By: Karen B.

Summary: Hutch goes undercover as a truck driver to catch hijackers who not only take the driver's load, but also get their kicks with them before taking their lives.

Thank you to, Laura, the truck driver's daughter, for helping me keep that big rig on course, and for teaching me to trust!

Special acknowlegement to my friend Pooh, for her valuable input and continued support!

Author's note: Dear Reader: Thank you deeply -- for your time and the specialness of you. Without -- the dream, the magic, and spice of imagination would be dull and uninspiring!


Sipping his morning coffee, Hutch walked across the bone-dry, graveled parking lot, leaving behind the noise of the clinking cups and saucers of the diner. It was early, but the heat of the day was already emanating in waves off the pavement. Hutch tiredly climbed back up into the cab of his idling Kenworth. He felt grubby with not having a decent shower; most of the truck stop showers barely gave enough water pressure to get his hair wet. His muscles ached and he was wordlessly tired. Adjusting his outside mirrors, he took another sip of coffee, the hot liquid making him feel a little better. Looking at the panel of gauges and lights, Hutch put the eighteen-wheeler into gear.

The 425-horse powered diesel engine chugged to life, and Hutch slowly guided the big rig across the lot, rolling away from the diner and back onto the open road. At first, he had liked the heavy feel of the steering wheel, the power beneath his butt, the freedom that came from sitting pretty in the high seat, able to see far into the distance. Unlike the city, the air was fresher here, smelling of sunny meadows and clear rolling creeks. But like everything truck driving had its limits, and after twelve straight days on the road, Hutch had reached his.

The strong black brew was doing little to get Hutch trucking up to speed. He was tired and sore from spending almost every waking and non-waking moment in the small confines of the shiny light blue truck. Hutch mused about his own bed. He missed his home, he missed his plants, his guitar, his blender.

Hutch sighed. No question, he was sick of fueling his body on blueberry jelly-covered toast and coffee. Seemed that was all he could stomach lately. He briefly wondered if he was coming down with the flu or if he was just car-, or should he say, truck-sick? Speaking of being sick, he really was sick of the mosquitoes flying through his open window at night. He itched terribly from all the bug bites, but didn't dare roll the window all the way up, leaving it open a crack, as it would be too stuffy in the cabin if he didn't.

Slapping at mosquitoes and drinking coffee weren't very exciting things, but, there was nothing much to do when you were a driver. You watched the morning slowly arrive like a blooming yellow flower, you heard the CB yak to life, you scrubbed the grit of sleep from your eyes, shifted gears, and concentrated on keeping the forty ton rig on the two-lane highway, until the day folded back into night. Occasionally you stopped, exiting the confines of the truck to fuel, wash-up, eat, or piss, maybe even wash the intestines of huge bugs that insisted on committing hara-kiri on your windshield, or catch up on some sleep in the sleeper cab. Hutch wasn't used to this slow way of life. Spending so much time alone behind the wheel made him feel lethargic and restless at the same time.

He sighed, then breathed in the rush of fresh air that came through the open window. The wind ruffled his hair, but did little to cool him down. Looking out at the blue sky, he caught sight of a lone bird flying by, and thinking he knew how it felt. The first couple of days out on the road, Hutch had a sense of freedom, and he almost forgot what he'd been out here to do. But the assignment that had at first sounded exciting had now taken a nosedive.

Hutch's neck hurt, and he tilted his head left, then right, trying to loosen the stiffness as he took a sharp curve before glancing at the CB. Had his partner forgotten to check in? Hutch fidgeted in his seat, feeling slightly uncomfortable.

He glanced at his watch. Starsky usually didn't leave Hutch out of communication for long. His partner had probably overslept and was just now trying to quickly squeeze into his too-tight jeans. Hutch chuckled out loud at the thought.

Hutch knew Starsky was well aware of his route, and had set up several checkpoints along the highway. At least backup was always nearby.

The last place he'd seen his partner was at a weigh station ten hours prior. Hutch remembered feeling lonely as he had pulled away, waving an arm out the window, and watching the side mirror until he rode over a hill and couldn't see Starsky in the distance any longer.

He knew Starsky would never turn his back on him. Never for an instant. But the day was hot and he'd already been undercover for over a week. Hutch could feel Starsky close by, always watching, whether through his own eyes or the eyes of their backup assigned to the various spots along the route.

Hutch listened to the chatter on the CB, waiting to hear the familiar voice among the mixture of alien laughter and friendly name-calling. Maybe there had been a change in plans? Hutch thought, as the Kenworth rumbled down the highway, enjoying the warm breeze of the wind in his face. Maybe they had caught the killer that was roaming the long stretch of desert landscape? Maybe he could finally go back to sleeping on his own mattress in his cozy cottage near the quiet canal, instead of folded in half like a piece of white bread in the stuffy bunk of the truck's cabin sleeper.

Hutch fingered his hair out of his face, thinking about the two-lane highway known to the local truckers as 'Death's Toll.' It was a remote ribbon of asphalt, a long stretch of road traveled mainly by big trucks transporting their loads back and forth across state lines. Sparsely populated, there were more jackrabbits, dry brush, and splattering bugs than there were points of interest. Mostly there were only rocky shoulders, miles and miles of bumpy curving road, and the constant blur of white-line fever. There were only a few weigh stations, fueling stations, and even fewer coffee diners and rest stops. The days were dusty, hot, and the nights seemed even hotter fueled by the star-speckled sky above.

Once again, the hot harsh glare of the desert sun blazed through his windshield. Hutch squinted, the bright light making his head hurt. He pulled a pair of mirrored sunglasses from the sun visor, fitting them to his face. Sighing with relief, his thoughts went back to the case at hand.

It seemed a hijacking syndicate had taken over this quiet stretch of road. At first it was small-time stuff, picking their spot in advance and sitting and waiting for the right opportunity to come along. The thieves were smart - targeting only trucks with a single occupant. They used several tactics. Sometimes one of the men would fake being a stranded hitchhiker, getting the driver to pull his big rig to the side of the road, offering a ride. For the unlucky driver with the big heart, that meant a whack over the head and as much of his load as they could carry off, probably in some sort of four-wheel-drive vehicle, a pickup or jeep with a trailer hitch that had been hiding in the brush. Other times, a rock through the windshield did the trick. One way or the other, they got the trucks and their cargo.

Recently, however, the activity had intensified to include a more menacing act, with the thieves now turning to murder, probably for kicks. Three drivers in three months had been attacked, most of their loads taken, and their bodily remains found dumped in a field or in heavy brush. All three of the bodies showed signs of resistance; all three drivers had fought against their attackers in an attempt to escape with their lives. The victims were all tormented, stabbed in areas that would cause pain, but not immediate death. The scenes were bloody and looked like some sort of playground for a ritual sacrifice, the kidnappers toying with their captives before the wound that killed them, a bullet dead-center to the head, had been inflicted.

Fed up and troubled at their lack of manpower, the local sheriff had collaborated with the BCPD, and an investigative task force had been formed. It was decided an officer would go undercover as a truck driver, as a lure, fish bait. He would drive up and down the highway, stop at checkpoints every few hours, and have access to police and the local law by Citizen Band Radio, his backup never more than fifteen minutes away.

"We're going for the gut on this one. Bait them and catch them at the right moment," Dobey said. "Which one of you knows how to drive a semi?"

With no hesitation, Hutch had stepped forward, putting himself in the heart of the situation. Besides, how much different could it be from driving the bulldozer or tractor his grandfather had owned? "I'm in."

"Why you?" Starsky had protested, his voice rock-steady.

"You always drive." Hutch gave Starsky's shoulder a playful punch. "Besides, you know you have a short temper. You have to be friendly when you're a trucker, good buddy," Hutch quipped.

"Hutchinson, are you sure?" Dobey questioned.

"I'm in, Captain."

Hutch turned to Starsky for confirmation.

"I'm with him," Starsky grumbled.

"Then the two of you get out of my office."

The disagreement settled, they exited Dobey's office; Starsky hot on Hutch's heels mumbling something classy, like, "fuck," under his breath.

Now it had been ten days, and not one murder, not one hijacked truck. Maybe the killers had flown the coop?

If nothing else he got to see some of the countryside.

Again, Hutch glanced at the CB radio. Starsky was supposed to have contacted him, giving him the time they were to meet up at a nearby burger joint for a mid-morning meal. It was the kind of place his other half lived to eat at -- not so for Hutch. Especially not as of late.

The drone of the engine was steady as a heartbeat. Combined with the warm sunshine beaming through the glass, the rocking cab and row after row of growing corn passing by all made Hutch feel even more fatigued. He took another sip of coffee, and breathed deeply, trying to clear his head.

Suddenly, Hutch got the strange sensation that he wasn't alone, and he sat up straighter in the seat. He didn't have to see anything to sense someone was there in the cab with him, probably hiding behind the curtain of the sleeper compartment. Mentally he kicked himself for not locking the truck. Slowly and silently, Hutch sat to the edge of his seat, and reached up underneath. His fingers fumbled and for a moment a sour rush of panic hit his throat. It was short-lived as his fingers found the cool metal of his Magnum, right where he had hidden it.

He slid his finger over the trigger, his hand wrapped around the handle, all the while keeping the truck at a steady speed.

A blue tennis shoe unexpectedly kicked the curtain aside and a voice called out, "Got anymore coffee?"

"Starsky!" Hutch yelled, letting his hand drop away from the Magnum. He leaned back against his seat, sucking in a calming breath.

After a few grunts, hisses, and moans, a curly head popped out over Hutch's shoulder.

"Starsky! Damn it! You scared the shit out of me!" Hutch grimaced, locking eyes with Starsky. "What the hell are you doing back there?"

"Sorry, Dobey dropped me off to check on you, saw you head in to get your daily java fix, and decided to wait for you in the truck, guess I fell asleep."

"Damn you! I could have shot you." Hutch winced at the thought, suddenly not feeling well. His hands gripped the wheel as he took a loop in the road with care.

"What's wrong, Hutch? Can't a guy pop in on his best friend?" Starsky teased. "You seem cranky."

"Hell, yeah, I'm cranky, Starsky," Hutch said, trying to ignore the hurt he saw in his partner's eyes. "I haven't gotten much sleep the past few nights. The damn air conditioner is broken--" Hutch waved at the dashboard. "And you know I've told you about me being an all-night blood bank, a human sacrifice for the entire mosquito population of California."

"Not happy to see me, buddy boy?" Starsky smiled wide.

Hutch gave a quick glance at his friend. The sunlight splashing through the windshield wasn't the only thing warming his chilled body. Too many days and nights spent mostly alone were really getting to him.

"I'm not complaining," he answered with a smile, going back to focus on the road ahead.

Just as Hutch rounded a corner, he hit a pothole that jerked the steering wheel in his hands. With obvious effort, Hutch maneuvered the rig back between the lines, taking in a nervous gulp of air and then releasing it just as quickly.

"Take the corners slower," Starsky said, which reminded Hutch of the fact that these heavy vehicles were not known for staying upright -- once they were taken off the regular road. "This aluminum box isn't a Rolls Royce, Blondie!"

Hutch downshifted and the truck jerked, groaning as it slowed as if rebelling against Starsky's comment.

"Least it's not an over-sized garden-grown vegetable." Hutch glanced at his partner to gauge his reaction.

He watched Starsky's brow crinkle as he sucked in his bottom lip. "Just be careful."

"Starsky, don't tell me how to drive," Hutch said, loosening his grip on the steering wheel. "I know this thing can't stop on a dime --" Hutch kept his face expressionless, staring out the window at the road ahead. "Or outrun the devil, like that rotten tomato of yours."

"Very funny, Hutch."

"Who's laughing," Hutch stated dryly, never looking Starsky's way. "Besides," he uttered his afterthought out loud, "how am I going to explain you being with me? I'm supposed to be undercover as a lone trucker."

"Hitchhiker," Starsky stated plainly. "Hey."

"What?" Hutch glanced sideways at Starsky.

"You all right, partner?" Starsky asked, reaching over to dab at the droplets of sweat forming above Hutch's brow.

"Sure," Hutch replied weakly. "Why?"

"You don't look so good."

Hutch shrugged, wiping the cold, clammy sweat off his forehead. "Just tired, Starsk," Hutch said softly.

"You have to learn to pace yourself, pal." Starsky reached over to grip Hutch's shoulder.

For the next few miles both men fell silent, just happy to be in one another's company as the truck hummed past long white fences, abandoned storefronts, several windmills, a water tower, and a herd of black and white cows. Only once they stopped to fill up for gas, then were on their way again as Hutch grumbled about the price of diesel these days.

A half an hour later, Hutch carefully piloted the large truck into the parking lot of Fat Billy's diner.