His wrist watch read 6:03. Shift over, Harold Dobey loosened the brightly-colored tie that was slowly choking him and moved to clear away the mound of paperwork covering his desk.
"Hey?" A tall, blond detective poked his head past the door jamb and grinned toothily. "Got a little problem out here. Think you can give us a hand?"
"Don't tell me you two hotshots have finally met your match?"
Another grinning face appeared in the doorway, and both men entered his office.
"Nothing serious," the shorter man said. "Just a kid I
know. Lives in the next house down from my apartment. I think he's tryin' to get himself accepted into a neighborhood gang. He's barreling straight for trouble if something ain't done soon. Brought him in for the 'tour."
Dobey grimaced and stole another quick look at his watch. Edith would have dinner on the table at 7:30 sharp; Cal would be up for another thirty minutes after that. Plenty of time. He nodded. "Okay. What's his name?"
"Calls himself Mitch."
"Well, send him in. I'll give him the fifty-cent treatment. Think that'll do it?"
"Hope so. He's a pretty good kid just a little screwed up right now. He's had it rough these past few months."
"Where is he?"
"Sitting at my desk. I'll go get him. And thanks. That's one I owe ya."
"I'll remember that."
"And I'll remind him," the blond said, following on the heels of his partner.
Dobey sank back into the padded softness of his office chair, watched as the door opened again. A thin, sullen youth was persuaded through. "Harold Dobey. This is Mitch. Mitch, Harold Dobey."
"Hello, Mitch. Come on in and take a seat." He nodded, and his detective winked, held up two crossed fingers, then disappeared behind the door.
The boy stood frozen in a cold, defiant stance, hands thrust deeply into the pockets of a worn cloth jacket two sizes too big. His long, greasy hair was slicked back, revealing a thin face that hadn't seen soap in a month of Sundays. Dobey sighed, shook his head.
Today's youth -- the hope of the future. Heaven help us all.
For a long moment he pretended to be engrossed in his paperwork, then he motioned for the boy to be seated. The sound of shuffling feet and an abrupt expulsion of air told Dobey the kid had taken the suggestion and dropped into the chair across from his desk. He waited a moment more, then looked up to find two piercing blue eyes watching him with a detached interest. He studied the long face, decided that the cheek bones were too high, the eyes too close together, the chin too pointed. Ugly was the only word applicable.
"Don't know what he toldja, but I didn't do nothin' wrong."
"I know that, Mitch. Your friend just brought you here for a --"
"Ain't my friend! Don't have any don't need any! Look, if you ain't got nothin' on me, can I go? I'll be late for my Boy Scout meeting."
The gangly kid rose, pulled his lightweight jacket tighter around his slight frame, and prepared to bolt from the room.
Dobey stood slowly, towering over the boy. He made his voice go low and deadly. "You can go -- but only after I'm finished with you."
Mitch didn't seem impressed. "I know what you're tryin' to do, but it ain't gonna work. I already seen it all. Nuthin' scares me anymore."
"Then you're a fool!" Dobey saw the boy's jawline harden. "Okay, so you're a big tough guy. You're not going to be impressed or influenced by anything I might have to show you, but at the risk of boring you, we'll just take the tour anyway. Then you can go to your 'Boy Scout' meeting. Okay?"
Not waiting for an answer, Dobey strode to the door, opened it wide. The youth balked for a moment, then seemed to come to a decision.
"Oh, hell, let's get this over with!"
The fingerprinting demonstration, the line-up room, the shooting range, and the interrogation room took up less than ten minutes, and his guest seemed unimpressed with all, so Dobey headed toward the dark recesses of headquarters. Motioning for the boy to follow, he took a quick, deep breath and entered a long, seemingly deserted hallway. The overwhelming stench of vomit and urine struck him full force, and he swallowed, silently giving thanks for a meager lunch. "The drunk tank -- one of our lovelier spots this time of year." Dobey stole a quick glance at the teenager, felt a small twinge of satisfaction at the paste-white face. "This is where we keep the pillars of society. We haul them in, dry them out, clean them up, and let them go so we can repeat the whole process again next week. Good waste of your dad's tax money."
At this, Mitch stopped and looked down at his feet. "My father's dead."
"I'm sorry," Dobey said sincerely. "I didn't know."
The boy shrugged noncommittally, turning his attention toward a dimly lit cell on his right. Screams and muffled thuds came from inside, and he drew closer, straining to see through the small square opening. A claw-like hand suddenly thrust through the bars; Mitch recoiled and turned huge frightened eyes on Dobey.
"Bad trip. Need of a fix. DT's. We can't be sure which it is this time. Martin's on all of them. He's here awaiting transfer to the county hospital or the morgue whichever happens first. Come on. This way."
Dobey took a sharp left, started up a flight of stairs leading to a newer part of the building. "This is where we put the first offenders. We try to keep them separate from the rest."
The earnest question both surprised and pleased him. He turned, found the looks of revulsion and fear gone from the young face, an open curiosity in their place.
"Well, some of them are kids, like you, and some have committed crimes that aren't that serious. We treat them rough, take away some of their dignity, scare the living hell out of them if we can. Sometimes it works, and they don't come back."
"And the rest the ones that do come back? Where do you keep them?"
"Back there." Dobey indicated the rear of the building with his head. "At least until they're convicted. Then they're beyond help."
"Mitch? Hey, Mitch!" An adolescent voice came from one of the newer cells. "What'd they get you for, man?"
"Yeah, man. What're you in for?"
"Uh nothin'. Just takin' a forced tour of the place. What about you?"
"Ah, remember old man Meigg's silver Pontiac? Well, I sorta borrowed it, and now it's got green streaks down one side and a bent back fender "
"Bet that pissed him off." The kid chuckled.
Rico returned the laughter. "No big deal. My dad'll be down here soon to bust me outta this place, and I'll be back out."
"Sure. See ya."
The youth seemed in a hurry to get away from the cell, and Dobey strained to catch up to him. "Friend of yours?" A nod. "How old is he?"
"How old are you, Mitch?"
"Sixteen well, I'll be sixteen " He counted on his fingers. " in eight more months."
"Kind of hard to see a friend in the 'joint', isn't it? The sad part is, Rico'll be back."
"How do you know?" All defiance was gone.
"Because we didn't reach him this time. We haven't scared him enough not to try it again. So, when he's released, the memory of what he's been through here will fade, and one day he'll see another Pontiac or a Ford or a Chevy, and he'll 'borrow' it. After that, he'll move on to bigger jobs, maybe even armed robbery. By the time he's thirty, I'll bet he'll have spent half his life behind bars if he lives that long."
"'S not fair!"
"Hey, whoever told you life was fair? The system is the system; you don't like it, then go out and change it."
The faint glimmer of a crooked smile brightened the boy's grim features, and Dobey suddenly decided that, maybe, just maybe, with enough Lifebuoy and Head and Shoulders, the kid might not be all that ugly. "What's the Mona Lisa smile for?"
The kid snorted. "Oh, I dunno guess you kinda remind me of my dad. Crusader Rabbit, Hopalong Cassidy, and the Lone Ranger all rolled into one. The only difference is " He faltered, seemed at a sudden loss for words.
"That I'm black?"
Color seeped into the thin cheeks. A sheepish grin, slight nod.
"Not really so different though, huh?" Dobey smiled.
"'The difference that don't make a difference is no difference.' My dad used to say that."
"Your dad was a smart man. What'd he do for a living?" Dobey checked his watch again 7:15. He was going to be late, but that was the least priority on his mind at the moment. Now that he'd broken through the wall of mistrust, he felt himself warming to this youngster. In fact, he thought
with amazement, the kid was quite likable. Underneath the tough-guy faηade was an openness, a genuine eagerness to learn.
"He was a cop. New York."
"'One of New York's finest', eh?"
"Yep." A faint trace of pride was evident.
"Good cop, huh?"
"Too good." His voice was husky with emotion, and he turned his head quickly toward the floor.
Dobey changed the subject. "So, you and your mom moved out here?"
"Nope. Mom's not well. My aunt says it's the shock. But she'll be better soon."
"And how about you?"
"It must've been quite a shock, losing your father."
The narrow face showed open bewilderment at the statement, and Dobey wondered if the boy had ever been asked about his feelings on the loss of his father.
A pause. Then, "Yeah," he whispered, then suddenly squared his shoulders. "But I don't need him don't need nobody any "
"I'll bet it'd hurt him if he heard you say that." Dobey's large hand reached out, squeezed a bony shoulder in sympathy, but the kid jerked out of his grasp almost immediately.
"How the hell do you know how my father'd feel? You never met him! You didn't know him. You "
"No, I never met him." Dobey made his voice sound calm and soothing. "But I have a son, and it would hurt me deeply to know he didn't need me, that he couldn't come to me with a problem or --"
"But he went away. He left me and Mom and --"
"Come on. You're old enough to know that he couldn't help leaving you. It wasn't his idea to go, was it?" A slight shake of the head was the only response. "My guess is, if it was up to him, he'd be right here with you now. Don't you agree?"
"Yes, you do. And what would he say if he could see you right now?"
The boy sniffled, raised brimming blue eyes. "He'd probably tell me to go take a bath and get a haircut."
Dobey felt an involuntary grin starting, clamped down on it before it grew noticeable. "He'd be right, too."
"Yeah. Guess so " A sigh.
Dobey snaked an arm around the boy's shoulder. This time his touch wasn't rebuffed. "Well," he said with a nod and a knowing smile, "We don't really need to finish the tour, do we?"
The kid shook his head, swiped the moisture from his eyes with the backs of his grimy hands.
"I didn't think so. Come on, your friend is waiting."
The office clock read 7:32 when he reentered the squad room. The blond was slouched in a straight-back chair; his partner had his well-defined rump perched on the side of the desk. Both seemed totally absorbed in a game of dominoes.
"Hey, Lieutenant! Your wife called. Said to tell you Elmo's on his way. I told her you'd probably be a little late."
"Said she had barbecued spare ribs and fresh strawberry pie waiting for you. Guess who's coming to dinner?"
"Always room for one or two more at the Dobey house. How about you, Mitch? Would you like to have dinner with us? Edith makes a mouthwatering strawberry pie, and I'll even introduce you to Cal."
"Oh, the two of you'll have loads to talk about, Mitch," the blond detective laughed. "Cal's all of three months old."
"I wish I could, Lieutenant Dobey, but I really do got a Boy Scout meeting tonight. Guess I'd better get going. See you later, Johnny?"
"Yeah, Dave. I'll be there. Just keep practicing those knots, okay? You'll get them eventually. It's just going to take you a little longer than the rest of the boys."
"Yeah, I know. See ya, Murphy. See ya, Blaine! Thanks again, Lieutenant Dobey."
The boy hurried out the door, and Dobey turned to Blaine and Murphy. "Dave?"
"Mitch is a gang name he goes by. Real name is David Starsky."
"And he really does have a Boy Scout meeting tonight?"
"Yep. Got him involved in them right after he moved out here. Right now he's working on a merit badge for tying knots. Poor kid's having a helluva time of it. He's a southpaw, and the directions in the manual are strictly for us 'normal' people. How'd his tour go?"
"Effective, I think. At first, he came on like some kind of JD, but later, after I brought up the subject of his father, well, he started to come out of his shell and ."
A deep rumble came from the vicinity of his stomach, and he stopped in the middle of his sentence, headed for the door. "Gentlemen, there's a plate of barbecued ribs and a piece of Edith's strawberry pie with my name on it waiting at my house. And my partner's on the way as we speak. I don't
think I have to tell you how much will be left if he gets there before we do. I suggest we adjourn there and worry about David 'Mitch' Starsky later. Besides, if my instincts are right, and they usually are, he's gonna turn out just fine. Last one out of the office gets first look at the new baby
pictures of Cal and hey, wait for me!"