This story first appeared in the zine,Ouch! #10 (2000). This zine, and other fine S&H gen zines, can be obtained from Neon Rainbow Press at: http://www.neonrainbowpress.com/ Comments on this story can be sent to: email@example.com and will be forwarded to the author.
"Hutch, he went of his own free choice--"
"Yeah, after you made it pretty hard to turn down. You knew he wouldn't say no after you put it like that, didn't you." It wasn't a question. For once, Ken Hutchinson was giving his boss no benefit of the doubt.
Captain Harold Dobey had been on the defensive from the moment Hutch had stormed into his office minutes before. Now it was high time to take charge of the situation before it completely slid out of his control. "Your partner is an adult and a police officer, Hutchinson. He can think for himself and--"
"But you know what buttons to push." The angry--no, stone-cold furious--blue eyes burned into him, matching the voice that was sharp, slashing. Dobey was beginning to realize he'd never actually been in control, and nothing he said now could slake that rage. "If he's dead . . . " The blond's face twisted, and the captain didn't know anymore if it was with anger or fear.
"Hutch," he tried once more, soothing now instead of commanding. Nothing else was working. "We'll find out. Every man they can spare is out on the street--"
He was doomed not to finish a sentence in this argument. "We wouldn't need to find out if you hadn't sent him out there," Hutch spat, just this side of physically pressing his point, already in Dobey's face, finger raised menacingly. No, this wasn't even an argument, it was a flaying.
It was also the last straw. Dobey rose to his feet, refusing to be talked down to anymore. "Hutchinson, I suggest you go out there and find out what happened to your partner," he said sharply, knowing it was the one thing Hutch couldn't argue with.
Those hellish eyes pinned him once more, and without another word, Hutch spun on his heel and stalked out the door into the hallway.
Dobey took a deep breath and let it out slowly as he sank into his chair. In all his years of command, he'd never lost control of a situation with one of his men like that before. Hutchinson and Starsky were his best team, and not just because of their clearance rate. They were mavericks, part of what made them so good, but there had always been an understanding between them and their boss that Dobey was on their side and that they needed to allow him the proper authority. Maybe it was a complicity on their part, but the unspoken rules had never been broken. Until now. And the captain had lost.
Dobey pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his brow. The angry words had been surface frustration, Hutch working off steam, and it wouldn't have worried the captain so much except that in those bitter blue eyes had resided an almost hatred. Hutch didn't often reach that kind of deep wrath, but when he did, Dobey didn't want to be on the wrong end of it. And its only remedy was dead and buried, according to the detectives on scene, for which Hutch rightly or wrongly blamed him.
No, Dobey shook his head, disturbed. This was not good at all.
Los Angeles had never been his home. Hutch had reached an understanding with the streets of the city, knowing where he stood with them, understanding how they worked and many of their secrets. But the sprawling, dirty city held none of the sentimentality of his hometown, nor picturesque charm, nor sense of belonging. It was simply where he worked, and where he saw the evil of mankind every place he looked. It was not his friend.
And now it hid Starsky in its depths, keeping them apart, keeping his partner from help, and Hutch hated it for that.
He drove with aggressive aimlessness, turning corners sharply and going as quickly as he could while still thoroughly eyeing the streets. He had a place to go . . . he just didn't know where it was. A visit to Huggy's had provided him only a contact outside their precinct. His informant friend had done his best to calm Hutch too, but the detective was having none of it. He had reason for his anger, and it beat through him with an intensity that sharpened his vision and cleared his thoughts. Anger didn't hurt, it helped. Unlike the fear that lingered just outside its edge.
Starsky, where are you?! Even the thought came out strident, and, abashed, he choked it back. C'mon, babe, give me something to go on so I can find you.
Oh, God, it did hurt not to be angry. Another reminder of Dobey, sitting safely in his office, and the fury returned to burn away the worst of the fear.
It had been his fault, after all. Hutch was a fair man, but he knew that much to be true. Dobey had not even asked him when the request had come in from the neighboring precinct for "either of the two detectives a.k.a. Rafferty & O'Brien," going instead straight to Starsky. No doubt because he'd known that Starsky would be the most likely to say yes, to agree to take part in the risky bust that required him to take up his old undercover persona of Rafferty, the flamboyant Chicago drug dealer.
The fact that the bust was in unfamiliar territory, outside their precinct, and that Starsky was going in without his partner should have at least given Dobey pause and would have been enough for Hutch to say no outright. But the captain knew who would be gung-ho to stop a reckless drug dealer, who had a particular loathing of drugs, especially after his partner had once been forcibly dosed. Starsky carried that grudge far more deeply than the blond, as they often did for each other, and Dobey knew it. And if for nothing else, at the moment Hutch hated his boss for that.
And that had been before the explosion.
Hutch had crossed the precinct line sometime back, drawing closer to the scene like a moth to fire. There had always been the groundless hope that Starsky would find his way back to the Ninth, and Hutch couldn't discount that, having driven the familiar streets with wary watchfulness. But most likely it was from where his partner had disappeared that he would find a clue to Starsky's fate, one way or another.
The city thinned here on the outskirts, residential area giving way to more industrial, their neighbor precinct's version of a warehouse district but with smaller, more remote warehouses and less activity. The perfect place for the drug meet in which Starsky had been to play his role.
Hutch's jaw was getting sore from being clenched so hard, but at least the ache kept him from getting too caught up in the nightmare of his thoughts. A simple meet, Dobey had kept insisting when he'd called to tell Hutch the news that morning. That morning, already nearly eight hours after the whole deal had gone sour. One more thing to add to his captain's tab, even if the man had protested he hadn't known sooner. The fact of it was that the "simple meet" had turned into a shootout with Starsky unarmed, just before the whole building had gone up in a fireball. Even the back-up unit just outside had been a little scorched. As for those inside . . .
No bodies had been found yet, for whatever good that did. It would take a week just to sift through all the debris. The back-up didn't know what had happened, losing touch with Starsky just before the fireball. He couldn't have escaped unharmed because no one had seen sign of him since. Which didn't leave many options, and none of those were good. If Starsky was injured, he was unarmed and probably without his badge, trussed up like a flashy drug dealer, and for whatever reason, too far from the site to have been found in the sweep of the area. Capture was an even worse prospect, not boding well whether his captors continued to believe he was a dealer or found out he was a cop. Or . . . there was also the strong possibility he was dead, definitely what the detectives on scene had thought.
They didn't know Starsky.
Then again, neither did Starsky know that corner of the city. And if he really was trapped or injured or captured and trying to escape, he would be in trouble. It was just the kind of contingency Hutch damned his captain for not thinking of before. You're not alone anymore, partner. We'll figure this out, you and me.
Starsky wasn't dead. That much Hutch knew, he told himself. Starsk wouldn't dare be, no matter what everyone said. And if he was . . .
Hutch's eyes glimmered dark. There'd be hell to pay.
Night was falling, draping the already unfamiliar landscape in an extra layer of camouflage. Not that it mattered; he had no clue where he was going or how he'd know when he got there. Or what he was doing in the first place. Or who he was . . .
A glance into a dirty pane of window glass had revealed little: dark curls, a dirt-streaked, bloodied, frighteningly unfamiliar face. His blurred vision and the imperfect mirror allowed little else, but it was enough to thoroughly rattle him. How could he not know who he was? And the fuzzy vision was one more piece of the terrible little puzzle. It matched the throb of his head and the blood that had only stopped dripping into his eye once he tore off a piece of his shirt and pressed it against his forehead. Which made the pounding increase. Breathing also hurt, as did his right arm--no question about it, he was not at his best. But he had no idea how he'd gotten that way, or why. And that scared him nearly as much as his lack of identity.
Maybe the fire had had something to do with it? He'd waken up near one, hurrying from it in instinctive preservation as quickly as he could gain his feet. No doubt it had eaten up his identification, for he could find none in the . . . suit he wore. Was that really his taste in clothing? What kind of man had he been? There were some things he wasn't positive he wanted to know . . . but anything was better than this darkness of mind. And the pain in his head and chest and wrist, eating up the meager strength he had left. Perhaps he should have stayed at the fire, maybe found his answers there. But there had been a feeling of danger to the place, foreboding . . . It trailed after him still, and so he'd kept going. Hurrying nowhere fast.
He was so tired.
He had tried to ask for help, once, in a little store he'd come to. The shopkeeper had taken one look at him and chased him out with a broom. He'd stuck to the shadows ever since then, like some bug scurrying along in the dark corners . . . but even bugs had homes. He had nothing.
Another filthy alley, ripe with the smells of rotten food and human waste, the ground patchy with scum, like every other he'd been in. His knees buckled, having no more strength to keep him upright, his lungs unable to push any more air past the unrelenting ache in his chest. Even the stench didn't reach him anymore. Curling as much as he could around his battered ribs, he let it all go.
And dreamt with lost despair of sea blue and blond.
Even within the LAPD, there was no standard layout for a station, but neither was there much difference. Same desk at main entry, same hallway leading back to what would be the different departments, even the same speckled floor tile pattern.
Hutch strode into the station as assuredly as if it were his own, pausing to flick open his badge for the uniformed officer at the desk. "Detective Sergeant Hutchinson, ninth precinct. I need to speak to Detective Cameron in Vice."
The cop gave him a curious look, perhaps even knowing why he was there--news traveled fast among the ranks--but simply waved him back toward the hallway. "Second floor, room 305. Third door on the left. Elevator's back there." The last line was called after the retreating blond's back.
He found the door without trouble, going right in.
It was a considerably smaller office than their own squadroom, both because it was Vice instead of Special Units, and because this precinct was smaller. Four desks were fitted into the small space, as well as a wall full of filing cabinets, but only one of the desks was occupied. The man sitting there looked up when Hutch came in.
"Detective Cameron?" he asked without preamble.
The man seemed to wince a little, pulling himself up out of his chair with marked reluctance. "You must be Sergeant Hutchinson," he said grimly, extending his hand.
Hutch was close to ignoring it, but as his partner had told him once, it wasn't good to antagonize the people he needed. He gave the hand a cursory, uninterested shake.
So this was the man who'd been so careless with his partner's life, Hutch looked him coolly over. He was shorter than Hutch, with tired eyes, iron gray hair and a rumpled suit that spoke more of overwork than lack of care. About 40, he was probably Hutch's senior despite their equal rank, but that didn't matter at all to the blond. The man had recklessly endangered Hutch's partner, and forced civility would be the most he would get from Hutch.
"Tell me what happened," he said, just shy of an order.
If Cameron noticed, he was giving Hutch space. He sank back into his seat, motioning Hutch to do the same with the chair beside him.
Again, Hutch did just barely, sitting stiffly on the edge. It wasn't the time for niceties.
"It was a well-planned operation, Sergeant, no matter what it seems like now." Cameron leaned uncomfortably--wearily--back in his chair. "We had a long-cultivated lead into one of the major dealers in the area, a Jamaican by the name of Fourmi--it means 'pusher' in French, an obvious alias. Anyway, he finally agreed to a meet, but only with someone he'd heard of. And when we floated the names Rafferty and O'Brien, he bit." A sardonic smile creased the detective's face. "You two made quite a reputation for yourselves when you were here."
"What about your own men?" Hutch asked, ignoring the humor. "Didn't you have any under?"
"Sure," Cameron nodded, "but none we were positive neither Fourmi nor any of his men would burn. Fourmi's no idiot. He comes to the high-level meets but stays outside, letting his top men do the deal because they're that good. If we'd sent one of our guys in there, chances are someone from Fourmi's bunch would have blown him."
"So you sent Starsky into the line of fire instead." His tone was level but Hutch's temper was on a slow simmer still from the scene with Dobey, and Cameron wasn't helping it at all. They'd sent in Starsky because they hadn't wanted to risk one of their own men. Even though the cop part of Hutch acknowledged the logic of the man's words, the obvious failure of the meet damned the idea pretty thoroughly.
"Look, Detective," Cameron leaned forward, earnest and a touch irritated at the same time. "We're not careless. We've set up a lot of busts before and they usually go off pretty well--I bet your precinct doesn't have a flawless track record, either. We took all the precautions. We bugged the building instead of Starsky so he wouldn't be caught with a wire, and we had three units close by ready to back him up in a second if he needed it. It just happened too fast."
"What did?" Hutch also leaned forward, dangerously.
They might have been officially on the same side, but Cameron got the picture. He licked his lips, smoothing back his hair with one hand, suddenly not quite so certain. "We're not sure. It sounded like everything was going just like we planned--they checked Starsky out and he was clean, and then they asked to see the money. It sounds like Starsky showed it to them, and then a pause and one of their guys suddenly says, 'Hey!' Sounds of running--that was the first clue we had that things were going south--and then three shots--semi-automatics, sounded like--and suddenly the whole place went up like a Roman candle."
Hutch frowned. "Starsky didn't say anything?"
Cameron shook his head. "Not after he showed them the money."
"Maybe he was made." That certainly seemed credible and fit with the sudden exclamation.
"It's possible, of course," Cameron hedged, "even out of his territory, but Fourmi and his lieutenants set up shop here first thing after arriving from Jamaica. I don't know how they'd know a cop--a non-Vice cop at that--from the Ninth."
"All of his men came with him from the islands?"
"According to our information, but that's why Starsky went in without any ID, in case--"
"He what?" Hutch's head came up sharply, his gaze raking Cameron. "He didn't have anything on him?" Leaving a badge behind made sense, but no ID at all, not even a fake one with a valid contact number, risked just the kind of situation they had on their hands now.
"Uh-uh." The detective shook his head, more baffled than startled. "SOP here. Why?"
Hutch was rising from his seat, slowly, eyes not moving from Cameron. "So if he got hurt, he hasn't got a weapon to defend himself, an ID to prove who he is or get him some help, and he's in an area he doesn't know." Out loud it sounded even worse, and Hutch strove to stay angry so he wouldn't be worried sick. What if Starsky was injured out there somewhere and couldn't identify himself? Hutch had to find his partner and that was all there was to it.
"Well, uh, yeah, but we tried all the local hospitals and, er, morgues for John Does that match his description. Nothing." Cameron licked his lips again, clearly nervous.
Hutch's voice was too soft. "I want a copy of the surveillance tape, a map of the meet site and the surrounding area, and complete access to the scene."
If Cameron was going to argue the demands, he thought better of it. "All right," was all he said, reaching for the phone. Though he was shaking his head as he dialed. Thank God they didn't have any crazy detectives like that in his precinct.
Fifteen minutes later, Hutch left the station with a map clutched in one hand, little wiser than when he'd come. It was a relief to get out of the station and out of that idiot Cameron's office, but at the same time, the hopelessness of the task he faced was daunting.
The tape hadn't helped at all. Hutch had leaned close to catch his partner's every word, trying to find some clue as to what had gone wrong, maybe something only he would notice. But Starsky had sounded normal, almost cheerful, enjoying the undercover role as he usually did even though Hutch could hear at the same time the tension of the situation behind the words.
Why, Starsk? Why'd you go in without me? He shook his head at the unanswered question.
Then had come the startled "Hey!" in a voice wholly unfamiliar to Hutch, followed by a tense three seconds before the first shot rang out, two more quickly following. None of them Starsky's Smith & Wesson, though of course he hadn't been armed anyway. And then a whoosh of sound so piercing, Hutch had quickly turned down the volume. The explosion.
He'd left the station without another word to Cameron.
There had still been no bodies found, the detective from Vice had told him, and that was a slight relief. Hutch didn't, couldn't believe they just hadn't found the body yet. But it also brought the reality a little closer to bear--Starsky was most likely either hurt then and unable to seek help, or Fourmi's prisoner.
Hutch slid into the Torino and held on to the steering wheel, his knuckles bloodless at the tight grip, feeling like he might shake apart otherwise. This can't be happening--how can this be happening? Hutch could deal with the dangers they faced together; it was easier to be in the midst of trouble than to have to watch, helpless, from the outside. But that was exactly where he was stuck now: his stubborn, thick-headed partner; a clueless detective from outside their precinct; and their own boss who should have known better, all having conspired to throw Starsky to the lions and keep Hutch out of the loop. And now he was stuck having to run to the rescue . . . if a rescue was still possible . . .
Hutch swallowed with a suddenly dry throat, and started the car, never having felt so confined in the little Torino before. It was already nearly noon, and he had a partner to find.
The site of the explosion turned out to be little more than an impressive field of charred debris, stretching over a story high in some places. Detectives, fire investigators, rescue personnel, even K-9 dogs crawled over and through it, looking for survivors--or bodies--or any signs of the cause of the explosion. Hutch didn't even bother crossing the police cordon.
His search took him instead around the perimeter of the site, hoping for some other clue, anything out of place. Nothing. Soot heavily layered the walls and ground remotely near the blast site, broken only by an undecipherable maze of footsteps. Hutch was familiar with his partner's Adidas' prints but this time, he thought despairingly, he didn't even know what Starsky had been wearing undercover. As much as Starsk complained about those shoes I got him the last time, he probably got his own pair . . .
The remembrance of his partner's good-natured grousing made Hutch's chest constrict. If anything had happened to Starsky, he doubted the feeling would ever go away. Everything would be different--how could one person have wedged himself like that into every crack of Hutch's life? How could he have become so important that his loss would leave the blond forever changed? Sometimes Hutch thought Starsky's footprints stretched over more of his life in the last few years than even his own. Which means without Starsk, I'll be . . .
Alone, Hutch tramped back to the Torino and took off in a squeal of tires.
The address Huggy had given him turned out to be--to Hutch's no great surprise--a bar. Tucking his revolver completely out of sight under his jacket, Hutch warily descended the steps into the sub-basement level pub named "Silky's Place."
The atmosphere of smoke, not all of it cigarette, and liquor and sweat was a familiar one, probably the same in bars the world over. It plastered itself on him like a second skin, making Hutch wave his hand in front of his face to clear a little of the hoary air away so he could see.
The bartender, a large black man, watched him without being obvious about it. Might as well start there. Hutch went over to the bar. "I'm looking for Titus. Huggy Bear sent me."
The man eyed him suspiciously but nodded, reaching for a small intercom tucked under the bar. Hutch kept his eyes on the man, amused that Huggy's name was the lubricant that got him in. Just like in a whole other circle, Huggy invoked his two police friends' names when convenient to keep himself out of trouble.
Not ten seconds later, a door to the right of the bar opened and a much smaller black man emerged, this one dressed in a style of finery that would have turned Huggy green with envy, and that turned Hutch's stomach. Gold lamé over pink silk was not a combination he would have thought of, but the reaction was soon gone, unimportant. Titus gave him a single nod and a wave toward a back table, and Hutch followed.
"You said Huggy sent you?" were the little man's first words, one hand fiddling with the toothpick that was stuck in his mouth.
"Name's Hutchinson," Hutch answered, equally to the point. "Huggy said you were the man to talk to in this area."
Titus eyed him, gaze sharp and measuring. "I don't want to know what side of the law you're on, do I."
He wasn't really asking, but Hutch gave him a half-shrug. "Probably not."
"Uh-huh." He nodded. "What you lookin' for?"
Hutch wound his fingers together on the table before him. "I'm interested in the explosion last night in the warehouse district."
Titus' eyes darkened. "What about it?"
This was a game he'd played often and well. Hutch chose his words carefully. "I'm not looking to make a bust. I know Fourmi was involved--all I want is a little information on him."
Hutch hesitated. "Let's just say I have a stake in what went down too."
Titus was watching him carefully. "The cop who was there."
The game was getting away from him, but then, Hutch was in no mood to play. He swallowed, deciding to go for broke. "My partner."
"And you want revenge?"
"I want to find out what happened. Find my partner, dead or alive."
Titus paused, thinking, studying him. Then finally leaned in a little. "Fourmi doesn't do meets in person. He stays outside where it's safe and sends a few of his men in. I'm guessing that's what he done last night, 'cause word is he was out of there the second that first gun went off, but one of his men wasn't so lucky."
Hutch frowned. "Do you know who?"
"From what I heard--and you realize this is all hearsay, Hutchinson--three of his lieutenants went in and only two came out. Figured one got caught in the fireworks. The two who lived to tell about it were Tourette an' Golen. The unlucky one was a newer guy by name of Mullen. Funny, most 'o Fourmi's guys are Jamaican too, but this Mullen got close to him pretty fast. Probably came with a rep, y'know? But that's why they ain't sure he's dead, either, just 'cause he disappeared, bein' the new guy and all."
But Hutch wasn't listening. Mullen--the pieces were beginning to fall into place but he was dreading the pattern. "Stu Mullen?" he asked quietly.
Titus' eyebrow went up. "Yeah, you know 'im?"
"A little. My partner knew him better. You're right, he has got a rep."
"Uh-huh," Titus said, doing some figuring of his own. "Well then, seems to me you found your answer. You find Mullen and you'll find your partner."
That was what Hutch was afraid of. He stood, needing to get out of there, and quickly offered his hand to Titus. The little man shook his head with a half-amused grin.
"Not good for business, y'understand?" he threw a quick, pointed glance around the full bar.
Hutch's mouth quirked. "Yeah." His hand dropped to his side. "Huggy says hi."
Titus' grin grew. "You tell that cousin of mine t'get his skinny carcass down here and tell me himself."
Cousin--figured. Taste in clothing like that had to be genetic. Hutch shook his head and walked out.
Mullen, the name turned over and over in his mind. It answered a lot of questions. The name of the runner and penny-ante drug dealer Starsky had busted before they were partnered had come up once or twice, enough that Hutch recognized it and remembered his partner's disdain for the felon. He himself had never met Mullen, which explained why he hadn't known the voice. Unfortunately, the moment Mullen had set eyes on Starsky in the warehouse, Starsky's cover would have been blown. And then . . . what? He'd most likely drawn on Starsky, maybe one or two of the others had also, following his lead. Whether they shot him or not almost seemed a moot point now with the explosion that followed--what would have caused that? And why? Presumably, Mullen hadn't known about Starsky until the meet actually went down, which meant he wouldn't have planned anything before then. So what had happened? And, Starsk, where are you?
Hutch rubbed wearily at his forehead and reached for the mike. "9-Zebra-3, request patch through to ninth precinct, SUD, Captain Harold Dobey." It was a different band and dispatch here, the voice on the radio unfamiliar, and Hutch had to wait a minute for the connections to be made.
He was so tired, body and soul. The sound of his boss should have returned the hot anger of before, but all Hutch felt was a hollowed disinterest. This would never have happened without Dobey's okay and efforts, and Hutch couldn't forget that, but if Starsky was dead it didn't matter much, did it? "Captain," he acknowledged, perfunctorily civil. "I need everything we have on a guy named Stuart Mullen, busted a few years back for numbers-running and dealing."
"Hutchinson, where are you? You're way out of your jurisdiction. They're running their own investigation there--"
"I followed my partner, Captain," Hutch cut him off without a qualm, talking with all the warmth of a stranger. Even less. "I'm not leaving 'til I find him." It was that simple, orders be damned. Their boss, who'd gotten Starsky into this mess in the first place, wasn't about to keep Hutch out of it now.
There was a soft sigh. "All right, Hutch, just be careful. The men there don't know you and won't necessarily back you up."
"I guess someone should have thought of that before Starsky got sent out here . . . sir," Hutch said evenly, then hung up the mike before waiting for an answer. Usually it was their job Hutch raged at when his partner got into trouble, or maybe sometimes at Starsky for not being more careful with something Hutch valued so very much: his partner's life. And Hutch did indeed plan to have a long talk with the brunet when all this was over and they were laughing it off--shakily, maybe--at Huggy's over a beer. But it didn't excuse the involvement of the man Hutch had trusted as a friend, who'd talked Starsky into doing something so dangerous and ill-advised. And endangering his partner was not something Hutch could easily forgive anyone. If something really had happened to Starsky, Hutch doubted he'd be able to forgive Dobey at all.
Morning dawned far earlier than his abused body would have wished. The alley faced east and the rays of the rising sun managed to breach even the gloom of the dirty alley. Their heat also warmed the stench, making the air almost unbreathable, especially along the ground.
He eased himself up, trying not to let the thick odor and his own roiling headache overwhelm his stomach. He felt plain miserable, wishing . . . wishing for . . . something . . . someone?
The thought didn't stay long enough to grab hold of. With a sigh, he completed the wobbly transition to being fully vertical. For all the good it did him.
The dreams of the night before had been about something, though, some place, some memory for him to fix himself onto, and he stood, swaying, trying to remember. Nothing exactly but . . . a number? Could that be it, a phone number?
Dizzy with the effort, he studied the street, spying the phone booth not far away. A little strength had returned with sleep, though his coordination was still off and every time he moved too fast, the pain in his chest and side nearly took his breath away completely. But then he was at the phone booth, and a fumble of his pockets turned up--thank God--a handful of change. He managed to get a dime into the narrow slot, then dialed the number automatically, letting his fingers remember even if his mind didn't.
"I'm sorry, the number you have called is not in service. Please check the number and dial again."
He squeezed his eyes shut, more disappointed than he could bear. It had been a longshot, trying to reach someone he didn't even remember, yet it felt like he'd just lost his last friend. What else could he do with no place to go, no one to reach, not even a past to claim?
He leaned his forehead against the cool receiver and tried hard to keep the hopelessness at bay.
Okay, he'd been injured. Maybe if he got himself taken care of, he could find out how he could have gotten to be in the shape he was. Maybe someone was even looking for him. The thought made him unexpectedly shiver, the earlier feeling of foreboding back in full. That wasn't necessarily a good thing, being found, though he couldn't figure why.
But he couldn't go on this way, he was certain of that. The feeling of being alone in the world was almost as bad as the physical hurt of his body. One way or another, he had to do something.
It was hard to read the phone book, the blurriness having receded but still there at the edges of his vision. He was determined, though. From the map in the front of the book, it seemed he was in western Los Angeles, which seemed unsurprising though he wasn't sure how he knew. The area certainly didn't look familiar. Further searching pinpointed where his little phone booth was, and then where the closest hospital was to be found. Only four blocks away, apparently. He could make it. God, help me make it.
At least there was one name he could call on, after all.
Stealing himself for the trip despite the exhaustion of his body, he dropped the phone book and slid out the booth door, his swollen wrist cradling aching ribs and his mind clinging to desperate, faceless hope.
At least there wasn't much of a wait. He must have been a sight, for the emergency room staff took one look at him and immediately whisked him into an examination room.
The fact that he hadn't been able to answer any questions of why or who had raised a few eyebrows, and he saw a nurse slip out of the room, probably to call the police. The thought distracted him, a little worrisome, but it didn't hold the fear from before, of being found by the wrong people.
A round of x-rays revealed no big surprises. A sprained, not broken, right wrist, which they wrapped for him, and a head injury that didn't seem to be a concussion but that had apparently left him with amnesia, for how long they apologetically couldn't say. The cut on his forehead was cleaned and bandaged. And the ribs showed "considerable trauma," as if he'd fallen hard on them, cracking and bruising several. Those were also wrapped until his eyes watered from the sheer torture of it. It helped his breathing a little, but it also felt as if he were rubbing splintered bones against each other with each movement.
It was hard to think past those relentless, battering rasps of sharp pain, but it would have been even more so through the drugs they offered him and that he turned down. The idea of drugged stupor made him even edgier with worry for some reason. Instead, he concentrated on ignoring the discomfort while watching the staff clear out to leave him to rest. Apparently they hadn't figured out what to do with him or where to move him yet.
That was when, through the open doorway, he saw the man.
The man saw him too, eyes dark in more than color locking on him, searching him, probing invasively, making him shudder inside. He had no clue who the man was, no name to put to the sharp features, but the rush of foreboding returned hard enough to make him flinch, smothering him in an automatic panic reaction he couldn't understand. One thing was clear, to his subconscious if not to him: the man was no friend.
The man stared at him a moment longer, the look unfathomable, then abruptly disappeared from the hallway and his line of sight.
He had a feeling the man hadn't gone far.
It wasn't safe there. The hospital hadn't been able to answer any of his questions and so there was nothing to be gained and a great deal to be risked by staying. He eased himself out of bed, holding his breath to keep from panting from his stabbing ribs. A moment to find his balance, then he shuffled to the door to peer out. The nurses' station was empty and the man was nowhere in sight. Perfect timing. He hurried as fast as he could out into the hallway and toward the nearby elevators.
They'd left him in his pants, thankfully, though the polyester robin's egg blue clothing made him cringe to look at. The gaudy, fringed shirt was gone, replaced by a blue papercloth top that he tucked in quickly in the privacy of the elevator, wincing as he brushed his ribs. He looked ridiculous, no question, and he had no clue where he was going, but leaving was the first thing that had felt right since he'd dialed that mystery number in the phone booth.
The number . . . he wished he knew who it belonged to and why it didn't work. He could have given no reason for it, but it felt like someone he could trust--no, not just trust, but lean on. Someone who could help him figure all this out because he himself was rapidly approaching the end of his own strength.
But he was alone now. As the elevator pinged that it had reached the ground floor, he resisted the temptation to sag against the wall with the sheer weight of his bereftness.
The elevator doors opened. Across the lobby, just outside the entrance doors, the man was getting into a taxicab, oblivious to him. He froze, taking another look to be sure. He was. It was unquestionably the same man.
He hurried forward, partly out of fear that someone would call him back and partly out of a need to find out about the man, the one link to his past, even if a dangerous one. The potential risk was negligible compared to a chance to get some answers. He breathed a sigh of relief at making it out the doors, nearly doubling up as his chest felt like it was caving in under the deep breath. He was in no shape for this, but who else was there?
At least he had a destination now: wherever the man was going. It was a lot more than he'd had before. Clenching his teeth, he reached up a hand to summon the next waiting cab.
The call had been too good to be true and he knew it. Hutch resisted the temptation to smash his fist down on the tray of surgical instruments by his elbow as he listened to the apologetic, rattled nurse.
"I'm sorry, Detective, he just slipped out without telling anyone. We certainly wouldn't have released him in the condition he was in."
"What condition was that?" he asked tightly. He'd been wound up for so long, it felt like his center would snap soon from the tension.
"Not life-endangering, if that's what you mean. Several injured ribs but none broken. A sprained right wrist. And a contusion on the head consistent with a fall. He didn't have a concussion but he did seem to be suffering some amnesia--"
"Amnesia?" Hutch cut in, shocked. That explained why Starsky hadn't tried to reach him. Not because he'd been so badly injured, thank God, but . . . amnesia? "Memory loss? How extensive?"
She smiled apologetically at him. "He couldn't tell us his name, that's why we listed him a John Doe. There are two kinds of memory, Detective, semantic and episodic. Semantic is factual knowledge--knowing who's president, what a chair is for, how to read. Episodic are personal memories, our experiences, the people we know--personal past. He wasn't here long enough for extensive tests, but Detective . . . "
"Starsky. Dave Starsky."
" . . . Starsky seems to have lost all his episodic memory. He could tell us the month and year but not his name or where he lived or who to contact. Nor did he remember how he'd gotten injured."
It was a lot to absorb. Hutch didn't even know how he felt anymore. When Cameron had reached him to say that a John Doe matching Starsky's description had checked himself into the hospital nearest the explosion site, Hutch had quelled his hope, knowing what a longshot it was. But he'd been there within five minutes. A photo from his wallet confirmed that it had indeed been Starsky, and moving on his own steam at that. Suddenly it was easier to breathe and talk and move, the incredible constriction in Hutch's chest abruptly loosened--he hadn't even realized how paralyzing the weight of his worst fears had been until they were suddenly lifted. The relief was a high, making all else seem negligible. And then the next minute they'd told him that Starsky had disappeared, apparently simply walking out when no one was looking. The disappointment and renewed worry had been a blow, but then the amnesia . . .
He had to find Starsky, now.
"Thank you," Hutch said quickly before turning to sprint to the stairs at the end of the hall.
It was one flight to the lobby level and there he stopped, his eyes immediately scanning the lobby as he stepped out from the stairwell. Not that he'd expected Starsky to still be there, but the continuing dashed hopes were piling up.
Swallowing a sigh, Hutch walked over to the front desk, digging out his badge and the photo again as he did.
"Excuse me, I'm looking for this person. He was a patient here and might have left by that door--" a quick motion, "--within the last ten minutes. Do you remember seeing anyone like that?" He smiled at the girl belatedly, a pretty thing with blonde hair almost as white as her nurse's uniform.
She dimpled back, and in another setting he might have pursued the matter. "I think so. I noticed him because he was dressed so oddly, but he didn't seem ill. Though come to think of it, maybe his hand was wrapped . . . ?"
"His wrist," Hutch said impatiently. "Miss, it's very important I find him. Do you remember where he went?"
"Well . . . I think he got into a taxicab, actually. One of the yellow-and-black ones that line up in front."
"Thank you." The words trailed him again as Hutch hurried up to the double glass doors.
Outside, behind a blue cab, sat two yellow-and-black taxis neatly by the curb, Gold Taxi Service emblazoned brightly on their doors. That was it, it had to be. Hutch repeated the name under his breath over and over as another glance around the lobby discovered the row of telephones against one wall.
Five minutes later, he had the cab company representative on the phone. Five minutes after that, he had a heading. It was . . . Hutch frowned. Heading back to their precinct? Was Starsky going home? Maybe then he'd regained his memory, but then why hadn't he told anyone? There was a piece missing--it just didn't make sense.
"Officer, is there anything else?" the representative was asking, for the second time, Hutch realized.
Maybe they could recall the cab? Hutch didn't even know if they'd do that, but he could push. So close. He's so close. Hutch squeezed his eyes shut--he didn't want to do this. He wanted--needed--to make sure Starsky was all right. But his cop instincts were fairly screaming. Starsky had left there of his own free will, with a purpose, apparently not needing a rescue. Something was going on with his partner and Hutch had to let him play it out.
He opened his eyes. "Look, uh, I'm going to take one of your taxis from here and have the driver call in. I want you to direct him to where the other taxi ends up going, all right?"
"Uh, for full fare?"
"Full fare," he said impatiently.
"Of course, Officer," said the representative, clearly relieved. Hutch didn't wait for goodbyes, out the door a moment later. It wasn't ideal, but it would have to do. One way or another, he'd catch up with Starsky soon.
But as he settled stiffly into the back of the taxi, Hutch was keenly aware that it wouldn't be soon enough for his comfort.
The man's taxi pulled up in front of a house in a slum area, a dilapidated, deserted-looking excuse for a building. His own taxi idled a discreet distance behind, and he watched as the man got out and jogged up the cracked walk, opening the unlocked door and disappearing inside.
He dug down in his pockets, and suddenly realized one flaw in his plan--loose change had apparently been the only money he'd been carrying. "Uh . . . " he grinned uncertainly at the driver. "I'll be right back, okay? Just keep the meter runnin'."
The driver peered at him suspiciously but nodded, waiting for him to clumsily get out of the cab before picking up the radio and calling something in. He ignored the cabbie, concentrating instead on the house.
There was some kind of . . . training, some instinct that told him how to make his way closer without being obvious. Even though every footfall jogged his aching ribs, he focused on one step at a time. It was now or never. The answers were here, he knew it.
The door was not only unlocked but ajar, and he silently pressed it open a little more, gratified when it turned on well-oiled hinges. Probably the one maintained thing in the whole house, he thought, cautiously stepping inside.
The house was almost empty of furniture, a few sawhorses and wooden beams lying about as if in some aborted attempt at home improvement. Dust layered everything, about a few months' worth, if he guessed correctly. And in the dust, footprints that led forward into the main hall that stretched in front of him, with large rooms to either side. He took another careful, painful step forward.
"Couldn't keep away, huh, Starsky?"
The gloating voice from the room on his right made him spin in automatic reflex, then regret it as his vision grayed. Any move he might have made in defense was swallowed in just trying to stay upright and conscious.
"Seen better days? Guess you didn't get out of the building as fast as I did." The speaker stepped out of the shadows, the same sharp-featured man with those cold eyes. The malice in them was visible even through his swimming vision. As was the gun the man held in his hand.
"Who are you?" he ground out. Stupid--he'd been stupid. He'd probably done exactly what the man had wanted him to do. The long look at the hospital that had hooked him suddenly made sense.
"Who am I?" Faint surprise wrinkled the olive-skinned forehead. "You really don't remember?" A cold laugh. "I heard you had amnesia but I didn't believe it, thought you were feeding them a line so we could work this out personally, you and me. But I figured you'd follow me here either way."
He'd managed to straighten out a little, his arms loosening from around his middle. His bad one brushed against a two-by-four propped on top of two sawhorses. "I don't know you."
"You sure did when you arrested me five years ago, and you knew me the minute you saw me again yesterday." Another inimical smile. "I know you didn't want them to know you were a pig, and I sure didn't want them to know I'd copped a deal with you once. Selling out isn't something that endears you to a boss like Fourmi, and now he thinks I crossed him too. He'll kill me if he ever sees me again--I had to clear out."
It could be a lie--the source wasn't the most trustworthy. He frowned. It didn't seem like the man was lying, though, not now when he had the upper hand and he didn't expect his victim to be able to tell any tales. The names, though: Fourmi . . . Starsky? They stirred the muddy waters of his memory but didn't clear them. And . . . he'd arrested the man? Was he a cop?
The man studied his prey curiously. "You really don't know me, do you? Well, I'd hate for you to die not knowing 'whodunit'. Stuart Mullen's the name. And you've managed to mess up my life twice now, Officer Starsky--I owe you for that. I would've finished you yesterday in the warehouse if you hadn't've knocked over those crates of chemicals and ended up blowing up the place. Guess it backfired on ya, literally, huh? But you cops are tough and I was pretty sure you'd turn up again, figured hanging around the local hospitals would pay off and it sure did. And you took the bait beautifully." He half-glanced around the room. "You remember this place? You arrested me here five years ago. Seemed fitting that I'd kill you here." Mullen smiled once more as the gun came up and took aim. "Bye-bye, Starsky."
His hand curled around the beam and without waiting to consider the action, he gave it a hard shove to one side.
His wrist flared almost at once with a stomach-turning wrench, but not before it did its job. The opposite side of the beam swung around and knocked Mullen squarely on the hip, sending him off-balance and the gun flying. The felon became momentarily inconsequential to him, though, as he jerked his injured hand close to his chest and watched where the gun landed.
Mullen was doing the same thing, and his eyes lit on it a second later. A second was all that was needed. Heedless of his punishing ribs and wrist, he dove after it, reaching it just as Mullen slid up to him and froze, facing down the barrel of the gun.
Mullen turned a shade paler, getting to his feet with slow, nervous movements. "Uh, Officer--you are an officer of the law, remember? You--you're gonna arrest me now, right? I mean, you wouldn't shoot an unarmed man, would you?"
He wasn't sure at all he could get up, but staying on the floor was a show of weakness and they couldn't stay here forever. His insides were all torn up agony now, his wrist the same, and each motion cut him anew, but he concentrated on Mullen's face and the anger in himself at what the man had done to him. His clothes were damp from the sweat of effort by the time he was done, but he managed to regain his feet.
Mullen backed up a step, his eyes on the gun. "C'mon, Officer, you've got me. I'm sorry, all right? I'll turn myself in right now."
It would have been easy. Justice, even. And he wouldn't have to worry then about restraining his prisoner or getting him out of there without being overpowered.
But he couldn't do it. He couldn't shoot the man in cold blood, even this creep.
"Siddown on the floor," he ordered, gesturing once with the gun.
Too sharply. He blinked again to clear his vision. But Mullen was already moving, reaching behind his back for something, the look of fear gone from his face.
This time he didn't hesitate. He fired.
Two shots sounded, and Stuart Mullen fell over where he'd stood, and lay still.
It took a second to register. He looked up, past Mullen's body, to the doorway of the house. And to the stranger who stood framed there, gun also raised. A blond stranger with a strong air of familiarity, like he'd seen the man before and should know him. Another enemy?
Now thoroughly confused, he raised his weapon higher. Funny, though; his instincts were all but fighting the self-defense reflex. Did they know something he didn't? The stranger was lowering his gun, arms held out non-threateningly.
"Starsky?" That same name, but this voice was full of relief when he said it. "Starsk? You all right?"
The muddy memories threatened to drown him and it was all he could do to stay on his feet and keep the gun straight. It was a powerful revolver; it wouldn't matter that his hand was trembling a little, it would still do damage. But there was something about this man . . .
The blond's joy had slipped a little, revealing something that looked much like concern. "Starsky? It's me . . . Hutch. And you're David Starsky. You're my partner, remember? I'm not gonna hurt you--I wouldn't hurt you, buddy, you know that." He stepped a little nearer, bringing his features into the light of the one barren bulb in the room. It was concern in the blue eyes, and not for himself. And sympathy softened his features, none of Mullen's cruelty evident.
"C'mon, partner, let me help. You're safe with me." One hand was outstretched in invitation, his voice soft and full of caring that sounded genuine.
And that word again--partner? The man had none of the body language of an enemy. If anything, he radiated friendliness, even . . .
The revolver sagged out of his hand and his mouth shaped the name before he remembered it.
And then the world tilted and it had nothing to do with his injuries.
Hutch had rattled off the station's number for the cabbie to call, overpaying the man to make sure his instructions were followed. Another cab--Starsky's, no doubt--idled nearby and he automatically also took care of it, with some impatience. Then he turned to study the house.
His first thought was that he'd gotten there too late, seeing the open doorway and hearing nothing from within as he approached the house. The cab dispatcher had said the two taxis had arrived only a few minutes before, but a lot could happen in a few minutes. The sounds of a scuffle struck him as he went up the walkway, and Hutch sped his steps.
He'd reached the door just in time to see his partner, looking somewhat the worse for wear, falter as he held a gun on another, a man whose back was to Hutch. Thus Hutch alone could see the small pistol tucked into his back waistband that the man reached for before Starsky could recover. Hutch's Colt was in his hand at once, the shot going off almost at the same moment as Starsky's and sending the man toppling, to Hutch's almost indifference. Leaving only his battered, confused-looking partner standing across from him with raised gun in hand.
The potential threat of his amnesiac partner mistaking him for the enemy wouldn't occur to him until later. The only thing that mattered all of a sudden was making sure Starsky was all right. Hutch had approached far more slowly than he wanted to, talking softly, not wanting to spook his partner when it was obvious Starsky was just barely on his feet.
And he knew it the moment it all came together.
"Hutch?" The whisper hardly carried, soft and tentative like he was trying out the name. Then, as if the weight of memories hit him all at once, Starsky staggered, pale face going even whiter. The gun had already slipped from his grasp, but it wouldn't have mattered to Hutch as he came closer.
"Starsk? Talk to me. They said you had amnesia--do you remember now? Starsky?"
"Hutch . . . " Starsky shook his head as though trying to clear it. He was still in shock, the blond could see, overwhelmed, but he'd said his partner's name with feeling this time, no longer a question.
"I'm right here, buddy." He was almost close enough to touch. "You with me?"
An automatic nod. And then his eyes rolled up and he folded like a rag doll.
Hutch made the catch just in time, trying to be careful with sore ribs and the wrapped hand, not to mention the bandaged head that lolled against him. But Starsky's pulse and respiration were strong, and he was himself again. For a moment, Hutch was too grateful to do anything but hold on, fiercely gentle. Thank God. He couldn't offer his appreciation fervently enough.
They'd made it.
Hutch settled his resurrected partner close, making him as comfortable as he could while they waited for the back-up he'd called for, and held on with sheer relief.
He was comfortable, and safe. Sitting on the floor, but with a warm chest behind his back, a propped leg on either side keeping him in place, his head slightly back against a convenient shoulder. His partner's.
He should give some sign that he was awake, he decided, and rolled his head to the side so that his forehead rested against his partner's neck, almost dislodging the blanket tucked around him. There, that was more comfortable.
"Starsk? You with me?" He could feel Hutch's jaw move, brushing against his hair.
The thought of nodding made his head hurt, but he sighed a contented, "Mmm."
"Starsky? I need more than that, buddy. You okay?"
This time he heard the strain in the gentle question, and it roused him enough to try to put his partner's worry to rest. "Mm-hmm."
The chuckle was light enough not to jar him. "Welcome back. Anything hurt?"
He had to think about that a minute. With the rest and immobility, his ribs had faded back to their manageable dull ache, one his head seconded. A little further self-analysis revealed regular tickles of pain from his abused wrist. "'M okay," he murmured. He'd have added a cross warning that Hutch didn't need to fuss, except he was too darn comfortable at the moment to complain. "Ribs . . . wrist. 'N head hurts."
"I'll bet. The hospital said they'd treated you, but we've got some help on the way anyway, just take it easy."
He didn't need help; he felt okay right where he was. Nothing hurt much now that he was still and warm and taken care of.
There were sounds, people around them, he was just beginning to realize. Footsteps, voices, currents of air from movements. It all flowed into one stream and he let it wash over him, inconsequential.
One source detached itself and came close, a looming presence next to him. He flinched away from it, and Hutch's arm came up across his chest protectively. His partner's chest vibrated as he spoke, the words floating above them, and then the presence moved away.
"Easy," came his partner's voice, suddenly clear again and almost teasing. "I'm still detective in charge of the scene, even if I've got a trouble-prone partner to look after."
That almost made him laugh but it came out like a snort instead, too much effort to be more. He relaxed back against his partner, content to let Hutch handle the world for a while.
He never even knew it when they left the scene for the hospital.
It took Starsky a few days to figure out something was wrong.
The hospital had released him the day after he'd been admitted, with a strict list of "don'ts" entrusted to his partner instead of to Starsky--he'd been there far too often if they knew him that well--for Starsky to keep. He looked forward to chafing under the limitations and gleefully giving his partner all kinds of grief, but the first few days he'd slept more than anything. Hutch had practically moved in during the interim and always seemed to be there when Starsky was awake, usually to coax him to eat or to take some of the vile-tasting stuff the doctor had prescribed. The blond still looked so strained, Starsky couldn't have offered more than token arguments, anyway. But despite what felt like Hutch's near constant presence, the refrigerator had managed to fill itself and his partner looked like he was finally getting some sleep too. That was how they usually mended, together, for what brought one of them down handicapped them both.
It was when he started staying awake longer than fifteen minutes at a time, though, that Starsky began to notice his partner's sudden evasiveness whenever Dobey's name came up. Hutch usually ended up changing the subject, but Starsky had seen a puzzling flash of anger in his otherwise patient partner's eyes whenever their boss was mentioned. It didn't take long before he was resolved to know why.
But in the no-holds-barred time of recovery when there seemed little Hutch wouldn't do to help him out, his partner remained stubbornly tight-lipped when it came to their captain.
Which made Starsky all the more determined to find out.
Speaking of which . . .
"Hey, how you doing?" A blond head craned past the door to peer into his room, followed by the rest of his slim partner. Hutch was smiling, grinning almost, still not quite over the giddy relief of getting his partner back. Starsky knew the feeling, had felt it before himself but, he thought fondly, his partner seemed to shine with joy when he was that happy.
He grinned back, shoving aside the magazine he'd been idly reading. "Melinda found out her lover was cheatin' on her and stabbed him, Victor met his grown-up son for the first time, and Angelica got liver cancer. How was your day?" Bed rest was a real bore, but his ribs didn't like a lot of movement and at least the TV and his partner's frequent visits made it bearable.
Hutch came over and sat on the edge of his bed, nudging his partner's leg over. "I think we better get you back on your feet before you get hooked on those soap operas." He studied Starsky, eyes frank with worry. "How's the head?"
"Amnesia doesn't come an' go, Hutch. Everything's back," Starsky said patiently.
"Any gaps left?"
"Only if I owe ya money." He grinned, relieved to see his partner crack up at the comment. He'd answered that question several times already, but it hadn't quite seemed to sink in for Hutch yet. Starsky couldn't blame him. The memory of being nameless, without home or past, still left him shaky and with some baggage he'd have to work out at some point. But after his collapse, there was only . . . protection, comfort. Care. His partner. While for Hutch it had been worry and fear and almost painful relief. Starsky knew to look out for his partner's invisible wounds just as surely as Hutch looked after his partner's physical ones.
"You ready to see the doctor tomorrow?"
"Are you kiddin' me? Hey, Dobey let you off early so you could take me?"
A shadow, one Starsky had been expecting, passed so quickly through his partner's eyes, no one else would have seen it. "I told him I was leaving after lunch. I'll be here around one to help you get ready." Then just as suddenly, Hutch was smiling again. He stood, pulling a slightly squashed bag out of his jacket. "Brought you some of your poison, but only after lunch," he added with a stern shake of the finger. "I'll fix you up some soup."
"Pushy," Starsky muttered cheerfully as he took the bag, sobering as the blond turned toward the door. "Hey, Hutch?" He shifted, trying to push himself more upright, and succeeded only in doing something vibrantly painful.
Hutch was back beside the bed in one long stride. "Take it easy," he chided softly while he splayed a hand against the bandage wrapped around the brunet's middle, trying to ease the strain.
"'M okay," Starsky said, if a little breathlessly. Well, that was why he was still in bed, after all, four days after falling into his partner's arms. And Hutch was still catching him. "I'm okay," he repeated, somewhat more believably.
"Sure?" The worry wouldn't go away completely for a while, Starsky knew from experience, not until he'd been back on the streets for a few days. That was simply his partner's way.
Starsky nodded. "Yeah." He looked his partner in the eye--now was the time, while Hutch was all attention. "Hey . . . what's goin' on between you an' Dobey?"
Hutch's eyes went dark at the question. He tried to pull his hand away, but Starsky already had a handful of his shirt sleeve. "What're you . . . nothing's going on, Starsky. Let me put the soup on and then we'll talk, huh?" He was pulling harder now, glaring at Starsky's hand instead of meeting his partner's gaze.
But Starsky wasn't letting go, frowning while he tried to read his friend's expression. It wasn't hard for him usually, but this time he wasn't sure what he was seeing. "Hey, I'm not the enemy here," he said quietly. Then, with sudden realization, "How come the cap'n is?"
Hutch shook his head, angry but not with him. "Forget it, don't worry about that right now."
"Hutch." There was no wheedling or teasing this time. This was about them as equal partners and the rights that entitled, including the right to know. Hutch stared at him a long moment, aware of that just as Starsky knew he'd be. And then suddenly he sagged, the fight leaving him. It was the same look of surrender the blond had given him up in Huggy's room, fighting the effects of withdrawal but unwilling to fight his partner, giving in to Starsky's coaxing.
"Hutch?" Starsky asked again, a little more gently this time. His partner wasn't a good one to keep simmering; the anger ate at his conscience in a way Starsky had rarely seen before in a person. Whatever this was weighed heavily on the blond's mind.
Hutch shook his head again, dismissive more than angry. "It's not important, Starsk. We just had a . . . disagreement about this whole mess."
He didn't have to identify the "mess"--Starsky suddenly had an inkling what was going on, and as much as it made sense, he couldn't keep the incredulity out of his voice. "You mean because I went under?"
Hutch frowned at him. "Because he talked you into going under. It was a stupid idea--he never should have asked you in the first place. It almost got you killed."
And that, really, was the heart of the matter, Starsky knew. No surprise, yet it awed him every single time to be faced again with how important he was to someone. His expression softened. "Dobey didn't talk me into goin' in. I talked him into it. The cap'n didn't think it was a bright idea, either."
Hutch's head came up, staring sharply at him, and it abruptly occurred to Starsky that he hadn't quelled his partner's anger, merely changed its focus. "You did? You wanted to go in solo, outside the precinct, just because that putz Cameron asked for you?" Hutch's voice was rising, as would have he if not for Starsky's continued grip. And yet he could have broken the hold and didn't. "Of all the--"
"It was important." Starsky had kept his tone quiet, his gaze serious. "I'm sorry, I know that's not how we work, but I tried t'call ya and you were out that night, so . . . I had to do it, Hutch. The guy we were after is a real monster."
Hutch just stared at him, trying to be mad, not wanting to understand, but it wasn't working. His partner had a right to make his own decisions and there was nothing Hutch could do about it.
Except worry and be scared and rage against the helplessness. His gaze dropped again and he just shook his head.
Hutch didn't look up.
"Hey," Starsky tried again, tugging on his arm.
"What?" He glanced at the brunet, half impatient, then away again.
"You found me."
"Yeah." Starsky winced at the almost hoarse answer, and his voice gentled further.
"Like I found ya when you went after Jeanie, didn't I?"
Hutch's turn to wince; that was something they rarely spoke of. "Yeah," he said warily.
"That's how we work, Hutch. Even when one of us does somethin' stupid, the other one comes after him, right?"
A pause. Then, softly, "Yeah." And Starsky could almost see his partner's mouth quirk. It was as close to an apology as he was about to make to Hutch, but it would be enough to make things right once his partner had some time to think about it. Life wasn't about being safe, it was about being there for each other when, for whatever reason, it wasn't.
"You gonna talk t'Dobey?" he asked carefully, unsure how far Hutch's patience would stretch.
Hutch snorted, giving him a mock glare. "You're not gonna leave me alone until I do, are you?"
"Uh-uh," Starsky said cheerfully, unrepentant.
"Okay, but after I make you some soup," Hutch said, rising to his feet.
The quiet call stopped his friend nearly at the door again, but Hutch only half-turned, his face in shadow, waiting silently.
"Thanks for comin' after me," Starsky said, willing his partner to hear what he was saying.
The blond head shook wearily once more, and the answer was almost too low for him to hear. "I had to."
The raw feeling in the words made Starsky flinch. The anger had been so deep to cover an even deeper fear. "You were the one that made it all come back t'me," he said softly. "At Mullen's. Seein' you did it. You're my partner, Hutch, and ain't nothin' gonna change that. "
Saying it out loud meant a lot, he could see immediately. Hutch straightened, the taut lines of his face and body easing. A hint of a sad smile softened his face as he nodded once. "Thanks," he whispered. And then he turned and walked out of the room.
Maybe it had just needed to be said. He'd made a decision alone that he should have made with his partner and Starsky knew it, but cutting Hutch out had been the last thing he'd intended or wanted. His friend knew how much he meant to Starsky just as Starsky was keenly aware of the reverse. But having it said outright, especially after the stress of the last few days, would help the mending.
Feeling greatly contented, Starsky leaned back gingerly and opened the greasy, wrinkled bag to peek inside. He lit up at the sight of the chocolate donuts, reaching inside for one.
"I'm counting those donuts when I come back with the soup," Hutch suddenly called from the kitchen.
Starsky snatched his fingers back and stuck his tongue out at the open door. And then grinned.
Captain Harold Dobey rubbed his forehead, trying to ease away the forming headache. It wasn't working very well. Stress headaches, his doctor called them, admonishing him that he had to cut back on the stress in his life. Dobey snorted at the thought. What, in his job? If it wasn't the turkeys on the street, it was trouble among his own ranks. And one particular detective worried him of late . . .
A knock sounded timidly at the door, and he put his hand down before growling, "Come in." The door opened halfway to reveal Hutchinson standing there. Dobey felt his headache tighten a fraction. "Cap'n, can I talk to you for a minute?" the detective asked, almost hesitantly.
Dobey's eyes narrowed, measuring. He was in no mood to deal with the Hutchinson of the last few days who'd been verging on insubordination the few times he'd even talked to his captain. That had been bad enough, but even worse had been the coldness, the real loss of respect from a man Harold Dobey considered not only one of his best detectives, but also a good friend. But that didn't seem to be the Hutch who stood before him, uncertain in his gaze and bearing. "What is it, Hutchinson?" he asked evenly.
Hutch came in all the way, closing the door behind him but then standing at half-attention before Dobey's desk, his manner still confusingly uncertain. Where had all the anger gone, Dobey wondered, frowning.
He wasn't budging an inch, though. Dobey sat back in his chair and sternly folded his hands, waiting.
Hutch licked his lips. "Uh, Cap'n, I came to apologize for my behavior the last few days. I know it was unacceptable--"
"Yes, it was," Dobey unequivocally agreed.
Hutch's fidgeting lessened. "Starsky told me he wanted to take the assignment and that you didn't talk him into it."
"Yes, he did," Dobey said again, then leaned forward, underlining his words with jabs in the air with his pen. "But even if he hadn't, Hutchinson, the only reason I didn't ask him was that I had some reservations about this set-up. I don't make these decisions lightly, but sometimes I do have to make them. That's part of my job--and yours and Starsky's."
"Yessir," Hutch said humbly. Then met his boss's glare with an unflinching look of his own. "But Starsky's my partner. It's my job to watch his back, Cap'n. And if someday he gets killed or can't do his job anymore or just wants to leave, I'm not staying either."
His gaze wasn't--quite--defiant, but it brooked no challenge. Hutch was giving fair notice that that was simply the way it was. Dobey nodded. He always knew he had the loyalty of his men with a few very narrow exceptions, and he'd just come across Hutch's most obvious one. But as long as they stayed exceptions, he could accept that. Not without repercussions, but he could accept it.
Dobey unbent a little. "Hutch, I overlook Starsky's and your creative bending of regulations," he lifted an eyebrow at the euphemism, "because I usually trust your instincts. I knew you'd have to go after your partner. But I'm still the captain. And I can't let my men--even you," Dobey pointed with the pen, "--get away with flagrant insubordination."
"Yessir," Hutch repeated, muted. As far as Dobey let this favorite pair of his detectives go, there had always been an understanding that, ultimately, the captain's was the last word. Hutch had broken that trust, and there would have to be some kind of discipline imposed to restore the balance, they both knew that. He'd been going around and around the issue himself the last few days, but Hutch's apology changed matters some. Much to Dobey's professional and personal relief.
He cleared his throat, drawing his eyes together sternly again. "I'm giving you two days suspension, without pay, effective tomorrow," he said gruffly.
Hutch blinked at him. That would go in his record and he'd lose the pay, but more importantly it would mean more time to spend getting his partner back on his feet, some of it time he'd already told the captain he'd be taking. Token punishment, it was obvious, but it would only be so to them and so appearances were met.
He was still trying to come up with a response when Dobey felt the smile pulling at his face, and before he ruined his image altogether, waved to the door. "Get out of here, Hutch."
"Yessir." Hutch gave him a half-hidden smile in return, thanking him also without being obvious, then hurried out of the office.
Dobey shook his head at the closed door. Just when he would start wondering why he put up with this job, something would happen to remind him anew that there were parts of it he loved, and men he cared about. Even the exceptions.
Rubbing at the retreating pain in his forehead, he took his pen and went back to work.
Written in 1999