Haunted Hearts
AKA Tira Nog

(Sequel to No Quarter)


Hutch shifted in his chair, ducking quickly as the accordianed, white paper mache legs of a cardboard skeleton sailed straight at his face as Huggy rushed by in his decorating frenzy.

"Hey, watch it, will ya?" Hutch groused, regaining the vertical.

"Sorry, man," Huggy apologized, climbing the chair beside Hutch to tape the skeleton to the ceiling overhead. Huggy was all in black today and looking very somber.

Hutch supposed he should be grateful that their flamboyant friend wasn't dressed as a vampire or zombie. But, knowing Huggy, he figured the costume would probably come on later tonight. It wasn't exactly easy to hang decorations in a cape or Frankenstein mask.

Hutch quickly extinguished the votive candle burning on the table as a cardboard bony foot dangled dangerously close to the flame.

"You're gonna burn the place down at this rate," he warned.

A distracted "Uh huh," came from above as Huggy struggled with the tape.

Hutch could hardly hear the answer. The sound of a coffin squealing open grated through the place as the Monster Mash started up for the eighth time in the forty minutes they'd been here.

Hutch thought there was every possibility that he might pull his magnum and shoot the damn jukebox if he had to hear that song one more time.

"He did the mash. He did the monster mash. The monster mash. It was a graveyard smash . . ." Starsky's less than dulcet tone overwhelmed the canned music as he made his way to the table.

Hutch couldn't help it. His eyes automatically scanned the trim line of Starsky's body, taking in the tight black jeans and orange sweatshirt.

The Santa Anas had blown some relief into his life when they'd arrived last week. Today Starsky was wearing a tight black leather jacket that matched his outfit, but for the last few days, he'd been sporting that bulky Mexican sweater that fell halfway down his thighs. Though it was a crime to cover his partner's amazing assets, Hutch had to admit it had made his life easier, not having so much of what he couldn't touch on display. Today, however, he was back to square one when it came to the temptation department.

If they'd been outside, Hutch would have donned his cheap sunglasses to hide the direction his eyes were moving, but Starsk had started hassling him about keeping them on indoors, so he tried to keep his gaze up and centered on his partner's eyes. Only, it was so hard to ignore those tight fitting jeans.

"Hey, the food's here," Starsky crowed with delight as he took the seat next to him and practically lowered his face to the plate to inhale his burger.

Amused, Hutch watched the inelegant display. Unlike last summer's almost daily trials at the ice cream stand, watching Starsky gobble down a burger and fries did nothing to his libido – for which he was eternally grateful.

"Something wrong with yours?" Starsky inquired.

"Huh?" Hutch asked, starting in his chair.

"You haven't touched it yet."

"I got distracted watching Huggy put up the decorations," Hutch extemporized.

Starsky looked to where Huggy was currently struggling to tape a cardboard witch flying on a broom to the ceiling at the next table.

"Place looks great, Hug!" Starsky shouted over.

Both he and Starsky lunged to their feet as the chair Huggy was balanced on went out from under him. The resulting crash brought all three of them to the wooden floor in a painful crush of elbows and knees.

"Uh, thanks," Huggy said as he untangled himself.

Once they'd all righted themselves, Hutch said, "I think that's enough decorating, don't you?"

Huggy surveyed the room. Nearly every table had a skeleton, witch, monster, or bat dangling over it.

"You think it's enough?" Huggy questioned.

"Looks great," Starsky admired. "What do you think, Hutch? Does it need a few more ghosts?"

Hutch, who thought that a single pumpkin decoration was more than enough, said, "You don't want to overdo it. That'd be . . . garish."

"Halloween's all about bein' garish, my man," Huggy said as they headed back towards their table. "But, maybe you're right. I'm beat and it's not even party time yet. You guys going to make the celebration? Anita said she's bringing jelly apples."

"I love jelly apples," Starsky said, repossessing his burger.

"I'm afraid we're gonna miss the party," Hutch said. "We're on duty tonight."

"I thought you had Saturdays off this month?" Huggy said.

"We did," Hutch answered. "Dobey called us in. We, and every other homicide detective in the city, are on stakeout tonight. We just thought we'd stop in here and grab a quick dinner before we went on duty."

Huggy's off centered face frowned. "You ain't after that satanic dude, are you?"

Huggy was always in tune with the pulse of his city. He'd known about the first two ritual killings before the newspapers had splashed the grisly details across their headlines.

This sicko had five notches to his belt now. A body a month, the victims all slaughtered on the night of the full moon in abandoned or little used cemeteries throughout the metropolitan area.

"Yeah," Stasky answered.

"Those murders weren't even in your jurisdiction," Huggy pointed out.

"It's not like the killer's been respecting jurisdiction," Starsky said. "The murders have been all over the city."

"The commissioner's ordered every precinct to stake out the cemeteries in their jurisdictions tonight," Hutch said.

"All the cemeteries?" Huggy asked, his tone making it plain he knew the scope of the task they'd been assigned.

With their line of work, they had a tendency to visit cemeteries more than most people did. But when Hutch thought about graveyards, it was always places like Forest Lawn or Westwood that came to mind. It wasn't until they'd started investigating these killings that he'd realized just how many tiny private cemeteries were scattered throughout Bay City. There were dozens of churchyards and even a few historical missions that had burial sites on their property, not to mention some of the older estates that had family plots. It was a truly daunting task the commissioner had assigned them.

"Yep," Starsky answered, "all the cemeteries."

"You're spending Halloween night in a <i>cemetery</i>?" Huggy didn't even seem to be trying to hide his horror.

"Yeah," Starsky's tone reflected his feelings on that matter.

"Are you nuts? It's bad enough to be in a cemetery at night, but on Halloween – "

"Huggy," Hutch interrupted. "We don't have a choice. And we're not going to be out in the cemetery. We're going to be surveilling it from a nearby house. We don't want to scare the killer off by being too visible."

"Which cemetery are you going to be watchin'?" Huggy asked.

"Like it makes a difference," Starsky said. "It's still a graveyard."

Ignoring his partner's near-whine, Hutch offered, "We've been assigned the one behind Holy Cross on Willis."

"The church burnt down six years ago," Huggy said.

"Yeah," Hutch said, remembering how sad the burnt out remains had looked when Starsk and he checked the site out yesterday afternoon.

"So where are you setting up, then?" Huggy asked.

Hutch made a quick scan of the bar to make sure they were still alone before replying, "There's a big, old boarded up abandoned building behind the cemetery."

"The Tatum Place," Huggy said with a knowledgeable nod. "You can't stay there."

"Why not?" Hutch asked, losing patience.

"Everyone in the neighbourhood knows that place is haunted. Why do you think it's stayed empty all these years," Huggy said. "Not even the squatters go in there."

Hutch wanted to strangle him for the strain in Starsky's voice as he asked, "What do you mean – haunted?"

"I mean ghosts, things that go bump in the night, the whole nine yards," Huggy said.

"Huggy – " Hutch began in a warning tone.

"I ain't yankin' your chain here," Huggy protested, looking genuinely worried. "That place used to be a pretty swanky funeral home back in the twenties before my relatives lived in the neighborhood. Tatum, the owner, was rich as a king. He married this pretty young thing that was said to be quite the looker. Apparently, she had eyes for some silent screen actor type. Tatum caught them together and shot them both dead. Talk has it that he chopped them up and burned them in the mortuary's crematorium. Folks that have tried to stay in the house say they see Tatum's pretty young wife roaming the halls at night."

"I told you that place was haunted, Hutch," Starsky complained, all the color gone from his face.

"For Christ's sake, Huggy," Hutch snapped. "I've spent the last two days trying to convince him that there's nothing to be scared of. Did you really have to tell that story?"

"It ain't no story, it's the god's truth. Tatum shot them both. You can look that up in the newspaper records," Huggy argued.

"But that doesn't mean the place is haunted," Hutch countered. "Starsk, you know there's no such thing as ghosts."

"No, you know that. All I know is that place gave me the creeps," Starsk said.

Hutch wanted to tell him he was overreacting, but the Tatum place had raised the hairs on the back of his neck, too, even though the most threatening thing that they'd seen in the empty house was a spooked mouse. But he sure as hell wasn't going to admit that to his superstitious partner.

Thinking fast, Hutch said in his most reasonable tone, "Okay, you don't want to stay there, we won't. The only other possible observation point was that big old crypt on the hill in the middle of the cemetery. Do you want to spend the night in a tomb instead?"

Hutch made the offer as though he fully intended to spend the night in the crypt.

Starsky was looking at him like he'd grown a third eye in the center of his forehead. "You can't be serious."

"Those are our two choices, buddy. You pick. I'm okay with either," Hutch said.

"I ain't sitting in the middle of a graveyard on Halloween night," Starsky protested.

"Fine. Then we're sitting in the Tatum place. Hurry up and finish your burger. We need to get moving," Hutch said, checking his wristwatch.

Starsky's expression plainly stated that he'd lost his appetite. "I'm done."

"Okay, let's hit the streets. Hug, next time you've got a story like that, do us a favor and keep it to yourself, okay?" Hutch said as he rose and donned his denim jacket.

"You two just be careful. I ain't kiddin'," Huggy implored.

The legitimate worry in those familiar dark eyes did nothing to alleviate the ball of tension gripping his gut. A glance at his partner told him Starsky was ready to bolt.

Masking his uneasiness, Hutch said as matter-of-factly as possible, "We'll be fine. It's just an empty house. See you later."

"Yeah, Hug. See you later," Starsky said in a tone that broadcasted his apprehension.

The ride over to Willis was completely silent.

"This is a really bad idea," Starsky said as he steered the Torino into the designated cul de sac three blocks from the cemetery. The two black and whites assigned to Holy Cross were already waiting there.

The houses on the street were as run down and neglected as most of the buildings on their beat were. Most of them were single family, wood frame dwellings with weed infested yards. There were one or two houses that had neat little gardens in front, but the majority might just as well have been abandoned for all the care their inhabitants took. Hutch knew that poor didn't necessarily equate to shabby, but sometimes it seemed that the unrelenting poverty just wore people's spirits down. It was a testament to the level of crime in the area that there was no reaction to the very visible police presence on the block.

"Hey, Morris," Hutch greeted the uniformed black officer leaning against the nearest police car as he climbed out of the Torino. He took a moment to retrieve the walkie talkie and flashlight from where he'd stowed them under the seat before entering the Pits. Seeing that Starsk had forgotten his flashlight, he picked it up off the seat as well.

Morris grinned. "How you guys doin'? You ready to face the ghouls and zombies of Tatum House?"

"Don't you start," Hutch said, forcing a smile. "We just got that schtick from Huggy Bear."

"It ain't no scthick," Morris said. "You guys must be really brave. No one in the neighborhood will set foot in that place."

Hutch ignored Starsky's nervous, "Hutch – "

"Fine. That will make our job all the easier. Is your walkie talkie juiced up?" Hutch asked, in a vain attempt to change the topic.

"I put new batteries in ten minutes ago," Morris answered.

"Good. We'll see you later. Starsk, here's your flashlight."

Knowing that Starsky would follow him, he cut through the nearest yard that bordered the back of Holy Cross cemetery. The fence separating the backyard from the graveyard was an aging wooden affair that Hutch didn't even have to climb to get over. It was only three feet high and wouldn't have kept out a lazy gopher.

A month ago, it would have been broad daylight at this time of day, but autumn had laid claim to even sunny California and the sun was starting to sink below the horizon.

The cemetery was just as rundown as the surrounding neighborhood. At some time in the distant past, there must have been some money in the community, for many of the plots around them sported fancy Victorian statuary and ornate crosses. Several of the crypts looked like they'd had stained glass windows at one time. But most of the weeping angels were missing heads or limbs and nearly all of the crypts' windows were shattered. There was some maintenance going on in the cemetery, for the grounds weren't the riot of weeds that most of the nearby yards had been, but even though the place was well maintained, the vandalized monuments were depressing as hell.

Hutch glanced over at his too-silent companion.

Starsky's lips were tightly pursed, his left hand hovering close to his shoulder holster as his wide eyes scanned the small city of tombstones, crypts, and broken statues as if expecting Dracula to pop out from behind one of them. Knowing his partner, that was probably exactly what Starsky was expecting.

The fading sunlight picked out the reddish highlights in his dark curls and cast a burnished glow to Starsky's skin. The orange sweatshirt he was wearing complimented the effects of the light perfectly, while his black leather jacket glinted in the dying light like onyx.

Struck by how damn beautiful the man was, Hutch ached to take his partner in his arms and kiss away his anxieties. The urge was so strong that it hurt.

"What's that?" Starsky nervously enquired as a rustling sound came from a nearby yew tree, his Beretta in hand as he trailed the source of the noise.

Spying the large black bird in the highest limb of the tree, Hutch said, "It's a crow. For God's sake, Starsk, try to relax."

"It's the full moon on Halloween night, and we're in a graveyard waiting for some psycho killer to show up and do his thing. That ain't exactly relaxing, partner."

"It's still light out. The moon isn't even up yet."

"You tell yourself that when Tatum's ghost grabs you. This is just asking for – " The word 'trouble' that Starsky was doubtless about to voice died as they crested the hill with the fancy crypt Hutch had mentioned earlier on it and the Tatum place came into sight behind the jumble of headstones, monoliths, and mausoleums.

Dusk was setting in. The cemetery was a montage of shifting shadows and dancing tree limbs in the wind.

"It didn't look this bad yesterday when we were out here," Starsky said. "It looks like the Bates motel in this light."

"That's really helpful, partner," Hutch sassed, though, he had to admit there was some truth to Starsky's words. The sun had set now and the world was turning gray around them. The Tatum place stood alone at the edge of the cemetery, on a block of burnt out buildings. They were approaching the place from the back, but even from behind, it was an intimidating sight. The fancy Victorian structure with its copulas and bay windows was a monument to an age of excess that was as dead as its builders. In its current state of neglect, even a sceptic like him was forced to admit that it was the perfect candidate for a haunted house.

"Do you think we could hang out on the back stairs?" Starsky asked.

Hutch didn't want to go into the place anymore than his partner did. But he knew he had to be the reasonable one or they would never get through this. "That would be a little obvious, don't you think? There's next to no cover around the house and it's visible from almost all of the cemetery. Besides, we already set up the surveillance equipment upstairs. Come on, Starsk. You know Huggy was just trying to get you going. We were in there yesterday. It's just an empty old house."

"Filled with ghosts and demons," Starsky grumbled.

Hutch smiled. "Yeah. Let's go meet those ghosts and demons of yours."

Yesterday morning, they'd entered the house from the front entrance, hauling the equipment up from the Torino in record time. No one had seemed to notice their intrusion. It wasn't like there were any other houses on the street. The estate was so big, it covered the entire block. The homes that had existed across the street at one time had been burned down in the spectacular fire that had taken out the neighboring church. Only the Tatum house had remained untouched by that monster blaze. Looking at it now, Hutch's imagination couldn't help but suggest that even that hungry fire had been too scared to enter the place.

Even though there were no neighbors to observe their comings and goings, they'd decided to play it safe and come in the back way. Scaling the twelve foot iron fence surrounding the Tatum grounds was easier said than done. The iron rods on top had wicked points that made it all but impossible to get over.

Bending down, Hutch clasped his hands together and gave his partner a hand up.

Once he'd dropped to the dried out, overgrown grass on the other side of the fence, Starsky squatted down, stuck both his hands through the fence, laced his fingers together as Hutch had, and gave Hutch a hand up.

Even with the boost, he nearly impaled himself on one of the points. Shaking a little at the close call, he dropped down beside his partner.

Sometimes, it still amazed him how in sync they were. All it took was a single glance at Starsky's face for him to know everything he was feeling. His own nervousness must have been showing, for Starsky gave an obviously forced smile and said, "Duty calls."

That small smile shot a burst of courage through him that was incongruously reassuring. It was so like his partner to offer him strength when Starsk was about to fall apart himself.

Side by side, they quickly crossed the backyard and made their way up the rickety wooden stairs to the back door. The door's window was so covered with grime that Hutch couldn't tell if there were a shade hanging behind it.

They'd forced the lock yesterday and oiled the hinges, so the door swung almost soundlessly open, not that there was anyone inside they'd be disturbing. Hutch had just figured that the squealing sound of rusty hinges might carry through the deserted cemetery behind the house.

He knew from yesterday's visit that the door opened onto an antique kitchen, but no light seemed to penetrate the filthy windows. The inside was as black as Simon Marcus' soul.

Catching Starsky's equally nervous eye, Hutch whispered, "Here goes," switched on his flashlight and stepped inside.

The beam of Starsky's light joined his own as they closed the door behind them.

It was his imagination, of course, but the place really did seem darker than it should be. It was only twilight outside. Some light should be coming in, for the wall beside the door had two windows on it. But the room was as pitch dark as a mine.

The beams of their flashlights played over a monstrous looking double tubbed sink, a huge, black cast iron stove that would have been an antique dealer's dream if it hadn't been coated in decades worth of dust and spider webs, an equally filthy wooden table with a couple of broken chairs around it, and an old fashioned icebox like the kind his grandfather had had in the farm's basement.

They quickly navigated their way through the kitchen, passing through a hall that was so thick with cobwebs that they looked like drapes in the shifting light.

The hall opened into a huge room with a massive fieldstone fireplace at one end. Like the kitchen, this room looked like it had been hastily evacuated, for it was still full of furniture. Though covered in decades of dust, Hutch was able to make out a couple of huge Victorian couches and wingbacked chairs, side tables, a massive wooden breakfront that must have been stunning in its day, and several standing lamps.

There was also a huge piano-like structure buried under decades of dust in the corner. Hutch had checked it out yesterday afternoon when some daylight was filtering into the room. It was a harpsichord. He'd never played one before. Not that he'd been able to get anything like music out of the untuned relic.

Both Starsky and he froze as their shifting flashlight beams settled on a pair of baleful eyes staring out of a harsh looking face. Those dark eyes seemed to be staring right at them.

"What the – "

"It's just a picture," Hutch hastily assured, moving his flashlight to pick out more details of the filthy oil painting. He remembered seeing it yesterday as they made their way upstairs, but it hadn't made quite the impression that it did in the dark.

It was a family portrait. A gray haired man with a hard featured face in a black suit dominated the painting. He was standing beside an exquisitely beautiful blonde with fine-boned features who looked like a teenager. Though it was common practice for portrait subjects not to smile in paintings done in that age, Hutch thought the young girl staring down at them looked particularly sad.

"You think that's Tatum and his wife?" Starsky asked.

"Probably," Hutch answered.

"He looks old enough to be her grandfather," Starsky commented.

"They married young back then."

"Huggy was right. She was a real looker," Starsky said.

"We should get upstairs before it gets much darker outside," Hutch said, something in him needing to get away from that depressing portrait. His imagination was running wild tonight. He really felt like the young girl's eyes were silently pleading with him for help.

"Yeah," Starsk agreed and turned to lead the way to a double staircase that looked like it had been the model for the one in Gone with the Wind. They'd already cut through what looked like a century's worth of cobwebs and dust on the left side yesterday. The right was still veiled from ceiling to stair with cobwebs that shifted eerily in their flashlight beams.

He followed Starsky up the left side, sticking closer than was absolutely necessary.

The bedroom they'd chosen to set up their surveillance equipment in had a view of the entire cemetery. Judging from the size of the chamber, and the humongous, filthy canopy bed, it had probably been the master bedroom. Hutch couldn't imagine what it would be like to sleep in a room with a graveyard view. Holy Cross had been an active cemetery back then, so the master and lady of the house would have had front row seats to every funeral.

The room felt strangely cold. He told himself that it was just the window they'd left open yesterday, but Hutch couldn't help but feel that they weren't welcome here.

Despite the twenty-four hours airing out, the room was still thick with dust and cobwebs.

The folding chairs they'd set up yesterday were still in place behind the open window, as was the camera tripod. Neither of them had been exactly comfortable leaving the expensive equipment they'd signed out unattended in the deserted house, but there was no way the delicate camera would have survived their jaunt over the twelve foot fence.

Like the living room downstairs, the place looked like it had been hastily deserted. The top of the long bureau held a lady's vanity that still had brush, comb, perfume bottles, and other toiletries scattered across it. They were as buried in dust as everything else. The open closet was still filled with clothes, though most of them were rotting. Hutch had even noticed what he'd thought to be a mink coat in it when he'd glanced into the closet yesterday.

He couldn't help but wonder why the servants hadn't packed the place up after Tatum was arrested, if indeed he had been arrested. It was strange how completely intact the building's contents were after being deserted for decades.

There was another oil painting up here. It was on the shadowed wall across from the bed. This portrait only had a single subject, the same sad-eyed blond girl. She was surprisingly visible through the dirt of ages coating the painting. Perhaps it was the white dress she was wearing that made her shine through the grime. The rendition was frighteningly lifelike. Hutch suddenly understood all the ghost stories that surrounded this place. If an intruder were to enter this room at night and catch sight of that picture in the shifting shadows, it might look like a ghost.

The second Hutch stepped into the bedroom, he was hit with a sneezing fit. He'd spent over an hour trying to clear out the worst of the dirt around where they'd be sitting, but the dust was just too pervasive for any sketchy cleaning to remove. Even the night's airing out had done little to help.

"You all right?" Starsk asked, laying a hand on his arm as if to brace him. The beam of the flashlight his partner held in his right hand played crazily around the filthy room.

When the sneezes showed no indication of abating, Starsky's left hand abandoned Hutch to dig into the pocket of his tight jacket and emerged with a wad of folded tissues. "Here. Use these."

Hutch quickly peeled one of the tissues off the pile and blew his nose. It helped some, but his allergies still left him stuffed up and miserable once the more dramatic sneezing stopped after what felt like forever.

Sniffling, Hutch wiped his nose with the now soggy tissue. It was only as he was putting the nasty thing in his own pocket that he realized how strange it was that Starsky had been carrying tissues. His partner didn't exactly live by the Boy Scout motto.

"Hey, what are you doing carrying tissues?" Hutch asked, leaping at any subject that would take his mind off their surroundings.

"With the way you were sneezing your head off yesterday, I thought you could use them," Starsk answered. And, somehow, his partner had known that Hutch would forget to bring them himself.

It was little, thoughtful gestures like this that were killing him by slow degrees. If his attraction to Starsky were just physical, Hutch knew he could have gotten over this insane infatuation months, maybe even years ago. But this need wasn't driven solely by hormones. It wasn't just sex or lust or the superficial attraction that had fuelled the dozens of relationships Hutch had had in the past that pulled him to Starsky's side. This man complemented his very soul.

"What is it?" Starsky asked, reading god only knew what in his shadowed face.

The room was nearly as dark as the kitchen had been. Hutch knew he shouldn't be able to see a thing other than his partner's sketchy features, and, yet, he could read Starsky's concern as clearly as he would have in the noonday sun. He didn't seem able to look away from the emotion in those night dark eyes.

"I . . . . " He what? This was hardly the setting for any kind of confession. Not knowing what to say, Hutch settled on an inadequate, "Thanks, partner."

Starsk gave his arm an encouraging squeeze and said with false cheer, "Come on. Let's get set up. I want to catch that creep and get the hell outta here."

"Sounds like a plan," Hutch said, taking a deep breath of the dusty air as Starsky stepped away. He hadn't been aware of how much heat Starsky had been radiating until he moved away.

They moved further into the room. They'd barely gone three steps when Starsky froze beside him.

"Was that picture there when we were here yesterday?" Starsky's voice shattered the unwelcoming silence of the deserted room.

Hutch started. "What?"

"That little round portrait. I don't remember seeing it yesterday. It, ah, isn't covered with dust like all the other junk on the dresser," Starsky said, pointing out the anomalously glinting, gold framed picture. It was directly across the room from the open window, so all the available natural light caught the frame.

Hutch wondered how he'd missed seeing it himself, but Starsky was always preternaturally aware of his surroundings. Starsk was always the one who noticed things like a wristwatch on a surgery patient's arm or other small details that most cops overlooked, himself included.

"I must have brushed against it when I was clearing out the cobwebs," Hutch said, eyeing the picture. It was way too clean.

"Look at it." Starsky had approached the dresser and was shining his flashlight down on the object. "It looks like it's been recently polished. Who do you think he is?"

Despite his better sense, Hutch joined his partner at the bureau and peered down at the picture. Starsky was right. The frame didn't look like the dust had been removed through casual contact. The glass above the handsome young man's face was crystal clear, the gold of the frame highly polished – which was blatantly impossible.

"Don't know. Her lover, maybe?" Hutch suggested.

"How'd it get here?"

"We must have just missed seeing it yesterday, Starsk. Let's not make a bug deal over it, okay?"

"But why is it so damn clean? Everything else in this place is filthy," Starsky pointed out.

"I dunno. It is weird," Hutch agreed, trying to ignore the shiver that shuddered down his spine. "Come on. Let's get set up. Do you want to man the camera first or do you want me to?"

Starsky was still standing near the dresser, staring down at the portrait, his uneasiness visible.

"Starsk?" Hutch prodded when Starsky didn't move from the other side of the room.

Hutch was still frantically searching his mind for some explanation to the anomaly when Starsky straightened and joined him at the window.

"I'll take first watch," Starsky offered. "Not that it matters who goes first. It's not like either of us is going to be trying to catch some sleep in that thing." Starsky's chin gestured to the canopy bed that was so covered in dust that its drapes looked gray. "And I sure as hell ain't letting you leave me alone here."

Hutch snorted and sat down in the metal folding chair that didn't have the tripod in front of it.

Starsky settled into the other chair and leaned forward to look through the camera. Its enormous black lens had a better range than field glasses.

They both shut off their flashlights and settled in for what looked to be a long, uncomfortable stakeout.

The only sounds were their breathing, the wind whispering through the tall grass in the backyard, and the occasional creaking and groaning of the house settling around them.

"Did you see that new blond down in the cafeteria?" Starsky asked as he stared through the camera lens, his tone obviously fishing for conversational topics.

"Huh?" Hutch asked.

"The one that was giving you the come on yesterday at lunch. Short blond with curly hair and huge – "

Remembering the woman's impressive bust line, Hutch quickly answered, "Yeah, I remember her. What about her?"

"She's pretty hot, don't you think?"

Not compared to you, Hutch thought. However. he had the sense to keep the sentiment to himself, answering with a desultory, "I suppose."

The brief silence that followed was rife with a strange tension that had nothing to do with their weird surroundings. Hutch had the feeling that Starsky was picking whatever he was going to say very carefully.

After a few minutes, Starsky said, "I can't even remember the last time we went out on a double date. I think it was before Gunther."

His gut clenching in dread, because he knew what was coming, Hutch replied as casually as he could manage, "Yeah, I think it was."

"You, um, don't talk about women at all anymore," Starsky commented.

"Don't I?" Hutch asked, as if it were no big deal.

"No, you don't. I was watching you with that pretty lady yesterday, and it was like you didn't even notice her."

"Maybe I had other things on my mind," Hutch said.

Of course, Starsky had to ask, "What kinda things?"

Tired of pretending, Hutch gave a weary, "Complicated things."

Starsky seemed to hear the truth in his answer, for he took a long moment to consider his next conversational volley. His question just about made Hutch lose it completely.

"You ain't seein' a married woman on the sly, are you? You know you could tell me if you were," Starsky said, all earnest concern, just inviting confidences.

Unable to keep his chuckle in, Hutch answered, "No, I'm not having an affair with a married woman."

Hutch couldn't help but think that compared to what was going on with him, that would be easy.

"So what's the deal, then?" Starsky asked. "Celibacy's never exactly been your style before."

"What makes you think I'm celibate?" Hutch asked. "Maybe I'm seeing a six foot four linebacker on the sly."

He said the last in a joking tone, mostly to see what kind of reaction he'd get.

He'd expected a chuckle, but after what a romance writer would call a pregnant pause, Starsky asked in an oddly serious tone, "Are you?"

Starsky wasn't looking through the camera anymore. Hutch could feel his gaze upon him.

Keeping his own eyes focused on the neat lines of tombstones a couple hundred yards away, Hutch asked, "And if I were? What then?"

His heart was literally in his throat. He could barely breathe as he waited Starsky's response. For once in his life, he hadn't a clue as to how this man he knew so well would react. With anything else, Hutch could usually predict his partner's response, but ever since Johnny Blaine had been found dead in that sleazy hotel, Starsk had been struggling with this issue.

Starsky's laugh took him by complete surprise. "Then I better be getting box seats to the game."

Hutch looked over. There wasn't much light, yet he could see Starsky's grin. But above the smile, Starsky's eyes were dark and serious, like he knew they weren't really joking anymore.

"There isn't any linebacker," Hutch said at last, to prevent any misunderstandings.

"I know," Starsk said.

That tension was back between them again. Starsky seemed to be waiting for him to say or do something.

They both jumped as the walkie-talkie crackled into that tense silence.

"Starsky? Hutch?" Morris' deep voice boomed through the room.

"Yeah?" Hutch said, grabbing the walkie talkie and pressing the button that would allow him to transmit.

When he released the button, Morris' voice continued with, "Abrams and Marcus from the 15th just bagged the suspect over in Gate of Heaven."

"That's great," Hutch said, trying to contain his disappointment that he and Starsky hadn't had a chance to arrest the creep themselves.

"Dobey said we can call it quits for the night. He said to bring the surveillance equipment in with you on Monday," Morris said.

"Okay. Thanks for the back up, man," Hutch said.

"It was our pleasure," Morris answered. "See you guys on Monday."

Hutch turned off the walkie talkie and looked over at Starsky. His partner's face mirrored his own disappointment.

"At least we won't have to spend four hours booking the creep," Hutch offered.

"Yeah. Let's pack this stuff up and get the hell out of here," Starsky said.

"Why don't you go get the car and I'll put the equipment away," Hutch offered. "It'll save us some time."

"You want me to leave you alone in this place?" Starsky sounded stunned.

Hutch looked around the filthy room. "It's just an abandoned house. I'll be fine."

Clearly tempted by the prospect of shaving off some time, Starsky checked, "You sure?"

"Positive. Go on. I'll see you in a few minutes."

"I'll be right back," Starsky promised and headed for the door.

Hutch watched his retreating partner until he lost sight of him in the gloomy hall outside the bedroom. As he turned to detach the camera from its tripod, he couldn't help but wonder where the conversation would have gone if it hadn't been interrupted. He couldn't help but feel that he'd missed the opportunity of a lifetime.

He was putting the camera lens in its foam lined case when he heard Starsky's footsteps behind him. He could feel his partner's eyes on his back as he closed up the black case. The winds must have blown up again because a sudden chill filled the place.

"That was fast," Hutch commented, turning to smile at his partner, thinking that Starsky must have run the entire way.

But it wasn't Starsky standing behind him. The blood pretty much froze in his veins as he took in the sight before him. He felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand at attention as an icy shiver blew down his spine.

It looked like fog or maybe mist was filling the doorway. In its center stood the sad-eyed woman in the portrait. Only, she didn't have any pigment in her features or any color in the long, wispy gown she was wearing. She looked like she was composed of the same fog that was filling the doorway.

The sheer impossibility of what he was seeing overwhelmed him. Hutch's mind rebelled at the spectre before him. He tried to tell himself that it was just a trick of the light. Maybe the portrait on the opposite wall was reflecting off the mirror over the bureau and the dust of ages was giving the fog effect, only . . . the apparition before him was wearing a different, less ornate gown than the woman in the painting, and she was looking straight at him, with mournful, intelligent eyes.

Frozen with shock, he stared at her, this . . . ghost that stood before him. She didn't look at all threatening. To the contrary, she looked scared out of her mind.

Reacting to that obvious fear, Hutch cleared his throat and asked in a voice that sounded thick to his own ears, "Are you all right? Do you need help?"

Though, what he could do to help a woman who'd been dead and buried for more than fifty years was beyond him.

She stepped towards him, her hands outstretched, her eyes pleading.

His heart raced like a wild thing. For all that he'd offered to help, he didn't want to touch that wispy, incorporeal hand reaching for him. This entire scene was fundamentally wrong, unnatural. As she reached for him, the scenes from a dozen of those horror movies Starsky forced him to watch played through his mind, the ones where the foolish hero reached out for the evil while everyone in the audience yelled, "No!" at the screen.

He wondered if ghosts could kill. If he touched her, would he become mist like her and spend the rest of eternity walking this godforsaken house?

Try as he would, he couldn't resist the misery in her eyes. If he could help, he would, only . . . only when his fingertips touched that shimmering hand of mist, the spectre vanished in the blink of an eye.

Hutch gaped at the suddenly empty doorway. There was no more fog, no more ghost. Staring down at the floorboards beneath where she'd stood, the only footprints in the dust were the sets he and Starsky had left.

His heart was racing as he tried to process what he'd just seen. There was a part of him that wanted to run from this room and just keep running, only his pride wouldn't let him panic that way.

Impossible as it had seemed, there had to be a logical explanation for this.

He turned to search the rest of the room, thinking that she might have simply moved to another spot, and nearly jumped out of his skin as a familiar voice asked, "What are you doing?"

He spun around to see Starsky standing in the doorway where the fog-shrouded woman had been moments ago.

"What's wrong?" Starsky asked, crossing immediately to him and taking hold of his arms.

The warmth from Starsky's hands seeped through him as if he were made of ice. He certainly felt that way, like she had frozen the blood solid in his veins.

"God, you're freezing. Even your jacket's cold," Starsky said, moving right into his personal space, offering his body heat up as he offered everything to him. "What happened?"

Hutch stared into those waiting eyes. What happened? How the hell could he explain what he'd seen when he didn't know how he'd seen it in the first place?

He took what comfort he could from the worry in Starsky's expression. Gulping, he tried to find a way to explain what he'd seen that wouldn't make him sound like an hysterical frat house pledge.

"I – I saw her," he managed to stammer in something close to English. He had no idea what his expression was revealing. He felt like he was going to start blubbering or screaming any moment. But somehow Starsky's eyes kept the terror at bay, helped him get a hold of himself.

Confusion crowded Starsky's features. "Saw who?"

Hutch gestured with his chin to the portrait on the far wall. "Her. She was standing in the doorway a minute ago in a cloud of fog."

Hutch braced himself. He knew how crazy he sounded, knew how he'd react himself if Huggy or Starsky had told him such an improbable tale.

But there was no disdain in Starsky's face. To the contrary, he looked like he believed him. All Starsky said was an equally amazed and nervous sounding, "Yeah?"

Hutch had heard that tone before, when he'd been standing on a roof at midnight, staring across a twenty foot gap between rooftops that he'd just seen the suspect in the vampire cape he'd been chasing sail across. Then, as now, Starsky hadn't doubted him.

As shocked by Starsky acceptance as he'd been by what he'd seen, Hutch gave a confirming, "Yeah. It was just like Huggy said. She was standing right there in the doorway as big as life."

Starsky's nervous gaze shifted to the doorway. "Right there?"

"Yeah," Hutch answered as both of them stared at the unprepossessing doorway. "Then she just vanished."

"Was she . . . scary? I mean, was she trying to scare you?" Starsky asked.

"Yes, and no. She was really unnatural looking, and that was scary. But she wasn't trying to scare me or chase me away. She looked frightened herself."

"I've got gooseflesh all over just listening to you," Starsky said.

"You should try it from where I'm standing, buddy. I was a second away from completely embarrassing myself."

"Uh . . . . Let's get the hell out of here. You get the camera stuff. I'll get the chairs."

The dust was literally rising behind them as they grabbed their gear and rushed for the stairs. It wasn't exactly panicked flight, but Hutch thought that he hadn't run from gunfire quite that fast.

They stopped when the front door slammed behind them and stood at the top of the stairs staring at the Torino for a long moment. The streetlights on the sidewalk had been shot out, so there wasn't any real light. However, the Torino seemed to gleam with a safe looking glow as they hurried over to it.

Totally in sync, they dumped their gear in the trunk and rushed to the front of the car.

The tires squealed in protest as Starsky floored the accelerator and they lurched away from the curb, moving like they were in pursuit of a felon in a Ferrari. Starsky didn't slow down until they were a mile away from the place.

"Do you want to go to Huggy's?" Starsky asked as they reached Mulholland and had to make a decision on direction.

"I don't think I'm up to a Halloween party after what I just saw, partner," Hutch said. It irked him that he was still shaking.

His reaction wasn't just physical. He'd been scared this bad before, but never had that fear forced him to question the very reality in which he lived. What he'd seen in that deserted house challenged everything he believed in. Though he'd never had anything like real faith in God, there were some things he'd been taught that he did believe. When people died, they moved on. He didn't know where they went or what happened to them. All he knew was that they didn't hang around in abandoned houses acting like the special effect in a John Carpenter movie.

"Okay, I'm not up to a crowd, either."

Without another word, Starsky turned the car towards Venice.

Hutch tried not to notice the number of plastic pumpkin lanterns and a few genuine candle-lit jack-o-lanterns they passed on their way out of the depressed neighborhood.

"What did she look like?" Starsky asked after they'd put some distance between them and the Tatum place.

Hutch thought back on what he'd seen. "She . . . didn't look solid. It was like she was made of the fog or mist that was filling the door."

Starsky gave a visible shudder. "God, that's creepy."

"It was," Hutch agreed.

"Why do you think she's still there?" Starsky asked into the silence as they drove, the dashlights casting an eerie green tint to his face. "I mean, we've been to dozens of murder scenes and there were never any ghosts hanging around."

He'd been wondering the same thing himself for the last few minutes as he tried to process what he'd seen.

"Would we have known if there were?" Hutch questioned, still thinking it through.


"We were at most of those scenes with a squad of investigators. There were lights and cops all over the place. We never really sat around in the dark where someone had been killed like we did tonight," Hutch reminded.

"So do you think all crime scenes are haunted like that?" Starsky's nervousness sounded as intense as his own.

"I don't know. I still can't believe that I saw what I saw." Hutch looked at that familiar profile and admitted, "I can't believe you believe me."

Starsky glanced away from the road for a moment, met his gaze, and gave a gruff sounding, "'course I believe you."

"Nobody else would," Hutch said as Starsky returned his attention to driving.

Starsky opened his mouth as if to protest, then closed it as if he'd thought better of it.

"Maybe not," Starsky said at last, "but that doesn't mean you didn't see what you saw."

"Do you think I, ah, imagined it?" Hutch asked, grasping for any explanation. What he'd seen had seemed real, but he knew that most hallucinations did. He only needed to think back to the things Papa Theodore's voodoo dust had shown him to recall how vivid drug induced visions could be.

"No way," Starsky dismissed the idea as they turned onto Venice Place.

Four more blocks and he'd be home safe and sound, Hutch thought. Though, he wasn't sure he was up to being alone just yet, for all that he didn't want to be in a crowd.

"How can you be so sure?" Hutch demanded. He wasn't sure himself. He'd rather think he'd been drugged and imagined it than that something like that really existed.

Starsky seemed to read is mind. "Because you don't see things that aren't there. If you saw something, it was there. We mightn't know what it was or why you saw it, but you saw it."

"I was sorta hoping you'd tell me it was just a figment of my imagination and not to worry about it," Hutch admitted, a mite self-consciously.

"Sorry, no can do, partner," Starsky answered. "That place was creepy. It felt haunted. And, if you remember, you aren't the only one who saw something there. Remember? Huggy said that lots of people had seen a ghost in that place."

"That's not exactly comforting. Most of the people who saw it were probably vagrants trespassing."

"So?" Starsky challenged. "That don't mean they didn't see it, too."

"I wish you'd seen it. Then I'd know it was really there," Hutch said.

"You know it was there," Starsky said in that tone he got sometimes, the one that somehow managed to sound both wise and innocent at the same time. "That's why you're so freaked out. And, just for the record, I'm glad I missed that particular show. I don't know if I'll get to sleep at all tonight, and I'm not the one who saw it."

"Yeah," Hutch agreed as they pulled to a stop in front of his place. The restaurant downstairs was closed, as were all the other businesses on the ground floor on both sides of the street. It was after midnight and the block was nearly as deserted as the Tatum place. Normally, he wouldn't have cared, but tonight the sight of all those dark and deserted storefronts sent a shiver through him. Many of the stores had Halloween decorations in the windows that seemed to leer evilly at them, despite the lack of light. "This is definitely going to be an all nighter with the lights on." He looked over to Starsky, met and held his gaze as he tried to find the courage to get out of the car. "Ah . . . thanks for believing me, partner."

He thought that Starsky had the same nervous look he'd worn when they were inside that spooky old house as his partner responded, "No problem."

"I guess I'll see you tomorrow," Hutch said, forcing himself to move.

"Ah, Hutch?" Starsky's voice sounded just this side of panicked.

"Yeah?" Hutch asked, relieved at the delay.

"Promise you won't laugh?" Starsky demanded, looking way too serious and nervous.


"Promise me you won't laugh at me first," Starsky repeated.

"Okay," Hutch agreed, totally intrigued.

Seemingly reassured, Starsky hesitantly offered, "I, ah, don't think I want to go back to my place alone. Do you mind if I borrow your couch?"

Hutch knew how much courage it had taken for Starsk to make that request. He'd wanted to ask Starsky to stay himself, but hadn't wanted to appear a complete flake in front of the man whose back he protected.

"Mind?" Hutch repeated, swamped by so much relief that he nearly felt dizzy from it. "I've been sitting here since we left the Tatum place trying to figure out how to ask you to stay without sounding like a total loser."

"You just saw a ghost," Starsky said. "Who'd want to be alone after that?"

"It's not exactly cool," Hutch confessed. "I mean, I am the guy who guards your back."

The dashlights were hardly bright enough to illuminate their features, but Hutch swore he could see the gentle expression that softened Starsky's handsome face in the weird green lights.

"There ain't no one cooler than the guy who guards my back," Starsky said in a rough voice. "You don't ever haveta worry about appearances with me. You need something, you ask."

Hutch knew he'd never be able to ask for what he really needed, but Starsky's offer warmed him to the core. A huge lump seemed to clog his throat as he stared into those bottomless eyes. When he thought he could talk around it without choking up, he said, "You know the same goes here. You want something, you just gotta ask, partner."

Starsky gave him one of those madcap grins and said, "I just did. Come on, let's get upstairs. Even this street seems creepy tonight."

Great. Starsky felt it, too. Hoping that Mrs. Tatum's ghost would stay where they'd left her, Hutch got out of the car and quickly dashed to the front door, Starsky right on his heels.

They rushed up the stairs, making as much noise as a class of middle school kids.

Hutch hit the overhead light as soon as the door opened. Both he and Starsky seemed to sigh in relief as the door closed behind them.

Starsky didn't make a single crack as Hutch locked the door securely behind them.

True to his word, Hutch lit every lamp in the place. Once the apartment was lit up like a Christmas tree, they stood in the living room staring at each other, at a loss as to what to say or do now.

Feeling very self-conscious, Hutch asked, "Are you hungry? I could scramble some eggs."

"That sounds great," Starsky agreed as he slipped out of his leather jacket and holster. Hutch watched him hang them over the chair by the desk.

Reminded that he was still armed and dressed for the fall weather, Hutch took off his own jacket and weapon., hanging them up on the nearby pegs. Far more comfortable, he moved to the kitchen to start cooking. The familiar, every day action of scrambling eggs and frying bacon was oddly comforting.

"It's times like this I wish you had a TV," Starsky said, following him into the kitchen area as if he didn't want to be alone on the other side of the big, open apartment.

Feeling a similar nervousness, Hutch looked over his shoulder. Finding his sense of humor, he reminded, "It's Halloween. They'd only have monster movies on tonight."

"Yeah. I forgot about that. How 'bout some music?" Starsky asked, clearly looking for something with which to fill the apartment's silence.

"Mozart's on the turn table," Hutch said.

"No offence, buddy, but that's the kinda stuff I'd expect our lady ghost to be playing on that big old harpsichord that was in the Tatum living room. I was thinking Fleetwood Mac."

Hutch grinned. There was nothing even remotely eerie about the group Starsk and he both had a passion for, even though that new lead female singer liked to write some pretty esoteric lyrics.

"You know where the albums are," Hutch said, tending the spitting bacon.

He could hear Starsky rustling through his record collection, then the sound of his partner fiddling with his stereo. A minute or so later, the totally grounding beat of <i>Monday Morning</i> crashed through the place, driving off any lingering strangeness with its grungy guitar chords.

Hutch felt instantly better as the bouncy tune filled the apartment. As Starsky returned to the kitchen area, singing along with the song with forced cheer, his jittery nerves started to finally relax.

"That noise will certainly keep the ghouls away," Hutch commented as he started to dish out the food.

"Very funny," Starsky commented. "Let's see how hard you're laughing when <i>Rhiannon</i> comes on."

"Maybe we'll skip that one tonight," Hutch suggested. After placing the plates on the table, he turned to get two beers from the fridge, only to find that Starsky had beaten him to the task.

They sat down at the table and dug in.

"That really hit the spot," Starsky said, finishing up his last piece of bacon.

"Yeah," Hutch agreed.

"Are you feeling any better? You still seem quiet," Starsky commented as Hutch finished up his eggs.

"I just can't stop thinking about it, you know?" Hutch said.

Starsky nodded. "Yeah. It must've been terrifying."

"It's not just that," Hutch said. "Sure, seeing her there was about the scariest thing I've ever seen, I won't deny that, but . . . it's what she signifies that's . . . bothering me."

"Huh? What do you mean – what she signifies? What does a ghost signify?" Starsky questioned. His brow puckered quite endearingly as he struggled to follow his logic.

Hutch wasn't sure if he should answer. Of the two of them, Starsky was the more superstitious. But meeting those vivid blue eyes, he couldn't hold back. "Seeing what I saw tonight just got me wondering how much else might be true."

"What do you mean?" Starsky asked.

"I never believed in ghosts, yet I saw one tonight. There's a lot of other stuff I never believed in, and seeing that thing tonight is making me wonder how many of those other things might be true," Hutch explained.

"You mean like vampires and werewolves?" Amazingly enough, there was no hint of mocking in Starsky's attitude. Hutch knew any of the guys they worked with would be having a field day with this at his expense.

Hutch felt foolish confessing it, but Starsky's lack of scorn made it easy to answer. "Yeah, stuff like that. None of it ever seemed possible before, but now . . . ."

"Yeah," Starsky agreed. "Seeing a ghost sure puts a crimp in a fellow's scepticism."

"What do you think about it?" Hutch asked, genuinely curious. He was always teasing Starsky about how susceptible he was to these kinds of scares, but after seeing that ghost, he couldn't help but wonder how people who might actually believe in these kinds of impossibilities coped. "I mean, do you think all that other occult stuff can be true, too?"

"You're asking the wrong person, Hutch," Starsky answered. "I'm the guy who was reading true vampire histories when we were on the Nadaci case."

"So you believe in all that stuff, then?" Hutch asked. Yesterday when he was still living safe in his rational world, he would have been using a teasing tone. Tonight, he didn't even crack a smile.

Starsky shrugged, looking uncomfortable. "I don't know. I know that case where all those girls throats were torn out and the blood missing, made me think 'vampire'. And what Papa Theodore did to me, sure as hell felt like he cast a spell on me." Starsky met his eyes and said, "And before you say it, I know Papa Theodore drugged us, but it still felt like some kind of magic. I guess on some level, I've always . . . been scared that those kinds of things might be true. There are just too many normal people who have seen the kinda thing you saw tonight for it to be just their imagination."

Hutch nodded, taking it in. After a moment, he asked, "So how do you cope with believing it's real?"


"If you really believe there might be ghosts or monsters in the closet or under the bed, how do you live with it?"

Starsky gave another boneless shrug. "I guess I try not to worry about it too much."

"I don't think that approach is going to work for me, partner," Hutch said.

Starsky chuckled. "Yeah, I can see that." After a moment of observing him, Starsky continued in an uncertain sounding tone. "You might try my sure shot cure to monsters and goblins."

"What's that?" Hutch asked, genuinely curious because Starsky's attitude was making it clear he wasn't sure if he should talk about whatever it was to which he was referring.

"Well, any time I get really freaked out thinking about this kinda stuff, I remind myself that even if all that scary stuff is absolutely true, that I've got someone standing at my side who would put himself between me and whatever monster is coming my way. When I remember that, it doesn't matter if all that other stuff is real."

An unexpected warmth flushed through him at Starsky's earnest words. Anyone else, and he would have suspected a snow job, but Starsky meant what he'd said.

Holding his gaze, Starsky continued in the soft tone of a promise, "I'll stand between you and the monsters."

"You already do that," Hutch answered, his voice sounding gruff and thick to his own ears.

"Yeah?" Starsky seemed doubtful.

"Yeah. I should've remembered that," Hutch said and smiled, because Starsky was looking at him with the same sense of wonder he was experiencing himself.

He felt the smile fade from his lips as he found himself drowning in those bottomless, beautiful eyes. Hutch didn't know what his face might be revealing, but he couldn't look away. He was utterly captivated by those indigo depths, lost and drowning and barely able to breathe. He knew Starsky had to be reading everything he was feeling. The panic that shot through him at that realization was rawer than what he'd experienced when he'd first seen that apparition tonight.

But Starsky wasn't freaking out.

To Hutch's utter confusion, his partner gave him a sunny grin as he confessed in a soft voice, "You're the only person I ever feel comfortable having soapy scenes like that with."

Starsky simply couldn't see the truth that was right before his eyes. How could he not see?

Hutch quickly averted his gaze, knowing that his confusion would only add more strain to the moment. Muttering a hasty, "Me, too," he grabbed the dirty plates and headed for the sink.

"Why don't you leave them till the morning? I'll do them, then," Starsky offered as he moved over to the couch.

Knowing how strange it would be if he insisted on doing the dishes after this historic offer on Starsky's part, Hutch gave a soft, "Okay, thanks," and followed his partner to the other side of the open room.

Starsky was sitting in the corner of the couch. The red, white, and black Navaho designs on the throw he was leaning against framed him perfectly. He looked sleepy, relaxed, and sexy as hell.

Not for the first time, Hutch wished he had more furniture. He would have very much liked to have isolated himself in the safety of an armchair. The only other option he had was pulling one of the mismatched kitchen chairs over, but he knew how weird that would seem. So, he sank down on the couch a respectable distance from his partner.

Starsky must have loaded several albums on the stereo, for <i>Dreams</i> on the <i>Rumors</i> album was now playing softly in the background. Hutch felt as if Stevie Nicks' sexy voice was crooning the secrets of his soul into the room as she sang, "I keep my visions to myself. It's only me who wants to wrap around your dreams and...Have you any dreams you'd like to sell? Dreams of loneliness...Like a heartbeat... drives you mad...In the stillness of remembering what you had...And what you lost...And what you had...."

"Hey, what's wrong?" Starsky asked, all traces of sleepiness gone from his suddenly worried expression.

Feeling as if the walls were closing in, Hutch sighed and answered, "Nothing."

"Looks like a pretty big something from where I'm sitting. You still upset about what you saw?" Starsky asked as Stevie wailed about what you had and what you lost on the stereo directly behind them. Starsky had turned to face him and he was under that direct stare now.

Trying not to squirm under the observation, Hutch gave a weary sigh and evaded, "I guess."

His body froze with shock as Starsky shifted closer and slung an arm across his shoulders. He could feel his partner's burning heat down his entire right side.

His starving flesh craved the closeness. Starsky's warmth and scent filled him. His self-preservation instincts were panicking, but the rest of him was loving the embrace. For the first time in forever, he felt like he was home, like he was completely safe.

Starsky shifted yet again, and Hutch found himself enveloped in a tight hug.

He buried his face in the bright orange sweatshirt Starsky was wearing, squeezed his eyes shut, and hung on for dear life. He breathed faded sandalwood and warm Starsky deep into his lungs.

Starsky's left hand was stroking his hair, his right resting on the center of his back, holding him in place.

Hutch rested his cheek against Starsky's right shoulder and waited for the glorious contact to be cut off. But the clock on the shelf across the room ticked off the seconds, then the minutes, and Starsky didn't withdraw. He just held him like the hug was something both their souls were aching for.

Behind them, the stereo needle had reached the last track on the record. There was the clicking noise of the arm withdrawing to its resting place, and then the only sound in the room was the soft rhythm of their breathing.

"Starsk?" he asked some time later, completely confused.

"I feel like if I don't hold onto you, you're going to just float away," Starsky whispered, his voice hoarse with suppressed emotion. "I've been feeling this way for months. You don't talk to me about important stuff anymore. You hardly ever touch me. You won't tell me what's wrong or if it's something I've done, but I'm losing you. Day by day, you're drifting further away and I don't know what to do to stop it from happening."

Hearing how utterly lost and hurt Starsky sounded, Hutch slid his arms around Starsky's waist and gave a tight squeeze. "It's nothing you've done. It's . . . it's me. It's all me."

His own voice must have betrayed a similar loss and pain, for Starsky was all concern as he asked, "What's all you? If you won't tell me what the problem is, I can't fix it."

Hutch gave a humorless snort into Starsky shoulder. "It isn't something that's fixable."

Starsky seemed to turn to lead in his arms. "Are you sick?"

Realizing where Starsky's fears had led him, Hutch quickly assured, "No. I'm healthy as an ox."

"Thank God," Starsky muttered, his hand rubbing over Hutch's back in comforting circles. "So what is it, then?"

He couldn't lie when he was pressed tight against Starsky like this. And he couldn't dissemble anymore, not when Starsky was concocting horror scenes of his partner dying of some slow, debilitating illness. Recognizing that he had to give Starsky some kind of truth, he hesitantly offered, "I, um, I've fallen for someone I can't have, someone who can't even see me in that light."

Some of the tension seemed to leave Starsky's muscles. His voice sounding much less stressed, Starsky softly offered, "I hate to break this to you, buddy, but there isn't a red-blooded woman on the planet who wouldn't see you in that light. Who is she?"

If it weren't so god damned painful, Hutch might have laughed. Even when he was spilling his guts, Starsky still couldn't see him that way. But . . . that wasn't Starsky's fault.

He knew this was his problem, but his partner was obviously suffering because of it, and that just wasn't tolerable. Whatever he did here tonight, he had to fix things with Starsky; he had to make his partner feel better. With that thought in mind, he gave a soft, "Who it is doesn't matter. Maybe you're right. Maybe I just have to try harder to be seen."

Starsky was quiet a moment.

It was odd having this kind of conversation while clutched so tight in someone's arms. It had been years since someone had held him tight while they had a heart to heart.

After a long pause, Starsky tentatively said, "I'm missing something here, aren't I? And you don't want to tell me whatever it is."

"There's nothing to miss," Hutch said. That was the truth. There wasn't any way he could have been any more obvious about his feelings. For all his trying to hide it, Starsky had still known something was wrong with him. His partner just wasn't capable of making the mental leap necessary to bring him to the answer.

Starsky leaned back against the couch, his arms moving him so that they could see each other's faces. They were only loosely entwined now.

Starsky stared at him for a long time, searching as if his features would reveal his secrets, and, maybe they did, for after that brief study, Starsky's eyes widened in visible shock and his brows poked their way into his curls.

Starsky seemed to deliberate on whatever discovery he'd made for a short time, then he asked in a soft, cautious voice, "You weren't lying before. There isn't any married woman and there isn't any linebacker."

Words beyond him at the moment, Hutch gave a negative shake of his head. He couldn't tell what Starsky was thinking from his eyes or his expression, and that was as alien to him as the conversation they were having.

"It's me, isn't it?" Starsky continued. "I'm the one who . . . ? God, Hutch."

He couldn't interpret the emotion in Starsky's face. It didn't look like disgust or anger, but his partner might still be too shocked by the idea for a reaction.

His heart about to pound right out of his chest, Hutch tried to remain still as he waited for Starsky to pull totally away from him as whatever response he was experiencing took hold. He knew how volatile this man was and how deep this betrayal would run. He knew that he'd once again allowed his hormones to completely destroy his life, because, no matter how hard they tried, this was never going to go away. They could never go back to where they'd been this morning. One way or another, this was going to be between them for the rest of their lives.

To his utter confusion, Starsky didn't explode.

After what felt like forever, Starsky asked in a soft tone, "You were never going to tell me, were you?"

Hutch gave a negative shake of his head. "No."

The worst part was he couldn't even say he was sorry. This wasn't something that could be apologized for, even though it was so big that it had wrecked both their lives.

He just wished Starsky would react and get the fireworks over with. Right now, he couldn't tell how Starsky felt. Even though this couldn't be fixed, if he had a clue as to whether his partner were angry, hurt, or disgusted, he'd know what approach to take to make whatever amends he could in this impossible situation. But none of those anticipated responses were there.

Starsky face looked . . . gentle and maybe a little uncertain. Hutch could almost see the thoughts moving lightning fast behind those steady eyes. His entire world was riding on wherever that emotional roulette wheel landed.

He almost flinched when Starsky's left hand moved towards his face, but it wasn't a fist coming his way. To his utter bewilderment, Starsky cupped his cheek, his thumb playing lightly back and forth across his cheekbone, causing a shiver.

Starsky seemed to follow the course of his helpless reaction, his eyes widening with surprise.

"I, ah, guess I don't have to ask why you weren't going to say anything," Starsky said. His voice had a soft, shaky tone to it that Hutch didn't think he'd ever heard before.

That didn't seem to require a response, so Hutch didn't make one. His heart was pounding the way it had been when he'd seen that ghost earlier tonight.

"How long have you . . . ?"

He held those brilliant blue eyes and gave Starsky the truth. Even to his own ears, his voice sounded hoarse and strained. "Since you came back to work after Gunther's hit."

"That's more than a year," Starsky pointed out.

Hutch nodded. He wanted to tell Starsk how he'd originally thought it was some kind of reaction to the prolonged stress of his partner's gruelling recovery from the assassin's bullets, but . . . like Starsky had said, it was more than a year since he'd come back to work. He couldn't explain why he felt this way. All he knew was what he felt. "Look, I know how . . . awkward this makes things. Just give me some time and . . . ."

And what? His frazzled brain demanded. What could he possibly do now to stop this insane attraction that he hadn't done over the last year?

Starsky's eyes seemed to be asking him the same question. After a brief silence, Starsky said, "It doesn't work that way. You can't just turn your heart off because you don't wanna feel something."

"People do it all the time," Hutch protested. "You realize that something isn't going to work and you don't allow yourself to get involved."

"I think it's a little late for that, don't you? 'Involved' would be a mild description for our partnership."

Starsky's hand was still cupping his cheek, his thumb still rubbing across the skin there.

Hutch covered the hand with his palm to stop the distracting motion. He needed to think and he couldn't do that with Starsky's fingers caressing his skin – which raised the question as to why Starsky was touching him that way. Belatedly, he realized how unnatural the reaction was. His partner was supposed to be freaking out, not comforting him.

"So where does that leave us?" Hutch asked, even though he already knew the answer to that question. Starsky didn't do guys. His partner was too honest to pretend they'd never had this particular conversation, which left only one option – breaking up their partnership. Starsky wasn't going to want this in his face all the time. Hutch knew the adult thing for him to do was offer to take a transfer. There'd be questions and speculation at the office, of course, but if they could do it amicably, no one need know why they'd split up the best team the Bay City PD had seen.

Starsky's gaze moved to where Hutch had his hand trapped on his cheek before meeting Hutch's eyes again. The only sound in the room was their breathing, and Hutch knew his own sounded fast and jumpy.

"Not where you think," Starsky answered.

Hutch didn't understand the nervous expression that flashed across those mobile features. He recognized the resolve that immediately replaced the nervousness. He'd seen it a thousand times in the past when Starsky made up his mind about something.

Before he could question what was going on with Starsky, Starsky leaned forward, vanquishing the scant inches that had separated them.

Hutch's breath caught in his chest as those thin, smooth lips covered his own. Shock claimed him as he realized that Starsky was kissing him, on the mouth.

It felt strange. His moustache rubbed against Starsky's stubbly skin as that mouth worked against his, begging a response.

His lips parted of their own accord and then he was tasting Starsky and there was nothing strange about it. It was hot, and juicy, and wonderful. Starsk tasted like bacon, and he smelled so warm and inviting that Hutch's body liquefied against him.

The kiss deepened. They fed upon each other for what felt like forever. Starsky's mouth was so sweet, so responsive. It was amazing, absolute heaven, but . . . .

Starsky didn't do guys. That knowledge shrieking through him, Hutch managed to rip his mouth away. He'd always known that Starsky loved him enough to die for him. He'd just never realized that Starsky loved him enough to do something so repugnant to his nature to humor him.

"What's wrong?" Starsky asked.

Hutch stared into those beautiful eyes. They looked smoky with passion. Starsky didn't look as if he were forcing himself to do something odious. He looked . . . aroused.

The angry demand for an explanation which Hutch was about to voice died on his lips. Instead, he uncertainly stated, "I didn't think you did guys."

Starsky's features gentled with understanding. His eyes still looked bright with passion, shining like sapphires in his flushed face as he answered, "Neither did I until a few minutes ago."

"I . . . I don't want you to do this just because you know I want it. That'd be unbearable," Hutch forced the words out, even though everything inside him was screaming at him for jeopardizing what had almost been his.

"It's not like that," Starsky protested. He seemed to realize that some type of explanation was called for, for he continued with a shaky, "The minute I realized what was going on with you, that it was me you thought you couldn't have . . . it was like a switch got flicked on inside me. I . . . I don't know if I can explain it. There isn't any other guy I'd want to do this with, but it feels right with you. Does that make any kind of sense?"

He could read how badly Starsky needed him to believe him. Was it possible? Could knowing his partner wanted him have sparked desire in Starsky? It seemed inconceivable, and, yet, Starsky's eyes were pleading with him as if he were the one who'd been wanting this forever.

Deciding to tread carefully, Hutch gave a slow nod and offered, "I just don't want you to do anything for my sake that you're going to regret."

That gentle expression was back in Starsky eyes as he gruffly said, "I could never regret you," and moved in for another kiss.

Starsky's words vibrated through him, filling him with a wild, uncontainable joy. Starsky's kiss was devastating. It burned through him like a fever, melting his bones, leaving nothing but shaking desire in its wake.

If this were anyone else, he would have been frightened by the effect this simple kiss was having on him. Although he always enjoyed sex, he never really allowed it to move him, not deep inside where it mattered. Vanessa had taught him a bitter lesson about trusting in his heart. He'd been played for a fool so many times that he knew how to remain uninvolved, no matter how hot the sex. But there was no hint of his usual Hutchinson cool. There was no hiding what he was feeling. He was shaking like a schoolgirl on her first date. Starsky had to be able to feel how badly he was trembling, but when Hutch shifted closer in the kiss, letting it claim all he was, he could feel a similar shaking coursing through Starsky's lean form.

It helped that he wasn't alone in this, that Starsky was just as affected as he was.

Locked together, they slid sideways on the couch. Somehow, they ended up horizontal. Hutch made sure he shifted himself around fast, so that Starsky settled on top of him. As much as he believed that Starsk really wanted to share this with him, he was hesitant to come on too strong and break the spell they were under.

Starsky's warm weight settled on top of him. It felt good, especially the hardness pressing against his right thigh.

Starsky broke the kiss. He didn't give either of them time to come up for air before he was spreading kisses over Hutch's features with a slow attention that was something like reverence. As his partner moved from his right eye to his left, it felt like Starsky was worshipping him with his mouth. No feature was skipped: his eyebrows, his cheeks, his moustache, his chin, every part of his face was bathed with those gentle kisses.

In all his fantasies, Hutch had never anticipated being adored this way. He'd often imagined that they'd make love in a particular position or in a specific place. The backseat of the Torino figured highly in many of his midnight fantasies. But no matter what he'd envisioned them doing together, he had never factored in this kind of devotion.

Maybe it was the difference between being with another man. Maybe it was just that Starsky was more willing to go for what he wanted than the women Hutch had known. Or perhaps it was simply technique. For all he knew, Starsky might do this for all his lovers. Only . . . it didn't feel like something Starsky was doing by route. It felt like his partner intended each of those loving kisses specifically for him.

"You taste so good," Starsky muttered in a thick voice as his mouth moved to his neck.

Hutch's hands were moving all over the orange sweatshirt covering Starsky's back as he tried to reciprocate in some manner, but he was just too devastated by the tenderness to initiate much. When that mouth moved to his neck, he was lost completely. His throat was always his most sensitive area, and Starsky had him shuddering in seconds as he homed in on all his most vulnerable spots.

They were making love like they worked the streets, Hutch shakily realized. That almost psychic communication they had when on the job was operating here. He didn't have to tell Starsky what he liked or what he wanted, Starsky just knew.

He had to admire Starsky's confidence. He knew his partner had never been with another man before, but there was no trace of hesitation as Starsky undid the buttons of Hutch's shirt and peeled it and the undershirt beneath it off him. As Hutch lay back against the rough, scratchy fabric of the Navajo blanket, looking up into Starsky's face once his chest was bared, his partner didn't seem at all fazed by his flat, masculine breasts.
Starsky's fingers moved hungrily across the flesh there, leaving him a shivering wreck.

"You, now," Hutch gruffly requested before Starsky's mouth could lower and totally destroy all thought.

Confused, Hutch saw hesitation cross Starsky's flushed face.

"What is it?" Hutch asked, caressing an embarrassed-looking cheek.

"I don't wanta spoil the magic," Starsky said.

If Starsky wanted sense, he was going to have to talk to him when they weren't touching this way. All Hutch could manage was an utterly confused, "Huh?"

"Lately, whenever I get to this point in the proceedings, the scars sorta kill the mood." That confession didn't come easy. Hutch could see how nervous Starsky was, how much emotion his partner was holding in check.

Abruptly sober again, Hutch ran his fingers through those soft curls and searched his dazed brain for the right words. No easy, reassuring platitude presented itself.

He knew what Starsky's chest looked like. Between the bullet wounds and suture scars, his partner's torso was a battlefield. He could only imagine the explanations Starsky had to make at this point on dates. Only, he wasn't a stranger.

Inspiration washing through him, Hutch whispered, "Hey, this is me, Hutch. I used to change the dressings on those wounds. There's nothing there that's gonna kill the mood with me."

Starsky gave an unsteady, "Yeah?"

"Yeah," Hutch promised. Reaching out, he took hold of the bottom of the sweatshirt and pulled it up over Starsky head, tossing it aside.

Warm Starsky and sandalwood washed over his senses as his eyes took in the familiar scars disfiguring that nearly perfectly formed chest. He reached out to run his fingers through the chest hair growing between two of the worst suture tracks, allowing his fingertips to play over the hardened red scars. His thumb flicked playfully over the nearby pink nipple, causing Starsky to gasp as Hutch said, "There. See. Nothing to spoil the magic. Just my beautiful Starsky."

"God, Hutch. The way you're looking at me . . . . "

Thinking that he might be coming on too strong, Hutch swiftly checked, "Am I moving too fast?"

"No. It's just . . . ."

"Just what?" Hutch encouraged, praying that Starsky wasn't about to bail on him now that they were getting down to the naked part of the night. He was nervous himself, and he'd wanted this for more than a year now. He couldn't imagine how overwhelming this must be for Starsky, who probably hadn't considered the idea before tonight.

Starsky held his eyes and hesitantly offered, "I haven't felt sexy since before I got shot. But the way you're looking at me, it's like none of those scars matter. I feel . . . . "

"Like what you are? An incredibly handsome, sexy guy?" Hutch completed.

Starsky kissed him before he could say anything else.

Hutch didn't know how this kiss was different from the previous ones. All of those had been sweet and earth-shaking, but this one . . . there was so much emotion behind it, so much love, that he felt as if Starsky were seeping into his very soul with it.

He gasped as Starsky's mouth moved to his throat and further south. Those same worshipful kisses were deposited all over his shoulders and collarbones. Starsky took his nipple into his mouth and sucked on it with luscious skill. Hutch was a shuddering wreck under the sensations.

Their remaining clothes were becoming impediments. They sat up to wrestle them off. Their pants were removed in a frantic rush that left no room for self-consciousness or hesitation.

They both seemed to freeze as they stared at each other's naked groins for the first time. Even here, they were different. Starsky was redder and thicker, a pleasing contrast to his own pale length.

After looking their fill, their gazes met, the same question in both their eyes.

There were a million things Hutch wanted to do with this amazing man. But he wasn't sure how adventurous Starsky might want to be on their first time out, and, he wasn't certain how much more intense emotion he could handle. His whole world had been set on its end tonight. Starsky was the only remaining constant, and, even he was changed by what they were doing here together.

Hutch started to ask what Starsky wanted to try, only to find his mouth taken in another of those breathtaking kisses.

Starsky's hands settled on his shoulders, guiding him gently back against the couch.

They both gasped as Starsky settled back on top of him and their straining erections nestled carefully against each other.

Hutch had to applaud Starsky's instincts. The non-threatening position was the perfect cure to any first-time nervousness. He'd never felt as protected and safe in a first-time encounter as he did with Starsky's warm weight blanketing him. Both their bodies seemed comforted by the closeness. Their mouths latched back onto each other as their hands restlessly explored all that warm, wonderful flesh.

Then Starsky started to rock his hips, and Hutch's world tilted yet again. All that protective warmth turned into fiery arousal as his hips fell into rhythm with Starsky's. The delight sky-rocketed through him, filling him until all he was was sensation.

None of his fantasies had ever felt like this. Hell, none of his other encounters had had this kind of effect on him. Not even Gillian had made him feel this much, and she'd taken him places he'd never been before. But Starsky was doing more than expanding his sexual horizons. With this gentle loving, Starsky was taking him home. This was the safe harbour he'd spent his entire life searching for and never found until now.

More than Starsky's flesh seemed to be touching him. Starsky's very essence seemed to be seeping into him, filling him with the fire that was David Michael Starsky's soul. That brightness rushed through him, filling him, healing him, finding every lonely abandoned corner of his heart and filling it with joy.

The universe exploded around him as his body shook with climax. He broke the kiss in a vain attempt to get some air. But there wasn't any air left. The fire in their blood had burned it all up.

Starsky's hips stopped moving and his partner's warm gift joined the sticky mess coating their groins and bellies.

Starsky's groan was echoing through the silent apartment as he pressed his forehead into the crook of Hutch's neck.

Feeling how hard Starsky was shaking, Hutch's right hand stroked over the sweat-slick back while the fingers of his left hand carded through those luscious dark curls.

"Are you okay?" Hutch asked when what felt like a long time had passed and Starsky made no sound or movement.

Starsky slowly lifted his head. He looked . . . God, he looked like every fantasy Hutch had ever had, all flushed and glowing from the sex. But his eyes were strangely dark and serious above the blush of passion.

"We, ah, didn't really talk about what happens next," Starsky said in a gruff voice.

Hutch couldn't tell how he felt. All he could see was that something was troubling Starsky at a time when he should be relaxed and filled with well-being.

"I guess that depends on what you want to happen next," Hutch answered in as gentle a tone as he could manage while this fear that was turning his soul to ice. He knew that sometimes people had very different experiences during sex, that what had seemed perfect to him didn't always seem as wonderful to his partners, and vice verse. He knew his safe harbour might be a ball and chain to his previously straight, lady-loving partner. Maybe he'd imagined that almost psychic connection they'd experienced and Starsky had really hated the entire thing.

"How come it's all up to me?" Starsky asked, some of the seriousness easing from his features, as if, he, too, had no clue how his partner was feeling.

"I think it's pretty obvious that I want you," Hutch said, holding those eyes, letting Starsky read whatever he would. "But I know this isn't something you ever planned on. You might need some time to figure out if it fits into your life."

"Fits? God, Hutch, I feel like you blasted me apart and put me back together," Starsky said.

"Is that a good thing?" Hutch couldn't keep from asking.

"It is if we're after the same thing," Starsky answered, still seeming troubled. "I . . . feel too much for you. I know it's not exactly cool, but I don't know if I'm gonna be able to share you if we keep doing this."

"Share me?" Hutch repeated blankly.

"With other lovers," Starsky said.

Stunned, Hutch realized that Starsky was giving him the antithesis of the 'no strings' conversation that usually happened once the afterglow faded. That was what the 'not exactly cool' part had meant. It wasn't considered hip these days to want to hold onto someone once you'd had sex. In an age of free love, it was hard for real love to make a stand, but that seemed to be what Starsky was trying to do here.

Feeling the bottom drop out of his stomach, Hutch tried to match Starsky's courage.

"There haven't been any other lovers since I started feeling this for you," Hutch confessed. "You've got such a hold on my heart that you don't exactly leave any room for anyone else."

What he said shouldn't have come as any surprise to Starsky, yet his partner still looked blasted away by his words.

The hand that reached for him was shaking, but since Hutch's entire body was trembling with emotion, he hardly noticed. All he knew was the strong arms that surrounded him and the quivering lips that claimed his own.

When they came up for air what felt like hours later, Hutch met those beautiful glowing eyes. "Thanks for keeping your promise, Starsk."

"My promise?" Starsky echoed, clearly forgetting the conversation they'd had in the Torino last summer when Hutch had felt this wanting was going to kill him.

"To fix whatever problem was bothering me."

"I intend to spend the rest of my days fixing you, buddy," Starsky said with a totally endearing giggle as he swooped down to claim his mouth again.

Thinking that he was going to enjoy all that fixing, Hutch surrendered himself to his partner's tender care.

The End

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