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The two couples sat in Hutchinson’s dining room at the small wooden table that did double duty in the mornings as a breakfast table. A carafe of wine, several half-empty cartons of Cantonese take out and a small bottle of prescription medication sat between them. Starsky busied himself stacking the cartons inside themselves and Hutch was playing with the twist off cap on the medicine bottle.

"That was absolutely wonderful!" Joyce announced as she dabbed her lips with a napkin. "I don’t think I’ve ever had Cantonese before."

"Glad you liked it." Starsky began refilling her wineglass as well as his own, then set the bottle down and picked up a nearby water pitcher, tilting it over Hutch’s glass. "Care for a refill?"

"Sure, man, I gotta have sumpthin’ to wash these horse pills down with." He showed Starsky the two pills in the palm of his hand. Starsky reacted with the appropriate concern and poured a glassful for him. He put down the pitcher and pick up the wine bottle again, then turned to Cleo. "Refill?"

Maxine’s hand went up to cover the top of her wineglass. "No, no thanks." She looked at her watch. It was a quarter to eight. "Um, is there a phone around here? I have to…ah…make a call."

Hutch pointed to the phone in the living room. "Right over there, on the coffee table."

The detective’s apartment had that ‘bachelor touch’, but with a real eye for what was aesthetically pleasing. There were plants just about everywhere you looked, and the room was bright and cheerful. She could tell that he found decorating a pleasant task. Her eyes darted to the big wooden coffee table across from them. It too was decorated with plants, and in the middle of them was a cherub statue and three graduated candles, as well as the telephone.

"A toast, a toast." Starsky set the bottle down and raised his glass. Hutch and Joyce raised theirs. Maxine vacantly raised her empty one. "Here’s to good food, good company and good health," he said.

"Here, here!" Hutch and Joyce chorused. The reporter was silent.

As their glasses clinked in the air, Starsky and Joyce quaffed their wine, and Hutch swallowed his medication with his glass of water. Maxine lowered her glass slowly, her eyes darting about the living room, wandering. Hutch was watching her still. It was clear to him now that his new girlfriend was somewhere else. She definitely wasn’t here with him. He leaned toward her.

"You okay?"

"Hum?" she asked, startled. "Oh, sure. I’m okay." She got up from her chair and walked into the living room.

There was something else she noticed about his apartment--there were essentially no dividing walls. His living room, kitchen and bedroom were almost one wide-open space. Certainly not the kind of environment needed to make the call she had to make. She turned to him. "Ken, don’t you have something a little more ‘private’?"

"Nope, sorry, Cleo." Hutch shrugged. "Unfortunately this is about as private as my place gets." Hutch saw her disappointment. "If you really want some privacy, the three of us can go out to the greenhouse for a little while."

She looked at the three of them. "Would you guys mind that very much? I’d really appreciate it."

"No, not at all." Starsky answered accommodatingly.

Hutch yawned a couple of times. Before he knew it, Starsky’s face was next to his own. "Don’t you think she’s actin’ kinda strange?" he whispered.

Hutch blanched. "I hadn’t noticed." He picked up his crutches and shoved them under his arms, pulling himself up out of the chair he was sitting in. Joyce and Starsky escorted him out to the greenhouse while the woman sat down to make her phone call. After making sure they were out of earshot, she dialed the number for her office. It seemed an eternity before the ringing stopped. Thankfully, it was Piper, and not his secretary, who answered the call.

"Hello?"

"Allan?" she whispered. "It’s Maxine. I’m so glad you’re there."

"Where are you? The deadline to go to press is in a couple of hours."

"I know, I know. I’m having second thoughts about doing the story." She was nervous as all get out.

"You having second thoughts? I don’t believe it. Since when?"

"Since I met this cop at the hotel. Turns out he’s protecting Carlisle. If this story goes to print, he’ll probably hate me for the rest of his life."

"Sounds like hazardous duty to me. What do you want me to do about it?"

"I was hoping you’d have some sage words of advice on how to get out of this thing without hurting the guy."

"Sorry, sweetie, I don’t, but if it means anything to you, I feel your pain." He paused. "Just do what you feel is right, but whatever you do, don’t disappoint Samuels."

"I appreciate your sympathy, Allan. But it's not helping me much."

"Sorry."

He didn’t sound like he was all that sorry to her.

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Hutch was sitting at the table in the greenhouse, while Joyce and Starsky sat on a nearby bench trying to get to know each other a little better, literally. Joyce looked past her amorous companion long enough to see his partner leaning on his fist, eyes barely open, trying to stay awake. Starsky was just getting ready to give her a kiss, when she patted him on his arm. "David, I hate to kill a great moment…but look."

"What?" he answered, his eyes closed and his lips still in mid-pucker.

"Look over there." She pointed to where Hutch was sitting.

Starsky opened his eyes and followed her pointing finger to where his partner sat. He was slumped over the table, nodding off. The detective shook his head. "That guy really knows how to screw up a fella’s action." Starsky reluctantly pulled himself away from his attractive guest and went over to where his very tired partner was sitting. He tried waking him with a tug on his shoulder. "Hey, Hutch. You wanna go lie down?"

The man was so out of it he didn’t even look up.

Starsky turned to Joyce. "Looks like I'm gonna haveta put Sleeping Beauty here to bed. I’ll be right back, I promise."

"Need any help?"

"No, I think I can handle it."

Hutchinson was as almost as limp as a rag doll, he offered no resistance as his partner took his arm over his own shoulder, lifted him up and walked him out of the greenhouse and into his bedroom. Starsky yanked the blankets aside with one hand and lowered the big guy down on the bed, then pulled the slippers he was wearing off his feet. He pulled the covers over him and was about to leave when he heard the sound of his girlfriend’s soft voice on the phone. He knew he shouldn’t be listening in, but he just couldn’t help himself.

"I think I need a little pep talk. I’m getting cold feet."

He watched her tapping the tabletop nervously with her fingers as she hurried to end the incriminating phone call.

"Thanks a lot, Allan. I hope this story’s worth it…Yeah, well…all I can say is, it had better sell a zillion copies. Okay, I hope you’re right…Thanks, Allan…goodbye."

Starsky stood leaning against the doorframe, he cleared his throat as she hung up the phone.

"Done with your phone call?" he asked her good-naturedly.

Caught off-guard, she turned quickly and started to give him a startled, crooked smile. "Ah…ah...yes…"

"What are you, lady? Some kind of a reporter?" he asked, coming towards her.

She shot up abruptly from the couch. "I…I can’t tell you that."

"What can you tell me?" He was near the sofa now.

"Nothing, really. I’ve got to go now. Please tell Ken I’ll be in touch with him."

"If you stick around long enough maybe you can tell him yourself."

"I’m sorry, I can’t. I’ve got to go."

By the time he was close enough to make contact with her, she had made her way to the door and was outside and down the steps. He followed her as far as the street and watched her until she jumped into a waiting cab. When it took off, he went back upstairs. On his way past Hutch’s bedroom door, he looked in. "Well, here we go again, buddy. All I can say is, whatever happens, I’m here for you," he whispered, then headed off to rejoin his guest.

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It was six o’ clock in the morning, and the appetizing aroma of eggs and bacon, along with the strong smell of coffee, woke Hutch from a deep sleep. The blond sat up slowly, his tousled hair matted against his forehead like a little boys might be. He yawned and stretched, and then grimaced as he eased his injured leg down onto the floor. He swung his good leg over the side and grabbed his crutches, pulling himself upright. He heard strange noises coming from his kitchen and was curious to find out who was foolish enough to be in there this early in the morning. He followed his nose until he reached the source of the activity and the good smells. When he looked in, he half expected to find that Cleo or some other young lovely had found her way into his kitchen and decided to prepare some sustenance for him. But he was wrong…

It was Starsky. And, he was cooking...of all things.

Hutch did a double take, then said, "Hey, Starsk, good morning."

Starsky turned away from his task of serving scrambled eggs and bacon onto plates and wiped his hands on the damp dishtowel tucked in the waistband of his jeans. He looked over at his partner sheepishly. "Mornin’, partner. Sleep well?"

"Like a rock." He sniffed the air. "What’s for breakfast?"

"I’ll tell ya in a minute."

Hutch moved over to the kitchen table and leaned unsteadily against it. He watched with wonder as his partner did his ‘Galloping Gourmet’ routine. Before long, the dark-haired dynamo had set two plates on the table, poured them each a glass of orange juice and filled two cups with hot black coffee. He sauntered back into the kitchen just in time to capture two slices of bread as they popped up out of the toaster. Buttered them, sliced them on the diagonal and set them down on a plate in the center of the table. "Voila. A breakfast fit for a king!"

"I’m impressed, Starsk. What’s the occasion?"

"No occasion, I just felt like cookin’."

Hutch hesitated, not sitting down.

"What’re you waitin’ for? Sit down, buddy."

Hutch regarded his partner's invitation with apprehension. While he was confident of Starsky's ability to look out for his wellbeing on the streets, he was still wary of the man's arguable cooking skills. He eyeballed the plate--despite his wariness, he really was starving. And the appearance of the meal wasn’t entirely unappetizing. The eggs weren’t greasy or underdone, and the bacon wasn’t too burned. He sat down and forked in a mouthful of egg, followed by a bite of bacon, and then a sip of coffee to wash it down. Starsky looked on expectantly, apparently waiting for his acerbic review.

"Well?"

"It’s not half bad. With a little more practice, it’d almost be edible."

He smiled. "Hey, what’d you expect? Hangin’ around with you, somethin’ had to rub off."

The dark-haired man picked up a slice of toast from the plate and started nervously tear ing off pieces and devouring them. Hutchinson watched him curiously, pausing long enough to wipe his hands on the napkin covering his lap. Starsky had something on his mind, and judging from the way he was nibbling on the toast, it wasn’t that they'd won the state lottery. "Okay, Starsk. I know you. What’s on your mind? Who died?"

Starsky looked up at him, it was eerie how they were able to read each other sometimes. He decided to give him some trivial news first, and then hit him with the major stuff. "Nobody died. Guess I’m just nervous about the trial tomorrow, that’s all. Joyce had a meeting at her law office early this mornin’ to prepare for it."

Hutch sipped his coffee and curled his lips. "Ya know, Starsk, I have to hand it to you, you really lucked out, capturing the heart of a lady with beauty and brains."

"Luck had absolutely nothin’ to do with it. She told me she was intrigued by my devastatin’ charm and good looks."

"If she says so. Speaking of dates, what happened to mine?"

Starsky winced, managing to look even more uncomfortable then when he first sat down. He hated giving Hutch bad news, and this news flash probably came a close second to the worse as far as he was concerned. Especially considering what the blond had said to him back at the hospital. He decided to be brave and jump in, regardless of his partner’s reaction. "You’re not gonna like it."

"Come out with it, Starsk."

"She’s gone, man."

The blond’s brow furrowed, he took the napkin from his lap and slapped it down on the table. There went his appetite. He pushed the unfinished plate aside. "What’re you talking about, Starsky? Where’d she go?"

"I don’t know."

"Whaddya mean, you don’t know? You saw her go, didn’t you?"

"Sure did."

Hutch started to get up, and then thought better of it. He once more. "Okay. Did she say anything before she left?"

It would have been less painful if Starsky could just say she hadn’t. But he would have been lying. "Yeah, we talked."

"Well, what did she say?"

Starsky left the table, leaving his own breakfast untouched. He walked over to the sofa and sat down. His back was to his friend now. Maybe it would be easier to say what he had to say if he didn’t have to look at him. "I’m not sure how to say this. I mean, it wasn’t so much what she said, as what she didn’t say. You know what I mean?"

Hutch removed himself from his chair, secured one crutch under his arm, and left the other one behind. He hobbled towards the sofa and stood in front of his partner. Starsky kept his dark head of curls lowered, his eyes cast at the blond’s feet.

"No, I don’t, partner. Give me a hint, huh?"

Starsky looked up at him. "Okay, okay. But do me a favor, sit down first, before you fall down."

Hutch obliged, leaning his crutch against the edge of the sofa. Starsky slid over and leaned back with his head against the pillows behind him. Hutchinson looked at him. "Okay, spill it."

"Look, I don’t claim to know a whole heckuva lot about women, but I do know a thing or two about people. If you ask me, Cleo was just way too classy to be a go-go dancer. I happen to think there was a whole lot more goin’ on inside that pretty head of hers then she was lettin’ on."

"What are you driving at?"

Starsky crossed his arms. "You remember how antsy she was last night, right? You kinda dropped out on us after you took those pills the doc gave you."

"Sure, I remember, what about it?"

"Okay, since you don’t remember Cleo leavin’, I guess it’s a safe to say you don’t remember me cartin’ your carcass into your room for the night." Hutch shook his head. "Okay, so after I tucked you in, I was on my way back to the greenhouse to finish what I was tryin’ to get started out there, that’s when I accidently overheard Cleo on the phone."

"Okay, so what did you ‘accidently’ hear?"

"Well, I didn’t get it all, but I did catch the name of the guy she was talkin’ to. His name was Allan. She mentioned somethin’ about an article she was supposed to be turnin’ in. Also said somethin’ to the effect of that whatever it was she was submitting, it’d better sell a zillion copies. So right then and there I figured her for some kind of a writer or a reporter or sumpthin’."

"So you think she was here doing a story? On whom? No one even knew Carlisle was supposed to be here."

Starsky was surprised by how calmly his partner was taking the news, so he almost didn’t answer him immediately. "Ah…well…yeah. Somebody had to know he was gonna be here, she sure wasn’t doin’ a story on the two of us. I mean, think about it, here’s this guy who nobody’s supposed to be able to get to, and she’s close enough to kiss him."

"Whom." Hutch corrected.

Starsky accepted his partner’s redress without debate. Then Hutch leaned his elbow on the arm of the sofa and cupped his chin in his hand, contemplating the situation. Sometimes he wished his partner wasn’t so damned smart. Starsky leaned forward and patted him on the back.

Finally the blond spoke. "What’s the matter with me, Starsky?" He laughed. "Life just keeps kickin’ me in the pants and I just keep bendin’ over to take it."

"There’s nothin’ wrong with you, pal. You fell for her--hard, but that’s just how it is with you, it's all or nothin’."

"But you saw right through her, even before you knew anything about her. How do you do that? It’s like you’ve got a sixth sense or something."

"Humph, too bad it don’t work the other way round. It’d sure have saved me a lot of pain and misery."

"So you think she was hired to do a story on Carlisle, and ole gullible me just led her right to him, huh?"

"If you’ll pardon me sayin’ so, if she’da been the hitman, Carlisle might be dead right now."

"I played right into her hands, Starsk. I can’t believe it. She read me like a book."

"Don’t be so hard on yourself."

"Let’s face it, you were right, Starsk, sometimes I can be a real pushover." Hutch shook his head. "All she had to do was play the damsel in distress and I went into automatic White Knight mode."

"Ya can’t help it, Hutch. It’s your way. I mean, let’s face it, you not wanting to help somebody in trouble would be like the Mona Lisa not wearin’ a smile. You’re just a natural caretaker."

"Sounds like a load of bull, but I’m willin’ to buy it if you’re willin’ to shovel it."

"Hey, I was just sayin’ it to make you feel better."

"Thanks, Starsk, you’re a real pal. So what’s next? What do we do now?"

Starsky took his hand off of Hutch’s shoulder long enough to pick up the crutch that was lying on the floor. He rested it against the arm of the sofa and got up. "First of all, you’re gonna lie down and rest that leg. Then I’m goin’ down to the law office and see if I can help Joyce and Mr. Carlisle bury Bartok for good. After that, I’m comin’ back here to make you dinner."

"Ooh, that sounds like a threat, or is it a promise?" Hutch stated, stretching his long legs out on the sofa.

"That’s a promise at best, and a threat if you keep bad-mouthing my cookin’."

Hutch put up his hand. "Sorry, it won’t happen again."

Starsky went into the kitchen, got a beer out of the refrigerator and grabbed the morning paper off the counter. He brought them over and handed them to his partner. "Here. There’s a football game on in two hours, you think you can keep yourself entertained till I get back?"

Hutch gratefully accepted the bottle of beer and the newspaper from his friend's hand. "I’ll do my best." Then he got quiet for a moment, and before Starsky was even out of the door, the flaxen haired detective looked up at his partner. "Ah, Starsk, you’re so good to me, what’d I ever do to deserve you?"

Starsky slipped on his jacket, retrieved the car keys from the pocket and opened the front door. "You’re just lucky, I guess." He smiled at his partner cockily, then left. Hutch nodded to himself, and got the widest of smiles on his face. He popped open his beer, opened the paper and started reading.

 

>Continued