then they separated with a small sigh, but their foreheads lingered together. After a moment, Hutch spoke softly.

"Just bear with me, Starsk."

Starsky's hand tightened on his neck.

"You got it, babe."

"...and, dear Lord, we ask you to hear us as we pray for the sinners of our city. Watch over us as we do Your work, and help us bring them back into the embrace of Your tender arms. Amen."

A mumbled chorus of amens.

The man at the front of the ersatz church was really quite nondescript--medium height, light brown hair, pleasant features. His eyes glowed with religious fervor, but there was nothing of the fanatic or zealot in their forgettable hazel depths. Dressed in a pair of chinos and a simple plaid cotton shirt, he was indistinguishable from his parishioners as soon as he lowered his arms and entered their midst.

"Jake...Bobby...David," he greeted the young men cheerfully, giving each a firm handshake and a welcoming smile. "I trust you've been out doing the Lord's work?"

"That we have, Wade," the one he called Bobby replied. He was a tall, athletic young man, with neatly trimmed blond hair, expensive clothes, and perfect white teeth, which he flashed at his friends. "Hit the jackpot, as a matter of fact, right, Dave?"

"Yep," the wiry, dark-haired boy agreed, shifting a toothpick to one side as he spoke. In contrast to his companion, he seemed stuck in the "Born to Run" era, with battered blue jeans, a leather jacket hung with chains and buckles, and motorcycle boots that seemed to swallow his feet. "This weather brings 'em out of the woodwork."

"Praise Jesus," Wade breathed. "Women...or men?"

"Both," Jake chimed in. With his crewcut and his thick neck and muscled frame, he could have been a football player, though few of those attended practice in Mexican shirts, peace-symboled jeans, and rope sandals. "Gave the lesson to one already...the one whose picture we showed you the other day. She was by herself this time, though--her 'girlfriend' must've left early. "

"Excellent."

"And we took pictures of several others," said Bobby, his smile widening. "Jake's gonna develop 'em right away. We'll bring them in as soon as they're ready."

"You boys are truly angels of the Lord," Wade said, beaming. "I know this may seem a harsh way to send our message, but we have tried so many other methods, only to have our words fall on deaf ears. Their pain may be great now, but if we succeed, we will have saved them all, and the others who receive our word, from eternal damnation." He drew all three boys into a quick, enthusiastic embrace, missing the look of derision they exchanged behind his back. "Bless you, boys." Releasing them, he cocked his head toward the small dining area. "Now, go get yourselves some dinner before it's all gone."

It was completely dark by the time Hutch steered the rental car back to the Hutchinson house. For the first time since they'd arrived, he felt relaxed and safe, his hand and Starsky's clasped on the seat between them. The hours with Starsky by the lake had reminded him of the precious thing they shared, and of how much he loved simply being with and talking to his partner. More than that, he knew they would be home in less than twenty-four hours, away from the prying eyes and probing questions of his psychiatrist father, and the conflict of yearning between his then and his now.

Less than twenty-four hours--and they could sleep cradled in each other's arms again.

"What the--?" he heard Starsky mutter, and the hand in his tensed and then withdrew.

The house was as bright as day, every light in the house blazing a trail across the lush green lawn and circular drive. Downstairs, Hutch saw human shadows milling back and forth on the broad front porch. Upstairs, a cluster of curious guests was silhouetted in one of the large bay windows. At first, he thought it was only the expected hubbub from the annual dinner-dance, but as they pulled into the driveway, he saw three police cars in front of the house, lights dimmed but radios audible from where they were. And now, he could see that several of the figures on the porch wore all-too-familiar uniforms.

Hutch pressed the accelerator, swung the rental car into a spot in front of the multi-car garage, and yanked the gearshift into park. Simultaneously, he and Starsky tumbled out of the car and headed full-tilt toward the house.

Someone detached from the shifting amoebic patterns on the porch and ran toward them, calling. "Ken! Dave! Thank God you're back!"

It was Cathy who flew straight into Hutch's arms, sobbing uncontrollably and babbling incoherently. Hutch pulled her close, smoothing her hair, and whispered soothing noises into the silky blond strands. "Shhh...slow down, honey," he murmured. "I can't help if I can't understand what you're saying."

He felt her bring her tears and shaking under control, and at last her shoulders squared and she lifted herself from his chest. "Polly..." she said, then halted as another sob hitched out of her throat. "She was...she was beaten and raped."

"What?" Starsky and Hutch burst out. "When? Where?"

"I found her...a couple of hours ago," Cathy wept. "She went out for a run at the park, and when she was gone over two hours, I got worried. She only runs about three miles, and it usually only takes her twenty-five minutes." She stopped again, swollen eyes blinking rapidly. "K-Ken," she shuddered. "How she looked...what they did to her..."

She collapsed against his chest again, and Hutch wrapped his arms around her. He adored his sister, and right now he wanted to protect her more fiercely than he ever had in his life. All he could see, in his mind's eye, was Cathy's bruised and battered body lying beside a path somewhere--violated, brutalized, left for dead.

"Polly," Cathy whimpered into his shirt. "They...it was because she's a lesbian."

"Oh, Cathy," Hutch said gently. "You don't know that, sweetheart. There are a lot of sexual predators who hang around jogging trails, trying to catch a woman alone--"

"No," Cathy argued adamantly, pulling back to clutch his biceps. "I saw her, Ken. They..."

Her throat worked and her grip tightened on his arms. "It's okay," he whispered. "We can talk about it later."

"They..." Cathy struggled to compose herself, and then blurted in a voice thinned by her tears, "They cut it into her arm--'dyke'."

From the corner of his eye, Hutch saw Starsky turn away, and knew his partner was as nauseous as he was. He pulled Cathy close again and began to rub her back gently, as he had done when they were children and she had a tummy ache. He had no words, no way to explain or smooth the monstrous acts of assault or rape themselves, much less in the name of homophobic prejudice. Over Cathy's head, his eyes sought and found Starsky's, and he hurt again at the look of pain and anger.

"Ken," Cathy said, her words muffled by his shirt. "Ken, you and Dave have to help."

"Sure we will," Hutch assured her, not stopping his nurturing motions. "We'll stay a few extra days, make sure she's taken care of at the hospital--"

"No, that's not what I mean," she interrupted, shaking her head. "Dad's got that covered anyway, you know that; he's been on the phone practically since it happened. No, I mean you have to find out who did this to her."

Hutch's hand slowed as a dozen thoughts--unfamiliar, potent, shameful--raced through his head. On one hand, he had come to know and like Polly, not simply because she was Cathy's friend. On the other, if this was a hate crime, would they wonder why he and his partner had taken such an interest?

"Uh..."

Both Cathy and Starsky were staring at him, clearly stunned that he had not responded with typical alacrity to a call for someone in trouble. To be honest, he couldn't believe his reluctance himself, and he was even more surprised by the words that next emerged from his mouth.

"I don't know, Cath."

"Ken, come on," Cathy pleaded tearfully. "You know what they'll do. They'll crucify her. They'll put her on trial instead of the animals who did this. She'll never be able to come back here again."

"Cathy..." Hutch shifted uncomfortably, and he felt a guilty flush creep up his neck. "It's not our jurisdiction, and I don't know if we should step on anyone's toes."

An observer in his head stood up and shrieked. Jurisdiction? Toes? Since when do you give a shit about any of that?

Cathy stared at him, lip quivering, tears still rolling down her cheeks. He flicked his gaze to Starsky; the unyielding eyes told him what he already knew.

Godammit, he thought wretchedly. I'm letting everyone down.

"If this case were in Bay City," Cathy began, her voice wobbling, "you know you wouldn't let 'jurisdiction' stop you. You'd find some way to work on it, officially or not." She swiped a hand across her eyes, leaving a thin trail of mascara. "I know Dad doesn't approve of you being a cop, and I know you're trying to keep a low profile because of this new business with you and Dave." Her voice broke, and she blinked rapidly as fresh tears welled up in her eyes. "But this is one of my best friends, Ken. Please, we're all she's got up here. Can't you find some way...some way to...?" Her voice broke and she buried her face in her hands as her shoulders shook with sobs.

Starsky saw it--he saw Hutch's heart melt even before his face yielded its obstinacy and fell into folds of love and concern for his sister. He knew what would happen next, even before Hutch pulled Cathy into his arms and hugged her close. And he could have recited with Hutch his next words.

"It's all right, Cath," Hutch whispered soothingly. "I'll see what we can do, I promise." He held her close, her head against his chest, rocking her gently back and forth.

And at that moment, Starsky knew two things. First, it didn't matter whether Hutch told his parents that minute or never let them in on the secret.

And second, he had never loved his partner more than he did right now.

"Ken Hutchinson," a nasal voice greeted them as they stepped into the sheriff's office. "Have a seat, boy, and tell me what you want. Big-city detective come to show us how to do our jobs?"

Starsky saw Hutch wince as they both sank into the wooden chairs that stood in front of the simple metal desk. But to his credit, Hutch checked his irritation and spoke both pleasantly and respectfully. "Not at all, Brady," he addressed the sheriff, a tall, forest-ranger-looking type with skin leathered and creased by cold and sun. "But I'm sure you can understand why we'd want to offer our help, since it's Cathy's friend." He leaned forward, flashed Brady one of his most charming smiles, and spoke conspiratorially. "I promised her we'd help, find out a little something, see how things were going. You know how it is. It'll make her feel better and get me off the hook."

Starsky's amazed eyes turned first to his partner, who had suddenly turned from "big-city cop" to Andy Griffith, and then to Brady, who actually bought it, chuckling indulgently and relaxing with a creak of leather into his chair.

"Yeah, sure, Ken, I hear ya," he said with a friendly wink. "Women do like to think they've got a finger in the pie, and the closer the finger to them, the better."

"You got it," Hutch replied, and only Starsky caught the edge in his tone at the sexist comment. "So, what can you tell us, without compromising the case, of course?"

"Well, there's not a whole lot that's not pretty obvious to the casual observer," Brady began. "She was jogging on Old Lake Trail, and they jumped her. We know it was a group, because there were a mess of footprints around and on the trail."

"Excuse me, Chief Brady, but I thought that was a jogging trail," Starsky broke in politely. "How do you know the prints aren't from other runners?"

"Old Lake's a toughie," Brady replied affably; Hutch's charm had worked its usual magic. "Only people who run on it are the college kids, and they've all gone back to school. We patrol that area pretty regular, and I don't think anyone had been on it since the rain last Thursday. Besides," he went on, opening a manila folder and pulling out some photographs, "If you look at these, you can see that these prints aren't from running shoes." He pointed. "Here's a pair of those wavy hippie earth shoes, and here's a good solid pair of Harley bikers' boots."

Hutch looked at the pictures, then passed them back to Brady with a nod of thanks. "What about a motive?" he asked casually. "Was Polly just in the wrong place at the wrong time?"

"We don't think so," Brady mused. "First, there's that cute little brand they carved on her arm. And like I said, we patrol that area regular. Our guys had just been through there an hour before; the perps had to have known our schedule."

"So they'd been watching," Hutch assumed. "They knew the area, they knew she ran there, and they knew--. Wait a minute," he interrupted himself. "How'd they know she was--?"

"Queer?" the chief supplied, without a blink. "Had a t-shirt on that said it, bigger than life: 'Gay Liberation Front'." The corners of his mouth turned down into a disapproving frown. "She's from the city, too, like you fellas. Didn't know how things are around here. If she'd been more...discreet, they'd never have given her a second glance."

"She's got a right to wear whatever she wants," Starsky said, more sharply than he intended. "Homosexuality isn't a license to rape."

"Look, I'm not sayin' she asked for it," Brady said patiently, but Starsky suspected he believed just that. "All I'm sayin' is...people don't particularly care to have that stuff waved in front of their faces like that. Especially not with what's been goin' on around here lately."

Hutch's eyes narrowed. "What're you talking about?"

Brady reached into a desk drawer and pulled out three more files. Assuming they were ongoing case files, they were pathetically thin. "It's not the first one of these we've had," he said brusquely. "Three in the last five months--all beaten, all gay, and all tattooed just like your sister's friend." He dropped the files on the desk. "She's the first woman, though, and the only one they assaulted sexually."

"Three?" Hutch echoed in disbelief, unable to fathom such brutality in his quiet little hometown.

"And you've got no leads?" Starsky asked, right on his heels.

"Oh, we got plenty of leads," Brady assured him. "In fact, that's the problem--we got too darned many. This town has what you might call a split personality, Detective Starsky," he went on, as if delivering a lesson to the "big-city" detectives. "We got your money folks, like Ken's parents and their friends, who keep to themselves and don't make any trouble. And then we got our redneck contingent."

Steadily, Starsky's eyes met those of the man across the desk. "Which are you?" he asked softly.

"That sounds dangerously close to an accusation," Brady observed as he leaned forward, his voice chilling several degrees.

Hutch put his hand on Starsky's arm, a hint of pressure requesting that he rein it in. "You'll have to forgive my partner," he said apologetically. "He's from New York. It's kinda hard for him to understand small-town prejudice."

Starsky stifled a snort of derision.

Brady looked appeased and leaned back into his chair. "Like I said, we got a lot of leads, but nobody's seen nothin', or they're not sayin' if they have," he went on, his voice less belligerent.

"Jason," Hutch said, his voice as thoughtful and deferential as if the idea had just occurred to him. "Would it be too much trouble if we took a look at those files and maybe did some asking around of our own? I'm guessing you're lucky enough not to see too much of this...and we might see some patterns from similar crimes we've seen in Bay City. We'll be sure to pass anything we find along to you," he added hastily.

From the look on Brady's face, Starsky sensed the sheriff was relieved to shift the responsibility of this messy case to someone else's shoulders, particularly someone who was a favored town son, to boot. Even better, the two detectives might actually solve the case and then go back to California, leaving Brady to take the credit, or forget the whole thing had ever happened.

"Sure," Brady said, casually sliding the files across the desk. "Knock yourselves out. As long as you don't get in the way of our boys."

"'Get in the way of our boys'," Hutch scoffed as they drove away. "From the looks of these case files, other than taking pictures at the scenes and questioning the victims, their way is a pretty narrow one."

"Brady didn't seem too opposed to letting us step in," Starsky observed, steering the rental car back toward the Hutchinson house.

"Nope," Hutch agreed. "I can't decide which side of the fence that puts him on."

They drove the rest of the way in silence. Hutch was drawn almost immediately into the details of the files, reading each case closely and referring frequently back to the others he had already read. Driving through the increasingly wooded landscape that seemed particularly serene in the gathering dark, Starsky stole glances at the man beside him and allowed himself a frown. His dissatisfaction wasn't merely with the case, though the series of homophobic crimes horrified and outraged him as much as it did Hutch; he was also in a continuing sense of turmoil about his partner's distracted distance. In the four days since they'd left Bay City, this was one of the few times they had seemed close and in sync, and it seemed it was only because they were in "work mode." Though he suspected Hutch's reticence was related more to his parents than any true doubt about who he was or whom he loved, he couldn't help but worry.

"What is it?" The blond head raised from the papers and folders, and blue eyes examined him closely. Even in the dusk, he could see Hutch's caring and concern.

Starsky felt his spirits lift from the gloom. It's still there, he thought, with an involuntary surge of relief. He knew, and I didn't have to say a thing. Still and all, when he opened his mouth to respond, he found it difficult to put his thoughts into words that wouldn't sound whiny or blaming.

"You know," he began, hesitated, then tried again. "That talk we had yesterday..."

"Starsk." One hand reached across the seat to rest on Starsky's blue-denimed thigh and squeezed.

Starsky shifted slightly as his jeans grew noticeably tighter in the crotch. It had, after all, been four days.

White teeth gleamed briefly to his right, then disappeared as Hutch spoke softly, soberly. "I know," he said. "I just can't...focus on that right now, not with this thing with Polly. But, Starsk..."

The hand on Starsky's leg caressed and moved higher. The jeans tightened.

If he keeps this up, Starsky thought, gritting his teeth, I'm gonna be spendin' the night in the car.

"You know I love you," Hutch continued, his voice as tender and suggestive as his touch. "And I swear to you, I will sort this out. It's just gonna take some time...and some space away from my dad."

"You better put some space between me and you," Starsky muttered as he turned into the Hutchinson driveway. "Otherwise, this rod I'm throwin' is gonna do the sortin' out for you."

Hutch laughed, patted Starsky's leg one last time, then pulled his hand away so he could close the folders and gather them back in order. Starsky swung the car up to the bank of garages and turned off the engine and headlights. But his erection was still in full swing--so to speak--so he paused before opening the door.

Hutch, knowing his role in his partner's hesitation and feeling slightly--but only slightly--guilty, left his door shut, too. For a moment they sat without speaking, not daring to touch each other, but feeling the contact just the same.

"See anything in those yet?" Starsky asked at length, as if they were sitting in the squadroom, or lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, both thinking about the same case.

"Not really, other than what Brady pointed out," Hutch replied, in the same vein. "Polly was the first woman they assaulted. One man was alone; the other two men were a couple, attacked at the same time. They were all taken by surprise, and all 'branded' with some cute little epithet like they carved into her."

"How'd they know?" Starsky wondered out loud. "I mean, Polly was wearin' that t-shirt, but what about the others?"

"Reports didn't say," Hutch said thoughtfully. "Seems important, doesn't it?"

"Kind of," Starsky agreed. "And so does why Brady didn't close the park or up his patrols, and why anyone went back there when people were gettin' hurt--"

"Stop," Hutch requested, raising one hand. "This thing was already making my head hurt."

"Yeah." Both were silent for a moment, then Starsky asked, "You think Brady'd have any objection to us re-interviewing the victims?"

Hutch snorted. "Nope. Right now, I think he figures he's got it made. We get to crawl around in the seamy gay underworld, and he gets to take the credit if we solve the thing."

Starsky sighed. "Must be nice to be in the win-win seat," he observed, then pushed open his door to swing out of the car.

"Jeans loosen up?" Hutch teased, and though Starsky shot him a dark look over the sedan's roof, Hutch also sensed his relief that he, like the denim, had started to relax.

As they moved across the lawn, Hutch handed Starsky half the folders, and both were glancing through them as they started up the front stairs. As a result, both were startled when someone spoke from the porch swing.

"Where have you boys been?" Miranda Hutchinson sounded genuinely concerned about their late arrival. For a moment, Hutch hoped she might be alone, but his heart sank as another voice, this one chiding, emerged from the depths of the swing.

"Dinner was over an hour ago, Ken. If you were going to be late, you could've had the courtesy to let your mother know."

Hutch felt tension race back into his body, as if someone had simply opened his skull and poured it in. Grateful that the awning's shadows masked his expression, he took a deep breath and reminded himself firmly, You're not sixteen anymore. The worst he can do is disapprove; he can't send you to your room without supper or take away your car keys. Still, it was humiliating to be treated like a high-school kid in front of his partner.

"Ken?" The worry in his mother's voice grew. "Is something wrong?"

Breathe, Hutch instructed his lungs, and eventually they complied, giving him enough oxygen to address his mother, at least, in a relatively civil tone. "I'm sorry, Mom," he apologized. "Starsky and I went to talk to Jason Brady, and I guess we just lost track of the time."

"Brady?" Richard echoed. "Now, Ken, you don't intend to get yourself involved in this investigation, do you?"

"As a matter of fact, we do. She's Cathy's friend, we've both come to like her, and we'd like to make sure whoever did this to her--not to mention the others--gets caught."

"Others?" Miranda caught her breath. "There've been others?"

"Three in the last five months," Hutch confirmed grimly. "All like Polly, so we think it's probably the same people."

"Now, Ken..."

Hutch thought if his father said Now, Ken one more time in that superior tone, he would either scream or hurl the man into the lake.

"How can you do that?" Miranda interrupted. "I thought you and Dave had to fly back to California tonight."

The two detectives exchanged glances, then Starsky cleared his throat. "Well, if it's all right, Mrs. H.," he said politely, clearly trying to take some of the heat off his partner, "we'd like to stay until this gets taken care of."

"Really, boys," Richard tsked. "I'm sure our local department is more than capable of solving this and seeing the perpetrators get the justice they deserve."

"There's where I disagree with you," Hutch snapped, losing his patience. "I got the impression from Jason that he wasn't especially interested in pursuing this too vigorously."

"Now hold on just a minute."

Suddenly, the overly patient, indulgent tone was gone; even in the soft porch light, Richard's face was hard and critical. "Jason Brady's as decent a man as any in this town," he informed his son sternly. "I can't imagine why you would even suggest that he would conduct anything less than a thorough investigation, particularly when one of the victims was a guest in our town."

"In other cases, that may be," Hutch retorted. "But it seems to make a difference to him and his officers that this time all the victims are homosexual."

For a moment, there was a stunned silence on the porch, broken only by crickets and the distant murmur of Cathy's voice from somewhere in the house.

"Homosexual?" Miranda echoed at last. "You mean, Polly is--?"

"Yes," Hutch said tightly. "And so were the three men who were attacked."

"There have been several altercations in that park over this--activity," Richard said, shaking his head. "We've been trying to get the word out for the last year, but the city officials won't seem to listen."

"Word out about what?" Hutch asked incredulously.

"We've asked them to close the park after ten, patrol more often, but like I said--"

"That wouldn't have done any good in this case," Hutch pointed out. "Polly was attacked in the afternoon, remember?"

"Well, she shouldn't have been there," Richard said in exasperation. "This is just what we were discussing earlier, Ken. Homosexuality is a recognized psychiatric disorder, and until people get the treatment they need, crimes like this will just keep happening."

"So what are you saying, Dad?" Hutch demanded, ignoring the fact that his father had just classified him as pathological. "That this was Polly's fault?"

"Of course not," Richard replied impatiently. "But she should've been more careful. Around here, people--some people--aren't as accepting of that lifestyle as you and your partner seem to be."

For a moment, neither detective breathed. Hutch felt just one question flashing through his head, and knew, knew his partner was thinking the same thing.

He can't know. Can he?

"I know you're from the city, and this kind of thing goes on all the time there, and people accept it," Richard went on, and both Starsky and Hutch exhaled. "But this is a small town, with a very conservative element that simply won't condone it." He locked eyes with his son. "I'm not saying that whoever did this shouldn't be caught. I'm just saying that some people won't be too happy if you stir up a lot of dust about it in the process."

"Well, that's just too damned bad," Hutch said between locked teeth. "Because that's precisely what we intend to do."

609-5.jpgHe strode across the porch, ignoring his mother's pleas for him to stop and be reasonable, and flung open the screen door to enter the house. Without a word, Starsky followed him as he took the interior steps two at a time, stalked down the hall to his room, and slammed the door behind them.

"Do you get it, Starsk? Huh?" he railed, pacing the room as Starsky sank down onto the bed. "Do you see why I don't want to say anything? Why I didn't want to come here in the first place?"

"Then you'd better lower your voice, or he's gonna figure it out," Starsky said evenly. "In case you haven't noticed, most of the windows in this place are open."

Hutch took two long strides to the window and closed it so hard, Starsky was surprised the glass didn't shatter. Then, he dropped into an overstuffed chair and pressed his fingertips to his forehead. Starsky watched them whiten, and knew his friend was trying to pull himself together.

"Son of a bitch," Starsky heard. "I can't believe him. I don't fucking believe him."

Starsky let him fume. It wasn't his instinctual response, but given the setting and the heat of Hutch's fury, he figured it was the better choice for the moment.

Eventually, the mumbling slowed and stopped, and the hands dropped from Hutch's face. Taking an enormous breath, the blond man slumped back in the chair, pushing his long legs out before him.

"All done?" Starsky asked gently.

"Yeah," Hutch replied, glumly. "Give me a couple of those files. Let's see if we can put some kind of plan together."

"Hey, Wade." Bobby stuck his head in the door of Wade's plain but painfully neat office. "Jake got the pictures developed that we took the other day. Do you want to see them so we can decide on the next...examples?"

"Yes, yes," Wade said eagerly, extending his hands for the pictures as Bobby entered the office, followed by David and Jake. As he thumbed through the photos, Wade asked, "What about the newspapers, Bobby? Did they cover your work on the woman?"

"Yes, sir," Bobby replied respectfully. "But it was buried in the police reports, just like all the others. I think the police are trying to keep this quiet, for their own reasons."

Stopping his perusal, Wade frowned with genuine distress. "Oh, dear. I guess we'll have to make further adjustments to our plan. The town won't receive our message if the papers don't give it more attention."

"With all due respect, Wade," Dave said, "you thought picking someone from out of town would grab some press, and that didn't work."

"We will pray for guidance," Wade decided. "The Lord will show us the way to bring our journalists to the light...or vice versa." He bowed his head. "Speak to the Lord with me, boys," he urged, extending his hands.

Rolling their eyes above the preacher's bent head, the three young men nonetheless lowered their heads and clasped Wade's hands.

"Sweet Lord," Wade said, his voice ringing with conviction. "You know we are doing our best to spread your message of purity, and to bring these poor souls out of Satan's erotic pit and back to the path of righteousness. But it appears that others do not want your work revealed, so we ask your help. Show us how we can bring your message to this town and to others around it. Thank you, and we praise your name. Amen." He squeezed the boys' hands as they mumbled "Amen," and raised his head, then picked up the pictures again.

"There must be someone among these lost lambs who are waiting for us to redeem them, to return them to the precious fold of--"

He stopped abruptly at one photo and peered at it closely. When he looked up, his face bore a mixture of triumph and sadness. "Where did you say you took these?"

"The park, like always," Bobby replied. "Place is a hangout for them, and every day there's more."

"Well, well, well," Wade mused, returning his attention to the picture. "'Ask and ye shall receive'." He handed the picture to the trio of teenagers. "Him," he said, his face aglow. "He's perfect. With this man, there is no doubt our message will be heard. Here," he pointed to the photo, "is your next mission."

Starsky and Hutch stopped for lunch around 1:00, after spending their morning talking with the investigating officers.

"What a complete and utter waste of time," Starsky complained with a sigh, as they slid into a booth at the local diner. "Looks like Brady's not the only one eager to bury this thing. Bunch of footprint photos and a bunch of 'I don't know's'; that's all we got."

"Elimination's a lead, too, Starsk," Hutch reminded him, flipping through the woefully brief information in his notepad. "But I'm with you on one thing. If we ran an investigation this casually, Dobey'd have us busted to a beat before we could get back to our desks."

Starsky gave a nod of thanks to the waitress, as she filled their water glasses and placed menus in front of them. "You've been hangin' back," he commented, picking up the menu and scanning the daily specials. "These are your people...I figured you'd want to take the lead."

"Nah," Hutch said, but his voice was overly casual, and Starsky noticed the flushed spots high on his cheeks as he gave the scanty notes more study than they warranted. "You've been doing fine. I thought maybe they'd open up more because they don't know you."

Starsky snorted at the ridiculousness of that remark, but refrained from stating the obvious about the typical small-town response to strangers. "You're not foolin' anyone, Hutch," he said instead. "I know this makes you uneasy, but it's not like we have 'lovers' tattooed on our foreheads. If you wanna play, you gotta at least come into the ballpark."

"You think I'm compromising the investigation, just spit it out," Hutch said flatly, finally meeting his partner's eyes.

"No, I don't think you're compromising the investigation," Starsky said, refusing to be baited as he emptied half his water glass in one swallow. "It's not your usual style, is all. I wish you'd stop worryin' that everyone we meet is gonna out you to your dad."

For a moment, the cold eyes glared into his, then Hutch shook his head with a brief lift of his eyebrows. "You're right," he admitted. "Maybe it'll be easier this afternoon, when we talk to the victims."

"I sure hope so," Starsky said, draining the last of his water and reaching for Hutch's.

"Hey!"

"Quit grousin'," Starsky told him, draining half of Hutch's glass, too. "You do some talkin' this afternoon, you can have all the water you want at dinner."

"Thanks a lot, warden."

"I wish we could help you guys, I really do, but they jumped us so fast we barely knew what hit us."

James Young and his partner, Terry Fields, were a little older than the two detectives. A roly-poly middle-aged man with thinning black hair, Jim worked at the local bank; Terry, slight and also brunet, was a cameraman for the tiny television station that covered area news. Though they spent most of their time at Jim's two-story house at the edge of town, they continued to maintain separate dwellings, and Terry never left his car outside overnight.

"I know that must seem silly to you, since you come from California," Terry said, almost apologizing as he explained. "But out here, they're still years behind the times."

"If they found out about us, we'd both lose our jobs," Jim added. "So we just do the best we can and hope everybody keeps thinking we're just really close friends. It's one reason we're grateful the papers have been so discreet."

You mean negligent, Starsky thought, but didn't say.

"We go out with women, as covers for all of us," Terry said, with a chuckle. "Knowing some of the lesbians in this town has been helpful, in a number of ways."

"Wouldn't it be easier just to move?" Starsky asked. "You're going to an awful lot of trouble to hide something, when you really oughtta be able to show it openly."

"Would that we could." Jim sighed regretfully. "But this house was left to me by my mother, and I still feel a...promise to her, to keep it in the family. Two of my sisters are married and live in Texas, and the other one--she's gay, too--left for New York years ago, for just the reasons you mentioned."

Terry reached over and took his lover's hand. The smile the two exchanged was so sweet, so tender, Starsky thought it looked like a mirror of him and Hutch.

"It's hard," Terry admitted. "But every minute we get to spend together makes it worth it."

Feeling an almost unbearable urge to take his own partner's hand, Hutch shifted in his seat instead and tapped the case file that rested on the table. "Your attackers knew you were homosexual," he said.

"Oh, yes," Terry said with a shudder. "Cut 'fag' into both our arms. I'm very glad I was unconscious by that point."

"But if you guys were so careful, how could they know?"

The two exchanged a glance. "That's an excellent question," Jim said thoughtfully. "How could they have known?"

"We do go to that park fairly frequently," Terry reflected. "There are a number of spots where one can go and not worry about being...seen."

"Did you know about the other assault?" Starsky asked. Terry nodded. "Then why keep going back?"

"I guess we figured it was just an isolated incident," Jim replied. "Besides, we just hated the idea of giving it up. It's pretty rare to find a place where we can...drop the mask for a while."

Hutch felt one side of his lip turn up briefly, as he remembered how he and Starsky had felt there, and for the same reasons.

"The sheriff's department patrols the area, but their rounds are very predictable, so we know when they're coming to what area," Terry continued. "Unfortunately, I guess our attackers did, too."

Something stirred in Hutch's head. Our guys had just been through there an hour before, so the perps had to have known our schedule. His pulse beginning to quicken, he flipped rapidly through the pages of his notebook, paused with a satisfied nod, then paged through several more. Reading quickly, he finally closed the book and tapped the cover. "I think we've found a thread, Starsk," he said to his partner, rising from his chair. "Jim, Terry, you've really been a big help. Thanks for taking the time."

"You're very welcome," Terry said, also rising and shaking the detectives' hands. "If there's anything else you need..."

"We really want these people stopped before anyone else gets hurt," Jim said fervently. "Otherwise, we're afraid the pendulum will swing the other way, and the town will turn on us."

Hutch put a hand on the chubby man's shoulder. "Don't worry," he said reassuringly. "Back where we come from, we're damn good at our jobs. We'll do everything we can to make sure that doesn't happen."

Jim reached up and patted Hutch's hand. "Thank you, Officer Hutchinson." He leaned in somewhat conspiratorially and whispered, "And don't worry, your secret is safe with us."

Dumbfounded, Hutch nearly gave himself whiplash, as his head snapped toward Starsky and then back to the other two men.

"B-but...how...?" Hutch stammered, knowing he had been as businesslike as he was in any investigation...more, in fact, given the circumstances.

"Please, Detective," Terry chided. "The way you communicate, your body language. You might say it's written all over both of you."

Hutch turned accusing eyes to his partner, who simply gazed back at him placidly.

"But don't worry," Jim told him. "I know it's a cliche, but in this town it's literally true--it takes one to know one."

"Well, my young crusaders, did you find him?"

"Yes, we did, Wade," Bobby said courteously, sinking into a chair in the pastor's office. "He and that guy he was with are making the rounds, talking to all the people we've...worked on, so far."

"That seems strange," Wade mused. "For what purpose, do you know?"

"Well, there seems to be a little monkey wrench in our machinery," Jake said, settling his muscular bulk on a corner of Wade's desk. "It turns out Dr. Hutchinson's son is a cop."

"A police officer?" Wade echoed, eyes wide. "Not around here. Surely, we would have known that."

"California," Dave supplied, from his post near the door. "Couple of Bay City homicide detectives, according to the word around town."

Bobby crossed his right ankle over his left knee. "This changes things, Wade, as you can imagine," he said idly, resettling the crease in his sharply pressed tennis shorts as he spoke. "We're not too eager to play this trick on a cop."

"But don't you see?" Wade breathed. "This makes him the ideal target. A policeman, Richard Hutchinson's son, and an out-of-towner, to boot. The journalists can't ignore all of that, and the word will spread out of town, perhaps out of the state. The damage done to this man because of his sexual choice will send such a clear and powerful message, I can only imagine how much it will advance our cause." He rose to his feet and walked from behind the desk, to place his hand on Bobby's shoulder. "I know you boys are as dedicated to this mission as I am. It's true it's risky, and things may become difficult for a while if we're caught. But the Lord and I will protect you. And you may rest assured...you are earning jewels for your crown in heaven, and are responsible for saving a vast number of souls in this county and beyond."

He extended a hand to Jake, who took it reluctantly.

"Don't you see, my boys? This is a message from the Lord. He has placed Ken Hutchinson in our path so we can make a resounding call to the lost souls. This is His word that our mission is a true one and that we are working on His side."

The three boys exchanged glances, then Bobby shrugged. "Okay, Wade, it's your call. We'll keep an eye on them, wait for the right time to make the move." He rose to his feet in one elegant move. "Come on, guys, we've got things to do."

"Excellent, but, Bobby?"

"Yes?" Bobby halted at the door.

"This time, bring him here," Wade instructed. "The time has come. I want this man to know exactly why he is being sacrificed."

"Sure, Wade, whatever you say."

The three boys left Wade's office, then the building, and crossed the church's back lot toward the lake. "Do you believe that guy?" Dave said with an incredulous whistle, as he hurried to keep up with his taller friends. "Is he looney tunes, or what?"

"Behold the pitfall of passion, my friends," Bobby said with a sardonic grin. "This is the kind of trap it gets you into."

"So what do you think, Bobby?" Jake asked, fingering his beads reflectively. "You believe in this mission Wade's got goin' here? Think we're being set up for eternal salvation?"

Bobby snorted deep in his throat. "Right," he said sarcastically, pulling a cigarette from his pocket and lighting it. "No," he continued as the smoke drizzled from his lungs. "I think Wade Graham is as crazy as they come--and about as naive--but I'll tell you something else, boys."

The other two looked at him expectantly.

"It'll be a shame to see this little operation come to an end." He grinned, dragging more smoke into his lungs. "Now we'll have to find another way to clear the faggots out of town."

On to Part 3