Originally published in TLC (Tender Loving Care), In Person Press, May 1992. Scanned/first-proof read by Cyanne, final proofing by SHaron.
Terri Beckett, with Chris Power, is the author of TRIBUTE TRAIL. See www.speculationpress.com for details! Comments about this story can be sent to: kmankatz@CandW.ky
If it was true about some people having a nose for trouble, there was no doubt in my mind that my partner of three months certainly had that gift. Absolutely, definitely, no doubt about it.
What I wasn't so sure about was -- did I?
It was maybe too soon to tell. My rookie term never revealed anything that could be classed as extraordinary, but as Dave Starsky and I became a team, reaffirming the friendship we'd formed in the Academy two years ago, I began to think that maybe -- just maybe -- we had something special. It was too soon to put a label on it, too soon even to investigate it as closely as I wanted. I had to wait and see.
I couldn't even talk to anyone about it. Vanessa was antipathetic to police work or any mention of it. And I wasn't sure enough of Starsky to mention it to him.
That was another thing. Working with Starsky for twelve weeks had brought home to me just how little I really knew about the man. Oh, I got all the basic info -- but that told me about as much as a rap sheet. All the important stuff -- where he was coming from, what made him tick -- was still a closed book to me.
He'd made plainclothes six months before I got short-listed. That didn't surprise me -- Starsky had the brains and the guts and the street-savvy it needed -- and it didn't surprise me either when the Belvedere case blew up and Narcotics demanded Starsky act as contact-man for the underground escape-route to Mexico and points south. We had the real guy -- he'd turned State's Evidence -- and since the man we wanted wouldn't know him from Adam, Dobey agreed to put Starsky in his place. And then he said I had to be in on the act, too, which got me the job of back-up and middleman and general gopher. Starsky was supposed to keep in touch with me by phone, so we'd know what was going down on both ends. One of the Narco boys split the shifts with me -- twelve hours on, twelve off -- but more often than not I hung around rather than go home to face Van's increasing hostility. She never liked the idea of me being a cop -- even less, a street-cop. Even less a street detective. Maybe if I could have jumped a few grades straight to captain or higher, she'd have been happier. Anyway, she didn't like what I was doing, and she let me know it. She didn't like Starsky, either, and she never bothered to hide that dislike. Funny thing was, he never mentioned it. If anything, he kind of took her part -- like reminding me I should call her if I was going to be late. Little things like that. I never could figure why.
He was undercover at the Capistrano Hotel - -a fancy name for a dump that should have been condemned years ago -- holed up in a fourth-floor room waiting for Gilbreath to get in touch, hopefully with a case of prime uncut coke he'd be willing to exchange for a quick one-way trip to Acapulco. That was the set-up. And it was all going down like silk, until Starsky missed a call-in.
Now we knew nothing had gone sour with the Belvedere -- one way and another, Narco had them sewn up so tight they couldn't fart without us knowing. But the Capistrano wasn't the Beverly Hilton, it was a shooting gallery, and although Starsky wasn't supposed to even stick his head out the door, officially, I knew this much about him -- he wasn't about to let anyone get hurt while he lay low, cover or no cover.
So maybe someone had made him for a cop.
I didn't know anything for sure, but I had that uneasy feeling that something was wrong kicking hell out of my backbone, and I didn't want to wait around. Just in case it was a bummer, I didn't call in. Okay, that was a no-no, but I was off-duty anyway. I drove downtown, parked three blocks away, and catfooted it through the back alleys to the back of the Capistrano. The fire escape wouldn't have passed any safety inspections, but it got me up to the fourth floor, and the screened sash window slid up with only a minimum of trouble and noise. I climbed through, slid it back down, and sidled along the dingy hallway to the door of Starsky's room and tapped on it.
There wasn't any answer. So I tapped again, and his voice said, "Yeah?"
"Open up. It's me."
"Who's me?" he wanted to know, but the door opened a few inches and I squeezed inside -- to face his .38 leveled straight at me until he saw who it was and let the barrel drop. "Jesus Christ, what are you doing here?"
"Checking up," I said. "You missed a call."
"I did? Shit." He looked blank. "Guess I overslept."
Which was a pretty thin excuse, but I let it go. The air in the place was thick enough to slice, and hot as an oven with the sun hitting it -- I could feel sweat popping out all over. The air conditioning wasn't working, that was obvious.
"Window stuck?" I asked.
"Because it must be about ninety degrees in here -- " Then I noticed something odd. He was wearing a Mexican wool cardigan sweater, belted tight, collar turned up. And his hands were shaking. "Hey," I said. "You okay?"
He didn't look okay. "Yeah, terrific," he said. "You shouldn't be here. Who's on duty?"
"Simmons and Rauch." I reached for his wrist, thinking I could check his pulse, but he jerked free.
"Will you quit -- What are you doin''?"
"You're sick," I said.
"You'll make a detective yet." He turned away. "So it's the twenty-four hour flu, maybe. I'm okay."
"Yeah?" I started to pick up the phone, but he moved faster than I expected and slammed the receiver down.
"I said quit it!" he snapped. His eyes blazed at me, blued steel.
"I'm calling this set-up off," I said. "If you're sick -- "
"Forget it." He jerked his head at the door. "We've been workin' for this for six weeks. I'm not lettin' you blow it now. Get outa here, willya?"
He meant it. And it suddenly occurred to me that it wasn't the flu, and he knew it wasn't, and he knew what it was.
"You forget it," I told him. "You're not fit to do the job, man. That's why I'm calling in --"
"Hutch." His voice changed abruptly, and he sat down on the bed, hands jammed in his pockets. He was still shivering. Dammit, in the sunlight, his lips looked blue. "Listen, I want this bust. I wouldn't be here unless I knew I could hack it. This -- shit, I've been here before, I -- "
"So what is it? Not the flu."
"Malaria," he muttered. "Picked it up in 'Nam. It kinda stays with ya. Hutch, I know, okay? It hits hard, but it don't last -- by the time Gilbreath shows, I'll be over it -- "
I didn't know what I should do. No, I knew what I should do, but I couldn't do it. Not after he'd asked me -- shit, I'd only been working with him twelve weeks, but I wanted to keep on working with him. If I called this bust off, I might just as well call off any kind of partnership between us.
"Okay," I said at last. "But you oughta see a doctor."
"No need. They can't do anything." The shivers were easing off, it looked like. Or he was trying to control them.
"But -- quinine or something?"
"Quinine's a preventative. Don't do a thing for the attacks. Once it starts, it goes right on until it finishes."
"Something must -- "
He took a breath, held it, let it out. "Yeah. I got some pills from last time -- a year ago --"
I was already heading for the door. "Be right back. What am I looking for?"
"Brown plastic bottle. Paludrine." And he looked at me and gave a shadow of his grin. "Thanks, Hutch."
I made it to Ridgeway and back in record time. He wasn't shivering when I got back in the room, but his color was worse, if anything, a sickly gray-white, made worse by the contrast with sweat-matted dark hair. The sweater was gone, shirt open to the waist.
"Here," I said, handing him the container, and I went into the cramped cubbyhole that was a bathroom and ran the water into the cracked sink until it was as cold as it was likely to come before I filled the paper cup perched on the shelf. When I took it to him he hadn't moved, but the bottle in his hand was open. "You take them?" I said. He looked at me.
"Not exactly." And upended the container. Nothing fell out.
"Empty?" I couldn't believe it.
"Guess I never thought to get the prescription refilled." He gave a shrug and tossed the bottle in the trash.
"Right. That settles it. I'm getting you to a doctor --"
"I told you," he said wearily. "I know exactly what's gonna happen. The chills ease off, I start runnin' a fever. Maybe quite a high one. Okay, I'll be pretty sick, but only for a coupla hours. Then it'll break."
"Until it comes back." I knew that much about malaria, that it came in cycles.
"Yeah, well, by that time this'll be over." He straightened up, grimacing a little. "Just do what I say, Hutch, please?"
I'd never heard him use that tone of voice before. And I guess that's when I made my decision. For the partnership, I mean. That, and all that it meant. "Okay," I said. "But I'm staying here."
"Don't be dumb. You got no home to go to?"
"Van's out." I knew what he was getting at. "Besides, if you're gonna be as sick as you say, you'll need help. I brought some aspirin along --"
He took the water, and the pills. I felt the fine bones under the hot flesh of his fingers. "Thanks."
"Maybe you should lie down again," I suggested. He didn't argue. I guessed he was feeling pretty rough by this time. "So what brought this on, anyway? You caught it in Viet Nam?"
"Sure. Along with a few other things. Including a dose of the clap, would you believe? But penicillin knocked that out. Malaria -- that's not so simple. A lot of us got that but good. Oh, they had a 'cure' -- don't they always?" He grinned, and it was like seeing a death's-head, skin tawny-pale stretched tight over the bones. "... turned you bright yellow. So who wants t'look like a gook? Most of us never finished the course of treatment once we started to feel better. That was okay. Then -- last year -- I got overworked. Wham. Hit like a freight-train. I saw a doc in New York, he gave me the Paludrine, said it was important I kept in condition... "
It had been a heavy few weeks. Looking back, I could see just how hard it had been, on us both. Me, I've always taken care of my health, eaten the right kind of food, all that kind of thing. But Starsk -- with his predilection for junk food, for working a twenty-four hour day seven days a week -- thinking he could get away with it -- normally, maybe he could.
Not this time.
He fell silent, head turned away from me. The daylight was fading with the swift Pacific sunset, and the room was in a kind of cobwebby half-darkness. I couldn't see his face, just the sharp angle of jaw and cheekbone, the wild tangle of dark hair against the dingy white of the pillow. He looked -- vulnerable. I hadn't seen him looking like that, sort of defenseless, before. He'd always been so self-contained, so sure of himself, barriers firmly in place. I'd never gotten past the 'good buddies' stage, really. We were friends in the Academy. Partners, now. But I didn't really know him, the real him. Just the outward appearances, the basics. Dawned on me then, why he'd reacted the way he had when I turned up. He hadn't wanted anyone around, wanted to sweat it out alone. So now who was acting dumb?
I switched on the bedside lamp, and he winced, although the light wasn't directly in his eyes. I got a towel from the bathroom, soaked it and wrung it out. "Here y'go," I said. He didn't move as I wiped his face and throat, didn't even look at me. His eyes were filmed, blank, unseeing. The heat of his skin burned off the moisture from the towel within a minute. I ran through what I knew about malaria. It wasn't a helluva lot. When it came down to it, just how much help was I gonna be?
By midnight, he was delirious. I had no idea how high the fever was, and no way of finding out, but I'd never seen anyone this sick before. At the beginning, he'd been nauseated and hurting, but he was beyond that now. Beyond just about anything but a disjointed raving. Not a lot of what he said made sense, but what I did pick out didn't make good hearing. New York back streets, the hell of Viet Nam, L.A. gutters -- it was all there. The ugliness, the violence, the pain. And how he reacted to it -- his fears and anxieties and caring and concern. Everything normally kept hidden under the normal day to day facade, street-wise, street-tough David Starsky.
I learned more about him in those three hours than I had in twelve weeks.
I did what I could. There wasn't a lot. But the cold water helped a little, and when his voice broke on the nightmares I held onto him, talked to him, let him know he wasn't alone. I don't think it mattered who I was, only that I was there.
When the raving finally stopped, he just lay there completely quiet, completely still. His eyes were sunken, his breathing fast and shallow, and in the pre-dawn half-light he looked drained of life. I knew I'd been wrong not to insist on pulling him out. Even if he did come out of it before morning, he wasn't going to be much use. Weak as a kitten -- in no shape to tackle someone as desperate and potentially dangerous as Martin Gilbreath. I picked up the phone, started to dial Dobey's number. Then I quit. If I did blow this bust, after all he'd been through, then I was blowing any chance of my keeping Starsky's trust. I wanted that. Needed it. You need to be able to trust a partner.
"Starsk?" I got hold of his wrist -- the fever seemed like it was dropping, his skin didn't feel so dry, and his pulse wasn't galloping. "Hey, you back with me yet?"
After a bit, the lashes fluttered, and dark eyes were looking up at me. Tired, but sane, not fever-hazed.
"Hi," he whispered. I still had hold of his wrist, and he didn't pull away, so I sat down.
"Hi, yourself." There was a definite sheen of sweat on his bare skin, glimmering in the hollow of his throat. "How y'doing?"
"Terrific." He tried for a grin, didn't make it even halfway, and then tried to struggle up on one elbow.
"Take it easy," I told him.
"Got any more aspirin?" he wanted to know.
"Sure, if you can keep 'em down." He made a wry face. I guess he didn't want to be reminded of the violent nausea of last night. I gave him the last two, held the cup for him -- his hands were too shaky to keep it steady -- and he lay back down. The fever really had broken, the sweat was pouring off him now, but he did look some better.
"What time is it?"
"Uh-huh." He nodded. "Over the worst, then. Thanks for everythin', Doctor Kildare, but I can handle it now." I must have looked doubtful. "Honest injun." He reached for the towel, where I'd dropped it, and blotted at his face and chest. There were wet spreading stains on the sheet and pillow.
"Sure you can." I stood up. "But I'm on duty at eight. Hardly seems worthwhile going home for three hours. I guess I'll stick around."
"Thought you'd say that." This time he did make the grin. "Okay."
"Yeah, well, you're hardly in condition to argue."
"Don't you believe it." He actually chuckled. "Don't let this fool you. I played Camille in high school."
"Really." I knew he was going to make it, and relief made me feel light-headed. "Let me know when you feel up to going two falls out of three."
"I wrestled in college." I glanced out the window. The sun was struggling with the early smog. I switched off the lamp.
He was quiet again. My gut rumbled, reminding me I hadn't eaten since yesterday lunch, and one eye opened and an eyebrow cocked at me.
"Sorry," I said.
"Hell wit'that. You can go get us both some breakfast. Coffee shop down the block opens at five. They do great blintzes."
That sounded like a good idea. "You be okay?"
"Sure. I'll grab a shower while you're gone."
He didn't look to me like he'd make it off the bed, but I was hungry and he knew more about this than I did. So I let myself out, slid out the window again, and went down the rickety fire escape into the L.A. dawn.
I got coffee and bagels -- and blintzes. I know a hint when I hear one. And I headed back. I still don't know what made me pause before I went in. Something did. The door was ajar. I'd left it latched.
I had two choices, and no time to think.
So I went in fast, kicking the door open.
Gilbreath was there. Open suitcase, packed with white sachets. He had a gun. Starsk was propped against the foot of the bed, .38 in both hands leveled at Gilbreath, a sodden sheet more or less draped around his hips.
All this registered in less time than it takes to blink. I had both hands full, I couldn't reach for my gun -- and Gilbreath started to turn, so I just threw our breakfast straight at him, and his shot went wide, whining past my ear as coffee splattered him and bagels and blintzes went flying, but by then I was all over him.
"You have the right to remain silent -- " I was reciting Miranda as I cuffed him, and as I finished I looked around and saw Starsky's .38 shaking, his eyes wide and dark and stunned. "Put that friggin' thing down," I snapped, "before you shoot somebody!"
"Thought that was the idea," he objected, a touch woozily. I left Gilbreath bellydown in breakfast and took the gun out of Starsky's hands.
"Not when it's me," I said, and steadied him as he lurched against me. "Hey. It's all over." He grinned at me, leaning on my shoulder and he hitched up his sheet, and there was a fierce laughter in the bloodshot, dark-shadowed eyes, together with a new respect and admiration.
"We do good work, Hutch," he said.
Crazy, but it was like getting an accolade.
I'd said it was all over.
Brother, how wrong could I be? For Starsk and me, it was only just beginning.