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Wuemsel's Fanfic Corner

Mushroom Cloud


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Special thanks to Kassidy Rae, who edited the zine "Like Fire, like Water" in which this story was originally published a year ago. It's been an honor and a lot of fun working with you. I know I learned a lot from you, and I thank you for that! Thanks to Rae too, of course!

Also thanks to the usual suspects. You guys rule. ;) And I'd never forget to thank Tamminy, my Tamminy for being just that. :) Thanks for everything, pal!

It was going to be a beautiful day. The little bit of sky Starsky could see through the bars in front of the high window was a shiny blue, almost like it was the source of light itself, not just the carrier. Inside the room, there was no sun. Only sky.

 

He figured it had to be getting pretty warm outside too, but he was cold. They—whoever they were—had taken his jacket, shoes, and socks, and he had goose bumps starting on his bare arms, resting on his drawn up knees. Every so often a shiver would grab him, hard, and he’d wince at some hidden pain that the jerky movements caused.

 

Apart from his head, he hadn’t checked on anything since he’d woken up, but from the straining pain in his chest and ribs, he knew he’d been knocked around while he'd been unconscious. More like manhandled. Accidentally hurt in the process of being thrown in the room.

 

Maybe not so accidentally, though. He'd felt the bump on the side of his head and crusted blood, when he’d gently probed around it. Not too easy to manage with hands cuffed in front of him. He had no doubt they were his own cuffs.

 

There was no way of telling how long he’d been in there already, either unconscious or awake. The sun had been up, when he’d come to, and it still was. He couldn’t tell if the light had brightened, changed direction, or anything. The window that was so high above him was too small for that. Or maybe he just wasn’t enough of an outdoorsy person to be able to tell time by staring at a piece of sky.

He wondered if Hutch could. Decided to ask him, next time he saw him.

 

He snorted sardonically.

 

Casual positivity! Right. That was how to play situations like this. When he got out of here, he’d ask Hutch to explain how to tell the time by staring into the air above you. You never knew, might come in handy some day.

 

Shaking his head at himself, he shifted on the cold concrete, stretched his aching neck, and leaned his head back against the brick wall he sat against. Had it been twenty minutes he’d spent yelling after waking up? An hour? How long since he had surrendered to just sitting there, staring at the piece of sky?

 

Apart from the window, there was nothing in the small room to give light when it grew dark outside. He wondered how it’d be at night. Would it be completely dark?

 

He shivered again, involuntarily drawing his knees closer, resting his chin on the right one. He heard a sigh, and realized it had been his own desperate one. He was so tired that it was hard to brainstorm why the hell he might be here, or who his hosts were, or what was going to happen. He couldn’t help thinking he’d rather have whatever “it” was start soon rather than wait while his butt grew number by the minute from the cold.

 

And he had been so close to home. After two days of statement-hunting with Hutch up north, a seven-hour drive and the meanest, most boring traffic jam ever, not to mention a dozen radio stations from hell, he’d finally, finally, finally been home—and then, when he’d already left his car, keys out, home close enough to touch...

 

In his memory the sound of the driver’s door banging shut exploded in his head like a shot.

 

He sighed, leaned his head back. Suddenly noticing he was humming under his breath, he stopped with an unnerved groan. Damn that earworm Hutch had planted in his mind.

 

Leaving on a jetplane...dunno when I’ll be back again...

 

“Well,” Hutch said after he’d hung up the phone in their hotel room. They'd been there two days and were just about to leave. “Looks like the road’s all yours tonight, pal. I’m gonna take the plane.”

 

Starsky’s face fell. He dropped the t-shirt he’d been folding onto the coffee table. “You’re kidding.”

 

Hutch shrugged as innocently as he could. “Nope. Seems Mrs. Turner’s lawyer made our little trick with the dates, and if the DA doesn’t get Charlene’s statement by midnight, he’ll have to let her go. And we both know what that’ll mean.”

 

Starsky furrowed his brows, as if thinking his partner’s words through. “Okay,” he finally said, stretching the word. “So why does that mean you’ll be taking the plane?”

 

“Because Dobey could only get one seat on the next flight. By the way,” he grabbed Starsky’s arm to look at his watch, “we should be going.” He picked up his neatly folded

t-shirt, stuffed it into his bag and stood, heading for the door.

 

Starsky followed him hastily. “What, and we don’t even, like, discuss this? Fairly? I don’t wanna drive home all alone. That’s boring!”

 

“It’s your car,” Hutch pointed out, walking down the stairs to the lobby. “Besides, you won the toss for the bed last night.”

 

“Exactly!” Starsky exclaimed. “Because you lost. That was fair!”

 

“Starsky, you didn’t even let me see the coin.”

 

Starsky ignored that. “That was a fair game, fair decision. It’s how friends do it. You can’t just take the plane, we have to play for it.”

 

Hutch shot him a sideglance. “Watch me.”

 

“Hutch!”

 

They had reached the lobby by now, and, waving at the friendly elderly receptionist, Hutch headed for the exit, wearing the subtle smile of the triumphant. “Neither of us is happy with me driving the tomato, right, buddy?”

 

“Hey, how many times have I let you drive my car?”

 

“Okay, but it’s not like I like it. And it is your car. If we’d taken mine, I’d drive home.” Hutch shrugged.

 

Starsky snorted. “If we’d taken your sorry can, we never woulda made it here in the first place.”

 

“Yeah, aren’t ya glad we took your car then?” Hutch grinned, earning an evil scowl.

 

Starsky threw his bag onto the back seat and all but tore the Torino’s driver side door open.

 

Savoring the sweet payback for the uncomfortable night before, Hutch climbed into the car, gently closing the door. “I can drive to the airport if you want me to,” he offered.

 

“Aw, shut up,” Starsky muttered.

 

They both jumped when music started along with the engine. What with being in a strange city and on the highway, they had needed to keep an eye—or rather, an ear—on the traffic and had therefore switched on the radio, hoping for reports.

 

Irritated, Starsky reached out to turn it off, but Hutch stopped him.

 

 “Hey, wait,” he said, as he caught the line of a song, and then broke into an utterly mean laugh. He turned up the volume.

 

Forced to listen to what he recognized as the very beginning of “Leaving On A Jetplane,” Starsky rolled his eyes. “Funny,” he mumbled over Hutch’s delighted singing.

 

“Already I’m so lonesome I could die…”

 

“So funny,” Starsky grumbled.

 

“…don’t know when you’ll be back again…”

 

“Hutch,” Starsky warned.

 

“Every song I sing, I sing for—”

 

Too fast for Hutch to react, Starsky switched off the radio, shooting his friend a triumphant look.

 

Unimpressed, the blond continued to sing softly without backup from the radio. “...back again...oh babe, I hate to go...”

 

Starsky thought about Hutch flying home alone and got in the mood for yelling again. It hadn’t worked before—either he was too far away for anyone to hear him, or they didn’t care. Or they enjoyed it. But he didn’t want to let his thoughts wander in that direction.

 

He sat with his chin on one knee and stared upward. It made his eyes hurt, but he couldn’t seem to tear his gaze away from the window. It was the only source of anything lifelike. He almost feared it would close when he stopped focusing on it.

 

Surely it was late in the day by now. Late enough for Hutch to have realized he was missing. And Hutch’s brainstorming would not be impeded by the nagging headache and cold that Starsky had to deal with. And his, well... fear. Taken off guard by that last thought, he shook his head, but stopped with a moan, eyes squeezed shut. God his head hurt.

 

A key rattled in the door to his left.

 

Starsky jumped to his feet, clumsily falling back against the wall. He steadied himself and stared at the door in anticipation. Whatever “it” was, it was about to start. He had no doubt it would hurt, but maybe “it” would at last provide him with some answers. Answers always were the first step on the way out. You couldn’t fight empty rooms.

 

“Detective Starsky.”

 

“It” spoke with a melodic, softly amused voice, and stepped in to reveal an elegantly dressed brunette woman with sharply boned features and eyes the color of the sky outside his window. Only they held no light.

 

On either side of her hired guns appeared, both aiming impressive guns at Starsky. He took in the sight of the trio with a frown, feeling nervous, yet dying to make a smart-ass comment.

 

“Who are you?” he asked the woman, not even bothering to address her companions. It was obvious they weren't running the show. They were just there to keep him from using the advantage of his strength on her.

 

“That’s nothing you need to know,” she said.

 

“Why don’t you let me be the judge of that?”

 

She smiled as if at a stubborn child, and folded her arms in front of her. She studied him for a moment. “I thought up a game for you, Dave.”

 

Over the years, practice and experience had trained Starsky for hostage situations in which he was the hostage. And though he had a very healthy survival instinct which supplied him with enough healthy fear to avoid getting killed for mouthing off, he had found that wise-cracking and even slightly infuriating his captors was a kind of twisted comfort to him. Yet the way the woman pronounced the word “game,” her voice changing into soft coldness, like snow on bare skin, made him wary enough to hold back the comment that instantly sprung to his mind.

 

“What’re you talking about?” he asked, hating how nervous he sounded. “Who are you?”

 

She ignored his questions. She didn’t move, didn’t acknowledge at all that he’d spoken, though she never took her eyes off of him. “It was pretty easy, grabbing you. Wasn’t it?”

 

Starsky stared at her, off guard.

 

“We could’ve killed you,” she continued, and shrugged for emphasis. “Right then and there, in your own driveway. No one saw us take you, no one would’ve seen us shoot you.” She paused. “What d’you think it might be like, bleeding to death in your driveway at dawn? Sun’s rising, and you’re going?” Her eyes wandered up to the right, then to Starsky again. She smiled apologetically. “I’m a writer.”

 

“Figures,” he muttered. 'A writer? Who gets kidnapped by a writer?'

 

She must’ve sensed what he was thinking, because she blinked in apparent amusement, but when she spoke it was with the same soft and cool tone as before. “No one’s safe, are they? You know that, you’re a cop.” She waited as if for an answer, but eventually continued. “How many cases did you have where people just answered their door and were shot? Right in the face? Or were grabbed and dragged some place to be tortured to death? Horribly. Slowly.”

 

Starsky swallowed, dry-mouthed.

 

Watching him, she bowed her head, just a tiny bit, so that she looked at him conspiratorially. As if they shared a secret. About him. Her voice dropped, too, like her face. “Maybe even in front of his best friend’s eyes?”

 

Starsky’s blood ran cold.

 

One corner of her lips arched in a slight smile. “I like that nickname of his. Hutch. That’s cute. What does he call you?”

 

“What did you do to him?” Starsky snapped, not even trying—he’d fail, anyway—to keep the terror out of his voice. This was the worst face “it” could have.

 

She grimaced, eerily sympathetic. Like she was truly feeling for him. “Nothing, Dave.” Her voice was so soft and gentle it made him sick. “Nothing. He’s fine. Well,” she shrugged, “probably a bit worried by now, but okay. I promise.”

 

“What d’you want?” Starsky fought against the overwhelming feeling of downright disgust at her comforting tone. It wasn’t the transparent mocking of long-time gangsters, or of people who wanted something, who’d threaten you, threaten your loved ones. But it wasn’t insanity, either. It was something completely her, something he’d never heard before in anyone’s voice. Her voice knew he was just like her, felt the same as she did. Was vulnerable like her.

The tone of someone who was not yet sure whether she enjoyed tormenting him or not.

 

She cast him a long glance. “We won’t hurt you.”

 

“What do you want?” he repeated.

 

Furrowing her brow at his increasing volume, she waited for a second, then said, “We’ll leave you in here. For some time.”

 

Ice-cold fingers crawled up Starsky’s back, and against his will, he found himself suddenly staring out at the sky again. Startled, he turned his eyes back to her.

 

She continued slowly, the way she might explain the rules of a game to a child. “When you’re asleep upon our return,” she said, “Hutch will die.”

 

Starsky stared at her, only her last words sticking in his mind. For a split second, he felt the whole crushing shock of that truth—when suddenly, belatedly, the first part of the sentence hit him too. Confused, he frowned. “Wh-what?”

 

“It’s a game, Dave,” she explained patiently, pointing at the door with her thumb. “When the opening of the door wakes you, or when we find you asleep, we will kill Hutch.” She paused to make sure he understood. “We will grab him, like we grabbed you, bring him here, and kill him.” As if with an afterthought, she added, “And not by just shooting him.” She gave a soft shake of her head. “Uh uh.”

 

He heard the words. Understood them too. But it was the kind of understanding where you knew you'd gotten it wrong. Laughably wrong. Yet, the way she looked at him, head cocked, almost concerned about how he’d take the news, convinced him he had heard right. He thought sarcastically that he felt like a routine-check patient who’d just been told he only had six more months to live.

 

“You’ll...” he stopped and bit his lip as if frightened by the prospect of saying it out loud. Then, with a calmness he didn’t feel, he said, “You’ll kill my partner... if I fall asleep in here? Is that what you said?”

 

“Yes.” Again, that tone, like a doctor’s. Like her news was a given fact, unchangeable. Like she was feeling for him, but there was nothing she could do about it.

 

Starsky blinked and averted his eyes, trying to process what he was hearing. “That’s insane! Why?”

 

“It’s the rule of the game,” she explained matter-of-factly.

 

He was about to snap at her again, but he thought better of it, restraining himself from letting on how desperate he was. “Okay,” he said, making a small gesture with his cuffed hands. “Okay, so... what do I get out of it? How can I win?”

 

“By not falling asleep,” she smiled affectionately, as if amused at his naive question.

 

“Who the hell are you?” he exploded again. “What is this? What the—”

 

“You know the rule,” she cut him off, suddenly sounding tired, bored by a situation that had passed the climax of surprise. “Stick to it.” Her mouth was still open as if to add something else, but in the end she just smiled with an apologetic shrug and turned for the door. “See you soon, Dave.”

 

“No! No, wait! Wait, hey, you can’t just—” Frantic, terrified, he pushed himself away from the wall to try and grab her, but a strong arm caught his before he even reached her, and he was shoved back with enough force to push the air from his lungs. He dropped to the floor, coughing, wild eyes rolling up to meet hers.

 

“Please,” he panted. “Please, don’t just go. I... at least tell me what...” he had to stop himself to catch his breath.

 

“You know,” she said, sounding friendly again, “I heard singing helps. Or riddles.” Chuckling at her own advice, she shrugged and left.

 

Starsky watched her leave with dismay, but he hadn’t caught his breath enough to call after her again.

 

One of the bodyguards pointed to the far corner, where a plastic gallon container sat. “There’s your bathroom,” he said, almost sneering. Starsky stared at it in disbelief.

 

The bodyguards threw him a last uninterested glance and turned to leave. He wasn’t sure if it was their absolute conviction that he was of no threat whatsoever, or their idea of rubbing it in, but they didn’t once look back at him as they pulled the door closed, engaged in a casual conversation.

 

“Does counting sheep help you stay awake or fall asleep?”

“Counting what? Who counts sheep?”

 

The rest of their discussion was cut off by the door banging shut, and then there was only stillness.

 

~oOo~

 

The first thing Hutch noticed when he woke up was that his back hurt. Well, sure it did. After all, he had to sleep on that damned hotel couch that felt like...

 

He frowned, eyes still closed.

 

...his?

 

Blinking, he wrinkled his nose, and found himself looking at his own door. As his gaze wandered down, he saw that he was indeed lying on his own couch, in his own clothes too, complete with shoes and jacket.

 

Great! Finally home, and he’d fallen asleep on the couch. He rolled his eyes at himself, then suddenly sat up and scanned the apartment.

 

Audrey wasn’t there.

 

He fell back. Great. He was finally home with Audrey, and he'd fallen asleep on the damned couch! He sighed.

 

She’d been asleep, too, when he’d finally gotten home the night before, around one in the morning.

 

He’d come in and sat down on the armrest of the sofa and she’d awakened.

 

She’d brought him something…

 

“I wanted to leave it for you with a card, but...” She shrugged. “Guess I fell asleep.” In an exaggerated gesture, she rolled her eyes. “Doctors, you know how it is.”

 

Hutch smiled affectionately and looked where she pointed.

 

There sat a smallish plant with round leaves and closed blooms in a white pot that had “Audrey’s plant” in black letters on it.

 

Puzzled, Hutch bent his head to study the pot’s message. “You brought me a plant?”

 

“Well...” Audrey waggled her head. “No. It’s mine. I’m leaving a plant of mine here.” As if shy, she bowed her head, looked up at him.

 

Hutch nodded slowly and reached out to turn the pot so that the letters were directly up front. “I see,” he said in faked gravity. He paused, then cast her a glance. “D’you really think we’re ready for the commitment?”

 

“What do you think?” she asked, pulling him off the armrest and onto the sofa beside her. He stretched over and kissed her softly.

 

Studying him for a moment afterward, she blinked, as if realizing something that annoyed her. “I don’t think you want to discuss this now. Right?”

 

“Uhm—”

 

“’S okay.” She cut the beginning of a helpless stammer off, pressed a kiss on the top of his nose and stood up, heading for the bathroom. “I can make you nervous anytime, honey, doesn’t have to be tonight. Be right back,” she called over his words of protest.

 

The bathroom door closed, and a second later Hutch heard the shower.

 

Now, he found himself looking at Audrey’s plant, safely placed on the coffee table. A small note lay next to it that said only “Cops...” with a smiley face drawn beneath it, rolling its eyes.

 

Hutch imitated the drawing. “Audrey…”

 

Why Audrey was so convinced he was scared of commitment, he’d never get. Maybe because she thought all men were.

 

Apparently, she hadn’t been proven wrong as of yet. Until now, until she had met him. He knew how to treasure the feeling of coming home to someone.

 

Sometimes, in perfect moments between them, it still surprised Hutch how fast they had reached that point.

 

They'd met barely two months before, and had hit it off right away.

 

He and Starsky had once more been spending an afternoon in an ER waiting room. The moment Hutch had seen the petite, dark-haired woman in a long white lab coat chasing some hyper-energetic five-year-old, he'd decided to ask her out. And what better way to win a stressed-out doctor’s heart than by catching the little horror of a kid running away from her?

 

Or maybe by, well, knowing the guy who in the end caught the kid by luring him out of a particularly small hiding place with a stethoscope?

 

But though Starsky had saved Audrey’s day, Hutch had apparently made it, since she’d suggested “going out for a drink some time,” even before he’d opened his mouth to speak to her.

 

Starsky had waited for him outside in the LTD. “Hey,” he'd said, pointing over his shoulder with a now-bandaged hand that he’d managed to cut during a chase, “that doctor was cute.”

 

“Who?” Hutch had replied innocently, starting the engine.

 

“The pediatrician. Nice looking.” He paused and with a friendly wink said, “So—when’re you gonna see her?”

 

Hutch had seen her two days after that. And then again the following weekend. And the Monday following that. And at some point, he’d begun to see her every day after the one before.

 

Seeing Audrey, he knew, was something special.

 

Rubbing his face with one hand, he scrambled for his watch. At least he wasn’t too late for work. With a loud yawn, he stretched his arms and lay there for a few more moments, studying the plant next to him.

 

Waking up with Audrey’s plant, he thought sarcastically, tipping one finger against a particularly large leaf.

 

“Morning.”

 

Hutch got up and went to take a shower. The hot water felt good on his sore back after two nights on a couch. He would never admit it to Starsky, who constantly complained about his couch, but every time he slept on it himself—usually by accident—he found that the thing was indeed very uncomfortable. Maybe he really should get a new one some day. When Starsky wasn’t looking.

 

Smirking at the thought, he realized he was early enough to drive by his partner’s place and collect him for work. Give him a break after the long and lonely drive home the day before.

 

Decision made, Hutch finished his shower, got dressed, threw his bed a last longing glance, and left for work. He pulled the door shut behind him, and it hit him just in time that Audrey had been the last one to close it as she left this morning, meaning that his key was still inside.

 

Sighing, he went back in and found the key on the table. He pulled the door closed, putting the key over the door in its usual place. This was the fourth time since he'd known her that he’d nearly locked himself out. He'd have to talk to her about it again.

 

~oOo~

 

Soon after, Hutch pulled up at Starsky’s place, acknowledging his relief at the sight of the Torino neatly parked in its spot, red paint shining in the morning sun.

 

He'd picked up a box of donuts on the way. Just because he didn’t regret having talked his way out of the drive home didn’t mean he couldn’t do something nice for his partner. Hutch left the car and climbed the stairs to the front door, only then realizing he’d been humming “Leaving On A Jetplane” under his breath the whole drive long. He hushed himself, then knocked. No need to rub it in again. Yet.

 

“Starsky, rise and shine! Sun’s out!”

 

There was no answer, but Hutch hadn’t anticipated one.

 

“Starsky,” he called out once more, exaggerating the name sweetly while reaching for his key to Starsky’s door. He let himself in.

 

The place was as still as could be. Could have done with some airing out too, Hutch thought, sniffing. He let the door fall shut with a bang. “Starsk! Your partner’s here! Get up!”

 

Puzzled at the silence instead of the usual muffled protest or insult coming from the bedroom, Hutch walked into the kitchen to put the donuts on the table and make coffee.

 

When there was still no reaction, he marched back into the living room and knocked at the bedroom door.

 

“Hey, Buddy, you in a coma or something? Move your butt. C’mon!”

 

Nothing.

 

With an annoyed sigh, Hutch carefully opened the door, just a crack at first—it really had to be an emergency situation to get close enough to shake Starsky awake, and it could end very painfully—but at the sight that met him, he frowned and stepped inside.

 

The bed was empty. Made, but not recently. It didn’t look like it had been touched at all the night before, and suddenly it hit Hutch that the whole place felt like it hadn’t seen its owner for some time.

 

Before he knew what he was doing, Hutch found himself standing in the front door again, staring at the Torino outside. Starsky had been here.

 

Fighting against worry, he returned to the bedroom and sat on the bed, grabbing the phone. First, he checked to see if Starsky had shown up at the precinct. Maybe the Torino wasn’t the most powerful machine on el-road-o after all, and just hadn’t survived the long trip. In that case, the very last person Starsky would call to give him a ride to work would be Hutch.

 

But no one at Metro had seen Starsky since before he and Hutch had left to collect their witness. Frustrated with himself for getting worried so fast, Hutch hung up. He called Huggy next.

 

To say the bartender sounded grumpy would have been an understatement. “House of the Rising Sun. Who’s up at this hour?”

 

“Hey Hug, it‘s me. Sorry I woke you.”

 

“You oughta be, Blondie. What d’you want? Hurry, before I forget what I was dreaming.”

 

Hutch chuckled. “’Kay. Sorry. I’m just calling to ask if you maybe saw Starsky last night?”

 

“Nope.”

 

“He hasn’t been over since past midnight?”

 

There was a pause, then a sigh. “Congrats, Hutch, now I’m worried. What’s going on? Curly missing?”

 

“I’m not sure.”

 

“Have you checked the ladies?”

 

Hutch smiled. “All of ’em? Listen, Hug, thanks, and sorry again for waking you at an indecent hour. See ya later, okay?”

 

“Sure.” Huggy ignored the comment. “’N, hey, Hutch, keep me posted, ya dig?”

 

“Will do.” He hung up, and remained sitting with the phone in his lap, following the trails of his thoughts. There surely were ladies to check, but he doubted Starsky would have made a date after driving half a day, and besides—the Torino was here. The Torino had always been like an “I’m in” sign. If it hadn't been parked out front, now that might have meant an “I’m out with a lady” sign.

 

So for the second time in minutes, Hutch wandered to Starsky’s front door and took in the sight of the car.

 

Without really knowing why, he walked outside, strolled over to it and bent down to look through the driver’s window.

 

Starsky’s leather jacket lay crumbled on the floor of the passenger side. His bag wasn’t in the back anymore, but lay open over both seats, something small and shiny peeking out from underneath it.

 

Hutch froze, suddenly very cold. With a shaking hand, he reached out and slowly opened the driver’s door. It wasn’t locked.

 

Swallowing, he eased down onto the seat. Hutch picked up the smallish item from underneath the bag, turned it in his fingers. Starsky’s key.

 

He was out of the car and back on the phone in a heartbeat. “Yeah, this is Detective Hutchinson, I need a crime lab at 444 Westchester on the double. And patch me through to Captain Dobey, please.”

 

~oOo~

 

Okay, the light had changed, even he could see that. But just how much time had passed when the sky turned from light blue to a shade darker? Surely enough to come back to relieve him. But—and he tried his best to keep those thoughts at bay—Starsky doubted he could expect the master of the game to return so soon.

 

Up until now he hadn’t been in any danger of falling asleep, what with his futile attempts at processing what the hell was going on. Who was the woman, and what had messed with her head? What sick idea was this?

 

And... had she told the truth? Was Hutch really safe? Maybe he was here somewhere, too, locked into a similar room. Maybe he'd been told the same thing, was going through the same thing.

 

At the wave of despair threatening to crush him, Starsky shook his head, answering his own question. No, Hutch had to be safe. There’d been a lot to think about regarding his host, but his instincts said she wasn’t a liar. She’d had way too much fun painting the worst-case scenario to be lying as well.

 

There was, of course, always the possibility that she’d had just as much fun when she’d spoken to Hutch...

 

No.

 

Once more, he shook his head, eyes squeezed shut as he shoved the fear back into the corner of his mind it escaped from.

 

He had to believe that Hutch was safe. And if he couldn’t be sure, he had to order himself to be sure. He couldn’t afford to think any other way.

 

Hutch was safe, and he would stay that way as long as Starsky didn’t fall asleep. Simple.

 

At the beginning, staying awake had sounded so easy—how could he sleep with all those nagging questions and worry for his friend caging in his thoughts. But now, his stomach rumbled, his head pounded, and the damp cold of the room crept into him. Now it was turning into a monumental task.

 

How could he sleep? Easy. He’d just close his eyes and allow himself to forget it all. Just close his eyes and regain some strength. Everything would look clearer when he wasn’t exhausted anymore.

 

He’d close his eyes, and the fog engulfing his mind would clear, revealing solutions. Things would lighten up, he’d find a way out, Hutch would come and help him and he’d be warm and comfortable again and—

 

His eyes snapped wide open. He could hear his own gasp echo in the room and the panting that followed. He’d slid down the wall. He lay on his side on the floor and stared at the window, panicking, and then breathed in relief when he realized that he’d only dozed off for a second. They couldn’t have been in here. Couldn’t have seen.

 

His eye caught the plastic jug in the corner. He’d been forced to use it, and it was humiliating. It made him angry.

 

'Hell, it’s better than the floor. Get over it. You’ve got bigger problems.'

 

For a few moments he didn’t move, but listened to his breathing even out again. He blinked repeatedly at the fading light outside. Only when there was no light anymore did he realize his eyes had closed again. He opened them wide.

 

“Fuck.” It was just a mutter, breathed more than sighed, and God it scared him how tired it sounded. How tired he sounded. How tired he was.

 

His stomach rumbled. Loudly. He lay back, head on the floor, and blinked up at the dark ceiling.

 

'Don’t lie down. You’ll doze off again.'

 

How nice that’d be…to doze off... just close his eyes and...

 

He sat upright in a heartbeat, shaking his head fiercely, welcoming the pain it caused. Pain that forced him to focus, made him wince, not yawn. Clumsily supporting himself against the wall with his cuffed hands, he got to his feet, stretched his neck.

 

“Okay.” He spoke out loud, ignoring the eerie feeling hearing his own voice in the quiet gave him. “No more sitting. Think stakeouts.” He paused, and smiled a grim smile. “Or, better not. Think... think..."

 

Absently, he took a few steps forward, then back, pacing a small area that enlarged after some time and took him through the whole room in a chaotic pattern.

 

“Think...” he mumbled, stretching the word, and began softly singing under his breath without noticing that he’d started, the words interrupted with a lot of "hmm-hms" when he didn’t know the lyrics. He rolled his eyes when he heard himself sing the refrain.

 

“Leaving on a jetplane... don’t know when I’ll be back again...”

 

“Funny.” But it wasn't. Not really.

 

~oOo~

 

Funny, Hutch thought, how details of one situation could remind you of another, even when they seemed so completely different.

 

He sat at his desk with his head in hands. He closed his eyes, drawing in a deep breath. One of the other detectives had just put a paper under his nose, but not all of the facts on it meant something to him. He was trained to focus on the last sentence of the messages the lab sent, anyway.

 

The last sentence was always the one for the normal mortals who were not doctors, and this particular last sentence told Hutch that the tiny spot of blood found in Starsky’s driveway hours ago was indeed his partner’s.

 

Hutch remembered a similar situation when he’d gotten a lab report. It had not been Starsky’s blood. That blood had just spelled out “Starsky” on a bathroom mirror. In a way, this was the same kind of message.

 

Obviously, the blood hadn’t been left on Starsky's driveway on purpose. But still it carried a message, if not a written one. It affirmed all of Hutch’s worries, told a story of its own. Just like Starsky’s name written in goat’s blood on the mirror in the court building’s restroom had, so many months ago, when Starsky had been kidnapped by members of a satanic cult.

 

The moment the crime team found blood on the driveway, Hutch remembered Starsky's name scrawled on that mirror, the unwanted image growing inside his head like a camera zooming in until he could almost see the same bloody letters on the concrete drive.

 

Hutch had been quiet and unobtrusive at the scene, not getting in the way of the lab people, not asking unnerving questions or letting his anger out at anyone. Because he had feared that moment. That moment, when they found something.

 

He’d known it would come.

 

In their lives, safety was an illusion. The last place you thought you’d be kidnapped from was a rest room. The last thing Starsky would have thought he needed to do on his way from the car to the front door—tired, beat, longing for his own warm bed—was to watch his back.

 

Though, as Hutch thought with angry helplessness, it shouldn’t have been the last thing to think of. For Starsky, watching his back should be pure instinct.

 

That feeling of “not again!” wasn’t just Hutch's. Dobey had given Hutch a look, when he’d first seen him at the precinct after leaving the scene at Starsky’s driveway, that had spoken volumes. It had communicated the same stunned, incredulous mixture of anger and concern Hutch himself felt.

 

Being taken as a hostage wasn’t unthinkable for a detective. A lot of situations could take a turn for the worse. It had happened to both Starsky and Hutch in the past, though like with everything else, their score in that area was above average. But Starsky had been the target of a planned attack and kidnapping more than a couple of times in situations where he couldn’t have anticipated it. It was scary, how quickly those situations could transform you from a person just doing his job into a victim.

 

Hutch hadn’t left his phone for long since he'd arrived at the precinct. He wanted to make sure it was answered, and that every call was traced. Someone had to want something.

So far, it had only been Hutch who’d wanted something. He hadn’t thought it possible, but he felt even more helpless than when Starsky had been kidnapped by Simon Marcus’s bunch of psychos. They had at least called and given him an ultimatum. A deadline. A trail to follow.

 

This time, all Hutch had to stare at was an official affirmation that his partner had lost a drop of blood in his driveway. It didn’t even have to mean anything. This was Starsky they were talking about—he could find a reason to bleed in a driveway any day!

 

Why had no one called?

 

With a frustrated sigh, loud enough that a few colleagues shot him sympathetic but nervous glances, Hutch let himself fall back in his chair. He glared at the telephone. The absurdity of the situation made him roll his eyes. Here he sat, doing nothing, waiting for some kidnappers to kindly call and tell him their demands. Hell, he was hoping for that call.

 

But then, what was the alternative, anyway?

 

When his phone rang, he almost fell off his chair, tearing the receiver to his ear before the second ring. “Yeah, talk to me.”

 

“And I thought you only answer your own phone like that,” an amused voice said.

 

Letting go of a breath he hadn’t noticed holding, Hutch bent forward, placing his elbows back on the desk. His muscles were tense and they wouldn’t ease up. He felt his hands start to shake. “Audrey.”

 

“Wow.” She sounded annoyed but confused at the same time, as if she wasn’t sure whether or not it was a situation she could make fun of him in. “I’ve never heard my name said with such disappointment. Did I call at a bad time?”

 

“Sort of.” Hutch rubbed his forehead with his free hand. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to... I’m waiting for an important call.” Suddenly realizing they were being recorded, he casually waved at the officer who was monitoring the calls. The officer nodded, understanding.

 

“And you answer an important call like that?” Audrey joked.

 

“I hope it’s not about a promotion or something like that...”

 

“Audrey.” Hutch cut her off, unable to keep his voice patient and regretting it instantly. “I’m sorry, honey, but I can’t talk right now. It’s really important that my line’s not busy, okay? Was there a particular reason you called?”

 

“I just wanted to ask you out tonight, but... not good timing, huh?”

 

Hearing the sincere concern in her voice, he smiled and shook his head, even though she couldn’t see him. “No. I’m sorry.”

 

“That’s okay. I’ll just…you call me, when you have time, okay?”

 

“Okay.”

 

“Yeah.” She paused. “Take care, Ken.” She hung up.

 

There was barely enough time for Hutch to put the receiver down before Dobey’s voice startled him from the doorway.

 

“Well?”

 

Lifting his head, Hutch met Dobey's anxious eyes. He grimaced. “Wasn’t them.”

 

Dobey looked like he was cursing inwardly. With a glance at Hutch, he turned back into his office. “I want to talk to you.”

 

“Yeah, sure,” Hutch muttered unnecessarily, gesturing at his phone and making sure someone covered it as he passed his colleagues on the way into Dobey’s office.

 

“Close the door,” Dobey ordered.

 

Hutch obeyed.

 

“And sit down.”

 

Hutch did as he was told. He sat with slumped shoulders, eyes down, sensing that he was being studied.

 

“You have no idea what could have happened to him, do you?” Dobey asked.

 

Hutch shook his head, and when the Captain didn’t speak again muttered, “No.” He looked up for a second before he let his eyes wander off. He shook his head again.

 

“Come on, Hutchinson, think,” Dobey urged, his voice gruff. “There must be something. Maybe a case you two worked on recently?”

 

“D’you think I didn’t think of that?” Hutch snapped, and closed his eyes an instant later. “I’m sorry.”

 

“Well, there must be something!” Dobey ignored the incident with his own brand of personal gentleness. “There’re only so many reasons for an officer to get kidnapped. Did Starsky work on anything on his own?”

 

“No.” Hutch shook his head with a frown, as if the idea were absurd. Yet the truth was, he hadn’t thought of that possibility. Had Starsky gone off on his own? He would have told me. When he caught Dobey’s gaze again he sighed, practically hearing the man’s words in his head. “We haven’t had a lot of lengthy cases recently, and for the past two weeks, we’ve been after Mrs. Turner. You know that.”

 

“And she couldn’t be behind it?”

 

“What for?” Hutch asked. “Starsky’s not a witness, he’s of no use to her. I-it... it doesn’t make any sense! It’s...” he bit his lip, then muttered, “We don’t even know for sure he’s been kidnapped. Do we?”

 

This time it was Dobey who averted his eyes. “Come on, you don’t want to go there.”

 

“Go where? Face it, Captain, there’re no clues that support the assumption it’s a kidnapping. All we have is a missing officer.” He paused to stare at his superior, as if waiting for him to protest, to provide him with all the assuring answers he needed. When Dobey didn’t, he shook his head again, his own voice sounding bitter to him. “Anything could’ve happened.”

 

“Hutch.”

 

Hutch didn’t hear. “He could be...” he couldn’t say it.

 

Trailing off, he looked aside, as if away from something. Something horrible.

 

Dobey’s voice drew his gaze back. “Listen, we have all units out there looking for him, right? We’ll find him.”

 

“Yeah. One way or another.”

 

“That attitude doesn't help.”

 

“It’s hard not to cop an attitude when there’s no clues! No trail! No nothing! I don’t even know where to start looking! I-I...” He closed his eyes with a grimace, fighting against his frustrated stutter. He took a breath, trying to calm himself. “I don’t know what to do.” He looked away.

 

In the silence that followed, Hutch sensed Dobey watching him. He could almost see the frown on the captain’s face. When the uncharacteristic silence stretched too long, he sighed, lifting his gaze to meet the captain’s. “We both know it doesn’t look like abduction.”

 

Dobey hardened his expression. “Do you believe he’s dead?”

 

“No.” It came without any hesitation. No need to think about it. “No,” Hutch repeated, letting go of a small breath, as if relieved at his own answer. Maybe he had just needed that question.

 

“Then who cares what it looks like?”

 

Hutch nodded and pushed a hand through his hair. “I’ve been checking on Marcus’s people. Nothing there so far, though.”

 

Dobey frowned. “That’s a long shot, don’t you think?”

 

“It has something to do with Starsky. Something from the

past. ”

 

Dobey sounded unconvinced. “Still, wouldn’t Marcus's crew have turned it into more of a show?”

 

Maybe they figure this is one. They knew they’d scare the hell out of both of us.”

 

Dobey thought about it. It was obvious the prospect distressed him. “But what about demands? They’d want something.”

 

“Yeah, well, maybe they do. There’re no rules here. They can call anytime they want to.” He shrugged. “Maybe they’re just keeping him for their idea of fun. Wouldn’t be out of character, would it?” Seeing Dobey’s dismayed expression, he sighed. “I don’t know, Captain, I’m just trying to find some place to start.”

 

“I know that.”

 

Hutch watched him, sympathy rising. It appeared that Dobey was just now beginning to realize they were likely facing some act of revenge, something deeply personal. And it scared him, just like it scared Hutch. There were a lot of people who might want to get back at the detectives, and they all had to be taken very seriously.

 

“I ordered some files from the archive too,” Hutch broke the short silence. “To, uh, check out any relatives.”

 

“Relatives?”

 

“Of the people Starsky’s shot.” Hutch tried to avoid Dobey’s gaze.

 

The captain nodded slowly. He sighed and cleared his throat. “Okay. I’ll have someone check on any recent threats against the force in general.”

 

“Maybe you should contact Internal Affairs as well. See if anyone's complained about Starsky.”

 

“Hutch—”

 

“We have no clues! We have to consider every possibility until we get a call.”

 

“Yeah. You’re right.” Resigned, Dobey sighed and rubbed a hand over his strained features. “Let’s get to it then,” he ordered. “We’ve got no time to lose.”

 

Hutch stood to leave. “No, we don’t.”

 

~oOo~

 

Hours later, Hutch dragged himself up the stairs to his apartment. As opposed to coming home to someone after work, coming home with work was nothing to get used to. There was a reason why he and Starsky both avoided taking files home from the precinct. They were grim reminders of the darker side of their jobs.

 

Shifting the weight of the files under his arm, Hutch sighed. He probably looked like his old man. He couldn’t remember a day his dad hadn’t carried home what looked like half his office. Even when he’d thought, with all the despair of the caged-in minor, that he too would become a lawyer, or maybe a doctor, Hutch had sworn that he’d never end up taking his work home every night. That conviction had only deepened when in the end he’d made his own decision concerning his job. You couldn’t take that kind of work home with you, have its sad slime and grim dirt tainting your home life. '“Sorry, kids, Daddy can’t play tonight. He has to find some dangerous bad people who are at this moment doing things to Uncle Dave that will haunt us in our sleep.”'

 

Hutch grimaced. “Yeah, that’s helping, Hutchinson. Scaring the imaginary progeny.”

 

But still, maybe he and Starsky really should consider career changes if either of them had kids one day. As an anecdote to his own earlier cynicism, he decided to have a talk about that with his partner when he’d found him and things were back to normal.

 

He had seen the lights on in his living room from down the street as he approached, so this time he just knocked. “It’s me.”

 

The door was open in seconds. “Hey you.” Audrey greeted him, concern softening her voice. She was wearing checkered pj’s and no socks, and was obviously waiting up for him. Behind her, Hutch saw the TV on with the volume down.

 

“Hi,” he mumbled, strangely uncomfortable by her offered comfort, and accepted her gentle, welcoming kiss. He stepped inside and she closed the door behind him.

 

“I made some dinner. It’s in the fridge.”

 

“Thanks. I’m, uh, I’m not really hungry, b-but, uh, thanks.” Letting the files drop onto the kitchen table, he watched her hurry over to the TV and turn it off.

 

He sighed. “Audie, uh—”

 

“I can go if you want me to. No problem, really. I just...” She shrugged, shooting him a nervous glance. “You sounded awful today. On the phone. I guess I was…worried.”

 

Hutch nodded, but didn’t look at her. He knew he should be touched. Audrey had only recently started to drop by at his place uninvited, taking advantage of his spare key on the door, and he had liked that. It had been a huge step. Audrey had turned into someone to come home to, to relax with after a hard day out on the streets, to talk to and to listen to.

 

He had always thought she would be someone to lean on, too, in times like…this. So why was he feeling he didn’t want that now?

 

Still, he owed her an explanation. And a chance. “Starsky’s missing.”

 

She frowned. “What d’you mean, missing?”

 

“He wasn’t at his place when I drove by this morning to pick him up, and no one has seen him since yesterday.”

 

“What, so he’s... um... wh-what does that—” Audrey stammered, confused. It was obvious she had anticipated something more…normal. A tough case, an accident, something she could relate to.

 

“He’s probably been kidnapped,” Hutch cut her off. “Either that or...” he shook his head.

 

Audrey just stared. When she spoke again, it was as if she’d snapped out of a horrified trance. “That’s... that’s terrible. I’m so sorry, Ken.”

 

He gave her a small nod. He wanted to be alone.

“Is there anything I can do? I mean, anything at all? Has it got something to do with your trip to—”

 

“Audrey,” Hutch once more interrupted her gently, yet determined, “I appreciate your offer, I really do. But I need to go through those,” he pointed at the files, “a-and...” he made a gesture of resignation, trying to cover it with an apologetic smile, “I’m not very good company right now. Iīm sorry.”

 

“Oh, that’s fine, really, I-I understand. You, um...” Pointing at the files, she stumbled over to the bed where her bag lay, shoving aside the clothes she’d worn over.

 

Her hands were shaking. With an inaudible sigh, he averted his eyes. The situation was so obviously too much for her. He almost felt compelled to assure her, and that irritated him.

 

She approached him, bag over her shoulder, white tennis shoes untied, coat over her pj’s. “You’ll find him, right?”

 

Hutch opened his mouth to reply, but no answer came.

 

“You’ll just have to give them what they want, isn’t that so?”

 

“It’s complicated, Audrey.” He squeezed her hand. “Thanks for wanting to help.”

 

There was something sad about her shy smile. “Call me if you need me.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

He opened the door. She stood there a moment and turned once more, locking eyes with him. “I really want to be here for you.” And, before he had any chance to answer, she said, “I love you.” She stepped out and pulled the door closed behind her.

 

Hutch stood staring at the door, and then with an unnerved sigh walked back into the kitchen. He passed Audrey’s plant on the coffee table and stopped to cast it an accusing glare. “You have to give it to her—her timing’s perfect.”

 

And it wasn’t only that. It wasn't her fault, of course, but Audrey had, by her reaction, reminded him just how distressing his job was for normal people.

 

But he didn’t have time to deal with the odd feeling that the woman he was starting to love had just failed an important test. He focused on the pile of paper before him, wading through suppressed memories of people he’d worked hard to forget.

 

~oOo~

 

It hadn’t been easy, dealing with the night. When the sky grew darker and the pink streaks of dusk turned a deep blackish blue, Starsky finally allowed himself to stop his exhausted pacing and slid down in a corner, legs stretched out in front of him, head lolling against the hard brick.

 

Darkness was no friend of his. Ever since he was a kid he'd hated the dark, and the nights in Vietnam had added to his dislike. His father had once told him that there was nothing in the dark that wasn’t there by daylight. He wasn’t afraid of his own room, was he?

 

But for little Davey, things were not the same at night as they were during the daylight hours, and the adult had learned to respect the dark as a powerful weapon that your enemies could turn against you. With one of your senses blocked, you were close to complete helplessness, and to Starsky, his senses and instinct were what had stood between him and death almost all his adult life.

 

So, with darkness closing in on him, he had figured it would be easy to stay awake. Way easier than before. Though he forced himself not to acknowledge it, fearing the impact of his own resigned voice inside his head, he could feel his strength ebbing. It was still cold, but his fast pacing had warmed him a bit, had even let him forget about his hunger for a few minutes. But he couldn’t keep it up forever. He was tiring.

 

At one point he had cursed himself. It hadn’t even been twenty-four hours yet, for crying out loud! But his head hurt. He was cold. And there was nothing, but nothing to do in that goddamned shoebox they’d put him in!

 

Of course he could go without sleep for twenty-four hours, hell, longer, much longer. He’d proven that on more than one occasion, but those had been emergencies. Mostly work-related ones. It was easy to forget about sleep when you had to decide how to play a hostage situation that threatened to become a tragedy. Or when you had to work through a million files for the one name that would save a person’s life. Or when you had to help your best friend kick heroin. But this, this was like a stakeout where you eventually found out that even your own beloved car could get pretty uncomfortable, and that all you wanted was for that stupid, stupid, stupid bad guy to show at last, so you could go straight home and crawl into your own warm, comfortable bed and forget all about your aching muscles and the unnerving stress of waiting and... and your eyes would fly open a few times, startled, and you’d listen to your partner’s soft snoring coming from the back seat and think how much you just hated stakeouts.

 

Of course this was an emergency, and a frightening one, but not sleeping for the sake of staying awake was like not eating on a diet. It was the focus on not doing something that made it hard.

 

So he’d ordered himself not to think about it. Not to chide himself and for heaven’s sake, not answer himself. The last thing he needed was to hear that “But there’s nothing to fucking do!” circle inside his head.

 

What he could work with was fear of the dark.

 

If you fell asleep, the monsters got you.

 

Darkness was no friend of his. It sensed his despair and for once in his life came softly, soothingly. Stroked his heavy lids, eased the burning strain in his eyes. Filled the room like a comfortable blanket. Made it so easy to doze off. Sleep, just sleep...

 

In the end, he had had to turn to cheap tricks to fight it: focus on his empty stomach, shake his head to aggravate the nagging pain, imagine Hutch’s death. The last tactic finally helped. The mere thought was enough to keep sleep at bay for a long time. Experience had taught Starsky that.

 

So he managed not to fall asleep during the long lullaby that was the cruel darkness, and the morning light came to him almost like a returning friend. At the sound of the first birds outside, he sighed in relief.

 

Over the morning hours, though, something weird happened.

 

He knew he hadn’t slept, but sometimes the frightful thought hit him that he had. That he had dreamt something had happened to Hutch, not just thought about it. In his foggy mind it seemed like the newborn light had just awakened him, not lightened while he'd watched.

 

Panic rose. No, he hadn’t slept. Hell, he could tell the difference between waking up and being awake! He had managed the dark, and now it was light again and...

 

A desperate noise echoed through the room. All of a sudden, he wasn’t staring at the sky anymore, but at the door. No one came through it. That’s when he realized that he’d been the one to make the sound.

 

And now here it was, another day with nothing for him to do but fight off overwhelming exhaustion. God, he was so tired.

 

During the night, he’d been too worn out to think, so he'd decided to try and find some answers when the daylight came. It’d be almost like going to work the next day. But in this room, morning was only a stretching out of the night, and he was still beat. He still found it hard to concentrate on possible explanations or solutions.

 

He had never seen the mysterious lady, the master of the game, before. He had no idea what this was all about, apart from the obvious fact that it was about him and Hutch.

 

Revenge? A precaution? Against what? Or both. Or neither.

 

Man, he was tired.

 

If only he knew she was coming back that day. 'We’ll leave you in here. For some time.' Just how much time was ‘some time’? Surely she’d return to check on him after twenty-four hours, right? Even if she planned on continuing with this, she must know he’d need something to drink soon.

 

Great. Now he was thirsty.

 

Blinking up at the ceiling, annoyed, he tried to push back the thoughts of how dry his throat felt, and instead think about whom she could be working for. After all, hadn’t she said riddles would help?

 

In the end, he listed names for what felt like hours, but was probably not, because the sky still had an early morning look. He stopped. This was ridiculous. He had no clues whatsoever as to who she was, what she wanted, or how she’d come up with a sick idea like this. What was the point in keeping him awake? Did she plan to do something to him later? He had once read that sleep deprivation made you more easily programmed. And if that was the deal, then programmed for what? But then, there were drugs for stuff like that, too. Besides, he had read that in a sci-fi magazine...

 

He shook his head, and winced. 'Stop thinking funny, Detective. C’mon, focus. She must be working for someone you know. Someone you pissed off. Or Hutch pissed off.'

 

He thought for a moment, then groaned, annoyed. Another list of names formed before his inner eye. It was getting him nowhere.

 

Resigned, he closed his eyes—and snapped them open again instantly. Had he dozed off? The sky looked the same. Had they come back? The door looked the same.

 

Before he fully registered what he was doing, he jumped to his feet, pounding at the door with his cuffed hands. “Hey! Lady! C’mon, get in here! Hey! Anyone! I want some answers! Get back here! Hello! Anyone!”

 

He coughed more than he yelled, his throat was so dry, and eventually he got too hoarse to continue. Exhausted, he stumbled back against a wall for support. His knuckles hurt. He’d bruised them pretty good, and a few spots were bleeding. He touched them and then stopped, thinking.

 

Pressed the cuts again.

 

Scary how alert a little pain could make you.

 

He hit the wall. Then again.

 

A thin streak of blood ran down his left index finger. He watched, trying to hold his shaking hands still in front of him. How long he kept hitting the wall, studying the damage and adding more, he couldn’t tell, but when the sound of a key turning in the door rattled through the silence, he jumped, whirling around on his heels to face the visitor.

It was one of Lady Writer’s bodyguards. He stuck his head inside, searching for the prisoner.

 

“I’m awake,” Starsky croaked out, cleared his throat.

 

“See?” Pushing himself away from the wall, he took an uncertain step forward. “Awake.”

 

The guard walked over and picked up the gallon jug, grimacing with disgust. He replaced it with another.

 

“Well, what about when I have to go to the bathroom?” asked Starsky.

 

“Here’s the jug.”

 

“I mean, when I gotta go.”

 

“There’s the floor, buddy. You’ll have to deal with it.”

 

“Hold on just a damn minute,” Starsky said. The guard walked back to the door, ignoring him. The door was pulled shut again, the key once more sending an echo through the room.

 

Starsky stumbled forward, hitting the door. “No! No, wait! You gotta be kidding! Come back! Come back!” There was no answer. The key kept its silence.

 

“Oh God.” He slumped against the wall and slid down to the ground, desperate eyes wandering up to stare at the outside sky. “Please.”

 

~oOo~

 

It started to rain. Lazy, large drops plopped down to Earth like fat grapes grown too heavy for the vine.

 

Standing at the window in Dobey’s office, Hutch watched listlessly.

 

'Do you see the rain, buddy? Is it raining where you are?'

 

Hearing Dobey entering behind him, the door closing, he blinked up into the darkening sky.

 

'Are you warm enough? Is it dark?'

 

“Hutchinson?”

 

"Yeah.” Turning, Hutch stretched his tired muscles and walked past the desk to sink into the chair in front of it. With a touch of resigned anger, he folded his arms in front of him and shook his head, not looking up. “Nothing.”

 

Dobey studied him for a brief moment, then shook his head as well. “Same here.”

 

Hutch let go of a deep breath, shoulders slumping, and put his hands up to rub his face. “Okay,” he mumbled. “I’m going to start going through recent cases. Think you can spare someone to help me?”

 

“Already have.” Dobey picked up the bunch of paper he’d brought in and handed it over to Hutch.

 

“What’s this?” Flipping through the pages, Hutch furrowed his brows. “Grossman, Humphrey, Harmon...” At the next name, his eyes jumped to Dobey’s face. “Forest? What is this?”

 

“Lists of everyone recently contacted in prison—visitors, telephone calls, guards they bribed…”

 

“But,” Hutch started, “those are—”

 

“People who’d all just love to see you right now.” Dobey smiled. "Wouldn't they?"

 

Taken off guard, Hutch closed his mouth and nodded.

 

“Right.” He looked at the names again. “Well... I'd better get to work then.” He stood to leave. “Thanks, Cap’n.”

 

“Hutch?”

 

One hand already on the doorknob, Hutch lifted his head, but didn’t turn. “Yeah?”

 

“If it turns out one of them is behind it all, you wouldn’t be so dumb as to blame yourself, would you?”

 

Hutch blew out a long breath. “Who, me?” He left.

 

~oOo~

 

A missing person has a fair chance of survival within the first forty-eight hours after his disappearance. Anything beyond that the statistics consider a miracle.

 

'Screw the statistics. I was still alive after forty-eight hours.'

 

But then, his abduction wasn’t an example to cling to for comfort. Besides, forty-eight hours weren’t up yet. He still had all night.

 

Hutch pushed the driver’s door shut and studied the big ugly house he was about to enter. As if to distract him from his darkening thoughts, the LTD’s driver side door unlatched so that Hutch had to shove it closed again before the horn informed the whole neighborhood of his arrival. As much as he treasured his car, sometimes it just drove him nuts. Most of what he loved seemed to have that twist, he thought dryly.

 

He’d rather have taken the Torino, the ugly, loud, lucky charm that had never failed to get his partner back home safely. But the lab, in its notorious bureaucratic way, had yet to declare it “just a car” as opposed to “evidence.”

 

So he’d taken the LTD to check out the three people who lived in the city who had had the doubtful pleasure of receiving phone calls from Ben Forest. The first two visits had gotten him nowhere. One had been to a student’s house where Forest’s son used to live. The second had sent him to a former employee of the kingpin. The man had gone straight and was a nervous wreck at having a policeman show up at his door. The third name on the list was Lyle Burgen. Hutch had never heard of him before, and didn’t know how the man knew Forest. He only hoped it wasn’t someone he’d recognize.

 

The building was ugly, though not cheap-looking, same with the neighborhood. Hutch flashed his badge, and Burgen let him in. The apartment was showy—Burgen fit in perfectly. Like a king in his own castle, he wore a gold bathrobe over shirt and pants and matching slippers.

 

Hutch couldn’t help an internal shudder as he followed Burgen through the wide living room and took the offered seat on the sofa. Burgen’s whole persona—his behavior, appearance, everything—reminded him of Ben Forest, who, as Burgen proudly told him, was an old college friend. Hutch pretended to write down Burgenīs freely given information, wondering if the man knew who he was.

 

“So, Detective—?”

 

“Hutchinson.”

 

“Yes. Why are you asking all these questions about Ben?”

 

“Just routine. Every few months we check the calls a prisoner makes and pick out one or two to check out in person. No big deal.”

 

“I never heard of that routine before. Nice.”

 

Hutch smiled. “Is there any reason why you should have?”

 

A shadow fell over Burgenīs features. “Just curious, Detective.”

 

“Yeah.” Hutch nodded, looking down at his notes again. “Can you tell me what your last conversation with Mr. Forest was about?”

 

Burgen shrugged. “The usual.”

 

“What’s usual?” Hutch asked patiently. 'For Forest? Do I really wanna know?'

 

“Um…” Burgen frowned, apparently searching his memory. “I’m trying to keep an eye on his son for him, so we talked about the latest…well, troubles. I think I’m his only connection to the real world these days. I really can’t recall exactly what we talked about. Probably anecdotes and business talk.”

 

“Business?”

 

Burgenīs expression hardened. “Listen, I know what you’re aiming at and let me tell you, just because Ben’s a friend of mine doesn’t have to mean I’m like him, okay? I know perfectly well why he is where he is, and believe me, I’ve no intention of ever following his example. Do you understand?”

 

Hutch wasn’t impressed. “Please just answer the question, Mr. Burgen. What business do you mean?”

 

“I’m a publisher.”

 

Hutch blinked. He hadn’t seen a single book in the house on his way from the front door to the living room.

 

“I sometimes tell Ben about new talents I discovered. He’s a very educated man. Very interested in culture, literature.”

 

“Oh yeah.” Hutch nodded slowly, stretching the words. “So I heard. Well,” he said, clapping his notebook closed and standing, “Thanks for your time, Mr. Burgen.” He forced his lips into a smile.

 

Burgen returned the smile and followed him back to the front door, “You’re welcome, Detective—?” He arched his brows, waiting for an answer. He obviously hadn’t listened the first time Hutch introduced himself.

 

Hutch had the feeling that Burgen made a habit of forgetting names—it was his way of showing what he thought of you.

 

“Hutchinson.”

 

To Hutch's surprise, Burgen suddenly looked speculative, then fearful. His nervous smile failed to hide it.

 

“Y-yes. Right. Hutchinson. I’m sorry. Well, I’m glad I could help. Goodbye.”

 

The door closed, and Hutch frowned at it. “What makes you think you helped, pal?”

 

He sat in the LTD, thinking. Had Burgen just realized who Hutch was, what his connection was to his old pal Forest?

 

He called Dispatch. "I need a check on a Lyle Burgen, local publisher. I want a list of every author he’s published and every book he's ever sold. Thanks.”

 

Casting Burgenīs house a narrow glance, Hutch started the engine.

 

~oOo~

 

The list of authors and books wasn’t as impressive as Burgenīs obvious wealth had indicated.

 

Burgen, Hutch realized, wasn't in the business of selling books. Rather, he sold the promise of literary fame.

 

Unknown authors paid the man ungodly amounts of money to print their novels, story collections, poetry, and children’s books. Burgen would print a first edition run of maybe a hundred copies as cheaply as possible and then pretend to try and sell them to bookshops all over the country. Few of the books ever actually sold, but as most of his income came directly from the authors, he didn't care. He didn’t even read what was sent to him, Hutch figured, recalling the publisher’s bookless home.

 

Most of the titles and names meant nothing to Hutch. He started to feel frustrated, thinking that his instincts had led him astray, when suddenly his finger froze over the list above one particular writer’s name.

 

That one he’d seen before.

 

While his inner archivist worked on unburying the file to match it, he was already reaching for the phone. “Phil? Hi, this is Hutch. Listen, I need a favor. Yeah, well, so I owe you for a change, okay? Good. I want you to run a check on Anne Galesko. Gales— yes, she’s a wri—” He listened, his fingers tightening around the receiver. “Are you sure?”

 

~oOo~

 

When had it stopped raining?

 

Frowning, Starsky bent his head forward away from the wall. A sudden dizzy spell caught him off guard and he almost fell onto his side. Wearily, he let himself sink to his knees, forehead touching the cold concrete floor.

 

His stomach rumbled.

 

When had it stopped raining? He must have seen it stop. He hadn’t done anything but stare at the grayish shadowy sky for hours, and it had rained the whole time. When had it stopped?

 

Oh God, he had dozed off. He had dozed off. It had been raining and now it wasn’t anymore and he’d just now noticed. He’d fallen asleep.

 

A sudden wave of fury washed through him, and he snapped his head up, hitting the floor with the flat of his hand. Damn it, he knew he never should’ve sat down and rested. Rest was the last thing he needed in here. What he needed was caffeine. Or a serious adrenaline shock.

 

His heart hammered in his chest. He sat upright again, facing the window. Suddenly he frowned, narrowing his eyes. He stumbled to his feet and over to the wall where the window was, high above his head. There. Drops. Raindrops.

 

It hadn’t stopped, it was just easing up.

 

Why would he think it had stopped?

 

It didn't matter. He hadn’t dozed off. That's all that mattered.

 

Relief flooded him, and he leaned against the wall, closing his eyes. Who could sleep in this freezing cold, anyway?

 

He shivered hard, and opened his eyes. They were the only parts of his body that felt remotely warm. Almost hot.

 

Uncomfortably sticky, too, as if they’d been glued. He rubbed a clammy, aching hand over them.

 

Outside, the rain whooshed, a soft, almost soothing sound.

 

How long had he been here? Starsky frowned. He knew it shouldn’t be a hard question—just count the dark phases—but he couldn’t remember a time when he hadn't been cold, hungry, and tired. At some point in the last hours, he had succumbed to a little mind trick he sometimes played on himself on stakeouts or camping trips. He would concentrate on how he’d feel afterward, later, when he would no longer be able to recall the feelings of cold and hunger.

 

The tactic hadn’t had the desired effect. Instead, it made him angry, and anger was tiring. He hated this helplessness, even more than not being able to sleep, more than getting so hungry he was sick. If only he knew for sure that Hutch was safe. If only he could communicate with his partner, tell him he was okay. Mostly okay.

 

If only this would just end. If only they’d let him sleep.

 

He blinked, startled when his butt suddenly hit the ground. He must have slid down without noticing. Shivering, he drew his knees toward his nose and rested his forehead on them. The pounding pain in his head matched the rhythm of his heart. There was something ironic about that fact, something he’d have made a joke of, if only he wasn't too exhausted to be funny.

 

'Help, Hutch.'

 

A sudden rattling made him jump. He stumbled as he tried to stand, and fell back down. He tried again, leaning against the wall for support.

 

“I’m awake! Awake.” He made it to his feet.

 

Two people entered the room.

 

“Look, don’t go.” He hated how needy he sounded, but couldn't help it.

 

“Wow.” Mocking sympathy colored the familiar female voice. “Look at you. You could be the poster child for a ‘Don’t drive tired!’ campaign, y’know?”

 

Again there was the perfect retort forming in Starsky’s mind, but all he got out was, “Please don’t just leave.”

 

“Aw.” Galesko tilted her head. “Tsk, tsk. Would we do that?” She smiled. “Actually, since we’re so proud of you for staying in the game, we brought you something.”

 

That got Starsky’s immediate attention. He blinked and waited.

 

She stepped aside to let her second bodyguard enter. He carried a plate with two sandwiches and a bottle of water on top, putting it down in a corner of the room. Starsky’s eyes stayed on the plate like a laser connected him to it.

 

He barely noticed the other bodyguard changing out the plastic jugs again. Not that he had much use for it at this point. He’d eaten nothing and drank very little.

 

“It’s all yours, Dave. But...” She grimaced, as if regretting what she had to say next. “There’s a catch.”

 

Starsky looked at her, silent, and waited.

 

Her voice was gentle. “You can drink the water. I’m sorry we didn’t bring it sooner, but it’s a long drive out here, y’know?” She gave an apologetic shrug. “Anyway, you may also eat—hope you like cucumber on your sandwiches—but that’ll mean we kill Hutch.” She paused, frowning to herself, as if she’d thought of something else and then smiled, wrinkling her nose. “I really do like that nickname. So cute." She stopped for a moment. "Well, is there anything else I can do for you before we leave you to... whatever you’ve been doing?”

 

He had no confidence that she’d answer, but he tried anyway. “Tell me why.”

 

“Dave, come on. If I tell you why, what’re you gonna do to keep yourself occupied ’til next time, hm?”

 

Starsky looked at her eyes. “I’m sure I’ll think of something.”

 

She smiled and nodded. “Yeah. Enjoy your lunch.”

 

Her companions closed the door behind them. Starsky forced himself not to slide down to the floor again in a miserable heap. He listened to the key turn in the lock.

 

He sat huddled for a long time before he mustered the will to move and get the water bottle. He half-crawled into another corner, away from the plate and the food. With a twinge of bitterness, he thanked the Powers That Held Him that they hadn’t brought something cooked. Something that smelled good. Sandwiches should be easy to ignore.

 

“Hah!” His voice sounded muffled against his drawn-up knees. “You call that torture? Cucumber? Yuck. Cucumber’s as easy to ignore as—”

 

A particularly sharp pain and a loud rumbling in his stomach cut him off.

 

“Aw, shut up,” Starsky told it, but he was obviously too tired to sound very authoritative, because it didn’t listen. He winced at the next pain, and swallowed hard.

 

“C’mon, you gotta be kidding,” he whispered desperately. “Cucumber, man! That’s icky!” Another rumble. “You’re disgusting. Why would I listen to you, anyway? Just because I normally do.”

 

He let his head fall back and looked against his will at the plate. “‘Terrific. Gives the saying ‘go with the feeling’ a whole new meaning.”

 

Starsky hugged his knees closer. The chills returned, and his left temple sank onto one knee. He pressed his face harder against his knee in a futile attempt to find warmth. He could feel the aches in his muscles from when he’d been shoved into the wall the day before.

 

Go with the feeling.

 

He breathed in deeply through his nose. The darkness of his closed eyes was so comforting... just go with the feeling...

 

The back of his neck hurt, and he shifted his head. One hand absently reached out to rub his cold, bare feet. He blinked his eyes open, and found himself looking at his own toes. Shivering, he groaned in frustration. As if on cue, his stomach rumbled. Go with the feeling.

 

He stretched his arms with a yawn, got to his feet, and walked over to the window, singing under his breath.

 

“Sunshine go away today...” Then he paused, frowned. “It’s raining, dummy.” Suddenly giddy, he chuckled and continued to sing a few lines, stopped again and shrugged.

 

“Anything’s better than ‘Leaving On A Jetplane.’”

 

It didn’t take him a minute to switch to that one.

 

~oOo~

 

Anne Galesko, the offspring of a wealthy east-coast clan, had written for Lyle Burgenīs publishing concern more than any other author, which in most cases only meant more than once. She'd even managed to sell a short story to a local newspaper before some journalist had discovered that Miss Galesko’s disturbingly brutal plot was based on reality. In fact, the only fictional things in the story were the character’s name and profession. His real-life counterpart had been an unemployed homeless man, desperate for the money Galesko offered.

 

As the lady said later in court, she saw herself more as a "painter of sentences," so that she had to see her scenarios enacted in order to capture the literary truth behind them.

 

Anne’s human guinea pig had died from hypothermia, locked in a freezing room for days. According to her lawyer, family problems that forced her departure had simply caused her to forget to free the poor man from the warehouse. An accident.

 

Sitting at his desk in the precinct, copies of old newspaper articles spread out in front of him, Hutch recalled his disgust at reading about Galesko’s little game. After the journalist from the newspaper dragged the whole thing into the open, the scandal had been huge. No one had ever heard of Anne Galesko before—in addition to lacking a conscience, she also lacked talent—but now her other stories were printed nationwide, and a huge publishing company had bought the rights to her books from Lyle Burgen.

 

Hutch could clearly remember the whole media hysteria, but he'd never read any of her stories. The flood of articles and interviews on the news and in the daily papers had been bad enough. Knowing that every heart-wrenching detail in at least one of them was true had eventually made Hutch ignore the reports about the matter altogether. It had been too disturbing.

 

He even remembered talking to Starsky about it, but only for the two minutes his impatient partner had let him. The Galesko story was scary, and Starsky hated scary stuff.

 

In the end she had gone free on a technicality that stunned the public. The arresting officer, a young man less than a year on the force, was interrupted and aggressively pursued by an over-zealous news team acting on a hot tip as he’d made the collar, and in the confusion had neglected to read his prisoner her rights. The mistake ultimately kept Galesko out of jail.

 

Hutch remembered his reaction back then, the all too familiar frustration at the power of bureaucracy. It was always the same old story, wasn’t it?

 

Afterward, Galesko had vanished, and eventually the memory of her crime faded.

 

'You’re a one-hit lunatic, lady.'

 

Hutch stared down at the explanation for Galesko’s disappearance on his desk. She had legally changed her name to Anne Herrick.

 

And Anne Herrick had been on the short list of out-of-towners who had visited Ben Forest in prison within the last six weeks.

 

~oOo~

 

Hutch immediately notified Captain Dobey of his discovery, and the captain began coordinating a search for Herrick.

 

Later that same day, Hutch sat at his desk, covered with every conceivable scrap of information he’d been able to find regarding Anne Galesko. He grabbed one of her stories lying on top of an untidy pile. In the end he’d flipped through it and put it back again, the same as he’d done about ten times already. He just couldn’t bring himself to read one, though he knew he should.

 

He was waiting for Favor Phil, his bureau snitch, to come through with the name and current address of the editor who’d first printed the horrible stories and who, according to the DA, had known perfectly well that they were based on fact rather than fiction. Nothing had been proved, but the editor had lost his job as a result and moved since then.

As Hutch waited for Phil's call, his gaze wandered from the Galesko files to the Galesko stories. He watched his hand reach out for the story lying open on top of the pile. He couldn't pick it up.

 

'Come on, coward. It’s just a story.'

 

Right. Who was he trying to kid? He began to pull his hand back, but caught one sentence somewhere in the middle of the third paragraph.

 

“He still could not see them," Hutch read, "and when he felt the cold tip of a syringe touch his bare skin, he panicked.”

 

Hutch’s body went numb.

 

“...he didn’t know what it was they had given him, and for a second he was too frightened to even breathe when suddenly, mercifully, everything changed. He felt good. He felt free.”

 

His phone rang and he yelped. Ducking his head at the puzzled glances from his colleagues, Hutch picked up the phone. He swallowed and tried to find his voice. “Y-yeah? Phil?”

 

He scribbled the address Phil gave him and hung up, looking at the story again. Drawn to it against his will, he continued to read. “He didn’t feel the ropes anymore. Inside his head he was free. He would do anything to keep that freedom.”

 

~oOo~

 

The forty-eight hours were up.

 

Hutch’s whole body tensed as Ben Forest entered the visitor’s area of the county jail. Time had added more gray to the dark hair, and a few new wrinkles to the man’s face. He smiled and it was just the same—wide and cruel, more of a grimace than a smile.

 

Even in his innocuous orange jumper, Ben Forest looked dangerous. At least to Hutch.

 

Forest nodded his head in mock greeting and sat down behind the glass wall, picking up the receiver on the wall. Hutch clenched his jaws, trying hard to hide rising panic. He hadn’t seen Forest after the trial, had never spoken to the man again. Truth be told, the reason why he tried so hard to forget everything about Forest was that, deep down, he was still afraid of him.

 

Forest was different from all the other criminals who’d left their signature on his life—different than Grossman, who’d taken his beloved Gillian from him, or Humphrey. Or the men who had hurt Starsky over the years, like Simon Marcus, or Prudholm. He hated them, maybe, but he wasn’t afraid of them.

 

Ben Forest he feared. Always had. Not because the kingpin had hurt him, or because he had almost succeeded in killing him, but because he had controlled him. Totally.

 

He remembered pleading for Forest not to leave him. For Forest to stay and “help” him. The rational part of him knew it had been because of the drugs, but the memory haunted him, and he retained a completely irrational fear of the one person who had ever held that kind of power over him.

 

Forest was his own personal bogeyman.

 

An image they apparently both shared, Hutch thought when he met Forest’s cold grin, mockingly polite and questioning.

 

Even now, it seemed as if Forest was the one in charge, as if he had called and Hutch had followed and not the other way around.

 

“Well, well,” Forest said, his normally gruff tone almost soft, his eyes on the detective.

 

Hutch couldn’t fight the unnerving thought that he was an open book to the man. He looked away.

 

“Hutch. Never thought I’d see you again.”

 

Hutch cringed a little at the use of the nickname. He swallowed dryly and forced himself to look up again.

 

Forest smiled at the continuing silence. “So, tell me, what can I do for you, Detective?” Bemused, he tilted his head, looking at Hutch in mock suspicion. He lowered his voice. “Don’t tell me you...need anything. Hm?” He winked.

 

Hutch’s lips formed a humorless smile. He had anticipated that. In fact, Forest’s insults helped him deal with his fear. They were meaningless and showed weakness rather than power.

 

Leaning forward, Hutch rested his elbow on the narrow counter. A faint reflection of his face and upper body appeared on the glass next to Forest.

 

“I spoke to Lyle Burgen this morning. I’m impressed. Didn’t think you had any friends.”

 

Forest shrugged. “What can I say? I’m a nice guy. We just didn’t hit it off, I guess.” He raised one brow with a smirk. “Though I seem to recall a time you...shall we say craved...my company?”

 

Once more, Hutch blocked the sarcasm with a wry smile. “Oh yeah? Can’t remember.”

 

He paused, watching Forest, trying to figure out how to begin. He had no doubts that if Forest had something to do with Starsky’s disappearance, he’d admit it easily. After all, what was the point if he couldn’t see the effect it had on Hutch? But if he wasn’t involved, the news would only provide him with a good laugh.

 

Bracing himself for the conversation he knew he had to endure, Hutch asked, “Tell me about Anne Herrick.”

 

Forest blinked as if surprised. “She’s an old friend.”

 

“Who recently called you,” Hutch added.

 

“Yes.”

 

“What did you talk about?”

 

Forest watched him blandly. “The weather.”

 

Hutch smiled and nodded. “Lyle Burgen told me she’s one of your favorites. Writers, I mean,” he added ironically.

 

Forest shrugged a wordless yes. He looked closely at Hutch, his eyes showing a sly humor. “You read your story,” he said, almost beaming. “How d’you like it?”

 

“I prefer a more simple style,” Hutch answered. He waited for a moment, studying the man. Something about Forest’s reaction to their change of topic set off alarm bells in his head, but he couldn’t be sure if it was his cop’s instinct alerting him or just because anything that made Ben Forest smile had that effect on him.

 

An idea hit him.

 

“Nice outfit,” said Hutch. “Orange suits you.”

 

Catching the tone in the blond’s voice, Forest lifted his head, listening for the meaning behind the words. He glanced down at his clothes. “You think? Well,” he looked up again, “I suppose police officers aren’t required to have good taste, anyway.”

 

“You could be right there. But then, I don’t think it’s a requirement in jail, either.” Hutch waited to be sure he had Forest’s total attention, then continued, “From what your bookstore friend told me, it seems you’re suffering from a certain...let’s say, lack of style in here?” He lifted is brows questioningly.

 

“That what Lyle said?” Forest asked.

 

Hutch drew the corners of his mouth down, agreeing. “Oh yeah. Was quite a heart-warming tale.”

 

A brief pause followed, both men looking directly at each other.

 

“And now,” Forest finally spoke, “you feel obliged to help a suffering citizen, Detective?”

 

Hutch shrugged. “Maybe. It depends.”

 

And there it was. A grin as huge as his role in the whole scheme spread over Forest’s lips. A twinkle in his eye confirmed it, gave it all away.

 

It took all Hutch had to not look away. He heart sped up, with hope or fear he wasn’t sure. The suspicions he’d had of Forest’s involvement were confirmed completely for him.

He was just as certain that his offer of a deal meant nothing to Forest. What Forest wanted was this very moment. To see the realization sink in Hutch’s eyes, to feel that he could still control him. To hear him beg once more.

 

“Depends on what?” Forest asked.

 

Hutch watched him for a long moment, his mind racing. Anne Galesko—or Herrick—was a dangerous, crazy woman, but her crimes weren’t committed out of revenge or hate. They were done solely for perpetuating her work as an “artist.” She was the perfect weapon for Forest to use from jail for the very reason that she could function on her own, didn’t need guidance or suggestions. She was independent.

 

The pieces clicked together, and suddenly Hutch was sure that whatever Galesko did to Starsky, she did on her own.

 

As much as that thought scared the shit out of him, it also meant that Forest wasn’t as nearly in control of the situation as he pretended.

 

Abruptly, Hutch straightened on the chair, focusing on Forest. The man looked like a pit bull, ready to attack.

 

Hutch’s features hardened. “Thanks for your help.”

 

Forest’s face fell. He opened his mouth to protest, but Hutch cut him off, his stare piercing. “You have nothing to tell me. Ben.” He leaned in close, closer, until his nose almost touched the glass. He smiled. “Enjoy your life. Such as it is.”

 

Hutch hung up. He left the room without looking back, walking slowly, casually. It wasn’t until the door to the visitor area fell shut that he let himself fall against the nearest wall, breathing deeply, staring at the ceiling and waiting for the pounding of his heart to slow down.

 

~oOo~

 

Hutch pounded on Lyle Burgenīs door. When there was no answer, he yelled. “Burgen! Police! Open up! Mr. Burgen, open the door. Police—"

 

Hutch heard hasty footsteps inside. He drew in a deep breath.

 

“Open—”

 

The door opened wide on his shout.

 

“Stop yelling!” Burgen hissed, fury written all over his features. His hand on the door shook, and the bathrobe over his checkered pajamas was untied. He was barefoot, his hair disheveled. All in all, the man was a mess.

 

Hutch grinned. “Sir. May I come in?”

 

“It’s the middle of the night!” Burgen ranted. “How dare you show up at this hour? Do you have a warrant?”

 

Leaning in closer, Hutch lowered his voice, locking eyes with Burgen. “If you don’t let me in and answer my questions now, I’ll turn on the police siren until each and every one of your spotless WASP neighbors knows you’ve had a nighttime visit from the cops. Your choice, pal.”

 

Burgen stared at him. “You have no right to—”

 

“Okay.” Hutch shrugged and turned, but stopped when he felt a frantic tug on his arm.

 

“Hutchinson! Wait.”

 

Hutch looked over his shoulder and blinked innocently.

 

Burgen sighed. “Come in,” he said through gritted teeth. He held the door wide.

 

“Thank you.” Hutch smiled and pushed past him through the doorway. “How kind.”

 

Shooting him a glare, Burgen jerked the belt of his bathroom around him and tied it. He led his visitor into the kitchen. “Sit.”

 

Hutch sat, watching Burgen pour himself a glass of water, gulp it down, and lean against the kitchen counter. For a moment, neither spoke.

 

Hutch broke the silence, his voice calm and unthreatening. “You know why I’m here, don’t you?”

 

“I can guess,” Burgen replied. His anger seemed to fade. “Though I don’t understand what it is you want from me. I told you I’m not working for Ben. I’m just a friend.”

 

“Yet you know about me.”

 

Burgen averted his eyes. “Yeah.”

 

Hutch studied the man, trying to read him. “Did Anne Galesko and Forest meet through you?”

 

“Yes, at a party. I had shown him some of her work, and he was impressed.” He waved his hand in the air, his street origins coming through in the way that he spoke. “Me, I don’t read, ya know? I had no idea what it was she was writing. I give Ben everything I get. He’s very—”

 

“Interested in literature. Yeah, you said that before.”

 

“Yeah. Well…I guess that answers your next question, doesn’t it?”

 

“Which would be?”

 

Burgen frowned. “If Ben used Anne’s idea for…well…” He made a feeble gesture in Hutch’s direction.

 

Hutch nodded. “Oh. Yeah. Yeah, that’s answered, you’re right. But…I’m not interested in the past, Lyle.”

 

The frown deepened. “What d’you mean?”

 

“When you spoke to Forest on the phone the other day, did he mention Anne?”

 

“How... yes, he did. He asked about her, how she’s doing, if she’s still writing after what they did to her and so on. I gave him her address in San Fran. Why?”

 

“So you still have contact with her?”

 

“Me? No. She’s on my Christmas card list, but that’s it. She doesn’t write anymore, and we never were, well, close. I was just her publisher.”

 

“But you read her story. The one where she’d strung out someone.”

 

“No.” Burgen shook his head. “I told you, I hate reading. Ben told me about it. After...” Once more, he gestured at Hutch.

 

For a moment, Hutch just studied him. Finally he nodded.

“Okay. I want her address.”

 

“Sure.” Burgen shrugged. “Come into the living room.” He produced a black notebook from a drawer, scribbled down an address and handed it over to Hutch. “Detective? May I ask you something? Today, that wasn’t routine, was it?”

 

“No.” Hutch read the small piece of paper and stashed it in his pocket. When he looked up again his gaze was hard, accusing. “May I ask you something too?”

 

“What?”

 

“D’you ever get rid of all the dirt that sticks to your life?”

 

A shadow settled in Burgenīs eyes. He put his hands into his bathrobe pockets. “I don’t define myself by what my friends do, Detective. Do you?”

 

“Yeah. I do.” Without waiting for a reaction, Hutch turned, but stopped at the front door. “Mr. Burgen?”

 

“What? Are you going to tell me not to leave the city?”

 

“No, go ahead. But don’t be surprised if you’re followed.”

 

“Wh... hey, wait a second! Why would the police follow me? I didn’t do anything!”

 

“Ask your friends,” Hutch said, opening the door, “when they’re allowed to receive phone calls again.”

 

Two more lights went on in the neighboring houses when Hutch slammed the door shut behind him. The driver’s side door of the LTD unlatched again, and he let the car horn blare as long as it took him to start the engine.

 

~oOo~

 

The freshly washed morning sky flooded the room with bright light gleaming on the limp figure’s hair and casting shadows over his features. Even in sleep, a pained frown creased his forehead.

 

Dobey stood at the door and shook his head at the sight. He entered the room and approached the desk to gently shake his shoulder. “Hutch.”

 

Hutch mumbled something unintelligible, frowned deeper and started awake, head snapping up, wild eyes finding Dobey’s.

 

“Wh-what... oh. Captain.” Blinking a few times, he shook his head as if to clear it. He pushed a hand through his hair, then over his face. He glanced outside the window. His face fell when he saw how light it was outside.

 

“Did you spend the night here?” asked Dobey.

 

“Uh... no,” Hutch answered, his voice still sluggish. He checked the clock. “Just came back a couple of hours ago and called San Francisco PD with an address for Galesko. They checked it out. The place Burgen said she lived at was empty. Apparently she moved within the last week or so. The landlord didn’t know where to.” Furrowing his brow, he looked at his captain again. “D’you always get here this early?”

 

Dobey cleared his throat as if he’d been caught red-handed and ignored the question. “Any other news? Or do I have to give my ‘running yourself sick won’t help him’ speech again?”

 

Hutch smiled, shaking his head. “No, I’ve just been waiting for a, uh, witness to be processed and taken to the interrogation room. Had him brought here after I checked the address.”

 

“Yeah, how is that going? D’you really think it’s a lead?” He sat down across from Hutch.

 

“Oh yes,” Hutch nodded grimly. “It’s a lead all right.”

 

“So Galesko and Forest know each other.” He watched Hutch nod. “Okay, now who’s the witness?” Hit by a sudden thought, he frowned. “What do you mean, you had him ‘brought here’ in the middle of the night?”

 

His expression wary, Hutch’s next words came carefully. “His name’s Tim McCullen, and he used to be Galesko’s editor.”

 

Dobey lifted his eyebrows.

 

“If I’m right about her,” Hutch continued, “she’s using the opportunity Forest gave her to write a new... masterpiece. And if that’s the case, she’ll need someone to get it into print. Someone she can trust. Who has connections. Someone who needs the money and has the means.”

 

A shadow rose over Dobey’s features. “You think she’s writing about it?” he asked in disgust.

 

Hutch nodded gravely. “Think about it, Captain. What’s Forest getting out of this if I never find out what happens to Starsky?”

 

Hutch didn’t meet the captain’s sympathetic gaze. He stared into nothingness until Dobey’s gruff voice drew his attention back.

 

“You didn’t answer my earlier question. What do you mean you had him brought here?”

 

The shadows on Hutch’s face vanished, giving way to pure innocence. He looked up at his superior. “Uh... I, uh, had him arrested.”

 

“For what?” Dobey asked suspiciously.

 

Hutch's smile widened into a nervous grin. “I’ll, uh, tell you, when I’ve come up with something.”

 

Though the look he gave Hutch spoke volumes, Dobey didn’t reply. He stood and headed for his office. “Keep me posted,” he ordered and closed the door behind him.

 

“Yes, sir.” Hutch glanced at the clock again, and then looked outside.

 

'D’you see the sky where you are, Starsk? Are you awake?' He yawned, rubbed his tired eyes. 'Hold on, partner. Just hold on.'

 

~oOo~

 

The man inside the interrogation room lifted his head from his folded arms on the desk when Hutch entered. He was about ten years older than Hutch, with black hair gone to silver, and he looked decidedly pissed off.

 

To Hutch’s tired amusement he wore red striped pajamas under his coat. Hutch had informed the units he’d sent out to “show McCullen the way to the precinct” of the man’s possible role in Starsky’s disappearance. It was a very protective family, the force.

 

“Mr. McCullen?” Hutch said, closing the door with his foot. He carried two steaming cups of coffee into the room.

 

McCullen just glared.

 

“Good morning,” Hutch continued. He put the coffee down on the table and took a seat. “I’m Detective Hutchinson. Coffee?”

 

McCullen watched in silence, but he took the cup he was handed and sipped at the hot brew.

 

“I’m sorry you had to wait so long.” Hutch leaned back in his chair and shrugged apologetically. “Seems we forgot about you. Late working hours, you know?”

 

McCullen finally spoke, his voice colored by suppressed anger. “Why am I here?”

 

Hutch frowned as if thinking. “Well, the report read that resisted a police officer.”

 

“Yeah,” McCullen nodded. “Because he wouldn’t tell me what the charge is. He dragged me out of bed and slapped cuffs on me.”

 

“Really?” Hutch asked, as if surprised. He tilted his head to one side, then shrugged again. “I don’t know anything about that. I just heard you were here. What a coincidence, I meant to pay you a visit today, anyway.” He smiled. “Funny thing, huh?”

 

“I’ll laugh later.”

 

“I doubt that.” Hutch kept his voice low, almost sweet.

Something in his voice must have alerted McCullen. He froze, eyes narrowed. “Why am I here, Detective?”

 

Hutch watched him for a moment. “Anne Galesko.”

 

McCullen’s gaze wandered off, then went back to Hutch. “Haven’t heard that name in a long time.”

 

“How about Anne Herrick?”

 

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

 

“Wrong answer.” Hutch kept his voice calm. “Try again.”

 

McCullen opened his mouth. He frowned, then smiled, and closed it again. “You’re good.” He shook his index finger at Hutch. “All of a sudden we’re in the middle of an interrogation.”

 

Hutch just looked at him and waited.

 

“I haven’t seen Anne for years, I’m sorry.” McCullen lifted his hands defensively, and when there was still no reaction from the blond, added, “You’re wasting your time.”

 

“It’s my time.”

 

“Okay.” With a shrug, McCullen took another sip of his coffee, eyes never leaving Hutch. After a few seconds he spoke again, as if unable to bear the silence. “What do you want from Anne?”

 

“Why d’you care?”

 

“We used to be very close. Is it a crime to care about an old friend?”

 

“No. But aiding in a kidnapping is.”

 

McCullen didn’t answer for a long moment. At last he said, “I want to call my lawyer.”

 

“You can call your lawyer. After you’ve told me what I want to know.”

 

“I have the right to call—”

 

“You,” Hutch cut him off, pointing a warning finger, “have no rights I don’t grant you, pal.” With some satisfaction, he watched McCullen back away from him. “I want to know when you last spoke to Galesko, what she’s working on, and when you’re gonna meet her. And don’t try lying to me. I’ve had a very bad day.”

 

“Is this your bad cop speech? Where’s the good cop?”

 

The remark caught Hutch totally off guard, and the sudden painful sting must have been obvious in his expression.

 

McCullen lifted his head in a slow-motion nod, a gloating grin spreading on his face.

 

“Ah. I see.” He smiled. “So that’s what this is, Detective, isn’t it? Personal.”

 

Hutch had to force himself not to get up and beat the grin off his face. “You’ll be surprised how personal it can get.”

 

“Oh, I don’t doubt that.” McCullen grinned, and picked up his coffee. His latest discovery obviously fueled him with a sense of power. He studied Hutch for a moment, sipping his coffee, then put it back down. “Okay, Detective, let’s talk. Just assuming I know anything about Anne’s recent, ah, project, what’s in it for me if I misuse her trust to help save a cop?”

 

Hutch widened his eyes. “In it for y—well, for one thing, I might not feel compelled to kick your sorry butt all over this room.”

 

Though there was the tiniest bit of nervousness in McCullen’s eyes, he still managed to look unimpressed, even amused. “That’s surely something to convince me,” he said, smiling. He waited. More gravely, he added, “But, seriously, what’s in it for me?”

 

“I am serious!” Hutch nearly shouted. “How dare you try and go for a deal! You’re lucky you just lost your job! You could have been sitting in a cell for the last few years!”

 

McCullen grinned. “You mean like the one your pal’s in right now?”

 

Hutch stared at him, hardly daring to believe he’d heard correctly. He dragged McCullen off the chair and shoved him against the nearby wall, pinning him in a chokehold. “You tell me where my partner is, or so help me, I’ll—”

 

“I-I don’t—” McCullen croaked, and made a choking noise as Hutch’s arm pressed his throat. “Let me—”

 

“Do you know where he is?” Hutch hissed.

 

Panicking, McCullen shook his head. “N-no!” he exclaimed. “No, I-I swear, I—”

 

“But you know what she’s doing to him.” Hutch let him go but stayed close, crowding him, watching him choke and cough. He grabbed McCullen’s arm again.

 

McCullen flinched. “Yes! Yes, I know. Get away from me, man!” He coughed again, wincing, and touched his throat. “God. You almost killed me!”

 

Hutch ignored him. “What do you know?”

 

As the grip on his arm tightened, McCullen hurried to answer, “I-I got a raw version of some new story from her, about two weeks ago. I didn’t think there’d be more. She sometimes sends me stuff, just ideas, nothing real, but this time, there was a first draft just a few days later. I wrote her to ask whether there was more coming and...” He averted his eyes. “And whether... you know... whether it’s...” He trailed off.

 

“Fictional.” Hutch didn’t bother to control the disgust in his voice.

 

“Yeah.” He nodded. “It sells, y’know? People want that feeling of creepy uncertain—”

 

“Save the commercial ad. So you’ve had contact with her. You know where she is.”

 

“No, I don't. She has a post office box.”

 

Hutch finally stepped back, and left McCullen to draw in a relieved breath.

 

“The draft she sent you—what...” He briefly closed his eyes, and when he opened them again, he didn’t meet the editor’s gaze. “What is it about?”

 

“Uh…” McCullen started nervously, his fear increasing Hutch’s unease. “W-well, there’s this, uh, guy, and he’s... uh…he’s convinced his, uh... a friend of his has been... killed.”

 

Hutch looked at McCullen, who looked away.

 

“Because of him,” the editor finished in a whisper.

 

The color drained from Hutch’s face. He leaned against the table, shaking hands reaching out to hold onto it. “What makes him think that?”

 

McCullen still didn’t look at him. In a small voice, he said, “He’s part of a game. He can’t win. But he knows that if he loses, his friend will be killed.”

 

“What kind of game?” Hutch gripped the table harder.

 

“There were different versions.” He sounded almost sympathetic now, as if the images in the story were suddenly coming to life for him. “But there’s no doubt for the reader that the character will lose. It’s the whole point.”

 

“Could it... could he die trying? The... ‘character’?” Hutch added, though the cynicism couldn’t hide the pain on his face.

 

McCullen bowed his head. “That depends on the version. But, y’know, when I got Anne’s letter, I thought she had returned to her... origins.” He paused. “Paying bums or something. Not...” He shrugged slightly, grimacing.

 

Hutch’s features hardened. “What, you didn’t think she’d kill him after he lost the... ‘game’?” He spat out the last word. “Are you really that naive, McCullen? Why do you think she kidnapped a cop? She’s working for someone, turkey. She didn’t choose my partner by coincidence, and she won’t let him go, either.”

 

Hutch saw an opportunity in the dismayed expression settling in McCullen’s eyes. Sure, the guy had no conscience whatsoever, but he had a healthy sense of fear.

 

“You asked what’s in it for you. How about not getting arrested for Murder One? If you’re holding back information that might save a cop’s life...” He trailed off, watching McCullen closely. “How much more are you willing to lose because of her? She's already destroyed your career.”

 

“She’s not even any good,” McCullen said, staring off into space. “Y’know?” He shook his head. “I haven’t heard from her since the draft. I don’t know what—”

 

Hutch cut him off. “Just give me the address. Will you?”

 

“I told you, it’s only a post office box.”

 

“I’ll find her. Help me. Please,” Hutch said, his voice going soft.

 

McCullen stayed silent for a long moment. Finally he said, “I’d be taking one hell of a risk. She doesn’t forgive easily, know what I mean?”

 

Hutch raised his brows. “Right now you’re practically behind bars, I just haven’t put you there yet. The question is if you want out badly enough to take a risk.”

 

McCullen sighed, and wiped a hand over his face. “I didn’t do anything.”

 

“Sometimes that’s worse than doing something. Look, Tim, you’re holding a man’s life in your hands. Isn’t there any part of you somewhere inside that’s shocked? Disgusted? Dismayed? Whatever you read in this draft is happening. Right now. To my partner.” Hutch kept his eyes on McCullen, who never looked up. “That ‘character’ you talked about is a living person. And you’re his only chance. Please.”

 

He was almost begging now, but he kept his voice quiet, calm. “Help us.”

 

~oOo~

 

“A. Ant. Aunt. Anchovies. America. Anaconda. Ali…okay, okay. That’s enough. B. Bed.”

 

Starsky's eyes closed in frustration, and he let his head fall forward, drawing in a deep breath. He looked up again.

 

“That one’s out. Think of something else. B. Blanket.” He shivered. “Strike two. C’mon, you can think of something. B.” Blinking up at the ceiling, he worked to get his thoughts in order.

 

“B. Blintz. Burrito... no. Bunny. Big Bird. Bear. Bogey. Okay, ’nough. C.” Before he realized he was going to say it, he heard himself mutter, “Cucumber. ”

 

He bit his lip and hit the wall with his fists. Leaning in the corner, he forced himself to remain on his feet, staring outside into the bright blue sky. Not looking at a cucumber across the room, unh, unh.

 

“What’s that?” He shook his head with a humorless chuckle. “C. Cardinal. Kettle. Wait…that’s k.” He frowned, waved. “C. Criminal. Cake. Cinema. Cinnamon. Cold. D. Me.”

 

A little laugh escaped and was cut short by a hoarse cough. His throat was dry again. He had ordered himself to ration the water. Who knew when his captors would return. The same restriction applied to a lot of things, he’d found. He couldn’t pace all day anymore. It wore him out too fast. He couldn’t sit for a long time, either, because he’d nod off.

 

Talking to himself worked, but after a while his increasing inability to think straight had frustrated him to the point of hitting the wall again. Anything to distract him from how goddamned tired he was.

 

Even the pain didn’t alert him much anymore. The only thing that did was his fear for Hutch. He’d blink, and it would take too long to get his eyes open, and he’d panic. Had he fallen asleep? Had they seen? Had they sneaked in and out again without him waking up? Would they tell him if it happened? Or would they just drag Hutch into the room some day, without Starsky even knowing he’d lost the game?

 

How much longer could he go on? He didn’t even know what day it was anymore.

 

It had become a little easier since he’d stopped trying to figure out who was behind this. Instead, he’d huddled in the corner, playing senseless mind games. Struggling was what made the fight so hard, so why not just stop, concentrate all his energy on what he needed to do to stay awake. He’d never find out who was responsible or why, by himself.

 

Surely, by now Hutch had come up with some leads to find and rescue him, right? Sure he had. After all, Hutch could take a refreshing nap every now and then, give his gray cells a break. Could eat, too. Wasn’t freezing cold.

 

Shoulders drawing up, Starsky sniffed and sighed. “Okay. D. Dinosaur. Dream. Dragon. E.” He frowned. “Tough.

 

E...electrical socket. Eternity.” He smirked. He might be slowing in some respects, but at least his wit wasn’t.

 

“Egg. F. Farm. Fever. Fun. G. Golf.” A spiteful glance at the door. “Game. Girl. H.” This time, the sigh was deep, desperate, and he felt his head sink backwards against the wall as he stared outside. “Hutch. Help. Home.”

 

He closed his eyes. “Head hurts.” He laughed and let himself slide down into a sitting position. “Sure know my h’s, huh, buddy? Wanna hear another one? Hurry. Oh, God, Hutch, please hurry. I don’t—” He quieted himself and looked outside into the light, blinking.

 

What a comfort this piece of sky was. He didn’t want to imagine how much harder it’d be without this tiny bit of outside reality to cling to.

 

“My sky. My blue sky.” Wasn’t there a song that went like that? He wrinkled his forehead in a slow frown, trying to remember the melody. “Heaven, that’s it. ‘My Blue Heaven.’”

 

When had he heard that one? He thought he could recall his father’s voice singing it. His dad had always sung, constantly. Hadn’t been able to help it. He'd done it absently, when he was cleaning up, or in the shower, or working on a model ship. Starsky remembered his father’s colleagues making fun of the habit at parties, barbecues. And here he was, partners with a guy with the same peculiarity.

 

His Dad would have liked Hutch. Well, except for his eating habits.

 

At this point, Starsky thought he’d even be willing to try butterfly bones and soy sprouts. The hunger pangs had ceased some time ago, leaving a constant, hollow emptiness behind. There were few things he hated as much as being hungry or tired, or both. And even though he could muster a lot more will power than most people, could fight temptation and hopelessness, it didn’t mean he liked it.

 

Being hungry made him grumpy, being tired made him cranky, and worrying about Hutch made him withdrawn. A good thing he had no cellmates. He wouldn't be very good company.

 

Hutch always managed to put up with him. Usually even managed to cheer him up. When Starsky complained about being hungry and tired on a stakeout, Hutch would tease him about his lack of self-control, his child-like expectations of immediate gratification, and probably without even being aware of it, he'd distract him from whatever had started his bad mood.

 

Yep, Hutch was perfect for boring situations.

 

He laughed, imagining his partner’s reaction to that compliment. Wriggling his toes, he hugged his knees closer to himself. He recalled the last time he’d seen Hutch, and hurried on to other memories in order to escape the earworm spell of “Leaving On A Jetplane.”

 

He wondered when Hutch had found out he was missing, and if he knew more than Starsky himself did. If he knew who Lady Mastermind was. If she was the mastermind of this game. Did Hutch know what was happening to his partner? Did he know of the danger he was in himself? Starsky couldn’t remember ever having seen his captor before and he had no idea who she was or why she’d want to hurt either of them. She was a total stranger, one of a thousand disturbed freaks, and she could’ve been hired by anyone. And his abduction had happened so fast that he doubted his driveway had yielded any helpful clues.

 

What if Hutch was as much in the dark as he was? Starsky pictured him at his desk at the precinct, staring straight through the files spread over his desk into a deep dark nothingness, mirrored in his exhausted eyes, the familiar crease on his forehead deep with concern. It was an image Starsky had seen too often for his liking, one that never failed to wrench at his heart, fuel him with anger at his own helplessness. Hutch was suffering because of him.

 

Starsky knew what that looked like. After his rescue from Simon Marcus’s cultists, he had seen for himself just how good Hutch was at ignoring his own needs. Hutch’s adrenaline rush had lasted much longer than Starsky's own, and he had practically crashed from exhaustion two days later. Yet, he had still been there to reassure him after the first nightmares. All in all, Hutch was the embodiment of safety, of home.

 

Home.

 

Starsky could see his apartment in his mind and wandered through the rooms, stopping to soak in the sight of his bed. The feeling of coming home after a stressful day, knowing that you could crawl under the sheets and sleep for as long as you liked, undisturbed, unhindered, the portals to dreamland opening just for you—was there anything like it?

 

He could see Venice Place too, sniff the familiar smell of the overgrown jungle, hear Hutch’s humming from the kitchen. It’d be just another comfortable, relaxing evening spent together, watching a game, having a few beers, refusing to talk about any recent depressing cases, and later Starsky would have to sleep on that thing Hutch called couch. A timeout from work, from the world that was the streets. Just fun. Just home. Just...

 

... sleep.

 

Starsky’s eyes flew open. The cucumber sandwiches stared back at him from their plate. Puzzled, Starsky wondered when he'd turned himself to face them. He shook his head, groaning, and sat up. His back hurt. How had he gotten into such an uncomfortable position? He pressed his palms against his eyes.

 

“Shit.”

 

He must have dozed off again. Angry, he looked at the window, checking the light. It couldn’t have been more than just a few minutes, could it? He remembered the stupid little letter game that had started him rambling, dwelling on memories. It hadn’t gone on that long. He’d still been awake when he’d sat down, hadn’t he? He’d just sunk lower in a semi-slumber. Not even a real one, he hadn’t been really asleep. No. Just a moment of weakness. The sound of the key in the door would have awakened him if his captors had come back. Nothing to worry about.

 

And he was awake now, wasn’t he? Wide-awake, actually.

 

Staggering to his feet, he drew in deep breaths, focusing on the blue sky as if it was the light at the end of the tunnel.

 

Awake. He was awake. His heart raced in his chest,

hammering desperately. He had not fallen asleep. His eyes had shut, that was all. Probably just for a few seconds, no more. They couldn’t possibly have seen that. No way.

 

So why was he so damned panicked? He couldn’t get his breathing under control, and for the first time since his ordeal had begun, he felt hot instead of cold. Even sweaty.

 

Wiping his forehead with a trembling hand, he felt his knees buckle, and clung to the walls behind him.

 

'Don’t you sit down again! Look at what that’s got you!'

 

Dizzy, he let his head sink backwards, eyes wandering to the water bottle at his feet. But it wasn’t dusk, yet. He couldn’t let some pathetic panic attack drive him into using up all the water. How was he supposed to last the night then? He needed to calm down. Find reassurance in the light from the sky. He had not fallen asleep. He had not dreamed, he had remembered. There was a difference.

 

His vision swam when his gaze moved away from the window, and he blinked, annoyed.

 

“Come on,” he muttered to himself, panting slightly, hands clenching into weary fists. “C’mon. I. Ice. Italy. Iowa. J. Jam. Job. Jogging. K. King. Ketchup. Kill. Hutch.” He paused, let go of a shaky breath. “How ’bout a new game?”

 

He couldn’t come up with another game. Couldn’t concentrate on anything but the horrible thought that he might have fallen asleep. How could he be so sure it had just been for a second? He remembered naps during stakeouts or in the jungles of Vietnam, when he had been convinced he’d slept for five minutes when in fact it had been hours. The body could tire out to the point that it fooled your mind.

 

But it was still light outside, the bright yellow light of afternoon. Besides, even if he had slept—which he hadn’t—it had been a light slumber. He surely would have awakened if there had been any noise.

 

Right. And sign Hutch’s death sentence.

 

Rule number one of this game remained that if they found him asleep, or if the opening of the door woke him, Hutch would die. He didn’t dare return to stakeout games, he knew that now. He was too tired to manage anything more substantial than the alphabet words and that wasn’t going to keep him awake much longer. He needed a task.

 

He scanned the room, looked down at himself, fumbled with his t-shirt, scratched his head, tested the cuffs still binding his hands. He crossed the room in front of the window, then turned, walked back. There must be something he could do. If only he had a pen. Or something to scratch on the walls. Anything.

 

He rubbed his knuckles absently. The sudden warmth was gone and he was getting cold again. His feet had fallen asleep, and now they ached from the sudden motion. He caught sight of the faded red streaks on his hands and stopped in his tracks. He had totally forgotten about hitting the wall.

 

About the blood that had dried on his skin.

 

He rubbed at the crusted wounds until he saw fresh blood on his fingers. He stared at it, felt its warmth.

 

Without thinking any more, he approached the nearest wall and hit it. No anger fueled his strength. He didn’t wince. It was like some routine activity, something necessary, organized.

 

How long he worked on the wall, he didn’t know. It was the key in the door that stopped him.

 

“Awake!” he announced hoarsely, before the first person that entered was even visible. He whirled around, trying to hide the bloody wounds on his hands. “I’m awake.”

 

It was her again, followed by one of her two huge shadows. He held the door open and lifted a brow at Starsky.

 

The master of the game whistled lowly as she stepped into the room, arms folded in front of her. “I’m impressed, David,” she stated honestly. “Didn’t think you’d last this long.” Her gaze fell on the untouched sandwiches. She grinned. “And you managed level two, I see. Good for you.”

 

Starsky opened his mouth to reply, but he couldn’t get his tongue to work right. Resigned, he focused bloodshot eyes on her and waited.

 

Studying him, she arched her brows. “Feel pretty lousy, hm? Poor you. But, y’know, you have every reason to be proud of yourself. You saved your friend’s life three times already.”

 

Starsky snorted. “I’m impressed too,” he said, noticing his voice slurred. “You managed to keep your comments to yourself about his name.”

 

She winked, grinned. “I was about to do that. Anyway,” she said, turning businesslike, “as you know, we don’t drop by here just to hang out, so...” She shrugged and cast the sandwiches a regretful look. “What a shame, but it’s the game.”

 

Starsky rolled his eyes. “Cute.”

 

“Told you I’m a writer,” she joked.

 

Starsky didn’t answer. He watched the second bodyguard enter with a new plate of sandwiches and a folded woolen blanket under his arm.

 

'Oh God, please...' Unable to hide his despair, Starsky let his head fall back against the concrete wall. It was humiliating enough to be nearly overwhelmed by the urge to beg for mercy at her comment about leaving, but this was even worse.

 

She watched him closely, waited for him to set eyes on the blanket. “During my last visit, I noticed how cold it is in here,” she said, rubbing her arms for emphasis. “And you know I’m always trying to make your stay more pleasant.”

 

Starsky just nodded. “Game-wise,” he muttered, earning a grin.

 

“Exactly. I see I don’t have to waste a lot of time explaining things here. You’re on level three now. The stakes are the same—warmth for Hutch’s life.”

 

“What’s next?” Starsky asked. “Socks? Magazines? Maybe all the answers to my questions on a folded paper?”

 

She smirked. “Don’t give me ideas, Dave.”

 

“I don’t think you need me for that.” Starsky watched her helper put down the new plate and blanket, then exchange the plastic jug in the corner for a new one. “You keep bringing stuff in here and I’ll want a bigger room. I hate crowded places.”

 

She laughed, sincerely amused. “Please. How many more times d’you think we’ll meet like this? Sorry to tell you, honey, but you look ready to fall on your face.”

 

“You probably don’t know this, but I’m a great actor.”

 

“Yeah.” She laughed. “Right. Well, see you soon, David. Try not to hurt the walls too much.”

 

And with a knowing wink she turned and left, followed by her goons carrying out the old plate, the water bottle and the plastic jug.

 

Starsky once again moved the water to a different place, away from the food. It was chicken sandwiches this time. He placed the plate onto the folded blanket.

 

For a long moment he stood staring at both things.

 

'Welcome to level three.'

 

~oOo~

 

The post-office box Anne Herrick rented was in Rocky Beach, a small town just outside Bay City. Hutch was surprised to find that the sheriff was an old colleague of his and Starsky’s, a man they’d considered beyond old years ago when they had met him their very first week at the precinct.

 

Hutch stepped up onto the wooden porch to the sheriff’s office, rolling his eyes at the cliché of a large man dozing in a wicker chair on the porch. He frowned suddenly and bent his head to look into the sleeping man’s face, hidden by a hat.

 

“Mac?”

 

Without looking up or opening his eyes, the sheriff muttered a lazy “Yup?”

 

Hutch smiled. “Mac, it’s Hutch.”

 

At that, Horatio McAufflin—Mac—blinked his eyes open and grinned widely. “I’ll be damned!” he exclaimed happily, heaving himself off of the chair. “Kenny Hutchinson! How’re you doing, kid?” Excited, he grabbed Hutch’s hand to give it a hard shake.

 

“Okay,” Hutch answered, rubbing his hand and trying to hide it from Mac. “How ’bout you? I thought you retired.”

 

“What does this look like to you?” McAufflin laughed, gesturing at the porch and chair, then shook his head. “Boy, look at you. Must’ve been, what, six years now? You’re almost a grown-up.”

 

“Listen, Mac, I need your help.”

 

“Sure,” McAufflin replied, taking off his hat. “C’mon, let’s go inside. Care for a beer?”

 

“Uh... no, thanks,” Hutch smiled and followed the sheriff into his office.

 

A small filing cabinet and a massive desk was the only furniture in the room. One sorry dried-up plant in a far corner languished in its pot, obviously unnoticed by its owner.

 

Hutch arched his brows sympathetically, then turned his head to McAufflin again, who’d sat down in his chair and opened a beer. “Nice office.”

 

“Yeah,” the sheriff nodded. “Now, talk to me, kid. What brings you to my little shoebox of a town?”

 

Hutch explained, watching the words sink in behind

McAufflin’s old brown eyes.

 

“I thought something was missing,” the sheriff commented dryly and sighed. “And you’re sure that woman knows where Dave is?”

 

“She’s my main suspect so far,” Hutch answered simply.

“So—help me?”

 

McAufflin snorted, finished his beer. “You gotta ask?

C’mon.” He stood up, grabbing his hat off the desk. “Let’s go get my men.”

 

~oOo~

 

It took Hutch five hours to find out what it was he’d been drinking non-stop while sitting in Sheriff McAufflin’s office, waiting and watching the doomed plant edge closer to its final rest. He’d just volunteered to make another pot, and rolled his eyes at the label on the coffee pack. Decaf. He turned to McAufflin, who was staring at the chessboard in front of him, deep creases of utter concentration digging into his forehead.

 

“Uh, Mac? Decaf?”

 

“Yeah,” McAufflin said, not even glancing up from the game. “Doctor’s orders. My heart, y’know? Hah!” He made a move and snickered. “Check.”

 

Rubbing his eyes with his index finger and thumb, Hutch waved a hand at the board. “You win. I give up.”

 

McAufflin lifted his head and studied Hutch. “We’ll get her. I’ve got three men ready to arrest her the minute she opens her post office box. It’s just a matter of time.”

 

Hutch nodded. “I know, I know. I just don’t think that time is something we have a lot of.” He sighed, sank down onto his chair again, absently putting the pack of coffee onto the desk. “Who knows what...” Biting his lip, he trailed off.

 

“Hey,” McAufflin said after a pause, waiting until Hutch set tired eyes on him. “Starsky’s tough.”

 

“Yeah, and three days can be a hell of a long time. If only I knew what... what’s happening to him. If he’s okay.”

 

“He’ll be okay,” McAufflin assured. “Trust me,” he added. “I’m old and wise.”

 

Laughing softly, Hutch nodded as if convinced. He yawned.

 

McAufflin watched, pointed at the small cell in the back of the room with his head. “Wanna grab a few z’s, kid? You look like you could use them.”

 

“Oh, no.” Hutch shook his head. “Thanks, but I couldn’t sleep. Besides,” he added, “I don’t think the gallon of pretend coffee I downed today will let me.”

 

McAufflin chuckled, but still asked, “When was the last time you slept, hm? You know, wearing yourself out isn’t gonna help Dave.”

 

“I’m not tired, Mac,” Hutch insisted, yawning again. “How about another game?”

 

~oOo~

 

“Okay, new game,” Starsky said. He coughed. His throat was dry again. “Winner gets drink. Counting, uhm... five.”

 

That meant crossing the room twice—away from the water and back to it—in the time it took him to count to five. Would mean a new record too.

 

Getting in position, he drew in a deep breath and coughed again, rubbed his eyes to clear his vision. It was getting harder to see by the minute, he found, not to mention his eyes teared every so often. Sometimes he had to close them and walk with his hands stretched out in front for protection. Anything but sitting down again.

 

“One, two—g!”

 

The game wasn’t as easy as it sounded. Starsky was way too exhausted to pay attention to his counting speed, and so he had already managed to lose against himself a few times. The rules varied from round to round. First, it had just been ‘winner gets drink.’ Next it could be ‘loser hits wall’ or ‘loser takes a sprint’ or some other punishment that would push him into giving his best.

 

The game was the second he'd played after he'd realized that he was trying to make his hands bleed in order to color on the walls. But he couldn’t deny that the stinging pain in his knuckles and fingers still helped to alert him from time to time. Once he had even kicked one of the walls, hard, trying to see if there was any feeling left in his freezing feet. That had hurt too much for a repeat.

 

And though he knew he was playing with fire, making up games that had him running of all things, exhausting himself was the only way to wring any leftover adrenaline out of his dead-tired body. Besides, his half spoken, half thought game commentary reminded him of his childhood in New York, of basketball or baseball games set in the backyard with himself as his own opponent, reporter, star and audience. Back then time had also ran against him, the slanting golden rays of the sun marking the minutes until his mother's voice called him inside for dinner and bedtime.

 

The star of the game was in pretty good form this round. He had reached the opposite wall by the count of two, managed to turn before three, then suddenly stumbled. Startled and unable to break the unexpected fall with his cuffed hands, he crashed to his side and hit his head on the concrete floor.

 

Stars exploded in front of his eyes and he squeezed them shut. As if from a distance, he heard his own moans. He brought his hands under his face and cradled his head while rolling onto his belly to ease the pressure on protesting ribs.

 

The pain in his head intensified. He couldn’t open his eyes. 'A clear foul,' the announcer’s voice said in his mind.

 

He tried and failed to smile. At least his sense of humor was still intact, wasn’t it?

 

It took him some time to find the strength to crawl backward to the wall. He huddled into the corner, absently smearing blood from the scrape on his head over the side of his face. When he managed to open his eyes, the first thing he saw was the water bottle, safe in its old position across the room.

 

“Time out,” he panted and let his head loll back.

 

~oOo~

 

For the second time in one day, Hutch managed to fall asleep in a chair, though this time his slumber lasted only half an hour before McAufflin woke him with the news that Herrick had just entered the post office. She wasn’t alone.

 

The sheriff’s men would stop her and her two companions on their way out to arrest them, since Hutch had no legal authority in the area.

 

It went down smoothly, the perfect bust.

 

Hutch couldn’t help thinking Galesko didn’t look very surprised. Nor did her two hired men. Though they were armed, they never tried to draw their weapons. No doubt they were assured of their bail being paid later.

 

Hutch watched McAufflin cuff her and read her her rights. “Miss Herrick,” he said, “I’m going to drive you back to Bay City, where you will answer some questions.”

 

Anne Galesko smiled. She was so calm, so self-controlled. It was eerie, as if she had been waiting for her own arrest. As if it was all just to finally look Kenneth Hutchinson in the eye and wink knowingly. She nodded.

 

“Get her in my car,” Hutch ordered two of McAufflin’s men, then turned to the sheriff himself. “Mac, I need one more favor.”

 

“Sure, kid, shoot,” McAufflin replied, watching after Galesko and his men. “Want to borrow us for the real arrest now? Did you tell her this was gonna happen, or what? The lady raised her hands before we told her to!”

 

“Yeah, I know. But, no, I just wanted to ask if you could have your people escort her bodyguards into the city?”

 

McAufflin cast him an understanding glance. “Wanna spend some time alone with her?”

 

Hutch didn’t answer.

 

“Well, sure I can do that.” McAufflin shrugged. “No problem. But—”

 

“Thanks, Mac,” Hutch cut him off and headed for his car, but the older man’s gentle grip around his arm stopped him.

 

“Hey, Detective. Will you listen to an old friend’s word of advice?”

 

Hutch bowed his gaze in an almost boyish gesture. He waited.

 

“Don’t let her feel like she’s winning,” the sheriff said in a low voice, studying the blond. “Okay?”

 

“Yeah,” Hutch nodded, smiled and gave McAufflin’s back a parting pat. “Will try. Thanks for everything, Mac. See ya soon.”

 

“You keep me posted, Hutch, you hear?” McAufflin called after him, and Hutch waved as he got in the car and shut the driver's side door.

 

In the rearview mirror, Anne Galesko watched him like a specimen in a study. For a long moment they sat in silence, watching each other.

 

“Where’s my partner?” Hutch asked, despair and exhaustion hidden beneath his hard expression.

 

Galesko smiled. “I’m impressed. You found out much sooner than I anticipated. How did you do that?”

 

“Why, d’you wanna use it for a story?”

 

“I don’t write crime stories,” Galesko answered matter-of-factly. “Just curious.”

 

“Hm.” Hutch still hadn’t started the engine, still watched her mirror image. “So you don’t write crimes. You just commit them.”

 

Pursing her lips, she shook her head. “Nothing that is written is a crime. Art cannot be a crime.”

 

“Where is the art in torturing people to death?” Hutch snapped. “In killing people? Murder is no art.”

 

“Hitchcock would disagree.”

 

Hutch started the engine and drove off. The next ten minutes passed in silence.

 

“Your friend’s a great character,” she suddenly said.

 

Shooting her a glare, Hutch saw she was looking outside, eyes moving with the passing scenery. He pressed his lips together.

 

“Very interesting personality,” she continued. “Very tough. A bit crazy,” she smiled and threw Hutch a knowing glance, then looked outside again. “And really cute.”

 

“When did you last see him?” Hutch asked, amazed at how controlled his voice sounded, when the truth was he couldn’t stand her talking about Starsky as a mere character, her character.

 

“Earlier today,” she answered. “He looked awful. But,” she raised her shoulders in a shrug, “he’s still in the game.”

 

“Game?” Hutch repeated, looking at her in the mirror.

 

Her lips curved. “Nice try, Hutch.” The twinkle in her eyes brightened when he flinched at her use of the nickname.

“I’m sure Tim told you all about the draft I sent him.”

 

“You didn’t... specify the ‘game’ in that one.”

 

“That’s right, I didn’t,” she replied. “Of course I don’t want my ideas to get stolen by others. You understand that, don’t you, Hutch? Or would you let a suspect know just when you’re gonna surprise and arrest them?”

 

Hutch shot her a quick look, didn’t answer.

 

“I didn’t hurt him,” Galesko said after a moment of silence. “In case you’re worried about that.”

 

“There was blood on his driveway,” he pointed out.

 

A pause. “I didn’t hurt him once I had him.” She smiled.

 

Hutch’s grip tightened on the steering wheel. He kept his silence.

 

“You read my stories, didn’t you?” Galesko spoke again, glancing at him in the outside mirror. “And now you wonder. What could I possibly have thought up for him. Isn’t that right? Hmmm…” she added, making it sound as if she was searching her mind for an idea. “Let’s see... how about locking him in that old zoo again with, what was it? A bear?”

 

The effect of her words almost caused an accident as Hutch reacted, staring at her over his shoulder. He looked ahead again, his heart racing.

 

“What?” she asked in innocent surprise. “Don't you think I read newspapers?”

 

“There were no bears mentioned in any of the articles.”

 

“A simple task of research, if you know how to do it.” She thought for a moment. “After all, life writes the best stories. I’m only imitating.”

 

Frowning, Hutch shook his head curtly. “D’you really believe all this crap you’re saying? ‘Imitating life’?”

 

“I had this... muse once,” she said, looking upward as if organizing her memories, “in Seattle. He’d lost everything, when I met him. Job, house, wife... living on the street, y’know? And he signed up with me.”

 

“Nice way of putting it,” Hutch muttered, but was ignored.

 

“When I worked on the plot,” Galesko continued, “I thought about this guy’s future. What could possibly await him after what had happened to him. Stuff like that. And then it hit me. He’d go where they all go.” She paused for emphasis. “So I had him hooked on heroin.” A shrug. “Art imitating life.”

 

Hutch went cold. Focusing on the street, he asked, “What about afterward?”

 

“He never would’ve been able to afford it in real life,” she answered. She sounded so convinced, enthusiastic about her ‘work’. It sickened Hutch. Even more so because he could imagine her using that tone when talking to his partner.

 

“I read that story,” he said, hoarse, his throat suddenly dry. “That’s not how it went down.”

 

An amused smile curled her lips as she studied him. “Know something, Hutch? I really envied Ben when he told me his version of it. I mean, my guy was just scared, but you... you had something to lose.” With a regretful little noise, she shook her head. “Think about the potential.”

 

What Hutch thought about was pulling over and shutting her up any way he could. He ordered himself not to lose it.

 

'She’s playing you. Ignore it.'

 

“I always told Ben he’d missed a huge opportunity. Think of it, you’d have given him anything back there. What a basis for a character.” She sighed, seemingly overwhelmed by the spirit of inspiration, then gave him a questioning glance. “Do you ever wonder what would’ve happened if it’d been Dave they’d wanted?”

 

Hutch drew in a deep, quiet breath. 'Don’t listen. Don’t answer.'

 

“What do you think you’d have done later? When you’d realized? How would you have felt?”

 

'She’s insane, she doesn’t know shit.'

 

There was a merciful if too short silence before Galesko continued. “That was the original reason I called Ben in jail, did you know that? I planned to write about you.”

She looked at him as though she expected him to be flattered.

 

He froze as the full meaning hit him. “What?” It was the first thing he’d said since she’d started her little trip into his past.

 

“It’s true,” she grinned. “Ever since I heard Ben’s story, I wanted to write it. It’s so much better than the original.” She lifted her brows, looking impressed. “Anyway, that’s when I heard about Dave.”

 

Hutch stopped the LTD, brakes squealing, and turned in his seat before the car had fully stopped. “Say that again,” he said, staring straight into her eyes.

 

“Woah. What did I say?”

 

He knew it was wrong. It gave her exactly what she wanted. But he couldn’t help it. “You called Forest to talk about... me? A-and... and he suggested you focus on Starsky?”

 

She smiled. “You know when I talked about the old zoo? Ben collected all those articles. Y’know, I always wondered,” she added, pretending to be serious, “didn’t what’s-her-name warn you back then not to piss off Ben? Didn’t you know who he is?”

 

Swallowing, Hutch hardened his expression. “He’s a man inhabiting a cell for the rest of his life. And I assure you, Anne, after this, you’ll join him.”

 

To his increasing fury, she chuckled. “That’s cute, Hutch. Now I’m so desperate.”

 

Feeling his hands clench into fists, Hutch turned to start the engine again. “Shut up,” he growled.

 

“No, serious, that’s harsh,” she continued to mock. “Next to this, Ben’s vengeance just fades into noth—”

 

“This is not about revenge!” Hutch cut her off. “This is no goddamned book! You’re nothing but an ordinary criminal, and you’re gonna be arrested and tried according to the law, just like Ben Forest.”

 

“Okay,” she answered, and he had the idea she would have lifted her hands in mocking self-defense if they hadn’t been cuffed. “And what if your friend’s already dead?”

 

Hutch’s heart missed a beat. 'Don’t listen. Starsky’s alive. Don’t react.'

 

“Maybe you’re right and Ben and I will never leave prison again. How’s that gonna differ from life without your partner?”

 

“I’ll find him,” Hutch said against his will, forcing himself not to make eye contact. God, whose stupid idea was it to make the drive alone with her, anyway?

 

“Could be,” she replied matter-of-factly. “But what if I destroyed him?”

 

Hutch clenched his jaw.

 

“What if jail’s not gonna stop us? Aren’t you seeing this doctor from Memorial?”

 

Hutch's heart jumped. It took all he had not to turn around again. 'So she knows about Audrey. She checked on you. Don’t let her feel like she’s winning.'

 

But the realization grew that Anne Galesko was winning this game; hell, she already had. For him, participation meant losing. And he had no choice.

 

“How does it feel, being a danger to people?” Galesko asked in a not-so-casual rumination. She reminded Hutch of those high school bullies who never left you alone, crowded around you all the way home while you stared desperately at the pavement, trying to disappear in thin air. Digging for a reaction from you.

 

Stoically he focused on the street, thinking only how he wished he'd waited to question Galesko at the precinct, where he could have called Audrey to check on her. 'This was a bad idea, Hutch. Very bad.'

 

“Y’know, this reminds me of a poem I once read about how we are all the center of our own world,” Galesko said, her eyes fixed far off in the distance. “Now, the world’s a dangerous place to live in, isn’t it? Earthquakes, floods, twisters... just by living in the wrong city, people can get killed.” She thought a minute, then shrugged. “Or crippled. Traumatized. What do you think?”

 

“I think your metaphors stink,” Hutch answered.

 

“Well, I guess it’s too much to ask a cop to have any imagination,” she countered. “Though I do see your point. The character I’m thinking about is probably more like a nuclear bomb. Built to save lives, but unable to keep from destroying them.”

 

The image clawed its way through his inner barriers. A mushroom cloud, destructive, incapable of curbing its own nature. No matter how hard he tried.

 

“Miss Galesko, I’d highly appreciate it if you could shut up for the rest of the drive unless you’re planning to tell me where you’re holding Detective Starsky.”

 

Galesko arched her elegantly long lips into a polite smile. “Not yet, honey.” Letting her gaze linger on him a moment longer, a perfectly shaped crease formed between her eyes. “When was the last time you got any real sleep? You look terrible.”

 

~oOo~

 

The blanket was moving. Changing its shape, as if alive. Preparing an attack.

 

He tilted his head to one side. It felt weird, like it was going to fall off, so Starsky straightened it. He narrowed his eyes, squinting, trying to make the blanket lay still. He knew it wasn’t really moving.

 

But it was. Wobbling, shifting, that’s what it did. Like woolen pudding. And the sandwiches moved, too, edged closer to each other on the plate, then separated again. Tearing his gaze away, Starsky stared down at the bottle in his hands. He lifted it off of the ground. At least it didn’t move.

 

He took a sip, lost his balance, fell on his back where he lay in the middle of the room. No more corners. Corners were like chairs. Made you fall asleep in them. Corners supported your weight. He didn’t need that. He had stood for a long time, only moving his feet when they started to hurt. He couldn’t recall sitting down. But he hadn’t fallen asleep. He’d have noticed if he’d fallen down from a standing position. Wouldn’t he?

 

Water spilled from the bottle lying in his slack hand, and he quickly righted it, fumbled with the lid. Water was precious. Needed to be saved. Just like him. He smiled wearily.

 

His eyes were tearing again, an uncomfortable wetness blurring his vision. He felt a little moisture tracking down his temples. The ceiling moved, too. The whole room had started to wobble. He didn't know when it had started.

He shivered. He felt so cold. Curling up would help, but then he’d fall asleep.

 

He’d fall asleep pretty soon now. Didn’t matter what he did anymore. Might as well curl up. Try to get warm. Maybe he could edge closer to the forbidden corner, put his feet under the blanket. Just his feet. Just the toes.

 

When his captors entered again, he’d draw them out the second he heard the key. He could do that. They wouldn’t notice. Just his feet. His feet were freezing.

 

For a long, long time he just lay where he’d fallen, staring upwards, imagining how he’d move the few inches to the blanket and cover his feet. Over and over the scenario replayed in his mind, until his eyes suddenly opened, frantic and wide.

 

Feebly, he moved his feet, lifted his head to look at them. A wave of nausea hit him, and he sank back down. No, he hadn’t moved over to the blanket. Hadn’t touched it. But he had dozed off. Fallen asleep.

 

A desperate sound escaped his lips. Sounded like a laugh.

 

He couldn’t fight anymore. He was beat. He had lost. The dull pain in his head throbbed along with the one in his knuckles, his back. His legs felt cramped, as if he hadn’t moved in days, and he was so, so cold, as if he had never been warm. Everything he tried to do now, he failed at. Too weak to pace, too weak to talk to himself, too weak to hit the walls. All he could do was lay there and wait for the inevitable to happen.

 

And when he woke up, they would drag Hutch in and kill him. Hutch would see the pathetic, weak failure that was his partner, the one person he should be able to rely on. And then he'd die.

 

For Starsky, the feel of slumber tightening its hold on him was no different than a slow death. If he fell asleep, he’d wake up in hell, he knew that. Life ended with sleep.

 

A sob caught in his throat. He let his head loll towards the window, blinked up into the bright light—and jerked his eyes open. The light was still there. How long this time? Five minutes? Twenty? An hour? Two?

 

He had no way of telling how much time had passed when his eyes popped open, but it always made him frantic, always made his heart hammer wildly, sure that this time they had seen, that this time he had sentenced Hutch.

 

Everything took so long. Struggling into a sitting position was a monumental task, screwing the lid off the bottle took ages, and his stomach rolled when he tilted his head to drink. For another few eternities he sat with his head hanging, swaying, hands in his lap. When he got to his feet, he stumbled backwards and hit the wall with his back.

 

Sliding sideways across it, he reached a corner. Corners, always corners.

 

But this time he turned with his back facing the room and rested his forehead against the brick. He put his palms on the wall above his head, stretching the cuffs until they cut into his wrists.

 

He didn’t close his eyes. He stared into the shadows at his feet, blinking in a slow, steady rhythm. Minutes passed before he forced himself to move his tongue and produce words, sounds.

 

If he’d been awake inside, he’d have smirked at the whispered refrain of “Leaving On A Jetplane” in the room.

 

But he wasn't, so he didn’t notice the same three lines sung over and over and over again.

 

~oOo~

 

Dobey glanced over his shoulder at the soft click of a door behind him. He was waiting for the candy bar to fall down in the vending machine.

 

Down the hallway, unaware he was being watched, Hutch let himself sink heavily against the wall next to the door. Exhausted, he rubbed his eyes. Keeping them closed, he leaned his head back. Dobey could see him draw in deep breaths. He couldn’t remember ever seeing Hutch so miserable. There seemed to be no energy left in him, no fight left on the pale features. Beat. Hutch looked beat.

 

“Here,” Dobey said, approaching his detective and holding out the candy bar. “I bet you haven’t eaten all day.”

 

Startled, Hutch jumped and set tired eyes upon the candy. He took it without protest, managing a weary smile.

 

“Thanks.” He held it, listening to his captain’s next question.

 

“How’s it going?”

 

 “It's not. I don’t think there’s anything short of torture that’ll make her tell us where he is." He ran a hand over his tired face.

 

Dobey watched him, catching the unfamiliar expression of despair in the sky colored eyes. “You look like you could use a break. I can send someone else in with her.”

 

“I can’t take a break, Captain,” Hutch snapped. “Starsky’s not getting any breaks.” He looked at the door as if he could see through it. “I know why she’s doing this. She wants to be sure he’ll lose the game. It’s over for her, anyway, but she’ll still win.” Frustrated, he ripped the candy wrapper open and frowned at it, as if startled that he’d done it. He looked at Dobey. “Have you reached Memorial yet?”

 

“Yeah,” Dobey nodded. “Your girlfriend just treated a patient. Don’t worry.”

 

“’Kay,” Hutch muttered. He was staring at the door again. “If only she had something we could take away from her.”

 

Dobey frowned. He wondered if Hutch was aware he’d said that out loud. “Hey.” Gently, he grabbed the blond’s arm, made him look at him. “I think someone else should take over from here.”

 

“Is that an order?” Hutch nearly yelled, then closed his eyes briefly. “Sorry. I’m tired.”

 

“I know,” Dobey replied, sliding into the gruff tone that always marked his concern. “You haven’t gotten any real sleep in days. You’re running on empty, Hutch, and that won’t help find him any sooner, you know that.”

 

“Yeah, I know,” Hutch said, sounding like a reprimanded kid.

 

“You’re letting her get to you,” Dobey continued. “That’s exactly what she wants.”

 

Hutch blew a long breath out. “She already got everything she wanted. Know what she told me? He’s all by himself, and he’s running out of water.” He hit the palm of his hand against the wall. “And there’s nothing I can do about it! I can’t make her tell me where he is or what she’s done to him. I’m a cop, and I’m sitting here on my ass, listening to her endless crap and begging for her cooperation.”

 

Catching the dismay in Dobey’s eyes, he lowered his voice. “Know something, Captain? I don’t think I wanna be one of the good guys anymore. There’s too many restrictions.”

 

Dobey's heart lurched at Hutch's suffering. “Hutchinson, calm down!” he barked, watching Hutch visibly work to regain control. “We’ll find him,” he added more gently.

 

“Yeah,” Hutch mumbled. He didn’t seem very convinced. “But still she’ll have won her game. She and Forest will...” He quieted, lips pressing together. When he spoke again, it was barely more than a whisper. “I hate this crap.”

 

Before Dobey had a chance to reply, to bark some more, a young man in a suit approached them from around the corner.

 

“Excuse me, sir? Hutch?”

 

Hutch and Dobey turned to look at him. He was a young, green detective by the name of Tyler Klingst, one of the two officers responsible for questioning Anne Galesko’s men.

 

“Yeah, Klingst?” Dobey asked.

 

“Sorry to interrupt,” Klingst said, “but I think you should hear this. It sounds like one of the guys just told us where they’re holding Starsky.”

 

Hutch eyes widened. “Where?”

 

“He told us he’d just been hired to drive Herrick because she doesn’t have a driver’s license. When I asked him where he’d driven her, he said to Rocky Beach, to other places, and 'out there’—presumably where Starsky is being held.”

 

“Out there?” Hutch repeated.

 

Klingst nodded. “That’s what I asked, too, and he answered. I don’t even think he realized it. ” He smirked. “Anyway, he said, ‘Yeah, up to Teddyville.’”

 

Dobey and Hutch frowned. “What’s that?” Hutch asked.

 

“It’s an old warehouse that used to belong to a toy store. My brother-in-law used to work there, that’s why I remember the place. It’s been closed for years now because some kids played with fireworks on the second floor on New Year’s Eve and burnt down half the building. Here’s the address,” he added, handing Hutch a piece of paper.

 

Excited, Hutch looked at it, then at his colleague again. “Is there enough of the warehouse left to hide someone in it?”

 

“The ground floor and cellar still stand,” Klingst

answered. “As far as I know there’re no other warehouses around that’re still being used. It’s a No Man’s Land up there.”

 

“Ty, you’re beautiful,” Hutch said, and turned to Dobey. “Guess I’m gonna take my break after all.”

 

Dobey nodded. “Keep me posted, y’hear?”

 

“Sure,” Hutch promised, already halfway around the corner.

 

~oOo~

 

The light slanted, turning golden when Hutch headed north out of the city, trying not to let his thoughts wander. He had to concentrate on finding Starsky. Anything else would wait.

 

He stopped at the nearest gas station to buy two bottles of water. Galesko’s comment about Starsky running out of water haunted him. Along with a few other remarks.

 

'What if I destroyed him? If I let you find him—what if he’s not what you lost anymore?

 

And just how will you stop me from writing about it?

 

Believe me, I know you, Hutch. You’ll read it. You won’t be able to help it.'

 

God, he hated her. More than he’d ever hated Forest. Or Simon Marcus. Anyone.

 

Anne Galesko was the embodiment of something even worse than evil. Evil was fueled by emotions, drew its strength out of dark feelings, but Galesko didn’t feel anything but the excited enthusiasm of a child, absorbed by her games.

 

Listening to her, watching her watch him, sensing her amusement, interest—Hutch had never felt so frustrated before, so resigned, so helpless. Even Simon Marcus, that self-righteous fanatic, had gotten angry when he’d been sentenced.

 

Hutch remembered the overwhelming, satisfying relief at seeing that anger when the judge had read the verdict and pronounced his sentence. They had beat Marcus. He had lost.

 

And yes, that meant Hutch wanted revenge, took satisfaction in it. But he was only human, damn it. Considering how he’d felt at seeing his best friend hang from his wrists, about to be slaughtered, it was surprising that it was enough to see that look on Marcus’s face, to know he’d been put away for good.

 

But even Marcus had felt something. Anne Galesko... it was impossible to punish her. She had no life outside of herself to influence. She had nothing to lose. In a way, she was the freest person Hutch had ever met. And you couldn’t take that freedom away from her. Maybe that was what frustrated him.

 

So it wasn’t supposed to be about punishing people, but, hell, he wanted her to pay for what she’d done to his friend, to him. Yet with people like Galesko, the only thing you could hope for was a meting out of justice in the afterlife, that some higher power forced them to understand what they’d done, feel what you’d felt.

 

Hutch noticed the landscape changing, dark, empty warehouses appearing in the lowering darkness like ghosts. They looked like a perfect background for a horror movie.

 

It didn’t take him long to find Teddyville after that, the unmistakable jagged, burned shapes marking the ruins. You could see how big the building had once been. Steel pillars reached up high into the evening sky, but only the first and second floor still stood.

 

Turning off the engine, Hutch sat and studied the building. It looked as if it could fall down at any moment, but if that were true it likely would have happened by now, he figured. With a deep bracing breath, he grabbed a flashlight from out of the glove compartment and left the car, approaching the doorless entry.

 

He didn’t bother checking the second floor since half of that didn’t have a roof anymore, instead quickly searching the first floor before heading downstairs into the cellar.

It was surprisingly large with long hallways and tiny, windowless rooms. Hutch frowned at the damp cold of the place. He hurried, checking every room as he went deeper into the labyrinth.

 

Most of the few doors stood wide open, but one was closed. A key was in the lock. Bracing himself, he reached out for the doorknob and turned it. It didn’t open.

 

'Almost there, buddy.'

 

He turned the key, dragged the surprisingly heavy door open.

 

An intelligible mumble reached his ears before he’d even stepped inside. The hoarse voice was unquestionably familiar.

 

“Starsky?”

 

He saw him in the last light of the day flooding the tiny room through a single window high up, close to the ceiling. It was only inches above the ground on the outside.

 

Starsky tried clumsily to turn around in a corner across the room where he’d apparently stood with his back facing outwards. Hutch heard him mumble something again, and this time he caught it.

 

“Awake. I’m awake.”

 

Appalled, Hutch went to his friend’s side. “Starsk. Aw, God.”

 

He let Starsky sink down to sit against the wall, holding onto his partner’s forearms while he tried to get a closer look at the white face.

 

Bluish black smudges like bruises marked the skin beneath his murky blue eyes, differing in appearance from the actual bruises on Starsky’s forehead and cheekbone.

 

“Hey.”

 

Starsky struggled to lift his head, and Hutch put his hand beneath Starsky’s chin and helped him. He let a thumb brush over the clammy skin surrounding the injuries.

 

“Buddy, it’s me.”

 

Starsky frowned, focusing on Hutch. If possible, his face paled another shade. The constant trembling increased, and his arms shook. Bruised and bloody hands suddenly groped for the lapels of his jacket.

 

“No,” Starsky whispered, eyes widening in shock. “No, no, no.” His head fell onto drawn up knees, curling up on himself, but his grip never loosened on Hutch’s jacket. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

 

Caught totally off guard, Hutch watched in horror, the litany of half sobbed apologies acting like blows to his ears.

 

“Starsky...” he said, sounding lost even to himself. “Buddy, hey, it’s okay. It’s over.” Desperate to ease Starsky’s pain, he let go of his forearms and gently stroked his hair, trying to get him to lift his head again. Willing him to listen, to understand. “You’re safe now. D’you hear me, babe? I’m gonna take you home. It’s over. Nothing to be sorry for.”

 

But Hutch’s presence in the room had triggered a terrified reaction that blocked out all assurances. Starsky was crushed. He held onto Hutch as if he expected him to be torn away any second.

 

Understanding dawned on the blond, and the hand that had stroked the matted curls wandered down to squeeze the back of Starsky’s neck gently. “Starsk, listen to me. It’s over. You’re... we’re safe. It’s okay.”

 

When there was no response, he peeled the clinging fingers off of his jacket and held them in his own.

 

Starsky looked up as if scared of what he might see. At least he stopped apologizing. His eyes moved over the open doorway.

 

“It’s just me. See?” Hutch said, leaning to the side to let Starsky scan the room. “I found you. It’s okay.” Once more, he placed a hand on Starsky’s neck and rubbed, trying to warm the cold skin. “We won,” he said and smiled.

 

Starsky stared at him, then looked at the open door, then back. His raised his hands and flapped them weakly against Hutch’s chest, shoulder, hair.

 

“W-we won?” he repeated. “You’re not... th-they won’t...” He swallowed dryly. “I thought I’d killed you.”

 

He sounded so innocent. Hutch’s features softened, along with his voice, and he shook his head, rubbed Starsky’s cheek with the back of his knuckles. “Don’t be ridiculous, Gordo.”

 

Starsky smiled, relief flooding his eyes as he soaked in Hutch’s presence. His fingers came back to Hutch’s jacket and clung there. “How d’you find me?” he asked wearily, watching his partner inspecting the cuffs.

 

“I’ll tell you later,” Hutch answered. He produced the key to the handcuffs and concentrated on freeing his partner’s hands. Slow to respond, Starsky wasn’t much help, and it took Hutch some time to untangle his jacket from Starsky’s grip before he could open the lock.

 

“There you go,” Hutch mumbled when the cuffs finally opened, and gently turned his friend’s hands in his to inspect the damage done to the wrists and knuckles. He whistled, brushing over crusted streaks of blood with his thumb. “What did you do, wrestle a wall?”

 

“Uh huh,” Starsky nodded, too tired to get the joke. He looked over at the window, relief fading from his face to leave blank exhaustion behind.

 

Hutch ran the flashlight over the surrounding walls, shuddering when he saw dark red spots and streaks on the concrete. Some looked almost... drawn. Quickly, he turned to his friend again, frowning. He reached out to tip one finger against Starsky’s chin. “Starsky.”

 

Starsky blinked tiredly, then frowned, widening his eyes, a gasp catching in his throat.

 

“It’s okay,” Hutch assured, grabbing his shoulders. “‘It’s all right. I found you, remember? It’s over.” He studied his friend, watched the memories cover the sudden fear for now. “Remember?” He waited. “Talk to me, babe. You okay?”

 

“Yeah.” Starsky nodded tiredly. “Yeah, I’m sorry. It’s just...” he trailed off, locked eyes with Hutch, who nodded and stroked his head comfortingly.

 

“I know. It’s okay.”

 

“I wanna go home, Hutch.”

 

“Yeah, we’ll get you home,” Hutch replied, carefully turning the dark head to get a better look at the bloody bruise on the left side. “How’d that happen? Did they hit you?”

 

“No,” Starsky said, moving his face away from Hutch’s hands, almost embarrassed. “Fell playing.” He shivered.

 

Hutch glanced over his shoulder at the blanket. “We need to get you someplace warm,” he said, and stood to get it.

 

Starsky’s hand flew forward in a frantic reflex, trying to hold him back.

 

“Easy, it’s okay.” Hutch took the flailing hand in his. “Easy, buddy. I’m not leaving.”

 

Starsky’s lips arched in a nervous, embarrassed smile. He tried to pull his hand back but was met with gentle resistance and looked up to meet sky blue eyes filled with understanding, comfort. He nodded and his hand was released.

 

Hutch was pretty sure he knew what Galesko’s game had been. The draft Tim McCullen had told him about matched what he found here. 'A game he cannot win. If he loses, his friend will be killed.'

 

Stooping in front of the items neatly arranged in the corner across from Starsky, Hutch shuddered, the cold traveling down his spine.

 

The two sandwiches on the plate on top of the folded woolen blanket didn’t look all that fresh, but Galesko and her goons hadn’t been in here for some time now. Here it sat, nutrition and warmth, and yet Starsky was shaking, his skin ice cold to the touch, as weak as a kitten, probably as much from starvation as from sleep deprivation.

 

With a disgusted sigh, Hutch put the plate aside and picked up the blanket.

 

'A game he cannot win.'

 

He wondered if Starsky had lost. There was no chance he could have won in the end, but he had been awake when Hutch entered, and Galesko would have said if Starsky had failed.

 

Starsky jumped when Hutch draped the blanket over his trembling shoulders, wild eyes roving the blond’s face. Memory kicked in and the struggling slowed and then stopped.

 

“Shh, it’s just me,” Hutch soothed, folding the blanket over Starsky’s chest. “Everything’s gonna be all right. Are you hurt anywhere else?” he asked, hands lingering on the blanket, watching his friend closely for any signs of pain. “Sides, ribs?”

 

“Nah, I’m fine,” Starsky mumbled, eyes closed. But his shaking only increased now that he was wrapped in something warm. He drew his shoulders up, fumbled with the edges of the blanket.

 

Hutch gave him a few more moments and rubbed the freezing cold bare feet. “Can you walk?”

 

Starsky gave him a sideglance. Clearly he wondered the same thing. “Sure. Let’s get outta here.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

With Hutch carrying Starsky more than supporting him, they got to their feet. Starsky was dizzy and leaned his forehead against his friend’s shoulder.

 

“Hutch,” he mumbled, a lost sound, yet at the same time sounding almost annoyed at himself.

 

“I got you,” Hutch assured, tightening his grip on Starsky’s waist for emphasis. “It’s okay.”

 

Starsky remained where he was, face buried on Hutch’s shoulder, trying to gain his strength. He sighed. “’M tired.”

 

Hutch laughed softly, patting his back. “I know you are, buddy. Almost home. I promise.”

 

“’Kay,” Starsky whispered, pushing away, and together they started the long, slow walk outside, though not without Hutch noticing the half empty bottle of water in another corner of the room.

 

It took forever, but eventually they reached the LTD.

 

“Where’s my car?” Starsky slurred, when he saw Hutch’s battered vehicle.

 

Hutch rolled his eyes, opened the passenger door and made sure Starsky didn’t hit his head. Starsky practically plopped down on the seat.

 

“Police lab,” Hutch panted. His partner was heavier than he looked.

 

“What’s it doing there?” Starsky asked.

 

“Waiting to be released,” Hutch answered and threw the door shut, then walked around the car to get in.

 

By the time he was in, Starsky seemed to have forgotten about the earlier topic. He looked ahead, blinking repeatedly.

 

Hutch reached out to touch his shoulder. “Hey, why don’t you close your eyes for a few? I’ll tell you when we’re there.”

 

Starsky blinked as if thinking and frowned when he looked at the blond. “I wanna go home, Hutch.”

 

“Yeah, I’ll get y—”

 

“No,” Starsky cut him off. “Now.” He grimaced pleadingly.

 

Understanding, Hutch arched his brows. “Oh. Aw, buddy, I don’t know.” His gaze wandered to the ugly black bruises on the pale face down to his hands. “I think you need to be checked out. You could have a concussion. They could give you something to make you feel better.” He reached out to brush back wayward curls. “Maybe you need stitches. I really think we’d better get you to a hospital first. I promise you won’t have to stay.”

 

“Hutch, please,” Starsky protested. “I just need to sleep.”

 

“And eat,” Hutch pointed out. “Not to mention you’re probably dehydrated too. I’m sorry, pal, but—”

 

“Please,” Starsky whined. It was a tone of voice he seldom used, one that was so honestly and openly pleading, revealing so much helplessness that it always tugged at Hutch’s heart like a child’s small hand. You couldn’t say no to it. And the secret of its success was that Starsky didn’t realize how it affected his partner.

 

Hutch closed his eyes, resigned to losing the argument.

 

“No matter where I lay down now, I’m not gonna get up again. So of course they’ll make me stay. And I don’t wanna have to stay somewhere else. I wanna go home.”

 

Starsky couldn’t have possibly said anything more perfect. Hutch gave in without further discussion. “Okay. Okay, I’ll drive you home. But I’ll call Audrey to come over and have a look at those.” He gestured at Starsky’s bruises, then lifted a warning finger. “No discussion.”

 

Starsky smiled gratefully. “Deal.” He leaned back, dragging the blanket down to cover his feet. “Thanks, Hutch.”

 

“Well, she is a kiddy doc,” Hutch said, shooting his partner a small grin. He started the engine and maneuvered the car onto the street.

 

It wasn’t long before Starsky’s glassy eyes closed, the strained features smoothing.

 

One of the battered hands fell out of the blanket and lay on the seat next to Hutch. He brushed a thumb over it, furrowing his brows in anger. It wasn’t unlike Starsky to hit a wall in frustration, but the wounds told of a violent desperation that sickened Hutch. He didn’t want to imagine what his friend had gone through locked in that spartan room for three days with nothing to do but monitor his own failing battle against sleep.

 

And knowing that if you fell asleep...

 

Starsky’s whole body jerked as he snapped awake, the hand Hutch had covered flying up to tear at the blanket. “No! Awake! I’m awa—”

 

“Starsky!” Hutch pulled over to the side of the road with squealing brakes. Before the car stopped completely, he turned to his frantically struggling partner and pinned him against the back of the seat. “Starsk! Calm down!”

 

Panting, Starsky stared at him with wild eyes. He didn’t notice his own feet kicking the blanket at his feet, trying to shove it away. “Hutch?” he asked, his gaze jumping around the interior of the car, always returning to Hutch’s face.

 

“Yeah, ’sme,” Hutch said, hands raised as if trying to calm a cornered animal. “It’s okay. I got you. We’re safe, remember? We’re on our way home. Everything’s fine.”

 

As the choking fear ebbed away, Starsky shivered. He let go of a shaky breath. “Yeah. Right. Sorry.” His head sank back against the headrest and he closed his eyes, but opened them again instantly. “Sorry,” he repeated. “Must’ve dozed off.”

 

Hutch glanced up from bending to gather the blanket and bundle it around his friend again. “Bad dream?”

 

“Huh?” Starsky shook his head. “No.” He snuggled up in the blanket, shoulders drawing up. “Sorry I freaked like that.”

 

“That’s okay, buddy,” Hutch squeezed Starsky’s tense shoulder. “No apologies needed. You okay now?”

 

“Yeah,” Starsky nodded. “Terrific.”

 

“Thirsty? There’s water here somewhere.” Shifting on his seat to search the back of the car and the floor, Hutch stopped short when Starsky picked up a bottle and showed it to him, then put it in the back again.

 

“No, thanks,” he said, and smiled.

 

For a split second Hutch considered urging him to drink something, but he didn’t have the heart to argue with his very shaken looking partner. “Okay.” He started the car again.

 

They drove in silence, Hutch painfully aware of Starsky’s struggle to stay awake, the tension never leaving his trembling shoulders, the repeated blinking of his eyes.

 

“It’s probably gonna take us another twenty minutes or so,” Hutch said, catching the startled flinch next to him. “You could try and grab a few more z’s. I’ll wake you.” Seeing Starsky open his mouth, he quickly added, “I promise I’ll drive you home, no tricks.”

 

Catching the twinkle in Hutch’s eyes, Starsky smiled wearily, but replied, “I want to sleep in my own bed.”

 

It was a very understandable wish, of course, but something in Starsky’s tone tugged at Hutch’s soul, made him frown in concern. “Wanna talk about it?” he asked.

 

Feebly, Starsky patted his partner’s shoulder. “So you got her?” he asked, changing the subject.

 

A shadow settled over Hutch’s expression. “Yes. Her name’s Anne Galesko. She’s a writer.”

 

“I know,” Starsky mumbled and yawned. “She told me. Can’t say I know her, though. Should I?” he added.

 

“No. She’s awful.”

 

“That I know.”

 

“I mean as a writer. Remember when I told you about the woman on the east coast who was tried for torturing a bum to write about his fear?”

 

“Not right now,” Starsky replied. He wiped a hand over his face. “But my brains are not exactly working on full power, y’know. So that’s what she does, huh? Writes about this stuff?”

 

“Yep.”

 

“That’s sick. Why me?” he added after a moment’s thought, frowning. “I’ve never seen her before.”

 

Hutch hesitated. He could sense his partner’s questioning glance intensifying when he didn’t respond right away, and he avoided Starsky’s eyes.

 

“Hutch?”

 

“Sh-she... she worked for Ben Forest. He... hired her, to get back at me. She wanted to write about...” He lifted his hands off the steering wheel. “Uh... about you,” he finished lamely, shooting his dumbfounded friend a glance.

 

“Forest,” Starsky repeated. “Wow. That’s the last person I’d have thought of.”

 

Hutch doubted Starsky had understood the rest of what he’d said, or that he could, in his condition, process the connection between Galesko and Forest.

 

Though Starsky sounded okay for the most part, even alert after his latest adrenaline rush, Hutch knew his partner was far from okay. He had trouble focusing and his movements were uncoordinated and clumsy.

 

“I’m sorry, partner.”

 

“What for?” Starsky frowned and dropped his face into his hands, rubbed his eyes. “I wanna go home,” he moaned.

 

Swallowing past a growing lump in his throat, Hutch stroked the dark hair, his free hand tightening its grip on the steering wheel. “Almost there, babe. Then you can sleep.”

 

His hand moved away and Starsky’s head reared up. Once more huge eyes fastened on Hutch’s face, a split second of pure terror flashing over Starsky’s features. Then he nodded slowly, taking a deep breath. “Right. Right. Home. Sleep.”

 

He slid down on his seat, a weary grip finding Hutch’s forearm. “Hutch. Home.”

 

Unnerved, Hutch sped up, lips tightly pressed together. In his mind, he heard Anne Galesko’s voice.

 

'What if I destroyed him?'

 

~oOo~

 

The first thing Starsky did after sinking down on his bed was to stick his feet under the comforter. He’d gotten rid of the woolen blanket the moment they’d stepped inside his apartment and now groped for his own blanket.

 

Hutch dragged the tucked ends of the blanket loose from the mattress where Starsky, always the neatnik, had made up his bed before his departure almost a week ago. Tucking his friend in, Hutch made a mental list of things to do, his mothering instinct taking over.

 

“You try to get some rest now,” he ordered softly.

 

It concerned him that Starsky lay with his eyes open, blinking up at the ceiling. He should be dead to the world by now. “I’ll call Dobey and Audrey and then check out your grocery situation. Okay?”

 

“Groceries?” Starsky slurred. He was fading fast, the wheels inside his head finally slowing down.

 

“We need to get you something to eat,” Hutch explained, studying the lacerations on Starsky’s hands and wondering if there was still some of the antibiotic cream left that Starsky had been given after his abduction by Simon’s cultists.

 

“Not hungry,” Starsky mumbled. “Just wanna sleep.” He opened and closed his eyes. Opened them again. “Lemme sleep, Hutch, ’kay?”

 

“Yeah,” Hutch soothed. “Okay.”

 

“Need some sleep,” Starsky whispered.

 

Giving his shoulder a parting pat, Hutch said, “I’ll be right outside, buddy,” and quietly left the room, leaving the door ajar.

 

While talking to Dobey five minutes later, he rummaged through the empty drawers and cupboards in Starsky’s kitchen. For a guy so focused on food, his partner had very little stocked in his own home.

 

“He’ll have to identify Galesko,” Dobey pointed out while Hutch stood with the fridge door open, staring into the great nothing. “When do you think he’ll be up to that?”

 

“Dunno,” Hutch replied, letting the door fall shut. “I’ll call you again tomorrow, tell you how things are looking. He’s wiped out.”

 

“But he’s okay?” It sounded more like a statement than a question. Like Dobey ordered that it be the truth.

 

“He’s... exhausted,” Hutch answered evasively. “What about Galesko’s lawyer? Has she called one?”

 

Dobey snorted. “One?”

 

Leaning back against the breakfast counter, Hutch pinched the bridge of his nose. “We can’t let them pay her bail and get her out. I don’t want her running around out there.”

 

“Think I do?”

 

“We can prove she’s a danger to Starsky. And to Audrey. The judge’ll consider that, won’t he?”

 

“Hutch, don’t worry,” Dobey said. “You concentrate on taking care of your partner and leave that to me, okay?”

 

“Yeah, okay,” Hutch said. “Thanks, Captain.”

 

“Just make sure you keep me posted.”

 

“Will do.”

 

Next he called Audrey, who answered the phone with a sleepy voice.

 

“Hey, it’s me. Did I wake you?”

 

“Um…yeah.” She yawned. “Yeah. Hi. I’m sorry, I just got home a little while ago. How are you? Why didn’t you call back today? Our desk clerk told me someone from the precinct called, but—”

 

“Audie, listen, I’m sorry, but I don’t have time for explanations right now. I’ll tell you everything later.”

 

“Okay,” she said.

 

“I need your help.”

 

“Okay,” she repeated, waiting for him to continue.

 

“I found Starsky, but—”

 

“Ken, that’s great!” she exclaimed. “Where? How?”

 

“I’ll tell you later, I promise. Right now, I need you to come here and check him over. Can you do that?”

 

There was the briefest pause, then, “Check on him? Is he hurt?”

 

“Uhm... yeah. But I don’t know how badly, and—”

 

“Why didn’t you take him to the hospital?”

 

“He didn’t want to go. He doesn’t like hospitals.”

 

“Well,” she said in the same professionally assured tone Hutch had heard too many times in his life, “if it’s about what he wants and likes, he can’t be hurt that bad. Okay, where?”

 

He gave her Starsky’s address along with a grocery order and hung up just in time to catch a sudden noise from the bedroom. Alarmed, he hurried to the door and opened it.

 

Starsky stood next to the bed, supporting himself against the wall with one hand. He shook like a leaf. He gave Hutch a frightened glance that slowly faded into recognition, relief.

 

The comforter lay half on the ground on the other side of the bed, thrown or kicked away.

 

“Hey buddy,” Hutch smiled, picking up the blanket to pile it on the bed. “You okay?”

 

Starsky nodded. “Y-yeah,” he stammered, eyes following Hutch’s every move as he crossed the short distance and guided him to the bed.

 

“Hutch. Home.”

 

The words were whispered, probably unconsciously. The absolute necessity to cling to the words and draw comfort from them was powerful proof of Starsky’s despair. It tore at Hutch’s heart.

 

“Right, babe,” he replied quietly, crouching down in front of Starsky.

 

Starsky sat on the edge of the bed, once more blinking repeatedly. He panted from whatever shock had woken him, and his left hand wouldn’t leave Hutch’s sleeve.

 

“I’m right here, and you’re home. Everything’s okay now. You’re safe.”

 

Starsky nodded silently, his head bowed in embarrassment.

 

“Had a bad dream?” Hutch asked.

 

“No,” Starsky replied. It was the same defeated tone he’d had in the LTD.

 

Hutch frowned, concerned, but decided not to press him. “Wanna lie back down?” he asked, not waiting for an answer before he gently pushed Starsky down.

 

Still trembling, Starsky clumsily reached out for the comforter, and Hutch tucked him in again.

 

“Getting any warmer?”

 

Starsky gave a small nod and shuddered.

 

Sitting down next to him, Hutch rubbed one arm. “Audrey will be here in a minute. And Dobey says ‘hi.’”

 

Starsky smiled and then grimaced, bringing one hand up to rub his eyes.

 

Hutch arched his brows. “Does your head hurt?”

 

“No,” Starsky muttered. “I’m just tired. How long did I sleep?”

 

Hutch stared at him, confused. “Oh. Uh...” He shrugged. “Dunno. Fifteen minutes maybe. Probably less. You have nothing to eat in this house, d’you know that?”

 

Starsky closed his eyes for a yawn, then opened them again. “I’m not hungry, anyway.”

 

“Yes, you are,” Hutch corrected, “you’re just too tired to feel it.”

 

“Maybe.” He paused, giving his friend a long look. “Thanks for finding me.”

 

Hutch smiled. “Actually,” he replied, “we got lucky.”

 

A dark shadow settled on Starsky’s pale face. “Don’t think I’d have lasted much longer. I don’t even know how long—”

 

A knock at the door made him flinch.

 

“Easy,” Hutch patted the arm he’d been rubbing and stood. “It’s just Audrey. Be right back.”

 

She brought a first aid kit with her, holding it up for a greeting. “You called, Master?” she asked, but then the easy humor faded from her face. “God, Ken, you look terrible.”

 

Hutch closed the door behind her. “I’m fine. Thanks for coming over.”

 

“Hey, who else would I make house calls for? Where is he?”

 

Hutch guided her into the bedroom where Starsky lay staring up at the ceiling. He turned his head and struggled to sit up. “Hey, Audrey,” he greeted her with a tired smile.

 

Audrey frowned, shooting Hutch a quick, almost accusing glance before sitting on the edge of the bed. “Hi Dave.”

She inclined her head to Hutch, who stood back, watching. “And I thought he looked bad. What happened to you?”

 

“Been running with the wrong crowd.” Starsky laid back down as Audrey opened her first aid kit.

 

“Against a wall?” she joked, carefully probing the bruise

on his forehead with cool fingers.

 

Starsky winced. “Sorta,” he replied through gritted teeth.

She inspected the gash and bump closely. “Okay, it won’t need stitches. Ken, could you get me some warm water and a washcloth?”

 

Hutch was off without a word while Audrey talked to Starsky. He returned just in time to hear her ask Starsky how he had gotten hurt.

 

“Fell,” he replied, sounding embarrassed.

 

“Flat on your face?”

 

“Yup.”

 

“And he’s been hit,” Hutch added, handing Audrey a bowl of lukewarm water and a washcloth which she put next to her on the bed.

 

“Right.” Starsky nodded as if he’d just recalled it. “Got knocked out. But that was days ago.”

 

Looking from one to the other, Audrey let go of a small breath and turned back to her patient. “Are you hurt anywhere else?”

 

“No,” Starsky replied.

 

“Hands,” Hutch corrected.

 

Audrey glanced up at him, then at Starsky’s bloody hands on top of the blanket. Hutch couldn’t help thinking that something was going on behind Audrey’s eyes. As if she felt out of place, uncomfortable. Doctor’s instincts took her over, though, as she studied the lacerations on Starsky’s wrists and knuckles.

 

“Have you been... tied up?” she asked, sounding almost incredulous.

 

Starsky and Hutch exchanged a glance.

 

“Cuffed,” Starsky replied.

 

Audrey stared at the circles of raw red around the wrists, then shook her head. “Okay, now. I’m gonna check for a concussion and then clean those.” She rummaged through her first aid kit for a penlight. “Have you thrown up at all after you hit your head?”

 

“No.”

 

“Felt dizzy?”

 

“N... uh…” Catching the hesitation in his answer, Audrey looked up to see her patient search for help from Hutch. Following his gaze, she glanced at her boyfriend questioningly.

 

Hutch sighed. “He hasn’t slept for about seventy-two hours. And he hasn’t eaten.”

 

Audrey stared, eventually closed her mouth. “Oh. Well.” She looked at Starsky again. “That can make you feel dizzy too, of course.”

 

Her quick examination showed that there were indications of a slight concussion, and she suggested that two of his fingers be x-rayed to make sure there were no fractures.

 

Though Starsky never complained about pain, even denied feeling any when asked, Audrey still gave him a mild shot to take away any aches and pains that might hinder his much needed sleep. With Hutch’s help, she coaxed her weary patient into drinking two glasses of water and then cleaned and bandaged his cuts and scrapes.

 

When the couple left for the kitchen, Starsky was already half asleep.

 

“So how did you find him?” Audrey asked once she sat down on the kitchen table, watching Hutch unpack the groceries she’d brought.

 

“One of our suspects let something slip,” he replied.

 

“Did it have something to do with another case? Or—”

 

“No,” Hutch snapped, then closed his mouth and raised his hands. “Sorry. I-I don’t... I can’t talk about that right now. I’m sorry.”

 

“That’s okay,” she replied. “I understand.”

 

He felt her watching him while he made some soup. Something about her presence, her palpable worry, made him nervous.

 

It wasn’t the feeling he’d had before, when he’d been so desperate to find Starsky. There was no time for her or anything else then. This was something else, something that seemed to have little to do with her. Though the way she had looked at him upon seeing Starsky for the first time...

 

As if he should have warned her.

 

He flinched, startled, when her hand touched his back. Her eyes searched his.

 

“When was the last time you slept?”

 

He didn’t answer, just smiled and shook his head as if to say she shouldn’t worry.

 

She drew her hand away and folded her arms in front of her. “Honey, you can talk to me. You know that, right? I’m here. I want to help.”

 

“I know,” he replied. “You already did.”

 

“But—”

 

Sensing another presence, Hutch turned his head, cutting her off. “Starsk?”

 

Indeed, a disheveled curly head appeared in the door a second later. He hugged the doorway, shivering. “Uh...”

 

Hutch approached him, reaching out to rub one arm and shoulder. “Y’okay, buddy? What’re you doing out of bed?”

 

Starsky stammered and shot him a pleading glance. He looked ashamed.

 

Hutch gave Audrey a quick look over his shoulder and guided his friend back into the bedroom. Once more, the comforter was on the ground, and Hutch picked it up as Starsky sat on the edge of the bed with slumped shoulders.

 

“Hey,” Hutch said, nudging his shoulder and sitting down beside him, bundling the blanket around the trembling form. “Buddy.”

 

Starsky didn’t look at him. “This is ridiculous.” He laughed, a short sound with no humor in it. “I’m really tired, y’know.”

 

Hutch squeezed the back of his neck. “We’ll work something out.”

 

“Oh yeah? What d’you wanna do, sing me to sleep?”

 

Hutch smiled. “It’s worth a try.” At Starsky’s glance, he lifted his brows. “Works for my niece every time.”

 

A wry smile crossed Starsky’s pale features, but faded all too soon.

 

Watching, Hutch laid one arm around his shoulders, giving him a small shake. “Starsky.”

 

“It’s just...” Frustrated, he closed his eyes. When he spoke again, his voice was so low Hutch had to strain to hear it. “This is scary. I’m tired.”

 

Hutch’s hand remained on Starsky’s back, rubbing small circles. “But you’re not dreaming.”

 

“No. I doubt I’m ever getting that far. It’s like...” A quick, nervous glance found Hutch, then dropped again. “Like I suddenly... notice I’m asleep. And then…” he shrugged and rubbed his eyes.

 

“Okay, listen,” Hutch said after a moment’s thought, dragging the blanket up around Starsky’s neck. “I made you some soup, so how about you eat something first and maybe that’ll help. Hm? You’re worn out. Maybe you just don’t have the strength to—”

 

“Sleep?” Starsky finished.

 

Hutch looked at him, contemplating his next words. “I’m sure Audrey could give you something.”

 

Starsky looked ready to protest, but closed his mouth before a word slipped out. He nodded.

 

With a last pat to Starsky’s back, Hutch left for the kitchen where Audrey waited, arms wrapped around her middle. Hutch produced a bowl from the cupboard and placed it on the breakfast counter with a frustrated sigh.

 

“This is the third time that’s happened.”

 

“Ken, what happened to him?”

 

Hutch looked at her, and when he spoke, his voice was very calm. “They told him they’d kill me if he fell asleep.”

 

Audrey stared at him. “Kill... k-kill you?” she repeated. “That’s... why? Who?”

 

“I can’t tell you.” He paused. “They were working for someone we busted a while back.” Another pause. “Someone I pissed off pretty bad.”

 

Incredulous, Audrey laughed, high-pitched, pointing in the direction of the door without unfolding her arms. “This is what happens when you bust someone?”

 

“Sometimes,” Hutch answered.

 

She looked as though she wanted to say something else, but as she stared at him, her features evened, her voice softened. “So he’s scared of sleeping,” she said,

unwrapping herself from her own embrace. She stepped closer. “Even now.”

 

Hutch bowed his head. “Yep.”

 

Audrey sighed. “Poor guy. Y’know, maybe you should get him to a hospi—”

 

“No.”

 

For a moment, they looked at each other.

 

“Okay. Okay. I can give him something to help him relax, but I really think—”

 

“Thanks.” Searching for a spoon, Hutch felt her gaze linger on him, but didn’t meet it.

 

“Okay.” Marching past him to the door, Audrey halted.

“Hey?”

 

He looked at her.

 

“You got them, right?”

 

Understanding, he nodded. “Yeah. We got ’em.”

 

“Good. Who does such a thing?” Shaking her head, she left.

 

It wasn’t a question she expected Hutch to answer.

 

~oOo~

 

Starsky silently accepted both the white pill Audrey handed him and the order to see a specialist if his problem didn’t go away. Under normal circumstances, Starsky could be counted on for a smart remark about shrinks. Hutch noticed the lack of comment. But then he was probably just too tired.

 

Audrey left, assuring Hutch that he could call her any time, and that she’d drop by the following day to check on her patient.

 

Hutch could sense her shock at what she’d seen, at what she had learned about his life, but she seemed determined not to let him see how much it scared her. She wanted to be there for him, even though she knew he wouldn’t let her, not yet. She was willing to face her fear of this strange and dangerous side of his life.

 

She wanted to understand, and for some reason that scared Hutch.

 

“It’s nice to have a doctor in the family, isn’t it?”

 

Looking up from the tray of soup and crackers, Hutch flashed Starsky a wry smile. “I’m surprised you didn’t want a lollipop afterwards.” Hutch set the tray down.

 

Starsky sat against the headboard, a pillow supporting his back. “What’s this?” He wrinkled his nose, ignoring the spoon Hutch held out.

 

“Chicken soup. Open wide.”

 

“Do I look like I have the flu?” Starsky said, rolling his eyes when Hutch prepared to spoonfeed him. “I can eat by myself. Gimme that.”

 

Hutch handed the spoon over, and Starsky took it unwillingly. Watching the unsteady process, Hutch decided that he could trust his partner to manage and went to the kitchen to get some juice. He re-entered the bedroom and froze.

 

Starsky stared at the cracker he held, his expression strained. The shaking was back with a vengeance.

 

“Starsky?”

 

The cracker crumbled in Starsky’s hand. Fear-stricken eyes widened at seeing Hutch. Then slowly the truth caught up with him and he breathed in deeply, glancing down at the mess. Annoyed, he brushed off the crumbs.

 

“Hey,” Hutch said, crossing the room to sit on the bed. He held out the juice for Starsky. “You okay?”

 

“Terrific,” came the mumbled reply. Starsky yawned and pressed his palms against his eyes.

 

Hutch moved the glass. “Want some juice?”

 

“No, I wanna sleep,” Starsky groused, then sighed and grabbed the juice, downing it without another comment. He put the glass on the tray. “Thanks.”

 

“Welcome,” Hutch replied, equally subdued, and looked at the mostly untouched meal. “You should eat more.”

 

“Not hungry.”

 

“Aw, c’mon. Hm?” Arching his brows, Hutch picked up another cracker and waved it. “For me?” He smiled, cajoling.

 

A helpless chuckle broke through the grim expression on Starsky’s face. He grabbed the cracker out of Hutch’s fingers. “But only so you won’t do the ‘plane’ next or somethin’. You’ve been around Audrey too long, Blintz.”

 

Hutch grinned and watched his friend struggle to get the cracker down. Whatever Audrey had given him was finally kicking in. The blinking slowed, the eyes closing longer with each blink.

 

Hutch gathered the tray and glass and put them on the nightstand, then gently removed the pillow from behind Starsky’s back and covered him with the comforter. Whenever they would open, the dark blue eyes clung to him and followed his every movement.

 

“You get some rest now,” Hutch said. “Just sleep. It’s okay to sleep.”

 

Starsky looked tiredly up at him.

 

“Relax, buddy,” Hutch soothed, brushing over his friend’s features with a feather-light touch. “Just close your eyes and sleep. It’s all right, I promise. We’re safe.” He let his hand linger for a moment, felt long lashes bat against his palm, then nothing. Starsky’s eyes were closed.

 

Smoothing one edge of the blanket, Hutch stood up. “Sweet dreams, partner.”

 

He turned to leave but a weary grip on his wrist stopped him. Surprised, he looked down into open, pleading eyes, and covered the clinging hand with his own. “Starsk?”

 

Starsky swallowed thickly. “Can’t...” he whispered

desperately. A tremor shook him and he gripped Hutch’s arm tighter.

 

Thumb brushing over the back of Starsky’s hand, he turned around to sit on the bed and swung his legs upon it. He grabbed the second pillow and tucked it behind his back, then reached out to place one hand firmly on Starsky’s shoulder.

 

“Sure you can,” he smiled. “Close your eyes. I’m not leaving.”

 

With a sigh, Starsky closed his eyes. His breathing evened out quickly, and Hutch could feel the trembling subside under his protective hold. Allowing his own fatigue to wash through him like a powerful wave, his head lolled back against the wall.

 

“Hutch?” a slurred voice made him open eyes he hadn’t registered closing, and he tightened his grip on Starsky’s shoulder and bent closer.

 

“Yeah, buddy, I’m right here. It’s okay.”

 

Glassy dark eyes fluttered open, then closed again. “Yeah. Hutch. Home,” Starsky sighed, hand tapping, finding Hutch’s arm.

 

Hutch’s heart wrenched at the sight. So much need for assurance, so much anxiety, just for him. Starsky couldn’t find the peace of sleep because he feared for Hutch.

 

“I’m here, babe,” he whispered, watching the distress fade from drowsy features. “Right here. You’re home.”

 

Galesko’s metaphor of the mushroom cloud flashed in his mind. Impatiently, he tried to shake it off. He glanced down at his friend and shifted his body down to lie on his back.

 

'Man, you’re not the only one who needs some shut-eye around here, pal.'

 

It didn’t take him a minute to fall into a deep, dream-haunted sleep.

 

~oOo~

Go to Part 2