Mojave Crossing by Connie Faddis
Summary:

Download Mojave Crossing by Connie Faddis as an ebook. Right click the link to save your preferred format: EPUB, MOBI (KINDLE), HTML, PDF.

During the episode, "The Set-Up," Starsky and Hutch had stormed a secret desert base and discovered a covert operation that brainwashed people into becoming assassins. Afterwards, the feds whisked them off to a hideaway to await investigators. Only the feds and Dobey knew where they were.

But the masterminds behind that desert operation weren't about to let key witnesses like Starsky and Hutch get away so easily. A ruthless attack on the men guarding the Bay City cops forces Starsky and Hutch into a frantic escape -- across the Mojave Desert.


Categories: Gen Characters: None
Genre: Action/Adventure, Art, E-Book, Episode Related, Zinefic
Warnings: No Warnings Needed
Challenges:
Series: None
Chapters: 15 Completed: Yes Word count: 32378 Read: 2479 Published: 02/02/2018 Updated: 03/06/2018
Story Notes:

Mojave Crossing is an influential Starsky and Hutch story in the first issue of the gen zine Zebra Three. Written and illustrated by Connie Faddis, it is considered to be the first get' em story in the fandom. It is widely mentioned as the hurt/comfort fic that started it all.    

1. Chapter 1 by Connie Faddis

2. Chapter 2 by Connie Faddis

3. Chapter 3 by Connie Faddis

4. Chapter 4 by Connie Faddis

5. Chapter 5 by Connie Faddis

6. Chapter 6 by Connie Faddis

7. Chapter 7 by Connie Faddis

8. Chapter 8 by Connie Faddis

9. Chapter 9 by Connie Faddis

10. Chapter 10 by Connie Faddis

11. Chapter 11 by Connie Faddis

12. Chapter 12 by Connie Faddis

13. Chapter 13 by Connie Faddis

14. Chapter 14 by Connie Faddis

15. Chapter 15 by Connie Faddis

Chapter 1 by Connie Faddis

There he sat, in Jail.

"Come on, Starsky old buddy, old friend, when are you going to sell me that card, huh?" Ken Hutchinson complained. "I've been stuck here for six turns already."

Dave Starsky, chin in hands and eyes fixed on the monopoly board where Hutch's marker was parked in "Jail," was a portrait of studied innocence. He picked up the dice and rattled them thoughtfully.

"Suffering is good for the soul, don't you know that?" he said. He smiled sweetly. "Besides, you beat me the last game."

"The last two," Hutch corrected, glaring at the mountain of play money tucked under Starsky's edge of the board. Starsky rolled the dice and began dutifully to pace out the moves with his marker. Hutch leaned closer to the board, vulture-like, as Starsky's marker closed inevitably on Park Place. Hutch had a hotel on Park Place.

"Oh-oh," his partner groaned, "not again." He reached for a sheaf of his winnings, but Hutch slapped his hand down on Starsky's and the money.

"That's not good enough."

"Huh? What d'ya mean?"

"I want The Card."

"The get-out-of-jail·free card? No way. It's against the rules."

"No it isn't. I'll take the card and you keep the cash."

"Since when do you make up the rules as you go? Nothin' doin'. You take the dice and roll your way out."

"I can always depend on you when the chips are down," Hutch said sourly. "Would I let you sit there for six turns?"

"Damn right you would," said Starsky, and before Hutch realized what was happening, Starsky grabbed his hand and slapped both money and dice into it. "It's your turn. Roll."

"Forget it," Hutch said, sitting back on the couch and shrugging his shoulders to work out the kinks. He stretched his lanky legs out and reached for his can of beer. "I'm sick of monopoly. I quit."

"It's warm," Starsky warned.

"What?" Hutch said, taking a big swig.

"The beer's warm."

"Ugh! Now you tell me."

Hauling himself to his feet, Starsky crossed to the little hotel refrigerator and tossed over a chilled can, which Hutch caught. The can spat open and Hutch poured a healthy swallow down his throat, watching Starsky. Starsk was grouchy as only four days shut up in a hotel room could make him. He sauntered over to the room's single window, reaching for the drapes.

"Careful," Hutch said automatically.

"Of what?" Starsky pulled the drapes aside. "The gorgeous view? Ladies and gents, boys and girls, I reveal to you the hidden secrets of the FBI's ultra-high-security hideaway, bullet-proof glass and all--"

There was nothing to see but a blank brick wall about four feet away from the twentieth floor of the Rankin Hotel. Starsky hooked his thumbs in the waistband of his jeans and stared out at the wall in the fading daylight.

"Lovely, lovely, lovely," he said. "Much more of this and I think I'll go stir-crazy. What day is it, Thursday? Or is it still Wednesday?"

Hutch fished a section of the newspaper off the carpet and looked for the date.

"Thursday."

"And the Senators aren't supposed to get here 'til Sunday. Wonderful," Starsky grumbled. He bowed his head slightly, face sobering. "Well, now we know how Joe Derniak felt."

"Yuh," Hutch said, and stared at his friend's slumped back. Sighing, he picked up the deck of cards and began to lay them out for Solitaire. He was hard-put to find enough room on the coffee table among the Monopoly board, assorted cans and bottles, newspapers, a TV Guide, and Starsky's bag of stale Doritos. He didn't really feel inclined to play cards, not even with himself.

"Hey, maybe there's something worthwhile on the tube," Starsky said, turning back to the room.

"You already spent half the day watching game shows and soaps," Hutch said, but rolled his eyes in a martyred expression and threw the TV Guide to Starsky, who plopped himself in the middle of the double bed.

"Lessee..." Starsky flipped through the pages. "The Dodgers are playing Pittsburgh... Beverly Hillbillies... Name That Tune... Dance in America... Man from UNCLE... Green--"

"Did you say Dance in America?"

"Uh-huh. Channel 13. Hmmm. Man From UNCLE sounds good. 'Solo and Illya battle Thrush for a...'"

But Hutch had already turned the television on to Dance in America. The screen filled with a closeup of an out-of-focus green and pink male thigh bouncing up and down in time to electronic music. The camera pulled back to reveal an entire troop of green-and-pink-clad dancers.

"Come on, Hutch, you're not gonna watch that, are you?"

"Be quiet, will you? Give it a chance, the dancers are terrific."

"Looks like they've got the trots to me."

Hutch ignored him and turned up the volume.

"What kinda band do they use to make all that racket," Starsky went on, "the L.A. Trash-Can Lid-Banger's Society?"

"Will you just watch the dance? A little culture will do you good."

"It's the costumes that do it to me. Pink and green. Reminds me of the plastic vomits we usta put on the girls' seats in grade school--"

"All right!" Hutch smacked the off-button, glaring at his partner. "I've had it up to here" -- his neck -- "with you. It's bad enough having to sit here on our cans for a week, with the feds around us like ticks on a dog, without your constant bitching. Just stuff it, Starsky."

Starsky's face was momentarily blank. Then he looked away ruefully, staring at his handful of soggy Doritos.

"Yeah. Sorry, Hutch. Guess we're both a little hyped. It's this sitting around, hiding, wondering how and when they'll try to get to us..."

The door to the outer room of the suite opened, and a young, dark-haired man poked his head in, smiling pleasantly: Terry Nash, their fellow inmate.

"Hi, dinner's here. Pork chops tonight. Who won the Monopoly championship?"

"No one," Hutch said. "We gave up."

Starsky reached across to the TV and turned on The Man From UNCLE.

"Go ahead and eat, I wanna watch this."

Hutch followed Terry into the outer sitting room, where four FBI agents were helping themselves to the pork chops. The food smelled good. You could always count on the Rankin's kitchen. The feds' charge account had to be into four figures by now.

"Nice and quiet so far," Hutch said to the agent ahead of him, a man named Matt Something-or-other.

"You're perfectly safe here, Officer Hutchinson," the man said, "unless you play poker with Terry, that is."

"When we eventually track down who Terry was before he was brainwashed, I'll bet we find out he was the hottest gambler on the coast," another agent added.

Terry smiled sheepishly.

"Cleaned out the feds, did you?" Hutch asked.

"Well, they may have a little cash left," Terry laughed.

Starsky came in throwing several chops on his plate along with a huge mound of mashed potatoes, and began to drown the whole business with gravy. Hutch went back to their room and set his plate on the table, heading for the john. On the TV, Napoleon Solo was being lectured by Mr. Waverly on the dangers of indiscriminate womanizing. Hutch turned the volume down as he passed by, thinking how much Waverly sounded like Captain Dobey with a British accent.

Thinking about Dobey, Hutch looked at his watch. Dobey would be home with his family by now unless something was keeping him at his office. Hutch wished he could call the squad room and check in, find out what was going on out in the real world. Being shut up like this, virtually incommunicado, was sheer hell for boredom and nerves. Especially nerves.

No one knew much about the desert base that Starsky, Terry, the Baron, and he had stormed and cleaned out the week before. They had gone there to clear themselves of a frame-up, and discovered a covert operation that took people with difficult-to-trace backgrounds and brainwashed them into becoming single-minded assassins aimed at specific targets.

Terry had shot and killed a federal witness, Joe Derniak, because he had been "programed" to believe that Derniak had set up the murder of Terry's wife. But it turned out that Terry had probably never had a wife. It was unlikely that his name was even Terry. Whoever the people were who had established the brainwashing operation, they had money, influence, government connections at high levels, and the most sophisticated behavior mod techniques that Hutch had ever heard of. A secret Senate committee from Washington that was investigating such matters was sending representatives to inspect the base site and personally question those involved.

But the snake's nest hadn't been destroyed, only moved. No sooner had Hutch, Starsky, Terry, and the Baron returned to L.A. than a sniper had tried to shoot them down, managing to wound the Baron. Huggy's friend was in Rampart Hospital, recovering, but under strict FBI security. And the feds had whisked the rest of them off to this hideaway to await the Senate investigators. Whatever was going on, it was hot, hot, hot. It had all the earmarks of another Watergate mess, run by the CIA, the Pentagon, the State Department, or even the FBI itself. That last possibility made Hutch's skin crawl. Only the feds, and Dobey, knew where he, Terry and Starsky were.

It had gone very quiet in the other rooms.

"Open Channel D," the TV said.

A muffled clatter came from somewhere. Probably the tube. Hutch dried his hands and went in to eat his dinner. He was just sitting down on the couch when the door to the sitting room burst open. Gagging and coughing, Starsky fell through the doorway. A swirl of greenish mist poured in behind him.

Gas!

He was beside Starsky instantly, pulling him up, and through the roiling gas, he saw prone bodies convulsing on the floor of the front room. Abruptly, his eyes teared, his nose stung, and something spun his head wildly and took all the starch out of his legs. He choked. Hauling at Starsky's collar, he tried to get up. He tried not to inhale. He couldn't see for tears.

The room reeled, and his arms were suddenly too heavy. He grabbed the can of beer from the coffee table and flung it with all his strength at the window, but it didn't break. Starsky slumped down out of his grasp, and then the carpet was coming up to meet his face.

They had to breathe. The room was dimming, as it lurched sickeningly. The bathroom. Towels. Water. The shower. Somehow, he dragged himself and Starsky into it. Slammed the door shut with his foot. Hit the shower controls. Shoved soaked bath towels against the·crack at the base of the door. Hauled himself and Starsky into the tub. The black pinprickles were all over him now, he couldn't see. Grabbed a washcloth, wet, slapped it over Starsky's face. Coughing himself like his throat was stripped raw. Shaking Starsk. Shaking him. Nothing. Pulling the cloth away. Shaking him harder.

He had stopped breathing.

A new rush of terror poured fresh adrenalin into Hutch's blood, and his mind cleared enough to realize that he had to act, fast. The chilly water was splashing off Starsky's dead-white face, lax and empty. He pulled his partner across his lap, letting the head roll back, then bent close, opening Starsky's mouth and force-breathing a desperate lungful of air into him. Again. Again.

Still nothing. Hutch glanced fearfully at the door, but none of the green mist seemed to be getting in. He shivered in the stream of icy water, and forced another breath into Starsky's lungs.

"Come on..." he gasped, and breathed into him again. Help. They needed help. But the only phone was in that roomful of dead men. Hutch kept breathing air into Starsky's lungs, becoming more and more giddy as the pinprickles stung harder and closer inside his brain. What kind of gas was it? Poison? Asphyxiant? Nerve gas? Didn't know. Deadly. Breathe, Starsk, breathe... The room was spinning too fast. He couldn't keep it up anymore, his head bowed against Starsky's cold cheek, and the black stinging engulfed him entirely.

Chapter 2 by Connie Faddis

A biting wind beat against his face. That and the low murmuring pounding on his eardrums made Starsky hacked off enough to open his heavy eyelids and tell the world to bug off and let him sleep. But the gale was muzzled against his nose and mouth, its sharp air hurting his dry throat. All he could get out was a muffled "mmmmph." A hazy face hovered over him, some stranger's. Blinking away a puddle of water at the corners of his eyes, he tried to look around. What was going on?

"Lie still, Officer, and breathe deeply," someone ordered.

Ragged breaths of iced-up air. Oxygen. He felt giddy, and his head was thumping. Someone had put a respirator over his face. Respirator? Starsky's drowsy mind snapped awake with terror. The gas. He remembered! Terry -- picking up the soda can, snapping the tab open, falling like he was pole-axed as the green smoke boiled out of the can in a lethal geyser stinging eyes, nose, couldn't breathe... door and windows sealed, had to get away to other room... warn Hutch... Hutch.

"Hutch!" He sat up abruptly, dragging the respirator with him. Arms pushed him down, and a roundhouse wave of nausea made him gag. He gasped helplessly as someone seated the mask over his face again. He sucked in the oxygen and shook his spinning head. Where was Hutch?

A shaky touch at his arm made Starsky squint upward to his left. He still couldn't see clearly, and his head was roaring with a murderous headache, but he recognized the watery blue eyes peering at him over a plastic respirator mask.

Taking a deep lungful of the air, Starsky pulled his own mask down.

"Not so fast," a medic said. "Are you sure you feel well enough yet?"

"Yeah, yeah," Starsky wheezed. He coughed, but added, "'M okay. Don't need this thing."

The medic took the elastic band from the back of Starsky'' head and removed the mask. Starsky rubbed his burning eyes, and his vision focused.

"Hutch?" he said. "You look sick. You look terrible."

His back propped against the bedroom wall, Hutch giggled under the respirator. The mask fell out of his grasp.

"I look sick?!" he gasped. "You're -- you're the one -- who was dead!"

"I wasn't dead," Starsky said, offended. "Hey, Doc, I wasn't dead -- tell him. What's with you, Hutch? You're all wet. Hey --" he noticed his own clinging shirt -- "I'm soaked! What happened?"

But Hutch dissolved in near-hysteria. A medic slapped the respirator back onto Hutch's face. Starsky gaped at him.

"I'm glad to see the two of you in such good spirits!" Captain Dobey entered the room, a storm cloud in his voice. But his temper was aimed at the narrow-faced, pin-striped, button-down man accompanying him. "You're lucky to be alive, no thanks to the FBI. Buehler, I want both of my men released into my custody immediately."

"Starsky and Hutchinson are my responsibility and my problem," the chief agent said stiffly, "and I'll see to their safety personally."

Hutch's giggles began to trail off as the oxygen took hold. Relieved, Starsky managed to sit up, this time letting a medic help him.

"Starsky, Hutch, do you feel well enough to leave?" Dobey said.

Starsky had been ready to say 'gorillas couldn't hold me,' but looking at the attending medics, he changed his mind and just nodded.

"Doctor, do my men need further treatment?" Dobey demanded.

The physician shook his head. "They should get rest. Neither of them will feel well for a day or so, but otherwise, they're recovered."

"These men are key government witnesses in a classified investigation, and they'll both stay in federal custody," said Buehler.

"Your custody won't do. You've already lost Terry Nash and four of your own people," the Captain said. "Your men at Rampart barely kept your other witness from being murdered in his hospital bed. Starsky and Hutchinson would be safer on the street than they are in here. They're coming with me."

"Terry's dead?" Starsky mouthed, and exchanged looks with the now-sobered Hutch. Starsky's headache flared to new heights, and he lowered his head into his hands, whispering, "Hutch, we gotta split. But not with Dobey. He's got family."

Hutch roused, looking squarely at Dobey. "Captain, as far as the rest of the world is concerned, we're dead, right? The gas killed everyone in the suite. And you're here to take our corpses to the morgue." His voice was shaky, but he seemed recovered.

"Exactly what I had in mind," said Dobey. "We'll smuggle you from the morgue to my office, and from there to the Station's maximum security cells, under assumed names."

"No way," Starsky put in. "They'll find us there, and get us as easy as they got Terry here."

"Captain, we'll need a rented car, something inconspicuous, and a couple hundred dollars to last us until Sunday," Hutch said. "We'll set up a rendezvous where we can duck out of the Coroner's wagon and pick up the car and leave."

"Sergeant Hutchinson, whoever is after you won't assume that you're dead," Buehler argued. He rubbed his high forehead nervously. "They're professionals, and your only chance is to stay with us and let our own professionals handle it. We made a mistake, but we won't make another."

"That's because you won't get the chance," Starsky said.

Hutch staggered to his feet, and reached a hand down to help Starsky.

"Buehler's right about the assassins not assuming you're dead," Dobey warned. "They'll know it as soon as you leave here. Hiding out at Huggy Bear's won't be good enough this time."

"Huggy will never see us," Hutch said. "No one will."

"Where're we goin'?" Starsky asked.

"That's so secret, partner, that I can't even tell you."

Chapter 3 by Connie Faddis

Even in the dead of night, August in the Mojave Desert can be wilting. The air conditioner in the Dodge van didn't work. Opening the windows only let in furnace breaths of sweat-sapping wind, worse than no moving air at all. The two fugitives drove down the featureless freeway with the windows rolled up, surviving the heat by pouring cupfulls of water from one of the jerrycans all over their shirts. The shirts had to be resoaked every twenty minutes. The heat did lessen toward dawn, and when the van pulled into a 24-hour truck stop, the temperature was almost comfortable.

Hutch combed his fingers through the limp strands of his blond hair, stretched wearily, and turned off the motor. He twisted around and peered into the gloomy compartment behind the driver's seat. Starsky was lying down in the camper's bunk.

"Starsk?"

Starsky was dead to the world. Whatever the poisonous gas was that had come so close to killing them, Starsky had taken the worse dose of it. Hutch was still headachy and shaky himself, and hesitated to wake his partner, but this would be the last stop they'd make for another four hours or so. He climbed into the back of the van.

"Hey, wake up," he said, putting a hand lightly on Starsky's arm. "Wake up, we're at a truck stop."

"Huh?"

"We're at a truck stop."

"Truck stop? Where?"

"Somewhere in the desert. It's morning."

"We in Nevada?"

"Not yet. How do you feel?"

Gathering himself to sit up, Starsky gave up in mid-try. "I feel rotten. Rather be shot than sick like this."

"Stomach upset?"

"Everything's upset. How're you holdin' up?"

"Peachy," Hutch lied, then saw the skeptical look in Starsky's eyes. "Well, better than you, anyway."

"That's not saying much."

Hutch's gaze had been shifting constantly between his partner and the entrance lane to the truck stop, but no one else had pulled in since they had parked.

"I don't think anyone's tailing us," he said. "We'll rest here awhile. You want to go into the cafe and try to eat? You might feel better if you did."

"Forget it." Starsky made a thumbs-down gesture. "But I'd better hit the john. Think we can leave the van?"

"I think so. Here, I'll give you a hand."

Hutch saw Starsky to the men's room, then walked back to the van and got him settled again. Starsky was too tightlipped about his discomfort, convincing Hutch that he was much sicker than he was letting on. The best thing to do, it seemed, was to let him rest.

"Here, keep this handy," Hutch said, putting Starsky's Baretta in his reach. "I'm going in to call Huggy, and try to get some food down. Want me to bring you something? No? Okay, be back soon."

The cafe was surprisingly busy for that hour, filled with hungry truckers stoking away huge portions of flapjacks, fried eggs, home fries, and coffee. The smell of it made Hutch cringe. To give his stomach a chance to get used to the idea of food, he decided to make his phone call first. Huggy complained loudly at being gotten out of bed, but he was their sole contact with L.A., and Dobey and Buehler had refused to let them out of sight unless they swore to keep at least Huggy Bear informed of their general whereabouts.

With that duty disposed of for a while, Hutch found an empty booth and pored over the sticky menu. The sun, meanwhile, was rising over the low eastern mountains, its sudden glare like a slap in the face. Hunching back in his seat, Hutch hid in the shade of the faded curtains. The menu was abysmal. How anyone could face bacon, sausage, greasy fried eggs, or any other of the great American breakfast fixtures was beyond him. Maybe there would be some kind of soup he could order. He probably ought to force some coffee down to try to wake up. A waitress approached the booth, and he looked up, then sat with his mouth hanging open.

"Hello, Ken," the brunette said, smiling. "What brings you to the desert?"

"Maggie! What are you doing here?"

"I work here."

"Where on earth have you been?" he said. "Starsky and I have been worried sick since you left town. Sit down, tell me what you've been up to."

"I can't, right now, but I'll be off at six, that's half an hour. Meanwhile, let me find you something to eat, you look like you could use it. Wait -- don't tell me. You don't want anything on the menu. How about some fresh fruit -- the cantaloupe's good -- a tall glass of milk, and some toast? I might even be able to dig up some whole wheat bread."

"Add coffee to that, and it's manna from heaven."

"Done," she winked, and disappeared into the kitchen.

Leaning back in the seat, Hutch stared out into the desert. Maggie looked worn. She'd lost more weight than her frame could afford, seeming more haggard than the last time he and Starsky had seen her. That had been four or five months ago, at Wade's funeral.

Wade. Just thinking about him made a place in Hutch's chest groan. Wade Landis had been one of the best cops Hutch had ever known, and a close friend. Starsky's, too. Whenever the "gang" from the Station had gone out together, Wade and Maggie had been one of the perennial couples. When Wade died in a drug bust, something bright had died in his friends. A lot had died in Wade's wife, Maggie. At least they'd gotten the bastard who had shot him down.

No one would ever call Maggie gorgeous, but she was young, sweet, smart, talented. Her features and coloring were rather ordinary, her build too athletic -- almost androgynous -- for any labels like "beauty," but she was beautiful. She had an inner beauty that glowed right through her skin, making her special to most everyone who knew her. Hutch had first met her in the same political science class where he'd met Wade; had, in fact, been on the verge of falling in love with her himself, on the rebound from his divorce. A solid friendship had grown between all of them over the years, but Maggie had never had eyes for anyone but Wade.

At Wade's funeral, Maggie had said that she was going away, somewhere away from people, to find a reason for living again. In all those months, seeming like years now, there had been no word from her, not a phone call or a postcard. It wasn't like her.

"Here you go," Maggie said, setting down half of a cantaloupe and a cup of coffee. "I'll see to that toast and milk in a minute. Where's Davey, by the way? It's strange to see you without him. I always thought you two grew from the same pod."

"Starsk is out in our van, lying down. He's not feeling well."

"He must not be. Wild Apaches couldn't keep that man from pancakes."

Hutch was just finishing his meal when Maggie came back to the table, having changed into jeans, long-sleeved t-shirt, and well-weathered cowboy hat.

"The bill's taken care of," she said. "I got your partner's favorite junk food for him. Let's go see how he's feeling."

The sun was already broiling, and the smell of hot oil rose off the tarmac. Hutch made an automatic scan of the lot, but all seemed normal.

"It's going to be a scorcher," he muttered as they walked toward the van.

"You're the one who's going to be scorched if you plan to drive during daylight. What are you doing so far from familiar turf, anyway?"

"I was wondering the same thing about you."

"Hey," she said, coming up behind the van, "are you both nuts? He's in there with no windows open!"

Kicking himself mentally, Hutch scrambled to unlock the side door. It opened, and he climbed into the oven-hot enclosure. Starsky was sprawled across the bunk, his gun still gripped in one hand.

"Starsk?"

"He's out like a light," Maggie groaned.

"Here," said Hutch. yanking off his shirt and upending one of the water cans over it. Maggie took it and sponged Starsky's face and neck.

"Hey -- " Starsky said, opening his eyes and looking around wildly.

"Here we go," Maggie said, digging into the paper sack she'd brought, producing a chilled bottle of root beer. She wrapped Starsky's free hand around it. "Sit up and take a sip."

"Easy there," Hutch said, moving so he could help Starsky up. "Not too fast."

"Stop fussin'," Starsky rasped, and blinked at Maggie in disbelief. "I must be dreaming!"

"No such luck," she said.

"Mag? That really you?"

"You're lucky I'm not St. Peter, after sleeping in here with all the windows shut."

"It's jus' like takin' a sauna," Starsky protested, guzzling the soda.

"Any way -- " he looked at Hutch. " -- I knew you'd be back."

"Starsk, I'm sorry. I didn't even think about the windows."

"Aw, it's nothin'. Guess I could have gotten up and opened one myself. Too lazy." He grinned crookedly. "I'm okay."

"'Okay' for an idiot," Maggie sighed. "I suppose you plan to start driving, right away, to wherever you're headed."

"We were thinking of it." Hutch said.

"Don't you know anything about living in Southern California, yet, Ken? Rule number three of the desert, tenderfoot, is 'don't travel far during daylight in the summer.' Both of you are breaking rule two."

"What's that?" Starsky muttered.

"'Dress right.' That means a hat and decent shoes. Yours aren't too bad, Ken, but -- " she shook her head regretfully at Starsky's sneakers, "the first ground cactus would do you right in."

"Aw, Mag, we weren't plannin' on hikin' anywhere."

"What if your van breaks down, genius?"

"Okay, okay. I'll bite," Hutch said. "What's rule number one?"

"Even you know that one, Ken: 'Always carry plenty of water.' Listen, do you have to drive now? Are you in a hurry to get somewhere?"

"Nowhere in particular," Starsky said, pressing the chilled bottle against his forehead. "Where in hell are we, anyway?"

"'In hell' is close. I've got a camp near here, at Devil's Playground. I'm studying some Anasazi ruins there, trying to finish my dissertation."

"Yeah, that's right, you're a archie-something or other."

"Archeologist," she said, letting her first real smile break through. "How would you like to come back to camp with me and wait out the heat there? You and Ken look awful; a nap by the spring would do you both a world of good."

"Maggie, honey, we're on the lam," Starsky said. "We've got to keep moving."

She looked to Hutch, but he shrugged in agreement.

"We're bad news; very bad news," he said. "But thanks for the offer. Maybe when we get our current problem straightened out."

"Is someone after you?"

Hutch's eyes swept the parking lot again. One trucker was leaving in his 18-wheeler; no one new had come in. "Maybe not. It's better safe than sorry, though."

"You can't go back on the road! It'll get into the hundred-and-twenties today. Look at you -- you're running on nervous energy. Dave can't even sit up straight."

That was too true. Starsky's cheeks were grey, his eyes lackluster, his curly hair glued to his face with sweat. But he roused to back Hutch's assertion. "He's right, Mag. We can't risk your gettin' hurt."

Maggie was silent for a time, visibly trying to wipe the disappointment off her face. She looked like she needed a friend -- or two.

"Well," she said finally, "I guess you know what's best. My camp is secluded, though. There's probably not another human being within thirty miles in any direction. And the spring keeps it relatively cool. You'd be welcome to stay as long as you liked. I wouldn't mind the company, to tell the truth. I work the cafe here more to be with people than to earn the spare cash."

Starsky exchanged a strained look with Hutch.

"Starsk, how do you feel?" he asked. "Tell me straight."

Starsky set his root beer down, the last color draining from him. "I feel like maybe you better help me to the john. I'm gonna be sick."

Hutch got him up and hauled him across the parking lot. They just made it into the men's room.

"That does it," Hutch said. "We'll go with Maggie."

Chapter 4 by Connie Faddis

Thirty minutes later, Hutch was driving the van over a dune-skirted jeep road that led into the interior of the rough wilderness nicknamed Devil's Playground. The lingering effects of the poison gas made it obvious that any long-distance driving was out of the question, and to stop at a roadside motel was to set themselves up like skeet. There had been no sign that they were being followed. It seemed a safe risk to spend at least the hotter hours of the day off the road.

There had been the factor of Maggie, too. There was an air of depression about her that Hutch dwelled on as he steered the van around the worst of the ruts in the road. Something about her invitation had seemed almost a plea for help. A sponge bath for Starsky, a fill up at the truck stop's pumps, and they found themselves following Maggie's BMW off the interstate and into the desert.

The heat was becoming brutal, even though it was barely 7 a.m. The sun was still low over the ridge of paper-cut-out mountains, and already the brilliance of the terrain punished the eyes. The road -- a term used in courtesy -- wound its way past an enormous expanse of dazzling white plain; Hutch couldn't tell if it were a salt flat or a dry soda lake, both of which were common in the environs of Death Valley. The national monument itself was quite a way north, but for all practical purposes, the region they were in was an extension of it.

Maggie rode her bike like a Hell's Angel, half-serious business and half show-off. They drove past the distant remains of bleached-grey abandoned buildings -- shacks? mine camps? Hutch couldn't tell. The land they were on was apparently public land. Nowhere was there a sign of an attempt at development. At one point they passed a weathered sign warning travelers, DO NOT ATTEMPT THIS ROAD WITHOUT AMPLE SUPPLIES OF GASOLINE, OIL, AND WATER. A massive sea of tall dunes, the heart of the Playground, rose up out of the earth ahead of them right after the sign, but Maggie turned off the "main" road before they reached the dunes proper, taking a trail that was washed out in some places and drifted in with sand in others. Out of the corner of his eye, Hutch could see Starsky clinging for dear life to the back of his passenger's seat, groaning and cursing under his breath as Hutch negotiated the sand drifts at breakneck speed, knowing they'd get stuck if he took them slower. This was strictly four-wheel drive country.

"Next time we hafta run somewhere, let's go west," Starsky yelled at one point.

"That's ocean," Hutch yelled back.

"Seasick I could handle. Landsick is embarrassing!"

"Hang on. Here comes another drift."

Whatever Starsky had to say to that was drowned out by the road noise.

The trail gained altitude and left the sand behind, winding through low, eroded foothills that were mostly barren of life, looking more like the remains of a strip mine than a natural habitat. The low mountains loomed closer, blocking out the sun. They had gained maybe a thousand feet of altitude, with the flats and dunes spread out below them in a vast panorama, when Maggie cut off the trail and followed a near-invisible track in the side of an alluvial fan. Around one bend, and they came to a surprise: a copse of mesquite and cottonwood. Under the trees sat, of all things, a beat-up, dilapidated house trailer of pre-1950's design. Maggie parked her bike under the swooping branches of a cottonwood and waved the van up beside it.

The oasis, if it qualified as one, was still in the shadow of the mountain, but as Hutch stepped down from the van, looking westward, he saw the perimeter of the sun visibly creeping up the eroded slopes towards them. Though it was still reasonably cool, the air was drier than he'd ever imagined. He took a deep breath, and the aridity almost cracked the inside of his nose.

"Wow," Starsky said, stepping out behind Hutch. He squinted into the valley laid out before them. "They dropped the bomb, and this is all that's left."

"It's magnificent," Hutch said, shaking his head.

"Better come inside and lie down," Maggie told Starsky. "You look green."

"You never drove with Hutch."

"I'd never drive with either of you, given a choice," she said, taking his arm.

Pausing, Hutch took a long, careful look back the way they had come. The vista was broad. They should be able to see anyone coming up the road from the north, or cross-country from the west or south, from a long way off. And no one was in sight. Satisfied, he stepped up into the trailer, noting with amusement the rusted chrome trademark, "Rex," over the door. Inside, it was amazingly cool. Maggie had stripped back her cot and gotten Starsky to lie down in it, and was starting to peel off his sweat-stained shirt.

"Hey," he protested, as she reached for his belt.

"Ken, come on over here and help this Puritan undress, will you?" she sighed. "I'll get him a wet washrag and towel."

Between them, they got Starsky cooled down and comfortable enough, finally, to sleep. Her eyes thoughtful, Maggie sat watching him for a time. Then she motioned for Hutch to follow her outside. They walked alongside the thin trickle of spring water that fed the trees and collected in a small, slightly scummy pond. The presence of the water made at least a twenty degree difference in the temperature. It was such a relief that Hutch didn't even mind the darting cloud of gnats that hung around his head. Maggie gazed out over the distant patterned dunes in the valley below.

"How's your work coming?" he said conversationally.

"Lousy. The site's been gone over by at least one crew of treasure hunters since last year, when I first looked it over, and if there was much of archeological value here, it's been carted off or scattered. On top of that, we had a devil of a storm last month that washed out most of one dwelling that I was charting, and it was my most promising dig."

"I'm sorry to hear that. How've things been with you, otherwise?"

He knew she understood exactly what he meant by the slight squaring of her shoulders. Five months was hardly long enough to get over Wade's death, but this becoming a virtual hermit didn't seem a realistic way, to Hutch, to try to deal with it, either.

"Healing takes time, Ken," she said tightly. They both watched a dragonfly skimming the little pond. Maggie changed the subject. "What's all this business about being on the run? Who's after you?"

"I wish we knew. We're witnesses in a federal case. I can't tell you much more than that."

"Well at least tell me what's wrong with Davey? Why is he sick?"

"Poison." Hutch said cryptically, and resumed his walk. Maggie paced along behind him.

"Good God! Are you sure he doesn't need a doctor?"

"We've been to a doctor. He'll be all right. He just got more of it that I did. It's supposed to work out of your system after a few days."

"After a few days?!" Her voice was so agitated that Hutch turned to face her as she continued, "When are you going to come to your senses and get out of police work?"

He was too dumbfounded to say anything for a moment.

"Police work is our lives, Maggie. You, if anyone, should understand that. I thought you understood it in Wade."

She winced at the name. "Wade is dead. He died on the streets because being a cop was his life. It was his death, too. And it'll be yours if you stay in it."

"It's possible. But --"

"Oh, Ken." She swung away from him, looking out through the trees to the desolation beyond. "Someday, sooner or later, someone will gun you down on the street, too, or in a grimy back alley, or Davey will die in your arms like Wade died in Davey's. Sooner or later. Especially the way you roar around, both of you, always working the roughest cases, always acting like nothing can touch you." She had drawn close, and slipped an arm around his waist, bowing her head on his arm. Her voice was a whisper. "I don't want to see it happen to you and Davey, too. And it will."

He hugged her lightly, but a bone-weariness seemed to seep from her into him, knowing she was right. At the same time, knowing she was wrong. He and Starsky had something different going, a partnership unlike most he'd seen in other police teams. They had a sixth sense about each other, knew when the other was in trouble. They avoided analyzing it closely, content to let it be, to happen, but it was a plus on their side, whether on the streets or anywhere else. Maybe if Wade's partner, Chris, had known Wade as well as Hutch knew Starsky -- but there was no point in dwelling on that. There was always the element of luck: the one thing on which no one could depend.

"It's been lonely out here for you, Maggie," he found himself saying, not sure how that connected with her mood, but sure that it did. "You've been gone for a long time. Maybe you could come back to the city now, be with people again. Maybe it would help."

"I came out here to get my work done," she said curtly. She disentangled herself from him as though he were a tree trunk instead of a human being. Neutrally, she added, "There are some unusual petroglyphs at the site, if you'd like to see them. We're about a five minute walk away."

Hutch frowned. All right, he wouldn't push it. When Maggie was ready to talk, she'd talk.

"I'll stay close to Starsky, here by the trailer. But if you're headed for your work, go on. I ought to check out the van after that drive, anyway."

"The smart thing for you to do would be to sack out, too. You probably drove most of the night."

"I will, soon as Starsky wakes up."

"Always the cop!" she snapped. "Always on guard. What a life." With that, she turned and tromped out of the oasis, walking along the side of the hill and disappearing among the outcrops of rocks.

Hutch watched her go, all her confused anger. He had no idea how to reach through her unexpected storm of emotions. Maybe when she came back later, she'd have sorted things out. He sighed, then strolled back toward the trailer. The sun had clambered over the horizon, washing the oasis in light and heat, and the "Rex" promised coolness. Hutch forewent inspecting the van. Time for that later. Instead, he went inside to find something to drink. The day was, indeed, turning out to be a 'scorcher' -- in more ways than he'd thought.

Chapter 5 by Connie Faddis

When Maggie didn't come back to the trailer around lunch time, Hutch thought about going out to find her, but Starsky was still napping soundly on the cot. Hutch considered waking him, but his partner was in need of the sleep, and Maggie had been wearing a revolver on her hip when she left. If she were in trouble, they'd have heard gunshots calling for help. Maggie's father had been an immigration official in Nogales, and if there was one thing that could be depended on, it was Maggie's ability to take care of herself in the desert. Wade had always called her his cactus flower -- born to wildness.

Hutch found himself a broad-brimmed hat that might well have belonged to Wade, it certainly wouldn't fit Maggie's head, and Wade had been a desert rat too. Pushing it down close to his eyebrows, Hutch stepped out into the noon sun, and practically wilted. The heat was a smothering blanket pressing down on his shoulders, scalding his skin wherever it touched. Pulling his jacket over his shirt, he yanked the cuffs down over his wrists, and on second thought, turned up the back of the collar. He'd been called plenty of names, but he wasn't about to set himself up for Starsky to call him a redneck.

The van sat under the shade of the cottonwood, and even so, visible heat waves rose off its roof. A thin veneer of yellowish dust coated the brown paint. Deciding that he'd check the water level first, then the oil, gas, battery, and so forth, Hutch opened the hood and poked his head around under the truck's shallow cover, trying to figure out what was where in the unfamiliar, compacted interior. There, there was the radiator cap. Hot as blazes. He immediately decided to leave it until last. Swearing under his breath at the touch-heat of all the metal, he uncapped the battery and checked the water in it. Holding one cap, he jiggled it in his palm to avoid touching it too closely, while he reached for the next one, and the first danced out of his hand. Swearing aloud this time, he bent over, hunting the cap, and saw that it had rolled under the van. Hands and knees, then. He crawled in underneath. noticing how much cooler it was in the shadow there, resting a moment before retrieving the cap -- and he happened to look up at the underside of the chassis. The glint of new metal was incongruous against the dirt-caked rocker panel. Forgetting the battery cap, Hutch peered at the spot of glitter more closely -- and a chill swept through him in a wave.

He was out from under the van and on his feet and running back toward the Rex when a bullet droned past his ear and whanged into the side of the trailer.

"Starsky!" he shouted, and rolled under the Rex, his Magnum already in hand. He couldn't see the sniper from where he was. The shot had come from the north, by the trail that led into camp. How had anyone come up the road below without him seeing them?

"Starsk, get up!"

Another bullet pinged off the trailer's skirting, sending a spume of old paint chips flying.

"Hutch. can you see 'em?" Starsky called softly from behind the screen door, by the floor.

"Nope."

"How the hell they find us out here?"

"Had a radio tracer under the rocker panel. I found it just before they opened up. You feeling better?"

"Yeah. Cover me, I'm comin' out."

Hutch sent a volley in the general direction of the sniper, and the screen door crashed open, Starsky rolling down the three steps and under the trailer in one motion. He was completely dressed, but as he rolled next to Hutch, he laid his gun down to tie his sneakers.

"How did you get dressed already?" Hutch said, eyes squinting out at the featureless hillside.

"You're lookin' at a master of fast living," Starsky said, grinning.

"Who do you think set us up? Buehler?"

"Could be. If not him, someone close to him. Not much doubt who our organized assassination bureau is now, is there?"

"J. Edgar would turn over in his grave."

"Who knows, he coulda started the whole thing," Starsky said, another bullet kicking sand in his face. "Hutch, they must have a scope. They see us too good."

"What do you want to do?"

"Where's Maggie?"

"Back at the ruins, I hope. If she has any sense, she'll stay there."

The next bullet hit the metal stairs and the ricochet clattered around under the skirting.

"Close. If we stay put, we've had it," Starsky complained.

"If we go out there, we've had it faster. You can't stalk what you can't see."

"Guess we'll have to break for it."

"Break for what?"

Starsky was about to say, 'For the van,' when a great whoooooomm erupted, and a wall of concussion from the exploding gas tank of the van sent sand and smoke into their faces. A ball of flame engulfed the BMW, and it, too, went up with a bang.

"That was bound to be next," Hutch shouted over the noise of the fire. "It's into the hills. buddy."

"Which way?"

"South, to Maggie. We can't leave her behind, they'll kill her."

They scrambled out from under the trailer on the side opposite the sniper and dashed through the pond and out of the oasis, their escape helped partly by the plume of greasy smoke. The low growl of a powerful engine started up a long distance behind them and Starsky glanced back as he ran.

"Holy shit!" He shoved Hutch ahead of him even faster. "They got a Land Rover. That thing'll take 'em anywhere."

The shots stopped, and the Rover started after them across the rough terrain.

"What's wrong, what's going on?!" Maggie shrieked, running toward them. "Ken, who is it?"

"Killers! Keep going!"

"Where to?" Starsky panted, looking over his shoulder every few steps. The snipers were still far behind, but coming fast.

"Maggie, where can we go? Where can't they follow us in that?"

"We need water, we can't run without water," she said, bewildered. "We'll go to the site. This way."

She led them down a steep alluvial slope, kicking up stones and stumbling over creosote shrubs in their headlong scramble.

"They're cuttin' above us," Starsky warned, still bringing up the rear.

"We need help," Hutch gasped. "Mag -- where can we go? Where's the nearest civilization?"

"Oh God, nowhere. Not out here! There's nowhere. The interstate's the closest."

"That's thirty miles!" Hutch shouted.

"Twenty-eight on the road. About twenty as the crow flies."

They skidded around a tight crook in the path and plunged into a narrow arroyo between high rock walls. Another corkscrew turn, and carved handholds in the stone let up to a modest cliff-dwelling of five structures, mostly tumbled down.

"Can't go up there," Starsky called. "They'll have a clear shot at us from the other cliff."

Maggie dropped to her knees near the base of the cliff and began to throw chunks of stone off what Hutch suddenly realized was a cache. He helped her pullout the plastic water carrier. She handed another package to Starsky.

"Some jerky and a few other emergency supplies. In case I ever fell or got hurt and couldn't get back to camp. Davey, who are those people?"

"They're part of some illegal government undercover gang who take nice people and turn 'em into robots programmed to kill folks," he said, hefting the light package, then shoving it against his chest under his shirt. "Hutch and I busted up a nest of them awhile back, and we may be the only witnesses left who might be able to finger them."

"I'm sorry you got mixed up in this," Hutch added. "He thought we got out of town clear, but they traced us."

"Damnit, Hutch, we shoulda known!" Starsky said.

"We can beat our breasts later. Right now, we have to get moving. Maggie, isn't there anyone closer, with maybe a phone or a radio, who we can reach without getting ourselves killed?"

"I don't know. Maybe. There's a campground on the other side of the Granite range, but that's all the way across the valley and over the ridge. Maybe fifteen miles, but it's mostly out in the open."

"How about east, over the mountain here behind us?"

"There's nothing for forty miles or more. Prospectors live in Kenzo in the winter and spring, sometimes, but it's a ghost town this time of year. There's nothing at all south of here for farther than that."

Starsky stood, grabbing Maggie's hand and giving Hutch a hard shove. "Move. Down the gulley. Talk as we run."

"Okay, so we go east or north," Hutch said, taking the lead.

"Either way, if we go out in the open, they'll cut us off in the Rover," Starsky said grimly. "They don't have to stick to roads in that thing."

"Did you ever drive one of them, Davey?" Maggie said, letting him help her down a water-smoothed drop in the dry wash. "My dad used to say that you could tell a city man by the confidence he put in his machines. The only thing different about four-wheel-drive vehicles is that when you get a four-wheel-drive car stuck, you're stuck for good!"

A stone near Starsky's feet exploded as a bullet demolished it. Hutch dove behind an outcropping, gun drawn, peering up the mountain behind him.

"Keep going!" he ordered, preparing to shoot it out with the snipers and buy the others time.

"Don't be a jackass," Starsky yelled, and dragged him down the arroyo by the arm. The bullets pinged all around them until they got around a bend in the wash, where the terrain shielded them. They sank down on a patch of sand, winded.

"Hey -- this is no good," Starsky wheezed. "We gotta think. We need a plan."

"Got any bright ideas?" Hutch said. He scanned the cliffs carefully.

"Listen, partner, you couldn't do no good back there. Your gun won't reach. They've got fancy rifles and scopes. We're outclassed."

"You know, Starsky, you're turning into a real smartass in your old age."

"Yeah, and you're going senile."

Lifting her face out of her hands, Maggie blinked up into the sky. All their clothes were blotched with sweat. Starsky was without a hat or reasonable shoes. The only water they had was the canvas-slung gallon Hutch had shouldered at the ruins. Their handguns would be useless in a battle against the long-range rifles. Worst, they were on foot while their pursuers were in an off-the-road vehicle. She looked up to see Hutch's eyes on her.

"Okay?" he asked.

She ignored the solicitousness. "It'll take them awhile to find us down here, even if they come on foot," she said, swallowing dryly. "If they stay in the Rover, they'll have to stick to the north side of the cliffs all the way into the valley, and they won't be able to see us from the rim most of the way."

"Wanna bet they'll be waiting for us at the bottom where the wash empties out?" Starsky added. His shoulders were still heaving with breathlessness. He had kept up with them, running, but he looked distinctly unwell again. "Maybe we can cut out behind 'em and start north from here, huh?"

"We can try," she said. "We've got to find someplace to hide out of the sun, though. If we try to run all day, they won't have to shoot us down, we'll probably drop dead from heat prostration."

There was no argument on that point.

"You know somewhere we can hole up?" Starsky said.

"Maybe. If we can get that far. If they don't have a topo map and psych us out." She traced a rude map in the sandbank. "Here's the arroyo we're in, and the mountain behind us; the camp; the road we drove in on. Here's the valley, the dunes. Up here, there were some silver mines that petered out in the 1890's. You remember the shacks we passed on the way in? Right there."

"It's at least ten miles from here," Hutch said.

"Ten miles on the road, maybe six or seven overland. It's rough overland, though, all along the west face of the range, in and out of arroyos like this one."

"Rough country will keep the Rover from gaining that much of an advantage on us," Hutch pointed out.

"Yeah, it'd have to go around every little gully the whole way, and we can climb right in and out," Starsky added. He seemed intrigued with the idea.

"You make it sound so easy, Starsk."

"Just tryin' to look on the bright side."

"Maggie, how long will it take us to cover seven miles in this heat and over this terrain?"

"I'd guess about four or five hours. Most of the afternoon. This is the hottest time of day, but when the temperature goes up into the hundred-twenties, it really doesn't cool down much at night, even here in the desert. If we make it to the mines, we'll be in good shape, though. You could hole up in one of them for a week, if you had to. Most of them have only one entrance, they'd be a fortress. And there's one I remember that has a water hole inside -- the wild burros use it all year around."

Glancing up at the overhead sun, Hutch dragged the back of his hand across his brow under the brim of the hat. He expected it to beaded with sweat, but noted that except for where the hat touched his skin, his face was dry. The noon aridity was sucking water from him -- from all of them -- like a thirsty vampire. He caught Maggie's glance, and she handed him the water can.

"Drink up. They say the best place to carry water is in your own tissues."

He nodded and took a hearty swig, then passed it to Starsky. Starsky still did not look well, but at least his nap had freshened him. His nose was going crimson in the sunlight already. Hutch tucked his hat down onto Starsky's head, yelping as he touched his partner's heat-holding dark hair.

"Always knew you were a hothead," he complained. "You wear the hat awhile. I'm going to take a look to make sure our friends aren't following us on foot." He got to his knees and scuttered around the bend in the wash.

Starsky readjusted the hat, leaning back heavily against a rock, watching back the way Hutch had gone. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed that Maggie was holding her head in her hands, hunched in a ball. Bravado or not, the woman was terrified. She wasn't alone. Starsky capped the water can and slid over beside her, putting an arm around her shoulder.

"You're really something, you know that?" he said softly.

"Tell me about it when we get out of this," she growled, but her anger wavered. She twisted away, biting back tears. Starsky didn't let go.

"Mag, honey, I'm scared too. We're all scared. Dammit, it makes sense to be scared. I wish this wasn't us, the three of us, especially not you, but it's happened, and now we gotta do our best to get out of it. But we have to do it together, okay? We need each other. We can't do it, any of us, without the others."

"Don't lecture me."

"Hey." He touched her chin, turned her face back to him gently. "Come on, now. It's okay, but don't you know you shouldn't waste water in the desert? An old desert rat like you. No, a cactus flower, right? Maggie Landis Cactus Queen. Right?"

She smiled in spite of herself and dabbed at her eyes. "I don't know how you do things like this every day," she breathed. "I'm so scared I can hardly move."

"It's when you stop being scared that you really have troubles," he said seriously, then grinned. "Anyway, we don't do this every day. Maybe every other day..."

She looked up into his mocking eyes and he leaned close. Their lips met, touched lightly, parted. Her wistful smile broadened.

"See? Good friends can brighten up the crummiest picnic," he said. "Come on, we'd better collect Hutch and get this show on the road."

Chapter 6 by Connie Faddis

The Mojave rippled like a silk sail in the August inferno, reflecting the silent overhead torrent of light and heat in dazzling waves off every rock and dune. It was a merciless place in the merciless month. The lizards kept to their shrubs and rocks, and the only signs of life were the perennial scurrying of ants on the ever-present anthills. Even the tough, miserly creosote bushes seemed to droop. It was not a day to make a hike, let alone a hard run. But Hutch, Starsky, and Maggie ran. They had no choice.

The ground they covered was an interminable sequence of dashing across open alluvial slopes, down into steep gullies, across sandy washes, hand-over-hand back up the rocky cliffs on the other side, then on across the next eroded slope. Their pursuers seemed to give up trying to follow them across the arroyos, and occasionally, when crossing one of the open slopes, the Land Rover would be visible down in the valley, paralleling them. When the Rover was in sight, they were in range of the rifles, and then there would be a mad dash across the baked, cracked, and stone-strewn strip to the next gully or outcropping, and cover.

Highballing behind Maggie across a particularly wide, open strip of ground to the next cover, Hutch finally dropped behind a jutting islet of stone in the eroded hillside, and looked back to see Starsky make a slide for the cover like an All-American coming in from third at the bottom of the ninth inning. But the puffs of dust around him were bullets, not baseballs. They were oversized, steel-jacketed things that could smash a rock or take off an arm with equal ease.

"Davey, come ON!" Maggie screamed by Hutch's ear, and then Starsky was down, kicking up dirt, rolling -- and safe, beside them. Hutch caught his out-flung arm and pulled him all the way into the meager shade, then slid his hand up to clasp the curly, overheated head.

Winded, Starsky didn't move, though his gasps shook his whole frame.

"Come on, Starsk," Hutch whispered, his mouth too parched to raise any voice. "Gotta keep movin'."

"I can't run anymore," Maggie groaned.

"Have to," Hutch said wearily. He shook his head. The pinprickles were there again, clustering around the edges of his vision like eager vultures, waiting. Even in the shade, the heat hung around him like a bearskin robe.

"I can't, I just can't," Maggie said, her face contorted with exhaustion. "We have to rest."

"Starsky, come on, buddy, at least sit up," Hutch urged, and after a moment, Starsky managed, but suffering was evident in his half-closed eyes. He was still feeling the effects of the poison. His eyes raised slowly, meeting Hutch's.

"We don't do something, Hutch, we bought it."

"What can we do?" Maggie said. "It's still a mile or two· to the mines. We're out of water, and we're out of steam." Her voice took on an edge of anger. "It must be a hundred and twenty out here. People just can't take this kind of heat. Ken. What are we going to do?!"

"I don't know," Hutch breathed, "let me think a minute." He took a deep drag of the bitter-hot air, then slid part way around the rock to peer down the slope. The Rover was still down there, turned so its two occupants could use the vehicle's roll bar to brace their rifles for a better aim. Their aim had been very good. Only luck and the extreme distance had kept the bullets from finding one of the targets on the scrambles across the open hillsides. It wouldn't be long, though, before the luck ran out.

"You see 'em?" Starsky wheezed.

"Still down there."

"You suppose they're like Terry was, Hutch?"

"Like Terry?" It was hard to think with the afternoon sun blasting into his eyes. "You mean programmed?"

"Uh-huh."

"Probably," Hutch guessed. "They don't seem to give up easily."

"Want to bet they don't think, either?"

Hutch crept back into the shadow of the rock. Starsky was propped against it and something dangerous had kindled in his look, a grim, trapped tiger expression.

"What do you have in mind?"

"You know we gotta fight 'em, Hutch, sooner or later. We can't, they have the rifles, but somehow, we're gonna have to take 'em on, do something to even the odds. Maybe we could get them to leave the jeep, come up on foot."

"How do you propose to get them to -- no, don't answer that. I don't like what you're thinking."

"How do you know what I'm thinking?" Starsky said, glancing up with blue-eyed innocence. "Been takin' lessons from Collandra?"

"No one is going to be bait for them, Starsky. It's suicide."

"It's the only chance we get."

"You're insane. You're completely insane!" Maggie yelled, grabbing at Hutch. "What in God's name am I doing here with you maniacs?! You'll get us all killed, we're going to die here, you and your damned hero complex --"

"Maggie --"

"We'll die here --"

"No!" Hutch seized her hands, which had begun to beat at him, and immobilized her. He felt dizzy and unstrung, himself. It was the heat. The heat. "We're going to make it, Maggie. We're going to stay alive. But we've got to think, Mag. Think, Maggie!"

She stopped struggling and slumped, sobbing, beating the soil angrily. Hutch moved automatically to comfort her, but she shrank from him in the little triangle of shade.

"Hutch, let her go," Starsky's voice shook. "She's got a right to freak out."

Nodding, Hutch straightened, took a few deep breaths, and pulled his mind back to their first problem.

"Whatever we're going to do, we'd better do it soon," he said. "Maggie isn't the only one on the verge of hysteria."

"Yeah, the heat does things to your brain. Look, I figure maybe we don't need to have someone be bait. Maybe if we sit tight here, they'll get impatient and come up after us."

"Sure, Starsky, and we'll just take potshots at them from this little rock until we run out of ammo and they come in for us. What we need to do is to find some way to flank them."

"Just like when we were in Binh Phu, eh?"

Hutch grinned slightly. "Just like in 'Nam."

"Okay. One of us has to get into one of the gullies and wait in ambush, right? And the other one has to make like a wounded partridge and draw their attention. You make a run for the gulley. I'll do the bird bit. With any luck, they'll come on up to 'finish me off,' and you'll get them in range before they know what's goin' down. And with a little extra luck, we'll have a ride back to civilization instead of another nature hike."

"I'll be the bait, Starsk. You're too shaky to go running around anymore."

"That's why I get to be the bait, partner. We're gonna need our steadiest shot, and with me on the sidelines, this'll be your big chance."

He was right, of course. When it came to a fight, Starsky's instincts had proven themselves. A sick man could make very convincing bait, but he couldn't be counted on to hit a moving target using a handgun at its outermost range. And if Starsky were also right about their pursuers being programmed assassins, they wouldn't be likely to be thinking creatively enough to finish off an injured target from long range. They would walk up to the target first. If. If, if, if...

"Hey? Mag?" Starsky leaned over her. "Come on, pull yourself together, kid, we need you. We got work to do."

Maggie had calmed somewhat, though her eyes were still enraged and frightened. She sat up and wrapped her arms around herself, hunching up fetally.

"Better?" Starsky asked. '

Lips pinched white, she nodded curtly.

"You go with Hutch, okay? You're our backup. If anything happens to Hutch, you have to take over. Understand? You do whatever you have to do to protect yourself."

Another tight nod.

Starsky rubbed his knuckles into his eyes. "Wish we had sunglasses," he sighed. "Or a nice cool ocean." He poked his head around the rock. A bullet pinged off it.

"Whoops! Still out there. Ready, Hutch?"

Hutch frowned at his partner. Giddy, frightened fantasies flashed through his head, but all he said was, "Ready."

Pulling his gun from his shoulder holster, Starsky gathered his legs under him.

"I'll start running and draw their fire. While I'm headin' for that rock over there, you and Maggie haul ass into the gully, okay? I'll try to ham it up so they don't even notice you've left cover here."

"Got it. Ah, Starsk?"

Their eyes met.

"Okay, Mom," Starsky said lightly, and gathered himself. "Okay... Go!"

He was on his feet, sprinting at a wild tilt for a low cluster of rocks farther down the slope. The air came alive with gunshots.

"Come on," Hutch said, pulling Maggie behind him and running across the short stretch of slope to the next wash. The lay of the land kept them out of sight of the valley most of the way, and by the rapid fire of the rifles, Starsky's act was riveting their attention. Hutch jumped into the shallow ravine, half-running down it, lost his footing and tumbled. He stopped with a shock, up against the side of a little ditch, and momentum slid him another ten feet across the concrete-rough erosion before he came to a halt.

"Ken!" Maggie picked her way down the ravine. Above them, rifle fire threw echoes off every surface.

Hutch sat up, gasping, and raised his stinging arm to eye level. His right forearm and palm were streaked with scrapes and embedded granules. His gun hand oozed blood. And the rifle cracks stopped. Distantly, an engine roared to life.

"They're coming," he breathed. He pushed up to his knees.

"You can't shoot with that hand," Maggie wailed.

"Got to be ready," Hutch said. He started to stumble back up the ravine, his footing precarious in the loose gravel scattered over the baked erosion. Maggie scrambled after him, dazed.

"You can't! We have to run, they're coming for us!"

Hutch spun and grabbed her arm with his good hand, giving her a violent shaking.

"Don't panic on me! We're going to see this through, Starsky's life depends on it. Now come on."

He lunged back up the hill, hearing her following, but didn't spare any more time for her. At the top of the ridge, he threw himself on the ground just behind the crest. It was a good position. If he craned his neck around the slight bend in the ridge, he could see into the valley, though the Rover was, for the moment, behind the cluster of little dunes at the foot of the slopes. He could hear the growl of its engine as it labored with the impossible terrain. Turning to look upslope, he spotted Starsky hunched behind a little hillock, not completely shielded by it. He really would make an inviting target. He could also get himself killed. But that was the risk all along.

Glancing down at his gun hand, Hutch winced. He picked out some of the larger chunks of gravel with his left hand, and dabbed the oozing blood against his shirt. Then Maggie captured his hand and began to uncurl his fingers. She draped a strip of yellow cotton, torn from her shirt, across the palm.

"I knew we'd be sorry leaving the first aid things behind," she said, tying the strip in place. "This'll be better than nothing. Whose gun has better range, yours or mine?"

"Mine."

"Okay." She reached to his shoulder holster, and drew his Magnum, wrapping his fingers around the butt carefully. "Got it?"

"Yuh. Thanks."

"Ken. I'm sorry I freaked out. Something in me -- I couldn't think straight -- "

"It's okay. Don't worry about it."

She nodded and laid down in the soil beside him, letting Hutch return full attention to the terrain. Below, the engine of the Rover had stopped. Presently, two figures appeared around the skirts of the dunes, keeping low, rifles ready. They paused there, where the dunes were stacked against the eastern slopes, and didn't seem inclined to start up the relatively open alluvial fan. It was time for Starsky to make his play. And he did.

Racing into the open, presumably headed for a shelf of uplifted rock, Starsky made a prime target of himself. And the rifles began to crack, three-fourths of the way to the cover, Starsky tumbled in mid-stride and sprawled. Hutch's heart leapt into his mouth. There was no way to tell whether that fall had been a masterful performance or the real thing. The rifles were still firing.

"Come on, Starsk, get up," Hutch murmured, pleading. "For God's sakes, at least move."

Starsky was utterly still.

"You're not trying for an Oscar, you jerk!" Hutch growled.

The figures in the valley rose carefully, standing still for several breath-held moments while Hutch expected them to take aim and shoot the prone target from their safe vantage. Here would tell whether they were pros, or more of somebody's unthinking killing machines. They were robots. They started up the slope, like rank amateurs, out in the open. Stupid, stupid. Thank God they were stupid.

"They must think you and I kept running," Maggie whispered.

Hutch nodded, and got a better grip on his gun, holding onto it with both hands. He was dizzy, and the sun was frying his fair head now that he'd doffed the hat. He tried to steady himself, find his center, be ready. If he could, he would have to shoot those people down without giving them a chance to raise their rifles again. Murder in self-defense. His stomach turned over. But he would take no chances with Starsky's life. If Starsky was alive. He hadn't moved a muscle from where he'd fallen, and Hutch couldn't tell if he was even breathing.

The silhouettes climbing the slope took on humanness as they approached. It was still too far to make out distinguishing features, but one of them was a tallish woman, the other a powerfully-built black man. People without a real past. Or a real future, Hutch thought, swallowing. He tried to blot that thought out. He couldn't afford doubt. They were killers. Machines. If he didn't stop them, they would cheerfully leave him, Starsky, and Maggie to bleach to bones on this hillside. These killers would stop only at death -- their victims', or their own. And they were not quite as stupid as he had hoped, because they stopped, surveying the situation, just at the edge of the effective range of a hand gun. And the big man lifted his rifle and leveled it right at Starsky.

"Starsky, move!" Hutch yelled, and ran out into the open as the shot was fired, his own gun braced and aimed. He let go with it in a quickly squeezed-off volley, and the killers dove for cover. Running forward to try to close up some of the distance, Hutch took advantage of the others' startlement. Then a bullet plucked at his pants leg, and he dove, rolling, for a handy outcropping. More bullets sent rock chips flying, but Hutch was safe for the moment. Reloading, he glanced back to where Starsky had been, but his partner was nowhere in sight.

"You blew it!" a familiar voice said, carrying softly across the slope. Something moved back to the left, and Starsky flashed a grin from the rock shelf protecting him.

"Yeah, sure did." Hutch smiled in relief. "Okay. let's move up. Cover me."

This was a tactic in which they were well-practiced, moving up, each in his turn. as the other fired and kept their opponents' heads down. With the rifles' advantage eliminated, it wasn't much different now than the gun battles in numerous back alleys and parking lots in L.A. Dangerous, but not impossible. And the assassins seemed to realize it. They began, rock by rock. to retreat.

"We can't let 'em get back to the Rover," Starsky called quietly.

"Right with you," Hutch said, and gathered himself. It took him a minute. The heat had drained his reserves. "Okay. Now!"

He rushed forward, not going for the next cover this time, but running to close the last distance, under Starsky's covering fire, and finish the duel at point-blank range. As long as Starsk kept their heads down...

Suddenly the heads and rifles came up, and Starsky wasn't firing, the cover gone -- and the rifles leveled squarely on Hutch. There was no time for careful aim, and he wasn't close enough anyway, but he sent a round at the heads, and saw one arm fly up, a rifle clatter into the rocks behind. Too late to dive for cover, Hutch flew straight at the other killer, spraying bullets, and something burned past his cheek, but he was running full out, and his luck held, he heard the rifle's hammer fall on an empty chamber. Barreling right up over the rocks, Hutch landed with both feet on the woman, kicking with desperate force. She swung the rifle at him, and he hit her with all his strength in the face. She flopped back against the rocks and lay still.

Wheezing, Hutch sank to his knees, too winded to move. Blood roared in his ears, and for a moment he had to fight to stay conscious. Sun stroke, heat stroke, he knew he was close. He couldn't seem to get enough air into his lungs through the envelope of incandescence around him.

"Ken!"

Maggie's voice. Gulping in air, Hutch opened his eyes and blinked away the little stars behind them. They settled and went away. Pulling himself together, he checked the woman he'd hit. No pulse. A splash of blood painted the rock behind her head. The black man was a faceless heap jammed between two rocks. Hutch had no energy left to feel remorse or regret. He'd done what he'd had to do. It was finished.

"Ken!" Maggie shouted practically in his ear. He looked up at her dully, and she snatched at his arm. It was the scraped arm, and the sudden pain jarred him back to awareness. "Ken, Davey's hurt. Hurry!"

Starsky was huddled against the outcropping where Hutch had last seen him, but his hands were pressed tightly to his face, and blood and tears slid in streams down his cheeks and the side of his nose. Hutch knelt beside him, not sure where to touch him first, then reached for the wrists and carefully pried the hands away from the face. Starsky's eyes were pools of blood, and the rest of his face was speckled with tiny punctures. The wrists in Hutch's grasp trembled as though touching a hot wire.

"Hutch -- that you? Hutch, I'm hurt. I can't see it -- see anything --"

"Easy, now, I'm here. I can see it, it's okay. Hang on and let me have a look."

Peeling back an eyelid, Hutch tried to assess the damage. but could see nothing for the welling blood, which oozed up as fast as he tried to blot it away. Rock splinters. From the looks of the chips in Starsky's cheek and forehead, they hadn't hit him with much force.

"I don't think it's too bad," he said, trying to calm himself, and thus calm Starsky. "Probably the eyeball's just scratched up a bit."

" -- Can't see," Starsky grated.

"It's the blood, Starsk, just the blood. You'll be okay, we'll get you to a doc."

"Oh, Christ, Hutch, did you get 'em? You okay? I couldn't see. I couldn't cover you," he said, beginning to shake. Behind the blood and sunburn, his skin was going pasty.

Shock.

"It's over, we're home free. Come on, Starsk, lie down here for a few minutes and get your wind back while I do a little first aid, okay?"

Hutch eased him down, noticing the goosebumps on Starsky's arms.

"Maggie, there must be water in the Rover. We need it. Look for blankets or jackets, too. And see if you can find something to cover Starsky's eyes. We've got to keep the light and dust out until we can get him to a hospital."

She left, and Hutch sat down, pulling Starsky against him, but not raising his head onto his lap. Keep the head low. Shock. They couldn't go anywhere until they got Starsky out of shock.

"It's c-cold. That's crazy. A hunnerd twenty an' I'm cold -- "

Hutch peeled his jacket off and draped it across his partner's chest and shoulders, knowing it wouldn't do much good, but needing to do something. The sunlight blasted his bare arms like a welding torch.

"Try to rest, it'll pass in a few minutes, you're just a little shook," he assured. Starsky only shivered. Hutch tried a diversion. "Anyway, you should be proud of yourself. ·You went out trying to do the Dying Swan act, and almost succeeded in getting killed for real."

"Hey. If I'd l-let you d-do it, you'da got your ass shot off f-for sure."

"Not a chance. I always could run faster than you."

"Not f-fair. Your legs are longer. Anyway, I can outshoot you."

"Only when you're lucky."

"An' outdrive you."

"Who'd want to race that striped tomato?"

"An beat you at chess."

"Beginner's luck."

"An' outdrink you any night of the week."

"Doesn't count. You have ten years' experience on me."

" -- oh Hutch -- I'm scared." Starsky pressed his hands over his eyes again. "I don't want to be blind. I couldn't hack it --"

"Come on, partner, don't rub your eyes, let it be," Hutch soothed. He rested his good hand on Starsky's shoulder, moving around so that his shadow fell across his friend's face. "You'll be all right, we'll take care of you. It'll be okay."

"Jesus, it hurts --"

"When Maggie gets back with the water, I'll wash the blood out and it won't be as bad, all right?"

Starsky swallowed, visibly fighting pain. But the shock left very little with which to fight. He wrapped his arms around himself over Hutch's jacket, while his eyes leaked blood-dyed tears, and Hutch was struck with how stress, which aged most people, brought out a moving, child-like quality in his partner. Or maybe it only happened when he, Hutch, was there. It was trust, and barriers down. A plea for protection from the only person Starsky would probably ask it from. And there was so little to give, out here. No real help, and damned little comfort. Hutch moved his hand up to rest lightly on Starsky's forehead, smoothing the deep frown of suffering.

Scraping and the clunk of canteens knocking together announced Maggie's return. She knelt next to the men, saying nothing, only handing the canteens to Hutch and spreading a dark blue windbreaker over Starsky. Hutch gave his partner a small drink from a canteen, pacing it so he didn't choke or get a cramp. Then he splashed some of the warm liquid onto the torn bit of fabric that Maggie gave him. Hutch recognized it as a piece of the black man's shirt.

"Starsk, put your head back, I'm going to try to wipe some of the blood away, and rinse it out of your eyes. Hang onto something, I don't think I can do it without hurting you some."

"'Kay. Hey -- got a bullet for me to bite on?" he said shakily.

"Are you serious?"

"Naw. I'd chip a tooth."

"Want me to slug you and knock you out?"

"Are you serious? You'd break your hand. Go ahead. Just, Mag, cover your ears in case I yell something rancid."

While Hutch worked to clean the injuries, Starsky dug his fingers into Maggie's arms. Hutch was just about finished, folding a large blue bandana-hankie into a bandage when Starsky's fingers went slack and his head fell forward.

"Ken, I think he's fainted."

Hutch grimaced. "God knows it took him long enough." He remembered the unbelievable agony of getting a cinder behind the contact lenses he'd once worn during an undercover case; he could hardly imagine the pain of actual lacerations. But with most of the blood rinsed away, and the bleeding slowed to an ooze, the injuries didn't seem to go deeply into the eyes. With luck they were only on the surface, and would heal without complications. Hutch would be careful to keep the eyes cleaned and covered until they made it back to civilization. And with the Rover, that would only be a few hours.

Tying the bandana in place, Hutch finally sat up and accepted the canteen to satisfy his own raving thirst. And only then did he see the desolate look on Maggie's face.

"What is it? What's wrong?"

"Everything. Hutch, those people were greenhorns. They didn't know what they were doing. They drove the Rover into the dunes. It's stuck, in up to the wheel wells in back, almost as bad in the front. That's why we heard them gunning the engine, earlier. You'd need a skyhook to get it out of there. We'll have to go on foot again. It's still about fifteen miles, yet. He might have made it with all of us healthy..."

She didn't finish. She didn't have to. They were not all healthy. They were none of them healthy, and Starsky was hurt. Hutch blinked upward into the sky, yellow-tinged bleached-out sky. There were no buzzards up there, or clouds, or any other sign, good or bad. Something inside him slumped, then. They'd beaten the human predators, only to find that the desert itself had been patiently waiting on the sidelines, waiting to claim them for its own.    

Chapter 7 by Connie Faddis

It had to be the mines for the night. Even if Hutch hadn't found the electronic tracer on the underbody of the Rover, they wouldn't have had the energy to make the five or six mile walk back to Maggie's encampment. There wouldn't have been much point to going back there, anyway. Maggie had had no phone, CB, or other means of getting out of the desert other than her demolished motorcycle. And while the Rex did have food and water, the mine was on the way out to the interstate -- and the medical care that Starsky urgently needed.

Aside from the tracer, the Rover had been hopeless anyway. It could not be budged from the side of the dune in which it had buried itself, and adamantly reburied itself both times that Hutch had tried to dig it out. Nor had it had a radio of any sort. Then, while trying to dig out the rear wheels, Hutch had seen the tracer. And they had left. The tracer could mean only one thing: the masterminds of the assassins had planned to follow up on their flunkies. The farther the trio were from the Rover, the better their chances of escaping detection. They took the water canteens, the jackets, the half-dried bit of food, and one of the rifles with ammunition. The other rifle Hutch buried where only a kangaroo rat would ever find it.

Starsky's injury, together with his earlier illness, left him depleted. Maggie and Hutch traded off carrying the water, food, and rifle, or half-carrying Starsky. It took them two hours to travel the mile to the mines. By that time. the sun was setting behind the mountains on the other side of Devil's Playground.

"Here we go," Hutch said, laying a dripping rag across Starsky's eyes. The swelling was ugly, and blue-black bruises spread under the surrounding skin. "Tell me if this feels better."

"The water kinda stings a bit," Starsky said. "But the cold sure feels good."

"Think you'd like another drink? You want to eat? There are some rolls."

"No thanks. My stomach's still doing flipflops."

Hutch fished for Starsky's hand in the dim light still coming into the mine. Finding it, he gripped it encouragingly.

"I wish there were something more I could do for you, Starsk. A pain-killer, at least."

"You're doing fine. Only thing missing is Aunt Rosie's chicken soup."

They both laughed, but then Starsky grimaced and turned away from Hutch, dumping the damp rag onto the ground. Hutch leaned over him worriedly.

"Hey, if it helps to yell, yell. There's no one here but me."

Starsky panted between clenched teeth. "'S not you, 's Maggie," he said. "Don't want to scare her."

"She's outside on watch, Starsk. Anyway, you wouldn't scare her any more than she's scared already. She'll be all right. I think she'll pull herself together."

Another wave of pain swept Starsky's face and he ground his teeth together, gripping Hutch's scraped hand harshly. Hutch just held on to him.

"Oh shit," Starsky gasped, when the wave ebbed. "Feels like someone's sticking hot needles in my eyes."

"Here, hang on a minute." Hutch retrieved the rag, resoaked it in the pool next to them on the floor of the mine, and laid it back across Starsky's eyes. "Better?"

"A little. It comes and goes..."

The knuckles around Hutch's fingers tightened again, white with suffering, though there was little strength. For the first time, it occurred to Hutch that Starsky would have effectively no resistance to any kind of infection, and infection was inevitable. He fervently hoped that the water in the waterhole was reasonably clean. At least it would help reduce some of the swelling.

"Try to roll with the pain, buddy. Don't waste strength fighting it, there's no one here but me. Try to let go and get some rest. It's the best thing. "

"'I'll try," he said, deliberately letting the tension go out of his grip. "Stay here for a while, huh?"

"I'm not going anywhere."

Once Starsky managed to relax, exhaustion dragged him down to sleep. After a time, his breathing became regular, and Hutch loosened the limp hand from his own and set it down gently. The faint afterglow of late evening was the only light. and he went out through the brush-fenced opening to join Maggie.

"How is he?" she said as Hutch sat beside her.

"Sleeping. I'll take over here, why don't you go inside and catch a nap, too."

"In a few minutes. This is my favorite time of day in the desert; now, and just before dawn. That's when we should start travelling again, by the way, if that's what we're going to do."

"We'll have to. We've got to get Starsky to a doctor as soon as possible. I'm worried about an infection. He could lose his vision."

"And then he couldn't be a cop anymore. Maybe it would be a stroke of luck in the long run."

Not that again. Hutch was worn out. He didn't feel up to dealing with Maggie's pent-up hostilities, her left-over griefs or her self-imposed isolation. He had all he could handle with worrying about Starsky, and fighting assassins and his own exhaustion. But -- he owed friendship to Maggie, and there were debts he could never pay now to Wade. And Maggie was the only one here who knew the desert. Without her help, they would probably all die. They needed to pull together, they couldn't afford to have one of them fighting the bit.

"All right, Maggie, out with it," he said. "This beef about cops. Spill it."

"There's nothing to spill. You've heard it before. I'm just sick of your Joe SuperCop act, the both of you. Shoot-outs and car chases and busting heads and running down criminals who just get out of jail on bail the next day anyways and sticking your necks out every day for people who mostly don't give a damn if you get your throat slashed or your guts shot out -- it's all sick. Maybe you think it makes you a hell of a man, maybe you have some hero complex all worked out in your heads, maybe it's the only way you get your rocks off. If I didn't care about you so much, it wouldn't hurt to see you doing it, setting yourselves up to be killed. But you obviously love it. Starsky can get his eyes shot out, and you'll just keep on doing it. Wade can be killed in front of you, and you keep on with it. Some jerk can run your car off the road and leave you lying in a canyon for two days, and you pick yourself up as soon as you're patched up and go right back to it. You're sick. You're suicidal! There's nothing I can do about it, but I don't have to like it."

He sighed tiredly. "Okay, Starsky and I are suicidal. What about Wade, Maggie? Was he Joe SuperCop? Was it the only way he could get his rocks off, too? You know better than that. Why in hell was Wade a cop, then, Maggie? Why?"

It had become too dark to see anything but shapes, but Maggie's body drew in on itself.

"I don't know," she said bitterly. "I don't know. He liked people. He didn't like to hurt or shove people. But he did it. He wasn't suicidal. But he was murdered. He loved life. He loved living! How could anyone so alive stop living just like that?"

She was crying. Was that good? Hutch didn't know. But it was like some fatal brick pulled out of a dam, because she wept harder and harder, as though a long-held pressure were behind it, demanding release. And like some laughter is infectious, so was the terrible grief. Hutch's eyes filled, and flowed over.

He hadn't wept for Wade Landis when Wade had died, or after; he wasn't quite sure why. Maybe because he hadn't let himself feel it at the time, he'd had to keep his head straight to finish up the case, and then the funeral was over, and the trial was over, and Maggie was gone, and the time for mourning seemed past and beyond reach. But he wept for the friend now, the bright-eyed, easy-smiling man who was always dependable, be it a street fight or a squad room bet, who took life as it came and never seemed embittered by it, who cared about people and wasn't afraid to show it. He'd bled all over Starsky as Starsky held onto him, begging Wade to hang onto his life, and when that life had slipped away anyway, Starsky had sat in the gutter there and cried. Starsky could cry. Hutch had held back.

No more. He sagged against Maggie, putting his arms around her, both holding her and needing to be held. Then her arms slipped around him, too, and they clung together, letting the grief shake them.

"Why, Ken?" she whimpered against his shoulder. "Why do you do it? Why you?"

He swallowed painfully against the knot in his throat, and shook his head. "Someone's got to care. Someone's got to keep the jackals at bay. The job needs doing. Why us? Oh God, I honestly don't know. Because we care, I guess. We can't stand by and watch people be turned into victims, statistics. There's enough suffering in the world, Maggie, without letting the jackals run wild."

That seemed to mean something to her. She raised her head and looked up at him, and in the faint starlight, her wet lashes glistened.

"You're needed," she said, in a voice of revelation. You have a purpose. It must feel good to be needed, and feel like what you do can make a difference. I used to feel that way, when Wade was alive. But he's dead and the world's turned inside out. Now, I dig through dead bones and broken debris of forgotten lives, and wonder what point there is to life." She lowered her face, dabbing at her tears. "Ken, I'm sorry I laid this whole trip on you. It isn't your fault. It never was."

No, of course it wasn't, Hutch realized. It was Wade's fault, for dying, for leaving Maggie alone with her insecurities, for being unable to communicate his feelings of worth and dedication of his profession to her through her walls of fantasy and selfishness. And he and Starsky had been Wade's proxies through which Maggie could finally act out her guilty bitterness. Hutch drew her close to him again, saying nothing, but trying to generate a feeling of acceptance.

Her shudders had run down, and after a while, she cleared her throat.

"Remember how Wade was always jabbering on about Leonardo Da Vinci?" she said, staring out across the valley. Venus was setting, and the moon was rising, bathing the distant-most dunes in faint silver.

Hutch nodded. "Da Vinci was his hero."

"Leonardo filled the margins of his last notebooks with one recurrent sentence. He wrote: 'Tell me if anything was ever done.' Wade was just like Leonardo in some ways. Right now, if there's an afterlife, he's probably asking that." She looked at Hutch again, her dim face drawn. "Tell me, Ken, when all is said and done, when the tallies are complete and the blood is balanced against the other blood, tell me -- was anything 'ever done'?"

He closed his eyes, feeling suddenly small and too alone in this unfamiliar, desolate place. He was only one person. He and Starsky only two. He and Starsky and Maggie only three against the wildness. Not only the natural kind, but the unnatural kind, the kind sired by greed and nurtured by power. Tell me, indeed, if anything was ever done...

Maggie's figure rocked back and forth, like a desert mystic in communion with some metaphysical apparition. Then, slowly, almost languidly, she climbed to her feet and, moving behind Hutch, drew his head back to rest against her abdomen. It was a curious gesture, unexpected, and it filled him with a sense ·of comfort. He captured the hand that stroked his hair and pressed the palm to his cheek.

He said, "Nothing would ever be done if people didn't try. Got to keep trying, Maggie."

She was silent. Then she sighed and her arms glided around his shoulders, locking him against her. The moon, a near-full disk, crept over the hills, the only witness to the two creatures who clung together there, keeping a vigil against the jackals, the wildness, and the black sickness of the soul.

Chapter 8 by Connie Faddis

Starsky's feet were killing him. Walking. It seemed they'd been walking for a month, at least. Stumbling, actually. Even with an arm around Hutch's waist, it was hard for Starsky to place his feet on the uneven ground ahead of him without turning his ankle on the unseen stones or skidding on sand or gravel. The air, which had been pleasantly cool when they'd left the mine, had become hot, hot, dusty nose-clogging hot. Hutch's arm around his back was slicked with sweat where it touched, and though the blindfold over Starsky's eyes blocked most light, the sun pounded on him, inescapable, wringing him out like a dying mackerel.

They were travelling very slowly, he could tell. It felt as though they were going in circles. For all he knew, they were. The way Hutch was moving, he didn't feel much better than Starsky did. And every once in a while Maggie would groan, curse, and the sound of shifting canteens would let him know that she was rearranging the weight she was carrying while Hutch supported him.

It bothered the devil out of Starsky that Hutch and Maggie wouldn't leave him at the mine. They would be making better time if they didn't have to play leader dog in this heat, and they could have sent help back once they got out to the interstate. He complained vehemently about having to wander around out in the sun when he could be lounging in comfort in the mine. But something was worrying Hutch, and he had had his mind set on hauling Starsky along.

"Hey," Starsky said, coughing to wake up his throat. "Hey -- Hutch? There some shade nearby? Let's rest awhile."

"No shade in sight," Hutch rasped, but he stopped and sat down, taking Starsky down with him onto the hot soil. A blade of something sharp jabbed Starsky's ankle, and he yelped and shifted. Maggie clanked down beside them. The chain on the canteen cap rattled. Starsky groped for the canteen as it sloshed near.

"Drink slowly," Hutch warned, putting an arm behind his back. "How are you holding up?"

"Better 'n you, I bet. You sound like death warmed over."

"I feel just fine," Hutch panted, fussing with the bandage over Starsky's eyes.

"Yeah? You sound wiped. And quit makin' like a hen with one chick, will ya? I'm okay, for Chrissakes. Here --" he handed the canteen in the direction of the gasps.

"I'm only a little out of breath, Starsky. Quit imagining things. You're just not used to having to use your ears this much."

"Maybe so," Starsky said, wrinkling his nose. "My sniffer's hyperactive, too. You forgot your deodorant this morning."

Maggie laughed, somewhere close to his left. "None of us smells like a gardenia," she said.

She sounded a lot better than she had yesterday. Her spirits were up, as though she'd ditched some heavy burden. Even her cussing about carrying the rifle and canteens had a healthy bitchiness.

"Hey -- how's our cactus flower today?" he asked.

"So far, so good. How's the mole?"

"Gee, thanks for the compliment. I'm okay."

"How're your eyes, Starsk? Hurt much?" Hutch asked.

"Naw. Not much. Not like last night, anyway. How do they look?"

"I can't tell without lifting the bandage, which isn't a good idea out here. It's damned bright out."

"Yeah, I can feel it. You want your hat back for a while?"

"I have my head covered. You wear it."'

Following Hutch's arm, Starsky groped past the shoulder and felt Hutch's head. A bit of light fabric was tied over the limp, fine hair.

"Hey, Hutch -- you're a Gumbie!" he said, cracking up. "Your brain hurt?"

"Not as much as yours will if you don't shut up!"

"Actually, he looks like Aunt Jemima," Maggie laughed.

Starsky hooted and patted Hutch's head. For the first time since he'd been hurt, he began to believe that they were going to get out of this in one piece. It was hot -- oh, it sure was hot -- but not as hot as it had been yesterday. Probably not much over a hundred. And they were taking their time walking, and had had a good night's sleep, and plenty of water with them now. Besides that, he could feel some of his energy coming back, almost a restlessness. The stinging in his eyes had mostly quit while he'd slept, and early that morning, he'd taken a clandestine peek out from under the bandage. The world was one big blur, nothing but vague shapes and washed-out colors, but at least there'd been something coming in. He wasn't blind. Not yet, anyway.

"Rest stop's over," Hutch said. "Up and at 'em."

"Man, lead me to the nearest swimming pool."

"I thought you hated swimming," said Hutch, pulling him up.

"So maybe I've changed my mind."

"We could bury ourselves in the east face of a dune," Maggie suggested as she clanked to her feet again. "The sand stays cool about six inches under the surface. We could bury ourselves up to our heads, and cover our scalps with the jackets and wait for the cooler hours late this afternoon.

"We've got to keep moving," Hutch said. "Anyway, I don't like the look of the sky up north. Could be in for some rain."

"Sounds terrific!" Starsky said.

"But it'll be noon soon, Ken, and the heat will get worse and -- " Maggie cut off, and there was an awkward silence.

Starsky frowned, getting the distinct impression that something was going on that Hutch and Maggie weren't clueing him in on.

"We'll keep walking," Hutch said firmly. "Let's go."

They seemed to be out of the hills, at least. There were long stretches of flat, concrete-hard ground, where they wove around numerous obstacles with sharp, prickling edges. Shrubs and low-growing cactus, probably. Everything in the desert seemed to have a Don Rickles disposition. Then there would be dunes, soft and wonderfully cool in contrast to the heat-holding flats. But they filled Starsky's sneakers with sand that collected in pockets in the shoes like lumps of hard candy. Being blindfolded, without a vista to distract him, it seemed that all the aches of his body concentrated in his feet. Damned sneakers. Crummy desert. His toes were suffocating, and the ground was like hot coals.

Then they crossed a strip of salt flat -- fortunately, not a wide one, because the salt and silt had hardened after the last rains to a coarse crystallized surface that was jagged and vicious as sharks' teeth. When they'd gotten out of that, Starsky wasn't sure how much of the puddles between his toes was just sweat.

And still they kept moving. Trudging. The sun was burning them right through their clothes, now, and the heat was so tiring that they would all be shaking by the time they sat down for their short rests. They would sit, panting, and pass the canteens around. The water was tap-hot and tasted metallic, but better than champagne. Life. Water was life, here. It gave them strength, it held them together, those little stops to drink, and the drinking became a sort of ritual: Starsky first, then Maggie, and Hutch last. There were relieved slurpings, gasps, a rotten pun or three on any inane topic that came to mind, and they would go on again. They could go on again.

The sun seemed to be blasting down right through the hat onto Starsky's already-blistering cheek, and he was silently fighting little bouts of vertigo when the trio started up the side of yet another dune.

"Yike," he said, as his sense of 'up' seemed to tilt away somewhere. He reeled, going to his knees and pulling Hutch with him. Hutch steadied him, kneeling, panting too.

"Starsk, you okay?"

"Whew. I guess so. Must've got a little dizzy. Can we take a break yet?"

"Pretty soon. There's a wash up ahead, maybe there'll be an overhang and some shade. Not much anywhere else with the sun this high."

"What time is it, anyway?"

"Ten-fifty," Maggie said.

"Hey, Mag? How far do you figure we've come?"

"We're doing all right. I'd guess about five miles."

"Ho boy, that's all?" Starsky's morale plummeted. "That's not even a mile an hour."

"Under the circumstances, it's about right," Hutch said. "If we can keep up the pace, we should be out to the highway by ten tonight." He pulled on Starsky again. "Come on, let's find that shade."

Starsky·got onto his feet by leaning hard on Hutch, hating to do that, but unable to get up otherwise. He could feel the fatigue in Hutch too. Not being able to see where he was going, though, was doing bad things to Starsky's head. It made him feel insecure in new and unnerving ways, because every step (taken into the unknown, each one a risk,) became a double effort: muscle and courage.

"Gee," he said, grasping at a hopeful straw, "maybe we'll even make it to the hearing tomorrow. huh? Won't that surprise Dob-- "

"Shhhh!"

Hutch yanked him down onto the dune, pushing his head against the sand.

"Wha --?"

"Quiet!"

"What is it?" Starsky whispered, hearing it.

"Over there -- it's a helicopter!" Maggie said.

"Quick, into the sand," Hutch ordered, starting to throw handfuls over Starsky's back. But the drone was definitely approaching, and then veered their way and buzzed directly overhead, its engine deafening.

Hutch let go of Starsky, scrambling around in the sand. Starsky heard the rifle's safety click. He reached for his own gun, but someone shoved his head down again. The copter was already doubling back, low and menacing.

"Get him into the wash," Hutch yelled, "and find cover." He sprang up to his feet.

"Ken!"

"Hutch?!"

Then Maggie was pulling at him, hauling him up, dragging him, stumbling, behind her, running full out in the soft dune, practically yanking his arm from his shoulder. He fought her, frantic about Hutch, but the copter skimmed overhead, throwing sand into the air around them, and Maggie dragged him forward, fear lending her strength he had never suspected. Then they were running down a hard-packed, steeper slope that crumbled under their feet, and Starsky fell flat.

"Up! Hurry!" And she had him up, pulling him onward into the dark. The copter buzzed close again, and now the stutter of a semi-automatic sent spits of dirt across Starsky's shoes. Hutch's rifle answered from somewhere behind. The copter swung away toward Hutch like an enraged hornet.

"Hutch!" Starsky called, but his voice came out a squeak. Maggie gave him a shove, and he went down on hands and knees in fine gravel. The sand between the pebbles was cool and he realized he was out of the sun. The shots, farther away but still deafening, echoed off rock above and in front of him.

"Mag -- what's --"

"Down! Get down!" She jammed him against the rock. "Oh god, oh god!"

"Hutch --"

Rifles spat at each other over the copter's roar, impossible to tell which shot was whose in the pitched battle -- and abruptly, the shots stopped. Stopped completely. The only sound was that of the hovering machine.

"Ohmigod," Starsky breathed. His mind blanked with horror.

"KEN!!!" It was a scream. Maggie's.

She tore at his jacket -- hands on his holster -- and was up, out into the open, stones flying under her feet.

"Killers! Killers! Lousy sonuvabitch killers!"

The copter dipped, coming their way, and the Baretta cracked.

"Mag -- oh shit -- come back!" Starsky shrieked, scrambling on his knees into the sun. "Maggie -- don't -- "

The machine dove at them. Maggie screaming a madwoman's abuse. Her voice screeched above the din, and she was firing the Baretta -- emptied it -- and the noise of the engine filled creation, close -- too close, veering crazily -- and the sound rose up and slapped Starsky across the skull, rolling him over and over into the rock with stunning force that blasted his ears to oblivion.

For a lifetime, there was nothing: no more sound. No pain. No thought. Only the grit in his face, in his mouth, cool and faintly salty. Not salt. Blood and sand. Starsky coughed, spitting it out, and sat up. He went still, waiting out the pulse that roared in his ears. Sickeningly, his mind flipped back to awareness. He strained his ears for some sound -- any sound. Something was crackling noisily, not far away, and a wall of heat from it seared him more than the sun. There was thick, acrid smoke, making him cough again. The copter. Downed.

Oh thank god was all that he could think for that moment.

"Maggie? Hutch?"

He heard her, sobs barely carrying over the fire. Low, deep, heaving sobs. Hysterical sobs.

His legs didn't want to hold him. He crawled toward her.

"Hutch, you there? Mag?

He bumped into her, where she sat in the wash, wailing wordlessly.

"Mag -- where's Hutch? What happened to Hutch, huh? My god -- " he took her arm, shaking her madly, "where on earth is Hutch?"

She sobbed harder, bending down over her knees, oblivious to him. Metal clanked onto stones: the gun, falling from her hand.

Starsky got himself onto his knees. His fingers dug into the ground, dredging up fistfuls of hot pebbles and sand.

"HUTCH?? HUUUUUUUUTTCH!!!"

Nothing. The burning copter, Maggie's wracking sobs... the smoky breeze. Nothing else.

He did the one thing he could do. The bandage came down over his nose with a jerk. The dazzle stabbed. Light, brilliant flaring white light forced his hands up to cover his face. He dragged them away, holding his eyes open as widely as the swelling allowed, endured the searing that skewered each eye. Tears swam with dark clouds that were probably blood, and he blinked furiously.

"Hutch, answer me!" A cry of pure terror.

He couldn't see. He had no idea where to look. There was the vaguest definition to the stunning whiteness around him, and pale, ghostly veils of color.

Where? Where?

He got onto wobbly feet. Blood was making red-grey swirls in front of him, and he wiped his eyes savagely on his sleeve. What good would eyesight be if it didn't work right now? He squinted into the blur, made out a hazy horizon of sorts that rose to his left, descended to his right. It swam, and he blinked harder. At his back, the copter was a flare of orange-gold-grey. Maggie was a lump of watery yellow. Then he spotted the blurry smudge of blue against the mass of beige-white horizon.

"Oh no. Oh no."

His knees were trembling, but he clawed up out of the wash, went down in the sand, crawled more than walked up the dune toward the blue smudge that began to take on human form as he neared. The blur was down, and still.

"Don't. Please. Hutch, don't --" he hardly heard himself, "-- Please. Don't."

Where there should have been a blond head, there was a splash of scarlet. No, no, a red bandana over the hair. Starsky reached him, stopped, unable to make out any detail at all. Everything was a hopeless blur. He bowed his head over the blue form, fingers fumbling to find a pulse somewhere, skimming along the back, which was to him. He touched a soggy torrent all along Hutch's right side.

Pressing his ear to Hutch's back, Starsky could hear nothing but his own terror slamming blood through his ears. He gulped down a breath, held it, trying to stifle his own heart to listen for Hutch's. The pulse rose, then receded. He listened, praying.

There.

"Maggie!" Starsky shouted with all his will. "Get up here!"

His streaming eyes could tell him nothing. His hands, though, told him horror stories. There was blood everywhere, all along the back and side. He couldn't find the source. He closed his eyes, concentrating, probing gingerly. There was a drenched depression in Hutch's side, just at the lowest ribs. The jacket was torn, and under the tear was a hot welling of blood. There was another fountain under Hutch, by the left hip.

Stop the bleeding. Have to stop the bleeding first.

He grabbed at the bandana he'd pulled down around his neck and yanked it off. Not bothering to undo the knot, he made a pad·of it and pressed it to the wound in the side. With his free hand, he found the kerchief on Hutch's head and drew it off, then wadded it and held it tightly to the other wound. Both hands trying to hold Hutch's life in, he was helpless to do anything else.

"Damn you, Maggie, where are you?!"

She was coming. Footsteps softly in the dune and then she was next to him.

"Oh sweet God. Ken?" she said with no voice at all.

"We have to get the bleeding stopped," Starsky said. "Come on, give me your shirt."

"What?"

"Your shirt, dammit! For bandages. Then help me out of mine."

"Davey --"

"WILL YOU HELP ME!"

She took a shuddering breath. "I won't fall apart," she breathed. "I won't. I'm not going to let go."

Her breaths came in gasps, but he could hear her pulling off her shirt. He reached for it, but she pushed his hand down onto the sodden compress.

"I'll do it," she squeaked. She sounded sick. "I'll do it. I'll be okay. You hang onto him. I can see, I'll do it."

The shirt tore. Then she was reaching around Hutch, pulling a strip under his body and tying it around his chest. Particles of sand sprinkled Starsky's sticky fingers.

"Let go with that one," she said. She knotted the strip over the compress, holding it firmly in place. She stuffed more fabric underneath, thickening the pad. "He -- he's hit in the ribs." More fabric tore. She began to tie it around the lower wound. "I think the other one's an -- an exit wound." Her voice faltered. "Davey, I never saw so much blood -- everywhere. I think the bullet went right through him."

Starsky heard her swallow as though she were trying hard not to be sick. He let his breath out through his nostrils in a harshly controlled hiss as the meaning of her words became painfully clear: Hutch was gut-shot. Hutch. Hutch...

"We have to get help," he heard himself say. Was that distant, level voice really his own? It didn't sound like his. It didn't sound nearly as frightened as he felt.

"All right," a voice answered. "I'll go."

Go where? Where?

"Davey, we should move him to somewhere where the sun won't be on him all day."

The sun. Out of the sun.

"Where?" he mouthed. Dizzy. He was getting dizzy.

"I'm not sure. Not in the wash. If it rained near here -- and it could, it's pretty grey up north -- you'd never know about it until the flashflood hit you."

"Mag -- things are all wrong," Starsky said, mechanically scrubbing off the sand glued to his fingers. "I can't think straight. Help me to think straight."

"What should I do?"

"Hutch. Tell me how Hutch looks."

"Just a minute." Her voice shook. She moved closer, apparently leaning over to see. "I -- I think he's in shock. Jesus, I know he is. He looks awful. Uh, let me see... he's breathing very fast, fast and shallow, you can hear that. His pulse -- I can't find a pulse!"

"He's breathing, he's alive," Starsky said grimly. "Check the carotid artery, by the left ear. Sometimes you can't find the pulse in the wrist."

She fumbled for a moment.

"Yes. Yes, there it is. It's so fast -- I can't believe how fast it is, but I can barely feel it. He feels cold -- even with the sunburn --"

Starsky wiped his hands on his jeans and felt for Hutch's neck. The skin was cold. The hairs on Starsky's arms prickled.

"How long can someone live, hurt this way?" Maggie said, voice clinging to a semblance of calm. "If I start now, I still won't make it to the highway before eleven, probably later. It could be hours, more after that, before help would get back here. Davey -- I might not make it at all. If it's raining up north --" Her voice trailed off.

Starsky clamped down on his own terror. "If anyone can make it, you can. Take the water, you'll need it."

"I'll leave half. But Davey. I need to know. Can Ken make it?"

"I don't know." There. It was out. He swallowed the scream building inside him. "It's hard to tell with body wounds. I hope so. Hutch is tough -- " he forced a crooked smile "a lot tougher than you'd think to look at him."

"We should get him into the shade. The sun will start west in an hour, and this side of the dune will be in shadow by two o'clock. Do you think you can help me to move him?"

"Let me try." Getting his legs under him was a chore, and he had to stay still while a wave of giddiness swept through him. "Shit, a couple hours ago I felt terrific."

He positioned his arms under Hutch's shoulders, could hear Maggie by the legs.

"Careful with him -- "

They lifted, but the groan that erupted from Hutch sent a stab of panic through Starsky's chest. He eased Hutch down and bowed over him, cupping the damp head in both hands.

"Hutch! Lie still there, babe, lie still now," he soothed. He felt down the body for the compresses, found them still in place. Brushing along Hutch's arm, he caught the clammy fingers of one hand.

Hutch coughed, a wracking sound laced with agony. His hand in Starsky's jerked with each spasm.

"Whoa, now, take it slow," Starsky crooned, frantic. Maggie moved close and wrapped her arm around his, spread her fingers atop their joined ones.

"Ken, we have to move you, otherwise you'll spend the next three or four hours in the sun," she said.

"We can't move him now, it'll hurt him."

"Ken?"

There were only the sharp, catching breaths.

"I don't think he's very awake, Davey. It won't hurt him as much to move him now as it will lying in the sun later."

Instead of carrying him, they slid him down over the sand, and he didn't cry out. When they were far enough down the dune to satisfy Maggie, she left to retrieve the canteens, and Starsky slipped out of his jacket and shirt, re-donned the jacket, and spread the t-shirt over Hutch's face to protect it from the sun. When Maggie returned, he shoved it toward her. She took it without protest.

"You should cover yourselves with sand until the shade comes," she said. "'There are two canteens here, and the rifle. I'll reload it. If you'll give me a clip, I'll reload your gun, too."

Starsky handed her a clip from his jacket pocket, then felt around for Hutch's wrist to take the pulse again.

"Mag?" Hutch's voice was a faint whisper.

"Oh Ken, don't talk. You'll be all right. I'm going for help."

He breathed another name: Starsky.

"Right beside you, partner," Starsky said. "We're gonna make it."

He skimmed his palms over the laboring chest until they closed on each shoulder, pressed with careful affection. "Leave it to you to foul things up. What happened -- fall over the sand in your shoes?"

The tendons under Starsky's grasp knotted, and Hutch coughed horribly. Clinging, Starsky bent nearer, trying to brace him against the suffering, but the initial shock would be wearing off, the full impact beginning to hit.

"Easy, Hutch -- lie still, there. Easy."

"I can't leave you here." Maggie groaned, "not like this. What if -- "

"Never mind what if!" Starsky said. "We need help, and you're the only one who can go for it."

"All right." She sounded shaky, but determined. "All right. I'll go."

Leaning over Hutch's head, she whispered something to him. His gasps were muffled for a moment as she kissed him. Then she sat up and hugged Starsky, surrounding him in a soft anguish.

"Take care of him," she breathed. "I love you. Both of you."

"Mag, honey, the sooner you leave, the sooner you'll be back," he reminded.

Her finger traced the line of his sunburned nose and rested on his lips. He kissed it.

"I'll be back as fast as I can, I swear it. I'll be back."

"You do that. And be careful out there. There may be more of those turkeys lookin' for us. Got your revolver? Okay. It's a long way. Better get movin'. And for God's sakes, Mag -- be careful. We're dependin' on you."

And she was up, one of the canteens sloshing at her hip. Her footsteps crunched away in the sand, and after a few minutes, he couldn't hear her anymore. Then he was alone, sitting on the dune, alone with the rising breeze, the dying crackling of the burnt-out copter, and the short, sharp breaths of the friend lying against him. Overhead, the sun rose to zenith, hidden now and then by scudding clouds. If Starsky could have looked up, he would have scowled. The clouds were canyons -- tall, reaching up in vaulting clumps that flattened into anvils at their crests. A summer storm was brewing, reaching down from the north, one of those rare but vital August cloudbursts that promise survival for the indigenous creatures of the dry lands. For intruders, it was another face of peril in a place where indifferent nature still reigned unfettered.

Chapter 9 by Connie Faddis

Agony was a constant: background noise of the universe, sometime almost not there, other times the whole reality. Between the awful heat outside and the worse cold inside and the sharp stabbing in his ribs and lulls of duller throbbings elsewhere, were only black waves of nonexistence, stealing his breath, smothering his mind. He fought the black-outs, fearing those preview of advancing death, but they always won. And then he would slowly come back to the world of flaring sun and white-blue sky and grey-streaked clouds and sand and Starsky. One more reprieve. A few more careful breaths. Another draught of suffering vaguely sweetened by· having someone there to care. At least there was that.

Sometimes he was even lucid. Sometimes he could follow the maddening one-sided conversation that his partner had kept up for what seemed like weeks, but could only be hours. Sometimes he could even contribute something -- at least a wisecrack or a little laugh -- though it cost him. It took mostly all his strength and breath to keep on top of the stabbing in his chest and the encroaching blackness. But Starsky didn't seem to mind. He would heap another handful of sand onto Hutch's body somewhere, screening out the sun, and talk on and on.

" -- guess she's a good halfway to the nearest swimming pool by now, huh? I'll tell ya, I've had my fill of sand and beaches. I don't care if I never see one again. Wait'll Huggy sees this sunburn. By the time we get outta here, we'll be scorched enough to join the Black Panthers. Hey -- maybe now Huggy'll introduce us to some of his ladies. Maybe we'll even rate bein' called ''brother,' huh? Don't know about eatin' things like greens and chitlins, though. I don't think they'd taste much like pizza -- "

" -- shut up -- "

Starsky sat up, trailing cascades of sand, and leaned into Hutch's point of view.

"You say something, partner?"

Hutch caught another shallow breath. This was ridiculous. Ludicrous. Wonderful.

" -- shut up -- " he repeated, not meaning it.

"Okay," Starsky said cheerfully. "Hey, want another sip of water?"

Water. Oh God, yes, water.

"Yeah," he managed.

Patting the sand behind him, Starsky found the canteen. By its sloshing, it was still half-full.

"Here we go," Starsky said, and slipped a hand under Hutch's head, lifting slightly. The motion sent a piercing pain through Hutch's chest, but it was gone almost immediately. Starsky tilted the canteen and offered the spout. "Just a little, now."

Hutch gulped the water -- delicious, hot, sweet water -- and Starsky tipped the canteen back, shutting off the flow.

" -- more -- "

"Sorry, Hutch. Not just now."

Letting Hutch down very gradually, Starsky closed the canteen and set it aside, then dug Hutch's arm up out of the sand and put his fingers around the wrist, sitting quietly. Hutch squinted up at him in the brilliance. The sun went behind a cloud and things came into better detail.

The joking cheerfulness was a facade. Starsky looked unmistakably ill. He'd tied a new strip of cloth over his eyes, but the rest of his face was ghastly. His sunburned cheeks were striped with dried rivulets of blood.

Thunder rumbled in the distance. Lucid for the moment, Hutch realized that the storm they'd worried about that morning was fast approaching. There was a stiff wind, but it wasn't cooling anything, being more like a moving blast furnace than anything else. At least the sun wasn't beating on them like it had. The clouds overhead were nearly solid, horizon to horizon.

Starsky released his wrist, but made no comment. Thunder rolled across the valley again. Starsky's head went up, as though he could actually see the sky.

"Christ," he said. "I can't remember whether I closed the living room windows in my apartment. If it rains in, my stereo will be fritzed. A six hundred dollar stereo, and my window coulda been open for a week by now! Hell, I'll be lucky if the damn thing's still there at all, or anything else in the place, by the time we get back..."

" -- tough -- "

"What kind of talk is that! I built that whole stereo with my bare hands."

" -- and my soldering iron --" he tried to put a little voice in it " -- which you -- still have -- "

"Bitch, bitch, bitch. You know where it is anytime you want -- "

But blades drove into Hutch again, garbling Starsky's voice, washing the sky out in scarlet explosions. Somewhere, far away. gentleness was wrapped around his hand, soothing, frightened.

"Hutch, hey Hutch," the voice was pleading. "What is it, huh? You okay?"

No, not okay. Maybe never okay again.

The cramps eased slightly, so that he could at least think. Some kind of spasms in his abdomen. Knew he'd been hit, but it was his ribs that had caught fire, not his gut. Must have gone deeper. Maybe he was torn inside somewhere. Didn't know. It was hard to reason. The stab hit again, then, deeper, washing through him in a hot-cold wave, and he arched against it helplessly. The movement doubled the agony.

"Lie still, partner, be still," Starsky was telling him. "You'll hurt yourself worse."

Can't help it. Can't.

Arms enfolded him, then, taking care not to jar him and add to the pain. Warmth pressed close, a comfort against the onslaught, but the universe trembled, and he and Starsky with it.

Please make it stop. Please... make it stop...

"Try to relax, now, you'll be okay, you're okay now, I'm here, go it easy, partner, take it easy. I'm right here with you, you'll be okay," came again and again, as though from an echo chamber, and the attack did ease, and Starsky was holding onto him, mechanically stroking his head over and over while reciting his litany against despair. "You'll be okay. You'll be okay..."

Gradually, the pain receded. If he stayed very still, if he took only tiny, hurried breaths, it was bearable. The dry air was parching his nose and mouth.

" -- water -- " he asked.

"You can't."

" -- please -- "

"You can't, Hutch. No more water. I'm really sorry."

There was plenty of water left. But Hutch realized all at once why he could have no more. The pain attack. It could have been from spasming muscles, or from leaking water somewhere inside of him. He had no idea which. The implications terrified him.

" -- Starsk -- "

"Shhhh. Shhhh." Starsky still clung to him, his lungs heaving in time to Hutch's.

Deja vu. Huggy's room, doubled up in the bedspread, hurting inside then, not so different from now, with Starsky's strong arms around him, the only touch-point with what was real and free of drugged horror. He'd come through that, he'd made it then. They would make it now. They had to. Had to hold on. Only this time, the arms around him were shaking, too, and it wasn't just a matter of gritting teeth and sweating it through.

Hutch truly had no strength to spare, but he spent what he had and slid his free arm around his friend, enduring the torture the movement cost him.

" -- you okay? -- " he murmured.

"Yeah, sure. I'm right here," Starsky said. "Shush, now."

A spatter of wetness pelted Hutch's ear. Rain? He turned his head slowly to the sky. Gloom spread over them, looming. The thunder had become a low, almost continuous growl. Another huge drop splashed his chin.

"Guess you're gonna get your water," Starsky sighed. He reached across Hutch and pulled another handful of sand over them. "Not the way you had in mind, though."

Then the clouds let go, and the warm droplets came down in earnest.

Chapter 10 by Connie Faddis

It always amazed Maggie how the rain that fell in deserts, whenever it finally got around to raining, it came down with such a vengeance, as though nature was determined to get the entire business done right there and then for the rest of the year. As often as not, at least in the inner Mojave, that was literally the case: one or two rains per year, in a full-blown deluge. Yet, as hard as it would come down, the water would disappear in just as big a hurry. Not that it seeped into the ground, that ground was baked adobe in most places, and the rain ran right off it like it ran off the asphalt in Los Angeles. It made little rushing rivulets that became gushing streamlets that joined into rampant flashfloods that could crush trees, carry away tractor-trailers, and drown any human or animal with the poor luck to get into its path. Many desert roads, even the highways, plunged in and out of deep depressions to allow the occasional torrents to cross, paying homage and offering warning with road signs that said, DIP. DO NOT ENTERWHEN FILLED WITH WATER. And sometimes they did fill with water, all the way to the crest, often twelve to fifteen feet of rampaging flood. Sometimes, the water overflowed even that.

Maggie paused in slogging through the vast momentary puddles between the bushes of Mormon Tea to look back toward the south. The worst of the grey-black grazed the ground back there, and the sky flickered every few seconds with lightning. Ken and Davey were in that, somewhere. Somewhere very close to a wash. And washes sometimes overflowed. Dunes were sometimes struck by lightning. People died in desert storms as easily as in desert dryness. She tried not to think about that. There was nothing she could do about it. She was doing the only thing she could do. She was going for help.

Help? She hadn't been of much help to them. She'd been a burden, if anything. Even her taking them in, inviting them to the camp, had been for selfish motives, she admitted it now. Life since Wade's death had been one grim bout of anger and depression after another, and she'd wanted Ken and Davey's companionship as a combined distraction and target. They reminded her acutely of Wade: absorbed in their careers, convinced of their personal and professional worth, taking life by the horns and rolling with the punches. Certain, more than anything, that what they did with their time could make a measurable difference in the quality of life, theirs and other people's. She used to envy them that, while never quite understanding it.

Until the night Wade died -- until Dave Starsky came to the door of her and Wade's home, with his hands overlapped grimly in front of him and his eyes bloodshot and fixed on the rug -- none of Wade's police work ever seemed real. Wade never brought it home. It had always been, and stayed, on a fairy-tale level with spy show, westerns, and the rest of the play violence of television and films. When reality came crashing in, Maggie had had nothing to brace herself. She caved in, putting up a "Don't worry, I'm a survivor" front just long enough to find a legitimate excuse to run away.

But reality had followed.

Reality. Unreality. One seemed to flow into the other.

Broad-jumping a thin, silty stream, she landed on an embankment, but it crumbled under her. The little current caught her, dragging her a dozen feet before she could stop running with it. She hauled up out of the stream, back onto the flats, not thinking about how cold it was becoming, how far she had to go. One foot in front of the other, the low mountain to her left, she went back onto autopilot, half-dreaming as she walked.

What was real? What was fantasy? Where did dreaming end and living begin, or the uppermost mind break off from the depths?

Some part of herself had broken off when the helicopter came. Thinking back, the memory unwound like a technicolor filmstrip. Reality had been the copter firing. Ken running across the dunes. Davey sprawling in the wash. Bullets flying. Noise. Then Ken crumpling as though an invisible hand had suddenly flattened him.

That was when the unreal thing happened. Some part of her had shut off; or, maybe, some part of her she didn't know had awakened. What happened next, what she had done, was only hazy snippets of memory. Davey's gun, bigger than her own little Special. Wind and sand whipping and a mouth full of grinning teeth under mirrored sunglasses leering down at her. Raising her hands together at the face. The teeth exploding inwards. The copter tipping and spinning once. and hitting the plain not far across the wash, and then the shocks and flame. And knowing she had killed. The leering pilot and his companions dead and forever ruined, gone. Then, then even the strange part of her had shut down, and there was nothing until Davey's shout had brought her back, called to her from beside Ken.

I killed someone. I killed at least two people. Two people are dead because I shot at them.

Abruptly, Maggie found herself shrieking, her left foot stinging, and she hopped away a respectful few yards from the ground-cactus and sat down in a puddle. The low growing opuntia's spines were capable of penetrating leather, and Maggie yelped as she tried to yank the spines out of her boot toe without breaking them off. Most of them broke off. It was almost impossible to get the wet boot off. Eventually, she did, and broke off the points inside and picked those she could out of her toes.

Working the shoe on again, she sat up straight and took a look around. It had stopped raining where she was, but south of her, blue-black veils still trailed across the valley. She glanced at her watch, found that it had stopped at eleven-oh-six, just about the time she had killed that pilot.

No. Don't think about that. That was something you had to do, your subconscious knew it even if the rest of you denied it. If you'd given up then, that man might still be alive, but Ken and Davey and you would be dead. You did what you had to do, and there was no else who could have done it for you. Face that. Accept it. The days of ivory towers are all gone, and what's left now will have to be good enough. Will be good enough.

Something in that clicked. Sometimes there are things that must be done, and you are the only person who can do them.

Like now. Like getting up and going for help, because you're the only one who can. Because if you don't, if you give up and sit here and shut down systems, two of the last people who will put up with you, and accept you as the flawed but decent human being that you know you are, will lie out there and die. No one else knows where they are. Neither of them can help themselves. You are it.

Climbing back to her feet, she took deep breaths and started walking again. It was getting dark behind the clouds. Sundown. About eight or eight-thirty. If she'd maintained her expected pace. that would mean four or five miles to go. The dirt road into the Playground area should cut back near the ridge near here. It would be easier travelling along the road. There was the problem of possibly running into more of the assassins, but if she didn't get help soon, the desert would finish Davey and Ken as surely as a killer's bullet. No choice. The added risk to herself didn't seem to matter.

And with that, realization flooded in. She understood it. She understood how the risks and sacrifices and sometimes suffering fit into the lives people like Wade and Ken and Davey made for themselves. It wasn't a death wish, no sublimated suicidal tendency, it was necessity. There was a task that needed doing; it entailed risks, but the necessity overruled.

The ground sped under her aching feet, and the day waned. To the west, a maroon glow announced the breakup of the storm, and Venus hung like a pearl on a chain through a gap in the clouds. It was becoming treacherous to walk without light. Maggie had to slow down. She couldn't afford to cripple herself in more cactus, or break an ankle in a washed-out chuckhole. She turned a bit more toward the west, hoping to come to the road sooner. Once on it, she could relax most of the navigational worries. It couldn't be far -- the flats to the northwest looked very much like the soda lake, which would be filled now, and the road was on· this side of the lake.

Then she heard it. Still a distance away, the thundering of water was unmistakable. Of course, The Mojave River sink. Water flowed into it so seldom that for most purposes, it was nothing more than a notation on the topo map. But the last time it had run -- during the rainstorm in July -- it had cut her off from the outside world for two days.

She took her time getting to the edge of the flood. It was a cataract. The masses of soda foam picked up from the eastern deposits glowed in the dimness with near phosphorescence. The opposite shore was thirty feet away, probably more. The gully, she recalled, was at least ten feet deep. And the river was swift and full of massive debris from the foothills it drained.

Maggie sat down, ready and willing to cry, but she seemed to have cried herself out earlier in the day. Instead, she watched the foam bob past her, catching in little eddies, then sweeping on down-current with the main flow. There was nothing more she could do. Crossing in that current was out of the question. Raised in dry places, Maggie had a distrust of bodies of water larger than a bath tub, and could just barely dog-paddle. A swimming champion would be drowned in that.

Closing her eyes, she shivered for the first. The constant walking had held off the chill before, but now she was left with nothing. It was cold, and dark, and muddy. She buried her head in her arms, pulling her knees close to her body, and tried to blank her mind.

I'm sorry, Ken, Davey. I did the best I could. I swear to God I did.

The last strip of maroon faded in the west, and Venus set behind some clouds. Then, there was no light at all: no stars, no moon, and no hope.

Chapter 11 by Connie Faddis

It was a strange sensation, to burn up inside while icing over outside. The wind on rain-slicked skin shook Starsky's body like an engine missing on six cylinders, but the real shivers were shock waves coming from the furnace inside him. He was sick, and getting sicker. His eyes were two globes of throbbing heat. Worst, his brain kept trying to wander away from him at every chance, not interested much in what was going on outside and not making much sense of what was happening inside. It wanted him to dream or go to sleep. He couldn't let himself do either. Not now. Not yet. Something was going down outside. Going down. Hutch... Hutch was what was going down.

Death was not much of a mystery to Starsky. He'd seen a lot of it -- delivered some of it in what he always had to remember was in the line of duty, sometime part of the work of protecting folks who couldn't protect themselves. Death. Dying. Going down. It was cold taking over on both inside and the outside, and it never let you go once it had you. It took warm touchable skin and made it permanent ice. And when it finally thawed, what was left was empty, fit for garbage, needing to be disposed. The ultimate thief, and it was stealing Hutch from him. He knew it. He'd known it in a corner of his heated brain for several hours.

The long, once-strong body he lay against still shivered too, though the rain had stopped. Hutch had no inner fire to stoke him, lend him even the restless strength of fever. The only warmth he had was Starsky's, where Starsky was curled against him. It wasn't enough against the night chill. Hutch was slipping, slipping... Starsky could feel it in the weakening shudders, hear it in the struggling breaths. The knowledge ached in his chest with a sick desperation he'd known too well before: cancer that ate his grandpa away to a stick·figure in a funeral suit; blood-spouting wounds that wrenched his dad away right before his child's eyes; body-smashing bullets that left Walt, his first partner, a ruined husk on a warehouse floor; bleeding brain-wound that tore his girl Terri from his arms and life. And Hutch now. Warm, laughing, tense, dependable, thoughtful, crazy, loving Hutch. His partner. Oh God, not Hutch....

He didn't know he was sobbing aloud until cold fingers grazed his face.

"Oh Hutch," he heard himself groan. He gathered up the vagrant bits of his attention, needing to pull himself together, be together now, for Hutch. It was harder to focus his mind, not being able to see. He concentrated on the touch at his cheek -- icy, feeble, caring... real. The fever's grasp slackened and he was wide awake. He slid his arm from its embrace of Hutch's shoulder and grasped the thin fingers. Frigid. Already.

"Hutch," he said, "it's all right. I was just dreamin'."

"It's cold..." The whisper was faint, the voice frightened. "...so cold... won't make it... like this..."

"Shhhh." He didn't know what to say. "We'll be okay, soon as we dry off a bit. Here, this'll help." He draped as much of his body over Hutch's as his partner's seeping wounds allowed. At least the damned storm had gone. Rain, and now this cold. All kinds of bad news, for both of them. For Hutch especially. The cold... and the runoff water... between them, the only hope was washed out. He'd hoped, earlier, before the rain, that Hutch would make it through the night if necessary, that Maggie would be back, that help would come. But the nearby growl of the filled wash told him otherwise. The desert Maggie was travelling would be crisscrossed by many such obstacles, and each one could be a deathtrap. No way in hell was she going to make it out to help by morning -- if she made it at all. Even if she did -- too late for Hutch. Too late, too late. God in heaven.

Shuddering, he tried to calm himself. His mind was hazy, but he had to keep himself together. Otherwise it would be too heavy to endure. Hutch's frame of mind terrified him. Had to do something about that. Something. Anything.

"Hey, Hutch? Try to ease up on the shivering bit, huh? Keep it up and you'll vibrate the two of us halfway to China, and then what will Mag think?"

"Starsky..."

"I don't know what gets into you sometimes. Who told you to go running out into the open, anyhow, and try to shoot down a friggin' copter all by yourself? You've been watchin' too many war flicks again. Next you'll tell me your old man wasn't an architect at all, he was really Lawrence of Arabia."

"Starsk..."

"Y'know, I think you missed your calling. Should have been an actor, Hutch, you'd have looked terrific in a white burnoose. 'Come weeth me to the Kasbah...'"

"Starsky!" Hutch almost shouted it, then gasped through set teeth. "For God's sake..."

"Shhhh," Starsky hushed, alarmed.

"I'm... trying to... say goodbye," Hutch pleaded. "Won't you... let me say... goodbye?"

"Don't talk like that," Starsky said, wincing. "You're gonna be fine. You'll make it, you'll see."

"It's not... the dying, so much," Hutch went on, "it's that... it'll be over... everything..."

"Hey -- "

"...all we get... and you'll be... left alone."

A place in Starsky's chest constricted savagely, and his heated braincells swept him away, to another time and place: his poisoned body dying by degrees, mad search for the elusive antidote, and Hutch saying "It's always hardest on the ones left behind." A joke that was no joke at all. Not then. Not now.

"Well," he began, needing to say something, thoughts reeling, "well, just hold on there, babe, 'cause the good times aren't over yet."

Your pain hurts me, partner... Don't add mine to what you're already carrying.

"You're crazy..." Hutch's voice was so soft that Starsky had to put his ear to Hutch's face to make out what he was saying. "You're totally nuts... you know that?"

"Yeah, I've been told. They say God looks out for fools and old cops, so I figure we got it made."

The answering laugh turned into a cough. "That's one reason... I guess I love you... so much... You never... give up."

The sob in his chest threatened to crush him, and Starsky bit down hard on it. Hutch said that? Oh God, oh God, where are we, what's happening to us? Shifting position, he dug one hand through the sand under Hutch's neck, lifting very gently until his partner's head was cushioned on his shoulder. He found Hutch's icy right hand and drew it close, careful not to chafe the scrapes on it.

"You know who you remind me of? Huh?"

" -- Who?"

"Remember that dog, Smokey, I had when I was a kid? You remind me of that old dog of mine."

Whatever Hutch answered, it was lost in another bout of shivers.

"Do you know that crazy hound followed me to Rutger's Elementary every day for two years? And he never got hit by a car, not once, not even crossing Castenada Boulevard. That was because he was with me, y'·understand. Then one day, he got a notion and tried it alone. I don't know why, and Whup! he gets hit. Not too bad, but enough to put his ass in a sling for a while. Just like you. The only time you get your ass in a sling is when you try something dumb on your own. Think you'd know better by now."

It wasn't working. There was no laugh, no denial, no response of any kind. Hutch was dying, and all the jokes, stories, teasing, or tears they could manage weren't going to stop it. So little time left... where was joy? There must be some left somewhere, a little left to share yet, somewhere. Rage blazed in Starsky -- anger for the unfeeling universe that was letting this happen to them. But he was too worn to hold onto the feeling, make it last. It dissolved on a wave of chills, leaving a bitter aftertaste. Despair.

He had a sudden, overpowering desire to look at Hutch, to take in his face, to look in his eyes and say the things to those eyes that had never needed to be put into fumbling words. Friend who is more than a brother... But even if he lifted the bandage, even if it weren't the dark of night in a storm-cloaked desert, his eyes would see nothing but blurs of greyed-out color. Denied sight, he made his free hand be his eyes.

The skin of Hutch's face had dried, but was cold as death already. The muscles were drawn taut in a grimace, and the jaw trembled as the teeth chattered. The soft, drying hair was caked with sand. A wet pathway ran from each eye socket into the sideburns. He wiped at the wetness with aching tenderness, and laid his cheek against Hutch's hair.

"...Starsk?"

"Right here."

"...the streets... alleys... all the dives... garbage... shit we took... it was okay... worth it... We did some... good work together...

"Shhhhh."

"...and I'm not sorry... Would've like more... but no regrets, okay?"

Starsky's throat tightened, crying for him silently. After a few seconds, he forced down a swallow.

"Okay," he said, trying to keep the grief out of his voice. "You too, partner."

The breaths against his cheek were coming faster, more shallowly, but the constant shivering was slowing, Hutch seeming to deflate gradually in his arms. For long minutes, they laid together quietly, no sounds but their labored breathing and the background thundering of the flooded wash.

" -- Hey ?"

"Yeah, Hutch."

Shaky breaths. A swallow. Voice less than a whisper.

"...do something?"

"Sure."

"...don't... blame yourself."

Starsky's grimace was almost a smile. Hot tears stung his blood-sealed eyes, no more to be denied.

"Make you a deal. I won't blame me if you don't blame you."

The answering laugh was feeble, but a laugh nonetheless.

"Deal -- " Hutch began, but a violent convulsion arched him back, wringing a wavering cry from him. Starsky clung as closely as he dared, knowing what was happening. Torn muscle cramping. Gut-shot. The spasm went on and on.

"Hutch -- Hutch, easy. Easy now. Easy -- "

" -- oh God -- hold me -- "

"I have you, partner, I'm right here with you," he breathed. "Right here, just hang on now."

" -- not so bad when you hold me -- "

The pain seemed to ease, but Starsky did not slacken his embrace.

"Okay. Okay. I won't let go." He made himself say it. "I love you, man. I won't let go. Never let go. But you hang on yet, Hutch." It isn't time yet. "You just hang on, because I'm not gonna let you go, you hear?" Not by yourself. Not all alone. We had good times. We'll go out together. "I'll take good care of you. Don't I always take good care of you? So go to sleep now. Just take it easy, and try to sleep. It's all right. I'll be right here with you. Be right with you." By tomorrow, anyway. Fever's got me, and the cold's doing its bit too.

The tremors stopped completely, finally, and Hutch's body began to untense, slipping toward coma's merciful embrace, but the hand in Starsky's stirred weakly, seeking freedom, and Starsky released it. The fingers crept hesitantly up his face, then curled in his hair. The head on his shoulder slowly rolled to him, and cold lips touched at his throat in a kiss.

"S'okay," Hutch breathed, at peace. "Take care..."

The hand loosened. Starsky covered it with his own.

By tomorrow, Hutch, I'll be with you.

"Go to sleep, partner... Go to sleep."

Chapter 12 by Connie Faddis

Clinging. Maggie felt as though she'd spent several lifetimes clinging to the soggy chunk of palo verde tree that barely would float, but was the only buoyant thing big enough to take her weight. Thrown up onto the shore of the sink, it took all her strength to push it back into the current, and then cling to it as it bobbed and bounced in the flood. Her arms were frozen concrete, abraded, but locked onto the wood. Her torso and legs were cramping hunches of chilled muscle. Sand and water scoured her face as the waves lapped up and over her head, and the branch plunged in the rapids. Within minutes, her limbs were too numb to feel the bruising of stationary rocks. Her world was bounded by gritty flying water and biting gasps of air and a death-grip on the branch that she hoped would eventually carry her onto the other shore.

How long she bobbed and clung and tried to breathe sandy water, she didn't know. It took a long time until she realized that she was no longer in the rapids, that the waves had stooped slapping her face. She could breathe. And something odd was happening. There were voices, and the branch under her was moving, but jerkily, sideways, as though being towed.

"It's a woman," someone was shouting. "Where's that blanket?"

Hands gripped her under the arms with incredible strength -- no one could be so strong, could they? -- and lifting her like a child from the branch, waded out of the eddie onto the bank. The right bank. Oh thank God... The strong person put her down onto an acre of wonderful softness, which was then wrapped around her, shutting out the sudden chill wind. Maggie sagged back into the blanket, wanting nothing more than to sleep for a millennium.

"Here we go, Miss," a voice insisted, and lifted her head. The smell of steaming coffee shocked her, and she opened her eyes. A thermos cup was near her lips, and she sipped obediently. It was black, and the most delicious drink she could imagine. Some part of her mind chuckled distantly: normally, you hate the stuff.

There were other voices, now, and the sounds of vehicles. Headlights. Lanterns. She looked up into the lantern-lit face of her rescuer. It was a lean face with alert eyes, pale in the cold light, no one she had ever seen before. She took a breath to speak, and began to cough, her throat trying to rid itself of river.

"Who -- are you?" she wheezed.

"Bob Pershing, FBI," he said, then looked past her, not noticing her look of horror. "Right over here, men. Spotted her while looking for a crossing."

FBI! -- Ken had said the people hunting them down were FBI. Maggie tried to gather herself, to run, to grab for a gun, to at least scream -- but her abused body failed her. She lay inert in the blanket, her only response a shudder. Then another person knelt by her, and she looked up into what would probably be death. Instead, it was a face she knew.

"Captain Dobey!" she sobbed, and Dobey reached over and lifted her enough to get his arms around her and give her a fatherly bearhug.

"There, there now, Margaret. You're safe, you're just fine," he said. "We've been looking for you. Are Hutch and Starsky at your camp?"

"Oh god, Captain Dobey -- " she hiccoughed with relief " -- they're hurt. I had to leave them. I was the only one who could go for help, and when that man said he was from the FBI and the people who shot at us were from the FBI --"

"Slow down, slow down. These feds are on our side. The boys are hurt? Where did you leave them?"

"In the dunes, maybe ten miles back. But we can't get there, the flashfloods -- "

"I know. We've been hunting a way to cross for most of an hour. We put in a call for a chopper, it should be here soon. Can you point out the place on a map?"

"Yes, I think so. We were running, away from the road, on foot, and a helicopter came and shot Ken while he was trying to protect us, because Davey was already hurt, he's blind, and I'm pretty sure just about where were. I was careful to note it before I left them, because I had to get help back. We've got to hurry, Captain Dobey, they've been out there, hurt, since this this morning, and -- "

"Calm yourself, Margaret. I'll find you a map. You drink your coffee, and try to collect your thoughts." He handed the cup back to her, and turned to another man who had joined them, crouching by the bank.

"You were right, Buehler," Dobey said. "That missing Bureau copter was sent after my men, but I think they downed it."

"That accounts for the last of the defectors, then," Buehler said. "With the confessions from the bunch of them we nailed at the hospital last night, I think we'll have the whole crew of them. Imagine that: I worked with Rotsler and Schull for sixteen years, and never had an inkling that they were mixed up in anything like this. There'll be quite a shake-up in Washington after this."

"There'll be a hell of a shake-up right here if we don't get some medics to my men. Mrs. Landis here said Hutchinson was shot by your copter. You use pretty heavy ammo in those things, don't you?"

Buehler looked away uncomfortably.

"And she said Starsky was blinded. Did you request paramedics on that chopper you called?"

"Yes, I did. I'll raise them on the radio and see if they can get here any faster. We'll set up a landing site using the Jeep headlights."

Maggie listened to the conversation passively, but when Buehler stood up and left, she caught Dobey's arm.

"Captain, what are you doing out here? How did you find me?"

"The assassins made another attempt to murder a witness we had under wraps in a hospital, but Buehler's men captured them. Under interrogation, it came out that a team had been sent to finish off Hutch and Starsky. The last call Hutch put in with Huggy Bear was from the truck stop where you work. We drove up, showed photos around, and the cook recognized Hutch as the man you left with on Friday morning. He gave us the location of your camp, and said he was worried because you hadn't showed up for work on Friday night."

"Good old Zuiko. I owe that old hash-slinger a big hug."

"He was very helpful," Dobey agreed. "In any case, we tried to drive to your camp on the road, but the flashflood had washed it out, and we sent Pershing and his partner upstream to try to find another crossing while we waited for the chopper. Are you feeling better, Margaret? I'd like you to come with us in the chopper. You know the country better than we do. It won't be easy to find two men out there in the dark."

"Yes, I'll come. I promised Dave I'd bring help. Captain, I hope we're not too late. Ken was bleeding -- " she winced -- "He was in a bad way." She put her hands to her face. "I don't think I could handle any more funerals this year."

"You made an incredible trek getting here. No matter what the outcome, you did the best you could -- better than most, I dare say. Your husband would be proud of you."

"Wade..." Maggie gazed upward, where stars were now brilliant in the clear sky. The Milky Way was an arc of crushed diamonds across the zenith. "If I were religious, I'd almost think he was with me today."

"I'm a devout Christian, Margaret, and don't doubt it at all."

The whop-whop of an approaching helicopter echoed across the terrain. It was a powerful sound, and when it zoomed over then, Maggie saw U.S.M.C. in large white letters on the belly of the huge bird. It must have come from the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base, about eighty miles to the southwest. The chopper began to descend toward the groundglow of Jeep lights just over the rise.

"Do you think you can walk yet?" Dobey asked.

"If you help me up."

He practically lifted her bodily, then draped his heavy windbreaker around her shoulders.

"Sorry I can't offer you a change of clothes," he said. "We'd better hurry."

Chapter 13 by Connie Faddis

The moon had risen again, a shadow less than its fullness of the night before, and it painted the desert in pale, silver light. Below, the valley was a lacework of glistening streams of water, most of which would be nothing but deposits of mud by morning, waiting to be baked into cracked and curling crusts. Under the moonlight and the chopper's powerful searchlights, the seas of dunes cast strange double shadows. For all the eeriness, the dune-deposits, soda-lake, and ribbon of washed-out road were sufficient as landmarks, and when the searchlight fixed on a largish hunk of twisted metal -- the downed helicopter -- it was a moment's work to spotlight the huddled figures in the sand across the wash. The chopper swung toward them, searching for a firm, level place to land. Buzzing low over the men in the dunes, a sudden Whack! hit the windshield and grazed the glass around it.

"Holy shit, that guy's shooting at us!" the pilot yelled. He took the chopper up like an express elevator and veered out of range.

"It's Davey," Maggie said. "He thinks we're the assassins!"

The pilot turned to Buehler.

"We can't land there, sir, even without the shooting. The nearest site I see is in those flats a mile east of us."

"Can you pick a man up in a stretcher from down there while you hover?" Buehler asked, his long face pinched.

"No problem there. But how does anyone get close enough to that maniac to disarm him?"

"Can you put down a ladder?" Dobey asked.

"Yes sir, but you're a sitting duck in the air. Better pull back a few hundred yards."

"The man firing is blind," said Dobey. "He was only shooting at the sound."

"Damned good shot for a blind man," the pilot muttered. "Mr. Buehler, you're in command. What do you want to do?"

"I can go down," Maggie interrupted. "I can get to him. He won't shoot me -- he's expecting me."

"Excuse me, Miss, but it's not as easy climbing down a rope ladder that's dangling in midair as it usually looks to people who haven't tried it," the pilot said.

"I crossed a flooded wash tonight without knowing how to swim," Maggie said. "I can climb down a blasted ladder."

"I'm coming, too," said Dobey.

"Pardon me, Harold," Beuller spoke up, "but this is my show, those are my witnesses and -- ahem -- you're not exactly in shape for gymnastics. Ms. Landis, I'll go down first, you follow with the Corpsmen."

The pilot nodded. "Okay, Corporal, get the ladder down. I'll leave you off over the southern dunes, where our friend won't be as likely to shoot you. Good luck."

The wind generated by the enormous overhead blades was more than gusty, it was strong enough to knock an unsuspecting cat a good three blocks. Peering down out of the open chopper door, the spotlighted sand seemed abysmally far away, the nylon-and-aluminum ladder impossibly fragile. Maggie froze. But one of the medics cinched a line around her waist and half-helped, half-shoved her around the tight little twisting routine to grab the first rungs and lower herself into the air. She hung there a moment, her eyes squeezed shut, an odd ache in the soles of her feet. Then a hand tapped hers, and she looked up into the Corpsman's face -- a face that could hardly be more than eighteen.

"Go ahead, Miss, I'm right behind you," the boy yelled, hefting his medical kit.

Davey and Ken were down there waiting for her. Careful, now, careful. She eased her foot onto the next rung. Releasing her death grip on the first rung, she lowered away. If she didn't look down, she wouldn't be afraid. They weren't really more than thirty feet in the air. Not much different from climbing up and down from the cliff dwelling every day for five months, right? One foot after the other. Then Buehler's hands caught her waist, and she dropped the last yard onto the ground. She didn't wait for the Corpsmen or Buehler. Yanking the line from her belt, she dashed across the sand towards the wash.

"Davey! Ken! I'm back. It's me, Maggie!"

She scaled the last dune, scrambled over its crest, expecting -- she didn't know what. But Starsky didn't shoot. He was lying, unmoving, in the sand beside Hutch.

"Davey, it's me. We made it."

No response. She fell beside them.

"Davey? Ken?"

Starsky's bandaged face turned toward her slowly. His right arm was tangled under Hutch, his left hand flung across his partner, half-embracing Hutch, half-clutching the Baretta. Maggie peered at Hutch in the pale light. His fair hair stirred in the chill ground-breeze, but his face was vacant. He looked dead.

"Ken... oh no..."

Footsteps ran down the dune, and Buehler and the medics dropped next to her. In the harsh white glare of their lanterns, Hutch and Starsky were an intertwined smear of sand and gore. Maggie's stomach turned.

"Better move, Miss," one of the Corpsmen said, and leaned forward to separate the injured men. The Baretta snapped up into his face.

"Get outa here," Starsky growled, his words slurred. "Lemme alone."

"Davey, they're medics, they're here to help you."

"Can't," he said, pulling closer to Hutch. He shook his head weakly. "Can't."

"The other man is still breathing, but not by much," the medic opposite Hutch said quietly. "We'd better get this one disarmed quick."

Slowly, Buehler reached for the Baretta, but the leather of his jacket creaked as he moved, and Starsky turned the gun in his direction.

"Go 'way!" he grated, finger tightening on the trigger.

Buehler backed away.

"Sergeant Starsky, the medics are here to help you and your partner. Put the gun down and let them do their work," he said, hoping a voice of authority would reach the man. "Sergeant, put the gun down. Now!"

"No. No!" Starsky said. "You killed him! You... killed him..." He sobbed once and buried his face in Hutch's hair. "Jus' go away an' leave us alone."

The way he said "alone" raised goosebumps on Maggie's arm. She felt Buehler's gaze turn to her, met his pleading eyes. She nodded.

"Davey -- " She moved back to his side, watching his face, not the wavering gun. "It's me, Davey, it's Mag. Maggie Landis. Davey, listen to me. Ken is alive. Do you understand? He's still alive. But you have to let go of him now, so the medics can help him. All right? You can let go now. Let go."

"Can't," he moaned, voice muffled. "Can't let go. Can't y'see? Never let go. Promised. All I could do..."

Closing her eyes, heart in mouth, Maggie leaned over him, settling her forehead on his shoulder. He flinched, but didn't shoot. Slowly, gently, she wrapped her arms around him, feeling sudden, awesome fatigue.

"It's over, Davey, all over now," she soothed, tears slipping down her nose. "It's all right, you can let go. Let go and hold onto me, now. Please. I need you too, Davey. Hold me, please..." she cajoled. Reaching across his body, she pulled his arm toward her, and suddenly all the fight went out of him and he let go of the gun. His arm groped for her, and she wound it around her back, pulling him against her, sitting up, clinging to him, rocking him. He was a limp burden in her arms, and he began to cry softly.

A medic sat with them and took Starsky's pulse. Working around Maggie, he tried to get the other vital signs.

"I'm going to get a tranquilizer into him, Miss," the corpsman warned. "He may get violent when he feels the needle. "You'd better let go of him."

"I'll hold him," she said. "He won't hurt me." But her attention turned to Hutch. The other medic was bent close over the blond head. Maggie gulped as she realized he was working a long intravenous needle into Ken's neck while Buehler held the lantern.

Starsky's medic glanced over. "Jugular stick?" he commented.

"Have to."

"Need help? This one'll be under in a minute. I can lend you a hand."

"No, I've got it, corporal," he said, tapping the needle in place.

He handed Buehler a plastic bag of clear liquid, unslung the long tube under it, and attached it to the IV needle. "Ready, sir. How about you?"

Starsky's medic nodded. "Call it in while I get an IV going here, too."

The other medic hit the radio switch. "TP-23, ready for stretcher transport."

"Roger, ground crew. Got that wild man calmed down yet?"

"Affirmative on that, lieutenant. Drop the baskets and we'll send them right up. Oh, and notify San Bernardino General that we've got two shock-and-exposure cases, one critical with a gunshot wound."

"Miss?" Starsky's medic was tapping Maggie's arm. "Lay him down now, I want to get an IV into him."

"Wha's goin' on?" Starsky murmured. Maggie laid him in the sand, and his head lolled. "Huh? You tell me wha's goin' on."

The corpsman cleaned Starsky's arm, looking for a vein.

"Do you think they'll be all right?" Maggie asked, stroking Starsky's head.

"Can't say. If they've hung on since eleven o'clock this morning, like you said, they should be able to hang on a little while longer, though." He looked up at her briefly, his young face hopeful -- probably for her sake. "It's only an hour to the hospital. We'll do everything we can to get them there alive."

The chopper swung over them, its searchlight picking them out of the gloom. Above, the stretcher-baskets were coming down on a line. Maggie felt suddenly completely worn out. She sat back on her heels, swaying, and was surprised to find the FBI chief's free arm move around her to support her.

"We'll be out of here soon," Buehler yelled over the chopper's noise.

Maggie peered at the narrow, emotionless face, saw unexpected mildness in the grey eyes. Another hardened cop? No. A human being behind a professional facade. She looked away, making no reply. But she didn't move away from his support.

The corpsmen strapped Hutch into the carrier. The blankets mercifully hid the blood. The only evidence that the still form wasn't merely asleep was a single droplet from the intravenous needle that slowly trickled down his neck. His blue-lipped face was peaceful.

"Live," she whispered, a prayer.

The chopper's winch began to haul the basket up, and the medics turned to getting Starsky ready for transport. He, too, was quiet now. Everything was under control. The professionals were in charge. It was out of Maggie's hands.

She gazed up languidly at the full moon, too too bright for such a scene as this. Buehler's arm around her tightened.

"Oh God, I'm tired," she said, though he couldn't have heard her over the engines. But he got the message. All at once, her whole weight was in his arms, as she finally let go -- slumping in an exhausted heap.

Chapter 14 by Connie Faddis

No one would tell Starsky anything. People came and went through his foggy perceptions: poking at him, covering him, uncovering him, jabbing him with cold metal that pinched or stung, telling him to sleep, not letting him sleep, man-handling him onto and off of surfaces that sometimes didn't stay still beneath him. The chorus of voices filled his head full of words that said nothing. Even after the awful fever had burned itself out, after the wrenching nausea had passed and he knew he'd been in surgery and it was over and he was in a hospital limbo somewhere, no one seemed to want to tell him anything. They would say "Roll over, Sergeant," and "Sit up, Sergeant," and "I'm going to give you a little shot now, Sergeant," like he was back in the army, and they ignored his questions. There was something he needed to remember, but they kept him in a fog bank, and he drifted and held himself numb because he didn't know, and they were all strangers, and they wouldn't tell him. They wouldn't even give him a hint. Maybe they weren't allowed. He swam around weakly in the fog, and he dreamed:

Three white coffee cups on a black stone table... Two filled with grey poison... One with antidote... Except, one of the cups of poison had been drained into a hypodermic, and Vic Bellamy laughed... Starsky looked down at his arm and stared at the tiny puncture inside his elbow... Oh not that again, not that! and the ghost-face laughed. Across the table, Hutch lunged for the third cup... The antidote... But the second cup was in the way... The cure could not be had without first emptying the other. 'Don't do that!' he wanted to say, but the poison pain was coming down hard, and he couldn't speak... He was filling with cold greyness, and he could do nothing, only watch as Hutch lifted the cup, drank down the poison, and the last cup alone was left...

The table dissolved and Hutch was cradling him in one arm as one holds a child, and the third cup came and touched his lips with odd and insubstantial coolness that slipped into his mouth without his wanting it to enter... It slid down his throat like mist, and Hutch kept pouring it until the last drops were gone, and none was left... As Starsky watched, Hutch's skin began to blanch white, his blond hair becoming a solarized halo. His arms around Starsky turned to ice and began to melt. 'Don't leave me, Hutch,' he pleaded, trying to hold onto his partner, but Hutch was melting, turning into water that looked and felt like slushy blood, and there was a lake of crimson froth beneath them that spread and spread, and Hutch was smiling, a scary smile that meant the end of everything, and --

Starsky woke up screaming.

"Davey! Dave Starsky," a garbled voice was calling, and Starsky wanted to open his eyes to see, to make sense, to get out of the nightmare and escape to some other reality, but he was weighed down and his eyes seemed to be glued shut.

"Ohhhh..." he heard his own voice resound, echoing painfully inside his skull, and he remembered that he was in a hospital. Hospital in a fog somewhere.

"Davey, are you all right? Are you awake?"

"Huh?" That voice. Knew It. Who? Mag. Maggie.

"It's Maggie, Davey. Can you understand me? You were having hell's own nightmares. I was afraid you were delirious again."

"Mag?"

"That's right. You're safe, you're in a hospital, and you're going to be all right."

Hospital. Doctors. He realized why everything was dark. His eyes were bandaged, probably with surgical patches. And that cued everything else. His head cleared, and it all came back. And he remembered the thing he couldn't remember before. Hutch. Grief drove a razor of pain through him. Jesus... no...

"Davey?"

"How long?" was all he could get out.

"Well, they've kept you pretty heavily sedated for a couple of days because of the surgery. You were sick with quite a fever, too, they had you packed in ice at one point. The doctors say you're out of danger now, though, and your eyes are healing. You'll see again, though you'll have to keep the patches on for another week or so and -- " She paused. "What's wrong?"

He hardly heard her words. The first rush of anguish was fading into a sense of infinite weariness. He was alive, but it gave him no comfort.

"Davey, what is it?"

How could she understand? It was almost too much effort to answer.

"I made a promise... to Hutch. I -- " he swallowed drily -- "I didn't keep it."

"Well, can't it keep until you two get out?"

Stunned, his mind reeled, not sure he could trust his ears.

"What?"

"Good God," the voice said, coming nearer, "didn't they tell you? Ken is here, he made it. They took him out of Intensive Care this morning. He's in a room down the hall."

For a very long minute, Starsky couldn't speak.

"You mean --. but I thought -- but he... Oh God." His voice broke, and he turned his head away. He tried to raise his hands to his face, but his arms had no strength, and one was taped to an IV board. Maggie had the decency not to say anything, waited for him to recover.

"I gotta see him," he said finally. He cleared his throat with a harsh cough. "Well, I guess I can't really 'see' him, I mean be with him. Mag?"

"I'll try to find the doctor to ask -- "

"No, wait." An incredible feeling of restlessness was building in him, pumping adrenalin. No matter how crazy it seemed, he had to be sure. "They won't let me. They never let you do anything in these places. Find me a wheelchair, willya? I'm prob'ly little wobbly to walk. How long we been here, anyway?"

"It's Thursday, this is the fourth day. Davey, you've been flat on your back all that time. I don't think you should get up yet."

"If you don't help me, I'll knock on every room on the floor 'til I find him myself."

"You wouldn't get ten feet."

"Try me," he said, rolling to his side. His head spun as he sat up, and a needle in him jerked sharply. He might not make it three feet but he wasn't going to let on to Maggie.

"Stay put! I'll find a blasted wheelchair," she said.

He heard her leave and groped with his left hand right. The IV was run into a vein in the back of his hand. Gritting his teeth, he yanked it out, discarded the armboard. The nurses could give him hell later.

Something rattled by the door.

"Come on, we'll have to hurry. These wheels are hot," Maggie giggled. "I ripped them off from an old lady in the whirlpool bath down the hall."

Starsky got into the chair with a lot more trouble than he hoped was apparent.

"Whoops," Maggie said, and tucked a sheet around his lap. "Short nightie."

Silence seemed the best response to that.

"The coast is clear," she said, pausing before she wheeled him into the corridor.

The place sure smelled like a hospital. Starsky wrinkled his nose. It was fairly quiet, though, probably the end of a shift. His stomach gurgled, and he rubbed the back of his hand thoughtfully. Hospital food or glucose from a tube. Not much of a menu. He kept his hand busy with musing about what he would have for his first meal when they got out. Don't think. Don't think. Not yet...

The chair stopped, and Maggie walked around him, left for a minute, then came back.

"He's sleeping. Maybe we shouldn't -- "

"Take me in, huh?"

"Don't you think we -- "

"Please, Mag. Just park me next to him, and leave us alone for a while. 'Kay?"

"I'm going to be banned from the building after this," she sighed. "I'll wait out here and try to intercept any trouble."

"Mag, you're beautiful. You're a helluva friend." Her hand ruffled his hair, and he caught it. "When we get outa here, we'll have the biggest celebration L.A. ever saw."

"Or at least the rowdiest," she said, and squeezed his shoulder, then wheeled him into the room. "Shhhh. He's here on your left. I'll be back in ten minutes, if all hell doesn't break loose first."

Her footsteps moved away, and he heard the door close. The room was warm, and very quiet. Traffic hummed distantly. He listened, and could hear slow breathing, even and reassuring. Hutch. Alive.

Moving with exaggerated care, Starsky felt along the sheet on the bed, touched an arm. Tape, gauze. A plastic ID bracelet. He settled on warm fingers, and the tension in him drained away in a rush that left him faint with relief. He rested his head against the edge of the mattress, next to Hutch's hand. There was a slight movement up by the pillow, and the breathing quickened.

With the curtains pulled, it was dim in the room, and for a moment, Hutch couldn't see the form next to him clearly. He blinked sleepily and focused on the top of a curly head, dark, down by his hand. Fingers wrapped around his own. A wheelchair. A gauze band matting the brown hair against the skull.

"...Starsky?"

The shadowed face came up, hollowed cheeks glistening.

"It's me."

The traffic outside growled louder for a moment, then subsided.

"How... is it?" Hutch whispered.

"Okay. Still a little queasy. You?"

Starsky's hand on his was like the touch of springtime sunlight: gentle, and life-giving. An energy flowed through it into him, Hutch felt it surge. The too-long-and-slow pitched battle under the dismal ceiling lights of the Intensive Care ward, where it was always artificial day, where the only allies were tubes and pumps and plastics and chemicals and sterile faces in sterile gowns, where it hurt to move, it hurt to breathe, it hurt to think -- easier to die, but they wouldn't let him -- now he knew it was over. He had beaten the odds. They both had.

He savored the touching.

"I feel... lucky," he said fervently. "Very lucky."

"Me too," Starsky said. He couldn't hold back the happiness tugging at the corners of his mouth. So good... "Christ, Hutch, you sound like hell."

"You look... like hell." Hutch hesitated. "I asked about you... but all they said was... you had surgery. Starsk -- what about your eyes?"

"Haven't talked to the doc myself, yet, but Mag says it's okay, I'll be fine."

The intensity between them almost crackled. Hutch tried to turn his wrist, take his friend's hand, and Starsky slipped his fingers into Hutch's palm. They clung together, saying nothing for a while.

"Hey... buddy, listen," Hutch breathed. He felt an overwhelming need to put words to the confusion of emotions bubbling inside him. This person -- this human being with the crooked grin plastered on his face, the tears drying on his cheeks, the living warmth in his hand -- how much they had been through, together. It could not be grasped in a cohesive thought. "I love you, man." Hutch remembered it. The memory was clouded by pain and the sensation of hallucination that memories of pain always carried, but he knew it had been said. He remembered how he had tried to tell Starsky what he felt, too.

"Starsk..."

Starsky held his breath, bowed his head slightly, waiting. He knew that tone to Hutch's voice, Something heavy was coming. It had to.

Inevitable. Necessary. He was a little afraid -- but he also wanted it. If they were to come back to life, leave the pain behind, they had to recoup the lightness. And the only way to do that would be to acknowledge, not ignore or deny, the truth between them.

"The things I said... when I thought I was going to die," Hutch went on. "I meant them."

Starsky's heart was trying very hard to pound its way out through his chest. Curiously, his usual reaction, which would have been to grin and say something asinine, didn't grab him. Defenses down, he bit his lip, flustered. He couldn't belittle what had passed between them.

"I know, partner," he said. "So did I."

Hutch's grip tightened, and he sniffled. Reaching with his other hand to clasp Hutch's between both of his, Starsky somehow got the IV tube snarled around his wrist.

"Jesus," he giggled, because if he didn't laugh, he was going to cry again. "This is a helluva way to eat dinner. Or is it lunchtime?"

Hutch smiled helplessly. The electricity was still there, but it was bouncing mirthfully between them, reverbing, feeding on itself.

"If I'd known you were coming," he said. "I'd have ordered pizza."

Starsky laughed. "With pepperoni 'n anchovies!"

They were both giggling now, weak, feeble laughs, the hard moment past.

"And olives and peppers -- and onions -- if that's what you want," Hutch wheezed. "Oh God -- it hurts to laugh!" But it wasn't a complaint.

"You'll never get the olives to fit down the tube," Starsky cackled, and he felt so good that he threw his head back and hooted. "Yessir, give me some garbage pie! I'd kill for an anchovy."

"Oh Starsk -- oh hell -- I'd even eat a corndog!"

Limp with hilarity, they were defenseless when the head nurse barged in. She scolded everyone in sight, threatened Hutch with restraints and Starsky with a sedative, and carted the unrepentant Starsky back to his beef broth lunch and confinement.

When the uproar finally disappeared down the hallway, Hutch let himself relax into the mattress again, but he couldn't stop smiling. He was worn out -- plain sleepy, in fact -- and he knew he'd be dozing in a minute, but the tiredness had a different flavor. The heaviness hid gone out of it. His healing ribs throbbed from the boisterous activity, but it seemed a small price to pay. He could still feel the electricity he'd generated with his partner tingling through him. It was joy. More. It was love. You could go a long way on love. A million miles to the gallon, he thought drowsily. Maybe more... 

Chapter 15 by Connie Faddis

Chula Chula's was rather highbrow for an exuberant celebration, but the maître d' wisely steered the merrymakers to an inconspicuous corner behind a room-divider near the kitchen. He tried not to scowl at the garish orange sneakers on the noisy one. It could have been worse: at least the well-dressed black man, or the conservatively-suited white man, looked like they would own credit cards. The maître d' left them to the revels and hurried back to the other guests.

Starsky ran around Hutch to hold the heavy, carved chair for him, making an ostentatious display of helping him into it. Hutch ignored the display, though he appreciated the gesture. He eased himself into the chair carefully. He was still uncomfortably stiff from his healed incisions, as well as more than a little buzzed from the drinks they'd had first at Huggy's.

"All set there?" Starsky said, grinning like an idiot.

"Will you cut the fussing?" Hutch complained.

"Listen here, Hutchinson," Captain Dobey said. "Starsky's right. This is your first time out, and you don't want to overdo it."

"Overdo it? Captain, I've been out of the hospital for a week. I feel fine. I'm ready to go back to work -- "

"Desk duty for a week," Dobey said. "You still look a bit peaked to me."

"Can I help it my suntan's faded?" But·Dobey and Starsky turned their attention to ordering drinks. Hutch looked to Maggie, then John Buehler, shrugged, and sat back in the chair. Actually, he couldn't complain. Healing took time, and he knew he'd been extremely fortunate. The bullet that had hit him had been partially deflected by his ribcage, so that instead of drilling directly through his vitals, it had passed around the muscle sheath of his abdomen before exiting. He'd escaped the lethal infection of peritonitis, but the combined blood loss, shock, and exposure had come close enough. He'd spent three weeks in the hospital, another at home. Even desk duty, at this point, sounded good. At least he'd be in touch with things again. A legitimate reason for a night on the town, even if he'd regret it in the morning.

"Hey hey hey!" Starsky cheered as the waiter arrived with a pitcher of Margaritas. He didn't even wait for the man to set the salt-rimmed glasses down before he grabbed two from the tray and began to pour. "Here we go, folks, here we go," he said, passing one to Maggie -- "Margarita por Margarita, si?" -- and the other to John Buehler. Then he filled three glasses for Dobey, Hutch, and himself. "Wanna propose the toast, Hutch?"

"Don't you think we should order some food first? Okay, okay. Friends, here's to the end of a hell of an adventure. At least I hope it's over."

"I assure you," Buehler said, "that it is." He sipped from his glass, looked at it approvingly. "The investigations will continue on a classified basis, of course, but the statements you recorded for the committee should be more than adequate. As far as you and I are concerned, the case is closed."

"If I may," Dobey said, "I have another toast. Gentlemen, here's to the beautiful new lady-about-town." He raised his glass to Maggie.

"Cactus juice for our cactus flower," Starsky added, all teeth.

"Wait a minute, don't rush things," she said, laughing. "I'm not ready to move back to the city quite yet. I still want to finish my dissertation."

"You mean you're going back?" Starsky protested. "Back to the desert?"

"Well, I -- "

"Back to the hundred-and-twenty degree heat? The sand in your teeth? The scorpions? Rattlesnakes? Cactus spines?"

"To archeologists, Davey, home is where you hang your trowel."

Starsky shook his head, looked to Hutch. "Give me a nice safe street war in Watts any day."

"We each have our unique environments," Buehler said. He smiled at Maggie. "But I do hope you'll find reasons to visit us city denizens from time to time?"

"I've had my share of being a hermit, if that's what you mean."

Conversation halted as the waiter brought the menus. Hutch glanced over his, and looking up, happened to notice that Starsky hadn't opened one.

"Know what you want already?"

"I'll just have the special."

Hutch searched for the special. Looked all over the menu for it.

"Starsky, there isn't a special."

"Oh. Well, I'll have whatever you're having. No -- strike that. I'll have whatever Captain Dobey orders."

Hutch peered at his partner across the candle-lit table.

"You could read the menu if you'd take those stupid sunglasses off."

Starsky grabbed at his shades in horror.

"You know I can't do that, Hutch! The doc said I should avoid bright light."

"That was over two weeks ago. And if the light in here were any dimmer you'd need radar."

"So, can I help it if I heal slow? Besides, the shades add Dignity. Distinction! Mystery, even."

Dobey was snickering behind his menu.

"You have to have some first before you can add any," Hutch muttered.

"Listen to Mr. Critical. You wanna kid me about my shades? Mag, did I ever tell you about the time Hutch and me went undercover as extras -- stuntmen -- in a cowboy movie? No, really. You remember that, don't you, Cap'n? Anyway, the director gave Hutch this one line. What was it, Hutch?"

Hutch glared across the table silently.

"I remember," Starsky went on. "It was 'Here comes McCoy now.' And when we went to the screening, after the flick was finished, Hutch shows up in -- "

"Starsky --"

" -- a trench coat and one of those French beanies, and a pair of shades that he wore right through the whole movie -- "

"Starsky!" Hutch growled.

Starsky slid his sunglasses half an inch down his nose and peered over them at Hutch innocently.

"You say somethin', partner?"

Hutch glowered. "Your shades do a lot for you," he said stiffly. "You look very dignified. You look like you want to live through this meal."

For a moment, challenge gleamed in Starsky's eyes, but he looked away and smiled, then reached for Hutch's glass. "Had you goin' awhile, didn't I?" He refilled the glass, handing it back. "Feel like things are back to normal, yet?"

Starsky's grin was contagious: a matching expression spread itself across Hutch's face. He knew the others at the table were smiling, too, but his gaze was riveted on his partner.

"You're a silly-looking ass, do you know that?" he said, accepting the drink.

Starsky laughed, took off his shades, then clinked his glass to Hutch's.

"Takes one to know one, partner," he said, and winked. "Here's lookin' at you!"

This story archived at http://www.starskyhutcharchive.net/viewstory.php?sid=2598