Hutch was evaluating the house cards carefully when he was prodded. "Come on, you just got sick," Starsky urgently whispered into his ear.
The middle of a hand was no place to call a halt, but he put the cards down and rose while his partner announced a short break to the customers, pushing the blond ahead of him. Hutch turned to Starsky once they had ducked through a back door leading to the offices. "What's wrong?"
"Bauer's headin' back there. He must be in a gambling mood."
"Shit! I can't leave a hand in the middle."
"You will and that's that. Think he's likely to miss seein' you?" Starsky's back was to the offices. Hutch leaned weakly against the wall, wrapping his arms around his middle, and that was enough to alert his partner that they weren't alone. He instantly looked solicitous.
"What's going on?" came Jack Valenti's voice.
"He got sick, had to leave the table," Starsky explained while Hutch did his best to look woebegone.
Valenti came between them to grasp Hutch's head roughly to turn it up toward the light. "Are you on something?"
"No, I'm not on something!" Hutch snapped while Starsky spoke simultaneously: "Can't a man get sick?"
Valenti studied the blond out of narrowed eyes. "At the busiest table on a Saturday night, preferably no."
"Come on, give the man a break," Starsky said as Hutch moaned piteously. "He's not gonna do us any good like this. We can find a replacement."
"So you didn't even do that yet." Valenti looked disgusted. "Get him of here. I'll take care of the rest -- as usual."
"You're good," Starsky said once they were at the parking lot. "You looked so miserable that I was startin' to worry."
Hutch got into his car. "We can't keep doing this, Starsk, or it's going to blow up in our faces."
"Tell me about it. I can't move for fear of trippin' over the bastard. At least Linda's with a private party tonight."
"Bauer's got to go and fast."
"Short of breakin' both his legs, how?"
"I don't know, but I'll think about it." Hutch started the car.
"Let me know," his partner said through the window.
"No, I want to surprise you," Hutch called back, sarcastically. He had to leave now, and Starsky had to stay, which felt like the last straw. Suddenly, in his mind, the plan took shape. Took shape? It had been there already, just not brought forth. But he couldn't tell Starsky, at least not until it was too late. "Be careful in there," he said after he'd backed the car out and turned it.
Starsky waved him away. "You bet."
Boundless energy and the ability to practically glow with joy even after a long day had to be the province of youth. Given his choice, Hutch would've opted for Disneyland as the appropriate place to take Consuela, but he had left it up to her. She had been delighted that he had asked to spend Sunday with her, and had shown up on her day off, overdressed, overly made up, her gorgeous hair tortured into a style she shouldn't consider for another thirty years. She hadn't let him apologize for his earlier rudeness or neglect. They had spent the day touring the homes of stars -- a pastime that Hutch would've gladly exchanged for a week at a rock quarry -- and in and out of clubs and restaurants she'd read about in gossip columns.
At least, she was happy. And he had the information he needed. He knew he could've gotten it without devoting a day and an evening to pleasing her, but he had felt guilty enough at using her only to plan a clandestine foray in and out of Genovese's villa.
He brought her home after dark, but while it was still too early for the dogs. This time, he didn't stop at the shrubbery facing the beach. She pulled him by the hand through them, as eagerly as if they were kids playing follow-the-leader. At a dark corner of a clearing where he had an overall view of the estate, he stopped, pulling her up short. "What?" she asked, peering up at him.
Scouting the area, but he could hardly say that. He took her into his arms, memorizing the layout over her head. Without the high heels and the hairdo, she'd barely come up to his breastbone. He had to step back to smile at her. "Had a great time, Consuela," he lied. "Thank you."
She pointed to a row of rooms behind trees, some lit and some dark, in motel-like arrangement, separated from the main house by a short walkway. "That one. There. That's my room." She tugged at his hand. "Come on."
"No," he whispered, felt more than saw her disappointment. "I'd like to, but not tonight," he lied some more. At least, he hoped it was a lie. Her natural, earthy seductiveness had taken a shortcut around his best intentions and called to his glands all day long. "I can't," he said, denying both of them. "Goodnight, Consuela."
He leaned to kiss her. She rose on tiptoe and offered her full lips and he took them, tearing himself away before it got out of hand. He'd be back the next night, but she wouldn't know it. Hopefully, nobody would.
Monday night, Starsky showed up at Linda's little flat that she shared with another young woman who also worked at The Familia. Her roommate hadn't left for work yet, so Linda had to greet Starsky enthusiastically, with a hug and a steamy kiss. Although he knew perfectly well why, and appeared otherwise distracted himself, he made the best of the occasion. The rat, she thought, pulled him into her bedroom and dropped the pretense.
"You wouldn't happen to know where Hutch is, would you?" he asked quietly.
"Misplaced the big blond, huh? No, haven't seen him at all."
"He came in late yesterday, I don't know why, and tonight I can't find him."
"It's his night off," Linda reminded.
"Mine, too, so what?"
Linda shrugged. I don't know so what. You tell me. In fact, all three of them had the night off, having lately arranged it that way at the blond's insistence. Why Starsky thought his partner shouldn't take some time off just for himself was beyond her.
Starsky continued, in ill-humor. "He's in neither of his apartments, his own car's at Metro, who knows where the other one is -- heaven knows where he is."
"Give the man a break. Maybe he's taking a real break -- you know." Heaven knew all of them needed to. Pretending to be somebody else for months on end wasn't easy.
Clearly, Starsky was not in a mood he could easily be cajoled out of. "He ain't supposed to get lost on me while we're under," he grumbled. "If I did it to him I'd never hear the end of it."
Linda decided not to argue with things she didn't know much about. "So why don't you take me to a movie?" she suggested instead, jerking her thumb at the closed bedroom door. "It's either that or stay here and pretend to breathe heavy. Come on, he'll surface soon."
"Uh, I think I'll just go to the Marina. He might call or somethin'."
He was doing it again, looking like a woebegone little boy with his favorite toy taken away. "If you've got a pack of cards there, I'll keep you company," she said, despite herself.
"Sure, come on." He started to smile but ended up grimacing. "Just cards, huh?"
Hutch quietly closed the door to a second-story balcony, leaving it unlocked as he had found it, and secured his bag by looping the long strap over his head and one shoulder before climbing down. Wooden frames built in squares to accommodate twining grape vines creaked a little but supported his weight. He waited, holding his breath, in the concealing shadows of the overhang before he attempted to cross the clearing between him and the edge of the property.
He had delayed longer than he'd intended to, waiting until he had a clear way in and out of Genovese's study. The man and his cronies were at the club, but there still had been considerable traffic in the house. He stuck his head out to check the windows facing the back. They looked deserted.
He was about to step out of safety when he heard a rustling and a faint but rapid movement ahead of him. Quickly, he pulled back. The bag caught at something and tilted. He realized he hadn't snapped it when he heard a heavy thud and various clatters on the tile paving. He froze for a full minute. Nothing moved. Slowly, hardly breathing, he went to his knees, feeling around for the dropped items. He found the leather folder that held the ledgers immediately. For the loose jewelry, he had to search carefully. He had only taken the damned things so it would look like a real burglary. He snapped the bag securely, wondering if he should risk a dash to the other side. A low growl came, got answered by another, confirming his suspicions. He'd delayed too long and the dogs had been let out.
"Just as well Ken's the card dealer," Linda joked, putting down her hand. "You stink."
Starsky threw his cards carelessly, making them slide all over the table. "My mind's not on it."
"That's your excuse." She went to the room's compact refrigerator to get some beer.
When she turned around, he was at the window, tapping on the blinds. Linda held out a can of beer, popping one open for herself. "You always worry about him like this?" Personally, she found the notion ludicrous.
"'Course not," Starsky snapped. "We ain't Siamese twins. It's just that -- I don't know how to explain it. Every once in a while, I get a, uh, a feelin', I suppose, like...well, this ain't exactly it, either. It's not full-scale alert. This is just a nagging, like an itch you can't quite reach, if you know what I mean." He saw her expression, shrugged. "Of course you don't know what I mean. I don't know what I mean. It just is, that's all. It may not make sense, but it works, take it from me."
She would have to. She had worked with just about everybody who'd traipsed through Metro, but she'd never had a constant partner. Maybe there were things she couldn't appreciate, let alone understand. "Must come in handy."
"Sometimes. At times like this, it's a pain in the ass -- which I just night return with interest."
"Drink up," she said. Looking like he had nothing better to do, he obeyed.
The dogs growled threateningly when Hutch stepped off the paved walkway next to the house. Quickly, he stepped back onto it. The growls muted to a soft rumble. Experimentally, he tried another direction. Soon it was clear he could stay on the walkway, but wasn't going to be allowed into the garden. That left one alternative.
Consuela's door opened shortly after he knocked on it. Immediately, he reached in to snap off the room's lights that had come on. Just as immediately, Consuela had her arms around his neck, practically hanging there. Awkwardly, he got both of them in and closed the door, let out the breath he'd been holding.
Ignoring her excited greetings, he pried himself loose, made sure the shades were down, then turned on a small lamp, careful not to step between it and any of the windows. She had stopped talking to him. She simply stood, curiously peeking out at him from behind a cascade of sleep-tousled hair.
He realized he hadn't thought past this point. "I changed my mind," he said in absence of anything else plausible.
The eyes turned fearful. "But the dogs -- they could've hurt you!"
"I was lucky," he said dismissively and added for good measure, "I wanted to see you. Do you mind?"
She just laughed at that. Incredibly enough, it seemed a sufficient explanation. She said not a word about his dark outfit, the bag he was carrying, or the black cap and the gloves which were ridiculous for the weather. Neither did she comment on the holster that was revealed when she took his jacket. But then, she was probably used to men going around armed. Hutch wrapped the holster and the bag inside the jacket to place on a nearby chair, sank into another, at a loss about what else to do. The next instant, she had pulled off his cap and curled up on his lap.
He had painted himself into a corner. But she was warm and soft, sleep-lax and sweet, and it really wasn't all that bad a corner. He wrapped one arm around her. "Now that I'm here, how do I get out in one piece?"
"The dogs, they take away. Before deliveries." Her lips were moist on his neck, his chin, the hair tickling his nose. "Early in morning."
So what was he supposed to do for the next hours? He admitted that it was the most inane question he'd ever asked himself. What he was going to do was obvious, becoming a lot more obvious the more she wriggled, the longer her hands roamed. "Honey, I'm all sweaty. Let me, uh, let me take a shower." The gentleman protests too much.
The bathroom was a tiny cubicle. He dawdled, feeling ridiculous. Despite her age, she wasn't that much of a child, was clearly experienced and more than willing. If only his conscience would shut up, stop insisting he was just using the girl. Of course, he also knew that soon after he stepped out his libido was going to out-shout his conscience, and he felt all the worse for it.
She had given him one of her towel robes, absurdly tiny and tight for his shoulders. After drying off, he wrapped it around his waist by the sleeves. When he came out, her hair was brushed neatly and she had changed into a tiny, lacy number which she must've thought more appropriate for the occasion. But she had left her face alone and Hutch realized he'd been right. The clean, fresh glow of youth was more attractive than anything makeup could hope to bestow. God, she's so young.
Not that young, he knew, as she tugged her robe off of him and took a step back.
"Madre mia," she breathed. "Que lindo."
He blushed at being called beautiful, closing the distance and pulling her into his arms. He found out he had to pick her up off the floor if he wanted to kiss her without doubling over himself and bending her neck back uncomfortably. She twined around him, melted into him. So much for reservations, he thought as his body quickly reacted. Sex had been sporadic at best lately, and since the start of the case, nonexistent.
Secure in his hold, her arms came off his shoulders and she tugged at her negligee. He loosened one arm to let her pull that side up, then the other. Her arms extended high over her head as she drew the flimsy material off, lifting her breasts. Hutch heaved her up higher, bringing her buttocks to rest on his forearms instead of palms, so he could reach her breasts with his mouth. With a warm giggle, she curled over him, her hair falling over his head and shoulders.
Her legs fell away from him. The squirming told him she wanted some freedom. He let her, controlling her descent with his arms, enjoying the slow, tight slide along his length while her mouth and hands punctuated it. Finally she was on the ground and stroked him, took him into her mouth, warm and wet.
It felt...wonderful. He looked down at her, and had to laugh softly. His legs were too long. To reach him she crouched on tiptoe with bent knees. Then she pulled him in deeper and he threw his head back, soaking in the sensations.
"Stop," he said, when he realized he had to fight them, got his fingers firmly in her hair and pulled her to her feet.
She looked puzzled. "You not like? Men back home, they don't care, but American -- "
He had no desire to listen to history or comparisons. "I like it fine. Don't want to like it too much just yet." He swept her up to carry her to the bed. The least he could do, he decided, was to make it good for her.
Her dark skin looked exotic and warm on the white sheets, against his own pale color. The body was firm with youth, pliable with desire, and tasted sweet. She squirmed when his mouth left the softly-rounded navel and descended, one leg coming over the other in a strangely prim way. "What's wrong?" he asked, trying to meet her eyes through the tangle of hair.
"You don't...don't have to."
"Have to? Consuela, this isn't a chore. I want to. I'd like to." Gently, he tried to part the thighs but they wouldn't give. "What's the matter, you don't enjoy it?"
"I don't know," she said shyly.
He wondered why he was surprised. The little Mexican maid, fair game for the taking but not for returning the favors. He stroked her. "Relax, sweetheart. Just let me. If you don't like it, tell me and I'll stop, okay?"
Once he started, she didn't ask him to stop. The only reason he eventually did was because he thought it wise to cover her mouth with his before they were heard. She was frantic for him and he was more than ready. After so long, it felt incredibly good -- too good, and she wouldn't let him slow down. He finished too soon.
Aware of how tiny she was under him, he rolled them to their sides, trying to catch his breath, feeling miserable that her body was taut, still bearing down on him although she couldn't be feeling much. "Lo siento," he apologized.
She stilled instantly, except for her fingers caressing his moist, heaving chest. "Muy bueno," she said.
He cradled her head with a palm. "Don't snow me, Consuela. I know exactly how good that was...or wasn't. I'm not nineteen anymore, so you'll have to wait a bit until I can make it better." In the meantime, there were other ways. He gathered her to him.
The card game had been called off due to lack of interest on Starsky's part. The TV hadn't made it, either. Linda could think of better ways of spending a night than sitting and staring at a brooding man. Every once in a while, when she saw a partnership that lasted, she tended to wonder what she was missing out on, both on the job and off. If it was sleepless nights, she was fine as a loner, thank you. Worrying was not her strong suit. Ditto for subtlety.
"This is boring," she said.
"Sorry. Didn't think you'd care for it if I tried makin' it more interesting."
"You never know." She wasn't sure if she was kidding or not. However, he didn't take her up on it, making her wonder how much of his Casanova of the Western World act was just that: an act. "Look, it's damn near mornin'. We gotta get some sleep."
She got up to tug at him. He came readily, let her tumble him onto the bed, clothes and all. She threw one side of the comforter over him. "Now, sleep."
One midnight-blue eye surfaced, with some of its usual twinkle in it. "Yes, Mom. If you tell me a bedtime story."
"Little Boy Blue, come blow your horn. The sheep's in the meadow, the cow's in the corn. And where's the boy who tends the sheep? He's under a haystack, fast asleep." She gave a firm whack to where she estimated his nicely-rounded rump would be under the covers. "Which is probably what Ken's doin' anyway."
"I bet you think we're weird."
"Hey, who am I to say? I mean, I never understood what my mother sees in my charming bum of a father, either. But it works fine for them. There's little enough in this world that works right, and things that do, well, they don't need nobody's approval." On impulse, she ruffled his hair. "And that's all the philosophy you're gonna get from me. I'm getting outta here before I blow my image."
"You know," he called out as she was halfway through the door, "you're all right."
"Be still, my heart," she called back, closed the door.
Hutch was dressed and ready to leave before dawn. Outside, the dogs were being called away. He stepped close to the bed, gently covered the naked body, innocently wanton in sleep. She was totally relaxed, smiling peacefully, looking satiated, happy. Used, his mind still insisted. His own body felt undeservedly good, but nothing helped a heaviness deep inside.
Dear God, I'm pushing forty and she's all of nineteen years old -- or so she said. He fervently hoped that she hadn't lied about that at least. He resisted the urge to push the stray strands off her face, gently stirred by the even breathing. He shouldn't awaken her.
Plans had been shaping in his head as he had quietly, sleeplessly, waited for the right time to leave. When the case was concluded, she would be out of a job. He was going to take her away. Of course, he couldn't tell her. She'd misunderstand, hope for things he couldn't deliver. Kiko and his mother had given refuge to Molly. Maybe they wouldn't be averse to taking in another stray until he could help her build an independent and stable life.
At the moment, though, he couldn't even say goodbye. He left.
The dogs were gone, and he had no trouble getting away. Heading straight for his car, then the closest bus terminal, he deposited the ledgers into a locker. Within the pages were proof that one Sergeant Bauer, Narco's pride and joy, was on too many payrolls. Considering how he had obtained them, he couldn't very well place the things on Dobey's desk, not if he didn't want to be instantly kicked off the case, and that just for starters. He'd have to do everything in a roundabout way.
Briefly, he wondered what he should do with the jewels, then dumped those into the locker as well. If Genovese wished, he could claim them from the police. He wouldn't, of course, but all that interested Hutch was to be rid of them. He put the key carefully into his pocket. The streets were barely beginning to come alive when he placed it, making sure he wasn't seen, in Bauer's mailbox.
The Captain had stepped into his office first thing in the morning and had found his detective already waiting for him there. "Around the clock stakeout, huh?" Dobey said, when Hutch was through, glumly stirring his first cup of coffee. "No telling how long it'll take, either. What kind of manpower do you think I have?"
Hutch was standing to one side of his superior, looking out the window behind the desk. It was preferable to facing the man, but not by much. "I know, Captain, but it's important. I'd do it myself if I didn't have to be at The Familia. It shouldn't take too long, if I read Bauer right."
"You're sure this is worth it?"
Hutch fiddled with the blinds. "It's a good tip. The, uh, source is good -- I mean, reliable."
"Care to tell me who it is?" The blond shook his head. "We get Bauer with the incriminating evidence in his hands in one swoop. At the right time." Dobey continued. "I can say this is...fortuitous."
"Yeah, Captain, you can say that," the blond mumbled.
Dobey picked up the phone but didn't dial. "Do I want to know any more?"
"No, sir, I don't think so."
"Don't do that."
"Anytime you start getting formal, I start getting heartburn," Dobey muttered as he dialed. "All right, Hutchinson, I'll assign a unit."
Hutch left without looking at his captain. This time he drove to his makeshift apartment for the next stage. By the time he got there, the units had had time to settle in. He picked up the phone. It was a plausible story, one which policemen experienced periodically, so Bauer wouldn't be too surprised.
The man was still home. "There's a key in your mailbox," Hutch said without preamble.
"What? Who is this?"
"Never mind. I'm only calling for a friend."
"That's what they all say."
"Humor me. Anyway, my friend took something he shouldn't have, now just wants it out of his hands. It's too hot, you understand?"
"I'm not a fence."
"That's good, since all my friend wants is to stay anonymous."
"What're the goods?"
"Let's just say they belong to one of your employers, and I don't mean the taxpayers. Why don't you see the rest for yourself?" Hutch gave the directions for the locker, then hung up. It should at least get Bauer to the locker to check out the story. The cops could take over from there. He had to get some sleep before he fell on his face. He was also hungry, but there was nothing in the kitchen. Later he'd go to the convenience store on the corner, but it could wait until after a nap.
Balancing two full brown bags in his arms, Hutch left the grocery store and discovered that it had started pouring down rain. He didn't have far to go, so he put his head down and started walking quickly. He didn't notice Starsky's car until, seemingly out of nowhere, it screeched to a stop only inches from actually grazing him, and the passenger door was flung open.
"Get in," he was told, not politely.
Obediently, he was levering himself into the car when his partner reached, grabbed him by the arm and yanked him in. Hutch righted the grocery bags that threatened to spill, reached for the door already closing on its own by the momentum of the car speeding away. "If this is your idea of getting me in out of the rain, it leaves something to be desired." He dropped the bags next to his feet, avoided hitting the dashboard as Starsky ungently took a curve. Evidently, his partner wasn't speaking to him. Yet.
After a few more turns, they were in a narrow alley. Starsky parked next to some dumpsters. "All right, what the hell did you do?"
"Huh?" It wasn't eloquent but Starsky's hostility had thrown him.
"Come on! You get lost on me. I go to the club this morning and all hell's breakin' loose. Some ledgers and IOUs are missing, stolen, I hear. Genovese's runnin' around like a chicken with his head cut off, everybody's catchin' heat -- I don't know what you pulled, but I know goddamned well you pulled something."
Hutch took a deep breath, described his operation and where he hoped it would lead, then he waited for the explosion. He didn't have a leg to stand on. Breaking and entering, theft, planting evidence, conspiracy, entrapment. He idly tried to speculate which one Starsky would light on first. But the reaction, when it came, wasn't quite what he had expected.
"When you said you'd surprise me, I didn't know it was gonna be a beaut," his partner said from between clenched teeth. "Go on, get out."
"Hey, it's rai -- what'd you mean get out?"
"You don't wanna hear what I have to say right now. Take my word for it and go."
"Of course I want to hear what you have to say."
"Yeah." Hutch almost smiled at the childish exchange, then Starsky turned to him and his expression was nothing to encourage a smile.
"Okay, you asked for it. I say your idea of this partnership stinks lately. I can't blow my nose without you wipin' it for me, and then you go and pull this stunt on me. And to top it all off, you have the gall to look surprised?"
"Starsk, if you'll let me get a word in edge -- "
"Don't push it! I'm mad, I got good reason to be, and you know damned well why. Next time you don't need a partner -- hell, when you don't even need me as a lousy backup, let me know, huh? I can use my goddamned sleep! Just don't push it right now. Get out before I say or do something I'll regret. In your case, it's a little too damn late."
Hutch got out of the car.
A waiter brought a phone to the blond when he was busy at his table. "Call me," was the only thing that came through the wires. He recognized Dobey's voice, but had to wait until his break when he could find a safe phone.
"We lost him," his captain said.
"You've -- you've lost Bauer?"
The man's voice was weary. "He did show up at the locker, got the stuff out of it, but the area was crowded. By the time our people made a move, he was gone."
Hutch cursed. "You can find him. He lives -- " But where would the evidence be?
"Nothing doing. He didn't go back home or to work. Even his car was left at the bus station, which is one of the reasons our men lost him. They didn't expect him to head away from his car and desert it. He must've been prepared. He's gone, dropped out totally. We're looking, but...."
Hutch felt like hitting his head against the wall with frustration.
The first chance he got to tell Starsky about it was the next day, when he found his partner having dinner at the cafeteria of the Marina. The conversation had to be held quickly in a restroom.
"I can't tell you where Bauer is," his partner said, cold, distant, "but I'll tell you exactly what he's doing. He's retiring. After he's through squeezing the last drop from the stone, I mean. The ledgers came back to Genovese late last night. Since Bauer claimed to have paid a great deal to secure them, so did Genovese. No jewels, of course, but it's assumed that the 'thief' has kept those."
"Oh, that's not important. What's important, what's got Fontane hangin' around the club, breathin' down Genovese's neck, is that the IOUs that were with ledgers didn't come back. Bauer claims to have no knowledge of 'em. Before he went underground again, that is. Today we've been hearin' from the folks who'd signed those IOUs. They want to know exactly who's holding 'em and why they're being blackmailed for them. This is not the way the Marruzzi organization likes to do business, you understand."
"Starsky, I just wanted to -- "
Obviously, his partner wasn't in the mood. He interrupted. "You wanted to start something and you sure did. Let's hope it's something we can control." With that, he left Hutch.
It was two days later and the club had emptied out when Genovese entered the outer office Starsky was working in. The detective had the day's receipts spread out on the desk.
"Let somebody else worry about those, get the main ledger out," he was told, and handed a folder. "Every account in here, close them on the books as paid in full. Tomorrow, call each person to tell them we're sorry for the inconvenience, they owe us nothing, and they can claim their IOUs to tear them up personally."
Starsky knew before looking that the missing IOUs were somehow found, and the club would be taking a big money loss to save face. What he was itching to know was how. "Did the cop see reason?" he asked.
"Hardly. Don't worry about it. Mr. Fontane will be coming over. Send him directly into my office." Instructions concluded, Genovese left.
Starsky quickly brought the accounts up to date, then put everything into the safe from which Genovese would later transfer them into a newly-installed system at his house. He waited for Fontane. The consiglieri was probably coming over to get a first-hand report to carry to the padrone and Starsky wanted to hear it. Behind Genovese's office was a soundproof cubicle holding a video-taping facility, carefully concealed from those visiting the club owner. It would be deserted at this time. A perfect place to eavesdrop.