Starsky glared at his partner until the laughter in the squadroom dropped to a point where he could be heard. "You're too old for this, and too young for second childhood. Whassamatter with you?"
Hutch wiped his eyes, caught his breath. "You know what they say about contamination."
"What?" Starsky asked, against his better judgment.
"It comes from constant exposure. All these years with you, what'd you expect?"
"A dry shirt." Starsky made a production of getting up to dump the dribble-cup into the wastebasket. He really should've caught on when he'd realized the coffee was only lukewarm.
Ever since he had been allowed to return to duty, such as it was, his partner was exhibiting a juvenile penchant for practical jokes of the basest sort -- the last thing he would've expected from a Hutchinson. Whatever had turned him into a prankster, Starsky wished he'd get it out of his system, and quick. Sure, they were both bored out of their skulls, and maybe that was Starsky's -- well, not fault exactly, but he was the cause of it. Gunther's assassination attempt had left him weaker, and his superiors doubtful about his capability. He had his job back, but basically behind a desk. By default, Hutch was also stuck behind one. The blond wouldn't hear of another pairing and got downright nasty if someone dared mention anything of the sort, including Starsky.
However, Starsky decided, he was going to draw the line at whoopee cushions.
The desk sergeant stuck his head in. "Starsky, Hutchinson, Dobey wants to see you in the DA's office, pronto."
"Oh, terrific!" Starsky grumbled, looking down at his coffee-stained shirt
"Come on." Hutch took Starsky's arm and led him out the door. He tended to do that a lot lately. "We'll stop by the lockers and you can change."
"Into what? Didn't get around to doin' the laundry yet. Nothin' left in there." He yanked Hutch's shirt front out of the jeans and took great pleasure in drying his still dripping hand on it.
His partner didn't seem to mind and thoroughly spoiled Starsky's enjoyment. "We'll find something. Come on."
In the locker room, Hutch dug a dark green shirt out of his locker. Starsky stripped off his wet shirt and pulled on the offered one. "Hey, didn't you just buy this?"
Hutch haphazardly shoved back the clutter in his locker. "So?"
"So, thanks. What're you gonna change into?"
The blond looked down at the stains Starsky had left on his shirt, tucked it back into his jeans, and zipped up his jacket half way. "Fuck it."
Starsky buckled his holster back on. "No, thanks. Your shirt's not my idea of a turn-on." Following the blond out, he stopped to check the new shirt in the mirror. Just to make sure no tags were hanging out. Trusting his partner with his life was one thing.
At the door to the garage, he was forced to stop and wait, fidgeting. Hutch's back, firmly to the door on the outside, barred exit. With a lot of effort, Starsky stifled the urge to shove the door into his partner's back, preferably hard enough to knock him flat on his face, as he wondered if he'd ever again have the simple pleasure of stepping out into the garage freely, ahead of the neurotic blond.
Let it go, babe. Will you please let it go.
Hutch finally seemed satisfied, at least for that moment, and allowed him enough space to open the damned door. "Aren't you coming?"
Adding insult to injury, Starsky thought, bit back the reply. "Wonder what's goin' down at the DA's?" he mused, instead.
Whatever was going down at the DA's, it wasn't going down well with Dobey, to judge from the expression on the wide, dark face. "Detectives Starsky and Hutchinson," he said to the strangers in the room, with a choppy wave of the hand toward his men.
District Attorney McNeil and Commissioner Warner they knew already.
"Captain Mallory," Dobey continued, indicating a very tall, thin, balding man, "and Detective Anthony Rizzo." The last was aimed at a dark-haired man in some ridiculous leather suit, lounging loose-limbed, almost insolently, in a chair. "From New York City."
Nobody seemed inclined to shake hands, although Rizzo waggled his fingers at both detectives. "Which is which?" he asked.
"Starsky," Hutch said like an automaton programmed to clarify that one issue forever, pointing at his partner, and then at himself, "Hutchinson."
"I see what you mean," Rizzo continued. His disinterested gaze swept over Starsky, disconcertingly sharp for an instant, then turned bored again. "But only to a point."
Starsky never liked feeling out of things. "Any chance of us seein' what this means?" He resisted the urge to squirm. He was being studied intensely from head to foot as if he were some zoo animal. Hutch saw it too, and it obviously bothered him. He stepped in front of his partner, cutting off the scrutiny.
"What's going on, Captain?" the blond asked, got a growl from Dobey.
McNeil spoke up. "This will take a while. Let's all sit down. Detective Starsky." He motioned at the empty chair next to Dobey, the only seat unclaimed by the crowd gathered around the DA's desk.
Starsky saw Hutch scowling. This obviously relegated his partner to a couch in a far corner. Just as obviously, the blond didn't care for it. Deciding there was no reason to keep the seating arrangements made for them, Starsky steered Hutch into the chair slated for himself, then perched on its arm.
A young man, somebody's secretary, offered both detectives coffee. Hutch accepted a cup. Starsky motioned the second one away, indicating the one his partner had picked up. The secretary looked puzzled, then moved away. Hutch took a sip of the coffee, passed it to Starsky automatically, and asked. "Well?"
Commissioner Warner began. "Captain Mallory and Detective Rizzo have been involved in an undercover operation in New York for a long time."
"Three fuckin' years!" Rizzo piped up, hostility suddenly crackling through his impassive demeanor.
"Tony." Captain Mallory's voice was low, but the one soft word bore a definite warning. Rizzo clamped his mouth shut.
All isn't paradise there, Starsky suspected.
Warner addressed the secretary. "Give Detective Starsky the file."
The young man handed it to Hutch. Naturally, Starsky thought with resignation, and leaned over his partner's shoulder to see.
Warner corrected sharply. "To Detective Starsky."
The thick file was hastily snatched out of Hutch's hold and thrust into Starsky's hand. Wondering what difference it made in the long run, he returned the coffee cup to Hutch, flipped the folder open and held it down so his partner could also read.
Captain Mallory's mild voice interrupted. "Detective, please keep it to yourself. We're operating on a need-to-know basis."
Starsky's nape prickled. "What I need to know, so does my partner."
"Not necessarily. This concerns only you."
"We were both called in," Hutch interjected. Starsky could feel him bristling.
Mallory, McNeil and the Commissioner all threw disapproving glances at Dobey, who returned the looks with an obstinate one of his own.
Hutch wasn't supposed to be here, Starsky realized. Dobey threw a monkeywrench into the works. He was torn. Where Hutch wasn't wanted, he should prefer to be unwanted himself, but whatever was going down seemed to be big. It just might be the chance to break him out of the moldy corner he'd been parked in. He glanced at Hutch. The light blue eyes that met his were noncommittal. Your choice, they said.
For just a second, he wanted to take advantage of the permission, so desperately hungry was he for a real case. But he knew it would hurt Hutch, and after all, however moldy their corner was, his partner had opted to stay there with him for all these months.
He spoke up. "If Hutch don't need to know, maybe I don't need to know, either." He closed the folder, put it down. "Guess that's all, then. Wanna go grab some lunch, partner?" Hutch's smile somehow eased the tug of the file's lure. They rose as one.
"Dobey," the Commissioner said, apparently expecting the Captain to keep his officers in line.
The black man shrugged. "I warned you. In fact, I saved you time by calling them in together. Why don't you save some too, and include Hutchinson? I'll vouch for both unconditionally."
Rizzo jumped in again. "Why don't you all save even more time and let me continue my own job? I don't even have to read the goddamned file -- I wrote it!"
Once more, it was Captain Mallory who blocked him. "It's decided, Tony."
Tony isn't a happy boy, Starsky thought.
The District Attorney seemed to feel someone had to make the final decision. "Starsky, Hutchinson, sit down. Mallory, I understand your sensitivity about this case, but Detective Starsky fits the bill. You'll have to conform to his conditions. For my part, I've never had reason to think Sergeant Hutchinson can't handle confidentiality."
Slowly, one by one, nods came from all assembled. The detectives resumed their seats, and Starsky opened up the file for both of them. Concentrated reading would have to wait for later. At present, they skimmed it, looking for the main thread and paying attention to names. It was too detailed for immediate comprehension, but very impressive. Starsky had gathered from Rizzo's comments that it had taken three years to compile.
He was under for three years, it suddenly occurred to him. Three years of playing the bad guy. Whew. Must've been awfully cold. So far, the man had seemed merely irritating. Now Starsky glanced up at him with a new perspective.
Hutch claimed his attention. He looked down at the papers the blond was holding out. Some familiar names, thought unreachable so far, jumped out at him. He realized that Rizzo's investigation had led him from New York to an LA connection. No, headquarters, it sounded like. "So now it's in our backyard," he commented to Dobey.
Captain Mallory answered instead, "The roots are here, yes. We have enough to clean our corner, but we all know how that goes. You prune the branches and they sprout again. Someone has to go under here, do more digging, and we'll hold off on our end until the whole thing can be uprooted at once."
Starsky now knew where they were heading and wanted more clarification. "So I guess you're -- "
"Why Starsky?" Hutch asked, staring at Mallory.
This time Commissioner Warner answered. Starsky felt like he was at a tennis match with too many balls on the court. "Time. It would take too long to establish a new persona, and have him infiltrate the top levels of as big an organization as this. The situation is ripe in New York, and Captain Mallory is afraid it'll go sour if we wait too long. We may have to take that route, but we thought -- "
Hutch interrupted again. "I see."
Whoa, babe, Starsky wanted to say, you wanna hold it until I see too? Then he felt totally lost when Hutch turned to Rizzo and asked: "Mind standing up?"
Rizzo obligingly uncoiled from the chair with the smooth, assured motions of a man at ease with his body. He stood up, then smiled and executed a slow, mincing turn, the parody of a model. Hutch didn't look amused at the exhibition. "Your walk," he said. "Natural walk."
Rizzo shrugged, walked to the door and back. He had a free, casual gait, and carried himself confidently. Too confidently, Starsky thought, watching the swagger that seemed choreographed to draw attention to the pelvic area. A hair more blatant, and it could've been cause for arrest.
"Okay, age, build, maybe coloring," Hutch commented to Dobey, "and he moves like Starsky, but it's not a perfect resemblance by any means."
Suddenly, Starsky understood how he fit into the picture, while a portion of his mind was surprised and a little indignant. I move like THAT? I do NOT! Do I?
He studied the man who had sprawled in the chair once more. Rizzo was a New Yorker, so background and speech wouldn't be problems. Knowing he'd be the worst judge of physical similarities, he didn't waste time comparing those. Instead, he paid attention to the differences. Eyes were almost black. He'd probably hate contact lenses. The hair was definitely black, noticeably darker than his own, with blue highlights instead of auburn-brown, almost straight in the front, slicked back into waves around the neck. His eyes fell on the prominent gold cross the man was wearing on a choker. Of course, Italian. His persona has to have the trappings. Ma'd be horrified if she saw her Davey-boy. And what's with the leather suit? Fine for the City, but I'll melt down a drain here.
"It doesn't have to be," Mallory was answering Hutch's observation. "There's little or no personnel traffic between the East and West Coast organizations. It's all done on long-distance phone. Tony will fly out of the City and Detective Starsky will arrive here on the same flight."
Hutch shook his head stubbornly. "Even one of them coming out here, say on vacation, will be one too many. It stinks."
Starsky was getting irritated with his partner. When I wanted you in on this, buddy-boy, he thought, I didn't mean you could snatch the ball and run with it -- especially to where I don't want to go. He was about to open his mouth and suggest -- subtly, since they were among company -- that Hutch better check the game plan with him first, but Rizzo snickered at his partner and spoke up, dripping sarcasm:
"LA's finest, eh? If you only have the balls to bet on sure things, I can certainly see why."
When an attack came from outside, ranks closed. "Cut the crap, Rizzo," Starsky snapped. "Finest means stupid in your neck o' the woods? If balls're all you've got to bet, it's a miracle you stayed alive this long."
"Enough!" The same word came from both captains, simultaneously.
"Save it, Tony," Mallory continued. "These men have every right to be worried about their safety. I'd be worried otherwise." His look at his detective clearly said Rizzo had given him more than enough reasons to worry.
"I'm worried already." Dobey plainly had had enough of being a bystander. "I don't like this setup. Too many things can go wrong, and there's no way to anticipate them. You're talking of too deep a cover. No bugs, no tails, damn near no way for us to know what's going on out there in the cold. Also, you're telling me we can't take any independent action here that'll sour the deal in New York. What if it's needed? How long do we hold off? What danger to my officer is considered sufficient reason, or is he expendable? I'll tell you right now that he's not." He glanced at Starsky, looked uncomfortable about continuing, but went on anyway. "Starsky's been through a lot. He's been inactive for a long time. Now just because he's closest to the package Rizzo comes in...." He shook his head. "I don't like it."
Gee, thanks, Cap'n, was all Starsky could think. Just a shell that fits the bill, and nothing else left in there? Maybe I should've quit while I was ahead.
"Are you telling us Detective Starsky can't handle the job?" Mallory asked bluntly.
The Commissioner joined in. "If that's what you're saying -- "
"Harold, I'm a busy man," the DA put in.
"Hold it!" Hutch's sharp voice interrupted everything. He stood up, his tall form suddenly dominating the room. "Should be some top brain power in here, and I don't hear it clicking. If Captain Dobey was saying Starsky couldn't handle the job, he wouldn't have called him in. See my partner sitting there? That settles that."
Damned if it doesn't, Starsky realized. Just as well you're carrying the ball, pal. I'm not clicking too well myself today. Too close to it, I suppose.
Hutch continued. "He's just saying he's got reservations. So do I. For all those slow on the uptake, not about my partner, but about this case you're dropping in our lap. You, Rizzo, I don't know who's stepping on your toes and why, but we didn't ask to adopt your baby, so knock it off. Which brings me to my next question. Why can't you stay on your own case? You obviously want to."
One side of Rizzo's mouth twisted into a bitter smile. "You want to field that, sir?" he asked Mallory.
"Tony is a stranger in LA. We decided someone at home here had a better chance," the New York captain explained, too blithely.
Something was being left unsaid. Starsky saw Hutch aim a questioning look at Dobey. What couldn't be said in public might have been mentioned between the two captains. With a small nod, Dobey signaled at Hutch to accept the inadequate explanation.
"Okay," the blond told Mallory. "I'll accept that and you'll accept my partner's qualifications. A little cooperation would be nice, too." He took in the DA and the Commissioner. "We've been working for you two for a long time. I don't think we have anything left to prove, and we expect to be treated accordingly. So, can we dispense with the nonsense and get back to work here?" he slowly looked around, as if to make sure he had everybody in line, then sat back down. "Anytime you're ready."
There was silence. Suddenly, Rizzo made a short, barking guffaw, while, with a finger in the air, he chalked one up to the blond. Then he announced to the room, "I like this guy."
Starsky could tell that the sentiments weren't returned. Hutch was regarding the man as if he were a specimen in a dirty cup. The Hutchinson cold shoulder was hard to miss, and Rizzo didn't, but he seemed only amused by it. "All right, Blondie. Just for you." He looked past Hutch. "Listen up, Curls." Before continuing, he dug out a pack of cigarettes and lit one.
Just what I needed, Starsky thought, remembering when, seven years ago, Hutch had all but sat on him to make him give up the habit left over from Vietnam. He hoped he wouldn't get hooked again before the case was wrapped up.
Rizzo drew the smoke deeply into his lungs and didn't seem to need to let it out in a hurry. It trickled out leisurely alongside his words. "Anthony Caporetto. That's a village in Udine, Italy, in case someone's big on roots. My own mother's, incidentally. I don't know shit about it myself, so don't dig out the encyclopedia," he started conversationally. "Caporetto grew up in Little Italy. He was a rotten kid. Juvie records, petty crimes later, all of 'em phony but in the files. I was told you're from The Apple. You know the scene. The first time anybody's heard of Caporetto was three years ago, when he passed on a timely tip about a raid. He's been graduatin' through the ranks ever since. See, the man's sharp. He's a goddamned lieutenant now, he's earned 'respect,' you understand? But he's gonna get into real hot water with the cops in a coupla weeks and come out West to cool off. I bet he'll be sent to one o' the five top guys in the organization here, with good credentials. And that's as close as you're gonna get to Poppa Marruzzi. The rest is up to you. I busted my ass for years, so don't screw it up."
"Not so fast," Hutch said before anything had a chance to come out of Starsky's mouth. Again. "Where, in this enviable history of yours, will I be able to fit in?"
"Nowhere. Caporetto's a loner. We have that in common."
"Come on. You must work with someone."
"I work with a lotta someones. Guess I even have what you might call a 'partner,' if you're bein' generous. They all stay in their cozy little offices, by their neat little phones. My choice. On the field, I trip over no one. I work alone."
"Whatever turns you on," Hutch snapped unkindly. "Me and Starsky, we don't solo. Period."
Bullshit, Starsky was thinking when Dobey also put his two cents' worth in. "I won't allow it in any case. My men go in together, or they don't go in at all."
Wait one lovely minute here, Starsky wanted to say. Since when? It wasn't the time or the place to contradict his superior and his partner. Besides, he suspected the answer: since Gunther.
"So rifle through Caporetto's lifestyle and find me a niche," Hutch insisted.
Rizzo smiled toothily. "Whatever turns YOU on, Blondie. Too bad Caporetto's never exhibited the tendencies, or he could've just picked you up at a bar and decided to keep you. Not hard on the eyes, are you?"
"Tony." The barely audible warning came again from Rizzo's captain, and sobered the man.
"Won't be easy. It's United Nations in the rank and file, but the top levels are family or close to it. You're not the ethnic type. You won't blend in. Well, Caporetto likes cards. Guess one day you can strike up a poker game, like each other's style and become bosom buddies."
The furrow between Hutch's eyebrows deepened as he considered. "Not bosom buddies. I'll have to approach some way and get into the circle. Close, but not too close. That way, if one of us is made, the other won't automatically land in the same boat."
Close association between partners when undercover, especially if it was for prolonged periods, meant sanity. The other meant safety, someone still able to operate if all hell broke loose: a lifeline. It was a tough call, the pros and cons of both equally heavy. Starsky would've made the same call, except Hutch had decided all by himself. His jaw was starting to ache from being clenched.
The blond got up from his chair. "Starsky and I have to discuss it before we decide."
Gee, thanks! Let me introduce myself. I pose as your partner. Starsky stifled his resentment, and preceded Hutch to a far corner of the room, where an inset window overlooked the courthouse steps. He leaned his back against the wall and glanced out at the busy crowd. His partner, facing him, put his elbow on the wall, over Starsky's shoulder, and leaned close. Any closer, Starsky thought, and he'll be standing inside my skin. Don't hover over me so much. I don't need it, and it's fast getting to where I don't like it.
"What's the matter?" Hutch asked in hushed tones.
"Nothin'." It wasn't the place. "What'd you wanna discuss?"
"Nothin' to discuss there. I want the case and you damned well know it."
Hutch put his arm down with a sigh, thrust his hands into pockets, and looked out the window, shoulders hunched. "It's big, unwieldy. Dobey doesn't care for it."
"I want it."
"Going to take a long time. No telling how long. No back-up to speak of. No break. We're going to go under and stay under. Rizzo's leaving a bad taste in my mouth. He's unstable."
"I still want it."
Hutch looked back at him. Starsky expected more arguments or a small sampling of the Hutchinson temper, but the blond only smiled softly. "I know."
There was a sad look in his eyes, and Starsky couldn't help smiling back. "I already said you knew it."
"Well then, what're we standing here for?" He started to turn away.
Starsky held his arm. "Hey."
"Ease off, huh?"
"Think about it." His hold turned into a pat before he released the arm. He strolled to the middle of the room and announced: "We'll take it."
"On one condition." Hutch spoke up from right behind him, unexpectedly.
Starsky glared at his partner. If you won't goddamned quit springing things on me, I'm gonna goddamned kick your ass when we get outta here!
Hutch barged on, ignoring his look. "When Starsky takes over," he said to Rizzo, "You're going under wraps. There'll be no accidental double appearances. None. Don't so much as glance out a window."
Rizzo seemed ready to bristle, but Mallory overrode him. "Of course. Anything else?"
"Yeah. He'll be right on top of a phone, every second of every day. We might need fast answers. Also, in case the new Caporetto has to call his dear Uncle so-and-so back home about a shipment of real Italian salami or something. Maybe he can field those."
"You don't miss a trick, do you, baby-blue?"
Hutch had clearly decided Rizzo's smart-ass comments weren't worthy of his attention. He turned to Dobey instead. "How long do we have to get ready?"
"Take the rest of the day off. Get familiar with the information in the file. Tomorrow you tell me how long you need."
Mallory added, "Tony and I will stay here for a few days."
"I shouldn't even be here now," Rizzo grumbled.
"As long as necessary," Mallory stressed, without sparing a glance at his subordinate. "After we leave, say, two weeks or so to set up the circumstances for Caporetto to come out west. How does that sound?"
"That sounds fine," Starsky jumped in before his partner. For a change.
Downtown traffic was getting messier by the day, Starsky could swear. At the wheel, Hutch was swearing, spitting out the words under his breath. He tried to concentrate on the file. It read like the Who's Who of the underworld. A mountain that police forces of two large cities had been chipping away at for years, doing only minimal damage. Starsky kept flipping pages, trying to establish patterns, see how various chains linked together, and hoping to find the weak spots.
"Are you moving in with me, or vice versa?" Hutch asked out of the blue, his first decipherable words since leaving the courthouse.
"There's one file."
"So we gotta move in together?"
"Until you go under, yes, I think so."
"Why?" Starsky repeated.
"So we'll save time, won't duplicate effort." Hutch sounded testy. "We'll get our acts together. There's a lot there to memorize. Easier with two people. You can try the Caporetto act on me since I can see both Rizzo and you from the outside. Enough?"
"Your place or mine?"
"Mine," Starsky chose arbitrarily, then remembered the thorough cleaning he'd just done on his apartment and Hutch's housekeeping habits. He quickly reversed his decision. "Yours."
Both places seemed to serve equally well for the blond. "Fine. We'll stop by your place to get your things."
Starsky gave his attention back to the file. He fished out a thick stack of papers, found that it was one piece folded on itself, big as a map when unfolded. The organizational structure and its various functions -- complete for the East Coast connection, mostly suppositions for the West Coast one -- were drawn in a detailed diagram. Rizzo had saved him some time, and he appreciated it.
He didn't have the strong antipathy Hutch seemed to have instantly developed toward Rizzo; neither did he have any love lost for the New Yorker. Still, he was impressed. Something this big couldn't be toppled by putting chinks in it. Rizzo had slowly, painstakingly set it up so that, with Starsky's contribution, it just might be brought down all at once. It must've cost the man. Three years undercover, alone, was something Starsky couldn't even imagine. He doubted he could've managed it himself without going over the edge. He wondered what was driving Rizzo. Dedication didn't seem to cover it. Obsession, more likely. Maybe Hutch had a point. A fanatic, in any cause, was something to be leery of.
However, this promised to be the biggest thing that would come his way. Only twice before they had come across comparable cases. The assassination network that was responsible for Durniak's death, but that case had been yanked out of their hands by a government agency that wouldn't even identify itself by an acronym almost as soon as they had stumbled on the desert hideout. The lid had clamped on so tight that they hadn't heard another whisper of it in years. Then, of course, Gunther. But Hutch had been the one to topple that colossus while he had vegetated in a hospital bed. This was his now, damn near on a platter, at a time when he wanted it most. Hutch's quirks weren't going to deprive him of it, by God.
"Want to pick up some lunch?" his partner asked, intruding on his thoughts.
The file was too absorbing for him to think of food at the moment. He realized he had let minutes go by without answering when Hutch spoke again. "Did you eat breakfast at least?"
"Uh-huh," Starsky grunted, getting irritated at the interruptions when he was trying to concentrate on his case.
"What? Something more than a candy bar, I hope."
Exasperated, Starsky slapped the papers down on his lap. "Yes, I had breakfast," he snapped. "Yes, it was more than a candy bar. I also took my vitamins, changed my underwear, remembered my hankie, and kept my sweater buttoned up! Anything else?" He glared at his partner until he decided Hutch wasn't going to look at him, let alone answer, then went back to his file.
It was a long time and many pages before Hutch spoke. "What do you want me to say?"
Starsky answered without lifting his eyes from the written page. "You can say you're gonna cut out the mother-hen routine."
The car stopped in front of his apartment. Hutch put it in park and turned off the motor. "I can say it." There was a helpless note in his voice.
Feeling uneasy, as if he'd caught his friend with his defenses down, Starsky busied himself with tucking the scattered reports back into the folder. Obviously saying and doing were two different things. Admitting that couldn't have been easy, either. Best to close the subject.
He put a hand on Hutch's leg, squeezed lightly. "Come on. Help me get my stuff together. And I want chili with all the works, but I suppose you'll bite my head off, so I'll settle for a hero sandwich."
Unexpectedly, Hutch chuckled. "You got it. Just don't take it too much to heart, huh?"