Twelve hours and then the good doctor would have a "private session" with my partner. I couldn't let that happen. Starsky was bound up tight in a haven of madmen and helpless to move, gagged so that he couldn't even call for help. All he had was me. I hoped to God that was enough.
To the residents of Cabrillo Mental Institution reality was just an illusion. While reality consisted of rooms the color of dried out gum, hallways that echoed with every squeak of a rubber sole, and lights out at 11 p.m. sharp, in their minds' eye they lived out their fantasies. A jokester, a poet, a gambler. And Freddie, lost in a never-ending film noir. But the fact that someone was killing them off one by one was real enough to pull my partner and I undercover.
It was only natural that Starsky, with his wild curls and cockeyed way of looking at the world, would play the patient, with me as the studious and serious intern. In this place where sinners appeared as saints and what was meant to heal did more harm, we promised to stay as close to each other as possible.
I murder what I most adore,
Laughing: I am indeed of those
Condemned for ever without repose
To laugh — but who can smile no more.
— George Dillon, Flowers of Evil
Starsky was scared. As scared as I'd ever seen him. But he wouldn't give in. Not even for me. Those blue eyes locking onto mine told me how important this investigation was to him. He wasn't about to leave these wandering souls here alone. My partner struggled to give me the illusion of confidence while I let him think I could keep him safe and we both tried to pretend this was just another job.
I ached to give his arm a reassuring squeeze or brush his disheveled hair back from his troubled eyes but feared my free touch would only highlight his bondage. Instead I left him with a useless warning to be careful. At least I didn't replace the gag. Outside his room I collapsed against the wall, leaning my head on its cool surface, trying to collect myself. My stomach clenched at having to leave him helpless.
I holed up after hours in the break room pretending to work on reports as I watched the clock creep toward midnight. My mind kept going back to Starsky, his eyes glittering with grit as he lay immobile. How much was I willing to allow my partner suffer in order to solve a case? Was his judgment still clear after all he'd been through? My hand itched to make the call that would bring an end to this game.
But Dr. Matwick walked in and ordered me gone. The bitter taste he left in my mouth was more than the half-eaten apple. On my way to the locker room my own sense of reality suddenly slid away. The floors, walls and even the air itself seemed to shift. I stumbled against the bench and fell back into the locker door. A faintly familiar face faded in and out of focus above me as a knife flashed in his hand.
'I'm in deep shit.'The fact that my brain wasn't functioning was my only excuse for mentally reaching out for Starsky. After all, he was the one who was tied up and locked away. I was supposed to be protecting him. But it was instinctive. In a maze of smoke and mirrors he was the only thing that was real.
The hallway obstacle course was a kaleidoscope of changing shapes and colors as I crashed into walls and doors in a mad dash to get away. The metal cage of the stairwell finally caught me. I fell back onto the stairs and the knife was in my face, my attacker holding me down. I was as weak as child as I ineffectually pushed at the unyielding weight. Then suddenly the weight was gone and I lay there watching the world spin around and around until I was looking into the blue of Starsky's eyes.
"Are you okay?" I heard the concern in his voice, felt his rough hands on my face. I tried to focus but my head was spinning and my vision was tunneling, fading. I felt my partner pull me up from the stairs with a strong grip and wrap his arms securely around my waist. Ever since we had entered this asylum of apparitions and shadows, I hadn't been sure of what was real. But I knew this was. His voice in my ear, his arms providing protection.
I slid down against the wall taking Starsky with me but he kept holding on. I was slipping into a tunnel of darkness but my partner insisted on pulling me back. Then Starsky was gone, too. And for an instant of clarity I remembered the doctor and his house of horrors. I had one last thing to do. My job had been to save Starsky but he had ended up saving me. The least I could do was return the favor before fading to black.
Starsky was sitting by my bedside when next I opened my eyes and found myself back in the world. I saw the worry wash from his face and felt his free and gentle touch on my shoulder, a sensation I had sorely missed these past few days.
"Welcome back," he was saying.
He explained how Nurse Bycroft had come to her senses at last and that Dr. Matwick could do no more harm. The state medical board was now making their own investigation into Cabrillo. The spunky "girl reporter" would have a front-page story.
Who's to say what's real and what's not? Maybe Freddie will end up solving his case. Maybe the gambler will win a fortune and the poet's dark words be memorized for the ages. In their dreams it was already true. John Lennon said reality leaves a lot to the imagination. But Yoko was really on to something when she said 'a dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.' As for me, I'll take what's real.