This story first appeared in the zine, Ouch! #8 (1999). This zine, and other fine S&H gen zines, can be obtained from Neon Rainbow Press:http://www.neonrainbowpress.com/ This story was a Fan Q Winner. Comments on this story can be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org and will be forwarded to the author.
When Half-gods Go
"Heartily know, when half-gods go, the gods arrive." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson
It was Monday morning, raining, and he was starting a new diet. Harold Dobey was in no mood for interruptions, deeply immersed in the monthly summary reports, when the phone rang. He could always not answer...but then, that was what his job was about. With a sigh, he dropped the topmost sheet and picked up the phone, stabbing at the line one button.
A familiar, terrified breathless voice answered. "Cap'n, it's Hutch. Starsky's missing and I think it's Marcus again."
And so the nightmare began.
Incidents involving his men automatically meant he'd go on site. Incidents involving a certain trouble-prone pair of his detectives meant he would go Code 3--with lights and siren--and a knot in his gut. Sometimes, in lighter moments, Dobey considered he should get a direct line to his office for those two, as often as they needed it, but the humor was hard to reach for now. Simon Marcus--dear God, would that madman dog them forever? The grueling effort to capture him and bring him to trial hadn't been enough; the cult leader's acolytes then kidnapped, terrorized, and nearly killed Starsky before his partner, with Dobey and Huggy's help, had been able to find him. The one good thing about the whole nightmare was that at least it had resulted in the arrest of the rest of Marcus' henchmen. Or so they had thought. The whole group would be in prison for the rest of their lives, so who did that leave?
At Starsky's place, a black-and-white had already arrived to secure the scene, and the captain also recognized the head of forensics' car. How Hutchinson had gotten Sam Wells down there that fast, Dobey couldn't imagine, except that where Starsky was concerned, the blond detective often performed the impossible.
Dobey pulled up to the curb behind Starsky's red-and-white Torino in one sloppy motion, and was almost out of the car before he'd even turned it off. Hurrying up the steps of the small Westchester flat, he tried not to think of what he was walking into or why Hutch thought Marcus was involved.
The uniform waved him through on sight, and Dobey stormed into the apartment, taking the scene in at a glance. An endtable and a chair were upended to his right, some of the lighter articles on the surrounding furniture also disturbed or knocked off, signs of only a brief struggle.
Hutchinson prowled around them with barely restrained energy as if with enough concentration he could see exactly what had occurred there. But his intensity was also a focused effort not to look at the far end of the living room, where Wells and his team were already at work collecting evidence. They didn't have to look for it too closely. On the wall, almost immediately demanding the attention of anyone who walked into the room, was all the indication of violence that was needed. In thin, brutal slashes of dried blood were spelled out two words: Heavenly Polaris.
For the first in a long time, Harold Dobey was almost physically ill at a crime scene.
It was all an eerie déjà vu, the blood and the words. Last time it had been at the courthouse, a scrawled bloody "Starsky" on the mirror of the bathroom Marcus' men had kidnapped the detective from. It had turned out to be animal blood then, for the little that helped, but the initial shock had been almost as bad then as now. And "Heavenly Polaris," the name Marcus had given Starsky in his twisted prophetic "dreams," could only point to the insane cultist's involvement.
Dobey swallowed, trying to get rid of the dryness of his mouth. Starsky was his friend, but now it was time to act like the boss and keep everything and everyone together. No matter what he felt, that was his job.
The blond glanced up at the summons, startled, apparently not even having noticed his entrance. That didn't bode well, the captain thought darkly. Hutchinson being that oblivious meant either that he was distracted with worry, or intensely driven, chased by demons.
Hutch strode over to him at once, and one good look at the man gave Dobey his answer: driven. And it was very possible that demons were on his heels.
"Cap'n. I was supposed to pick up Starsky this morning and when I got here, the door was open. I found the place like this." A vague wave at the room, still without looking toward the far wall. "The door wasn't forced but the lock seems like it was tampered with. And it doesn't look like there was much of a struggle."
Dobey nodded, taking in the white face and hard blue eyes. Demons indeed. "Do you think he was injured?"
"No blood that I can see there," Hutch indicated the askew furniture. Again no mention of the wall, as if it didn't exist except for his conscious avoidance of it. His voice fell. "But Cap'n...the Saturday paper was still on the doorstep along with yesterday's and today's."
Dobey recognized the boy's expression before the meaning of the words even sunk in. They both knew that pointed to Starsky having been snatched on Friday still, which meant he'd already been in the cultists' hands for two and a half days, and there had been no call like last time to let them know. Hutch was aware of what bad news that was for his partner, the helplessness clear in every strained line of his face.
But the captain swallowed a wince, not letting his detective see how much the news bothered him, too. Sometimes he had to be the voice of reality when unrealistic hope soared. And other times, like now with Hutch horribly aware of how bad things looked, it was his job to offer hope and comfort in the midst of despair.
He put a hand on the detective's arm, unsurprised when Hutch flinched. "We don't know they've hurt Starsky. Just because they haven't called yet doesn't mean they're not going to, and they could just be keeping Starsky as a last-ditch attempt to get Marcus out, you know that."
A wooden nod, the blue eyes distracted with frantic thought. Little to go on yet, but that wouldn't keep Hutchinson from trying to put it all together then and there.
Dobey chewed on his lip. Well, he should have expected no less. "Any ideas?" he asked patiently.
"The old zoo," was the immediate answer. "Maybe they took him there again. And I could talk to Marcus again." Hutch was looking at him finally, more tense than optimistic, his arm stiff as wood beneath the captain's hand.
It was unlikely, but still worth checking out. Dobey nodded. "Good. Go."
Hutch hesitated, turning almost with reluctance to glance at the words on the wall. He went a shade paler, jaw clenched in determination...and controlled misery. Dobey knew exactly how he felt, but while he would do everything in his power to help, this was one road Hutch would have to go mostly alone.
"I'll let you know what Sam says," he added gently, breaking Hutch's stare.
The detective turned back to him, giving him a sharp nod and a slightly more thawed, grateful glance, and then he was flying out the door.
I'm too old for this, Dobey thought as he watched Hutchinson tear away--in the Torino--and then turned resolutely back to find out what the forensics team had learned.
"He's not here," Hutch said bleakly.
It wasn't a real surprise that the old zoo had turned up empty. No one had really expected the cultists to return to the place they'd been discovered before, but the captain still felt Hutch's dashed hopes keenly over the radio connection. "Where are you, Hutchinson?" Dobey asked gruffly.
"I'm on my way to see Marcus. Did you call--"
"They're already expecting you," Dobey said. "I'll meet you there." Knowing how hard it would be for the detective to then face the taunting, smug Marcus, especially now, the captain intended to be at the prison to meet Hutchinson when he came out.
It was quicker than he expected.
"He won't see me!" Hutch stormed into the lobby at full tilt, a barely contained maelstrom of anger. "That son of a--"
"Hutchinson!" Dobey knew what a tightrope the blond walked, but if he was to keep Hutch from falling, it was time for a little restraint. "Maybe he doesn't know anything," he added more calmly. "There's no reason he should be involved in this kidnapping." The last time, it had been an eleventh hour effort to blackmail the courts into releasing Marcus before he was sentenced. What good had they to gain kidnapping Starsky now?
Hutch had apparently thought through the same questions and wasn't at all happy with the answer. "He knows, Cap'n. His followers were like sheep; they need his dreams to act. Unless," he swallowed, "they're still trying to carry out what he originally dreamed." Hutch looked up at him, eyes a furious--and frightened--blue. Simon's dreams from before had been very explicit on the issue of Starsky's death.
"It could also be revenge, Hutch." He said it quietly, not sure what the reaction would be but knowing he wouldn't like it.
The detective froze, mouth slightly agape, his expression unreadable. "I'm going back to the station," he finally snapped. Then Hutch was striding out the door.
Dobey nodded. He really couldn't blame Hutch for not wanting to consider the possibility. If the cultists had a purpose for kidnapping Starsky, there was a chance the detective could still be found relatively intact. But if Marcus' men were out for payback, there would be no reason not to kill Starsky...after they first had their fun. The thought was chilling enough to Dobey, but it had to be positively torturous for Hutch, who protected his partner even above his own life and needed Starsky in turn for his well-being. To perhaps not only lose that, but in such a cruel way, would be inconceivable.
The captain found himself praying all the way back to the station that they would find Starsky. He wasn't sure what he'd do with Hutch if they didn't.
Monday bled into Tuesday with a dawn that blanketed the city in candy apple light. Harold Dobey watched it from his office window as he listened to the pacing behind him. A memory shouldered its way in, of staying up another night to decipher Marcus' "dreams." Except then they'd at least had the dreams to go on. Now they had nothing, and it didn't look like a rescue would be as forthcoming this time. If Starsky was even still out there...
The footsteps stopped for a moment as another file was plopped onto Dobey's desk along with a muttered "no," and then the relentless walking started up again. Funny, Starsky was usually the one who paced, who needed to walk off the energy before it burned him out. Dobey could almost swear Hutchinson was filling in for his missing partner.
With a sigh, he turned away from the window to watch the blond striding back and forth the width of his office, nose buried in a file. With Marcus a dead end, Hutch had canvassed Starsky's street and come up only with one vague possibility, the sighting of a red van somewhere around Starsky's place sometime Friday. That hadn't been much help, so finally they'd gone on to the files to track down all of Simon's acolytes, making sure the ones they'd originally caught were still in prison and checking out known associates. It was very slow, detailed work, but the only thing they had to go on.
Except for the one bit of information Dobey hadn't told Hutch yet, knowing it would only hurt instead of help. The blood in Starsky's place had been human this time, and the brunet's blood type.
The captain swallowed, sick at the thought, and sat down heavily. "Nothing yet?" he asked unnecessarily.
Just a shake of the head, Hutch's lips moving silently as he skimmed the file in his hand. Already fatigue was evident in the slouch of his shoulders and the shadows under--and in--his eyes. Last time the ordeal had been over after a day. This time, there was no deadline and no clues, nothing to tell when it would be over, and Dobey didn't know how long his detective could keep going. Not indefinitely; Hutch would collapse before he'd quit, and the captain wouldn't allow that.
But with Starsky still missing and probably not in good shape, no amount of force would be able to make Hutchinson rest, and Dobey knew it. For now, coffee, enforced mealtimes, and not disturbing him during the one brief nap that overcame him at his desk was the best Dobey could do for his detective to keep him on his feet. If they didn't find Starsky by that evening...well, he'd cross that bridge when they came to it.
Not that he was feeling so lively himself. Edith had already made him promise he'd take a nap some time that day. But that was his boy out there, and he couldn't rest yet, either.
Tiredly, Dobey reached for one of the topmost folders on the stack they had left to go.
It was an interesting paradox, Dobey's overtaxed mind wandered off to consider at some point. Time was dragging, stressing every minute more that Starsky was gone and probably in serious trouble, and at the same time it rushed by in fleeting hours. If only they had more time to follow up every slim possibility, to think and maybe hit on the solution...and yet the awareness was ever present that more time could easily mean Starsky's death.
But the day had ticked away with no tangible result. Hutchinson or one of the several other detectives involved in the search had followed up on every one of Simon's identified followers. A lot of the officers were working on their own time, volunteering to do what they could to help out one of their own, and their quiet determination and avowals not to quit brought the only smiles that Dobey had seen Hutch attempt since the ordeal began.
And still there was no result. Most of the acolytes were either in jail or in some sort of rehab or had drifted out of the area. A few were untraceable, but they'd been among the fringe followers, the ones least likely to act of their own volition without Marcus' dreams.
Which left them back on square one. It had finally occurred to Hutch to ask about the forensics results from Starsky's place, and Dobey had quietly told him about the blood. Hutch took it well, filing it away along with the other meager information they had, no emotion showing at all. But a minute later the captain saw him start to pick up a coffee mug and then put it back down, his hand shaking too badly to keep it from sloshing out.
And so the day had gone, wasting away into night.
His back hurt. So did his neck and his eyes and his head, but his back was the worst of all. He was definitely too old for this. Nor did it help that Hutchinson, more than a decade his junior, looked worse than he felt, eyes red and face haggard, his usual fastidiousness completely absent in his mussed hair and wrinkled clothing.
Enough was enough. Dobey reached for his jacket, certain that if he stayed at Parker any longer, he'd go mad. "Hutchinson, I'm taking you home," he said, plucking the file out of the blond's hands without further pause.
Hutch startled, then his pale face reddened as he scowled. "Not now. Starsky's still out there and--"
"And we're not going to find him tonight, son," Dobey said gently.
He knew when to bully and when to coax, and his kind tone had its desired effect. The anger died away as abruptly as it came, leaving Hutch looking bereft and bewildered. The focus of detective work had let him shove aside the terror, but now with a moment's distraction, it was starkly clear in his eyes. Dobey found himself wondering if he was doing the man a favor or an injury, then shrugged off the thought as ridiculous.
"Dave will have my head if I let you fall apart while he's gone, Hutch," he grumbled as he took the detective's elbow and steered him out the squadroom door, grabbing Hutch's jacket as he went.
That produced a very weak chuckle, but apparently it was enough to dam the despair before it flooded beyond control. Dobey raised a weary eyebrow. If he himself was finding it hard to think clearly, let alone rein in his emotions, he could only imagine how hard the struggle was for Hutch. "Just for a little while, Cap'n," Hutch murmured. "I've gotta find him."
"I know, I know," Dobey patiently soothed. "We will."
It was a bad indication that Hutch didn't notice until they pulled into the driveway that Dobey had gone straight to his own house, and it added to his worry that the blond accepted it without a word. The captain practically had to guide Hutchinson inside, and he was asleep as soon as he dropped onto the bed in the guest room. But Dobey was too tired to think about it much. He listened to Edith cluck while she pulled the detective's shoes off and tucked him in with maternal gentleness, but didn't stay to help. More tired than he could ever remember being, he stumbled to their own bedroom and fell asleep before his wife even joined him.
Night died with another dawn. Day Three of the search, and Day Five of Starsky's absence. Hutchinson was already up by the time Dobey woke, and they were both back at Parker before the smog had even finished settling into the valley. If Hutch felt as bad as he looked then he probably wasn't feeling any more rested than Dobey, the captain noted grimly, but the drag was gone from his steps, the restless energy of before taking its place. For now, that would have to do.
Hutch left almost as soon as they got to the station, peeling away in the Torino as he hit the streets to once more make the rounds; meet with Huggy; check on feelers sent out; try to learn something, anything, that would lead to a clue.
Dobey stared after the car in thoughtful silence, wondering if it was his imagination or if Hutch seemed anxious to stay away from the station. Undoubtedly some of it was a need to be out doing something, or at least feeling like he was doing something, instead of sitting and going through files. But the captain wondered if the empty desk across from Hutchinson wasn't also part of it, the silence of the squadroom even when it was full, one particular voice absent.
He shook his head sadly and turned to go into the building.
The feel of Parker was different, a missing man suffusing the whole building's atmosphere with tension and worry. It was an interesting, unique aspect of their job, of being part of a brotherhood. There was, of course, sympathy for the affected officer and his department, especially for those who knew the officer in person. Pulling together to support one of their own was the brotherhood at its best. But also at its weakest, as a sense of shaken foundations and lack of safety settled in, an "it could happen to any of us" mentality that those higher up worked to relieve as quickly as possible. Already Dobey had received several calls from other department captains as well as the chief, offering whatever resources and advice and support they could.
And in the center of it all was Hutchinson, who seemed almost oblivious of the support and couldn't care less about his own safety and security.
Gabe Bonhomme gave Dobey a slight wave as he passed the squadroom and went on into his own office. There were detectives like Bonhomme who were friends with the detective pair, of course, and would do whatever they could to support Hutch if the worst happened. But a partnership--especially this partnership--was a special thing. Like a marriage, there were in-jokes, shared history, levels of trust, and obstacles conquered together that were unique to that partnership and, once gone, could never be retrieved. Dobey had gone through that hell before and survived by leaning on his other partner for life, Edith. But Hutchinson had no family nearby, at least none that he seemed close to or ever mentioned to Dobey. Starsky had always seemed to fill in all that the blond needed at that end.
So who was there to fill in for Starsky?
The captain sank into his chair with a tired sigh. God help my boys. And then he dove back into his work.
He was still at it when the phone call came in.
It was routed automatically to Dobey, as anything meant for Hutch or in reference to Starsky was for the time being, but he had no warning before he picked up the phone.
"I want to speak to Officer Hutchinson." The voice was male, young, and very cold.
The captain gave the phone his full attention. "Detective Hutchinson isn't in at the moment. I'm his captain."
A pause, then, "Fine. Tell him Simon dreamed of this week, and now it shall come to pass. He has spoken and it shall be done. Heavenly Polaris will pay for his sins." And then a click signaled the connection was broken.
Dobey was already punching another button. "Did you get a trace on that?" He knew the answer but the verbal confirmation made him sink lower in his chair. "No, that's all right. Get Hutchinson on the radio and tell him to report to me back here. And I also want a recording of that call. Right." He clunked the phone down and tiredly rubbed at his forehead. Well, they'd wanted a call, something new to go on. But this didn't seem like progress at all.
Hutch, however, saw it differently, much to Dobey's surprise. He watched his detective carefully as the reel played, seeing the blond's eyes blaze at the implications, his jaw clenched in raw emotion, but then the anger was replaced by puzzlement. At the end of the short message, he was the one who reached out to snap the machine off, and then he straightened in the chair, eyes unfocused in thought.
"You've got something?" Dobey prodded carefully.
"Maybe..." Hutch looked at him. "Cap'n, he said Simon 'dreamed of this week', and that he 'has spoken'. I don't think he's talking about Marcus' earlier dreams, which means that this is something new Marcus put together."
Dobey frowned. "You know ever since the sentencing--" and Starsky's original kidnapping, though he didn't say that, "--Marcus has been in solitary, not allowed any outside communication. He couldn't share more of his dreams with any of his followers still out there."
"Unless he had help. Sir, I really think Marcus is in on this."
The captain turned the idea over. Perhaps it was born of desperation, but it had merit and was at least worth checking out. "That's assuming these new followers, whoever they are, aren't just doing this out of their own misguided sense of loyalty," he reluctantly added.
Hutch shrugged, fatigue that he usually tamped down now showing through. "We haven't got anything else to go on, Cap'n," he said quietly.
Dobey nodded. "Go ahead." It was all the detective needed, already on his feet and heading toward the door. The captain didn't even bother adding the unnecessary, "Keep me posted."
They had already done a cursory check on Simon, of course, but the new lead energized the whole squadroom. All the detectives, whether close to Starsky or not, had a stake in a fellow officer missing, and regular investigations were being run with a skeleton crew while most concentrated on tracking down every elusive possibility. And now, with every guard, service provider, and fellow inmate that Marcus could have come into contact with needing to be checked, the room was a scene of frantic activity once more.
It was evening before Hutch hurried into Dobey's office.
"I think we got a name, Cap'n. Yancy Sullivan. He's one of the few guards who regularly has contact with Marcus, and some of his co-workers claim he's been acting unusual the last few weeks, more on edge."
"That's good, Hutch." Dobey let himself grin. It wasn't a sure thing by any means, but it was a possibility and that was more than they'd had before. "The DA wants this one bad--you shouldn't have any trouble getting a warrant."
Hutch shook his head in frustration. "We can't move on it tonight. Sullivan's out of town on prisoner escort duty and won't be back or reachable until tomorrow morning."
There always was a hitch, wasn't there, Dobey grimaced. "Fine, get the warrant and you can meet Sullivan when he gets back."
A small smile of sheer fatigue. "Yeah." And Hutch disappeared back out into the squadroom.
It was a badly needed boost of spirits and hopes. Dobey had never quite realized how much Starsky and Hutchinson kept each other going, somehow paradoxically giving each other strength to get through the hard times. With Starsky gone, Hutch was wearing himself out. Giving to get, Dobey mused. Maybe that was part of what made them so unique.
An hour passed before he realized that Hutchinson wasn't reporting back, and there was only unusual quiet from the room next door. Well, it was really time to send the boy home, anyway. Dobey pulled himself to his feet and went out into the squadroom to see how things were going.
The first thing that met his eyes was the blond head propped gracelessly on an outstretched arm. The rest of the detectives worked quietly around him, talking in whispers and nearly tiptoeing as they passed. Eney informed him sotto voce that Gabe had gone to see the DA about the warrant once Hutch had again succumbed to sleep, and Dobey only nodded, returning silently to his office.
Hutch hadn't yet stirred by the time the captain left for home some time later, still slumped in exhausted sleep at his desk. But his red-rimmed eyes the next day reflected little rest.
The phone rang, long overdue, and Dobey snatched it up. "Hutchinson?"
"Yessir. It's Sullivan." His voice was triumphant but hoarse with fatigue and worry. It was impossible to forget that Starsky had been missing nearly six days now and his safe return was looking more and more remote. The captain wasn't sure if he pitied or admired the dogged belief his partner was still alive.
But Harold Dobey understood that hungry anxiety all too well. "Why?" he simply asked.
"Blackmail. Marcus' men were threatening his wife and daughters. He's been passing messages back-and-forth between Marcus and a man on the outside."
"You have a name?"
"Adam Rysack." A humorless laugh. "Peter's brother."
Peter...Dobey knew at once which Peter he meant. Marcus' head acolyte and a man just as brutal as the master he followed. If his brother was anything like him... "I'll get on it at this end," Dobey said quickly.
"I'm on my way."
By the time he got there, Dobey had an address and a confirmation that Adam hadn't been there in at least a week. Still, it was a family home, and questioning those who lived with a suspect often uncovered unexpected leads. Within minutes, Hutch was on his way again to go talk to them, spurred by new hope.
Dobey quelled his own optimism. They still had a ways to go, he knew from experience, and that was assuming they had time left. But Hutch had a stubbornness that was catching. Dobey kept at it from his end along with several of the other detectives out in the squadroom, finding out as much as possible about Adam Rysack's acquaintances, habits, lifestyle. And through it all was laced the growing awareness that this was most likely not going to end well.
The thought had crossed his mind before: when Marcus' men had first kidnapped Starsky, when Forest had gotten hold of Hutch for several days, when Starsky had been poisoned with 24 hours to live. He'd faced the usual worry that any good captain had for one of his men, and maybe a little bit extra because these two were special, his boys, the youngest and most energized team among his detectives. But again and again he returned to the conclusion that with this pair the added considerable concern of the partner left behind was perhaps even worse. Beyond the usual trauma, beyond even losing "family," this would be an amputation that would leave the other seriously handicapped, incomplete. It was part of why they worked so well together and were his best team, but it was also their greatest liability. Cut one and the other bled. Kill one and the other...
He was no surgeon, miracle worker, or priest. Nor was he the one Hutch needed. If Starsky didn't turn up alive, Dobey knew there would be only so much he could do, and it wouldn't be nearly enough. Two detectives would be lost instead of one.
But it was his job to be the source of inspiration for his men and to keep the faith when others lost it, and so Harold Dobey buried his thoughts and worked on, praying as he did.
He knew it the moment Hutch found something. The whoop from the squadroom was unmistakably the blond's, and the next moment the detective was rushing through Dobey's door, a piece of paper clenched in one hand, eyes alight in a way the captain hadn't seen in too long.
"Cap'n, I think I've got it. I was checking the list of names Rysack's parents gave me, and one of 'em, Richard Orwell, has a red van. His roommate says both he and the van have been gone for a week!"
Hope was important, but false hope was always a danger. Dobey made a face. He pointed his pen at Hutch as he cautioned, "Hutchinson, there must be over a thousand vans in this city. I'll put an APB out, but that doesn't mean this is the one."
Hutch's grin, all excitement and no joy to begin with, faded as his shoulders slumped. "It's gotta be, sir. Starsky's running out of time."
"I know, Ken," Dobey said more gently. He didn't want to completely discourage, either. "Just don't count on it yet."
Despair flickered for a moment in those expressive blue eyes, then it was gone, replaced by something even deeper. Hutchinson determination was even more formidable than a Starsky pout. "I have to find him, Cap'n. I need him." And without another word, Hutch dropped the slip of paper with the van's description and plate number onto Dobey's desk, and returned to the squadroom.
The captain picked up the piece of paper, smoothing it out. The handwriting on it was an uneven scrawl unlike Hutch's usual neat script, testament both to his agitation and his fatigue. They couldn't keep going on like this much longer; already the blond had gotten into a violent argument with one patrolman who'd dared to hint they would be too late. The rollercoaster of hope and despair would shake apart even a strong person, let alone one who was too tired to know he was dead on his feet. But for now, while new possibilities were still coming along, the captain couldn't rein in the blond.
God, let this be it, Dobey thought, and called in the APB, then sat and toyed with the piece of paper in his hand. Yes, they had to find Starsky, one way or another. Hutch took strength from his hope and the possibility that his partner was alive out there somewhere, but even that would run out sooner or later, and if Starsky wasn't...if they were too late...the sooner they found out, the easier it would be. Dobey winced inwardly at the thought. Not like different shades of hell made a huge difference.
The captain finally set the wrinkled paper aside and picked up the phone again. He had a sudden overwhelming urge to call Edith and make sure the kids were okay.
Day stretched into night with all the excruciating torture of a medieval rack. The squadroom was mostly empty now, no other lead remotely panning out like the van had, so most of the detectives still awake enough to be on the case, and nearly all the uniforms who had heard what was happening, were out on the streets canvassing the city for the suspect vehicle. Even Huggy, after being in and out through the week, left his bar in the capable Diane's hands and was trying to dig up what he could. It was a massive effort to bring home a brother.
Meanwhile, Hutchinson, who had begun to sway dangerously on his feet, was uncomfortably curled into Dobey's two upholstered chairs, frowning in his sleep. It was as close as the captain could get to making him get some rest before he collapsed. Only once he'd made sure the blond was deeply under did he himself go home, pour a stiff drink, and fall asleep with Edith held close in his arms.
The morning marked one week since Starsky had been snatched, and though no one said it, they all knew it was the unofficial deadline. If the detective wasn't found that day, it was unlikely he'd be found alive or ever found at all, and concern was growing into despair, particularly in one pair of agonized blue eyes.
Dobey swung by the church on the way to say a prayer in the quiet chapel. Starsky's safe return was his foremost request, but if that wasn't to be, he would need the strength and wisdom to deal with the aftereffects. And the one left behind.
It was a scant hour later that, like a row of dominoes, it all began to fall into place.
It seemed to happen in distorted slow motion, like watching an accident unfold. First the possible sighting called in from Santa Paula, one of many. It wouldn't have meant much, except for Gabe making the connection to a finding he'd chanced upon. Researching the Rysack family had also turned up properties owned by the immediate family and relatives, among them an uncle's cabin on several acres of wooded land in Santa Paula. The perfect place to hide a captive, especially if outdoor cultic rituals were involved. The next moment, a blur of blond energy was heading out the door, Dobey chasing behind him.
Just like that, they had a location.
It was a good thing he was riding along with Hutch because he could never have kept up with the detective. Maybe that was why Hutchinson tended to use his partner's car when Starsky was in trouble, because it could match his obsessive drive far better than the old LTD could. Then another swerved lane change forced even that thought out of the captain's mind.
Hutch drove in white-lipped silence, making record time to the outlying suburb. But it was a different tight self-control he was practicing now. Something had changed that Dobey couldn't quite put a finger on, though he knew its cause. Before, the lack of knowledge and ability to directly help his partner tore into Hutch's control, destroying it more each day. It had been like watching a disease claim his friend, and Dobey shivered inside at the reminder of Hutch's battle with the plague. Now, though, being freed to act and knowing that soon it would be over one way or another broke the last little bit of restraint that was left. Nothing short of deadly force would keep the blond from his goal or stop the flood of accumulated rage and fear that had set him in motion.
The car screeched to a halt with inertia-defying speed at the edge of an unobtrusive piece of property, and before Dobey could even fumble his seatbelt open, Hutch was already flying out of the car. The captain hurried after him, knowing that only one thing would keep the detective from vengeance, and if they were too late, then Dobey would have to stop Hutchinson from throwing away his life after his partner's. What was left of it without his partner, anyway.
Hutch emerged from the open house nearly as quickly as he'd gone in, and dashed down the steps and around the nearest corner without missing a beat.
Of course, Dobey thought as they plunged into the woods and he struggled to keep up, if Starsky was dead then he was fooling himself thinking he'd be able to stop Hutch. Any control he thought he had over one of them without the other was purely wishful thinking, maintaining the delusion that he was the captain and in charge. Hutchinson and Starsky had always followed their own inclinations, obeying their boss sometimes purely out of condescension, and putting the other before any concerns of authority or procedure. And Dobey knew it.
The blond head bobbed ahead, more visible as the trees thinned, and the captain thought for a moment he heard voices--chanting? And then Hutch disappeared from view and the captain sped his pace, knowing that the detective had reached his goal and wouldn't hesitate to throw himself into the situation despite whatever odds. Behind him was the sound of the pounding of feet, of other officers coming to also lend aid. The familiarity of the situation was nauseating.
A shout and a gunshot rang out, then, after a long pause, another. Dobey began to pray with new fervency. And suddenly the treeline broke altogether, opening into a clearing, and despite himself, the captain skidded to a halt, shocked at the sight.
There were only four acolytes this time, but they already lay in various sprawled positions around the center of the clearing, their black robes in disarray. Dobey couldn't immediately tell their conditions, though one was bleeding freely from the head and another, a woman, stirred a little. One was certainly dead, blood seeping even through the thick robe, staining the crimson upside-down cross on it an even deeper shade of scarlet. Shot, it looked like. And the only gun in sight was the one in Starsky's hand.
The missing detective stood in the midst of the carnage not 20 feet from the clearing's edge. "Stood" was actually a euphemism for his half-bent, wavering stance, like that of a man who was upright only because he'd not yet had the chance to fall. Even from that distance, Dobey could see the discolored bruises on his face and his disoriented expression.
But the most appalling sight of all was the weapon he held, trained unsteadily but purposefully on his partner.
Hutch also stood frozen a few feet in front of Starsky, hands held non-threateningly away from his sides. His eyes were on his friend, aware of nothing else.
"Starsk, it's me. It's Hutch, your partner. You're safe now. Put down the gun."
The words were soft, but they carried across the abruptly quiet clearing to Dobey. Even the patrolmen behind him were still, waiting. The captain watched, hardly daring to breathe, as Hutch ventured forward half a step, stopping again as the gun tracked his movement.
"Please, Starsk, listen to me. It's all over now, I promise. Please, put down the gun. Trust me."
If Dobey hadn't known Hutchinson better, he would have refused to believe that this was the same person who he'd been driving with only five minutes before, the out-of-control fury gone as if he'd imagined it, extinguished by the extreme gentleness Hutch spoke and looked at his partner with. The gun was shaking worse now and not so solidly aimed at him, and he slid another small step forward.
"I won't let anything else happen to you. Please, Starsk, let me help. Give me the gun."
Starsky had stared at him all the while, his wild gaze not betraying any recognition. Even 20 feet away, Dobey could see the confusion of emotional shock in his face. But something else was finally beginning to seep in, a little bit of muddled awareness, and his eyes slid away from the advancing detective to glance at the scene around him, the forms of the cultists, lingering on the one nearest him who'd been shot.
Suddenly his whole face crumpled, and with a moan he turned the gun away. Toward himself.
Dobey started forward, knowing he was too far away to be of help, just as Hutch shouted "NO!" and dove forward. His hands closed around the weapon and had already given it a jerk when it discharged, the bullet flying harmlessly past Starsky, into the woods behind him.
Hutch completed the motion, wrenching the gun away and tossing it after the stray bullet, not caring where it fell, intent only on his partner. He was ready an instant later as Starsky began to collapse, his arms around the brunet to ease the way down.
Dobey's heart started beating again. His first instinct was to go see how Starsky was, but he curbed it for a moment to divert his steps, turning instead to the first cultist and glancing at the man. Richard Orwell; he recognized the photo. With a huge bruise already darkening his chin, it was clear that a piledriver punch had knocked him out, and the captain could guess who was responsible for that. At least Hutch had managed to restrain himself from killing the bunch. As for the body, Dobey knew even without a close look that it was Adam Rysack. There would be no question of self-defense in his shooting. The captain quickly directed the uniforms to see to the other acolytes and get them out of there, silently anxious to give his two detectives their privacy back.
In a moment, the uniforms had disappeared back in the direction of the cars, taking the three rousing cultists with them and leaving the body for forensics. It was only the three of them now, and Dobey turned back to the center of the clearing.
Hutch sat on the grass with one leg on either side of his partner, holding Starsky tight-clasped to his chest. The slumped lines of the brunet's body told Dobey his complete weight had to be resting against his friend, but Hutch didn't seem to have a problem with that. Both of his arms were wrapped around the sagging figure, one very gently rubbing circles on the black-robed back and the other curled around Starsky's shoulder as if to make sure he didn't leave.
"Sorry...'m sorry," Starsky was muttering into his shirt, upset and confused.
"It's okay, Starsk, they're all gone. Just me here." Hutch was terrified; Dobey could see that much immediately in his face, but there was a quiet confidence in how he held and reacted to Starsky. Fear took a back seat to the need to help his partner. His cheek pressed against the mess of dirty curls, he whispered some more words too softly for Dobey to hear, shushing the brunet's agitated rambling.
Starsky hardly looked coherent enough to understand, however. Beneath the mottled new and fading bruises and a week's growth of beard, his face was white, the circles around his eyes nearly black in contrast. He looked like he hadn't slept, or been allowed to sleep, at all in the week he'd been missing, and gaunt cheeks spoke of neglected meals. But his expression was shut down, eyes a numb, muddied blue. No relief or pain or even tears. Drugs, Dobey thought, drugs and exhausted terror. He was drained, at any rate, awareness or personality gone, only repressed shadows visible in the eyes that stared at nothing. Every once in a while, they screwed shut as his breathing hitched, but otherwise it was just that blank stare, frightening Dobey thoroughly. They were the eyes of a victim of something heinous.
The captain could still hear Hutch talking, though, with a firm gentleness that came from knowing his partner as well as he did. Dobey saw the hand on Starsky's shoulder slide up to rest gently against a cheekbone for a moment before continuing on into his hair, stroking softly. Each caress seemed to slough off a little bit of Starsky's paralysis, and some animation began to steal back into his body and his face. Slight stirrings, a flicker of the eyes, one hand's vague grasp at nothing, eventually seeking out and snagging Hutch's sleeve. And then the rest unthawed all at once, and with a ragged, "Oh, God...Hutch," he shut his eyes and buried his face in his partner's flannel shirt, shoulders shaking.
Hutch's hands shifted at that, a subtle switch to sheltering and comfort instead of clinging. He looked up to meet the captain's gaze after a minute, eyes taxed and weary but clear blue. The detective was in his element now, and the crucible of the past week no longer mattered.
And all the time, he talked, his voice providing Starsky protection from the demons of that clearing. "You're gonna be all right now, partner. I'll handle it, you just relax, rest. I've got ya, Starsk." And he did, his embrace nearly possessive in its absolute promise of warmth and safety.
Harold Dobey could remember holding his children that way, soothing away fears and pain with his sheer presence. There was something of that in how Hutch was holding his partner now, like a parent with an ill child. But there was nothing childlike in Starsky's need. He had held on through far more than could have been expected and survived, but it had left him empty, defenseless. Now it was his partner's turn to take over and handle the world for a while.
Dobey ventured a question finally, knowing it hadn't been urgent from Hutch's actions. "Does he need an ambulance?"
Starsky curled tighter against his partner, but Hutch just smiled a little and shook his head. Glancing around the clearing with his eyes alone, he nodded toward another, wider path that entered into the glen from the right. "Could you bring the car around through there?"
Dobey pursed his lips, considering. It was either that or carrying Starsky out through the woods, and he didn't think either of them wanted to do that. "I can try."
"Thanks," Hutch said softly. "We'll be okay for a few minutes."
The captain shook his head. His two boys looked about as far from okay as possible. Hutch, for all his relief and joy, was still worried sick about his partner and looked years older with the fatigue and strain of the week. And Starsky was shapelessly plastered against the blond, having shut out everything but Hutch. Probably trusting nothing else outside his partner's enfolding arms.
Yet Hutch had found peace despite the fact that Starsky clearly had a ways to go, and the brunet's tremors had stilled, the disconnection that had caused his erratic behavior before apparently assuaged with the safety of his partner's presence. No, they were far from okay, particularly Starsky. Dobey didn't even know what kind of physical damage had been done to the brunet, and could only guess at the mental. But he was alive and with Hutch. Things could still have been much worse.
As Dobey stood, he looked more closely at the thick wooden post behind the pair that he'd only noted before. A heavy metal loop was on it at just the right height, the captain eyeballed, to tie someone's hands to. Frays of rope were visible on the ground around it, giving weight to his idea, and a serrated knife was also close by. Had they cut him free to perform whatever ceremony they had intended? Was it the rescue had been that close once more? Or had Hutch managed to steal a moment to free him? And then presumably somehow Starsky had gotten hold of Hutch's gun in time to shoot one of the acolytes and nearly his partner. Dobey shook his head. He didn't even want to think about what frame of mind the detective would have had to be in to not only not recognize his partner, but then also be ready to kill himself...
He left the two of them there, one indistinguishable lump, and hurried out of the still clearing toward the cars to issue some orders and fetch the Torino. Dobey forcibly quelled his worry at Starsky's condition. At least he was alive, and the rest surely they could help. A last glance back made him shake his head; Hutch had managed to work his jacket off and had draped it around his partner, rocking the man in silent comfort. Dobey turned away.
Things still looked bad. But, yes, it could have been much, much worse.
By the time he reached the cars, the three prisoners were all loaded, fully revived but undirected and quiescent without their leader. One of the patrolmen looked at Dobey, ready to ask a question, but the captain waved him off. "I'll handle it."
He put in the call for the coroner's and forensics teams, instructing one of the black-and-whites to wait there to receive them. A decrepit gray sedan pulled up just as he was about to get into the Torino, and Dobey turned to it with relief.
"Bonhomme, I need you to take over the scene."
The older detective nodded, looking at the Torino with one eyebrow raised. "Starsky?"
"He's alive. Hutch is with him." Dobey jerked a thumb back towards the woods.
"Are they okay?"
"They will be." Now that Hutch had him, Starsky would be fine, and Hutch would also be all right with the return of his partner. Dobey had to believe that, even if common sense had its doubts.
Bonhomme gave a short nod, and Dobey slid with some effort into the small muscle car, grateful that Hutch had been in too much of a hurry to take the keys with him.
It took a little searching before he found the path into the clearing, but he finally did, pulling up close to the two still on the ground. With a deep sigh--would his heart ever be the same after these two?--Dobey opened the door and approached the pair warily, crouching down to Hutch's eye level as he reached them.
"How is he?" he said softly.
Hutch had apparently been doing some checking. His handkerchief was tied around the wrist Dobey had seen oozing blood earlier, and Starsky was settled more comfortably in his arms. With the softest gaze Dobey had ever seen the blond bestow on his partner, he glanced down again at the brunet. "His hands and wrists are a mess and he's got a lot of bruises, but nothing seems broken or bleeding anymore." A shadow flickered in his eyes, an awareness of the irony of what he was saying. Nothing broken or bleeding but the soul. "I need to get him home, Cap'n."
Dobey started at that. "Hutch, we don't know what they did to him the last week," he argued softly but firmly. "It looks like he was drugged, and he might have internal injuries, you know that. We need to take him to a hospital and at least get him checked out first, then you can take him home."
"I can call Jace to take a look at him, have him meet us at my place."
"Hutch, he's been missing and probably tortured for nearly a week--"
"That's why I need to take him home now. He needs to be someplace he can feel safe."
"Hutch...wanna go home," Starsky suddenly muttered against his neck.
The blond's mouth curved again as his fingers stroked through the dirty curls. "I know, buddy. Soon." Hutch turned to Dobey. "Cap'n, he needs to go home more than he needs a doctor. We're taking him to my place." His voice was soft steel.
Sometimes Hutch's heart got the best of his head. Pinches the capillaries, Starsky had once said about his partner in love, and at those times either the captain or Starsky would have to be the voice of reason. But where Starsky was concerned, Dobey rarely questioned Hutch's judgment. He glanced at the huddled figure in Hutch's arms, only dark curls visible, burrowed close against the blond as if the embrace were the only thing holding him together. Remembering the frighteningly lost look of the man as he'd held a gun on his partner only minutes before, Dobey could almost believe that was true.
The captain flinched. He just knew this was a mistake and he was going to regret it, but there was no way Hutch would jeopardize his partner's life, that much he was sure of. And for the rest, he would just have to follow his instincts much like it seemed Hutch was doing. Even if Dobey was breaking or seriously bending nearly every rule of police procedure, not to mention first aid.
"I brought the car," he said simply, gesturing at the Torino, and some of the weight melted from Hutch's eyes, prompting a smile. For the first time in almost a week, he looked alive again.
Dobey put out a hand to help as Hutch started to rise, but Starsky shied away even at his touch, so Hutchinson ended up doing most of the work. The detective wearily pulled them both to their feet, his hold on Starsky the only thing keeping the brunet upright as the change of elevation made him moan and sag against Hutch. Movement was clumsy and Starsky seemed to have no energy left to draw on.
It didn't surprise Dobey at all when halfway to the car he began to cough, then gag. Hutch looked pained, but patiently sank down to the ground with him and waited out the dry heaves, still holding him close, his motions slow, undemanding. When it was over and Starsky slumped against him nearly unconscious, though, Hutch picked up his drained partner without a word and staggered the last few feet to the car door Dobey had hurried to open.
Arranging things took a minute, the captain finally going around to the other side of the car to help pull Starsky inside. Hutch clambered in after his partner, and after some confused struggles and fretful sounds on Starsky's part, the brunet ended up settled against his partner's chest once more, face buried again in the blond's neck. By the time Dobey had retrieved a blanket from the trunk and got it tucked around Starsky, the detective's agitated breathing had evened out some and he was slowly beginning to relax once more into Hutch's warm hold and the hand that stroked up and down his spine.
Dobey rubbed his eyes tiredly, hardly reacting when a voice behind him breathed, "Dear God in heaven." He turned to see Gabe staring in shock at the pair in the back of the Torino.
"That's Rysack," Dobey waved a hand at the body in the clearing. "Starsky shot him with Hutchinson's gun, which should be over there somewhere." He pointed. "Tell Gallagher in IA, I don't care what he wants, Starsky won't be able to give a statement for at least two days."
Gabe nodded mutely, his eyes returning to the car. "Where will you be?"
Dobey followed his line of sight. Hutch looked like the week was starting to catch up to him, blinking sleepily as his head began to loll against the seatback, until Starsky feebly sought him again, clutching at Hutch's shirt. The blond reacted instinctively, tightening his hold and talking gently into Starsky's ear, the soft susurrations inaudible to the two watchers. Oblivious and most likely uncaring of his audience, he rocked his partner until Starsky subsided, spent, gaze distant again. The captain hoped fervently that disconnection was chiefly the effect of whatever drugs Starsky had in him.
But in answer to Gabe's question, he shrugged tiredly. "I don't know yet. I'll call in, but I think it might be better if nobody knows where to find them for a while."
Bonhomme nodded again. "I'll take care of this end, Captain. You go take care of them." And with a last glance at the Torino's occupants, he turned to examine the scene.
Dobey climbed back into the small car and without further wait, set off back toward the city.
It was somewhat longer this time with him driving instead of a frantic Hutchinson, but he used the quiet time to think and watch his two passengers in the back seat. Both had slipped into a light doze soon after he started, the warmth and hum of the car a potent lullaby for two exhausted detectives. Exhausted and traumatized, Dobey amended. If Starsky's face were any indication, Marcus' followers had knocked him around quite a bit, and the captain hadn't even looked closely at all the dried blood flaking off his hands onto the robe and Hutch's clothes. Particularly the corner of the blond's jacket he'd managed to hang on to.
The drugs and Marcus' penchant for mental torture worried him a lot more than any physical injury, however. Dobey could still remember the report from last time, typed in vague formality by Hutchinson. Sleep-deprivation, terrorization, choking, cramp inducing-drugs, blindfolding and disorientation, breaking down through punishing near escapes and submitting their victim to constant taunts and chants. Sleep-deprivation alone was enough to drive a man to hallucinations, insanity, even death if it went on long enough. Even after just 24 hours of Marcus' "hospitality" last time, Starsky had still needed some time to recover, even longer before he was completely himself. Now...
Starsky cried out in his sleep at that moment, voice weak but terrified, startling Hutch into jerking awake. Despite the fog of exhaustion, he knew immediately his partner needed him and what to do.
"Easy, Starsk, easy. I've got you. You're okay, you're safe. Just me here," he soothed, repeating it until Starsky calmed, then rearranging his grasp to cradle more. "Easy, babe," he whispered again, though Starsky hadn't stirred.
Hutch glanced up at the mirror to meet Dobey's concerned gaze without embarrassment.
"Cap'n, we need to call Jace and have him meet us," he said, voice still soft.
"At Starsky's or your place?" Dobey said equally quietly.
"Mine. Starsk doesn't need the reminders. Jace's number is 555-" he reeled it off in weary monotone. His eyes stayed on Dobey as the black man patched the call through and agreed with the young doctor to meet them in Venice in an hour.
Dobey hung up the radio and met the blue-eyed gaze. "How's your partner doing?"
Hutch almost smiled. "His pulse's calmer than mine."
"Don't forget," Dobey eyed him significantly, "Starsky's not the only victim here."
The man winced at that. "I'm okay now, Cap'n."
The captain didn't argue the half-lie. Riding the extremes of any emotion, even the positive ones of joy and love, was enervating, let alone when they also contained the outer limits of anger and worry. Dobey's only real surprise was that Hutch was remaining as together as he was. Probably solely because his partner needed him to be.
Sure enough, a minute later Hutch had drifted off again, head propped against the side of the car. Dobey shook his head with a sober grin. There was no question that they'd both have a lot of recovering to do, but Hutch was already resting far more easily than he had all week, with the object of his worries protectively tucked against his chest. And though the captain couldn't see Starsky's face, the brunet's nestled pose spoke of trust, not resignation.
There was something very safe about being clasped in someone's arms, Dobey mused as his eyes kept returning to the rearview mirror. It was both a protective layer against the world, promising that hurt would have to go through someone else to get to you, and an unspoken vow that you were loved, being taken care of, not alone. He doubted Starsky, as lost and abused as he was, would have been able to find some peace in anything less.
He had heard the rumors, of course; he wasn't deaf or blind. There were whispers that Hutchinson and Starsky were too close, that there had to be something more behind such willingness to hold and comfort and be tender. Perhaps they hadn't seen Hutchinson stroking the hair of a frightened victim in order to calm her down, or Starsky sit down and gently address the concerns of an old lady for her missing cat, like Dobey had. He wished more of his men brought that kind of empathy to their work, and that was with strangers on the street. How were Starsky and Hutchinson supposed to do any less for each other, for someone who mattered that much more to them? How could they not take advantage of the incredible trust between them that allowed this kind of vulnerability and comfort? He'd never expect them to.
The whispers, not surprisingly, didn't come from those who had longtime partners of their own. But Dobey had never in his career seen a partnership like this one, either. If emotional support was as important for recovery as physical support, then he could think of no better medicine for one of his boys than the other.
And with that thought he quashed further doubt and turned the car toward Venice.
He had to wake Hutch for exact directions once they were in the neighborhood he knew the blond lived, and a few minutes later they were pulling up in front of Venice Place. Dusk had fallen during the long drive back, and the captain was grateful for the covering of dark as they gently eased Starsky out of the car.
Getting him upstairs was a whole other matter, but between the two of them they managed a version of the two-handed assist carry. The crush of exhaustion had apparently taken off the worst edge of Starsky's agitation, even another weak attack of retching not upsetting him as much as before. But it was still with his face wedged against his partner's neck and Hutch's constant encouragement that they made it up to the apartment as calmly as they did.
Jace was already waiting by the door, cheerful face pinched with worry at the sight of the three of them.
"What happened?" he asked simply as, at a gesture from Hutch, he retrieved the key from the lintel and opened the door.
Dobey took that one, knowing Hutch's mind was elsewhere and that he didn't need to dwell on the memory, anyway. He summed up what happened, seeing the shock in the man's eyes. But Jace was all gentle concern as he helped them settle Starsky on the couch. Hutch crouched near the dark head, his hand absently going at once to pet the curls.
Apparently both the change of position and the loss of security got through even Starsky's daze. Surprising them all, he was suddenly in frantic motion, pushing away from Jace's hands with more strength than Dobey would have believed he still had.
Hutch reacted just as quickly, moving in front of Jace to first grab hold of Starsky's hands and, when that only further upset him, quickly wrap his arms around the struggling brunet and pull him snug. "Easy, partner. Easy, Starsk. I'm here, I won't let go. You're safe, buddy. Just take it easy."
"Hutch..." Starsky stopped fighting him but his hands were still moving in clumsy distress. "Help, I don'...Hutch?"
"I'm right here, partner. I don't expect you to do anything right now, just rest. Let me take care of things."
Dobey watched silently as Starsky tried to focus enough to see his partner. "Hutch...?"
Hutch eased the dark-curled head back against him, one hand laid calmly against the side of Starsky's face as if in an effort to keep the brunet focused only on him. "I'm here, Starsk. Everything's under control. I need you to let us check you out, okay, pal? Starsk? Trust me."
The brunet shuddered, pressing his face into the crux of his partner's neck. "God...Hutch..."
"I know, babe," Hutch whispered. "It's gonna be okay. Jace is here and he's gonna check you out but I'll stay right here, okay?"
An answer would have been a little too much coherence to expect. But at least when Hutch nodded and Jace carefully began his exam again with Starsky's hands, the brunet only stiffened slightly but didn't protest or pull away.
Broadhurst began to talk as he worked, his voice as gentle and soothing as Hutch's. "Okay, we'll come back and patch this up in a little bit. Can I see your other hand now, Dave? That's good, just fine..."
Dobey moved back to give him room, watching the exam with concern and interest. He was aware the doctor was a good friend of both detectives, but from what he knew of him, Broadhurst was an internist in private practice, not someone who usually dealt with traumas and emergency medicine. Let alone torture victims. And yet his movements were as slow and gentle as his voice, his manner exactly what the traumatized brunet needed. Starsky hardly reacted at all by the time Jace reached his face and gently turned it this way and that to get a good look, then felt with both hands over the curl-covered scalp for injury.
"Dave, can you open your eyes for me? Just for a minute?"
Starsky squinted at him, one hand bunching in Hutch's shirt again.
"Good job. You're doing just fine." He worked around Hutch, not arguing the obvious need for the blond's presence, carefully making his way down to the legs and moving the heavy black robe out of the way as needed. Down at the ankles, Dobey winced to see the bruised and abraded flesh that indicated restraint of the legs as well as arms, but Jace never faltered.
The exam finally finished, the doctor straightened from his crouch, looking first at Hutch, then Dobey. "Well, there's no question he's pretty banged up and I'm going to have to bandage his ankles, wrists, and hands." Dobey frowned at that, moving closer to see as Broadhurst gently turned Starsky's free hand and coaxed his fist into unclenching, revealing a red and purple-bruised, half-healed slash across the palm.
Dobey felt his face harden. "The other one's the same?"
The doctor nodded. "They probably both bled quite a bit, but the wounds look several days old."
"'Heavenly Polaris'," Hutch murmured, and the captain nodded.
Jace gave them both a quizzical look but didn't ask, continuing instead, "There are no signs I can find of internal bleeding or any worse internal damage than some bruising, nor a head injury, but I'd definitely say they gave him some sort of foreign substance, probably something to confuse him and make him easier to manage. From what you said about his symptoms, it wouldn't surprise me if he's also been given something to induce nausea and cramps, but he's pretty dehydrated and malnourished so he's got nothing left to bring up. Has he gotten any water?"
Hutch's eyes, stricken, met the captain's, and Dobey shook his head, already heading toward the kitchen. "No, we didn't have any with us and we weren't sure how badly he was hurt."
"Well," Jace hesitated, eyeing the once again dozing patient. "If you're serious about keeping him here instead of a hospital, we're going to have to work on rehydrating him. Water mixed with sugar would be the ideal, but at least water, or juice. And any soft foods you can get into him, too, like toast, soft-boiled eggs, oatmeal, crackers."
"He likes tea," Hutch said softly.
"Tea's fine," Jace nodded. "Just whatever you give him, start with a little at a time until you're sure he can keep things down. It also looks to me like he's suffering from sleep-deprivation, which would add to the disorientation and confusion and emotional extremes. He's going to need several days of rest before he even starts feeling back to normal."
"What about the drugs they gave him?" Dobey prodded.
Jace reached for his bag. "Well, I'm going to take a blood sample and run it by the hospital lab. I should have results for you about an hour after I go, but frankly, I'm not too worried about them at this point. If he was going to have an adverse reaction to them, he probably would have done so already, and he'd be deteriorating instead of, as it seems, relaxing and slightly improving. Most likely they're already working their way out of his system."
Just like last time, Dobey thought.
He'd nearly forgotten the glass of water in his hand, and after Jace took some blood with only a flinch from the brunet, Dobey passed the glass to Hutch. Starsky hardly reacted at first, then pushed away the glass with a moaned protest.
Hutch swallowed. "It's safe, Starsk. I promise, it's just water. Just drink it, huh? For me?"
Starsky frowned at the glass for a long moment, but willingly began to gulp when it was offered again. Hutch stopped him after a few sips with great reluctance, but Starsky didn't protest. Probably grateful for any kindness at this point, Dobey thought tightly.
"Ken, why don't we get him cleaned up a bit and then you can give him some more," Jace suggested.
Hutch only nodded.
This time Dobey was just the spectator as the two men got a now almost limp Starsky into the bathroom, stripped, and into the tub. Starsky started struggling again at the sound of the water, reminding Dobey that the detective had been given a ritual bath during his captivity the last time. But Hutch was working hard to keep his partner calm: talking, touching, staying in Starsky's blurry line of sight.
Jace worked with the gentleness and precision of a medical professional, but Hutch soaped and rubbed and rinsed with the instinctiveness of love and concern. And with a surety almost like he'd done this before, which Dobey privately reflected that perhaps he had. No doubt Starsky had needed some help for a while after the shooting at Giovanni's and the poisoning. Though maybe not to this extreme. It was Hutch's need to help and his knowledge of his partner that guided his actions now.
The blood and filth and smell of a week of captivity finally washed off, Hutch and Jace manhandled Starsky out of the water.
"He's so thin," Hutch murmured half to himself, and neither Jace nor Dobey bothered to reply. The cultists' damage was clear with the robe gone and the dirt washed away: bruises splotched the wasted body, nearly black at the torn wrists and ankles, and sunken circles lined his eyes in signs of pain and extreme fatigue. Hutch didn't say another word, his mouth drawn tight and eyes ablaze with greater anger than Dobey had seen in him all week. But he moved gently, almost tenderly, shielding his partner from even his own negative emotions.
When they were done, Hutch carefully sat Starsky down on the toilet seat and shaved him next, his movements again steady and sure. His left arm never moved from around his partner's shoulders as he worked, both support and reassurance. And Starsky, apparently aware now only of the fact that he was safe, remained quiet and pliant in the sphere of his partner's care. After toweling the last of the shaving cream off, Hutch picked up the unresistant brunet again, towels and all, and carried him over into the bedroom.
Starsky was almost asleep by the time they got him into bed and tucked in, even as they coaxed some more water and a few pieces of cracker into him, and soon deeply under. Jace had no problem at all smearing the cuts and tears with antibiotic cream and then wrapping each limb one at a time, hands and wrists first, followed by the ankles. Hutch watched over the doctor's ministrations from Starsky's side, the intensity of his gaze belying the exhausted slump of his shoulders. Pretty soon he'd be crashing, too, Dobey thought to himself, and knew how the man felt.
Jace must have noticed the same thing, for he packed up his things with a few parting words of advice, then dropped a friendly hand on Hutch's shoulder. The detective wearily glanced up at him.
"He's going to be okay, Ken. The bed's big enough for two; why don't you get some sleep, too?"
"Thanks, Jace, for everything," Hutch said softly, his eyes straying to the bed and back up to the doctor again. "I couldn't take him in."
"I know that. It'll be fine. I'll call with the lab results as soon as I get 'em."
Hutch nodded, his attention returning to his partner. Only Dobey saw the heartsick look Jace gave them both, and he cleared his throat and stepped in then, escorting Broadhurst to the door.
"Thanks for taking care of my boys, Doctor," he said just as solemnly as Hutch had, extending a hand.
"They're my friends, too. I just can't believe..."
"Hmm." Twenty-some years on the Force and he still couldn't believe it, either.
Jace smiled sadly at him. "I'll be by tomorrow again."
The captain closed Hutchinson's door tiredly after the doctor, then turned back toward the bedroom.
Hutch was already stretched out on his side on the bed, fast asleep, one arm extended across his partner. Starsky had found him too, curling toward the blond with his forehead against Hutch's shoulder. The bandage on his hand was stark white against the blue flannel it was tangled in.
With the first real smile of peace Dobey had felt like in five days, he located Hutchinson's linen closet and returned with a quilt, draping it over them both to cover Hutch and add another layer over Starsky. Then he turned out the light and went back out into the living room to call Edith to tell her what had happened and where he'd be spending the night. Somehow he wasn't quite ready to leave yet, and after that week, he was fairly sure he could sleep anywhere.
Some vague sound of distress woke him some time later, and he blinked for an uncertain moment at the clock near the couch before placing the noise. Dobey stumbled to his feet as quickly as he could.
"Easy, Starsk, it'll be over in a minute. Just ride it out, partner. I've got ya."
He followed Hutch's voice to the open bathroom door. Starsky was on the floor, clenched over the bowl as his body spasmed. And Hutch was kneeling against his back, hand cupped against Starsky's forehead while he coached his partner through the attack.
Without a word, Dobey went for a washcloth and soaked it in the sink, handing it to Hutch who accepted it automatically. He laid it across the back of Starsky's neck, patiently waiting until finally the paroxysm eased and Starsky went limp, gasping painful breaths. Hutch sat back on the tile then, gathering his friend to him and using the washcloth to wipe Starsky's face and mouth.
"Shh, see, it's all over. You're okay, buddy. Just rest."
Starsky didn't seem to have the energy to do anything else, even his slowly moving mouth only producing silent syllables. Hutch didn't seem to need them. "Shh," he whispered, as if to quiet even that. Then, only, "It's me."
It was enough. Starsky slowly blinked and melted back against his partner, one hand clutched around abused stomach muscles and face lined with the further strain on his bruised body, but panting pliantly in Hutch's arms. Only the look in his eyes disturbed Dobey still, once more unfocused and distant as they stared at the bathroom wall.
The captain went outside the bathroom to wait, giving them some privacy, until he heard Hutch's quiet call, and then the two of them got Starsky back into bed. Hutch climbed once more tiredly in after his partner, and they were both asleep before Dobey even cleared the door. Caring for your partner, the unsung part of policework, he thought tiredly.
The captain went back to the living room and lay down on the couch again, but sleep was far off. It just didn't seem right for anyone to have to go through what Starsky was, let alone for being a police officer. They trained cops to some extent to deal with trauma and stress, but the boy was only human. And tied up and jeered at for days on end, without hope and completely at someone else's mercy, braced for abuse and expecting death at any moment, disoriented, in pain...complete victimization was a unique terror that settled into your bones and haunted your every moment. Dobey knew some never got over it. Ironic, that there were only half as many cultists this time, and yet the damage done seemed far deeper. The captain would never forget the sight of Starsky turning the gun on himself, aware of nothing but his need to end the ordeal, and Dobey was sure Hutchinson had it burned into his memory. And that had been with the isolation of the drugs that were still giving Starsky the artificial peace of disassociation. Once they wore off and reality sunk in, Dobey wasn't sure how the brunet would react.
But then, he had the strength of two on his side, not just one, and his partner was a very determined person. As Dobey had seen time and again, even that day, if anyone could get through to him, Hutch could.
If anyone could.
He was the first one up the next morning--well, next noon, he amended as he looked at the clock--but that was no surprise. A peek into the bedroom revealed both detectives were getting rest they badly needed, Starsky once more tangled in his partner's limbs, secure in Hutch's presence. His head was pillowed on the blond's arm in a position that didn't look very comfortable for either man, but that Dobey suspected was the reason they were both able to sleep for as long as they were. Starsky had had no more attacks that night, or at least none the captain had heard.
A long, hot shower was the first order of the day, rinsing away some of the soreness and fatigue that still clung to him. He'd slept like a log, but the couch was lumpy--how on earth could Starsky stand to sleep on it as often as he did?--leaving its mark in his knotted back and neck. The robe they'd stripped from Starsky was still bunched into one corner of the bathroom where it had been tossed the night before, and Dobey found a trash bag under the sink and carefully wrapped it up for evidence. Neither of the detectives needed the reminder, anyway.
Next stop was the kitchen, and Dobey was surprised how hungry he felt. After a week of hardly having time or desire for food, he was anxious to catch up. Hutch's cupboards were a disappointment, though. He should have known; the blond believed in as healthy a diet as Edith did, and the jars of dried foods and oddly named powders were no real surprise. Even Dobey wasn't that hungry. The refrigerator still contained some eggs that seemed fresh enough at least, and remembering Jace's instructions, the captain contented himself with fixing soft-boiled eggs, putting water on for tea, and dishing out crackers while he mentally composed a short shopping list.
The whistle of the tea kettle drew out a yawning, rumpled Hutchinson who looked only slightly more human than the day before. Dobey raised an eyebrow at him, not without some sympathy.
"Sit down and eat," he ordered, gesturing at the table. "It's not much but you don't have a lot that's edible."
Hutch gave him a tired but playful grin. "You sound like Starsk. Guess I'll have to stock up on junkfood to keep him happy."
He seemed almost delighted by the idea, and Dobey just grunted, knowing how long that would last. Though he had no doubt Hutch wouldn't fuss at all about his partner's tastes for a while.
Another thought occurred to the older man, and he spoke up around a mouthful of food.
"Oh, Gabe's team found Starsky's badge, gun, and personal possessions. I'll bring them by once they're released as evidence, but the clothes are gonna have to be trashed." He didn't add that they'd all been neatly sliced up.
Hutch didn't ask, just nodded. He'd had also regained some of his own appetite, downing three of the eggs and two cups of tea before fixing up a tray.
"You need any help?" Dobey asked quietly.
Hutchinson shook his head. "He's not really with it yet, Cap'n. I'm not even sure he knows where he is." His good humor deflated just as suddenly. Well, mood swings were a part of post-traumatic recovery, and Marcus had struck both partners, Dobey reminded himself. Haunted, strained eyes looked up at him. "He doesn't always know me, either. I don't know what else to do."
"Jace said the drugs were confusing him but their effects won't last much longer." Dobey had waited for Broadhurst's call the night before, then taken the phone off the hook. "Give it time, Hutch. And don't underestimate what your being there for him is doing. He knows you're here."
"He was ready to kill himself." Hutch was neither looking at nor talking to him now, eyes stuck on the dark bedroom door. "I know he didn't really know what was going on, but still, he knew enough to--"
There was so much pain in his voice, Dobey couldn't let him continue. "--to turn the gun away from you because he recognized you, and to not keep fighting you once you got the gun away. Drugs and sleeplessness can mess with the mind, Hutchinson," he said with deliberate sharpness. "You know that. That wasn't Starsky."
Hutch blinked at him with eyes too bright. "It was Starsk after that."
Dobey smiled. The reminder of Starsky enfolded in his partner's arms, seeking solace from the pain and fear and knowing instinctively that he would get it there, was as reassuring as it was painful. "Yes, it was," he gently agreed. "Because by then he had you there."
That won him a grateful, slightly eased smile, but it wasn't hard to see the unshed tears and shock and fears that lingered, reactions he himself felt to a lesser extent. Starsky would undoubtedly snap out of the daze sooner or later, but that would be just the beginning of healing. He'd had a lifetime of experience coping with things on his own and he usually bounced back fairly easily. When everything spiraled out of control, however, he was as good at denial and suppression as his partner. And that would only hurt both of them now.
But Dobey also believed in what he said, probably more at the moment than Hutch did. Even half out of his head, Starsky knew when his partner was with him, and that kind of love and security was exactly what he needed for now. And maybe that tangible awareness of how much he was loved and of not being alone would also see him through the aftereffects. Dobey had seen this partnership weather harsh storms before through the strength of that bond.
He waited through Hutch's feeding of his half-asleep partner, then took over the watch while the blond took a quick shower. Finally, with a promise to be back in a few hours with groceries after a stop at his home and Parker, Dobey left the two of them asleep once more. Even with all the uncertainties left, he still felt better than he had in a week.
Parker had been a test of patience, someone stopping him in the corridor every few steps to inquire about Starsky, the more perceptive ones also asking about Hutch. Dobey answered as briefly as he could, dodged IA's insistence for a report, and headed for his office to clean up his desk a little. That only led then to a parade of his own men, each of whom he filled in with a little more detail than he'd given the other departments. These were friends of the detectives and deserved more, although he still reserved to himself most of the intimate details. From Gabe's expression, he could tell the Haitian detective gathered more than he was told, but being one of Starsky and Hutchinson's closest friends, that was no great surprise. After checking on the status of the prisoners and contenting himself that they were safely in custody and facing a long list of charges, he spent an hour trying to get something done through constant interruptions. Dobey finally gave up and, leaving the Torino at the station, took his own car home.
Filling in Edith was completely different. She was less interested in the facts than how the two boys, nearly as dear to her as they secretly were to him, were really doing, and how her husband felt. She sat next to him, his hand in both hers, as he let all his worry and concerns pour out, even a tear or two that he hadn't been able to swallow. Edith always had been his safe place and release valve. One of the things partners were for.
With a lightened heart and new hope, he took the food she had packed and, after a stop at the market, returned to Venice Place.
Hutch's living room was empty as Dobey slipped quietly inside. He slowly shut the door behind him with his foot, then crossed the room to the kitchen, setting down his armfuls of bags on the counter.
Cop instincts kicked in then, alerting him to a silent presence behind his back, and the captain whirled and ducked, already going for his gun.
Hutch stood in the bedroom doorway, lowering his own Magnum with a sheepish smile. "Sorry."
Dobey shook his head gruffly as he turned back to the groceries. "Don't be. The only way IA is buying your being here is to guard your partner."
A snort was Hutch's sole reaction to IA's concerns, and he ambled into the kitchen to help unpack and put things away. He smiled at the sight of some of Edith's homemade goodies and then raised a questioning eyebrow at the supplies Dobey had brought.
Dobey made a "don't ask" face back, knowing he'd been caught. This kind of coddling wasn't usually his style, but they both knew this was hardly ordinary circumstances, either.
Hutch looked a lot better, Dobey reflected as they worked. He'd changed into fresh clothes after his shower, and their neatness and his awake appearance indicated he hadn't been sleeping when Dobey had come in. Probably just sitting and watching over his partner, if the captain knew anything about the man. There were still tired circles around his eyes and the slump of fatigue and worry in his lean body, but at least he no longer looked like he was about to fall over.
"Jace just left a little while ago," Hutch spoke up next to him.
The captain put some of Edith's homemade vegetable soup on the stove to warm and piled meatloaf and mashed potatoes on two plates to heat in the oven. Then he glanced over at his man. "And?"
"He said Starsky seemed to be doing better and needed the sleep." Hutch's hands stilled and he shut his eyes, letting out a heavy sigh. "Starsk didn't even recognize him, pretty much just dozed through the whole thing."
"He's been through a lot, Hutch. He's worn out."
"I know!" The frustration in the blond's voice bordered on anger, then died as Hutch looked at him repentantly. "I know, I just...I wish I knew he was in there somewhere. Back in the woods, for a minute I thought..." He shook his head. "I don't know. I just hate seeing him like this, Cap'n. I thought for a while I was getting through to him, but now..."
"Now he quiets down when you're there, he holds on to you like his life depended on it, and he hears you when you talk," Dobey said firmly. "It's going to take him some time, Ken, but don't think he doesn't know you're there."
Hutch nodded at the table, eyes downcast.
Dobey worried his lip a little, eyeing the detective. Then, gently, he said, "You remember when Forest grabbed you?"
Hutch looked up, startled, face immediately blanking. He still never talked about that time, not even to Dobey, but he gave a guarded nod.
The captain ignored his reluctance. "While you were missing, Starsky was a lot like you've been for the past week. All he knew was that you'd been snatched several days before we even found out you were gone. And even after he found you..."
He saw Hutch squeeze his eyes shut at the thought. Dobey hadn't been there, but had heard enough from Starsky and the uniform, Bernie, who had found the young detective, to be able to picture the scene. Hutch, filthy, incoherent, crouched against the alley wall, already sinking into the withdrawal hell that Forest had forced on him. And Starsky holding his partner and being absolutely adamant about keeping the matter private and taking care of Hutch himself.
"...Even after he found you," Dobey pushed on, "he was still worried about you and your getting over what happened. But he never gave up, stuck with you all the way, and you did."
"Because of him," Hutch whispered.
"Maybe. Don't sell yourself short, either, Ken. Or him. He's got you now, and that's a lot more than many others have."
Hutch nodded silently.
"Good," the captain said gruffly, pulling himself up from the table to retrieve the two hot plates from the oven and plunking one down in front of the detective. "Now eat."
The blond automatically obeyed, his thoughts and heart clearly in the other room. At least the food would relieve some of the gaunt look to his face that he'd acquired over the last week, Dobey grimaced.
Halfway through lunch, the screaming began.
Hutch was out of his chair and lunging into the bedroom before Dobey even had time to register the shock. His heart sped up with dread; could they have missed a cultist? Surely Starsky was safe now. Dobey pulled his gun and hurried after Hutch, pulling up short in the doorway.
Hutchinson was sitting on the edge of the bed, his struggling partner enfolded in his arms, offering all the comfort and reassurance Starsky needed. "I've got ya. I've got ya and I won't let anything else happen to you. I'm here--you're safe." The same words he'd said out in the woods, repeated over and over again with compassionate intensity. "Shh, just hang on to me. I'm not going anywhere, partner."
Starsky had frozen uncertainly. "Hutch?" He shifted a little, just enough to be able to look up into the blond's face. "Hutch?"
"Right here. I'm right here."
Starsky's agitation grew again. "Marcus...Hutch, 's Marcus again. I can't...help?"
"I know, babe. They're gone now, I promise. It's over; you're safe." He massaged Starsky's neck with one hand, then pressed the curly head against his shoulder while his other hand traced patterns across his partner's back.
"No...can't sleep...hurts...Hutch? 'M gonna be sick..." He shivered.
"No, you're not, believe me. Don't be scared, buddy, everything's gonna be okay now."
Dobey frowned at Hutch, knowing Marcus' men had sicced a bear on Starsky the last time as part of their terrorization tactics. But the bear had been found back then and captured, and the captain doubted there had been another one. Starsky had to be thoroughly confused, mixing the past and present. Dobey's attempts to catch Hutch's eye for a silent query failed, though, the blond completely wrapped up in his partner's needs.
"No bears, Starsk, that's over. It's all finished, gone now, trust me. Just breathe slow and easy for me, buddy."
"Hutch?" Starsky's fingers couldn't seem to still, working his partner's shirt sleeve as if he couldn't get a tight enough grip, desperate to make sure of the blond's presence. "Hutch?" his voice rose with breathy panic.
"I'm right here." Hutch's voice, cracking with emotion at first, had steadied and calmed to compensate for Starsky's distress and need for reassurance. Though he was holding Starsky so tightly, Dobey wondered if either of them could breathe.
It still didn't seem close enough for Starsky. Another shiver. "...didn't think you'd come in time."
"I know, buddy. But it's over now." Thick and aching, but tender. "Whatever you need from me now, I'm here and I won't let you go."
The sincere words seemed to finally breach something. Starsky began to shudder against his partner's chest, tears spilling over the little bit of his face Dobey could see, most of it absorbed in his friend's shirt just like Hutch was absorbing his distress. Slow at first, then heavy sobs as everything came out, a week's worth of terror and pain and hopelessness. His arms slid around the blond's middle to anchor himself in his rock.
Hutch just held on and swayed and soothed and let it pour out. For a moment, he seemed to remember Dobey, glancing up at the captain and giving him a slight smile, a newfound, tired peace in his blurred eyes. This was what he'd been waiting for, the chance to help, and they both knew Starsky had just taken the first step in healing. Then his attention returned full to his friend the next moment, shutting the captain out. And that was fine with Dobey.
He stepped away from the bedroom quietly, returning to the kitchen to clean up before he went and listening to the sound of tears and the gentle murmur of Hutchinson's voice from the bedroom. The captain turned the burner off but left the soup on the warm stove; he had a feeling Hutch would be able to coax his partner to eat in a little while, but everything else he put away. His job there was done and the boys had what they needed to do the rest on their own. Always did have, really. Dobey had just been there for the details.
By the time he gathered his things, the only sound left in the flat was Hutch's soft voice. Dobey smiled as he eased the front door shut and locked it behind him. Yes, it would take some time and he'd give them however much they needed, but they'd be fine. Unfortunately, maybe it took something like this to remind them all what was most important. It was hard to see past the day-to-day minutiae, but when everything else was gone, you realized none of it really mattered as long as those you cared about most were safe.
Gratitude in his heart, Harold Dobey turned his car toward home and his family.
Written in 1999
The sequel to this story is "...The Gods Arrive."