"Son-of-a-bitch." The soft curse issued in the room teeming with activity went unnoticed by all but one. Hutch turned eyes filled with anger and sorrow on his partner, watching for a few seconds as Starsky swallowed several times, then cursed again. "Son-of-a-bitch."
"I know." Hutch redrew the blanket over the victim's face, then briefly clasped Starsky's shoulder before rising to his feet. "Doesn't matter how many years we've been doing this, does it? Some cases just "
" are fuckin' unfair," Starsky finished for him, still kneeling next to the small covered body. He cleared his throat a few times before he rose to stand next to Hutch. The men backed up to make room for an approaching stretcher being guided by Ginny Simpson, the coroner they'd worked with on too many cases.
"Did you get everything you need, Ginny?" Hutch asked.
The dark-haired woman looked exhausted, as she ran a hand through her bangs. Her assistants gently lifted the victim and placed her on the stretcher. "Yes, I'm finished here. Cause of death is obvious--strangulation followed by a broken neck--but that, of course, won't be official until I autopsy her. Your office will have my report as soon as possible."
The detectives nodded as Ginny and her team left with the dead woman, now zipped into a body bag. Both looked around the small room, noting the uniformed officers dusting for prints. The room was startlingly neat, considering the violence that had occurred there. A velvet-covered sofa was the largest piece of furniture. It was well worn, but dust-free in the bright late afternoon sunshine, streaming in from lace-curtained windows. On either side of the sofa were two highly polished end tables with Tiffany style lamps on top of them. None of the furniture looked to have been disturbed. The only thing out of place was a black patent leather purse with broken handles, lying open on the rose-colored carpet. "It looks like my mom's living room in here," Starsky said huskily, then signaled to the officer kneeling by the front door. "Was it forced, Bob?"
The middle-aged cop looked up tiredly. "Nope. No signs of forced entry. The lock is intact."
"We've got three teams canvassing the neighborhood, right?" Hutch asked the man, just wanting to confirm what he already knew.
"That's right." The officer returned to his minute inspection of the front door and frame.
"Better call Dobey with an update," Hutch muttered, intending the comment for Starsky, but his partner was no longer at his side. Hutch glanced around, quickly finding him next to the sofa.
Starsky was staring at the wall when Hutch joined him, fixated on a large grouping of framed photographs. Some black-and-white, some in color, all covered with dust-free glass. The pictures seemed to cover a range of about fifty years, starting with a photo of a young smiling couple on their wedding day. The happy faces of children and adults were in direct opposition to the somber sadness in the room.
"She was someone's mother, Hutch."
"I know, Starsk."
"She had to've been eighty years old, and someone does this to her in her own house." Starsky shook his head to try and clear it, feeling cold right to his bones.
"Come on, partner, we've been through this before. You can't let it get to you." Hutch was genuinely concerned by how upset Starsky was. Normally, his partner was all business at a crime scene, saving the release of the tension and despair for their private moments. Several disturbing cases in a row had now seemed to catch up with Starsky, and Hutch wanted to get him out of the house--ripe with the smell of death--and into some fresh air. Get him away from this sad place.
"Let's head out, okay? There's nothing more we can do here. Let's go over to Metro, give Dobey our preliminary report, then go home. The uniforms will be out for hours still. You heard Ginny. The murder probably happened sometime last night. We've already got a cold trail, so starting our investigation in the morning after the canvassing is done and we might have some leads, makes the most sense."
"Okay," Starsky agreed, "but let's check the front yard ourselves first. The guys are moving fast, and I want to be sure they haven't missed anything that might've been dropped."
"Good idea," Hutch answered quickly, following as Starsky took the lead, and pleased to be able to get him outside into the open air.
The small front yard contained an over-grown lawn and several carefully tended rose bushes. When new, the house had been situated in a very desirable neighborhood, but the years had changed that. What had once been an area to raise a family in peace and security was now a neighborhood ruled by poverty, drugs, and crime.
After a few minutes of perusal, Hutch was the first to stop. "There's nothing here, Starsk. I'm going to radio Dobey that we're on our way back, then we can make sure the men have everything wrapped up inside and get out of here."
Starsky nodded as Hutch made his way to the Torino, parked snuggly against the curb. The gleaming chrome shone brightly in the sun. He watched a few seconds more, as Hutch made his way to the driver's side, then paused as Hutch looked at him strangely.
"What?" he asked in response to Hutch's expression.
"Aw, Starsk. Someone gouged your door."
"What?!" Starsky hurried to the car to see for himself. When he reached Hutch's side, he saw the damage. A gouge, caused by a key or a knife, ran just above the bold racing stripe. It was long and deep. "Well, shit."
Hutch knew more than anyone--maybe even more than Starsky--what his car meant to him. "I'm sorry, Starsk. We'll get it fixed. We'll take it to Merle, and--"
Starsky shook his head a little before he spoke. "It's just a scratch, Hutch. Just another scar on her. Just one more scar. Call Dobey, I'm going back inside."
Hutch ran his fingers over the gouge before he reached inside the open window for the radio. After being connected to his captain, he gave a brief status, then hurried back inside. Starsky was looking at the pictures again when he found him.
"Okay, let's go."
Starsky looked up quickly, whether to argue or not Hutch didn't know.
"What's that?" Starsky pointed toward an open door.
"That's a door, buddy."
Starsky didn't take the time to narrow his eyes at his partner. "The noise, I mean. What's that noise?"
Hutch listened closely, trying to hear what Starsky had heard. It was faint, but there--a low groan, almost sounding like a baby. "Didn't anyone check the bedroom?" Hutch cried on his way to the room, Starsky close on his heels.
"We checked it, remember?" Starsky replied, at the same time two officers answered affirmatively, one following the detectives.
"Well, we missed something, and it's coming from under the bed." Hutch got to his knees as he responded, slowly raising the coverlet. Starsky went to the other side and did the same.
Both caught sight of the creature making the noise at the same time. "It's a cat," Starsky stated unnecessarily.
"Yeah, I can see that, Starsk." Hutch was closer to the animal, and he reached a hand out toward it, quickly latching on to the cat's tail.
"Be careful." The words were barely out of Starsky's mouth, when his partner let out a yelp, and the cat ran right into Starsky's knees. He scooped the bundle into his arms and got up at the same time Hutch did, noting that Hutch had one side of his fist in his mouth. "What happened?"
"It scratched me."
The cat's heart was beating frantically under Starsky's hand, and he tried to settle it more comfortably against his shoulder. A pair of bright green eyes stared at him, before the animal laid its head against Starsky's neck. "Seems pretty gentle. You must've pulled its tail."
Hutch was examining his hand, and he didn't look up. "I was trying to get it out. Oh, well, it's just a scratch and it isn't deep."
"That's good," Starsky said distractedly, as he stroked the animal's soft fur.
The young officer cleared his throat. He'd silently watched the whole scene. "I'll call Animal Control to come pick up the cat."
Starsky and Hutch glanced at each other from the opposite sides of the bed. The sad after-effects of murders didn't always end with grieving families and friends. Often, children were relegated to foster care, and pets to the pound. It was the part of the story seldom mentioned on the evening news or the newspapers.
"Well, that's just terrific," Starsky muttered, as he continued to stroke the now purring cat he held. "We all know what the cat's odds are of gettin' a new home. This isn't a kitten, and no one wants old cats."
Hutch turned startled eyes on his partner, before addressing the officer. "Go call it in, Greg." He waited until the man left the room, then walked softly over to Starsky. "What's going on with you?"
"You mean what else besides being disgusted by an old woman being killed in her home?"
"Yeah, besides that," Hutch said unwaveringly.
Starsky didn't answer, and almost a minute of silence occurred before he spoke again. "You know that little girl who lives down the street from me? Her name is Amy; you've seen her before."
Hutch thought quickly and brought up a vague impression of a pig-tailed child. "I think so. The one that roller skates outside practically before the sun is up?"
"That's the one," Starsky confirmed. "She had a cat that got hit by a car a month or so ago. I bet she'd love to have a new one."
"Aw, Starsk, come on. You don't know that, and this cat may have someone come claim it. There could be a family member or a friend someone who wants it."
"Or it could be put down in three days at the pound."
Starsky's depression weighed heavily in his speech, and Hutch gently patted his partner's shoulder in between tentative pets to the cat's soft fur. "What do you wanna do?" Hutch asked, willing to go against his better judgment if it meant he could bring back the bounce to Starsky's voice.
"I wanna bring it home. If someone comes forward to claim it--great. If not, we'll try Amy or find it another home, but I don't want to see that poor old woman's cat get put down at the pound."
Hutch just smiled as he scratched under the cat's neck, gently turning its collar around so he could lift the metal nametag. "Okay, buddy, we'll bring her home--temporarily."
"Her?" Starsky asked.
"Read the tag. Her name is Princess." Hutch led the way out of the room, Starsky and his armful of cat close on his heels. "We better check the kitchen, see if there's any food for her."
"And a carrier, or at least a box," Starsky added, holding the cat a little more firmly against his chest. The activity in the room was causing her to wiggle with nerves. "I'm not real sure she's going to enjoy car travel."
Hutch suppressed a sigh and began to peruse the cupboards in search of cat food. Sadly, he noted there wasn't much in the way of "people food" in sight, but there were several stacks of canned cat food. "Got it."
"You better get that, too," Starsky said softly.
"That," Starsky said a little louder, jerking his chin in emphasis.
Hutch turned in the direction in which Starsky was pointing, and this time his sigh was not suppressed. "A litter box?"
"I think it's a better choice than having her 'go' on my floor."
"Can't she 'go' outside?" Hutch asked, looking at the box distastefully.
"Come on, Hutch, we can't let her out in a strange neighborhood. She won't know where she is or how to get back, would you, Princess?" he finished in a low tone.
"Are you cooing to that animal?"
"Are you gettin' the box?"
Hutch just shook his head in defeat, found a sack for the food and some spare litter in an unopened bag, and dumped the used litter out of the pan and into the garbage. "When did you get to be such an expert on cats?" he asked, once his arms were full.
"I read," Starsky replied.
"I know. Let's go."
An hour later, the detectives were seated in Starsky's living room, watching their four-legged guest carefully investigate each nook and cranny suspiciously. They'd set up her litter box in a corner of the kitchen and placed food and water on the opposite side, but so far, the cat was ignoring all of it.
"She acts like she's sniffing for a bomb," Hutch said, pulling his shirt-tail out from his jeans. He unbuttoned the bottom two buttons and started scratching his side enthusiastically, while Starsky remained silent. His partner had been quiet on the drive over, too. He'd glanced one more time at his gouged door, then handed Hutch the keys and climbed into the passenger seat, holding the unrestrained cat. They'd been unable to find a carrier or an empty box to transport her in. Other than a few low moans from Princess, the Torino had been mainly silent.
Hutch ran a socked foot over Starsky's calf to get his attention. "Did you hear what I said?"
"She's just gettin' her bearings," Starsky replied. "She'll settle down." He relaxed back against the couch, alternately watching the sniffing Princess and the scratching Hutch. "Is your scar bothering you?" Starsky asked, referring to the small surgical scar on Hutch's side, earned after the train accident they'd survived months ago.
"No, not really," Hutch said lightly. "It's just a little itchy."
Starsky nodded and grabbed Hutch's free hand. "Come to the bathroom with me. You need to wash out the scratch Princess gave you, anyway, and I'll put some cream on your side. See if that helps."
Once inside the bathroom, Hutch took off his shirt and started the water, while Starsky searched through the medicine chest for the items he wanted. "Wash it out real good," Starsky directed, when Hutch had soap in hand.
"I am." Hutch looked closer at the scratch. "This is nothing." He reached for a towel.
"Let me see." Starsky grabbed the damp hand and inspected it carefully. "Yeah, it looks fine, but let's put some antiseptic on it anyway."
Hutch only hissed a little, as the stinging substance was applied to the slight wound. He refrained from commenting when Starsky added a completely unnecessary bandage.
"There ya go, now let's get this cream on you." Starsky offered a half smile, as he shook the bottle he held with one hand, using the other to stroke along Hutch's side. Then he opened the bottle and began rubbing it into the healed-over scar.
"That feels good, babe," Hutch commented appreciatively, trying to catch Starsky's eye. The dark head was bent in its task, though. "Do you want to talk about what you're thinking?"
"You know what I'm thinking?" Starsky asked as he finished.
"I think so."
"The Torino." Starsky put the cream and the antiseptic back in the medicine chest.
"Um hm," Hutch murmured, not letting on that he'd guessed wrong, yet sure the death of the elderly victim was still troubling Starsky. Just as it was still troubling him. "I'll call Merle for an appointment ."
"No, I mean, I was thinking of her when she was brand new. The first day I brought her home."
"Oh, yeah, I remember that day," Hutch said with an indulgent smile. "You were beaming from ear to ear."
"She was my first new car and she was perfect."
"I guess we've beat her up a lot over the years, haven't we?" Hutch asked rhetorically, his tone sympathetic as he imagined Starsky thinking about the newest damage done to what had once been his pride and joy. That had been when they were younger, of course. Before the job and life had banged their priorities around to what they were today, but still it had to hurt a little. "I'm really sorry about what happened to her."
"She's still perfect to me, Hutch."
"Yeah." Starsky returned his hand to Hutch's side, feeling where the lotion was still damp and massaging it in a little more. "I remember the first day I got you, too."
Hutch laughed a little at that. "Oh, you do, do you?"
"Yep. All skinny and shiny. Not a mark on you."
"Ah. Well, I have a few of those, now."
"We both do, but, Hutch, you're still perfect to me. Always will be."
Hutch looked at Starsky sharply, surprised by the uncharacteristically sentimental comment and the slight catch to Starsky's voice. "Been a long day, huh, babe?"
"Real long. And that poor old woman. Alone ." Starsky wrapped his arms around his chest. "We've got so much, ya know? We have us. We have everything."
Hutch reached for Starsky's arms, loosening them from his sides before he gathered him close. "You're right. We've got it all," he whispered into an ear. "And, Starsk? You're perfect to me, too."
Starsky burrowed against the warm, naked chest. "You getting soapy on me?"
"Me?" Hutch said, followed by a laugh and a swat to Starsky's rear. "Never. Now let's get out of the bathroom and see what your cat's up to."
With their arms loosely wrapped around each other's waists, Starsky and Hutch went in search of the orphaned cat. They found her in the kitchen, eating contentedly.
"Look at that," Starsky said with a smile. "She's feeling at home, now."
Hutch didn't comment, but he did smile at both the cat and his partner. Tomorrow would be time enough to start the calls to get her a new home, and make an appointment for the Torino to be patched up. For now, he wanted to think about other things. "Let's let her eat in peace and see if she can find us when she's done."
"Where are we goin'?" Starsky asked, appreciating the color on Hutch's cheeks and the grin he was being given.
"Well, if I have to tell you " Hutch's voice trailed off into laughter, and he turned and left the kitchen.
"Enjoy your dinner, sweetheart," Starsky whispered to the cat, then left to join his partner.
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