The Rest of the Story
The Torino’s back seat stunk. Leg room was non-existent, the naugahyde or vinyl or whatever it was that lined the seat was too slippery, and my constant leaning forward to catch their conversational tidbits was causing my neck to cramp. Not that they were talking much.
It was damn hot, unusually sticky for Los Angeles County. I was down to my rolled up shirt-sleeves, my one good sports coat balled up with my one good tie in the corner of the immaculate floorboard. They, on the other hand, wore two shirts each, Hutchinson with a relatively sedate Hawaiian shirt over his t-shirt, Starsky with a bowling shirt over his.
“Aren’t you hot with two shirts on?” I asked, aiming the question at neither one in particular. My earlier questions had been answered with non-specific grunts. Maybe this time I’d get lucky, albeit with a stupid question.
The passenger turned to me. Exhausted and aloof blue eyes stared out between strands of sweaty blond bangs. This close up, I could see scrapes on his left cheek that had escaped my notice earlier this morning. “Yep,” he answered simply, before turning back to face the streets ahead of him.
“Then why don’t you take one off?” I asked again, pushing my luck.
The detective turned back around. “We have a choice. Get made as cops when we walk down the street with our holsters in plain view, or get made as cops when we are the only morons wearing more than one shirt on a 90 degree day.”
Then he shook his head in disgust, though whether at the topic or my question, I didn’t know for sure.
“The department makes the choice for us,” he continued. “No exposed weapons on plainclothes officers in the public view unless necessary for blah, blah, blah.” His point made, his head snapped back to face forward once again. His partner made no indication that he had heard, or cared about, the exchange.
I settled back to make some notes. It was the longest string of words I’d heard from either man all day…unless you count that morning.
That morning I had finally found myself in Captain Dobey’s office after spending 20 minutes waiting downstairs with the desk sergeant. Now the captain was on the phone, and I was annoyed. Waiting is not my strong suit.
“No, you can’t have them,” he yelled into the phone. “I’m short three guys already. And until the promotional test gets out of the courts, I’ll continue to be short. Borrow them from Vice!” And with that, he slammed the receiver down.
Dobey turned his attention to me. “Damn manpower shortages,” he raged. “Child Protective Services wants some of my men, Vice wants some of my men, Community Services wants some of my men. And when do I get to demand more men? Tell me that! My people are working double, triple overtime just to get the job done. Maybe I’ll just tell the citizens to stop getting murdered.” His voice cracked in grief and fatigue.
Then he paused in his tirade. “Who the hell are you again?” he asked, turning the volume down ever so slightly.
“Robert McKesson. Bob. Los Angeles Times.” His face registered nothing. I forged ahead.
“Reporter,” I added, for unnecessary clarification.
“Following your detectives for a month for a series in the paper, and maybe a book? You know? Like the ‘New Centurions’?” I threw in that last bit for good measure. It’s one of my favorite books, and a lot of people still remember the movie from a few years ago.
His broad, brown face softened into a welcoming, if slightly rehearsed, smile. “Oh yes, Mr. McKesson. That’s today, huh? Welcome to the BCPD. Pardon my, um….”
“Outburst?” I supplied. He grimaced, and I continued on. “That’s OK. And call me Bob. Mr. McKesson is my dad. But you made an interesting point on the phone there, something maybe we can talk about later: how the court rulings are affecting manpower.”
Dobey immediately looked cautious. I could have kicked myself. One of the ways I had justified this story to my editors was to bring in the subject of recent court rulings on minority promotions and hiring. But obviously this was a sore subject for Dobey.
“I’m teaming you with one of my most seasoned detective pairs,” he said, ignoring my heavy hint. He ambled over to his office door, opened it, and bellowed, “Starsky! Hutchinson! In my office!”
Dobey sat back down at his desk. Two men walked in, weariness evident in every step. Both wore holstered guns over sweat-stained t-shirts. One – blond, tall, lanky– headed immediately for the other empty chair in the room and settled slowly into it. He moved stiffly. His head bowed slightly as he pinched the bridge of his nose in a tired gesture. As he moved his hand upward, his sleeve slipped, revealing a nasty scrape on his elbow and upper arm. It looked like road rash.
The other – brunet, shorter, compact – perched himself on the arm of the chair, resting his hand on his partner’s shoulder. It was a casual maneuver and yet, at the same time, looked oddly protective.
Captain Dobey turned to me. “Mr. McKesson…um, Bob… Meet Detective Sergeants Dave Starsky and Ken Hutchinson.” Dobey then turned to his detectives. “McKesson here is a reporter from the LA Times. He’s got permission for a month’s ride-along. Doing a story about…What are you doing a story about again?”
I relaxed my face into my best cop-friendly expression. “Just trying to bring a human face to the police force. With the…well…everything…going on right now on the streets and in the courts, we kind of lose track of what it is you do, every day, to keep the citizens safe. You know…” I trailed off as the dark-hared detective, Starsky, rolled his eyes at his captain.
“OK, here’s the drill,” Starsky said in a tone of voice that suggested he’d rather be cleaning toilets than escorting me around town. “No questions or comments in front of perps. Save the criticisms and opinions for the office. You buy your own food. No food in my car. You sit in the back seat. Good luck finding the back seat in Hutch’s car. Before you even think of asking, no - you can’t hold my gun. Anyone shoots at you, duck. And if we ride at night, so do you.” His hand tightened on Hutchinson’s shoulder. Apparently that was the signal to go, as the pair rose from the chair – Hutchinson with the help of Starsky’s hand on his elbow – and exited Captain Dobey’s office without another word.
I sat there, speechless, wondering what I had done to make them angry. Had I made a mistake?
Dobey shook his head. “I have to apologize for my men,” he said softly. “Detective Hutchinson came out of a deep cover assignment yesterday… The hard way…and Starsky was barely there in time to pick up the mess. They have to start all over again, they haven’t had a day off in weeks, and they are not likely to get one anytime soon.”
“That’s just what I’m looking for, Captain,” I said eagerly, my spirits buoyed once again. “The citizens don’t know what’s going on. They just see the negative news stories. They don’t see the men on the front line, doing the job every day. I’m not a crime reporter, just a features guy. I’m not out to ‘get’ anyone.”
The office door opened again. Starsky stuck his head inside. “We’re heading out, Cap. You coming or what?” he asked, jerking his chin in my direction.
“Heck, yeah,” I said, hopping out of my chair and rushing after him.
Both men grabbed clean shirts from the backs of their chairs before we headed out of the office. Hutchinson tapped his partner on the arm.
“Composite ‘n’ list,” the blond said cryptically.
“Yeah, OK, downstairs in five,” Starsky answered.
Hutchinson swerved away from us and ducked into an office labeled “Records and Information”. We headed for the staircase. On the way down, I tried to make sense of the abbreviated exchange between the two partners.
“What’s a composite?” I asked.
“Picture of a suspect.”
“And a list?”
Starsky rolled his eyes at me for the second time in 10 minutes. “A list is a bunch of information in a column on a piece of paper. I hear they use them in the real world too.”
I ignored the sarcasm and pressed on. “This have anything to do with the case your partner was undercover on?”
“Dobey fill you in?”
“Just that you have to start all over again. Sounds like a bitch of a case.”
“Yeah,” he said, offering no further enlightenment. We walked out of the stairwell and into the front lobby.
“Hiya, Peters,” the detective greeted the desk sergeant. “What’s shakin’?”
“Not much, Starsk. Heard you guys got real screwed last night. Hutch OK?”
“Spent the night at Memorial. They think he messed up a disk again when that guy dinked him with the car. Not much we can do about it now, though. Maybe we’ll schedule something surgical this fall.”
“Ouch,” Sergeant Peters said in sympathy. I looked at the two sergeants, mouth agape. Hit by a car? Slipped disk? My wife was practically crippled for a week with a bad disk once. That Hutchinson was still walking around was astounding, let alone working a case. But any comment I might have made on the subject was interrupted by the sudden reappearance of the man under discussion.
“She’s on it,” Hutchinson said to his partner. “Hey, Peters,” he tossed the greeting over his shoulder as the two detectives and I walked out the door, Starsky lightly steering the other man with a hand on the small of his back. “Hey, Hutch,” the veteran desk sergeant replied, wincing as he saw the visible results of Hutchinson’s misadventure the night before.
Starsky suddenly spun the Torino’s steering wheel in his hands and landed the car into a curb next to a coffee shop. I wished, not for the first time that morning, that the detectives’ vehicle had seatbelts in the back.
“What the hell, Starsk?” Hutchinson said, exasperated. I wondered the same thing. Had he seen a suspect? Were we going to question someone? I could barely suppress my excitement as I leaned closer to hear his response.
“I’m hungry,” Starsky said in a tone of voice that very nearly approximated a toddler’s whine. “We haven’t eaten since yesterday. My blood sugar is about two.”
Hutchinson let out a noisy sigh. “No, your mental age is about two. And what about this morning? You ate my breakfast tray. One minute I’m in the john, next minute I come out and my breakfast is gone.”
“You’re kidding, right? You weren’t going to really eat that. Not enough organic tofu, dried vegetables and denatured grains or whatever in it. Besides, hospital food isn’t real food. I want real food.”
I grinned at their verbal exchange, the first sign I’d seen all morning that they were normal human beings. Hutchinson grabbed the radio, let dispatch know we were eating (or at least that’s what I assumed all that code-speak meant) and slowly unfolded his body from the car. I was in pain just watching him.
The three of us walked into the restaurant and headed for a booth. I briefly wondered which one I would sit next to before they made the point moot, by sharing one side, shoulders touching. I took my position on the other side of the table, aware that I needed to get to know these guys, gain their trust, before they were going to reveal case details to me. And I needed case details, to make the series more real.
“Can I ask you guys a few questions about yourselves while we’re waiting, you know, just basic stuff?” I asked, after we had given our orders to the waitress. I noted with interest that Starsky had ordered a double cheeseburger with fries, despite the fact that it was only 10:00 am, while Hutchinson ordered nothing at all.
The partners exchanged a glance. I must have met with their preliminary approval, since Starsky answered “Yeah, shoot.”
“OK, real basics here. Names with spelling?”
“David Starsky, s-t-a-r-s-k-y.”
I looked at Hutchinson.
“Clyde Eunice Mandrake Hutchinson. h-u-t-c-h-i-n-s-o-n.”
I started writing, then paused. Hadn’t Captain Dobey called him Ken?
“Ken’s my nickname,” he said in answer to my questioning look. Starsky snorted into his water glass. Hutchinson jabbed him with his elbow, and Starsky laughed harder. Obviously I was being had.
“Blondie’s name is Kenneth Hutchinson,” Starsky blurted out between snorts and giggles.
“Nice job, Starsk…remind me to invite you to my next high-stakes poker game,” Hutchinson joked, showing me the first real smile I’d seen from him since I’d met him. It animated his face briefly, before he sank back into his world-weary funk.
“OK, note to self, they have a sense of humor,” I said in an exaggerated drawl, pretending to scribble furiously on my notebook. “But seriously, how old are you? And how long have you been on the force?”
“34 and 34,” Starsky said, pointing to his partner and himself. “Went to academy in ’68, partnered in uniform in ‘69. Then despite my extraordinary good looks and above-average intelligence, Hutch made detective first, in ‘73. I caught up a few months later, and we’ve been partners again ever since…” It was Hutchinson’s turn to snort in his water, but I noticed he didn’t verbally contradict anything Starsky had said.
I did the math in my head. “So on and off, you guys have worked together for nine years now? That’s longer than a lot of marriages I know of.”
Our food arrived. I sipped at soup as I continued peppering the two men with questions. “Speaking of which, either of you married? Kids?”
“Not I,” Starsky said, slapping at Hutchinson’s hand as his partner grabbed a French fry.
“Nor I,” Hutchinson mumbled around a clump of fries. He reached over the table for the ketchup bottle, dumped a bunch on a bread plate, and continued to snatch fries from Starsky’s plate. For his part, Starsky continued periodically swatting at Hutchinson’s hand, but made no serious effort to stop him from eating. In fact, Starsky himself didn’t seem to be eating much at all, taking more time than strictly necessary to meticulously slice his cheeseburger in two with a butter knife.
“It’s hard to stay married in this job,” Starsky said. “Lots of us try,” he shot a meaningful look at his partner as he spoke, “but the hours and pay just aren’t what a lot of wives want to deal with.”
Obviously there was a story here, maybe a marriage for one or both. But I figured there would be plenty of time to discuss this later. I moved on to another topic.
“Why did you become cops…I mean, police officers?” I remembered too late that some policemen didn’t like the moniker “cops”.
They didn’t seem to mind, at least not enough to say anything about it. “I had a little bit of a rough time as a kid…,” Starsky began.
Hutchinson interrupted with a laugh. “You could paper your bedroom with his juvie record,” he joked. His hand snaked over to his partner’s plate and grabbed half of the cheeseburger.
“Anyway,” Starsky continued, ignoring the comment, “Luckily I figured out it was easier on this side of the law. Got out of the army, and the rest is history. Ya know, Hutch, they make menus for everyone in this place,” he said, directing the last comment at his cheeseburger-stealing partner.
“Hmmpf,” Hutchinson replied with a mouthful of food. He put down the remains of the cheeseburger. “Excuse me, nature calls,” he rose slowly, and headed toward the washroom.
“Not hungry after all?” I asked Starsky after Hutchinson left.
“I’m starved,” he answered, to my surprise. “But I knew he wouldn’t eat that hospital crap, and I don’t think he ate much yesterday either. He can’t take painkillers on an empty stomach without throwin’ up. And the health freak’s a sucker for French fries. He needs to eat. So I just had to create the opportunity, encourage him with some token protests every now and then, and wah-lah.”
“The cheeseburger?” I asked with a smile, anticipating the answer.
“The cheeseburger was an added bonus,” he replied with a lop-sided grin. “I sliced it up to make it easier for him to grab, but I didn’t really think he’d go for it.” The detective paused, dunking one of the remaining French fries in ketchup and munching quickly.
I was impressed, both with the complexity and compassion of his explanation. “Sounds like you know him pretty well,” I commented.
“Well…uh…yeah,” he said, surprise evident on his face. “He’s my partner, isn’t he?”
Back in the car, it appeared we were driving aimlessly around the city. “So what’s on the agenda today?” I asked.
“A little beat-stomping today. Gotta remind the pervs that we are still here,” Starsky responded, never taking his eyes off the road. “I’ve been gone for a couple of days now, and Hutch here hasn’t been seen by the citizenry in almost a month.”
“Hey, there’s Smitty,” Hutchinson interrupted, pointing to his right.
“Good catch, buddy.” And with that, Starsky revved up the Torino and catapulted us toward an intersection where a small group of people were gathered. They scattered as we approached. But one, an older man who looked a little worse for wear, did not scatter fast enough. Starsky was out of the car and on top of him with a set of handcuffs before I could even blink. His partner stood a short distance behind, gun drawn, covering him. I hadn’t even seen Hutchinson get out of the car, but it occurred to me that the whole thing had gone down smoothly and quickly, without words - without even a plan, as far as I could tell.
Starsky had Smitty up against the car. “Whaddaya know, Smitty?” the detective asked the obviously startled man.
“Nuthin’! I don’t know nuthin’!” Smitty responded.
I stepped out of the car to get a closer look, and was assailed with the smell of alcohol and BO almost immediately. The release I had signed stated I would stay a reasonable distance away from officers performing their duties. In this particular case, I didn’t mind at all.
“You know you’ve got at least two
outstanding warrants for B and E. And
maybe some for the rest of the alphabet too, for all I know. What made you think you could just hang out
on this corner without a care in the world?” Hutchinson asked, holstering the
largest gun I had ever seen. I’d have
to beg later to get a good look at the thing.
“Word was you guys wasn’t around lately. Next time I saw ya I was goin’ to turn myself in. Truth!”
“Uh huh,” Starsky said, finishing up his task of frisking the man. “I would have paid money to see that.” He reached into the car window and grabbed the radio microphone. “This is Zebra 3; we need a black-and-white for a prisoner transport at 3rd and Main.”
“10-4 Zebra 3. ETA five minutes,” a female voice answered.
I got back in the car to make some more notes. Starsky and Hutchinson remained outside, chit-chatting with their captive while waiting for a squad car to pick him up. Smitty looked relatively relaxed talking with the detectives, as if he’d done this many times before. I wondered how much of the life of a detective is made up of these small moments, simply reinforcing to the citizenry that they are, in fact, still there.
The black-and-white took off, an unhappy Smitty ensconced inside. The detectives got back in the Torino. Hutchinson settled gingerly into the passenger seat, while his partner bounced into his chair with more energy and enthusiasm.
“More beat-stomping ahead?” I asked, proud of my new grasp of cop-lingo.
It was as if I hadn’t spoken. They looked at each other for a long moment in wordless communication. Then came a volley of verbal shorthand that left me breathless.
“Who would have known?” Starsky asked.
“Had to be a firefighter,” Hutchinson responded.
“The guy in the car?”
“No one knew him.”
“But he’s all we have, and he’s gone.”
“Yeah, he’s the key.”
“He knew ya’d be there.”
“And knew I’d be on that side.”
“Man, Hutch, he almost--”
“I know, Starsk, I know… Had to be a firefighter,” Hutchinson repeated.
“Had ta be,” Starsky echoed.
I could barely suppress my excitement. This had to be it. This had to be the case. The key to turning my series from ordinary to extraordinary. But how to get them to talk about it to me? I tentatively entered their conversation.
“Is that who you were undercover as? A firefighter?”
The pair jumped, obviously having forgotten my presence momentarily. “A paramedic,” a startled Hutchinson answered.
“Why?” I asked.
The detectives exchanged another glance. Starsky took a deep breath. “Since you’re gonna be with us for a month,” he started, “you might as well know the story. But it doesn’t leave this car, not until we say. You’ll get your story, I promise. Deal?”
“Deal,” I agreed.
“In a nutshell, there’s a headcase killing hypes, dumping their bodies in buildings and setting them on fire. The buildings, not the hypes. Of course that distinction is kinda lost on the victims, who are too dead to care much. On top of that, in a couple of these fires, people have been hurt… you know, squatters, firefighters, passers-by, that kind of thing.” Starsky’s hands waved as he talked. I made a note to include the hand-waving in my story; it was quite distinct.
I scribbled another reminder on my notepad: find out what ‘hype’ means. Hutchinson took up the story. “I went under as a fire department paramedic. There was some thought that he may be an off-duty firefighter, given the expertise with which the fires were set. The idea was I could put an ear to the ground, keep an eye out for suspicious employees and catch the department gossip. Plus all the psychological profiles showed that this scumbag probably stuck around to see the results of his handiwork. So maybe I’d see him at a fire scene.”
A sudden wiggling movement in the front seat distracted us briefly. It appeared Starsky was attempting to empty all his pockets, while trying to keep the Torino on the road at the same time. “I never got my cuffs back,” he complained. “Damn it! Did I leave them on Smitty?”
Hutchinson shook his head affectionately. “It’s not my day to baby-sit your cuffs, Starsk. Try driving in a straight line for a while, and we’ll look at the next light.”
He resumed his story. “Anyway, I was assigned to the station that was catching most of the fires. Over the past month, we responded to a half-dozen fires with bodies inside. Other shifts and stations responded to a half-dozen more. Of those, maybe five of the victims fit the MO of a confirmed druggie.”
I amended my previous note to read hype = drug addict and underlined it.
Hutchinson continued. “Another was a prostitute with a questionable heroin history, and the rest were homeless people who probably started the fires themselves while smoking on their money-stuffed mattresses.” He grinned, but the smile was without humor. “Of the five possibles, I was at three of them. I saw no one at the scene out of the ordinary, no off-duty employees acting strange, nothing inside the building in the way of evidence, nothing at all.”
“Until last night, when some moron tried to kill you,” Starsky interjected, placing a protective hand on his partner’s upper arm.
“Yeah. Until last night. I was standing next to a fire engine, talking to one of the firefighters, when a car drove by and hit me. It wasn’t an accident; the side of the engine where I was hit was cordoned off against traffic because of the hoses. I went flying, but not before I and several other people saw the guy’s face. Not to mention the parting shot of him yelling ‘fucking cop pig’ as he drove by. Lucky for me he hadn’t gotten up too much speed. All those hoses in the way I guess.” Hutchinson shook his head at the memory.
“I was parked a block away, since I’d been following them whenever they got a call that seemed a likely match,” Starsky said. “I heard the radio traffic and hauled ass.”
“Only a couple of people knew I was undercover,” Hutchinson said with a puzzled shrug. “The station captain, my paramedic partner, obviously the top brass. Now of course, it’s all shot to hell, thanks to our friend in the yellow Ford Pinto.”
I twisted around in the slippery back seat, trying to reach the pen I had dropped while taking notes. “So did they guy in the Pinto kill the…hypes?” I asked as I stretched my hand under Starsky’s impeccably clean seats. Wow, second use of cop-lingo in a matter of minutes, Bob. “And set the fires?”
“No idea,” Starsky answered. “But given how Hutch was made, we can pretty much assume some fire department involvement.”
“Your paramedic partner?” I asked. All that groping under seats turned up nothing. I dug in my jacket pocket for another pen.
“I don’t think so,” Hutchinson answered. “I’ve been working with the guy for a month, got to know his family, hung out after work. He’s squeaky clean.”
“So I gotta ask,” I started, new pen in hand. “How does a cop work undercover as a paramedic? I’d think patient safety would be an issue.”
The pair exchanged another one of those information-laden glances. “I went to medical school,” Hutchinson replied. It was a simple response, but tension was obvious in the set of his jaw and the flash of his eyes.
“Did you make it to MD?” I asked.
“Left in ’68 to go to the academy,” he answered shortly. “Let’s go Starsk.” He began to rummage in the glove compartment, perhaps for the wayward handcuffs. Obviously I’d hit a sore spot. I let him off the hook with another subject change.
“So where are we headed now?” I asked.
“Back to Metro,” Starsky replied. “We have to book Smitty still. And get my cuffs back.”
“But didn’t the officers who picked him up handle that?” I was confused. It hadn’t occurred to me that detectives would handle that kind of procedural crap.
“It’s not like TV,” Hutchinson said. “For everyone we bring in, there’s a ton of paperwork, procedure and other bullshit. It’s easy to blow half a day on petty stuff. It’s part of being a Zebra unit; we have a beat on top of our homicide duties, and that takes up time.”
“…and after we beat-stomped, we went back to Metro and did paperwork, and then they had to attend some stupid in-service training thing so I made excuses and left early. I didn’t know cop work could be so exciting and so boring all at the same time, ya know?” I excitedly explained to my wife that evening.
“Beat-stomped?” she asked quizzically.
I rambled on, oblivious to her question. “Man, you shoulda seen that cannon that Hutchinson carries. I’ve never seen anything like that. And he’s a miserable sonofabitch too, although I get the feeling I caught him at a bad time. He’s got a bad back ya know, just like yours. Starsky seems less like he has a corn-cob up his ass. But they get along fine, I guess. And they’re real funny guys when they feel like it. Just real closed off, too, like it takes them a long time to let someone in.”
“And they work so in sync, ya know, like a machine…”
“I’m picking up so much stuff, I could do a book easy. I know I could get a three-parter out of the paper at a minimum…
I startled. “What, honey?”
“Shut up and eat dinner. You can continue your little-boy-in-a-candy-store rant after the kids are in bed.”
I looked around the table. The girls were staring at me wide-eyed. Linda looked bemused. I hoped I hadn’t used too many curse words in describing my day; I couldn’t really remember what I had said to her. I just knew how I felt when I was with the detectives, like I was more alive, more a part of the city of my birth.
I took a deep breath. “Sorry,” I said sheepishly, and picked up my fork.
The next day I had a lunchtime interview scheduled with Captain Dobey.
“How long have you been with the BCPD?” I asked first, a softball question to lull him, I hoped, into a false sense of security.
“More than 25 years now. Last nine as a captain,” Dobey responded. He sat stiffly at his desk, his hands folded over his stomach.
“Been married 28 years. Two children.”
“Your detectives were telling me it’s hard for a police officer to be married to a woman and the job at the same time.”
Dobey considered the question with obvious care. “We see a lot of things on the streets that we don’t feel like we can talk about to civilians,” he began. “Wives want to know everything, and when we can’t tell them everything, they start to wonder if the job is more important than they are.” He smiled sheepishly. “I know that sounds, I don’t know, sexist or something. But that’s the way it is.”
“How about the women on the force?” I asked.
“What about them?” he responded tersely.
“Are they married to the job?”
“I don’t know,” Dobey answered, “You’d have to ask them.” He picked nervously at a stray thread on his suit jacket.
I left that line of questioning behind. I would have to handle the volatile captain with more care. “Starsky or Hutchinson ever married?” I asked casually.
“Hutchinson was for a few years early on. Starsky was engaged, but she passed on.”
“Oh,” I said, momentarily at a loss for words. I had suspected that Hutchinson had a marriage under his belt. But Starsky’s news was more unexpected. I chose to leave the issue untouched for now, in favor of continuing the divorce angle. “Uh, Hutchinson, did he get divorced because of the job?”
“You’d have to ask him that,” he answered shortly. “That’s none of my business.” And none of yours either was the implied second half of that statement.
I forged ahead. “How many detectives are you in charge of?”
“When we are fully staffed, about a dozen, including the ones who float in and out from other departments. We haven’t been fully staffed in a long time. I’ve got three sets I can count on right now, with a few others paired temporarily due to illness, injuries, and so on.”
“The business in court, is it keeping you from hiring more?”
“Well, the commission does the hiring, but yes. It’s keeping us understaffed, definitely.” There was that wary look again.
“Do you think the department hires enough minorities?” I asked right out, remembering what I had promised my editor.
“That’s not for me to say,” he answered. He started fiddling with a pencil on his desk.
“That’s what the courts said,” I countered.
Captain Dobey dropped the pencil and leaned forward, pointing a finger at me. “Now look. Back when I was hired, it was the same old business. We need more blacks. More Chicanos. More purples, and yellows, and greens. And then we had to fight like hell to prove we weren’t hired to just fill up a quota, like a packing list at a warehouse. And if my son was hired tomorrow, he’d have the same stupid fight, civil rights be damned.”
As he continued, his voice raised incrementally with each word. “But if you think you’re gonna get me to talk about what’s going on in court right now, you are sadly mistaken. I’m just trying to do my job as a squad captain, without enough men to do it. I’m too old to give a damn any more about why they are hiring people, or what God-damned color they are, or what God-damned color I am. They just need to shut up and do it before more innocent citizens get killed.”
He pulled out a handkerchief and wiped the sweat from his forehead.
“I’m sorry if I upset you, Captain,” I said, as calmly as I could. He was an effective leader; I had felt his passion, and briefly shared his frustration.
“Damn right you upset me. I see fine men like Hutchinson out there working when they can’t even see straight and it upsets me! It stinks!” He took a deep breath. “It’s my job as their captain to take care of them. To keep them from turning down investigative dead-ends and taking stupid risks. But sending out tired detectives every day is a stupid risk in itself. One of them is going to get hurt some day, and I’ll have to make that phone call to their wife or mother. You have no idea what it’s like, making that phone call...” He shook his head sadly.
“When was the last time you had to do that?” I asked.
“I’d rather not get into that,” Dobey replied. “Suffice it to say it involved one of your dynamic duo out there.”
I wondered if I would get them to open up about it. I had a whole month, but after a day with them and a morning with their captain, I wondered if even that would be anywhere near enough.
They weren’t starting work that day until 4pm. I had learned the day before that the detective pairs rotated shifts: some starting at 8am, another at 4pm, another at midnight. This was to assure that they had plenty of time to hunt down leads and suspects that might not keep bankers’ hours.
“It gives us more flexibility and less overtime than traditional shifts,” Hutchinson had explained. “We might know that we have to stake someone out later in the week, so we’ll pick a day we know we aren’t due in until 4:00. Or pre-schedule an 8 o’clock shift for a mandatory court appearance. Or we’ll swap amongst ourselves, a couple of mornings for a couple of midnights or whatever, if we know we’ll need them.”
“Of course, we still get a lot of overtime,” Starsky had interrupted. “The criminals don’t usually give much of damn about our schedule. The money is nice, but I’d prefer sleeping every now and then.”
So now I was sitting at Starsky’s desk, waiting for the partners to come in and start their day…or night. After reestablishing their turf yesterday, they were going to start all over again on their investigation, the one that almost left Hutchinson dead.
Looking at their desks, I was struck by the contrast. Starsky’s was as neat as a pin. Hutchinson’s had piles of papers, a wrapper from a protein bar and an empty aspirin bottle. I resolved to spend the day looking for more contrasts, to find the differences in the two hard-nosed detectives.
As I scribbled this down in my notebook, I heard voices behind me.
“They looked like bugs to me. What was I supposed to do?”
“Leave them alone. That’s what you are supposed to do. Unless you want to really learn how to take care of them, don’t touch them.”
I turned around. The detectives were coming in the door. Hutchinson looked pissed off. Starsky looked confused.
“OK, so now I know they weren’t bugs,” Starsky said, with a chagrined look on his face.
“Yes, and I can’t propagate more ferns if you scrape them off. So hands off,” Hutchinson said, sitting at his desk.
Starsky perched atop his partner’s desk and winked at me. “So how do you grow them, whaddya call it, sporns?”
“Spores. It takes a lot of work, and more time than I have to explain,” Hutchinson said as he sifted through the files on his desk. “But if you really want to know, I’ll show you a book tonight.”
“Why not just go to the plant store and buy more ferns, instead of growin’ new ones?”
“It’s the challenge, Starsk. The challenge.”
Starsky kicked his feet up onto a nearby chair. “Hey, Bob,” he said, turning his attention to me.
“Ferns?” I questioned.
“Ferns,” Starsky confirmed. “Hutch’s gotta fondle his plants, or they wilt from lack of attention, ya know.”
“Shuddup, Starsk,” Hutchinson muttered, continuing the paper-shuffling on his desk. “Where the hell is that file?”
“The one with the thing?” Starsky asked.
“No, the other thing.”
“Back in the cabinet.”
Hutchinson stomped toward one of the file cabinets that lined the room. Once again I had to marvel at their verbal shorthand.
“So you ready for another fun day, Bob?” Starsky asked me.
“Oh yeah,” I said. “Raring to go.”
“Good. First thing today, we go see Huggy with our composite. Then we’ll get a start on re-interviewing everyone who saw the car hit Hutch.”
“Re-interview?” I asked.
“Yeah. It’s amazing what you can remember about something two days later that didn’t immediately come to mind when the cops first asked you about it. Plus, we didn’t do the original interviews, and Hutch and I wanna make sure we didn’t miss anything.”
Something else was bumping at the back of my mind. That was it: Huggy. “What’s a Huggy?” I asked.
“More like who’s a Huggy,” Starsky said with a smile.
On the ride over to see Huggy, I scribbled what I had discovered so far in terms of differences. Hutchinson liked plants, Starsky didn’t. Not exactly the basis for a thesis yet, Bob, I chuckled to myself. Well, there was also the moodiness thing. Hutchinson could be almost glacially cutting in his comments to his partner, and he certainly was pissy about some things. Starsky seemed more laid back and friendly…
My musing was interrupted by a brief conversation in the front seat.
“Better go in the back. He says he got in trouble with some folks last time we went in front.”
“Gotcha.” Starsky steered down an alley and parked behind a dilapidated building. A sign over a door read “The Pits: Deliveries.”
We got out and walked inside. It seemed like the backroom of any two-bit restaurant or bar in the area. Stainless steel prep tables, which despite their name were stained with unidentifiable goo. A cooler or two. The stereotypical cook with a cigarette dangling from his lips.
“Hey Melvin, can you tell Huggy we’re here?” Starsky asked the cook.
The cook disengaged himself from his fryer with a grunt and lumbered toward a swinging door. I was overcome with the smell of grease and food service-grade cleansers, odors that brought back my misspent youth as a short-order cook at a bowling alley.
As I surreptitiously rubbed the end of my nose, a tall, thin black man walked through the swinging doors. He wore tight, electric-blue pants and a print top with a fringed vest. He was all arms and legs and liquid grace.
“Hello there, my fine-feathered gentlemen,” the man said. “There’s a nice out-of-the-way corner of the bar reserved in your name, guaranteed to keep you hydrated and me out of shit’s creek.”
“We were hoping we wouldn’t have to chat in the kitchen,” Starsky replied. Hutchinson said nothing, but looked grateful.
We followed the man into the restaurant and sat at the bar, the detectives again shoulder-to-shoulder, and me next to Starsky. “And you must be Bob McKesson, scribbler extraordinaire for the LA Times,” the black man said. “I’m Huggy Bear, owner and operator of The Pits. What’s your poison?”
I must not have been able to hide the surprise in my face. Starsky turned to me and said, “If it’s happening on the street, Huggy knows. Word gets around fast when a reporter is following you around.”
I nodded and said to the gangly restaurant proprietor, “Just water for me, thanks.”
“One H2O,” Huggy confirmed. “And the usual for the dynamic duo?”
They nodded. As Huggy left to get our drinks, I asked Starsky, “So what’s with all the lurking in dark corners?”
“We’ve been using Huggy as a source for so long, we got a little too comfortable,” the dark-haired detective explained. “A couple people got nervous, ya know, seeing cops hanging out at The Pits. Some of his information supply lines decided to dry up. So we’ve been tryin’ to be a little more low-key lately.”
“What are we going ask him about?”
Hutchinson spoke up for the first time since we entered the building. “We’ll give him a copy of the composite of the guy in the Pinto, have him show it around discreetly, etcetera, etcetera. Worth a shot, anyway.”
Huggy returned with our drinks. Like me, Hutchinson drank water, while Starsky sipped a Coke. The detectives explained what they needed, finishing each other’s sentences with uncanny frequency. Huggy listened intently until the pair was finished, then spoke up.
“I’ll do it for you, but I think you may be barking up the wrong tree.”
The detectives looked surprised. “Whaddya mean, Hug?” Starsky asked.
“Word on the street has it that the dude who was all burnt up in the fire the other night, the one that blondie got crunched at, had connections that may have led to his demise.”
“Connections?” Hutchinson asked.
“Connections. Not sure what kind, but I get the idea that while the other hypes were killed just because of wrong-place wrong-time kind of stuff, his death may have had some ulterior motives. And before you ask, I don’t know. That’s just what I’m hearin’,”
“Thanks, Hug,” Starsky said, standing up. “We’ll be in touch.”
I reached in my pocket for a couple dollar bills and threw them on the bar, figuring I’d treat for the drinks.
“Now that’s my kind of man,” Huggy said with a gleeful smile. “None of this ‘put it on my tab’ nonsense.”
“Aw Hug, ya know we’re good for it,” Starsky protested.
“Yeah,” Hutchinson agreed. “And unless that water’s made of gold, I don’t see what the big deal is. You’d think you bottled it from a Russian creek or something.”
“Actually I have an ulterior motive,” I admitted. “I’d be honored if I could interview you at some point this month, Mr. Bear. Anonymously or with names changed, of course, if that makes you more comfortable. I’m just looking for some insight into the officers here.”
Huggy laughed. “Here’s all the insight you need, man. Peanut butter and jelly. Frick and frack. Romeo and Juliet. Where there’s one, there’s the other. Apart they are lost. Together they are dangerous. I’m not even sure they know how to function separately, and I’d be frightened if they did. It’s the greatest sexless love affair in history.”
Starsky almost spat Coke out through his nose. He started to cough and choke, as Hutchinson whacked him on the back. The blond detective shook his head, his cheeks flushed with embarrassment. “Huggy, I think you exaggerate.”
“Hutch, I think thou doth protest too much,” Huggy countered.
“This is too much fancy talk for me. Let’s get out of here,” Starsky said, recovering from his coughing fit. We headed out of the bar the way we came in, through the greasy kitchen.
The partners were silent in the car. There was a tension I could not put my finger on. “So now what?” I asked.
“We give the coroner a buzz to see if they have an ID yet on our guy from the other night. Hopefully he’s not too burned up to get a name. And then we try to figure out how he’s connected to the whole thing,” Starsky responded.
“So we aren’t going to re-interview all those people today?” I was secretly happy about that; it sounded kind of boring to me.
“We’ll get ‘em some other day if we have too. Huggy’s information is gold, and we’d be crazy not to follow up on it,” Hutchinson said. He picked up the radio. “Dispatch, Zebra-3,” he spoke into the mic.
“Go ahead Zebra-3,” a woman’s voice responded.
“Get us a patch through to the coroner’s office, please,” he said.
“10-4 Zebra-3, stand by.”
While waiting for the coroner’s office to respond, Starsky slowly maneuvered the Torino through the alley behind The Pits and into the street. I still felt the tension, but I couldn’t characterize it, so I let it be.
The coroner had an ID. The body belonged to a Miguel Rodriguez, age 24. His last known address was in a neighborhood I would not have even imagined visiting prior to starting this assignment. But Starsky and Hutchinson showed no such reluctance; we immediately headed in that direction.
On the way, Hutchinson got on the radio to get information on Rodriguez’s record. The dispatcher got back to us a few minutes later. “Ready, Hutch?” the woman’s voice asked.
“Ready, Mildred. Just the highlights, please,” he clarified.
“Gotcha. Sealed YO record. Adult convictions for petty theft, soliciting, soliciting, soliciting, possession no intent, possession with intent, petty larceny, soliciting, soliciting…. Ya want more? It’s quite the list.”
“That’ll do…thanks, honey,” Hutchinson replied. He put down the mic and scribbled some notes into a small book he unearthed from the glove-compartment.
“So what did all that mean?” I asked.
“Our buddy Miguel fed a drug habit with hustling,” Starsky summarized.
“Um, you mean, prostitution?” I shuddered inwardly. Even though I’d never worked the cop beat, I wasn’t a naïve cub reporter fresh off the turnip truck. I knew there was such a thing out there. Yet the idea of male prostitution grossed me out in a way I couldn’t even describe.
“Yeah,” Hutchinson said. “He’s probably been doing it since he was a teenager, given the sealed youth record.”
“The only difference here is, we gotta figure out what made him more important than the others,” Starsky added. “What were the connections that got him killed?”
The conversation ended as we pulled up to an apartment building on 9th and Cooper. In the shadow of the setting sun, the run-down facade took on an eerie cast. Crumbling, yet ornate trim and grimly atrophied gargoyles were testimony to what was once a grand display, and what was now a symbol of the abject poverty that the neighborhood had come to represent.
We walked up three flights of dark, urine-stained stairs. The heat outside made the inside atmosphere stifling and claustrophobic. There was no answer at apartment 310, the dead man’s home. But neighbors told us that Miguel had a roommate, a Victor Luzano, who had just left for work. The neighbors spoke in hints, innuendos and slang that went over my head, but apparently meant something to the two detectives, since they looked at each other for a long time before heading back downstairs.
“You ready for a long night, Bob?” Starsky asked me as we navigated the near-collapsing stoop at the front of the building.
“Huh?” I asked.
“Victor’s out hustling tricks. He may not be back until morning. And if he smells cops, he probably won’t be back at all. He’s got a few outstandings. We’ll have to stake him out.”
“Now?” I asked.
“Nah, he just left. We’re guessing we can come back around midnight to be on the safe side.”
“Why do we want him?”
“He’s Miguel’s pretty boy. He may know what Miguel was into before he died,” Hutchinson responded.
I wondered if I’d missed something. I had heard the same conversations with the neighbors that they had. How did they get warrants and hustling and pretty boys out of that morass of information?
“OK,” I said, resigned. “Let me give my wife a call.”
“We’re heading back to Metro, you can do it there,” Starsky said.
“What do we have to do there?” I asked, secretly dreading another afternoon of paperwork and boring in-service training.
“We’re required to spend a half-hour a month at the range. Hutch owes the department a bunch of target practice,” Starsky said with a grin.
“You know I can find something better to practice my shooting on,” Hutchinson said menacingly, moving his hand under his shirt.
Ignoring the implied threat, Starsky laughed… an all-out bellow that made his pained partner smile and dissipated much of the afternoon’s tension.
“You still carry that death trap, Starsky?” the range master asked as he handed us each a pair of large, unwieldy earphones.
“You just don’t recognize quality when you see it,” Starsky responded, slamming a clip into his gun, chambering a round and flipping the safety off.
“Now Hutch here, he recognizes quality,” the range master responded. “His piece’ll last him 20 years or more, and you can bet it’ll never jam on ‘im.”
“I’m sorry to interrupt,” I broke in. “But could someone explain the controversy here?”
The range master replied, “Starsky here
carries a Smith & Wesson 9 millimeter automatic. Light and quick, carries 14 rounds plus one chambered. Problem is, they got a rep for jamming.”
“It’s never jammed on me in the six years I’ve had it,” Starsky protested.
“’Yet’ is the operative word there, Starsk,” Hutchinson responded. “I, on the other hand, carry a workhorse, quality, state-of-the-art, Colt Python .357 Magnum.”
“If you’ve got the wrist strength, that sucker’ll keep you alive forever,” the range master said, with obvious admiration.
I suspect my face showed similar admiration. Hutchinson’s gun looked like what every cop gun should look like in my amateur opinion: big, heavy and scary.
“But what Hutch here fails to mention is that he only carries six rounds to my 15,” Starsky countered. “Plus, I’m a better shot anyway.”
“Prove it, hotshot,” Hutchinson said. They headed together toward a long hallway, guns at their sides. They chose stalls next to each other and, almost in unison, pressed the buttons that caused the target sheets to move away with a fluttery “whoosh”.
I barely had my earphones in place before they both started blasting away. Blond, blue-eyed intensity met brunet, blue-eyed steel as their worlds narrowed into the targets ahead of them. As they reloaded and retargeted, with wordless speed and precision, I had the feeling that they had forgotten I was there, lost in a place where the bad guys were just sheets of paper who didn’t bleed, and more importantly, didn’t shoot back.
Around 10:30 we went for a late supper at a Greek joint near the station. Starsky had the ubiquitous cheeseburger and fries. Hutchinson ordered a salad and tuna fish sandwich on whole wheat. Another difference for my notes: one partner was into junk, the other into health.
“Not eating, Bob?” Starsky asked.
I was nibbling on crackers, but hadn’t ordered anything. “Not really hungry this late at night,” I responded. I didn’t add that I was too keyed-up to eat. Going on a stake-out with two veteran cops seemed to be the answer to a boyhood fantasy.
“You gotta grab food when you can,” Starsky responded. “We could be staring at Victor’s building all night.”
“We’ll stop at a convenience store on the way,” Hutchinson added. “That way you can grab some snacks and a newspaper.”
I was vaguely disappointed. It appeared that this stake-out wasn’t going to be the excitement fest that I assumed it would be.
Two hours later we were in Hutchinson’s LTD, parked a half-block away from the building. We had taken a few minutes to trade out the Torino, which would stick out like a sore thumb in that neighborhood.
If I was uncomfortable in the back of the Torino, I was positively miserable in the back of the LTD. The blond detective was a slob, to put it frankly, and it appeared that the assorted detritus of a thousand meals had taken up residence in his backseat. I tossed aside dozens of empty containers, piles of paper and bits of things I couldn’t identify in order to make room for myself.
Starsky laughed as I attempted to make a home in the backseat. “That’s relatively clean,” he chuckled. “I made him clear it out a few months ago when we almost lost a robbery suspect back there.”
“Ha ha,” Hutchinson said humorlessly. “Paper, stone, scissors?” he asked his partner.
“Sure,” Starsky agreed. They each smacked a fist into a palm, while reciting the age-old children’s chant.
“Ha-ha to you!” Starsky said. “Paper covers stone. I win.” He put his hand over his partner’s outstretched fist. I watched the exchange in fascination, suspecting I was witnessing a regular ritual between the two men.
“Backseat’s taken,” Hutchinson said dryly. “Should I tie you to the roof?”
“What’s wrong with kicking back right here?
“You’ll end up on my lap, and I’ll end up with drool all over me.”
“No I won’t!”
“OK, but you drool and you’ll be wearing my footprint in your ass.”
“Oooh, I love when you talk rough,” Starsky teased. He put his hands behind his head, stretched out his legs the best he could, and closed his eyes. Hutchinson pulled a gardening magazine from the recesses of a convenience store bag and started flipping through the pages. I took my cue from Starsky, made myself a bed of sorts amid the debris, and dozed off, wondering how much better my bed might have been if they’d let me share their ‘game’.
I awoke with a start a couple hours later, a crick in my neck and a piece of paper jabbing my earlobe. Up front, Hutchinson had set aside the magazine. True to his prediction, Starsky’s head had migrated into his partner’s lap. The blond detective stared intently out into the darkness. Despite his earlier threats, he had made no obvious move to prevent Starsky’s new position. Instead his hand rested softly on his partner’s upper arm, his long, lithe fingers drawing gentle circles on the shirt sleeve. I’m not even sure he was aware of doing it.
I awoke again, this time to the sound of Hutchinson’s voice. “Starsk. Starsky.” He gently shook his partner.
“3:00 am. Your turn.”
“Yeah, OK. Give me a sec.”
Starsky opened the car door and got out. I watched him curiously until I realized what it was he was doing. He stepped into an alley for a moment, then stepped out again. Getting back in the car, he turned to me.
“Ya gotta use the facilities?”
“Only the best, huh?” I joked.
“I wouldn’t tip the guy who hands you toilet paper,” he quipped. I stepped out of the car, made my way into the dark alley and did my business quickly.
Back in the car, Starsky was pulling out magazines and a bag of chips, while Hutchinson tried to settle his body comfortably for a nap. But it was obvious to me that his back was not cooperating.
“Bad, huh?” Starsky asked softly.
“What if I roll up something, like a lumbar support?”
“I don’t know, maybe…” Hutchinson paused. “Is that him?” he pointed at a man walking toward the building we were watching.
Starsky consulted the description we had obtained earlier: male, early 20’s, Hispanic, slight build. “Hafta get closer, but yeah, it looks like him.”
“How do you wanna play this?”
“Yeah, OK. Get down. You too, Bob.” And with that, Hutchinson exited the car, pain forgotten…or at least stowed away for a while. Starsky and I slumped down in our seats. Hutchinson affected a casual air as he walked, hands in pockets, toward the man in question. The car windows were open, and I could hear every word they exchanged as their conversation drifted in on the humid breeze.
“You looking for someone?” an unfamiliar voice asked.
“Name’s Ken. I’m lookin’ for some fun,” Hutchinson replied congenially. I shivered; the detective’s sudden identity switch was almost creepy.
“I’m Vic. What kind of fun? I’m beat.”
“Nuthin’ that’ll take long, ya know what I mean? My ride’s down that way.”
I could hear the two men walking toward the car. Starsky tensed in the seat in front of me. His partner and Victor Luzano were at the LTD’s door when I heard Hutchinson’s voice again, a thread of steel replacing the earlier casual solicitation.
“Vic, I’m a cop and my partner is in the car. Don’t try anything stupid and we’ll finish this conversation quickly. One dumb move, and you’ll be servicing the drunks in the lock-up for many nights to come.”
“Shit,” Victor replied succinctly. Starsky got out of the car and put Victor inside. Hutchinson got in the other side and the two detectives sandwiched the unfortunate hustler.
“Seen Miguel lately?” Starsky started.
“Haven’t seen him for two days,” Victor replied. That was obviously true enough.
“I’m not into beating around the bush, Vic. I know how Miguel paid for his smack. You do what you gotta do. I’m cool with that. But is there a chance that Miguel was into anything else? You know, anything outta the ordinary?”
“You know where he is?” Victor asked. “You talk like he’s dead or somethin’.”
Starsky paused. “He is dead, Vic. He died two nights ago. Strangled and dumped in a burning building. If you ever cared about him, I’m asking you, what was Miguel into?”
Victor actually looked like he was going to cry. He furiously swiped at his eyes. “Dead, huh? Jesus H. Christ. I warned him. I warned the sonofabitch. He was a walking target, you know?”
“What did you warn him about?” Hutchinson spoke up, his tone surprisingly gentle.
“He got into dealing. He figured it was a way to stop the hustling. He was so pretty, you know, guys were always wanting to kink with him, beat him up, stuff like that. Wasn’t worth the extra cash to come home bruised every night, so he started dealing horse along with still using it.”
Victor stopped for a moment to wipe his runny nose with his sleeve. “Anyway, one day he’s picking up his stuff from his connection, and overhears a conversation between two bigwigs. I don’t know what it was about, but anyway Miguel figures he can sell the info from the conversation to a rival connection, make himself some extra cash. Next thing I know, Miguel’s rolling in dough, selling info from one side to the other, neither side knowin’ nuthin’ about it.”
Even I could see where this was going. I winced with the inevitability of it all as Victor continued his story.
“Eventually someone figured out he was playin’ both sides of the fence. Miguel told me he was too hot and had to leave town for a little while. He’d send for me. And that’s…” he took a deep breath, “… that’s the last I heard from him. He was happy you know, selling smack instead of working the streets. It was a lot better for him. For us. And now…he’s dead. He’s fuckin’ dead and I’m still here turnin’ tricks. Fuck it all.”
Victor’s head sunk onto his chest. The detectives exchanged a glance. “One more question for you, Vic…who was Miguel’s connection?” Starsky asked.
“Dude named Louie Minelli. He hangs out weekends at the bar across from the Seville.” Victor’s tone of voice suggested that he didn’t care anymore what he said, or to whom. He had the air about him of a defeated man.
Starsky opened his door. “Get out of here, Vic,” he said gruffly, pushing the man out of the LTD. We watched as he stumbled across the deserted street and into his building.
We took off again in silence. Starsky’s apartment was on the way back to Metro and my car. Hutch dropped him off at the curb. Starsky stuck his head back in the car window. He looked like he had lot on his mind, but uncharacteristically said nothing.
“Call me,” Hutchinson responded to the unspoken statement from his partner. Starsky nodded, and then disappeared into his building. I migrated to the front seat of the car and stretched out my legs, leaning my cheek against the door frame and closing my eyes against the breeze.
I lay in bed next to Linda, eyes closed in a futile attempt to sleep.
“I wonder if they’re all like that?” I wondered aloud.
“Whah?” Linda muttered dreamily.
“That close. That…um…symbiotic,” I said, awkwardly looking for a word to describe the detectives.
“Dunno,” she said. “Compare ‘em to some other partners. And shut up so I can sleep. It’s 4:00 in the freakin’ morning.”
Sometimes I’m blown away at how my wife can turn something so complicated, into something so simple. I would just ask Dobey if I could ride with someone else for a while, for comparison’s sake. I rolled over and kissed her in gratitude.
“Go ‘way,” she said, squirming. “Too hot!”
“So cool me off,” I said, working my kisses down her collar bone.
Later that morning the three of us were back in the squad room at ten o’clock, sitting around the detectives’ desk. I was yawning cavernously.
“What’s wrong, Bob? Can’t take the high-powered life of a homicide detective?” Starsky teased.
I smiled. The two detectives didn’t look much more awake than I did. But manpower shortages being what they were, ten was the absolute latest start-time the pair had been able to negotiate with Captain Dobey after their late-night stake-out. Starsky slurped a mug of squad room coffee and munched at a cruller. His partner periodically sipped at a thermos of something that looked like whale shit, or at least what I imagined whale shit would look like if I’d ever seen any. I could only imagine what health food sludge resided in that thermos.
“So who’s this Louie Minelli dude and what does he have to do with things,” I asked, jumping right back into the case in an attempt to stay awake.
“He’s a two-bit middle man.” Starsky said. “Used to work for a syndicate boss named Stryker, before we put him away a few years ago--”
“Obviously he’s found a new boss,” Hutchinson interjected.
“We worked out a few possible scenarios last night,” Starsky said. “Unfortunately none of ‘em can account for Miguel. Not to mention a firefighter possibly setting these fires. That’s the wildcard.”
I wondered how long they talked on the phone last night to work out those “few” scenarios. Had they slept at all?
“We’re going to see Louie Minelli this morning. R & I had a current address, or at least we hope it’s current,” Hutchinson said. “We’re pretty sure we can bully him into tripping up on something.”
Starsky stuck his head inside Captain Dobey’s door to let their leader know we were leaving. We walked downstairs and got into the Torino. I didn’t realize how much I had missed its slippery, squeaky-clean backseat until I had spent a night in the back of the LTD. I almost sighed in relief as I settled back for the ride.
We pulled up in front of an SRO hotel. The flickering sign out front read “The Royal Arms”, but the large R and A were burned out. Starsky bounced out of the car, his energy apparently knowing no bounds. His partner eased his way out of the Torino, and flipped the seat back so I could get out.
We walked in and headed over to the manager, who was ensconced behind a caged desk. “Whaddya want?” he asked, never looking away from a small television set.
”Louie Minelli,” Hutchinson said.
“Room 216,” was the unconcerned response.
“Right. Thank you,” the blond detective said. He shook his head briefly in apparent disgust before we trotted up the stairs to the second floor. Room 216 was right by the stairwell. Starsky held me back from entering the hallway.
“You’d better hang out here until we’re sure it’s all cool,” he explained.
That was fine with me. I stayed put.
The detectives drew their weapons and stood at either side of the door. Hutch nodded. Starsky rapped on the door with the butt of his gun. “Louie? Louie Minelli?” he called out.
A voice answered from inside the room. “What’s it to ya?”
“We got a couple a questions for you, Louie,” Starsky said.
“Police, Louie. Starsky and Hutchinson. We ain’t here to arrest you, just to ask you something.”
The detectives stood tense and alert as the man on the other side of the door apparently considered his options. The door opened a crack and a face peeked out. Finding things to his liking, Louie Minelli opened the door the rest of the way. The detectives holstered their guns and entered, Starsky waving me in behind them.
I stood awkwardly in the doorway. Hutchinson made a circuit around the small hotel room, looking to the casual observer as if he was just curious about its contents. He blew some dust off the top of a television set, and rustled a newspaper that sat atop a pillow on the bed. Meanwhile Starsky pulled up a chair and plunked himself next to Minelli, who was sitting on the bed.
“Oh how the mighty have fallen,” Starsky started out. “You aren’t exactly living in the lap of luxury since Stryker went up, are you Louie?”
“I’m doin’ all right,” Louie responded. He was a short, fat, balding man with no neck and several chins. The chins quivered as he spoke, holding my fascinated gaze as Starsky continued the interrogation.
“Who are you doing business for now? Who’s helpin’ you pay for all… this?” he waved his hand around the shabby room. Hutchinson snorted at his partner’s ironic turn of phrase as he used a pen to tentatively lift an old sock off the radiator under the window.
“Don’t know what you mean,” Louie responded.
“Oh Louie, Louie, Louie,” Starsky scolded. “Let’s not play these games. We aren’t here to arrest you. We could give two God-damns about you. We just want to know who you’re working for now.”
The chins quivered even more. “H-h-he’ll kill me. Word gets around. He’ll kill me.”
“Our lips are sealed.”
“Don’t matter. He’ll know. My life won’t be worth two shits if word gets out I talked with you guys.”
Starsky looked at his partner, whose role in the interrogation up until now had involved little more than wandering around the room. At an unspoken signal, Hutchinson dropped the Gideon bible he had been paging through and stalked over to Louie.
“Your life isn’t worth two shits now, Louie,” Hutchinson said menacingly, looming over the rotund man. “Talk, and we’ll do our best to forget we ever met you. Don’t talk, and we’ll march right over to the bar across the street from the Seville and drop the word that you fink so regularly a person could set a clock by it.”
It was amazing. You could almost see the relay click in Louie’s brain as he realized what he was up against. He looked up at Hutchinson’s icy stare, then over at Starsky. “OK,” he said. “I’ve been working the past year on and off for Johnny Bellman.”
The partners looked at each other. Judging by their matching puzzled looks, the name didn’t ring a bell.
“What’s his story?” Starsky asked.
“He’s the nephew of James Bellman. You know, of Bellman Enterprises. Owns all that real estate, beachfront stuff, builds bridges, shit like that. Johnny says he’s helping his uncle ‘branch out’, his words not mine.”
“Does the uncle know the nephew is in the drug business?”
“You got me. I’m just a lousy middle-man, like always. Just a little less in the middle then I used to be,” he said sadly, referring to his current state of affairs.
The partners headed for the door. “One more thing,” Hutchinson said, turning back toward Louie. “What do you know about Miguel Rodriguez?”
“I know he disappeared a few days ago and owes me a lot of money for some product he took delivery of last week. You know where he is?” Louie asked hopefully.
“I’m sorry Louie, but I wouldn’t hold my breath on getting that cash,” Starsky said. With that parting statement, the three of us left Louie and his quivering chins back in his disheveled hotel room.
“Bellman. Bellman,” Hutchinson chanted to himself as we drove back to Metro.
“What?” Starsky asked.
“Rings a bell. No pun intended. Bellman. Bellman….”
I hated to interrupt, but I had a thousand and one questions about the encounter with Louie. If I didn’t ask them now, I’d lose the momentum.
“Why didn’t you ask him about Miguel right away?” I asked.
“Guys like Louie, you start bringing up dead people first thing, they start to panic, like you’re accusing them of something,” Starsky responded.
“How do you decide who does the interrogation?”
“Decide?” Starsky asked, puzzled.
“I think he means push-or-shove,” Hutchinson cut in.
“Push-and-shove?” I’d seen no obvious signs of physical violence.
“Yeah,” Starsky said. “It’s like our own version of good cop-bad cop. We figure out in advance who’s in the mood to be nice, and who’s in the mood to be mean. Good pushes the subject, then bad shoves it home. We didn’t really have anything to pin on Louie, and he woulda been in his rights to kick us right out of there. But play it right, like we did, and he loses sight of that fact real quick.” This was said without any hint of pride or self-consciousness; Starsky obviously thought it was a given that he and his partner would pull it off.
“How did you decide today who would push and who would shove?”
“We talked beforehand. It’s easier for Hutch to act mean cuz he’s in pain right now anyway. So he shoved. You noticed it didn’t take much of shove.”
“When did you talk?” I had been with them since 10:00 am. I’d heard no such discussion.
Starsky looked at Hutchinson. Hutchinson shrugged his shoulders. “Well, um, right before we went into the room, wasn’t it?” Starsky said.
“Uh, I don’t remember exactly but I’m pretty sure it was then, yeah,” Hutchinson agreed.
I shook my head. “I was there. You didn’t talk about it at all. You just went in there and did it. Like a psychic connection thing.”
Starsky laughed boisterously. “Yeah, sure. Psychic connection thing. You’re a funny guy, Bob. Sure you work for the LA Times and not the National Enquirer?”
Hutchinson chuckled along with his partner. “Yeah, a real comedian. Psychic thing…” he trailed off, shaking his head incredulously as he reached for the radio microphone to put us back on the air.
The next day they were scheduled to be in court at 8:00 am. It was a perfect opportunity for me to try out another set of detectives. I stopped by Captain Dobey’s office before leaving that night.
He looked up from a pile of files. “Yes? Oh, hello, Mr. McKesson.”
“Bob, please, it’s Bob,” I protested. “Captain, I was wondering if I might have your permission to ride with someone else tomorrow.”
His eyebrows rose. “They managed to alienate you already?”
“Oh, no, nothing like that,” I said quickly. “It’s just that they are supposed to be in court for most of the day tomorrow. I’m looking to make a comparison between them and another set of detectives.” Dobey looked dubious.
“Apparently I’m not invited tomorrow anyway, so it wouldn’t be a big deal,” I added hopefully.
“The ride-along program requires you to stay with one set of officers throughout,” he started out thoughtfully, rubbing his chin. “But I think I can make an exception this once.”
He got up and walked over to his door. “Dalen. Connelly. My office,” he bellowed. I noted with amusement that Dobey seemed to have only two modes of communication: cautious and loud.
The pair came as summoned. I had met them a few times when they chatted up Starsky and Hutchinson in the mornings. They seemed like all right guys, both young and serious.
“You’ve inherited Bob for the day tomorrow. You’re in at 8:00, right?”
“Yes sir,” Connelly replied. “Starsky and Hutch giving you up for the day, Bob?”
“I want to see how the other half lives,” I joked.
Dobey spoke up. “My only request is, you catch up with Starsky and Hutchinson at the end of the day. That way if the brass asks, I can tell them you were with them at some point.”
“Fair enough,” I said.
“See ya tomorrow, Bob,” Connelly said. “Tomorrow,” Dalen echoed. They left the office.
I paused at Dobey’s door. The question that had been nagging me all day came to the forefront. “Hey Captain,” I asked, “Why aren’t I invited to court tomorrow?”
The captain looked at me for a moment, that cautious gaze again. “Remember when I said Starsky’s fiancée had passed away last year?” he said.
“Well, the man who shot her has a sentencing hearing tomorrow. As the arresting officer as well as the woman’s fiancé, he was subpoenaed to testify. This isn’t for your story. I’m only telling you so you’ll not badger Starsky about it tomorrow; he doesn’t need that.”
I was shocked. For the last couple of days, I had seen a man who was focused and energetic, often seeking to buoy the spirits of his moodier partner. There was no sign that something like this was weighing so heavily on his shoulders.
“Detective Sergeant David Starsky is an intensely private man,” Dobey said in answer to my surprised look. “There are things about him that no one knows, except Hutch. And they will close ranks to keep it that way, no matter how long you ride with them.”
Connelly and Dalen didn’t have any big cases on their hands at the moment. We spent the day riding their beat in Dalen’s relatively comfortable Buick. I had ample opportunity to quiz them about Starsky and Hutch.
“How long have you guys known them?”
“Dalen and I have been in homicide for a year and a half, so maybe about that long,” Connelly answered. It was really funny; although both men were quiet, Connelly was apparently the appointed spokesman. He did all the talking, with Dalen driving and nodding vigorously in response to everything his partner said. I guess Starsky and Hutch weren’t the only symbiotic pair in this department.
“You guys hang out after work with the other detectives?”
“Sometimes,” Connelly said. “All of us do, you know, a drink or dinner or whatever.”
“Double-dates?” I joked, not expecting an answer.
Connelly snorted. “Starsky and Hutch go through women and booze like some guys go through handkerchiefs. Even before I got married, that kind of pace woulda killed me.”
“Me too,” Dalen echoed.
“Someone told me Hutch was married once,” I said casually.
“Yeah. My wife knew her, but I never met her.”
“Hmm,” I said noncommittally. Sometimes the best way to get someone talking was to shut up.
“Married him for his dough, I guess, then dumped him when he became a cop.”
Dough? Med school? What did this guy turn his back on, just to be a cop? “What a bitch,” I muttered, shaking my head in sympathy.
“You’re telling me,” he said, having heard my mutter.
“Hey, Ronnie,” Dalen tugged at his partner’s shirtsleeve. “Radio.”
“Gotcha,” Connelly said, picking up the mic to answer a call.
I couldn’t hear very well what came over the radio, but I could hear Connelly’s succinct reply: “10-4, Zebra-10 responding.” With one hand he flipped on the sirens, while with the other he slapped the mars light atop the Buick’s roof.
“What is it?” I asked, seeing the concerned look on his face.
“Another one of those fires. Another body.”
Dalen added nothing to the conversation, but stepped harder on the gas as we zoomed down streets lit by the hazy afternoon sun.
As a long-time features reporter, dead bodies were not a part of my experience. The smell of charred flesh was overwhelming, although it was pointed out to me by the crime lab people that I was probably smelling burned hair, not skin.
“Skin is basically fat,” one of them explained. “Burning fat isn’t that bad. But the hair on the skin, that’s what adds the ‘ick’ factor.”
‘Ick’ was a good word for it. I barely kept my lunch in my stomach as I watched the coroner’s team scoop up the remains of the body for further examination at their lab. Dalen walked around the room, lifting pieces of debris seemingly at random. Connelly talked with the fire investigators.
“Ronnie?” Dalen summoned his partner over to a corner of the room.
Connelly and I made our way to him. Smoke still rose from some of the debris, forcing us to side-step and stumble. Dalen held a blackened piece of…something…in his hand.
Connelly took a closer look, then called the fire investigator over. “Looks like a heroin kit. There’s the syringe, and that may be a spoon?” He gestured at various components of the item in his partner’s hand. Dalen said nothing but nodded vigorous agreement as his partner named different bits and pieces for the investigator.
Connelly’s droning, matter-of-fact voice, combined with the heat, the smell and the overwhelming aura of death was too much for me. I had to rush out, barely avoiding tripping over debris as I made for the exit.
I leaned into a light pole outside, relishing the feeling of cool metal against my forehead. I was in the middle of taking a deep, shuddering breath when I felt someone’s presence behind me.
“You OK?” Connelly asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “I…I just can’t believe you do this every day. For a living, I mean.” My voice shook as I spoke.
“Someone’s gotta do it. Might just as well be us,” he responded. I couldn’t argue with that logic.
I was now ashamed of my rolling stomach, my shaking voice, the weak-kneed feeling that had prompted me to flee the building. But Connelly merely gave me a friendly slap on the shoulder and walked toward the car, where Dalen was waiting.
I turned to follow him, but not before taking a final look at the building where the fire had raged only hours before. The front façade was nearly gone. But a sign posted near the front door could still be read clearly. My stomach renewed its flip-flops as I read what it said.
“This property offered for sale by Bellman Enterprises.”
Connelly and Dalen dropped me at the courthouse, where we had been told the sentencing hearing was wrapping up.
“Thanks guys, it was an enlightening day,” I said.
“No problem. Anytime,” was Connelly’s reply. “Anytime,” Dalen echoed, nodding energetically in agreement.
I entered the courthouse and headed for a large bulletin board, which showed the docket for the day. Earlier in the day I had learned Terry Roberts and George Prudholm’s names from Connelly. It was short work from there to find out where in the building I should go.
People were leaving the courtroom, signaling to me that the hearing was at an end. But before looking for the two detectives, I desperately needed to take a leak. I wandered the halls looking for the bathroom. Turning down one corridor, I spied Starsky and Hutchinson, deep in conversation.
I was about to call out to them when something about their body language made me pause. Starsky turned away from his partner and slapped the wall a couple of times. Frustration dripped from his posture like a dark rain. Hutchinson grabbed his arms from behind and spun him back around so they were face to face. Hand on the back of Starsky’s neck, Hutchinson drew the other man close, whispering something fiercely in his ear. Starsky’s body sagged, the usually confident posture dissolving into his partner’s arms.
I backed out of the corridor without saying a word, feeling like I had no right to intrude.
I had been standing by the Torino for about 15 minutes when the partners came out. Starsky was pale, but the confident swagger was back. Hutch regarded me curiously, a sharp look in his eyes.
I had no intention of bringing up the hearing and adding to Starsky’s pain. Somehow I had to get that message to the blond detective before he tore my head off. I was fast learning that Starsky wasn’t the only protective partner in this relationship. I figured my best bet was to ignore the big pink elephant in the building, as the old saying goes, and instead bring up what I’d seen earlier.
“There was another fire today, and another body.”
“We heard,” Hutchinson said, with something akin to relief in his voice. “Dobey had us paged.”
“I don’t know if it means anything, but there was a ‘For Sale’ sign on the building. By Bellman Enterprises.”
The partners looked at each other. “Let’s go,” Starsky said, running for the driver’s seat. Hutch quickly opened the backseat for me before sliding into the car. We took off with tires screeching.
“What are we doing?” I asked.
Hutchinson’s answer was to pick up the radio mic. “Dispatch, Zebra-3. Get me Minnie.”
“Sure thing, Hutch,” Mildred answered. A few moments later, Minnie was on the line.
“Minnie, Hutch. I need past and present ownership information on all the buildings that burned, and I need it yesterday.”
“Oh darlin’, I’m pretty backed up at the moment.”
“Make it a priority and I promise Starsky will make it up to you.”
Hutchinson grinned at his partner, who had started singing “When I’m Calling You…ooo…ooo” obnoxiously loud.
“Tell Starsky I can hear that. I’ll have it for you in a half hour, and tell your partner I really like Chinese food.”
“10-4 on that Minnie,” Hutchinson answered. I could feel the change in atmosphere in the car. There was a break in the case, and I was privileged enough to be there to see them work it. I flipped to a new page in my notebook, determined not to miss a single nuance of the next several hours.
Technically the partners were off at 5:00 that day, but between the court hearing and the information on Bellman, they were too worked up to quit. So we gathered up our records from Minnie and headed to Starsky’s place to look them over.
Starsky was shedding his court-appropriate tie and sports coat even as he was walking into his apartment. He carefully hung both in a closet. His gun and holster found a home on a hook in there as well. His denim button-down shirt went into the hamper and was replaced by a red t-shirt. He had worn his jeans and sneakers to court. Everything about the apartment showed evidence of the man’s love of cleanliness and order, from the tastefully masculine decorations, to the floor that you could eat from in a pinch. There were even a few plants, probably courtesy of his green-thumbed partner.
By contrast, Hutchinson unceremoniously tossed his holster, nice suit and fashionable tie into a pile on his partner’s bed, and kicked his leather boots into a corner. Dressed in nothing but a t-shirt and boxers, he started rooting through drawers for something.
“It’s in the hamper,” Starsky said from the kitchen, where he was procuring us some beer.
Hutchinson withdrew a blue jogging suit from the hamper in the closet. After a cautious sniff, the suit went on without comment.
Hutchinson took a seat on the couch, drinking from the bottle offered to him. He wiggled his sock-clad toes atop the coffee table. Starsky took up residence on the floor, sitting cross-legged in front of a pile of files. They quickly worked up a rhythm, Starsky skimming the files for the meat, and Hutchinson analyzing the information that his partner fed to him.
After about 20 minutes of this give-and-take, Hutchinson carefully scooted over on the couch, positioning himself so that his partner sat between his knees. The blond detective leaned forward to get a better look at a file, resting his chin on his partner’s curly head. I felt a sudden bite of nostalgia; my brother and I used to watch TV like that.
“See here?” Starsky pointed out. “Bellman Industries used to own the place. Just like the other ones, either they own them or they used to, or a subsidiary did.” He paused for a moment to wiggle his head. “You know your chin is pretty pointy,” he complained.
Hutch cushioned his chin with his hand and continued to lean forward on his partner’s head to read the file. “So it’s not a psycho killing these people,” he commented, his voice slightly muffled by his chin’s limited movement.
“Wait, I don’t understand,” I interrupted. “If it’s not a psycho, then why are they trying to burn these buildings down?”
“Insurance,” the detectives said in unison.
“The hypes are a distraction,” Hutch explained.
“A McMuffin,” Starsky added.
“That’s McGuffin, moron,” Hutch said, gently cuffing his partner upside his head before carefully replacing his hand and chin on their curly perch. “A red herring.”
“McGuffin. Whatever you call it in the movies when Hitchcock throws in something to make you think it was something, when it was really something else,” Starsky said.
I smiled at the explanation. “So what do we do now?” I asked.
“We need the final link,” Starsky said. “Who’s actually killing the hypes and setting the fires.”
“Maybe it’s time for a visit to Uncle James.”
“Good thinking, Ollie.”
All this male-bonding was way too much fun, but I had to get home to my family. “I gotta go guys. When do you plan your visit with James Bellman?”
“Meet us at Metro at 8:00 tomorrow and we’ll get the ball rolling,” Starsky suggested. “Oh yeah, I forgot to ask, how was your day with Dalen and Connelly? Let me guess - Connelly did all the talking.”
We all chuckled at the truth of that statement. “Seriously though,” Starsky said. “Dalen may not say much, but he was analyzing evidence in the womb. And Connelly can see into people’s minds and motivations like no one’s business.”
“I did notice that they got the job done. Maybe not in the way you would have done it, but it got done. They don’t have the psychic thing going on, though,” I teased.
Starsky laughed, while his partner shook a finger at me. “You’ve been listening to Huggy too much,” Hutchinson scolded, an embarrassed smile easing the tired creases from his face. “Get outta here, and we’ll see you tomorrow.”
I left the apartment and got all the way to my car before realizing I’d left my wallet on Starsky’s coffee table. I trudged back upstairs, irritated that I would be late for dinner at home yet again. This assignment was sucking the life out of me.
Starsky’s door was ajar. I was about to walk in, when I heard the voices. Something about their tone stopped me in my tracks. It was somehow different than what I was used to when dealing with these two men.
“He got 30 years for her Starsk, plus another twenty for the other counts. That has got to feel good.”
“It won’t bring her back.”
“Nothing will. We covered that back at the courthouse. So why dwell on it?”
“It’s just that it all came back today. I thought I’d dealt with it. It’s been almost a year for Christ’s sake. I thought I’d dealt with the fucking thing!”
I took another step forward, far enough to see the two men sitting on the couch, legs stretched onto the coffee table, beers in hand. Starsky suddenly pulled his feet up, hugging his knees to his chest. Hutchinson scooted over on the sofa and put an arm around his partner. The brunet sank his head into the other man’s shoulder, while long, nimble hands traced a comforting circuit from curly hair to back.
I couldn’t see Starsky’s face. But I heard the sobs.
“You’ll stay?” It was a heartrending plea from an otherwise strong man.
I’d seen enough. It was time to go; my wallet could wait until tomorrow.
“It was heartbreaking, Linda. Here I was all this time thinking that Starsky was the caretaker of the relationship, especially the first day I met them. But really they take care of each other. It’s like one takes over when the other runs dry.”
“Did you ride with the other partners today?” she asked. We lay in bed reading, her with a romance novel, me with my dog-eared copy of “The New Centurions.”
“Yeah. I learned, among other things, that my guys have a real reputation as hard-drinking ladies’ men. But I can’t believe that, after what I saw today. Starsky is wrecked, and it’s been almost a year.”
“He may find a certain comfort in going from woman to woman, with no expectations. He’s probably a little scared of loving again.”
“Sounds like a bunch of Harlequin Romance bullshit to me,” I said. I affected a high-pitched voice. “Oh, my dear, I’m scared of lovin’ agin,” I squeaked.
Linda grimaced and threw her book at me. “I’m just giving my opinion. Take it or leave it. I’m telling you though, from what you describe, they love each other as much as any married couple.”
“That Huggy Bear guy called it a sexless romance,” I mused.
“That would certainly stand to reason. They go to the women for the sex, but get the emotional aspect of a relationship from each other.”
I shook my head. “We’re talking about a couple of hard-assed cops here. I don’t think they look at it that deeply. As far as they are concerned, being partners means looking out for each other’s safety…and that includes emotional safety, I guess.”
Linda shrugged and retrieved her book from where it had landed at the foot of the bed. I thumbed through “The New Centurions,” eventually landing on a passage where the veteran officer Gus tells a rookie why police are slow to trust outsiders.
“We see people when they are taking anything of value from other people and when they are without shame or very much ashamed and we learn secrets that their husbands and wives don’t even know, secrets that they even try to keep from themselves, and what the hell, when you learn these things about people… well then, you really know. Of course you get clannish and associate with others who know. It’s only natural.”
Starsky knew as he watched his fiancée’s killer be sentenced. Hutch knew as he was nearly crippled by a car. Connelly and Dalen knew as they worked around the body in the burned-out building, its limbs like charred tree branches, its skull shrunk and blackened by heat. For a brief time I had known too, long enough to know that I didn’t want to know anymore.
As we drove to Bellman Enterprises the next morning, I asked the question foremost on my mind. “Do you think James Bellman knows Johnny is in the drug business?”
“I would be really surprised if he didn’t know. On the other hand, we’ve learned to never assume anything in this business,” Hutchinson said.
“Yeah,” Starsky agreed. “We once released a sweet little old lady with a pet poodle, cane, lace hanky and everything, only to find out she’d killed her whole family and a neighbor too. Now we suspect everyone, all the time.”
I didn’t believe the old lady story for a minute, but I got the idea. “It’s hard to trust people, huh?” I asked, thinking back to the book I was reading last night.
“Gets to where all you can trust is each other,” Starsky confirmed. I nodded. Now I understood.
We pulled up to an industrial park on the outskirts of town. It appeared that Bellman Enterprises occupied the whole thing. Starsky steered the Torino to a likely looking building and we got out.
Once inside, we encountered a secretary in the lobby. “James Bellman. I called earlier. Starsky and Hutchinson. We have an appointment,” Hutchinson said. I noticed he spoke with a suave, matter-of-fact tone, rather unlike his usual demeanor. It was obvious that he knew how to use his apparent upper-class upbringing to his advantage, as the secretary quickly sized up the blond and reached for the phone.
As far as I knew, we didn’t have an appointment. But I was proved wrong as we were shown into a waiting room.
“When did we get an appointment?” I asked.
“Hutch called this morning and dropped the name of a local architecture firm,” Starsky said with an evil grin.
“Why can’t we just tell him we…I mean you…are cops?”
“Because he’d suddenly, miraculously, not be available for us. Even if he doesn’t know anything, these business bigwigs usually find time to disappear when the law shows up,” Starsky explained.
The secretary summoned us to James Bellman’s office. I hovered by the doorway, out of the way, while the detectives moved forward.
“Mr. Bellman,” Hutchinson said, taking the lead. He reached out for the man’s hand. Bellman hesitated before shaking it. He appeared to be in his mid-60’s, gray-haired with streaks of darker brown, a sharp jaw line and gray eyes.
“I’m sorry, I don’t recognize you from the firm,” he said cautiously.
“That’s because we are not from the firm,” Hutchinson confirmed. “Detectives Starsky and Hutchinson, Metro Division. We are investigating a series of murders and we need to ask you some questions.”
The detectives flashed their badges. Wow, right into it, I thought. This was nothing like the interrogation of Louie Minelli.
“I don’t understand,” said Bellman.
“Your nephew Johnny’s name has come up in connection with our investigation. I need you to tell me what his position is with your company.” Hutchinson’s voice had retained its blue-blooded tone, and I fully expected that Bellman would answer the question. I was not disappointed.
“He works with our overseas vendors as a liaison,” Bellman confirmed. “Johnny is involved in a murder investigation? Would you mind explaining?”
“I can’t get into details on that just yet, Mr. Bellman,” Hutchinson said. “But I can tell you that, with your help, we will be able to clear your nephew’s name quickly.”
“But yes, of course,” said the older man. He was being surprisingly helpful. I wondered if this meant that he wasn’t involved. He was pleasant enough, and I found myself hoping that he wasn’t.
“We need help establishing his whereabouts on certain nights. Are you close with him? Do you spend much time with him?” Hutchinson asked.
“It depends on the day of the week, and whether or not I’m traveling. Or if he is, on my behalf. But yes, I’d say we spend plenty of time together. I was very close to his mother, my sister, before she died. I practically raised him. I’m sure this is all a mistake.”
“Do you have the time to sit with us and go over some dates?” Hutch’s voice was all charming, smooth persuasion. I expected him to whip out a cigar any minute and order up a scotch on the rocks.
“Actually gentlemen, I have a meeting with my accountant in about 15 minutes. If you could come back this afternoon, say, around 2:00 pm, I’ll have my secretary clear my schedule.”
“That works, Mr. Bellman. Thank you for your cooperation.”
“And thank you for coming to me. I’m sure we can clear up this misunderstanding right away.”
The detectives started for the door. Starsky paused, and spoke up for the first time since we entered the office. “Mr. Bellman sir, do you know where your nephew is this morning?”
“It just so happens that I do,” James Bellman replied. “He works paid-on-call for the Pittsfield Fire Department. His hobby, we call it. He had a shift scheduled this morning, and I imagine that’s where he is now.”
Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod. My heart beat a rapid staccato against my ribcage. This thing was wrapping up before my very eyes. I was so excited I could barely listen to the men sitting in the front seat. I was on the front lines, privy to the investigation and possible solution of a murder case!
Funny though, Starsky and Hutchinson didn’t seem to share my excitement.
“You thinkin’ what I’m thinkin’?” Starsky asked his partner. I was surprised he had to ask, given their apparent ability to read each other’s thoughts.
“That it was too easy,” Hutchinson replied.
“Way too easy,” Starsky agreed.
“So what do we do about it?”
“Put in a call to Pittsfield?”
“Talk to Dobey?”
“Goes without saying.”
“Arrange back-up for this afternoon?”
“You think so?”
I broke into their conversation. “You really think he’s that dangerous? He seemed like a nice old guy to me.”
“It’s the nice ones you have to watch out for,” Starsky said. “They’ll screw you every time.”
Back at the detectives’ desk, I fed spare change to the partners’ piggybank, while Starsky talked on the telephone with Pittsfield Fire Department. Pittsfield was a small suburb with both volunteer and part-time firefighters. Apparently Johnny Bellman was one of the part-timers.
“Thank you, Chief, for your cooperation. And if you could not talk about this with the guys, especially Bellman, I’d appreciate it… OK…we’ll be in touch.” Starsky hung up the phone.
“I got a list of dates that Bellman worked over the past few months. Let’s match ‘em up.”
Hutch pulled out the list of dates of the deadly fires. Two heads, light and dark, leaned over the list, shoulder-to-shoulder. Hutchinson stabbed at the paper with his finger. “There you go, Starsk. There, there, there-- he was off for all of ‘em!”
The two men got up and went into Captain Dobey’s office, bursting in unannounced. Starsky kicked the door closed with his foot, prompting an exasperated, “Knock it off, Starsky!” from his superior.
Hutchinson sat in a chair. Starsky claimed the arm of that chair, practically perched on his partner’s shoulder. I followed them in and claimed the other chair, sick of always having to hover.
“OK, so this is what we got, Cap,” Starsky explained, ticking off points on his fingers. “We’ve got a bunch of hypes dead in fires. We’ve got all the fires, set by an apparent expert, in buildings linked to Bellman Enterprises. We got the nephew of Bellman’s founder working as a drug connection for one of the victims, a victim who happened to double-cross the nephew. And we’ve got the nephew’s favorite hobby as a part-time firefighter.”
I knew that Dobey was already aware of most of these details; Starsky seemed to be repeating them to blow off steam as much as anything else.
“Oh, and an FYI Cap, we got a bunch of this from Louie Minelli, Stryker’s old middle man,” Hutchinson said.
I was surprised to see Dobey flinch at this information. “Stryker. It’s always Stryker, damn it. The man is gone, Elmo’s dead, and he’s still…” Dobey paused and took a deep breath. Yet another story I was probably never going to hear.
“Well that’s neither here nor there,” Dobey said, looking at me warily. “You talked to the uncle this morning?” he asked the detectives.
“Yeah. We’ve got another appointment with him this afternoon to go over some details. We’ve confirmed that the nephew, Johnny Bellman, was not on duty at the fire department when the fires were set. What we haven’t confirmed is if he was working for his uncle at the time.”
He didn’t need to tell me: if Johnny was working for his uncle at the time of the fires, that would be an almost airtight alibi given his uncle’s position in the community.
“Motive?” Dobey asked.
“It’s gotta be insurance, or something like that,” Starsky said. “Except when he offed Miguel. That was his mistake.”
“Cap, a nutjob serial killer wouldn’t be choosing his buildings so carefully. There are too many coincidences. I can feel it in my bones,” Hutchinson added.
Dobey considered for a moment, doodling aimlessly on a scratchpad. Coming to a decision, he tossed his pencil on the desk. “OK. Good enough for me. Get what you can from the uncle this afternoon, and we’ll go to the DA for the nephew when you get back.”
“One other thing, Cap. The uncle may be on the up-and-up. But something’s got our Spidey-senses tingling. Could we arrange for a couple of black-and-whites to be near the industrial park when we interview the uncle, just in case?” Starsky requested.
Hutchinson shook his head; I could tell that he thought his partner was being a little overcautious. But he didn’t verbalize those feelings, probably figuring better safe than sorry.
“I’ll see what I can do,” Dobey responded, picking up the phone.
The detectives began to walk out of their superior’s office. I followed close behind. They were stopped short by Dobey’s voice.
“Yeah, Cap?” they replied in unison, turning to face their boss.
“When aren’t we?” Starsky said with a shit-eating grin. Dobey chuckled ruefully as we left his office.
It was the first time I had really understood the old cliché about cutting tension with a knife. I really felt like I could have done so as the detectives and I walked back into Bellman’s building that afternoon. Before we left the car, they had given me the game plan.
“OK, Bob,” Starsky began. “We didn’t bother introducing you last time since we weren’t there long. This time we’ll probably have to, so we’ll make up some bullshit excuse for your presence. Don’t say a word, and play along with whatever we say or do. Stay close to the door, look menacing, and don’t sit down even if he invites you to.”
“If one of us asks you to go back to the car for some files, that’s your cue to get the hell out,” Hutchinson said. “Drive the Torino back to the road - the keys are in it - and signal the black-and-whites. You got all that?”
“Yes,” I said breathlessly. Just like he had at the range the other day, Starsky pulled his gun from his holster, checked the clip, chambered a round and slipped the safety off. Hutchinson checked out his weapon as well before putting it back in his holster.
“You really think all this is necessary?” I asked, voice shaking. I was having second thoughts about that release I had signed.
“Probably not,” Hutchinson said, patting my shoulder reassuringly. “But your wife would be pretty pissed off if we got you killed by not preparing for all possibilities.”
I chuckled uncomfortably. My wife would probably be pissed right now anyway if she saw me in the presence of two armed police sergeants on the alert. I quickly removed that idea from my head and focused back on the matter at hand.
In Bellman’s office, I took up my position at the door. I crossed my arms in front of my chest, and tried to look mean. I’m not convinced I pulled it off, but I tried for the sake of the detectives to radiate an air of confident menace.
“Hello, gentlemen,” James Bellman said, walking in after us. “Have a seat,” he gestured at the chairs in front of his desk.
“Thank you,” Hutchinson answered, sitting down. Starsky followed suit. I remained at the door.
“I don’t think we introduced our colleague, Bob Smith, to you last time we were here. He’s assisting us in this investigation,” Starsky explained.
Smith. That wasn’t an obvious alias, huh? I held back a snicker.
“Mr. Smith,” Bellman acknowledged. I gave a little shrug and wave, feeling like a dope. I wasn’t all that sure what to do with my hands, as I alternated between keeping them in and out of my pockets.
Starsky winked at me, and turned back to Bellman. “As my partner explained before, we have a list of dates that we need to research, to see if Johnny was working for you those days. Just part of the routine, you understand.”
“Yes indeed,” Bellman answered.
Starsky, Hutchinson and the older man went over the dates, Bellman frequently referring to a calendar at his desk as well as some files piled nearby. From what I could hear, it appeared that Johnny was “out of town” for all of the dates in question.
“You must understand gentlemen, that as a liaison to my foreign vendors, Johnny often travels overseas,” Bellman explained. How handy, I thought cynically. It would be easy to verify Johnny’s whereabouts on a domestic trip but, conveniently, almost impossible on a foreign trip.
“And you must understand, Mr. Bellman, that without confirmation of Johnny’s whereabouts on those days, he becomes a top suspect in a gruesome murder case.”
“Yes, I understand,” Bellman said, obviously irritated. “I read the papers. I know you are investigating the deaths of those unfortunate drug addicts in the fires. Rest assured that Johnny has nothing to do with any of that sordid business.”
“Mr. Bellman,” Hutchinson said, “Johnny has been directly linked to at least one of the victims. And I hesitate to point out, all of the buildings in question either are, or were, owned by you.”
Bellman paled slightly. “I think this interview is over,” he said. “Get out. My attorney will be contacting you.”
“Fair enough,” Starsky said. He leaned over the man’s desk, staring intently into the gray eyes. “But Mr. Bellman, we’ll be talking to your nephew next. And if get a whiff, even an inkling, that you are involved, rest assured we’ll be right back in this office with an arrest warrant.”
I jumped back as Starsky suddenly stalked out the door, followed by Hutchinson and myself. As the door closed, Starsky grabbed me, a hand over my mouth. Hutchinson did the same with the secretary before she could even squeak a word. We listened through the closed door as James Bellman picked up the phone.
“Johnny, it’s Uncle Jim. Get out of here. Take the access road behind the industrial park. I can’t explain now, Johnny. Just do it… Oh Johnny, I don’t know what you’re into, but just get out now.”
The detectives were out the door like a shot, leaving me trailing behind at a much slower pace, and the shocked secretary sitting stiffly at her desk.
“Now would be a really good time to get those files, Bob,” Starsky yelled over his shoulder.
I understood, and ran toward the car. I hopped behind the wheel and skidded off toward the main road. The damn thing was way over-torqued, and in the rear-view mirror, I saw a cloud of dust behind me. Pulling up next to a squad car, I waved madly until one of the officers rolled down his window to speak to me.
“They’re chasing a suspect now. Behind the main building, on the access road,” I managed to blurt out. The officers took off, and I followed them back into the parking lot. Getting out of our cars, we heard gunshots.
“You, stay here,” one of the officers snapped at me. I was all too willing to comply as they ran off behind the buildings.
I heard more gunshots. I wondered who was doing the shooting. Curiosity got the better of me. I crept, legs shaking like jello, toward the vicinity of the shooting.
Once I got behind the building, it all became clear. A frightened man with dark brown hair and the Bellman jaw crouched behind a dumpster, a gun in his hand. Starsky knelt behind a truck tire, aiming his weapon toward Johnny Bellman. Hutchinson was creeping alongside a semi-truck, in an effort to get behind the gunman. I could only imagine what that movement was doing for his back. I crouched behind the uniformed officers, wondering what was going to happen next.
At that moment, Johnny started shooting. I heard a pop and hiss as a bullet found its mark on the tire Starsky was hidden behind. The officers opened fire, causing the gunman to take cover again behind his dumpster.
“Shit! What did I tell ya?” Starsky yelled as he scooted behind another tire.
“OK, remind me when we come out of this alive that you were right!” Hutchinson hollered back. He continued to maneuver closer to the suspect.
“Johnny,” Starsky called out. “Give yourself up. We know you set the fires.”
Another voice range out. “Johnny!” It was the voice of James Bellman. “Give yourself up, boy. I’m not angry. I just want you to be safe.”
My head practically swiveled on my neck. The old man stood out in the open, calling to the son of his beloved sister. “Whatever you did Johnny, I’m sure you did it for the best of the firm. We can talk Johnny. We can fix this.”
Johnny’s voice echoed through the lot. “I burned down the buildings, Uncle Jim,” he said. I winced at the confession; he could not have sounded more pathetic.
“I’m sure we can work something out Johnny,” the older Bellman said. “Give yourself up.”
“I did it for you. You raised me. Took me in when Mom died. I wanted you to be proud of me. Those buildings, they weren’t gonna sell. The neighborhoods were changing. Burning them down was the best way to collect the insurance.”
The old man’s voice caught in his throat. It sounded almost like a sob. “J-Johnny,” he said, “I would have written them off. I would have broken even.”
“What about the drugs, Johnny? Tell him about the drugs,” Starsky called out.
Johnny hesitated. “It’s OK, Johnny,” James Bellman said. “Nothing you say will keep me from loving you like my own son.”
“I was using the drug money to buy up real estate of my own. I wanted to start my own business. To f-f-follow in Uncle Jim’s footsteps.”
I listened, fascinated, as Johnny confirmed what the detective partners had suspected all along.
“But… I was leaving it all to you anyway, Johnny. It was going to all go to you,” his uncle said. He moved closer to his nephew, reaching out a hand. “Come with me, Johnny. We’ll work this out. Put down the gun and come with me.”
James Bellman inched even closer. Johnny Bellman moved his gun hand to point his weapon at his own head. “I’m s-s-sorry, Uncle Jim,” he said.
What happened next is imbedded in my memory forever. It was like slow-motion: the old man leapt toward his nephew and started wrestling with the gun. Starsky jumped at the old man. Hutch dove at the gunman. The officers who stood with me sprinted toward the fray.
A shot went off. All four men were on the ground. And time stood still.
Eventually a voice broke into my paralysis. “You moron, he could have killed you!” It was a frantic Detective Hutchinson. The mist lifted from my brain and I saw that the uniform officers had a struggling Johnny Bellman down on the ground. Old Man Bellman was sitting on the pavement nursing his elbow. Starsky sat beside him, holding his left hand with his right. Blood dripped from between his fingers.
“You fucking moron!”
“You are making my hand hurt more by yelling at me, Hutch,” the curly-headed detective whined.
“I don’t care. You deserve it. You just took 20 years off my life.” Hutchinson practically paced a furrow into the pavement, one hand gripping his lower back. He pointed a finger at his partner.
“You…you…” he blustered, waving the finger.
“Don’t you point that finger at me. Shut up and help me up,” Starsky said.
Hutchinson hooked a hand under his partner’s arm and helped him up off the pavement.
“Here, let me see that,” he said gruffly, examining the bloody hand. “Jeez, you did a number on it.”
“I think the bullet skimmed across the top.” Starsky smiled contritely at his partner.
“Yeah, prob’ly,” Hutch replied. His expression softened. “C’mon dummy, let’s get that looked it.”
They walked together toward the Torino, Hutchinson’s arm across Starsky’s shoulder, gripping him tightly. Once again, I didn’t exist.
I never let my subjects read my stories before they are published. I don’t want my writing influenced by any friendships I might develop. But that rule has never applied to my wife, who has proofed every longer feature I have ever written. As a former high school English teacher, she often has insights that are helpful to me.
She sat curled up on the couch a few weeks after the shooting, reading my draft story for the Times on Detectives Starsky and Hutchinson, all five parts of it. Occasionally she picked up a red pen and scrawled a comment or edit mark. But mostly she just read, silently. It was rare that I could keep her quiet through this process; I wondered if it was my writing this time around, or the subject matter.
She put down the papers and turned to me. “So he’s already back to work?” she asked.
“Yeah. He’s got some tendon damage. But he was at the range just the other day, proving to Hutch that he can shoot just as well right-handed. I think they’ll do just fine.”
“You still harbor any boyhood fantasies about cops and robbers?”
“No more. I’m happy to sit behind a typewriter and write fluff features for the rest of my life.”
“I’m glad. Just reading about it frightened me.” She chewed on the end of her red pen. “I made a few comments, flipped a few things around. Nothing big. At least you could tell the difference between ‘its’, ‘it’s’, ‘their’ and ‘there’ this time.”
I smiled. It was an old joke between us, my lack of grammar skills.
“There’s just one thing,” she said.
“I’ve circled a few parts that, um, I think should come out. Parts that make them sound, kinda, um, well, I can’t really describe, it but it’s not like a gay thing. It’s more like…” she trailed off.
“It’s like they’re a little too dependent on each other,” I finished her thought. “I worried about that too. It’s the best part of the story. But I’m not sure I can tell it.”
I sat next to her on the couch, arm around her shoulder, remembering how Hutchinson had held Starsky close on the sofa the night after the sentencing hearing. I hadn’t wanted to intrude.
And I didn’t want to intrude on them now. Splashing their unique relationship all over the L.A. Times would be invasive, and risked exposing them to the raised eyebrows of their superiors. I took the papers from my wife’s hand and headed back to my typewriter, ready to permanently edit from the public record the proof of two men forever bonded by mutual affection and love.