Starsky tapped the prearranged signal on Hutch's door. "It's open," he heard from inside. He pushed the door. His partner was sitting on the couch in his robe, staring at a local news broadcast with unseeing eyes. He must've decided to tune in before he went to bed.
He turned the TV off and sat next to the blond. "I came to tell you, but I guess you've heard, huh?"
Hutch waved vaguely at the set. "It was just on." He fell silent, dropped his eyes to his hands worrying the belt of the robe.
"Hey, partner, talk to me.
"That's a switch."
"Okay, I was angry. This is different."
"I didn't count on this!" Hutch burst out. "This isn't what I wanted. I just wanted him out of the way, but not like this. I wanted him arrested, not killed. I swear, Starsk, I didn't mean it to happen this way."
"What do you think, I don't know that? Come on, he played with fire and he got burned. He was the lowest of the low. Bet he didn't agonize over blowin' his own partner away half as much as you're agonizin' over his worthless life."
Hutch jumped up, pacing restlessly, having to change direction every few steps in the cramped room. "You don't understand. I've been sitting here, trying to feel something for him and I can't. Sure, I'm angry at myself, I miscalculated, but...for heaven's sake, Starsky, for all purposes I put a contract out on the man and I can't even feel remorse."
Starsky shook his head. Who else but Hutch would go on a guilt trip because he couldn't feel properly guilty? Maybe he shouldn't tell his partner any more. "If it helps, neither do I. Come on, Hutch, don't waste it." Save it, you're going to need it. "You know damned well he could've chosen other ways. You're not responsible for his greed."
Hutch didn't look consoled. "I have to tell Dobey the truth," he said, reaching for the phone.
Starsky lunged across the couch to grab his wrist. "No, not while you're in this mood. Besides, I bet Dobey's got it all figured out by himself."
"That has nothing to do with it. I have to."
"We have to make a report, yes. Let me take care of it."
"No, I started it, I'll finish it."
"At least let's discuss it first." He pried the receiver out of Hutch's hand and replaced it. "It's done. What difference can a few minutes make?"
Sighing, the blond pulled his hand away. "Then why wait?"
"Because...because I need it, okay?"
"I gotta think. Please, Hutch, give me a minute. How about a cup of coffee?"
The blond studied his face for a while. "Sure," he said finally and went into the kitchen.
Starsky realized there was no way out of his corner, however much he hated to tell Hutch the rest of the bad news. From what he'd overheard that night, he thought his partner's cover hadn't been compromised, and that was a small miracle in itself. However, Hutch wouldn't let it be. Soon he'd be hell-bent on finding the girl, and give himself away. He followed the blond into the kitchen and started rummaging through the cabinets.
"What do you want?" Hutch asked, then frowned when Starsky pulled out a glass and proceeded to pour a shot of liquor into it. "Hey, it's already tomorrow, you don't need that. The coffee will be ready in a minute."
Starsky reached to turn off the stove, then pulled the blond. "Come back and sit down." He steered Hutch to the couch, handed him the glass, sat down himself. "Drink it."
His partner stared at the liquor, at Starsky, and seemed to remember another time and place. "Tell me," he whispered, his voice already shaky.
"Consuela," Starsky said shortly.
Hutch kept staring at him, shaking his head slowly. "No."
"I'm sorry, babe."
"What...what happened?" the blond managed.
"I don't know much. I know she's dead."
"How -- why? Where is she?"
"Where, I don't know. I got the feeling that nobody ever will. Why? Somehow she was connected to the break-in. A necklace that was found in her possession, Genovese said. Belonged to his wife, lost that same night."
"That's impossi -- dear God, I dropped them outside. I thought I picked them all up. She must've found it."
"Don't start in on yourself again," Starsky quickly said. "You're probably right, but it isn't your fault if she took it instead of returnin' it like she should've."
Hutch hurled the glass against a wall, where it shattered, the liquid running down, pale amber. "She was just a kid! A kid who liked pretty shiny things!" He started to jump up from the couch.
Starsky moved faster, shoving him back into it, staying in his way by standing in front and placing his hands on the back of the couch on either side of the blond. He had to check Hutch's reactions every step of the way or there'd be no controlling him in this mood. He also knew, from experience, it wasn't the safest thing to do. "Pay attention, partner. How much did she know about you? Did she have anything than can be traced to you? Anybody see you together?"
For a while, it looked like Hutch was going to backhand him. He stood his ground until the moment passed and only then realized he hadn't been sure if it was going to pass. His partner seemed to collapse. "She had nothing," he whispered, "except a name. Not even a complete one. She didn't know who I was, what I was, on either side. She couldn't have given them anything -- God, how I wish she had something to give."
"Wouldn't've made any difference."
"Whoever got to her would've come after me!" Another abrupt move that Starsky checked with one palm against the blond's shoulder. However, any more pushes now, and he knew he was going to get pushed back, with no holds barred. Luckily Hutch focused on another target. "Who was it?"
"I don't know."
Starsky softened his voice. "I swear to you I don't know. Genovese must've ordered it, but I don't know who carried it out. We'll find out. I promise you, before this is over, we'll get both him and Genovese. I promise."
Hutch's head fell to his chest. Starsky relaxed his guard, going to his knees in front of his partner. "Babe, I'm sorry. But there's nothing you or anyone else can do right now. From what I've gathered, they think she helped somebody to break in, a thief who didn't know any better. Bauer's out of the way. As long as they have what belongs to them, they'll leave it alone, I think. And that's where we have to leave it, too, for now. But that's not the end of it and you have my word. Do you hear me?" He got a tiny nod.
For long minutes they stayed silent, motionless, then Hutch lifted his head, shook it. "I have to tell Dobey, get myself off this case."
Starsky gently arrested his vague groping for the phone again. "Don't."
"What do you want me to do, Starsky, leave a longer graveyard in my wake? You expect me to go on after this? You think anybody would let me even if I tried?" The words were angry, the voice defeated.
"Let me worry about anybodies. I don't know if I can expect you to go on, but I want you to."
"Simple. I need you."
"Come on, Starsky, you were ready to take this case with or without me. You even told me to get off it."
"So I was an idiot. Hold it against me if you want, but don't desert me right now. I've never been under this long, Hutch, I can't do it alone, and I can't do it with somebody else."
The blank glaze over Hutch's eyes was now replaced by something else, a trapped look. "Starsk, don't -- don't do this to me...I...even if I...they won't let me, don't you understand? I can't keep this a secret...I can't -- don't ask me that. And once they know...."
Starsky placed his hands on his partner's knees. "Hutch, trust me, please. Lie down, try to get some rest. Let me go talk to Dobey. I swear I'll tell him everything. I won't leave anything out. Let me take care of this. For once, leave it all to me, at least until the morning. Don't do anything until I come back. Please, can I have just until the morning? Will you wait for me?"
After a while, Hutch shrugged, resigned. That seemed to be the closest thing to a permission Starsky was going to get. He settled for it.
Starsky had called Dobey and by the time he got to Metro, the captain had arrived there, rumpled, grumpy, but present. After listening to his man, he had decided to call the DA and the commissioner. Those two hadn't been thrilled about rising with the birds and had taken their time arriving, making Starsky stew. He hated to leave Hutch alone longer than absolutely necessary.
McNeil was carrying on and on, showing no intention of running out of steam. "After all the lectures I gave both of you about coercion, entrapment -- maybe I should've covered petty crimes and on up to conspiracy! I expected better, a lot better, from an officer of his years and experience. And you, how could you go along with him?"
Starsky kept looking at the DA levelly. That he'd been unaware of Hutch's actions was nobody's business. McNeil could draw any conclusions he wished.
Dobey interceded. "What's done is done. Let's stop wasting time and find out where we stand."
McNeil gave the captain a sour look. "Are you filing a charge against your officer?"
"No! This is departmental first. If and when it's indicated, you'll have any charge that concerns your office in writing. You're here because the case is restricted, and under those circumstances you're the only legal advice available. We can cover all bases here once and for all."
"Okay. Well, stupid or not -- and believe me, you two were mighty stupid -- I don't want my office sidetracked on this affair. All it'll do is contaminate the larger one. The Marruzzi organization is too important. The case involves two cities, years of taxpayers' money."
"Oh, I see," Starsky couldn't help saying. "It's inconvenient, huh?"
"Starsky," Dobey admonished.
"I should think you'd consider me generous," McNeil said.
"Sure, just as soon as I can believe you're not after bigger glory. What's a piddlin' cop -- "
"Detective, are you all here? Surely you realize Sergeant Hutchinson is getting a break he doesn't deserve. Your partner should be grateful."
"Oh, yeah, right up Hutch's alley," Starsky muttered under his breath, then asked, "Are you tellin' me he won't be held responsible?"
"Of course he's held responsible! He committed a crime -- "
"He made a mistake!"
McNeil ignored him. "And people are dead. A man is morally responsible for the results of his actions."
"Nobody has to remind Hutch of his moral responsibilities. Give me the legalese, huh? This ain't Sunday School. I'm gettin' old here."
If possible, McNeil's face got even longer. "Legalese? I'll prosecute him the day Genovese files charges. Bauer is primarily Narco's problem. And yours, Commissioner. As for the girl, you're telling me she was an illegal alien. Who knows if or when the body will turn up. By that time, we may not even be able to identify her. What's there to do? For all purposes, she doesn't even exist, dead or alive. So your partner is off the hook as far as my office is concerned."
"Terrific. That'll make him feel all better."
"Frankly, Sergeant, how he feels about it doesn't concern me in the slightest. And the same goes for you, too." He rose. "I don't have time for this, Harold. I'm forgetting it, and try not to remind me of it."
"Commissioner?" the captain asked. "What's your opinion?"
Warner studied his fingernails. "The best thing for all concerned seems to be to let it alone. I expect no more shenanigans, though. I'm going to have my hands full with Narco and Bauer. Bet you dollars to doughnuts that information about exactly how bad a cop Bauer was will become public very soon. They'll do that to cool our ardor for the killers. I don't need another blot to worry about. You're on your own." He also rose and joined McNeil. "However, Sergeant, I hope your partner wasn't expecting a promotion anytime."
Which was just hot air, Starsky knew. They couldn't put anything in Hutch's record unless they wanted to take official action. With nothing in the record, that threat would last as long as the incumbent commissioner. But he was upset at the man for having equated Hutch with Bauer and couldn't stay quiet. "That's just great. A felon can spend ten years breakin' the law. We sweat and put him away. He spends a year pretendin' to be a good boy and he's out on parole. Bauer plays both sides of the street and we can't touch him. Hutch works for ten years with a good record, almost gets killed for it times over, makes one mistake and that's it? If you're gonna put this in his record and do somethin' about it, go ahead. If not, don't threaten my partner. If it comes to that' I can make a few -- "
"Shut up, Starsky!" The bellow came from Dobey, predictably.
The DA and the commissioner left, and he was left alone with his captain. "They think they're bein' so generous," he grumbled. "They don't realize Hutch don't need help to drive the nails in." He was exhausted, but his partner was waiting. He hoped. He talked his legs into taking over from the chair. "Gotta go, Cap'n, before he cooks up another wild idea in that blond head of his."
"Starsky." Dobey's stern tone stopped him at the door. "I'm not happy. You can tell him that. You can also tell him I don't care how generous the DA and the commissioner might be. He answers to me first. I won't concern myself with what goes into the record and what doesn't; as soon as this case is over, he's on suspension."
"Yeah, sure," he muttered. Only after he had closed the door he stopped to consider, then stuck his head back in. "Thanks, Cap'n." Dobey scowled at him. He grinned tiredly at the captain.
Hutch hadn't moved one inch, and Starsky was glad enough, although he knew that that much containment might end up in an eruption. He sat down, didn't seem to be noticed. "Hey." He had spoken softly but Hutch jumped, wouldn't look at him.
"Did you bring a warrant?"
"Once was enough, never again. There isn't one, Hutch. There ain't gonna be one."
"How did you manage that?"
"I didn't manage anything. I just laid it on the line. NcNeil and the commissioner, it was their decision."
"How's that possible?"
Starsky told him. Not word for word. But he realized that however he softened the phrasing, Hutch would know. They both knew the system well enough. By the time he finished, his partner had lost the disinterested attitude and seemed to be going directly in the opposite direction. The pale blue eyes fixed him with something very much like accusation.
"You already knew," Hutch said and there was no doubt about the accusation in his voice. "That's why you said you'd handle it."
"I didn't know, Hutch. But it wasn't hard to figure they weren't gonna touch it."
The blond laughed, or tried to. "What's the joke, I can't even get arrested? It's no joke, is it?" He lifted one hand, fingers spread, studied it. "Funny, I don't look like a skeleton in anybody's closet."
"Aw, come on, Hutch. It ain't like you'll be a repeat offender. They know that." The blond yanked his hand away from Starsky's attempt to lower it, then pushed away from his partner with a sudden move, stood up, went to the window.
"How magnanimous of them. Go and sin no more -- that's God's province, dammit, not McNeil's or the commissioner's!" His voice was rising.
Starsky was tired enough to be wobbly, but he followed his partner, then had to keep following since Hutch wouldn't stop at one place longer than a few seconds. "If it helps, Dobey's suspending you after the case."
Even though he knew that if he also raised his voice they were going to end up screaming at each other, Starsky couldn't help it. His nerves were already worn thin. "Exactly what I told him. Anyway, who appointed you God?"
"If McNeil and the commissioner shouldn't distribute his amnesty, who the hell're you to dish out divine vengeance? Come off your damned high-horse and join the human race, partner. You didn't commit an unspeakable sin. You got pushed into a corner and you made a mistake. Or are you too good for those?"
"Mistake? I decided the end justified the means. When did I start doing that? Remember Iron Mike? My God, I remember thinking I never wanted to get to that point. I wouldn't. I'd quit before I did. Never. Not me. Now I find I'm there already, and just didn't know it. Maybe I even knew it but couldn't admit it. How do I look at -- "
"Stop it, Hutch!" He also wished the blond would stop roving. More than anything, he wished they could stop yelling at each other. "You're your own worst enemy. Anybody who can flog himself so mercilessly can't go bad. You'll destroy yourself first. Okay, you blew it once. It's done. The question is, are you ever going to forgive yourself?"
"Two people died because of me!"
"Hutch, it ain't like you conspired to kill 'em."
"Makes a hell of a lot of difference to the dead, doesn't it?"
Starsky decided he was really too tired for this. "All right, damn you, don't forgive yourself! But will you please, for God's sake, forgive me? I can't take much more."
That brought Hutch up short. So abruptly, in fact, that Starsky ran into him. "You?"
"Yes, me!" Starsky pulled back, shook his head. "Don't you think I know if I hadn't wanted to prove so badly that I still had it, that Gunther didn't carve it all out of me, you wouldn't be in this mess? You pleaded with me a week ago, but I couldn't settle for a little glory. I wanted it all. If this is the price, I don't want any of it. I'm sorry I ever wanted it. Marruzzi can have the whole city, the whole damned country if he wants. Nothing's worth your pain to me."
"Starsk, don't. It's okay. You don't have to...I don't blame you. You didn't know. How could you?"
Hutch was no longer shouting. Starsky gentled his voice, too. "Neither did you. How about not blaming yourself?"
His partner stayed silent for a long minute. "Not very nice, babe."
There was perhaps a bit of truth in that. Starsky had the grace to blush. They knew each other too well and sometimes a little emotional blackmail crept in unnoticed, like second nature. "Just because I know the right thing to say don't make me any less sincere." He was truly sorry for dragging Hutch into the case and keeping him there. He'd have no compunctions about dropping it immediately, three years and the taxpayers' money be damned -- except there was a promise to be kept now. "I really am sorry."
Hutch seemed to have worked the anger out of his system. "I know," he said softly.
Starsky knew depression would follow. "Will you stand still for one blessed minute until I open the couch? I gotta lie down or I'm gonna fall. It's a miracle you didn't cut yourself on that broken glass already, so will you just stay where you are?"
Hutch looked at where he had thrown the shot glass a few hours ago and promptly headed there to pick up the shards. Starsky heaved an exasperated sigh. "Hutch, you're worse than a kid. Put something on your feet and get the broom if you insist."
"Oh," the blond said and started looking for slippers.
"Oh," Starsky mimicked to himself. And they let him carry a gun.
Once he opened out the couch, it was beyond him to do anything but fall onto it. He'd learned that when he started noticing each breath going in and out it was time to give the body its due, lessen the exertion. Talk or move, one or the other. If he managed carefully, nobody noticed.
Hutch sat on the other side. "Business as usual?"
"Up to you. I'm not goin' on without you. I mean, the next time I start to slip, who'll dance with me to remind me who I am. Who'd even begin to think of it?"
A half-smile appeared on Hutch's face, didn't stay long. "I don't know how good I'll be."
"You'll be fine."
"I don't know."
Some more discussion was in order, obviously. "Stop makin' me look up. Lie down and tell me why you don't think you'll be good."
Hutch lay down, stared at the ceiling. "I don't know what's left there to get a hold of. It's been going, slowly and slowly, bit by bit, chipped away. You know all those things we grow up learning: truth, right, justice, beliefs, pride. You try to hold on, but truth becomes whatever's convenient, right gets dictated to you."
He rolled away. Starsky heard the bitterness creep into his voice. "Beliefs are just interpretations, pride is archaic anyway, justice turns into expediency -- and you keep on going. You change your definitions, twist them around, or just keep them to yourself, and you keep going. Because by that time you have something else fueling you. I've finally figured out that it's anger. You see the wrongs and how people get away with them, so you build this righteous anger. Then you do something wrong and then...they let you get away with it, too."
The blond paused, thought for awhile, then faced his partner. "Starsky, that leaves nothing. If you happen to be the gander, how can you get righteous over what the goose gets? Great leveler, our system. What do I fall back on?"
Starsky had to think hard. Hutch's philosophical forays weren't easy to keep up with. But this wasn't an abstract meandering he'd normally balk at or cut short with something totally inane. It mattered to his partner, so he concentrated. "There's one more step, Hutch."
"In your case, tenacity, I know. I don't have it."
"Sure you do, but that's not what I was talkin' about. There's tolerance. Okay, it's a screwed-up world, but all we've got. I'm not sayin' you don't try to make it better. Still, you bear with it at the same time. You gotta start with yourself, though."
"Yep." His partner didn't look convinced. "What's wrong with it?" Starsky wanted to know.
"Nothing, in itself. But one more step down and you hit acceptance. That's sheep. I left my fold a long time ago to escape exactly that."
"Don't worry, partner. We're the rebels, remember? I think we'll be dead before we can get there. Besides, you just said there was no place to go, and we found some more. Leave it to us and who knows what else we can come up with." His eyes were closing. He let them. But Hutch spoke after only a short break.
"Why?" His eyes felt just fine closed, thank you. Except the pillow was lumpy.
"A few days ago you said you didn't like this partnership anymore. And here you are willing to go through all these changes with me."
Starsky punched the pillow. It didn't help. "I didn't say that. I said I didn't like your idea of it lately. If you think it's the same thing, you've got a lot to learn. A ship that gets battered doesn't necessarily get flushed with the bathwater. You don't throw the baby out with the sink."
"Are you out of it, or are you doing it on purpose?"
"Mixing your metaphors and making me dizzy."
"Is it workin'?"
"If the aim was to short out my brain, yes, I'd say."
"Good. Try to get some sleep."
He felt Hutch rolling over. Shortly, though, he felt a very faint movement of the bed. Just a slight...tremble? He leaned on an elbow to look over his partner's shoulder. "Hutch?"
"She was so young. Did...did you see her?"
Starsky had to strain to hear. "Must've," he answered. "But by the time I was payin' attention, she wasn't at the club anymore."
"She was tiny. Had this...simple way about her -- oh, damn."
"I wanted to get away from the dogs, I didn't know I was throwing her to them. I took her, I used her. And I don't even know who killed her. Except me, of course. There isn't even a body. There's nothing I can do for her. Nothing."
In the dim light cast by the drawn blinds, Starsky saw the throat muscles working, the chest movement that was almost like cramping, knew what Hutch was trying to contain. "Hey," he whispered softly, "nobody says you can't cry for her." That brought a single sob. He wrapped his arm tight around his partner and that brought out the rest. What remained would be up to time to take care of. He lay his head on Hutch's shoulder and drowsed.
Third Lovett illo