Kenneth by Kaye Austen Michaels



Author Caveat: This story contains dialogue, a scene reenactment, and spoilers, including a major plot twist, from the 1944 MGM film "Laura." The film is referenced with respect, not for profit, and with no intention of copyright infringement. The same goes for the use of the characters Starsky & Hutch.


"Got any fries left?"

Munching on his hamburger with extra lettuce and tomato, double the onions, Hutch awkwardly dug a greasy French fry out of the paper wrapper and handed it across to his partner in the passenger seat. Inches from dropping the fry on Starsky's open palm, he paused and dangled the wedge of fried potato like a hypnotic pendant in front of Starsky's eyes. "Why do you want one of my fries? Eat your own."

"Have a heart, willya? I finished mine. Can't enjoy the last bite of burger without a fry."

"Wash your burger down with your soda there."

"Hu-u-utch?"

Hutch gave in to that coaxing voice. He usually did, damn him for a sucker. And if that coaxing voice ever asked him for anything more daring and unorthodox than a French fry, he'd be hard pressed to say no. Hutch had long since learned to live with that deep-seated truth, along with the harsh probability that Starsky would never ask.

Watching Starsky gobble down the fry with the last big bite of relish-loaded double cheeseburger, he thought about giving up the remains of his own burger to feed his partner's pet tapeworm. Too nervous after the movie to do the meal justice anyway, he held out his last smidgen of bread, meat, wilted lettuce, and soggy tomato.

"Here. Drop this down the hatch."

"Hey, thanks!" Starsky seized the offering and popped it in his mouth.

Hutch forced his attention away from Starsky's avid chewing. Such a show made him ask himself dangerous questions.

Would Starsky "nibble" on something else with just as much enthusiasm?

Would he slow down and savor a different kind of meat?

And just how much could Starsky put in his mouth at one time?

In the interests of safety Hutch stared out the gritty windshield at the comings and goings of the Chubby Chicken's carhop waitresses. He didn't ask much out of life: his partner's safety and happiness, good weather to run in, and tolerable caffeine-sludge in the station's coffee pot. Tonight, he'd needed one more thing from life: a nice, amusing movie with snappy dialogue and good character actors--The Trouble with Harry or maybe The Canterville Ghost--but, no, life had spit in his face. For the first time in three years of plainclothes partnership, Hutch regretted their pre-undercover-assignment ritual.

Word had come down from Dobey that morning. Diego Meetz, the mid-level pusher of pharmacological goodies busted the previous week in a coordinated Narco-Homicide stakeout, had rolled over on the really big boys. Dobey wanted his best undercover team to exploit a weakness in the organization's transportation arrangements and take down the distributors from the inside, the sooner the better, before a dozen more college-aged kids landed in the morgue courtesy of contaminated uppers.

He and Starsky had already firmed up the background on their covers: two out-of-town entrepreneurs hiring themselves out as mules who could provide their own line of cargo vans. As covers went, nothing sophisticated, but they hadn't seen a cover case in several months, so Starsky insisted they stick to what worked for them. Hutch had agreed.

Now, he wished he hadn't.

The ritual itself was simple. Whenever a potential undercover assignment dropped into their laps, they hit the fifty-cent theater on Talmadge Street for two tickets to the Golden Age of Hollywood film that currently had top--and only--billing on the marquis. They watched the film intently, paying close attention to dialogue and mannerisms. Afterward, over a late dinner in the car at the Chubby Chicken, they chose a scene from the movie, divvied the roles, and agreed on a time and place to meet and reenact the selected scene.

Playing part of the scene closely to script honed their memory for accents, speech patterns, and fictional personas; veering off script to improvise a new conclusion tested their adaptability and off-the-cuff thinking. All in all, it wasn't a half bad practice, and usually good, harmless fun.

Until tonight.

"We don't have to go through with it, Starsk."

"Are you kidding me? Break a winning streak three years running? Think back on our undercover cases, Hutch. We do some of our best work when we have enough time beforehand to do our little classic movie dress rehearsal. Our first meet with Riker's transportation guy is in three days. I say we get together tomorrow night, huh?"

Hutch felt the noose of fate tighten around his neck.

Tonight, the theater marquis had showcased a film with a one-word title: LAURA.

He had gotten goose bumps up and down both arms and a shiver in his spine that forewarned of impending disaster. Starsky had whooped in delight, in a tizzy over the film he said he hadn't seen in years, and the classy and beautiful dame in it by the name of Gene Tierney. As if Hutch gave a damn who Gene Tierney was and what she had to do with the price of tea in China. What kind of name for a woman was Gene, anyway? Figured the male lead would be named Dana. Would've made much more sense for the leads to go by Dana Tierney and Gene Andrews, but when did Hollywood make sense?

Halfway through the film, he'd wanted to flog the gods of randomness for leading him as a lamb to the slaughter. Laura was a love story, not just a murder mystery.

Worse, the hero just had to be a homicide detective. Who the hell could pay attention to Gene Tierney while Dana Andrews stalked around all strong-and-silent, hard-nosed copper with a soft heart under the tough New Yorker exterior?

Worst of all, the storyline started out as one of those impossible love scenarios. Didn't get more impossible than a detective who falls in love with the woman whose murder he's investigating, right?

Hutch glanced at Starsky out of the corner of his eye.

Wrong.

Detective Lieutenant Mark McPherson could've been in love with Laurence Hunt instead of Laura; that would've upped the ante in impossibility poker.

Hutch knew all about impossibility poker, modern-day style.

The film had riveted him, ripped through his heart, left him breathless and hard and aching and miserable in his lumpy, sprung-spring seat at the Reel Val-U Theater. He'd stayed deathly still while Starsky fidgeted at his side, whispering commentary. These were the jaded seventies, following the disillusionment of the sixties. The only films that should make him soul search belonged to the genius of Bergman or Kubrick. Hell, the zeitgeist would take out a contract hit on him if he admitted that film noir from the sentimental forties could hit him where he lived. He'd choked down a box of congealed, orangey-buttered popcorn just to keep his mouth busy and disguise his expressions.

"Hutch? What'd you think of the movie?"

"Thought it was dumb, Starsky. Sorry, but it was forties Hollywood schlock."

"Schlock? You crazy? It won an Oscar in 1944."

"Well, they must've been hard up for nominees that year."

"You can't think that movie was dumb, Hutch. I know you got better taste than that."

"Okay, maybe dumb isn't the right word. Maybe I should say 'improbable.'"

"Improbable how?"

"Come on, Starsky, you expect me to believe a gritty homicide detective with a silver shin bone from a gunfight with a gangster is gonna fall for some woman he's never even met, when he has every reason to believe she's dead? Just because her mentor fills his head with all this high praise for what a heaven-sent creature she was, and there's this compelling portrait of her that keeps grabbing him by the balls?"

"Not just by the balls, Hutch…by the heart. And, yeah, I think you're underestimating the power of a portrait. A picture's worth a thousand words. I know that firsthand. I got this picture at home that, uh, well, lately it's been giving me lots of stroke mileage."

"Oh, and who is the subject of this stroke picture? The carhop we had tonight, the one you said was walking around with watermelons in her bra?"

Starsky's chuckle sounded edgier than usual. "Not watermelons, dummy. I knew you weren't payin' attention to a damn thing I said. No human woman has boobs like watermelons. That'd be something out of a science fiction porno flick. Alien Boobs from Planet Titzoid. I said, somewhere a farmer's market was missing a couple cantaloupes. And of course it's not her I'm talking about. I went and bought a portrait off that Venice Beach sketch artist lady."

Hutch's heart sank with the cruelty on top of punishment. If Starsky had gone and bought some portrait of a female stranger off that talented artist, and was using it to beat off to….

A few weeks ago they'd had to wait on the boardwalk for a meet with the sun-god snitch whose promised lead on the shipment of uppers led to Meetz's bust. While they killed time, jawing about this and that, Starsky noticed a lady sketching tourists. They'd eased over for a better view of her work, and after the tourists dispersed, she'd begun sketching Hutch, much to his embarrassment and Starsky's devilish glee.

The artist--Marion something or other--hadn't finished the impromptu portraiture when the snitch arrived, but time and law enforcement wait for no man, and duty came before art. Hutch had never seen the finished product, but he'd seen the samples of her work she had on display on a folding backdrop, and some of the feminine faces rivaled Goldie Hawn and Farrah Fawcett in beauty. Or Gene "Laura Hunt" Tierney. Starsky had seen them; salivated over them, too, and why the hell wouldn't he?

Hutch resigned himself to another razor slice across his heart. "Which one did you buy, Starsky? Go ahead, tell me. After all that food you just crammed down, you'll bust your gut if you try to hold anything else in."

"She called it 'Daydream,' and she'd turned it into a full-fledged painting, Hutch, not just a sketch. When I got it home, I realized 'Daydream' was the perfect name for it. Every time I look at it, I start day-dreaming, and nine times outta ten, my hand ends up busy. Last night I sat and stared at that portrait and gave myself a wrist ache."

"Good for you, Starsky. Having a steady fantasy date must make it easier to take that you didn't score with Miss Cantaloupe tonight."

"Nothin' easy about someone mesmerizing on canvas but out of reach in real life. Maybe I got half an idea how that McPherson character felt, you ever think of that?"

"I guess that's the role you want?" Hutch knew changing the subject branded him a coward--an unsympathetic one at that--but he couldn't make commiserating jokes about fantasy women. Not tonight. "I should make you choose one of the other male leads. A homicide detective from New York? Where's the challenge in that for you?"

Starsky gave him a scornful frown. "You ain't seen how I plan to play him. Believe me, there'll be enough challenge to go 'round."

"Fine. You take McPherson, then--"

"McPherson's role, yeah, but I'm staying Starsky."

"What?" Hutch could practically feel the whole plan slipping out of his control. "We've never done it that way. Last time, the film was The Adventures of Robin Hood, and I played Robin to your Friar Tuck in that staff-fight scene. I didn't call you Starsky while I dodged your cue stick and whapped you over the back of the shoulders with mine."

For some reason known only to the peanut-sized alien that lived in his brain, Starsky dissolved in helpless laughter.

Hutch elbowed him in the arm. "What? What's so damned funny?"

"Nothing. Just, you said--nothing. Sorry. We'll do the ritual a little different this time. Whole point's to improve our improvisation? Hm?"

"You tell me, Starsky. I get the feeling this thing's taking on a life of its own. Which scene are we tackling? McPherson didn't interact much with the other cops. That leaves one of the confrontation scenes with the suspects. Who am I? Waldo Lydecker or Shelby Carpenter? Do I get to be educated and egocentric, or superficial and selfish?"

"How about when McPherson goes over to Laura's empty apartment at night in the rain? You know, to sit in that armchair by the fire and moon over her portrait some more?"

Hutch grimaced. "That means I'm Lydecker, Laura's jealous friend and mentor. You really want me to get inside Lydecker's head, Starsky? I wouldn't have a jolly old time playing Shelby 'male beauty in distress' Carpenter, but he's a little less reptilian."

He didn't dare add that Lydecker's "if I can't have you, no one will" fixation on Laura had chilled him to the marrow. If he ever got that hung up on one-way desire for Starsky, he would book a flight to that funny-named island with all the poisonous Komodo dragons and see if they had a taste for Midwesterner flavored with lecithin and sea kelp.

Based on his pained expression, Starsky was either confused or his side-order chilidog didn't want to share living space with the double cheeseburger. "Lydecker? Where'd you get I wanted you to take his role? Guy's a creep-show, Hutch."

"Well, unless you want me to play Inanimate Object, like the ticking antique clock, I don't know who else I could be in that scene. Aren't you talking about when Lydecker shows up and warns McPherson about losing all of his law enforcement objectivity?"

"Hell, no. I'm talking about after that. I'm talking about when McPherson falls asleep in the armchair by the fireplace, rain falling outside, and suddenly the apartment door opens, the lights flash on, and it's--"

"No! Forget it! I'm not in the mood to do drag, Starsky. No damned way in hell, and for the record, I'd look ridiculous in a dress and floppy hat and those jitterbug pumps." He shot a glare at his passenger. "Wipe that look off your face, before I wipe it off for you!"

"What look?"

"The one daring me to prove I'd look ridiculous in a skirt and nylons. If I hear so much as a half-strangled snicker out of you, I'm dumping the rest of my cold soda on your head!"

Starsky held up both hands in his placate-the-wrath-of-Hutchinson gesture. "Okay. I didn't want you in a dress anyway. Now, some of those pantsuit get-ups Laura had--"

"You're on thin ice, Starsky. Out in the middle of the lake, cracks all around, and your left skate is untied. I'm supposed to be Laura Hunt in male drag, then? This is getting better and better. Let's forget this whole nut-job idea. I'd rather act out a scene from Sesame Street. I'll be Ernie, you can take Bert, or you'd make a very convincing Big Bird the way you wear your hair."

A tap on his window nearly propelled Hutch through the roof. It was Miss Cantaloupe with her dainty brown curls and lipstick and mascara and mountainous bust line. Just what Hutch needed: another reminder how feminine he wasn't. He rolled down the window and almost snapped at her before he got hold of himself. She couldn't help what Nature had given her. Nor was it her fault that Nature had given her the allotment intended for several other women on top of her own. This woman, right here, explained all the flat-chested chickadees in Venice.

"Can I get something else for you guys?" she asked sweetly.

"Sure." Hutch made himself smile. "I'll have a super-duper chocolate malt, and what exactly is your 'chocolate fried pie?'"

"Oh, it's like a Hostess fruit pie, only, you know, with chocolate filling instead of fruit."

"I'll have one of those too." He met Starsky's drop-jawed stare head-on. "You?"

Starsky shook his head. Miss Cantaloupe glided away to do Hutch's bidding. Starsky cleared his throat. Twice. "Uh, Hutch?"

"If I'm suddenly walking on the soil of a foreign planet, Starsky, I might as well eat like it. Maybe the sugar rush will warp my brain and I can think like you for a change, figure out where the hell you're going with all this."

"It's not that hard to figure, Hutch. You're Kenneth Hutchinson, a well-to-do Madison Avenue ad exec coming back to your Manhattan apartment after a weekend in the country, only to find some NYPD detective camped out in one of your armchairs. We're reenacting the most famous scene in the movie for our pre-undercover practice."

"Yes, about that. It's a G-rated scene in a G movie, but it crackles with electricity. Sexual tension out the yin-yang. When McPherson shows up at the apartment that night, he wanders around in a cigarette-puffing daze like he can't decide whether to run back out into the rain or suck on his .38 special because he's lovesick for a dead woman."

"Yeah, so?"

Hutch felt his eyebrows shoot toward his hairline. "Yeah, so?!"

The reappearance of Miss Cantaloupe saved Starsky from having his tongue yanked out and wrapped around his neck. No jury would return a verdict of homicide, Hutch was certain. The buxom carhop handed over the milkshake and wrapped pie, and Hutch slapped a fiver on her palm and told her to keep the change.

The instant she left, Hutch hastily unwrapped the sugary fried pie and shoved half of it in his mouth. He chewed until his jaw hurt, but he couldn't come up with a way to sidestep some important questions, and guzzling the thick chocolaty malt only made his frontal lobe throb. His teeth ached, his spacious car had somehow shrunk to the size of a Hot Wheels figurine while spinning like a rust-stained amusement park teacup ride, and Starsky's gaze followed Miss Cantaloupe as she made the rounds of her section.

Yes, life was spitting on him tonight. Spitting on him, kicking him, pummeling him with brass knuckles, and, just to seal the deal, putting his balls in a high speed centrifuge.

Hutch had to fight the ignoble urge to flick his middle finger at one of his partner's boggling eyeballs when Miss Cantaloupe bent over to take an order from the car across the lighted median. "If you did what you're thinking about in real life, you'd smother."

Starsky gawked at him. "Huh?"

"They'd find you asphyxiated with your face between her breasts, if they ever found your head at all, but I guess it's not a bad way to go."

Starsky's gawk narrowed into a glare. "Hutch, I swear t'God, sometimes you're chief cook and bottle washer at the Bonehead Diner."

"Since I'm even thinking about going along with your foray into theater of the weird, I'm inclined to agree. Let me ask you this. How do you want me to play this Madison Avenue executive? A ladies man with a string of dolls the length of Broadway? Or…what'd they call it back then? A confirmed bachelor?"

"It's not what I want. You're the one in charge of your role, just like you're in charge of your cover. You and the movie script, in this case."

"Okay, fine. How do you plan to play Detective Lt. David 'McPherson' Starsky?"

Starsky eyed him, unsmiling. "Said I'd give myself a challenge, didn't I?"

Suddenly, Hutch knew two things with absolute certainty. Number one, the Chubby Chicken chocolate pie consisted of Ex-Lax filling battered in sandpaper and fried in yak grease. Number two, a trip to Komodo-Dragon-Land promised less danger than reenacting these ten minutes of classic film.

"Why, Starsky? Why are you pushing this?"

"We need to stretch ourselves. Brush-up our skills. We haven't been under since the Danner case, and we're not exactly resurrecting O'Brien and Rafferty for this gig."

"I'm with you so far."

"Upside Earl Riker, Danner was a stamp-collectin' Santa Claus. Riker's crowd is hard-core, Hutch, you know that. We go in there rusty; we'll end up in black vinyl zip-up bags. I'd really like both of us alive come Memorial Day."

Hutch couldn't argue with that. Unfortunately, he felt obligated to point out the flaw in the strategy. "Starsky, uh--" he croaked, wishing he could reach in and extract the frog from his throat. "You know…you know if I put a certain spin on this character I won't really have to stretch myself out of shape. Won't be that much of a challenge."

"Maybe, maybe not. You might find this little amateur production of ours a real serious test of undercover discipline. Hey, sometimes the challenge is in the props." With that, the chocolate malt cup disappeared from Hutch's grasp. Pulling hard on the straw to drag the frozen dregs from the bottom, Starsky stared out the passenger side window.

"Props?" Hutch asked.

"Yeah, think about it. When we set up a meet, it's like going onstage, only a helluva lot more dangerous, and we got no control over what the other guys bring."

"I see your point. It's much harder to do our 'roles' justice when the bit players bring semi-automatics to the stage instead of briefcases filled with counterfeit or smack."

"Exactly."

"What props do you want me to bring?"

"Uh-uh. Props are my responsibility."

"Starsky, what you know, and seeing it play out in Technicolor, those are two different things. You don't think the timing of this beats out nitro for volatility?"

"You know I'd--" The sentence dissolved into a cough. Apparently, the frog had jumped from Hutch's throat into Starsky's. "I'd never play with our lives."

Hutch's back-of-the-mind suspicion that Starsky knew at least half of the truth received swift confirmation. Starsky knew, and he'd filed that knowledge away in some mental folder. Now he wanted to open that folder for a peek inside, and he'd subtly made his point that nothing he saw could change their partnership for the worse. More importantly, Starsky must believe that only good would come of dusting off that file, or he wouldn't do it three days before they stranded themselves in No Man's Land.

At a loss for words, Hutch absently polished off the revolting fried pie. He couldn't afford to jump to conclusions in this situation. He must not, under any circumstances, start counting his chickens before he heard the first eggshell crack, but maybe he could turn up the heat in the incubator by a degree or two.

"Starsk, how far--" His voice emerged as a squeak. Great, now he had a mouse trapped between his vocal chords. "How far are we taking this?"

"You mean before we go off script?" Starsky's candid eyes flashed with deliberate misunderstanding, and Hutch didn't have the heart to call him on the stall tactic. "I say we carry the script to the part where McPherson tells her he's going to find the murderer, and then we improvise. Sound good?"

"Sure. Your place or mine?"

"What's your pleasure?"

Hutch thought about it. The comfort of home field advantage appealed to him, but he didn't want to think of this as a competition or a game he had to win, and Starsky's comfort meant more to him than his own. On the other hand, he didn't want either of their homes tainted with uncomfortable memories. The road to hell wasn't paved with bad intentions. For all of Starsky's implied reassurances, this scenario could turn into a farce more embarrassing than watching Dobey try to stick to the watercress-apple-juice diet.

"Neutral territory," Hutch said.

"I was thinkin' the same thing," Starsky answered quickly. Too quickly. That speed meant a Starsky plan going into action. "We can be creative far as that goes, 'cause Dobey made it clear we're off the streets and away from Metro until the meet. I'll call you tomorrow and let you know where and when?"

"I guess if we're going all out, you really do want us in costume?"

Starsky shrugged away the inconvenience of period dress. "Why not? We dress the part for our covers. Might as well go for realism."

"Realism? Suppose you tell me how we put our hands on authentic high-waist slacks, suspenders, trench coat, and fedora by tomorrow night?"

"Huggy has a friend who runs a vintage thrift shop. Name's Duke, I think. Lay you odds, he can fix us up. Close enough to count, anyway."

"All right, Starsky. Tomorrow night we take a walk in Manhattan circa 1944."

God above help them if they couldn't find their way back to Bay City circa 1976.

~*~

Detective Lt. Starsky of the NYPD let himself into the apartment, shrugging to shed excess raindrops from his trench coat onto the marble foyer. He didn't belong here, it wasn't his place to come and go as he pleased, but he pretended otherwise, hanging his coat in the foyer closet, the damp gray fedora on the door peg.

Loosening his tie knot, Starsky paced the front room, taking in the atmosphere. The place had flair, no fooling. Busy with furniture--sofa, loveseat, two armchairs; end tables, side tables, writing desk; liquor cabinet, lamp stands, plant stands--the leather-and-lacquer art deco style saved the room from being girly. This was the bachelor apartment of a tough guy with style. Cagney and Sinatra probably owned digs like these. Hell, a Somebody like Hutchinson might have known them.

Starsky carefully avoided a glimpse of the portrait over the fireplace. No matter what he'd told his sergeants, he hadn't come here to go over the crime scene again or to guard it from thrill-seekers or reporters. He'd come here because he needed to bask a few hours in the presence of that daydreaming angel above the mantel. He couldn't…yet. He had to pay lip service to investigative procedure.

This was torture.

Torture.

Just letting himself think of Hutchinson…gone.

Gone before Starsky had the chance to know him….

Shuddering as if he'd come in out of the snow instead of a warm May rain, Starsky stopped at the writing desk and flipped on another lamp. The light cast a glow over the next room. Ah, the bedroom. Nothing frou-frou there. Like the living room, the navy-and-cream bedroom soothed the eye and didn't rile any masculine outrage with its warm lacquered-wood furniture. The sturdy four-poster bed was welcoming, its king-size mattress and sedate cream coverlet inviting him over to test for firmness.

He would not sleep in Hutchinson's bed.

He wouldn't.

The nightstand and highboy he fully intended to leave alone as well. The evidence team had gathered everything of use anyway. He took a long hard look at the mirrored closet doors, trying to see how desperate, how far gone, the man staring back at him really was. He saw a tall, slender but sturdily built man in crisply-cut, high-waist slacks and simple white shirt with the thin, dark-striped tie pinned in place, regulation attire to satisfy the brass downtown. His suit jacket was rumpled but clean, handkerchief flawlessly folded in the breast pocket. He ran a hand through his hat-matted curly hair. There. Better.

He looked professional and together on the outside.

His eyes told a different story.

Angry at his display of weakness, he went back to the living room on a beeline for the liquor cabinet. Nothing wrong with courage in a highball glass, he told himself. From what he'd learned of Hutchinson, the man wouldn't like the idea of his things going to waste when others needed them. He helped himself to glassware and ice cubes, then poured a couple of inches of nut-brown blended whisky and didn't bother to splash it with soda. He wanted anesthetic, not a cocktail.

Armed with his highball, dragging the whisky bottle with him for back-up, he made his way to his favorite leather armchair by the fireplace. Favorite, because it gave him the best angled view of that haunting portrait. Glass and bottle safely on the ritzy table at his side, he shrugged out of his jacket and tossed it over on the sofa.

Now he could pretend that he wasn't a cop. He wasn't turning a crime scene into his refuge of choice. He was a guest in this bachelor apartment, and the bachelor himself had just disappeared into the kitchen for a plate of sandwiches.

Right, and Rita Hayworth had his number in her address book.

He made the mistake of looking up at the portrait.

Shit.

How could a film starlet compare with that stunning face framed in wisps of gold?

The artist had captured Hutchinson deep in thought, head tilted down a little, eyes closed, his gentle mouth unsmiling but those sensual lips parted just enough to seduce. Not the usual pose for a portrait, but maybe that was what had grabbed Starsky the first time he laid eyes on the painting…and had yet to let go.

Based on description, Hutchinson's eyes were blue, but Starsky gave thanks that the artist had left the mystery intact. He imagined that man's stare had to cut like diamond when cold, or burn like a butane torch when warm, and he couldn't sit here safely wishing for the impossible under that kind of mesmerism.

He couldn't do what he really wanted even with those eyes closed to him. He never let himself go that far. Not here. Not in this place of tragedy. He kept his fists clenched, his temper in check, his need smothered until he could escape to his rinky-dink fifth floor walk-up in a less swanky borough. There he could run the shower and wash off the grime of the investigation and stroke off to the memory of that face.

Sometimes he didn't make it into the shower. He'd stand just inside his sardine can bathroom, strip down to his pants and white undershirt, and hike that shirt up to run his hand over his chest, imagining the feel of someone else's hand. He'd grip his cock, finger the sensitive vein running along it, and think about that tiny furrow between those blond eyebrows and how his thumb could smooth it out just before he kissed those parted lips.

Starsky caught his breath sharply. Christ, he couldn't think like this here. And kissing! Damn, it had been years since a man could remind him that he had these… unusual… yearnings, but no masculine lips had ever tempted him to share kisses.

Until those lips. Captured to perfection up on there on that portrait.

If this obsession was just a matter of a handsome face, he could get a grip on himself, and not that kind of grip. The problem was he'd uncovered too much about Hutchinson. The advertising executive had started out as a regular guy. Talent and hard work landed him the job with Bullitt and Company, where he'd shot like a firecracker to the very top. His class and refinement were genuine. He was someone who knew which fork to use first at a fancy restaurant, someone who could have been a snob but wasn't, who was always putting a hand out to help people, even people ready to bite that hand.

And some barbarian had turned on that kind, decent human being and….

Starsky clasped a hand over his chest. That thought made him drain his highball and reach for the bottle. He poured another generous slug of the whisky and knocked it back. God, he didn't usually go for the hard stuff, especially something heavy on the rye, but this hopeless emptiness throbbed like a toothache in the heart. Between the whisky and the steady rain pattering against the windows, Starsky could no longer fend off sleep.

He welcomed the embrace of darkness.

Some time later, alert even when lulled by whisky, his mind registered the scrape of a key in the front door lock. He struggled toward wakefulness. If Sergeant McEveety had come up from the basement line tap to check on things, he'd leave his lieutenant in peace. Good man, McEveety. When Starsky heard footsteps approach, he knew they didn't belong to the bulky, heavy-gaited sergeant.

He blinked his eyes open, squinting in the brighter lights, and had to rub his eyes for good measure. He couldn't be seeing what his light-stunned eyes told him he was seeing.

His first thought: My God, the man's eyes are blue, and what a blue!

Those blue eyes were cold. Diamond-cutting, just as he'd known they would be. So was the voice. "What are you doing here?"

Starsky decided he wasn't dreaming. No one could dream up a voice that regal and warm and biting and sexy all at the same time. "You're…alive." His heart started pumping double-quick time in his chest, as if it suddenly had reason to work hard again.

"If you don't get out at once, I'm going to call the police."

Starsky heard the faintest hint of fear in that last word. This was a man who wouldn't resort to the cops unless absolutely necessary, for reasons no fault of his own, though Starsky was in a tiny minority who'd agree with that.

The earth-bound cop in Starsky couldn't accept the miracle. He stared, taking in the tall, lean figure, the damp, well-cut coat that showed off brown suit jacket, beige sweater and starched white shirt collar above, and brown slacks and two-tone brown wingtips below. That clock-stopping gorgeous face was unmarred by shotgun blast, the shimmering blond hair incompletely concealed by the brown, cream-banded fedora tipped at a jaunty angle.
This was no zombie from a fright-movie. The man had left his small suitcase by the door.

Zombies didn't carry around suitcases, did they?

He had to be sure. "You are Kenneth Hutchinson? Aren't you?" He dared walk a couple of steps closer. "Aren't you?"

He saw the resolve firm in Hutchinson's expression. "I'm going to call the police."

Hutchinson turned away, and Starsky rushed to put his fears to rest…at least, that fear. Once he revealed his official status a wider gulf would open between him and this beautiful man. "But I am the police." He fished his worn leather badge holder from his pants pocket just as Hutchinson turned again, and held out the badge and identification for the miracle man to get a good look. "David Starsky."

"What's this all about?" Wariness replaced the coldness in Hutchinson's eyes.

Starsky knew he had to keep his cop persona firmly intact, for the time being. He hoped to God he had the strength to do his duty. "Don't you know? Don't you know what's happened? Haven't you seen the papers? Where've you been?"

He saw no flash of recognition in Hutchinson's eyes, no attempt to conceal knowledge, only honest surprise and confusion. "Up in the country," Hutchinson said calmly. "I--I don't get a newspaper."

"Haven't you got a radio?"

"It was broken. What--?!" Hutchinson let the question dangle into silence.

Nothing for it but to show him the harsh reality, Starsky nodded at the writing desk and went over to pick up a folded newspaper. Hutchinson took one look at the prominent front-page headline and sat down heavily on the sofa arm, swaying a little in his shock. He took off his hat and let it drop to the floor. Starsky had an insane itch to run his hands over the mussed hair until it gleamed smooth and neat like in the portrait.

"Somebody was murdered in this room." Starsky kept his voice quiet. "Do you have any idea who it was?"

Hutchinson stared into space. "No," he whispered.

"Who had a key to your apartment?"

"Nobody."

"You sure?" God, Starsky wanted to believe it as he'd never wanted to believe anything in his whole lonely life.

"When did it happen?" Hutchinson asked instead.

"Friday night."

The shaken man turned his faraway gaze to Starsky. "What are you going to do now?"

"Find out who was murdered, and then find the murderer."

Hutchinson let out a long breath and then sucked in a deeper one. "Oh, dear God. Friday? Friday night, you said?"

"Yeah. That mean something to you?"

"Yes. I…didn't think at first. When I went away on Friday afternoon, I lent a spare key to Don Redfearn, told him he could stay here over the weekend. He's one of the artists at Bullitt and Company, fair haired, thin, about my size. Do you--do you suppose--?"

Starsky's disappointment must have shown on his face, because Hutchinson flinched and leaned over to pull out the desk drawer. "Unlocked. Has the entire police force been going through my private papers…or just you?"

"Just me. Why? You worried?"

Hutchinson glared at him. "If you mean, Lieutenant--you are a lieutenant, right? I would imagine a case that makes the front page warrants at least a lieutenant--am I worried that I'll have to protect my career from police allegations of perversion, then no. If I need to, I'll hire the best attorney in New York. I'm more worried right now that someone died in this room, and it might have been a friend."

That concern for someone other than himself fit in with everything Starsky had learned about Hutchinson. "Friend, huh." Starsky knew he sounded bitter; couldn't help it. "This Redfearn was a friend?"

Hutchinson's eyes had that cutting quality again. "Oh, I see. You know I live alone and why, so you're already formulating a theory. I'm one of those men, and Redfearn was one of those men, so this must be one of those crimes. Is that it? My dear fellow, if I'd shot Redfearn in a lover's quarrel, I'd have shot myself right afterward. Redfearn didn't even share my inclinations."

"Oh?"

"He was just a colleague from work. Newly home from an extended stay in an army hospital in Europe and getting rather cramped bunking down with his family. I told him he could use some time to himself. I imagine he wanted to invite a girl over here."

"That would explain the bottle of cheap Black Pony scotch we found here. Didn't seem to be your style, not when you lay in the best whisky around."

"Black Pony? Most certainly not my style. I notice you've been sampling the whisky."

"Sorry. We didn't find any evidence of a girl, though." Starsky watched him closely. "Why do you talk like that? All clipped and precise. Like a stuffy old butler."

"No harm done. The whisky, I mean. I sound like this, Detective, because I learned early on that the wrong accent and diction can torpedo a career."

"So you went out and got fluent in snooty?"

Hutchinson looked away.

Starsky didn't. "Sorry. Out of line."

"Redfearn didn't have a steady lady friend that I knew of. If I had to hazard a guess, I'd say the young lady from Friday night, if there was one, hasn't come forward because she earns her living in a way that men of your profession would frown heavily on. She's probably frightened half to death, poor creature."

"You want my job, Hutchinson?"

Hutchinson shot him the evil eye. Then he amazed Starsky with a slow, easy smile. "My turn to apologize, I think. I wouldn't be thrilled if you were trying to tell me how best to market cod liver oil. Actually, I take that back. If you have any idea how best to market cod liver oil, I'd love to hear it."

"Fresh out of ideas on that one. Doubt it'd help if you got Clark Gable and Bette Davis to market the filthy stuff."

"No, I've tried that. Do you mind if I take off this wet coat, get more comfortable?"

"It's your place, Hutchinson. Saying 'make yourself at home' would be kinda silly." He noticed that Hutchinson's movements were a little jerky, his hands not quite steady in unbuttoning the coat. "Maybe you could do with a shot of whisky."

"Could, yes. I'm not accustomed to someone being…murdered…in my living room, or being questioned by the police." Hutchinson shivered on his way to the foyer closet. He paused on opening the door. "I see you've been making yourself at home."

"Didn't wanna drip all over your nice stuff."

"Even though you thought I was dead?" In the silence, Hutchinson turned and stared at him. Starsky had to call on his training to erase the pain he knew stood out starkly visible on his face. "I am sorry," Hutchinson said. "That was a beastly thing to say." He returned and accepted the shot glass with a kinder smile. Tossing the shot back neat, he handed over the glass. "Another, if you'll be so kind. In a highball this time, on the rocks, with a generous spritz of soda. I'd rather not get drunk with an officer of the law around."

Starsky turned away to play bartender, and heard a soft gasp from Hutchinson.

"David Starsky. You're the detective of 'Siege of Babylon' fame, aren't you? Went toe to toe with some of the most dangerous criminals in the city and ended up with a bullet-riddled leg, but you brought them in with silver bracelets around their fat-cat wrists."

"Yeah, that's me."

"My, my. A man with lead in his leg, not just his pencil. I am impressed." Hutchinson sighed. "I suppose that kept you out of the fight to stop Hitler and all his minions?"

"Yeah. You?"

"You already know, don't you?"

Starsky handed him the whisky-and-soda. "Thought I'd take your mind off what I know and how I know it."

"Very well. My reason wasn't so glamorous. I tried to join up, but the good old U.S. Army turned me down. Medical, same as you. For me, it was rheumatic fever as a child, and the army docs refused to believe there's really nothing much wrong with my ticker."

"You were at your house in the country on Friday night?"

"Yes."

"Anyone with you?"

"To provide the all-important alibi, you mean? You still suspect me?"

"It's my job to suspect everybody until they're cleared."

"Yes, as a matter of fact, someone was with me. Two someones. I gave a small dinner party for some prospective clients who want me to market their product. They stayed until quite late. Canadians. Flew in Friday, left again Saturday morning."

"Police were out at your place on Saturday. Nobody was there."

"Must've been when I was out for a walk in the woods."

"Uh-huh. Mind if I use your phone?"

"Be my guest." Hutchinson applied himself to his drink, and Starsky used the phone to dial down to McEveety on the basement line.

"Starsky here…Anything new? Yeah? What? You're kidding…no…. Really balls things up, doesn't it? Huh? No need. Go home, get some sleep, Sergeant. I'll take care of things on this end. First thing in the morning we tackle the new angle. Yeah. G'night."

Hutchinson didn't ask questions. He nursed his drink and stood there looking good enough to eat, clothes and all.

"Your guess was on the money. Medical examiner's report is in. Dental records show the deceased was one Donald Redfearn."

"Oh, God. Don." Hutchinson sounded genuinely grieved. "To survive what he did in the war only to come home and--"

"Yeah. Crummy all the way 'round. My sergeant said he just got a call from headquarters. News of the murder hit the papers in Montreal today. Some Pierre with a heavy French accent left word earlier this evening with the police switchboard that we'd made a mistake, and you were very much alive Friday night."

"Not a Pierre, as it happens. That would've been Francois of LeCroix Pastries. Am I in the clear, Lieutenant?"

"Based on the time of death and time it woulda taken you to get here from your place in the country, yeah, you're cleared of being the trigger man."

Hutchinson was anything but dumb. His eyes went hard, showing off a cool, calculating brain. "Do you really think I'm the sort of man who would hire someone to do murder? Morality issues aside, it's not my nature. I don't even hire a catering service to handle my business dinners. I didn't get where I am by letting people take care of things for me."

"If I thought you were that type, I would've told Sergeant McEveety you were here, and we'd be hauling you to the station in cuffs."

"Well, thank you for that ringing endorsement, Detective. I think I'd like you to leave now. I'm tired, and I've just found out a man I liked and respected was killed here in my own apartment. I'll even be so kind as to show you out."

Starsky grabbed Hutchinson's arm when the man started toward the door. "Look, I had to keep things official until I knew, understand? Around you, I've got no objectivity."

"Oh, and why is that?"

Starsky frowned at him. "I think you know."

Hutchinson glanced down at Starsky's restraining hand on his wrist. He let go, and watched as Hutchinson discarded the highball on the liquor cabinet. "May I phone my family and friends? And my housekeeper. Said in the paper you showed me that she discovered the body. She's very fragile emotionally, sensitive. She has to be torn up."

"She is, and no, you can't call anyone. Not tonight."

"Why not?" Hutchinson demanded, sounding irked.

"We're approaching this as a case of mistaken identity. I don't want the killer knowing right away he or she made a mistake. I damn sure don't want the killer to try again before we have a chance to crack this thing." He rested his hand briefly on Hutchinson's shoulder. "It was bad enough when I thought you were…" He cleared his throat, unable to speak for a few seconds. "If it happened for real, I'd be the one torn up. Get it?"

The long look he got from Hutchinson was kind and understanding. "Ah, I see. Yes. I think I'm being a little slow with…all this."

"You've had one hell of a shock. One more question. You have any enemies?" At Hutchinson's double take, Starsky gave an impatient snort. "Yeah, I know. You've got at least one, obviously. I mean anyone you can point to and say they'd want you dead?"

"Personally? No." Hutchinson sat back down on the sofa arm. "Professionally? I'm in advertising. I produce ads that let women believe a certain brand of nylons will give them Betty Grable legs, or convince accountants that hunting with a certain rifle can make them John Wayne. It's not a heroic profession, but it doesn't usually incite violence."

"Fair enough." Starsky reached for his jacket. "I'll let you get some sleep then. I'll put a man on the door outside--"

Hutchinson stood up, barring Starsky from the sofa and his jacket. "Do you have to go now? Report in, or something official?"

"No, why?"

"It's just now hitting me, I think, that someone…someone I knew, perhaps…wanted me dead. Badly enough to--"

"And you don't want to be alone?"

"Solitude is nothing I've ever feared, but I know this room will lose most of its warmth when you leave, and I don't want to be cold tonight."

"Yeah, how exactly am I keepin' it warm?"

For answer, Hutchinson reached in his pocket and withdrew a silver cigarette case and box of matches. He fiddled the case open and nearly dropped the cigarette to the floor in his shakiness. Starsky wagged his fingers, but when Hutchinson offered the cigarette case, misunderstanding the intent, Starsky shook his head and nodded at the box of matches. Hutchinson dropped the matchbox in Starsky's hand and slid the cigarette between his lips. Striking the match, Starsky held it up to light the smoke. Hutchinson's fingers curled around his hand, holding it steady while the flame took.

That simple skin-to-skin touch shook Starsky to the core of his being. He met the other man's warm, steady gaze, held it long after Hutchinson took the first drag off the cigarette, and nearly let the match burn down to his fingers. Cursing under breath, he blew hastily on the little flame and chucked it in the end table's crystal ashtray. Eager to distract his new acquaintance from the bungled attempt at suaveness, he gestured at the cigarette. Hutchinson's eyes widened, but he held out the smoke. Starsky took a long drag off the cigarette, savoring the knowledge that Hutchinson's lips had touched it, glad it wasn't a gasper. Last thing he wanted was to turn green and cough, like a schoolboy with his first cigarette, in front of this elegant, sophisticated man.

Hutchinson smiled, the expression more nervous than anything. "That was dangerously close to flirtation, Detective."

"Guess if I'm flirting, you oughta drop the title, huh? Call me Starsky."

"All right, Starsky. Will you stay?"

He returned the cigarette to its owner. "Officially or unofficially?"

"Whichever capacity will allow me to share more with you than just a cigarette." For emphasis, Hutchinson mashed the barely-smoked cigarette into the ashtray.

Starsky had thought he would never hear seduction in that voice, but now that the flames of temptation licked around his heels, he had to put distance between himself and the source. He took up a safer post in front of the unlit fireplace. "You just met me."

"Sometimes that's all it takes. Meeting someone. All I know is when those lights flashed on, and you looked at me, well, it's been years since someone looked so damned happy to see me. I could use some of that in my life, and maybe you could use me in yours?"

"More to it than that," Starsky said.

"Yes. I want to forget what happened here Friday night, and feel alive, but not with just anyone. I want to feel alive with you."

"You've got some kinda guts to proposition a cop."

Hutchinson had come over to stand behind him. "If you were the kind of policeman I had to worry about, you wouldn't have been so nice to me after you got over the shock of seeing me alive." He took Starsky's shoulders in hand, gently kneading. "Whatever you need, Starsky, whatever you need to tell yourself about tonight, I understand."

"You don't have to protect me, Hutchinson."

"Maybe I see something in you worth protecting. You've come this far in your line of work without losing the respect of your peers. It couldn't have been easy. I can promise you this: you won't lose it because of me, or us, whatever happens tonight."

"I knew you'd be like this." Starsky looked up at the portrait that had whispered to him of Hutchinson's good heart and kind soul.

"Like what?" Hutchinson asked, and Starsky nearly vacated his clothes without undoing a single button when a smooth, warm mouth pressed against his neck, lightly nipping.

"Thinking of me more than yourself, knowing just how to put a guy like me at ease."

"A guy like you?"

"Yeah. It's been a while. Long, long time. My romantic interests usually have more up top than Katharine Hepburn."

Hutchinson chuckled, the vibrations against Starsky's skin doing unbelievable things to his cock. "I imagine so. Even Kate Hepburn has more up top than I do. You ever let a woman get close, Starsky? Very close?"

"Dame in Washington Heights got a fox fur out of me once."

"I'd like to be much more to you than a dame, Starsky, and I don't need you to buy me fur stoles or capes, or chocolates and flowers. I just want…" He whispered a few shocking words in Starsky's ear, his hand sliding across Starsky's chest to slip his fingers inside the gap between buttons, and that was all she wrote.

Falling hard and hoping for a soft landing, Starsky spun around and pushed his hands into that short, fine hair, thumbing Hutchinson's scalp, nearly shooting off in his pants when he saw those tell-all eyes close and he was suddenly looking at the portrait come to life.

"Starsk."

One word, one syllable, broke the spell.

Starsky crash-landed back in 1976, in the sitting room of a fancy hotel suite jam-packed with antique furniture, and the man he touched so intimately was the partner and friend he'd trusted for nearly a third of his life. "Yeah, Hutch?"

Hutch's stare drilled right into him, still kind but deadly serious. "If we do this, we do it for real, no acting, no undercover practice. The ritual ends here."

"Agreed. Fade to black on apartment scene from Kenneth. Cut and print. Let's take this to the bedroom. Leave 1944 out here."

~*~

Once they started kissing, they couldn't stop…even for the few seconds needed to walk into the next room. They stumbled, still kissing, across the threshold of the enormous bedroom. Hutch didn't complain that his first kisses with Starsky were mobile and clumsy. He never would've thought he'd be bumping noses, nipping lips, wetting chins with Starsky in the first place. His partner kissed with rookie gentleness that told Hutch he had the exceptional honor of being the first man Starsky had ever tangled tongues with. The movement of Starsky's mouth against his was too soft at first, as though he had to worry about a woman's tender lips, and only a growled obscenity from Hutch got him to press harder, probe deeper.

That rookie hint of inexperience vanished when Starsky pushed him down on the navy brocade chaise and then straddled him, resting that mouthwatering ass on Hutch's lower legs. Starsky didn't ask questions or hesitate. He went straight for the bulge under the button placket of Hutch's slacks. Before Hutch could put two coherent thoughts together, Starsky had pulled him free of underwear and out through the unbuttoned placket and was licking him from hairy base to wet, hooded tip.

Hutch didn't care that he had to look ridiculous in the dressy forties clothes with only his cock sticking out. He hadn't even shed his suit jacket yet. That didn't matter a damn to Starsky, either. His partner's talented hands roamed up his body, slithering under his sweater to pull his shirttail out, and then skimmed Hutch's belly, heading for the hills.
Hills? Ant hills, maybe. Laughing to himself, Hutch tried hard not to writhe under that ticklish, hot touch. Starsky flicked at his nipples and kissed the tip of his cock.

"Nipple action okay, or no-go area?"

Dazzled by Starsky's on-fire look, Hutch matched it with a smile. "There isn't a single place on my body that's a no-go area for you, how's that? Do what you want with my nipples. Squeeze them, pinch them--" Starsky reared forward, shoving the shirt and sweater up into Hutch's face, and hot wetness descended over his right nipple. "Yeah, suck them, Starsk."

When Hutch surfaced from that beautiful dream, Starsky was sucking something else. With finesse. Hutch made noises of astonishment, noises that matched the slurp-groans around his cock, and at the core of his being, something tense began to relax. This wasn't just his best friend going down on him. This was a man who knew how the hell to suck cock, and obviously loved doing it for him. Then Hutch was lost in a swirl of light and heat, thought overwhelmed by sensation. Bucking his hips, fingers tangled in Starsky's curls, he screamed deep in his throat, slumping back on the chaise half out of his head.

He found his voice after about ten gasping breaths. "I…I thought…I knew what a blowjob was. I didn't know shit until now."

Starsky gasped a few times too before stretching forward to share a kiss that smelled and tasted like sex, nicotine, and whisky. "God, I want you."

"How?"

"Don't care, long as it's naked and in that big bed over there."

"Naked eventually. I owe you one, partner."

"What?"

Hutch pushed forward and bowled Starsky over, trusting in the man's cat-like reflexes to keep him from hitting the floor and sprawling on his ass. Sure enough, Starsky landed in a semi-crouch, ready to spring, and Hutch shot off the chaise, already shedding his clothes layer by layer. He gave Starsky a firm, no-arguments-buster headshake when Starsky's hand strayed to his own shirt.

"No, you don't. Go sit on the edge of the bed. I'll take care of you in just a second."

Starsky's gaze went white-hot and dangerous, and Hutch knew no other man in the world could survive giving David Starsky orders in the bedroom. He wondered if he'd survive it himself. Starsky sat almost meekly down on the end of the bed and watched him with a rare combination of fire and tenderness.

Hutch had one hell of a surprise in store for him.

He'd known tonight was a gamble. He'd known he might get his heart stomped on, no matter how kind Starsky was with the let-down, but he'd prepared for the best. Prepared, literally. Knowing how many years had gone by since he'd let anything up a certain channel, he'd wanted that channel ready to deal with a lust-crazed novice who didn't know the finer points of lube and stretching. A little spontaneity never hurt romance. Turned out, Starsky was no novice, but they could still enjoy the spontaneity.

Finally free of every stitch of cloth, Hutch went to work unbuttoning Starsky's slacks. Thank Christ their modern-day clothes mostly depended on zippers in strategic locations. He could tell Starsky perched right on that sword-sharp edge so he didn't fool around with foreplay or teasing, except to take Starsky in his mouth and thoroughly wet that hard, ruddy cock. Self-stretching lasted fine, but time dried lube like sun on snow. He left Starsky sitting there with just his spit-slick cock and balls bared to the open air and climbed up on the bed, kneeling in a straddle over his partner's lap.

"You're not gonna--" Starsky broke off in a howl when Hutch brushed his ass up and down that straining cock. "Hutch!"

"Yep. You got it. Hold yourself steady, wrap your arm around my waist, yeah, there."

Centering himself, Hutch let gravity do most of the work, pushing as needed, sinking down and down and loving every second of the long-forgotten pressure and burn.

"So…tight!" Starsky groaned.

"Yeah?" Hutch practically had to spit words out through pursed lips as he took all of Starsky, to the hilt. "Guess so. JFK was in office last time I did this."

"Hu-u-tch."

Hardening again himself, Hutch could understand the plea in that cry. "I won't…leave you in agony…long. Just don't let go, okay? Don't wanna do an unintentional back-flip off your johnson."

Starsky started snickering, then laughing, and then Hutch was laughing with him, rocking back and forth, searching for pressure in just the right spot. Trusting Starsky as he always did, he leaned against the loving restraint of that strong arm and pushed forward, back, up, down, riding Starsky's cock. Grateful for every mile he'd ever run, Hutch controlled the pace of their pleasure with the hard-earned strength in his legs, and let his hands travel where they wanted. He rubbed Starsky's shoulders, buried his fingers in that soft, full hair, stroked his fingernails up and down Starsky's back, wanting Starsky to feel his touch through that vintage tailored shirt.

Hutch gave a breathless cry when Starsky slid his hand between them, brushing over to grip his cock. He slowed his rocking to get a feel for Starsky's rhythm on him, the powerful sensations urging him to push closer, tighter to Starsky every time he sank downward. He thumbed the sweat sheen from Starsky's forehead and began gasping again as Starsky worked his cock harder.

"Yeah…Starsk, yeah, gorgeous, jack me, jack me f-faster, oh yeah."

Their gazes locked and held, the angle was suddenly just right, and Hutch craned his neck, his voice down to strange unh-unh sighing grunts. Starsky didn't make a sound, but his eyes bulged, the veins in his neck stood out. Chest heaving, he pulled Hutch tighter to him, bucked up sharply once, twice, and the change in pressure within told Hutch everything he needed to know. He tilted his head down to press his forehead to Starsky's, and whimpered as he painted Starsky's shirtfront with long white stripes.

Later, when they were both naked and they'd wiped the evidence of sex from their bodies with fluffy washcloths from the finely appointed bathroom, they examined the bed for irreparable damage, found none, and crawled under the sheets to curl around each other.

Idly tracing circles in the hair on Starsky's chest, Hutch yawned. "You know, we could've been in real trouble if the Reel Val-U Theater hadn't played right into the hand of fate."

"Whatcha mean?" Starsky asked, also through a yawn.

"The movie. Laura. Worked out really well. But that night they could've been showing something else. Like Gone with the Wind. Then what?"

Starsky chuckled. "Frankly, m'dear, I don't give a damn."

Hutch whapped him in the face with a pillow.

~*~

On exiting the shower, towel wrapped around his waist, Starsky went in search of his partner. He found Hutch robed and sipping room service coffee, staring at the framed portrait above the fireplace. Much as he wanted coffee himself, he needed contact with Hutch even more. Slipping his arm around his new lover, he nuzzled Hutch's neck.

"Coulda showered with me, y'know."

Hutch turned his head for a good-morning kiss. "Starsky, as soon as we woke up from that cat nap last night, we were up half the damn night putting each other through our paces. I didn't know that many orgasms were possible after the age of thirty. Hell, I don't remember having four in one night when I was twenty! By morning, we were exhausted, and we just needed to get clean. Thanks for giving me first dibs."

"Mm." Starsky helped himself to another kiss. He'd just get his coffee this way.

But Hutch had other ideas. After a leisurely tongue wrestle, he pulled away and gestured with the coffee cup at the artist's rendering of his own face. "So this is 'Daydream.'"

"Yeah. You see why I had to have it?"

Hutch smiled at him. "I also see your point about the challenge being in the 'props.' God, when I came in last night and caught sight of this, and realized you'd been jerking off to a picture of me…."

Starsky nodded. "Yeah, I didn't have my eyes all the way shut. Saw your eyes nearly pop out and wondered if our ritual was out the window, but then you just snapped right into character with forties mannerisms and that sexy, halfway British accent you hear in a lot of old movies. Impressed the hell outta me. Damn good work."

"Thanks, you too. We carried the improvisation a long way. If we can do that with both of us wanting to jump out of our clothes and jump on each other, I think we're ready for whatever Riker and his goons can throw at us." Hutch looked around. "How'd you know about this place? When I walked in last night, I felt like I was stepping back in time."

"Uncle Al and Aunt Rose spent their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary here in January. Al talked up the great food at the hotel restaurant; Rose went on and on about the authentic art deco furniture. Took her right back to the year of her wedding, she said. Right back to her honeymoon. At that point, I tuned all the way out."

Hutch laughed. "Yeah, aunts and honeymoons. Not a combination I want to give any serious thought. So, the McPherson Suite? Talk about a coincidence."

"Only king suite they had left on such short notice, believe it or not. I saw it as a good omen. That and the rain. Doesn't exactly bucket down in Southern California in early May, even up here in the mountains, but it was raining last night right on cue."

"Good omen." Hutch gave him the coffee mug and folded his arms over his chest. "You really weren't sure how this would play out last night, were you?"

"Nope. Knew how I wanted it to play, but wasn't sure. You weren't either."

"No, but that's because I thought you didn't--"

"Go for men?" Starsky smirked. "Wasn't much easier on me. Knowing you swing both ways didn't guarantee you'd swing toward me. Last few months especially I've been flirtin' like crazy with you, wherever it was safe, but you just brushed it off."

"I thought it meant you were figuring out the truth about me and showing me you could handle it. The challenge you referred to in reenacting McPherson's role from the movie…the hard part for you wasn't acting like a guy who's falling for another guy, it was something else, am I right?"

"That wasn't acting. I am falling for you, in case you didn't notice."

Hutch tangled his hand in Starsky's hair, thumbing his scalp. "I noticed. Good thing, too, because I'd hate like hell taking that fall alone."

"You're not alone. You're never alone." Starsky stared into the cold, empty fireplace, letting the warm steam from the coffee bathe his face. "Hard part was… trying to act like I thought you were…God, I can't even say it."

"Like you thought I was dead...murdered." Hutch gave him the best warmth of all when he slipped up behind him and slid those strong-but-gentle arms around his waist. "I know, Starsk. On the way over here last night, I thought about what that would be like, putting yourself in that mindset, even for an undercover drill; thought about how I'd feel with the roles reversed, and it's a wonder I didn't wreck my damn car."

"Yeah. That was the challenge. Tryin' to imagine what it'd be like--what I'd be like--if I'd never gotten the chance to know you, if you were gone. Shit, didn't take one damn bit of acting ability for me to look happier'n all hell when you showed up. I'd worked myself up into a real case of the heebie-jeebies."

"Shh, Starsky. It wasn't real, babe. I'm here, and I'll hold you hard as you need, lay you hard as you need, until you know in your gut I'm here. Right now I'm wondering if I need to polish up my detective credentials. I didn't have one sweet clue you could go this way. You meant it for real last night when you said it'd been a long time."

"Long time, yeah."

"When you were in the service?"

"Hell, no. Back then I was too busy trying to keep myself above ground. When I got back to the world, I guess I was…what they call it…tryin' to find myself? I found myself, all right. Found out my dick would occasionally perk up around a guy. I experimented a little, liked it okay, but then I dropped it cold."

"Why? What happened?"

Pulling reluctantly out of the circle of Hutch's arms, Starsky sat down on the sofa and sipped the coffee. Hutch sat down beside him, squeezing his knee through the thick hotel towel. "What you might expect," Starsky said after his therapeutic shot of caffeine. "Narrowly escaped a Vice raid on a certain kind'a bar. Didn't wanna take a chance after that. I was heading into the Academy, Hutch. Didn't want anything to mess that up."

"Same for me. Not the raid part, but deciding after college to try for the Academy."

"No kidding. Day I met you I knew you could probably do guys, 'cause you were a caricature of straight. Trying to hide even a hint you might be AC/DC."

"That still doesn't explain why I didn't pick up any signals from you."

"Hutch, I think you told yourself early on I was straighter than Training Officer Moody's bust line. I got the feeling you couldn't handle it any other way. Hell, the army teaches you anything, it's to know when to keep your mouth shut. I didn't wanna have to chase your blond ass to Duluth to bring you back, so I didn't correct your assumption."

"Long time since the Academy, Starsky."

"Yeah. You know how it is. When you really can dress to the left or the right, and make a go of it, it's too damned easy to fall into the trap of doin' what gets you the least amount of static, whether it makes you happiest or not."

"I take it you've changed your mind about the path of least resistance?"

"I almost checked out back in March, buddy. Staring down a twenty-four-hour death sentence, all that poison running in my veins, I did some heart-to-heart with myself. Final straw was that portrait. Made me realize something new about myself."

"Yeah, like what?"

"Like, I was jerking off fantasizing about your lips, wanting to kiss you. I made up my mind to find out one way or another if you could go for me. Knew I'd have to find some unconventional way to bring you out of your shell."

"You found that, I'll grant you. What's more unconventional than the next thing to a time machine? All right, we're going to do this, Starsky, static and all?"

"I didn't even look at guys after I got partnered with you, 'cause I didn't wanna get caught and leave you out on the streets without me after IA got through pissing on my badge. Then it got where it was just you for me, period. I figure, we go in this together, we run the risks together, and if we get caught, we walk IA's plank together."

"Same reasons I didn't look for guy action all these years," Hutch said, smiling. "Didn't want to risk what we had together on the job. I'm with you, Starsk; we try for the whole enchilada. God help anyone who gets in our way."

They sealed that pact with a coffee-flavored kiss.

~*~

Miss Cantaloupe wished them a Happy Bicentennial for the third time and left to tempt fate and gravity by bending over someone else's window. Starsky was too busy staring to open his fried chocolate pie. Hutch rolled his eyes and held his sweating cola cup over Starsky's lap until the drops of condensation plopping on his crotch made him jump.

"What the hell?!"

"You could never let her go on top, Starsky. No sir. Gravity's against it. She leans over too far and she'll fall forward and poke your eyes out with the damned things."

"Hutch--"

"If it's true that abundance somewhere in nature means paucity somewhere else, then there's an entire clan of hyena missing their laughter because of that woman."

Starsky unwrapped his pie in obvious irritation. "I don't know what you got against a couple of honest C-cups."

"Honest? That woman tells you she wears anything less than a D cup, there's nothing honest about her, including her boobs."

"It's just that she stands out, Hutch. Draws the eye. You see a string of black cars and suddenly there's a red car, your eyes are gonna fix on the red car."

"You just fixate on red cars regardless."

Lowering the pie from his impending chomp, Starsky sighed. "Hutch, why don'tcha just say you don't want me looking at her?"

Hutch gave up the pretense then and rubbed Starsky's thigh. "No, look all you want, Starsk. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't looking with you. Looking's a long way from action. I know what you want when it comes to action, and I know you know where to get it."

Starsky chomped down on the fried pie and waggled his eyebrows at his passenger.

"All right, time to talk about tonight's movie. When it rains it pours. Last time we went nearly half a year without a cover assignment, and now we're only a few weeks past the Riker bust and Dobey wants us under again." He smothered a laugh at the look of culinary disappointment spreading across Starsky's expressive face.

Swallowing hard, Starsky took several gulps of his chocolate malt. "Yeah. If only he knew about our pre-undercover ritual."

"I don't see tonight's being nearly as fun as the last one, Starsky. Psycho? What scene could we possibly reenact in any pleasant way?"

"I thought about the shower scene. You in the shower, naked and wet and sexy all over, and me sneakin' up on you, but instead of a knife, I got a back-scrubber and lube."

Hutch shuddered. "No. No shower scenes. No way."

"Why not? What's your problem?"

"I don't know why, but the thought of someone sneaking up on me in the shower, for any reason, breaks me out in a cold sweat."

"Why don't I take you home, make you sweat the right way?"

Hutch spotted Miss Cantaloupe carrying a large order to the car across the median.

"Finish your fried pie first, Starsk. Wouldn't want to offend Miss Cantaloupe."

Starsky looked at his fried pie with acute loathing. "Thing tastes like it has Ex-Lax in it."

Hutch smiled.

THE END


AUTHOR NOTE: Originally written in February 2008 and debuting here, this story is in honor of Enednoviel's gorgeous "Daydream I" artwork, and dedicated to Enednoviel and Laura McEwan, with appreciation for their contributions to fandom and gratitude for their friendship and support. Many thanks also to E.M. for last-minute beta-edit.


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