Terri Beckett and Chris Power
It was eleven-thirty on a wet March night, and Bethany Ellis was about to abandon a rather pedestrian evening's entertainment on TV when the doorbell chimed. She sighed, heaved herself out of her comfortable sprawl on the couch, pushed her feet into her slippers and headed for the door. It wasn't Cass because Cass had a late rehearsal, which only left one culprit: dear absent-minded and very slightly cuckoo Uncle Edgar.
I swear, Edgar, if you forgot your keys one more time, I'm going to have them surgically attached to your . . . But she never completed the threat, because the opened door revealed her uncle, soaking wet, and two strangers, also in a less than immaculate condition. "My god, what happened to you?"
It was the taller of the two who answered her. "Miss Ellis? Your uncle has had a slight accident. We brought him home."
"We?" She spared him a glance as she ushered Uncle Edgar inside the house. They hesitated, hovering on the porch, but followed.
"Detective Ken Hutchinson." He gave her the kind of smile that he plainly thought would melt her fillings. "This is Detective Starsky. My partner." An afterthought, she interpreted, nodding at the other man. He was cuter than the big blond, too. "We fished your uncle out of the canal."
Edgar gave her an anguished look. "It was an accident," he said vaguely. Bethany gathered that neither of his rescuers believed that any more than she did. But her uncle's idiosyncrasies were not for airing in front of strangers.
"You need to get those wet things off and take a hot bath," she instructed, ushering him toward the bathroom. "It was really very kind of you, Detective - uh -"
"Hutchinson," he supplied.
". . . Hutchinson, to bring my uncle home. I hope it hasn't been too much trouble." She tried to make it sound like the dismissal it was. Hutchinson might not have taken the hint but his curly-haired partner did.
"No problem, Miss Ellis." He gave Hutchinson a look.
"If you're sure there's nothing we can do . . ." The man wasn't taking the hint.
"Nothing," Bethany said firmly. She could hear the sound of the tub filling. "Thank you so much."
"Let me just leave you my card." The full-voltage smile again. "In case your uncle remembers how it happened? All you have to do is get in touch."
His partner was already at the door. He gave Bethany a glance that was apology and sympathy in one. "Hutch, willya come on? It's late. The lady wants to get to bed and so do I."
"Sure, Starsk." That actually seemed to get through to him. "Good night, Miss Ellis. I hope your uncle -"
"He'll be fine, I'm sure." Finally, she managed to get them through the door and, with a last exchange of courtesies, got it closed. She leaned on it for a moment, then advanced purposefully toward the bathroom.
"Edgar," she said to the closed door, "are you going to tell me what all that was about or do I come in and ask you?"
Uncle Edgar opened the door a little and peered myopically around it. The thinning white hair that formed a tonsure around his pink scalp was stuck to his skull by the steam, making his face look even rounder than usual. "Have they gone?"
"Yes," Bethany said.
He emerged a little further. "It was them, Beth. I saw them quite clearly. It was them! From Centauri!"
* * * *
"I stink," said Starsky disgustedly, looking down at the stained windbreaker and jeans. For once, Hutch restrained himself. Besides, he knew he shared Starsky's fragrant condition.
"Pollution," he said. "You don't want to know what gets dumped into those canals. Household waste, all kinds of garbage, effluent, raw sewage . . ."
"You're right. I don't want to know." Gingerly, Starsky eased himself into the passenger seat of the LTD, grimacing as the damp fabric of his jeans made even closer contact with his skin. "You think the old guy will be okay? I mean, if he swallowed any of that gunk -"
"Hopefully, if he gets sick, Ms. Ellis will see he gets treatment." Hutch put the car into gear and headed back toward the city.
"And hopefully," Starsky said, in mimicry, "she'll get right on the phone and tell you all about it. You are so transparent at times, Hutchinson . . . What the shit is that smell? You or me?"
"I think you were probably right the first time," Hutch said. "And what do you mean, transparent?"
Starsky snorted. "If it's female and breathing, your hormones kick into overdrive."
"Hey, she was pretty. Even in a bathrobe and bunny slippers, she was pretty."
"Yeah, sure, but . . ." Starsky cut himself off. "Forget it. It's too late. You think she'll get in touch?"
"He didn't seem all that keen to tell us anything," Hutch said. "But - hell, Starsk, we saw them running off. If he got a look at them . . ."
"Whether or not he saw them, he should know why anyone would want to drown him," Starsky pointed out. "Hardly classifies as innocent horseplay. They didn't try to mug him first, so it wasn't robbery. Also, what is an old fogey like Uncle Edgar doing in Venice that late at night? He never told us that, either."
"You know something? Being a cop is giving you an awful suspicious nature."
Starsky beamed at him. "You say the sweetest things . . . Well, we can't do anything unless he makes an official complaint, loverboy, so if you want to improve our acquaintance with Ms. Ellis, you better hope he comes to his senses. Or she convinces him. Somehow, I don't think the odds are very good for that. Do you?"
It looked as if Starsky's predictions were right. Nothing was heard from Uncle Edgar or from his niece, and Hutch's hopes were dimmed along with his memory of the evening as time passed. Then the phone rang just as he and Starsky were heading out of the squad room to log off for the evening, and when Minnie signed that the call was for him, conscience and self-interest warred for a moment before conscience won and he picked up the phone.
"Detective Hutchinson?" he said, as Starsky pantomimed hurry-it-up by looking at his watch. "I'm sorry, I didn't catch that . . . Miss Ellis? Ah, yeah, sure . . . your sister?"
"Sister?" Starsky mouthed.
"Oh, I see, you're Cass and not Beth." Hutch raised his eyebrows at Starsky, who now perched on the desk watching him. "And you think . . . I'm sorry, would you repeat that . . . I see. Yes. Yes, of course. Uh . . . forty minutes?" He put the phone down. "Guess what?"
"Uncle Edgar spilled his guts and that was one of the Misses Ellis asking you to come sort him out," Starsky said, condensing the conversation admirably and almost accurately.
"Close. Edgar's in the hospital. Suspected O.D."
"Uncle Edgar's a junkie?" Then a pause. "Could explain a lot."
"Not from what Miss Ellis was saying." He picked up his jacket. "You want to tag along?"
"You're checking this out on our time?" Starsky stood up. "You really want to make an impression, doncha? Yeah, sure, I wouldn't miss this for the world. You can stand me a cold beer and a pizza afterwards."
The Miss Ellis who answered the door this time was a different species entirely from the bathrobe-and-bunny-slipper charmer of their last visit. This one was about five-five, a flaming redhead with eyes like a bushbaby, clad in jeans that fit like paint and a white angora sweater.
"Hi," she said. "I'm Cassandra."
"I can see that," Starsky muttered, returning her smile and elbowing Hutch in the ribs to get the dumb smirk off his face. "You wanted to talk to us about your uncle?"
"Yes, but he's not really an uncle. I mean, not related. Come on in, please - I hate having conversations on the doorstep." She led the way down the hall to a different room, a dim-lit and cluttered place. "Edgar's study. Make yourselves at home. I won't be a moment."
The big, old-fashioned desk was littered with papers, more stacked in unsteady sheaves over the floor, on shelves and chairs. Hutch gingerly found himself a seat while Starsky gravitated to the bookshelves.
"Willya look at this stuff?" he said wonderingly. "What's Edgar into? Ancient cultures, prehistory, Erich von Daniken . . ." He turned to look at his partner. "I hate to say this but if Edgar isn't a twenty-four carat flake, I'm . . ." His voice trailed off. "Hutch. Someone just tapped me on the shoulder."
He was standing with his back to the bookcase. There was no one behind him. Hutch pointed this out.
"So who the hell . . ." The tentative patting came again, and Starsky turned his head slowly. A pair of brilliant sapphire eyes blinked inquisitively out of the darkness of the cluttered shelf, and a long black paw emerged and prodded him. Frozen, he did not react until the dark mask that surrounded the blue eyes came into the light and a black nose kissed his cheek delicately.
"It's a fuckin' cat!" With languid grace the animal stepped from the shelf onto his shoulder, anchored itself with all its claws in the fabric of his windbreaker, and twined a whiplash-slim tail around his neck. After a few seconds of amazement, Hutch gave a snigger.
"Hey, Long John Silver, I think the cat ate your parrot."
"Oh, right, big joke. Will you please - pretty please, even - get this thing off my back?" A startlingly loud purr sounded in his ear and a very rough tongue rasped his cheek. "Dear God, it's eating me!"
"Must be your aftershave," Hutch chuckled, taking an evil delight in Starsky's expression. "What was it you said it was called? 'S not 'Tomcat' by any chance?"
"You shouldn't laugh," the girl said, entering with her laden tray. "You must never laugh at them. They don't like it."
"See?" Starsky shot his partner a poisonous look. "For the record, neither do I."
"You should feel honored," Cass told him. "Isis doesn't normally take to strangers. Milk and sugar, or lemon?"
"Uh - lemon." Hutch took the cup she offered him. She smiled at Starsky interrogatively.
"Milk and sugar," he said. "Miss Ellis - would you mind -"
"Oh, of course. Come to Mama, baby." The cat flowed from Starsky's shoulder to her arms, settling there with a plaintive mew. "You mustn't mind them. They've been unsettled ever since the ambulance took Edgar away."
"Them?" Hutch glanced around warily.
"Osiris is the other one. Isis's brother." Unconcerned, she sat on a corner of the desk, cradling the cat. "Beth told me you brought Edgar home the other night and left your card. When this happened, I thought I should call you."
"We're glad you did," Hutch said. "What exactly did happen, Miss Ellis? You said you suspected O.D."
She snorted. "You ever known anyone to O.D. on Maalox?" she asked. "Because, aside from aspirin, that's all there is in the house. But Edgar was really sick."
Starsky and Hutch exchanged glances. "Which hospital did they take him to?" Starsky asked.
"Can I use your phone?"
"It's in the kitchen."
Starsky disappeared, followed, Hutch noticed interestingly, by the cat. It had to be the aftershave. Or animal magnetism.
"Beth didn't want me to call," Cass went on. "She thinks it's just Edgar being paranoid . . . Well, he is a little weird."
"Weird?" Hutch prompted.
"As in cuckoo," the girl said. "Oh, look, suppose I start at the beginning. Edgar thinks he's being persecuted. By hostile aliens from Alpha Centauri. Because he's an ally of the benevolent aliens of Arcturus."
Hutch digested that. "Why?" he said at last.
"Aside from he's nutty as a fruitcake? He's a member of a little group who call themselves the Friends of Arcturus, and they think - believe - that they are in contact with -"
". . . Arcturans," Hutch supplied, quite willing to sit and have this gorgeous redhead talk nonsense to him. It made a change from having Starsky do the same thing.
"Yes. They get messages, stuff about life on their planet, their culture and beliefs - they're really very gentle and harmless."
"The Arcturans or the Friends?"
"Both. But the Alpha-Centaurans are always trying to stir things up in the galaxy, cause trouble. You think this is a load of bullshit, don't you?"
Hutch swallowed the urge to say, "Yes, but don't stop," and assumed the expression of a concerned and caring police officer. "But Edgar believes it," he pointed out. "What we do or don't believe is irrelevant, Miss Ellis."
"You can call me Cass," she said, smiling. "Anyway, Edgar thinks - "
Starsky came back in then. He had the cat in his arms, and there was a thoughtful expression on his face.
"You're quite sure Edgar doesn't keep any other drugs in the house?" he said.
"Absolutely. The Arcturans are into holistic medicine. Doesn't work on Edgar's digestion, though, that's why the Maalox. Maybe Arcturans don't have digestive systems."
"I really wouldn't know," Hutch murmured. "What y'got, partner?"
"Edgar's fine," Starsky said. "They'll keep him under observation overnight, just in case, but he's okay. They pumped him out, analyzed the result, came up with piperazine."
Hutch and Cass looked at him blankly.
"It kills roundworm," Starsky told them. "Look, Miss Ellis -"
"Would Edgar keep medication for the cats? Stuff the veterinarian might have prescribed?"
"They've never had roundworm," Cass objected, eyes wide. "I'd know. How could Edgar have got hold -"
"We'll have to talk to him," Hutch said positively.
"He won't make a complaint," she warned. "Not unless the Arcturans say it's okay."
"We'll see." Hutch stood up. "Are there any of Edgar's Maalox left or did the hospital take them?"
"Beth sent them along with him in the ambulance, I think."
"In that case, we'd better get in touch with St. John's. Cass, thanks for the tea. Tell Edgar we'll be in touch."
"I will." She gave him another smile. "Drop by any time, huh?"
"You'll certainly be seeing us again," Hutch promised. "Starsk, put the cat down."
They were out in the car, Starsky sitting, arms folded, behind the steering-wheel. "Okay. What did you find out? We don't go anywhere without you telling me what all that stuff about Arcturans was in aid of."
Hutch told him. Starsky's eyes got very wide.
"You don't believe any of that, do you?" Hutch asked carefully.
"Are you kidding? It sounds like half-a-dozen of the worst fifties sci-fi all mixed up and regurgitated. Aliens from Outer Space try to take over the Earth, foiled only by the valiant resistance-fighters . . . No, wait a minute, it's the plot from 'The Invaders.' Are they lizards?"
"The Arcturans or the Alph . . ."
"She didn't say." Hutch was apologetic.
"Great help you are. So, Edgar believes all this shit, and Cass says he won't make a complaint, so - how do we get him to change his mind?"
Hutch shrugged. "You got me."
Starsky unfolded his arms and started the car. "You owe me a beer and pizza," he reminded. "The Pits?"
Huggy, when questioned, had not heard of the Friends of Arcturus. "Sounds like a Trek episode," he opined. "They for real? Like 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers'?"
"Was that for real?" Hutch wanted to know. Since he didn't watch as much TV as his partner, or see as many movies, he was beginning to think he was at a disadvantage.
"No, that was the one about the pods," Starsky told him patiently. "They produced replicas of the people they'd disposed of, and no one could tell the difference until they screamed. God, that was scary. Just think, if anyone you know might be one of Them . . ."
"Starsk. Let's concentrate on Uncle Edgar."
"Well, okay, but if he's not gonna play ball with anyone except his Arcturan buddies -"
"Pity you didn't know any Arcturans," Huggy put in, drifting back to the bar for refills.
"Yeah . . . Yeah! That's it! Arcturans!" Eyes dancing, Starsky lifted one hand solemnly, third and fourth fingers spread apart. "Live long and prosper," he intoned.
"If you think that's the Boy Scout salute, I've got news for you," Hutch told him.
"It's the Vulcan salute, smart-ass. Listen, if Edgar will only play ball with Arcturans, what's the obvious answer?"
"You mean . . . but, Starsk, he knows we're not Arcturans. We're cops."
"Yes. But we are also Arcturan agents. Working undercover. Get it? Huh? Whaddya think, will it fly?"
Hutch thought about it. Daffy as it undoubtedly was, it made a kooky kind of sense. "It might," he said carefully. "So what do we do? Go and announce ourselves to Edgar and see if he buys it?"
"Got any better ideas?"
"We could check out the Friends, see if they can supply any background. Could be an inside job."
Starsky frowned. "Yeah. If someone is out to get Edgar, and he's right about . . . Shit! Hutch, those two guys we saw running away . . . you went after them. Did you get any kind of a clear look?"
"I told you - they took off like track stars. I just got a vague impression of what they were wearing. Dark pants, hoods, silvery windbreakers."
"Right. And five gets you ten, if we asked Edgar what Centaurans look like, that's what he'd say."
"You don't mean he is being got at by aliens from outer space?" Hutch stared at him, incredulous.
"No," Starsky said patiently. "This is like quantum-leap thinking. Edgar thinks it because that's what they want him to think because then who's gonna believe the poor old fart? If no one believes him - except maybe the Friends - who's gonna help? No one. And Edgar is in deep shit." He sat back and took a long, self-congratulatory pull at his beer.
"Great thinking, Sherlock. One thing we still don't have is a motive."
"No problem," said Starsky after a moment. "I'll just get Spock to beam me the information down from the Enterprise."
It was not, of course, anything like as easy as that. The Secretary of the Friends was simple enough to track down, as Cass supplied his address from Edgar's file. The old guy was home again now, she said, but shaky after his ordeal, and not inclined to venture out. She would keep an eye on him during the day when she wasn't rehearsing. She was in summer stock theater and Beth would cover all the other times. Beth worked in a bookstore, she told them gaily. Occulture Unlimited, off Venice Boulevard. Did they know it?
Starsky wrote the address down. "Just make sure that he isn't left alone," he suggested. "I don't think he's in any real danger, but we don't want him to take chances."
"Not in any real danger?" Hutch echoed as Starsky put the phone down.
"The hospital says the piperazine dose was nowhere near fatal," Starsky reminded him. "He'd have to eat a whole shitload of the stuff to do more than make him sick. And the fake Maalox were only 400mg."
"Okay. But he's an old guy. Easily upset. Maybe a weak heart. That dive in the canal could have been the end of him if we hadn't fished him out. Starsk, I think Edgar's right in one thing. Someone is trying to harm him."
"We take it to Dobey? Edgar isn't going to make it official unless he buys our cover."
"It's still attempted homicide. We can take it to Dobey. Besides," he added, "you don't want us to handle the whole thing on our own time, do you?"
Convincing their captain, on the evidence of two possible attempts on Edgar's life and his own off-the-wall theories, was not the easiest job. They won only a partial victory.
"If you can get him to make an official complaint, I'll consider it," Dobey said heavily. "Until then - you do all the legwork and the following-up off duty."
He leaned back in his chair and looked at them. "You realize this is pretty weird, even for California? It could well be Starsky's fault, but it sounds like a trailer for a bad B-movie."
Starsky looked hurt. Hutch assumed an ingratiating smile.
"We know that, Capt'n. We'll have Edgar's complaint on your desk just as soon as we can wheel him down here to make it."
"I hope you're as hopeful about that as you made it sound," Starsky muttered as they left the captain's office.
"Trust me," Hutch said and raised his hand in the four-fingered V. "I've been practicing."
The Secretary of the Friends, Antony Collins, was as mild and inoffensive as Edgar, though perhaps not quite as strange. He was quite willing to supply the police with a complete list of members and their addresses and whatever else he had on file. It amounted to quite a lot.
"Would you believe there could be this number of cuckoos in the city?" Starsky asked rhetorically, waiting for R&I to run the list through their computer.
"Come on, Starsk. This is California."
"Don't I know it? Okay, Minnie, what they got for us?"
Minnie handed him a stack of computer printout. "To save you the trouble of looking through that lot, none of those names have more than maybe a parking ticket. If more people joined up, we'd have less to do, that's for sure. The only thing that did ring any chimes was your pal, Edgar."
"Edgar?" Hutch repeated. "But he's clean - we checked him first thing! Even in the Miscellaneous Weirdo file."
"Someday, hon, you may just find yourself in there. And your trashy partner alongside you. Edgar may be clean, honey, but his address isn't. How long's he lived there?"
The two detectives looked at each other and both shrugged.
Minnie smiled. "Looks like you better check it out, boys."
Hutch read the printout while Starsky drove. There were no answers to be gained from Edgar: he was asleep, Cass told them when they called, and she didn't like to wake him. No, she didn't know anything about his tenure of the house, but Beth might. Beth was at work right now. Maybe they should call back later?
Occulture Unlimited was situated between a health-food store and a restaurant. The window glittered with an array of crystals "for Healing and Meditation" as well as books on esoteric subjects. Hutch gave a small inward groan. He'd better get this over fast, before Starsky picked any of this stuff up and read it. His partner's eclectic taste in reading material was blessing and bane. He had a remarkable amount of trivia stored under those curls, and if there were only some way of sifting the wheat from the chaff, Hutch was sure that Starsky could walk away with the top prize in any General Knowledge quiz show. Unfortunately, there was such a helluva lot of total crap right in there along with it. Having been regaled with selected sections during long stakeouts, Hutch was reluctant for Starsky to add more bullshit to the already-redolent pile.
It was a lost cause. Starsky had a thing about books. His eyes gleamed now, his nose almost visibly twitching with the ineffable scent of words-on-paper.
"Don't touch." Hutch slapped his hand away from a stack of intriguingly titled paperbacks. "We're on a case. Remember?" And turned away before he could see the look of pitiful deprivation on his partner's face.
"Can I help you? It's Detective Hutchinson, isn't it?"
Beth, out of a bathrobe and bunny slippers, was a different woman. Strawberry blonde hair clustered in curls around her face and the pink cotton shirt she wore toned nicely with her cream linen skirt. Starsky forgot the temptation of the books for a moment.
"And Starsky," he said smoothly. "Miss Ellis, your sister told us you might have some information relevant to your uncle's case."
"It's official? Edgar put in a complaint?" She looked startled.
"Not yet," Hutch said delicately. "But we think it's important that we get to the bottom of this."
"Oh, I agree. This business with the phone calls is most unpleasant."
"Phone calls?" Starsky repeated.
"Yes, didn't Cass tell you? Any hour of the day or night. The phone rings but there's no one on the other end."
"You've reported this to the phone company?"
"Yes, of course, but there's not much they can do, is there?" She looked flustered. "Listen, I can't really discuss this here. I'm on my lunch break in a few minutes - can we talk then? Next door?"
While they waited, Hutch approved the menu and Starsky looked in vain for anything that had ever had anything to do with an animal.
"This is all vegetarian," he objected in a carrying whisper. "What's tofu?"
"It's good for you," Hutch told him, loading a plate at the salad bar.
"In that case I won't like it." But there was at least a selection of filled baked potatoes, so he chose a vegetarian chili as the least of the evils on offer, and joined Hutch in a booth. Beth arrived before he had done more than squish potato and chili into a mash.
"Sorry to have been so long." She'd chosen a salad and cottage cheese, Hutch noticed with approval. "You said I might have some information?"
"Your uncle's house - how long has he lived there?"
"About two years. He bought the place when he retired and moved out here from Cleveland . . . Why is Detective Starsky eating with his eyes closed?"
"So I can convince myself that there's meat in this mess," Starsky said gloomily.
"He's a dedicated carnivore," Hutch said with an air of superiority. "Just won't be weaned off red meat."
She laughed. "In that case, my apologies for making you eat here. It's just convenient. I like a steak myself, whatever Cass tells me about the average American having five pounds of undigested red meat in the large intestine."
Starsky put down his fork and winced. Hutch leaned forward.
"Not to mention the additives and preservatives in almost all meat products. Did you know that -?"
"I'm gonna throw up if you don't quit proselytizing," Starsky said menacingly. "We are on duty, Hutch, and you promised me you wouldn't preach at me on duty," he finished plaintively.
Hutch had the grace to look ashamed. "I forgot. Sorry, pal. Miss Ellis . . ."
"Beth. Since Detective Starsky is suffering in the cause . . ."
"Beth." Starsky brightened visibly. "How about a steak dinner? Tonight?"
"How about we keep our minds on what we're doing? Miss Ellis - Beth - do you happen to know who owned the house before your uncle bought it?"
"Not without checking, but Edgar will have the papers at home. I'd love a steak dinner tonight, Detective. If you like, I'll fix the steaks and you can see what papers there are at the house. About eight?"
"Terrific. And call me Dave. If Edgar gets antsy about all this, tell him me 'n' Hutch are really Arcturan agents, working undercover."
* * * *
"Okay," said Starsky, settling back into the driver's seat with a smug expression on his face, "so what am I looking for in Edgar's papers tonight, if I ever get around to it?"
"Who owned the title to the place five years ago." Hutch unraveled the printout. "There was a big heroin bust at that time, but although they ran the dealers to ground before the buy went down, neither the dope nor the money was ever recovered. R&I say the Vice Squad took the area apart, but they got zilch."
"So could be someone thinks it's still there?"
"And they want Edgar out so they can get it."
"It's a long shot. Not very likely."
Hutch crumpled the paper between his hands. "Starsk, this whole thing is not very likely! You got any better ideas?"
"Let you know tomorrow," his partner told him sunnily.
* * * *
Isis came to greet him as he got out of the car that evening, yowling insistently until he crouched down to talk to her, whereupon she sprang to his shoulder and settled down to purr in his ear.
"Don't tell me," Beth said, opening the door, "Isis is also an Arcturan agent and you're comparing notes."
"She's a helluva lot prettier than Hutch," he said. "I brought a couple of bottles of wine."
"Great. Go on through - Edgar wants to talk to you."
Edgar sprang to his feet as Starsky walked into the den, grabbed his hand and wrung it, beaming delightedly. "You should have identified yourselves immediately, Detective! I never guessed that our cosmic mentors would take such an interest in our insignificant little group!"
Starsky gave himself a mental lick. "Uh - no one is insignificant," he said carefully. "And we - uh - they don't like our friends and allies being harassed."
"So it is the Centaurans? I thought it was when I saw them! But what could they want with me?"
"We have an idea on that." Starsky grabbed the chance to get information while Edgar was in the mood. "Do you know who owned this place five years ago?"
Edgar hesitated. "Yes . . . I'll have the papers somewhere around." He opened a drawer, took out a box. Isis jumped down to investigate and was joined by another Siamese from under the desk. "This is Osiris," Edgar said. "Ignore him. He doesn't like strangers. Of course, once he realizes who you really are, he'll be fine."
"He prefers Arcturans?"
"Let's say he isn't really keen on Homo sapiens. You know, there's one of the Friends who has this theory that cats are actually alien beings themselves."
"Yeah, I saw the movie," Starsky muttered, clicking his fingers encouragingly at Osiris. Isis wound around him and purred up a storm, but Osiris merely sniffed politely before ignoring him again.
"Let me see . . . ah, here we are, Detective. This property was actually owned by a development company. They would be the ones who built this house, I imagine - after demolishing the old block. I bought it new."
"Old block?" Starsky repeated. "Damn . . ."
"Is it relevant?"
"Could be." Starsky sat down. "Listen, Edgar, we have reason to think that the harassment is because you - or, rather, this house - is sitting on top of a small fortune hidden about five years back. Someone is trying to get you out so they can get at it."
Behind his glasses, Edgar's eyes were puzzled. "But what would Centaurans want with Terran currency?"
"Uh . . . use it to fund their clandestine operations, perhaps," Starsky suggested. "So you can see why we - why the police and the Arcturans, that is - want to get to it first. And to catch whoever is after it."
"Yes, of course . . ."
"So Hutch and me want to set up a stakeout. That'll mean you and the girls have to move out for a time - couple of days - so we can see if anyone comes nosing around." He fixed Edgar with an intent blue stare, willing him to cooperate. "We also need an official complaint from you. Just to keep the record straight."
"Whatever I can do, naturally."
"Great." Starsky grinned. "Now I got a date with Beth and a steak, if you'll excuse me."
"A steak?" Edgar looked appalled. "You eat meat?"
"About as often as I can," Starsky informed him before he thought.
"But isn't that against all Arcturan ethics? To consume the flesh of -"
Starsky thought fast. "You know the saying, Edgar. 'When in Rome . . .'"
He leaned back against the kitchen door and let out a long sigh of relief. "That was close," he told Beth. "I didn't realize that Edgar's pals are anti-meat."
"Whoops." She gave him a smile. "How do you like your plomeek, Dave? Rare, medium or well-done?"
* * * *
"So?" Hutch demanded before Starsky had even got into the car. "What did you get?"
"Steak, fries, succotash, salad, two bottles of Sebastiani Zinfandel and lemon meringue pie for dessert," Starsky told him blithely. "Beth is a fantastic cook."
"From Edgar, dummy."
"Oh, right." And Starsky relayed the scant information he'd been given. "Looks like we're on a loser. If there was anything, the demolition crew would have turned it up."
"Yeah. Maybe. I checked on the dealers who were pulled in - we lucked out there, too. The big fish, Kurt Jarman, got life in San Quentin. And died there in the prison hospital. Hepatitis. About six months ago."
Starsky looked at him gloomily. "Reminds me of something my grandmother used to say . . ."
"What was that?"
"When one door closes, another one shuts. C'mon, let's go log on."
The news wasn't all bad, however, as Edgar did put in the promised appearance to make a complaint, so Dobey was happy enough to allow them to continue the investigation, and authorized a stakeout. Edgar also had a further instance of harassment to report.
"This arrived this morning," he said, handing over an envelope. The address was typed, but the message inside was in a kind of cuneiform. "You can see why I thought you should see it," he went on. "This is a direct threat after all."
"Ah . . . yes," Hutch agreed. "We'll need to hang on to this, Edgar. Fingerprints."
"For a horrible moment," Starsky confided as they watched Edgar down the corridor, "I wondered if Centaurans had fingers to leave goddamn prints. How do we find out what it says?"
"You mean you can't read it?" Hutch turned limpidly amazed eyes on him.
"You mean you can?"
"Hell, no. Let's go pay Mr. Collins a visit. Bet he can."
"Fascinating," Collins breathed, gazing at the message, now carefully sandwiched between plastic. Starsky swallowed his snigger. "Yes, this is in Arcturan. The written form, that is. The spoken word is considerably different. You say this was delivered this morning?"
"So we were told. Can you tell us what it says?"
"Well, yes, eventually. I'm not very fluent in the written form."
"We'll wait," Starsky told him and Collins nodded absently.
"I'll need my dictionary." He began to search the bookshelves, without any luck, until a girl stuck her head around the door.
"Just going, Daddy - oh, sorry, didn't know you had company."
"My daughter, Leona," Collins said. "Honey, have you seen my Arcturan dictionary anywhere?"
The girl colored. "Uh - yes, I do know where it is. I'll fetch it for you."
Collins shook his head sadly. "Kids. Can't take anything seriously. When they were younger, they used it as a kind of secret language, you know?" Leona came back with a leather-bound notebook. She was still blushing.
"Sorry, Daddy - I'll be back before eleven."
"Have a good time, hon." Collins was already scribbling letters on the back of an old envelope. "She's dating a friend of her brother's," he said conversationally. "Almost a member of the family, really, since his own father died. Now, Detective, this is starting to make sense. It poses problems, however, because the Arcturans are non-aggressive by nature and this is couched in extremely aggressive terms." He cleared his throat. "'YOU AND THOSE YOU LOVE WILL SUFFER. BE WARNED. WE WILL NOT BE STOPPED.' Then there appears to be a series of errors, resulting in gobbledegook, and a final 'TAKE HEED OR PERISH.'"
Starsky looked at Hutch. He no longer felt the slightest urge to giggle. "I don't suppose you might have any idea who sent this?" he asked without hope. "How many people in the Friends own one of these dictionaries?"
"Only the linguists among us. But none of them would have made those elementary errors."
"Okay. Well, thank you for your help, Mr. Collins."
"Any time," the secretary said earnestly. "This kind of thing could get our allies a bad name. No doubt that's what the Centaurans want."
"No doubt," Hutch agreed politely.
"So what next?" Starsky wanted to know. "Test that paper for prints?"
"Guess so -" The dash radio cut him short.
"Zebra Three from Captain Dobey."
"Zebra Three," Hutch responded.
"See the woman 1047 Palm Court Road, suspected homicide."
"That's Edgar's place," Starsky said tightly. "Tell 'em we're on our way."
Blatant use of siren and Mars light got them through the afternoon traffic, and Starsky braked the Torino askew outside the house, sprinting after Hutch. The door was open. And in the kitchen Beth knelt beside the pitifully still form of Isis.
"Dave," she said, choking on tears, "I think she's been poisoned."
Starsky knelt at her side. The animal was alive but having difficulty breathing, and there were traces of blood at her mouth. "How long has she been like this?"
"I just got home. When I called her to come eat and she didn't appear, I went looking . . . She was out in the yard."
"She needs a vet." He stroked the sleek dark head gently. "Where's the nearest?"
She told him and he pulled a towel from the rack to wrap the cat. "Got any plastic bags? Hutch . . ."
"I'll see to it. Go."
Beth shot him a look of gratitude as Starsky eased the bundled cat into her arms and ushered her out to the car. The siren and the Mars light and a few illegal maneuvers got them to the veterinary clinic within minutes, where the nurse took charge of Isis and left Starsky and Beth to wait.
"I hate these places," Starsky said morosely. "Hospitals . . . Dobey's message said an attempted homicide. Did you call that in?"
"I'm not sure . . . I told him that Isis had been poisoned . . ."
"Figures. He didn't know Isis wasn't human. Beth, I think it'd be safer for you all if you move out for a while. We've got authorization for a stakeout. If the perps think they've driven Edgar out, they may come around to hunt for whatever they think is there. And I don't want you or Cass - or the cats - in danger. How about it?"
She gulped back another sob. "I . . . I guess we could take a room at a motel or something . . ."
"There's no one you can stay with?"
"Not at short notice, with the cats."
"Okay. I'll figure something out with Hutch. The cats would like his place. He's got a greenhouse and everything." He grinned at her and squeezed her hand. "Well, we'll be staking out Edgar's place, so he won't be using it, and it's better than a motel."
Whatever objections Hutch might have had were driven from her mind by the appearance of the vet and his nurse, and Isis.
"Warfarin poisoning," the man said crisply, "no doubt about it. I've given her the antidote - vitamin K. She'll need to be kept quiet for a day or so but she should be fine."
"Warfarin," Starsky repeated. "Rat poison?"
"Could be. If she hunts, she might have caught and eaten an animal slowed down by the bait, ingested it that way."
"Yeah," he agreed, to save argument. But taken along with the other forms of harassment, and the note, this last seemed too much of a coincidence. He took Isis from the nurse, astonished to hear a feeble purr. What kind of creep would want to hurt a cat like this? And what kind of sick mind would strike at a person through a beloved pet?
Hutch did not argue about having the girls and the cats stay at his place, and Starsky volunteered his own apartment for Edgar's use. And the two detectives headed back to the Venice house. It was dark, giving all the appearance of desertion, and very quiet, the stillness emphasized by the ticking of the old-fashioned clocks in hall and study, the hum of freezer and refrigerator. One careful sweep of the property revealed nothing out of the ordinary, and they split up, Hutch taking Edgar's den, Starsky Beth's bedroom. It smelled faintly of her perfume and was tantalizingly full of books. Shielding his flashlight, Starsky investigated a few titles. The Hero with a Thousand Faces . . . The I-Ching . . . Culpepper's Herbal. A whole shelf of mythology, including stuff he'd never heard of but which looked fascinating, to coin a phrase. Maybe he could persuade her to loan him a few.
The phone rang, its sharp tone slicing into the night and making him jump. He heard Hutch pick it up, heard a murmur of conversation. Then Hutch was in the room with him.
"R&I," he said softly. "I got them to check out Kurt Jarman in case he'd told anyone where he'd hidden the loot. Seems he was a real loner, no known associates he'd trust with the information. But he had family. One son."
"And the kid visited his father two weeks before his death."
In the darkness, there was a gleam of anticipation in Hutch's eyes. Starsky reviewed what they knew. "Could be a link," he conceded. "There are enough people out there who'd sell their own grannie for that kind of haul. But if it's still here - where the hell is it? It can't be under the house - it would have been found during construction. So where -?"
"We checked the backyard. Edgar's got green fingers."
"I know. But what else is there?" He went to the window and peered into the darkness outside. "What time is it?"
"Almost one. You want to catch a few Zs?"
Hutch yawned. "Yeah, okay. Wake me about three."
Starsky left him to stretch out on Beth's bed, taking himself down to the den. He settled himself in Edgar's big leather-upholstered chair, put his feet up on the desk and stifled a yawn. He wondered vaguely if anything was likely to happen tonight. Probably not. A stakeout wasn't always a success. More often than not a stakeout was just a waste of time. A few hours' sleep lost, catnaps snatched cramped in the backseat of a car. At least, this was more comfortable.
He yawned again. It was weird how time became elastic at night. He had to stop himself from checking his watch again. He knew time was passing . . . he could hear clocks ticking . . . but it always seemed to drag. He reflected that he'd never really understood the meaning of the Theory of Relativity until he'd been on a few stakeouts. More than a few. How many in the course of a police career? Too many, he told himself wryly. And for why? Because criminals didn't have the common decency to commit their crimes during the day.
He grinned at his own reasoning. There ought to be a law. He'd said that to Hutch once and Hutch had quite rightly pointed out that if there were such a law, who would have to deal with those who broke it.
"Logical, Mr. Spock," he congratulated his absent partner. It was half past one. His eyelids felt gritty. It had been a long day. Poor little Isis. She had felt very light and frail in his arms but she had kept up a constant rusty purring while he held her. If she only liked Arcturans, what did she make of him? No, that was Osiris . . .
One of his feet slipped off the desk, waking him out of a doze with a jolt. Cursing, he checked his watch. Nearly two. Not so bad, but he'd better not get too comfortable or he'd be falling asleep again. He got up, stretched and padded through the silent house again. By now his eyes had become accustomed to the dark and he could find his way to the kitchen without falling over or bumping into anything.
He didn't think Edgar would begrudge him a cold beer. The cold wash of light from the opened fridge illuminated the area briefly as he found his quarry and popped the can. Coffee would have been better to keep him awake but he wasn't sure of being able to find everything in the dark. He'd tried it once at Hutch's place, ended up with a cup of reconstituted soya meal. Without his having had to say a word, Hutch had taken to storing coffee in a different and easily identifiable jar.
Starsky smiled to himself. That was Hutch . . . He leaned against the sink, gazing idly out into the dark backyard. The proliferation of shrubs and larger plants cut a dark fringe into the dark purple sky. It was like a jungle out there, complete with pool, almost hidden by the hanging growth. He'd only just avoided walking into the damn thing during the search of the place.
Something moved in the darkness, a stealthy shifting that was too regular, too conscious, to be coyote or other indigenous wildlife. Starsky froze. It was impossible to see anything but the hairs on his nape were prickling erect. He cat-footed back to Beth's room, put a hand on Hutch's shoulder and warned him to silence as his eyes flickered. "We've got company, partner."
* * * *
"Don't bother to creep - I'm awake," Beth said, sitting up in Hutch's bed as her sister carefully shut the door behind her. "How was the rehearsal?"
"Terrible. I couldn't concentrate." Cass came to sit beside her sister, stroking the curled form of Isis who lay in the crook of her arm. "How is she?"
"Seems fine. She ate all the flowers off Detective Hutchinson's jasmine plant, so I don't think her appetite is impaired."
"Oh, he won't mind. After all, it was his partner who suggested this. I'm going to fix myself some hot chocolate."
"Make that two." She hugged her knees and watched her sister move around the unfamiliar kitchen as if she owned it. "I bought some cookies if you're hungry."
"Always. What's he like?"
"Dave? He's nice."
"Beth, my sweet, all the men you date are nice. It's hardly descriptive. What's he like?"
"Isis thinks he's the neatest thing since tuna."
"That's the aftershave. Distinct influence of catnip in there, I thought. All right, what about his partner?"
"I'm not dating his partner."
"True, but what do you think of him? I think he's . . . foxy."
"You," said Beth witheringly, "would think Charles Bronson foxy if he was blond. He seems to be . . ."
"Nice," Cass finished for her, and brought a mug of chocolate over. "Well, this place is okay, I'll give him that. And he didn't laugh at Edgar's theories. Maybe I'll give him a try."
"Who do you think is behind all this?" Beth said softly. "It was silly at first but then Edgar almost drowned. Cass, do you think they're all right?"
Cass snorted. "They're cops, aren't they? They know what they're doing. I hope." She took a sip of her chocolate. "One thing I am sure of is that it isn't Arcturans or Centaurans or Romulans or Klingons, and I wish Edgar had grown up reading science-fiction like the rest of us, and got it out of his system early. Because that harmless little hobby of his could have got him hurt. As it is, someone is taking him for a ride."
"Well, I know that! But who? It can't be anyone in the Friends."
"Can't it? It has to be someone with access to the hen-scratchings they call a language, and you can't get a primer in Arcturan off the shelf." She cocked an eyebrow at her sister. "Unless you've been selling bootleg copies?"
"Don't be silly." Beth fed Osiris pieces of cookie. "But it's horrible to think that any of the Friends would act so . . ."
"I never said it was any of the Friends. Just someone who had access somehow. They may all be lily-white but I give even money they have buddies who wouldn't object to a little harassment to gain a million bucks."
"I hate you when you're being cynical," Beth told her.
"Realistic, sister mine. What puzzles me is where whatever-it-is is hidden. We know it can't be under or in the house. Which leaves the yard. And Edgar dug that over when he was creating his jungle."
"Mmm," said Beth, stroking Isis gently. Then, in the same instant as Cass's eyes locked excitedly with hers, they both said, "Except for the pool!"
Beth was bolt upright. "That has to be it! It's the only thing that was already there when Edgar moved in. You remember how he mentioned it in the letters to dad, and what he planned?"
Cass was already heading for the phone. "I'll call and tell blondie we've cracked it for them." She grinned. "Won't he be surprised . . ."
* * * *
"You call for backup," Starsky whispered. "I'll go keep an eye on them."
Hutch nodded. "I hope to God it is them," he muttered. "Because if we call backup to deal with a coyote, Dobey'll have us both on traffic duty."
"If I'm wrong, you can have the whistle," Starsky promised. He eased the door open just enough to slide through and out into the darkness, moving quickly across the lawn to the blacker shadows close by the fence. Edgar had trained climbers against this, some with thorns. Progress was slow, if it was to be noiseless. At least the small plant growth cushioned his footsteps, he thought gratefully, and the next moment trod on something brittle that cracked like a pistol shot. He froze.
"What the hell was that?" a voice muttered.
Starsky flattened himself into the shadows. "Mmrreow," he said, trying for the questioning note he had heard Isis use. "Mmrroerreow."
"Quit being so jumpy. It's only the old guy's cat."
"I thought you got rid of that."
"I did. He's got two, dummy."
Starsky gave a grim smile. If nothing else, he'd found the louse who had poisoned little Isis. He sidled further, into a thicket of fronds that wouldn't have been out of place in the Amazon. Clearly now, above the relentless noise of the cicadas, he could hear wet, splashing sounds.
The pool . . . The ornamental pond he'd almost stepped in. Dark water, with plants fringing it and floating on it. He and Hutch had assumed it was another of Edgar's 'features' and ignored it. Never assume anything. First rule of detective work.
Distantly, he could hear the phone ringing. And ringing. And then silent. Where was Hutch? How long did it take to call backup? He glanced back toward the house, saw a lean shape move across the lawn and grinned. The game was indeed afoot. He slipped his gun free.
He pushed his way through the plants, no longer trying to keep quiet, and the two figures crouched beside the pool turned black-masked faces to him. "Freeze," he snapped. And they did the opposite, galvanized into panicked action.
Something swung at him and although he ducked, slimy wet folds enveloped head and shoulders, and as he fought to be free of it, something hit him hard in mid-section, knocking the wind from him and throwing him back. But at the same time, Hutch was yelling and there was a brilliant beam of light cutting the night, and sirens, and by the time Starsky had picked himself up and untangled himself from the sodden net, the action was all but over.
"You okay?" Hutch demanded. Starsky peeled a ribbon of semi-decayed waterweed from his cheek, grimacing. His middle felt like he'd been kicked by a mule.
"You think Edgar keeps piranhas in there?" he wondered wistfully. "Because I'd really like to feed those two to the fishes. What have we got?"
Edgar's secluded pool was a wreck. The police officer standing in it, nearly hip-deep, produced another plastic-wrapped package to add to the several already stacked next to the concrete frog on the rim. And two masked Centaurans, stripped of their disguise, were belly-down on the grass, hands behind their heads.
"What we have got," said Hutch, "is a pair of Centauran agents and the stash Kurt Jarman hid in the pool five years ago. This -" he prodded one prisoner with his foot - "is - surprise, surprise! - Kurt's little boy. Come to pick up his late father's loot. And this -" he tossed a wallet to Starsky. Inside the driver's license identified the holder as Grant Collins. "This is the author of the threats, and probably the whole scam."
"Not Centaurans at all . . ." Starsky mused sadly. "Shit. It woulda looked terrific on the report."
"Sure, but think what the statutory phone call would have cost." Hutch gave him a consoling pat. "Come on, let's get these punks booked before the Mother-Ship beams 'em up."
* * * *
"He still thinks we're Arcturan agents?" Starsky asked in an undertone as Edgar surveyed the mess in his yard.
"I haven't told him otherwise," Beth said. "He accepts that all this wasn't a Centauran plot but he regards you two as . . . well, you did bring it on yourself, Dave. If you want to admit you lied to him, go right ahead."
"I suppose Arcturans never lie?"
"George Washington would be proud of them."
After a moment Starsky shrugged. "I guess it doesn't matter." Isis, draped around his shoulders, purred agreement and licked his ear. Hutch gave her a look.
"Are you still using that aftershave?" he asked his partner pointedly.
"I could tell that cat things about you that would make her fur curl," Hutch muttered.
"You're just jealous."
Cass interrupted before Hutch could think of a good comeback to that. "Dinner's ready. Three wholesome vegetarian, two unrepentant carnivore."
Starsky enjoyed his steak and fed bits to the patient and polite duo who flanked his chair and purred at him. Edgar, still visibly shaken, only picked at his nut-and-lentil cutlet.
"The Jarman boy I can understand. He had all the disadvantages. But Grant . . .? Why on earth would he have got involved in that scheme?"
Probably the thought of half a million bucks had something to do with it, Starsky speculated cynically. He caught Beth's eye. "The devil made him do it?" he suggested softly. She smiled, but Edgar's head came up.
"Indeed, Detective Starsky, you may be right. The poor boy may have been influenced by malefic forces. There are agents of Alpha Centauri at work here as well as those from Arcturus. As you no doubt know."
"Yeah, it's identifying the punks that's the hard part," Starsky agreed. "But I wouldn't feel too sorry for Collins. It was his idea to use your - beliefs - against you. And to poison Isis. It'd take a very good lawyer to convince the judge that it was all a dastardly Centauran plot." But, he added silently, I'd love to be in the courtroom at the time.
"Let good old American justice run its course," Hutch advised gently, and won a smile from Cass. "Of course, we'll be keeping our Arcturan identity quiet," he added, straight-faced.
"Of course," Edgar agreed. "But rest assured, both of you, a report on your successful investigation will be on its way to your superiors on Arcturus."
"Gee," Starsky began, but Hutch kicked him under the table.
"That's not necessary, Edgar. But thanks."
"Oh, but I insist." The old man beamed at them. "I drafted it last night and dispatched it this afternoon. They're going to be very pleased with you, I'm sure."
"'Protect and serve,'" Starsky said modestly. "Arcturan motto."
* * * *
He was quiet during the drive back toward the city.
"I've been thinking. Suppose - just suppose - that there is someone out there, picking up on the messages the Friends are transmitting -"
Hutch gave him a glance that questioned his sanity. "All right, I'm supposing," he agreed, humoring him. "What about it?"
"They're going to wonder who the hell we are, masquerading as their agents."
"That's for sure."
"They might decide to recruit us."
This was getting even weirder than Starsky's usual flights of fancy, Hutch decided. "Yeah, I guess they might." It was always easiest to go along with the gag.
Starsky leaned back in his seat and stretched luxuriously.
"I wonder," he said musingly, "if they pay better than the LAPD."