Hutch breathed deeply from the cool air and coughed -- expelling a foul gas from his lungs -- and his head cleared. He found himself standing on the bank of broad river that roiled and churned before him in violent beauty. Behind him a silvery gray fog swirled and shrouded the landscape, making it impossible to tell whether he was surrounded by mountains or meadows. He shivered, though not as much from the chill in the air as the strange feeling of hopelessness he sensed was hiding in the shadows, waiting to pounce.
Across the frothy water the sun shone bright as gold, illuminating gently rolling hills and the outline of a town in the distance. Majestic purple mountains scalloped the horizon. The scene was more than idyllic. It was mesmerizing. Even viewing it from far off caused a wave of peace to wash over Hutch. A peace he hadn't felt since . . . . Powerful forces pulled at him like an embrace. Love. Belonging. That's where Starsky must be. He knew it.
Only the treacherous river stood in his way. Its depth was indeterminate; jagged rocks and deadly current made it impossible to cross.
Impossible? No, Hutch would find a way. He had to.
Hutch hadn't been standing there long before he noticed a boat approaching slowly yet steadily from the other side. A tall man in a long dark robe stood in the stern, using a pole with graceful expertise to push the boat along as if trolling a Venetian canal rather than the churning whitewater.
"Welcome friend," the ferryman called out when he was a few yards off. As experienced as Hutch was at picking out the details of a person's appearance, the man was seemingly non-descript. Other than his serenely set lips, patrician nose and eyes that glowed with an otherworldly light, the rest of his features were hidden by the hood of the robe. The shadow it cast made it impossible even to distinguish his ethnicity. Even his movements and posture disguised his age, displaying neither the liveliness of youth nor the deliberateness of age.
The ethereal Everyman displayed a practiced smile as he eased the gondola-like craft alongside Hutch. "Do you have your toll?" He asked.
"Toll?" Relief washed over Hutch. The man and his boat must be his transport across the river. Once on the other side, he'd know how to find Starsky. All he had to do was follow the beat of his heart.
Hutch dug through the pockets of his jeans and jacket but came up empty handed. It had been a long time since he'd carried the spare change that had once kept Starsky supplied with chocolate bars. He didn't even have his wallet and badge. He'd left them on the bedside table that morning along with his gun.
The ferryman frowned as he asked, "Wasn't it explained to you?"
"What?" Hutch couldn't finish his question before his lungs seized up. He covered his mouth as he emitted one last dull cough, then lowered his hand quickly, still seeing the image of Starsky's blood leaking between his fingers.
"I'm sorry. You should have been told," the ferryman said gently. "Something must have gone wrong."
Across the river, the rolling hills and city tugged at Hutch impatiently. Something going wrong didn't even begin to cover it.
The frantic water collided with the rocks and in his mind Hutch again heard the crack of gunfire and its accompanying echo against the parking garage walls. His breathing hitched as he relived for the thousandth time racing to the other side of the Torino and seeing Starsky curled on the ground.
It wasn't until days later that Starsky's eyes had reopened to lock onto his. For a while both their hearts had gotten a second chance. They'd shared champagne in bed and toasted a new beginning.
It was all taken back from them in the blink of an eye. Hutch had been called to the hospital right after Gunther's sentencing. Fluid had unexpectedly built up in Starsky's lungs, he was told. Cardiogenic pulmonary edema. This time there was no magic bullet, no saving grace. Hutch held Starsky's hands as his dearest friend slipped from earth.
His worst nightmare had come true. He'd come to the conclusion that Starsky's death had been their punishment for what they'd come to share; a love that flaunted the rules of some kind of celestial game. Neither of them had ever been good at playing by the rules.
Outside Starsky's hospital room, Hutch had railed against the universal powers who had conspired to bring them together only to tear them apart. Doctors don't have all the answers, a man in a white coat as sterile as his eyes explained gravely. 'We're not miracle workers.'
'Then who is?' Hutch had raged. If anyone deserved a miracle, it was Starsky. Each time they thought they might have a chance to win, the rules kept changing.
He thought maybe he'd thrown a chair but wasn't quite sure. Someone -- Dobey? Huggy? -- had taken hold of him and demanded that he calm down. So he did. But only on the outside. On the inside it was as though a grenade had gone off, shattering every organ. Leaving nothing intact.
Now Hutch stood on the bank of a formidable river with Starsky on the other side.
"I don't have money for a toll," Hutch told the ferryman through gritted teeth. He'd paid a price with every breath he took. Hadn't he paid enough?
"It's not up to me." The other man's words were apologetic, sounding sincere yet not quite convincing.
"I have a friend on the other side. I'm sure he'll cover my tab once I'm across," Hutch insisted. He felt the pressure of frustration build like compressed steam. He'd come so far -- sacrificed so much. He couldn't be left stranded here. He wanted to scream. But he doubted screaming would work any better now than it had then.
"I'm sorry. There are rules we have to follow," the mysterious ferryman explained as the rushing water buffeted his craft. He held it steady with his long staff and balanced with a wide legged stance but even so it was a precarious position that couldn't last long.
Rules. Everywhere rules. Rules about what's right and what's wrong. Even when there seemed no difference between the two. Even when the end result was the same. It had all become too confusing. So seemingly arbitrary. Rules about who walks free and who's left behind. Rules about who lives and rules about who dies. Nothing had changed. Even here. Wherever here was.
Hutch's hands tightened into fists. Starsky would come for him. He knew he would. Just like when he'd been trapped under that car on the mountainside. He hadn't even told Starsky where he was going that day. Had no way to contact him. But still Starsky had come. Even after Hutch had lost hope. He'd lifted Hutch's head from the dirt and caressed his cheek.
"We made it partner," Starsky had whispered in his ear. We made it. Because they were nothing when they were apart.
There was a time he was so sick he'd been quarantined. A wall of glass had separated them then. Starsky had written his name across the glass so it would be the first thing Hutch saw when he opened his eyes. A reminder of something to live for. That had to have broken some kind of rule, hadn't it? Garish graffiti defacing the pristine hospital window? But just seeing Starsky's name was enough to keep Hutch holding on when a hellish plague sought to take him away.
Hutch couldn't die as long as Starsky was still fighting for him.
Death had staked its claim so many times but their claim to each other was stronger. They each had risked everything at one time or another to stay together, succeeding despite the odds. Until one day they were finally pulled apart.
Hutch reached out to the ferryman as he pushed his empty boat away from the shore. Fought to keep his gasp from becoming a sob.
How often had he and his partner flaunted the rules for what they believed in, especially when what they believed in most was each other? Enough to risk everything -- their jobs, their safety, their hearts. Their lives had become entwined. After a while even they lost track of where one ended and the other began.
And then they had broken one of the biggest rules of all. They had fallen in love with each other. Some said it was unnatural, but to them it seemed the most natural thing of all. The thing they'd been born to.
Wasn't that the real reason Starsky had been taken from him? This separation must be their punishment. Still, Hutch had to believe that if he waited long enough, Starsky would come for him now like he always had before. He wasn't about to give up. He sat down to wait.