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."