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Harold Dobey rammed his foot against the door and the lock gave way, the door crashing open.
Hutch lay on the dirty mattress, gagged and blindfolded, his hands behind his back and his feet tied to the headboard.
Dobey rushed forward. "Hutchinson," he called, going for the blindfold first. "It's all right, son."
Another law officer - a Ventura County deputy - was untying the rope around the blond man's feet. Yet another deputy said, "I'll tell the ambulance to come on up."
Dobey nodded as the blindfold slipped free of the filthy blond head. He smelled heavy body odor, but focused only on the blue eyes which blinked up at him repeatedly. "It's all right, son," he said again, pulling at the gag. The deputy had freed Hutch's feet and now worked at his tied hands. Outside, there were noises of the two men who had held Hutch being arrested by other county lawmen.
The big man's heart accelerated as he laid his hand on a shoulder clad in a dirty flannel shirt. For the past two weeks he had feared he might never see Hutch again. "Take it easy, Hutchinson."
"St-st-st---" Hutch began shakily.
It hurt to hear the pain in the other's tone. Dobey had never been happier to deliver good news. "He's alive."
"Wh-wh-at?" Hutch's mouth was open and his eyes were bright with disbelief... hope....
Dobey gentled his tone. "They told you he was dead, didn't they?"
Hutch nodded slowly, his expression still one of shock. His hands were untied and Dobey looked up at the deputy. "Wait outside for the ambulance."
The deputy nodded and left.
"We know he's alive," Dobey continued gently. Hutch was shifting on the mattress, trying to sit up, and Dobey helped him. "We should have word on where he's being kept in a matter of hours."
Hutch closed his eyes. After a long moment, he swallowed. Then, slowly his eyes opened, and those bright orbs looked at his superior squarely. "I-I tried not to believe them - didn't really believe them - but...."
The pain in those eyes was so great. Softer still, Dobey said, "You can explain later." He looked Hutch up and down. The blond man was filthy, bruised, thin, and reeked of stale sweat, but Dobey couldn't detect any obvious injuries. "Do you think you're hurt anywhere?"
Hutch shook his head.
"The ambulance is here," one of the deputies called from outside the door. There hadn't been a siren since this little stucco house was the only structure on the hillside.
Dobey placed his hand on Hutch's back. "We'll get you taken care of."
"But," Hutch protested, "wh-what about Starsky?" His voice was so dry that Dobey wanted to give him water, but he realized he should let the paramedics take care of the details for now.
"As soon as we get the word where he's being held," Dobey assured, "we'll go get him." He squeezed Hutch's thin shoulder.
Thank God Huggy Bear's connections finally came through, Dobey thought. For the past two weeks, he'd feared never seeing either detective again.
* * *
The case had started two weeks ago when Starsky and Hutch failed to arrive for work after a three-day weekend. Dobey waited half a day, then called their homes. No answer. He wondered if they might be playing hooky - it wouldn't be the first time - but he had a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach. Nevertheless, he waited until the next day. When they still didn't show, he went to visit Huggy. The Pits' proprietor had nothing to offer except concern.
The Torino was at Starsky's apartment, but Hutch's LTD was nowhere to be found. Relatives were contacted but they couldn't shed any light on the bizarre disappearances. Dobey put out ABPs and notified Missing Persons. Six days went by and the trail was still cold. The Department advertised a reward of $20,000 for any information leading to the whereabouts of either detective.
Huggy contacted everyone he knew. On the eighth day of the disappearances, a friend of a friend of a friend knew yet another acquaintance who had mentioned being paid a lot of money to kidnap a cop. The person providing the information hadn't known the motivation for the kidnapping or who was behind it. He'd only known that the kidnapper drove an old blue Ford pickup and hung out in the hills near Ventura.
A description of the pickup was put in newspapers along with the mention of the reward money. That was when a grocery store owner in the small town of Vincent, near Ventura, called his local sheriff's department, since he'd seen the blue pickup on occasion. The sheriff's department contacted the LAPD, and Dobey wanted to be there to stake out the grocery store and wait for the blue pickup.
By that time, a long line of informants had finally brought word to Huggy that Starsky had been kidnapped with Hutch, but that the curly-haired detective was being held at a separate location. Huggy hadn't found who the mastermind was behind the kidnappings, but he was informed that each detective had been told of the other's death. That critical information originated from one of the men being paid to hold Starsky somewhere in the hills near Ventura, but who had walked out on the job when he got tired of no direct contact with "The Boss". The police had not yet been able to find the man, but Huggy's finesse with his underground contacts had at least provided the information.
Just the day before, Huggy told Dobey that he hoped to have Starsky's exact location by today -- the very same day that Dobey and two other cars from the Ventura County's Sheriff's Department staked out the grocery store, waiting for the blue pickup. It had driven by just an hour ago, and the three unmarked police cars had followed it to the little house at the end of the dirt lane. Two men - one who had been driving the truck and one in the house - had been arrested. Inside the house was Hutch.
Dobey was now relieved that both men were alive. Having his two best detectives missing with no leads had affected him deeply, on both a personal and professional level. He'd become so difficult to live with that Edith had taken the kids to live with her mother, telling him to call when he was willing to let her help, instead of pushing her away.
Dobey was grateful he'd be able to make that phone call soon. And he wondered why he'd ever treated so badly someone whom he cared for so much.
* * *
Hutch was quiet and distant while the paramedics examined him. But he looked up at Dobey as they finished. "I'm not going to the hospital," he said determinedly.
Dobey restrained a sigh. Of course not. Word could come through any time regarding Starsky's whereabouts. From what the paramedics reported to the hospital, it appeared that Hutch's most immediate need was food. He'd lost a good ten pounds the past two weeks. And he was hardly going to have much appetite while fighting the doctors.
"He needs to be checked out more thoroughly at the hospital," one of the paramedics said to Dobey.
Dobey nodded. "I'll have the staff at Memorial in Los Angeles look at him. In the meantime," his attention turned to Hutch, "we're going to get you a shower and some food."
* * *
The Ventura County Sheriff's Department arranged for a room at a motel in the nearby town of Vincent. They said they would make sure a change of clothes and toiletries were waiting.
Dobey drove toward Vincent with Hutch silent in the passenger seat. He knew the other man's thoughts were only on his partner.
A sign said that Vincent was still five miles away. Dobey asked, "How did they get you?"
Hutch shifted in his seat. "We - Starsky and I - had driven to a restaurant in Thousand Oaks. We were supposed to meet a couple of girls we were going to spend the weekend with." He paused a long time. Then, "We'd met them at the bowling alley a few days before then. So, we had dinner with them at the restaurant. One of the girls said her uncle owned some acreage that was real private, and since he was out of town, she thought we could all spend the weekend there. I was driving and I followed her directions into the mountains, and then she told me to turn onto some little dirt road. We came to a big gate, and Starsky got out to open the gate. He was having trouble with it, so I got out, too. The gate had a big chain around it, and Starsky and I were wondering how we were supposed to open it. We turned back to the girls, and they were both standing there next to men with guns to their heads." Hutch drew a deep breath. "Looking back, I should have realized we'd been set up, since there wasn't any sound from the girls. But the men had the guns to their heads and were threatening to shoot them unless Starsky and I dropped our weapons. Then two other armed guys came out of nowhere and also told us to drop our weapons. So we did."
Hutch drew a deep, weary breath, his gaze on the windshield. "As soon as Starsk and I were weaponless, they handcuffed us, and then they let the girls go. The girls had been part of the plan all along. One of the guys gave them a bunch of money and told them to take my car and ditch it. Two of the creeps started dragging me into the woods. I kept asking them what they were going to do with Starsky, since they still held him by the gate, where I could hear him trying to put up a fight. The creeps with me said it wasn't their concern, that 'The Boss' had only told them what to do with me. I fought them, but they got me down and tied me up. Then they carried me until we came to that house. Kept tying me tighter, because I almost got away a few times." Hutch stopped for a long moment. He took another deep breath, then said, "A few days later, they came into the room I was in and told me that they'd heard Starsky had accidentally been killed while he was trying to get away from the two creeps who were holding him."
Dobey glanced at the man beside him. "According to Huggy's information, they told Starsky the same thing about you - that the men guarding you had had to kill you. Like you," Dobey tried to assure, "he probably didn't believe them, deep down inside."
Hutch stared out the window and didn't say anything.
* * *
When they reached the motel, Hutch spent a long time in the bathroom. When he emerged, clean and freshly shaven, he looked much more like his normal self. Except for the worry that still dominated his expression.
"They'll call here when Huggy hears from the informant," Dobey told him. "Food will be here soon. I ordered a bunch of sandwiches."
Hutch didn't respond. Instead, he picked up his discarded trousers and took out a wallet from the back pocket. Silent, staring at it intently, he sat down on the sofa. He flipped it open, then caressed the inside with a finger, focusing on the clear plastic that probably contained a driver's license.
"What's that?" Dobey asked.
Hutch didn't look up. "Starsky's wallet." He swallowed thickly, then finally raised his head. "When they kept insisting Starsky was dead, I kept telling them, 'Show me a body, show me a body.'" He swallowed again. "They kept saying they'd already buried him. I said, 'Take me to where he's buried.' They said they couldn't let me leave the house." Hutch looked at the wallet again and his speech slowed. "Then they brought me this. It was covered with dirt. They said they'd opened up the grave to bring me this to prove that he was dead."
Dobey didn't say anything when Hutch fell silent. He could imagine how painful it must have been; he'd experienced a degree of that pain himself... concerning both detectives. When Hutch took a deep, deliberate breath, and his shoulders relaxed a bit, Dobey gently ventured, "But you still didn't completely believe them?"
Hutch kept gazing at the wallet, caressing it. "I-I wasn't sure. I knew it might very well be true. But I also... there seemed to be something almost... too deliberate... about how they kept telling me he was dead. Deep down in my gut, I couldn't believe they were telling the truth."
"I guess, then, they took your wallet, too, and gave it to Starsky?"
Hutch looked up sharply, as though surprised by the deduction. "No. I still have my wallet, less the money they lifted, just like they did from Starsky's."
"Hm," Dobey grunted. "That doesn't make sense. Surely, Starsky would have needed proof, too, that you were dead."
There was a knock at the door and Dobey went to open it. He accepted two sacks from the delivery boy who stood there, and paid him for the sandwiches. He brought the sacks to the coffee table.
Hutch was shaking his head thoughtfully. "That would have been too obvious. If they'd taken my wallet while giving me Starsky's, I think they knew I would have figured out what was going on."
Dobey was relieved that Hutch stopped talking to focus on eating. Despite his claims that he was "well treated", he obviously hadn't been privileged to an abundance of food. At least now, even while worried about his partner, his appetite was healthy. Or maybe he was just storing up energy for the highly emotional reunion that surely lay ahead.
"They didn't tell you anything about The Boss?" Dobey asked after Hutch had devoured two sandwiches, washing them down with orange juice.
"They kept saying they were waiting for further instructions." Now, having eaten, Hutch sounded more like his normal self. "That they didn't even know who The Boss was, but they were getting paid handsomely for following his orders. That they didn't know why me and Starsky were supposed to be kidnapped." He paused, then, "When they got tired of all my questions, they started keeping me gagged. When I almost succeeded in getting away, they started blindfolding me and tying my feet to the bed." Hutch had taken a third sandwich from the sack. "Hard to believe it's been just two weeks. Seems like forever." He gazed at the sandwich a long moment. Then he whispered, "Poor Starsk." He picked up the wallet with his other hand.
"At least you'll be able to give that back to him," Dobey said.
For the first time, Hutch actually smiled as he met his superior's eye. "Yeah."
The phone rang.
* * *
They were silent on the drive through the Los Padres National Forest. Hutch was hunched over in the seat , shoulders taut, staring out the window.
The directions Huggy had delivered were complicated. A lot of small dirt roads that weren't well marked. Since one of the pair that was guarding Starsky had run off, they would have only one guard to deal with.
Dobey had told the local authorities to have back-up ready, but that he and Hutch would go in first. After all, he explained to them, the captured man was Hutch's partner. What he didn't mention was how he hoped to give his two men as much privacy as possible when they saw each other in the flesh for the first time in what felt like a very long time.
"That must be it," Dobey muttered, spotting a cabin in the clearing at the top of the hill they were driving up. He picked up his radio. "All units, we have visual contact with the destination. Please proceed with caution, and do not get any closer than one hundred yards until ordered. Dobey out."
Hutch hadn't spoken, but the black man could feel the muscles coil in his companion's body as he prepared for battle.
"Let's keep it simple," Dobey cautioned. "According to Huggy, all the remaining guard cares about is eating and watching movies on the VCR. He shouldn't present much of an obstacle."
As they came to a halt, they could hear the sound of the television. They snuck up to the door, both drawing their guns.
Hutch knocked on the door, then shouted, "Police! Open up!"
There was no sound, other than the movie. "I don't think he heard us," Dobey said.
Hutch nodded, and put his hand on the door. He turned the handle, and looked at Dobey triumphantly when it turned, not locked. Dobey nodded back, indicating he was ready.
Hutch pushed open the door. Dobey swung into the entrance, gun extended.
An overweight man sat among boxes and empty cans of food, dressed only in his underwear, staring at the TV screen. He looked up with his mouth open.
"Freeze!" Dobey yelled, hearing Hutch come in behind him.
The man's beefy arms went up.
Hutch rushed forward, lifting Dobey's cuffs in the process, and grabbed both hands to cuff them to the back of the chair. "Where is he?" Hutch spat.
Dobey called over his walkie-talkie, "The suspect has been apprehended."
The man, who seemed to have a nonchalant attitude about being caught, nodded toward the other side of the cabin.
They turned as one. The other side of the front room was full of dirty dishes and more boxes and open cans of food, but there was a door, leading to another room.
Hutch shoved his borrowed gun into his borrowed holster and moved to the door, breathing heavy with anticipation.
Dobey watched while Hutch turned the handle - the door was unlocked - and pushed open the door. All they could see was darkness.
"Starsk?" Hutch called gently, stepping forward to disappear past the frame. "Starsky? It's me, buddy."
Dobey stepped closer, feeling a sense of foreboding as he approached the room. Already, his nostrils were detecting the scent of what smelled like a cesspool. Was it possible that they were too late? No human being could exist in these conditions....
Still, he crept forward until he could see into the room.
He spotted Hutch first, squatting down on the floor, his back to the door, hands carefully at his sides. When Dobey took another half step in, more of the foul-smelling air assaulted him. Now he could see that someone was sitting on the floor in front of Hutch. Dobey pushed the door open wider.
It had to be Starsky, but Dobey would never have known if he had not come here specifically looking for him.
The man on the floor was bearded. His hair was thick and stuck out in all directions. His clothing hung on him. When the door opened wide enough to see his eyes, the orbs were abnormally bright within sunken sockets.
Those eyes were looking up at Hutch. Then Starsky's gruff voice said simply, "I thought you were dead."
Hutch's hands reached for him. "I know, partner," he said gently. "That's what they told me about you, too."
Starsky didn't move, but Hutch leaned forward and wrapped his arms around him, drawing the other against himself.
Starsky lay silently, his head against Hutch's shoulder.
Dobey had been expecting a more exuberant reunion. But Starsky's circumstances had changed everything. An ambulance had been following the police cars to this location, but had been needed on another call. Dobey hadn't worried about it at the time, since Hutch seemed to be in reasonably good shape, considering his ordeal. But now.... "We'll take him in my car."
Hutch nodded. His hand ran slowly up and down Starsky's back, the motion one of taking great care with a fragile object.
Starsky hadn't said another word. He seemed content within Hutch's grasp, but he was making no move to raise his arms and return the hug.
Despite his feelings for the two men, Dobey could hardly stand to be in the room, considering the smell. He knew that Starsky's person had to be even worse, but Hutch obviously wasn't able to stay away. He stepped out, relieved to draw a breath of mere rotting food rather than human waste. The guard was still watching television, despite being handcuffed to his chair.
"Is there a flashlight around here?" he asked the prisoner, surprised his tone was casual, for it was difficult to think of the guard as a human being when he'd been so cruel to one in his care.
"Somewhere on that counter," the guard said. "You'll need that key, too." He turned his attention back to the television.
Dobey spotted the flashlight. He wasn't sure what the man meant, but he picked up the key. Then he realized, with a sense of dread, that Starsky must restrained by some means. In fact, it seemed odd that Starsky hadn't found some way of getting out of his predicament when such a lowly example of the human race had been all that stood between freedom and enslavement. Of course, there had been a second guard before he split. And there was Starsky's mental state from hearing that Hutch was dead....
Dobey picked up his walkie-talkie. "All right, a couple of you boys come in here and haul this piece of garbage out of here. I'll be with Detective Starsky."
He went back into the room, bracing for the smell. Hutch was still cradling Starsky, petting up and down his back. Dobey couldn't see Starsky's face. He pointed the flashlight toward the floor and turned it on. Behind him, he heard other law enforcement officers enter the cabin and deal with the guard.
Dobey shined the light until the beam caught Starsky's left arm, hanging limply at his side. Further down, his fingers clutched something. "What's he holding?"
Hutch glanced at Starsky's hands, then picked up his left hand. "What's this, buddy?" he asked with forced cheerfulness.
Starsky made a sound of disagreement, and his fingers tightened.
"It's okay, partner," Hutch soothed, but Starsky's grip didn't ease. Hutch turned the hand over and the beam caught a flash of gold. In amazement, he said, "My pocket watch." Then, sorrowfully, "Oh, God." This time, when his arm went back around Starsky, he hugged even tighter.
Dobey swallowed. The guards had used the pocket watch to convince Starsky that Hutch was dead. The way Starsky gripped it so tightly made it obvious that Starsky had believed them. Dobey wondered, with the subhuman conditions Starsky had been living in, if the other man's mental state was such that he didn't realize that Hutch's presence was a genuine reality.
Dobey shined the beam along the weakened man's body. The way his torn clothing hung on him was unnatural. Hutch's gaze followed the beam and, with a sad glance at Dobey, he started to tug the dirty shirttail upward.
Ribs jutted out from Starsky's back. Hutch gently ran his hand along them and Starsky made a soft cry of pain.
Dobey stepped closer to shine the light where Hutch had put his hand. "Oh, good Lord," he said when the beam revealed a layer of raised, red blotches along the skin at the small of Starsky's back. Hutch pulled at the waist band of the baggy jeans, and the light revealed that the rash was even more prominent along his waist, and probably further below.
"We've got to get him out of these clothes," Dobey said, then mentally added, Out of here. But then the beam fell on Starsky's legs. Both feet were bare... and filthy. A shackle was around the left ankle. A short chain was connected to it, which was fixed to the wall.
Hutch held on tighter. "Dear God."
"I've got the key," Dobey said quickly. He hesitated before squatting down; the odor around Starsky was even more foul. But he held his breath and inserted the key. The shackle fell open with a creak. He stood quickly, unable to look at the swelling, filthy abrasions left by the metal.
Hutch asked hopefully, "Is the way clear?"
Dobey stepped back. "I'll make sure it is." He, too, didn't want anyone to see Starsky like this. "And I'll round up some blankets. Stay put another minute."
Hutch gently laid his hand against the back of Starsky's head. "Hang on, buddy," he whispered. "We'll have you out of here in no time."
Starsky showed no reaction.
Dobey breathed deeply after leaving the room. The beefy guard was outside, being led by a pair of patrolmen to a black-and-white. A detective was taking pictures of the outside of the cabin. Dobey went up to the man and said, "You'll be able to take some inside as soon as we get my men out."
Dobey marched over to the black and white, where the suspect was waiting for the door to be opened for him. He stopped in front of the man, struggling to keep his temper under control. "Just one question: were you ordered to starve him?" He couldn't imagine why Hutch would have been reasonably well-treated when Starsky wasn't.
The man shrugged. "I was told to keep him alive. As long as he was breathing, I figured he was alive. He's still breathin', ain't he?" The question was genuine, as though the sorry excuse for a man hadn't checked on Starsky in a while.
Dobey felt his blood pressure increase.
"I made sure he had plenty of water."
"What about food?" Dobey hissed.
"He wasn't gonna get any of my food," the man said, as though offended at the suggestion. "Whoever was payin' me was responsible for him. I was supposed to be hearin' from him any day."
The man was stupid and less than human. Dobey turned away. He was going to make sure his two detectives were properly cared for, and then he was going to find out who the scum was behind this whole mess. He knew the guard didn't know the identity of the man who paid him, so didn't bother to ask. What Huggy had learned so far was that no one involved in the kidnappings knew anyone else two links farther down the chain of command.
Most of the other patrol cars had left. "Wilkerson," Dobey called to a patrolman who was just about to get in his car. "I need your regulation blanket."
Wilkerson went to his trunk. He took out the blanket and handed it to Dobey.
"Thanks," Dobey muttered, still seething. He opened up his own trunk and pulled out his LAPD blanket, plus another blanket that was used by his family for picnics.
Picnics. He hoped his family would be able to enjoy another one someday very soon.
As he passed by the photographer again, he said, "Stay back until after he's been brought out." They would need pictures of Starsky for evidence, but that could be done at the hospital.
The photographer nodded.
Dobey went back into the house. He spread a blanket out on the floor, left the other two beside it, then took a deep breath before walking into the back room.
Hutch had Starsky's shirt peeled off past his shoulders. The flashlight revealed more of the rash at the top of his shoulders. When he moved closer to assist, Dobey could also see that Starsky's eyes were open as he rested against Hutch, but they seemed to be unfocused.
"How aware do you think he is?" Dobey asked as he squatted down to assist Hutch with the clothing.
"I don't know." Hutch swallowed thickly, then, "He's so weak... it's hard to tell."
The right arm was free of the shirt. They rolled the loose material down Starsky's left arm, but had to stop at the fist that held the pocket watch.
Hutch massaged the clenched fingers with his own. "Buddy," he said gently, "how about letting go for just a second? Huh, pal?" He tugged at Starsky's fingers. "You can have it right back."
Starsky made a noise that sounded like a choked sob, and moved his fist a half inch away, still clutching the watch.
"Cut it," Hutch ordered.
Dobey felt inside his pocket for his knife. As he worked with the shirt, Hutch asked, "Did the guard say anything about why he treated him like this?"
Dobey shook his head with disgust. "He can't have an IQ any higher than forty. He said as long as Starsky was still breathing he was following The Boss's orders and keeping him alive." The cuff of the sleeve was now cut and the shirt slipped off.
Hutch pushed it aside and, with Starsky's head still resting against his shoulder, he used both hands to undo the snap of the jeans. He looked up at Dobey. "How about I lift him up, and you pull them off from the bottom?"
Granted, Starsky was probably some 20-25 pounds underweight, but Hutch wasn't in top shape, either. "You sure you can lift him on your own?" Dobey asked.
The blond man's jaw firmed and his eyes were defiant in the beam of the flashlight. "Of course, I can."
"All right." Dobey put the flashlight down and took the ends of the filthy jeans. "You say when."
Hutch gathered his burden closer. "All right, buddy, we're gonna carry you out of here. You just stay right where you are and let us do the work." He got his feet beneath him, then started to rise, bringing Starsky with him.
When Starsky's weight was no longer on the ground, Dobey pulled. The jeans and underwear came off after one firm tug.
Even Hutch had to turn his face to the ceiling. "Oh, God," he gasped from the oppressive stench released.
Dobey held his breath, dropped the clothing, and grabbed Starsky by the calves. "There's a blanket on the floor, in the front room."
They carried Starsky out and lowered him onto the blanket. In the bright room, they saw that his eyes were red-rimmed, the lids puffy. Starsky was trying to turn his head away from the light, and Hutch, who had Starsky's head resting against his stomach, put a hand over his partner's eyes. "Easy, buddy."
Now that Starsky was stretched out, naked before them, Dobey could see that the rash covered a least a third of his body, some parts so irritated where his clothing had rested that open sores had developed. The leaking sores were as responsible for the foul odor, Dobey realized, as the dried excrement.
Dobey grabbed another blanket and tossed part of it toward Hutch, who spread it over his partner. Hutch's fussing with the blanket left Starsky's eyes unprotected, but they must have adjusted to the pale light, because after blinking, they rested on Hutch.
Dobey spread out the second blanket, watching Starsky's hollowed eyes follow Hutch. "He knows it's you," he remarked as Hutch tucked the second blanket around Starsky's shoulders. "Maybe we should try to get the pocket watch from him." He didn't like the way Starsky's hand seemed frozen around it.
Hutch picked up the hand that gripped the watch. "Hey, buddy," he whispered cheerfully, massaging the hand. "How 'bout letting me keep that for you for a while? Huh, pal?" He worked a finger in between Starsky's.
Under the beard, Starsky's mouth fell open and he released a weary whimper, as though he knew he was too weak to fight anyone who would try to take the watch from him. His eyes started watering, as though in despair.
"Hey, buddy, it's okay," Hutch soothed, now holding the fist and petting along the top of it. He bent Starsky's arm so that it rested against his blanketed chest. "You go ahead and keep it if you want. Give it back to me when you're ready." The blond man's expression hardened when he looked at Dobey. "They'd better not try to take it from him at the hospital."
* * *
They carried Starsky to the car and put him in the back. He was stretched out, his head once again resting heavily against Hutch's shoulder. Hutch leaned back against the door, arms snug around Starsky's blanketed form, but careful not to squeeze. Starsky's eyes were open, but they didn't seem to register anything they saw.
Dobey thought, while looking in his rearview mirror, that Starsky was content where he was, even though it was apparently too much effort for him to look up at Hutch. As for the blond detective, it occurred to Dobey that this closeness they were allowed while being driven to the hospital was really more for Hutch's benefit. He, too, said very little, but he obviously had a need to hold Starsky. Starsky may have been subjected to the more painful ordeal, but it was Hutch who was most in need - needing to comfort and nurture his partner.
"I thought I'd drive all the way back to Memorial," Dobey said, still looking in the rearview mirror. There would be other hospitals on the way, but Memorial was close to home.
Hutch nodded and rested his cheek against the top of Starsky's head.
Dobey felt his own heart swell as he kept glancing at the mirror. His partnership with Elmo Jackson, his partner who died a brutal death at Stryker's hands, was the closest friendship he'd ever experienced. He'd once told his two detectives, "We were tight, just like you two." But now, seeing the two emotionally wounded men drawing strength from each other, he wasn't sure that was true. When it came down to it, he didn't know of any two people who were as bonded to each other as Starsky and Hutch. They were, to quote a Greek philosopher, "two bodies sharing a single soul". Even now, he could almost see the waves of energy - what kind of energy, Dobey wasn't even sure - being passed back and forth between them.
After a time, Hutch raised his head and, with a puzzled expression, gently parted Starsky's hair, studying the exposed scalp.
Dobey took a guess. "Is it lice?"
Hutch didn't look up. "Think so." Then he relaxed again, arms snug around his charge.
He was going to have to disinfect the car before letting the kids in it. For that matter, Hutch was probably now infested with the parasite, as well. But Dobey didn't see any reason to point it out, since the blond detective wasn't about to distance himself from his partner.
Dobey had his radio patched through to the hospital. He told them to be ready, and tried to describe Starsky's condition as well as he could.