Thirty minutes later, Hutch was driving the van over a dune-skirted jeep road that led into the interior of the rough wilderness nicknamed Devil's Playground. The lingering effects of the poison gas made it obvious that any long-distance driving was out of the question, and to stop at a roadside motel was to set themselves up like skeet. There had been no sign that they were being followed. It seemed a safe risk to spend at least the hotter hours of the day off the road.

There had been the factor of Maggie, too. There was an air of depression about her that Hutch dwelled on as he steered the van around the worst of the ruts in the road. Something about her invitation had seemed almost a plea for help. A sponge bath for Starsky, a fill up at the truck stop's pumps, and they found themselves following Maggie's BMW off the interstate and into the desert.

The heat was becoming brutal, even though it was barely 7 a.m. The sun was still low over the ridge of paper-cut-out mountains, and already the brilliance of the terrain punished the eyes. The road -- a term used in courtesy -- wound its way past an enormous expanse of dazzling white plain; Hutch couldn't tell if it were a salt flat or a dry soda lake, both of which were common in the environs of Death Valley. The national monument itself was quite a way north, but for all practical purposes, the region they were in was an extension of it.

Maggie rode her bike like a Hell's Angel, half-serious business and half show-off. They drove past the distant remains of bleached-grey abandoned buildings -- shacks? mine camps? Hutch couldn't tell. The land they were on was apparently public land. Nowhere was there a sign of an attempt at development. At one point they passed a weathered sign warning travelers, DO NOT ATTEMPT THIS ROAD WITHOUT AMPLE SUPPLIES OF GASOLINE, OIL, AND WATER. A massive sea of tall dunes, the heart of the Playground, rose up out of the earth ahead of them right after the sign, but Maggie turned off the "main" road before they reached the dunes proper, taking a trail that was washed out in some places and drifted in with sand in others. Out of the corner of his eye, Hutch could see Starsky clinging for dear life to the back of his passenger's seat, groaning and cursing under his breath as Hutch negotiated the sand drifts at breakneck speed, knowing they'd get stuck if he took them slower. This was strictly four-wheel drive country.

"Next time we hafta run somewhere, let's go west," Starsky yelled at one point.

"That's ocean," Hutch yelled back.

"Seasick I could handle. Landsick is embarrassing!"

"Hang on. Here comes another drift."

Whatever Starsky had to say to that was drowned out by the road noise.

The trail gained altitude and left the sand behind, winding through low, eroded foothills that were mostly barren of life, looking more like the remains of a strip mine than a natural habitat. The low mountains loomed closer, blocking out the sun. They had gained maybe a thousand feet of altitude, with the flats and dunes spread out below them in a vast panorama, when Maggie cut off the trail and followed a near-invisible track in the side of an alluvial fan. Around one bend, and they came to a surprise: a copse of mesquite and cottonwood. Under the trees sat, of all things, a beat-up, dilapidated house trailer of pre-1950's design. Maggie parked her bike under the swooping branches of a cottonwood and waved the van up beside it.

The oasis, if it qualified as one, was still in the shadow of the mountain, but as Hutch stepped down from the van, looking westward, he saw the perimeter of the sun visibly creeping up the eroded slopes towards them. Though it was still reasonably cool, the air was drier than he'd ever imagined. He took a deep breath, and the aridity almost cracked the inside of his nose.

"Wow," Starsky said, stepping out behind Hutch. He squinted into the valley laid out before them. "They dropped the bomb, and this is all that's left."

"It's magnificent," Hutch said, shaking his head.

"Better come inside and lie down," Maggie told Starsky. "You look green."

"You never drove with Hutch."

"I'd never drive with either of you, given a choice," she said, taking his arm.

Pausing, Hutch took a long, careful look back the way they had come. The vista was broad. They should be able to see anyone coming up the road from the north, or cross-country from the west or south, from a long way off. And no one was in sight. Satisfied, he stepped up into the trailer, noting with amusement the rusted chrome trademark, "Rex," over the door. Inside, it was amazingly cool. Maggie had stripped back her cot and gotten Starsky to lie down in it, and was starting to peel off his sweat-stained shirt.

"Hey," he protested, as she reached for his belt.

"Ken, come on over here and help this Puritan undress, will you?" she sighed. "I'll get him a wet washrag and towel."

Between them, they got Starsky cooled down and comfortable enough, finally, to sleep. Her eyes thoughtful, Maggie sat watching him for a time. Then she motioned for Hutch to follow her outside. They walked alongside the thin trickle of spring water that fed the trees and collected in a small, slightly scummy pond. The presence of the water made at least a twenty degree difference in the temperature. It was such a relief that Hutch didn't even mind the darting cloud of gnats that hung around his head. Maggie gazed out over the distant patterned dunes in the valley below.

"How's your work coming?" he said conversationally.

"Lousy. The site's been gone over by at least one crew of treasure hunters since last year, when I first looked it over, and if there was much of archeological value here, it's been carted off or scattered. On top of that, we had a devil of a storm last month that washed out most of one dwelling that I was charting, and it was my most promising dig."

"I'm sorry to hear that. How've things been with you, otherwise?"

He knew she understood exactly what he meant by the slight squaring of her shoulders. Five months was hardly long enough to get over Wade's death, but this becoming a virtual hermit didn't seem a realistic way, to Hutch, to try to deal with it, either.

"Healing takes time, Ken," she said tightly. They both watched a dragonfly skimming the little pond. Maggie changed the subject. "What's all this business about being on the run? Who's after you?"

"I wish we knew. We're witnesses in a federal case. I can't tell you much more than that."

"Well at least tell me what's wrong with Davey? Why is he sick?"

"Poison." Hutch said cryptically, and resumed his walk. Maggie paced along behind him.

"Good God! Are you sure he doesn't need a doctor?"

"We've been to a doctor. He'll be all right. He just got more of it that I did. It's supposed to work out of your system after a few days."

"After a few days?!" Her voice was so agitated that Hutch turned to face her as she continued, "When are you going to come to your senses and get out of police work?"

He was too dumbfounded to say anything for a moment.

"Police work is our lives, Maggie. You, if anyone, should understand that. I thought you understood it in Wade."

She winced at the name. "Wade is dead. He died on the streets because being a cop was his life. It was his death, too. And it'll be yours if you stay in it."

"It's possible. But --"

"Oh, Ken." She swung away from him, looking out through the trees to the desolation beyond. "Someday, sooner or later, someone will gun you down on the street, too, or in a grimy back alley, or Davey will die in your arms like Wade died in Davey's. Sooner or later. Especially the way you roar around, both of you, always working the roughest cases, always acting like nothing can touch you." She had drawn close, and slipped an arm around his waist, bowing her head on his arm. Her voice was a whisper. "I don't want to see it happen to you and Davey, too. And it will."

He hugged her lightly, but a bone-weariness seemed to seep from her into him, knowing she was right. At the same time, knowing she was wrong. He and Starsky had something different going, a partnership unlike most he'd seen in other police teams. They had a sixth sense about each other, knew when the other was in trouble. They avoided analyzing it closely, content to let it be, to happen, but it was a plus on their side, whether on the streets or anywhere else. Maybe if Wade's partner, Chris, had known Wade as well as Hutch knew Starsky -- but there was no point in dwelling on that. There was always the element of luck: the one thing on which no one could depend.

"It's been lonely out here for you, Maggie," he found himself saying, not sure how that connected with her mood, but sure that it did. "You've been gone for a long time. Maybe you could come back to the city now, be with people again. Maybe it would help."

"I came out here to get my work done," she said curtly. She disentangled herself from him as though he were a tree trunk instead of a human being. Neutrally, she added, "There are some unusual petroglyphs at the site, if you'd like to see them. We're about a five minute walk away."

Hutch frowned. All right, he wouldn't push it. When Maggie was ready to talk, she'd talk.

"I'll stay close to Starsky, here by the trailer. But if you're headed for your work, go on. I ought to check out the van after that drive, anyway."

"The smart thing for you to do would be to sack out, too. You probably drove most of the night."

"I will, soon as Starsky wakes up."

"Always the cop!" she snapped. "Always on guard. What a life." With that, she turned and tromped out of the oasis, walking along the side of the hill and disappearing among the outcrops of rocks.

Hutch watched her go, all her confused anger. He had no idea how to reach through her unexpected storm of emotions. Maybe when she came back later, she'd have sorted things out. He sighed, then strolled back toward the trailer. The sun had clambered over the horizon, washing the oasis in light and heat, and the "Rex" promised coolness. Hutch forewent inspecting the van. Time for that later. Instead, he went inside to find something to drink. The day was, indeed, turning out to be a 'scorcher' -- in more ways than he'd thought.

You must login () to review.