Line of Duty
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"I wrote my first Starsky and Hutch story
25 years ago. Here is my second. It's
been a long time coming. Thanks to Kass
for giving it a lovely 'home' and for
being my friend, and to Ginxie, my Okie
sister, who's a great nag. Finally, thanks
and much gratitude to Kate (CMT) for
igniting the flame of creativity again,
for a wonderful beta job, and for finding
my muse and sending her home. You don't
know what you've unleashed on an
A questing glance at his partner, slumped in the office chair, long legs stretched out before him and crossed at the ankles gave the impression of complete relaxation. To the casual observer, Kenneth Hutchinson's limp, lanky body suggested contentment and just a hint of boredom. Of course, most of them couldn't know that beneath that calm exterior was a man in the throes of barely-held-in-check grief. Gillian Ingram, the blonde beauty who had shared his life and his bed lay lifeless and alone on a hard slab in the gloomy recesses of Memorial Hospital's morgue.
"Hutch!" Louder, more insistent, but again, no response. Vacant pools of liquid blue, glazed and achingly empty, stared across the squadroom at nothing. Morbid reality had settled heavily on shoulders already burdened with the weight of the ‘civilized’ world.
Lights are on, but nobody's home. Sighing at the injustice, Starsky grabbed the typewriter eraser, swiped it across a particularly stubborn typo. But the 't' that should've been a 'd' had burrowed into the paper so deeply that no amount of scrubbing could make it invisible. Teeth clenched in growing frustration, Starsky finally gave up, back-spaced, and pounded the 'd' key several times. He leaned back in his chair, did a cursory check of Grossman's arrest report, declared it 'okay enough for government work', then yanked the paper free. The original came out clean and intact, but only half of the two carbon copies emerged whole.
"Shit!" Nostrils flared, Starsky slammed the single remaining sheet onto the desk, wincing as the action elevated the pain level in his sore jaw. Maneuvering his tongue around inside his mouth, he explored the golf-ball-sized swelling pressing against his left wisdom tooth, applying pressure tentatively. Something abruptly gave way, and the coppery tang of blood suddenly flooded his throat. He resisted the immediate gag reflex, reluctantly swallowing the vile fluid, then waged an inconspicuous battle to keep his stomach contents from disgorging on the fresh, clean report. Another moment passed before he regained a tenuous control on the nausea. Then he caught sight of the tattered carbons, still clutched tightly in the roller of his ancient manual typewriter. Reaching out, he freed them with one abrupt pull. "Shit! Shit! Shit!!"
"Starsky!" Dobey, looking rumpled with his tie loosened and slightly askew, emerged from his office. "How many times do I have to tell you: No expletives in the office during duty hours."
The dark-haired detective stole a quick glance at the wall clock; the hands showed 9:45. "Duty hours, Cap'n? I thought ours were over at five o'clock."
Dobey didn't deign to acknowledge the retort. "I know what time it is, Starsky. Have you and Hutch finished that report yet?"
Casting an unconcealed look of concern toward his silent friend, Starsky slid his chair back, grabbed the report in question, and met his superior mid-way across the room. "Here y'go, Cap'n. All T's crossed and all I's dotted, just the way you like 'em."
Dobey accepted the single sheet mutely, made a show of scanning it critically. "You do know we have an office dictionary? And I assume you know how to use it? 'Starecase' has an 'i' in it. I'm also sure you're aware of the standard procedure for turning in reports. They're supposed to be in triplicate?" When his familiar scolding was met with uncharacteristic silence, Dobey inclined his head toward the slumped figure in the chair. "Your partner gonna be okay?" he asked, voice lowered and abnormally soft.
Starsky licked suddenly dry lips and nodded. "You know what they say about time and wounds. It was a pretty big shock, but he'll heal."
"Yeah," Dobey said quietly. His eyes filled with sympathy and locked with those of his subordinate. Suddenly, he frowned, reaching out a beefy hand to carefully position Starsky's face to profile. "That bruise looks pretty bad, Starsky. And with all that swelling, there might be a hairline fracture. You need to make sure it's in your report. Adding assault charges to Murder Second should tack on another decade to Grossman's sentence."
Stomach knotting, the detective shot a fleeting look back at their work station, but his partner appeared oblivious to the conversation. Even so, he lowered his voice to near-whisper level. "No assault charges, Cap'n. And it's okay, just a little bruised. I've had worse … lotsa times."
Dobey turned on his heel and headed back into his office. "Well, at least let me get you some aspirin. Then take your partner home, see to him, and put some ice on that jaw. You may have had worse, but I haven't seen it."
Starsky's lips started a hint of a smile but squelched it when the simple action escalated the nagging ache to full-blown throbbing. His hand moved up to massage the warm swollen flesh.
"Starsk …" His partner's voice was hollow, jagged with guilt.
God … not now!
Lowering his hand, he started toward Hutch, but a glimpse of the man's stricken face froze him in place. "Buddy, it's okay. Grossman and his goons are in jail, and they're gonna stay there. I've got all the paperwork done, so Dobey's happy. We’re free now. All there is for us to do is go home, eat something and grab some zzz's."
Starsky backed away, abruptly turning his face away so that only the uninjured side showed. He suppressed a wince at the escalated pain the simple movement brought. "I know, Hutch, so stop it. Right now! I’m all right." Then, aware that his tone had been harsher than intended, he reached out, coiled warm fingers around his partner's cold ones. He continued but in a softer voice. "I've already forgotten about it, Hutch. I want you to forget it too. Okay? Please?"
At that moment, Dobey emerged, thrusting two white pills into Starsky's hand, then filling a disposable paper cup with water from the cooler and offering it. "If that doesn't look any better by morning,” he advised, “you might want to have a doctor check it out." He waited until Starsky swallowed the aspirin, then turned and looked at his other detective. "Hutch, I'm so sorry about your girl. I never got to meet her, but I know she must've been very special. If there's anything I can do …"
Hutch swallowed loudly, nodded once, then lowered his head and looked away.
Uncomfortable in the silence, Dobey harrumphed loudly, breaking the somber mood. "All right! Getcher sorry cans outta here, and take care of each other. Take a couple of days to regroup, then I want you back in here Wednesday, bright-eyed, bushy tailed and ready for work. Is that clear?"
Starsky managed a weak lopsided grin. "Perfectly." He reached for his reticent partner's elbow, aimed him at the door and shoved gently. "See ya in a few, Cap," he said to his departing friend's back. Once Hutch was safely out of hearing range, he turned back. "And thanks."
A chalky crescent moon flickered dimly over the Angeles Mountains, the only heavenly body visible above the bright evening glow of Bay City. Except for the occasional blinking of an aircraft’s taillights, the rest of the night sky was stark indigo.
Purring contentedly, the Torino obeyed the deft manipulations of its weary driver, sliding easily through the darkened streets and sparse traffic. Although the car’s interior wasn’t overtly warm, Starsky cranked the driver’s window down, allowing a draft of chilled air to filter through and keep him alert. It wasn’t yet eleven o’clock, but it had been a long day, and it might prove to be an even longer night.
“So whaddya wanna eat, Hutch?” he asked, keeping his voice soft and light.
To his right, Hutch hunched in the passenger seat, head leaning against the window, cheek cradled in the palm of his hand. “I’m not hungry,” was a sigh.
Starsky negotiated a left turn onto Wilshire Boulevard and headed west at a leisurely pace. “Me either,” he admitted. “So, whaddya wanna eat?"
This brought a slight snort from his too-quiet partner, but Starsky couldn’t tell if it was amused or impatient.
A sniff. A swallow. A slight shrug. “I really don’t think I could keep anything down right now, Starsk, but thanks anyway.”
Starsky nodded understandingly, reaching across the car’s length to bestow an encouraging pat on his partner’s knee. “Okay. Home and to bed then.”
The simple declaration brought Hutch immediately out of his reverie. He straightened, elongating his upper body as if waking from a sound sleep, and took in the passing view. “Hey, this isn’t the way to my house.”
“I know. I just thought you might not wanna be alone right now, so I’m takin’ you to mine and …”
“I’m a big boy, Starsk. I can handle this.”
“Yeah? Well, answer me one question then, Blondie. If you’re so ‘okay’, where’s that brown metal thing you laughingly call a ‘car’?”
At this Hutch started, then looked around. The ghost of a smile softened his haggard features. “Guess I must’ve left it somewhere, huh?”
Starsky’s lips started a slow smile of his own, but the slight movement rekindled the ache inside his swollen jaw. He turned quickly, pretending to look out the window while waiting for the pain level to recede. When he could speak again, he quipped, “Yeah … that’s where it is, partner. Somewhere … in the precinct parking lot… ” Turning back, he watched as Hutch visibly deflated once more, slumping dejectedly into the soft comfort of the Torino’s leather seat. For several minutes, they drove in complete silence.
Then it came. “Starsk?”
“Why do you think I couldn’t see what she …” The voice was veined with anguish, a question wrenched from the soul.
Oh, babe …don’t do this to yourself. Not now.
“I mean, we deal with this kind of shit all day, every day, 365 days a year. I don’t understand how I couldn’t see what she really was.”
Gaze riveted on the intersection ahead, Starsky continued. “And what was that, Hutch?”
In the shadowed recesses of the car, his partner’s eyes flashed electric blue. “A hooker.” Ragged, hoarse, biting words spewed out. “A whore, Starsk. A fuckin’ common street whore ...”
//”Is that what you’re trying to tell me, buddy … friend … that my girl is a hooker … a prostitute!?”
“Look around ya. Whaddya think bought this place?”//
Closing his eyes to the pain-filled memory, Starsky slowed for a red light that turned green almost immediately. He applied pressure to the gas pedal, and the car shot forward. “…who loved you, buddy …” he finished.
“I know.” Hutch’s voice cracked. “I’m sorry … shouldn’t be laying this on your shoulders right now.”
“Oh, I think they’re broad enough, partner. I know yours must be kinda overburdened right now. Feel free to use ‘em.”
Hutch ran a shaky hand over his face, then rolled down the passenger-side window and stuck his head out. The wind caught strands of silvered gold, whipping them furiously in the rushing air. Moments later, hair windblown haphazardly, Hutch pulled his head back inside and closed the window.
“I need a drink,” he said quietly. “Got beer?”
“I said, ‘got beer’?”
Starsky frowned in puzzlement. “O’course, I got beer. Why?”
“Why’d you say it that way?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Thought it sounded kinda catchy … more like a slogan or something. You know … like ‘got juice’ or ‘got milk’.”
“You thinkin’ of giving up police work and goin’ into advertising?”
“Maybe. You don’t agree?”
Starsky made a big show of thinking. “Well, ‘got beer’’s okay, I guess. And ‘got juice’. But ‘got milk’? Nah! Not catchy at all.”
Hutch pursed his lips and nodded. “Yeah. I see what you mean.”
“Got anything else you might need too, pard. Pretzels, chips, pickles.”
Starsky frowned. “What kind of what?”
“Oh! Bread and butter.”
Hutch nodded and lowered his head. “I’ll pass on the pickles. But I think I may need the beer ….” His voice wavered and he drew a shaky breath before finishing. “…and I think I’ll take you up on the shoulders.” It was a watery whisper.
A lump rose in the back of Starsky's sore throat. With difficulty, he swallowed it. It took another moment before he could compose himself and reply. “You got ‘em, Hutch ... for as long as you need ‘em.”
Starsky noted the time – 12:15 a.m. -- as he went through his parlor gathering up empty beer bottles. So far, the total was six, none of them his own. He placed them gently, one-by-one, into the corner trash can, careful not to make any noise that might awaken his sleeping partner. Only moments before, he had poured an out-on-his-feet Hutch into the warmth of his waterbed, and he didn’t want anything to disturb him until his friend had at least eight hours of uninterrupted sleep.
Looking around the small apartment, he located a half-eaten saltine on the arm of his couch. Where the imprint of his buddy’s body still left a slight depression on the sofa lay the squashed remains of what had been a quarter-slice of cheddar cheese. He scraped it off the Mexican blanket with his fingernails and took possession of the cracker, removing both to the steadily filling trash can.
The scent of cheese made his stomach lurch with hunger, but an earlier attempt at chewing a thin pretzel stick had failed miserably. The left inside of his mouth was so swollen that his teeth couldn't bite down without at least an inch of tender cheek tissue getting in the way. Then the beer he'd tried had fizzed and burned all the way down, escalating the throbbing pain that just wouldn't go away.
Sighing, he finished picking up after his untidy friend, straightened the new striped serape that covered the back of his couch, and headed toward the bathroom. A quick detour to check on Hutch showed his partner sprawled on the waterbed, mouth slightly open and soft nasal snores echoing through the room.
Starsky smiled to himself, recalling that there'd been barely a word spoken between them since they'd arrived at his apartment. Sensing his partner needed time to contemplate the loss of the woman he loved, he'd merely turned the television to a Laurel and Hardy marathon, retrieved snacks and beer, and served them to his pensive friend. They'd spent half an hour staring at the insipid antics of two long-dead men with Hutch taking short sips of the first beer, then gulping down a single saltine and cheese hors d'oeuvre. He took one bite of a second cracker, washed it down with five more beers in quick succession and promptly fell asleep sitting up. It had taken Starsky some effort to get his limp, semi-conscious partner out of his shoes and jeans and into bed.
Satisfied that Hutch was out for the night, Starsky headed toward the bathroom and turned on the shower. He stripped off the clothing he'd been wearing for nearly 24 hours and stepped into the warm moistness, sighing as the relaxing stream massaged the tension from his back and shoulder muscles. He lingered, taking his time shampooing and rinsing his hair, even lathering his exhausted body twice in order to take advantage of the soothing water. Finally, after more than twenty minutes, he stepped reluctantly from the humid cubicle and dried off. Wrapping the damp towel around his hips, he ran the lavatory water, squeezed a dab of Ultra-Brite onto his toothbrush, and cautiously ran the bristles across his front teeth, carefully avoiding the swollen tissue inside his left cheek. When he first spit toothpaste and saliva into the sink, there were several streaks of pink. A second expulsion was bright crimson, tinged with pink and gray. Gagging, Starsky filled a disposable Dixie cup with cold water and rinsed his mouth again and again until the discharged liquid hit the basin clear.
The bathroom mirror had fogged up during his lengthy shower. Grabbing a face towel, he wiped it clean, then gasped when he glimpsed his reflection. The right side of his face appeared completely normal, but the left looked worn and haggard, the skin swollen, almost too heavy for his skull and facial bones. It sagged beneath his eye, and the distended cheek flesh pulled downward, almost into a middle-aged jowl. Even worse was the pain which had gone from a mild, centrally located ache at the jawline to a distracting throbbing in his ear, neck, and even into the back of his throat.
Sighing, Starsky reached into his medicine chest, grabbed three more aspirin and swallowed them with another cupful of water. He toweled his damp hair one more time, finger-combed the curls into submission, then tiptoed from the bathroom to his own bedroom where, in the darkness, he pulled on briefs, a faded Grand Funk tee-shirt and his best worn pair of sweats.
A last quick check on Hutch showed that his partner hadn't moved an inch while he showered, so he grabbed sheets and a blanket from the linen closet, then pilfered an extra pillow from the waterbed. Moments later, couch prepped for several hours of repose, he reclined into the softness, and let his tired, aching body drift off to sleep.
His eyes were closed, but he could still smell a hint of sweet lilacs and talcum powder. The light scents went hand-in-hand with his mental image of her, and he opened his eyes to find her sitting across from him on the bed, wearing nothing but a welcoming smile. Tentatively, Hutch reached out a hand, cupped it behind her swanlike neck and drew her slender body closer. His lips lowered, opening slightly, and she leaned forward to accept his kiss. It was sweet, feather light, and Hutch could sense an almost shy hesitance in her reactions that made his heart ache with tenderness.
Abruptly, he lay back, pulling her smooth and pliant body on top of his. He caressed the muscles of her back, the soft velvet of her shoulders, then moved downward to knead the firm mounds of her buttocks. She whisper-moaned her pleasure, bending once more to press her warm full lips to his. This time the kiss was deeper, longer, filled with passion, and Hutch felt a familiar thrill of electricity as the intensity of their lovemaking exploded.
Quickly, he rolled both of them over until he was on top staring into her soul; his silent question was answered as her sky blue eyes begged him to continue. He bent his head to her neck, trailing hot kisses across her throat, nuzzling the softness of her breast with his fair hair. She groaned in mock protest, arching beneath him wantonly, urging him to move faster.
Then she was reaching up, pulling his head down to hers, plying him with warm, open-mouthed kisses. Inflamed, he reciprocated, plunging his tongue between her parted teeth. Touching hers was like being struck by lighting, jolting and thrilling him to the very marrow of his being. Reaching down, he stroked her pelvic bone, then lifted his aching sweat-sheened body, and entered her.
She cried out, with pain or pleasure he couldn't be sure, and he hesitated, waiting until she forcibly pulled him closer, wrapping her long legs around his torso, melding her body to his. Satisfied, he began to move inside her, slowly at first, pacing himself, matching each thrust to the moans of delight issuing from his partner. Her nails dug into the tender flesh of his shoulders, raked painfully down his back and sides, spurring him on, and they rocked together, involuntary moans of pleasure raised as both moved frenziedly toward the single goal of release
Then, somewhere an alarm clock shrieked, and his partner went suddenly limp beneath him.
"Time's up," she said, disinterest dripping in her tone.
Momentarily confused and breathing hard with exertion, Hutch didn't resist the hard shove that abruptly disconnected their joined bodies. He landed on his back, his long sweat-slickened body still ready and achingly unfulfilled. When he could speak, he breathed her name. "Gillian."
But he was speaking to her back as she rose from the bed, tossed on a short flowered robe, and reached for a pencil. She scribbled something on a small pad of lined paper, tore it free, then handed it to him.
"Hurry up, Ken. I've got others waiting," she said, watching him as he tried to focus on the hastily written words.
"For Services Rendered," he read aloud. "$250."
"Cash only. And I don't make change."
Nausea and disbelief combined to nearly smother him in their intensity, freezing him in a half-upright position. Somewhere, very far away, he heard an echoing knock at the door. Her bare feet made soft padding noises as she walked across the room to answer it. A grating metallic squeak sounded when she turned the knob.
"You must be the tv repairman," she said with a low sultry laugh. "Come in, and tell me your name."
Hutch turned at the name, catching only a glimpse of the naked body of Al Grossman before Gillian covered him with her own. They moved in tandem toward the vanilla bean sofa, Gillian shedding the robe before they fell together onto the pillows. He watched, feeling like a lowlife voyeur, as his girl kissed and licked her way down the front of Grossman's flabby out-of-shape torso.
"Ken!" She halted just as she reached the heart of the man, stopping long enough to address the room's only other occupant. "Just leave the money on the table by the door and let yourself out. Al had a 2:30 appointment. I'm sure you understand." With that, she returned enthusiastically to her job.
Dressing quickly and deliberately averting his eyes, Hutch jammed long fingers into his pocket, grabbing his wallet and ripping several fifty dollar bills from it .As he started to leave, Gillian's voice froze him in his tracks.
"Come again, Ken. Anytime."
And then Grossman was groaning, loud throaty moans of pleasure. Carelessly tossing the bills onto the floor, Hutch pointedly slammed the door shutting out the grotesque scene, but the moans and cries still filled his ears as he first walked, then ran down the stairs and out into the cool night.
Hideous impassioned moans still echoed inside his brain, even as he mentally shook himself awake. Inside, he knew it had all been a dream, a nightmare that never really happened. But the heavy cloak of disgust couldn't keep away a hoarse groan that filtered through the thick fog still holding his consciousness hostage.
Sick at heart, he opened his eyes to gloomy darkness and disorienting shades of gray. To his left was dusky nothingness, on the right, tarnished shadows. And floating just above his prone body, a silver-hued disembodied face stared down at him. Startled by the unexpected sight, he cringed backward, then rolled over, instinctively reaching for the heavy gun he already realized wasn’t there. The abrupt movement caused the world beneath him to heave and undulate, and suddenly, he knew where he was. Starsky’s waterbed.
Immediately calming, he relaxed into the warm security of his partner’s bed, letting its light rippling motions soothe away the tension in his rigid muscles. Overhead, the shameless mirrored canopy he frequently teased Starsky about reflected down his own ghostly image. He closed his eyes to the sight, a slight smile of embarrassment playing on his lips, and let his mind work at remembering the who, what, where, when and why he was lying in Starsky’s waterbed at -- a cursory check of his buddy's ultra-modern tableside chronometer showed the ungodly hour -- 1:17 a.m.
Confused, he tiptoed backward into the recesses of his muddled brain. Carefully sidestepping the recent nightmare, he recalled the reason for the uncomfortable fullness of his bladder … five … or was it six? … bottles of beer. Before or after dinner? Or did he even eat dinner? He couldn't remember. Everything was off kilter, memories jam-packed together into a knotted ball of indistinct impressions and vague emotions. Yet through all the haze of his confused recollections, there was one unmistakable crystal clear memory … the face of a partner whose warm presence and unwavering concern blunted the pain of losing ….
The whispered word brought a tidal wave of anguish rising and cresting over him, driving him emotionally to his knees.
Her name flitted across his consciousness, bringing with it shards of soul-shredding grief. He stifled a moan, stuffing the unwanted sound and accompanying despair back into the dark recesses of his brain. But shutting his eyes to the bittersweet memories -- her fragile beauty, the softness of her smile, the sweet taste of her lips -- didn’t halt the strangled cry that wriggled through the tear in his heart, worked up his burning throat, and finally slipped past his lips. The sob reverberated loudly in the quiet room, and Hutch slapped a hand over his mouth to contain any others that might involuntarily spill out.
But in spite of his efforts, muted sounds of distress continued. Moans of pain or pleasure, groans of ecstasy or agony surrounded him. Confused, Hutch sat up, listening carefully, but the only sound he heard now was the rapid beating of his own heart, slamming loudly in his ears. He waited a moment more, focusing on the dimly lit parlor where his partner should be sleeping. A muted 'click' came from his right; the transparent clock's minute mechanism dropped to reveal 1:20 A.M.
And all's not right with my world.
Sighing, Hutch tossed aside the velour patchwork quilt and carefully slid his long bare legs off the bed. An unexpected wave of alcohol-induced dizziness assaulted him, and he slumped on the wooden bedrail for a moment, waiting for it to pass. When the room finally stopped tilt-a-whirling around him, he pushed to a standing position, then walked carefully from the bedroom into the parlor.
Starsky's black-and-white television set was still on, its faint snowy screen the only light in the small room. He checked the couch as he headed purposefully for the bathroom. Except for a rumpled sheet, it was empty. A blanket and pillow had been tossed aside and lay on the floor in separate piles beside the heavy coffee table.
He reached the bathroom only to find the door shut, bright light spilling out from under the threshold. "Starsk?" he called, his voice sounding loud in the quietness. He lowered the volume. "You gonna be long?"
Something that sounded like a cross between a hoarse grunt and a yawn filtered out.
"Hey, buddy, I gotta go, and soon, so hurry up in there, willya!"
When his barely disguised plea wasn't acknowledged, Hutch turned and paced back to the sofa. With nothing else to do but wait, he bent over and picked up the rumpled blanket, dropping it in a jumbled heap onto the sheet. Moving forward, he started to do the same with the pillow but, when his fingers closed over a sticky wetness, he dropped it immediately.
Wiping his hands dry on his briefs, he shook his head in irritation. "Jesus, Starsk! You need to do something about that disgusting drool problem of yours!" Walking toward the bathroom again, he shot a distasteful look at the pillow, then back at the irritating silence coming from behind the door. "Hey, pal, come on! If you don't get out of there soon, I'm going to have to use your kitchen sink … and I know how much you hate it when I do that."
Again, there was no forthcoming reply. His discomfort level was becoming critical, so he did a one-eighty, heading purposefully for the kitchen, but another quick glance down at the damp pillow caused him to stop in his tracks. In the colorless glow of the tv set, he could see that the stain on the light-colored case was dark. Not the transparent wetness of saliva. In fact, it looked more like …
A chorus of alarm bells suddenly went off in his head. Aborting his trek to the kitchen, he found the closest lamp, snapped it on and, as the room flooded with light, gasped.
Squinting against the sudden brightness, he focused on the dark red stain soaking a third of the pillowcase. Swiftly, he glanced back to the couch. There was blood smeared on the sheet, more smudging down the side of the sofa. A line of glistening droplets on the beige carpet led a crimson trail to the bathroom. Concern rose to anxiety which escalated immediately to near panic, and he crossed the room in two strides, pounding forcefully on the door.
"Starsky! Are you okay in there? Answer me!"
"Starsk! You're scaring the shit outta me! If you don’t tell me you’re okay I’m gonna break down the door, and your landlord’s not gonna be real happy about it.”
Something that sounded like gagging followed by a low moan came from within. Heart in his throat, Hutch didn’t hesitate. He backed off, rammed his right shoulder against the door and threw his weight into it. The flimsy hollow wood buckled beneath the force, then opened wide to reveal his semi-prone partner, huddled over the toilet basin. The white porcelain lid and bowl were covered with blood.
"Starsky … buddy … "
As he spoke, his friend's upper body suddenly convulsed, and he watched in horror as Starsky vomited a stream of bile and blood into the bowl. When he was finished, his head dropped limply onto the lid.
Hutch grabbed a hand towel, doused it with water, wrung it out. Bending down for a closer look, he used it to carefully bathe his friend's mouth and face.
Starsky lifted his head, turning instinctively toward the soft coolness of the cloth, and Hutch's breath caught in his throat at the sight. The left side of his partner's face was grotesquely swollen and discolored, the eye closed, trapped within the doughy flesh.
"Easy, Starsk. I'm here," he said, amazed that his own voice could sound so calm and reassuring when inside, his thoughts and emotions were a jangled mass of exposed nerves.
What the hell did I do to you, buddy? What was I thinking!
//Is that what you're trying to tell me … buddy … 'friend' … that my girl is a hooker? A prostitute?"
"Look around you. Whatddya think bought this place."//
He'd been surrounded by sin … deception … lies. He'd loved … no, worshiped! … a whore… a fornicator. And, by association, he'd become one too. Yet, the only innocent, the only one who'd sought the truth … who'd told the truth … had been punished by the very person he'd tried to protect.
He felt tears starting, blinked them away. "God, Starsk!" He almost choked on the words. "I never meant to hurt you like this."
Blood-spattered fingers reached out, clutched his forearm tightly.
"…you … can't help …I got a … glass jaw …"
The ache in his chest constricted into a painful band, and Hutch jammed his hands underneath his partner's armpits, lifted him into a vertical position. Starsky reached up and grasped the green knit fabric of his shirt, flesh and cloth closing into desperate fists.
"Think you can walk, Starsk? I've gotta get you to the hospital."
The dark head lifted once, then again, but the movement only exacerbated the trickle of blood oozing from the left side of his slack mouth. It trailed down his chin and neck, disappearing into the crew-neck of his red t-shirt.
Ignoring his rising terror, Hutch turned sideways and headed back toward the living room, pulling Starsky's swaying body with him. It took several moments of concerted effort, but he finally got his partner settled onto the couch.
Racing back into the bathroom, he grabbed the damp towel, then returned to Starsky, dabbing at the stream of blood that continued to leak from inside his jaw. He placed the towel in his buddy's hand, positioning it against his mouth. "Can you hold it there, Starsk? I've gotta get my pants and shoes on and then we'll be ready to go. Okay, babe?"
There wasn't time to wait for a reply. Hutch jumped into his brown jeans, slipped on the tan wallabies, threw on his jacket, and headed back to retrieve his partner.
Starsky was where he'd left him, slumped on the couch, but his neck seemed to have lost the strength to hold his head up. Both eyes were now closed, and every breath was a gurgling grunt of pain.
Searching frantically on the coffee table and breakfast bar, Hutch swore aloud.
"…lookin' fer?" came from the couch.
"Keys … where're the fuckin' keys to your car?"
"… jeans … pocket …"
Again, there was a panic-stricken rush through the apartment. "Where, Starsk? Which pair?"
The heavy head drooped forward, releasing a fresh stream of blood. "… floor … 'ath room …"
Five seconds later, keys firmly in his own pants pocket, Hutch retrieved the blanket from the sofa, wrapped it around his partner's upper torso, and helped him from the apartment, down the stairs, and into the Torino. A minute later, they were speeding through the desolate streets, Mars light flashing, siren screaming loudly.
It was a statement, not a question, and Hutch halted his nonstop pacing in the hospital corridor, turned around to find a familiar face emerging through the ER doors. After forty-five minutes of going-out-of-his-mind worry, Doctor Warren Franklin's presence was a sedative for his frayed nerves.
"Dr. Franklin," he acknowledged curtly. "How is he?"
If the physician noticed the abruptness, he didn't react. Instead, he pointed toward a door several feet away from where they both stood. "Let's go into the lounge, Sergeant, where we can talk in private."
The emptiness in the adjoining waiting room and in the doctor's tone sent a chill of foreboding down his spine. But Franklin was already moving in the direction of the lounge, so Hutch followed.
The doctor's retreat was merely a large closet with a card table and two chairs placed in one corner. On the opposite side was a wall of cheap, pressed-wood cabinets, and on the counter that separated the upper deck from the lower, sat a single, much-used Mr. Coffee. Franklin poured himself a cup of thick black brew, offered an empty mug to Hutch.
"No, thank you. Now, about my partner…"
"Let's have a seat, why don't we?" the older man said and headed in the direction of the table.
"I don't want to have a seat, Doctor Franklin! I want to know what's going on with my friend, so why don't you quit beating around the bush and give it to me straight."
The man continued toward the chair and eased himself down. It was obvious he was exhausted. He motioned to the vacant seat opposite him. "Please. You may not feel the need to sit, but I do. It's been a long, demanding shift."
Simmering silently, Hutch quickly took the chair, but he couldn't sit still. He fidgeted, poised on the edge of the hard seat as though ready to spring at any moment. "All right, Doctor. What's wrong with Starsky?"
Franklin sipped his coffee slowly, visibly relaxing as the warm liquid worked its magic. "Sergeant Hutchinson," he began. "Your friend has two, possibly three hairline fractures along his left jaw. From what we've been able to ascertain from x-rays, one of these splintered, sending little slivers of bone into his interior cheek and facial tissue. This caused bleeding just below the skin surface. It collected in the tissues until the pressure grew too great. When it couldn't expand anymore, like a balloon, it burst and drained."
"B-but, he was throwing up blood … lots of it … before I got him here."
"Probably some he swallowed in his sleep or when it burst. Actually, although it looks serious, that's the least of his worries." Franklin took another long sip of his coffee, frowned. "Cold."
"Detective," Franklin said as he stood and moved back to the coffeemaker. He added more hot liquid to the cup, then returned to his seat. "I need to know what happened to Sergeant Starsky, and I need an approximate time frame."
Suddenly uncomfortable, Hutch looked down at his lap. "What did he say happened?"
"Not much. He was in too much distress at first, but when we got some pain meds and muscle relaxers into his system, he just said it was in the line of duty."
Line of duty.
"He … he was assaulted, took a hit to the jaw."
"Well, it must've been some blow … by someone with large hands and a lot of anger."
His right hand closed involuntarily into a fist, and Hutch looked down at it, judging the size and volume. "It was." He paused a moment, considering, then rushed to continue. "I hit him."
"Well … " Franklin seemed momentarily at a loss for words.
And right now you're wondering what kind of low-life piece of shit 'friend' busts his best buddy in the jaw, aren't ya? Well, guess what, Doctor! Whatever nasty name you're thinking I deserve, I can go you ten better.
When he finally recovered, the doctor continued. "About what time did the incident occur, Sergeant?"
Hutch looked at the clock on the lounge wall. 3:12 A.M. Mentally, he clicked back the hours. "About 7:30."
A half hour or so after the official time of death …
"So, he's been walking around in this condition for nearly eight hours?" Franklin shook his head, then stood and started to pace. "I've called in a specialist, a neurosurgeon familiar with facial paralysis and nerve damage."
Hutch was stunned. "Facial paralysis? Nerve damage? W-w-what're you talking about? You just said he has a broken jaw and some bleeding that's not as serious as it looks. Why does he need a neurosurgeon?"
"Dr. Julian Thompson, one of the country's best neurosurgeons, specializing in facial nerve damage, is on his way as we speak from San Francisco. He should arrive in a few hours. Sergeant, your friend's face -- the entire left side -- is paralyzed. I'm not a specialist in this field, but all the test results indicate the bone splinters or the injury itself may have damaged the main nerve that controls Detective Starsky's facial muscles. It's known only by a number -- Nerve #7 -- rooted in the pons section of the brain. It branches out and grows in tendrils around the cheek and jawline." Franklin placed his left hand, fingers splayed, over his own thin cheek to illustrate. "Hopefully, the numbness and paralysis are only temporary, caused by the intense swelling. If so, in a few days, when it goes down, he'll get complete feeling and movement back."
"But if this #7 nerve is involved …"
"The swelling could be blocking the nerve impulses …"
Hutch's memories spun out of control, back six months in the police department lab, as Cheryl Jennings delivered the devastating news: "Certain progressive poisons block the impulses …"
Oh my God!
" … if the nerve has been damaged or severed by the bone splinters, then there's nothing more we can do."
"You mean, the left side of his face will be paralyzed? For the rest of his life?"
Franklin met his eyes and nodded grimly. "If there's damage to the nerve … or if it's severed, he could very well suffer permanent facial paralysis."
Hutch rubbed the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger, pressing against the ache that was slowly escalating into a tension headache. "But, Doctor, I don't understand. He's been in dozens of fist fights. I can't tell you how many times a perp has popped one or both of us on the jaw. How could just one blow cause this kind of injury?"
Franklin shook his head. "It only takes one, Sergeant Hutchinson."
There was a moment of uncomfortable silence.
Then, "Can I see him?"
"Of course, but only for five minutes. He's been through a lot, and he's going to go through a lot more before this is over. I've given him a pretty strong sedative. He'll probably be out for several hours."
"I understand. I just want to see him …"
… touch him … apologize … fall on my knees and beg his forgiveness …
Franklin continued. "His room's on the sixth floor." The doctor looked at his wrist watch and sighed. "Guess I need to get back to work."
Hutch reached out, placed his hand on the other man's forearm. "Thank you, Doctor Franklin. I appreciate everything you've done for him. You don't know how …" His voice wavered, and he felt himself ridiculously close to tears. He cleared his throat and began again. "What time is his surgery?"
"Well, depending on Dr. Thompson's arrival and assessment, I'd say 8 or 8:30. And in answer to your next question, I don't know how long it will last. These things can take as little as an hour or as long as five or six hours. We'll know more after Dr. Thompson views the x-rays and does his own examination."
Nodding, Hutch left the lounge and headed for the elevators.
The automatic doors of Memorial Hospital's emergency room entrance parted with a whoosh and Hutch barreled through them and out into the cool October night. Reaching down, he yanked the zipper-pull of his leather jacket up, sealing himself into its warmth, then abruptly stopped his headlong rush from the building when a careening car screeched to a halt in front of him.
The driver's door opened, and a young man ran around the front of the car, sidestepping Hutch. Pulling the passenger's side door open, he helped an equally young and definitely pregnant woman from the seat. She was obviously in the last stages of labor, and her husband struggled to move her toward the hospital doors. On any other day Hutch would've offered assistance to the couple.
On any other day.
But this day was different. He was different. He'd loved a whore, and because of it, he felt dirty all the way down to his soul. Even worse, he'd betrayed a friend, hurting him physically, possibly maiming him for life. The doctor's ominous words still rang in his ears:
"If there's damage to the nerve … if it's severed, he could very well suffer permanent facial paralysis."
"But, Doctor, I don't understand. He's been in dozens of fist fights. I can't tell you how many times a perp has popped one or both of us on the jaw. How could just one blow cause this kind of injury?"
Franklin shook his head. "It only takes one, Sergeant Hutchinson."
Shuddering at the unwanted memory, Hutch doubled his pace, continuing away from the building. He maneuvered around the still-running car and headed toward the parking lot. A quick glance back showed the couple had made it into the hospital without his help. It would probably take several hours of hard work and intense pain before they welcomed a new life into the world. In the meantime, his partner … his best friend … lay in a hospital bed on the sixth floor, facing surgery so delicate that if things didn't go right Starsky would never be the same – physically – mentally – emotionally -- again.
And neither will I.
Miserable at the thought, Hutch sighed and cast his eyes heavenward, but no prayers were forthcoming. How could any so-called loving deity allow something so heinous to happen to someone like Starsky?
But more importantly, how could I have done something so … so goddamned contemptible. God in heaven!
His eyes suddenly misted over. He rammed the heels of both palms into them, rubbing furiously, until both orbs protested the mistreatment. Blinking back moisture, he stared down at the cement walk, waiting until he could focus again, then turned, tracking upward to the sixth floor side window of the hospital. Starsky's room.
"Can I help you, sir?" the station nurse asked.
"David Starsky? He’s supposed to be in one of the rooms on this floor."
"We just got him settled in 612. But the doctor left strict instructions. He's not to be disturbed. Family only."
Hutch scowled at the short, obese woman. “I won't 'disturb' him, Nurse …” He glanced at her name tag. “… Johnson. I just want to see him. Dr. Franklin gave me five minutes."
The look on her pudgy face said she and the doctor weren't of the same mind. She tried once more. “And just how are you related to the patient, sir?”
Hutch felt his self-control rattle the bars on its cage. He sighed tiredly. "I'm listed on all legal documents as his next of kin; I'm the executor of his will; and I have a medical power of attorney."
But Johnson wasn't budging. "That may be, sir, but rules are rules. Besides, I don’t see how any of that paperwork makes you a blood relative."
The cage doors clanked again, louder. This time, Hutch allowed the escape.
“Madam." His voice was spider-web silk, sticky with venom. "As a matter of fact, David Michael Starsky is my fuckin' twin brother!” An index finger stabbed the air, causing the woman’s eyes to cross as she focused on the long, intimidating digit.
“Sir, there’s no need for profanity. If you’ll just listen to reason …”
“No, ma’am! You listen! That’s my partner in there, and his personal physician gave me exclusive permission to be with him for five minutes.” The single finger became five, waving directly in front of her round face. “Five! Minutes! Now, Nurse Johnson, which way to Room 612?"
He could see that beneath the barely-controlled exterior, she was seething, trembling with fury, yet she acquiesced. "To your left, third door on the right, sir," she said, emphasizing each single-syllabled word. "But you should be aware that he's heavily sedated right now, so he probably won't respond to you." With that, she turned her back, dismissing him with the gesture.
//Wanna bet!// flitted through his mind, but he just nodded and strode purposefully down the long hallway.
He surveyed the room as he entered. 612 was private, furnished in typical hospital style -- a single high metal bed with a modicum of bedding, obligatory adjustable tray (suitable for eating or writing thank you notes), a bedside table, and two chairs -- one for nurses to monitor critically ill patients and another for relatives and friends.
//Friends. What a misnomer!// Hutch felt his lips curl at the irony.
Now that he was here, standing across the room from his unconscious friend's bedside, he felt uncomfortable and uncharacteristically out of place.
From his vantage he could see that Starsky seemed to be resting peacefully, lying on his back, his 'good side' facing the entrance. There were the standard IVs, dripping medicines and fluids into a vein in his right arm.
Reluctantly, Hutch inched closer, stopping a foot or so from the bed, and gazed down at his partner.
His friend's uninjured side was now free of the pinched lines of pain. His normal right eye was closed, the long lashes, black with sun-bleached tips, resting on dark gray smudges.
Hutch listened to the quiet sounds of the room, taking in Starsky's short, shallow breaths, the muted drip-drip of the IV, the slight gurgling sound at the back of his partner's throat.
//Ahhhh, Starsk. What did I do to you, buddy? I'm so damned sorry … so ashamed …//
He bowed his head, waiting for the sudden onslaught of emotion to recede. Instinctively, his right hand lifted, reaching out to give and receive comfort. And then he froze.
//No. I'm not worthy of your friendship, your loyalty. You're lying here in this place because I vented all my grief and anger on you. God knows, you didn't deserve this ... and I don't deserve you …//
Almost without thinking, Hutch backed away a step … then another … and another. He started to turn away, bolt for the door, when he heard a familiar voice.
"Hutch?" It was a hoarse whisper.
He froze in his tracks, waited expectantly.
"That … you?"
"Yeah, Starsk. It's me. They told me not to disturb you, but I guess I did. I'm sorry. I'm leaving now."
A rattling cough followed by a hitched gag spurred him to move without thinking. He flew back to the bed. "Starsky? You okay?"
A mumbled 'mmmmmm' was his only reply.
"Do you need me to call the nurse? The doctor? What can I do for you, babe?"
Starsky's physical distress waned, but he still seemed ill at ease. As Hutch watched, his partner's right hand turned over, palm up. The fingers opened and splayed out, like flower petals in the first rays of the morning sun. Then it was slowly, tediously inching toward him.
//No, Starsk. I can't … I'm not worthy of your touch … //
But his partner's hand continued its search, reaching out for his strength, his warmth. And Starsky's need outweighed his own disgust and self-loathing. As soon as Hutch placed his own larger hand in the palm, Starsky visibly relaxed. Warm fingers coiled trustingly around his own, flooding him with affection and forgiveness. Humbled almost beyond comprehension, Hutch merely stood beside the bed, soaking up the trust and unconditional love. And then, like a dam burst, silent tears rolled down his cheeks, washing away his shame, cleansing his soul.
"Five minutes are long past, Sergeant Hutchinson."
An unwanted voice intruded into his reverie, disturbing the connection, and Hutch cursed silently.
Swiping the wetness from his cheeks, Hutch leaned over his partner's body, touched his forehead to the soft curls. "I've gotta go, Starsk. They won't let me stay with you tonight. But I promise. If you want me here, I'll be back first thing in the morning, okay?"
There was a slight pressure on his hand, and he knew he'd been understood.
"Sergeant, I must insist that you leave now." Nurse Johnson's irritating voice came again from the open doorway. "If you don't comply, I'll have to call Security."
Ignoring her, Hutch pulled back, but a slender strand of electricity still crackled in the air between the partners. A slight smile of satisfaction lifted the corners of his lips as he adjusted his friend's hand back to its original position. He smoothed the covers, pulling the sheet higher over Starsky's torso. A last glance showed his partner was warm, relaxed and comfortable.
"'Night, Starsk," he whispered, then turned, and without a word to the woman standing in the doorway, walked into the corridor, down the hallway, and pressed the elevator button. A quick check of the clock by the nurse's station revealed it was almost 3:45. Nearly five hours left until the surgery. He was too keyed up to sleep; besides, by the time he got to Starsky's apartment, or even his own for that matter, he'd barely have enough time to get cleaned up and hurry back before his friend would be wheeled to the operating room.
The elevator arrived, the doors swooshing open. The sound was loud in the quiet hallway. He entered the small chamber, reached out to press L for Lobby, then noticed the 0 for Basement. It suddenly occurred to him that Gillian was here … in the morgue … in the basement. Starsky and Gillian, both in the same building, both there because of him. A chill suddenly enveloped him, and even in the warmth of the elevator car, he shivered uncontrollably. Shoving aside the unwanted thought and accompanying mental images, Hutch pressed the L button. When it stopped, he made for the exit and didn't look back.
The air outside the hospital smelled of smog with just a hint of forthcoming rain. Hutch found the Torino where he'd parked it after getting Starsky into the ER. The red-and-white car was parked adjacent to a multi-colored psychedelic VW beetle and pointed away from the hospital. Reaching into his left pants pocket, he found the key, unlocked the door, then positioned himself in the driver’s seat. He felt strange behind the wheel, somehow out of place. This was where Starksy belonged, not he. The seat cushions were molded to his partner's slender, slighter body, not his longer, lankier one.
Sighing, he put the key in the ignition, but he didn't turn it. Instead, he scooted over to the passenger's seat, ‘his’ side, reclining his head backward against the butter softness of the black leather. That felt better, more natural, and he closed his weary eyes, ran long fingers through the mane of golden hair adorning his head.
God, I'm tired. Need some sleep. Just a few winks, and then I'll be able to hack it.
He would stay here until morning, he decided. If their stupid rules exiled him from his partner’s room for the duration, then he would stay here, right outside. Close enough to be there if he was needed … wanted …
But what if he doesn’t want me there? What if when he wakes up he decides what I’ve done is so despicable, so unforgivable, that he tells me to take a hike? Disappear. No more partners, no more best friends. No more … never again … I couldn’t really blame him. What I did was over the top for any relationship. All he did was try to save me from myself. All he did was try to help me by helping her. And now he’s facing a dangerous operation … all because of me …
The earlier euphoria he'd experienced in his partner's room suddenly vanished.
If he's paralyzed because of me … if I've caused irreparable damage … it's over. Just like that. And I can't … I won't … blame him, because it all rests with me. I'm poison. A deadly corrosive poison, killing and hurting everything I get close to …
Suddenly, he couldn't sit still any longer. Shaking his head to clear away the sleepiness, he moved back to the driver's side, started the car, and drove off into the night.
The courtyard and swimming pool lights reflected off the clear water and into the air, dancing wantonly for its audience of one. For the tenth time in less than ten minutes, Hutch wondered what he was doing here. Dawn was less than three hours away, and he sat alone in his partner’s car, in a dark, vacant parking lot.
Most residents in the nondescript building he faced were sleeping soundly, resting up for another Monday morning workday in Bay City. But at least one occupant was awake, probably winding down after a long night ‘shift’. He knew she wasn’t sleeping because the lights in her apartment window glowed through the sheer European-style curtains of her living room. But now that he was here, he couldn’t remember why he had come or what his original plan of action had been.
Sighing at the emotional tar pit his life had become over the past twenty-four hours, he reached down, turned the ignition key over. The powerful car growled rudely awake. Looking over his shoulder, Hutch shifted the Torino into reverse, eased his foot off the brake.
“Starsky? Handsome Hutch!”
The unexpected voice startled him. Automatically, his foot shot out, slamming the brake down, causing the heavy car to rock violently on its suspension. Starsky’s gonna kill me for that one, he thought, wincing at the thought of his partner. He erased the image from his mind, wiped it clean, then forced his focus onto the tiny form illuminated before him.
Sweet Alice stood in the Torino's bright headlight beams, her long blonde hair bound up in two braids and pinned to the top of her head. Both hands clutched white garbage bags, stuffed to the point of bursting.
Caught, Hutch sighed. He returned the car to park and killed the engine. “Hi, Alice,” he said as she stopped just outside the driver's side. "It's just me."
She grinned, and he noticed that her face was scrubbed clean of the inch-thick make-up she usually wore. Clad in a worn t-shirt with a large yellow Smiley face on it, she looked like a teenager in her denim pedal pushers and purple flip flops.
“What in the world are you doing out here at this hour of the mornin’? And where's that devilishly handsome partner of yours?” she drawled, never dropping the smile.
Hutch looked at her again and shook his head at the transformation. She didn’t look a day over eighteen. “Oh … Starsky's … not far … and … I was just in the neighborhood …”
Right, Hutchinson. ‘Just in the neighborhood’ … at four in the morning … even you wouldn’t swallow that one.
She seemed to consider the lie, then turned, hurried to the large dumpster a few feet away and divested herself of the trash. When she returned, the smile was gone. “I was just doin’ my daily chores, but I’m finished now. Why don’t you come on in and visit for a while? I’ll make us some hot tea.”
“Nah, thank you, Alice. I really need to get back to the house. There’re a lot of things I could be doing. I don’t wanna put you to any trouble …”
A small white hand reached into the car, settled lightly on his shoulder. “No trouble, Handsome. Please … I know you probably could do with some company right about now.”
Hutch tensed at her choice of words. “You ‘know’?” he repeated. “What do you ‘know’, Alice?”
But she was already opening the door, gently pulling him from the car. He flinched away, shaking his head, but she was insistent.
“Come on, Hutch. I promise not to bite‘cha.” The smile she gave him was sad and wistful. “I know you lost someone tonight … and I know you’re hurtin’ awful bad,” she whispered. She took his arm, maneuvering him toward the building. This time he didn’t pull away; he let her lead him to the hallway entrance and into her apartment.
Alice struggled to move the lump on her settee into a more comfortable position, but it was proving difficult.
Might near impossible!
Hutch had made it into her apartment, followed her across the living room, then promptly collapsed onto her flowered love seat and passed out. Since then, he had been semi-coherent and barely conscious. Moving the blond giant to her bedroom and bed was out of the question, and not only because of his size and the distance involved. She smiled to herself … the very prim and proper Detective Sergeant Kenneth Hutchinson from Duluth, Minnesota, probably wouldn't appreciate waking up in the much-used bed of a prostitute lately from Elizabethtown, Kentucky.
Alice stared at the sleeping man. Some powerful emotional demons were slumping his shoulders, sucking the spirit right out of his soul. Even in repose, he looked grim and disheartened, yet every sinewy muscle was tensed, ready to spring into action at any moment. She already knew about his involvement with Gillian Ingram. And the woman’s murder by Al Grossman. That incident had been news on the streets within moments of its occurrence.
And since the other Bobbsey twin wasn't with him, she also had a clue where some of the additional baggage was coming from. Sighing, she hurried to her bedroom, retrieved a fresh blanket from the linen closet, then returned to the sofa to cover him. He didn’t look comfortable, slumped in the corner of her tiny love seat, head and neck at odds and long legs sprawled out sideways on the floor to keep from intersecting the coffee table. He was out like the proverbial light, yet the smell of alcohol wasn’t on him.
Guess you're just plum tuckered out, Handsome Hutch, physically and emotionally.
She carefully layered the rose-covered blanket over the majority of his torso, tucking the edges around his shoulders and hips. When finished, she stepped back to check her handiwork. Satisfied that he would at least be warm, if not totally comfortable, she reached up, switched off the lamp on the side table, then started toward the bathroom to retrieve a week's worth of laundry. But something stopped her, pulled her back, and she returned to his side. Almost without thinking, her hand reached out, finger-combing the flaxen strands of hair that fell across his forehead. He reacted with a drawn breath that became a whispered sigh, then relaxed back into slumber.
One of these days, Hutch, she thought. One of these days.
Without another backward glance, she headed purposefully for the bathroom and her laundry.
Hutch opened his eyes to the tantalizing smell of smoked sausages and sautéed onion.
“Morning!” A woman’s voice came from his left, and he turned his head, then groaned as his neck and back muscles constricted in protest.
“You hungry?” was punctuated by the sound of a blender, noisily pureeing something.
He frowned at the noise that threatened to split his head in two, then focused on orienting himself. Moments later, Sweet Alice appeared in front of him, holding out a small glass of what looked like orange juice.
He automatically reached out, took possession of the beverage, and she bounded away, back into the kitchen. “Alice?” he asked, still fuzzy with a veil of sleep, a veil that abruptly lifted. Starting, he threw off the blanket and lurched to his feet. “What … oh my god, what time is it?”
She looked up from the stove, startled at the suddenness of his reaction. “A couple minutes til six. You ain’t been out that long …”
He visibly deflated. Still two-and-a-half hours until Starsky’s surgery. One problem solved. Hutch looked around the small apartment, then centered on Alice who busily spooned a mixture of sliced sausage, scrambled eggs, and sautéed onions onto two flowered plates. She placed both on the breakfast counter, poured hot tea into two matching cups, and motioned for Hutch to join her.
He wasn’t hungry, but he moved toward the bar, propped his hip on a stool.
“I’m sorry, Alice. I don’t know why I came here … certainly not for what you’re probably thinking.”
“How do you know what I’m thinkin’, Handsome.” She looked up at him, all blueness of eyes and whiteness of teeth, then handed him a fork. “Eat. It probably ain’t what your mama used to make, but you look like you could use a decent meal.”
Hutch took the fork, stared at it for a moment, then plunged into his breakfast. Surprisingly, the scrambled omelet was delicious. He cleaned his plate quickly, then looked down at the tiny woman sitting next to him.
"Well, you're full of surprises, Alice. That was wonderful. Thank you."
"Welcome," she said softly. "And why is it so surprising that I can cook?"
Hutch lifted the delicate cup, took a sip of tea. It, too, was perfect with just the right touch of honey and a dash of fresh mint. "Oh, I don't know. It's just not something I think about when … " He trailed off, slightly embarrassed by where the conversation was heading.
"… when you think about what I do for a living?" Her mouth puckered, and she took a deep breath, exhaled it all at once. "I'm not ashamed of what I do, Hutch. It's a living, just like anything else."
"Not quite. Most people don't sell their bodies to pay the rent. Sex shouldn't be a way of life, Alice. It wasn't meant for that. It should be for loving, for sharing, the greatest fulfillment a man and a woman can …"
Alice looked right through him with her big blue eyes.
"Many things transcend sex, Hutch. Some folks believe that it's the ultimate in give and take, in sharing. But they're so wrong. That's not the way of things. Sex … that's just two bodies going at it. Most of the time, neither one gives a tinker's damn about pleasing the other. What's that old song -- birds do it, bees do it …"
"Even educated fleas do it," Hutch finished with a wan smile.
"Yeah," she said wistfully. "Sumthin' like that." She was quiet for a moment, pondering her words. "Now, lotsa things are head and shoulders above sex when it comes to being there for one another. My mother was always there for me … always … until she died. And Billy Jack … he was there too until the Army got 'im, and took him away. We was gonna be married, but we waited. We wanted to be legal before we … you know … but then he was killed by the Viet Cong. Y'know … I know'd the exact moment he died. I felt it. We was that close. I reckon it's kinda like that with you and Starsky. I've seen you 'talk' to each other without sayin' a word." She sighed, smiling sadly. "So many people are wrong, Hutch. Sex is just another bodily function. You don't even have to think about it to do it. People romanticize it and fantasize it. But the ultimate sharing -- the ultimate bonding -- it don't have nuthin' to do with sex. But it has everything to do with love."
"How'd you get to be so smart, Alice," Hutch said, marveling at the simple wisdom of the woman.
"Oh, I don't know. Just born that way, I reckon." She hopped off the stool, retrieved the warm teapot and poured herself another cup. She held up the vessel, silently asking Hutch if he wanted a refill. He shook his head, and she returned to her place at the counter.
“So, if you're not ashamed, tell me, Alice," Hutch continued. Pandora had opened the box, and now he wanted to know all the secrets. "Why do you do it? What brought you to …”
Alice took a tentative sip of her scalding tea, then blew on the too-hot beverage. “The world's oldest profession?” she asked, her voice molasses slow and honey-tinged. "Oh, I don’t know, Hutch. All my life, things just sorta happened to me, and I guess I let ‘em. When I left home and came out here, I just knew it was gonna be different, but it was the same. Things happened to me, and I just reacted to ‘em. Kinda like I was always caught in a powerful wave, being tossed along whether I wanted to or not. After a while … you get tired of trying to fight it and just go limp. That way you don’t use up all your energy fightin’ something you can’t change, and you don’t drown tryin’ to swim out.”
“Do you want to change?”
The clear blue eyes clouded over in thought. “Once upon a time,” she whispered with an affirmative nod. “I used to have this dream where a handsome prince would ride in on a beautiful silver horse, scoop me into his arms, and carry me off to his castle where we’d live happily ever after.” She smiled wistfully. “And then I’d wake up next to Janos …”
Hutch reached out, gently squeezed her milk-white hand. She allowed the touch, then reluctantly pulled her hand away, lowering it into her lap. The look she gave him was tart and bittersweet.
“I like to think I’m helpin’ people. Just like your girl, Gillian, I reckon. Ain't that really what you're askin'? Why she did what she did?" She paused a moment, waiting to see if her revelation would bring any reaction, but he just stared at her, his expression locked and guarded. She sighed. "Most of the men who find me are sad or lonely or just lookin’ for someone to talk to. Poor lost little lambs …” She took another sip of tea. “But then I guess I’m just being silly.”
We’re poor little lambs, who have lost our way …
Hutch set his own cup down on the counter. “Not silly at all, Alice.” He looked at the clock on her wall again.
"What's your all-fired hurry, Hutch? You got an appointment somewhere?"
He nodded. "Starsky's in Memorial Hospital. He was … injured last night. They've got to operate this morning."
Her eyes became large pools of blue sympathy. “What time?”
Hutch looked at the wall clock again. "Still a couple of hours away. But I guess I’d better get goin’.” He moved to rise, but Alice’s hand snaked out, settled on top of his own outstretched one.
“Starsky's gonna be just fine, Hutch. Don’t you worry none. And so are you. It's all over the streets what Grossman did to your girl, and everyone's on your side. If ya'll need anythin', anythin' at all, just get word to me, okay?”
Something constricted in the back of his throat, causing him to suddenly sniff and swallow convulsively. He got to his feet, managed a nod and a feeble grin as she hopped down from the bar stool, then strode with him toward the door.
“You’ll let me know something?”
Her eyes were fathomless, so deep one might fall into them and never be found.
“I’ll send word,” he said, leaning down to plant a chaste kiss on her forehead. “And thank you … for everything.”
“You’re welcome, Handsome Hutch. For everything.”
Burdens lightened, he went out the door.
We’re little black sheep, who have gone astray … baa, baa, baa…
The glass was cold, but Hutch kept his cheek pressed to the hospital window anyway. The slight discomfort kept him grounded as he blanked his mind and focused on the rain-distorted lights of the parking lot six stories below. He wasn't sure how long he'd stood at Starsky's window, listening to the gentle pitter-patter of the autumn rain.
He knew it was well after nine o'clock at night, more than 24 hours after he'd first raised a fist to his partner. He also knew he was tired -- down-to-the-marrow bone weary -- after an entire day of anxious optimism. But he couldn't … he wouldn't … go home. At least not until Starsky was completely awake and stabilized.
Let's face it, you just need to be near him, hear his voice … ask for absolution. Until he tells you, says outright that he forgives you, you won’t be able to leave him.
The thought of his stricken friend pulled him away from the window, led him back to the bedside where Starsky slept. Hutch reached out, blanketed the limp hand of his partner with his larger one.
I put you through hell today, buddy, and I'm so very sorry. I don't know what made me hit you … should never have taken it out on you. What she was wasn't your fault. Guess I needed to blame the messenger … and you just happened to be him …
He sighed, a weight-of-the-world exhalation. It had been a helluva long day. The drive across town from Alice's apartment to Memorial Hospital this morning had taken more than thirty minutes. He'd arrived just in time to be told that Starsky was being readied for surgery, and he wouldn't be allowed in to see him. That had gone over like a lead balloon. This time, it had only taken a modicum of temper to gain admission to his partner's room, and he smiled in remembrance of their last conversation.
Dawn had brought no obvious change in Starsky's condition or appearance. He lay on his back in the hospital bed, both eyes closed, skin an alabaster gray. The entire left side of his face was still swollen and mottled with deep purple bruises. As Hutch entered, Starsky opened his single functioning eyelid, acknowledging his partner with a slight nod. The movement brought on a loose cough that obviously hurt. Starsky groaned nasally. The hand unhindered by the IV needle lifted a wadded tissue to the side of his mouth, dabbed at his lips. The material came away stained red. "Morning … pard …" he finally managed to gasp out.
Wincing at Starsky's overt suffering, Hutch swallowed down nausea that suddenly cramped his stomach, sending bile into the back of his throat. His "How're ya feelin', babe?" sounded distant and hollow to his own ears.
Starsky looked up at him tiredly. "Ready to get this dog and pony show on the road," he whispered, turning his disfigured face toward the wall. When he spoke again, his voice quivered with emotion and fatigue. "'m tired, Hutch … jus' wanna get this over with an’ go home. Y’know?"
Hutch flinched at the tortured plea. “I know, pal,” he whispered soothingly. “And I’m so sorry I did this to you. I know I probably shouldn't bring it up right now, but …"
"Then … don't … Hutch … please … can’t deal with this … yet…” Starsky coughed again, a deep ragged sound that ripped through Hutch’s heart. He reached for more tissues, but the box on the bedside table was empty. "Damn it … I need …" he started, then clamped his lips together. Seconds later, he held a hand up to his mouth, catching the blood-tinged fluid as it leaked out into the palm of his hand. “Hutch …”
“Hang on, buddy. I’ll find something,” Hutch said as he searched the room for another box of Kleenex, but there was none in sight. Desperate, he ran to the bathroom, wound several layers of toilet paper around his hand, then hurried back to the bed.
“Here,” he said as Starsky reached for the tissue with his free hand, but the IV imbedded in the crook of his elbow pulled and stung. He gasped at the unexpected pain.
"Never mind, babe, I've got it," Hutch said, tenderly wiping the side of his buddy's mouth and hand. When he had cleaned the foul liquid away, he tossed the soiled paper into a nearby trash can. "Better now?"
A nod. An affirmative whisper. "Um hmmm." Then, "Hutch?"
Hutch moved closer, leaning down and touching his forehead to his partner’s mass of curls. The heady scent of Herbal Essence flooded his nostrils. "What can I do for you, Starsk? How can I make it up to you?"
There was a slight jostling as his partner shook his head. "Go home. Eat somethin'. Get some sleep. Take care a … business." Starsky’s right eye opened, tried to focus. A single brow furrowed.
"Did I ever tell you, you’re my favorite partner?” Hutch whispered, his voice husky with emotion.
“I thought … Jennings,” Starsky started, paused, reached for a breath. He swallowed painfully, then continued. “ … was your favorite …”
Hutch felt a melancholy smile tug at his lips. “Jennings? Why in the world would you bring that idiot up! Some cadet he was. Couldn’t find his asshole with two hands and a flashlight.”
His partner’s ravaged features lightened, and Hutch caught the ghost of a crooked grin starting.
//The right side only! God … God! If you're up there, please don't let him be paralyzed. If you have to punish someone, punish me. I'm the guilty party.//
Hutch’s emotions went into a tail-spin, nose diving toward the floor, but he forced himself to continue the light banter. “Remember what Dooley said about him? After that first liquor store robbery?”
“That … that he was … about as useful … as …” Starsky’s voice gave out, and his breaths grew rapid and shallow.
“…screen doors on submarines,” Hutch finished with a short laugh. "I remember it …"
The oversized door suddenly opened to admit two nurses in green scrubs, both laden with bottles, tubes, and surgical paraphernalia. "Hello, David," the taller of the two women said. "We're here to get you prepped for surgery. Dr. Thompson will be along in a minute to explain the procedure."
"T'rrific," Starsky whispered. Raising his unencumbered hand into the air, he reached out, groping for strength in the form of his partner's long-fingered hand.
Instinctively, Hutch grasped it, squeezed it reassuringly. "Hang in there, Starsk. I'm right here. Not goin' anywhere."
They watched as the women busied themselves, positioning plastic bottles, syringes and tubing onto the bedside table. When they were almost finished, both nurses turned toward the door as a short portly man bustled in.
"Detective Hutchinson?" he asked, extending a plump, freckled hand to shake Hutch's. He was round of body and head, dressed in the same bland green surgical scrubs as the two nurses. "I'm Dr. Julian Thompson. Warren told me that you'd be here with David. Could you excuse us for just a few minutes. I need to do a final pre-op exam of my patient. As soon as I'm finished, the nurses will move him to the OR, and we'll take a few minutes to talk? Okay?"
Dr. Thompson's smile was warm and friendly, likewise his robust hand shake. Hutch immediately liked the man.
"All right," he said, then turned back to Starsky. "Buddy? I'll be right back. You behave yourself, mind the nurses, and do what the good doctor here says, okay?"
"'kay," was a whisper.
The steel grip on his left hand loosened. Hutch wrapped his fingers around his partner's wrist, squeezed once affectionately, then exited the room.
Fifteen minutes later, an out-like-a-light Starsky was wheeled into the hallway. The nurses paused when Hutch held up a hand for them to stop, but before he could move closer, touch his partner one last time, Doctor Thompson called to him from within Starsky’s room. He turned toward the sound, momentarily distracted, then returned his attention to Starsky, but the nurses had already bundled him off to the elevator. The doors opened, swallowing him up, then closed with a finality that twisted his stomach in knots. Black desolation fluttered around him, landing and settling heavily on his shoulders.
"Sergeant Hutchinson?" Dr. Thompson's voice filtered through the layers of depression. "If you'll come back to David's room and take a seat, I'll update you on his condition."
His eyes and attention were still glued to the closed elevator doors. Slowly, reluctantly, he pried his gaze away, turned back and reentered the room. Thompson settled a comforting hand on his shoulder, guided him to an arm chair near the large paned window. The doctor pulled another chair near, positioning it so they would be sitting face-to-face and settled his rotund body into it.
"Okay, good news. The tests that Dr. Franklin did this morning show that there are four, possibly five, minute bone slivers lodged within David's cheek tissue. At least three of these are located back here," he indicated an area near his own jaw hinge. "Those are the little buggers causing the bleeding, the swelling, and most of the pain he's experiencing. Now, farther up …" Again, Thompson pointed to a place on his own cheek. "… are what appears to be one, maybe two, very tiny bone chips. And these are the ones that may give us problems once we get in there."
Hutch digested the news slowly, chewing it around in his brain. Then, "What about the paralysis? Could you tell from his x-rays and your exam if there's permanent nerve damage?"
The doctor smiled, revealing two deep dimples that probably brought about roundhouse cheek pinching when he was a child. "Again, more good news. From what I could see, none of the bone slivers are in danger zones. My professional opinion is that the facial paralysis is caused by the intense swelling."
Relief flooded through Hutch, draining him of all strength. He went limp, slumping bonelessly into the softness of the cushioned arm chair, sucked in a grateful breath. Then it hit him. "Wait a minute." He pushed himself back up. "You keep saying you have 'good news'. But most of the time, when there's good news, it's almost always accompanied by bad."
Thompson adjusted his thick-rimmed glasses, pushing them higher onto the bridge of his ample nose. "Actually, right now, there's only good." He looked at his watch. "Five minutes," he said to himself. "I need to get to the OR and start washing up." He turned back to Hutch, his expression serious. "There is one concern I do need to bring to your attention. I'm almost positive that David's paralysis is temporary. However, in order to remove those last two chips, I'm going to have to cut near the same facial nerves we were first concerned about. The odds of a good outcome are pretty much in our favor. But … as you probably already know, with any surgery comes risk. It's pretty low … minuscule actually since I'm very good at what I do." The doctor grinned good-naturedly. "But I just wanted to bring it out into the open."
Hutch nodded his understanding. "I appreciate your candidness, Doctor. How long do you think …"
But Thompson was already on his feet. "About three hours … give or take five minutes." He smiled again. "Try not to worry. Get some sleep or something to eat. Or both! You look almost as bad as he does."
Hutch's lips lifted in a smile. He nodded.
"I'll send someone down to let you know something as soon as he's in recovery."
"Thank you, Doctor. I appreciate everything you're doing for him."
With that, the doctor was out the door, and Hutch was alone.
Doctor Thompson's estimation of three hours, give or take five minutes, had been right on the money. At exactly 10:30, a nurse arrived to brief Hutch on Starsky's condition. The procedure was over; it had been successful. Starsky was semi-conscious and in the recovery room. And the doctor would be down in a half hour with a more detailed update.
True to his word, Doctor Thompson entered the room at eleven. He described the surgery in meticulous detail, finishing with "… and he's got seven stitches on the inside of his cheek. Gonna be sore as hell tomorrow. He'll be on a liquid diet for a few days, then soft foods for a while after that. The jaw fractures will heal on their own, but he's going to need complete rest for at least a week."
Hutch felt his heart swell with gratitude. "What about the paralysis? The swelling?"
"The swelling could start to recede as early as this evening, and as soon as it does, he'll get full movement back. The bruises will fade on their own, of course. And in a couple of weeks, there'll just be residual soreness around the jaw hinge and the incisions. But a month from now? He'll be his normal, good-looking self. It'll be like it never happened. They'll be bringing him down in a little while. I've prescribed a pretty strong sedative so he'll probably sleep the rest of the day. I'll pop in several more times to check on him before I have to catch the redeye back to Frisco tonight."
//‘It’ll be like it never happened.’// Except it did happen. And I was the catalyst.
Starsky arrived within minutes of the doctor’s exit. Ghostly pale and frail-looking, he slept the sleep of the dead.
At first, Hutch hovered over him, checking and rechecking for fever, ensuring the bedding wasn't overly warm or confining, but as the day wore on, worry, fatigue and a lack of sleep combined to pull him from his partner's bedside. By mid-afternoon, he'd curled up in the softness of the arm chair and joined his friend in deep slumber.
Evening brought with it the promised rain storm outside and intense hunger within. Scurrying down to the hospital cafeteria, Hutch wolfed down a lettuce and tomato salad, a chicken sandwich, and two glasses of tea, before racing back to the sixth floor. He arrived just in time to bid Dr. Thompson farewell.
The doctor completed a final examination of a still unresponsive Starsky, marveling at the intrinsic neatness of the stitches he’d sewn. He also pointed out several places on Starsky's face wherein the swelling had already begun to diminish. Declaring his patient well on the road to full recovery, he shook hands with Hutch one last time and left the room.
Except for a steady patter of rain drops on the glass, silence reigned in the room. His mood darkening, Hutch wandered back to the window and rested his forehead against the cool pane.
His partner's weak voice drifted across the distance. He turned his head, relief and gratitude mushrooming inside him. "Yeah, pard? Good to see you're finally awake. Can I get you anything?"
Starsky's tongue darted out to lick dry lips. "Can I have … water?"
Hutch looked around, spied an empty pitcher on the bedside table. "They said you could have a few ice chips, Starsk. I'll have to go get 'em. The machine's down the hallway."
"'kay," was barely a whisper. "But … hurry back."
"You've got it." Grabbing the pitcher, Hutch flew to the ice machine, filled the vessel, then hurried back to the room. "Here ya go," he said, placing a small chunk of ice at Starsky's lips.
The dark-haired man accepted the chip; it disappeared almost immediately. A moment later, he opened his mouth again, tentatively slipping his tongue out to accept another cold offering. He allowed it to melt, then swallowed. "Thanks," he murmured. "'nuff."
"How do you feel, babe?"
"Mmmmm … still kinda out of it … a little sick to my stomach." His eye opened wider, and he peered around the darkened room, finally focusing on Hutch. "… what … time is it?"
"Um hmm! You've been out of it most of the day."
"Sorry … wanted to be there for you … should've been there 'steada here." A profound sadness laced the tone.
"Like you had a choice." Hutch shuffled closer, tenderly caressed his partner's normal cheek. "Forgive me, Starsk."
There was only silence, and Starsky turned his cheek away, breaking the skin-to-skin contact. Hutch felt his heartbeat revving, his respirations doubling. It's not in you, is it, buddy? Well, I can't blame you. I've put you through hell … I …
"Nnnoohh …" came at last, a knife-edged sigh.
His heart broke, physically shattering into a million pieces inside, and Hutch stumbled backwards as though physically struck. He searched vainly for his voice. "It's all right, buddy … I un … understand. I-I-I don't …"
"No …" Starsky said again, louder this time. "No … need." He struggled vainly to sit up, but the combination of weakness and medical paraphernalia kept him horizontal. Pounding his left hand on the bed in frustration, Starsky gasped in a hitched breath.
In spite of his pain, Hutch moved closer. "What is it, Starsk? What can I do for you?"
"I … need … sit up …"
"Okay, just relax. Don't hurt yourself. I'll take care of it." He moved to the bottom of the bed, bent down, grasped the handle, and cranked the bed into a semi-upright position. "Okay?" he asked over the footboard.
"Yeah," was a whispered puff of air. "C'mere." In spite of the clumsy IV, both hands beckoned him closer, so he moved to stand beside the bed again. Unexpectedly, Starsky's hands jerked outward; with surprising strength, fists closed around the soft leather of Hutch's jacket. Then he was pulled close, so near he was almost nose-to-nose with his injured partner.
Starsky's breathing was harsh and quick, and his arms quivered with weakness. "Now, you listen to me, Hutch," he said, his voice surprisingly strong, belying his physical condition. "No more, y'hear? I interfered, I poked my nose where … it shouldn't have been; I got in your business … maybe I even helped get your girl killed." At this, his voice caught in his throat. "I don't know …" was almost a sob. "But what I do know is that I love ya, and I didn't wanna see ya hurt, and I didn't wanna see her hurt. You're my best buddy, my partner, and my pal, Hutch. And it's parta my job as your friend to take care a you. You were grieving, you were hurtin', you were out of your mind with pain and shock, and you took it out on the first person who happened to get in your way. That was me. Friendship is like any other relationship. It's got responsibilities … duties. Way I see it, it's a line of duty thing."
Line of duty.
Both foreheads drooped until they touched.
"Let it go, Hutch. I already have. Okay?" Whatever well his strength had sprung from suddenly evaporated, and Starsky slumped back onto the bed. He was breathing hard, and there was suspicious moisture around his eye. He rallied one more time, tapping the last of his reserves. "Okay?" he whispered around sudden gulps for breath.
Hutch met his steely gaze, then closed his own damp eyes and nodded. "Okay."
"Good …" came from the limp man on the bed. "Now … before you go home and get some decent sleep, can you tell me something?"
Hutch sniffed, brought a hand up to wipe at his face. "Sure, babe. What do you wanna know?"
Starsky looked at him, his expression solemn. "Am I really your favorite partner … or did you just say that to make me feel better?"
The cemetery was a veritable patchwork quilt of autumn colors -- scarlet, gold and brown decorated the rolling hills for as far as the eye could see. Adding to the riot of nature's colors were holiday flowers and greenery adorning each gravesite, splashing crimson, harvest yellow, milk chocolate and forest green over all the landscape.
"Happy Thanksgiving," Hutch said, bending down to affix his offering to the single urn atop a modest tombstone that read 'Gillian Elizabeth Ingram, 1948-1976'.
Hutch was pleased with the memorial, happy that Gillian’s resting place identified her by the name she’d obviously chosen for herself. In spite of countless telephone calls, newspaper ads, and at least three police checks, her lifeless body had lain in the morgue, unclaimed, for more than a week before Hutch felt compelled to intervene. His own research revealed no family members living in Cleveland and no validity to the story of a World War II father with the last name of Ingram. In fact, up until two years ago, there was no record anywhere of a Gillian Ingram -- in Cleveland, in Ohio, or in the United States.
Attempts to verify her identity with those who had known and worked with her were thwarted by Al Grossman's inability to adapt to life behind bars. Within three days of his incarceration, he 'allegedly' hung himself. Twenty-four hours after the discovery of his body, Olga Grossman suddenly disappeared from Bay City, taking all her toys, her books, and her loyal ‘employees’ with her. Al Grossman's Royal Theater accomplices jumped bail about the same time. Every street person Hutch interviewed assumed they'd also followed their employer to a place unknown.
Sighing at the tangled mess, Hutch reached out, unknotted the dozen red helium-filled balloons so they would float gently in the light autumn breeze. Satisfied, he backed away, studying the unusual 'bouquet' and the letters engraved in the stone beneath them. He couldn't bring himself to imagine what it might be like to lie for all eternity beneath a name that wasn’t your own.
“I guess I didn’t really know you at all, did I?” he whispered as a slender thread of grief wound its way through him. "But Starsk says you really loved me. I know that now. I know what you tried to free yourself from in order to be with me, and I wish it could've been different. I miss your smile, your laughter … " He stood at the site for a moment more, waiting for something else to spring to mind.
When nothing did, he pivoted on the heels of his boots and shuffled back to where his partner waited patiently in the parked Torino. Opening the door, he slid his lanky body inside, nodding to Starsky as he stretched out comfortably. //I’m okay.//
The nod was returned. //Yeah, I can see that.// Then aloud, “Where to now, pard?”
Hutch swiveled around, peeked over the black leather seat at the two remaining flower offerings on the floorboard. The large orange-glazed ceramic container boasted bright yellow mums, milk-and-cream stephanotis, burgundy roses and deep green ferns. The second, smaller vase was just as lush, stuffed to overflowing with holiday orange marigolds, fuzzy black-and-brown cattails and assorted miniature pumpkins.
“I know one of those is for Edith Dobey's Thanksgiving table tonight." Starsky keyed the ignition. "But who’s the other one for?”
A shy, almost bashful smile curled Hutch's lips. “I bought it for Sweet Alice. Let’s head over there next, okay?” He consulted his watch. "We've still got another 35 minutes left on our lunch break. Should be more than enough time to get there, drop these off, and then head to headquarters to finish up the last of those reports before dinner tonight."
Starsky shifted the heavy car into 'drive', eased the brakes off and let it role gently forward along the cemetery’s gravel, grass and dirt path. “This is gonna be murder on my suspension," he said almost to himself. Then, "Alice? Why her, Hutch … I mean … it’s Thanksgiving? Peak time for the girls in her profession. Hell, she’s probably offering a holiday two-for-one special." Suddenly realizing what he'd said, Starsky paled, his grin faded. Lips tightening into a grim line, he abruptly braked the car, gripped the steering wheel with both hands. Slits of apologetic blue peered up at his partner through lowered lids. "Sorry,” he said quietly. “That wasn't exactly called for."
But Hutch just chuckled. “It’s all right, Starsk. Funny thing … Alice'd probably think it was hilarious."
Starksy heaved a relieved sigh and visibly relaxed. "Special lady," he said. It wasn’t a question.
"Yeah, she is that. And smart too … in a backwoods sorta way."
"Well, not to change the subject or anything, but I've got a wonderful proposition for you. How would you like to join me for dinner at Picasso's Saturday night?"
"Aw, c'mon, Hutch … it's another week until pay day! Besides, there's somebody I'd like you to meet."
"Oh, no!" Hutch threw up his hands in mock horror. "Last time you wanted me to meet somebody, it was Nancy's cousin … who just happened to be engaged to Rodan … or was it Godzilla … I can never tell them apart … but he nearly took me apart. And the time before that it was her old college roommate who's probably still sitting in the Hunan Restaurant talking to herself about marathon backpacking through Tibet to meet the Dali Lama and then there was the …"
"No, no, no. You've got it all wrong, Hutch. Nance and I called it quits a couple weeks back."
The blond detective's jaw snapped shut loudly. "Awww, jeez, Starsk. I'm sorry. I didn't know. Why didn't you tell me the two of you broke up." He reached out a long-fingered hand, gave his buddy's thigh a sympathetic squeeze.
Starsky shrugged. "Because it's no big deal. We were never serious, just having a few laughs together. No, the dinner would be just you and me …"
"Really? Just the two of us at a fancy restaurant, no set up? What's the catch?"
"Well … there is one other person who'll be coming along."
Hutch thigh squeeze became a resounding slap. "I knew it! I just knew it! You've gotta stop trying to fix me up, Starsky. I'm just not ready for a committed relationship right now."
"I know that,” Starsky said quietly. He eased his foot off the brake, pressed gently on the gas. Again, the car accelerated forward, but it moved over the rough terrain at a snail's pace. "But I think I might be," came out as a whisper. He stole a glance across the seat at his partner, flashed one of his patented lopsided grins. "The person I want you to meet is my new lady."
"Well now, that’s a surprise. I never thought I'd hear those words from you. Not since Helen …"
The name brought a shadow into Starsky's eyes and an uncomfortable lull in the conversation.
"Sorry, babe," Hutch finally said. "Guess neither of us has been lucky in the love department recently." He paused, waited a moment to see if Starsky was going to reply. When he didn't, Hutch went on. "So, when and where'd you meet this special girl?"
At this, Starsky's face broke into a wide grin. “At a mom and pop store not far from her apartment. We both reached for the same candy bar, and the rest, as they say, is history."
The slender dirt path separating two elevated sections of the cemetery took Starsky's attention away from the conversation for a moment. He deftly manipulated the large sedan between the slopes, turning the steering wheel first left, then right, then immediately left again. As they inched forward, Hutch noticed the grave markers were becoming fewer and farther between as they neared the exit intersection.
"I really think you're gonna like her, Hutch. She's altruistic, educated, amazingly refined. You guys have a lot in common … she’s a big country and western music fan, loves art, museums, the ocean …"
"Nothing like you, eh?"
Starsky just laughed. "Actually more like you.”
The Torino reached the intersection; Hutch automatically checked for traffic on the right side of the highway. “Clear,” he announced, then his gaze caught and locked on a single lonely headstone situated on the outermost boundaries of the Bay City Cemetery. The stone-carved words were etched in granite in Hutch’s memory.
Gary Vincent Prudholm
Born: April 12, 1954
Died: February 16, 1973
A ghostly hand reached inside his thick black-and-white jacket … his blue knit turtleneck … his goosefleshed skin and tightly gripped his stomach, squeezing until he had to gasp for breath.
Intent on guiding the Torino into the heavy afternoon traffic, Starsky floored the gas pedal, swung the red-and-white striped sports car into the left lane of the freeway, near-missing a shiny new Jaguar. “S’matter?” he asked when he had the car firmly settled into the flow.
Hutch forced himself to relax, loosen up. “Nothin’, Starsk. Just getting ready for Edith's great meal tonight, I guess.” Still rigid with shock, he forced a deep breath into both lungs, let it ease out slowly.
“Awww, you’re just nervous ‘cause you got used to drivin' while I was still on meds. Wasn’t even close to that Jag,” Starsky grinned. “Been driving all my life, y’know.”
Pasting what he knew was a sickly smile on his face, Hutch quickly changed the subject. “So, about this girl, Starsk. What’s her name?”
“Theresa,” his friend said over the street noise. “Theresa Roberts. But everybody calls her Terri …”