Start with a corpse, that’s what McBain says.
Actually, we started with two corpses -- a pair of naked men intertwined in their bed -- covered in rusty blood that flaked away at a touch. Each shot several times, each by a different weapon, according to ballistics. The word “exsanguinated” welled up from my buried memories of UCLA medical school. The men had bled out at least a day ago, if the fact the blood had dried was anything to go by.
I turned away and left the detail-gathering to Starsky. Starsky was better around dead bodies. He was better around a lot of things.
It was Starsky, of course, who got me started on the Ed McBain mysteries. They revolve around cops in a fictitious, New York-like city, cops who spend their days busting bad guys and solving crimes. I began by borrowing a book from his fragile rattan shelves that constantly threatened to collapse and overflow the guest room. I graduated to checking the rest out of the public library, two at a time.
The one I was reading that night, after we returned home from the corpses, had a forward by the author. In the forward, McBain said all of his book ideas started with a dead body. Then he wrote the chapters that filled in the back-story of that body.
“If you think about it, we do the same thing,” I remarked to Starsk. We were sprawled on the couch, his eyes on football, my head buried in McBain.
“Wha’?” he said vaguely, his focus remaining on the Dallas Cowboys.
“We start with a body. That’s usually what the squeal or the hot tip is about. Then we set about finding the story that leads up to the body. Kind of like writing the chapters, only in this case, the chapters unfold for us.”
Starsky looked at me like I was an alien. “You promised we wouldn’t talk about the case until tomorrow.”
“I’m not talking about the case,” I said, frustrated that he wasn’t following my train of thought. “I’m just talking in general. Our job is like a series of mystery books. They all start with a body. And someone writes the chapters. But not us. And whoever is writing them, it’s like…I don’t know…it’s like we get no say in what they write.”
“But we don’t ever get a say,” Starsky said, waving his hand at me dismissively. “Because if we did, we’d be God, and then we’d be out of a job.”
I leaned over and grabbed my beer from the coffee table. “You can’t tell me you believe in God?” I asked with a snort.
“Yeah, you know I do.”
His eyelids narrowed. “Why are we having this conversation again?”
“Answer my question. Why do you believe in God?”
“Because why?” I pressed.
“Because I really want there to be one, that’s why.”
“Longing for God is not the same as proof of his existence,” I replied, rolling the nearly empty bottle between my palms.
Starsky stood up. “I guess I’m afraid that if I had proof, he’d be mad at me for wanting proof, ya know?” He walked to the kitchen and grabbed another couple bottles from the fridge. He handed me one and sat back down, turning his body so that his legs could stretch lengthwise on the sofa.
“You have holes in your socks,” I said, studying his toes as they barely brushed my thigh. “And in your logic too.”
He wiggled his feet. “Look. Those guys who died, they weren’t part of some big book written by God or anyone else. God, at least my idea of God, is bigger than that petty puppetry shit.” He pointed a toe at me in emphasis. “If anything, I figure it was God who made sure they at least died together.”
Our dead men were the latest in a series of murders, gay men in their 30’s, distinguished by their… undistinguishment. All gainfully employed, middle-class, lawn-mowing, beer-drinking guys from what we could gather. All living quiet, closeted lives as befitted men of their social standing. Some lived with their “roommates”. Others appeared to prefer to live the lives of “confirmed bachelors,” as their neighbors euphemistically stated. Starsky and I wouldn’t have been involved in the investigation at all, except that this last couple had lived on the edge of our beat.
I was out for my morning run the next day when Dobey called to summon us in early. Starsky took the message, apparently while still half-asleep, and unenthusiastically greeted me with the news when I got back.
“Dobey called,” he grunted. He sat at the table, sipping dejectedly at a cup of coffee.
“And?” I prompted, with poorly concealed amusement. He never could handle mornings very well, even before Gunther permanently stripped him of a quarter of his stamina.
“We need to be in by 7:30.”
“For our double-murder?”
“You want the shower first?”
“Huh?” he said, staring glassy-eyed at his coffee cup, as if it held the answer to the mysteries of life.
“Shower? First? You?”
“Go ahead,” he waved me toward the bathroom. “I’m still waking up.”
“I can tell,” I answered, barely able to hide an affectionate smile. “I’ll be out in a jiffy.”
Once in the shower, I quickly scrubbed. Then – as if I’d never seen them before – I took a moment to study my hands in the warm water of the shower. The heat brought out the blue veins in sharp relief to my pale skin. Exsanguinated. I shook my head free of the fog of my thoughts, and stepped out of the shower to dry off.
“They don’t really care about this case, you know,” Dobey explained.
Starsky and I exchanged a glance. It was obvious to us why “they” didn’t care. What wasn’t obvious was why Dobey felt the need to explain the obvious to us.
“A couple of homosexuals dead, the commissioner figures ‘hey, it can’t hurt to get rid of a few,’” Dobey continued. “The problem is, this last pair were a little different than your average fair… homosexuals. One was an attorney who worked out of the DA’s office. The other was the son of a banker. A prominent banker. And he’s on our case to get this solved. So, here we are. Suddenly the commissioner cares, and he wants my best detectives on it, long after the trail has grown ice cold.” The captain shook his head in irritation.
I could feel Starsky’s slight tremor as I perched on the chair arm next to him. My partner was holding back with a lot of effort. With a quick look I let him know I’d do the talking. He traded a grateful glance, then stared intently at his sneaker.
“We’ve solved colder cases,” I said. “But just how cold are we talking here?”
“Six murders…actually twelve since they were in pairs…took place over a year. In that time, no hard-and-fast suspects, and no arrests.”
“Chapter one,” I said, mostly to myself. Starsky looked up at me sharply. Dobey continued on as if he hadn’t heard my comment.
“You two need to get on top of this quickly. Here’s the files,” he said, handing me a hefty stack of paperwork. Starsky snatched them from my hands before I could get a good grip on them.
“They’ll get lost in that pit you call your desk,” he said. “I’ll sort, then we can digest it all.”
I glared at him, too annoyed to admit he was probably right. Dobey interrupted the retort that was forming on the tip of my tongue.
“The both of you, get out of here and solve this thing,” he said, waving us out of his office. “Now. Go.”
I tipped an imaginary cap in his direction. For his part, Starsky said, “Yes Sir,” with that grin that he knows drives the captain nuts. At least I think he knows.
We made our way to our desk and started sifting through the files. A voice interrupted our work. “You got the faggot case?”
It was Dan Clark, a recent transfer from Vice. “Yeah,” I replied simply, not looking up. It wasn’t worth engaging in detailed conversation with the ignorant. An eye-roll from Starsky showed his silent agreement with my decision.
“You’d think they’d be happy to get a few more of ‘em off the streets,” Clark continued, unconsciously echoing the commissioner’s words.
Oh for crying out loud. I sighed deeply, an action that wordlessly passed the conversational baton to my partner. “We’re a little busy here, Clark,” Starsky said out of the corner of his mouth, a chewed-up pencil obscuring any attempt at clearer speech.
“We just caught the case,” I added for clarification, “and we’re up to our assholes in paper. Go play in traffic or something, and leave us be.”
“It’s pretty obvious, the murders were God’s punishment,” Clark forged ahead, unfortunately undaunted by my suggestion.
“Are they now?” I asked, my irritation rising. “Well, we’ll just go out and arrest Him then.” Starsky kicked my shin under the desk.
“Yes,” Clark said, ignoring my sarcastic comment. “It says right in Leviticus, you know, ‘If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death.’”
His supply of shin kicks apparently depleted, Starsky pulled the pencil from his mouth and whipped it at Clark’s head. Clark ducked.
“Did you see that?” Clark directed the question at the room. His temporary partner, Detective Jon Martinson, looked up from the water cooler long enough to hold up a hand in a “don’t involve me” pose. Two desks over, Detectives Ron Connelly and Mike Dalen looked at Clark curiously.
“He threw a pencil at me! Did you see that?” Clark repeated. Starsky snickered into his paperwork. I was having a hard time keeping a straight face myself, although in reality I wished everyone would just shut up so we could get back to work.
Clark, meanwhile, was still trying to garner sympathy for his near miss with a deadly writing utensil. He was failing miserably, since Connelly and Dalen, usually quiet guys anyway, were living up to their reticent reputations.
Clark tried a different tack to engage them. “Ronnie, you go to church, more than most of us. You can’t say you condone this fag lifestyle shit.”
Apparently that was the right trigger, as Connelly finally spoke up. “All I can say Danny, is that Jesus tells us in Matthew, do not judge or you too will be judged.”
Dalen nodded vigorously in support of his partner. I nudged Starsky; he wouldn’t want to miss a bit of this.
“But there’s no way he was talking about homosexuals,” Clark argued.
“Maybe not,” Connelly agreed, in his quietly authoritative manner. “But then again, in First Samuel, the Lord tells us of the story of Jonathan and David, who made a covenant with one another and loved each other.”
Clark glared at all four of us. “That’s not how Samuel is interpreted by right-minded people. You understand you’re all going to Hell, right?”
Connelly got this huge, shit-eating grin on his face. “And Jonathan said to David, ‘Go in peace, forasmuch as we have sworn both of us in the name of the Lord, saying, The Lord be between me and thee’,” he quoted with uncharacteristic energy.
Speechless, Clark stalked out of the squad room. Martinson crumpled his paper cup and whipped it at the garbage can. “You know I gotta work with him all day now, right?” he grumped, before following his partner.
I stared after them both, unsure what to say next. This was turning into some kind of a embarrassing, twisted Sunday School pride parade, with us at the unwilling center of it all. At least Clark hadn’t brought up the tired old rumors, rumors that had briefly grown in number and malice after the Gunther hit, before dying down again.
But of course, Starsk knew what to say next. He always did.
“Thanks guys. I wasn’t in the mood to mess with the moron.” Unseen behind our piggy bank, his fingers brushed my forearm as it rested on the desk.
“Me and thee,” he mouthed silently at me. I took a deep breath and offered him a wan smile in return, a smile loaded with remorse. I’m sorry. I forgot. He doesn’t matter. Not to us. Never to us.
Meanwhile Connelly and Dalen, unaware of our silent exchange, were giving each other high-fives. “Never play dueling Bible quotes with the son of a preacher man,” Connelly joked.
“Never,” Dalen echoed, always his partner’s faithful sounding board.
“So as I see it, our first question is, how did the killer know these guys were gay?” Starsky asked as we drove our beat later that day. Sometimes an afternoon drive cleared our heads like nothing else could. “I mean it’s not like they were wearing huge neon signs around their necks, like Sugar.”
I smiled, remembering the flamboyant female impersonator. “Maybe he, or she, met them all at something. Some event or meeting or something.”
“Yeah, right, probably at the annual convention for the National Association of Closeted Fairies,” Starsky shook his head. “Not fuckin’ likely. Those dead guys were white-collar professionals. That would be like…well, like attending a public support group for Cops Who Love Too Much.”
The unlikely image of closeted cops meeting in the basement of the YMCA floated into my head. “OK, I get the point,” I agreed. “But he, and I’m assuming he’s a he, knew, somehow.”
We drove in silence for a few minutes, each thinking our own thoughts. The cool autumn breeze raised goose-bumps on my arms. I rolled up my window.
“Time to pull out my sweaters soon,” I mused.
“Maybe they all shared a hobby,” Starsky said.
“My sweaters?” I teased.
“No dummy, our dead guys. Maybe the killer met them somewhere else, like at the annual meeting of some National Association of a Harmless, Stupid Weekend Hobby, then found out they were gay, then killed them.”
As Starsky was speaking, he had steered the car toward the beach. Understanding his intentions, I reached for the radio.
“Dispatch, Zebra-3 signing off for the day.”
“10-4 Hutch. Hope you and your partner enjoy your Sunday off.”
We parked and sat on a bench to watch the Saturday afternoon crowd. Parents were hustling children into windbreakers, while couples huddled under blankets. It had been cooler than usual this October; Los Angeles County very nearly resembled the Duluth of my childhood.
Starsky hugged his knees, lost in thought. I stretched out my legs and leaned my head back into my hands. The sun disappeared behind a cloud. The breeze shifted, rustling Starsky’s hair in a frenzy of maniac curls. I swiped my own hair out of my eyes. A fast-food wrapper skittered and scraped the sidewalk. A rhythmic “whoosh-whoosh-whoosh” presaged the arrival of a group of roller-skating teens.
“Maybe they played the same sports,” I said as the teenagers whizzed by. “Skated together, or played volleyball on weekends, or – “
“ -- or collected the same antiques. Or stamps, like what’s-his-name did…Donder,” Starsky added, pressing his forehead against his knees.
“Danner. The stamp guy was Danner. Donder was a reindeer.”
“Danner. Whatever,” he mumbled into his jeans. He lifted his head. “Anyway, I’m hungry. You hungry?”
“I could be,” I said tentatively. There wasn’t a lot near the beach that I liked, foodwise.
“There’s a new café on 19th and Schwartz.”
“Hmm,” I said. “Which happens to be right by our dead guys’ place. Coincidence, partner?”
“You’re quick to catch on, partner.” Starsky grinned. He unfolded his legs with a groan. I got up and offered him a hand. He rolled his eyes and shook his head, but allowed me to haul him off the bench and in the direction of the car. We squinted as the sun made a sudden reappearance from behind the cloud.
Gunther took a lot from Starsky, physically. No longer would he run down perps with reckless abandon, feet slapping the pavement in a furious dash, arms windmilling wildly.
Instead, Starsky had become – by necessity -- a more thoughtful, considerate detective.
And I don’t mean that in a nice-guy sort of way. Rather, he was more likely to think things over before jumping in, consider new or unusual options before playing hunches. The caution could have stalled us. But instead it added a new dimension to our relationship, both personally and professionally. We found ourselves solving more cases than ever before, simply by reigning back the recklessness that was a hallmark of our early partnership.
But really what it came down to was, he wasn’t 25 anymore, and neither was I. Even without the shooting, it was inevitable that we would some day make way for younger detectives, with newer ideas and boundless energy. We tried to grow into our new roles with grace and good humor, but every so often it was nice to remind the world that while the new detectives sometimes did it better, we did it first.
One dinner and shared bottle of wine later, we were ready to face the world, or at least the victims’ house.
“How are we gonna get in?” Starsky asked as he tossed the tip on the table.
“Skeleton keys?” I suggested.
“Hope they’re still in the glove compartment,” he said. We walked out of the restaurant as the sunset’s orange glow peeked out between two buildings across the street. Once in the car, I discovered that the keys were indeed still in the glove box -- hidden behind a battery-less radio, a citation pad, an outdated book of perps and various unpaid parking tickets.
I fingered the key ring and stared out the window, watching the last bit of ginger disappear from the sky. Gradually I became aware of a chuckling noise next to me.
“What?” I said, startled.
“You. Get you a little high, throw in a nice sunset, and suddenly everything’s OK, isn’t it?” He smiled warmly.
“If I could bottle this feeling and sell it, I would,” I agreed.
He reached over to grasp my hand. I grasped back and -- for the gazillionth time in the past year -- offered up a prayer of thanks to a God I did not believe in, in the ridiculous hope that it would be retroactive if ever I was proven wrong.
Pulling up to the home of Richard Stanford and Don Jackson, I noted the neighborhood around us. Lots of bungalows and trees, tasteful middle-class surroundings, well-trimmed hedges and nicely-painted fences.
“Must have driven the neighbors crazy to have them living here,” Starsky commented.
“In a low-key neighborhood like this, the neighbors might have thought it bad taste to say anything,” I said. “Although I doubt they were invited to coffee cake or cookouts on a regular basis.”
We exited the Torino and walked up to the front stoop. I lifted the yellow police tape that ringed the porch. Starsky stepped under. I followed. He inserted the skeleton keys in the lock, one-by-one, until a ‘snick’ signaled to us that one actually worked.
“Bingo,” he said as he opened the door. “At least we won’t have to bother the on-duty boys to let us in.”
“Hold on a minute,” I stopped him.
“Why? The crime lab’s already been here.”
”You’ll just trip over crap in the dark. Let me find the switch first.”
He grabbed my arm. “Let me get this straight. You’re worried that I’ll trip over something. You -- the only person in the world who manages to fall over things while sitting perfectly still -- are worried about me.” He snorted. “That’s a first.”
“Shut up,” was the smartest remark I could come up with in response. He walked in and I followed, running my hands around the wall for a light switch.
My shin connected with something big and bulky. “Shit!” I had stumbled on something in the dark. I bent down. It felt like an overstuffed ottoman.
“Nice job, Grace,” Starsky said. A light came on. “I found the switch.”
“No. Really,” I said sharply. My dinner buzz was starting to wear off. “Do you think you can remember where the bedroom is?”
“I don’t think now is the time, schweetheart,” he replied, waggling his eyebrows.
I made my way through the living room to a hallway. The ottoman was not the only overstuffed item in the room. A sofa, lounge chair and loveseat were all present in their brown, velour, fluffed-up glory. Dick and Don were obviously men who liked their comfy furniture.
“Wow, you could swim in this chair,” Starsky said, admiring the lounger. “I’d sit down and wonder when I’d reach the bottom.” He started sorting through piles of debris on a coffee table. I had reached the hallway by then, and made my way to the room I remembered from the night before, third door on the right.
When I was a child, my sister and I would describe a sudden, creepy chill as someone having “walked across your grave.” Well, someone walked across my grave as I flipped on the light and got my second look at the blood-soaked bed. Almost instantaneously the whispers surrounded me -- the souls of the dead men hissing mournfully in my ears. I shivered. My hands shook and my stomach rolled.
I forced myself to turn away from the bed and head for the closet. “Any luck?” I called out with forced casualness as I flipped through shoeboxes and other assorted personal effects.
“Nah,” his voice floated in from the other room. “A couple Time magazines. A Reader’s Digest. A brochure from the Closeted Attorney and Banker Offspring Association.”
“Ha ha,” I hollered back humorlessly. “Not much here either.” I flipped through the contents of a box. “Christmas cards, USC alumni newsletters, eight-track tapes...”
I pulled out a Jim Croce tape in an attempt to see what was under it. “If I could save time in a bottle…” I crooned idly, “…the first thing that I'd like to do. Is to save everyday till eternity passes away. Just to spend them with you.”
“That’s sweet,” a voice behind me said. “But maybe we should save that for another time.”
I jumped, my heart pounding. “You scared the shit out of me!” I hissed.
He grinned. “What’s that?” he asked, pointing at the items under the tape.
“Looks like a bunch of ticket stubs,” I said. The stubs were from local art theaters, and were rubber-banded together. “There’s a couple dozen here, starting from a few years back, to a couple months ago.”
Starsky knelt down beside me, with a hand on my shoulder to steady himself. “Look at this,” he said, pointing at another open box. “Looks like school papers or something.” He flipped through a couple. “It’s discussion questions for movies. ‘All That Jazz’. We saw that one, didn’t we? Here’s another one, ‘Kah-gay… cagey….’”
“Kagemusha,” I supplied. I was a big Kurosawa fan from way back. “You’d like it. Lots of Samurai fighting.”
“So take me to see it then.” He thumbed through some more papers. “Looks like our friends belonged to a film appreciation group. Whaddaya think the odds are that our other victims belonged too?”
“Not good,” I said. “But it’s a start.”
We gathered up the stubs and papers, and headed out of the room. I lingered at the doorway, my eyes drawn relentlessly back to the encrusted bedclothes. They sucked me in, a whirlwind of whispers, flowing rivulets of blood. I stood frozen… staring… unable to speak… unable to breathe. My heart pounded in my ears.
Then behind me: a new presence. “C’mon babe, let’s go.” The soft words brushed the back of my neck, a warm breath, breaking the spell. I switched off the light and gratefully followed my partner out of the house.
“Need more cheese in these,” Starsky said as we ate our eggs the next morning.
“Make ‘em yourself next time,” I said, knowing that he wouldn’t.
“Don’t know why you can’t just shred a little more cheddar into them. Or maybe some ham. What are we doin’ today, anyway?”
“Dunno. It’s Sunday. What do people do on Sundays?”
“Ha ha,” I snorted. “God would have a heart attack if I showed up in church.” 18 years of Sunday mornings at the First Lutheran Church of Duluth flashed through my head in an instant. “And what would your mother say?”
He smiled. “She would say you’ve corrupted me. Which isn’t too far from the truth, now that I think about it. Wash the cars?” he suggested.
“It’s bad enough I’ve got to deal with that tomato every other day of the week,” I complained. “I’m not going to contribute to its maintenance and upkeep too.”
Starsky stuck his tongue out. He obviously was not going to be forthcoming with any reasonable ideas. It was up to me.
“Check out that theater appreciation angle?” I asked, bracing for the explosion.
“It’s our day off!”
Kaboom! But something deep inside was pushing me toward the case, with a restless urgency that was almost palpable. “C’mon, Starsk,” I said, trying to get him on the same page. “Please?”
“Gonna take me to see that samurai thing?”
“Doubt it’s still playing. But I’m sure I can find some equally violent example of modern movie-making to keep you occupied.”
He nodded, satisfied, his mouth full of eggs.
“The group was based out of the Tivoli,” I reminded him. “Figured we could start there.”
He swallowed. “Wonder what time the box office opens on a Sunday?” he mused.
I reached for the paper, which I had picked up on my morning run. “First show is at noon. Presumably someone will be there before then. Maybe we’ll try around 11:30 or so.”
“Gives us two hours. Plenty of time to throw in some loads of laundry.”
I groaned. “Why do we have to clean on our day off?”
“Why do we have to work a case on our day off,” he mimicked my whine. “That’s the deal. We make this place spic and span, and then we engage in movie madness.”
“Fair enough,” I said, although secretly I didn’t feel it was very fair at all.
We flashed our badges at the Tivoli box office, and the pock-marked teenager inside the booth informed us, “The manager’s inside, at the snack bar.”
“Anything playing that’s good?” Starsky asked.
“Don’t know. Don’t see ‘em, just sell ‘em.”
Starsky leaned a hand against the glass. “But ya gotta hear what other people are sayin’ about stuff. Anything that’s, you know, good?”
Just because this was our day off, I wasn’t going to let us lose our focus. I grabbed Starsky’s arm. His hand squeaked as I pulled it from the glass. “Hey!” he protested.
“We can get Fellini’s opinions of the movies later on. Let’s get to work.”
“Can’t a guy just ask a few questions?” he muttered as we walked into the gloomy lobby. There was only one person at the snack bar, an extremely short, extremely round, pale man with thinning hair arranged in a comb-over. I showed him my badge.
“Detectives Hutchinson and Starsky, Metro,” I said. “You the manager?”
“Yeah,” he said. He was messing with the popcorn machine as he spoke.
“Can we ask you a couple questions?”
“What about?” He dumped a bag of popcorn kernels into the popper.
“You get any movie appreciation clubs around here?” I asked.
“Movie-whats?” He pushed a few buttons on the popper, then frowned as the machine apparently failed to do whatever he was expecting it to do.
“You know, clubs or groups of people who see movies and talk about them afterwards?”
“Um, yeah… we got one of those.” He pulled the popper away from the wall and started fiddling with the wires behind it.
“You need help with that?” Starsky interjected. “What’s the problem?”
I glared at my partner for getting us off topic yet again. “You got any contact numbers for this group?”
Starsky glared back at me. “Is it plugged in?” he asked the manager.
The man stood up straight and looked at the both of us. “Yes, it’s plugged in. What, do ya think I’m stupid or something? And, yes, I have a contact number. Gimme a minute.” He ducked back down behind the machine.
I grabbed Starsky by the sleeve and pull him closer. “I did the fucking laundry. Humor me here,” I whispered angrily. Starsky silently yanked his sleeve free, picked up a box of Raisinettes from the counter and rattled them at me like an accusing finger.
We heard a grunt, and the popper started popping. The manager stood up again and brushed his hands on his pants.
“I gotta go into my office to get that number for ya. What’s it for, anyway?” He spoke to us over his shoulder as he walked toward his office.
“An on-going investigation,” I said. Our progress down the gloomy lobby was slow, as Starsky stopped in front of several movie posters to check them out. “Starsk…” I said warningly. My frustration level ratcheted up another notch. The manager was already in his office, at his desk, when we finally walked through the door.
“Here you are,” he said, handing me a piece of paper. I looked at it.
“Tom Qualm,” I read out loud. “He’s the organizer?”
“Beats me. That’s the guy I gotta call if we change showtimes or cancel something. He gives me a list every coupl’a weeks.”
“What’s he like, this Qualm guy?” Starsky asked. He winked at me. I stared daggers back. Gee, thanks, partner for finally participating in this interview.
“Dunno. Just a guy, I guess.”
“When do they come to see their movies?” I asked. “Will they be here today?”
“Nah, not today. Qualm doesn’t do Sundays. They meet on Tuesdays, usually. Are we done here?” he asked, edging toward his office door. “I gotta get back to my popcorn machine.”
“Sure you don’t need help with it?” As Starsky spoke, he was eyeing the many theater posters that adorned the office walls.
“Nope.” The manager paused. “You want one of them posters? I like to thin them out every now and then?”
“You mean it?” he asked with obvious glee. “I’ll take that one, it’ll look good in the bathroom,” he pointed at an ‘Empire Strikes Back’ poster.
Oh, you are sooo going to die, partner. “If you’ve finished poster-shopping…” I started.
“You got anything playing that isn’t in another language?” Starsky asked the manager.
“’Afternoon Breezes’,” he said as he rolled up Starsky’s poster.
“What’s that about?”
“Lesbians. And it’s in Japanese.”
Starsky made a face and shook his head.
“Last I checked, Japanese was another language,” I said, becoming increasingly irritated by this whole conversation.
“How many languages you need to watch lesbians?” the manager asked. He handed Starsky the rolled up poster and walked out of his office.
“I should get it framed first.”
“You aren’t putting that thing up.”
“It’s Star Wars,” Starsky said. “You can’t get any more tasteful than that.” Back at home, he held the gaudy Technicolor poster of Luke and Yoda at arms length and stared at it, to better appreciate its atrociousness, I guess.
I give up. “Fine,” I snapped. “Get it framed.” I figured he’d put it off long enough that he’d forget he had the stupid thing.
“Why are you so grumpy today all of a sudden? You were fine until we got to the theater,” he said, stuffing the poster into a closet.
“I… “ I stopped. I realized I had no idea why I was so pissy. I slumped onto the couch. “Honestly, I don’t know why.”
He switched on the overhead light in the kitchen. It stabbed into my brain.
“Yow!” I let out an involuntary yelp, shielding my eyes with my hand.
Starsky shook his head at me. “You’re getting a migraine, aren’t you?” he said.
“No, I’m not.”
“Yes, you are.”
“No, I’m not.”
He walked over to the couch. “Look at me,” he demanded, hooking a finger under my chin.
I looked out from under my outstretched hand. Starsky, and the entire living room, looked wavy and blotchy. Sharp sparks of light edged my vision.
“Shit,” I moaned. NoNoNoNo not now! Not in the middle of a case! Dammit! The moan apparently confirmed his suspicions. He walked back to the kitchen and turned the light out.
“Did you ever….” he started.
“… no. Of course not. That would have been way too easy and convenient,” I groused.
“I’ll get the doc to call it in,” he said, grabbing the phone.
“No, too late.” I had to take my medication early on, or it didn’t do a thing. I’d be long gone by the time he got it picked up. “It barely takes the edge off anyway.”
Starsky sat down next to me on the couch and put a hand on the back of my neck, drawing my head into his lap. We sat like that in the darkness, sparkles dancing before me like shooting stars in the desert, waiting for the aura to depart and the pain to arrive.
Hours later? Days later?
I was in the darkened bedroom, a cold rag on my forehead. I heard Starsky’s voice, unnaturally loud inside my throbbing head, distorted like a warped record.
“He’s down for the count, Cap. Uh huh. Mmmm. Yeah, we got the name of a guy who runs a movie group the dead guys belonged to. Yeah, I know, it’s like pissing in the wind. I’ll check it out tomorrow. Yeah. OK. I’ll tell him. Bye.”
More hours later? A lifetime later?
“Yeah Cap. It’s a bad one, puking, the whole nine yards. Yeah. I dunno. He’s always had them, but they’re worse since the back surgery a few years ago, ya know? Stress? Mmm hmm. I don’t know.”
I flinched, and not from the pain in my head. Since the surgery? Since Gunther, more likely. But he doesn’t need to know that. Ever.
I heard a clink. A beer bottle, sipped, then placed back on the table.
“Yeah Cap. The Qualm guy isn’t answering his phone. But I’ve got some of the guys at 16th precinct digging into their old evidence and making some calls. Nothing yet. I spent most of the day going around the bars and gyms, showing pictures and chatting up people, but these killings are ice cold. There’s no way anyone at a gay joint is going to remember these guys, much less if there’s any connection between them. I also talked to the DA’s office, the banker dad, and the bar association. Mmm hmm. Yeah, more pissing in the wind. But I want all our angles covered, ya know?”
I almost smiled in my misery. Leave it to Starsky to have things under control. The incessant drumming from the ice pick in my brain eased up ever so slightly. I took the damp washcloth off my temples and slowly got up. The entire room seemed to throb in time with the side of my head. I cautiously made my way to the bathroom. I didn’t dare turn on the light, but took a leak in the dark and headed back to bed.
“You up?” a voice in the darkness asked as I resettled under the covers.
“Barely,” I responded. I felt the mattress sink and a warm presence next to me.
“You gonna make it tomorrow?”
“Maybe. Your voice doesn’t make me want to puke anymore.”
A chuckle in the gloom. The presence shifted nearer, and hands encircled my head. “This helping any?” he asked as his hands alternated pressure on my scalp and temples.
“Actually, yeah, it is.”
He continued the wonderful massage for a few minutes. Then the hands slowed.
“No fun working alone, partner,” he said softly. “I need you.”
“I’m sorry.” And I truly was.
I looked at the clock. It read 11:32 am. “What day is it today?”
“Tuesday. You OK to go into work this afternoon?”
I tested out my internal systems. Ice pick, gone. Nausea, gone. All that remained was a slightly disembodied feeling that would linger for a day or so, if past experience was anything to go by.
“Yeah, I think I’ll survive.”
“I was already in this morning, while you got your beauty sleep,” Starsky revealed. “Got a call from the guys at the 16th. A possible link between their victims. Five of them went to USC.”
“Six,” I said, sitting up quickly. “I saw an alumni brochure at Dick and Don’s house. Maybe seven, if they both went.”
“Even better!” He paced around the bedroom in excitement. “I sent some boys in blue to pick up their school records. I’ll see if I can radio them to add on our victims as well.”
Starsky picked up the phone on the nightstand. I got up and walked slowly to the bathroom, testing out my balance as I went. Yep, all systems go. By the time I had showered, Starsk had lunch set out for us.
“You sent some boys in blue? Sounds like you’re running this thing,” I said.
“Yeah, well, kinda.” He ducked his head a bit, blushing. “Dobey told me I might as well turn the investigation into an informal task force. All kinds of autonomy, bossing people around… how cool is that?” The grin on his face said it all; he was proud of himself, and pleased as punch.
“Wow, they must really be desperate to put you in charge,” I joked, laughing for the first time in days.
“That’s us, Blondie, not just me. We’re in charge.” He put a hand on my arm. “This’ll look real good on your lieutenant application, ya know.”
“Finish that stupid degree, Starsk, and it’ll be your application too.”
It was an old argument, and his response was predictable.
“I’m not college material,” he said flatly. He got up from the table and walked into the kitchen with our dirty plates.
I wanted to deck him. I hate that insecure I’m-just-a-dumb-guy-from-Brooklyn bullshit. In reality, Starsky had advanced the investigation more in the past two days than anyone else had in the past year. Not to mention the man owns more books than I’ve ever even read, for Chrissakes. But I’ve fought the battle before, without success. And coming off my headache, I didn’t have the energy to do it again, at least not today. Instead I gave him a look to suggest this avenue of discussion was far from over.
Coming back, he ignored my look. “Ready to roll?”
“Yep, I’m ready to roll,” I said, easing up my tone a bit. “So Sherlock, where are we rolling to?”
“Metro first, my dear Watson, for our USC info. Then I figured that since we couldn’t get a hold of that Qualm dude, we’d stop by the movie club tonight. I checked ahead; they are seeing a seven o’clock show.”
“And in what are we rolling, Ollie?” I waved an imaginary tie at him.
“That’s up to you. What’s worse for a recovering migraine? Driving that piece of shit you call a car? Or being a passenger in a bright-red tomato?”
I smiled at his rare use of my name for the Torino. “I think I can live with the tomato today. Not sure my head is up to driving yet.” I grabbed my jacket and holster. “Are we sure this movie angle is even worth it, given the USC thing?”
“Can’t hurt,” he said. “And at this point, we can’t afford to skip anything.”
I offered a sarcastic grunt in response. “Yeah, it’s not like the department hasn’t already wasted a year on this case,” I said. “What’s a couple more useless leads to kill time with.”
The second I said it, I wished I hadn’t. But it was too late. We walked out the door without another word, my bitter words like a wedge between us.
Tom Qualm wasn’t at the theater. But his group was -- a motley crew of men, women and unidentifiable citizens of Oscar Wilde-like flamboyancy. The two dozen or so group members were easily identified due to the various papers and New York Times reference books they all seemed to clutch.
“Where do we start?” Starsky asked me.
I shrugged. Might as well jump in. “Tom Qualm here?” I asked the man standing closest to me.
“Nah, he hasn’t been here in a few weeks,” the man responded. “You interested in joining?”
“Detective Hutchinson, and this is Detective Starsky,” I said, showing my badge.
“Is Tom in trouble?” the man asked.
“Oh, no,” I said quickly. “We just need a current and former membership list from him.” No need to panic anyone. Yet.
“Well, I don’t think he’s ever been that organized,” the man said. “But if you have some names in mind, I’m sure we could let you know if they belonged.”
A small group had gathered around us by then. They offered various nods and “uh huh’s” to support the man’s statement.
Starsky pulled out our list of victims and started reading off names.
And so it went, through most of the list. As Starsky continued reading, his voice scaling up incredulously, I could feel him tense beside me. The disembodied feeling grew. I felt surrounded by a cocoon of static, through which I only heard indistinct mumblings.
Then something broke through the cocoon. I became aware of someone speaking to me.
Beyond my partner’s concerned face, I could see that the group was now proceeding to their theater.
“You OK, buddy?”
I shook my head, both to indicate “no”, and to clear the static.
“It’s been a long afternoon. You weren’t ready yet. Let’s go home,” he suggested.
I allowed him to lead me back to the car. For once in his life, Starsk seemed understand my need for silence. My senses slowly returned as we drove, and soon I happened upon a familiar sensation: hunger.
“Let’s go to Huggy’s for dinner,” I said suddenly.
His head swiveled quickly in my direction. “You sure?”
I nodded. “Yeah. And maybe we can talk about what you learned while I visited another planet back there.”
He took a left turn toward Huggy’s, which wasn’t too far from the theater. A few minutes later we pulled up and parked. Gone were the times when we had to sneak in the back door and lurk at the bar for information; as Huggy’s business grew larger and more legit, his ties to crime lessened. We rarely used him as a snitch these days, as befitted a friendship that was always based more on mutual respect than on give-and-take anyway.
“Hello, terror twins,” he greeted us at the door.
“Where’s the door maid?” Starsky asked, craning his neck to look for Huggy’s latest squeeze/bartender.
“My hostess with the most-ess fled for the evening. Something to do with babysitting. So I’m doing my own seating today. Any preferences?”
“Somewhere quiet,” I suggested.
He looked me up and down with that piercing way that he has.
“I’ve got just what the doctor ordered,” he said. “This way.”
“Construction almost done, Hug?” Starsky asked as we weaved our way through tables. Tarps covered random walls while orange extension cords snaked across ceiling tiles.
“You’d think I was building a cruise ship, instead of expanding the dining room,” Huggy complained. “The health department, the building department, the department-of-departments, they’ve all been out here bitchin’ and moanin’ about this-n-that.”
He aimed us at a table that seemed less surrounded by chaos than the rest.
“We got two choices tonight: burgers or grilled chicken. My deliveries are running late ‘cuz of the construction-project-from-hell.”
“Chicken for me,” Starsky said.
“Burger for me,” I said. “Medium rare.”
Starsky looked at me sharply; I hadn’t eaten meat for the past year. With a defiant glare, I dared him to comment. I couldn’t explain my need for meat tonight, anymore than I could explain anything else lately.
“Never mind,” he said, hands in the air in a gesture of surrender. “A lemonade and a water too please.” He looked at me. “Unless that’s changed too.”
I ignored him and studied the anonymous “MT loves HG” that someone had carved into the table top, back when the joint was still The Pits and people still felt free to do that kind of thing.
“If you gentlemen are done with your non-conversation, I’ll be right back,” Huggy said. He headed for the kitchen, stumbling over a milk crate and cursing up a blue streak in the process.
“So how much of that stuff in the theater did you actually register?” Starsky said, breaking into my speculations about MT and HG.
“The important stuff,” I said with some irritation. “A bunch of these guys belonged to the group. The group leader hasn’t been seen in a few weeks.”
“They were also telling me that this Qualm guy attended USC film school, and went to alumni functions lots of times to advertise his film club.”
“So we got our suspect then.”
“How do we handle him?”
We looked at each other for a moment, ideas and thoughts flitting through the space between us, rapidly considered and discarded.
Huggy brought our food. I grabbed a knife and cut my burger in half. Red juices flowed from the meat. Exsanguinated. I put the knife down and drank my water, hoping Starsky wouldn’t notice that I wasn’t eating after all.
Tom Qualm was still not answering his phone.
That meant we’d have to go there blind. It was an old trick of ours, to call a suspect and pretend to be someone else, just to get a bead on his personality, his mood, his vocal tics. Without that advantage, we had no idea what kind of guy we were dealing with. And that made us wary. We had no intention of arresting the guy today. We barely even had enough cause to question him, other than some circumstantial evidence. But the little voice in the back of my head that had saved our lives more than once was practically shouting at me today; this was it. This was the one.
At Metro the next morning, we gave Captain Dobey a rundown of our progress.
“We figure even if he’s not at home, we can talk to a few neighbors.” And talk the landlord into letting us into his apartment… but Starsky failed to say it, knowing that Dobey would have to protest, officially anyway.
“Just be careful,” Dobey said, as he always did.
“Always,” Starsky said, as he always did.
An hour later, we were standing in front of Qualm’s apartment door, knocking with what I hoped was the right combination of force and friendly disinterest. It didn’t matter; no one answered.
“Not home,” Starsky said. “I guess.”
I wasn’t so sure about that. I could feel something through the door, something not exactly malevolent, but a presence. I grabbed my partner’s arm. He raised his eyebrows.
“Someone walk across your grave, Hutch?” he teased before shaking his arm free and heading down the hall.
“What a huge waste of time. How can no one know this guy, no one see him, and no one be even remotely interested in his comings and goings?” Starsky ranted as we stood outside the building once again. There had been no helpful landlord to sneak us into the apartment, and the neighbors had bordered on complete indifference.
I leaned on a mailbox. “We’ll have to stake it out,” I said, with more happiness than was strictly called for under the circumstance. I was pretty happy to be out of the building, even though I couldn’t explain why.
Starsky groaned. “Shit. Maybe I can get 16th’s guys to do most of it. They’ve been really helpful, considering….” he wandered down the sidewalk ahead of me, weighing his options out loud.
A car backfired somewhere nearby. I startled. Starsky turned to look at me.
Another backfire, this time accompanied by the “ping” of metal against metal. That’s when it registered: someone was shooting at us!
“Starsky get down!” I yelled, echoes of another time, another warning, briefly crossing my mind as I dove behind the mailbox.
But that was then, and this was now. Without even pausing to reach for his weapon, Starsky tucked, rolled and ended up behind a garbage can. I drew my magnum and peered around the mailbox, wondering at the source of the gunfire.
I didn’t have to wonder long. There was an open window, in the vicinity of Qualm’s apartment. That, and the fact that he chose that moment to start yelling us, was the giveaway.
“Leave me alone! Just leave me alone!” Then he started shooting again. I looked over at Starsky, who by now had his Smith and Wesson drawn. He held up two fingers. I nodded in agreement. The guy had at least two weapons, judging by the different sounds as he fired off shots.
“Tom?” I yelled upward, as loud as I could. “Tom Qualm?”
A loud laugh greeted my question. “Who’s askin’,” he said, giggling.
“Police, Tom,” I said. “We don’t want to hurt you. We just wanted to talk to you. About some guys who were in your film club.” I used my calmest voice, the voice that Starsky says could “charm the spots off a leper”.
The only answer was more gunfire. Neighbors were starting to stick their heads out of windows. Cars were coming to a stop in the busy street. Diplomacy was fine, but we had to put an end to this before someone got hurt. Starsky and I exchanged a look of agreement, and opened fire.
During pauses to reload, I called up to Tom. He didn’t respond, but renewed gunshots told us he was still alive.
I stopped once again to pat down my pockets for ammunition. Unfortunately I came up empty. Even more unfortunately, I was in a much better position than my partner to hit this guy.
“Starsk! Gun!” I yelled. He understood immediately, and slid his weapon across the asphalt to me. I took aim and fired at the window…
… and nothing happened. The fucking thing jammed on me.
“Oops,” Starsky mouthed at me, followed by a sheepish grin. I shook a finger at him, then checked the chamber and took aim again. This time it fired. The man at the window responded with a half-dozen more shots.
“Damn it Starsk!” I yelled at my partner, getting off some more rounds in the process from behind the mailbox.
“It’s never jammed on me,” he yelled back. “You have to be nicer to it!”
Qualm fired a few more times, the bullets ricocheting off the mailbox. “I’ll make the damn thing breakfast in bed and give it a bullet-rub, if I live through this. He’s got a fucking armory in there!” I shouted back.
“We’d better hope he runs out soon, before we do,” Starsky hollered. “Cover me!”
He had no weapon now, so I figured he was going to make a break for the radio. Or at least I hoped so. The old Starsky would have run into the building full-bore, gun or no gun, ready to take down the bad-guy single-handedly. The new Starsky would call for back-up. Please, please, please call for back-up. As I sent a barrage of bullets toward the window, my partner took off at a run to the car, stopping only when he was crouched safely on the other side. Thank you, thank you, thank you…
I squeezed off another shot and heard only a click, indicating that Starsky’s gun was out of ammo too. The clips were in his jacket, and his jacket was on his body, across the street, safely behind the car where I preferred him to be anyway. We’d just have to sit tight until the cavalry came.
“Tom!” I yelled up to the window. “We aren’t the enemy. Let us come in and talk to you. We just want to talk.”
He replied with a hail of bullets. “I killed them!” he shouted back after the noise died down. “You aren’t going to let me go after that. I’m not that crazy.”
Oh jeez, a confession. Sometimes I hate to be right. “You’re probably right, Tom,” I responded. “But we can talk about why. Why you did it. And maybe if we understand, we can work something out.”
I could hear sirens in the distance. Qualm fired off another round, which hit the pavement near my foot and sent a small sliver of concrete flying up at me. The sliver embedded itself in my cheek.
“Ouch, ouch, ouch, shit!” My fingers pressed against my face. “Staaarsk, how are we coming with that backup?”
“Any second now,” he yelled from behind the Torino. “You OK?”
“Cut myself shaving!”
“Leave it to you to worry about personal hygiene at a time like this,” he quipped.
Over the next minute we exchanged more words with Qualm, who only offered more shots in return. Then backup arrived, in the form of two patrol cars and Dalen’s Buick, which pulled up dangerously close to the front of the building. Connelly and Dalen slid out the passenger side and crouched behind their vehicle, weapons drawn.
Starsky and I both took the opportunity to make a break for it, and joined the two detectives, skidding into safety behind the Buick like runners sliding into home. Dalen grabbed his radio mic and ordered the arriving patrolmen to take the back.
“We were in the neighborhood,” Connelly explained. “Whaddaya got?”
“A nutcase with a couple of guns and plenty of ammo,” I explained. “He’s a suspect in our murders.”
“Got a plan?”
“We figure there’s two options,” I started. “Go up there and get him. Or wait him out. If we go with option B, we’ll have to evacuate the block and shut down the street.”
“There’s enough of us to keep him distracted while a couple of us go up,” Starsky said. “Evacuating the block is just gonna give him more target practice.”
We nodded in agreement and worked out a game plan worthy of an Ed McBain novel. I handed Starsky his gun back. He would go up with Connelly. Dalen and I would wait on the ground, with Dalen coordinating radio traffic and me continuing my efforts to talk Qualm down.
Starsky and I exchanged a quick glance. You just had to get into that building somehow, didn’t you. Then he was off running, Connelly close behind.
I waited until they disappeared into the foyer. “Tom,” I yelled. “You still there?”
I expected more gunshots in response. Instead, to my surprise, he spoke again.
“They’re better off, you know.”
“Who, Tom? Who’s better off?” I had to keep him talking, both for the record, and for the safety of my partner, who at that very moment was creeping up the stairs of the apartment building.
“The ones I killed.”
“Why, Tom?” This was straight out of Negotiator 101. Use the suspect’s name as much as possible. Helps to ground them if they are out of their gourd. “Tom?”
No answer this time. I started to panic, just a bit. Had I given the guys inside enough time? “Tom? How many did you kill? Why? Tom, answer me!”
Next to me, Dalen was looking worried. He picked up the radio. “136-David, proceed into the building. Use caution,” he said, addressing the patrolmen stationed in back.
I heard shots, this time not from the window, but from inside. Dalen and I took off at a dead run, heedless of the danger. It was pure adrenalin; I wasn’t even thinking. I just ran. I took the stairs two at a time and bounded down the hallway to Qualm’s apartment, Dalen close behind.
We stationed ourselves at either side of Qualm’s open door, counted three under our breaths, and burst into the living room, guns at the ready.
“It’s OK guys,” a voice came from the other room. “We got him.” From Dalen and me, dual sighs of relief, then holstered weapons. Starsky walked out into the living room, his shoulders slumped.
“The door was unlocked. We eased in and got all the way to the bedroom before he noticed. We tried talk to him, but he wouldn’t have it. It was him or us.” Starsky’s disappointment was palpable. You can’t try a dead suspect.
Connelly walked out of the bedroom then as well, shaking his head. Behind us, Captain Dobey had arrived, flanked by several patrolmen. It was going to be a long afternoon.
As the crime lab dusted the place, Starsky, Connelly, Dalen and I split up the apartment, taking a room each. I walked through the bathroom, looking at the moldy bathtub, idly lifting the toilet seat, checking out the contents of the medicine cabinet. Closing the cabinet door I caught sight of myself in the mirror, the cut on my cheek oozing a slow river down to my chin. I grabbed a square of toilet paper and savagely wiped it up, holding pressure for a moment until the trickle slowed.
“Hutch,” he called from the other room.
I walked into the bedroom, still holding the toilet paper to my cheek.
“There’s a note.”
“On the dresser. They’re dusting now.”
I walked over to the window and got my first good look at Tom Qualm. He had been drilled neatly through the head with a bullet. Starsky’s? Connelly’s? It didn’t matter, not really. I stared at the pool of blood forming under his head, his reasons for the murders flowing further and further out of our reach.
Meanwhile, with his dusting job finished, a crime lab tech handed Starsky the piece of yellow notebook paper. Starsky unfolded it.
“Death hath no dominion,” Starsky read aloud.
“Huh?” I tore myself away from my study of Qualm’s unfortunate brain matter.
“That’s all he wrote. ‘Death hath no dominion.’” He flipped the note upside-down, looking for further insight. “Nothin’ on the back. Prob’ly no prints either, but we can always try.” He yawned; it was getting late, and the shootout had taken a lot out of him.
I stood there a moment, puzzling over the words. “Death hath no dominion,” I said aloud, trying the words out, my tongue lingering over each curious syllable.
Connelly walked into the bedroom as I spoke, Captain Dobey close behind.
“Dylan Thomas,” Connelly said, seemingly at random.
“That’s from Dylan Thomas,” Connelly said. He stood with his hands behind him, as if reciting in front of a classroom. “’Though lovers be lost love shall not, and death shall have no dominion’.”
“Are you sure about that?” Captain Dobey said, his eyebrow raised. “It might be from the Bible. It says of Christ that, being raised from the dead, he will die no more. That death has no more dominion over him.”
“In Romans, the Apostle Paul,” Connelly agreed. My guess was that, in Dobey, Connelly had met his match in the biblical quote department. Personally though, I was way out of my depth at this point.
“It was written on this,” I said, handing the note over to Connelly. “By our dead guy here, if I had to guess.”
Connelly turned the note over in his hand, tracing the words with his finger.
“If we go by the biblical interpretation, that might mean he got himself killed by us on purpose, hoping for some kind of redemption, or life after death,” Connelly said thoughtfully. “Or he killed his victims for the same reason.”
He rubbed his chin. “On the other hand, the Dylan Thomas’s version makes sense in the context of the victims being gay lovers, that he killed them in order to keep them alive. He got to know them through the movie club, figured out they were gay, then developed some kind of misguided guardianship of his victims, like he was making sure they died together to achieve an acceptance they couldn’t get in life.”
Dobey shook his head. “But the verse in Romans implies a resurrection… “
The pair walked over to the body as they debated, their voices fading into the buzzing maelstrom that now threatened to take over my thoughts. Starsky was wide-eyed and perspiring as he listened to their revelations. I imagine I was too.
With an effort born of concern for him I broke free from the whirlwind that seemed invisible to everyone but us. I grabbed his elbow and steered him out the door -- out of the building and away from the tempest that had us rooted to the spot.
We paused on the front stoop. My partner looked near tears -- dazed and exhausted.
“Starsk,” I said gently, knowing exactly what Connelly had said that made him upset. My partner’s words on the couch rang in my ears. If anything, I figure it was God who made sure they at least died together. “You know he was just a nut, right?” I said.
“But…“ he said slowly and with obvious difficulty, “…you heard them.” Starsky was having an uncharacteristic problem putting his emotions into words. “They died together to keep their love alive. That can’t be right. That can’t be the way.”
My heart thudded in my chest. My voice rose an octave, the need to comfort my partner and put words to his feelings almost overtaking my ability to speak clearly. “But they didn’t die together. They were killed together. There’s a big difference. They didn’t make the choice.”
We made our way down the steps. Starsky stopped when we reached the sidewalk and placed both of his hands on the mailbox that had saved my life earlier that evening. He bowed his head, making his next words nearly impossible to hear.
“Do you think we will ever know who was right?” he asked softly.
“You mean Dobey or Connelly?”
He looked at me, his eyes rimmed red. “I meant Dylan Thomas or the Apostle Paul,” he said sharply.
“They were both right,” I said.
He snorted. “I thought you didn’t believe in God. Or the Bible.”
“I don’t. I believe in us.” We began to walk side-by-side toward the car. “When I was a kid, I had to memorize a bunch of Bible proverbs for a church social. I can’t remember them all now, but there’s one I could never forget: ‘Let love and faithfulness never leave you. Bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart’.”
I stopped walking and grabbed his shoulders with both hands, roughly turning him to face me.
“When you died, I lost faith. I forgot – if only for a moment – that even if you were lost, we were not. Then you came back, and my faith was redeemed. You are my heart, and death can’t…didn’t…change that.”
Starsky leaned his head into my chest, as my hands slid from his shoulders to his back in a protective embrace. I felt him take a deep breath. Then he stood upright and we resumed walking, saying nothing. We said nothing on the ride home either -- even as his damp, warm hand tentatively connected with mine.