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DISCLAIMER: Portions of this story consist of actual dialogue from the episode "A Coffin for Starsky." No copyright infringement was intended.
Time in a Glass
Time why you punish me?
Like a wave crashin' into the shore
you wash away my dreams.
Time why you walk away?
Like a friend with somewhere to go
you left me cryin'.
Can you teach me about tomorrow
and all the pain and sorrow runnin' free?
'Cause tomorrow's just another day
and I don't believe in Time.
Time -- Hootie and the Blowfish
I was dreaming when the phone rang. A strange dream where Starsky and I had followed a couple of big time drug dealers into a warehouse. We were hiding behind packing crates, just waiting for money and heroin to change hands so we'd have enough cause to bust the creeps. Trouble was, the waiting just seemed to go on and on for hours, time stretching like saltwater taffy until my whole body ached from holding so still. Then, just when I didn't think I could stand another minute, the fire alarm went off.
Now here's where the dream got really weird. Suddenly the air was thick with clouds of black smoke, making my eyes sting and choking the breath from my lungs, even though only a moment earlier there hadn't been the slightest hint of fire. I heard footsteps as the bad guys ran for their lives, then the voice of my partner, high with panic.
I stumbled to my feet, coughing and wheezing, knowing that we had to get out fast. My stomach did a long, slow roll as I realized I couldn't even see my own hand in front of my face, let alone...
The fire alarm transformed into the trilling of the telephone on the bedside table. I rolled onto my back and fumbled for the receiver, bringing it to my ear without ever opening my eyes.
Silence. No answering greeting, no "sorry, wrong number," not even a dial tone. Irritation drove away some of the fuzziness and I propped myself up on an elbow to squint at the clock. 4:01. In the morning. Jeez, was this someone's idea of a joke?
"Hello? Who's this?"
I was just about to slam the receiver back onto the cradle when a soft sound stayed my hand. Breathing, harsh and ragged, as if someone were struggling for air. Abrupt, irrational fear slammed into me like a freight train. I opened my mouth, but never got the chance to speak.
Weak and thin, consonants slurred, but I'd recognize that particular voice anywhere, under any circumstances. I bolted upright, pressing the phone tightly to my ear.
"Starsky? Starsky, what's wrong, are you hurt? Talk to me, partner."
No response, just a muffled thud and then silence. Not even the soughing of his breath for reassurance.
Okay, I'll admit it. I went a little crazy. I have vague memories of carrying the phone around, wedged between my shoulder and my chin, shouting and swearing at poor Starsky to pick up the damn phone and answer me as I pulled on some clothes. I couldn't bring myself to hang up. Just putting the phone down, terminating my only connection to him so that I could drive to his place, was one of the hardest things I've ever done.
It's nothing short of a miracle that I didn't wreck my car on the way to his apartment. The streets were mostly deserted, which was fortunate since I ran every red light. My thoughts were all tangled and jumbled--snapshot images of the smoke and terror from my dream mixed with the countless real life threats we encounter every day. And through it all, over and over, those words kept echoing in my head:
I pulled in tight behind the Torino and took the stairs two at a time. I raised my fist to pound on the door, then froze when I saw it hung ajar, spilling a pale swathe of light onto the top step. Up until that moment I'd been functioning as a friend, consumed by the need to reach Starsky, to verify that he was all right or help him if he wasn't. That four inches of space between the door and the jamb brought me to my senses, snapped me into cop mode. I drew my gun and nudged the door the rest of the way open.
Other than a light over the stove, most of the apartment was bathed in shadow. Still, I know the place like the back of my hand, and was able to move unerringly through the living room to the bedroom. I risked calling out Starsky's name, my own voice sounding odd in the eerie silence.
In the bedroom the first thing my eyes settled on was the empty bed, the sheets rumpled and twisted. I flicked on the light, saw the phone cord dangling from the nightstand and the crumpled form of my partner. A quick, sweeping glance to be sure we were alone, then I holstered my weapon and dropped to my knees.
I was afraid to touch him at first. Starsky is a bundle of energy, perpetual motion. To see him lying pale and still made my heart twist in my chest. I tentatively ran my fingers through his dark curls, looking for a lump, blood--something to explain why he was lying, unresponsive, on the floor. Had he fallen out of bed, hit his head? The open front door flashed through my brain, defying such an innocuous explanation.
When I couldn't find any sign of injury, I gently turned him over and pulled him into my lap. The warmth of his body, and the soft moan he uttered, slowed the pounding of my heart.
"Starsky," I murmured, feeling up and down the length of each arm for broken bones. "C'mon, wake up, buddy."
Dark eyelashes fluttered and his lids cracked open to reveal just a hint of blue. His mouth moved, and I could see the nearly superhuman effort it took for him to form words. "Hutch...help me."
"I'm right here, Starsk, I've got you." I tried to mask the tremor in my voice, to make it as soothing as possible. "What's wrong, buddy, are you hurt? You've got to tell me what happened."
His hands fluttered, fingers scrabbling to grasp my jacket as he struggled to open eyes that had slipped shut while I was talking. "Hutch...help...shot."
A chill raced up and down my spine. "Shot? Someone shot you? Where, Starsk?" I eased him out of my arms and examined him from head to toe, only becoming more confused. No gunshot wound, no blood--in fact, there didn't seem to be a mark on him.
The whole time I was checking Starsky over he was trying to grab hold of me, mumbling words that were so badly garbled I could barely understand them.
"Mask...laughing...no shot...can' move...hours..."
All at once his words clicked into place. I used my thumb to carefully pry open his right eye. It was glassy, unfocused, and the pupil was huge, black nearly swallowing blue. Starsky was referring to a hypodermic, not a gun. He'd been drugged.
Hands shaking, I snatched up the phone and called for an ambulance, then hauled him back into my lap to wait. He kept trying to slip back under, but I wouldn't let him--lightly slapping his face, shaking him, forcing him to answer questions. I could see there was something else he wanted to tell me, but whatever he'd been given made concentration nearly impossible.
"Who was it, Starsky? Did you see his face?" I'd been badgering him for information in the hope of keeping him conscious. So far it was working--sort of. He hadn't gone back to sleep, but he was pretty fuzzy and not making much sense. I heard the first wail of a siren in the distance and pushed a little harder, knowing help was only minutes away. "Why did he drug you?"
He fought to focus on my face, fingers knotted into the leather of my jacket in a death grip, and his lips moved. "Po...po..."
"Portrell? Is that who it was? Mickey Portrell?" My blood boiled and my head filled with ideas of just what I'd do to Mickey when I got my hands on him.
Starsky's fingers curled around my wrist, tightening to the point of pain and capturing my attention. "No. 'S...po...poison."
The paramedics chose that moment to burst into the apartment. They surrounded Starsky and started taking his vital signs, unceremoniously shoving me out of the way. I sank back against the bed, resting my forehead on my knees.
After several minutes of leaving me to my own troubled thoughts, one of the paramedics, a kid who didn't look old enough to shave let alone take care of my partner, tapped me on the shoulder.
"He's been drugged, some kind of barbiturate. It's a fairly heavy dose but not dangerous. We're taking him in to Memorial."
"He told me he was poisoned," I said through numb lips.
The kid frowned, sneaking a quick glance at his partner before answering. "They'll do a full blood work up at Memorial. He's stable for now."
For now. Two little words that said it all.
"I'm coming with you," I told him.
His frown deepened and he shook his head. "I'm sorry, sir, but we don't allow family members to ride in the ambulance. If you get your car you can follow..."
I had my badge in my hand as soon as I heard the apology, tempted to pull my gun as well. "I'm a cop, and that's my partner. Wherever he goes, I go--got it?"
"This isn't an emergency, Tim, we can bend the rules a little. Let him ride along."
I sent the slightly older, obviously wiser paramedic a grateful look, then stood to help them load Starsky onto the gurney. He was out again, not even twitching as they strapped him in. A clear image of him after the shooting in the restaurant flashed before my eyes, his face chalk white and so frail looking, and I mentally gave myself a slap. This was different. Starsky wasn't being held hostage by hired killers, losing more blood with every passing second. He was safe now, on his way to the hospital where a doctor would figure out whatever poison he'd been given and administer the appropriate antidote. By tonight we'd probably be back at Metro, rehashing old cases and going through old files to figure out who'd want to hurt him.
I tried hard to tune out the siren's nerve-wracking whine, busying myself with tucking the blanket under Starsky's chin. The initial surge of adrenaline generated by his cry for help was wearing off, leaving me bone tired and sick at heart, a dull headache throbbing behind my eyes. Starsky was more than just my partner and best friend, he was closer to me than a brother. What hurt him hurt me, and I couldn't seem to shake the black cloud of uneasiness that had overshadowed me ever since I'd awakened from that blasted dream. The overwhelming feeling that Starsky...
NO! He's safe now. Everything is going to be fine.
I kept repeating it over and over in my head, like a mantra, all the way into the emergency room. Maybe if I said it often enough, I'd start to believe it.
At first I thought I was dreaming. There I was, sound asleep, when I felt a sharp, stabbing pain in my arm. Felt like somethin' stung me or bit me. I sat straight up in bed, rubbin' it and kinda lookin' around, thinking maybe there was a bee in the room.
I hate bees.
Last thing I expected to see was some flake with a stocking over his head standin' next to my bed. I rolled away, hoping I could get outta bed and across the room to my gun before the guy could stab me a second time. Then things got really weird.
Everything turned blurry, and tryin' to move was like swimmin' through molasses. I blinked and shook my head--big mistake. I was flat on my back 'fore I knew what hit me, struggling to keep open eyelids that felt as if they had thirty-pound weights attached to 'em. Someone started laughin' like he'd heard the funniest joke in the world and a minute later Stocking Mask was leanin' over me, holding a needle. It was like lookin' through a funhouse mirror--his face, the nose and ears all flattened by the mesh, and the needle looked huge while everything else wavered in and out of focus.
I was terrified of that syringe. Loopy as I was, I could still remember Hutch sweatin' and shiverin' in my arms as I nursed him through withdrawal. I fought to move, to yank my arm from his grasp and crawl away, but it was like my body no longer belonged to me. I was helpless to defend myself, helpless to stop him. I just lay there like a baby while he rammed the needled into my arm, never letting up on that damn cackling.
"You got twenty-four hours to live, Pig. Count 'em. Twenty-four."
The words bounced and echoed through my head. Sounded like when we'd play cowboys and Indians in the drainage pipes when I was a kid, yellin' and screamin' at each other until the concrete vibrated or a cop came to chase us out.
I watched Stocking Mask cross my bedroom and walk out the door, my ears ringing and my stomach churning from the dizziness. My eyes kept slipping shut and I really wanted to just let go and sleep, but something was naggin' at me. What had he said? I shoved at the darkness that continued to sneak up on me, determined to concentrate.
Twenty-four hours? For me to live? What was in that shot? Oh God, poison?
Somehow I was able to move, to roll toward the table next to the bed. A little corner of my brain recognized that the display on the clock read 3:58, but my target was the phone. It looked a million miles away but I flung my arm out as far as I could, trying to snag the receiver. Smooth move--I lost my balance and ended up on the floor, still tangled up in the sheets. I was so dizzy and mixed up I felt like cryin', but as messed up as my head was, one thing was still clear--Hutch would take care of me. If I could just reach the phone...
I concentrated on the nightstand and the three cords trailing down to the floor. There was really only one, of course, but my eyesight was pretty goofed up by Stocking Mask's drug. I heaved my arm up, tangled my fingers in the plastic, and pulled. The crash of the phone hitting the floor was one of the sweetest sounds I ever heard.
I could barely feel my own hands as I fumbled the phone into a position where I could see the buttons. The numbers kept melting and running together, but after four years I could dial Blondie's number in my sleep--which I nearly was by that time. Don't know if you'd call it prayin', but I just kept repeatin' the same words in my head as I listened to the phone ring. Kinda like when you're a kid and you say "Cross my heart, hope to die..." Only for me, it was:
Funny thing was, when Hutch actually answered I couldn't seem to make my mouth work. All those words dancin' around in my thick skull and I couldn't get 'em past my lips. So even though my brain was sayin' "Hutch, I need help, some creep just shot me up with some kinda poison and I can't move," all that I could squeeze out was "Hutch...help." Sayin' those two little words was more tiring than chasing a punk ten blocks on a hot day. The darkness that'd been hangin' around the edges of my vision sorta took over, and I guess I musta passed out.
I woke up to the feelin' of someone's arms around me and the warmth of a body pressed up along my back. Everything was so mixed up, at first I panicked, sure that Stocking Mask had come back to finish me off. Then I realized that whoever was holding me was bein' real gentle, checkin' me over to see if I'd broken any bones or if there was a new dent in my head. Little by little, like someone turnin' up the volume on a radio, I could hear a familiar voice, and then words.
"Starsky. Come on, wake up, buddy."
It took a lotta hard work just to crank my eyes open a crack, but it was worth it to see that face. For the first time since I woke up and saw the creep in my bedroom, I felt safe. Like everything was gonna be okay. I just had to make Hutch understand, but gettin' my lips and tongue to move was nearly impossible.
I could feel him tighten his grip on me, and he started talking into my ear real soft and low, tellin' me how he was right there and askin' me what happened. I still felt disconnected from my body, but I somehow got a couple of fistfulls of his leather jacket and tried again.
Brilliant, huh? You try makin' conversation when some flake's pumped you full of who knows what. See how much sense you make.
Hutch, God love him, leaped to a completely wrong conclusion. 'Fore I could blink an eye he had me laid out on the floor so he could look for a gunshot wound. I kept trying to grab onto him, make him stop and listen, though I gotta admit I was babblin' by then. My brain wasn't workin' too speedy, but it was a helluva lot faster than my mouth. Stocking Mask, the needle, the fact that I couldn't even move--it came spillin' out all at once, in a voice I didn't even recognize.
I gotta hand it to Hutch, though. Something, somewhere along the line clicked into place in that blond skull of his. He took one look at my eyes and figured it all out.
Hey, what can I say? I taught him everything he knows.
I think I started to fade out again while he was callin' for an ambulance. I remember him pickin' me up off the floor and talkin' to me. Thing was, I could hear his voice but none of the words made any sense. They were like butterflies flutterin' just out of my reach, and I was too tired to go chasin' 'em. Felt like I was sinkin' down into a deep, warm pool of water, but every time I'd start to go under, Hutch'd yank me back by talking in my ear, askin' me a question--once or twice by slappin' me or shakin' me.
I finally decided if he wasn't gonna let me sleep, then I should tell him about the poison. I couldn't see his face when he finally got the message, but I felt his whole body tense up.
I really wish I coulda seen his face.
Suddenly Hutch was gone and people were pokin' and proddin' me, shinin' lights in my eyes and stickin' one of those cold things on my chest that they use to make sure you ain't dead yet. I knew Hutch didn't want me to go to sleep, but I just couldn't seem to fight it any longer.
I let go, knowin' Hutch would be there to watch over me.
I guess I was in and out for a while. At one point I felt another sharp jab in my arm and I panicked--well, as much as I could, considerin' how loopy I was. I tried to move, to tug my arm from the strong hands, but I just ended up sliding back down closer to the darkness. One eyelid pried open to a blinding white beam of light. Scratchy cloth wrappin' around my upper arm and squeezin'. Cold metal pressed to the crook of my elbow. Something smooth and thin sliding between my lips and working its way under my tongue. And through it all, strange voices and sounds that droned on like white noise, without any meaning.
Hutch! Where was Hutch? I wanted to call his name, to reach for him, but the best I could manage was a pitiful whimper, my fingers openin' and closin' on air like the mouth of a dyin' fish. A voice broke free from the general buzzing, sharp, angry. Then a large hand slid into mine--solid, warm, comforting. Familiar.
His voice in my ear--low, soothing. I couldn't understand what he was sayin' any more than I could the others, but it didn't matter. I fought to tighten my fingers around his, to hang on even though I was sinkin' fast again. Hutch was my lifeline. If he was close by, I was safe.
Simple as that.
Without knowin' it, I drifted off to the sound of his voice.
When I finally woke up again the fuzziness was gone. I just lay there for a minute, keepin' my eyes closed, tryin' to get a handle on where I was, what was goin' on. Didn't take long for me to figure it out.
I hate hospitals. No, I mean I really, really HATE hospitals. First off, they smell funny. Kinda like the gunk our janitor used to use when some poor unfortunate schmuck would puke in school. You know, the stuff that made you feel like tossin' your own cookies.
Plus, they won't leave you alone. I mean, there you are, sick or hurt, and they keep pokin' and proddin' and stickin' you with needles. Not to mention the fact that they give you pills so you can get some sleep and then wake you up fifty times during the night to make sure you're still breathin'.
And nurses? Some of 'em might be angels of mercy, but not the ones I seem to wind up with. And let me tell you from first hand experience--you do NOT want to cross one of 'em. They can turn a sponge bath into a completely humiliating experience and take your temperature in places that I don't even wanna think about.
I opened my eyes, glad to see that things were stayin' put and the blurriness was gone. An annoying beeping and the feelin' of sticky things on my chest told me I was hooked up to some kind of heart monitor. I stared at the light over my head for a minute until someone cleared their throat. I turned my head and saw a guy with gray hair and a white coat standin' off to my right. Guess they dress 'em like that so you know who's the doctor.
"Detective Starsky, I'm Dr. Franklin. How are you?"
I started to prop myself up on my arms, a little dismayed to find 'em weak and rubbery. "I dunno, Doc. How 'bout you tell me?"
He pushed me back down without havin' to work hard at it. "Not yet, Detective. Your body is still throwing off the effects of a very powerful narcotic. Let's take it slow."
Hearin' him use the word 'narcotic' was like a kick in the teeth. Suddenly all the fear that had been waitin' in the wings while I distracted myself by thinkin' how much I hate hospitals came crashin' down on me, and I could hear the echo of Stocking Mask's laughter.
You got twenty-four hours to live, Pig. Count 'em. Twenty-four.
I felt a little light-headed for a minute, and it must've shown on my face 'cause the Doc was at my side in an instant and a nurse had her pretty little manicured hand wrapped around my wrist, takin' my pulse.
"'M all right." I sucked in a gulp of air and forced the fear back into the box where I keep emotions I don't wanna deal with.
Later. Not here, not now, and especially not in front of strangers.
I shook myself free of the well-meanin' angel and looked Franklin squarely in the eye. "Doc, I need you to level with me. Whoever did this, drugged me, made some threats. I gotta know if he was just blowin' hot air."
I knew things were not good when Franklin's eyes skittered away from mine. "Suppose you tell me just what kind of threats."
Doctors. Sometimes I swear they're not so different from the street punks Hutch and I bust. Both've perfected the art of answerin' questions without sayin' nothin'.
"He indicated that he'd done somethin' to decrease my life expectancy." I didn't try to mask the sarcasm. "The figure he gave me was twenty-four hours."
I cut him off before he could waste more time. "Just Starsky. And I want it straight."
He pursed his lips, then nodded. "Analysis of your blood showed two separate chemical compounds. One was, of course, a sedative. Something that would render you incapable of fighting your attacker."
"And the other?"
"A toxin. Most likely from the organic chloride family."
The fear was bangin' on the lid of the box, but I just sat on it.
"Toxin. You mean like a poison?"
Franklin poked his glasses up on his nose with his index finger. "Yes."
"Just what will this toxin do to me?"
Franklin pushed at his glasses. "It blocks the impulses in the central nervous system and..."
"English please, Doc."
He sighed. "Excessive perspiration, muscle cramps, difficulty breathing, impaired vision..."
I chewed that over for a minute. The simple answer to the problem didn't jive with the expression on the doc's face, but I had to say it.
"Well...if it's a poison, then there must be an antidote. Right?"
He blinked at me, momentarily derailed. "Starsky. Unfortunately, it isn't that simple."
"Never is," I muttered under my breath.
"There are many variations of the particular compound used. And we can't formulate an antidote with any certainty without knowing the exact composition. That requires the original solution."
Twenty-four hours, Pig. Count 'em.
"Doc." My voice quavered. I stopped, swallowed hard, and continued. "Are you tellin' me there's nothin' you can do? That I'm gonna die?"
I almost felt sorry for Franklin. He squirmed a bit, but then he met my eyes. "I'm telling you we'll need to run more tests. There are methods of narrowing down the possibilities. But..."
"Medicine is not an exact science, Detective, I..."
He sighed and his shoulders slumped. "Ninety percent. Against."
Well, I asked for it. Suddenly I was ice cold in spite of the glaring lights overhead. I was gonna die. It was practically written in stone, there was nothin' anyone...
"My partner," I said, my voice hoarse. When Franklin looked at me blankly I added, "Tall, blond, makin' a pain in the ass of himself?"
Understanding flooded Franklin's face and for the first time I saw his lips actually quirk a little in the hint of a smile. "He's right outside. I'll get him."
That pulled him up short, like jerkin' a puppet's strings. His eyebrows lifted in a silent question.
"Doc, I need... I can't..."
All at once my eyes were burnin' and my throat felt like there was steel bands around it. I glared up at the light, breathin' in through my mouth and outta my nose. When I was sure I could go on without blubberin', I looked back at the doctor.
"I need you to tell Hutch what you just told me."
Franklin frowned and started to shake his head. "I really think it would be better coming from you. He's your friend, he..."
"He's my best friend," I said fiercely. "Close as a brother--closer. That's why I can't tell him." I tried to grin but I think it came out pretty lopsided. "I hate soapy scenes." The smile slid off my face. "Please."
The doc just looked at me for a long time. Hutch evidently got tired of coolin' his heels out in the hall, 'cause he chose that exact minute to come walkin' in. He was wearin' that face, the one he uses when he's been worried sick over me but ain't about to let me know it. Instead he pastes on this big, dopey grin.
All I could manage was a little nod before I had to turn away. If I kept lookin' at him, seein' that smile, I'd never be able to hold it together. I looked up at Franklin. Begging.
He adjusted his glasses and glanced at the monitor. "There's no affect on your heart yet. We'll be sending you upstairs for some more tests. You can sit up and rest for awhile now." Then he walked over toward Hutch.
"Doc, I'd like to talk to him."
That's my partner, not about to let hell, high water, or a guy in a white coat keep him from me when I'm hurt. I held my breath.
Franklin stopped him with a hand to his arm. "In a minute. But first I'd like to ask you a few questions." He steered him out into the hall without looking back at me.
Two hours. That's how long I waited, never letting the treatment room door out of my sight. I think they were the longest two hours of my life.
Have you ever noticed how Time is fluid? Oh sure, I know that it's supposed to be a constant, a universal invariant. But sometimes I think that's all just a load of crap. That we don't really understand Time at all, are just as mixed up as the folks who thought the Earth was flat. Because, I swear to God, Time never passes at exactly the same rate.
Take our all too infrequent vacations, for example. One minute I've got three or four glorious days spread before me--plenty of time for hiking, fishing, and baiting my city-loving partner who I've conned into accompanying me. Blink of an eye and it's over, with only Starsky's scratching and whining about bug bites to prove that we ever left Metro. You just can't tell me that Time didn't play a dirty trick by speeding up.
It goes both ways, of course. If Time can fly by like a hawk on the wing (or Starsky in the Torino), it can also creep along like molasses in Minnesota. Several times during those two long hours I was certain it had stopped altogether, only the hands on my watch convincing me otherwise.
They'd let me stay with him in the beginning. Well...they hadn't been able to make me leave. Starsky was out cold for the entire trip in the ambulance, but when they finally got him into the ER and started working on him he woke up a little. No wonder, with two nurses and a doctor hooking him up to an EKG, drawing blood, and checking his temperature and blood pressure. I can only imagine what I'd do, waking up dizzy and disoriented as hell with all of that going on around me. Probably exactly what Starsky did--panic.
Poor guy couldn't move, couldn't really talk. Best he could do was mumble something so garbled that no one could understand. The doc and the nurses just kind of ignored it and kept going about their business. They were so wrapped up in their jobs that no one thought to kick me out, so I just stood back and watched.
Until I saw the hand.
Starsky's left hand, the one he does everything with, was opening and closing as if he was trying to grab hold of something. Or searching for something. And suddenly I understood. It was me he was reaching for, and my name that he kept trying to say over and over.
I'll admit it now--shoving that nurse out of the way was pretty rude. But at the time I didn't notice. My senses had narrowed until all I could see was those pitiful, grasping fingers; all I could hear was Starsky trying to call for me. I bullied my way to my partner's side, slid my hand into his, and started talking into his ear. I can't even remember what I said. Some of it probably didn't make a whole lot of sense, but I doubt he could really understand me anyway. What was important, what I knew he needed, was to hear my voice. To know he was safe. That I was right there with him, and I wouldn't leave.
The nurse was understandably ticked off, and the doctor wasn't much happier. He put his hand on my shoulder, clamping down hard.
"Sir, I'm afraid family isn't allowed in the treatment room. You'll have to leave."
I never let go of Starsky's hand, though my whole body stiffened. I turned my head and gave the doctor a look I've perfected for when it's my turn to play "bad cop."
"My name is Detective Hutchinson, and this man is my partner. As long as he needs me, I'm not going anywhere. Now if you want to keep that hand, I'd suggest taking it off my shoulder. Right now."
He let go like he'd been burned, and when he adjusted his glasses I saw his hand shake a little. "Very well. We'll work around you--for now anyway."
I could see Starsky was fading out again. His hand would start to go limp, then tighten up as if he was fighting sleep just so he could hang on to me.
"It's okay, buddy." I kept my voice soft and low, not only to soothe Starsky but to try and maintain a shred of privacy. "You can let go if you need to. The doctor's going to take care of you and I'll always be close by. No one's going to hurt you any more--they'll have to go through me first."
Wasn't long before he was out for the count again, and I no longer had a good reason to keep the doctor, whose name turned out to be Franklin, from kicking me out. And that's just about when Time decided to slow to a snail's pace.
Finally I couldn't stand it another minute. I snuck a peek through the window and was surprised to see Starsky awake and talking to Dr. Franklin. I figured that was my cue to join them, since it didn't seem like Franklin was going to issue a personal invitation.
My stomach felt twisted into knots, but I made sure to plaster on a smile before I pushed open the door. Starsky turned to look at me, and I was struck by the fact that his face held absolutely no expression.
"Hi, buddy." I silently congratulated myself for sounding relaxed.
The corners of Starsky's mouth turned up just a bit and he raised his chin. The next minute the blank face was back, though, and it seemed like his eyes were everywhere but on me. He gave the doctor an odd look and Franklin started talking, but he was fiddling with his glasses like he'd done when I threatened him. Something about that bothered me, but I needed to concentrate on what the doctor was saying to Starsky.
"There's no effect on your heart yet. We'll be sending you upstairs for some more tests. You can sit up and rest for a while now."
Franklin turned and walked toward me. I held up a hand to stop him. "I need to talk to him."
"In a minute. But first I'd like to ask you a few questions."
I was chomping at the bit to talk to Starsky, especially now that he was lucid, but we'd each been injured in the line of duty often enough that I knew the drill. Questions about insurance, the limits for active duty--all the red tape. Starsky and I had handled it for each other so many times it was routine.
Except when Franklin got me out in the hallway, he didn't start asking any of the questions I expected. Nothing about filling out paperwork or instructions after discharge. Instead he asked me if we'd been partners a long time. Said Starsk had told him I was his best friend. I was only half-listening at first, my mind on catching the creep who was responsible for hurting my partner and making the last few hours a living hell. It didn't help that I couldn't figure out where Franklin was headed, why he'd dragged me out into the hallway to discuss my friendship with Starsky. When he finally cut to the chase, I felt like I'd been sucker punched.
"I don't think your friend is going to make it. His relatives, any other close friends should be notified."
"Wha..." I almost laughed at first--must be some kind of a bad joke, right? Then I got angry. "Well of course he's going to make it, you've got him in a hospital, don't you, you're running tests on him, he..." Franklin was stone-faced, but compassion shone through his eyes. My stomach plunged as if I'd just dropped thirty stories in a runaway elevator. "Does he know?"
"He asked me to tell you." Franklin's eyes crinkled. "Said he hates 'soapy scenes.'"
God, I could hear it, could picture Starsky saying it. He's a funny one, my partner. Emotions on his sleeve when it comes to those he cares about, always ready to share their pain. But when it comes to his own hurt, his own fear, his own heartbreak, Starsky holds his cards close and guards them jealously.
He held me, sweat with me, ached with me, and even cried with me when I was so deep in withdrawal I could barely remember my own name. It still shames me when I think about how I treated him during that time, though I know he's never held it against me. Did he really think I'd let him get away with keeping me at arm's length?
Think again, Starsk.
This time when I walked back into the treatment room I couldn't quite muster a full smile. Starsky was sitting up, bare legs dangling over the edge of the gurney, and he looked...fine. Completely normal, no different from the man who dropped me off at my place last night and roared home to catch one of those bad horror movies on TV. For a split second a cruel little glimmer of hope rose up in my chest and a seductive voice whispered in my head.
Maybe the doctor's wrong, maybe he doesn't know what he's talking about. Doctors make mistakes all the time, look at that guy in Detroit who had the wrong kidney removed. Maybe...
I remembered Franklin's face, the way he met my gaze straight on, with a mixture of bluntness and compassion. And that spiteful little ray of hope turned on me, the edges sharp like a shard of broken glass.
Starsky was dying. And somehow, some way, I was going to save him. Nothing else mattered.
"How ya feeling, huh?" I couldn't seem to meet his eyes. I couldn't seem to keep mine from checking the clock.
"Okay. Could even think I dreamed it all." His voice told me he felt as awkward as I. What is it with men anyway? We care deeply but we have such a hard time expressing it.
Stick to the case, to finding the guy with the answers, I told myself. I tried not to sound like I was questioning a victim, but it was hard. Everything was mixed up, wrong. Starsky wasn't supposed to be the one giving a statement. The one assaulted and...
And the crazy part was, I could tell he was trying to make things easier on me. As if I were the one handed a death sentence! Using expressions like "not rowing with both oars at the time" to distract me from the horror of picturing him drugged and helpless while the creep injected him. Helpless, but not oblivious. If I...
When. When I got my hands on the punk, I planned on making him very, very sorry.
When Starsky admitted that he thought he knew the guy, I savagely stomped on the hope that wanted to return.
The facts. Concentrate on the facts.
"Doctor Franklin. What about the twenty-four hours? Does it hold?"
"If it's a progressive type poison, yes, its term could be predictable. The blood sample taken at the puncture indicates a poisonous compound--probably of the organic chloride grouping. Unfortunately, it could be any one of fifty varieties, and we can't prescribe the antidote with any certainty until we know the exact composition. Is that plain enough?" Franklin's expression was apologetic.
I just wanted to be somewhere else. Any place but in a hospital, listening to the high odds against my best friend living to watch another cheesy horror movie.
Starsky remained stoic through Franklin's little speech, but the white-knuckled grip of his fingers on the gurney betrayed him. "The part about the poisonous compound was, thank you."
I, on the other hand, felt anger rising inside of me like a living creature. I was abruptly furious with Franklin, and the medical profession in general.
"You know, it's amazing. You're well, you think they've got a miracle cure for everything. You get sick, they can't even cure the common cold." I knew I was snarling, unloading my frustration on the wrong man, but I didn't care.
Franklin must have had plenty of experience dealing with upset family members. Rather than taking offense, he started spouting his suggestions for trying to treat Starsky. None of it sounded particularly pleasant. Starsky's bleak expression broke through my fury and I placed a hand on his shoulder, wishing I could offer so much more.
Four years with the man, and though in some ways I know him better than I know myself, he can still surprise me. I wasn't prepared for his cool, controlled reply.
"Doc, pursuing our own, as they say, line of expertise, my partner feels he can deduce certain things faster than you can. I mean, that's part of his job."
I saw right where he was headed and tried to cut him off at the pass.
"That's right, but you're not going anywhere."
No one ever said my partner wasn't stubborn as a mule. "Look, you're thinkin' the same thing I am. We look for some flake with a mean laugh who knows exactly what was in that shot, right?"
Stubbornness I can resist, but not that pleading, vulnerable face. More than once Starsky has left me in awe of his courage under fire. Today it staggered me. He was trying so hard to keep it together, to think things through logically. To be a cop and not a victim.
"Well, while I'm still feelin' okay..."
How could I possibly say no?
"We find him and ask him."
Doctor Franklin, of course, was not pleased with the turn of events. He pulled off his glasses and started arguing, trying to convince Starsky to stay put and let him do his job. My partner didn't seem fazed by his warnings, but I was already on shaky ground and questioning my own decision. Starsky, still in that calm, practical voice, cut to the chase.
"Doc, I appreciate what you're sayin', but what it really comes down to is one question. Can you guarantee that if I stay here you're gonna be able to come up with the answer in time?"
Now there was a question I was anxious to hear the answer to. If Franklin felt he had a good chance, some level of confidence that he could crack the code to this poison and cure Starsky...
The doctor's eyes slid off to the right and then dropped to the floor. So much for that theory. Starsky just plowed ahead.
"Okay, then I'd like to take a shot at it. Now if we don't score by, uh..." his eyes darted to the clock on the wall, "ten o'clock tonight, I'll come back and give you another crack at it, okay?
My chest tightened at his words. Oh God, Starsky, what are we doing?
Franklin just raised his eyebrows and dipped his head, obviously not happy but knowing when he'd been beaten. Starsky turned to me without stopping to take a breath.
"Find my pants."
It threw me for a minute, but I rallied. "Ah...got your watch." I pulled it out and offered it to him.
Starsky put on a wounded expression, as if I'd insulted that striped tomato of his. "You forgot my pants?"
I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. His pants? I find him out cold on the floor and he really expected me to have remembered to bring him a change of clothes?
"You mean you want me to hit the streets with no pants, no badge, no gun, no dignity? Whatsa matter with you?" When I still couldn't come up with a snappy reply, Starsky turned to Franklin. "You believe him?" He stabbed a finger at me and stalked out of the room, dripping with righteous indignation.
Franklin, mystified by my partner's behavior, just gave his head a little shake and put his glasses back on. And then it all clicked into place and I saw exactly what my friend was up to. Smokescreens and mirrors. Get me all worked up over a pair of lousy pants and I might not worry so much about the poison slowly working its way through his body.
Ah, Starsky. You don't have to do this.
Well, the least I could do was play along. For now.
I hurried after him. "You know, you're right, Starsk? I shoulda left you lying on the floor while I decided which pair of your equally crummy blue jeans to pack." Heads turned as my friend stomped past, his gown flapping in the breeze.
Dear God, I love him is what I thought.
"They're all lookin' at ya," is what I said.
It felt good to be out of the hospital, behind the wheel and takin' charge instead of handin' control over to a bunch of people with no sense of humor and a never-endin' supply of needles. Back in the treatment room, when the doc was breakin' the bad news, I almost felt too scared to move. It wasn't the thought of dyin'--though I gotta admit I'm pretty addicted to breathin'. I mean, Hutch and me, we face that possibility every time we strap on our guns and hit the streets. A cop who ain't afraid of catchin' a stray bullet while bustin' up a robbery, or gettin' knifed by some strung-out hype desperate for a fix, is either crazy or just plain stupid. It goes with the badge.
That don't mean you gotta dwell on it. Spend all your time worryin' about your own skin and you'd not only be a danger to yourself, but to your partner. I guess what I'm sayin' is you gotta look Death in the eye, tip your hat, and go about your business. And I'd always been able to do that, 'til now.
This...this was different. My body slowly but surely fallin' apart, betrayin' me. Excruciating pain, losin' my eyesight, my ability to even suck in a breath of air? And Hutch, my partner, my best friend, the guy who'd step in front of a truck if it'd save my life, forced to watch it all, knowin' he couldn't do a damn thing about it.
Probably blame himself, too. If there's one trip Blondie's got down to perfection, it's guilt.
Sometimes I could swear he had a Jewish mother.
Hutch picked up the mic and called R & I, askin'--no, tellin' poor Charlie to pull all our cases from the last five years and put 'em on our desks. By the time we got there, no less.
Now don't get me wrong, I was feelin' every tick of the clock too. But do you have any idea how many wiseguys Hutch and me have busted over the last five years? It didn't really surprise me when Charlie started squawkin'.
Around the station word is that I got a helluva temper, while Hutch tends to be more calm and easy-goin'. Of course, that's all a load-a bull. Okay, I'll admit I got a short fuse, but Hutch ain't no ambassador of good will either. Give him flack, especially when he's operatin' in what I like to call "white knight mode," and you better protect the family jewels. Poor Charlie had no idea what he was openin' himself up to.
"Collins, we'll be there in twenty minutes, that's how long you've got." He said it in that cold voice he usually saves for rapists and killers.
I turned to look at him, keeping my voice light. "Hey, take it easy. He's got no way of knowin' what's goin' down."
That's what I said out loud. My eyes tried to tell him more, the words I felt deep down inside but couldn't speak.
I know you're scared--I'm scared too. Don't fall apart on me, I need you too much.
Hutch didn't say a word to me, but some of the lines around his eyes smoothed and his death grip on the mic relaxed.
"Do it, will ya Charlie? It's that important. Captain Dobey'll confirm. Have him call Receiving Hospital and check on Starsky."
He put the mic down and I felt his eyes boring into the side of my head. "Have any second thoughts about leaving the hospital?"
Oh, just a couple hundred in the last ten minutes.
I kept my eyes on the road. "Do you?"
Hutch glanced out the passenger window. "I could be wrong." His sharp gaze returned to my face. "But then I'll be walking around tomorrow."
Hard not to wince at that. I was tryin' to keep my mind on the here and now. Thinkin' about what lay around the bend was too scary. "Well, the doc was pretty straight about our chances."
For some reason, I'm not sure why, I had a sudden, clear memory of another time in our lives when it felt like the whole world had turned on us and left us hangin' out to dry. I don't know if the smile reached my lips, but I felt it in my heart.
"As I see it, it's who do we trust time."
Once again Hutch didn't say anything. But then, he really didn't need to.
Me and thee. I don't think they've invented a word that could define what's between us. I could say he's like a brother, but Nick and I have never shared the kind of bond that's between Hutch and me. Nicky is my little brother, and I love him, but I don't understand him--I never have. And he sure as hell don't know the first thing about me. To tell you the truth, sometimes I'm not even so certain he likes me.
Hutch does. Oh, he plays jokes on me, gives me a hard time, but his eyes tell me the truth. We've laughed together. And we've cried together. I can't say that about any other person in this whole crazy, messed up world. It's scary, bein' known that well, all your hidden fears and deep, dark secrets. No one can hurt us as bad as we can hurt each other. And we have.
It ain't exactly like the kind of love I have with Ma either, though there are similarities. I know Ma'll keep lovin' me no matter what I say or do. But with Ma, there's also the flip side--responsibility. I felt it the most when Pop died. Suddenly it all fell on my shoulders to be the man of the house. I used to envy Nick 'cause Ma would still baby him like a little boy. From the night Pop was killed, she treated me like a man.
But I wasn't.
Hutch? He takes me as I am and don't ask for much in return. And he lets me lean on him...a lot. It ain't easy for me. Usually by the time I do, it's 'cause I got nothin' left. Sometimes he comforts me, and sometimes he gives me a swift kick in the pants. And I trust him to know which one I need.
Me and thee.
I was still thinkin' deep thoughts when Hutch suddenly sat up straighter and pointed across the street.
"Hey, is that Huggy?"
I hung a U-turn and pulled up to the sidewalk where Hug was standin', then followed Hutch outta the car. Huggy tipped his head when he saw us, those teeth flashing in a grin.
"Hey, what it is?"
"Got a job for you."
Hutch wasn't gonna let grass grow under his feet, I could see that. Problem is, even though Huggy's our friend, you gotta handle him right. Nobody likes bein' told what to do, 'specially a...businessman like Hug.
"Hey, I'm gainfully employed."
Hutch and I made a point of lookin' Huggy and his less than cosmopolitan surroundings over before we both raised our eyebrows in a "you can't be serious" expression. Huggy was not amused.
"Honest! Got a job as a travel agent. It's a hard buck but an honest one. Need any airplane tickets?"
Hutch didn't crack a smile. "What have you heard about a hit going down?"
I swallowed but it wasn't easy. My throat felt like the Sahara and that disconnected feelin', the one that came over me when the doc told me about the poison, was back. Who'd a thought I'd be investigatin' my own murder? It was like some crazy movie on the late, late show.
"On who?" Huggy asked.
I looked at him, careful not to show how I was feelin'. "Me. Sparing the grim details, some guy got into my house last night and gave me a shot."
Well, it ain't often you can surprise Hug. I just wished I could enjoy that look on his face. Under the circumstances, it wasn't too funny.
"You gotta be puttin' me on."
I shook my head. "I don't think he was puttin' me on either. Need your help, Hug."
What you really need is a miracle whispered a nasty little voice in my head. I mentally flipped it the bird.
"You gotta ask? I'll do anything I can. Something'll turn."
I didn't want to see that expression on Huggy's face, or the look in his eyes. I hated it, and I loved it.
I refused to look at my watch the rest of the drive to Metro.
I tried to keep my eyes on the scenery out the window. It wasn't easy--I'd catch them wandering over to Starsky like steel to a magnet. He seemed to be feeling just fine, but I couldn't help watching and waiting for the first signs of the poison, feeling like some kind of vulture.
We had an argument about who would drive. I'd called Dobey at the crack of dawn, explained what was going down, and asked him to have one of our boys in blue drop Starsky's Torino at the hospital. I don't know what came over me, asking for the striped tomato instead of my own car. Guess I was so worried about Starsk at that point I would've done just about anything to make him feel better.
Either that, or I was suffering from sleep deprivation and couldn't be held responsible for my actions.
When we reached the Torino, Starsky still grumbling about his missing pants while giving an old lady in a wheelchair a free show, he crossed to the driver's side and held out his hand.
I just stared at him as if he'd asked me to eat one of those greasy burritos he's so crazy about.
He glared right back. "Keys!"
My head was moving before his mouth stopped forming the word. "Uhn-uh. I'll drive."
His eyes narrowed and his jaw clenched. "It's my car, and I'll drive."
I was getting truly pissed at him now. I understood what he was trying to do when he yelled at me about the pants, but this was going too far. An hour ago he'd been in la-la land, and now he intended to get behind the wheel? And what about the poison? What if it started affecting him while he was hotrodding down the street? No way was I going to sit there and...
The hand reaching for the keys trembled. Just a slight tremor, and Starsky immediately clenched it into a fist, but it was already too late. His guard had slipped enough for me to snatch a glimpse of what lay beneath the surface anger--a man desperately afraid of losing control. Who needed to take charge, even of something as simple as driving his own car.
I put my hand on his arm, no longer angry. "Starsk, I'm just not sure..."
"Please, Hutch." He turned his head, but I could see his throat working. "You gotta trust me to know what I need. And right now, I need to drive my own car."
There are times when, despite what my head tells me, despite common sense, I simply can't say no to him. He's like the tide, an irresistible force of nature that pulls me along no matter what good intentions I may have for standing still. Sometimes it's the child in him. Starsky doesn't talk much about the time after his father died, but I've been able to piece together a pretty good picture of how much his life changed. He was a kid forced to grow up fast--too fast. That's probably why there's a little boy still hiding inside him. Cynical and street tough as he can be after all we've seen, in many ways he holds onto the wonder and simplicity of a child. Which is precisely why this hardened cop, fed up with the euphoric sentimentalism of the Christmas season, braves the crowds every year to get his partner a present.
Other times, it's his spirit that does me in. Starsky is a truly good person, and that's a rare find. Believe me, I know. I see the dregs of society every day, enough hatred, selfishness, envy, and mean-spiritedness to destroy what little faith I still have in humanity. Starsky keeps the spark alive. You know, most cops will spout the standard party line about the reason for becoming a police officer--wanting to make a difference, to help people, to protect the underdog. Starsky is the genuine item. The real deal. He's a sucker for someone in need, willing to not only hand over the shirt off his back, but to risk his own life if necessary. Like I said before, when the chips are down, he's the bravest person I know.
He'd been through the wringer that morning, been given news no man should have to face. A lot of guys would just lay down, either give in to self-pity or give up completely. Yet there was Starsky, barely an hour after taking a sucker punch to the gut, picking himself up and dusting himself off, that damn stubborn streak driving him to hunt for his own killer.
How in the hell could I say no?
I tossed him the keys, irritated by the lump in my throat. "Better get in the car before you get arrested for indecent exposure."
Starsky glanced over his shoulder at a couple of staring nurses, obviously on their way home after the night shift. "Hey, ain't you ever heard of Chippendales? Plenty of ladies'd pay money to see a show half this good."
"Just goes to prove there's no accounting for taste." It felt great to be on familiar ground, Starsky acting like his old self. If only...
I shook my head and headed for the passenger door. Thoughts like that were a dead end, a waste of time.
We stopped by his place so that he could swap the white dress for a ratty pair of blue jeans and pick up his gun. Then we headed for headquarters, sun in the sky and Starsky behind the wheel, just like any other day. Except, of course, it wasn't.
Starsky caught me checking up on him from the corner of my eye and his brow furrowed. "Willya quit lookin' at me like I've grown an extra head? You're makin' me jumpy. I crash this car and we won't need to find my late-night visitor."
Having him snap at me like that was actually just what I needed. It reminded me he was still there, still alive. That old saying "Where there's life, there's hope" might be trite, but it gave me something to grab onto. I reached for the radio, figuring I'd get the ball rolling before we got to the station.
"This is Zebra 3, patch me through to R & I."
Normally I'd have made some small talk with Charlie Collins. He's a good guy, and he loves talking about his new granddaughter. To hear him tell it you'd think the sun rose and set, just for her. I didn't feel much like shooting the breeze, though, all things considered. I figured just this once Charlie would have to swap stories with somebody else.
Somebody whose partner wasn't slowly dying right next to him.
"Charlie, this is Hutch. Pull out every case we've worked on in the past 5 years and have them on our desks when we get down there."
I didn't really expect Charlie's response, though I guess I should've.
"No chance, Hutch. Everybody wants everything yesterday. Have you any idea of our workload?" Indignation dripped from his voice--I didn't have to be there to see the scowl on his face.
I'd be damned if he was going to give me any lip about those files. Our request better override any others or I'd go down there personally and make sure it happened. With my gun, if necessary.
"Collins, we'll be there in 20 minutes, that's how long you've got." I used my interrogation voice, the one that went with the "bad cop" face I'd given the doctor earlier.
Starsky looked over and gently reminded me I was kicking the dog. It took the wind out of my sails and reminded me who I was talking to. Charlie deserved better.
I did my best to patch things up before I signed off, then went back to not watching Starsky. Finally I couldn't take it any longer--I had to ask the question that had been bugging me since we left Doctor Franklin and his gadgets behind.
"Have any second thoughts about leaving the hospital?"
He wouldn't look at me but I saw his fingers squeeze the steering wheel more tightly. "Do you?"
Thanks for turning the tables on me, Starsk. I wanted YOU to be the one answering that question.
"I could be wrong. But then I'll be walking around tomorrow."
I had to deflect, to put off the feelings the question stirred up. Starsky and I are both real good at sidestepping emotional land mines with a smart mouth. Helps avoid those "soapy scenes."
Starsky didn't take the bait. "Well, the doc was pretty straight about our chances."
"Our." Not "my." The fact that I knew he hadn't even thought about it, that it had come out as natural as saying my name, made my chest feel tight and my eyes burn.
Starsky still didn't look at me, but something in his expression changed. I would've sworn he was smiling, but his mouth never moved. "As I see it, it's who do we trust time."
I looked out the window and kept my breathing nice and steady. Starsky wasn't looking for an answer--he knew the list was short.
Me and thee
The only person I'd ever trusted enough to let all the way inside. Who knew the dark as well as the light. Who celebrated my successes as enthusiastically as if they were his own. Someone who not only put up with my black moods, but cared enough to try and drag out of them--sometimes kicking and screaming. Who would trek through the woods and eat health food if it would keep me happy.
Who would take a bullet if it would keep me alive.
I couldn't imagine life without him.
Just then a familiar figure caught my eye and distracted me from my morose thoughts. I straightened up and took a closer look.
"Hey, is that Huggy?"
Starsky didn't waste breath answering me, he just slammed the Torino into a U-turn, tires screeching, and pulled up to the corner where Huggy was standing.
You would've thought I'd learned something after riding Collins so hard, but that itchy, impatient feeling was back. I plunged in with both feet, and Huggy responded accordingly--by dragging his.
"Got a job for ya."
"Hey, I'm gainfully employed."
Gainful employment. As a travel agent. Huggy tries on new careers like a stockbroker tries on suits. It almost coaxed a smile onto my face when I realized Starsky and I were giving him the same look of disbelief.
One thing I can say about Hug, though. His loyalty is absolute. When the chips are down, when Starsky and I need his help the most, he turns from a streetwise hustler to a powerful ally. A lot of people underestimate him, and that's a big mistake.
I watched his face as Starsky gave him the bare bones of what had happened, and I knew he'd use every means at his disposal--every snitch and hooker, junkie and hustler--to turn something for Starsky and me. I just hoped it would be enough.
We'd already lost six hours.
When we got to Metro we saw Charlie was doin' his best. The stack of files on our desks might not've been five years' worth, but it was a good start. We wound up haulin' 'em into Captain Dobey's office so we could spread out a little and get comfortable. It was pretty hard not to feel discouraged when you looked at all those folders, but each of us took a stack and dug in.
Charlie brought in the last of the files as we were sittin' there reading. He set 'em on Dobey's desk, but turned to me before he left.
"Sorry about the static."
"'S okay." Last thing I wanted was for Charlie to feel guilty. I'd looked at the clock before I could stop myself, and I didn't like what I saw. "Eleven thirty-six."
Seven and a half hours gone and there we were, sittin' on our tails, buried in paperwork. I was tryin' hard to concentrate, but it wasn't easy.
"Always did think you were a clock watcher."
Ha, ha. Excuse me if I didn't exactly appreciate Dobey's sense of humor. I glared at him before looking down at the file in my hands.
"Now come on, Dave. There must be something you remember about this guy. Eyes? Hair? Build?"
Oh man. Things really were looking grim if Dobey was callin' me by my first name. I couldn't look at him, had to lighten things up somehow.
"Ya hear that? He called me Dave," I said to Hutch, who was sitting behind me. Sitting in just the right spot so he could keep an eye on me without me seein' him.
Gimme a break, Hutch! How dumb do you think I am?
At least he picked right up on what I was tryin' to do and played along. "What some people won't do to get on a first name basis."
I glanced up and the captain had that look on his face--the one that said he saw right through my wisecrackin' and still expected an answer.
Hutch and me had Dobey figured out about a week after he became our captain. See, even though he tries to come across like a tough guy, a real grizzly bear, it's mostly for show. He really cares about each and every cop reportin' to him, and he's stuck his neck out for us more times than I can count.
Grizzly bear? More like Teddy bear if ya ask me.
He was still waitin' so I left off readin' the file in my hands and tried to sort through the muddled pictures in my head.
"All right, let's see. Vaguely, a white male, thirty-five to fifty, medium build...any or all possibly inaccurate." I slammed the folder shut, madder than hell but unable to do much about it.
Angry at the sick bastard who violated my home, the place I'm supposed to feel safe, and got his jollies outta givin' me a death sentence.
Angry at Franklin for not bein' able to offer me somethin' more than spendin' the last hours of my life layin' around a place I hate, playin' human guinea pig.
But most of all, angry at myself for my own helplessness. For not bein' able to do a little thing like give a clear description of the creep.
For not stoppin' him in the first place.
"We'll pull the computer cards and run them against that make. That way we can eliminate the, uh, short, fat, black, and female." The captain got up and headed for the door. "Then we'll run them against the in prisons, hospitals, out of towns..." He was out the door but still talking--more to himself than either of us, I think.
Not a minute later, Cheryl, who works in the lab, opened the door. "Hutch."
Hutch followed her out of the room, tossin' a "Don't go away" over his shoulder at me.
Yeah, right. Like there was anyplace for me to go. Maybe I'd up and take that vacation to Tahiti I been plannin', huh? Or find myself a lady and go dancin'.
Don't know why they bothered to go into the squad room. It's not like I didn't know what I was in for, what to expect. Did they really think they were protectin' me by discussin' it behind a closed door?
Part of me wanted to be mad at Hutch but I didn't have the heart. I knew he was feelin' just as frustrated and helpless as me--maybe more. It's a terrible thing when a man can't back up his own partner, and this poison was a threat Hutch couldn't fight. Not with fists or a gun, anyway.
Ah, hell, maybe it was for the best that he hear the gory details from Cheryl. I sure didn't want to be the one to tell him, and pretty soon...
Pretty soon he was gonna see for himself.
Hutch gave me that dopey smile again when he came back from the squad room. Nice try, but it didn't exactly hide the fact that he looked shaken by what Cheryl had told him.
Join the club, buddy.
The captain came in right after with three names the computer had picked as most likely to be our guy. Vic Bellamy, Janos Martini, and Al Wedell. Three no-taste bums who'd be just as happy to waste Hutch and me as look at us. Readin' their rap sheets, starin' at their ugly mugs just fueled the anger that had been building inside of me all day. For the first time, I didn't want to catch the creep who poisoned me just to save my life.
I wanted to get my hands on him and make him pay.
Bellamy was the only one of the three that we had a current address for. Things were pretty quiet in the car on the way to his apartment. Not much to say, I guess. Both of us hopin' that somehow we'd get lucky, that good old Vic would have a hypodermic or a stocking mask stashed somewhere in his place. Both of us thinkin' about what Cheryl had told Hutch, wonderin' when the first signs of the poison would show up. Both of us knowing there were things to tell each other, but lacking the nerve to say 'em out loud.
Bellamy lived in an apartment building across town, in a less than reputable neighborhood. Three flights up, and Hutch took 'em at a jog. By the time we got to the top I was pantin'. I swiped at the moisture on my upper lip with the back of my hand and headed for number thirty-one.
I pulled my weapon and waited for Hutch to get into position. We don't even think about it any more, it's as natural as breathin'. Hutch goes high and I go low, standard operatin' procedure. Somethin' I could count on, even now.
Hutch wrapped on the door with that cannon he calls a gun. "Open up! Police!"
A voice--sounded like Bellamy as far as I could remember--called out, "In a minute!"
Now I was the one feelin' antsy, and just standin' there waitin' for ole Vic to invite us in was gettin' on my already frazzled nerves. Right there, on the other side of that door, could be the answer we were lookin' for. "We'll look awfully stupid if he goes out the back," I told Hutch.
He must've agreed with me, 'cause he stepped back, givin' me just enough time to flick off my safety before he kicked in the door. We both stuck our heads around the doorjamb, half expectin' to see Bellamy headin' down the fire escape. Or maybe a gun aimed at our heads.
Definitely not what we found.
Bellamy was sittin' in a wheelchair, his left leg encased in a cast from foot to hip. He flung his arms up in front of his face.
"Don't shoot! I told you in a minute!"
A woman with mousy brown hair dressed in a bathrobe and slippers came burstin' into the room. "Vic! What's going on?" Her voice had all the charm of ground glass.
Bellamy must've realized we weren't gonna shoot him, 'cause he went from scared to belligerent in a matter of seconds. "I dunno, ask them!"
When I could finally drag my eyes away from that shiny white cast, I saw Hutch was just as stunned as me. We just stared at each other for a long minute. My heart was thumpin' double time and the gun felt heavy and useless in my hand.
Hutch looked over at the woman and holstered his gun. "How long has he been in that cast?"
She tipped her chin up and her voice was ice cold. "Four weeks. Why?"
Oh God. Felt like someone sucked all the air outta my lungs and I couldn't seem to fill 'em back up. I guess I didn't realize till that minute how much I was hopin' Bellamy would be the one. Scratchin' him off the list left only two more chances, and the damn clock just kept tickin'.
Bellamy's lady was too fulla righteous indignation to notice. "Hey, what is this?" she demanded in that same, shrewish voice.
I looked at Hutch, not even tryin' to keep the pain and disappointment off my face. "How 'bout strike one?"
I didn't look back to see if he was followin' me out the door. I couldn't. About all I could manage was to put one foot in front of the other. Sometimes, to just keep movin' is the best thing you can do. And the hardest.
Charlie had done a damn good job of pulling files for us. We took them into Captain Dobey's office, supposedly so we could spread out. I knew the captain well enough to realize he was also doing his best to shield Starsky from the stares--both curious and pitying. I managed to grab a chair behind and to the left of my partner, which provided me with an unobstructed view. I could keep an eye on him without him figuring out what I was up to and getting pissed off.
He'd made it more than clear that he didn't want any special treatment--no hovering and no coddling. I respected that, I really did. In fact, I knew that if I were in his shoes, I'd feel the same way. Treating him like he was made of glass would only wind up making him feel sicker. The mind is a powerful force on the body, and the longer Starsky could function normally, the better he could fight the poison.
I knew all that--in my head. My heart was a little slower in catching up. It was torture to watch and wait, wondering when the first symptoms of the poison would start to manifest themselves. Every hitch of breath, every shift of his body put me on the alert. Could he be feeling sick? In any pain?
Would he tell me if he were?
It didn't help that I had no idea what the poison would do to him. Doctor Franklin had obviously filled my partner in on the unpleasant details before I joined them. And Starsky wasn't talking.
So once we'd reached his apartment and he was changing clothes I had put in a discreet call to Cheryl Jennings, who was a chemist in the lab at headquarters. I asked her to call the hospital and talk to Doctor Franklin, see if she could get a handle on just what we were up against. Cheryl's father was a chemistry professor at the university, a brilliant man, but unstable. His son, Cheryl's older brother, had been killed during an attempt to arrest him for dealing drugs on campus, and Professor Jennings had been having a difficult time accepting it. It was a shame, too, because he was alienating his daughter, the only child he had left.
Even though Starsky was doing an incredible job of holding himself together, I could see cracks appearing. Oh, he pulled his usual smartass routine, gave Dobey grief about using his first name, but his heart wasn't really in it. I know Starsky too well for him to fool me. To tell you the truth, I don't think he fooled Dobey either.
The captain left to run Starsky's description of his assailant through the computer, so it was just the two of us in the office when Cheryl beckoned me to join her in the squad room.
Starsky's eyes rested briefly on Cheryl before dropping to the file in his hand. I got up quickly, feeling more than a little awkward. I knew he realized why Cheryl wanted to see me, and I knew if he objected, he'd say so, but it still felt a bit like going behind his back. I just couldn't bear the thought of hearing the unpleasant details with him sitting right there.
I wanted to think our decision to take the conversation into the next room was based on our desire to spare Starsky. I had the nagging feeling that it was actually to spare us.
"Don't go away," I told him. Never let it be said I'm not a master at coming up with an inane remark.
I poured Cheryl and I some coffee. I was feeling the effects of the sleepless night, and it was good to be doing something.
"Whatcha got, Cheryl?"
She looked at the clipboard in her hand. "The hospital analysis of the chemical traces at the puncture. Chlorohydrine and what might be bromoacetone--they couldn't get a fix on the rest." Her voice was business-like and her face gave nothing away.
I handed her the mug of coffee. "Level with me."
"Normal body functioning depends on the central nervous system transmitting automatic impulses--to see, to breathe, to sweat, to swallow, cough..." Cheryl paused. When I nodded, she dropped her eyes and her teeth sank into her lip. "Oversimplified, certain progressive poisons attack the central system and block the impulses."
I didn't want to hear the rest, but I had to. If Starsky could face up to the worst, then so could I.
Cheryl obviously didn't enjoy telling me any more than I liked hearing it. "Uncontrolled perspiration, distorted vision, loss of coordination, difficult breathing, coma. When it gets bad I can help the pain some, but..." Despite her words, her face made it obvious that any help she could give would be minimal.
Dear God. Every word was like a knife in my heart, almost more painful than I could bear. This was the load Starsky was carrying?
I tried to shake off the nearly crushing sense of hopelessness, to focus on a solution. "Cheryl, he's gonna need the best that the chemistry field can offer, right? How goes it with your father?"
She turned and set down the clipboard. "Doesn't seem to want to see me--or anybody."
"Can you ask him to help?" I couldn't help the edge to my voice, even though I knew Cheryl didn't deserve my anger.
She grimaced. "I've already tried, he hasn't returned my call." My expression must have screamed desperation, because she reached out to place a consoling hand on mine and gave it a little squeeze. "Look, I'll go out to the house if I have to."
I mustered a smile I didn't really feel, grateful for her support. Before this day ended Starsky was going to need every friend he had. Cheryl's determination to help, in spite of the bad blood between her and her father, meant a lot.
Starsky looked up as I re-entered the office and our eyes locked for a long moment. I could hear his thoughts.
Now you know.
When the captain came back with the three most likely choices for Starsky's attacker, I was anxious to hit the streets. Starsky took the wheel, and I didn't bother arguing. To tell you the truth, I was still trying to process what Cheryl had told me. I wanted to talk to Starsk, to be sure he realized...aw, I don't know. That learning the specifics of what he was facing didn't change anything. That I was going to be there, right beside him through it all. And that we were going to find the sick bastard who poisoned him and the antidote.
That he would be walking around tomorrow.
I wanted to tell him all those things, but I ended up staring out the window instead. Staring, and praying to God that Vic Bellamy would turn out to be our man.
Looking back now, I could kick myself. I was so focused on Bellamy that I temporarily forgot my partner. I took the stairs at a brisk pace, Starsky with me all the way. I was on automatic pilot, operating the way we always had. It felt right.
It was when we reached the top floor and I turned toward him that it hit me. Starsky, who could normally have jogged up all three flights without breaking a sweat, was perspiring heavily, his face pale. He used the back of his hand to brush beads of moisture from his upper lip and headed down the hallway, either oblivious to my stare or ignoring it.
Uncontrolled perspiration, distorted vision, loss of coordination...
Cheryl's voice echoed in my head. Much as I wanted to brush it off, to tell myself that what I'd seen was the result of physical exertion, I knew differently. The inevitable was happening. It could only get worse.
We positioned ourselves outside the apartment door and I gave the standard police warning. I recognized Bellamy's voice, telling us to wait a minute. Part of me was surprised I could remember it, after all the punks we've busted since. Part of me was horrified at the ice-cold fury it provoked in me.
Starsky looked over at me, his expression rueful. "We'll look awfully stupid if he goes out the back."
Kicking in the door was satisfying--just a little too easy. The way I was feeling, I could've kept on kicking until it was nothing but a pile of sawdust. Any gratification I got disappeared when I saw Bellamy, seated in a wheelchair with an extremely broken leg. In fact, you couldn't get much more broken and still have a leg.
Damn, damn, damn.
I looked over at Starsky and ached at the lost expression on his face. Vic and his lady were both yammering at us, demanding an explanation. All I cared about was that my partner looked like a little boy watching his shiny new balloon float away.
Anger bubbled up to replace my sorrow. "How long has he been in that cast?" I asked the woman, putting away my gun.
If possible, she managed to look even more indignant, folding her arms across her chest. "Four weeks. Why?"
I'm sorry, Starsk. I wanted it to be Bellamy too.
"Hey, what is this?" she snarled, her lip curled like a cornered stray.
Starsky looked at me, eyes weary and resigned. A sheen of perspiration coated his face and the curls brushing his forehead were damp.
"How 'bout strike one."
He turned and left before I could answer, but that was all right. There really was nothing more to say.
Going back down the stairs, I managed to shake off some of the disappointment. Most of it was still there, of course. But insteada feelin' like an elephant sittin' in the middle of my chest, it sat on my shoulders, like a really heavy backpack that I had no choice but to haul along with me.
Part of what kept me goin' was the anger. That poison had become my enemy as much as the flake who gave it to me, and as long as I could still suck in a breath of air I was gonna keep fightin'. There was no way in hell I'd let Hutch do this alone, without me backin' him up. And if the worst happened, if we couldn't find the antidote in time, then by God I was gonna go out kickin' and screamin'.
Hutch caught up with me as we stepped outta the building into fresh air that smelled great after Bellamy's stuffy apartment. It was a nice day, sunny and warm, and I couldn't help wishin' I was just about any place else--even trailing Hutch through the woods. Wild animals, bug bites, and poison ivy all seemed like pretty silly things to complain about now that I might never have the chance to spend a vacation with my best friend again.
Hutch turned to me as we started down the cement steps to the sidewalk. "Got a feel on him?"
Yeah, I got a feel on him. Don't take no rocket scientist to figure out Bellamy, cast or not.
"Same as always, a crook..."
One minute my leg was there, the next it was just...gone. I stumbled on the last step and pitched forward. Would've wound up kissin' the concrete if not for Hutch. In the blink of an eye one of his hands had snagged the collar of my leather jacket and the other was braced against my shoulder, draggin' me upright. He held onto me for a minute, steadying me until he was sure I wasn't gonna lose it again.
My heart was poundin' and I could hear the blood rushin' in my head. Took me a few seconds to process what had happened, and why. When I got hold of myself enough to look up at Hutch, the look on his face nearly killed me. So much tenderness and concern, so much heartache--over me.
Was I being too damn selfish, makin' him watch me slowly fall to pieces? If I'd done like the doc asked, stayed in the hospital, at least I might've spared him some grief.
Hutch kept his hand on my back, but I'm not sure if it was more for me or him. "Want me to drive?"
I had to stop this, to wipe that look off his face. I put on my best wiseguy act. "What, and get us both killed?" I sauntered around to the driver's side of the Torino, relieved that both legs were workin'. "Why am I tryin' to make you feel better?"
Hutch's smile, even though it was pretty weak, was worth the effort. "You know something, Starsk?" His voice was steady and strong, not that overly gentle tone he'd used a minute ago.
"It's always toughest on the ones left behind."
See? That's why he's my best friend. A lot of people I know can't figure out how Hutch and me got to be so tight. I mean, just look at us. We're the opposite sides of the coin! Me, I'm your classic city rat, complete with Brooklyn accent. Hutch grew up in Minnesota on some kind of farm or somethin', a country boy through and through. I got most of my education knockin' around the streets; Hutch went to college. I'm beer, pizza, and Bela Lugosi movies; Hutch is fine wine, pheasant under glass, and the ballet.
So how is it that someone so completely opposite from me could turn out to be not only my best friend, but the most important person in my life?
Beats the hell outta me.
No, really. I don't think I could put it into words if I tried. I just know that when Hutch and me met--once we stopped hatin' each other long enough to get to know each other--somethin' clicked. Maybe it's as simple as the fact that despite all the outside differences, our insides are a lot alike.
I know I trust him enough to let him see all of me, even the parts I wouldn't show my own mother. And the deeper he's let me in and the more I've come to understand the person he is, the more I respect him and value our friendship. Hutch is the only person I've ever known I could say that about. In my experience, it don't pay to let anyone own too big a piece of you--you'll only wind up disappointed. But Hutch...he's never let me down.
"I'll believe that when I hear it from someone who went first," I answered sarcastically, getting' back in behind the wheel.
While Hutch got on the radio with Dobey, I unzipped my jacket and tried to wipe away some of the sweat on my face. It kept gettin' in my eyes, making 'em sting, and I could feel it trickling down my back. It was a nice warm day, but not that warm. A chunk of ice somehow found its way into my stomach. I caught myself before I could look at my watch.
The captain's voice crackled over the line. "Yeah, Hutch?"
"Scratch Bellamy." Hutch's reply was matter-of-fact.
"Okay." From the slight pause and a sigh, I could sense that the captain was almost as disappointed as us. "Listen, Cheryl's located four supply houses that handle the chlorohydrine. I'm getting teams out to them."
I saw Hutch glance over at me from the corner of my eye, but I couldn't look at him. I'd gotten myself back under control, but it was shaky around the edges.
"What about Wedell and Martini?" he asked Dobey.
"No, nothing yet."
"Well, what the HELL are you guys doing down there?"
Hutch's roar took me completely by surprise. Where had that come from? A second ago he'd been cool enough to frost the car windows; now he sounded like...
Like when we had the run-in with Vic Monte's hitmen and I was bleedin' from a gunshot to the back.
"What do you mean, what the hell am I doing?" Dobey bellowed. "Listen, Hutchinson, I...
"Now you listen to me, Captain..."
How in the hell did I end up being the cool-headed one? I reached out and took the mic before my fire-breathin' partner could dig his own grave, not to mention alienate a man we both consider a friend.
Hutch turned on me. "Wait a minute, I'm not through yet."
His anger actually warmed me a little, at least enough to melt that hunk of ice in my gut. It's a good feelin' to know there's someone who'd do anything to protect you--even take on a 250 pound, seriously pissed off cop. And havin' to be strong for Hutch took my mind off the fact that I was startin' to feel kinda achy.
I raised the mic to my mouth. "Cap, you'll have to forgive Hutch. He's feelin' a bit skittish."
It did the trick. Hutch ran his hand through his hair and ducked his head, something that was almost but not quite a smile on his lips.
Dobey sighed and all the anger left his voice. "Yeah, well...tell him I am too."
Okay, it was progress. But never let it be said that I quit while I was ahead. Hutch's sheepish expression was just too good to let slide.
"Hey. Didya hear that?" Hutch made a face and stretched out a hand for the mic, but I pulled it back out of his reach. "Cap, I think Hutch wants to apologize."
"Oh, now let's not get sickening about this, huh?" Hutch growled and snatched it from me.
I couldn't help grinnin' to myself. Sometimes my partner is just way too fun to play with--and too easy to distract. Gettin' him irritated with me was the quickest way to sidetrack him from worrying about me.
"What about Martini's old girlfriend, Sweet Alice?" Dobey asked. "You got a current address on her?"
Hutch and I just looked at each other, feelin' like a couple of idiots. Dobey had just suggested something one of us should've come up with right away. I started up the car, glad to be movin' again.
"Yeah, I've got an address," Hutch said into the mic. "Why didn't I think of that?" The second half was for me, not Dobey. "That's a good idea, Captain."
Sweet Alice is a tough one to figure out. She's what you could call a "high class" hooker--if there is such a thing. And her name ain't just a name, she really is one of the nicest people you'd want to meet. Which brings me to the tough part--why's she in the business in the first place? I mean, if she'd been a junkie with a habit to support, I'd've understood. We see a lot of those, they're a dime a dozen. Broken-down, washed-up ladies whose beauty's just a memory, if it ever existed at all. They live from fix to fix, makin' a buck anyway they can, usually on their backs.
But Sweet Alice wasn't like that. Oh, she'd seen plenty of hard times, but the streets hadn't hardened her. She'd helped us out more than once, and I'm pretty sure she had a soft spot for my partner. I know he had one for her.
Alice welcomed us like we were old friends, 'steada cops who'd just chased off her latest trick. Hutch, who'd gone in through the back door, let me in.
"Well, howdy Starsky. Y'all come on in and have a drink." With that little drawl she sounded more like a Southern belle than a hooker.
"Hiya, Sweet Alice."
"Hey, did you stop by to bust me, or just for a little friendly conversation." Her eyes lit up. "I know. You're lookin' for someone."
I smiled and nodded at her, ignoring the fact that I was startin' to feel pretty lousy. I sure didn't want Sweet Alice to know what was goin' down, and if my partner thought I was hurtin' he might make me go back to the hospital.
"How do you feel about Janos?" Hutch asked her.
Sweet Alice huffed a little and rolled those big, blue eyes. "Oh my. Time heals. I just mildly hate his guts now." She chuckled a little.
"Well then you wouldn't mind telling us where he is?" I was lettin' Hutch do the talking since I knew Alice would be more likely to confide in him.
A little bit of fear crept onto her face, and from what I'd heard about the way Janos treated her, I could understand why. "Um...knowin' he wouldn't find out it was me that told ya about it?"
Hutch darted a quick look at me. His lips turned up a little bit but he looked sad. "Nope."
"Okay. Well, he's got a little business ingeniously called 'Sexsational Films.' He bought himself a grocery store and he's callin' it a sound stage. Somewhere on Chanon Avenue, I think. Hey! What's the matter?"
Typical. Obviously ol' Janos hadn't changed a bit. Nothin' would make me happier than to go over there and bust his little operation wide open.
"Thanks, Alice." Hutch headed for the door and after a quick nod at Alice I was right behind him. Already my hopes were raisin' again, thinkin' Janos might be our boy.
"Hey, wait, what's the beef?" Alice persisted. "Nothin' trivial, I hope."
Hutch opened the door for me. "No, I'm afraid not."
"You all right, Starsk?"
Her question surprised me--surprised us both, I guess. I'd started out into the hallway, but I turned back. "Hmm?" I could feel Hutch starin' at me.
"Weeell, you just sweatin' all over the place. You got a fever?"
I brushed my fingers across my forehead, a little unnerved when they came away dripping. One look at Hutch's face told me he wasn't gonna be any help.
Too soon. God, if you're up there, let Janos be the one.
I ducked out the door before I had to face Alice or Hutch another minute.
I caught up with Starsky just as he was leaving the building. I really wanted to say something about what had just happened, preferably something encouraging. But anything I thought of sounded incredibly lame or insensitive.
Don't give up, Starsk, we're gonna find him.
It's not the end of the world, there's still Martini and Wedell.
We've been down this far before and still come through, we'll do it again.
I couldn't stop seeing Starsky's face when he realized that Bellamy couldn't have attacked him. Starsky can be a little kid at times, and as such, he can pout with the best of them. If I had a dime for every puppy dog face I've seen on his mug I could quit the Force and retire to the Bahamas. But this wasn't anything like that. He was trying so hard not to give in to the disappointment, to keep going in spite of such a crushing blow.
I'd do anything to take that look off his face.
I searched harder for something to say. "Got a feel on him?"
Yeah, I know. Brilliant. You try coming up with a profound remark when your guts are being ripped apart.
Starsky got that look on his face, the one that says, "What do you think I think?"
"Same as always, a crook..."
The word "crook" cut off midstream as Starsky took a nosedive toward the pavement. I reacted purely on instinct, one hand grabbing hold of his collar and the other pushing back against his chest. He wobbled for a minute, then seemed to regain his balance. He blinked, his expression stunned.
I kept my hand on his back, more for me than for him since he didn't appear to be in danger of falling. Thoughts were chasing each other through my brain like a dog after a cat.
Starsky looking winded at the top of the stairs.
Perspiring as if it were 95 degrees outside, when it couldn't be more than 80.
His near tumble down the steps.
The wallclock in Bellamy's apartment.
The poison wasn't just theoretical anymore--it was proving itself to be very, very real. I couldn't help wondering what it was going to feel like to watch my partner, my best friend, gradually come apart at the seams. I'd give anything to be able to make things easier for him.
"Want me to drive?" It was pitifully inadequate, but the best I could come up with.
Starsky shrugged off my hand and ambled over to the car. "What, and get us both killed?" He circled around to the driver's side. "Why am I tryin' to make you feel better?"
Even with darkness closing in from all sides, he was worried about me. We've both been known to use a little black humor when emotions start running too strong. Hell, I'd just done it myself on the way in to the station. It's like an intricate dance, with steps we both know by heart. We talk without talking. And the damnedest thing is, we always know what's really being said.
I mustered a little grin. "You know something, Starsk?"
"It's always toughest on the ones left behind."
See, partner? Two can play that game.
"I'll believe that when I hear it from someone who went first."
I got into the Torino and picked up the mic to radio headquarters.
"This is Zebra 3 to control. Detective Hutchinson. Put me through to Dobey."
I could see Starsky--watching him out of the corner of my eye was getting to be a habit--trying to blot the sweat from his face with the sleeve of his jacket. It was a given that he'd be feeling uncomfortable by now, I just wasn't sure how much. And I sure as hell wasn't stupid enough to ask.
"Yeah, Hutch." Dobey sounded almost hopeful. I hated to burst his bubble.
He heaved a sigh and began telling me about the effort to get teams out to some pharmaceutical supply houses. That was all well and good, but not what I was hoping to hear.
"What about Wedell and Martini?"
"No, nothing yet."
I'd heard people use the expression "seeing red" before, but I'd never experienced it. At Dobey's words something inside me just snapped, and all the pent up rage and frustration came spilling out. I was sitting in a car, watching the damn poison slowly but surely choke the life out of my best friend, and Dobey couldn't even come up with a couple lousy addresses for the scum that might be responsible. I wanted to put my fist through the dashboard. I wanted to pull my gun and shoot the radio. I settled for screaming at Dobey.
I was just getting up a good head of steam when Starsky's hand covered mine and took away the mic. "Wait a minute, I'm not through yet!"
"C'mon." Soft. Reproachful.
He brought the mic to his mouth. "Cap, you'll have to excuse Hutch. He's feelin' a bit skittish." His voice was calm, almost gentle, with just a hint of amusement.
It was such a sharp contrast to the bellowing I'd just done, it affected me like a slap. I hung my head, feeling a bit bemused by the way Starsky had so efficiently taken control.
"Yeah, well...tell him I am too."
That was about the closest thing to an apology I'd ever heard from Dobey. He wasn't exactly your "touchy feely" type of guy.
Starsky seemed to be enjoying his role as peacemaker a little too much. "Hey. Didya hear that?"
I ignored him and held out my hand for the mic. Starsky pulled it away before I could get it. "Cap, I think Hutch wants to apologize."
"Oh, now let's not get sickening about this, huh?" I plucked the mic out of his hand. Now he really was starting to piss me off.
Dobey either didn't notice Starsky's antics or he'd chosen to overlook them. "What about Martini's old girlfriend, Sweet Alice. You got a current address on her?"
My jaw dropped and I turned to find Starsky looking at me with the same blank expression.
"Yeah, I've got an address," I told Dobey when I found my voice. "Why didn't I think of that?" I asked Starsky. To finish making peace, I added, "That's a good idea, Captain."
I like Sweet Alice. I mean I genuinely like her. I know she's a hooker, but she's also a sweet, vulnerable, and very pretty lady. I know a little of her history--she confided in me once over a little beer and a lot of tears after a customer had worked her over. Her childhood was normal and happy until her father died and her mother remarried. The way her stepfather chose to enforce his 'parental responsibilities' is a crime that changed a bright, popular young girl from a small Texas town into a runaway on the L.A. streets. In another life Alice might've been a high-class fashion model. Instead she wound up a hooker.
I never stop hoping she'll find something better, but I know in my heart she never will. In Alice's mind, she's where she belongs.
I've given up trying to change it.
Rather than bursting in on her when she'd be likely to have a...friend, I had Starsky give her fair warning at the front door while I circled around back. The look of sheer terror on the John's face when he saw my badge would've been funny, if it hadn't been so sad.
Alice greeted me warmly, as always. "Hi, handsome Hutch."
I let Starsky in and Alice welcomed him with just as much enthusiasm, even offering us something to drink, which we politely refused. When I brought up Martini's name she tried to make light of it, but I could see the edge of fear in her eyes. Janos, a slimy little twirp who picked on anyone weaker than himself, had beaten Alice repeatedly until she'd finally gotten enough courage to leave him.
I had to promise her the slimeball would never know she was the one who told us where to find him. What I really wanted to do was promise he'd be missing a few teeth.
"Hey, wait a minute, what's the beef?" she asked as we tried to make a quick exit. "Nothin' trivial, I hope?"
Trivial? Only if you consider murdering my best friend to be no big deal.
"No, I'm afraid not." I got as far as pulling open the door and Starsky was halfway into the hallway when Alice stopped us cold.
"You all right, Starsk?" Warmth and real concern colored her words.
Starsky turned back, his face expressionless. "Hmm?"
"Weeeell, you're just sweatin' all over the place. You got a fever?"
Starsky touched his forehead and stared at the droplets on his fingers, then looked at me as if I could provide some kind of answer. Unfortunately the giant boulder in my throat made breathing difficult and speaking impossible.
He looked back at Alice and nodded, trying hard to offer her a little smile. "Yeah."
I followed him out the door. Fortunately, by the time we reached the car I'd managed to swallow the boulder and I could breathe again.
Hutch didn't say a word when we got in the car, but I could hear those little wheels spinnin' in that thick skull of his. He drummed his fingers on his knee and pretended to look out the window, but I'd've bet he wasn't seein' a darn thing.
I just concentrated on driving and hoped like hell he'd keep his mouth shut. I knew how worried he must be, and that he was probably dyin' to ask how I was feeling--no pun intended. But that wasn't what I needed from him right then. I needed to keep movin', keep swimmin' against the current, 'cause if I stopped I was goin' under and it didn't seem likely I'd be comin' back up.
Eventually I guess he couldn't stand it any longer. His eyes left off perusin' the street and locked onto me instead. "Alice was right, partner, you don't look so good. Maybe it's time we..."
"DON'T." I didn't expect for it to come out soundin' like that. Like when I warn a punk not to pull his gun.
Hutch kinda faltered, as surprised as me. "Starsk..."
"I mean it, Hutch."
Sometimes the most important quality for bein' a friend is knowin' when to push and when to back off. Hutch looked at me for a long time. Just when I was convinced he was gonna take me to Metro, or worse yet, the hospital, he pressed his lips together and went back to lookin' out the window.
"Chanon's up ahead on the left. If I know our boy Janos, he'll have a couple of goons standing guard out front." He didn't sound angry, just tired.
I nodded to let Hutch know I heard, but it took me a few minutes before I could speak. "Hutch?"
We pulled up to the curb, and sure enough, a couple of two-bit losers were loungin' around on the sidewalk. Hutch walked past them to the door, then turned around.
"Oops. We gotta go around back."
We headed for the alley that would take us to the back door, but Mutt and Jeff stepped in front of us. Hutch smiled at 'em like they were boy scouts and not lowlife scum.
"Would you mind moving?"
Mutt and Jeff just stared at us with smug expressions plastered on their ugly faces.
I held out my badge. "Does that handle it?" I didn't really expect that to work, but we gotta go through the usual dance.
"Got a warrant?" Mutt asked after taking a close look.
I was feelin' pretty lousy by now and in no mood to take crap. "No I don't got a warrant," I said, lookin' at him like he was an idiot--which he was. I looked at Hutch. "You got a warrant?"
Hutch pinched his nose and ducked his head to keep from grinnin' at me. "Nope."
"Well, that about covers it, huh?" Mutt said, pleased with his own razor sharp wit.
"Yeah." Hutch looked at me, all sincere. "You know something, Starsk, he's right. We can't go on in there without probable cause. Like stupid here taking a swing at us."
Mutt's smile did an amazin' disappearing act, and I had to work hard to keep it from poppin' up on my face. I frowned a little.
"Wait a second. Which one of these flakes you callin' stupid?"
Hutch looked 'em both over, playin' it to the hilt. I swear, sometimes I think my partner should've been an actor. Mutt was smilin' again but Jeff looked catatonic.
"The creepy looking one."
They looked at each other, and I could tell Mutt was gettin' steamed. I shrugged.
"Gotta be more specific."
"Oh, it's the guy that never picks on anyone his own size and gets his kicks intimidating young girls and old women."
Works every time. It was all over in a couple minutes and a few good punches; Mutt and Jeff dumped with the rest of the trash, right where they belonged. You'd think anyone with half a brain wouldn't be dumb enough to fall for that old trick--but that explains everything, don't it? I warned 'em both they'd better be history by the time we came out.
"Can you believe they bought that?" I asked Hutch as we walked toward the back door.
The cramps came out of nowhere, knocked me right off my feet. I'd had kind of a naggin' ache in my gut since leaving Bellamy's place, but this was a whole different ballgame. I'd never felt pain like that before, not even when I was shot and bleedin' on the floor of that Italian restaurant. It blotted out everything else, I couldn't see, couldn't hear, couldn't breathe... I locked my arms across my body real tight to keep my stomach from creeping up my throat and spillin' outta my mouth.
Through the haze of agony I felt two arms, strong but gentle. I'd folded myself up like some sorta human pretzel without even realizin' it, as if I could crawl inside myself to get away from the pain. Hutch pulled me into his lap, and the warmth felt so good after the cold pavement I could've cried. I couldn't stop myself from grabbin' onto him--his hand, his leg--like a drowning man. I heard the hum of his voice as he talked to me, but at first the words didn't mean nothin'.
Didn't matter though, my heart knew what he was sayin'.
Finally the cramps eased up a little bit, though my belly still hurt like hell. I realized I was gulping air, so I concentrated on slowing down, trying to relax and surf the pain. I had both of my hands wrapped around one of Hutch's, squeezin' as hard as I could. His other hand was curled around my arm, and I think he was grabbing onto me just as tight.
"You gonna make it, huh?" Hutch's voice was calm, steady. Exactly what I needed to hear.
It felt like someone was plunging red-hot knives into my gut. Hurt so damn bad a part me wanted to die then and there, just to make it stop. But Hutch was there, holdin' me, encouraging me, and worryin' about me. I had to be strong for him. I had to say something to convince him I was okay.
"My stomach hasn't hurt this bad since my Aunt Rosie sent me her special chicken soup."
"Easy, easy now, come on. Just try to relax, okay?" Still calm but I could hear a ragged edge underneath, and the hand on my shoulder trembled.
"She never could get the hang of it. She made great wonton, though." I tried to look up at him, to smile, but another cramp tore through my gut and I couldn't help wincing.
"Think you can make it? Huh?"
I clamped my teeth together and nodded. "'Kay."
Hutch started to pull me up and the world tilted and spun. I reached back and grabbed hold of his jacket and didn't let go, not even when he got me on my feet. Every few seconds another spasm would twist my stomach into knots, and his firm grip on my arm and my chokehold on his jacket was all that stood between me and another dive to the pavement.
"Gimme a minute...Hutch." I was hunched over like an old man so I slowly straightened up. The cramps had pretty much stopped except for a twinge now and then, but there was a steady, gnawin' pain like a tiger tryin' to chew its way outta my belly.
Hutch didn't rush me, just held onto my arm and watched me with those blue eyes that can see right through me. His face looked tense and stiff, and I could tell in his own way he was hurtin' as bad as me. I forced my hands to open and let go of his jacket, and an old standby for lightening the mood popped into my head.
"How do I look?" I snickered a little at my own joke. Sometimes it's either laugh or cry, and the first choice definitely beats the second.
"You look terrible." Hutch's voice quivered with...something. I think maybe he was stuck between those same two choices.
He kept hold of my arm the whole way to the door, lettin' me lean on him. When we got there he turned me to face him, but still didn't let go.
Okay? I was about as far from okay as The Big Apple is from L.A. My insides felt like they were bein' run through Hutch's blender. I was about to face the slimeball who might be responsible. And even though he was puttin' up a pretty good front, Hutch was startin' to look desperate.
But there was no way I was gonna tell Hutch any of that.
I twisted my mouth into grin and patted his chest. "Yeah."
Rousting Janos was a nightmare. Hutch likes to ride me about my tendency toward stubborn pig-headedness, but I used every single drop of it to keep from showing how much I was hurtin'. Walkin' without a hand braced on Hutch; standin' straight, not hunched over holding my belly; a steady voice and a poker face--climbin' Mt. Everest couldn'ta been any harder.
I let Hutch do all the hard work, knocking over equipment and roughin' up our boy so that he was nice and rattled before we started askin' questions. I felt a little guilty, but not much. I figured with the way I was feelin', I'd better concentrate on stayin' vertical. And I told myself it was a good chance for my partner to blow off a little of the steam I'd seen buildin' up.
Janos, of course, was all full of righteous indignation. Claimed he'd been at the studio since 4:30. Hutch bullyin' him just made him angry, not ready to break down and confess. Hearin' him and Hutch go at it made my gut hurt worse--if that was possible.
I wanted the nightmare to be over. I wanted Janos to admit he'd drugged me. I wanted to go home, climb into my own bed, and sleep for a week.
I wanted it to stop hurtin'. Oh God, I'd've done just about anything to make it stop.
"Tell him a funny story," I said to Hutch, then walked over to where I could inconspicuously lean against some of the wreckage my partner had created.
Hutch picked right up on my plan. Janos, who'd been actin' pretty tough while Hutch was shovin' him around, turned to jelly at the thought of us smashin' an expensive camera lens. Suddenly he was babbling like an idiot, beggin' and pleadin' for us to put it down. Thought he might burst into tears when we started tossin' it back and forth. It would've been funny under any other circumstances.
Right then I didn't feel much like laughin'.
The minute Janos really cut loose, I knew he wasn't our guy. I'd been pretty foggy when Stocking Mask injected me, but his laughter still echoed in my head. Cold, cruel--the spiteful sound made it clear he was really gettin' his jollies from hurtin' me. Janos sounded more like a donkey brayin'.
"Unfortunately, that's not it."
I lobbed the lens at Janos and walked away without lookin' too hard at Hutch's face. I didn't have to see his expression to know that it looked just like mine. I needed to get out, get away from Janos and his flunkies before I lost what little grasp I had on my emotions.
No runs, no hits, and two outs. In baseball those numbers put you damn close to losing the game.
I walked over to a set of wooden stairs that led up to the second floor and just kinda let my legs fold under me. The pain in my belly had been bad enough; the ache in my heart was almost more than I could take.
Hutch walked over, not even tryin' to hide his disappointment. "That's twelve hours gone."
"Yeah. Pessimist says the bottle's half empty. And the optimist says it's half full.
Twelve hours. Of pain even worse than the knife that was slicing my stomach into shreds. No longer able to see. To walk. To breathe.
Screw it, I was tired of being strong.
"Oh it hurts, Hutch. Oh God, it hurts."
He sat on the step beside me, one arm curled around my shoulders and the other pressed to my stomach. I leaned toward him, needin' to feel his warmth and his solidity when everything else around me was fallin' apart. Guess my coordination was already off, 'cause I wound up slidin' off the step instead.
Like always, Hutch was there.
"I know, I know. Buddy, I'm here. I'm here."
He pulled me into his arms and held me. Anchored me. And for the first time since the nightmare began, I let go.
I stewed for a while after we left Sweet Alice. Seemed silly that her casual observation would bother me so much, but it did. I could shrug off my concern over Starsky's appearance, chalk it up to a heightened sense of worry because I knew about the poison. But Alice was essentially an innocent bystander, completely unaware of Starsky's predicament. Like the child who pointed out that the emperor's new clothes were really his birthday suit, Alice had dispelled any illusions I might have held about what was really going on with Starsky.
He was sick. And it was starting to show.
For about the millionth time I thought about Doctor Franklin. If Starsky had followed his advice would we have an antidote by now? In letting him be a part of this investigation, had I signed his death warrant? Sure, it was Starsky's decision, but I'm not foolish enough to think I didn't influence him. If I'd encouraged him to stay put in the hospital, to let Franklin do this thing, he'd have bitched and moaned but he'd have done it.
At the time I told myself that I needed to support my partner's choice because it was what he wanted. But that's only part of the reason. Truth is, I couldn't bear the idea that we might spend Starsky's final hours apart. If the end was going to come, I wanted to be Butch and Sundance, going out in a blaze of glory.
Except the only one going out was Starsky. And I was feeling a little selfish. And a lot scared.
I turned toward him, unable to keep it to myself any longer. "Alice was right, Partner, you don't look so good. Maybe it's time we..."
I expected a token protest, but not the icy cold warning. The voice that said, "I have a gun and I know how to use it." I stammered a little as I struggled to regain my balance.
"I mean it, Hutch."
Partner. Best friend. Brother. I know Starsky, when to push and when to get the hell out of Dodge. There was so much hidden within those few simple words. Hidden to others, but not to me. He was hurting, he was scared, and he was determined not to let me know. I had to respect that.
"Chanon's up ahead on the left. If I know our boy Janos, he'll have a couple of goons standing guard out front."
Starsky just nodded, but I could see his fingers tighten on the steering wheel and he swallowed hard. When he finally did speak, his voice was low and husky with emotion.
I was worried sick about him the entire time we were disposing of Janos' hired muscle. Two of the "all brawn and no brain" types would normally be a recreational sport for Starsky and me--we both love to mess with their heads.
We went through the motions, but my heart wasn't really in it and I don't think Starsky's was either, though he put up a good front. Getting Stupid to lose his temper was child's play, but Ugly did me the favor of throwing the first punch. In the blink of an eye it was all over, and Starsky was actually crowing a little about how easy it had been. Felt good to hear the smug tone in his voice.
Next thing I knew, he was on the ground.
I could see right away that he must be in excruciating pain. He'd curled into a fetal position, oblivious to the fact that he was on the pavement, and was grunting in pain. Sounded like someone was working him over, punching him repeatedly in the gut. I dropped down on one knee and pulled him into my arms.
"Starsky. Hey, hey, hey. Easy, easy, easy."
I operated on automatic pilot, terrified by what was happening to Starsky and offering blind comfort the only way I knew how. He burrowed into my hold as if he could escape the pain by sheer physical contact. I held on tightly, stealing a quick glance toward the street to be sure that Martini's two goons hadn't decided to come back. Last thing I needed was to be taken out by that scum while Starsky was incapacitated.
Starsky stopped squirming and lay in my arms, every muscle in his body tense, gulping air like a drowning man. His hands were locked onto me with so much desperation, I knew I was going to have finger-shaped bruises on my arm and leg.
"You gonna make it, huh?" I asked him.
"My stomach hasn't hurt this bad since my Aunt Rosie sent me her special chicken soup."
"Easy, easy now, come on. Just try to relax, okay?" I fought to keep my voice steady, but it broke a little anyway.
Starsky was on the ground, wracked with cramps I could still feel spasming periodically through his body, and he was trying to make me laugh. I knew what he was doing, and why. And even as I admired him, I hurt like hell.
I'd never felt so helpless. In the darkest of times, I'd always had a plan of action, something I could do. When Starsky was shot, I'd bandaged him up and concocted a plan to get us out safely. I was worried I might bungle the whole thing and get someone else hurt. I was terrified he was going to bleed to death. But at least I was doing something.
So far, it seemed like all I'd done was spin my wheels and watch Starsky get sicker.
"She never could get the hang of it. She made great wonton, though."
Ah, Starsk. I'm so damn sorry.
"Think you can make it, huh?" I asked, still uneasy about our location.
He let me haul him to his feet, but he was as shaky as a toddler taking his first steps. I steadied him--held him up, really--while he struggled to get control of himself and the pain. He briefly pressed one hand to his stomach, but removed it and clutched my jacket instead. After a long moment he loosened his fists and tried to straighten up.
"How do I look?" He even managed a weak chuckle at his own joke.
I don't think I'd ever seen him look worse. Voices of reason were screaming in my head: This is crazy. He'll never make it. He belongs in a hospital.
And I pushed them all aside. Starsky was willing to endure agonizing pain to have a stake in his own salvation. Who was I to take that away from him?
"You look terrible." The words sent one message, but I put the real meaning in my voice.
I kept hold of his arm all the way to the back door, letting him lean on me and taking it slow. As soon as we stepped inside, though, he let go and put on that cocky swagger that I know and love. The transformation was pretty amazing, but I knew he was hanging on by his fingernails.
There was no joy, no amusement from him as I snagged Janos and shook him around. Normally Starsky gets a kick out of harassing a weasel like Martini, but today he was distant and detached. He let me do the talking and just watched.
"Where were you at four o'clock this morning?"
"What are you guys, crazy?" Janos was furious, too mad to be afraid at first. "What's the beef?"
I shook him by the collar of his cheap sportcoat. "Don't answer a question with a question."
"At my apartment! We started shooting at five, I was here at four-thirty--ask the crew!" He shoved my hands away.
Starsky, who'd been staring at him as if he were an interesting bug, stepped in. "Come on, Janos. You expect us to take the word of these flakes on anything?" To Martini I'm sure he sounded same as always. To me, he sounded like he'd just run a marathon. "Tell him a funny story."
I drew a blank for a moment, then understood. Starsky's words in the hospital played through my head.
Well, he had about as mean a laugh as I've ever heard.
"I don't feel too funny this morning, Janos. So I want you to pretend that I told you a real knee-slapper."
"What do you guys want?" Still way too calm. Well, I could change that.
It was a pleasure making him squirm over that expensive camera lens. Suddenly Mr. Cool was running off at the mouth and pleading with us both, terrified his little investment was going to wind up in a million pieces on the floor. My frustration level was skyrocketing, and what I really wanted to be doing to Janos involved my fists in a close encounter with his face. Instead, I had to be content just to poke him with a stick--so to speak.
It would've been completely understandable if Starsky had fumbled a catch and dropped that lens. But I knew he wouldn't.
When Janos started laughing I saw immediately that we had the wrong guy. Starsky's face tightened and he sucked in a sharp breath of air.
"Unfortunately, that's not it." He tossed the lens to Janos and walked out.
When we hit fresh air, Starsky's steps got slower and slower. I thought we'd go back to the car, but he wandered over to a flight of wooden steps and dropped down onto them.
I just...couldn't seem to find any words. Nearly four o'clock in the afternoon. Half of the ridiculously short time my partner had been given was gone, and we had nothing. I was tired, frustrated, and aching inside, yet I knew it was just a drop in the bucket compared to what Starsky was feeling. I walked over to stand beside him.
"Well, that's twelve hours gone." I wished I could snatch back the words the moment they left my mouth.
Brilliant, absolutely brilliant. You really know how to cheer a guy up, Hutchinson.
Starsky, God bless him, took it in stride, the way he had during every lousy set back so far.
"Yeah. The pessimist says the bottle's half empty. And the optimist says it's half full."
I looked at him. Despite his detour into philosophy, I could hear the pain in his voice.
Time in a bottle. I've never really understood that analogy, even though Jim Croce has made good money singing about it. Me, I've always thought we hold our time in a glass. Some people just let it sit there, looking pretty, and never drink from it. Some people guzzle it down like beer at a frat party, consuming it without really tasting it. And some people just pour it out on the ground, wasted and useless. Then there's the rare few who sip it slowly, enjoying every single mouthful for the pleasure it brings them.
Starsky's one of the few. He approaches life with an enthusiasm that I envy but can't quite duplicate. I'll tell you something, though. Since he came into my life, I've started sipping too. I try, anyway.
"Oh it hurts, Hutch. Oh God, it hurts."
He practically fell into my embrace, too miserable to keep up the illusion any longer. I held him as tightly as I could while he finally allowed himself to fall apart.
And I tried my damnedest not to think of that half-empty glass.