The Trouble With Normal
“The trouble with normal is it always gets worse”
Hutch always looked first. Starsky wasn’t sure when this pattern got established. Early on, probably, when they were still green to each other, and habits got pressed into the still-soft ground and solidified and then got worn around the edges with use so that he couldn’t really see them anymore, even when he followed the contours every day. Eight times out of ten it was Hutch who stopped the attendants, or the coroner’s pick-up guys with their stretchers on the way to the ambulance (on the good days) or the wagon (on the bad days). It was Hutch who crouched beside the vague shape on the asphalt or the grass and lifted the edge of the sheet to look under. It wasn’t like Starsky deliberately held back. He looked, too, as long and as hard as Hutch did when he had his turn. But somehow Hutch wound up looking first, the way Hutch went high and Starsky went low at a bust-in.
Starsky could tell from the way the angle of Hutch’s head changed, from curious and assessing to something softer and worn and resigned, that it was bad. There wasn’t enough room for the both of them in the cramped space behind the boiler, so Hutch went first. Hutch had to shimmy in against the wall and slide down gingerly so he could pull back the sheet, twist his neck so he could get a good look at the face, and that’s when the angles changed and Starsky winced and braced himself. Hutch put the sheet back carefully and stayed there perfectly still for a minute at least with his hands hanging between his knees, his gaze on the side of the boiler. It was hot in there, but he stayed until Starsky said, “Hutch,” making him blink and snap his head around like he didn’t know that Starsky was there, like always, three feet away.
Starsky waited until Hutch levered himself upright again, which wasn’t easy with nothing to hold onto except a boiler and a body, and edged out into the more open space of the boiler room.
Hutch nodded and rubbed his eyes, swiped the sweat off his face. “A kid. A girl. Maybe seventeen.” He looked over Starsky’s shoulder at nothing, maybe the pipes snaking along the ceiling of the basement or the doorway with the stairs going up into the kitchen where volunteers were already clanging pots and pans because people had to eat, no matter what was curled up in the boiler room. “Damn,” he said softly and ran his hand over his face again.
Leaving him there to watch the attendants maneuver the stretcher down the narrow stairwell, Starsky went to take his own look. Seventeen seemed about right. Blonde hair once in a ponytail but now snarled and tangled around the elastic. Plump face too white and doll-like, a little bow mouth and long lashes casting shadows around eyes that were once green, maybe, or gray, before they’d glazed over. Her hands were folded under her chin like she was praying. Her wrists were tied with a wide blue ribbon, a perfect bow over the knots. Starsky folded back the sheet a little more to expose a high school jacket with JHS embroidered on the breast, blue jeans zipped up and buttoned. No blouse or T-shirt under the jacket that he could see. Her feet were bare.
When Starsky shuffled out to make way for the coroner’s guys, Hutch was still standing in the same place. He’d stopped staring and was making notes, head bowed low over his notebook as he scribbled with a stub of pencil, laying barbed wire between his reason and his imagination, the letters all sharp on the tops of the loops, facts snared. His fingertips were white, he was pressing down so hard.
“JHS, that’s Jackson High School, right?” he asked without looking up.
“We’re a long way from Bel Plaine.”
Behind them the attendants were pulling the body out of the narrow space.
“She’s a long way from home,” Hutch said, snapping his notebook shut and stuffing it in the pocket of his shirt.
“And on the wrong side of the tracks.”
Nodding again, Hutch watched the attendants, his face showing nothing. One of them took a long stride over the body and leaned down to get his hands under the girl’s shoulders while the other lifted her under the knees. Her fogged eyes stared at them. Hutch’s hands opened and then closed tight at his sides before he stuffed them in his pockets. Starsky knew the feeling exactly. It seemed wrong, closing her up in the black bag with her eyes still open like that. Soon enough, though, she’d be hidden away, at least until the coroner sent up his file. Then there’d be more details than anybody wanted. And fewer than they needed. Connect-the-dots with half the numbers missing. As they followed the stretcher in its slow progress up the stairs and into the kitchen, Starsky wondered if she’d been placed behind the boiler with her hands folded that way on purpose, and what it meant, and how many beers it would take to make the picture fade enough so he could sleep.
In the kitchen, a heavyset grandma-type with a long braid of graying hair was kneading dough at the counter. Another almost identical woman—her braid was wound up in a bun on her head instead of hanging down her back—was stirring an enormous pot on the stove, and a third was chopping carrots so fast her knife was a blur. They all stopped at the same time and turned to watch the passing stretcher with carbon copy expressions of curiosity and compassion on their worn-out faces. Then the first one sucked her teeth and shook her head, exchanging with her sisters a look of sadness and resignation before going back to work. The mission dining room was visible through the serving counter window. It was already half full of hungry men, and the bread wasn’t even in the oven yet.
Starsky thumbed the elevator button again and leaned back to look at the numbers over the door. None of them were lit up. With a sigh, Hutch turned and headed for the stairs, elbowed the door open and waved Starsky ahead of him.
“Not exactly the Bel Plaine they show in the brochures,” Starsky said. He kept his pace even. The twelfth floor was a long way away.
“I suppose the gardeners and the cooks and the school teachers gotta live somewhere,” Hutch answered as he trudged along behind him.
The spit-and-polish world of trimmed hedges in the shape of chess pieces and winding driveways with monogrammed gates, that was front side, boulevard side. This was the backside of the good neighborhood, the part you usually saw from the train. The low rent annex: gray apartment buildings and bungalows squatting in narrow lots, brown lawns and laundry on the line. Starsky had relaxed into the familiarity of it the minute they pulled into the cracked and faded lot and parked next to a VW microbus painted in rust primer.
But as they climbed higher the tension came back, his hands and his spine responding to a different kind of familiarity. He wondered how many times he’d made this walk already. Hutch was quiet back there, his feet falling in time with Starsky’s, beat for beat.
They didn’t have to say the words. Anita Spender’s mother knew the second they pulled out their badges and said Anita’s name. Still they were obliged to say it, and Hutch did it, leaving out the details. Beverley Spender stood in the doorway with a dishtowel in her hands, listening, and slowly, behind the expression of slightly baffled politeness, the life drained out of her face. It was like watching somebody do a fade into a dark room. Going, going, gone. And that was what Hutch called “the blank,” and Starsky thought of as the train wreck. It was the moment when someone’s brain derailed, came up against something they couldn’t think past or through and everything crumpled against it, turned to twisted shapes, and when the brain disengaged, the face didn’t know what to do. The blank. He could see it in his own head when it happened to Beverley Spender: the wreck and the tracks still gleaming and leading straight on into the truth of it.
Usually people’s bodies reacted before their minds did. Starsky had seen some weird things over the years. Sometimes you told a parent that their girl or little boy was dead and they’d laugh. They’d laugh right in your face and that was the train wreck, the sound of collision. He’d seen a father fold double like he’d been kicked in the chest. Lots of times people stepped backward, held their hands out like the truth was coming at them teeth and claws out of the fog. Starsky almost expected to see defensive wounds on their forearms. He’d told Hutch that one time, and Hutch’d nodded and said, “Stigmata.” Starsky had looked that up and felt the word stabbing through his hands for days after.
More than once, a mother or a father had punched him in the face. The first time he’d deflected the blow by reflex. After, he’d learned to stand still.
Beverley Spender blinked finally and said, “Would you like coffee?” She turned like somebody was pulling strings and walked stiffly through the living room without looking to see if they were following.
The apartment was tidy, thrift-shop furniture chosen to match more-or-less, a knitted blanket folded over the fraying upholstery of a chair. Otherwise the place was cozy and plain except for the flowers on the end table and lots of photos on the wall over the sofa. Hutch examined them while Starsky watched Mrs. Spender moving around the kitchen like a blind person in unfamiliar territory.
“She was a pretty girl,” Hutch said. He pointed at a picture of Anita poised on a diving board ready to tip off into a swan dive or some kind of crazy somersault. She didn’t look scared at all. Next to that one was another of her holding flowers and a medal. The smile was wide enough to crack the frame.
“Bad luck for her,” Starsky answered.
When Hutch repeated that, his voice dropped off to a whisper like water falling over a cliff.
She couldn’t have heard them, but it seemed like cause and effect when Mrs. Spender lurched back into real time again. The empty coffee mugs slipped from her hands and smashed on the floor. She was heading after them, falling in slow motion, but Hutch was fast—long legs were an asset—and caught her before she could slice her legs or hands up on the broken pieces. He held her while Starsky got a chair behind her knees and together they eased her down. Hutch murmured, “I know, I know,” in that voice he’d use when someone was bleeding and the ambulance was still a long way off, and like a bleeding person, she groped in the air for some kind of purchase. People would hang on to the world when they felt themselves sliding away from it on the inside. Starsky had been surprised more than once to find hand-shaped bruises on his arms from time to time, because he never felt it when it was happening. Now, in Beverley Spender’s sunny kitchen, Hutch let her twist his collar in her fist and pull him down into a crouch in front of her so that she could search his face. Her dark eyes were dry. She wasn’t all the way back yet. Sometimes the tears could take days.
Her mouth moved around the questions, trying to find the one that meant the most. But they all meant the most, so no sound came out at all.
“We don’t know who did it yet,” Hutch said, keeping his eyes on hers, unflinching. She nodded. “We don’t know anything yet. But we will.” She nodded again, maybe a mechanical response to his voice, maybe a gesture of faith. “We need to ask some questions.” Another nod. “About who saw her last. Who she was hanging out with. Where she went.” He unwound her fingers from his shirt and backed himself up so he could swing another chair around and sit down to face her. “Do you think you can help us?” Hutch waited for another nod and then met Starsky’s eyes over her shoulder. “I got her for now.”
As he looked around the living room for a phone, Starsky listened with one ear to the soft insistence of Hutch’s voice, the hesitant sound of Mrs. Spender coming back to the world one sentence at a time. The phone was on a table in the hallway, and while he waited to be connected to the duty officer, he leaned around to check out the rooms on either side of the hall. One was obviously mom’s room, laundry piled neatly on the bed waiting to be put away. The other was Anita’s. It was plain like the rest of the apartment, but it was a teenaged girl’s room, no doubt about it. The unicorn poster alone cinched it, even without the bed overflowing with stuffed animals and the open closet and dresser drawers spilling socks and the floor decorated with rejected outfits.
He’d finished requesting someone to come collect Mrs. Spender to take her to the morgue and was reciting the address of the apartment complex when something in the jumble caught his eye. On the back of the closet door was a dress. Lots of frills around the shoulders, lacy bits. Fancy. After dropping the phone back in the cradle, he walked in and fingered the material. The dress was still in the process of being made. Pins held it together in places. Around the waist was a wide sash of blue ribbon.
“It’s her prom dress. We’re making it together,” Mrs. Spender said. She was in the doorway, clutching her sweater close to her throat.
“It’s very pretty.”
She smiled and the glitter in her eyes was just the far side of normal, too edgy, like a reflection in a cracked mirror. “She doesn’t like it much, but she wouldn’t say so.”
Hutch appeared behind her and Starsky held the end of the ribbon up so he could see.
“Do you have any more of this ribbon?” Hutch asked her, and then stepped back so she could go around him to the living room. When she was gone, Hutch came closer and ran a finger over the cloth in Starsky’s hand. “Well,” he said. “So maybe he knew her.”
Before Starsky could go on, Mrs. Spender was back, empty-handed. “I’m sorry. I had a whole yard of it left but it’s not there now.”
Hutch darted a glance Starsky’s way. “Would she have had any of this ribbon with her?”
Mrs. Spender frowned and then shook her head. “I don’t see why. She didn’t like it.” A hand waved vaguely toward the living room. “The extra was in my sewing basket the other day.”
“Which day?” Starsky asked. “Can you remember?”
Another frown. “Sunday?” She narrowed her eyes at him. “Why?”
Hutch stepped in. “We’re not sure just yet.”
Mrs. Spender looked at him for a few seconds too long, enough for him to shift his weight uncomfortably, and then turned her glassy gaze to the dress. Her hand fluttered across the front of it, straightening the ruffles Starsky had disturbed, but her expression was puzzled and dark, like horrified was just a little way down the tracks. Starsky could see it coming as her mouth hardened with the realization that they’d turned the prom dress into evidence, and the room suddenly felt wrong, crowded with him and Hutch in there. Starsky backed into the hallway as she took a pair of small scissors out of her apron pocket and began to snip the stitching with sharp, efficient strokes.
“Take it.” She tore the last few stitches free with a yank and held the ribbon out to Hutch. “Anita doesn’t—Anita didn’t want it, anyway. She thinks it made her look like a little girl.”
It took twenty minutes for the uniforms to show up. In the meantime, Hutch poured coffee and kept asking questions in that low voice, taking notes without looking too much like he was taking notes. Mrs. Spender almost seemed normal when she answered him, except for the hitches in her sentences where the verbs were all wrong, where she worked on putting her kid in the past tense. No, Anita hadn’t said anything about anyone bothering her or following her. No, she didn’t have a boyfriend. She’d never had a boyfriend. She was going to go to the prom with her girlfriends. Yes, she took the bus into the city to volunteer at the hospital. Yes, the one near the All Saints Mission. Yes, sometimes she got a ride home from friends at the hospital. No, she never stayed out late. Never. Swim practice was at six in the morning.
Mrs. Spender turned the coffee cup in her hands. Around and around.
Starsky asked, and then took the photo of Anita and her medal off the wall and slipped it out of the frame. By then the uniforms were there.
When he and Hutch were on their way out, Mrs. Spender caught Hutch by the sleeve. She looked up at him from her seat at the table, and still there were no tears. She said, “What do I do now?”
The uniforms who canvassed the street and the mission and the hospital had been thorough. That translated into a stack of paper about two feet high. With a sigh, Starsky rested his temple on his fist and slid another report off the pile. He and Hutch had already been through everything flagged as promising. Now they were working through the rest of it, since promising wasn’t all that promising. Out there in the city where traffic was backing up and bars were filling with happy hour customers, cops were still tracking down friends and teachers, orderlies, supervisors, bus drivers, and winos. So far it all added up to nothing, nothing, and nothing with a side order of not much at all. Anita Spender was well-liked, studied hard, worked out with the swim team three mornings a week, volunteered at the hospital Mondays and Saturdays, never missed a class, never got detention, never had a bad word to say to anyone, never had a brush with the law until the day she turned up under a sheet in the basement of the mission and Hutch sitting over her with the thousand-yard stare.
“So,” Hutch said, throwing another file into the growing stack at his elbow and leaning way back in his chair to stretch his back and rub his eyes. “What are you thinking?”
“I’m thinking that cases like these make me miss the crime lords and the hypes.” At Hutch’s grunt, Starsky looked up at him. “They make sense.”
“This guy makes sense. We just don’t know what kind yet.”
“See? Progress.” Hutch quit the eye-rubbing to take another folder from the clerk, dropped it in front of himself and flipped it open.
“What kind of crazy is the question.” Starsky really hated having to think his way down that list. It gave him the creeps in his spine. Not to mention the fact that the list had about fifty different categories, not counting creative variations, and that wasn’t exactly normal stuff for a normal guy to have to carry around in his head. He wondered, not for the first time, whether it could eat through the strong box he kept it in.
Absorbed in reading the file, Hutch didn’t answer. Scanning quickly, he thumbed his way forward until he came to the glossy photos and his fingers stumbled to a stop. His jaw tightened and the muscles in Starsky’s back automatically twisted a little tighter.
“What?” Starsky leaned closer but couldn’t make out what Hutch was staring at. “What is it?”
“Coroner’s report.” Hutch met his eyes and then tossed the file across his desk onto Starsky’s where some of the sheets fanned out and the photos spilled over the side onto the floor. “She died of alcohol poisoning. Red wine and vodka to be exact.”
Starsky stopped in the middle of gathering up the photos to say, “What?” and then sat up with the messy pile on his lap. He straightened them without looking at them and frowned at Hutch instead. “You’re kiddin’.”
“Yes, I am. You can tell by the big smile on my face.”
“Weird? Sick? Fucked?”
“—usually something you do to yourself.”
Hutch jabbed a finger at the papers and photos in Starsky’s hands. “Do you think she did that to herself? Tied her wrists with wire? Yeah, the ribbon was just—” He grimaced. “—decoration. You think she did that—” Another jab of the finger. “—to herself?”
Starsky looked down at the top photo in his pile. It was a shot of Anita Spender’s back. She was covered with writing, tiny black block letters following the contours of her shoulder blades, her spine, along the hollow between each rib, the same thing over and over.
“Drink somebody to death. That’s cold-blooded,” Hutch went on, the words clipped, his voice hitting hard on the beats. “He’d have to plan it. It would have to be managed. So she wouldn’t pass out too soon. So she wouldn’t puke it all up.”
Starsky nodded as he angled the picture to cut down on the glare from the fluorescent lights. He couldn’t make out what the writing said.
“It says,” Hutch answered his unspoken question, his voice a growl. “Suffer the little children.”
The first shot went wide. The second went high. Starsky frowned and looked around for something to help adjust the trajectory. With a little “aha,” he took the cardboard coaster out from under Hutch’s beer glass and folded it in half.
Hutch didn’t notice. “The wine has to mean something,” he was saying.
Starsky decided that the folded coaster wouldn’t work. Too tall. “Uh-huh,” he answered as he considered his options. “I can think of a few times in my life I wanted to drown in wine.”
“In Richard the Third a guy was drowned in a vat of wine.”
“Actually it was a butt of malmsey,” Starsky said.
Hutch stopped with his glass halfway to his mouth and raised an eyebrow at him.
“What? Like I never read a book?” Tipping his chair back on two legs, Starsky stretched out to hook the ashtray on the next table so he could steal the box of matches from it. “’Course, I like the sequel better. Richard the Fourth.”
Hutch’s snort of laughter made Starsky grin. “Better car chases, huh?” Hutch said.
“My point exactly. Sure sign of great literature.” By the time Starsky had the spoon balanced on the matchbox Hutch was gone again, staring morosely into his beer, his thumb stroking his lip. Starsky leaned low to eyeball the angle and fumbled in the bowl for another peanut. “Maybe it’s religious. Wine and blood. Something about the Eucharist,” he suggested. “But that’s not exactly my bag, so I dunno.” He dropped the peanut into the bowl of the spoon and smacked his hand down on the handle. The peanut bounced off of Hutch’s forehead and into his beer. Starsky danced the funky chicken in his chair. “Two points.”
Hutch blinked and leaned over to look at the peanut at the bottom of his glass. “Starsky,” he said mildly. “You know you’re a putz. Don’t you.”
“And your brooding is leading to the untimely demise of a lot of good peanuts.” Starsky put another peanut in the spoon and snapped it into the air. He’d underestimated his own strength though, and the shot was wild, arcing up over Hutch’s shoulder and landing with a plink in the middle of a woman’s dinner plate on the table behind him. When she turned to glare at him, Starsky waggled his fingers at her and smiled his most winning smile. It worked. She winked at him and ran her tongue along her lip before turning back to the geezer across from her.
“Besides,” he said to Hutch, “you love me for it.”
The next shot was a thing of beauty. Hutch tipped his head back and caught the peanut in his mouth. He chewed, looking thoughtful. Finally he said, “I love you for your ass. The putz I put up with.”
“You are so beautiful when you talk dirty. Say ‘ass’ again.”
Hutch nodded like he wasn’t listening anymore and stared over Starsky’s head at the wall. After a minute, he leaned forward and closed his eyes, stiff fingers tapping his forehead.
“What?” Starsky asked.
“Something. Back east somewhere.” Hutch snapped his fingers and pointed at Starsky like he’d just held up a flashcard to jog Hutch’s memory. “Boston.”
“Yeah, that. And a case, a kid with his hands bound up with wire.”
Starsky drained his beer and put it back in its circle of condensation on the table. “Lots of people get tied up with wire.”
“In the boiler room of a hospital. A clinic.”
That shook the dust off of something in Starsky’s rafters. He narrowed his eyes and tried to see it. “Yeah. And they found the mother a couple days later in her hotel room.” Hutch was nodding encouragingly, but there was nothing else under the dust. Starsky frowned at him. “Why do I remember that?”
“Because the dude was from here,” Huggy answered, having materialized out of the crowd with a tray balanced on his shoulder. “So, what are you two gents up to tonight?” He appraised Starsky’s artillery, picking a peanut out of the spoon with his free hand and holding it up to the light. “Besides training acts for the flea circus.” He put the peanut back in the spoon. “Also, peanuts don’t cost peanuts, you know.”
Hutch leaned out of the way to let Huggy put his plate down in front of him. “The dude was from here?”
“Yeah, the father was some big-shot lawyer downtown. He sent the kid back east for an experimental treatment for leukemia or something.”
Starsky had to dismantle his catapult to make room for his hamburger and fries. He pocketed the spoon and the matchbook and ate the ammo. “Right. I remember now. He offed himself—the dad did—after.”
“Quite the spectacular mess, too.” Huggy tucked the tray under his arm. “My cousin was on the cleaning crew. Guy shot his brains all over the living room.”
“Isn’t that a nice bedtime story,” Hutch said sourly.
“And the moral is: don’t matter how big the stack of cash you got, sometimes it just is not enough to hold you up when you’re alone.” Huggy made a little formal bow and added, “Bon appetite, meez amigos,” before sidling off to lend a hand at the bar.
Hutch was spinning his fork on end beside his plate. He shook his head. “Anita wasn’t rich.”
“And she wasn’t sick,” Starsky said around a mouthful of burger. “And there was no body art in the Boston case.”
“And her dad died eight years ago.”
Starsky hunkered down under Hutch’s frustration like it was a cold wind over the water. He shrugged. “Still, the hospital angle’s worth checking.”
He was chewing contentedly on his third bite of hamburger before he noticed that Hutch hadn’t touched his food and in fact was staring at it accusingly. “Whatsa matter?”
“I ordered a salad.”
“There’s salad.” Starsky lifted the top bun off of Hutch’s hamburger and pointed at the translucent lettuce leaf and the mostly orange tomato slice. He put the bun back and nudged the plate closer to Hutch. “Besides, you can’t fight crime on a stomach full of salad.”
“Yeah,” Hutch said flatly, so it sounded equally like agreement and sarcasm, pushed his chair back and got up. He hooked his jacket off the back of the chair with his thumb and swung it over his shoulder. “I’m going.”
“What? Because of salad?”
“You don’t even wanna doggie bag?” Starsky shouted after him, but Hutch didn’t turn to answer as he threaded his way between the tables. “More for me!” Starsky announced to Hutch’s empty chair as he commandeered his fries.
As it turned out, stolen fries were tastier than abandoned fries, and he only ate a couple before giving in and dropping his half-eaten burger on his plate. He stopped by the bar to steal a dime out of the tip jar and dialed the station on the pay phone. While he waited to be connected, he caught Huggy’s eye and mimed drinking another beer and was already sipping a real one by the time the clerk in R&I finally came on the line. “Hey, Charlie,” Starsky said. “I need you to pull everything you can find on a couple of cases from Boston.”
The smell of coffee at 2 a.m. should have been wrong. The fact that it wasn’t wrong was wrong.
Starsky stood in Hutch’s kitchen and listened to the chugging gurgle of the percolator. The place was so quiet that the dribble of coffee into the pot sounded loud enough to wake the neighbors, and in the dark the apartment felt bigger than it really was, like it stretched on endlessly behind Starsky’s back. It might as well be the woods behind him, moonlight slatted through the trees, familiar things tangled in shadows.
Wriggling his shoulders inside his leather jacket to get rid of the creepy feeling, he muttered, “Cut it out, Starsky,” yanked open the refrigerator, and stood in the rectangle of light. There wasn’t much in there that looked edible. Some of that wobbly white stuff in a waxed carton and some onions tied together with a rubber band around the stems, three beers—one of them open with a cork stuck in the neck and wasn’t that just a crime—and a bottle of ketchup standing on its head in the door rack. He wasn’t actually trying to figure out what kind of meal that might make, but he didn’t close the fridge door, either.
He could turn on a lamp or something. It wasn’t like Hutch was there to protest, waking up indignant, sheet-rumpled and squinting and swearing. But for some reason Starsky hadn’t turned on the lights when he’d let himself in, and he hadn’t even really thought about it until he was almost through making the coffee, dumping the last spoonful of grounds into the little basket. That’s when it occurred to him that he was moving around in Hutch’s kitchen by feel, everything he needed under his hand when he reached for it. Hutch’s place was worn into Starsky’s muscle-memory.
He closed the fridge, leaned on the door, arms folded, and waited.
Ten minutes later he was done waiting and instead was standing by the coffee table dialing the precinct with the phone balanced on his hip and the receiver in the crook of his shoulder. He put the phone down when he heard the gentle slapping of Hutch’s hand on the top of the doorjamb, feeling for the key that Starsky had tossed onto the counter beside the coffee tin.
“It’s me,” Starsky said as the door opened a hesitant crack. “Don’t shoot.”
The door swung open the rest of the way and Hutch came in, peeling off his jacket and tossing it toward the sofa. He went past Starsky directly to the fridge.
“I let it ring about thirty times,” Starsky told him as he picked the jacket off the floor and followed him.
“I was out.”
“Yeah, I got that from the part where you weren’t here.”
“Smart. You’ll make detective someday.” Hutch straightened and closed the fridge with his hip, pulled the cork out of the beer bottle with his teeth and spat it in the sink.
“Where’d ya go?” Starsky handed Hutch his jacket.
Shifting the beer from one hand to the other and back again, Hutch put the jacket on. “Walked.”
“Right. And?” Starsky took a cup out of the dish drainer and filled it with coffee.
“I was thinking about her hands.” In the moonlight, Hutch’s eyes were black ringed with a narrow band of white-blue. His face was washed pale, like he’d been drifting a long time in cold water.
Impulsively Starsky put a hand on his neck, just long enough to feel a pulse, a reassuring throb under his fingers. The leather collar of Hutch’s jacket was still warm. He should have turned on the lights. “Her hands. Folded up,” Starsky said, giving him a squeeze and letting him go. “Praying.” He took the beer out of Hutch’s hand and replaced it with the coffee cup.
Hutch lifted the cup to his mouth and then lowered it again untouched. “Praying.” He stared into the cup, at the wobble of light on the dark surface. “Nobody answered.”
“Too late.” Hutch scowled at the coffee, finally realizing it wasn’t beer. That realization brought the next; Starsky could actually see it forming in the middle of his chest, a weight pulling his shoulders into a subtle slump as he raised tired, dismayed eyes to meet Starsky’s. Starsky, who was in his apartment with his coat on, making coffee at two in the morning. “Ah, damn.”
“Looks like it.”
So, maybe it was a fate thing, unless he was going to credit the idea that Hutch had some kind of magic powers. Because this time, Starsky was determined to be the one who looked first, and he even took the stairs to the second floor of the apartment building two at a time so he could beat Hutch to the scene. But somehow he got waylaid by the coroner in the hallway and by the time he turned the corner into the one-room apartment, Hutch was already there, the muscle twitching in his clenched jaw and that curve in his back making him look like he was braced under something heavy.
“So,” Hutch said without turning, “Who answered her?”
She was praying, kneeling at the side of the bed, clasped, bound hands folded under her bowed forehead. She could have been a little kid saying, “Now I lay me down to sleep,” except that she was a grown woman and she wasn’t sleeping. Starsky crouched next to her and carefully swept the long straight hair away and over her shoulder. He pulled her blouse down a little from her neck so he could check her back.
our guy,” he told Hutch as he pushed himself upright again. “There’s writing on
her back, but I can’t make it out. We’ll have to wait for the coroner to do his
Hutch nodded, his eyes a little hollow-looking in the slanting light from the bedside lamp, and then flat like mirrors in the flash from the lab guy’s Polaroid. One of the uniforms slapped the wall switch on his way out of the room and the overhead light came on, making Hutch wince and duck his head like he was recoiling from a slap. He avoided Starsky’s gaze and went to pull back the drapes. “Window’s locked.”
“Her name’s Jocelyn Kandinsky. She works at the hospital.” Starsky tucked his notebook back in his inside pocket. “She was on our list for tomorrow.”
He scanned the room. A desk in the corner with thick books open under a reading lamp. Bed made. A few photos on the dresser: Jocelyn smiling with a dark-haired woman—maybe Vietnamese—against a splash of green, tropical leaves; Jocelyn in a cap and gown, accepting a diploma from an old guy in the same regalia; a scruffy-faced dog beside a swimming pool. Not much else to tell them about her. Books and a bed and a dog.
On one knee at the bedside table, Hutch held up a newspaper clipping over his shoulder. “Check this out.” Starsky took it and Hutch went back to rummaging.
It was a story about Peter Whitelaw, who stood in the photo looking serious and official and earnest in front of his campaign banner. Starsky recognized the slogan from the posters they’d seen at his campaign headquarters when they’d questioned him after Blaine died. “Still doing the straight talk for the gay community,” Starsky said. “You know, that slogan didn’t work the last time around. You’d think he’d try something new.”
“Check out who’s in the background.” Hutch stood and tapped the photo.
It was hard to make out the details, and she was almost out of the frame, but the long hair was a dead giveaway. “Jocelyn Kandinsky. Huh.”
“Huh,” Hutch repeated and went to open the closet.
Starsky folded the clipping into his pocket with his notebook. “Doesn’t look like it happened here,” he said, stepping out of the way of the lab tech and holding up a hand to shield his own eyes from the camera flash. “Unless he kept it real quiet. Cleaned up after.” Outside the tiny apartment, the hallway was crowded with neighbors in their pajamas. Death was always a bigger draw than sleep. People had this weird need to get close to it. He could hear a television playing “The Star Spangled Banner” nearby. He wasn’t sure if the station was signing off or coming back on. “Somebody woulda heard something.”
With a grunt of agreement, Hutch ducked out into the hall and crooked a finger at the nearest uniform. Then he walked him over next to the bed. “Ron, right?”
The uniform nodded.
“Okay, Ron. See this?” Hutch crouched and tilted his head so he could look at the woman’s face. She wore no makeup, a sprinkling of freckles across her nose, fine red hair that stood out almost garishly against her too-white skin.
“Yeah. Sir.” Ron’s gaze stuttered around the room, and only skated down to the body when Hutch said his name again, and only for a second before darting up toward some nondescript spot on the wall. His Adam’s apple bobbed. He looked like he was about eighteen years old.
“Her name is Jocelyn. Near as we can figure, this happened sometime in the last twelve hours. Somebody around here heard a struggle or saw him in the hallway. This guy is not invisible. He can’t just come and go without a trace.” Hutch’s voice was low, his face just this side of fierce.
“No, sir.” Ron shot Starsky a nervous glance.
“We gotta make this guy, Ron,” Starsky said evenly. “Something’s gotta give here and soon.” He leaned down and gave Hutch’s collar a tug, urging him out of the way of the waiting body pick-up guys and their stretcher. “She’s the second. We don’t want a third.”
Ron nodded and kept nodding until Starsky stopped him with gentle slap on the back. “Yes sir. We’ll do our best.” He fumbled his notebook out of his pocket and opened it up, ready to do his best right then.
“Okay, so let’s go shake the tree, see what falls out.”
Already in the hallway outside the apartment, Hutch was dispatching uniforms to the four corners of Jocelyn Kandinsky’s world. As he stalked off at the front of the other cops, the crowd of rubberneckers parted in front of him like the Red Sea.
If his stomach hadn’t been growling and if he hadn’t been at least two-thirds asleep on his feet, and if there weren’t so many bleeding and crying people involved, Starsky would’ve found it funny. As it was, it pretty much just made him wince in a sympathetic bystander sort of way, and he would’ve probably felt guilty about staying on the sidelines except for the stomach growling and the asleep-on-his-feet and so on, which made everything look like it was far away and on television. For his part, Hutch looked like he was performing a scene from Bugs Bunny. The ER admitting area was crowded, clamoring: kids screaming and, worse, gone past screaming to blank-eyed staring, little hands in bandages, little legs in splints; grown-ups demanding attention; a guy over in the corner holding a blood-soaked towel to his head and puking into the garbage can; an old lady in a black shawl with her eyes turned up to the ceiling, loudly and emphatically cursing God, or maybe someone on the second floor. Through it all, nurses in white uniforms or red-spattered green scrubs wove their way from disaster to crisis, eyes on charts or faces hidden behind stacks of blankets or boxes. Every time one of them came within earshot, Hutch held up a finger and said, “’Scuse me, I’m—” or “Detective Hut—” or “I’m looking for—” and every time the nurse kept going, carrying him a few paces in her wake until another going in a different direction picked him up and dragged him along. Unless he was convulsing on the floor, he probably wasn’t going to get any of them to deviate from her determined path and maybe not even then, so long as he wasn’t also spouting blood in the air like a water fountain and creating a safety hazard.
The voice right by Starsky’s shoulder startled him so that he cracked his elbow on the corner of the wall that was the only thing keeping him upright. Massaging the sting out of the bone, he glanced toward the voice to find an orderly standing beside him at the edge of the chaos. Behind him, a long hallway stretched away down toward the operating theaters. Compared to the teeming waiting room, the emptiness of it felt weird to look at, two-dimensional, and the orderly in his whites with his interested but bland smile seemed incongruous and dimensionless, like he was stuck on the scenery with tape.
Starsky tried to rub the weirdness out of his eyes with his fist and went back to leaning on the wall and watching the waiting room where Hutch was still hunting the elusive nurses. Hutch never had this much trouble singling a nurse out of a crowd. He must be losing his edge. Throwing his hands up in surrender, he shot Starsky a beseeching look. Instead of wading into the fray, Starsky pointed to the counter where one of the nurses was momentarily trapped by a ringing phone and a man with an enormously pregnant woman on his arm.
The orderly let out a thin laugh, reminding Starsky that he was still there.
Starsky answered, “Yeah, we’re cops. Does it show?”
Hutch waved his badge over the pregnant woman’s shoulder and the nurse barked something at him that made him back up a few paces, propelled another couple of steps by the glare the expectant mother strafed him with. If he’d had a tail it would’ve been between his legs.
Starsky shook his head and muttered, “Ouch.”
“He your partner?”
“Worried about him?”
At that, Starsky left Hutch to his own devices and frowned down at the orderly. “Should I be?”
He shrugged. “He looks stressed.” The guy raised pale eyes to search Starsky’s face. “So do you. Must be a cop thing.”
Putting a hand over one ear when a kid passing in a wheelchair started shrieking, Starsky squinted and said, “Yeah, well, kinda goes with the territory.”
“Here, too. Lots of people circling the drain around here. This place is like a funnel sometimes.” The orderly made a swirling motion with his finger. “You guys are here about Dr. Kandinsky? That kid, Anita?”
“Yeah. You know them?”
“Not to talk to. You know. Seen them around. They were tight. Twisted tight.”
Starsky narrowed his eyes at the guy’s choice of words. “What d’ya mean ‘twisted’?”
“You know. Like . . . ” The orderly raised his chin at Hutch. “Like you an’ him, maybe, or . . . ” This time he pointed down the hallway behind them. “See that guy? The old guy?”
At the end of the hall, a man was sitting on the edge of a chair, rubbing his hands together slowly like they wouldn’t settle down to praying. His hair was wispy and gray, sticking up on the side like he’d forgotten to comb over his comb-over. He was wearing slippers.
“Yeah. What about him?”
“The coffee, see?” The orderly leaned close so Starsky could sight down his pointing arm like he’d spotted some kind of rare bird. He smelled of bleach and licorice. “That guy’s wife has been in emergency surgery for four hours and he just came back from the cafeteria with two coffees.”
Starsky got it. “One for him. One for her.”
The orderly nodded emphatically. “Wound up together, see? Twisted. She goes, he’ll go too, in a month or a year.” He rubbed his chin, eyes alight, then wagged a finger at the old man, admonishing. “You get twisted up with somebody, they’re just going to pull you down with ’em, eventually. Happens every day around here.”
Starsky turned back to the waiting room to catch Hutch’s eye. “Yeah, maybe. But the alternative’s no barrel of monkeys, either.”
“Better’n setting yourself up for a fall. Better to be alone, y’know?”
“I suppose it saves you money on coffee.” The guy snickered, but stopped when Starsky added, “Not exactly compassionate, though.”
“Depends what you mean by compassion. Can’t save nobody if you get twisted with them and let them pull you under. Ask your partner there. Or maybe Dr. Kandinsky.”
After thanking the nurse, who waved him away like he was a fly or something, Hutch started to make his way over to them.
“So,” Starsky said thoughtfully as he watched Hutch detour around the guy with the bloody towel, only to get deflected again by the lady who was still cursing God, only now He was apparently in the basement. “What are you saying? Jocelyn Kandinsky was drowning . . . ” He let the sentence trail off so he could watch the picture develop in his head, like a Polaroid going from gray to detail and color. Because she was twisted up with Anita Spender. And maybe somebody had a problem with that. “Listen, did—” he began, but when he turned to look the hallway behind him was empty except for the old man, who now sat with his head in his hands.
“Bobbie Wyatt’s already punched out for the—” Hutch stopped talking and came to stare down the hallway with Starsky. After a long pause he said, “What are you looking for?”
“The guy I was talking to just now. He said something about Jocelyn. He was . . . ” Hutch was looking skeptical, one eyebrow raised. “He was right here. You looked right at him.”
Hutch made a silent oh. “That guy.” Turning around, he checked out the waiting room. “What did he look like, exactly?”
“Um.” Starsky tried to think of a word to describe him, but all that came to mind was licorice. “He was, you know, average.”
“Right. We’ll just put an APB out right now on an average-looking guy who didn’t want to have a conversation with you. That’ll cut the list down to about half the city’s male population.”
“You know, you’re hilarious,” Starsky said acidly to Hutch’s back as he followed him through the waiting room toward the doors.
Ignoring the jab, Hutch led him out onto the sidewalk. “Bobbie Wyatt punched out already, but the nurse at the desk said we could probably catch her at the bar down the street.” He stood blinking in the sun with his hands on his hips and looked first one way and then the other. Then he pointed left and took off with long strides.
After half a block, Starsky jogged a couple of paces to get even with him. “You think we’re twisted?”
Hutch cocked an eye at him. “What, you mean like bent?”
“No, I mean like yarn.” Starsky whirled his index fingers around each other to indicate twisted threads.
“Yarn, huh?” Hutch was silent while they waited for the light to change at the intersection. Then, as the rest of the pedestrians flowed around them across the street, he said, “Do you wanna go back inside and get your head examined?”
“Hey, it’s not me! I’m just asking you a question.” Starsky would have given him a little slap on the shoulder except that he had to jump back to avoid being creamed by a guy on a bicycle who passed between them at the speed of light. “I didn’t come up with it.”
The frown on Hutch’s face went from bemused to concerned. “What the hell did that guy say to you?”
“Nothing. Some jive about you an’ me being wound up together. That part don’t matter.”
They had to run to make it across the intersection before the light changed again.
“Yeah, okay, so maybe we’re twisted, if that’s the definition you’re using,” Hutch answered as they hopped onto the curb to avoid a newspaper truck. “The yarn definition. What about it?”
“Forget the yarn. He said Anita and Jocelyn were twisted.” Forgetting to forget about the yarn, Starsky made the winding gesture again and then stuffed his fingers in the front pockets of his jeans where they couldn’t do stuff he told them to forget about. “The two vics were close, is all I’m saying. Maybe real close.”
“Well, that’s something to go on.” Hutch’s brow creased and it only took a second for the thoughtful frown to work its way up to a scowl. “Maybe somebody didn’t like that.”
“Yeah, I went there, too.”
A few paces later, Hutch added, “So what else did he say?”
Starsky ran it back in his head. The old guy with the coffee, who followed the ambulance to the hospital and never stopped to put on real shoes. Hutch in the middle of the waiting room turning to Starsky with his hands up, just another bit of debris caught in the crosscurrents of nurses and disaster. “I dunno. Something about us circling the drain.”
“Who, you and me?”
“No. Or yeah. I dunno.”
Starsky rolled his eyes.
“Isn’t that kind of a mixed metaphor?”
Since Hutch obviously missed it the first time, Starsky rolled his eyes again. “Can we just walk, please?”
Twenty paces later, Hutch pointed at the sign in a window that announced “cold beer and good food” but Starsky put a hand on Hutch’s arm to stop him. “How come you always go first?”
Hutch turned to face him, more than a trace of exasperation in his “What?”
“At the scenes. The ones with the bodies. You always go first.”
Hutch shrugged, but there was the smallest twitch of the muscle in his jaw. “I dunno. Just habit, I guess. Coincidence.” He started to go around Starsky to reach for the door, but Starsky stepped into his path.
“There’s more to it than that. It ain’t coincidence, and habits got reasons.”
Hutch’s mouth smiled, but his eyes didn’t. His tone was light the way a snake’s rattle was festive. “Okay, buddy, next DB’s all yours. You got dibs.” He pulled open the door and grandly waved Starsky inside. “After you.”
Starsky waved a finger under his nose. “This ain’t over.”
Now Hutch rolled his eyes, and this time the smile was indulgent and almost real. “You get into the pharmaceuticals back there? Seriously.”
“Who needs ’em?” Starsky said, stepping into the dim hum of the bar. “Life with you is already like a bad trip half the time.”
“You’re the one going on about yarn.”
“I think I’m going to kick your ass.”
“You’re hot when you say ‘ass.’ Say ‘ass’ again.”
“That’s my line.”
“You know, Hutch, that guy was right. You are twisted.”
The nurse on the desk had told Hutch to look for a “battleaxe,” and Bobbie Wyatt pretty much fit the bill. She was one thickness from her square jaw all the way down, thin and muscled in that practical way, the kind that comes from hands-on work, shifting rocks or luggage, or in her case, unconscious bodies from gurneys to examining tables. She was hunched over a glass with one thick-veined hand clenched in her graying hair and when he and Hutch loomed into her space, she let go and sat back to peer at them, leaving her hair sticking up in spikes. She didn’t seem to care too much.
“What?” she said and then nodded to herself. “Oh yeah. You must be cops. You want to talk about Joss.”
“That’s right.” Starsky turned a chair around and straddled it while Hutch took the one closest to her. “Anything you can tell us will help. And I’m Detective Sergeant Starsky, by the way. He’s Hutchinson.”
“Wish I’d never metcha,” Bobbie said and added a bitter laugh. “I bet people just go white when they see you boys coming.” She raised her glass in a mock toast. “To the fucking angels of death.” She drained the glass in one pull and signaled the bartender for another.
Hutch’s breath of laughter was about as cheerful as Bobbie’s. “Nope. Angels of death come before. We only come after.”
“Thirsty?” Starsky asked as the refill appeared on the table, handed down over his shoulder by the hairy arm of God.
With a beckoning waggle of her fingers, Bobbie leaned forward to meet Starsky up close over the table. Her voice was low and furious. “You know what, Detective Sergeant? I got called in to work at four this morning to cover a shift that was suddenly not covered because my best friend was dead. And by seven I was dealing with a head-on between a gas truck and a city bus. The first guy I saw was missing half his face.” She leaned back and took a gulp of her drink before slamming the glass down on the table, spilling scotch. “So yeah. I’m thirsty. And also, fuck you.”
Hutch slid a napkin over and dabbed at the spill. “We’re sorry for your loss,” he said as he worked. For a second, his eyes snagged on Bobbie’s and her stony, challenging expression faltered. “We need to know if anyone was hassling Jocelyn. If she was seeing anybody.”
Bobbie shook her head. “She was a second year resident. She was trying to get a fellowship, really competitive. She didn’t have time to see anybody.”
“But she knew Anita Spender,” Starsky said. “Someone at the hospital said they were tight.”
“Yeah.” Bobbie’s voice was thick. She cleared her throat, sipped her drink and coughed. “She had a spark, that one. She was going to be something special.”
“Did Jocelyn think so, too? That she was special?”
“Yeah. She was helping her work on this grant application. Scholarships. Joss said it would be a tragedy if that kid didn’t make it to med school because of money.”
“So it was all about med school, then,” Hutch asked carefully.
Bobbie raised her eyes slowly, assessing him, suspicious. “Yeah.” She took her time looking down at the newspaper clipping Starsky slid across the table. Her lips thinning, she picked it up and touched the blurry image of Jocelyn at the edge of the picture behind Peter Whitelaw and his slogan. Another bitter laugh. “You sons of bitches,” she said, shaking her head and dropping the clipping back on the table. “You think because she was gay she was also depraved? Is that it? A taste for jailbait? Goddammit.” She put her head in her hands. “Goddammit.”
Hutch’s tone was patient. “We don’t think anything. We’re just trying to get a picture, that’s all.”
When she dropped her hands, her eyes were red and glistening. “It was about school. Anita wanted to be a doctor. She looked up to Joss. That’s it. That’s all.” With her knuckles she wiped tears away angrily.
Starsky folded the clipping up and put it away in his notebook. “Okay. But is it possible that somebody knew about Jocelyn? Got the wrong idea, maybe?”
“She didn’t hide it, really, but she didn’t advertise it either. And like I said, she was too busy to do anything except work. She was single-minded.” Her glass was empty. Hutch caught the bartender’s eye and they sat silently until another drink was clutched in her hands. “You think it was that?” she asked. “Because she was gay?” Before either one of them could answer, she raised a hand. “Never mind. You don’t know. You’re just trying to get the picture.”
Hutch smiled and Bobbie smiled back, and the deep lines around her eyes and her mouth said she did that a lot, in spite of the guy missing half his face and a waiting room full of little kids with bandages on little arms and legs. It wasn’t all about scotch in the middle of the afternoon.
“So there was nobody else she was seeing?” Hutch prodded. “No interested guys got the brush-off, maybe got steamed about it?”
She shook her head. “The only guys she saw were at work, and they know what her schedule’s like, and they’re pretty happy to accept that as the reason, you know? Easier on the delicate male ego.” A significant glance at Starsky, which made him cast a “why’s she lookin’ at me?” look Hutch’s way. She actually grinned at him, like they were even. Then her eyes went distant for a second. “There was a woman, though, from a couple of years ago. She met Joss when they were working on Peter’s campaign.” She started nodding. “Yeah. Emily something. Vietnamese girl. She owns a grocery store down in Oceanside Market.”
Starsky made a mental note to get a copy of the photo from Jocelyn’s room, and to get R&I to hunt down an address. Hutch was doing the same, only in his notebook.
“She was around a lot more lately,” Bobbie continued. “Peter’s on the campaign trail again.” After a few seconds she spread her hands, showed them she was empty.
Hutch looked up from his notes. “What about Anita? Was she close with anybody else at the hospital?”
Bobbie shrugged. “She wasn’t in my department, so I don’t know. Mostly I just saw her with Joss.” When Hutch nodded and started to put his notebook away, she added, a hand on his arm to stop him, “Sometimes she’d get a ride home though, on Monday nights. I don’t know who with, a nurse or an orderly. Someone Joss knew from her department.” She smiled sadly. “Joss didn’t like her taking the bus at night. Too dangerous.”
“Thanks,” Hutch said as they got up to go. “Next one’s on us, okay?”
Bobbie grinned crookedly and lifted her glass. “To Joss. Wherever you are, I hope you’re wearin’ something frilly.”
While Hutch was at the bar, pointing toward Bobbie and giving the bartender enough for a drink and a cab, Starsky was busy working his way through a sudden crowd at the door, all of them in nurse’s uniforms or orderly whites under their jackets. For a second, he was pinned by a pair of pale eyes, but by the time Hutch had caught up with him the orderly who’d given him the slip in the waiting room at the hospital was gone, lost in the group gathered around Bobbie’s table. Bobbie was on her feet, her arms around some tall dark handsome, her hands fisted in the back of his shirt, her shoulders shaking.
When they got back to the precinct someone was shrieking by the intake desk, high-pitched and high-heeled and maybe female but it was hard to be sure, given the size and obviousness of the wig and the width of her shoulders. She or he managed to get one of those heels spiked into the arresting officer’s instep and made it three strides toward the doors before Starsky stuck a foot out and toppled her. He kept his knee in the middle of her back just above her cuffed hands until the uniform hobbled over with his partner to haul her off to holding, the blond wig stuffed under his arm like a shaggy lapdog. She was a he, after all. By then Hutch was already up the stairs. Moving heavily, Hutch was easy to catch, and Starsky paced along beside him in the sludgy end-of-a-crap-day gloom that eddied out around him.
“I can write up the Wyatt stuff,” Starsky said as they detoured around a cleaning cart and headed for the squad room. “You haven’t slept since . . . ” Blinking down at his watch, he tried to remember. “Tuesday?” He squinted down the hallway like he was looking into the misty past. “What day is it, anyway?”
“Thursday. And you haven’t slept, either.”
“I slept, ’til I got the call about Kandinsky at one-thirty. That was a whole two hour—” Distracted by the higher math he was doing, he ran into Hutch, who had stopped in the squad room door.
“Dammit,” Hutch said.
Starsky looked over Hutch’s shoulder. Beverley Spender was sitting at Hutch’s desk. Beside her on the floor were a suitcase and a shopping bag.
“Hey, Hutchinson.” Vince Devetti strolled over, coffee in hand, and waved half a doughnut in Mrs. Spender’s direction. “She asked for you. Said it was urgent.”
Normally Starsky would’ve gotten in between them, but Hutch was blocking the doorway, and anyway, as it turned out, Devetti kind of had it coming. Hutch got right in his face and said in that low voice like a dog growling behind a plank fence, “Devetti, what is she doing at my desk?”
“What? She asked for you.”
“Her daughter’s file is on my desk, you idiot.” After giving Devetti a shove that mashed the doughnut into his jacket lapel, Hutch spat, “Fuck,” and stalked into the squad room.
“Hey, files is s’posed to be filed, Hutchinson,” Devetti groused, rubbing the fruit filling stain deeper into the tweed with the heel of his hand. “And somebody cleared her to come up here.”
“Let it go, Devetti,” Starsky told him.
“He’s the one breaking regs. It’s not my—”
“Just cut him some slack, okay?”
Grudgingly, Devetti nodded. “Yeah.” He tossed the squashed doughnut into the trashcan. “Fucker of a case, huh?”
“He looks like shit.”
“Yeah, but at least he has a reason.” Starsky winked to prove he was mostly kidding and Devetti indulged him by snorting out a laugh.
“Fuck you, Starsky.”
“Sorry, sailor. You’re not my type.”
Devetti flipped him the bird and went back to whatever fucker of a case was keeping him in the squad room this late.
Hutch was right about Mrs. Spender. No way she should've been there. Starsky winced as he made his way down between the rows of desks toward their own at the end of the room, where she was sitting in Hutch’s chair. In her gloved hand was a file, closed, on her lap. With the other hand she smoothed the cover in a slow circle. For some reason the gloves made Starsky’s stomach twist up. Something old-fashioned about them, proper. His mom had gloves like that; her hands passed through his memory like birds against a window, blurred with motion and distance. Beverley Spender was done up like she was going to church, except here she was in the squad room with those glossy photographs in the file under her hands.
“MC 56-021777,” she recited to Hutch, who was perched on the back of the chair for the desk across the aisle. “What is that?” Her thumb smoothed back and forth over the number stamped on the front of the file.
“It’s a case number. That’s the lead detective’s badge number. The date.”
“Oh. Lead detective. You?”
Hutch shook his head. “That’s Detective Starsky this time.”
“You take turns?”
Maybe Starsky would’ve said something about how they went by who got up earlier, or who picked up the radio or the phone first, or who felt like typing, but Mrs. Spender’s hand kept moving over the cover of the file, and Hutch couldn’t seem to tear his eyes from it, and Tuesday was a really long time ago and home was about a million miles and twenty forms in triplicate away, so instead he just said, “Yeah. We take turns,” and pulled himself up onto the desk beside Hutch and wondered how he was going to get that file away from her without having to watch her drown after.
“Mrs. Spender,” Hutch said, and her eyes tracked a little uncertainly toward his voice. “Detective Devetti said you had something important to talk about.”
“Yes.” At that she let go of the file, held up her fist in the space between her and Hutch, and opened her fingers. A necklace uncoiled and dangled from her hand, the pendant slowly stopping its spin to resolve into a mermaid. Hutch held his hand under it and she dropped it onto his palm. “It’s Anita’s. Her father gave it to her after her first swim meet. It was the only one he got to see.” She smiled at the memory and didn’t say anything for so long that Hutch looked over his shoulder at Starsky and raised his eyebrows, wondering what to do next. Finally, she blinked a few times and came back from wherever she’d gone. “She never took it off.” A brief brightening as she laughed softly. “She had such a fight with her coach about it. Didn’t go to practice for two weeks until she let her wear it for competitions.”
Hutch poked at the pendant, tracing a finger along the coiled tail. “Why did you bring it here?”
“Because he said to.”
Starsky slid forward until his feet hit the floor. “Who?”
When she turned her eyes on him, they were flat and blind-looking. “Him. He said to look on the doorknob. Anita’s room. And I did and it was there.”
Hutch shot Starsky another look over his shoulder. “He said this to you? He was in your apartment?”
“On the phone. And yes, he was there. He put the necklace there, didn’t he?” As she spoke, her voice started to thin like she was stretched taut and everything was rising up under the surface, sharp on the edges and ready to tear through.
Hutch stood up long enough to pull the chair out from the desk, spin it around and sit down on the edge of it. “Mrs. Spender, we need to know what he said. Everything you can remember as closely as possible.”
“He said she was safe now. He said we were free. He said now I had to choose.”
“Choose? Choose what?”
Instead of answering, she shook her head slowly and Hutch sighed and ran his hand over his face, repeating, “Choose what?” under his breath.
The light in the corner over Devetti’s desk was flickering and it felt like sleet needling Starsky’s brain. The curve of Hutch’s neck as he bowed his head looked vulnerable, and Mrs. Spender’s hand was still moving over the damn file. Trying to find someplace to settle, Starsky’s gaze fell to the suitcase and the bag beside Mrs. Spender’s feet. A bit of yellow cloth was sticking out of the case. In the bag were the photos from the wall over her sofa, and he could make out a curve of gold, the crest of a trophy.
As if following Starsky’s lead, Hutch’s hand crossed the space and fell on the trophy. He hooked a finger around it and pulled it a little way out of the bag. It wasn’t a crest after all, but a stylized diver. He let it go and it settled with a clank. “What’s all this, Mrs. Spender?”
“I’m not going back there.”
“That’s probably a good idea. If you don’t have someone to stay with, we can see if maybe we can set you up in a hotel and you can go back when things get back to normal.”
Startling them, her laugh was like the sharp rap of a hammer followed by breaking glass.
“Normal,” she said as her hands tightened convulsively around the file, crumpling its edges. “You know, the sun comes up and I get out of bed and I make breakfast and I set two places. The sun comes in the window just the same way it used to and it’s all just the same as it was—” Her words were running together now as one hand splayed palm-up toward Hutch, asking, desperate, and her eyes were wide and not blind-looking at all anymore. “—and I go here and I go there because it’s all just like it was before only she’s not there.” The accusing fury in her gaze knocked Hutch back a little in his chair. “Fuck normal. You come to work and you do your job and tomorrow there will be another file and another number and I’ll be setting the fucking table!”
She lifted the file and brought it down on Hutch’s knee so that the cover slipped out of her gloved hand and opened. The neatly typed forms flapped from their staples, and the photographs poured out over the side of Hutch’s leg, one after the other like a broken film strip, Anita Spender falling apart in precise black and white for the coroner’s camera. Mrs. Spender clapped her hand over her mouth and then the other one, too, but she couldn’t stop the sound that was rising up out of her.
She slumped over her knees and broke open with a wail.
Hutch was leaning against the wall in the hallway across from the ladies room, his hands in the pockets of his jacket. For a second Starsky thought maybe he’d fallen asleep on his feet, but he raised his head when Starsky got close.
“She’s in there,” he said, pointing at the bathroom with his elbow.
Starsky matched his posture, miscalculating, and he fell back against the wall hard enough to force a grunt out of himself. Rubbing at the grit in his eyes with the heels of his hands, he stifled a yawn and said, “I called Dobey. He okayed a hotel for tonight but she’s gotta see the shrink tomorrow and he can figure out what to do with her. The department’s not gonna foot the bill for long-term accommodations.”
“Of course not.”
“We’re not in the hotel business, apparently. And lots of people lost kids this week.” He held up a hand to ward off the glare he didn’t have to see to know was coming. “His words, not mine.” The next yawn cracked his jaw and made him bend over to brace himself on his knees. “I’ll drop her on my way—”
“I’ll do it.”
Starsky pushed himself away from the wall so he could look Hutch right in his watery, bloodshot eyes. “Right. And I’m gonna be real thrilled to get called outta bed because you wrapped that heap of yours around a telephone pole.”
“I’ve made it this far. Another hour and five miles isn’t going to kill me.” Hutch blinked hard and let his hand fall heavily on Starsky’s shoulder before slipping down his arm and away. “Somebody has to process that new evidence. And we’re going to have to canvass her building again.”
“Yeah, okay. I’ll get that started.” Starsky waggled a finger under Hutch’s nose. “One condition.”
“Yes, mom, I’ll drive straight home and get some sleep.” Hutch was too tired to smile, but Starsky could see it there in the twitch at the side of his mouth.
Scratching his head, Starsky looked back toward the squad room where the paperwork was waiting. He’d have to pull the file, get it back in order, too. He’d gathered up the forms and pictures while Hutch had gotten himself between Mrs. Spender and the images scattered around her chair on the floor. Hutch had crouched next to her with his arm around her heaving shoulders, and Starsky had pulled the pictures out from between Hutch’s feet and stuffed them back into the manila folder, had walked the long way round the row of desks and back up the other side to the filing cabinet. After stuffing the file inside, he’d leaned his back against the drawer like maybe the pictures would try to claw their way out again.
Now as he stared sightlessly down the hallway, he thought that maybe if they were lucky she wouldn’t see them when she closed her eyes. Maybe she hadn’t been able to make sense of them, anyway. She didn’t know how to see the way they did: coroners, cops, killers. She shouldn’t.
Hutch kicked the side of Starsky’s shoe. “You okay?”
“That good, huh?” Starsky squeezed his wrist and turned to head back to the squad room. “I’ll pick you up in the morning.”
“Starsk.” Hutch was staring at his boots.
“Which is worse, d’ya think, her normal or ours?”
Hutch’s question was a needle running through the pages of a book, stitching together things that were months apart in time, and in Starsky’s head, close as one page to another. Starsky looked at Hutch’s hand hanging empty at his side and for a second he could actually feel the way the sun fell on his own hands in his kitchen the day after Terry died, the way holding a coffee cup like he always did felt perfectly wrong. Everything should have stopped, especially things like coffee, or wanting coffee. That morning, Hutch was on Starsky’s couch like he’d been all night, and after all the hours of silence when Starsky had held the cup toward Hutch and said, “It ain’t right,” Hutch had said, “I know.” And then he’d made Starsky breakfast because somehow, impossibly, Starsky was hungry.
Now, in his pockets, Starsky's hands were sweaty and curled around the memory of a cup, and his mouth tasted of cold coffee and ash, and his face was warmed by the ghost of a sun that had no right rising again. But it did, anyway. Hutch was watching him expectantly, pale eyebrows raised and expression open, like he really needed to hear the answer, so Starsky said, “Her kid dies, and she thinks the world should end. We know it doesn’t.”
Hutch’s head fell back and he aimed bleary eyes at the ceiling. He lifted his fist and it swung back to bounce dully against the wall at his side. “Maybe she’s right. Maybe it should end. Maybe it’s ending a case at a time, and we just can’t see it anymore.”
Starsky braced his feet against the pull of the undertow, reached out and hooked Hutch by his collar. “Maybe you need to get some sleep. You’re fucking depressing.”
Hutch laughed the old not-laugh of doom. “I’m deep.” The back of his fist against his mouth, he yawned. “It just looks like depressing to the simple-minded.” After squeezing Starsky’s fingers and untwisting them from his jacket, he waved him toward the squad room. “Pick me up early. Don’t bring doughnuts.”
“Now you’re really depressing.”
Mrs. Spender came out of the bathroom, her face scrubbed and her eyes still red. Her suitcase in one hand, her shopping bag under his arm, Hutch guided her out of the precinct, his free hand on the small of her back.
Third shift was just coming on when Starsky finally pushed his chair under his desk and tossed the last crushed coffee cup into the garbage can. His hand hovering over the phone, he considered calling Hutch to make sure he’d followed through on his promise, but he heard Hutch’s voice saying, I would be sleeping, Starsk, if somebody wasn’t calling me every five minutes to find out if I’m sleeping. So instead he left the phone alone, and let sleeping dogs—or cops—lie.
His request for manpower to canvass Beverley Spender’s building again was already in Dobey’s in-box, and the necklace was already in lockup. He was getting cross-eyed going over the reports from the Kandinsky scene for the twentieth time. Out in the hallway, a woman in a hoop skirt was standing on a chair belting out show tunes and fending off a couple of uniforms with her shepherd’s crook, so Starsky decided to take the hint and call it a night. He hoped that the killer had the same idea. Even the evil gotta sleep, right? No rest for the wicked, Hutch said in his head and Starsky muttered, “Shut up and go to sleep, you chump,” as though an imaginary Hutch would be any more likely to follow orders than a real one would.
As he made his way down the hall toward the stairs, his mind drifted sideways into thoughts of the Pits, its smoky darkness and the smell of booze and perfume and onions, where Huggy was probably already philosophizing and maybe doing it in rhyme while he leaned on the bar with an unlit cigarette bobbing in the corner of his mouth. An hour or two on a bar stool with his toes hooked under the boot rail, his fingers making patterns in the slick condensation on a glass of beer, and maybe Starsky would be able to sleep after without seeing Beverley Spender’s gloved hand moving over the case file, or Hutch’s square finger poking at the pendant in his palm.
But he didn’t figure even Huggy’s patter and a beer buzz would stop the words running through his head like tickertape, only printed in neat black letters on Jocelyn Kandinsky’s back: First do no harm. Starsky snorted a disgusted breath through his nose. This fuck had a strong sense of irony. Or maybe not. He dug in his jacket pocket for his key chain and ground his teeth down on a yawn. Harm who? Anita Spender, probably. But why kill her, too? Maybe he figured she was guilty by association, or tainted. He thought of the wine. Sin and salvation. But which one? Bringing back the pendant seemed to suggest the latter, an act of compassion. Was the killer trying to comfort Beverley Spender or torment her? Everything about this guy seemed to cut two ways. Starsky was spinning his key chain around his finger, and the questions did the same, round and round in time with the fall of his feet. “First do no harm,” he repeated under his breath. What if it wasn’t about Jocelyn’s oath? What if it was about the killer? So, then, cut it two ways: how could killing someone not be harmful? Depends how you define compassion, the guy at the hospital had said. The pendant turned in Starsky’s mind’s eye, a consolation and a taunt. He thought again of the old guy in the hospital hallway, head in his hands, and of Mrs. Spender doubled over among the pictures of her daughter, of Hutch braced under the weight of a hundred cases, showing up every day to shoulder the next one, of Terry with Prudholm’s bullet in her head. “Love hurts,” he concluded.
A passing clerk looked quizzically at him. “You got that right,” she said with a rueful grin and kept going, too busy to stop for philosophy.
The guy told Beverley Spender to choose. Choose what? Clenching his fists and stuffing them in his pockets, Starsky remembered Prudholm’s face as he’d dared Starsky to kill him. Choose who you’re gonna be.
Starsky’s yawn became a groan. Why couldn’t it just be about money or revenge, something that made sense? “Bad is bad and good is good,” he said, and then, “Shut up, Starsky. You’re talking to yourself.” Think beer and burger, beer and burger. He’d’ve done it, too, drowned out the noise with the mantra and made it all the way to Huggy’s and then home to fall face-down on his bed to sleep until morning, except for Officer Ron Blakey.
His voice stopped Starsky at the top of the stairs, and Starsky waited while the officer jogged down the hallway and pulled up beside him panting and grimacing in pain. His uniform sleeve was rolled up above a cast covering his arm from knuckles to elbow and he cradled the arm to his chest protectively.
“You oughta have a sling for that,” Starsky said.
“I do. I left it in the car.” Other than the broken arm, Ron looked pretty much like he had in the middle of the night at the Kandinsky place: a little owl-eyed with something between earnestness and mild panic, but scrubbed shiny and ironed precisely, with a spit-polished badge and a perfect part in his hair. He looked like a teenager in a wedding party, proud of his position and scared of it, too. In other words, rookie green as grass.
Starsky couldn’t help smiling at him as he pointed at the cast. “What happened?”
Ron presented the cast like it was a new piece of case-breaking evidence and then grinned wide with just a hint of cockiness. “Busted it chasing some drug dealers over a fence. Busted them, too.” He stood up a little straighter. “We found ’em when we were doing the canvass of the Kandinsky building. They were cooking the stuff in the super’s unit. Chased them twelve blocks.” He hugged the broken arm in close to his chest again as he winced. “I didn’t even know it was broken until I tried to cuff the guy. My partner had to do that part.” He looked a little crestfallen at that.
“Good work,” Starsky said, and clapped him on his good shoulder. “Above and beyond.”
He turned to go, but Ron hurried around to get in front of him, going down a couple of steps on the stairs before holding up his notebook close to Starsky’s face to halt him.
“Wait. I got something for you.” One-handed, he awkwardly flipped pages with the book braced against his chest. “Somebody saw a guy with Kandinsky, maybe, last evening.”
“Maybe?” Starsky took a step down and angled his head to get a glimpse at Ron’s book.
“She—er, Mrs. Hennessy, in 223—wasn’t positive because Kandinsky worked crazy hours so she wasn’t around much, but she recognized the long hair. She said she looked drunk, too, which stuck in her head, because she knows Kandinsky was a doctor and she was always real quiet, so her coming home stumbling drunk was weird, she thought.”
Starsky took Ron’s book out of his hand. “How come you didn’t bring this in, Ron?” he asked as he scanned the notes written in Ron’s tiny, meticulously neat script. “You did this interview at 7 a.m. We been chasing our tails all day.”
Holding up his cast, Ron bridled. “Hey, it’s not my fault. We flushed these dealers and then I had to sit in emergency for six hours because there was this accident with a bus and a gas truck—” He swallowed, making his Adam’s apple bob in his freshly-shaved throat. “—and you should’ve seen it. A whole bunch of kids and lots of people burned crispy. Anyway, I was six hours getting my cast and then the painkillers knocked me out. I wasn’t even supposed to be in tonight but I wanted to give you that.”
“Okay, okay.” Starsky waved him silent and leaned his hip on the stair rail, paging through the notes with his thumb. “No description of the guy?”
Ron shrugged. “She said he was average.”
Starsky grunted. “Average. Terrific.”
“The only thing she could remember for sure was that he was wearing white shoes.”
Starsky lifted his head and pinned Ron with a narrow-eyed look. “White shoes?”
“Yeah, not fancy ones like with a tuxedo.” He reached over and flipped a page, then tapped the book. “Rubber soles. She said they were squeaky, which is why she looked up and saw them in the hallway.”
Ron nodded. “Makes sense. Kandinsky must’ve had friends from the hospital, right?”
Absently, Starsky closed the notebook and pressed it against Ron’s chest. “Right.” They were tight. Twisted up tight. The orderly in the waiting room had raised his chin at Hutch. Like you two. His eyes had lit up in his unmemorable face. That’s why it’s better not to get too close, see. You get wound up with somebody, they’re just going to pull you down with ’em, eventually. At the bar, the pale eyes had caught Starsky for a second, and then the guy was gone, hidden somewhere in the crowd of mourners around Bobbie Wyatt’s table. Starsky jabbed Ron in the shoulder with a stiff finger. “He told Beverley Spender that they were free. He said it was better to be alone.”
But Starsky was already heading down the stairs. “Call Detective Hutchinson. He should be home by now,” he shouted over his shoulder. “Tell him to meet me at Bobbie Wyatt’s place.”
The streetlight in front of Bobbie’s bungalow was out. Starsky stood in the crackle of glass shards and looked up at the dangling wires hanging from the fixture silhouetted against the orange glow of low-hanging clouds. “Terrific,” he muttered.
Around him, the neighborhood was quiet. Most of the houses that hunkered down behind their low fences or hedges were dark except for the occasional blue flicker of a TV behind closed blinds. A couple blocks away at the intersection, a van was parked askew in the parking lot of a Kwickie Mart, Bowie’s “Golden Years” blaring, tinny and distorted, through the open back doors. A black and white crawled into the lot and pulled up beside the van. “In the back of a dream car twenty foot long,” Bowie sang as the cop’s flashlight played across the van’s sides and swept in through the driver’s side window. There was some shouting from inside. The van’s doors closed and “I believe, oh lord, I believe all the way” was muted and then stretched thin as the van lurched off the curb and into traffic. Lights flashing and siren winding up to a howl, the black and white pulled out of the lot and tore off in the opposite direction, on the trail of bigger threats to life and security than a bunch of kids with a bong and a crappy stereo.
On the sidewalk in front of Bobbie’s house, Starsky checked his watch and then unsnapped his holster. He looked down the street both ways. No sign of Hutch, who was probably out walking instead of at home in bed where he could get rousted in the middle of the night again to come back Starsky up. He’d sent a patrol by Hutch’s house, told them to check the beach, but there was no word and no telling when he’d surface. Hutch could walk all night when he got in a mood. Another black and white blasted down the cross street, lights flashing, followed a few seconds later by two more. Something big was going down in Chinatown, probably, which maybe accounted for the fact that his own backup was delayed. Maybe he didn’t need backup, anyway, although he was pretty sure given the right motivation Bobbie Wyatt could probably wipe the mat with him on a bad day. And white shoes were pretty slim evidence to base a hunch on. Maybe the guy had better things to do tonight than pay a visit to the next in line on Jocelyn Kandinsky’s list of friends and associates. And maybe a hunch was a hunch and bad guys didn’t take days off.
Starsky went up the walk between beds of yellow flowers, climbed the steps and rapped on Bobbie’s front door. He waited. He rapped again and this time called her name, adding, “Police” for good measure. Nothing. Anchoring himself on the doorjamb, he leaned sideways over the railing, but the blinds were drawn over the window and he couldn’t see in. Somewhere inside a light was on, and when he put his head close to the glass he could hear the faint thudding of music probably coming from the back of the house.
With another quick glance down the street, he swung himself over the railing and down onto the lawn, then walked between the house and the fence toward the back. He could hear the sound of a car engine idling in the alley on the other side of the fence and Ella Fitzgerald mourning in a throaty warble inside the house. The alley gate was open and a long rectangle of light falling onto the driveway told him that the back door of the house was open, too.
He was just fading back the way he came to put in another call for backup when the music inside cut out with the ripping sound of a needle across vinyl. In the new silence voices rose up—Bobbie’s first, a sharp lance of protest that didn’t resolve into words, and then a man’s, low and measured, almost reassuring except that it was followed by the sound of breaking glass. A few beats later Bobbie screamed, but the sound was muffled quickly.
Starsky jogged the rest of the way to the corner of the house, looked back toward the Torino and its radio parked about fifty miles away on the other side of the street and then with a whispered “Shit,” pulled the 9mm out of its holster and slipped along the wall, around the corner and toward the porch and the open door. There was no way to get up the steps without moving into the light, so he ducked under the railing and pulled himself up onto the side of the porch where he could stand in the narrow band of shadow between the door and the kitchen window. A quick glance through the window showed him nothing but a small table, newspaper spread out under a plate with half a sandwich still on it, and beyond that a fridge and the dark rectangle of a doorway leading to a hallway and the rest of the house. Holding his breath, he listened carefully, but all he could hear was the low, steady chugging of the car in the alley and a fire engine’s siren coming from Hudson Street.
Slowly he crouched down and edged his eye around the doorjamb. This angle was a little better. He could see straight down the hallway to the front door, the diamonds of the windowpanes and the oblique matching shapes of pale light on the hallway floor. Doorways opened up on each side of the hall, one closed, the other ajar, and halfway down beyond the closed door there was an arch probably leading to the living room. No sign of Bobbie or the man. Staying low, Starsky swung around and into the kitchen.
Broken glass crunched under his feet, and his heel skidded out from under him in a puddle of milk. He caught hold of the handle of the oven and managed not to end up on his back. It was then, while he was bracing himself to get up, that he saw her. She was on the other side of the kitchen, propped where two counters met, in the blind spot where the angles had been all wrong when he’d looked through the window and then through the door. She was sitting upright, legs folded under her, hands bound with wire and resting folded in her lap. Her head was bowed. She was in a pink terrycloth bathrobe, and it gaped open in front to show a crucifix around her neck and the curved shadow of a breast.
Starsky looked hard into the darkness of the hallway but could see nothing. He skirted the broken glass and the milk, then an overturned chair, staying close to the outside wall so he could keep an eye on the hallway as he crouched to press his fingers to Bobbie’s neck. He blew a relieved breath out between pursed lips when he felt the steady throbbing of her pulse and looked toward the phone on the wall beside the kitchen door. Before he could get up, though, a shadow fell on him from behind—not from the hallway, but the open back door—and an arm snaked around his neck and a wet, sweet-smelling cloth folded over his mouth. He heard the 9mm clatter to the linoleum, but he didn’t see anything at all.
He was staring into an open, clouded black eye. He had to look at it for a long time before he figured out what it was, and that in all that time—and who knew how much time that was—the eye hadn’t blinked.
Somehow that realization reminded him to blink, and his eyelids fell like steel doors grating across sand and then wouldn’t open again. That left him in the dark with space expanding and contracting around him in time with his breathing, which was too fast, panicky and shallow. The floor heaved up and fell again and he figured from the pressure on his tailbone that he’d rolled onto his back. It took way too long for all his innards to catch up, space inside twisting like liquor in a rolling bottle. It made sense that puking would be next, and he felt himself turning inside out. He coughed and tasted bile, heaved in another breath and coughed harder, started to flail in his brain because now he couldn’t breathe at all. Nice way to go, he thought, drowning in my dinner. Then: I never got any dinner.
A hand gripped his arm and he was rolled onto his side again. A warm touch on his head, patting his hair gently, then his back, moving in soothing circles while he spat onto the cool floor near his face.
“Aspiration is a problem,” a voice said, and Starsky jerked away from the hands. It wasn’t Hutch. “Shh. It’s okay. Nausea is pretty typical, and it’ll pass, but you can’t lie on your back, okay? Stay on your side. Don’t want to choke yourself, now.”
No. Don’t want to do that. Hutch, Starsky decided, was going to kill him.
For the next while, however long that was, he concentrated on not choking himself. That meant a lot of grinding teeth and trying to get his breathing under control. And that part was freaky because he felt like he was running a four-minute mile or maybe like he was scared—facing down a rattlesnake scared—and he really wasn’t with it enough to be that scared so that meant there was something wrong inside. The engine was racing. He tried holding his breath, counting to five before exhaling. That made him feel like he was drowning again, so he gave up and went back to panting.
“That’ll pass, too,” the voice said reasonably. “Respiratory distress isn’t unusual. Give it a few minutes.”
That was reassuring. Assuming that his heart wasn’t going to burst right away, Starsky filed “respiratory distress” in the “things you can’t do fuck about” category and focused instead on opening his eyes. That hurt. The steel-on-sand feeling was still there and he wondered if maybe this whole project was a good idea, especially when he managed to actually get his lids open and the first thing he saw was a pair of white shoes. One rubber sole was tipped up toward him—the guy was kneeling—and it made a slight grating sound on the concrete as it turned when the guy shifted his weight. A moment later, the shoe flattened down on the floor next to the other, and they rose up one at a time out of sight. He’d stepped up and over something.
Again, Starsky was staring at an open, cloudy black eye.
The eyes stared sightlessly back from a round face, livid on the side closest to the floor and otherwise an almost translucent gray-white that made her look like she’d been carved from wax. Her hair was spread out under the cheek like a black fan, and tucked up close under her chin were her folded hands. She had short, blunt fingers, he noticed, laced together as if in prayer. The thumbnail was missing on the left one, only a black patch of dead blood left in its place. As a shadow moved away he caught a gleam of wire, the windings almost lost in the loosening flesh of her wrists. It was the girl from the photograph in Jocelyn’s apartment. Emily something.
Starsky’s eyes wanted to close again, but he didn’t let them.
“You fucking sonofa—” he began, but with the breath he took in to say it his dulled senses woke up, and he was assaulted by the stench of vomit and the sick-sweetness of decay. Under that, he could smell oranges and dust and his own sweat and as the shadow fell on him again, bleach and licorice. He gagged and curled tight against the rising bile in his throat.
Again the gentle hand made circles on his back, and he thrashed away from the touch, coming up short against something solid. He twisted his neck so he could look up. It was a stack of packing crates, wobbling slightly with the impact. When he lifted his hands over his face, ready to deflect the crates if they fell, he discovered that he was bound at the wrists, heavy wire wrapped around and around and twisted tight on the ends. It would take pliers to get that off. He let his head fall back against the floor. “Bastard,” he said dully. Emily stared at him.
“If you say so,” the reasonable voice said.
“I say so.” Starsky’s voice rasped in his throat and brought the taste of blood. He swallowed hard. No more puking, thanks. No more comforting touches on him, thank you very, very much. “Where’s Bobbie?”
The guy was on the other side of Emily’s body—Starsky noticed now that she was shirtless—and he tilted his head toward the far side of the room. Starsky writhed around until he got his elbows under him, swallowing hard to keep the nausea at bay and finding out along the way that his ankles were bound, too. He squinted into the shadows between more packing crates. Bobbie was there, slumped in the same position she’d been in back in her kitchen, leaning sideways against the wall on her knees, except that now her robe hung low off of one shoulder. Starsky could just make out the neat, regular black markings that disappeared around the angle of her shoulder blade along her back. Her chest rose and fell rapidly, like his own, and she gasped out small breaths through open lips.
Relieved, Starsky let his head fall to rest on his bound hands, then, recognizing that posture, lifted it again, fast enough to make the room spin around him. Closing his eyes only made it worse so he stared at his thumbs until things swung slowly back into place. He was distantly happy that his own breathing was slowing down so that he could hear something beyond his own body. There were no traffic sounds, but there was a hushed, measured rushing that he recognized as the ocean. Oceanside Market, then. Emily’s shop. Knowing that made the room feel more solid under him and he was able to brace himself on elbows and knees and push himself upright. He fell back against the crates, cringing when they creaked above him and relaxing a bit when they didn’t come crashing down on him. At least he was sitting up and could see better. He wiggled his toes. Tingling and then stabbing with pins and needles. His hands, too. But at least they were there, now, real again. Things were looking up. Coming up daisies. Wasn’t he lucky.
On the other side of Emily’s body, the guy was whistling softly as he worked, black marker in his hand.
“What’s your name?”
The guy paused and raised his head to look at him. He had pale eyes in a soft-featured, clean-shaven face, sandy hair falling wispy over his forehead. White bread and mayonnaise. Starsky figured that, if he closed his eyes right now, he wouldn’t be able to picture the face at all. His marker poised over Emily’s shoulder, the guy was considering him with an expression somewhere between compassion and not quite contemptuous pity, and Starsky could imagine being glad to see him in the hospital when the drug haze was thinning and pain was showing through. He could imagine welcoming those competent hands moving knowingly and with purpose to make things right. The thought made the bile rise up in his throat again.
“What’s your name?”
“Ivan.” Apparently the guy decided he was going to play. That was probably a bad sign so far as Starsky’s probably short life expectancy was concerned.
Ivan went back to writing on Emily’s back, hunching over because of the bad angle. Should’ve put her on her stomach instead of her side before the rigor set in, Starsky thought, and then gave himself a mental kick in the head. It was the drugs, he told himself, definitely the drugs. But then Ivan shifted her a little and she moved fairly easily. Rigor on the way out, then. The timeline started to take shape in Starsky’s head. Emily was first, before Jocelyn and Anita. Starsky listened to the waves rushing up and down the sand outside and thought of the dark and empty market, closed until the weekend. Of course. Ivan needed a place. No one would miss her until the shops opened on Friday. In the shadows Bobbie let out a soft moan, and for a second, Starsky could imagine Anita there in that same corner waking up to Emily’s blank stare. His hands curled into fists and he had to breathe deep a few times to get them to relax again. Ivan was taking a risk bringing them back into the city to be found.
Starsky watched Bobbie crawling her way back to consciousness, her fingers twitching.
But they had to be found, didn’t they? Praying. For forgiveness? Ivan had stopped whistling and was humming, his face uncreased and attentive as his hands played gently across Emily’s back, competent, purposeful.
“So, Ivan,” Starsky said conversationally. If he hadn’t been trussed up like a turkey he’d have crossed his ankles and hitched an elbow on the edge of the crate behind him and looked very interested and friendly. Of course, that routine was a lot easier with Hutch prowling in the background ready to shove the perp in Starsky’s direction. “Why are you doin’ this, Ivan, huh?”
“C’mon. Smart guy like you’s gotta have a reason.”
“You already know,” Ivan answered. He licked his thumb and rubbed a spot on Emily’s skin, then wiped it dry with the sleeve of his uniform. “You see what I see.”
“And what’s that?”
“Weakness.” He rocked back on his heels, knees up, arms resting on them. The marker dangled from his fingers. He looked for a second like a little kid, playing marbles on the sidewalk. “It’s all over the place.” The free hand waved vaguely. “It’s a weak world.”
Starsky nodded slowly, closing his eyes for a second against the to-and-fro rocking of the room. He pulled his knees up so he could brace his feet more solidly on the swaying floor. “So killing women and little girls helps . . . how?”
Ivan’s eyes narrowed. “I save them.”
“Anita Spender never hurt anybody.” Anger made the words come out in a snarl. So much for interested and friendly. “Jocelyn never did. I don’t know too much about Emily here, but I bet she never even killed spiders.”
Ivan dismissed him with a sharp slash of his hand and fell forward again onto his knees so he could get his face close to Emily’s back. He shook his head, disgusted, maybe betrayed. “Don’t pretend you’re stupid. You’re a cop. You’re out there every day watching it happen. You know what I mean.”
“Maybe I ain’t as smart as you think.” But he was, only it wasn’t the kind of smarts he wanted to own up to. He tried to turn away from it, but his gaze fell again on Bobbie slumped in the corner. Her eyes were open now and she was watching Ivan stonily while she twisted her wrists inside the bindings.
She licked her lips and said it, just as Starsky was thinking it. “He did it because they loved each other.”
Ivan looked over his shoulder at Bobbie and then aimed a grin at Starsky. “See?” he said, pointing at her with the marker. “She gets it.”
“So,” Starsky said, “you killed them because you figured they were gay?”
A baffled expression on his plain face, Ivan blinked at him. “What?”
“Jocelyn was. Emily was.” Starsky frowned, started rearranging things in his head like he was moving furniture in the dark. “You didn’t do this—” He lifted his hands to indicate Emily. “—because they were gay?”
The disgusted look was back. “That’s sick,” Ivan said. “What difference does it make if somebody’s gay?” He shook his head again, disappointed. “That’s cold, man. Join the twentieth century, huh?”
Starsky wiped his forehead on his sleeve. Still unsettled by the drug, his brain was too clumsy for this, kept stumbling off into the fog, running into things. And it didn’t help that he was apparently in the wrong territory. But the whole story was there, waiting to bruise his shins, if he could just feel it out.
Working quietly, Ivan seemed content to let him mull things over. He’d made his way almost to the small of Emily’s back now and paused to lean away and tilt his head this way and that, appraising. He added something to the lines near her neck.
“There was no body art in Boston,” Starsky said mostly to himself, but knew he’d hit it right when Ivan shrugged and nodded.
“People are pretty thick,” Ivan said. “I waited for them to get the picture, but they didn’t. They didn’t get it in New Jersey, either. Or Savannah.” He waggled the marker at Starsky and then bent his head again. “Sometimes you have to spell it out so they get the message.”
“What message?” Bobbie’s voice was tight, like she was just one step away from tipping over into hysteria or more likely, rage.
Starsky fumbled with the images in his head, turned them around so that he could put them together like Ivan would, so they cut two ways: Hutch holding Mrs. Spender in the rubble. Terry leaving presents for him and Hutch behind. Even Prudholm, all the dead cops in the world not enough to balance the loss of a kid. ’’“Love hurts,” Starsky said.
Ivan’s smile was delighted and he nodded like Starsky had just won the spelling bee. “You get twisted up with someone, they bring you down. They make a hole where the pain gets in.” He tapped his chest over his heart with the end of the marker. “Vulnerable. That guy, the lawyer, he proved it after Boston, except you dumb cops were too stupid to see it, and it was written on the wall in black and white.” He grinned. “Or red and white, I guess.”
“You’re a sick fuck, Ivan,” Bobbie hissed.
“They always say that about visionaries.” He shifted his weight in her direction and she shrank back against the wall. “And that guy, he didn’t have to go that way. He could’ve taken the opportunity I offered him.”
“He could choose.” Starsky’s head was swimming and his own voice came to him from far away. “Is that what you offered Beverley Spender?”
At that Ivan smiled a sad, sympathetic smile, the kind somebody smiles over a stranger’s bed in a hospital. “She’ll be better now. Her husband died, you know, and she kept going. That’s how I knew she would be the one to show them. The lawyer showed them failure. She’ll show them success.”
“And what about us?” Bobbie asked.
“Who loves you?” Ivan sounded like the voice behind a confessional screen in the movies. “Who do you love enough to set free?”
Bobbie’s eyes went wide and Starsky could practically see the parade of bereaved in her head. For the first time since she’d woken up she looked scared.
“She has a little brother,” Ivan told Starsky. “He calls her all the time. Needs advice on this, her opinion on that.” His thin smile turned downward, pitying. “She buys his fucking clothes for him.”
With a sort of sobbing snarl, Bobbie lurched forward up onto her knees and froze when Ivan’s other hand came up, Starsky’s gun in it, pointed at her face.
“Don’t make me ruin the display, Bobbie. You want to be pretty for him, don’t you?”
Pretty. Suddenly the wine and the blue ribbon made sense. And Jocelyn, sweetly posed, tidy and clean. Beautiful and dead. It depends what you mean by compassion. For a brief moment, Starsky wondered what Ivan would do for him, but that line of thought brought Hutch with it—always the first to look—and Starsky had to snap his teeth shut hard to keep from saying don’t! out loud.
Instead he found his most reasonable voice and said, “Ivan, listen.” He braced his elbow against the crate behind him, pulled his feet in a little more. If he could get upright enough to throw himself forward, he could probably knock Ivan over, get his hands on the gun. He cast Bobbie a quick glance. She was still on her knees, five feet away, her eyes on the muzzle. No way to know how helpful she’d be, but there was way more anger on her face than fear now. “Maybe Bobbie doesn’t have to be the lesson. She could learn the lesson, huh? You could let her go and she could be your success story.” Ivan tilted his head thoughtfully, like he was seriously considering the option. “C’mon, Ivan,” Starsky urged softly. “Let her tell ’em.”
After long seconds Ivan shook his head slowly, rose to his feet, the gun angling down to point at Bobbie’s chest. “That wouldn’t help little brother, now, would it?”
“Put the gun down.”
Starsky was so focused on Ivan, and the voice was so unexpected that he didn’t recognize it right away as Hutch’s. When he put it together with the shadow on the wall in the hallway just outside the door, Starsky felt the floor drop out from under him and he had to squeeze his eyes shut for just a moment to get his bearings again.
“Just put it down.” Hutch’s voice was steady, solid ground in the fog. “Just put it down and we can walk out of here.”
“We can’t walk out of here, Detective,” Ivan said.
After slowly rolling over onto his hip, Starsky pulled his hands in under him and braced his elbows on the floor. Then he pulled up his knees. The crates beside him were still teetering a little, but so was everything else. He leaned his shoulder on them until the floor settled a little.
Bobbie’s eyes shifted toward Hutch’s voice. “Shoot him,” she said tightly.
“Shoot me, Detective.”
“Here,” Starsky answered. “Hutch. I’m okay.”
Starsky was on his knees now. In front of him Ivan lifted a foot and put it down so he was straddling Emily’s body, getting ready to back away from the voice in the hallway, but the gun was steady in his hand. The shadow on the wall shifted as Hutch came forward, and Starsky could see the arm of his black leather jacket, a blue gleam along the barrel of the Magnum.
“Nobody else has to die,” Hutch said in the same tone Starsky had used. Starsky wanted to tell him that it wasn’t gonna work, but he was too busy trying to find his center of balance so he could launch himself at Ivan’s legs.
“Everybody has to die.” Ivan laughed, tired and breathy, frustrated, like he’d explained the obvious over and over and just couldn’t be bothered anymore.
As Hutch loomed into the room, Ivan raised the gun and brought it around to aim it, stiff-armed, straight at him. But Ivan’s momentum worked against him, his shin coming up against Emily’s body and his knee buckling. He tripped and fell to the side, haloed in the flash from Hutch’s Magnum.
And then there was a silent spearing of pain that carried Starsky backward into the crates.
The world closed in around him, black sizzling inward from the edges until all he saw was Hutch’s face, his open mouth, eyes wild and impossibly blue in the seething—
I’m hit, Hutch—
—dark. Weightless. Groundless.
Resisting, Starsky thrashed his way free of the black and into the surging roar that he distantly knew was his own heart, blood in his ears. I can hear the ocean, he thought crazily.
He was sprawled—as well as a guy could sprawl when he was tied up hand and foot—against the crates, and they still hadn’t toppled like they should have. There was an arc of bright light across the side of his neck; either it was pain beyond pain, or maybe he wasn’t quite back all the way yet, because it was just light and almost a sound, a shriek in his skin, leaking life like noise. He wanted to hold that noise in, but he needed his hands, his elbows, to get himself sitting up better so he could find Hutch. Ivan’s hand had come up, stiff-armed, with Starsky’s gun, and the flare was from Hutch’s Magnum, but then Starsky went under in the black for—how long? Maybe long enough for a shot he couldn’t hear. So Starsky needed his elbows to hitch himself up so he could find Hutch, so he didn’t put his hands to his neck where the roaring of his heart was probably pumping him dry.
When he found Hutch still standing, the relief felt like cold, like water flash-freezing, bringing the shakes, so when he did finally lift his hands to his neck they stuttered across his wet, sticky skin, unsure and stupid.
Hutch was there between him and Bobbie, his fists wound in the front of Ivan’s white uniform, Ivan himself shoved up against a stack of crates, lifted by the force of Hutch’s rage onto his toes. Bobbie was curled up even tighter to get out of the way as she gaped up at them. Dangling from Hutch’s grip, Ivan was defeated and tired-looking, but even so he leaned his head forward, up close and intimate, and Hutch listened while the roaring in Starsky’s head faded and became just pounding, then the rasping of his own breath, so that at the end Starsky could hear Ivan’s laugh. And then came the pitying, compassionate, downward smile.
Hutch was perfectly still for maybe a second or an hour, eyes on Ivan’s, unblinking, blank, and then he was all motion, stepping back to shift his weight and throw it forward again. The first punch must’ve left blood on the packing crate beside Ivan’s head, because it was slick, black on Hutch’s knuckles as he wound up again. The slats of the crate buckled under the force of the next one so that Hutch’s hand came away in a shower of splinters and packing straw. And Ivan didn’t flinch as the fist drew back again, this time not aiming for the crate.
And Starsky said: “Hutch.”
Everything stopped. The crate above their heads wobbled and settled, and they were breathing all together in the sudden silence.
And then Hutch let him go, opened his hand and let Ivan slide to the floor at his feet. Bobbie scrambled away as much as she could and let out a strangled, teeth-clenched sob when Ivan’s foot touched her own.
A second later, the room was full of cops like they’d just solidified in the room, two of them grabbing Ivan under the arms and turning him on his face next to Emily to cuff him, another straightening with Hutch’s Magnum in one hand, Starsky’s Beretta in the other, holding them by the barrels. And Hutch was on his knees with Starsky’s head gripped between his hands.
“Hutch. I’m hit.”
“Is it bad? How bad is it?”
“I don’t know. Let me see.” Hutch pried at Starsky fingers but they were stiff and unbending and reluctant to let go because his own damn heart was pumping him dry.
“Tell me straight, Hutch.’”
“I can’t tell if you won’t let go, so just let go, dammit.” And with a yank Hutch got his hands away and leaned in close to look. After a long moment he sat back with his hand over his eyes. He was shaking. Shuddering.
“Aw, man. Aw, man, Hutch. ’Sokay. It’ll be fine.” Starsky’s hands were numb from the wire around his wrists, so he couldn’t really feel the sleeve of Hutch’s jacket when his fingers slid across the leather down to Hutch’s hand lying limp on Starsky’s leg.
Hutch wiped his brow on his sleeve and met Starsky’s eyes. His own were blurred, bloodshot, and there was a weird smile on his face, like he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. “It’s orange juice,” he said.
“What?” Starsky looked at him like he’d suddenly started speaking Japanese.
Hutch lifted Starsky’s hands and tilted his head out of the way so that the overhead light fell on them. “It’s orange juice.”
“I’m not hit?”
Hutch’s laugh was as blurry as his eyes. “Oh, you’ve got a crease, for sure, but—” His hand disappeared in Starsky’s peripheral vision, and Starsky could hear the creak and snap of slats. Then the hand reappeared with an exploded orange in it. “—the oranges are dead goners.” Hutch hiccupped out another laugh and slumped forward until his forehead touched Starsky’s. “Son of a bitch,” he whispered, his breath hot on Starsky’s face.
“You can say that again.”
“Son of a bitch.”
Starsky laughed, too. Not dying took all the bones out of him, but Hutch held him together a bit longer, then turned to shout over his shoulder for a medic and some wire cutters.
Oceanside Market was waking up. Not like anybody could’ve slept through the racket, all those sirens tearing swaths out of the sky, and the cherries sweeping and strobing until the whole of the cobblestone square throbbed just out of time enough with Starsky’s head to make him feel seasick. But nobody slept in the market. Except for the law and the ambulances, it had been quiet and deserted until, just as the sky was pinking behind the city, the produce vans and the refrigerated trucks from the pier started showing up, only to be turned back at the gates. Still, a bunch of shop owners had got by the barricade and were standing in their doorways watching or talking in little groups beyond the crime scene tape, hands in the pockets of their tidy, striped aprons. Some of them looked curious. One woman was weeping silently. Most of them looked annoyed and worried. They only had the weekend to make their trade in the market. Soon the body would be taken away and the shopkeepers would wind down their awnings and set out their tables and the crowds would file in, and the seagulls would keep wheeling and shrieking overhead and the whole place would smooth out again.
Life just kept flowing by, frothing a little around murder and carrying on. Starsky looked at his watch, but it was in his pocket; instead his wrist was wrapped in gauze. “What day is it?”
The medic looked up from where he was working on Starsky’s ankle, regarding him for a second quizzically and then nodding his understanding. “Friday.” He shifted a tray in his case to find some tape and used it to secure the last bandage. Wrapped up ankle and wrist and neck, Starsky was feeling a little like a mummy. “’Bout time, huh? Helluva week.”
On the other side of a skewed black and white Bobbie Wyatt was sitting on a stretcher like Starsky was, having her wrists bandaged. The medic moved her easily, lifting her arm, tilting her head back so he could flash a light in her eye. It was like she wasn’t interested at all in what was going on there, like she was gone from herself. Her eyes were on Starsky but he was sure she couldn’t see him.
Behind her the dark alley gaped, walls changing shape as the lights flashed into it from different angles so the emerging stretcher with its black bag and its careful attendants looked like bad stop-motion, the people captured in awkward poses, suddenly closer each time. Bobbie turned mechanically to watch the stretcher pass, Emily get loaded into the wagon. When she met Starsky’s eyes again she could definitely see him, and it felt like someone had stiff-fingered him in the throat.
He swallowed and sucked in a breath, feeling it burn all the way inside. “Glad to see the back o’ this one.”
The medic laughed his agreement and rose to put his hands on Starsky’s shoulders, a gentle but insistent pressure as he tried to get him to lie down on the stretcher. “Just swing your legs up here and we’ll strap you in for the trip.”
Starsky resisted. Over at the mouth of the alley, Hutch was standing with one hand in his pocket. The other wouldn’t fit with the bandage wrapped around it. Without looking Starsky’s way he turned and walked into the alley, each flash taking him farther off until the light didn’t reach him at all anymore.
Starsky batted the medic’s hands away and slid off the stretcher, gripping the edge for a second to get his balance.
“Hey, hang on,” the medic protested. “You—”
Pushing past him, Starsky said, “Later.”
“You’ve got to go in for—”
But Starsky wiped him out of his peripheral vision with a swipe of his hand and waded into the light, sidestepping cops and creeping cop cars making their way through the crowd. The body wagon lurched across his path in the wake of a black and white, and then under the yellow tape a couple of uniforms held up over their heads so the wagon could pass.
Bobbie’s eyes followed Starsky the whole way, constant pressure points on the side of his head, so at the last second he doubled back to her stretcher. The medics were laying her down and tightening the straps across her knees and chest. Around her mouth and her nose the skin was red and flaky, just like Starsky’s was, another reminder that would take awhile to fade. At least Starsky wouldn’t be scrubbing black magic marker off his back for days. He wondered if she would ask what it said, the writing Ivan left on her, if she’d want to know. The investigator in him would, the rest of him, not really. Too much like giving the guy the last word.
“They’ll take good care of you,” he said.
“I know that. These are my guys, remember?” The pride in her voice was good to hear, but her face betrayed what she was really thinking. Ivan was one of her guys, too. She flinched when one of the medics adjusted the straps. As they started to wheel her the short distance to the ambulance, she lifted a hand and groped for Starsky. He stepped closer. “Listen—” she began but closed her lips to a thin line.
She nodded. “Your partner, too, okay?”
“Okay.” He squeezed her hand, and she squeezed back, letting go reluctantly as the stretcher carried her away. Just before they started to lift her inside, she called his name.
“Sometimes your kind of angels come before,” she said. Then the doors closed between them.
Starsky didn’t wait to see the ambulance go. He just noted that the square got a little steadier when the ambulance eased away, taking its circling lights with it. A few more to go and the market would settle into the even paleness of early morning. The thought of that was like a cool cloth on his eyes.
As he walked deeper into the alley the darkness got thicker, more palpable, pooling down here between the buildings even though the sky above them was already a fragile blue. He skirted the rectangle of light that fell through the open door to Emily’s back room and wondered if he’d ever be able to smell oranges again without seeing her cloudy black eye and feeling that soothing hand circling on his back.
A few more paces brought him around the end of a dumpster where he found Hutch braced with one arm on the brick and the other hand wrapped around the rim of a garbage can. He stiffened and jerked forward, coughing and spitting. If he’d eaten a damn thing in the last two days, that wouldn’t be so painful, Starsky thought. He curled an arm around Hutch’s waist and held him through the last couple of spasms until Hutch let go of the wall and leaned, first on the garbage can, and then, when it started to buckle under his weight, back on Starsky. There was a tremor under his skin, adrenaline sparking and seething. It would be Starsky’s turn soon enough. He just hoped he could get somewhere else first. For now he was mostly numb and distant from everything, like more than his wrists were wound up in gauze.
But he could feel Hutch’s heart hammering, practically hear it, and that wasn’t distant at all. Starsky spread his hand out across Hutch’s chest and hung on while a shudder worked its way through them, from Hutch to Starsky and then out to wherever that stuff went. After a few seconds, Hutch patted an okay against Starsky’s hand and stepped away, wiping his mouth on the back of his wrist. When he turned around, though, his gaze snagged on the bandage on Starsky’s neck and half a second later he was heaving into the garbage can again.
“Easy,” Starsky murmured. “Take it easy.”
Head hanging, Hutch said dully, “I thought I killed you.”
Starsky started to make a soothing circle on his back, but caught himself and gripped the back of his neck instead. He gave him a little shake. “Good thing for me you’re a lousy shot.”
Ivan Precosky sat in the back of the black and white and didn’t look at them when they stopped beside the car. He looked small, worn down, and the vague morning light cast no shadows at all so that his face was strangely featureless behind the window that reflected the sky and Hutch’s dark shape. He was a nobody.
“Yeah,” Hutch said. Starsky hadn’t realized he was thinking out loud. Then again, maybe he hadn’t been; it wasn’t all that unusual to find Hutch thinking inside Starsky’s head. “C’mon.” Hutch put a hand on his back.
Dobey had barked and snarled over the radio at them, warning them not to show their ugly faces in the squad room until they’d either had their heads examined or eight hours of sleep. So for now Ivan was somebody else’s responsibility. They stood on the cobblestones and watched the black and white pull out of the square. Except for the crime lab van, Hutch’s LTD was the only car left behind the yellow tape, incongruous against the flower buckets and tables stacked with pyramids of apples, or mounds of ice sliced with the blades of silvery-bodied fish. One of the LTD’s wheels was up on the curb in front of Emily’s shop, the driver’s door still open. With their luck the battery would be dead.
But no, their luck wasn’t so bad, really—Starsky’s hand ghosted to his neck, but he snatched it away, almost before Hutch could see—and Starsky had high hopes for the miserable heap when he slid into the driver’s seat and held out his hand.
“Ye-eah, I don’t think so,” Hutch said, the keys still in his pocket.
Starsky rested his forehead on his arms on the steering wheel. “C’mon, Hutch—”
“You’re supposed to be in the hospital under observation.”
“I told ’em you’d observe me.” After rolling his head so he could aim a puppy dog look at Hutch, he held out his hand again and snapped his fingers.
“You’ve been chloroformed. And shot.”
“Which means I’ve had more sleep than you lately.” The puppy dog face being a spectacular failure, he went for serious and snapped his fingers again. “Let’s go.”
Hutch considered, lips pursed, then nodded. “Okay.” He got into the car, on top of Starsky on the driver’s side so Starsky had to either get mashed or hustle to get out of his way. After a lot of shouting from Starsky and pointed silence from Hutch, Starsky ended up hunched against the passenger door feeling resentful.
He slouched down and put his foot up on the seat. Behind his other ankle, the rack for the shotgun rode against the bandage on his leg, so he put his other foot up, too, and stretched out a bit, his heel against Hutch’s thigh. As the brick walls of the market fell away and the sky filled up the view, Starsky leaned the back of his head on the window and watched Hutch driving, one-handed, the bandaged one stuck inside his jacket like he was some kind of lanky, street-battered Napoleon. A muscle was fluttering in his jaw where he was grinding his teeth. The LTD rumbled over train tracks and the key ring in the ignition clattered against the steering column. Keys to Hutch’s locker at the gym, to Starsky’s place, the Torino, but not one for his own front door. Sleep deprivation and chloroform must’ve been doing weird things to Starsky’s brain because that fact hooked in his thoughts with a barb on the end of it: Hutch without a key to his own damn front door, and a key on the doorjamb where everybody and his uncle could use it.
“You know, Hutch,” Starsky said as he hunkered down even lower and wrapped his arms around himself. “You’re one of them conundrums wrapped in a whatchacallit.”
“Yeah. One a’ those.” Starsky closed his hands into fists and tried to concentrate on breathing through his nose. One Mississippi, two Mississippi.
Casting him a sidelong glance, Hutch frowned. “So what does that make you?” he said, his voice lighter than his expression. “A riddle wrapped in salami?”
The thought of salami made Starsky’s stomach flip over. Three Mississippi, four Mississippi. Everything suddenly got noisier: a bus roaring past in the other direction leaving behind a cloud of diesel fumes, a siren far off and coming closer, someone bellowing out a window, words stretched shapeless by speed. The ocean growled behind his back, but he couldn’t hear it over the buzzing in Hutch’s dashboard, the rattle of the shotgun rack where one of the screws was working loose. Starsky closed his eyes and thought not yet not yet but the noise felt like shrapnel, needle-sharp and white-hot.
Hutch wheeled a right turn onto Ocean Boulevard where he got stuck behind a garbage truck stalled across both lanes. He slapped the steering wheel and swore under his breath.
On his side of the car Starsky was busy counting his breaths—two seconds in, two seconds out—but he could feel the trembling starting under his ribs anyway, and the more he tried to smooth it out the more his skin got prickly. Not yet, not yet, not in the car in the street in broad daylight. So he kicked Hutch in the thigh instead. “Go ahead, say it,” he prodded recklessly. “You know you want to, so just get it outta your system.”
Hutch looked at him, at first surprised and then studiously blank, but Starsky could see him considering whether or not to be baited. Five Mississippi, six Mississippi. C’mon.
When Hutch spoke, he started out like he was reciting by rote, not much feeling in it, but by the time the whole sentence was out, he was shouting. “Starsky, you sonofabitch—”
“—what the hell were you thinking—”
“I know, I know.”
“—going into Wyatt’s place without backup?”
“You were s’posed to be my backup!”
“Well, I’m sorry!”
“So am I!”
With a snarl, Hutch pulled around the garbage truck, going up half onto the sidewalk to do it, and gunned the engine down the empty street.
The shouting got Starsky’s heart thudding loud and steady, but under that something more skittish, spidery, persisted. He prodded again. “You know, none o’ this woulda happened if you would just go home and sleep like a normal human being.”
“Hey! I wasn’t breaking procedure by going for a walk.”
“No, you were just breaking a promise!”
“Well, I’m sorry!”
The LTD lurched to a stop in front of Venice Place and Hutch was out the door before the car had even settled back on the shocks. Starsky almost fell out onto the sidewalk when the passenger door opened behind him. But Hutch was there, bracing him with his leg while Starsky got turned around to clamber out. And Hutch’s hand was in the small of his back as Starsky staggered up the stairs in front of him.
He wasn’t two steps in the door when it hit him. “Ah, fuck,” he said, maybe out loud, maybe not. His voice made an echoing sound like it was ricocheting between his ears. “Here it comes.” He didn’t even try to brace himself against it as the shakes swept through him like an avalanche, complete with deafening rumbling and cold. “I hate this part.”
“Tell me about it.”
Hutch’s voice right in his ear made him jump, and when he turned around to look at him the room spun in the opposite direction so that Hutch had to catch him by the front of his shirt to keep him from falling over backward. He must’ve looked bad—extra bad—because Hutch’s expression went from regular concern to high alert concern.
“Jesus,” he breathed. With firm pressure on Starsky’s chest, he pushed him toward the couch. “Sit down. I’m calling the hospital.”
“Don’t.” Starsky stuffed his fists into his armpits and started to double over. His teeth were chattering so hard he expected to see them bouncing out onto the carpet.
“This is more than—I can’t believe I let you convince me—fuck.” Hutch was dialing.
“You can get fucking liver damage from chloroform poisoning, Starsky.”
“It ain’t my damn liver.”
Hutch was saying, “Hello?” into the phone. And they were gonna send an ambulance and take Starsky to the ER with the green walls and the tile floor where a guy was sitting on a bench with two coffees on the table and gentle people with gentle—
“I don’t want their hands on me!”
Hutch froze and stared at him. Stumbling backward, Starsky tried to find the couch and hit the coffee table instead. He sat down on it hard, knocking candles over, and slid off it onto the floor. He pulled his knees up and braced his elbows on them, the heels of his hands pressed into his eyes. If he pressed hard enough, he could see geometric shapes, drifting squares in blue and gold, but inside his head there was still Ivan licking his thumb and rubbing out a mistake on Emily’s skin, drying it with his sleeve.
He dropped his hands and tipped his head back to stare at the beams in the ceiling. Hutch was beside him, bandaged hand on his arm. Starsky didn’t look at him. “The first time I woke up he was—” When his eyes closed heavily, he could feel it, gentle circles on his back. He heaved his eyes open again. “I thought it was—but it wasn’t you.”
Hutch’s whisper was barely there, just a breath against the side of Starsky’s face. “It wasn’t—” He didn’t have to see to know what Hutch’s face was doing, the stunned look crumbling away and the guilt underneath, his eyes closing tight like someone had shivved him. Hutch’s hand closed around Starsky’s bicep, painful, not gentle at all, and his forehead touched Starsky’s shoulder. “I should have been there. I’m so fucking, fucking sorry.” But then his voice hardened a little. “And you shouldn’t have gone in there alone.”
“It didn’t seem like there was a lot of choice at the time.” Hutch was silent, neither agreeing nor disagreeing, which Starsky was grateful for. Starsky listened to him breathing, realizing after a little while that his own breathing was falling into step, slowing. “You were there when it counted.” He managed to lift his hand and drop it on top of Hutch’s.
“Too late. Always too fucking late.”
“Bobbie Wyatt doesn’t think so.” He massaged Hutch’s fingers. After awhile he said, “You’re cutting off my circulation.” Hutch snorted out a laugh and eased up on his arm enough that Starsky was able to tip sideways away from him and flop onto his back. “She said we were angels.” For some reason, now that he was away from market and the sun was shining, that struck him as funny. The visuals probably had something to do with it. Hutch maybe could pull it off, but Starsky could only picture himself as a hairy Cupid. He started to giggle.
“And hysteria sets in,” Hutch observed, his voice strained as he struggled to his feet. “C’mon. You can have the bed.” He started to pull on Starsky’s arms, but Starsky wiggled his hands free and his arms fell bonelessly onto the floor.
“I move now I’m gonna puke all over this beautiful rug of yours.”
There was a long pause, which Starsky assumed meant Hutch was looking down at him, probably with his hands on his hips. Then there was the sound of running water, footsteps coming back again, the coffee table being shoved aside, another candle falling and rolling. A cool cloth dropped across his eyes, and with more grunting and groaning than was probably necessary, Hutch sat down on the floor with his back against the couch and lifted Starsky’s head onto his leg. Starsky hitched himself up a bit to get more comfortable.
“Geez, Hutch, you always been this bony?”
Hutch flicked him on the forehead. “Geez, Starsk, you always been such a pain in the ass?”
“You sound hot when you say ‘ass.’ Say ‘ass’ again.”
“When exactly do you plan to graduate from the fourth grade?”
“And leave you behind? Never.”
Hutch went taut as a wire.
Starsky clawed the cloth off his eyes and looked up at him. Even though the light was dappled and orange as it filtered through the bamboo slats of the blinds, Hutch was gray. Starsky started to sit up, but the whole puking thing wasn’t out of the question, so he eased himself back down again. Under his head Hutch’s leg was vibrating, but he was working at getting his face to smile, which frankly was not pretty to look at.
“Don’t look at me like that. Close your eyes. Go to sleep.” Hutch said it gruffly, making a mother hen joke of it as he took the cloth out of Starsky’s hand and tried to put it back over his face. But his expression hardened to dangerous when Starsky blocked him with his arm.
“What did he say to you?”
Hutch raised his eyes. “Nothing.”
“I saw your face. Before you used that crate for a punching bag. No way that was nothing.” To put a point on it, he picked up Hutch’s hand and ran his thumb over the bandage. It was spotted with red across the knuckles already. “This ain’t nothing.”
Hutch pulled away and turned his hand palm up so he could pick at the tape. Starsky watched Hutch worry the bandage, looked at the red splotches on the gauze, and the pieces started falling heavily enough to make a percussion inside Starsky’s head, one after another like they were blocks attached with string, each one a backward step in time: the sweet, impossible sharpness of oranges and Hutch’s hands on either side of Starsky’s head; the splinters from the broken slats of the crate, a sudden smell of spices fanning out over the slipperiness of decay, and Hutch’s knuckles gleaming, slick with blood; Hutch’s fury torqued to the point of breaking, wound so tight there was no motion in him at all; Ivan’s mouth close to Hutch’s ear; Ivan’s toes in his white shoes barely touching the ground; Hutch’s hands wrapped up in the lapels of the white jacket. Both of Hutch’s hands. And then, looping back to the nearest in memory like it was the moral of the story, the uniform straightening from where he was crouched, standing up with a gun in each hand, Starsky’s Beretta, Hutch’s Magnum.
“God,” Starsky said, and Hutch’s eyes closed. “Hutch.” A flinch. “You laid down your weapon.”
“He got between us. I didn’t know if you—” Hutch began. He searched the room for an explanation, and when he found it, his voice was a dismal whisper, wind in dry grass. “It was a long time. Twenty seconds? Ten?” Starsky waited. It was like standing in a doorway looking out into darkness. Hutch sucked in a breath and ran his hand across his mouth a couple of times. “I don’t think I put it down. I don’t . . . I don’t know. It wasn’t in my hand.” He looked down at his hands as if he expected the gun to be there instead of in its holster next to Starsky’s head. Starsky’s was in an evidence bag in lockup, and the empty holster pinched his shoulder. “I called your name and you didn’t answer.” Hutch’s voice was papery, ready to fall to ash. “He said I had to choose.”
“Choose.” Starsky was very still, hardly breathing, and Hutch was a tense curve under his head.
With stiff fingers Hutch rubbed a spot on his own chest, small circles. “I shot you and you didn’t answer and he had your Beretta. He was between me and you and he said I had to choose. Stand alone or fall.” Frowning, he yanked on his shirt, popping the top snap and pulling the fabric aside. On his chest, off-center, just above his heart, there was a round, purple bruise about the size of a quarter. “Huh,” he said, bemused. “I guess I got a little close.”
It was like hitting black ice, the way it came to Starsky with the slow-motion inevitability of a spectacular wipeout in the middle of the night, a frictionless swerve off the road, out of the lamplight, wheels spinning in dead air: Hutch stepping into Ivan’s—Starsky’s—gun. A dare. Starsky’s throat worked, but just like in a bad dream, he had no voice.
When Hutch looked down at him, it was like that saying, the one about the abyss looking back, a thousand miles of emptiness. “It was a little crazy, when he wouldn’t let me get to you, and I didn’t know—” The grin that twisted up the side of his mouth was embarrassed, self-deprecating. “Twenty seconds is a long time to be that kind of alone, Starsk, even in your imagination.”
Starsky stared at him long enough for Hutch’s eyes to get blurry again, long enough for Hutch to realize it and to get fidgety about being watched and to use the bloodied knuckles to wipe them dry, and then Starsky’s lungs finally unlocked and air rushed in. He got his elbow up on the corner of the coffee table and levered himself onto his knees so that he could meet Hutch’s gaze, upright and level. And that last part wasn’t easy because it was like looking down a well, the kind of deep-down distance that wants to pull you in. He anchored himself with a hand on the side of Hutch’s neck, Hutch’s heart thudding there in his palm. “Okay, you listen to me.” His other hand found its way to his chest and covered the bruise Hutch got from falling. “We know—you an’ me—we know the world doesn’t end.”
Hutch’s voice was flat. “For a second, I thought . . . maybe it does. Maybe it should.”
“No. It ain’t like that.” The room was swaying a little bit, and Starsky let it carry him closer, into Hutch’s space, so that he had to lean heavily on the bruise, so that Hutch winced a little. “You took his gun away.”
“Yeah, I did.” Hutch’s pulse was a stutter under Starsky’s hands, but his voice was even, like the two weren’t even connected. His eyes were dry again and he was gone, way down there in the distance. “But for a second I thought that maybe I didn’t want to.” Starsky’s fingers tightened on the side of Hutch’s neck and he hung on until they were aching, until, suddenly, all at once, Hutch came back, stopped looking through Starsky and focused on his face and then, because everything was all ass-backwards and freefalling, he grinned, small at first and then getting bigger until he had to duck his head with that breathy laugh he usually used when he was resigned to whatever absurdity Starsky was up to. “Just for a second.” When he raised his eyes again he lifted his hand and rubbed his thumb between Starsky’s brows, smoothing out the frown. “He made a mistake.”
“Crazy things can happen in a guy’s head in twenty seconds when the worst thing he can think of happens. And he had me. But he screwed up.” Starsky waited while Hutch’s hand moved to his face, his thumb stroking once across his cheek before he let the hand fall. “He said you made me weak.” Hutch laughed again. The laugh said that Starsky should be sharing an inside joke, the kind they told in glances and half sentences when other people were around.
"And that's when you—" Starsky mimed punching the crates.
"Nope. That's when I took the gun away. And I had him. I had him there." This time Hutch held up his fists and Starsky could see Ivan in his grip, Ivan's sleeve stained with black marker, his hair falling over one pale eye, his mouth close to Hutch's ear. "And the sonofabitch said I should be grateful." Hutch winced at the pull of tape on his skin, opened his fists and dropped his hands. “That made me mad.”
Like bones being set, things fell back into place.
“I could see you were a little miffed.”
“A little.” Hutch made a silent ow and pried Starsky’s hand off his chest, but he didn’t let it go. “You make me hurt like nobody else sometimes. But you never make me weak.”
Starsky nodded. He could feel the tension sizzling away, getting thinner and thinner until it was just part of the hum of traffic two blocks away on the strip, and the hiss of the ocean in the other direction. As he let out the breath he was holding, he slumped under the weight of his own bones and closed his eyes. “The world doesn’t come to an end. We know that, you an’ me.”
Hutch’s hand closed firmly around his for a second. “I take it on faith.” The grip got suddenly tighter so that Starsky opened his eyes. Hutch’s face was stern. “Don’t ever prove it.”
Starsky grinned and patted Hutch’s head before falling against the couch and slouching low so his neck was against the seat cushions. “Far be it from me to fuck with a guy’s religion.”
They sat there side by side on the uncomfortable floor while the apartment got warmer and the slatted lines of light through the blinds retreated across the planks toward the kitchen and the city grumbled and the smell of pastry drifted up from the bistro downstairs. Starsky’s thumb moved back and forth across the bandage on Hutch’s hand. “Hutch?”
“How come you always go first?”
A breath that didn’t become a full-fledged laugh was followed by the sharp jab of Hutch’s bony elbow in Starsky’s ribs. “You’re like gum on a shoe, you know that?”
Starsky got his hand between his tender side and Hutch’s elbow. “When I was a kid, I used to make my mom check the closet in my bedroom. I figured if she came out okay, it was safe.”
“You think I’m checking for monsters?”
Starsky shrugged. “You tell me.”
Hutch was silent for so long, Starsky thought he’d fallen asleep. Then: “I dunno how to break it to you, Starsk, but there really are monsters.”
Starsky shrugged again and listed a little until he was propped up against Hutch’s shoulder. “’Sokay,” he said through a yawn. “I got your back.”