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A FRIEND REMOVED Part 1
Dedication: This one is especially for you, Cathy. Thanks for everything!
The broad shouldered man strolled through the New Jersey State Psychiatric Center. His tailor-made suit spoke of a man for whom money was never a problem, even if it wasn't always legally obtained. He was accompanied by an average looking orderly who was acting as escort. It really wasn't necessary - the authoritarian-looking man was well used to traversing these halls, both with staff and alone. He'd come to see his brother every day for the past two weeks, hoping to find some kind of improvement in his condition. He was met with long faces at the staff's inability to help the mid-twenties patient. The doctors, nurses, and orderlies were always respectful to the man who was most definitely the most powerful person in the city. Even some of the city's beat-cops gave him a wide berth, afraid of ending their careers in a six-foot hole.
The small window in the door was hardly big enough to accommodate much of a visit, but as Jackson Preston peered through it, he realized it really didn't make much of a difference. The room it revealed was barren, bright white with soft walls and floor. And in the far corner, a small figure curled into an almost invisible ball. This sight was possibly the only thing that could draw a sentimental emotional reaction from the hard-as-nails brother.
The young man, Jesse, stirred slightly, allowing his brother to see the large, vacant eyes he wore as a matter of course now. Jackson remembered the intelligence that used to burn there, ready to be used in any way the young man chose. A few short months ago he had looked forward to bringing the young man into the "family" business. Now his dream was gone - dashed in the clarity of his brother's deterioration. Preston was paying for the best doctors and treatment possible, thousands of dollars of funds drawn from the capital he had invested in his two casinos.
"It'll never be," he muttered, but the orderly standing nearby didn't hear him. Jackson didn't care; he hadn't meant for him to respond anyway. "But I promise you, little brother, I'll make him pay. If I ever see that stinkin' cop again, I promise he'll pay the same way he's makin' you pay. Even if it takes every last dime I've got!"
Jackson abruptly turned and stalked off, the visit to the barren room refueling his anger and desire for vengeance. He momentarily toyed with the idea of taking some of his men and going to the west coast with the sole intent of extracting the revenge he so desperately craved. But he discounted it, as he had several dozen times before, as being too foolhardy. He was out of his element in California - knew he'd be vulnerable there. As long as he's out there, I guess I can live with it. But Detective Sergeant First Class David Michael Starsky had sure as hell better keep away from Jersey.
On the other hand, maybe Starsky coming here wouldn't be such a bad thing. Actually, it would be terrific! If he could get Starsky to New Jersey, he could get even with Starsky without having to leave the place where he had backup. He began to concoct a plan, a recipe for revenge, and he could already sense the sweet taste of it in his mouth.
"Cmon, Hutch! Finish packing, we've got a flight to catch!" Starsky followed his blond partner around his apartment like a faithful puppydog, eager to get him going.
"You don't want me to forget something important, do you?"
Starsky finally settled, slumping down on the quilt while Hutch piled clothes into a brown suitcase laid open on the bed. "Ya know what I think, partner? I think you're intentionally dragging your heels because you don't want to go on this vacation."
"Starsk, I've been very honest about my lack of enthusiasm for this trip. Look," he went on, "a vacation is where you should rest, relax, commune with nature, rejuvenate yourself. A vacation is not running around a huge city all night long, sleeping during the day, and spending your awake hours in noisy clubs, casinos, and bars."
"Hey, you've already had your chance. We went camping last time we got vacation, remember? Now it's finally my turn. And besides, the telegram said that I'd won free accommodations at this great hotel! This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us, pal. We'd never be able to afford this place on our salaries!"
"I know, I know. But, Atlantic City, Starsk? Couldn't it have been anyplace quieter?" Starsky just watched, knowing the blond did not really expect a reply. Hutch snapped the latch on his suitcase, carrying it to the blue one already sitting beside the door. "Okay, I guess I'm ready. Oh, wait a minute! I've got to leave a note for Jennifer!"
"Who's Jennifer, partner?" Starsky asked, his interest suddenly shifting.
"She just moved in next door. Only been in a week. She promised to water my plants for me while we're gone."
"So? What's the note for?" Why did Starsky always have to wear that evil grin when women were the subject of a discussion?
"Because she basically knows nothing about plants. I've got to tell her which plants to water and how often." Hutch hastily scribbled several lines on the back of a grocery receipt and taped it to the lamp shade.
"Are you finally ready now?" Starsky had the excitement level of a child on Christmas eve.
"Yeah, I am." He picked up a suitcase in each hand and followed Starsky out the door. "Good-bye, plants!" floated in the air behind him.
By the time the duo had disembarked the plane in New Jersey, Hutch was in a decidedly disagreeable mood. The cramped confined of the plane's coach section had cramped his legs, and he was sick to death of having to listen to Starsky grouse about having to leave his precious Torino in the "Park and Fly" area of LAX.
"It's not like you're leaving a baby without a sitter, Starsk!"
"But anything could happen to her!"
"Anything could not happen. And if you're so concerned you should've arranged to have someone drop us off instead of insisting on driving to the airport!"
Starsky stopped lamenting over the Torino and resorted to nervously tapped his fingers on his leg as both men walked across the airport. They approached the baggage carousel, and Hutch nodded courteously to the young porter who stood nearby.
"I feel naked," he commented to his partner out of the side of his mouth.
"What d'ya mean 'naked'? You look okay to me." Hutch held off answering, knowing the answer would come to his partner if he gave him a moment. "Ohhhh! Your just missing that canon you carry!"
"It's not a canon!" Hutch snapped back. Starsky had hit upon Hutch's "sore spot", and Starsky grinned at the retribution.
"Hutch, you've got to get used to going without that hunk of metal at least once in a while!"
"But I do feel lost without it! Ya know, Dobey once asked me if I wore it to visit my mother! Now where do you think he'd've gotten a ridiculous idea like that?"
"I really have no idea," Starsky answered guiltily. Hutch suspected he knew more than he was letting on, but let it go for now.
"You have to admit, as cops, guns are just a part of our lives. Are you telling me that you - David Michael Starsky.... Detective.... Sergeant.... - don't miss your Baretta when you leave it at home?"
"I don't miss it hardly at all. I'm just glad I was able to talk you into leaving yours at home. There's just no reason to need it here!"
Both men fell silent as they noticed their bags coming into view on the carousel. Starsky pulled off two black vinyl-covered cases, and Hutch pulled off the brown and blue pair which he had carried to Starsky's car back at the Venice apartment. As they walked to the airport exit and hailed a cab, they didn't notice the porter scurry away, like a rat to his hole.
The phone rang on the desk in Jackson Preston's library, and, although the man was sitting right next to it, a younger man crossed the room and hitched his hip on the corner of the furniture before answering the ring.
"Yeah?" A large vocabulary was obviously not the man's strong suit. He listened for a moment - long enough for Mr. Preston to become curious about what he was being told. "Okay, I'll tell him." He set the phone back in the cradle and turned to his seated boss. "That was our watchdog at the airport. Seems he overheard two guys talkin' who come in a few minutes ago. They was talkin' about being cops, and one called the other one 'Detective Sergeant David Starsky'. Isn't he that cop...?"
Jackson's face grew red, and his brow furrowed in barely contained anger. "Yeah, I know - took him long enough to get here! That's that lousy, stinkin', good-for-nothing pig who put my Jesse in jail." His tone grew louder and angrier. "He shoulda known he was too young - that he wouldn't be able to take it! Now my little brother is stuck in that sanitarium, and he'll probably never get out! Now I'll have him right in the palm of my hand?!"
"Jimmy said it sounded like he and his friend were on vacation. Said they were jokin' about not havin' their pieces with 'em."
"Who was this 'friend'?"
"Jimmy said he was tall, blond, light skin. He checked with the airline and they said his name was Kenneth Hutchinson."
"That's Starsky's partner, and from what I know they're as thick as thieves. Inseparable, if you know what I mean." He sat thinking for a few minutes, then an evil grin appeared on the face. "And I know exactly what I'm going to do to get Starsky exactly where I want him. I know what hotel they'll be stayin' at. Find out from Jimmy what cab company they used to leave the airport. We gotta be sure and cover all our bases in this operation. Starsky's a good cop - if we leave any holes, he'll find 'em."
"Whatever you say, boss. But what's your plan?"
"Bring me all the information I need, and I'll outline it for you. We'll need a coupla more guys. Check the payroll for two...no, make it three...of our most trustworthy 'workers'."
Starsky and Hutch stumbled into their large room at 4:30 am the following morning, after a long night of club-hopping and card-playing. Although his partner was not sharing in his enthusiasm, Starsky was obviously having the time of his life.
"This is fantastic!" he spouted, pulling handfuls of paper from his dress pants pockets and throwing them on his bed. They were about half green, with the remaining a variety of different color paper, including a few cocktail napkins.
"Starsk, I'm starting to really believe this was a mistake," Hutch said drowsily from the other bed, where he'd ungracefully plopped down his exhausted body. "Maybe I'm just getting too old for this kinda running around."
"Naw, you're just fine. And look! We really cleaned up tonight!"
"You mean 'you' cleaned up tonight. My luck at the tables stank!" He remained seated as he pulled off his suit-jacket and then the shirt underneath it. He unbuttoned and unzipped the trousers and raised himself off the bed just long enough to pull them down around his ankles and then off. He began to empty the contents of the pockets, laying his personal items - wallet, keys, pocket knife, change - on the table between the two king-size beds. The remaining contents of the pockets - almost entirely white sheets of paper or napkins - he laid on the bed. He had less green cash than Starsky did, but his other pile was about the same size.
"Hey, partner," Starsky said, motioning to the pile, "it doesn't look like you did so bad!" Hutch began to study the scraps of paper, arranging them in a neat pile.
"No, I guess not." He studied the names and numbers scribbled on the sheets of paper, trying to remember which face went with which name and number. "Think you'll call any of them?"
"I don't know. Y'know, sometimes the guy likes to do the pursuing. Most of these women were pretty aggressive."
"Since when do you back away from aggressive women?" Starsky didn't see fit to respond to that. "I don't know about you, partner. But I'm gonna get some well-deserved sleep! I can't believe we've been out this long! Think I'll sleep at least until afternoon!" He pulled back the covers and crawled under them, dressed in only his shorts.
"I have to admit, I am a little tired too," Starsky responded. After making certain the drapes and shades were drawn, he deposited all the former contents of his pockets beside Hutch's on the table and then flicked off the light. It didn't take long before both exhausted men were sound asleep.
Outside the room, three men in housekeeping uniforms positioned a laundry cart in front of the officers' room. They waited until the light under the door went out, then went to work. A green canister was removed from the bottom of the cart along with a long piece of tubing, which the pseudo-housekeepers affixed to the canister's nozzle. The label on the canister stood out brightly, black writing on white: NITROUS OXIDE. The tube was slid under the crack in the door, and a twist of a small lever started the noxious gas flowing into the room. The canister was small, so they let the gas flow until it was empty. The key a cooperative hotel worker had given them gave them instant access to the room.
The first few steps were taken quietly, as they didn't feel absolutely certain that the gas would actually work the way they wanted. But as the light from the hallway streamed into the room, both officers were still motionless in their beds.
A flashlight shone in Starsky's face, eliciting no response. "That's Starsky. We want the other one." The same flashlight swung around to settle on the relaxed features of the blond officer. "C'mon, we've got a lot to do. One man pulled the laundry cart into the room, and Hutch was unceremoniously dumped into it. The men then went over every nook and cranny of the room, removing Hutch's clothes, suitcases, toiletries - anything that appeared on his side of the room or had his name on it.
"We gotta be sure we get it all," one said desperately. "Mr. Preston will kill us if we leave anything behind." They checked under the bed and beneath the pillow and blankets and found nothing. Lastly, the bed was made - neatly and professionally until it looked as if it'd never been slept in.
"Okay, you two take care of the cart. I'm gonna go talk to the desk clerk. I've gotta be sure all the records are cleaned up too." The trio re-locked the door and split up, the cart and two men heading for the freight elevators, the third heading for the lobby.
It was 2:00 in the afternoon before Starsky finally awoke from his gassed sleep. He cracked open his left eye - his better one - to read the clock, then decided it was about time he got up.
"Time to get up, Hutch!" He pushed himself to a sitting position, then swung his legs off the bed facing Hutch's. "Oh, guess you're already up," he mumbled to himself. Leave it to my fastidious partner to make his bed before the maids can do it.
Starsky padded on bare feet to the bathroom door, which was closed tight. Putting his ear close to it, he heard no sounds from within. "Hey, partner! You fall asleep in there?"
Still no response.
"C'mon,. buddy. I know you weren't crazy about this vacation, but when did you stop talking to me completely?" He twisted the door knob and pulled the door open, prepared to find Hutch in any one of several possible positions. What he didn't expect was not to find him at all. Where'd he go? Starsky silently questioned, laying a fist on each hip. He turned to scan the room, looking for a note taped in some obvious place. Hutch wouldn't go out without leaving me a note!
He scanned the room quickly a second time, still looking for some indication where Hutch had gone. His eyes rested, finally, on the table which sat between the beds. It took a few moments for him to figure out what exactly was wrong with the scene there. His side was just as it had been when they'd gone to bed. Wallet, ring, watch, a small stack of bills, and a pile of paper containing the names and numbers of the girls he'd met last night. He switched his gaze to Hutch's side of the table and was disturbed to find nothing there. If Hutch went out, he would've taken his wallet and watch, but I don't think he would've taken all his numbers with him. What the hell is going on here?
"Guess I'll have to go looking for him," Starsky said to himself. He quickly pulled a pair of worn jeans from his suitcase, then went through what he'd brought with him to find a shirt. Nothing in either of his suitcases seemed to strike his fancy, and he slapped the lid shut in frustration. "Hutch won't mind if I borrow a shirt. Why do his clothes sometimes look better to me than mine?" He knew it was the "brother" syndrome, and remembered when Nicky always used to take his clothes when they were kids. Somehow the other guys clothes always looked better.
The wall against which he'd seen Hutch set his suitcases was remarkably barren. He checked the room further, but the brown and blue pair of cases were nowhere to be found. "Hutch wouldn't have a reason to take his suitcases with him, even if he did go out. So help me, if this is one of his jokes, I'm gonna kill 'im!" He reopened his own case, chose a T-shirt he didn't really care for, and pulled it on over his head.
A cold chill ran up his spine, but he chalked it up to the change in climates between L.A. and New Jersey. He added a second, button-down shirt over the T-shirt, collected his watch, wallet, and ring off the bedstand, and prepared to leave to begin his search for Hutch. He made certain that he still had the key to the hotel room, so as not to end up embarrassingly locked out. Well, at least Hutch didn't take the key with him.
The lobby was crowded, apparently with more late-risers who had overindulged in the night life the previous evening. He searched every face, but none of them was his blond partner. He went to the concierge's desk, where a woman sat over her notebook of events. Starsky imagined her to be a striking beauty, but she disguised it somewhat with tightly pulled-back hair and heavy-rimmed glasses.
"Excuse me, Miss," he began when she looked up at him. "I'm trying to locate my roommate - he seems to have gotten up before me."
"Well, Mr. Starsky, I've been on duty here since 8:00. Maybe I've seen him. What's his name and what does he look like?"
"His name's Ken Hutchinson, and he's blond, kinda Nordic-looking. About 6'1" tall, fit - not too thin but not heavy either, and," his voice dropped slightly at this last, "most women seem to think he's pretty handsome."
"I don't remember seeing anyone like that all morning. But why don't you take a seat and I'll have him paged. If he's in the hotel - provided he's not in a room - he'll be able to hear it."
Starsky sat in the chair beside her desk and listened to the page over the speakers. When there was no response, she placed the page a second time. Still no response.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Starsky. It doesn't appear he's in the hotel. Maybe you can check with the front desk - he might have checked in there, for messages or whatever, before he left."
"That's a good idea. Thank you very much." And Starsky made a bee-line for the reception desk. The man on duty there was courteous, if not overtly friendly. "Hi! I was wondering if maybe my friend checked in here before he left the hotel this morning. Maybe to check for messages? His name is Ken Hutchinson, and he's tall and blond."
"Well, I don't remember someone like that, but let me check for messages - it's just likely he left one for you if he left the building. Which room are you in?"
"We were sharing Room 302."
"Ahhhh," the man said, as if answering an unanswered question. "That's one of our 'dual occupancy' rooms. Let's see now..." he went to a bank of boxes, each one marked with a room number. Starsky found the box marked 302 before the man did, but shortly the clerk reached into the box and came out empty. "I'm sorry, sir. It doesn't look like there's anything there."
Starsky was really beginning to get scared now. Each time a possibility was eliminated it sounded a warning bell in the back of his mind, and the cold chill was back again. "If I didn't know better," he said with a nervous laugh, "you'd think he never came with me in the first place!"
"Well, sir, that's certainly not the problem, I assure you. When did you check in?"
"Yesterday - early afternoon."
"Then let me ease your mind a little." The man flipped the pages in the registration book until he came to the pages marked for the prior day. He spun the book around on its turn-table and Starsky, purely out of courteousness, looked down the page for his and Hutch's signatures.
"Here it is!" Starsky finally spoke up. Room 302 - Dave Starsky." A sudden frown creased his forehead, and he failed to go on. "Wait a minute. What happened to Hutch's signature?"
"I beg your pardon, sir?"
"Hutch. Hutch. That's my friend. And he signed your book right after I did. But his signature isn't there now."
"I assure you, sir. If he signed in, his name must be there."
Starsky was beginning to become very agitated. "Well," he said, his voice shaking slightly, "maybe when the clerk on duty found out we were in the same room, he decided he needed only one signature and whited Hutch's out."
"There are never any modifications made to our registration book, sir. And in any case, if you examine the page carefully, you'll see there's no sign of correction fluid anywhere."
Starsky looked again, frantically, at the page and had to admit that the clerk was right. What the hell is going on?
When Hutch finally came to, the first thing he did was try to rub his sore and burning eyes. Tried, but was unsuccessful, as he found his hands bound behind him. From the feel of the restraint, he was padlocked with a heavy chain. Since it was apparent to the detective that he was being held captive, he was surprised that he was not blindfolded as well. Hutch blinked several times and his surroundings finally came into focus. Four barren walls surrounded him, barren but for the unusual markings on the walls. There was a distinctive "12 FT" painted on each of the side walls of this place. Where am I? He looked up and realized that the walls ended about ten feet above his head, and then there was a great deal of empty space until the ceiling. It finally clicked in his mind: What am I doing in an empty swimming pool?
Hutch struggled to his knees, dislodging the frayed, worn blanket that had been covering him, and then made an attempt at standing - an attempt because, as he made the effort, he found that the chain restraining his hands also extended to the pool's drain, securely fastening him to the bottom of the pool. I guess someone wants me to stay here for awhile.
He looked down at himself, closely examining what he saw. He was clothed only in the shorts he'd been wearing when he was grabbed - his chest and limbs lay bare, and he shivered. The blanket was still within reach, so he pulled the thin fabric around himself. It helped a little, but the goosebumps still remained, now a sign of his fear rather than his cold.
"HEY!!" The blond man shouted, and the echo off the sides of the pool announced how empty it was. He tried again. "HEY!!! IS ANYONE THERE?!" There was still no response. Now who would dump me here and then leave? What the hell is going on?!
After checking all the adjacent stores and shops, flashing the picture of Hutch he'd retrieved from his wallet, Starsky was sadly discouraged at his lack of any tangible results. It seemed that Hutch had simply disappeared, and for some reason, every sign of him had disappeared as well. He wanted to search further, but in the midday traffic he found it impossible to flag a cab.
"Excuse me," Starsky said, once again at the concierge's desk. "Can you help me arrange to rent a car. I can't get along without one."
"Sure, Mr. Starsky. Anything for a guest. What kind of vehicle would you prefer?"
"Anything I can get fast. I need it here right away!"
"Hold on a moment and let me call the rental agency. I'll see what they have available."
Starsky paced the hotel lobby from front to rear and back again while the concierge made the required phone call. His back-and-forth treading came to stop by the front door, when he saw the cabdriver they'd used from the airport pull up front with another guest. Starsky couldn't have explained what he was hoping for, but he sprinted for the car.
"Hey, Driver!" The cab had started to roll away, but the driver hit the brakes at the screaming man. Starsky stuck his head in the open passenger window. "Hey..." he breathed, out of breath from the run. "Do you remember me? I road in your cab yesterday."
"Sure! How are you enjoying your visit?"
"Well, it could be better. I need to ask you something. Remember the man, my friend, who came in with me? Have you seen him around the city at all?"
The driver looked at Starsky silently with a puzzled expression on his face.
"Look, if you haven't, I'd really appreciate it if you'd keep your eyes out for him. If you see him, call me here. My name is David Starsky, and I'm in Room 302."
"I'm really sorry, buddy," the driver came back. "Maybe it's just my memory - I pick up so many fares, you know. But I don't remember anyone bein' with you. As far as I remember, you were alone!"
"NO!" Starsky practically shouted, then lowered his voice to avoid attracting any attention his first outburst hadn't already drawn. "No, don't you remember? He was tall, blond, Scandinavian-looking?"
"Look, buddy. This is New Jersey. I'd certainly remember a Viking if I'd seen one here!" Horns began to honk behind him, cabs waiting to deposit their fares and depart so as to go onto another. "Sorry, but I gotta go." He put the car in gear and pulled away slowly, allowing Starsky to withdraw his head from the window before he went.
When Starsky turned back toward the hotel, his face was a hollow, stunned mask. I just don't understand. He was numbed by the latest development, not being able to comprehend how this could be happening. I know Hutch came with me! I KNOW IT! The concierge approached him. "Mr. Starsky, I've arranged that rental car for you. It'll be here in fifteen minutes." When the dark haired man failed to respond to her news, she took him by the arm and led him to the chair beside her desk. "Why don't you just sit down for a moment and catch your breath. I'll get you something to drink."
He continued to sit, stunned, while she stepped into the bar which was just off the Mezzanine level. "What'll ya have, beautiful?" the bartender greeted her.
"I have a guest out there who's a little out of it. Gimme something strong that'll snap him out of this funk." She watched as the man combined several different liquors in a small glass until it almost overflowed.
"Here, give 'im this. It'll either bring him around or kill him!"
"Thanks, Tony." She returned to her desk, with Starsky still sitting next to it and staring. She put the small glass in his hands. "Here, drink this. It'll help."
Starsky raised the glass to his lips like an automaton, merely doing what he was told. When the fiery liquid hit his throat, though, his expression changed quickly.
"Eh, eh, eh," he coughed quietly, trying to cool the burning of the liquid on his vocal cords. His eyes focused, though. "What is that?!!" he breathed heavily.
"Just something our bartender cooked up. Are you feeling better now?"
"Better, yes, but I'm still missing one partner!"
"I'm sorry, sir, but I still can't find any evidence he ever checked in."
"WE CAME IN TOGETHER!"
She looked uncertainly around the lobby, and wasn't quite sure if he'd seen her motion with her eyes to a nearby security guard. The guard strolled closer, but took no further action. "Look, while we're waiting for your rental to arrive, why don't you call the airline you flew in on? Maybe he checked back in with them for some reason. You can even use my phone." She turned it around to face him.
"Do you have a phone book?"
"No, but here's a list of all the airlines that fly out of our airport. The number should be on there somewhere."
Starsky scanned down the list until he found the airline they'd used, chosen by Hutch himself because it offered the best rates. He dialed the telephone carefully.
On the third ring, a clerk answered. "Good afternoon, Miss. I need to check on the reservations of two men who arrived in Atlantic City today?" He purposefully did not mention to the clerk that he was one of the men. If someone was trying to get to him, he wasn't going to give them the advantage.
"Yes, sir. What was the flight number, please?"
"Flight 569 from Los Angeles, non-stop."
"And the gentlemen's names?"
"David Starsky and Kenneth Hutchinson."
"Just one moment while I check the flight manifest." Starsky hung on and listened to the Muzak for almost five minutes, until the reservations clerk finally came back. "I'm sorry it took so long, sir, but I wanted to be thorough. I do show a David Starsky arriving on that flight, but there was no reservation or seating listing for Kenneth Hutchinson. I ran his name through the computer in case he came in on another flight or another day, but there's no record of his using this airline at all in the last four weeks. Maybe another airline..."
"Thank you," Starsky muttered as he hung up the phone, cutting her off; he was almost slipping back into his dazed state. "I don't understand." He looked at the concierge with almost pleading eyes. "They don't have any record of his coming in with me. How is that possible?"
"I'm sorry things are going so badly for you in our city. Look, it's been dark for a couple hours now. Why don't you go up and get some sleep. Maybe things'll be clearer in the morning."
"What do you mean 'clearer'?" Starsky said accusingly. "I'm telling you, my partner Hutch did come to Atlantic City with me and he did spend last night in our room."
The concierge once again motioned to the security guard with her eyes, and he marched right up beside Starsky's chair. "Why don't you just do what the lady says, sir." His tone and imposing presence made it clear that this was not a request.
"Well, maybe I'll go get something to eat, then turn in. I am awfully tired." He looked more than tired - he looked positively haggard. He pushed himself unthreateningly to his feet and headed for the exit, remembering the small grocery store he'd seen down the street.
Ten minutes later, Starsky walked along the sidewalk with a small grocery bag in his arms. He noticed distractedly the mid-size cherry red car parked in front of the hotel, but didn't believe it merited any more than a quick glance.
As he cross the hotel lobby, the concierge once again intercepted him. Handing him a small ring with two keys, she told him, "they just now dropped off your rental car. They told me it's out front, a red mid-size car. You didn't happen to see it coming in, did you?"
"Yeah, I saw it. Thanks a lot for arranging it for me - it looks fine. Goodnight." He waved the hand that held the keys as he went up the stairs toward his room.
"Frank," the concierge turned to the security guard after Starsky had gone. "Please keep an eye on Mr. Starsky for the rest of his stay. I'm afraid he's been under a little too much stress and it's starting to show on him. If he becomes unduly agitated or shows signs of a breakdown, call the hotel doctor. He'll probably sedate him and arrange for his transportation to the hospital for psychiatric treatment."
"Yes, Miss Preston. I'll keep an eye on him. D'you think this 'partner' of his really exists?"
"I'm afraid to Mr. Starsky he's very, very real. However, to everyone else in the world..." She shrugged her shoulders, and walked away, leaving the interpretation of her answer in Frank's hands.
Starsky pulled the hotel key out of his pocket and let himself into Room 302. He half-expected to see Hutch lying on the bed as he walked through the door, having a jovial laugh at his expense. He could just hear it now: "Just wait'll I tell Dobey and Huggy. Boy did I have you going!! Ha ha ha ha ha!"
But the neatly made bed was unoccupied, and the room seemed even emptier than it had this morning. He went to the small refrigerator the hotel provided in each room and deposited the items from the grocery bag inside. Four cans of root beer soda, a ready-made submarine sandwich, four Hershey's candy bars, a small jar of salsa (he set aside the bag of tortilla chips), and four containers of black cherry yogurt. "Why in the world did you buy that?" he asked himself. "You don't even know where Hutch is, and you're buying groceries for him? Maybe I really am losing my mind!" He slammed the refrigerator door harder than was really necessary, and plopped down on the bed. His eyes fell on the pile of telephone numbers on the bedside table. With one angry swoop he pushed them all into the garbage can. "Sorry, ladies. I have some more important things to take care of now!"
The dark-haired man laid out the contents of his pockets on the bedside table, retrieving the photograph of Hutch last. "Gotta keep an eye on you!" he laughed as he propped it against the lamp's base. The eyes of the blond in the photograph seemed to look directly at him; was there a slight sense of pleading in the blue eyes there? "Naaaah!"
Getting back up off the bed seemed to take a lot more effort than he'd thought. Once on his feet, he went to the bathroom, stripping off each piece of clothing as he went. By the time he reached the shower, he was completely naked and slipped behind the shower doors. Hot water massaged the muscles of his back and chest, momentarily allowing him to forget that Hutch was not in the outer room waiting for him. He finally realized he'd exhausted as much time as possible in the shower, so he twisted the knob off and reached out for a towel, which he wrapped around his slender waste. A second towel was applied to the dripping curls, rubbing until his hair was practically dry.
"Am I losing my mind?" he asked himself distractedly as he faced his reflection in the mirror. "Nah! There's gotta be another answer." He brushed his teeth and dried himself all over with the towel that had moments ago adorned his waste. He walked to his suitcase and pulled out a pair of shorts, pulling them on and then jumping into bed. The shower had made him weary, and he started to doze off immediately. "I'll track down Hutch tomorrow. That or he'll show up on his own," he mumbled just before he fell totally asleep.
When Starsky awoke the next morning he reached to click on the lamp, feeling slightly better about facing the day. His stomach growled loudly as he pulled on his shirt. "Sorry, pal," he said to the monster in his abdomen, "no time for a restaurant now." He finished snapping the jeans around the shirt he'd tucked in. "Hey, I almost forgot!" Four steps took him across the hotel room to the mini-refrigerator there. "There's lot to have in here," he went on, pulling the door open. "Nothing better for breakfast than a nice, filling sub." The soda was in front, so he pulled out a can, popping open the top and setting it atop the appliance. He pushed three containers of yogurt aside and pulled out the container of nacho cheese dip. Slowly it began to sink in: "Wait a minute! Where's my sub?" He searched the refrigerator again and still came up without the sandwich. "What the hell...?
He straightened to his full height, his puzzlement not allowing him to notice the cheese dip he still held in his hand. He reviewed the contents of the refrigerator again. "Three cans of root beer plus the one I just opened, four candy bars... wait! I'm sure I bought four containers of yogurt. Now there's only three! Well, maybe I'm remembering wrong." He went on, "there're the chips I bought," his glance went to the top of the refrigerator then scanned to the jar he still held in his hand. "Cheese dip? CHEESE DIP? I don't even like nachos with cheese. Where's the Salsa I bought?" He shook his head in frustration, his appetite quieted by the apparent mystery. "Guess I was just too distracted last night. I'll take it with me today and see if they'll exchange it." It never occurred to him that he was essentially talking to himself.
He laid the cheese on the bed and shut the refrigerator door, but not before retrieving one of the candy bars. Root beer and chocolate. Not the usual way I start my day, but good enough for now. He finished dressing quickly and walked to the table to retrieve his wallet. His hand froze a few inches from the leather item itself, realizing something else. "Where's Hutch's picture?" He scrambled to the floor, searching every area around the table for the photo. He emptied the garbage can and pulled all the blankets and sheets off the bed, but the picture was nowhere to be found. "Damn!! This is gonna be a lot tougher without your picture, partner."
The hotel room locked securely behind him, Starsky headed for the lobby. He juggled the keys to the rental car in one hand, thinking - hoping - how much easier the car would make his search. He nodded and smiled at the concierge as he crossed the hotel entryway. The weather was warm today, but not hot like some of the summers in L.A. He wished that they were back there now. "At least nothing like this could happen in the middle of the woods!" He muttered aloud.
Amelia Preston, the concierge, saw his mouth moving as he made his way toward the exit. "Looks like everything is right on schedule," she said to the red-haired man on her left. "We've got him talking to himself already - that's a good sign!"
"Maybe that's nothing new for him, Miss Preston."
"No, he doesn't look to me like the type to talk to himself. Tell my Daddy that we should have this taken care of by tomorrow afternoon. Just a few more 'incidents', and, if he's not already completely insane by then, the cops'll lock him up anyway thinking that he is." She laughed out loud, a cold, hard, cruel laugh at the expense of the dark-haired officer.
The red-headed man left her side and she sat down behind her desk. Moments later Starsky was back through the doors, headed directly for her desk. "Excuse me, but did someone move my car?"
"What car? Oh, you mean the rental we arranged for you last night?"
"Yeah, that's the one. It was parked right out front last night, but now it's gone."
Amelia put on her best innocent face, then creased it with a frown. "I don't know about that, Mr. Starsky. If you moved it after the rental agency brought it last night, I didn't know it."
"But I didn't move it. The agency parked it out front - I saw it myself!"
"I'm sorry, sir, but we don't allow cars parked there overnight. They parked your car in our hotel parking lot. You told me you saw it there yourself!"
It took a lot to fool David Starsky, but this woman looked so innocent. How could she possibly be playing with me like this? No, I must've seen someone else's car out front last night and just mistook it for mine. "Sorry for the confusion, Miss. If you'd be so kind as to direct me, I'll go retrieve my car." Amelia pointed out a side entrance and gave him simple directions to the lot and he proceeded as she had indicated. As he turned his back, he didn't see the wicked smile - almost a sneer - that appeared on the lovely features.
Starsky blanketed the city for most of the morning, stopping in every store, shop, restaurant, and club but no one could remember seeing Hutch. His investigation was hampered because he no longer had the picture of his friend. Even worse - his failure to succeed in the search was beginning to bring him down, and he was growing more and more depressed. The photo, in addition to being an invaluable tool, served as Starsky's lifeline, keeping him from sinking into the insanity that Jackson Preston so desperately wanted.
Starsky finally decided that the search was going nowhere without having a photograph of Hutch. It's no use. Guess I'll go back to the room and give Dobey a call. He can at least express me the picture of Hutch from his personnel file. The curly-haired man climbed into the front seat of the rental car, finding himself distinctly unaccustomed to the extra roomy inside. He thought for a moment how he and Hutch could probably each fit a date into the front seat with the two of them. His eyes lost focus momentarily as he looked at the passenger side of the front seat, then focused again on the only item really occupying the seat: the cheese dip he'd bought the night before.
He held the orangish jar in front of his face. "But first, I might as well take care of you! He headed back for the hotel, but luck wasn't with him and he hit nearly every red light. At the last one before the hotel, he turned left and then left again into the back lot of the small grocery store. He approached the elderly gentlemen behind the counter directly after entering the market.
"Good afternoon, sir." Starsky's mom was always certain to instill good manners in her little Davey. "I don't know if you remember me, but I was in here last night. It seems I picked up this jar of cheese by mistake when I actually wanted salsa and I was wondering if you'd let me exchange it.
The gentle old man smiled at Starsky like his long-lost grandfather. "Why sure, sonny. I don't see a problem with that just so long as it hasn't been opened." He reached for the jar, feeling with his thumb to see that the vacuum seal was still depressed. "No, it's still sealed. I don't remember you, but . ." The clerk and proprietor of the store turned the jar to face him and focused for the first time on the label. "Wait a minute, young man. I'm sorry, I was wrong. I can't exchange this for you."
"Why not? You could do it easily a few seconds ago."
"Because this is not a brand that I carry. I got contracts with some of these companies and I can't carry any competitor's brands."
"I just bought it last night! When did you stop carrying it?" Starsky was getting exasperated.
"I've never kept this brand. And I've been in business here for almost fifty years. Look, I'm afraid you might be a little confused. Maybe you bought it at another store."
"No! I bought it here just last night. Don't you remember me?!" Starsky's volume was rising with his frustration level, and by this time he was shouting. "I bought a submarine sandwich and some other items.
"We don't even make subs here - never have! Look, kid. I don't want no trouble. Why don't you just buy your salsa, take both jars, and go. Before I have to call a cop!"
"Fine! Fine!" The anger swelled in Starsky's chest, and he was glad for it. It kept him from realizing how really scared he was. "I'll just take my cheese dip and go!" And the officer stalked out of the store.