"You're faking." Hutch glared at his partner in mock anger as he
once again checked the readout on the thermometer. 102.6. Damn.
"You're faking because you don't want to go to this stupid
Halloween party with me."
"You're on to me, buddy," Starsky replied, dissolving into yet another paroxysm of coughing. "You know me too--" He paused to catch his breath. "--too well."
"I'm not going. I never wanted to in the first place. I just let you talk me into it."
"Hutch, you gotta go. You promised Richardson you'd be there."
"No," Hutch argued, raising his index finger so insistently that Starsky stifled a grin, "you promised her we'd be there. You never even asked me."
"But you know I couldn't go without you."
"But you expect me to go alone?"
"Aww, c'mon, Hutch, this is different. How was I supposed to know I'd get sidelined with the flu at the last minute? Richardson's counting on you showing up with your guitar. You know she's gonna want you to sing for them."
"I can live without doing that, believe me."
"You gotta go."
"I don't want to."
"You don't have any valid excuses."
"I'll say I'm taking care of you."
Starsky coughed again, then sighed. "Hutch, I'm a grownup. I can take care of myself and I'm sure Richardson knows that. If you don't show up, her feelings are gonna be hurt."
Hutch's sigh matched his partner's. "Fine," he grumbled at last. "I'll go. But I'm leaving early."
Starsky lay back at last, relieved. He appreciated all Hutch's efforts to care for him while he was ill, but at the moment all he wanted was to sleep. Hutch was worse than an overprotective grandmother when Starsky was sick. It was fine for a day or so, but this was going on the third day with no letup in his friend's nursing care. Starsky was afraid if he couldn't get rid of Hutch for a few hours, he was going to throw a bowl of chicken soup right in his face.
"What're you gonna wear?"
Hutch looked at Starsky as if he'd gone completely nuts, and indicated the jeans and shirt he was currently wearing. Starsky shook his head vehemently.
"No way, Hutch, you can't go to a Halloween party dressed like a normal person! Didn't you get a costume, like I told you to?"
"Of course not. Starsky, you know dressing up isn't my kind of thing."
"It was once," Starsky grumbled.
"That was different. There was something important riding on that bet." Before it all went wrong, he thought, but didn't add.
"There's something important riding on this, too," Starsky insisted.
"My reputation. How will I ever live it down if my partner is the only person to show up at a Halloween party with no costume? I'll never be able to show my face at the precinct again."
Hutch was gripped with an evil brilliance. "Fine," he agreed, turning on his heel and going toward the living room. Starsky could hear him rummaging through a drawer, and when he returned he was carrying a large black magic marker. He opened Starsky's dresser drawer and poked around until he found one of his partner's seldom-worn undershirts.
"What are you doing?"
Hutch carried the shirt and marker out of the room, and when he returned a few minutes later, he had removed his own shirt and was wearing Starsky's. On the front of it, in black marker, he had written, 'MY HALLOWEEN COSTUME.' On the back, in a scary-looking script, he'd added, 'BOO!'
"Great," Starsky groaned. "Nobody but you would think of something like that."
"It's what makes me unique," Hutch returned. "You should be happy I'm agreeing to go to the party at all. I won't have a good time, and it'll be all your fault."
"I can live with the guilt."
"I'll drop back by here afterwards to see how you're doing."
"Hutch, I'm fine."
"I know," Hutch agreed, suddenly serious. "But I worry. I just want to check your temperature again before I go home."
"All right, fine," his partner grumbled. "Come cluck over me some more, so you can go home and get some sleep."
"Cluck. As in, like a mother hen."
"You been talking to Dobey again?"
Chuckling, Hutch obeyed.
When he got to the party, things were already beginning to hop. There was music blaring from a stereo, and the drinks and food were flowing.
"Hutch!" Kathy Richardson, dressed in a classic Wicked Witch costume, greeted him at the door with a quick hug. "Starsky's not with you? I was hoping he'd be over his flu by tonight."
"He's still got a fever," Hutch told her. "He was really disappointed he couldn't come. He's been looking forward to it for weeks."
"Well, here's hoping he can make my Christmas party. Love your costume," she winked, linking her arm with his and leading him inside.
Hutch wandered the room, talking briefly with the many coworkers he recognized. Most of them asked about Starsky, and Hutch wondered for a moment if his partner knew just how well-liked he was among their fellow cops. Sometimes it seemed as though half the force considered Starsky an oddball, but Hutch knew that wasn't true. The genuine concern he was seeing for Starsky's welfare touched him. He made a mental note to tell his partner about the many comments and well-wishes he'd received on his behalf.
Hutch danced a few times with different women, but for the most part he hung back toward the periphery of the party. It wasn't that he felt out of place, really, just that Starsky was always the more social of the two. If he'd brought a date, it would have been different, but all his prospects had been unavailable--or at least had said they were. If Starsky had been here, he'd have hounded Hutch to join in some of the fun that was happening in various parts of the room, but on his own, Hutch was content just to watch. Sure enough, the sing-along Starsky had predicted came to pass, and Hutch was in demand with his guitar. He let them talk him into one solo, then managed to get a group of guests to sing with him. After half an hour he put his guitar aside, pleading tired fingers from all the paperwork he'd had to complete and sign while Starsky was out sick.
It was getting on toward midnight, and Hutch was wondering if he could make his exit without seeming rude, when Kathy strode to the middle of the room and called for quiet. Someone shut off the stereo, and all the party guests gave her their attention.
"In honor of it being Halloween, today I bought a new toy. And since it's almost the witching hour," she smiled evilly, "I'd like to invite anyone who wants to help me play with it." So saying, Kathy removed a box from behind the sofa.
Hutch nearly groaned aloud when he saw what she had purchased. A Ouija board. Good grief.
There were assorted murmurs from the dozen or so guests, some positive and some negative.
"I don't know about this, Kathy," a woman Hutch knew only as Melanie said. "I've heard some pretty awful stories about those things."
"Really?" asked Bob Tolman. "Want to tell?"
Melanie shivered visibly. "Not at midnight," she said firmly. "Maybe sometime in the broad light of day."
"I know there are stories, but they're just that--stories," Kathy replied patiently. "It's only a board game, nothing more. If it was dangerous, surely you wouldn't be able to buy it at toy stores."
"Well, you can mess with it if you want, but I hope you'll forgive me if I say I just don't want to be part of it. Thanks for a lovely party, Kathy, but I'd better go." So saying, Melanie took her leave, followed by three other guests who said their goodbyes quickly.
"Anyone else afraid?" Kathy asked the room at large, her eyes twinkling with amusement.
Until that moment, Hutch had considered leaving with the others, but that word 'afraid' sparked memories of childhood dares. Suddenly, he found himself more embarrassed to walk out than to stay. Which was utterly stupid, he chided himself silently, but still very real.
"Come on, then, let's all gather around the dining room table. Hutch, would you cut the lights? I've got some candles."
"You're really prepared," Hutch observed as he watched her light two black taper candles and set them on the table. He waited until she had set up the board in between the candles to shut off the lights.
"I wanted this to be authentic," she smiled.
"Kathy, if you really want an authentic Ouija experience, you have to stop fooling around," James Davis commented. "I've been involved in stuff like this before, and the spirits don't like to be played with. If you're not serious, you shouldn't do this at all."
Kathy leaped on his statement. "Really? You've done this before?"
"A few times," Davis nodded.
"Good, then you can show us how. And I promise not to crack any more jokes," she said, visibly trying to get her teasing attitude under control. It was pretty clear Kathy had imbibed a few too many beers, and she was obviously a happy drunk.
"Everyone take a seat around the table, and we'll all hold hands," Davis ordered, his voice suddenly lower and more commanding than Hutch had ever heard it. Dramatic. Hutch fought the urge to roll his eyes.
For lack of a decent excuse, Hutch took a seat and allowed the friends on his right and left sides to grip his hands. He wondered if Starsky was awake, and how he'd react when Hutch told him what he'd missed. Starsky had a love-hate relationship with all things supernatural. They fascinated him, but they also scared the crap out of him at times. Starsky would either have loved participating in what they were about to do, or he'd have provided Hutch with the much-desired excuse to leave the party now. Hutch wasn't sure which. With Starsky-logic, it could all hinge on what his partner had eaten for breakfast that morning, or something equally strange.
"Spirits," Davis intoned from his spot at the head of the table, "we are here tonight to open ourselves to you, to allow you to reach out to us. We invite all friendly spirits in, and ask that you speak to us."
He put his fingers lightly on the edge of the planchette, and motioned for the others to do the same. Hutch moved to obey, and at once felt an intense nausea grip him.
"Uh, you guys go ahead," he said, brushing at his suddenly sweating forehead. He wondered if he'd caught Starsky's flu at last. "I think I'll just watch."
"Ken, it doesn't work as well if you break the circle," Kathy protested.
"No, it'll be fine," Davis insisted. "Just don't say anything to interrupt the spirits, Hutch."
"No problem," Hutch muttered, leaning back weakly in his chair. The nausea had subsided once he'd pulled his hands away from the planchette, but the weirdness of the occurrence had left him feeling a little shaky. 'Good thing Starsky isn't here,' he told himself wryly. 'He'd never let me live this down.'
Davis asked a few generic questions, beginning with, "Is anyone there that would like to speak to us?" The planchette remained firmly still. After several more attempts, he removed his fingers and sat back. "It's not going to work," he announced. "The spirits don't like the circle being broken."
"Come on, Hutch, please?" Kathy asked. "Just put your fingers on the pointer. You don't have to say anything. Come on, I want to play with my new toy!"
Her exaggerated pout made Hutch smile and shake his head in defeat. "All right," he agreed at last, and reached forward again. This time there was no nausea, and his fingers settled alongside Kathy's and Roy Parmelee's without incident.
"Spirits, speak to us," Davis said, dropping into his sepulchre voice again, and to Hutch's surprise, the planchette began to move.
At first the pointer moved around the board in a figure-8 pattern, stopping nowhere, refusing to respond to the questions Davis continued to ask. Then, after a minute, it paused above the K. Hutch watched, his eyes growing wider as it continued to spell out his name--not 'Ken' or even 'Hutch', but K. E. N. N. E. T. H.
He thought it would stop when it finished his name, but when the planchette headed back toward the 'K' he met Kathy's eyes with a confused glance.
Hutch wrenched his hands off the planchette angrily. "Very funny, guys," he spat. "Who's moving this thing?"
Nobody said a word.
Hutch got up and flipped on the lights, surveying his "friends" with contempt. "I want an answer," he ground out. "Which one of you thought that was funny?"
"Hutch, I don't think any of us was moving--" Davis began.
"Of course someone was!" Hutch nearly shouted. "Did you see what that thing was spelling out? Now I want to know who did it, and I want to know right now!"
"Hutch," Kathy said softly, rising from her seat and putting a gentle hand on his arm. "I think you need to calm down. It's just a game."
Hutch shook her off. "It's not a game when somebody tells me to kill my partner," he retorted. "That's not even remotely funny. I don't know which one of you has that twisted a sense of humor, but I don't want any part of this. Kathy, thanks for the invitation. I'll be going now."
Before anyone else could respond, Hutch was out the door.
He slammed into the car and dug his keys out of his pocket furiously. It took several tries for him to get the key in the ignition, and he realized with some shock that his hands were shaking.
Damned stupid game! he fumed silently. Knew I shouldn't have gone to that idiotic party alone.
By the time he'd reached Starsky's apartment, Hutch had cooled considerably. After all, he reminded himself, it was just a silly party game. Yes, one of their friends had a sick sense of humor, and he couldn't figure out who among the group would have done it--but it really didn't mean anything. Maybe he just needed to pick his friends more carefully in the future.
It certainly wouldn't do to mention the event to Starsky. As paranoid as his partner could be at times, Hutch knew he'd never hear the end of it. Every time he accidentally bumped into Starsk, he'd be accused of trying to push his friend into moving traffic, or something equally absurd.
When he reached the apartment, all the lights were out except for a blue glow coming from the living room window. TV, his mind registered. Starsk must be feeling better.
Sure enough, he found his partner sprawled on the sofa, sound asleep in front of what appeared to be an old Clint Eastwood western.
"Come on, buddy, wake up," he said softly, shaking Starsky's shoulder. "Let's get you back into bed."
"Huh?" Starsky asked groggily.
"You fell asleep. You're gonna have a crick in your neck if you don't go to bed. Didn't your mother ever tell you not to sleep on the sofa without a pillow?"
"I don't listen to a lot of things my mother tells me," the darker man smirked. "Do you?"
Hutch ignored his question.
"How was the party?"
"Everybody missed you."
"Didja have fun?"
"Actually," Hutch admitted, settling his friend into bed, "it wasn't that bad until toward the end."
"What happened toward the end?"
Starsky rolled his eyes. "Fine. Don't tell me."
Hutch stuck the thermometer into his mouth, hoping to shut him up, but things were never that easy with Starsky.
"You got turned down by some chick, right?" his partner said around the thermometer.
Hutch had picked up the second pillow to stuff it behind Starsky's back, and for a moment he felt odd--dizzy, lightheaded--and something flashed before his eyes. It was so quick he could almost believe it hadn't happened, but...
...he'd seen it. Himself, holding the pillow over his struggling friend's face, Starsky's legs kicking frantically, his arms pulling at Hutch's in an effort to dislodge the smothering pillow, until finally they'd grown weaker and weaker, and then just fallen limply to the bed.
All of that in just a second.
White-faced, Hutch stared at the pillow in his hands.
"What?" asked Starsky, seeing his friend's disconcerted expression. "I'm right, aren't I? Who was she?"
"Uh, nobody you know," Hutch answered lamely, handing the pillow to a confused Starsky. "Now shut up and let the thermometer do its work, would you? I'll get you some water. It's time for your pills."
He returned with a glass of water and waited, timing the thermometer with his watch. When he removed it from Starsky's mouth, he smiled. "Down to 100. I think you'll pull through."
Starsky downed the pills, placing the empty glass on the night table, and watched his partner. Something was going on, something that Hutch didn't want to discuss. But how much trouble could the blond have gotten into at a party? Still, Hutch's face had been absolutely colorless for a minute there.
"Anything else you need before I head out?"
Starsky shook his head, still not taking his eyes off Hutch. "Not a thing. Thanks."
"Just trying to figure out what you're not telling me," Starsky said after a moment's pause.
"Starsk. Really." Hutch made a show of straightening the blankets around his friend. "Get some sleep."
"See you in the morning, Hutch."
"Are you going to be up to working?"
"I'll have to be. Can't afford any more time off right now." He waved his hand in a friendly dismissal. "Don't worry, I'll be fine. See you at eight."
Hutch nodded and left, taking care to lock the door behind him. All the way home, he tried desperately to shake that awful image from his memory, but it wouldn't budge.
K. I. L. L. S. T. A. R. S. K.--
Was it the Ouija's message that had caused him to have such a vision? It had to be. As angry as he sometimes got with Starsky, the idea of actually causing physical harm to him had never crossed his mind. They were as close as any twin brothers could be, almost aching when the other ached. Hutch was surprised he didn't have a sympathy-fever just because Starsky had the flu.
When he got home, he'd try a little light meditation to relax himself. That would put him to sleep.
True to his word, Starsky was waiting for him when Hutch arrived the next morning. The minute his friend bounced into the car, Hutch knew it was going to be a long day.
"I've got it," Starsky announced, stifling a cough.
"You've got what? Are you still running a fever?"
"Just a little one. If you haven't caught this from me by now, you probably won't. Sarah Daniels."
"What? Log us in, Starsk." Starsky did, and as he fumbled to put the mic away, Hutch asked, "What about Sarah Daniels?"
"I'm betting she's the one who turned you down last night. Do I win the prize?"
Starsky's eyes twinkled, and Hutch decided this was as good a time as any to nip his friend's curiosity in the bud. "Yep, you got it in one. Coffee and a donut for you."
"Let's skip the donut," Starsky grimaced. "I'm not feeling that much better."
"How about some nice chicken soup?"
"Just as long as it comes from a can and not my Aunt Rosie's house."
Later, having lunch at their desks because Dobey had insisted they finish their reports--"Daily, I've told you a dozen times, daily reports, not weekly!"--Hutch watch Starsky pick at a bowl of the cafeteria's vegetable soup and half a turkey sandwich. It was the healthiest thing he'd seen his partner eat in a long time, although he wasn't eating much.
"You should get sick more often," he commented, rising and grabbing up the pot of fresh coffee. "Might do you good."
"Very funny. If I ate this way all the time, I'd waste away to nothing."
"Wouldn't be a very long trip for you to be nothing," Hutch replied in an odd voice.
The sheer meanness of the statement made Starsky swivel around to stare at the blond. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"That crack you just made!"
Hutch looked genuinely confused. "I didn't say anything, Starsk."
"Yes you did, you called me nothing!"
Hutch poured himself a cup of coffee, set it on top of the file cabinet, and poured a second for his friend. "Why would I say something like that? I think that flu's affected your hearing."
"I heard what I heard," Starsky argued obstinately. "Not nice, Hutch. Not nice at all."
"I'm telling you, I didn't open my mouth," Hutch protested. He reached to hand Starsky the cup of coffee, and that sense of dizziness, of being outside himself gripped him once more.
The next thing he knew, Starsky was yelling at him, and frantically mopping hot coffee out of his lap with a wad from the tissue box on the desk.
"Geez, Hutch, be careful! Are you trying to kill me?"
"God, Starsky, I'm sorry!" Hutch grabbed a handful of napkins from beside the coffee maker and tried to help clean up the mess. Starsky hissed in pain as his hands brushed burned thighs, and Hutch pulled back.
"Let's go to the restroom and take a look at your legs, partner. You might need a doctor."
"I'll do it," Starsky said. "You--stay here. And don't touch any coffee."
Hutch watched his partner leave the squad room, uncertain whether to follow or not. Starsky appeared truly angry, but he couldn't figure out why. Sure, it wasn't fun to have coffee dumped in your lap, but surely Starsky didn't think he'd done it purposely. Did he?
When Starsky hadn't returned five minutes later, Hutch launched a solo search. He found his partner in the men's room, sitting on the edge of a sink with his jeans pulled halfway down, wetting paper towels with cold water and applying them to his legs. Hutch gasped when he saw the damage. Starsky's inner thighs were visibly burned, and blisters had formed in a couple of places.
"Starsky, we've got to get you to a doctor."
"Great. You want me to pull up my soaking wet jeans over this?" Starsky demanded, indicating his legs. "It hurts, Hutch."
"I know. Wait here. I'll find something."
Hutch left, and returned a few minutes later with a pair of Starsky's sweat pants he'd pulled out of his gym locker downstairs. "Here, put these on. I'll tell Dobey we'll be gone for the rest of the afternoon."
"Oh yeah. He's gonna love that," he called to a retreating Hutch.
Starsky removed his shoes and carefully drew the sweats over his burned skin. Putting his sneakers back on, he wondered what the hell had happened. It had looked as if Hutch had deliberately dumped hot coffee in his lap. And that stupid remark he'd made--Hutch could swear he hadn't said anything all he wanted, but Starsky knew what he had heard.
Something odd was going on with Hutch, but right now, Starsky just hurt too much to try and figure it out. He only hoped he could make it to the doctor in one piece. After all, Hutch would have to drive him.
He called his doctor from the phone on his desk and was told he could come right in, so that was a relief. No long wait at the emergency room, not to mention the extra charge to his insurance. Hutch came out of the inner office with Dobey right behind.
"You all right, Starsky?"
"I will be, Cap'n. Just as soon as I get a new lap."
"Hey, buddy, you're lucky it was just your thighs that got burned. Could have been worse."
"Yeah." Starsky turned back to Dobey. "Sorry about this, Cap'n. I know I just got back from sick leave--"
"Just get yourself taken care of. And Hutchinson? Try not to be so clumsy in the future, would you?"
Hutch looked at the ceiling and didn't bother to answer.
"You ready, Starsk?"
"Yeah. And after this, you can buy me lunch, since mine got ruined."
"Anything you want, buddy."
The fact that Hutch didn't even argue worried Starsky more than anything else so far.