This story was originally published in Zebra 3, Volume IV, published by Polaris Press in 1979. Thanks go to Marlene for typing/first proofing and to SHaron for final proofing. The author is not on the internet and doesn't have email. Comments on this story can be sent via snail mail to Flamingo, PO Box 823, Beltsville MD 20704-0823, and will be forwarded to the author.
El Monte Blues
Ken Hutchinson lifted one very dusty, booted foot, swiped disgustedly at the clinging dirt, and glared at this partner. "Damn it, Starsk. Why'd you drag me out here? Of all the godforsaken spots to spend a Sunday!" He stared at the crowd of pushing, sweating people and shuddered. "Just us and 40,000 other sun-baked jerks. I hate swap meets!"
Starsky ignored his friend. He was watching an exhibition of singularly attractive ladies gyrating in the hot sun. "Watch the one on the left, Hutch," he whispered.
All Hutch could see was a woman of about 25, clad in an ill-fitting bathing suit, sweating unpleasantly under the scorching sun. "What am I supposed to see?" he demanded.
Starsky never moved. "Her suit. When it gets wet, it disappears!" he mouthed.
Hutch stared again. Starsky was right. The material around the woman's breasts was nearly transparent. He gave the matter his most scientific attention, his eyes wandering lower on the anatomical plane...
"Having trouble with your engine's performance? Wish you could get up to 40 miles to the gallon in city traffic?"
A nasal whine curled behind the dancing ladies. Each word seemed to pierce the air like a rusty bayonet. Hutch made a determined effort not to hear it again. Most of all, he hoped to God Starsky hadn't heard it.
"Have you ever wondered what it would be like to need just one quart of oil for an oil change? Think of the savings..."
The voice buzzed, mosquito-like, in Hutch's ear. He shot a wild glance at Starsky, praying that the woman's bathing suit would disappear instantly. That might keep his partner's attention while he throttled the jerk with the big mouth.
"Come on over, folks. See the latest invention for your car. Straight from NASA, guys and gals. You'll fly down the freeway, taking those on-ramps like an eagle."
It was too late. Hutch watched as Starsky's eyebrows contracted and he absorbed the man's words, until he turned, resembling a sailor hearing the Lorelei, and walked toward the adjacent booth. Starsky's eyes were round. "Didja hear that, Hutch? From NASA!"
Hutch groaned. Jesus! Not again... He followed his partner to the display. The sign said it all: "HANDY DANDY DEGUNKER. NASA USED IT ON THE MOON -- WE'LL PUT IT IN YOUR CAR!" What a gimmick. Hutch's toes began to twitch and he eased away from Starsky's side, unwilling to watch the slaughter of the innocent.
Starsky's hand shot out, clamping itself around Hutch's wrist. "Don't go, pal. I want your opinion."
"Oh, no, you don't! I'm not going to be suckered in with that bullshit!"
Starsky changed tactics. "Hutch, you're my best friend. If you say this thing isn't any good, I won't buy it."
"Buy? You don't even know what the hell he's selling yet!" Hutch kicked at a clod of dirt, then cursed when it turned out to be a discarded orange. "Christ, Starsky, let's blow this place. That damn thing probably won't work in the Torino anyway."
Starsky's mouth dropped open in astonishment. "Why not? My car needs one of those." He pointed, stiff-fingered, at the boxes of DEGUNKERS. "And I'm going to get one!"
The hawker's lips curled back in a disarming smile. Meeting Starsky's trusting gaze, he settled in for the kill. "What kind of car did you say you had, sir?"
"A Torino! This is indeed your lucky day." The hawker made a pretense of shuffling through a few DEGUNKER boxes. "I think this one should do it." He peered earnestly at his enraptured customer. "I hope you're a good driver," he began cautiously, "because this little invention will make a jet pilot out of you."
Starsky jabbed his elbow into Hutch's side. "Ya hear that, Hutch? Now watch those street jockeys eat my dust!"
Hutch ground his teeth together. He'd eaten enough dust already without being reminded of it. "Don't buy one, Starsk. Read the directions first."
The salesman spoke up. "You'll be able to forget catalytic converters," he said beguilingly.
Starsky sucked in his breath and reached for his wallet. "How much?"
"What color do you want? They're color-coded."
"Red," Starsky said instantly, "to match my car."
The hawker beamed. "I told you this was your lucky day. Red ones are on sale for $25. And, I might even be persuaded to lower the price."
"How about $5?" Hutch asked loudly.
Starsky looked apologetically at the hawker. "My friend doesn't know the rules for bargaining." He moved closer to Hutch, voice hushed. "Hutch, that's not how you dicker at a swap meet. First he asks too much, then I offer him a lower amount, then he comes down from his original price, then I -"
"Starsk, buy the goddamn junk and let's get out of here!" Hutch exploded, stepping into the milling stream of sightseers.
"DADDEE! That man took my candee!"
Hutch looked down into a huge pair of accusing black eyes. Dust-stained cheeks, round and flushed, puffed rapidly in and out, and a chubby finger pointed at him. "You took my candee!"
"Like hell I did, kid," Hutch growled. This midget had to be part of a con game. Set him for a mark, then he'd pay her off with a quarter or half-buck to be turned over later to an older gang member. Well, he wasn't going to be part of that scam.
"Why'd ya take my kid's candy? Too cheap to buy your own?"
Hutch gaped at the biggest gang member he'd seen in a helluva long time. He cast a glance at Starsky, who was staring at him with a strange expression. "What's the matter with you? I didn't take the kid's candy!" Hutch waved an arm to emphasize his innocence."
"That bad man has my candee!"
A crowd gathered as Starsky sidled up to his partner. "Put your arm down and quit playing games," he hissed. "You're embarrassing me."
As Hutch turned toward Starsky, he saw a flash of something pink on his sleeve, melting pinkly all over his new poplin jacket. He yanked the cardboard cone savagely, leaving most of the candy stuck securely to the fabric.
"DADDEE!" the tot shrieked, pointing to the remains of her treat.
Hutch stepped forward and Daddy jammed his body between the detective and his prey.
"Pervert! I got your game now. You steal the kid's candy, then offer her more--somewhere else. I oughta make a soprano outta you!"
Starsky galvanized into action. He threw a $20 at the hawker, then grabbing up the DEGUNKER and Hutch's sleeve in one hand, he tossed the glaring father a dollar with the other. "Let's get the hell out of here. Christ, Hutch, I don't know why you always have to get mixed up in something unpleasant. Here we are, having a nice time--"
"Nice time!" Hutch sputtered, avoiding a teen-age nymph with a Slushee. "Starsky, you are the dumbest, most irritating human on planet Earth."
Starsky dropped his partner's sleeve, glancing with disapproval at the clinging candy. "I'm going to ignore that because I know you don't mean it. But you can't ride in my car with that mess on your sleeve. Why'd you want cotton-candy anyway?"
In answer, Hutch marched over to a low building and a door marked 'Hombres'. As Starsky watched, Hutch pulled most of the sticky candy off his jacket and sopped the remainder with a wad of paper towel. "Goddamn job! Only people in the whole goddamn world wearing goddamn jackets today are cops!" Hutch swore, as he swabbed vainly at the spreading stain.
"Hutch," Starsky spoke softly, "you didn't have to wear a jacket today. We're off duty."
"Don't I know that!" Hutch tossed the wad of paper toward the overflowing trash basket, where it landed on the floor.
"Leave it, Hutch," Starsky said hastily. "Let's go to my place and have a few beers, cool off, and just relax."
"Relax?" Hutch sneered, still eyeing the sodden mess on the floor. "Not with you holding that piece of junk. I know what's next. 'Hutch, let's try this gadget out. Hutch, let's take a spin in the Torino. Hutch my car won't run!'" He glared at his partner for a moment, than sighed, feeling the tension ease out of him. "Dammit, Starsk, I'll give you $20 if you throw that DEGUNKER in the trash."
"But, Hutch, the man said I'd save $20 a month on gas alone. I could sure use that to buy new shoes." He extended a soiled Adidas.
Hutch grinned in spite of himself. "Let's get the hell away from this place--then I'll think about your offer."
They walked back out into the blazing sunshine. Hutch sighed. "Never again, buddy, never again."
Hutch frowned, turning to look for his partner. Starsky's T-shirt was disappearing into a crowd of people. "Hey, wait for me!"
Catching up with his partner, Hutch saw that a grin was spread over the boyish face. He felt the old, totally illogical affection clutch his gut. He matched Starsky's grin, knowing within a few minutes he'd probably be wanting to wipe the parking lot with him.
"Wha'd you buy, Starsk?"
"Didn't you smell 'em when we came out of the john? Real, honest-to-God empanadas!" He held out a bulky package. "I got one for you, Hutch. They're the kind with roast beef."
Hutch eyed the bundle, then held out his hand. "Empanadas, hmm? Well, okay, thanks." He unwrapped the plump pie, surprised at how hungry he was, and stretched his mouth over the hot crust. Flaming streaks of liquid fire withered his tongue, slapped his mucous membranes, and split his head as tears rolled down his cheeks. Awe-struck, he turned to his partner. "What the hell is in there with the roast beef?"
"Like it?" Starsky asked cheerfully, taking a huge bite of his delicacy. "I had my choice of chilis, so I picked tepins. They make the beef taste better."
As his partner swallowed the bite, Hutch marveled that the thatch of curly hair didn't straighten and fall out. "Dammit, Starsk, you know I can't eat any chili hotter than the colorado."
"The mirasol colorado isn't much stronger than the California bell pepper," Starsky said loftily. "It doesn't even taste hot."
Hutch felt the chili juice burning his fingers. Handing the pie to Starsky, he said, "Here. I wasn't very hungry." He wiped his fingers carefully on his wet sleeve, praying the juice wouldn't eat a hole in the already stained material. He glared at his partner munching hungrily on the empanada. "I'm leaving this dump right now." He started for the exit.
Juggling his DEGUNKER box and the remains of both empanadas, Starsky mumbled after his friend's back. "Gmphmm keeth. Thrin my pocketh." Hutch kept walking and Starsky swallowed a large bite of unchewed pastry. "Hutch! Wait up."
Hutch spun around, heel grinding into the hot asphalt pavement. "Now what?" he demanded. He turned back toward the exit, then found he couldn't move.
Starsky stared as Hutch's face contorted and he frantically grabbed at his left leg. He threw the remains of the pies into a nearby trash basket. "Hutch! What's the matter with your leg?"
Hutch's steely fingers clutched Starsky's shoulder. "Of all the goddamned luck! Starsky, I swear I'm going to cite every sucker I catch spitting out gum." He slowly lifted his shoe off the ground.
"Hmmm-mmm. That sure is a mess," Starsky said, avoiding Hutch's glare. "But if you take off your boot, we'll clean that stuff off when we get to my place."
"I'm not taking off my shoe in this hell-hole! Hutch snarled. "Some nut probably buried a landmine by the curb. Besides, I don't want to get my socks dirty."
"Well, you can't get in the Torino with that crap all over you shoe," Starsky returned Hutch's frown. "Honestly, pal, your whole problem is not knowing how to dress. You can't come to a swap meet decked out for a dance."
Hutch's retort was muffled in his throat and he deliberately ground his sole into the dirt. The soil clung to the gum, changing it to the consistency of peanut butter. He started once more for the exit, ignoring the flora and fauna collecting on his boot and the stares of the crowd.
Starsky persisted. "Hutch, let me get the car door open. You can take your shoe off when you get in--no one will see you." He watched as his partner swerved to avoid the remains of a chili dog. "Hutch, how about I get a box, just big enough to fit over your shoe?" Starsky's head moved from side to side as his partner stared coldly at him. "Have a heart, pal! I don't ask for much."
Hutch eyed his partner, grinned evilly, and grabbed the DEGUNKER box out of Starsky's hands. "Sure, pal, I'll use this box!" He dumped out the red plastic unit, shoving it toward the astonished Starsky, and plunked the box under his boot. The sides gave way, but the bottom held, and he pushed his leg up under the dash and settled back, watching Starsky's face grow grimmer by the minute.
"Hutch, you did remember to remove the directions for installing the DEGUNKER from the box, didn't you?"
Blue stare met blue glare. Neither yielded.
"Too bad, I guess I forgot. You'll just have to forget about installing it now, won't you?" Victory made his temper disappear rapidly, especially as he watched Starsky's face cloud over. "Of course, you could always return it, Starsk. Maybe the guy will give you back your money."
"Screw you, buddy!" Starsky said hotly. "Who needs the damn directions anyway?" He turned the key in the ignition and the Torino began to purr. "Piece of cake with my mechanical know-how," he muttered.
Two days later, the weather cloudy and cool, Hutch waited for his ride at Vinnie's. He glanced at his watch: 8:30, where the hell was Starsky? As he started for his LTD, he heard a distant rumbling. Thunder? They weren't due for any storms for a couple of months yet.
The rumbling grew louder and Hutch peered up the street. A large, extremely dense cloud of black smoke rolled up the curb toward him. "What the hell?" he choked, My God, the smog's finally attacking people right on the street! He waved his hands, acutely aware this wasn't going to be his day.
From the middle of the cloud he saw a flash of red. Starsky! I might have known.
"Starsky leaned out the window of his car. "Will you look at the dirt the DEGUNKER'S removing from my lines? I'll bet I've got the cleanest system in L.A!" He thumped the side of the Torino. "Squeaky clean. That's us. C'mon, what are you waiting for?"
"Starsk, are you sure that stuff is only carbon build-up?" The Torino belched noisily and Hutch eyed the exhaust pipe.
"Get in, Hutch. Dobey wants us to pick up some info on that valley murder, out at the drive-in."
Hutch heard himself asking the question. "Which drive-in?"
"The El Monte. You remember, where we were last--"
"Why us?" Hutch snapped. "That's not our area, let the El Monte cops handle it." Let anybody else handle it.
"Dobey says we go, we go. Besides, it'll give me a chance to try out the DEGUNKER on the freeway. Fly like an eagle the man said."
Hutch glared at the oily cloud behind them, got in, and slammed the door.
Starsky accelerated as soon as they reached an open stretch of the Santa Monica Freeway, and Hutch slammed the red flasher on the roof, tightening his seatbelt when he noticed Starsky's intent expression. He refused to look at the speedometer.
Starsky's face shone, pale with excitement. "God, she handles like a dream! It's like a flying carpet."
Hutch had to admit the Torino was behaving rather well. He watched as they streaked by blurred images. Yes sir, maybe for once in his life, Starsky was lucky.
"What the hell?" Starsky gawked, eyes bugging at the front of his car. From under the hood a fine spray of red and white droplets spewed out. In a few seconds, the windshield was covered.
"Slow down, Starsky! You'll get us killed," Hutch yelled, rolling down his window, trying to wipe off the outside glass with an old rag. As he pressed against the seatbelt, he yelled again, "Slow down, dammit!"
"I am! I am!"
They finally came to a halt in the left lane--right in the path of every trucker in the western world. "Why the hell did you stop here?" Hutch demanded.
Starsky stared at his windshield. "It isn't exactly my idea, pal. The car won't run. And if you say one word--"
The car swayed in the wake of a huge diesel. "We can't sit here all day!" Hutch said.
Dejectedly, Starsky put his head on the steering wheel. "I don't want to get out and look under the hood. Do it for me, Hutch. I don't want to know what the DEGUNKER did to my engine."
Hutch folded his arms across his chest and sat back. "Nope. I'm not about to get creamed all over this highway. It's your car."
"Shit!" Starsky cursed. He tried once more to start the engine, just a mournful unghh-unghh. He hopped out, edging his way toward the hood.
Guilt seeped into Hutch's mind. Maybe, just maybe this wouldn't have happened if he'd saved those directions for Starsky. He looked into the rear-view mirror to see the flashing yellow lights of a Sheriff's unit. All remorse fled.
"Hutch! Will you get the hell out here and help me!" Starsky's voice emerged from the car's innards and Hutch wished he could climb into the glove compartment.
The black-and-white slowed to a stop and two immaculate deputies got out, grins threatening to split their faces. "Having trouble, Starsky?" The larger deputy caught his partner's eye and winked.
"What? Ouch! Dammit. Oh, hi, Malone. No, no trouble." Starsky's eyes shone wildly out of a Technicolor mask of red dots, grease, and sweat. "At least nothin' I can't handle." He glared at Hutch and disappeared back under the hood.
Hutch inched further down in his seat. Arrest the goddamn idiot! Get him the hell off the freeway before he kills someone! Through slitted lids, he watched the deputies.
Malone frowned. "Starsky, you DO understand you have to get this, ah, vehicle off the road, don't you? I mean, you ARE familiar with the law." He nudged his partner.
Hutch's pride won out. No Valley cop was going to hassle his partner, even if he did deserve it. He opened his door and eased out, then noticed another unit approaching them.
Starsky's spattered face popped up and he looked at the car streaking toward them. "Wha'd ya do, call out the National Guard?"
Malone snickered, trying to see passed Starsky into the Torino's maw. "All freeway mishaps come under CHP jurisdiction, and this sure looks like a mishap to me."
Hutch moved between Malone and a mortified Starsky. "His DEGUNKER crapped out," he said calmly. "It was something he was testing for the LAPD. Straight from NASA. Would have made catalytic converters a thing of the past," he added for effect.
Starsky's mouth formed a knowing smile. "Yeah--and since I'm the best driver on the force..."
Malone looked impressed. "No shit? Hey, let me see what the hell went wrong. Maybe our captain might be interested in some of those." He draped himself over the Torino's fender.
The CHP men finished laying out their flares and strolled over. "What's the trouble here? Anyone injured?" They shied back against the deputies as another truck zoomed by.
Hutch looked at Starsky, surrounded by cops, and supposed they'd have to bluff it out. He took off his jacket, tossed it on the car seat, and walked back to his partner. Starsky stepped away from the Torino and sauntered over to where Hutch leaned against a fender.
"Hey, pal, that was fast thinking. Thanks."
"Starsky, don't thank me. I did it for my sake, not yours. I could care less if you and your goddamn eagle were stuck here forever."
Starsky's grin was evil. "Oh, yeah? Hell, now that you bought the pony, it's up to old Starsky to shovel the shit, right? So let me get to it." He walked back to the four men examining the engine. "As you can see, the temperature of my engine was too high for the DEGUNKER's plastic components. I think, with a few minor modifications, plus my recommendations, we can--"
Hutch kicked the Torino's tire as he listened to Starsky's spiel. I'd like to modify your brain!
One of the CHP officer's strolled over to Hutch's side. "Just what kind of unit is he talking about?" He leveled steel-grey eyes at Hutch.
Hutch shrugged. "I think if I showed you how the DEGUNKER works, it might help." He avoided looking at his partner.
Malone moved back, beckoning for Hutch to get in closer. "Show us what went wrong."
The Torino looked as though it had suffered a massive hemorrhage. Red gunk was molded firmly over spark plugs, block, and fuel lines. Starsky smiled, lolling against the fender. "Go ahead, genius, tell the gentlemen what happened."
Hutch sucked in his breath. "As I was about to say, for some time now the LAPD has been concerned with the poor showing our cars have had in the gas economy line. Now, they knew NASA has used this DEGUNKER on the lunar vehicle, and gotten great mileage--" He saw Starsky making frantic hand signals and stopped.
The patrolman, ignoring Starsky, asked, "What kind of baloney are you trying to hand us? NASA didn't use DEGUNKERs on the lunar vehicles." He took out his note pad and pencil. "Why don't you start all over again."
Hutch shook his head and smiled at Starsky. "Sorry, partner, but my mother raised an honest son."
Starsky looked quizzically at Hutch. "If you're so damned honest, why'd you lie to begin with?" He turned back to the men. "Just a joke, fellas. My partner has a weird sense of humor."
Malone ran his fingers over the cooling plastic, then turned to the highway patrol man. "Didn't you have a rash of freeway accidents involving some other NASA parts--about six months ago?"
The patrolman nodded. "I'll have to cite you, Starsky, and call a tow-truck. From the looks of that engine, it'll have to be replaced. Too bad, that's a nice car."
Malone placed a hand on Starsky's arm. "Want a ride to the station? You can get transportation back to LA from there." Both men gazed sadly at the Torino.
Hutch snorted and removed his jacket from the car. As usual, he ended up the heavy while Dumbo got all the peanuts. Maybe he ought to buy a little chicken farm and retire. He straightened, and watched his partner walking toward him, face spattered and filthy, but still loveable. That was the problem, he had a loveable partner. A friend who'd saved his life a dozen times. Anger melting, he put his arm around Starsky's shoulders. "Learn anything from all this, Starsk?"
Starsky nodded, eyes snapping with excitement, and Hutch got that old sinking feeling again.
"Hutch, Malone says there's a guy at the Sundown Drive-in who sells solvent for welded plastics. He thinks I should try some on my engine. How's about it, Hutch? Maybe we could go next Sunday!"
Hutch stared at Starsky for a moment, then strode to the Torino. He slammed down the hood with a savage motion, then planted both hands on the surface. "You're a goddamned crazy man! I ought to grind you up into matzoh flour and send you home as Jewish tortillas! No way, Starsk, not Sunday, not ever!"
Starsky positioned himself across from Hutch, hands spread out. "But, Hutch, I gotta get my Torino working! Just this one more time. I swear it."
Malone sighed as he listened to the arguing. "The LAPD just isn't screening out the weirdoes the way it used to..."