"Hey, look who's back!"
As Cathy's car pulled close to the house and the passenger's side door opened, both detectives leapt down the front porch steps, followed more decorously by Hutch's parents. Polly's slim legs emerged first, then the girl's petite torso and sleek dark head followed, as Hutch reached the car and extended his hand to help her out. She smiled tremulously up at him.
"Thanks, Ken," she said gratefully. "I'm still a little shaky."
"Well, then let's save your energy for the cookout," Hutch decided. He swept her easily into his arms, mounted the porch stairs, and carried her inside. Richard and Starsky went ahead of them, to open doors and ensure all was ready for the injured girl's return.
"Oh, Lord, my brother the Neanderthal," Cathy said, rolling her eyes as she retrieved Polly's bag from her trunk. Miranda came to help, taking two vases of flowers from the car's back seat. As she and Cathy walked up the steps, Miranda leaned her head close to her daughter.
"Ken and Polly look very good together, don't they?" she murmured conspiratorially. "And they seem to have such a good time."
"Mo-ther," Cathy moaned, in that tone daughters have reserved for mothers since time began. "You know Polly's in a committed relationship. And even if she weren't, she's not interested in men."
"Well, you never know," Miranda said coyly. "Perhaps a nice young man like your brother could change her mind."
"Fat chance," Cathy snorted. "Hell would freeze over first, seeing as how Ken's the same--"
She stopped short, the bag slipping from her fingers, and turned wide horrified eyes to her mother. Miranda was gazing at her with a puzzled frown, and for a moment, Cathy thought she might be able to repair the horrible damage she had just done.
Then she saw the light dawn in her mother's eyes.
"Cathy," Miranda said softly. "What are you saying? Are you telling me Ken is...that he is...?"
"Homosexual," Cathy supplied, the word barely audible. Oh, she could just shoot herself for letting it out like this! "Well, I don't know about that, Mom, I just know that, right now, the special person in his life is not a woman."
Miranda's blue eyes turned from her daughter to the house. Through the open window of the sunroom, she could see her son and his partner joking with Polly, and then saw them look at each other with fond, almost secret smiles.
"Dave," she realized, one hand going to her throat. "Oh, my Lord, I should have known. That's why Ken almost didn't come this year, isn't it?"
"Yes, but listen to me." Cathy took her mother by the shoulders and looked straight into her eyes. "You cannot tell Dad, understand? They've done nothing but bicker the whole time Ken's been here, and they're both about to go off like rockets. If Dad finds out about this, I don't know what he'll do."
Miranda gazed back at her daughter thoughtfully. "But...how can he not see it?" she wondered. "From the moment I first saw Ken, I thought he must be in love again, and now that I know...it's so obvious."
"Dad doesn't look at Ken the way you do, you know that. In fact," Cathy went on sadly, "I don't think Dad really sees him at all."
"Well, I suppose you're right." Miranda looked back at Hutch. Her son was rising to his feet, and she heard him tell Starsky and Richard that he would see what was taking them so long.
"And don't tell Ken I told you either, okay?" Cathy added hastily, having seen her brother move.
"Well, all right."
"Mom?" Cathy's forehead suddenly puckered into a worried, almost frightened frown. "Mom, how do you feel about this?"
"Well, I..." Miranda hesitated. Cathy saw her searching, trying to somehow find the appropriate words to fit this most unusual occasion. At last, Miranda shook her head. "I suppose I don't know yet. I need some time to...digest."
"Okay." Impulsively, Cathy hugged her mother, then picked up Polly's bag, just in time to surrender it to her brother.
Taking the suitcase from his sister, Hutch turned to find his mother examining him closely, a strange albeit soft expression on her face. He raised an eyebrow, glanced down at his clothes to see if he'd forgotten to put something on, then looked back at her. "Mom?" he said curiously.
"Yes, dear?" she replied.
"This is the second time you've looked like you have something to tell me," Hutch pointed out. "What is it?"
She opened her mouth, then closed it and shook her head slightly. "Nothing." She reached up, took his head in her hands, and pulled him down so she could plant a kiss on his cheek, then hugged him tightly. "I'm just glad you're here."
Relieved, Hutch hugged her back, then put his arm around her shoulders as they went up the porch steps and into the house.
Polly was touched and pleased by the cookout they had prepared to herald her homecoming. Richard manned the grill, while Hutch kept his distance from his father to forestall the "rocket launch" Cathy had predicted. He, Starsky, and Cathy met Polly's every need, while Miranda, as usual, drifted from kitchen to porch and back again, adding little touches to make things smooth and pleasant. After the elder Hutchinsons retired, Starsky, Hutch, Polly, and Cathy lay on their backs in the yard, exterior lights out, gazing up at the stars.
"Beautiful," Polly murmured. "I just wish Pat was here to share it with us."
"Did you call her and tell her what happened?" Cathy asked.
"As soon as I could dial the phone," Polly assured her. "She wanted to rush right up here, but that domestic violence case is huge, and the firm really needs her more than me. I'm fine, and I've got you guys. I'd rather she came back when things were a little less...exciting."
"Well, the next time you talk to her, be sure to tell her I'm staying until you're ready to go back," Cathy told her.
"What about Brian?"
"I've already talked to Craig about that, and he's taking some more time off work to take care of him," Cathy assured her. "He's horrified about what happened, told me to stay as long as you need me. He and Pat are going to get together for dinner one night and commiserate, if he can drag her away from her desk."
"That better be all they do," Polly said, with the confidence of someone who knew beyond a doubt that her lover was faithful.
Starsky reached over and brushed against Hutch's hand. To his surprise, his partner responded, turning his hand and taking Starsky's in his own.
"What about you guys?" Polly asked. "How much longer do you think you'll be here?"
"Dunno," Starsky sighed. "We'd like to stay until we nail the guys who did this, but our captain's runnin' out of patience."
"And we're running out of leads," Hutch added ruefully. "For such blatant attacks, these people managed to cover their tracks pretty well."
"Will I...? If you do catch them, will I have to testify?" Polly asked hesitantly.
"I guess that depends, sweetheart," Hutch replied gently. "No one can force you, and it won't be pleasant, but it may be the only way they get what's coming to them."
Starsky heard her take in a deep, ragged breath and let it out slowly. "I'll...have to think about it, I guess," she said slowly.
"If you do, Pat should definitely come up," Cathy advised her. "Having a lawyer on your side can only help."
"Good idea," Polly said drowsily, then gave an enormous yawn. "Well, guys, I hate to spoil the party, but I think it's pumpkin time for me."
The others made noises of agreement and rose reluctantly from the soft, cool grass. Hutch extended his hand to help Polly up, and she hugged him before releasing his hand. "Thank you, Ken," she said gratefully. "You and Dave have been terrific; I know you'll figure this out."
"I sure hope so," Hutch said fervently, hugging her back. "Otherwise, I won't be able to sleep at night."
"Uh...Dave, Polly, why don't you go on in without us?" Cathy requested. "I need to talk to Ken for a second."
"Sure." Starsky was mystified, and, though he couldn't see Polly's face, he suspected she was, too. Nevertheless, he had started up the steps to the house when a hand caught his. Before he could react, Hutch's lips met his in a soft, tender kiss. A second later, Hutch's thumb followed, brushing gently across his upper lip. Unsure how to react to this unexpected act, he finally said to himself, Fuck it, and pulled Hutch's head back to his for his own hungry kiss.
"'Night, Starss," he heard Hutch whisper. "I'll see what Cathy wants, then stop in before I go to bed."
"Okay," Starsky whispered back and turned to follow Polly into the house.
Cathy watched this intimate exchange with a small, fond smile. She had seen how distant Ken had been from his partner during this trip, and suspected he'd been emboldened by the utter darkness and his parents' absence. Whatever the reason, she was glad Ken was starting to relax. She adored Dave and wanted nothing more than for their relationship to work.
She heard Hutch chuckle as he watched Starsky go inside, and then he turned back to her.
"What's up, Cath?"
"Let's, uh, go down to the dock," she said. Part of her wanted to prolong telling him as long as possible, and another part wanted him away from the house, in case he reacted to this the way she thought he might.
They strolled through the darkness in silence, walking down the creaking boards to the end of the pier. Both were shoeless and dangled their feet into the warm water while they sat. Hutch scooped up a handful of pebbles and tossed them one by one into the lake, listening contentedly to the water lapping against the shore and sides of the boats, and waited for his sister to speak. When she didn't, he nudged her gently. "Okay, sis. Spill it. What was so important that you had to tell me alone, and all the way down here?"
He heard her take a deep breath, and when she spoke her voice was edged with tears. "I'm sorry, Ken, I didn't mean for it to happen, but it just slipped out."
Hutch felt his relaxed mood evaporate. "What?" he asked apprehensively. "What just 'slipped out'?" When she didn't answer, it hit him. Suddenly, he had no words. His mouth opened and sounds came out, but their resemblance to comprehendible language was no more than passing.
"Only Mom," Cathy said quickly, alarmed by his sudden incoherence. "Just Mom, not Dad. He was in the house with you and Dave."
"This was this afternoon?" Hutch finally managed to form recognizable words. "Well, that explains why Mom was looking at me so weird when I came back out." He hurled the remaining pebbles into the water and got to his feet, pacing halfway down the dock. "Hell, Cathy... Well...hell."
Cathy pulled her feet out of the water and followed him, catching his arm.
"She's not going to tell Dad, Ken," she told him urgently.
"Why in the world would you think that?" Hutch said in disbelief. "What she knows, he knows. They've been married for almost forty years; they know all each other's secrets."
"Not this one," Cathy declared firmly. "Mom might have had some inkling before I even said anything. She said something about knowing you were in love, and once it was out, she wondered why she hadn't seen it before."
"Shit," Hutch muttered miserably, circling the pier's edges like a caged animal. "If she can see it, then so will he. Yeah, like things weren't bad enough on this trip."
"Ken, listen to me." Cathy caught his arm again to halt his aimless movement. "Dad doesn't have a clue. He's still so wrapped up in your being a cop that he can't get past it. He's not going to figure this out for a while."
"Oh, thanks," Hutch said, shaking off her hand, unable to keep the bitterness out of his voice. "That makes me feel a lot better."
"Oh, Ken." She put her arms around him and pulled him close. Reluctantly, Hutch's arms encircled her. He felt her trembling, and then a warm dampness against his shirt.
"Hey." He drew away from her to peer into her face. In the moonlight, he could see tears shining on her cheeks. "Oh, Cath, come on. It's gonna be okay. I wish Mom didn't know, but if someone had to find out, I'd sure as hell rather it was her."
"N-no, that's not it," she whispered, her voice thick with tears. "It's just... It's...I hate the way he treats you, and I know he's not going to like this, and I'm...I can't help it, I'm worried."
He pulled her close again and rocked her gently back and forth. "Me, too," he admitted. "But the worst he can do is disown me, and if it weren't for you and Mom, that wouldn't bother me a bit. At least I'd be free of all his stupid lectures."
"Stop it." Cathy slapped his arm, voice muffled by his shirt.
"I swear, Cathy, if he says 'Now, Ken' to me one more time, I'm gonna go back to Bay City, get my gun, and come back here and kill us both."
"Now, Ken," came from her lips before she could stop it. For a moment, they just looked at each other, and then both burst out laughing. They laughed so hard they tumbled to the dock, sent small animal life rustling away from the lake's shore, and could only stop when their sides began to ache unbearably.
"Come on," Hutch said at last, after they had managed to compose themselves. He rose painfully to his feet and extended his hand to help his sister up. "Man, I'm beat," he complained. "This has been about the longest week I've ever had."
He started up the path, but Cathy stopped, tugging on his hand. He turned, to find her studying him closely.
"Ken," she said tenderly. "You really love Dave, don't you?"
Hutch looked down at the packed earth beneath his toes, and he felt a smile creep across his lips. "Yeah, I do," he murmured softly. "More than I've ever loved anyone. More than I think I love myself, sometimes." He glanced up at her. "Why?"
"It's just...there's been some kind of wall between you two while you've been here," she explained. "Until tonight, I was beginning to think you'd changed your mind."
"No," he said hastily. "That wasn't it, not at all. I was just--"
"Afraid," she filled in for him. "Afraid Mom and Dad would see the two of you, the way you are, and know what was going on."
"Right," he said, relieved that she understood.
She stepped close to him and looked up into his face.
"Don't do that, Ken," she implored. "You guys have something...incredible, and I've never, ever seen you look at someone the way you look at Dave. Whatever you do, don't let Dad take that away from you."
"No way," he assured her, kissing her softly on the forehead and pulling her in for a quick affectionate squeeze. "Now, let's get some sleep, huh? Starsk and I have a lot of work to do if we're gonna wrap this thing up and get out of here."
His arm around her shoulders, they climbed the small rise up to the house in silence, then went inside. After extinguishing the remaining lights and making sure the front door was securely locked, they headed upstairs toward their separate bedrooms.
"Ken." Cathy paused again, just before they parted at the top of the stairs. "You do think you can catch these guys, don't you?"
"You bet," Hutch assured her. "I'm absolutely positive of it."
But later, as he lay in bed staring at the ceiling, he wasn't nearly as confident as he had sounded--about anything. He'd had every intention of going to Starsky's room, staying for a little necking and some quietly intimate conversation, but Cathy's revelation had rekindled his paranoia about his father. Cathy knew, Polly knew, and now his mother did. How much longer would it be before one of them let something slip to his father? True, Richard had focused much of his attention on maligning Hutch's career, but the man wasn't stupid. Given enough clues, or even enough hesitation or evasion, he would know that something was being hidden from him--and that would be it. There was no one more tenacious than Richard Hutchinson when he thought information was being withheld. Except perhaps his son.
Hutch chuckled ironically at the thought that his incredible stubbornness might have been inherited from his father, but the soft sound was soon lost in a renewed sigh as he rolled over to his side. He hated this sense that he had lost the bearings of who he was. He seemed constantly vacillating between the man he was now and the young man who'd lived for so long under Richard Hutchinson's rule, and he couldn't help but think that his divided attention was contributing to the lack of progress on the case. Even worse was the feeling that he was avoiding Starsky, hurting him by his inattention, out of some Pavlovian conditioning to the standards and demands of his father. Nowhere, it seemed, could he make a move that was right for anybody, including himself, and that was making him miserable.
He sat up, punched his increasingly hot pillow, and stretched out on his stomach, hoping a new position would cajole sleep into his head. But the swirling thoughts continued, feelings about his father and Starsky chasing each other around like leaves in a whirlwind. He no sooner got those tucked away when they were replaced by thoughts, figures, and questions about the attacks. Desperately, he tried deep breathing, counting backward from one thousand, and recalling the names of all the women he'd dated. But the switch that turned his brain off would not engage, and he finally gave up. Throwing off the covers and climbing out of his bed, he pulled on a robe and slipped out of his room and down the stairs to the sunroom.
Might as well go over these again. He sighed as he settled in front of the paper-strewn table. Maybe things'll look different at night.
"Bobby, get in touch with Jake and David, and go to the park."
Startled awake, Bobby looked up from the magazine he was dozing over, to find Wade standing by his side.
"The park," Wade repeated. "Find the other two soldiers and take up your places by the lake."
"Wade, we've been down there a dozen times," Bobby protested. "I know what you're thinking, but it looks like they've finished that part of the investigation."
"It doesn't matter," Wade insisted. "They haven't been safely alone for days, and they've made no progress on the case. I spoke with Brady. I have a feeling they'll go back to the beginning--and today, my boy, is the day."
"You don't know that, Wade," Bobby began.
"Oh, but I do," Wade interrupted, the eerie glow beginning in his eyes. "The Lord has told me, Bobby. Now, quickly, before the opportunity is gone."
"Fine," Bobby grumbled with a yawn, getting to his feet as Wade drifted away. "But those two can take first watch. I'm going to finish my nap."
"This is ridiculous," Hutch snorted at last, tossing the file down after he'd read it for the fourth time. "There's nothing here we haven't seen before."
Starsky looked up, his face neutral. "You're the one always pushin' the research, Hutch," he said. "'Go back, look at it again, put things together in new ways,' etcetera, etcetera."
"There's nothing here, Starsk," Hutch responded irritably, shoving back his chair and pushing to his feet. "It's not that we missed something; it isn't here."
"Okay." Starsky closed his file with a little slap. "What d'you have in mind?"
"Let's go back to the park. Go over all the spots where the attacks took place."
"That's not gonna..." Starsky began impatiently, then held up his hands placatingly as Hutch's face darkened. "Don't get bent out of shape. I'm just sayin' some of those scenes are months old; anything that means anything has gotta be long gone by now."
"Maybe," Hutch said, snatching his jacket from the back of his chair and shrugging into it as he strode toward the door. "But it beats the hell out of sitting here banging our heads against the wall."
Before Starsky could speak again, Hutch had left the sunroom, loped down the porch steps, and was halfway across the lawn to the car. Sighing, Starsky got to his feet, retrieved his own jacket from the floor where it had fallen sometime that morning, and followed his agitated partner. He unlocked Hutch's door first, to give the blond man something to do, then rounded the car to slide in on the driver's side.
"Man, what is with you?" he asked, when they had pulled out of the Hutchinson drive and were on their way to the park. "I've never seen you this jumpy. And that's sayin' somethin', considering what you've been like since we got here."
"It was a short night and a long morning, Starsky," Hutch said shortly. "Can we just drive and not talk, please?"
"Helluva way to run an investigation," Starsky muttered under his breath. "So we just do our own thing and compare notes over lunch?"
"Starsky," Hutch warned. "Shut up."
Not wanting to make matters worse, Starsky complied, keeping his silence as he steered the car around the lake and through the gates to the park. It seemed deserted, but he knew the hidden areas behind small rises and within clusters of trees, and he imagined a number of couples hiding there, showing their affection with a freedom they never had in public. It made him long for Hutch's touch even more, and he pulled his mind back to the case with some effort.
"Bobby." A beefy hand shook Bobby's shoulder, rousing him from his slumber in the wooded alcove. "Bobby, wake up. They're here."
They arrived at the trailhead for Old Lake Trail, where Polly had been jogging when she was attacked. Starsky shifted the rental car into park and switched off the engine. "Okay, here we are," he announced. "Feel better now?"
He reached over to pat Hutch's thigh, but his hand touched air as his partner slid hastily from the passenger's seat, slamming the door behind him.
Okay, I've had just about enough of this.
He got out and slammed his own door, shoving the keys in his pocket. "All right, Hutch, what is it this time?" he asked tightly. "There's nobody around, you know this park is sort of a safe haven for people like us, would you mind telling me what you're so afraid of?"
"I told you, I'm sick of talking about this. Could we just focus on the case so we can go home?"
"Hutch, you can't keep turnin' your back on this and hoping it'll go away. What's next, you gonna decide that Huggy's place is off-limits, too? Change your mind about us movin' in together?"
"Cut it out!" The rope had run out and Hutch was shouting--something he did only when pushed to the edge. "Godammit, Starsk. This case alone is enough to drive anyone crazy. On top of that, I got Cathy depending on me, and the usual bullshit with my father. I got nothing left to debate our future, or even think about how I feel about it. So give it a rest, huh? Or both those things just might change."
Starsky's lips thinned, but when he spoke, his voice was even and restrained. "Fine," he said. "Seems like a good time for us to...check out separate crime scenes."
"I think that's a keeper," Hutch agreed tersely.
Starsky turned and stalked away.
"Oh, a little lovers' quarrel," Bobby snickered quietly into Jake's ear. "Perfect...just perfect." He tipped his head toward Starsky's retreating back. "Let's give him about five minutes to get far enough away before we take Mr. All-American," he instructed. "Dave, you keep watch, make sure the other cop doesn't come back. If he does, get back here doubletime."
"Got it." With the stealth from months of practice, Dave slid out of the alcove and crept behind Starsky, keeping far enough away that the detective wouldn't spot him, but close enough that he could watch Starsky's every move.
Bobby alternated his attention between the slight young man and his watch. When Dave disappeared over a small hillock, and his watch registered six and a half minutes, he beckoned to Jake. "Let's go."
As Starsky left, Hutch expelled a long breath and a heartfelt "Shit!" He'd anticipated being uncomfortable and unhappy around his father, but he had never dreamt just how far the discomfort would extend.
Sometimes, it all seems so straightforward and easy, he thought wistfully as he began a spiral of the area around Polly's assault, carefully scanning the ground at his feet. I know I love him, I know I want to be with him, and I know there's nothing and no one that's gonna change that.
But when the other dozen players entered the game, his mind became jumbled and panicked, as it had last night, and all he wanted was for everyone to leave him alone, including Starsky. He was just too torn, too caught between the young Ken Hutchinson--who yearned for his father's attention and approval, who couldn't help but hope for a day when acceptance would come--and the older, wiser man, who had learned to live his life according to his own standards, and stick to them no matter what other people thought.
Either way I go, there's so much to lose, he sighed. I just wish--
Thoughts and steps halted. With a frown, he stooped to sweep his hands across the patch of foliage at his feet. Under a small pile of fallen leaves, his fingers touched cool metal. He used one of the leaves to pick up the object. Rising to his feet, he peered at it closely.
It was a lighter, and though tarnished and muddy, it was clearly expensive. Not one of those cheap disposable jobs, but a solid silver flip-open butane. He popped the lid and spun the dial; a robust flame shot up. Flicking it closed, he massaged the smooth exterior with a leaf-covered finger, his frown deepening.
That's why Daddy pays his lawyers the big bucks.
You are a leader in your school and your community.
He's a model student, a leader in his school.
His fingers found grooves in the lighter's surface, and he looked down, examining it more closely.
The initials "R.J.C." were engraved in elegant script on the lighter's face.
Some twisted version of the two of you.
"I'll be damned," he breathed.
Hands trembling slightly, he withdrew his handkerchief from his pocket and wrapped the lighter in it securely. It wasn't everything, he thought, but... His mind raced through the information they had gathered so far, and piece by piece, things fell neatly into place.
It fits, it all fits.
Clutching the lighter tightly in his hand, he started in the direction Starsky had gone.
Starsky spent thirty minutes circling the area where Jim and Terry had been attacked. Like Hutch, he walked an ever-widening spiral from the point of contact, but he found nothing that they hadn't already seen. The scene was too old; any footprints would have been obscured long ago or washed out by the rain. If he did find any debris, even a wet-behind-the-ears lawyer could successfully argue against it. He squatted for a moment, using his pen to stir some leaves under a tree, and then gave up.
This is ridiculous, he decided. We're both worn down and worn out, and we've still got next to nothing. Maybe this is one of those times we just have to turn it over and walk away.
Brushing the dirt from his hands, he heaved a sigh and pushed himself back to his feet, then headed back to where he had left Hutch. Paradoxically spurred by exhaustion and emotion, it took him only minutes to return to the spot.
Which was empty.
"Hutch?" he called, scanning the area for the familiar blond head. "Hutch, where'd you go?"
There was no answer.
"C'mon, Hutch," he said wearily. "This is no time to be playing games, or givin' me the silent treatment." Even as the words left his lips, however, he knew better. Hutch might have a bizarre sense of humor, but he'd been in no mood for jokes when he and Starsky had split up. And when he was this pissed off, Hutch was far more apt to let Starsky know it, than to play some game of emotional hide-and-seek. "Christ." He sighed tiredly and headed back toward the car, deciding his partner must've come to the same conclusion he had. He only hoped that Hutch hadn't decided to take the car and look somewhere else.
Nothing. The car was there, but no Hutch, and no sign that he'd been there since they had split up.
Starsky's irritation was replaced by a growing fear. He and Hutch had been in this park dozens of times while working on the case. They knew the schedule of Brady's patrols by heart, and he knew they had been through less than an hour ago.
The scenario was beginning to sound an awful lot like Polly's attack--all of them, in fact. But this time with a twist. The victim had left the scene of the crime.
Heart suddenly pounding hard, he dug the keys from his pocket, flung open the car door, and scrambled inside. He honked the horn twice; loud, long blasts that Hutch could've heard from anywhere in a five-mile radius--farther than he could have gone on foot in the time Starsky had been gone. Then he hauled himself half out of the car and shouted at the top of his lungs:
Damn, not again.
Head hurts. Don't know why...didn't drink last night, didn't even...
Hutch's eyes snapped open.
He froze, barely allowing himself to breathe, letting his other senses feed him information about where he was and how he had gotten there.
The news was not good.
He was sitting in a chair, hands bound behind his back. The room didn't feel or smell familiar; around him there was only silence. A cloth blindfold had been tied tightly over his eyes, folded several times so not a trace of light penetrated the weave.
He fought the panic that rushed through him as he registered each sensation, for every one sped him back in time.
You tell us where she is, and you wake up in your own bed tomorrow morning like nothing happened.
Around the surging blood in his ears, he could hear the echo of Monk's voice. Panic rising, he shook his head to chase the memory away.
Footsteps approached him and he froze again, chest rising and falling with shallow, rapid breaths he could no longer restrain. The steps stopped, and the silence grew thick again.
Despite his best efforts, he couldn't bear it. "Who are you?" he said thickly from a throat that was almost closed. "What do you want?"
As before, the only answer he got was a rock-hard fist crashing into him and a throbbing pain that rocketed through his head. He felt the skin above his eye split and begin to swell immediately. In his mind's eye, he saw his inner self, scrabbling madly for composure.
Another blow was delivered to his gut, and Hutch doubled over as far as the chair allowed, absurdly grateful he hadn't had lunch.
He let himself rest there, suspended by the chair and his bound arms. Relax, he ordered himself shakily, as the fire spread through his abdomen. Breathe, Hutchinson, breathe...
The footsteps receded and he heard a door open and close. In another time, another place, the departure would've calmed him, but the memories were too vivid, the parallels too strong. He felt sweat sliding down a dozen places, soaking his shirt and biting into the cut by his eye. The door opened, and colored spots began to spin in front of his eyes as the panic grew, and the echoes grew nearer and harsher.
You got one last chance. Where is she?
He heard two sets of footsteps this time, then his breath rushed away. A massive arm encircled his chest, while another set of hands loosened the ropes from his wrists. The embracing limb shifted down, to pin his upper arms and his right hand, while another hand gripped his left, pushing the sleeve up above his elbow.
Something seared into his skin.
There you go, cop. First mile on a long, long trip.
The spots swirled like blizzard snowflakes, and he no longer had control of his lungs. Breath heaved in and out of him of its own volition. The air around him seemed sucked into a giant vacuum, and the sound of his heart throbbed in his ears, accompanied by the whistle of his own respirations and the warm feel of liquid slipping down his arm.
Before the first drop left his hand, he gave one last shuddering breath--and the raging spots consumed him.
Starsky slid to a sideways stop in front of the sheriff's office and threw the rental car into park. Hurtling from the front seat, not bothering to close the door, he took the steps in a single leap and charged into Brady's office.
"Where is he?" he demanded of the desk clerk, who stared at him with the wide eyes of one who beholds a lunatic. "Brady," Starsky made himself clarify. "Where is he?"
"Easy, Detective Starsky, easy."
He whirled to find Brady behind him, holding a brown paper bag in one hand and regarding him with a half-amused, half-annoyed expression. "What're you doing here?" Brady inquired, starting past him. "Case prove too much for you big-city boys?"
Starsky gripped the man's biceps and practically lifted him from his feet, as he propelled Brady to his office and slammed the door.
"Detective Starsky," Brady said, his face now void of all amusement. "You better have a damned good reason for handling me like that, or I'm gonna put your butt in the slammer for assaulting a police officer."
"I do," Starsky fired at him. "Hutch is missing." Rapidly, he explained what had happened.
"C'mon, Starsky," Brady said when he had finished. "He's been missing, what? An hour? Sure he didn't just decide to go home without you? He grew up here, you know. I'm sure he knows his way around."
"Yes, I'm sure." Starsky barely restrained himself from grabbing the man's shirtfront and rattling his teeth loose. "We were at the park, Brady, do you get that? The place where Polly and three other people have been assaulted over the last five months? And we were there right after your patrols had just gone through. Sound familiar?"
"So what makes you think that's what happened to Ken?" Brady challenged. "Every other time, they've left the victims at the scene. Why the hell should they change their pattern now?"
"Several reasons I can think of," Starsky shot back. "He saw them, he heard them, or he fought back. Or they think they can get some leverage by grabbing a cop."
When Brady still looked disinclined to act, Starsky slammed his hands down on the desk and fixed the sheriff with his most menacing gaze. "You listen to me," he said; his voice was low and deadly. "I know Hutch, I know these case files, and I know how these people work. They've got Hutch, just like all the others, and if he's seen them or knows who they are, they just might kill him." He leaned forward farther and saw Brady retreat. "Now maybe some people, including yourself, would let you live with that, Brady, but I sure as hell won't be one of them."
Brady scowled at him. "That's darned close to a threat," he spat. "You better be right about this, or you can bet your badge I'll send you up on some pretty serious charges."
"Right now, I don't give a shit," Starsky told him, and he saw from the sheriff's eyes that Brady believed him. "Get your gun, your keys, and your car, and let's move."
No. Wanna stay here where it's quiet and dark. Safer here. No needles.
"Ken? Ken, it's time for you to wake up."
A hand shook his shoulder, and, for a bizarre moment, Hutch felt himself transported--not to the old nightmare, but to the sound of his mother's voice, telling him to get up and come to breakfast.
He opened his eyes to the same darkness--and froze.
"It's all right, Ken," the voice went on, its tone oddly soothing. "Here, let me take this off."
He felt hands fumbling with the knot at the back of his head, and the blindfold was removed. Blinking sweat away and squinting to focus though one eye was nearly swollen shut, Hutch couldn't believe it when Wade Graham's face swam into view.
"Wade?" he said, his voice a hoarse rasp. "What the hell are you doing here?"
"Hell," Wade echoed softly. "What an appropriate term for you to use, for I know that's just where you and your partner, along with all the other lost souls, are going to reside, unless you hear what I have to say."
The pain in Hutch's head grew worse as his brow furrowed.
To his astonishment, Wade dropped the blindfold, then turned to pull a chair in front of his former classmate. "You see, Ken," he began conversationally, as if he and Hutch had just run into each other at the city diner. "I've been on a very special mission for the last six months, and you are the conduit through which my message will finally be borne."
"Mission?" Hutch said, his brain still fuzzy. "Wade, you're gonna have to explain."
"Oh, of course," Wade said apologetically. "It's on my mind constantly, and I forget that others are not privy to its scope." He settled back in the chair. "This is our hometown, Ken, yours and mine, and it was such a lovely place to grow up--so clean and full of wholesome activities. But when I returned from the seminary, I found that an evil sort of weed had sprung up here, seemingly overnight, and many of our neighbors were in its grasp."
He leaned forward, and his eyes began to glow with that religious fervor Hutch had noticed during his and Starsky's first visit.
"I'm sure you know I'm speaking of homosexuality, Ken," Wade continued. "It broke my heart, and the Lord's, too, I know, to see so many of his children engaging in sinful activities behind his back. I couldn't bear it. I couldn't sleep, I couldn't eat. I knew I had to do something to deliver this town, and its children, back to the path of righteousness."
"The assaults," Hutch realized. "You're the one behind them. But how? There's no way you could've done it alone."
"Oh, I didn't," Wade said. "And really, physical harm was never a part of my plan. Some of my precious young people are the ones who actually deliver the lesson to the lost ones."
"For God's sake," Hutch said in disbelief. "What--? Why? How can you justify breaking the fifth commandment in the name of...of...some misguided notion of sexual deliverance?"
"We've killed no one," Wade reminded him. "Only made examples of them, so others could see the danger in pursuing this lifestyle." He leaned forward and patted Hutch's knee comfortingly. "I know it causes some a great deal of pain right now, and I am sorry for your suffering, but there will be justification enough, in all the souls that will be saved because of your sacrifice."
"Sacrifice?" Hutch repeated, cold suspicion rippling up his spine. "What do you mean, sacrifice?"
"You're very important to my work, Ken," Wade continued, as if Hutch hadn't spoken. "Until now, the papers have ignored my work, and the local authorities have been...well, laissez faire at best. But you...oh, they can't ignore what happens to you. A homicide detective from California, and Richard Hutchinson's son, at that? No, my dear friend, your lesson will be the one that finally shatters the silence and complacency in this town. Everyone will know; everyone will hear my message at last." Wade rose to his feet, and Hutch saw his excitement grow. "Don't you see how perfect it is? The citizens of this town will understand that this scourge has invaded everywhere, even the finest families. And the poor souls, those lost men and women who have been seduced down Satan's path, will pause in their progression and will heed the call of righteousness and purity once again."
Hutch stared at him, unable to even fathom how this man had conjured up such an incredible, ludicrous notion. "You're insane," he whispered at last. "You can't...terrorize people into changing their sexual preferences. That's not the way my Bible reads."
"Oh, but it does," Wade assured him. "Locusts...plagues...the slaughter of the first born sons. The Lord has long used the hard lesson to steer His flock toward the righteous path. I am but the messenger; it is His word that I and my young charges spread." He glanced at his watch and, with a regretful expression, rose to his feet. "Now, I'm afraid I must go so the lads can finish their work," he said, as if Hutch were nothing more than a room to be dry-walled. "I am so grateful to you, Ken. I know your suffering will be great, but if you renounce this lifestyle, you--and your partner--will earn your place in heaven, at the right hand of our precious Lord."
Stunned, Hutch could do nothing but sputter as Wade replaced the blindfold, then laid a hand on Hutch's head.
"God bless you, Ken Hutchinson."
"Wade, wait," Hutch pleaded, finding his voice at last as the panic returned in a rush. "Wait--!"
But the door had closed; he was alone.