|This story was originally printed in the S/H
zine LIFELINE: A DECADE OF SWEET REVENGE, published by
Jenn and Molly D. Brown as Jenny Brown Enterprises in 1989.
Special thanks to Daphne for preparing this story for the
archive. The author is not on the internet and doesn't have
email. Comments on this story can be sent snail mail to
Flamingo, PO Box 823, Beltsville MD 20704-0823, and will be
forwarded to the author.
THE MAGNIFICENT SIX
It was to be a very quiet party: Hutch, Dobey, Huggy, and himself to celebrate his return to duty. Starsky smiled as he began clearing papers and magazines off the table. He felt ready for anything, thanks to a rigorous schedule of exercise (LAPD approved) and the resumption of his regular diet. No more high-protein, low-fat crap, even though, in the long run, it hadn't been that bad. Now, however, the future looked rosy as hell; back to work, back to being with Hutch, back to tacos and enchiladas, rotgut coffee and bagels -.
He broke off his daydreams when the phone rang. Glancing quickly at the clock, he lifted the receiver. "'Bout time you called. When are you gonna pick up the beer?"
"Starsky, it's only two o'clock. You told us not to show up until ten tonight. Besides, I won't be done here until around six. Then I've got to chase down some people about a shooting. You know how that goes." Hutch sounded both amused and irritated.
"Hutch, do you know how lousy warm beer is? All foam and no taste. Can't you sign out just a little early? Forget the witnesses until tomorrow. Come over and help me set up," Starsky coaxed. He knew better than to pull that "poor, pitiful me" routine, because all Hutch would do would be to tell him to go chase his tail. Besides, he knew lots of ways to make time pass.
He laughed softly, "I take it you're callin' from a pay phone ..."
Hutch chuckled, "Well, who in hell wants every conversation recorded, huh?" There was a long pause, then Hutch was all business again. "Huggy's got a keg cooling at the Pits. I'll have him bring it over if I'm gonna be late. Besides, I've ordered a bottle of bubbly from the Liquor Barn - for later. You know how much I'm looking forward to Monday morning, don't you, partner?"
Starsky closed his eyes, nodding to his unseen friend, "Yeah, seems a helluva lot longer than it really is." They both knew the ins and outs of his recuperation, so they never dwelled on it for very long. "Dobey's gonna bring one of those antipasto trays just like before ... remember?"
He heard Hutch catch his breath, then laugh, "You mean that damn automatic sprinkler - that nurse? Hell, yes, I remember. They tossed you out not long after that. You were fakin' anyway."
Right. That was the line he and Hutch had used when sewn muscles felt like they were tearing, when even a deep breath took all his courage. "You got it in one, Hutch. So hurry up and chase down those leads and get over here. We're gonna do some serious poker playing tonight."
"I knew it ... that goddamn card shark talked you into playing five card stud, didn't he?" Hutch sounded disgusted. "Starsk, neither of us is gonna end up with anything in our pockets when Dobey and Huggy get through with us. Hell, those two skin us every time."
"Hey, Huggy can't help it - he's just good, and Dobey's so slick you never know what he's holdin'. You, on the other hand, happen to be awful when it comes to poker." He pictured the earnest face, betraying every emotion possible. "Hutch, just find whoever you're looking for and pick up the champagne." Starsky almost said more, but held back. He didn't know where Hutch was calling from. "See ya whenever. Bye."
"Whenever. Stay cool."
Sure. Stay cool. Don't tell Hutch how many times you've polished and cleaned your piece. How many times you've tried on the holster, trying to make it ride easy over the scars. The knee-bends, the wrist flexes, the drives in the Torino to toughen up his ass again, his spine. Starsky set the receiver down, and stared into space. It hadn't once occurred to him to be afraid of being shot again ... only that some part of his body would become impaired so badly he couldn't work anymore.
He shook his head, remembering Hutch's worries about getting flat feet, or bad vision, or piles from riding around so long in the car. Things like that happened to other cops, not them, he had reassured his partner. When they'd been young and too damn cocky for their own good, they'd talked about the Butch and Sundance way of checking out - but after a couple of years on the streets, they knew otherwise. Maybe in an ambush, or by a bomb, but their own experiences had taught them that one of them would be left behind - this time it was almost Hutch.
The bathroom was cool when he entered it and stripped down to stare critically at his chest. Not bad, nothing as disfiguring as a blast in the face, but still there, still pink beneath his chest hair. He was glad he wasn't as smooth-skinned as Hutch. The more conspicuous scars on his back he ignored. He knew exactly where they were and what they looked like.
Fuck this! Feeling slightly stupid, Starsky donned his shirt, never taking his eyes off himself. He'd lost quite a bit of weight after leaving the hospital - mostly because he'd been so damn down in the dumps. When Hutch had rather icily pointed out to him that their partnership was threatened by his sulking he'd gotten so mad he'd managed to gain most of it back. He grinned at his trim, hard reflection; Hutch was a royal pain-in-the-ass at times, but his tactics had worked.
Light from the window picked at the new grey hairs at his temples, and he peered solemnly at them, resisting the temptation to pull them out. Like the scars on his body, they were part of him now. Hell, Dobey's hair was actually white above his ears; they were all beginning to show their ages. He turned, impatient with himself; Hutch didn't care ... or rather, Hutch cared so much that nothing else mattered. Somewhat appeased, he decided to have a Coors.
The phone rang again an hour later. It was Dobey reaffirming the date, and saying he'd be there about nine-thirty with the antipasto. After clearing his throat he asked what else there was going to be to eat. Starsky laughed, "Cap'n, Hutch ordered the beer and I'm providing the meal - sandwiches and salad. With your stuff, there'll be plenty." He grinned at the note of doubt in Dobey's reply, "Hey, Hutch thinks him 'n' me are gonna take you and Huggy for every dime you got ... you gonna back away from him?" He waited.
"Starsky! The day that you and that - that partner of yours beat me at my own game ... I dunno why I even bother ... I never win anything but chump change from you two, anyway." Dobey humphed and grumphed, but it was obvious he'd forgotten all about his stomach for at least another hour.
"Okay, Cap'n. See ya tonight." With that, Starsky began cleaning in earnest. He tossed the empty beer can into the sink.
* * * * *
By the time Starsky went out to sweep off the front deck, slanted rays of sunshine were gilding the hibiscus. He pulled off the dead blooms, then stood listening to the chirping and chattering of a flock of small birds that flitted through the trees. The smell of drying grass and warm, dusty earth filled the canyon air. He loved this place, loved the peace, the seclusion, and the streets twisting through the hills. Hutch had pointed out to him it was about as far removed from his boyhood brownstone house as he could get, which was true, but when his partner asked him why, he hadn't come up with any answers ... he just liked it, and that was good enough reason.
He listened to the birds for another second or two, then began pushing the garage broom over the redwood boards in an easy, measured movement, careful not to overreach or strain his muscles. He'd learned very quickly to think before reacting. How that philosophy would work when he was on duty was something he'd have to find out later on. Finally satisfied with his efforts, he ran down the steps to pull the trash barrel a little further under the deck - out of sight. He left the broom propped against it and glanced at his watch. Jesus, already five o'clock! Where the hell had the time gone? He took the front steps two at a time in his hurry to finish his chores, thankful he hadn't been shot in the legs. He was really looking forward to the poker game, maybe he could teach Hug a thing or two - yeah, it was going to be a great party.
* * * * *
Starsky put the vacuum away, reaching for clean towels to hang in the bathroom. Freshly showered and shaved, with his favorite old shirt and jeans on, he padded barefoot from bathroom to kitchen, checking on last minute details. He wiped at a slather of mayo he'd missed before. He was the first to admit he was no great shakes as a cook, but he got by. When it came to regular meals, well, Hutch always made enough for them both. Besides, being a cop meant you either had ulcers or ate like a horse. Fortunately, he was still in the latter category.
There was the sound of heavy thumping outside on the steps. Starsky flipped the sponge onto the kitchen counter and headed for the front, calling out, "Yeah, yeah, keep your shirt on!" He was pleased; it was only nine and Hutch was already through. He unlocked the door and flung it open, "Lemme give you a hand with the booze -"
Huggy, resplendent in a searing yellow shirt with flares to match, stood blinking at him, head tilted. "Starsky, my man, you must have x-ray vision. How'd you know I had the keg with me?" He stepped aside, pointing with a long forefinger at the aluminum barrel on the deck.
Flustered, Starsky stared, first at Huggy, then at the keg. "I - uh, I thought it was Hutch. I forgot he said he was gonna have you bring it over." He bent down, and together they side-rolled the heavy barrel into the living room. "Where's my partner?" he asked, after closing the door.
Huggy shrugged, and snagged a couple of pretzels from the coffee table. "Dunno. Mr. America just called me and said to tell you he was going to be a little late." He looked directly at Starsky, "He said he tried to call you but you were on the phone." The owner of the Pits wiped his fingers on his hip.
"Yeah, musta been when I was talking to Dobey." Starsky rubbed his hands together, "Well, let's get this mother into the kitchen, then see how cold it is." He felt only the slightest bit put out; he knew how rough it was to chase down witnesses. Hutch would make it as soon as he could.
But nine-thirty came and went. Dobey arrived, complete with the biggest tray of food he could carry. The three of them sat and made small bets on how many anchovies there were, how many olives, and drank beer. As time passed, however, Dobey began scratching his head, a sure sign he was uneasy. He and Huggy stared at one another.
"Where was he going, Captain?" Starsky asked when ten-thirty rolled around. He mentioned seeing somebody about a shooting ..."
He glanced over at Huggy. "You know something you're not spillin'? Like who these jerkos are?"
Dark eyes rolled, then narrowed, and Huggy got up to refill his beer mug. "Now, Starsky, you know Hutch ain't takin' any chances when you're having a party." He shrugged. "He did mention that one of them was a dame ..." A crooked grin lit his features as he took a long swig of beer, "Probably some mean old mujer who won't take no shit. Probably uglier than sin and tougher than the whole LAPD rolled together."
Starsky's glance darted to Dobey, who was staring glumly at the food. "Who was he supposed to see?" The fact that the captain was more concerned about eating than Hutch's absence was somewhat reassuring, but he asked anyway. "You ain't telling me something. What is it?"
"I'm starving!" Dobey snapped, wagging his grizzled head from side to side. "And all he's doing is being late, is all." The round face creased in a genuine smile. "He'll be here." Dobey got to his feet and snagged a couple of sandwiches from the platter. "But I'm not waiting any longer. Where's the mustard?"
"On the sink, and I'm not gonna wait more than another half hour. Then I'm gonna go looking for him." He knew he shouldn't worry, or even think about driving after so many beers, but Hutch wouldn't be late - not tonight.
Huggy drained his glass. "Like I said, Hutch ain't doin' anything stupid, Starsky. He's too damn anxious for Monday to get here." He snapped his fingers and laughed, "Where're the cards? I need to stretch my fingers."
Grinning, Starsky got out the deck, covered the table with a green felt cloth, and adjusted the lights. "You wait until me 'n' Hutch start playing. We're gonna wipe you two off the floor."
"I'd like to make a bet on it," Dobey scoffed as he stared at his hand. He tossed two chips onto the table. "Hit me."
They played for ten minutes, then fifteen, Dobey's stack of chips higher by half than either Starsky's or Huggy's. The captain was in rare form, but his glance kept darting to the clock.
Huggy won a hand, and when Starsky reluctantly shoved his remaining blue chips across the table, he said, "Man, you are some rotten player, Starsky. Why didn't you fold right away?" He shook his head.
There was a very loud banging on the door. From the sound of it, more than one fist was pounding on its solid surface. "Starsk! Lemme in, dammit! I know yer in there!"
There was a second's silence, then Starsky heard Hutch say, "I know he's inside -"
He grinned from ear to ear. Hutch sounded drunk as a skunk. The fool had probably popped the champagne and had been sitting somewhere trying to sober up. He opened the door, ready to catch a staggering partner. "You never could hold your liquor, pal -"
"SURPRISE!" shouted Hutch, spoiling the effect with a huge hiccup. He looked fondly at Starsky, then dragged him out onto the deck. "Look who I brought with me." He pushed a dark-haired woman into Starsky's outstretched arms.
"Hunh? Who -? Omigod! Auerbach!" He looked straight into his partner's eyes, "Who's hidin' behind you, pal? C'mon, lemme see." He gently disengaged himself from the woman, his smile widening as two men came forward, hands extended. "Goddamn!"
Whirling around, he yelled for Dobey and Huggy. "Hey, Hutch's here, and guess who's with him. Sonuvabi - uh, 'scuse me, hon." He led the nurse into the living room, then turned back to shake hands with his former doctor, "Doc - how are you? Come on in. Herman, you old dog!" He stared suspiciously as the orderly came near. "Your hands empty? As I remember, you always were ready to do something awful to me." He was chuckling as the orderly shook his hand like the handle on a water pump. "It's good to see you. Thanks for coming."
While the medical personnel shook hands with Dobey and Huggy, and drinks were being poured, Starsky walked over to Hutch, who was still standing in the doorway, leaning heavily on it for support.
"I've been drunking," Hutch declared, trying to focus. "But theresh 'nuff for you." He hiccupped, then leaned down and somewhat unsteadily picked up a magnum of very good champagne and shoved it at Starsky. "Got warm. Jus' put some ice 'n it. It'll be shwell." He patted Starsky's cheek, his touch lingering a moment before it slid away. "You s'prised?" His gaze made Starsky tingle.
"Yeah, you big jerk! Whose idea was this, anyway?" Starsky pointed to the latest arrivals, and tilted the bottle up to take a swallow before he went a step further. It was so warm it went straight up his nose in fizzy bubbles.
"Mine!" Hutch said brightly. "I figgered they, uh, took such g'd care of you ... well, you know." Hutch was now slightly green around the gills. "C'n I come in?" he asked rather plaintively.
Starsky shook his head, "Dunno if I should let you. You gonna be sick? How come you opened the bottle ..." he eyed it sadly, "... without me?"
Very slowly, Hutch let go of the doorframe and entered the room. "Firs' I went to puck - pick - up th' nurse, an' she tol' me that Doc had 'n 'mergency ..." Hutch stared blearily at the bottle Starsky held. "And Herm'n had a flat ... an' so we decid'd to have a drink while we waited. Boy, can she drink!" He looked pleased that he'd managed the explanation so well. "Not to worry, though, there's 'nother one in the car." He blinked, "I gotta go to the john." He headed carefully toward the door, waving at the captain and Huggy as he did. "Be ready in a few minutes, honest." The bathroom door closed behind him.
Laughing, Starsky joined his guests, noticing that the nurse was staring into an empty glass. An evil thought popped into his brain. "Have some draft beer, Auerbach? There's plenty."
Her expression was one of benevolence and trust. "Zit cold?" She held out her glass, patting the aluminum exterior of the keg. "Confidentially, Sergeant, 'm thirsty as hell."
Starsky took the tumbler and set it in the sink, then rummaged through his cupboard until he found a pint-sized mug. "Just the thing to cure that," he said happily. After handing her the drink, he headed for the stereo. Time to get this party going.
When Hutch emerged from the bathroom, looking somewhat more alert, the party was in full swing. Herman had demolished one section of the antipasto tray, and was now working on the roast beef and horseradish. Dobey and the doctor were oblivious to everything except a bottle of Jim Beam that had made its way onto the card table. With chasers of beer, they were already having trouble pouring the liquor.
Starsky, by the stereo, spotted his partner and headed for him. He put a finger to his lips and pointed toward the center of the living room. "Do you believe that? Lookit that dame!"
There, to the rocking strains of Zeppelin's "Bring It On Home," Huggy and the nurse were dancing. Red-faced, dress hitched up in her belt, Nurse Auerbach was giving a determined, and very drunk, Huggy a run for his money. Twisting and turning, fingers snapping, she was enjoying the music - and the open-mouthed stares of the doctor and orderly.
"Jesus," Hutch breathed reverently, "no wonder she wanted to crack that magnum. Maybe she's making a play for the doc." His eyes were round and still slightly unfocused.
"Maybe, and maybe not. All I know is you ain't gonna be the one who takes them home. Or me." He ran one finger down Hutch's spine.
Blue eyes surveyed him up and down. "Damn straight, partner," Hutch affirmed. "They can sleep over, 'cause none of us is fit to drive. He smiled, "I get your bed, right?"
It was Starsky's turn to grin. "Only if you sober up, loverboy, because I got plans ..." He arched his eyebrow. "Now, let's see if those medical types know how to play poker."
"Oh, shit! I forgot. Starsk, I'm broke ..." Hutch turned to stare at the dancing figures. "Maybe Auerbach has some money on her ... we need a stake." He headed toward the couple.
"Whoa, blondie!" Starsky grabbed Hutch by the back of his jacket, "We're not gonna lose. See, I figured out Huggy's game a while back. While I was recuperating." He shrugged at Hutch's suddenly penetrating stare. "Herman used to come in and we'd play a little poker ... taught me a couple of tricks." He did a little shadow-boxing, "Well, it's worth a try, isn't it?"
Looking decidedly doubtful, Hutch allowed himself to be maneuvered to a seat at the table. "Dunno, partner, there's something you should -"
"Trust me, babe, and try to keep a straight face, willya?" Starsky cupped his hands like a carnival barker. "Game time, folks. Who wants to play?"
From somewhere Dobey and Herman had found more chairs, and after settling a very flushed nurse into her seat, the men sat down, drinking slowly while Huggy shuffled and dealt the first hand. A large diamond sparkled on Doc's left hand, and Starsky grinned. "You got any more at home like that?" he asked wickedly.
"You should see my wife," was the quick response. "Woman thinks she's married to the Aga Khan."
"Don't let him fool you, Starsky. He uses solid gold instruments in the operating room," Auerbach retorted as she expertly riffled her cards. "All right, gentlemen, what are the stakes?"
Harold Dobey shot one baleful glance at Hutch before he replied. "I didn't know you were familiar with poker, Miss Auerbach. Where did you learn the game?" He shoved two blue chips toward the center of the table, his fingers not leaving them.
The nurse settled her glasses firmly on her nose, her expression deadpan. "Born and raised in Reno, Captain. My daddy worked at Harrah's when I was a kid." She stacked four blue chips right next to Dobey's and beamed at the suddenly wary expressions. "I paid my way through nursing school by working the tables. Didn't Ken tell you?" Her smile was now sliding over that individual.
Huggy got to his feet, went into the kitchen and poured his beer down the drain. "'Course he didn't. Ken wouldn't tell his friends anythin' like that! Ken has a death wish, that's what Ken has!" He turned back to the table and asked, "Who wants black coffee? The sooner the better."
Doc shook his head. "Don't bother. It won't do a damn bit of good. In fact," he sighed, "gimme some of that Jim Beam. It's a great anesthetic."
The nurse's glass was there first. "So glad you asked. Beer makes me sleepy after a bit. But I can drink the hard stuff all night."
"I suppose your mammy was a moonshiner," Starsky snarled, nearly choking as he watched his precious booze measured out. He met Hutch's wide-eyed gaze, and added under his breath, "Gonna be a long night, partner. You better damn well be prepared to make up for it later on."
Hutch's expression didn't change, but his eyes held a good deal of warmth. "Told you there's a bottle in the car." His face was all innocence. "Or were you referring to booze? Looks like it's gonna be a long night, Starsk," he echoed.
But just at that moment, and only for a blink of an eye, Starsky sat gazing around the table. What was it Hutch had said? "Chase down some people about a shooting." Of course, his own shooting, and these were the people who had fought to pull him through. Six people absorbed in playing a game of chance. Six humans who, through their dedication to saving his life, and then giving him the will to live, had made all the difference in the world - his world.
He grinned. Life had once more come full circle and he knew it. Leaning forward, he addressed the nurse. "Auerbach, you better be hot tonight, 'cause I gotta hand that you can't match!"
She peered over her glasses, clearly disbelieving. "Really. What are you holding, Dave?" She waggled her cards at him.
Starsky waved them away. "Nah, forget 'em." He pointed to each player in turn. "Aces, dollface, aces. I got six of 'em. Luckiest man alive. Right, partner?" He turned to Hutch.
That individual paused in the middle of studying his cards to meet Starsky's glance. "Damn straight, partner," he said softly, "from now on Lady Luck rides with us no matter where we go."
"Yeah. And ain't her son's name Cupid?" He began laughing as Hutch turned scarlet. "Come on, Hutch, let's show this bunch we can take 'em!" He pushed all his chips toward the middle of the table. "Do your damndest, Fate. 'Cause Starsky's back in the game of Life!"