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THE HEART KNOWS
It hurt to swallow. Even an attempt seemed to take a great effort. His throat was thick and dry and filled with sand and dust. If only he had some water....
He ran his tongue along his lips. They stung. He could feel deep cracks along the dry, torn flesh. His tongue was so swollen that it felt as if it took up his entire mouth, increasing his sense of suffocation.
His eyes were dry and could no longer tear as the wind blew across them. He'd made a turban out of his T-shirt and put it around his head, but it did nothing to ease his discomfort. It had been a long time since he'd had the strength to look up, but he knew that buzzards still circled about, waiting for their chance to feast.
His muscles ached and it took all of his concentration to put one foot in front of the other. He didn't dare stop. So relentless was his determination to keep moving that his pants were occasionally soaked with urine, only to dry quickly to the uncomfortable stiffness matched by his sweat-soaked shirt.
Worst of all was the heat and brightness of the never-ending sun....
* * *
Starsky rose up in bed. He ran his hand over his face, surprised to find that it felt normal. His lips weren't cracked, his tongue wasn't swollen, and his eyes could see well enough to make out the outline of furniture in the darkness.
He tried to swallow and did so easily.
His head was pounding and there was an uncomfortable nausea in the pit of his stomach. He flung the covers aside and got out of bed.
He turned on the bathroom light and reached for a bottle of aspirin. "Feel like I've been in the friggin' desert," he muttered. He downed three aspirin, and kept drinking after swallowing, as the water tasted so good. It bathed his throat, soothing the phantom thickness within.
Starsky went back to bed and curled onto his side, waiting for the aspirin to work. He was accustomed to occasional nightmares, especially those related to specific incidents that had happened in the past. But this one puzzled him, because he'd never been stranded in a desert or had any such fear.
And Freud would probably say it's sexual, he thought with grim humor. I don't think so, you dead, over-sexed pervert.
After a time, he was able to fall back to sleep.
* * *
Five hours later, Starsky left his apartment, dressed and ready for work. After emerging from the shade of the stairwell, he found himself bathed in sunlight. He squinted, gazing up at the sun, puzzled by the feeling that it was his enemy. Then he moved on and gave the finish of the Torino an affectionate pat before getting in. He put on his sunglasses and pulled down the visor, protecting himself from the relentless brightness.
* * *
Starsky was leafing through pages in a file when a large shadow fell over his desk. He paused in his work, but didn't look up as he waited to hear what words of wisdom his captain wished to impart.
"It's kind of odd with just one of you sitting here," came Dobey's voice.
Starsky shrugged, wishing his superior would let it go. He knew it was awkward for Dobey to have expected four of his detectives to be gone at once, but instead to have only three missing. The one remaining from the foursome must have seemed like a lonely figure.
The black man grunted. "Just as long as you weren't pulling my leg earlier about why you're still here. Friction between partners is bad for everyone, all the way around."
Starsky sighed and turned to look up at the figure standing over him. "Cap'n, everything's fine. The only 'friction' is between me and a certain lovely person whom I consider to be my girlfriend. Like I told ya, a situation in her family came up right when we over-worked detectives were all supposed to go on the little fishin' trip. I thought I should go with Mary Ann to San Francisco, and it would have been too much trouble for everyone else to try to reschedule." A bit grudgingly, he noted, "Hutch can have fun with Simmons and Babcock without me." He didn't add that he hoped Mary Ann wasn't having fun without him. They'd had a heck of a fight the morning they were supposed to leave for her grandmother's, and Starsky still hadn't figured out what he'd done wrong. He only knew that she drove off without him.
Rather than sit alone in his apartment brooding over the situation, and feeling sorry that the others had already left for their fishing trip, he'd decided to work instead. Today was his third without his partner. Both he and Hutch had become more friendly with Simmons and Babcock ever since the latter duo had helped Starsky when Hutch had gotten botulism.
The phone rang. Starsky picked it up. "Starsky here."
"David?" It was a hesitant, female voice.
"Hold on a sec." The detective glanced up at his superior. "Uh, Cap'n, this is personal."
Dobey grunted and moved away.
"Mary Ann?" Starsky said.
The sigh was heavy from the receiver. "I just wanted you to know I made it okay to my grandmother's."
"Good. How is she?"
"She's doing pretty well, all things considered."
There was a long pause and Starsky said, "I wish you would have called me before now. I was gettin' worried."
Her sigh was heavier this time. "I wasn't ready to talk to you yet. Besides, I thought maybe you'd gone ahead with the others on the fishing trip."
"They'd already left," Starsky noted, hearing the distant self-pity in his own voice. "I wish you woulda called earlier to see if I was home."
"Like I said," she said softly, "I wasn't ready yet to talk to you."
"Are you ready now?" he asked hopefully.
"I'm not sure," she replied after a moment.
Starsky took a deep breath and let it exhale slowly. Then, "Look, Mary Ann, you're the one who drove off. I don't even know what I did to tick you off."
It was the wrong thing to say, for now her voice had an edge. "You don't?"
"No," he said in exasperation, hating the way women played you're-supposed-to-know-how-I-feel-even-when-I-won't-tell-you games. "Fill me in."
Her voice was steel. "For once, use your brain instead of your gonads and think about it." The line went dead.
Starsky stared at the receiver, as though that piece of equipment had committed an offense. Then he let it drop to its cradle.
He turned to the water cooler, eager to soothe his parched throat. As he filled a paper cup he decided he could stoop to consider what she said. Up to now, he'd avoided any serious recollection of their argument before she drove off.
Early in the morning, two days prior, everything had been packed and ready to go for the 400-mile trip to San Francisco.
"Keys," he'd prompted, standing at the trunk of her blue Chevy.
She tossed her ring to him and he opened the trunk. He put in his little duffel bag. There were two fair-sized suitcases left. "Isn't this a bit much for a two-day stay?" he'd asked, picking up the first of the remaining luggage.
"I need all that stuff," she told him, watching with her hands on her hips.
"For two days?" he pressed in disbelief.
She tossed back her full head of long brown hair. "You're just mad because you would have rather gone fishing with your friends."
That rankled him, especially since he was sacrificing that very trip for her. "Mary Ann, if I'd rather have gone fishing, I'd be fishing instead of here with you, getting ready to leave to see your grandmother in San Francisco." He put the last bag in and closed the trunk. "So, wipe that frown off your lovely face and let's go." He stepped forward, intending to kiss her.
But she stepped back. "Don't talk down to me like that. This trip means a lot to me. My grandmother only has a few months to live and this may be the last time I ever see her alive. She's my favorite grandparent and--"
"O-kay," Starsky gently took her arm and gestured to the car. "I understand all that and I agree." He smiled. "So, let's stop arguing about it and hit the road."
She grabbed the keys from him, and stormed past him to open the trunk. She took out his duffel bag and dropped it to the pavement. "I don't want you with me when you'd rather be somewhere else. Go find your friends and kill some fish." She marched to the car, got in, and drove off.
Starsky stood there, standing next to his duffel bag, watching her go, and wondering why he ever thought he understood the female gender. And yet, Mary Ann's assertiveness and fire were some of the very things he found most attractive about her. Finally, he called after the retreating bumper, "They've already left!"
But he called, just in case. Called Hutch. Called Mike Simmons, and then John Babcock. None answered. As previously arranged, they had all left at dawn, heading southeast toward the Salton Sea.
They were expected back tomorrow evening.
"You planning on leaving any for the rest of us?"
Starsky looked up and found Sgt. Lupton standing over him. "Huh?"
"You got a medical condition or somethin'?"
Starsky followed Lupton's gaze to the cup in his hand, and then followed it farther to the water dispenser. He must have drunk at least three cups straight while reflecting upon his argument with Mary Ann.
He turned away, embarrassed, crumbling up the cup before tossing it into the trash. Then he marched out the door, feeling a sudden need to visit the men's room.
* * *
Starsky spent all day in the squadroom, slowly going through files that contained possible suspects for a homicide in a department store. The store hadn't been robbed, but a sales clerk had been murdered. In a vague way, it reminded Starsky of when Terry had been shot, and that gave him a chill that relented only when he was reminded of the continuing need to water his parched throat.
The afternoon dragged at a snail's pace. Starsky had to admit that banter back and forth with his partner always did a great deal to break up the day, and he wished he had that banter now. He smiled, thinking about Dobey's concern that there might have been some sort of rift between Hutch and him. He supposed that, after the Kira Incident five months ago, he couldn't blame Dobey for suspecting such. At the same time, it filled him with warmth to know that such a situation was virtually impossible. He and Hutch had made up, their partnership now all the stronger.
He had no doubt that Hutch missed him just as much as he missed his blond, despite the fact that Simmons and Babcock could both be a couple of clowns who were fun to pal around with.
The phone rang. As soon as Starsky picked it up, he wondered if he should have taken a moment to consider what to say to Mary Ann. Hesitantly, he answered, "Detective Starsky here."
"Starsky? This is Simmons. What are you doing there?"
He hesitated, wondering how much he wanted to admit to. "Things didn't quite work out as planned with Mary Ann. What's up?"
"Has Hutch called in?"
The hairs on the back of Starsky's neck prickled. "What are you talkin' about? He's with you, isn't he?"
"He was until we hit Coachella the day before yesterday. He ran into an old girlfriend and wanted to spend time with her. He said he'd meet up with us at Salton Sea Beach by noon today. We haven't seen any sign of him, so we were a little concerned. I thought if he wanted to get in touch with us, he'd leave a message with someone at the station."
The nausea which had teased Starsky all morning now took firm root in the pit of his stomach. "What was the girl's name?"
"I'm not sure." There was the sound of Simmons turning away from the phone. Then, "Babcock doesn't know, either. Sorry, Starsky, but neither of us remembers, though I know Hutch introduced us." There was more talking in the background. Then Simmons said, "Yeah, she had long, black hair. Petite little thing. Wore short-shorts and those shoes with the big, thick heels."
Starsky shook his head. Hutch, damn you and all your lovers. How am I supposed to remember which one that is, huh, lover boy? "He hasn't called," he said. "Are you sure he knows where to find you?"
"Yeah. It's the same place we all went to before, the beach where there's the funny-shaped rocks."
"Right. I remember."
"We're in the park security's office, checking to see if he might have left a message with them. But there hasn't been a peep."
"Hutch would know you guys would start getting concerned," Starsky said worriedly, the nausea growing stronger.
"Right. We figure he'd have the courtesy to get a message to us if he decided the hell with the fishing and preferred to spend all his time with the girl instead."
Starsky felt a need to spring into action. "What number can I reach you at?"
"Call here at the park security office. 555-6264."
Starsky wrote it down. "I'll call you if I hear anything. And make damn sure you call me if he shows up, no matter how late."
"Right. Hopefully, he's just having such a good time he doesn't want to be bothered with anyone else."
One side of Starsky's mouth formed a tight smile. "Right. See ya." He hung up.
Dobey moved toward Starsky from the file cabinets. "What's up?"
"Hutch hasn't shown up at the lake like he was supposed to."
"I thought they all went in the same car."
"They did. But Hutch ran into an old girlfriend when they stopped in Coachella that first day. He told Simmons and Babcock he'd meet back up with them by noon today." Starsky released a heavy sigh. "He still hasn't shown."
Dobey smiled. "Well, we both know Hutch and women...."
"Yeah," Starsky acknowledged distantly. He was thinking furiously about the description that Simmons had given. The vague image didn't bring a face into view. He sat staring at the table, thinking it through. With conviction, he said, "Hutch wouldn't do this."
"Leave us hanging like this. He knows I wouldn't put up with it from him any more than he'd put up with it from me."
"He doesn't even know you're here, right?" Dobey reasoned. "He thinks you're in San Francisco. There's no reason for him to try to contact you."
"But he wouldn't do that to Simmons and Babcock." Yet, even as Starsky said the words, he wasn't as convinced of them. It was easy to feel selfish with one's time when one was in the throes of pleasure. Still....
Starsky turned to his superior. "Cap'n, I gotta go out there."
"Are you out of your mind? Hutch probably just got lost and forgot where they're supposed to meet up. He'll find them eventually."
"And if he doesn't?" Starsky challenged, his heart racing. "If he needs help...." He shrugged into his jacket. "Besides, I was supposed to have these three days off, anyway."
Dobey was gazing at Starsky, studying his expression. Then his face turned into a sober frown. "All right. But I have days off starting tomorrow, too, and I'm going with you. We'll call in every half hour to see if Hutch or Simmons and Babcock have checked in."
Starsky felt relief filter through him. Dobey was taking the situation seriously. He was glad to have his superior's help.
Just as they turned toward the door, the phone rang. Starsky picked up and breathlessly greeted, "Starsky here."
A hesitant, female voice said, "David?"
"Mary Ann, I can't talk right now. Something's up." He slammed the receiver down and led the way out of the squadroom.
* * *
It was getting dark as Starsky sat in the Torino, which was parked in front of a phone booth in the little town of Coachella. He took a sip of bottled water as Dobey hung up the phone and moved back into the car. "Well?"
"Hutch hasn't called but Babcock and Simmons did. They're going to meet us at the Mr. Steak on 2nd Street. They said that's where Hutch met up with the girl."
Starsky looked up at the sign marked "1st Street". "Must be just the next block up." He capped the water bottle and put the Torino in gear.
"What's with you and all this water?" Dobey wondered.
Starsky shrugged. "My throat feels like it's dry all the time."
"You been to a doctor lately?"
"I get the annual physicals like everyone else."
As Starsky slowed at a stop sign, he felt the black man's gaze on him. "Do you have diabetes in your family?"
"No." He looked over at his superior. "Why?"
"Extreme thirst can be a sign of diabetes. My sister has it."
Of course, Starsky had heard of diabetes but he didn't know much about it. "Is diabetes serious?"
"It can be, especially if it isn't treated."
Hesitantly, he asked, "The thirst... it can feel like you're walking in a desert?"
That brought a concerned look. "I imagine so." Then, "Starsky?"
The detective glanced at his superior. "What?"
"When we get back, see a doctor. Don't make me make it an order."
Starsky looked out the windshield. And swallowed heavily. Hutch, where the hell are you? I might have a serious disease, and if I do I'm gonna need your help to deal with it.
* * *
Neither Simmons nor Babcock looked to be their usual, jovial selves. Both faces were lined with worry as Dobey and Starsky entered the lobby of Mr. Steak.
Babcock said, "We've got the address of the waitress--the girlfriend--because she's not working tonight. Her name is Florence Dunning."
Starsky shook his head, even as they headed for the Torino. "Doesn't ring a bell."
Starsky and Dobey held the seats of the Torino forward so Simmons and Babcock could get in the back. The latter said, "What's with all these water bottles?"
* * *
Florence Dunning answered the doorbell on the first ring. "Yes?" she asked through a crack in the door.
Starsky presented his badge. "Los Angeles Police. We have some questions to ask you about Sergeant Kenneth Hutchinson."
The door closed an instant, there was the sound of the sliding chain, then she opened it fully. "Come in. What about Hutch?"
"When did you last see him?" Starsky asked as they entered.
"Yesterday morning. I told him to take my car so he could meet with his friends...." she trailed off, seeing Simmons and Babcock. "I thought he was meeting back up with you two at the lake. You are the same two who were at the restaurant the other night, right?"
"Yes, ma'am," Babcock said. "Unfortunately, he never showed."
Her eyes widened and she put a hand to her mouth. "Oh, no. What could have happened?"
Starsky stared at her, not certain if she was friend or foe. "Why don't you tell us everything you know, starting when you left the restaurant last night. Better yet, start with how you first knew Hutch."
She retreated from the intensity of Starsky's gaze, sitting in an easy chair. "I used to live in Los Angeles with my sister." She looked at the three men, avoiding Starsky's eyes. "A few years ago, I was waitressing at the bowling alley on Ocean. I met him there and invited him to my place. It was just a one-night stand but..." she took a deep breath, "I...I liked him. When I saw him at the restaurant the other night, I couldn't believe it. And I was so happy that he seemed to remember me, too."
She paused and Starsky quietly commanded, "Go on."
"I invited him back here. He spent the night and I told him it was okay to borrow my car for a few days to meet up with his friends," she nodded at Simmons and Babcock.
"What kind of car is it?" Babcock asked.
"1972 Ford Mustang. Dark blue."
Simmons sighed. "Maybe we should go back to the lake. I don't remember seeing any cars like that, but now that we know what we're looking for...."
Florence's eyes suddenly darted to the screen door. "Who's that?"
Babcock glanced out the window at a car driving up. "Looks like a police car."
The four men exchanged worried glances, not knowing if it was good news or bad news.
An officer came to the screen door. "Miss Dunning?"
She went to the door and opened it partway. "I'm Florence Dunning."
"Sorry to bother you, Ma'am, but it's about your car. Do you own a dark blue Ford Mustang?"
"Have it you noticed it missing lately?"
"I loaned it to a friend yesterday morning."
"Have you heard from that friend?"
"Well, Ma'am, we found your car abandoned just off of Highway 86, about ten miles from town."
Beneath his breath, Starsky whispered, "No."
* * *
They spent the night talking to local law officials, the county sheriff, the state patrol, and the park police. Even in the light of a new day, a trip to where the car had been found didn't reveal any evidence of foul play. The car contained no belongings of Hutch's; but then, all his belongings--other than the clothes on his back--had been in Simmons' car.
Helicopters were combing the area where the car had been abandoned. It was now past noon and the three LA detectives and captain made their base at the local police station. They had contacted all hospitals within a hundred miles. And the morgues. There was no sign of anyone matching Hutch's description.
"If the helicopters don't find him," the local sheriff sighed, "I'm not sure what else we can do for the time being, except put out posters and alert the media."
Starsky had been able to scarf down a sandwich, but otherwise hadn't eaten. He stared at the local lawman. "Widen the search."
The man shifted his weight. "We don't have the manpower to do that. Plus, for a man on foot, it's unlikely that--"
"Nothing about this whole situation is likely," Starsky pointed out.
The sheriff went to a map on the wall. "Look. The Mustang was found off Highway 86 at roughly the same point where the Salton Sea and the Desert State Park form the sides of a 'V'. We've got choppers covering roughly ten miles each way all along the sides of the V. Any farther west and you're getting into urban areas heading toward San Diego. Any farther east are the Chocolate Mountains, which is where the military does missile testing, so it's not accessible to the public. To the south there's not much more than desert. To the north--"
Starsky's head snapped up. "Desert? What desert?"
The sheriff tapped the map. "Right here. The Algodones Dunes and surrounding area."
Images flooded Starsky. Desert. Sun. Bright. Hot. Thirsty. His voice emerged like a machine gun. "Helicoptersrightaway.He'sthirstythirsty.Lotsofwaterlotsofwater."
Dobey shook him by the shoulder. "Starsky, what are you talking about?"
"Hutch. He's in the desert. He needs help. He needs water. Get helicopters with paramedics. Now."
Starsky tore out of his superior's grasp and rushed out to the parking lot. He stared into the back seat of the Torino. The floorboards were covered with water bottles. He'd bought some at every stop on the trip when Dobey had kept calling Parker Center. Some distant part of him acknowledged that it was funny...all those water bottles in his back seat.
He tore the door open and reached into the back. He grabbed an armful and was grateful that his fellow detectives had joined him in the parking lot. He shoved the bottles at Babcock. "Hutch needs lots and lots of water." He reached for more and shoved them at an open-mouthed Simmons. "Are they calling the paramedics?"
Dobey appeared. "No, we haven't called them yet," he bellowed. "What makes you think Hutch is way the hell out there in the desert? How is that possible?"
Starsky didn't know the answer. He reached for more bottles and placed them in Dobey's reluctant hands.
The black man started to speak again, but Babcock laid a hand on Dobey's shoulder. Gently, he noted, "Captain, it's the only lead we've got."
* * *
Simmons and Babcock stayed behind to monitor communications with other search vehicles. Starsky and Dobey accompanied a pilot and two paramedics in a medical helicopter. So did armfuls of water bottles.
The sun was still high in the sky as the helicopter entered the sand dunes by following Highway 78.
"We know he's not near the highway," Starsky said. "If he was, someone would have seen him and picked him up. He has to be lost...in the middle of nowhere."
Dobey regarded the detective skeptically, but he nodded at the pilot, who turned the copter toward a southeasterly direction.
For half an hour they saw nothing but sand and dunes. All five men kept their eyes to the ground, as the copter angled in various directions in the sky, making sure no area between dunes was missed.
"I see something!" a paramedic called from the back.
They all turned their heads to see where he was pointing. The copter banked toward the indicated direction.
"Yeah, it looks like a person," the other paramedic said.
From his seat next to the pilot, Starsky strained to spot something unique within all the miles of sand. And then he saw it: a speck growing larger. Barely moving. But moving nevertheless. He looked at the pilot. "Hurry!"
Starsky felt a hand on his shoulder. And then the awed whisper of his superior. "How did you know he was here?"
Starsky turned around to face Dobey. He wanted to answer the question, but found himself speechless, because he didn't know what the answer was.
He turned his face away and unbuckled his seatbelt, heading back to the bay area where the paramedics were opening the big side door as the copter eased down to within a hundred yards of the ground.
"At least he's mobile," one paramedic, with sandy hair, said to the other, a fresh-faced youngster with red hair. He turned to Starsky. "How long do you think he's been out here?"
Starsky swallowed, not liking the fact that the hunched-over, staggering figure hadn't looked up or given any indication of being aware of the helicopter. "This might be the third day."
The two paramedics looked at each other. "Let's bathe him in water," the older one said. His companion nodded.
Starsky looked at them. "It's all right to let him drink it, isn't it?"
"Yes. If you want to take care of that part, we'll take care of cooling him down. That's assuming he's not too delirious. If he's confused, we'll have to be very careful."
They all watched while the copter came closer to the moving figure, and the red-haired man said, "He doesn't even seem to realize we're here."
The copter landed with a gentle jolt, about a hundred feet from where the turbaned, pale-haired form continued to stagger forward. Starsky could see now that Hutch had taken his T-shirt and wrapped it around his forehead. His outer shirt hung open. His jeans and shoes looked torn, but for the most part covered him. His face was lowered toward the ground.
Starsky grabbed a water bottle, his mind bombarded with the agony experienced from his dream two nights before. "Let me approach him first." He jumped out of the copter as the blades slowed to a more shallow spin.
The sand felt thick and hot to his sneakers. He moved out a brisk place toward Hutch.
He heard the other's deep, wheezing breath as he came within twenty feet. The wind carried the stale, powerful smell of sweat and urine.
"Hutch," Starsky called, the wind whipping the words away. Then, more loudly, "Hutch!"
The other did not look up.
"Hutch," Starsky gentled his tone as the space closed between them. He was reluctant to reach out to his partner, for he could see the angry redness dominating the other's skin, making him uncertain of where he could touch without causing pain.
"Hutch," he whispered, the other now right in front of him, his head still bowed.
Starsky knelt, for Hutch had stopped upon seeing his shoes, at least having some awareness of something blocking his path. He swayed, hunched over like a weary gorilla. Starsky ducked his head to look up into the other's dirt-smeared, red-blotched face. The lips were swollen, cracked, and torn. The nose and cheeks blistered. The eyes outlined in red. But the orbs...Starsky could see a glimpse of blue. "Hutch," he said in a whisper, "it's all right now. I'm here." He reached up, took a piece of sleeve between his fingers and gently tugged. "I'm right here."
Hutch dropped to his knees.
Starsky unscrewed the lid to the water bottle and tossed it aside. He poured some in his hand. "Here, Hutch. Water." He tilted his hand toward the other's lips.
The change was instant. Hutch flailed at Starsky's hand, as though trying to grab it and keep it at his lips. "Easy, Hutch, easy." With his other hand, Starsky brought the bottle up and tilted the opening against Hutch's mouth.
The blond grabbed at the bottle, hands shaking so hard that most of it spilled over his mouth.
"Hutch, easy. Easy. There's plenty. There's plenty." Starsky had control of the bottle now, and he pulled it away when Hutch coughed from deep within his chest.
"Easy, buddy. Easy." As soon as the spasm passed, Starsky tilted the bottle again, more careful this time, and was grateful that Hutch used his limited energy to drink, his hands having collapsed to his sides.
The paramedics appeared. The older one had open bottles and began pouring them over Hutch's head.
Hutch seemed to have run out of breath and Starsky pulled the water away from his mouth.
"He ready to lie down for us?" the paramedic asked. The red-haired one brought the basket-like gurney next to them. It was lined with a white sheet.
Even as the paramedic spoke, Hutch seemed to sway again, and the three of them grabbed his shirt, trying to direct his collapse toward the gurney. They were partially successful, and pulled at his clothing until he was inside the basket.
"Let's get him out of the sun and treat him in the helicopter," the paramedic said. He and his assistant tightened the straps on the gurney. Dobey had appeared and all four of them carried the basket toward the helicopter. Hutch remained quiet, but Starsky could see his throat muscles straining to swallow or speak, he wasn't sure which.
As soon as they were all inside and the side door closed, a thumbs-up was given to the pilot. The blades quickened as they left the ground.
"How close is the nearest hospital?" Starsky asked.
"About forty-five minutes. It's in El Centro." The paramedic turned to his partner. "Radio the hospital and let them know we're removing his clothes and are going to wrap him in water-soaked sheets.
The red-haired man turned to the radio.
Starsky leaned over the basket. He put a hand on Hutch's shirt, could feel significant heat through the thin material. "Hutch, it's okay now." He watched the throat muscles continue to work. "The hard part's all over. Just rest."
Now that he was out of the sun, Hutch's eyes appeared to open a little wider. They gazed up at his partner. Starsky returned the gaze, and watched as a subtle change came over his partner's expression. Starsky knew that Hutch recognized him and understood he'd been rescued, for the muscles in his face seemed to relax. Except for the right corner of his lower lip, which quivered, as though his emotions were close to the surface.
While a radio conversation between the red-haired paramedic and the hospital crackled in the background, the senior half of the duo turned on an oxygen tank and inserted two small tubes in Hutch's nostrils. Then he glanced at Starsky. "How aware do you think he is?"
"He knows I'm here and he knows he's been rescued. If you want to ask him questions, I don't think he can talk."
The man shook his head. "I don't want to question him. He's exhausted." He presented a pair of large scissors. "We need to get his clothes off and get a temperature reading before we wrap him in wet sheets." He handed a water bottle to Dobey, who was kneeling next to them. "Keep pouring this over his head and neck."
While the scissors were used on the jeans, Starsky peeled away what remained of Hutch's shirt. The skin that used to be so pale was now covered in red, some areas a deeper red than others, much of it accented by angry blisters.
As Starsky removed the shirt from Hutch's head, he heard the senior paramedic say to his partner, "Tell them that his urine stains are brown."
"What does that mean?" Starsky asked worriedly.
"It's a sign of dehydration." The paramedic tossed the torn, smelly clothing away. He took the white sheet that his partner handed to him and spread it over Hutch, Starsky and Dobey helping. Then he produced a thermometer and rubbed Vaseline along the barrel. "We've got to turn him so I can get this into him."
Starsky knew it would be wasting his breath to ask why they couldn't take Hutch's temperature from the other end. Hutch was obviously too weak to be trusted to keep a thermometer in his mouth, never mind that the water he'd been given would decrease the accuracy of the reading.
"Use the sheet to touch him," the paramedic directed. "Just pull him toward you a little," he said to Starsky. Holding the bottom sheet that was near Hutch's shoulder, Starsky gently moved it toward him. Between the three of them, they got him on his side enough that the paramedic was able to say, "That'll do."
"Easy, buddy," Starsky whispered, though Hutch wasn't showing any sign of resistance. The blond was almost completely covered with the sheet, and he didn't seem aware of what the paramedic was doing. His eyes remained barely open and his breathing heavy. There wasn't any fresh sweat on his body, and Starsky suspected that could be serious. He watched Dobey continue to pour a gentle stream of water along Hutch's head and beet-red neck.
The paramedic pulled the thermometer away. "Let him lie back."
"Here, Hutch," Starsky whispered, relaxing his hold on the sheet and letting Hutch gently fall back to a prone position. "There you go, pal. It's all right now."
"It's 105.1," the paramedic told his partner. The other lifted the microphone to the radio.
Starsky swallowed at the information. "Can I keep giving him more water?"
"As much as he wants. Just go slow enough that he can swallow it."
The red-haired man joined his partner and the two now worked at preparing an IV.
Starsky opened another water bottle. He bent close to the eyes that remained half open. "Hutch, I've got some more water here. I need you to drink it real slow. Give your throat a chance to work."
He could only assume Hutch understood, for the pale blue orbs maintained eye contact from beneath red lids.
"I'll lift his head," Dobey said, doing so.
Starsky tilted the water bottle carefully. The first few drops ran down his partner's chin, but then the other opened his mouth, and Starsky paused until Hutch swallowed. The blond's eyes closed for a brief moment, as though in bliss.
"You can have all you want," Starsky assured him.
Hutch swallowed a few more mouthfuls, then moved his head a fraction of an inch.
"You can put him back down," Starsky directed Dobey. "He doesn't want any more." Starsky tilted the bottle and poured it along the redness of Hutch's neck and upper chest. The paramedics were doing likewise with the sheet that covered Hutch, soaking it with water . When they were finished, the older one said, "That's as far as it goes until he gets to the hospital. We've got to be careful that his temperature doesn't turn too far in the other direction."
There was a swallowing noise and Starsky leaned close again, noting the throat muscles working deliberately. "Hutch," he soothed, placing a hand on the wet cloth covering his partner's chest, "don't try to talk. Just rest, pal." Looking at the torn, chapped lips, Starsky was reminded of the vivid dream he'd had. He turned toward the paramedics. "His head hurts real bad and he's nauseated."
The paramedics looked at each other. Then they looked at Dobey. No one spoke. They apparently decided not to question the source of Starsky's knowledge, for the sandy-haired one said, "That's from shock. The IV will help."
Starsky turned back to his partner. The throat muscles were still moving, as was Hutch's jaw. "Hutch, don't try to talk. It's all right now. Just take it easy. Rest."
The muscles worked harder, and Starsky realized then that Hutch was determined to speak. He tilted his ear close.
There was more of the painful swallowing noises. Then a scratchy, trembling, "H-how f-f-find-d me?"
When Starsky pulled back, he saw that Hutch's lower lip was quivering again. Then his gaze was captured by the blue eyes that had grown brighter since the rescue.
Starsky let himself fall into their depths. It was the same question that Dobey had asked; but, this time, it seemed very important to have the answer.
He listened to the thump-thump-thump within his chest, wondering what other answer there could have ever been. Wondered why he hadn't figured it out sooner, before so many days had gone by since his dream.
He, too, had to swallow before speaking. He bent closer, and his voice was soft and tender. "I followed my heart."
The eyes continued to gaze back at him, then the lids closed a little, and there was the hint of a nod.
"I wonder what happened," Dobey said. "How could he have possibly made it this far away from the car?"
"Someone had to have left him there," Starsky said without looking away from Hutch. He sighed. "It doesn't really matter now. We'll get the whole story when he's well enough."
The paramedics continued to take Hutch's vital signs periodically, and kept reporting the data to the hospital. Though he was glad that Hutch was quiet, Starsky felt the need to continue to soothe. He picked up a water bottle and poured some along Hutch's neck and collarbone, where the sheet didn't reach. He gently patted the moisture along the overheated skin. He noticed that whenever he glanced up at Hutch's face, his partner's red-rimmed eyes were watching him.
That kind of trust was the last thing Starsky would ever betray. He felt the knowledge quickening his heartbeat, but softening other parts of his chest. He knew that what he really wanted more than anything was to pick Hutch up and press his partner against himself. Wanted to rub his hands up and down the other's back, lock the other's chin over his shoulder, squeeze around his waist, scratch up into his hairline...gestures of affection that Hutch would appreciate. Things that would make him feel better. Feel loved and wanted. Instead of abandoned like he must have felt when whoever it was left him to die in the desert.
"Why don't you take that T-shirt," the paramedic pointed to the one that had been wrapped around Hutch's head, "soak it in water, and tie it loosely his neck. It'll be easier for him to stay cool."
Dobey picked the T-shirt up, untied it, and held it out while Starsky poured water over the cloth. When it was dripping wet, Starsky took it and slipped it under Hutch's neck. "Here you go, pal," he soothed as he pressed the ends against the sides of the burned skin and tied it. "There you go."
Those sea-blue eyes were still following him. Starsky leaned close. "Hutch? It's all right to close your eyes. You can rest now. You're going to be fine. When you wake up you'll feel better. Promise." He wanted to touch the other somewhere, and finally settled on the sun-bleached mustache. He stroked along the fur, then locked his gaze with the stubborn eyes. "Hear me, Hutch? It's all right now. Close your eyes and sleep. We're all gonna take good care of you." His finger stroked in rhythm to his voice. "Close your eyes. Relax. Rest. It's gonna be fine. Gonna be fine." The squinting became more pronounced, but the lids didn't quite close. "I know how tired you are. It's okay to give in to it. It's okay now. I'm still gonna be right here while you're sleeping."
The throat muscles worked again in what was a difficult attempt to swallow. Starsky was tempted to offer more water, but the eyes finally closed. His finger continued to stroke and he whispered, "That's a boy. It's okay. It's all okay now. It's gonna be fine. Just fine."
He stopped talking but continued to pet along the strip of hair. Hutch was very still and Starsky eventually removed his finger. He watched his partner a while longer, then straightened. He slumped back against the sides of the helicopter and noticed that the other three occupants were all looking at him, but they glanced away as soon as he noticed.
Starsky closed his own eyes, letting exhaustion and worry overtake him.
The hospital was ten minutes away.
* * *
Three days later Starsky entered the hospital. It was late in the morning. Simmons and Babcock had driven their superior back to Los Angeles the day before. Hutch was being treated with fluids and steroids. He had slept almost all through the previous two days, which allowed his body to recover from the heatstroke and his temperature to stabilize to just a little above normal.
The only physical problem left was brought to mind when Starsky crossed the threshold to his partner's room. Hutch looked like something out of a horror movie, because there were blisters all over his body. The worst--most on his face and shoulders--were being treated with ointment, which added to his unpleasant appearance. The doctors were giving him painkillers to provide some relief from the burning, but still Hutch lay in bed uncovered, wearing only briefs, as contact with any material intensified his discomfort.
The bleach-blond head turned at the sound of his visitor. Hutch managed a genuine smile. "Hi." His voice was very scratchy from having gone so long without water, and it hurt to hear him talk.
"Hi, yourself." Starsky stood back and looked him over. "My, aren't you a handsome sight this morning."
Hutch snorted with amusement, then admitted, "Haven't seen a mirror yet."
"I wouldn't recommend it, unless you want to lose your appetite." Starsky grabbed a nearby stool and sat down. Though his partner looked awful, it was rewarding to see him in good spirits.
"They said I can go home tomorrow."
The grating voice made Starsky cringe. "Can't they do anything for your throat?"
"Sounds worse than it feels," Hutch assured. "The doctor said it would take awhile for it to recover the stress of being without any lubrication for so long."
Starsky softened. "Speaking of which, you up to telling me what the hell happened?"
Hutch closed his eyes and shook his head, as though in disbelief. "They thought I was someone else."
"A group of hit men." His eyes opened. "There were four of them, counting the pilot of the helicopter. I thought I was stopping to help a guy who had car trouble, and the next thing I know all these guys are on me. They blindfolded and handcuffed me and put me in the trunk and drove me out to where they had a helicopter. They put me in it, and the whole time we're flying they kept calling me Frank Jennings and saying they were doing a job that Thomas Whitley wanted done, getting revenge for what I'd done to him. I kept telling them they had the wrong man, and that I was a cop and to look in my wallet. But they didn't bother, just kept saying they'd been warned about how easily I could get fake IDs."
Hutch glanced up at the table next to the bed, and Starsky poured a glass of water from the pitcher there. Hutch swallowed a few sips and then continued. "The helicopter landed and they pulled me out, took off my blindfold, undid my cuffs, and got ready to take off. I asked them if they were just going to leave me there, and they said 'That's the way Whitley wanted it done. He said you'd understand why.' Then they took off."
The blue eyes darted to Starsky. "I really wasn't that worried, at first. I had no idea where they'd flown me, but I was in good shape and thought if I kept moving west, I had to eventually run into the ocean, which meant civilization." He swallowed thickly. "But every time I crossed over a hill, there was another one in front of me. I thought about stopping the first night, but it was so much cooler that I thought I should take advantage of it and keep moving. By the end of the next day I was..." Hutch hesitated, then, "exhausted. So hot. So thirsty. I-I think I got confused about the direction I was supposed to be going in." He snorted. "May have been going in circles, for all I know."
Starsky lowered his eyes, looking at the floor, not wanting to relive what that must have been like. The dream had told him enough.
"Tell you one thing," Hutch said, "I'm sure not going to be anxious to get a tan for a long time."
Starsky managed a half-hearted smile at the joke.
"Keep going over it and over it," the blond said, serious now. "Don't understand how you figured out where I was."
Starsky allowed a small inner smile. He shifted in his seat. "We'll save that for later, Hutch. For now, I want you to tell me about Florence Dunning. If she loaned you her car out of the goodness of her heart, then what the hell were those four men doing waiting for you?"
The blond's eyes shifted thoughtfully from side to side. Then, "Starsk, Flo doesn't have anything to do with this. She's not the type of person to get mixed up with people like that."
"Hutch, lots of people get mixed up in things they don't want to get mixed up in."
Hutch shook his head. "I don't believe it."
"Then what's your explanation?" Starsky pressed. "How did those men know that was you--or somebody who looked like Frank Jennings--driving that car? Going down that particular road?"
"That's just it, buddy, she didn't know what road I'd be taking to Salton...." Hutch trailed off, his eyes widening. Then they closed. "Oh, God."
"Oh, Flo," Hutch said, bitter now. "You conniving little--"
"What?" Starsky demanded.
"I can't believe it." Hutch's eyes opened. "Can't believe she'd pull something like that." He looked at his partner. "She suggested I take a shortcut to get to the Salton Sea park. She said there was a little-known turnoff off of Highway 87." Hutch slammed a fist against the bed. "Damn it!"
"Hutch, it's okay," Starsky said quickly. "You had no way of knowin' what she had planned."
Hutch shook his head, laughed self-mockingly. "I thought she really thought I was hot. She seemed so glad to see me in town, even though we'd only had a one-night stand, years ago. Damn, I can't believe I fell for it. She set me up but good."
"Ah, Hutch," Starsky said, "Your heart was in the right place." He continued, "So, what do you think? This Frank Jennings guy was a lover, or father, or brother, or something, and she agreed to help the other guy--Thomas Whitley--find him? But, instead, she either thought it through ahead of time, or thought it through on the spot, and when she saw you, you must have looked enough like Frank that she knew the hitmen would go after you, thereby leaving her...." Starsky now slammed his own fist down. "How much you wanna bet she and this Frank fellow hightailed it outta town as soon as they got the news you'd been found?"
Hutch nodded toward the bedside phone.
Starsky picked up the receiver and called the local police. He wasn't surprised when they sent a squad car over to Florence Dunning's house and found the house empty and her things gone. A neighbor told them that Florence had said she was moving to Mexico. She was accompanied by a tall blond man with a mustache who the neighbor assumed was her boyfriend.